Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Save-A-Soul Mission

Amanda Marcotte in Salon looks at the evangelical fervor that Speaker Mike Johnson uses to save America from Danny DeVito dressed up like Satan.  No, really.

Ours is an age where once-hoary clichés have been given new life by the rise of right wing authoritarianism: “The banality of evil.” “First they came for the [fill in the blank].” “2+2=5.” Then there is the famous quote, translated from Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” That’s the one that popped into my mind when I read that newly-elected Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., believed demons were attacking his family through the TV set.

Johnson largely managed to keep his name out of the national news before his ascendance as the highest-ranking Republican on Capitol Hill. That’s why he won, as Republicans hoped to conceal his far-right radicalism under the veil of ignorance. But prior to the current unearthing of Johnson’s long history of creepy and fascistic behavior, he did get a small amount of national attention in September 2022 for posting an ’80s-style Satanic panic about a cartoon show on FX.

“Devilish Danny DeVito Cartoon Sparks GOP Satanic Panic,” read a Daily Beast headline in September of last year. “Disney and FX have decided to embrace and market what is clearly evil,” Johnson said of a series called “Little Demon,” which, ironically, is a comedy show about how the devil’s daughter has declined to become the Antichrist. Johnson describes sprinting to change the channel from the trailer, lest the tendrils of hell emanating from this show, which also stars Aubrey Plaza, somehow snag his children.

Despite being roundly mocked on social media for these hysterics, he doubled down on his podcast, insisting, “This is not frivolous, light-hearted entertainment,” but “serious, eternal business.” Yes, he argued people are literally going to hell for laughing at Danny DeVito playing a satirical version of the Prince of Darkness.

This is, after all, the same politician who once fought to secure taxpayer funding for a Noah’s Ark-based theme park. Yes, he did so out of conviction that a literal flood wiped out all life on Earth except an old man, his family and a boatful of animals around 2300 B.C. Never mind that there are historical records of thriving, well-documented civilizations like Mesopotamia and Egypt at the time, and they did not disappear into a flood. The Noah exhibit even claimed dinosaurs were on the boat, which did not stop Johnson from arguing that “what we read in the Bible are actual historical events.”

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” Johnson wrote on Facebook, quoting the Bible to justify his belief that a cartoon show is literally demon-possessed.

I was reminded of a quote from Carl Sagan’s classic defense of science, “The Demon-Haunted World“: “The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes—from incest, slavery, and mass murder to the most refined love, courage, and self-sacrifice.” As I argued on Monday, Johnson’s career is a perfect example. Johnson’s starting position is clearly a desire to prop up a patriarchal system that oppresses women and LGBTQ people. The Bible is backfill — there as rationalization, not reason.

It’s important to understand that most fundamentalists like Johnson “believe” that Noah’s ark was real or Satan controls Disney in a very different way than most people understand the word “believe.” It’s not an assertion about reality in the same sense as saying, for instance, that October 31 is Halloween. An assertion is valued for how it makes them feel or whether it helps them get power. Evangelical culture is full of these quasi-beliefs, from creationism to urban legends about everyday encounters with angels.

We can know they don’t really believe half the crap they say because they don’t act like people who believe it. When they get sick, most creationists go running to medical doctors, whose practice only works because the theory of evolution is true. Johnson wasn’t really afraid his TV was a portal for demonic possession, or he would have thrown the whole machine out. And certainly, no one literally believes Donald Trump is a Bible-believing Christian, but since it suits their purposes to claim he is, they will “believe” he is saved by the cleansing powers of Jesus Christ.

“Belief” is less about actual views on the nature of reality, and more about claims that serve their personal or political purposes. I often refer to an illuminating 2008 Patheos blog post by Fred Clark, regarding his efforts, when he was with the church, to dissuade people from spreading the lie that a Satanic cult secretly ran Proctor & Gamble. As he wrote, “no one is stupid enough to really believe such a story.” When they were presented with evidence that P&G is not a Satanic cult, they did not express relief, which is what a person sincerely misled would do. They got defensive and angry. That’s because it felt good to them to claim P&G is a Satanic cult. It allowed them to feel self-righteous and titillated at the same time, an intoxicating combination that no fact can compete with.

This is why Trump has done so well with evangelicals, despite his utter contempt for their faith and his lifetime of unrepentant philandering. His life philosophy, where what is “true” is whatever he wants to believe, fits nicely within the demon-haunted rhetoric of the Christian right, where Noah’s ark is real but science is not. The “belief” that the election was stolen from Trump isn’t a statement of fact but of loyalty to the tribe. That’s why most Republicans now claim Trump didn’t try to steal the election, as if they simply didn’t see the months of loud, showy efforts to do so. They know in their hearts it’s not true, but the false thing feels better to say.

That’s why it’s not a mere sideshow when Christian politicians like Johnson sign off on goofy beliefs in Satanic TV shows or ark-riding dinosaurs. This is not a minor eccentricity. It’s a whole worldview, one where there is no “belief” too silly or impossible, so long as it serves the political goals of the Christian right. As Voltaire noted, it’s not just about the absurdity, but the atrocity. Because they are so comfortable “believing” that which they know not to be true, it was a breeze for Republicans to go along with Trump’s Big Lie — and therefore the atrocities that were committed in service of it, such as the Capitol riot.

PS: If you’re a theatre person, you know where I got the title of the post.  “Follow the fold….”

Monday, September 25, 2023

יום הכיפורים

Tsom Kal

Today is the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. It is the most important and solemn day of the Jewish calendar: a time to amend behavior and seek forgiveness.

Every religion has just such a time; for example, Catholics and some other Christian denominations observe Lent and Muslims observe Ramadan, just to name a couple. But making amends is more than just a religious obligation; it is a reflection of something that is basically human, and taking one day, one month, or forty days is merely symbolic of something we should be doing all the time.

That’s not an attempt to inflict everyone with a guilt trip, nor is it an exhortation to never make mistakes, hurt other people, or do something thoughtless. It’s going to happen, and if we all tried at the outset to avoid it, we’d never get anything done. Atonement — at least to me — is a teachable moment. We find our limitations, our blind spots, our stupidities, and we fix them for ourselves and for those we hurt in the process.

It’s no great revelation that a lot of people have trouble with the concept of atonement. To them it’s a sign of weakness; if you admit that you make mistakes, people will take advantage of you. Sure, that happens. But it’s part of the process, too, that if someone exploits it, they have their own atonement to look after at some point. Or not. Some people are beyond that. But that’s not your problem. And if you’re secure enough in your own self and you know your limitations, you will have no trouble admitting when you’re wrong and you are strong enough to take the responsibility and the consequences of screwing up. By doing that, more than just making amends and putting things right, you actually improve the situation.

In the height of this silly world of daily accusations of sins of commission, omission, exploitation, “gotcha,” not to mention the smug self-assurance and prideful arrogance from just about everyone — including myself — that we are right and they are wrong and there is no hope for anyone who doesn’t see the world exactly the way we do, it’s important to observe the admonitions set forth in the meaning of Yom Kippur regardless of your religious affiliation or lack of it: seek forgiveness, make amends, learn, and resolve to do better with the full knowledge that it is a never-ending process.

You don’t have to be Jewish or Catholic or Quaker or Muslim or Hindi or Pastafarian to stop for a while, even if it’s only a moment, to realize that you and that which you believe in are not the center of the universe and that getting your way or winning the argument and hurting someone else in the process isn’t just something we shouldn’t do because God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster says so. We know through our human instinct that making amends for our flaws and hurts is the most human thing we do.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Good Friday

The Southeastern Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) always coincides with Easter weekend. It’s not that Quakers acknowledge or celebrate Easter (some do, some don’t), but it’s usually a time when families can gather at the retreat center in central Florida and have a good and meaningful time together.

There’s a misconception that Quakers just sit and don’t do anything for an hour, then shake hands, have coffee and refreshments, and that’s it. They don’t take an active part in their community or show passion for causes such as the poor, the needy, the lonely, or the lost.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, not all Quakers have silent or unprogrammed worship. Many Quaker meetings have a programmed service, and even some have ministers. To me, that’s a bit removed from what George Fox and Margaret Fell had in mind in 1650 — peace, equality, simplicity, and truth — but that’s Quakerism for you: to each his own to find their way. And Quakers have been very active in many causes, often at their peril. They were among the first Abolitionists in the United States and helped slaves escape. They refused combat service during wartime, often leading to arrest and persecution, and during the Holocaust, they helped people get out of Nazi-occupied Europe, again at their peril. Quakers have fought against segregation, misogyny, and sexual discrimination, and were one of the first faith communities to include same-sex marriage in their Meetings for Worship. So just because some meetings — including mine — don’t make noise doesn’t mean they’re not making a difference, and just because we don’t celebrate Easer like some churches doesn’t mean that the stories about Jesus Christ are not important to some of our Friends.

Have a good — or Good — Friday, and I hold all of us in the Light.

My friend (and Friend) Steve took this picture in 2013 as Friends gathered.

SEYM 03-29-13

Let this be the setting for the day.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Religious Bigotry

From Kate Cohen in the Washington Post: Just because it’s church doctrine doesn’t mean it’s not bigotry.

When one of my kids was 12, he was invited to join an esteemed local choir, one of the crown jewels of Albany’s Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints. Although he was an atheist, he didn’t object to singing Christian music — years in children’s choruses and “holiday” concerts had accustomed him to that.

But as I, high on maternal pride, was calculating how I’d get him to two rehearsals a week, he asked me whether the church condoned same-sex marriage. I said I didn’t know. He said, well, if they didn’t, he wouldn’t join.

I checked: They most emphatically did not. When I told the choirmaster why my son was declining the invitation, he responded that progressive forces inside the church were working toward change. I wished him well. Even if their efforts succeeded, the change would no doubt arrive after my son’s tenure as an angel-voiced advertisement for a discriminatory institution.

Are you impressed by the moral clarity I expressed … after having been schooled by a seventh-grader?

I thought of this moment when I read that last month, Pensacola Christian College in Florida had disinvited the King’s Singers — an a cappella group visiting campus — two hours before their scheduled performance. The college canceled, it later said, “upon learning that one of the artists openly maintained a lifestyle that contradicts Scripture.” In other words, because one of its members was gay.

In fact, two are. The King’s Singers knew about the college’s position on homosexuality when they agreed to play there, but as they explained in an Instagram post: “Our belief is that music can build a common language that allows people with different views and perspectives to come together.”

It’s an extremely gracious statement. Yet I have to ask them, as I belatedly asked myself years ago: Why so tolerant of bigotry?

Are we just so accustomed to the anti-LGBTQ stances of conservative religious institutions that they don’t even register? Are we so used to church-sponsored homophobia that we ignore the vast, forbidding landscape of prejudice while celebrating the tiniest signs of change?

It made the news, for example, when Pope Francis told the Associated Press recently that homosexuality should not be criminalized, as it is in 67 countries, and urged bishops around the world to recognize everyone’s dignity. Amen.

He noted, however, that homosexuality is still a sin. The Catholic Church will keep calling it a sin, and urging sinners to repent, and it will keep refusing to recognize same-sex marriage or to condone adoption by same-sex parents, but in a way that also totally recognizes their dignity!

(Not for nothing: Where does the pope think those countries first got the idea that homosexuality should be a crime?)

In January, the Church of England apologized for its treatment of LGBTQ people while clarifying that such people would not be allowed to marry in the church. “For the times we have rejected or excluded you, and those you love, we are deeply sorry,” the pastoral letter reads. And for the times we will continue to reject or exclude you, we are so deeply sorry for those, too!

These official church statements represent genteel, soft-spoken prejudice in God’s name. For a more brutal version, take a look (if you can stomach it) at Hemant Mehta’s recent roundup of “Christian hate preachers,” each opining on video that gay people should be executed. It’s horrifying.

Of course, many progressive churches — and synagogues and mosques — welcome their LGBTQ siblings as full and equal members. And many that don’t yet will get there eventually.

The Episcopal Church, for example, now officially sanctions same-sex marriage. And the Albany diocese — well, it’s working on it. A statement on the Episcopal Church website notes: “As with all spiritual journeys, everyone walks at their own pace. Some Episcopal congregations are actively involved in LGBTQ ministry and their arms are open wide; others are more reserved, but their doors are still open to all; some are still wrestling with their beliefs and feelings.”

Fair enough, right?

Now, let’s pretend that instead of talking about LGBTQ people, the church was talking about congregations “wrestling with their beliefs and feelings” about Black people. Would our spirit of patient forbearance extend to that?

Not too long ago, many American Christian institutions defended slavery, pointing to Bible verses such as Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your masters.” They then battled integration and interracial marriage, arguing that God meant for the races to be separated. Bob Jones University, from which the founders of Pensacola Christian College graduated, prohibited interracial dating until 2000.

Homophobic policies are no different — except in that, apparently, people are still more accepting of them.

One day, maybe, the Catholic Church and the Church of England will treat its LGBTQ congregants as equals. Maybe even Pensacola Christian College will evolve. In the meantime, let’s not be fooled by the “religious belief” talk: It’s just old-fashioned bigotry.

You can believe in any mythology you like — as John Lennon said, “whatever gets you through the night” — but as soon as your superstition starts to take away my rights, then you’re way out of line, and you can stuff it where the moon doth not shine.

Monday, January 30, 2023

What Some Call A Sin

Pope Francis has called for the repeal of laws that make being gay a crime.

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis criticized laws that criminalize homosexuality as “unjust,” saying God loves all his children just as they are and called on Catholic bishops who support the laws to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” Francis said during an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.

Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against LGBTQ people, and he himself referred to the issue in terms of “sin.” But he attributed such attitudes to cultural backgrounds, and said bishops in particular need to undergo a process of change to recognize the dignity of everyone.

“These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”

Generosity of spirit would suggest that those of us who do not belong to his church or follow his teachings or even believe in his god should welcome this statement, and I do.  After all, whether or not this atheist but practicing Quaker accepts his and his church’s dogma doesn’t matter; he still has sway to some degree over what his followers and his hierarchy teach and control, and that’s a lot of people all over the world.  Given the Roman Catholic church’s record on the matter within their own ranks, it’s at the very least an acknowledgment of reality: there are a lot LGBTQ people in the world and they should be left alone to live their lives in peace.

But later on in the interview with the AP, the pope said this:

On Tuesday, Francis said there needed to be a distinction between a crime and a sin with regard to homosexuality. Church teaching holds that homosexual acts are sinful, or “intrinsically disordered,” but that gay people must be treated with dignity and respect.

Bantering with himself, Francis articulated the position: “It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.”

“It’s also a sin to lack charity with one another,” he added.

And there you lose me, Friend.  Calling something a “sin” slaps a religious label on it, and going on and saying “homosexual acts are sinful, or ‘intrinsically disordered'” puts us right back in the same boat he was already bailing out.  If he’s talking about “acts” such as making love — the physical part, or as the kids say, “gettin’ busy” — the church might be skating out on some thin ice, since being in love and sharing it isn’t just what happens in the bedroom (or wherever you do it).  I remember somewhere reading about love being about something you do with all your heart, your soul, and your mind, and that includes the parts beneath your swimsuit.  In my experience, being in love is pretty much of a binary state: either you are or you’re not, and there’s no point where you say you can do one thing but not the other.  So let me just suggest that the Roman Catholic church should stop worrying about what two people do in their private life, and calling it a sin when there’s a whole lot of criminal activity and child abuse that they have to clean up in their own house doesn’t help.  As someone once noted, let he who is without sin…

This ordination of private acts and personal feelings as a sin or a crime by the church or the state (vide the anti-transgender laws being foisted upon America by hypocritical busybodies) is one of those quirks in human nature that really makes me wonder why that part of human nature has failed.  It isn’t “woke” to want to treat people with respect to their faith, their gender, or how they arrived at those elements in their life, and as long as it doesn’t harm you or steal your money, it’s none of your business.  Live and let live, and realize that what you might call a sin according to some superstition or mythology isn’t a whole lot higher up the highway than arguing ad nauseum about Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

That said, I’m glad Pope Francis doesn’t think my life is a crime.  Not that it’s going to change how I have lived it lo these seventy-plus years, but I’ll take whatever his generosity can offer.  That’s the Quaker way.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Sunday Reading

Same-Sex Marriage Is A Religious Freedom — Steven Paulikas in the New York Times.

As an Episcopal priest at a parish in Brooklyn, I’ve officiated at scores of weddings. At each one, I stand in wonder at the divine presence that envelops couples as they make solemn vows to each other. At my own wedding, though, I learned that there is a difference between seeing and doing. Now it was me standing across from another human being, making unthinkably difficult promises, holding his hand as we committed to walking into the vast, unknown cloud of the future together.

That day, my husband and I called upon the ancient rites of our religion to sanctify our union. The 300 or so guests gathered at our church sang a 14th-century hymn as we walked down the aisle. Loving friends read from the Bible, a dear colleague preached an unforgettable sermon, and the bishop graciously administered the vows. Finally, after kneeling at the altar for a blessing, we stood and shared a holy kiss. It was one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences of my life.

Our wedding was an exercise of the freedom not only to be married under equal protection of the law but also to practice our religion. And yet a powerful political, legal and social movement is poised to prevail in its mission to relegate the marriages of L.G.B.T.Q. people to second-class status in name of “religious freedom.” It seems its true goal is not to advance its advocates’ religious freedom but to restrict ours.

Marriage, perhaps the most personal public institution, uncomfortably straddles the divide between religion and state. At the conclusion of every wedding I officiate, I sign both the church register and the state-issued marriage license. The Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which required states to perform and recognize same-sex marriages, reflected an affirmation of marriage equality that was already taking place in religious institutions. Today, same-sex marriage is a fully integrated part of some 15 religious traditions, including most mainline Protestant churches and three prominent Jewish movements, claiming millions of members throughout the country.

But groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom claim that the existence of same-sex marriage places sexual rights above the rights of their supporters to worship, express opinions and run businesses as they choose. Tellingly, this strategy has focused on defending the supposed religious rights of private businesses rather than churches or even individuals. The Supreme Court endorsed religious freedoms for privately held for-profit corporations in the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. Four years later, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the court sided with a baker who refused service to a same-sex couple, albeit on narrow procedural grounds that the court will soon revisit.

This term, the court plans to hear 303 Creative v. Elenis, the case of a Colorado-based web designer who wants to refuse business from same-sex couples as a matter of policy based on her religious beliefs. An amicus brief filed by a cohort of Christian and Jewish religious groups argues that the designer’s petition would harm people of faith and “lead many to perceive ‘religion’ as being opposed to LGBT equality and pluralism more generally.” The court agreed to consider the case within the scope of the business owner’s right to free speech rather than religious rights, but legal watchdogs point out that protecting the free speech of a company is most likely just a more palatable proxy argument for defending the owner’s “religious freedom” to turn away same-sex couples. The legal strategy behind 303 Creative v. Elenis was crafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Court watchers expect the web designer to prevail in the case. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who wrote the Hobby Lobby decision, told a sympathetic audience at a Notre Dame Law School event in Rome this summer that “religious liberty is fragile, and religious intolerance and persecution have been recurring features of human history.” Moreover, the religious freedom to discriminate against L.G.B.T.Q. people and their interests has been gaining momentum in lower courts, perhaps emboldening the majority.

To be honest, my husband and I wouldn’t have hired a web designer or a baker who didn’t want to celebrate with us. But that’s not the point. If the law allows same-sex couples to be treated differently from other couples, then our religious freedom to be married is not complete. The court is not being asked to rule whether members of the clergy should be forced to perform weddings that conflict with their beliefs or whether houses of worship should be mandated to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. people. As a member of the clergy in charge of a church, I would defend the First Amendment right for religious institutions to conduct themselves without government interference, even if I vehemently disagree with another tradition’s practices. Rather, the question here is whether my God-given right to be married to my spouse matters as much in the eyes of the law as someone else’s.

I pay attention to these cases not as a lawyer but as a gay man and a Christian. The arbitrary nature of what mostly straight people decide queer people can and cannot do trains us to keep an eye out on legal developments. But as a Christian, I consistently marvel at the vast theological differences between me and many of my coreligionists. I often wonder how they square all this legal contortion to restrict the rights of others with Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and one another with all we have. Religious people on either side of this divide have largely settled into a chilly détente over our irreconcilable interpretations of Scripture. But I also doubt that those opposed to marriage equality have ever considered the mismatched scale of our respective motivations: If they win, they get to discriminate in the name of God; if we win, we get to keep the blessing of our families.

But one thing should be clear to those of us whose religious faith affirms the godly dignity of L.G.B.T.Q. people: We should never cede the ground of religious freedom. The court will hear arguments that the web designer, like the baker before her, should have the right to express her beliefs through the clients she chooses to serve. But what about the religious beliefs of those clients? Even schoolchildren know that the Bill of Rights prevents the state from showing favor to one religion over another. Why should her religion be favored over mine? I have faith that if we keep asking these basic questions, eventually the ground will shift, and our religious freedoms — and the responsibilities of those who don’t share them to accept and tolerate them — will be impossible to ignore.

Steven Paulikas (@stevenpaulikas) is an Episcopal priest and the rector of All Saints’ Church in Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Doonesbury — Keep it on the Q.T.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Sunday Reading

Charlie Pierce on the rise of Christian Nationalism:

The mainstream embrace of explicit Christian nationalism is a truly terrible idea, and it’s spreading its poison all over the country. From Politico:

Prominent Republican politicians have made the themes critical to their message to voters in the run up to the 2022 midterm elections. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, has argued that America is a Christian nation and that the separation of church and state is a “myth.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia hard-liner, declared: “We need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian Nationalists.” Amid a backlash, she doubled down and announced she would start selling “Christian Nationalist” shirts. Now Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to be flirting with Christian nationalist rhetoric, as well[…]Our new University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll suggests that declaring the United States a Christian nation is a message that could be broadly embraced by Republicans in the midterms and 2024 presidential race. But our findings also see limits to its appeal — and over the long-term, Christian nationalism could be a political loser.

“Could be,” you say? I am not reassured. In the long term—to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes—we’re all dead. If it’s just the same to everybody else, I’d just as soon not live under the reign of heretics—because that’s what these people are. You can scour the gospels from Matthew to Revelations and you will not find anything there that encourages nationalism, Christian or otherwise.

Not surprisingly, much of the support for declaring the U.S. a Christian nation comes from Republicans who identify themselves as Evangelical or born-again Christians: Seventy-eight percent of this group support the move compared to 48 percent of other Republicans. Among Democrats, a slight majority of those identifying themselves as Evangelical or born-again Christians also backed such a declaration (52 percent), compared to just 8 percent of other Democrats.

To be fair, the poll also shows overwhelming majority support for the notion declaring the country a Christian nation would be unconstitutional. But numbers do not delineate the poison, which is bound molecularly to an even more deadly strain:

Our polling found that white grievance is highly correlated with support for a Christian nation. White respondents who say that members of their race have faced more discrimination than others are most likely to embrace a Christian America. Roughly 59 percent of all Americans who say white people have been discriminated against a lot more in the past five years favor declaring the U.S. a Christian nation, compared to 38 percent of all Americans. White Republicans who said white people have been more discriminated against also favored a Christian nation (65 percent) by a slightly larger percentage than all Republicans (63 percent)[…]Indeed, as our polling shows, a non-trivial number of Americans want to see the U.S. become a Christian nation—even if they acknowledge that the Constitution prohibits such a designation. Prominent Republican politicians have seized on this sentiment and are openly campaigning on a message of Christian nationalism.

It’s too late to get these mooks to stop juggling hand grenades. They’re going to do it until something blows up, and all we can do is hope to avoid the shrapnel.

Doonesbury — Generally speaking.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Jesus Freaks

From the Miami Herald:

While visiting a private Christian college in southern Michigan that wields influence in national politics, Gov. Ron DeSantis rephrased a biblical passage to deliver a message to conservatives.

“Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here,” DeSantis told the audience at Hillsdale College in February. “And I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.”

The Republican governor, a strategic politician who is up for reelection in November, is increasingly using biblical references in speeches that cater to those who see policy fights through a morality lens and flirting with those who embrace nationalist ideas that see the true identity of the nation as Christian.

He and other Republicans on the campaign trail are blending elements of Christianity with being American and portraying their battle against their political opponents as one between good and evil. Those dynamics have some political observers and religious leaders worrying that such rhetoric could become dangerous, as it could mobilize fringe groups who could be prone to violence in an attempt to have the government recognize their beliefs.

“I think, at best, DeSantis is playing with fire,” said Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister in Missouri who has studied the interaction between religion and politics for over two decades. “If asked, I’m sure he would tell you he is not telling people to literally go and fight. But this rhetoric in this political environment is dangerous.”

[…]

In Florida, many of the religious themes are reflected in the partisan battles that have engulfed school districts since the start of the pandemic. That coincides with DeSantis beginning to incorporate biblical references in his political speeches, and his policy initiatives starting to show undertones of these ideas.

Over the summer, several social studies teachers, for example, said they were alarmed that a civics training session led by DeSantis’ administration had a “Christian nationalism philosophy that was just baked into everything” that was taught.

The initiative emphasized that the Founding Fathers did not desire a strict separation of state and church, and that the “Founders expected religion to be promoted because they believed it to be essential to civic virtue.” Without virtues, the state trainers argued, citizens become “licentious” and subject to tyranny. State trainers also told teachers that the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case that found school-sponsored prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment was unjust.

When campaigning with Mastriano in Pennsylvania on Aug. 19, DeSantis tied religion to the importance of teaching students about civics. “We have the responsibility to make sure that the students that come out of our school system understand what it means to be an American,” DeSantis said, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “They need to understand that our rights come from God, not from the government.”

This is the kind of mindset that should scare the rest of us: Not just religious fervor, but this narrow fundamentalist view that only their beliefs should be the law.  That’s how Iran and Afghanistan run their countries: if you’re not one of their True Believers, you are an enemy of the state.

Mix that with the fanaticism of the Trumpers and their up-armored insurrectionists and you have the makings of a religious war.  History is littered with the millions of lives lost in every corner of the world in the name of superstition, mythology and the unquenchable thirst for power that has nothing whatsoever to do with God, faith, or humanity.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Sunday Reading

Don’t Pray For Me — Anne Lamott in The New York Times.

It offends me to see sanctimonious public prayer in any circumstance — but a coach holding his players hostage while an audience watches his piety makes my skin crawl.

We are fighting furiously for women’s rights and the planet, and we mean business. We believers march, rally and agitate, putting feet to our prayers. And in our private lives, we pray.

Isn’t praying a bit Teletubbies as we face off with the urgent darkness?

Nah.

Prayer means talking to God, or to the great universal spirit, a.k.a. Gus, or to Not Me. Prayer connects us umbilically to a spirit both outside and within us, who hears and answers. Is it like the comedian Flip Wilson saying, “I’m gonna pray now; anyone want anything?”

I do not understand much about string theory, but I do know we are vibrations, all the time. Between the tiny strings is space in which change can happen. The strings are infinitesimal; the space between nearly limitless. Prayer says to that space, I am tiny, helpless, needy, worried, but there’s nothing I can do except send my love into that which is so much bigger than me.

How do people like me who believe entirely in science and reason also believe that prayer can heal and restore? Well, I’ve seen it happen a thousand times in my own inconsequential life. God seems like a total showoff to me, if perhaps unnecessarily cryptic.

When I pray for all the places where we see Christ crucified — Ukraine, India, the refugee camps — I see in my heart and in the newspaper that goodness draws near, through UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, volunteers, through motley old us.

I wake up praying. I say a prayer some sober people told me to pray 36 years ago, because when all else fails, follow instructions. It helps me to not fixate on who I am, but on whose. I am God’s adorable, aging, self-centered, spaced-out beloved. One man in early sobriety told me that he had come into recovery as a hotshot but that other sober men helped him work his way up to servant. I pray to be a good servant because I’ve learned that this is the path of happiness. I pray for my family and all my sick friends that they have days of grace and healing, and I end my prayers, “Make me ever mindful of the needs of the poor.”

Then I put on my glasses, let the dog out to pee and start my day. I will have horrible thoughts about others, typically the Christian right or the Supreme Court, or someone who has seriously crossed me, whose hair I pray falls out or whose book fails. I say to God, as I do every Sunday in confession: “Look — I think we can both see what we have on our hands here. Help me not be such a pill.”

It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. Some days go better than others. I pray to remember that God loves Marjorie Taylor Greene exactly the same as God loves my grandson, because God loves, period. God does not have an app for Not Love. God sees beyond each person’s awfulness to each person’s needs. God loves them, as is. God is better at this than I am.

I lift up one of my grown Sunday school kids who is in the I.C.U. with anorexia. I beseech God to intervene, and she does, through finding my girl a great nurse later that day. (Nurses are God’s answer 35 percent of the time.) My prayer says to whoever might be listening, “I care about her and have no idea what to do, but to hold her in my heart and turn her over to something that might do better than me.” And I hear what to do next — make her one of my world-famous care packages — overpriced socks, a journal, and needless to say, communion elements tailored to her: almonds and sugar-free gum. It’s love inside wrapping paper.

Especially when I travel, I talk to so many people who are absolutely undone by all the miseries of the world, and I can’t do anything for them but listen, commiserate and offer to pray. I can’t turn politics around, or war, or the climate, but in listening, by opening my heart to someone in trouble, I create with them more love, less of a grippy clench in our little corner of the universe.

When I get onstage for a talk or an interview, I pray to say words that will help the people in the audience who feel most defeated. When I got to interview Hillary Clinton in Seattle a few years ago, we prayed this prayer huddled in a corner backstage — to bring hope to the hopeless.

Do I honestly think these kinds of prayers were heard, and helpful?

Definitely.

On good days, I feel (slightly) more neutral toward Ginni Thomas and the high school coach praying after games. I pray the great prayer of “Thanks” all day, for my glorious messy family, husband and life; for my faith, my sobriety; for nature; for all that is still here and still works after so much has been taken from us.

When I am at my most rattled or in victimized self-righteousness, I go for walks, another way to put my feet to prayer. I pray for help, and in some dimension outside of my mind or language, I relax. I can breathe again. I say, “Thank you.” I say, “Thank you for the same flowers and trees and ferns and cactuses I pass every day.” I say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

A walk is a great prayer. To make eye contact and smile is a kind of prayer, and it changes you. Fields and woods are the kingdom. You don’t say, “Oh, there’s a dark-eyed junco flitting around that same old pine tree; whatever,” or: “Look at those purple wildflowers. I’ve seen those a dozen times.” You are silent. There may be no one around you and the forest will speak to you in the way it will speak to an animal. And that changes you.

At bedtime I pray again for my sick friends, and the refugees. I beg for sleep. I give thanks for the blessings of the day. I rest into the vision of the pearly moon outside my window that looks like a porthole to a bigger reality, sigh and close my tired eyes.

I have the theological understanding of a bright 8-year-old, but Jesus says we need to approach life like children, not like cranky know-it-alls, crazily busy, clutching our to-do lists. One of my daily prayers is, “Slow me down, Girlfriend.” The prayer changes me. It breaks the toxic trance. God says to Moses the first time they meet, “Take off your shoes.” Be on the earth. Breathe with me a moment.

Doonesbury — Carded.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Be Careful What You Pray For

I’m not at all surprised that the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that it was okay for a coach to lead a Jesus prayer circle on the fifty-yard line of a public high school football field after a game.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a school board in Washington state discriminated against a former football coach when it disciplined him for postgame prayers at midfield, the high court’s latest decision favoring the protection of religious faith over concerns about government endorsement of religion.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for fellow conservatives in the 6-to-3 decision, saying Bremerton High School assistant coach Joseph Kennedy’s prayers are protected by the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and religious exercise. He said the school board’s discipline of Kennedy was unwarranted, even under the concern of violating the separation of church and state.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Gorsuch wrote. “Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected” by the Constitution.

Gorsuch was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joined most of the opinion.

The court’s three liberals dissented, as they had in last week’s ruling that Maine cannot bar religious schools from receiving public tuition grants extended to other private schools.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority “elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.”

Joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, Sotomayor added: “Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.”

I would like to see what would have happened if the coach was a Muslim and put down a prayer rug and faced Mecca. Or if he had stood in the middle of the field and chanted from the Torah. Or even brought out a folding chair and sat in silence as Quakers do. Let’s see what happens when the Satanists or the Wiccans get together on the field.

I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure the ruling would have gone the other way.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Church + State = Tax Audit

From the New York Times:

Evangelical churches have long been powerful vehicles for grass-roots activism and influence on the American right, mobilized around issues like abortion and gay marriage. Now, some of those churches have embraced a new cause: promoting Donald J. Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

In the 17 months since the presidential election, pastors at these churches have preached about fraudulent votes and vague claims of election meddling. They have opened their church doors to speakers promoting discredited theories about overturning President Joe Biden’s victory and lent a veneer of spiritual authority to activists who often wrap themselves in the language of Christian righteousness.

For these church leaders, Trump’s narrative of the 2020 election has become a prominent strain in an apocalyptic vision of the left running amok.

“What’s going on in our country right now with this recent election and the fraudulent nature of that?” Mr. Cowart, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, asked in a sermon last year. “What is going on?”

It’s difficult to measure the extent of churches’ engagement in the issue. Research suggests that a small minority of evangelical pastors bring politics to the pulpit. “I think the vast majority of pastors realize there is not a lot of utility to being very political,” said Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor.

Still, surveys show that the belief in a fraudulent election retains a firm hold on white evangelical churchgoers overall, Mr. Trump’s most loyal constituency in 2020. A poll released in November by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 60 percent of white evangelical respondents continued to believe that the election was stolen — a far higher share than other Christian groups of any race. That figure was roughly 40 percent for white Catholics, 19 percent for Hispanic Catholics and 18 percent for Black Protestants.

Among evangelicals, “a high percentage seem to walk in lock step with Trump, the election conspiracies and the vigilante ‘taking back of America,’” said Rob Brendle, the lead pastor at Denver United Church, who recalled that when he criticized some Christians’ embrace of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in a sermon the Sunday after the riot, he lost about a hundred members of his congregation, which numbered around 1,500 before the pandemic.

I have no problem with the churches engaging in political activism; they’ve been doing it since Peter dropped in on the Romans, and the Quakers were founded basically as a resistance to a political situation in England. But here in the United States, there’s the little matter of being a tax-exempt organization engaging in partisan politics: it’s pretty much a no-no.

The ban on political campaign activity by charities and churches was created by Congress more than a half century ago. The Internal Revenue Service administers the tax laws written by Congress and has enforcement authority over tax-exempt organizations. Here is some background information on the political campaign activity ban and the latest IRS enforcement statistics regarding its administration of this congressional ban.

In 1954, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban. The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.

Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

So, yeah.  Campaign all you want for a fraud, liar, moral reprobate (based on your own screeching preaching).  But knock off the tax-exempt status and cough up like all the other PAC’s.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Toxic Mix

This is some scary stuff from the New York Times:

They opened with an invocation, summoning God’s “hedge of thorns and fire” to protect each person in the dark Phoenix parking lot.

They called for testimonies, passing the microphone to anyone with “inspirational words that they’d like to say on behalf of our J-6 political prisoners,” referring to people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, whom they were honoring a year later.

Then, holding candles dripping wax, the few dozen who were gathered lifted their voices, a cappella, in a song treasured by millions of believers who sing it on Sundays and know its words by heart:

Way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper
Light in the darkness, my God
That is who you are …

This was not a church service. It was worship for a new kind of congregation: a right-wing political movement powered by divine purpose, whose adherents find spiritual sustenance in political action.

The Christian right has been intertwined with American conservatism for decades, culminating in the Trump era. And elements of Christian culture have long been present at political rallies. But worship, a sacred act showing devotion to God expressed through movement, song or prayer, was largely reserved for church. Now, many believers are importing their worship of God, with all its intensity, emotion and ambitions, to their political life.

At events across the United States, it is not unusual for participants to describe encountering the divine and feel they are doing their part to install God’s kingdom on earth. For them, right-wing political activity itself is becoming a holy act.

These Christians are joining secular members of the right wing, including media-savvy opportunists and those touting disinformation. They represent a wide array of discontent, from opposing vaccine mandates to promoting election conspiracy theories. For many, pandemic restrictions that temporarily closed houses of worship accelerated their distrust of government and made churchgoing political.

Aligning political ambition with religious fervor has always ended in body counts, and in this instance you have fascism brewing with throwbacks to Huey Long and Father Coughlin.   (Hollywood has already given us previews of coming attractions: “Elmer Gantry,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “All The King’s Men.”)  Magnified by social media platforms that only Long and Coughlin could dream of in their day, we have the off-the-rack parallels with Trump and his shouters at Fox News, not to mention the rabble-rousing hucksters who don’t give a flying fuck about geopolitics or economics except to know how to grift and pluck the pigeons who will turn over their life savings to a Jesus-shouter quicker than some e-mail scammer from Nigeria.

Unlike another great film, “The Sting,” where the mark must never know that he’s been conned, the folks taken in by this movement will believe anything that the grifters will tell them and still back them even if they are busted and jailed.  The hardest thing to convince them of is that they were made a fool.  The con men know this and are relying on their fervent faith in superstition and wild conspiracies to see them through until the checks clear and they can get out of town.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Religious Exemption Exemption

Kate Cohen in the Washington Post:

Religious exemptions make no sense to me.

These escape clauses from our civic compact allow people to claim that such-and-such a law does not apply to them since it conflicts with their “sincerely held religious belief.”

A person can claim a religious exemption to the equal opportunity clause that’s required in all federal contracts; to the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act; and, in some states, to the requirement that a child be immunized to attend public school.

This seems crazy. Obviously not everyone agrees with every law, but that’s the bummer about living in a society. In a democracy, if you feel strongly enough, you can set about finding like-minded people and try to change the law. Or, if that doesn’t work, and you truly believe it’s a sin to, say, fill contraceptive prescriptions, then (a) don’t be a pharmacist or (b) risk getting fired. Wouldn’t God appreciate the gesture?

If your religion won’t let you get vaccinated against the coronavirus, then don’t get the shot, but be prepared to suffer the consequences.

If your God-given anti-mask beliefs are sincerely held, then they’ll carry you through trying moments such as homeschooling your child and driving from Miami to Houston instead of flying. Martyrdom is supposed to be hard!

But ever since the Texas abortion ban went into effect, I’ve been rethinking exemptions. Maybe we actually need more of them.

If religious people can opt out of secular laws they find sinful, then maybe the rest of us should be able to opt out of religious laws we find immoral.

That’s right: immoral. We act as if religious people are the only ones who follow a moral compass and the rest of us just wander around like sheep in search of avocado toast. But you don’t need to believe in God or particular religious tenets to have a strong sense of right and wrong.

[…]

Religious laws are a part of our history, ranging in character from inconvenient (“blue” or “Sunday” laws) to unconscionable (laws banning interracial and same-sex marriage). But they are not a thing of the past. In fact, they seem to be enjoying a resurgence. There are laws that discriminate against trans people. Laws that permit or require schools to teach creationism along with evolution. Laws that require schools to teach abstinence but not contraception.

Such laws try to force 21st-century America into alignment with a first-century moral code according to some toxic combination of political posturing, fear-mongering and — sure, why not? — the sincere beliefs of a certain subset of people who adhere to a certain religion.

If they’re going to be making these laws, and the Supreme Court is going to let them, then the rest of us should be able to opt out.

To be fair, there are a lot of religious people who agree with this: singling out exemptions for people of particular denominations who have achieved political power but kicking aside others is both unconstitutional and immoral.  But because groups such as the Quakers or Unitarians don’t have a stranglehold on a political party, they can’t re-work the tax laws so that those of us who oppose war can opt out of paying taxes that go to support the Department of Defense, or make the 25th day of the Twelfth Month a regular work day instead of a federal holiday.

Churches should be subject to the same tax structure as any other business, and if they want to make their work a non-profit or a charity, such as supporting the poor and giving shelter to the homeless, there are plenty of provisions in the tax code that allow for that.  But they should pay real estate and use taxes along with the rest of us; after all, if the church — or meeting house — catches fire, they will be protected by the same fire department that puts out the fire of a tax-paying business or citizen.  And it’s not like megachurches — or even your normal-sized congregation — hasn’t figured out how to get money from their attenders, and I daresay included in those pews are a fair number of people who know how to do it.

Frankly, I don’t think there will ever be any change in the “religious” exemptions as long as there are elected officials like the lieutenant governor of North Carolina who sounds a lot like the Taliban.  As we’ve learned both in Texas and Afghanistan, they can win.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A Faith Is Not A Race — Updated

Adam L. Silverman at Balloon Juice has issued a correction to his post based on reporting from Mark Joseph Stern at Slate:

The New York Times published a bombshell report on Tuesday claiming that President Donald Trump planned to sign an executive order that interpreted Judaism “as a race or nationality” under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI governs federally funded educational programs, so the Times warned that the order might be deployed to squelch anti-Israel speech on campus. “Mr. Trump’s order,” the Times further claimed, “will have the effect of embracing an argument that Jews are a people or a race with a collective national origin in the Middle East, like Italian Americans or Polish Americans.”

That turned out to be untrue. The text of the order, which leaked on Wednesday, does not redefine Judaism as a race or nationality. It does not claim that Jews are a nation or a different race. The order’s interpretation of Title VI—insofar as the law applies to Jews—is entirely in line with the Obama administration’s approach. It only deviates from past practice by suggesting that harsh criticism of Israel—specifically, the notion that it is “a racist endeavor”—may be used as evidence to prove anti-Semitic intent. There is good reason, however, to doubt that the order can actually be used to suppress non-bigoted disapproval of Israel on college campuses.

I’m going to let the original post stand because whether or not the reporting is incorrect, anti-Semitism in America is still on the rise.


From the New York Times:

Trump plans to sign an executive order on Wednesday targeting what he sees as anti-Semitism on college campuses by threatening to withhold federal money from educational institutions that fail to combat discrimination, three administration officials said on Tuesday.

The order will effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion, to prompt a federal law penalizing colleges and universities deemed to be shirking their responsibility to foster an open climate for minority students. In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — or B.D.S. — movement against Israel has roiled some campuses, leaving some Jewish students feeling unwelcome or attacked.

In signing the order, Mr. Trump will use his executive power to take action where Congress has not, essentially replicating bipartisan legislation that has stalled on Capitol Hill for several years. Prominent Democrats have joined Republicans in promoting such a policy change to combat anti-Semitism as well as the boycott-Israel movement.

But critics complained that such a policy could be used to stifle free speech and legitimate opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. The definition of anti-Semitism to be used in the order matches the one used by the State Department and by other nations, but it has been criticized as too open-ended and sweeping.

Politics aside, it’s dangerous to take something that anyone can adopt, such as a religion, and use it to define something that is genetic, such as race, or even circumstantial, such as nationality.  No one is born Jewish or Catholic or Buddhist or Quaker.  You may be born in a place where the majority is Jewish, for example, but show me the DNA marker that designates a particular faith.

There are also historical precedents for designating Judaism as a race or nationality, and as Adam L. Silverman at Balloon Juice, notes, it hasn’t turned out so well.

Any assertion of Judaism as a race and nationality is bad, as well as factually inaccurate. Making it official US policy, by way of an executive order, is potentially catastrophic. Other states that classified Judaism as a race and nationality include NAZI Germany in the Nuremberg Race Laws and the Soviet Union. The Nuremberg Race Laws went into effect in 1935 and were modeled on racial purity and separation laws from the Jim Crow south after Reconstruction was overthrown. In the case of the Soviet Union, the Soviet equivalents were a legacy and carryover of the pre-Communist Russian anti-Semitism that had permeated Russian life.

No one who isn’t either in denial or has decided to put political or personal profit ahead of reality, facts, and the truth needs any more evidence that the President and his administration are pushing a white supremacist agenda and are winking and nudging and signaling in a variety of other ways to Americans who would like to see the United States become a white, Christian herrenvolk. The Attorney General has now given two speeches in the past two months implying that this should be the case. But this new executive order is a significant development. And that is not meant to downplay what our fellow citizens; be they religious minorities like Muslims and the Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists mistaken for them because of superficial physiological resemblance; ethnic minorities whose families originated in Central and South America, the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and/or Africa, or LGBTQ Americans have been going through since January 2017. Rather it is an acknowledgment that things are accelerating in a bad direction. When governments declare Jews to be a race and nationality apart from the rest of the citizenry, bad things begin to happen. And they begin to happen quickly.

One of the goals of the founders of this country was to make this a nation where we did not distinguish between races and religions in order to form a more perfect union.  That we have not lived up to that over the last 250 years is a shame and a stain, but we have always striven to reach it.  This executive order does nothing to achieve it; it adds yet another layer of distinction that assures the racists and the white supremacists that they have been right all along.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sunday Reading

Is Thee Talking to Me? — Teresa M. Bejan in the New York Times on what Quakers can teach us about pronouns.

George Fox, founder of the Quakers

Pronouns are the most political parts of speech. In English, defaulting to the feminine “she/her” when referring to a person of unspecified gender, instead of the masculine “he/him,” has long been a way of thumbing one’s nose at the patriarchy. (“When a politician votes, she must consider the public mood.”)

More recently, trans, nonbinary and genderqueer activists have promoted the use of gender-inclusive pronouns such as the singular “they/their” and “ze/zir” (instead of “he/him” or “she/her”). The logic here is no less political: If individuals — not grammarians or society at large — have the right to determine their own gender, shouldn’t they get to choose their own pronouns, too?

As with everything political, the use of gender-inclusive pronouns has been subject to controversy. One side argues that not to respect an individual’s choice of pronoun can threaten a vulnerable person’s basic equality. The other side dismisses this position as an excess of sensitivity, even a demand for Orwellian “newspeak.”

Both sides have dug in. To move the conversation forward, I suggest we look backward for an illuminating, if unexpected, perspective on the politics of pronouns. Consider the 17th-century Quakers, who also suspected that the rules of grammar stood between them and a society of equals.

Today the Quakers are remembered mainly for their pacifism and support for abolition. Yet neither of these commitments defined the Quaker movement as it emerged in the 1650s from the chaos of the English Civil War. What set the Quakers apart from other evangelical sects was their rejection of conventional modes of address — above all, their peculiar use of pronouns.

In early modern England, the rules of civility dictated that an individual of higher authority or social rank was entitled to refer to himself — and to be referred to by others — with plural, not singular, pronouns. (A trace of this practice survives today in the “royal ‘we.’”) The ubiquitous “you” that English speakers now use as the second-person singular pronoun was back then the plural, while “thee” and “thou” were the second-person singulars.

When Quakerism emerged, proper behavior still required this status-based differentiation. As one early Quaker explained, if a man of lower status came to speak to a wealthy man, “he must you the rich man, but the rich man will thou him.”

Quakers refused to follow this practice. They also refused to doff their hats to those of higher social standing. The Quakers’ founder, George Fox, explained that when God sent him forth, “he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to thee and thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small.”

The Quakers thus declared themselves to be, like God, “no respecter of persons.” So they thee-ed and thou-ed their fellow human beings without distinction as a form of egalitarian social protest. And like today’s proponents of gender-inclusive pronouns, they faced ridicule and persecution as a result.

But there is also an important difference between the Quakers and today’s pronoun protesters. While modern activists argue that equality demands displays of equal respect toward others, the Quakers demonstrated conscientious disrespect toward everyone. Theirs was an equality of extreme humility and universally low status. Even the famously tolerant founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, couldn’t stand the Quakers and complained of the “familiarity, anger, scorn and contempt” inherent in their use of “thee” and “thou.”

Indeed, the trend in pronouns at that time was toward a leveling up, not a leveling down. By the middle of the 17th century, in response to increasing geographic and social mobility, the plural “you” had begun to crowd out the singular “thee” as the standard second-person pronoun, even for those of a lower social station. This meant that everyone would soon become, effectively, entitled — at least to the honorific second-person plural.

One might expect principled egalitarians like the Quakers to celebrate a linguistic process whereby all social ranks experienced an increase in dignity. But Fox and his followers looked on the universal “you” with horror, as a sign of the sin of pride. Long before he founded Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn would argue that when applied to individuals, the plural “you” was a form of idolatry. Other Quakers produced pamphlets citing examples from more than 30 dead and living languages to argue that their use of “thee” and “thou” was grammatically — as well as theologically and politically — correct.

The Quaker use of “thee” and “thou” continued as a protest against the sinfulness of English grammar for more than 200 years. (In 1851, in “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville could still marvel at “the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom.”) But eventually, in the 20th century, even the Quakers had to admit that their grammatical ship had sailed.

Modern practitioners of pronoun politics can learn a thing or two from the early Quakers. Like today’s egalitarians, the Quakers understood that what we say, as well as how we say it, can play a crucial part in creating a more just and equal society. They, too, were sensitive to the humble pronoun’s ability to reinforce hierarchies by encoding invidious distinctions into language itself.

Yet unlike the early Quakers, these modern egalitarians want to embrace, rather than resist, pronouns’ honorific aspect, and thus to see trans-, nonbinary and genderqueer people as equally entitled to the “title” of their choosing.

To their critics, however, allowing some people to designate their own pronouns and expecting everyone else to oblige feels like a demand for distinction. Yes, some of these critics may be motivated by “transphobic” bigotry. But others genuinely see such demands as special treatment and a violation of equality. They themselves experience “he” and “she” as unchosen designations. Shouldn’t everyone, they ask, be equally subject to the laws of grammatical gender?

According to the Quakers, both sides are right: Language reflects, as well as transforms, social realities. But the dual demands of equality and respect aren’t always in perfect harmony. Sometimes they are even in conflict. Respect can require treating people unequally, and equality can mean treating everyone with disrespect.

At present, the battle over the third-person singular subject in English seems to be resolving itself in the direction of the singular “they” — at least when referring to a person of unspecified gender. (“When a politician votes, they must consider the public mood.”) Pedants naturally complain. They argue that applying a plural pronoun to a singular subject is simply bad English. But as linguists note, spoken English has been tending that way for many years, long before the issue became politicized.

If the rules of grammar are indeed an obstacle to social justice, then the singular “they” represents a path of least resistance for activists and opponents alike. It may not be the victory that activists want. Still, it goes with the flow of the increasing indifference with which modern English distinguishes subjects on the basis of their social position. More fittingly, if applied to everyone, “they” would complete the leveling-up progress of equal dignity that “you” started centuries ago.

Of course, a 17th-century Quaker would be likely to dismiss the singular “they” as diabolically bad grammar. But hey, who asked them?

Witness Clarity — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

Long before Alexander Hamilton became an icon of the Broadway stage, he glimpsed the harrowing qualities of a man like Donald Trump. He did not like what he saw. As his definitive biographer, Ron Chernow, makes clear, Hamilton was an advocate of strong executive power, yet he also envisaged the rise of a demagogue who would put liberty and the rule of law at risk, and place his own interests before those of the country. Writing to George Washington, in 1792, Hamilton seemed to anticipate our current moment and the con on the golden escalator:

When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents . . . is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Hamilton also paid close attention to the crimes and misdemeanors that such a scoundrel might commit, and how the country could protect itself from them. He wrote two Federalist essays about impeachment, and, as Chernow noted recently in the Washington Post, he would “certainly have endorsed” the current inquiry in the House. Only willful resistance to fact can obscure the reality that Trump, with the help of his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and various others, tried to extort a vulnerable ally in order to gain an advantage in the 2020 election campaign. The White House finally released three hundred and ninety-­one million dollars in defense funds to Ukraine on September 11th—not owing to a fit of moral reconsideration but, it would appear, because two days earlier the House had launched its inquiry into allegations that Trump had tried to press Ukraine into investigating a political opponent. Given the abundance of documentary evidence, testimony from high-ranking public officials, and self-incriminating public statements by Trump, Hamilton would have seconded the sentiments expressed by Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who gavelled open the public hearings on impeachment on Wednesday, saying:

If we find that the President of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections  . . . must we simply get over it? Is this what Americans should now expect from their President? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?

The first day of the hearings was notable for the sobriety, clarity, and unshakable dignity of the witnesses. William B. Taylor, Jr., a decorated Vietnam War veteran and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, who oversees Eastern European and Eurasian affairs, provided, as they had earlier in closed hearings, detailed testimony that the President of the United States sought to pressure the beleaguered President of Ukraine to sully the reputation of a Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for a meeting at the Oval Office and the release of the defense funds.

According to Taylor, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, spoke with Trump by cell phone from a restaurant in Kiev; the President’s emphasis was single-minded. After finishing the call, Sondland told one of Taylor’s aides that “Trump cares more about the investigation of Biden” than about the fate of Ukraine. The date was July 26th––the day after Trump issued his now infamous demand that the Ukrainian President do him a “favor.”

Taylor and Kent were impassive, formal witnesses, but they were direct about their sense of dismay. Essential questions emerged from the stories they told: How could a President engage in such brazen self-dealing? How could he play games with the security needs of a state that had been invaded by Russia, first in Crimea and then in the Donbass? “To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense,” Taylor said. “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

The President dismissed the hearings as a “hoax.” He insisted that he was “too busy to watch,” although he retweeted more than a dozen video clips, articles, and commentaries in his putative defense. Conservative media outlets, from Fox News to Breitbart, declared the hearings “boring” and hoped their audience, the Trump base, would remain unmoved. Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, led by Jim Jordan, of Ohio, and Devin Nunes, of California, made every attempt to confound voters with misdirection and conspiracy theories. Nunes warned obscurely of the prospect of “nude ­pictures of Trump.” The Republicans ­complained that Taylor and Kent didn’t even know the President—their testimony was so “secondhand”—and yet these same legislators are in no rush to have the White House lift its block on witnesses with distinctly firsthand access—including Giuliani and the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

As Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and their colleagues were drafting the founding documents of the country, they expressed concern about “foreign influence” on the Presidency. The sources of their anxiety then resided mainly in France and England. It was therefore powerful to hear Kent compare the plight of the American colonists in their struggle against the British crown to that of the post-Soviet Ukrainians as they have struggled against the Putin regime in Russia. Trump favors Moscow. He has repeatedly dismissed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russians interfered in the 2016 election. As President, he has made it plain that he welcomes outside interference again, if it helps him win reëlection.

The President and his confederates have warned of the consequences of impeachment. In 2017, the self-described “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, who is now on trial for lying to Congress, issued a characteristically Trumpish threat:

Try to impeach him. Just try it. You will have a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen. Both sides are heavily armed, my friend. This is not 1974. The people will not stand for impeachment. A politician who votes for it would be endangering their own life.

Impeachment is a grave business, and the risks are manifest. But no democracy can overlook evidence of abuse of power, bribery, and obstruction in the hope that an election will set things right.

These hearings and a potential Senate trial will never get to the full range of Donald Trump’s corruptions, be they on Fifth Avenue or Pennsylvania Avenue, in Istanbul, Moscow, or Riyadh. But the focus of Congress is on this particular and outrageous abuse of the public trust, and for now that must suffice.

Doonesbury — Immigration status.

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

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