America and the Middle East Pt-3: Iraq

Over 11 years ago, American and coalition forces invaded Iraq.  In December of 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured.  Since then over a million troops have served in Iraq with 4,5oo dead and approximately 32,000 wounded according to NBC.  And Reuters reports that the war currently costs $2 trillion with another possible $6 trillion in the decades to come.  Also the terrorist group ISIS, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has captured key cities in Iraq and is marching toward Baghdad with little to no resistance.  Naturally, many Americans are upset.  The war was supposed to oust a Middle East dictator and found a new democratic state in the region that would help combat Islamic terrorism.  Now that the costs of the war are continuing to grow and much of the territory won by the lives of US troops is being lost to the same terrorists they had vowed to eliminate.  It is almost certain that the moment American soldiers leave the country, the current Iraqi government will fail and be replaced with a new fanatical regime dedicated to jihad against the West and anyone else who isn’t a Sunni Muslim.

So I guess the question now is, “Where do we go from here?”

So far a great deal of blaming and name calling has occurred.  Democrats blame Bush for putting the US in this mess, a continuation of Obama’s motto “I inherited this.”  Republicans like former Vice-President Cheney blame Obama’s inadequacies as a leader and his incompetence for allowing the formation of ISIS and the failure of Iraqi forces to defend against the new al-Qaeda network.  And then there are the backbiters who blame their own party for what has happened.  But this gets us nowhere.

Yes, President W. Bush did put us in Iraq back in 2003 with no clear plan to get us out.  Yes, President Obama is an inadequate buffoon whose incompetence with foreign policy has cost America a great deal.  Yet all of that is irrelevant to the matter at hand.  “Where do we go from here?”

One immediate reaction is just to walk away.  “Iraq was just another Vietnam.  Only instead of Charlie and the Viet Cong we have ISIS.” And there is some appeal to this.  Americans are tired of war and have never been known to support military engagements for a long period of time.  Pulling troops out of the Middle East would help bring some sense to the federal budget and save the troops’ lives from fighting in a senseless war.  America could finally focus on America.  The problem with this solution is that it leaves the possibility for the formation of a terror state that can use oil revenues to fund its projects.  Also a belligerently pro-Sunni Iraq would definitely invite a conflict with a Shia Iran.  Normally I’d say two enemies fighting each other is a good thing, but both of these states are oil producers in an unstable region that holds most of the world’s oil.  Even if ISIS were to wage war with Tehran and no one else got involved, the consequences on the oil industry from such a war would bring the global market to its knees forcing outside players to intervene causing a domino effect similar to the beginning of WWI.  Face it ladies and gentlemen, we are in an era of globalism and minding our own business isn’t going to cut it any more.

Of course that doesn’t mean a plan of continued intervention is without faults.  As mentioned above, America is just shy of 40,000 casualties and expected to pay somewhere between $2-6 trillion for the war right now.  Furthering our involvement will not bring either of those numbers down.  And unless our next President is a war-hawk who can persuade voters to be energetic and supportive of nation building for the long term, it is unlikely we will be able to leave Iraq as a strong democratic bulwark in the Middle East.

So what should we do?  Well I would suggest conducting a poll.  See how many Americans are interested in keeping Iraq united or letting it divide along ethnic and sectarian lines.  If a majority greater than 55% approves of a unified Iraq, then politicians need to stand together and support the necessary funds to keep an America presence in Iraq until the Iraqi armed forces can fight on their own and the government honors free elections and the opinion of the disgruntled.  Since it is unlikely this would occur, a multinational task force should be made to divide Iraq along ethnic lines as much as possible.  The oil fields will be guarded and managed by the same task force with the revenues being equally distributed among the newly founded countries and the task forces guarding the fields.  This would take the elements surrounding the current crisis with ISIS out of the equation.  The Sunnis would no longer feel slighted by the Shias.  The Shias would no longer fear the return of Sunni oppression.  And keeping the oil fields in more modern and, preferably, more democratic hands like the EU, UN, and NATO would prevent giving any of the new states an unfair advantage and having a death grip on global markets.  Plus a multinational coalition would relieve America from having to carry the burden of nation building and oil protection on its own.  It could divert some of the resources being sent to Iraq somewhere else at home.  Perhaps we can finally have a secure southern border!

Now there are some problems to be worked out with this plan.  At this moment America has the largest and best organized military.  If any multinational task force were to be made, America would still be expected to play a large role.  This won’t sit well with those who would want a smaller American presence.  Also, the EU and NATO are too Western.  Russia and China would want to be included or else feel threatened that the West is surrounding them and cutting them off from participating in world events.  The UN would be the best choice to avoid any pleasantries with them.  Unfortunately the UN is for the most part useless unless America steps in to take the lead.  And considering Putin is trying to put Russia back on track as a world power, I doubt anything would happen but a new Cold War.  (That’s assuming the conflict in the Ukraine hasn’t already sparked one.)  But despite these problems, this solution is by far the best that anyone has come to offer.  We can’t stand around pointing fingers.  We can’t continue with the status quo or pull out of the region entirely.  We and the world need to become involved to stabilize Iraq or risk taking a few steps closer to WWIII.

Hot Button Christian Issues: Modesty and Alchohol

Welcome to the first of “Hot Button Christian Issues.”  This is a series dedicated to my take on a couple of current events, ideas, and subjects that are affecting Christians in a negative or positive way.  This week we look at the issues of modesty and drinking.

First, let’s take a look at alcohol.  Often times the teetotaler message is depicted being preached in strict, backwoods Baptist churches.  However it is also seen as a community standard of employment for staff and faculty for many Christian schools.  Even at the college level students who attend a Bible or Christian college are prohibited from drinking until they have received their diplomas.  It doesn’t matter what age a student may be.  Drinking is against the school’s community standard and breaking this rule can result in suspension or expulsion.  Naturally many find this to be an overbearing rule that has very little basis scripture.  And it doesn’t.  There’s no instance in which the Bible or even Tradition explicitly bans alcohol as a beverage for believers.  There are many verses which condemn consuming strong drinks and becoming drunk, Isaiah 5:22 and Eph. 5:18.  But none support a prohibitionist view.  So isn’t this an example of legalism?  Maybe.

When it comes to alcohol, there is the issue of responsibility.  Most teens and many young adults in America are simply not ready to handle it.  Even some adults have a hard time controlling themselves.  The purpose of prohibiting  it is to avoid those situations.  The problem is no one steps in to help believers understand how to drink responsibly or to approach the subject in a manner that is Christ-like.  This means that once believers, particularly students, enter environments where it is permissible to drink the issue of legalism comes into play.  Their ignorance begets legalism which begets bitter division.  Once this occurs people become enslaved to what they think is right instead of relying upon what Christ teaches.  Until this concept is grasped we can’t truly appreciate the freedom given to us by Christ.

Now let’s turn our focus to the issue of modesty.  I’ve already touched on this subject once already in my post “Modesty vs. Rape Culture.”  But because the subject is still raging across the internet, I feel it deserves being mentioned once more.  If you look around at the local mall or as you walk down Main Street this summer, you’ll notice that many women and girls are wearing shorts and t-shirts.  That’s not so bad until you include a few important details.  The shorts just barely cover butt-cheeks and the shirts are sometimes very tight and or they have a drooping neckline to reveal cleavage.  And its not just these items of clothing.  Jeans for women have become tighter and are now cut to accentuate the curves of the female body.  Prom dresses now have shorter skirts and at times barely contain a girl’s breasts.  Now some of you might be wondering why I’ve noticed these details.  It is because I’m a guy and guys notice these things.  Therein lies the problem.  Men, by nature, are visual creatures.  Some part of us has been hardwired to become sexually excited when we see the female body.  And this excitement very often and very easily translates into lust.  The response has been to encourage women to dress modestly.  Unfortunately the modern culture’s response has been that men should be responsible for their own actions and women shouldn’t feel guilty about their bodies.  Plus, there has never been a dress code which Scripture states is truly modest and appropriate for women.  So doesn’t that make the whole debate and subject a way for men to create oppressive rules for their sisters in Christ?  Maybe.

Just like with alcohol, the Church has failed to provide instruction in order to avoid the dangers of legalism.  Often modesty is taught in a way to make a girl or woman’s body an object instead of treating our sisters in Christ as people.  And it has caused some to think that men get off the hook with no responsibility on their part not to lust.  To be fair that does occur.  However I’m proud to say that the Church, at least in America, has made great strides to correct this issue.  Men are encouraged to join accountability groups in order to build each other up and to correct one another when someone stumbles.  There are even programs created and promoted by Christian organizations like the XXX Church to help men avoid temptation while working on their laptops and mobile phones.

However, I believe that a few of the responses to the whole modesty issue by some of our sisters are being made spitefully and ignorantly to the situation.  While I agree men need to overcome their base instincts and not see every women they come across as a sex object, I believe women need to understand the difficulty guys face each day to overcome this problem.  And the best way I think to do this is, ironically, to compare it to alcohol addiction.  If you want an alcoholic to break his habit, do you continue to make alcohol available to him?  Do you put it in front of him and then tell him not to touch it?  No because that makes the process that much harder.  In some cases it defeats the purpose entirely.  The same goes for the issue of modesty.  By wearing clothes that are revealing and suggestive, women make it harder for men to avoid the temptation to lust.  Therefore the Church needs to deal with both sides of this issue.  Yes, women need to learn and be taught how to dress appropriately without sacrificing their personal freedoms to glorify in the beauty God has given them.  At the same time, we need to continue to encourage and build up the men to become better followers of Christ without imitating Adam’s decision to place all of the blame on the female sex.  It won’t be easy, but I’ve yet to find a place in Scripture where God said following him would be.

Is America a Democracy?

I must apologize for being so late with this follow-up post regarding the recent study concerning America’s democratic nature.  Interning and apartment hunting has taken up most of my time, but now I believe I can get focused my blog.

As I reviewed the Princeton study, I was amazed at how well it articulated the four different theories describing how American democracy works.  Meaning, ladies and gentlemen, scholars today are so unsure of how America’s form of government actually works that they have developed at least four different attempts to describe how it really works.  No wonder we the people have such a hard time keeping up.

The first theory the study examines is the Majoritarian Electoral Democracy (MED).  MED “attributes US government policies chiefly to the collective will of average citizens” (Gilens 4).  In other words the policies are each made to please the largest number of voters.  We typically see this form of democracy at work in schools when a teacher offers students the choice of doing one thing over another like watching a movie or a silent study hall.  The option with the most votes is enacted while the other is postponed temporarily or indefinitely.  For Professors Gilens and Page this would mean variables like income levels should not affect the policy process.  However their findings suggested otherwise.  Individuals belonging to the economic elite, a vague term which they admitted being unable to define beyond an annual income north of $140k, saw their policies legislated more often while poorer citizens made very little impact in policy making.

The second theory is the dreaded Economic Elite Domination (EED).  This theory proposes that the “US policy making is dominated by individuals who have substantial economic resources” (Gilens 6).  As mentioned above, the conductors of the study were unable to accurately define what it meant to be an economic elitist outside of an annual income which even they thought was too low.  Naturally this means that the results mentioned in this paper are suspect.  However the authors argue that if there is any error made it is that their results do not fully portray the immense impact that the elites have.

The third theory is Majoritarian Pluralism (MP).  This one admits that the voice of each average citizen becomes lost in a large democratic system.  The result, as James Madison put it in the 10th Federalist Paper, are factions or organized political groups like Parties and interest groups which represent the most common voices of the electorate.  The problem here is that not all citizens will actively try to make their concerns heard.  They are also given a disincentive to do so if they know that someone else is willing to do it for them.  An example would be gun owners who choose not to call their Representatives and Senators to protect their 2nd Amendment rights or join pro-gun movements because they know representatives from the NRA will do it for them.

The final theory is Biased Pluralism (BP).  BP predicts that when it comes to specific policies that don’t or can’t hold the attention of the public the various interest groups representing large businesses prevail in Washington.  In a sense it is the business version of the EED.  The problem Gilens and Page found with this theory was the inability to provide “quantitative evidence concerning the impact of interest groups” (Gilens 9).  Too many variables outside of the study’s focus affected the results.

The study then concludes that each of these four theories appear to be at some point valid because there are times when the four have policy victories.  But the argument is that most of these groups are getting a free ride from one of the others: the economic elitists.  Why?  Well, that’s not explained in the study.  Gilens and Page admit they don’t know why and offer a few suggestions like the promise of campaign funds affects the decisions of officials.  Or it may be because the elitists are being better educated and are therefore more inclined to participate in elections and government.  Yet that’s not a very satisfactory response especially when they end the study with: “….our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts…We believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened” (Gilens 24).  Those are very provocative statements to be making when the authors have no idea why they would be true.  I’m sure someone would say that they’re just following the evidence and providing the best conclusion from what they’ve observed.  However I have to argue that the evidence doesn’t fit the situation.  Here’s why.

The study was based on surveys from 1981-2002 which included the income level of those who participated in the surveys (Gilens 10).  But we’re never told if those participants voted during that time frame or if they felt their elected officials were accurately representing their concerns and opinions.  Nor are we told if they had contacted their Congressmen to express their opinions.  These are very odd things to leave out if your purpose is to better understand who is influencing the creation of policy.  If most “average citizens” who responded to the surveys failed to vote, then it is no wonder that the MED theory lacked empirical evidence!  The “average citizen” isn’t voting while the “elitists” are.  That isn’t evidence for a plutocracy, but a free democratic system in which part of the electorate has willingly chosen not to participate.

And the study fails to mention who is introducing bills and their amendments which would provide a clearer answer as to who is directing the policy process.  If it is mostly politicians, then the study should have focused on the demographics of the districts whose officials are most active in government.  Do they contain a high number of those belonging to the 1%?  Or are they widely diverse?  If it was interest groups and lobbyists, then the focus should have been on who those organizations represented or benefitted.

Where Does the GOP Go from Here?

Everyone is buzzing about House Majority Leader’s recent defeat to a primary candidate with a smaller budget and less campaign experience.  News editors and pundits are throwing out various theories as to why it happened.  “Cantor was too soft on immigration!”  “He was too close to Washington!”  “The people were tired of establishment politics!”  And on and on they go, each thinking they know exactly what happened and why.  The reality is no one really knows why and it really doesn’t matter at this point.  The real questions the need answers are: can the new Republican candidate win in the general elections?  And who should take the number two spot in the House?

It’s still too early to tell if Prof. David Brat can win in November.  As an economics professor he might be able to win votes as a fiscal conservative.  However his views on social issues might get him into trouble in a state with a large number of Democratic voters.  And the question of who will take Cantor’s place as Majority Leader is really not even the right question since people lead from ideas instead of the other way around.  Rather we should reword the question as “What should new Republican leadership look like?”

For the last two elections, Republicans have successfully held the House but failed to recapture the Senate or make inroads with President Obama.  And last year’s attempt to let the government shutdown in hopes that the American people will see how principled they was transformed by the media into a hostage situation with the GOP refusing to listen to reason.  What’s worse future workers and voters are finding Republican values unappealing.  If you look at the Presidential Exit polls on the NY Times, you’ll see that younger voters make up about 20% of the electorate.  That’s one fifth of all voters.  And yet the last time Republicans won the majority of 20-somethings was in 1988 when Bush, Sr. was elected.  Since then Democrats have slowly built up a winning coalition with young American voters.   In 2012, 60% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Obama with 37% voting for Romney.  Even ethnic minorities, specifically blacks and Hispanics, have had a growing presence in the electorate.  In 2008 they made up about 22% of voters while in 2012 they were 25%.

In comparison, only those 65 and older have consistently provided strong support for Republicans in the last two presidential elections.  Ages 45-64 are almost evenly split.  And white voters have predominantly voted Republican, 55% in 2008 and 59% in 2012.  It seems then that the accusation that the “GOP is just an old white man’s party” has some truth to it, an image predicted to greatly hinder the party’s chances to remain a relevant political force in America.  So what image does the Republican Party need to have?  What does new Republican leader look like?

Answers to these questions are varied.  Some like Cantor and Sen. Marco Rubio see opportunities to win the Hispanic vote, and thus divide the Democrats minority coalition, through immigration reform.  Clearly that doesn’t sit well with voters.  Others like Rep. Ron Paul believe greater focus should be given to domestic issues and America’s military presence should be reduced.  This might catch on with younger voters who grew up listening to reports on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and are tired of foreign endeavors at the expense of social concerns at home.  However it may not be a realistic approach given the globalist state of the world.  Congressman Paul Ryan has pushed for more moderate approaches when it comes to spending with hopes of obtaining a balanced budget.  However that is perhaps too narrow an issue which doesn’t have an immediate impact on American voters.  And then there’s the anti-Obama crowd which nearly destroyed the party last year during the government shutdown.

However each of these solutions share or participate in a common problem: they’re trying too hard to make conservative ideology be the basis for their actions.  By starting with the ideology, the GOP has created a problem of purity.  If a Congressman votes a certain way that doesn’t match up with the ideology, then he’s no longer considered a true Republican but a RINO (Republican in name only) because he doesn’t perfectly match up with the party’s ideology.  But in the realm of politics not everyone agrees on how the government should behave and what it can and cannot do.  These differences of opinion create diversity and political growth through the exchange of different ideas.  That’s why Stuart Mill, the father of American libertarianism, made such a big deal about free speech and thought.  The more people argue and discuss the more likely they are to appreciate and know certain truths.

Therefore Republicans should be more focused on selling conservative positions instead of a pure and polarized platform.  For example: instead of attacking an incumbent because he or she supports amnesty for individuals who were brought illegally into the country as minors, look at how many conservative positions the person has.  Does she support lower taxes and pro-life movements?  Does he think America should maintain its military leadership to defend American interests at home and abroad?  Does the candidate support 2nd Amendment rights?  If a candidate answers a couple or a few of these kind of questions in a liberal manner, that is not a problem.  It shows Republicans can be flexible which is a highly desirable characteristic right now when both parties are saying, “My way or the highway!”  It would also make belittling stereotypes meaningless because no one set of beliefs would completely define the party.

Predestination or free will?

In my freshman year of high school, I was taking a Bible class that covered the basics of the Christian religion (i.e.: the who’s who of the Bible, Church Creeds, famous Church leaders, etc.).  Toward the end of the spring semester, we began to dive into the murky depths of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, predestination vs. free-will.  And naturally this discussion divided the class into different camps.  There were the students who secretly agreed with Calvinism but didn’t declare it because the teacher was also a Calvinist and few of the students liked him.  There were those who couldn’t tell the difference and didn’t care to.  And then there were the rest of us who either out of frustration with the teacher or truly believed in Arminianism openly defended the concept of free will.  Of course no consensus was made by the end of the year or by the time we graduated.  Many had decided that while it covered soteriology, the study of salvation doctrines, it wasn’t a salvation issue and therefore not important in the grand scheme of things.  And this is the position of many believers who are not familiar with the debate.  It isn’t required to receive salvation, therefore it is a minor detail in the Christian religion.

But that’s a very dangerous approach to take when it comes to matters of correct and incorrect doctrine.  Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, among others, use this line of thinking during their mission work.  “We believe Jesus was divine and born of Mary!  Also believe he died for our sins.  See?  We believe the same things you do.  Only we have something you don’t have (insert Book of Mormon or Watch Tower here).”  Yet we know that Mormons and JWs are not sharing the same gospel.  Nor are they members of the same religion.  But the only way we can know that is by studying the gospel and understanding it with correct doctrine.  This was the solution Paul offered to the bewitched Galatians (Galatians 1:6-10), and John to the Church in general (I John 4:1-6).

Alright, so if questions of doctrine are so important what is the answer?  Predestination or free will?  Unfortunately we cannot solve this matter in one blog post or even in a day.  Many attempts have been made to reconcile the two; however, none have developed popular support.  What I am going to do is to share why I believe free will is the better choice between the two.

First, let’s take a look at Scripture.  The popular verses used to support free will include John 3:16, II Peter 3:9, and I Timothy 4:10.  All of which support the concept of universal atonement, that is Christ died fore everyone’s sins.  A common analogy used is God is like a member of the Coast Guard who throws a lifeline to a crowd of people drowning.  The lifeline is for everyone in the water and is capable of saving everyone all at once.  Those drowning must then choose whether they will accept this rescue effort or not.  Calvinists have two problems with this.  1) Universal terms like “all” or the “whole world” are often examples of hyperbole.  2) People are incapable of making the decision to be saved.  However, I find these objections to be insufficient.

1) Context indicates how words should be read and interpreted.  For example, Matthew 3:5-6 says all of Judea and the surrounding region went out to hear and be baptized by John the Baptist.  Did all of Judea, Jerusalem, and the surrounding countryside get baptized by John?  No because we find in the following verses and gospels that some from Jerusalem came to test John and not to be baptized.  Here the word “all” is being used to exaggerate the situation.  So many had left their homes to see John that it seemed everyone was doing it.  But what about John 3:16 or II Peter 3:9?  Aren’t these similar situations?  No because nothing in the context suggests that.  Rather one must presume that salvation is only for a select, chosen few in order to make that assertion.  Of course one could say, “Well, you’re just interpreting those verses with your own bias.  ‘World’ and ‘all’ in those passages could just mean a big number of people predestined to be saved.”  And that’s a fair response.  However I have to argue that the language in those verses is all inclusive instead of selectively exclusive.  For example, John 3:16 could have read: “Anyone from around the world whom God has chosen to love and save will not perish.”  But the language is explicitly open with words like “the world” and “whomever” which suggests that was the intent of Christ.

2) This objection is often supported with verses like Romans 3:23 and Psalms 14:3.  Mankind, because of Adam’s sin, is totally depraved by sin and can only commit sins.  Humans are simply unable to freely choose God’s grace or to reject it, so God must intervene for them.  Or to reuse the analogy mentioned above, those drowning are in a state of complete confusion and panic.  They cannot hear the Coast Guard calling out to them to grab the life line.  While I agree that everyone is guilty of sin and what Adam and Eve did in the garden created an inclination in us to sin, I don’t think the idea of total depravity is correct.  First, that isn’t how the world works.  Not everyone on the street is Hitler, Osama bin Laden, or Satan, Jrs.  Many non-Christians are nice people who do good things and cling to moral standards.  Depraved beings wouldn’t have standards or be nice.  Second, Ps. 14 is hyperbolic.  Remember, it was written by David who was a man after God’s own heart.  And if David was totally depraved, then that would mean God’s heart is depraved as well.  Plus, Romans 3:24-25 are also used to support universal atonement.

Second, the ancient Church Fathers didn’t believe God picks and chooses who makes it into heaven and who doesn’t.  I will admit that I make this statement without doing a lot of research.  Most of what I know comes from Eastern Orthodoxy which prides itself on maintaining the teachings of the ancient Church.  This video and article are the main sources that I have which have quotes from the Church Fathers.

And finally, I find that free will is the most consistent with Christian teaching.  We’re taught that God is all good and doesn’t have the shortcomings of humans.  In fact the Jews stressed this point so much that the idea of God becoming a man, that is the incarnation, was abominable to them.  Hence why they were so willing to stone Jesus in John 8 when he declared to be God.  Yet predestination would have us believe that God arbitrarily chooses who is saved and who isn’t, much like a child picking and choosing which of his friends will and will not be on his team.  Now the typical reply to this is, “God isn’t doing anything arbitrarily, but acting within his nature.  He must punish those who deserve it.  Those who escape his wrath, but still deserved it, have received his grace which he gives freely for ‘he will have mercy on those he will have mercy'” (Romans 9:15).  Yet this ignore the point entirely.  The fact God chose to give some grace but not others is arbitrary.  It would be like the Coast Guard picking and choosing who among drowning poachers and smugglers he will save.  It is not just or morally correct, so it is not in accordance with the nature of God.  Free will, on the other hand, accepts this nature of God and works within it.  God, knowing that not all will come to him, is willing to suffer the sins of unbelievers so that everyone has enough time to choose life over death (Romans 9:22-24, Deut. 30:15-20).