Monthly Archives: October 2012

‘Heal the sick,’ an addendum

This is my response to an email pertaining to my Sunday column, “Feed the hungry, heal the sick.”

Even with existing levels of public support, there is vast need that goes unmet. Private individuals do not step up to the task.

The only organization of which any of us are members that has the resources to significantly alleviate need is the federal government. I reject the idea that it is an external institution. It represents all of us, and has the resources that come from our participation in its missions.

I have no doubt there are some who abuse the system, both rich and poor. I believe our paranoia that someone might be unfairly benefiting at our expense has made us callous to the desperation of millions.

I agree, Jesus was not referring to collective generosity through a government. The closest thing to a collective institution in Judea was the temple, and he was poignant in his belief that it should use resources collected from the people for the needy. The Jews had no control over Rome; we do have control over Washington. Indeed, we will be exercising that control Nov. 6.

It is nearly impossible to know what Romney will do as president on most issues, because he changes his positions depending on his target audience. On one issue, though, he is consistent. He would do his best to undo the Affordable Care Act. My faith rebels against this.

You seem to think you, or someone, has the wisdom to see into the souls of the poor to determine which are deserving. Jesus really had this ability, but I’m unaware of any evidence of him using it to deprive people of healing. Nor do I read any evidence of him being concerned the beneficiaries of his mercy would become “dependent on charity.” I think he would have seen that as a creative way to avoid his clear-cut commandments.

The ACA is not perfect, but it manages to reduce the deficit while giving more than 30 million people access to health care. I have no problem with the capitalist success of individuals determining their wealth. I have a huge problem with it determining whether they are entitled to healing.

The federal government is our institution; it is, as you put it, “our society in general”; and through it we have the power to do much good. On the issue of healing, I think Jesus was painfully clear on how we should use that power.


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Filed under Election 2012, Health care, Obamacare

Feed the hungry, heal the sick

I wonder if we tend to outsmart ourselves.

Enamored of intellect, we rejoice in following convoluted logical threads that lead to convenient results. The conclusions are all the more appealing because they confirm our smarts.
I thought about this recently when a friend told me of listening to the parents of a child who believes he went to heaven during surgery. The boy said he had seen Jesus, but struggled to identify him in the usual portraits. It was not until he saw a painting by another child who also believed she had seen Jesus that he could put a face to his vision. The portrait, by Akiane Kramarik, is all over the Internet.
I’m too cynical to accept the story at face value. I began calculating likely profits for the parents, wondering about ulterior motives. But I did Google the painting. I looked at it a long time. I’m looking at it as I write.
Akiane’s Jesus is a bit whiter than the historical Jesus probably was, with lighter pupils than seem likely. But there is an emotion about the portrait that rings true. This is a direct and no-nonsense Jesus, an in-your-face Jesus. He looks a little angry and a lot impatient.
Akiane’s depiction reminds me of my grandfather. The physical image is entirely different, but the eyes hold the same disdain for human artifice.
I’m not sure my grandpa was smart in the conventional sense, but he was wise. When he heard family members — my dad and me, usually — proudly winding through brilliant arguments, he would guffaw. He was wise enough to know intelligence is overrated. He was wary of logic that reached convenient conclusions.
Akiane’s Jesus, to my mind, holds that same contempt. This is a Jesus who recognizes our shallow hubris. He sees through our petty intellectual games and scoffs.
I’m no theologian, but it seems to me Jesus kept things simple.
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” he said, “and you will be blessed.”
“Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”
Jesus gave food to the hungry and healed the sick. He identified with the poor, and blessed those who helped the downtrodden: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
What Jesus did not do is outline the reasons that giving to the poor is counterproductive, creating dependency. He did not tell the rich to keep their possessions, as the economic effect of accumulated capital would indirectly benefit the poor. He did not caution the disciples that the sick and the poor often were suffering from their own bad decisions. He did not quiz the recipients of his grace to see if they were worthy. He did not give them drug tests or check their papers. He did not examine the macroeconomic effects of generosity.
He just gave them what they needed, and demanded that we do the same.
A smart fellow from the Christian Coalition called me the other day. He was complaining about my support for a Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act, both of which hinge on the coming federal election. The programs would lead to “over-utilization” of our health care system, he said. The long-term effects, he said, would damage the economy. The problem in Alabama is not that 816,000 are uninsured, he said, but that “a subgroup of our population persists in unhealthy lifestyles. Do you really want your tax dollars to validate their bad decisions?”
He said the U.S. health system is the best in the world.
I asked, “For whom?”
As my grandfather would have told you, I too often rejoice in intellect. Haunted by Akiane’s portrait, though, I can’t help but think we are performing clever mental gymnastics to avoid simple imperatives.
Feed the hungry. Heal the sick.
It’s not complicated.

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Filed under Election 2012, Health care, Obamacare, Poverty, Religion

Vote ‘no’ on Amendment 6

We recommend a “no” vote on Amendment 6, which will be on the ballot Nov. 6.

The proposed amendment to the state constitution, a reaction to the Affordable Care Act, purports “to prohibit any person or health care provider from being compelled to participate in any health care system.”

The Affordable Care Act mandates that most people purchase health insurance if they do not already have it. This requirement is what allows the law to, among other things, require affordable coverage of pre-existing conditions. The mandate was proposed by the Heritage Foundation and conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, all of whom changed their minds when President Barack Obama embraced the idea.

Even for those who oppose the Affordable Care Act, Amendment 6 is a bad idea.

Alabama has spent a great deal of time and money in court during the past two years pretending state law trumps federal law. It does not. The likely result of passing Amendment 6 is that our tax dollars will once again be wasted on lawyers who will, once again, discover the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Congress knows most Alabamians do not like the health-care law. Passing an amendment that will waste more money on futile litigation is an expensive way to communicate a message we already have sent.

Despite widespread hostility toward the Affordable Care Act, scheduled to take full effect in 2014, we are convinced it will be good for Alabama.

It will address the near-monopoly held by Blue Cross Blue Shield, which pushes premiums up, especially on individual policies. It will make Alabamians less dependent on their employers for health insurance. The law also will provide access to health care for most of the state’s 681,000 uninsured citizens, including the 36,000 in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties.

The Affordable Care Act will strengthen our hospitals and other health-care providers. By increasing access to preventive care, it will decrease inefficient visits to emergency rooms. It will nearly eliminate the losses hospitals incur when they are required to treat uninsured visitors to emergency rooms.

The law accomplishes all this while decreasing the federal deficit.

Whether you oppose or favor the Affordable Care Act, we recommend a “no” vote on Amendment 6.



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Filed under Alabama politics, Health care, Obamacare

The problem with two parties

The problem with two-party debates was evident Monday.
Despite an aggressive tone, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney agreed with almost everything President Barack Obama has done. This came as a surprise to some of Romney’s supporters, who had not previously heard him cozying up to Pakistan and proposing U.S. investment in programs designed to improve the economic prospects of the Arab world.
The candidates did not even pretend to disagree on critical issues of foreign policy.
Should the president have the power to authorize drone attacks aimed at suspected terrorists in other countries? Should he have that power even when the target is a U.S. citizen?
Is America too close to Israel, giving it the ability to drag U.S. soldiers into a premature war with Iran?
Is it time to shut down Guantanamo Bay detention camp?
The only input Americans have on these issues comes when they vote for a candidate. When there are only two candidates and they agree with each other, voters have no voice at all.

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Filed under Democracy, Election 2012

Political bluster is risky

Americans need look only as far as their own presidential campaign to understand the importance of open diplomatic relationships, especially with potential enemies.

GOP candidate Mitt Romney is playing the same political game that candidates from both parties have always played. He is trying to tap into American patriotism by painting other countries as threats.

Romney labeled Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” He promises actions that would ignite a trade war with China and real wars with Iran and Syria. His words are not intended for the foreign countries, but for his U.S. political base. If he wins the presidential election, he will no doubt spend months trying to repair the relationships he damaged.

Romney’s belligerence is not unique to him or to America. He is using a tried and true political tactic.

A few decades ago, such posturing was not a major threat to peace. Romney could have made such comments at a tea party rally and the nations he vilified might never have heard about it. Before 24-hour news cycles and the Internet, a politician could be a warmonger for a domestic audience and a reasonable ally when dealing directly with other countries.

Today, though, the people of other nations hear the comments. Leaders in Russia, China and Iran have had to match Romney’s hostility to avoid seeming weak to their people.

Iranian leaders are using the same tactic. The country is in desperate economic straits. In an effort to keep the people from turning on them, Iran’s leaders are railing against foreign enemies. Just like Americans, Iranians rally together if convinced by their leaders that they face an external threat.

The damage caused by such comments is reparable only if leaders of countries can communicate directly with each other. If Romney takes office, he needs to be able to tell officials in Russia, “Sorry, I was just playing politics.”

When the only information we have about Iran is what its leaders are saying to their people, we are likely to mistake political bluster for aggressive intentions.

Neither America nor the rest of the world will end the practice of creating foreign threats to secure domestic unity. To minimize the resulting conflicts, America needs open diplomatic communications with all nations, especially when tensions are high.

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Filed under Election 2012, Foreign policy, Iran

Amendment 4 and our racist past

Amendment 4 forces us, as citizens of Alabama, to confront our racist history.
The amendment, which will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, removes some of the racial language from the Constitution. It does so by reauthorizing the first two paragraphs of a section of Amendment 111 — which do not explicitly mention race — and omitting the third paragraph. The omitted paragraph authorizes parents to send their children to “schools provided for their own race.”
All of Amendment 111, including the two paragraphs reauthorized by Amendment 4, came directly from the 1954 Report of the Alabama Interim Legislative Committee on Segregation in the Public Schools, which focused exclusively on how to avoid the school desegregation mandated that year by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1954, the state constitution required the Legislature to “maintain a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children thereof.”
The committee expressed hope that Brown would not be enforced, but concluded the state needed the flexibility to shut down its public school system in the event desegregation was forced upon it. The committee also proposed a change in the Constitution that allowed the Legislature to provide direct funding to segregated private schools or tuition vouchers to parents, which they could use to attend segregated private schools.
Both of these recommendations made it into the Constitution in 1956. Both are included in Amendment 4, except for the references to race.
The findings and conclusions of the committee provide a bleak reminder of our recent history. Some excerpts:
“The overwhelming majority of white citizens of Alabama are unalterably opposed to the idea of permitting the use of the public school system to coerce racial integration. The Committee believes that the vast majority of Negro citizens of the State are instinctively and genuinely opposed to the idea of compulsory integration and its effect upon the basic harmony between the white and negro people of Alabama. …
“Although the entire social order would suffer, the negro people would be by far the greater sufferers. … White employers would be strongly induced to withhold employment from negro parents who would take advantage of the intended compulsion …
“There are profound psychological and cultural differences, including differences in aptitudes, between the white and negro races in Alabama …
“Negroes in Alabama are accustomed to living separately, which is the normal environment. … [T]he negro children would be harmed and warped by belligerent resentment of their forced acceptance, by innumerable daily incidents emphasizing it, and by the sharp disclosure of a generally lower scholastic aptitude.”
“The exodus from integrated schools by the white people, who pay by far the greater part of the taxes which maintain the schools, would result in widespread reluctance or refusal to continue that contribution. It is certain that the public in most if not all districts, would refuse to vote the necessary taxes to sustain a program of compulsory education. …
“Separation of the races at the social and marriage level is not merely an empty tradition or a prejudice. It is a necessity in the preservation of civil order and good will, and it is part of the fundamental fabric of our society. …
“Rather than allow any such tragic distortion of the function of public education, that function should be abandoned to the extent necessary to protect it in any locality. …
“The power should be delegated by the legislature to the local school authorities as a final resort to discontinue public schools and, instead, grant public aid, such as tuition and transportation, directly to the pupils, white and negro, and enable them to attend private schools where, of course, there would be no compulsory commingling.
“(School officials should have) the power to refuse admission to individuals or groups whose deficiencies in scholastic aptitude would compel undue lowering of school standards …
“Assuming as a matter of course that all State school authorities recognize their grave and current responsibility to avoid public disorder and possible tragedy … and that they will see to it that no mixing of the races is permitted, and that all efforts to force that result are firmly dealt with, specific legislation may properly await further study … (until) we are advised as to the extent to which trouble makers in Alabama propose to foment litigation and stir up a hostility between the races which does not now exist.”
“In conclusion, we express our conviction that the public support and furtherance of education can and should be maintained in a manner acceptable to the vast majority of citizens who, in the end, make it possible; and it can be maintained without permitting the function of education of children in Alabama to be converted into a mechanism for compulsory and violent social reform.”
This is not just our past, it is our present. The committee’s recommendations were adopted, almost word for word, in Amendment 111 of the Constitution. Amendment 111 remains a part of Alabama’s constitution, and most of it would survive the passage of Amendment 4.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, Race, States' rights

The problem with Amendment 4

If there is any argument that the state has a constitutional duty to maintain public schools, that argument may be destroyed by Amendment 4.

On its face, Amendment 4 — which will appear on the ballot Nov. 6 — is innocuous. All it does is remove language in Amendment 111 of the Constitution that authorized students to “attend schools provided for their own race.”

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled — in Brown v. Board of Education — that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Before the ruling, Section 256 of Alabama’s constitution required the state to establish and fund a public school system.

In response to Brown, the Legislature passed and the state adopted Amendment 111. The amendment, passed in 1956, purported to change Section 256 by eliminating the right to a public education. The purpose of the amendment — set forth unashamedly in committee notes — was to thwart the Brown decision. The theory was that the state could avoid desegregation by closing down the public school system. It would instead provide vouchers to parents, who could send their children to private, segregated schools.

The portion of the amendment that would be removed Nov. 6 was the whole point of Amendment 111. It eliminated the right to a public education as a means to continue segregation.

While a number of laws seeking to implement Amendment 111’s segregationist intent were ruled unconstitutional in subsequent years, the constitutionality of Amendment 111 itself was not challenged until 1990. A lawsuit challenging the amendment was filed with Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eugene Reese.

To recap: In 1990, the Alabama constitution had two provisions regarding the state’s responsibility for public schools. Section 256 required the Legislature to fund public schools. Amendment 111 purported to amend Section 256 by eliminating the requirement that the state maintain or fund public schools.

In 1991, Judge Reese ruled that Amendment 111 was void because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. He then ruled that, because Amendment 111 was void, the Section 256 guarantee of a public education was in force.

Reese’s knock-out punch came in a 1993 order: “The system of public education in the State of Alabama shall be funded sufficiently to enable all public schools to fully achieve Constitutional and statutory standards of educational equity and adequacy.”

The state challenged the ruling by seeking an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that Reese’s order was binding on the state.

The implications were enormous. Not only would Reese’s ruling require a massive increase in school funding, it would effectively require tax reform to pay for it. School advocates rejoiced and landowners, expecting to lose their favored tax status, cursed.

All that changed in 2002. The state Supreme Court, considering an appeal of an order pertaining to whether proration of school funding was constitutional under the resurrected Section 256, took the opportunity to reconsider its 1997 decision. The 2002 decision concluded that court proceedings sorting through the specifics of what steps the Legislature had to take to comply with the public-education guarantee went too far. That, the Supreme Court said, was an intrusion into the Legislature’s exclusive domain.

Importantly, the Supreme Court did not address the underlying question of whether Amendment 111 was constitutional, which the state had never appealed. Nonetheless, the decision ended any efforts to reform school funding.

Since then, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit by Lawrence County and other districts claiming that the state’s inequitable funding of school districts was unconstitutional. The plaintiffs in the case did not make the argument that Amendment 111 was unconstitutional. The federal court ruled that the taxation system used to fund schools, while inequitable, did not violate the U.S. Constitution. The court did not address whether Section 256’s guarantee of public schools had survived the passage of Amendment 111.

So now, back to Amendment 4 and the Nov. 6 ballot.

Amendment 4 eliminates the explicitly segregationist language of Amendment 111. Because almost no one likes the racist taint in the Constitution, it is likely to pass.

By removing the segregationist language, however, the amendment effectively kills any argument that Amendment 111 is unconstitutional. Amendment 4 corrects the constitutional infirmity that led Judge Reese to declare Amendment 111 void. It reauthorizes the remainder of Amendment 111 without duplicating its segregationist purpose. By saving Amendment 111, it effectively relegates Section 256’s guarantee of a public education to the trash bin of discarded remnants of the state Constitution.

There is some argument that Judge Reese’s 1991 and 1993 rulings — voiding Amendment 111 and thus resurrecting Section 256 — are still binding on the state. Even if not, the argument that Judge Reese found compelling could still be made.

If Amendment 4 passes, the state can rejoice that the vestiges of racism have been eliminated from the Constitution. Some, though, will mourn the fact that an argument for adequate state funding of schools has been eliminated as well.


Filed under Alabama politics, education, Election 2012, Race