Friday, February 27, 2009

Bringing Home the Troops

President Obama will announce today his plan for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The plan is to bring home about 90,000 of the about 140,000 troops by August 2010, 19 months after he took office. The remaining 50,000 will serve roles as peacekeepers, consultants to the Iraq army, and protectors of U.S. interests in Iraq. Those remaining troops will be home by the end of 2011. This is a slight adjustment from his campaign promise to the bring the troops home within 16 months and we can only hope that President Obama will keep to this new schedule.

The cost of the war is now over $600 billion, or about $4,681 per household and $341.4 million per day. The full cost of the war is likely to end up around $3 trillion. Much of that money has been spent by Republicans building Iraq's infrastructure, while at the same time chiding the President for spending a similar amount building America's infrastructure. Why it is okay to spend trillions of dollars in Iraq but not in America is beyond my level of comprehension, but seems exactly the opposite of sound logic.

More importantly, the war has now cost us the lives of 4,252 U.S. soldiers and, even worse, we are now approaching 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties. All for a country that never attacked us, never threatened to attack us, did not have the capability of attacking us and, according to the Pentagon, did not have links to or support the people that did attack us.

The leadership of President Obama has made me feel safer and more hopeful than at any time since September 10, 2001. America deserves a pragmatic leader who strengthens our interests through diplomacy and pragmatism first, and the force of the military as an absolute last resort. I cannot wait to welcome home our troops who have fought bravely, but at the same time mourn the deaths of those who fought and died for an irresponsible war.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Politics of Moral Certainty

In religion we are able to come to know Truth. But we are asked to live the Truth in a world that offers much more than simple wrongs and rights. We are taught to "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment." The implication is that the world is more complex than what is simply on the surface and requires something more thoughtful than snap judgments and empty platitudes.

The debate over gay rights in Utah and California has exposed this as key difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to see issues and problems as more complex and come to solutions with less certainty. Conservatives tend to see the world as more black and white, and have increased moral certainty that their solutions are correct. Of course, on the extreme wings of either ideology the world is black and white, but this mindset seems to bleed further into moderate conservativism than into moderate liberalism.

On the issue of gay rights, for example, conservatives see homosexuality as a sin, and any acquiescence in the form of rights or recognition is a tacit approval of the sin, and therefore cannot be accepted by the government. Even moderate conservatives resist granting increased rights to gays because of the possible slippery slope to what they consider complete moral decay. Liberals, on the other hand, may or may not agree that homosexuality is a sin, but regardless see the merits of extending certain rights along the spectrum of possible rights. The moderate liberal is much more inclined to err on the side of granting rights because the issue is complex and it would be unjust to ignore all gays completely.

One more example is in the arena of welfare and Medicaid. The starting point for conservative thought seems to be that people on welfare and Medicaid do not deserve our help, likely because they are just lazy. The liberal view is that, sure, there are some people on welfare that do not deserve our help, but they are just a single cross-section of a multitude of people who legitimately need our help and since we have the means, we should give it our best effort.

The examples could continue from Guantanamo (the prisoners are evil and if we let them go they will attack America v. lets try them in court and actually find out just how bad they are) to immigration (a bunch of illegals breaking our laws and taking our jobs v. a lot of good people doing jobs Americans are not doing and just trying to live a better life), and so on.

The conservative moral certainty culminated in the figure of George W. Bush who famously looked into Vladimir Putin's soul and saw goodness, and who proclaimed, as to his action in the war on terror, you are either with us or you are against us.

Moral certainty reaching absolute in our political leaders is a dangerous attribute. The world is far more complex than lazy v. hardworking, sin v. purity, evil v. good, freedom v. shackles and we need leaders who understand that and can grapple with the nuances. President Obama has shown his immense talent in this area. In his most recent press conference his answers to the press's questions would often go on for ten or twelve minutes as he explained the pros and cons of issues and laid out in detail what his actions were and why he chose that way. Bill O'Reilly, Papa Bear, in a classic example of right wing moral certainty, thought the president's answers were too long and boring. He, it seems, would have preferred straight yes or no answers, tell us Iran and taxes are always bad and that America and big business are always good. This is the approach that O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, and Congressional Republicans take. They tell us with certainty what is good and what is bad while President Obama gives us the grounwork and foundation of his decisions and lets us come to our own conclusions.

Two more points. First, the right wing absolute moral certainty has proven to be a hypocrisy trap. From conservative moralist Ted Haggard, to outspoken conservative Senator David Vitters, to outspoken conservative Senator Larry Craig, to absolutist Rush Limbaugh, to the leading voice against President Clinton's impeachment Newt Gingrich, we learn that when you present the world as only black and white, and when you so publicly and so condescendingly try to force those views upon others, you are setting yourself up for a big fall. That is not to say that liberals do not make the same mistakes, but they likewise do not set themselves up for the great hypocrisies and they are less willing to make absolute moral pre-judgments knowing that the secular world is complex and fraught with dangers that can expose any person's weaknesses.

The other example is with the stimulus bill that just came out. Not a single Republican member of the House voted for the bill, and only two moderate Republican Senators did. The reason for this strict partisan vote is that conservatives wanted to project the idea that more government is always bad. And yet many Republicans were more than happy, like Utah's Bob Bennett, to add spending to the bill that would aid his or her state. This again highlights the hypocrisy of railing against government spending, the absolute certainty that government can never fix an ailing economy and emphatically voting against the bill, while at the same adding spending to the bill in order to help the state's economy.

Finally, a perception that the world is black or white deteriorates critical thinking, which we need to encourage now more than ever. It is all a matter of how you frame the question, and when the question is framed in absolutes, therefore lending itself to only one clear right answer, no real thinking is required. When the question is posed with the implication that the solution will be complex and requires thought and debate and compromise, the latter something Congressional Republicans are unable to do it seems, then Americans are forced to think critically and grow and progress as a nation.

If the question is: Would you rather have a safe country with secure borders and lots of jobs and less crime, or grant amnesty to all illegal aliens? The answer is clear and there is no parsing the issues and getting at deeper truths. If the question is: Would you rather have rogue nations pointing their nuclear weapons at us and promoting terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and destroying the very fabric of worldwide democracy or start a war with Iraq? There is only one real answer and the nuance and difficulties of the decision are removed from the public debate. We are then free to not worry about the consequences of our decisions, to not question authority, and can instead go back to the eases of watching our reality TV shows and shopping at The Gap and buying our SUVs. In this way the powerful stay in power and the masses are falsely contented.

I understand the irony of writing a post decrying the political ploy of presenting false dichotomies whilst comparing two large political movements in generalities. I understand that not all conservatives think and act the same, just as not all liberals think and act the same, and that most people are really points along a political continuum instead of faceless members of a group that merely blindly follows. But when it comes to the basic tenets and rhetoric of conservatism and liberalism, there is a tendency of conservatives to offer up false choices between two opposites without conceding the many nuances and shades of gray.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

Jacob S. has already elucidated the behavior of our beloved legislature Chris Buttars. I want to expand on a couple of his thoughts, and reply to the comments of several of our readers.

First, if you are not aware, Chris Buttars was removed from his positions of chairman and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as the chairman of the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee. According to Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper), Buttars was not removed for the content of his comments on homosexuality, but rather for violating an agreement with the Senate to not to speak publicly on the issue. Apparently Buttars has been marked as a "lightning rod" on this issue.

In my mind, this leaves two questions open for debate. One, is the content of Buttars benign, or is the content itself the source of the reaction. Two, should Buttars comments "in private" be considered as speaking publicly (i.e. where does free speech leave us exactly).

There is no question that the LDS church considers homosexuality a sin. There is no question that all sin is considered by the LDS church to have a negative impact on society. However, Chris Buttars stated that "
the greatest threat to America going down," and went as far as to compare homosexuals to "radical Muslims." It isn't enough that Buttars is ignorant and intolerant of Muslims, when he probably means Islamic radicals (the ideology that Islam is both a religion and a political system), but also that he normalizes the violent murders of these radicals with the behavior of homosexuals. Murder is worse than sexual deviance, as stated by President Kimball in 1978 (Spencer W. Kimball, A Letter to a Friend, pamphlet). Instead, homosexuality is in line with all other forms of sexual immorality including adultery, fornication, etc. Buttars is mistaken in equalizing homosexuals to murderers.

A second, decisively inflammatory comment from Buttars on the Common Ground initiative (SB 32)
was, "It lost 4-2, and I killed it. I've killed every one they've brought for eight years." The bill is designed to give certain rights to homosexuals, among which are: expanding healthcare, fair housing and employment, wrongful death rights, etc. Notice that neither marriage, nor civil unions are listed among the changes sought by this, and similar bills. In addition, Elder L. Whitney Clayton, a member of the church's Presidency of the Seventy stated that " general, the church "does not oppose civil unions or domestic partnerships," that involve benefits like health insurance and property rights. So where does the justification for Buttars delight in killing these bills come from? Certainly not from LDS doctrine.

Homosexuality is a moral issue, that is now being debated as a civil issue. From the LDS church's point of view it is a sin, but the sinner is still a child of God, and a member of society with all the rights to worshipping "how where and what they may" (Articles of Faith #11). Chris Buttars does not speak for the church, nor do his comments represent the teachings of the church. It is the very content of his comments that deserve explanation and consequence, as they are not in line with civil liberties.

The second question is in regard to Chris Buttars' right to free speech. We can not, and must not, interpret Freedom of Speech with the right to say or do anything we want. It is not absolute and there are (thankfully) limitations against things such as "hate speech," pornography, and the "offense principal." Obviously, the response to the various form or context of speech is individual and subjective, and therefore must be decided upon by the each respective society. Kissing in public for example is acceptable, while public sex (although it technically is protected under "free speech") is not condoned in the United States or any other society I am aware of. So, while Buttars does have the right to say whatever he wants, he must accept and be aware of the association and implication of his statements. Such responsibility is true of everybody in all situations, but is exceptionally true of a public figure in a society where "private" statements are rapidly disseminated. Buttars must take responsibility for his words, his actions, and his flawed ideology. If he is not self-sufficient or self-motivated to do so, then his constituency, the Republican Party, and the government must take action.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Chris Buttars Fiasco: A Total Lack of Leadership and Accountability From Utah Republicans

Things we have not heard from any Utah Republican legislators or elected officials:
  • "We are embarrassed by Chris Buttars' comments. They do not reflect the views of the Utah Republican party."
  • "I disagree with what Chris Buttars said. Utah deserves more respectful dialogue and constructive solutions to our problems."
  • "The Utah Republican party and the state legislature understand that on a list of things threatening America, homosexuals rate somewhere around moles eating our carrots from underground."
  • "Senator Buttars should resign for his insensitive comments that reflect poorly on the Republican party and the great state of Utah."
  • "I realize that almost all Utahns disagree with Chris Buttars' comments and would prefer open dialogue that is civil and respectful. We can disagree without being hateful."
  • "We should expect more from our state leaders. More civility, more sensitivity, more openmindedness."
  • "We apologize for Senator Buttars comments."
Instead his fellow Republicans are saying things like:
  • Chris Buttars "represents the views of many of his constituents and many of ours [in the state legislature].  We agree with many of the the things he said."
  • Chris Buttars losing his chairmanships on judiciary committees "will be a freeing mechanism for Sen. Buttars to function, to more fully express his freedom of speech."
  • Any that would like to see Chris Buttars apologize only dared express so anonymously.
  • "I am not encouraging him [to apologize]."
  • The more than 10,000 emails sent in from Human Rights organizations and those critical of Buttars are "form emails [that] don't mean anything."
  • We don't want to infringe on Buttars' free speech rights.
  • We don't want to have a chilling effect on free speech.
  • "The debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open."
  • "This isn't a company. We are elected officials. Sen. Buttars was elected by his constituency. We're not going to mandate he has some sensitivity training. He's responsible for what he says. He's been a politician in public service for a long time. He can defend himself."
Are the Utah Republican leaders that tone deaf? Do they really think it is honorable to stick up for and encourage Buttars' hateful and insensitive speech? Do all of Utah Republican elected officials agree with Buttars? Because not one has come out and disagreed. Not one has distanced him or herself from his comments. Not one is willing to stand up and defend Utah and Utahns from this embarrassing man. No, just the opposite. The Republicans are actually encouraging him! They are applauding him! They think he's a real hero!

Republicans have a stranglehold on Utah for now, but if these sorts of episodes continue, and if the Republican leadership completely fails as it has here, that domination will end sooner than they think.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fruits of the Spirit

First, Buttars lost his chairmanships in the Utah Senate over his most recent comments, though he won't be resigning and was defiant when asked about an apology: "They ain't gonna get one." It truly is fun to have him around.

Second, it will become clear soon enough that my pet issue is the environment. I feel pretty passionate about it and could not be more happy that we have an administration at both the national and state (Gov. Huntsman is a true surprise on several issues) level that seems to value conservation over extraction and exploitation. Instead of going too political, I thought I'd share something more personal. Last Sunday the priesthood quorum I was in studied the fruits of the Spirit, and focused on Galations 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
It occurs to me that feelings of peace and gentleness and goodness are near universal feelings when we leave the cities and towns and visit undeveloped wilderness. Some of the most spiritual and faith-promoting moments I have experienced have been outside in the mountains or deserts, away from development and sprawl. Getting away from the buildings and cars and pollution and noise offers a unique connection with our Creator rivaled only by the peace of the temple. To be so close to creation and to our own thoughts, and to be in near total peace and quiet, I think, allows a measure of the Spirit hard to receive almost anywhere else.

Conservation is a fundamentally moral issue and protecting our ever-diminishing natural treasures should be an absolute moral priority. We talk about protecting our society from moral decay, and rightfully so, but protecting the few remaining places where we can regenerate spiritually by being so close to the Spirit and creation is equally important.

There is no reason why we cannot balance our needs as far as food and energy and shelter with our needs as far as peace and nature. We can begin to live within our means not only in how balance our budgets, but also in how much we balance our consumption of goods and energy. We most definitely can protect our wild, spiritual habitats and our comfortable way of life, but first we have to understand just how important both are, and how much they are intertwined.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chris Buttars: Hater

Chris Buttars is a Republican state senator representing some wonderful people in West Jordan, South Jordan, and Herriman. He is, potentially, the worst person in Utah.

His most recent comments are embarrassing to Utah, hopefully to Republicans, and to Mormons. He was interviewed for a documentary film and had some nasty things to say about gays. He called them, "the greatest threat to America." He compares them to radical Muslim terrorists. He opined that "it's the beginning of the end. … Sodom and Gomorrah was localized. This is worldwide." And many other things. Here is the clip on youtube.

Never mind that Sodom and Gomorrah was about a lot more than homosexuality (perhaps it would be helpful for Mr. Buttars to crack open the big book), this is just hate-mongering. Comparing gays to radical Muslims is insulting to our intelligence. I would hope that our elected leaders understand that threats such as actual terrorism, a crumbling economy, unaccounted for nuclear weapons and technology, and poor education are perhaps, perhaps, more serious than gay rights.

But why stop with gays? We believe that smokers and coffee drinkers are breaking the Word of Wisdom, why aren't those sinners singled out by Buttars? What about real threats to the family like adultery and pornography? Why isn't Buttars spending any of his time on these problems? Because Buttars has found a nice scapegoat that he feels are icky.

So Buttars, lets not worry about other parts of our moral code, such as love thine enemy, pray for them, turn not any away, the whole have no need for a physician, etc. Lets forget that our religious leaders plead with us to be tolerant and open-minded, to love the sinner but hate the sin and all that. All of those are apparently just inconvient side notes for some. It is easier to hate and be inflamatory and, what's this?, get a bunch of media attention. That can't be a motivation of his, can it?

But it's certainly not the first time Buttars has spewed his bigotry. Last year, during a debate over a bill, he slurred, "This baby is black…this is a dark, ugly thing." This comment caught on nationally with the NAACP demanding an apology for this blatantly racist slur. He kind of apologized and then got defensive and, once again, hateful. Chris Buttars continues his fight against the mythical War on Christmas, by supposedly anti-Christian heathens who want Christmas to be a time of unity and inclusion, even when its not Christmas season.

He has said and done many more offensive things that I won't document, but a simple Google search will bring them up.

Chris Buttars is the the face of the Utah Republican party. He gets the most press, he is the most outspoken, he says the things that the legislature wants to say but is too afraid to. He is also never disciplined or censured by the state senate for any of the racist, bigoted, offensive things he says.

Even after his long history of being shamed in the the local and national media for his offensive and hateful diatribes, he keeps getting elected. And this is the perfect example of the problem with Utah politics. For so many people, as long as there is an "R" next to the candidate's name, he or she is acceptable. Certainly there are other states similar to Utah on both the conservative and liberal side of the spectrum, Maryland comes to mind, but Utah has a unique factor: religion. There is the underlying presumption that Republicans=Mormons, that the party=the church, that precincts=wards. So when it comes time to pull the proverbial lever, the motivating urge goes beyond political to religious. This leads to a special kind of one-party domination of state politics that is particularly damaging and dangerous. Not only do you get more and more extreme politically without opposition, but you begin to think that divine intervention itself is on your side.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

America's Broken Health Care System

There are over 46 million uninsured Americans, representing about 16% of the population, more than in any other industrialized nation. Of those uninsured, 8.3 million are children, which is about one in ten children under 18. About 25% of people making under $25,000 are uninsured, as opposed to about eight percent of people making over $75,000. Minorities are much more likely to be uninsured than whites. Eighty percent of uninsured people are either working or come from a working family. The overall number of uninsured people is rising due mostly to a falling availability of employer-sponsored coverage.

The uninsured are less likely to obtain preventative care, more likely to receive poor treatment for chronic sickness, and more likely to put off needed medical care making the problem worse.

The reason employer-sponsored coverage is eroding is because insurance premiums are skyrocketing. Since 1999, employment-based premiums have risen 120%, compared to 44% inflation and 29% wage growth. The United States spends about 17% of its GDP on health care, compared to 10.9% in Switzerland, 10.7% in Germany, 9.7% in Canada, and 9.5 in France, all counties that provide health care to all of their citizens. Uninsured Americans incur over $40 billion in costs each year, 85% of which is payed by federal, state, and local governments.

About half of bankruptcies filed every year, somewhere around two million, are due to medical costs. Many of these people have health insurance, but are still forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket. Most Americans are one medical semi-catastrophe away from bankruptcy. Part of the problem is that doctors and hospitals are unwilling or unable to negotiate flexible payment options.

Polls show that Americans are deeply unsatisfied with the current health care system and support a single-payer system by about 2:1 margin.

There are more facts and stats like this all over the internet, but the upshot is that the United States has a health care crisis. Health care costs are rising faster than wages and inflation, so less and less people are able to afford health care, so more and more people are forced into Medicaid or no insurance, increasing costs exponentially and decreasing the overall health of the nation.

But, of course, these statistics fail to account for the human side of the health care problem. There are innumerable stories of good people being completely destroyed by what would otherwise have been preventable or treatable illnesses. Besides the toll being uninsured takes on health and in the pocketbook, there is the added emotional pressures of stress, anxiety, and depression.

This is a moral issue foremost. Every other industrialized country offers at least basic medical care to all its citizens, recognizing health care as a right, not a privilege. The United States has more wealth and opportunity than any other nation, but fails to provide for the basic health needs of all its citizens. We have the means to alleviate immense suffering by providing health care to every American and we are at a point where it is irresponsible not to.

There are certain objections to a universal, or single-payer, health care system. The main objection is the cost. Certainly there would be increased taxation to cover the cost of the system, somewhere in the billions of dollars. This cost is offset by no longer paying monthly premiums, fewer developmental losses for children, greater years of workforce participation for healthy adults, increased preventative care, lower demand on ER's, increasing the strength of local economies, and more. As noted above, industrialized nations who provide some level of health care to all its citizens actually pay less as a percent of GDP than the United States.

Another objection is that the United States has the best health care system in the world and that the free market is the best system, not government control which would degrade quality. The United States ranks 23rd in infant mortality and about 20th in overall mortality. The United States ranks between 50th and 100th in immunizations depending on the immunization. Overall the United States is 67th. The free market system we currently employ has costs rising out of control, coverage at an all time low, and the lowest satisfaction among users and doctors of any industrialized country.

Even if there was a slight decrease in perceived quality of care, or some longer waiting periods for non-essential medical care (like getting warts removed), how does that weigh against the benefit of having all Americans insured? This is a matter of values, I guess. I have a relative who has said that he would rather die of cancer as an uninsured than have a universal coverage system. I have a friend who, while not endorsing an American single-payer system, had cancer as a child in England and received top-of-the-line medical care which saved his life and cost his family nothing out of pocket (besides the taxes for the system to begin with), while families in similar situations here in America regularly lose everything they own to fight that battle. Would we rather wait longer for some medical services in order to guarantee coverage for all Americans, or keep the current system and excludes tens of millions?

If the argument is that we have to keep government out of health care, then it is assumed that it is acceptable to have about one in six people in the country without insurance, with disproportional representation by poor and minorities. The free market system simply will never cover everyone. There are no other alternatives. Charities and churches cannot and will never have the capacity to insure the poor.

If, on the other hand, we see health care as a moral issue, where we seek for equality for all Americans, including in our ability to be healthy, then the government must get involved. Government cannot solve all our problems, or even most of them, but it can be useful, and in the case of health care, essential.

The Book of Mormon teaches us to care for the sick:
27 And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.
• • •
30 And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.
Alma 1: 27, 30. And:
37 For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.
• • •
39 Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?
Mormon 8: 37, 39. I am not saying that government-based universal health care is the only way to keep the commandment to tend to the sick, but it is a way and it does reach the most possible people.

I think we should want to provide adequate medical care to every American. The system we have right now is broken and does not have the potential to do so, so it is time for change. One proposal is President Obama's, which is not a single-payer system, but does have the potential to reach every American, and it worthy of our support.

Again, we can argue the costs and benefits, and hopefully will, but if we shift the focus to the families and individuals, and emphasize the right of all people to medical care, we come closer to the type of just and equal America that we can acheive.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin, Science, and Truth

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. I am about as far away from a scientist as you can be, but I love my National Geographic and believe that we should all make efforts to understand as much science and art and law and everything else as we can. My belief is that science and religion are not at odds. Here is a fairly long quote from Brigham Young on the intersection of science and religion, taken from Cool New Thang:
It was observed here just now that we differ from the Christian world in our religious faith and belief; and so we do very materially. I am not astonished that infidelity prevails to a great extent among the inhabitants of the earth, for the religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science, and which are generally understood. Says the scientific man, “I do not see your religion to be true; I do not understand the law, light, rules, religion, or whatever you call it, which you say God has revealed; it is confusion to me, and if I submit to and embrace your views and theories I must reject the facts which science demonstrates to me.” This is the position, and the line of demarcation has been plainly drawn, by those who profess Christianity, between the sciences and revealed religion. You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years. They think, and they have good reason for their faith, that their researches and investigations enable them to demonstrate that this earth has been in existence as long as they assert it has; and they say, “If the Lord, as religionists declare, made the earth out of nothing in six days, six thousand years ago, our studies are all vain; but by what we can learn from nature and the immutable laws of the Creator as revealed therein, we know that your theories are incorrect and consequently we must reject your religions as false and vain; we must be what you call infidels, with the demonstrated truths of science in our possession; or, rejecting those truths, become enthusiasts in, what you call, Christianity.”

In these respects we differ, from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. You may take geology, for instance, and it is a true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its professors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts-they are eternal; and to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist. There is an eternity before us, and it is full of matter; and if we but understand enough of the Lord and his ways, we would say that he took of this matter and organized this earth from it. How long it has been organized it is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant. This we know by what we have learned naturally since we have had a being on the earth.” (Journal of Discourses 14:115-117)

I want to say a few words about our religion, but first I will ask you to remember this prayer which I offered at the commencement of my remarks with regard to the poor. If you will do that, they will be looked after and brought home. Now we will talk a little about our religion. Ask the scientific men of the world how many of the arts can be reduced to a science? When they are so reduced they become permanent; but until then they are uncertain. They go and come, appear and disappear. When they are reduced to science and system their permanency, and stability are assured. It is so with government-until it is reduced to science it is liable to be rent asunder by anarchy and confusion, and caprice and scattered to the four winds. Government, to be stable and permanent and have any show for success must be reduced to a science. It is the same with religion; but our traditions are such that it is one of the most difficult things in the world to make men believe that the revealed religion of heaven is a pure science, and all true science in the possession of men now is a part of the religion of heaven and has been revealed from that source. But it is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law. It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author. Our spirits are His: He begot them. We are His children; He set the machine in motion to produce our tabernacles; and when men discard the principle of the existence of a Supreme Being and treat it with lightness, as Brother Taylor says, they are fools. It is strange that scientific men do not realize that, all they know is derived from Him; to suppose, or to foster the idea for one moment, that they are the originators of the wisdom they possess is folly in the highest! Such men do not know themselves. As for ignoring the principle of the existence of a Supreme Being, I would as soon ignore the idea that this house came into existence without the agency of intelligent beings. (Journal of Discourses 13:300)

I highlighted a few quotes that I thought were particularly important. I think this is a beautiful reconciliation of religious truth and scientific truth. And the reconciliation is this: there is nothing to reconcile. Our God is a God of science because there is only one Truth, and all true science is revealed by God. The closer we come to understanding how God works, the more knowledge we will gain of science, and visa versa.

When Darwin went to South America and the Galapagos Islands and began to formulate his theory of evolution, I believe he was inspired, as Brigham Young explains above. When geologists show that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that the universe started with a Big Bang 14 billion years ago, their theories and laws have an aspect of revealed Truth as far as we understand the laws of the universe correctly. As we study the scriptures, live faithfully, and grow closer to our Heavenly Father, the more we will see that He works through laws and principles that we can eventually understand.

I particularly like how Brigham Young expands science to include government. We know that God is a God of order in all things. Therefore we must also seek out order in all things. When our governments eschew science and are instead ruled by ideology alone, confusion, anarchy, and plain old ineffectiveness ensue. When law and government have for their basis science, rational thought, and deliberate understanding they can be stable and equitable. Too often our government leaders try to appeal to our basest and rawest emotions in order to pass laws whose only goal is to consolidate power or satisfy a whim, instead of appealing to our higher capacities of reason in order to promote the general welfare over the long term.

So on this 200th birthday of Darwin, I hope we can step back and rededicate ourselves to respectful discourse which enlightens and unifies instead of divides (myself includes, especially). I hope we can promote Truth wherever it is found, whether in science or art or religion, which are all one and come from the same Source anyway.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Common Ground Initiative

Equality Utah is an organization whose stated mission is to "secure equal rights and protections for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] Utahns and their families." In response to certain comments made by Church officials in the wake of Prop 8, Equality Utah proposed five bills, collectively called the Common Ground Initiative (CGI), that were introduced to the 2009 Utah legislature. The five bills are aimed at extending certain rights to LGBT couples.

1. Health Care - extending benefits for state employees to their adult designees.
2. Housing and Employment - making it illegal to fire or evict a person based on sexual orientation.
3. Wrongful Deaths - allowing insurance and inheritance in deaths involving negligence or malpractice to LGBT partners.
4. Adult Joint Support Declaration - allowing rights of inheritence, insurance, and housing upon signing of a declaration.
5. Repealing the part of Amendment 3 to the Utah Constitution (which defines marriage as between one man and one woman) which states "no other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as marriage or be given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect."

The legislature defeated the Wrongful Deaths bill in committee, meaning it did not have the chance to be voted on by the full legislature. The bills' sponsors pulled the Amendment 3 bill because it was apparent that it would never pass and was seen as maybe too much for the Utah legislature to swallow right now.

It is time to support these bills, not to somehow "make up" for the Proposition 8 unpleasantness, or to try to repair the Church's public image, but because supporting equality for all people is the right thing to do.

The Church's position is that it "does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches." The Church has not commented on the CGI, but on November 5th, Elder L. Whitney Clayton stated the LDS Church does not oppose “civil unions or domestic partnerships.” This statement was qualified by Church spokesman Michael Otterson:
But spokesman Michael Otterson suggested a few days ago to a Washington Post reporter that the church's post-election remarks were "based on civil unions in California and that no decision has been made regarding similar rights in Utah," the paper said. "'I don't want to give the impression that the church is saying civil unions in all cases are OK,'" Otterson was quoted as saying, according to the Tribune.
Polls show that a strong majority of Utahns, including an even split of Mormons, support additional rights and protections for gay couples. One poll showed 63% support the rights found in the Common Ground Initiative, another showed 56% support. Both polls showed an opposition to same-sex couple adoption, which is not part of the CGI. Seventy percent of Utahns, however, oppose civil unions. That is at odds with Governor Huntsman, who has come out in support of civil unions.

There is a continuum that looks something like this: no rights for same-sex couples --> rights such as inheritance, housing, insurance, hospital visitations --> civil unions --> same-sex marriage. The Church has come out unequivocally in favor of rights for gays and gay couples, and qualifiedly for civil unions, and is opposed to same-sex marriage. I would think the reasoning goes something like this: Marriage is covenant between a man, a woman, and God. It is sacred in nature and cannot be expanded to include same-sex couples. While we find the practice of homosexuality immoral, we support basic equality for homosexuals because it is both the Christian thing to do and because we need to be good members of a community and accept them for who they are, even if we disagree with their lifestyle.

While marriage is a religious institution, rights such as those found in the CGI are government and community based. We should absolutely make sure that every citizen is given the same basic rights by the government, while protecting our beliefs as a religion. I do not see a conflict in these views.

So if a majority of Utahns support the rights found in the CGI, the Church supports those rights, and the governor supports them, why is the state legislature opposed? The Utah state legislature is beholden to ultra-right wing groups, the Eagle Forum and the Sutherland Institute, that have a history of hatred and discrimination. I am not going to outline the history and views of these groups here and now, but they are the groups that influence the Utah Republican legislators and they are the groups that block progress in Utah.

You can find contact information for your state Senate and House representatives here and here. If you are so inclined, I would encourage you to email or call them and show support for social justice in Utah.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Stimulus

I really should be working, but I just wanted to pass this along. A friend sent me an article written by Mitt Romney, the Great Mormon Hope, for CNN, linked here. You can read it yourself, but the upshot is that tax cuts, not spending, is the answer to our economic woes.

Here is President Obama's argument for spending over tax cuts:

[D]on't come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis. You know, all of us here -- [we're] imperfect. And everything we do and everything I do is subject to improvement. Michelle reminds me every day how imperfect I am. So I welcome this debate. But come on, we're not -- we are not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that for the last eight years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin.

We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face; that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or falling schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees. I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV -- if you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction. That's what the American people called for in November, and that's what we intend to deliver.

So the American people are watching. They did not send us here to get bogged down with the same old delay, the same old distractions, the same talking points, the same cable chatter. You know, aren't you all tired of that stuff?

They did not vote for the false theories of the past, and they didn't vote for phony arguments and petty politics. They didn't vote for the status quo -- they sent us here to bring change. We owe it to them to deliver. This is the moment for leadership that matches the great test of our times. And I know you want to work with me to get there...

This isn't some abstract debate. Last week, we learned that many of America's largest corporations already laid off thousands and are planning to lay off tens of thousands of more workers. Today, we learned that in the previous week, the number of new unemployment claims jumped to 626,000. Tomorrow, we're expecting another dismal jobs report, on top of the half a million jobs that were lost last month, on top of the half a million jobs that were lost the month before that, on top of the 2.6 million jobs that were lost last year.

For you, these aren't just statistics. This is not a game. This is not a contest for who's in power and who's up and who's down. These are your constituents. These are families you know and you care about. I believe that it is important for us to set aside some of the gamesmanship in this town and get something done...

Understand the scale and the scope of this plan is right. And when you start hearing arguments on the cable chatter, just understand a couple of things. Number one, when they say, well, why are we spending $800 billion -- we've got this huge deficit? First of all, I found this deficit when I showed up. Number one. I found this national debt doubled, wrapped in a big bow waiting for me as I stepped into the Oval Office.

Number two, it is expected that we are going to lose about a trillion dollars worth of demand this year, a trillion dollars of demand next year because of the contraction in the economy. So the reason that this has to be big is to try to fill some of that lost demand. And as it is, there are many who think that we should be doing even more. So we are taking prudent steps...

So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? That's the whole point. No, seriously. That's the point.
I'm no economist, and I understand that both positions have merits, but we've been trying the conservative tack for the last eight years and I'm not sure we can afford any more. By spending money, an admittedly mind-boggling amount of money, the hope is to jolt the economy immediately. Once we stop shedding jobs (almost 600,000 in January alone, which is equally mind-boggling) and start adding them, then we can talk about long-term strategies such as corporate tax cuts. The key, it seems, is to act quickly now before it gets any worse, stabilize things (that's Ph.D. economist talk, btw: "stabilize things"), and get people to work right now. From everything I've read by smart people, we cannot underestimate just how bad the economy is right now and just how much worse it can get.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Agency and Democracy

I would like to get back to the issue of whether you can be a good Mormon and a Democrat. I've already written about some current political issues, such as torture, war, and spying on Americans here, which seems to indicate that the Republican party has some pretty serious issues that Mormon Republicans need to reconcile, much like Mormon Democrats need to deal with issues such as abortion and gay rights. Again, no political party is perfect and you absolutely should never completely agree with any one party or you are probably not thinking critically.

But putting specific issues aside, most complaints I hear or read about the compatibility of Mormons and Democrats focus on the issue of choice. The argument goes something like this: In the war in heaven Satan was cast out because he wanted to take away our agency. Democrats and Socialists (usually lumped together without any explanation) similarly want to take agency away by creating a welfare state and creating too much government interference in our lives. Democrats = Satanists.

This represents some of the worst logic I have ever encountered (even omitting my last little flourish there which I have honestly never seen). And this is not a straw man, this the argument I've encountered many times. This is what people think, and it is wrong, and I'd like to tell you why.

As long as you have the ability to vote for whomever you want, you have a choice. Democrats are fully open about what they would like to accomplish. We would like health care for every person, with a priority for children. We would like to assist the poor and give them the same opportunities as the wealthy. We would like workers to have as much negotiating power as management. We would like our environment preserved. We want true equality across the board. We think the government is in as good or better position to make these happen as any other source.

I guess it is true that government takes away some choice at the back end of the process by, for instance, spending your tax dollars. We do not get to choose where every dollar we pay in taxes is spent. But this is the case no matter which party is in control. Even then we can influence our representatives and leaders through emails, phone calls, and community organizing. Our most influential choice, however, comes at the front end of the process when we vote. There is no restriction of choice at the polls. Choices regarding how the government is run occur in the voting booth, and you can choose Republican or Democrat or any other person or party you want.

We are a government run by the majority which respects the right of the minority. The hallmark of democracy is that we choose the government that best reflects our values. If the majority of people in America vote for Democrats, which is the case right now, then we are a liberal country and the liberal agenda is implemented. If a majority of people in America vote for Republicans, which more or less happened the last twenty years, then we are a conservative country and the conservative agenda is implemented. It is never the case that Democrats take control of the government and suppress choice.

We, the majority, chose the Democratic politicians and ideas and we want them to lead. If they dissatisfy us then the choice still remains to choose someone different. With a nation in economic crisis and our stature in foreign policy diminished, the majority chose President Obama and the Democrats, knowing it meant an implementation of the Democratic ideals. If it fails, the majority will choose something new (unless the year is 2004).

A conservative Republican may disagree with the amount of money spend on welfare programs. She does not want her money spent in that way, but when a majority of the nation votes for Democrats she will have to abide by that law, even though she disagrees. This is the nature of a democracy. When Republicans were in charge of the nation I did not want my tax dollars and military lives spent on the Iraq war, and I did not want our government to torture. I disagreed vehemently. But I did not complain that the Republicans were taking away my agency. I became informed, argued, and voted, along with millions of others, and things have changed.

If in our democracy a majority of Americans want to take away your handguns and assault weapons, we'll do it. If a majority wants universal health care, we'll do it. If a majority wants complete government de-regulation of the financial system, we'll do it. If a majority wants to privatize the national parks and public lands, we'll do it. These are not changes that happen overnight, of course, but with sufficient momentum Americans can do anything, good or bad. But the choice is always ours, it is never taken away no matter which party is in control.

So we, as American Mormons, value our agency and our democracy. We study the issues, debate them, and vote according to our conscience. If we disagree with the majority, then we are given rights as minorities to assemble and peacefully protest and vote the bums out. Which we did on November 4, 2008, and it felt great.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Utah Legislature Inspires Again

Here's a quick hit of inanity from our clueless state legislature. A bill just cleared a House committee that would allow Utah counties to spend up to 30% of road maintenance funds to fight RS2477 claims.

RS2477 claims are a fun bit of history. Back during the settlement of the west a person used to be able to make a road just about anywhere they wanted on public land. Usually these were practical roads that did useful things like connect towns, connect local farmers to the towns, and the like. In 1978 the law changed. You could no longer make roads wherever you like, but existing roads could remain if shown they were used continuously before 1978.

It has recently become fashionable for anti-government Utah officials to claim ever little hiking trail and deer path as a right of way under RS2477, thus making it essentially a road where a road never existed. This is particularly fun for off-road vehicle recreationists who find their existing choices of hundreds of miles of legitimate trails and roads in Utah too restricting and need to really stretch their legs into previously untouched pristine wilderness areas. There is not a little evidence that some of these roads were carved out post-1978.

Anyway, and this is getting longer than I expected it to, each claim under RS2477 has to be litigated separately in federal court and, as you can imagine, the cost starts to get incredibly high. I can't think of a better use of taxpayer money, then, during a recession where the economy is shedding jobs and the Utah state budget is being slashed in nearly every department including schools and teachers' wages, than on litigating the existence of rights of way that are unusable, speculative, and just a means of sticking to the feds. Well done.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Utah Republican Platform Exposed

I thought it might be fun to go through the Utah Republican platform and size it up and see how it is applied in the real world. If you don't find this sort of thing fun then I feel badly for you.

I will likely do this in several parts. The first plank is that government "properly exists by the consent of the governed and must be restrained from intruding into the freedoms of its citizens." I am interested to see how Republicans fare as the minority and opposition party. This is the first time in my adult life that Democrats have been in control of the complete federal government. Not only in control, but with an overwhelming mandate and repudiation of Bush-era conservatism. Will Republicans become somewhat conciliatory in defeat or more defiant? If the House Republicans are any indication, more defiant.

This is in juxtaposition to a new study by Gallup that mapped each state by percentage of population that identifies itself or leans to a certain political party. The map is somewhat shocking, in an awesome way:

That's right, only five states have a significant majority (more than 5% majority) of its population that identifies itself or leans Republican, compared to 35 states and the District of Columbia for Democrats. Utah is the reddest state at +23% Republican. The rest of the states are within that +/- 5% and are considered competitive.

What does this mean for the Utah Republican Party? Not much, I imagine, in the short term. They still hold a 3:1 advantage in both the state Senate and House. But the country is shifting away from Utah's brand of conservatism and if Utah wants to keep up and remain relevant, it better start shifting as well. With an increasing number of residents moving in to the state from other states and a young population, Utah is going to get bluer and bluer. For the first time in decades, three Utah counties (Salt Lake, Grand, and Summit) voted a majority Democratic.

If I was the Utah Democratic Party, I would start making a serious push in Utah. As in, working year round on voter registration and re-branding as a moderate alternative to the Buttars-Chaffetz brand of Utah ultra-conservatism. If that sends a jolt to Utah conservatives it will be interesting to see how they adapt to a majority of moderates that form the "consent of the governed" that makes the first plank of the Utah Republican platform. Because so far they are thumbing their noses at Utahns on popular issues like vouchers, conservation, and public transportation because they feel invincible.

More platform goodness on the way . . .