Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Studying Religion and Acting Politically: How We Decide to be Human

Studying Religion and Acting Politically:
How We Decide to be Human

In the study of religion we consider how people's beliefs, values, and actions inform our human responses to nature, culture, and individual conscience. As professionals we must consider our subject the way a myrmcologist takes up ants, that is, we study our subject first in an effort to suspend our moral bias and emotional judgments to understand what it is we think is true. There is nothing ---not one thing--- that is unusual about our academic task because we _study_ our subject the way we mean to study _any_ subject. Religion is our subject. This warrants a bit more explanation.

Our resources come from any number of methodologies, because religion is a _subject_ and NOT a method. (Modern political science often describes itself the other way around, fyi.) So, first we pause, consider to take seriously what people say about themselves and what they do, and we do this to place the argument _in front_ of our judgments. This means we pursue clarity and decipherability regarding the evidence ahead of our preferences, as far as possible. This process is not guileless or wholly objective (because there is always a subject) but it intends to be honest, aiming with acidic but not corrosive transparency towards an assessment of the facts. What makes studying religion strange is that we must distinguish ourselves from those advancing or advocating a particular religion, even if we share similar objectives such as a transparent assessment of facts. We might call the study of religion a secular religion insofar as it is based on such an essential claim deemed uncompromisable. However, our facts are vulnerable in ways that most religions reject, they can be revised in the fact of evidence, our findings may be refuted by further study, and, most importantly, there are methods of disproof that separate our pursuit from religious dogma. We ask how we could be mistaken rather than merely attempt to prove our correctness.

But just as fire ants can pose a clear danger to human life, and so require us to act in ways to address their behaviors, so too the _consequences_ of religion demand a similar evaluation, both moral and practical. First understand what people are saying, ferret out their complex historical features, their use of language, attempt to discern the underlying motivations and meanings with as much honest claim to truth as is possible before drawing conclusions. (Certain religious traditions may pursue truth with just as much emotional composure and intellectual clarity and so share in the spirit of secular inquiry.)

In the so-called Nashville Statement (warm apologies to Nashville and to those rejecting this identity) from The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood we need to understand that both the methods of our secular study and the outcomes are determined to be a threat to their version of Christianity. When someone claims to be a "true Christian" (or "true Anything") remind yourself that such persons _believe_ this and that _each_ claim is "true" insofar as that is their belief. ALL such claims are valid inasmuch as the claim itself is _believed_ and to acknowledge that fact is called the "principle of charity" in the study of religion ---we are charitable to admit that people's claims must be taken seriously. This process is not to be confused with endorsement or the principles of soundness in argument. (Arguments can be valid but not sound because a valid argument merely requires the conclusions to follow from the assumptions; a valid argument does not require the assumptions to withstand scrutiny nor does it require the evidence to withstand critical examination.)

There is nothing particularly new about the "Nashville Statement" insofar as many of the same voices have advanced this kind of "evangelical Christianity" for decades. What makes this kind of statement more interesting than its predictable content is its timing, its context, and the way these same people are now emboldened by their political allies. It is a certainly a political evaluation to conclude that these views are homophobic, deeply prejudicial against LGBTQ persons, and mean to establish as dogma opinions that others, including other Christians, would reject.

It is also seems to me an indisputable _fact_ that these views are morally repugnant to a society based on inclusion, no matter how they are derived or asserted on the basis of religious belief. If we assert the right of freedom of religion and these are expressed as religious views then their explicit rejection of same sex marriage and other human rights should lead us to conclude that our only recourse _is political_. To deny human rights on the basis of religion is a political choice, not only an ethical decision founded on some or another belief system. However we might protect their rights to express and to harbor such beliefs, religion grants no immunity to their moral depravity. Such a judgment of moral turpitude is not religiously grounded, it is secularly determined by claims to legal rights. Our fundamental recourse for those of us who are appalled by such beliefs is to deny these people legal power to determine the course of society ---to keep them out of power legally. Religion is always political, this too is a fact of history.

For the record, below is a link an article about the Nashville Statement with an internal link to the document.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

When Intolerance is Your Only Moral Choice

The Accusation of "Intolerance"
A Few Words for Your Cultured Despisers

How "tolerant" are we called to be in debate and conversation with those who would side with moral turpitude and relativism? I think we who resist Trump will be accused of such "intolerance" as we contend with the casuistry and deception that fuels their "both sides do it," "many sides, many sides" sophistry. Concede nothing to such specious nonsense. This is not a debate nor will we admit any honest controversy.

"Intolerance" is neither criminal nor culpable when the ethical issue at hand presents no contestable ambiguity. This is the crucial distinction we all need to make. However we insist that love will triumph over hate, it is surely less than loving not to detest and reject what is truly and wholly indefensible. To make such a claim of moral certitude is not to endorse infallibility nor does it suggest that ideas are beyond debate and serious conversation. Rather it is to assert that there are human values that cannot be compromised without conceding our very humanity itself.

Our current situation in America, and particularly with this wretched excuse for President, demands moral clarity because there is no ambivalence or equivocation to be contested. We are not obliged to give any benefit of the doubt when there is no doubt. This a simple test of basic decency. We must not yield to any of their deflections or evasions. I am wholly intolerant of racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and gender inequality and suggest that to refuse their legitimacy in civil discourse is to stand for our very best sense of shared humanity.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Bothersome Assignment of Being American, A School Teacher's Lesson Plan

The Bothersome Assignment of Being American
A School Teacher's Lesson Plan

It's nearly the school year and I'm a school teacher. This role confers a few prerogatives, like restating the obvious, discomforting certainties, and demanding a certain respect for the shared enterprise. It's always hard not to be pedantic because America, for all of its storied history of quality higher education, is a country of doers, not thinkers. We are famous for hating the very education that is demanded of us to be Americans.

To learn a given subject is not to be educated. We are tasked to study closely, think critically, and formulate arguments, no matter the topic. But most of all we come to question who we are. In an American University it is imperative, no matter what the subject, to fathom what it means to be living in America and to be human on this fair planet in our 21st century. 

There are four commitments to our shared American heritage and values.

First, to be an American is to be, as Lincoln put it, "dedicated to a proposition" that all persons are equal and entitled to human rights. Dare we call this the noblest of human ideals? We are not a race, an ethnicity, a language, or any one culture but instead attempting something that challenges any of those norms to establish a new circumstance for life, liberty, and happiness. We are human beings, we have rights, and we mean to dedicate ourselves to their meaning and to one another.

Second, the Founders and the nation failed from the very outset to commit to their stated aspirations and values. Instead they built a nation on slavery, oppression, sexism, and discrimination. The incongruity between our ideals and our outcomes is not mere hypocrisy, it is essential to understanding the tasks of being American. What we say and what we aspire to be we have not yet been. What we have been admits to a struggle that we will not surmount or solve. To be an American is to remain in the perpetual contest between our shadow and the shining city on the hill we long to build.

Third, Americans must take up the civic and moral responsibility of our history and apply ourselves to both our aspirations and our failures. We turn to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others to teach us, to heal us, to invite us to the better angels of our nature. To be American demands more than enjoying the fruits of one's labor and the freedom to pursue dreams. It means participating in the social and political processes that will empower us to our stated aspirational identity and to make amends for our shameful past.

Fourth, Americans must make the moral commitment to a shared human aspiration. This is not religious, though it may appear in the values of your religion. This is not partisan, though you may enjoy the privileges of partisan opinions. This is not a call to unity or to agreed policies, but instead to values that we must embody in law and execute with the ethical determination to meet our collective responsibilities. We owe something to more than ourselves as individuals or our immediate families. We owe to history a stark and clear affirmation of our greatness _and_ our original sins. We owe to one another the dignity and decency that commits to peaceful change and offers the American hope to all who share aspirations for freedom, life, and prosperity.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Monuments to Failure and Hope's Unfinished Future, What Do We Do Now?

Monuments to Failure and Hope's Unfinished Future
What Do We Do Now?

"We cannot pretend that the ugly bigotry unleashed in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., this weekend has nothing to do with the election of Donald Trump....Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigotocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well." ---Michael Eric Dyson, NYTimes op-ed, 13 August 2017

The key phrase here, the one that we must acknowledge is the reason that the _majority_ of white voters in America elected Donald Trump, is "white folk are not immediately at risk." Had the gravity of the risk, the implications of their actions been more apparent would they have placed the nation in such inept, incompetent hands?

The majority that tipped the balance in PA, FL, MI, WI--- these are not deprived and desperate people willing to try anything merely to survive, this was a willful jaunt into nihilism. This vote was fueled not merely by some palpable emotional anxiety over economics but rather over the fear of losing cultural privilege and domination. The nation changes and much of white America has chosen the weltering heat of denial and anger.

Our rage of resistance must become a calm center that neither forgets nor too easily forgives these failures of judgment and their consequence. We must each account for ourselves. There is no moral middle: the nation is, in fact, ruled by extremists and their most trusted allies. To seek ethical fortitude is not to claim certainty but instead to act in ways that evidence the unmistakeable difference between right and wrong.

Now these extremists have their true champion, however mildly admonished for violence and too blatant an expression of their bigotries. How many will condone this inexcusable moral failure of leadership and reject the criticism of their ethical deficiency? We are failing as a nation, not only we have proven incapable of serious discussion of its original sin, but because complacency and plenty have made us immune to self-evaluation and honest conversation. We refuse our differences to assert only some or another false claim to superiority.

Until we have new, inspired leadership we will need galvanized and motivated resistance. We will need a measure of tolerance for civil discourse even as we reject entirely the hate speech that comes unmasked from this Administration. We will not succumb to the level of this illiterate, puerile imbecile. We will not have _a_ leader ---that is their way of doing things. Instead, we will lead. We. The People. And every voice needs to be heard to denounce this remade Confederacy and offer instead a vision of an America that has not yet been realized.

Hope is unfinished and must always remain so. But I say hope is not what we need right _now_ Hope we will need because there must be a better future. There is no plainer distinction than _this_ right and wrong, _right now_. We don't need hope to see that truth. We need the courage to act because we know it is true.

We can expect Trump and Republican leadership to continue sound their racist dogwhistles. But the sound we hear is a clarion of the heart that must inspire our every action. We need now above all that courage to act, to place decency above differences, and to address the sources of conflict that will not change until we make our convictions clear. Resoundingly clear. Listen to the clarion, that's your heart beating faster and louder still.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Trump Lemonade Stand

The Trump Lemonade Stand
No Picture Yet So Here's a Thousand Words

Canandaigua is one of the beautiful lake towns of New York's Finger Lakes, one quite close to our own outpost in the nearby hills. Lake properties are expensive, some posh enough to demand real money. The summer season is short, of course, and the town is otherwise modest, mostly what passes for middle class these days. Just a few minutes in any direction and incomes, work, and quality of life diminishes, the demographic pointing to the endemic white rural poverty that blankets the 2,623 nationwide counties that voted Trump. (HRC won 489 in comparison, according to

New York's 27th Congressional district, where Chris Collins, the very first congressman to declare for Trump represents our populace, can rightly be called "dead red," meaning there are no odds on electing a Democrat. The 27th went 54-44 for McCain, 55-42 Romney, and now 59-35 Trump. The turn around from 2008 when Obama won 54-44 is noteworthy since Gore and Clinton took similar percentages as Obama. Reach beyond the affluent full-time residents and upper middle class whites and, of course, working people have turned hard and dead red. Those appear to be the facts, so here's some anecdote.

Yesterday in the heart of town, not far from the familiar Wegmans and on the edge of a nearby strip mall was a sight I need not invent because this is the Age of Trump. There was a desk, like a lemonade stand, and in front and beside it, bold, readable homemade signs. SUPPORT TRUMP. RUSSIA INVESTIGATION FAKE NEWS. And manning this outpost locals who had taken it upon themselves to establish their own personal citadel of truth. To what purpose? Tourist populations swell in summer but who are they evangelizing and why bother? The Congressional district is a done deal, immovable and impenetrable to change. There are routinely no candidates running against local Republican rule in smaller surrounding towns like mine. Why take up the mantle and shield? What is gained from the make-shift presidio declaring themselves the embattled, why build a wall when opposition here barely exists?

If these are working people, they took their day off ---it was a Thursday--- to accouter their Trump Lemonade Redoubt. In a town that's absolutely lily white? Governed wholly by Republicans staunchly Trumptrue? Homemade signs suggest populist ramparts ---these were not like old style Lyndon LaRouche-ites, those annoying paid provocateurs selling their charlatan. So why take up the mantle and shield? What is gained from the make-shift presidio declaring itself the embattled, why build an erstwhile wall hen opposition here barely exists?

This is Trump's citizen army, an infantry self-appointed to stand guard, the true sentries of the True Cause. That True Cause is the new (same old) "Lost Cause," but I would not deign to assign more motive. These actions speak plainly for themselves. They envisage themselves the besieged, assailed by the liberal media and determined to expose and proclaim their feral loyalty. The local Walmart has guns for sale but no longer in the Back to School aisle.

Their fealty and ardor, their bond to certainties makes my own engagement with them an unlikely self-imposed civic responsibility. But I will, on my next drive-by, take the requisite camera photo because, after all, that's what we do in this 21st century. I have no desire to engage or dispute with my neighbors here on a personal level. My intention is to register their acrimony and fury for those of us who have less contact with this kind of dead redness.

We the resistance need to understand their fervor and infatuation, their obedience and ambition, and most of all their intractable, utterly hermetic inviolability. Not nobody, not no how will any petition to fact or conscience infiltrate their redoubt of belief and loyalty. We are their opposition and their savior, their paladin does not need to ask them to put up a rampart of truth, these barricades are self-made. If you agree with them or even honk on the drive-by, I am sure they would invite you over for a lemonade.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bacon, marmots, and taxes, It's the American Way

Republicans will now "move on" to "tax reform." This means an enormous, unaffordable, unnecessary tax cut for the wealthiest few and corporate welfare beyond any imagining. We, the resisting will resist, point out the facts and try ever so earnestly to convince the populace that this is not in their interests. Evidence, arguments, facts brought to bear and none of that will matter. Why?

Do you have a dog that loves bacon or a hound that when she sees a marmot cannot help herself, she will jump even the Invisible Fence (tm)? Doggy brain fully engaged and nothing, not. one. thing. can stop them. Yup, it can go all the way to an experience of personal physical pain but the veritable Palovian response wins because bacon/marmot love conquers All. This is how Americans react when you tell them you are cutting taxes. It doesn't matter that you are not cutting _their_ taxes, just tell them you are. Neither is it about policy, real economics, or facts of _any kind_.

Don't try to go all Bernie on me here, NO amount of talk about billionaires will enter this equation (n.b., envy always tops jealousy on the bacon/marmot scale of moral compromises). Tax cuts are the bacon that goes deep, deep into a primal, pre-emotional foundational American psyche. We are founded on two great principles as a nation: a tax revolt and the exploitation of human beings (first as slavery, now as wage slaves). Democrats will argue the common good, the benefits that accrue to all from our investment, blahblahblah. Meh. Bacon. Bacon wins.  (See that photo of Mabel up above here.  That's what Americans look like at the mention of "tax cuts." It's pure bacon. Only. Nothing else matters.)

So if these dysfunctional fools do manage to pass "tax reform" expect Russia matters even less---which opens the real possibly of firing Mueller because no one will care but us--- expect the healthcare debacle to be a long, distant nothing until you get sick and can't afford care, and watch white America wave their flags, Stars and Stripes, those weird black and white ones with the blue stripe for police in the middle, that grand lost cause that is Confederate Battle Flag to raise the grievance of the loss of white supremacy, and Gadsden because Don't Tread means tax cut. Well, no matter how you name it, most Americans will climb in the bathtub with Grover Nordquist to drown gub'mint if you so much as MENTION tax cuts. Imagine that. Imagine being in that bathtub. With Grover. I know you can.  Americans can if Grover says "bacon."