Hastert indictment upholds Illinois tradition of corruption

Denny Hastert in happier days

Denny Hastert in happier days.

News that former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert was indicted took the state of Illinois — and much of the political world — by surprise.

According to the indictment, the Republican congressman from Yorkville, Ill., agreed to pay $3.5 million in hush money to an unnamed individual whom Hastert had allegedly wronged years ago. The low-key Hastert has been charged with evading bank regulations in withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars at a time to make the payments, then lying to the FBI about it.

Denny, Denny. Is that the best you can do? That’s not even public corruption, which is usually what happens to elected officials here in Illinois. After all, four of Illinois’ last seven governors went to prison.

In reporting this story, many news organizations referred to Illinois as the “third-most corrupt” state. Rankings differ, but a 2015 poll from Monmouth University gave the top spots to New York and California. Another method of measurement, such as this one from fivethirtyeight.com, says Louisiana, followed by Mississippi, have the most corruption per capita.

Isn’t it bad enough that Chicago has to put up with being called the Second City?

Anyway, as they say, practice makes perfect. Here’’s what is no doubt an incomplete wall of shame: a list of other former Illinois politicians who have spent time in the slammer — or should have.

Rod Blagojevich, Democrat, governor 2003-2009, when he was impeached and removed from office. The two-term governor was convicted in 2010 and also in 2011 on several counts of corruption, including soliciting for bribes when trying to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat of then-President-Elect Barack Obama. We’ll never forget his voice on those phone tapes saying, “I’ve got this thing, and it’s (bleeping) golden.” Blago is currently serving a 14-year sentence.

George Ryan, Republican, governor 1999-2003. Ryan was convicted of corruption in 2006 for steering state contracts and leases to political insiders and helping cover up bribes paid in return for truck drivers’ licenses while he was secretary of state and then governor. He served five years of a 6 ½-year prison term and is now free.

Dan Walker, Democrat, governor 1973-1977. He pleaded guilty to bank fraud, misapplication of funds, and perjury in the 1980s savings and loan crisis, all unrelated to his service as governor. He served 1 ½ years of a seven-year sentence and recently died.

Otto Kerner, Democrat, governor 1961-1968. He was convicted of bribery, tax evasion, and other counts, including arranging favorable horse racing dates as governor in return for getting horse racing association stock at reduced prices. He served one year of a three-year sentence.

Let’’s not forget:

Paul Powell, Democrat, Illinois secretary of state 1965-1970, who died in office. Two days after his death, nearly $800,000 in cash was found in shoeboxes, briefcases, metal boxes, and envelopes under his bed. Also found: two cases of creamed corn, 49 cases of whiskey, and 14 cases of transistor radios.

Joel Matteson, Democrat, governor 1853-1857. After leaving office, a court ruled that he owed the state more than $253,000 in connection with a scheme to pay government contractors. His property was sold at auction.

Orville Hodge, Republican, state auditor 1953-56. He pleaded guilty in 1956 to embezzling more than $1.5 million from the state during his one term in office. He used the money to buy two planes, four autos, and homes in Illinois and Florida. Of course, as auditor, his chief task was to to guard against such thefts. He served 6 ½ years of a 10-year prison sentence and repaid the state. Hodge had only $81 to his name when he was released from prison and got a job as a clerk in his sister’s hardware store.

William Scott, Republican, Illinois attorney general 1969-1980. He was elected to four terms but left office when he was convicted of tax fraud, both personally and in his campaigns. He served seven months of a 366-day sentence and went on to join a Chicago law firm after the Illinois Supreme Court restored his law license.

And then there are the congressmen:

U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, Democrat, 1959-1995. The powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee pleaded guilty to corruption charges of mail fraud in the Congressional Post Office scandal of the 1990s. He served 15 months of a 17-month prison sentence and was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds, Democrat, 1993-1995. He was first convicted of misconduct with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer on charges of sexual assault, obstruction of justice, and solicitation of child pornography. He was re-elected to the House in 1994 despite the charges against him but resigned after his conviction in 1995. He served more than two years in prison on those charges, but before his release, he also was convicted on federal wire and bank fraud charges and sentenced to more than six years. President Clinton commuted that sentence. Reynolds’ multiple attempts at political comebacks have not gone well.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat, 1995-2012. Jackson succeeded Reynolds in office, only to face his own charges on misuse of campaign funds. He pleaded guilty to several charges, including wire and mail fraud. He used $750,000 in campaign funds to make personal purchases, including expensive watches and a fedora that had belonged to pop star Michael Jackson. He was released from prison in 2015 to transfer to a halfway house, but his wife, Sandi Jackson, is trading places with him. Sandi, a former Chicago alderman, pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns to cover up the tax schemes.

A few, as they say, beat the rap:

William G. Stratton, Republican, governor 1953-1961. After leaving office, he was indicted on income tax evasion charges but was acquitted. He apparently was known as “Billy the Kid.”

Lennington Small, Republican, governor 1921-1929. He was indicted while in office of embezzling more than $1million in state funds while he was state treasurer. After indictment, he first refused to surrender to authorities for three weeks. He claimed that the separation of powers protected him from arrest, and he threatened to use the National Guard to place the state capital of Springfield under martial law to protect himself. He, too, was acquitted.

And this list doesn’t even include several other Chicago aldermen who have been convicted, or other state officials, like two state representatives convicted of bribery (Derrick Smith) or distributing child pornography (Keith Farnham). Then there’s Rita Crundwell, comptroller and treasurer in Dixon, Ill, who is serving a nearly 20-year sentence for embezzling more than $30 million from the small downstate town during her years in office and buying expensive race horses.

Also, former Rep. Aaron Schock, a downstate Republican, resigned from Congress in 2015 after reports of his free-spending ways with campaign and public funds. He’s now under investigation, too.

Do we have a proud tradition in this state or what?

“Liberal media” not so liberal about Hillary Clinton

Conservatives love to blame the media when a Democrat wins an election, claiming their side’s loss was caused at least partly by the bias of the “lamestream media.” Now, with a woman once again running for president, the GOP and the Beltway media have found a new target — magazines aimed at women.

A fairly silly story by Politico titled “Where the media loves Hillary Clinton” raises the issue that traditional women’s magazines are automatically in the bag for Hillary. Except that they’re not.

True, some in the women’s publishing industry are Clinton supporters, like Vogue Editor Anna Wintour. Wintour is a friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton “and has even taken her shopping,” Politico said. Horrors — two friends going shopping! Politico also seemed astonished that Clinton has appeared in Vogue seven times. Gee, she became first lady in 1993, she was elected a senator in 2000, and she served as secretary of state. Any reason that someone in the public eye for so long should grace the pages of a magazine seven times over 20 years?

“The reporting and writing often veers beyond alignment and into outright boosterism — if not of Clinton herself, then of Democrats and the progressive causes they identify with,” the story continued, saying that women’s magazines have “mostly liberal audiences.”

That would come as a surprise to the many conservative readers of women’s magazines who no doubt will vote for the Republican candidate for president.

As far as “progressive causes,” maybe we should instead read “issues affecting women,” such as health care, equal pay, family leave, child care, abortion, birth control, and many other issues. Newsflash to Politico: Women’s magazines have been writing about these topics long before women started running for office in greater numbers, and they’ll still be writing about them no matter who wins the 2016 election.

Politico offered a platform for the poor, neglected Republican side, which obviously isn’t getting any media coverage these days. “ ‘I just hope that these editors, which in my experience tend to be very liberal women, can take their blinders off and can see that there are lots of conservative issues women can embrace and lots of conservative women who can be celebrated,’ said Katie Packer Gage, a top campaign aide for Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid.”

Politico was forced to come clean about coverage of both parties. “The magazines don’t ignore the GOP,” the story continued. “Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, Reps. Elise Stefanik, Martha McSally, Martha Roby, and Jaime Herrera Beutler have all been featured in print or online over the past few months. In previous years, Vogue has written about Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Nikki Haley, Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, and other Republicans. And as the cycle gets moving, more GOP women will probably be covered.”

Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive disagreed with Politico’s premise.

” ‘I think there’s a misconception that fashion or women’s fashion magazines lean one way, that we’re Democrats,’ ” the Politico story quoted her as saying. ” ‘So part of our coverage that we really adhere to is a fairness and a philosophy of being pro-woman, nonpartisan,’ she said, noting that last fall she interviewed Stefanik and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). ‘We have 20 million print and online readers, and these are women whose political views are not monolithic. We keep that top of mind when it comes to our coverage of Washington and politics.’ ”

Lest anyone think the newspapers or other media outlets that tend to be considered liberal are also guilty of Clinton boosterism, consider that it was The New York Times that has written the most about Clinton’s private email server and also had non-exclusive “exclusive” material from Clinton Cash, the most recent anti-Clinton book, which claimed that donors to the Clinton Foundation were trying to buy access by giving to a charity.

Now the Beltway media are sniping that Clinton is more interested in talking to average citizens than spending all of her time courting Washington political reporters. Here’s what one New York Times political reporter tweeted about Clinton as she was meeting with voters: “In Iowa, Queen Hillary and the Everyday Americans of the Round Table distribute alms to the clamoring press.”

Really? “Queen Hillary,” Jason Horowitz?

Dismissing her Democratic opponents, “that leaves the news media as her only real opponent so far on the way to the Democratic presidential nomination,” Horowitz said in his Times piece. No pussyfooting there; the reporter has thrown down the glove as her opponent.

Horowitz also made references to Clinton snapping “her head to the left in a Janet Jackson-era dance move.” He also said that “she seems less a presidential candidate than a historical figure, magically animated from a wax museum to claim what is rightfully hers.”

Nothing sexist there, right? Nothing like impartial journalism.

A 2014 story in the Washington Post followed the same lines of thought as the recent Politico piece. “The often easy questions and sympathetic portrayals found in fashion magazines — the stories are aiming for different goals than trying to explain someone’s political beliefs and past decisions — can be attractive for a political candidate, especially one who has accumulated as much criticism as Clinton has.”

Once again, we seem to have a double standard of coverage of male and female candidates. Can you imagine the blowback if reporters routinely referred to male candidates in regal terms? And where is the criticism of the softball questions Republicans are routinely asked on Fox News?

At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, comedian Cecily Strong asked the members of the media in the audience to take the following pledge: “I solemnly swear not to comment on Hillary Clinton’s appearance, because that is not journalism.”

Somehow, I don’t think she had many takers.

 

Top five reasons for crowded GOP presidential field

The number of Republicans running for president in 2016 seems to change daily. Some are on the verge of announcing; others have publicly said they’re taking a pass. Most in the political world put the number of serious candidates somewhere between 15 and 19. But why so many?

Is there something different about the 2016 presidential election that is drawing candidates more quickly than the time it takes to deep-fry a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair? I offer five reasons why — not necessarily different from previous years, but especially relevant this time around.

Book sales. How many of these candidates have new books out in 2014 or 2015? Let’s see: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is hyping God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. In the same vein, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came out with Blue Collar Conservatives a year ago. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s latest book, out in January, is American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has a new book with an October release date, American Will: The Forgotten Choices That Changed Our Republic. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is pushing Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will have a new book out at the end of June, A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Miracle of America. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is hoping a presidential campaign will revive sales of Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. In March, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina offered the latest in a series of books with Rising to the Challenge. Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon, published his latest in 2014, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.

How different can these books be? Even many of the titles sound the same.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is trying the e-book route, publishing the first chapter of a new book with some of the emails he received in his early days in office. His problem was that he included personal details about the writers of those emails. That effort seems to have ended, for now. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is trying to rewrite New Jersey law so he can profit from a book deal, too — something that state statute currently bans.

To be sure, politicians in both parties hope to get rich off book sales, and candidates usually come up with something in election years. It’s just that a presidential contest offers unlimited chances to sell, sell, sell, before your book ends up on the electronic equivalent of the remainder table at Amazon. I’m sure Hillary Rodham Clinton wishes that she had sold more copies of Hard Choices. And of course, Barack Obama sold so many copies of Dreams from My Father when he was an Illinois state senator that the Obamas were able to pay off their student loans. The Audacity of Hope was a best-seller, too.

But I can’t recall when so many candidates have offered this many books so early in this cycle of a campaign. This collection of books and authors offers an embarrassment of riches. Or maybe just an embarrassment.

Sheer egotism. This is the biggest driving force for anyone to seek public office. They all talk about “public service,” but it’s really a chance to be in the spotlight. It’s certainly what drives real estate developer and professional blowhard Donald Trump, who has never met a camera he didn’t like. It’s also what may be driving South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose bookings on Sunday morning talk shows seem to have been dropping, and he’s grasping for another chance to be in the public eye.

The veepstakes. Many of the current candidates, including some who already have declared publicly, know that their chances of becoming president are lower than the likelihood of Congress passing immigration reform. I contend that many of these candidates hope that their race, gender, background, ethnicity, geography, or voter base makes them an attractive choice as a running mate.

Let’s say Bush, Walker, or Rubio gets the nomination. Someone like Huckabee in the second spot brings religious conservatives to the table. Graham offers a nod to the neocon base. Someone like Ohio Gov. John Kasich might help in that swing state. Again, nothing new in this situation, but the depth of the field — and thus the number of choices — is greater than ever. And many of the current candidates got into the race hoping for the runner-up slot. New York Rep. Peter King even says publicly he wants to be people’s “second choice.”

The chance to revive social conservatism. No matter how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, everyone knows the fight is basically over. Yet GOP candidates think they must play the “religious freedom” card at every opportunity to show that base of voters that they’re willing to keep fighting. No matter how ridiculous the arguments about florists and bakers not catering same-sex weddings (when those businesses have no problems serving weddings of unwed parents or multi-divorced brides and grooms), when your candidate says it’s OK for a bakery not to make a “gay wedding cake,” that’s your candidate if that’s your line of bigotry. Otherwise, they’re not giving you much of a reason to vote. Except that they’re not Hillary.

Last desperate bid for relevance. Some politicians have careers that are tanking faster than ratings at MSNBC. Approval ratings for Christie and Jindal aren’t just underwater — they’ve sunk to submarine depths. Both are in their second terms, and they’re term limited. Given their unpopularity in their respective states, what else would their next steps be, except to run for a different office? And what else would Santorum or former Texas Gov. Rick Perry do, anyway? Pretty soon, we’ll forget the names of others still in the hunt: Former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

After all, not everyone can land a hosting job at Fox News.

 

Think Jade Helm is insane? Five right-wing conspiracy theories

The delusional belief among a third of Republican primary voters that the U.S. military is poised to take over the state of Texas is just the tip of the nutjob iceberg.

You thought it was just some fringe extremist belief? No. According to a recent poll from Public Policy Polling, the idea that the special forces training exercises the U.S. military have scheduled in several Western states (the same exercises run during the Bush administration, we hasten to point out) is really a plot against Texas has become right-wing gospel in the eyes of more than just conspiracy theorists.

In its general GOP presidential poll, “We also tested the recent conspiracy theory that the federal government is trying to take over Texas — 32% of Republican primary voters buy into it compared to 40% who don’t,” according to the poll from PPP, a Democratic survey firm whose history has a record of historical accuracy.

At least it’s not a plurality; I guess we can take some comfort in that. Still — a third of GOP voters see the big black helicopters coming in the form of a U.S. solider? And who would these “informed voters” vote for, anyway?

“Scott Walker leads the field among those who believe in the Texas conspiracy at 23% to 18% for Ted Cruz, 13% each for Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee, and 10% for Ben Carson,” the PPP survey concluded. “Jeb Bush leads among voters who don’t buy into it at 17%, but since he only gets 6% with those who do, his overall standing remains somewhat weak.”

Glad we cleared that up. Of course, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the Texas National Guard would monitor the movements of the U.S. military in the state for the planned training exercises, the sane people among us just chuckled. But the implausible, inane, and insane idea has picked up steam.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are among those claiming that the reported plot needs “investigation.” Unsurprisingly, in the PPP poll, the two candidates with the highest percentages of voters believing the takeover theory were Perry, at 76 percent, and Cruz, at 56 percent.

And don’t forget actor Chuck Norris, who published a column at the conspiracy theory website WorldNetDaily, or WND (often referred to as “wing-nut daily”) that “The U.S. government says, ‘It’s just a training exercise.’ But I’m not sure the term ‘just’ has any reference to reality when the government uses it.” Are we supposed to trust Norris because the actor-turned-conservative-activist was once a Texas ranger? Oh, that’s right; he just played one on Walker, Texas Ranger.

No amount of explanation or incredulous laughter from military leaders, the Pentagon, the White House, or even other Republicans, such as former Texas state Rep. Todd Smith, who accused Abbott of “pandering to idiots,” seems to be dissuading those bent on seeing boogeymen where none exist.

That goes for tunnels under Wal-Mart stores, too. The chain store giant was forced to respond publicly that “there’s no truth to the rumors” about Jade Helm 15 — rumors that its five empty stores in Texas would “house the headquarters of invading troops from China, here to disarm Americans one by one,” according to the whack-job theory. Supposedly, tunnels were being built underneath the stores to facilitate foreign troop movement. That’s also not true, Wal-Mart says.

But that’s not all! Right-wing conspiracy theories always pop up, each seemingly more stupid than the one before, fake birth certificates from the Kenyan Muslim socialist in the White House notwithstanding. It’s hard to narrow down the stupidity, but we offer five ideas that just won’t go away. As the saying goes, we read these theories so you won’t have to. You’ll forgive me if I don’t offer live links.

Creeping sharia law. One of the resurrected conspiracies again being spewed is that U.S. laws are slowly being superseded by Muslim sharia law. There are several examples, but the choicest is from former Florida Rep. Allan West, who wrote in a recent blog post that Sharia law was creeping into a Dallas Wal-Mart (OMG, Texas and Wal-Mart again). One checkout lane posted a sign: “No alcohol served in this lane.” It had nothing to do with the religion or the “non-Anglo-Saxon name” of the checkout clerk; it was because he was underage, and you must be 21 to sell as well as buy alcohol. The blog was forced to add a correcting editor’s note but added: “However, that isn’t to say Wal-Mart isn’t selectively caving to Muslim demands, such as this case regarding Halal meat in Ohio.”

Gay Nazism. According to a compilation from the People for the American Way, there are several examples of whackadoodle theories about gay takeovers. One is from Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who charged that gay rights supporters are getting ready to “start rolling out the boxcars to start hauling off Christians” to concentration camps. Republican Gordon Klingenschmitt, a televangelist who was recently elected to the Colorado state legislature, claimed that a Senate bill sponsored by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken would “require pedophilia in all public schools” and “require pro-gay child recruiting.” Oh, and Common Core will turn your kids gay, too.

Bureau of Land Management takeovers. I bet you thought the militia movement hysteria over the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada died down after Bundy, a tax cheat who refused to pay for decades of back grazing fees on public lands, exposed himself as a racist on national TV, and Republicans and Fox News pundits couldn’t run away from him fast enough. Now, the Oath Keepers and their ilk have a new target, this time in Oregon, over gold mining rights at the Sugar Pine Mining Claim. “That’s what being an American’s all about,” said one militia member headed to Oregon. “We don’t allow our neighbor to be enslaved or beaten or tortured by government jackboots because they want to steal our land and our resources to keep us under their thumb.” And speaking of Oath Keepers, the founder of the group says Arizona Sen. John McCain, who spent all those years in a POW camp, is a “traitor to the Constitution” and should be “hung by the neck.” Stay classy, guys.

Doctors reporting guns. It has been a long-held, common-sense public health practice for pediatricians to ask parents about how guns are kept in the home to ensure that children are safe, the same way they ask about safety belts, diet, etc. But some far-right groups have been repeating the debunked claim that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, requires doctors to ask patients whether they own a firearm as part of a plot to round up gun owners. “They are doing it to the whole country, they field-tested it on veterans, and now it’s the whole country,” Gun Owners of America President Larry Pratt told a right-wing radio show. “We are looking at a major assault on the right to keep and bear arms, it is reminiscent of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, where they used doctors as part of their torture routines and got people sent to the camps for improvement of their mental health.” Speaking of the need to improve mental health …

ISIS in America. Apparently (according to some) the U.S. government created the Islamic State at a cost of $20 million to $30 million. The reasons had to do with oil, or taking down President Assad in Syria, or something; it’s really all too muddled to make any sense. These conspiracies are different from the claims that ISIS fighters are crossing the  border from Mexico into the U.S. These scenarios combine two right-wing favorites — illegal immigration and ISIS — and were pushed by several Republican candidates before the 2014 election. Now a website called “Before It’s News” touts the “fact” of an ISIS camp a few miles from El Paso, Texas. It brings everything full circle, claiming that it’s the whole reason for the Jade Helm 15 exercise in the first place!

Sorry, I have to stop. If you’ll excuse me, I must go wash my hands; my fingers feel soiled after typing up all this hatred and insanity.

U.S. identity as a Christian nation is falling

This won’t come as a surprise to mainstream Protestant denominations that have seen dwindling numbers over several decades. But according to the Pew Research Center, a lower percentage of people in America are identifying themselves as Christian than in any time in the past. And more than a third of millennials don’t affiliate with any faith at all.

A new report titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” shows percentage downturns over the last seven years in all areas of Christianity — evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and mainline Protestants. The big growth was in the area of “unaffiliated” — from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. Non-Christian faiths also grew slightly — from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent.

In the last seven years, the estimated number of Christian Americans dropped from 178.1 million to 172.8 million, even as the overall population rose. “While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages,” the report says. “The same trends are seen among whites, blacks, and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.”

The drop is chiefly among American mainline Protestants and Catholics. Mainline Protestants dropped from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent of the population, the Pew study says. Catholics dropped from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent. Even Evangelicals dropped from an 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent.

Religion is also changing ethnically. “Even as their numbers decline, American Christians — like the U.S. population as a whole — are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse,” the Pew report says. “Non-Hispanic whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Hispanics have grown as a share of all three religious groups. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics (up from 35% in 2007), 24% of evangelical Protestants (up from 19%), and 14% of mainline Protestants (up from 9%).”

By far, however, the biggest take-home message from this research is the growth in the unaffiliated group. And it should come as no surprise that younger Americans are unaffiliated with any religion at higher numbers than their elders.

“While many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young — and getting younger, on average, over time,” the report says. “As a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaches adulthood, the median age of unaffiliated adults has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) population’s median age of 46. By contrast, the median age of mainline Protestant adults in the new survey is 52 (up from 50 in 2007), and the median age of Catholic adults is 49 (up from 45 seven years earlier).

“Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33),” the report continues. “And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants.”

Mainline Protestantism is certainly feeling the pinch, with 5 million fewer members. “In 2007, there were an estimated 41 million mainline Protestant adults in the United States,” the Pew study says. “As of 2014, there are roughly 36 million.” Catholics, too, are dropping in both percentages and numbers: There are an estimated 51 million U.S. Catholics today, down from an estimated 54 million in 2007.

And even though the percentage of evangelicals has dropped, the total number has not: Their numbers have grown slightly, from 59.8 million to 62.2 million.

The more important question is: What do U.S. churches do with this information? Should they change, stay the course, or what? It’s a dilemma facing churches across the U.S.

One approach might be in this piece from The Daily Show titled “Future Christ.” It features rock-star preachers, arena worship, and — Christian robots. It really must be seen to be believed.

Satire aside, churches across America are struggling, and the directions ahead aren’t clear. According to an online blog entry published in Christianity Today, a main reason for the high dropout rates among young Christians is that those dropouts never had a “firsthand faith.” Their faith just wasn’t personally meaningful to them.

“The church had not become a valued and valuable expression in their life — one that impacts how they live and how they relate and how they grow,” wrote the Rev. Ed Stetzer, an author and executive director of LifeWay Research.

“We cannot posture our student ministries to think like and act like a four-year holding tank with pizza,” he continued. “Instead, we need to prepare young adults for the spiritual challenges that will come and the faith questions they will face. Firsthand faith leads to life change and life-long commitment.”

That viewpoint is echoed in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, which called out churches for trying to change an approach that has worked for 2,000 years. “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool,’ ” the headline read. The author, writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans, wrote that church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, “especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him.”

“Many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology,” Evans wrote. “Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way.”

Instead, Evans said, making churches more inclusive is a winning message. She said her new church home is open to all — “conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight, and even perpetual doubters like me.”

“Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the Internet age,” Evans wrote. “After all, He knows a thing or two about resurrection.”

Let’s run GOP debates like NCAA tournament

There may be as many as 22 “serious” Republican contenders for president. With so many candidates, how do the RNC and the TV networks decide who belongs in the nine scheduled debates?

They could place candidates in a giant tic-tac-toe box, a la Hollywood Squares, but that might be too “Left Coast” for this bunch. They could use polling as one of their criteria, but that changes week by week, with so many candidates barely registering in the single digits.

No, I think it’s time for a new approach. In honor of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who once famously let his thirst overcome his political ambition when giving the GOP response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, I’m calling it Parched Sadness.

rubio-water-bottle

Just think! We could divide the contenders into brackets, just as in the basketball tournament. Lower-ranking presidential hopefuls would need to win a debate-off, sort of a play-in game, to get into the brackets. Instead of using the country’s geography, here’s how we would break this down:

Koch Bracket: All the candidates either have or wish they had their own sugar-daddy billionaires, but the top seed has to be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been raking in the dough like Croesus. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the love child of Charles and David Koch, is a close second. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also places in this bracket because of his backing from Florida billionaire auto dealer Norman Braman. Play-in candidates are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who thought he was a lock for Wall Street money but whom no one likes anymore, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who is under the delusion she’ll get backing from the tech sector.

Hair Bracket: Top seed is Donald Trump, for obvious reasons. Others in this bracket are those still sporting the dry look: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, often called Gov. Goodhair by the late, great columnist Molly Ivins; and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Ohio Gov. John Kasich will face Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich in a hair-off.

Just for fun, here’s that rare caterpillar that looks like Donald Trump’s hair.

donald-trump-flannel-moth-1-510x600

Neocon Bracket: Top seed is former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who spread as much false information about Iraq’s WMDs as anybody. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham runs a close second, because he never met a war he didn’t like. New York Rep. Peter King belongs here because of his wacky House hearings on the “radicalization” of American Muslims, which many compared to the hearings of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.

Boring Bracket: Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and former New York Gov. George Pataki. This will serve as a playoff into the Neocon Bracket.

Jesus Bracket: Top seed is Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has to be No. 1 because he’s an ordained minister and never tires of bringing the religious crazy, like the time he blamed the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on the lack of school prayer. Not far behind, though, are former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who once compared homosexuality to beastiality, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who wants to make his state’s “religious freedom” law even worse than Indiana’s. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence belongs here by default as penance for his state’s dumb RFRA law.

Nutjob Bracket: Top seed is a tie between Kentucky Gov. Rand Paul, who claimed that the Ebola virus could be transmitted through the air, and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who compared Obamacare to slavery and keeps saying America is like Nazi Germany. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a natural for this bracket, too, because of wacky claims like his statement that gay marriage leads to Christianity becoming hate speech. It’s a shame Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert was only teasing with rumors of a run, because he’d win this round hands down.

Grover Norquist Bracket: Oh, who am I kidding? They could all belong here.

Obviously, this isn’t working out evenly, mathematically speaking. So Mike Pence will face Ted Cruz, because we all want Cruz to go away, and that winner stays in the Jesus Bracket. Rand Paul and Ben Carson will each get a bye in the early rounds so they can think of even more outrageous things to say.

But hey, it’s early days. Someone could drop out, or a new candidate could throw his or her hat in the ring. And maybe Louie Gohmert will change his mind…

UPDATE: OK, so we’ve had a few dropouts. John Bolton and Rick Snyder say they’re definitely not running, and Mike Pence will seek another term as Indiana governor. Others are on the verge of announcing actual candidacies. Still, even with 19 contenders, candidates will be tripping over each other on any debate stage.

All joking aside, Bobby Jindal has come up with an actual good idea — divide the early debates and assign candidates to debates randomly. At least that will give American voters a chance to hear what these would-be leaders have to say.

Barack Obama’s next chapter: Boosting African-American youth

Some ex-presidents paint. Others form foundations. Some monitor international elections. Others go skydiving. And of course, they all play golf and make money giving speeches.

Now, President Obama has announced his next focus: He will keep on being his brother’s keeper.

In a speech at Lehman College in the Bronx, Obama laid out plans for the expansion of My Brother’s Keeper, a White House initiative launched more than a year ago to provide opportunities for boys and young men of color. The new group will be called My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit outgrowth of the original program. It will assist companies to make more jobs available to minorities. So far, My Brother’s Keeper has raised $80 million, thanks to the backing of companies such as American Express and Pepsi Co.

The group is headed by the former CEO of Deloitte, Joe Echevarria, and has a board of directors that includes John Rogers, founder of Ariel Capital Management; musician John Legend; Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia; former NBA star Alonzo Mourning; and Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of TIME Magazine and now president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.

One of the programs from My Brother’s Keeper that will be expanded is Year-Up, an intensive one-year program to train at-risk kids for the work force and place them with large companies. The program has been successful in its early stages and will reach more young men when expanded.

“In every community in America, there are young people with incredible drive and talent — and they just don’t have the same kinds of chances that somebody like me had,” Obama said. “They’re just as talented. Just as smart. They don’t get a chance.”

In his speech, Obama explained the need for the expanded program by making references to recent protests and police killings in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

“If we’re just looking at policing, we’re looking at it too narrowly,” Obama said.  “If we ask the police to simply contain and control problems that we ourselves have been unwilling to invest and solve, that’s not fair to the communities, it’s not fair to the police.”

Actions and programs like this are sorely needed, he said. “There are consequences to inaction. There are consequences to indifference. And they reverberate far beyond the walls of the projects, or the borders of the barrio, or the roads of the reservation. They sap us of our strength as a nation. It means we’re not as good as we could be. And over time, it wears us out. Over time, it weakens our nation as a whole.”

An online piece by Jonathan Alter at The Daily Beast gives more detail about My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, its aims, and the reasons behind them.

“An MBK report says that closing the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students could increase annual GDP by more than half a trillion dollars,” Alter says. “Every kid between ages 16 and 24 disconnected from school and work eventually costs taxpayers nearly $1 million in safety-net or incarceration costs. Meanwhile, three million decent jobs will soon be out there for anyone with the right training.

“Solid research has now proven the severe economic consequences of kids without pre-K, of kids not reading at grade level at third grade, of teens not graduating from high school and getting at least some post-secondary training, of non-violent inmates not being given a second chance to become law-abiding taxpayers,” Alter continues. “Those are the main areas of intervention that Obama says he will keep returning to long after the cameras are gone.”

Once Obama leaves office, My Brother’s Keeper will become his focus. He promised to keep working on issues like racial equality long after his presidency is over.

“This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life,” he told the crowd at Lehman.

One other, unrelated matter. Obama is soon set to give an official announcement about the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Foundation, which will be built on Chicago’s South Side, where Obama launched his political career. The University of Chicago, where Obama taught constitutional law, won the competition to host the library, and two different spots are being considered.

In case anyone at the White House is reading this, I vote for Washington Park. It’s right by a Green Line El stop, making it by far the more accessible spot for public transportation, especially for South Siders. And who doesn’t want to start a new life chapter by helping the environment?

Dear media in Baltimore: Take police leaks with grain of salt

In a stunning turn of events, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has announced that the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man who died in police custody on April 19, has been ruled a homicide, and that six police offers face a range of charges, from false imprisonment to assault to manslaughter to second-degree murder.

In other words, Freddie Gray did not kill himself.

In case there was any doubt about that, it was because of a leaked document from a police investigator suggesting that Gray had caused his own injuries — that he had severed his own spine and crushed his own larynx. The document claimed that a fellow prisoner had said Gray — whom the prisoner could not see — injured himself by banging himself against the walls of a police van. With more reporting, that prisoner has since recanted that statement.

Upon reflection, the whole self-injury scenario sounds ridiculous. But that didn’t stop the Washington Post, which received the original leak, and other media from jumping on and widely reporting the “self-inflicted injuries” story.

Within a day, reporters who actually did some reporting instead of police stenography interviewed doctors about the plausibility of such self-inflicted injuries. Here are some of those reports:

From an account in the New York Daily News: “You don’t become paralyzed, you don’t go into a coma from slamming yourself into a van door,” said Dr. David Matusz, a spine surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital. “Throwing your shoulder or head against the wall is not going to produce a fatal injury.” Most pre-existing spinal conditions could not turn fatal with low-force trauma, he added. Typically, deadly spine injures are sustained in high-speed car accidents and falls from significant heights.

From a story in The Baltimore Sun: “You have to apply a significant amount of force in order to break somebody’s neck,” said Dr. Ali Bydon, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In announcing the charges against the police officers, State’s Attorney Mosby also condemned the leaking of the police document pushing the self-injury meme. “I strongly condemn anyone in law enforcement with access to trial evidence who has leaked information prior to the resolution of this case,” she said. “You are only damaging our ability to conduct a fair and impartial process for all parties involved. I hope that as we move forward with this case everyone will respect due process and refrain from doing anything that will jeopardize our ability to seek justice.”

The Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the accused officers, called for a special prosecutor, citing what they consider to be conflicts of interest. Mosby is married to Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby, who has spoken out about the riots that Gray’s death has prompted.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that Mosby is the daughter of two police officers. In addition, her grandfather, two aunts, and three uncles also were or still are police officers. Just in case there’s any idea of her not being fair to the police.

Possibly the saddest part of the whole Freddie Gray tragedy is that he shouldn’t even have been in police custody. Gray was arrested for possession of a switchblade knife — except the knife wasn’t a switchblade. “No crime was committed by Freddie Gray,” Mosby said.

The “blame the victim” scenario, unfortunately, is nothing new. When Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., police started feeding stories about drug use and cigar stealing — all of which had nothing to do with Brown’s altercation with Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson didn’t even know about Brown’s alleged theft of cigars when he ordered Brown off the street, leading to the shooting. But that didn’t stop the Ferguson Police Department’s smear campaign of the victim.

A piece on the website Think Progress states: “After high-profile, officer-involved killings, police departments selectively release information about victims that isn’t pertinent to the incident, thereby distracting the public from the case itself. And too often, mainstream media hone in on those details, contributing to a smear campaign that the deceased cannot defend themselves from. For instance, The New York Times wrote a profile of Michael Brown that emphasized his consumption of drugs and alcohol and detailed his ‘rebellious streak.’ Sanford [Fla.] police informed the Orlando Sentinel that Trayvon Martin was suspended for possession of an empty marijuana bag.”

The same scenario was playing out in Baltimore. Gray was carrying a switchblade knife. He caused his own spinal injury. Etc., etc. Why would he be carrying a knife if he wasn’t going to commit a crime with it?

Here’s a better question: Why do so many Americans have guns in their homes, if they aren’t going to commit crimes with those weapons? Self-defense, you say? In a high-crime neighborhood, Gray probably was carrying a knife for self-defense, too.

We’re talking about dead human beings. Even if they had committed a crime in the past, even if they weren’t on the top rung of society, even if you might not invite them for dinner, they still have rights in this country. At least, last time we checked.

So what’s the next step, besides the trial of the charged officers? Well, here’s one positive piece of news: Attorney General Loretta Lynch capped her first week at the Justice Department by announcing a $20 million police body camera pilot project. “This body-worn camera pilot program is a vital part of the Justice Department’s comprehensive efforts to equip law enforcement agencies throughout the country with the tools, support, and training they need to tackle the 21st-century challenges we face,” she said in a statement. “Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”

The funds come from the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets of Act of 1968, which authorizes the attorney general to provide a maximum of $20 million to local governments to modernize technology.

All I can say is: What took them so long? If we can avoid another Freddie Gray, another Michael Brown, another Tamir Rice, another Eric Garner, another unjustified death of anyone in police custody, that’s $20 million well spent.

We all need to study underlying causes of Baltimore violence

If you live in or near a city, as the majority of Americans do these days, you’re probably not surprised at reports of violence, whether they’re committed by citizens, police, or both.

Certainly the events in Baltimore are different — it’s not the norm for teenagers to leave school and start looting or setting fire to cars. What isn’t different is the underlying anger and conditions that trigger such reactions.

The media have been getting their fair share of criticism for over-the-top coverage of the Baltimore protests and violence. A telling story in Politico Magazine singles out CNN for continuously airing its “video wallpaper” of a burning CVS store. But the cable channel was hardly alone. Fox, MSNBC, and nightly and local news all spent hours on a “Baltimore is burning” meme.

And at least some included stories about the city’s problems. MSNBC spoke to many community officials and leaders about the deeper issues facing Baltimore and what kinds of programs might help.

President Obama addressed the situation at a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that was supposed to focus on Japan-U.S. relations but spent a lot of time on the situation in Baltimore. “One burning building will be looped on television over and over and over again. The thousands of demonstrators who did it the right way, I think, have been lost in the discussion,” he said.

But the systemic problems of urban America go beyond reaction to one citizen who died in police custody, as Freddie Gray did on April 19. “If we think we’re going to send police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there — without as a nation and society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up communities, and give those kids opportunity — then we’re not going to solve this problem,” Obama said.

Do too many people of color die or get injured in police custody? Absolutely. Why else would a city like Baltimore need to spend $5.7 million on payouts to victims of police brutality over four years? Too many police officers hide behind the “Blue Wall of Silence,” as it’s called. A story in The Atlantic looks at some of those cases, many of which were covered in a series in the Baltimore Sun.

No one pretends that solving the problems of urban America is easy or quick. If those problems were easy, they would be solved already.

The biggest problem facing urban America remains unemployment. Neighborhoods with higher unemployment rates have higher rates of violence.

Filmmaker Spike Lee plans to set a movie in Chicago’s troubled Englewood neighborhood. The working title is Chiraq, evoking images of the violence in that war-torn country. Many in the neighborhood — not to mention Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — are not pleased with the title, but no one can dispute the reality.

The Workforce Information and Resource Exchange, an initiative of the Chicago Jobs Council, published a map of city neighborhoods and their respective unemployment rates. It should come as no surprise that those neighborhoods with the highest unemployment rates, on the West and South sides, also have the highest crime rates. Englewood’s unemployment rate tops 21 percent, and it’s considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.

What about Baltimore? The city’s overall unemployment rate is 8.2 percent. But consider this stark racial divide, from a story at FiveThirtyEight.com:

“The unemployment rate for black men in Baltimore between the ages of 20 and 24 was 37 percent in 2013, the latest data available; for white men of the same age range, the rate was 10 percent,” the story said.

“Nor do the prospects for black men improve much as they grow older: Just 59 percent of black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are working, compared with 79 percent of white men. Just 1 in 10 black men in Baltimore has a college degree, compared with half of whites (for ages 25 and up). And the median income for black households, at about $33,000, is little more than half that of whites.”

The story adds that, although Baltimore and a city like Ferguson, Mo., might be outliers in this area, with a greater racial divide, the situation is the norm. “There are dozens, if not hundreds, of American cities, large and small, with the same stew of poverty, inequality and discrimination,” the story said.

It’s easy — and necessary — to criticize biased media coverage and pundits who deliver dog-whistle comments about “thugs” who commit violent acts. After all, when the University of Kentucky lost a semifinal basketball game to the University of Wisconsin during the recent NCAA tournament, the school’s white fans committed plenty of violence afterward in the city of Lexington, setting cars on fire. But that was chalked up to “overzealous sports fans.” Only when the instigators are African American does it seem to turn to thuggery.

Instead, we need to focus on putting more resources into the myriad problems of cities: underfunded, overcrowded, and underperforming schools; blighted neighborhoods; a lack of youth activities; and a dearth of employment opportunities. Especially the employment opportunities. Start a business in those neighborhoods, and you’ll get loads of applicants.

What federal help can we expect? “I’m under no illusion that under this Congress we’re gonna get massive investments in urban communities,” Obama said, but he promised to try and work with Congress on economic solutions to help cities implement solutions.

Summer is approaching — a time when urban violence peaks. Already, with warm weekends and more people out in the streets, there are weekly tolls of shootings and killings every Monday morning.

This isn’t a problem that we can compartmentalize into certain neighborhoods. It affects all of us, wherever we live. And it’s up to all of us to try and find solutions.

But we can always hope, as shown in this beautiful photo from Baltimore. It might be just one child and one white policeman. But maybe they both walked away thinking differently about the other.

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Bush criticizing Obama foreign policy on Iran nuclear deal defines chutzpah

On Saturday night, the 44th president, Barack Obama, delivered some funny one-liners at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington. More than 2,000 miles away, the 43rd president, George W. Bush, delivered some unintentionally funny lines of his own.

According to a story in The New York Times, Bush told a closed-door meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas that lifting any sanctions against Iran would be a mistake and would lead to chaos in the Middle East.

These were not intended to be ironic remarks.

The man whose administration lied about reasons to start the Iraq War, basically destroying that country, and whose policies allowed for the rise of the Islamic State honestly seems to think he’s got some expertise on matters in the region, and that the rest of us should listen to him.

Although the meeting was held behind closed doors, about a dozen people repeated Bush’s comments afterward, the Times reported.

Bush — again, without a hint of irony — told the meeting that Obama was being naïve in pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. Remember, the Bush administration:

  • Launched two massive wars that destabilized the entire Middle East.
  • Spent more than $2 trillion in American taxpayer money on the Iraq War — a war in which more than 4,000 U.S. troops were killed and more than 30,000 were injured, and a war in which probably half a million Iraqis died.
  • Negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement on when U.S. forces should leave Iraq. George W. Bush is hardly one who should be claiming that Obama left “too soon,” when Bush sealed the SOFA deal.
  • Ignored Iran for eight years, allowing the country to ratchet up its nuclear capabilities. The only reason Iran is willing to talk to the U.S. and five other countries now about limiting nuclear power is the imposition of crippling economic sanctions that didn’t start until the United Nations finally took action in 2007. Those sanctions increased only after Obama became president.

Another story on Bush’s talk, this one from Bloomberg View online, told a similar tale.  “You think the Middle East is chaotic now?” Bush is quoted as saying. “Imagine what it looks like for our grandchildren. That’s how Americans should view the deal.”

Any reported quotes might not be verbatim, as they were given by attendees after the fact. Still, why does anyone think that George W. Bush has any credibility on foreign policy in the Middle East?

Let’s ask the American people. Hmm — two different new polls say that 58 and 59 percent of Americans back the outlines of the proposed Iran nuclear agreement, even while those questioned still have doubts. And 77 percent of voters say they want to see a negotiated settlement to the nuclear crisis rather than military intervention.

That’s something that the 47 Republicans who signed the ill-fated letter to Iran — the one written by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas trying to sabotage the Iran nuclear talks — should think about. Despite the military solutions proposed by Cotton and other neocons, Americans don’t want to jump into another war.

Let’s remember again exactly how and why the Middle East got into such chaos. Iraq was run by the dictator Saddam Hussein with a powerful army. When the Bush administration made up its reasons to invade, officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney assured Americans that the war would be over in a matter of weeks and that the U.S. would be greeted as “liberators.”

Instead, the U.S. totally destabilized the country, broke up the army — the entity that was holding the country together — and allowed terrorists to enter Iraq. Remember, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq before the Iraq War. Now those forces have morphed into ISIS. Oh, and many of the Sunni military leaders who were dismissed from power when the army broke up, and who were kept out of the power structure under Iraq’s Shia-backed government under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, are fighting for ISIS, too. So they have imported terrorists and disgruntled military professionals.

The biggest political outcome of the Iraq War in the region was to strengthen Iran and the groups it does back, such as Hezbollah. Not exactly the outcome the Bush administration was shooting for, I’d guess.

The Bloomberg story concludes: “For George W. Bush, the remarks in Vegas … revealed that he takes little responsibility for the policies that he put in place that contributed to the current state of affairs.”

Actually, chutzpah doesn’t even begin to cover it.

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