When The House Folds

When The House Folds

Fans of political drama certainly have gotten their plates full over the last few years. In addition to award-winning, critically acclaimed series like The Wire and The West Wing, viewers have been treated to healthy doses of political intrigue on the short-lived Political Animals, The Chicago Code, and most recently, Boss, the Kelsey Grammer vehicle.

Into the fray comes Kevin Spacey in the Netflix original series, House of Cards, which debuted last Friday in an experimental format. The early buzz is due to its novelty as the first original series produced for Netflix, but most of the critical acclaim is aimed squarely at Spacey himself for his bracing, arresting performance.

Spacey’s protagonist, Francis Underwood, is the kind of charismatic, calculating, conniving antihero that audiences can’t avert their gaze from, even when he’s doing something as viscerally disturbing as [minor spoiler alert] euthanizing an injured dog. As Underwood, Spacey fills the screen with an endless string of meetings and phone conversations with theWashingtonelite, solving problems, currying favor, and dispensing axioms left and right.

Which is to say, he’s a classic Kevin Spacey character. But there’s another figure that Spacey’s Underwood resembles – that of a pastor. The resemblance grows even clearer during the third of episode of House of Cards, when [again, MINOR SPOILER] Francis Underwood is forced to travel to his home district in South Carolina to address a local tragedy and ends up speaking at a church in the area.

Part of Underwood’s appeal is his habit of breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera and telling the audience his thoughts, which often differ dramatically to whatever he’s just said to another character. So the scene where he does this from the church lectern, where he totally contradicts himself in the middle of an emotionally-charged quasi-sermon, is supposed to highlight Underwood’s depravity by juxtaposing his hypocrisy against the moral uprightness of the church.

 Unfortunately, that scene – minus a few Hollywood theatrical touches – plays out in churches all acrossAmericaevery Sunday. Except that in real life, the churches are just as complicit in the charade.

In his blog, Dr. Paul Metzger of Multnomah Biblical Seminary recently contrasted the fervor with which evangelicals tend to oppose evolution with the tacit acceptance they tend to give free-market economics, despite their being two different sides of the same ideological coin (according to Metzger, they’re both about survival of the fittest). This kind of bias creates a cultural blind spot, which invites certain pastors to speak out in favor of intelligent design in the classroom while remaining woefully silent on loopholes in the American tax code that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

(Then again, maybe we should be grateful for the silence, since some pastors clearly don’t understand the real-world ramifications of certain economic policies. Yes, I’m talking to you, Applebee’s pastor lady.)

The truth is, sometimes pastors make decisions for less-than-Godly reasons, and the faithful in the pews sometimes have trouble discerning when and why. In this scene, Spacey’s Underwood ends up quoting Proverbs 3:5, but it’s clear that his oratory is motivated more by political reasons than by any desire to honor God or share His truth with people.

And this wasn’t even during an election year.

House of Cards gets its name not only from its original British source material, but from the idea that our political process is effective only insomuch as people allow themselves to be shielded from the details of how it works. Otherwise, the facade is pierced and the whole thing comes falling down.

The same can be said about the church. For decades, many of our churches have been places where the primary motivation for showing up is neither worship nor Word, but to ascend the various echelons of social respectability. As such, it became easier and more popular to apply social pressure to overcome secularists who resist the church’s public agenda, rather than genuinely caring about them and allowing the Holy Spirit to use us to break down their defenses through other, non-activist means.

As long as it works, everyone’s fine – but anytime there’s a shift in the prevailing sense of morality, the whole thing falls apart.

The irony is, we revert to these top-down techniques because in many ways, they work. It’s a lot easier to demonize your opponents via press release than it is to invite your political opponent over for dinner and actually listen to what they have to say. Fortunately, people like Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and gay activist Shane Windmeyer have proven that it’s not impossible. But still, it’s the exception to the rule.

After all, Underwood’s Machiavellian machinations don’t just make for good television – they’re compelling because they’re effective. For men and women like Francis Underwood, that’s how things get done in Washington. But it doesn’t have to be this way in the church. It really doesn’t. And even if, as the more cynical among us might argue, it is this way in the church and nothing will change anytime soon, then let’s at least let’s have someone come up with a decent scripted drama about it. And no, the pastor’s-wives-reality-show The Sisterhood doesn’t count.

‘Obamacare’ Prevails: Supreme Court Upholds Healthcare Law

‘Obamacare’ Prevails: Supreme Court Upholds Healthcare Law

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act today, including the controversial individual mandate that requires all Americans to buy health insurance beginning in 2014. However, the ruling limited the federal government’s power to punish states for not expanding Medicaid coverage, as the ACA required.

“The Court did not sustain it as a command for Americans to buy insurance, but as a tax if they don’t. That is the way Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., was willing to vote for it, and his view prevailed. The other Justices split 4-4, with four wanting to uphold it as a mandate, and four opposed to it in any form,” Lyle Denniston, the 81-year-old reporter, wrote on SCOTUS blog today.

The immediate sense is that this is a major victory for President Barack Obama and the signature legislation from his first term in office. “Whatever the politics,” the president said after the ruling, “today’s decision was a victory for people all over this country whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it.”

But the decision also was an indication that the Supreme Court perhaps isn’t as predictably partisan as many believed prior to the announcement. Breaking with the court’s other conservative justices, Chief Justice Roberts announced the judgment that allows the law to go forward with its mission of covering more than 30 million uninsured Americans. Many observers speculate that Roberts’s ruling reflected his attempt to avoid going down in history as an activist chief justice on what might be the most important decision of his tenure.

UrbanFaith spoke to a variety of legal and medical experts about what the implications of today’s decision may be.

BERNARD JAMES: “An extraordinarily important substantive issue about the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause.”

Bernard James, professor of law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, along with three other sources UrbanFaith talked to earlier this week, expected the individual mandate to be struck down, but said the ruling has the potential to answer “an extraordinarily important substantive issue about the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause.”

The Commerce Clause refers to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution. It gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states.

“Once it’s clear what the Commerce Clause permits and what it requires, not just health care, but all other subjects on the current agenda for this Congress will be more easily pondered and legislated,” said James.

“There were not five votes to uphold [the individual mandate] on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices agreed that the penalty that someone must pay if he refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power,” editor Amy Howe wrote on the SCOTUS blog. “Because the mandate survives, the Court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the Court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose,” she wrote in her summary of the ruling.

JAMES A. DAVIDS: “This is like federalism on steroids.”

James A. Davids, former president of the Christian Legal Society and a joint professor at the Robertson School of Government and the School of Law at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said that ever since the New Deal was implemented in the 1930s, the Supreme Court has viewed federal power “expansively.” That vision of federal power was “tweaked” under the Renquist court, Davids said, in its rulings on two bills, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. As with today’s ruling, the court said then that there may be good reasons to enact these laws, but not under the Commerce Clause. “There were exceptions going into the power of the government under the Renquist court, under federalism issues, and this is like federalism on steroids,” said Davids.

Davids also said the Rehnquist court ruled that it was constitutional for the federal government to withhold highway funding from South Dakota when the state refused to comply with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. In this case, the Court said current Medicaid funding cannot be revoked, but new funding can be withheld.

“Nothing in our opinion precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his opinion. Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, cast the deciding vote to uphold the ACA.

DR. BEN CARSON:“We got what could be expected” from politicians.

For Dr. Ben Carson, the world-famous neurosurgeon and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland, the outcome of today’s decision doesn’t change much. “The impetus behind the bill was the fact that we had these escalating costs and people who weren’t adequately covered … even though we spend twice as much per capita on healthcare as anybody else in the world,” said Carson.

He supports the concept of health-care reform, but doesn’t think the ACA was done right and compared the effort to hiring pundits to rebuild a bridge instead of hiring structural engineers. “It was done by politicians and special interest groups as opposed to by people who actually know what the problem is and know how to deal with it,” said Carson. “We got what could be expected in that situation.”

Escalating beaurocracy and a lack of comprehensive electronic medical records make the practice of medicine more difficult than it once was, Carson said. In his new book, America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great, he includes a chapter on health-care reform. He suggests using “health stamps” to incentivize the uninsured to use  clinics rather than emergency rooms for their primary care. This would lead not only to cost savings, but to better care for patients with chronic illnesses, Carson said.

He also advocates Tort reform to rein in the costs of medical malpractice suits. “We’re the country in the world that has the biggest problem with that. Is it because we have the worst doctors? Of course not. It’s because of special interest groups. The Trial Lawyers Association. We will not deal with them. Every time it has come up before Congress, the House has passed it, but the Senate will not vote on it, because there are some filibustering senators who are in the hip pocket of the Trial Lawyers Association,” said Carson.

Finally, Carson said we have to come to grips with the fact that insurers make money by denying people care. “That’s a basic inherent conflict of interest. We have to find a way to deal with that,” he said.

TONY MEGGS: “We’re grateful that congress, both left and right, saw healthcare sharing ministries like ours … as being part of the solution.”

Some Christians, especially the self-employed and small business workers, are participating in medical cost sharing ministries like Medi-Share because they can’t afford the high cost of individual health insurance plans. Today’s ruling won’t have a direct impact on them, said Tony Meggs, the president and CEO of Medi-Share’s parent organization, Christian Care Ministry.

As part of an alliance of three cost sharing organizations, Medi-Share lobbied for and won an exemption from the individual mandate for its members. “We’re grateful that Congress, both left and right, saw healthcare sharing ministries like ours and the other two ministries as being part of the solution,” said Meggs.

His organization’s 19-year history of paying every eligible bill (approaching $700 million to date) and its focus on wellness and preventative care helped convince legislators that cost-sharing ministry members deserved an exemption, he said.

“They understand that they need to bend the cost curve in some way in getting people to make better choices in terms of how they live their lives. From a diet and exercise perspective, those are things that Congress was interested in, and so I think it was a combination of [that and] the fact that we’ve been here for a long time. This is how we help people. It’s credible. We’re not scamming people,” said Meggs.

Medi-Share’s steady growth “accelerated” after the ACA was enacted, Meggs said, and he expects that growth to continue because he says there is about a 40 percent cost difference between an individual health insurance plan and a monthly Medi-Share contribution.

There are differences, however. Medi-Share participants must sign a statement of faith and agree not to abuse drugs or alcohol or engage in extra-marital sex, Meggs said. Medical problems resulting from violations of these agreements are not generally “shared,” nor are mental health problems or some pre-existing conditions. Additionally, insurance companies are contractually obligated to pay for eligible services, but “sharing” medical expenses is voluntary for Medi-Share members. “There’s no guarantee. There’s no contract. Our program is strictly voluntary, but what I can tell you is that over a 19 year history, a 100 percent of every eligible bill that we’ve ever published has been shared,” said Meggs

What about you?

How will today’s ruling impact your family’s health decisions?

Will Maxine Waters Be Bad for Business?

Will Maxine Waters Be Bad for Business?

U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters

Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank (D-Ma.) announced his retirement this week after 32 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) is first in line to take his powerful seat as Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. But Waters potential ascent isn’t without controversy. Here’s a roundup of the criticism so far:

Ethics Violations Will Sink Her

The biggest threat to Waters’ elevation is an ethics investigation into whether or not she abused her power to acquire federal bail-out money for a bank in which her husband had a financial interest.

“Waters’ husband was a former board member of the bank and held more than $300,000 in stock,” ABC News reported. “A trial scheduled for last November was postponed indefinitely and the investigation effectively reset after two lawyers on the ethics committee resigned following allegations they secretly communicated with Republicans on the panel and compromised the investigation. Outside counsel was then hired to determine whether the case against Waters should proceed. That report is due on Jan. 2,” the article said.

Criticism of the President Will Do Her In

“Waters made waves this year when she publicly criticized President Barack Obama,” Roll Call reported. Next in line after her is Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and she “played a key role in addressing the financial crisis of 2008,” the article said. But Waters has backing from the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

“I resent any attempt by the financial services industry to prejudge Maxine Waters with no legitimate reason. I think that’s stupid,” CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) told Roll Call. “They can’t say, ‘Well she doesn’t know the issues.’”

She Doesn’t Have the Financial Chops for the Job

However, that’s exactly what Atlantic economics blogger Megan McArdle said in response to the possibility that Waters could replace Frank.

After summarizing a televised exchange between Waters and former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, in which Waters flubbed her question, McArdle concluded that the exchange was “kind of hilarious, until you realized that this was her job, and that she voted on critical financial regulatory questions.” It wasn’t the only instance, McArdle said, of Waters’ revealing scant knowledge of finance.

“Every time I see Maxine Waters at a hearing I know that the questions are going to be bizarre, and that Congresswoman Waters will make them even stranger with garbled readings and off-topic follow-ups,” said McArdle.

She’s a Bomb Thrower from the Far Left

Meanwhile, The Hill reported that “Wall Street executives are bracing for the possibility” that Waters will take the top spot. The outlet said Waters is “considered to the left of Frank on financial and housing issues.”

“She’s not a good face of the issues,” an anonymous financial executive told The Hill. “She’s too much of a bomb thrower.”

She’ll Slow Growth by Injecting Affirmative Action into Business

At Intervestors.com, the editorial board took Waters to task for “injecting affirmative-action decision-making in financial transactions, slowing the flow of capital and economic growth.”

How, you ask, did she do that?

“As a key member of the Dodd-Frank conference committee, Waters authored the ‘practical’ rule of requiring every bank regulatory agency to create an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion,” the editorial said.

It’s Time to Pass the Baton

“With decades in Congress comes more cynicism and opportunities for political shenanigans that can lead to ethics charges,” wrote Zerlina Maxwell at The Grio in a call to reconsider support for aging CBC members like Waters. “It’s not about whether we like the seasoned members of the CBC who have worked tirelessly for a generation; it might just be that it’s time for new ideas and a new perspective on political power representing the African-American community in Congress.”

What Do You Think?

Has Waters earned the right to chair the House Financial Services Committee, or will her perceived weaknesses sink her?

A Time to ‘Occupy’?

A Time to ‘Occupy’?

SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.

More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.

Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.

When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?

Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta who preached a series on greed and the Great Recession, argues that churches should converse about issues that grip the nation. Occupy Wall Street meets that standard.

The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.

The Next Political Awakening

The Next Political Awakening

It’s no secret that the American public is less than pleased with the performance of its national political leaders. As Republicans and Democrats once again threaten to shut down the federal government over budget disagreements, more Americans are becoming fed up. Anecdotes of anger and distrust have been repeated at length from the mouths of journalists across the country. A recent CNN poll joins a string of others that reflect America’s growing uneasiness with the White House and Congress. The findings of these polls are no surprise to those struggling to make financial ends meet, pay for college, or find a decent job.

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is managing the economy. Only about 40 percent approve of the job President Obama is doing in leading our country. It’s safe to say Washington politicians don’t possess a good reputation these days.

Common sense, which seems to be increasingly less common, will tell you that reputation is important. Even the reputation of non-breathing entities, like companies, can be broken by a loss of confidence or a reputation for dishonesty (Enron, anyone?). Common sense would also suggest that Congress and the president should begin listening very closely to the desires of those who voted for them.

If the 2008 Obama campaign helped inspire a new movement of young and engaged voters, and the Obama presidency helped stoke the emergence of the fiery Tea Party, then the current economic crisis seems to be fostering a new scrutiny from voters who are demanding less partisan dogmatism and more practical results from Washington. This is the reason why, for instance, President Obama cranked out his ambitious proposal for a new jobs bill and immediately hopped on a bus to tout its benefits to voters across Middle America.

While the Middle East is continuing to wrestle with the negative and positive repercussions of the “Arab Spring,” America is undergoing its own kind of political uprising. The fallout of the debt-ceiling debate, high unemployment, and the global economic breakdown is causing a sharp awareness of just how important politics is to our everyday life. On the swift wings of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, more Americans are reaching out and connecting with others who share their struggles and their convictions.

Many Americans are beginning to take a long, hard look at what their political parties stand for and are for the first time truly recognizing what lies behind the banners of donkeys and elephants. They are beginning to debate and school themselves on federal programs and legislation that were formerly relegated to Political Science 101 term papers.

Social Security, unemployment benefits, health care, class structure, welfare, immigration reform, tax cuts, abortion, and gay marriage are but a few issues that are forcing Americans, in the wake of Congress’ total disassociation with the public consciousness, to reevaluate what it means to exercise their political voice.

This renewed “awakening” has consequences for those in Washington and those unhappy with it. For some it means kissing reelection goodbye, for others it means confronting personal biases against their fellow Americans to forge common bonds and promote positive changes in their communities.

It means recognizing the true political beliefs of our neighbors and ourselves — beyond the Red State/Blue State trope. It means daring to talk about the deep divides in worldview that may exist inside and outside of party lines. It means rejecting some popular philosophies and embracing others.

It means taking time to read, watch, and listen.

It means talking, debating, and at times arguing.

For Christians it means being more focused and intentional in our prayers.

It also means a yearning for real answers to our problems.

The growing frustration in America, fueled by Washington’s legislative intransigence, is driving a political awakening that is something new for many Americans. It is a painfully personal coming-to-terms with where one stands as an American, regardless of party affiliation. It is a willingness to make tough decisions about the future, and to make short-term sacrifices for the nation’s long-term wellbeing.

It is an awakening driven by the harsh, inescapable realities of our new economic environment.

Our political leaders would do well to turn their eyes and ears toward an American populace more poignantly aware than ever of its political interests and influence.

The members of Congress may be demonstrating that they have lost their will to seek practical solutions, but those that elected them certainly have not.