Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

RePrint: Lincoln, Language and Liberty

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

The following is a reprint of a blog by my Harvard friend John Barrell. Visit his Blog at

Go see “Lincoln.”

You will view superb actors bringing to life one of the most monumental struggles in American history–that concerning the abolition of slavery.
Daniel Day-Lewis exemplifies the almost severe gravity of having to lead a country during the worst war in our history–a civil war– all the while showing his humanity in the prosecution thereof.
Sally Field, according to an NPR interview with Bob Edwards, noted that during the filming all major characters stayed within character during the entire shoot.  And she is heart-wrenching at times fighting for the life of her oldest child, Robert.
A real surprise is James Spader, unrecognizable from “Boston Legal,” as the head lobbyist, the one who dashes from the House of Representatives floor to the White House with a most consequential note to the President during the day of the vote.  We surely see how lobbying became the all-entrenched force it is today on K Street with votes back in 1865 being bought, and needed Democratic (!) supporters being bribed for a good cause.
But the character that stands out in my mind is one Thaddeus Stevens, he a congressman and long-time abolitionist, played superbly by Tommy Lee Jones.  Stevens had long advocated full rights for Negroes prior to the vote, but on that date i Lincoln needed him to be full-throated in his advocacy of equal rights under existing law.  Almost to deny that he advocated that ultimately blacks would have the right to vote as citizens.  Remember that privilege was reserved at the time for white men.
In a most dramatic moment you can see Stevens mulling over the conflict in his mind–between full rights as citizens or only those within current law.  His final pronouncement leads to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by Congress and, subsequently, ratification by three quarters of the states.
Upon reflection I am struck by  the overwhelming power of language in our country to guarantee, or to secure for generations, the liberty so necessary for the welfare of the country, for the preservation of the union.
The Thirteenth Amendment reads, in part, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Here we see the power of language for what did “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” mean in 1865?  Surely they referred to the condition experienced by those brought unwillingly to our shores, many of whom fought during this conflict.
But today do these words have any bearing on us, as citizens, as educators?
You might be as surprised as I was to learn that in 1996 a high school student in Rye Neck School District (NY) filed suit claiming that the school’s requirement to perform 40 hours of community service constituted “involuntary servitude.”  The plaintiff also claimed, using the Fourteenth Amendment, that such service violated his parents’ right to educate him in accordance with their own philosophy and priorities.
How would you have ruled on that decision? (
Notice also how many famous Supreme Court cases come down to interpretations of language:  “separate but equal. . . corporation/person. . . speech. . . regulate interstate commerce. . .the right to bear arms. . .to  peaceably assemble. . .the establishment of religion” and so on.
What Thaddeus Stevens could not articulate in order to get the amendment through the House was his very strong belief in the rights of  all men to vote and to establish relationships of their choosing.
Notice that in our last election how that right to vote was challenged in many states with laws requiring voter identification and other means.  In other words, we cannot take our liberties for granted.
What Lincoln, Stevens and the others portrayed in this film is the sometimes sausage-making process necessary to pursue lofty ideals, the right of all men and women to live lives of self-determination toward the pursuit of happiness.
Tommy Lee Jones said about his role:  “Politics and government was conducted with language through oratory. People had to speak their minds rather than insinuate them.”
Language matters deeply and we see it during election cycles when words are carelessly and mindlessly hurled around and toward various candidates in order to persuade, often words or claims without any basis in fact whatsoever.
Words matter as they affect people’s well-being and, perhaps, their survival.
Go see the movie.


Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

The Modernization of Protestant Religion in America, Leonard I. Sweet

These are exciting times in which we live! More and more Americans began their walk with God outside their denomination church and stayed there. Why? Sweet, nor I, are being critical of the denominational church but we both are wondering what happened.

Factors that contributed to the decline of the mainline churches are: the growth of individualism, high criticism professionalization of the clergy, unwise and unpopular decisions made by denominational bureaucrats, ecumenism, actionism, pluralism. The end result of all this has been the decline of the mainline churches–both numerically and spiritually. Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostal moved to center stage as modernism has been forced into retreat. In characterizing the mainline denominations during these five decades, Sweet notes: “With everything gone, there was little reason for people to stay.”

Sweet gives much attention to the relationship between the denominational leaders and the church members, were growing increasingly distant. This led to the leadership taking stands without considering the beliefs and feelings of the people in the pews, which then resulted in a growing distrust by the members of their leaders. Sweet describes these developments as a loss of mastery and mandate–that is, the loss of mastery of the common touch and mandate of the common faith.

Some have thought these to be exciting developments. Others see these as a dangerous trend toward existentialism and away from confessional faith. You will have to decide.

800,000 Lives Saved

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The WASHINGTON TIMES estimated last week that former President Bush’s pro-life administration limited abortions so much, that perhaps 100,000 lives were saved in every year he served.

That would be about 800,000 lives that President Bush saved.

I don’t care about how you feel about President Bush’s politics, saving 800,000 people is something more important, don’t you agree?

I think so.

Pray for our new president.


Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

My wife Karen often scolds me for avoiding perfection by “making do.” She means it, I know, as a pejorative comment. Of course she is hyper critical (!) (not really); she should learn to compromise more (but alas, she is cursed by her oldest sibling perfectionist syndrome–she is the oldest of 14 children/siblings).

Seriously though, Karen is right (but boy am I glad she rarely reads my blog! Don’t tell her I said this!). Too often I am too lazy, or too busy, to seek perfection in what I do. I compromise too often I fear.

And compromise is not all bad. We compromise about what restaurant we frequent–that is a good compromise.

Here is a bad compromise.

In the 1950s I remember my mother voting for Governor Orville Faubus (a notorious segregationist). “Why?” a friend asked mom, “would you vote for a man who is diametrically opposed to your world view (mom was opposed to Faubus’ racial views)?”

“Because,” mom softly responded, “He is in favor of widening Highway 65 (an important road in our small Arkansas town).”

Do you see what I mean? Mom, a good woman really, principled in her own way, voted against her conscience to advance a laudable, even necessary improvement: expansion of an important roadway. This roadway would bring life and prosperity to our region. No doubt Highway 65 was a good thing.

But Faubus was elected and Faubus tried to stop desegregation at Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas. President Eisenhower had to mobilize the American army. How awful!

But we also got a beautiful new road!

Friends, the present pro-choice administration was elected by a solid majority of Americans. If one examines closely the voting patterns, the administration won support–overwhelming support–from some pro-life evangelical groups. Come by me again? That is right, a ton of us pro-lifers voted for a pro-choice candidate for . . . well, perhaps we needed Highway 65 built. And Highway 65 will bring us prosperity and nothing is wrong with prosperity, is there?

Pray about it.

My Shiloh

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

East Liberty is a mean, ungenerous place to most. You have to be strong to survive and spirit filled to be victorious. We were both. And East Liberty felt good to me. Not because I want to move back–I do not. But I once prayed for this place, cried for this place. For a while, it was my Promised Land. A place where I put down my roots to eternity. It was my Shiloh. God waited for me in the coolness of the evening and I came.

Likewise this city, my city, Johnstown, feels like home. I have prayed over its buildings, walked through its streets, cried for its children. It has been my Promised Land for five years. And I thank God for the time here.

I thank God for all that He has taught me since I entered the ministry over twenty years ago. He has always done what He has said that He will do. He is good. Really good. And so, so very faithful. He has always loved me and He continues to show me His love in so many ways.

Like my children. Rachel is turning into quite a young woman of God. On the mission field. In El Salvador. Jessica is showing signs of being an intercessor; my little Deborah–a warrior for the Lord! And my oldest son, Timothy. What a miracle! Strong, smart, and himself growing in the Lord. Every week God is revealing Scripture to him. And he is listening. And my youngest, Peter. Named after my20father-in-law whom I love and admire so much. Peter is so sensitive, like his mother, and also principled. And Karen. What a woman of God! Standing firm. Storming the gates of hell if necessary for us all. Developing a life changing ministry in learning disability therapy. An intercessor. I am so proud of her and grateful that God sent her to be me best friend and companion.

Yes, I have so much to thank God for. He is so faithful. Let the winds blow in our lives. Let the flood waters rise. We stand on the rock that cannot fail. We will not be overcome! Remember well the great things that He is doing in your lives. Mark them down in your hearts. Remember them. Celebrate His faithful. We truly serve an awesome God!

Come let us praise the Lord and glorify His name forever!

In the Face of Danger

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

When Karen and I considered the Ku Klus Klan threat to my family in 1994, we seriously considered options open to us and decided that we would not allow anything to cause us to retreat. No, we wanted our children to see us stand firm under the protection of Almighty God. And we wanted to let them hear that no matter what others might do–over 200plus people attend the KKK rally–we would never give into evil. We wanted to model behavior that would show our kids that standing firm for what was right was more important than being safe.

The American Robert Frost, in his poem “West-Running Brook,” writes:

What does it think it’s doing running West
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries
The way I can with you . . .

I shared this poem with my wife Karen when we were dating. Then, and now, I feel that it is a prophetic word for our lives–that God was calling us to be a West running brook–it it is the right direction to go–even it it is an East running world.

I am asking you this Christmas to take a stand for Christ. To show the world that you will not be intimidated, persuaded, or moved by what the “world” tells you is right–but you will only stand on the Word of God.

Come let us glorify the Lord a nd proclaim His name forever . . .Merry Christmas!

Taking an Unpopular Stand

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Governor Robert P. Casey, 15 years ago, in a national gathering, in his speech entitled “Causes Worth Winning,” quoted a letter written by my daughter Jessica:

Dear Governor Casey,
Hi! My name is Jessica Stobaugh. I am ten. I was adopted. My birth mother chose life for me. I would stand up like you for life. I think what you are doing is right. I would do the same thing if I were governor . . . thank you for fighting for unborn children, even when it’s a hard thing to do. From your fan and friend,

Governor Casey, now deceased,, who, like Jessica, is very strongly pro-life, took a very controversial stand on the abortion issue–pro-life–that was not embraced by his political party. His courageous stand, most agree, ruined Casey politically.

But, as Casey has explained several times, his decision to take a stand on behalf of the unborn child was motivated by his faith–not by politics. And Casey is no radical anti-abortionist–I am sure that he abhors–as I do–the violent acts perpetrated against doctors and nurses involved at abortion clinics. But, because he takes a stand of conscience, even if it is unpopular, he finds himself left out in the political cold.

I am proud of my daughter and I am proud of our governor. He is one of the few political figures I know to whom I can point and say to my children, “I hope that you will show the courage and stamina to stand-up for what is right–even if it means persecution or even death.” I say the same thing about Mother Theresa–who does not think herself too important to hold a dying outcast on the streets of Calcutta and hum a song of victory. No matter how we feel about Casey’s politics, or Mother Theresa’s religion, we have to admire their courageous stands.


Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

At the end of the Gore-Perot debates in 1993 concerning NAFTA, U.S. News and World Report reporter Thom Greier regrets the ill-informed demagoguery we all witnessed during the debates. “Six score and 10 years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln first recited the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address . . . But . . . Perot and Gore demonstrated there’s reason to think that oratory of that kind has all but perished from the earth.” “The problem is not so much with the oratory as with the orators,” says Ronald Reagan’s highly regarded speech writer Peggy Noonan. “Lincoln grew up reading the Bible and William Shakespeare and thinking inescapably in big themes. Modern politicians have to give their intellectual energy to arguing about the arcane of NAFTA. If that is what you give your energy to, you lose sight of the big flow and the big river.”

Israel, in Isaiah 48:17-22, has lost sight of the big flow and the big river. This new generation, born in Babylonian captivity, is now ready to return home. Their new Persian lords are letting them go–but will their sin? Will they be able to change their ways so that they can finally know true peace, wholeness, and Shalom . . .

There is only one means to achieve shalom and that is through judiciously following the commandments of God. This is the bigger picture. And this generation needs to get the bigger picture. Babylon, with its allure of safety and comfort, promises all kinds of riches–even if it means slavery. But captivity to Babylon can never give Isaiah’s generation peace or happiness.

Alan Thein Durning in his book entitled How Much Is Enough? argues that increasingly “people measure success by the amount they consume” and “people living in the nineties are on average four-and-a half times richer than their great-grandparents were at the turn of the century.” But how many of us are any happier?

Our text challenges us to plumb the depths of our commitment to God. How much are we willing to give up for Him?

The Bible challenges people to face the temptations of worldly wealth. Jesus warns His people “what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt. 16:26)
Measured in constant dollars, the world’s people have consumed as many goods and services since 1950 as all previous generations put together. And we are no happier.
Durning argues therefore that “the main determinants of happiness in life are not related to consumption at all–prominent among them are satisfaction with family life, especially marriage, followed by satisfaction with work, leisure to develop talents, and friendships.” Yet, even though many of us know that fact, how many of us are willing to sacrifice everything in the eternal quest of possessions?

This quest captures the heart of Isa. 48 where God is looking wistfully at His people and desiring with all His heart that His people would obey Him, trust Him, follow Him . . .

Isa. 48 is addressed to a people ready to go home. To leave exile and return to responsible freedom.

But, to return to Jerusalem, after a generation in exile in Babylon, presupposes a new commitment to God’s commandments. God is aching in this passage. The God we meet here is like a yearning parent who, after punishing His children, wishes like everything that they have learned their lesson and He will not have to send them into captivity and bondage again. God is more ambitious, as it were, for His children than they are for themselves!

The bridge from captivity–Babylon–to Zion and freedom–Jerusalem–is obedience to God’s commandments. V. 18 makes it clear that the keeping of God’s commandments is critical to shalom, or health and wholeness.

The commentator Walter Brueggemann suggests that Isaiah in this passage is arguing forcibly that obedience to the commandments is a pre-requisite for healthy human relationships. The commandments as guidelines for covenantal social relationships intend an end to greed, acquisitiveness, exploitation, disrespect, and brutality of the strong against the weak (Brueggemann).
So, in Isaiah we see a patriarchal God who both loves us and also wants us to live under the shelter of His love. The prodigal son story (Luke 15), the lost sheep story (Luke 15), the lost coin story (Luke 15), and the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) all portray a loving father.

In order, though, for us to know this shalom, we must leave behind the comforts of Babylon and risk new forgiveness and grace.

Sarah Palin

Friday, September 12th, 2008

Sarah . . . who? Sarah Palin? No doubt most of us were in shock when Senator McCain announced his vice presidential choice.

How quickly we learned who she was! Pro-life. Born again Christian. Mother. Faithful wife. It seemed too good to be true!

To a country hungry for metaphysical truth, to a political party who seems to have lost its way, to a faith that was fighting cynicism, Governor Palin has been a Godsend. However, one feels about her politics, Governor Palin is the real McCoy. There is no hyperbole in Sarah Palin. What you see, is what you get. How refreshing!

But Governor Palin brings much more to this race. To a country that is starving to find a cause worth fighting for, she brings refreshing, eloquent idealism. She has put her faith where her mouth is. In spite of the fact that 80%–4 out of 5 Americans–abort mentally challenged children, Sarah Palin, quietly, privately, with no fanfare, with her husband, chose life. Life! Her tiny example of goodness and faith offers some foil to the senseless murder of 14 million children since Roe vs. Wade.

I have a confession to make. I grew up in the southern United States during the 1950s and 1960s. When southern Republicans, by and large, were racist, communist hating extremists. I joined the Democratic party because I believed in its commitment to justice and human equality. That was in 1971.

I never left the Democratic Party–although I never voted for a Democratic candidate–except pro-lifer Governor Casey (PA)–but my friends (where have I heard that expression?)–I think it is time to switch parties. What do you think? Write me and tell me what you think.