Saturday, October 25, 2014

An Irrelevant Legislature

What is it about state governments generally and state legislators specifically that make it such a challenge for them to protect civil rights? We’ve just witnessed one more example of their failure being remedied by the federal courts.

What seems to some as a sudden headlong rush into legalizing same-sex marriage nothing more than advocates tiring of the slog through the halls of the legislature and moving instead to the halls of justice.

It was no different for those seeking civil rights for blacks in the mid-20th century. When recalcitrant state governments thwarted President Truman’s civil rights reforms, he appointed a Commission. In October of 1947, the President’s Committee on Civil Rights issued its report entitled “”To Secure These Rights.”

The Committee reviewed the ugly history of lynchings, police brutality, and the dedicated campaign of local and state governments to deny the right to vote. They documented a broad range of discrimination in employment, education, transportation, use of public facilities, and access to government.

The main culprits were local and state officials who refused to enforce the law and were among the most egregious offenders. The report concluded bluntly that the country “cannot afford to delay action until the most backward community has learned to prize civil rights and has taken adequate steps to safeguard the rights of every one of its citizens.”

The old adage attributed to Thomas Jefferson that, “government is best which governs least” is not applicable to governments failing to protect the civil rights of its people. Governments that govern least when some citizens are denied basic rights enjoyed by the majority are simply failing to do their job.

The long, slow slog toward marriage equality and other civil rights for gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons gathered momentum only when its advocates recognized that state governors and legislators had rendered themselves irrelevant. Legislators refused to recognize both the historic changes in the views of the people and the mandate of their oaths to “obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Wyoming.”

While the Wyoming legislature restrained itself from passing some of the most virulent anti-gay proposals, the debates, nonetheless, were demeaning to many. Our legislature and many others refused to enact criminal statutes enhancing penalties for hate-based crimes despite evidence of the severity of the problem. Congress and federal courts were the only resort.

The difference between the legislature and the courts is that judges have to actually read and interpret laws and the constitution. Legislators can blithely ignore all of that in favor of silly statements and pandering votes.

The silliness did not end with the federal court’s decision in this case. State Rep. Gerald Gay, who once admonished his colleagues not to call him “gay” said the courts have no right to tell the legislature what to do. Gay would have made a great Mississippi legislator in the 60s when that discredited argument was being made to pander to the bigots and avoid integration.
Gay is the perfect example of how the legislature makes itself irrelevant on these matters of justice and fairness. Anyone who could read knew religious-based bans on the right of gays and lesbians to marry violated the equal protection clause of the US Constitution. But it would have taken far more courage than can be mustered in a legislative majority to speak the truth and do what was right.
Now there is the issue of job discrimination. Gays and lesbians in Wyoming may be fired because of their sexual orientation. You can predict that some Wyoming legislators will use the issue to punish the LGBT community for their victory on marriage equality.

But once again, to paraphrase the Truman commission, citizens denied justice “cannot afford to delay action until the most backward legislator has learned to prize civil rights and has taken adequate steps to safeguard the rights of every one of its citizens.” The federal courts and Congress will eventually do what the legislature refuses to do.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

David versus Goliath

1st Samuel 17 (The Sagebrush Gospel) says, “Now the Republicans gathered their forces and assembled great war-chests filled with the plunder of campaign contributors. Gosar, Hardy, and Ceballos and the Democrats camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Republicans.”
From Elah, all Republicans looked like a giant named Goliath. His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels.
Any Democrat in Wyoming faces David versus Goliath odds. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly 167,000 to 52,000.
Goliath shouted to the Democrats, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Republican, and is that not enough to win any election in Wyoming? Choose candidates and have them come down to us. If they able to defeat me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome them, you’ll serve us.”
Now Gosar, Hardy, and Ceballos were sons Wyoming, who knew its land and had long lived among its people. They had heard the cries of the people for fair wages, healthcare and better education for their children. They had watched as Republicans ruled the land for many years without addressing those needs.
As they listened to the people, Goliath stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, “We are Republicans and you are not. In Wyoming that is sufficient unto itself.”
Gosar, Hardy, and Ceballos asked those standing nearby, “Who are the Republicans that they should defy the needs of the people and still believe they should be reelected?”
When Eliab, a reporter, heard them speaking, he burned with hubris and asked, “Why have you come down here? With whom did you leave those sheep in the wilderness? Your campaign funds are like drops of water compared to the ocean Republicans have amassed. You are Democrats. Your positions on issues matter little to people who vote a straight ticket.”
“Now what have we done?” said Gosar, Hardy, and Ceballos. “Can’t we even speak for the people?” They said, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servants will go and fight for the people.”
Some replied, “You aren’t able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are Democrats; they are Republicans in a state that elected even Cindy Hill simply because she was one of their tribe.”
But Gosar said, “Your servant believes in Wyoming. “We have an opportunity to lead in rural health care, to lead in education, to lead in economic diversity and do some really remarkable things,” he said.

Hardy said, “There are children in Wyoming who go to bed hungry. There are women raising those children who are not paid fairly. There are working families with multiple minimum wage jobs who cannot provide adequately for the basic needs of their family. The Goliaths of Wyoming politics have done nothing for these families.”

Celballos said, “I am running for Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction because of my business background and passion for Wyoming education uniquely qualifies me to bring stability back to the Department of Education.” Ceballos said he realizes, along with most parents of students in Wyoming, that the Wyoming Department of Education is paralyzed by years of arguments between the current Superintendent, the legislature, and the Governor’s office. He pledged to work to heal those rifts.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, with their massive campaign war-chests, counting on straight-ticket voters, planned their victory celebration. They looked over and believing that Gosar, Hardy, and Ceballos were mere Democrats, felt little need to listen to the people.
Wyoming people often vote against their own best interests. These Goliaths were counting on them doing so in 2014.

To be continued on November 4th.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Excerpt from "The Sagebrush Gospel"

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for they refuse to recognize the great danger posed to them and their children for all generations.”
But Jonah knew how the politicians of Ninevah belittled and humiliated such messengers before. Jonah didn’t want to be called “a liberal” for that is an abomination. He set out to flee from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. The mariners were afraid. They said to Jonah, “What is this that you have done!”
For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Jonah said the Lord had told him to go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their politicians are misleading the people about the dangers of climate change.
These sailors had witnessed the rising level of the sea and the increased ferocity of the storms. They were aware of the warnings that climate change could produce the collapse of ice sheets, a rapid rise in sea levels, difficulty growing enough food, huge die-offs of forests, and mass extinctions of plant and animal species.
They threw Jonah into the sea. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “If you will rescue me from the belly of this fish, I will do as you ask. I will speak the truth to those who do not want to hear it. I will challenge those who know the truth who don’t want it told. With the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will do.”
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. He cited a United Nations report saying, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, the sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have risen. Forty years more, and Nineveh shall be no more!”

When Jonah’s news reached the king, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclaimed “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No coal, oil, or natural gas shall be burned, the kingdom shall invest in new infrastructure, upgrading existing highways and transmission lines, the people will buy less ‘stuff,’ weatherproof their homes, become vegetarians, stop cutting down trees, use energy efficient gadgets, and drive only plug-in hybrids.

“All shall turn from their evil, wasteful ways and from the violence that humans are doing to God’s creation. Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from God’s fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

(An excerpt from Rodger McDaniel’s book “The Sagebrush Gospel” now available at and City News)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Politics and Religion

It isn’t unusual for some readers to respond to my columns saying, as one did recently, “A man of the cloth should stay out of politics.” That advice is most often not cause-neutral but reserved for clergy expressing a political opinion with which the speaker disagrees.

Pew Research recently looked at the intersection of faith and politics in the public arena, concluding that while most Americans feel churches shouldn’t endorse candidates, 49% believe “churches should express their views on political and social questions.” The number was higher among Republicans than Democrats (59% versus 42%).

Interestingly, those claiming no religious affiliation tended to oppose clergy involvement in political and social issues. Those identified with a religion are “more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion.”

Admittedly, the poll shows a deep division on the question with 49% supporting clergy involvement and 48% opposed. When you drill down into the data, discoveries become even more interesting.

Sixty-six percent of white Evangelical Christians expressed support for churches speaking out publicly on political issues. That number has increased from 56% who felt that way when polled just four years earlier. The Conservative Republicans of Wyoming is an example. CROW unabashedly demands candidates support a religious-political agenda with founding principals that include acknowledging “the sovereign nature of God,” and the “Judeo-Christian understanding of human nature.”

Comparatively, 58% of mainline Protestants favor church political involvement, as do half the Catholics. The numbers reverse when the “none-of-the-above” crowd responds. Nearly two-thirds of those with no religious affiliation say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.

All of that caused me to wonder about what such a poll might have looked like in other times. Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” to white clergy who opposed his political activities. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” By urging King to refrain from political action, the white clergy were themselves taking political action.

One might guess that at that time in history more than two-thirds of religious blacks and less than a third of religious whites would have supported clergy involvement in politics.    

Even more poignant might be to exercise the same sort of speculation about the results of such a poll in first century Jerusalem. What if people then had been asked about clergy involvement in politics as that rabble-rousing-rabbi from Nazareth was stirring trouble? What would they have thought about Jesus calling for an end to Roman violence, asking the rich to share with the poor, to treat the downtrodden with dignity, and to free the captives?

Roman citizens, like CROW, so closely confused religion with the state that they wouldn’t have understood the question if polled. But, if the Jews were polled, they’d have found great disparity on the question among the faithful.

Ethics of the Fathers” is a repository of Jewish wisdom. It admonishes, “Love work, hate being in charge, and remain anonymous when it comes to the government.” Rabban Gamliel urged caution. "Be very careful with government authorities, as it is their habit to be friendly when they need you, and an uncaring stranger when you need them."

Not all agreed. According to learned Jewish friends, the Sadducees were the politico-economic elite mostly aligned with Rome. Pharisees, while opposed to Roman rule, were pragmatists who didn’t want to give Romans a pretext for crucifying more Jews. Most would have steered clear of political controversies.

There was one decidedly non-scientific poll on point. Pontius Pilate asked, “Whom should I release? Barabbas or Jesus?”  Scripture informs us a large majority of respondents supported releasing the murderer and crucifying the politically offensive rabbi.

It’s uncertain what was learned from that poll. The lesson was either “be willing to sacrifice for your beliefs” or “steer clear of politics.”