Bitter Religion–What Would MLK Do?

Former President Jimmy Carter is an evangelical Christian. It was just lucky for him that when he ran for president in 1976 he had his Jesus credentials in place. All our politicians were suddenly born-again, and the voters were acting as if they were born yesterday. Since then, displaying religion is right up there with ‘being fun to have a beer with’ and dodging ‘gotcha’ moments.

When some inflammatory excerpts from sermons by Senator Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were broadcast on ABC news this March, Senator Clinton was already doing a ‘gotcha’ on this comment Obama made during a fund-raising speech…

“It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

What, us bitter? No way, that would be unpatriotic. We always look on the bright side of life. And it sounded like Obama was implying that religion could be a bad thing. What is he, against God? Religion is always a measure of how good a person is — the more religious, the better. Right? Like in Northern Ireland, or Iraq.

It seems unfair to castigate Barack Obama for saying that religion can be divisive and reinforce a siege mentality. He’s dealing right now with a former pastor who offers a mixed message of hope and paranoia, who seems to have become so attached to a conspiratorial vision of America that he is, perhaps unwittingly, undermining the candidacy of the first African-American politician who actually has a chance of winning the presidency.

If Senator Obama had not made this connection before, he’s got time now to reflect on how bitterness can distort religion in the Black community, as in other parts of our society. Bitterness can spark loyalty to deeply flawed leaders when those leaders mix their demagoguery with truths that no one else dares to speak. But the prophetic tradition that inspires in church is not a substitute for debate and process in the state house. Religion and politics is a bad combination.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is no stranger to politics. He presided for many years over a powerful church in a large denomination with its roots in American history. The Rev. has not been isolated and is not inexperienced. He could have taken this opportunity to build bridges. But even reading his interview with Bill Moyers, a fellow member of the United Church of Christ , who invited him to explain his more inflammatory sermons, Rev. Wright seemed more interested in justifying himself. If he has become too used to preaching to the choir, he has forgotten how to reach out to people who will not understand the context of his anger. He missed a chance there.

Still, he is not without substance. An excerpt from one of Rev. Wright’s sermons, on the attacks of 9/11, contains a great deal of the kind of truth that politicians don’t dare to speak.

“Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism. A white ambassador said that y’all, not a black militant. Not a reverend who preaches about racism. An ambassador whose eyes are wide open and who is trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised. The ambassador said the people we have wounded don’t have the military capability we have. But they do have individuals who are willing to die and take thousands with them. And we need to come to grips with that.”

The truth is that the attack on 9/11 did not come from nowhere, but from people who resented our country because of our actions in the Mideast. For generations the US has been politically involved, and we’ve made enemies. If we don’t face that truth, then we won’t elect leaders who are able to negotiate peace. “They hate us for our freedom” was never an explanation.

But there’s a difference between a preacher saying that god will judge, and a preacher who claims that a national disaster was inflicted by his personal god to punish his personal enemies. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright can, like his namesake in the Bible, stand outside the walls and exhort. The Rev. John Hagee was invited in to bless Sen. John McCain with his approval and endorsement.

Here are Rev. Hagee’s words after Hurricane Katrina…

…in September, 2006. During an interview with NPR, he said the devastating storm “was, in fact, the judgment of God against … New Orleans.
The city, he continued, “had a level of sin that was offensive to God” because there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.

Nice. Rev. Hagee had a recent bout of humility where he conceded that he doesn’t have direct access to the mind of god, but I don’t think it will last. He’s lucky he’s white, because white preachers have been talking appalling nonsense for so long we don’t even hear them anymore.

Such as Rev. Jerry Falwell after 9/11…

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”

John McCain also sought Rev. Falwell’s blessings. And votes.

And Pat Buchanan, who isn’t reverend, but has the true religion, gives us his take on how white Christians are such wonderful people that even when they are raping, murdering and slaving god turns it around for the good…

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.

Gee. This helps me understand why someone would rather listen to Louis Farrakhan.

There’s a lot of bitterness, and misdirected anger, being channeled into religion. Barack Obama was harangued for saying so, but it’s true.

When the first attacks on Jeremiah Wright hit the press, Barack Obama responded with a powerful speech on race. He didn’t toss his old friend and mentor under the bus, like a former president I won’t name. But now the Reverend has left him little choice but to distance himself completely. That’s too bad. Because white America and black America need to understand one another better. It won’t help to retreat into our separate churches. We need to keep talking and listening. (Incidentally, this whole mess is a good argument for respecting the separation of church and state. )

And there is a place for socially-minded preachers. But it’s not a comfortable place. Remember that Rev. Martin Luther King did not run around claiming that his personal god smote people, he didn’t spend all his time attending White House dinners, and he didn’t use the Civil Rights movement to get rich. He was more like that Other Guy who also died young. Follow him if you dare.

Let’s Go Green

That’s the tabloid in today’s Providence Journal. Our good friends at Natural News Network are providing content, with great articles by Mary Grady and others about how to live well without wasting money or energy. Mary writes about how to reduce your carbon footprint and save on your electric bill, and Caroline Brown explores locally grown food. If you got the paper today, that section is worth saving, otherwise, you can check out the environment section at

Steven Bloom Provides Cranston with Fiscally Sound Budget

UPDATE: Steven Bloom attended the city council’s special meeting last night about the 2007-2008 deficit in the Cranston schools. He states in an email: “The forecast is worse than predicted by about $1.1 million which is partially offset by School District reserves of about $500,000.” Click here to see the School Department’s summary of the deficit.


It’s always amazing when someone steps forward to address a problem in a community and brings knowledge and expertise (for free!) to the table. Steven Bloom appears to be doing just that. He is a Cranston resident and businessperson with a Masters in accounting who has made it his own personal project to help Cranston be more fiscally smart and responsible.

The Providence Journal has an article on Bloom today, and he was also interviewed by WPRI. Bloom has invested many hours in reviewing the city’s budget and interviewing city council members, in order to provide an alternate budget. He describes his concerns about Mayor Napolitano’s budget in this email which I received through my Eden Park PTO listserv:

The Mayor’s proposed budget is seriously flawed on several counts, jeopardizing the City’s solvency and exposing it to large tax increases in the future. I have outlined my reasons in the attached letter. Unfortunately, for fiscal 2008-2009, I think we are facing a 3% tax increase along with some additional personnel cuts on both the City and School sides of the budget. The resulting alternate budget preserves the City’s solvency, funds approximately 85% of the School District’s budget increase, and maintains a minimum baseline of services (education included), while limiting the tax increase to no more than the rate of inflation (3%).

A .pdf of Bloom’s budget and his letter to the city is available here.

I was able to talk to Steven Bloom on the phone for a while this morning. I suggested to him my theory that Mayor Napolitano was putting the schools on a pre-contract starvation diet, to ensure that contractual obligations are as pared down as possible. Steven Bloom emphasized that it is not the city’s lack of funding for the schools that is the main culprit — he reminded me that the new cap on property taxes mandated by the state, combined with the state not funding education, and further combined with costs continuing to rise — are the bigger factors that have created financial crisis for the Cranston schools.

Bloom’s budget proposes $1.8 million in staff cuts on the city side of the budget, including some mechanics, laborers, clerks and assistants in various departments. It would also give the schools a 3% increase, which would help alleviate the current financial crisis and might also prevent, or at least postpone, another Caruolo action.

Bloom also talked about the need for more transparency in our budgets. He has requested more detailed budget information from the schools — an employee listing (without names), listing position, payroll grade and step and current payroll, summarized by department line item — but has not received this information yet.

Here’s hoping that more people like Steven Bloom get involved in Cranston’s education and finance issues. We need all the help we can get.

Cultivating Relationships

I realize now that it is not enough to care about the earth, to defend it with words and charitable donations from those who would abuse or exploit or deplete it. It is not enough to treat the earth with gentle respect and reverence, as I journey across its woods and valleys and peaks. It is not enough to educate myself as a citizen of the earth and a consumer of its bounty and then to act and vote and shop responsibly. These things are important, yes…but they are not enough.

I must also thrust my hands in the earth and experience it directly. I must feel its lush vitality and inhale its musky scent. I must interact with the earth and cultivate it.

Some 15 years ago, back when I was a resident of the Ocean State and sharing my life with a lovely woman named Sally, we planted a vegetable garden in the backyard of her home in Barrington. It was a flop. (Thank goodness for Four Town Farm and other local providers of fresh produce.) Convinced I had a brown thumb, I would not try my hand at gardening again for more than a decade. Last year, in partnership with my friend and next door neighbor Julie (and her partner Michael), I waded back into the earthy shallows. Our garden was quite modest, a mix of tomato plants, peppers, basil, chive, and marigolds. In contrast to the Barrington experiment, the Easthampton garden flourished. Through the summer and into the autumn, I experienced the delight and satisfaction that comes from cultivating and harvesting some of my own food. And in working the earth and reaping its bounty, I experienced a deeper and more tangible connection to the natural world. It left me hungry for more.

I offer these thoughts as a prelude to sharing an excerpt from a fine article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Written by Michael Pollan, the piece is entitled “Why Bother?” I encourage you to follow the link and read the full text, but here are the concluding paragraphs:

But the act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.

A great many things happen when you plant a vegetable garden, some of them directly related to climate change, others indirect but related nevertheless. Growing food, we forget, comprises the original solar technology: calories produced by means of photosynthesis. Years ago the cheap-energy mind discovered that more food could be produced with less effort by replacing sunlight with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, with a result that the typical calorie of food energy in your diet now requires about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce. It’s estimated that the way we feed ourselves (or rather, allow ourselves to be fed) accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gas for which each of us is responsible.

Yet the sun still shines down on your yard, and photosynthesis still works so abundantly that in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch — CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious), with a carbon footprint so faint that even the New Zealand lamb council dares not challenge it. And while we’re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you’re getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym. (It is one of the absurdities of the modern division of labor that, having replaced physical labor with fossil fuel, we now have to burn even more fossil fuel to keep our unemployed bodies in shape.) Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way “solutions� like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we’re all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate.

But there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden, to bother. At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen. Chances are, your garden will re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools. You will have reduced the power of the cheap-energy mind by personally overcoming its most debilitating weakness: its helplessness and the fact that it can’t do much of anything that doesn’t involve division or subtraction. The garden’s season-long transit from seed to ripe fruit — will you get a load of that zucchini?! — suggests that the operations of addition and multiplication still obtain, that the abundance of nature is not exhausted. The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. [full text]

Whitehouse Joins Senate Dems to Push Voter Registration

This year’s elections provide an excellent opportunity to improve voter registration. To that end, Senator Whitehouse is working with other Democrats in the senate to “ensure all eligible Americans have the opportunity to register to vote.”

Washington, D.C. – With November’s elections drawing closer, several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed concern today that the Department of Justice has failed to enforce a landmark law designed to help Americans register to vote.

In a letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted that DOJ has vigorously enforced statutes that remove voters from the rolls, while refusing to enforce those that aim to expand voter registration. The senators asked Mukasey to specify how DOJ plans to step up enforcement of statutes meant to facilitate registration before the voter registration deadlines for the fall elections.

You may remember Whitehouse’s tough questioning of Mukasey over the definitions of torture and waterboarding. He also made an impassioned speech in opposition to Mukasey’s appointment.

Media Math = Rounding up to Double Digits

Remember that joke about right being ‘military left’? Maybe there is a media decimal system that is different from the one I learned in high school.

Following a lead from Daily Kos I went to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania elections webpage. With 99.44% of results in, Hillary Clinton has 54.6% of the vote and Barack Obama has 45.4%, for a difference of 9.2%.

If they’re still using the same rules they used back when they invented the decimal system, that should round off to 9%.

I had a funny feeling that we would see screaming headlines showing the Clinton win to be just a little bigger than it actually is. I went to bed praying for nothing worse than a single digit loss, and it seems that someone answered my prayer. By the time the media catches up and corrects the mistake, most of the country will have moved on. Hillary Clinton will get credit for a double-digit victory she didn’t really win.

All the major outlets are saying 10%, a suspiciously whole number.

I wish my paycheck got rounded up like that, but then, I wouldn’t want it done to my bills.

It’s just a different feel, Barack Obama cutting Hillary Clinton’s double-digit lead in the polls down to 9% makes it less of a victory for her and shows how effective his campaign was in a state that heavily favored his opponent.

As I write this, 4/23 15:05 in military time, Google produces dozens of headlines citing ‘double digits’, and you really have to dig for the actual numbers. The press is doing its usual thing — giving us part of the story.

Mayor Nap’s Starvation Diet for the Schools

Andre Araujo lamented in his comments today that the turnout for the Cranston school’s information meeting on their budget crisis was “dismal.” Truly, if there was a situation where Obama’s “bitter” seems to be revealing itself front and center, it would be in the apathy of parents in Cranston. Parents are just so tired of being played like pawns in a game of ever-diminishing returns, the result of which is a lessening in the quality education for our children.

I’m going to come out for the city council meeting tonight, to advocate for better funding for the schools, but it is not without strong reservations about the fiscal leadership of our schools. Back in 2005 when the teacher’s contract was signed, I recall people asking School Committee Chair Mike Traficante how we would pay for the raises and the added salary step. “We’ll figure that out when the time comes,” is what I remember the tenor of his answers to be.

Well, three years have passed and no one figured out where to get all the extra money that was needed. Instead, with each passing year, the Cranston schools have gone more in debt. Why? Because of poor fiscal planning. Because they wagered that they would be able to get the money out of the new Mayor, and they wagered wrong. Little did they know that Mayor Nap was on a mission to put the schools on a little pre-contract-negotiating starvation diet.

And so, with Napolitano taking office, the lack of increases began. At the same time, health care costs, food costs, and energy costs soared. The economy tanked. Still, the Cranston schools were contractually obligated to give raises to the teachers and support the lion’s share of their health benefits.

And now, here were are: $8 million dollars in debt. The school committee is asking parents to call their city councilors and plead for more money. I will show up for the meeting to plead. But I will also discuss with my city councilors my concerns about how we will deal with our l, when we have no idea how we will fulfill them. Maybe we need to have another campaign to call our school committee members and discuss how much we can allow the new contract being negotiated this year to mandate more steep increases in spending.