Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Still on Offense

After last week’s blog on the new tactic by religious conservatives of engaging in inconsiderate behavior and then trying to shift the burden onto those they’ve imposed upon to justify their reactions, I thought I’d said everything I had to say on this subject. But, apparently Indiana is not the only place where the strong arm of the law and the thoughtless imposition of religion onto the public occurs. The ongoing parade of offensive behavior disingenuously defended as protected religious beliefs continues, this time with an example coming out of Texas.

Repeated Offense Does Not a Tradition Make

Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack of Montgomery County, Texas, is the latest to mount the “Why should it offend you?” bandwagon with a practice that would, on most planets other than Texas, merit investigation if not discipline by the state bar. According to the Houston Chronicle, Mack begins every session of his court as follows:

Prior to the opening ceremony of Mack’s court, a bailiff informs all people in the courtroom of the rules and court proceedings. The bailiff also tells the courtroom that it is the tradition of the court, as a part of the opening ceremonies, to have a prayer offered by a Justice Court Chaplain, adding it is not a requirement to participate in the prayer. The prayer is followed by the pledges to the U.S. and Texas flags.

Those who do not want to participate are allowed to step outside the courtroom during the prayer. Their decision to do so will not have any effect on the turnout of their business, Mack said.

Much of this account comes from the letter of complaint  sent to the judge by the Freedom from Religion Foundation on behalf of a party appearing before the justice of the peace.  The party reported the judge began the court session with the comment, “We are going to say a prayer. If any of you are offended by that you can leave into the hallway and your case will not be affected.”

Of course, that disclaimer is a patent admission that the judge recognizes that his behavior is inappropriate. While claiming the mantle of tradition is a classic means of attempting to legitimize behaviors lacking intrinsic legitimacy, as Max Weber long ago noted, the “tradition” in question dates only to the appointment of this justice of the peace last May. Legitimization presumes a lack of legitimacy. And mere repeated incidences of inappropriate behavior by a public official does not make a pattern of behavior a tradition and thus beyond question, it makes a dereliction of duty.

It is a patently disingenuous argument that an elected official’s offensive and constitutionally impermissible behavior is somehow the problem of those who might be offended. To make such a remark evidences an inability to take responsibility for one’s own behavior, a rather important concept in most courts. We expect this from juvenile offenders, not the official sitting on the other side of the bar. 

It also compounds inconsiderate and contextually inappropriate behavior with dishonesty. But, as I noted previously, it is becoming increasingly common to hear this argument among religious conservatives imposing tone-deaf, inappropriate behaviors on the public and then seeking to have those imposed upon justify their irritated reactions.

Vote of No Confidence

Not surprisingly, the judge’s rather glib reassurance hardly translates to confidence on the part of those coming before him. As the party in Mack’s courtroom reported

“I felt that the Judge was watching for reactions from the courtroom; bowed heads, indifference, etc. I definitely felt that our cases would be affected by our reactions [to the bible reading]… Once the Bible reading was over we were then asked to bow our heads to pray. I was very uncomfortable and certainly felt that I was being coerced into following this ritual and that the outcome of my case depended upon my body language.”

While the judge may well not consider whether a party participates in his courtroom religious rituals in his holdings or how s/he responds to its imposition on them, it’s not hard to understand how the parties before him would think that he would. While we should not presume bias, the judge should also provide no reason to suspect it. Engaging in conduct that further pressurizes an already pressurized event is not only inconsiderate and unprofessional, it borders on sadistic.

Courtrooms are always pressurized settings. The representatives of the law wear special clothing that set them apart from the public. They use special language that signals to the public they are not operating on day-to-day terms (No one goes down the street saying, “Oye! Oye! Oye! to passersby). Courts operate under rules and procedures that the general public doesn’t understand, hence the need for most who appear before judges to be accompanied by legal specialists called attorneys who can negotiate the labyrinthine procedural process and speak the rarified language of law.

Appearances of Impropriety

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct contains an entire section devoted to “Performing the Duties of Judicial Office Impartially and Diligently.” Among its provisions are requirements that judges “should be faithful to the law and shall maintain professional competence in it. A judge shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism.” That includes intentionally imposing offensive religious (and thus partisan) behavior on the public and then telling those who might be offended to leave the courtroom.

The code further enjoins judges from performing their judicial duties  in a manner which “by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status…” That includes creating a visible litmus test through an imposed prayer designed to discern fellow believers from heathen that raises doubt in the judge’s capacity and willingness to act impartially.

More fundamentally, the Code of Ethics in Texas, like all other American jurisdictions, contains a prohibition binding attorneys and judges alike not only against conduct which is specifically prohibited by the code but also for behaviors which offer “an appearance of impropriety.” Using a state court for the purpose of Bible reading and prayer is not only an appearance of impropriety, it is a violation of the First Amendment.

There is a good reason for that code provision. And there is an even better reason for the relevant provisions of the First Amendment.

“You Communist!”

My second year of teaching over in Citrus County, I encountered an incident which illuminated the wisdom of the Framers in separating religious practice from state power. As a part of the daily drill in morning homeroom, the principal, never hesitant about an opportunity to hear his own voice between spitting his tobacco juice into a can, would conduct the Pledge of Allegiance over the school intercom. Students were to stand, place hand over heart and join in the recitation.

All fine and good except my flag had gone out the door of my classroom the first day of classes. So, for my two years in the refiners fire of middle school teaching in that contentious, redneck county, we simply saluted the bracket which once held the flag every morning.

All of us except Elizabeth. 

She was a student in the gifted program, bright, sweet, polite to a fault and beautiful even in the drab, long dresses her mother required her to wear. And she was a Jehovah’s Witness. 

As Elizabeth explained it to me, saluting flags was the same thing as worshiping graven images, something strictly prohibited by Witness teachings. And the Supreme Court had carved out an exception for folks like Elizabeth, allowing them to absent themselves from the classroom when the pledge was being executed each morning.

Over the years, I’ve come to see the wisdom in that thinking. Flag salutes are subtly coercive, fueled by public expectations and enforced by righteous indignation. It’s rarely a completely voluntary activity. And it does suggest an orthodoxy with which one must comply or be seen a heretic with the expectable punishment that accompanies such a  judgment.

Nothing made that clearer than the way Elizabeth was treated by her equally bright and talented gifted classmates when she would return from the hall after each flag salute. “Communist!” they would say to her under their breaths once I decreed they could not say that aloud in class. And Elizabeth confided in me that she was not always treated fairly or included by her classmates because of this religious behavior. 

Elizabeth found she could depend on her teacher to do his best to protect her interests and her feelings in that classroom. Imagine what it would have been like had she felt she had to deal with not only the injustice of her classmates’ thoughtless comments but a teacher unlikely to treat her with respect as well with power over her daily life.

I’ve never forgotten poor Elizabeth, reentering my classroom each morning, face knit in apprehension, wondering how she would be treated. She taught me an important lesson about being seen as different on the account of religion and how thoughtless majorities are prone to abuse their power and tyrannize the minorities among them.

A Time and a Place

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack is probably a devoted public servant. His website speaks of his tireless service to the people of Montgomery County including the inception of a chaplaincy service to aid law enforcement in dealing with tragedies. While my guess is that Judge Mack and I probably agree on little about law, policy or religion, his public service is commendable.

That said, the writer of Ecclesiastes was wise to recognize the essential role of context in behaviors. There is a time and a season (or as SCOTUS has repeatedly ruled, a “time, place and manner”) for every activity. That the judge in question recognizes this is reflected by his response to the complaints in this incident by holding a prayer breakfast (complete with a George Bush imitator from America’s Got Talent) at the local convention center and charging admission to pay for its rental.

But proceedings in courtrooms are neither the time nor the place for Bible readings or prayers. Roadside stops by evangelizing state troopers don’t qualify either. And while tone-deaf, inconsiderate religious displays in entertainment venues such as professional sports (and the neo-professional sports attempting to generate profits on college campuses that have replaced intercollegiate athletics) are not not nearly as potentially harmful to the interests of those involved in incidents involving the color of law, they aren’t the time or place, either.

Offensive behavior is always condemnable on its own account regardless of its nature. It is never the problem of those who are forced to endure those behaviors. But it should always be a problem for those public officials who inappropriately and unconstitutionally interject religion into the execution of their official duties.

Calling public officials on the abuse of their powers and the failure to live into their ethical responsibilities does not make them martyrs. It makes them accountable, like every other holder of power and the responsibilities that go with its exercise. No American should ever have to doubt that they have at least the potential to obtain justice when they come into an American courtroom, even in Texas.

A Little Respect

American evangelicals today believe they are disrespected more than Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and atheists and about as much as gays and lesbians. It’s instructive to note that evangelicals tend to see themselves as disrespected (50%) at about a rate 40% higher than other Americans (31%) see them as such in the Pew Research poll. One can never underestimate the proclivity among evangelicals to construct their religious faiths in terms of martyrdom.

But the events of Texas and Indiana might be instructive for those who, in Jesus’ words, have “ears to hear.” Respect-worthy behaviors do not mean those that will gain affirmation from the fellow members of your tribe. It means behaving in ways that evinces a genuine respect for the dignity of all human beings regardless of who they are or what they believe.

If you behave in unrespectable ways, imposing your religious behaviors on the general public and then blaming them for taking offense, you’re not going to be respected. And if you abuse your power in the process, your behavior is by definition not respectable and you are not a martyr when called on it.

Sunday’s common lectionary readings from Leviticus and Matthew reflect the evolution of the Great Commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself from the bounds of the tribe (Leviticus 19) to Jesus’ application of that command to all humanity (Matthew 22). Perhaps that is the challenge Jesus poses to many evangelicals today:

Evolve beyond your tribal understandings. Try to see and respect the image of G-d on the faces of those outside your tribe. Don ‘t conditionalize your respect for them on their buying into your faith constructs. Respect their humanity and perhaps they will begin respecting your faith tradition. Besides the fear and loathing you currently generate, what do you have to lose?

Let those with ears hear.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Regional Campus, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Monday, October 20, 2014

Taking Offense

This past week as I was headed to my class at Valencia, I observed two bumper stickers within a half mile stretch on Michigan Avenue that prompted me to think. Both were religious in nature and both were designed to provoke a response. I’m guessing my response was probably not what either driver was seeking.

Praying for Miami Beach

The first bumper sticker read “Global Warming? How about Global Prayer?” The graphics featured a horizon of mountain tops and drops of water around the edges. In all honesty, I’m not totally sure what the point of this one was. To begin with, the sticker adorned the bumper of one of the oversized pickup trucks that are major contributors to the climate crisis we face. I call them Selfishmobiles – they hog more than their share of the road, gas, parking, pollute more than their share of the air and kill more than their share of those on the roads with them in accidents. Given that starting place and the message, my guess is that this is probably the sentiment of a religiously based climate change denier.

As I understand it, this is a perspective that argues that we don’t need to worry about some man-made theory (sound of spittle hitting the ground) about climate change, we just need to worry about obeying G-d’s commands (as understood from a largely uncritical, self-referential reading of scripture). While I’m very clear that one can be concerned about global climate change and see prayer as one of many means of meeting that challenge - a practice in which I regularly engage - my guess is that the displayer of that bumper sticker constructs this issue in terms of a false dichotomy: One either prays and relies on G-d to save us from ourselves or they buy into some politically correct theory (there’s that sound of spittle again) about global warming.

While I’d like to presume a little higher level of credibility to the thought of the bumper sticker owner, I also know that about 1/3 of Americans regularly watch Fox and a wide assortment of religious channels where this false dichotomy is regularly preached from broadcast pulpits. My guess is that this fellow probably hasn’t been to Miami Beach lately to see the massive new pumping system currently being installed to keep an island already dealing with regular tidal flooding from being completely submerged.

Of course, these folks have every right to believe as they see fit and to articulate the opinions they hold, no matter how indefensible in light of evidence of which they either aren't aware or simply avoid. But they don’t have the right to be taken seriously when they spout nonsense (and dangerous nonsense at that). The right to believe something and to have that right respected by others is not the same thing as an entitlement to have any belief one articulates taken seriously regardless of its inherent credibility.

But that started me wondering. Is it possible that this game of baiting the public with incredible (in the sense of unbelievable) assertions only to cry “Foul!” when confronted on them is part and parcel of something much larger? Does this somehow tie into an  indefatigable compulsion of religious conservatives to construct themselves and their faith in terms of martyrdom, no matter how disingenuous?

Canon within a Canon – St. Paul

Within a couple of blocks of the first bumper sticker, I encountered a second that was even more provocative. Featuring the symbol of a cross, the machinery of state killing utilized by the Roman Empire, the sticker simply read, “Not Ashamed.”

It is my guess that this assertion references a sort of evangelical canon within a canon, a handful of verses in the Christian Scriptures seen as supporting – if not commanding -  the practice loosely described as “witnessing” regardless of how it’s practiced. For many evangelicals, these verses are seen as the distillation of divine will for themselves -  and everyone else. Anyone who has ever had any dealings with evangelical Protestants or their conservative counterparts within Christendom have heard the verses which follow below, almost inevitably out of any kind of context by which to make sense of them.

The first is the writing of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans in which he says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, NRSV). The word translated as “salvation” here in reference to “gospels” is usually understood in individual existential terms in the west and in dogmatic transactional terms in western religions (if you buy into our dogma now, you are among the saved and thus assured of a positive afterlife ). Ultimately, it’s all about me.  

A recent translation by four scholars from the Westar Institute, determined that the Greek word euangelion, good news, used in this verse can only be understood in the context of the Roman Empire’s world-wide claim to dominance and world order. As such, euangelion, as St. Paul was using it, actually means “world-transforming news of God,” i.e., the kingdom of G-d taught by Jesus and Paul as the alternative to Caesar’s empire. The scholars translate this verse and the end of the preceding verse as follows:

I’m eager to proclaim God’s world-changing news to you in Rome. I’m not embarrassed by this news because it has the power to transform those who are persuaded by it, first Jews and then Greeks.

Note the lack of any references to individual salvation in the next life, to “good news” understood as written scriptures or to the individual as a purveyor of an understanding of those scriptures. Bear in mind there is no New Testament in Paul’s time. This verse is simply not about evangelizing, at least not in any sense of that term today. It’s also not about the individual testifying. Rather, it’s about changing this world, here and now.

Canon within a Canon – Gospel Writers 

The second source of this honor/shame understanding comes from the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke. There the gospel writers report Jesus as saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26)

The Westar scholars sitting as the Jesus Seminar coded this passage black indicating that while Jesus probably did not actually say this, it is certainly something the early church would have said. Formulated well after Jesus’ death, the scholars determined that this verse arose when “disciples were being forced to acknowledge or to deny him.” It arose out of the period when the Jesus followers were being pressured to leave their synagogues enroute to creating a new religion about the Christ.

This use is contextually a little closer to the appropriation that evangelicals make of it. But these two contexts are not “on all fours,” as we used to say in law. The difference is that evangelicals are not being thrown out of their churches. They are not being pursued by the empire as enemies of the state. And they live under a constitution which makes their ability to articulate their understandings protected by the law of the land.

Without looking at the contexts of these verses, they make little sense. But they readily lend themselves to an acontextual use as the slogan of a self-styled martyr.

This writing is not about individuals today or their senses of disappointment that result from having the religious ideas they are selling rejected by would-be buyers. They are not about behavior willingly engaged without consideration for others in the name of testifying which causes potential buyers to respond with irritation.  And they are certainly not about the intentional engagement of such behaviors knowing they will offend others for the purpose of becoming a martyr, however consciously entertained.

There is a world of difference between martyrs and mere boors.

Being Offensive v. Being Offended

These bumper sticker evangelizers brought into focus a new tactic that I am seeing among evangelicals of inappropriately interjecting religious behaviors into public forums and then claiming foul when others object. This new line of argument something goes like this: Why should my religiosity offend you?

The implication here seems to be that being a member of American society somehow requires that  respect be show both a believer’s right to believe as they see fit as well as a supposed right to act upon that belief any way the believer sees fit regardless of context. Of course, a long line of SCOTUS cases readily reveals that behaviors have never been within the scope of the Constitutional protection as are beliefs. Ask the Native Americans seeking to use peyote. Ask the Mormon men seeking to legally marry multiple wives.   

But there is more than a little offensive behavior in this approach to go around. First, it deliberately confuses beliefs with behaviors. Frankly, I don’t care what others believe or if they don’t believe anything at all. So long as those beliefs are not inflicted upon me, it’s no skin off my nose. But when believers are unwilling to live within those parameters, the irritated responses they draw from the public upon whom they have inflicted themselves say nothing about the content of their beliefs, it simply reflects the inconsideration of their behaviors.

It’s also important to note that a reluctance to endure inconsiderate behavior engaged under the banner of religiosity does not necessarily indicate religiously based antipathy. It’s quite possible for fellow Christians to negatively view such behaviors among fellow Christians. A good example is exasperation over the obsessive need of athletes to engage in religious displays during sporting events.

I greatly admire Tim Tebow as an individual but he’s about as tone deaf to social context as the day is long. At meetings of his religiously based organization, it’s not only appropriate to ostentatiously pray and write Bible verses on his face, it’s expected. The same is not true in the National Football League. Sadly, I think it’s hard to imagine that this tone deafness did not play a role in his inability to make it in pro ball.

This offensiveness approach also deliberately conflates beliefs and believers. Beliefs stand on their own, believers aside. When beliefs are sold like any other goods or services on the market, rejection of a proffered belief system is not a devaluation of the offeror any more than the decision not to buy a sweater is a denigration of the Macy’s sales clerk. The failure to make that sale hardly makes the salesperson a martyr.

However, what I find most troubling in all this is the intellectual dishonesty implicit in it. A deliberate confusion of irritation over inconsiderate behavior with martyrdom for one’s religious beliefs is not honest. And a willingness to deliberately engage in behavior one knows will be seen as inconsiderate then responding to the rejection of that behavior as somehow conferring martyrdom suggests there is a lot more going on there than religion.

License, Registration, Proof of Salvation

All of these issues came to a head earlier this month in an event in Indiana. USA Today reported it like this:

Ellen Bogan expects police to protect and serve — not proselytize. But she says Indiana State Police Trooper Brian Hamilton pitched Christianity to her when he pulled her over for an alleged traffic violation in August on U.S. 27 in Union County.
With the lights on his marked police car still flashing, the trooper handed Bogan a warning ticket. Then, Bogan said, Hamilton posed some personal questions:

Did she have a home church? Did she accept Jesus Christ as her savior?

I hasten to note that this event as described here is only an allegation at this point. According to USA Today, the Indiana State Police did contact Ms. Brogan to tell her that the agency was "taking supervisory action" though it did not inform her of what that was. However, the details of this encounter are currently only allegations in Ms. Brogan’s lawsuit against the agency and subject to the harsh scrutiny of the civil legal process. 

What I found most troubling, however, was the response from Micah Carr, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana. Carr told USA Today that while the traffic stop might not have been the best time to quiz someone about faith, he questioned whether a police officer should lose his right to free speech because he is wearing a badge. "I have people pass out religious material all the time. Mormons come to my door all the time, and it doesn't offend me," Clark said. "(This case) might not be the most persuasive time to talk to someone about their faith, but I don't think that a police officer is prohibited from doing something like that."

Again, the tone deafness is striking. Truth be told, most Americans resent having the privacy of their homes invaded by religious missionaries. That it occurs with regularity does not mean other instances of inconsideration somehow become acceptable. Moreover, this was not an issue of the officer’s exercise of free speech, an analysis that readily reveals the enormous solipsistic – if not narcissistic - tendencies in most proselytizing. Nor was it about whether this was “the most persuasive time to talk to someone about their faith,” a statement which also reveals immense self-focus.

The question at hand is first and foremost about an abuse of state power as well as the complete inconsideration of the officer in question vis-a-vis the citizen he is pledged to serve. Such persons are not martyrs, they’re boors. And in this case, if what is alleged is proven, their behaviors exceed mere offensiveness; they border on being tyrannical.

As You Would Have Them Do Unto You

Throughout my time in seminary I wore a tee shirt with a quote from Anglican theologian Urban T. Holmes which read, “Evangelism: The people of God are to the world as a lover, not a salesman.” I am also prone to quote St. Francis on evangelism: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.” I’m hardly opposed to evangelism per se and there is a part of me that empathizes with those who wish to share what they consider to be good news with others. If St. Paul’s take on it is correct, we could all use world changing news with the power to transform those who hear it.

But it isn’t necessary to be inconsiderate in that process. Indeed, it’s largely counterproductive. Good news worth hearing does not find an expression in self-focused bumper stickers (*I*am not ashamed). And the appropriate time and place for considering religious understandings is neither at major sporting events nor on the side of public highways in the shadow of flashing lights under the auspices of uniformed, armed officers.  In such cases, it is the conduct which is offensive, not the messenger or the message. And the rejection of inconsiderate behaviors is not martyrdom. It’s a badly needed lesson in mature adult behavior and the expectations of a civil society.

Let those who have ears listen.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Assistant Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kissimmee, FL
 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

“One Day More” that has not yet come

I had the rare pleasure of getting my husband out of the house on a weeknight to accompany a friend and I to the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Les Miserables. It was an excellent production and well worth the money the evening out (including a delicious supper at nearby White Wolfe Restaurant) cost us. It also does my heart good to know that Orlando is capable of producing such shows, a sign it is slowly but surely giving up its little town mentality to become a real city

Weeping for Lost Dreams

The ending number of the first half of the play was “One Day More.” It was well done and wonderful to finally see it live and in context of the rest of the play. But I found myself drawn back to the events of six years ago when I first heard this song.

On the eve of the 2008 Presidential Election, the staff of then candidate Barack Obama created a video on Youtube with various staff members lip-synching the words to this song. The lyrics lent themselves to the occasion, a staff hopeful of victory, frightened of the possibility of defeat, dreaming of change, lyrics which ended with the following:

Tomorrow we'll discover
 What our God in Heaven has in store!
 One more dawn
 One more day
 One day more!

Today, as the impending 2014 midterm elections approach, much of that hope for change has vanished amidst a sea of fear, gloom and angry acrimony. As I watched the play last night, flashing back to the hope for a new era in 2008, I found myself weeping, not just for the moving lyrics but for the way this hope for change had played out in America since that video was made.

I think it is fair to say that there have been few, if any, presidents who have faced the kinds of obstacles this president has been required to deal with since before he took office. This has not been loyal opposition. This has not been vigorous partisan politics. The tenor of this opposition has been vicious, personalized, and nihilistic. The good of the country has rarely been even a remote second thought in the calculus of utter and absolute obstructionism.

While we white, non-Hispanic Americans continue to vigorously deny it, race has always played a role in this political acid bath of the past six years. We have compounded the sin of unacknowledged racism with the sin of repeated denial. This is a reflection of ourselves most of us absolutely don’t want to look at. The result has been the eruption of this vile misanthropy in bizarre forms like the birther non-scandal and the emphasis of Obama’s middle name as somehow proof he’s a Muslim (and thus, by this same non-reasoning, a terrorist).

This alone is troubling. But what has proved even more troubling is the impact this zero sum politics of personality has had on the country.

The Sword of Damocles

In the past six years we have not dealt with the pathologies of the financial industry which continue to hang over our collective heads like the Sword of Damocles awaiting the right moment to fall and pitch our nation into a depression that could make the 1930s look tame. We have not dealt with the chronic unemployment and underemployment that renders the life of up to ¼ of all Americans lacking in meaning and bereft of any hope for improvement.
We have not dealt with the impending problems of climate change whose challenges may render all the rest of these problems moot if not met emphatically and soon. And we find ourselves unable to extricate ourselves from the profoundly misguided and destructive invasions around the world we entered into under the last presidency.

We watch as our infrastructure crumbles in America even as politicians like Florida’s governor Rick Scott rejects federal funding for badly needed rail projects only to make room for his cronies to make millions off the taxpayers to build the same system. We watch as the working poor who become sick are demonized as lazy even as they are denied increases in minimum wage to pay for their care and real medical care to deal with their ailments. The ACA’s meager attempts to insure that all Americans can be medically treated regardless of income and status have been resisted at every step by the beneficiaries of a status quo among providers of health care, big Pharma and an insurance industry which exploits human misery. The overt greed and callous indifference to suffering is absolutely disgraceful.

Even as more and more tax breaks and incentives are provided the wealthy and the corporate interests, funding for schools continues to be cut (with the exception of the election year momentary increases, bribes designed to make the pols running for reelection look like the benefactors of schools). Our public school students are daily pounded with Pavlovian testing programs that stamp out both critical inquiry as well as any kind of love for learning itself. Our college students are being rushed through colleges, penalized for delay caused by changed majors, herded through overcrowded classes and shoved onto overcrowded online sections which bring those systems to a crawl, only to graduate with enough debt to hobble their lives for at least a decade after graduation.  

The coup de grace is the activism of the best Supreme Court corporate money could buy who has ordained that our elections will be bought by the highest bidders and that our very ability to vote will be restrained by parties in power whose ideas are not compelling and thus who cannot win elections if everyone is actually able to vote. This is the same court who has incredibly declared that corporations are people with religions they may impose upon their employees and whose decisions have allowed our streets and our college campuses to be flooded with the weaponry of war.

Anyone else see a problem with a nation of angry people armed to the teeth?  

Which brings me back to the anthem at the barricades. As I listened to the anthem of the Bourbon Revolution last night, I grieved for the failure of our own Bourbon Revolution. The economically unjust society we have become, increasingly maintained by coercive force and the corporate propaganda passed off as news, is a complete refutation of the democratic ideals we say we hold.

So many of us had hoped for something different in 2008.

Plenty of Blame to Go Around

It is too easy to blame a single individual for all of these failures, even if he is president. The cesspool into which American political and economic culture have devolved is the result of the values and resulting actions of many parties and the inaction – and thus acquiescence to injustice – of many more. There is plenty of blame to go around here.

That begins with a Republican Party which is merely obstructionist on a good day and extremist on issues ranging from voting rights to women’s rights to children on our border on most days. This is a party marked by ideologues with names like Rand Paul and Paul Ryan that has tumbled far from its days of thoughtful, venerable statesmen like Everett Dircksen, George Romney and Howard Baker.

But the problem also includes the voters who rely on the barrage of mindless negativity that has become our campaign ads to tell them how to vote. We have traded our role as citizens with duties to inform ourselves for being consumers waiting for someone to present us with limited choices to select between. The best packaging inevitably wins but America loses.

I also admit to a disappointment in President Obama. He is a very thoughtful man who sees a big picture, something that stands in stark contrast with his very limited predecessor. But he hates politics and thus allows those with no scruples to dominate that arena. He is wrong on his education policy (Barry, everyone does NOT need to go to college) and the verdict is still out on his willingness to continue playing foes against each other in the middle east. We’ve had no 9-11s thus far and most of our soldiers are home. But, frankly, I am not at all sure that the world is not a whole lot safer than when this Nobel Peace Prize winner took office.

I fear things could get much worse if the billions of dollars folks like the Koch Brothers are pouring into this year’s midterm elections manage to mobilize the politics of greed and fear and neutralize the turnout of those who stand to lose the most by the same. It is easy to lose hope in a situation like this.

Do We Dare to Still HOPE?

I believe that one day we will look back on the Obama Administration and the way it was completely neutralized by big money as an enormous squandering of opportunity to take badly needed new directions. Sadly, I fear that hindsight may occur in the wake of any number of disastrous possibilities on which America currently lies at the brink.

And yet, I write this with the stylized poster of Obama emblazoned with the word HOPE at the bottom over my right shoulder still on my office wall. I long ago learned that hope is not the same thing as optimism and, truth be told, I think optimism about our future together as a people is a luxury in today’s America. Even so, I still hold out hope for a tomorrow in which “we'll discover what our G-d in Heaven has in store” and that it will be the brighter future we hope for even as I recognize that is,at least for the moment, not terribly  likely. 

May that G-d in Heaven be with us in our waiting and watching.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion,
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Apologia: Confessions of a Reluctant Critic

Indulge me just a little here. I’ve encountered some negative feedback and feel the need to engage in a little self-defense this morning. Some of the responses I get to my comments both here and elsewhere suggests that some people sum me up as being overly critical, in some cases, just for the point of being critical. I think an explanation is in order.

Just a Coverston?

When my saintly mother was alive, she used to shake her head at me when I would say something critical about the school I attended and at which my father taught. “You’re just a Coverston,” she’d say

Truth be told my father’s family members do have a long history of being well educated and outspokenly critical of aspects of society they have found lacking. My Great Aunt Louise was a Columbia University educated woman in the Depression era who came to Little Rock for her first teaching assignment. When the annual school program for Confederate Memorial Day rolled around, she refused to participate and told her students it celebrated little more than traitorous behavior. It was only due to her colleagues who defended her excellent teaching abilities that she was not fired in the middle of the year and allowed to finish it out before being discharged to return to the friendlier confines of Pittsburgh, Kansas.

But my role as a reluctant critic goes a little deeper than mere family ties.

Seeing the Big Picture

Over the years I have done a good bit of work with the Myers-Brigg Temperament Inventory (MBTI) to try to get a handle on my own personality type vis-à-vis the rest of the world. It has been helpful in understanding my proclivities for being the critic. It has also helped me understand why others have been often silent in the face of situations I found to be badly in need of change and prone to criticize me when I could not be.

One of the things I tell my students regularly in advising is that bright people can do a lot of things but that doesn’t mean they should do anything they can. Rather, what they should do is what they are called to do. Most of my life, I have seen my vocation as calling both individual people and social institutions to their highest potentials. By definition that almost always involves critiquing the status quo, locating the places where it falls short of that potential and advocating for change.

I score nearly off the charts as an INtuitive when I take the MBTI. I have nearly no Sensate in my profile. The iNtuitive information gathering function tends to look at the big picture, focusing on possibilities rather than the immediate data in front of the viewer upon which Sensates are focused. Sensates often accuse iNtuitives of being too idealistic, pie in the sky, where iNtuitives regularly recognize that Sensates tend to get stuck in the immediate and too readily are satisfied with the way things are, no matter how mediocre or impoverished.

I sometimes use the example of the big balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade to illustrate this. The iNtuitive is the Mighty Mouse balloon, looming over the street, seeing in all directions, ready to fly off into the power lines. The Sensate is the corps of rope holders, down on the ground, holding the balloon close. Without the balloon above them, the Sensate tends to get focused on his feet and the street beneath them, never noticing there is a larger world around them full of ideas and possibilities. Without the rope holders below them, the iNtuitive forgets there is a ground down there, with actual people and things to consider how their ideas and possibilities might impact them.

In an ideal world, big picture iNtuitives would work with immediate picture Sensates to insure a balanced, healthy world. Some cultures come closer to this ideal than others. America is not one of them. Estimates suggest the American populace is about 3 to 1 Sensate dominant. Bearing in mind that the Sensate tendency is toward maintenance of the status quo (because Sensates often can’t - or won’t - see any other possibilities), this gravitates toward an overall conservative and individualistic bent in attitudes that is readily observable when American politics are compared to any number of other first world countries.

It is precisely this lopsidedly conservative context that iNtuitives like myself come up against when we offer our visions of the world. The writer whose wisdom was preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures’ book of Proverbs rightly recognized that “Without a vision the people perish.” Of course, the vision is just the starting place and without Sensates to make it happen, visions alone remain largely useless.

A Champion’s Critique

My complete MBTI type is ENFP, Extraverted iNtuitive Feeling and Perceiving, a type called the Champion. This type composes about 3-4% of the total population in America. At the site for MBTI types, Champions are described in part as follows:  

They see life as an exciting drama, pregnant with possibilities for both good and evil…Champions often speak (or write) in the hope of revealing some truth about human experience, or of motivating others with their powerful convictions. Their strong drive to speak out on issues and events, along with their boundless enthusiasm and natural talent with language, makes them the most vivacious and inspiring of all the types…Champions are positive, exuberant people, and often their confidence in the goodness of life and of human nature makes good things happen.

My working life has largely reflected this Champion character, sometimes in the traditional sense of that word. My early public school teaching was largely with special education middle schoolers of whom I was fiercely protective and strongly encouraging to become all they could be. My clients as an attorney were mentally ill adults and juveniles in trouble with the law, many coming out of home lives that can only be described as hellish. And my heart has always gone out to my working class state college students, many of them first in their family to attend college, and those who find themselves outsiders at a university which largely reflects the hypercompetive, status conscious upper middle class that dominates it.

It should not be a surprise that an Idealist (as all iNtuitive Feeling types are categorized) would find him or herself serving as critic. Being able to see the big picture is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, one feels compelled to offer their vision of how one’s highest potential can be realized even as one recognizes that this is but one possible vision. On the other hand, when an inveterate preference for the status quo prevents that vision from even being considered, it can be enormously frustrating for the one articulating that vision.

This is the juncture at which the ideal becomes the critical. By definition, any challenge to the status quo to live into a larger possibility will be seen as criticism if not an attack. The reality is, most of us resist the urge to grow and develop because we intuitively recognize that it will involve the requirement to exert energy, endure pain and delay gratification. In The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist/theologian M. Scott Peck describes the resulting resistance to the possibility of growing and becoming all one can be humanity’s original sin. In all honesty, this is the only definition of that concept that has ever made any sense to me.

There is a reason that prophets get stoned (and, no, this is not a plug for Florida’s Medical Marijuana ballot proposition though I do plan to vote in favor of it). While prophets have largely been reduced to caricatures by evangelicals who construct apocalyptic visions out of ancient societal-critical writings, the reduction of the prophet to a fortune teller serving the agendas of 21st CE American religious conservatives is both disingenuous and loses sight of the purpose of the historical prophets in question.

The Hebrew prophets were very much focused on their own place and time: G-d calls us to be this kind of people but we have become a very different kind of culture, unjust, materialistic, self-serving, exploitative. We have fallen short of our calling  and G-d is not happy about this. If we do not change, disaster will ensue. And, time after time, that is exactly what happens in the Hebrew Scripture even though some of the prophets (most notably Isaiah and Ezekiel) ameliorate their condemnatory pronouncements with prophecies of restoration of a punished and thus penitent people. 

Deeply Held Values

It should be no surprise that in my own life, it is the aspects of the world which I value most that are the targets of my criticisms. I am a fourth generation teacher. Education is a critical aspect of a healthy democratic society which from my perspective should live into its highest potential for the benefit of everyone involved. It should not be surprising that when shallow business values and oppressive technocratic processes come to dominate all levels of education, true lovers of education will cry out. When cynically named programs like No Child Left Behind actually leave behind up to a third of our children, critics like myself will find our voices to expose that myopic, impoverished vision and its mediocrity of practice for what it is.

I am also a lawyer by training and experience. I believe in the ideals of American democracy. The positivist vision of legality which dominates our legal system results in a preference for a mere legality which tends to serve the interests of the powerful who make the law. What gets lost in that process is any remotely comprehensive, contextual understanding of justice. And the might makes right politics currently practiced in America in which the economically powerful are able to dominate the system to the exclusion of and at the expense of the majority of our citizens is a betrayal of our ideals as a people. Such realities demand that true patriots speak out against them.

I am a Franciscan who grew up in the woods amidst bobcats, owls, deer, panthers and the occasional bear along with the beef cattle we raised on our farm. I am a fifth generation Floridian and have seen our state change drastically in my lifetime. I sometimes viscerally feel the scars inflicted on our Mother Earth by a mindless practice cynically described as development that more resembles the metastasis of cancer than any kind of healthy growth. And I fear the long range impacts of human animals on this planet as summers grow longer and hotter and sea levels rise. The good Creation deserves at least a whimper of protest before it is destroyed. 

In Jesus Christ Superstar, a singing Jesus enters Jerusalem amidst an uproar, an event we Christians now call Palm Sunday. He is admonished by the Temple guard to “Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot.” Jesus responds, “If ev'ry tongue was still the noise would still continue, the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.” For the Idealist Champion who sees a bigger picture of the world and sometimes assumes the prophetic role of pointing toward the destructiveness of failure to heed that vision, it is impossible to be silent.

From Preachin’ to Meddlin’

And that’s where the trouble begins. As the common joke in clerical circles goes, the parishioner leaving the service after a social justice sermon remarked, “Pastor, now you done gone from preachin’ to meddlin’.”

Of course, there are a lot of ways for the beneficiaries of the status quo to avoid that criticism. The most common is to simply shoot the messenger, dismissing them as “gloomy” as one of my colleagues periodically calls me or simply assessing the critic as a negative person, hopelessly pessimistic and cynical. It’s a lot easier to ignore critique when one can locate all the problems in the person of the critic.

There are harsher ways of dealing with critics than mere dismissal as naysayers. One can lose their job for refusing to go along with the status quo and challenging its beneficiaries. One can be marginalized in one’s social milieu, demonized as a threat to decent society. And, upon occasion, one can lose their life for being unwilling to eschew their callings as social critics. Ask Socrates, Gandhi and MLK, Jr.

What’s ironic about the assessment of the critic as negative, pessimistic and cynical is that most Idealist critics are actually quite the opposite. It’s precisely their sanguine, optimistic vision of human beings and human societies and their ability to live into their highest potentials that prompt their critique. Sociologist Todd Gitlin once remarked in the film The Dissenter and the Warrior that it was precisely when the 1960s Berkeley student leaders recognized that things could be different from the repressive reality of the early 1960s that they then felt obligated to do something to make that change happen.

For Idealist critics, there is also a more immediate liability. Idealists have an extraverted iNtuitive function which prompts externalizing their idealistic big picture of the world. This often plays out in the form of criticism. But they also have an introverted Feeling function which desires harmony with others. The Feeler wants to be liked, respected, appreciated. The result is an inevitable internal struggle: I feel compelled to articulate the vision I see even as I don’t want to upset people in the process.

I sometimes relate to the lamentations of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. He sees the big picture, feels compelled to articulate his vision, he knows no one wants to hear it and that they will dismiss, demean and even demonize him as a result. Out of his frustration over an untenable reality he exclaims, “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!... Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?”

And yet, Jeremiah accurately foresaw the impending destruction of Jerusalem. Being blessed with vision is a mixed blessing on a good day.

The Critic’s Consolation

I offer my critiques in this blog because it is the only place that I can truly speak my mind without interruption and fully explain myself. Even then, I often do not publish things I write for fear they may push the envelope a little too far. I do not anticipate that my commentary will always meet with agreement. Indeed, as an Idealist, I generally anticipate that I will meet resistance and dismissal. I am a reluctant critic on a good day. But I am not gloomy, negative or particularly pessimistic and my critique of institutional structures and practices cannot be summarily dismissed by a facile explanation rooted in authority issues.

I am critical because I care deeply about the world in which I live and the aspects of society to which I have devoted my life. And I do so at no small cost to my person. I am willing to be convinced that I am wrong. I am certainly open to new ideas. And I am willing to accept that on occasion my critique can arise out of my own tentativeness about power, an understanding that has been forged out of a lifetime of being pounded for offering uninvited critique.

But I am not reducible to a Gloomy Gus, a Negative Nellie or a cynical naysayer. The content of my criticisms cannot be so easily dismissed by people of good conscience. And those who would dismiss me as somehow mean-spirited or just bitter simply don’t know me.

In the end, I expect no more from others than I demand from myself. I call myself and those whose lives I touch to their highest potential. While the call to enter into what we in seminary were prone to call an AFGE (Another F****g Growth Experience) is rarely welcomed with open arms, being the agent of that calling remains a major part of who I have always experienced myself to be. And if my reading of world history and today’s society is correct, while the world has rarely appreciated its critics, it has always badly needed them. Indeed, that may be the only consolation critics like myself can truly enjoy.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++