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That’s basically how Andrew Sullivan describes Barack Obama in his Sunday Times essay.  And there’s really something to this.  First, Obama’s calm in the face of the Clintonistas drove Bill (“Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice”) Clinton and Hillary (“Shame on you, Barack Obama!”) Clinton to say things that they’d later regret, and that may well have lost them the primary.

Now Obama continues unruffled in the face of McCain/Palin onslaught of negative ads and tenuous connections to Bill Ayers and ACORN.  I expect that we’ll see tonight, once again, Obama perform in the debate without any Goresque sighs or Nixonian flop sweats.  Clearly, as Sullivan convincingly argues, Obama’s calm demeanor in the face of the global economic crisis has contributed to his recent surge in the polls.

And now to venture into the land of pure speculation: It seems to me that BO could not maintain this unshakeable calm were he not an exceptionally grounded, centered, and spiritual person.  I suppose that some people are more “wired” toward calm than others, and I’m quite sure that our life experiences contribute to our personalities (like, say, 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton).  But running a 2+ year presidential campaign entails an extraordinary amout of stress.  Embedded journalists have repeatedly reported both Hillary and McCain regularly exploding in rage at their campaign teams.  Unless I’ve missed it, there’s been nary a mention of Obama losing his cool, even behind the scenes.

As a person who tries, often unsuccessfully, to stay centered in the midst of crisis and stress, I cannot but believe that BO’s own spirituality contributes greatly to the preternatural calm that he exudes.

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These are not the waning days of the American Empire, as some of my neo-monastic, Hauerwasian Mafia friends like to tout them.  They’re not because — now read this closely — the United States is not an empire.

I know, it’s all the rage right now among progressive Christians to say that we are an empire.  But we’re not.  An empire has, by definition, an emperor.  As frustrated as you may be by the malicious buffoonery of the Bush-Cheney oligarchy, they do not represent an emperor.  Exhibit A: They won’t be in office as of January 20.  In fact, it looks as though they will have virtually no power in the governance of the United States as of that date (unlike, for instance, Vladimir Putin, who set himself up as prime minister of Russia after constitutional term limits ended his presidency).

I was a classics major in college (geez, I hate it when people tell me that what they majored in during college makes them an expert in that topic), and I lived in Rome.  I know how and why the Roman Empire fell, and it did, indeed, have a lot to do with office of emperor and the abuses inherent thereto.

We, on the other hand, are about to elect a new president.  And with an Obama presidency (barring some unforeseen tragedy), there will be thoroughgoing housecleaning in Washington.  This is what never happened in Rome.  Julius Caesar, who overcame the other two members of the Triumvirate, ruled Rome pretty well.  His adopted heir, Augustus (nee Gaius Octavius) was arguably the greatest ruler of that empire.  And from there it was pretty much downhill (with notable exceptions).  Why?  Graft.  Immorality.  And the “divine right of kings.”

These are the very things that, centuries later, the social contract theory of John Locke overcame, and that the American Republic reacted against.  Now, it can surely be argued about whether the U.S. is really a representative democracy or a republic, etc.  But the U.S. can simply not be considered an empire in the governance sense of the word.

But I know that many of the aforementioned neo-monastic Hauerwasians are concerned less with the US government and more about the imperial nature of the US economy.  I agree with them insofar as free market capitalism, no longer curbed by Calvinism, has no moral impediment to unmitigated greed.  Capitalism worked when the “Protestant work ethic” was its engine, but it works less well when it’s primarily driven by speculation and greed.  This is surely a problem that we’ve got to face.

But free-market capitalism run amok is not an American problem.  It’s a global problem.  Iceland’s banks are frozen because a few investors gambled more than the entire country even has.  Maybe the US invented capitalism on a massive scale, but the bird has flown the coop.  Globalization has made these attacks on the US economy in particular moot.

We are in the waning days, but not of the American empire, because there is no such thing.  We’re in the waning days of a particular economic model.  Thank God we’ve got a better form of government than an Empire to sort this mess out.

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My hosts mercifully gave me a day off on Friday.  I needed it, since I was honestly tired of hearing myself talk.  Duncan, who has now blogged about my visit, and his wife, Ennis, drove me to Broadbeach on the Gold Coast.  From there, we walked north along the gorgeous beach to Surfers Paradise and had a leisurely breakfast as we watched “nippers” being trained.

We arrived back at Duncan’s in time to hear Sarah Palin ramble incoherently about various topics and watch Gwen Ifill like a deer-in-headlights refuse to ask any follow-up questions.  Biden, I thought, was his usual knowledgeable self, if a bit dry.

(BTW, I think this is interesting to note: People in the States, and here in Australia, often talk to me about how the dominance of the U.S. is waning, how India and China are already the ascendant global powers, etc.  But, here in Australia, at 11 o’clock in the morning, the U.S. vice presidential debate was played in its entirety, both on television and radio.  And I imagine that also happened in most Western countries yesterday.  Do the Australians cover the Chinese financial markets with the same eye as the U.S. financial markets?  No.  Do they broadcast the parliament of India like they do the U.S. Congress?  No.

Globalization has surely relativized the dominance of the U.S. in world affairs, but from where I sit on the other side of the globe, the U.S. still captures the imagination of the world in a way that no other country does.  And, of course, the transparency of our political machinery aids in this.)

Duncan drove me to the airport and I had an eventless flight back to Sydney.  Fuzz retrieved me, and we made our way through rush hour traffic back to his place in The Hills.  Along the way, he told me many stories about his consulting work with youth ministry in Egypt, which sounds fascinating.

Carolyn and Fuzz then took me to dinner at their favorite seafood place and, as you can see below, ordered the seafood platter which means that we ate far too much food, complemented by a fine Australian white wine.

Like I said, it was good to have a day off.

Carolyn and Fuzz Kitto with the Seafood Platter

Carolyn and Fuzz Kitto with the Seafood Platter

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Two of my favorite members of the punditocracy went at it on Friday night on Real Time.  I most appreciate both Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan for their honesty.  I agree with each of them on some things and disagree on others.  I tend to agree with Maher on the present state of America and the current administration and I love his acerbic wit (plus the linguistic freedom that he is afforded on HBO), but I find his views on religion to be odious and reactionary.  I appreciate Sullivan’s wholehearted commitment to democracy and capitalism, but I think he’s living in lala land to believe that either could achieve the idealistic state that he envisions (in fact, Naomi Klein really busted Sullivan’s chops on this very point on the show).

I think Sullivan is one of the best guests that Maher has on, primarily because Andrew is not the least bit intimidated by Bill’s intellect and tongue.  This clip is a classic repartee between the two of them on the subject of religion:

In other news, journalists are finally started to talk publicly about the power of the racist vote in America, and about the McCain campaign’s unwillingness to speak boldly against it.  Mark Ambinder has written about it here and here in the last couple days, and Nicholas Kristof today argues that the lingering lies about BO being an underground Muslim is really a foil for racism.

I do think there’s something to this, unfortunately.  In fact, the only way I see BO losing the election is if a certain segments of whites don’t vote for him because of latent racism.  How sad is that?

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There has been a robust conversation in the comments section of my previous post on abortion.  There are clearly some policy wonks who read my blog, and I’m not one of them.  I mean, I’m not a policy wonk; not that I don’t read my blog.  Anyway, I appreciate those of you who can quote particular pieces of legislation and particular votes.  My interest is more on the overarching principles at hand, although it does seem to me that BO made it abundantly clear that his most odious vote to pro-lifers was because he thought the bill would be struck down as unconstitutional (HT: Keith).

I am thankful that my friend, Carla Jo, fought the good fight in the comments.  For those of you who don’t know her, CJ has a raft of evangelical credentials.  In other words, she’s no leftist idealogue.  She’s simply trying to deal with the complexity of the issue — I must say, much as BO does.

And I am particularly indebted to the two women who posted about their own abortions.  In the wake of that terrible decision, they’ve come to different conclusions about the issue, but their journeys to those conclusions, IMHO, seem a lot more honest than some others who commented.  Honestly, I cannot imagine either of them, though they stand on different sides of the debate, referring to someone as a “faggot” or “callous, selfish, and unrepentant.”

I was on the weekly O religious outreach call last night, and I again brought up the issue of abortion.  And, again, I was outnumbered.  But what I said there I’ll say here: I don’t expect any of you who are ideological about the issue of abortion to be swayed by my reasoning, or by BO’s for that matter.  You can go ahead and vote for McCain/Palin and assume that they’ll actually change things.  You can keep telling yourself, “We just need one…more…justice to overturn Roe v. Wade.”  You can keep throwing good money after bad and support candidates who pander to you on ideological grounds.  That’s your prerogative.

But for my part, I’m more interested in convincing moderate and progressive evangelicals to vote for BO.  So, to those of you on the fence, let me say a few things: progressive Christians don’t love abortion, they despise it.  It’s a terrible blight on our society.  But criminalizing an activity does not eliminate it from society, be it crystal meth, rape, or graffiti.  So when people say to you, “The point isn’t to reduce abortions, the point is to eliminate them,” you can say to them, “I think you need to go feed your unicorn and see if the leprechaun is still guarding your pot of gold.”

The point was made again on the call last night that BO is going to go straight after the systemic causes that all too often force women into the terrible predicament.  He is going to propose legislation that provides significant tax credits for adoption; he’s going to increase the funding to programs that aid single mothers (particularly young ones) in finding childcare and finding work; he’s going to make more robust education programs for ill-prepared moms; and he’s going to signifcantly enhance early childhood family education funding (a program that I’ve been involved with in my own community).

In short, it’s time to get pragmatic.  Let’s do something about this blight on our society, a blight that is inextriably tied up with issues of poverty, urban struggle, and sexual morality.

In other news, the O campaign today announced a “Faith, Family, and Values Tour” using surrogates to talk about BO’s commitments to the very issues that concern Jesus-followers.  One of the first such events will be in Colorado Springs and will be headlined by Don Miller.

[UPDATE: Abortions have declined during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.]

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Two stories caught my eye/ear in the last 24 hours.  The first came on MPR last night.  It seems that a group of Somalian Muslims had boycotted the first few days of school in the small town of Winona, Minnesota because their children were not being allowed to pray when they wanted.  Six years ago, the school superintendant reported, a group of parents and administrators had agreed on when the children could pray, even though the prayer times shift slightly every day in relation to sunrise and sunset.  But the current parents don’t feel they should have to abide by an agreement made six years ago by other people.

But, of the entire report, I found a quote by an Islamic rights expert to be the most interesting.  He said that afternoon prayer can take place anytime between 1:30pm and 4:00pm — it’s just that some Muslims only want to pray at the very beginning of that time and not wait until, as the superintendent called it, “Non-instructional time” (a.k.a., passing time, recess, lunch, etc.).

The other story has been around for a while, but it’s just been written up poignantly by its protagonist and posted on Steve Waldman’s blog.  Doug Kmiec is a scholar and author with conservative, Republican bona fides out the wazoo.  But he endorsed BO because of BO’s commitment to the full range of life issues.  In a much ballyhooed incident, Kmiec, a devout Catholic, was denied the Eucharist by a priest, and even shouted at during the mass for “cooperating with evil” and “killing babies.”

It seems to me that both of these are stories of religion beyond the limits of religion (how’s that for a Rollinsesque turn-of-phrase?).  These are examples of when religion slips past theology and into the realm of unthinking ideology.  And, methinks, this is the very thing that Jesus so often spoke and acted out against.  When we turn thoughtful, reflective theology into reactionary, unthinking behavior, we’ve left Christianity (or Islam, for that matter) and ventured into a space that is no longer bounded by a humilty before God.

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Abortion

Last week, I had the pleasure of being on a conference call with a few other Christian leaders and some of the religious outreach staffers from the Obama campaign.  I wrote about my support for Obama long ago, and I’ve been relatively active in my support of him ever since.  I’ve been contacted by the campaign a couple times, but this was my first actual interaction.

(For those who argue that those of us in emergentland who support Obama (or any candidate, for that matter) are just a new version of the Religious Right…puh-leeze.  It’s nothing of the sort.  For one, we are a lot more cynical about the political process than righties were thirty years ago.  Don’t you get it, Bob?  The Obamessiah talk is ironic.  Second, I really have nothing to gain from an Obama presidency, except maybe a more just and civil country.  And I could go on about the differences…)

I think there were about eight pastorish people on the call, and three or four Obama staffers came and went.  For obvious reasons, I won’t disclose who was on the call, but I did notice something interesting.  I’d say that the group broke down as 5 older leaders, and 3 of us I’d call “youngish.”  I’ll refer to us as The Three and them as The Five.

The call began with some serious hand-wringing from The Five.  They were quite upset by the Palin Pick, and they strongly encouraged the O staffers to have BO go hard after her, exposing her lies and distortions about climate change, earmarks, etc.

The Three were almost completely unconcerned with Palin and suggested that O focus exclusively on McCain.

Then, the sparks started to fly.  One of The Three suggested that if O wants to peel off a segment of evangelicals under 40 who already share his concern for the environment, fighting poverty, and foreign diplomacy, that he must talk forthrightly about abortion. (Most of us will admit that O fumbled the ball at the Saddleback Forum when he told Rick that the decision about when life begins was above his pay grade.  He later admitted as much to George Stephanopolous.)

To this, The Five became quite upset.  They said that if O talks about abortion on the stump, he’s allowing the Religious Right to set the agenda.  One of The Three countered that, among his friends, abortion is the one thing holding younger evangelicals back from full-throated support of O.  One of O’s staffers said that O does very much want to reduce abortions, and he went on to say that abortions decreased during the Clinton administration and increased during W’s term.  The Republicans, quite simply, use abortion as a wedge issue during election years and then do NOTHING (yes, I’m shouting) to reduce abortions.

The Five continued to protest, saying that abortion is not an issue that O should deal with much.  To which I replied, “Do you want to win, or are you more interested in your principles?”

And this, it seems to me, is the most common stumbling block for progressives and liberals (I consider the former to be more centrist, and the latter to be more leftist).  Too often, they’ll stand on principle until it’s too late.

For my part, I encouraged BO to talk openly and candidly.  He thinks abortions are bad, and he wants to reduce them.  He doesn’t think that criminalizing doctors or mothers is the answer.  He thinks we need a more fully-orbed response to the problems of promiscuity and poverty that too often lead to abortions.

I think he needs to talk about this in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Florida and Ohio, and he needs to not look so uncomfortable when the subject comes up.  In fact, I really hope that BO is ready to address this issue head-on in the debates, because I think he can win over a lot of younger evangelicals who are currently on the fence.

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