Wednesday, December 31, 2003
December continued our upward trend here at Philocrites, with 3,354 unique visitors to the site, according to my hosting service. (1,411 visited the front page, according to AddFreeStats.) A growing number of readers are accessing individual posts not through the front page but through a variety of aggregators that use the site's syndication feature. I keep up with several other sites using Bloglines — it's easy to subscribe to Philocrites. Thanks to each of you! Happy new year!
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Philocrites is the personal Web site and online persona of Chris Walton.
I am editor of UU World, the quarterly magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and uuworld.org, the Association's weekly online magazine, where I write regularly about the Unitarian Universalist movement. Before I joined the magazine staff, I was developmental editor of the UUA's WorshipWeb site.
Please note: The views expressed on this site are never intended to represent and do not necessarily reflect the views of UU World magazine, the Unitarian Universalist Association, its officers, board, employees, member congregations, General Assembly, ministers, or anyone else. On this site, I speak only for myself.
I received a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2000. As a Divinity School student, I developed resource guides to Unitarian and Universalist reference works and statistical resources for religious studies, which are available from the Andover-Harvard Theological Library Web site.
My theological essays examine aspects of Unitarian Universalist theology and practice; most were written while I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. My hymns began as an exploration of the American Unitarian tradition of hymnody, which includes writers like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Samuel Johnson, Frederick Lucian Hosmer, and Marion Franklin Ham. These writers expressed liberal themes using biblical language in forceful and eloquent lyrics. My hymns are experiments in their tradition, and were written as part of my senior thesis at Harvard Divinity School. Some of my hymns have been sung in United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist congregations.
I graduated from the University of Utah in 1994 with an Honors B.A. in English literature. My senior thesis looks at Emersonian themes in anthropologist Loren Eiseley's book The Unexpected Universe. As an undergraduate I also studied classical Greek and ancient and modern philosophy, especially the work of Alfred North Whitehead.
Since 1996 I have preached to a number of congregations in Massachusetts, including the First Parish in Concord, the First Parish in Framingham, the Second Parish in Hingham, the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Middleborough, the Eliot Church of South Natick, the Society of King's Chapel in Boston, and the First Congregational Society in Jamaica Plain, as well as the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Concord. I have also preached at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association and at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City.
When people want to pigeonhole me theologically or ideologically, I always squirm — but I can sympathize with their interest in knowing where I'm coming from. To make things simple, I sometimes say that my religion is Christianity; my theology is liberal; and my denominational affiliation is Unitarian Universalist.
To add an autobiographical complexity: I was raised in a devout Mormon family in Utah but experienced a "deconversion" of sorts in 1989 when I was an Ezra Taft Benson Scholar at Brigham Young University. No, it's not a story I've ever found an adequate way to tell; suffice it to say that I'm a post-Mormon liberal Christian Unitarian Universalist — and if that leaves you with questions, that's makes two of us!
What does 'Philocrites' mean?
"Philocrites" is a Greek word, cobbled together from philo, "love," and krites, "judgment." (Years ago, unable to think of an English word to use as a Yahoo name that someone else hadn't already picked, I finally discovered a use for my minor in Classical Greek!) I pronounce it fi-LAH-kra-tees, but you can call me Chris.
[Last updated 8.23.07]
Posted by Philocrites, December 30, 2003, at 08:00 PM
Monday, December 29, 2003
Matthew Gatheringwater condemns the talk of building a Unitarian Universalist growth campaign on marketing efforts targeted to "cultural creatives" (otherwise known as Utne readers). There's some devastating further commentary at Paula's House of Toast about the cultural creatives Web site.
I recently attended a day-long session on Unitarian Universalist growth strategies — more on this in the next week — and my impression is that a marketing-based approach simply won't work. Plus, it's much more expensive than the methods that already do work. Peter Morales studied Unitarian Universalist growth patterns over the last ten years, congregation by congregation, and his findings suggested a few important conclusions:
- The rate of growth of the UUA's adult membership is one new member per congregation per year. One way to look at this is that we could double our rate of growth simply by doing a better job of welcoming one additional visitor in each church. We don't have to go out looking for these people — every church has visitors. We just have to be more welcoming when they show up. Morales put it more directly: If we could simply stop repelling visitors, we'd double or triple our rate of growth. But that's not the suprising conclusion.
- Almost all the membership growth in UUA congregations over the last ten years has been concentrated in a fraction of congregations. Sixteen congregations account for 24% of the UUA's growth. (These 16 churches grew by 200 or more members over the last decade.) Forty-six other churches added between 100 and 199 members each, and are responsible for 40% of the UUA's growth. In other words, 62 churches account for 64% of the UUA's growth over the last decade. The remaining 950 or so congregations accounted for only 36% of the Association's membership growth.
In a followup post, I'll list the fastest growing churches. I suspect that these congregations did not grow by self-consciously pursuing Whole Foods shoppers and ecotourists, but by being excellent and welcoming churches.
Sunday, December 28, 2003
I'm currently reading William R. Hutchison's extremely rewarding new book, Religious pluralism in America: The contentious history of a founding ideal. (Hutchison was one of my professors at Harvard Divinity School.) I'll have a lot to say about the book over the next few weeks, but today Mrs Philocrites and I experienced a bit of American religious pluralism by attending her grandmother's Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic church in New Jersey. Wow.
Post-Mormon liberal Protestant that I am — another topic we can come back to sometime — I've had very little exposure to the Roman Catholic mass (only twice, actually), but I have attended a lot of Episcopal church services ("high" and "low") and two Greek Orthodox services. Byzantine-rite Catholicism certainly reminded me of the Orthodox liturgy and hardly resembled the masses I've attended at all. Mrs Philocrites' grandmother grew up in this congregation of Ukrainian immigrants, and raised her children there (although all five have since gravitated to Methodism, Quakerism, Roman Catholicism, or what we might call Lord-of-the-Ringsism). Her grandfather helped make the original church's onion dome; the congregation now occupies a spectacular modern church decorated by the most amazing icons and a gilded chancel screen ("iconostasis") of wheat and grape motifs. The icons in the sanctuary were surely the most beautiful I've ever seen, and I couldn't help but think how odd it is to encounter art like this in a museum rather than in a worship service — the experience is so different. (We went to the Met yesterday to see the El Greco exhibit; how utterly amazing that art would be if it could somehow be transported into a church!)
The service was conducted primarily in Church Slavonic, and everything is chanted by the priest, the cantor and choir, and congregation. (This high degree of congregational participation was especially interesting to me, since that was one of the goals of Luther and Calvin and the other Protestant reformers.) Although verses of "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" were interspersed with the chants that opened the service and sung — in Church Slavonic — as a kind of recessional hymn, there were no "hymns" as Protestants would think of them. There were also no instruments.
The bread is placed in the communion wine, and then taken from the chalice and placed in the communicants' mouths with a spoon. (There's a helpful description of the rite at the Catholic Information Network site.) Unconsecrated bread is kept near the door for everyone to take as they leave; it was quite yummy.
Mrs Philocrites was amused by how clearly I stood out, with my English-Swedish face and bright red hair. We were both delighted by the name for the parish's new youth group: ByzanTeens.
Alan Wolfe describes the divide-and-conquer strategy that the Republicans have perfected and that Howard Dean would be sorely tempted to try:
If a Republican candidate can put together victories in the states of the South and far West, where Republican tax cuts and appeals to patriotism resonate, all he needs is Maine and New Hampshire to win an electoral college majority. A Republican who achieved 270 electoral votes in such a fashion could become president without receiving a single vote from California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. This is a regional strategy exactly like the one that made Abraham Lincoln president, only in reverse: It's accomplished by winning all the states he lost and vice-versa.
Meanwhile, the party that once stood in opposition to the Great Emancipator could win the presidency by carrying all the states that produced his victory. Winning the 15 populous states that a Republican can afford to lose, along with liberal-leaning Vermont, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, would give a Democrat 265 electoral votes, requiring only one swing state - New Mexico would do it - to get elected. (This strategy involves winning only 19 of the 51 jurisdictions that cast electoral voters, but those 19 contain 53 percent of the US population.) A Democrat, in short, could win by writing off the South and West just as a Republican can ignore the North and upper Midwest.
He also explains why this strategy has worked better for Republicans than it would for Democrats. ("The two-nation trap," Alan Wolfe, Boston Globe 12.28.03)
Friday, December 26, 2003
Will Shetterly helps answer a question I've had since I was a young Tolkien fan, busy concocting my own universe with its own economies, languages, myths, and cultures. (I made it to chapter six as a fourteen-year-old novelist — the real fun for me was making up the maps and alphabets and lineages and names — but then I got bored of fantasy and became fascinated by politics. Will remains fascinated by both!) I wanted to know where the seven-day week came from (Genesis providing a less-than-satisfactory answer). I thought a five-day week made more sense, and made up a calendar accordingly. But Will has been exploring the Sumerian origins of our seven-day system. On Tuesday, Will explained the origins of the day named for martial gods, and brought together the mythical and the political:
What, this isn't Marzizday? It's Tuesday? That's because the names were translated again when the Roman week came to England. Mars, who had replaced the Babylonian god Nergal, was in turn replaced by the Saxon god Tiu, the lawgiver, because Nergal, Mars and Tiu were all known as gods of battle—but calling them "gods of battle" is a gross simplification. I like to think of them as gods that represent the need to struggle for what's right.
So do something for goodness's sake!
"We're trying to avoid traditions because we don't want it to be dogmatic," Joe Fox told Beliefnet about the second-annual "HumanLight" festival he helped create. HumanLight (not to be confused with Festivus) is celebrated by a handful of Humanist groups on or about December 23. (Hey! That's Festivus!) Questions: Is it a tradition after three years? Doesn't watching Cosmos each year count as a ritual? I wish I could have seen the "comedy skits and other forms of levity"; I wonder if they're anything like a Scientology pageant.
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Two reminders of the paradoxical relationship of Jesus to the church: Sometimes you have to leave the church to figure out what Jesus means to you — which is what Soulful Blogger Joe Perez has found — and sometimes you find the church long before you figure out what Jesus has to do with it — which is what Erik Walker Wikstrom discovered and has written about in his new book, Teacher, Guide, Companion, and in his UU World cover story, "Jesus and the Modern Seeker".
And sometimes, you live the paradox of just not getting what everyone else is going on about. One Christmas Eve, back when I was a college student who had given up the church of my childhood, I read the Gospel of Mark — the shortest and earliest gospel — thinking to myself, If there's something to this story, some revelation that I need, this is the perfect night to find it. And I read the book straight through and felt nothing. I was disappointed — and relieved. That experience grounds my respect for honest agnosticism, religious doubt, and humanism, because for several years I could only honestly say that I was interested in religion but unable to comprehend it. I was on my own.
Since then, I suppose I've stumbled onto two insights. The first is a twist on the ubiquitous bumper sticker, "Jesus is the Answer." As a liberal Christian and as a Unitarian, I have to say that Jesus is the Question — the provocation that keeps the church on edge, the personality that won't stay put in the roles we've developed for him, the story that won't quit. I find that Christianity poses questions to me that can only be answered in my life — not in doctrines and rules, but in an attitude of vulnerability to the story and to the relationships it models, especially in Jesus' parables and ministry. I don't think Jesus particularly cared what his followers thought; he cared how they regarded each other. So it makes sense to me that Jesus is often not in the church at all, and sometimes pops up in heresies and strange places and among people I wouldn't always feel comfortable visiting. So, first, Jesus is the question.
And the second insight I suppose I've found is that discipleship might be better understood as apprenticeship. Jesus didn't make an argument for the truth of what he was saying; he said, Come here; do this. A friend of mine who was a Buddhist monk for a year in Thailand told me that the monks are right: meditation works. If you do what they tell you, if you sit still for hour after hour and day after day, you will experience the Four Noble Truths; you will learn to let go of your desires, or they'll drive you crazy. When Jesus says, "By their fruits you shall know them," I think he's getting at something similar: He is inviting people to try living in what he called "the kingdom of God," right now.
I went to seminary unsure what to think of Jesus, and sometime early in my first year it dawned on me how unsure his own disciples had been. (In Mark's gospel, they never do figure it out.) Jesus didn't emphasize doctrine. He emphasized receptiveness, neighborliness, healing — ways of regarding other people as responses to God's love. But we have this completely unrealistic, profoundly dangerous notion that certainty is a characteristic of faith. We often think that having the answers is what it means to be faithful. The Christian story (which is really the many Christian stories of the people who have apprenticed themselves to Jesus) is about practice, not perfect. And this opened a door for me: I recognized that I wanted to be an apprentice, that I wanted to live in the Christian story, in spite of the fact that I don't "believe" many of the doctrines or recognize the authority of the church to speak on God's behalf.
So this Christmas, I think about the paradox of being a Doubting Thomas in a post-Christian church. I think about wanting to be a disciple, about knowing I make a terrible apprentice, about the story that provokes and unsettles and (strangely) affirms me. ("Don't be afraid," said the angel to the terrified shepherds.) Sometimes I like to believe that Jesus led me out of a church that believed too much about him into a wilderness where I didn't know where to find him, and then into a church that hesitates to talk about him so that I could see him, finally, as a question that I can only answer in the way I live my life.
Monday, December 22, 2003
Will Shetterly writes that the name "Unitarian Universalism" "is great for people who love history, but for the general public, it's too long, too obscure, too easily confused with latecomers like Unity, and too far at the back of the alphabet." He proposes some alternatives, like "The Church of Choice." I'm not fired up about it, but the process of thinking through alternatives is helpful.
The Liberal Churches of America, Frederick May Eliot's preference some 60 years ago, seemed like a promising alternative to me — and the name might force us to be more clear about what we mean by "liberal." Which just happens to be the subject of the review essay I wrote for the January/February 2004 issue of UU World, in your mailboxes this week and online by Christmas (knock on wood). Or how about "The Churches of the Free Spirit," for which the joint Unitarian-Universalist collection Hymns of the Spirit (1937) was prepared?
If you were to pick another name, which would you choose? And what would you be giving up with a change? And please note: This is strictly a thought experiment here, not a clarion call to change the Association's name.
Update: In the comments below, Will Shetterly clarifies that he's brainstorming for his congregation's new name, not advocating a new name for the UUA. (I jump back from my hasty conclusion . . .)
Sunday, December 21, 2003
From the Internet Prayer files: Progressive Protestant has written a collect for bloggers and invites you to try writing one yourself. (I think this line should certainly be included: "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts" — but that would make it a prayer of confession, wouldn't it?)
This just in:
The Unitarian Universalist Association is producing a new supplement to its current hymnal, "Singing The Living Tradition" . . .
In the fall of 2003, UUA President Bill Sinkford appointed a task force of six UUMN members to create a new congregational hymn resource. This task force is currently seeking submissions for our new resource. The following elements have been identified by the Task Force as the general needs for the supplement: Fresh hymns, chants or songs that enliven worship; music for marking the seasons in the lives of our congregations.
This general description includes many types of music in genres including but not limited to: jazz, folk, pop, spirituals, gospel, praise songs, call-and-response, chants, rounds and traditional hymns. Topics should be UU-appropriate, and can be representative of one of the many areas of our devotional life. The task force is especially interested in materials highlighting the spirituality of the BGLT community, earth-centered and non-Western theologies, both male and female spirituality, and the music of cultures traditionally under-represented in our communities. Also of interest is music for liturgical celebrations such as Water and Flower Communion services, Weddings, Funerals, Ordinations, RE [religious education] events, Youth services, and the annual Canvass.
I'll be revising a few of my hymns for this project. If you or someone you know has a gift for congregational song, I hope you'll participate, too. Weirdly, this project was announced on December 19, and the deadline for submissions is February 2, so there's no time to delay.
Caryn James says The Lord of the Rings is a guy thing. "[W]hat the chick flick is to men, this trilogy is to women," she writes in the Times. But Rebecca Onion (who works at ym) says otherwise — and reports that teenage girls are drawn to the novels and the films as "an outlet for their repressed idealism."
I'm in no position to adjudicate this dispute. I found it amazing, however, that one of the Boston Globe's movie critics hadn't seen the first two films at all — and then proceeded to sit through the 13-hour marathon last week to catch up. And Wesley Morris may have caught something Caryn James missed:
As Frodo the Hobbit, Elijah Wood has a big neck, bigger eyes, and a soft little voice. He's so soothing and comforting that he should have his own line of mood-mellowing teas and candles.
Maybe Frodo can bring us all together . . .
Saturday, December 20, 2003
Frank Rich on the Web's sudden relevance to American presidential politics:
The condescending reaction to the Dean insurgency by television's political correspondents can be reminiscent of that hilarious party scene in the movie "Singin' in the Rain," where Hollywood's silent-era elite greets the advent of talkies with dismissive bafflement. "The Internet has yet to mature as a political tool," intoned Carl Cameron of Fox News last summer as he reported that the runner-up group to Dean supporters on the meetup.com site was witches. "If you want to be a Deaniac," ABC News's Claire Shipman said this fall, "you've got to know the lingo," as she dutifully gave her viewers an uninformed definition of "blogging."
But there's also this:
For all sorts of real-world reasons, stretching from Baghdad to Wall Street, Mr. Bush could squish Dr. Dean like a bug next November. But just as anything can happen in politics, anything can happen on the Internet. The music industry thought tough talk, hard-knuckle litigation and lobbying Congress could stop the forces unleashed by Shawn Fanning, the teenager behind Napster.
Wouldn't it be nice to find a candidate whose campaign had caught the same technological wave, but who could really go toe-to-toe with the President? Frank Rich, when you find out about Wesley Clark, you can say I recruited you.
("Napster runs for president in '04," Frank Rich, New York Times 12.21.03, reg req'd)
You can say that he's a dreamer:
"I am running for president of the United States to enable the goddess of peace to encircle within her arms all the children of this country and all the children of the world."
Friends, a simple rule: If a candidate sounds like an earthy-crunchy UUA General Assembly worship service, run away. Believing, as Dennis Kucinich says about himself, that he is "mainstream" doesn't make it so. Poor guy.
("The optimist," Marshall Sella, New York Times Magazine 12.21.03, reg req'd)
There's too much crammed into Edward Rothstein's column in the New York Times this week — he jumps into the vast ocean of the "reason vs. faith" debate, commenting on everything from the anti-religious "brights" movement heralded by Dawkins and Dennett to Alan Wolfe's new book, The transformation of American religion — but the last five paragraphs are worth pondering. One is about Isaiah Berlin, my favorite philosopher, but the other four address the dangers of thinking of reason as all-sufficient:
Reason then, has its limits. The philosopher Robert Fogelin's new book, "Walking the Tightrope of Reason" (Oxford, $22) is subtitled "The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal" because, he argues, reason's own processes negotiate a precipice. Mr. Fogelin quotes Kant, who described a dove who "cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space."
Failing to understand what keeps her aloft and taking a leap of faith, the dove might set off in "empty space" — a vacuum — and plummet. But reason might lead to the same end: if something offers resistance then logically can't one proceed more easily if it is eliminated? So why not try?
The problem is that the bird can never fully comprehend the medium through which it experiences the world. In many ways, Kant argued, neither could the mind. Reason is still the only tool available for certain knowledge, but it also presents questions it is unable to answer fully.
Some of those questions may remain even after contemporary battles cease: how much faith is involved in the workings of reason and how much reason lies in the assertions of faith?
Good questions! Religious liberals sometimes treat history, cultural tradition, and even biology as the resistant atmosphere that we would do well to transcend altogether; we sometimes think that our principles are all we need, that we would fly more swiftly if we could just shed all that old stuff. Reason in a vacuum, though, won't take us anywhere. Happily, as I wrote in an essay about William Ellery Channing, resistance is good for us.
("Reason and faith, eternally bound," Edward Rothstein, New York Times 12.20.03, reg req'd)
Friday, December 19, 2003
Chutney (My Irony) asks: What is practical theology? Heather Janules (The Chrysalis) asks: What is worship? And Stentor Danielson (Debitage) asks: Do secular arguments against gay marriage make any sense?
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
"God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other."
Sound mighty familiar? William Lee Miller writes about the famous "serenity prayer" and its author, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. ("Beyond serenity," Boston Globe 12.14.03)
Howard Thurman's story.
I found a fascinating biography of the African American liberal minister, mystic, and pacifist Howard Thurman today. I haven't finished reading it, but thought you might be interested, too.
Lauryn Hill, prophet?
At a Vatican City concert attended by cardinals and other church officials, singer Lauryn Hill was either bold enough or unhinged enough to say what a lot of us have been thinking:
"God has been a witness to the corruption of his [?] leadership, of the exploitation and abuses . . . by the clergy," she said.
Discourteous? Yup. True? You bet.
Monday, December 15, 2003
The Nader 2004 Presidential Exploratory Committee wants to hear from you. Just say no.
Shava Nerad, whose credentials as a left-liberal progressive (and Dean activist) are beyond dispute, lays into Ralph Nader and his political followers. It's a long and rambling post, originally an impassioned e-mail message, but in places it's white-hot. (Key excerpts below.) She's indignant that Greens intentionally manipulated "a profoundly politically naive constituency" — the young people especially who haven't grasped how compromises and coalitions are fundamental to democratic llfe. Instead, they convinced several million people that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats, something George W. Bush has proved marvelously false.
[I]f one percent of the green votes in Florida had gone to Gore, it's just clear that Gore would have won the election. The numbers just don't lie. They did everything they could in Florida to ensure a Bush victory, and barely squeaked by on the basis of 550 votes. Now to give you an idea of how many people that is, that's the average attendance of two Episcopal church services in SW Florida . . .
We wouldn't be in Iraq today, I swear to Goddess, if there were a Democrat in the White House. Maybe not even if Gore had been shot, because Lieberman would have understood the potential mire of reconstruction . . .
I believe that the Greens (and specifically Nader, or his strategists) made it the *heart* of their campaign to drive a wedge between Democrats and independent progressive voters. They made it a perfect accepted truth, common wisdom, and FASHION to believe that there is no difference — zip — between the dems and the republicans . . .
Greens and progressives and various whiny independent liberals don't vote, traditionally. They tend to be more postmodernly cynical about the system. They tend to be younger, hipper, and too cool to play the games the system requires. Or too damned ignorant. And I genuinely believe that those nonvoters were the majority of the green votes in most states.
Sunday, December 14, 2003
If you have a blog that discusses public life and Unitarian Universalism, I try to keep track of 'em. Drop me a line!
"...there lived a tyrant." (I went to a matinee showing of The Two Towers early today, and hadn't yet heard the news about Saddam Hussein's capture until I had emerged from the theater humming the soundtrack and thinking of Frodo and Sam.) This is wonderful news.
"This is the greatest day in Iraq," one celebrating Iraqi told a Times reporter. There's a great round-up of observations from BBC reporters around the world and official government reactions. And here in Massachusetts?
The first thing [Kathleen] Coen heard when she woke up Sunday was her husband saying, "Good news!"
But as a citizen of Red Sox nation, which has been fixated recently on the possibility that shortstop Nomar Garciaparra will leave the team, Coen jumped to a different conclusion when she heard those words.
"I thought, 'Oh, so they signed Garciaparra?'" Coen said.
One thing at a time, one thing at a time.
Saturday, December 13, 2003
Since I have been swamped by seasonal activities that have brought my writing to a screeching halt here at Philocrites, and since I may not be able to carve out much writing time over the next week, either, I have a game to propose: Pretend you're me; put words in my mouth; use the comments to this post to say what you think I might say (or should say) about any old thing. Prizes to anyone who most amusingly imitates my idiosyncracies. It's time to parody the host! Have fun. I'm looking forward to typing away merrily over the holidays, but activity here may be scarce until then. So I'm turning it over to you.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
Highlights from the Globe's coverage of last night's Democratic debate:
[F]rustrating as the forum was, presidential politics is about making the most of the moment. The candidate who came closest to that last night was General Wesley Clark. When he began his campaign, Clark was a decidedly uncertain trumpet, but in several answers last night he spoke with both conviction and seeming expertise about the United States and its role in the world.
Asked if foreign policy questions were truly paramount in an election when many voters say they are concerned about the economy, health care, and the like, Clark made an important (if self-serving) political point that his fellow Democrats shouldn't lose sight of: "We have to be the party that can stand toe to toe with George W. Bush on national security as well as the party of compassion."
Too often these debates devolve into a contest to see who can denounce the Republican incumbent in the strongest terms, a tedious exercise that emits a good deal more heat than light. It was refreshing to hear Clark say he wanted to put emotions aside and discuss, in a little detail, his plan to reshape the American presence in Iraq.
Clark maintained that the UN is not able to take over the Iraqi mission and that "nobody can provide security for the Iraqis as they develop their own internal defenses except for a force under US leadership." That, Clark said, means creating an international organization to administer Iraq, with the US troops reporting through NATO and working toward a clearly defined goal: a unified Iraq, with some sort of representative government, a country strong enough to repel Al Qaeda but not so strong as to threaten its neighbors.
Al Gore's endorsement was the highlight of Howard Dean's day. From there, it was all downhill . . .
He rambled when asked whether he agreed with Senator Hillary Clinton's view that the United States must keep troops in Iraq for an extended period of time and finally said yes.
Curiously, Dean complained that too much time was allocated to discussing Iraq and not enough to the economy. His antiwar stance made his candidacy. Why not talk about it, unless the former Vermont governor fears the discussion will reveal gaps in knowledge and experience?
Finally, Wesley Clark is the most improved candidate on the stage. Watch out, Dr. Dean. An endorsement from a former vice president is no substitute for a former general who knows how to plan and articulate an Iraq exit strategy.
I particularly appreciated the following letter to the editor in Sunday's Boston Globe (which I am catching up on now, since my paper never did make it to my porch). It highlights one of the trickier problems in Howard Dean's candidacy: how to be honest about Dean's "real" view of Iraq without pissing off the strident base that has fueled his campaign.
Let's put the political debate on the right footing
Let's put the blame where it belongs: Our failure to win the peace in Iraq lies squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush. The chaos that followed our destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime was not foreseen by the Bush administration, and there was no plan to handle it. This is an unforgivable combination of arrogance and incompetence in a president. We must get him out of office.
Unfortunately, the public debates among the Democratic presidential contenders in the 2004 election have been reduced to finger-pointing about the war on Iraq, most of it coming from Howard Dean. He calls those who voted for George W. Bush's war resolution as writing the president a blank check, and therefore being untrustworthy critics of the war.
This is not well-reasoned criticism since Bush could have unilaterally waged war against Iraq without a resolution from the Senate, as President Clinton did in Kosovo and Haiti. What's more, those voting for the resolution were not signing Bush a blank check. He had promised that he was going to the United Nations to force Saddam Hussein to abide by UN inspections.
The senators who voted yes were convinced that the only way Bush could show the United Nations that the United States was serious about destroying Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was to give him the unilateral use of force.
Bush betrayed their trust by dealing arrogantly with the UN, by giving ultimatums, rushing to war and, of course, as was revealed later, by misusing his own intelligence sources on the weapons of mass destruction.
But most seriously for the Democrats, this finger-pointing drives a wedge among those who want Bush out of office, and distracts us from our most important job as voters to find the best qualified candidate for president.
How each of the contenders voted, or would have voted, on the Iraq war resolution is not the right test for finding the best candidate.
The right test is the candidate's record on the issues, their life experience, personal character, and their expertise in national and international affairs. We need a world statesman to clean up Bush's mess.
Howard Dean keeps hammering away at the Iraq issue because what fuels his candidacy and determines his style on the campaign trail is angry antiwar rhetoric. In fact, he has at times sounded remarkably similar to his rival, Senator John Kerry. On Feb. 20, 2003 Dean said: "If the UN in the end chooses not to enforce its own resolutions, then the US should give Saddam 30 to 60 days to disarm, and if he doesn't, unilateral action is a regrettable, but unavoidable, choice."
Come on Democrats, put the debate back on the right footing. We need a broader debate and vision before we can find the candidate with the political experience and character to bring our country together again and restore us as members of a world community.
In my view, Wesley Clark is the "world statesman" in this race who could "clean up Bush's mess."
Paula says it's time "to unstuff":
Juggernaut’s a perfect word for Christmas: a massive, inexorable god-bearing cart under whose wheels devotees hurl themselves, and are crushed. Instead of Krishna/Vishnu, of course, it carries Santa Claus, avatar of Jesus.
Yup, that's sometimes just how it feels. Revsparker writes:
The myth of the perfect holiday is not just a story. It's a cultural force that seems to batter the people whose lives don't quite look like the families on TV.
He reminds parishioners who feel overwhelmed by the season that "television commercials have scripts and good lighting and real life does not . . . for anyone."
I hope this is a season of merriment and renewal and joy for you, but if it isn't, I hope some of the deeper themes in the season speak to you instead. I once preached a sermon about how Christmas has come to mean expected surprises — There they are again! Those angels, those shepherds, the family at the manger, the wise men, the proclamation of good tidings of great joy! — but Advent reminds us about unexpected surprises, revelations you can't anticipate and don't always welcome. If a merry Christmas is out of the question, perhaps this is a season to consider divine interruptions instead.
Monday, December 8, 2003
Mrs Philocrites is at Boston University tonight to hear Robert Pinsky and other celebrated writers read their work — and I was at the Kennedy School of Government to hear Wesley Clark! (What a great city . . . 25 inches of snow and all!)
I didn't have a ticket for the live broadcast of Hardball, but as I was getting off the train in Harvard Square (carrying a big ol' Clark 04 sign and wearing my Clark 04 button), a great guy from City Year named Aaron caught up with me and gave me an extra ticket. So rather than standing outside with other dedicated folks for the rally on the snowbanks, I ended up inside. It was my first time seeing Clark live — he was utterly charming, seemed much more personable than I had expected (you know, all the reports about how he "doesn't blink"), and generated a lot of really positive buzz.
My favorite line in the evening actually came in the middle of an awkward bit of questioning from Chris Matthews about Clark's inexperience in politics. (Keep in mind: He was addressing an audience of government students and political junkies.) Clark was arguing that even Bill and Hillary Clinton aren't just looking out for themselves; he was trying to argue — to a roomful of students of Machiavelli, you could say — that politicians do have a more fundamental sense of patriotism and civic responsibility beyond their self-interest. Seemed a treacherous path to go down, I thought. But then he said something marvelous. He started talking about what motivates people to volunteer for campaigns, what motivates them to run for the school board and the thousands of other local offices, what motivates them to participate in public service in all its forms.
"This country runs on patriotic energy," he said. His campaign slogan — "New American Patriotism" — is rooted deeply in his personal experience, and it connects with the desire to serve the commonweal that so many of us felt so keenly after 9/11 and that our government barely acknowledged. That feeling is part of what motivates Americans of every political persuasion to get involved. It took a second to grasp that he wasn't just trying to slip out of a question about his relationship to two of the more obviously calculating political creatures of our time; he was drawing a much more important connection between his motivation for serving in the military and the motivation of millions of Americans who serve their country by investing time and energy and great care in our democratic process. "This country runs on patriotic energy." Loved it.
A lot of Democrats are buzzing that the nomination is already wrapped up. How ironic for a democratic party to talk this way before a single vote has been cast! And yet many people even in New Hampshire are just getting acquainted with the candidates. In my conversations with friends and even with strangers on the subway, it's clear that most people know only a handful of things about any of the candidates. I'm convinced that the more people know about Clark, the stronger he'll appear as a candidate.
Saturday, December 6, 2003
Today's New York Times reports on the Democrats' (absolutely crucial) attempts to attract some of the churchgoers who left the party for the Republicans over the last two decades:
In the 1980's, Protestant voters supported Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal proportions, according to surveys of voters in general elections and a recently released study of religious voters. But that pattern shifted sharply in the 1990's as white evangelical Christians and increasing numbers of white Roman Catholics shifted their political allegiances to Republicans. . . .
Highlighting the urgency of the issue for Democrats, a random survey of 1,997 registered voters released this fall by the Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of voters who attended religious services more than once a week said they planned to vote for Mr. Bush next year. That compared with 37 percent who said they preferred a Democratic candidate. The margin is narrower among the larger group of voters who attend church once a week, with 56 percent planning to vote for Mr. Bush and 44 percent planning to vote for a Democrat. ("Democrats Try to Regain Ground on Moral Issues," Rachel L. Swarns and Diane Cardwell, New York Times 12.6.03)
Dean is notably not pursuing this particular part of the electorate. (Wesley Clark is, as the article points out in the second graf.) Amy Sullivan continues to argue that Howard Dean is too tone-deaf to American religiosity — a problem that could sink the Democrat's chances once again. Consider this:
Dean just absolutely does not get religion. His campaign, to its credit, does have someone starting religious outreach, but it's a Unitarian Universalist minister. No offense to UUs, but that's not going to play well outside of New England.
Ah, well. Maybe in 2008?
Friday, December 5, 2003
A bit of theological reportage:
He's the commander in chief, not the theologian in chief. Nonetheless, President Bush stepped into a centuries-old religious controversy when he recently said of Muslims and Christians, "I believe we worship the same God."
A professor of Islamic studies says, "Yes." Conservative Evangelical Protestants say, "No." The Rev. Richard John Newhaus, a conservative Catholic and editor of First Things, says, "Yes." And the Rev. Sam Trumbore, a Unitarian Universalist, says God is like a light viewed through a prism:
"The light may come from the same source but the prism of reality breaks up that light into many colors," Trumbore said. "In Islam, there is the concept of 99 names of Allah. In Christianity, God has three forms. There is an army of pagan and Hindu gods. The mistake is to take any image, name or description as the literal, absolute truth."
("Do All Religious Paths Lead to the Same God?", Mark O'Keefe, Newhouse News Service 12.5.03)
Thursday, December 4, 2003
How do TV people stand the awful canned music, the garish visuals, the dancing sprites, the unremitting bad taste of putting on a Christmas tree-lighting special, like the one I've been subjected to for the past two days of full-volume rehearsals on Boston Common? From my office window, I can see the stage, I can watch the Irish step dancers and whirling children dressed as Christmas tree ornaments — but the music! My friends, it may be even worse than Kelly Clarkson's rendition of "O Holy Night" on NBC last night. (I am listening to a hip-hop version of the Nutcracker right now.) The "music" has taken over downtown, and can't be escaped; it's louder than the voices on the other end of the telephone, louder than my own office stereo; it's as if my windows themselves are speakers, and some annoying Broadway personality keeps enthusiastically welcoming me to Boston Common. I can't wait till the tree is lit and these annoying people return to their own circle of hell.
So please, don't watch whatever channel it is that will show this dreadful spectacle. (You might enjoy the footage in this film (North Team, Day 8), however: Right at the end, some Wesley Clark volunteers try to get some of Santa's elves in a Boston department store to endorse the general. It's really quite funny.)
You may, if you like, label this prayer, but it was from our perspective a lot closer to a conga line . . .
Thomas Cahill on the ritual start of a Greek symposium, as described in Sailing the wine-dark sea: Why the Greeks matter, and quoted at All Over the Map. (Thanks, Kenneth!)
Wednesday, December 3, 2003
Here's something to think about:
Each Sunday a child walks to the front of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Blacksburg to light the church's chalice, the official symbol of the denomination.
But that practice may be illegal under a new set of fire codes adopted by Virginia in October. In fact, the code bans many uses of candles and open flames in houses of worship.
And it's not just Unitarian Universalists, with our single candle in a dish:
While the section of the International Code Council that prohibits cut trees and other "decorative vegetation" in public buildings and apartments has received some attention recently, Section 308 of the code has been largely ignored. It bans open flames, such as candles and oil lamps, at public meetings or gatherings, including religious ceremonies.
This isn't as important as the case before the Supreme Court, of course, but I thought you'd like to know.
("Fire code may extinguish churches' holiday spirit," Roanoke Times 12.3.03)
Update 12.5.03: Matthew Gatheringwater has me wondering: Will we start turning on lightbulbs of joy and concern?
Monday, December 1, 2003
The more one watches him on the stump (and watches his admirers watching him), the more it becomes apparent that he comes out of, and is reviving, a tradition of small-town, New England civic and religious fervor that is all but forgotten in American politics today. He is something the country has not seen in a very long time. He is, essentially, a northern evangelist.
This may explain some of his enormous popularity among Unitarian Universalists:
Dean is, without a doubt, an odd vessel for the quasi-religious fervor he has inspired. He almost never mentions God in his stump speeches and he rarely goes to church himself. Nevertheless, his rhetoric — like his campaign structure — is deeply grounded in the social practices of a branch of radical Protestantism whose tenets still wield power in the structures of Vermont's government. The Pilgrims who gave America its foundational governing documents and ideas — ideas that Dean now routinely references — created a society based partly on the anti-authoritarian religious principles of Congregationalism, their religion (and, since the early '80s, Dean's).
Congregationalism, the dominant religion of colonial and early federal life, had by the 20th century become an obscure New England denomination about as relevant to modern life as covered bridges. Yet the legacy of the Congregationalists — and their Unitarian descendants — is one of the most powerful forces in the history of the American North. It was Congregationalists who landed the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Their descendants founded America's elite colleges, such as Harvard and Yale, and some of its most liberal ones, such as Oberlin and Amherst. Where the South bred agrarian populists and Baptist revivals, the North churned out Unitarian and Congregationalist ministers.
("Shock of the old," Garance Franke-Ruta. The American Prospect 11.1.03)
As Amy Sullivan notes, however, Dean's appeal to religiously religious voters — as opposed to religiously political voters — could be enhanced.
Being the renegade UU that I am, I'm heading out the door for the Wesley Clark Meetup in Somerville.