Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.

– George Orwell

This week’s featured posts are “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline” and “Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today“.

This week there was nothing much to say about impeachment

The House has passed articles of impeachment, but adjourned for the holidays without sending them to the Senate. So officially, nothing happened this week.

Nancy Pelosi wants to get a commitment from Mitch McConnell that the Senate will hold a real trial, with witnesses, including the big ones the House wasn’t able to get to testify: Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton. McConnell knows that more (and more impressive) testimony will only make it harder for Republican senators (especially the ones facing tough re-election fights in 2020) to ignore the facts and vote to acquit their party’s president. So he’d like to make this process go away with as few headlines as possible.

Pelosi only has two pieces of leverage: She can delay by not delivering the articles, and the public agrees with her about witnesses. She needs four Republican senators to surrender to some combination of public opinion and their consciences. I’m not predicting that, but it’s within the realm of possibility.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she was “disturbed” by McConnell’s willingness to work hand-in-glove with the White House on impeachment. But whether her disturbance translates into any actual votes — either on process or substance — remains to be seen. Other Republican senators have either been full-throated Trump partisans or have stayed quiet.

The one substantive development in the impeachment case tightened the timeline of Trump’s Ukraine shakedown:

About 90 minutes after President Trump held a controversial telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in July, the White House budget office ordered the Pentagon to suspend all military aid that Congress had allocated to Ukraine, according to emails released by the Pentagon late Friday.

but there were two acts of religious violence

Five were wounded in a knife attack during a Hanukkah celebration in the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York. Presumably the motive has something to do with anti-Semitism, but there’s been no official statement.

Three people, including the attacker, were killed in a shooting at a church in White Settlement, Texas. Two members of the church’s security team shot the gunman. It’s easy to guess both the pro-gun and anti-gun versions of this story: “Thank God somebody at the church had a gun to stop the attack.” and “That’s how gun-crazy our culture has gotten: Our churches are like the OK Corral.”

and I’m still trying to figure out “religious liberty”

I’ve often been critical of the way the Christian Right has co-opted the concept of “religious liberty”. (Going back to my 2013 article “Religious Freedom means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“).

Decades ago, the principle of religious liberty prevented the abuse of religious minorities by the more powerful religions. (You can’t, for example, require employees to work on Saturday as a way to avoid hiring Jews. You can’t ban new steeples in order to keep a Mormon temple out of your town.) Now “religious liberty” means that the majority religion is free to throw its weight around, which is more-or-less the opposite of what it used to mean.

But that’s my jaundiced outsider’s view. So it’s worthwhile to consider the insider’s view that conservative WaPo columnist Hugh Hewitt presents in “Evangelicals should thank Trump for protecting their religious liberty“. Hewitt uses six Supreme Court cases since 2014 to “illustrate the stakes” of what he sees as the liberal assault on religious liberty.

Looking at Hewitt’s list, though, I don’t see embattled Christians just trying to practice their faith. I see the religious right’s aggression against the rest of us:

  • Hobby Lobby, where the Supreme Court ruled that an employer’s Christian beliefs trump the right of employees to make their own healthcare choices.
  • Greece v Galloway, which established a town council’s right to begin its meetings with sectarian prayers. (My take in that week’s summary: “If you’re in the majority and you want to lord it over the minority, the Court thinks you should dot your i‘s and cross your t‘s first, but otherwise, go ahead.”)
  • Trinity Lutheran v Comer, which allows public money to be spent on religious institutions.
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop, where the issue is whether Christian businesses can violate discrimination laws.
  • Becerra. Crisis pregnancy centers run by religious groups don’t have to tell women about the state services available to them, and unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers don’t have tell anyone that they’re unlicensed.
  • American Legion. Public money can be spent to maintain Christian religious symbols.

One thing I have never seen in these religious-right cases is a clear explanation of how the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of “religious liberty” protects anyone other than conservative Christians. In general, phrasing rights in terms of religion implies that religious people have special rights that don’t apply to people with secular motivations.

and you also might be interested in …

Trump retweeted an apparent outing of the whistleblower Friday night. This appears to be a violation of the law protecting whistleblowers, but it’s Trump. What’s new about him breaking the law?

The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is making a push into what was formerly rebel-held territory in the northwestern Idlib region. The Washington Post says 250,000 people have fled in just the last two weeks.

Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs Democracy (which I reviewed in UU World) draws a lesson from the growing extremism of the Hindu nationalist Modi government in India: authoritarian populist regimes get worse in their second terms.

As we’ve seen in countries including Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, populist leaders are at first hamstrung in their ability to concentrate power in their own hands. Many key institutions, including courts and electoral commissions, are still dominated by independent-minded professionals who do not owe their appointment to the new regime. Media outlets are still able and willing to report on scandals, forcing the government to tread somewhat carefully.

Once these governments win reelection, these constraints begin to fall away. As the independent-minded judges and civil servants depart, populist leaders feel emboldened to pursue their illiberal dreams.

Saudi Arabia has finished accounting for the murder of Virginia resident and WaPo contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Five people were sentenced to death, but justice stayed far away from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have ordered the murder.

The claim by the Saudi prosecutors, who report directly to the royal court, that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in a “spur of the moment” decision defies all the evidence that points to a premeditated extrajudicial assassination — the bone saw the assailants brought along, the gruesome chitchat taped by Turkish intelligence, the Khashoggi look-alike who was filmed walking out of the consulate after the killing.

When Trump claims that he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and get away with it, you have to remember that some of his biggest allies on the world stage literally do such things.

Trump’s pardon of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher looks worse and worse the more we find out. The NYT got hold of videos of the testimony from Gallagher’s fellow SEALs.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators.

Local newspapers are getting thinner across the country, and many areas have essentially no local news coverage. In many towns, something calling itself a local paper survives, but it is owned by a distant conglomerate with little local presence.

I have to wonder if we’ll soon see an uptick in small-government corruption, or if maybe it’s already happening but going unreported. It’s easy to get away something if nobody’s covering town councils and other public bodies. And in cities with just one major news source (i.e., most of them) the publisher may just be one more party who needs to be cut in on the deal.

Climate change in a nutshell: 2019 is going to be Alaska’s warmest year on record, but it’s ending with a dangerous cold snap. Temperatures of -60 F and colder have been recorded.

and let’s close with something cute

It’s a week (and a decade) that calls for puppy pictures. I have a particular weakness for huskies, but the link includes many breeds.

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  • dianejyoung  On December 30, 2019 at 3:36 pm

    “Trump retweeted an apparent outing of the whistleblower Friday night. This appears to be a violation of the law protecting whistleblowers…” My research, low level as it is, shows that only retaliation is a violation of the law. Identifying the whistleblower is not. I looked it up a while ago to confirm my instinctive understanding—same as yours—and was surprised to find that I was wrong. Can you show us something that supports the violation you think occurred?

    • George Washington, Jr.  On December 30, 2019 at 9:17 pm

      It has to be viewed in context. Trump has already called for the whistleblower’s execution (by saying how “spies” are dealt with), so releasing his name publicly isn’t illegal in itself, but taken in conjunction with his previous statement, it’s incitement to commit murder.

      Let’s say Charles Manson tells Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and other Family members that there are some “piggies” he wants killed, but doesn’t provide their names until the next day when he reveals that he has Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas in mind. He never says “go out and kill these specific people,” but he was still convicted on conspiracy charges.

      • Thomas Paine  On December 31, 2019 at 4:25 am

        “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

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