Sunday, October 28, 2012

The church must save itself!

On a recent morning I surveyed religious news from around the country. That day an Oklahoma man was arrested for plotting to blow up 48 churches. While taking advantage of its tax-exempt status, dozens of evangelical churches openly defied the law, and challenged the IRS to defend it, by endorsing Mitt Romney from the pulpit. Meanwhile in Michigan, a pastor who claims Romney, a Mormon, is not a Christian, gave the invocation at a rally for vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, creating another unwelcomed controversy for the church.

But the biggest headline, perhaps not unrelated, reported a study finding the fastest growing denomination in America is “none-of-the-above” i.e. people claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. One in five Americans, it said, does not identify with any organized religion. For the first time since researchers began tracking these things, fewer than half of Americans said they were Protestants.  That’s a precipitous decline from 40 years ago, when more than two-thirds of all Americans claimed a Protestant church affiliation.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted the survey. They found the decline is not just among liberal mainline Protestants, like Presbyterians, Methodists or Episcopalians as many thought, but has also characterized conservative, evangelical and “born again” congregations. The “canary in the mine shaft” may have been the finding that more than one-third of those between 18 and 22 years-of-age are religiously unaffiliated and are fast replacing an older generation that has been traditionally far more involved with the church. Those young adults will soon be raising children who will likely have even less of a connection to the church. The Pew numbers will predictably look far worse in another decade.

Of course, “worse” is a value judgment. This study will generate a lot of hand wringing and religious leaders will attribute the numbers to what some like to call “the break-up of the family” and liberal cultural tendencies. Some will double-down on a strategy of using government to impose religious ideals on what they see as a secularized nation. Instead, the church would do well to exchange its window on the culture for a mirror. Self-examination is in order.

The study indicates it’s the church, not God that these Americans have abandoned. Two-thirds of those polled say they still believe in God, and one-in-five prays every day. Many are fully engaged in the community, contributing time and money, making deep personal commitments to homeless shelters, youth mentoring programs, equality and justice advocacy, and the hands-on mission work of programs like Habitat for Humanity, Circles and Wyoming Family Home Ownership. If attendance at “Bibles and Beer” is any sign, there’s no lack of interest in Bible study even among those who don’t attend church.

Church is becoming a place where young people feel they do not have the opportunity they seek to live out their purpose. What they hear from the pulpit and experience in the pews is often at odds with how they see God working in their lives and the lives of others. Increasingly they leave the church, a place they find often requiring them to make an irrational choice between science and religious ideology. Frequently their interest in Bible study wanes in the wake of literal interpretations at odds with their actual and deeply personal experiences of God’s creation.

On every major issue of the day ranging from interfaith relationships and marriage equality to climate change, abortion, racism, poverty and war, these young Americans read the Sermon and the Mount and contrast it with sermons they hear from the pulpit. They crave the former and flee from the latter.

Once when Woody Guthrie checked into a hospital, the nurse asked his religion. He said, “All.” She said, “You have to choose one.” Guthrie said, “It’s either all or none.” Now a lot of folks are choosing “none.”

The numbers won’t be the same a decade from now. Neither will be the church. These numbers tell us it’s time either for either a funeral or another reformation.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

1972 was not George McGovern's greatest loss

George McGovern served in both houses of congress for more than two decades. He was nominated for president in 1972, defeated when voters elected Richard Nixon to a second term. Nixon soon became the only President to resign in disgrace. Under President Kennedy, McGovern was the director of the Food for Peace Program, distributing of American food surpluses to starving people around the planet.

He earned a PhD in history and the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism as a World War II bomber pilot. His B-24 plane was named The Dakota Queen for the love of his life, wife Eleanor. For all the celebrations and accomplishments of his 90 years on this earth, McGovern was tortured by a sense of personal failure.

Who knows when the demons actually begin to possess addicts. But we know when they left McGovern’s daughter. It was a cold December night in 1994. Late in the evening the doorbell rang. Two men stood on the porch, waiting with news parents of addicted children dread. “Senator,” one of the men addressed McGovern with the title he held for life. “Senator, your daughter Teresa is dead.”

Terry had stumbled intoxicated into a snow bank and froze to death. Last weekend father and daughter were reunited in a place that passes all understanding.

While it’s tempting to remember George McGovern as a liberal icon, a politician and educator of great accomplishment, his legacy as parent of a suffering child should be upheld in a way that comforts all such parents with the knowledge that they aren’t alone.

The lesson McGovern offers parents is one of courage. After Terry’s death McGovern determined to learn more about why. He embarked on the haunting task of reading diaries written by a troubled daughter suffering from depression as well as addiction. The diaries were filled with anger misplaced toward her parents. McGovern read dozens of police reports of his daughter’s encounters with law enforcement and medical records from the dozens of times Terry entered treatment and detox.

Parents never completely lose that guilt. George McGovern, for all his personal and political courage, was no exception. However, the journey he took through his daughter’s life afforded him an opportunity to learn what the parents of every addict should know. He bravely went public with the lessons he learned.

Among them, no one chooses to be an addict. Genetics plays a huge, unforgiving role. Most addicts are hard wired for the disease. Their DNA betrays them, making them more susceptible than others. Abuse of alcohol or other drugs re-wires the brain. In a complicated process that science has unlocked there comes a point when drinking and drug use become involuntary. Regardless of the negative outcomes; e.g. arrest, imprisonment, loss of family, jobs and health, the addict continues to use unless they encounter someone who makes a difference.

Like most parents, McGovern eventually learned the cure is not simply loving your child. Often that kind of love enables them to use more. Tough love, touted as a strategy, often fails. McGovern and his wife used tough love when Terry resumed drinking after eight years abstinent. On the advice of counselors Terry’s parents distanced themselves from their daughter for the last six months of her life. After her death, they were said to have regretted that decision for the rest of their days. Tough love has the potential to change lives when it works. It also carries the potential to doom the survivors to decades of self-recrimination when it doesn’t.

What George McGovern might like us to know is that addiction is neither the fault of parents nor a character flaw of the addicted. It is a disease, a brain disease and shouldn’t be condemned or stigmatized anymore than heart disease or cancer. It can be treated and it should be treated medically as vigorously as any other disease of the body.

When you think of George McGovern, think of all who are affected by this disease and say a prayer.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Romney says those about to retire need not worry. So, who does?

If you’re 35 years old or younger, you might not be paying much attention to the Medicare debate. You probably should tune-in because it is you who may stand to lose the most.

Under Paul Ryan’s plan, supported by Governor Romney and Congresswoman Lummis, the current Medicare health insurance program ends in 10 years. If you are anywhere near 35 today, it will be your parents’ Medicare that will first be replaced with a voucher. You’ll be left to deal with their confusion and be expected to step up to pay for whatever medical care the voucher doesn’t. Interested now?

Despite the phony claim that Obamacare was a government takeover of health insurance, many felt its biggest shortcoming is that it wasn’t. Instead, the compromise included keeping the private insurance companies as the vendors of health insurance policies. As a result, we still have innumerable companies selling policies that are all different in one form or another, all with little to no effective regulation. Just try buying health insurance. See what the elderly will soon experience, encountering a range of different co-pays, deductibles, coverage limits, preferred providers, networks and penalties for using a doc who is not a member.

That is the lion’s den into which seniors will be thrown ten short years from now if Ryan-Romney Medicare reform plan becomes law.

Do you remember 2005 and 2006 when Part D, the drug prescription plan was implemented? The program was fraught with problems and apocalyptic predictions. Confused seniors enrolled in plans that didn't cover all their medications or missed deadlines to enroll at all. Medicare was inundated with phone calls. Patients waited on hold for hours without getting answers. Pharmacists were filling prescriptions without knowing whether they would be paid.

Imagine the day Medicare closes its offices and millions of seniors, including your elderly parents, receive that voucher in the mail. Now what? Undoubtedly it will include lengthy instructions and a website. Seniors will be given a list of insurance company agents, their addresses and phone numbers. Of course, most of these companies will be initially ill equipped to deal with the numbers of new, elderly clients and their questions.

But they’ll sit down with the elderly and ask all the questions they should ask. The agent may even have some of the answers. What co-pay and deductible would you prefer? Do you have a physician that you would like to keep seeing? Oh I’m sorry, she’s not in our network. What specialists do you anticipate you’ll need? Let me explain prior authorization, deductibles, co-pays and exclusions. This policy covers x, y, and z. This one covers a, b, and c. If you don’t need x but would like b or c, we have another policy. Sorry, we can’t include z and b but you can buy a, b, c, and y. Oh, and each has its own list of exclusions.

The senior will also want to know if deductibles need to be met before any services can be used. What percent will be paid after deductibles, what percent they’ll pay if a doctor, hospital, or specialist out of network is consulted, and what co-payments are for visiting doctors, hospitals, or emergency rooms?

Mom and dad are looking at you now.

When those questions and others have been answered, your elderly parent will proudly present the agent with the voucher. “Oh,” says the agent, “that will cover only part of the premium.” Your elderly parent may say, “I don’t understand. Medicaid paid for these things. Why do I have to pay so much more?” The agent will say, “I’m sure your congressman explained that Medicare was replaced with a voucher to save money. How could they save money if they provided the dame health care under this voucher that you had under Medicare?”

Now mom and dad are looking at you again. You may be 30 years away from being eligible for Medicare but you may stand to lose the most. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wyoming: Reliably "right" & taken for granted

Recently the Republican-led House restored Abandoned Mine Land funds to every coal-producing state except Wyoming, a decision costing us 700 million dollars. Wyoming’s all-GOP congressional delegation was outraged. Congresswoman Lummis told Public Radio the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee refused to even take Governor Mead’s and her calls when they attempted to make their case. Imagine that? In Washington it’s that easy to take Wyoming for granted.

Wyoming’s Republican governor searches for an excuse to deny healthcare to 30,000 uninsured families, saying the feds won’t answer his letters. A pattern? The GOP legislature finds it’s critical that hunting, not healthcare, be a constitutional right, and Lummis votes to exchange Medicare for a voucher.

Causes you to wonder whether Wyoming gets anything of value in exchange for being reliably right. Is conservatism an end in itself? Does Wyoming’s conservatism add anything to people’s hopes for the future?

What does it mean for Wyoming to be “conservative?” William Buckley, the voice for conservatives before that job went to Limbaugh and Coulter, was asked to define conservatism. "Conservatism,” Buckley said, “is a paragon of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is continuing approximation."

Webster defines conservatism as a “disposition in politics to preserve what is established, a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions…the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change.”

It’s the “disposition to preserve what is established” that defines Wyoming conservatives, conflicting with Buckley’s vision of conservatism as “a paragon of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is continuing approximation." Buckley liked words like “phenomenology.” It’s the study of “phenomena,” i.e. ways we experience things, meaning found in our experiences. It’s entirely different from clinging to the past.

Thinkers like Buckley view conservatism as pivotal in making certain that our experiences in life, not our prejudices or ill-informed notions, move us forward in a deliberative manner. Many Wyoming conservatives want to make sure there is no deliberative process much less any move forward. Whether it’s a job, a livelihood, piece of land or civil rights, they have theirs and believe both the Constitution and the Bible should be interpreted to make sure that’s as far as it goes.

That’s why Wyoming’s greatest export is neither coal nor gas but our youth. The millions we invest in educating children becomes an investment in the future of other states. Communities pretend to bemoan the loss of these young people but, in truth, it’s the inevitable result of an unwillingness to consider the “paragon of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is continuing approximation." Clinging to the past and its symbols assures that anyone with an urge to think about the opportunities of the future will find themselves elsewhere, contributing to some other community somewhere else.

It wasn’t always this way. But today, more than any other time, Wyoming is defined by an increasingly narrow political, social, religious, and economic philosophy. Conservatism has become an excuse for being unwelcoming to new ideas and innovation in education, business, the arts, medicine, healthcare, employer-employee relationships and more. More often than not, it’s the tool for holding tightly to a nostalgic sense of history and a self-serving idea of fiscal and personal responsibility, using big government strategies to impose their moral beliefs on others while avoiding a commitment to excellence in the institutions that are designed to make certain nothing changes.

There’s a choice. Wyoming could provide the environment in which aspirations of young people are fulfilled or an environment they find stifling. But doing what would keep young people in Wyoming threatens the establishment. Those who don’t want anything to change have a stake in making certain these young thinkers do their thinking somewhere else.

In the meantime, Wyomingites continue to vote “regardless-Republican” even when the Republicans we elect can’t even get other Republicans to take their phone calls. Taken for granted and holding the short-end of the stick is apparently all we get for being so reliably right.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pro-choice? You should vote for Constitutional Amendment A.

Remember the canticle to the unintended consequences of Jed’s squirrel hunt.

“Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.”

Reviewing the ballot and reading Constitutional Amendment A, I started humming those lyrics. If enacted, it will write protections for a woman’s right to choose an abortion into the Wyoming constitution.

A group of anti-Obama ideologues who thought they “was shootin” at Obamacare, hit “a bubblin’ crude…oil that is…Texas tea” for those who believe abortion is a health care decision that should be reserved to the woman involved. The sponsors hoped somehow that state law could trump the federal constitution. They were trying to negate Obamacare, but the U.S. Supreme Court has already upheld the act. Therefore, the anti-Obamacare provisions of the proposal mean absolutely nothing.
But, the unintended consequences may shock the sponsors. Anti-choice legislators, whose disdain for Obamacare exceeded their ability to recognize the unintended consequences of their inability to think through an issue, proposed the constitutional amendment. Included among them was Laramie County state senator Leslie Nutting, known by some supporters as a “full-spectrum” conservative. Her legislation will most certainly enshrine a woman’s right to choose as a state constitutional guarantee.

Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court decision holding that the U.S. Constitution protects the right of women to make healthcare choices consistent with with their own conscience. Legal scholars may find Constitutional Amendment A provides an even clearer protection for Wyoming women. Amendment A will prevent the legislature from imposing unreasonable restrictions on the right of a woman to choose.
Read it yourself. Introduced/SJ0002.pdf. Article 1, Section 38 entitled “Right of health care access” proposes: (a) “Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.” Further the ballot proposition includes this explanation of legislative intent. “The adoption of this amendment will provide that the right to make health care decisions is reserved to the citizens of the state of Wyoming.” They could not have made it any clearer.
Constitutional Amendment A provides legislative authority to “determine reasonable and necessary restrictions” on the right to choose. However, the language of the proposition places strict limits on those restrictions. The legislature is prohibited from establishing any regulation on the right of anyone to “make his or her own health care decisions” unless those restrictions are “reasonable and necessary restrictions on health care consistent with the purposes of the Wyoming Constitution.” That would certainly not include invasive ultra-sounds, waiting periods or legislatively mandated medical advice.
Finally the constitutional amendment requires the state of Wyoming to protect the right to choose. The last paragraph “provides that this state shall act to preserve these rights from undue governmental infringement.” The attorney general is required to go to court and defend the right to choose from any right-to-life legislation lawmakers, (which would undoubtedly include the sponsors of this amendment) might want to enact.
Sponsors of Constitutional Amendment A never intended to give women the right to choose. The founding fathers never intended to protect pornography either but it’s our courts, not our legislators who interpret laws. A good bet is bright lawyers will argue persuasively the language enshrines the right to choose as a state constitutional right. Right-to-life advocates will make the argument that the legislature can still restrict abortion rights. But proposal’s own words say the primary purpose of the provision is to allow “each competent adult” to “have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.”

Who knows what the courts may do but language the legislature hastily adopted can clearly be read by reasonable people to give broader protection to the right to choose than Roe v. Wade gave under the United States Constitution.

Let’s vote for Constitutional Amendment A and watch what the courts do.