St Paul & the Kingdom of Heaven

When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.  (1 Thessalonians 5:3)

“Paul understood that God’s messiah was not to be the exclusive king of the Israelites, but he was meant to be the world’s king, a light to the Gentiles, and as such his kingdom must include Gentiles from throughout the empire.  […]  In 1 Thessalonians 5:3 Paul seems to be making a scathing critique of those whose hope is in the peace (pax, eirene) and security (securitas, asphaleia) of Roman rule.” (Aristotle Panaikolaou, Thinking Through Faith, pp 33 & 35)

 Interesting that at a time when Christians were an insignificant minority in the Roman Empire that they might have been relying on the stability of the Empire to give them peace and security.  It was this very Empire that had crucified the Lord Jesus and would eventually turn its imperial power against the Christians.

But through the centuries Christians have often relied on worldly power to be the sign of God’s Kingdom on earth and to insure that there would be stability on earth.  The Byzantine Orthodox certainly did it with their Byzantine Empire.  Russian Orthodox in the old Russian Empire had a similar hope.  Some think Russian Orthodox today are looking to Putin and the Russian state to again provide stability to the world for Christians.  Even a few American Evangelicals have apparently thought modern Russia might be the last defender of Christian family values.  Certainly some American Christians have believed the United States, up to this point in history, has been the guarantor of peace, prosperity and stability in the world for Christians.  They fear that changes in American culture will mean God will no longer protect America or Christians.

St. Paul would probably still have the same message for us today as he had for Christians in the first century – beware of putting your trust in worldly rulers, empires and powers for providing you peace and security.

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)

For no worldly power is defending the Kingdom of God and none can prevent the Kingdom from coming.

Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”  (John 18:36)

Jesus apparently wasn’t a proponent of God and country.   All worldly empires and nations belong to the world which is passing away and which will be replaced by God’s kingdom.

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.”  (Matthew 25:31-33)

All of this is why we pray at our services for our nation, our president, all civil authority and the armed forces.  It is our nation which needs the protection of the Kingom of God not the Kingdom which needs the nation to protect it.

PRESIMETRICS: Those Stubborn Facts

Though the autumn is one of my favorite seasons of the year weather-wise, I’ve come to despise the election campaigns of fall and the political advertising that poisonously pollute the airwaves.  It is a good time of year for Americans to practice turning off their radios and televisions: go outdoors and become attuned to nature, give more time to friends and interesting conversation, or volunteer for worthwhile charity and civic projects.  Though many people I know can’t imagine life without the “entertainment industry”, my assessment for all thinking Americans is they would be far happier without it.  Everyone should ban commercial driven media and talk shows for the 30 days leading up to the election.   That’s my prescription for an American pursuit of happiness.

 

Protect your ears & hearts from political noise pollution

 

Money talks they say, and in America money buys a lot of talk as well.  Negative advertizing against candidates destroys the morale of our nation.  It encourages cynicism, drowns out reasonable discourse, and causes the polarization in politics that paralyzes our democracy.

Far better for me was our diocesan election of a bishop – not once did any of the candidates warn about what would happen if one of their “rivals” was elected.  Each simply spoke about their own experience in the church and how they might respond to issues should they become bishop.   It is hard to imagine a calmer experience than the day of the bishop’s election.

I read with interest Mike Kimel and Michael Kanell’s PRESIMETRICS:WHAT THE FACT TELL US ABOUT HOW THE PRESIDENTS MEASURE UP ON THE ISSUES WE CARE ABOUT. I’m not so driven by statistics that I checked all their facts, but they offered an interesting view of what the Presidents from Eisenhower to GW Bush did while in office.  I don’t know the authors’ political preferences, but liked the implication of some of their comments:

“A president who year after year produces surpluses, avoiding the temptation to spend unnecessarily, is making the country better off.”

“… a president who cuts taxes while at the same time driving up the debt is not really ‘cutting taxes.’”

I’m not going to make many more comments, but want to quote from the book – you can get a copy and read it for yourself.  But there were real surprises in what the statistics show.  (Abortion rates dropped sharpest under Clinton!)   Certainly what the political parties claim to be their agendas and priorities aren’t always upheld by what presidents from those parties did while in office.

“…the notion that growth is hindered by taxes doesn’t seem to be borne out by the data we’ve been using.  In our sample of eight administrations, the three administrations that raised tax revenues, and the one that reduced them by the least, happened to be the four fastest-growing administrations in our sample.  The four biggest tax-cutting administrations also produced the slowest growth by far.”

“… the four administrations that produced the biggest annualized increases in social spending as a percentage of the budget were also the four administrations that produced the slowest economic growth.”

Nevertheless, we have seen no evidence that cutting the tax burden increases growth rates, at least for the levels of taxation that we observed in the United States from 1953 to 2008.  Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“Under Democratic administrations overall, debt as a percentage of GDP shrank, while on the average under Republican administrations it rose.”

“Democratic administrations have presided over faster economic growth on average and done so without adding as much to the national debt as Republican administrations. …. And the policies Democrats have pursued have increased income and wealth more quickly than the policies Republicans have pursued…. That is, a trickle-up economy seems to beat a trickle-down economy.  So sayeth the data.”

“Of the eleven American presidents who served from the end of World War II to 2008, Reagan was the only one who increased both the size of the national debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the percentage of Americans employed by the federal government.”

“Among all the administrations in our sample, the Clinton administration was the only one to actually reduce real spending per capita…  By far the biggest annual drop in spending as a share of GDP came under Clinton.”

“…Ike and Clinton… both of them decreased current federal spending as a percentage of GDP, and yet both of them managed to increase the share of that reduced federal spending going to the state and local governments.  And since of these two only Ike also cut taxes as well, perhaps Ike is the true conservative in a crowd of pretenders.”

“Republicans had a tendency to increase the percentage of total spending that went toward welfare almost four times more quickly than Democrats.  We’re willing to bet that not what you expected to read when you started this chapter.”

“The only administration to move the country in the direction of energy independence was Jimmy Carter.”  Voters didn’t like what that meant for their lifestyles which is no doubt why politicians so rarely advocate for the needed but unpopular decisions.

The authors looked at readily available economic information to plot their graphs and come to their conclusions.  Some may not like their observations, but in as much as they fairly presented the data, it is not worth shooting the messengers.

What I certainly came away from in reading the book is that simply lowering taxes is not an answer in itself for helping the economy.  There needs to be a corresponding reduction in government as a portion of the GDP to create a healthier future for the country.  The national debt matters long term, but politicians ever mindful of voter approval focus on making popular short term decisions.  That is why, according to the book, cutting taxes now always sounds right, but when no corresponding decrease in spending occurs, the taxes are simply pushed into the future as eventually the debt has to be paid.

Power: Congressional and American

Third and final blog reflecting on Garry Wills’ BOMB POWER: THE MODERN PRESIDENCY AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE.   The first blog in the series is Super Power: Is The Bomb America’s True or only strength?

James Madison

In the previous blog, Presidential Power, American Founding Father James Madison was very clear as to war power belonging to the Congress and why – America is not to be governed by one person laying claim to imperial power.  In free government (free from monarchical rule), so Madison says, there must be debate, deliberation and discussion about going to war.  However, since the rise of atomic weapons at the end of WWII, American presidents have laid greater claims to the right to use the countries military to carry out American foreign policy.  Madison wrote“There can be no harm in declaring, that standing armies in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and ought to be avoided, as far as it may be consistent with the protection of the community.”    Madison feared that in general if there was a standing army, the government would always be tempted to use it.  

When it comes the military and going to war, the U.S. Constitution puts the authority with Congress, not with the president:

“The congress shall have power

To lay and collect taxes, duties… to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States…

To declare war, to grant letters of marquee and reprisal…

To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.

To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.”   (U. S. Constitution)

U.S. Constitution

Garry Wills contention is that since the creation of the atom bomb  toward the end of WWII, the executive branch has usurped the Constitutional authority of congress by making warfare a normal way of conducting foreign policy, thus violating the Constitution.  While almost every President since Truman has used these powers to engage in military conflicts by-passing congress in doing so and becoming ever more secretive about it, Wills thinks former Vice President Dick Cheney has pushed the executive grab for power harder than anyone.   He attributes the disastrous fall of GW Bush’s popularity and failure of his policies as the direct result of Cheney’s effort which resulted in Barak Obama gaining the presidency.   (He doesn’t see Obama as readily giving up the powers that Bush had claimed, which is part of the problem Wills is describing: each president claimed more powers to engage in war, to ever increasing secrecy, to usurping congressional powers, and few have tried to ever reverse the powers previous presidents have claimed for the executive branch.  Congress did pass a War Powers Resolution in 1973 stating “The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities…” but Wills notes this is already congress surrendering its constitutionally defined power to the presidency.  The War Powers Resolution  gives tacit recognition to presidential violation of the constitution; congress is begging the presidents to share the power to maintain a military or go to war with congress whereas constitutionally these powers belong to congress alone!   Dick Cheney opposed this resolution from when it was first proposed, not because he wants to defend the constitution, but on the contrary because he wanted the presidency to have exclusive power!). 

The founding fathers created a constitution in which the powers of government were spread through three branches (executive, legislative and judicial) precisely to prevent a monarchical personage from emerging to control the government and the nation and to suppress democratic debate and deliberation.  Big government consists not only of offering entitlements to some people, it also takes the form of ever usurping the powers granted to the three branches by the Constitution.

Presidential Power

I read Garry Wills’ BOMB POWER: THE MODERN PRESIDENCY AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE which I found to be a fast moving and interesting book, but one which led me to be concerned about the direction of our country.  This is the 2nd blog in a series based on Wills book, the first is Super Power: Is The Bomb America’s True or only strength?

A few quotes from the book:

“There were a large number of people in the State Department when I took over who were certain I did not know what was going on in the world, and they tried to keep me from finding out.”   (President Harry Truman)

“Accountability is the essence of democracy.  If people do not know what their government is doing, they cannot be truly self-governing.”  (Wills)

The above statement is one of Wills’ major concerns – the more secrecy the government undertakes, the less we the people know about what they are doing.  Some fear only what they see the government doing or what they fear the government is going to do.  So some fear the new health care proposals as creating even a bigger government.  But the government continues to grow, and truly in a “Big Brother” capacity, in its secrecy – both in what is kept secret from “we the people” and the amount that is being kept secret.  Some fear “socialism” creeping in through health care reform, but a form of big government/brother perhaps of bigger concern and threat to our freedoms is the huge and growing secret parts of our government:  secret weapons, surveillance, covert operations, secret trials and interrogations which much more closely resemble some of the worst aspects of Soviet socialism of the 20th Century.  

“And Truman found out what others would learn after him, that presidential wars may be easy to start but they are almost impossible to end.”  (Wills)

It quickly became apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification, and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.”   (Erwin Griswold, Solicitor General under President Nixon)

When Cheney became Vice President in 2001, he and his legal advisor, David Addington, asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to rule that the President, and he alone, has all authority over war – exactly the opposite of the constitutional grant of all such authority to Congress. …   Cheney said the Constitution was irrelevant to executive power.”  (Wills)

“It was (John) Yoo’s job to invent the legal rationales for actions universally seen as illegal before 9/11. Yoo came to the task with preformed certitudes about the limitless extent of presidential prerogative.  …  His President is ‘the sovereign,’ and sovereignty is by definition free of external control. …  Even in England, the sovereign was ‘the king in Parliament.’  Yoo would make the President more powerful than the monarch we renounced in 1776.”  (Wills)

Makes me wonder, all those who now fear big government – why not question the secret big government that Cheney advocates (“limitless power”!).  And with Obama in power, maybe that will cause neo-cons to recognize the blindness that their drive to empower the presidency with supreme power represents, and the threat to the U.S. constitution.   Why is the Tea Party silent on this form of big government. secretive operations and big government secretive spending? 

“A declaration that there shall be war is not an execution of laws: it does not suppose pre-existing laws to be executed; it is not in any respect an act merely executive.  It is, on the contrary, one of the most deliberative acts that can be performed… In the general distribution of powers, we find that of declaring war expressly vested in the Congress, where every other legislative power is declared to be vested, and without any other qualification than what is common to every other legislative act.  The constitutional idea of this power would seem then clearly to be that it is of a legislative and not an executive nature…. Those who are to conduct  a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded.  They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government analogous to that which separates the sword form the purse, or the power of executing from the power of enacting laws.”  (James Madison, founding father of the U.S., “Father of the Bill of Rights,” President, commentator on the Constitution)

   Madison once wrote that those generations who declare war ought to pay for the entire enterprise and not leave expenses to future generations.  He thought this would curtail the desire to go to war.  He felt the problem with having a standing army is that the government will not be able to resist the temptation to put it to use.  No doubt he felt having the congress rather than the president be responsible for declaring and going to war would curtail the number of wars the country declared since it is harder to get a majority to agree than to have one executive officer engage in whatever adventurism he is wont to do.  Presidents in the last 50 years have found plenty of reason to go off to war, without the constitutionally mandated approval of congress.

Next:  Power:  Congressional and American

Super Power: Is the ‘Bomb’ America’s True or Only Strength?

I have been reading Garry Wills’ BOMB POWER: THE MODERN PRESIDENCY AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE.   The book is an interesting and accessible read and, sadly for me, verifies things I have feared have been happening in American politics, especially in the executive branch of our government.  I find it all quite depressing (A feeling exacerbated by the book I’m currently reading, TRUE ENOUGH, in which dirty politics is revealed as appealing to ideologically inclined Americans who aren’t interested if something is true, just so it is “true enough” to be believable to them).  Basically Wills asserts that as a result of creating the atom bomb the US government has since WWII continued on a path of ever increasing demands for secrecy regarding the military and creating a virtual continual war mentality in the country.  World War II ended, but America never returned to a peace time frame of mind.  The fear of the Russians/communists created a perpetual war time mentality with increasing demands for money, secrecy and national security.  America entered a new kind of “peace” – “a peace to be based on a weapon.”   Fortress America arose out of the mentality that the only way to guarantee our “peace” in the world was to be prepared to use nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the face of any threat.  He calls this “a permanent war in peace.” 

 “This book has a basic thesis, that the Bomb altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots.  It redefined the presidency, as in all respects America’s ‘Commander in Chief’ (a term that took on a new and unconstitutional meaning in this period).  It fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that the society was pervasively militarized.  It redefined the government as a National Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control.”

Wills’ thesis certainly corresponds to something I thought obvious in a couple of recent elections where the notion of the President being the leader of the free world was totally subordinated to the notion that the President is almost exclusively framed as supreme Commander in Chief of the Armed forces.  For some voters this appears to be exactly the only issue they are voting on when choosing a president despite what the Constitution might say about the chief executive’s office.  As Wills puts it some Americans saddle the presidency with a singular purpose, “Being the champion of ‘the free world’ meant maintaining nuclear superiority, not actually advancing freedom in the countries that cooperated with us.”   America in its foreign policy is quite accepting of totalitarian regimes as long as these regimes advance our military interests.   What the U.S. military or covert agencies are doing in foreign lands is also often kept a secret from the American public.  Secrecy and deception have become standard operating procedure in the “national security state” which the  U.S. has become.   This totally defines what it means to live in a free country such as the U.S.: we passively accept increasing powers and secrecy in the presidency, including surveillance of foes and citizens alike, and the use of secret sites for secret torture to be carried out for dealing with foes and gathering information.  

Wills describes how since WWII there has been a tendency, especially among conservatives, to re-interpret the office of presidency almost exclusively in terms of the President being “commander in chief.”  Wills notes however that despite certain very specific claims by various supporters of a “strong” (militarily especially!) executive office, the Constitution says the President is commander in chief of the military only, not of every US citizen (Article II, Section 2, Clause 1).  The President is not a military officer, but the civilian head of a civilian government.  Neither Presidents Washington or Eisenhower served as Commander in Chief because they were generals, nor did they serve as President because they were generals who became Commander in Chief.  To the President’s Cabinet and staff, the President is not their Commander in Chief, but their President (it is a civilian government not a military rule), remaining Commander in Chief of the armed forces only.   Wills points out the President is not Commander in Chief of the National Guard (unless they are nationalized) and it is to the congress that the Constitution gave the power to call a militia not to the president (Article 1, Section 8).  (Wills says he has been called unAmerican for pointing out what the Constitution says).  He says President Reagan started the practice of the President saluting and being saluted by the military.   He says military code about whom to salute is strict and you only salute military officers, not civilian leaders.  He sees this all as the increasing militarization of the nation.   (I heard him interviewed on radio about this book and I believe he said that Eisenhower did not salute the troops when he was President because he no longer was serving in the military).    The Supreme Court in a ruling about President FDR mentioned that a president is not inducted into the military, nor is he subject to court martial or military discipline.  He is the civilian head of the nation.

The bottom line is that this militarization of the civilian leader of our nation makes its seem that the American President’s real power is in possessing “the bomb,” not in being leader of the free world, nor in being the head of the richest country on earth, nor the economically most powerful.   It is “the bomb” which comes to define the presidency and the United States as it approaches the world, not freedom nor free enterprise.   (See also Defense Secretary Robert Gates concern regarding “The Creeping Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy”)

Next:  Presidential Power

See also:  True-ish, Truthiness and True Enough

Presidentolatry

Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power” wrote in the 28 August 2008 Christian Science Monitor that in the nation this year we are electing  A President, Not a Savior.   Healy notes that the U.S. Constitution’s Article II aimed at curtailing the imperial aspirations of presidents, whereas in recent years both political parties endow the presidency with more real and symbolic powers than the founding fathers would have ever imagined or been comfortable with.  “… as presidential scholar Jeffrey K. Tulis explains, unlike ‘polities that attempt to shape the souls of their citizenry and foster certain excellences or moral qualities by penetrating deeply into the “private” sphere, the founders wanted their government to be limited to establishing and securing such a sphere.'”  If Tullis is correct, it was not the vision of the founding fathers that the state would create the aspirations and morality of its citizens and then impose it on them, but rather the state would only insure that conditions were such that the citizenry could debate and work out these issues.  In this thinking the president doesn’t set the moral agenda and aspirations of the nation’s citizenry, but works to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” so that the citizens can go about their business of exercising their consciences in a democracy.

The image of the President as the most powerful man in the world has been fed by the media making presidents and candidates into the equivalents of superstars, television stars, movie stars and rock stars.  And the media professionals who run the presidential campaigns have taken full advantage of this pushing the meteoritic rise of candidates to stardom.  And the rocking, screaming masses at every political rally continue to feed the transformation of elections into personality cults and that of candidates and presidents into Herculean semi-gods as well as demagogues.  It is true presidentolatry.

As Healy describes it:

But there’s a reason candidates talk the way they do. Their rhetoric faithfully reflects the public’s outsized expectations for the office: Grow the economy. Give us better, cheaper healthcare. Protect us from hurricanes. Stop global warming. Bring peace to the Middle East. Lead us. Inspire us. We crave a spiritual superhero, not just someone who will “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”

Healy says that what has emerged in U.S. presidential politics is “the notion of president-as-spiritual-warrior” which has resulted in presidents as seeing everything they do as a spiritual crusade.  “That helps explain why Washington doesn’t just attempt to solve problems; it launches wars – on drugs, poverty, terror, disease.”       This has resulted in such anomalies as the U.S. having more people in their prisons than China, a not so democratic regime with almost four times more citizens than the U.S.  But presidents and presidential candidates are only responding to a demand by voters that government, especially the president do more – “when terror strikes, hurricanes ravage, homes foreclose, the stock market drops, and food prices rise, we inevitably blame one person: the president.”

Healy writes, “The week after 9/11, Bush announced that we would not only answer the attacks, we would also ‘rid the world of evil.'”   A major undertaking indeed even for a president, but in his bravado he only imitated the claim of some Roman emperors before him, and perhaps some of the gods of ancient pantheons.  (see my Can Evil be Killed?Hercules, according to Wikipedia,  “was renowned as having ‘made the world safe for mankind’ by destroying many dangerous monsters” – certainly a claim that our modern presidents love to make for themselves.  Hercules of course is mythical son of the gods – it is harder to understand why presidents claim to have his same power.

When voters come back down to earth, and realize the president is a mere mortal human, then perhaps they will put the election back into a proper perspective – we are electing a president, not a savior.