A disgraceful leader implicates all

Although there’s no excuse for hyperbole . . . well, outright lying . . . in a politically mature democracy, we’ve come to expect candidacies of all persuasions to be fraught with it. But there are degrees of dishonor and we hit bottom with Donald Trump. After his winning the election, it became rapidly obvious that Trump’s childish, ill-informed campaign behavior would continue as a childish, ill-informed presidency. Further, it became obvious that those around him became infected with his paranoia and his disregard for truth. As management guru Peter Drucker warned us years ago, it is impossible to work for an unprincipled boss without becoming unprincipled oneself.

So Trump’s indecency spread further, to close-by aides and then to other elected officials. They had political power to minimize his damage to the country, but increasingly forgot the meaning of “checks and balances,” along with their related Constitutional responsibilities. Republicans—the majority party in both houses—have not only stood aside as Trump sought to weaken critical institutions, but became minions to help with his lies and autocratic leanings. With few exceptions, they thus became complicit in all his endeavors, including his disregard for 2016’s foreign assault on voting and more recent appalling treatment of children at our southern border.

(Public outrage about treatment of underage undocumented immigrants has been so great that it is likely to stimulate some lagging Republican conscience in Congress. That may be resolved, but what will be left unchanged are lies Trump made up about “the Democrats’ law”—we got 2 lies in one claim on that one!—and his unfathomably malicious use of children as bargaining chip. In the Age of Trump, Republicans have misplaced whatever backbones and honor they previously had.)

Our republic has weathered many storms, foreign and domestic. How and whether the United States will survive Trump unscathed depends a great deal on senators and representatives who, faced with a proto-despot in the White House, have shown greater allegiance to party than to country. As a group, they are accountable for their behavior, that is, as a Senate or House. As individuals, each is accountable for his or her personal role in standing up to a dangerous threat to crucial institutions.

That accountability begins with each citizen and from there stretches upward to the highest levels. This accountability establishes a rigorous linkage. In addition to the president, accountable to me (and to you) are individual senators, individual representatives, and the House and Senate leaders those officials choose. These persons are linked to you and to me by a chain of votes.

The personal nature of these links is important, lest the intimate reality of citizens’ connection with their government be lost. Introducing a nowhere-to-hide structure of accountability with a forceful phrase, perhaps I can explain the severity I mean with regard to governmental mistreatment of undocumented children and the lies manufactured to disguise their accountabilities thusly:

  • J’accuse President Donald Trump personally; Senator David Perdue personally; Senator Johnny Isakson personally; Representative Paul Ryan personally; and Senator Mitch McConnell personally.
Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 3

This concludes a series of three posts that together address the claim that a growing Islam population in America is a danger due to its being a political ideology flying under a false flag as a religion. I’ve pointed out that while Islam incorporates some political ideology—more than modern Christians are accustomed to—it is not alone in that; Christianity does as well, though happily less so since advent of the Enlightenment a couple of centuries ago. These two major religions have varied through the centuries with respect to their overlap with politics. Each has integrated its theology with political ideology at one time or another, to one degree or another. Insofar as the readership of this blog is largely non-Muslims living in so-called Christian countries in this decade, the focus of these three posts is on the fear of Islam afoot in North America now.

I’m not seeking to whitewash the oppressiveness of Islam as practiced in most countries that have a Muslim majority. There is a reasonable point of view (without proof I’m aware of) that as the percentage of Muslims in a population increases beyond, say, 10%, the likelihood of law and civic practice taking on an Islamic flavor multiplies. On a worldwide scale, Pew Research foresees a 25% increase of Muslims in the next two decades.

In Part 2 I argued that it is in the nature of Religion (I’ll capitalize it to indicate all specific religions) and specific religions (uncapitalized, meaning a specific faith of whatever size, like Islam, Baptists, or one congregation) to seek the strong arm of government to favor one’s own religion over non-religion as well as over other religions (such as bestowing tax breaks, giving official recognition, or criminalizing blasphemy). It is also in the nature of Religion and religions to diminish the strong arm of government in order to keep it away from one’s own religion, such as establishing that religion is above the law or promulgating some intrinsic goodness of religion, thereby giving it cultural shelter from scrutiny and a “pass” to which other pursuits don’t have access.

A religion may be more or less in alliance with government, but individuals within that religion—to the extent they have government jobs or need government contracts—are faced with representing a religion as well as a government. The more a religion is in the majority in a jurisdiction, the greater is the probability that its adherents are naturally in this two-masters dilemma. Within each person, then, exists a sentiment dedicated to a religious mission and a sentiment dedicated to a civic mission. Conflict between these intentions may range from minimal to overwhelming.

Since the purposes and obligations of religious faith and political ideology are different, in some jobs there’ll certainly be conflict, the amount and type of which are dependent on the nature of the civil society and the nature of the religion involved. In any event, maintaining the integrity of these dual roles requires clear, agreed-upon rules, followed by all parties respecting those rules. In the United States, the rules begin with the Constitution. In all but religious life, the supreme document in the U. S. is not the Bible, but the Constitution.

The conflict mentioned in the preceding paragraph is exemplified in workaday situations—as when a city council erects a Christian monument on municipal property, a courthouse displays the Ten Commandments, a school board equates creationism (a religious doctrine) with science, or gives a preacher access to the student body. It is also exemplified in sweeping decisions at a national level when politicians fudge on the principle due to their own religious inclinations or simply to ingratiate themselves with religious voters. Church and state have conspired to break down the wall Jefferson used to explain the Constitutional separation, a deterioration frequently covered in this blog.

Also weakening the wall of separation have been religious campaigns to popularize the “Christian nation” confusion, seeking a theocratic benefit at the expense of the government’s Enlightenment-inspired maintenance of a level playing field. The strongest resistance to the Constitutional principle is found in fundamentalist and Catholic religious camps, though less so in moderate Christianity. In any event such single-minded pursuit of special treatment from government abuses the freedom of those who do not share their theology, witness current enthusiasm among evangelicals to do just that.

Religious persons are so committed to the unquestioned truth of their beliefs that they tend not to see the damage they impose, therefore are unlikely to realize how widespread these alliances between church and state are. They occur in virtually every public school district in the nation, many courts of law, local government councils, coaches of high school sports, and more. I have collected hundreds of examples of this phenomenon.

But let’s take a step back. Just what are non-Muslim Americans afraid their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens will do? That non-Muslim Americans will be attracted to Islam enough to convert? That children will be confused by a religion so greatly different from what they’ve known in dress, dogma, and rituals? Maybe. But the greatest fear seems to be that larger numbers of Muslims will change the complexion of government, even introducing laws that could penalize Christianity or reward Islam, such as the incorporation of Sharia into American jurisprudence. They may even fear radical Muslims wandering the streets armed by our almost non-existent gun laws or, at least, introducing Islam-friendly versions of political correctness.

Whether such fears are justified, however, it is certain that there are persons who endanger others for religious reasons. Those actions have never been specific to Islam. The Christian majority has produced its own share of lawlessness, including domestic terrorism. I’ve no suggestions for changing human nature, either its malevolence or its needless fears of malevolence, though what once was felt to be “human nature” can dissolve with familiarity and time, as it frequently has in human history. Besides, as stated by a Harvard study published in 2010, despite America’s long history of intolerance, “it also has a long history of overcoming intolerance” with “good reason to believe that Muslim Americans will eventually be part of this history too.”

(That quote and the next few are gathered from Andrea Elliott, reporter on Islam in America for the New York Times; Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs, Wake Forest University; and Peter Skerry, professor of political science, Boston College.)

In fact, as the same study added, there is a parallel concerning Catholics as late as the early 1900s when there were “wild overreactions to Catholic immigrants.” Catholics were seen as untrustworthy and unpatriotic because of widespread belief that they were more attached to their religious identity than to their national one.” Those impressions faded over time. I can recall my father’s—and, I’m ashamed to say, my own—opposition to presidential candidate John Kennedy solely because of his Catholicism. It sounded much like today’s fear of Muslims. “They just can’t be good Americans,” we said, for the dominance of piety over patriotism in Catholics seemed self-evident. Looking back, what we might now excuse as human nature diminished and, given a little time, almost disappeared. It was overcome by the “widening circle of inclusion . . . between different religious communities” to which Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others can attest. There is little reason to suppose that human nature’s plasticity doesn’t apply to Muslims.

These are instinctive, pacifying tendencies at work requiring no special treatment except patience. Further, most Americans think of Islam as a monolithic whole. But there are many denominations of Islam, just as there are in Christianity. Strong governmental restraints in Muslim majority countries (no wall of separation) diminishes the need of Muslims to deal with their own pluralism. Because government allows less diversity, dealing with it under safe conditions may in some ways be a new experience for Muslims. Further integration may be at least as much about everyone living in pluralism as about Muslims against Christians and Jews. Religions in America are given liberty for their beliefs in exchange for responsible citizenship (e.g., no violence). That applies to Muslims and Christians alike, just as it applies to every individual of whatever conviction, including atheists.

There are, then, relatively natural influences toward Islam’s being seen less as “the other” in ways similar to previous American experience. But I doubt that most Americans who fear Muslims will feel better just because they’re told they’ll have less fear later. So I wish to share here what might be a faster resolution, one that builds on a strength the American democracy has had—though carelessly used—since its inception, a gift from the Enlightenment which informed framers of the Constitution. So let’s assume that none of the foregoing mollifying factors exist. What then? We would have to focus on more near-term, decisive steps that promise to work whether Muslims and non-Muslims get along better at all. The key relies on addressing our long negligence about the independence of civil authority and religious liberty.

Growth in the voting strength of Muslims frightens many non-Muslim Americans. In fact, it frightens me if Muslims prove to be as destructive of church/state separation as Christians have been. I would be disturbed about an America turned into a Muslim nation. But I’d have much the same reaction to an America dominated by the likes of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Timothy Dolan, or a host of other Christians eager to pave the way for the harsh dogma of dominionist zealots. Dominionists view the Constitution as secondary to God’s law and argue that while the First Amendment prevents government from influencing religion, religion is free to influence government. Whose version of “God’s law” and whose type of religious influence they have in mind is pretty clear. In fact, if you are religious, but don’t fit their theology, worrying about Muslims would hardly be your only concern.

I’m arguing that we already have a framework that holds promise for a resolution worthy of our historical love of liberty. The most available guarantee of freedom of religion is the best guarantee of freedom of all thought. Government is guarantor of freedom of religion—but it is neither religion’s partner, guide, nor judge of how “deeply sincere” is an individual’s faith. Our framers were ahead of us on that matter, but we’ve failed to take them seriously.

In other words, the conceptually simple—but apparently quite difficult and adamantly resisted—resolution is for the country to conduct itself in the way the nation’s founders sought to establish to begin with. Government would not be responsible for—or exercise power over—religions’ vitality, its missionary success, healing its occasional schisms, or deciding which faiths prosper and which fail. Government would not concern itself with theology, favoring or choosing one religion over another, nor choosing religion over non-religion. Religions would not be responsible for government beyond the freedom of individual speech we all have. It would neither seek special favors from government nor appease government’s occasional desire to draw on religions for support.

Moreover, Christians’ cheating on the constitutional church/state separation that protects their liberty of conscience must be recognized for the intermittent theocracy it is. As citizens, we’d applaud the eradication of religious ideology from governmental decisions. No government decisions should occur because a certain religion instructs this way or that; no government decisions would be avoided because of religions’ disapproval. Religions that attempt to pressure decisions in government would be disregarded. Christians and their churches that act as if empowered to make the rules for others must be recognized as anti-democratic, political crusaders, and summarily ignored. The remedy for an increasing presence of Islam is the same as that which, though inadequately, has saved us from a hegemony of Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, or Latter-Day Saints.

A growing Muslim population would enjoy liberty equal to Christianity’s, but have all the obligations as well—obedience to laws that apply to all and exercise of no power but persuasion. With government staying on its side of the church/state divide, there’d be no state pressure to conform to one interpretation of Islam over others. Varieties of Muslim belief would have room to bloom in a civic atmosphere of liberty, yielding an array of Islam denominations as has occurred in Christianity, assuring that religions themselves compete with each other without government’s thumb—or the that of a dominant Islam group—on the scale.

Clearly, religious liberty, like any liberty of conscience, must be preserved as integral to the meaning of general freedom. Our history and our present are filled with freedom-damaging violations of those simple conditions of secular government paired with unbridled freedom of conscience, including religion. But the more government is allied with or defines what is right in or about religion, the less is that freedom. This is the most promising path to peace among religions, for it reduces or eliminates whatever political ideology either Islam or Christianity might wish to wield. Individual Muslims, like individual Christians could still voice their political opinions and partake in all the functions of citizenship.

Is the human discipline necessary for such a distinction even possible? We must remind ourselves of the spectacular discipline attained in other parts of life and, for that matter, even in religion to some degree already. Reforms in the West have made religion-state relationships enormously better since the Dark Ages. Separation of the domains of government and religion as a robust feature of advanced democracy (in America, an element of the Constitution’s “more perfect Union”) sets the stage for simultaneously sustaining freedom of religion while safely absorbing virtually any brand or any degree of religious fervor.


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CEOs over federal bureaucracies

Despite the title, this post has nothing to do with politics—well, almost nothing; at any rate; no partisan politics. I’ve been thinking about selection of top managers in government, particularly heads of massive bureaucracies. In America the positions are often referred to as secretaries. What got me to revisit some old thoughts on this was the April debacle over President Trump’s nomination of Admiral Ronny Lynn Jackson, MD, to be Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The nomination was withdrawn after some embarrassing matters came out prior to his planned hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

My concern in this post, however, is not about insufficient vetting by the White House, nor any of the non-medical criticisms of Jackson’s conduct. The topic here is about the startling management ignorance of presidents—with the possible exception of President Eisenhower—in nominating persons to ultra-high management positions. Ignorance about the requisite expertise for so high a level is not specific to President Trump, but is widespread among his predecessors and the senators and representatives deciding whether to approve presidents’ nominees.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a behemoth of one-third of a million personnel. (Only a handful of American corporations exceed that number.) Competence as a chief executive officer for even far smaller companies is a rare commodity. It includes advanced skills to design and continually assess multi-levels of managers. It includes ability to balance extreme empowerment for personal growth and performance as well as, simultaneously, assurance of ethics and prudence in a possibly far-flung organization. Even one level of management, like a supervisor of a half dozen subordinates, requires abilities few people have without training, whatever their intelligence and good will. Managers managing managers multiplies the difficulty. Entrusting a large company—or government department—to someone without the requisite skills is to ask for inadequate, often disastrous management.

In the case of Admiral Jackson, various supporters made comments like those made by the president: “He’s got a beautiful record” and “He would have done a great job, he has a tremendous heart.” One summary, “He practiced good medicine,” was, if anything, an understatement of Jackson’s extensive training and experience with various medical specialties like submarine, hyperbaric, and emergency medicine, apparently in all with considerable praise. Certainly, good hearts are to be sought everywhere, but they don’t assure skilled management. Neither does expertise in one of the specific undertakings of the organization to be managed, such as health care. In other words, having medical credentials is neither needed nor possibly even helpful to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, just as having a teacher’s certificate is not needed to run a large school system.

Although experience and competence in the management of huge enterprise are, in practice, given insufficient attention, some did speak out. “Ronny Jackson [is] a terrific doctor and Navy officer,” said former CIA Director John Brennan, “however, he has neither the experience nor the credentials to run the very large and complex VA. This is a terribly misguided nomination that will hurt both a good man and our veterans.” That point of view was not universal. Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service special agent who worked with Jackson on the presidential protective division, said, “Ronny Jackson will be just damn fine in management skills.” Brennan may have had relevant expertise to make his point, but how Bongino would have had as a special agent is not immediately obvious.

The country is fortunate that there is even this rather small amount of argument on so important a point. Appointments are made typically with scant attention to that expertise, including its nature, how to assess it, and once an appointment is in place, how to support it. Obviously, those obligated to evaluate it in candidates are rarely qualified to do so, starting at the top. President Trump has neither the understanding nor the temperament. President Obama had the temperament, but in my reading not clearly the understanding. Former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton may have had access to develop both, though I can’t tell. Gubernatorial experience would be potentially instructive, but being atop a flawed management system—as state governments tend to be—can scarcely be counted on to instill exemplary management skills.

Many Americans and, seemingly their representatives as well, think that President Trump’s status as a businessman carries with it expertise in upper management. That is not true. He directly managed a quite small coterie, “managing” his extensive holdings through them and contracts. That doesn’t come close to managing thousands or even hundreds of employees. Thus his expertise in top management was and still is no more managerially sufficient than President Obama’s clearly minor experience directing a community nonprofit. So while top management skill is important for appointees, the nominating authority’s lack of that skill gets the important selection process off on the wrong foot. It is easy to see how partisan considerations—which politicians understand thoroughly and are quite ready to assess—rise to the top as the almost unquestioned criteria for making nomination and appointment judgments.

So what is to be done? The press—likely due to its own ignorance on the matter—has seldom pointed out these inadequacies. Political appointments thrust managerially inadequate persons into roles that in corporate governance are known to require years of training and experience. The press should correct its negligible attention to the matter, for it is a relevant factor in governmental operations, thus real meat for press emphasis. Like Director Brennan’s little-heeded warning, nominations like Jackson’s (and hundreds of others) threaten nominees with failure, those who depend on the organizations involved, and taxpayers.

Those in the nomination and appointment sequence bear the greatest culpability, whether in the White House or the Congress. I hope they come to pay more attention to this important matter (as well, of course, in the equivalent state settings). That is not a partisan issue nor one related particularly to a given bureaucracy. My comments in this post are not directed toward nor a judgement of President Trump, current senators and House members, or Admiral Jackson. And happily, the shortcoming presents a task ready-made for a bipartisan solution!


[Part 3 of my series “Islam: religion or political ideology?” is expected to be posted later in May.]

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Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 2

My most recent post (April 13) began to address a reader’s claim that Islam is not a “true religion, but a political ideology masquerading as a religion . . . incompatible with the Constitution.” I argued that defining religious doctrines and political ideologies so there’s no overlap can be extremely difficult. After all, each is integral to a person’s overall way of looking at life. Religious beliefs inform our choices about political systems, just as beliefs about political systems affect our choices about religion. Those overlaps influence fine points of politics (e.g., candidates for office, issues of school bonds) and religion (e.g., baptism, burkhas). But they also influence broad matters of politics (e.g., economic systems, warfare) and of religion (e.g., Islam, Christianity, none).

Let me establish at the outset that I am wary of the effects on civil government by any religious ideology, particularly the manifestly theocratic inclination of Islam. I don’t question that Islam is a religion just as truly as is Christianity. It is the theocratic influence that Islam has on politics that frightens me, though over many centuries Christianity at one time or another has been more entangled with politics than Islam. Happily, that sad circumstance is no longer true here.

Due to the Enlightenment the West has for a couple of centuries experienced a historically significant church-state separation. We in the United States benefitted uniquely in that the (admittedly partial) severance, coming at the time of its founding, gave us a head start on a great shift in political philosophy with respect to religion. We owe our great fortune, then, to both an accident of timing (near simultaneous growth of America and of Enlightenment reasoning) and the wisdom of wise—often deist—founders. While in the U.S. there is even now no completely clean separation of politics and religion for each seems set on meddling in the other, there is far more than in countries where Islam is dominant.

So despite there being less religious influence on politics in countries with church-state separation, there’s still a propensity for politics and religion to seek liaison with each other. The greater that association, the greater is religion’s alliance with all or part of political ideology, and the greater is political ideology’s alliance with all or some religious beliefs.

Relating that point to the reader’s question that began this post, we can say that Islam (or Christianity) risks becoming less “purely” religion due to political contamination. Conversely, a given political ideology can be contaminated by religious considerations; that is, it goes both ways. This latter effect may seem less obvious than the former but consider a city council (or federal function) trying to make consistent law or administrative choices, but altering what it thinks is best in order not to offend one or another religious group. Those religious considerations showing up in politics—thereby altering its ideology—may seem advantageous to a specific religion, but can result in its appearing to be not a “true religion,” but a political ideology masquerading as a religion.

Why can’t the obligations of optimal governance and the fulfillment of religious commitments be pursued on their own turfs? Perhaps it would be useful to pose the question another way. What do politics and religion have to give each other? What is it that religion has to gain from influencing politics? What does politics have to gain from influencing religion? I don’t know all the ways these questions can be accurately answered. But I do know that which, by itself, is enough to explain the phenomenon: power.

Religion is founded on and bolstered by strong feelings of fear and hope, both assuaged by having access to power. Consequently, religion is often jealous of the power inherent in politics. Specific religions wish for power not only to enhance their missionary desires, but to advance their religious hegemony. Similarly, religious leaders as individuals, if sanctioned by the “powers that be,” can fortify their own careers and influence. Piggy-backing on political authority strengthens religion’s (and religionists’) hands.

In like manner, politics as a field and politicians as individuals desire power useful in taming the zeal of religion where it would conflict with political intentions. The supernatural has little place in the very concrete issues of politics but being identified with popular beliefs and dogma might usefully strengthen the political grip on a populace. Thus might political ideology seek to link itself to the universal, supernatural authority religion promises.

So it is that religion is drawn to politics and politics to religion, each one wanting to share in the approval to which the other has access. Though each possesses power in its own right, the power differs as to derivation and type. Political power is mainly physical and derived from masses of human beings and control of resources. Religion’s power is mainly one of deep commitment derived from beliefs about the ultimate human spiritual condition. Combining these power sources produces a supremacy of the combined influence as would be expected, but the cost is loss of the integrity of either or both sources, whether political ideology or religion. Contemplate how much religion and civil government both suffered in order to sustain the beliefs and practices attendant to the divine right of kings doctrine.

Turning to the present and to the spread of Islam in the United States, consider the numbers. Pew Research Center estimates that approximately 1% (3.3 million) of the United States population are Muslim, a number expected to be 2% in thirty years. (In world population, 1.57 billion Muslims form 23% of the total.) The political strength of Islam to influence America’s politics or its religious landscape now and for decades to come is clearly not significant whether viewed through a local or nationwide lens. But that growth rate might be more if even a slightly greater Muslim presence causes the U.S. to be more attractive to new immigrants than would have been the case,, thereby causing America to become more Muslim than now projected.

Consider three further points: Assume that scattered fears of Sharia among largely fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S. are not exaggerated. To be harmful, the political strength that would be needed to change even local laws is unattainable except in very Muslim-concentrated localities. Far more important, government and law at all levels in the U.S. is constructed with principles that some parts of Sharia would violate and is, therefore, in those respects unlawful even in the absence of frenzied fears.

A second: One can describe Muslims as a group, whether world-wide, national, or local. But in one Muslim family or, indeed, in a single Muslim individual, behavior and beliefs might be very different from the group statistic. This is no different from recognizing that, say, individual Methodists might differ widely from the average of Methodists. Therefore, the average belief of 100,000 Muslims is not the belief of 100,000 Muslims.

And a third: It would be insulting and incorrect to suppose that a significant percentage of Muslims would convert from Islam when they are in the U.S. Still, it seems reasonable that converts would be more numerous when socially enveloped by an overwhelming number of non-Muslims, as would be the case in the U.S. Although in Muslim dominated countries, leaving Islam is made difficult or dangerous, it would be easier in the U.S. where individual Muslims are subject to strong forces of conscience and social conformity. The summary of these thoughts is that while frantic fears of a Muslim 2% and even then may be diluted due these considerations, Christians’ Muslimophobia will still find plenty to worry about.

Frankly though, my central response to fears of Muslim take-over is largely this: “So what?” It’s hard to imagine what meaningful damage Islam presents in a country strongly built on—and consistently practicing—the relationship between government and religion established in the U.S. Constitution. Put another way, as long as Muslims practice their faith as they see it, but without violation of U.S. law, what is to be lost? In the past two centuries the country has peacefully added faiths at odds with rather “standard” Christianity (though not always smoothly). Beliefs once seen as blasphemy just added, in turn, more “producers” in America’s religious marketplace. My point is, the law held; Constitutionality prevailed.

Lest my faith in America’s plasticity appears to be a Pollyanna trust that America is not vulnerable to control by one religion or them all, especially to any new religion hitting our shores. So I need to point out the critical importance of the Constitution being faithfully followed in protecting America from, at the same time, theocracy and loss of religious liberty, that is, maintenance of both freedom of and freedom from religion. The social contract implied requires public officials willing to stand firm against religious overreach, just as it calls for religion not to encroach on governmental power. Pity, politicians and those who would influence them regularly fail in that duty.

One reason we have not been good at that crucial balance is that there are many religious persons in government and government people in religions. Although we do have the ability to play different roles (e.g., umpiring a kids’ game team vs. parenting a player), doing so requires discipline. Religious persons can fulfill their roles as public officials, just as public officials can be true to their roles as representative of the state despite their piety. The importance of distinguishing the different roles and their attendant obligations was played out in the evening news when Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in 2015 demonstrated failure to understand or to accept her roles with respect to same sex marriage, so she defied a U. S. Supreme Court decision. She believed that her role as a religious person justified being disloyal to her oath as a representative of the state. What if she had been Muslim? Would the Christian leaders who flocked to her side have done so? If not, exactly which principles were they following?

Another reason we fail at the religion/state balance is having had decades of only loosely respecting what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall” separating government and religion, we don’t notice how in large and small ways we routinely violate the principle. Some Christians, stirred by fundamentalist revisionist David Barton, have even gone so far as to claim that separation was never intended. It seems many Christians, due to being the a majority, have only modest interest in preserving the separation, for they profit from making up rules so as to make government their partner—in federal income taxation, in local property taxation, in public school indoctrination, in the bully pulpit of local county and city councils, in statuary on public lands, law enforcement, and in a plethora of ways. It is my unhappy perception that Americans, due to being oblivious to the ubiquity of these Constitutional violations, fail to appreciate the combined effects of their steady drumbeat.

I acknowledge that it’s incumbent on me, after making these comments, to demonstrate the ubiquity of these threats to Americans’ religious freedom and civic integrity, particularly as it relates to the fear of Islam which began this discussion. For that reason, I will go further with this series of posts. My point will be that the relevant question for non-Muslim Americans is not what proportion of Islam may, in fact, be political rather than religious, but how America can be saved from Islam’s theocratic tendencies by restoration of what our Enlightenment-inspired founders designed in the beginning.

Therefore, in a few weeks I will post “Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 3, building on the foregoing train of thought. I will argue that while threats to religious liberty do exist, they do not arise from increasing numbers of American Muslims, for Muslims are not a threat to American life and especially not to its precious freedom for religious beliefs, practices, and missionary zeal.



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Islam: religion or political ideology?–Part 1

“Is Islam a true religion or a political ideology masquerading as a religion?” One of my blog’s “followers” in early 2017 posed this question in the comments section of my February 25 post, titled “So-called religious liberty bills.” My reader went on to note that Sharia Law renders Islam incompatible with the U. S. Constitution. He added that since reasonable conversation on the topic is offensive to Muslims, it would be deterred by political correctness.

In this blog I have written only four posts that deal specifically with Islam. However, most of my 170+ posts on morality, church-state relations, religion, humanism, and science apply to Islam as much as to Christianity. I have read the entire Quran, travelled in Islamic countries, and visited “my” local mosque. None of that experience and study qualifies me as an expert in Islam. But despite my opinions being less schooled than I’d like, I have a few to share that are germane to my reader’s point.

Let us, then, return to my reader’s question. As is often the case, the wording of a question produces some of its difficulty. In this instance, I must first address “true religion” and “masquerading” before dealing with the matter of ideology.

The word true, I assume, means a religion is either (a) objectively accurate in what it expresses or (b) apart from truth, is possessed of some social legitimacy, that is, it is generally considered to be, in fact, a religion and is owed whatever measure of respect  that entails. Objective truth has been demonstrated by neither Islam nor Christianity with anything approaching the rigor of scientific theory or scrupulous historical verification. Social legitimacy, on the other hand, is easily attained and normally means that some sufficient number of people believe the religion to be, if not true, at least worthy. Consequently, the adjective true means only that a given religion is accurate or valid in the judgment of the speaker rather than due to any utility intrinsic to the word itself.

The word “masquerading” I assume implies intent to mislead, implying here a political ideology dressed in religion’s clothing. Unfortunately, an ideology might be both religious and political. Finding elements of religion in a political ideology, just like finding elements of political ideology in religion is an easy search, indeed. Therefore, in itself it proves neither duplicity nor an unintended overlap. In other words, finding scraps of political ideology in either Islam or Christianity is not evidence for masquerading, just as is finding scraps of religious ideology in politics.

Early Christianity may have minimized mixing religion and politics (“render unto Caesar . . .”), but later centuries of Catholic domination were hardly examples of church-state separation. Royalty in much of Europe bowed to Rome. Even the 16th century insult to the Church by Martin Luther did not seek to separate religion from political ideology. In fact, I don’t know that political ideology was ever completely absent from either Catholicism or Protestantism. Indeed, while philosophers spread the Enlightenment, European settlers in America imposed harsh civic penalties for religious reasons.

The Enlightenment, despite its powerful effect in America and Europe did much to weaken, but never to break, religion’s influence over political matters. Liberalization—in the sense of freeing politics from religious control—did not come about as a voluntary relinquishment of church power. In other words, while to a lesser degree than in Muslim countries, Christianity sought not just to worship God, but to shape the state it relied on for protection.

Even today, Christianity—particularly in the United States and majority Catholic countries—is politically active in seeking special favors for religious organizations, religious practices, and religious values. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” for them is a one-way proposition: allow and protect my religion’s domination over other religions and non-religion, but don’t interfere with my religious autonomy. In today’s America, churches get tax breaks that are not given to non-religious nonprofits. Public schools face only spotty enforcement against their illegal proselytizing of children. Fundamentalist Christians are invited into those schools to distribute Bibles. Prayer and other elements of worship are made part of the school day. The courts are allowed to post on their walls religious messages reflecting majority opinion. There is no shortage of political issues for which Americans base their opinions on the religious positions of priests and ministers (e.g., birth control). In these and many other ways, the power and authenticity of the state is appropriated by majority religions to support their message and to make it appear that Christianity—in some cases a narrow band of Christianity—is, in effect, the national religion.

Still, when Islam is the majority religion, it is arguably worse, if by “worse” one means its suppression of competing philosophies, criminalization of blasphemy, and other instances of harsh control. Countries in which Muslims are in the majority experienced no Enlightenment movement comparable to that of Europe and North America. (One might make a similar case with respect to countries dominated by the Catholic Church.) The controlling political aspects of religion that were greatly reduced in much of the Christian world still exercise virtually unchallenged hegemonic power in Islamic countries.

The purpose of this post has been to consider the relationship of politics and religion relevant to an inquiry posed by one reader, to wit, whether Islam is “a political ideology masquerading as a religion” rather than “a true religion.” Having noted several points pertinent to addressing the question, I’ve chosen to deal with the issue in two parts, as is obvious from the title of this post.

In “Islam: religion or political ideology?—Part 2” I will add a few more considerations such as the risks of political freedom for those whose intent is to shut down religious freedom, the role of “political correctness,” the hazards of weakening the “wall of separation,” the choice to treat religious and political ideologies as different in the first place, Sharia Law and the Constitution, and other features of my questioner’s seemingly simple question, “Is Islam a true religion or a political ideology masquerading as a religion?”


Of more than 170 posts in this blog since early 2013, these are specifically relevant to Islam:Islamic terrorism or just terrorism?” Feb. 24, 2015; “Islam—(1),” June 28, 2016; “Islam—(2),” Sep. 14, 2016; “Islam—(3),” Oct. 7, 2016.

Birthday note: Today in 1743 (April 13), Thomas Jefferson was born. Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist association [sic] on January 1, 1802 was prompted by the Baptists’ fear of jeopardy to their religion by the new, powerful government. Jefferson expressed his position that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State [italics mine, JC].”

Posted in Church and state | 1 Comment

Science and religion in Louisiana

I’ve written more than a dozen posts in this blog on the clash between science and religion, as well as more than two dozen on Christians and Muslims using their beliefs to bully and control others. In the United States no field is more fraught with an entanglement of these two phenomena than public education. Exacerbating the matter is a combination of Americans’ abysmal understanding of science and fundamentalist Christians’ dogged defense of their literal interpretation of religious texts.

I collect examples of science ignorance on the part of political and religious leaders, some of which have been shared in this blog. I also collect instances of religious leaders’ misuse of government authority in order to impose rules of their faith on others; that is paired with an inclination of government officials to side with religion in general or with specific religions against citizens of other philosophical persuasions. The result is a governmental stamp of approval either given to or withheld from proponents’ positions on religious matters, a violation of our Founders’ wise caution against mingling of government and religion.

As to Christians’ relentless influence, often in violation of court decisions against whatever mix of religion (well, their religion) and politics they advocate, I’ve selected a single example out of hundreds to show here: Louisiana Senate Resolution 33, introduced just 15 days ago (March 20, 2018). This is a commendation to a former state senator, Bill Keith, for “his support and endorsement of teaching creationism in public schools.”

Keith sponsored Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act in 1981 while he served in the senate. In 1987 the law was found by the U. S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutional (Edwards v. Aguillard). However, thirty-one years later it remains on the books, even while other obsolete laws have been removed. It is a dead letter serving only (I assume) to demonstrate that God, not the Supreme Court, is in charge in Louisiana. The chief sponsor of the Keith resolution is Democrat John Milkovich. Milkovich has complained that the effect of not requiring creationism in the schools is that, as he was quoted in a 2016 Associated Press story, it “creates a situation where only the secular review of creation is taught.”

Creationism is not a belief of all Christians, but of many or most fundamentalist Christians. Teaching creationism has been judicially recognized as teaching religion, not science. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that 97% of all scientists accept the theory of evolution by natural selection, quite enough to consider it to be the scientific consensus.

Louisiana politicians have not only refused to rescind the Balanced Treatment law, but have openly encouraged schools to follow it even though it is void. A Slate inquiry by Zack Kopplin (“The Bible v. the Constitution”) found that “Louisiana students are reading Genesis in science class . . .to learn the creation point of view.” Last month’s resolution makes it clear that, even with the former law declared unlawful, the senate takes whatever opportunity comes up to signal its attitude on “creation science.” Despite the inclusion of creationism in science instruction (!), creationism is not recognized by scientists as science. It would be informative to discover how much the shoe-horning of religion into a science curriculum degrades schools’ ability to teach science.

Here is Louisiana Senate Resolution No. 33. I’ve put some phrases in bold font to draw your attention, but otherwise what appears below is what the Louisiana Senate passed last month. (As an aside, you’ll see in the resolution that former Sen. Keith once reported that his son had been ridiculed by a teacher for his belief in God. I do not support ridiculing a minor as a way to teach what separates religion and science.)


2018 Regular Session




To commend former Louisiana state Senator Bill Keith on his support and endorsement of teaching creationism in the public schools.

WHEREAS, Bill Keith served as a Louisiana state senator from 1980 until the expiration of his term in 1984, representing District Thirty-nine in Caddo Parish; and

WHEREAS, born in 1934 in Oklahoma, Bill Keith was a journalist who worked for the now defunct Shreveport Journal as an investigative reporter; and

WHEREAS, upon being elected to the Louisiana Senate as a resident of Mooringsport, Louisiana, in Caddo Parish, Bill Keith, a Democrat, was a particular proponent of a state law requiring balanced treatment in the instruction of creationism and evolution in public schools; and

WHEREAS, Mr. Keith received national attention for legislation he introduced which required equal emphasis in public school science instruction to creation science and to evolution; and

WHEREAS, Bill Keith recalled that his interest in the matter developed in 1978 when his then thirteen year old son came home from school to report that a teacher had ridiculed the teen’s belief in God as the creator of human life; and

WHEREAS, the bill passed both houses of the legislature, was signed by then Governor David Treen, and was entitled the “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act;” and

WHEREAS, the act required that scientific evidence for creation-science, the view of abrupt appearance of organisms in the fossil records, whenever related material on evolution was presented in science class instruction; and

WHEREAS, Senator Keith’s legislation did not require or allow instruction in any religious doctrine; and

WHEREAS, Keith’s legislation was subsequently overruled by the United States Supreme Court in a 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard with the court holding that the law was specifically intended to advance a particular religious doctrine; and

WHEREAS, in 1983 Senator Keith was defeated for a second term for the District Thirty-nine seat by Democrat and owner of J. S. Williams Funeral Home and insurance companies, Gregory Tarver; and

WHEREAS, Mr. Keith left Louisiana shortly after his term ended and moved to east Texas where he published a weekly newspaper in Marshall, Texas, and he began his career as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, including his 2009 book “The Commissioner: A True Story of Deceit, Dishonor, and Death”, a study of Shreveport Public Safety Commissioner George W. D’Artois who held office in the city until his death in 1977.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Senate of the Legislature of Louisiana does hereby commend former Louisiana state Senator Bill Keith on his support and endorsement of teaching creationism in the public schools.



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The lethal cost of playing with guns

March has marched in like a lion. Our shameful president is busily destroying America’s institutions. House and Senate Republicans continue to negligently ride a tiger of their own making. The NRA owns our elections even more than Russia. America’s international reputation for leadership and stability is in the toilet. Without adults in charge, there’ll be faint-hearted fun for all, particularly with NRA generosity to politicians (reportedly $50 million to President Trump alone).

This post is about gun control and lack of it. I’ll avoid the appalling statistics that paint a picture of a country awash in guns; you’ve seen those statistics already. I’ll avoid, largely, the frequent paranoid assertions that freedom is to be measured by how many and how expansive one’s firearms are. But I will dwell on the assumption that, due to the Supreme Court’s most recent interpretation of the Second Amendment, virtually any gun control embodies a violation of Americans’ Constitutional gun rights.

It is no secret that Congress (as well as state legislatures, though I will ignore them here) is impotent in the face of America’s tolerance for gun death, relieved only sporadically with hand-wringing and the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers.” To be so powerful in economics and military power, yet so incompetent in governance boggles the mind. Before moving on with my message, let me say I think there’s nothing per se wrong with guns, liking guns, or choosing guns as a hobby. Insisting there’s something evil about either guns or gun owners is unfair and often disrespectful. That said, let me start with comments on our misleading language about gun rights.

Candidate Roy Moore declared that Candidate Doug Jones (that’s now Senator Jones) couldn’t be “trusted to support Alabamians’ Second Amendment rights.” Mr. Trump says he is a bigger 2nd Amendment supporter than anyone in the universe. The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action declares that it “preserves the right of all [to] possess and use firearms . . . as guaranteed by the Second Amendment.” Adding confusion, these and many such statements every day pretend those words actually mean something! You see, no one’s 2nd Amendment rights are being threatened. There is no more need to “support” the 2nd Amendment than any other provision of the Constitution. When you hear or use these words, you can be pretty sure a game is being played.

What, exactly, are 2nd Amendment rights anyway? Just this: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Well, not just that. In 2008 the Supreme Court (in District of Columbia v. Heller) ruled that the provision applies to individuals (not just state militias as it might seem from the wording) and explained a bit more of its meaning. (We already knew it didn’t mean howitzers and surface-to-air missiles.) The Court’s interpretation clarified a bit which individuals, which rights, and which arms, thereby establishing a “floor” under individual’s rights to “keep and bear Arms.” It is permissible for laws to impose whatever gun restrictions state or federal lawmakers want, as long as these minimum rights are protected. As expressed in the decision, rights guaranteed are “not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

A flavor of those minimum rights can be seen in this language from Heller: “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s [United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174] holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those ‘in common use at the time’ finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”

Given wording like that, it would seem a stretch to claim the Constitutional floor for rights to bear arms would include today’s armory of automatic, large magazine weapons in the hands of youth, unbalanced persons, and felons in places like airports and schools, or any one of those elements taken alone. When people speak, then, of “being for,” “supporting,” or “fighting against the loss of” their 2nd Amendment rights, you can be sure they don’t really mean those words (for the 2nd Amendment rights are not under threat). The only meaning must be that they fear lawmakers might not grant them rights beyond those already guaranteed, that is, that they will not get what they want.

Insofar as the floor is set or implied by the Court’s decision, lawmakers would have authority to expand those rights to include guns for children, guns with awesome firepower, or guns in the hands of violent persons. But those would not be Constitutional rights and could be revoked at any time. More importantly, their not being Constitutional rights robs them of the gravity that otherwise imbues the argument of those wishing to expand gun rights. That is, the matter of whether persons may or may not own AK and AR weapons and whether they must pass background checks are not of the magnitude or seriousness of Constitutionality, but merely on a par with regular laws, high and mighty gun lobby protestations notwithstanding, unaffected by false claims of having anything to do with threatening Constitutional rights.

Unless there is a serious flaw in either my legal or common sense reasoning, there is no Constitutional right to have an AK47 or any other specific weapon. There is no Constitutional right to have oversize magazines. There is no Constitutional right to have access to guns in the absence of background checks. There is no Constitutional right to have access to guns by domestic abusers.

That being the case, the fact that about 70% of Americans are opposed to our current, legislatively determined (as opposed to Constitutionally mandated) gun access would seem to call for elected officials at state and federal levels to act decisively to curtail gun violence or be voted out of office. And their calculus in establishing that public policy would be a travesty of democracy if achieved by negotiation with the NRA.

Legislative action on this matter should be informed by actual data, the kind that scientific research is custom-made to produce. I don’t mean that science can tell us which guns people should have, but what the facts are about guns and different treatment of gun rights. For example, the accepted phrasing about the beneficial utility of “a good guy with a gun” is stated as if supported by legitimate data rather than being simply a clever slogan. Similarly, whether a community with widespread gun ownership is safer than one without guns is unknown. These are not easy questions to answer in the absence of replicated studies with scientific legitimacy, open as is all science to critique and replication. Uncannily, the Congress actually bans such studies by the CDC—and thereby the knowledge they could produce. Without such data, the extreme firearm availability implied by the gun lobby to be necessary for Constitutionality can only be said to make into a legislative right the ability of gun lovers to do something they love—not a bad thing in itself, but hardly justification for our national gun death rate.

The dishonorable subservience so many elected officials have to the gun lobby—much like our despicable partisan gerrymandering—is a repudiation of democracy, as I argued in my July 31, 2017 post, “Americans stand for democracy! Really?” Too bad the surviving students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are unable to contribute millions to subsidize elected officials’ campaign expenses. Too bad that although 70% of Americans think that solving America’s gun problem is worth doing, their representatives do not. Too bad the U.S. Senate and House are just too busy to pass effective gun legislation and make nice with the NRA at the same time.

The message we send to ourselves and to the rest of the world is that being an armed camp doesn’t bother us at all, even if it means continued school shootings and a rate of gun killings greater than in any other country in the world. Perhaps, as I suggested last month in “America has too few dead kids,” school shootings have not grown horrid enough or frequent enough to get our sustained attention. We just don’t have enough dead kids yet, evidently not enough for their lives to be worth more than gun lovers’ opportunity to play with their guns.


[DISCLAIMER: First, I am not a lawyer, much less a specialist in Constitutional law, therefore comments in this post are represented as thoughtful, but not authoritative. Second, I’ve fired weapons only during military service, and have owned only one gun in civilian life.]

COMMENTS: Due to impending travel, comments received after March 6 cannot be processed or posted earlier than March 22.

Posted in Morality, Politics | 2 Comments