Poor Excuses

Poor Excuses

FECKLESS FRONTRUNNERS: GOP presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the recent Republican debate in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Newscom)

Newt Gingrich thinks poor kids should probably learn to be janitors and that they should definitely eschew any morsel purchased by their parents with food stamps.

Mitt Romney does not lose any sleep over the “very poor.” His priority are the middle-class folks who make up the “heart of America.”

The problem with the rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners is that it distracts from the true question — what will we do about poverty and hunger?

In his specious statements about food stamps (which benefit the working poor as well as those on welfare), Gingrich baits race by declaring the first African American president of the United States the “Food Stamp President.” Oh, loquacious lobbyist who would be Debater-in-Chief, this does not count as an argument, but rather, as an ad hominem attack.

Mitt Romney, feeling his oats after his win in Florida, dissed the downtrodden so as to affirm his solidarity with the middle class. Oh, compassionate corporate man who would be Mormon-in-Chief, this statement amounts to baffling babble. Even low-income Republicans think that Republicans in Congress don’t do enough to help the poor.

Perhaps Mitt and Newt should take a page from a Republican president past.

No, not Ronald Reagan, who was also an expert at proffering dubious depictions of the poor — remember the welfare queen?

I’m talking about Richard Nixon.

Surprised? The summarily dismissed, yet politically complex President Nixon advanced domestic policies benefiting — OMG — the poor!

Nixon delivered an impassioned speech in 1969 touting an end to hunger by — GASP — increasing funding for food stamps.

Nixon propounded a Family Assistance Plan in 1971 that would shore up the safety net by — HOLY SOCIALISM, BATMAN! — providing a guaranteed minimum income.

Perhaps Gingrich’s gaffe would be just another laughable line during a contentious campaign if there were not so many politicians like him willing to punish the poor by cutting food stamps, limiting their use, and imposing drug tests prior to giving needed help.

Perhaps Romney’s remark could be forgiven as an oversight if he hadn’t already articulated the same thing in earlier appearances, indicating that his policies will not reflect the sentiment that we are our brother’s keeper after all.

In a country where 16 million children live in households that are food insecure and 15 percent of Americans receive food aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the reductionist rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners should give us pause. Caring for the poor is not a partisan issue. Feeding the hungry is a co-responsibility of caring communities, from the statehouse to the church house.

Don’t fall for the “food stamp” red herring or the “heart of America” trope.

Googling for Meaning, Part 2

Googling for Meaning, Part 2

In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.

Meanings make definitions

We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.

So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.

Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).

Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.

What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.

Wanted: Real Christians

This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?

None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.

I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.

Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.

Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.

I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.

Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.

Why We Should Listen to Newt

Why We Should Listen to Newt

STRAIGHT TALKER: GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. (Wikipedia image)

The truth can come from an unlikely messenger. Like in Numbers 22:30, when God made a donkey talk to Balaam, a prophet who had veered far from God’s purpose.

Newt Gingrich has been an unexpected source of truth during the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, which is why I hope he stays in the race and keeps talking. Gingrich’s comments have been eye opening, like when he called Congressman Paul Ryan’s economic plan “right-wing social engineering,” and then was forced to backtrack. He’s arrogant, impulsive, and morally flawed, but also smart and shrewd. Gingrich often veers from the typical political talking points and says what he truly believes. He expresses volatile thoughts that many people hold and act on privately, but won’t say publicly. Gingrich’s fellow GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul has a similar proclivity to say what he thinks without filters. The other night, for instance, Paul was once again trying to deflect criticism about his racist newsletter from 20 years ago when he spoke about the unfairness of the criminal justice toward blacks — not exactly a topic you’ll find many Republican politicians addressing, especially one who’s running for president. Unfortunately, none of the reporters followed up with a question about what Paul has been doing about those racial disparities as a congressman or what he would do as president.

Suffice it to say, without Gingrich and Paul in the race, the political dialogue would be far less lively and informative.

Gingrich’s latest episode of unexpurgated candor is especially worth noting. The former Speaker of the House, who has a history of wandering into politically incorrect territory regarding race in America, riled the blogsphere and pundits recently with a comment about blacks and food stamps. Gingrich often refers to President Obama as the “food stamp president” because Americans are receiving the aid at the highest levels in history. The reference is also Gingrich’s way of reminding white voters that Obama is black.

During a speech to a majority-white audience prior to the New Hampshire Primary, Gingrich said:

“And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

“Insensitive,” “race baiter,” and “bigot,” were among the predictable names critics called him. The NAACP issued its standard condemning response, with the group’s president Benjamin Todd Jealous calling the remarks “inaccurate and divisive.” But perhaps Gingrich has actually done us a favor.

While clearly provocative, Gingrich’s food stamp flap unexpectedly caused the news media to focus on and dispel a longstanding racial stereotype that blacks are the main beneficiaries of food stamp handouts — a stereotype the media perpetuates. The truth is that the face of food stamps and poverty in America is white.

Gingrich triggered CBS and some other news outlets to report that whites represent 59 percent of the households on food stamps, while blacks are 28 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Previous published reports indicated that poverty is on the rise among whites, increasing 53 percent in the majority white suburbs compared to 23 percent in the cities. Two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added between 2007 (the year the economy tanked under the Bush administration) and 2010.

It would seem that poverty is something the majority-white Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements could unite over, along with the civil rights and faith communities. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a race-neutral Poor People’s Campaign and was also speaking out against the Vietnam War when he was assassinated in 1968. King understood what really mattered. His eyes were opened. However, savvy politicians also know they can rely on racism and class to divide voters and advance their own agendas.

The food stamp story also unveiled how the major news organizations often contribute to keeping Americans in the dark. Many of us probably don’t realize that reporter David Weigel of Slate.com, who attended the Gingrich speech and was reportedly the first to tweet the comment, may have done so because he is anti-Republican. Media columnist Richard Prince reminded readers that Weigel resigned from the Washington Post in 2010 from his gig blogging about conservatives after it was revealed that he had disparaged Republicans in a deeply personal way on a listserv. The Post owns the liberal-leaning Slate.com. In his blog, Weigel posted the Gingrich comment without providing proper context, then feigned surprise that others did the same. I suspect Weigel knows, as most bloggers do, that the volatile mix of race and politics often generates lots of reader page views and retweets on the Web — especially if the talker is a polarizer like Gingrich.

As Numbers 22:30 teaches, the messenger might be an ass (or even an elephant), but we ought to pay attention. There’s truth between the lines.

The Cain Conundrum

The Cain Conundrum

MORE QUESTIONS: Though GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain denies the latest allegations of sexual impropriety, he's "reassessing" his campaign in light of the scandal. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

In the aftermath of Atlanta businesswoman Ginger White’s bombshell revelation Monday that she allegedly carried on a 13-year “off-and-on” affair with GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain, Cain is now “reassessing” his campaign strategy. Even though White is the fourth woman to accuse Cain of sexual impropriety, some pundits still believe Cain has staying power — or at least nothing to lose by staying in the race. Others pundits, however, believe he should concede defeat.

Although the Republican Party has unofficially branded itself as the party of family values, I’m wondering if this party and all political parties should reassess how we choose our candidates. Should we leave the personal affairs of candidates, married or not, out of politics? After all, the candidates are not running to be pastors or deacons or even husbands or wives of the year, they are running to be president.

Clearly, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader, managed to look past Republican nominee Newt Gingrich’s personal failures in its recent endorsement of him.

“Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate. But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running. In this incredibly important election, that candidate is Newt Gingrich. He has the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in these trying times. He is worthy of your support on January 10,” wrote Joseph W. McQuaid, New Hampshire Union Leader publisher, in his editorial on Sunday.

ANOTHER OTHER WOMAN: Ginger White claims she and Herman Cain were more than friends.

Even ultraconservative 700 Club host and former presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, who is famous for having extreme views, is taking a more pragmatic approach to campaigning. “Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off of this stuff. They’re forcing their leaders, the front-runners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election,” Robertson said. “You appeal to the narrow base and they applaud the daylights out of what you’re saying, and then you hit the general election and they’ll say no way.”

CNN contributor Anne-Marie Slaughter considered this issue in her blog post “Why Anthony Weiner Should Not Resign” when former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner was lambasted after his sexting scandal earlier this year. (Weiner, however, ultimately did resign.) Slaughter points to former President Bill Clinton as an example of a political leader whose failures in his personal life did not negate his effective governing. She writes:

I for one am deeply glad that Bill Clinton did not resign; he was one of the best presidents of my lifetime and left the country in far better shape than he found it. His wife and daughter chose to forgive him and to preserve their family, which is their business, not ours. He also breached the public trust by lying, but in my view not to an extent that it affected his ability to govern successfully.

And there is even precedent for this stance in the Bible. In spite of King David’s flagrant cheating with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband, he was not removed from the throne. Read 2 Samuel 11 and 12 if you don’t believe me.

But, of course, Cain hasn’t been elected to anything yet, and our perception of a candidate’s integrity and commitment to family are two important ways for us to gauge how much we like him. If he lies and cheats on his wife, will he lie and cheat the American people? This is a fair question.

If Ginger White’s story is to be believed, Cain ended his alleged affair with her prior to jumping into the presidential race. So, again assuming White’s story is true, at least Cain doesn’t have the hubris to believe he can juggle an adulterous relationship while persuading the American people that he’s the man to lead the nation. His 9-9-9 plan? Well, that’s another story.

Although as Christians we do not condone this kind of behavior, many powerful men down through the ages have struggled in their personal lives. And in today’s political scene, sex scandals seem to be a common denominator. If we subtract every candidate that has failed personally from the race, we may be left with very little to work with.

In fact, when you consider all the male politicians who we eventually discovered were unfaithful to their wives (think: John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Rudy Giuliani, Gary Hart, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and the list goes on), one might begin to wonder if having the gumption to run for office predisposes one to philandering.

Abraham Lincoln, another male politician, once said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Among other things, power provides a person with greater opportunities — opportunities to do good or to act selfishly. Whenever we pull the lever or mark the oval for our candidate on Election Day, we’re putting faith in that person to choose the former.

May God help us to do the same.

Watch Herman Sing

Watch Herman Sing


So I’m going to say (write) what I’m not supposed to admit (at least publicly) as a black person. I have paid more attention to GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain because he is black. There I said (wrote) it! Pardon me that as a black person in this country, I still find it fascinating when black people rise to certain heights that would have been impossible not that long ago. So now that I have gotten that admission out of the way, let me proceed with the business of this commentary …

If you were to ask me to give you a blow-by-blow account of what high jinks other GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and others have been up to over recent weeks, I would pause and then hopefully distract you with my knowledge of what is becoming the spectacle of the Republican presidential campaign: Herman Cain.

Actually Cain, who lives in Atlanta as I do, has been on my radar even before he entered the presidential race. From time to time, I listened to him on his radio show because he was the lone black conservative on the local radio station, and when I looked up his bio, I must also admit that I was impressed. So when he decided to join the Republican race for the presidency, I felt that he was at least owed my attention as a hometown candidate.

And paying attention to Cain has not failed to disappoint me yet! From his admission that while he was a student at Morehouse College, he chose not to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement (even though Atlanta is arguably the capital of the movement) to his membership and ministry at the liberal megachurch Antioch Baptist Church to his 9-9-9 plan, Cain is a journalist’s dream. His life and choices yield a plethora of stories which brings me to why I’m paying attention to Cain this week.

Herman Cain

On Monday, Cain was backed into a corner, forced to defend himself before the National Press Club after Politico revealed that Cain was accused of sexually harassing two women while he was the president of the National Restaurant Association. He denied the allegations and attempted to downplay them by stating he was unaware of any settlement the women may have received. Apparently, after denying the allegations, the president of the National Press Club asked Cain, who is known as a singer as well, to bless the audience with a song. Cain agreed, choosing to belt out the gospel song “He Looked Beyond My Faults (And Saw My Need)” by Dottie Rambo.

“Amazing Grace will always be my song of praise.
For it was grace, that brought me liberty,
I do not know, just why He came to love me so.
He looked beyond my faults and saw my need.”

This incident disturbed me on so many levels. First of all, let me tackle the obvious. With his choice of song, was Cain not-so-subtlety admitting his guilt? Was the conviction of the Holy Spirit so strong that he was led to seek forgiveness through song? But then again, as a politician he wouldn’t be that obvious, would he? If that wasn’t what he was doing, was it some sort of Jedi mind trick — a ploy to mesmerize the audience, making them forget what they were there for? And, quite honestly, I also was disturbed that Cain’s singing in that particular situation reminded me of the Happy Negro singing on the plantation. It just wasn’t a good look.

Whatever his tactic, I’m still paying attention to Cain. It has been said that all publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure as Cain is still being pressed about the sexual harassment issue. Since the press conference, Cain’s story has changed, and on Friday night his wife, Gloria Cain may be appearing on the On the Record with Greta Van Susteren on Fox to address the allegations. As I said (wrote) before, “Mr. Cain,  it’s not looking too good this week, but I’m still looking at you …”

Yes, Cain initially got my attention because he is a black man in the GOP race, but that is not why he has kept my attention. Regardless of race, he’s the man you would want to talk to at any party, Republican or otherwise. He’s accomplished, controversial, maybe even a bit “coo coo for cocoa puffs” — and a gospel singer to boot!

Herman Cain photo by Gage Skidmore.