City of Brass

City of Brass

Brian McLaren endorses Obama

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Brian McLaren is a Christian pastor who approaches faith and politics from within the compassionate tradition of Christianity, focusing on the Prophet Jesus’ AS example of charity and taking care of the poor, etc for his inspiration rather than judgment and brimstone. As such his politics take him leftward in opposition to the conservative Religious Right – the Religious Left, I suppose, would be the natural term, though of course it is a fledgling movement with no comparable political clout. It’s worth noting that McLaren just publically endorsed the Matthew 25 network, a pan-Christian political action committee with a focus on social work, and endorsed Barack Obama for President. An excerpt from his endorsement letter:


A lot
of us feel that we’ve watched large sectors of our Christian
community in the U.S. engage in several decades of divisive, ineffective,
and downright counterproductive political engagement. At best, many
attempts at engagement have been superficial, simplistic, and subject
to binary thinking where one or two wedge issues easily distinguish
the “good guys” from the bad. At worst, we’ve watched
too many of our fellow Christians slip into a “culture war”
mindset where neighbors became enemies to be defeated and silenced,
not loved as we love ourselves. In addition, we’ve watched too
many members of our faith communities be manipulated by cynical politicians
who knew what tune to play to get people of faith marching obediently
in their parade.


Many of us – sadly, I include myself here – stood on
the sidelines and complained about the wrong being done by “the
Religious Right.” In private, we might say that the major media
figures didn’t speak for us, but we responded to faith-based
misuse of the political process with faith-based disuse. We didn’t
realize, as we now do, that disuse tends to favor those in power and
support the status quo.

As I’ve watched with sadness what has happened in recent years,
I’ve promised myself again and again that I wouldn’t just
stand on the sidelines complaining this election season. That’s
why I’m so thrilled about positive, constructive initiatives
like the Matthew 25 Network. Drawing from Jesus’ powerful parable
about his solidarity with “the least of these,” this network
invites us as people of faith to step beyond individual self-interest,
and even beyond the interest-group politics of “what’s
best for us” – whether “us” is our denomination,
religion, party, or nation. It invites us to consider how to use our
vote on behalf of the neediest, the most vulnerable and poverty-stricken
… so that their concerns are our own when we vote. For us, this
is inherent in what it means to be followers of Jesus.


Based on these values, the Matthew 25 Network has chosen to support
Barack Obama. Does that mean that every one of us is in full agreement
with every detail of Senator Obama’s campaign? Of course not:
we’re electing a president, not a Messiah! Blind, uncritical
support is part of the misuse that we’re trying to move beyond.

This is a significant development, because it comes at the time when the influence of the Religious Right is at an all-time low. The Matthew25 group reject the single-issue politics of the pro-life wing, as well, with a sub-organization called Pro Life Pro Obama, which argues that there is no inherent contradiction in being pro-life and supporting the pro-choice Senator. The reason is that Obama has articulated a desire to reduce abortions by making them unnecessary, rather than illegal (a re-framing of the abortion issue that brings right and left together). In addition to seeking to reduce the need for abortion, they also quite wisely focus on “life” as a choice – and argue that women must be encouraged to choose life and be supported in that decision (that latter part conspicuously absent from most pro-life partisans’ considerations).


Of course, there is a backlash. McLaren’s approach to the Bible is not a literalist fundamentalist one, but rather interpretative. On issues like homosexuality, for example, this leads him to counsel compassion for the sinners rather than taking a hard-line stance. Those who disagree with him (“foundationalists”) invoke plenty of doctrine in their arguments, but can’t seem to avoid accusing him of depravity in the course of their arguments. In the political realm, his endorsement for Obama led to him being labeled a “heretic”, and far worse. In some ways this political schism reflects the tension within Islam in the modern era, suggesting that these theological and political issues transcend faith and represent a more universal trend. That trend, throughout world history, has pointed in the direction of increasing liberalism and less religious literalism.


There’s more to the Religious Left than just McLaren or Matthew 25, of course. Another great resource is the God’s Politics blog, which is headed by Jim Wallis and is a co-venture of and Also, Street Prophets is full-fledged blog progressive liberal blog community with an explicit focus on religion and politics, a spin-off of DailyKos. I think that as the Religious Left finds its voice, it will naturally broaden to Islam and Judaism as well; examples of this include Talk Islam and Ameinu. And there still remain strong voices on the right, such as Beliefnet’s own Rod Dreher, who still identify as conservative but whose approach towards politics is independent and principled. Inshallah we can all work together and undo some of the damage wrought by this closing era of conservative religious dominance.


Nominations open for Brass Crescent Awards

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

brasscrescent_vert.gifJust a reminder – the Nominations phase for the Brass Crescent Awards are now underway. Head over to to nominate your favorite blogs in any of the following categories:

BEST BLOG: This category honors the most indispensable, Muslim-authored blog there is. Period.

BEST WRITER: Who is the most stimulating, insightful, and
philosophically wise among us? This category is intended to highlight a
blogger who may not post daily, but when they do post, they really make
an impact.


BEST NON-MUSLIM BLOG: Which blog writen by a non-Muslim is most respectful of Islam and seeks genuine dialogue with Muslims?

BEST BLOG DESIGN: Which blog has the most aesthetically pleasing
site design, appealing to the eye, evoking Islamic themes, and/or
facilitating debate and discussion?

BEST POST OR SERIES: Which single post or group of posts in the Islamsphere was the most original and important, above all the others?

BEST FEMALE BLOG: The woman’s voice in Islam is equal to the
man’s, and in the Islamsphere we seek to make sure the female
perspective is highlighted and given its rightful due. Which Muslim
woman’s blog has done the most to explore the role that women play
within Islam and society?


BEST NEW BLOG: Which blog is a true diamond in the rough, one that everyone should be reading but who most just haven’t heard of (yet)?

BEST GROUP BLOG: Which multiple group blog in the Islamsphere
has the best diversity of writers and the most interesting debate on
Muslim issues?

BEST HUMOR BLOG: Which blog gets their point across by using humor in the most effective way?

The Islamsphere is truly a global phenomenon. In Iraq, despite the
chaos and uncertainty, there is a sea change of free speech and
expression, the vanguard of which are blogs. There are also bloggers in
India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Palestine, Jordan, and most
other countries that host Muslims, all of whom have their own
perspectives on faith, culture, and politics.

The nominations period runs until Friday, October 24th!


word clouds for Biden and Palin

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I manually extracted Biden’s and Palin’s remarks at the debate from the transcript and fed them into Wordle to create these word clouds. First, Senator Joe Biden:
And then, Governor Sarah Palin:
It seems the primary topic of the evening was John McCain, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama. That makes sense and fits perfectly into each veep candidate’s objectives for the evening – Palin to build McCain up, and Biden to tear him down.


Biden and Palin

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Overall, I think that Biden and Palin did well. Biden met expdectations, and Palin exceeded them. However, neither one really did much to change the overall narrative, which has been trending in Obama’s favor.

Palin’s basic objective was to avoid damaging McCain, and attempt to attract independent voters. She succeeded in doing no harm, but I will be very surprised if the post-debate polls show that she made any inroads to the indie vote. Part of this was her demeanor – she was outright disrespectful to Biden, at one point accusing him of “raising the white flag of surrender” after he’d just made it clear that the Obama-Biden approach was motivated by a desire to win the war onterror (but disagrees with McCain-Palin on fundamental assumptions about how best to achieve victory). Her characterization was a caricature using right-wing stereotypes culled straight from the partisan blogsphere, not the rhetoric of a moderate. In another exchange, she made a clumsy attempt to invoke Reagan’s famous debate line “there you go again”, which was jarring because it felt so forced. And when Biden choked up over the story of his first wife and infant daughter’s deaths, she didn’t react in any compassionate way you’d expect, instead launching straight into her maverick talking point again ad-infinitum, as if Biden had just been wonking about policy rather than relating something intensely personal. It dehumanized her in comparison and made her look cold.


Palin did score some points, however – most notably in using Biden’s own primary-season rhetoric against him (and Obama). Biden tended to parry these by changing the subject rather than addressing them – but the issue about his vote for the Iraq war resolution was a weakness that Palin exploited well. She also shined when talking about energy independence, despite Biden’s fact-check attempt about McCain’s voting record. As far as appearing vice-presidential, she reminded me of President Bush at times, in terms of her rhetoric and vagueness (especially in closing about freedom being on the march at whatnot), so I suppose she cleared that hurdle, albeit a low one. She certainly didn’t get crushed by Biden, a man 30 years her senior and demonstrably more well-versed in all aspects of policy and issues than she. That in itself is an achievement – low expectations, sure, but valid expectations nevertheless.


Palin’s main failure in this debate however was to give independent and undecided voters something substantial to compare against. She instead attempted to spin the positions in a vague sense so that they sounded better than they were. In so doing, she permitted Biden to do all the description and make all the distinctions, which was an opportunity he took every advantage of. The best example of this was in the early exchange about health care, where Palin gamely tried to pass off their plan as a “$5,000 tax cut”. Biden’s comeback, that “with one hand giveth, the other taketh away” – was devastating, especially with the fact that typical insurance costs your employer $12,000:

with one hand you giveth, the other you take it. You know how Barack
Obama — excuse me, do you know how John McCain pays for his $5,000 tax
credit you’re going to get, a family will get?

He taxes as
income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a
health care plan through your employer. That’s how he raises $3.6
trillion, on your — taxing your health care benefit to give you a
$5,000 plan, which his Web site points out will go straight to the
insurance company.


And then you’re going to have to replace a
$12,000 — that’s the average cost of the plan you get through your
employer — it costs $12,000. You’re going to have to pay — replace a
$12,000 plan, because 20 million of you are going to be dropped. Twenty
million of you will be dropped.

So you’re going to have to place — replace a $12,000 plan with a $5,000 check you just give to the insurance company.

Another example was Palin’s over-reliance on the buzzword “maverick”, which she invoked repeatedly without ever really explaining what it meant. Biden seized upon the word and laid waste to the claim:

Look, the maverick — let’s talk about the maverick John McCain is.
And, again, I love him. He’s been a maverick on some issues, but he has
been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives.


voted four out of five times for George Bush’s budget, which put us a
half a trillion dollars in debt this year and over $3 trillion in debt
since he’s got there.

He has not been a maverick in providing
health care for people. He has voted against — he voted including
another 3.6 million children in coverage of the existing health care
plan, when he voted in the United States Senate.

He’s not been a
maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and
significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college.

He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on
virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really
talk about around their kitchen table.


Can we send — can we get
Mom’s MRI? Can we send Mary back to school next semester? We can’t —
we can’t make it. How are we going to heat the — heat the house this

He voted against even providing for what they call
LIHEAP, for assistance to people, with oil prices going through the
roof in the winter.

So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table.

Palin didn’t use the word maverick again after that. Biden’s attack against the term would not have been even a tenth as effective had Palin not abused the word throughout the debate so often. 

Biden showed his strongest command ofthe issues with respect to national security, especially Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He forcefully states the basic lines of disagreement – whether Iraq or Afghanistan is the “central front”, whether the surge strategy was applicable, and contrasting the state of funding of the two theaters of combat. Palin, in contrast, had no specifics to offer whatsoever, let alone articulating any area of disagreement (other than accusing Biden of  surrender, as I noted above. A jarring, unprofessional moment.)


On other issues, like gay marriage and climate change, Biden drew a sharp and distinct line about what he and Obama believed, which made Palin’s roundabout answers seem evasive. And on questions like “What’s your weakness” and “what have you changed your mind on” – standard interview questions anyone who has ever gne job-hunting with resume in hand has heard before – Biden actually answered the question, whereas Palin tried to change the subject. The contrast was very clear between the two, with Biden being direct and Palin squirming every which way.

Biden’s main objective in the debate was to show off his knowledge, and to undermine McCain. On both counts he succeeded admirably. Still, i don’t count this as a victory for him, because in a sense the good outcome is the neutral one. He managed to provide solid contrast to Palin for the watching independent’ benefit, but its unlikely he converted any McCain voters over. He probably only solidified the leaners who may have had some doubts about Obama. His emphatic statement about playing an active role in every major decision of the Obama Administration was probably the most reassuring thing he said to those voters, for whom Obama’s experience remains the main concern.

If neither won, was it a draw, or did both win? No. In the end, the debate changed absolutely nothing, I wager. We will see what the polls say over the next few days.

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