On Scott Walker and Demonization in American Politics

I do not know Governor Walker. I have never met him; I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen him in person although Grace Episcopal Church, of which I am Rector, stands opposite the State Capitol of Wisconsin, and over the last four years I have been an eyewitness of the effects of his slash and burn politics.

With re-election in hand and a successful debut on the Iowa Republican stage, Governor Walker now seems to be a legitimate candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He has made some mis-steps, including fumbling responses to questions about evolution and President Obama’s faith on the national and international stage. But today he took it one step further.

In a speech at CPAC, he compared his success at pushing his agenda past 100,000 protestors to his ability to fight ISIS and other terrorists. His campaign quickly tried to make the best of his remark, but it reveals a sad truth in American politics, and in Governor Walker’s worldview. For Walker, and too many American politicians (and their supporters), one’s opponents are not people of good will who look on the world differently and come to different conclusions about what is best for a city, state, or nation. One’s opponents are inveterate evil, savages, barbarians, incapable of rational thought. While these views are present on both left and right, and too often I have heard educated Wisconsinites dismiss Walker as ignorant and evil, such ideas seem to be more prevalent on the right than on the left. One need only to cite Rudy Giuliani’s recent remarks concerning President Obama’s patriotism as evidence.

Still, for Governor Walker to compare, even in passing, Wisconsin’s protestors with ISIS fighters is revealing. To my knowledge, he never attempted to engage protestors, or even Democratic members of the Assembly or Senate in conversation about what might be best for Wisconsin. This weeks developments concerning Right-to-Work legislation is a perfect example. He said while campaigning that such legislation wasn’t a priority, but now, once introduced, he’s ready to sign it. He picks his targets, fires, and worries not about who is directly affected by it nor by what collateral damage might be inflicted. And for him, in some way, the image of ISIS fighters executing Coptic Christians is comparable to Wisconsin teachers protesting budget cuts, and presumably, the same teachers are as evil as ISIS fighters.

Throughout the last four years, I have consistently tried to make a case that Wisconsin, and our nation, needs to create ways of coming together to work toward the greater good of the community. We face significant issues. The racial disparities in our state and county are mind-boggling; the economy continues to create deeper inequalities. These are issues that can only be solved when the whole community, the state, the nation, comes together to develop solutions, and recognizes that individual sacrifices may be necessary to advance the common good. But from what I can tell, Governor Walker, and too many other politicians, are only interested in consolidating their power. They want to divide and conquer.

But when our governor, now a leading Presidential candidate, reveals that his worldview sees his opponents as somehow equivalent to terrorists and ISIS executioners, I despair. I think of all those who came into Grace Church four years ago seeking warmth and solace during the protests–black and white, mothers and fathers from across the state, children, teens, college students, worried about their jobs, worried about their communities, worried about their futures. I wonder whether Governor Walker ever talked to any of them, ever tried to see the face of Jesus Christ in them. I wonder whether he has spoken with UW faculty, administrators, or students, who wonder whether their livelihoods or futures are secure, wonder whether Wisconsin will be a place where they can make a home and a life for themselves. I wonder whether he thinks they are equivalent to terrorists.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the Democrats in Wisconsin have consistently misplayed their hand. They have underestimated Walker’s political skills; they have underestimated the depth of the disaffection among many voters; and they have been unable to articulate a compelling alternate vision of our state’s future. The protests this week were pathetic–not because their goal was wrong, but because they were a faint echo of the protests four years ago; protests that for all their power and energy, failed to prevent Walker’s agenda. 

I fear for our nation. We have seen the relentless attacks on President Obama’s patriotism, his faith, his character. We seem to be more deeply divided than ever. While members of Congress have not taken to pistol-whipping each other on the floor of the house as they did in the years running up to the Civil War, we are in a very dark place. And although we are a year away from the presidential election, I despair about the potential candidates in both parties. I doubt any of them have the ability to unite the people of our nation around common goals and purpose. Instead, I expect the demonization will only continue, the hatred among us only intensify.

“Concealed Carry” and the Love of Christ

Among the bills passed by Wisconsin’s legislature and signed into law by Governor Walker, is one permitting “concealed carry” of handguns. It will go into effect in November and has caused consternation in many quarters. Churches and other property owners are permitted to put up signs that state weapons are forbidden to ensure that law-abiding citizens carrying guns will not bring them onto premises. Grace Church already has a published policy (in our employee handbook) that forbids weapons on church property.

There is considerable discussion about how churches should respond. The Wisconsin Council of Churches has produced material to help churches decide and the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee will debate a  resolution that recommends forbidding weapons on all property owned by, or held in trust for, the Diocese (which would include all churches and rectories): concealedcarryresolution

There was lively debate about the resolution at yesterday’s clergy day. I am opposed to the law and to any law that increases the possibility of violence in our community. However, I am also mindful of my own experience. When we were living in Tennessee back in the 1990s, I remember the first time I noticed the sign forbidding weapons on the entry doors of the Chattanooga airport. I was relieved to know that weapons were prohibited in the airport (this was years before 9-11) but suddenly I realized the sign meant that people carrying concealed weapons were out on the streets, in stores and restaurants, and the like. Tennessee was then, and undoubtedly remains, a violent state. While we lived there, several local county courthouses were bombed with dynamite by disgruntled citizens.

Signs forbidding weapons in churches remind us that churches are sanctuaries, places of peace, and link us to the long history of churches providing safe havens for people threatened by violence. At the same time, such signs prominently displayed can arouse fear and suspicion.

As churches, we are to offer a message of love and hope, not fear and the question for me is whether chilling signs with handguns prominently displayed that inevitably remind us of the violence inherent in our society, proclaim the love of Christ.

Odd Wisconsin

Is the title of ongoing changing exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum (just a few doors up from Grace Church). We’re coming up on the second anniversary of our arrival in Badgerland and some things about Wisconsin remain strange. Many of those oddities have to do with food. We’ve heard mention of the fact that for many years it was illegal to sell margarine in the state and never quite believed it. But here’s an article reflecting back on that piece of history. And now there’s a movie about it!

On another Wisconsin food matter–Andrew Sullivan had several threads about Limburger cheese this week. The only remaining manufacturer is in Monroe Wisconsin. I knew the reputation and was hesitant when selecting my lunch at the Paoli Bread and Brathaus but decided to take a chance and ordered the Stinky Bratburger. Here’s a picture:

The burger itself was delicious and the cheese (which I don’t recall having ever tasted) remarkably complex and not all that aromatic, certainly nothing like the ripe  (Alsatian) muensters I’m fond of.

Theological and Faith Perspectives on the Protests in Wisconsin

I’m trying to collect links to blogs and other sites from outside Wisconsin that reflect theologically or religiously on the protests in Madison (and that don’t link back to me). So far, I’ve come up with these:

Here’s the Religion News Service report on the press event yesterday.

A blog post from Stephen Thorngate, former Wisconsin resident and currently Assistant Editor at The Christian Century.

Religion Dispatches has been following developments. Here’s commentary from Gary Laderman, Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Emory. Here’s Julie Ingersoll’s take(Hint: If I have time I will post my reflections on this essay and on the Ingersoll piece; I think they are both deeply flawed).

I want to meet Dan Schultz. He writes for Religion Dispatches, too. At least he’s in Wisconsin. He’s written a couple of things. One points out the relatively slow response by faith communities. He updates that post a couple of days later with info about those who have spoken out.

If you’ve got more, let me know. Yes, I will post thoughtful perspectives that challenge the progressive view.

The Gospel and the State of Wisconsin

How should communities of faith, and specifically churches, respond to the current political conflict in Wisconsin?

I’ve had as a motto, ever since Sojourners Magazine first introduced it, “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.” I believed it then, and I believe it now (just as I also don’t believe God cared who won the Super Bowl).

But God does care about justice and mercy: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). To disenfranchise people, whether they are citizens of Egypt or of Wisconsin is wrong. To undo the rights of citizens, to fail to protect the needy, the poor, the widow and the orphan, is not just a political decision. It is an affront against the vision of society proclaimed by the Torah of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus.

I also know that people of good will and deep faith can disagree on matters of politics. We must be able to come together in prayer, confessing our sins, asking God’s forgiveness, and sharing in the Eucharist. To that end, we are making Grace Church available as a space of prayer and respite in these days of conflict, uncertainty, and turmoil. Many of us are worried about what is happening. We know our own perspective, the narrowness of our vision; we can also recognize the narrowness of our opponents’ vision; let us pray that God grant us the wisdom to enlarge our vision as well as that of those with whom we disagree, that together, we might create a more just and merciful society.

For another perspective, read this.


Even though I’ve never lived in Wisconsin before, I feel like I’m back home. I grew up in a small town in northwestern Ohio. When I was growing up, many people were no longer making their living in agriculture, and many farmers worked day jobs in factories. Still, life was dominated by agriculture. I would later joke that for fun, we had barbecues and watched the corn grow.

The area of South Carolina in which I lived was never dominated by agriculture. The economy and culture were very different.

We visited the Dane County Farmer’s Market on our first Saturday in Madison. Corrie has already gotten to know many of the farmers and we enjoy the products of their fields and pastures. As rector of a downtown church that is adjacent to the Farmer’s Market, I am intrigued by how we might minister in that context. What is our role? We are studying issues of food, sustainability, and hunger in our adult ed program this fall, but it seems to me there is much more that we could do.

I’m fascinated by a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that discusses the plight of rural communities in the Midwest. It’s available here. Much of what is described resonates with my experience. It wasn’t so much that people urged me to leave. I never felt comfortable there, even as a child, so I jumped at the opportunity to leave, even if it was only to a college town slightly larger, ninety miles away.

Still, after I had really left the Midwest for Boston, I tried to come back for a summer, to see if I might live, and work, in my hometown. I realized I couldn’t.

The question I’ve been asking myself since I’m back in the Midwest is what is our role as an urban church, and my role as a priest in an urban parish, in reaching out to our rural neighbors?

An Evening with Will Allen

Corrie and I went to the presentation  by Will Allen of Growing Power. Allen, a former pro basketball player is a leader in the urban agriculture movement. He talked about the history of his organization, and went into considerable detail about their techniques and projects around the world. The evening’s mantra “it’s all about the soil.”

He bought the  last farm in the city of Milwaukee in the early 90s and has created an intensive agriculture program on it. It’s an inspiring, and challenging vision. For more information, visit the organization’s website: http://www.growingpower.org

He’s just the first of several food activists and writers to visit Madison in the coming weeks. Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry will be here as well.

The Discipline of a Weekly Day off

I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve taken regular days off. Certainly, the last years of juggling church and teaching have meant that the chance of a day off every week–a day with nothing hanging over my head, no papers to grade, nothing for which to prepare–was a rare occurrence.

With only one job, carving out that regular day off is somewhat easier, but actually taking it seems like something of a guilty luxury. Still, I’ve been doing it.

On Friday we had a great day exploring Wisconsin and Madison. We visited the Aldo Leopold Center up near Baraboo, then drove to Spring Green for a quick pick at Taliesin and a stroll through the streets of downtown.

Back home in Madison, we went to jazz on the roof of the Madison Museum of Modern Art and heard some great Gypsy Swing. The day was capped off with some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had–at Fugu. Corrie and I and another couple were the only Anglos in the restaurant. The tables were full of Chinese grad students. The food was exquisite. I had Cumin Lamb in chili sauce, to die for. Next up: tripe or pork intestine.

Days off like that are wonderful. I hope to enjoy many more in the months and years to come. The trade-off was a busy Saturday, meetings in the morning and then a sermon to write. But it was worth it.