Thursday, January 30, 2014

Remembering Woodrow Wilson

Thomas Woodrow Wilson died 90 years ago, on February 3, 1924. It has been said that “the world we’re all living in today was essentially created by President Woodrow Wilson during his Presidency.” Certainly, he is a man well worth remembering.
Wilson was born in December 1856 and called Tommy until adulthood. Woodrow was his mother’s maiden name.
Like many children who later became people of note, Tommy was a PK. At the time of his birth, his father, Joseph, was pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Virginia. (The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum is now located in Staunton.)
In July 1912, Wilson was nominated for President on the 46th ballot of the Democratic Convention, after William Jennings Bryan, who had been the Democratic candidate for President three times (and most recently in 1908), threw his support to Wilson.
Having defeated William Howard Taft (R), the incumbent President, former President Teddy Roosevelt (who ran this time on the Progressive, “Bull Moose,” ticket), and Eugene Debs (who ran for the fourth time as the Socialist Party’s candidate), Wilson was inaugurated POTUS in March 1913.
Soon after his election, Wilson reportedly said, “God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” Commenting on that statement in his 2003 book on Wilson, H.W. Brands remarks, “Though Wilson had chosen a different career from his father, he was as orthodox a Presbyterian as the Reverend Wilson.”  

In December 1913, Wilson became the first President in over 100 years to deliver the State of the Union address to Congress in person—and largely for that reason an article in the Washington Post recently called it the fifth best of all time.
One of the early accomplishments of the Wilson administration was the enactment of a national income tax. (The original tax was quite modest, though: 1% on incomes over $4,000 and rising to 2% on incomes over $20,000.)
In another influential act that is prominent yet today, Wilson led in the establishment of the Federal Reserve System (“the Fed”) in December 1913. The following year, he pushed the founding of the Federal Trade Commission, which, again, is still a valuable agency in American society.
Wilson “rewarded” Bryan with the premier cabinet appointment: Secretary of State. But Bryan, who embraced a “biblically inspired pacifism,” left that position in 1915, partly because of disagreement with the President over the “Great War” in Europe.
Still, for two years after World War I began, Wilson preserved the neutrality of the United States. The slogan, “He kept us out of war,” helped him to be re-elected, narrowly, in 1916. The following year, however, he decided that entering the war was unavoidable.
In January 1918 Wilson articulated a 14-point peace plan, and that was the basis of the war-ending armistice in November. The last point was an appeal for what came to be called the League of Nations (about which I will write again soon).
Wilson’s efforts for peace, including his call for the founding of the League of Nations, led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.
His greatest political disappointment, though, was the opposition of the U.S. Senate, which refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.
Presidents sometimes have goals and ideals that exceed the capacity of Congress to legislate or the general populace to support. That was certainly true for Wilson.
And that may well be true for the current President, who perhaps has more in common with Wilson than any other previous President.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness

From the beginning of the country known as the United States of America, the pursuit of happiness has been a national goal. At least those words are part of the Declaration of Independence.
What constitutes happiness, though, and how it is to be achieved are not immediately evident. But there have been many widespread studies about happiness, and various happiness indexes have been devised.
Partly on the basis of some of these indicating that “the world is getting happier,” Zack Beauchamp claimed that 2013 was the best year ever, as I wrote about in a recent blog posting.
For example, the Legatum Institute has developed a “prosperity index” of the world’s countries. On the basis of that index, which is “a mixture of traditional economic indicators alongside measurements of well-being and life satisfaction,” the world’s happiest (and saddest) countries are listed in a recent Forbes article.
In support of Beauchamp, happiness (or at least prosperity) has increased worldwide in the five years the Legatum Institute has been doing its research. (And in 2013, according to this index, the U.S. is the 11th happiest country in the world; Canada is third and Japan is 21st.)
More significantly, a lengthy (150+ pages) U.N.-related “World Happiness Report” was released last fall. One online article about that report is titled, “Is the world becoming a happier place? Contentment has nudged up around the globe, UN report says.” (According to this study, the U.S. is the 17th happiest country, one place behind Mexico.)
The latter report’s rankings are based on a “life evaluation score,” which takes a range of factors into account, including income (measured by GDP per capita), healthy life expectancy at birth, freedom to make life choices, social support, corruption and generosity.
In recent years there has also been an increase in the study of “happiness economics.” (You can check the Wikipedia article on that here.) And three years ago an Australian film was produced with the title “The Economics of Happiness.” On Wednesday, June and I watched that thought-provoking film online (for $5).
Canadian Mark Anielski is a person who has been heavily involved in the study of happiness economics. He is the author of The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth (2007).
Next Thursday evening, Jan. 28, Anielski (b. 1960) will be giving this year’s “Binns lecture” at William Jewell College. The title of his talk is “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Genuine Happiness.
Anielski will also be the keynote speaker at the WJC-sponsored Sustainability Summit, which will be held at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center on Feb. 8. The title of that talk is “Genuine Wealth in Kansas City.” It is free and open to the public.
Anielski defines happiness as “spiritual well-being.” In that connection, perhaps the pursuit of happiness (as well as life and liberty), especially if done in Jesus-shaped spirituality, means seeking happiness for others as well as for oneself.
It is interesting how the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are almost always interpreted in a personal or individualistic sense. However, if we have, or want to have, spiritual well-being, perhaps seeking happiness for all will be one’s primary pursuit.
“There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” is the title of an excellent article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. Emily Esfahani Smith, the author, suggests that the pursuit of meaning is superior to the pursuit of happiness.
Or, it might be argued, it is the pursuit of meaning by seeking the happiness of others that produces true happiness and genuine wealth.

Monday, January 20, 2014

I've Had My Fill of Phil

Last week I saw “Duck Dynasty” for the first time, watching the first segment of its fifth season. Maybe you saw it, too. Even if you didn’t, a lot of other people did. There were 8.5 million viewers for that opening show of the new season.
But surprisingly, the number of viewers was down considerably from the 11.8 million who watched the fourth season premiere, making it then the most-watched nonfiction cable series in history.
As you may have guessed, I decided to watch and write about “Duck Dynasty” because of the controversy stirred up last month by the patriarch of the family, Phil Robertson (b. 1946). His interview with journalist Drew Magary was published in this month’s issue of GQ magazine (which I don’t read any more than I watch DD).
Robertson’s comments were made public the middle of last month, and they have been talked about—and both severely criticized and lavishly praised—ever since.
Phil’s remarks were mainly hurtful to LGBT persons, although what he said about African-Americans was rather insensitive also. Concerning the latter, he said that the blacks he knew growing up in Louisiana were happy and not mistreated.
Many older African-Americans from the South vehemently disagreed with his perception.
It was his comments about gays that drew the most attention, though—including widespread support for his speaking out about this prevalent “sin” (his word) in American society. It may not amount to much, but in case you haven’t heard, tomorrow, Jan. 21, has been designated “Chick-Phil-A Day.”
People across the country are being urged to “stand for free speech” and “sit for good food” by wearing Duck Commander or camouflage gear and by eating at a Chick-fil-A restaurant.
As most of you probably remember, Chick-fil-A was much in the news in the summer of 2012 after CEO Dan Cathy made a series of statements condemning gay marriage. Gay rights advocates called for a boycott of Chick-fil-A.
In response, supporters planned and executed a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day on Aug. 1. The latter won the day, for the company’s sales for the year went up by 14%, to $4.6 billion.
In his interview last month, Robertson gave “homosexual behavior” as his first example of what is sinful in this country. He supported his negative views of gays by citing one Bible passage, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Those verses include “homosexuals” in the list of people “who won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”
However, the Greek word used in that passage was never rendered as “homosexuals” in a Bible translation until 1946. And no competent Greek scholar will say with confidence what the Apostle Paul really meant by that rather obscure word.
As I point out in my book “Fed Up with Fundamentalism,” in his translation of the Bible, Martin Luther rendered that Greek word into German as the English equivalent of “child abusers.” My guess is that is much nearer the original meaning than a term that includes many people who are in a consensual and loving same-sex relationship.
Yes, I’ve had my fill of Phil. Robertson may well be a very popular TV star and a successful businessman as the founder of Duck Commander. (Who would have thought you could become a millionaire making duck calls?) But what he says about the situation of African-Americans in the Jim Crow south is not trustworthy.
And he certainly is no expert when it comes to the proper interpretation of the Bible or to giving “the” Christian interpretation regarding sexual orientation.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Happy 85th Birthday, MLK!

One winter, after June and I had visited my “snowbird” parents in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, we set out from there to make the long road trip to the Washington, D.C., area by way of Atlanta.
On our second day of travel, soon after heading east on I-85 in Montgomery, Alabama, we decided to turn off the Interstate and to visit what is now called Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born 85 years ago today, on Jan. 15, 1929, became pastor at Dexter Avenue in 1954 when he was only 25 years old. And it was there that he became a nationally known leader of the Civil Rights movement.
Founded in 1877 as Second Colored Baptist Church, it was long called Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. But in 1978, on the tenth anniversary of King’s assassination, its name was changed again to what it is now.

A bookstore in the basement of the church sells King’s books and various souvenir-type merchandise. There we purchased the print of a painting of the Lord’s Supper by African American artist Cornell Barnes.
That remarkable painting is a version of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples—but Jesus is sitting at a table surrounded by black leaders from over the years.

I have also been moved by a similarly provocative painting of the Lord’s Supper by Fritz Eichenberg. In that 1953 painting, Jesus is surrounded at the table by homeless men off the street.
As I wrote previously, I have seen a print of that captivating piece of art on the wall at the Catholic Worker house in Kansas City—and have read that it hangs on the wall of almost every Catholic Worker house in the country.
One of the most impressive contemporary portrayals of the Lord’s Supper is the closing scene of the 1984 movie “Places in the Heart.” That dramatic film tells the story of a Texas widow (Sally Field, who won an Oscar for the part) who struggles valiantly to keep her farm with the help of a blind white man (John Malkovick, who was nominated for an Oscar) and a black man (Danny Glover) during the Great Depression.
Iconic movie critic Roger Ebert wrote about the film’s powerful ending: “The movie's last scene has caused a lot of comment. It is a dreamy, idealistic fantasy in which all the characters in the film—friends and enemies, wives and mistresses, living and dead, black and white—take communion together at a church service.”
In a joint review, a couple of other film critics wrote how in that final Lord’s Supper scene, “the wronged and the wrongdoers, the betrayers and the betrayed, are all together as one. It is an unforgettable cinematic statement about hope.”
I don’t know if King ever saw the Eichenberg painting, but I think he would have liked it, and he surely would have been moved also by Barnes’s work.
But it is a shame that King didn’t live to see “Places in the Heart,” for I think he would have been most favorably impressed with that powerful closing depiction of reconciliation between people of different races and classes.
It is a crying shame, though, that King wasn’t able to continue his valuable work for peace, justice, and reconciliation after 1968 and isn’t here to celebrate his 85th birthday today.