Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Who do I think I am?

After publishing dozens of controversial conservative opinions I often receive emails from readers asking the same question: “Just who do you think you are, anyway?” 
It’s rhetorical, of course, but still a fair question. Perhaps I should try to answer.
First, I’m mostly who I’ve chosen to be: a politically conservative Roman Catholic. Those governing forces -- philosophy and faith -- guide me in most affairs. I’m conservative because I believe the maxim “that government is best which governs least.” I’m Catholic because I believe the church is what it claims to be. 
I’ve chosen to be the husband of a remarkable woman, and believe our marriage is a sacred, unbreakable bond. Together we’re the parents of five wonderful children, and choose to believe we’re solely responsible for their health and well-being, along with the formation of their faith, character and education.
Second, who I am was heavily influenced by my upbringing. I’m the youngest of seven children born to a firefighter and freelance writer. My siblings partially raised me, too. From my bothers I learned about hard work, art and history. From my sisters, tenacity, compassion and taste. 
My siblings (that's me on the bottom right)
Our little three-bedroom, one-bath house in Mobile was always full of people, dogs and cats and was very noisy (especially during Alabama football games). We learned to eat fast and speak loudly. Those years were a harmonious mess. Knowing now how much life costs and how little my parents earned (never more than $30,000 annually), I don’t know how they provided so much for so many. But I never felt poor; I felt free.
One of my grandfathers painted houses for a living. The other was a truck driver and sometimes sailor whose stories of foreign ports sparked my early interest in adventure and world affairs. I later joined the military and traveled the world, seeing many of the same places.
Third, who I am is partially a result of where my family came from, both historically and genetically. Like most things in the South, our history is long and colorful -- literally.
On my mother’s side, my ninth great-grandfather, Peter Knight of London, was an early Jamestown colonist and member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. My fifth great-grandfather, Thomas Conner, served in the 1st Maryland Regiment during the Revolutionary War. I named one of my sons after him. 
Far Off Warrior
In 1777, my sixth great-grandmother, Hannah Hale, was kidnapped when she was 12-years old during a Creek Indian attack on Fort Rogers in Georgia. She was eventually given as a bride to a chief named Far Off Warrior. I descend from their daughter, Jennie Hale, whose brother died on the Trail of Tears.
On my father’s side, my sixth great-grandfather, Thomas Briaus (later Bryars) left France in 1700 and settled in Virginia. His great-grandson, Lazarus Bryars, left for Baldwin County, Alabama, and was in the area when the Creeks attacked Fort Mims in 1813. In a strange coincidence, Far Off Warrior was killed while attacking the fort. 
Red Berry Bryars
My family has been in Alabama ever since, and my second great-grandfather, Red Berry Bryars, served in the 15th Alabama Cavalry in the Civil War and in the state’s wartime legislature. I place flowers on his grave whenever I visit our family cemetery in Stockton.
My blood tells the rest of the story. According to a recent genetic test from 23andMe, nearly 99-percent of my DNA is European, mostly British and Irish (72-percent), with smaller amounts of Scandinavian, French, German and Finnish.
The last one-percent is interesting. About .4-percent is Native American. A geneticist said the results were “quite in line” with me having a Native American ancestor who lived between 175-225 years ago. That’s within Far Off Warrior’s lifetime.
About .3-percent of my DNA is West African, which the geneticist said “quite likely” means I have a black ancestor between 200-250 years ago. Given that slaves were stolen primarily from West Africa, and how long my family has been in the South (records show several owned slaves), it’s possible that my ancestor was a slave. This was surprising news, and makes me feel even more a part of our country.
Another .2-percent comes from the subcontinent of India, which could mean my ancestor lived there 300 years ago or more. I have no theory about that, other than it could explain my love of spicy food.
Like most of you, my ancestors -- white, black, red and probably brown -- helped build this great nation, which is our sacred inheritance. So who do I think I am? I’m like you: an American, and damn proud of it.
Originally published on AL.com.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Our legislatures could use a few more Marines

Marines are a special breed. Their famous motto, “Semper Fidelis,” which is Latin for “always faithful,” represents how these warriors remain faithful to their mission, to their fellow Marines, to the Corps and the country -- regardless of the consequences. It’s an indelible principle that continues to guide them long after they’ve hung up their uniforms and joined the civilian world.
Alabama State Sen. Bill Holtzclaw
“There’s no such thing as a former Marine,” explained General James Amos, the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps. “You’re a Marine, just in a different uniform and you’re in a different phase of your life. But you’ll always be a Marine because you went to Parris Island, San Diego or the hills of Quantico.”
State Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, is a Marine, and Alabamians are fortunate to have him serving in our State Legislature.
Last week, after hearing from the constituents he was elected to represent, the conservative lawmaker rented
space on a billboard in his North Alabama district that read, “Governor Bentley wants to raise your taxes. I will not let that happen. Semper Fi – Senator Bill Holtzclaw.”
Holtzclaw and his constituents were responding to the governor’s plan to break his campaign promise by proposing a more than half-a-billion dollar tax increase. The vast majority of Holtzclaw’s constituents are conservative (I’m one of them) and our senator is simply following-through on the agenda we elected him to pursue. His billboard was a message back to the neighbors who had been stopping him around town, calling his office and sending him emails on the subject. They want him to fight, and he is. That’s representative democracy at its best.
Don’t tell that to the governor, though. In a vindictive move that harks back to the days of Democrat control, Bentley’s transportation director carried out the governor’s threat to conservative lawmakers by halting road projects in Holtzclaw’s district -- a district bustling with the type of economic activity and revenue-generating jobs that Alabama needs.  
“I simply thought the billboard was just a step too far,” said John Cooper, the politically-appointed director of the Alabama Department of Transportation. He said the halted projects could top $100 million over the next two years. “If Sen. Holtzclaw is that concerned with taxes I think he probably would be uncomfortable with us spending tax money in his district, so I pulled the projects.”
That’s quite condescending. We’re not against paying taxes. This region pays more than its “fair share,” to borrow a liberal phrase.
We’re against not setting priorities with revenue already generated. We’re against the dishonorable tactic of punishing people who disagree with you. And we’re certainly against breaking promises not to raise taxes.
Bentley promised he wouldn’t raise taxes during his first campaign in 2010, signing a pledge that read, “I, Robert Bentley, pledge to the taxpayers of the state of Alabama, that I will oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.” He repeated the promise during his reelection campaign last year. The slogan “No New Taxes” was repeated throughout the summer and into the fall.
Conservative voters around the state -- including those in Holtzclaw’s district -- believed Bentley’s promises and voted him into a second term. Now we’re supposed to believe that after serving several years in the State Legislature dealing with the state’s budget, and four years of running the budget himself, that only weeks after his reelection Bentley suddenly learned that he needed to raise taxes?
In the words of another famous Marine, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” It was funny when Private Gomer Pyle said it; not so much coming from the governor in the form of a $541 million tax increase package
Bentley broke his promise to the citizens of Alabama, and now his administration is assailing conservative principles and viciously attacking Republican lawmakers and the districts they represent. This is a sad moment for the Republican Party of Alabama.
While I cannot end this column by writing “Semper Fi” to Holtzclaw (only Marines have earned the privilege of uttering those words to a comrade), I do applaud his commitment to remain faithful to his constituents and our shared philosophy. If he’ll remain faithful to us, then we’ll remain faithful to him.
(First posted on AL.com)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Are those who oppose gay marriage but accept divorce simply hypocrites?

Christian advocates of traditional marriage are often criticized for defending our faith’s definition of marriage while seemingly ignoring its teachings about divorce.   
“Opponents of gay marriage say they are defending the institution of marriage, but if that were really true why aren’t they spending at least as much time and vigor attacking divorce?” wrote Austin Cline in the Huffington Post.
It’s an exceedingly fair critique.
Kirsten Powers took it further. In her USA Today column, she wrote that if people wanted to enshrine religious traditions governing marriage, then how about a law that “bans divorce except in the very narrow circumstances the Bible permits it.”
“This would be a tough one for evangelicals, since their divorce rate is almost identical to that of atheists and agnostics,” Powers wrote. “This might explain why you don’t see evangelical leaders pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns to keep the government from providing divorce.”
Powers and Cline are touching upon the admonition against being a hypocrite. “Why look at the speck in your brother’s eye while you miss the plank in your own,” Jesus asked (Matthew 7:3).
Studies of divorce rates in America by religious affiliation are notoriously controversial, but according to a 2012 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 36-percent of the general population had experienced divorce. The report then showed that 39-percent of Protestants and 28-percent of Catholics had been divorced. Other reports show similar numbers.
So why do we Christians experience divorce as commonly as everyone else? The answer is complicated, of course.
First, we’re all flawed: believers, agnostics and atheists. Secondly, different Christian denominations began teaching different things, first when the Orthodox churches broke away and then after the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church maintained that a valid marriage can never be broken, regardless of the reasons, while many Orthodox and Protestants churches allowed for divorce in some cases.
Still, until a few decades ago most held to a very conservative view and divorce was quite rare. There was a time when divorce was as uncommon in our small towns as gay marriage is common in our big cities today. Popular culture and its libertine messages were partly the cause of the shift, but some argue so was a desire to show compassion to divorced and remarried couples by tolerating their second marriages within Christian churches.
This sentiment is behind German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s effort to convince the Catholic Church to tolerate “second unions” for its divorced and civilly-remarried members. He has been telling his fellow cardinals that the church’s teaching on divorce must incorporate the “whole message of love, and of mercy, of forgiveness, of a new chance.”
Some warn that such compassion is actually veiled indifference. Over time, the passive tolerance of divorce within our communities has evolved to active acceptance, and eventual normalcy. What began as mercy for some failed marriages has ended in the destruction of many more that could have been saved.
Whether or not people think we’re hypocrites, Christians should use this moment in the battle for traditional marriage to rededicate ourselves to its complete defense.
As the liberal writer Cline correctly observed, we should indeed expend the same level of effort attacking the root causes of divorce. Many churches already are. From holding serious marriage preparation courses to sponsoring marriage retreats to providing counseling for those contemplating divorce, our communities are working hard to keep families together.
Earlier this month, for instance, my church held its annual National Marriage Week to coincide with our nation’s secular celebration of Valentine’s Day. Our community spent a lot of time focusing on the sacred institution and how much better in makes our lives, enriches our communities and brings us closer to God.
So, in the time of trail and discourse, it’s important to remember the beauty of this institution.
“The image of God is the married couple: the man and the woman; not only the man, not only the woman, but both of them together,” Pope Francis recently said. “This is the image of God: love, God’s covenant with us is represented in that covenant between man and woman. And this is very beautiful!”

(First posted on AL.com)

Monday, February 23, 2015

It's been a tough time for advocates of traditional marriage

Believers in traditional marriage have had a challenging few weeks down in Alabama. Not only have we witnessed the demise of our right to define marriage within the boundaries of our state, we’ve been called hateful bigots, told we’re on the wrong side of history and that the good among us will eventually evolve and abandon our prejudiced beliefs altogether.
Love Wins,” was a popular slogan seen outside courthouses and on Twitter feeds, implying that hate was on the other side. Some described Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore as “standing in the courthouse door,” linking our defense of traditional marriage to former Gov. George Wallace’s defense of segregation at the University of Alabama. Others predicted that in a decade we’ll all come around and call our current efforts “ancient history,” complaining when they’re mentioned, like we do about our state’s history of racism.

All of those notions are wrong.
First, our support of traditional marriage isn’t rooted in hatred. Quite the opposite. It’s rooted in our love of Christ and a desire for his will rather than our own.
The resulting internal conflict isn’t easy. Personally, my own will would have me support gay marriage. On one hand, my conservative philosophy dictates that I should support most individual liberties as long as they’re not hurting anyone (it’s arguable that the infrequency of traditional marriage hurts everyone, but let’s set that aside for the moment). On the other hand, my heart tends to say “live and let live.” It’s also hurtful to be called a bigot when I wish no ill towards anyone, especially those who find love and comfort in this sometimes harsh world.
Yet my faith teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “under no circumstance can they be approved,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Even though it would be easier to voice support for gay marriage, or simply keep quiet, I cannot. Doing so would represent a hatred of my Lord and his commandments. Even though I fall short of them daily, I still believe them all to be true and therefore must remain steadfast even as the world changes.
Secondly, we will never change our beliefs about traditional marriage. Unlike racial segregation, which is rooted in evil, support for the exclusivity of traditional marriage is rooted in the unchangeable and perfect word of God. While it’d be impractical to discuss every Christian denomination’s belief on the issue, the Catholic Church’s position is clear. “The Church has taught through the ages that marriage is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman,” reads a 2009 pastoral letter from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Unlike our constitution, in which one amendment may repeal another, once something has been declared in Catholic doctrine -- as marriage has -- it cannot be erased. Teaching eternal truths that may eventually be changed is a paradox, and the church has resisted such pressures before, particularly in its doctrine concerning marriage. As noted by Ross Douthat, the “Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world,” over its teaching about divorce and remarriage. Regardless of political or popular pressure, the Catholic Church will always teach what is quoted above, and while other denominations aren’t constrained by similar doctrinal structures, I’m sure many of their members feel the same.
Thirdly, defenders of traditional marriage aren’t on the wrong side of history. If there’s one way of life that takes the long view of things, it’s Christianity. While some may concern themselves principally with the next economic quarter or the next election cycle, Christ calls us to think about our place in eternity. Meanwhile, scripture gives us the benefit of knowing how all of this ends anyway. Knowing that, there’s only one “side of history” that we should want to remain on.
Still, it’s been a hard few weeks. Christians have been here before, though: in the minority and facing condemnation and retribution for professing unpopular beliefs. But if we act through love, speak truth in love, keep faith in Christ’s teachings and remember our ultimate destination, we’ll endure.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" reveals the good, the bad and the ugly in American society

Chris Kyle is still making a difference. “American Sniper,” the film about his life as the military’s most lethal shooter, has sparked a debate about patriotism and the motivation of those who fight our nation’s wars. Countless reviews, articles, posts and Tweets have discussed every aspect of Clint Eastwood’s remarkable film, and they’ve revealed the good, the bad and the ugly in our society.

First, the good -- those who supported the film. I recently wrote how we should make “American Sniper” the number one film to show Hollywood that our nation values its heroes and their stories. I knew the film would do well, but even I was surprised. It opened at the top spot and continues to dominate, breaking records and introducing Kyle, his way of life and his values to a massive audience.
“Infrequent moviegoers who go only two or three times a year are coming out to see this movie,” said Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman on the Deadline website. “This is a movie about patriotism, recognizing heroes, those who served; it’s about family.”
Hollywood got the message. Hopefully we’ll soon see more films honoring our nation’s warfighters and their families.
Now, the bad -- those whose willful mischaracterizations of Kyle reveal a deep disconnect between them and America’s warfighters. This is a crowd that doesn’t understand why anyone would join the military. They aren’t aware of the intellectual rigor and personal integrity military service requires, and they’re completely unaware of the evil our troops face while defending our nation abroad.
Nobody knew that better than Kyle. “You live in a dream world,” Kyle said during a Time interview in 2012. “You have no idea what goes on on the other side of the world, the harsh realities of what these people are doing to themselves and then to our guys. There are certain things that need to be done to take care of them.”
Kyle understood himself and his enemy very well, but Salon writer Laura Miller suggests that he “never thought very deeply about his service, or wanted to,” that he lacked “imagination and curiosity,” and that his thinking was “all-too-emblematic of the blustering, tragically misguided self-confidence of George W. Bush.” Miller then wrote that “Kyle’s patriotism is of the visceral, Toby Keith variety. It consists of loving America -- specifically, being overwhelmed emotionally by the National Anthem and the flag, and filled with a desire to dedicate one’s life to such symbols -- rather than a commitment to tangible democratic principles, such as civilian oversight of the military.”
Miller -- and there are many who think like her -- clearly lacks any meaningful insight into what drives men and women to serve in uniform.  
Finally, the ugly -- those whose horrible comments about Kyle, his fellow servicemembers and those who support them reveal their distasteful loathing of the military itself. A representative rant came from Seattle-based writer Lindy West, who wrote an article in The Guardian under the headline, “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him like a hero?” West wrote that Kyle “was a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people” and those who consider him a hero do so out of “unconsidered rah-rah reverence.”
After reading West’s article, a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures -- the folks who vote on the Oscars -- told TheWrap entertainment website that Kyle “seems like he may be a sociopath.” Over on Twitter, liberal writer Max Blumenthal wrote that “the whole film’s appeal seems to derive from the latent racism that led America into Iraq.” He then compared Kyle to the pair of murderers who shot people in suburban Washington, D.C. parking lots a few years ago.  
It’s troubling to see a hero receive vitriol rather than gratitude, but in the end “American Sniper” will have a far greater positive influence than that of any of its petty detractors.  Meanwhile, I’m happy we still have people like Kyle out there. Their service protects the rights of us all -- the good, the bad and even the ugly.
(Originally posted on AL.com)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

First NAFTA, now amnesty; the American worker is being traded away

Part of the narrative the White House is trying to establish around the president’s executive amnesty is that it will ultimately help the American worker.

“One way that the president can generate results for the American people is to take this kind of common sense substantive action that would be good for the economy,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. Reports have also cited estimates by Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, that the amnesty will generate 160,000 new jobs and add $2.5 billion in tax revenue. Others claim even greater numbers.

So, in an era of high unemployment, growing welfare rolls and a ballooning federal deficit we’re supposed to believe that adding millions of low skilled workers will help the economy? Sorry, but folks in Alabama have heard something like this before, and we have the shuttered textile mills and their forgotten workers to remind us that it isn’t true.

“In 1994…President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, which promised to be a boon to an already struggling American working class by, somehow, creating a greater demand for American goods,” wrote Alabama author Rick Bragg in his book, “The Most They Ever Had.”

The book tells the story of a once thriving textile mill in Calhoun County, Alabama, through the eyes of the community that watched it die a slow, sputtering death partly due to the trade agreement. Then, as now, our leaders promised that our workers would thrive after the deal.

“Instead, American jobs poured south to third-world plants where workers drew drinking water from ditches and lived in squatter communities beside hastily constructed industrial parks that stank of open sewers and human suffering,” Bragg wrote. “It had seemed, to even the most unlettered working man, such a fool’s bargain, a governmental gutting of the industry in a time when it was already dying."

The central planners got it wrong, as they often do, and someone else paid the price.

Bragg wrote that economists “with straight faces” then told the blue collar mill workers to “retrain for jobs in computer programming, radiology, or hotel management.”

Bragg’s book isn’t about amnesty or economic theory, but it does a remarkable job of showing how working families are impacted -- for good and bad -- by sweeping government decisions. It should be recommended reading for every politician and political aide, liberal or conservative, so they’ll remember the people who they’re working for.

Amnesty may be good for illegal aliens, but it’s a raw deal for the American worker.

“There are many out-of-work Americans who want and need the jobs now being held by illegal aliens,” reads a report titled “Amnesty and the American Worker” from the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The report confronts a common misconception; that Americans aren’t willing to accept certain jobs.

“From housekeeping to meatpacking, food service to construction work, the native-born make up the majority of workers in these occupations. However, as the share of illegal aliens rises, jobs available to native workers become scarce, and their wages and work conditions diminish.”

In fact, the federal government inadvertently gives employers an incentive to hire those under the White House’s amnesty plan rather than American workers.

“President Obama’s temporary amnesty … declares up to 5 million illegal immigrants to be lawfully in the country and eligible for work permits, but it still deems them ineligible for public benefits such as buying insurance on Obamacare’s health exchanges,” wrote Stephen Dinan in the Washington Times. “That means businesses who hire them won’t have to pay a penalty for not providing them health coverage -- making them $3,000 more attractive than a similar native-born worker, whom the business by law would have to cover.”

I understand it’s now a global economy, and that we must also be compassionate to the less fortunate. But twenty years ago we sent our jobs down there, and now they’re sending their workers up here.

Meanwhile, against all evidence and common sense we’re supposed to believe these trades are good for our economy, our families and our communities. I’m not buying it. It wasn’t good for our economy then, and it isn’t good for our economy now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

‘Interstellar’ shows why Alabama should keep reaching for the stars

A few decades ago, visitors driving into Huntsville were greeted by a colorful roadside billboard boldly proclaiming that they had just entered the “space capital of the universe.”
That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, doesn’t it? Sure, the city had a lot to be proud of during those early years of space exploration -- Werner Von Braun’s headquarters, Jupiter rockets, Atlas boosters and such -- but declaring universal dominance, literally, is perhaps a little audacious.  
But maybe audacity is exactly what’s needed to reach the stars, and a new film from Christopher Nolan might be just what’s needed to inspire it. “Interstellar” shows how love and fear finally push mankind to undertake an unpopular, unproven and risky leap into the universe.  
Matthew McConaughey plays an astronaut-turned-farmer in a future where a crop disease has decimated our food supply. Nations are struggling to feed their citizens amid a global dust bowl. Governments have cast aside extravagances like research and development in favor of necessities like food and water. But along the way mankind turned its back on the stars, science and ultimately, its own potential.  
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” McConaughey’s character says from the porch of his farmhouse. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
The story takes off from there, taking viewers on an exploration of mind-bending theoretical astrophysics and the familiar complexities of the human heart. While it’s certainly an entertaining ride full of stunning visuals, there are some important lessons to be learned, and about more than just time dilation and worm holes.