Remedy for A Killer Disease

They call it Potomac Fever. Named after the river that borders half of Washington, like a moat around a castle, this disease is prevalent: affecting both political parties, many (though not all) lobbyists, and even faith-based groups headquartered in our nation’s capital. A lack of consistent physical symptoms make it difficult to diagnose, as all indicators are moral and ethical: Deception, manipulation, hidden agendas.

It’s a cancer that eats away at the soul, a hunger for power, control, money and recognition that decays one’s character and decision-making ability. Its spread is rampant, its damage deep … and the Cure little-known.

Reality looks bleak. “What can men do against such reckless hate?” as King Theoden mourned in The Lord of the Rings. Is there no place for people of conviction and courage in the halls of power?

Unbeknownst to them, a group of Washingtonians were recently introduced to Potomac Fever’s antidote by a former White House staffer named Tim Goeglein. Though advertised as a premiere for his book The Man in the Middle, they were in for much more. Tim spent his half-hour in front of these experts and government officials (plus a few stragglers like me) sharing what few had ever heard in a public speech: A confession without excuses.

Tim had worked for eight years in the White House, serving at the pleasure of President George W. Bush. Those years teemed with God’s work in and through his life. Tim saw firsthand a friendship develop between the President and Pope John Paul II, directly influencing our nation’s shunning of embryonic stem cell research and partial-birth abortion. When two Supreme Court vacancies came up, Tim had a hand in ensuring these two new justices would be leaders who upheld the original intent of our Constitution.

And in America’s darkest hour, the president called on Tim to plan a remembrance service at National Cathedral. On Sept. 14, 2001, a truly red-letter day, Rev. Billy Graham consoled the grieving with God’s Word and preached the Gospel to hundreds of millions worldwide via every major TV news network.

Yet a decade later here was Tim, speaking not of these great deeds but revealing his own dark night of the soul.

In 2008, during the heightened political tension of an election year, a reporter sent Tim a simple e-mail on a Friday. He asked about a column Tim wrote for his hometown newspaper: had he taken the work of other writers and passed it off as his own? Yes, he had. Tim knew his own pride and self-interest had caught up to him. He knelt at his desk and prayed. His life was about to change.

Tim resigned from the White House after nearly eight years of working for President Bush, a tenure stretching back to campaign days in Austin, Texas, and the election recount debacle in Florida. Now the media sharks smelled blood in the water. Evidence of their feeding frenzy can still be seen on Google.

That weekend he grieved, both the shame he caused the president and his loss — as he expected the plagiarism scandal meant an end to any connection with the Bush family. But that’s not what happened.

Going back to his old office to retrieve personal items the next Monday, Tim was stopped by the Chief of Staff: “Could you come to my office in the West Wing?” Surely this would be the woodshed moment.

Not long after, Tim found himself standing once again before President Bush in the Oval Office.

“Mr. President, I owe you a …” he began.

The president stopped him. “Tim, I want you to know I forgive you.”

He pressed on: “But, Mr. President, you should take me by the lapels and toss me into Pennsylvania Avenue. I embarrassed you and the team; I am so sorry.”

“Tim, you are forgiven,” President Bush said again, “and mercy is real. Now we can talk about this, or we can spend some time together talking about the last eight years.” They did. And before his former staffer left, the president had only one request: For Tim to come back with his wife and sons, so they could hear personally how he felt about Tim’s years of service.

A hush fell over the Washington crowd as Tim recounted his story of forgiveness. It wasn’t political maneuvering, clever marketing or anything he did that gave him that glorious moment of redemption. It was undeserved, only received in a place of humility. Once again, the Gospel was preached by an unlikely mouthpiece in unexpected circumstances.

No one is immune from Potomac Fever. Thankfully, God gives us forerunners who’ve gone ahead to tell their stories, make us aware when we’re susceptible to the disease and identify certain mindsets as “quarantine” for His sons and daughters.

Salvation is the only Cure. And it’s a process, not an event.

Cross-posted at Crosswalk.com

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The Religious Right Grows Up

Two weekends ago, over 3,100 Americans from 49 states descended on Washington, DC for the sixth annual Values Voter Summit. As expected, the media conjured up controversy from the event—centered around the seven presidential candidates who addressed the summit—yet a larger narrative was at play.

All the major presidential candidates addressed the 2011 Values Voter Summit

While summit attendees came from all walks of life and a cross-section of generations, they held certain core values in common. Marriage and family are to be protected. Each human life is sacred. Families (and nations) should live within their means. Religious freedom and the ideas of the Constitution are to be upheld.

These truths animate life everyday for values voters. But how do these values illuminate a vision for public policy and government?

We saw it in how Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, wisely addressed the controversy surrounding Mormonism. When a Dallas-area pastor commented on Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, reporters took it out of context to show a “split” among values voters.

“We clearly recognize the fact that Mormon theology includes doctrines that are distinct from Evangelical theology and Catholic theology. At the same time, the goal of the values voter movement is not to build a ‘National Church,’” Perkins wrote after the event.

“Our goal is to build a national coalition based on shared values… And when we successfully work together with those who share our values, we are preserving and strengthening our religious liberty, so that we can freely share the truth of the gospel with everyone.”

Perkins’ vision for coming together around common ideals borrows from coalition-builder Grover Norquist. Longtime head of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist authored a book tellingly titled Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives.

Drawing on his decades of experience rallying diverse groups to a common cause, Norquist contrasts America’s coalitions of the right and left.

Conservative ideology is driven by liberty. Home-schooling families desire to teach their children without interference. Small business owners need freedom from excessive regulation to create wealth. Hunters want to exercise their right to bear arms. Churches and religious organizations pray they can freely hire God-fearing people, without Uncle Sam (in the name of “employment non-discrimination”) mandating church staff consist of people who do not share their values.

All these parties are not asking for a piece of the pie, for a special handout from the government. Their driving interest is freedom from Washington control.

The right’s hands-off stance to government contrasts starkly with the left, which delights in trying to “correct” the problems of society and free markets with social engineering. Their “takings coalition” has been on full display in recent years.

Environmental activists want your tax money for windmills and solar subsidies (see: Solyndra). Powerful labor unions can only solidify their influence with public funding (see: UAW bailout). And Planned Parenthood, which has snuffed out over 5 million lives since it began practicing abortion the day it became legal in 1970 in New York, can only keep its murderous mission going with taxpayer support.

Values voters are waking up. Clearly our national budget is tightly linked to the expression of our values in public policy. Why does the left constantly advocate for taxes, even when it’s unpopular as during an election season? Because they must dole out public funding to an ever-increasing cast of shady characters.

I only know of three effective ways to combat this dominant coalition. First, sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. Fearless, truth-telling reporters do a world of good in exposing corruption. Many now work at state think tanks and local watchdog blogs as some newspapers close up shop. Second, we can starve the beast by lowering taxes where possible.

A third vital strategy is encapsulated by Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” In the world of policy and activism, I have met people—even leaders—whose personality, political emphasis and theology are different than my own. While I may not look up to them in every respect, I choose to stay focused on the goals we have in common: life, liberty, limited government and the freedom to pursue happiness.

Politics is rough sport. The key to getting things done is building a solid team, and many candidates will be vying for your support in the coming months. By no means should you get on-board without discernment: examining past votes, knowing present positions, considering future policies.

I would encourage you not to swear off the good guys due to a secondary or tertiary issue. Your voice in the process matters. Your vote matters. Don’t let small differences keep you from making a real impact.

Cross-posted at The Oracle

Global Conflict Requires Caution

Foreign policy gets complicated very fast. Having lived in four U.S. states, I could discuss with you the hopes, fears, work ethic, values, worship practices and food that animate the various regions of America. Even without pulling in U.S. Census or Barna research figures, our observations would be fairly accurate—for we know our own culture and history from the inside out.

It’s a whole different ballgame when you start to compare, say, Latvia, Argentina, Uzbekistan and Singapore. I’ve met very smart people, usually with connections to these nations, who devote their lives to improving these dynamic places. But, personally, it would be overwhelming to try to take in decades (or centuries) of information affecting their current conflicts and issues.

All that to say: I am a big believer in foreign policy caution. Especially when it comes to any military action, where the lives of men and women on both sides are at stake, I pray that commanders of our Armed Forces (all the way up to the top) are circumspect, reluctant to use violence and making every effort at diplomacy to solve conflicts.

On the Radar Screen: Iran

Sometimes diplomacy gets us only so far. If 9/11 taught us anything, it was to stop navel-gazing and realize who in the world has ill intentions towards the West. When a country’s harsh rhetoric is backed up by building a bunker in a mountain for nuclear weapons testing, we should start to take notice. That country is Iran.

No one is saying the U.S. military should go in “guns blazing” to deal with this potential threat. From where I stand, the best defense strategy story of the past two years involves how the U.S. and Israel shut down some of Iran’s nuclear capabilities via a computer virus known as Stuxnet. Read the story at tinyurl.com/StuxnetVirus

What I am saying is: solving a problem starts with defining it. In this case, we are wise to admit that in Iran we face a totalitarian state that harbors terrorists, violates the human rights of its people and is determined to attack freedom wherever it exists. It’s no accident that murderous groups Hamas and Hezbollah are sponsored by Iran. Or that U.S. solders in Iraq have been killed by improvised explosive devices originating from Iran.

Santorum v. Paul on Defending Freedom

Returning to the Republican presidential hopefuls, one candidate offers a very different threat assessment on Iran than the others. “Why should we write people off?” asks Rep. Ron Paul. “Why wouldn’t it be natural that they might want a weapon? There’d be—internationally, they’d be given more respect.”

Now Congressman Paul has a strong record defending property rights and sound monetary policy. Yet considering how large a voice the President of the United States has on foreign policy, the venerable 76 year-old Congressman is not sounding very serious.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has been willing to challenge Paul’s neo-isolationist rhetoric. “Iran is a country that has killed more American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Iraqis and the Afghans have.” Santorum’s clear perspective is backed up by his record. In 2006, he authored the Iran Freedom Support Act which imposed sanctions on Iran for their nuclear program.

The complexities of foreign policy make it even more difficult than domestic issues to handle in debate sound bites; indeed, trying to develop a cogent argument on global affairs can come across as scholarly and stuck-up, rather than snappy and sincere.

We need candidates who will take that risk. Instead of wasting time focused on personalities and gossip flying at the speed of Twitter, what must remain front and center are the principles we believe should guide our future president.

Cross-posted at ORU Oracle

Path to the Presidency: Principle Over Personality

Five debates down, ten to go. Deciding on the best candidate to match up against President Obama will continue to be a long, winding road over the next several months. It’s an exciting time, when all manner of center-right ideologies are jockeying for position.

Yet debates are inherently problematic, as the Nixon/Kennedy face-off famously proved; looking good on TV is all about style, not substance. It’s part of our civic duty to look past the personalities and one-liners, instead searching for signals of how this man or woman will set priorities, make decisions and lead our nation.

Year after year, certain issues emerge as debate fodder: stuff too complex to fully explain in two minutes, but easy to throw rhetorical bombs at if your opponent has clearly defined a position. Now I’m a simple guy, so this will only be a fly-over view of one such issue. The goal here is to distinguish between a grand vision for America, and just grandstanding.

New Candidate Tackles an Old Problem

Since joining the field of candidates in the past month, the Governor of Texas has ignited peoples’ passions—both for and against him. While the left sees another George Bush, the right finds his nuanced immigration views challenging… and some corporate connections troubling. Yet what’s undeniable about Governor Rick Perry is his penchant for putting the national debt in stark terms while other candidates are, by and large, spouting talking points.

Our nation’s $14 trillion debt is actually easy to understand. President Obama recently proposed a budget for 2012 that has one category eating up 58% of the total amount: entitlement programs, known popularly as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

The first two I listed are the biggies, offering health care and retirement benefits to seniors who have paid into the system. Because Americans are living a lot longer than in the 1930’s when Social Security was started, the finances of that program simply do not add up today.

“We have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face, young mid-career professionals or kids that are my children’s age, and say, ‘Listen, this is a broken system,'” says Perry. “It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me. We’re going to fix it so that young Americans going out into the workforce today will know without a doubt that there were some people who came along that didn’t lie to them and told them the truth.”

By the way, that 58% for entitlement programs contrasts rather starkly with the national defense spending category (19%) and foreign aid (2%). When anyone asserts we can fix the debt and avoid a fiscal crisis like Greece without dealing extensively with entitlement reform, ask to see the numbers. Because they don’t exist.

It’s true that seniors are a powerful voting bloc and it scares some of them to hear we must reform these programs. But we can do it and still ensure a strong safety net for those who need the vital support these programs offer. For a real plan with real numbers behind it, check out SavingTheDream.org

Perry v. Romney

Lately Perry has clashed with Governor Mitt Romney. Admittedly the former Governor of Massachusetts has strengths as a candidate, notably his private and public sector management experience.

On this issue he tries to use Perry’s boldness against him. “The term ‘Ponzi scheme’ I think is over the top, unnecessary and frightful to many people,” Romney says. He then proceeds to insinuate that Perry’s reform proposals for these programs will hurt seniors.

Truth is, it will take strong words and even stronger political courage to make real changes to the drivers of our national debt. Which makes this an ideal way to determine if a candidate is a pathfinder on the biggest factor weighing down our economy, or if one is just posturing.

Cross-posted on ORU Oracle

Presidents Obama and Bush Invoke America’s Religious Heritage at Ground Zero 9/11 Memorial

Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City made headlines when he expressly excluded clergy-led prayer from the planned 10th anniversary 9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero. It troubled many Americans that a prominent public official would ignore the profound role the faith community played in the aftermath of 9/11. Yet, thanks to the intervention of two American Presidents who were invited, the memorial service ultimately did reflect our nation’s religious heritage.

Following remarks by Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama stood to offer solace to the families of 9/11 victims who were gathered. His entire speech was taken straight from Psalm 46, a passage cited in difficult times by courageous leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Reverend Billy Graham used this text in his memorable sermon at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001.

Former President George W. Bush briefly spoke at the Ground Zero memorial service as well. He pointedly acknowledged the American tradition of faith, as he echoed the words of Abraham Lincoln: “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost.”

President Obama’s policy record on supporting religious liberty, including freedom of conscience for chaplains and health care professionals, has been lacking. His decision to invoke our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage in the public square, when organizers insisted on a nonreligious program, is a recognition of the continuing significance of religious practice for the common good—and should be followed up in policy deed.

Cross-posted at The Foundry

How 9/11 Changed Our World Forever

I was late. In only my third week as a freshman at ORU, here I was in a mad rush from my dorm room on Michael 12 to make it to American History. A strange sight in the fishbowl commons area slowed my speed-walking: a dozen students gathered around the big-screen TV watching images of a burning New York skyscraper.

My frame of reference led me to one thought: Why is everyone watching Armageddon so early in the morning? Arriving at class, I learned the images on TV were real. Classes were called off, the Chapel hosted an intense prayer and worship service a few hours later… and by day’s end, that American history textbook we discussed on September 11, 2001 was outdated.

Be Alert, not Afraid

A homemaker I met recently introduced me to her “9/11 TV” as she called it. “Oh, after 9/11 happened, I realized I knew almost nothing about what was happening in the world. So I installed a large TV in my bathroom – my 9/11 TV – and watch the news every morning as I put on my face.”

She reflects a much larger trend: we’ve become more aware of how complex and interconnected our world is. In the process, we’ve become more fearful at times. 24/7 media is complicit; thanks to much larger potential audiences following 9/11, cable news networks ratchet up the drama—with Red Alerts often interrupted by sirens-blazing Breaking News.

In the wake of 9/11, the clips on repeat were indeed scary. These terrorists could legitimately be feared. Their methods flipped Washington’s accepted security doctrines on their head: a group not acting officially under a state government launched a suicide mission that killed three thousand Americans. Even with overwhelming military might, that’s a difficult threat to overcome.

Discretion and Debate

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” states Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. While it provides Congress an important role in approving all funds spent in military action, our nation’s guiding charter gives the President discretion in waging war to ensure our nation’s safety.

How President George W. Bush and his administration exercised this discretion following that fateful day remains a topic of intense debate. Launching an aggressive attack against Afghanistan, where the terrorists were trained and organized, as well as later Iraq, continues to involve trillions in U.S. taxpayer dollars, overwhelming amounts of data gathered by intelligence agents, millions of foreign nationals affected overseas, and the personal sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of military families.

Then there’s the results. Reasonable evidence exists on both sides; some friends of mine point to how average wages in Iraq have actually decreased since before the conflict, while others emphasize Iraq and Afghanistan’s unprecendented free elections and human rights improvements. “Unmitigated disaster” or “The liberation of oppressed peoples”: the truth likely lies somewhere between these two extremes.

What’s indisputable is the Bush administration’s good sense to reorganize our intelligence programs to stop another large-scale strike from happening. This effort has been a great success. Over 40 attempted terrorist attacks have been thwarted since 9/11. Opening secure channels between CIA, FBI, NSA, OSD and other acronym agencies surely involved a lot of boring internal politics. Yet it’s exactly what was needed to save lives.

United We Stand… Divided We Fall

Of the movies and TV specials produced to date, United 93 gets closest to the heart of 9/11. Telling one story well, it becomes a microcosm of our national decade-long struggle.

Confusion reigns as stewardess and control tower alike have no idea what’s happening. Then shock when we realize what is happening. Followed by impatience when we hatch our own plan but cannot take action right away.

Ultimately, the pivotal moment comes when Todd Beamer rallies other passengers to storm the cockpit and stop United Flight 93 from reaching the U.S. Capitol. Race, income, religious background, occupation: none of this mattered. Pulling together is how these everyday heroes stopped the madness.

America learned from their courage. According to The Economist reporting on a string of recent in-air incidents, “After 9/11, the vast majority of airline passengers are now inclined to resist any attempts to hijack a plane.”

Their example carries through to the larger struggle. Those serving in the US Armed Forces have learned and sacrificed most in this fight. (Full disclosure: my brother Tim, also a former ORU student, is currently deployed to Afghanistan.) Early on in the war, Defense and State Departments alike faced a steep learning curve. Where do we engage this unknown enemy? How do we ensure safety and sanity of people on both sides? And when the fighting stops, how do we spark a national culture shift?

Maybe answers are not so far from our grasp. Imagine a future business graduate in dialogue with social workers, crafting a plan for all to benefit from oil discoveries. Engineering and psych experts have safety and sanity questions to tackle. Teaching children drama and music opens up new directions in their culture. Yes, we even need philosophy majors: Just War Theory may once again be at the forefront of discussion.

This strategy of synergy—pardon the marketing buzzwords—isn’t fantasy. A friend of mine here in DC, who happens to have a theology degree, embeds Old Testament history in his briefing reports to top-ranking officers at the Pentagon. (Like all theologians, he says his greatest struggle is keeping his insights to the standard one page.) Thank God he didn’t dismiss it as a useless degree.

Everyone was late in grasping the enormity of 9/11. How we think and interact must continue to change. Rather than fear and lethargy getting the better of us, let’s roll.

Originally published in The Oracle, Sept. 9 2011 edition

Give Politics a Chance

“The people are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson

Interior design isn’t my thing. I enjoy a nice home, sure, but start talking about spackle, crown molding – or colors spelled with more than six letters – and I’m out of my depth.

The extent of my furniture buying is to venture into Ikea every four years or so, flanked by friends or family as backup. Overall, except for rooms with little visual jazz, this lack of interest results in no harm done. It’s livable.

How I treat interior design is how many treat politics. The problem with that is, public policy isn’t a boring room you can just ignore.

Even here in Washington, where people breathe this stuff, some friends cynically brush off discussion of the debt ceiling, energy depletion or defense strategy. “It’s all just theater… partisan bickering… a worldly pursuit.” In the right company, the rant will likely end with, “Throw the bums out!”

Every four years many of these folks “hold their nose” and vote—which is a good thing. The truth is, battles are raging every day in the halls of power, deciding where your tax dollars are spent – and how much. It’s worth your time and attention to follow what’s going on and make your voice heard. If people of faith, energy and creativity stayed involved, America would right itself.

I was a cynic about all this not long ago. Sometime during the ’08 election cycle while listening to talk radio and laughing at their put-downs of the other side, a question began to nag at me: What’s really going on? And if it is important, could I contribute in some way? The truth of the matter had to be more complex than these entertainers made it seem.

The journey towards that truth led me to leave a job in Colorado Springs, facing 14 months of internships and unemployment in the DC area. It’s a story too long to tell here. Suffice to say, God provided and guided my steps. Through mistakes, false starts and lost debates, a few guideposts have helped me make better sense of politics.

Sources Matter

Everyone has a reason for believing what he or she does. Yet what passes for solid conventional wisdom (say, ending foreign aid would solve America’s budget problem) is often flat wrong. And our personal experiences often supersede the bigger picture revealed by trends.

To arrive at anything near truth, take in a lot of reliable information from many sources. That’s the heart of writing research and intelligence: the ability to collect diverse facts, reams of data, wildly different perspectives – and fairly synthesize that information into summary points. Otherwise, it’s just your opinion.

It’s why I make an effort to tune in to NPR as well as Dennis Prager, subscribing to The Hill and The Morning Bell e-newsletters, and watching for updates at both census.gov and the Fortune 500. As Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”

Tone Matters

Let’s assume you successfully discover some new reality from multiple sources, on an issue you believe matters. Time for the talk. (No, not the one about the birds and bees.)

It’s easier to discuss the weather and your health instead of politics and religion. Agreeing to disagree is common even among allies. As a friend told me recently: “She knows what I think, and I know her side – we just don’t bring up those issues where we disagree.”

But then no one learns anything. I talk politics with friends (and strangers) to gain from their perspective. When we differ on the big questions, I try to listen and be persuasive. This is sadly a rare thing in political circles. TV and radio airwaves are blasting with people talking over each other rather than to each other.

Back to that same chapter in Proverbs, verse 15 states: “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” Conceding a point, being empathetic, and refusing to call names all help bring people around to your point of view. Where it gets tricky is when a kind tone collides with core moral priorities.

Priorities Matter

Voices like Jim Wallis regularly call for Christians involved in politics to “broaden their agenda” and stop focusing so much on issues like abortion and traditional marriage. True enough, the Gospel has a lot to say about poverty, the rule of law, stewardship, education and even transportation.

From where I stand, we also cannot kid ourselves. There is a true hierarchy of issues when we consider the world in moral terms. How oil drilling affects the environment, and what’s economically feasible to be a good steward, has a moral angle to it. But the violent killing of over 14 million babies worldwide every year by sucking their brains out is a horrific injustice.

On this, I don’t come across as very nice to some in Washington. The goal is to be truthful, not spineless.

We will never live in a perfect world this side of eternity. Each of us have different roles to play to make our nations, our cities, and our families better, more alive, and more reflective of God’s Kingdom. As a new school year begins, I pray you will discover more of that calling. Sometimes it’s a process of elimination; interior design is not in my future, I’m fairly certain.

No matter your major, I hope you realize the value of understanding and staying involved in politics. Yes, the issues are complex. Yes, my eyes glaze over too after looking at one page of our national budget. Still: this stuff matters.

A former ORU student and University of Colorado graduate, Josh M. Shepherd works at a think tank in Washington, DC.

Cross-posted at ORU Oracle