Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

What it means to be a crunchy conservative

First published Oct. 3, 2016

There are many mansions in the American conservative house, and some of them are old and funky and smell like a pot of organic mustard greens cooking down on the stove.

— Rod Dreher, from “Crunchy Cons”

It wasn’t until I was 45 that I started to think of myself as a conservative.

At heart, I had always been one, even in my 20s, when I called myself a democratic socialist, traveled to Nicaragua, read Hunter Thompson and listened to Neil Young.

I still listen to Neil Young.

Like many of my contemporaries, I had the idea that to be a conservative meant to be a belligerent neocon on foreign policy, a self-centered libertarian on economics and a closed-minded culture warrior on social matters.

I was wrong.

Although I’ve never met him — and he’s several years younger than I am — Rod Dreher had a big influence on my thinking after I had left the Democratic Party over its ideological rigidity, joined an Anglican church and become the managing editor of a daily newspaper.

Dreher’s book that introduced me to a different way of understanding this venerable philosophy had a title that could have been a chapter: “Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).”

Crunchy conservatism, Dreher explained, is not a political program, but rather a “practical sensibility” based on what the wisdom of tradition teaches is best for families and communities.

It is about conserving those things that are good and true.

This summer, I read the book again, and was struck by how much things have changed in the 10 years since it was written.

What a different time 2005 was. George W. Bush was president, Pope John Paul II was succeeded by the even more orthodox Benedict XVI, the Defense of Marriage Act was still the law of the land, legal recreational marijuana was a pipe dream, we were engaged in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how inept big government could be, the housing market was soaring, fueled by bad loan practices, and almost no one could foresee the financial meltdown that was coming.

I’m convinced that if the Republican Party had gone in the direction that Dreher and others suggested, rather than toward the hard-line libertarianism and isolationism of the tea party movement, it would have been able to compete with the Democratic Party for the hearts and minds of younger Americans and could have made a positive difference in our society.

Dreher’s crunchy (read: earthy) conservatism is traditional Burkean conservatism for a new generation. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Dubliner and British statesman, rejected abstract Enlightenment reason and “natural law” as guiding lights. All of us, he wrote, are influenced by our cultural traditions, and while individual liberty is important, community is no less so. We belong to one another, and that affects who were are.

Burke wrote that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. We must learn from those who have gone before us and not rely solely on ourselves. And we must rely on the greater wisdom of the Supreme Being as handed down through the ages.

Mainstream liberalism and conservatism are both essentially materialistic, Dreher argues, and we should not be surprised that neither has led to the improvement of our national character. He describes his book as a rebuke to both the economic individualism of the right and the moral individualism of the left. Its purpose is to explore ways to live out conservative values in a culture that seeks to separate us from our values, families and communities.

In less than 250 pages, “Crunchy Cons” uses Dreher’s own experiences as well as those of people across the country who are living countercultural lives that are socially, spiritually and physically healthier than the ways of the dominant culture. He looks at organic farming and the slow food movement, new urban planning, walkable neighborhoods and aesthetically pleasing architectural design such as bungalows, the attraction of liturgical Christianity to a generation bored with “relevant” contemporary worship, and the understanding that conservation is the essence of conservatism.

“Crunchy Cons” was not a bestseller and is now out of print. It won’t make a list of the most influential conservative tomes, like William Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” or Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind.” But it influenced me more than any other book in my evolution into a conservative, and to see that I had been one all along. I recommend it to others.

You probably won’t be able to find it, though, unless you come across it at a secondhand bookstore or on Amazon, so in the weeks to come, I want to share a little more of it and hope it will stir your imagination, as it did mine.

Marriage is inseparable from religion

First published July 25, 2015.

It was Jesus, not Jefferson, who first advocated separation of church and state when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In other words, don’t give the state what belongs to the One who has authority over everything.

Paul, a persecutor of Christians until he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, wrote that all authority is ordained of God, and Luke warned that whenever political leaders overstep their bounds and misuse their God-given authority, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

I quote Scripture only so that readers understand the bedrock beliefs that inform the political thinking of traditional Christians. We are not theocrats, but we do believe, as the Founders did, that the rights we have come from our Creator, and that there’s a higher law than the Constitution.

Now that’s clear, let me turn to marriage — a subject I feel inadequate to write about because I’ve never been a husband, but I have seen unions stand the test of time because of faith.

One of the oddest remarks I’ve read since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell vs. Hodges decision was from Sarah Sturgill of Bardstown, who was denied a license to marry the woman she loves. She was quoted in this newspaper as saying she believes religion has no part in marriage and should be entirely separate from government.

Religion separate from marriage? Marriage is older than either church or state and was instituted by God as a union between man and woman.

One could no more separate marriage from religion that separate baptism from religion. That’s why so many Christians have a problem with the ruling on same-sex marriage. If the decision had entitled all couples to civil unions, most Christians wouldn’t have a problem with it. Render unto Caesar. But marriage isn’t a contract, it’s a sacred covenant.

The Kentucky Standard’s editorial board chastened Nelson County Judge-Executive Dean Watts for saying he would avoid discriminating against LGBT couples by not marrying any couples. It is not required of judges, he explained, and performing same-sex weddings violates his Catholic convictions. The editorial said that a wedding before a judge or magistrate is “a purely civil procedure.” It is not. The words and the structure of the ceremony are similar to a wedding performed in a church before “God and these witnesses.” One civil ceremony used by LaRue County, invokes God no fewer then eight times, and the judge marries the couple “according to the ordinance of God,” not a county ordinance. The one used by Hardin County acknowledges, in Matthew 19:4-6, that marriage was instituted by God in the beginning.

Our editorial also said Watts’ “personal belief that couples of the same sex should not be able to marry” is a form of discrimination. That’s true, but it is not discrimination in a legal sense.

Is the secular agenda now to require everyone to think alike on this issue? If so, that’s an illiberal way of looking at liberty in a pluralistic society.

While marriage is inseparable from religion, maybe it is time to separate marriage from government. How the state got involved in an institution that is essentially religious is too complicated to explain here. But I believe the right compromise is one advocated a decade ago by liberal evangelicals and recently adopted by libertarian conservatives. It is to distinguish between marriage and civil unions.

Let those religious groups that support LGBT weddings, such as the Episcopal Church and Reformed Judaism, perform them, and let the vast majority of religions that oppose them, such as the Catholic and United Methodist churches, Islam and Orthodox Judaism, opt out.

Whether or not there is a religious ceremony, let all couples, straight or gay, go to the courthouse and sign contracts guaranteeing them the financial and legal benefits of married couples.

Just don’t call that marriage because it is not.

It isn’t just the economy, stupid

First published Nov. 7, 2015

Matt Bevin, during his visit to Bardstown in late September for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, told me something that helps explain his nearly nine-point win over Jack Conway in last week’s election for governor.

“When I began this race, I was focused entirely on economic issues … . Yet in recent days and weeks … the social issues have moved to the forefront and probably will stay there,” he said.

This was right after a county clerk had been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples because it violated her religious convictions, and also after outrage over revelations that Planned Parenthood had been harvesting body parts of aborted infants.

The folk Bevin talked with in every hamlet care about these things, he said.

These are the same people President Barack Obama insulted when he said working class Americans “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” because they’re frustrated with their economic situations.

Years before, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru, James Carville, came up with his unforgettable dictum for his campaign workers — it’s “the economy, stupid.”

But it isn’t, and never was entirely.

This may come as a surprise to most Democrats, but what bothers many rural voters even more than the economy is the mindset of secular urban liberals that people like them — who honor God, enjoy guns, trucks and church picnics, and cherish traditional family values — are cretins or circus freaks.

These common people care about the environment, but also care about unemployed miners and their families. They don’t want abortion to be a crime, but they know it’s a tragedy and can’t understand women who talk about their bodies as if babies weren’t also bodies and souls. They think government should give a helping hand to those who need it, but not endless handouts to those who won’t help themselves.

The Democratic Party calls itself the party of the people, but it hasn’t been that for a long time. It mostly represents an affluent, college-educated, culturally liberal, suburban white minority.

But who represents the black Baptist preacher who is concerned about out-of-wedlock births, the drug culture and youth violence?

Who represents the teacher who wants out because she can’t control her students who have never been disciplined by their parents and have no respect for authority?

Who represents the police officer that puts his life on the line every day to protect others, only to be treated with contempt because of the actions of the few who are a discredit to their code of honor?

Voters who support public education, fair wages, affordable health insurance and the promise of Social Security, but who also are socially conservative should be the natural constituency of Democrats in Kentucky and most other rural states, but almost no one is offering that choice anymore. Their choice is either a Republican Party that cares more about millionaires’ hedge funds than Head Start, or a Democratic Party that is liberal across the board. Is it any wonder that the fastest growing party affiliation is no affiliation at all — or independent?

It’s true that Kentucky Democrats are a little different than Democrats in San Francisco or Boston.

Jack Conway, to his credit, sued the Environmental Protection Agency over regulations intended to shutter coal-fired power plants. He took a cautious, wait-and-see approach on Medicaid expansion and listened to what the actuaries were saying. And he said he favored finding a solution that would protect county clerks’ rights of conscience while ensuring that those who are legally entitled to marriage licenses can get them. But every circular that came in the mail from the Republican Governors Association mentioned Obama’s name about as many times as Conway’s, because the president is not popular in Kentucky.

State Auditor Adam Edelen did almost everything right in his four years in office and had some significant accomplishments, such as putting a corrupt former commissioner of agriculture in prison, making special taxing districts more transparent and holding them accountable to elected officials.

Yet Edelen admitted during a campaign rally at Wickland that the policies of the national Democratic Party often make it hard to wear the brand in Kentucky.

He’s right. As long as they are identified with a party that is out of touch with the bedrock moral and cultural values of most people in this state, the influence of Kentucky Democrats will wane until they are politically viable only in cities like Lexington and Louisville.

In fact, after last week’s Republican landslide, I think Kentucky is already close to becoming a one-party state, as it was from the Jacksonian era until the 21st century, when it was solidly Democratic except for pockets of Republicanism in places like the 5th House District and affluent suburbs of Northern Kentucky. But this time, the one-party state will be red, at least until the millennials become the majority, assuming they don’t become more conservative as they age, as most generations do.

With malice toward none, with charity for all

First published March 5, 2016

Democracy is made for disagreement, but for it to work, everyone must have a seat at the table, and the tone must be respectful. Inclusiveness, civility and individual liberty are its defining characteristics.

It warmed my heart when I went to the Nelson County Republicans’ Lincoln Dinner Thursday night, and the last speaker was a black woman who overcame poverty and rose through the military and industry to become lieutenant governor of Kentucky.

Jenean Hampton is an exemplar of the ideals of equality of opportunity that Abraham Lincoln devoted his career to, and upon which his party was founded.

The lady was gracious in her remarks. She talked about how she persuades people about the truth of conservative principles, because they work. Unlike many others in the tea party movement, she makes this argument without derision or contempt.

During a season in which I’ve often hung my head in embarrassment over the harsh rhetoric on the right about Mexican Americans and Muslims, Governor Hampton, for a shining moment, made me proud again to be a Republican.

In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in Kentucky, written Aug. 24, 1855, Lincoln expressed his frustration about the growing anger in his country over immigration and ethnic and religious diversity, and how it was being exploited by the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be?” he wrote. “How could anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

These were strong words from a man who, in public life, liked the adage that “a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.”

Lincoln, and his heir, Ronald Reagan, were men of humble beginnings who became great because they knew humility is the hallmark of a public servant. They weren’t arrogant and abrasive like most members of their party today who seek the presidency. They deflected criticism with good humor and gentle sarcasm.

I came of age in the era of Reagan, and I can’t once remember him calling anyone a liar or a loser, or questioning an opponent’s manhood, or dissing his mother, or using the F-word in a speech, or ridiculing a reporter because of his physical disability or her menstrual period, or wanting to punch a protestor in the face.

When I remember Reagan’s visage, I see a sunny smile, not the scowl of someone who wants to be Benito Mussolini and who quotes him on social media.

If Lincoln had lived to see the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, he most certainly would have harshly condemned it as un-American and un-Christian. And Reagan, an Irish-American who made a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and invoked William Bradford’s biblical imagery of America as a “city upon a hill,” would not tolerate bigotry.

Both Lincoln and Reagan knew that in a two-party republic, nothing can be accomplished without bipartisan compromise and polite dialogue. They were men of strong moral principles, but they were also tough-minded pragmatists who knew how to treat an adversary with deference.

As an evangelical Christian, if I were to choose someone who best represents Judeo-Christian values in public life, I would use the test of the Apostle Paul, who described the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Lincoln and Reagan represented these traits. But many would-be leaders today represent hatred, anger, rancor, intolerance, meanness, smugness, selfishness, bile and boorish behavior.

There is a debate going on within the Republican Party, and it is one the party needs to have. It is over whether the GOP is to be the party of Lincoln and Reagan or the reincarnation of the Know-Nothings.

Why I am no longer a Republican

First published April 9, 2016

When Ronald Reagan became a Republican in 1962, he explained his decision like this: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

I felt something similar when, several days ago, I went to the Nelson County Clerk’s Office and changed my voter registration from Republican to independent.

The party I joined when I turned 50 is not the same Republican Party we have today — although the transformation was already beginning with the birth of the tea party movement.

The Grand Old Party that attracted me as I became more conservative in my prime was one that balanced a belief in personal responsibility with a commitment to opportunity. It respected individual liberties, but also cherished community and traditional virtues. It practiced fiscal sobriety, but offered a hand to the disabled and disadvantaged. It had a rich heritage of racial equality going back to the time of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, when the Democrats were the party that elevated states’ rights above human rights.

The party’s compassionate conservatism was rooted in Judeo-Christian principles of justice. It can be summed up in these words from President George W. Bush’s first inaugural address: “Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities, and all of us are diminished when they are hopeless. … I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”

That perspective has been evident in policies such as charter schools in inner cities to give poor children a chance at a better life, federal funding for faith-based initiatives that work because they address the root causes of poverty and addiction rather than money for big bureaucratic programs that don’t, enterprise zones that give businesses incentives to locate in depressed areas, and humanitarian and military aid to victims of brutality in other countries. It is based on the biblical belief that were are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

In the past seven years, this compassionate conservatism has been supplanted by radical libertarianism, which holds that our brothers and sisters are on their own and that selfishness is a virtue not a vice. It is rooted in the nihilistic philosophy of Ayn Rand rather than the traditional philosophy of her contemporary, Russell Kirk, the father of modern conservatism.

In the current election, though, we have seen something uglier than libertarianism at work. It is a populism that hearkens back to the Know-Nothing movement of the mid-19th century and the John Birch movement of the mid-20th. It stokes the fires of bigotry against anyone whose religion, skin color or country of origin is different than the majority’s, and it has an authoritarian attitude.

What other way is there to describe the faction of the party that wants a caudillo (strong man) like Donald Trump? He is someone who quotes the founding father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, who initially refused to reject the endorsement of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, who incites his followers to acts of violence against peaceful demonstrators, and has said that if he becomes president, he will undermine the First Amendment freedom of the press.

The likeliest alternative to Trump in this year’s presidential race is Ted Cruz, a tea party ideologue whose idea of governing is to repudiate efforts at bipartisan compromise — even compromise with the mainstream of his own party — and shut down the government if he doesn’t get his way. He wants to eliminate the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education and Commerce, as well as the IRS, and he favors a flat tax that would reduce the responsibility of the rich and increase the burden of the poor. He would deport Hispanic immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children. He would dismantle the law that prohibits insurance companies from refusing to sell policies to people with cancer and has added tens of millions of people to the rolls of the insured for the first time.

Health insurance has long been one of my concerns, and six years after the Affordable Care Act, I’m still waiting to see what “repeal and replace” means. The only specifics congressional Republicans offer would allow companies to sell policies across state lines — which sounds like a good idea, but means the policies won’t be regulated because the regulating is done by the states — and would replace guaranteed insurance with tax-free health savings accounts.

Really? That’s all they’ve got after six years?

The great irony is that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is a warmed-over Republican idea from the early 1990s that Republicans rejected en masse as soon as President Barack Obama accepted it.

I’m also embarrassed by Republicans’ embrace of absurd conspiracy theories, such as the notion that President Obama is not a natural-born American citizen or that he “hates America,” or that his wife ridiculed Old Glory — based on lip (mis)reading, or that fossil-fueled global warming is a hoax cooked up by the world’s climate scientists to keep government research money rolling in to pay their salaries. As one of my curmudgeonly college professors sometimes asked her students: How can you be so damned dumb?

I cannot return to the Democratic Party of my youth, because it now insists on a “right” to abort babies up until the moment of birth. It equates religious liberty with bigotry, and believes Christianity is something best practiced in private by consenting adults. It supports public sector unions that make it almost impossible to get rid of inept teachers. It seeks to confiscate the wealth of the nation’s wealth creators. But I can’t go back to the Republican Party — until it comes to its senses.

Will Bevin, Kentucky GOP be ‘Happy Together’?

First published June 19, 2015

If you think Matt Bevin is a dour revolutionary, watch the video. It’s the funniest thing in Kentucky politics since Mitch McConnell’s hound dogs treed Dee Huddleston.

As the Turtles song “Happy Together” plays in the background, Bevin wakes up in a Team Mitch T-shirt, goes to work in an SUV with a Team Mitch license plate and gets a Team Mitch tattoo.

“Yeah, it stings a little bit, but it’s so worth it,” he says.

In one scene, he phones McConnell to warn him: “The word on the street is that Rand is going down to the Senate floor right now. He’s got his pockets filled with energy bars … .They say he’s going to be out there until at least Tuesday.” Then he adds: “Hey, that’s what friends are for, sir.”

It ends with Bevin talking to McConnell like a love-struck teenager.

“No, you hang up. No, really, you hang up,” he says.

Bevin, who won the GOP nomination by 83 votes in a four-way race, probably wasn’t McConnell’s first choice for governor. A year ago, Bevin challenged the Godfather for his seat and reportedly was ungracious after McConnell rolled over him and his Democratic opponent.

Then there was the bitter gubernatorial contest. I figured Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer would win the primary and beat Democrat Jack Conway in the general. Louisville businessman Hal Heiner might have had a chance, but I wouldn’t have placed a $2 bet on Bevin or retired Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, whose shoe-leather campaign never gained traction.

That was before the rumors about Comer’s woman problem.

Less than an hour before Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal broke the story based on an interview with Comer’s college girlfriend, a Heiner supporter called to tell me it was coming. When I read the story, I knew it was over for Comer — and probably for Heiner too, because his people were likely behind it.

That left Bevin, who had taken the high road, as the obvious beneficiary.

But Bevin?

Like Rand Paul, who ran against the party establishment and had to accommodate it once elected, Bevin must do the same. The video was a clever way of admitting it.

On June 10, I interviewed Bevin and his running mate, Jenean Hampton, on PLG-TV, and he told me he didn’t like labels.

“A tea party favorite? I’m not sure what that means,” he said.

He said he had never belonged to a tea party group, but was of “like mind” with them on constitutional government, lower taxes and individual responsibility.

He also said the bad blood between McConnell and himself was fiction, and he had “voted for the guy every time” except when he ran against him.

Make no mistake, Matt Bevin is the most far-right conservative who has ever run a race for governor in Kentucky. He has said he would like to reduce or eliminate taxes except for “consumption” (sales) taxes and reduce spending. He wants to make Kentucky a state where those who work in places that have won the right of collective bargaining wouldn’t have to pay for union representation. He is against raising the minimum wage and would end the prevailing wage. He would take away teachers’ defined-benefits pensions and enroll them in something like a 401(k).

His first executive order would be to abolish Kynect, the state’s popular health insurance exchange, and he would reverse Gov. Steve Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid. He opposes Common Core and supports charter schools.

How this agenda will play out in a purple state where Republicans historically have been more like John Sherman Cooper than Ted Cruz remains to be seen. But if Bevin can take a page from McConnell’s playbook on how to pivot, he could succeed.

First freedom isn’t a secondary human right

First published July 11, 2015

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, there has been a growing chorus calling for the resignation or removal of county officials in Kentucky who cannot, for reasons of faith, support same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Gov. Steve Beshear joined those voices, telling Casey County Clerk Casey Davis that he should issue marriage licenses to all who may now marry or step aside — in which case the governor would appoint someone to fill his position until there is another election.

While Davis’ grandstanding approach has gotten the most attention, 57 county clerks last week signed a letter asking the governor to call a special session to address the problem of how to protect their religious liberty while also complying with the court’s ruling, which made gay marriage legal in every state. This was after Beshear had already turned down such a request by Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, a leader of the governor’s own party.

Beshear said the issue can wait until 2016. Meanwhile, nearly half the county clerks in the state, who have until now faithfully executed their responsibilities as public officials, are faced with the choice of either participating in something that violates their consciences or giving up their careers and turning their backs on those who elected them, in most cases knowing they were people of faith.

It is a conundrum the justices created when they decided by a 5-4 margin to create a new civil right by changing the definition of marriage that has existed since the beginning of civilization. It comes as no surprise, yet it comes with questions that must be addressed regarding the place of faith in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and religious freedom as well as on Enlightenment ideas about the nature of humanity and liberty.

Although our nation’s founders were men of diverse views — from Thomas Paine, a Deist who despised Christianity, to Patrick Henry, who was a devout Christian — they were able to agree that all of us are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights …”

In other words, all rights come from God, and so does all political authority, according to the Bible in Romans 13:1. Those who oppose same-sex marriage make the case that God cannot grant a right that is contrary to his perfect order. And in Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus — who was the Word of God incarnated (John 1:1) — teaches that God was the author of marriage from the beginning. Quoting the ancient Jewish scriptures (Genesis 2:24), Christ said that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The Bible is also unambiguous in describing homoerotic relationships as sinful, although I believe we are guilty of the ultimate sin of pride if we believe those relationships are worse than other sins or that any of us is without sin.

Conservatives conveniently forget that the sin of Sodom, according to the prophet Ezekiel, was that the city’s people had become “overfed and unconcerned” and “did not help the poor and needy.”

That’s something we might want to keep in mind when we’re stuffing ourselves full of fried chicken and potato salad at a church social and grousing about our taxes paying for food for the children of the working poor.

As the United States becomes an increasingly secular society, more Americans conflate Thomas Jefferson’s limited idea of the idea of separation of church and state with the broader postmodern notion that religious beliefs have no place in the public sphere. Not only is that not possible, but if it were, it would be discriminatory.

“Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital,” said Stephen L. Carter of Yale, a prominent constitutional scholar.

And John Adams, who played an eminent role when this nation was conceived in liberty, wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

At the heart of Christianity is the commandment that we must “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and there is no caveat that excepts our LGBT neighbors. And at the core of American democracy is the principle that all of us “are created equal” and endowed by the Creator with human rights.

In balancing LGBT rights with religious liberty, though, we should not forget that the First Amendment right of religious freedom is first for a reason.

Hyperbole and hysteria in Indiana

First published Saturday, April 4, 2015

ABC 57 in South Bend, Ind., reported April 1 that a high school coach was suspended after she tweeted that she was going to burn down Memories Pizza in nearby Walkerton for refusing to cater gay weddings.

Walkerton’s police chief said his department had investigated the threat and informed prosecutors, and he asked that folks follow the law — no fooling.

Tuesday, the TV station aired an interview with Memories manager Crystal O’ Connor and her father, Kevin, about Gov. Mike Pence’s signing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Crystal said that if the family were asked to provide pizza for a gay wedding, they would have to refuse based on their Christian beliefs.

Kevin O’ Connor said sexuality is a choice and that he chooses to be heterosexual.

To its credit, ABC 57 tacked on a footnote at the end of the story saying the family would not refuse a gay couple that came inside the restaurant to eat.

That’s a distinction most who are outraged about the law don’t make — between refusing to serve persons because of who they are and refusing to service events.

Some Christians believe that catering a same-sex wedding amounts to approval of, and participation in, something they consider sinful based on what the Bible says about homosexual acts.

Discrimination against persons is unconscionable and should be illegal. However, if the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion means anything, refusal to participate in events that violate one’s conscience should be lawful.

According to Pence, Indiana’s new law doesn’t give anyone a license to discriminate, and he wants the legislature to amend the law to make that clear.

Indiana’s law, which takes effect July1, is almost identical to those in 20 other states, including Kentucky, and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It differs from the U.S. law by defining persons to include churches and corporations, and providing a defense in civil actions involving private parties.

Basically, Indiana’s states that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in furthering “a compelling governmental interest,” and if it must impose a burden, it must use “the least restrictive means.”

Secularists are outraged over the refusal of a religious minority to accept their redefinition of the sacrament of marriage and are willing to discriminate against anyone who does not adopt their view.

One state legislator in Oklahoma offered a bill to brand Christian businesses that want to opt out of promoting same-sex relationships so that others might shun them and destroy their livelihood.

It seems the only acceptable bigotry today is against traditional Christians.

One reason is that most don’t know what traditional Christianity is. Many think the free exercise of religion means only that people are free to worship inside their churches or synagogues on their own time, but should keep their religious beliefs to themselves. They want to force Christians into the closet.

Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative, wrote that orthodox Christians should retreat to a redoubt they can defend.

“If by ‘Christianity’ we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it,” he wrote. “We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order.”

I strongly disagree. Being a Christian is personal, but not private. It is a 24/7 thing, not something reserved for an hour on Sunday mornings. And if you believe in Christ’s Great Commission, as I do, then it isn’t something one keeps to oneself.

I also believe in the Great Commandment, which is that we should love God foremost and love our neighbors no less than ourselves. There is no caveat exempting gay or agnostic neighbors.

I wouldn’t discriminate against anyone, but I wouldn’t tell others they must participate in things they don’t feel right about.

In a pluralistic society, religious liberty must not only be tolerated but respected.

Heritage of hate and the changing South

One of oddest mental images I have from my days as a weekly newspaper editor in Nicholasville is of a little black girl waving a Confederate battle flag from atop a parade float.

The Chamber of Commerce had prohibited displays of the rebel flag in the Jessamine Jamboree, and I had written a commentary supporting their decision.

The editorial had resulted in angry letters to the editor from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who vowed to fly their flag in defiance of the order.

The Stars and Bars, they said, was a symbol of “heritage, not hate.” I argued that it belonged in a museum, not at an event intended to bring people together.

On the south end of Main Street, most African-American residents stood in stony silence while watching the display go by, and a few hurled epithets. On the north end, someone joked as I was taking pictures that I shouldn’t get too close to the float. I laughed, but a rangy figure who overheard leaned close and told me I’d be safer with the heritage group than surrounded by his friends.

———

Members of the National Socialists Movement and the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan salute to start a rally Saturday April 21, 2012, at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. At least 70 law enforcement officers were present to control a crowd of 150 to 200 demonstrators when a group of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members rallied against illegal immigration on the steps of the Kentucky Capitol. (AP Photo/John Flavell)

“The past is never dead. It is not even past,” William Faulkner wrote.  That has been true of race relations in the South, but reactions last week to the racially motivated murders of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., were astounding.

Since Gov. Nikki Haley and other leaders called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Charleston, a chorus of voices across the country has demanded the removal of the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, including the statue of Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky Capitol.

Even more encouraging is that Walmart, eBay and other retailers have said they will no longer sell the flags.

Once again, we’re hearing from resisters that the flag represents “heritage, not hate.” That may be true for some, but there is also a heritage of hate associated with the flag that is seared into our national consciousness and with which we must reckon.

I have referred to the Stars and Bars as the Confederate battle flag because it is not the official flag of the Confederacy that flew over capitols during the Civil War. It is the flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was revived 100 years after the Civil War as a symbol of white supremacy and defiance of civil rights. That is its legacy in the minds of many Americans.

Based on I know of Lee’s desire for reconciliation, if he were alive today, I think he would agree it’s time to retire it.

———

In Montgomery, Ala., the birthplace of the Confederate States of America, demonstrators Saturday protested a decision by Gov. Robert Bentley to remove the battle flag from a war memorial.

“Right now, this past week with everything that is going on, I feel very much like the Jews must have felt in the very beginning of the Nazi Germany takeover,” one protestor told the Associated Press. He added that “there is a concerted effort to wipe people like me out, to wipe out my heritage and to erase the truths of history.”

It’s outrageous that he would compare those who want to remove a stain from our past with Nazi Germany’s racist regime because America’s apartheid movement has included many who identify with that evil episode in the world’s history.

Here’s an example. Three years ago, when I worked for the AP in Frankfort, I covered a rally on the Capitol steps by neo-Nazis who were joined by a Ku Klux Klan group. The swastika and the Stars and Bars flew side by side.

About 200 counter-demonstrators heard white supremacists say they were not a hate group, but a civil rights group, yet the rhetoric was hateful.

While Nazis and Klansmen shouted, “God hates homosexuals,” Victoria King of Lawrenceburg held aloft a message of Christian love — a sign with words of a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is darkness, let me sow light.”

———

The light of liberty cannot be forever hidden under a dark shroud.

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led another rally on the steps of Alabama’s Capitol steps, not far from where another Montgomery memorial today celebrates a better legacy — that of the civil rights movement.

“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said.

It is well that we remember those words as we celebrate the birth of our republic this weekend. America has not always been the shining City on a Hill that our forebears envisioned, but it was and is the right vision, and we should expect nothing less.

Will Bevin, state GOP be ‘Happy Together’?

If you think Matt Bevin is a dour revolutionary, watch the video. It’s the funniest thing in Kentucky politics since Mitch McConnell’s hound dogs treed Dee Huddleston.

As the Turtles song “Happy Together” plays in the background, Bevin wakes up in a Team Mitch T-shirt, goes to work in an SUV with a Team Mitch license plate and gets a Team Mitch tattoo.

“Yeah, it stings a little bit, but it’s so worth it,” he says.

In one scene, he phones McConnell to warn him: “The word on the street is that Rand is going down to the Senate floor right now. He’s got his pockets filled with energy bars … .They say he’s going to be out there until at least Tuesday.” Then he adds: “Hey, that’s what friends are for, sir.”

It ends with Bevin talking to McConnell like a love-struck teenager.

“No, you hang up. No, really, you hang up,” he says.

Bevin, who won the GOP nomination by 83 votes in a four-way race, probably wasn’t McConnell’s first choice for governor. A year ago, Bevin challenged the Godfather for his seat and reportedly was ungracious after McConnell rolled over him and his Democratic opponent.

Then there was the bitter gubernatorial contest. I figured Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer would win the primary and beat Democrat Jack Conway in the general. Louisville businessman Hal Heiner might have had a chance, but I wouldn’t have placed a $2 bet on Bevin or retired Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, whose shoe-leather campaign never gained traction.

That was before the rumors about Comer’s woman problem.

Less than an hour before Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal broke the story based on an interview with Comer’s college girlfriend, a Heiner supporter called to tell me it was coming. When I read the story, I knew it was over for Comer — and probably for Heiner too, because his people were likely behind it.

That left Bevin, who had taken the high road, as the obvious beneficiary.

But Bevin?

Like Rand Paul, who ran against the party establishment and had to accommodate it once elected, Bevin must do the same. The video was a clever way of admitting it.

On June 10, I interviewed Bevin and his running mate, Jenean Hampton, on PLG-TV, and he told me he didn’t like labels.

“A tea party favorite? I’m not sure what that means,” he said.

He said he had never belonged to a tea party group, but was of “like mind” with them on constitutional government, lower taxes and individual responsibility.

He also said the bad blood between McConnell and himself was fiction, and he had “voted for the guy every time” except when he ran against him.

Make no mistake, Matt Bevin is the most far-right conservative who has ever run a race for governor in Kentucky. He has said he would like to reduce or eliminate taxes except for “consumption” (sales) taxes and reduce spending. He wants to make Kentucky a state where those who work in places that have won the right of collective bargaining wouldn’t have to pay for union representation. He is against raising the minimum wage and would end the prevailing wage. He would take away teachers’ defined-benefits pensions and enroll them in something like a 401(k).

His first executive order would be to abolish Kynect, the state’s popular health insurance exchange, and he would reverse Gov. Steve Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid. He opposes Common Core and supports charter schools.

How this agenda will play out in a purple state where Republicans historically have been more like John Sherman Cooper than Ted Cruz remains to be seen. But if Bevin can take a page from McConnell’s playbook on how to pivot, he could succeed.

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