Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reflections on the Birther Movement

I myself tend to hear about “birther” grumblings primarily from bumper stickers and talk radio rants. If the grumblings were limited to those two contexts, perhaps this non-issue wouldn’t be so troubling to me.

However, a few people have taken the time and incurred the expense to file lawsuits challenging President Obama’s “natural born” citizenship qualifications to hold our nation’s highest office. The lawsuits have not gone anywhere and have been held by the courts to be baseless. Unfortunately, these results probably fuel paranoid conspiracy theories and defensiveness that the plaintiffs did not get a fair consideration of their gripes.

Astonishingly, earlier this year an army officer refused to deploy to Afghanistan based on birther claims. He did so with the full knowledge that the refusal would jeopardize his long military career. In that it was President Obama’s predecessor who initiated the war in Afghanistan, I’m particularly baffled by this gentleman’s refusal to deploy. The links below provide background on his refusal.

By way of contrast, the following are a few links on the other side of this controversy:

To me, the whole birther movement is troubling for a number of reasons. First, I find it tragic that some are so desperate to overturn the will of their fellow citizens that they are grasping at straws to discredit the collective decision of American voters. It seems to me that desperation is emblematic of deep feelings of alienation from the mainstream, which is disturbing in itself.

Moreover, I find it particularly troubling that these birther rants are coming at this particular time in history. Barack Obama is our nation’s first president whose ancestry is not entirely European. As far as I am aware, he is also the first sitting president to have his eligibility as a “natural born” citizen questioned seriously (despite the contra evidence of his qualifications). I myself am not convinced these facts are unrelated.

If both of Barack Obama’s parents were of European ancestry, I doubt the birther movement would have come into being. In this day and age, most people are ashamed to admit to lingering racist resentments. Even those, who are not ashamed, know that such views are not acceptable within the mainstream of modern American values, and their complaints will appeal to only a small fringe within our country if they are explicitly racist. As a result, I believe the “birther” attacks are a proxy for explicitly attacking the propriety of an African American sitting in the Oval Office. I explained in my prior post that the legal concerns over Senator McCain’s “natural born” citizenship were actually much more substantial than President Obama’s. Nonetheless, I am confident that if Senator McCain had won the presidential election in November 2008, the folks in the current birther movement would not be declaring his presidency illegitimate.

Ironically, the birther attacks themselves are a form of xenophobic bigotry, if not racism. As noted in my prior post, even before Barack Obama landed on the national stage, the “natural born” citizenship requirement was panned as racist because most recent immigrants to our country come from Latin America and Asia. Thus, the “natural born” citizenship requirement today applies largely to exclude Latinos and Asian Americans from being elected to the presidency. It is interesting that the birther attacks come at the same time in our nation’s history as the scapegoating of illegal immigrants in our political sphere. My own sense is that the motivations of both are related.

Exodus 23:1-2 (New King James Version)

You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Constitutional Requirement that a President be a “Natural Born” Citizen

This summer I have been fortunate to get to do some traveling. Our family has put a lot of miles on our car as we trekked across several states in the Southwest. We have had fun spending time together as we soak up a lot of the beautiful scenery in this amazing country of ours. Being in the car a lot more than usual, I have had the opportunity to read a lot more bumper stickers than I typically do. Some are more interesting than others. We weren’t traveling in New York, Vermont or Hawaii, so it was not uncommon to see some bumper stickers expressing hostility towards President Obama. One that comes to mind stated: “God and Obama have one thing in common: no birth certificate.”

I have to admit when I see things like that or hear equivalent comments on talk radio, I tend to roll my eyes and think, “Really?!!? Is that the best use of the finite time you have on this Earth?” Personally, I just cannot believe some folks are still talking about that non-issue.

Earlier this year, an article of mine appeared in the Chicana/o-Latina/o Law Review, which is published by UCLA. The article involved the constitutional requirement that a president be a “natural born” citizen. The article is titled “Empowering Our Children to Dream Without Limitations: A Call to Revisit the ‘Natural Born Citizen’ Requirement in the Obama Era.” Despite the title, the article actually had very little to do with Barack Obama, but grew out of my love for children and my interest in the effects of various laws on their well-being. This particular article was inspired by certain personal experiences I have had as a mom, an aunt, and a former grade school teacher. If you are interested, you can access the entire paper (or just an abstract) at the site below:

The topic of the paper is very different from my typical scholarship. As a result, I learned a lot about the “natural born” citizen requirement in the course of doing the research for this paper. For example, the “natural born” requirement has been panned by many constitutional law experts and lay people for a very long time. The requirement has been criticized as unnecessary and un-American. In the modern era, the requirement has even been characterized as racist because most immigrants these days come from Asia and Latin America.

In researching the article, I also learned that this hostility towards the “natural born” requirement is decidedly non-partisan. For years, people on both the right and the left have advocated that we eliminate it from the U.S. Constitution. Indeed in recent years, the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to spark a particular flurry of articles on the subject from Republican (or Republican leaning) persons.

I wrote my article after Barack Obama was elected president, around the time of his inauguration. In the paper, I noted that during the election season questions had been raised about both of the major party candidates’ ability to satisfy the “natural born” citizen requirement. In my research, it seemed that the questions about Barack Obama’s qualifications were pretty far fetched or were just wrong from a legal perspective. Some focused on the Kenyan citizenship of Obama’s father, but ignored the fact that his birth on U.S. soil (i.e., in Hawaii) is what is key to the “natural born” requirement. There have also been silly rumors that Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate was a forgery and he was born in Kenya. There was also an assertion that he was adopted in Indonesia. (Perhaps if Bill Clinton had spent any time outside the U.S. as a child, folks might have attacked his qualifications as a “natural born” citizen, but I suppose Clinton’s sexual escapades provided sufficient fodder for his opponents.)

Interestingly, in researching my paper I learned that more serious legal questions were actually raised about John McCain’s qualifications. As a result, the senator’s presidential campaign requested an opinion on the subject from two legal heavy-weights: Professor Laurence H. Tribe of Harvard and former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson. The two learned men concluded that Senator McCain did satisfy the “natural born” citizen requirement. Nonetheless, the opinion of Professor Tribe and Mr. Olson has not been accepted by all experts. Several articles have been written refuting or expressing doubt about the conclusion of Professor Tribe and Mr. Olson. See e.g. Gabriel J. Chin, Why Senator John McCain Cannot Be President: Eleven Months and a Hundred Yards Short of Citizenship, 107 Mich. L. Rev. First Impressions 1 (2008); Lawrence B. Solum, Originalism and the Natural Born Citizen Clause, 107 Mich. L. Rev. First Impressions 22 (2008).

I personally reserve judgment, I have not investigated that particular legal issue in enough depth. But I raise these doubts simply to flag that even if Barack Obama had not won the presidential election, it is quite possible that some folks would be questioning the legitimacy of the current presidency. (I would not be among them, but others might have.)

Nonetheless, when I wrote my article in early 2009, it frankly never occurred to me that after Barack Obama took the oath of office some bitter folks would devote so much time and effort to continue to harp on the “natural born” question though there is just no legal issue. The current state of affairs is really tragic. Our country has a lot of other pressing issues we ought to all be trying to solve instead of fighting each other over baseless fantasies to overturn the election results.

Moreover, the point of my article was that the “natural born” citizenship requirement ought to be eliminated in order to give all American children confidence that there are no limits to what they can achieve in this country if they work hard. In the article, I advocated a grassroots movement to eliminate the “natural born” citizen requirement from the U.S. Constitution. But in the current political climate, that will never happen. I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. Even if a grassroots movement arose, in the current climate, President Obama’s adversaries would simply charge that such efforts were a personal attempt to legitimize an illegitimate Commander-in-Chief. So, as far as I see, we are stuck with this ridiculous requirement for a long time to come.

Hebrews 11:8-16

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Footprints of God—Paul: Contending for the Faith (2004)

I think the Apostle Paul is fascinating, so I recently rented this documentary about his life. It is part of a multi-volume series, “The Footprints of God,” but this is the only one I have ever watched. It was produced by a Catholic film company.

To be quite honest, my husband couldn’t get beyond the cheesy film techniques. The narrator was an American who dressed a bit like the Crocodile Hunter. His analogies and theatrics were at times a little over the top. My husband kept laughing and shaking his head.

I agreed the documentary’s style had a high cheese factor, but I was able to overlook these cinematic foibles. I thought the film did a great job of telling St. Paul’s story in greater detail than a lay person can glean from just reading the Bible. The documentary wove together coherently many different parts of the New Testament, as well as the research insights of historians, anthropologists and archeologists.

I would characterize the film as being like an episode of Rick Steves’ show if he became a televangelist with a Catholic bent. The narrator told the story of St. Paul’s life while traveling to the various places the apostle lived. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to visit the places where the people described in the Bible lived, so it was fascinating to at least see what those varied places look like via film.

There were several aspects of the film’s telling of Paul’s life that struck me in particular. I have always been amazed at the conversion story of Paul. A devout, zealous Jew goes from persecuting Christians to becoming the most celebrated Christian evangelist and missionary of all time. What a dramatic 180! The film talks about Paul’s prior confidence in the righteousness of his own observance of the Mosaic laws and persecution of the Christians. Then he has a miraculous encounter with the post-Easter Jesus, who asks “Why are you persecuting me?” The narrator emphasizes that Jesus did not ask why Paul was persecuting the church or his people, but “me.” The film talks about how that encounter laid the foundation for much of Paul’s later theology.

Subsequent to the encounter, Paul is humbled; he is physically blinded and led to Damascus like a child. The Bible tells us that the miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus convinced Paul that some of his most strongly held beliefs had been incorrect. What tremendous humility Paul must have had to accept that. It is probably human nature to be very confident in our own beliefs and think others are wrong. I’m not sure all of us would have had Paul’s humility to admit he had not been as correct as he thought. What a great example for the rest of us.

The film also describes Paul’s later presentation to the leadership of the early Christians, and how he spent a number of days alone with Peter, who gave him instruction in the faith. How remarkable that Peter, who had much to fear and mistrust from Paul, was able to see that God was going to use Paul to spread his message of unconditional love. And it was striking that Paul, the learned scholar, would humble himself to take instruction from Peter, an uneducated fisherman. How amazing that God can use each of us, regardless of our backgrounds, to do great things. I admire Peter’s courage. And again, I admire Paul’s humility.

It was also amazing to me that Paul was almost constantly in trouble with the authorities. He was often jailed, or he was fleeing those who wanted to arrest him. I guess I had not previously thought of St. Paul as an outlaw. But indeed that is exactly the point that the film made. The film demonstrates quite dramatically the daring escapes Paul made to avoid capture by the authorities, and it describes how he was often fleeing just one step ahead of the law. It is interesting to me that Paul did not just turn himself in to authorities when they were looking for him. On at least one occasion, God did perform a miracle to get him out of jail. And Paul trusted God fully, constantly putting himself in harm’s way to do what he understood to be God’s will. Paul survived all kinds of things that ought to have ended his life, e.g., shipwrecks, a snake bite, a stoning. As a result, Paul did not have reason to fear the authorities. But perhaps Paul did not equate compliance with misguided human laws or fallible human authorities with compliance with God’s will.

Acts 16:25-26 (King James)

But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Letters from the Other Side (2006)

In all the highly-charged posturing and debate in the United States recently with respect to illegal immigration, it saddens me that the rhetoric often overlooks the human side of these issues. Like many issues in our public life these days, the issues often get oversimplified. Often the discussions I have heard seem to degenerate to pro-immigrant v. anti-immigrant stances. Oversimplification is a problem we have with respect to a number of issues; illegal immigration is one example.

I serendipitously came across a documentary on PBS recently, Letters from the Other Side. The link below provides some information about the film:

I thought the documentary did a good job at providing Americans with some insight into the experience of Mexican families with relatives who come to the United States. The documentary chronicled the experiences of several Mexican women in small towns in Mexico, who have had male family members leave to cross the border illegally and work in the United States. The women explain in some detail the economic challenges of simply providing food for their families. There are no jobs and their entrepreneurial efforts yield discouraging results. Some of the women in the film cite NAFTA as the prime culprit; they indicate that local Mexican markets are now flooded with cheap goods from the United States and the local Mexican producers cannot compete. They explain that in desperation over the dire economic situation, the husbands and sons of these families have left for the United States to help support their families.

The women describe the resulting heartache of the separation of their families. Because of the life-threatening dangers (and high economic costs) associated with crossing the border illegally, the men rarely come home once they have arrived in the United States. To do so would be to risk their lives. Consequently, fathers are seldom home for holidays or major family milestones. The documentary shows the impact on children who grow up yearning for--but never knowing--their fathers.

Moreover, men who go north sometimes start families there. One woman in the documentary looks longingly at a video of her American-born granddaughter whom she may never meet. The woman cannot travel to the U.S., and it is too risky for the little girl’s father to cross the border to bring her to visit her family in Mexico. The documentary shows the separation causes irreparable harm and leads to the disintegration of the family unit.

The documentary emphasizes the acute physical dangers of crossing the border illegally. One man, who has done it successfully, describes in the film the dangers of crossing the barren desert, and how he has seen men traveling with him die. He describes how those experiences have impacted him deeply. Two of the women in the documentary are the widows of men who died horrific deaths at the hands of human traffickers as they tried to make their way through Texas without interception by the authorities.

Through out the interviews, the documentary also provides insightful statistics. They note a stark increase in the number of people who have crossed the border illegally in the last decade, and the rise in remittances as a percentage of GDP. Remittances from relatives in the United States are now the second largest revenue source in Mexico, just after petroleum. Remittances now account for more revenue than derived from tourism. The statistics also describe a build up of manpower along the United States side of the border during this same time—particularly since 9/11. There are also grim statistics about the frequency that people crossing the border illegally die in the process.

I am the first to admit I don’t know the root causes of Mexico’s current troubles. Poverty has been a problem in Mexico for decades, but it seems like the economy is worse than it has been in the past. I don’t know if NAFTA is the cause or not.

Beyond the economic issues, security is also a serious problem. Warring drug lords have killed thousands of Mexicans in recent years and parts of Mexico are under military control. Many of us Americans, who have in the past loved visiting Mexico, no longer feel it is safe to go there. In the 1990s, my husband and I enjoyed visiting vibrant, cosmopolitan cities like Monterrey and Mexico City. We would love to take our children to see the sites in those cities, but it doesn’t seem safe enough any more.

I also know a lot of people in El Paso, Texas. In the past, folks in that border city enjoyed going to Juarez frequently to shop or to eat in one of the many excellent restaurants. Those activities have largely dried up. Americans aren’t crossing like they used to. The small businesses in Juarez that relied upon those visitors used to support a middle class on the Mexican side of the border metropolis, but many such businesses have failed in recent years. I have read that in El Paso there is now a growing business in renting middle class homes to Juarez professionals who find it is no longer safe to live in their home town. I am not sure why the drug wars have become so much more violent than they used to be. But it seems clear that Americans are at least in part to blame; it is our country’s demand for those drugs that fuels the illegal drug trade in Mexico.

It seems to me that the current bitter American debate about illegal immigration is misplaced to some degree. Surely we can all agree that it is no long-term solution to Mexico’s problems for a large number of the country’s citizenry to emigrate (legally or illegally). The separation of families and the dependence on remittances deeply harms Mexico and its people in social, cultural and economic ways. In my opinion, building an eyesore of a fence and enacting state laws to scapegoat illegal immigrants are not productive ways to deal with the situation. Those are mean-spirited actions that at best put a band-aid on a gaping wound. To find a long-term, effective solution, it seems to me we in the United States must look to Mexico as an equal partner to work together to find ways to build up the economy on both sides of the border.

1 Samuel 26:24(Amplified Bible)

And behold, as your life was precious today in my sight, so let my life be precious in the sight of the Lord, and let Him deliver me out of all tribulation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Immigration Laws and Moral Judgments

In all the debate about S.B. 1070 and illegal immigration, I have heard a lot of bitter and emotionally-charged arguments made. The saddest, in my opinion, have been certain arguments raised on moral grounds. Specifically, I have heard supporters of S.B. 1070 assert that people who come to our country in violation of our immigration laws are acting immorally. It has even been asserted that parents who come here in violation of U.S. immigration laws are setting a poor example for their children. Some have even argued that parents who are here illegally ought to take their families back to their countries of origin in order to teach their children proper ethics. I have heard the people who make such arguments point out rather proudly that their own forbearers came to this country in compliance with its immigration laws. They believe others ought to do the same.

To be clear, I certainly believe in the rule of law. I am a lawyer and a law professor after all. It would be a betrayal of my profession and my entire professional life to believe otherwise. And having lived in border states the vast majority of my life, I am acutely aware of the violence and crime that can be associated with human trafficking.

However, I also do not believe in turning a blind eye to reality. In my opinion, we should take our patriotism seriously enough that we question both the underpinnings and the repercussions of our laws. And we ought to be critical of unjust or ill-advised laws; we ought to advocate appropriate changes when they are warranted. Ours is a country built on democratic values after all, not one built on blind allegiance to those in power who enact our laws. For several reasons, it saddens me deeply to hear such comments that express moral superiority over those who violate our immigration laws.

We should note that many of our own citizens frequently violate our laws. Drivers routinely operate their vehicles in excess of the posted speed. Such actions are violations of our traffic laws, which are intended to keep us safe on the roads. But most speeders are never even pulled over or issued a ticket.

It is also widely acknowledged that there is a huge “tax gap” (i.e., the difference in the amount of taxes legally due and the amount that is actually paid). Such underpayment of what is owed is a violation of our tax laws, which are intended to keep the government operating. Among other things, such tax revenues enable the government to provide supplies and salaries to our men and women in uniform, and to build roads that support the many transactions upon which our economy depends. Interestingly, experts tell us that most violators of our tax laws are individual taxpayers, not corporations.

Possession and use of narcotics have also been illegal for a number of years in the United States, yet the use of such narcotics is widespread in this country. Our prisons are populated largely by people who violated such laws, though many others violate them and are never arrested or prosecuted. (Notably, the last three men elected president have fallen into that latter category.)

In my experience listening to the debate, the folks who argue that it is morally unacceptable to violate our immigration laws do not seem to ever argue it is also unethical to violate speed limits and/or tax laws. I do not even hear them making moral condemnations of our citizens who use narcotics illegally. Personally, that latter example of hypocrisy is particularly offensive to me. Surely we can all agree that much of the current narcotraffic-related violence terrorizing people in Mexico is at least partially the fault of the United States. We have collectively insisted on criminalizing drugs in our country, yet our own people ignore those laws and (tragically) have created a huge demand for illegal narcotics. To be consistent, if we are wagging fingers at violators of our immigration laws, shouldn’t we also look down our noses at our citizens who violate our drug laws (and foolishly risk their health)? To be clear, as a Christian, I am not advocating that we make moral judgments against anyone. But I flag the hypocrisy of making moral judgments against those who break certain laws, but not making moral judgments against those who break others.

In my own experience, people who make morality-based arguments against illegal immigration tend to be of European ancestry. I have yet to hear Asian Americans or African Americans make such comments for example. But European Americans, who boast that their forbearers came here legally, overlook (or are perhaps simply ignorant of) certain structural advantages their forbearers enjoyed. (As an American of European ancestry, my own forbearers certainly enjoyed those same structural advantages.) When I was a law student and took a course on Immigration Law I became aware that through out our history as a nation American immigration laws have been heavily skewed in favor of immigrants from Europe. Until certain reforms were instituted in the 1960s, it was very difficult—or at times outright impossible--for people from Asian, African or Latin American countries to immigrate legally to this country. Yet at the same time, the doors were typically open to immigrants from Europe as long as they were not mentally ill, did not have a communicable disease or otherwise were not personally deemed to be undesirable. To be sure, those European immigrants were not always warmly welcomed when they first came or even after they arrived. But the bottom line is that legal immigration was typically much easier for those European immigrants than if they had come from other parts of the world. It is no wonder that the forbearers of European Americans largely obeyed the immigration laws in effect when they came to this country. Those laws were pretty favorable to them. It generally benefited such individuals to obey such laws. Indeed, there was no real incentive to do otherwise.

Daniel 9:11 (New King James Version)

Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against Him.

Galatians 5:1, 7-8, 14 (New King James Version)

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.

You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you.

For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Text of SB 1070 and Concerns of Racial Profiling

The supporters of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 often state that the new law does not permit racial profiling, and they challenge opponents to read the text of the bill instead of making hysterical attacks in ignorance. I certainly agree that we should never react in ignorance, and should carefully study issues before making judgments.

For those who have not read the bill, it is available on the Arizona legislature’s website at: That document contains the current version with modifications that have been made since the bill was originally passed.


Thus, the plain words of the law make it mandatory to “determine the immigration status” of such persons whenever there is “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful presence in this country. However, this requirement is only mandatory “when practicable.” I frankly have no idea what that important modifier means. Under what types of circumstances would it be “practicable” to try to determine one’s immigration status? What kinds of situations might make it impracticable? I certainly would welcome enlightenment on this point. It appears to be a very ambiguous phrase. With such ambiguity in statutory drafting there are a host of potential pitfalls—including (but not limited to) unbridled discretion in the hands of law enforcement. Unbridled discretion in the hands of any mere mortals seems unwise.

The following passage also appears in the text of the law:


Per the legislature’s website, the word “solely” originally modified the anti-racial profiling language in the law, but that important modifying language has been removed from the current version. Thus, the plain words of the statute originally permitted law enforcement to consider “race color or national origin” as long as there were also other factors that gave rise to “reasonable suspicion” that the person was unlawfully present in the United States.

However, on its face, the current version of the law seems to indicate that law enforcement may not consider “race, color or national origin” at all--not as the sole factor or even as one of several factors--except to the extent either the U.S. or Arizona Constitutions permit racial profiling. For a few reasons, this passage from the law is curious to me.

First, I must admit that I am not a constitutional law expert and I am not sure how much racial profiling either constitution might permit. For example, I would think racial profiling would be a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. constitution, but perhaps there are exceptions this language is intended to exploit.

Secondly, even assuming the constitutional exception is narrow, in everything I have read and heard in discussions of the law, I have yet to hear how law enforcement will decide when there is “reasonable suspicion” without resorting to consideration of “race, color or national origin.” That really seems to be the key issue in the whole controversy surrounding S.B. 1070. The law seems to forbid racial profiling on its face, but it is not clear what factors beyond “race, color or national origin” would trigger “reasonable suspicion.” I would very much like to hear what law enforcement techniques are used to ensure this important provision of the law is honored.

Deuteronomy 10:17-21

The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of Lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Guest Blogger McKay Cunningham on Environmental Sustainability

Dominion vs. Stewardship: Do Christians lead the way or trail behind the movement toward environmental sustainability?

It wasn’t long ago that that those who strapped themselves to giant oak trees hoping to forestall development were castigated as loonies. Environmentalists, once denigrated as fringe alarmists, now enjoy popular support. National polls reflect consensus; Americans believe there should be stronger policies protecting open space, that it is everyone’s obligation to protect undeveloped lands, and that more lands should be set aside for rare or endangered species, national parks, and protection of historical landscapes. There is a growing acknowledgement that the supply of wild lands is limited and that access to natural, undeveloped lands benefits society. Eroding plant and animal diversity through land development and destruction of natural animal habitats increases popular anxiety.

In response, federal and state governments have added land and funding to national parks and other conservation efforts. Park based funding increased from nine-hundred million dollars in 2001 to over one billion dollars by 2006. Park acreage increased incrementally from seven million acres in 1930 to nineteen million acres in 2000.

Despite popular support and government-initiated efforts, forty million acres of land – larger than the state of Florida – were newly developed between 1992 and 2007. No doubt, complex and nuanced factors contribute to such rampant development. One such factor is the historic and deeply rooted pro-development policy embedded within American property law. In the county’s infancy a pro-development policy made sense. As a sparsely populated nation with more wilderness than production capacity, national leaders promoted colonization, cultivation, and development of wild lands – often giving away millions of acres on the bare promise that the grantee would develop. Over time, our law fully integrated these pro-development constructs.

While critical in the country’s infancy, encouraging land development through legal constructs is less important and arguably detrimental now. These long-standing legal constructs encourage land use and as a result discourage conservation. Our need to develop wide swaths of wild land has changed; our common law has not.

How has the Christian perspective played into this evolution?

On the one hand, scads of recent publications promote “stewardship.” (The Sojourner’s website offers several titles). Under the stewardship model, the Christian is not the owner of her property but a mere trustee. A strictly legal owner may use the property entirely for himself, excluded others from it, possess it, transfer it and destroy it. A Christian owner, however, must use it for the common good – or perhaps more accurately, for the good of those most in need. It cannot be excluded from others, destroyed or exploited for personal gain. From this perspective, the stewardship model parallels popular environmentalist sentiment. But it hasn’t always been so.

While progressive Christians may proclaim environmental sensitivity today, we certainly cannot claim the same environmentalism historically. In fact, religious dogma arguably helped create America’s pro-development policy. Nineteenth century Judeo-Christians harbored animus toward the wilderness, according to some historians. The book of Genesis confers dominion to mankind over all birds and beasts; believers are admonished to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Early settlers took these provisions to heart, viewing uncultivated wild land as dangerous and ungodly. The controversial 1967 article by historian Lynn White decried the Judeo-Christian worldview of dominion as incompatible to environmentalism.

Of course, this assertion of dominion over nature and subjugation of wild lands to the will of mankind is not the sole cause of modern America’s pro-development proclivities. In fact, it is plausible that nineteenth century Christians merely mirrored the popular sentiment of the day.

One scholar suggests that the nineteenth century American public – regardless of religion – uniformly valued development over conservation. Professor John Sprankling argues that Americans valued land exploitation and disdained uncultivated and unimproved land: “This model mirrors the historic American view that forests, wetlands, grasslands, deserts and other lands in natural condition contribute nothing to the social welfare until they are converted to economic use.” Forests, wetlands, deserts, hill country and other undeveloped land were seen as worthless until cleared, drained, cultivated or otherwise converted into economic use. Visiting from France in the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans “are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight . . . the march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes and subduing nature.”

So where does that leave the progressive Christian?

Unfortunately, the prevailing Christian view in the nineteenth century reflected the popular view at the time. Today, the prevailing Christian view again reflects the popular view. Did we get it right this time or are we simply following the path of least resistance?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rated R: Republican in Hollywood (2004)

Rated R: Republican in Hollywood is an hour long documentary by Jesse Moss, who honestly admits his ties to the Democratic Party at the beginning of the film. He describes the impetus for the film as the election of Republican Hollywood icon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the governor of California. Moss viewed the timing as ideal to explore issues including whether the liberal reputation of the entertainment industry is deserved, and whether Schwarzenegger is an anomaly (or whether there are other conservatives in Tinsel Town).

To explore these issues, Moss interviews a number of Hollywood conservatives including Drew Carey, John Milius, Lionel Chetwynd, Vincent Gallo, Michael Medved, Pat Sajak, Ben Stein, Sam Haskell and Patricia Heaton. (I have to admit I had not heard of most of these folks before watching the film.) Rated R: Republican in Hollywood seems to do a fairly good job of sensitizing viewers to the apparent difficulties of “conservatives” in the entertainment industry including ideological bigotry that limits career opportunities, as well as the hypocrisy of “liberals” who shun those with opposing political views. However, the film brushes over specific ideology and lumps a seemingly diverse group together as if they were ideologically homogenous.

The interviews rarely give hints as to why the various interviewees are Republicans such that they should be included in the documentary. It is not clear what these individuals actually believe that makes them “conservatives.” Indeed, it is noted that Schwarzenegger himself is not considered to be a true conservative by many due to his stance on hot button issues such as abortion rights. In his interview for the film, Drew Carey indicates he actually considers himself to be more of a libertarian.

For purposes of this blog, I had hoped that the film might explore the motivation of Christian Republicans in embracing the GOP. In that respect, I was disappointed.

Although I disagree with her on many political issues, Patricia Heaton is rather a fascinating person to me, and I was initially excited to see that she was featured in the film. Heaton is probably best known for her Emmy winning role in Everybody Loves Raymond. She has also been outspoken about her Christian faith. She produced the film Amazing Grace, a biopic of William Wilberforce, the English MP whose embrace of Christianity inspired his long fight to end the slave trade. Heaton is a consistent life ethicist, which means she has take “pro-life” positions against embryonic stem cell research, abortion rights, euthanasia and capital punishment. I have read that she apparently supports gay rights to some degree, and is affiliated with Feminists for Life. Nonetheless, her interview in Rated R: Republican in Hollywood glosses over her faith and her reason for affiliating with the GOP. The interview makes it apparent that she was an enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush, but it is not clear why.

Even more disappointing, the film spotlights Act One, which is described as a Christian screenwriting group founded by a former nun. Moss never explores why this particular group should be included in a film about Republicans. Per their own interviews, the other people featured in the documentary seemed to be well-aligned with the GOP or at least with conservative causes and candidates. But the political affiliations of these Hollywood Christians was just assumed and not actually explored. I was left wondering if all of the Act One Christians were actually Republicans. To me, that would seem an amazing coincidence. As a Christ follower, who has not aligned herself with the GOP, I certainly did not appreciate the film’s apparent assumption that the Hollywood Christians were all Republican. This just perpetrates the seemingly well-entrenched myth that all Christians are political conservatives. In turn, this implicitly feeds the misimpression of many that Christianity endorses militarism and economic Darwinism.

I assume that Moss chose to gloss over ideology due to time constraints with his film. Unfortunately, that decision helps to crystallize Christian stereotypes that have been especially prevalent during and since the presidency of George W. Bush.

Ephesians 4:1-3

“I...urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds [us].”

Friday, July 9, 2010

Religulous (2008)

Being aware of the basic premise of Religulous, I honestly cannot say I looked forward to watching it. But I appreciate that Bill Maher is an intelligent person and he feels a lot of hostility towards religion for a variety of reasons. I try to have an open mind, and force myself to listen to perspectives that are different from my own. I encourage my law students to do the same thing because it is often possible to find common ground that was not previously apparent. (And pragmatically, when common ground is not to be found, listening to different perspectives also helps you understand the position of others so that you can more effectively refine your own rhetoric.) With that attitude, I was hopeful that Religulous might have some beneficial insight for me on the role of religion in a secular society. I’m not sure I gained a lot of insight. Instead, in the end, I was just deeply disappointed in Maher.

Any person of faith who has had the awkward experience of having to defend his or her beliefs to a belittling skeptic with a gift for oratory would likely feel a flood of unpleasant flashbacks while watching this film. It can be painful enough to attempt in vain to put into words spiritual concepts that are frankly difficult to verbalize. But the task is even more uncomfortable when the belittling skeptic has prepped ahead of time with witty one liners, and the person of faith is essentially the victim of a barrage of hostility. That is essentially what happens through out this film.

At the beginning of Religulous, Maher declares he just doesn’t understand how otherwise intelligent people can believe in God and religion, and he wants the film to be an exploration of that mystery. However, the exploration starts out with Maher and his team heading for a humble North Carolina chapel for truckers to interrogate the men who are gathered for a modest worship service. Some of the men become frustrated and insulted when Maher’s bent becomes apparent and it does not appear to jive with what they had been told prior to the filming. As a result, the film often has a Borat vibe to it. Moreover, starting off with truckers in North Carolina seems to set an unfortunate, though accurate tone for the rest of the film.

Through out Religulous, Maher does not attempt to speak with theologians or philosophers who could eloquently answer his difficult questions because of their years of study. Instead, he picks on average Joes, whom he must know will not have sophisticated answers to his zingers. It is a little like if Venus Williams for some reason challenged me to a tennis match. I’m thinking Ms. Williams would never do such a thing even if she knew who the heck I was. I would be so outmatched if I had to play against her, she would look like a bully for even agreeing to step onto the court against me. Though she could definitely beat me in straight sets (and likely in record time), it would frankly be a waste of her time and energy to play with me. She would simply be humiliating me for no apparent reason.

There were numerous other examples of Maher picking on average Joes in Religulous. There was an “ex-Jew for Jesus” who earnestly tries to tell Maher about the “miracles” that led him to his embrace of Christianity; Maher cruelly rejects his experiences as unremarkable coincidences. There was a Jesus-portraying theme park actor who patiently listened to Maher’s belligerent questions and tried to answer them until Maher finally stumped him with references to obscure Mediterranean mystics who lived prior to Jesus Christ. These types of scenes leave the viewer with the inescapable sense Maher is not really exploring the mystery of faith; he is just trying to make those with faith look silly. In turn, this approach makes Maher look like a big ole bully with a giant chip on his shoulder, which is just not becoming or even persuasive. I can’t imagine it swayed any agnostics who were sitting on the fence. And poll after poll has demonstrated that most Americans believe in a higher power of some sort. So was Maher going after that small demographic of angry American atheists? Maybe I’m wrong, but that would not seem like a wise marketing ploy.

I’m not sure why Maher permitted this ugly, bullying tone in his film. For the most part, I do respect Maher. I disagree with him a lot, but he generally seems to be a sharp guy, he seems pretty well read, and he often has good insights on politics. And I admire his bravery to speak his mind despite all the flack he gets for it. I very much respect anyone willing to stand up and voice unpopular opinions publicly—whether or not I even agree with those opinions. That is not easy; it takes a lot of courage. And I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. For example, I am not inclined to think Maher is a bad guy who wants to hurt people. Indeed, he seemed quite familiar with the Bible and he seemed to admire Jesus a lot, though he was deeply cynical of Christian leaders whom he believes have corrupted Jesus’ teachings. However, because he seems to admire Jesus, I just cannot fathom why he would make a movie out of belittling people and insulting what they hold most dear.

When he was purporting to explore each religion, he certainly did not highlight a representational cross-section or the most shining examples of each faith. He focused on the low hanging fruit—those who were easiest to ridicule (or religicule?) such as wealthy Christian pastors preaching a “prosperity Gospel,” a man claiming to be the incarnation/descendant of Jesus Christ, an anti-Zionist rabbi, and gay Muslim barkeepers. Where were the missionary families who gave up their worldly goods to live in remote, impoverish parts of the world to minister to brothers and sisters whom the rest of the world has forgotten? Where were the Christians who rescue women from brothels and care for children in orphanages? Where were the Christians engaged in human rights activism? Where were the Christians working in American inner cities to give kids an alternative to gangs and the drug trade? Maher didn’t talk to any of them. Instead, the end of the film includes an over-the-top apocalyptic vision of mankind killing itself and the planet due to religion.

I’ve been concerned for quite a while about the degradation of public discourse in our society. Jefferson envisioned a well-educated, enlightened electorate. But the most cited representatives of right wing thought these days are demagogues who play on people’s base frustrations to incite their anger and their embrace of cynical anti-government political positions. Government needs to get out of our way; government is the problem, not the solution! (Isn’t that really just advocating anarchy?) By contrast, the most cited representatives of left wing thought are comedians who encourage viewers to mock politicians at the slightest foible. After all, they are all corrupt and greedy. (In such case, why vote?) Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher are entertainers, but people seem to disregard that fact and quote them as if they are deep political thinkers. In their line of work, they are successful if they get viewers or readers riled up or make them guffaw. Their success is not measured by the quality of their political analyses. I think Jon Stewart is a very funny guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m pleased that the Daily Show on Comedy Central is the main source of news for a large segment of young adults.

1 Peter 3:8-9 (Contemporary English Version)

“Finally, all of you should agree and have concern and love for each other. You should also be kind and humble. Don't be hateful and insult people just because they are hateful and insult you. Instead, treat everyone with kindness. You are God's chosen ones, and he will bless you.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

A coincidental follow-up to the prior post, Justice Ginsburg authored an important Supreme Court opinion this past week, and that opinion has relevance to the themes discussed in this blog. Coverage of that opinion is available at the link below:

Matthew 5:43-35 (New International Version)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Death of Marty Ginsburg

Marty Ginsburg died last week. I never knew him personally, but I knew of him and admired him from afar. I would like to devote some time on this blog to express my admiration for him.

Some of you may not know who Marty Ginsburg was. He was a well-respected tax scholar and teacher at Georgetown. He broke the stereotype of tax lawyers as dry and humorless. Marty was actually very funny, and tried to inject humor into his teaching. As a tax lawyer and tax professor, I appreciated him for breaking the negative perceptions of those who work in our discipline.

Beyond his own professional successes, Marty was also known as Ruth’s husband. He was the beloved husband of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the nine justices currently sitting on the United States Supreme Court. Marty’s death apparently came just days after they celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary. I always mourn for people who lose their loved ones. I can only imagine how hard it must be to lose one’s life partner after so many years together. It absolutely breaks my heart.

I have always read what a devoted, inseparable pair Ruth and Marty were. They married just after Ruth finished her undergraduate degree. At various times, they each made geographical moves and made sacrifices to support the other’s career. They also cared for each other through serious illness; both Ruth and Marty have battled cancer.

I have also always read how very proud Marty was of Ruth’s professional accomplishments. The love and support of one’s partner means so much and is invaluable in helping us reach whatever accomplishments we achieve in this life. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has achieved a lot; she has been a pioneer. With the support of her husband, she went to law school when that was a rare path for women. Indeed, she was one of only nine female law students in a class of over 500. She was a trailblazer through out her career, and was the second woman to ever sit on the United States Supreme Court.

When I myself was a first-year law student, I remember reading an article about Justice Ginsburg. There was a description of how female law students flocked to her when she was a professor. The few other female professors on faculty were unmarried and did not have families. By contrast, the female law students admired and wanted to emulate Ginsburg because of her success in melding her career and family life. Similarly, as a law student, I know that I really studied the examples of the few female professors at my alma mater, who were married and/or had children. Though they may not have realized it at the time, they were a huge encouragement to me as I began my career. I remember studying their examples for clues to their successful juggling.

Now that I am a professor, I know that some female students look to me in a similar fashion. A number of young women have privately sought my thoughts and advice on the possibility and logistics of balancing career and family. Unfortunately, I never have any silver bullets for them. I’m sure Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not have any for her students either. But one thing I know for sure is that for most of us mere mortals the juggling would be nearly impossible without a loving and supportive partner. Whatever successes I have had in my professional life, I know I could not have achieved without my amazing husband. (I tell him that frequently though he typically rolls his eyes in modesty.) I certainly do not know Justice Ginsburg, but have a hunch she would agree about the importance of a supportive partner.

Husbands who support, encourage and applaud their wives’ professional talents are absolutely remarkable in my opinion. It requires selfless and sacrificial love to celebrate the talents of one’s spouse regardless of one’s gender. But it frankly takes a lot of guts for men to defy the cultural gender-based expectations of our society to support a wife’s career and at times even play second-fiddle to her professionally. It takes a strong and loving man to not be petty when his wife’s career gains more attention than his own. In many ways such men have been critical to the advancement of women in our society, and I am very grateful for them. With a husband like Marty as her partner, it is no surprise to me that Ruth has been celebrated as one of the best legal advocates for women’s rights our country has ever had.

The link below includes remembrances of Marty Ginsburg by his fellow tax professors around the country:

The link below includes a piece from NPR about Marty’s love and support for his wife:

Romans 12:15 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.

Ephesians 5:25 (The Message)

Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ's love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They're really doing themselves a favor—since they're already "one" in marriage.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Reflections on Patriotism

Our pastor gave a wonderful talk this weekend. She shared that it concerned her that a lot of the build-up to Independence Day (and talk about patriotism generally) involves the promotion of "American Pride." She noted that as Christ-followers, it is clear that we are to avoid pride, which involves exultation. The Bible teaches us that we are only to exult God. The Bible has plenty of warnings about the poisonous effects of pride.

Instead, she suggested we abandon the phrase "American Pride" to talk about the blessings of living in the United States. Instead of boasting of pride, we ought to adopt a spirit of humility and gratitude. Instead of indulging in pride, she encouraged us to recognize and give thanks for the blessings we enjoy.

She shared that she was thinking this week about all the many blessings we enjoy by virtue of living in this country. For purposes of her talk, our pastor said she just wanted to focus on the blessings of the people in our lives. This week she didn't want to give a sermon on the many freedoms we're blessed with, though those are very important too. Instead, she encouraged us to give thanks for our friends and family, and everyone else who makes our lives safe and happy. Our pastor said she was grateful for teachers who share their knowledge with students, for people in the medical field who keep us in good health, for police, firefighters and soldiers who keep us safe, for the folks who take away our trash so we don't live in squalid filth. She said she was even thankful for politicians, who do a very unpleasant job in her opinion. They work hard and are always criticized from all corners.

Our pastor closed her talk by reminding us that the Body of Christ recognizes no nationalities, and every single human being ever on this planet is a beloved child of the most high God. Amen!

Proverbs 8:13 (King James Version)
The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate.

Proverbs 13:10 (King James Version)
Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised is wisdom.

1 John 2:16 (King James Version)
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence Day

Independence Day falls on a Sunday this year, so that gives us all an excuse to celebrate the holiday all weekend long. Indeed, my church is having a community party tonight. So, it is probably forgivable that I publish this post a day early.

Happy Independence Day! If you are in the United States or are an American abroad, I hope you have a wonderful time celebrating with friends and family. And I hope you do something to celebrate beyond getting a good deal on a mattress, big screen TV or craft supplies. As is probably obvious from past posts on this blog, I think holidays are useful for us to reflect on whatever milestones or causes that inspired them. There are many blessings to living in this great country. We are reminded of that fact with much frequency recently as the debates over immigration take center stage. For a variety of reasons, people continue to sacrifice and risk their lives to get a chance to live in the United States. By accident of birth, many of us are fortunate enough to have lived in this country all (or nearly all) our lives. We in particular should never overlook that blessing and we should always be grateful.

This July 4th weekend I am personally grateful for many blessings bestowed upon me by virtue of being an American. In some ways, I am particularly grateful for freedom of speech. As a budding scholar, who has had her articles published in legal journals and who is able to publish her ideas instantaneously on this blog at any time, I owe much to the First Amendment.

I love the marketplace of ideas. I have a healthy skepticism about the ability of markets generally to produce positive results when completely unregulated. However, I believe in Truth and certainly do not fear differences of opinion. As an imperfect, weak human being, I certainly don't claim to always know the Truth. And I am sure that our Creator looks down at me in loving patience wondering when the heck I'll figure more of it out. But I have confidence that the Truth will make itself known over time and Truth will always prevail.

In that vein, I even love the anonymous and often bitter comments left on this blog--particular those left by fans of Janet Parshall. (God bless them!) As Americans, we all have the right to speak our minds without fear of government interference and to let other people decide for themselves the wisdom of our ideas. How wonderful is that?!

Some colleagues of mine were recently scheduled to speak at a scholarly conference in a country with a repressive government that engages in widespread censorship and has an appalling human rights record. At the last minute, however, the conference was cancelled by that repressive government. If the position you hold is wrong and untenable, your best option might be to prevent others from ever advocating a different position. In that context, the market place of ideas is not your friend.

I came across a great editorial about Independence Day this morning. It is in a local community newspaper that I enjoy. It is available at the link below. Enjoy and have a safe holiday weekend!

John 8:32 (King James Version)

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller

The last post spotlighted an essay written by Donald Miller. However, some readers of this blog may have no clue as to who Donald Miller is. I myself had never heard of him until I went to a Women of Faith conference several years ago, and heard him speak. He and Max Lucado were the only male speakers. Miller was probably the youngest person who spoke to the conference. He spoke on the history of the church; he described how the church has often reflected the mainstream secular culture through the centuries. Most of the other speakers spoke about very personal struggles in their lives and/or shared humorous anecdotes, so Miller didn’t fit the mold at the conference. Although I may have been in the minority in that auditorium, I found him very engaging and soon after the conference sought out his books.

Miller has written several books, but his break-through was his second book, Blue Like Jazz. It was published in 2003. It is an autobiographical collection of rambling essays about Miller’s life and his personal struggles to live out his Christian faith. Blue Like Jazz is the only of Miller’s books that I’ve gotten around to reading, but I enjoyed it very much.

Miller was raised in Houston, Texas by his mother in a single-parent home. When he was in his early 20s, he left Texas and traveled to Portland, Oregon where he now lives. Blue Like Jazz describes Miller’s experiences in Portland while he audited courses at Reed College (a notoriously liberal Liberal Arts school) and as he grew in his faith community at an atypical church called Imago-Dei.

Although Miller is very close to my age, his writing is similar in style to that of Relevant. In other words, it is down-to-earth, cool and edgy. The following passage is illustrative of his style:

The goofy thing about Christian faith is that you believe it and don’t believe
it at the same time. It isn’t unlike having an imaginary friend. I
believe in Jesus; I believe He is the Son of God, but every time I sit down to
explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a
circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek
convention who hasn’t figured out the show isn’t


When one of my friends becomes a
Christian, which happens about every ten years because I am such a sheep about
sharing my faith, the experience is euphoric. I see in their eyes the
trueness of the story.

Blue Like Jazz describes several of Miller’s closest friends, many of whom are Christians who defy traditional stereotypes. They are hip, worldly, non-conforming counter-culturists with an appreciation of intellectual and artistic pursuits. The cast of characters includes Andrew the Protestor, Tony the Beat Poet, and Reed students Penny and Laura. His friend, Curt Heidschmidt, cusses frequently and hates going to church, but tithes faithfully.

In Blue Like Jazz, Miller comes across as a man who wants to explore the world and stay true to his faith. He seems to delight in getting to know people of very different backgrounds and to find commonality even though they don’t always share his religious convictions. He reminds me of a Christian Jack Kerouac.

Miller’s politics are left of center. He sometimes displays bitterness towards the conservatism and the Republican Party, which were important parts of his up-bringing. But in Blue Like Jazz, he doesn’t seem to be particularly active in a different political party or movement. Instead, he seems to be more concerned with issues that are important due to his faith. At one point in the book, Miller describes attending a protest rally with his friend Andrew the Protester when President Bush came to town:

Andrew’s sign said ‘Stop America’s Terroism’—he spelled terrorism wrong. I felt
empowered in the sea of people, most of whom were also carrying signs and
chanting against corporations who were making slaves of Third World labor; and
the Republican Party, who gives those corporations so much power and freedom. I
felt so far from my upbringing, from my narrow former self, the me who was
taught the Republicans give a crap about the cause of Christ. I felt a long way
from the pre-me, the pawn-Christian who was a Republican because my family was
Republican, not because I had prayed and asked God to enlighten me about issues
concerning the entire world rather than just America.

Subsequent to writing Blue Like Jazz, Miller delivered the first night's closing prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and has served on President Barack Obama's Task Force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families.

Mark 13:10-15

Jesus' disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you use nothing but stories when you speak to the people?"
Jesus answered:
I have explained the secrets about the kingdom of heaven to you, but not to others. Everyone who has something will be given more. But people who don't have anything will lose even what little they have. I use stories when I speak to them because when they look, they cannot see, and when they listen, they cannot hear or understand. So God's promise came true, just as the prophet Isaiah had said,
"These people will listen
and listen,
but never understand.
They will look and look,
but never see.
All of them have
stubborn minds!
Their ears are stopped up,
and their eyes are covered.
They cannot see or hear
or understand.
If they could,
they would turn to me,
and I would heal them."