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Category: Diversity

Choose Your Shape!

Choose Your Shape!

Well, perhaps, “choosing” should be “recognizing.” Weird? Doesn’t make sense? Read on!

In the late 1990s I participated in a program here in Escambia County called CommUNITY Dialogues, led by a creative and interesting communications specialist (and I had not, up to that time, used “creative” or “interesting” with regard to such people!) named Dr. Dolly Berthelot.

It was a great program, and I learned a great deal. The reason I’m writing about it, however, is that it was the first diversity training program I’d experienced that I considered personally valuable.

While I valued and value diversity, I felt that many interfaith and diversity programs negated their own value by asking people to give up their own beliefs on entry. The result was a debate largely centered around whether divesting oneself of one’s own “diverse” views was a good idea or not.

What Dr. Dolly did was invite us to explore our beliefs and those of others and to look at ways in which we could understand one another and work together by celebrating and taking advantage of our differences. I have always believed that this would be valuable, but in my experience people of strong convictions tend toward excluding others, and those advocating diversity want to diminish the value of one’s own values.

You may, in fact, decide to change your belief on some topic as a result of dialogue, but eliminating the differences before they are experienced and understood is, in my view, suboptimal. (I like that word!)

I say all of this to bring us to the present, and some of the work of Dr. Dolly Berthelot. I publish her book PERFECTLY SQUARE, and I have spent some time looking at a training program she has developed, SELFSHAPES. She has developed a simple quiz based on this program, and I have implemented it on our web site.

I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, because it is best experienced first. I have commented before that I have found things I’ve learned about human nature, including sociology and psychology, and definitely about different personality characteristics more helpful in Bible study and teaching than learning biblical languages. (I in no way regret learning the languages. I say this to emphasize the extreme value of learning to understand people for biblical studies and theology.)

And, of course, for life.

So head on over to the Energion Publications retail site and check out the quiz. It’s called Dr. Dolly’s SELFSHAPES. There are no pop-ups, and very little advertising. At the end we offer you the opportunity to share on social media and to sign up for an e-newsletter to keep up with developments.


In Controversy, Build Community

In Controversy, Build Community

So the disciples decided to send help to the brothers and sisters living in Judea, as each one was able. They carried out their plan, and had Barnabas and Paul deliver their gift. (Acts 11:29-30)

This is a short verse, but I think it’s very sweet. As the story of Acts progresses, we’re entering the phase of controversy between those who are welcoming gentiles to the church (without their first becoming Jews) and those who don’t wish to do so. It will get quite heated as Paul’s ministry gets going.

But here there’s a simple pause. The believers in Antioch send what they can to the believers in Jerusalem. Nobody is asking which side of the controversy they’re on.

Here’s the principle: In controversy, build community.

Will Antisemitism Ever End

Will Antisemitism Ever End

I get a daily (most days!) e-newsletter from Rabbi Evan Moffic. I find his thoughts inspiring and helpful. I want to quote his letter today in full. You can learn about some of his books through his author page or my page for him.

Henry, My grandfather passed away in 2007 at age 95, but in college I recorded several conversations with him. He talked about the Depression and the desperation he and many Americans felt.

He talked about learning to box so he could defend himself against the neighborhood bullies  who called him a Polish Jew. He talked about sneaking into gatherings in 1930s Milwaukee of a group called the The Bund, which were American Nazi sympathizers.

What happened in Charlottesville last week would not have surprised him. He lived through it once before.

But it did surprise me. I grew up with little antisemitism. My application to seminary said the age of persecution was over, and Jewish life needed to focus on more positive engagement and inspiration.

I was naive. Antisemitism has reared its ugly head again. The Nazi symbols and signs proclaiming in Charlottesville “Jews will not replace us” scared me and my children.

I thank God for you—my readers and friends—who are committed to a different world. A world we can worship and live in freedom and respect. Our task is to help preserve that world our children and grandchildren.

Do we have grounds for hope? Well, our ultimate hope rests in God.

But I also take comfort from the Book of Genesis. It begins with an angry murder. Cain kills Abel. Later Jacob steals the birthright from his older brother Esau. Then Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery.

Yet, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers  reconcile with one another. They forgive. They live in peace.

My hope is our country follows our similar path. What can you do now? Join this Facebook group to keep up with ways of fighting antisemitism. It is called, fittingly, Christians and Jewish Fighting Antisemitism and is the first of its kind.

I believe this link will allow you to sign up for the newsletter, as well as get you the Jewish holidays cheat sheet.

Courtesy Is not just for the Other Person

Courtesy Is not just for the Other Person


Probably as the result of the political correctness debate—well, perhaps not debate; more brouhaha—I hear or read frequent complaints about an expectation of courteous speech as though it’s an imposition. In order to cater to someone’s excessively fragile sensibilities, the argument goes, one is expected to deny the truth in favor of “political correctness.” In this case, political correctness is in quotes, because it tends to refer to even the mere suggestion that one might change one’s approach to presenting a viewpoint.

I do believe there is such a thing as political correctness. You identify it by taking note of the term political. It’s an officially imposed form of courtesy, carried out by policies such as speech codes. I’m vigorously opposed to speech codes in any sort of public institution. I think they are generally problematic in private institutions, though privately owned organizations should be able to make their own policies. As a publisher, I certainly maintain standards for what I will publish.

But the term “political correctness” has come to be applied to any expectation of courtesy, not just a code enforced by law or authority. Having hundreds or thousands of people disapprove of your speech does not censor you or deny you free speech. It merely means that those hundreds or thousands of people will disapprove of what you say. Which is their right.

Here’s an illustration of how to distinguish these ideas. Reasonably shortly after I turned 21 I realized that my driver’s license, by proving my birthday and thus my age, gave me the power to go see an X-rated movie. So, lacking good taste at the time, and apparently having money to waste, I found an “adult” cinema, showed my license, bought my ticket, and headed it to enjoy this privilege of age. Within five minutes I left again, never to return. I’m not totally prudish. I’ve watched some pretty hard “R” movies. I just insist on a story. One that the writers received more than pocket change to produce.

In that way I exercised an appropriate form of censorship on pornographic movies. I never again provided them with my hard-earned cash.

The alternative would be to go on a crusade to ban their product. I know many people who would do precisely that. I don’t plan to debate that issue in this post. What I want you to see is the difference.

An expectation of courtesy is not the same thing as a requirement that you be courteous. When a public university says that you must use certain terms in discussion, then that becomes a legal requirement. I call that political correctness. Why do I specify public? Because the university is taxpayer supported. I generally oppose speech codes in private schools as well, but in that case it is a matter of my support for genuine dialog, which requires genuine expression of a participant’s uncensored views, rather than an opposition to a public policy.

So what does this have to do with courtesy being for the other person?

Well, remember those hundreds, thousands, and I might add millions of people who may demand courtesy of you? The question for you is whether you prefer to just annoy them, or if you would like to get a hearing for your ideas. If you wish simply to annoy them, go ahead. Be my guest. You probably won’t be welcome as theirs. But if you have ideas that are important to you, ones you want to express truthfully and with vigor, you will need to consider your goal. If you want to get a hearing, you’ll need to combine “vigor” with “courtesy” or they will exercise their freedom and ignore you. Or, as often happens, abandon courtesy and treat you with the same contempt you show for them.

This applies to any discussion, including both religion and politics. Frequently I hear things that are claimed to be arguments for Christianity against atheism or some other viewpoint that are actually simply ways to make Christians feel better about themselves. Taunting atheists with “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Psalm 14:1) is a good, simple example. To you it is “truth” and you are just exercising your human freedom and “telling it like it is.” You can then slap the back of laughing fellow-Christians or fist-bump, or whatever you want, congratulating yourself on the point you’ve made by telling the truth.

But you have likely simply made it harder for the next Christian who would like to engage that atheist in actual dialog about matters of faith.

“But I’m just quoting the Bible,” you say.

“Out of context,” I reply. Nowhere does the Bible tell you to taunt unbelievers by calling them fools.  In fact, it says something quite different (Matthew 5:22).

We taunt fellow-Christians in similar ways. I remember a class I led some years back. Some of the participants had been spoken of in a negative way by other members of their church. They went around the group talking about the unfairness and how inappropriate it was to treat them this way. I couldn’t resist asking this: “Have you treated any non-believers as you have been treated by fellow church members?” Many admitted that they had.

I hardly need to provide examples of how we taunt people who disagree with us politically. Then quite frequently we taunt them again if they don’t want to stay around and listen to us taunt them.

If you want to isolate your ideas and grow your contituency only by raising new members from infants (and beware of them leaving!), then by all means, treat courtesy as an imposition. Regard it as something that keeps you from letting people know how things really are.

But if you’d like your ideas to spread, learn how to express the truth in a courteous manner.

Oh, and a note to all. Disagreeing with you or thinking you’re wrong isn’t discourteous. It’s a matter of the way things are expressed.

How My Business – and My Marriage – Work

How My Business – and My Marriage – Work

When Jody and I began our courtship we were treated to quite a lot of advice. One of the things we heard quite frequently was that we were too different to make a good couple. Just what those differences were, well, differed according to the observer. Underlying this type of advice was the assumption that we needed a certain sameness in order to be compatible.

Jody and I are not the same. Not even close. She loves change and adventure. She wants excitement. I like things to stay the same. I’m pretty good about discussing exciting ideas. I’m less likely to be there when the creative ideas make me change my routine. She makes decisions quickly and intuitively. I tend to spend days tearing apart every little detail. So, yes, we’re different.

Differences do cause conflict. Thus there are many people who think that if we just clear up the differences we will have peace, tranquility, and comfort. And perhaps this is so.

But with the peace, tranquility, and comfort come stagnation and even a bit of boredom. Jody hates boredom. I’m OK with it, but only within limits.

There are several ways you might imagine a marriage such as ours to work. We could compromise on everything. She makes a decision in 30 seconds, I take four days. Easy! Give it two days to simmer, and then make the decision. I like Bach and Haydn. She likes contemporary praise music. Again, easy! Find a compromise service that uses elements of both. I like a lengthy, topical sermon that deals with the details. She likes a vigorous call to action. Surely we can find a preacher who mixes those elements!

Alternatively, we could go the conversion route. Either I convince her that decisions require more time and cogitation, or she convinces me that fast action is essential. She persuades me that in order to worship properly one must have active, exciting, “now” music, or I convince her that worship truly occurs only with the traditional and time-tested. We file down one another’s rough edges and try to become mirror images of each other.

Or …

We could consider the fact that we have different approaches to just about everything to be a strength, and embrace it. Or perhaps not merely embrace it, but celebrate it and nourish it. Are there moments when Jody’s fast, intuitive decision making is just what we need? At those moments, I need to listen to her. This decision needs to be made quickly. On the other hand are there times when an idea needs thorough consideration? Indeed there are.

It’s not easy to recognize which is the best approach at any given moment. The starting point is for me to recognize that quick decision making is a gift, a positive point, and for her to recognize that serious deliberation is also a gift. Notice that we do not give up our gifts in favor of the other’s, nor do we compromise and become something between. Rather, as a couple, we become capable of responding to a greater range of situations with a greater range of responses.

Tonight I’m going to interview author Bob LaRochelle about his forthcoming book A Home United, which is designed to help couples who come from different faith communities work through and benefit from their differences. Even those who come from very different faith communities can benefit from his advice, questions, and exercises.

For us, for example, the perception was that we would have difficulties just because we attended different worship services at the same church. There were definitely differences, but they were not problems. Rather, they were opportunities. And we continue to face these opportunities as we move along. It’s easy to see problems, and to hope the problems go away. If, instead, you are patient enough to discover how the differences can benefit you, you’ll reap great rewards.

Join me tonight at 7:00 pm central time (June 23, 2015) for this interview using the viewer below.

After we had been married for some years, we became partners in business as well. I remember friends asking me to make sure who is in charge so that we don’t have problems making decisions. This suggests that in the business relationship, one of us works for the other.

There are areas in which one of us rules. In terms of organizing events, scheduling, how much we can take on, and things that are related to that, Jody takes the lead. In terms of editorial practice (what format, punctuation, and grammar rules we enforce, for example), I take the lead. On any particular project, one or the other of us will be the lead editor. These areas are divided between us.

But on the big decisions we use a simple approach that has also worked in our marriage: Two yesses, one no. It’s consensus or we don’t take a move. If we’ve published your book, you should know that neither of us said, “No.” We don’t take on one of these major projects without agreeing. That doesn’t mean that we both like each book equally. Absolutely not! But we choose not to say that “no” unless we think it is really necessary. So there are “Henry” books and “Jody” books to go along with “both of us” books.

That’s three sets of strengths: Mine, hers, and the ones that result from the combination.

One little book that helped me understand how this works is PERFECTLY SQUARE™. I encountered this book before we were married, and just recently we’ve begun to distribute it. In the following video, you can hear author Dr. Dolly Berthelot do some readings from it and explain the basic concept. I think the “shapes” idea, especially when you think about combining shapes, helps understand how all this works.

And if you’re wondering how it is that so many of our books tend to fit what I want to talk about in blogs, I’ll admit that I’m often thinking about the subject of books I’m editing, so it’s not entirely unnatural that I want to write a few notes about it. That’s one of the benefits of my business! At the same time, one of the things that determines whether we’ll publish a book is the importance of its subject matter to people who are trying to live their lives and make things work.

Would You Like a World that Was Perfectly Square?

Would You Like a World that Was Perfectly Square?

Not sure? Tonight you can find out!

0964440601On the Energion Hangout tonight I’ll be interviewing my friend Dr. Dolly Berthelot, author of PERFECTLY SQUARE: A Fantasy Fable for All Ages, and an all around great person.

Let’s get the commercial part out of the way first. This book was first published in 1994, and its message is still relevant, possibly even more relevant, today. In fact, I suspect that in another 50 years, its message will still be on point and up to date. So I’ve taken up distributing the book. You can find the Energion catalog page at the link above or by clicking on the cover picture.

And while we’re at it, you can find the interview tonight (7:00 pm central / 8:00 pm eastern) via the Google+ Event page, or you can use the embedded viewer here.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about Dolly Berthelot. I encountered Dolly through the CommUNITY Dialogues™ program she offered through the Human Relations office here in Escambia County Florida. I believe I got involved through mutual friends at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Pensacola (then Pensacola Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship).

My view of diversity programs at the time was negative, to say the least. I had attended a number of these programs while in the USAF and also some with civilian organizations, and they were uniformly boring and generally useless. I remained committed, however, to the idea that we could learn to reap great benefits from our differences by listening to one another.

I’d say that the key failures of diversity programs that I attended were rather straightforward. First, they had a tendency to tell you what a few differences were and basically explain that you had to get along anyhow. Then they’d attempt to make all the diverse people in the room drop all their differences, or treat them as unimportant, so they could get along. It appeared that the diversity trainers really didn’t like diversity. Their hope was that everyone would cut off the rough edges and get along, or just not mention anything that might be controversial.

In CommUNITY Dialogues™, things were quite different. Dolly taught (and encourages) unity in diversity. We are all different, and this isn’t a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be grasped. We need to make the most of our diversity because it’s a great thing.

So now, 20 years after the book was first released, and quite a number of years after I enjoyed that dialogues program, I’m taking up distributing this book. For various reasons (I’ll get her to explain tonight), Dolly hasn’t been as active. But she’s passionate and ready to go with the message of unity in diversity. Join us!


Essentials of the Faith – or Not

Essentials of the Faith – or Not

C. Michael Patton has written a post on doctrinal essentials which is quite interesting. James McGrath responds.

I find this a very useful discussion even when I disagree on what is essential. For example, while Patton states that he is writing about doctrine, and that another post could be written on essential practice, I would suggest that whether or not the primary essential of salvation is belief in doctrines or certain practices, a combination of the same, or indeed none of the above, is itself a rather important doctrinal question. And since the question is on just what, doctrine and/or practice, is essential for salvation, it is doubtless an essential question, at least.

I use a different method of dividing these issues in my post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion. There I am not trying to state what beliefs are necessary for salvation. In fact, I find the idea that someone must successfully believe certain propositions to be a form of salvation by works. But in creating a community, one must define what it means to be in the community and not in the community, even if one does not assume that “in the community” is equivalent to salvation.

Progressive Orthodoxy

Progressive Orthodoxy

C. Michael Patton has an interesting post today taken from his introduction to theology students.

I would particularly like any number of the folks in the various Sunday School classes I teach to absorb some of the material. This is not because I generally agree. I perceive myself to be both to the left and well to the Arminian side of his theology. Yet there are a number of point there that especially many of my Methodist brethren do not understand about either Reformed theology or in general of evangelical theology.

The first of those items is the definition of sola scriptura. Use that phase in most Methodist churches, in my experience, and people think of a complete rejection of tradition even in terms of the method in which we approach and understand scripture. Thus most of these same Methodists reject sola scriptura.

Patton describes it thus:

2. Scriptural Orthodoxy. This is the belief that Scripture alone sets the bounds of orthodoxy without any (or minimal) aid from the historic body of Christ. This should not be mistaken for sola Scriptura—the belief that the Scripture is our final and only infallible authority in matters of faith and practice—but as a radical rejection of any other sources of authority such as the church, tradition, natural revelation, etc. It is often referred to as solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. Here, there would not be minimal (if any) authority derived from the body of Christ, historic or contemporary, as an interpretive community that either fallibly or infallibly has the ability to define orthodoxy. Adherents would often be found saying, “No creed but the Bible.”

The second would be the idea of progressive understanding, or “illumination” as illustrated in the various graphics. He describes that as follows:

6. Progressive Orthodoxy. This is the belief that the ultimate authority for the Christian faith is found only in the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and that orthodoxy is a progressive development of the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. …

Patton is an advocate of progressive orthodoxy.

I believe I fall a bit to the left of that position, because I fail to see the clear line between “revelation” and “illumination” that comes at the end of the canon. I accept that we can, and indeed have, developed doctrine past the revelation of the canon, but I don’t see the hard and fast line. In a sense, the “nuda scriptura” folks (to borrow from Patton’s definition) have a point in that if the canon is complete, why would it not define such doctrines as the trinity if, in fact, the trinity is an essential. It’s interesting to me that many who claim the Bible alone in this narrower sense do accept the doctrine of the trinity, even though it seems to me that it requires some Christian tradition to get to what I would call the orthodox doctrine at least.

I appreciate also the essentials/non-essentials distinction, which many folks have a hard time making. It’s too easy to make the essentials be totally coterminous with their personal belief system. I wrote about this in a post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion, in which I argue that you must have some core of common belief, but you can also have way to much required common belief.

I continued this theme in several posts, notably Excessively Large Tent = Crash, and Christian Essentials – Incarnation at the Center, in which I discuss where I start in defining essential doctrines. Each of those posts provides links to my own further discussion.

Reality, Perception, and TEA

Reality, Perception, and TEA

One of the great experiences of my life was meeting a Calvinist evangelist. His name is John Blanchard, and I only “met” him in a fairly large group, but it was clear that he was genuinely an evangelist and genuinely a Calvinist. He was asked during a question and answer session just how he reconciled evangelism with predestination. He said: “Predestination is a doctrine and I believe it; evangelism is a command and I obey it.”

Now I had grown up in a Seventh-day Adventist home, then left the church altogether, and returned in a United Methodist congregation. That is a solidly Wesleyan-Arminian background. To me, Calvinists were always “the other guys.” We knew what we believed, we knew what they believed, and they were incomprehensibly wrong. We couldn’t understand why they would evangelize or how they could stand the thought that God might unconditionally predestine someone to eternal torment.

But my perception ran apace into an actual Calvinist, and he wasn’t what I thought he was. Now my disagreement with Calvinism is undiminished, but my perception of Calvinists has changed because of him, and because of numerous other Calvinists I have personally encountered.

“Some of my best friends are black,” became a cliched excuse for racism in decades past. But if one applied it in reverse, it could be very helpful. Make “best friends” of some people who are not the same as you are, and you will learn things that you might not otherwise have any opportunity to learn.

I have noticed this while watching responses to the tea parties. There are several odd things about this. I heard one person say that all the tea parties were simply racist and nothing more. The people involved were just upset that there was an African-American in the White House. Others focused on the word “tea-bagging” and its sexual meaning (Google if you don’t know–and want to), as though “tea-bagging” was the biggest part of the protest.

The picture you get in the media is that these are a group of really crazy people who are protesting nothing that is very important, and are probably not really patriotic Americans after all. Another line is that the protests are not spontaneous, but rather are corporate or party sponsored. (What protest doesn’t involve an element of both?)

Where have I heard that before? Oh, I remember. It was in right wing comments about war protesters and pacifists. You could generate all this commentary with a computer program. Alternatively, you could just recycle it, inserting new slurs regarding all sides.

Now doubtless there are racists at tea parties. Just how are you going to block them at the gate? Doubtless there were some people who truly did hate America at anti-war protests. How could you identify them and stop them? It’s the nature of protest that crazy people will latch on. It’s the nature of extremist commentary to latch on to the crazies on the other side while ignoring the crazies on one’s own side.

Now my perception of tea parties is impacted by the fact that I know personally some of the people there, and the ones I know are not insane, or at least no more insane than I am (which may not be saying much!). I might prefer a protest of excessive spending and thus excessive deficits, though I actually think the worst threat to our economy right now is neither excessive spending as such, nor excessive taxation as such, but the offensive concept of government bailouts. Bailouts involve excessive spending of money we don’t have, thus building the deficit, and the money goes to reward people who have done stupid and destructive things, thus encouraging behavior that should be vigorously discouraged. Bailouts are, in my view, complete stupidity, carefully packaged, and not even reasonably well disguised.

But you know, these weren’t my tea parties, so the people who organized and attended them get to protest what they want in whatever way they prefer.

There are valid points for debate in here, but in general these valid points, some of which I addressed in my post on my business blog Democracy – Taxed by a Feeling–are not getting any attention. The simple fact is that most of us don’t really know what “fair” taxation might be. Just as we have been fighting terrorism for years without a real strategy, so we fight economic hardship without any sort of strategy or plan.

(Note: A strategy requires a goal, a plan, and some reason to believe the plan will reach the goal. Lacking any of the above, it should not be called a strategy.)

There is a way out of this approach to politics, and I think the internet facilitates it. Get to know people with a variety of perceptions. Read their blogs, follow their tweets, friend them on Facebook, or whatever method you prefer. Find some locally as well. The internet isn’t a substitute for personal contact; it’s an adjunct. I regularly read as diverse a set of blogs as Levellers, Pseudo-Polymath, Pursuing Holiness, Thoughts from the Heart on the Left, Shuck and Jive, and Elgin Hushbeck: Politics and Religion.

And those aren’t all. I have 233 subscriptions in my Google reader, and I at least check the titles every day, reading a selection. I follow a variety of people on Twitter, and try to get to know as many as possible. (Twitter still challenges me with its 140 character limit and fast moving data stream, but TweetDeck helps.)

The point is that meeting people who are different will challenge your perception of who they are and why they think the way they do. This may or may not impact what you believe yourself–that should be based on better reasons than the people you happen to know. What I’m interested in is your perception of the people involved. Get to know them, not a brief stereotype of them.

For Christian readers, let me reference 1 Corinthians 12, often known as the “gifts chapter.” The thing is, I think we miss the point when we treat this as Paul’s dissertation on spiritual gifts. What Paul is doing here is drawing on the fact of different gifts, and the way in which they are necessary to a functioning church body, as a way to teach about Christian unity and service. The focus is not on a list of gifts and offices, but rather on how those are brought together.

Diverse people with diverse gifts, called to different types of service are brought together by one Spirit to work in unity for a purpose. Note that we are not told that the people are made the same. Rather, they are made part of the same body.

This would be a wonderful demonstration for Christians to make to the world. It will require us to behave differently, get to know one another, and learn to differ constructively. I think that starts by letting our perceptions crash headlong into reality.

Yes, some of the people you think are crazy, probably are. Most of them, on the other hand, are probably much saner than you think, and if you stepped past the stereotypes, you might find you could learn from them. I have!

Rachel Maddow Identifies the Religious Right

Rachel Maddow Identifies the Religious Right

I was watching Rachel Maddow last night and she commented on the “rejection of religious right” candidates during the last election and gave examples: Alan Keyes and Mike Huckabee.

Now there are a couple of problems with this, some of which could be identified by right wing opponents of Mike Huckabee who don’t think he’s far enough right. This ignores great differences in temperament, considering that Alan Keyes has been involved in trying to challenge President Obama’s eligibility for the office, while Huckabee, well, hasn’t. That’s a substantial difference in my book.

Now I’m sure my right wing friends are right with me thus far, though they may think I should skip watching Rachel Maddow. They’ll generally agree that the left tends to group quite a variety of people under the term “religious right” until the term tends to become meaningless. For example, many people from left of center regard George W. Bush as part of the religious right. Just down the road from me is Crossroads Baptist Church, home of Chuck Baldwin, who thinks Bush is left wing.

But this is not really a problem of left, right, or any other specific position. It’s a problem of distinction that we all tend to have when someone’s positions are far from our own. It’s easier in this day and age of sound bites and short messages to group people quite broadly.

But it happens in the other direction as well. I’d particularly like to look at the words “socialist” and “socialism.” As used in the campaign, they got pretty amusing. John McCain and Barack Obama were proposing tax plans that were only marginally different, and that were both redistributive in nature. Our tax system is thoroughly tied up with redistribution and even when we do tax cuts they often end up like spending because of the way we do them. Now “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is certainly an element of socialism. But the difference between Obama and McCain on taxation was not between socialism and capitalism; it was between different mixes of the two.

So why not call all socialists, well, socialists? In my view, because it devalues the term. If “religious right” applies to everyone who is both religious and right of center, then I’m probably a member of the religious right, even if only by a small margin. Yet there’s a large amount of real estate between my position and Huckabee’s, and in turn between Huckabee’s and Keyes’. Similarly, you will note attacks on President Obama’s policies from both left and right. That’s because there’s a substantial difference between his positions and many of those held by various liberal and progressive groups.

When a politician wants to make a point, he or she will try to generalize a label and place someone in as unfavorable a light as quickly as possible. If I were running in an election against an opponent to my left, I might well be labeled part of the “religious right.” In that way my opponent could reap the votes of those who are frightened by Alan Keyes. It would be politically expedient under current circumstances, but not accurate. (Of course, there are many reasons, much better ones, not to vote me into office, and you won’t see me as a candidate, not even if hell freezes over.)

The only solution I see is for us to demand better as citizens and take the time, at a minimum, to look at a list of issues and see with some precision where a candidate stands. And while I am reconciled to the fact that politicians will try to oversimplify an opponent’s position in order to gain advantage, I’m less pleased with commentators who do so. I’m not a fan of media neutrality; I am a fan of media depth.

On those rare occasions when I can find it, that is.