E. J. Dionne report

As promised, I attended a lecture by E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist, at a Baptist church tonight. Dionne was there under the auspices of the Texas Freedom Network, promoting his new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right. Here’s what the incredibly gaudy church background looked like.


Everything Else Atheist was also with me, and she might write up her own reactions later.

The lecture was about what I expected, which is to say, promising but ultimately disappointing. Dionne believes that religion has a solid place in public discourse, and it has been shanghai’d by the religious right unfairly. He told a joke in which a Republican asks a Democrat what the Democrat would do if Jesus ran as a Republican. The Democrat replies “Why would Jesus change his affiliation after all these years?”

Dionne was full of praise for the importance of religion in people’s lives, saying that religion grapples with mysteries that science and politics cannot address. (Well yes, in the first place, many of those issues are addressed by science and politics; in the second place, just because religion grapples with them does not mean that it successfully addresses any of them.) He also leveled a great deal of criticism against what he perceives as the unfairly dismissive attitude toward religion by many liberals, saying liberals assume that all religious people are “busybodies obsessed with sex” based on the prevailing opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Dionne did make a good point about the way that “moral values” tend to be framed in politics. He cited a clearly slanted 2004 exit poll which asked voters what issues most strongly influenced their vote. The options included such things as “moral values,” “education,” “the Iraq war,” etc. Dionne rightly pointed out that if you describe either of the latter two as your most important concerns, then you are implicitly agreeing that moral values are less important to you. In reality, as he then pointed out, if neither education nor war is regarded as a moral concern, then there is something seriously wrong with our thinking. On the other hand, I of course believe that it is a mistake to attempt to unduly equate moral values with religious beliefs.

In the end Dionne suggests that it’s important for Americans on both sides of the political spectrum to embrace their faith and accept it in public life.

There was a Q&A period where people walked up to microphones. Unfortunately I was not very nimble and wound up sixth in line, with answers to the first five questions taking up a good 5-10 minutes or so each. Luckily he still had time to answer my question, but after I went up he asked the remaining people in line to limit themselves to a brief, unanswered comment. I will try to reconstruct my statement/question from memory, and then summarize his response.

“Mr. Dionne, thank you for coming here tonight. My name is Russell Glasser, my father and I are long time fans of your column. I am also a member of the Atheist Community of Austin.” [Dionne jokingly interjected “God bless you” to which I simply replied “Thank you.”]

“Speaking as someone from the 15% of voters who do not claim any personal god, I feel that unbelievers are often caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to selecting a political party. I believe that somewhere around 80% of us voted for both Kerry and Obama. [Dionne nodded, indicating he was familiar with this.] Many atheists might be there by default, because frankly the Republican party is full of lunatics. I personally know only one atheist Republican, while most atheists who lean conservative gravitate toward the libertarian party.

“I think the reason separation of church and state is so important is not simply because it panders to people like me, but because religion is a deeply personal issue to many people. When political figures interject a religion into the dialogue, they are implicitly excluding other religions. As you pointed out, the religious right say that religious values are focused around gay marriage and abortion, which is different from the beliefs of many of the people in this church now.

“What I’m wondering is: Aren’t you concerned that by encouraging politicians on the left to use more religious language, you are buying in to the notion that this sort of exclusion has a place in politics? It seems to me that even this much is conceding too much to the right regarding their perspective about the appropriate role of religion?”

I got a smattering of applause for this remark. Dionne answered that he understands my concerns, and mentions that he always says to believers that they ought to seek out conversations with atheists, because they should be prepared to defend their beliefs. Not quite the answer I was looking for, since I am more interested in wanting to engage with atheists at least partly out of recognition that there is no need to believe in God as a prerequisite to work towards shared social goals.

He then went on to say that it is possible to talk about religion without being disrespectful to nonbelievers, and it is important to do so. Finally, he added encouragingly that he would bet atheists are probably under reported by polling, since fewer people will admit to it.

After talk I saw a few familiar faces. Dr. James Dee popped up in the last set of people interjecting comments and made a comment about needing to read the Bible in the original languages. A regular commenter on this blog came up to me in the lobby and introduced himself, adding that he’ll be joining us on the bat cruise this weekend.

In conclusion, I understand what Dionne is trying to do, but I still come away deeply unconvinced by the argument that the solution to religion in politics is more religion in politics. While I agree that it would be a mistake to ignore the role of religion in history, I see no compelling reason to believe that religion is a necessary or sufficient motivator to bring about positive changes. To give credit to God for human achievements is, in my opinion, an insult to human spirit. And considering the potential that religion always has to divide people, I really feel like Democrats should be especially wary of trying to use it for short term gain.

The dark, frightening abyss that is Brannon Howse’s world

It always helps to be reminded of a salient fact when dealing with the fundamentalist extremist: literally every single aspect of their lives is governed by fear. It is a dark and frightening world in which they live, made all the more grim by the way the dark fearfulness of it is so easily embraced by the believer, who disguises it under a thin veneer of righteousness and the sense of empowerment that comes from believing one is part of an oppressed minority.

I have brought up Brannon Howse and his personal neurosis factory, the Christian Worldview Network, for mockery here many times. I regularly get their email newsletters, and believe me, this guy has never met an over-the-top paranoid Obama conspiracy theory he didn’t like. His contributors are a rogue’s gallery of the spiritually psychotic: David Noebel, Ray Comfort, Phyllis Schlafly, David Barton, Kan Ham.

Howse’s latest ridiculous rant is one of those revealing moments in fundie bloviation that serves to remind those of us in the reality-based community just what this country has to deal with. It has the ominous title “Is America at a Dangerous Tipping Point for Receiving God’s Judgment?”, which is entirely in character, as Howse only does ominous titles. Remember when I said that every aspect of the extremist’s life is governed by fear? Well, that doesn’t just apply to Obama, teh gayz, libruls, evilutionists, or (Howse’s favorite villain-of-the-week) “Fabian Socialists.” There’s one thing the Howses of the world are even more scared of than all those things: their God. This week, Howse cannot stop wringing his hands (mostly in fear, but one detects a hint of sadistic glee as well) over the destruction he is sure God is about to wreak upon America, because, apparently…

…our nation has murdered nearly 50 million unborn children, states are rushing toward homosexual marriage, God is outlawed in our nation’s public schools, the criminalization of Christianity is greatly increasing, only 1% of adults have a Christian worldview and false-teaching and pagan spirituality has become mainstream.

I must say I found a lot of that surprising. Only 1% of American adults are Christians? If only! Of course, Howse really means that, by his estimation (and it’s one that lets him play the “me so persecuted” card with shameless impunity), only 1% of Americans are True Christians™ like him. The others are all misled fools who’ve embraced false teachings and “pagan spirituality.” Hmm. Okay. Though I must admit, this imaginary Scary America that exists between Howse’s ears is one I wouldn’t mind living in.

And what’s all this about the “criminalization of Christianity”? Seriously? You’d think if this were the case, then law enforcement would have a hard time overlooking all these hundreds of churches that appear on every fucking block in every town in the country, and be about raiding them Waco-style with greater efficiency than they seem to be employing at present. I mean, let’s look at something in our country that is criminalized, like drugs. So if we lived in some bizarro parallel universe in which drugs were “criminalized” to the same degree Howse thinks Christianity is, then this would be a parallel universe in which meth labs operated on every street corner like drive-in burger joints, vending machines sold both Coke and…coke, and you could pick up Master Kush and Purple Haze marijuana buds at your local nursery or Home Depot.

Truly, Howse is a silly, silly man. But the kind of fear he spouts — an all-consuming, comprehensive existential terror in which you are literally never safe from anything, including the God you profess to love — somehow hits huge numbers of people where they live. It speaks to them. And that, more than anything, is the tragedy of the religious mind. The brighter the beliefs look to the believer, the darker the abyss they actually inhabit.


PS: I just remembered…Howse did one of his Code Blue rallies here in Austin two days ago. No idea how it went yet. I’ll do some digging.

TFN Political event alert

I’m planning to attend this event hosted by the Texas Freedom Network.

From my inbox:


Could the religious right really be on the decline in America?

Come hear E.J. Dionne, the award-winning columnist for The Washington Post and author of the best-selling book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right, at a Faith and Freedom Speaker Series event on September 24 in Austin. Dionne is one of the nation’s most respected voices on the intersection of faith and politics in America today.

As a liberal, I enjoy EJ Dionne’s column in the Washington Post and appreciate any opportunity to tweak the religious right. On the other hand, as an atheist I have serious misgivings about any efforts by the left to “reclaim” faith and politics. I am not particularly concerned by candidates who mention their own religious beliefs as a personal matter — frankly I appreciate the opportunity to find out who to be wary of — but I think religion has no place ever being an explicit part of politics.

In any case, I’m certainly interested in going to see what Dionne has to say, perhaps armed with a few pointed questions at the end. If anyone wants to join me, click on the link at the top. It is free to the public, but you are advised to reserve your spot as seating will be limited.

Texas SBOE: The beatings continue

Don McLeroy may no longer be in charge, but the State Board of Education in our poor beleaguered state is no less risible and contemptible. Just how many scathing editorials must these idiots receive before they start getting the message? That’s a rhetorical question, so don’t bother answering it, because it answers itself: They will never be humbled, because it is in the nature of fundamentalist ideologues to embrace the martyrdom of criticism, and the more abuse they take from the fallen secular world, the more proof that is to them that they’re doing right by their Lord. These are people who take Jesus’s line that “if the world hates you, remember it hated me first” to heart, and no mistake.

Anyway, the latest thrashing has been administered by the Corpus Christi Caller:

…The State Board of Education has rarely failed in its efforts to look ridiculous, as when it voted, some time back, not to require biology textbooks to include the theory of evolution. Or, more recently, when a panel of “experts” chosen by Republican members of the board urged the removal from the standards of [Cesar] Chávez, who greatly improved conditions for Hispanic farm workers, and [Thurgood] Marshall, who argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that resulted in racial desegregation.

The state board is an embarrassment and will continue to be an embarrassment so long as narrow-minded ideologues and culture warriors dominate the agenda. You can argue that “education” is the least of their priorities.

That’ll leave a mark! Or it would, if these people had any sense of humility or decency whatsoever.

Hey, wasn’t the Institute for Creation “Research” suing Texas or something?

Yeah, they were, weren’t they? So what’s become of that? Well, it would appear that, like all lawsuits, it’s becoming the usual drawn-out exercise in paperwork-generating tedium. But the ICR did, amusingly, recently file a motion for summary judgment, before the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board even managed to complete discovery for their defense. Basically the ICR’s argument is a variant on the tried-and-true “Waah we’re Christians and rules don’t apply to us!” whine creationists typically rely on. You can read the motion, the burden of which is that, because the ICR doesn’t take state money, the THECB has no jurisdiction over them. The THECB responds by saying, well, yes we do. Ah, it’s never a dull moment dealing with entitled creationists who feel they can “educate” without any oversight.

Wait, what am I saying? It’s nothing but dull moments! Criminy.


From the ICR motion:

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (“THECB”), to the extent that it claims any jurisdictional or regulatory authority over ICRGS’s academic liberties under the Texas Education Code (e.g., under its Chapter 61 or otherwise), does so improperly, because ICRGS is statutorily exempt from the Texas Education Code’s application, as the fairly simple text of said §1.001(a) clearly shows.

From the THECB’s response:

Plaintiff’s contention purposefully and improperly ignores the remainder of the Texas Education Code…. Chapter 61 of the Texas Education Code — the Higher Education Coordinating Act of 1965 — includes a subchapter which expressly authorizes the Higher Education Coordinating Board to regulate private postsecondary educational institutions.

Wow. Quote-mining the law now? How very creationist of them.

Come on, John Ensign…you’re not trying!

The latest hilarious story of a politician with a roving willy is that of Nevada Republican senator John Ensign, who has shamefacedly confessed to an extramarital affair. Like the disgraced Democratic New York governor Eliot Spitzer, Ensign is your garden variety moral hypocrite, with an extra special twist that makes the schadenfreude at his downfall especially delightful. Because, being a Republican, Ensign’s big bugaboo was the “threat” of gay marriage, and how it threatened to “weaken” traditional marriages like the one he was betraying. Among other things, Ensign was very vocal in his calling for Larry “Wide Stance” Craig to resign. Here’s Ensign on marriage catching teh gay.

“The effort to pass a constitutional amendment reaffirming marriage as being between a man and a woman only is being undertaken strictly as a defense of marriage against the attempt to redefine it and, in the process, weaken it,” Ensign said. “Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our constitution.” [Emphasis added.]

Seems to me Ensign isn’t spinning this with the kind of gusto one expects from the right. I mean, hasn’t it occurred to him that he could parlay his philandering ways into proof of his anti-gay marriage thesis?

Clearly, what happened was that, when all these rainbow-flag waving liberals and spearchucking lesbians began demanding marriage equality, Ensign’s marriage was so “weakened,” that he just couldn’t stop himself from having an extramarital affair! If only gay marriage hadn’t become a political hot button topic, the marriages of healthy straight Christians like John Ensign, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, and so very many others, would have been as towering in their strength as a Himalayan peak! Right. Right? So what more proof do you people need that we must stand unwavering against the threat of gay marriage, lest more heterosexuals fall victim to the monogamy-dampening effects of their gay rays.

What…you’re saying no one would buy it? Well, no, they wouldn’t, except for the inmates over at WorldNutDaily and the Christian Worldview Network. But my point is, heck, he could have at least tried, you know. Jeez, even Bill Clinton had the stones to come up with such artistically inventive rhetorical interpretive dance as “That depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” So come on, Sen. Ensign, step up! Haven’t we earned the right to expect at least that from our politicians?

Toodles, Mac!

From a TFN email alert:

Senate Sends Message to State Board of Education: No More Culture Wars

Moments ago, the Texas Senate voted to reject Don McLeroy as chairman of the State Board of Education. The 19-11 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for confirmation. Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller is releasing the following statement:

“Watching the state board the last two years has been like watching one train wreck after another. We had hoped that the Legislature would take more action to put this train back on the tracks, but clearly new leadership on the board was a needed first step. The governor should know that parents will be watching closely to see whether he chooses a new chairman who puts the education of their children ahead of personal and political agendas.”

Thanks to all of you who made calls and wrote letters about this important nomination. The Senate clearly heard your demands for responsible, common-sense leadership on the state board.

Regardless of the governor’s selection for the next chair of the board, our work is not done. With your support, TFN will continue leading the charge for sound education standards, ideology-free textbooks and the best interests of Texas school children.

Whew.

Now watch. Perry will get his revenge and appoint Cynthia Dunbar now.

Bang bang shoot shoot!

One state senator I suspect will not be voting today against Don McLeroy is my own, Republican Jeff Wentworth. And it’s not simply because he’s Republican, but because he’s so far to the right that he’s actually sponsored a bill here in Texas no one but the NRA wants: SB 1164, which would allow people to carry concealed handguns into buildings on college campuses.

I’m no reactionary anti-gun lefty (no, really, I’m not, so this isn’t going to be the equivalent to those arguments you hear from right-wingers railing against sex and porn by starting “I’m no prude, but…” who then go on to illustrate in detail how big a prude they really are). But anyone sensible ought to see the flaw in Wentworth’s logic. He begins by cynically exploiting fears of another Virginia Tech massacre, where hapless students were “picked off like sitting ducks” because the law left them defenseless. In the Hollywood fantasies of Wentworth, such massacres would be stopped dead in their tracks by courageous, armed law-abiding heroes ready to leap into action like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, busting caps and saving lives.

Setting aside obvious objections to this scenario — like the extreme rarity of such shootings overall, and the presumed readiness of regular people to respond to such a crisis with the cool head of a trained police officer or Navy SEAL simply because they took a 10-hour gun safety course — you’ll notice that Wentworth immediately kneecaps his own fantasy by assuring skeptics that, for one thing, the proposed law would only apply to those legally able to own guns in Texas in the first place: people over 21. So there’s no need to worry about hordes of hormonally distressed 18 and 19 year olds walking around campus packing. It’ll just be the older and wiser seniors, grad students, and staff, all of whom can be counted on for rational level-headedness every time.

So we should support the law because, we’re told, it’ll save lives, and we shouldn’t worry about its possible negatives, because most people on a college campus wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it anyway.

Bwuh? So, excuse me, how will lives be saved here? I mean, what’s to stop our hypothetical armed psycho from simply wandering into a large class packed with freshmen and sophomores, led by a professor who has chosen not to exercise her concealed carry rights (which will be most of them), and opening up? If the nearest legally-packing senior is up on the third floor, or, say, six buildings away, how many lives will be lost in the time it takes him to sprint to the scene and do his Keanu bit?

And what of other concerns that seem not to have occurred to Wentworth at all? Like, what if a legally armed senior has his registered piece stowed in his backpack? And then he ducks out of class to go to the bathroom? And in that time, his backpack is stolen?

And as anyone who’s ever been to college knows, no one in campus dorms ever gets drunk…

It’s one thing to want to find ways to protect people from those in our society who would harm us. We all want that. But in a perfect world, while we could easily prevent all crimes simply by passing law after law to head the bad guys off at the pass every time, the truth is we don’t live in that world. If college students in Texas didn’t need the passage of a concealed carry law after Charles Whitman’s rampage (and yes, I know that sportsmen with their hunting rifles helped hold Whitman at bay during all that, but that was still after he’d mowed down a number of innocents), then what exactly has changed since 1966? Other than the NRA’s lobbying power and hold over the GOP?

Could Thursday be D-Day for McLeroy?

Texas’ official State Embarrassment Don McLeroy will find out tomorrow, hints the TFN, whether or not his appointment as chair of the universally derided State Board of Education will stand or fall. The Democrats claim to have all the votes they need to block his approval, but one should never underestimate the underhanded dealings and shenanigans of far-right Christian ideologues in Texas.

McLeroy has to go. This should be a no-brainer. But there are plenty of people in this state with no brains actively bucking for him. Why, apart from the fact he’s subjected the state to nationwide ridicule and overtly based his policymaking on his far-right religious ideals, has he been such a disaster heading up the SBOE? Well, you see, chairing the SBOE isn’t exactly the kind of place where one expects showboating political ideologues to make waves. It ought to be a non-partisan, administrative position focused on doing whatever it takes to improve the quality of education for the state’s schoolchildren, full stop, whatever this or that lobbying group with an agenda demands. Those inclined to defend Mac by saying “The Texas Freedom Network is a lobbying group too!” should extricate their craniums from their rectums long enough to note that had right-wing Christians on the SBOE not actively engaged such groups as the Discovery Institute in formulating state science education policies, the TFN could well have stayed home.

Apart from the coordinated gang-rape of science education that Mac has led at the Board, he has…

  • …also injected extremist right-wing ideology into social studies curricula, by appointing outright cranks to review panels to judge social studies standards. Among these are Christian Reconstructionist quote fabricator David Barton of Wallbuilders, whose agenda is promoting the theocratic “Christian Nation” myth; Bill Ames, a “textbook reviewer” for ultra-right harpy Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum; Peter Marshall, a four-alarm wackaloon of the Fred Phelps school, who has described Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for teh gayz, and demanding Christian parents pull their kids out of public school; and sexist creationist clod Allen Quist. Yeah, that’s the kind of review panel Texas education needs: a bunch of lying education haters.
  • …summarily rejected a set of recommendations, put together by experts and educators over a three-year period, for English and language arts standards, in favor of an 11th-hour quickie set of standards drafted in one night by Mac’s fellow ideologues, and rushed into a vote without adequate time for review.

Hopefully, our senators will do the right thing and, in one very small way (after all, Mac won’t be removed from the SBOE if his chairmanship is not approved, he just won’t be chair), we will begin to turn the tide and push back against the despicable, mortifying, and contemptible ignorance and arrogance that has poisoned not only education in Texas, but the reputation of the state as a whole.

Christian radio hypes gold. A lot.

I’ve been listening to Christian radio lately, and I’m hearing a LOT of commercial programs hyping investments in gold. Now, I’m not really up on current prices of precious metals. I did do a show where I mentioned Liberty Dollars, which I consider to be a massive ripoff.

I’m generally interested in scams and ripoffs, and my skepticism sensor get triggered loudly when I hear a program (1) on Christian radio (2) involving pushy marketing hype, that (3) pushes an investment that is perfect for EVERYONE, and (4) predicts financial doom for anyone who does not participate.

This last bit, as I have probably said before, is a hallmark of both sneaky advertising and religion. It short-circuits your ability to think rationally about an idea on its merits, instead cutting straight to emotions and panicking you by making you think that you’ll be tortured forever (or whatever) if you dare to even ask questions about the concept.

So in this case, what’s at stake is the total meltdown of all world markets, where stocks will be worthless and a dollar in the bank will be about as valuable as a Russian ruble. Only precious metals can save you from a fate of scraping food out of dumpsters for your children. Very, very soon now.

Look. I don’t have a problem with gold as an investment. It is indeed the case that as the economy gets worse, the value of gold rises with respect to the dollar; as, indeed, will your pounds, francs, lira, and yen. If the dollar is doing badly, it makes sense to own something that is not a dollar. Simple as that.

Unlike most stock indices, the value of gold has actually increased pretty significantly since the year 2000. With hindsight, it’s been a good recent investment.

But watch out, because after a commodity rises in value is not the best time to buy. There was a stock bubble, then a housing bubble, and the fact that gold is not rising doesn’t mean that gold is going to do well forever. I’m not saying it’s a scam, but the hype currently surrounding gold does set my spidey-sense tingling like crazy. When lots of voices start loudly pitching something, it usually means there’s money to be made — not by you, but from you. They’ve probably latched on to a pretty good gig in convincing people to shell out their money for something much more expensive than it’s worth.

Anyway, the question is, why Christian radio? Is it just because there are so many gullible people there who are already conditioned to respond to threats of impending doom?