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The Pope’s Real Message…

In Washington, D.C., a town where status almost always counts for more than substance, having your own Towncar with a driver or commanding a motorcade that features a dozen black Suburbans is perhaps the ultimate sign that you have “made it” in the Unholy See.

The Pope's Fiat surrounded by non-Fiat like vehicles

The Pope’s Fiat surrounded by non-Fiat like vehicles

Pope Francis, the best retail politician in America this week, showed up at the White House in a squat little Italian Fiat 500L, the vehicle the Eurocar rental people try to pawn off on you if you’re lucky enough to visit Florence. The car gets 35 miles to the gallon and retails for $20,000. Fancy it isn’t, practical it more surely is.

The contrast this week between the smiling, waving, warm, genuine, selfie posing, Fiat-riding Bishop of Rome and the pompous self-assurance of the American ruling class could not have been more pronounced.

Visiting the Sick…

The New Yorker’s humor columnist Andy Borowitz headlined his satirical piece on the Pope on Capitol Hill by suggesting that Francis was doing the Lord’s work by visiting the sick.”

Who but Pope Francis could have stood before the dysfunctional American Congress, a group of mostly hyper partisan, re-election obsessed elites who have spent the summer debating shutting down the government again, and reminded them of why they are where they are.

“You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics,” Francis reminded the multitudes. Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, a Tea Party Republican and a Catholic, missed the responsibility message. Gosar boycotted the Pope’s speech.

Pope Francis speaks to Congress

Pope Francis speaks to Congress

Gosar said he expected Francis would devote a good portion of his speech to the “questionable science” of climate change and anyway the Pope acts like “a leftist politician” and therefore deserves to be dissed in public. Francis’ speech did touch on climate change, but his real message – compassion, care for the poor, shared responsibility for one another, peace and “the pursuit of the common good” were no doubt lost on too many of our political wise men, people like Gosar, the members of the caucus of constant division.

“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members,” the Pope said in the House chamber, “especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” It was more civics lesson than political speech, more a sermon on service from a smart Jesuit than a list of policy prescriptions from a South American leftist.

Still, since everything in America is at all times political, the voices of the entrenched right, who willfully ignore the perils of income inequality and the reality of climate science, had the long knives out for Francis even before his Fiat rolled toward the White House.

The Sermon from the Beltway…

“Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony,” was the ironic bombast from George Will, the most sanctimonious of all the Beltway gasbags.

“With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, [Francis] embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary,” Will sermonized in his syndicated column. “They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak — if his policy prescriptions were not as implausible as his social diagnoses are shrill.”

Whew. Caring for the poor, trying to eliminate poverty, working for peace, ensuring the survival of the planet are now merely “fashionable.” George Will will now be remembered as the first conservative apologist for the status quo to label the carpenter of Nazareth’s ideas as “reactionary.”

Most of the ruling class and many on the far right, perhaps because of their own blinkered beliefs in the unadorned wonders of capitalism and their comfortable status among the well off, have missed Pope Francis’ real message, which is why they fail to understand his broad and deep appeal around the world.

Pope Francis blesses a child in St. Peter's Square after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis blesses a child in St. Peter’s Square after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Pope isn’t really a politician in the sense that George Will sees him, but rather a philosopher, or even better a religious philosopher. His message – like Jesus or Buddha, darn I say, Mohammed, transcend politics.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the gospels report as Jesus’ response to a question about whether Jews should pay taxes to the Roman authorities. On trial for his teaching and presenting a threat to the ruling order, Jesus reminded Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world.”

Service of the Human Person…

Catholics and non-Catholics around the world have warmed to this Pontiff precisely because he constantly, in word and action, lives the fundamental “kingdom of God” message of inclusion, caring, dignity, hope and decency. Francis’ entire visit to the United States and all his public pronouncements re-enforce the essential message of his faith. The Pope was, as a good pastor does, merely reminding the leaders of our secular kingdom, that they can benefit – indeed all of us can benefit – from behaving less like partisan division makers and more like the Lord’s disciples.

When Francis said, “If politics must truly be the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build the greatest common good,” he was simply saying that we must use “politics” to address the world’s real issues. That isn’t a message from the left or right, but it is both spiritual and practical. And it is the language of a leader.

Think about this: suppose Mr. Gosar, the boycotting Arizona congressman, were as important as he obviously thinks he is and had been invited to give a major speech at St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Imagine that Pope Francis had been invited to attend that speech, taking time away from visiting a homeless shelter or cleaning up the mess that has become the Vatican bank. Can you imagine the South American leftist being so self-important and so rude as to boycott the speech of one of his right wing critics? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen and that speaks volumes about the main in the Fiat.

Francis has been administering to the sick in Washington, New York, at the United Nation and elsewhere. Let’s hope – indeed let’s pray – that after his remarkable visit that a few more of us are open to his message of healing.


Weekend Reads

Robert Caro, Jerry Kramer and More

There is a fascinating piece planned for publication Sunday, and already online, in The New York Times on legendary Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. Caro is about to release volume four of his projected five volume bio of LBJ. To date he has produced 3,388 fascinating pages.

Caro’s work is one of the greatest studies ever of the accumulation and use of political power. The piece also has great insights into the author’s methods, which could properly be described as “old school.” He dresses for work every day in jacket and tie, for example. Great piece.

Northwest Nazarene University political scientist Steve Shaw and one of his colleagues, English Department Chair Darrin Grinder, have just released an important new book that I highly recommend. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote about the book – “The Presidents and Their Faith” – earlier this week. From Jefferson’s own version of the Gospels to Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian minister father to Richard Nixon’s Quaker roots, Shaw and Grinder give us wonderful mini-portraits of 43 presidents and their personal and political faith. With so much talk of politics and religion, the book couldn’t be timelier. Highly recommended.

Insightful piece in The Atlantic by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf that explains why national Republicans have spent 20 years searching for the next Ronald Reagan and haven’t found him.

“Today, would be Reagans with less charisma, less executive experience and less time spent honing their thinking and communication skills are somehow expecting to succeed even as they operate in a less advantageous political environment. Of course it isn’t happening. And it’s no wonder conservatives are divided in who they support.”

And finally, I am very aware (and happy) that baseball is back in action. My Giants open today in the city by the bay. But, the best sports book I’ve read in a while is an older book, published in 1968, Instant Replay by Green Bay Packer great and University of Idaho grad Jerry Kramer. The New York Times called Kramer’s book the “best behind the scene glimpse of pro football ever produced.”

Some think the book’s candor has contributed to Kramer being passed over for the NFL Hall of Fame. If so, that’s ridiculous. Kramer is the most deserving NFL player not in the Hall and that oversight, at long last, should be corrected. Get a copy of the book and read it. It’s great.


A Brother

Robert E. “Rick” Johnson, 1945-2012

Here is hoping those of you who read here with some regularity will endulge me a very personal piece today. My brother died Monday, much too young and, as is so often the case, without me – and others I suspect – saying all we might have said while he was alive.

Rick was a classic big brother, smart, cool – always had a girlfriend – the guy everyone wanted as a friend. I was in awe. He excelled in high school as a four-sport jock. Held school records in the long jump, quarterbacked the football team, got his little school to the state basketball tournament. I tried, with no success, to emulate his athletic prowess and he was always encouraging my efforts even when, as I now know, he knew it wouldn’t be. He went off to college while I was still in junior high school and, in a way, we lived a generation and a world apart. He became a coach and teacher and later worked very successfully in the lumber and construction materials business. My path was journalism, politics and public affairs.

University of Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini may not know it, but he has lost his number one assistant. Brother Rick bled Husker Red. As season ticket holders, he and his wife would six or seven times a year make the extraordinarily long drive from Bismarck to Lincoln for a Nebraska home game. That, my friends, is a devoted fan. I remember growing up in western Nebraska and later South Dakota and Rick driving his old Chevy out to some high hill trying to tune in on the car radio a game on a fall Saturday afternoon. This guy loved his football, but even more his family.

We would talk on the phone and generally set the politics aside – Rick was just a bit more conservative than his brother – and catch up on the latest sports and family news. He always had a story about one of the kids doing something special or, more recently, the grandkids. It will be cold comfort to them for a while, but they will always have a life-time of memories of a truly great Dad and Grandfather. He’ll be the talk of every future family gathering. We’ll be telling Rick stories for as long as there are Johnsons.

Friends have been extraordinarily kind when hearing the news about my brother this week and one inquired, in the most gentle way, about my family and faith traditions. The question, coming just at the right time, caused me to really consider an answer. All of us, intellectually at least, know that death is a part of life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But until death comes knocking we – at least me – rarely confront the ultimate reality. My faith is summed up by the Sermon on the Mount and in the profound belief that love is all we really have. If love were not the ultimate gift from God why would such a hole exist in your heart when death comes calling?

I’m off to North Dakota to wear some Husker Red, celebrate a very good, but too short life, and to bask in the love that my brother left behind.


A Robust and Complicated Debate

OaksRexburg Speech Sparks, Well, Sparks

LDS Church Apostle Dallin Oaks gave a speech a while back at the church’s growing and impressive school at Rexburg – BYU Idaho – that received some spirited attention in religious and civil rights circles and, considering the subject – same sex unions – not surprisingly, the speech generated some controversy.

The subject has become, I think, a very difficult one for the media to handle and typically historical perspective is lacking. Framing the issue as one involving a question of conflicting rights, however, requires a certain willingness to grapple with the American experience regarding religious expression and the struggle for equality.

Dallin Oaks didn’t start this debate, but his speech in Rexburg may have sharpened it.

Oaks is an impressive fellow. He taught law at the University of Chicago, served as president of Brigham Young University, was a Utah Supreme Court judge, and now serves on the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In Republican administrations, Oaks has been considered a potential U. S. Supreme Court nominee.

The subject of his Rexburg speech was religious freedom and the intimidation of members of the LDS faith that Oaks believes has come about as a result of the church’s opposition to same sex marriage proposals in California. In casting his concerns in terms of religious freedom, he incensed some by drawing parallels with the 1960’s civil rights movement.

“The extent and nature of religious devotion in this nation is changing,” said Oaks. “The tide of public opinion in favor of religion is receding, and this probably portends public pressures for laws that will impinge on religious freedom.”

As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, the LDS Church urged its “followers to donate money and time to pass Prop 8, the successful ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to wed in California. Afterward protests, including several near LDS temples, erupted along with boycotts of business owners who donated to Prop 8 and even some vandalism of LDS meetinghouses.”

Oaks said, “In their effect [these actions] are like the well-known and widely condemned voter intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil rights legislation.”

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch (and a former Idahoan), told the Tribune there is “no comparison” between what members of the LDS faith have endured and what civil rights advocates suffered.

“I don’t see where the LDS Church has been denied any of their rights,” she said. “What the gay and lesbian communities are fighting for, that is a civil-rights issue.”

This is a fascinating and important discussion because it brings at least two fundamental American values – religious freedom (and religious expression, however it is defined) into conflict with a claim of a basic civil liberty. The conflict is as old as the republic and as fresh as the morning headlines. It is also a study in how an issue can be framed and packaged for public and media consumption – my religious expression versus your civil rights.

I’m reminded of the thoughtful writing of Professor Martin Marty, a Lutheran pastor and a teacher and scholar at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Marty has written of Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to invoke the Almighty in his political discourse. In fact, Lincoln – not a church joiner – may have spoken of God more often in his public discourse and writing than any other president.

Marty’s essay about Lincoln and religion notes that the 16th president wrote in 1864 to the Baptist Home Mission Society thanking the religious group for its support of his anti-slavery and Emancipation policies.

As Professor Marty has noted: “Of course, clergy in the South were claiming the same quality of biblical warrants for their pro-slavery, pro-secession, pro-Confederacy causes, and Lincoln had to deride them for that. Only a year or two before, he wrote the Society:

“‘Those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said ‘As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them’ appealed to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, and thus, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils [sic] attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical.”

Then, as Marty says, after having identified the South and its clergy with the satanic and the devilish, Lincoln qualified his point: “But let me forbear, remembering it is also written, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’”

Ironically, Marty notes, Lincoln had just judged in the interest of pressing a political, indeed civil rights, point. As I said, this is an old debate and a complicated one in that American rights regarding religion and civil rights, at least the perception of those rights by some, can be in sharp conflict.

For what it’s worth, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a recent survey that says support is growing among Americans for civil unions, but same-sex marriage is still opposed by a majority of Americans.

As this debate moves forward, and it will move forward, both sides will likely continue to attempt to cast the issue in terms of its own concept of “civil rights.”

Without a grand compromise that balances conflicting rights, as Lincoln might have said, both sides can’t be right.

Forrest Church

ForrestEloquence in Politics and Religion

Forrest Church, who died last week at 61, could, with his writings and sermons, be both strikingly eloquent and stunningly insightful. In that regard, he was clearly his father’s son.

It is a rare thing in public life these days to read the words or hear the voice of a truly eloquent thinker and writer. The late Idaho Senator – Frank Church – was that rare breed and so was his Unitarian minister son.

Back in January 1984, with his father dying of cancer, Forrest spoke to his Church of All Souls congregation in New York City about death and life.

He said that day that naturally all of us are afraid of death because “death is the ultimate mystery. But there is a way to counter this fear. We can live in such a way that our lives will prove to be worth dying for. It lies in our courage to love. Our courage to risk. Our courage to lose. Many people have said it in many different ways. The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear.”

Forrest Church was a man of religion and, importantly, a thinker about theology and all its mystery and uncertainty. He sought to make people think, not just believe. Forrest was also a skilled historian whose books on the basics of the American system, including freedom of speech, civil liberties and religion should be required reading for anyone who wants to struggle to undersand where we came from and where we might be going. A good collection of his writings can be found here.

In an Easter sermon in 2008, while battling his own cancer, Church said: “We all are children of God. We all are sinners. We all can be forgiven if we will refrain from harsh judgment. Love casts out fear. God is love. And only love remains. Only the love we give away.”

Both father – the Senator was 59 – and son died much too young, but what lives they lived.