Compromise is an important part of leadership, federal budget debate

(This letter was originally submitted to The Rockdale Citizen on May 11, 2011).

Dear Editor,

On May 10th, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) unveiled a budget proposal that cuts national spending from 25% of the GDP to 18.5%.   Like other plans, Toomey’s enacts restrictions on entitlement spending and healthcare reform.

As I listened to the conference, what I found interesting was not the proposal itself, but the rhetoric framing the budget debate as communicated from the Republican co-signers of the proposal.  It was Toomey’s fellow Senators, Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio (of South Carolina and Florida respectively), that thanked him for his leadership on this issue.

Leadership:  When it comes to the budget debate, this loaded term invokes the apparent in-action of the Obama Administration in contrast to the Republican Party’s commitment to resolve the issue.

Whenever I hear about leadership, I get a little nervous.  Are the Republicans looking for leadership that seeks to balance the budget in a prudent and tempered fashion—a type of leadership that navigates through the complexity of a multi-trillion dollar system?  Or are they seeking the type of leadership like that of the previous presidential Administration, in which the executive branch bullied the legislative and judicial branches?

Leadership without patience and prudence has the potential to unleash unintended and long-term consequences.  The previous Administration’s costly and ill-informed unilateral attack on Iraq is just one example where lack of prudence failed to garner positive, cost-cutting results.

And there is something to be said about the Democratic Party’s inability to form a budget proposal whatsoever.  Certainly, a recession makes a proposal all the more difficult; but for a party that had control of both houses of Congress, this lack of leadership is inexcusable.

Suffice it to say, budgets are more complex than some might assume.  It took my wife and me days to carve out a budget on a mere five-figure income.  Imagine the time it takes to do that on a trillion-dollar scale—with a “scalpel” (in the words of President Obama) at that.

When it comes to weighty matters in which an entire nation is involved, leadership with an eye towards compromise is key to bringing about positive reform.  After all, the Constitution itself  was born out of compromise—Remember the “Great Compromise” in which the Founding Fathers married the best of the New Jersey and Virginia plans to develop representation in Congress?

Compromise is not a sign of weakness; it’s the foundation upon which our very democracy was built.

If leadership is the problem, both parties seem to be guilty, for true leadership happens when persons of difference can sit down and produce a plan that’s in the best interest of the greatest good.

There is great concern that federal debt must be dealt with, lest the issue become a problem for our children in years to come—to quote Sen. Rubio, if there is no action, “We will be the first Americans to leave our children worse off than ourselves.”

Perhaps we should ask ourselves what kind of legacy we are leaving our children when it comes to wise governing.  I’d rather model for my children healthy teamwork and conflict resolution than to pass on the anxious uncertainty inherent in partisan pontificating.   Let’s pray that both parties can get their act together and get us on the road to economic stability.

Blessings,

Rev. Joe LaGuardia

Should President Barack Obama be America’s Pastor-in-Chief?

Every American president has a defining moment that shapes his presidency. Washington had the American revolution; Nixon had Watergate; George W. Bush had 9/11.

I would argue that Barack Obama’s defining moment was getting elected as the first African-American president. After eight years of war, an economy in shambles, and deep partisan bickering, many people believed that Obama would bring healing to our nation because of the very nature of his election and the broad appeal of Obama’s presidency.  But, with the five-year anniversary of Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans looming, Barack Obama has yet to play the role he seemed destined for: Pastor-in-Chief.

Although I do not intend to stereotype, I think Obama was destined for this role because so many African-American political leaders in our nation’s history have also played important clerical roles. Whether it is Frederick Douglas, Al Sharpton, Cornel West, or Martin Luther King, Jr., these public figures are more than just transformative players on the public stage, they are pastoral leaders deeply rooted in Christian social ethics. We assume that Barack Obama is no different.

If you listen to many critics of Obama (especially progressives/liberals), their one complaint is this: He simply is not present.  And when he is present, he appears cold and aloof.  In 2008, Obama’s even-keeled personality allowed him to rise above the partisan, media-saturated fray; but now that same even-tempered demeanor is disconnecting him from both his constituents and the American people.

In the face of tragedies such as the West Virginia mine and “Deepwater Horizon” oil rig accidents, and a New Orleans still in deep disrepair, we can’t help but ask: Where is our president? This is an implicit question of, “Where is our pastor?” No wonder people think that President Obama is a Muslim; Muslims are not known for providing a pastoral presence either.  (And with this gaping emotional, pastoral vacuum growing, America is turning to the likes of celebrities–Glenn Beck, for instance–to fill that “pastoral leadership” gap.)

Not all people would agree with this assessment.  Friend and local pastor, Rev. Leonard Perryman of Living Stone Church, argues that Obama’s strength as a leader exists precisely because he is not a pastoral civil-rights leader.

According to Perryman, “Obama never ran as a religious civil-rights leader.  He is a politician and a well-informed one.  The historical elevation of the preacher being the primary spokesperson for the African-American community has been waning for years and may have been put to rest with the election of Obama.

“I don’t think we have nor should we desire a pastor-president.  As a pastor, I like my sacred space as an opportunity to call President Obama into question as both citizen and pastor advocate.  Let’s not give him both roles.”

In other words, the fact that Obama was not a religious figure was one of the reasons why he became president in the first place.  Unlike civil-rights leaders in the community, Obama garnered a broad range of support during his election because of his political appeal; if he were a religious leader, the sectarian nature of his leadership would have threatened his very character and skill as a legislator.

Nevertheless, a personal anecdote may be appropriate here:  My daughter takes piano lessons in the home of an elderly woman, Mrs. Mable (not her real name), in the Chapel Hill area.  While my daughter learns piano, I usually relax in Mrs. Mable’s parlor.

One of the pictures in Mrs. Mable’s parlor is of the First Family with the caption, “A family that prays together stays together.” It’s an important picture for Mrs. Mable because it communicates a significant aspect of Obama’s leadership in the midst of a secular, and many times ambivalent, society.

Almost two years into his term, Barak Obama might still be following through on his legislative promises, but I question whether Obama is failing Mrs. Mable and so many Americans by not doing the one thing that he seemed destined to do: Be a healing, stable presence in a time of division and uncertainty.

***************

Editorial postlude: After publishing this article, I had further conversations with friends and garnered some important feedback.

One of the things I must note is that one should not confuse “pastor” with “pastoral presence.”  A person can exhibit pastoral presence without being a pastor or being in ministry.  Some one said, “I never heard anyone ever refer to President Obama as ‘pastor-in-chief.”  I went on to explain that I was the one coining that, not because he is a pastor (or should be literally), but because many people would like for him to function as such.

One of my main intentions in writing this piece was to express that there are expectations upon Obama that address pastoral presence.  In fact, I decided to write this article after I heard an interview with veteran journalist, Llewellyn King, who quipped that Obama was not “present” to people who are suffering most in our society.

The feedback I have been getting–mostly from progressive friends–is that Mr. Perryman is spot on: We do not want nor should we expect President Obama to be pastor.    Fair enough; however, if that’s the case, then some folks must reframe their criticism of him (and when I say, “folks,” I am referring to  people on the Left here).  (By the way, I’m still trying to get Mr. Perryman to write an article fleshing out his own ideas about this because he has a lot more to add to this conversation that is both informative and rich.  My words alone will never do him full justice!)

Also, if progressives do not want Obama to be “pastoral,” then there must be a greater push to keep the “Right” accountable for their criticism of him as well.  They, too, are blaming Obama for things related to expectations of this nature, namely, that Obama is too “soft” or multilateral on foreign affairs, and too secular on domestic cultural issues.  If Obama is not expected to be “pastor-in-chief,” then these criticisms hold little to no water.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve learned that both sides–the Left and Right–want an Obama that speaks softly and carries a big stick.  My only word of caution here is that sometimes swinging that big stick creates collateral damage that is not necessarily in the best interests of the United States, both within and without her borders.  Having a leader who does make a better attempt to be present is not out-of-bounds in an era that prides itself on compassion over indifference.

Keep thinking.  Keep responding.  In all things, keep praying!

Blessings, Joe.

Empathy matters in the high court of the heart

Be ready for the next big political showdown. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens prepares to resign from the highest court in the nation, politicians, the president and pundits will debate who will replace him. No doubt, in today’s political climate, it will be an arduous road.

Usually justice candidates fall in one of two camps. One camp includes the strict, or conservative, constructionalists. These justices look at the Constitution as something fixed and literal; justices do not seek to define or make policy so much as police the traditions of the American legal system.

The second camp is made up of the loose, or liberal, constructionalists. These justices, Stevens included, see the Constitution as a living, breathing document that contains principles that transcend time. These justices are said to utilize empathy to help enlighten how the Constitution can shape a more perfect union.

The intriguing aspect of this debate, which I have incorporated in my government class a time or two, focuses on to what degree a judge commingles justice with empathy. Justices that lean too heavily on empathy risk having their feelings override legal precedent, whereas justices that have very little empathy seem to already have their minds made up about certain cases even before lawyers deliver opening statements.

Although the media always presents these two camps in absolutist terms, the truth is that many justices fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to empathy. Judges decide cases to the letter of the law, but also seek to understand how human communities shape the laws being applied.

As Christians, we are called to be just and merciful in all situations. We have no choice but to show empathy when we relate to our neighbors, families, and coworkers because empathy is something God gives us in order to understand others.

Empathy is not about, as Sean Hannity once declared, “social engineering.” Empathy is not so mechanical or predictable that it can be applied to “fix” society.

Rather, empathy is a personal commitment to invest in the feelings, disparities, and needs of another. This requires an ability to listen to others and to one’s own feelings, all the while examining our responses to situations. Empathy acknowledges context and ambiguity, compromise and development.

A rich story of empathy can be found in Mark 8, in which Jesus and his disciples fed a crowd of four thousand. In the story, Jesus taught the crowd over the course of several days, and the crowd grew hungry.

The text says that Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus’ empathy became a catalyst for a miracle, and a mere handful of food fed the multitudes.

The greatest lesson of this story comes at the end. The Pharisees, known for their staunch reading of Old Testament Law, had little use for empathy. If an individual broke the law and any one of its 600-plus commandments, then the individual was punished without hesitation.

Jesus called this line of legalistic thinking — a type of thinking that fails to see the human equation in the midst of law — “yeast” that infects a social community. So, I guess in a way, empathy is social engineering in that it allows God to engineer our motivation in helping others and coming to terms with the precedent that Jesus’ compassion set so long ago in the high court of the human heart.

The debate over empathy and its role in the justice system will go on for decades, but for Christians who follow the compassionate Christ, the debate of how we are to respond to others was settled long ago.