Saturday, September 24, 2016

Red State Beggars

Who’d have thought it? It turns out that one of the main reasons the feds can’t balance its budget is that many of the states are hypocritical beggars and that the biggest beggars of all are the Republican-controlled states.

Wyoming politicians get elected by whining about the perceived slights, wrongs, and atrocities committed by Washington. They complain about the federal debt and make unsupported assertions about “waste and fraud.” The Governor of this cash-strapped state always finds enough money to pay high-priced lawyers to pursue lawsuits against Uncle Sam over everything from wolves to Obamacare to transgender bathrooms.  

Let’s face it. No state complains more about the “feds” than Wyoming and few states take more federal money than Wyoming. Only a dozen take more, but 37 states take far less. St. Jerome said it best in his 5th century Letter to the Ephesians, “Noli equi dentes inspicere donate,” meaning never inspect the teeth of a gift horse. It’s impolite. Wyoming politicians don’t just inspect the gift-horse’s teeth, they pull them before constituents can see how broken down are their decayed arguments about balanced budgets.

Take Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower. He thinks controlling the federal debt through the states-led balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution “is probably the most important issue that is going to face our state and the nation.”

Then with a whip in one hand and an outstretched palm of the other, Wyoming leads that gift horse to the federal trough. Wyoming lawmakers failed to diversify the state’s economy through yet another boom. All the while, they created a tax structure designed to serve the interests of the mineral industry, guaranteeing that when the inevitable bust came, our state would need even more federal welfare.

Most Wyoming legislators have never voted to turn away federal dollars. Oh, there’s the exception of those federal dollars that would provide healthcare for 18,000 low-income working people through Medicaid expansion. And there was that time in 2011 when legislators said no to 38 million federal dollars for extended unemployment benefits for the jobless. Legislators said those folks weren’t looking hard enough for then non-existent jobs and that they should just start a business.

Senator Charlie Scott is another example. While calling Medicaid “a welfare program” and leading the campaign to stop expansion he accepts thousands of federal dollars in agricultural subsidies. There are many other legislators who happily take federal agricultural subsidies and one, Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Fremont) who makes millions from Abandoned Mine Land contracts, all tainted federal money.

These Wyoming politicians nonetheless repeat this anti-Washington diatribe on an unbroken loop with no sense of irony. Perhaps Congress could balance its budget if states like Wyoming didn’t expect so much federal aid.

Then there’s this. The Tax Foundation has identified a partisan tint to the hypocrisy. “There is a very strong correlation,” the Foundation discovered, “between a state voting for Republicans and receiving more in federal spending than its residents pay to the federal government in taxes. In essence, those in blue states are subsidizing those in red states.”

It’s easy to be “fiscally conservative” knowing all that blue-state tax money flows into the state coffers. Easy, but hypocritical.

Oh yeah, the study also concluded that red states, those most critical of welfare programs, use the most food stamps.

These findings shed light on federal spending and the source of the national debt. Wyoming politicians are addicted to federal money except when it provides health care for poor and low-income working families. In that case alone they say they can’t trust the feds to pay up.

Wyoming trusts the feds to pay up in every other way. We rely on federal dollars to balance the state’s budget. The bottom line is red state Wyoming is dependent on the generosity of blue state taxpayers to do for us what our economy can’t do for itself and what legislators can’t do without the hated feds, pay the public’s bills.

A simple “thank you” would be in order.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Memo from an aging Hippie

My old Republican friend Jack Mueller once called me “an aging hippie.” I took no offense.

Imagine my delight upon learning that Laramie, the town to which I relocated six months ago has been named “The Most Hippie Town” in all of Wyoming. It’s not clear whether any other Wyoming community competed for the title but Laramie has the trophy.

The honor was bestowed on only one well-deserving community in each of the 50 states by the travel website Boulder and Berkeley were considered unfair competition because they’ve been professional hippies for 50 years.

Judges acknowledged it’s no easier today than it was in the 60s to define “hippie.”  My sense is that, like Jack Mueller, you know ‘em when you see ‘em.

Thrillist called Laramie “a strange and surprisingly bohemian oasis in the middle of Cowboy Country.” They noted the town is home to the University and “a generally bizarre cast of big Western characters.” People come, they said, to attend UW but “fall in love with Laramie's beautiful surroundings, happenin' music scene, and slow pace that eschews the American rat race.” They concluded, “Wyoming's isolated, leave-me-be attitude finds a happy balance with the Laramigos who just want to live life and do their own thing up there in the mountains.”

Is that what defines “hippie”? Thrillist says, “Once upon a time they were the flower-power counterculture that dropped acid, drove inexplicably operative VW buses, and protested the bejeezus out of the Greatest Generation.”

Most of us never owned a VW bus, never “dropped acid,” and suffered the same inability as Bill Clinton while attempting to inhale. I didn’t protest “the bejeezus” out of anything though my long hair and hero-worship of Muhammad Ali annoyed my parents. Dad worried aloud that I was a hippie. I liked it that he thought his oldest son was one, though I’m certain his definition was darker than need be.

We were hippies when being a hippie meant something. It’s much murkier now. Yet half a century later the term “hippie” still means enough that travel writers thought the descriptor would stir interest in 50 communities around the nation. That is evidence the term has much milder, less threatening, more consumerist notions today than when the movement’s slogans were “make love not war” and “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”

We grew long hair, wore clothing that announced disdain for fashion, and claimed we didn’t trust anyone over 30 until we celebrated our thirtieth birthdays. We applauded when TIME said, “God is Dead.” John Lennon was more popular than Jesus. We protested the war in Vietnam hoping to end all wars. That didn’t work out very well. Nor did the drugs with which many of my fellow hippies experimented. Even Timothy Leary gave way on that.
Maybe all we have left is the music. Maybe that’s enough. Think about that. There is no music from any other time than the hippie era that a radio station can play 24/7 and make money doing it. Maybe it was the 60s music as much as anything that defined hippiedom.

I write as I listen to the memorable classics of that era. Judy Collins is singing “Both Sides Now.”

“Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere. I've looked at clouds that way. But now they only block the sun. They rain and snow on everyone. So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.” But then she ends with, “Oh but now old friends, they're acting strange. They shake their heads. They say I've changed.”

I have. We have. Has what it means to be a hippie changed? Suddenly half a century passed and I’m happily living in a nationally recognized hippie community, one of “a generally bizarre cast of Western characters,” listening to hippie music, and flattered that someone would remember me as an aging hippie.

“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Wyoming Republicans Have a Problem

The Republican Party has nominated a racist for President of the United States during the month marking the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most important achievements in this nation’s history. Voting against it cost Barry Goldwater the presidency. He even lost Wyoming.

Fifty-two years ago, by a 57-43 margin, Wyoming’s electoral votes went to a Democrat for the last time.

One reason was Senator Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act. Racism was out of vogue in 1964. Ninety-four percent of blacks voted Democratic. Mr. Goldwater wasn’t a racist but he aligned himself with those who were. Previously the “Party of Lincoln,” enjoyed the support of African-Americans the “Goldwater effect” ended that forever.

In 2016 Wyoming Republicans have a worse problem. Donald Trump dissed POWs (“I like people who don’t get caught”), ridiculed a disabled reporter, smeared all Muslims, disdains women, and believes U.S. soldiers should kill the families of suspected terrorists. He tweeted an anti-Semitic attack about Hillary Clinton. 

He said a judge with Mexican heritage was inherently unable to render fair decisions and slanderously claimed Black Lives Matter members called for a “moment of silence” for the anarchist who killed Dallas policemen.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is worried. Mr. Trump’s campaign may have what Mr. McConnell called the “Goldwater effect” on the Hispanic vote. Senator McConnell believes his party could, in 2016, leave the same bad taste in the mouths of Hispanics that Senator Goldwater left with blacks in 1964.

That doesn’t trouble Republicans like Matt Mead, John Barrasso, or Mike Enzi. They endorsed Mr. Trump. So did David Duke, one-time KKK Grand Wizard. Mr. Trump may be a racist but, for them, at least “he’s not Hillary.”

In what libertarian James Bovard calls an “attention-deficit democracy,” the epithet “racist” used to be a deal breaker for American voters. It may still be for some Red states like Arizona. What about the Equality State? Is being a racist so wrong that it disqualifies one from winning the votes of good Wyoming people?

Wyoming’s “Code of the West,” adopted formally as the law of the land by nothing-better-to-do legislators in 2010, isn’t clear on the subject. Nonetheless Cowboy ethics don’t condone racism and a few of the Codes’ 10 provisions apply. “Live each day with courage,” “Ride for the brand,” and “Know where to draw the line.”

Governor Mead and Wyoming’s congressional delegation know exactly what Mr. Trump is about. Still they’ve made their choice. Wyoming’s highest elected officials decided that they couldn’t do both. They can’t live each day with courage and, at the same time, “ride for the brand.”

Like Pontius Pilate, they washed their hands of the inconvenient truth. Why would they live even one day with courage? After all there are more tea partiers in Wyoming than all Hispanics and blacks combined? They are Republicans first and, though stained by bigotry, Mr. Trump is a member of their tribe. They don’t share Mitt Romney’s fear of “trickle-down racism.”

Unlike them, Wyoming’s voters know where the line is.  It’s black and white, not black versus white. The question is whether they will “draw” the line. Wondering whether to vote for a racist because “at least he’s not Hillary,” is like asking Mrs. Lincoln, “Other than that, how was the play?” What really matters?

In the beginning it could be reasoned that not all Trump supporters are bigots but it becomes harder to understand why a non-bigot would support him. Jennifer Lim, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce employee founded “Republican Women for Hillary.” Much of her life she volunteered for Republican causes and campaigns. Not this time. “We're trying to convince people,” Lim said, “that your vote has a political and moral purpose." Indeed.

In 1964, Wyoming Republicans voted against a candidate because he was an opponent of the Civil Rights Act. In 2016, the Republican Party’s nominee is actually an avowed racist. Will Wyoming Republicans ride for the brand or will they draw the line?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Presbyterians advocate for justice

On being a Presbyterian
Highlands Presbyterian church
September 11, 2016

Once when I was the Director of the Department of Family Services, I gave a speech. Governor Freudenthal who had been my roommate during our first year in Law School, introduced me. “Some of our old classmates,” he said, are surprised that I became Governor all of them are surprised that Rodger became a minister. I had the same reaction recently when I attended my 50th high school class reunion. There were many of my old classmates who were more than a little surprised that I had become, what one called, a man of the cloth. That’s not how they remembered me from our old high school days. They asked me about how that happened but the other question I was asked most often was “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian.”

I imagine some of you get that question from time to time. I used to give a very utilitarian, bureaucratic answer, launching into an explanation of how we govern ourselves but I found that didn’t mean much and it made it sound as though if there were differences between us and others, those differences didn’t amount to what my mother called “a hill of beans.”

It’s something I get asked often enough that I was determined to find a better answer, one that said something meaningful about who we are, why we worship, and our relationship with Jesus.

So let me tell you what my answer is now. There are three points that define who we are. One…we take the Bible seriously but not literally. Two, we believe the Gospel is fundamentally about social justice. Third, we believe God has no voice but ours and so we will not be silenced.

There’s a story Jesus told in the 15th chapter of Luke that makes my point. It all began when the fundamentalists of his day started grumbling abut Jesus spending too much time with sinners, having dinner with the worst of them. Jesus said, let me ask you a question.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

Now there are two types of people in the world. There are those who hear those stories and wonder why any good shepherd would spend his time looking that hard for one sheep. And then there are those who would join in the search. Those are the Presbyterians.

Advocacy and social justice are cornerstones of the work of the Presbyterian Church USA and of Highlands. We speak often of our mission work in this community and I want you to know also of what our national church does.

The PCUSA advocates for social justice through the Office of Public Witness, the public policy information and advocacy office of the Church. It participates in direct advocacy with members congress and the administration through in person meetings, letters and phone calls. And, they encourage Presbyterians everywhere to call for action on matters of conscience and faith, and to be advocates. 

The PCUSA works for environmental justice, healthcare, and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. We work for fair trade and against the scourge of human trafficking. There is even a Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations representing the PCUSA at the United Nations providing witness for justice and peace.

Let me tell you what all that means in concrete actions. In the last several weeks the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota have been protesting, trying to stop a large energy company from constructing an oil pipeline beneath the waters of the Missouri River. They have a well-substantiated fear that, as with many such pipelines, there will be a leak, one that could destroy the tribe’s main source of water.

Hundreds of local protestors have been joined by thousands of representatives from Native American tribes across North America in “prayer camps” as a part of their protest. Two weeks ago state officials removed the camps’ water supply. There are Presbyterian congregations sending water and other resources to help the Tribe continue its protest despite the best efforts of the energy company and its governmental advocates to shut it down.

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson III, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Rev. Irvin Porter, of the Presbyterian Office of Native American Intercultural Congregational Support, issued a statement supporting the Standing Rock Sioux.

The official PCUSA statement said, “The 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meeting passed these two overtures to Native Americans

One, an apology to Native American’s for the church’s administration of boarding schools during the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose purpose was the “civilization” of Native American children. Two, a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which derives its authority from 16th and 17th century decrees of Pope’s and kings authorizing “explorers” to seize lands and convert “non-Christians.” The PCUSA denouncement of this old doctrine is important because the doctrine remains today the basis for Supreme Court decisions against Tribes.

Rev. Nelson said, “The PCUSA is becoming more aware of the struggles that Native American Presbyterians and all Native Americans have faced in the past and are dealing with today. It is my hope that in discussing these issues across the church an impact can be made that not only raises awareness within the church of these issues, but also generates action by Presbyterians.”

Then the PCUSA involved itself in criminal justice reform. The church has a long history of speaking out for reforms leading to restoration and restitution rather than punishment alone. In 2003, the General Assembly called for the “abolition” of for-profit private prisons based on evidence of abuses. While agreeing that offenders should be “dealt with firmly and justly for their own good and the protection of society,” the PCUSA also believes convicts should not be rendered outcasts from society.

The resolution invoked statements from the 1910 and 1915 General Assemblies that the “ultimate goal of the criminal justice system should be restorative justice,” addressing the hurts and needs of the victim, offender and the community.

In significant part, it was the advocacy of the PCUSA and like-minded faith leaders that resulted in the recent decision of the Obama administration to end its relationship with private for-profit corporations in the housing and handling of prisoners will bring to an end a practice that our General Assemblies have condemned as inappropriate and demeaning.”

And earlier this month the PCUSA joined 100 other faith organizations acknowledged there are 21 million men, women and children21 million being forced to flee their home country. The PCUSA asked the President to admit 200,000 refugees this year and to fund the resettlement costs accordingly so that refugees are ensured access to the service and support they need to integrate quickly and successfully into American communities.

It all makes me proud to be among Presbyterians. It inspires us to join the fight, to say what needs to be said to those who need to hear it. Highlands should say what needs to be said to Governor Matt Mead and ask him to end the embarrassment of having Wyoming be the only state in the Union refusing to enter into a refugee settlement agreement with federal government.

Becoming Christian advocates for social justice is why Highlands is leading the effort to establish a RESULTS chapter in Cheyenne. Many of you have come to the table to get that done and on October 22nd HPC will host a day-long training to move that initiative to the next level.

My fellow Jesus followers, if indeed we take the Bible seriously even though not literally, if we see the Gospel as fundamentally about social justice, we cannot help but walk the walk. It’s what Robin Meyer called the underground church. But this view of Christian discipleship is not new. While some of my clergy colleagues think it unseemly for faith leaders to involve themselves in political matters and debates, that didn’t start with us. It started with Jesus of Nazareth and has continued over the centuries wherever the Gospel finds faithful followers.

In the early 1900s Walter Rauschbusch wrote In a book titled Christianity and the Social Crisis that "Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus.

Let us give witness to our understanding of Jesus and be known in this community as his advocates for justice. AMEN