Sanctifying Power

Christianity did not “cause” slavery, anymore than Christianity “caused” the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion’s share of American history.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates,
The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech” (2-6-2015)

This week’s featured post is “The Individual and the Herd“.

This week everybody was talking about vaccinations

The week was a lesson in the unpredictability of presidential campaigns. When Chris Christie planned his trip to London, it probably never occurred to him that the headline would be his comments on vaccinations, or that before it was all said and done, just about all the other Republican hopefuls would have to respond.

In “The Individual and the Herd” I discuss what I think is really behind this argument: Many Republicans want to use an extremist rhetoric of individual freedom without being willing to go where it leads. In particular, you can’t understand public health without looking at things from the point of view of society and the public good. If all you can see are individual trees, any discussion about the health of the forest is going to go over your head.

But, politics of the issue aside, there really is a measles problem developing. We had this disease beaten, and now we don’t.

And let’s face it: To the extent that we are unable to come to terms with public-health and public-good problems like this, we’re uncivilized. The rest of the world sees this clearly.

and Christian/Muslim history

Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama gave a wonderful talk that I recommend everyone read. You can skip past the loosening-the-room-up humor to where he starts to get serious: “And certainly for me, this is always a chance to reflect on my own faith journey.”

Several times (most recently two weeks ago) I’ve focused on the difference between liberal religion and fundamentalist religion. One aspect of that difference is summed up in a quote often attributed to President Lincoln:

My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.

In fundamentalism, it’s obvious which side is God’s: It’s all spelled out very clearly in a “literal” interpretation of scripture. So there’s no problem problem going to extremes, because you begin with 100% certainty.

But in liberal religion, how to bring the spirit of your faith into the nitty-gritty of human experience is always a bit mysterious, and you constantly have to re-examine your actions and motives to be sure you’re still getting it right. That’s what Obama is talking about:

We should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

He goes on in that vein, in a way that I find beautiful.

But you’d never know that from the public discussion of his talk, which focused on this small excerpt, one that comes right after Obama has criticized ISIL and “those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends”:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

That statement is entirely accurate historically. But Christian-good/Muslim-bad is a central tenet of American conservatism these days, so this response from former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was far too typical:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.

Apparently one value Gilmore thinks “we all share” is to regard whatever story makes us feel good as “history”, no matter what actually happened. And he’s right: Obama doesn’t believe in that. But neither do I or a lot of other Americans … or even a lot of “believing Christians”.


The theory that Islam is an inherently violent religion runs head-on into a study showing that the murder rates in Muslim countries are much lower than in non-Muslim countries.


Some secularists segued from Obama’s criticism of Christianity to a denunciation of religion in general: They all have been used to justify wars and atrocities at one time or another, so they should all be done away with.

This is where I think the Ta-Nehisi Coates quote at the top of this post fits in: People seeking power or exercising power are always going to justify what they do in whatever way things get justified in their culture. (Stalinists used to describe their version of Marxism as “scientific” and make reference to the “laws of History” rather than the will of God.) For most of history, that’s meant justification in religious terms. But getting rid of religion wouldn’t change the underlying dynamic. Rationalization will use whatever tools are at hand.

And religiously-justified atrocities are never going to convince ordinary people stop practicing religion. It’s like drinking alcohol: If you regularly enjoy a glass of wine at dinner without it ever leading to anything horrible, hearing about drunk drivers who kill innocent children or alcoholics who wreck their own lives isn’t going to persuade you to stop. Your own positive experiences are always going to trump horror stories about somebody else.

and the budget

From the news coverage, you’d never know that President Obama has proposed a budget for the next fiscal year. It fleshes out some of the ideas he floated in the State of the Union, like free community college and a middle-class tax break. Given that Republicans control Congress, the Obama budget probably isn’t going anywhere. But Paul Ryan’s budgets have also been doomed the last few years, and they got quite a bit of coverage.

The Dealbook blog at the NYT highlights Obama’s corporate tax reform proposal, and explains why no corporate tax reform is likely to be passed, no matter how much each party calls for it.

The basic idea of corporate tax reform is simple: Compared to other countries we have a high nominal corporate tax rate, but the tax code also has so many special breaks in it that few corporations (and really few large corporations) pay anything like the nominal rate. (According to Citizens for Tax Justice, when you aggregate the years 2008-2012, General Electric, Verizon, and Boeing paid a negative tax rate on their very large profits.) In theory, American business in general would benefit if we could lower the nominal rate while getting rid of loopholes.

The problem is, neither party really wants to do that. Democrats mainly want to reverse the long-term slide in the percentage of revenue the government gets from corporations, while Republicans want revenue to slide further. The corporations whose campaign contributions call the tune in Congress just want to pay less tax; preferably they’d get lower tax rates and more loopholes. Or maybe the loopholes could go away temporarily and then get put right back in.

and you also might be interested in …

Rick Perry’s case for becoming president rests on his record in Texas, which he says created 1/3 of all the new jobs in America during his tenure, and claims as proof that his keep-taxes-low and get-government-out-of-the-way policies work. Another view, though, is that he was governor of an oil state during a time of high oil prices. Now oil prices have fallen, so it will be interesting to see if the Texas “miracle” continues.

The collapse of oil prices is happening on his successor’s watch, though, so Perry may be able to avoid blame for the consequences. But Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is not so lucky. He’s still governor, his state is still largely dependent on oil, and it faces a projected $1.6 billion deficit in the coming year, caused partly by the big tax cuts he pushed through during the boom part of the boom-and-bust cycle. Jindal’s presidential prospects will end if he raises taxes, and Louisiana already ranks near the bottom of all states in per capita education and health-care spending (and in results; the people of Louisiana are relatively unhealthy and uneducated, compared to other states), so it will be interesting to see what he does.


It looks like that Oregon bakery is going to have to pay damages to the same-sex couple it refused to make a wedding cake for. (The amount is still to be determined.) Salon‘s Gabriel Arana is not sympathetic.

At heart, what the religious right is asking for with its “religious liberty” campaign is to rewrite our secular code to allow the practice of refusing service to members of society for no substantive reason other than to express moral disapproval. They are unlikely to succeed. That’s because this is a debate we’ve already had and settled. … As a society, we decided, after more than a century of wrangling, that our civic code required citizens to treat each other equally in the arenas of commerce, housing and public accommodations—even if your religion says you don’t have to, or that you shouldn’t.

… The problem with these [anti-gay religious liberty] bills is that it’s impossible to write them in a way that doesn’t also uphold the right to discriminate against people on the basis of race; you either have to use broad language to write the bill so it can’t be construed as singling out gay people, or specify that all other forms of discrimination are bad except discrimination against gays.

These attempts to write prejudice into our civic code will fail. We long ago decided the mantle of religion does not override our basic duty to be decent to one another.

and let’s close with something creative

Steven Benedict did a smash-up of lines from Coen brothers movies to create a conversation. As he describes it:

The characters talk to one another across the films so we can more clearly hear the Coens’ dominant concerns: identity, miscommunication and morality. Taken as a trinity, these elements indicate that the Coens’ true subject is the search for value in a random and amoral universe.

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Comments

  • Anonymous  On February 9, 2015 at 11:46 am

    In the name of religion………

  • orionblair  On February 9, 2015 at 11:54 am

    In the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople, which was held not by Muslims but by Orthodox Christians. Christians committed atrocities against Christians.

  • Cathy Strasser  On February 9, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    And let’s not forget Northern Ireland where Protestants and Catholics waged war on one another within this century.

    • way2gosassy  On February 9, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      Not sure that war is really over. I think it is just underground.

  • heimp  On February 9, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    Oh ya, it’s definitely authoritarianism’s fault, not religion’s. Check out Bob Altemeyer’s research on it. Unfortunately authoritarianism has 8 syllables, so it probably won’t become a buzzword.

  • coppersbuddy60  On February 9, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    One of your best pieces to date. Kudos.

    Sent from Samsung tablet

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