Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sex and redemption

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1963, a sex scandal dominated British politics. The media reported that the secretary of state for war, John Profumo, had had an intimate relationship with nineteen-year-old Christine Keeler. He was both married and a member of the governing Conservative Party. Keeler was both a dancer and a prostitute; she was also romantically involved with the Soviet military attaché in London. Military attachés, then and now, are generally spies. After repeated denials, some made in Parliament, a letter from Profumo to Keeler surfaced, forcing him to admit the affair and ending his political career.

I have known that part of the story for a couple of decades. When I lived in London, on several Sunday afternoons I went for a walk at Cliveden, the Astor's country house near London at which Profumo and Keeler met, and then enjoyed tea in a National Trust teashop on the estate. I have also attended a London performance of the play based on the incident (A Letter of Resignation by Hugh Whitemore).

What I did not know until very recently was what John Profumo did after he resigned his ministerial post and seat in Parliament. He did not write a book, give interviews, or return to politics. Instead, he went to work for Toynbee Hall in London's East End. Toynbee Hall is a charity that serves the poor, prisoners, and other social misfits. He began by cleaning toilets, washing dishes, and doing other menial chores. He progressed to visiting the criminally insane and working to improve low-income housing. He ended thirty plus years of work at Toynbee Hall as the organization's president.

The Daily Telegraph's announcement of his death at 91 in 2006 declared, "No one in public life ever did more to atone for his sins; no one behaved with more silent dignity as his name was repeatedly dragged through the mud; and few ended their lives as loved and revered by those who knew him."

Today, sex scandals seem more acceptable and unlikely to topple a government or result in a politician's resignation from office. Moreover, when a politician does resign in the aftermath of a sex scandal, more likely the resignation results from lies told in a failed attempt to cover up what occurred than from the original scandal. Most notably, President Clinton survived a sordid sex scandal after lengthy impeachment proceedings.

Eliot Spitzer, noted crime buster who resigned as New York governor after revelations about his paying for sex with high priced prostitutes, is now campaigning for election as New York City comptroller. Anthony Weiner, a former member of Congress who resigned in the wake of a scandal involving salacious texts and emails, is now running for mayor of New York. New salacious emails and internet posts from Weiner, which he acknowledges are his, have appeared since he announced his campaign.

The issue of redemption is not God's forgiveness. No sexual sin is unforgivable.

Nor are personal relationships the issue. A person involved in a scandal, that person's partner/spouse (if the person has one), and any children will, over time, determine the future of those personal relationships.

The issue of redemption is personal: how can an individual who has badly messed up his (or her!) life redeem that life by making something worthwhile out of the remainder? How can that person redeem his/her life by transforming an injury to the public trust and welfare into a life that benefits the public by building trust and improving community well-being? How can that person transform sinful impulses including boundary violations, moral dishonesty, and using people and positions for personal gratification into life-giving spiritual health?

John Profumo did that. When the formidable British reporter W.F. Deeds asked Profumo what he learned from working at Toynbee Hall, Profumo needed only one word to answer, "Humility." Profumo learned that although each person has an exclusive claim to his or her life, our communal existence is about the collective good rather than individual gain or celebrity.

Middle aged, mid-career people do not engage suddenly and impetuously in sexual sins. The sin is symptomatic of a lack of spiritual health. Navigating a course to spiritual health (i.e., redemption) requires much time and effort, as one forges a different self, a self that respects boundaries, strives to live consistently and honestly, treats others as individuals worthy of dignity and respect, etc. This journey is almost impossible on the public stage. Persons who find themselves caught in scandalous behaviors would do well to meditate on John Profumo's example, seeking genuine grace and not a glittering but cheap artificial substitute.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Moral Mondays

The North Carolina General Assembly, sometimes with the cooperation of the state's governor, is actively working to reverse decades of progress toward the creation of a strong social safety net. Its actions include refusing to extend Medicaid to persons who earn 140% of the federal poverty level, cutting extended unemployment benefits to more than 70,000 North Carolinians, and proposals to revise the state's tax structure radically.

Proposed tax changes include eliminating the corporate income tax, replacing the current progressive personal income tax rates with a flat rate, and extending the state's sales tax to more goods and services, including groceries. Sales taxes are the most regressive type of tax available, affecting the poor and middle class more than the affluent because poor and middle class people inevitably spend a higher percentage of their income on goods and services than do the affluent. The personal income tax is already flatter than I would prefer. Imposing a flat tax moves further in the direction of regressive taxes that fall most heavily on those least able to pay.

In preparing my sermon and then preaching it yesterday, contemporary relevance of Amos' message repeatedly struck me (read the sermon here). Rich and powerful people seeking to become richer and more powerful are nothing new. Instead of using false scales, bad coinage, and other devices popular twenty-eight centuries ago, the rich and powerful today relay upon political contributions, lobbyists, and lawyers for the edge that allows them to maintain or increase their wealth and position. Those methods are just as immoral. As Amos declared in strong, clear language, the idea of God's justice necessarily includes justice between people, not merely an abstract idea of justice between God and a person.

The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and other groups, many religious from a wide variety of traditions, have organized Moral Mondays, weekly protests Monday evenings at the General Assembly of legislative proposals that will make North Carolina a less just society, proposals that  benefit the affluent at the expense of the weak and vulnerable. The protests have attracted growing media attention, probably because each week a handful of protesters have been arrested after engaging in non-violent civil disobedience. Unfortunately, the protests do not appear to have altered legislative outcomes. In addition to consciousness raising, the best hope for Moral Mondays to make a difference are in mobilizing the politically disenchanted to get involved, to vote, and to wrest the political process out of the hands of moneyed interests.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Respect for symbols

Driving through the outskirts of a small Georgia city, I was surprised to observe fifty to seventy mid-size U.S. flags planted about every twenty feet in the median of a divided highway. No sign announced what, if any, special meaning the flag display had.

I found the flag display, like many displays of the flag, distressing. People treat the flag too casually. Some flag displays are difficult to characterize as anything other than decorative, a use of the flag that Public Law 94-344 (the Federal Flag Code) prohibits. Bunting, not flags, is for decoration. I've also seen people display tattered, dirty, and greasy flags. The context suggests that the person displaying the flag is displaying the flag because he or she is proud to be an American. The flag's condition, however, sends just the opposite message: the U.S. is dirty, tattered, unjust, falling apart, etc.

My respect for the flag as a symbol began as a schoolchild saying the Pledge to Allegiance, developed as a Boy Scout learning to fold the flag and the proper way to destroy flags that were no longer serviceable, and matured over the course of a career in the Navy. Ashore, most activity paused every morning at 0800 for the flag raising and at sunset for its lowering. Military personnel salute the flag in passing; ceremonies usually begin and end with the posting and retiring of the colors.

Symbols can be potent. Anti-Vietnam war protesters who burned a U.S. flag to express their opposition to the war triggered visceral responses because the respect that many in the U.S. had for the flag. I opposed the war, defended (and still do!) the right to burn the flag as an expression of First Amendment protected free speech, but doubted that burning the flag sent the intended message.

Today, I very much doubt that flag burning would have the same potency. Flags now seem almost too ubiquitous, and are consequently widely ignored or treated with little respect.

Analogously, think of the cross, once a potent religious symbol and now widely worn as jewelry and treated with little respect. Crucifixion was a hideous form of execution. Few people who wear a cross would choose to replace their cross with a symbol of a modern form of execution such as an electric chair.

On the couple of occasions that I have suggested making the exchange to someone, they reacted with revulsion, and then added that they wore a cross rather than a crucifix as a symbol of Jesus' resurrection rather than his death. I wanted to ask, why not wear an empty tomb, but figured the question would probably not engender meaningful dialogue.

Humans, more than any other known life form, are symbolic. Language itself consists of symbols, whether the sounds of spoken words or the letters of written words. Words point to, or signify, their meaning (semanticists, linguists, and others debate the most precise, unambiguous formulation of this idea, further underscoring the symbolic character of language). Similarly, art, whether representational or abstract, is symbolic: the artist creates a work using one or more media to make a statement, convey a feeling, record something, etc.

When a symbol's potency diminishes, then that symbol's power to be a catalyst for change, insight, or communication diminishes. Any set of ideas linked to the symbol also tends to diminish in significance, unless a new symbol has supplanted the old one. In the cases of the cross and U.S. flag, no new symbols have emerged. Instead, both Christianity and American patriotism seem to be waning. Declines in Church attendance and belief in orthodox Christianity are well documented. A growing perception of Washington as them, insiders against whom politicians from outside the DC beltway run, points to a growing distance between Americans and their government.

Ironically, even as flags and crosses become ever more numerous their symbolic value approaches a new nadir. And that explains my distress at seeing casual displays of the flag and the cross. I'd much see someone sufficiently incensed over American policy who thinks that burning the flag (or upset about Christianity who creates a piece of art that depicts someone urinating on a cross) because they reassure me that significant numbers of people still value symbols, values, and ideas that are important to me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Trayvon Martin verdict

A Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I did not sit through the trial, hear the evidence, or weigh it. I trust, perhaps naively, my fellow Americans who sat on the jury to have done their best, i.e., that they paid attention to the proceedings, carefully considered the evidence and the opposing attorneys' arguments, and sought to apply the law as explained by the judge to the best of their ability. Relying on a jury seems preferable to the options: trusting a judge, no matter how selected, or, worse yet, resorting to the court of public opinion. Second-guessing the jury serves no useful purpose.

The Zimmerman verdict does highlight the need to reform the law. Stand your ground laws that authorize a person who feels threatened to use deadly force in self-protection invite abuses. Even a well-intentioned person, who has a weapon, may kill an innocent person legally if unjustly when such laws exist.

The Zimmerman verdict also highlights the lack of trust that Americans have in one another. If we trusted others more, we would feel less need to protect ourselves from them. Fewer rather than increasing numbers of people would carry concealed weapons. Outrage over the verdict underscores the lack of trust that Americans have for one another in general, for the jury in particular, and more broadly for our legal system. Laws should encourage and promote trust, rather than distrust.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Abortion in North Carolina

North Carolina's General Assembly is attempting to restrict women's access to abortion, justifying the proposed new legislation by claiming that the state needs the laws to ensure safer conditions for women who have abortions. For example, the proposed legislation requires that a physician remain in the room with the woman throughout the procedure, that abortion clinics meet the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers, and that a physician be present when a woman takes not only the first but also any additional doses of an abortifacient.

Those legislative proposals may seem prima facie reasonable. However, seeking to justify new restrictions on women's access to abortion is a blatant example of political dishonesty. Proponents of the legislation are unable to cite any examples of how current standards have resulted in unsafe care or treatment for any woman. Only one of North Carolina's sixteen clinics that currently perform abortions meets the proposed new standards. In other words, the legislation's real intent is clearly to restrict women's access to abortion through legislative action modeled on what other states have done.

Many of the advocates of the proposed legislation are also hypocrites. They object to federal healthcare mandates because the government should not tell physicians how to practice. Yet that is exactly what the proposed new standards on abortions would do. That intrusion into medical practice is completely unwarranted in the apparent absence of any valid medical issues under the current standards.

The legislation's proponents are also hypocrites in that they complain government has too many unnecessary regulations, yet they want to impose additional regulatory burdens on abortion clinics in the absence of any medical need to do so.

No, the real issue behind the proposed legislation in North Carolina (and in many other states that are considering or have adopted similar legislation) is an attempt to restrict women's access to abortion through dishonest disclaimers that they intend the legislation to promote safe medical care without showing any need to improve safety or to impose additional regulation.

I have previously argued in Ethical Musings that abortion is ethical, e.g., in my posts Abortion and Mississippi's personhood amendment. People who disagree should have the honesty to make their dissent known openly and directly. Politics in America needs more honesty, not less. Americans need more access to healthcare, not less. Moreover, in general, we need less government regulation, not more – but that's a topic for another Ethical Musings post.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Egyptian democracy

Egypt's military ousted Egypt's democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Too much of the talk swirling around this event has trivialized the matter by attempting to parse the word coup, especially among people and organizations opposed to Morsi's Islamist policies and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Democracy reduced to majority rule quickly ceases to be a form of government under which I want to live. Unimpeded majority rule offers no guarantee of individual rights and freedoms. That is, rationales for majority rule too easily justify a tyrannical rule by the majority that tramples and abrogates the rights and freedoms of the minority. (cf. Ethical Musings: When democracy becomes tyranny)

In Egypt, Morsi and his political party, the Islamic Brotherhood, sought to impose their version of Islamic law. This would have greatly disadvantaged liberal and moderate Muslims, women, Christians, secularists, and many others. Morsi won the presidency with a majority of the votes cast in a reasonably fair election. However, more people – at least by some respected estimates – have protested his efforts to enshrine Islamic law at the expense of democracy than voted for him in the last election.

A written Constitution provides a critical check on majority rule. Egypt elected Morsi without a written constitution and has since been struggling to draft one. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood want a constitution that would subordinate democratic elections to Muslim law. Opponents want a constitution that would place people, regardless of religion, on more of an equal footing and ensure the protection of individual freedoms and rights.

The U.S. Constitution is far from perfect. I've written several posts recently expressing concern that the presidency is becoming too powerful and, with the tacit collusion of Congress, monopolizing powers that the Constitution distributed among three branches of government. (for example, cf. Ethical Musings: The Future of the American Experiment)

President of the American Civil Liberties Union Susan Herman in her recent book, Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Liberties, shows how the judiciary has contributed to the executive branch's centralization of power through a series of decisions that broadly limit individual rights in the name of fighting terrorism. Security without liberty is worthless (Ask a maximum-security prison inmate if you think I'm wrong!).

Hopefully, though I'm far from sanguine about its probability, Morsi's ouster will lead to Egypt developing a constitutional democracy that protects individual freedoms and rights. The U.S. required several iterations before adopting a viable constitution, including a loose federation of rebellious colonies that had no written agreement that bound them together and the post-revolution Articles of Confederation.

I also hope that the U.S. will stay out of Egypt's internal affairs. We're wrong to send them billions of dollars of military aid, the price of their agreeing to peace with Israel, allegedly intended for defense but in fact used to position the military as the arbiter of Egypt's future. Paternalism – in this instance, thinking that we know what is best for Egypt – is ugly and immoral. Viewing Egypt as a means for accomplishing U.S. national interests, implicitly dehumanizing Egyptians by not regarding them as worthy of respect in pursuing their own interests, is also ugly and immoral.

The much-heralded Arab Spring is longer and messier than American politicians like. No nation can impose democracy on another; only a nation's citizens can successfully demand and then sustain democracy. The process is likely to require much more time with more numerous intermediate steps than pundits or politicians predict or prefer. The best assurance of Egypt's long-term friendship (which is also the most Christian policy!) is to treat Egyptians with honor and respect by giving them the time and space to sort out their internal issues.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Selecting the next Presiding Bishop

Debate has commenced in earnest about the election of The Episcopal Church's next Presiding Bishop (e.g., Next Presiding Bishop: caretaker or visionary?). I've even contributed to that conversation.

In one sense, the selection of the next Presiding Bishop is so unimportant that the Church could rely on a serendipitous selection. For example, the Nominating Committee might place the name of each eligible and willing bishop on a slip of paper and then draw nine of those names for its slate. The House of Bishops might draw one of those names and then elect that person the next PB with the House of Deputies voting by acclamation to affirm that choice. Although this approach may comply with the letter but not the spirit of the canons, it is certainly biblical (remember the selection in Acts 1:21-26 of Matthias to replace Judas?) and would save upwards of a quarter of million dollars.

Sometimes God does work through serendipitous events. Drawing names would eliminate all electioneering and God knows that the poor, the spiritually empty, and many, many others could benefit from increased funding of missions and alms.

I suspect that the most strident and vocal objections would come from individuals and groups heavily invested in preserving our existing institutions and forms. Having watched three general conventions and been part of several dioceses, a relative handful of insiders – both volunteer and paid – dominate the proceedings. Constituencies that include clergy, special interests, elected lay deputies/delegates, and staffs all have the most at stake in the selection of the next PB.

Quite frankly, their concerns (and I share more than a few of them!) should not determine who is chosen as the next PB. We are increasingly a remnant, burdened with an oversized and underutilized physical plant, and supported by a diminished endowment and giving. A gifted manager might slow – at least temporarily – the rate of decline. Someone who shares my values might promote causes and ministries important to me. But business as usual is not going to keep this Episcopal ark from sinking.

When I see the other mainline denominations suffering from problems similar to ours, I recognize that expecting a new PB, organizational restructuring, or other management changes to fix the leaks and other problems is delusional. Reviewing our previous repair efforts, and those of other mainline denominations, reminds me of the definition of stupid, i.e., repeating an action while continuing to expect a different result.

Is there hope for The Episcopal Church? I believe so. The signs of new life that I observe are not in national or diocesan structures but in local communities of Christ's people. A sea change is underway. The internet, social media, and increasing individualism are flattening hierarchy and making committees and legislative processes anachronisms. The hope – the only real hope – for The Episcopal Church comes from bottom-up rather than top-down change.

Let's recover our charisma. We institutionalize the Church's charisma – the good news of God's love revealed in Jesus expressed in our via media – to help us transmit that charisma from one generation to the next. Over time, we begin to confuse the institutional form with the charisma, inevitably stifling the charisma. In vibrant expressions of Christ's body, the charisma is visible in changed lives, healing people eager and excited to engage in mission.

Let's prioritize mission over ministry. The Episcopal Church does not exist for itself or its members. We exist to be Christ's body, Christ's physical presence in the world. Ministries that serve the Church and its members properly fill a secondary, supportive role for our mission of bringing God's love to the world. Yet, a quick analysis of volunteer and staff time, and of funds expended, reveals the support "tail" of ministry now dwarfs the "tooth" of missions. We care for one another and our legacies (buildings, societies, etc.) instead of boldly going into the world without purse, bag, or sandals.

Let's become nimble. Yearly diocesan and triennial national budget, decision-making, and program cycles are too slow, ponderous, and cumbersome in the information age. Rector search processes that require twelve, eighteen, or even more months do not increase the likelihood of congregational growth, revitalization, or even longer tenure.

Let's redeploy our resources. National and denominational offices once essential for sharing resources and best practices, fostering effective coalitions, and producing results are now mostly superfluous. Today, few people call headquarters for help. Instead, they – including Episcopalian laity and clergy – grab a smartphone to search for resources, best practices, contacts, and networking. Many congregations could similarly redeploy their assets to achieve greater results for God.

Jesus provides a role model for inspirational Christian leaders that we would do well to emulate:

  • He had clarity of vision and purpose. He came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. Through prayer and time alone, he maintained his focus and strength in the face of adversity.
  • He embodied courage. He unflinchingly faced an entrenched power convinced that it could coopt or destroy him.
  • He was a dynamic, effective communicator. Crowds of thousands of spiritual seekers flocked to hear his message of God's life-giving love.
  • He incarnated charisma. People – Jews and Gentiles, children and women and men, the religious and the secular – in their relationship with him, experienced God's transformative love.
  • Finally, he inspired others to join him. He saw people's gifts, recruited the willing, and shaped them with love. Then the gospels report that Jesus sent out the twelve and the seventy; Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus exhorting his followers to change the whole world. Jesus ministered to his followers that they, in turn, might embrace and join him in mission.

If our next PB is such a leader, a woman or man formed in Jesus' image with clarity of vision and purpose, who courageously communicates and incarnates Christ's charisma to a broken, secular world, then the choice of the next PB matters hugely. Such a leader may do little to resuscitate our leaking institutions. But with such a leader as our chief pastor, we will hear and answer God's call to be agents of resurrection, bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The future of the American experiment

The fourth of July, the annual celebration of the thirteen colonies declaring their independence from Great Britain, is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the future of this democratic experiment.

The United States has twice been undisputedly the most powerful nation on the planet, first at the end of WWII and then at the end of the Cold War. Both times, the U.S. attempted to employ its power to force changes that it thought would achieve a safer, more peaceful future. Both times, it failed. The unnecessary, unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven a massive drain on the nation's financial resources, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and diminished U.S. power, reputation, and competitiveness.

The nation's founders, having studied prior experiments in democracy, were concerned that a standing military, overseas entanglements, and a too-powerful executive all had the potential to subvert our democratic experiment. Since WWII, a great many Americans have sadly accepted all three as givens.

Seven decades of those policies have produced an economy and political system that views defense expenditures as nearly sacrosanct. Recommending substantial reductions in defense spending triggers unsubstantiated allegations of comprising national security. Defense contracts and spending, deeply embedded in almost every Congressional district, mean that reductions potentially cost politicians votes and are therefore unpalatable. Even seemingly harmless proposals, such as eliminating the $1 billion commissary system that only military personnel and retirees can patronize, cause the same reaction. The outcry over this proposal (harm to national security and loss of jobs) was particularly egregious because Wal-Mart had offered to match commissary prices for shoppers previously authorized to patronize the commissary system, i.e., the change would have saved taxpayers $1 billion with no reduction in military benefits.

Has the over-sized U.S. military already become so deeply entrenched in the U.S. economy and political system that substantial reductions are impossible? Have overseas entanglements (e.g., NATO and other treaty obligations, a continuing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an unfaltering commitment to Israel) become so permanent that global dominance rather than mutual cooperation is how the U.S. views the world, a perspective increasingly untenable in a globalized, multi-power world? Has the imperial presidency, which beginning with FDR has progressively abrogated Constitutional processes to appropriate power for itself, set the U.S. on an irreversible trajectory toward dictatorship?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Immigrants and mutts

As the descendant of illegal immigrants – people who came to this country and displaced Native Americans who were then the rightful owners – I am pro-immigration and suspect that being anti-immigration would be hypocritical.

Immigration confers benefits on the citizens of the immigrant's new nation. Immigrants, compared to longer-time residents, are more industrious, start more businesses, and earn more degrees. Immigrants tend to self-select based on characteristics that result in those achievements, enriching a nation's gene pool.

Instead of the 5% of first generation immigrants living in the U.S. in the 1950s, 13% -perhaps soon 15% - of the population are first generation immigrants. Unlike eighteenth century immigration, which was largely from Europe, immigrants now come from Asia and the Americas. Consequently, demographics are shifting.

The current wave of U.S. immigrants is expediting changes in the nation's racial and ethnic composition. Hispanics, expected to comprise 30% of the population by 2050, will reach that mark sooner if the immigration reform bill that the Senate passed last week becomes law.

Intermarriage of people of different races, ethnicities, and religions is increasingly common. In the metaphor of New York Times columnist David Brooks, the U.S. is becoming a nation of mutts, i.e., people who have multiple racial, ethnic, and religious heritages (A Nation of Mutts, June 27, 2013). Mutts generally make wonderful pets and, I'm willing to bet, wonderful citizens.

With Brooks, I think the changes are exciting and positive. Fresh blood provides not only fresh economic impetus and a more youthful population (good for aging baby boomers like me who live in a nation that constructed its social safety net on the premise that it would have a sizable number of working adults), but also for moving beyond old racial stereotypes and prejudices.

Greedy bigots who wish to preserve what they believe they have earned (or have the irritatingly arrogant ignorance to believe that God gave to them) ironically oppose immigration. America's best hope is encouraging immigration.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Federal vs. state

The shape of government in the United States is changing. Interest groups who wish to push their agenda increasingly choose to fight one big campaign instead of fifty smaller ones. Concurrently, the federal government uses the purse to coerce state compliance with federal policies.

Sometimes the federal government should intervene. The Supreme Court's decision this past week that overturned California's Proposition 8 (a state ban on same sex marriage) exemplified the importance of judicial intervention and of having a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. The majority should never be able to deny the minority their rights. For example, a majority of this country is women; they should not have the legal prerogative of denying men the vote. Indeed, twentieth century battles over denying rights to people because of their gender, race, or ethnicity are culminating in the struggle to ensure that all people have the right to marry the person of one's choice regardless of gender.

Some issues cross state boundaries, e.g., polluting activities located in one state may contaminate the air or water in another state. In such a case, federal legislation is necessarily preferable to state legislation.

Other times, the case for federal intervention is more problematic. The federal government, for example, has just dramatically revised school lunch standards. Schools are locally operated and traditionally states have overseen and regulated the schools. However, the federal government funds as much 90% of the school lunch program. States whose schools do not comply with federal guidelines risk losing that funding. States and municipalities prefer to fund activities (including the schools) with federal tax dollars even at the price of federal control instead of funding their activities with state and local taxes.

School lunches should not contribute to the growing (pun intended!) of childhood obesity. Winning the battle of the waistline in DC appears quicker and easier than winning thousands of battles, one in each school district. However, federal regulations will not change behavior. Parents, teachers, and the village that it takes to raise a child all must cooperate to effect in most children the behavioral changes associated with the child following a healthier diet. In other words, an apparent shortcut to reach this desirable goal will actually fall far short of its intended efficacy, an outcome that often happens when interest groups turn to the federal government to achieve quicker, easier results.

Still other issues mix federal and state issues. Gun control should begin with repeal of the Second Amendment right to own and bear arms, as I have previously argued (cf. Ethical Musings: Gun control and the Second Amendment). However, issuing permits to own or to carry a concealed weapon is arguably a state matter rather than a federal one. In our highly mobile nation, the federal government could usefully arrange a clearinghouse for states to exchange information. Banning large magazines, other military munitions, and military weapons is also a federal issue because it involves both interstate commerce and imports.

Unfortunately, the strategy of shifting power to the federal government carries a hidden price tag: its significant erosion of representative democracy. In general, the fewer people each representative represents, the better that representative democracy will function. State legislators each represent fewer people than do members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Concomitantly, keeping more issues at the local and state level affords citizens easier access to government, diminishes to some degree the influence of moneyed interests, and may give people a greater sense of owning their government.

Unnecessarily large government that erects barriers to civic participation, in other words, inevitably diminishes human dignity. Voting, participating in public discourse, and otherwise participating in governmental processes is an indispensable civic responsibility. Abdicating that responsibility is equally wrong. The person who does not vote, does not participate in public discourse, and does not otherwise engage with the political process surrenders some of his/her autonomy and becomes a little less human. Christians have a moral duty to participate in civic affairs.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 inserted the federal government into questions of voter qualification, voter eligibility, election district lines, etc. At the time, the Act was vital for restoring the vote to people whom the majority had systematically disenfranchised.

Times have changed. More African Americans are registered to vote, and actually vote, in Mississippi than are whites, a dramatic reversal from fifty years ago. Requiring states with historic patterns of discrimination that no longer exist to continue to obtain federal approval for proposed election law changes no longer makes sense. The Supreme Court was right.

However, times have changed. Politicians are now erecting new barriers to voting rights, barriers premised on criteria other than race, e.g., ability to get to a poll during working hours, possession of a government issued ID, etc. Some of the changes may make prima facie sense, at least until one looks more deeply. North Carolina will require voters to show a government issued ID, accepting some IDS issued by a university but not others. North Carolina has no history of voter fraud that this requirement will solve. North Carolina also has many poor people without government issued IDs who must now obtain one or de facto be barred from voting. Meanwhile, North Carolina has moved to reduce the hours polls are open while dramatically broadening absentee balloting in ways that almost encourage voter fraud.

Americans need a new Voting Rights Act, or, better yet, fifty new Voting Rights Acts, laws in all fifty states that encourage voting, civic participation, and address the forms of discrimination that the currently powerful seek to use to preserve their status. Perhaps we should pass a law fining any citizen eligible to vote who fails to register or fails to vote, though I suspect that mandatory civic participation would be no more effective or popular than are mandatory healthy school lunch menus.