Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve

Before it eventually collapses with political rot, the Trumpublican Party fecklessly enables the unprincipled, undignified, even un-American fool we’ve placed in the White House. Whatever President Trump’s lying, scorn of separation of powers, reprehensible treatment of allies, silence in the face of Russian attack on elections, Congress—to the extent of its authority—must bear responsibility as if those were its actions and decisions. But Congressional spinelessness about Trump parallels Trump’s absurd lap-dog behavior toward Russian President Putin. In light of Trump’s recent stains on America’s international reputation, a few of our Article 1 elected officials might rise up in protest against his perfidy; a few of those might even mouth accountability pleas for more than a few days. But don’t count on much for long that resembles integrity.

I admit it is inviting to pick on Donald Trump. After all, he has proudly displayed his disgracefulness for all to see since long before announcing his candidacy. Republican candidates for awhile had the cojones to oppose him. That was before they decided he wasn’t so bad after all . . . especially if you’re careful to stay on his good side.) He has earned all the mockery he himself loves to brandish. The Baby Trump balloon aimed at the American head of state in London is tasteless, to be sure, but less so than its object. Despite those considerations, however, it seems, well, easy pickings after so many months of his childish ego, interpersonal coarseness, and lies.

Neither his pathology nor his evil is new after his embarrassing performances in Singapore, Canada, Belgium, England, and Finland to top off 18 months of bizarre presidential swings from proto-despotism to buffoonery. Even I have tired of searching for adjectives worthy of this loathsome man. It’s time to stop wasting effort on the same sad list to describe him. It’s time to focus on those who could rein in his excesses but will not: senators and congressmen/women in the majority of both houses, including those who this week act as if they are just now discovering his treachery. It is they who help him diminish and endanger America.

I give credit to the approximately 1/3 of majority party leaders who this week have expressed that enough is enough. But where have they been all along? Have they just not noticed? Republicans in Congress—once a party with no shortage of admirable leaders—have shamefully become a mad man’s groveling toadies. Suddenly noticing one or another stage of Trumpian indecency is hardly an effective antidote for what has become, with their assistance, an appalling new normal. This week’s ability by a minority of the majority to speak out assures only that a newer but not better new normal awaits us. I fear it does not demonstrate that strength of character has bloomed in the Congress.

Surely not all Republicans roaming the Capitol are committed more to party or re-election than country. Surely not all are either dumb or deluded. Whimpers of “but what can we do, after all, he was elected president” are hardly convincing coming from officials who act as if they’re unaware the Legislative Branch is beholden to its Constitutional tasks and independence, not to the president.

The House has the powerful Constitutional prerogative of impeaching a president. (This post is not an argument for impeachment; that requires further considerations, both political and Constitutional.) But does entrusting that much power to the House not give license to exercise authority up to—that is, just less than—impeachment, such as censure, demands for financial disclosure, and subjecting to inspection translator’s notes from the private Helsinki meeting? Failing such assertive Congressional actions, would it be too much to ask senators and representatives to at least stop carrying Trump’s water?

Is it possible that as-yet-unused technical political possibilities may be unearthed by a clever parliamentarian? In the Senate, it took only chutzpah and the approval of majority senators for Sen. McConnell to invent an extralegal maneuver to thwart President Obama’s SCOTUS nomination. Can that level of creativity not be summoned to slacken the pace at which we sacrifice hard-won national values to feed Trump’s pathetic ego?

Will Trumpublicans restore the Republicanism that once was home to intellectual integrity, international good citizenship, trustworthiness, and—though the term died a deserved death—compassionate conservatism? Will they seriously try to find a way that isn’t blocked by having to meet the test for high crimes and misdemeanors? Will they even notice there’s a runaway president problem to be solved, or that this is not a partisan problem, but an American problem? Will they allow sacred aspects of Americanism to die piece by piece from each toxic new normal to the next?

The long term effects of the 2016 election will not be known for decades. But at minimum, as published by George Will just yesterday, “Now we shall see how many Republicans retain a capacity for embarrassment.”

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America’s love/hate affair with science

In a country so benefitted by science, science ignorance among Americans is uncanny. In an age wherein science-informed wisdom is essential for political choices, we vote unschooled politicians into office. Supplied with stunning scientific advances, millions of us choose superstition instead, demanding that it merits equal footing. Naively grasping for a cogent argument, many refuse to grasp either the unique meaning of “theory” in scientific endeavor, or its essential conservatism as well. Still, the appeal of scientific discovery is impossible to deny, leading many to borrow the reputation of science by making the erroneous claim that there’s no disagreement between science and religion.

In a number of posts on this blog beginning in 2013, I’ve addressed science as a method of determining truth (as opposed to the products of science), the relationship of science to political decisions, and the proper non-scientist handling of disagreement among scientists. The scientific method is a way of thinking, not a storehouse of facts. As such, it’s applicable to everything we wonder and inquire about, not just what we think of as “sciency” stuff. I’ll not repeat explanations of those points, for I’ve done so in previous posts. Here I merely intend to mention a few places where science ignorance is on full display.

Ignorance of science among leaders. There are sufficient instances of science ignorance in our House, Senate, Executive Branch, and by other leaders to be downright embarrassing. Can you tell how each of these examples (among hundreds I’ve collected) virtually advertise science ignorance? Rep. Steve Stockman in 2014 criticized sea level rise with this gem: “Ice melts in a glass and it doesn’t overflow.” Rep. Paul Broun was certain in 2009 that “Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community [and has] no scientific consensus.”

Earlier, presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum challenged the dangers of CO2 with “Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.” Agreeing was Rep. Michele Bachmann’s erroneous comment that “there isn’t even one study that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” Sen. James Inhofe brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate in mid-winter to disprove global warming. In 2011 NH state Rep. Jerry Bergevin reminded us with “Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That’s evidence right there.” He didn’t know, I suppose, that what legitimately constitutes evidence is one of the great boons of science.

Instilling science ignorance in children. Children’s natural inquisitiveness is a fertile ground for learning how to reason with the scientific method in everyday life. The meticulous detail of scientific inquiry can be extremely complex, but the basic idea can be taught to kids. (I mean science as a way of thinking, not the collection of facts that science has unveiled for us. The latter is what is usually meant by science education and what many of us remember from chemistry or physics classes in school.) Our lack of science understanding as a thought process, not to mention our antipathy toward science combine to pass our ignorance on to kids.

This occurs on a daily basis, often in homes and schools, and regularly in religious institutions. (I’m not denying persons’ rights to believe whatever they wish, just their inaccuracy in representing science.) I’ll cite just one source (as with the foregoing quotes, I’ve recorded scores of them), a recent Orlando Sentinel coverage of Florida private schools that rely on public funding while teaching that “dinosaurs and humans lived together, that God’s intervention prevented Catholics from dominating North America, and that slaves who “knew Christ” were better off than free men who did not. Here is more that the Sentinel found.

“The lessons taught at these schools come from three Christian publishing companies whose textbooks are popular on many of about 2,000 campuses that accept, and often depend on, nearly $1 billion in state scholarships, or vouchers.” The books “denounce evolution as untrue [, show] men and dinosaurs together [, and tell] students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark.” One text “said Christians must reject Charles Darwin’s teaching, which it argues were tied to Nazi Germany.” One “workbook tells students that ‘Bible passages, rock art and ancient evidence seem to describe man’s accounts of living dinosaurs,’ which fits with God creating all life on the planet in six days.’”

One educator excused his school’s dogma-based characterization of science thusly: “We believe our way is correct. We focus on creationism because that’s what we believe.” My point about this is not to question his right to believe anything, but the right to use public money to mischaracterize what science is and what scientists’ findings are.

Last month in the U. S. Senate. Because findings of science grow ever more complex, it is critical that governmental decisions and public undertakings incorporate whatever science has to contribute, both as a discipline for thought and a practical guide to philosophy and engineering. I want to cite news of a senatorial idiocy only last month. Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, James Inhofe, and James Lankford asked the National Science Foundation to treat climate change as if it were a “political and social debate” rather than a neutral scientific fact.

Their request is as irrational as urging a public vote about the correct navigation for a space shot to Mars, or Michelle Bachmann’s suggestion that in dealing with evolution, teachers should put “all science on the table and then let students decide.” It took the human race tens of thousands of years to develop the discipline of thought we call science. It is unlikely a class of youngsters will stumble upon it in a rushed curriculum.

The senators, like many of their peers, would reject the neutral findings of science about whatever their personal, political, or religious beliefs find uncomfortable. That kind of action by anyone is an intellectual throwback, one that suggests questions of physical facts are best settled by what we feel about them. Of course, in this case, the senators may not be so unenlightened as simply deceptive, choosing to discard a vexing fact when it seems they can win a know-nothing debate in favor of something as technical as putting those space shot calculations to a vote.

Allotting facts and values their respective due. In the handling of what is the case versus what we would like to be the case, there are ways to operate that are both more intelligent and more honest than those we frequently see. One example: Consider Question 1 to be finding facts and probabilities as unbiased and accurately as possible, with no attention to Question2. Consider Question 2, given those facts and probabilities, to be the careful application of our values in selecting among choices the facts afford us. It is crucial that Q2 not be dealt with before Q1.

That may seem obvious, but decision-making bodies can be undisciplined enough to regularly do so anyway. Moreover, appointing authorities themselves can confuse the matter. For example, when President George W. Bush overhauled the composition of many federal scientific advisory committees, he did so by stacking them not with persons qualified to advise on Q1, but with committed advocates for points of view (particularly the Administration’s) on Q2. That can lead to “solving” the wrong questions, for unintentionally assuming without evidence what the status quo actually is, and later integrating those untested assumptions into dealing with adjacent or similar issues.

That point may seem a long way from elementary classrooms, but they both address our ability to distinguish what is true about the universe and our preferences about that universe. The great contribution of science is to help us avoid fooling ourselves about that which is, while helping us find paths to that which we aspire, whether the latter be about future effects of world climate or next week’s performance in a spelling bee.

Once we thought the earth was flat–
What of that?
It was just as globos then
Under believing men
As our later folks have found it,
By success in running round it;
What we think may guide our acts,
But it does not alter facts.

—Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Quotation thanks to

Women Without Superstition, Annie Laurie Gaylor, 1997

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Trusting our Leaker-in-Chief in Russia

President Trump plans a visit to Russia this summer to confer with Vladimir Putin. In normal times, this kind of top level meeting would be met with excitement and even hope that some benefit would result. But Americans have elected Donald Trump as president, a person known for serious character flaws that render this meeting more frightening than invigorating. Just a few considerations . . .

  • Trump can never be relied on to tell the truth. Even if told the purpose for the trip, the topics planned, and afterward what agreements were reached, we cannot trust what he or anyone over whom he has control will say. He puts a lot of stock in face-to-face discussion with only translators present, thereby putting anything said in that one-to-one setting subject to grave doubt.
  • Trump has shown his “big man” need to look very important. Of course, he actually is; he is president. But that only shows unnecessary bragging to be more pathological. His need to boast has already compromised classified information. I hope American officials with integrity and independence are included in the Moscow talks, so we will know whether or which American security matters are jeopardized.
  • Trump assesses persons based not on objective criteria, but on whether they like and agree with him sufficiently. Putin is not Superman, but it’s a safe assumption that he’ll be skilled at playing to Trump’s ego, paranoia, and immaturity.
  • Trump impulsively makes decisions and takes actions with no regard for their complexity, how many interests must be taken into account, and with little regard to—pardon the expression—facts. He could, perhaps, learn from his current heartless and mishandled immigration disaster, but don’t bet on it.
  • Trump regularly blames others for his errors and sees himself as mistreated and victim of unfair press. Only his slavish base is tricked into awarding sympathy for his whining. He is therefore vulnerable to a feigned sympathetic shoulder from anyone, particularly from persons in an authoritative position. His ego is in constant need of being fed, continually affecting his judgment.
  • Trump seems always to think he knows everything to be known about complicated and sensitive issues, even knowing about military matters—without preparation—”more than the generals.” Failure to attend to what he doesn’t know is an alarming weakness for a Commander-in-Chief.

We have had presidents with questionable competence, weak ethics, indecisiveness, dangerous impulsiveness, and deep character flaws. Still, the allegation—to the extent I claim—that an American president cannot be trusted to negotiate, share, or represent America with a foreign power has, to my knowledge, never been said of any president beginning with George Washington. In the case of Donald Trump, I do so soberly and with no reservation.

The Executive Branch and Legislative Branch have specific roles to play in the Founders’ carefully designed structure of government. Sadly, both Senate and House are now confused and feckless, more engaged in partisan conflict than in national needs. Consequently, we must rely on Donald Trump to be a person he is not—a careful, decent, thoughtful, respectful, knowledgeable patriot.

 

 

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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.
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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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