Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hate and religion in America

Stephen Shoemaker, former senior minister at Myers Park Baptist Church, writes a thought-provoking piece for the Observer about the link between religion and hate speech in America. We think it should inspire all of us to examine how we choose to participate in civic discourse. What do you think? Shoemaker is now teaching at Johnson C. Smith University and Davidson College, and is Theologian in Residence at Queens University.

Special to the Observer
“Men never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Pascal, Pensees, 894.

Recently, I saw a “hate map” of the U.S. based on Twitter communications. I almost shuddered when I saw it because it appeared almost identical to the “church attendance” maps I had seen over the years. So I looked up a recent U.S. church attendance map, and there it was. A terrible correspondence between hate-speech and religion.

What are we to think? Does religion create hatred? Sometimes, when hatred becomes part of the fabric of a particular religious group or sub-group. More often, I think, it reinforces the hate that is already there, an accelerant on the fires of human passions.

If you look at the hate map, it corresponds to what is sometimes called the “Bible Belt” in America: the South and the church-going Midwest, along with other hot spots of hate and religion around the country.

One of the dangers of Bible Belt Christianity is its pride in its “literal interpretation” of scripture. But the literalists often pick and choose which verses they use, often to bolster the self and to belittle others, ignoring Jesus’ words that the true purpose of religion (and its scriptures) is the increase in the love of God and neighbor. All religious people pick and choose. Jesus picked and chose. Christian denominations are often begun by innovations in how they pick and choose. The question is, to what end do we choose and by what overarching set of principles?

Moreover, literal interpretation of scripture is often devoid of any self-criticism. It does not ask: Could I the interpreter be interpreting the scripture wrongly? It goes by the bumper-sticker: “The Bible Says It, I Believe it, That Settles It.” Neither life nor religion is generally that easy. What results is a smug and all too easy application of the Bible to matters at hand.

Hate is magnified when religion is added, and further magnified when it becomes group hate and group think. Evil is done completely and cheerfully. Watch the smiles.

However, religion can also be a powerful resource for kindness, tolerance, compassion and a form of justice that applies to all people, not just the self and my kind. You can see the effect of religion, in particular African American Christianity, in leading and shaping the Civil Rights movement, one of the most astounding non-violent social revolutions in history. You see it in the culture of kindness among Buddhists. You see it in the effect of progressive forms of religions of all stripes in promoting human rights and social equality.

Yes, too often the progressive and moderate forms of religion are passive and silent in matters of great social importance. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. said that the greatest obstacle to racial justice was not the bigot but the “white moderate” who professed understanding but refused to speak and act. The poet Yeats captured the moral dilemma of our times: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

In a time when religion at home and around the world is tempted by hate, when Jim Crow reappears in a business suit and with a Bible, when our young are sick of religion which breeds its multi-various bigotries, let us speak the truth about the intersection of hate and religion and employ the higher strains of religious faith to build the common good.

Our nation needs impassioned moral discourse that serves to knit together the social fabric, rather than tearing it. We could begin by saying true religion respects the dignity of all persons. Period.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The student/elections clampdown - good news?

The new Republican-led State Board of Elections has decided to weigh in on two recent controversial decisions by N.C. county officials, including Watauga County's plans to eliminate a one-stop voting location on the Appalachian State campus.

The hearing, to be held next Tuesday in Raleigh, also will address the political bid of Montravias King, an Elizabeth City college student who was denied a chance to run for city council using his dormitory address as his residency. The Pasquotank County board of elections made that ruling.

We've written on the two cases, both of which are unmistakably political maneuvers by Republican officials to making voting and running difficult for people who don't share their party affiliation. But there's a larger issue here: Should students be encouraged to participate in governments in the towns and cities in which they spend most of a given year? Some think no, that because of their transient state as students, they shouldn't have the same impact as permanent residents. That's part of why Republicans applauded the N.C. voter ID law that doesn't accept student IDs as a form of identification.

Still, the state Board of Elections seems to have clear guidance on the King case from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Symm v. United States that government can't deny or discourage residency to students.

As for Watauga County - on the same day Republicans were voting to close the ASU voting site, Gov. Pat McCrory gave interviews assuring the public that politics wouldn't play a role in determining where polling locations would be. "They won't be selected based on politics or political partisan positions, which is wrong," McCrory told WUNC's Frank Stasio.

McCrory has been quiet on the issue since. 

Peter St. Onge

(h/t: Under the Dome blog.) 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sen. Kay Hagan: No troops in Syria

America should not send troops to Syria despite the use of chemical weapons there and the firing on UN inspectors today, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan told the Observer editorial board today.

"We do not need to have boots on the ground in Syria," Hagan, a first-term Democrat, said. "I wish we could exert more pressure especially from a diplomatic standpoint to bring some sort of an end to the violence."

It is believed chemical weapons were used last week, though it's not certain whether the Assad regime was responsible. A team of UN inspectors was fired upon by snipers today outside Damascus.

Hagan said she is waiting to hear from the administration about what options are on the table. She said the situation is complicated by Syria's air defense missile systems and support from Russia. Asked how well she thought the Obama administration had handled the Syrian crisis over the past year, Hagan said: "I wish I could say Assad is no longer in power but that's not the case."

She said Obama should have open discussions with the intelligence committees and armed services committees in Congress before taking any kind of military action.

Hagan gave what will likely be a preview of her reelection campaign next year, particularly if House Speaker Thom Tillis wins the Republican nomination. She blasted the Republican legislature for an array of policies, including the voter ID bill, refusing a federal expansion of Medicaid, cutting off federal unemployment benefits and education funding. She called the voter ID bill "unbelievable suppression."

Hagan touched on other issues:

  • Egypt. "I'm certainly questioning whether we should be giving any more aid at this point in time until we get better understanding from the Egyptian military that... To me it doesn't make sense to be giving aid at a point when the Egyptian military is using military force against its own people." She would not say whether the events there constituted a coup, which by federal law would require an end to foreign aid.
  • Sex assaults in the military. She said "it's a serious problem" and said it's "reprehensible" that a commanding officer could overturn a guilty verdict. She said some female members of the military declined to drink liquids in the late afternoon or evening because they were scared to use the latrine at night because of the threat of sexual assault from other U.S. military members.
  • The NSA. "We need to put more procedures in place to have the American public understand what it is that's being collected, how it's being collected, what processes the government has to go through in order to get access to the actual information." She added: "Right now I am comfortable with it (the balance of surveillance and privacy) but I do think more notice, more transparency needs to be put into place for the public."
-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Eric Holder taking aim at North Carolina?

We got the clearest signal yet today that the federal government is likely to challenge North Carolina's new voter ID law.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced this afternoon that he will sue to block Texas' voter ID law. His statement about the suit had a certain resonance to North Carolinians:

"Today's action marks another step forward in the Justice Department's continuing effort to protect the voting rights of all eligible Americans," he said. "We will not allow the Supreme Court's recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights. ...

"This represents the Department's latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last." (emphasis added)

Holder's challenge seeks to block the law entirely, alleging that it "was adopted with the purpose, and will have the result, of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group."

Given the criticism of North Carolina's law as one of the most vote-suppressing in the nation, it would be surprising if Holder didn't challenge it as well. Besides requiring photo ID, the legislation cuts early voting days, makes it harder for students to vote and ends provisional balloting, same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, among other changes.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Raleigh today, said North Carolina's law punishes minority voters and makes voting more difficult for everyone.

Powell, the keynote speaker at the CEO Forum, added: "What it really says to the minority voters is ... 'We really are sort-of punishing you,'" the News & Observer reported.

-- Taylor Batten

Ronnie Bryant's backpedal

As a basketball fan, I've seen a lot of impressive pivots. But I don't know that I've ever seen one quite like Ronnie Bryant displayed today.

Bryant is the CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, an outfit that works to recruit business to the Charlotte region. He wrote an op-ed in today's Observer that was a 180 from what he told the editorial board earlier this month about how he felt about the Republican legislature.

Bryant met with the board Aug. 8. Reporter Eric Frazier asked Bryant if he was receiving any blowback as a result of the GOP legislature's controversial actions. Bryant gave a full-throated response, saying that the General Assembly's actions on issues such as voting laws, abortion, guns and teacher pay were hurting the state's brand around the country. The legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory were prompting news coverage around the nation that were making his job harder, Bryant said.

A widely-read editorial in the New York Times last month headlined "The decline of North Carolina" won the state extensive attention around the country. Bryant said he had been in New York in recent weeks trying to do damage control. "The number one question" he was getting, he said: "What the hell are you guys doing?"

Bryant said his organization and others had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars getting positive coverage for the Charlotte region. The legislature's actions, he said, undercut that work. "All of our efforts over the past few years have been negated over the past few weeks. I've never seen anything like it in my life." His frustration with the legislature was evident.

Bryant also said he was concerned that the state's move toward privatizing some of the Department of Commerce's functions could hurt his organization, because it would have to compete with the state for corporate support.

Frazier wrote a news story and I wrote a column about our conversation with Bryant. It was surprising that Bryant would say such things, even if they were well-grounded, because the Charlotte Regional Partnership receives state money and has to work with the legislature and McCrory administration on economic development.

Today, Bryant backpedals hard. "My concerns do not lie with the North Carolina General Assembly, the privatization of the state's economic development efforts or the elimination of funding for the seven regional partnerships," he writes.

He says he is concerned that "national publications cherry pick recent legislative activity and write articles that attempt to cast doubts on North Carolina's business climate..." He said McCrory and the legislature weren't getting enough credit for "positive changes" such as tax reform and labeled the national coverage "unjustified attacks on our brand."

There was nothing in our earlier conversation that suggested he thought the attacks were unjustified or cherry picking. The opposite, in fact. Bryant, obviously, is now getting an earful and feels the need to back off his earlier statements to the Observer. I'm sympathetic to that, but it needs to be seen for what it is.

-- Taylor Batten

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The birthers and ... Ted Cruz?

Let's enjoy for a moment the squirming from the far right over Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, his birth certificate, and Canada. But then let's let it go.

Cruz released the birth certificate Monday after the Dallas Morning News reported the day before that because the senator was born in Canada to an American mother, he was a dual citizen of the United States and Canada. While some have questioned whether Cruz was a natural born U.S. citizen and could run for president - as he seems very ready to do - experts told the News he was likely in the clear.

Cruz, a freshman senator and tea party darling, seemed surprised that he might be a Canadian citizen, and on Monday he took the curious step of publicly renouncing that citizenship. A cynical guess as to why: He knows that in a Republican primary for president, the far right voters he needs are the ones who might raise an eyebrow that he's not "fully" American.

Cruz also was annoyed Monday about the birth certificate questions, complaining that it must be "a slow news day." (We're still looking for similar complaints from Cruz when birther questions hounded Obama through both his presidential campaigns.) Meanwhile, those birthers and others on the far right are wondering why reporters aren't condemning the "new" birthers the same way they did the old ones?

Here's why: With Cruz, the questions surrounding his birth certificate are solely about whether his birthplace disqualifies him from being president. No one is questioning where he was born, or the legitimacy of that birth certificate. With Obama, birthers continue to fill reporters' inboxes with speculation that his birth certificate is a fraud and that he stole his Social Security number.

That said, the Cruz story should die a quick death. The courts haven't addressed the issue, but Constitutional scholars say that being born to a U.S. citizen is the same thing as being born in the United States. So, they say, Cruz is eligible to be our president - just as foreign born John McCain and George Romney were. That's good enough for us.  

Peter St. Onge

Monday, August 19, 2013

A debate about busloads of voters

North Carolina's new voting law continues to be a flashpoint for debate, both in the state and across the country. Two new additions to the discussion, from the conservative National Review and the not-so-conservative New York Magazine, bring a finer point to the debate about the kind of fraud the law might stop.  

The National Review, in an editorial late last week, praised the law for protecting elections from a "time-honored practice" of local political fixers helping their party by gathering up potential voters and bringing them to the precinct for some registering and ballot casting. 

Says the editorial: 

Go down to the local homeless shelter, day-labor corner, or wino encampment, pull up with vans, and distribute such benefits as may be motivational in exchange for the effort of the denizens therein to cast their ballots. In the 2000 presidential campaign, the practice was so aggressive that a Milwaukee homeless shelter had to chase away Gore operatives attempting to bribe their wards with cigarettes. Long early-voting periods and same-day registration facilitate this process. Even the most able political machine can round up only so many people on Election Day, and those who are available for such rounding up often are not registered voters.

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, in a post this morning, takes issue with the NRO's implication:

The point of this odd, paranoid digression seems to be that Democrats rely on the wrong kind of people and pay them something to vote, which is easier to do if it’s easier to vote. “Even the most able political machine can round up only so many people on Election Day,” argues the National Review editorial, “and those who are available for such rounding up often are not registered voters.” Note the assumption: They’re often not registered voters, made without any hard evidence. It’s just an inherent characteristic of a party reliant on winos, day laborers, the homeless, and the Wrong Sorts of People in general, which is why basically any restriction on the ability of Those People to vote is fine, because they shouldn’t be voting at all.
A note: Accusations of voters being bused to precincts helped drive a separate N.C. law cited in this Associated Press article today. The new law bans voters from casting a ballot in precincts other than their own. N.C. Republicans, including Mecklenburg commissioner Bill James in a 2004 lawsuit, have long accused Democrats of attempting to tilt elections by bringing busloads of voters to precincts that weren't necessarily their own. 

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Let the voter clampdown begin

That didn't take long. Hours after Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation overhauling North Carolina's voting laws, local election boards started making changes that will make it harder for college students to participate in elections.

The Watauga County Board of Elections on Monday voted 2-1 -- two Republicans against one Democrat -- to shut down an early voting site and an Election Day precinct on the Appalachian State University campus. They also cut the number of early voting sites overall from three to one, and combined three Election Day precincts into one. That will put 9,300 Boone residents in one precinct, though the Watauga Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges said state guidelines call for a maximum of 1,500 voters in any one precinct.

The move came in front of dozens of protesters who booed and chanted "shame on you." Republican board member Luke Eggers warned the vocal crowd that they could be sent to jail for up to 30 days if they didn't "obey the lawful commands of the board of elections," the High Country Press reported.

Bob Phillips of Common Cause points out that on the same day Watauga Republicans were shutting down the ASU voting site, Gov. Pat McCrory was doing interviews assuring the public that politics wouldn't play any role in determining where polling locations would be.

"They won't be selected based on politics or political partisan positions, which is wrong," McCrory told WUNC's Frank Stasio.

It's quite obvious that the Watauga board's move will make it harder for Appalachian State students to vote. The new law doesn't change how early voting sites are selected -- they are chosen by each county's board of elections. With Republicans in power, every county board contains two Republicans and one Democrat. Democrats, we imagine, sought political advantage through voting locations as well.

Early voting's goal is to make voting convenient for all residents, regardless of their registration. Cutting the number of days and the number of locations undercuts that goal.

Meanwhile, in Pasquotank County, the Republican-controlled Board of Elections is blocking a properly registered voter from running for City Council because he is a student at Elizabeth City State University. Senior Montravias King has been registered to vote in Pasquotank since coming to college in 2009. King filed to run for City Council, but the board ruled he couldn't use his campus address to establish residency, the Associated Press reported.

Lawyer Clare Barnett, representing King, cited an N.C. Supreme Court ruling that said students can register to vote in the towns where they attend college. Pasquotank wants a system where it's OK to vote but not OK to run for office? Probably not, actually: the county's Republican chairman says he plans to challenge the voter registration of other ECSU students.

Every move in politics, of course, is designed to give one party a political advantage. But for the millions of N.C. residents whose careers don't hinge on winning elections, the primary goal should be vigorous and widespread participation in our democracy. Looks like not everyone agrees.

-- Taylor Batten


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hillary Clinton and the N.C. voting law

If there were remaining slivers of doubt out there that Hillary Clinton has her eye on 2016, she tidily swept them away last night in San Francisco with the first of several promised speeches on restoring faith in government. This one was delivered to the American Bar Association convention. The topic: voting rights.

And if you have any doubt that North Carolina's legislature has branded our state as among the nation's most regressive, here's the speech in which Clinton cites North Carolina, Texas and Florida as states that are making it harder for citizens to vote. She went after the N.C. law with particular venom, saying provisions like limited voting hours, stricter ID requirements and restricted early voting put a greater burden on citizens.

N.C.'s law, she said, "reads like the greatest hits of voter suppression."

Get used to it. Just as North Carolina was in the headlines for being the first and only state to cut off unemployment benefits for tens of thousands by rejecting federal money, we're grabbing attention all over again for the thoroughness our lawmakers showed in discouraging people from voting. This one promises to have some staying power, with lawsuits already filed and the potential of the Justice Department getting involved. 

And while many North Carolinians don't care about Hillary Clinton speeches or New York Times editorials, they are heard and read by moderate Democrats and Republicans who also don't think that things like voting restrictions are a good idea. That's true in North Carolina, too. Public Policy Polling's newest North Carolina poll over the weekend showed that only 39 percent of voters in the state support the voting/elections law to 50 percent who are opposed to it.

PPP's Tom Jensen noted that while voter ID on its own is a popular concept with voters, "all the other stuff lumped into the bill along with voter ID is unpopular enough to make the overall bill a loser in voters' eyes." An example: Only 33 percent of voters in the state support reducing the early voting period by a week to 59 percent who are opposed. Independents (28/62) and Democrats (22/70) were both strongly opposed to that provision.

That might explain why Gov. Pat McCrory, in a video released Monday after he signed the voting legislation, focused only on photo ID and not the other restrictions. But no one is fooled. And people, once again, are talking about how backward we're becoming. 

Peter St. Onge