Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sunday Reading

Learning To Speak Evangelical — Eliza Griswold in The New Yorker on teaching Democrats how to win back faith-based voters.

On a Tuesday afternoon this past summer, Doug Pagitt, a fifty-three-year-old pastor in a blue straw hat and glasses, stood in a conference room at the Democratic Congressional Committee’s office in Washington, D.C., laying out sandwiches. Pagitt was preparing to lead a training session for Democratic members of Congress on how to speak to evangelicals. A table was littered with blue-and-orange lapel pins reading “Vote Common Good,” the name of an organization that Pagitt launched last year to make the religious left more visible. “We want people to know that it exists, and they can join it,” he said. Last year, the group’s members spent a month travelling the country in a tour bus, campaigning for roughly forty progressive candidates on their religious message, but this was their first time speaking to politicians in Washington. Five members of the group took seats around the conference table, some wearing blazers and sensible sandals. Pagitt generally projects an air of ease, but this afternoon he was anxious. “Today is pretty much a beta test,” he told me.

A few minutes later, Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio who, at seventy-three, is the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives, arrived wearing a sea-foam jacket. Soon after, Representative Katherine Clark, from Massachusetts, and Ted Lieu, from California, walked in, followed by a half-dozen staff members. Robb Ryerse, a self-described former fundamentalist pastor and the political director of Vote Common Good, opened the meeting with a tip. “Trying to memorize John 3:16 in the car on your way to the event and then quote that is probably not the best way to connect with faith-based voters,” he said. He had seen a candidate try this trick on the way to a rally in Kansas and then struggle to remember the phrase onstage.

The exodus of religious voters from the Democratic Party over the past several decades is typically explained by the culture wars, most notably over abortion. As the historian of religion Randall Balmer notes in his book “Thy Kingdom Come,” in the sixties and seventies, the Democratic Party had a large Catholic contingent and mostly opposed abortion. By contrast, many prominent Republicans—including Nelson Rockefeller; Ronald Reagan, during his time as the governor of California; and Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion in Roe v. Wade—affirmed and expanded abortion rights. But, beginning in the early seventies, evangelical preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson worked with Republican strategists to press the Party to more vigorously oppose abortion. At the same time, the second-wave feminist movement pushed the Democratic Party to defend women’s reproductive rights. As a result, pro-life Democrats, most notably religious voters, began defecting from the Party.

Pagitt believes that this history is overly simplistic. He points out that a large percentage of Democratic voters—sixty-seven per cent, according to a Pew poll from 2018—still claim a religious affiliation. He believes that many moderate evangelicals would be happy to vote for Democrats, but that the Party often overlooks them during campaigns. In 2008, Barack Obama courted evangelicals, along with Catholics, mainstream Protestants, and Jewish voters, by asking religious leaders to appear as campaign surrogates and to take part in a regular conference call. Pagitt worked on behalf of the campaign, approaching conservative leaders and calling evangelicals who had voted for George W. Bush in 2004. “It wasn’t just me; they kept calling hundreds of leaders and asking if we could spare one more weekend,” Pagitt said. Obama succeeded in taking a large number of white evangelical and Catholic Bush voters.

But, in 2016, Hillary Clinton failed to woo these voters: between 2008 and 2016, the percentage of people who voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate declined among voters in every religious affiliation, and the dropoff was especially sharp among evangelicals. Pagitt pointed out that, though Clinton is a devout Methodist and received daily devotional readings during the campaign, she almost never spoke about her faith in public. “I don’t even know what her favorite Bible passage was,” he said. “I thought, Well, her polling numbers must tell her she doesn’t need religious voters.”

Pagitt describes himself as an evangelical, though he thinks of this as more of a sociological term than a strict theological one. “It’s like saying I’m Midwestern,” he told me. “It locates me.” He grew up near Minneapolis, in a non-religious family, and converted as a teen-ager. He spent eleven years as a pastor at Wooddale, an evangelical megachurch in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. In 1999, he planted a progressive, nondenominational church in Minneapolis called Solomon’s Porch. But, in 2018, feeling disappointed by Clinton’s loss, he founded Vote Common Good to target the voters that Clinton had overlooked. In the leadup to the midterm elections, he and fourteen other members held religious revivals in support of candidates across the country. The events featured beer on tap and thumping music from dirty-gospel acts, including Reverend Vince Anderson and Meah Pace. The family-friendly party atmosphere was modelled on revivals that the conservative evangelist Franklin Graham was holding for Donald Trump and other Republicans. “The larger goals were loving your neighbor and creating a check on power,” Diana Butler Bass, a prominent progressive theologian who joined Pagitt’s tour, told me.

Pagitt felt hopeful after the votes were cast. In 2016, eighty-one per cent of white evangelicals voted for Trump; last year, in the midterm elections, seventy-five per cent of white evangelicals voted Republican. Pagitt and the other members of Vote Common Good saw this small decline as a sign of progress: in ones and twos, evangelicals were becoming disenchanted with Trump—especially with his overt racism and misogyny, which some saw as against their values. “I don’t think it’s a silent majority,” Ryerse, Vote Common Good’s political director, told me, “but I think there’s a significant silent percentage.”

In the conference room, Katie Paris, a media trainer with Vote Common Good, discussed campaign tactics with the representatives. She noted that, during the midterms, Republicans had contacted religious leaders district by district to shore up their support, and often remained in close touch with them between election seasons. “You need to make it more difficult for the right to organize against you,” she said. She suggested that the representatives also reach out to religious leaders to introduce themselves. They didn’t have to fake piety, she said, but they should acknowledge that these communities were important to their constituencies. She also felt that Democrats had become afraid to mention religion at campaign events, which ceded faith to the right. She urged the representatives to discuss spirituality “wherever your values come from”—whether or not they were believers. The important thing was to make it clear that they took religion seriously and didn’t look down on the devout.

Pagitt thinks that, among the Democratic Presidential candidates, for example, Elizabeth Warren is doing a good job of integrating faith seamlessly into her message, beginning sentences with phrases like “As a Sunday-school teacher . . .” and by singing the hymns from her conservative childhood church in a defense of same-sex marriage. Bernie Sanders seems to avoid speaking of religion—his own, Judaism, or that of others—at all costs. Cory Booker often speaks about God in generalizations that can feel bland. Some candidates seem willing to openly antagonize religious voters; last week, at a town-hall discussion on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, Beto O’Rourke said that he would revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage—the first time a major Presidential candidate has stated such a position.

Paris encouraged the representatives to think of people they knew who were motivated by their faith, whom they could mention on the trail. After a minute, she asked Kaptur brightly, “You got one?”

“I got thousands,” Kaptur replied, slightly irritated.

“My mom is one,” Clark offered. Her mother had been a committed Episcopalian and an ardent feminist who was also an early advocate for women to be priests. (The Episcopal Church officially began ordaining women in 1976.) “I do talk about her frequently,” Clark said. “But I can’t recall talking about her faith.”

“You should,” Paris said.

As the event wound to a close, Pagitt called for questions. “How do you talk about abortion?” Lieu asked. He comes from a progressive district, but he felt that the issue would be central to other races around the country. Pagitt noted that there is a divide between pro-life voters who want to reverse Roe v. Wade and criminalize abortions, and those who are primarily focussed on reducing their number. There wasn’t much to say to the former, he said, but when speaking to the latter, candidates should emphasize that making abortion illegal had historically proved ineffective at reducing the number. In the past, Democrats had backed measures aimed at reducing abortions. Barack Obama tasked a joint White House initiative between the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Council on Women and Girls with “reducing the need for abortion.” Bill Clinton had made a motto of making abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” But, in 2016, Hillary Clinton had dropped the “rare” from her platform, bringing the Party further to the left on the issue. Pagitt felt that a more moderate approach to abortion could help attract religious voters.

This may have its own pitfalls. There are many voters within the Party who don’t want to see it give up ground on progressive issues like reproductive rights. There are also many who believe that religion is a private matter that should be separated from politics, and that publicly discussing it alienates religious minorities and non-religious voters. “We get pushback all the time from people within the political industry saying that the Democratic Party shouldn’t court these evangelical people,” he said. But he felt that evangelicals represented a large enough segment of the electorate that the Party had to take them into consideration. “What we want you to do is like religious people enough that you can ask for their votes,” he said. “There are seventy million evangelicals. Moving fifteen per cent of seventy million is a large number.”

After the meeting in Washington, Pagitt decided that the group would do more good advising candidates in the field and decided to take it back on the road. Since then, Vote Common Good has run several training seminars in New York City and around the country for Democratic congressional candidates. “In all five boroughs, there are evangelicals and other religiously motivated candidates,” he told me recently, while in New York. “We give candidates a breakdown by religious affiliation in their districts, and it’s shocking how many religious voters there are.” Last week, they launched a love-in-politics pledge, which is based on I Corinthians 13:4-7 (“Love is patient, love is kind . . .”) and calls on politicians to hold others to a standard of decency and compassion. “We’re skeptical of Mike Pence’s willingness to be swayed,” he said, of the Vice-President. “But we’re helping religiously motivated voters to have the rationale and support to change their votes.” The group is also planning a forum in Iowa, in January, where Democratic Presidential candidates could reflect on their vision of faith. Pagitt says that the major campaigns have indicated interest, though none has committed. “I think they should take religiously motivated voters seriously,” he told me. “If they don’t, it’s at their own peril.”

Winter Soldier — Charles P. Pierce pays tribute to Elijah Cummings.

Upon hearing the news of Rep. Elijah Cummings’ passing Thursday morning, the first thing I thought of was the beginning of the eulogy that the late Robin Williams delivered for rock promoter Bill Graham: “Bill’s dead and Strom Thurmond doesn’t even have a cold?”

The first time I met Elijah Cummings was at a campaign event at Morgan State University in his beloved Baltimore. It was 1999 and Cummings was campaigning for Bill Bradley’s primary challenge to then-Vice President Al Gore. I was on assignment for this magazine to write about it. The Bradley campaign—and the candidate, as well—were beginning to show the early symptoms of the creeping petrification that eventually would doom it and him. Outside the hall, I stopped to chat with Cummings, and Bradley’s incomprehensible stiffness came up in the conversation. Cummings smiled that canny politician’s smile that I’ve seen on everyone from Tip O’Neill to AOC.

“We’re working on that,” he said, twinkling. “We’re working on loosening the man up.”

I liked him a great deal that day, so I was happy over the past decade when he became an eloquent and ferocious legislative warrior against a Republican Party that had lost so much of its mind that it couldn’t stop itself from electing a vulgar talking yam in 2016. In the minority, he fought hard against the phony Benghazi, BENGHAZI, BENGHAZI! farce, and against the depthless fraud that was perpetrated against Hillary Rodham Clinton over Her Emails. In the majority, as chair of the House Oversight Committee, nobody did more to call to account the renegade incompetence and bone-deep corruption that is the only perceivable characteristic of the current administration*.

Elijah Cummings—and nobody ever has been more worthy of his first name than he was—never wavered, never faltered, and never took one step backwards in his defense of the Constitution and the rule of law. To borrow a turn of phrase from the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, as she was contemplating the impeachment of another criminal president: Elijah Cummings’ faith in the Constitution was whole, it was complete, and he didn’t plan to sit there and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of it. He was, as Thomas Paine wrote, a winter soldier of the first rank.

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Paine fought for a golden ideal. Elijah Cummings fought to keep it alive against all the forces that would coin it into cheap brass. They would like each other a great deal, I’m thinking today.

Doonesbury — aging gracefully?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Just Another Grifter

Amanda Marcotte in Salon explains why the news about Jerry Falwell, Jr. and his secret life as a South Beach hipster wanna-be and sex pervert won’t dissuade the Jesus-shouters from sending him money.

On Monday morning, Politico published a major exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr., the religious right’s most influential supporter of Donald Trump and the president of Liberty University, an evangelical institution formed by his father, Southern Baptist minister Jerry Falwell. Writer Brandon Ambrosino paints a damning picture of the younger Falwell as a man unrestrained by his own religion’s teachings on sexual morality or any other kind of Christian ethics.

The laundry list of malfeasance and inappropriate behavior is impressive, “from partying at nightclubs, to graphically discussing his sex life with employees, to electioneering” and “directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains.”

The most titillating story, previously reported by the Miami Herald, concerns the fact that Falwell and his wife, Becki, seem to have have an interesting sex life involving sharing naked photos with other men — men who, likely not coincidentally, enjoy healthy levels of financial assistance from the Falwells and Liberty University. For instance, Politico reports that Falwell sent pictures of his wife in “a French maid costume” to their personal trainer, Ben Crosswhite. They also used Liberty funds to set Crosswhite up as the owner of a lucrative gym.

There’s a lot more of this sort of thing, making it quite clear that Falwell is a first-rate hypocrite who poorly hides a love of power, luxury and sexual freedom behind a facade of Christian piety.

But it’s foolish to imagine that any of this will affect Falwell’s political power or standing with the larger white evangelical community. The pretense that the religious right was motivated by faith and morality was dropped — or should have been — when white evangelicals flocked to vote for Trump in greater numbers than they did for George W. Bush, who if he was convincing about little else, was convincingly a man of faith.

Here’s the thing: The real purpose of the Christian conservative movement is to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, full stop. As long as Falwell Jr. keeps that up — as his father did before him — his flock will stick with him just as they’ve stuck with Trump, a thrice-married chronic adulterer who has bragged about sexual assault on tape.

So calling out the Falwells for being flaming hypocrites and wondering why the so-called Christian evangelicals don’t turn on him is a waste of energy.  They’re just doing what they were hired to do, just as the late Jerry Falwell, Sr. did: maintain the white man’s death grip on power by whatever means necessary, and if it meant selling out their faith and their followers to do it, so what?  They never cared about them in the first place as long as the money kept coming in.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Trump And Evangelicals: Thick As Thieves

Via the Washington Post, a lot of evangelicals are just fine with supporting an adulterous misogynistic homophobic narcissistic con man: they’re in the same racket.

Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2016, winning a higher percentage than George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. That enthusiasm has scarcely dimmed. Almost 70 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s performance in office, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot.

I’ve always known that those evangelical Christian preachers were less about spreading their mythology and more about controlling other people’s lives and picking the pockets of their flock, and they’ve been peeing on the campfire of mainline Christians ever since they realized they could get away with it.

Their hypocrisy is legion: they hate abortions but won’t support a child once it’s born (or gladly pay for their mistress’s abortion with a credit card to get travel points). They bemoan marriage equality and rights for the LGBTQ community because it threatens “traditional values,” but are proud to destroy their own family when it turns out they have a gay son or lesbian daughter or brother or sister or mom or dad by throwing them out. Or better yet, check their Grindr profile and hook up with “HotDiscreteMusclBoy” at the Courtyard by Marriott over by the interstate.

They’re all too happy to tell other people how to live their lives but do nothing to help their own community struggling with poverty and opiod addiction or domestic violence or mass shootings because “thoughts and prayers” are good enough.

They detest immigrants from other countries, especially the brown ones who don’t speak their language, which is ironic in the supreme because the messenger they believe is the son of their god was basically an anchor baby born out of wedlock to an immigrant woman who was most likely a person of color and couldn’t come up with enough money to afford decent health insurance.

And they’re happy to support and vote to re-elect a charlatan who embodies everything they purport to deplore because he’s conned them into thinking they’re gonna get rich. Isn’t there a passage somewhere in their book of fables about the love of money being the root of all evil? It’s just another lesson they completely forgot, along with the ones about love thy neighbor as thyself, feed and clothe the stranger, and judge not lest ye be judged.

I get it that they feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. That’s because their beliefs are hateful, anti-democratic, and authoritarian.  It’s not surprising that they’re mocked and threatened: they brought it on themselves. Martyrdom only works if you’re willing to sacrifice for the greater good of humanity.  But if all you’re suffering for is being a controlling and vacuous gasbag, go ahead and drop dead for all anyone cares.

But, Karma, thou art a heartless bitch. It is a concept that transcends religious boundaries. It’s Newtonian: what goes around, comes around. At some point, sooner hopefully rather than later, both Trump and these sniveling Jesus-shouting bigots and hate-mongers will get their comeuppance. The sad part is that the lesson will be lost on them and they’ll come weeping and wailing about how they were so blind to be taken in by Trump and the preachers that went along with him and were in on it. It will be hard to refrain from mocking them. Maybe we should offer them “thoughts and prayers.”

Monday, April 29, 2019

Permission Denied

John Pavlovitz replies to Franklin Graham’s hate-filled claims that Pete Buttigieg can’t be a real Christian because he’s gay.

No gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, gender fluid, or non-binary human being is beholden to you or bound by your prejudices or in your debt—and their personal faith convictions aren’t any of your business.

You and the misguided zealots who share your heart aren’t the gatekeepers of the kingdom, no matter often you tell yourselves that or how many Bible verses you drop into your increasingly toxic Twitter feeds and incendiary Sunday sermons.

Someone else’s devotion to Jesus and the veracity of their faith confession are above your pay grade.

My only quibble with Mr. Pavlovitz is that he’s assuming Franklin Graham has any claim to be anything other than a grifter who lucked into a con that has scammed billions of dollars from millions of people with the promise of mythological salvation and a hand on their wallet.  That’s like saying the guy on the other end of the phone line with the Bollywood accent who is calling about the malware infecting your computer really does work for Microsoft.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Speaking Of Hypocrites

Franklin Graham on Pete Buttigieg:

As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.

So this Trump-sucking grifter gets to define someone else’s faith?  This from someone who not only flaunts his religion but along with his fellow con artists Jerry Falwell, Jr, Pat Robertson, and any number of other so-called “evangelicals” who sold their souls and their robo-call operations for political expediency and exploitation of the foolish and the weak?  Are you fucking serious?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Respect This

Incidents like this just make me sad.

For four years, Bailey Brazzel says, she had employed the same tax preparer, Nancy Fivecoate of Carter Tax Service in Russiaville, Ind. Fivecoate prepared the taxes without issue each time — until this year, when Brazzel brought her new wife, Samantha.

Fivecoate declined to serve the couple, citing her religious beliefs.

This was the first year the Brazzels, who wed in July, were filing jointly as a married couple. According to Samantha, Fivecoate explained that she believed marriage was between a man and a woman and that she would therefore not be able to prepare their taxes.

[…]

In a statement to NBC affiliate WTHR, Fivecoate presented a similar version of events and said that she “declined to prepare the taxes because of my religious beliefs.”

“I am a Christian and I believe marriage is between one man and one woman,” she said in the statement. “I was very respectful to them. I told them where I thought she might be able to get her taxes prepared.”

She added: “The LGBT want respect for their beliefs, which I give them. I did not say anything about their lifestyle. That is their choice. It is not my choice. Where is their respect for my beliefs?”

The last time I checked, there’s no place anywhere on the basic 1040 form that has anything to do with religious beliefs, “lifestyle,” or the respecting thereof.  (I’m sure there are forms that you fill out if you’re a religious organization so you can skip out paying taxes, but that’s for another post.)

What makes me sad is twofold: first, that the Brazzels had to take their business elsewhere through no fault of their own and were told “we don’t serve your kind here.”  People shouldn’t have to be forced to choose based on an irrelevancy, and the state of Indiana should be doing more to protect the basic human rights of its citizens than leaving it up to the locals.

The second sad is because this tax preparer is not doing her fellow Christians any favors by being a sniveling bigot.  Far be it from me to lecture them on how to behave in public — Quakers are silent on the matter [rimshot] — but proclaiming far and wide that Christians can be assholes even when it comes to accountancy says more about Fivecoates’ lack of compassion and understanding that are supposed to be key elements in that faith.

Or, to put it succinctly, if you want respect from others, respect them first.  And then do your job.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Touched

After the events of the last week — the capture of a mad bomber and the murders in the synagogue — it isn’t hard to imagine that a person would want to tune out and walk away.  To witness so much raw hatred and violence roaring at us, attacking us at the core of our beliefs, be they political or religious.  Both acts combine to touch all of us, to challenge us, and not just on those levels; they touched and harmed us all.

For me, there’s a very good chance that one of the victims at the shooting in Pittsburgh was a relative of friends of mine from my years at camp.  That hasn’t been confirmed, but even if she was not, she was someone’s family and they have been torn from the comfort of their faith and devastated at the most vulnerable level.  As for the bomber based in the suburbs of Miami and sending out his missives of hate, once again we’re seeing a distillation of differences of opinion turned into raw emotion, egged on by a heedless and self-centered narrative that only seeks to amplify the differences and make them poisonous.  And the ones who turned up the volume, provoked the anger, then stood aside as the rage built and turned to the rest of us and trotted out the false equivalencies, the “now is not the time,” or the maddening “yeah-but-what-about”-isms that include people being rude in restaurants as the same thing as mailing a pipe bomb.  Their cowardice and blame-shifting only makes it worse, and if you think the solution to murder in a synagogue is more guns, you have no business offering solutions.

Now is not the time to not talk about this and do something about it, and both karma and the calendar have brought us to the point where we can do something meaningful.  Eight days from today we have our moment to do something positive that will, at least in theory, make a change, and that’s voting.  It’s already going on in many places; I am getting bombarded with texts and e-mails reminding me that early voting is already underway here in Florida.  But this time I’m waiting until Election Day; I need to read up on the various amendments and local races because I do not intend to leave a single vote uncast.  So wherever you are, I recommend you do the same.  And if you’ve already voted, either in person or by mail, know that you have already done something that will make more of a difference and bring about more change than all the bombs and raging and murderous anti-Semites ever will.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Take A Turn For The Verse

Via the Washington Post:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a Bible verse Thursday to defend his department’s policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border from Mexico, suggesting that God supports the government in separating immigrant parents from their children.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Sessions said during a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

[…]

Government officials occasionally refer to the Bible as a line of argument — take, for instance, the Republicans who have quoted 2 Thessalonians, “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” to justify more stringent food stamps requirements — but the verse that Sessions cited, Romans 13, is an unusual choice.

“There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution. …

“The second spike you see is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong,” Fea said. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

Dictators and charlatans have used religion and the bible as the justification for their evil deeds since they first whipped up this collection of fantasy, mythology, and masochism and sold it as the literal word of a supernatural control freak.  It’s their way of saying, “Hey, it’s not my idea to emulate every other dictatorial regime; some burning bush told me to do it.”

The Hell with them all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

That Old Time Religion

It’s been almost forty years since Jerry Falwell and like-minded ministers saw gold in them thar GOP rubes and hitched their hallelujah wagons to the idea of becoming the busybodies of the nation and make a shitload of money while doing it.  It appeals to both their prurient instincts and their love of money, and it was all tax-free.  Yip-yah!

Now they’ve merged their holier-than-thou lust to the epitome of the conman in Trump who represents the id of these so-called pastors of the Lord: sex and power.  The number of preachers who have been caught with their hands on someone else’s wife or put a rent boy on their American Express has become so numerous that it borders on cliche, and the way they’ve raided the collection basket to feather their 16,000 sq ft “manses” raises the level of tacky to giddy heights. So of course they admire and excuse the excesses of Trump and support his political agenda.  He’s their idol.

It’s reaching the second generation.  Jerry Falwell, Jr. picked up his late daddy’s con with Liberty University, a diploma mill of hatred, bigotry, and superstition, and of course he’s a supporter of Trump. He had him speak to the rapturous crowds (and made attendance mandatory just in case someone had a fit of free will) and backs him on everything from hating the transgenders to booting out the Dreamers because, as we all know, Jesus hated Mexicans.

Not to be outdone by that Jerry-come-lately, though, we have Franklin Graham, the scion of the late Billy Graham who pioneered the path to fame by deigning to talk to presidents.  Now Mr. Graham is going around the country and rallying the foolish and the weak to the Trumpian cause because blatant hypocrisy is all the rage now and there’s always a collection basket at the door.  He’s even marching into the lion’s den of them all, California.

PASADENA, Calif. — Franklin Graham stood in a packed locker room at the Rose Bowl, surrounded by fellow evangelists, pastors, and his top Los Angeles donors. It was two weeks before the California primary, and Mr. Graham was urging them to take a stand against their state’s “blue wall.”

The blue wall of California, Mr. Graham told the gathering, represents secular values that have taken root on the country’s west coast.

“Progressive?” he went on, “That’s just another word for godless.” Now is the time for churches to “suck it up” and vote.

According to the article from the New York Times, Graham is finding big crowds and a lot of money in his hate speech about people who aren’t like Us.  He knows that people are looking for an excuse to justify the blaming of their self-wrought misfortunes on others and ratify the idea that a level playing field is biased against them.  Like a lot of charlatans, he’s very good at finding a problem and blaming it on someone else without offering any sort of solution other than prayer and a plea for more money.  He knows it works, too; it always has.

The exploitation of tribalism is as much a part of human nature as self-pity and flatulence.  It’s the root of nations and religion; we’re Us, they’re the Others, and because we have our self-doubts, they must always be seen as oppressors just waiting to pounce.  Here in this noble experiment of America, we tried to appeal to our better angels, striving for unity of purpose over identity by giving it a new one: a nation of laws, not tribes.  It has always been an uphill struggle; the massacre of the natives under the guise of Manifest Destiny, Reconstruction, the civil rights struggle, the Red Scare, the Cold War, the Sixties, the Southern Strategy, terrorism, and Trumpism have tested the simple concept that yes, we were serious about the idea that all of us are created equal and that we are all entitled to equal protection under the law.

In the case of Mr. Graham and his followers, he is seeking to exploit the fear and loathing that is inherent in the radical idea we should have learned in kindergarten: that it is meet, right, and our bounden duty to share our toys with others and help those who don’t have the same gifts granted by nature or God or whatever it is that gets you through the night.  The notion that Jesus, who, according to the mythology that they claim they hold dear, came along to lift up the least among us would endorse this hatred and Otherism wrapped in the flag and biblical verse should make even the most pious Christian blush with shame.

We have never made it through the nights of fear and loathing without lingering scars and a degree of PTSD, nor have we made it through good times and advancement without backlash from those who thought the status quo was just fine.  Roughly translated it comes out as “I want my country back.”  The problem with that is that it was never “my” country to begin with.  It is Ours.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sunday Reading

Beyond Parkland — Elaine Godfrey in The Atlantic on the students marching yesterday to raise awareness of gun violence beyond the mass shootings.

Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to express outrage at recent mass shootings in American schools, and to push Congress to enact stricter gun laws. But for many students in the U.S.—and especially students of color—gun violence at school isn’t the only problem. Rather, it’s the violence they face regularly in their homes and yards, in their neighborhoods and communities.

There hasn’t yet been a worldwide march focused on that kind of violence—so they made this one their own.

“I came all the way from Chicago to help change the violence that’s going on with school shootings,” said 16-year-old Kaiseona Lockhart. “And to let everyone know that there’s violence in Chicago.” Lockhart, who lives in Englewood, on Chicago’s south side, recently lost an uncle to gun violence. She’s part of a violence-prevention youth group affiliated with St. Sabina Church. “They trying to put us against each other. They’re trying to say that mass shootings and shootings, they don’t connect, but in reality, they both happen by a gun. We both want to change that.”

In the past month, the gun-control movement has found its voice in a ragtag group of eloquent, Twitter-savvy teenagers from suburban Florida. They survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this past Valentine’s Day that killed 17 of their peers and teachers and have since appeared on countless cable-news segments and magazine covers calling for stricter gun legislation.

Each of the recent mass shootings in the U.S. have followed a similar pattern—after the killings, there’s a nationwide pang of sadness, a hot flash of anger; but then, after several days of thoughts and prayer and Facebook debates, the conversation dies down. This one, though, seems to have had more staying power. That has a lot to do with the Parkland students themselves. “They’re photogenic and they’re loved by the media. They have a real message,” said David Hemenway, an economist and a professor of health policy at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, in an interview on Friday. “They were born in the Columbine-era, so their whole lives…they have to be trained to protect themselves against mass-killings. It’s crazy.”

But mass shootings, we know by now, are only a small fraction of total gun deaths in the United States. Roughly 1,077 people have been killed in mass shootings since 1966—176 of them children and teenagers. In 2017 alone, Chicago had nearly 3,000 shooting incidents, and 3,457 shooting victims. Between 2006 and 2015, more than 14,500 people were shot in Philadelphia, a rate of one shooting every six hours. About 20 percent of firearm homicides occur in the country’s 25 largest cities. And within cities, the Centers for Disease Control found that black Americans are, on average, eight times more likely to be killed by guns than white Americans.

Black Lives Matter and other groups have been advocating for stricter gun laws similar to those the marchers are demanding for years. But one of the reasons the march has gotten so much attention has to do with where mass shootings typically take place. “The massacre gives the opportunity to do something about this,” Hemenway said, adding, “I think the power structure is mostly white, and when white people are killed, it gets a little more attention.”

Jamin Cash, a 15-year-old at Parkway Center City Middle College in Philadelphia, told me he thinks the attention mass shootings receives is frustrating. “Not to sound insensitive, but it’s unfair that we have to go through this every day, and then something that happens just once [in] a while gets so much attention,” he said, sighing. “But we came.” Cash and several others from his school came to the march clad in matching white t-shirts with the words “Parkway for Parkland” emblazoned on the front above a red heart. On the back of the shirts were the results of a survey his teacher, Maureen Boland, had given to him and his 120 classmates. “56% have witnessed a shooting,” one line read. “60% have lost a blood relative to gun violence. 63% regularly worry about their safety because of guns.”

Cash told me that he’s actually been shot at more than once in his neighborhood. His classmate, Courtney Daniels, another 15 year old, said she recently had a close family friend fatally shot. “I’m hoping people notice that we need to be heard too, that we’re going through the same struggles those Parkland students went through,” Daniels told me. “Youth in general, not just those kids.”

In just one month since the Parkland shooting, the gun control movement has made some small gains: The Florida state legislature passed new firearm regulations, and the federal spending bill signed by President Trump on Friday contains modest steps toward tightening the nation’s gun laws, including the Fix NICS Act, which  strengthens the background-check system for gun purchases. Part of the package also includes a report clarifying that the CDC can conduct research on gun violence reversing a 22-year-old prohibition.

The March for Our Lives organizers, though, are pushing for bigger changes. They want elected officials to pass a federal ban the sale of so-called “assault weapons” like the AR-15s used in recent mass shootings in Parkland and Las Vegas, and prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines. While legislation like that might have prevented some mass shootings, those two proposals wouldn’t necessarily be top priority for reducing gun violence in urban areas, like Chicago or Philadelphia. After all, Cook County already has a ban assault weapons; semi-automatic handguns are the kind of weapon most commonly used in shootings.

The final item on the march organizers’ petition, though, could potentially reduce gun violence substantially. The organizers want legislators to require anyone purchasing a gun privately—through an individual exchange or a gunshow—to undergo a background check. Because so many guns are purchased privately by individuals and brought into Chicago from places with more lax gun laws like Indiana, experts say universal background checks could actually make a difference in reducing gun violence in cities. “This is an opportunity to get laws which can help everybody,” Hemenway said. “This is not, ‘Oh, let’s just try to protect white kids in white high schools and white areas.’ No, this provides the opportunity to really do something, to try to reduce gun trafficking.”

I watched the march on a jumbotron with Cash, Daniels, and the students from Philly under a cluster of magnolia trees near the rally site. One of the students, another ninth-grader named Brandon Palmer, had told me earlier about how his mother was recently held at gunpoint at the local bank where she works. “In our neighborhoods, this is our daily life,” he explained, his white Parkway for Parkland t-shirt tied around his head like Rambo. Palmer told me he was angry that it took a shooting like Parkland to get people energized about gun violence.

But when I asked if he was excited to be there, his face broke into a grin. “I feel like this is gonna be in the history books in the next couple years,” he said. “The future generations are gonna be learning about this.”

The Tragedy of Hubert Humphrey — Michael Brenes in The New York Times on what America would look like if Humphrey had won in 1968.

On Feb. 17, 1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey sent President Lyndon B. Johnson a memorandum stating the United States must begin an exit strategy in Vietnam: “It is always hard to cut losses. But the Johnson administration is in a stronger position to do so now that any administration in this century.” Johnson had trounced Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election — and thus, no longer had to prove he was tough on Communism — and the conflict had not developed into a full-blown war. “Nineteen sixty-five is the year of minimum political risk,” Humphrey wrote.

Humphrey gave Johnson the opportunity to change the course of history: By pulling out of Vietnam, he could have avoided opposition from his own party and seeing his vision for the Great Society jeopardized by a foreign war and his aspirations for nuclear disarmament between the Soviet Union and the United States thwarted.

Johnson ignored Humphrey’s advice. In fact, he was described as infuriated with the vice president; the day after receiving the memo, Johnson told his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that Humphrey should “stay out of the peacekeeping and negotiating field” on Vietnam.

The president went further, and more or less banned him from the Oval Office for the remainder of 1965. Humphrey lost his responsibilities in the administration on civil rights — the subject that elevated him to the Senate in 1948, when he told the Democrats at their national convention they needed to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Humphrey, who had long been the most prominent and productive liberal in the Senate — and the Democrat (other than Johnson) most responsible for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, seemingly vanished from the public eye overnight, In August 1965, the comedian and musician Tom Lehrer sang to a raucous audience, “Whatever Became of You, Hubert?”:

Whatever became of you, Hubert?
We miss you, so tell us, please:
Are you sad? Are you cross?
Are you gathering moss
While you wait for the boss to sneeze?

Vietnam destined Humphrey to a miserable four years as Johnson’s vice president. For his dissent against the war (his “disloyalty”), Humphrey suffered the brunt of Johnson’s unpredictable wrath. Humphrey’s advisers felt Johnson’s intimidating, dismissive treatment was the reason Humphrey reversed his position on Vietnam a year later: why he defended the war as a necessary fight against Communism that provided jobs, hope and prosperity to suffering Vietnamese. It was his only way back into his boss’s good graces.

Humphrey’s support for the war condemned him in history as a supporting player in the tragedy of Vietnam. The war alienated Humphrey from liberals, civil rights activists and young Americans — the same people who, for decades, had loved Humphrey for his support of racial justice, full employment and the labor movement — and ultimately cost him the presidency in 1968. Voters thought Humphrey meant continued war, while Richard Nixon promised “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”

But given what we now know the history of the Vietnam War after 1968, Hubert Humphrey — both his life and political career — deserves re-examination. Humphrey forces us to consider the history that might have been: the possibility of ending the Vietnam War before 1973, an expansion of the Great Society in the 1970s, a different America. Without Vietnam (and his being Johnson’s vice president), Humphrey might have won in 1968. The country — and the world — would be drastically different.

Hubert Humphrey arrived in the Senate in 1949 as a liberal in an illiberal institution. Southerners held the reins of power in Congress, and they hated Humphrey for his opposition to Jim Crow segregation and “that speech” at the Democratic National Convention.

While he was determined in his quest for social justice, his legislation often stalled in committee. He gravitated toward the one man who could help him: Lyndon Johnson. By 1954, Johnson needed Humphrey too — Johnson had become Senate majority leader and wanted liberals to fall behind his leadership; Johnson concluded Humphrey was the brightest and most pragmatic of them. It was a devil’s bargain: Johnson helped Humphrey with his relationships with Southerners, and Humphrey vowed to keep the liberals in line.

The partnership between Johnson and Humphrey was as close as that of two antagonists could be. When Johnson became president in November 1963, Humphrey ensured that the Civil Rights Act overcame the Senate filibuster the following summer. Johnson recognized Humphrey’s talents as a legislator and orator (“There are so many ways I envy you,” Johnson said in 1951), and chose Humphrey as his vice president in 1964 — but not before asking Humphrey for his backing (“unswerving loyalty,” as Humphrey recalled) on all his decisions. When Mississippi civil rights activists tried to force the Democratic Party to recognize them over the state’s official, segregationist delegation at the 1964 national convention, it was Humphrey who, on Johnson’s orders, made them back down.

Once in office, Humphrey tried to keep his commitment to Johnson, but on Vietnam his convictions conflicted with his promises. Humphrey had been suspicious of American involvement in Vietnam since the mid-1950s, but became more incredulous of the war’s success after meeting with the veteran intelligence officer Edward Lansdale in 1964, who argued that a political solution to the war was possible. Humphrey sent several memos to Johnson in 1964 implying Johnson should pull back on the conflict, and that he meet with Lansdale. Johnson dismissed each one.

Then, on Feb. 7, 1965, American forces were attacked at Pleiku and nine Americans were killed. Bundy, the national security adviser, sent panicked cables to Johnson demanding the United States retaliate. When Johnson asked Humphrey his thoughts on bombing North Vietnam, Humphrey responded, “Mr. President, I don’t think we should.” Johnson ordered the bombing anyway. Then Humphrey wrote his Feb. 17 memo, and his fate was sealed for 1965.

But Johnson gave Humphrey one last chance to prove his loyalty, sending him to South Vietnam in February 1966 (almost one year to the date of his memo). On that trip, after meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland, American and Vietnamese soldiers, and South Vietnamese civilians, Humphrey convinced himself of the truth he wanted to believe: Vietnam was winnable; it was a war for democracy; it represented a global mission for peace and prosperity.

Humphrey’s adviser Thomas Hughes recalled that Humphrey returned from Vietnam “saying things that were crazy” about the virtues of the war. In a meeting of the National Security Council in June 1966, Humphrey said, “I have come around reluctantly to accepting the wider bombing program.”

For two years, Humphrey seemed to genuinely believe that Vietnam was a necessary war, that it represented a fight against global poverty and Communist tyranny. Humphrey convinced Johnson he believed this, that he had changed, and was welcomed back into Johnson’s good graces. (After Humphrey encouraged Johnson’s staff members to send the president his speeches supporting the war, Humphrey was admitted to the president’s luncheons on Vietnam.)

But as he promoted the war to the American people (his main task after 1966), Humphrey was increasingly taunted by the antiwar movement. When Humphrey emerged as the Democratic candidate in 1968 — after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the upheaval at the Democratic National Convention — “Dump the Hump” became a common motto. Signs with slogans such as “Killer of Babies” and “Humphrey’s Johnson’s War Salesman” regularly greeted him on the campaign trail.

The protests agonized Humphrey. “All I had ever been as a liberal spokesman seemed lost, all that I had accomplished in significant programs was ignored. I felt robbed of my personal history,” he recalled.

On Sept. 30, 1968, Humphrey had enough of Johnson and his war, and in a speech in Salt Lake City he demanded a halt to the bombing. Humphrey called Johnson to warn him of the speech hours before. Johnson reacted coldly: “I take it you are not asking for my advice. You’re going to give the speech anyway.” Johnson then shunned Humphrey for the remainder of 1968 — indeed, the question remains whether Johnson favored Richard Nixon over Humphrey in the election, and whether Johnson’s hatred of Humphrey led to his loss.

But what if Humphrey had not been Johnson’s vice president — what if Humphrey remained in the Senate? What if Eugene McCarthy received the vice-presidential nomination in 1964 as he wanted? McCarthy would have become Humphrey: forced to defend America’s policy in Vietnam, and painted as a patsy for Johnson’s War. Humphrey would be the skeptic on Vietnam, and eventual vociferous critic — but also more palatable to the party establishment than McCarthy ever was. Divisions within the party would be united under a Humphrey candidacy in 1968, the wounds Vietnam opened among “New Democrats” healed by a Cold War liberal.

Humphrey could have won in 1968 under these circumstances. Would Humphrey have faced the same pressure as Nixon to end the war with “peace through honor?” Most likely, and certainly during his first term. But Humphrey would have immediately searched for a political solution to the war — for the conflict to end peacefully, and without further military commitment. Needless to say, he also would have continued to expand the Great Society, and not begin its long demolition, as Nixon did.

For these reasons, Humphrey represents the possibilities for a different history for the United States after 1968, particularly for Democrats looking today to rebuild their party and understand the mistakes of the past. Vietnam turned America’s leading liberal into a personification of liberalism’s failures. This is the tragedy of Hubert Humphrey and his Vietnam War — one that shapes Americans today.

Banned From Forbes: Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel — By Chris Ladd.

*This was originally posted to Forbes on Sunday, Mar 11. Forbes took it down today. This is the explanation I received from the editor. Here is the original article in full:

Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and an avid supporter of Donald Trump, earned headlines this week for his defense of the president’s adultery with a porn star. Regarding the affair and subsequent financial payments, Jeffress explained, “Even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter.”

Such a casual attitude toward adultery and prostitution might seem odd from a guy who blamed 9/11 on America’s sinfulness. However, seen through the lens of white evangelicals’ real priorities, Jeffress’ disinterest in Trump’s sordid lifestyle makes sense. Religion is inseparable from culture, and culture is inseparable from history. Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.

Many Christian movements take the title “evangelical,” including many African-American denominations. However, evangelicalism today has been coopted as a preferred description for Christians who were looking to shed an older, largely discredited title: Fundamentalist. A quick glance at a map showing concentrations of adherents and weekly church attendance reveals the evangelical movement’s center of gravity in the Old South. And among those evangelical churches, one denomination remains by far the leader in membership, theological pull, and political influence.

There is still today a Southern Baptist Church. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, and decades after the Methodists and Presbyterians reunited with their Yankee neighbors, America’s most powerful evangelical denomination remains defined, right down to the name over the door, by an 1845 split over slavery.

Southern denominations faced enormous social and political pressure from plantation owners. Public expressions of dissent on the subject of slavery in the South were not merely outlawed, they were a death sentence. Baptist ministers who rejected slavery, like South Carolina’s William Henry Brisbane, were forced to flee to the North. Otherwise, they would end up like Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, who was lynched in Texas in 1860, his bones left exposed at local store to be played with by children. Whiteness offered protection from many of the South’s cruelties, but that protection stopped at the subject of race. No one who dared speak truth to power on the subject of slavery, or later Jim Crow, could expect protection.

Generation after generation, Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation. Preachers learned to tailor their message to protect themselves. If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee.

What developed in the South was a theology carefully tailored to meet the needs of a slave state. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. A book constructed around the central metaphor of slaves finding their freedom was reinterpreted. Messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race, constrained the authority of property owners, or inspired some interest in the poor or less fortunate could not be taught from a pulpit. Any Christian suggestion of social justice was carefully and safely relegated to “the sweet by and by” where all would be made right at no cost to white worshippers. In the forge of slavery and Jim Crow, a Christian message of courage, love, compassion, and service to others was burned away.

Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness, along with a creepy obsession with the unquestionable sexual authority of white men. In a culture where race defined one’s claim to basic humanity, women took on a special religious interest. Christianity’s historic emphasis on sexual purity as a form of ascetic self-denial was transformed into an obsession with women and sex. For Southerners, righteousness had little meaning beyond sex, and sexual mores had far less importance for men than for women. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race. There was no higher moral demand.

Changes brought by the Civil War only heightened the need to protect white racial superiority. Churches were the lynchpin of Jim Crow. By the time the Civil Rights movement gained force in the South, Dallas’ First Baptist Church, where Jeffress is the pastor today, was a bulwark of segregation and white supremacy. As the wider culture nationally has struggled to free itself from the burdens of racism, white evangelicals have fought this development while the violence escalated. What happened to ministers who resisted slavery happened again to those who resisted segregation. White Episcopal Seminary student, Jonathan Daniels, went to Alabama in 1965 to support voting rights protests. After being released from jail, he was murdered by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, who was acquitted by a jury. Dozens of white activists joined the innumerable black Americans murdered fighting for civil rights in the 60’s, but very few of them were Southern.

White Evangelical Christians opposed desegregation tooth and nail. Where pressed, they made cheap, cosmetic compromises, like Billy Graham’s concession to allow black worshipers at his crusades. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” For white Southern evangelicals, justice and compassion belong only to the dead.

Churches like First Baptist in Dallas did not become stalwart defenders of segregation by accident. Like the wider white evangelical movement, it was then and remains today an obstacle to Christian notions of social justice thanks to a long, dismal heritage. There is no changing the white evangelical movement without a wholesale reconsideration of their theology. No sign of such a reckoning is apparent.

Those waiting to see the bottom of white evangelical cruelty have little source of optimism. Men like Pastor Jeffress can dismiss Trump’s racist abuses as easily as they dismiss his fondness for porn stars. When asked about Trump’s treatment of immigrants, Jeffress shared these comments:

Solving DACA without strengthening borders ignores the teachings of the Bible. In fact, Christians who support open borders, or blanket amnesty, are cherry-picking Scriptures to suit their own agendas.

For those unfamiliar with Christian scriptures, it might helpful to point out what Jesus reportedly said about this subject, and about the wider question of our compassion for the poor and the suffering:

Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.

What did Jesus say about abortion, the favorite subject of Jeffress and the rest of the evangelical movement? Nothing. What does the Bible say about abortion, a practice as old as civilization? Nothing. Not one word. The Bible’s exhortations to compassion for immigrants and the poor stretch long enough to comprise a sizeable book of their own, but no matter. White evangelicals will not let their political ambitions be constrained by something as pliable as scripture.

Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants. White men are not kept from attending college by laws persecuting Dreamers. White evangelical Christianity has a bottomless well of compassion for the interests of straight white men, and not a drop to be spared for anyone else at their expense. The cruelty of white evangelical churches in politics, and in their treatment of their own gay or minority parishioners, is no accident. It is an institution born in slavery, tuned to serve the needs of Jim Crow, and entirely unwilling to confront either of those realities.

Men like Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy group, are trying to reform the Southern Baptist church in increments, much like Billy Graham before him. His statements on subjects like the Confederate Flag and sexual harassment are bold, but only relative to previous church proclamations. He’s still about three decades behind the rest of American culture in recognition of the basic human rights of the country’s non-white, non-male citizens. Resistance he is facing from evangelicals will continue so long as the theology informing white evangelical religion remains unconsidered and unchallenged.

While white evangelical religion remains dedicated to its roots, it will perpetuate its heritage. What this religious heritage produced in the 2016 election, when white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump by a record margin, is the truest expression of its moral character.

You will know a tree by its fruit.

Doonesbury — Appointment TV.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Graham’s Legacy

As noted in Short Takes, Billy Graham shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 99.  The commentariat is full of remembrances of “America’s pastor” and how he gave advice to presidents starting back in the 1950’s and how he gave comfort to millions through his ministry.

But he also gave rise to the horde of hucksters, bigots, and thieves disguised as ministers who raked in millions of tax-free dollars from the gullible while peddling bullshit bottled as salvation.  He also endowed his son Franklin with a nasty right-wing agenda of arrogant hatred; Torquemada in Prada.

That’s not to say that without Billy Graham there wouldn’t have been evil masquerading as holiness; some other enterprising Elmer Gantry would have emerged just as easily in our get-rich-quick culture of ballyhoo and miracle cures.  But I’d just as soon he had stuck to some other line of work.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Reading

Fox Evangelism — Amy Sullivan in The New York Times on how evangelical Christians have sold their soul for political expediency.

To hear the Christian right tell it, President Trump should be a candidate for sainthood — that is, if evangelicals believed in saints.

“Never in my lifetime have we had a Potus willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like Donald Trump,” tweeted Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham. The Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress sees a divine hand at work: “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose.”

Testimonials like this confound critics who label conservative evangelical figures like Mr. Graham and Mr. Jeffress hypocrites for embracing a man who is pretty much the human embodiment of the question “What would Jesus not do?”

But what those critics don’t recognize is that the nationalistic, race-baiting, fear-mongering form of politics enthusiastically practiced by Mr. Trump and Roy Moore in Alabama is central to a new strain of American evangelicalism. This emerging religious worldview — let’s call it “Fox evangelicalism” — is preached from the pulpits of conservative media outlets like Fox News. It imbues secular practices like shopping for gifts with religious significance and declares sacred something as worldly and profane as gun culture.

Journalists and scholars have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics, but we largely missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself. As a progressive evangelical and journalist covering religion, I’m as guilty as any of not noticing what was happening. We kept asking how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity. But that was never the issue. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.

Consider the so-called War on Christmas, which the president has made a pet crusade. Mr. Trump has been sharing Christmas greetings since October, well before decorations had even shown up in most stores, when the Values Voter Summit crowd gave him a standing ovation for declaring, “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again!” He has spent November and December taking victory laps, telling crowds at political rallies in Utah and Florida that “Christmas is back, better and bigger than ever before.”

Every one of Mr. Trump’s predecessors declared “Merry Christmas,” too — including Barack Obama, whose message at last year’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony was virtually indistinguishable from Mr. Trump’s. What matters to Fox evangelicals, though, is not that Mr. Trump observes Christmas but that he casts himself as the defender of the Christian holiday.

From the beginning, the War on Christmas was a homegrown Fox News cause, introduced by the so-named 2005 book by John Gibson, a former Fox News host, and promoted annually by Bill O’Reilly. But it was never really a religious argument. Mr. O’Reilly and company weren’t occupied with defending belief in the Virgin Birth or worrying that the celebration of Christ’s birth had become too commercialized.

In an irony appreciated by anyone who remembers the original anti-consumption, anti-Santa meaning of the “Reason for the Season” slogan, Fox and allies like the American Family Association focused on getting more Christmas into stores and shopping malls. For more than a decade, Fox News hosts have kept viewers updated on which stores were “in the Christmas spirit,” and the American Family Association, which operates nearly 200 radio stations in the United States, maintains its very own “naughty and nice” list for retailers.

As a result, the War on Christmas has moved one of the holiest Christian days out of the church and into the secular realm. That may suit conservative activists who promote Christian nationalism and want to see Christianity officially dominate the public sphere. But at a time when a new Pew Research Center study shows that only about half of those Americans who celebrate Christmas plan to do so as a religious holiday, the War on Christmas may be damaging Christian witness by elevating performative secular practices.

These days, even though Mr. O’Reilly declared “victory” last year in the War on Christmas, Fox News still gives the supposed controversy wall-to-wall coverage and has folded it into the network’s us-versus-them, nationalist programming. The regular Fox News viewer, whether or not he is a churchgoer, takes in a steady stream of messages that conflate being white and conservative and evangelical with being American.

The power of that message may explain the astonishing findings of a survey released this month by LifeWay Research, a Christian organization based in Nashville. LifeWay’s researchers developed questions meant to get at both the way Americans self-identify religiously and their theological beliefs. What they discovered was that while one-quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “evangelical,” less than half of that group actually holds traditional evangelical beliefs. For others, “evangelical” effectively functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning.

But if the conservative media has created a category of Fox evangelical converts, it has also influenced the way a whole generation of churchgoing evangelicals thinks about God and faith. On no issue is this clearer than guns.

In fall 2015, I visited Trinity Bible College, an Assemblies of God-affiliated school in North Dakota, to join the conservative evangelical students there for a screening of “The Armor of Light,” a documentary by the filmmaker Abigail Disney. The film followed the pastor and abortion opponent Rob Schenck on his quest to convince fellow evangelicals — the religious demographic most opposed to gun restrictions — that pro-life values are incompatible with an embrace of unrestricted gun access. I found Mr. Schenck compelling, and my editor had sent me to see if his target audience bought the arguments.

It did not.

As two dozen of us gathered for a post-screening discussion, I was both astonished and troubled, as a fellow evangelical, by the visceral sense of fear that gripped these young adults. As a child in the Baptist church, I had been taught to be vigilant about existential threats to my faith. But these students in a town with a population of some 1,200 saw the idea of a home invasion or an Islamic State attack that would require them to take a human life in order to save others as a certainty they would face, not a hypothetical.

These fears are far removed from the reality of life in North Dakota, a state that saw a total of 21 homicides in 2015. Of those deaths, seven were caused by firearms, and only three were committed by someone unknown to the victim. Yet the students around me agreed unreservedly with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, who was seen in the film asserting that “in the world around us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers.”

This worldview is familiar to anyone who has spent time watching Fox News, where every day viewers are confronted with threats to their way of life. It’s also profoundly un-Christian. One of the most consistent messages of the Bible is the exhortation “Do not be afraid!” Before young evangelicals can read, we memorize verses reminding us to “be strong and courageous” and “trust in the Lord.” “Fear,” says Mr. Schenck in the documentary, “should not be a controlling element in the life of a Christian.”

Fear and distrust of outsiders — in conflict with numerous biblical teachings to “welcome the stranger” — also explain Fox evangelicals’ strong support for the Trump administration’s efforts to bar refugees and restrict travel to the United States from several majority-Muslim nations. After Mr. Trump’s initial executive orders during his first week in office, more than 100 evangelical leaders, including the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, published a full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the refugee ban and urging the president to reconsider. But those leaders didn’t speak for most white evangelicals, three-quarters of whom told Pew pollsters they supported the refugee and travel bans.

That disconnect underscores the challenge many pastors face in trying to shepherd congregants who are increasingly alienated from traditional Gospel teachings. “A pastor has about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture,” said Jonathan Martin, an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer. “They’ve been exposed to Fox News potentially three to four hours a day.”

It’s meaningful, Mr. Martin says, that scions of the religious right like Jerry Falwell Jr. are not pastors like their fathers. “There was a lot I didn’t agree with him on, but I’m confident that it was important to Senior” — Jerry Falwell — “that he grounded his beliefs in Scripture,” Mr. Martin said. “Now the Bible’s increasingly irrelevant. It’s just ‘us versus them.’”

The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.

“It explains how much evangelicals have moved the goal post,” said Mr. Martin. “If there’s not a moral theology or ethic to it, but it’s about playing for the right team, you can do anything and still be on the right side.”

Three views of the Republican tax bill and the ramifications for America.

The Hairball — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on how the tax bill got through.

Grant the Republican Party leaders one thing: their tactics in passing their hugely unpopular tax bill have been consistent—consistently evasive. A few weeks ago, the Senate version of the bill was passed in the middle of the night. This weekend, the final iteration of the legislation was made public on Friday evening—a traditional dumping ground for bad news. The Republicans intend to hold votes on the bill early next week in both houses of Congress, and it seems certain to pass.

It is hardly surprising that Republicans don’t want to give anyone too much time to look closely at their latest handiwork. The final tax bill is the product of a conference committee that was tasked with reconciling the different bills passed in the House and the Senate. Almost eleven hundred pages long, the final bill is just as regressive and fiscally irresponsible as either of the two earlier bills, and it is arguably more so. At its center is a huge tax cut for corporations and unincorporated business partnerships—such as the ones that Donald Trump owns—while arrayed around the edges are all sorts of carve-outs and giveaways to favored industries and interest groups.

For individual households, the bill contains some tax cuts and expanded family credits. But these provisions are temporary, and they are also partially offset by changes to the rules about deductions. Because the deduction for state and local taxes will be limited to ten thousand dollars a year, for instance, some upper-middle-class households in states like California and New York could end up paying more to the federal government.

Nowhere to be found in the bill are three elements that House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and their colleagues originally promised to deliver when they urged the American public to embrace tax reform: revenue neutrality, simplicity, and fairness. The final bill is a corrupt, budget-busting hairball.

According to its authors, the bill will increase the budget deficit by about $1.5 trillion over ten years. That’s a lot of money, obviously, but it’s an underestimate. If you adjust the numbers for a series of accounting gimmicks, such as expiration provisions that are unlikely to go into effect, the real cost seems likely to come out at more than two trillion dollars.

To insure that the final bill would have enough votes in both chambers, the conference committee larded the bill with various additional handouts. They reduced the top rate of income tax to thirty-seven per cent, compared to 38.5 per cent in the Senate bill. (Currently, the effective top rate is close to forty-one per cent.) And they did a big favor to large businesses by getting rid of the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax, which many of them could have ended up paying because their tax rates under the new system will be so low.

The principle of simplifying the tax code met the same fate as the principle of fiscal responsibility: it was jettisoned. Originally, the White House proposed reducing the number of tax brackets from seven to three. The final bill contains seven brackets: ten per cent, twelve per cent, twenty-two per cent, twenty-four per cent, thirty-two per cent, thirty-five per cent, and thirty-seven per cent. On the business side, the revised treatment of pass-through income is so complicated that most tax experts don’t yet fully understand it. One thing we do know is that it will create big incentives for highly paid employees to turn themselves into independent contractors or L.L.C.s, which qualify for the new low business tax rates.

As for fairness, that principle was junked a long time ago. The final bill reflects the same principle as the previous two G.O.P. bills: Dom Perignon for the plutocrats, cheap swill for the masses. The bill is also cruel. In abolishing the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to purchase health insurance, it will make individual plans even more costly and more difficult to obtain, especially for sick people. This isn’t just a tax bill. It is a backdoor effort to overturn the principle of universal access to health care.

As reporters went through the bill on Friday evening, they discovered various quirks, giveaways, and clawbacks, which appeared to reflect last-minute lobbying and rushed rewriting. Businesses owned by trusts were given a break, and so were architectural and engineering firms. On the personal side, the bill was found to contain a substantial marriage penalty: the maximum deduction of ten thousand dollars for state and local taxes is the same for individual filers and couples. That’s bad news for people who are wed—though the blow will be cushioned for those married couples who own sports franchises. The Wall Street Journalreported on Friday night that the bill “preserves the ability to use tax-exempt bonds for professional sports stadium bonds—a priority for Mr. Trump, a GOP aide said.”

Another provision, which wasn’t in the House or Senate bills, allows real-estate developers who own buildings through L.L.C.s, as Trump does, to deduct twenty per cent of the income that these properties generate. To qualify for the break, the properties have to be newish ones that haven’t been fully depreciated. “This helps people who have held property for a while, like Donald Trump,” David Kamin, a law professor at New York University, told David Sirota and Josh Keefe, of the International Business Times.

Another beneficiary of this provision may well be Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, who is also a real-estate investor. Corker had been the only Republican to vote against the Senate version of the tax bill, but on Friday he announced that he’d changed his mind, and that “after great thought and consideration, I believe this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss.” Corker didn’t mention his personal interests, but Sirota and Keefe did. “Federal records reviewed by IBT show that Corker has millions of dollars of ownership stakes in real-estate-related LLCs that could also benefit” from the final bill, they reported.

Sham and Con — Charles P. Pierce on the tax bill.

And, in the end, they all folded like cheap suits because empty suits are the easiest to fold. Friend of the kids Marco Rubio took a dive, and deficit hawk Bob Corker followed him into the tank. The vastly unpopular—and economically disastrous—tax bill likely will pass the Senate because senators come pretty cheaply these days, and accommodations are easily made when you know the only constituency worth your time is your donors, and when you know all the math in the monstrosity is 90 percent fudge anyway. From The New York Times:

The unexpected support from Mr. Corker, who had opposed the initial Senate legislation over concerns about its impact on the deficit, put the Republicans on the one-yard line in the final seconds of the tax bill debate. Lawmakers plan to vote next week with the aim of getting a bill to President Trump by Christmas. On Friday, as details emerged about the final bill, it became clear that the agreement would provide slightly more generous tax breaks to low- and middle-income Americans by reducing some benefits for higher earners, one of several tweaks intended to solve the budget problems standing between the bill’s passage and President Trump’s desk, according to people briefed on the final plan. With the finish line to their first legislative victory in sight, Republican negotiators agreed to provide a more generous child tax credit in the final bill to shore up support from Mr. Rubio, who said he would not vote for the legislation unless it provided more help to lower-income Americans.

It’s a sham and a con, and it was a sham and a con when Rubio and Corker were pretending to be so very bothered about what a sham and a con it is. There has been some tinkering, because senators come cheaply these days, but it’s still a vaporous collection of unmoored nostrums in search of a magic asterisk. I mean, listen to Corker. A Swiss Army Knife looks less like a tool.

Mr. Corker, a longtime deficit hawk, said he was swayed to support the bill as the result of “many conversations over the past several days with individuals from both sides of the aisle across Tennessee and around the country.” Mr. Corker said the bill “is far from perfect, and left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit and far less would have been done on the individual side with items that do not generate economic growth.”

Shut up. Just shut up. You know that “bipartisan consensus” always was impossible on this dog’s breakfast and you know why, too. Your party and its owners didn’t want any part of it. Go back to Tennessee and explain to your former constituents where their healthcare went.

New details from the text, shared with The New York Times on Friday, reveal that lawmakers offset other last-minute changes to the bill — such as eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax and lowering the top individual tax rate to 37 percent from 39.6 percent today — through slight adjustments, not sweeping changes. And it was still unclear how they were going to pay for the entire package, which can add no more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit if it is to pass without Democrat support.

Christamighty, they’re not even trying hard any more. Just get a big truck and deliver the cash on pallets to the only people in this country who really matter to you. If you’re lucky, they won’t make you use the servant’s entrance. But get it while you can, fellas. Beggar’s Day is coming, and right soon.

And They’re Screwing Puerto Rico — AJ Vicens in Mother Jones on how the tax bill rips off the hurricane-devastated territory even more.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that Republicans’ decision to leave a pair of provisions in the tax reform legislation that experts say will hammer Puerto Rico’s already struggling economy was “unconscionable.”

“It is devastating and unconscionable that Congress would do this at this juncture,” Rosselló told NBC News after it was clear the provisions remained in the bill.

Republicans released the latest version of their bill Friday evening and plan to vote it out of the House and Senate early next week. The tax bill, as written, would include taxes on payments between US companies and their foreign subsidiaries and profits from intellectual property. At a Friday news conference in San Juan, Rosselló called the tax reform plan “a huge blow for Puerto Rico,” according to Caribbean Business, and, the paper writes, the bill would have an “adverse impact” on 50 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, 30 percent of the government’s revenue, and 250,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Rosselló’s administration estimates that recovery from Hurricanes Irma and María will cost roughly $95 billion. The island was already grappling with more than $72 billion in outstanding debt, $49 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and a 45 percent unemployment rate, the result of a decade-long economic downturn. That crisis had already fueled an exodus of roughly 400,000 people over the last decade, a trend that has only intensified since the hurricanes.

Carlos Mercader, the director of Rosselló’s office in Washington, DC, tells Mother Jones the Republican decision was “shameful” and reflects the island’s lack of status in Washington when big decisions are made. “We’ve had many congressmen coming down to Puerto Rico, visiting the island, being amazed by the incredible devastation,” says Mercader. “They’ve been the most empathetic people in the world. But it’s all words, no actions. When actions need to come, this is what they do.”

In an attempt to make it harder for US companies to avoid US taxes via foreign subsidiaries, the bill would impose a 20 percent excise tax on payments from US companies to their foreign subsidiaries. For tax purposes, the IRS sometimes considers Puerto Rico and the other territories foreign countries. That shift could cause the US pharmaceutical industry, which generates billions of dollars in revenue and employs tens of thousands of workers on the island, to shift production out of Puerto Rico.

According to BloombergPoliticsthe way the current law works allows US companies to buy their own products from Puerto Rican subsidiaries and avoid regular income taxes, and pay just 4 percent in excise tax to the island’s government, as long as the money from that subsidiary is kept offshore. The arrangement has been a “paradise” for US drug makers and, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that drug companies and medical device manufacturers account for nearly 30 percent of the island’s GDP.

Rosselló said Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “turned a blind eye” on Puerto Rico. “I will be very active and I’m sure my colleagues will be very active, in different Puerto Rican populations or Latino populations and make sure everyone knows we were treated as second-class citizens,” the governor said.

Doonesbury — Creatures of habit.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

It’s Not Just A Cake

David Brooks does his kumbaya business on gay rights, wedding cakes, and not making a scene.

Five years ago, Charlie Craig and David Mullins walked into a bakery in a strip mall in Lakewood, Colo., to ask about a cake for their wedding. The baker, Jack Phillips, replied: “I’ll make you birthday cakes, shower cakes, cookies, brownies. I just can’t make a cake for a same-sex wedding.”

As Adam Liptak of The Times reported, Phillips is a Christian and believes that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. Phillips is not trying to restrict gay marriage or gay rights; he’s simply asking not to be forced to take part.

Craig and Mullins were understandably upset. As Mullins told Liptak, “We were mortified and just felt degraded.” Nobody likes to be refused service just because of who they essentially are. In a just society people are not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

At this point, Craig and Mullins had two possible courses of action, the neighborly and the legal.

The neighborly course would have been to use this situation as a community-building moment. That means understanding the concrete circumstance they were in.

First, it’s just a cake.  It’s not like they were being denied a home or a job, or a wedding. A cake looks good in magazines, but it’s not an important thing in a marriage. Second, Phillips’s opinion is not a strange opinion. Barack Obama was elected president arguing that a marriage was between a man and a woman. Most good-hearted Americans believed this until a few years ago. Third, the tide of opinion is quickly swinging in favor of gay marriage. Its advocates have every cause to feel confident, patient and secure.

Okay, let me stop you right there.  Would you have told Rosa Parks “It’s just a seat on a bus”?  It’s not just a cake.  It’s a symbol of Mr. Phillips’ purposeful disregard for the laws of his state, which prohibit discrimination in public accommodation.  That includes baking a cake.  So Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullin had every right to take him to court.

Given that context, the neighborly approach would be to say: “Fine, we won’t compel you to do something you believe violates your sacred principles. But we would like to hire you to bake other cakes for us. We would like to invite you into our home for dinner and bake with you, so you can see our marital love, and so we can understand your values. You still may not agree with us, after all this, but at least we’ll understand each other better and we can live more fully in our community.”

The legal course, by contrast, was to take the problem out of the neighborhood and throw it into the court system. The legal course has some advantages. You can use state power, ultimately the barrel of a gun, to compel people to do what you think is right. There are clearly many cases in which the legal course is the right response (Brown v. Board of Education).

But the legal course has some disadvantages. It is inherently adversarial. It takes what could be a conversation and turns it into a confrontation. It is dehumanizing. It ends persuasion and relies on the threat of state coercion. It is elitist. It takes a situation that could be addressed concretely on the ground and throws it up, as this one now has been, to the Supreme Court, where it will be decided by a group of Harvard and Yale law grads.

And I’m sure that if the students at Little Rock in 1957 had said, “So you don’t want us in your school?  Well, come on over and let us show you that we’re just folks; we’ll make a nice dinner and sit on the front porch and watch the lightning bugs and you’ll see that we’re no different than you,” Central High would still be segregated, the buses in Birmingham would have back seats for coloreds, and we’d still be hearing how our nation would evolve to natural integration where everyone would get along without all that outside agitation and messy lawsuits.

It’s not just a cake.  It’s not about baking a cake.  It’s not about the freedom of religion, either, because the right to exercise your religious beliefs has to end when it tramples the rights of others to live their lives without being made to feel as if they are somehow less than the rest of society.  If you don’t want to bake a cake for gay people, then don’t open a bakery that is licensed by the state to serve the public.

And if you think that baking a cake for a couple somehow demeans or diminishes your faith, then perhaps you should take the time to re-examine your faith.

Readers of this column know that I fervently support gay marriage, but I don’t think bakers like Jack Phillips are best brought along by the iron fist of the state. I don’t think the fabric of this country will be repaired through the angry confrontation of lawyers. In this specific situation, the complex art of neighborliness is our best way forward.

Then perhaps Mr. Phillips would be well-advised to remember the biblical admonishment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  And bake the cake.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Jack In The Pulpit

Part of the Trump/GOP tax plan is the repeal of the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and religious organizations from endorsing political candidates.

This is seen as big wet kiss to the Religious Right, who have been skating around the edge of violating the law since Jerry Falwell and the ironically-named Moral Majority got a boner for Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.  These “family values” folks have been doing it ever since, fighting against Roe v. Wade, gay rights, women’s rights, language on TV, and just about anything else you can think of that might upset Aunt Pittypat, all with little or no success: abortion rights are under attack but Roe v. Wade is still standing, same-sex marriage is just plain marriage, and you can say “penis” on “The Big Bang Theory.”

So whether or not the Johnson Amendment’s repeal will either make any difference on the Religious Right’s crusade to be America’s busybodies and boost the prospects of anti-abortion candidates who pay for their mistress’s D&C or keep the raging homophobes with a MANHUNT.net account out of elective office is an even bet.

I do think, however, that rubber hose is on to something: be careful what you wish for, Pat Robertson.

If that Amendment were repealed, the biggest change would be that other religious groups–groups that have not been trying to circumvent the Johnson Amendment–would finally be unshackled to oppose the religious right’s agenda. The only reason the religious right is pushing for a repeal is because it thinks this is a Christian majority country (which is true), that they represent most Christians (which, I think, is false), and that there are enough of their kind of Christians to overwhelm other Christians plus members of other religions (which is definitely false).

Not just Christians, either.  There are any number of religious groups in this country who could stand up and be counted: Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and so on would be free to make themselves heard and endorse candidates who oppose the Jesus-shouter agenda.  (Quakers have been doing it for decades; we’ve just kept comparatively quiet about it.)

Put that in your collection plate.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Random Thought

Conservatives and Christian zealots applauded when a county clerk in Kentucky defied the law based on her religious beliefs, and they’re about to elect a senator in Alabama who ordered judges in that state to also defy the law based on his religious beliefs. But they got their tits in an uproar about a silent protest that breaks no law and is in keeping with various religious traditions including Mennonite, Quaker, and Amish.

What am I missing here?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Reading

Slow Learner — Robin Wright in The New Yorker on Trump’s dangerous cluelessness.

Max Boot, a lifelong conservative who advised three Republican Presidential candidates on foreign policy, keeps a folder labelled “Trump Stupidity File” on his computer. It’s next to his “Trump Lies” file. “Not sure which is larger at this point,” he told me this week. “It’s neck-and-neck.”

Six months into the Trump era, foreign-policy officials from eight past Administrations told me they are aghast that the President is still so witless about the world. “He seems as clueless today as he was on January 20th,” Boot, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Trump’s painful public gaffes, they warn, indicate that he’s not reading, retaining, or listening to his Presidential briefings. And the newbie excuse no longer flies.

“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.”

Criticism of Donald Trump among Democrats who served in senior national-security positions is predictable and rife. But Republicans—who are historically ambitious on foreign policy—are particularly pained by the President’s missteps and misstatements. So are former senior intelligence officials who have avoided publicly criticizing Presidents until now.

“The President has little understanding of the context”—of what’s happening in the world—“and even less interest in hearing the people who want to deliver it,” Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, told me. “He’s impatient, decision-oriented, and prone to action. It’s all about the present tense. When he asks, ‘What the hell’s going on in Iraq?’ people around him have learned not to say, ‘Well, in 632 . . . ’ ” (That was the year when the Prophet Muhammad died, prompting the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split.*)

“He just doesn’t have an interest in the world,” Hayden said.

I asked top Republican and intelligence officials from eight Administrations what they thought was the one thing the President needs to grasp to succeed on the world stage. Their various replies: embrace the fact that the Russians are not America’s friends. Don’t further alienate the Europeans, who are our friends. Encourage human rights—a founding principle of American identity—and don’t make priority visits to governments that curtail them, such as Poland and Saudi Arabia. Understand that North Korea’s nuclear program can’t be outsourced to China, which can’t or won’t singlehandedly fix the problem anyway, and realize that military options are limited. Pulling out of innovative trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will boost China’s economy and secure its global influence—to America’s disadvantage. Stop bullying his counterparts. And put the Russia case behind him by coöperating with the investigation rather than trying to discredit it.

Trump’s latest blunder was made during an appearance in the Rose Garden with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on July 25th. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” Trump pronounced. He got the basics really wrong. Hezbollah is actually part of the Lebanese government—and has been for a quarter century—with seats in parliament and Cabinet posts. Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel Aoun, has been allied with Hezbollah for a decade. As Trump spoke, Hezbollah’s militia and the Lebanese Army were fighting ISIS and an Al Qaeda affiliate occupying a chunk of eastern Lebanon along its border with Syria. They won.

The list of other Trump blunders is long. In March, he charged that Germany owed “vast sums” to the United States for NATO. It doesn’t. No NATO member pays the United States—and never has—so none is in arrears. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in April, Trump claimed that Korea “actually used to be part of China.” Not true. After he arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, in May, Trump said that he had just come from the Middle East. (Did he even look at a map?) During his trip to France, in July, the President confused Napoleon Bonaparte, the diminutive emperor who invaded Russia and Egypt, with Napoleon III, who was France’s first popularly elected President, oversaw the design of modern Paris, and is still the longest-serving head of state since the French Revolution (albeit partly as an emperor, too). And that’s before delving into his demeaning tweets about other world leaders and flashpoints.

“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me—and I had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration, told me.

Trump’s White House has also flubbed basics. It misspelled the name of Britain’s Prime Minister three times in its official schedule of her January visit. After it dropped the “H” in Theresa May, several British papers noted that Teresa May is a soft-porn actress best known for her films “Leather Lust” and “Whitehouse: The Sex Video.” In a statement last month, the White House called Xi Jinping the President of the “Republic of China”—which is the island of Taiwan—rather than the leader of the People’s Republic, the Communist mainland. The two nations have been epic rivals in Asia for more than half a century. The White House also misidentified Shinzo Abe as the President of Japan—he’s the Prime Minister—and called the Prime Minister of Canada “Joe” instead of Justin Trudeau.

Trump’s policy mistakes, large and small, are taking a toll. “American leadership in the world—how do I phrase this, it’s so obvious, but apparently not to him—is critical to our success, and it depends eighty per cent on the credibility of the President’s word,” John McLaughlin, who worked at the C.I.A. under seven Presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, and ended up as the intelligence agency’s acting director, told me. “Trump thinks having a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago bought him a relationship with Xi Jinping. He came in as the least prepared President we’ve had on foreign policy,” McLaughlin added. “Our leadership in the world is slipping away. It’s slipping through our hands.”

And a world in dramatic flux compounds the stakes. Hayden cited the meltdown in the world order that has prevailed since the Second World War; the changing nature of the state and its power; China’s growing military and economic power; and rogue nations seeking nuclear weapons, among others. “Yet the most disruptive force in the world today is the United States of America,” the former C.I.A. director said.

The closest similarity to the Trump era was the brief Warren G. Harding Administration, in the nineteen-twenties, Philip Zelikow, who worked for the Reagan and two Bush Administrations, and who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told me. Harding, who died, of a heart attack, after twenty-eight months in office, was praised because he stood aside and let his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, lead the way. Hughes had already been governor of New York, a Supreme Court Justice, and the Republican Presidential nominee in 1916, losing narrowly to Woodrow Wilson, who preceded Harding.

Under Trump, the White House has seized control of key foreign-policy issues. The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real-estate developer, has been charged with brokering Middle East peace, navigating U.S.-China relations, and the Mexico portfolio. In April, Kushner travelled to Iraq to help chart policy against ISIS. Washington scuttlebutt is consumed with tales of how Trump has stymied his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil.

“The national-security system of the United States has been tested over a period of seventy years,” John Negroponte, the first director of national security and a former U.N. Ambassador, told me. “President Trump disregards the system at his peril.”

Trump’s contempt for the U.S. intelligence community has also sparked alarm. “I wish the President would rely more on, and trust more, the intelligence agencies and the work that is produced, sometimes at great risk to individuals around the world, to inform the Commander-in-Chief,” Mitchell Reiss, who was chief of the State Department’s policy-planning team under Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me.

Republican critics are divided on whether Trump can grow into the job. “Trump is completely irredeemable,” Eliot A. Cohen, who was counselor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, told me. “He has a feral instinct for self-survival, but he’s unteachable. The ban on Muslims coming into the country and building a wall, and having the Mexicans pay for it, that was all you needed to know about this guy on foreign affairs. This is a man who is idiotic and bigoted and ignorant of the law.” Cohen was a ringleader of an open letter warning, during the campaign, that Trump’s foreign policy was “wildly inconsistent and unmoored.”

But other Republicans from earlier Administrations still hold out hope. “Whenever Trump begins to learn about an issue—the Middle East conflict or North Korea—he expresses such surprise that it could be so complicated, after saying it wasn’t that difficult,” Gordon, from the Bush Administration, said. “The good news, when he says that, is it means he has a little bit of knowledge.” So far, however, the learning curve has been pitifully—and dangerously—slow.

*This post has been updated to clarify the contextual significance of the year 632.

Pope Francis vs. The Religious Right — Charles P. Pierce on the smackdown from the Vatican.

I was intrigued by the story in The New York Times the other day concerning the warning shot fired by Papa Francesco and his allies in the press across the bow of politicized conservative Catholics who have spent the last decades or so making common ground with politicized Protestant Bible-bangers who no longer referred to any pope as The Whore of Babylon.

Once, long ago, on the night before Ronald Reagan became president, I sat in a Capitol Hill bar with a representative of the Irish embassy who was drinking heavily because some backwater Southern congressman had invited the Reverend Ian Paisley as one of his official inauguration guests. (At the time, Paisley was still the world’s most virulent anti-Catholic and had not yet signed aboard the peace process with Martin McGuinness.) Paisleys were heavily involved in, among other Religious Right institutions, Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. My friend spent a lot of time that night with his head in his hands.

However, as the years went by, a certain strain of American Catholicism looked over at the success the Religious Right was having in American politics and asked the profound theological question, “Me Some Too, Yes?” They’d been restive for decades about the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and now conservatism was on the march and they didn’t want to get left behind. They were encouraged in this by the theological reactionaries in the Vatican, including Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, who later would become pope himself. At a previous gig, I wrote about this political counter-reformation at the moment it was being wrong-footed by the massive international conspiracy to obstruct justice undertaken by the institutional Church over the crimes of the hierarchical clergy. This was a bad time for the K Street Catholics in Washington.

Now, it seems as though Papa Francesco is taking a long pastoral look at what these people, and their allies in the hierarchy, have been up to. From the Times:

The authors, writing in a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Stephen K.Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, as a “supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics” that has stymied action against climate change and exploited fears of migrants and Muslims with calls for “walls and purifying deportations.” The article warns that conservative American Catholics have strayed dangerously into the deepening political polarization in the United States. The writers even declare that the worldview of American evangelical and hard-line Catholics, which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, is “not too far apart” from jihadists.

A mark, that will surely leave.

American Catholicism, he argued, echoing the article’s thesis, “has become different than mainstream European Catholicism and mainstream Latin American Catholicism,” and has fallen “into the hands of the religious right.” The authors of the article argue that American evangelical and ultraconservative Catholics risk corrupting the Roman Catholic faith with an ideology intended to inject “religious influence in the political sphere.” They suggest that so-called values voters are using the banners of religious liberty and opposition to abortion to try to supplant secularism with a “theocratic type of state.”

All of this puts Callista Gingrich, our new ambassador to the Vatican, and the third wife of N. Leroy Gingrich, Definer of civilization’s rules and Leader (perhaps) of the civilizing forces, in something of a nutcracker. N. Leroy converted to Catholicism after marrying Callista. You can puzzle out the timeline of Gingrich’s personal history at your leisure. As someone told NPR:

But his conversion doesn’t erase his past. After all, Gingrich has a history of marital infidelity. He cheated on his first wife, and his relationship with Callista, his third wife, began six years before the end of his second marriage. She was a staffer 23 years his junior; he was a Republican congressman who had yet to become speaker of the House. “Without a doubt,” says Rozell, “many people will find it rather strange, ironic, whatever, that his religious journey that led him to convert to Catholicism began with an affair he had with a young woman while he was still married to his second wife.”

The Gingrichs are K Street Catholics all the way, devotees of the late Pope John Paul II and of his successor, the former Cardinal Ratzinger. From The New York Times:

Mr. Gingrich is a culture wars Catholic for whom the church seems a logical home for conservative Republicans. Generations removed from the Kennedy years when Catholics predictably voted Democratic, this is a new era in which conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants have joined forces in what they see as a defining struggle against abortion, same-sex marriage and secularism.

This would appear to be the era out of which Papa Francesco is trying to muscle the Church. (This week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops slammed the Trump Administration for its proposed new policy on legal immigrants.) This will make Papa Francesco and our new ambassador and her husband a fascinating interface. God works in mysterious ways, but N. Leroy Gingrich is a doozy. Of course, the Vatican has needed new gargoyles for a while now.

Way Off Broadway — John Leland on Sam Shepard in New York.

Sam Shepard, who died last week at 73, used to say that he was lucky to have landed in New York at just the right time. Rents were cheap, rock ’n’ roll was blooming, sex and drugs were easy, and adventurous no-budget theaters were opening in makeshift spaces downtown. For a 19-year-old arriving from California in 1963, handsome and unpolished, the city was a charmed playground.

His first great theatrical creation was himself, an image that still resonates with the people who knew him then.

“He knew how to invent himself as a character,” said Jean-Claude van Itallie, who was playwright in residence at the Open Theater, which formed in a warehouse earlier that year. “That whole persona of Sam as a cowboy — he was as middle-class as all of us. We were all tremendously ambitious, but we didn’t easily admit it.”

Mr. Shepard reached New York after a cross-country tour with a Christian theater group. Acting had been an escape from his father, a World War II bomber pilot who had brought the scars of war home.

In New York he looked up a high school friend, Charles Mingus Jr., son of the jazz great, who got him a job at the Village Gate nightclub, “cleaning up dishes and bringing Nina Simone ice,” as Mr. Shepard once described it. The two friends shared a cold-water apartment on Avenue C and Ninth Street, paying $60 a month in rent.

Mr. Mingus knew him first as Sam Rogers or Steve Rogers, the family surname. Even then, Mr. Mingus said in an interview this week, “He could walk into a room with a typewriter and not leave until he finished a play. No revisions, just typing.”

When Ralph Cook, a waiter at the Village Gate, started the Theater Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964, he gave Mr. Shepard his first break — a pair of experimental one-acts that used disjointed dialogue to “change the audience’s cognition,” Mr. Mingus said.

The Village Voice loved it, and Mr. Shepard was off. In the next six years, he had 18 plays produced — including six that won Obie awards. And then he left the city, only sporadically to return.

“He was blessed with good fortune, always in the right place at the right time,” said Peter Stampfel, who met Mr. Shepard in a pawnshop in the East Village where Mr. Stampfel was retrieving a violin he had pawned to buy amphetamines.

Off Off Broadway in the mid-1960s was wide open. An actor in one theater might be designing costumes in a second, then rushing to see a new play in a third. Audiences typically did not pay, and sometimes did not show up.

“It was an incredibly exciting time,” said Tony Barsha, a playwright and director who worked with Mr. Shepard at Theater Genesis. “Creativity was just flowing all over the place.’’

“We thumbed our noses at Broadway and Off Broadway because they were so slick and commercial, and what we were doing was just off the wall stuff,’’ he added. “Nobody was thinking of art for the ages. Sam was just dashing this stuff off. His early work was just what came out of his head. It had nothing to do with dramatic construction or form or history. I think he was using a lot of drugs at the time, speed mainly. I did the same thing.”

The budget to stage a play at the Judson Poets Theater on Washington Square was $37.50, said Albert Poland, who produced some of Mr. Shepard’s early plays. The budget at Theater Genesis, where Mr. Shepard became a regular, was possibly lower.

“That was the dangerous place,” Mr. Poland said, longingly.

Theater Genesis, said the playwright Murray Mednick, was the most macho of the Off Off Broadway spots, “very interested in street language. There was a lot of turmoil, and out of that came this hard-bitten kind of writing, and Sam was a part of that. But he had a sense of America, of being an American, that translated on the stage.”

When Mr. Shepard took one of his plays to Ellen Stewart, a former clothing designer who started La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in 1962, she didn’t even look at the script: “‘We’re gonna do it, baby,’’’ he recalled her saying.

Mr. Stampfel invited him to play drums in his band, the Holy Modal Rounders, a psychedelic folk group that went on to open for the Velvet Underground, Ike and Tina Turner, Pink Floyd and others. The two shared a taste for drugs and a preference for energy over musical finesse, Mr. Stampfel said this week.

“When we started, he never mentioned writing plays or that he got a grant,’’ Mr. Stampfel said. “We’d mention his name to other people and they’d say, you mean the guy who writes plays?”

With the war raging in Vietnam, and F.B.I. agents storming the apartment on Avenue C looking for subversives, Mr. Shepard avoided the draft by feigning a heroin habit.

When Mr. Shepard married O-Lan Johnson, an actress who appeared in some of his plays, in 1969, Mr. Stampfel and the other Rounders performed and handed purple hits of LSD to guests as they entered.

A year later, shortly after the couple had their first child, Mr. Shepard was playing drums with the band on Bleecker Street, when a journalist came backstage to interview them. The journalist was Patti Smith. “She went straight to Sam, and they went straight to the Chelsea,” Mr. Stampfel said.

“Some people are one-woman men,” Mr. Mingus said. “And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.”

Their public affair, loosely echoed in a play they wrote together, “Cowboy Mouth,” lasted until Mr. Shepard and his wife reconciled and before long left New York for London and Nova Scotia.

By then, the East Village was changing, and Off Off Broadway with it. Mr. van Itallie, Mr. Shepard, Lanford Wilson, John Guare and other downtown writers who started at La MaMa or Caffe Cino found bigger audiences further uptown.

But downtown still had a last bit of theater for Mr. Shepard. In the spring of 1970, he had plays opening at Lincoln Center and in the Village, at the Astor Place Theater. It was a major accomplishment, and most of the downtown crowd celebrated Mr. Shepard’s rise, Mr. van Itallie said.

Joey Skaggs, a street artist and prankster, thought Mr. Shepard needed to be saved. “He was making it,” Mr. Skaggs said.

So for an opening-night prank, he planned to “kidnap” Mr. Shepard and put him on a bus out of town. It was a conceptual joke between friends, Mr. Skaggs said. But when six characters in gangster suits rushed toward Mr. Shepard, he started punching. The joke fell apart. The reviews for both shows were bad.

Mr. Shepard, of course, went on to movie stardom and success as a major American dramatist. His plays became more formal and polished. Caffe Cino, the Open Theater and Theater Genesis folded; La MaMa lives on as a cultural institution. None of the four theaters’ founders survives.

Last October, Mr. Stampfel said, Mr. Shepard called him out of the blue to wish him a happy birthday. The two had largely fallen out of contact.

“I knew he was saying goodbye,” Mr. Stampfel said.

Doonesbury — Insurance junkies.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Reading

Legacy of Lies — Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on Sean Spicer’s record at the White House podium.

Sean Spicer’s resignation, on Friday morning, after six months of routinely lying from the White House lectern and then ending on-camera briefings altogether, once again raises one of the most important questions of the Trump era: What is the red line that Trump must cross for his aides to quit on principle? For Spicer, the answer was a new boss he didn’t like. Trump, over the objections of Spicer and Spicer’s closest White House ally, Reince Priebus, the President’s chief of staff, hired Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and frequent Trump surrogate on TV, as his new White House communications director.

The hire is unusual for several reasons. The role of communications director, a job that has been vacant since May, when Michael Dubke, a low-key Republican strategist, resigned from the position, is traditionally reserved for campaign operatives. Scaramucci is a Wall Street guy—he started at Goldman Sachs and later founded his own investment firms—and a former host on the Fox Business channel. Before the Trump campaign, his experience in politics was more on the fund-raising side than on the strategy side. In the Trump campaign, which was small, he took on a broader role as an adviser to the candidate and appeared frequently on TV, where he stood out because he was less ideological than the usual pro-Trump pundits.

More unusual is the way Scaramucci was hired. In a normal White House, the chief of staff is in charge of hiring. For the President to overrule his chief of staff on such an important position is an enormous embarrassment for Priebus. During a briefing on Friday afternoon, Scaramucci tried to downplay the friction between him and Priebus, but for months he has been telling people of his frustrations with the chief of staff. Scaramucci was originally asked to run the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, but Priebus blocked Scaramucci from taking the job, even after Scaramucci sold his investment firm to take it.

Scaramucci then appealed directly to Trump to find him another position. He had three meetings scheduled with the President, and they were all cancelled. Scaramucci believed that Priebus, who is in charge of Trump’s schedule, worked to keep him away from Trump. Scaramucci “had to go over the top and directly to the President,” a source familiar with the episode said. “The problem is that Trump is in such a bubble now, he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.” Scaramucci was offered the ambassadorship to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Europe.

If Priebus thought he had rid the White House of Scaramucci, he was wrong. In recent weeks, Scaramucci was a familiar figure at the Trump Hotel in Washington, meeting with reporters and Trump advisers. Ostensibly, he was there because he was working as an official at the D.C.-based Export-Import Bank. But, clearly, something else was in the works.

For Spicer, Trump’s decision to install Scaramucci above him—the press secretary reports to the communications director—was too much to take. Given the highs and lows of Spicer’s time at the White House, this was an unusual choice of hills to die on. Spicer began his tenure as press secretary with a bizarre rant about how Trump’s Inauguration audience “was the largest audience to ever witness an Inauguration, period.” (It wasn’t.) For someone who was never fully inside the Trump circle of trust, the performance had the ring of an eager gang initiate committing a crime to please the boss. Trump, who regularly watched the briefings, which were broadcast live on cable news, reportedly complained about Spicer’s pale suits and later seemed to become aggravated that Spicer was becoming famous, or at least infamous. Spicer’s temper tantrums, ill-fitting suits, and mispronunciations turned him into a pop-culture sensation.

But it was Spicer’s lies and defense of lies that he will be remembered for. Spicer defended Trump’s lie about how there were three million fraudulent votes in the 2016 election. He spent weeks using shifting stories to defend Trump’s lie about President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. In trying to explain the urgency of the attack on Syria, Spicer explained, “You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Last week, he lied about the nature of the meeting at Trump Tower in June, 2016, between senior Trump-campaign officials and several people claiming to have information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. “There was nothing, as far as we know, that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for discussion about adoption,” Spicer claimed, bizarrely, because Donald Trump, Jr., had already admitted that the meeting was about Russian dirt on Clinton. On March 10th, Spicer came to the lectern wearing an upside-down American flag, which is a signal of dire distress.

Despite the repeated humiliations of standing before reporters and saying things he had to know were untrue, what finally made working at the White House intolerable for Spicer was a minor staffing issue. Scaramucci comes to his new job with a good reputation. He is not a conservative ideologue—he is pro-choice, a moderate on gun control, and anti-death penalty—and he is well-liked by reporters. But working for Trump can have a corrosive effect on good people. Scaramucci’s task is to, without sacrificing his own reputation, communicate on behalf of a President who routinely lies. Scaramucci has his work cut out for him.

Saving Planned Parenthood — Becca Andrews in Mother Jones on how an obscure Senate rule may have saved Planned Parenthood.

Planed Parenthood received good news late Friday afternoon: Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough released a determination that says certain provisions in the Republican’s latest Obamacare replacement bill, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA),” violate the 1985 Byrd Rule. That means some of the bill’s provisions—including the one to defund Planned Parenthood for one year—cannot pass without a full 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans currently only hold 52 of the Senate’s seats.

The Byrd Rule, named after Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, states that any legislation that directly affects the federal budget by decreasing spending or increasing revenue can be passed through reconciliation, the process that Republicans are using to try and pass their latest health care law. But some of the bill’s provisions don’t appear to qualify: As my colleague Kevin Drum points out, the provision that would prohibit Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds probably “doesn’t pass muster because it doesn’t affect total spending, only where money can be spent.” “This means that, should the Senate proceed to the bill, these provisions may be struck from the legislation absent 60 votes,” the parliamentarian’s decision explains.

“Targeting Planned Parenthood because we provide abortion is an obvious violation of the Byrd Rule because the provision’s primary intent is clearly political, and the budgetary impact is ‘merely incidental’ to that purpose,” said Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Other casualties of the bill include the replacement to Obamacare’s individual mandate, which under the BCRA would have meant that anyone who had a lapse in coverage for more than a month and then signed up on the exchange would have had to wait six months for full coverage to take effect. The parliamentarian also stated that the measure in the BCRA to restrict federal tax credits from being used for abortion violates the Byrd Rule.

It’s possible that Republicans will try to overturn the parliamentarian’s decision, but doing so would violate decades of precedent in the Senate.

Sky Faerie — Clay Routledge in the New York Times on defining religion.

Are Americans becoming less religious? It depends on what you mean by “religious.”

Polls certainly indicate a decline in religious affiliation, practice and belief. Just a couple of decades ago, about 95 percent of Americans reported belonging to a religious group. This number is now around 75 percent. And far fewer are actively religious: The percentage of regular churchgoers may be as low as 15 to 20 percent. As for religious belief, the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent.

Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt the death of religion, or at least the death of what you might call the “religious mind” — our concern with existential questions and our search for meaning. A growing body of research suggests that the evidence for a decline in traditional religious belief, identity and practice does not reflect a decline in this underlying spiritual inclination.

Ask yourself: Why are people religious to begin with? One view is that religion is an ancient way of understanding and organizing the world that persists largely because societies pass it down from generation to generation. This view is related to the idea that the rise of science entails the fall of religion. It also assumes that the strength of religion is best measured by how much doctrine people accept and how observant they are.

This view, however, does not capture the fundamental nature of the religious mind — our awareness of, and need to reckon with, the transience and fragility of our existence, and how small and unimportant we seem to be in the grand scheme of things. In short: our quest for significance.

Dozens of studies show a strong link between religiosity and existential concerns about death and meaning. For example, when research participants are presented with stimuli that bring death to mind or challenge a sense of meaning in life, they exhibit increased religiosity and interest in religious or spiritual ideas. Another body of research shows that religious beliefs provide and protect meaning.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.

An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?

 Doonesbury — House hunt.