The Thoughts and Musings of Tom Allain

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it

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On This Day 150 Years Ago: A Bad Day

April 14th, 2015

My last post celebrated a good day: the day the Civil War ended. Our newly reunited nation rejoiced and nobody was more grateful than our President, Abraham Lincoln. Even before the war ended he was outlining the plan to bring back the states that wanted to secede. He articulated a process that would echo the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son.

In one of the cruelest twists in American history, a man who hated Lincoln killed him 150 years ago today. John Wilkes Booth first devised a plan to kidnap the president as a bargaining chip to force the Union to ransom him in return for Southern emancipation. When the South surrendered on April 9th, Booth’s plan lost its purpose. Booth, a frequent actor at Ford’s Theater, found out on the morning of April 14th, that President Lincoln would attend the play This American Cousin that evening. He took that opportunity to kill Lincoln instead of kidnapping him. The plan was greater than that. He devised a plan where he would kill President Lincoln. George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of State William Seward.

George Atzerodt got drunk and didn’t attempt to kill Johnson, Powell was able to wound but not kill Seward, and only Booth carried out his mission.

Booth was shot to death on April 26th. Azerodt and Payne were executed on July 7th (along with Mary Surratt and David Herold)

On This Date 150 Years Ago the Civil War Ended

April 9th, 2015

On April 9, 1865 two men met at Appomattox Court House and signed a document that silenced thousands of guns and ended possibly the worst era in our history.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) surrendered the forces of the Confederate States of America to Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and the Grand Army of the Republic.

Four years earlier the nation was torn apart when eleven states succeeded from the union in an effort to preserve states’ rights and slavery. Neither side expected the other to last long and both expected to win the war handily. The union didn’t think the confederates had the resources or commitment to fight a long war and the confederates didn’t think the union had the desire to preserve the union. They were both wrong.

By the winter of 1865 the nation was in shambles. About 620,000 soldiers died from combat, disease, or starvation. The confederates suffered the lion’s share and its troops were starving. General Lee recognized that he had no choice and asked for terms of peace. He had no idea what that would mean for him or his troops.

General Grant rose to the occasion. He told General Lee that his troops could go home (and not be prisoners). His officers could keep their sidearms. And the union troops fed the starving confederate troops. You can read more about this in an article written by Douglas Brinkley.

In fairness this was not their first meeting. They were both graduates of West Point (Lee in 1829 and Grant in 1843). They fought together in the Mexican American War from 1846 to 1848. As a matter of fact when they met at Appomattox they began to talk about that war.

Libraries have been written about this day but I have two recommendations. Bruce Catton (1899-1978) wrote several books on the Civil War and his last volume recounts the last days of the war. It’s called A Stillness At Appomattox. My next recommendation is a work of fiction that details a man who is walking home from the war. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier gripped me from page one.

Rand Paul: And Now There Are Two

April 9th, 2015

A few days ago we learned that another Republican is running for President. Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky announced his candidacy.

Many of us find this interesting as Rand is more of a Libertarian than a Republican. He is the son of long time Libertarian Ron Paul. Ron ran for President in 2008 and 2012 hoping for the Republican nomination and wasn’t nominated.

Nobody can deny Rand’s (or Ron’s) libertarian beliefs. Rand has long believed that the government does too much, spends too much, and interferes too much in the lives of ordinary people. And there is popular support for this. If you asked most Americans if the government is too powerful, many would say yes.

But this is one of those areas where popular support begins to decline as more information enters the scene. Rand denies this but he once claimed that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was just an overreach. You can read an interesting article in the Washington Post.

I’m paraphrasing this but Senator Paul indicated that while he supports the Civil Rights Act he is troubled by the idea that the government has the right to tell private companies they had to do business with someone if they don’t want to. The interviewer then asked if he thought Woolworth’s (a popular five and dime store that often contained lunch counters that refused to serve blacks in the south) should be able to refuse service to Martin Luther King. The senator responded that he would never patronize a store that discriminated and that racism is a horrible sin. He believes that any business that discriminates would not stay in business long.

I disagree. In the past few weeks we’ve seen business announce they will not do business with homosexuals and they appear to have at least some support. Much as I don’t like to think about this, I believe there is enough latent racism in this country to allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of race and stay in business.

But with regard to Senator Paul I am troubled by issues that most people aren’t thinking about. Senator Paul opposes much of the regulatory power held by government agencies. So let’s talk about a few:

  • The Food and Drug Administration: They make sure that the food we eat and the medications we administer are safe. It was founded in 1906, in no small part, after the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sincliar. A true libertarian believes that the government has no right to interfere with your relationship with your butcher or pharmacist. Me, I’m happy to know my food is safe and I’m really taking the medication I think I’m taking.
  • The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: In the 1930s (the Great Depression) about 9000 banks failed in the United States. Everyone who kept their money in those banks lost it all. The FDIC was founded in 1933. If you keep your money in an FDIC insured bank, your money (up to $250,000) is insured if the bank fails. In turn the bank is required to follow FDIC rules. Without the FDIC you could never deposit your money in a bank and be sure it’s safe.
  • The National Park Service: If you want to purchase Yosemite Valley or Appomattox Court House (where the Civil War ended) and develop condos, what right does the government to tell you that you can’t? And why does the government even own land at all?

Rand Paul has a rough road ahead: he needs to convince his fellow Libertarians he will remain true to their values while convincing Republicans that he will stand with them on issues that most Libertarians don’t care about (like Marriage Equality).

Soon I’ll be listing the candidates for President in 2016 on the left side of this page. Stay tuned.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 21: Discrimination and Homophobia is Alive and Well in Indiana

March 31st, 2015

The latest darlings of the 24 hour news cycle today brings us to the state of Indiana. On March 26, 2015 Governor Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In the last 4 days the reaction has been strong on both sides. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who asks this, but what does the law actually do? Glad you asked. You can find the text of the law here. Props to the Legal Information Institute housed at the law school of Cornell University for providing the text of this law.

The law states that if you believe homosexual relationships are sinful on religious grounds you should not be required to do business with homosexuals. Proponents of this law point to a bakery in Indianapolis called 111 Cakery. In 2014 a gay couple asked the bakery to provide the cake for their commitment ceremony (marriage was not legal at the time). The owners refused on the grounds that their religious beliefs prohibited them from participating in what they felt was a sinful act. The bakery has since gone out of business.

The RFRA states that religious freedom is a right granted in the U.S. Constitution. It further states that laws that are neutral toward religion may burden religious exercise and these burdens should not be in place unless there is a compelling justification.

In other words, government can pass a law that does not appear to violate someone’s religious beliefs and may yet nonetheless do so. In those cases there needs to be an exemption that does not compel someone to do something that violates his or her religious beliefs.

That sounds fine until in the abstract but not in the execution. I dug into the text of this law and found this definition of “religious exercise”:

The term “religious exercise” includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief. The use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise shall be considered to be religious exercise of the person or entity that uses or intends to use the property for that purpose.

Individual religious exercise, therefore, does not require the backing of an existing denomination. You can be as racist, misogynist, homophobic or just plain mean as you want and claim religious exercise, even if your faith isn’t.

Proponents of this law insist this is about religious freedom and not about discrimination. Since I’ve spent virtually all of my adult life in the field of religion I’m sure they take my support for granted.

They shouldn’t. I grew up in the South and witnessed discrimination from an early age. I also witnessed religious people who used faith to justify discrimination and were just as shameless. They argued that God justified segregation by claiming that those of African descent were the children of Ham described in Genesis 9:25.

Today almost nobody will admit to finding this racism acceptable but 50 years ago many did. Hopefully 50 years from now nobody will point to religious beliefs to justify homophobia, but that won’t happen unless we stand up today to condemn the RFRA.

Governor Pence and nearly everyone who is running for the Republican nomination for President swears this isn’t about discrimination but we’re not fooled. Homophobia is rapidly declining in the population but those who hide behind religion still control a disproportionate share of funding for candidates. We need to stand up for the inclusion that all legitimate religions profess.

Let’s all work to make homophobia just as distasteful as racial discrimination.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 20: Sodomy As a Capital Offense? Really?

March 25th, 2015

Several decades ago I had a conversation with my college roommate Rob Duston. At the time he was a student at the University of Virginia Law School, also known as Mr. Jefferson’s Law School.

For reasons I don’t remember our conversation turned to the topic of sex and what was prohibited in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Half as a joke Rob told me that “everything is illegal in Virginia except with your wife in one position.” I thought he was kidding.

Since then I’ve learned that sexual positions and partners occupy way too much time and energy in the lives of our legislators. In 1986 the Supreme Court found, in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick that states can pass laws that prohibit sex between homosexual, consenting adults. Fortunately it was overruled in 2003 by the case of Lawrence v. Texas.

Most of us believe that sexual orientation is not a choice but a given and that we should all be allowed to marry our soulmate, regardless of whether or not that person is the opposite sex or same sex. I’m blessed that I live in a society where my orientation is socially acceptable (and so is my wife’s) but I recognize, acknowledge, and love those whose orientation calls them to someone of the same sex. Many of these children of God have trusted me enough to share their stories with me and I’m grateful for that trust.

But we also live with the fact that there are those, even those in power, who feed into their own fear and turn it into discrimination. They believe that orientation is a choice and those who choose to be homosexual will be condemned by God.

As if that isn’t enough, they believe that those of us who are heterosexual will be condemned to Hell if we dare to tell homosexuals that they are loved. They believe that we will be condemned because we give them “false hope” that God loves them.

Enter Matt McLaughlin. He is a lawyer from Huntington Beach, California and an alleged Christian. He is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would make sodomy a capital offense. He even states that they should be put to death by “bullets to the head or any other convenient method.”

OK, I’m a Christian and believe that my life works best when I live in harmony with God’s plan for me. But I don’t believe that my salvation depends on my hating the people Matt McLaughlin hates. If salvation is based on love and inclusion (as Jesus believed) I don’t believe that I have to choose sides on marriage equality. I have dozens of gay friends who I expect to see in Heaven. I pray they will be there because of love.

And I pray they love their husbands and wives as much as I love my wife.

Ted Cruz Throws His Hat Into the Ring: Let the Campaign Begin

March 23rd, 2015

On November 14, 2016 we will all go to the polls to elect our next president. Nineteenth months before that day we have our first confirmed candidate. Today Ted Cruz announced his candidacy at Liberty University, the college founded in 1971 by Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Ted is well known by anyone who follows politics. He is currently the junior Senator from Texas. His conservative credentials are legendary: he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and abolish the Internal Revenue Service. He argues against same sex marriage and ending the embargo with Cuba. Among Christian conservatives (who largely populate Liberty University) he brings strong credentials.

But he also brings some challenges. First and foremost his popularity is an inch wide and a mile deep. Those who like Ted Cruz like him a lot. But while they may be wealthy, there aren’t many of them. I’m sure this troubles them, but every voter in this country gets the same number of votes: 1. The wealthy Christians in this country may be able to generously fund his campaign but can only vote for him once.

The irony of this keeps me warm at night but there’s no way around this: Ted wasn’t born in the United States. I wrote about this in a previous post. In 2008 there was (and still is) a vocal and stupid minority that claims President Obama isn’t a legitimate president because he was born in Kenya. Nobody questioned that his mother was born in Kansas but the “fact” that he was born in Kenya prevents him from being our president.

You have to know where I’m going with this: how can the birthers claim that Barack Obama can’t be a legitimate president because they allege he was born in Kenya, and yet support Ted Cruz when everyone knows he was born in Canada?

In any case, the 2016 campaign has begun. In years past I’ve listed presidential candidates on the left side of this page. I’ve attempted (at great sacrifice) to list everyone who is running for president, not just the major candidates. I’ll do this again for the 2016 campaign but not yet. Ted is the only major candidate to announce, and I’ll wait for a larger field to announce.

Keep looking for more candidates. And let’s celebrate that we live in a country that allows us to choose our leaders.

The Justice Chronciles, Volume 19: 50 Years After Selma and We’re Still Not Done

March 7th, 2015

Today is the 50 anniversary of the day most Americans heard about Selma, Alabama. March 7, 1965 was a rough day.

The events actually began on February 18th when a 26 year old black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson (1938-1965) was shot to death by an Alabama state trooper. Mr. Jackson, a deacon in his church, was trying to protect his mother from being beaten up. This incident, combined with the institution of segregation and roadblocks placed to make sure people of color could not register to vote, boiled over. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and his organization the Souther Christian Leadership Conference, together with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the state capital 50 miles away.

But on their way out of town they were stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and attacked by law enforcement. It’s worth noting that the bridge was named for a real person. Edmund Pettus (1821-1907) was a Confederate General and U.S. Senator, but is most well known for his time as a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The bridge was completed in 1940.

National reporting of the that event, often called “Blood Sunday” shocked the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that legislated equal rights for people of all races.

So 50 years later how are we doing? On one hand very well. Nowhere in this country can you deny someone the ability to register to vote because of his or her race. Neither can you refuse to do business with someone on this basis. Our schools and neighborhoods can’t refuse admission to anyone and we even have an African American President.

But there is still work to do. A poll taken in January shows that 34% of Republicans believe our President isn’t really an American.

An article in today’s Los Angeles Times describes how two police officers and a court clerk lost their jobs over emails. This takes place in Ferguson, Missouri, a town that doesn’t need any more bad news. One email compared President Obama to a chimpanzee; another stated that he wouldn’t be in office for very long because a black man can’t hold a job. Finally one email reported that a black woman was paid to have an abortion as an anti crime measure.

In Selma the famous bridge is still named after the Grand Dragon of the KKK. And if that weren’t enough, in 2000 the city paid for a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877), one of the founders of the KKK.

My thoughts and prayers are still for Mr. Jackson. You can see a tribute to him here.

Really Rudy? Really?

February 23rd, 2015

The race for President in 2016 is in full swing and already the potential candidates are lining up. Suffice it to say that candidates and their supporters are already saying really stupid things. The latest comes from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He’s decided not to run for President in 2016 but wants people to listen to him. The 24 hour news cycle loves to play and replay stupid and outrageous comments.

Enter Rudy. Last Wednesday (the 18th) he was speaking at a private dinner that included assumed presidential candidate Scott Walker. Here’s what Rudy said:

I do not believe — and I know this is a horrible thing to say — but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

OK Rudy, let me say a few things to you about this:

  • Can you give some examples? I’m always amused when people like you make broad, inflammatory statements but don’t give examples. I like to think of myself as fairly well read but I don’t remember ever hearing the President say anything disparaging about America. I’m also astounded that, as I read through various accounts, nobody has asked you to give examples.
  • I know you (and those who agree with you) feign offense at this, but this charge finds its base in racism. No other president in recent memory has had to defend himself against the charge of not loving America. And no other president has come to us from African descent. I wrote about this in 2008 and it’s as true today as ever. Those of us who opposed the decisions of President Bush never, ever questioned his love of America. We also never doubted clear and definitive proof that he was born here.
  • Finally, and I think this is the crux of the matter, is this truth: you don’t believe President Obama loves America unless he hates everyone else. Most of our allies were once our enemies: England (the Revolution), France (remember Freedom Fries?), Germany (World War II). While the Bush administration made it clear that we live in a black and white world (“You’re either with us or against us“), President Obama sees the complexity of world politics and looks for solutions. If this make him someone who hates America, count me in.

Yosemite 2015: Fun, Too Warm and Dry, and Tinged with Sadness

January 25th, 2015

I write this a few hours after Nancy and I returned from our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park for its annual Chef’s Holidays. We’ve been going for several years and have always enjoyed it. Their staff is second to none and now several of them recognize us. It’s three days of good hiking, superior food, and an opportunity for Nancy to interact with some of the best chefs in the country.

That said we did see some disturbing things there. First was the weather: the elevation on the valley floor is nearly 4000 feet above sea level and from there we can see peaks of over 8000 feet. Several times over the years we’ve seen snow on the valley floor and I don’t remember ever not seeing snow on the top of Half Dome; this year we didn’t see any snow that high. To be fair Half Dome has had snow this season but it melted within a few weeks. Simply put it’s too warm.

It’s also too dry. Much of California has been suffering a drought for a few years. Precipitation that falls as snow in the higher elevations gives the rest of us water for much of the year as the snow melts and flows down to lower elevations. We can see this clearly in Yosemite Valley through the falls, Bridalveil and Yosemite being the most common. Water flow changes dramatically during the year, but they should be fairly robust at this time of year and they weren’t. This past year wildfires have come dangerously close to popular areas of the park. It’s hard to imagine but there is no way to avoid the reality that climate change is badly affecting the park.

My next concern follows from a conversation we had with one of the park rangers. We often joke with park rangers about silly questions they get from park guests, but a few struck me as more concerning than silly. The ranger was walking along a trail and met a group of hikers; she told them that she saw a bobcat nearby and hopefully they would too. One of the hikers said: “Oh, did you just let him out?” Later that season (in the autumn when the falls often run dry) a woman asked her to “turn on the falls” since she had come all the way from England.

Both these encounters point to a troubling reality: we’ve become so acclimated to being spectators in a planned experience that we don’t recognize when we are truly “in the wild.” I call this the “Disney effect.” Instead of going into the wilderness and observing what nature has to teach us, we think that the whole thing is a staged event we can manipulate. Do you want to see the falls? Don’t worry that you’ve come at a time of year where water rarely falls, we can turn it on. Do you want to see one of the native animals? Let us know and we’ll release him.

This reality robs us of the opportunity to do exactly what the early Yosemite caretakers wished: to see how natural beauty and breathtaking scenery can transform our lives long after we leave the valley. John Muir (1838-1914) and countless others dreamed of a place that would teach us, not entertain us. They wanted us to leave the valley with a greater understanding of and respect for nature; this understanding and respect would compel us to treat the rest of the earth with the wisdom we gained there. It has with me, and I hope it has with others.

At the beginning of this post I spoke of a “tinge of sadness.” On our trip to Yosemite I received word that my Aunt Eva died after a short illness. She was married to my father’s oldest brother, Uncle Ed. Aunt Eva was a wonderful woman. She was born in Gardner, Massachusetts to immigrants from Kent County, New Brunswick (Canada). She married Uncle Ed in 1952 and had two of my favorite cousins: David and Terry. I don’t remember visiting Gardner (as a child or an adult) without a trip to 69 Baker St. I also don’t remember not being treated to her famous fricot. If you’ve never had the joy of eating fricot you need to put this on your bucket list. It’s not a dish for the wealthy. It’s a dish for good, hardworking people who want a simple, elegant meal at the end of a hard day’s work. It always made me feel loved, and in touch with those ancestors whose hard work made my success in life possible. Aunt Eva, I’ll miss you.

Freedom of Speech: Can We Take a Breath and Be More Accurate?

January 17th, 2015

There is much to talk about with the events of the last month, but I’m going to focus in on the abuse of the phrase “free speech.”

Last month the movie The Interview was roundly criticized by North Korea. This is not surprising as the point of the movie is the assassination of their leader Kim Jong Un. It was produced by Columbia Pictures (owned by Sony) and it became clear that its Christmas debut was problematic: many Americans feared seeing the movie because of threats of violence against the theaters. Because of that the film was pulled.

Almost anyone could have predicted the backlash. Threats of revenge, realistic or not, created pressure to on Sony to cancel the premier. Then another backlash caused Sony to release it and make it available for download. Many felt that Sony’s decision to block the release was an attack on free speech.

As an American I applaud the conversation but I am troubled by some of the debate. The idea of Sony’s action was attack on free speech made it seem that the decision by Sony was somehow unconstitutional.

As this discussion was quieting we read, to our horror, of the assassination in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is a satiric periodical that has parodied, among others, Jesus, the Pope, the prophet Mohammed, and others. Many of us find some of these images troubling and even offensive and, as a result, don’t subscribe. But a few terrorists, who claim to be Muslims, decided that these images allowed them to murder.

This, also, created a backlash where many of us expressed our support for Charlie Hebdo and satirists over the world.

I support neither North Korea nor those who killed the good people in Paris (which also included 2 police officers and 4 hostages in a neighboring Jewish market) but I don’t think these are attacks on freedom of speech. Please understand that I am, in no way, excusing or supporting these attacks.

When we think of “freedom of speech” we normally think of the Constitution and we all revere what it protects. But it protects only one thing: you cannot be arrested, prosecuted, or imprisoned for expressing your opinion. It does not protect you from the consequences of your speech. In other words, if I say something hurtful or offensive to my wife, I’m not protected from her reaction. It only means I can’t be arrested.

If I choose to view the movie or read Charlie Hebdo, I’m not celebrating freedom of speech. The Constitution has nothing to say about this. But I will be making a statement about freedom from fear. The phrase “freedom from fear” should ring a bell: In his State of the Union in 1941 President Roosevelt spoke of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom of fear. A few months later the artist Norman Rockwell painted his interpretation of freedom from fear onto canvas.

I celebrate both freedom of speech and freedom from fear and am grateful that I can live in a place and time where I can do both. But as a student of American Constitutional history I feel a need to make a distinction between the two. Maybe nobody except me cares about this, but these freedoms are not the same thing.

If you choose to see the movie or buy the magazine, know you are celebrating freedom from fear and not freedom of speech.