Signs of the Times (4/29/17)

5 Pro-life Victories in Trump’s First 100 Days

On Friday, President Trump reached the milestone of his first 100 days in office. During those 100 days, he and his administration have succeeded in implementing four significant pro-life measures. The first pro-life measure was nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant position on the Supreme Court. One of Trump’s main campaign promises was that he would appoint a conservative, pro-life justice to the court, and conservatives were widely pleased with Gorsuch’s nomination. Second: President Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which bans taxpayer money from being used to fund abortion overseas. Third: Trump’s administration announced that they were defunding the United Nations Population Fund. Fourth: President Trump signed a resolution overturning the Obama administration’s regulation that banned states from defunding Planned Parenthood. Fifth: Trump has named Charmaine Yoest, the former president of Americans United for Life, to a top post at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees and implements policies related to abortion. She replaces a staunch abortion advocate who is now a vice president at the Planned Parenthood.

Study Finds Educated Christians More Likely to Attend Church

A new study by the Pew Research Center has revealed that, contrary to popular opinion, it is Christians with more education who are more likely to attend church and actually practice their faith. Christian Today reports that the study found that Christians who graduated with a college degree are more likely to attend church services than those who do not have a college degree (68 percent to 55 percent). The study also found that educated Christians are more likely to pray daily (83 percent to 77 percent) and to believe in God with absolute certainty (90 percent to 87 percent). Christians who have even more education (graduate degrees) are even more likely to be regular church attenders and to actively practice their faith.

Every Senator Signs Letter to UN to End Anti-Israel Bias

All 100 members of the US senate signed a letter to the United Nations secretary-general, demanding an end to the UN’s ongoing anti-Israel bias. “Although, as Democrats and Republicans, we disagree on many issues, we are united in our desire to see the United Nations improve its treatment of Israel and to eliminate anti-Semitism in all its forms,” the letter to UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres stated. The letter, authored on Thursday and released the next day, was authored by Marco Rubio (R-FLA). “Too often, the UN is exploited as a vehicle for targeting Israel,” the letter states, adding that the anti-Israel “actions have at times reinforced the broader scourge of anti-Semitism and distracted certain UN entities from their original missions.” Among the suggestions made to change direction was a stop to the denial by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) of the Christian and Jewish ties to Jerusalem. “UNESCO member states must be made to realize that these actions only undermine the credibility of the organization.”

Largest Prayer Meeting in African History Attracts Nearly 2 Million

The biggest prayer gathering in African history was recently held, with close to two million people gathered from all parts of South Africa to pray. The event was held on a farm just north of Bloemfontein which is centrally located in South Africa. Some 1.7 million people registered on-line to attend this historic occasion and thousands more arrived on the day. The multi-racial crowd spread over more than a kilometer relayed onto multiple large screens and many kilometers of cabling for the sound system. Popular South African farmer/evangelist, and subject of the book and film, “Faith Like Potatoes”, Angus Buchan called for a nation-wide prayer meeting in light of the current spiritual and socio-political decline evident in the nation. Buchan said, “We are tired of people taking the law into their own hands. We are going to call upon the Lord to bring justice, peace and hope to our beloved South Africa.” Prayer meetings, for those who couldn’t get to Bloemfontein were held in churches, rented halls and homes around South Africa. Farmers in the area opened their farms to hundreds of thousands of campers at no cost.

House Passes Short-Term Budget Agreement to Avoid Shutdown

Congress passed a short-term spending agreement Friday to keep the federal government open for another week. House and Senate negotiators are set to work through the weekend to finalize a longer-term deal that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, October 1st. Top staff and leaders on the appropriations committees worked late into the night on Thursday to reach an agreement but were unable to resolve differences on several unrelated policy measures that have plagued the process since the beginning. A late push to act on new health-care legislation had threatened the bipartisan spending deal and for now that debate remains in flux. The failure to revive the health-care bill was yet another blow to President Trump as he reached the 100-day mark on Friday.

U.S., Canada & Mexico Agree to Renegotiate NAFTA

President Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Canada agreed Wednesday to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the White House said – though Trump warned Thursday he’d be willing to “terminate” the pact if they can’t strike a “fair deal.”  “It is my privilege to bring NAFTA up to date through renegotiation,” Trump said in a statement late Wednesday. “It is an honor to deal with both President Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau, and I believe that the end result will make all three countries stronger and better.” The White House added that Trump “agreed not to terminate NAFTA at this time” and that all three leaders “”agreed to proceed swiftly, according to their required internal procedures, to enable the renegotiation” of the trade deal to “the benefit of all three countries.”

Trump’s Proposed 15% Corporate Tax Would be Lowest in World

President Trump’s proposal to slash tax on businesses to 15% would give the United States the lowest corporate tax rate of any major economy in the world. According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, America’s corporate tax rate of 35% is currently the highest rate levied by any of its 35 member countries. That rate rises to nearly 39% if taxes levied at state level are included. Comparable rates for Mexico and Canada are 30% and 26% respectively. But most American companies pay nothing like those rates for two key reasons: they can take advantage of a host of tax breaks, and profits earned overseas remain untaxed as long as the cash isn’t brought home. The CBO report showed that the effective rate of corporate tax in America was just under 19%, similar to the amount paid by British companies and slightly lower than firms in Argentina and Japan.

Trump Executive Order May Open Up Coastal Areas for Drilling

President Trump signed an executive order Friday that could eventually open up millions of coastal acres to offshore oil and gas drilling. The directive, known as the America First Offshore Energy Strategy, directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the current five-year development plan on the Outer Continental Shelf for offshore oil and gas exploration as well as review the regulations and permitting process for development and seismic research. The order also prevents Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross from designating any new marine monuments and sanctuaries or expanding existing ones. Ross also is directed to review all designations and expansions of marine monuments or sanctuaries designated under the Antiquities Act within the last 10 years. “This order will cement our nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security for the benefit of American people without removing any of the stringent environmental safeguards that are currently in place,” Zinke told reporters.

Majority Favor Attack Military Attack Against North Korea

A majority of U.S. voters believe that it will take military force to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program– and they tend to favor the U.S. taking that action. That’s according to the latest national Fox News Poll of registered voters. By a 53-39 percent margin, voters favor the U.S. using military force to keep North Korea from making further advancements on nukes. Fifty-one percent say that U.S. military action will be required to keep the rouge nation from continuing its nuclear weapons program, while 36 percent think diplomacy alone can stop it. North Korea is seen as the greatest immediate threat to the United States.  Some 38 percent feel that way, while 25 percent think ISIS is the biggest threat and 18 percent say Russia.;

Two-thirds of voters approve of the missile strikes President Trump ordered on Syria in response to its suspected use of chemical weapons against its people.  But a plurality thinks the United States should not get any more involved in Syria. Meanwhile, 42 percent of voters oppose the Iran nuclear agreement, 35 percent support it and 23 percent are unable to give an opinion.  The agreement eases U.S. sanctions for 10 years in exchange for Iran stopping its nuclear program over that time period.  In September 2015, when the deal was first made, 56 percent opposed it.

Islamic State and al Qaeda Talk Merger

The Islamic State group and al Qaeda, long rivals for supremacy in the jihadi struggle, are feeling more pressure to combine as the Islamic State loses its territorial base in Syria and Iraq and the still-potent terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden prepares to welcome legions of foreign fighters fleeing the advancing U.S.-backed coalition, analysts and officials in the region say. “The discussion has started now,” Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi warned this month in an interview with the Reuters news agency. Born out of al Qaeda’s Iraqi faction that battled U.S. and coalition forces during the bloody years of the American combat mission, the jihadis famously broke with the Pakistani-based terrorist group in 2012 to form the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, reports the Washington Times.

‘Drugged driving’ Deaths Surpass Drunken Driving Deaths

Driving while on drugs was associated with more deaths in 2015 than driving with alcohol in one’s system, a new report found. Positive drug tests were more common than the presence of alcohol among the fatally injured drivers who were tested in 2015, according to the report (PDF) “Drug-impaired Driving,” released Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, a nonprofit funded by alcohol distillers. Of those tested, 43% of motorists who died had drugs in their system, the report said. This number surpassed the 37% of motorists who died who tested positive for alcohol in the same year. Driving while impaired is illegal in all 50 states. However, laws and interpretations vary about the definition of drug impairment. Testing practices can also vary amongst states, and there are no uniform laws to determine how often testing is used and what drugs are screened for.

Trump May Take Arizona’s School Tax Credit National

Arizona has offered tax breaks in exchange for donations to private-school scholarships for two decades. Seventeen states have followed in the Grand Canyon State’s footsteps. The federal government could be next. President Donald Trump has proposed investing $250 million into a private-school-choice program, though he has offered no details on what it would involve. Education experts have indicated it could be a voucher program similar to the program Arizona just expanded, but say it’s more likely to be a tax credit similar to Arizona’s School Tuition Organization program. Arizona’s private-school tax-credit program consists of four separate tax credits, two for individuals and two for corporations. Donations are made to qualifying school tuition organizations, which then allocate scholarships for students at private schools. Individual taxpayers this year can get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $1,086 for donations.

Economic News

Economic growth slowed in the first quarter to its slowest pace in three years as sluggish consumer spending and business stockpiling offset solid business investment. The nation’s gross domestic product – the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. — increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.7%, the Commerce Department said Friday, below the tepid 2.1% pace clocked both in the fourth quarter and as an average throughout the nearly eight-year-old recovery. Growth in the first three months of the year has averaged just 1% since 2000, less than half the average for the other three quarters, according to Wells Fargo. Most analysts believe the economy’s latest setback is temporary.

The S&P 500 has rallied 11.6% between Trump’s election victory and Friday, the final day before the 100-day mark. That’s the second-best performance for that period, since an 18% surge under President Kennedy in 1961, according to CFRA Research. The S&P 500 soared 12.3% through the same point under President George H. W. Bush in 1989. Anticipation of a pro-growth policy — massive tax cuts, infrastructure spending and deregulation — fired Wall Street up immediately after the election.

In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, more than 270 separate companies applied for TAA benefits on behalf of more than 10,000 workers whose jobs are moving to another country. CNNMoney’s analysis shows that more than 4,000 of these jobs have moved out of the country since Trump took office. And nearly 2,000 additional jobs are due to be moved in the coming weeks and months. While Trump focuses most of his complaints about Mexico and China, the most recent TAA filings show more jobs heading to India than any other country — at least 2,500 positions. Mexico is the next largest destination for U.S. jobs, with about 2,000 jobs crossing the border, followed by the Philippines, where about 1,000 jobs are headed. About 700 jobs are identified as moving to Canada, while 600 jobs are headed to China. These filings are just a snapshot. But they show the challenges Trump faces in pushing back against existing economic forces.

The latest Merrill Lynch Finances in Retirement Survey, released in March 2017, revealed that the average cost of retirement has risen to $738,400. Of that number, $260,000 will go to healthcare costs alone, according to Fidelity’s Retiree Health Care Cost Estimate. But $738,400 is just an average — retirees accustomed to high incomes may need even more than this to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Most retirees can expect to see their expenses drop when they retire, hence the standard recommendation that retirees will need 70% to 80% of their pre-retirement income.

Persecution Watch

Easter festivities were muted in the Gaza strip this year because of the attacks on two churches in Egypt that killed dozens. “The situation is very difficult. Easter celebrations did not go well. There is a lot of fear among Christians because of the attacks in Egypt,” explains one church leader. The tiny Christian community in the Gaza Strip – thought to number around 1,000 believers among more than 1.7 million Muslims – is in a perilous position. Hamas, the Sunni Islamist group which has ruled Gaza since it won elections in 2007, has imposed restrictions on women’s dress and attempted to introduce elements of sharia. Living as an embattled minority, many believers see little choice but to leave. “There are fewer and fewer [Christians]. Those who manage to get out do not come back. They seek peace elsewhere … the church is increasingly empty.”

Middle East

Syria is blaming Israel for alleged missile strikes Thursday near Damascus International Airport. Israel won’t confirm nor deny responsibility for the explosion. But an Israeli government minister said, “the incident in Syria” fits Israel’s policy of trying to stop weapons from being shipped from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The blast was so severe “a thud could be heard in Damascus city and surrounding areas,” said Rami Abdulrahman, founder of the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, citing a military source, said a military position southwest of the airport “was exposed to an Israeli aggression with several missiles fired from inside the occupied territories [i.e. the West Bank] at dawn.” SANA did not say whether anyone was killed or hurt in the blast. Reports early Friday indicated that an Israeli Patriot air defense battery had shot down a reconnaissance drone sent over the border by the Assad regime amidst heightened tensions along Israel’s border with Syria. The incident occurred hours after Moscow issued a statement condemning alleged Israeli airstrikes on an Iranian weapons depot near Damascus International Airport as a “gross violation of Syrian sovereignty.”

North Korea

A North Korean ballistic missile test failed on takeoff early Saturday, the second straight failure this month, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported. The test came amid heightened global tensions over the reclusive nation’s nuclear weapons program, which President Trump has vowed to stop through military means if diplomatic efforts and economic pressure fail. The missile apparently exploded seconds after liftoff, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement.

China has threatened North Korea with sanctions if the rogue government continues to disregard calls to stop conducting nuclear tests. The tests are seen as a provocation to its regional neighbors and the U.S, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. President Trump warned a “major, major conflict” with North Korea could result from the ongoing standoff over its nuclear and missile programs, but he said he hoped diplomacy would prevail. Trump also said South Korea should pay for the $1 billion U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system in place to protect it from an attack from the north.

Afghanistan

The Defense Department says two U.S. servicemembers died in action in eastern Afghanistan Wednesday, and a third was wounded in action when they came under attack during a raid against insurgents in Nangahar Province. The servicemembers were conducting a partnered operation with Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. “The fight against ISIS-Khorasan is important for the world, but sadly, it is not without sacrifice,” Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said in the statement.

The Taliban in Afghanistan announced plans to ramp up military attacks on both Afghan and coalition security forces as part of a new spring offensive. News of the planned tactics, released in an email statement by a Taliban spokesman, followed a Taliban attack on forces at an army base on April 21 that killed at least 140 soldiers. Now, the group is promising more of the same, sparking concern that violence and unrest in the country could worsen.

Germany

The German Parliament has approved a government proposal that would ban the wearing of full-face veils for public servants while they are at work. The bill was proposed last year by security officials from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc. They argued that wearing the burqa or other face-covering veils in public schools, courts and other situations compromised public servants’ neutrality, and that in many cases it is important for their identity to be known. The law also applies to soldiers. The law passed the lower house of Parliament late Thursday and still needs upper house approval. Those against the measure have criticized it as merely symbolic, saying there are next to no public servants who wear such veils.

Venezuela

Venezuela will withdraw from the Organization of American States (OAS), according to its foreign minister, who announced the decision on national television. Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told VTV state television Wednesday that the beleaguered country, which is facing huge civil unrest, would take the unprecedented step of leaving the pan-American organization over what it sees as attempts by foreign governments to interfere in its affairs by siding with the opposition in the latest wave of protests in the country. She added that the process will take two years to complete. Protests, which have been ongoing for months, escalated in April and have resulted in dozens of deaths. The unrest stems from dissatisfaction with the government, which has been accused of economic mismanagement resulting in huge shortages of daily essentials like food and medicine.

Wildfires

Officials announced the cause of a large wildfire that has burned all week in southern Arizona – an off-duty Tucson Sector Border Patrol agent who was shooting recreationally and sparked the inferno. the agent immediately reported the fire, but dry, windy conditions fanned the flames quickly. The so-called Sawmill fire is now 40 percent contained and has burned more than 63 square miles – an area larger than Manhattan – as of Thursday morning. Dozens of residents were evacuated earlier in the week, and some of them have been allowed to return to their homes, the AP also said. Because winds are expected to be problematic again Friday, pre-evacuation orders will remain in place for hundreds of homes in desert areas near Interstate 10.

Overall wildfire activity in the U.S. so far in 2017 has yielded about the same number of fires but a lot more damage. There have been 18,396 wildfires, slightly up from the ten-year average of 18370. However, those fires have burned 1,937,911 acres compared to the ten-year average of 800,561 acres.

Weather

A Florida woman, who went around a barricade on a flooded North Carolina road, was found dead Thursday in her car as flooding triggered by torrential rain continued to plague the state. Meanwhile, a state of emergency was declared in Edgecombe County on Wednesday. A shelter was opened for those forced to flee their homes because of the flooding. As floodwaters began to recede in the capital, the Neuse and Tar river levels rose further downstream and are in major flood stages in some areas. They will continue to do so into the weekend.

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