Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Reading

Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder, Except… Valerie Tarico in AlterNet on the violence inherent in religion.

The year 2015 has opened to slaughter in the name of gods.  In Paris, two Islamist brothers executed Charlie Hebdo cartoonists “in defense of the Prophet,” while an associate killed shoppers in a kosher grocery.  In Nigeria, Islamist members of Boko Haram massacred a town to cries of Allahu Akbar—Allah is the greatest!  Simultaneously, the United Nations released a report detailing the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the Central African Republic by Christian militias, sometimes reciting Bible verses. On a more civilized note, Saudi Arabia began inflicting 1000 lashes on a jailed blasphemous blogger—to be doled out over 20 weeks so that he may survive to the end. In media outlets around the world, fierce debate has erupted over who or what is responsible.  Is monotheism inherently violent? Is religion an excuse or cover for other kinds of conflict? Are Western colonialism and warmongering in the root of the problem?  Do blasphemers make themselves targets? Is the very concept of blasphemy a form of coercion or violence that demands resistance?  Is killing in the name of gods a distortion of religion? Alternately, is it the real thing?

Each of these questions is best answered “yes, and” rather than “yes/no.”

With the possible exception of Buddhism, the world’s most powerful religions give wildly contradictory messages about violence.  The Christian Bible is full of exhortations to kindness, compassion, humility, mercy and justice.  It is also full of exhortations to stoning, burning, slavery, torture, and slaughter.  If the Bible were law, most people you know would qualify for the death penalty. The same can be said of the Quran.  The same can be said of the Torah. Believers who claim that Islam or Christianity or Judaism is a religion of peace are speaking a half-truth—and a naive falsehood.

The human inclination toward peacemaking or violence exists on a continuum. Happy, healthy people who are inherently inclined toward peacemaking focus on sacred texts and spiritual practices that encourage peace.  Those who are bitter, angry, fearful or prone to self-righteousness are attracted to texts that sanction violence and teachers who encourage the same. People along the middle of this continuum can be drawn in either direction by charismatic religious leaders who selectively focus on one or the other.

Each person’s individual violence risk is shaped by a host of factors: genetics, early learning, health, culture, social networks, life circumstances, and acute triggers. To blame any act of violence on religion alone is as silly as blaming an act of violence on guns or alcohol. But to deny that religion plays a role is as silly as denying that alcohol and guns play a role.  It is to pretend that religions are inert, that our deepest values and beliefs about reality and morality have no impact on our behavior.

From a psychological standpoint, religions often put a god’s name on impulses that have subconscious, pre-verbal roots. They elicit peak experiences like mystic euphoria, dominance, submission, love and joy. They claim credit for the moral emotions  (e.g. shame, guilt, disgust and empathy) that incline us toward fair play and altruism, and they direct these emotions toward specific persons or activities. In a similar way, religions elicit and channel protective reactions like anger and fear, the emotions most likely to underlie violence.

The Odds of Marriage Equality — Garrett Epps in The Atlantic on the Supreme Court’s capacity to surprise.

I have many vices. I have been known to wager a dollar on those poker-hand coffee cups, and to go all in with deuces in the pocket. But I also once drew five aces and still lost; since then, prediction is not one of my bad habits. I’m not going to predict, then, what the Supreme Court will do with the same-sex marriage cases now that it has put them on this year’s docket. But if I were a bookie, I’d make marriage equality an odds-on favorite. It has been less than two years since Windsor v. United States, but it seems like a decade. Court after court has struck down bans on same-sex marriage; the “traditional marriage” camp has begun to seem like the enemy in Sun Tzu’s Art of War—exhausted, bewildered, devoid of hope or spirit. Take the decision under review in today’s grant of cert. The Sixth Circuit upheld the ban. But Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s opinion might generously be called listless. A famously bright and resourceful conservative was unable to muster a single serious argument why marriage equality was actually a bad thing; he was reduced to feebly protesting that it would be better for gay people themselves if they were to gain their rights through politics rather than law.

There’s not much there from which to fashion a last-ditch defense of  “one man, one woman.” Prodded by the federal courts, the nation has already decided. For the Court to affirm Sutton’s opinion would seem almost akin to reversing Brown v. Board of Education.

But even if Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote seems foreordained, he must choose between the rights of gays and lesbians—an issue on which he has fashioned a historic legacy—and the prerogatives of the states, about whose “dignity” and honor he has often rhapsodized. He might be tempted to split the baby by holding for the states on the “celebration” issue but for the challengers on “recognition.” (The Court’s grant of review was careful to split the two questions.) That is, he might say, a state could refuse to perform marriages itself, but could not refuse those legally married out of state the benefits of marriage under state law.

But the temptation will be fleeting because that dog won’t hunt. In Kennedy’s Windsor opinion, he wrote that the federal government’s refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages “humiliated” not only gay couples but their children. The children of couples who seek legal marriage in-state would be no less humiliated by their parents’ inability to marry than those of couples who married out of state. Once the issue becomes “the children,” we have probably entered the endgame.

That’s still not a prediction. This Court has shown a tremendous capacity to surprise. But if anybody wants to put down money on the states in the new case of Obergefell v. Hodges, please look me up. I will be the guy with the coffee cup and the careful poker face.

A President and a King — Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker on how Barack Obama wrestles with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

…Yet six years in the White House have vastly complicated Obama’s relationship to King. They are two of the three African-Americans who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. (The first, Ralph Bunche, was awarded the prize in 1950, for negotiating a truce between Jews and Arabs in 1949.) When King accepted his award, in 1964, he began his speech by questioning his worthiness as a recipient, since the movement he led had not yet achieved interracial peace:

I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.

Obama opened his acceptance speech, in 2009, on a similarly self-effacing note, stating that he had barely begun his Presidency and his achievements were few. But then he departed from King’s reasoning. There is such a thing as just war, he said, under circumstances in which force is used in self-defense, is proportional to the threat, and, “whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” He continued:

I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.

A moral crusader and a Commander-in-Chief grapple with different prerogatives. King was never tasked with national defense; Obama’s election was contingent on a belief that he could keep Americans safe. Some observers nevertheless find it difficult to square elements of Obama’s foreign policy—drone warfare and its civilian casualties—not only with King’s concept of civilization but with the President’s own criteria for just warfare. Cornel West railed against the decision to use King’s Bible at Obama’s second swearing-in. “The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King,” he said, “becomes a moment in political calculation.” Still, the King who denounced the triple evils of militarism, racism, and materialism would likely hail next week’s address, in which the President is expected to touch upon normalizing relations with Cuba, immigration reform, and providing free education for students at community colleges—along with the Administration’s efforts to prevent voter suppression, the cause that animated the Selma campaign, fifty years ago.

Beneath all this lies the irony that, nearly six years after the Cairo speech, Obama is less able to deploy the moral capital of civil rights, at least in the Middle East, not only because he is now established as the face of American authority but also because many of the battles that King fought have still not been resolved. Racism remains an Achilles’ heel. The protests in Ferguson, New York, and beyond were watched by a global audience, and, as during the Cold War, America’s domestic troubles become fodder for a morally compromised foreign power to deflect attention from its own failings. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to highlight the seeming contradiction that such actions were taking place under a black President. He tweeted, “Racial discrimination’s still a dilemma in US. Still ppl are unsecure for having dark skins. The way police treat them confirms it.” In spite of Obama’s debt to the civil-rights movement, the ideal of American exceptionalism is only as valid as the standing of people who have just as often been seen as exceptions to America.

Doonesbury — Hear that?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Denial of Service

This is terrible.

A “Dignity in Death” rally will be held Tuesday afternoon for a lesbian woman who was denied a funeral at New Hope Ministries in Lakewood, Colo. last week.

Vanessa Collier’s friends say the funeral was canceled by the church 15 minutes after the service was supposed to start because the church would not allow a picture to be shown of Collier proposing to her wife. The open casket and flowers were in place and about 170 people were in attendance.

According to Chaplain Greg Rolando, who would later preside over the funeral across the street at Newcomer Funeral Home, the New Hope Ministry is very community oriented. He says pastors there welcome those who are gay but ask that alternative lifestyles be censored in the church. New Hope Ministries is not commenting on the decision.

We are all too familiar with the extremism of some people in the Christian faith.  The screamers and GOD HATES FAGS signs of the Westboro Baptist Church and the neo-Nazi and Klan interpretation of the bible are, to be charitable, misguided by any measure of a reasonable reading of the book they consider to be the word of their god.  They use hate and discrimination as their sacraments, and we dismiss them as way out there on the fringe; they’re not the “real Christians.”

But as far as I can tell, the actions of the New Hope Ministry are just as bad as anything Westboro Baptist Church does.  No, there are no Day-Glo signs and bedraggled guttersnipes standing on a street corner.  The folks at New Hope cloak their bigotry in nice polite phrasing; “we’re sorry, but we’re unable to accommodate your request.”  It would have been better — and more honest — to have just come out with the WE HATE LESBIANS on the church sign and left no doubt about it.

So the next time you hear some fundamentalist Christian whining about religious persecution and “why do you scorn us?”, maybe, just maybe, this kind of bigotry and othering might be a contributing factor.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Rights and Wrongs

Frank Bruni in yesterday’s New York Times:

I’ve been called many unpleasant things in my life, and I’ve deserved no small number of them. But I chafe at this latest label:

A threat to your religious liberty.

I don’t mean me alone. I mean me and my evidently menacing kind: men who have romantic relationships with other men and maybe want to marry them, and women in analogous situations. According to many of the Americans who still cast judgment on us, our “I do” somehow tramples you, not merely running counter to your creed but running roughshod over it.

That’s absurd. And the deference that many politicians show to such thinking is an example not of religion getting the protection it must but of religious people getting a pass that isn’t warranted. It’s an illustration of religion’s favored status in a country that’s still working out this separation-of-church-and-state business and hasn’t yet gotten it quite right.

We’re at an interesting crossroads, brought about by the rapid advance of same-sex marriage. It’s now legal in 36 states, including, as of last week, Florida. Equality is increasingly being enshrined into law, and one response from those opposed to it is that the law shouldn’t apply to them.

Why? Because it contradicts their religious beliefs, which they use as a fig leaf for intolerance.

Fifty years ago the opponents of civil rights and integration asserted that “states’ rights” affirmed their belief that discrimination should stand.  Today “religious liberty” bears the same burden, and it fails to carry the weight.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

This Is Theocracy

Charlie Pierce on the murders in Paris.

…despite the fact that the witnesses make the murderers sound like Bond villains straight from central casting, this was unquestionably an assault on the right of free expression, probably committed in the name of religious fanaticism. It was an act of medieval, anti-Enlightenment barbarism, and the fact that a lot of people who aren’t usually so tender toward France and its leftists — or towards the Enlightenment itself, for that matter — have attached themselves to the horror in order to proclaim their righteousness atop a pile of corpses ought not to obscure the truth of it. There are genuine values — honored only in the breach by some, but no less genuine for that — under armed assault here. Charlie Hebdo‘s staff was murdered to stifle the publication’s voice, no less than Elijah Lovejoy was murdered to stifle his. This is the mass, unbridled, brainless Id of the barbarian at war with modernity in all its expressions. This is where anti-science leads, where a contempt for education leads, where the suppression of women leads, where marrying political fanaticism to religious fervor almost always leads. This is where theocracy brings us, over and over again.

Islam is no more to blame for this massacre than Christianity is to blame for the bombing of an abortion clinic in Florida or the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita.  The cause is religion reductio ad absurdum, and our gingerly response to those who preach it, no matter what their faith, will lead us down this hell-hole again and again.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Heavenly Correction

Apparently Pope Francis didn’t say that all dogs go to heaven.

It sounded like a story that was a bit too perfect to be true. Pope Francis, the pontiff who always seems to be breaking with the strict tone of his predecessor to portray the Catholic Church as a warm and inviting place, told a boy who was devastated by the death of his dog not to worry—the two would meet up in heaven. “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures,” Francis allegedly told the boy, at least according to the hundreds of news outlets that picked up the hard-to-resist, immediately viral story. CNN reported it, the New York Times put it on its front page, and it began populating Facebook news feeds around the world.

The problem is it never happened. Francis never comforted that young boy and never specifically mentioned dogs and heaven. What really happened was an example of how a mistranslated story can make its way around the world, all because it was picked up by the right people.

The now-infamous words were, in fact, uttered by a pope: Paul VI, who died in 1978, explains Religion News Service, which tracked down patient zero as a piece in Italy’s Corriere della Serra.

[…]

The New York Times acknowledged its mistake with a long correction but continued standing by the main gist of the story. “The correction in the Times notes that the specific content and wording were wrong in the article. However, the pope did in fact make comments suggesting heaven is open to animals,” a spokeswoman for the Times tells Reuters.

For those of us to whom the concept of heaven and hell is a control mechanism concocted by the church to keep the masses in line with promises and threats, it is especially cruel to say that no, some of the sweetest souls you knew in life would be denied a place in paradise because they don’t deserve it.

It’s too bad that the Catholic church even has to have a discussion about it.  If their god is so all-loving, then it might be in his or her nature to promise that Sam will be waiting for me when I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Sam in Heaven

Cartoon by Charles Barsotti.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

How About That

There’s a Christian conservative in Alabama who thinks the state’s proposed constitutional amendment against “foreign laws” (hint hint Sharia) is a bad idea.

Via ThinkProgress:

Randy Brinson, the president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama — one of the state’s largest network of conservative evangelicals — is one of the religious figures lending his voice to the opposition campaign. In an interview with the Birmingham News this week, Brinson said that the effort to pass Amendment 1 is “just silliness,” adding that “it’s all something that lawmakers can trumpet back to constituents that they’re protecting Christian values, but they need to be working on other stuff.”

“Sharia law is not going to be implemented in Alabama, it just isn’t,” Brinson said. “This is a tremendous waste of effort… My frustration is that people — good people — get behind something like this just because they want to score political points with the Christian community. But it’s redundant — you don’t need to amend the constitution to address these issues. I just don’t think they thought through this particular thing.”

Plus, Brinson opposes Amendment 1 because he believes it would communicate to other countries that Alabama doesn’t respect their laws. He also worries the measure could impose additional barriers on people seeking to complete foreign adoptions, get married abroad, or conduct business with colleagues outside the United States’ borders.

There’s hope yet.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pope Francis and The Big Bang Theory

Who knew he was into the popular sitcom on CBS?  Oh, wait.

Pope Francis on Monday said that the Big Bang and evolution theories do not contradict the concept of creation.

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” he said at an assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” he continued. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Not being a theology major, I am not sure what he means by saying that God is not a divine being.  Isn’t the definition of “god” sort of tied in with divinity?  Whatever; I just… oh, never mind.  I gave up trying to figure out popes ever since they told me they elect one by smoking something.

But somewhere Galileo and Darwin are nodding and smiling, as are Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, Howard, and Penny.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trial Balloon Target Practice

It looked for a minute there that the Catholic Church was going to treat gay people with respect and dignity, but apparently the old farts that really run the place put the kibosh on it.

Under furious assault from conservative Catholics, the Vatican backtracked Tuesday on its surprisingly positive assessment of gays and same-sex relationships.

In a report Monday, the Vatican had said that gays and lesbians have “gifts to offer” the Christian community and acknowledged that same-sex couples can give “precious support” to one other.

The statement, an interim report from a closely watched meeting of Catholic clergy here, was widely praised by liberals. It is believed to be the first time the Vatican has said anything positive about gay relationships.

[…]In response to such reactions, the Vatican backtracked a bit Tuesday. In a statement, it said the report on gays and lesbians was a “working document,” not the final word from Rome.

The Vatican also said that it wanted to welcome gays and lesbians in the church, but not create “the impression of a positive evaluation” of same-sex relationships, or, for that matter, of unmarried couples who live together.

Yeah, heaven forbid that the Catholic church would come across as compassionate.  What does that have to do with religion anyway?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

Antonin Torquemada

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says its a “lie” that the Constitution cannot favor religion over secularism.

One of the nation’s most conservative judges yesterday dropped a bombshell that likely will leave many progressives and legal analysts furious. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told students at the conservative Colorado Christian University near Denver that it’s “a lie” that the government cannot favor one religion over another, or religion over secularism.

The Supreme Court’s “latest take on the subject,” Scalia told students, “which is quite different from previous takes, is that the state must be neutral, not only between religions, but between religion and non religion. That’s just a lie. Where do you get the notion that this is all unconstitutional? You can only believe that if you believe in a morphing Constitution.”

[…]

The longest-serving member of the nation’s highest court, Scalia also told the students that it’s “utterly absurd” to suggest that “the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over non religion.”

By that he means of course Christianity because that is surely the True Religion whereas all the other ones are fake or just a bunch of people sitting quietly in a room for an hour.

I think it’s time for the longest-serving member of the nation’s highest court to find something else to do.  Like torturing non-believers.

HT to NTodd.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

Swearing Off

God is no longer required to be your co-pilot.

Airmen taking their enlistment or officer appointment oaths can omit the words “so help me God” if they choose, Air Force officials announced Wednesday.

The policy change comes after an atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada struck out the words on his Department of Defense reenlistment paperwork and ran afoul of a policy that prohibits omissions. The case went up to the Department of Defense General Counsel, which issued an opinion saying the language could be left out if the airman preferred. All of the other military services have allowed the alternate language for years.

“We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen’s rights are protected.”

This ruling has the usual suspects all twitterpated — Pat Robertson even got a touch anti-Semitic (blame the Jews!) — but there’s a little thing called the Constitution that explicitly forbids any religious test for holding a government job.  Rail on, supercilious twits.

Friday, September 12, 2014

ISIS In America

The wingers are fretting that if President Obama doesn’t go balls-to-the-wall war with ISIS, they’ll be coming here and bringing their religious extremism — convert or die, only True Believers can live within their state, and all laws must be based in their faith — with them.

It sounds like they’re already here.

Founder of the young Earth Creation Museum Ken Ham accepted the donation of a dinosaur from Michael Peroutka’s foundation in May 2014. Now Ham is going to headline an event with Peroutka and David Whitney and put on by Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution.

Peroutka is a member and former board member of the League of the South; Whitney is the chaplain of the Virginia/MD chapter of the League. The League of the South advocates for the Southern states to secede to form a homeland whites of European heritage. Peroutka has pledged the resources of the IOTC to the work of the League, and Peroutka defended the League as a Christian group.

Just over a year ago, fellow right wing luminary General Jerry Boykin pulled out of a conference because of the presence of IOTC speaker David Whitney on the program.  Ham is a frequent speaker at right wing functions. Ham’s decision to partner with IOTC indicates the reach that the IOTC has developed within the Christian right.

The IOTC claims to properly represent and teach the Constitution. However, David Whitney teaches that only Christians should be allowed to be citizens…

How soon before we need some airstrikes for these folks…?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Athesists Need Not Apply

Via TPM:

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court gave its blessing to local governments that want to open their public meetings with religious prayer.

It was a victory for the town board of Greece, N.Y., which stressed that it was fighting not just for Christian prayer but for the right of all people express their views regardless of their faith. In a 5-4 ruling along ideological lines, the Court ruled against the Jewish and atheist plaintiffs, who argued that the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Less than four months later, the town of Greece has adopted an invocation policy that excludes non-religious citizens and potentially shuts out faiths that aren’t well-established in the town, according to a top secular group.

Seeking to “avail itself of the Supreme Court’s recognition” that government prayer is constitutional, the new policy restricts opening remarks to “assemblies with an established presence in the Town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.”

Translation: atheists and agnostics need not apply. And unless the board clerk decides that your faith has an “established presence” in the New York town of fewer than 100,000, you may not deliver an invocation.

I realize that it takes a lot of study of the law and you really have to be good at it to get appointed to the United States Supreme Court, but if the five men who ruled in favor of the town Greece didn’t see this coming, then they’re idiots.

Of course there’s always the possibility that they knew that this would happen but ruled in favor anyway.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grifters of the Lost Ark

A creationist theme park in Kentucky won’t hire anyone who doesn’t believe in their interpretation of the bible.  Not only that, they are applying to the state for $18 million worth of tax incentives.

The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority has given preliminary approval to the incentives with support from Gov. Steve Beshear.

Ark Encounter is run by Answers in Genesis and is clear about its religious basis. According to that organization, the Earth is only approximately 6,000 years old, Noah’s flood was in 2350 B.C., and there were dinosaurs on the ark (some of which were fire-breathing dragons).

These are the religious views of some, but they are in profound conflict with scientific knowledge, which is well respected by many Americans of faith. On the day the tax incentives were recommended, the Answers in Genesis website had a help-wanted advertisement.

The job description included this statement: “Our work at Ark Encounter is not just a job, it is also a ministry. Our employees work together as a team to serve each other to produce the best solutions for our design requirements. Our purpose through the Ark Encounter is to serve and glorify the Lord with our God-given talents with the goal of edifying believers and evangelizing the lost.”

[…]

When Ark Encounter was originally approved for much larger tax incentives they were required not to discriminate in hiring.

However, it is apparent that Ark Encounter is likely to discriminate against non-Christians. Moreover, Catholics, mainstream Protestant Christians and some conservative Christians who have different doctrinal beliefs are also unlikely to be hired.

The ad has specific religious requirements for employment. These include a salvation testimony, a “creation belief statement” and a requirement that applicants agree with the organization’s “statement of faith.” This required statement includes articles that imply that fundamentalist Christianity is the only acceptable religion and that denigrate non-Christians non-fundamentalist Christians, and homosexuals (regardless of their theological views).

Can you imagine the howls of outrage if the folks at Universal Orlando decided that they would only hire wizards and witches at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; muggles need not apply?  Of course it’s ridiculous; Harry Potter is a fictional character and the books are works of imagination, whereas the bible and Genesis are… oh, wait.

I don’t have a problem with people building theme parks based on religion or fantasy (by the way, there are rumors about a Lord of the Rings theme park), and I can understand about wanting to hire people who only believe in whatever snake-oil it is you’re selling — not that any self-respecting LGBTQ person would want to work there — but when they’re asking the taxpayers to support it, that’s the damn limit.

HT to Melissa.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Reading

Tough Guys Don’t Win — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on why we don’t need a butch president.

Barack Obama is not a tough guy. Everybody rolls him. He’s a wimp, a weak sister; he won’t stand up for himself or his country. Vladimir Putin, a true tough guy, blows planes out of the air, won’t apologize, walks around half-naked. Life, it seems, is like a prison yard, and Obama cowers in a corner. “It would be a hellish thing to live with such timidity. … He’s scared of Vladimir Putin,” one Fox News contributor said about the President. But this kind of thing is not confined to the weirder fringes: Maureen Dowd pointed out a while ago that former fans of Obama “now make derogatory remarks about your manhood,” while the Wall Street Journals editorial page runs a kind of compendium of “weak sister” pieces every morning, urging the President, at one point, to make more “unambiguous threats”—making unambiguous threats evidently being the real man’s method of getting his way.

“Barack Obama is the first female president,” The Daily Caller, a Web site co-founded by a former adviser to Dick Cheney, blared, without a trace of irony or consciousness that female might not be such a bad thing for a President to be. The Daily Caller lists seven basic “manly” traits—courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline, honor, and manliness, that last one bafflingly redundant but, hey, that’s the way men are—and shows how Obama fails in regard to each. (He’s terrified of his wife, apparently, though one would think that this is actually a classic Jimmy Stewart-style American sign of husbandliness.) Toni Morrison wrote memorably, in these pages, that Bill Clinton had become, in a symbolic sense, “our first black President”—meaning that Clinton’s perceived faults were flaws of appetite, of a kind that a racist imagination traditionally ascribed to black men. “His unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution,” Morrison wrote. Obama’s perceived flaws are the ancient effeminate ones, of the kind that a bigoted tradition ascribed to women; above all, the criticism reflects the President’s unapologetic distaste for violent confrontation and for making loud threats, no matter how empty those threats may obviously be. (The joke, of course, is that, with Clinton as with Obama, the symbolic substitute may well precede the real thing.)

Obama—contemptibly, in this view—offers off-ramps in the direction of reason even when faced with the most fanatical opponents, who are bent on revenge for mysterious, sectarian motives, and yet he still tries to appease them. And that’s just the Republicans in Congress. Shouldn’t he be tougher with bad guys abroad? The curious thing, though, is how much the talk about manliness—and Obama’s lack of it—is purely and entirely about appearances. In the current crisis over the downed Malaysian plane, all the emphasis is on how it looks or how it might be made to look—far more than on American interests and much less on simple empathy for the nightmarish fate of the people on board. The tough-talkers end up grudgingly admitting that what the President has done—as earlier, with Syria—is about all that you could do, given the circumstances.  Their own solutions are either a further variant on the kinds of sanctions that are already in place—boycott the World Cup in Russia!—or else are too militarily reckless to be taken seriously. Not even John McCain actually thinks that we should start a war over whether Donetsk and Luhansk should be regarded as part of Ukraine or Russia. The tough guys basically just think that Obama should have looked scarier. The anti-effeminate have very little else to suggest by way of practical action—except making those unambiguous threats and, apparently, baring your teeth while you do.

Why does this belligerent rhetoric still stir us?  The American political historian K. A. Cuordileone wrote a good book a few years ago about the birth of this  “cult of toughness” in American foreign policy, in which she makes the point that it was essentially the invention of liberals in the Kennedy Administration—the Eisenhower and Truman people were more inclined to talk of “duty”—who wanted to curb the suspicion that liberals were inclined to be effete. What is strange, reading through her pages, is exactly how exclusively focussed on pure appearances the cult of toughness always was. All of the arguments, the ones that led to the near-apocalypse in Cuba and, later, to Vietnam, were not about calculations made of interests and utility. They were about looking manly.

[…]

This business of looking manly even developed its own theoretical rationale, the concept of “credibility”: if we are willing to act violently in pursuit of a peripheral interest, everyone can be certain that, when a vital interest is at stake, we will be still more violent. “Credibility” is defined as the willingness to kill a lot of people now for a not very good cause to assure the world that we’ll kill a lot more people if we can find a better one. This is the logic that led to wild overinvestment in peripheral struggles like Iraq, and is, in the view of many of its proponents, too subtle for the feminine mind to grasp.

“I will do such things—what they are yet I know not—but they shall be the terror of the earth.” So mad King Lear announces—and it is, as Bertrand Russell once noted, the Tough Guys’ point of view packed into a phrase. We’ll show them! Though what we’ll show them, and how we’ll show them, and to what end we’ll show them, and what we will say to the mothers of the children whose lives have been wasted in order to show them—those things remain as strangely unsayable for the serious men as they did for crazy Lear.

We don’t need tough guys. We need wise guys. We’ve tried tough guys, and it always ends in tears. Tough guys you know right away because they’re never scared of a fight. Wise guys you only know in retrospect, when you remember that they quietly walked away from the fight that now has the tough guy in a hospital. Wise women do that, too.

And No Religions Too — Katha Pollitt argues in The Nation that it’s time to repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that religious freedom will be the only freedom we have left—a condition for which we can blame the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Passed practically unanimously, with support from Ted Kennedy to Orrin Hatch, the ACLU to Concerned Women for America, the bill was a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith. This case involved two Oregon members of the Native American Church who were denied unemployment compensation after being fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, in a religious ceremony. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion, which held that a law that applied to everyone and was not directed at religion specifically was not a violation of religious freedom, made a lot of sense to me, then and now. Why should I have to obey a law and my religious neighbor not?

RFRA, which required laws infringing on religious convictions to meet the “strict scrutiny” test, was overkill. There were other ways to protect Native Americans’ right to use peyote in religious ceremonies. The church could have asked the State Legislature for an exemption; after all, during Prohibition, the Catholic Church was allowed to use wine in the Mass. Or—but now I’m really dreaming—workers could have been given legal protection from losing their jobs for minor lawbreaking outside the workplace. I mean, peyote! Come on. But no, for some reason, there had to be a sweeping, feel-good, come-to-Jesus moment uniting left and right. “The power of God is such,” said President Clinton, “that even in the legislative process, miracles can happen.” Gag me with a spoon.

What were progressives thinking? Maybe in 1993, religion looked like a stronger progressive force than it turned out to be, or maybe freedom of religion looked like a politically neutral good thing. Two decades later, it’s clear that the main beneficiaries of RFRA are the Christian right and other religious conservatives. RFRA has given us the Hobby Lobby decision permitting religious employers to decide what kind of birth control, if any, their insurance plans will provide. It’s given us “conscience clauses,” in which medical personnel can refuse to provide women with legal medical services—culminating in the truly absurd case of Sara Hellwege, an anti-choice nurse-midwife who is suing a federally funded family planning clinic in Tampa for religious discrimination because it declined to hire her after she said she would refuse to prescribe “abortifacient contraceptives,” i.e., birth control pills. (That the pill does not cause abortion is irrelevant—this is religion we’re talking about; facts don’t matter.)

For some, RFRA doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t apply to state law. In April, Mississippi became the nineteenth state to enact its own RFRA, which essentially legalizes discrimination against LGBT people by individuals as well as businesses, as long as the haters remember to attribute their views to God. Instead of protecting LGBT people from discrimination—a business refusing to serve them, for example—Mississippi will be siding with the bigots, just like old times. Last year, the state passed the Student Religious Liberties Act, which gives pupils the right to express themselves freely on matters of faith without consequences. Johnny can tell his classmate Jane that she’ll burn in hell because she’s a lesbian and write all his biology papers on Adam and Eve and their dinosaur pets, and the school can’t say a word about it. That would be intolerant.

In theory, everyone can play this game. In Oklahoma, Satanists are demanding a religious exemption from compulsory abortion counseling on the grounds that the false claims in the government-mandated scripts—abortion causes suicide and so on—violate their religious belief in science. In North Carolina, the United Church of Christ is suing the state, claiming that its constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage violates the right of its clergy to the free exercise of religion. “By preventing our same-sex congregants from forming their own families, the North Carolina ban on same-sex marriage burdens my ability and the ability of my congregation to form a faith community of our choosing consistent with the principles of our faith,” the Rev. Nancy Petty told Religion News Service.

But even if these cases are successful, they take us down the wrong road. People with religious objections shouldn’t have to listen to government speech. Imagine an anti-vaxxer a few years hence claiming the right not to be informed of the dangers of measles. Same-sex marriage should be legal because a clergyperson wants to perform them? What happens when a Mormon elder or a Muslim imam claims the right to express his faith by performing polygamous marriages? Even if religion were not the basically conservative social force it is in American life, expanding the religious freedom of individuals or corporations is simply not a good way to make public policy.

Doonesbury — Not funny.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Be Careful What You Pray For

Sarah Ruden in Salon points out that if Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to be compelled by the government to pay for something they say violates their religious beliefs, why do people who object to war have to pay for the military?

The upshot of the ruling is that Hobby Lobby and other businesses with conservative religious owners do not need to pay for what the Affordable Care Act mandates as full coverage for family planning. The public interest in affordable and accessible healthcare is not compelling enough to override the private belief that contraceptive methods including (but apparently not limited to) the IUD and the morning-after pill are murder. Well, I’m a pacifist, and I say that warfare is murder, and I don’t want to pay for it; and in recent decades the public interest in my paying for it hardly looks compelling.

Quakers have a long history of refusing to pay taxes for the military, and many of them have gone to jail for their beliefs.  Is it too much of a leap to say that now there’s precedent for those of us who would not want our money to go to war to be able to choose not to pay for it?

I’ve made this argument before in a different context.  Being gay and being denied various benefits because of that, why should I pay all of the taxes I owe if I’m to be denied the things I’m paying for with them?  If I had a partner here in Florida (hope springs eternal) and I wanted him to have the spousal benefits of marriage such as property inheritance, he couldn’t have them.  Up until last June, thanks to the Supreme Court overturning DOMA, he would have been denied survivor’s benefits from Social Security.  But still, I don’t have the full and equal protection of the law that straight people have, so why should I pay full fare?  It’s like paying for a first class ticket but ending up in coach next to a screeching baby and an air-sick cat.

All SCOTUS rulings have unintended consequences, but this Court seems to be particularly short-sighted in their ruling, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent notwithstanding.  The harsh reality is that the courts have never sided with the view that an individual’s rights are more compelling than what they deem to be “the greater good.”  Unless, of course, you’re crafting for Jesus.

HT to Gray Lensman.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Didn’t See This Coming

Oh, gee, no one could have predicted that when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and their right to corporate religion that it would have unforeseen consequences, now did they?

No, we’re not talking about a Christian college objecting to signing a paper.  We’re talking about something like this.

Lawyers for two Guantanamo Bay detainees have filed motions asking a U.S. court to block officials from preventing the inmates from taking part in communal prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The lawyers argue that – in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision – the detainees’ rights are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The motions were filed this week with the Washington D.C. district court on behalf of Emad Hassan of Yemen and Ahmed Rabbani of Pakistan. U.K.-based human rights group Reprieve said both men asked for the intervention after military officials at the prison “prevented them from praying communally during Ramadan.”

[…]

“Hobby Lobby makes clear that all persons – human and corporate, citizen and foreigner, resident and alien – enjoy the special religious free exercise protections of the RFRA,” the lawyers argued in court papers. 

In its controversial Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the contraception insurance coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – violated the rights of “closely held for-profit corporations,” if a company’s owners object to birth control on religious grounds. The court, which decided the case 5-4, said that the mandate “substantially burdens” the corporation’s exercise of religion in violation of RFRA.

Did we miss that part of the ruling that says RFRA applies to Christians only?

Maybe the Supreme Court should have listened to this guy.