Maybe it’s not just the economy

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

Learning to love nuclear power

One reason I appreciate a good newspaper/news site is its potential for stopping people like me in our tracks to make us think fresh thoughts (if not always change our minds) while events are fresh, maybe even still in progress. Strike while the iron’s hot, right?

A column in the Guardian, a national British newspaper, provided a valuable example this week. Like any good column, this isn’t objective “reporting,” but it uses “reportage” to make a point. In this case, George Monbiot, a regular writer for the Guardian, makes the case FOR nuclear power, which isn’t what you’d expect from an environmental activist. His column came out just a few days ago — that is, after the tsunami hit the Japanese nuclear plant in Fukushima, sending entire nations, such as Germany, into full retreat from their nuclear programs.

The fearful responses are understandable. I’m not all that comfortable with nuclear power, and the Japanese disaster has resurrected old fears around the world. On the other hand, living in southern Appalachia, I’m not all that thrilled with what the coal industry is doing to the environment either. Mountaintop removal, anyone?

I don’t discount for a moment how many jobs rely on coal mining. But we need a long-term energy plan that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, both coal and oil, and we have only so many options.

That’s Monbiot’s point: nuclear isn’t perfect, but by analyzing data he’s concluded it’s not only a viable option, but a more desirable and safer option than fossil fuels.

What to do? It’s not a simple issue, and I’m not really sure. But I’m grateful for Monbiot and other writers who don’t impose artificially simple solutions on complicated problems and retreat into predictable positions. Rather than steer away from complexity, he did his homework and drove a surprising route right into the middle of it.

I wish more journalists would do that.

The cost of liberty and the price of oil


Those were the days: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, now under siege, (left) and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in happier times.

What’s the price of liberty?


It spiked to about $100 per barrel on Wednesday. (The cost of crude oil in the U.S. settled down by the end of the day, closing at $98.) The average price for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. has climbed to $3.19 in the last few weeks, and it’s likely to go still higher.

The revolutions in the Middle East make oil production and delivery uncertain, which makes commodity markets nervous. Libya, the most recent and so far most dangerous scene of popular uprising, produces only about 2 percent of the world’s oil supply, but its high quality makes it particularly valuable, according to analysts quoted in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Several large oil companies, such as France’s Total, have already started reducing their output from Libya.

Some analysts predict the price of oil could climb to $150 per barrel if Libyan production is entirely shut down, and maybe $220 if another major oil-producing nation in the region shuts down too.

Developed nations and particularly democracies like the U.S. may soon face a crisis — or actually two crises. There’s the potential economic crisis as the price of oil pushes up the cost of virtually everything: manufacturing, agriculture (compounding a growing food-cost problem that already haunts most of the world), distribution and so on. Virtually every segment of the economy may be touched. A more expensive tank of gas for the car is only the beginning and might be the least of our worries in the U.S. All of this, of course, would be just piling on, severely slowing down if not stalling the world’s recovery from the so-called Great Recession that’s dogged us since 2008.

But there’s another kind of crisis — more philosophical or ideological — if we take the word literally, back to its Greek root of krinein: “to separate, decide, judge.” We face some serious decisions, we who (a) live in democracies and think other people should live in democracies too, and (b) depend on oil for our way of life. We could start by asking this question: How much are we willing to alter our “way of life” and even sacrifice for the sake of others’ political freedom?

Or to put it roughly: When will the drive for liberty and justice for all in oil-producing nations get too rich for our blood? Is there a point — a price point, that is — when we might decide that we can live with repressive regimes like Qaddafi’s in Libya after all, and choose to not support democratic movements? We haven’t reached that point this time around — and I hope we don’t — but the temptation certainly exists and is no doubt being argued in offices around Washington, Geneva and New York.

American foreign policy is built first and foremost on keeping the U.S. “secure” economically, politically and militarily. The Middle East regimes teetering and falling like dominoes almost weekly are creating complicated and unpredictable scenarios. None of this is easy or simple.

But taking the long view, the U.S. may gain greater security if we help people in other nations gain the liberty we say we value so much, and choose to not literally sell them out over the cost of oil. (It wouldn’t hurt our national security to push harder to develop alternative forms of energy either, but that’s another post.)

Resisting the temptation to sell out will be hard to resist, even at the most basic level. So far most Americans haven’t felt the impact of the events in the Middle East and North Africa, but who knows? Some people on Main Street, not to mention Wall Street, are already getting nervous and maybe even a little impatient.

I was chatting on Tuesday with a self-employed guy whose job puts him on the road literally hundreds of miles each week. We talked a little while about the day’s headlines, including the news coming out of Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“It’s amazing what’s happening over there,” he said. Then he shook his head and added, “But, man, these gas prices are starting to kill me. I hope we can do something about that pretty soon.”

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

Evangelicals, housing prices and pure contempt

The NY Times Economix blog posted a piece summarizing some research suggesting that evangelical Christians — a term not defined very precisely — may weather housing bubbles better than most Americans at least in part because their beliefs encourage them to avoid excessive spending and that sort of thing. You can read it here. It’s an intriguing study, surely open to debate about any economic-theological correlation. (Will anyone mention possible analogies with the old Protestant work ethic and its impact on colonial American economic growth?)

But I was struck — no, shocked is a better word — by the tone in several of the comments so far: pure, unabashed contempt served with generous portions of stereotypes and cliches. Even the commenters who raised valid questions about the  study’s conclusions  were obviously holding their noses.

Insert a long sigh of frustration here. Beyond that, no comment.

AIG meets the Golden Rule. (No, really.)


Is anyone not upset with AIG?

In case you missed it, after receiving $170 billion from the federal government to keep from collapsing, American International Group, the world’s largest insurer, paid $165 million in bonuses to 73 executives.

Whether the AIG executives were callous or just stupid, they look absolutely greedy, especially as tens of thousands of Americans are losing jobs and houses each week. This isn’t how we want our money to be used. So the president publicly scolded the company and Congress voted to tax 90 percent of big bonuses at any firm receiving more than $5 billion in bailout funds.

Bill Greer, an economics professor and vice president for institutional advancement at Milligan College (where I also teach), thinks we have good reason to be angry with AIG. Even so, he doesn’t assume that the lumbering giant is the only side of Wall Street.

“I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people who work in financial institutions are good, honest people,” Greer said this week. “I don’t think the majority are Bernie Madoff,” referring to the trader recently caught as the mastermind of the largest Ponzi-style pyramid scheme in history.

But Greer knows that, as in any profession, over time “a little bit of tunnel vision can develop.” It can happen to anyone. As the old saying goes, if you swing a hammer long enough, the whole world starts to look like a nail.

But the stakes are especially risky in the offices of high finance, where individuals and firms have their fingers on world economic triggers and they deal with other people’s money. When they stop asking too many questions and start making too many assumptions, bad decisions and big trouble won’t be far behind.

“People become numbers,” Greer said. “If I’m working at an investment firm, the fact that I may be managing hundreds of portfolios means I don’t see those faces any longer. There’s an anonymity that lets people make poor decisions with less fear of consequence.”

On the other hand, we can’t separate Wall Street and Main Street. Our decisions shape financial markets just as much as the markets shape us, and Wall Street’s problems aren’t Wall Street’s alone.

“In some ways, it has trickled out to the rest of America,” Greer said. “A lot of people on Wall Street saw an opportunity, but that same door was opened to us. We fed on each other, with our greed. We can gauge it by how little we have saved and how much we have spent over the past several years. We’ve become accustomed to having what we want, when we want it.”

But Greer, who has written and taught on business ethics, sees a silver lining.

“I think this economic downturn is forcing people to rethink their values,” he said. “Too many of us for too long lived beyond our means, did not save money, ran up large levels of consumer debt, and simply lived for today. Now there’s a sudden trend toward saving money. We’re getting our financial houses in order.”

He understands the so-called paradox of thrift – that if Americans save too much, the national economy can suffer – but he thinks it’s time for tightening belts. He’s convinced that living within our means and making money by making real, tangible products instead of trading in wispy financial deals will literally pay off in the long run.

He also thinks it’s time to bring back other ideals – on Main Street as well as Wall Street.

“I’m speaking as someone who teaches at a Christian college, but Christian or not, honesty and integrity are universal values,” he said. “What we do for people ought to be driven by care and compassion for individuals. That would make better decisions.”

He points to Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations, the 18th-century book that laid the theoretical foundation for free-market capitalism. Smith realized that a free-market economy is driven by self interest, but he also knew the market works only when we also have the interests of others in mind.

“Somehow, we need to embrace more and more the fact we make decisions every day that affect other people,” Greer said. “In a lot of ways, the Golden Rule applies very well to the free-market economic system. Treat others as you want to be treated. You go out of business if you don’t.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 21 March 2009.

Squeezed: Ministries may need to do more with less money

foodpantryopen-webFreddi Birdwell’s wake-up call to the new economy came partly in the form of a young single mother at a transitional housing program in Knoxville run by the Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.

The woman and her young child had fled an abusive home, and she was trying to get on her feet, training for a new job and learning to run a household. She was in the final six months of a two-year program.

“She had a job and was doing great,” Birdwell recalled last week. “Then she was laid off and now she can’t find another job. I can only imagine the stress of that, with a child to take care of. We make sure she’s getting food on the table … just trying to Band-Aid it until we can help her with a more permanent solution.”

Stories like this have grown familiar in the past 12 to 18 months, said Birdwell, the community relations and development director for CCET, which is based in Knoxville but has offices in Chattanooga and Jonesborough.

As Northeast Tennessee feels more of the global economic downturn, people who normally walk on financial tightropes are falling into full-blown crisis, and others who were getting by are starting to stagger.

“We’ve absolutely seen a steady increase in the number of individuals and families who face some kind of housing crisis, who are homeless, who need assistance with utilities or food,” Birdwell said. “It was a slow increase for a while, but now that’s starting to pick up.”

Churches, faith-based groups and other charities are scrambling to keep up with the needs. CCET helped more than 17,000 people in the past year, about 15 percent more than the previous year.

“A lot of the people who’ve historically helped are on the edge themselves,” Birdwell said. “People who donated items to our thrift stores and pantries (in the past) now are coming to our stores. They’re one crisis, one job loss, one illness from putting them over the edge.”

Doug Miller, director of missions and media at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Johnson City, sees a similar trend.

“What we’re finding in the last eight to 12 months is that those on the (brink) of poverty are slipping over, and those already in the poverty level are losing the grip they had,” Miller said. “People who were not homeless before are living in their cars now.”

Munsey provides space for the Melting Pot, a ministry of Good Samaritan Ministries that offers free meals to people in need. The number of meals served has mushroomed in the last year, Miller said, from about 150 people per day at the end of the month to more than 200, a 33 percent increase. (More people come at month’s end, presumably when wages or benefits are running low.) Munsey’s own Wednesday-night dinners also attract more people now.

“We’re seeing people who normally don’t come,” Miller said. “A lot have jobs, but if they can get one more meal per week paid for – that’s another $5 or $6. That will pay for gas to get them to work for a week.”

The economic stresses are starting to show in other ways. CCET workers at shelters in Knoxville are reporting more incidents of child and elder abuse and neglect. Birdwell blames the financial uncertainty.

“It’s an on-the-edge kind of thing,” she said, “causing people such stress that they take it out on those around them.”

Despite such accounts, Birdwell and Miller sound optimistic. Miller said the number of volunteers at Munsey and the congregation’s donations for “compassion ministries,” which has expenses as high as $50,000 per year, are holding steady.

Birdwell reported that the CCET fundraising campaign during the last holiday season was more successful than the previous year. CCET operates 22 programs with an annual budget of almost $5 million, supplied by gifts from individuals and organizations, funding from the East Tennessee Diocese and government grants.

But churches, charities and other organizations that offer a safety net to people in need know they face a tough dilemma: The same conditions that make their services more crucial are hitting donors’ wallets too. No one knows how hard the economy will bite into giving, and these ministries may soon be trying to provide more while receiving less.

“We may not want to think about (more poverty),” Miller said, “but we can’t ignore it.”

 (Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 7 March 2009)