Creating the conditions for a just society

The previous post that dealt with Dominionist’s negative views towards gays generated an interesting set of comments that frame nicely the kinds of problems we face when we try to arrive at rules for society that we can all live by and perceive as fair. (I will defer the planned posts on the religious opposition to Darwin to address this question first.)

In those comments, Joe’s understanding of Christianity leads him to think of homosexual behavior as sinful although he is not hostile to gays as people, drawing a parallel between the way that we can view alcoholism as bad while not thinking of alcoholics as evil people. Katie’s interpretation of Christianity, on the other hand, leads her to being a passionate supporter of gay rights. Aaron is an atheist, and Christianity-based arguments don’t have much sway with him. And, of course, there is a huge range of beliefs that span these three particular viewpoints. So how does one arrive at public policies that can be accepted as fair by everyone, not just with regard to gay rights, but in all aspects of public life?

Joe quotes the Bible to support his position on the gay issue but such an argument has no persuasive power for those who do not accept the Bible as anything other than literature. For such people, quoting the Bible carries as much weight as quoting Shakespeare. Also, quoting the Bible gets one into dueling battles of scripture verses, because those Christians (like Katie and Ran) who are accepting of gays have their own Biblical justifications for their actions and can cite verses too. And I suspect that if members of some other religion (say Islam) quoted their religious text in support of some policy that Christians found unacceptable, the latter are not likely to find it persuasive. So how do we decide what to do?

The problem has an easy solution if you think you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong. Then all you have to do is to find the means to enforce your ideas on everyone, using the apparatus of state power, comforted in the knowledge that you alone are the guardian of universal truths. This is the way that authoritarian governments function. Such governments may claim to base their actions on religion or morals, and feel that they are serving God and that everything they do is for the greater good. But those people who do not share the beliefs and values of those in power are unlikely to feel that they are being treated fairly, even if they are not being severely discriminated against or suffering outright persecution.

Leaving aside this option of imposing one’s views on others by force (which I am assuming that we agree is a bad idea), the other usual solution is majoritarianism (not to be confused with democracy) where the views of the majority are allowed to prevail unchecked by any other considerations. Then the political struggle lies in how to persuade the majority to adopt the point of view that we prefer, and once persuaded, to codify those ideas into laws that can be enforced on the minority.

But majoritarianism is also unlikely to be perceived as fair by all except in those extremely rare instances where everyone has a fair chance at being in the majority or to persuade the majority to accept their point of view. So, for example, since Christians are the numerical majority in the US, believers in that religion have a chance of getting majority support for government laws and policies based on Christianity, assuming for the moment that they want to. But Muslims, Wiccans, Jews, Buddhists, etc. have little or no chance of getting their religion as the basis of policy in this country.

Christians might respond that that is just tough luck. They might argue that the US is a Christian country and all others will just have to live with the consequences of this. This is what members of groups like the Dominionist want to see happen and are working towards, and since Christians are in the majority, they have a chance of making this come to pass.

A lot of public policy advocacy involves this type of reasoning. We advocate and make rules and laws based on our own particular situation. So for example, people who think they personally are unlikely to commit particular acts can advocate harsh penalties for those acts while going easy on other acts that they can conceive being guilty of. So we have harsh penalties for smoking marijuana while cheating on taxes gets off easy. Petty thievery carries with it a good chance of prison but abusing and harassing workers does not. Those who never drink alcohol might be in favor of draconian penalties for drunk driving while people who do drink moderately may favor a system of warnings and graduated penalties, since there is always the chance that they might inadvertently do this. Of course, each side can rationalize their decisions.

It is hard to ignore the fact that self-interest and self-preservation play a role in creating those policies that we now take for granted. The problem is that basing policy preferences on our own personal situation is unlikely to lead to consensus on what is a fair policy, since each person’s situation is different. It also means that those people who are not members of the rule-making majority class are unlikely to perceive the society as treating them fairly.

This is where John Rawls’ policy of trying to achieve ‘justice as fairness’ by creating rules behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ comes in handy in trying to see how to work things out. (See here for a previous posting on this subject. Full disclosure: I haven’t completed reading Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice yet so I will probably not be portraying his ideas correctly in all its aspects. But his ‘veil of ignorance’ idea strikes me as a really powerful problem-solving heuristic for addressing social problem and I am going to start using it to analyze this problem, even if I get some things wrong. I know that some readers of this blog are more familiar with Rawls’ ideas and I hope they will feel free to correct and elaborate as needed.)

The main idea of Rawls is that we decide on the rules of society without knowing in advance what our own specific situation in society is. So the challenge for all of us is to decide on the laws and policies under which we are all going to be governed, while acknowledging that there are going to be a whole range of possible personal situations in society, that we might occupy any one of them, and that we do not know in advance of making the rules what our specific situation is going to be.

This is not such a strange concept. In fact it is quite instinctive in some aspects of ordinary daily life. We do it all the time, for example, when designing and playing games. The rules of games are decided in advance of the game beginning so that all players, whether they eventually win or lose, will accept the outcome as fair. And these rules are not always based on assuming that each player has equal talents but presuppose that the players will have a range of abilities.

So if people organize a pickup game of softball and teams have to be selected, it is usually done in a manner (by picking randomly or taking turns in picking players or some such system) so that the two teams have roughly equal chances at success. The same is true for the NFL draft, where the rules are more elaborate. The order of selection is decided in ways that serve the goal of achieving some level of parity for the teams and so that all teams feel that the draft selection process is fair.

Even in a game like chess, where playing white gives you an immediate advantage, you can address fairness by tossing a coin to see who gets white or by playing multiple games and changing colors each time. In professional tennis, where having the service is important, you neutralize the effect of one side of the court bestowing an advantage (because of wind direction, playing surface, background, sunlight, shadows, officials, etc.) by requiring that a player win each set with at least a two-game lead, and having the service change after the first game of each set and after every two games thereafter.

All these things are decided in advance so that once the game starts, and you know your specific situation (that you are playing black in chess or you have to receive service in tennis) you still feel that the game is fair, even if you find yourself in a slightly disadvantaged position. If the rules were such that one side had an overwhelming advantage simply due to their initial situation, then no one would play the game. In golf, allowance is also made for unequal skill by means of the handicapping system.

If we can go to such elaborate lengths to ensure that games are perceived as fair by all concerned, why is it that we do not take the same trouble to ensure that the rules and laws which govern our lives have the same structures to ensure perceptions of fairness?

One might argue that this is not possible because in the case of society, the game (so to speak) has already started, the rules are already in place, and our positions in the game are known, so we do not have the luxury of predetermining the rules using the ‘veil of ignorance.’

In future posts, I will see how we might use Rawls’ ideas to address this problem.

Dominionists and gays

Chris Hedges in his essay on the Dominionist movement in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine recalls something his ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, told him twenty five years ago. Dr. Adams, who was eighty years old at that time, told Hedges that eventually he (Hedges) would be fighting “Christian fascists” who, he said “would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Hedges continues: “Adams told us to watch closely the Christian right’s persecution of homosexuals and lesbians. Hitler, he reminded us, promised to restore moral values not long after he took power in 1933, then imposed a ban on all homosexual and lesbian organizations and publications…Homosexuals and lesbians, Adams said, would be the first “deviants” singled out by the Christian right. We would be the next.”

Was Adams being too gloomy? Was his comparison to Hitler overblown? Or was he remarkably prescient? It is hard to say. What is true is that homosexuality, like evolution, is high on the list of those things that are anathema to many religious believers, not just Christians. I have never been able to quite understand why it arouses such strong antipathy.

Take for example, all the referenda that were passed recently opposing same sex marriages. Much of the rhetoric warned that allowing gays to marry would take away from the sanctity of this institution. But we allow practically anyone to marry: murderers, rapists, pedophiles, criminals of any stripe, drug dealers, almost anybody with a pulse can marry with no restrictions whatsoever, and no one argues that this destroys the sanctity of marriage. Divorce is rampant, and yet no one is campaigning to have divorce outlawed in order to save the institution of marriage.

It is true that the Bible speaks out against homosexual behavior, but it also speaks out about a lot of things that do not get anywhere near the attention that homosexuality does. For example, homosexuality is not even one of the prohibitions cited in the Ten Commandments but adultery is. So, if someone is using the Bible as their main argument, surely for them adultery should rank worse than homosexuality and such people should also be campaigning for constitutional amendments against it?

Or is it that uniting against homosexuals is convenient because they are a minority and fairly defenseless politically? Historically, authoritarian movements have been able to unite the majority behind them by exploiting sentiment against small and powerless groups, by defining them as the “evil other.” But for this strategy to work, this “other” has to be fairly small numerically and “different.” It would be hard to mount a winning political campaign based on being against, for example, adultery. But by branding homosexuality as one of the worst forms of sexual “deviancy” it enables those who are not gay to feel very moral and superior, even though they themselves may be guilty of things that are actually harmful to others.

This is why I think that we should defend the right of gays to be treated the same way as anyone else, whether we ourselves are gay or not, or whether we even personally approve of the gay lifestyle or not. Gays are a powerless minority and the rights of powerless political minorities must be defended by all of us if we believe in a pluralistic society. Because in the end, each one of us can all be categorized as a minority is some way, and standing by while the equal rights of others are denied puts us all at risk.

Jews, Israel, and the Rapture

As pointed out earlier, believers in the Rapture are convinced that at the end of the world (which they think is imminent) all those people who are not Christians, or are even just nominal Christians and not the full-throttle version, are going to meet an extraordinarily sticky end, too gruesome for even a Quentin Tarantino or Mel Gibson film. But the role that Jews play in the rapture drama is curious and worth examining.

As Chris Hedges points out in his essay in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, the Dominionist belief in the Rapture has a role for Jews that is not very appealing. They believe that “Israel must rule the Biblical land in order for Christ to return, though when he does, all Jews who do not convert to Christianity supposedly will be incinerated as the believers are lifted into heaven.”

Gene Lyons, in his November 2004 Harper’s Magazine review of the Left Behind novels points out that “Israeli Jews play a strange role in the Left Behind series, existing to be converted or slaughtered. As God’s chosen, they are to be protected from harm until the battle of Armageddon, at which point they must accept Jesus as the Messiah or die.”

So while many fundamentalist Christians speak of their “Judeo-Christian heritage,” one suspects that what they mean by that is not that Jews and Christians are equal partners but merely that the Old Testament is an important part of their religious framework.

One might think that all Jews would recoil from being placed in this role and give a wide berth to Christian organizations that promulgate it. So then why was the Israeli Ministry of Tourism hosting a breakfast at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters association, a stronghold of Dominionist thinking? And why were Avraham Hirschohn (the Israeli Minister of Tourism) and Michael Medved (a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host) featured speakers at an event where everyone sees only two options for them – conversion to Christianity or a gruesome death?

Both Chris Hedges and Gene Lyons suggest reasons for this seemingly bizarre alliance.
Once again, it is the End Times beliefs that provide an explanation, at least for the Dominionist partners.

The book of Revelations refers to “a thousand years” several times, and end-timers have thought that this is a clue that the Rapture will occur around the time of the millennium. Revelations also gives a special role for the city of Jerusalem and these two things help bring about this alliance, overcoming what one might think is an unbridgeable chasm. As Lyons says “Ironically, given American fundamentalism’s historic ambivalence about Jews, it was the 1948 founding of Israel, coming as it did near the end of the millennium, that gave the End Times prophecy industry a boost.” The true believers see this conjunction of events as a sign of the beginning of the end.

As a result, Christian fundamentalists have become some of the strongest boosters of Israel and the most implacable foes of Islam, supporting even Israel’s most hard-line policies on settlement expansion, seeing all these things as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that the end times are near. Belief in the rapture and seeking to hasten its arrival trumps everything else. At the broadcaster’s convention, Hedges says that:

The [American] Christian writer Kay Arthur, who can barely contain her tears when speaking of Israel, professes that although she loves America, if she had to choose between America and Israel, “I would stand with Israel, stand with Israel as a daughter of the King of Kings, stand according to the word of God.” She goes on to quote at length from Revelation, speaking of Jesus seated on a throne floating about Jerusalem as believers are raptured up towards him into the sky.”

From the Israeli point of view, they obtain economic and political benefits from this alliance with a grouping that one might think they would otherwise recoil from. The immediate economic benefit is from tourism, thus explaining the Israeli tourism minister’s presence at the convention and his announcement that Israel will build a Pilgrim Center for visiting Christian tourists. As Hedges says: “Some 400,000 Christian tourists visit Israel each year, and, what with the precipitous decline in Israel’s tourism industry in recent years, these people have become a valuable source of revenue.”

The more strategic benefit for Israel is that fundamentalist Christians now have a lot of clout with the American government and thus are likely to exert pressure to provide unqualified political support for Israeli policies, including economic and military aid. Hedges quotes Michael Medved (who was one of the most passionate Jewish defenders of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) as saying: ” Take a look at this support for Israel. A more Christian America is good for the Jews, something Jewish people need to be more cognizant about and acknowledge. A more Jewish community is good for Christians, not just because of the existence of allies but because a more Jewish community is less seduced by secularism.”

One might wonder if the benefits of political, military, and economic support is sufficient to cozy up with people who think that the end of time is about to occur and that your only choice is to convert or die. It may well be that the Jews who are allied with the Dominionists think that this whole rapture thing is sheer nonsense and that they are willing to pander to it, knowing it will never occur, all the while benefiting from the existence of this belief. Basically, they may think they are playing the Dominionists for suckers.

I am not so convinced that this is a good strategy, even assuming that it is true. The trouble with rapture theology predictions (indeed with all predictions based on religious texts) are that they are so malleable. The Book of Revelations is graphic in its imagery but pretty opaque on what it all means and hardly an unambiguous blueprint for the future. People who devoutly believe that the rapture is imminent may grow impatient when it does not occur soon and start reinterpreting Revelations to explain the delay. What if the new message that emerges is that it is the existence of Israel that is holding up the rapture? Or that the present Israel is the “wrong” Israel (in whatever sense) and the “new” Jerusalem described in Revelations means new in terms very different from the way is conceived? Suppose that it is decided that the reason the new Jerusalem has not “descended” (another signal of the rapture) is because the old Jerusalem needs to be first obliterated to make way for it?

When you start basing public policy on Biblical interpretations, one is going down a very dangerous road. The secularism scorned by Medved may, in the long run, be what saves us all (in all countries) from governmental policies that are disastrous. Secularism leads to a reality-based world-view that is less likely to confuse wishful thinking with reality.

In case regular readers of the blog think that I have forgotten, all this rapture stuff is not a digression but does have relevance to the question of the religious opposition to Darwin. But before I address it directly, in the next posting, we will see another area where Dominionist thinking is affecting public policy, and that is with regard to gays.

The Book of Revelations and the Rapture.

I am a huge fan of the English comic writer P. G. Wodehouse, especially of his Jeeves and Wooster books. These books are so funny that I have to literally wipe tears from my eyes. (Dave Barry has the same effect on me.) The plots are pretty much the same in all the Jeeves stories but the smoothness of Wodehouse’s writing, his superb comic touch, and his precise choice of words make them a joy to read. Even though I have read all of the Jeeves books many times and know all the plots by heart, I still re-read them periodically. Both Wodehouse and George Orwell had a command of the language that I admire.

In a typical Jeeves story, the hapless Bertie Wooster is invariably at some point trapped in a fast moving series of events that swirl around him, pulling him in all directions, none of them promising good outcomes for him, before Jeeves ingeniously rescues him and provides happy endings all around. But often, when the chaos is at its height and Bertie feels completely overwhelmed, he would say that he “felt like he was living in the Book of Revelations.”

If you read the Book of Revelations (the last book of the Biblical New Testament, also called “The Revelation of John”) you will see what Bertie means. It is for the most part a bizarre series of visions involving strange animals, angels, stars crashing into the ground, the sun getting eaten up, fires, plagues, and mass killings that would be a challenge for any special effects person, if it were ever to be made into a film.

When I was studying to become a lay preacher in the Methodist church, we pretty much gave this weird book a miss, treating it as one might a dotty uncle who has to be invited to every family function, but whom you hope will not make a scene and wish no one would notice and ask about him. We studied mainly the Gospels that focused on the life and teaching of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles, some of the letters by Paul, some of the Old Testament prophets, church and biblical history, and theology. We pretty much ignored the Book of Revelations. It was just too far out there.

So it is somewhat amazing to me that it is this book that is driving much of the new militant Christianity, while the Gospels and the actual teachings of Jesus have faded into the background. And the idea that seems to have gripped the imagination of many such Christians is that of the rapture, associated with the end of the world.

Much of the basic beliefs about the coming of the rapture come from the letters written by Paul to various communities, but the full apocalyptic vision of the rapture is found in Revelations. This book is the source of much cryptic language and symbolism that enables people to pore over its significance and look for clues as to when the rapture will occur, what are the signs of its imminence, and how to identify the good and bad people. Like the writings of Nostradamus, the “predictions” are vague enough to allow for endless speculations and to “explain” anything. It also has enough numbers to keep numerologists busy for millennia trying to interpret their meanings. The numbers six, seven, and twelve seem to have special significance.

(Incidentally, there is a huge internet industry dealing with the rapture and speculations about it are rampant. One such set of speculations deals with the identity of the “Antichrist” (who seizes power for a short time after the rapture before being vanquished), and nominees for that post include Prince Charles and Bill Clinton. See also the Rapture Index which calculates (along the lines of the Dow Jones Index) a number to give a measure of how close we are to the rapture. Currently the number stands at 149. This is below the 2002 peak of 179 but any number above 145 falls into the highest category, labeled as “fasten your seat belts,” meaning that the signs are favorable to the rapture happening any time.)

As far as I can tell, popular belief about the rapture (as opposed to serious theology about it) is that it is associated with the second coming of Jesus and marks the moment when true believers in Christ (both dead and living), will be taken up to heaven to join him. It will be a sudden event, occurring without warning. People who are saved (and whose names have been “recorded” from the beginning of time) will be taken up instantaneously and disappear, leaving just their clothes behind. So if you are with a group of people and several of them suddenly vanish from your sight, leaving their clothes and shoes in a pile on the ground, that means the rapture has occurred and you, personally, have not made the cut.

Up to this point, since I have a live-and-let-live philosophy, I have no problems with the rapture. If true believers are taken away to lead blissful lives somewhere other than the Earth, leaving the rest of us behind, I have no problem with that. I wish them all happiness in their eternal life as the rest of us somehow muddle through on this Earth without them. Clearly there will be some temporary disruptions in life as new people will have to be found to do the jobs that those raptured away used to do, but these do not seem to insurmountable problems since some estimates put the number of people who will be raptured as low as 144,000 (another number that appears in Revelations).

But that is not apparently how it works. Those left behind are not left alone, unfortunately. We are not to be kept busy merely distributing all the clothes left behind to various Goodwill stores. Instead we are to be victims of a massive and gruesome slaughter, with huge rivers of blood flowing everywhere, before everything comes to an end. The book of Revelations speaks of the flowing blood rising to the height of a horse’s bridle for a radius of 200 miles. (Since I enjoy mathematical estimation problems, I briefly toyed with the idea of estimating how many corpses it would take to create this much blood, but simply could not muster the enthusiasm for this straightforward but macabre task. But it would make for a nifty homework problem in those religious schools that teach about the rapture seriously.)

It is hard to estimate how many people take this idea of the rapture seriously but given the numbers claimed by the Dominionist movement (around 30 million) it could be quite large. The twelve sequential novels of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (which weave a fictional tale around the rapture) claim a combined readership of 42 million. Of course, many in that number will be repeat buyers of the series and not all may be believers in the underlying message, but the numbers are still impressive. (Note that LaHaye is a co-founder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and works at Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia.)

I haven’t actually read the Left Behind books myself or seen the film based on them (with all the books that I would really like to read, I just can’t see myself reading a million words of rapture-based fiction), but Gene Lyons has a highly entertaining review of all the books and their message in the November 2004 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He says that the “books portray Midwestern suburbanites and born-again Israeli converts as Warrior Jesus’ allies in an apocalyptic struggle against a U.N.-anointed “World Potentate,” who looks “not unlike a younger Robert Redford” and speaks the language of science and liberal internationalism.”

The sins for which people are fingered to be slaughtered at the end of the world are sexual sins (fornication, homosexuality) or those of apostasy and blasphemy. Once again, it seems as if the only sins worth the name are those involving sex and violations of religious orthodoxy. Swindling retirees out of their life savings, depriving people of health care, making people work in sweatshops, stealing from old and poor people whatever they have, cheating on your taxes, beating your spouse and children, being abusive to ones employees, seemingly are not things which automatically disqualify you from being taken up at the rapture, but take one wrong step on sexual and doctrinal issues and you are toast.

Interestingly though, Barbara R. Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed says that the particular form of the apocalyptic vision that seems so appealing to many American Christians these days was originated by a nineteenth century Scottish evangelist named John Darby and owes its origins to turmoil over Darwinism. “Rossing argues persuasively that certain people are attracted to Darby’s “dispensationalist system with its Rapture theology because it is so comprehensive and rational – almost science-like – a feature that made it especially appealing during battles over evolution during the 1920s and 1930s.” (Lyons)

So now we are back again with Darwin and evolution in the cross hairs of the evangelical movement. It is interesting to me how these two strands of human thought (science and religion) keep butting up against each other. Rossing’s thesis sheds some more light on why evolutionary theory seems to be such a burr under the saddle for evangelical Christians, driving them to furious opposition, in ways that other scientific beliefs do not.

In a future posting, I will look more closely at the historical roots of the religious opposition to evolution, but first there is one curious feature of the rapture movement that needs to be commented on, and that is the strange role that Jews and Israel play in it, and this will be examined next.


While typing this entry up on Sunday night, I took a break to watch my favorite TV show The Simpsons. They had a special double feature (this being sweeps week) and, to my amazement, the second episode was entirely about the rapture! If that coincidence is not a sign of the imminent apocalypse, I don’t know what is.

In the show, Homer is convinced after seeing a rapture-based film called Left Below (!) that the world is coming to an end. He makes numerical calculations based on the clues in Revelations and arrives at the conclusion that the rapture will occur at 3:15pm on Wednesday, May 18th.

It is a really funny episode on many levels and if you missed it, you should try and catch it on summer re-runs. It captures pretty accurately the essence of what the rapture is about.


At 5:00pm today (Monday, May 9th) in the Spartan Room of Thwing Hall, Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a human rights activist who has been campaigning against the Israeli government policy of home demolitions of Palestinians, will be leading a discussion on current events in Israel. The session is sponsored (in part) by Case for Peace and is free and open to the public.


I will be traveling the next two days and so will not be able to post. The next posting will be on May 12, 2005.

The changing media face of Christianity

I grew up in Sri Lanka in a family that worshipped in the Methodist Church. I was strongly influenced by my family and also by the minister in my church and the chaplain in the private Anglican (aka Episcopalian) school I attended. These priests had such an influence on me that I became quite religious and studied to become a lay minister in the Methodist church, and was ordained soon after I graduated from college.

In that capacity I would be sent to various churches on Sundays to conduct services. As a lay minister, I was authorized to run every aspect of the service except the communion. I was even invited me to go to theological college and become a full minister and I briefly, but seriously, considered the offer. But in the end, I decided that I really wanted to be a physicist and declined.

But after I came to the US (first time as a graduate student to do my PhD in physics, then the second time to work here) my religious devotion waned considerably and I eventually became an atheist.

The story of what prompted that particular personal transition is not relevant here. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Christianity that I see in the US now is quite different from the kind that strongly attracted me as an adolescent and young adult. The priests who taught me were people who focused on the Jesus of the Gospels, and reminded us that belief in God carried with it responsibilities as well, the primary ones being to help bring about a better world, especially for those less fortunate than ourselves. While the idea of eternal salvation was not ignored, what was emphasized was that just professing our belief, and only worrying about the well-being of ourselves, our families, and our immediate community or nation, was not enough. We were supposed to live our beliefs by working for the betterment of everyone. These clergy preached tolerance for those who were different and believed different things, and an inclusiveness that sought to find ways to welcome all people. I was brought up to believe that it was more important to be good and kind than to be devout.

The social justice consequences of religious beliefs were what attracted me to religion then and I still support those religious groups (Christian and other) that seek to build a better world and fight injustices. There is no question that the quest for justice based on religious beliefs can lead people to make immense sacrifices for the collective good. The martyrdom of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Ursuline nuns in El Salvador (who were killed for speaking out against brutal dictatorships that were oppressing the people there) and the humiliations suffered with dignity by civil rights marchers in the US, are inspiring. It is clear that for such people, it was their religious beliefs gave them the courage to do what they did.

But that view of religion as an agent of social justice, although still present in many churches and other groups in the US, is being pushed aside in the public sphere by those who have quite a different view. Think of the people who appear repeatedly on TV as spokespersons for religion. The names that immediately come to my mind are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. The emergent Dominionist group that was highlighted by Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlett in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, is close to them in their view of what Christianity means.

Issues of social justice seem not to be a major concern for members of this Dominionist Christianity. In fact, Hedges points out that “They are picture-perfect members of a new Christian elite, showy, proud of how God has blessed them with material wealth and privilege, and hooked them into the culture of power and celebrity.”

If being materially successful is taken as a sign of God’s blessings, then the corollary is that being poor and deprived must imply that you have somehow found disfavor in the eyes of God. If that is the case, why should one concern oneself excessively with poor people, since their wretched condition must be largely their own fault, due to their own sinfulness or faults of character? This may explain why this form of Christianity is so closely aligned with capitalist ideology and why Pastor Ted Haggard (profiled by Sharlett as the head of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and also head of the National Association of Evangelicals which, with over 30 million believers, makes up the nation’s most powerful religious lobbying group) says that they “like the benefits, risks, and maybe above all, the excitement of the free market” (Jeff Sharlett).

This would also explain why such churches like to stay in the suburbs and rural areas and see the cities (especially inner cities) as dens of sin to be avoided because of their “homosexuality, atheistic school teaching and ungodly imagery” and humanism. Also, if you think that material success equates with God’s favor, it makes sense to oppose (or at least not support) social security, social welfare programs, public schooling, and all other programs that have egalitarian goals, since the distribution of society’s material goods is a measure of ones spirituality, and not every one is equally good. So the alignment of these religious groups with political parties that advocate anti-egalitarian policies makes sense.

Needless to say, this particular form of Christianity is not at all appealing to me, and is totally in opposition to the message that was taught by the inclusive and tolerant priests of my youth. But tolerance and inclusivity are out, replaced by Manichaean thinking that sees everything in good-evil/we-they terms.

In a later posting, we will see that there is more to be concerned about than the seeming lack of concern about social justice and the absence of empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.

There is also the knotty problem of how, if you believe in being tolerant and accepting of diverse views and beliefs, you deal with people who not only think that they are right and you are wrong, but that their religious views alone should be given pride of place by the government and used as a basis for state policies.

David Horowitz and the art of the cheap shot

Oddly enough, just after posting two consecutive days on David Horowitz’s cheap shots against academics, yesterday I received the latest (May 6, 2005) issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education which featured a long cover story on him. (For someone who is constantly whining about not getting enough attention from academia, Horowitz seems to be extraordinarily successful in getting publications such as this to cover him and his ideas. See Michael Berube’s blog for a response.)

Anyway, the Chronicle article has a lot of information about him and it also provides some interesting background information on his funding. So I thought that today I would use that information to try my hand at manufacturing a cheap shot, an art I can learn from the master, David Horowitz himself.

Recall that in my previous postings (see here and here), I showed how he distorts and misrepresents academic life, saying things like: “Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid leftist professors securely ensconced in their irrelevant ivory towers” and again “You teach on average two courses and spend six hours a week in class. You work eight months out of the year and have four months paid vacation. And every seven years you get ten months paid vacation.”

Well, the Chronicle uncovered the fact that “Mr. Horowitz received an annual salary of $310,167 in 2003. He declines to give his current income, but in addition to his salary, Mr. Horowitz receives about $5,000 for each of the 30 to 40 campus speeches he gives each year.” Horowitz says that college Republicans always invite him. Other student groups never do. “My kids have to scrounge up the money off campus.” He drives a 2004 model Lincoln Town Car.

Despite earning the kind of money that most people (including academics) can only dream about, Horowitz still whines. The Chronicle article says

If he were liberal, [Horowitz] contends, he could be an editor at the [New York] Times or a department chairman at Harvard University. And his life story would have already been told on the big screen. Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, his autobiography, has been out for eight years. “Someone would have made a film out of it if I was a leftist,” he says bitterly.

“He claims he would make more money as a liberal, too, “at least three times,” what he earns now.”

That’s right, he claims he would have been earning about a million dollars per year if he were liberal. This is a man who is seriously delusional and needs professional help fast.

And there’s more. His Center for the Study of Popular Culture receives millions of dollars from various right wing foundations. The Chronicle article says that: “The center itself is located on the fourth floor of an office building in downtown Los Angeles, but Mr. Horowitz prefers to work from home.” Horowitz is quoted as saying: “I love my work space,” and “I sit at my desk with my laptop. I listen to music. I take the dogs for a walk. Like most writers, I live in my head.”

So here’s my attempt at a cheap shot, to show how bits of accurate information can be rearranged for effect. Drum roll, please.

“Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid right wing David Horowitz. He plays these gullible right wing foundations for suckers, taking millions from them in order to pay himself a fat salary just to stay at home, listen to music, and take his dogs for walks, when he is not out driving his fancy expensive cars. The only thing that gets him out of his house is if he is given the opportunity to pocket $5,000 for one hour’s work delivering the same old tired speeches, extracting this money from impoverished campus student organizations, who have to struggle desperately to pay the high fees he charges them to support his luxurious lifestyle.”

Ok, I’ll admit that my cheap shot is not that great and needs considerable refining. But in my defense, I haven’t had the years of experience doing this kind of thing that Horowitz has. And I don’t aim to either.

The coming religious wars?

I like Harper’s Magazine. Each monthly issue has at least one long article that provides the kind of depth and context to important current issues that are so hard to find in the media, and which makes me glad that I have a subscription.

The May 2005 issue has two articles on the activities of the religious right that are well worth reading. Jeff Sharlett writes about the New Life Church, which he describes as “America’s most powerful megachurch” and has 11,000 members. He points out that slowly, over time, the town of Colorado Springs, where this church is, has become the capital of what he calls ‘Christian conservatives.’

But the more disturbing article is that by Chris Hedges, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book War is the Force That Gives Us Meaning, who writes about attending the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters association, which was held in Orange County, California which he says “along with Colorado Springs, is a center of the new militant Christianity.” And his essay “Feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters” describes some disturbing trends in the way that these groups view the role of Christianity in America and the world.

Hedges traces the evolution of the militant version of Christianity that is becoming the dogma of the many separate groups that are coming together under a common doctrinal framework. He says:

What the disparate sects of this movement, known as Dominionism, share is an obsession with political power. A decades-long refusal to engage in politics at all following the Scopes trial has been replaced by a call for Christian “Dominion” over the nation and, eventually, over the earth itself. Dominionists preach that Jesus has called them to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, whereas previously it was thought that we would have to wait for it. America becomes, in this militant Biblicism, an agent of God, and all political and intellectual opponents of America’s Christian leaders are viewed, quite simply, as agents of Satan. Under Christian dominion, America will no longer be a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the Ten Commandments form the basis of our legal system, Creationism and “Christian values” form the basis of our educational system, and the media and the government proclaim the Good News to one and all. Aside from its proselytizing mandate, the federal government will be reduced to the protection of property rights and “homeland security.” Some Dominionists (not all of whom accept the label, at least not publicly) would further require all citizens to pay “tithes” to church organizations empowered by the government to run our social-welfare agencies, and a number of influential figures advocate the death penalty for a host of “moral crimes,” including apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft. The only legitimate voices in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.

I have seen a number of articles recently documenting the seeming rise of this kind of thinking, and it raises the troubling question of how one should respond.

On its surface the movement seems so reactionary, with a Taliban-like fixation with enforcing religious orthodoxy on each and every person, that one is tempted to dismiss it as a group that is unlikely to actually gain governmental power because most people will be alarmed by their extremism.

But both Hedges and Sharlett warn that this may be too sanguine a view. There are indications that such groups already have considerable influence in government (both in the White House and the Congress) and we should not easily assume that they have already peaked in their numbers and will eventually become a fringe movement again.

Such groups represent a real threat to the kind of pluralistic, live-and-let-live democratic ideal that I (at least) subscribe to, where the chief role for the state is to provide the conditions for its citizens that they may have life, liberty, and be able to pursue happiness. In my worldview, as long as people are not harming others, their actions have the presumption of acceptability. I feel that it is none of my (or the government’s) business what people believe or what activities freely consenting adults engage in.

So in one sense, I have no problems with the “Dominionists” (as described by Hedges) believing whatever they want. If their members join up voluntarily and are willing to give tithes to their own religious groups and to refrain from “apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft,” that is ok by me. But the question is what should be done if they seek to attempt to enforce their beliefs on everyone else, by using governmental power.

In future postings, I will explore some of these issues in more detail.

Why David Horowitz attacks academia – part 2

I have been puzzled by the vehemence of Horowitz’s attacks on the academic life. After all, his accusations of faculty laziness are contradicted by actual studies. Jerry A. Jacobs (of the University of Pennsylvania) in his Presidential Address to the Eastern Sociological Society in February 2003 (and published in Sociological Forum, vol. 19, #1, February 2004), points out that college faculty work an average of nearly 55 hours per week. By contrast, professionals in other fields or managers worked nine hours per week less than college professors. His study also found that professors report that they feel constantly under stress of work-related pressures.

Of course each profession has its share of people like Wally (the character in the Dilbert comic strip) who do the minimum amount of work expected of them. I am sure academia has its representatives, though I am hard pressed to think of a single one of my colleagues in my whole academic career who comes anywhere close to the Beetle Bailey-like stereotype that Horowitz alleges is the norm.

I do not expect Horowitz to change his message simply because actual data contradicts him. As Graham Larkin (a professor of Fine Arts at Stanford University) points out in his article David Horowitz’s War on Rational Discourse that appeared in the April 25, 2005 issue of Inside Higher Ed, facts have never been an impediment to his diatribes. Horowitz’s strategy is to simply repeat things over and over again, even if they have been refuted. Since he is extremely well paid by a host of wealthy right-wing foundations that support organizations that provide him with platforms to keep him in the public view, his charges gain publicity well out of proportion to their actual merit or even their truth content.

It is easy to dismiss Horowitz as a crackpot who uses inflammatory rhetoric to get publicity. But somehow that seems insufficient to me. There is a vehemence to his attacks on academics that seem to require explanation beyond simple ignorance or that he is so naïve that he does not actually understand what a university is all about and about the extent of faculty work outside the classroom.

It is Michael Berube who, I think, nails the best possible reason for Horowitz’s bizarre attacks on college faculty. Berube teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State and writes with a style and wit that I can only envy. Check out his blog to see what I mean.

In his essay Why Horowitz Hates Professors, Berube writes:

I think we’re finally getting to the real reason David hates professors so much. It has nothing to do with our salaries or our working hours: he hates our freedom. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I can criticize the Cockburns and Churchills to my left and the Beinarts and Elshtains to my right any old time I choose, and that at the end of the day I’ll still have a job – whereas he has to answer to all his many masters, fetching and rolling over whenever they blow that special wingnut whistle that only far-right lackeys can hear. It’s not a very dignified way to live, and surely it takes its toll on a person’s sense of self-respect.

Berube is right. Academics have the freedom, as long as they are not being outright offensive or advocating criminal activity or bringing dishonor to their institutions, to take positions on any subject, generally without fear of retribution from their universities. I can support evolution one day and, if I find some convincing reason to switch my views, I can oppose it the next. I can even switch my views without any reason at all, just for the fun of it, and the only loss I suffer is to my credibility. But people like Horowitz have no such freedom. They have to be very sensitive to what their paymasters want and take exactly that line or they get thrown out on their ear.

Actually, this thesis might explain a lot of the animosity that the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ class have towards academics. All these commentators (and even reporters for the media) have a good sense of what their employers expect from them. It is the very predictability of their stances that gives them access to the media. If they start taking contrary position and become ideologically unpredictable, they risk losing their jobs. The Coulters, Malkins, and Goldbergs of the world cannot (for example) go beyond extremely mild criticisms of Bush or the Iraq war (even if they wanted to) because to do so would be career suicide.

It is true that there exists a doctrinaire left whose people also have similar constraints but those people do not have mainstream access, and most people have never heard of them. Most of the well-known people who are considered left wing by the mainstream media (such as Paul Krugman) are not as constrained in their views, because there is no equivalent to the scale of the right-wing foundations.

But academics (like Krugman) and more recently independent bloggers have no such constraints. It is because of this very lack of ideological oversight that universities can create new knowledge. It enables faculty and students to explore new ideas wherever it might take them. We are hired for our knowledge in physics or history or law, not for our ideological bent. But we also are expected to be public citizens and contribute to society, and this enables us to take stands on issues that may not be directly related to our academic research interests.

So is Horowitz’s crusade driven by faculty envy, as Berube suggests? It makes sense to me. Because even as college professors complain about the amount of work they have to do, I know very few who would switch out of this life and do something else. This is because the faculty life is, in fact, a great life. Horowitz thinks that we enjoy it because we can goof off. But only a person who hates his or her own job will have such a view of what constitutes an ideal working life. An ideal job is when what we do as work is what we would do for pleasure. And that is what draws people to teaching.

Those of us in academia think it is a great life despite the workload because it is rewarding to grapple with ideas, it is stimulating to work with students who look at things in fresh ways, it is gratifying to solve a research problem, it is exhilarating to publish articles and papers and books and feel that one is contributing to the store of the world’s knowledge.

We love our work and cannot imagine doing anything else. And, best of all, we can say what we honestly think about the important issues of the day. This must drive people like Horowitz crazy, and the result is not pretty.

Why David Horowitz attacks academia

Regular readers of this blog know that David Horowitz has been behind efforts to introduce the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, allegedly to “protect” college students from academic bullying by their professors. He has been going around the country, speaking on college campuses and to state legislatures, trying to place limits on what professors can and cannot say. In the process, he has also attacked what he considers the laziness of the academic life.

Horowitz resorts to his usual over-the-top rhetoric. He accuses faculty as follows: “Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid leftist professors securely ensconced in their irrelevant ivory towers” and again “You teach on average two courses and spend six hours a week in class. You work eight months out of the year and have four months paid vacation. And every seven years you get ten months paid vacation.”

Such utterances perpetuate a strong misunderstanding about the nature of a university and of what faculty do. People who say such things see it only as a place where the only worthwhile activities occur in the classroom, and even then, they see the process of teaching very narrowly, as that of transmitting information. Hence they are baffled that college professors seem to spend so little time in the classroom, and see the whole thing as some kind of boondoggle.

People who think like this overlook the fact that faculty are not hired just to transmit knowledge. They are also hired to create new knowledge. Indeed that is one of the key functions of all universities, but especially research universities. This requires faculty to learn, and to keep on learning all their lives, and this requires time more than anything else.

It is for this same reason (that learning takes time) that students can get a degree without spending more that 15 hours or so per week actually in class, along with long summer breaks. This enables them to think and read and discuss ideas. (This is why I am always concerned about those students at Case who have double- and triple-majors and throw in a couple of minors as well. I admire their ambition, energy, and work ethic but am concerned that in the process of accumulating credit hours, they don’t have time to reflect on their learning, to toy with new ideas, and hence are not learning deeply enough.) So the logical end point of Horowitz’s claim should be that college students too are not spending enough time in class and are also “shiftless, lazy good for nothings.”

Universities have been the source of much of the new knowledge that has revolutionized our world. And the reason that they have been able to do so is because its faculty have been given the time to generate new ideas and put them to use. In Bertholt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo Galileo himself complains to his university chancellor that he was teaching so much that he did not have time to learn.

My father worked in a bank all his life. On his desk he had an ‘in’ box and an ‘out’ box. He would pretty much spend each day reading and signing off on papers, transferring them from the in to the out, and then he would go home, his work for the day done. His work was well defined and a ‘hard day’s work’ meant that he had been kept busy all day.

A faculty member’s life does not have that same daily rhythm. Faculty members also have things that they need to do each day (prepare for class, teach, grade papers, attend meetings, write committee reports, talk with students and respond to their emails). But these things come in waves and they have other duties that cannot be done in a nine-to-five time frame (such as write a book or research paper, solve a problem, prepare research proposals, do research). These things are carried around in their minds all the time. The stereotype of the ‘absent-minded professor’ has a kernel of truth but it is not that the professor is actually forgetful. It is that he or she is always thinking about the ideas of their discipline, wrestling with them, sorting them out, and this process is so engrossing that it can often drive other concerns from their minds. When I am working on a book or article, I can assure you that it is almost a full-time, 24/7 preoccupation. I think about it as I am going to sleep and it is the first thing in my mind when I wake up.

The difference is that most academics do not see this as ‘work’, if by that we mean doing something at the expense of something else that we’d rather do. We tend to love our ‘work’. This is what we live for and enjoy.

And perhaps, as we shall see in a later posting, this is what Horowitz really finds offensive about academics.