Archives for category: Politics

What assets do faith-based institutions located within the Washburn, Powell, Hood, and Hamilton neighborhoods of La Crosse, Wisconsin provide to those communities upon which further neighborhood development and revitalization efforts can best be built?

PHH Plan Boundary

There has been recent interest in revitalization efforts in the Washburn, Powell, Hood, and Hamilton neighborhoods of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  The need for intervention in these neighborhoods was a major platform point during local elections in early 2013 (Sullivan & Londre, 2013) along with a desire by neighboring institutions to spearhead development efforts (Gundersen Lutheran Health System & City of La Crosse, 2013).  After a preliminary review of the local literature, neighborhood planning efforts are focused on three areas:  safety/security, property improvement, and economic development (Burian, 2013; GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2013; Sullivan & Londre, 2013).  Primary stakeholders and critical supporters identified include businesses, social service agencies, and private individuals, with an overwhelming emphasis on government sponsored agencies (GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2013).   While there is a general reference to churches as a critical supporter in the PHH/Gundersen plan (GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2013), it is also noted a detailed examination of  the current place and future roles of small scale, faith-based organizations in these neighborhoods is missing from the neighborhood development conversation as a whole.

Addressing the omission of religious congregations in the visioning process for these communities is the focus of my proposed research.  The more disadvantaged a neighborhood community, the less involved residents become with community leader involvement increasing (Sampson & Graif, 2009).  Religious institutions are identified as key community leaders in neighborhoods (Sampson & Graif, 2009), therefore faith-based institutions should already be deeply involved in supporting the PHH neighborhood and will be instrumental in future redevelopment efforts. When developing abundant communities it is essential to look at the assets of the community first in order to build upon them instead of merely focusing on community faults in need of fixing (McKnight & Block, 2012).  These assets include tangible events such as community picnics and resources such as food shelves, but they also include certain properties (i.e., recognizing member gifts, nurturing communal life, hospitality to the stranger) and capacities (i. e., kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, acceptance of fallibility, mystery) that provide for satisfying communal relationships (McKnight & Block, 2012).  Identifying the current tangible and intangible assets of faith-based institutions within the PHH neighborhood will clarify areas for partnership, foundational assets to be built upon, and untapped assets as well.



It is easy to move through life, living moment to moment, appointment to appointment, deadline to deadline, and never stepping back to look at where you have been and where you are going.  Life becomes a meaningless blur of unrelated events.  Compiling the information for this portfolio has afforded me the opportunity to stop and reflect upon a previous chapter of my life with perspective.  My year as a Minnesota Housing Partnership Americorps VISTA working at West Central Minnesota Communities Action as program coordinator for the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp was a defining moment in my life.  All my random life experiences up to that point in 2004 converged in that position, and the work and training I received that year shaped who I am and what I would accomplish later.

I have always had varied interests; more so than most people it seems.  My undergraduate training and early career was mainly in theatre, however I was one of those odd ducks that worked onstage, backstage, and in the box office.  Onstage I was considered a “triple threat” – someone who could sing, act, and dance – I was comfortable being in front of large groups of people.  Unlike many performers, I was also very organized, and utilized this skill as a stage director.  I could see the big picture and was able to communicate and motivate others in creating that vision.  I also had good business sense, something quite uncommon among the theatre crowd, and this led me to become involved in the administrative aspects of theatre – such as fundraising, volunteer recruitment, contracting, and event coordination.

Regardless of what area of the theatre I was working in at the time, it always involved building community.  It takes a multitude of people to come together and put on a show.  Good old friends and strangers somehow manage to gather together around a common cause and create.  During the month or so a show is in production intense relationships are developed.  You have to trust everyone is going to do their part to make the production a success.  My role consistently involved connecting people together, helping them communicate, and getting the resources needed to get the job done.

That was exactly what I was asked to do by Americorps.  The cause was not entertainment, the goal was not to put on a quality production without killing each other, and the venue was not a theatre space, but the building of community around something was all the same.  I had all the tools and experience necessary to help build a community of people around rehabilitating housing for modest-income, elderly, and disabled people in a five country region.  Even though I had never worked in social services, housing, or with local governments, God had prepared me for the work I was called to do.

I fully believe my involvement in the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp and time as an Americorps VISTA was part of God’s purpose for my life.  Besides all of the community building skills I had developed in the theatre world, God had provided me with other necessary “tools” for my “toolbox” in accomplishing this project.  At the time my husband and I owned an established computer business in the region.  Through that business people knew who I was and already had a level of trust in me – something critical in accomplishing any task in a close knit, rural community.  Had an “outsider” been placed in the position, they would have met with obstacles with which I did not have to contend.  I also was very active in the local faith community, especially in youth ministry and education. Once again, people from this community knew who I was and had a sense of trust in me.  I understood, and was comfortable with, what was important to people of faith and why they would want to be involved in this project.  I knew the “language of faith” and could communicate to this community in a way that someone who is not active in church life would find difficult and uncomfortable.  I was also familiar with local politics.  I had run for city council several years previously and was a frequent attendee of Elbow Lake city council meetings.  I had become involved in local politics out of boredom, but this experience helped me to be comfortable with the language and procedure of politics.  This was another helpful tool for me when coming to local governments for financial and legal support of the work we were doing in their communities.  None of this past experience was at all related, at the time it seemed just random life to me, but it coalesced in this particular work I found myself doing.  The only explanation I have is it was the hand of God at work in my life, shaping me as the potter does the clay into a tool to build His kingdom.

In much the same way that all this past experience formed me for the community building I did with the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp, I can hear echoes of the training I received through Americorps and Community Action in my life after 2005.  Four years later I helped our neighborhood form a community association in response to city infrastructure plans and policies we felt would be detrimental to our neighborhood.  Each project I did with the Westside Association, from organizing the neighborhood meetings, to putting together door campaigns to notifying the community of what was going on, to working with the city government to come to a just solution, I learned through the community organizing training I had received as an Americorps VISTA.  Even something as simple as purchasing our produce through a CSA (community supported agriculture), our staples through a community purchasing group (Fare for All; Angel Food Ministries), and our meat from local farmers, those decisions and relationships grew out of my broadening experience of working for the common good through the context of community cooperation.  God continues to shape me and I continue to try to respond to how He calls me to service.

It has been almost three years since I moved away from West Central Minnesota, where I was first initiated into community-mindedness, and returned to my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  I have been waiting, often impatiently, to discover the next chapter of my life, to understand God’s purposes for me in this community.  But much like I could not see the road unfolding ahead of me from theatre to Americorps to Westside Association, I cannot see past the horizon here in La Crosse.  I simply must trust that God is forming me right now for the next part of His plan, and be open and ready to respond when He calls my name.


To:  Barack Obama, President of the United States

From:  Krista Clements Orlan, Student of Servant Leadership

Re:  Thoughts as You Enter Your Second Term

Congratulations on your recent election win!  As a constituent who voted for you in both the 2008 and 2012 elections I want to express my joy that you are our president.  I appreciate the charismatic style of leadership you have brought to the office.  In these difficult times our country has been facing, with the fears of terrorism and the threat of economic collapse, it is important for the people to have a friendly face and voice of hope to go to when the future is uncertain.  You have confidently and optimistically led our country over the last four years despite fierce partisan opposition, and I am certain you will bring the hard work you began to a positive resolution as you move “Forward” into your second term.

I have been studying servant leadership and politics this semester at Viterbo University.  It has been an insightful course of study during the last leg of your election campaign, and now looking into the future of your next term.  There were several topics covered during the course that I would like to share with you as you go forward.  I hope you find my thoughts on politics as a vocation, credibility, and how they apply to you specifically, helpful in navigating through these next four years.  In the end, I offer these insights as rain and sunshine for the emerging servant leader within you.

Politics as a Vocation

            One of the first topics explored in class was the idea of politics as a vocation according to German economist and sociologist, Max Weber.  In a lecture given to the Free Students Union of Munich University in 1919, Weber offers his definition of politics and the state, explains politics as a vocation, discusses the three types of authority, and considers the needed compromise between an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility in decision-making.

Weber defines politics as “any kind of independent leadership in action” (1919, p.1).  Politics happen within the family, in the workplace, within any aspect of life.  For purposes here, I am referring to the politics of the state.  Weber defines the modern state “sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force” (1919, p.1).  Using this definition, the United States of America is an association of governments acting together to decide if and when physical force is used to control international or civil situations.  As the president of these United States it is your primary duty to decide when and when not to go to war as the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army and Navy (Koh, 2001).

The authority of president, this power to make or not make war, has come to you due to your charisma.  Weber outlines three distinct types of leadership in his lecture.  There is the traditional or legitimate leader – one who assumes his position through inheritance or local custom.  Second is leadership by legality – someone whose power is a product of policy or law.  And finally, there is the charismatic leader – a person who rises to the position due to a heroic personality that inspires confidence from his constituents (Weber, 1919, p. 2).

This last leadership type is that of the elected official, and where the heart of politics as a vocation lies.  The charismatic personality of the elected politician bubbles up from who they are, not from the position itself.  Elected officials are called by their constituents to their positions by virtue of who they are and when the leader’s “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Buechner, 2012).  This makes charismatic leadership unstable because authority can be taken away based on the whim of constituents.  This whim is continually being swayed by the leader’s personality and the day-to-day decisions made on behalf of the state.

Weber continues to discuss utilizing various ethics in political decision-making.  A charismatic leader will tend towards an ethic of ultimate ends where his focused passion for a cause will lead to any means necessary to achieve the end.  However this ethic lacks any regard for consequences, and this is where a politician can find himself in trouble with his constituents.  An ethic of responsibility is needed to balance the fervor of the ethic of ultimate ends so that all stakeholders are considered.  Weber surmises that political leaders acting through the vocational call will balance an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility in sound decision-making.  This is the path of the mature leader; the one who is able to guide the state along the path of long-term success and not get lost in the short-term wins.  This tactic will lead to credibility with constituents and support longevity in the vocation.

An interesting picture emerges when considering Weber’s thoughts on politics as a vocation and the direction for your second term as president.  I believe you were re-elected largely in part to your past decision-making on war and other physical conflict on behalf of the nation.  During the 2008 campaign you promised to end the Iraq War safely and responsibly within sixteen months and this was a promise you kept (Gibson, 2011).  During a 2008 presidential debate against Senator McCain you stated:

“And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think we have to act, and we will take them out.  We will kill bin Laden.  We will crush al-Qaida.  That has to be our biggest national security priority” (Adair, 2011).

This was another promise kept.

Not only did you keep these promises but you demonstrated a good balance in ethics of ultimate ends and responsibility in achieving these goals. “Although about 48,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq as a transitional force, the bulk of the combat forces were headed home by the end of summer 2010,” reported FOX News (Gibson, 2011).    You considered the consequences to the Iraqi people if you pulled our troops out all at once and decided a transition was needed to ensure long-term peace in the region. According to CNN, 57% of Americans trust you to handle an international crisis as opposed to only 50% for Romney (2012).  This demonstrates your decisions in regards to international force have created credibility with the American people.

It is important to move forward with other international conflicts in a similar manner during your second term.  The American people are expecting you to move firmly, yet not recklessly, in international affairs.  We want to consider the impact our forceful actions have on other countries.  Proceeding in this same direction will ensure continued call by your constituents to the role of the charismatic leader as your presidency is over and new political opportunities evolve.


The course bookend to Weber has been James Kouzes & Barry Posner’s book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It.  The book fleshes out thirty years of ongoing research into leadership.  The bulk of the work focuses on the six steps to building and maintaining credibility as a leader: discover your self, appreciate constituents, affirm shared values, develop capacity, serve a purpose, and sustain hope (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 35).  As I stated earlier, you were successful in building credibility with American voters during your first term of office; this is why you were re-elected.  Now your challenge is to maintain that credibility throughout the remainder of your presidential career.  Indulge me as I explore how you built credibility in each of the six areas, and make recommendations on how you can continue to build credibility into the future.

“To be credible, you need to have trust in your abilities to do what you believe, especially in uncertain and challenging situations” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 43).  In a nutshell, this is the ultimate challenge of self-discovery for a leader.  You are a great leader because your life has been focused on self-discovery and this self- awareness has provided you what you needed to lead an entire country.  Author, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, called your book, Dreams from My Father, “one of the most powerful books of self-discovery I’ve ever read” (Obama, 2004, back cover).  Through the process of writing this book you were able to unpack a lifetime worth of searching for your True Self in a way most people do not take the time or energy to embark.

I also had the pleasure of reading your second book, The Audacity of Hope, where you explore what you believe about our nation and how the government can best address our country’s needs.  You sought out the best educational opportunities available in our country at Harvard, and have taken your book smarts to the streets as a community organizer in Chicago, as well as the halls of Congress, in order to build your competencies.  The sum of all your life experiences and how you have aggressively sought to make sense of them has instilled in you the confidence to lead a nation.

As you move through these next four years, it is important that you always take time to contemplate who you are at this moment.  Self-discovery is an ongoing process.  Who we are is constantly developing.  Being in touch with who you are right now will keep you grounded and confident in making the difficult decisions needed of the president.

Credible leaders appreciate their constituents.  They listen deeply and ask for feedback.  They also encourage constructive controversy as a way to make better decisions and build commitment within their teams.  In observing you through the media over the last several years, you make a point of relating to the average American. You are frequently pictured in everyday situations with everyday people, for instance, eating pie in a café or playing a game of basketball.  You always look completely comfortable and honestly happy to be spending time with these people.  As an “average American” myself, I have always enjoyed these media moments as a window into a man who is just like me and appreciates who I am and what I go through as part of this society.  That is pretty amazing considering you are a black man and I am a white woman.

Moving forward, I think it will be necessary for you to shift your energy toward building credibility with your immediate stakeholders, namely the Republican members of Congress. There is much bi-partisan work to be done in addressing the federal budget deficit, the sagging economy, and federal healthcare legislation. It will be important for you to promote constructive controversy in order to come to the best decisions in a way that does not drive a wedge further between the two political parties.  This is a tall order, but a challenge I believe you can undertake.  While editor of the Harvard Law Review you were known for your unique ability to work constructively with conservative editors on the Review.  In an interview shortly after being elected as the first black president of the Review board you explained, “If I’m talking to a white conservative who wants to dismantle the welfare state, he has the respect to listen to me and I to him. That’s the biggest value of the Harvard Law Review. Ideas get fleshed out and there is no party line to follow” (Drummond, 2008).  Unfortunately, in the White House there is a party line to follow, and this is what will make your second term particularly challenging.  Keep striving to understand conservative perceptions, concerns, and values in regards to these issues as a way to keep the conversation headed toward compromise.

Once a credible leader understands their stakeholders values they can build further credibility and confidence by affirming the values that are held in common.  This has been a difficult task during your first term and the most complicated area of credible leadership in the current political climate.  The problem of affirming shared values between liberal and conservative factions has not been your problem, but that of the parties.  Christine Lee, a black Harvard law student during your time on the Review board noted, “He’s willing to talk to them (the conservatives) and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don’t have and don’t care to have” (Drummond, 2008).  This aspect of credible leadership comes naturally to you; however it is the deep seated stalemate between the GOP and the DFL that has been a barrier to constructive compromise in Washington.

Your challenge going forward is to build genuine working relationships with every person involved in party negotiations.  Building these types of relationships takes a lot of time and energy.  You understand this from your time as a community organizer in Chicago.  In fact, you may spend your remaining four years building these relationships so that constructive compromises can be made immediately before leaving the presidency, or perhaps you will be laying the groundwork for the next president.  Regardless, your work now is in building a community of politicians committed to making changes for the common good based upon shared values and blind to party affiliation.  It may seem an insurmountable task, but if anyone can do it, you can.

Credible leaders build the capacity of their constituents so they can better help the leader address those insurmountable tasks.  They “provide the resources and other organizational supports that enable constituents to build their skills and put their abilities to constructive use.  Credible leaders foster an ownership mindset by making sure people have choices and the freedom to use their training, their judgment, and their experience to do what is right” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 131).  You are in the unique position of offering this to all Americans who need access to an affordable, quality education.  According to online parent resource, you have made education a priority as president.  You have supported the development of new federal assessment standards to replace the problematic No Child Left Behind, provided grant money to states for starting charter schools as a way to offer more school choice, made the federal student loan system more efficient in order to free up money for Pell grants, offered grant money to make preschool accessible to more people, increased funding for science and math education, and funded experiments in merit pay for teachers (Sorrentino, 2012).  You see the importance of training the next generation of our country’s leaders and back up that value with federal support.  I encourage more of the same from you in the upcoming years.  It is the best way to leave behind a legacy as a leader – empowering others to do what was not yours to do.

Serving a purpose is also important to building credibility in leadership.  This is done by putting the country’s guiding principles before anything else (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 152).  You spoke about this in your 2012 victory speech:

“By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.  But that common bond is where we must begin” (Obama, 2012).

A guiding principle of our nation is that we are united in innumerable ways, including a unity of diversity in opinion and worldview, and it is in working through our diversity that our country’s unity is perfected through consensus and compromise.  Living out this purpose on the political stage has not been an easy task; in fact it often seemed there was no hope for consensus and compromise in the midst of all the hard-line partisan rhetoric.  But you persistently tried, and from recent headlines it seems as if the long held stalemate may soon fall aside in the interest of addressing the deficit (Espo, 2012).  To keep the momentum of compromise going I recommend remaining open to constructive conversations and opposition because “credible leaders provide tangible evidence of their commitment and are visible models of the kinds of behaviors that are expected” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p.152).

The final, and what I consider most essential quality of credible leadership, is the ability to sustain hope.  Hope has been an abiding theme in your life and your presidency.  Through your childhood you held on to the hope of finding where you belonged.  During college you participated in political demonstrations in the hope of ending apartheid (Drummond, 2008).  You moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer in the hope of bringing just treatment to those living in impoverished neighborhoods. Your conversion experience into the Christian faith involved listening to a sermon entitled “The Audacity of Hope” surrounded by those you were called to serve.  You went on to write a book by the same title about your hopes and dreams for America’s future. “Hope” was your first presidential campaign slogan.  Hope has been a driving force in your life and you have not been afraid to embrace the power of hope when others have dismissed it as a soft and wistful emotion.  Your very presence as the President of these United States, a young black man from an unstable home, has brought hope to so many Americans.  Hope has made you a leader “with a positive, confident, gritty, can-do approach [Yes, we can!] who remain[s] passionate despite obstacles and setbacks” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 173).  And you will sustain hope in our nation by helping us all think positively about the future through your gift as an orator.  You are America’s cheerleader and that is exactly what we need in order to rise above our country’s difficulties.  Thank you for your gift of hope!

Servant Leadership & Politics

In conclusion, I want to share with you some thoughts on servant leadership and politics.  It has been a topic of conversation in our servant leadership classes on campus this semester.  Opinion is divided about whether or not it is possible to be a politician and a servant leader simultaneously.    Some think it impossible because of the large number of constituents a politician represents.  It is not possible to build interpersonal relationships with most of them, and that is a key component of servant leadership.  In today’s political climate, politicians have to answer to their parties and supporting lobbies more so than to the people they represent in order to be effective in their positions.

This makes it difficult to actually listen to constituents and act according to personal values.  The battleground of politics is an unfriendly place for the servant leader.

However I think someone who is firmly grounded in their role as servant leader can successfully navigate the world of politics, and I think you are a prime example.  Robert Greenleaf defines a servant leader as “servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (Greenleaf, 2008, p. 15).  You demonstrated this when you chose to work as a community organizer before heading to law school.  You continued to demonstrate this when you chose to work in civil rights and as an educator before initiating your political career.  Your political career in itself is an act of civil service.  Your service to others, and inspiring others to service, has always been a motivator for you.

Servant leadership emerges from you in other ways as well.  I have already written about your desire to connect with people on an interpersonal level and how that positively affects the rest of us who will never have the opportunity to meet you in person.  Of all the presidents I have known in my lifetime, you are by far the best storyteller of the lot.  You have the gift to connect, inspire, and reassure with your words, both orally and in written form.  Critics often claim this is all you have going for you, but when looking through the servant leader lens, the ability to uplift and motivate others to service through story is the key to successful leadership.  The servant leader does not have to do it all by himself, he does not want to because his primary purpose is to develop other servant leaders.  In your 2008 victory speech you expressed this desire:

“This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change.  And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other” (Obama, 2012, November 4).

You clearly understand what it takes to be a servant leader and have tried your best to apply what you know in your role as president.  You may not have always been successful in your leadership – what servant leader has not failed in some way – but I observe you continually use your failures to grow and develop as a leader.  This is all we can legitimately ask of our leaders, and of ourselves.

You have spent the last four years laying the groundwork for your next four as president.  I have hope and confidence that you have built the relationships necessary to break down the walls of partisanship and build the bridges of cooperation and compromise in Washington, D.C.  Despite having never met you in person, you have managed to build credibility with me during your first term, and I am sure there are thousands of others like me.  I want you to know how very proud I am of being an American during the term of our first African American president.  I want you to know how very proud I am of you.


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Voting With Your Money by Mark Wagner

The 2012 presidential election will go down in history as the election that was all about money.  The failing economy, taxes, spending, unemployment, the rising national debt – all things money took center stage in the minds of voters and in the mouths of the candidates on the campaign trail. The national unemployment rate is currently at 7.9% (Raum, 2012) and the national debt sits at over $16 trillion (U.S. debt clock, 2012). According to Democratic pollster, Doug Schoen, “ultimately, it’s the economy” that will be the determining factor in this election.  “If Romney wins, it’s the economy.   And if Obama wins, it’s because he’s been able to blunt the impact of the economy” (Raum, 2012).  If the current state of our national economy and the solutions proposed by each candidate are what steered voters at the polls, it is important to understand the economic platforms U.S. citizens had to choose between and how the candidates arrived at their positions.

The Democratic incumbent and election winner, Barack Obama, believes the best way to invigorate the U.S. economy is from the middle class outward.  Addressing the Congressional Joint Session on February 24, 2009, Obama expresses his faith in the power of the middle class:

The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.  They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.  Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure (Barack Obama Quotes, 2012).

Obama’s current plan for economic recovery outlines several approaches that echo the points made in his congressional address.  He is committed to increasing Pell Grant funding, keeping student loan interest rates low, and loan repayment affordable so more middle class Americans can pursue their career goals by obtaining a higher education, making for a better-educated work force.  Likewise, he supports federal funding of community colleges in order for Americans to receive quality training for the manufacturing jobs he hopes to bring back to the United States.  Obama proposes doing this by eliminating tax breaks to companies who move their manufacturing out of the country and creating tax incentives for those companies who bring their operations back to the U.S.  He also has been instrumental in lowering taxes for small business and agriculture – the businesses of the middle class – so they can afford to expand in new directions such as clean energy, which Obama strongly supports as an industry ripe for job creation.

Obama’s economic recovery plan is the work of a community organizer, something he spent two years doing in Chicago.  He felt called to become an agent of positive change in places where change was needed but seemed inaccessible. “Change won’t come from the top, I would say.  Change will come from a mobilized grassroots”, Obama (2004) writes in his autobiography, Dreams from my Father.  This vision of positive change as a “bottom-up” process is seen in the direct impacts Obama’s plan offers the middle class.

A community organizer works with a local group of citizens in identifying solutions to key problems affecting them, and then connecting the community with those who have the power to help initiate the solutions.  Grassroots organizing focuses on solutions existing within the community circle of influence, and organizing the group in asserting its influence on key decision-makers outside of the community when necessary.  Obama’s plan keeps the solutions within the middle class sphere – for instance those focused on education and training – while providing influence over power brokers outside the community, as seen in the tax incentives for large businesses who bring overseas jobs back into the community.  It is truly a grassroots plan keeping the solutions and government support as localized as possible with those who are feeling the effects of the recession the most – the middle class.

This is in contrast to Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s five-part economic recovery plan, which focused on government cooperation at higher levels of influence in the hopes of support “trickling down” to the middle class in the form of more jobs at better pay.  “The invisible hand of the market always moves faster and better than the heavy hand of government”, remarked Romney to the House Republican Conference in 2009.  Lightening the hand of government was prominent in Romney’s plan to grow the economy.

The first of his goals was for the United States to be energy independent by 2020, with a focus on accessing more fossil fuels located on U.S. land.  Second, Romney proposed adjustments to international trade agreements that would open up new markets for American goods and services while cracking down on agreements that are currently being abused by other countries.  Next, Romney would support education by providing better public schools, better access to higher education, and better re-training programs for out-of-work Americans.  Fourth, he planned to cut the national debt by reducing government spending.  And finally, he would cut taxes for all Americans while deregulating business in general.

Romney’s five-part economic recovery plan reflected his previous work as a business consultant with a reputation as a successful turnaround artist, most notably with Bain & Company and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (SLOC).  According to Frontline, Romney attended Harvard during a time when they emphasized a business consultant model focusing on an individual coming into an organization to offer a detached analysis of the problem and objective list of solutions before moving on to the next organization to assist (Kirk, 2012).  (This is in contrast to the in-house model where the consultant is vested in the organization and works with different departments in addressing organizational problems, such as Greenleaf at AT&T.)  Romney could be characterized as a reluctant prophet in his involvement with the SLOC.  “I got a call asking whether I would consider taking the helm of the troubled Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Games,” writes Romney in his memoir, Turnaround.  “I dismissed the notion out of hand.  It was a preposterous idea.  I had no background in sports administration” (Romney & Robinson, 2004).  However these initial apprehensions are what would give Romney the necessary distance to objectively scrutinize the organization and lead it toward positive changes.

Romney’s approach to the nation’s economic crisis was that of the outsider who has observed and offers a succinct list of five solutions. Most of these solutions, with the exception of Part Three, focused on bolstering the top of the pyramid in an effort to address problems lower in the hierarchy, hence the term “trickle down” economics.

When comparing both candidates’ plans for the economy one can hear echoes from their personal lives as well as their approaches to community service.  For example, education figures prominently in both plans.  An analysis of the key talking points from their campaigns on this subtopic identifies the gap in perspective these two men have from their lived experience.

Obama specifically supports government educational funding through Pell Grants, federally subsidized loans, and direct funding to community colleges.  Obama attended Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School.  While his decision to attend Occidental was “mainly because [he’d] met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii with her family” (Obama, 2004) and he applied for a transfer to Columbia because he “figured that if there weren’t any more black students at Columbia than there were at Oxy, [he’d] at least be in the heart of a true city, with black neighborhoods in close proximity” (Obama, 2004), one can surmise financial aid packages played into his decisions given his mother was solely responsible for his and his sister’s welfare.  According to the StarTribune, Obama received Department of Education funded student loans (Crumb, 2010) to help pay for college.  Obama’s economic recovery plan includes federal education funding support because he personally understands how important this funding is in making higher education accessible to those who will eventually drive our economy as consumers, manufacturers, business leaders, and even future presidents.

Although education also had a place in Romney’s economic recovery plan, he offered no specifics on how his administration would support it on a federal level, if at all.  This may be in part to the mixed messages on education Romney gave during his campaign.  In the presidential debates he insisted he had no plans to cut federal education funding.  However Romney also spoke in support of his running mate Paul Ryan’s federal budget plan, which calls for billions of dollars in cuts to educational funding (Strauss, 2012).  Romney attended Stanford University, Brigham Young University, and the Harvard School of Business.  He came from a wealthy family and had no need for financial aid support for his education.  On the campaign trail, Romney advised students to get as much of an education as they could afford (Hibbard, 2012).  His advice that young people should “take a risk, get an education, borrow money if you have to from your parents” was often misinterpreted as advising students they should borrow for education costs from their families.  The Romney campaign clarified he was speaking in terms of business loans (Trinko, 2012), however this also indicated his plan limited opportunities to those with private financial resources, i.e. those higher up the economic pyramid.  This is understandable considering Romney’s perspective as a member of an affluent and influential family, both on the political scene and within the Mormon Church.  In a “top-down” economic plan, recovery does not need to trickle far in order to impact those who would be considered Romney’s peers and associates.

The 2012 election is over and Obama has been declared the winner by a narrow margin, winning only 50.5% of the popular vote compared to 48% for Romney (Kanalley, 2012).  With virtually half of the nation still believing in the importance of grassroots change, and the other half considering a return to “trickle down” economics as the solution to our nation’s problems, we are sure to have an interestingly contentious four years until the next election unless Obama can successfully reach across party lines.  One can hope the almost equal divide in the popular vote will be a catalyst for a new era of bipartisan cooperation.  Our nation’s future depends on it.


Barack obama quotes viii. (2012). Retrieved from

Crumb, M. J. (2010, May 24). 9 accused of accessing obama’s student loan records plead not guilty in federal court in iowa. StarTribune. Retrieved from

Hibbard, L. (2012, June 29). Mitt romney: Students should get ‘as much education as they can afford’. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Kanalley, C. (2012, November 9). Who won the popular vote in 2012?. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Kirk, M. (Director) (2012). The choice 2012 [Web series episode]. In Fanning, D. (Executive Producer),Frontline. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation. Retrieved from{“10151488074293942”:10151114727277319}&action_type_map={“10151488074293942″:”og.recommends”}&action_ref_map=[]

Obama * Biden. (2012). Retrieved from

Obama, B. H. (2004). Dreams from my father: A story of race and inheritance. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Raum, T. (2012, November 6). Economy is still driving issue in election. Retrieved from

Romney, M. (2009, February 6). Commentary: Stimulate the economy, not government. Retrieved from

Romney, M., & Robinson, T. (2004). Turnaround: Crisis, leadership, and the olympic games. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

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Strauss, V. (2012, October 12). Romney, the debate and education. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Trinko, K. (2012, August 14). obama ad attacks romney on college affordability. National Review. Retrieved from

U.S. debt clock. (2012, November 6). Retrieved from

ImageI grew up in a family who enjoyed talking politics.  We would venture over to my grandparents house every Friday night where a random mix of my father’s eight siblings would congregate to eat and talk smart.  Chances were that between a card game of Wahoo and the latest episode of “The Dukes of Hazard” someone would get into a heated discussion about the big political issue of the day.  Voices would raise, spit would fly, and I would receive a balanced overview of the topic simply by sitting on the floor and listening to my uncles’ debate.

I learned excellent debating skills when talking politics with my family.  First, you needed to know what you were talking about.  If you didn’t have your facts straight or didn’t have a good grasp of the issue, someone was going to call you out on the carpet.  Second, you needed conviction in what you believed.  No one really wanted to talk politics with you if you didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other.  That just wasn’t fun.  Even if everyone agreed, they all needed conviction for a lively joint lecture to ensue.  Next, you needed to shut up long enough to hear the other person’s points, no matter how stupid you thought they were, in order for you to make some brilliantly valid counterpoints to demonstrate their stupidity.  Finally, you needed to be open to the possibility of being proven a dumb ass, because this happened as frequently as you proved them a dumb ass, and thank God for that because it saved you from sounding like a dumb ass again the next time you talked on the same political subject.

Even though the political discourse in my family tended toward the unrefined, everyone understood some basic rules of engagement that kept them coming back week after week to talk some more.  Relationships were not broken; they grew in different ways, some growing closer while others experiencing a time of distance as their opinions diverged on various topics.  The conversations never stopped.  Even though kids have grown up, lives have changed, and grandma and grandpa are gone, these lively conversations continue on among my family every time we gather together.

Unfortunately, constructive conversations are no longer commonplace in the US public square.  E.J. Dionne notes a progressive movement toward the extremes on both sides of the debate in his book, Our Divided Political Heart (2012), and this polarization has caused a stalemate on the US political scene.  The polarization has become so extreme it has caused political rifts within the two primary parties themselves.  Both far-left and far-right viewpoints are so absolutist there is little to no room for movement toward a compromise that can result in joint political action.

As political rhetoric has progressively moved towards the extremes I have progressively distanced myself from the world of politics.  What I hear from professional politicians and political talk show hosts on both sides is exasperating.  When Ron Paul ran for president in 2008 I would joke that he was so Republican (he’s actually a Libertarian) he had come full circle to become a Democrat.  Little did I realize my accuracy!  Dionne (2012) discusses at length how both the Democratic and Republican Parties have flip-flopped on some of the ideals for which their parties originally stood, namely the ideals of individualism and community.  Through 150 years of healthy political discourse leading to transformation, both parties now find themselves on opposite sides of the line on this topic.  It makes the current absolutist state of affairs particularly frustrating.

I am reminded of Robert K. Greenleaf’s thoughts on the difference between renewal and transformation in his essay, “A Lifeline of Ideas”.  He views renewal as superficial change in an attempt to recover historical greatness.  However transformation “connotes a new, nobler direction, not just a recovery of the past – which probably is not possible and which we would not like even if we could recover it” (p. 314).  When I first read Dionne’s (2012) observations of how the Democratic and Republican Parties have strayed from their original commitments to individualism and community respectively, my initial reaction was that they needed to go back.  They need to re-embrace those ideals from which they had wandered away.  This must be why everything is so screwed up with politics in America!  But then I read Greenleaf’s essay and understood this had happened through transformation and going back would be an act of “dangerous complacency” (Greenleaf, p. 314) for both parties.

The real answer for American politics is to head down the road of transformation again.  Both conservative and liberal extremes, and everyone in-between, would be wise to adopt Ellen Ott Marshall’s (2008) policies of love, moral ambiguity, and humility when entering the public square.  Commitment to these three principles when engaging in political discourse destroys current absolutist trends and opens the door to transformation for both parties on multiple levels.  Republicans and Democrats will discover their shared concerns for the shattered US economy and fear of further decline, and begin the compromise process that leads to solutions everyone can support.

Unconditional love, moral ambiguity, and humility are not lofty principles that only saints would have the fortitude to utilize in the public square.  They are not techniques that are too soft to be effectively used in political debate, even today.  They are principles any person who is willing to stand with others in the murky waters of modern US politics can hold.  They are commitments that my redneck uncles held, even though they didn’t know it, because they were a family who cared about each other and their country.  I have hope for positive change in America, and that change needs to begin with me.


Dionne, Jr., E. J. (2012). Our divided political heart: The battle for the american idea in an age of discontent. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1996). A lifeline of ideas. In A. Fraker & L. Spears (Eds.), Seeker and servant: Reflections on religious leadership (pp. 311-314). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hellwig, M. K. (2005). Public dimensions of a believer’s life: Rediscovering the cardinal virtues. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Marshall, E. O. (2008). Christians in the public square: Faith that transforms politics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from

ImageIn 2008 the United States experienced a contentious presidential election that resulted in the first African American being elected as President.  It was within the milieu of divided political discourse leading up to this election that Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of ethics at Claremont School of Theology, penned her contribution to the topic of religion and politics, Christians in the Public Square.

The overarching purpose for Marshall’s book is to encourage engagement in democratic discourse by people of faith.  There has been an increasingly vocal segment of the US population who believe there is no place for faith or religion in politics.  Their position is that our country supports a separation of church and state, and therefore political candidates and activists should refrain from making statements of faith in their rhetoric.  However there are others, namely those from fundamentalist perspectives, who speak openly about the tenets of their faith and how they apply to politics.  Their rhetoric tends toward absolutism, authoritarianism, and divine endorsement, which is cause for the great divide currently being experienced in the square of public debate.  These are problematic features within the general state of our current politics.  There has been a continuing stalemate between the left and the right where no middle ground can be found, and it is paralyzing multiple levels of government.  Discerning individuals, me included, are exasperated by the lack of movement towards solutions this divide has created.  In response to our feelings of frustration, many of us have chosen to quiet our political opinions, or have disengaged from the political process entirely.  Marshall calls us back to the table and offers us insight into how to engage in crucial political conversations in constructive ways.

When we do come to the table Marshall invites us to place our faith squarely on top; there is no need to hide it beneath our napkins.  “We must do so because our faith is a deeply held part of who we are and therefore cannot be excised”, states Marshall (p. xiii).  Our faith informs our conscience and shapes our commitments to various social issues.  It is an essential component of political discourse and should be honestly shared as an informing resource.  Drawing upon liberal theology’s traditions of critical inquiry, freedom from religious certitude, and historical understanding, Marshall proposes three commitments when sharing faith in the public square:  unconditional love, moral ambiguity, and theological humility.  By practicing these commitments, people of faith can share their convictions in a constructive way that leaves the door open for transformation – a transformation of self, the other, the issue, and democratic discourse itself.

Marshall’s thesis holds that as more people begin constructively sharing their faith in the public square, the overall tone of political rhetoric will change from divisive to inclusive.  She admits practicing love, ambiguity, and humility in the current political landscape is difficult.  She understands such methods are seen as politically ineffective compared to statements of certitude.  However the only way to change the course of current political discourse is to begin making changes on an individual level.  As more individuals advocate for social change utilizing the above mentioned principles, a climate of compromise will be established and movement towards justice and truth will ensue.  Marshall echoes the political tension between absolutism and compromise as detailed by Hellwig (Public Dimensions of a Believer’s Life), but takes the argument a step further by offering a practical solution and challenge to the reader.  If agape, moral ambiguity, and theological humility are practiced in the public square we will all move closer to the truth.

Marshall proposes an interesting challenge that is still pertinent as we enter into the next presidential election.  Throughout the book she illustrates her argument using stories from life as a university professor and presenter.  These narratives are compelling and the language of storytelling flows easily.  However this flow is not matched in the majority of the book as Marshall fleshes out her argument.  The phrasing is stilted, and oftentimes redundant, making for a book that could easily have been distilled into a well-thought article.  In what seems to be another lengthening effort, an additional argument in defense of liberal theology is offered in the conclusion of the chapter on theological humility that I find an unnecessary appendix diverting focus away from Marshall’s central argument (p. 103-105).  While she does make a tie between liberal theology and theological humility, the connection is not strong enough to warrant the distraction.

Despite being unnecessarily verbose, I find Marshall’s thesis to be well thought out and of sound persuasion.  In the conclusion she sums up the arguments for how a commitment to constructive political activism is a positive transformational force in the public square by articulating how each practice works within the processes of deconstruction and creation.   Even though Marshall never uses the phrase “servant leader” in her work, the conversation guidelines she proposes and the challenge she submits would be well heard by servant leaders everywhere.  She calls for leaders to speak from a place of authenticity, vulnerability, and humility with the purpose of building relationship in the hopes of strengthening community.  This is difficult work, and service to the common good for whoever is willing to take it up.

As someone who is tired of the vitriol that is common place in public and private debate, I welcome anything that will disrupt the status quo and create new possibilities for consensus and compromise.  Marshall offers the most compelling and practical case for doing so that I have encountered thus far.  It is now up to her readers to put her thesis into action and institute the change.


Hellwig, M. K. (2005). Public dimensions of a believer’s life: Rediscovering the cardinal virtues.  (p. 45-54). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Marshall, E. O. (2008). Christians in the public square: Faith that transforms politics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from


It is amazing the effect that each of us has on the communities of which we are a part.  The work we do, the relationships we foster, the things we say and stand for, all have a ripple effect that impacts our circles of influence for years into the future.  Through my reflections for this class I have come to appreciate the work I was called to do in Elbow Lake, Minnesota in new ways.

In my first reflection paper, “Created & Called” (2012), I talked about coordinating the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp.  Even though housing rehabilitation was not something with which I had previous experience, I quickly became a part of that world and very passionate about housing issues.  I now realize I was called to more than just working on that particular project for a year; I was called to bring people together to talk about the injustices faced in their neighborhoods in regards to housing.

Two years after the completion of the Workcamp I was invited by some neighbors to attend an informational meeting.  The City of Elbow Lake had decided to start an overdue infrastructure project to rebuild our neighborhood’s water utility, sewer, and streets.  However, the city had not budgeted for the project and the proposed assessments were astronomical.  Our neighborhood was comprised mostly of senior citizens and young families, and many of them were concerned they would be forced to move in order to avoid assessments that approached their property value.  Needless to say, the meeting was heated from the start; people were angry and scared.  A state legislator and lawyer were there, and they both called for a neighborhood association to be formed to work with the city in addressing our concerns.  My friend, Johanna, and I knew we needed to act or this situation was headed for disaster.  I left the meeting as vice president and Joey joined me as treasurer of the Westside Association.

In summary, after three years of effort our association was able to create positive change for the entire community of Elbow Lake.  We kept a potentially hostile situation on constructive terms, working with the city to procure grant money to cover 90% of the costs and educating the rest of town about the brokenness of the city’s tax policy.  We were able to keep the assessments reasonable and got the whole community talking about what needed to change in order for us to run our town within our means.

It took a whole neighborhood working together to come to this conclusion.  McKnight & Block explained, “Associations are a primary place in community where individual capacities get expressed” (2012, p. 71).  We had all of the resources we needed to get the job done right in our own neighborhood: a state legislator, a lawyer, and old ladies to pass out newsletters on their morning walks.  I understand now my neighbors trusted me to lead our association through this complicated mess because of my background, and success, in housing advocacy.  I had gone from not knowing what I was doing to being the expert!

It only takes one person to create change, but when a community works together for a common goal, the end result is amazing.  We each have a responsibility to do what we are called to in order to bring about positive change in our communities.  I need to take that responsibility seriously and encourage others to join me.  No more waiting; the time is now.


Clements Orlan, K. S. (2012). Created & called. Informally published manuscript, Master of Arts in Servant Leadership, Viterbo University, La Crosse,W.I., Retrieved from

McKnight, J., & Block, P. (2012). The abundant community: Awakening the power of families and neighborhoods. San Francisco, C.A.: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

In her book, Public Dimensions of a Believer’s Life:  Rediscovering the Cardinal Virtues, Monika K. Hellwig (2005) claims that accusations against public figures, most notably politicians, of being unfaithful to their Catholic identity because of their voting record on a particular issue is unjust and narrow-sighted.  She urges for more compassion towards all of our lawmakers who have been charged with the task of grappling with the complexities between their conscience and governing a pluralistic society.  The tension between conscience and compromise is something we all must navigate on a daily basis.  Luckily for us, the decisions we make are not usually part of the public forum.  However the complex tensions that we face when making tough ethical choices are the same for us as they are for our public servants.

In order to come to compassionate understanding we must consider that while absolute truths do exist, compromise is needed for us to progress towards those truths as part of the ethical change process.  “In most issues in public life, and in the common life of large groups, the best that can be done is to bring the possible a little closer to the desirable” (p. 45), explains Hellwig (2005).  While God and His commandments are absolute truths, the human interpretation of these truths varies, and in some instances completely denied as in the case of atheism.  This makes decision-making in a diverse society such as the United States an immensely complex task for the lawmaker.  Compromise between all interpretations is the only way for everyone in the society to move towards the truth.  If there is no compromise, then there is no movement.  Instead there is stagnation and the truth becomes lost in the stalemate.

This reality is currently being witnessed in the pro-life movement and the debate around life issues.  Hellwig (2005) notes:

“In the Catholic community, this moral compromise of such vast proportions has become almost invisible because of the one-issue focus on abortion.  The deaths of enemy civilians as well as combatants, deaths of those condemned by criminal or immigration laws, and deaths from deprivation of means of livelihood have tended to be obscured in Catholic consciousness by the focus on abortion.  Respect for life must, of course, include the unborn, our own as well as those whose mothers are in populations at high risk from bombing, poverty, mass killing of peasant populations, and other man-made risks.  But surely it must also include those already born and struggling in the world, especially the most powerless among these” (p. 47).

The truth that life is a precious gift of God freely given to all of us, all of creation, has been lost in the unwillingness of the pro-life movement to compromise within its own ranks in terms of focus.

There are huge moral implications of putting one pro-life issue in a priority position above any other.  By doing this, the pro-life movement has indirectly stated that it too believes that one life is more precious, more deserving of advocacy, than another.  I believe that the erosion of the movement to a single issue, has contributed to disrespect for life in our society.  The focused attention to change one evil has blinded a large portion of well-meaning people to the life destroying evils that exist and continue to grow elsewhere.  While all of the attention has been focused on ending abortion, the culture of death has flourished in other issue areas such as war, oppression, cloning, and the death penalty.  The culture of death will continue until all of life is equally advocated for by people of faith.

Our public servants do not have the luxury of maintaining a one issue focus.  It is the nature of their occupations to take a stance on all issues by casting a vote when these issues are presented to them in various acts of legislation. Oftentimes, a single piece of legislation addresses multiple issues.  A legislator’s vote for or against a particular bill frequently involves compromise on some issue areas in order to make advancement in others.  Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a tendency within the pro-life movement to condemn politicians when the compromise has been made on the abortion issue.  Even if the compromise has been done in the name of advancing another pro-life issue, such as access to healthcare, the movement will question the politician’s fidelity to their faith.  I believe this unjust practice has caused a climate of fear that has led to our representatives’ inability to move decisively forward in their decision-making.

In order for progress to be made towards passing laws that respect life, we need to allow our representative’s the freedom to make legislative compromises, even those involving abortion, without fear of punitive action by the Church.  We need to remember that they represent a diverse population and are trying to give voice to everyone’s desires and values, not just their own or that of the Church.  A broadening of focus within the pro-life movement itself would give us more for which to be hopeful and positive about in the short-term; enabling a culture of life to be developed in other areas, thus changing societal attitudes over time, and adding momentum until the time is right on a societal level for an end to abortion.


Hellwig, M. K. (2005). Public dimensions of a believer’s life: Rediscovering the cardinal virtues. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from


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