Column input shows where readers — and I — sometimes take wrong turn

The only thing better than writing an opinion column is reading or listening to people’s feedback about it. It’s absolutely great!

And last week I received some terrific reader input on my column about the health care bill, titled “Opponents of liberal reform are definitely not my comrades.” This piece was crafted to elicit strong responses, and it proved effective in this sense. I wrote a follow-up column this week explaining my rationale; it’s titled “Don’t believe everything you’re not reading.”

Before addressing some of the comments I received, let me say that I truly appreciate everyone’s input. It’s obvious many readers didn’t agree with what I wrote last week, but I respect their viewpoints and recognize their sincerity. These people are among those with whom I’ve interacted over the years who clearly love this country and wish only the best for it.

The column was stuffed with as many politically charged buzzwords as possible as well as intricately phrased (albeit vague) statements. This tempted readers to project specific meanings into each paragraph while I actually meant something different.

These buzzwords and statements have very specific ideological connotations, but I was using them in their literal sense. There were many instances where a point I was making contradicted what people perceived me to be stating.

My purpose was to demonstrate how some people react negatively to certain words or phrases as a result of their preconceived biases. They quickly dismiss ideas and short-circuit meaningful dialogue on public policy issues because they misinterpret the entire point. I chose the health care debate because there is a great deal of misinformation about this topic.

How can we create substantial legislation if we don’t understand each other and refuse to listen? We as a society do ourselves a great disservice by periodically jumping to erroneous conclusions and closing ourselves to important ideas.

That’s what I had in mind when I wrote my column. I’ll highlight a few examples of some misunderstandings that came about — and I’ll start by describing how I fell into my own trap!

One woman called me after reading the column, and she was rather upset. She wanted to know why I would turn away potential friends simply because they didn’t agree with my position.

She was referring to my use of the word “comrade” in the title. Now, many readers understood this term as a reference to what communists call each other. I was counting on people interpreting the word this way, and for the most part it worked.

But this woman was too wise to be fooled by my linguistic sleight of hand. She knew the word meant “friend” (among other things), and she couldn’t believe I would be so closed-minded as to refuse to make friends with people who disagreed with me politically.

It never occurred to me that someone would read the title like this, but that’s what it said if you take its meaning literally. Seeing how my goal was to point out the differences in the perceived ideological meaning of my writing as opposed to its literal meaning, I failed to consider that someone would read a critical part of it literally.

And if you interpret the title literally, it comes off as very crass. How could I have missed this?

I tried to reassure this woman that I meant “comrade” more in the sense of an ally or compatriot, someone partnering with you in a significant cause. Coupling this with the previous phrase of “liberal reform” (an agenda based on the literal definition of “liberal,” which means free and unrestrained), the title was supposed to literally convey my desire to associate with others who champion the freedoms this nation provides.

It was never intended to infer that I wouldn’t make friends among those with differing opinions, but that’s what it ended up saying. The long and short of it, I was wrong for writing it this way.

Who knew the first person I’d trip up with my convoluted statements would be me? It’s good that this woman called my bluff and showed me my error. Let me state that I definitely consider her a friend and hope she understands my point, however poorly I made it.

I appreciate how hard that people like her work to make a good life for themselves and value their extraordinary contributions to our society. They are obviously very frustrated with how dismally our government is run and how much of their tax money is squandered, and I share many of their concerns. They want things to improve for themselves, their children and their fellow citizens, and their efforts should be honored by us all.

The goal of my column was to highlight the impasses we sometimes run into when trying to communicate about ideological issues and how we can avoid them. I did not wish to express any contempt for the many readers who may disagree with my viewpoints, and I apologize for inadvertently conveying such a message.

An e-mail I received from another reader points out a few of the problems people had with my column. In a previous blog posting, titled “Column on ‘liberal reform’ as American as baseball and apple pie, comrades,” I wrote an extensive analysis of the points I was making in a literal sense. So, I won’t need to rehash all those but will touch on a few brief examples of some of the misunderstandings I found in the comments people made.

Here is the text of this reader’s e-mail in its entirety:

“I struggle with Jerry Moore’s validation of our ‘right’ to health care (May 6). He says Congress can justify health care reform legislation. After all, we have ‘an established precedent of allowing welfare [spending] for the collective good.’ He is referring to Social Security and Medicare. The original intent of those programs was noble, but our government’s fiscal management has been abysmal. It has committed gross intergenerational theft. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, our unfunded liabilities of these programs exceed $107 trillion – 7 times the size of our economy and 10 times our national debt. Left unchecked, in 20 years these programs will require 50 percent of our income taxes. With that track record, we should be justifiably outraged that our government would even suggest another massive entitlement program.

“Opposing health care reform has been met with a favorite political comeback: being classified as extremist. For example, if you don’t espouse the concept of global warming, then you just don’t care about our planet. Or as Jerry suggests, those opposing radical policies ‘want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.’ So there is no middle ground? His statement is merely provocative. No wonder our nation is polarized politically. Conservative politics doesn’t aim to eliminate government; it craves limited government, which is so clearly outlined in our Constitution.

“More worrisome is Jerry’s hope for a ‘novel global structure’ draped with a ‘revolutionary spirit of solidarity.’ He doesn’t tell us what he means, so I’ll guess. This notion isn’t new among the liberal elite. It is a world government that would have certain authorities impacting the future of our sovereignty — think European Union, but on a global scale. Despite this naïve notion of global kumbaya, our adversaries don’t consider themselves global citizens. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, to name a few, would like nothing better than to see a weaker U.S., our strength sapped by the empowerment of other countries participating in decisions about our best interests and our survival.

“If this is liberal reform, I want none of it.”

This reader makes many valid points, and I understand why he is less than enthusiastic for universal health care. But he jumped to some conclusions here, and this is how people become sidetracked on contentious issues.

My comment on “an established precedent of allowing welfare spending for the collective good” was actually a reference to the first paragraph of Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes Congress to collect taxes to provide for the “general welfare” of the nation. It’s not that universal health care is necessarily ideal, but there’s a plausible case to be made that it’s constitutional.

The e-mail then claims I declared that “those opposing radical policies ‘want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.'” I didn’t write about those opposing “radical policies”; I wrote, “opponents to such radical rule-making want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left.”

As I pointed out in my previous blog post, this “radical rule-making” is our system of representative democracy whose rivals favor fascist governments. The desire to turn every state “red” is a reference to communists; their goal is definitely to create a stateless, classless society with no centralized authority.

The reader states that a latter portion of my column is vague and he’s not sure what I means, and then he says, “so I’ll guess.” Here is the crux of the problem with how some people approach public policy issues.

They realize they don’t fully understand some concept, but rather than admitting this they jump to a conclusion — and sometimes they’re wrong. If people aren’t sure of the meaning of some point, they should ask to have the idea clarified. Don’t presume to know the answer and devise conclusions based on potentially false information.

Ultimately, I’m not arguing against anyone’s political ideology. It’s the process we use to form these views that has me concerned, because sometimes we take a wrong turn and oppose concepts that aren’t quite what we think they are.

I’m no exception to this, as I demonstrated earlier. We’re all human and just as likely to make mistakes.

My point is that we need to commit ourselves to ensuring we understand each other’s positions on issues, and this often means we have to admit something eludes our grasp. It makes no sense to object to ideas if we’re not certain what they are, or we’re certain what they are and we’re still wrong. We thwart productive communication with other Americans when we do this, and I’m living proof of how easy it is to lead ourselves astray.

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Column on ‘liberal reform’ as American as baseball and apple pie, comrades

Seeing what these terms truly convey, what freedom-loving patriot wouldn’t favor a liberal agenda for our progressive society?

A column I wrote last week had the attention-grabbing headline of “Opponents of liberal reform are definitely not my comrades.” It made ample use of politically charged buzzwords and intricate phrasings to make a point about the recently passed health care reform legislation.

My goal was to highlight how easily some people project particular meanings into certain words and concepts that aren’t necessarily there. As I explained in my column for this week (titled “Don’t believe everything you’re not reading”), people often make gross generalizations about some ideas and quickly dismiss them as politically suspect.

In doing so, they could well misrepresent the legitimate meaning of whatever they’ve read and miss the whole point. They then close themselves off to ideas that need to be debated if we are to devise practical public policies.

It irks me that many words take on meanings that don’t hold true to their original definitions. This diminishes the richness of the English language and leads us to converse solely for the purpose of expressing ideological supremacy rather than literal truth.

I realize that some words take on alternative meanings as they become part of the jargon of particular industries. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as those engaging in the dialogue have a mutual understanding of how this jargon is constructed.

But we should avoid using a purely political jargon for everyday conversation about important social issues. This tends to circumvent reasoned discussions about legislative matters that could provide benefits. While it’s tempting to see every exchange as a way to gain a political advantage, at some point we must put aside factional objectives and focus on what’s best for all of us.

In dissecting my column of last week, the headline I used really set the tone. But if we examine the literal definitions of the words I used, a different picture emerges from what many readers perceived what I was saying.

The word “liberal” means free, unrestrained, not limited. It comes from the root word liberalis, from which we get terms like liberty, liberate and libertine. However, “liberal” is commonly used to describe the collectivism associated with left-wing politics. It’s clear this differs sharply from its genuine definition.

“Comrade” means colleague, ally, compatriot. It’s often used by communists as a term of alliance with one another, but “comrade” is not necessarily a political term. I knew, though, that throwing it into the headline would have many readers scratching their heads.

The first couple of paragraphs of my column describe how local members of the U.S. House of Representatives responded to a question I asked them all, “Is health care a right?” I highlighted how each of them replied as well as how they voted on the health care reform legislation in March.

From this point on, my column kicks into high gear. It’s been intriguing to read how some people have responded to what I wrote.

If parts of my column seem overly vague, that was by design. Readers often project ideas into my writing when (from my perspective) it’s obvious that wasn’t at all what I was saying.

“Contrary to what’s being said by opponents, Congress can justify approving this plan [the health care bill]. Our nation has an established precedent of allowing welfare spending for the collective good.”

This paragraph gives a good example of my point. Many people have stated that universal health care is unconstitutional, so how could Congress possibly justify such a plan?

The fact is that the first paragraph of Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”

The “provide” for the “general welfare” phrasing opens the door to a variety of spending priorities. I’m not suggesting that each item pursued under this clause is money well spent, but legislators can make an argument that it’s at least constitutional.

Few phrases get people as riled up as does “welfare spending.” It conjures images of legislators wastefully throwing untold amounts of money at items that are best left to the private sector.

But remember that “welfare” doesn’t necessarily refer to things like subsidized housing and food stamps. Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition) defines it this way: “the state of being or doing well; condition of health, happiness and comfort; well-being; prosperity.”

So, anything that impacts the well-being, comfort or happiness of Americans can reasonably be categorized as “welfare.” This is another incredibly broad term open to interpretation.

“Some political theorists believe the government should take resources from taxpayers, based on their ability to contribute, and use them on those who demonstrate a need. This is even exemplified in the Bible. A nation that promotes human dignity, safeguards civil rights and rejects social injustice will create productive citizens.”

The first sentence in this paragraph refers to how the framers of the Constitution (“Some political theorists”) authorized the levying and collection of taxes for various purposes. Some readers interpreted this as mirroring the Marxist phrase, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” but this sentence actually describes the process of taxation, which is permitted in the Constitution.

Taxes need two things: a giver and a receiver. Taxes are levied against people or organizations that earn wages and generate income, thus they need to be taken from “taxpayers, based on their ability to contribute.”

The reason taxes are collected is because there is a stated reason for them, hence they are used “on those who demonstrate a need.” Some readers took this to mean I was advocating a “transfer of wealth,” but this isn’t the case.

Taxpayers are people who earn wages, and many of them must drive their cars to get to their jobs. But how can they drive their cars to work if there are no roads?

Here we have a need for taxpayers to drive to their jobs, and some of them may use federal highways for at least part of their daily commute. Therefore, they pay taxes to the government so it can create and maintain roads that enable them to get to their jobs and earn the money from which they pay taxes.

Here we see that those who contribute revenue in the form of taxes are the same people who demonstrate a need for these taxes. Their wealth isn’t transferred to someone else; it’s reallocated for alternate uses. In the broad sense, this can be called “welfare spending.”

The portion of this paragraph that mentions the Bible (yes, also intentionally ambiguous) refers to Genesis 41, the story of how Joseph was put in charge of everything in Egypt. The pharaoh commanded that everyone in Egypt give 20 percent of what they produced during the seven years of prosperity so they’ll have food to eat during the seven years of famine, and Joseph oversaw the entire operation.

Tradition holds that God actually pulled the strings so Joseph would be in a position to assist the pharaoh through this crisis. Contrary to what I’ve previously heard from some readers, the Bible definitely includes a story of God orchestrating a government mandated “taxation” on “wealth” to help those in need.

And given that the famine would fall hardest on the poor (like Joseph’s immediate family, as demonstrated when his brothers came to Egypt seeking food), it was vital that the government use its authority in this way to save lives. (Another interesting biblical teaching on respecting government authority can be found in Romans 13:1-6; check it out!)

Promoting human dignity, safeguarding civil rights and rejecting social injustice are all valid goals worthy of a constitutional republic such as we have in the United States. However, some readers will come across those phrases and dismiss them as being too “socialist.” But in the literal sense, this is exactly what our nation was founded upon — like it or not.

“And, frankly, it doesn’t hurt that many legal decisions rest in the hands of a select group of elites. This makes passing something like a health care bill possible.”

I knew this phrasing would arouse the suspicions of many readers, and they didn’t let me down. But, of course, I’m referring to how a representative democracy is made up.

What else would you call members of the U.S. Senate but a “select group of elites”? And, in fact, electing legislators to make decisions on our behalf is precisely how public policies become law. I’m not saying that all of them (or most of them, for that matter) are good, but it’s the process we have.

“But opponents to such radical rule-making want to reduce the size of government until nothing is left. Can a self-sustaining culture really be achieved with no centralized authority? Wow, talk about turning every state red.”

The “radical rule-making” refers to our system of governance (certainly, a nonmonarchial representative democracy was the most radical form of political rule when it was initiated by our founders), and who is opposed to representative democracies? Fascists, and many of them have placed good portions of the world under “red” tyranny (see Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning” — although I should point out that based on their literal definitions, “liberal” and “fascism” are contradictory terms).

Yes, folks, the “reds” I’m talking about are communists. They have historically been the biggest opponents to our style of governance. And it’s the very goal of socialism to create a stateless, classless world (“no centralized authority,” i.e., reducing “the size of government until nothing is left”) through which pure communism will become reality.

“If the government must protect our freedom of expression and defend us from foreign threats, why shouldn’t it subsidize our medical needs? There’s a case to be made that we have a right to health care, but many people stubbornly refuse to acknowledge it.”

My point here is that the government has already taken on the role of our protector when it comes to threats to our civil liberties and to our security. Is it a stretch, then, to believe the government should also help preserve our health and, hence, our lives when necessary?

My question about why shouldn’t the government do this is a call for a response in rebuttal. I’m sure there are good arguments why this isn’t an appropriate function of the government, so I’d like to hear some. That’s all.

There is, however, a plausible case to be made that this is proper and that health care is a right, based on the reasoning I’ve used in explaining my train of thought in this column. And then beginning in the next paragraph, I start my argument that many people are predisposed to quickly dismiss such notions without giving them due consideration based on how they (perhaps wrongly) interpret these ideas.

“They won’t abandon their preconceived biases about how a progressive agenda will bring about a revolutionary spirit of solidarity, perhaps sparking a novel global structure. Seeing only what they want to see, they’ll miss the forest for the trees.”

“Progressive” means to advance forward, as opposed to going backward by being “regressive.” It’s hard to argue against moving a society forward. Who wants to live in the past?

The bit about a “revolutionary spirit of solidarity, perhaps sparking a novel global structure” set off a few alarms for some readers, and understandably so. But think about this in light of the argument I’ve been making all along.

As I’ve stated, a self-governing society was revolutionary when our founders created our nation — they engaged in a revolution to ensure its survival. And Americans have long sought to unite with other people around the world who cherish liberty.

The “novel global structure” statement was another way of saying “new world order,” and it was meant in the manner intended by former President George H.W. Bush when he spoke of spreading freedom and democracy in other countries. His son, former President George W. Bush, initiated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to just this — actions vigorously defended to this day by many Americans.

My statement that people will “miss the forest for the trees” was a reference to how many are misinformed about legitimate arguments in favor is health care reform as well as a prediction that some readers will completely miss the point of my column. And based on some of the comments people have left, this has certainly been the case.

You see? My column is as patriotically American as baseball, Mom and apple pie. Neither Commandant Thomas Jefferson nor Czar Benjamin Franklin could have written a more stirring piece of propaganda, if I say so myself (here are a few more words for you to look up before jumping to any conclusions).

So, raise the flag proudly and pass the borscht!

To see how I respond to some of the feedback readers left about my column, take a look at my other blog post on this issue, titled “Column input shows where readers — and I — sometimes take wrong turn.” Enjoy.

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Local members of Congress respond to ‘health care right’ question

To prepare for a column I wrote this week, I asked our local members of the U.S. House of Representatives to respond to the question, “Do Americans have a right to heath care?” They each replied shortly after the health care legislation passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama several weeks ago. Here is how each of them answered:

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-13th District, of Hinsdale, who voted against the health care bill —

“Health care is not a Constitutional right. But as a policymaker, I am committed to ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable, high-quality health care options.”

* * *

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-14th District, of Geneva, who voted for the health care bill —


* * *

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-3rd District, of Western Springs, who voted against the health care bill —

“The question of whether Americans have a ‘right to health care’ is open to many interpretations. Usually when we discuss whether an individual has a ‘right’ to something we are asking whether or not there is or should be any law that prevents that person from exercising that right. Most rights, such as free speech, do not have a cost. But when speaking of health care in this context, it is important to keep in mind what is otherwise obvious: that health care not only has a cost, but that its cost is rising rapidly. The debate over the recent health care bill was not about whether there is a ‘right to health care,’ but rather how much health care should be provided by the government for certain individuals. Currently, we have Medicaid for low-income individuals. In addition, hospital emergency rooms are largely required by law to treat people with emergency medical conditions regardless of their ability to pay, and the government provides special funding to hospitals that treat significant populations of low-income patients through Disproportionate Share Hospital payments.

“I believe we can all agree that in seeking to expand access to affordable health care, we must take care to act in a fiscally responsible manner, since any government support must come from raising taxes or cutting payments in other programs. The bill that just passed both raises taxes and takes money from Medicare and Social Security in order to provide new health care subsidies for some individuals. The most important action to take to help every American access affordable health care, as well as to lower government spending, is to reduce the skyrocketing cost of health care. Unfortunately, the bill just passed does little to control skyrocketing costs. Left to grow unchecked, health care costs will become a crushing financial burden on our country, and crowd out other vital services and expenditures that protect us from harm, enhance our quality of life, and may in fact reduce our need for medical treatment.”

* * *

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-6th District, of Wheaton, who voted against the health care bill —

“I believe that access to health care is a right for all Americans, and the best way to ensure the availability of high-quality care is to enact meaningful reforms to bring down the skyrocketing cost of health services.”

* * *

I appreciate the time all of them offered to address my question.

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Naperville Tea Party: Poor wretches don’t know how bad they have it

After being confronted with the reality of oppression while attending the Naperville Tea Party today, Col. Walter Kurtz’s words in “Apocolypse Now” came back to me: “The horror … the horror …”

Sure, Naperville looks like a prosperous community. A variety of merchants line the streets downtown, complemented by quite a municipal facility.

But I quickly became aware of a tyranny so pervasive that even the people who showed up for the Tax Day rally couldn’t bring themselves to speak of it. If they could, I’m sure this would be why they’d come out and protest.

Consider this: There is not a single Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown Naperville. How the people who live there make it through each day is truly a mystery.

I was tempted to be a wiseguy by stopping inside a Starbucks to ask if they could direct me to the closest Dunkin’ Donuts. But I thought better of it, figuring that even the people who worked there were most likely bummed since they didn’t have easy access to the world’s greatest coffee. Facing the challenges of Tax Day would be trying enough without me rubbing salt in this wound.

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Here’s one crime that will be tough to crack

If you’re trying to ingratiate yourself to a judge, you might consider leaving the produce at home.

Agim Demiri, 40, of Naperville was charged today with one count of direct criminal contempt for allegedly throwing a raw egg at the DuPage County circuit judge who was presiding over his child support case in a Wheaton courtroom. According to a press release from the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office, Demiri was immediately taken into custody and will remain in the DuPage County Jail for seven days.

The Sheriff’s Office said the incident is still under investigation and that additional charges may be filed.

I’d like to know how Demiri smuggled the egg into the courtroom. Will the metal detectors there have to be recalibrated to start monitoring for breakfast items that could be used as weapons?

Did Demiri have the egg wrapped in Bubble Wrap or something like that to keep it from breaking? And since he apparently had the egg with him when he came in, was this a premeditated act? Will the state have to come up with some new category of criminal charge, such as assault with a deadly omelette?

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Why aren’t patriots demanding a halt to military spending?

If I were a savvy investor, I would already have sunk a ton of money into those tri-cornered hats that have become all the rage among patriots these days. You know, the hats worn by Americans in colonial times. They really do go with anything!

While we’re at it, let’s not forget the “Don’t tread on me” T-shirts popping up everywhere. Now that America is under siege from socialists, as demonstrated by the government takeover of health care, these items will be flying off the shelves. And had I diverted my financial resources into this kind of merchandise, I would have been swimming in cash.

But once again, I’m a day late and a dime short — with only myself to blame.

Many people involved in the Tea Party movement, along with their like-minded comrades (whoops, wrong choice of words), have become very animated about the health care reform legislation signed into law this week. I had no idea there were so many legal scholars among us! Everyone on TV waving a U.S. flag or a handgun — or both, in some cases — screaming about how we should take our country back is undoubtedly a noted authority on the intracacies of constitutional law.

If you don’t believe me, just ask them — they’ll tell you. Down to the last subparagraph, they know what’s in the Constitution and how it should be interpretted.

And one thing that is explicitly forbidden by the Constitution is socialized medicine. It’s right there in black and white. … Well, somewhere. It must be in there, if all these patriots are telling me it is.

But seeing that we’ve been overrun by constitutional scholars, I don’t understand why they’re not up in arms (figuratively speaking, of course, unless it becomes literal) over all the other unconstitutional things that Congress has done. Take, for example, the perpetual funding of a government-run army.

In listing what Congress may do with taxes, duties, imposts and excises, the 12th clause of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution states: “To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.”

Wow, that’s very revealing! From the way the Constitution reads, keeping an army around for longer than two years is, well, unconstitutional. Who knew?

Certainly not the patriots who are working to save us from the nightmares of marxism. For if they did know this, they would already have marched on Washington demanding an immediate end to socialized defense.

An argument can be made that Congress appropriates money to everything it funds on an annual basis, unless otherwise stipulated. So appropriations made to any branch of the military is done every year, thus falling within the two-year limit imposed by the Constitution.

Does this logic pass constitutional muster? Perhaps not.

When the country was founded, national defense forces were normally raised as they were needed. The Continental Army was put together for the purpose of fighting the Revolutionary War, and then it was disbanded once the war ended.

In adddition, the Constitution differentiates between congressional authority to “raise and support armies” and “provide and maintain a navy.” Since the greatest threats came from sea-based forces, having a permanent navy was essential. Not so a permanent army.

So, as I read the Constitution, Congress is permitted to raise an army and fund it for no more than two years — and then the army is to be disbanded. This conflicts with the practice of enlisting or commissioning military personnel for many years. How can someone sign up for four to six years if the Constitution demands the army be funded for no more than two years at a stretch?

Where are our Tea Party constitutionalist patriots when we need them? The government has been subverting the supreme law of the land for many years, and it’s high time this practice be stopped.

Has anybody seen my pitchfork?

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These days, neither common sense nor good governance has much of a prayer

It seems that I’ve irked the gods of civic religion with the subject of my latest column. At first thinking it was yet another earthquake in the western suburbs, I’ve been feeling the tremors of their wrath emanating from their temple.

Titled “Let us prey: Two cities could be manipulating people’s religious faith,” my column this week questions the motives behind public officials who wish to open their meetings with prayer. One paragraph stated: “To be sure, most Americans express belief in a deity, and public officials enjoy mirroring the faith of their constituents. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that nonsectarian prayers offered as part of government meetings are permitted. So, as public officials, why not remind the voters that you’re on their side in the culture wars?”

The anger of these deities has been channeled through one of their prophets, Dave Diersen of Wheaton. On his daily political Web site, GOPUSA Illinois, Diersen today comments on my offering: “DIERSEN HEADLINE: VERY SAD: Anti-religious Jerry Moore blasts religious Elmhurst and Wheaton.”

It’s not the first time Diersen has called me on the carpet, and I don’t expect it to be the last. Nor is this Diersen’s inaugural comment on this topic — his last one was incredibly unnerving.

In commenting on a newspaper item last week about Wheaton’s practice of offering a prayer before City Council meetings, Diersen wrote the following: “Needless to say, it is the epitome of hypocrisy for an anti-religious person to chose to live in religious Wheaton.”

Whoa! Is this Diersen’s idea of setting out the Christian welcome mat?

Diersen is claiming that nonreligious people have no business making their home in Wheaton, never mind all that crap about this being a free country. He harbors a delusion of DuPage County (Wheaton, in particular) being a cultural country club where only those who profess the correct political, social and religious views are permitted entrance.

The issue of government-endorsed prayer came up again recently as Elmhurst has joined the list of towns offering prayer before sessions of the City Council. Mayor Pete DiCianni proposed that the City Council resume the practice after a long absence. Other towns that offer prayers before their meetings are Addison, Batavia, St. Charles, Villa Park, West Chicago and Wheaton.

The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation last year asked the Wheaton City Council to discontinue its practice of soliciting prayers before City Council meetings, and it recently made the same request of Elmhurst. Both requests went unheeded.

There was a tad more resistence to this practice in Elmhurst than there was in Wheaton. Third Ward Aldermen Michael Bram and Susan Rose, and 7th Ward Alderman Mark Mulliner intentionally arrived late to the first Elmhurst City Council meeting where a prayer was offered.

The FFRF became involved with the case in Wheaton because one of its officers, Theodore Utchen, lives in Wheaton and sent a letter to Mayor Mike Gresk. Utchen pointed out to Gresk that many of the prayers offered referenced Jesus and, thus, are unconstitutionally sectarian.

City officials said they are now developing written guidelines regarding the prayers offered prior to City Council meetings; they want to make sure Christianity isn’t the only religious tradition represented. Given Wheaton’s longstanding connection to evangelical Christianity, however, that’s going to be a tall order.

Officials said they want to be inclusive, but this is much easier said than done. In as WASP-y a community as Wheaton is, how many of its residents would tolerate their City Council session opening with members of a witches coven forming a drum circle seeking the godess’s blessing on all in attendance?

Prayers considered nonsectarian have been deemed constitutional, although a “nonsectarian prayer” is oxymoronic. To understand why, let’s examine the meaning of “sect”:

“Any group of people having a common leadership, set of opinions, philosophical doctrine, political principles, etc. …” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Third Edition)

Invoking the guidance and/or blessing of a supreme being is an appeal to the supernatural. Accepting the existence of the supernatural is not a universal belief, differentiating those who believe in the supernatural from those who don’t.

Praying to a deity, therefore, assumes a commonly held opinion that such a supreme being exists, a viewpoint held only by members of one group. Since a sect is defined as a group with commonly held philosophical doctrines, people who believe in the supernatural constitute a sect.

Add to this the fact that prayers offered prior to government meetings are made to God (commonly accepted as a singular male figure), as opposed to Godess (female) or the gods (plural). Since the female and plural deities are usually associated with paganism, we can narrow the use of God to the monotheistic tradition. And since God is invoked rather than Allah, we can further narrow this to Judeo/Christianity.

If praying to the Judeo/Christian supreme being is not sectarian in nature, what the hell is?

So, what’s wrong with a government entity endorsing the Judeo/Christian deity? Would this put a town on the road to theocracy?

Not necessarily, but it’s not a good practice. For one, there’s always the threat of a lawsuit from someone who believes that municipal officials have become too religious. Be it a legitimate complaint or an annoying act of litigation, towns can avoid this problem by staying away from prayer.

In my column, I argued that the inherent problem with public bodies offering prayers to a deity is that they’ll be inclined to reflect the dominant religious viewpoint of their communities. What happened in Wheaton (frequent appeals to Jesus) is likely to happen in any town where one religion holds sway over others.

And towns with one dominant religious mentality are more likely to offer prayers at their meetings than those with religious groups holding near-equal sway. So, the chances of a municipality veering toward the religious sentiment expressed by the majority of its residents is very high. What would be the point of offering prayers before a government meeting if constituents (also known as voters) don’t believe their views are confirmed?

This desire to have a local government confirm such sentiments is at the root of the problem. When it comes to religion, the U.S. Constitution mandates that governments remain neutral. They shouldn’t be confirming people’s belief in the supernatural, nor should they be denying them.

The proper role of a government is to zealously protect people’s right to hold and express any religious viewpoint they’d like. And to protect the rights of all Americans given their diverse beliefs, the government must stay out of the way.

My position, therefore, is pro-religion, not anti-religion. A public body that favors one religious viewpoint over another is less inclined to fairly consider policy recommendations from those with opposing beliefs.

I invite Dave Diersen or anyone else with an opinion on the matter to submit a letter to the editor or leave a comment below. In the meantime, I can only pray that the gods of civic religion direct their anger toward someone else.

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