“Enemies of the People”

How much longer will America allow Donald Trump—our accidental, disastrous president—to dupe a substantial number of Americans with lies and playing to the least discerning voters (watch any Trump rally), and to embarrass the rest of us with misinformation, conspiracy theories, ill-treatment of allies, disregard for freedom of the press, and misconstruction of the Constitution? Trump and Trump zealots have made America more mean-spirited, more indifferent to suffering, less committed to facts, more fearful of boogeymen, more untrustworthy internationally, and throughout it all, more subservient to our president’s childish ego.

America has but one chief “enemy of the people,” the autocratic hollow man whom many wise Republicans warned us of since before 2016. He captured the deteriorated Republican party and made it his. Opposing candidates who first saw him for what he was soon came later to lick his boots. Those in Congress even forsook their responsibilities as an independent branch of government in order to oblige him. Donald Trump calculatedly misleads, dupes, demeans, and ultimately diminishes this great country and its people. That is the only kind of leadership this increasingly despotic, paranoid man understands.

With the 2018 mid-term elections upon us, Trump has come up with what he believes will energize his base, an action taken by most candidates for office in all parties. With Trump, however, the campaign lies are especially transparent, fear-mongering, and blatant—for example, undocumented immigrants are shot through with dangerous felons; the “caravan” a thousand miles away presents grave danger to America; as many military troops are needed on our southern border as in Afghanistan; Democrats want to have open borders; Republicans will save ‘pre-existing conditions’ coverage; and on and on, untruths without end. That constant stream consists entirely of lies . . . with more unstated and undoubtedly more to come.

We voters foolishly made this unscrupulous, immature man the most powerful politician in the world, he whose lack of character deserves no respect from anyone with intelligence and integrity. Consequently, our most bullying politician was granted the world’s greatest bully pulpit. He has not used that pulpit for good, but for evil. I must point out that Trump’s lying is not a trivial matter; these are not “white lies” nor are they lies about his golf score. When a president lies, whole public sentiments can swing, non-violent situations can turn violent, public perception of minorities can shift, attitudes about military mobilization can change, positions on international trade can harden. An unfortunate feature of continual lying is the vexing effect that it is unwise to trust anything he says about any topic as I explained in my February 10, 2017 post, “Trump and the new American truth.”

Can presidential persuasion or mindsets, beliefs, and opinions cause someone to behave in, say, a violent way? No, no single act of a president inclined to violence is responsible for a specific act by someone else. But the probability of acts of violence increases, as does the probability that a single act of violence was stimulated by a president’s language and behavior. After all, we speak of a bully pulpit because we believe it has salutary effects. Similarly, there is likelihood that a president’s violent speech has violent affects, though not conclusive as to a single instance, just as an unusually muscular hurricane doesn’t prove global warming, but repeated powerful hurricanes increases the inference that they’re due to global warming.

In disasters and other heart-wrenching episodes in our public life, our president is bewilderingly tone deaf and often just disgraceful. When discussion of the international role of the United States as a moral leader arises, our president is not to be found. He is more likely busy with zero-sum trade matters, seeming not even to understand what is at stake. When freedom of the press is broached, he acts as if the press exists to augment the slavishly silly, cheering rally crowds rather than to ensure public transparency. The press, specific agencies, or persons are worthy only as long as they fit his egocentric hunger for glorification or acclaim. The result is that his opinion of someone or something cannot be assumed to be dispassionate, rendering it impossible to have confidence in his judgment about cabinet members, court appointments, White House staff, or anyone else. Trump has morally cheapened America.

His damaging attacks on persons, on integrity of government, and on reality itself have been facilitated by ceaseless misrepresentations to the American people by him and his enthusiasts. It is imperative to understand that these lies are not mistakes. They are not even just campaign tactics. They are strategies of governingstrategies custom-made for autocracy, but deadly for democracy. There is no escaping that Donald John Trump is the principal enemy of the American people.


Thave now been 185 posts (essays) in this blog since April 2013, the following ones particularly concerned with Donald Trump: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017. “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017. “Our republic…if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017. “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017. “Aiding and abetting injury to America,” Jan. 6, 2018. “A disgraceful leader implicates all,” June 19, 2018. “Trusting our leaker-in-chief in Russia,” June 22, 2018. “Mr. de Tocqueville, we got the government we deserve,” July 18, 2018.  “Trump is NOT America’s problem,” Sep 10, 2018. “Enemies of the people,” Nov. 1, 2018.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

I confess I’m an aweist

Most of us are gratified when reading others’ words that express our own view of life or emotional experience better than we have ourselves. I felt that when reading Phil Zuckerman’s short article “Aweism” in the April/May 2009 edition of Free Inquiry magazine. This post is to share how Zuckerman’s joyful experience of awe fits with my own humanism and joie de vivre.

In my life I’ve often had difficulty determining what or who I am. I don’t mean the usual classifications, like whom I’m the son of, where I live, whom I’ve parented, and jobs I’ve held. Those are important, but I’m referring to philosophical identity. During youth, my identity was fundamentalist Christian. After high school that framework was unable to contain my questions and quandaries, so in early adulthood I evolved into an agnostic identity, then atheist, and finally secular humanist, a sequence that remains accurate to this day.

Secular humanism is not atheism but it is necessary because of atheism, for in the absence of belief that a god handed down morality, we must work it out for ourselves. Atheism, while useful in determining what is not worth believing, is not a prescription for life, but a circumstance upon which a life can be built. Actually, I rarely think about my atheism, but as a humanist I think of moral principles regularly; it permeates my concepts of humanity and my relationship with others. (For example, my current reading includes Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, an exploration into the complexity of applying personal morality to that of a state.)

What Zuckerman recognized in himself, I found to be true for me as well. My captivating awe is virtually unceasing for all manner of beauty and complexity, a reverence for life, amazement for the mysterious, for the bigness of life, for the tearful joy and wonder that the universe provides us. As Zuckerman wrote, “But when I ponder the existence of certain existential questions and cosmic mysteries, I often have an emotional reaction beyond that of mere dry puzzlement or cold contemplation. I feel [my italics, JC] something.” Sometimes,” he said, he feels “existential questions and mysteries that concern life, death, being, and the universe more than I simply ponder or contemplate them.”

Aweism doesn’t rely on marveling at unproven guesses, but at the proven and the probability that much more awaits discovery, a never-ending unveiling of further knowledge, not merely the persistence of the hoped-for. Much of science is an example. I’m reminded of Isaac Newton’s reply to those who said his work in refraction of light sadly constituted “unweaving the rainbow.” He replied that he’d not rewoven the rainbow, but shown it to be even more magnificently intricate than previously known. Scientific revelation often reveals and can replace the speculative flailing about of superstitious imagination.

Aweism takes nothing away from one’s religion nor from one’s atheism. It is available without the necessity of either, for it doesn’t require a religious boost to be experienced. Much as I described in a few posts (including “The happy atheist,” May 30, 2013; “The meaning of life,” Oct. 22, 2013; and “The heavens declare the glory of god,” June 10, 2015), atheism is not a drab, unhappy, uninspired, uncaring, immoral persuasion. Vouching for myself, with infrequent exceptions I’ve lived a joyful, satisfied, even fascinating life—I’m quite happy to have found a word for it. On that note, I’ll close with Zuckerman:

“Aweism is the [point of view] that existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, that being alive is a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of life, death, time, and space are so powerful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe. . . . An aweist is someone who admits that existing is wonderfully mysterious and that life is a profound experience. To be an aweist is—in the words of philosopher Paul Kurtz—to embrace and experience ‘joyful exuberance’ sans theistic assumptions. Aweists suspect that no one will ever know why we are here or how the universe came into being, and this renders us weak in the knees while simultaneously spurring us on to dance.”


Posted in Pleasure, enthusiasm, and awe, Secular humanism | 3 Comments

I fear for my country

I fear for my country. We are threatened not by others, but by ourselves. We’ve weakened the independence—and with it, the accountability—of judicial, legislative, and executive functions. We’ve undermined the rule of law and our previously unifying e pluribus unum. Political parties, particularly since the mid-1990s, have fought each other as much as they’ve wrestled with the country’s challenges.

We’ve accepted as normal the expanding use of gerrymandering, a practice that proves our rhetoric about democracy to be a lie. Slick procedural actions in House or Senate are applauded as heroic by the political parties they benefit. Tribalism and hyper-nationalism masquerade as patriotism. America was founded not upon land or parentage, but on an idea, what becomes of it when the idea slips away? Nuclear bombs and great warships cannot restore it.

We teeter close to the edge of losing the distinction between the few critical elements of system and the many political decisions that can be made within that system. In baseball no one confuses good hitting or superb 3-6-3 double plays with the rules by which the game is played. It is only with steadfast conservation that the framework of national governance—the rulebook—can remain sufficiently robust to accommodate great issues of the day without itself withering. Healthcare, welfare, armaments, budget, balance of payments, border specifics, tariffs, and a thousand other significant matters are arguably less important than separation of powers and the rule of law. However vital and complex the plays in a game, the rulebook must be stronger.

In the Congress and in the Executive Branch (less, so far, in the courts) those rules have slipped mightily over the past years, replaced by doing the country’s business in transactional bits and pieces, untethered to great ideas, moral leadership, and even common decency. I fear for my country, that of my grandchildren, and for yours.


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Why do Republicans love socialism?

Republicans are reluctant to campaign on their successes in having helped Trump besmirch American institutions and reputation. It’s been rumored that they might have to bring out a favorite old bugaboo: socialism. “It’s true we’re Trump’s toadies,” they can assure voters, “and we did forget we control an ostensibly independent branch of government. But you’ve really no choice but to vote for us because the alternative is [teeth grinding and serious grimace here] socialism.” My argument in this post is that waving accusations of socialism, a frequent Republican tactic, does not settle an argument and is not even a meaningful statement.

Historically, to conservatives, no other word (except perhaps Hillary, Obamacare, immigrant, or welfare) has the emotive verbal potency of the word socialism. But like other words that represent a range of beliefs and positions, the actual definition of socialism is hard to nail down. Historically, it meant the doctrines of Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Owen. One Wikipedia source calls socialism a “system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control.” But this academic definition is so broad as to embrace “a range from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal,” and from fascist to anarchist. In other words—coming from either Democrats or Republicans—it’s hard to distinguish an earnest definition of socialism from a mere dog whistle.

So I’ll abandon the search for academic precision and just go with an earnest definition taken from the experience I’ve had listening to politicians for a half dozen decades. In that time most use of the term referred to actions taken or paid for by government for some social good, including those that could have been done privately. It turns out that a great many undertakings supported by almost all Republicans—think neighborhood park, air traffic control—are easily included under that definition of socialism. But I’ll list a few more at random with no attempt to be complete.

Public roads, highways, bridges, tunnels. Food supply protection. Safety standards for cars, trucks, tires, and traffic. Cleanup of mining damage. Air and water pollution. Job training. Flood control. Childhood education. Medicaid. Traffic lights. Air traffic control. Bases when no longer a military necessary. Fire prevention and control. Weather forecasting. Veterans’ healthcare. Safety standards for construction, electrical appliances, aircraft seats, landing gear. Motorcycling head protection. Medicare. Social security. (These last two items take over individuals’ need to shift their economic resources from one part of their lives to another.) Subsidy of sports stadiums. And so forth. Obviously, a complete list of that “so forth” would be a very long list indeed, one that illustrates an important point.

Everyone is for some form or some degree of socialism. It is not that a specific economy can be fully socialistic or fully non-socialistic, just as there is no option for being totally capitalist versus having no capitalism. Similarly, it is either a lie or mere ornamental use of the term to pronounce that someone or some party is socialist or is not. But that doesn’t make the broad concept of socialism useless. There is always more or less socialism and varieties of the mix of various topics to which those variations apply. For one function a socialistic approach is desired, while for another function it is not desired. The histories, values, and aspirations of one political jurisdiction will be—should be—reflected in that mix; in fact, democracy demands it. Failure to recognize that socialism is a continuum will lead to much spinning of wheels in the electorate, argumentative energy wasted, dead-end socio-political conversation, and legislation entangled more than carefully carved out as a blend both coherent in itself and aligned with the values of that jurisdiction.

So what am I suggesting? First, any Democrat who claims to be for socialism in all instances where it can be applied should be either rejected or drilled extensively to justify how that much “purity” could exist. Second, any Republican who claims to be against socialism in all instances wherein it can be applied should be either rejected or drilled extensively to justify how that much purity could exist. Third, in either case, any Democrat or Republican still standing should be asked to explain his or her chosen mixture of the economy’s reliance on socialism versus capitalism (defined for this purpose as non- or anti-socialism). In any event, waving a flag either for or against socialism is neither responsible nor meaningful.

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Trump is NOT America’s problem

Most Americans understand that this untrustworthy, incompetent, man-child is arguably the most unfit person ever to be American president. Whether caused by derangement, startling ignorance, or simply evil is of no importance. What is monumentally important is that the United States of America is on a path toward fascism, the strong-man, dictatorship, international banditry that we’ve resisted for over two centuries.

How did we get here so fast? Where is that City on a Hill? Worse, we should expect this frightening deterioration to accelerate as safeguards in the system weaken. Even eliminating Trump as president is not enough to erase the damage. The Constitutional strengths of a country do not spring back to relevance just because their destroyer leaves town. If we are to save America, much more is required than evicting Trump from the White House.

Anyone who watched Trump in the 2016 campaign, then claimed to be surprised at his un-American presidency is naive in the extreme. He had no commitment to the judicial system, to the rule of law, to Constitutionally prescribed roles, to common decency, and even to simple facts. Policies, programs, laws, and traditions are important to Trump only to the extent they serve his pathological ego. Millions of American voters either played dumb or intentionally decided the risks to America didn’t matter. So why not bet the republic on a madman?

“He’s new to politics” excused his ignorance. “He’ll learn to be presidential” overlooked his basic crudeness and coarseness. “He tells it like it is” excused his lying. “He’ll drain the swamp” excused a worse swamp. “He shouldn’t need to show his finances” excused hyper-secrecy and possibly criminality.

His behavior as president was easily predictable and, in fact, worse because with each horrid action, we fooled ourselves into thinking there wouldn’t be even further ineptness and paranoia. But that was just the start. We were on the edge, but not yet over it.

Republicans in the Senate and House, despite knowing what they were getting, decided to “identify with the aggressor,” kiss-up, and do whatever was necessary to avoid offending him. After all, they were driven by lust for SCOTUS seats, by hate for Obamacare, by owning all branches of government, and inheriting from Trump a right wing Christian base easily bought off. Apparently, partisan choices were more important than preserving the safety of the system so carefully established by our founders.

So why should they let incessant lying, destruction of an international reputation that took decades to build, or endangerment of the federal justice system get in the way? Indeed, why should they diligently carry out their responsibility as an independent branch of government at the risk of offending Trump, even if Trump was is aimed at destroying much of what American has been. (How could deterioration be so obvious that Rep. Nunes’ bizarre actions become a new normal?) Making America great again, ironically, will become a truly meaningful motto when Trump and his minions are finished with it.

For now, however, only one authority in government has a chance to save the country from the most damage to America as a system since the Civil War. Yet, House and Senate Republicans are Trump’s greatest fan club, regularly refusing to check the obviously dangerous president, and just as regularly bending over to lick his, uh, boots.

Voters in 2016 either carelessly or ignorantly did something akin to letting an 8 year old drive the family car (after which it makes little sense to blame the child’s ignorance and impulsivity). Did we learn? The polls regarding support for Trump announce that we did not. The continued Congressional support demonstrates daily that we did not.

Whether America continues its flirtation with fascism or only has a scary near-miss, the damage to this republic must, therefore, be borne by the Republican party, even more than by Trump, for the Congress has the Constitutional power of impeachment and removal.  They are so far choosing to be accessories after and before the facts.

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Creeping toward theocracy

Slightly over half the world’s religionists are Muslim or Christian, each powerfully motivated by belief that a loving/vengeful god entices with paradise and threatens with horror. To each camp, the other is anathema. Adherents of each are convinced of a deity-ordered duty to rid the world of the opponent. As history attests, these factors constitute a formidable, often brutal mixture. Much of Christianity, with sincere faith, has endorsed mild repression to downright cruelty. Much of Islam, with equally sincere faith, has advocated a similarly ruthless zeal.

I’ve addressed how antipathy between religions continues at successive, subordinate levels. Believing sincerely that divinity is on one’s side energizes not only the top tier of opposition (for example, Christianity vs. Islam), but smaller divisions as well (Sunni vs. Shi’a; Catholic vs. Protestant), then to further demarcations (Hanafi vs. Sufism vs. Wahhabism; Methodist vs. Mormon), each just as earnest and often as rancorous as the next. In the West in the 17th and 18th centuries something new happened, the Enlightenment—philosophical inquiry not subservient to theology. The wisdom of philosophers like Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Hume, Spinoza, and Smith inspired an integrity of thought that could please disestablishmentarian and passionate religionist simultaneously.

North America’s fledgling, emerging country was ready-made for a breakthrough relationship between church and state, and thoughtfully adopted a Constitution that assured unhampered religious freedom without religious control. Government’s domain is secular control—though within bounds set by the electorate. Churches’ domain is religious conscience—answerable neither to the state nor to anyone except those who’ve chosen to assemble together. (“Church,” of course, includes synagogue, temple, and mosque.) Still, broad concepts, for all their utility, require specification of their specifics.

The National Day of Prayer
God and Government United

Churches must submit to government regulation of their fire prevention, payment to creditors, registration of vehicles, asbestos insulation, and use of force. The state must govern churches as it does everything else, while refraining from favoring one religion or opinion about religion over another, and interfering in or prescribing worship. Gray areas like protection of children, church engagement in electing political candidates, secrecy of church finances do arise, and further calibration is needed, sometimes requiring judicial involvement. The outcome should be that we have a government that protects all faiths while promoting none. No matter what each believes about anything, we  should all be equal in the eyes of government.

Our Constitutional bargain, simple and fair as it seems, has been under attack—and therefore a source of intermittent unrest—since the beginning of our republic. There have been riots between Catholics and Protestants, civic action between Christians and Muslims, proselytization of public school students, destruction of synagogues, Christian ornamentation of public property, government promotion of fundamentalist Christianity, governmental actions relying on Christian dogma, and millions of such entanglements daily. Christians call on government to, in effect, declare it the only true religion. Government officials, sworn to protect the Constitution, regularly curry favor with Christians for their personal political gain. And, of course, the preference can be quite pointedly targeted, so that “Christians” frequently turns out to be some Christians.

So far though, freedom of worship and freedom to convince others of their rectitude has not been enough to satisfy all religionists. They wish also to arrogate the power of government in their behalf to the exclusion of competing views (meaning not only nonbelievers, but believers of opposing faiths). The energizing of the Christian right over the past few decades has not been in the interest of religious liberty as it likes to portray, but in wresting favor from government, that is, stealing from a population of mixed opinions about religion, including theirs. The revisionist doctrine that America was founded as a “Christian nation” turns history on its ear.

Individual Christian candidates for office are thought to be more honest and of better intent than non-Christians despite facts to the contrary. Mechanisms are available to enable pious posturing, such as events like the National Day of Prayer [see “National Prayer Breakfast,” Feb. 9, 2015 and “Our National Day of Prayer,” May 1, 2014]. No politician risks omitting “God bless America” to conclude a speech. Consequently, nonbelievers in elected positions are quite few, far below the proportion of Christians in the electorate. Piety is easy to fake and, on this matter, religious people are easily duped.

There is nothing new about sacrificing the principle of church-state separation; even if poorly maintained it has served the country well. Now comes the Trump Administration eager to pretend piety with a vengeance, the president himself meeting repeatedly with groups seeking fundamentalist Christian hegemony. The president, among other similar actions, prohibited the IRS from threatening the tax-exempt status of any religious organization that actively lobbies on behalf of a political candidate, even though the so-called Johnson Amendment makes that unlawful [see “Church donations trump secular ones by IRS,” May 10, 2017]. In 2017 he instructed federal agencies to “take the broadest possible interpretation of religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws.

Consistent with the White House position, just last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a “Religious Liberty Task Force” to help in that pursuit. (The term “religious liberty,” though in itself an honorable concept, has been hijacked by the Religious Right and its meaning reversed so that it has become Christians’ freedom to discriminate against groups they dislike and laws that they find inconvenient [see “So-called religious liberty bills,” Feb. 25, 2017 and “Legislators set to abuse religious freedom…again,” Jan. 17, 2018].) Sessions, who is fundamentalist himself enough to have been ejected from his conservative home church, actually quoted a Biblical reference to defend Trump’s treatment of children at the US-Mexico border. He announced that his task force is necessary to help save religious liberty because of the great danger of secularism to freedom.

“We have gotten to the point,” Sessions said, “where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law, where ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit.” These are ridiculous assertions. Morality is very much a basis for some legislation, but not specifically the morality of Session’s chosen dogma. Ministers in the United States are as free to preach what they believe to be holy writ as anywhere in the world. Is lying included in the moral code the Attorney General proposes for federal guidance in religion?

I have argued previously that secularists are far greater protectors of the principle of religious liberty than are either Christians or Muslims. While carelessness about separating politics and religion is not new, Sessions (and Trump) are advocating the fusion of patriotism and evangelical Christianity (known as “Christian nationalism”) to strengthen Trump’s evangelical base. When religious positions may actually be political ones, it is not surprising that political positions may be religious ones. 

Governmental support for particular forms of Christianity are frightening even to many Christians; every step toward theocracy is a hollow victory, for it applies only to those specific religions or denominations in a government’s favor. American history, let alone other countries’, testifies to that shameful victory. Note these chilling words from Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association: “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion . . . [The Founding Fathers . . . weren’t ] intending to deal with non-Christian religions.” One example, he claims, is Mormonism: “Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian faith. . . . the Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve automatically religious liberty for non-Christian faiths.”

Compare that sentiment that to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which declared that “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any” religion. It was guided through the legislature by James Madison, and later became a model for Constitutional language in the First Amendment. Due to the shoddy history of mixing government and religion, Article 6 includes a complementary sentiment that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

As Americans, we’ve been granted a great, historical birthright—freedom of belief, of worship, of conscience—but we have an ill-considered, foolish tendency to swap it for short term favors of religious privilege. Like a child who carelessly breaks a Ming vase—unaware of its value—religions are their own worst enemies with regard to valuing the principle of religious liberty enough to preserve it. And now, in exchange for partisan fealty, some Christian churches have actually been invited by government into politics.

Bright Spots

I’ve given politicians and religionists a hard time in this post. But I don’t want to overlook the many religious persons of various stations in life who seem to “get it,” to understand that promoting their faith not only doesn’t need government assistance but is in fact corrupted by it (as is government corrupted by religion). Although their numbers are legion, here are three from a wide variety whom I’ve read and by whom I’ve been buoyed:

  • “There is [a] movement afoot that could conceivably set us back centuries in terms of human flourishing and religious liberty. . . Christian nationalism . . . is a threat to the true liberty of all.” Rev. Jonathan Davis, Baptist pastor, small town in Virginia
  • The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. John Adams, President of the United States
  • “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” John F. Kennedy, President of the United States
Posted in Church and state, Liberty, Politics | 2 Comments

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.
Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

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.


Posted in Church and state | 1 Comment

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].”

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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

America has too few dead kids

Our politicians make sycophantic speeches and announce that “something must be done,” but decide it must not be by them. Our Congress and the president are ostensibly waiting until the numbers get high enough, unconcerned that while scores are killed, millions live in fear. Guns don’t kill people, it is said, people kill people. So we blame the mental health issues of treatment—in itself important—that they cite, blithely overlooking that people with weapons kill considerably more than people without. As Montel Williams pointed out, we are more concerned about where kids go to the lavatory than whether they are in mortal danger.

We surrender to the reasoning that control of guns would not control all guns, and besides, even without guns we will not have eliminated the ability to intimidate and kill. That’s a true, but useless point. We might similarly contend that we should not have speed limits, since even with limits some drivers will endanger others with speed. The ways pro-gun forces can find to justify an armed America are legion.

The bloodbath does not go unnoticed, of course. A short-lived response always occurs, each looking like the last. We’ve become addicted to smarmy statements and calls for prayer as substitutes for productive action. We are satisfied with hand-wringing and “this is not the time for politics.” We accept the NRA’s clever claim about “good guys with guns.” Apparently, the problem is that we still don’t have enough good guys with guns. Must we station these good guys in every classroom, on every street corner, outside every church, synagogue, and mosque? Maybe the NRA and the politicians who accept its money are right; maybe to curtail the mayhem and the fear, we must further make America an armed camp.

Hiding behind the Second Amendment seems to satisfy us. There’s nothing that can be done, it is said, since the supreme law of the land guarantees the right to have firearms. The gun lobby and its political beneficiaries take that to mean almost any kind of firearm, even weapons of war, with fewer impediments to acquire than in getting a driver’s license. Politicians indebted to the NRA and the warlike among us quake at giving offence to the powerful guns-at-any-cost lobby, so much so that the mildest of possible solutions are politically blocked. Your senators, congresspersons, president and mine, stand idly by offering condolences instead of action. Thereby, we excuse that which is inexcusable, and thus ourselves become part of the problem.

Accountability has become one of our favorite words. Just uttering it looks responsible. But in politics, appearance is enough. I live in Georgia, so I hold Senators Purdue and Isakson responsible, along with Georgia’s Representatives. They are integrally part of the carnage. They bear responsibility for dead kids and faculty this week in Parkland. They didn’t need to pull a trigger, for they are comfortably insulated from the killing of which they are a part. NRA is more to be represented than grieving parents and dead or frightened children.

Am I being unfair? If my words constitute unfairness, then accountability means nothing. My possible unfairness to political leaders doesn’t come close to the unfairness of those empowered to act, but who do not. Their sentimental statements save not a single child from the weapons they are responsible for loosing upon the country. My representatives in Congress are not alone, of course. I starkly point them out and name names, for it is otherwise so easy for those who represent me—as for those who represent you—to distance themselves from the killing. I urge you shout out names, not to let yours off the hook, for they apparently believe that we just don’t have enough dead kids yet.

In their passive and unctuous way, our Congress and our president are killing our children.

Posted in Morality, Politics | 3 Comments

Legislators set to abuse religious freedom . . . again

State legislatures are busy again considering so-called “religious liberty” bills, and the year’s just begun. Over 160 bills have been filed by legislators around the country thus far. Seasoned observers, after years of watching politicians’ sausage-making, are not fooled by bills’ titles. In the case of religious liberty, it’s not that proponents really care about the important political doctrine of freedom of belief. Their interest is entitlement of Christians to have more rights than others. (In Islamic countries, that sentence works quite well by substituting one word.) Most Christian fundamentalists think little about the broad Enlightenment concept of freedom of religion, but a lot about claiming unrivaled statutory protection of their own.

Our Constitution was developed by leaders aware of widespread religious persecution and prosecution prevalent in the colonies. Curiously, schools still teach children that Puritans and Pilgrims came to America for the concept of religious freedom. They did not. They came for freedom of their own religions. Many Christians behave similarly today. Most, I think, don’t notice they’re doing so. Elected officials—by and large—rather than help them elevate their understanding of religious freedom, take the opportunity to capitalize politically on their misunderstanding.

Remember Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky, who refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple despite the applicants’ legally guaranteed rights? She claimed her religious belief gave her the right to deny the rights of others. Neither she nor the religious leaders who flocked to her defense seemed to understand that while the personal Ms. Davis does have freedom of religion, the government official Ms. Davis does not. To applicants, Ms. Davis was the state of Kentucky. But that simple distinction was lost in the evangelical frenzy, demonstrated by, among many others, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Bobby Jindal, and Senator Marco Rubio, who declared: “[this is the] criminalization of Christianity,” (Huckabee); “I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when a Christian in America could go to jail because they decided to live by the precepts of their faith,” (Rubio); and “[this constitutes] jailing Christians for their religious beliefs” (Jindal). These statements were either intentionally misleading or shockingly naïve.

How would these same Christians feel about a Muslim state employee who chooses not to serve a female citizen who exposes her hair? How about a Catholic public school teacher who extols the priesthood and transubstantiation to students? Or a school principal who prays publicly before football games according to his Hindu beliefs? How about a police department that displays Allahu Akbar decals on its squad cars just because the chief or a majority of officers are Muslim? These individuals in their personal lives can believe anything they wish; they can follow those beliefs. We are duty-bound to help protect their rights to do so. The state does not have the right of religious freedom; individuals do. A person representing the state (teacher, cop, clerk, judge) cannot be allowed to impose his or her beliefs in the conduct of state business lest the rights of others be impaired. Religious freedom for individuals requires that persons when representing the government conform to the Constitutional limits placed on government as if they are the government themselves.

I’ve addressed the matter of any individual thinking he or she has a right as a public employee to foist beliefs on others or to act as if the government has chosen one belief over another. This is not a rare event in America, but occurs in virtually every municipality, public school system, and other arena. Some of these issues are argued in my posts on this blog that I’ve noted below. With the foregoing thoughts in mind, however, let me shift my focus to the specific area of religious liberty that has so flooded legislatures’ agendas.

As an electorate, we’ve decided that certain behaviors in this “free country” are so unacceptable that they should be prohibited by law. Excluding black customers when operating a public business is not acceptable. Exposing minors to certain dangerous conditions is not acceptable. Cruelty to animals is not acceptable. Recently we’ve made excluding gay persons from services by public business is unacceptable. My point is this: Whether or not a specific one of us agrees with laws to enforce those specific behaviors, surely we agree laws should be applied without favor, equally on everyone. A law applies to persons who don’t like it as much as to persons who do.

Yet some Christian bakers refuse to serve gay customers wanting a wedding cake. (The Supreme Court is now engaged with such a case.) As already discussed, some public officials have chosen not to serve gays seeking a marriage license. There are more examples, but my point is that some Christians think that since they do not like the law, they should be excused from it. I understand that they’d not say it that way. They’d contend that it isn’t simply that they “don’t like” the law, but that their God doesn’t. Their God, of course, is not available to give testimony, so believers’ “sincere religious belief” about what their God wishes is frequently treated as enough.

There’s a problem, though, in that their belief is not the same as the equally conscientious belief of other Christians and non-Christians. Those who profess to speak for God disagree mightily among themselves. Is belief qua belief sufficient to establish an exception to public policy? Would the total of all “sincere beliefs” not potentially set aside much of public policy? In giving certain religious persons and proclivities more rights than either non-religious persons or differently religious persons, the civil government will not only have chosen among opposing religious views, but between a religion-based public morality and a secular one.

Christians are not being asked to surrender their beliefs, give up proselytizing, or stop worshipping in the way they choose. Those rights are firmly protected. They are being asked—no, make that required—to do something they don’t like in order to avoid stepping on rights we as a nation have decided that persons have. That they might call that an act of war on Christianity does not make it so. Are laws to be binding only when a person’s religious (oops; sincere religious) beliefs do not forbid it? Is the official message to be, “This what the law requires you to do unless you think you shouldn’t”? Have you ever considered all the civilizing efforts since the Enlightenment that would violate what one or another sincere religious belief forbids?

(Pardon my emphasis on that phrase. I’m not sure what sincere adds except a patina of solemnity and sagacity not granted other types of beliefs. Should hanging the modifier religious on an action or predisposition render it more sensible or less deserving of challenge? Ever heard of “sincere speed limit belief,” “sincere nutrition belief,” “sincere policing policy belief,” or even “freedom of sincere speech”? But I digress.)

Americans already have freedom of religion. Except for occasional fundamentalist Christians’ attempts to hamper Muslims’ (or others’) access to that freedom, it is a precious right valued by most Americans, including me. The present flurry of religious liberty bills makes a mockery of that freedom, for they propose to use religion to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, and others. In some instances, they aim to divert public money to religious schools. There are even bills that would allow public school officials to pressure students to pray and to listen to religious preaching. Political leaders, some authentic, some not, appease and pacify fundamentalist Christian groups with promises of immunity from public policy others have to observe.

It is easy to overlook the fact that freedom of religion or, more broadly, freedom of conscience is a critical aspect of a free and benevolent society. Specifically religious values aren’t the only important ones we hold dear; in fact, historically they’ve often lagged behind secular ones. So it is that judicious balancing of our disagreements need not and should not rank religious sincerity over secular, nor religious notions of humaneness over secular.

Liberty of conscience—incorporating religious liberty—is so precious and so easily sacrificed that citizens and governments owe it vigilant protection. That obligation includes not damaging liberty with religious liberty laws.



Of more than 167 previous posts in this blog, “John Just Thinking,” these are particularly relevant to religious liberty: “Being civil about gay marriage,” June 30, 2013; “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” Apr. 16, 2014; “America chose liberty this week,” June 27, 2015; “Sincere religious belief,” May 24, 2016; “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016; “So-called religious liberty bills,” Feb. 25, 2017; “Religion and gays as ‘the Others,’” May 9, 2017.



Posted in Church and state, Liberty | 2 Comments

Aiding and abetting injury to America

Donald Trump’s presidency (the Jerry Springer Show comes to mind) stumbles on with the outspoken or at least tacit support of almost all his party. But stumbling doesn’t mean getting nothing done. On the contrary, Trump is getting a lot done. He has degraded our already appalling political discourse to even lower levels. He has replaced any semblance of commitment to truthfulness with daily lies. He has advertised contempt for and attacked Constitutional institutions. He has infected national politics and degraded the presidency with his paranoia. He has normalized a despotic inclination toward dictatorship. He has roused a cult of personality to replace informed policy debate. He has supplanted judicious deliberation with shoot-from-the-hip impulsiveness.

How can newscasters still refer with a straight face to this unfit person as the “leader” of the United States, much less the free world?

(It’s been suggested of late that Trump’s behavior is due to advancing dementia. That’s possible, but makes little difference. Knowing whether Trump is unwell or evil neither increases nor decreases our responsibility to protect the institutions and fortunes of this country from further damage.)

How bad must the situation be before his party—the only resource capable of saving America from Trump’s madness—re-reads the oath of office all senators and representatives take? His party continues to treat the Trump debacle as a partisan matter, one in which Republicans fight with Democrats, like fire fighters arguing about their retirement programs while a building burns in front of them. Partisan advantage (including their re-elections) has been of more concern to them than America’s decaying global leadership and our domestic surrender to the sleaziest and most fact-free traits among us.

What are we to think of the president’s cabinet and White House staff groveling, each in turn, in nauseating obeisance to their king? Their jobs depend on salving Trump’s fragile façade of strength. Perhaps, as it has been said, they fear for the country that jumping this ailing ship would lead to Trump’s appointing even weaker, more ethically pliable servants. Whatever the reason, the White House has sunk to new lows. It appears more energy is spent there repairing the various internal rifts than supporting an atmosphere for careful consideration of policy.

But whatever the excuse for the toadying of that group, the behavior of senators and representatives is another matter. They do not work for the president, though Trump seems to think they do. Even they cower before the authoritarian man-child, though surely they all recognize his ineptness, unfitness, and superficiality. Members of Trump’s party not only accept his incompetence, but offer him their own version of sycophancy with terms like his “elegant” leading of the 2017 tax bill (Speaker Ryan) and “one of the best [presidents]” (Sen. Hatch).

But elected members of Senate and House, must be re-elected to keep their jobs. Whether leadership is really expected depends on the electorate. Perhaps statesmen and stateswomen are too rare a commodity to expect when a great proportion of citizens falls for the hollow messages politicians are skilled at contriving.

If coal miners really believe coal jobs are coming back; if a lifelong blowhard inspires confidence to “drain the swamp;” if a leader is trustworthy who self-contradicts at a dizzying rate; if a candidate is adamant in hiding his personal finances; if we entrust momentous policy choices to a candidate who deals only in ego-related transactions; if Americans are deluded by a supposed leader’s claims of “mental stability and . . . genius;” if voters see no problem that a president’s source of intelligence comes as much from Sean Hannity as the CIA; if voters think there is anything remotely equivalent between the shortcomings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton . . . we can have little confidence in saving the great American experiment that our Founders left us.

Donald John Trump is not the primary problem in this threat to America and to the world. We are.



Previous posts particularly relevant to Donald Trump: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017. “Our republic . . . if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017. “Moral courage and the Trump threat,” Nov. 30, 2017.


Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Merry Christmas!

Yes, I—an enthusiastic and secular humanist atheist—often wish someone a Merry Christmas, and I respond happily to others when they use the term. I react the same way to Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, and other expressions of seasonal benevolence. Choosing to see the cheer and warmth in terms based on beliefs I don’t share in no way masks doubt about my irreligious core. I’ve not a shred of faith that there’s a god, life after death, religious miracles, salvation, or heaven-defined sin.

What I have faith in—besides reason—is that human beings experience a better, more satisfying life if we treat each other with openness, compassion, and joy. Just being nice goes a long way, farther than some religions do. And one doesn’t need fairy tales, made-up stories of angels, and sex-free procreation to wish pleasure, merriment, and enjoyment for all. Such supportive humanism is not only worthy of our attention year-round, but needs no creator-in-the-sky to command or even validate it.

Jesus is not the “reason for the season” as demonstrated by Christians’ time in commercial, feasting, and merrymaking activities on and around Christmas. Of Americans who celebrate Christmas (according to a PEW Research study) only about half treat it as a religious holiday. And lest we forget, not everyone is Christian to begin with. Americans are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Bha’i, Hindu, atheist, and more, as well as persons who claim Christianity but seldom darken the church door. The actual reason for the season, as jested by Dan Barker (co-president of American Atheists, Inc.), the actual reason for the season is earth’s axial tilt.

At any rate, even Christians don’t do much on Christmas that is specifically Christian. It was a borrowed (or stolen) holiday to begin with, appropriated from pagans who saw something noteworthy in geo-solar phenomena. Besides, pretty well everybody knows the ostensible Jesus of Nazareth was not born near December 25 despite our stories for children. Perhaps we continue with such delightful myths in adulthood because they grab our attention, slow us down momentarily from busy lives, and spread a bit of conviviality. That’s not all bad.

So why would a self-respecting atheist like me not be offended when the Christmas greeting is used by others? First, I just don’t get offended that easily anyway. Second, it’s difficult to avoid language that arises from philosophies neither you nor I adhere to. Third, I have an investment in using language a listener can understand. Every week I speak of Thursday with no need to proclaim each time that atheism dismisses Thor quite as quickly as Jehovah. These left-over terms are in the English language, and like you, I have more meaningful battles to fight.

One of those battles is relevant to the topic of this post. As much as I like Christmas trees, enjoy the December holidays, and welcome the charitable spirit of Yuletide, I abhor all observance of and support for religion by government. I am adamant that the government and all its representatives—like school teachers, police, and elected officials—diligently refrain from commenting on or supporting any religion or lack of it, whether about its dogma, its symbols, its celebrations, its theocratic complexities, or its holy books. (In large part, they do not refrain now.) However, as persons apart from their government employment, they have Constitutionally protected rights of belief and expression just as you and I. As public servants, they do not, for in those roles they are representatives of the state. (For further reasoning about these matters, I encourage you to take a look at previous posts found under the categories of Church & State and Politics on the right side of this screen, particular the posts listed below.)

My reaction to religious expressions, then, runs hot and cold. I am unyieldingly intolerant of government engagement in religion, but light-hearted and indulgent with respect to individuals’ words of kindness, even if cloaked in a religious expression.

So whatever season you acknowledge, celebrate, or just endure, I wish you a Merry Christmas or whatever greeting best fits your intentions for warmth, happiness, joy, and goodwill.


Previous posts particularly relevant to this post: “Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion,” October 8, 2014; “Our national day of prayer,” May 1, 2014; “Public education: Using the bully(ing) pulpit,” July 19, 2013; “Theocracy’s poster boy, Alabama’s Roy Moore,” December 7, 2017; “God-given rights,” December 9, 2013; “God-given rights—2,” December 9, 2016; “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” April 16, 2014; “Atheists in public office,” November 25, 2013.

Posted in This blog, this blogger | 6 Comments

Theocracy’s poster boy, Alabama’s Roy Moore

Alabama’s twice-deposed judge, Roy Moore, exemplifies such a distressing feature of present day America that I admit to a little schadenfreude in view of his recent sexual behavior problems. Innocent until proven guilty applies to state action in a court, but not to voters’ political decisions. Were I an Alabama voter, my belief of the women would guide my vote. But had the recent revelations not even come up, Moore was already a despicable choice for public office.

Are Alabamians such committed theocrats that they excuse Moore’s actions that resulted in his being removed from Alabama’s Supreme Court twice? Is Alabamians’ opposition to religious freedom so great as to declare the state home to but one set of religious views? Is Alabamians’ affection for a renegade judge to unilaterally and without authority commit Alabama jurisprudence to a theocratic stance as long as his position mirrors their dominant faith? Do Alabamians seriously espouse frank violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Article 1 (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”)?

Then-Chief Justice Roy Moore’s Monument

“Yes” to each of those questions, at least as demonstrated in the elective success Moore’s enjoyed despite—or, more disturbing—because of his injecting his brand of religion into public policy. With his flamboyant encouragement, many of Alabama’s fundamentalist Christians obviously decided that preservation of the right to be of whatever religious view individual consciences dictate is less important than grabbing civic support and power for the current dominant view.

The hegemonic aspiration of religions is difficult to keep tamed, though it must be if separate religions are to be kept safe from other religions. (Disbelief has always damaged religions less than they have damaged each other.) Religionists entice government to support them since, after all, they claim divine patronage. Domination, if achieved, knows no natural stopping place, even though religious people should be first in line to maintain a wall between church and state. Although a weakened wall promises short term gains—e.g., churches getting favored tax treatment—it threatens long term loss of religious freedom, at least for the smaller or newer religions as the larger ones expand their civic imprimatur and its accompanying power.

The American Constitution made a valiant effort to protect religions, more so than predecessor documents and more than earlier colonial entities in North America. It attempted, not always successfully, to guarantee religious freedom while keeping religion and government out of each other’s way.

Allow me to quote from a portion of my post of February 7, 2016, “Flirting with theocracy” (others that touch on this topic are under the posts category “Church and state” in the right margin of this page):

“Fundamentalist American Christians as a group can no more be trusted to mean ‘religious liberty’ when they say it than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can be trusted to really mean ‘democratic.’ . . . . With precious few exceptions, they have little interest in religious liberty, but a great deal in Christian liberty or, more accurately, fundamentalist Christian liberty. As I’ve argued in this blog, the liberty they mean is not just the freedom to worship whatever and virtually however they please. . . their definition of liberty includes the freedom to tell others what to do (see my post ‘Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion.’ Apr. 16, 2014). . . . Remember it was Baptists who feared the hazards of being outside the in-group that prompted Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter about what he called a ‘wall of separation.’ It is that same wall that many of today’s fundamentalists (including Baptists) rail against. While Baptists then needed the First Amendment’s protection, many of them and other fundamentalists now endeavor to install their religion in the halls, lawns, courtrooms, and classrooms of government.”

American freedom with respect to religion is a critical ingredient of America’s constitutional democracy. Those who threaten it the most do so with the voice of flaunted piety.



Posted in Church and state, Politics | Leave a comment

Moral courage and the Trump threat

During the Cold War, America spent much treasury on the ability to respond within minutes to a Soviet threat. How many months are needed to respond to our own homegrown threat from Donald J. Trump? Will lack of moral courage by Republican officials—since they are currently the only ones with power to act—allow damage to the United States and the world order in a way Soviet missiles did not? Do elected representatives in the Legislative Branch understand they are a separate branch of government? Apparently not. In the face of a presidency gone horribly awry, Republican officials have become Donald Trump’s bitches.

A Republican senator on TV this morning (I am writing this November 29), asked to comment on how Donald Trump is doing as president, fell back on the safe criticism that he tweets too much. Ridiculous. The problem is not that Trump tweets too much. The problem is what he tweets. After all, previous presidents have used direct, personal messaging to both domestic and foreign publics—FDR’s “fireside chats” are the oft-noted example. But unceasing, off-the-cuff tweets expose every unfiltered mental wanderings of the tweeter. And more than any American president in my lifetime, Donald Trump’s wanderings are beset with narcissism, trivia, and even precarious content.

I’ve written a number of posts using far too many, tiresomely repeated descriptions of Trump (see references to those essays below). He is an unfit and thoroughly despicable character, so obvious before the 2016 election to anyone not blinded by anger in search of a champion or the childish Lock Her Up mantra. (Juxtaposing Trump and character in the same sentence is a bit ludicrous.) Whatever the role of Russian chicanery in the election, the American electorate made an egregious error last November.

Election of this madman could have been (and was) predicted to jeopardize protections built into the Constitution.  His immaturity and ignorance confounded political choices within the Constitutional system with the system itself. Fighting over our differences about, for example, a southern wall, health insurance, and consumer protections are arguments the system was designed to enable. Damaging that system is to dismantle the very framework that protects our unum while valuing our pluribus. Doing so exposes the U.S. to the enfeebling of our system, not just differences of partisan opinion. Risking the American system to appease this man-child’s pathetic psychological neediness has shown in practice what many Americans feared would come to pass. But so what? We trusted the Congress to play its protective role.

One doesn’t have to be a Democrat to marvel at the ineptitude of the Republican party in dealing with Trump. The party was not in the best of health even before becoming forced chums of Trump on November 6. Conservative Senator Lindsey Graham and Governor Bobby Jindal had lamented at least a year earlier that their party had become “the stupid party.” Conservative author Matt K. Lewis said that although conservatism used to have “big, thoughtful ideas,” it had “lost its intellectual bearings” (I agree in both cases). My post, “Batshit crazy, the stupid party,” appeared in this blog on March 15, 2016.

I fear, though, that our disease is more extensive than a malperforming president and malperforming Congress. As a country we can’t stop shouting that we hit a triple when, as the saying goes, we were simply born on third base. Stupid party, now stupid president; how close, then, is stupid country? Are so many of us still bloviating with our rhetoric of “best country on earth,” pronouncing our president the “leader of the free world,” and other blowings of our own horn that we think American greatness can forever rest on the work of the founders, that our Constitutional system is a birthright that fumbling and hyper-partisanship cannot damage? Are we akin to the child who breaks your Ming vase with absolutely no appreciation of the damage done?

Trump’s appearance on the scene at a time of his chosen party’s deterioration is a strong challenge for America. Not only intelligence and genuine patriotism (rather than the usual mouthings) are needed by citizens and officials alike, and a moral courage beyond partisan pursuits is needed in those elected to protect us. Although there is precious little encouragement to be found in the record of the past year, I fervently hope for America and for the world that we are up to the test.


Previous posts particularly relevant to Donald Trump: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sept. 26, 2016. “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016. “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017. “Prerequisites for the presidency,” May 30, 2017. “Our republic . . . if we can keep it,” July 3, 2017. “Fish rot from the head,” Aug. 18, 2017.

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments

Men and #MeToo

In evolutionary biology, significant changes are normally thought of as gradual over incredibly lengthy periods. Yet sometimes major changes—according to some biologists like the late Jay Gould—occur quickly though infrequently, called in theory “punctuated equilibrium.” Political and social phenomena can be similar. An example concerns the role and treatment of women, a sensitive topic recently illuminated by instances of sexual abuse by powerful men, followed by the #MeToo crusade in the United States, Canada, and perhaps beyond.

Much has been written about the male-female social differential, of course, but #MeToo just might be a vehicle for real change, ushering in a punctuated equilibrium occurrence. There is a long arc of human improvement of which it is a part, so the progress in treatment of women it promises can as easily be but a small segment that fizzles and adds little, or a turning point that announces the revolution, like Seneca Falls or women’s suffrage. But whatever #MeToo’s eventual contribution to this portion of the human condition, I’m convinced that failure of men (and, in fact, women as well) to seriously consider what #MeToo promotes is to turn our backs on legitimate and overdue progress.

One source of guidance that has impressed me is the essay written by Nicole Stamp, first on her Facebook page, then in a slightly a shortened version published by CNN at http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/21/opinions/what-men-can-do-me-too-stamp-opinion/index.html. Stamp’s article conveys the obvious but easily overlooked point that the #MeToo message is just as much men’s issue as women’s. As the title announces—”What decent men can do in response to #MeToo”her focus is on offering concrete, uncomplicated tips for men, for example, being prepared to say to other men something like “that’s not cool” when they’ve said disrespectful things about or to women.

She urges care in introducing women at formal occasions, citing as an example the frequency male physicians at a medical conference introduced male physicians with the title “doctor” 95% of the time, but female physicians only 49% of the time. She even advises men how to behave during a sexual encounter: “If your partner hesitates, stops reciprocating, avoids eye contact, becomes quiet, tense or frozen, or otherwise slows the tempo of any sexual encounter, then you should STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING [uppercase in original; JC].

There is more to Stamp’s article than these examples, enough for me to suggest strongly that you follow the link above or read the longer version on her Facebook page. (There are other relevant writers on the topic, of course, though this post was motivated by Stamp.) We are warned that to focus solely on headline-grabbing, high visibility cases like that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, or Donald Trump is to miss the point. This is a more deeply ingrained matter to which men—and some women—have widely contributed, whether in a more odious way or merely by the toleration of behaviors that set the stage for private distress. We can learn to recognize behaviors that in themselves seem minor, but shroud and thereby make possible much worse treatment. We can learn . . . yes, even those of us who like to think—no doubt erroneously—that we are not part of the problem.



Posted in Morality, Secular humanism | 1 Comment

Are we crazy?

Are we crazy?

The Las Vegas death toll has shocked the nation, as all such events do. News channels are full of the usual hunt for information on the assailant, identity of the victims, and examination of the circumstances that made the scene ripe for mass killing.

Politicians will speak of their prayers and the condolences they’ve sent to victims’ families. The president will offer—as best he is capable—sympathy. But despite the dutifully repeated words of on-air journalists that we shall never forget those who died, we will.

We will forget them the way we always do. Politicians, in fear of the National Rifle Association with its deep pockets and gerrymandered districts with their concentration of right wing voters, will go right back to doing what they can to allow the country to be flooded with guns—guns that have no hunting or target practice utility, guns meant only to kill in warfare. The slightest of extra care about gun availability is rejected by hiding behind the 2nd Amendment.

I want to drive as fast as I’d like; my freedom of movement should trump government’s control on my highway speed. I have a Constitutional right to bear arms; so there should be no or minimal government control over the arms with which I choose to exercise my right. And even speaking of controls the way we would about passenger airplane maintenance, restaurant safety, and building codes produces a well-funded frenzy of opposition from the NRA and politicians acting as their apologists and megaphones.

Most of the nations of the world have a higher murder rate (recently 9.63 per 100,000 annually). But in the parts of the world to which we should be compared, viz., Canada, United Kingdom, Central and Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, murder rates are below 2.63. Ours is 5.22, twice as high. (These are murder rates, not gun murder rates; making a case that there’s a significant difference would be a hard argument to make. Moreover, these data omit suicides by gun.) We cannot stop murder, we cannot stop violence, we cannot stop gun violence; that we can is not my point. But we can make a far more reasoned, muscular attempt to stop being a nation sick with guns.

The media in the next few days will be full of examining the Las Vegas tragedy—the victims, the blame, and the perpetrator. Yes, there’ll be discussion of gun laws, but we’ve proven we’ve a habit of letting those matters fade. The White House has even commented that this is not the time for politics. Really?

All the data we’ll hear and read about the scene and perpetrator will be interesting, to be sure, but only broad social effects will address the issue, and that means politics. In fact, the concentrated criminal investigation, as imperative as it is for law enforcement officers, when it is the focus of citizens’ attention, actually interferes with demanding and persevering with an honest political resolution. Anyone who maintains that this is not the right time owes the country and future victims an answer. Just when is the right time?

Posted in Politics | 6 Comments

Illegal immigration, dreamers, and mixed messages

I’m a bit of a hawk on illegal immigration; well, in theory. I have a liberal friend who disagrees with having national borders to begin with, though as well-meaning as is her position on pan-citizenship, I’ve never been convinced by it. The world may someday show me to be wrong on this, but as for now I support each country’s right to control its borders, free from encroachment and interference from without.

Lawful immigration is a country’s way of determining who will be allowed to put down roots in the geography under its jurisdiction. When individuals override those immigration laws, they exercise a right they do not have. They are substituting their own judgment for that of the country’s citizens, an offense that justifies punishment or deportation. The right to immigrate to the United States is exercised by those who legitimately speak for the United States—our elected government—not persons who wish to come and reside here. That said, I must explain the hesitation that causes me to add the proviso, “in theory.”

Part of my training in psychology dealt with behavioral communication as well as that which is written or spoken. Our behavior frequently embodies messages that are more intended, clearer, and more authoritative than our explicit language. Consider parents saying to their child with regard to some action, “If you do that again, you’ll have no television tonight.” Let’ say that when the child continues the action, the parents not only repeat the admonition, but end up allowing television anyway. Now, what would you say was the parents’ message to the child?

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that the relevant but unspoken message is, “It doesn’t matter that you’re doing that, except that I’ll speak to you disagreeably.” We have all seen parents who send this obvious but unspoken message, then when provoked enough turn on the child with punishment for disobeying. My point here is that the child has not disobeyed. He or she has accurately figured out and followed the real (behavioral) parental message, not the pretended (verbal) message. In frustration, the parents finally change the rules, so that now they do mean the verbal admonition, when before they clearly didn’t. But they give the child no signal that the meaning of their words is going to change.

Over decades, the United States has sent discrepant messages about illegal immigration, particularly that which crosses our border with Mexico. Our laws said clearly it was illegal. The behavior of employers in the United States said, as they still do, “come on anyway, we have employment for you.” In fits and starts, we have cracked down on those who accepted the virtual invitation, showing that sometimes and in some ways we actually mean the words. A wink and a nod are effective tactics for nullifying the rule of law, but doing so in a way that enables us to have our cake and eat it.

Although there have been efforts to act more honorably with regard to this issue, they’ve tended to be half-hearted, used as a political football, or workable but not sustained. Now the matter is again animated with a political environment of conservatives versus liberals, and politically courageous versus politically faint-hearted. Elected officials are often inclined to avoid decisions for which there may be no winners. Tossing difficult matters between executive and legislative branches has become time-honored.

But now there’s a new element: Dreamers—young people, brought to the United States by their undocumented parents, who’ve grown up here almost as integrated into the American experience as the native born. Through no fault of their own, often not even speaking their parents’ native language, they are vulnerable to deportation. The temporary refuge (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) they’ve been granted is currently endangered by political currents. Given decades of our mixed messages, our duplicity, our dishonesty about those messages, we now jerk the Dreamers about, hiding behind the fear of appearing to support “amnesty” when by our actions we’ve already granted amnesty many times over. Perhaps it is no surprise that we are more concerned with saving face—veiling the inhumane discrepancy in our messages—than with simple compassion toward youth innocently caught up in an adult stand-off.

If Make America Great Again has meaning beyond a throwaway motto, we must examine how such an embarrassingly mean-spirited action can be justified by a great nation.




Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Fish rot from the head

Memory and attribution serve me poorly, but I’ll credit the late management guru Peter Drucker for this insight: the cost of working for a corrupt boss is to become corrupt yourself. We don’t work for Donald Trump, but much of our attention since late 2016 has been dominated by his every move. This week as I pondered what it must be like now to work in the White House, it occurred to me that each person there risks the kind of corruption that characterizes Trump.

I don’t mean corruption in its financial sense, but in the sense of moral decency. Neither am I using its frequently trivial sexual sense, but in the sense of commitment to ethical treatment to truth and to protection of rights and processes necessary for honorable national governance.

Donald Trump is corrupt in ways crucial to national leadership. That corruption has been evident since long before his presidency, even before his candidacy. Many others, including myself in this blog, have written enough about his failings that doing so has become a fatiguing, nauseating endeavor. Even so, a substantial number of Americans voted to impose this fact-free man-child on the America they claim to love. Even more so, the majority of Republican Senators and Representatives still refuse to take a stand against his depletion of America’s political leadership, its “capital stock” of public ethics and truthfulness.

It is clear that Drucker’s observation applies to those in the White House and the cabinet. How can his corruption not envelop them? How can they stand committedly behind him in press conferences while he spews inaccuracies and civic immorality? How can the vice president carry his reflection about like a mini-me? Like an odor, Trump’s stench saturates them all.

Some elected officials have been ready to bless Trump’s behavior and mentality by taking advantage of the opening he provides for damaging, uninformed speech. But perhaps more disturbing, some have blessed Trump’s behavior by their silence, their practice of cowardly whitewashing his name from their condemnation of anti-Semites, white nationalists, and other racists in America’s shameful underbelly. Is their behavior what they will try to defend in a few years? Will they excuse their reluctance to save what is good about America? Has being in league with a corrupt president rendered them corrupt as well?

Of course, Trump did not make himself president. Millions of Americans did, due to identifying with his so-obvious unfitness or due simply to their elective carelessness. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. Trump has not only tarnished White House staff and his cabinet, along with elected officials who stand by weakly in the face of his perfidy, but debased us all.



Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Americans stand for democracy! Really?

From the successful marketing of what became America’s Constitution in 1788 until today, we Americans have not only celebrated our commitment to democracy, we have proudly proclaimed our union to have brought democracy to the world and that, even now, we are the world’s most democratic nation. I’ll leave those boasts unquestioned in this post and just focus on my observation that we seem less clear about just what democracy means. We typically speak of widespread franchise, rule of law, personal freedom, egalitarian counting of votes, and 50%+1 wins, along with rights enumerated in our Constitution and its amendments.

At least, those are the things we talk about in Fourth of July speeches and political campaigns. Closer inspection, I’m afraid, shows a bit less commitment to democracy in our day-to-day politics and ongoing conduct of the country’s business. Political actions in matters of on-the-ground behavior, rather than in our patriotic rhetoric, reveal less commitment to democracy than we’d like to believe. Here are a few examples to illustrate my point.

Restricted franchise by race. We began as a nation by excluding slaves from the “we the people” from whom all political authority arose and for whom the new nation existed. Not only did slaves have no voting rights, their “owners” were awarded with 3/5 of a count toward U. S. House representation for each slave owned, a double repudiation of democracy. Things did change after a horrid war and Constitutional Amendments 13, 14, and 15, but even that slowly and grudgingly. At the end of the 1950s, seven Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) used literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. As we all know, there was still much to be done.

Restricted franchise by religion: In the years before the American revolution, the vote was denied to Catholics in five colonies and Jews in four. Those without any religion were widely unfranchised, a number that on close inspection would have included a number of our founders. Even today, seven states’ constitutions single out atheists for numerous roles of citizenship. Those are now unenforceable, but woe to any legislator who proposes to remove the wording.

Restricted franchise by property ownership: In pre-constitutional America, there were wide variations of the general prohibition against voting by men without property. This was due in part to a “no representation without taxation” approach (so that payment of property tax qualified one to create public debt). Only white males with property could vote, said to be 10 to 16 percent of the population. After the Constitution was in place, the limitation of voting to property owners continued for decades. States during the 1800s gradually rescinded the property requirement.

Restricted franchise by gender: Women were excluded from voting and holding office until much later upon passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. While the controversy led to no war, it was nevertheless hard fought.

 Inconvenienced franchise by economics: Anti-black practices sought to nullify some of the freeing effects of post-Civil War amendments. They included poll taxes, setting inconvenient voting times, and intimidation. The current controversy over voter identification is part of this struggle.

Restricted franchise by age: One can make the case that the proper age for voting can never be established with certainty. In 1970 suffrage was extended to age 18 by Amendment 26. It was due, in large part, to young people having died in conflict in Vietnam. Those for the amendment were, in effect, saying that to exclude persons over 18 (already authorized if 21) from the right to vote was insufficient democracy.

Passive-aggressive indecision: Politicians can simply allow a balanced political unit to deteriorate due to resignations, rendering an ostensibly bilateral unit representing one party more than another. This tactic was, in part, involved in nomination of members to the National Labor Relations Board in the years 2007-2013. (You could make the case that these dynamics were actually not so passive.)

Open choice not to perform: Similar to the former action, this is openly aggressive. A 20th century examples is Pres. Roosevelt’s seeking to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. A 21st century example is Sen. McConnell’s refusal for the Senate to fulfill its Constitutional job of considering Pres. Obama’s SCOTUS nomination based on a thin—even mendacious—rationalization.

Mis/disinformation from leaders: When political leaders convey inaccuracies, some groups are disadvantaged more than others. (I’ve no data about the relative occurrence by party, so my example here will be biased if mistaken to intend a specifically Republican behavior.) The 2016 campaign was bursting with “alternative facts,” so mis/disinformation occurred regularly. Newt Gingrich in a TV interview referred to America’s high crime rate. When the interviewer challenged Gingrich’s misinformation, he replied that people feel there’s more crime, and feeling is reality to them. Yet treating fear as equal to fearful conditions is self-fulfilling, leaving gullible voters even more misinformed in the direction of supporting one partisan side.

Deliberate impairment of the voting system: Gerrymandering may be the single most damaging political practice facing American democracy now and, if so, second only to out-and-out obstruction of voting. The past few years have seen an astounding increase in gerrymandered House districts, largely by and favoring the Republican party. This has been an admittedly intentional Republican strategy to attain more seats than a democratic process would otherwise produce. In voting for Members of Congress, consider the percentage of votes by party compared to the percentage of House seats rendered by gerrymandering in each year of the most recent Congressional races:

Year of vote Dem votes Rep votes Winner of votes Dem seats won Rep seats won Winning % of seats
2012 48.4% 47.1% Dem won by 1.3% 200 234 Rep won by 7.8%
2014 44.9% 50.7% Rep won by 5.8% 188 247 Rep won by 13.6%
2016 47.3% 48.3% Rep won by 1% 194 241 Rep won by 10.8%

I must share a few provisos. First, these data (source: Fareed Zakaria) do not consider other factors, some of which are about to be considered by the Supreme Court. For example, do voters “gerrymander themselves,” as one conservative spokesperson put it, in that liberals are disproportionately moving to cities and conservatives the reverse? Second, is it even possible that Congressional districts can be calculated with fairness in light of uneven geography and social dynamics? Third, have Democrats done their own share of gerrymandering (albeit less effectively), thereby reducing the whole matter to turn-about-is-fair-play? Fourth, as to Representatives whose re-elections are protected by gerrymandering, is there a way to force engagement with what otherwise would be normal legislative compromise (since their seats are safe, even weakened by compromise)? Fifth, is there a critical mass of gerrymandering that would foreclose going back to less partisan districting—that is, might the interlocking effects on state legislatures and on Congressional seats become irreversible?

Lack of informed citizen participation: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” Pogo said. As a society, we act as if political protections are important only when they are critically endangered or lost. In voter turnout, the United States places 28th among the 35 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (source: PEW Research). In the 2016 election, 55.7% of the voting age population voted; even among those, a distressing number gave the matter less studied attention than their next smart phone purchase. Midterm elections run about 40%.


Freedom and liberty are our watchwords, but as often as not we attach them to narrow interests and rarely engage with either the philosophical or the practical depths of the issues. Democracy does not automatically maintain itself. We have the capacity to contemplate and to write profoundly about its importance to a free society. We have the flag-waving pride to boast of our commitment to democracy. We even have a history of a number of incremental improvements in democratic inclusion.

But we are also imbued with the drive to get our own way, to please our own desires and those of our close comrades. In the face of more immediacy, our commitment to safeguard the system itself retreats to the background. The needs of the moment—perhaps a proposed bill, a partisan advantage, willingness to override a democratic safeguard—are in the foreground, and therefore command our attention. There are always legislative skirmishes to be won. The vulnerable system of democracy can wait . . . though weakened with each erosion.

Just as Ben Franklin warned (yes, I’ve used this quote before), we have a republic, if we can keep it.




Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

The awesome power of faith

Religious faith—a formidable force—has figured prominently in human experience for untold millennia. We have faith with regard to much in life, but in this post I’m concerned with religious faith. I’m excluding faith in one’s airline pilot, in aspirin for a headache, in your home team, and that a critical mass of PU239 will produce nuclear fission. Religious faith is the feeling of certainty about a postulated aspect of the supernatural, including that there is a supernatural to begin with. The supernatural is that real or imagined realm beyond or outside of that which can be observed by our senses or by sense-extending mechanisms like radio telescopes and the falsifiable theory testing of science.

Before what came to be called the scientific method, much of what people thought of as true about the earth, psychology, astronomy, drugs, and virtually everything was based on faith similar to religious faith. Well, not everybody. In their desire to figure out the scary, mysterious nature of nature, a few of my heroes five centuries BCE tossed aside the elaborate accounts of spirits, devils, and cavorting gods. Democritus, Anaximander, and others got the ball rolling, then together with later thinkers like Lucretius established what became the basis of a philosophic and scientific tradition that didn’t blossom until millennia later.

But those developments did not touch the Hebrews nor many others caught up in faiths that were protected by rules against questioning and testing much as they are today, notably among fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. It would not have been startling that the apostle Paul bizarrely defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”—evidence, by the way, when illuminated by newfound rigor in determining truth was not evidence at all, but a mirage. Considering emotional appeal, hope, and invisibility to be proof of anything is to validate “fake news,” to use a recent term.

The advent of science as a meticulous search for truth laid bare many errors, among them our thinking that great hope indicates truth and the absurdity that lack of evidence can be construed to be evidence. (For example, that we don’t know all the universe’s secrets is an admission of ignorance, not an argument for God.) Part of the awesome power of religious faith is demonstrated by the billions who still make a virtue of that faith in a process that Sam Harris (in The End of Faith) called “the suspension of reason in order to believe that for which there is no evidence.”

But is there no virtue in religious faith? Is it not a compliment to call someone a “person of faith”? Can’t religion cause greater benevolence? Doesn’t religion bestow comfort on the troubled? Does it not help us make sense of a confusing world? Has it not inspired great music, architecture, and painting? Is it not true that religion motivates tenacity and endurance? Can’t religion help build community? Does it not teach and promote peace? The answer to all those questions is YES!….some of the time. But even if those good effects were true all the time, that is, if there were no downsides to religious faith, in no way do good effects prove truth.

We know that in the present day as well as historically, religion is as likely to cause ill effects for humanity as it is to yield benefits. Religious faith can and often does cause the exact opposite effects as those I’ve enumerated. The truths of the foregoing list are limited truths, Unbelievers and even believers who don’t believe quite strongly enough or subscribe to precisely the right thing are damaged by exclusion, shaming, and other religious mistreatments that can go as far as execution. The comforts of religion must be compared with the discomforts it causes and, if Islam and Christianity are to be believed, divine punishment is discomfort at the extreme.

Improvements in humane practices are resisted and retarded by the faithful, for changes must pass a religious test, often with great pain. Consider slavery, treatment of gays, suppression of women, and unsanctioned sex. As to the latter, human closeness and pleasure have been regularly subject to shaming and even persecution by religion. Morality itself, so crucial in a world where we are a greater threat to each other than is disease, continues to be foolishly built on bronze-age thinking rather than humanist principles. And I’ve not mentioned wars and civic unrest. The list goes on with an appalling inventory of ill-treatments, disinformation, and horrors caused by religion. But these downsides are not a legitimate argument against faith qua faith, for in no way do bad effects prove error.

My point is better made by Fred Edwords in What is Humanism: “Much of human progress has been in defiance of religion . . . The defiance of religious and secular authority has led to democracy, human rights, and the protection of the environment.” The resistance religious dogma has done to improvement in the human condition has been at least as great as the direct damage it has inflicted. That damage can be found historically and even recently in actions of Islamic and Christian fundamentalists. My point is not that all the impediments to humaneness, freedom of inquiry, and fulfillment are due to religious faith, just that faith has a striking propensity to feign goodness while doing evil. To a great extent, religious faith continues, despite the damage it does and despite humans’ unparalleled intellectual capacity, an influence that requires enormous power.

Apologists for religion point out that bad effects of religion are due to bad religions, not to religion itself. Bad effects are ascribed to religion less often than to certain religions—Christians toward Muslims and the reverse, Protestants toward Catholics, Pentecostals toward Mormons, and as I’ve often pointed out, Churches of Christ toward everyone else. Bad effects are rarely blamed on one’s own religion, but on religions deemed untrue and perhaps even evil. They are faith gone awry; faithful people are misled. But truth cannot be determined by comparing good and bad effects, as I’ve just argued. So how are faith-seekers to discern the difference between a religion that is true and religions that are false in order not to misplace their faith?

The ability to do that assumes not only that there is a true religious faith, but that we are capable of distinguishing it from untrue ones. For most religionists, the differentiating factor is that one religion is more comfortable than another, feeling more natural, like common sense. However, the feelings of comfort and “fit” are strongly associated with childhood acquaintance, so much that the probability is extremely high that an American child will become or advocate Christianity and a Middle Eastern child will become Muslim or advocate Islam. But even if not an accident of birth, that a religion feels right is less meaningful than it appears. A lie can give as much comfort as truth, just as truth can cause as much consternation as a lie. Faith is the ultimate placebo.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The power of faith is so deeply instilled that it vies with and frequently overcomes reason even in persons who scrupulously exercise their intellect in other walks of life. How else, decades after what was called by Thomas Paine and others the Age of Reason, can we explain that even now about five billion persons are affiliated with one or another religion. Of the 7.5 billion humans alive in 2017, 85% hold to religion-based positions. It would be a strain to demonstrate that the world is a better place due to this sea of religion, just as it is impossible to find a religion not festooned with creeds and reasoning that in non-religious contexts would be seen as inexplicable if not downright wacky (e.g., a body transformed into crackers, talking snakes, the sun standing still, 72 virgins). Perplexingly, the wackiness is cherished by devout sects as if to declare their uniqueness.

The various faiths have little in common except for their reliance on faith that’s no more than tradition-blessed guesses, resistance to generally accepted logic, lack of evidence, and a mixture of haughtiness and compassion toward those not similarly inspired. It is obvious that because religions contradict each other, they cannot all be right, though they can all be wrong. A number of sources report that Christianity is splintering at the rate of two new denominations per day, suggesting that religious people don’t reject their supernaturalism so much as they move from one supernatural explanation of life to another. That suggests that the hold of religious faith is so great that religious persons worship belief itself. Unlike Dan Barker in his Losing Faith in Faith, they simply shift from one set of rituals or dogma to another, normally having to do less with theology than with unrelated circumstances (e.g., marriage, relocation, change in a reference group).

But in those cases wherein a religious person sincerely wants to pick the “right” religion, if one actually exists, on what basis does he or she do so? I turned in the writing of this post to Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt that describes where Michel de Montaigne (16th century French philosopher and author of Essays), unhappily came out on that search, “We cannot know anything—the only evidence for even God, let alone any dogma, is ancient hearsay—so we might as well stick with the Catholic Church, just as the ancients advised.” That approach to religion is called fideism—knowingly basing our choice on blind belief! (Remember, the Roman Church was pretty big then.) Throwing a dart is as good a path to religious truth as careful thought.

So what is it about us that enables religious faith and its powerful influence to be so dominant in human affairs? The answer may be summarized in one word:

Feelings. Emotional satisfaction. The comfort of the familiar. The soaring spirit of rhetorical flourishes. The camaraderie of friends, family, or authorities. Tied to these muscular aspects of our psychology, religious feelings can be overwhelming, so controlling as to defy objective truths.

Feelings enable congregations to tremble with the shared testimony of the faithful, to swell with magnificent emotionality, to elevate joy to ecstasy, to bond believers together in community-as-one, to enjoy a miraculous sense of goodness and abundance, and to experience transcendence.

Feelings that support religious faith are substitutes for facts. And they are powerful enough to exist without real factual support, overpowering our allegiance to whatever intelligent thought we have.

To be clear, I make no suggestion that feelings are bad, useless, or dangerous. My position is not a diatribe against the value and natural gift of feelings, but against the foolishness in thinking they prove either truth or untruth, no matter how impressive and emotionally satisfying. Psychological research has demonstrated our tendency to accept emotions as indicators of fact in many spheres even beyond religion. For example, millions firmly believe without evidence in witchcraft, psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, precognition, and mental telepathy. They differ in no significant way from superstitions about voodoo, black cats, broken mirrors, horseshoes, the number 13, 4 leaf clovers, coins in a fountain, rabbits’ feet, wishbones, and cracks in the sidewalk.

But taking those sidewalk cracks seriously differs in no significant way from assuming religious beliefs are factual. So why do we continue to treat religion as a respectable human activity, even when it interferes with scientific and humane activities, even when its good side (e.g., charity, forgiveness) are achievable (and are being achieved) by nonreligious motivation and means?

Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain, argues that the reason rests in primitive wiring that enables us to find “meaningful patterns in meaningful and meaningless [italics mine, JC] patterns alike.” Why? Because “the brain is a belief agent,” he says, geared to detect patterns as a defense against dangerous animals in the bush and other threats. False positives only trouble us, while each false negative may be our last. After those primitive threats have been eliminated, however, the wiring remains with its misplaced method of testing reality, giving our cortex unnecessary baggage to overcome.

Teaching children religious faith—despite whatever comfort it bestows—is to reverse in many small ways the enlightenment of the human race, doing damage throughout life to the epistemic integrity of millions. Richard Dawkins called it “pernicious [to] teach children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” Religious faith, as Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “is somehow a sacred human convention—distinguished . . . both by the extravagance of its claims and by the paucity of its evidence . . . an uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds . . . foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past.”

Religionists are not content to enjoy their evidence-free suppositions in private, for most religions seek to influence others, sometimes by unpleasant means. Islam obviously carries out such influence with an iron fist where it is the majority religion. Christianity did as well before the Enlightenment caused it to be contained. In countries wherein religious power has been curtailed by governmental concepts that grew up in the Enlightenment, religion’s attempt to recover its hegemony makes subtler moves.

In the United States, the “Christian nation” message of discredited activist David Barton seeks to roll back America’s long-observed separation of church and state. There are fundamentalists’ claims that they be exempt from laws barring discrimination against gays or against same sex marriages. Even public servants have claimed that their religious convictions should be recognized by the state more than sincere non-religious beliefs.

Churches in the US receive special tax breaks not available to nonreligious charities. When some ethical matter arises in a community, television and radio stations often assemble religious leaders as a panel for moral guidance, as if their claimed links to God give them special authoritativeness in ethical matters. There are more examples, but my point is that religionists, except in the most unrelated circumstances, expect to have their views treated as the superior criteria.

We have struggled for scores of millennia to better understand ourselves and our universe. In that undertaking, we have intellectual shortcomings to overcome. Another is our vulnerability to the fog of faith; our evolution did not equip us well to distinguish reality from intractable beliefs. Whatever impedes our ability to tease facts out of reality’s confusion keeps discovery to a slower pace, confounds ethics with archaic moral codes, encumbers social justice, and generally squelches human pleasure and fulfillment. Religious faith comes necessarily with a number of such hurdles, slowing the maturity of our species in graduating from fabrications to facts. We are greatly opposed in that progress by that which fraudulently promises to protect us, abetted by

The awesome power of faith.



Posted in Faith and reason, Religion's costs and foibles | 3 Comments

Tennessee’s monkey trial revitalized

Due to a 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, many Americans are familiar with the 1925 trial of high school teacher John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, just north of Chattanooga. Because Scopes had violated the state law against teaching Darwinian evolution in the public schools, the event became known widely as the “monkey trial.” It was an all-star event, with William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow—each with a nationwide reputation—arguing for the prosecution and defense, respectively. As you’d guess, feelings ran high against Scopes and, as local emotions soared, against Darrow as well. Bryan won and Scopes was fined $100, though in later years the verdict was reversed.

The proud and thankful Christian majority of Rhea County was pleased in 2005 that local Bryan Baptist College, an evangelical school, dedicated a statue of Bryan on the courthouse lawn. (The college’s mission is “for the purpose of establishing . . . a university for the higher education of men and women under auspices distinctly Christian and spiritual, as a testimony to the supreme glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Divine inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.”) There was no statue of Darrow . . .

Until yesterday.

The new statue was dedicated at the same old Rhea county courthouse where the trial had been held and where Bryan’s likeness had stood for 12 years. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) spearheaded the effort to honor Darrow. The sculptor commissioned to create the statue was, with pleasing serendipity, already a Darrow fan: well-known sculptor Zenos Frudakis.

Opinions in Dayton are considerably less negative than in years past, but are still mixed. It is informative that Bryan College in the early 2000s was forced to stop its practice of deploying students to teach religious classes in local public schools. Further, the College required professors to sign a statement of beliefs that declared Adam and Eve to be “historical persons created by God in a special formative act.” Though I’ve no data specific to Rhea County, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 34 percent of Tennesseans still reject evolution. Now nearly a century after the Scopes trial, an aversion to scientific findings continues to shape American public policy.

In Dayton’s fundamentalist environment, it is impressive that the Rhea County Historical & Genealogical Society helped make the new statue’s placement possible. Moreover, Tom Davis, himself a creationist, had been president of the Society when the Darrow statue plan was approved. As the project came to fruition Friday and despite rumors of planned violence by a few fundamentalists, the July 14 dedication was peaceful.

My wife and I were privileged to be part of the previous evening’s celebration in Chattanooga where we met the sculptor, the FFRF leadership, and other guests of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (in which I am a Life Member).

Today, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow finally face each other again at Dayton’s historic courthouse.

Posted in History, Science and society | 2 Comments

Our republic . . . if we can keep it

Citizens of the United States made Donald John Trump the most powerful man in the world. Citizens of the United States made a grave, careless error.

A mechanism for removing an unfit, incompetent, shallow president is available only if his or her behaviors rise to the level of “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors” (U.S. Constitution, Art. II, Section 4). Currently, that solution requires the United States House and Senate to have more integrity in placing country above party than they have thus far shown.

Our country introduced to the world a new approach to governance and the rights of individuals. For more than two centuries, the design of its public institutions has helped it weather massive storms of change and war. Now, for the first time, a president seems determined to weaken, perhaps even cripple, those institutions. Among his wrecking tools is destruction of the concept of truth, as if in a bizarre enactment of 1984.

The president embarrasses us before the world with his infantile, narcissist, charade of leadership. A recent Pew Research Center study of 37 nations’ confidence in the U.S. president to “do the right thing in world affairs” showed the 64% level attained by President Obama near end of his presidency dropped to 22% in spring 2017 with regard to Trump. To many if not most Europeans and British, our president is a perilous joke.

Trust in what President Trump reports and claims is abysmally low. He lies as a matter of constant habit. In my February 10 post, “Trump and the new American truth,” I presented an argument that nothing Trump says about anything can be trusted. Nothing. Therefore, we can fairly assume him to be either lying, misinformed when he claims to be informed, or dangerously mentally disturbed. Not one of those alternatives is tolerable or forgivable in a president of the United States.

And what about that position? This country of almost 330 million Americans vests extraordinary authority in the presidency. Arguments leading to adoption of the Constitution included how to balance the former colonists’ fears about such enormous executive authority versus the necessity for strength in the new central government. Most Americans understand the apportionment of power among federal branches, one that establishes a presidency that is both strong and limited. For four years at a time we entrust that role to a single human being.

But the presidency does not belong to the president. It is ours, putting the lie to President Nixon’s misguided remark, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” To be sure, the presidency is for a time the president’s to decisively use, but just as importantly, the presidency is his or hers to protect.

We could see this debacle coming: Eligible voters who didn’t vote. Low information voters who did. The steady drumbeat of Fox News and other purveyors of disinformation. Voters easily duped by antics of a crude, deceitful savior. Voters fearful of diversity. Readiness to accept a world of comfortable, but manufactured facts. Normalization of bizarre, indecent behavior. Discounting of a severe narcissistic personality disorder. A party milieu unable to stand against its radical right wing. These were circumstances that created the shameful ethos into which Trump’s lying and fabricated expertise fit so well.

My posts—similar to those of well-known commentators—have detailed the immature, unprincipled, smallness of Trump’s proto-despotic, banana republic version of presidential power. I’ve worried whether Trump’s lack of knowledge or his authoritarianism is the greater apprehension. It provides me little comfort that his incompetence might save us from his autocracy. Although we’ve had good presidents and bad, Donald J. Trump is the first to threaten the balances that safeguard the republic.

Following completion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a lady on the street asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic,” replied Franklin, “if you can keep it.”



Previous posts relevant specifically to President Trump: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sep. 26, 2016; “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016; “Please, Mr. President-elect,” Nov. 15, 2016; “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016; “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017; “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017; “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017; “Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017; “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

My steps from sacred to secular

Atlanta’s begun another sweltering, but gorgeous summer. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few weeks. There are now 154 posts in this blog, all accessible using the listing just to the right of this text. It seems a good time to explain, in highly summarized form, how the major philosophic strains of my life come together, from Christianity to atheism to secular humanism, and the attitudes that accompanied them. Step by step, it goes like this:

  • I am an atheist and agnostic as to the existence of gods or, for that matter any supernatural realm. Agnostic addresses an attitude toward extraordinary claims, usually but not always religious ones, in some ways it conveys a “Missouri show me” mindset. Atheist means I’ve no belief in the existence of god or gods or their supernatural kin. (It does not mean I know that none of them exist; though they’re pretty much in the same class as Superman, Santa Clause, and Zeus). My youth, however, was spent as a pulpit-bound Christian until almost 20. I did not then lose my faith; I jettisoned it.
  • I don’t seek—in most circumstances—to convince you or someone else to agree with me. I very rarely set out to persuade Christians, Muslims, Jews, or New Agers of my views. In fact, I’d wager I’m more accepting and respectful of them than they are of each other. I will, of course, explain my point of view for anyone who wishes to read it or discuss it. That’s the reason for most of this blog (though a very small portion is related to politics rather than philosophy).
  • I do seek—in certain circumstances—to attack religionists’ bullying with all the verbal tools I can muster. What are those circumstances? They include use of religion to tell me or others what to do, special tax advantages given to religion, and religious appropriation of public facilities, decorations, and practices as if the civil government is taking sides between one religion and another or between religion in general and non-religion. They include making laws favoring one or more religions, teaching Christianity or a brand thereof in public schools, adorning police cars and city council chambers with symbols of a “chosen” religion, and erecting civic religious monuments. All these are widespread practices and all of them are theocracy getting its nose under the tent.
  • Finally, it only follows that my atheism means I respect no one’s god or gods (or their spokespersons-of-the-cloth) when it comes to my own behavior or yours. With no supernatural authority to tell me how to live, I must accept the obligation myself. That challenge for me led to secular humanism. It is a thoughtful moral code that addresses my indebtedness to other persons as it regards my behavior toward them. Morality/ethics considered this way is not derived from primitive people, but from careful consideration of our responsibility to each other. It has overlaps with other moral codes (e.g., the Golden Rule), but also large differences. Explaining secular humanism—as well as atheism—gave rise to this blog.

So that’s about it. I am neither Democrat nor Republican, though since the latter party has deteriorated in frightening ways over the past couple of decades, I have been more akin to liberal than conservative. Still, as stated earlier, political commentary was not the purpose for this blog nor has politics been more than occasionally the practice. In the future, there are more topics I foresee addressing, such as the awesome power of faith, religions’ net damage to humanity, the nature of Christianity’s “holy” book, the misconception of religious liberty, religious mistreatment of LGBTQs and other minorities, how Americans don’t really want democracy, and more.

But an aside before I close this post: I want to invite you to celebrate the birthday of the United States of America as a new nation added to the world on June 21, 1788. That’s right, not July 4, 1776. Don’t believe me? Take a look at my posts “Happy birthday, USA!” June 17, 2013 and “America’s birthday is next week,” June 12, 2016. Armed with the new information, you’ll be able on July 4 to have your hot dogs and fireworks served with a dose of counterintuition.

Posted in Atheism and other freethought, This blog, this blogger | Leave a comment

Prerequisites for the presidency

What should we look for in a president? I don’t mean the obvious consideration of whether a candidate’s vision for the country is compatible with our own. Nor do I mean political choices like health insurance, immigration policies, or other matters on which—given a candidate’s basic readiness—that would then determine our vote. I don’t even mean matters of character like being truthful, accepting personal responsibility, behaving ethically, and bringing out the best in the rest of us. Those are legitimate and crucial matters of ethical leadership, but not my focus here.

The foregoing issues by themselves set a demanding standard of staggering proportions. And still it is insufficient, for even spotless rectitude is not enough. After all, who would choose unskilled surgeons for delicate operations based simply on their unblemished integrity? There must be crucial skills and experiences that would render a candidate more likely to succeed or, at least, the lack of which would have the opposite effect.

Asking this question by no means suggests I have a credible list of answers in mind. In fact, I feel incompetent in the face of the question. I find I am more inclined to distrust answers I’ve heard from others (or even, from time to time, from myself) than to identify whatever crucial skills and experiences in which I can put my trust. But having even negative things to say is, in fact, having something to say. So I share here a few of the presidential requirements I’ve heard and my comments about them. I make no claim that these thoughts are sufficient or, in a few instances, are even accurate. But to get the ball rolling, let me report that I have heard it said that . . .

  • Having business experience is essential in the presidency. It is often unclear just what kind of business experience is meant by this statement. I will assume here it means understanding and using budgets, planning tools, assessments of risk, choice of markets in which to compete, how much inventory to have on hand, and other such tools of enterprise. President Obama was inexperienced on this measure. President Trump appeared to have such experience. However, it is normally overlooked by voters that while business leaders deal with these issues of micro-economics, a president must deal with macro-economics. One can be good at the first while being ignorant about the latter. I saw no mastery of macro-economics in either President Obama or President Trump as candidates, though Obama did learn; Trump might.
  • Having management experience is essential in the presidency. It is often unclear just what kind of management experience is meant by this statement, too. To separate it from the business experience just listed, I will assume here that this means more of the people, talent, and delegation portion of management. That includes infusing values including purpose, choosing executives, setting a leadership pace, delegating authority, assigning expectations, and evaluating performance—what a long-time CEO of the American Management Association called “getting things done through other people.” That is immeasurably more difficult in huge organizations. President Obama was deficient on this score; Senate service and a small nonprofit don’t help. President Trump, despite moving a lot of money and contractors, had only a small core set of employees, so his success in business did not depend on excellent management of huge numbers of employees. His amateurish management in the White House testifies to that inexperience. Ambiguity in assignments, over- and under-lapping of responsibility areas, loyalists inserted into chains of command, and inconsistent presidential behavior were and continue to be features of the Trump White House. Obama must have enlisted experts in his education, for he did not have it to begin with. Trump seems never to notice he has something to learn.
  • Having held elected public office is essential in the presidency. I assume people mean (a) practice dealing with a public wherein everyone has a different expectation and (b) experience with the shifting and politically treacherous arena of dirty fighting. Trump and Obama both had a modicum of this experience, though clearly in different arenas.
  • Knowing constitutional law is essential in the presidency. In terms of understanding the foundations of the job, this requirement seems critical, as does the relationship between the presidency and other branches of government. Obama knew it well. Trump did not and acts regularly as if his ignorance persists and, in fact, doesn’t matter to him.
  • Being of superior intelligence is essential in the presidency. If so, Presidents Wilson’s and Carter’s stars would shine brighter in our history books. Obviously, a lack of intellectual curiosity (President G. W. Bush) and emotional interference with intellect (Trump) are handicaps, but superior intelligence itself seems not to separate successful from unsuccessful presidential performance.
  • Ability to size up a situation and move quickly is essential in the presidency. In Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, the character Samuel Daniel says, “While timorous knowledge stands considering, audacious ignorance hath done the deed.” True or not, we all know that some balancing with knowledge is important. The problem for a leader is in that balance, a wise measure of action with whatever degree of consideration is appropriate to the circumstances. Some aspects of the Constitution intentionally make government action slow, an irritating feature to an impulsive president, prone to damage carefully designed Constitutional systems in order to move more quickly. The Obama/Trump difference is sufficiently striking as to be frightening.
  • Understanding American history and America’s place in world history is essential in the presidency. Again, the Obama/Trump difference is sufficiently striking as to be frightening.

As I admitted before making this list, these thoughts are neither complete nor well thought out. But for me they are a start. And for you, if you are so moved, they might be useful, even if only to stimulate counter arguments. I began the list not intending to make specific reference to Donald Trump or to Barack Obama, but found the impulse to use them for illustration too appealing to omit.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

Faith in science gaining on faith in faith

As what we now call “science” developed a few centuries ago, Christians—along with other religionists—took arms against facts accumulating due to the new method. (“Taking arms” was not only just figurative, but frequently physical.) Over time fewer natural phenomena were ascribed to divine action, a process that moved the philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell to speak of the shrinking package of phenomena for which God remained, for a time, the explanation. Even non-scientists were coming to understand causes that religion had not contemplated and often opposed. That process continues even now, though persons mentally trapped in religious ideas concocted millennia ago persist with impassioned determination fueled not by reason, but by fact-free passion.

Among its plethora of polls, Gallup since 1982 has asked persons to pick one of three choices in a simple telephone poll about human beginnings. The latest data were gleaned May 3-7 this year by polling 1,011 randomly sampled adults 18 years of age and older in all 50 U.S. states and D.C. The Gallup request for those polled was to choose one of the following propositions that most closely reflected their view:

  • A] “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
  • B] “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.”
  • C] “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

Comparing the responses to these questions across several years, we see that the percentage of opinions with respect to A and B varied very little, while during the same period C they slightly more than doubled. Gallup opined, “The strict creationist view [the position shown as A above: JC] reached a new low.” Here are those percentages for 1982, a midpoint (2000), then this year 2017 (in each case, the sampling error maximum was +/-4%):

  • A] 44% in 1982, 47% in 2000, 38% now
  • B] 38% in 1982, 40% in 2000, 38% now
  • C] 9% in 1982, 9% in 2000, 19% now

While the hegemony of religion, particularly fundamentalist Christianity, has suffered an obvious decline, it is important to notice that about three quarters of Americans (+/-4%) this year believe God was involved, though perhaps not exclusively. Notice also that not only atheists might select choice C, but liberal Christians as well. In this post, I have relied mostly on the aforementioned Gallup report. It can be found at the internet site http://www.gallup.com/poll/210956/belief-creationist-view-humans-new-low.aspx where a breakdown of religious affiliation is shown.

To reach a firmer conclusion about matters such as this, a number of polls should be considered and, even then, smoothed across minor variations over time. Still, it seems apparent that after 1999 (where C, the wholly secular choice) began its climb, something causative was going on. These data cannot explain why, but my first guess would be the impact of a flurry of books as the new century was born, such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 1999, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in 2006, and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007.

It would be a mistake to assume that the percentage of persons holding scientifically indefensible views due to their religious beliefs would be reflected in their voting strength. There is, for example, a robust endeavor by religious fundamentalists to have public schools teach as science Biblical creation and faux-speciation stories, along with naïve criticisms of evolution by natural selection.

There is cause for dismay among persons eager for us to get beyond all residual fragments of supernaturalism. But it is heartening to remember successes against long centuries of ignorance and brutality that religious beliefs have fostered. In view of those secular successes, continuing struggle is still required to curb religion’s unending, hegemonic ambitions.

Posted in Faith and reason, Religion's costs and foibles, Science and society | Leave a comment

Church donations trump secular ones by IRS

In case you’ve missed the news the last couple of weeks about the Johnson Amendment, named after Lyndon Johnson, its promoter, let me catch you up. The provision requires a few pages to understand, but in general it establishes that taxpayers’ donations to 501(c)(3) entities (in general, these are religious, charitable, and educational organizations) would not be tax deductible if the recipient organization takes part in elective politics, that is, “participates in, or intervenes in (including the publishing or distributing for statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

A church or any other 501(c)(3) could lobby for greater attention to global warming or abortion, but could not support a candidate for office. President Trump’s executive order causes the IRS not to pursue churches as that law requires. (I do not for a moment think he did so due to conviction on the matter, but for its effect in retaining the religious right cheerleaders in his base.)

His misleadingly worded executive order said his action would give churches their “voices back” by directing the Treasury Department not to take action against religious organizations that engage in political speech. He’d been criticizing the law for some time, but actual repeal is solely under Congressional authority.

By the way, Trump’s own speech, as it frequently does, includes an implicit lie in order to make his action sound more reasonable. The Johnson Amendment does not penalize political speech, only political speech that addresses a specific candidate for office. Speech that addresses policy choices or general governmental action is not penalized. Yet statements by the mostly fundamentalist Christian opposition to the law continue, along with Trump, to employ the useful fiction.

For years, the IRS has been extremely reluctant to enforce the Johnson Amendment anyway, choosing to look the other way in almost all instances of church politicking. (I’ll save space by not saying church, synagogue, mosque, or other word. I’ll use the word church as shorthand for all organizations of worship.) Another favor from the IRS to churches (but not other 501(c)(3) organizations!) frees them from detailed accounting to substantiate that their expenditures really are on their supposed charitable/religious function and that they refrain from prohibited political activities. Secular organizations that are just as charitable, educational, or philosophical are subject to IRS audits even though they are in the same tax category. Equally curious, a minister’s (rabbi’s, Iman’s) housing allowance is not taxable to him or her, whereas payment to a secular leader’s housing is taxable to that leader. In other words, being religious gets special breaks despite the U. S. Constitution.

Church spokespersons disagree on whether they think the Johnson Amendment makes sense and whether Trump’s executive action is warranted. In general, Christian fundamentalists favor Trump’s action. While those religious leaders want the special tax treatment without giving up being politically active in elections, others fear so close a tie between church and state, seeing it as not conducive to church independence. Since churches, unlike other 501(c)(3)s, do not have to reveal their contributors, removing even the weak provisions of church accountability opens the door to greater use of churches (or new entities organized as churches) as a secretive funding source for political campaigns, as well spelled out in “Trump Wants to Make Churches the New Super PACS by Emma Green, The Atlantic, August 2, 2016.

Religious leaders disagree with each other, as a brief review of the controversy will illustrate. (I should point out that this matter is only tangentially related to the “religion in the public square” controversy [see my posts “Religion in the public square,” Oct. 10, 2015; “Atheists in public office,” Nov. 25, 2013]). Each of these quotations (borrowed heavily though not exclusively from “Enthusiasm, dread greet church order” by Amy Forliti, AP, May 9, 2017) is marked as either “Enforce the Johnson Amendment” (i.e., against the Trump action) or “Ignore the Johnson Amendment” (i.e., for the Trump action):

  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Gus Booth, pastor of Warroad Community Church, Minn.: “I ought to be able to say anything that I want to say, wherever I want to say it, I don’t lose free speech rights when I step behind the pulpit. In fact, that should be some of the most protected speech.”
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Gregory Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, St. Paul. Minn.: “[For pastors to use the pulpit] “to get others to buy into their particular way of voting is, I think, a real abuse of authority.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: David Fiorazo, Christian blogger, “A pivotal law, was passed by a shrewd politician to intimidate people of faith. Was this even constitutional? The Left uses this to bully Christian pastors and groups with threats of losing their nonprofit status should they dare talk about the Bible as it relates to cultural, political, fiscal, and social issues, which all fall under the category of moral issues.”
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Wallace Bubar, pastor at Central Presbyterian Church, Des Moines, Ia.: “[The EO is] pandering to the religious right. For whatever reason, the religious right evangelicals have developed a persecution complex here in the last few years, and I think this is intended to address that.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Charlie Muller, pastor of Victory Christian Church, Albany, N.Y.: “I’m very involved politically, but we’ve been handcuffed. We want to have a voice, and we haven’t had that.” He went further to say his church plans to endorse a candidate for mayor.
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Mike Kinman, rector, All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif. “[The clergy’s task] is to interpret our faith for the common good.” He called Trump’s EO “supremely unhelpful.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Deacon Keith Forunier, “Trump is Right: Repeal the Johnson Amendment That Muzzles Pastors,” July 20, 2016. “The government’s agents increasingly come into our churches . . . claiming that our obligation as faithful Christians to address the major moral issues of our age from our pulpits amounts to ‘political’ activity. Then they threaten to revoke our tax exempt status. Will they soon insist that we may not preach or teach either? The church must be free to speak from her pulpits and in the public square. The Johnson Amendment is a gag order backed by the guns and jails of the state, which threatens that churches which step out of line will have their savings confiscated and their leaders crippled by fines.”
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who runs the social and advocacy arm of Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish movement: “[The Johnson Amendment is] a gift to preachers. It gives me the freedom, from the pulpit, to preach about values and policy, but to be protected from partisanship. If I were able to cross that partisan line as a preacher, I’d be under enormous pressure from stakeholders, from members, from donors. It would undermine my moral authority as a guardian of religious tradition.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Michelle Terry, “How the Johnson Amendment Threatens Churches’ Freedoms,” ACLI, 2016. “There’s a little-known amendment that has been restricting the First Amendment rights of churches and faith-based organizations for more than 60 years. The state should allow the church to speak truth, and instead of silencing unpopular opinions, should let the free market of ideas decide who wins.
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: The Rev. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said the Johnson Amendment can protect the clergy from being put in awkward spots, such as being asked to endorse a parishioner’s relative.

Even small steps toward theocracy can initially appear to be harmless, well-intended special favors politicians bestow on religion. But taken together, they entangle government in deciding one religion is more deserving than another, or one side of a dispute within a religion deserves government support more than another. Many religious people recognize the jeopardy in accepting government largess; many don’t. Members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (of which I’m a member) are made up of both religious and non-religious members, led by an ordained minister. Its purpose is to keep government and religion out of each other’s domains as a benefit for both religious freedom and good government.

As usual, however, many religionists claim not only religious freedom—which they deserve and to which I am committed—but governmental perqs that others don’t receive. This blog has addressed that phenomenon in various settings repeatedly. As an example in this case, as noted above, Charlie Muller of Victory Christian Church says “We want to have a voice, and we haven’t had that.” Really? Does Mr. Muller forget that not only as a person does he have the same right to free speech as anyone else, but each of his parishioners does as well. But he wants an additional right for his parishioners as a group. I don’t get that extra right and neither do you except through your church. (Note that even then, the Johnson Amendment allows Mr. Muller and his congregation as a group the right to say whatever they wish as long as it is not for a specific candidate.)

If non-religious persons or religious persons form a non-church organization, even if it has an even more targeted charitable function, their non-religious 501(c)(3) does not receive that right to a tax exempt double voice! In other words, President Trump’s action, by brazenly favoring religion over non-religion will have, in effect, changed a marginally Constitutional arrangement into an unconstitutional one!

An interesting, lawyerly twist on the way the Johnson Amendment is frequently discussed is this framing by Gregory W. Hamilton, writing what appears to be a counterpoint in a Liberty University publication, “How Repealing the Johnson Amendment Harms Religious Liberty,” Feb. 15, 2017: “The Johnson Amendment does not ban churches from endorsing political candidates. Neither does it in any way criminalize or punish churches that endorse political candidates. The Johnson Amendment is a part of Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, which establishes that charitable organizations are exempt from taxation. The amendment, therefore, is a limit on that benefit [italics mine, JC].”

I’ll summarize this post by quoting Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association: “Repealing the Johnson Amendment would unleash an opportunity for dark money in politics that can only be described as Citizens United on steroids. Without the Johnson Amendment, churches could operate like super-PACs by funneling anonymous, tax-deductible donations to political candidates. When churches and other faith groups become embroiled in politics, our nation moves dangerously toward becoming a theocracy, not a democracy.”

[Note: Before this post was finalized and sent to WordPress for publication, I found only three other sources that had noticed the First Amendment violation effect of disfavoring donors to secular 501(c)(3)s as compared to donors to churches. I am sure there will be many more.]

Posted in Church and state | Leave a comment

Religion and Gays as “the Others”

We often fail to incorporate scientific learning into social improvement. Consider sociology’s concept of the “Other” and our vulnerability to the dynamics it explains. By vulnerability, I mean our tendency in actual instances of dealing with those we don’t understand to react with fear, dislike, our distrust that is at variance with rational consideration. Because we take pride in our real or imagined “rational consideration,” we’re loathe to accept its being so easily overridden by instinctive susceptibility. Thus, we look for ways to feel justified that our resulting behavior is logical rather than just a product of eons of social evolution.

Who are these Others? The list of possible persons and groups is extensive. In our childhood, kids who look or sound funny, who have atypical behaviors, or even who are outstanding are prime targets. As we mature we don’t grow out of our fascination, fear, or even hate of the Other regardless of how much we think we do. We even develop more grownup ways of defining others as the Other. Race, nationality, religion, dress, language, gender, residence in another village, and sexual practice provide many ways in which we can transform any human being into the Other. It’s the last one in that list—sexual practice—that I want to dwell on here.

(I’ve addressed issues relating to gays and others of minority lifestyles in previous posts. If you are reading this on the website johnjustthinking.com, these are included in the right margin listing for Gays and other LGBTQs. But if you are reading this in the visually less polished email version—it has no listing by topics—those posts include “So-called religious liberty bills,” Feb. 25, 2017; Sunday at church on Gay Pride day,” Aug. 16, 2016; “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016; “Sincere religious belief,” May 24, 2016; “America chose liberty this week,” June 27, 2015; “Religious freedom to refuse service?” June 5, 2015; “What’s in a word, say, ‘marriage’?” Apr. 29, 2015; “Gay pride?” Nov. 16, 2013; and “Being civil about gay marriage,” June 30, 2013.)

With respect to any particular Other, we search out facts, rumors, confederates, or beliefs with which we can convince ourselves that rather than being enslaved by a primitive trait, our judgment is a soundly reasoned confirmation. In the case of treatment of gays by straights (or by gays passing as straight), there are several such sources of support. Since straights are in the majority, that alone is cause enough to feel justified treating gays as second class. Since most straights grew up in societies that have castigated gays for centuries, anti-gay sentiment is given the benefit of the doubt with no rationale necessary.

Further, since many or most straights find gay sex distasteful or discomforting, that is reason enough to “know” there is something wrong with it. (It doesn’t matter that gays may have a similar revulsion to straight sex, but as always, the numbers win.) Those “facts” and beliefs, along with others I’ve omitted, are quite enough to justify in the minds of straights that their dislike, revulsion, and mistreatment cannot be blamed on something as primitive as reaction to the Other. No, that would reveal homophobia to be a frail case, one based on an archaic vestige that has us in its grip. One aspect of that grip is that validation makes us feel good about our own virtue, thereby further fortifying our position by the comfort of ego-satisfaction.

Consider, then, what is arguably the most ego-satisfying rationalization of all: that God agrees with us! Humans have long and routinely used that device—in our support of slavery, our stands against abortion, our tests for witches, and the WW2 German adornment of military belt buckles claiming Gott mit uns. Whenever we can, our case against the Other is supported by ascribing our personal attitude to God. Thus, religion provides the most durable shield used to camouflage unethical treatment of gays so that it appears thoughtfully grounded rather than an instance of pure cruelty. In a world of 4 billion Christians, Muslims, and Jews (plus religions of fewer adherents), longstanding belief is that hate of homosexuals comes not from our inherited fears or ethical bankruptcy, but from God.

Islam furnishes an unending tale of appalling treatment of gays. Recently a 17 year old Chechen boy was pushed off of a ninth floor balcony by his uncle, after being outed as gay. Muslim families participate in killing their gay kinsmen; sometimes unrelated mobs save them the trouble. At the same time, homosexuality is so reviled that politicians pretend it doesn’t exist, as did Alvi Karimov of the Chechen government, who announced recently that gays “simply don’t exist in the republic.” Most American adults remember former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making the same claim. Christians have an equally beastly history and an only slightly better present. Despite changes in recent American attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals, powerful prejudice is still with us, frequently clothed in Christian piety. By no means has the enlightenment yet arrived.

Just lately, Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi told school children that “men in dresses” are natural targets for assaults, inspiring Erick Woods Erickson of Fox News to blog that the “BLT&GQ community. . . go around making people uncomfortable. I’m really damn tired of [their] screaming about their rights and privileges when called out. If you want to go around making people uncomfortable, you’ve got the problem, not the rest of us [italics mine; JC].” Blaming the Other for one’s discomfort is both preposterous and cowardly; apparently, Enzi’s excuse is that we just can’t help it!

Mark Green, Tennessee state senator who just removed himself from consideration to be U. S. Secretary of the Army regularly spews religious animosity. His behavior has long exemplified the unholy entanglement of theology and the secular state. He brings his fundamentalist Christianity into the public’s business, including mean-spirited treatment of homosexuals. His commitment to the Bible, he said, “means as a state senator, my responsibility very clearly in Romans 13 is to create an environment where people who do right are rewarded and the people who do wrong are crushed. Evil is crushed.” That doesn’t sound so menacing unless you understand that, for Green and millions like him, “right,” “wrong,” and “evil” are defined by his idiosyncratic, punitive version of Christianity. Of course, anyone disturbed by such mixing of church and state would be inflamed even if his comment weren’t so horrid in itself.

It should not be surprising that religion—so effusively credited with goodness and morality—can be the source of so much evil. Whether other sources of malevolence, such as greed and thirst for power, are greater causes of anthropogenic pain and suffering I’m not prepared to argue. But it is completely plausible that the net good produced by religion (good that would not otherwise have been done) is less than its net damage to humanity. Homosexual persons, historically depersonalized into the Other, are among those who’ve paid—and continue to pay—the price for religion-based unfairness and ill-treatment.

To be fair, there are many religious persons whose ethics have developed beyond those whose malicious religiosity I’m complaining about. After all, malice by the majority of white Christian Americans toward blacks softened during the 19th century, then more in the 20th and 21st—though prejudice still continues. Further, malice by the majority of Christian Americans toward gays softened during the late 20th century and continues—though prejudice still continues. As far as gay treatment is concerned, the situation in majority Islamic countries is abysmal, with minimal hope of improvement. The Abrahamic religions, on average worldwide, remain mired in the superstitious and brutal past, wherein bronze age views about morality rule the day.

So what happened to my theme of the Other with which I began this post? It is this: Most if not all of the social phenomenon we sum up as the Other has a disturbing and embarrassing implication. As humanity—at least part of it—has moved on to more secular morality, leaving or ameliorating the defective morality of religion, it has become increasingly obvious that for human beings to be seen as the Other requires all those harsh ways that divide us to be the dominant factor, more important than our fairness, our good-will, our recognition of personal value . . . in short, our very humanity, else the description of the Other would not have become so accurate and helpful a concept to begin with.

Posted in Gays and other LGBTQs, Morality, Secular humanism | Leave a comment

Marching for science

The March for Science is a public celebration of science planned for April 22 in many cities across America and some abroad. As a gesture of support, my wife and I plan to participate. According to the national organizers, the march “recognizes the very real role science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.”

“Just what’s the big deal?” you could understandably ask. Cell phones in third world villages, space shots past Pluto, and DNA testing are convincing testimony that we got past needing science appreciation reminders over a century ago. Maybe so, but the central features of science that make it so marvelous are still not understood by many—arguably most—even in advanced countries.

I took physics in high school and dearly loved it. That love affair, albeit an amateur one, with the physical sciences, persists to this day. I learned then and later a lot of the facts science illuminated, but the understanding of science I’m referring to here is not a collection of facts, but an almost philosophical reverence in the advancing methods by which scientists find those facts, regardless of what branch of science they were trained in. Those methods didn’t become so meaningful to me until my doctoral human behavior research training.

Frankly, it’s depressing that there actually is reason for public protest. Our nation has fallen not only into a muddle of “alternative facts,” but into the widespread absurdity that facts are subject to a vote, or that scientific findings should be judged according to primitive beliefs of millennia ago. Perhaps we missed the memo that this reliable way of testing whether propositions are true took a major step forward only a few hundred years ago. It isn’t foolproof; it can be corrupted by carelessness or fraud; it occasionally needs revision. But whatever the shortcomings, there is no better way than the scientific method to separate fact from fancy about our universe.

(Several posts in this blog are devoted to science and the proper role of science in politics, including “Science and society–separating the roles,” Oct. 2, 2013; “Should science class include religion? Jan. 22, 2014;“Scientific method or just better thinking?” Apr. 23, 2015; “…but there are things science can’t explain,” Aug. 1, 2015; “You can’t put God in a test tube. Why not?” Nov. 19, 2015.)

Science exists to confront us frequently with the discomforting message that many of our certainties are not so certain after all. (Edwin Land—of Polaroid fame—put it this way: “Science is a method to keep yourself from kidding yourself,” while earlier Claude Bernard had said, “Science increases our power in proportion as it lowers our pride.”) And in the few centuries of modern scientific research science has repeatedly shown us to have been demonstrably wrong. Unfortunately, that can lead to embarrassment if not out-and-out opposition. Quite often in politics, it guarantees partisan struggles over what should be nonpartisan issues. Consider heliocentrism and witchcraft as old examples, climate change and evolution as present ones.

It is easy see how science can be blamed for, on one hand, opposing religious or economic beliefs and, on the other hand, can be wrongly cited to deceptively lend those beliefs its prestige. Undoubtedly, a big reason for this outpouring of interest right now is due to American political changes of the past few months. Although many conservative politicians act as if science is just more liberal tree hugging and snail darter protection, there is no reason for the issues of science and the inclusion of scientific findings in legislation to be partisan matters.

The gravely dangerous spread of anti-science, of reckless disregard for proof and facts, and simple ignorance about science are not conducive to a better future, a stronger country, or effective sociopolitical strategies. Driving thinking to the lowest common denominator cannot help but affect us all. My guess is that thousands of the persons who’ll participate in the March for Science themselves cannot describe even in moderate detail the methods of science. Nor, perhaps, can they articulate a reasoned view of the role of science in politics and government. But they do realize something important and precious is being ill-treated and risked on a frighteningly large scale by recent social and political trends.

Although the average US citizen is woefully unfamiliar with what distinguishes science from opinion polls, it is nigh criminal that our elected representatives are not more informed. Enough of them are so unqualified as to be stupefying. Consider these examples of science ignorance out of the dozens I’ve collected over the years:

  • Paul Collins Broun, Jr., M.D., U.S. House, Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology: “Evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. Scientific data actually shows this is really a young earth….9,000 years old….created in 6 days as we know them.”
  • John Boehner, Speaker, U.S. House: “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide.”
  • U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum: “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.”

In large part, what we’ve missed is that the scientific method is a way of thinking about what we know or think we know. Yes, it is what research scientists do, but there is absolutely no reason for it to belong specifically to those we call scientists. It is a way of thinking not only available to us all, but incumbent on us all. (True, it’s not important to understand inferential statistics, but it is important to know it exists and what it can do.) Perhaps continuing to call it the scientific method is part of the problem; doing so enables non-scientists free to wallow in our ignorance, unaware that we have so powerful a tool at our disposal.

Organizers of Saturday’s march have tried to minimize any tendency of marchers’ to make of the occasion a predominantly partisan message. I certainly hope that effort is successful, for partisan appeals, in my opinion, would undermine the larger, longer range revitalization of the country’s interest in, appreciation of, support for, and political use of science in the society.

Posted in Science and society | Leave a comment

You and I deserve Despot Donnie

To say that Despot Don is an international embarrassment, better fitted to lead a banana republic than history’s most powerful country, is to express the obvious. In fact, that may be the least of the perils he imposes on the world’s “indispensable country.” His presidency is the result of the incredibly reckless choice of American voters. How long will Congressional Republicans—the only available policing of Trump—sanction his antics and even be his enabler when its own wisdom and integrity are in short supply? How long will Trump voters remain as blind to his dangerous presidency as they were to his candidacy?

Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 19th century that, “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Americans—we—made a choice last fall; we chose a president whose word cannot be believed and whose actions embody the “fools rush in” warning we’ve all been warned against. You and I, along with our fellow citizens, are responsible for that choice. Let me put a finer point on it. You and I put Trump into office, trusted him to fulfill the duties of the presidency, trusted him to represent us abroad, trusted him to be straight with us. He was not an unknown quantity.

Chancellor of Germany Merkel Trump reacting to Trump’s obvious lie to her and to the world.

Whether we look at him now with scorn, fear, mockery, or yet-to-be-extinguished hope, we had reason to know he’d be an international laughingstock, a person as apt to tell us lies as the truth, whose egomania eclipsed even distinguishing truth from falsehood, and, frankly, put more crudely, to be a nut job. He was our choice to stand for what America is and is becoming.

From a moral standpoint, that choice is not inconsequential. We are implicated in whatever Donald Trump is and does. He is our representative to the world. As a group, we chose to anoint him. By anointing him, we became responsible for him and his behavior. In a very sobering, symbolic way, he is us. In a direct way, he corrupts those around him. But in a less direct way, he infects and corrupts all of us.

His paranoia is becoming your paranoia and mine. His continual lying is becoming your continual lying and mine. His shortsightedness is becoming your shortsightedness and mine. His recklessness is becoming your recklessness and mine. His hollow egocentrism that claims unilateral knowledge and ability is becoming your strongman belief and mine. His contempt for judicial review is becoming your contempt for judicial review and mine. His thoughtless tweeting is becoming your thoughtlessness and mine. His refusal to take responsibility for anything that doesn’t lionize him is becoming your failure of character and mine. His shallow sense of history and of governing a great country are becoming your superficiality and mine. His disregard for truth is becoming your disregard for truth and mine. His buffoonery is becoming your buffoonery and mine. His pre-authoritarian path toward despotism is becoming your path and mine. His governance by conspiracy theories is becoming your psychosis and mine.

My wife and I have had foreign houseguests four of the past six weeks from two countries, plus interactions with business colleagues and friends from several other countries in the same period. They hesitate, out of courtesy, to broach their bewilderment and dismay about Trump, but the gravity of the matter eventually wins. I can offer no rational excuses for his erratic, immature, devious, and increasingly dangerous actions. Their puzzlement turns to American voters who chose him; his election was not an accident. What were we thinking?

Some voters voted their economic pain. Some voted their hopes for a more Christian/theocratic nation. Some voted their mistaken belief that the shortcomings of Clinton were equivalent to those of Trump. Some voted their belief that Trump would restore millions of lost jobs. Some may even have voted their desire for authoritarian rule. Some voted for the excitement of a Jerry Springer Show presidency. Some voted their “throw the bums out” anger, regardless of gender, party, or surname. I understand Trump voters (and those who weren’t, but stayed home) had their reasons. But it is hard to believe that most of them fully considered what they and we were getting. It is hard to accept that significant numbers meant to endanger our institutions and, therefore, the country.

In any event, my distress and indignation is not due to so superficially a concern as partisan interest. As I have argued in previous posts, the Trump phenomenon goes far beyond Democrat and Republican politics. This is a matter far more monumental, far more related to the endurance of the republic given to us 219 years ago. Whether we chose this man due to personal pain or to simply being duped by runaway “alternate facts,” we nevertheless did chose him.

If you are affronted by these statements, so be it. I am as well, for I share responsibility for a turn in American government that shames me.


Previous posts relevant specifically to President Trump: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sep. 26, 2016; “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016; “Please, Mr. President-elect,” Nov. 15, 2016; “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016; “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017; “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017; “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017.

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A note to new visitors to “John just thinking”

If you’ve joined as a “follower” of this blog later than 2013, you may not know why I write these essays (“posts” in blog lingo), now numbering almost 150. (If that’s of interest, take a look at “Getting started,” Apr. 27, 2013; “Rules of engagement,” Apr. 28, 2013; and “Conversation, not conversion,” Jul. 6, 2013.) They concern a few historical and political issues, but mostly religious belief and disbelief, the continual church/state tussle, religious freedom, personal liberty, death, sex, and morality without god(s). Although, a number of recent posts have concerned President Trump’s threat to the American system, the theme of this blog is not intended to be political.

I’m an atheist and, actually more important, I’m a secular humanist. The word atheist is used in confusing ways, so let me explain that for me it very simply means atheist, that is, “having no belief in a theist god.” That is different from a claim that there is no god (though it’s my opinion that there isn’t). To claim there’s a god or to claim there isn’t requires evidence. Neither atheists nor theists have such evidence, though many religious people like to pretend they do. Anyway, since I have no faith that ancient deities tell us what is right and wrong, I think we are obligated to do that ourselves. The result is secular humanism, a system of ethics/morality created by and for humans rather than ascribed to unseen spirits. In a few of these posts, I argue that rules of morality produced by human reason are more moral than those believed to be from god(s).

The posts you’ll find here can be read in any order. As more are added (sporadically—after all, I am retired), you will be automatically notified by email if you have signed up as a follower. New posts are added about every week or few weeks. At any time, of course, you can peruse previous posts by going to johnjustthinking.com (no www needed). Each post accepts brief comments, whether in agreement with me or not.

I welcome you and hope the thoughts I share contribute to your consideration of this awesome cosmos, the morality required to live together on this planet, and the invigorating questions this overwhelming universe presents us.

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Congratulations, Trump voters

Well, the presidency of [here, reader, insert a string of adjectives so now overused as to be tiring] Despot Don continues in its shameful way perfectly consistent with his behavior during his years of birther madness and months of campaigning. In other words, he is the president Americans chose and, we must presume, wanted. Let me translate. American voters wanted a president whose words we cannot trust, who seems not to understand that even he doesn’t know everything, whose blasé spooking of the country by scary, unthought-through  statements and orders, whose secrecy about his business contacts and finances, and his manufacturing of “alternate facts” in order to distract attention from the last psychotic action he’s taken or lying statement he’s made.

It’s too late for Trump voters to hide naively behind ridiculous equivalency comparisons with Hillary Clinton. Trump actions have already surpassed even the partisan description of those matters. It’s too late for Republican officials to pretend patriotism or statespersonhood when cozying up to a man—not because they can stomach his ethics, his knowing “more than the generals,” or his mental imbalancesolely due to his success at voter deception. No, he is now our president, to our international shame and our growing domestic disorder.

What on earth were American voters thinking? Despot Don did not elect himself. We did. And we got exactly what, apparently, we wanted. Putin may have interfered, but only Americans pulled the voting levers or chose not to vote. I hope we learned something, but I fear that’s not likely. There is good reason to fear that we will fall again for the pre-despot, fact-free ranting that was so successful this time.

I hope to be wrong. I hope for enough wisdom and integrity in the legislative branch to find a way to legally remove this man from office before he can do cataclysmic damage. I hope for voters to be informed enough and wise enough to maintain a democracy.


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Despot Don

President “Despot Don” is ushering America toward despotism . . . or—almost as bad—his precariously excellent imitation thereof. (OK, I coined the moniker, Despot Don, to inject a bit of comforting humor to aid my own endurance.) One frightening aspect of descent into fascism, despotism, or authoritarianism is that we can’t be certain until it’s too late to stop the slide. We are so blithely certain that America’s democracy is protected by its Constitution and strong institutions that our confidence could become our undoing. If you think I’m being alarmist, I urge you to research the sequence of steps associated with impending authoritarian government, which I referred to in my January 23 post, “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America.”

One public blindness working to Despot Don’s authoritarian advantage comes from Democrat reactions to his unexpected election followed by Republican reactions to Democrats’ reactions. As Republicans accurately allege, there’s a lot of “crybaby” behavior among Democrats, much in the way that there was crybaby behavior and outright partisan opposition (to President Obama) among Republicans when Obama replaced President Bush. There’ll always be partisan reactions, of course, and they’re often bent more on partisan advantage than the good of the country. Unfortunately, some of the normal sorts of partisan reactions to Despot Don can be hard to distinguish from pointing our his very real threat to America, one that far exceeds both liberal partisan wailing and conservative partisan defensiveness. (If nothing else works to excuse Republicans’ current inaction, they can retreat out of habit into the ridiculous perspective that, well, Hillary would have been worse.)

Although this blog exists to discuss secular humanism and atheism, not politics, the serious threat posed to the republic by Despot Don has compelled me to write a spate of political posts, to wit: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sep. 26, 2016; “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016; “Please, Mr. President-elect,” Nov. 15, 2016; “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016; “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017; and the aforementioned “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017.

Adding to a possible perfect storm is the impotence of the Republican party and individual Republicans in the Senate and House. Due to their majority position, they are the only salvation from republic-threatening authoritarianism . But Republican Senators are bending over backwards to pretend Despot Don is no threat, just an inconvenience. House Republicans are doing that as well, but the very jerrymandered districts that assured their election now lock them in place even if they were to see the light and to have the fortitude to act. Consequently, as a group, Congressional Republicans are more interested in kowtowing to Despot Don than reigning him in, resembling not so much the country’s protectors as Trump’s “enablers.”

Despot Don is far worse than can be described by thoughtless denial or a pathetic wink-and-a-nod phrase (“just Donald being Donald,” or “well, he’s not a typical president”). The cliff America is flirting with is not a Democrat versus Republican matter. Donald John Trump is not just a bad president—we’ve survived those. No, this is very different. Even at this early stage of his presidency, Donald Trump is a looming, impending threat to the very nature of the American republic.


Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

So-called religious liberty bills

Here in Georgia and in state legislatures around the country, “religious liberty” bills are once again in the air. These bills propose to protect rights which proponents claim are slipping away—Americans’ religious freedom. Well, not really “religious freedom,” for that’s not being threatened. What is at stake is religious hegemony wherein the term freedom of religion means exemption from enforcement of a public policy given to whole faith groups or individuals who find the policy offensive to their religion. Millions of Christians across America agree with James Dobson’s upsetting, though unsubstantiated allegation, “We’re losing our religious liberty.”

The First Amendment (extended to states by the Fifteenth) of the Constitution protects “free exercise of religion” from government. However, this religious right is not unlimited. A government can rule that some behaviors (though not beliefs and opinions) may be prohibited as long as they are not targeted specifically toward a religion. For example, growing out of a Mormon case, in 1879 the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States ruled a federal law against polygamy to be constitutional. Since then a growing sensitivity to humane treatment has lead American public policy to erect legal barriers to discrimination against women, non-whites, then gays. President George H. W. Bush captured the sentiment in calling for a “kinder, gentler nation.” People could feel what they wished, but certain kinds of discriminatory treatment, in turn, became illegal.

Does such public policy reduce people’s freedom? Of course, for some people it does. What had been lawful freedom to mistreat others was curtailed in line with increasingly compassionate public policy. Reducing ill treatment leaves the abuser with fewer options, while increasing the rights of the abused. (Although I’m happy about that, I recognize that the choice of what or whom to protect are political issues, i.e., the “right” option is always debatable. But the politics of the legislative decision are not the subject of this post.) Just as many bigot-operated restaurants and schools offering service to the public fought what they saw as government over-reach, current fundamentalist Christians now pursue exemption from serving gays exercising their right to marry (e.g., Georgia state senator Marty Harbin; public affairs director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board Mike Griffin; both just last week). Because their motivation is one of “sincere religious belief,” they claim freedom from the public policy. (Because that convenient dodge is used so frequently, I’ll abbreviate it as “SRB.”)

Fundamentalists often argue that because “God’s law” outweighs “man’s law,” the faithful should not be bound by the human law. Easily overlooked, however, is that God’s law is God’s law only to those who have that belief. To others, including many Christians, the fundamentalists’ claim is just one of many differing opinions about God’s law. Perhaps a rose is a rose is a rose, but all SRBs are not alike. History is replete with many rules attributed to God that can be seen now to be unethical or even depraved. God-believers today disagree extensively about which beliefs should count as SRBs. The important factor (with possible legal consequences) is the degree of sincerity, not the reasonableness of the belief, though neither of which is easily judged. Still, today’s sincere protesters are not fighting laws against their beliefs and opinions or what goes on in their worship. What they are opposing is public policy against treatment of human beings in ways the public has decided as improper or inhumane.

Public policy is made by representatives of the citizenry. Fundamentalists have their say in its formation, though their religious sincerity doesn’t (or shouldn’t) earn them preeminence. Consequently, like all of us, they must conform to laws with which they disagree. Motel owners whose SRB is that unmarried persons sleeping together violates God’s law cannot demand proof of marriage from customers. Other motel owners whose SRB is that races should not mix cannot turn away a mixed-race couple. Still other motel owners whose SRB is that gay sex is an offense to God cannot inquire into the sleeping habits of same-sex customers before renting them a room. How about another motel owner’s SRB that accommodating Jews, “Christ killers in their bizarre opinion,” puts them in league with the devil? Or what if a bakery owner’s SRB is that even making a cake for a gay wedding is sinful?

Georgia, my state, is home to great numbers of fundamentalists, many of whom apparently think that in a democratic republic, SRB should be enough to exempt believers from whatever law offends them. No; let me correct that statement. They actually believe the free pass should be extended only in the case of beliefs that don’t differ markedly from those of fundamentalist Protestants. And, of course, they must be religious beliefs, not other sorts, such as equally sincere beliefs about the proper role of government in our lives, fitting income distribution, or humanist ethics, protection of the environment, honesty about human evolution, or other findings of science.

It is intriguing that fundamentalist Christians in the United States and most Muslims worldwide demand that religion be given special treatment by the civil authority. We have a Constitution that puts all religious ideology on an equal footing and certainly does not condone the powers of government being used to spread any one or any group of religious beliefs. However, in practice, we frequently act like (to paraphrase Animal Farm), “All religious faiths are equal, but some faiths are more equal than others.” I have addressed a number of these theocratic behavior from several perspectives in this blog (“Public education: Using the bully(ing) pulpit,” July 19, 2013; “Does science class include religion?” Jan. 22, 2014; “Our National Day of Prayer,” May 1, 2014; “National Prayer Breakfast 2015,” Feb. 9, 2015; “Religious freedom to refuse service?” June 5, 2015; “America chose liberty this week,” June 27, 2015; “Christian bullying (Part 1),” Sep 4, 2015; “Christian bullying (Part 2),” Sep. 13, 2015; “Religion in the public square,” Oct. 20, 2015; “Sincere religious belief,” May 24, 2016; “God-given rights—2,” Dec. 9, 2016 ).

Although I began this post with reference to Georgia’s and other states’ legislatures, the federal government may be experiencing a new push toward honoring SRB exemptions. There has been recent pressure in the U.S. House to revive a bill titled First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), HR2802, introduced by Raul Labrador in 2015. According to https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2802, “The bill prohibits the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.

The theocrats are much with us.




Posted in Church and state, Gays and other LGBTQs | 2 Comments

Trump and the new American truth

President Trump’s distortions, deceitfulness, and simple lies are so unceasing that to believe him on any specific matter is bad judgment. Strong allegation? I assure you I mean it. But first, a proviso: Being untrustworthy does not mean he never speaks the truth. It does not mean that his specific actions are always wrong or ineffective. Even pathological liars sometimes tell the truth and “get things done.” It makes no difference whether Trump’s constant fabrications are due to his insecurity, paranoia, narcissism, maliciousness, or pathological need to brag about himself in every situation. He seems devoid of a philosophical center other than himself, as demonstrated by his childish recitation of his actual election success and the even greater election success that he just made up.

Management guru Peter Drucker once pointed out that someone who works for a corrupt boss risks also becoming corrupt. Trump’s duplicity extends to those who work for him. Whether his subordinates were dissemblers to begin with or because of his influence became so, a number of them seem as devious as he. But whether the loyal fudging and outright lying by, say, Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer, is just the result of a basically honest person serving a dishonest master, the result is the same.

Previously in this blog I’ve said most of what I want to say about this unfit, devious, and authoritarian-prone president (“America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sep. 26, 2016; “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016; “Please, Mr. President-elect,” Nov. 15, 2016; “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016; “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017). My point in this brief post is that a president who is as prone to lie as to tell the truth is a dilemma for all of us. His disgraceful confounding of fact and fiction is not just a curious habit or laughable entertainment. Donald Trump’s lying endangers the nation.

Yes, I know that normal politicians often make promises about what they plan or hope to accomplish. A candidate for city council might convince voters he or she will bring the city a certain economic improvement, only later finding that council decisions are by a group, not an individual. Similarly, presidential aspirants announce great accomplishments while campaigning, only occasionally with the sober, sotto voce recognition “if I can get it through Congress.” As misleading as those rosy assertions can be, however, I will accuse persons of lying only when (a) they claim to be true that which they know to be untrue, (b) they intentionally couch technically accurate propositions to make it more probable that reasonable inferences are drawn that are untrue, or (c) their character is malformed such that they find the conceptual distinction of true/untrue obscure or unimportant. Lies that meet those definitions are my concern.

A president’s lies are not like regular lies. They are magnified by the enormous power of the office. A few words can swing the stock market, inspire hope in the hopeless, cause unnecessary interruptions to the lives of millions, bring down whole industries, and in general convince the gullible of practically anything. It is an ironic twist that this man whose lying is so blatant frequently uses the confidence-building phrase, “believe me!” as if he has earned any trust at all. So what problem does his character flaw of untruthfulness cause? Just as an exercise, let me pose questions to which the press and citizens might legitimately seek answers. Consider such questions and our subsequent dilemma:

  • did a phone call with a foreign leader end in your hanging up rudely?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • is there an elevated danger from radical Islamists slipping through as refugees?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • were there were thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering as the World Trade Center fell?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • did you just become a practicing Christian during the campaign?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • had you or your representatives have any interaction with the Russian government during the campaign or prior to your inauguration that was not made public?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • would your tax returns, if we saw them, show lawful compliance and an absence of conflicts of interest?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • will you really keep your business activity separate from your role as president?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • on the many occasions “many people have told me” has been cited as evidence, did they really do so?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • were three million illegal votes for your opponent cast in the election?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • is crime in America at an all-time high?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • did your investigators seeking proof that Barrack Obama was foreign-born find so much as to justify your confident assurance that “you won’t believe!” how much they uncovered?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • do facts unknown to us show that the “dishonest media” refuse to report on major terrorist attacks?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • is the murder rate at the highest level it’s ever been in 47 years?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • have your actions already saved tens of thousands of jobs?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • did the travel ban go “very smooth” [sic] and only affect 109 people out of the hundreds of thousands of travelers?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • is your belief in democracy so strong you’d never take the country down the path to autocracy?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • if you were offended personally by a foreign leader, would that ever figure in your subsequent presidential actions?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • would you ever pressure any person or business to favor family interests?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • would you alter any part of our international posture in order to increase your fortune?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • what is your evaluation of a recent American military operation?—but we cannot trust what he tells us
  • did you really already save $700m in F35 negotiations?but we cannot trust what he tells us

In that list, some I made up, some are real. They vary, as I said, from trivial to crucial. Each day brings more items that could go on such a list, that is, items the answers to which would not be believable because the president has chosen to be untruthful regardless how evident his obfuscations might be.

One of the derivative problems with presidential lying or even just carelessness with facts is that he cannot avoid clashing with other sources of facts, specifically the daily progression of current news. So in order to protect his own misguided claims to truth, a president must contend with, criticize, and in the long haul delegitimize the press. Steps aimed toward the president’s becoming—despite his loss of the moral high ground—the dominant source of truth is one of the definitive steps in advancing authoritarianism. On that matter, see my recent posts, “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016 and “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017.  A more studied depiction of steps toward authoritarianism can be found in Melik Kaylan’s January 10, 2017 Forbes article, “What the Trump Era Will Feel Like: Clues From Populist Regimes Around The World.” Trump has displayed not only the personality for despotism, but is following steps in its pursuit as if from a playbook. http://www.forbes.com/sites/melikkaylan/2017/01/10/what-the-trump-era-will-feel-like-clues-from-populist-regimes-around-the-world/#1f42ad8f61aa).

To reiterate, not being able to trust what the president and his minions tell us does not mean he and they will never tell the truth. It means we can’t trust on any specific matter that his choice will be to tell the truth. Consequently, we are forced to consider everything he says is suspect. The press should do so as well, but carefully, since the president can then use the press’s  increasing diligence to prove its bias. We have no idea what the future holds and, therefore, what will arise about which we need truth. We don’t know what our president will be lying about next, but we and the whole world can see that it will be continually about something.

Still, should we not give the president the benefit of the doubt? Must his every utterance or those who speak for him be viewed with suspicion? Would that we could, as generally Americans have been willing to do for every president. Regardless of party, we want to trust our president. We take pride in the trust of General de Gaulle when, declining to examine America’s proof of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, said to Eisenhower’s emissary, Dean Acheson, “I do not wish to see the photographs. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.” Political trust today is different, to be sure, but Trump—whose long suit is not discernible integrity—broadcasts a massive, worrisome step in its further deterioration.

Yet it is still imperative for Americans to be able to believe their president, just as it is imperative that foreign countries can count on America to be what America claims to be. Having a chief executive already known internationally as a buffoon does great harm to America’s image and, perhaps more importantly, to world security. Current news outlets and opinion writers do examine individual instances of the president and his employees lying. That is necessary, but it is not sufficient. My point in this post is that exposing and refuting lies one at a time fails to address that this is an ongoing characteristic hardwired into the Trump administration’s DNA, not simply one episode of dishonesty following another. The problem is bigger.

Nothing the President of the United States says about anything can be trusted. Nothing.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America

President Donald Trump’s victorious campaign was remarkable for both inciting Americans’ incivility and fears and for exploiting them. Over the past months, the most troubling of the fears associated with President Trump is his proto-despot personality and his growing list of actions appallingly similar to foreign fascists. To me, these exceed all other concerns about his presidency. Will time prove so drastic an alarm unwarranted? Perhaps. But my being wrong offers little comfort. Let me explain. But first, let me point out the special gravity of my thesis.

My alarm in this post is not a typical partisan criticism, for though I have a number of these like anyone else, none of them rise to the level that concerns me here. The apprehension leading to this post is of a different sort, more a fear for the nature of the republic than about single decisions or circumstances within the operation of a republic. My point is much, much bigger than oil pipelines, crowd size, careless emails, egregiously small-minded tweets, or even healthcare insurance. I have described the personal characteristics that make Trump the worst presidential choice that voters have been presented with in decades, but just replaying those inadequacies is also not my point. Risking fascism is.

On December 12, I published a post titled “What does a proto-despot look like?” I warned that, though Trump might not turn out to be an active despot, “the signals [he] radiates on an almost daily basis are too frightening to ignore [and] too reminiscent of historical lessons we’d be foolish not to note.” I added that he “may yet become worthy of [the presidency], but meanwhile wariness of handing the [White House] keys” to a paranoid, thin-skinned, fact-averse man is a debt we all owe to the republic.

Only a complete Trump sycophant could disregard the account of Melik Kaylan’s January 10 Forbes article, “What the Trump Era Will Feel Like: Clues From Populist Regimes Around The World” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/melikkaylan/2017/01/10/what-the-trump-era-will-feel-like-clues-from-populist-regimes-around-the-world/#1f42ad8f61aa). Within 24 hours of inauguration, Trump’s despotic tendencies had already been displayed.

Mr. Kaylan began thusly: “I have now covered upwards of a dozen countries that have buckled under the emergent wave of populist leaders, from the Far East to the Mideast to Europe and the Americas. Many of the countries have done so quite democratically, at first. That emergent wave has crashed onto US shores in a fashion thoroughly precedented [sic] abroad. Recently, I wrote about how I’d seen all the tricks in the Trump campaign before, actually in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the 2012 national elections when the pro-US candidate lost to a pro-Russian populist.  At that time, no one was ready to believe the Russians capable of influencing Western style elections. Many still don’t, even after Trump. We now have enough experience of populists in power in the West and elsewhere to guess intelligently at what’s to come in the US; what life will feel like under Trump. Here is a checklist to compare against in the coming months and years. We will all be happier if none of this comes to pass but the weight of evidence suggests the worst. Equally, none of this implies that supporters of Trump don’t have legitimate issues on their side which, sadly, other politicians won’t address. Which is how populists come to power.”

Kaylan’s list is enlightening. With them as backdrop, he considers Trump’s actions and statements, the fights he has stimulated, and the remedies he’s proposed. These are familiar, for we have all watched them unfold on the nightly news. They bear a frightening similarity with the sequence of lies, denials, immature behaviors, reversals, delegitimizing of all other sources of information, and other bizarre actions with which fascist “strong men” have arisen. I have spoken of Trump’s having the personality of a “proto despot,” but Kaylan’s broader experience enables the case to be made more convincingly.

Can I be wrong? Of course. Do I want to be wrong? Absolutely, freedom is too important to sacrifice to win a point. But as claimed in my first paragraph, my being wrong offers little comfort, for even a partial fascist deterioration is enough to justify being always on guard. We should be doing that anyway, but particularly with a president who takes little care to avoid showing symptoms of fascism. (A man waving a gun in a crowd must be treated by police as if he’d already fired it.). A president’s negligently frightening the populace by actions increasingly indistinct from fascism aborning is itself a massively irresponsible act, for fascism is not identified with certainty until it is too late to go back.

(Does any of this warning delegitimize Trump’s election? I don’t think so. Regardless how many troublesome circumstances unduly influenced voters, it was still voters who pulled the levers. Voters are ultimately accountable for their votes regardless of who tried to influence them.)

About sixty million voters—heedlessly, in my opinion, since Trump’s shallowness, despotic attitude, and untrustworthiness were on display all along—opted for the United States of America to have a president whose behavior is consonant with that of emerging fascists.

Consequently, it is no longer unthinkable that the United States might drift (or lurch) toward becoming a fascist state.

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Variations in morality

As author of this blog, I pay attention to readers’ comments and occasionally reply to them. As a policy, however, I’ve chosen not to use the posts themselves to interact with any one person, notwithstanding that readers’ comments have occasionally induced me to consider a matter I might otherwise have not. This is one of those times.

Over the three and a half years of this blog, I’ve made a case for morality to be considered from a secular humanist perspective rather than a religious one (e.g., among several: “Morality is too important to be left to religion,” Jan. 2, 2014; “Morality in secular humanism,” Mar. 16, 2015), even that religion-based morality is frequently itself immoral (e.g., “Escaping the evil of sin,” Jan. 20, 2015; “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016). As desirable as I believe the task of developing morality by and for humans to be, reaching consensus even among humanists would be a formidable task. A similar objective among theists informed by their existing cross faith disagreements would be even more daunting, since religious moralities arise from a desire to please various alleged gods, each with his, her, its, or their considerable differences from faith to faith.

Within Christianity alone, variations in what pleases and displeases God are legion. The purpose of morality in secular humanism–and, therefore, the theme in constructing its morality—is, on the other hand, quite focused: the survival and flourishing of human beings. Briefly stated, whatever contributes toward that flourishing is moral, whatever detracts from it is immoral. But it still isn’t quite that simple, for there are many fine tunings to consider.

Should we add “sentient beings” to “human beings” (as argued by Michael Shermer in The Moral Arc)? Persons who regard treatment of animals as a moral issue would certainly want to do so. Should morality deal solely with what we should not do, that is, what restricts our otherwise free range of behavior, or should it also be prescriptive? Should behaviors otherwise immoral get a free pass if they also have sufficiently positive effects? Considerations like these, along with a myriad of similar quandaries, would still leave individuals with moral decisions to make for which there’d be no specific guidance. That ambiguity is far exceeded by religion-based moral codes for the reasons noted above.

I intend to revisit this line of thought more extensively as the life of this blog continues, along with distinguishing between (a) moral codes persons might personally figure out and adopt and (b) moral imperatives imposed upon individuals by a society (whether based on religion or not).

Considerations of morality have concerned many thinkers over the millennia, not just religious ones. As pointed out in a comment to my most recent post, some have concluded that morality is best governed by religious adherents’ beliefs about gods; others have concluded that humans cannot shirk the opportunity and duty to develop a calculus of morality themselves. Even if a person’s approach is the latter, thoughts of thinkers from both camps have something to offer, as is true in reverse. Do I draw utility and stimulation from thinkers whose starting point was religion, like C.S. Lewis? Yes, along with nonreligious philosophers, like John Stuart Mill (I have read others, but I cite these two simply because each led me to strong opinions about their work).

There seems no more end to philosophical quandaries as time moves along than there are to those of the physical sciences.


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What does a proto-despot look like?

Strange hair? Small hands? Please forgive my inappropriate levity; my point is deadly serious. President-elect Trump is a proto-despot. Might I be wrong, crying wolf? Will happier events in the next few years lead me to regret the chilling words, “proto-despot” . . . or just to drop the “proto”? After such an intemperate statement, I need to say that drama is not my style; it’s even uncomfortable. My personality and history tend more toward calm and measured. Still. my apprehension might prove unwarranted. But the signals Mr. Trump radiates on an almost daily basis are too frightening to ignore, too reminiscent of historical lessons we’d be foolish not to note.

Trump may yet become truthful, responsible, wise, and worthy of his forthcoming office. But holding my breath about that is getting harder, and surely to fear handing the keys to a dangerous fool is not unreasonable. Even those who voted against him have been willing at each stage of his brief political career to wait a little longer for maturity and rationality, hoping they will show up any day now . . . he’ll be better as soon as the debates are over, then after the next juncture, then another, and so on, amassing a continual stream of embarrassing actions and truth-defying statements broken only occasionally by “looking presidential.”

To be sure, reaching conclusions, particularly critical ones, about anyone should be done fairly and cautiously. If, however, as we board an aircraft, we notice drunk-like behaviors on the part of our pilot, we are wiser to risk making an unfair judgment than to jeopardize the flight. How many drunken signs can we countenance in the president of history’s most powerful country, the one we like pridefully to claim is the world’s city on a hill? Should we not be worried that others of the plane’s crew show negligible ability and scant nerve to protect us from an unfit leader? Republican officials who mouth ridiculous excuses for Trump or simply cower in the background offer no indication they will protect America from a man who virtually advertises his proto-despotism.



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“God-given” rights—2

This popular term in the United States is as incumbent on politician-talk as mouthing the obligatory “God bless America” at the end of each speech. I’ll skip past the self-serving implication of a speaker’s allying herself or himself with God and, therefore, with theists who, to guide their political decisions, frequently assess candidates’ piety. In this post, however, I am not concerned with motivations extraneous to the concept itself (like to gain approval or get elected). I want to look only at the term itself and the damage it inflicts on our consideration of human rights. My bottom line on the matter is that human beings have no rights except those granted by other human beings. Your rights and mine are not gifts from god, but from each other.

The focus of this post is not to argue against the existence of any god; that’s a topic for elsewhere. My argument is that even if such a god exists, to ascribe the source of human rights to it is not only difficult but unwise. We pretend God has spoken when we’ve merely cloaked our own choices in robes of divinity, enabling us to pretend our choices are those of the universe, as I discussed in “God-given rights?” on Dec. 9, 2013.

In other words, human rights are not determined by the nature of the universe, derived from a religious framework codified by a deity, calculated from scientific analysis, established by philosophers’ arguments, nor demonstrated by logic. Rights are freedoms or enrichments granted to some people by other people, “funded,” as it were, by reduction of freedom or enrichment for others.

The increase and decrease of rights I’m referring to need not be monetary, nor are they monolithic in application. That is, I am not conceiving of one group of people as givers and another as takers. (Person A might on some issue give up a right while Person B gains a right, though on another issue the roles are reversed.) I may gain the freedom to live in safety, while you lose the freedom to hit me. I may gain freedom to purchase a bakery product, while the baker loses the freedom to refuse me service. These swaps are extensive, complicated, and in constant flux in each civilization. “Civilization” might be world-wide, entailing global economics and war; it may be only city-wide, involving homeless shelters; or it might be a single family where increasing and decreasing rights of each person occur daily.

All rights involve a calculus of exchange and do not derive their legitimacy from some universal master plan beyond human choice. Even the golden rule—considered by many to be the master ethic—expresses a desired transaction of benefits gained and benefits diminished. I choose to give up freedom to treat you in whatever way I wish when angry, while you gain the right to have a measure of safety or pleasure. You choose to give up driving as fast as you wish so that I might have greater freedom from recklessness. There is, then, no fundamental arrangement of these swap-offs handed to us by the universe. We are thus not enabled to proclaim there to be an ultimate moral entitlement that immigrants have the right to vote, poor people have the right to public assistance, churches have the right to be free from taxation, convicted murderers have the right to a final meal of choice, or that old people have a right to be fed and housed. We can and do create such rights, but the key words there are “can” and “create.” Nature neither bestows nor endorses them.

The calculus to carry out that creation of rights is not easily defined or attained. With the possible exception of the golden rule, arriving at an anthropogenic, consensual, coherent framework of rights is a gargantuan, perhaps impossible task. That said, it is promising that the effort has been underway for millennia with some limited measure of success. There are international agreements (of sorts) that address issues of hunger, imprisonment, gender, cruelty, slavery, and other matters wherein rights have been more-or-less established by public attitudes, leaders, and law. Failure to attain total agreement in no way negates the significance of widespread interest and argument on whether, how much, and for whom rights should be granted or forfeited. These disputes are demonstrations that inquiry about rights commands a great deal of attention, in no small part due to consideration of the negative side of the equation: Who is to pay by having their own rights decreased?

Obviously, the apportionment of rights (both gaining and losing) is a never-ending human engagement. Not only must old balances be reconsidered, but types of challenges never before encountered present new balances to recognize and resolve (changes in technology and in global climate come to mind), thereby requiring constant attention. And that attention brings difficult adjustments in who has more rights and who has fewer, an uncomfortable volatility that itself renders the entire enterprise well-nigh impossible, certainly unmanageable, and its tensions irresolvable. And yet as I’ve implied, such a principled undertaking is even now underway, though admittedly piecemeal and subject to contamination by persons with more power, anger, or access.

One might describe the creation and maintenance of a fair and compassionate framework of rights to be one of meta-ethics (I’m using that term for the ethics of whole societies or for all of humanity; it is not the same meaning as used in academic philosophy.) The personal ethics within meta-ethics are the ones with which we normally concern ourselves and, in fact, are the subject of several of my previous posts (“Morality is too important to be left to religion,” Jan. 2, 2014; “The sin of sin,” Jan. 2, 2015; “Morality in secular humanism,” Mar. 16, 2015; and “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016). This broader role of meta-ethics, however, focuses attention on the system of ethics within which one adopts and follows personal ethics. The latter is hard enough, to be sure, but meta-ethics are crucial in the way that a broad policy in an organization embraces innumerable smaller choices, making it as crucial as it is difficult.

Recognition of the difficulty, rather than driving us forward, may even induce a reluctance to engage the issue, especially since for many people there is a convenient escape: just accept what one or another ancient religion tells us about what the gods want. I have had devotees of Christianity, for example, argue that the sheer difficulty is itself proof that godly guidance is available and should be chosen— blatantly begging the question. (The form this usually takes is with regard to individual morality. The argument is that atheism can’t be justified, for it leaves atheists with no authoritatively prescribed set of sins, that is, we’d not be able to tell what’s good and what’s bad.) Theists have their own problem, of course, in that devotees of one version of theism are loathe to accept the proscriptions believed by other ones.

And that—other than purely cultural ethnocentricities—is the major impediment to humanity’s advance in the realm of ethics, including those dealing with apportionment of rights. Of course, even then the “purely” cultural is rarely free of the effects of religion. Religion, while claiming vociferously that it is the source of morality, is actually the greatest impediment to seriously reasoned advance of morality, both at the individual and societal levels. The reasoned part is the sticking point; we don’t reason all that well when ancient, unchallenged texts rule our lives.

(Let me explain what might be the unexpected inclusion of morality in a discussion of rights. In order to give rights to one class of persons, as I’ve established, rights must be denied or reduced for others. One common way to accomplish the denial side of that equation is to declare what is denied or reduced not as the swap-off cost of the rights expanded, but as something wrong or, in religious language, sinful. So it is that the peculiar morality of sin found in religion becomes entangled in the issue of rights.)

Religious persons, despite their sincere intent, normally find it difficult to suspend sectarian differences that contaminate the secular nature of this great and humane task. Sectarian positions tend even more than secular ones to be uncompromising, for it is harder to question one’s own positions if they are thought to be from a god. Religionists’ majority intent is to please a supposed deity rather than to better inform our living together on this planet.

Yet there are many religious persons able to suspend their sectarian differences long enough to have thoughtful secular discussion of rights. Their contributions are great, as is the breadth of secularism brought by some non-religious persons. (One sadness about the latter is that not all non-religious people are motivated to engage in this challenge, after all, while all secular humanists are atheists, not all atheists are secular humanists.)

Largely we understand the importance of well-considered rights, but their pursuit is adulterated by untold amounts of religion-based silliness, including the small-mindedness of genitally-based morality. We are less moved by large issues of human betterment than by our unthinking need to please ancient beliefs, thereby misdirecting our limited attention toward considerations of minor consequence: Muslim men have the right not to be reminded of the sexuality of women, citing their Quran and Hadiths, while Muslim women have no right to dress as they please. Marriage between black and white persons was not a right, while it was the right of others to control unfavored intimacy, citing their Bibles. Youngsters have no right to masturbation, while others, citing their Bibles, have the right to shame and prevent it. Slaves didn’t have the right to come and go as they pleased, but their owners had the right to physically control them, again citing their Bibles. Homosexuals had no right to their preferred sexual partners, though heterosexuals had the right to impose their largely religion-based code. And on and on.

The religion-based list is long and trivial, virtually always backed up by some interpretation of old scriptures. As the years go by, we often find that our choices about rights have been based on a narrow religious hegemony, greed by those in authority, social hostilities, or other less than savory factors. It is not unusual to look back and marvel at the rules we’ve imposed on each other—invariably concerning ill-founded curtailment or awarding of rights. It is just as usual, when looking at ourselves in the present, to be blind to the continuation of similar mistreatments, unaided by insights that will come only later. We rarely test ourselves by placing our minds in the recent past to review how offended we were with behaviors paid little attention today. In my lifetime, I’ve known sex before marriage, public discrimination against blacks, blue laws, criminalized marijuana use, and other such matters treated as grave moral failings. No one was considered to have a moral right to ignore the social rules involved, regardless how inconsequential they seem today. Violation of the expected norms engaged people in continual battles over trivia while big issues went unaddressed. Morality as an important concept was—and is—cheapened by the very people claiming to hold the source of it in their hands.

Thus, “God-given rights” continues to be mouthed, as if it has anything to do with a reason-based foundation of humaneness. Of course, such a foundation would necessarily be flawed and always in progress. But it promises to actually be in progress, guided by a moral arc rather than drawing its legitimacy from the conflicting, primitive beliefs of disputatious ancients. Besides, to refer to rights as god-given, not only calls upon us to decide which god and how we know what that god wants (yes, I understand all religious groups think this is a settle matter—even as they disagree with each other). And we’d have to explain how the same god(s) and the same sources have led us regularly to abandon those previous certainties. We’d have to explain the atrocities carried out then and now by those who believe that authorship of human rights come from gods, rather than from their own malevolence. Consider ISIS for months. Consider Saudi Islam for years. Consider the Catholic Church for centuries. Consider Puritan American colonists. Consider Protestant riots against Catholics in Pennsylvania in1844. Consider anti-abortion terrorists of today. As said so well by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

So here we are, the only intelligent beings in the universe that we actually know exist. Although we have learned a great deal in the past few hundred thousand years, there is certainly even more we have not learned.

We don’t know if there is even a transcendent being or disembodied intelligence, despite our determination to create one. If there is, we don’t know if it cares in any ongoing way with us, the inhabitants of this pale blue dot. If it does, we don’t know if it chooses to lay down rules for us. Everything associated with gods cultivated in the childhood of our species is based on something we don’t know, including the topics of rights and moral restrictions.

But what we do know is there are over seven billion of us, breathing human beings whom we can see and touch, beings with the intelligence and commitment to do great things and horrid things. We do know we have the ability to cause sentient beings to more likely to survive and flourish. We do know that one of the tools we have to do that is the concept of rights, as compassionately and rationally constructed as our evolved self-interest will allow. We do know that advance of rights and proper behavior among us has, over centuries, sprung not so much from faith in gods—in fact, often in direct opposition to it—but from enlightened thought.

Deliberate, thoughtful, further development in our concepts of rights and their associated behaviors is impaired by entangling that honorable pursuit with primitive phantasms. Rights are not “God-given,” but human-given, an undertaking of such magnitude as to inspire our most judicious thought, not a frightened escape to a figment of our ancestors’ imagination. Intelligent, benevolent, carefully reasoned, science-informed consideration of rights can only be tarnished by relinquishing credit to a ghost, like a ventriloquist looking to his dummy for wisdom.

Posted in Church and state, Politics | 7 Comments

Slogging to the blogging

Blogging means different things to different bloggers. For me it’s a channel for expressing my thoughts to others, but simultaneously it’s a tool that forces me to sharpen my own thoughts. However, as much pleasure as I get from writing (despite several books and a few hundred articles), there is work involved, work requiring mental energy and focus. My wife has occasionally had to remind me I’m retired, for this is not intended to be a job. I really don’t want the pressure of deadlines. Further, even though I sometimes write on a topic that a reader has requested, I try to remember not to feel obligated to write on anything that isn’t springing from my own heart and mind.

I’ve found that life’s disturbing occasions affect my energy and focus, as they do for everyone. Unless I have one or two posts in reserve, emotional events can result in longer intervals between posts. For example, in April this year my wife and I spent time in Greece helping with stranded Middle Eastern refugees. In September there was an untimely and life-altering death in the family. In early November the presidency election brought depressive worries about the country. Each occasion, in addition to other emotional considerations, brought its own writer’s block. Those effects are yet to completely subside.

Topics I want to get to as soon as I can include subjects like these: Humanism—why our ways of treating each other are far more important than our beliefs in Allah, Jehovah, Jesus, or any other of humanity’s deities. Faith and fact—how we tell one from the other as well as how often we really don’t want them distinguished, whether in religion or politics. Aweism—the attitude of outright awe about this amazing universe and our equally amazing creation of beauty that may be far more important than the questions of atheism/theism, politics, money, and other factors in our lives. Unbelievers’ beliefs—how no one really believes in nothing, including the most belligerent atheist. I’ll share mine. Human rights—what they are, where they come from, and the myth of being “god given.” Science—the illusion of science as a body of knowledge. Empty words—vacuous terms (like “political correctness”) in politics, religion, and other endeavors. “Nones”—the growing number of Americans who check NONE when asked about their religion.

There are more and they press on me. I am eager to get past this lassitude and back to my insistent keyboard again; it cries out at me unforgivingly.

Posted in This blog, this blogger | 2 Comments

Please, Mr. President-elect

Donald J. Trump is a fool. He is dangerous to America and to the world due to his incompetence, his paranoid reactivity, and his l’état, c’est moi personalization of important issues. Let me be clear: I acknowledge the legitimacy of his election, despite his threat not to do so had his opponent lost. But in return we and the world are owed steadiness and trustworthiness in his conduct of the most powerful position on earth.

Winning has not magically made him more fit for office, his indecency more decent, his promises more believable, or his “facts” more factual. He began months ago—and as of this week continues—chipping away at mechanisms important to give Americans some level of assurance about leaders’ honesty and financial involvements. Now he wants his family involved in his companies and simultaneously in the White House with security clearances (pretending that to be a blind trust). Perhaps he considers himself above question, but our claim to be a nation of laws is not to be rendered worthless.

Might I be wrong? Might President-elect Trump turn out to be unlike the pre-presidency Trump? Might all the evidences of his unfitness disappear January 20? Could happen. But these stakes are higher than in casinos. We cannot be willing to take the risk of a Mussolini-like shedding of one safeguard after the next, nor should any responsible leader expect us to. Mr. Trump’s intentions may be pure as snow—I do not contend otherwise—but his actions and statements are too reminiscent of incipient dictators to risk. For ourselves and the world, America needs to be a strong country; we need no Strong Man.

Mr. President-elect, we have granted you the executive leadership of our country. We need the behaviors, words, and unmistakable signals that your administration will leave us freer, more secure, and more democratic than when you begin. Please do not, by mixed messages, withhold that assurance from Americans and the world.

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October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here

The intent of this blog has not been to enter political controversy. The weirdness of the 2016 not-so-presidential campaign has shaken my resolve, but I don’t intend to write another on this topic. Previous ones are “Democrats vs. theocrats” (Jan. 30, 2016); “Batshit crazy, the stupid party” (Mar. 15, 2016); and “America’s celebration of ignorance” (Aug. 26, 2016). The following post is a few final thoughts not yet expressed.

Power in the hands of a paranoid, thin-skinned, impetuous, petty, fact-averse, mean-spirited person is a truly frightening prospect. (I believe each of those adjectives to be true and provable, but nevertheless feel a bit unclean using such a string of them.) Donald Trump has degraded presidential candidacy to the déclassé of a Jerry Springer Show and a banana republic mentality. He has brought a nadir of tawdriness and small-mindedness. He has disguised haughty ignorance as “telling it like it is” to the delight of a base more angry than informed and easily convinced by strong-man solutions reminiscent of Mussolini. He spouts lies and unconfirmed rumors…“people are telling me,” “a lot of people are saying”…characteristic of conspiracy obsession wherein facts are irrelevant. For him, just to make a claim is to establish its accuracy and, it turns out, for his followers as well.

Trump’s supposedly masterful business management is, as is his approach to life, one of lawsuits rather than relationships and ethical practice. His stated political beliefs have no consistency except as they serve self-promotion. His self-proclaimed brilliance makes preparation, study, and experience unnecessary (“…more than the generals”). Like a schoolyard bully, he ascribes each of his grave flaws—paranoia-like—to his opponent. His lying is not so much an occasional defect, but a trademark conversational tactic. He has exploited the severe deterioration of the Republican Party—once a reputable, essential thought leader and custodian of political conservatism—made possible by the wretched participation of spineless Republican officials and candidates. His half-baked, even flippant, pronouncements come not from thoughtful statesmanship, but from ill-informed bloviation, triggered often by perceived personal slights. He would disgrace the presidency just as he has his candidacy.

He has added to the deterioration of the Republican Party, driving it far beyond being—as Republican Governor Bobby Jindal called it—“the stupid party.” Its longtime role of representing an informed, respectable protector of conservative principles has fallen disastrously. Republicans were neither competent enough nor wise enough to fulfill their important role responsibly, abetted by the anti-intellectual, anti-science, uncompromising traits of the Moral Majority, then Tea Party, and FoxNews. The GOP has not just been taken advantage of and embarrassed by Donald Trump, it made a Donald Trump inevitable.

American political discourse has sunk terribly in the past couple or three decades. But Trump represents its further decline. His ceaseless prevarications and small-mindedness are distressing, but some are more dangerous than others, specifically those that endanger the political system itself. He carelessly misinforms his base that they should seek “Second Amendment solutions,” that the election is rigged, and that they should be informal poll-police. (As testimony that he’s not completely devoid of taste, he has not suggested they wear brown shirts.) Should he lose, it means ipso facto that his winning will have been stolen.

The pretended rigging, however, is exceeded by his most terrifying move: calling into question the peaceful transfer of power essential to a republic. To my knowledge, no American president has ever treated the election process that injudiciously, that recklessly. Our system is built on trust that each part of Constitutional government carries out its role despite comings and goings of individuals and parties. (I’ll refrain from dwelling on the Senate’s constitutionally questionable decision not to hold hearings on President Obama’s SCOTUS nomination, along with recent rumbling about avoiding hearings through a complete Clinton term. Particularly galling was Sen. McConnell’s ridiculous claim that “the people should have a choice.”)

If Donald Trump is (1) so unintelligent as to be unaware of the gravity of even hinting at such a grave declaration, or (2) so evil as to intentionally jeopardize the country’s ability to endure, the presidency should be denied to him even by persons who agree with his scattered political views. In fact, under either of those conditions, if Trump’s followers do not rise up against his candidacy, their intelligence, their Americanism, or both are suspect.

Hillary Clinton, of course, has shortcomings herself, ones that in a normal campaign might have doomed her candidacy well before the convention. (I refer to the real failings, not the trumped up ones that Republicans have dogged her with but failed to prove for much of her public life.) But her blemishes and those of previous Republican candidates as well are not the sort that the Republican Party brings us in 2016: Clinton’s mistakes are numerous, some are embarrassing, some problematic. But, unlike Trump’s, they do not endanger the republic.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Islam – 3

In my recent post, “Islam – 2” (Sep. 14, 2016), I promised—with ample provisos, I trust—to share thoughts on how Americans can reduce one source of their fears about our growing Muslim population and to do so without sacrificing one of the significant ideals on which America was built.

First, let me note several fears I’ve noted that Americans have about Muslims in the United States, more or less in ascending order of severity: (1) A generalized discomfort or fear of “the other,” whether Islamic or not, perhaps taking the forms of xenophobia and social distancing. (2) Discomfort or anxiety when confronted with differences in clothing, social practices, or religion. (3) Loss or alienation of family or neighbors due to or because of an unfamiliar way of life, especially one which could be seen as “stealing souls” from an “approved” religion. (4) Loss or reduction of legal or other governmental preference for Christian practices and teaching, including by encroachment of Sharia law. (5) Injury, death, or coercion whether by terrorism or criminal force.

(The original meaning of terrorism is violence against one group—probably non-combatants—meant to cause a third party to change course. Rape or even mass murder is not terrorism unless it is intended to cause a change in the action of someone else. A common dictionary definition is “violent action to frighten a person or group with the aim of achieving a political goal.” For example, the human and physical destruction of 9/11, insofar as its object was to affect American foreign policy, was terrorism . . . not because of its magnitude, but because it fit the definition. Assaulting the child of one’s professor in order to be given a better grade would be terrorism even though of less consequence.)

As to the five fears, I’ll dismiss #1 and #2 out of hand. Fears such as these can be disturbing, but the best way to counteract them is for Americans to “just grow up.” I am prone to treat #3 similarly. Adults have the right to make their own decisions about personal beliefs, so doing so can’t be blamed on a third party. Besides, “souls” cannot be stolen (though they might defect!). Remember how the old “alienation of affection” laws treated women as if they had no minds of their own?

I’ll get back to #4, but let me confess that I’ve no satisfactory response to #5, except to observe that the fear is overblown, at least given history thus far. A 2016 Cato Institute report estimated the odds against a person’s death in a one-year period from terrorist action is 3,609,709 to 1. (The U.S. National Safety Council puts the odds of a fatal fall in the bathtub each year at 11,469 to 1.) Still, while 1 in 3.6 million seems remote, even that miniscule risk is greater than in the past.

Now, let me get back to #4, the fear of Sharia law or (in a less extreme version) the fear that local, state, or federal laws and ordinances become increasingly Islam-friendly or even exceed the preferences now given to Christianity and Judaism. If you are disposed to think such a fear among Americans is negligible, consider a few items below gleaned from billionbibles.org. I do not present these reports as accurate, just that they and other similar sources exist, for fears are fears whether they link to reality or not. Here are a few items from billionbibles and similar sources:

  • [Although] Sharia law in the United States of America (“America”) has reached penetration phase, many American states have introduced bills banning the courts from accommodating Sharia law. But many of those bills have been stalled by fierce challenges from well-financed Muslim groups that accuse the politicians who sponsor or support such bills as suffering from Islamophobia, campaign against their re-election, and sue in court. States that have or are trying to pass Sharia law-limiting legislation, albeit after watering them down to not even mention the word “Sharia,” include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, North and South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
  • An increasing number of public American schools with Muslim students are holding Islamic prayers towards Mecca while public American universities continue to build Muslim-only washing facilities. In 2013, Skokie School District 68 in Illinois became the first US school district to celebrate Eid al-Adha, a Muslim high day, as a school holiday, in lieu of Veterans Day. In 2014, Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado became the first high school to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic, replacing “One nation under God,” with “One nation under Allah.”
  • In 2009, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Joseph Charles Jr. ruled in S.D. v. M.J.R. that the Muslim ex-husband repeatedly had sexually assaulted his Muslim ex-wife, both before and after their divorce. Following testimony from the Muslim man’s imam, however, the judge denied the ex-wife’s request for a permanent restraining order against her ex-husband, citing the Muslim man’s “belief” and “practices.” “The court believes that [defendant] was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether [s]he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices.”
  • Muslim taxi drivers are challenging local authorities for the right to refuse to pick up blind passengers with seeing-eye dogs, while Muslim supermarket cashiers are challenging their employers for the right to refuse to sell products from pigs. Both dogs and pigs are considered unclean in Islam.

These are actual or feared Islamic intrusions into American law and governmental practices. But similar actions in commerce also exist. For example, taken from similar sources, are reports that to attract and manage (Middle Eastern) Muslim wealth, an increasing number of American financial institutions are becoming Sharia-compliant. This requires donating a percentage of their annual profits to Islamic organizations designated by their Sharia-compliance advisors. Let me repeat: I am not reporting these things as facts, but as fears whether factual or not.

And notice—as must be obvious—each of them involves a breakdown in America’s vaunted separation of church and state.

The ways in which that breakdown can show itself are countless. Take, for example, a few years ago the New York City Council passed a resolution that would add two additional days to public schools’ annual holidays in honor of Islamic Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Mayor Bloomberg objected, contending that school holidays should only be added if there were “a very large number of kids” of a particular religion, for the eminently practical reason that “if you close schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.”

Should public schools observe religious holidays, then, only for Christians? for Christians and Jews (Jews constitute less than 3% in America)? for Catholic special days, but only if there is a high Catholic/Protestant ratio? Does Buddhism count? How about Protestants who renounce Easter holidays (as my own religion did)—would that count toward removing Good Friday as a holiday? And, back to Muslims, a little more than 2%, but growing fast, do they wait until they reach the Hebrew level? But those are considerations are just the start. These percentages vary greatly from one jurisdiction to another and their effects on public schools have become a political issue wherein numbers are the game rather than principle.

Earliest European settlers in North America brought with them their tendency to mix religion and politics, as well as their determination to mix only their own religion with politics. But after throwing off English colonization, they set out on the difficult task of joining their confederation of new states to become the United States, a brand new country. With no pressures of war and with a unique opportunity to consider the work of political philosophers (e.g., John Locke, J. S. Mill), state building began by philosophy-minded founders(e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison). Some were Protestant Christians, some were deists, but they agreed that the new country and its various religions should be protected from each other. Church/state separation would protect individuals’ religions from the ascendency of others’ religions, while keeping the state out of the inevitable controversies.

It is in the nature, it seems, of many religions to seek hegemony, fully convinced it is in God’s interest to do so. So religious people began right away chipping away at America’s unique church/state separation, even as early as the first Congress. As I’ve said in other posts on this blog, the greatest threats to religious freedom are religions, much as the greatest threats to a free market (as opposed to crony capitalism) are businesses that seek special favors. Since various forms of Christianity have been dominant in America since its founding, it has invariably been forms of Christianity that threaten religious freedom, and it continues so today.

[In previous posts, I’ve listed actual, present-day Christian actions that tie themselves to and get special favors from government power: “Flirting with theocracy,” Feb. 7, 2016; “Democrats vs. theocrats,” Jan. 30, 2016; “Christian bullying (Part 1),” Sep. 4, 2015; “Christian bullying (Part 2),” Sep. 13, 2015; “Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion,” Oct . 8, 2015; “Our national day of prayer,” May 1, 2014; “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” Apr. 16, 2014; “Public education: Using the bully(ing) pulpit,” July 9, 2013.]

In the myopic way that immediate gratification operates, religious people seem to think that if their religion can get special favors—“after all, we are (mostly) all Christian here, right? besides, isn’t religion always a good thing”—it makes the country a better place…with no regard to the consequences for freedom of conscience other than their own. With that attitude, they can discount minority religions and persons of no religion at all, for God is on their side. Our commitment to freedom of religion has failed regularly in small ways and frequently in large ways. In 1844, disagreements between Protestants and Catholics in Pennsylvania over, in part, which version of the Bible, led to riots.

Consider a few recent theocratic incursions, instances in which Americans act as if governmental authority can legitimately be used to support Christianity or, more accurately, their version of Christianity. These are but few of many more examples I’ve collected wherein Christians, particularly Christians who hold government positions consider their positions bestow the right to give advantage to and even to evangelize their personal views as police officers, parks administrators, local city or county offices, school officials, state and federal lawmakers, judges, federal offices, and state governments. Feel free to skip through this illustrative list:

  • “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion. Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve religious liberty for non-Christians.” Bryan Fischer, Director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy, American Family Association, stated on Focal Point, Sept. 2011.
  • “The official state book will be the Holy Bible, published by Johannes Prevel.” Louisiana Rep. Thomas Carmody, in introducing HB503 to legislate this declaration, 2014.
  • “Christ.” Word emblazoned, along with a Christian cross, on the official seal of the Sheriff of Humphreys County (Waverly), Tennessee. 2014.
  • “57 percent.” Public Policy Polling, in a nationwide survey of whether the Republican “base” “supports establishing Christianity as the national religion” (vs. supporters of Rick Perry 94% and Mike Huckabee 83%). Feb. 2015.
  • “We should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth. . . People prayed, people went to church. I remember on Sundays the stores were closed.” Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen. March 2015.
  • “We’re all about wanting to see the cause of Christ go further…in more public arenas in the American culture…We want to see Christ in our schools.” Pastor Justin Coffman, explaining to Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt why Christian plaques mounted by the Midlothian Independent School District are justified. 2014.
  • “On God’s authority.” Kim Davis, County Clerk of Rowan County, Morehead, Kentucky, when asked on whose authority she was not issuing marriage licenses [for gays]. Sept. 1, 2015.
  • “When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil.” Gary Potter, president of Catholics for Christian Political Action.
  • “The teachers told students about the Biblical origins of [foot-washing] in preparation for the event.” Sonna Dumas, director of the public school associated with Shepherd Community Center, explaining preparation for a Christian foot-washing ceremony that included Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann, her staff, and staff of Governor Mike Pence, with Gov. Pence making an appearance afterward. Indianapolis, Ind. 2016.
  • “At least one paragraph…describing how and when you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and what your present relationship with Him means to you.” Instruction for “Playing with Purpose Award” for public school students. Antelope Valley Union High School District. Lancaster, Cal., 2016.
  • “I’m a religious man, too.” William Mallory, municipal judge, Hamilton County, when sentencing Jake Strotman, a Catholic, to attend twelve consecutive Sunday services at Morning Star Baptist Church, attested by the minister’s signature. Cincinnati, Oh. 2016.
  • “Follow Christ.” Sign posted in Genoa High School by Genoa Area Local Schools, Genoa, Oh. 2016.
  • “Gov. Terry Branstad signs 99 County Bible Reading Month proclamation.” April 26, 2016 Des Moines, IA
  • “[To prevent federal courts including the Supreme Court from hearing cases involving] “acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.” Gov. and presidential candidate Mike Pence (when a U. S. Congressman), in a bill introduced by Representative Tom Delay, also to apply retroactively so as to nullify decades of church/state law. Washington, DC. 2004 [The bill prohibits the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage].
  • “Mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership.” High school event that included scriptural readings, hymn, and prayer as local participation in the National Day of Prayer. Gunter High School, Gunter Independent School District, Gunter, Tex. 2016.
  • “Joyful, Prayerful, and Thankful—Thessalonians 5:16-17.” Signature line used on official emails by employees of the Eau Claire District Attorney’s office. Eau Claire, Wis. 2016.
  • “[Ineligible because it] may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.” New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s rationale for refusing to issue a vanity license plate saying “8THEIST” to Shannon Morgan (it then approved a plate saying “BAPTIST”). Newark, NJ. 2016.
  • “Romans 13:4” Decal on city police cars. Harper, Kansas. 2016.
  • “The burning hell” and “All God’s Children.” Two of several religious booklets, along with proselytizing pamphlets from “The Little Book Ministry” displayed in the U. S. post office in Spanish Fort, Ala. 2016.
  • “Encourages readers to lead joyful Christian lives as they await the soon return of Jesus.” Description of Christian magazine “The Sign of the Times” displayed in the U.S. post office in Harrison, Tenn. 2016.
  • “School chaplain.” Turlock Unified School District’s title given to a group of Christian ministers in program permitted to work with students on school property during the school day. Turlock, Cal. 2016.
  • “God’s revealed will for mankind.” Assertion by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad proposing to hold a state-wide county courthouse Bible-reading marathon. Des Moines, Io. 2016.
  • “He Is Risen.” Posting on Bradley County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page. Cleveland, Tenn., 2016.
  • “Romans 13:4” Decal on city police cars. Harper, Kansas. 2016.
  • “Unto us a savior is born, Merry Christmas.” One of numerous religious postings on the outdoor marquee of the Grays Harbor Fire District #1, Oakville, Wash. 2015/2016.
  • “The Bayview Cross is not a government endorsement of religion. It’s simply there.” Editorial by Pensacola News Journal, taking a stand against suit to declare a 25-foot Christian cross on public land unconstitutional. Pensacola, Fla., 2016.
  • “The Lord came to me, and He just said, ‘Get in the truck and leave.’ When I did leave, I was so proud.” Ken Shupe, conservative Christian owner of Shupe Max Towing in South Carolina, who refused service to a woman who had a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker. 2016.
  • “As Believers, You Are Saved Forever by Grace through Faith.” “Baptized into Christ Jesus.” “Soldiers of Christ.” Posters at a public middle school where several classrooms displayed crosses in the McKinney Independent School District in which high school faculty solicited students to read prayer, recite scripture, and sing hymns at a baccalaureate service held in the Prestonwood Baptist Church sanctuary. McKinney, Tex. 2016.
  • “Attack on our cross.” Mayor Glenn Johnson, characterizing legal action against The City of Port Neches, Texas, for its ten-foot Christian cross on city property. 2066.
  • “Jesus died for you.” Principal of Vogel Intermediate School in content of regular emails to school employees. Conroe, Tex., 2015.
  • “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.” Words on a portrait of Jesus, along with multiple crosses, on a door at Pleasure Ridge Park High School. Louisville, Ky. 2016.
  • “The practice of religion or guided by faith which gives you purpose.” Teacher at Fern Creek High School, teaching what constitutes one aspect of “spiritual health.” Louisville, Ky. 2016.
  • “If I were president, I would work very hard on eliminating the ban on Christianity in our public schools.” Former presidential candidate Ben Carson, speaking with Pat Robertson at Regent University. Feb. 28, 2016.
  • “[ I urge] everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him.” Board president James Na, Chino Valley Unified School District, in announcement prior to another board member’s reading of Psalms 143. 2016.
  • “[I] wanted God’s protection over [my] deputies.” Sheriff Ronny Dodson, Brewster County, explaining why he had prominent crosses placed on several police vehicles. Alpine, Tex. 2016.
  • “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion. Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve religious liberty for non-Christians.” Bryan Fischer, Director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy, American Family Association, stated on Focal Point, Sept. 2011.
  • “If the people who come before us are upset by [the Bible displayed at city council meetings], let them go to whatever country, ask for whatever type of Bible they want. This is a Christian nation.” Cecil Bradbury, former mayor, Pinellas Park, Florida. 2014.

Do religious people in majority religions really think a growing Muslim population will neglect to see that in enough numbers they can use the same freedom-destroying tactic? Or, prior to having enough in numbers, they can shame Americans into providing Islam some of the advantages now given to Christianity. And Islam doesn’t even have proscriptions against doing so that would command “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”

With the enticing door left open that allows churches to piggy-back on state power, Christian actions that thus threaten religious freedom will be accessible to Muslims as well. (Try reading the list above, substitution a Muslim message for the Christian ones.) Or will churches, blind to the damage they already do, insert themselves even further into the political process seeking to curtail the degree to which Muslims can use the same tactics? Are we so shortsighted as to think civic religious warfare is easier than just going back to the founders’ prescription before we are too theocratic to do so? Can we not simply give all religions no access to state power except to protect their freedom from those who would curtail it, especially from each other?

Christianity in most of the world has been denied a fully theocratic haven for decades. Islam knows, with few exceptions, nothing else. It is well-practiced at theocracy, and taught that Islamic theocracy is exactly what Allah wants. Muslims can be expected to join with Christians in expanding theocratic government. For a time, it may even seem they have the same theology in mind. But if Christians fight to retain and expand governmental support for Christianity more than for religious liberty for everyone, how can we expect the otherwise available bulwark of Constitutional church/state separation, further weakened, to thwart Muslims’ understandable aspiration to get in on the action?

I ended the most recent post (Islam – 2) with these words: I want to share one further thought concerning the central question that spawned this Islam series: (1) what can current Americans do to lessen at least one source of [our] fears, (2) with minimal or no sacrifice of ideals foundational to America?

That was a limited, albeit sincere intent that with this final post on Islam I’ve discharged to the best of my ability. Will a country solidly committed to the Constitutional protection of government from religion and protection of religion be able to prevent unavoidable shifts in our religious mixture from threatening that precious gift from our founders? I really don’t know, for religion can have a powerful and often deleterious effect over other considerations. But commitment to the principle along with strong and Constitutionally pure governmental institutions is surely our best bet to reduce widespread American fears of Sharia or similar religion-based perils, while simultaneously safeguarding one of our most precious freedoms.


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