First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected scriptural debate over how to read one of the more widely known verses in the Christian Bible.
Matthew 25:40 includes a phrase that many have likely heard, regardless of their faith tradition: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." The phrasing is generally seen as championing the needs of the poor -- to turn your back on those struggling is to turn your back on God.
But my colleague Will Femia this week flagged an amazing report from Glenn Beck's conservative website, The Blaze, which put an incredible twist on Biblical interpretation.
Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, most certainly isn't the first to make the claim that the "least of these" is actually a reference to Christians who face struggles in sharing their faith, but his stated view on the matter is the most recent proclamation to spark interpretive discussion.
"This text is not about poor people generally. It's about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor," Burk wrote. "It's about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It's about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals."
I see. So, against the backdrop of the right-to-discriminate debate, conservatives want "the least of these" to refer to themselves.
No, really. As Ana Marie Cox joked that when conservatives see Matthew 25:40, they've effectively concluded it's "actually about Memories Pizza."
My suspicion is this interpretation may struggle to catch on among Christians in general, but I suppose it's something to keep an eye on.
Alison Sanford, with advanced achievement in both news dumps and Friday nights, puts her memory of the week's news coverage to the test for a chance to become the off-site curator of the TRMS "Herman Cain is an art project" banner collection. watch
Rachel Maddow reports on a TRMS investigation into the state of Nebraska and other states trying to obtain the execution drug sodium thiopental from a company in India, the importation of which the FDA has made clear is illegal for all states. watch
Jeffrey Cramer, former federal prosecutor, talks with Rachel Maddow about the legal elements of the Dennis Hastert indictment, including whether an extortion charge or sexual abuse charges should also be expected. watch
* The latest diplomatic breakthrough: "The Obama administration on Friday removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a crucial step in normalizing ties between Washington and Havana and the latest progress in President Obama's push to thaw relations between the United States and the island nation."
* Evidence of stale, backwards thinking: "Former Gov. Jeb Bush continued to take a hard line against normalizing relations with Cuba on Friday, accusing the Obama administration of capitulating to an oppressive regime by removing it from a state-sponsored terrorism list."
* An important court ruling: "An Idaho law that prohibits abortions of fetuses 20 or more weeks after fertilization is unconstitutional, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Friday. The ruling, from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, also struck down an Idaho law that required all second-trimester abortions to occur in a hospital."
* It's quite an organization: "Sepp Blatter secured a new four-year term on Friday as president of FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, in a vote taken two days after American prosecutors unveiled sweeping corruption charges against his subordinates."
* Congress refuses to act on ISIS: "House leaders have tangled in recent days over whether Congress needs to give President Barack Obama explicit authorization to combat the Islamic State: House Speaker John Boehner called the president's request for such authority 'irresponsible' and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Boehner has 'refused' to even debate the issue. But don't expect that heated rhetoric on the House or Senate floor anytime soon, even as militants topple major cities in Iraq and Syria at a stunningly swift pace."
* Don't panic: "The economy contracted in the first quarter for the second straight year, a disappointing start that could foil the chance of the U.S. reaching 3% growth in 2015 for the first time in a decade. Gross domestic product -- the value of everything a nation produces -- shrank by 0.7% annual rate from January to March, the Commerce Department said Friday."
As of this morning, we knew about allegations that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) agreed to pay an unnamed individual $3.5 million in order to "compensate for and conceal" unspecified "misconduct." The Illinois Republican was indicted yesterday, not for the misconduct itself, but for his attempts to cover it up.
But the follow-up questions were unavoidable. Who was Hastert paying? And why? NBC News' Pete Williams, Erin Mcclam, and Tracy Connor reported this afternoon:
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert paid a man to conceal a sexual relationship they had while the man was a student at the high school where Hastert taught, a federal law enforcement official told NBC News on Friday.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity. [The Tribune Company] reported Friday that two unnamed federal law enforcement officials said that Hastert paid a man from his past to conceal sexual misconduct.
If the leaks from law enforcement are correct, the next round of questions would probably lead to possible other charges for Hastert, but we don't yet have any additional information and we don't know about possible statute-of-limitation issues.
The NBC News report added the school district where Hastert worked from 1965 to 1981 said Friday that it had "no knowledge of Mr. Hastert's alleged misconduct, nor has any individual contacted the District to report any such misconduct."
It was just last week when Gallup reported that the number of Americans who describe their views on social issues as "liberal" now ties the number of social conservatives. The ideological parity wasn't just a surprise, it was also the culmination of a 15-year shift -- conservatives enjoyed a sizable advantage, which gradually shrank, and has now disappeared.
But these results, while heartening for progressives, looks at the debate over social issues in the broadest possible way. What are the results like when we start looking at specific issues themselves? Oddly enough, for the left, they're even more encouraging. From Gallup this morning:
Half of Americans consider themselves "pro-choice" on abortion, surpassing the 44% who identify as "pro-life." This is the first time since 2008 that the pro-choice position has had a statistically significant lead in Americans' abortion views. [...]
While support for the pro-choice position has yet to return to the 53% to 56% level seen [during the mid-to-late 1990s], the trend has been moving in that direction since the 2012 reading.
Women are more likely to be pro-choice than men, but support for pro-choice identification has grown steadily among both groups over the last several years. The same is true among all age groups -- younger Americans are more likely to be pro-choice than older generations, but every group has moved left in recent years.
As for the political breakdown, Democrats are far more likely to be pro-choice than Republicans and Independents, but again, those identifying as pro-choice have grown steadily among all three groups of partisans.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* The field of candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination will grow from two to three tomorrow, when former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) kicks off his campaign.
* Is Rand Paul falling out of favor with Fox News? The network showed the latest 2016 poll of Republican presidential hopefuls, and excluded him from the results, even highlighting candidates who had less support in the survey.
* Speaking of Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican has "sought to woo a string of powerful Republican megadonors" in recent months, but he still lacks what some of his GOP rivals already have: a billionaire benefactor.
* Some universities have begun divesting from Israel, and in response, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wants those schools to lose their federal funding. The Republican presidential candidate added that the divestment strategy is "anti-Semitism plain and simple."
* Donald Trump has apparently scheduled a "major" announcement for June 16 at Trump Tower in New York City. He's scheduled an event in New Hampshire for the following day.
* Former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) lost in 2010, won in 2012, lost in 2014, and now hopes to win again in 2016.
* Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said yesterday he doesn't "worry about poll numbers." He might want to start -- most recent national polling suggests the far-right governor is struggling to get past 1% support.
A year ago, Matt Bevin was seen as a rather ridiculous figure in Kentucky Republican politics. He'd launched a primary fight against incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which led the GOP establishment to go after Bevin with a vengeance.
A year later, however, Kentucky Republicans will have to stop calling him a dishonest con man and start calling him their nominee for governor. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported this morning:
After Thursday's recanvass of votes cast in the Republican primary for governor, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said that there were "no substantial changes" and that she thought Matt Bevin would be the GOP nominee when the vote is certified June 8.
This morning, Bevin's primary rival conceded the race. Bevin will now take on state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) in November, in the race to replace outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear (D).
McConnell, who characterized Bevin as a dangerous loon just last year, issued a statement this morning that said, "I congratulate Matt Bevin on his victory and endorse him for governor."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) ran into a little trouble this week on one of his most problematic policies. The Republican presidential hopeful chatted with conservative talk-radio host Dana Loesch and defended his law requiring women undergo state-mandated, medically unnecessary ultrasounds before they terminate unwanted pregnancies.
The far-right governor said ultrasound images are "a lovely thing," and the technology itself is "just a cool thing out there," which Walker apparently sees as justification for Wisconsin forcing women to undergo unwanted procedures for no medical purpose.
In response to the controversy, Walker went back to Dana Loesch's show yesterday, where the host complained about the "media rage spiral" and the governor accused the left of "making things up" because liberals "can't win" the argument on the merits. Walker added:
"Who's opposed to an ultrasound? They tried to claim there were certain types. Now, our law says that before someone has that procedure, they have to be given access to an ultrasound. It doesn't designate which type. Most people will do the traditional one that people think of all the time. If they haven't seen it themselves, certainly most people have seen it on TV or in movies."
He added that there's a "Walker Derangement Syndrome" in parts of the media.
It's often amazing to see what willful ignorance can do. In this case, the Wisconsin governor still doesn't understand the basic complaint at the root of the controversy.
A couple of months ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) spoke with Republican donors in South Florida, and delivered a fairly specific message: be wary of presidential hopefuls who've flip-flopped on important issues.
Given the reputation Christie has created for himself, the rhetoric didn't come as too big of a surprise. The New Jersey Republican wants to be seen as a tough, no-nonsense guy, so while other candidates start adding nuance to their finessed positions, the governor's rock-solid consistency is an important selling point.
In the two months since that exclusive donor retreat, however, Chris Christie changed course rather dramatically on immigration. And guns. And now Common Core. MSNBC's Aliyah Frumin reported yesterday:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who once supported the controversial, national Common Core education standards, unpopular among many conservative Republicans -- declared on Thursday that the program is "simply not working." [...]
Christie called on Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe to assemble a group of parents, teachers and educators to develop new education standards for consideration in New Jersey and "not 200 miles away on the banks of the Potomac River." Critics contend the set of academic guidelines adopted by 46 states since being introduced in 2010 by the National Governors Association, amounts to too much federal government interference on what should be a local issue.
Christie appears to have come to this realization quite recently. NJ.com published an interesting timeline this morning, highlighting the governor's "evolution" on the issue, starting in September 2011, when Christie thought education standards crafted "200 miles away" were a great idea.
As recently as August 2013, the GOP governor insisted, "We're doing Common Core in New Jersey, and we are going to continue." Christie acknowledged opposition from congressional Republicans, but he said his party was guilty of a "knee-jerk reaction," opposing something because President Obama supports it.
The differences, Christie added, were the results of some partisan "war" that he wanted no part of.
The storms in Texas this week have caused deadly flooding, affecting communities across much of the state. According to NBC News' latest reporting, "at least 23 people have died in flooding across the state this week."
Given the disaster, it's hardly surprising to see members of Texas' congressional delegation speaking up in support of federal disaster relief. TPM reported yesterday:
"There are a series of federal statutory thresholds that have to be satisfied. Initially, it appears those thresholds are likely to be satisfied by the magnitude of the damage we're seeing," Cruz said while touring the flooding in Wimberley, Texas, according to Texas television station KSAT.
"Democrats and Republicans in the congressional delegation will stand as one in support of the federal government meeting its statutory obligations to provide the relief to help the Texans who are hurting."
This is, of course, exactly what one expects of a senator after his state is confronted with a crisis. Indeed, note the senator's specific phrase: "statutory obligations." For Cruz, it's not even optional -- Americans have a duty under the law to come to Texas' aid.
But as the TPM report added, Cruz took a very different posture in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when he opposed federal disaster relief.
"This bill is symptomatic of a larger problem in Washington -- an addiction to spending money we do not have," the Texas Republican said at the time. "The United States Senate should not be in the business of exploiting victims of natural disasters to fund pork projects that further expand our debt."
As best as I can tell, he made no references to "statutory obligations" at the time.
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