Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Metropolitan Utilities Denomination

I was at an event last week where John McCollister introduced himself matter-of-factly as "John McCollister, Protestant."

It drew a laugh from all of us present, a mixture of Protestants and Catholics. McCollister was playing off of Jim Begley's campaign flyer identifying himself as a Catholic candidate for the MUD board. The flyer also identifies McCollister, a rival MUD candidate, as a member of "Countryside Community Protestant Church," though the word "Protestant" is not part of the church's name.

Begley is catching heat for seemingly trying to foment religious rivalry in a political campaign, and in a race where church affiliation does not seem to have much relevance.

Disclosure: I was Jim Begley's confirmation sponsor.

Confirmation is the sacrament in the Catholic Church in which the other shoe drops. You won't find that definition in the Catechism. It's my layman's way of saying the first shoe drops at baptism, the rite of initiation when you are too young to answer for yourself, so your godparents answer for you. Confirmation happens in middle school or junior high. The bishop blesses you with holy oil and you answer for yourself that yes, I am a member of the Catholic Church and accept the responsibilities that come with it.

The Begleys and Maxwells have been friends for nearly 40 years. We come out of the same tradition that recognizes two trinities. The main one is Father/Son/Holy Spirit. Close behind is Irish/Catholic/Democrat. It's a legacy rooted in the days when Omaha and other places had businesses with signs in their windows saying, "Help Wanted: Dogs and Catholics Need Not Apply" or "No Irish Need Apply."

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Democratic Party embraced Irish Catholic immigrants. The Irish realized that politics is a great equalizer, a way to organize and gain a foothold and find a place in American society. That and a passion for education have helped Irish Catholics go from underdog to overdog in America.

I was around 30 when young Jim asked me to be his sponsor. The idea is that you ask someone you consider a role model for living the faith. I was honored.

Of course, that was before I changed my voter registration from Independent to Republican.

I think it's in my DNA. My grandfather, Frank McDermott, grew up very Irish, very Catholic, and very poor in Council Bluffs. As a young man he did not like Progressivism. As a grown man he abhorred the New Deal. He thought such policies were taking the country in the wrong direction. I of course believe history has proven him correct.

Back to the Begleys. They are doctrinaire. In the Begley home you find shrines to the pope, JFK, and Notre Dame.

And they have been stalwarts of local Democratic politics. Patriarch Dan is a fixture at Democratic Party events. The late matriarch, Mary Kay, was a long-time MUD board member.

Jim has three siblings. Mark made a run for the OPPD board in 2004. I don't think Danny has run for office, but he is very active in supporting unions as a member of the IBEW. Brian probably steers clear of out-front political advocacy because he is the principal at Millard North High School. The brothers are married and have children. I ran across Danny in recent years as our kids crossed paths in Catholic school sports leagues.

So in case you're thinking Jim Begley is some religious fringe freak, no, he is not. The Begleys are typical Americans.

In the age of hypersensitivity about separation of church and state, some people think there is no place for religion in politics. They are wrong. The founders thought religion was vital to the political life of the nation.

Others think it's unsophisticated, that society has moved on from religious tribalism as a factor in politics. Reasonable people can disagree on that. I think it's fine for any candidate to identify his religion if he thinks it's an asset in his campaign. In the Irish/Catholic/Democrat tradition, it makes perfect sense to make sure fellow ICDs know you are their candidate in a race.

I would have drawn the line at calling out McCollister as a Protestant. Going that extra step makes it seem like you're picking a religious fight.

I understand the strategy. In the primary election, Dave Friend finished first by a large margin. McCollister finished second and Begley finished third. In the general election, only the top two are elected. Begley believes he needs to pull down McCollister and climb into the #2 spot. Maybe Begley is worried that voters will see the possibly-Irish name McCollister and think he is Catholic.

I would have tried to find a policy issue and hammer on that instead of religion. Begley says being Catholic matters in the MUD race because the Catholic Church supports union rights to which McCollister is hostile. I would have skipped the religion part and gone right for that issue.

But I know from running campaigns that it's easy to second guess from the outside or after the fact. I have said and done things in the hurly-burly of a campaign that were mistakes. It's like marriage or raising children or doing a demanding job. You do the best you can and nobody makes it through flawlessly.

Meanwhile, I thought McCollister handled it perfectly by having fun with it.

Finally, despite my political apostasy, the Begleys still claim me as a friend. There are things in life more important than politics.

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