Monday, December 31, 2007

My 15 Minutes - Focus Group Recap

So, it's been about two and a half weeks since I went to NYC to participate in a Fox News focus group. It was my intention to post a recap immediately, however something called Advent and then Christmas came to pass. So, today I return to the blogosphere.

I did not actually sign anything prohibiting me from writing about my experience, though, I suppose that by participating I demonstrated consent to the statement that appeared in the initial e-mail I received from the Luntz group. Regardless, I don't intend to write anything that would discourage people from trusting the research conducted by Luntz nor to discourage people from participating in focus groups.

I took the train from Southeast (about 9 miles south of Pawling) direct to Grand Central Terminal. I could have taken the train directly from the Village of Pawling, but the Southeast station provides me a more flexible schedule. The travel time to Grand Central is about 1 hr. 15 min. It's a reasonably relaxing ride providing me time to do some reading -- at that time "God Is Not Great" by renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens. From Grand Central it was about 3 blocks west and 5 blocks north to Fox News studios (just west and south of Rockefeller Center). If you know NYC, then you know that these are long, very congested blocks. It probably only took me about 20 mins, but I was winded when I got to the studios. There's really no excuse for anyone working or living in Manhattan to be overweight or out of shape!

At the studio, after showing ID, I was whisked away with three other groupies who had arrived at the same time to a hallway several floors underground. There was set up a curtain partition behind which was a long table with folding chairs with several people sitting around it. There was a small (maybe 25") standard tv at the end tuned to the History Channel. There was a lunch selection of sandwiches and cookies. None of us had any idea what to expect. Many were wondering if this was where we were going to watch the debate.

After lunch we were handed some questionnaires to fill out asking us to rank the Republican candidates in many and various ways and then to do the same concerning some of the important and controversial issues at hand. Then we were taken upstairs, outside, across a plaza of sorts into another part of the building to the studio. This not very large room was, apparently, the set for a number of programs. There was a neon sign overhead that said "The Mike & Juliet Show". The backdrop was all Hannity & Colmes, though it was obvious that this was not their primary set. Frank Luntz the pollster was our host from this point on. Frank appears on Hannity & Colmes and other Fox News programs regularly. Frank welcomed us and explained what would be happening that day. One thing that would be unique for this focus group is that each of us (28 Republican voters, both conservative and moderate) would use a meter of sorts throughout the debate to register our real time approval or disapproval of what the candidate speaking was saying or doing. The results would appear as a graph on tv. Then he ran us through a test round of questions to demonstrate what we would be doing live immediately following the debate. The questions were provocative and generated a great deal of comments. One question was "How important is religious faith in making your decision to support a candidate?" A related question was raised concerning Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith -- was that an issue of concern? During this period I contributed a couple of times as this is a topic that I have some strong opinions about. Of course, the cameras were not rolling, live or tape, at that time.

Then we went live, still prior to the debate. Martha MacCullum, entered to anchor "Live Desk", a general Fox News live news program. She interviewed Frank who explained that our focus group would be watching the debate live and would be registering our real time opinion via the meters. The camera flashed to our group. Throughout the program the group's response - chuckling, groaning, etc. - could be heard in the background as they did not tell us to be silent.

We watched the debate in the same studio on a large (maybe 42") flat panel tv. The meters were interesting. After a candidate responded to a question and our group responded via the meters, a stage hand would yell out "Back to 50", meaning that we were supposed to return our meter dials back to a neutral position before the next candidate responded. It was funny that when Allan Keyes - who came off like a raving lunatic - spoke, and the stage hand yelled "Back to 50", everybody chuckled because nobody had really even moved their dials.

If you saw the debate then you no doubt observed two things: 1) The moderator was terrible -- she was combative and asked bad questions. 2) The debate overall was dull and rarely provocative. At the end of the debate, the first question that we were asked was "Who do you think won the debate?" Almost unanimously we said Mitt Romney. Now, at the beginning of the day, when asked how many supported Romney, only a few hands went up. But, clearly, in this particular debate, Mitt came off looking and sounding the best -- that does not mean that anyone changed their opinion concerning their support for Romney, only that he won that debate. Huckabee came into the debate the frontrunner, he had the most to lose or gain. Huckabee held his own, but Mitt came out looking and sounding better, more "Presidential". I was seen several times on camera during the live Q&A following the debate, but I did not say anything during this time. Because the debate was so dull and unprovocative -- they really did not address religion, Mormonism, illegal immigrants, or the war -- the Q&A was more focused on who looked and sounded the best, leadership, and a little bit on taxation and fiscal conservatism. These are not areas in which I really have strong opinions. Father Grams got himself on tv making a comment, though I can't remember on what point.

After the live segment, we taped about another 30 mins of Q&A that would be used on Hannity & Colmes that evening and other times throughout the following several days. During this time I did make a comment concerning the "Huckaboom" and Hucabee's potential to go all the way to the White House. I said something to the effect of this: "The 'Huckaboom' was really a media boom. Today we saw the real Huckabee. He simply doesn't have what it takes to go all the way." But I have never seen this aired.

At the end of it all we each were given $100 cash and sent on our way. All in all, it was an interesting experience and I would probably do it again some time. I was disappointed that we didn't get to meet Sean Hannity, though I had thought that would be unlikely since he was on the radio during most of that time.

To sum up where I'm at on the candidates: I hope and agree with Father Grams that John McCain makes a resurgence. He has the most experience, is a veteran politician with wartime experience, he has likely been the most consistent on his positions throughout his career, he is thoroughly pro-life, and he has a proven track-record of bipartisanship - for good or for bad. I think that, though not the best imaginable choice, he may be the best available choice for the time and situation in which our nation exists today. He has the strength, wisdom, and experience to face the difficulties of our world today, and he has the conciliatory ability to bring disparate factions together. He may not accomplish much during his presidency, and he may be a one-term president, but I think he may represent our best hope at bringing a little healing while remaining strong on defense. My 2 cents, and I'm allowed to flip-flop. I like a lot of what Fred Thompson has to say, but I am concerned about his experience and his intelligence/wisdom. Besides, I don't believe that he'll make it past New Hampshire. Huckabee, probably not. Romney, I like a lot of what he says, but I don't trust him -- not simply, but mostly(!), because he's a high-ranking Mormon, but because he comes off like a slick, polished salesman -- and because he's from Massachusetts. (The focus group mostly felt this way as well!)

Well, there you go - there's my recap. That's really all I care to write about it. It was interesting. It was fun. It was no big deal at all. Try it, if you get the chance. You only live once (this side of heaven).

I got back to Pawling around 7pm, just in time to pray Vespers at 7:30pm. I got a substitute to teach confirmation and missed choir practice. And that's my 15 minutes.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Land of Opportunities

It's pretty cool living near New York City. There are so many opportunities and so many interesting and wonderful things to do and see.

I was notified this week that I have been selected to participate in a televised debate focus group on the Fox News Channel on Wednesday, December 12, 2007. I will watch the Republican Debate (from Iowa) in the FNC Studio with others in the focus group and then will comment on the debate. From what I can tell now, the debate will be broadcast live on FNC beginning at 2pm EST. I have been told that the focus group will also appear on Hannity and Colmes Wednesday evening. I really enjoy Sean Hannity's radio program and listen to it quite regularly. The Hannity and Colmes TV show is not as enjoyable, too much arguing.

Anyway, my good friend and colleague Fr. Daniel Grams has also been selected. Imagine that! Two LCMS pastors appearing in a focus group on FNC! The agreement that I will have to sign states that I cannot "post or publish any information online or in print about the contents and experience of this focus group", but I'm hoping to be able to post a link to some video footage of what is actually broadcast after the fact. Very exciting!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Freedom & Choice Revisited

A (the?) fundamental principle that divides the body of Christ, the Church, concerns the extent to which a human being is capable of exercising freedom of the will and/or freedom of choice. This principle underlies seemingly more obvious issues like the role of human works in salvation and the nature of original sin.

Lutherans, I believe, are unique in their view that, post-fall, human volition is in "bondage" to sin, e.g. St. Paul's confession that the good he would will to do he does not do, but the evil that he would will not to do he finds himself doing. Note that "that which has volition, that which wills", i.e. the "New Man, or New Spirit", is not corrupted essentially, but is in bondage to sin, the flesh -- thus St. Paul asks "Who will save me from this body of death?"

But, what about before the fall into sin? Did Adam and Eve have freedom of the will or freedom of choice before the fall? Well, yes, and no. They could exercise a certain freedom, yes, but that freedom to will or to choose could only be sin. Our first parents, before the fall, were they to exercise free will or free choice, could only choose to disobey God or to rebel against God. Otherwise, their wills and choices were in perfect alignment with God's own will, to the extent that they were doing and desiring what God willed, and not essentially the will of our first parents. We confess this truth in the Lord's Prayer: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, not our will. Man's will and man's choice, before, and after the fall, are free only to sin. The difference, before and after the fall, is that, after the fall man's will is truly in bondage to sin so that even assent to God's will is impaired, corrupted by sin (concupiscence) so that, on our own, we can do no good or righteous thing in the eyes of God, nothing truly righteous and in accord with God's will.

What this means is that, before the fall, love and obedience to God was not really a choice at all, but was the natural disposition of God's creatures toward their Creator. Upon man's first exercise of free will, man's first choice, sin and rebellion occurred and death entered the world. No longer was man's natural disposition toward God in accord with His will. Upon conversion, in contrition and repentance, the old rebellious man is drowned and a New Man is raised up whose nature, once again, is disposed to love and obey God in accord with His will. However, the New Man is in bondage to sin and the flesh, e.g. St. Paul once again. Through daily contrition and repentance this Old Man drowning, New Man rising cycle is repeated again and again. Man is constantly being realigned with God, his will with His will.

One significant way in which our understanding of the freedom, or lack thereof, of human volition and choice divides the Church is in the nature of conversion. Decision Theology teaches that one must choose to invite Jesus into the heart or make a decision for Jesus - the idea being that Jesus has prepared all things for your salvation and is standing, knocking at your door, but you must open the door and let Him in. This, of course, is synergism, Pelagianism. Our Lord Himself, however, has said most clearly, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." Countless images in the Scriptures relate man's condition before the action of the Holy Spirit through the Word to that of a dead man (Lazarus) or to dead lifeless bones (Ezekiel). As there was nothing that Lazarus, dead in the tomb four days - he stinketh! -, or those dried out bones stripped through time and predators of all flesh and tendons, could do to change their dead, lifeless conditions, neither is it possible for men, dead in the spirit and without the life that is the Lord, to do anything to change their condition, let alone choose to believe, to accept, to invite, or to live rather than remain dead.

In fact, we do not, we cannot, choose to believe anything! Yes, we talk this way, because it seems that we make free choices, even choosing to believe in something or not. But if you only would sit back and honestly think about it for a moment, it is obvious that we do not choose our beliefs - in fact, the idea of choosing what to believe or not is fundamentally contrary to what it means to believe. E.g., you do not choose to believe that the light will come on when you flip the switch in your bedroom. You believe this because your experience leads you to believe this - your experience (and the experience of many others both contemporary and antecedent) informs you that this has consistently been the case; if the light does not come on then there is a problem either with the bulb or with the current. Belief could be defined as "having a firm conviction in the truth of something which cannot be known for certain." Here I will be criticized, for most people would say that we know the light will come on when we flip the switch; this is how we commonly talk. However, we do not know that the light will come on; the two scenarios of the burned out bulb or an interruption in current should suffice to demonstrate that. Sure, there is a 5,000 year old philosophical debate concerning what constitutes knowledge called Epistemology, but that will have to be another post. My point now is this: our would be free will and free choice is in bondage to sin and the flesh so that we cannot choose to change our sinful and spiritually dead condition. Further, it is logically and linguistically impossible to choose to believe in Jesus, or in anything. Thanks be to God that He acts upon us: Jesus calls us by the Holy Spirit through the Word. The Holy Spirit, through the Word, blows upon us and through us, enlivening us, resurrecting us. The Holy Spirit gives us faith, as a free gift, and it is faith that believes, that has a firm conviction in the Truth that cannot be known for certain.

I thank God that He chose me, because I never would have chosen Him - I couldn't have chosen Him. That is why my favorite verse in the Scriptures is the confession of the Centurion, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." And regarding the freedom of the will and freedom of choice Jesus has said, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."