Leaving God at the Door – Why Michele Bachmann Needs to Reaffirm Kennedy’s Promise


As featured on the Huffington Post:

With Elai Shine

First, she said it was a joke. Now, she’s saying it was a metaphor. One thing is clear: Michele Bachmann thinks that hurricanes happen because of welfare.

Last week, shortly after a strong earthquake shook the East Coast and Hurricane Irene left millions without power, Michele Bachmann spoke at a campaign rally. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” she said. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’…(He) know(s) government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

Those of us who were born during the Clinton years. We’ve never known a political landscape not shaped by religious influence and the impact of political guidelines brought on by the “Moral Majority.” In fact, for as long as we can remember, Church has often been mistaken for State (or vice-versa).

Two presidents, most notably, have had to pass a religion test during the campaigns that preceded their elections (albeit for disparate reasons): John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Before 1960, no Catholic had ever ascended to the country’s highest office. Accordingly, Kennedy was subjected to a nationwide loyalty oath of sorts. At rally after rally, press conference after press conference, reporters would ask him the same questions: Would his religion influence or impair his political judgement as president?

In Obama’s case, the questions were a bit different – and fueled more by steadfast intolerance than legitimate uncertainty. Was he a Muslim? Or was he a Christian? If he was a Muslim, did his presence in an Indonesian Madrassa during his early youth affect his current views on the American dream? And if he was a Christian, had he been indoctrinated by an “anti-American” preacher? The questions were sharp and pervasive.

Kennedy had to prove that he was the right flavor of Christian. (“Whatever issue may come before me as president,” he said in 1960, “I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”) Obama had to prove that he was Christian period. (“I’m a Christian by choice,” he’s said during his term in office.) Both had to prove that their faith in the country outweighed any other faiths they may have held. Both were held to a standard that defied and ignored any preordained ideas of an acceptable relationship between religion and policy in presidential duties. As a consequence, both gave into media pressures and testified publicly and unequivocally that their faith in God was an indication of that alone.

Michele Bachmann’s faith in God is an indication of her political mindset. She made clear last week that she thinks two episodes that have put FEMA on high alert are the Almighty’s mechanisms of conveying his disappointment with the current administration’s policies.

Had Kennedy ever stood before a rally and made a radical religious statement – or one that openly turned a blind eye to the religious impartiality that is meant to accompany a Commander in Chief – his campaign would have been over in a matter of hours. And still today (and into the next several months) if Barack Obama dares to use a term, or even makes use of “suspicious” body language, media outlets and demagogues on both sides of the political spectrum will call his actions into doubt, cast aspersions upon his allegiances, and openly question his fitness to lead.

Michelle Bachmann – in the company of other right-wing presidential contenders like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – has created an illusion: Some of the necessary drawbacks of government, she presumes, can be solved by the infusion of religion. That principle enraptures and exhilarates her ever-growing base. Almost 80 percent of the country is Christian. Bachmann suggests that such a populace can unite under the banner of Christianity.

But Bachmann’s logic is flawed. No denomination of Christianity can boast more than 30 percent of the American population. Baptists approach around 26 percent and Catholics 23 percent. These denominations certainly don’t agree on everything, and typically clash on key issues – particularly those of social significance. While those who support her delight when she implies that there should be a divine hand in life on Pennsylvania Avenue, Christianity itself shouldn’t be a political force.

Often, the unique will and prerogative of the individual mixes with what should be populist civics. No politician comes to power without some preconceived notions or personal biases. People act in their self interest and seek to advance the causes that resonate with them. That’s just how the world works.

For that reason, it isn’t problematic that politicians have religious beliefs; it is the fervor with which those on the Right allow those beliefs to sway their political judgement that is troublesome.

Bachmann isn’t the first ambitious politician who has crossed the line in invoking religion. Our last President – a man of true faith – also exploited and abused publicly his relationship with the divine. “I am driven with a mission from God,” George W. Bush said in 2003, “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

Candidate after candidate on the Right – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin (they keep emerging) – claim that President Obama defies the Founding Fathers’ intentions by offering a solution for people who don’t have access to affordable health insurance. These candidates, who continually call on God and religion to justify their opinion on public policy, forget Thomas Jefferson’s guidelines – which have been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court – “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 

This same group of candidates and candidates-to-be are the driving force of several fabricated notions of conflict: war between Islam and the rest of the world; war between China and the American Dream; war between Obama and “family values.” What Michele Bachmann and her ilk fail to realize in the heat of hyperbole is that they are instigating another war altogether: the war between Church and State – and it is turning the main-stage of American politics into a circus.

Modern politics is shaped by a rapidly decreasing degree of religious impartiality. Forget  “joke” or “metaphor.” If John F. Kennedy had to prove that his religion would not conflict with his civic duty in 1960, Michele Bachmann has even more obligation to do so in our current political landscape.

Our contemporaries are the movers of the next generation. We will be voting for the first time in November 2012. We need each of the current crop of candidates to echo what President Kennedy told a cluster of cameras in 1960:

“Whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

Gingrich vs. the Media – The Battle He Can’t Win


It’s difficult to look back upon Sarah Palin’s unsuccessful vice presidential bid without calling to mind her relentless attacks on the “lame-stream media.” It seemed that every stump speech brought a new chapter of her vendetta against the press, with the attacks growing more exaggerated as November neared. In turn, the media cut her little slack, she plummeted in the polls, and the Republican ticket tanked.

You’d think that the fresh batch of GOP candidates would learn from such missteps. But over the course of the past few days, Newt Gingrich and his campaign have proven otherwise. First Gingrich’s spokesman, Rick Tyler, issued a statement—responding to what he called an anti-Gingrich media “onslaught”—saying that “the literati sent out their minions to do their bidding.” He went on to accuse journalists of firing flimsy attacks “without taking aim” and distorting the campaign’s message.

Alas, there was more. During an event in Iowa, Gingrich himself took up the mantle in the war on media. “It’s going to take a while for the news media to realize that you’re covering something that happens once or twice in a century,” he said of his candidacy. He called his campaign—and the ideas that it presents—something that will “take a while (to) sink in.”

The minds of the media, it seems, are too dull for the bright light of Gingrich’s genius.

Never mind that he made these statements while the cameras of a dozen major news outlets were pointed at him and rolling.

Candidates – Gingrich and his kin – grapple during every election cycle with the challenge of sending their voters a consistent and enticing message. Much is in their control: the clothes they wear, the statements they make, the places they go. But on the election battlefield, there is one external force that is neither obedient nor governable.

The media is simply a canvas, upon which and off of which is projected a candidate’s message. It can be influenced and it can be shifted – but, for the most part, it lives up to its name: it is a vehicle of whatever message is being voiced.

But for two reasons, the war on media is injurious for any candidate.

Firstly, constant media attacks are the most palpable and contemporary iterations of “biting the hand that feeds you.” When that slew of controllable campaign factors is either ignored or abused, the media is no longer a plain, suggestible canvas. Just like Palin, when Gingrich uses the media as a target, or turns it into a legislative scapegoat, problems plague his campaign. As Palin has relied more and more upon comments like these, coverage of her in that “lame-stream media” has transformed from sound reportage to a form of satirical mockery. Newt Gingrich is on that path.

Secondly – and more importantly – he’s attacking being educated, informed and inquisitive. To portray writers and reporters in a negative – even hostile – light is to undervalue and trivialize the importance of education and awareness. And to hastily slap scathing terms like “minions” onto the diligent and hardworking members of the mainstream media is to malign the work that makes this country’s voting populace a more informed and erudite group.

The media is what has kept us free. It is the force of transparency that allows us to maintain a functioning democracy. To attack the media is to attack a central pillar upon which our rights as citizens stand.

Every blow that Newt Gingrich deals to the media will become a blow to his campaign. Each insulting epithet he attaches a writer or reporter will become a permanent name-tag on his lapel. Every “lame-stream media”-esque reference will be seen as an attack on the Bill of Rights. Sound familiar, Newt? Ring any bells, Tea Party?

Sarah Palin harangued the media for months, then admitted that she couldn’t name a newspaper she reads. Newt Gingrich is walking a fine line.

For the sake of his campaign and for the benefit of the country, I implore Mr. Gingrich (and any opponents he may face) to eagerly engage in substantive debate and elude the fatal attraction to ceaseless attacks on the media. All campaigns – especially those for the most lofty office in the land – should be driven by ideas and ideals, not assaults on those who seek to inform decisions.

The Blame Game – Why Finger-pointing is Inappropriate in Tucson’s Immediate Aftermath


An opaque fog still shrouds the entire affair, but in the aftermath of Tucson, the fingers are already pointing.

A valuable quality during times like this these — days and weeks that follow events that we wish we could do away with entirely — is the conscious decision to be understated. In a loquacious world, silences are often more effective and meaningful than any amount of words could be. Silence and understatement are steeped in wisdom and patience. They testify to the notions that impulsive fury and knee-jerk conclusions are dangerous waters to wade into — even in times of extremity.

But we live in a society whose mouth never shuts, whose attention span is minimal, and whose decisions are rash. The lights that emanate from our laptops and BlackBerrys keep us awake even when we’re asleep. The news cycle is stuck on repeat and the talking heads never stop talking. We use our voices far more often than we use our ears. There is very little about American life that is understated. It seems as though each of us feels a little bit more passionately about issue x than the next guy; each of us is just a little more correct, a little more informed than the next guy. When it rains, it pours.

This is a time to be understated.

What transpired in the Tucson Safeway on Saturday morning was a calamity. It takes a vitriol beyond evil to lift a lethal weapon to the face of another human being. It takes a vitriol beyond evil to look life square in the eyes with the sole intention of ending it. It takes a vitriol beyond evil to be able to bring oneself to pull the trigger and spray a barrage of bullets at an open, innocent, youthful, human crowd. And for that, in these fleeting moments that come on Saturday’s tail, we can’t blame a website. We can’t blame an ad. We can’t blame a politician and we can’t blame a party. We can’t blame a movement and we can’t blame an ideology.

Civil discourse is depleting and the level of hostility in the political arena is high. Elements of each of these entities could have been factors in the shooting’s equation. But none of them is to be blamed for the assassination attempt of a member of our legislature or the murder of Dory Stoddard, Dorothy Murray, Gabe Zimmerman, Phyllis Scheck, John Roll, and Christina Taylor Greene. The blame game isn’t constructive. America needs to take a deep breath, unclench its fists, and put its pointer fingers down; for there is not fairer judge than time. And time will exert its wrath upon the perpetrator of this egregious act. In this noisy world, it isn’t quick conclusions that bring about justice. It is silence — to listen — and scrutiny — to find — that guide us along the right path.

Common Interest – Finding Empathy in Greed


When we hear the whistle of a distant siren or a see a flash of red zoom through our periphery, each of us knows what to do. It doesn’t matter how long ago we were supposed to be at that meeting. It doesn’t matter how desperately we needed to make it through that light. In that critical moment – the moment in which someone is in dire need – we transcend our sectionalized society and create a cohesive, automotive exodus.

The siren makes us human. It momentarily levels the playing field. A billionaire in a Bentley is on the same mental wavelength as a low-income gardener in a beaten down pickup truck. Class is rendered obsolete, race becomes trivial, and when that emergency vehicle whirls by, something clicks in the American psyche: a shared interest in each others’ well being. If I were in that ambulance, or if my house was burning down, we think to ourselves, I’d sure as hell want traffic to come to a halt.

And that’s why I think Democrats are wrong about Republicans and Republicans don’t have their priorities straight.

We liberals hurl all sorts of vitriolic accusations at the GOP — they don’t care about the little people, we say. They’re only looking out for themselves. And, yes, it looks that way from the outside. But a dominant pillar that carries much of the modern Republican platform is an oft-skewed hodgepodge of “American values” — the things that make Americans American; the flavors in the melting pot.

What are the quintessential American values? Mitt Romney would tell you that competition — economic opportunity — tops the list. He’d cite the “American Dream” and the hope of attaining a better life than one’s parents, the potential to ascend the ranks and make something from nothing.

Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express might say that the traditional “family” supersedes all values. The “sanctity of marriage,” they would explain, that “eternal institution between a man and a woman.”

It’s important to note, of course, that some values are more deeply rooted in specific regions of the country. Proponents of conservative macrocosmic economic values might make more noise around Wall Street than in East Los Angeles. “Family” values would surely carry more weight in red-coated areas like Arkansas and Mississippi than they would in Massachusetts.

But in their heady convolution and “ethical” assertions, Republicans seemed to have lost their identity; they’ve misplaced that famous moral compass of theirs. And here’s why Republicans have some soul searching to do: they’ve forgotten a key value.

Empathy, the idea of associating with another’s hardship and coming to their aid — a value that is put to the test each and every day on the streets of cities and towns nationwide — is an American value. The New Deal was an empathetic institution. The Civil Rights Act was steeped in empathy. (And, for the record, the Bible — from which Republicans derive so many of their values — commands each family to give a tithe, a tenth of its income as a tax.) The unique aptitude of Americans to sympathize, to momentarily and hypothetically walk in someone else’s shoes, stems not from partisan debate, but purely from human instinct.

Perhaps Republicans have a of “tough-guy” complex of sorts; something compels them try to paint themselves as living a more distant and apathetic existence than they actually do. When humanity becomes a factor in the equation of values, life transcends the petty arguments.

Republicans believe in American values. Empathy is an American value. Therefore Republicans believe in empathy.

Republicans believe in empathy. It is empathetic to care for those who are in need, those who cannot afford to pay major taxes. It is empathetic to extend unemployment benefits to those who are unemployed during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It is empathetic to give a portion of one’s own share to make sure that someone else can buy another loaf of bread, have another week to find a job, live another day.

When the road moves again and the piercing screech of the siren dwindles, we know that we are cared for. We know that we’re not alone. It’s a matter of putting two and two together.

Republicans are inherently empathetic. I just wish they knew that.

A Shattered Cultural Taboo


Left-wing political commentator Juan Williams was fired from his post at National Public Radio Wednesday night for a remark he made which was perceived by many to be insolent and politically incorrect. During an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Monday, Williams, O’Reilly, and Mary Katherine Ham debated about the dubbed “The War against Islam.”

“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country,” Williams said. “But when I get on a plane, I gotta tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous.”

That last sentence, unmistakably, was what cost Williams his job. His remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices,” NPR wrote in a memo that explained the firing. From one point of view, several left-wingers expressed outrage at Williams. From another, conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin called for NPR’s funding to be cut as a result of Williams’ termination.

But were Williams’ remarks also inconsistent with American mainstream standards and practices? Did he cross a red line that few daring Americans cross? Did he set himself apart from the fray–admitting a type of innate racial skepticism and distrust that is unique to his own conscience? I think not.

Williams’ inborn action of profiling that is now being tossed around in a very public arena is the same action that happens in the minds and souls of Americans every day. This basic xenophobia doesn’t only take form in airports (for people of Arab descent), it also seeps through in legislative and cultural trends. The Arizona immigration law, while it has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East, exemplifies a quintessential American concept: we are afraid of the unfamiliar.

Juan Williams got fired for violating a supposed cultural taboo. But the cultural taboo is only a facade. Racial profiling is like gossip–society claims to frown upon it, yet everyone does it.

Sure, America is still the “city on a hill,” and in many respects a beacon of light to the rest of the world. But this exclusionist notion of categorical American supremacy needs to end. We use racial and ethnic profiling as a subconscious exertion of our ultranationalism.

And if racial profiling is a passive action, there’s a coherent method of combatting it: a commanding awareness of our actions.

Show Yourself


There’s a reason why the Republicans are becoming more and more likely to take back Congress in November.

I write a lot about the importance of the PR side of government– what a political maneuvering implies (or looks like) versus what it actually is. About a month into the BP oil spill, I wrote that  Obama “doesn’t understand that an integral part of solving problems is…the superficial stuff: the photo-ops, the meet-and-greets with the citizens, or the burgers from the local diners (What it Looks Like vs. What it Is, June 6).” That same lack of ability to enchant the public domain could very easily prove fatal for the Democratic majority in Congress.

For weeks, right-wing politicians (eg. Mitch McConnell), loony talk show hosts (eg. Glenn Beck), and former gubernatorial, potentially-future presidential, bible-thumping conservatives (eg. this lady) have been wreaking havoc all over the country. They’ve been making bold statements– statements that I believe are offensive and ill-advised. But the fact is this: it’s not what they’re saying that is doing so much harm; it’s the way they’re saying it.

Today, Glenn Beck held a well-publicized and well-attended rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He and his cronies have been building up hype about this “momentous” event for weeks. The significance of the date and location– the Lincoln Memorial, forty-seven years to the day after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech– brought even more attention to Beck’s cause. The conservatives who planned the rally did everything in their power to made sure that everyone knew what was going on, everyone was talking about it, and, regardless of political affiliation, everyone was listening.

Guess who hasn’t made a big speech in months? Guess who’s wave of momentum is crashing beneath his feet? Guess who is watching and waiting, vacationing and keeping his distance while his majority is quickly slipping out of his shaky grasp? That’s right, Barack Obama and his cronies.

They don’t get it. If the Tea Baggers continue to infiltrate every news cycle, they’re going to win. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying. America is hearing one message– their message– louder and more routinely than any other message. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have evidence or factual support. If the Democrats and their leader don’t engage the conservatives and their leaders, and fight the poison that’s being spilled into the political atmosphere, the Beck message will become the Beck reality.

Proper publicity is not something to disregard. It is of the utmost importance. Mr. President, you cant just be right, you need to look right. Woody Allen said that seventy percent of success in life is showing up.

Mr. President,

Please show up.

Send it to the Nine


There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a large mosque and Islamic community center three blocks away from Ground Zero– the site of 9/11. The proposal has several high-profile proponents (such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg) in addition to its noteworthy opponents (such as the Anti-Defamation League). The ADL put out a statement a couple of weeks ago which said that New York City “would be better served if an alternative location could be found.” The statement from the organization asserted that it is “not right” to do something that will cause the victims’ families pain or discomfort.

This is an ostensibly multifaceted situation. It seems to have many layers and levels, and it does. But once we move beyond the rhetoric and debate, there is a very simple answer. Right-wingers like Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani have come out against the proposal and expressed that, while it’s the PC thing to do, it’s completely inappropriate, offensive, and dishonorable. Newt Gingrich proclaimed on his website, in no uncertain terms, that this mosque should not be built because “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” The Tea-Partiers are all up in arms over this also. The American political right is entirely opposed the mosque being built. Why is this so interesting? Because this means that the same people who spend so much of their time fighting for their rights granted to them by the Second Amendment of the constitution have forgotten entirely about that amendment’s predecessor.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It’s not a matter of being the right or wrong thing to do.

Maybe it’s insensitive. Maybe they could find other places to put it. Maybe someone will get offended. But Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, allowing for the mosque to be built is not only the PC thing to do, it’s the legal thing to do. In a society that is so tangibly affected by our country’s constitution, there is a definitive answer to this question. Regardless of the pompous, philosophical debate over this issue, the answer is short and simple: yes, the constitution says so. Perhaps this is one for the Nine.

Pick-and-choose is not an option.