Elaine Krewer

Former journalist for Catholic and secular publications. Married with one child. Illinois resident. Interests include anything related to religion, history, politics, or weather. On a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being the farthest left/liberal you can go and 100 being the farthest right/conservative you can go, I'm probably in the 65-70 range.

Civil Disobedience and Afflicting the Comfortable

Several years ago I composed this examination of civil disobedience and the different forms that have developed since Henry David Thoreau coined, or at least popularized, the term in his 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (AKA “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”).

To quickly recap what I said then, there are three types of actions that have come to be defined as civil disobedience: refusing to obey an inherently unjust law;  breaking an otherwise just law in a particular situation where the law’s effects happen to be unjust; and going out of one’s way to break just laws with the primary intent of risking or provoking arrest.

The first type of civil disobedience — refusing to obey an unjust law, and accepting the consequences of doing so — is the most “classic” form, embraced by followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and practiced frequently throughout the centuries by groups as diverse as the early Christian martyrs, the Underground Railroad, and the “righteous Gentiles” who helped Jews escape from the Nazi Holocaust.

The second type includes situations in which an individual defies a law or court order to protect other parties from harm (e.g. a parent refusing to obey a child custody order), or to avert an imminent threat (trespassing upon abortion clinic property in order to prevent unborn children from being killed that day).

The third type, in which activists engage in trespassing, vandalism, or other illegal actions purely to attract attention to their cause, is largely a creation of the media age, and is in my opinion, a distortion of genuine civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi, King, et al. Generally, it does little or nothing to alleviate the injustice being protested and serves mainly to make those who practice it look like self-righteous publicity hounds.

Since then, it appears that recent events and new media trends have distorted the meaning of civil disobedience even farther beyond its original intent. Now, “civil disobedience” apparently includes “making daily life miserable for everyone who does not agree with you 100%.”

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States of Discontent

Longtime readers of TAC are familiar with many of the problems confronting the State of Illinois, mainly due to the diligent postings of fellow Sucker State resident Don McClarey. However, I have to admit I was taken aback by the results of a recent Gallup Poll finding that, when it comes to discontent among its residents, Illinois is literally in a class by itself:

The phrase “if you don’t like it, then you can leave” might be a dangerous thing to say in Illinois.

According to a recent Gallup poll, the state would lose a quarter of its population if every resident who didn’t like it decided to leave it. The poll asked survey-takers to rate their state as a place to live, and Illinois had the highest percentage of people who said it is the worst place to live, at 25 percent.

Illinois was followed by Connecticut and Rhode Island, 17 percent of whose residents rated their states as the worst place to live.

The states with the highest rates in the “best possible state to live in” category were Texas (28 percent), Alaska (27 percent), Hawaii (25 percent) and Montana (24 percent). Only 3 percent of Illinoisans put their state in the same category.

A follow-up story on the poll published today reveals even worse news for the powers that be in Illinois: half of Illinois residents polled say they would leave the state if they could, and nearly one in five Illinois respondents (19%) said they intended to move out within the following 12 months. Connecticut and Maryland placed second and third (49% and 47%, respectively) in the percentages of residents expressing a desire to leave, while only Nevada edged out Illinois in the percentage of residents stating that they planned to move in the coming year (20%). States with the most contented residents included Montana, Hawaii and Maine, where only 23% of each state’s residents expressed any desire to leave.

Links to the full stories and poll results can be found here and here. The poll was conducted between July and December of 2013 with at least 600 residents being polled in each state.

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Why Live In Tornado Alley?

Response to the devastating EF-5 tornado in Moore, Okla., which left 24 dead and more than 200 injured, has generally been compassionate. Thousands of ordinary Americans — including fellow survivors of natural disasters — are doing what they can to help.

In the fetid swamps of internet discourse, however, there are always those who use such disasters to advance their pet political or ideological agenda (e.g., climate change, government assistance, atheism vs. religion), or to question why the victims did, or failed to do, certain things that placed them in harm’s way.

Common questions asked after this tornado and others in recent years include why so many homes in the affected areas didn’t have basements, or why reinforced tornado shelters aren’t required for particularly vulnerable locations such as schools and mobile home parks.

These are legitimate questions, but the purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits of various tornado safety measures. Rather, it is to explore the implications of a broader question that is frequently asked after these events — “Why would anyone live in Tornado Alley?” →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

The Third Rail of the Catholic Blogosphere, Part II: Crying Kids at Mass

A couple of years ago I tackled a topic (modesty in dress for women) that had become a “third rail” of the Catholic blogosphere — a topic that had a tendency to burn any St. Blogger who touched it due to the intensity of the resultant combox war.
Recently it seems an even more highly charged topic has come up at several blogs: whether or not infants and toddlers belong at Sunday Mass, given their propensity to squirm, bounce, giggle, cry, scream and otherwise do things adults find distracting.
In general, commenters on this issue fall into two camps: the “Bring The Kids” camp who believe children of all ages should attend Mass regularly from birth if possible, and the “Leave Them Home” camp who prefer that parents not  bring children to Mass regularly until they are old enough to sit still, pay attention and maintain appropriate behavior for a reasonable length of time.
As with most combox wars, each side seems to believe the worst of the other. The Bring The Kids faction accuses the Leave Them Home crowd of buying into the secular anti-life mentality that treats children as spoilers of adult peace and contentment. Meanwhile, the Leave Them Home camp accuses the Bring The Kids camp of placing unreasonable expectations upon their children and others, and selfishly interfering with the ability of other parishioners to worship in peace.

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The Cultural Divide Quiz

The notion that America is becoming increasingly divided between a liberal-leaning, coastal- or urban-dwelling elite and more conservative folks living in “flyover country” has been around for some time. However, author Charles Murray put a bit of a new spin on it in his book “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.”

In conjunction with the release of his book in 2012, Murray composed a 25-question quiz designed to determine whether the quiz-taker is in touch with mainstream American culture or lives in one of the elite “bubbles” described in the book. The quiz can be taken at this link.

Some of the more unusual questions in the quiz include:

— Have you ever bought a pickup truck?
— Have you gone fishing in the past 5 years?
— In the past month, have you voluntarily socialized with anyone who smokes?
— Have you ever had any close friends who were evangelical Christians?
— Have you ever participated in a parade not connected with environmentalism, gay rights, or an anti-war protest?
— Who is Jimmie Johnson?
— What does “Branson” mean to you?
— In the past year, have you stocked your fridge with domestic mass market beer (e.g., Pabst, Budweiser)?

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Religious Liberty: “You Need Not Thank Anyone But God For It”

Hat tip to Mark Scott Abeln at Rome of the West for bringing the story which follows to our attention.  Although the U.S. Constitution enshrines free exercise of religion as the first freedom in the First Amendment, attempts by government to assert authority over who can and cannot carry out the ministry of the Church happened long before the recent unpleasantness of the HHS mandate.

One such instance occurred almost 150 years ago in Missouri, in the aftermath of the Civil War.  In the closing months of the war, Radical Republicans, determined to prevent resurgence of proslavery or pro-secessionist power, drafted a new state constitution which imposed a “Test Oath” as a condition of being allowed to vote, hold public office, or practice certain professions. Those required to take the Test Oath included teachers, physicians, attorneys, corporation officials, and clergy of all denominations. Those who continued to practice their profession or ministry after a specified deadline without having taken the oath were subject to arrest, fines and imprisonment.

The oath required one to affirm various provisions of the new constitution, including one that excluded persons who had ever “given aid, comfort, countenance or support to any person engaged in hostility” against the United States from the professions and activities covered by the law.  As the oath was written, persons who had any kind of regular contact or relationship with a Confederate or Southern sympathizer before or during the war were or could be excluded.  Moreover, demanding assent to the oath as a condition of exercising religious ministry was a blatant infringement upon religious freedom. Archbishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis had ordered his priests to remain neutral during the war, and when the Test Oath was enacted, counseled his priests against taking it.

Father John Joseph Hogan, a native of Ireland who had served scattered missions in rural Missouri since 1857, was one of those who refused to take the oath. A grand jury refused to indict him for violating the Test Oath law, but Radical officials replaced those jurors with others who returned an indictment. Father Hogan was then arrested but freed after posting bail. He wrote the following in a letter to parishioners and other supporters who had protested his arrest (emphasis added):

You term Religious Liberty a God-given right. So it is. Let me add. You need not thank anyone but God for it. God is the source of Right and Power. He has said to those sent by Him to teach His religion: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore teach ye all nations. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” In virtue of this power, He sends us to teach and promises to be with us. His authority is ours. Were it man’s authority, man would not now oppose, nor from the beginning have opposed, its exercise. The Civil Authority has been ever, from the days of Herod, the enemy of Christ. Christ therefore could not have entrusted to it, the care of His heavenly teaching … →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

The “Other” Winston Churchill

Most TAC readers are familiar with Winston Churchill, the British statesman. But they may not be familiar with another Winston Churchill whose fame, at one time, eclipsed that of his British counterpart.

The “other” Winston Churchill was an American novelist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He wrote several best-selling historical novels, including one (which I will discuss later) that provides a fascinating glimpse into the Civil War era and the rise of Abraham Lincoln.

The American Churchill was born Nov. 10, 1871, in St. Louis, Mo., three years and 20 days before the British Churchill. After attending primary and secondary schools in St. Louis, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1894. Less than a year after receiving his commission, he resigned to pursue a literary career. In 1895 he became managing editor of The Cosmopolitan magazine — at that time a literary periodical nothing like its modern incarnation. Then he gave up that post to devote himself to writing his own novels, poems, and essays.

His first novel, The Celebrity, was published in 1898, but his second, Richard Carvel (1899) proved to be his most popular. Richard Carvel tells the story of an orphaned descendant of English nobility who grows up in colonial Maryland, journeys to England in pursuit of the woman he loves, then returns to America just in time to join the American Revolution. It was a huge hit, selling over 2 million copies in a nation of only 76 million citizens at the time.

His next book, The Crisis (1901), which can be read online at this link, is set in his native St. Louis in the years 1857 to 1865. The third of Churchill’s  popular historical novels was The Crossing (1904), which recounts the settlement of Kentucky and the conquest of the Illinois Country during the American Revolution. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

If You Want to Send the GOP A Message, Now Is The Time

At least every four years (or more frequently when Congressional, state and local elections are considered) the Catholic blogosphere starts erupting with debate over whether voting for a major party candidate who is not fully pro-life or in line with Catholic moral teachings, but appears to be the lesser evil when compared to his or her opponent from the other major party, is morally permissible or advisable.

Right now this question, on the conservative Catholic side at least, is being raised in relation to whether or not Catholics should prefer Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or another candidate over Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee for president, and whether or not to vote for Romney over Obama in the general election if Romney ends up as the GOP nominee. Some who are less than satisfied with Romney’s past record on life and family issues say they will not vote for him at all, not even in November and not even if his loss means another 4 years of Obama, because they believe the GOP needs to be sent a strong message about the importance of life, family and cultural issues. Others believe the prospect of a second Obama term is sufficient reason to vote for the GOP candidate in the general election even if he is less than satisfactory.

What follows are just a few of my own personal reflections and suggestions on this topic. They are merely suggestions offered for your consideration and should not be construed as a moral judgment against any who may disagree. Also, because they appear to comprise the majority of TAC readers, I am addressing myself solely to Republican or GOP-leaning Catholics opposed to Obama’s reelection. Again, this is for simplicity’s sake and not meant as a moral judgment against persons with a different view.

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The Blind Men and the (Economic) Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by American John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) recounts a traditional Hindu tale still used as a caution against focusing too narrowly on one aspect of the truth and failing to see the “big picture”. It’s a mistake many if not all of us have made at one time or another.

Right now I believe this poem is being played out in the public square via the contrasting, but in some ways overlapping, goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement and those of the Tea Party which preceded it. These two movements, I think, have more in common than they may realize, but see themselves as polar opposites because each focuses on different aspects of the economic “elephant in the room” — the squeezing of the middle class.

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Our Lady of Good Help

A reenactment of Our Lady's apparition to Adele Brise in 1859

About three months ago a groundbreaking development with significant nationwide implications occurred in Wisconsin.

No, I’m not talking about the showdown between Gov. Scott Walker and public employee unions, nor even about the Green Bay Packers winning the Super Bowl.

I am referring to the Dec. 8, 2010, declaration by Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay that an apparition of the Virgin Mary to Belgian immigrant Adele Brise in 1859 was “worthy of belief” and of veneration by the faithful.

The declaration makes the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wis., the first — and to date only — site in the United States of an approved Marian apparition. The site is only the second in North America (besides Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City) to be so designated. More background on the apparitions and on the visionary herself can be found here at the shrine’s website.

As fellow TAC blogger Dave Hartline has noted, approved Marian apparitions tend to coincide to some extent with events that can be described as trials or upheavals in the immediate region, or on a national or worldwide scale. Notable examples include Fatima, which occurred just as the Communist Russian Revolution took place in 1917; the apparitions at Kibeho, Rwanda in 1981, which foretold the Rwandan genocide; and Our Lady of Zeitoun (Egypt) in 1968, occurring shortly after Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War.

Did the pattern hold true in this case? It would appear so. First, the apparitions themselves occurred as the nation was sliding rapidly toward the Civil War. The apparition on Oct. 9, 1859, occurred only one week before abolitionist John Brown’s famous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia — an event which convinced many Americans that civil war could no longer be avoided.

Second, and much closer to home, was the devastating forest fire that ravaged Peshtigo, Wis. and surrounding areas 12 years later — almost to the day — in 1871. The Peshtigo fire killed between 1,200 and 2,500 people — up to 10 times as many as the much more famous Great Chicago Fire which broke out the same night. The shrine which Adele and her family had built to Our Lady was in the path of the flames, but was spared after residents gathered there to pray.

With all that in mind, I can’t help but suspect an element of Divine Providence in the timing of the shrine’s approval. When Mary originally appeared, it was to a struggling frontier people, lacking proper formation in their faith, facing the upheavals of nature and of imminent civil war.

Now, just as another wrenching cultural battle breaks out in the Badger State itself, the Church grants Her blessing to this apparition, and makes her a patroness that can be claimed by all Americans. Perhaps her intercession could help us through the moral and social wilderness in which we find ourselves today?

 

The Battle of Wisconsin, Part II: Abp. Listecki Weighs In

In response to continuing protests against (and some in favor of) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to severely restrict public employee bargaining rights, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee issued the following  statement on Feb. 16:

The Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices and financial responsibility to further the common good.  Our own dioceses and parishes have not been immune to the effects of the current economic difficulties.  But hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.  As Pope Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate:

Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions.  Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome.  The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum [60], for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level. [#25]

It does not follow from this that every claim made by workers or their representatives is valid.  Every union, like every other economic actor, is called to work for the common good, to make sacrifices when required, and to adjust to new economic realities.

However, it is equally a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth.  As Pope John Paul II wrote in 1981, “[a] union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.”  (Laborem exercens #20, emphasis in original)

It is especially in times of crisis that “new forms of cooperation” and open communication become essential.  We request that lawmakers carefully consider the implications of this proposal and evaluate it in terms of its impact on the common good.  We also appeal to everyone –lawmakers, citizens, workers, and labor unions – to move beyond divisive words and actions and work together, so that Wisconsin can recover in a humane way from the current fiscal crisis. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

The Economic War Between The States

Years ago, this satirical piece in The Onion poked fun at interstate rivalries with its account of “Middle West peace” in peril.

Thankfully, battles between U.S. states haven’t resulted in actual violence for nearly 150 years. However, there is another kind of battle going on between states, and even between communities within states, that has been destructive in a different way.

I am speaking of the economic battles states and localities wage against one another when they compete for new businesses via economic incentives such as tax breaks, regulatory exemptions, or taxpayer funded grants and loans that are offered only to specific companies.

In 1996, economist Lawrence Reed wrote a widely reprinted essay titled “Time to End the Economic War Between the States.” Reed called the constant battle of states and localities to outdo one another with economic incentives to prospective employers “an exercise in mutual assured destruction, or at least one in which the victories are Pyrrhic ones at best, with the victors losing almost as much as the vanquished.”

Nine years later, in 2007, Federal Reserve economist Arthur Rolnick used nearly the same language in testimony to Congress about the ill effects of this approach. He proposed that Congress use the Constitutional interstate commerce clause to prohibit states from engaging in these tactics — although that raises questions of its own for advocates of federalism and smaller government.

According to Reed, the earliest example of this type of economic incentive was the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s offer of $86 million in incentives to build a Volkswagon factory in 1976. The factory was supposed to produce about 20,000 new jobs, but actually employed only 6,000 people before it shut down 10 years later.

The practice really took off in the 1980s with highly publicized competitions between states and communities for new manufacturing plants and other facilities. More recently, states have competed for TV and movie productions with tax incentives for producers who shoot on location.

Most states now have economic development organizations devoted entirely to putting together incentive “packages” for new or existing businesses. Aggressive pursuit of businesses with tax breaks and other public subsidies has become so common that major employers have come to expect and even demand it, and most state and local governments have concluded they have no choice but to play the game.

Some businesses seem to use these incentives almost as a form of extortion — for example, professional sports franchises that threaten to move elsewhere if they do not get public financing for a new stadium or arena.

Both economic conservatives and liberals have criticized this approach and noted that it rarely delivers all the benefits promised.

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The Wages of Sin Is… Higher Taxes?

A few months ago I wrote this reflection on the idea that bad leadership can be seen as a punishment or consequence of sin, and how the ethical and fiscal train wreck that is Illinois state government might serve as an example of this concept.

Now we are seeing further evidence of this concept. In the waning hours of their own lame-duck session, the Illinois General Assembly early this morning passed one of the most drastic tax hikes in state history.

The measure raises the individual income tax rate from 3 to 5 percent (thereby increasing each individual’s total tax liability by 66 percent) and the corporate tax rate from 4.8 to 7 percent. Gov. Pat Quinn has promised to sign the tax hike into law as soon as possible.

The corporate income tax, combined with an existing 2.5 percent tax that replaced an old personal property tax, means corporations in Illinois will be taxed at a total basic rate (not accounting for any exemptions or deductions) of 9.5 percent, the fourth highest rate in the nation. Although the tax hikes are supposed to be in effect only for the next four years, most residents expect all or part of the increases to end up being permanent.

The reason for this action is the state’s cataclysmic $15 billion-and-mounting budget shortfall. The growing deficit threatened to lower Illinois’ bond rating to junk status, possibly within days. In response, lame duck legislators in the last 12 hours of their term voted to approve the tax hike. A loose spending cap was approved along with the tax hike, but no specific or significant budget cuts accompanied this legislation.

Needless to say, the impending tax hike has many residents angry and feeling betrayed yet again by their elected officials.  Gov. Quinn, elected to a full term by a very narrow margin, had said prior to the election that he would not approve of raising the income tax for individuals beyond 4 percent. However,  this measure goes a full percentage point higher. Many predict a significant loss of jobs and residents as a result.

But what does this have to do with the “wages of sin” spoken of by St. Paul?

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A Plea for a Cease Fire in the War on Christmas

Is it possible at this late date to call a cease-fire in the War on Christmas?

The kind of cease-fire I am talking about is not a surrender to aggressive secularists who want all mention of Christmas, or of the reason for its celebration, erased from the public square.

I am not talking about, for example, these federal bank examiners who, had they been assigned to Bedford Falls, probably would  have busted George Bailey for wishing them “Merry Christmas” instead of for losing $8,000 in deposits. That sort of insanity ought to be resisted, and (as evidenced by the apparent resolution of the Oklahoma bank kerfluffle) can successfully be resisted.

No, the kind of truce I am proposing is a plea to the group Mark Shea refers to as “Christmas Inquisitors” — those who see any use of the term “Happy Holidays” in preference to “Merry Christmas” as some kind of affront to their beliefs. This group also includes those who see something inherently wrong or sacreligious about any kind of Christmas or holiday celebration that fails to include explicit reference to the birth of Christ.

I celebrate Christmas in the religious sense as eagerly as anyone.  But I respectfully beg to differ with those who insist that it is the duty of private businesses or even of public facilities and institutions to “keep Christ in Christmas.” It isn’t.  Their job, such as it is, is to accommodate the desire of their customers, or of citizens, to fulfill whatever aspects of a multi-layered religious, cultural, and social occasion they wish to observe.

None other than C.S. Lewis recognized this truth decades ago. In this essay from “God in the Dock,” Lewis explains the different aspects of the modern Christmas:

“Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs.”

I will interrupt Lewis’ essay at this point to note what he says about the cultural aspect of Christmas — the “popular holiday.” He basically argues that people are free to celebrate it, or not, in any way they wish, as long as it does not interfere with anyone else’s celebration or non-celebration. He sees no reason to complain about “how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends.”

That does not sound like someone who would get bent out of shape over store clerks who say “Happy Holidays”,  or people who choose to celebrate Kwanzaa, Festivus, or the Winter Solstice. I also don’t think he’d care whether or not the occasion for making merry was a “real” cultural holiday or a “fake” observance invented by one person (Kwanzaa) or even by a fictional character (Festivus), as long as no one was forcing him to participate or pay for it (which becomes an issue when public schools are involved).

He does go on to say, however, that “the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business. I mean of course the commercial racket.”

“The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers.”

Now there are other occasions besides Christmas that carry these three “layers” of meaning — for example, weddings of religiously observant couples are 1) an occasion for celebration of a sacrament, 2) an occasion for family and friends to gather and enjoy a good time, and 3) an occasion when social convention requires gifts to be given and for the couple to acknowledge each gift individually with a thank-you note. The same is true of occasions such as graduations, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.

Obviously, private businesses will use cultural and social occasions to market their products and services. Wedding planners, banquet halls, bakers, caterers, makers of academic robes and class rings, florists, greeting card merchants — all of them rely on cultural/social occasions for the greater part of their profit. The same is true of Christmas, when many merchants make most or even all of their yearly profit. (One explanation for the origin of the term “Black Friday” is the belief that many retailers finally earn enough money to get out of the red and into the “black” for the year on that day.)

However, we do not expect the merchant who sells products or services appropriate to any other social occasion, to instruct or remind people of its “real meaning”. We don’t expect, for example, the owner of a bridal shop or a catering service to provide pre-marital counseling, the florist who sells us flowers for Mother’s Day to offer us advice on how to get along with our mothers,  or a jeweler who sells class rings to counsel high school seniors on how to get into Harvard. So why do we expect merchants and advertisers to “keep Christ in Christmas”? Isn’t that our job, and the job of our families and churches?

Now I can hear some of you already saying “But there is far too much emphasis on the social and commercial aspect of Christmas in our society. It’s drowning out the religious significance completely. Surely you don’t think this is a good thing?”

Of course it is not a good thing. Even more than 50 years ago, in post-war England, Lewis saw that the relentless commercialization of Christmas “gives much more pain than pleasure” to the average person.

“You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.”

However Lewis did not propose any “solution” other than personally refusing to take part in the “racket”.

“We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.”

So how do we resist the tidal wave of commercialism and/or political correctness that threatens to engulf us every holiday, er, Christmas season? We pray. We think about what is important to us and about the values we wish to uphold. And we make merry in whatever way is appropriate to our situation. If that means opting out of gift exchanges or sending cards, fine. If that means saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” fine. If it means saying “Happy Holidays” in an attempt to be more inclusive, that’s OK too. After all, there is more than one holiday in the holiday season… it encompasses Thanksgiving and New Year’s as well as Hannukkah and other religious, cultural and ethnic observances such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Lucy’s Day, St. Nicholas’ Day, Boxing Day, and Epiphany or “Old Christmas”.

And on that note… peace on earth, goodwill to all, Happy Holidays AND Merry Christmas!

"We Are Elected!"

Since a number of regular bloggers and visitors here at TAC are Abraham Lincoln and Civil War history buffs, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you my impressions of a unique event held last night in Lincoln’s hometown (and mine) of Springfield, Illinois. Saturday, Nov. 6, was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election to his first term as President in 1860.

To commemorate the event, the Old Capitol and Lincoln Home historic sites staged a reenactment of Lincoln’s election night celebration. This also marks the beginning of what is likely to be a boom period for history buffs nationwide — the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s presidency. But more on that in a moment.

Lincoln’s election marked the end of a bitter four-way contest for the presidency among Lincoln, the nominee of the recently organized, anti-slavery Republican Party; U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, also of Illinois, the Democratic nominee; then-Vice President John Breckinridge, nominee of Southern Democrats who split from Douglas and the rest of the party over the issue of expanding slavery to the western territories; and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, a loose coalition of former Whigs, Know-Nothings, and moderate Democrats who hoped to avert secession and war by evading the slavery issue altogether.

Lincoln had not been the first choice of the Republicans; many had preferred William Seward of New York or Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, who had more experience in public office (both had been governors and U.S. Senators from their respective states) and had taken stronger public stands against slavery. Also, several Southern states had made it clear before the election that they intended to secede if Lincoln won. Nevertheless, Lincoln won 40 percent of the popular vote on Election Day, and Douglas finished second with 29 percent.

It’s worth noting that the electorate even in Springfield was sharply divided that day. Lincoln prevailed in the city of Springfield by just 70 votes over Douglas, but lost surrounding Sangamon County by about 40 votes. As the official Democratic candidate Douglas would have enjoyed strong support among the Irish and other predominantly Catholic immigrants that were flooding into Illinois at the time. Douglas also campaigned in person throughout the nation — something that no presidential candidate before him had done, while Lincoln allowed Republican operatives to do most of his campaigning for him.

On Election Day itself, Lincoln had not originally planned to vote, believing it wouldn’t be appropriate to vote for himself. However, his law partner William Herndon persuaded him that he should at least vote for the other offices on the ballot, so he walked across the street from his office to what was then the Sangamon County Courthouse to cast his ballot.

Later in the evening, after the polls closed, he gathered with other supporters in the State House of Representatives chambers to await the results, transmitted via telegraph. He later went directly to the telegraph office in hopes of getting the results more quickly (lacking, of course, the modern advantages of exit polls and network news anchors projecting the results).

Around 11 p.m. Lincoln received word that the critical state of Pennsylvania had gone to the Republicans. He and his group then adjourned to a saloon near the Statehouse to await results from New York, the state that would put him over the top in electoral votes. Around 1 a.m. he learned that New York was safely in the Republican column, and the celebration began. Accompanied by a throng of supporters, he arrived at his home on Eighth Street and announced to his waiting wife, “Mary, we are elected!” Illinois historian Paul Angle describes the scene that ensued:

Old men and young men, bankers and clerks slapped each other on the back, danced, sang and yelled until their voices sank to hoarse whispers. Outside one long shout announced the news. From stores, from houses, even from housetops, men called out that New York was safe, while groups ran through the streets shouting their joy at having joined the Republicans. Never had Springfield seen anything like it.

Since I live just a few blocks from the Lincoln Home, the weather was nice (albeit chilly) and the event was free, I decided to participate in the election night reenactment. (Unfortunately, my cell phone didn’t have enough charge left to take pictures.)

The event began with local Lincoln presenter Fritz Klein and others in historic dress leading a torchlight parade from the Old Capitol to the Lincoln home.  National Park Service personnel then conducted candlelight tours (using electric candles for safety reasons) of the home at 10-minute intervals. Each tour began in the home’s front parlor with a beaming Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln greeting each visitor. Costumed interpreters were stationed in each remaining room of the house, explaining not only the room’s use but also the impact Lincoln’s election would have had on the occupants.

For example, the interpreter outside what had been the bedroom shared by the Lincolns’ youngest sons, Willie and Tad, noted that the boys had frequently “campaigned” for their father and were excited at the prospect of living in the White House. However, they would now have to leave behind their friends as well as the family dog, Fido. The interpreter also pointed out the small bedroom used by the Lincolns’ live-in maid. With the family on their way to Washington, the maid would have realized her days of working for the Lincolns were numbered.  On the other hand, having the President of the United States as a reference probably didn’t hurt her prospects for future employment!

Another interpreter noted that Lincoln greeted his wife by saying “We are elected” because in many ways, he could not have achieved that milestone without her. Mary Todd Lincoln had been born into a prominent Kentucky political family, had a lifelong interest in politics and unfailingly promoted her husband’s political ambitions. Her husband’s election as president would have seemed like a dream come true for her. Of course, she did not know then that the next four years would turn into a nightmare of war, personal attacks against her, and grief over the loss of both her son Willie and her husband.

The pride that the Lincolns and the citizens of Springfield felt at his election was tempered by their realization of the enormous burden he faced. By the time the Lincolns departed for Washington in February 1861, seven Southern states had seceded and a provisional Confederate government had been organized.  We see those times through a somewhat romanticized lens since we know the outcome.

However, the people who actually marched through the streets of Springfield with Lincoln that night in 1860 had no assurance that their nation would survive. For all they knew, Lincoln would be the last president of the United States and they would be living within shouting distance of a hostile slave nation a few years hence.

Three months later, on the day Lincoln left Springfield for the last time, he acknowledged that he faced a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington”  at the nation’s founding.

“Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed,” he added.  “With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.” That’s still good advice, especially for those times we are tempted to become mired in despair over the state of our current political discourse.

Update: The New York Times last week launched a series of opinion pieces titled “Disunion”, analyzing events of the same week 150 years before as if they were being covered in real time. The feature began with an analysis of the 1860 presidential race and Lincoln’s chances of victory in New York.

In 1860 St. Louis reporter Samuel Weed spent Election Day with Lincoln. His account, however, was not written until 1882 and not published until 1932. The story can be read at this link.

A Chicken or Egg Question

The question above has nothing to do with cooking.  Rather, it has to do with the ongoing debate over the role of government vs. the role of the family, churches, charities, and other voluntary private organizations in assisting vulnerable persons such as the poor, children, the handicapped and the elderly.

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Are Public Employees Overpaid?

If you believe what you read on blogs or hear from certain politicians and pundits, a new kind of haves-vs.-have-nots class war is brewing across the land. Not between the rich and the poor, but between private and public sector workers, as related here.

Scandalous stories of public officials enjoying lavish or disproportionate pay and benefits at taxpayer expense, such as in Bell, Calif., and elsewhere , frequently make headlines and prompt calls for reductions in such compensation.

As with many other economic and taxation issues, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post usually depends on which side of the political spectrum you are on. Conservatives tend to answer “yes,” while liberals tend to answer “no” .

But which side is correct?

Before I delve into that question, I will first make some disclosures.  I am a full-time employee of the state of Illinois, making $35,000 per year. I do not belong to a union, and due to the nature of my job and agency, probably never will. I have only received one raise the entire time I have been so employed (nearly 4 years) due to a promotion to a slightly higher job level. I do not expect to receive any raises for the foreseeable future; in fact a pay cut is a distinct possibility. Prior to that I worked 20 years in private sector employment in the newspaper field. In some instances the pay and benefits were comparable to, and even better than, my current job. In other instances they were not as good.

Now to the question: are public employees overpaid? That depends on who you ask and how one defines “overpaid”. The average pay of state and federal employees in general is higher than that of private sector workers in general. When broken down by education, profession, etc. the picture is not as cut and dried. For lower-skilled jobs requiring only a high school or vocational education — e.g. custodians, receptionists, guards — the public sector pays better, whereas for professional jobs requiring a college degree or higher (attorneys, doctors, CPAs, etc.), the private sector pays more — often a lot more. These articles from Kiplinger and from Governing.com explain the differences in greater detail.

Two of the biggest reasons for these disparities are that 1) public employment tends to have a greater percentage of jobs requiring a college education or beyond and 2) public sector jobs are more likely to be unionized.

Public employee unions are a favorite bete noire of fiscal conservative politicians and candidates at the moment, and much of the public seems to agree with them. The fact that public employees continue in many (though not all) states and localities to enjoy benefits most private employees no longer have, such as regular salary increases, defined benefit pension plans, and caps on health insurance premiums and co-pays, arouses resentment among ordinary citizens who are forced to pay for such benefits via taxation.

Although many officeholders and candidates talk a good game when it comes to reining in public employee benefits, in practice the most frequent targets of budget cutting measures such as layoffs, furlough days and pay cuts, are lower or mid-level non-union employees. They often end up being punished for the sins (real or perceived) of their higher placed or unionized colleagues, simply because they are the easiest targets — not protected by either union contracts or political/personal connections.

The biggest problems on a state and local level are pension deficits — the growing gaps between the amount of money in public pension funds and the amount of benefits those funds are expected to pay in the future. According to this report by the Pew Center on the States, pension shortfalls are fiscal time bombs that threaten to devour entire state and city budgets if nothing is done to defuse them before it is too late.

How did the situation get that bad? In most cases it was due to a variety of factors — yes, generous union contracts played a part, but so did repeated failure on the part of lawmakers to invest properly in public pension funds, demographic changes (aging of the Baby Boomers, people living longer), and investments tanking due to the recession. No one factor can be singled out, and the entire blame for the pension crisis cannot be laid at the feet of one person or group of people. But regardless of who is or was to blame, the problem has to be dealt with, not swept under the rug.

Private sector employees are quick to point out that while they have to support public employee benefits with their taxes, public employees are not forced to do the same for private employees — they can choose whether or not to do business with a private company.

I agree, and this is in my opinion an argument that should be taken most seriously. For that reason, public employees are by necessity accountable to the public and will always be subject to various restrictions and considerations that do not apply to private employees (e.g., their salaries being public information).  This is not “unfair” or unequal, but simply part of the deal one signs up for when working for a government body.

Another claim often made by private employees is that government workers, by virtue of the pay, job security and benefits they enjoy, are artificially insulated from the realities their privately employed neighbors face — the constant threat of being fired or laid off, lack of retirement security, worry about medical bills, etc.

That might, perhaps, be true of top officials/administrators with strong political connections who make six-figure salaries, whose spouses have equally high-paying positions, and whose children or other family members are completely healthy. Otherwise, I am not so sure.

Many public employees, particularly non-union ones, are regularly threatened with layoffs or missed paychecks (most often at the end of a fiscal year). Given the poor financial standing of many public employee pension funds, combined with the fact that some public employees don’t get Social Security, I’d say many of them (including myself) who are 10 years or more away from retirement are just as worried about their retirement as you are.

Also, most public employees do not live in a bubble or a vacuum. Most used to work in the private sector at some time in their lives, and many are married to spouses who work in the “real world” or are currently unemployed or disabled. Their grown children, their parents, their siblings, and their friends and neighbors  include private employees or unemployed persons looking for work. The only exceptions I can think of might be political “dynasty” families like the Kennedys or Daleys. Plus, public employees pay all the same taxes everyone else does — federal, state, sales, property, the whole works. If taxes go up, it cuts into their budgets too.

Just because someone has a government job doesn’t mean they have, or should have, no interest in whether private business succeeds. If factories close and move overseas, if private companies go bankrupt and abolish or raid pension funds, if high taxes drive up the cost of living, if college education becomes unaffordable without taking on ruinous levels of debt — it affects them and their families too. It is in everyone’s interest, no matter what kind of job they have, to have a fiscally sound and honest government, competent public employees, and a sustainable tax structure.

Also, do not forget that for every instance in which a public official received undeserved pay, pensions or perks at taxpayer expense one could probably cite an equally egregious case of a private business executive enjoying lavish pay and benefits at the expense of fired workers, closed factories/offices, or raided pension funds. Greed is greed no matter where it occurs, and no sector of the economy is exempt from the effects of original sin.

Finally, since this is a Catholic blog, we should approach this issue from a religious perspective as well. Christ Himself chose a public employee, Matthew the tax collector, to be one of His Apostles. He also told His followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” So, apparently, He did not believe that working for the government was inherently evil, unproductive or exploitive.

Some more pointed advice was given by Christ’s precursor, John the Baptist, to the public servants of his day who came to see him (Luke 3:12-14):

“Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John was referring to practices for which the public employees of the day were notorious — tax collectors often overcharged citizens and pocketed the “profit” they made, while Roman soldiers were known for shaking down citizens of the provinces they occupied for money, food, or other goods. Here John is telling them simply to do their duty, not demand any more of the public than the law requires, and be content with what they are paid. If today’s public officials and employees did the same, there would be a lot fewer problems.

As with most problems in a fallen world, there is no perfectly just way to balance the need for a professional, competent government workforce with that of a private sector free of unnecessary taxes and regulation. This does not mean, however, that we should not attempt to find as just a resolution as possible. However this will require people who are not to blame for the situation to help clean it up, and at considerable personal cost.

For public employees, this means more work for less pay, more out of pocket expenses, and for some, no job at all. For the rest of us it could mean higher taxes, reduced services or some combination of the two. All these things will impact thousands, even millions, of good, hardworking people who are simply doing the best they can and had no part in creating the situation. It may not be perfectly fair, but life ain’t fair.

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