Friday, January 30, 2015

Popes and Governors

When I heard about the “Come to Jesus” talk given by Pope Francis to the Vatican Curia last month, it made me think about our own local politics here in Flyover Country.  In recent months there’s a lot being made of notes scribbled down by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback regarding an anti-abortion bill he was about to sign.  The Governor is a strong Catholic, and apparently he wrote the words “Jesus + Mary” in the margin of a statement he was about to make before signing the bill.  Personally, I don’t have a big problem with that.  When I was in public life, I made marginal notes to my presentations all the time.  And I don’t have a problem with your spiritual views informing your political stands, as long as legislating your beliefs do not impose upon mine.  (I’m not a theologian by any means, but I would argue that the heart of any religion is the acceptance of a particular interpretation of history, while the heart of belief is a personal spiritual experience.  They key word is here is acceptance, not compulsion.)  

So I’m okay if you want your religious beliefs to influence public policy.  But what I would I ask you to do is to be consistent.  And this is where Governor Brownback…and in fact most of our legislators, both in this state and nationwide…fail.

While I may not agree with the doctrine of the Catholic Church, I admire that it is always consistent in its beliefs.  Take the Church’s emphasis on the culture of life.  That leads to a strong stance against abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and the death penalty, and a rigid belief in the sacrament of marriage.  But it’s hard to believe that a Governor who clings to the “culture of life” also believes that the lives of Kansans will be bettered by withholding Medicaid coverage from them, and by farming out management of the meager programs that exist from low-overhead, high-service government agencies to high-overhead, for-profit entities whose best interests are served in minimizing expenditures and denying care.  A culture of life would include common-sense measures such as background checks for all gun owners and the abolition of high-capacity magazines and automatic weapons.  It would understand that when more citizens carry concealed weapons, a heavily armed society always walks on edge, and life becomes so devalued that everyone is given the opportunity to kill for the barest of reasons and be vindicated for doing so.

Pope Francis has made clear the Church’s longstanding interest in social justice.  And this makes one wonder why a Governor who proudly proclaims his stance with the Church thinks the world is really better off with funding cuts to education, the one ladder the poor have to climb the ladder of success.  How do regressive income tax cuts, which impact the poor more than the rich, and proposals to take away tax deductions for home mortgages and create a whole new class of permanent renters, help people contribute to the economy and support their families and themselves?  How can proposals (wisely defeated by legislators) to defund the Kansas Neurologic Institute, the last refuge for those who are so mentally handicapped or physically impaired that they require the most intense and compassionate care, be considered anything but an attempt to cast the most defenseless among us to the street?  How can one reconcile the ideals of a true democracy…the empowerment of the government by an empowered and informed people, the ultimate expression of social justice…with plans to disenfranchise voters and to permit politics to be run by money and not ideas?

The Church has emphasized the need to be better stewards of God’s marvelous handiwork that we call the earth, and supports the use of science to better understand the miracles of the universe.  It would follow that we should use science to enhance our stewardship and preserve that which God has given us.  It cannot square with recent movements in Kansas, unrepudiated by the Governor, to outlaw local governments in pursuing sustainable growth and development policies, to discourage regulation of polluting industries, and to force reliance on non-renewable resources.  (As best I can tell, this movement is simply a result of the fact that the United Nations supports sustainable growth.  And other evil things, like peace.)  And how can bills requiring physicians to give patients false information about abortions, or proposals to provide physicians immunity if they choose to withhold information from patients simply to achieve a political aim, be true to the Church’s support of scientific integrity, let alone the inherent dignity of each person created in the image of God?  And if the Church has always supported the arts as a way to call more attention to the majesty of God and his creation, what makes it right to defund public arts programs?

Of course, it’s easy to be contradictory like this when your goal isn’t spiritual.  Whether or not you agree with their teachings, our most recent Popes have been all about service.  Governor Brownback, and the majority of our policymakers, are all about ambition.  In the case of the Governor, there is no question that he sees his future outside of Kansas, as a leading voice in the conservative movement.  There are some that think he will run for President in 2016 (apparently forgetting his eminently forgettable 2008 run), and is using Kansas as a springboard, enacting policies with an eye towards how it will impact his standing within the far right wing of the Republican party rather than how they affect the very people he was elected to serve.  I have to confess I sympathize with this point of view, and some days I have trouble believing he gives damn about Kansas, and is doing anything but simply building his Tea Party credentials.  By the time the effects of his policies come crashing down upon the state, he’ll be long gone and unaccountable to the voters, leaving someone else to face their wrath and clean up the mess.

I’ve never met him personally, but I’ve been told that Governor Brownback is basically a good man with deeply held spiritual beliefs.  That may well be true, but if so it’s time to show them.  If he doesn’t, or can’t, you’re left with only two choices.  One is that he simply lacks the brainpower to figure it out.  The other is that he’s nothing more than a self-promoting ideologue who can’t see the forest for the trees.  You know, trees…like the ones used to make the cross of Jesus.

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