Health Care, Pensions and Broken Promises

Sixty-seven percent of the population of the
United States supports universal health care. Pension funds are changing the
rules. Both issues, health care and pension funds, are about moral commitments
and moral consistency. If we break our promises we undermine a fundamental
social contract that was hard-won and that has served the nation
well.

The problem of access
to quality health care
at affordable rates is
one of the most serious
social problems we face.
Over the past 30 years,
the infusion of market
principles and values
into the health care
industry have almost
completely transformed
health care into a
commodity to be
consumed only by
those who can
afford it. Today,
nearly 43 million
Americans do not
have any health
insurance at all.
–Civil Society Institute

Business Week reports that concern about private Social Security accounts, coupled with the rising costs of health care is creating a constituency for universal health care and against private accounts.

The dismantling of the social safety net that is well underway is not favored by the majority. However, it continues apace because the political process is not responsive to these concerns yet. However, the whole context of corporate scandal, pension fund uncertainty and stagnating wages could be feeding the skepticism of ordinary folks that they can’t trust the private sector with things as important as health care and pensions.

It’s hard to imagine anything worse for those who propose the “ownership society” than the demise of a major corporation’s pension fund. Pension funds are based on a promise. Give us your time and do this work and we will set aside money to provide you security later in life when you can’t work or don’t want to. A promise only works when both sides trust that each will fulfill their part of the agreement.

The guys at Enron wrecked lots of lives by stealing or deflating in value the 401Ks of a lot of working people (by creating a system of corporate shells built on fantasy), not only employees but investors. United made a promise to its workers that it has now broken. The government, that is all of us together, has become the guarantor of last resort to fulfill the promise.

A lawyer in the United case said on NPR recently that this action (to allow United to default on its pension promise) represents a culture change. Corporations are no longer required to live up to their promise to workers for pension benefits. Undoubtedly this will change the type of fund workers can contribute to, and it will place even more responsibility and cost on the worker and less on the corporations.

These are not mere economic choices. These are moral choices. Why do those who are so vocal about private, personal issues in the constellation of “traditional values” remain silent on these issues that have much more significance for millions of people? It can hardly be said to be unimportant. It’s an issue of well-being that affects every worker in this society. So, how can we not view it as a moral concern?

A poll by the Civil Society Institute finds that 67% of the population of the United States favors universal health care. My guess is that we have dealt enough with the current system to know that it is broken and wasteful. And I suspect, but can’t prove with attitudinal research yet, that we don’t trust the corporate interests that run it to reform and create a better, more efficient system. They’ve had their chance and things are getting worse.

What this means is that social justice is not an abstract set of principles that floats around in the ether. Social justice is as direct and personal as your next visit to your doctor, your mother’s next prescription drug order, your grandmother’s next surgery and your own paycheck deduction as you save for your future. Social justice is about a whole lot more than a select few issues. It’s about how we are treated everyday and how our lives are affected by the practices of corporations and government. It’s about fairness. It’s about keeping promises. It’s about holding everyone accountable to live up to their agreements.

It’s been a long, hard struggle to get the social safety net in place, and it was created precisely because injustice was so harmful, painful and obvious. What is being undermined by greedy corporate executives and the practices of some corporations is a social contract that has stood us well over the lifetime of the nation. That we are accountable to each other and for each other. That’s a moral issue.

Pensions and Justice

The broken promises of corporate pension
programs raises more than economic questions. They raise fundamental questions
of justice and they expose the weakness of an ideology that is popular right
now–the ideology of individualism.

The forfeiture of United Airline’s pension program leads me to think about a pension fund The United Methodist Church is attempting to start for retirees in countries outside the United States where there are neither effective pension funds nor social security. I’m sure the employees of United are deeply concerned about the future of their benefits, as well they should be. The broken promise represented by this default not only betrays trust, it also calls into question time-honored values that say if you work hard and play by the rules you will get your just dues in this society. Defaults like this add the phrase, “Well, maybe.”

Thinking of this insecurity in our society where there is a social service system in place leads me to consider retirees in a place where there is no system, or a very limited one. That’s the situation with most workers in Africa, much of eastern and central Europe, parts of southern Asia and most of South America. They simply must continue working until they can’t physically work any longer. Then it falls to family or some other informal system to care for them.

It’s a pretty bleak prospect.

What the church is attempting has never been done before, to my knowledge. That is to create a sustainable pension fund in developing nations where the social support systems are informal and family-based because rampant poverty hampers governments from doing more than rudimentary services.

One component of the pension initiative is to explore how the funds can be self-supporting through investment in the countries where they are being implemented. It’s a huge challenge and one that is being undertaken with caution and due diligence. But it speaks to a much different ethic than the corporate ethic that is most prevalent today.

It’s an ethic that seeks to make the whole community stronger by enabling economic development for the benefit of the whole society. It’s being considered with caution and considerable analysis. The people doing this know that humanitarian impulse must be connected to economic realities, so this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea that will crash on the rocks of reality, at least it won’t crash for lack of careful planning and cautious implementation.

Bloggers and Mainstream Journalism

Blogging and mainstream journalism are two
different forms of communication. Each carries its own
validity.

Is blogging “real” journalism? Can traditional journalists be trusted? The debate goes on. Cal Thomas lays out a case, of sorts, for traditional journalism, the kind he was trained to do. His thesis is that bloggers are less experienced, reliable and meticulous than traditional journalists who function with fact-checkers and editors. He’s especially agitated by Arianna Huffington’s blog.

He dislikes celebrity bloggers and his case against bloggers in general is that we’re opinionated (when we should be objective) and operate in a kind of free-range environment. He yearns for a return to the values that once were hallmarks of good journalism.

Bob Cox, organizer of BlogNashville, documents the apparent sloppy practices of a journalist who was not only unfamiliar with blogs, but he also inaccurately quoted Cox after a 45-minute interview and failed to cite Cox as the source of his interview about blogging.

I wish the practices and values Thomas describes were, in fact, the marks of journalism today, but they’re not. The practice of journalism is only as good as the individual reporter, just as the practice of blogging is only as good as the individual blogger.

A whole editorial structure at the New York Times didn’t prevent the excesses of Jason Blair, nor Michael Kelley at USA Today.
But that obscures the fact that blogging and traditional journalism are different forms of communication and one doesn’t necessarily equate to the other. You can’t overlook the breaches of integrity that have been documented over the past few years, from fictitious interview subjects to false datelines to plagiarism–all in the major media. Not exactly a clarion call to the good ol’ days.

And there are blogs that are little more than impassioned opinions, lacking substance, reason and accuracy.

So despite a lot of smoke and name-calling, not much changes. Does it make that much difference to engage in the back and forth that leads nowhere? Maybe it’s enough to recognize that the two are different forms of communication, each carrying its own validity, and leave it at that.

That brings me to the most cogent piece I’ve read today. It’s a short comment by Mike McCurry on the Huffington Blog. Mike writes that 4 million children around the world will die before completing their first year. They will die for lack of sanitation, clean water, enough food. And he asks if there are any liberals who want to organize around this rather than debate filibuster rules, or right-to-lifers who want to preserve these lives?

Good question.

On Reading the Bible and the Newspaper

In the intersection of faith and culture,
Barth said it’s necessary to read the Bible and the daily
newspaper

A chapel service in our agency today led me to think about the challenge of communicating about faith in a media-driven culture, and how we face that challenge.

Each new generation has the task of taking the new technology of its age and rediscovering religious truths and making them meaningful in the light of cultural changes. This has always been a religious task. Each new cultural situation, shaped by the communication media of its time, reformulates the question: What does it mean to be human? –William F. Fore
In doing this, we stand in the middle of a cultural swirl that is unlike any ever known to human beings. Standing between the extremes, communicators are sometimes a convenient target. And, like it or not, it’s the extreme voices that make their presence known. That’s a feature of a media-driven society; you have to be visible to attract attention to your position. In this way, visibility equals “success.” And the easiest way to attract attention is to cut through the clutter by making a statement that gets noticed.

Thus, critique sometimes turns into criticism. Differences of opinion turn toward rather hard characterizations of the positions of the “other.”

This isn’t a post that’s going to devolve into whining, so don’t give up on me yet. I’m not even going to criticize the critics. I’ve developed thick skin and so have the other staff here.

But, hearing the discussion, I was moved by the depth of their theology and their commitment to the task, a task that is sometimes thankless and that elicits stinging rebuke from one or the other of the extremes.

We deliver messages to public audiences on behalf of the church. Quiet messages. The people in chapel today told stories of conversations with crew members on a recent location shoot, people unfamiliar with the community of faith. The conversations were in reaction to the messages they are crafting for television. It’s a different message than the advertising they normally work on. They hear the distinctiveness, and they ask questions.

So here we stand in the middle of this cultural mish-mash of messages about consuming, discussing questions about community, faith and the meaning of life. Here on the ground, at sidewalk level, and on the screens that are so pervasive and influential in our lives, the messages we deliver compete with hundreds of other messages that scream for our attention. We’re trying to break through the clutter, too. This is, of course, the challenge that every pastor of a congregation faces every day as well. It’s not unique to our work.

The aim of Christian theology is not to baptize the world as it is but to seek the world as it ought to be. The gospel has priority over politics, but one misses the gospel if one ignores its vision of a new society predicated on liberating grace. –William Stacy Johnson

I remember the theology of the Confessing Church in Germany, seeking to stand apart from the culture of death and maintain faithful witness even at the risk of death. I recall Karl Barth writing that one must read the Bible in one hand and the day’s newspaper in the other. Such is the dynamic relationship between culture and faith.
But here’s the rub. I read theology and listen to cultural critique today and I don’t find much that presents a viable alternative; one that breaks through the clutter to get at the mindspace and make an impression on people in this culture. I reflect on the challenge. I ask myself, “How do we communicate about faith today, remain faithful and preserve the integrity of the faith tradition in this cluttered, consumerist environment?”

Some disavow the need to do this, believing the culture is so polluted it must be rejected out of hand. I don’t defend popular culture, but critiquing it isn’t enough, is it? Don’t we also have to find a way to communicate in this culture? Not simply to determine how to communicate, but to communicate clearly so people can accept or reject the message. We communicate not to manipulate, but to engage in a relationship.

How else are we to offer alternatives to this culture that is grinding up people and redefining humanity in ways that crush our spirits?

Faith & Reporting

Can a reporter be connected with a faith
community and remain objective when reporting about faith?


How does personal commitment to faith affect coverage of the news? Does it result in skewed coverage, either in favor of religion, or casting it in a bad light by keeping one’s own beliefs at a distance?

Should the reporter’s commitment to a religious community or values, be disclosed? It’s not a new issue, of course, but a commentary on the Media Matters website about the closing of a piece by Barbara Bradley Hagerty criticizes her for the way she spells out the conflict over separation of church and state.

I’m reminded how difficult it is to cover religion these days. There really is no way to please everyone because the society is so polarized. Every word is parsed for meaning, hidden or otherwise.

The Media Matters discussion points to the deeper issue of personal values juxtaposed against the professional value of objectivity, a much-debated topic in these days of opinionated blogs and criticism of mainstream journalism.

In addition, I’d add that language is equally sensitive, and one place where I am often likely to trip up. Certain words hold specific meaning for some groups, often not so readily apparent to others. This isn’t really coded language so much as common definition that has, over time, come to be understood in a particular context.

But you have to be informed by that context to know it. For example, in the general audience the “emergent church” is a little-known phrase that carries barely a note of precise definition. However, among some who are seeking to renew the church and who have put their energies into a whole new expression of the church the phrase is loaded with meaning, energy and hope.

To use this phrase without that awareness is to step into language territory that carries more freight than appears on the surface.

Given my own human frailties, I’m willing to give Ms. Bradley Hagerty some slack. Anyone of us who writes should be on guard to use language precisely and carefully. And we should do our best to not stumble into advocacy when we’re not supposed to be advocates, but reporters.

Fortunately, there are plenty of listeners, viewers and readers who will call it to our attention, as Ms. Bradley Hagerty is aware.

Squandering Influence

One challenge religious leaders face is
convincing ordinary people they understand the day-to-day struggles that many
face.

If the Roman Catholic Church does not reconnect with its heartland, such as Brazil and other Latin American countries, it risks losing moral authority and social influence, according to Nicholas Kristof in his column this morning.

I’m going to intentionally mix apples and oranges here–or Protestants and Catholics. The challenge facing religious leaders today is to demonstrate to skeptical grassroots people that they not only understand the day-to-day issues that ordinary folks are confronted with, but that they also have a spiritual (faith) system that helps them to find meaning as they face these issues.

That isn’t just a challenge to the Pope. It’s also the challenge that every other religious leader faces, from the bishop of Rome to the pastor in the local church. And if they don’t address these issues, or address them in such a way that people feel they understand their struggles, they will be ignored and ultimately marginalized, as a Brazilian priest told Kristof.

If they ignore the best scientific and educational information (as in use of contraceptives for birth control), they risk loss of influence because people will exercise this option regardless.

Here comes the apples and oranges mix. Ultimately, this is the risk that the hard core right-wing evangelicals are taking on right now. Their super-heated rhetoric will run head-on into realities far more complex than they have demonstrated capacity to understand. It won’t be enough to demonize the liberal left relativists forever on issues such as end-of-life decisions, abortion, evolution and homosexuality, among others. They will have to show that they live in the same world, with its ambiguities and moral complexities that the rest of us live in. And they will have to demonstrate a capacity to function in a world of information and knowledge that is not a throwback to the 19th Century.

The rest of the world will move forward, and they will be marginalized. The new physics and genetic research are moving us forward at a rapid pace. Astronomers are finding new planets daily. The brain is being mapped in new ways for the first time. Both our interior space and outer space are being explored and put into new constructs that we have never before known. Think string theory, for example.

When the technology of the printing press made it possible for ordinary people to understand themselves differently–as thinking individuals instead of an uncritical mass that merely reacted to those in power–and when they took control of the information they were learning through the new skill of reading, they created a revolution in thought known as the Reformation.

A revolution is percolating today as a result of new knowledge and new technologies. It can’t be forestalled by intransigent religious figures who wish to hold on to the past without incorporating the best of the new into the best of the traditional. Kristof is onto something rather profound, I think.

If we look at the long sweep of history, the Christian faith has renewed itself maintaining both the progressive values that are at its core, while also adapting to profoundly different social contexts.

People who are searching for a faith perspective by which to live are looking for help to make it through the day, or night. We live in a world that is unique to our time and place, and with technologies that none of our human ancestors have known. That’s a different world.

It requires a faith that can help us to find the meaning and purpose of Creation in this confusing welter of newness that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. A bit of humility and openness to that challenge would go a long way for those of us on this journey. A closed system that hearkens to the past but cannot help us live into the future is a dead-end.

New Voices

An innovative community journalism effort is being carried out with the University of Maryland School of Journalism. It’s a micro-news project that gives local communities support for their own news operations. It weds the new capabilities of digital media with community participation.

Funds have been granted to ten micro-news projects across the country for 2005. Another grant cycle is open and will fund additional projects. It’s yet another way for people to find their voice and use new media to tell their own stories. It’s taking civic journalism to the grassroots.

More complete information is at New Voices.

Reform Culture or Redeem Individuals?

How did evangelicals move away from
redeeming individuals and become reformers of culture?

Dr. Bruce Prescott who blogs at Mainstream Baptist calls attention to a Christianity Today blog that discusses theocracy and persecution.

Dr. Prescott asks when evangelicals began to see their task as reforming culture and not individuals? It’s not an idle question. The evangelical movement has always lived with this tension but it never attempted to resolve it by creating a theocratic state, at least not in the United States.

Wesley sought to end slavery in 18th Century England, but he never sought to create a religious state. He is credited today with bringing together energy for individual transformation coupled with zeal for “social holiness.”

And that’s evangelical
Christianity’s little
secret right now.
We really are
theocrats. Only
in exactly the
opposite way
from how some
op-ed columnists
think we are.
Our hopes lie
far beyond the
next election, or
the next judicial
fight. Our king
isn’t elected, and
our judge isn’t
appointed. Sometimes
we forget that.
–Ted Olsen

But social holiness meant something quite different from theocracy. It meant concern for the poor, expressed individually by how one lives one’s own life, and attempting to influence social policy within the existing order to make life better for the poor and disenfranchised.

That balance is lacking today in the evangelical right. This movement has taken on the responsibility to change the culture using language and tactics that rightfully concern people of goodwill no matter what their political beliefs.

The roots of evangelical reform are in the changed heart that expresses faith in social reform. But social reform does not mean replacing social policy with religious doctrine. Not only are those evangelicals who are attempting to bring this about putting the state at risk, they are also putting their theological tradition at risk.

The community of faith is not a political entity. To treat it as if it is, is to lose its essential character as the leaven in the culture, calling the state to treat all people justly, to care for the vulnerable and to respect human dignity.

The great tragedy of the Bush presidency is its lack of appreciation for this history and its reliance upon those evangelical voices that betray the best of evangelical tradition.

Reality TV, Laura Bush and the Press

There are those who say life is performance. We
talk of the drama of food, the theatrics of the clothing display at the mall,
the automatic smile when a camera is pointed at us. Susan Sontag said the
abusers at Abu Ghraib could smile at the camera even as they engaged in abuse
because media are so pervasive and have embedded themselves into our lives so
deeply. Thomas De Zengotita writes that we are all performers. Frank Rich says
the White House Correspondents Dinner reveals how the press corps is
participating in a performance that compromises meaningful
journalism.

“reality” television and
reality have become so
blurred that it’s hard to
know if ABC News’s
special investigating
“American Idol” last
week was real
journalism about a fake
show or fake journalism
about a real show or
whether anyone knows
the difference – or cares.
–Frank Rich

Laura Bush’s jibes at President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner were genuinely funny. She showed a human side we rarely see, and she did it with great polish. It was great fun to watch.Frank Rich writes that it points to a deeper question about the relationship between journalists and the politicians they cover. As this event has morphed over the years, he says it has become appropriated by shrewd White House operators. The journalists become the backdrop for the White House story, Rich says. Whether intended or not, they become part of the image-making.

At first glance this criticism might seems a bit harsh. However, when viewed in the context of a White House that accredited a former male escort as a legitimate news writer, paid journalists to promote policies as if they were delivering independent commentary, and distibuted video news stories masquerading as “real” news, this isn’t just sour grapes. It’s a question of trust, or rather, of who we can trust.

Journalists should be concerned. They are among the least trusted professionals today, according to a Pew survey. Journalistic ethical lapses are well documented. Newspaper readership is falling. Nightly TV news is losing viewers. People are actually turning to The Daily Show on Comedy Central for news!

For those of us looking for reliable information which helps us frame our world, this isn’t a minor concern.

Is Dialogue Possible?

With the forced departure of Father Thomas
J. Reese as editor of America magazine, one wonders if dialogue is still
possible?

The resignation of Fr. Thomas J. Reese as editor of the Jesuit magazine America raises questions about whether it’s possible to continue dialogue between moderates and conservatives.

As Alan Cooperman reports, Reese had been crosswise with Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The tension had been ongoing for five years.

In the absence of factual information, one is left to speculate, and The National Catholic Reporter, a reliable source, speculates the resignation is the result of this tension in addition to the public media role that Reese often played. He apparently riled some bishops in the U.S. by speaking in the public media on issues that involve church teaching. The bishops feel only they should speak for the church. It didn’t help that Reese promoted moderate positions.

It’s yet another illustration of the importance of communication today, and the difficulty of resolving deeply held beliefs that are in opposition. But it takes mutual respect, not the silencing of those with whom you disagree.

On a completely different subject, scientists are boycotting hearings in Kansas about teaching evolution in public schools. It’s understandable that they would want to do this. The very idea of the hearings is ludicrous to most scientists.

But in a media-driven world, the refusal to present your case is to empower others to characterize you, even if that’s not your intent. If you don’t tell your own story, others will.

More than ever, it’s a world in which communication is crucial. On the one hand, we have to communicate with each other, especially when we differ. On the other, we have to participate in the public dialogue in order to encourage the full expression of important ideas.

Who communicates and what they communicate makes all the difference. Communication is a two-way street and we all should be part of the public conversation about major issues that affect our quality of life today.