Prosecutor to Ask Second Grand Jury for Murder Indictment Against Fire Rescue Hero

By E. King Alexander, Jr.*
Guest Post
Meet four-year-old Keyonta Wyatt. On September 2, by the time first responders arrived at mother’s Mansfield, Louisiana home, it was fully engulfed in flames. At first it was believed that all four residents had made it outside, but then the family noticed that little Keyonta was not there. Someone said he had gone back inside to get his toys. People said it was too late to go in after him, but Keyonta’s uncle Michael Anthony Brown could not accept that. He ran into the flaming house and emerged injured, but with his little nephew alive.
Airlifted to a Shreveport hospital and initially listed in critical condition, the boy survived with only superficial burns to his face and arms. Brown was hailed as a hero in Mansfield, and was presented with a rare Outstanding Citizenship Award by the mayor and police chief.This year Brown saved his little nephew. Last year he saved himself.

Continue reading

Breaking the Silence: Introducing the kingdom Jesus had in mind

Breaking the Silence slide2Breaking the Silence is a six-week study designed for existing Sunday school classes and study groups. The core conviction is simple: what was good news for Jesus should be good news for the church.

Although Breaking the Silence can be taught in any Christian setting, it is specifically designed with “messy middle” congregations in mind.

In America, messy middle congregations are found at the progressive end of the evangelical spectrum and in the churches of the Protestant mainline.  As a rule, these churches are no longer inspired by the old-time gospel of  revivalism, but they aren’t sure what to put in its place.  There is little consensus within messy middle congregations about the content of the Christian gospel or how our shared faith should impact public policy.  We don’t want to sound like religious fanatics and, since our congregations reflect the full range of political opinion, we avoid ideological conflict.

America is in the early phase of a cultural revolution that will gradually push organized religion to the margins of social life.  Churches that once enjoyed a seat at the table are losing their influence in an increasingly multicultural and “postmodern” society.  This trend is particularly evident among Millennials, a generation that is far less enamored of organized religion than were their parents and grandparents. The brand of Christianity young people know best (the kind they see on television and on Facebook) is widely derided as narrow, intolerant and judgmental.

Here’s the problem: the old time religion no longer resonates but messy middle churches have nothing concrete to offer in its place.

Breaking the Silence is not a market-friendly version Christianity-lite tailored to the tastes of postmodern America; the study simply asks what Jesus meant when he preached the gospel or “good news”.  What was good news for Jesus, the study suggests, should be good news for the people who follow Jesus.

Breaking the Silence focuses on the places where responsible students of the Bible agree about the mission and message of Jesus.  Breaking the Silence packages these often-revolutionary ideas to busy Christians who lack the time for theological study.  The focus throughout is practical and missional.

Breaking the Silence is organized around the text Jesus selected for the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, Isaiah 61:1-3: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Continue reading

A back yard party restores my faith in Texas Democrats

Leticia Van de Putte addresses a diverse crowd in Ramon Romero's back yard.

Leticia Van de Putte addresses a diverse crowd in Ramon Romero’s back yard.

By Alan Bean

Leticia Van de Putte came to Fort Worth last week and, without meaning to do so, rekindled my hope for the future of progressive politics in Texas.

Leticia, in case you were wondering, is the Democratic candidate for Texas Lieutenant Governor, a post many see as more powerful than the governorship.  She is pushing 60 and looks like your favorite aunt: full figure, big smile, generous hugs–the whole bit. Continue reading

In DFW, political endorsements are meaningless

Greg_Abbott-cropped-proto-custom_28By Alan Bean

The Dallas Morning News has endorsed Greg Abbott, a right wing zealot who makes Rick Perry look like Bill Clinton, for governor.  You’ll never guess why.

The editorial board admitted that they side with Democrat Wendy Davis on all the issues that matter (education, transportation, immigration etc.) but gave the nod to Mr. Abbott because . . .

for all her progressive promise, and alignment with this newspaper on many issues, Texas cannot afford to provoke the kind of partisan stalemate [a Wendy Davis] victory would probably bring, much like the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. As much as Texas needs to counterbalance its GOP hard-liners, we fear Davis would only invigorate them.

Alternatively, Greg Abbott can bring balance to Texas-style conservatism . . . if that’s what he is inclined to do.

Except that isn’t what Abbott is inclined to do and everybody knows it.  Abbott has sided with the extreme right on every conceivable issue: refusing to expand Medicaid, cutting education, taking a seal-the-border approach to immigration, teaching patriotic blather as history in the public schools, and an open-carry response to gun violence.

Greg Abbott, a man who marches in lockstep with the conservative zealots the DMN deplores, will avoid legislative gridlock;but only because he shares their values.

The Dallas paper argues that only conservatives can function effectively in Austin because progressive policies are toxic in the Lone Star State.  They are willing to abandon this line of reasoning only in races pitting a Democrat with strong bipartisan credentials (Leticia Van de Putte, for example) is running against a reckless, ethically challenged and mean-spirited Tea Party opponent (Dan Patrick, par example).

It’s a game of rock, paper, scissors, but with a twist.  Rule number 1: Moderate Republicans are preferable to Democrats of any description.  Rule number 2: Anybody is preferable to the hated Tea Party.  Rule number 3: if it looks like the Tea Party guy has a big lead, rule number 2 doesn’t apply.

Here’s the ugly truth: neither the Fort Worth Star-Telegram nor the Dallas Morning News makes endorsements on the basis of merit.  Intelligence, common decency, education, experience and temperament are secondary considerations. The ultimate choice is dictated by the perceived predilections of the readership.  Since most readers are believed to be moderately conservative white people, their preferences carry the day.

DFW editorial boards will hold their noses and reinforce the political status quo unless the stench is really, really bad.  It matters little that the editorial board agrees with Wendy Davis on virtually every issue while disagreeing with Mr. Abbott.  So long as Mr. Abbott refrains from egregious partisan posturing, he will get the nod.  If most white people think Wendy Davis is too liberal for Texas, our editorial board’s don’t dare disagree.

Journalistic cynicism this profound makes political endorsements meaningless.

Gupta cut her legal teeth in Tulia, Texas

Vanita Gupta

Vanita Gupta

By Alan Bean

President Obama has tapped Vanita Gupta, currently deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, as his nominee the lead the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Reaction to the surprise announcement has generally been positive.  Liberals like the fact that she has been at the forefront of the ACLU’s fight to roll back mass incarceration  Conservatives with a libertarian streak appreciate Gupta’s reputation for respecting, and listening to, her ideological opposites.  As one might expect, pundits on the far right will oppose the nomination because Gupta works for the godless ACLU and simply because she is Obama’s nominee.   Continue reading

Annise Parker needs a White Evangelical Czar

parker3

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

By Alan Bean

Lawyers asking preachers for copies of their sermons.  The optics here are really bad or, as we used to say, it just doesn’t look good.

The fuss started when Houston passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (or HERO) which, among other things, outlawed discrimination against the LGBT community.

Houston being Houston, organized backlash against HERO was as intense as it was inevitable.  Opponents wanted to get a petition rescinding HERO on the ballot in the upcoming election and collected far more than the required number of signatures.

The strategy failed when city officials invalidated most of the signatures.  Outraged HERO opponents responded by suing the city. Continue reading

Instant Hate: Jack Shuler unravels the American noose

Jack Shuler

Jack Shuler

By Alan Bean

Jack Shuler called me up a few years ago to talk about Jena.  In September of 2007, 50,000 people rode buses to this little town in central Louisiana to protest the treatment of six black high school students accused of assaulting a white student in late 2006.  Since Friends of Justice, the organization I direct, was the first group from outside the area to investigate the case, and since my narrative summary of the case had influenced both journalists and protesters, Shuler seemed eager to talk.

My association with the Jena 6 (as the defendants came to be known) didn’t get a lot of attention until conservative journalists made me their whipping boy.

According to my narrative, the assault on Justin Barker in early December, 2006 was the last in a chain of events stretching back to September of that year. At the conclusion of a school assembly, a young freshman asked the principal if black students could sit under a tree in the school courtyard that had traditionally been reserved for white students.  The principal told the student that he could sit anywhere he wanted, but the next morning, two nooses fashioned from nylon rope were found hanging in the tree.

The ensuing events are aptly described in the preface to Jack Shuler’s new book The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose:

A day later a group of black students held a sit-in beneath that tree, and the school launched an investigation to identify the culprits.  It didn’t take long to find them–three white students did it, they said, as a joke . . . The local school superintendent claimed that ‘many persons of authority’ interviewed the three students and that ‘the result of those interviews showed that the students were not motivated by hate and there was no indication from any of the students that they had any inclination to do violence.’

In the final chapter of The Thirteenth Turn, Shuler summarizes the essential thrust of my thesis:

As Bean tells it, there had always been some animosity between black and white students, and even between black students and white teachers.  After the noose incident and student protest, tension in the school was palpable.  The campus was put on lockdown–law enforcement officers swarmed the place, and the school administration called an assembly.  At that assembly all of the white kids sat on one side of the auditorium and all of the black kids on the other.  At one point during the assembly District Attorney Reed Walters addressed the students, saying he was tired of their behavior.  And then he said, ‘I just want you to realize that I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen.’

Many of these details were culled from the Jena Times and Mr. Walters admitted under oath that he made the statement about making lives disappear with the stroke of his pen.  Asked to explain the remark, Walters said he just wanted the students to “work it out on your own.”

Which is precisely what happened.  Throughout the autumn months, groups of white and black students clashed on several occasions, but always off campus.  Then, someone set fire to the high school and the racial tension bubbled to the surface.  The smell of smoke was still heavy in the air when classes resumed after a weekend marred by racially charged violence.  As Justin Barker was leaving the school gym after the lunch break, he was felled by a single blow from behind and kicked and punched by a group of black male students.

The six defendants in this case were charged with attempted murder, a charge that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.  According to DA Reed Walters, school officials, and the Jena Times, the assault at the high school had no association with the earlier noose incident whatsoever.

The conservative backlash to the massive demonstration in Jena put asunder what I had joined together: the noose in September and the assault three months later.  My critics contended that my version of events had been swallowed whole by liberal journalists eager to portray six juvenile delinquents as victims of Jim Crow justice.

The Thirteenth Turn follows my version of events (the alternatives don’t really make sense); but it was the boys who hung the nooses that grabbed Jack Shuler’s attention.  Like me, he was open to the possibility that the noose hangers failed to grasp the racial implications of the noose.  But that just raises another question: how could you grow up in a culture shaped by racial violence without learning that history?

I told Shuler I had never been happy with the media’s response to Jena:

I wanted it to be a story about what happens post-civil rights when schools are integrated  and people can’t unpack their baggage from the past, the trauma.  It was a festering wound.  So the stories were either “This is Jim Crow Racism!” or “This is being blown out of proportion.”

Shuler’s book focuses on these “things beneath the surface”.

Why has the noose become a symbol of intimidation surpassing the burning cross, a tool for radical racists at a moment when some pundits insist that we live in a postracial America?  Why does this thing have so much potency as a symbol?  To truly understand the American story, these are answers we need.

Shuler teaches American Literature and Black Studies at Denison University in Granville, Ohio and The Thirteenth Turn books is the third book he has written that reckons with America’s tragic racial history.

As the title suggests, Shuler is interested in the “technology” and evolution of the noose.  Early on, we are introduced to an expert in knot-tying who shows the author how to construct a proper noose and explains how hard it is to get a hanging right.  Too much of a “drop” and the head is ripped from the body; too short and the victim dies of strangulation because the neck doesn’t break.

In the earliest days, of course, death by slow strangulation was the whole point and vast throngs came out for public hangings complete with bulging eyes, emptied bladders and bowels, kicking legs and grossly extended tongues.  The American tradition of lynching follows a similar pattern.  In fact, bodies were often horribly mutilated (often by souvenir hunters) and death by strangulation was simply the final indignity.  The sight of a lifeless, charred, disfigured corpse swinging between earth and heaven packed a powerful message.

But what message, exactly?

lynching-2To answer that question, Shuler conducts a guided tour of America’s most painful memories, including the 1930 lynching of Abraham Smith and Thomas Shipp, an event memorialized by an iconic photograph snapped by Lawrence Beitler.

The photographer “usually took photos of wedding couples and babies, of school and church groups, of parades and public events.  His daughter Betty would later claim that he didn’t want to take the photo in the first place.  But he did, and he sold it for 50 cents a pop.  Beitler apparently stayed up for ten days and nights making copies of the photo to meet his customers’ demands.  Everybody wanted a copy, a modern relic from the event.”

Beitler’s photograph survived, in part, because it inspired Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”, a song made famous by Billie Holiday.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

But Shuler reminds us that Smith and Shipp weren’t lynched in the South but in Marion, Indiana.  The noose isn’t just about the South (although the vast majority of lynchings involved black victims swinging above Southern soil); the noose is a uniquely American symbol.

The lynching captured in the infamous photograph was part of the wake churned by the resurrection of the KKK after “a defrocked Methodist clergyman and salesman named William Joseph Simmons . . . witnessed D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation . . . On the day before Thanksgiving of 1915 Simmons and fifteen other men went to the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia to set a cross on fire–and the Klan was reborn.”

Shuler’s research revealed the extent of the Klan’s influence in the Hoosier State.

In Marion the Klan led their moral crusade right to the front door, paying visits to Wednesday night church services at congregations with pastors who had yet to join.  Dressed in their costumes and carrying the American flag, they’d walk down the aisle, toss some money on the pulpit, and hand a membership form to the pastor.  If he didn’t sign, he’d be out the door by the end of the week.

And the noose helps explain how the West was won.  To illustrate, Shuler takes us to Mankato, Minnesota for the 1862 execution (or mass lynching) of thirty-eight Dakota men accused of butchering white settlers.  All thirty-eight died on a single gallows erected for the purpose.

The condemned men painted themselves with ‘streaks of vermilion and ultramarine’ and began singing their death songs as preparations began for the executions . . . When this work was finished they stood as one and sang.

As the death-by-hanging stories pile up we begin to understand Shuler’s fascination with the noose and why he thinks its history says so much about us.  Lynching, with its commemorative photographs and body parts severed by souvenir hunters, is a form of “folk pornography”.

Before the [Civil] war the standard literary and theatrical stereotype of the southern black male was of the contented slave, the ‘happy darky’ or Sambo.  After the war and Reconstruction black men were more often than not portrayed as subliterate savages on the prowl for white women.  The message was clear–enslaved black men were pliant; free black men are dangerous sexual predators.

Shuler sees the noose as “the ultimate cultural technology for whites had at their disposal for controlling black people.”

Lynching has fallen out of fashion, of course.  Few condemned criminals are sentenced to “hang by the neck until you are dead,” and executions are no longer performed in public settings for the titillation, instruction and intimidation of onlookers.

The last public hanging execution was of Rainey Bethea on August 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky.  Bethea, an African American farmhand, had been convicted of raping and murdering seventy-year-old Eliza Edwards . . . Bethea’s execution was witnessed by a crowd of about twenty thousand.  Kentucky prohibited public execution in 1938.

Capital punishment, though still popular in southern states like Texas, Florida and Virginia, has been on a downward trajectory for decades.  It should concern us that “the United States ranks in the top five worldwide for the number of annual executions, trailing only Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and China” (that’s not the kind of company an “enlightened Western nation” wants to keep.  Still, if we were still using capital punishments people at the 1640s rate, we would be executing almost 9000 people a year as opposed to the 39 people we killed in 2013.

The last execution in the conservative state of Kansas was in 1965, largely thanks to the adverse publicity Truman Copote’s In Cold Blood brought to the state.  Death penalty opponents suggest that the nation has evolved beyond primitive blood lust, but Shuler isn’t so sure the dark shadows of human nature can be dispelled that easily, especially when he thinks of the pictures that emerged from Abu Ghraib.  And how do we explain the frightening proliferation of “noose incidents” in the wake of th Jena 6 case?

To illustrate, Shuler introduces us to Jason Upthegrove, an African American activist from Lima, Ohio who led the protest against the unwarranted police shooting of an unarmed woman by a local SWAT team.  A white supremacist from Oregon mailed Upthegrove a noose without thinking to remove his fingerprints and DNA evidence from the envelope or its dismal contents.  Upthegrove evoked the abiding power of the noose when he described his emotional reaction to Shuler:

Sending a noose isn’t saying, ‘I don’t like you.’  It is not like saying, ‘I disagree with you.’  It’s not just an objection to my position.  Sending a noose is tantamount to sending a picture of a gas chamber to a Holocaust victim, tantamount of sending a bullet to a shotgun victim, tantamount of sending a knife to a stabbing victim, or a stocking cap to a victim of rape . . . The noose is the most egregious thing that can be threatened against an African American because of its long history.

Which brings us back to Jena.  If the boys who hung the nooses in the tree in the school square didn’t understand the racial significance of their actions, why did they go to the trouble of fashioning a noose?  How do white Americans learn what to do and how to do it?

Shuler has a theory.

The end of the spectacle of lynching does not mark the end of the history of the noose . . . the noose becomes a synecdoche, a part that stands for the whole.

The noose hangers in Jena might not have understood why the noose inspires fear in African Americans, but they knew the noose would send a powerful message.  They had been carefully taught.

The noose is instant hate.  And what happened in Jena, Louisiana, was not an anomaly.  It wasn’t the first noose incident, and it wasn’t the last.  The noose has become the new burning cross, the ready symbol for expressing hate and fostering a climate of fear in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods throughout the United States.

Were the boys in Jena guilty of a hate crime?  I never thought they should be charged as hate criminals because, for me, Jena was about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children.  But to the extent the boys were trying to maintain the racial status quo in their world (and they were) they were functioning as hate criminals.  Shuler quotes Barbara Perry’s definition of a hate crime: “A mechanism of power intended to sustain somewhat precarious hierarchies, through violence and threats of violence.”

After talking to legal scholar Jeannine Bell, Shuler identifies a major problem with hate crime prosecutions–they focus attention on the motives of the criminal rather than the pain of the victim.  “Validating the perpetrator’s perspective in this way,” Bell says, “is symbolic of the lynch mob all over again.”

And this, as I have always suggested, was the problem in Jena.  By focusing all their attention on the motives of the noose hangers, investigators came to the conclusion that no harm had been done because the kids failed to grasp the significance of their actions.  In the process, the pain and outrage experienced by Jena’s African American community was discounted and ignored.  Black protesters were given five minutes to express their concerns to a meeting of school officials and then silenced altogether.

And this sense of profound denial sparked the death spiral of anger and resentment that eventually left Justin Barker, a white student on the margins of the conflict, battered and unconscious in a Jena high school hallway.

Shuler gets that:

Alan Bean told me that to focus solely on the fights and the charges against those young men is to miss the point.  The point is that there was an underlying issue that wasn’t being addressed in the community, and the noose brought it to the surface.  And when it got there, it was ignored . . .  At the heart of the matter, he said, was buried deep in the community, buried deep in the history of the South, an ugly history that almost no one wants to address . . . Addressing the underlying issues in Jena would mean actually confronting that messy past, and that would be overwhelming.  That, Bean said, explains why the school board so desired a quick resolution.

Shuler may be the first writer to understand why I said that “Jena is America.”  When I decided to tackle Jena’s messy narrative, I had two goals: saving six young men from decades in prison, and using the story to illustrate our racial predicament.  Thanks to the intervention of capable attorneys, we accomplished the first goal (most of the ex-defendants have graduated college by now and are doing great things).  But I have never been sure anyone learned much from the Jena saga.

Reading The Thirteenth Turn is a vindication for me.  The book isn’t about me or my opinions, of course–I only figure in the preface and the penultimate chapter–but Jack Shuler has tackled all the big questions posed by Jena and left us with the kind of answers that bear the marks of deep suffering.  Shuler’s research drew him into dark and forbidding places, but he has emerged with the grotesque beauty we call truth.

Ignoring Jon and Oscar: Explaining a curious endorsement by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Michael Che on Saturday Night Live

Michael Che on Saturday Night Live

By Alan Bean

The Texas State Board of Education just took another hit from the late night comedians, this time on Saturday Night Live.

“You know who I feel bad for?” Michael Che asked during the shows fake news segment, “Texas schoolteachers. I mean, it’s hard enough going to school and teaching kids that God created the world in like, 1942, and the first two people were John Wayne and Barbara Bush. But now you gotta deal with 6 foot country boys coughing up a monkey disease.”

The heart of the bit, of course, was Dallas becoming home to America’s first ebola patient; but the caricature of the Texas school curriculum was a swipe at the state’s Board of Education.

For years now, the Texas State Board of Education has been grabbing headlines as its more conservative members (on the advice of their friends on the Religious Right) press the “just-a-theory” approach to evolutionary biology, support the rehabilitation of Senator Joe McCarthy, the elevation of social conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Phyllis Schlafly to rock star status, the devaluation of progressive heroes like Archbishop Oscar Romero, Caesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall, the positive re-evaluation of the Moral Majority and the thoroughly unhistorical notion that the founding fathers were strongly influenced by Moses and the “Christian or Biblical tradition” when they framed the U.S. Constitution.

ThrowBackTexas-300x226In this memorable piece, Jon Stewart explains how “Oscar Romero got disappeared by right wingers for the second time.”  Stewart reminds his audience that what happens in Texas matters to the rest of the country because textbook companies operate with the huge Texas market in mind.  For this reason, when Texas gets it wrong, the entire country follows right behind us. Continue reading

Ignoring Jon and Oscar: explaining the Star-Telegram’s curious endorsement for State Board of Education, District 11

Michael Che of Saturday Night Live

Michael Che of Saturday Night Live

By Alan Bean

The Texas State Board of Education just took another hit from the late night comedians, this time on Saturday Night Live.

“You know who I feel bad for?” Michael Che asked during the shows fake news segment, “Texas schoolteachers. I mean, it’s hard enough going to school and teaching kids that God created the world in like, 1942, and the first two people were John Wayne and Barbara Bush. But now you gotta deal with 6 foot country boys coughing up a monkey disease.”

The heart of the bit, of course, was Dallas becoming home to America’s first ebola patient; but the caricature of the Texas school curriculum was a swipe at the state’s Board of Education.

For years now, the Texas State Board of Education has been grabbing headlines as its more conservative members (on the advice of their friends on the Religious Right) press the “just-a-theory” approach to evolutionary biology, support the rehabilitation of Senator Joe McCarthy, the elevation of social conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Phyllis Schlafly to rock star status, the devaluation of progressive heroes like Archbishop Oscar Romero, Caesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall, the positive re-evaluation of the Moral Majority and the thoroughly unhistorical notion that the founding fathers were strongly influenced by Moses and the “Christian or Biblical tradition” when they framed the U.S. Constitution.

ThrowBackTexas-300x226In this memorable piece, Jon Stewart explains how “Oscar Romero got disappeared by right wingers for the second time.”  Stewart reminds his audience that what happens in Texas matters to the rest of the country because textbook companies operate with the huge Texas market in mind.  For this reason, when Texas gets it wrong, the entire country follows right behind us.

Oscar Romero

Oscar Romero

Pat Hardy, the Republican candidate for State Board of Education, District 11, isn’t the most controversial person on the Board.   But in Stewart’s classic treatment of the TSBOE, Hardy is shown explaining why she thinks Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was murdered at the altar for standing up to American-backed death squads, shouldn’t figure prominently in Texas history texts.  She hadn’t heard of him, and she was willing to bet that no one else on the board had either.

Apparently, Ms. Hardy was right.  Her motion passed with overwhelming support.

The Texas State Board of Education is a national laughing stock and Pat Hardy isn’t going to change that.  At the end of his segment, Jon Stewart answers the derisive laughter of his audience by shouting, in effect, if you don’t like what you’re hearing, get off your asses and run for the Texas State Board of Education.

Nancy Bean

Nancy Bean

My wife, Nancy Bean, rose to the challenge–the first Democrat to run for the Texas Board since 1996.

How does the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a moderate newspaper serving a highly conservative constituency, deal with the SBOE race when endorsement time rolls around?

They hide their heads in the sand.

“The board has only one duty under the Texas Constitution” the paper’s editorial board argues, “to oversee wise investment of the Permanent School Fund.”

It’s true, part of the State Board’s job is to oversee The Permanent School Fund, an almost forty billion dollar pool of money fed by the sale and use of state lands.  In recent years, thanks to the explosion of the state’s oil and gas industry, the fund has grown at a cancerous rate.  In fact, it recently surpassed Harvard University’s endowment fund to become the largest educational endowment in the nation.

The Star-Telegram congratulates the State Board of Education for overseeing the Permanent School Fund “extremely well”, and since Pat Hardy currently serves as chair of the committee responsible for this fund, she comes in for particular praise.  In fact, she gets the paper’s endorsement because, “Bean is a knowledgeable candidate but lacks the fiscal experience to replace Hardy’s oversight of the Permanent School Fund.”

The Permanent School Fund is a big deal, no question.  But how, exactly, does the State Board “oversee” these funds.  They have no direct access to the $40 billion, but can only work with a share of the interest generated by the fund.  Every two years, the board must decide what percentage of the fund to direct toward providing text books and other educational resources to Texas schools.  This year, eleven board members, Pat Hardy among them, decided to spend 3.5% of the fund.  A member associated with Tea Party cast the single opposing vote.

Apart from a brief article in the Texas Tribune, nobody noticed, and for good reason. The issue is uncontroversial.  The Board has inspired nationwide ridicule for the work that occupies the lion’s share of its time: setting curriculum for Texas schools.  In recent years, the SBOE has been controlled by the Christian Right, and that partisan agenda has driven every controversial decision the board has made.<

Pat Hardy didn’t vote Oscar Romero out of the Texas curriculum because she had never heard of him; she was functioning as the mouthpiece of a power block that disagreed with the stand the Central American religious leader took against a right wing military junta armed, trained and supported by the United States of America.  Romero is now being considered for sainthood, a process that was blocked by ideological opponents within the Catholic church who accused him of “theological errors”.

Romero’s “errors” involved his support for liberation theology, a species of Christian thought, popular in Latin America, that interprets the Bible from the perspective of the poor.

I suspect that Pat Hardy honestly had never heard of Romero, but the folks who asked her to publicly dishonor the man knew him all too well.
Who should shape the state’s curriculum, academics authorities who have earned the right to an opinion on matters of fact, or untutored dentists and car salesmen who have nothing to offer but ideology and ignorance?
Pat Hardy doesn’t believe the experts who address the board on technical subject matter issues require credentials in the field being addressed.
Nancy Bean thinks the board should hear testimony from credentialed experts and honor the scholarly consensus.

Here’s the bottom line.  Pat Hardy will continue play ball with partisan ideologues and Nancy Bean will not.

Pat Hardy will continue to vote with the folks who flout a clear consensus among biologists and historians and Nancy Bean will not.

Pat Hardy will continue to represent an ideological constituency that wants to shield Texas school children from the downside of American history; Nancy Bean wants all Texas students, regardless of religion, ethnicity and economic status, to feel included in the unfolding American story.

The Star-Telegram couldn’t address the issues that really matter without angering their readership, so they shifted their attention to an uncontroversial on which there is widespread bi-partisan agreement.

If the Star-Telegram agrees with the ideological position the State Board has adopted in recent years, they should by all means say so.  The problem is, they don’t.  On all the issues that matter, the editorial board sides with Bean and opposes the incumbent.  But they couldn’t say that.  Not in Fort Worth, Texas.  So they changed the metric, ignored a national scandal that keeps feeding material to comedians, and endorsed the status quo.

If that’s what it takes to survive in the Fort Worth media market, the editorial board of the Star-Telegram has my sympathy.  But on the issues that really matter, Nancy Bean represents the interests of teachers, students, and the academic community, while Pat Hardy (like the editors at the Star-Telegram) has adapted to a political environment controlled by ideological conservatives.

Saving the Bible by damning God

Samuel Hopkins

Samuel Hopkins

By Alan Bean

“Young man,” a grizzled Presbyterian cleric asked a harried candidate for ordination, “would you be willing to be damned for the greater glory of God?”

Uncertain how to respond, and weary from two hours of dense theological questions he only half understood, the young man blurted, “Yes, and I’d be even more willing to see the entire Presbytery damned for God’s glory.”

The story (no doubt apocryphal) was inspired by the theology of Samuel Hopkins (d. 1803) the New England divine who attempted to systematize the theological musings of Jonathan (Sinners in the hands of an angry God) Edwards.  The bit about willing to be damned for the greater glory of God was hotly debated in eighteenth century America.  Thomas Jefferson told John Adams that Hopkins belonged in a straight jacket, accusing the reformed theologian of being either an atheist or preaching the religion of “Daemonism”. “It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all,” Jefferson asserted than to worship such an atrocious deity.

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Victoria Osteen

Hopkins stands at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Victoria Osteen, the contemporary American theologian who sparked a firestorm of indignation by opining that:

“When you come to church when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

Hopkins believed that self-love (of precisely the sort that Ms. Osteen had in mind) is the very essence of sin.  To God with the selfish ambition of escaping hell, Hopkins taught, is to get hold of the wrong end of the stick.  Instead, we should be willing (following Paul’s argument in Romans 9) to be damned if that’s what it takes to further God’s gracious work in the world.

In fairness, it should be noted that Hopkins applied his logic of damnation to the slave trade.  American Christians who endorse human bondage while pretending to seek the blessing of a holy God are deluding themselves, he said.

William Blake's rendering of Lucifer in hell.

William Blake’s rendering of Lucifer in hell.

In other words, Hopkins wanted Christians to do the right thing for the right reason without regard for personal advancement.

John Milton (d. 1674), another Puritan divine, was getting at a similar point when he probed Lucifer’s motivation for wreaking chaos in God’s good creation.  Milton’s Lucifer was determined to advance his own agenda even if that required messing with God’s well-laid plains.  Cast out of heaven with a host of reprobate angels, Lucifer told his comrades to pick themselves up and make the most of a bad situation:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Samuel Hopkins was reversing this logic, “Better to serve in hell than to reign in heaven.”

American evangelicals have more in common with Milton’s Lucifer than we would like to admit. Continue reading