Category Archives: Random Blogging

Religion As Politics

I still remember those college dorm arguments about religion and politics–the debates over where to draw the line between purportedly religious beliefs, on the one hand, and devotion to political ideology, on the other. Back in those days, the focus was usually on Soviet Communism–was it a political identity? Or was commie “true belief” actually akin to religious devotion?

That debate has morphed over the years, especially for the growing number of Americans who tend to be skeptical of organized religion. If we didn’t have so many other, more pressing issues to argue about, I suspect that a recent report from Pew would trigger a new and acrimonious round.

Pew was investigating whether there had been an exodus from far-right Evangelical Protestant churches due to the support for Trump displayed by those denominations. They found no exodus–instead, the research uncovered  “solid evidence” that White American “Trumpers” who weren’t Evangelical before 2016  “were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.”

The data also shows that Trump’s electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period.

The study confirms what many of us have suspected: Americans are sorting ourselves into  tribes, and one such tribe is composed of the “Christian” White Supremicists who identify with Trumpian Republicanism. These are the people who tell pollsters that only (White) Christians can be considered “real Americans.”

According to Christianity Today, they are increasingly likely to call themselves “political Evangelicals.”

The Survey Center on American Life  –a project of the conservative American Enterprise Institute-reports that White Evangelical Republicans are far more inclined to believe in claims about the Deep State, to believe in QAnon, and to believe that antifa was responsible for the January 6th violence at the US Capitol. They also are more likely than other Republicans to accept Trump’s Big Lie:

Given how widely accepted the belief in voter fraud is among white evangelical Republicans, it is not surprising that they express far greater skepticism about the fairness of the 2020 election than their co-partisans. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Republicans say that Joe Biden’s election win was legitimate, compared to more than half (56 percent) of nonevangelical Republicans. Three-quarters (75 percent) of white evangelical Christian Republicans say Biden was not legitimately elected.

As an essay from the New York Times just after the 2020 election put it, White Evangelicals have now

blended so seamlessly into the broader Republican base that adherents and observers say that the label has become more a political than religious one. Electing Republicans has become, for many evangelicals, an end in itself.

Those of us on the outside of this Evangelical/GOP cult have marveled at the contortions required for “family values Christians”–a movement based on Christian principles and presumably devoted to  concerns about character– to support someone like Donald Trump. The Times essay quoted a Pew researcher who cited data showing that” White Evangelical Protestants are not only Republican; they have been and continue to grow more Republican over time.”  In 2018 and 2019, 78 percent of White Evangelical Protestants identified with the Republican Party; in 2000, that number was 56 percent.

Michele Margolis is a political scientist who studies how political affiliation influences religious beliefs and practices, “a cause-and-effect that reverses traditional assumptions.” People may like to believe their faith informs their vote, but her research shows it is often the other way around.

Charles Blow recently quoted another academic, Anthea Butler, for the observation that evangelicals may wrap themselves in religious rhetoric, but that what the movement has really been since the 1970s is “a political arm of the Republican Party.” Evangelicals now “use moral issues as a wedge to get political power.”

Butler concluded, “We need to quit coddling evangelicals and allowing them to use these moral issues to hide behind, because it’s very clear that that’s not what the issue is. The issue is that they believe in anti-vaxxing, they believe in racism, they believe in anti-immigration, they believe that only Republicans should run the country and they believe in white supremacy.”

Whether we consider these Evangelical denominations genuinely “religious” or see them as pseudo-religious political cults frantic to protect America’s longstanding White Christian dominance depends upon just how capacious our understanding of “politics” is, and how we define the difference between religious and  secular commitments.

We might also think about the difference a label makes when these folks go to court to protect what they insist is their “religious liberty.”

The Question We All Must Answer

In a recent column for the New York Times, Charles Blow gave voice to a question with which I continue to struggle–a question that (I assume, albeit without evidence) bedevils most thoughtful people: what can I do? What difference can one person make?

Blow recounted his family’s history of poverty, and told of a trip back to visit a favorite–very poor–aunt. By the time of the visit, he had moved into a more favorable economic position, but was certainly not able to ameliorate the conditions of the impoverished folks in his family, let alone others similarly situated.

I sat there thinking about the great divide among us, about how far removed I now was from this life, but also about how very connected I was, spiritually, to it.

And I was conflicted. How much could I or should I help? I have had long talks with my mother about this. Other than a little money in greeting cards, there wasn’t much that I could do for all the people I knew in need.

Blow concluded–accurately–that the problem of poverty was not going to be solved by  personal generosity. It would require public policy– and public indifference continued to impede passage of such policies. He decided that, given his particular skills and his position with the Times,  the best thing he could do was advocate.

Blow’s column really resonated with me, not because of the specific issue he identified, but because that issue–poverty–shares an essential component of most of the issues Americans face right now. It is a problem that’s far too big for an individual to solve, or even substantially affect.

I don’t know about those of you who read this blog, or other people generally (it may simply be my own personality defect), but what depresses me are not the sorts of problems and challenges we all face in life. I can deal with those, because in most cases, if I work hard, I can do something about them. What depresses me is powerlessness-– an inability to solve a problem, whether personal or social, or even make a dent in it.

Most of what I see around me these days reinforces that powerlessness.

Any reasonably well-informed person in today’s America cannot help but see what seems to be the disintegration of our society in the face of the truly massive threats we confront. Yes, some of those threats have been with us a long time, although (thanks to the fact that we currently marinate in media and social media) we have become much more aware of them. But others, like climate change, pose challenges that are new–and monumental.

And then there’s gerrymandering, and a global pandemic and the utter insanity of a significant portion of the American population.

If we are sentient and even remotely aware, each of us has to ask ourselves the question Charles Blow posed in his column: what can I do? What possible impact can an individual make on problems that are national or even global in scope?

I suppose one answer is to work for the election of reasonable, competent people who take these problems seriously, although gerrymandering frequently defeats that effort. Another is to model appropriate behaviors in our own lives–to work for equity and inclusion and rational public policies in our own communities. But–in the absence of widespread public participation in those activities or the emergence of effective social movements devoted to them– any rational evaluation of their efficacy will conclude that they have very little impact. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these things, but neither should we exaggerate their importance in the scheme of things…)

Charles Blow concluded that advocacy was the best thing he could do; as someone with a “bully pulpit” at a national newspaper, he is in a position to affect the national discussion. Most of us involved in advocacy don’t have that sort of audience. We are left feeling powerless–because in a very real sense, we are powerless.

Maybe that feeling–that acute awareness of a loss of agency–is why so many people are looking for someone to blame…

 

 

 

 

 

It’s The Culture..

Every morning when I sit down at my computer, I’m confronted with headlines from the various news sources to which I subscribe: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post…and through the day, a mind-numbing number of others. I don’t know anyone with the time and/or inclination to carefully read all the available news and opinion, and I certainly don’t–like most consumers of media, I scan the headlines and click on those that promise some measure of enlightenment or moderately important/relevant information.

But occasionally, a headline is so weird, I have to read the article. That’s what lured me to a report in The Week titled (no kidding) “Did Theranos Lose Afghanistan?”

Theranos, as you probably know, was the much-hyped startup company founded by Elizabeth Holmes–young, very good-looking and evidently one really smooth talker. She claimed the company had invented a new kind of blood testing technology that was going to save both time and money. Lots of people invested in it.

The most generous interpretation of what came next was a discovery that the technology didn’t work; a less-generous interpretation is that Holmes intentionally perpetrated a fraud. A jury is currently hearing evidence on the latter interpretation.

So what–if anything–does this audacious scam (if that is, indeed, what it turns out to be) have to do with Afghanistan? Well, the article does point out that General Mattis, late of the Trump Administration and the Afghan war, was on the board of Theranos and a major cheerleader for the company.

But the real connection was a cultural one.

Like the Afghanistan debacle, Theranos is a horror story of wishful thinking, credulous media, and celebrity impunity. Whether or not intentional deception was involved, both episodes display the dishonesty and incompetence of interlocking tech, finance, media, and military elites.

Mattis’ role in both sorry spectacles–the war and Theranos–illustrates the moral rot that infects far too many of the figures lionized by a media chasing eyeballs and clicks rather than the information required by a democratic citizenry.

Mattis denies any wrongdoing, claiming he was taken in, too. Even if that’s true, his role is discreditable. Mattis’ association with the company began in 2011, when he met Holmes at a Marine Memorial event in San Francisco. According to author John Carreyrou and other journalists, he immediately began campaigning for military adoption of Theranos’ ostensibly innovative bloodtesting technology. Mattis was not deterred by the lack of FDA approval and mounting doubts about whether the technology actually worked. After his retirement in 2013, Mattis also ignored legal advice that it would be improper to join the board while the company was seeking procurement of its products for use in Afghanistan.

It would be a mistake to single out a few “bad actors,” however. The problem is systemic–a widespread, “baked-in” disinclination to either provide or accept evidence that is contrary to what one wants to believe.

The article focuses on the impunity enjoyed by what it calls the American ruling class “until their conduct becomes literally criminal,” and it points out that the same people who make decisions in Washington sit on boards in Silicon Valley and appear on the same few cable channels. When the projects they promote go south, they continue to be celebrated and compensated as authors, management consultants, and respected pundits.

There’s a word for this governing hierarchy: kakistocracy, governance by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.

Which gets us back to culture.

In today’s America, celebrity is more valued than competence. A loud voice commands far more attention than an expert opinion. Purveyors of ridiculous conspiracy theories overwhelm the conclusions and cautions of reputable scientists. This is the culture that in 2016 gave us an embarrassing, mentally-ill buffoon for President, the culture that elects  equally embarrassing crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s the culture that leads thousands of people to ingest a horse de-wormer and reject the expertise of epidemiologists and medical professionals.

It’s a culture that threatens to overwhelm those of us who want to live in the reality-based community.

The Southernication Thesis

I have previously posted about Will Wilkinson’s Density Divide. That paper was firmly grounded in research; Wilkinson reserved his more speculative observations for venues like Substack.Those observations may be–as he readily acknowledges–more speculative, but they certainly accord with what I see when I travel around the country and/or read news reports.

The linked article begins with a description of the growing uniformity of a rural America that once reflected the cultures of the immigrants who originally settled in them. Now, however, most of those differences have disappeared.

One of the puzzles of the 2016 election, and the catastrophe of the Trump presidency, is how populist white nationalism finally prevailed at a time when Americans, taken altogether, were less racist than ever. This is one of the questions I take up in the “Density Divide.” But I left out one of my favorite answers to this question largely because it’s too speculative and I didn’t have the data to prove it. My hunch is that rural white culture, which was once regionally varied and distinctive, became more uniform by becoming increasingly Southern. I call this the Southernification thesis.

The Density Divide provided convincing evidence that white ethno-nationalism worked to elect Trump, although it had failed to elect Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, and explained that new success on the growth of  residential self-selection, which had made lower density parts of the country more homogenous, ethnocentric and socially conservative. But Wilkinson says that even though he is convinced that the density analysis is correct as far as it goes, it provides an incomplete explanation without something like the Southernification thesis. “Before it could be successfully organized politically, America’s increasingly ethnocentric non-urban white population needed to be consolidated first through the adoption of a relatively uniform ethnocentric white culture.”

What I’m still groping for is solid empirical confirmation that the Southernification of white rural America did happen and, if so, how it happened. Now, I have few doubts that it did happen and is still happening. Indeed, it’s hard to think of better impressionistic evidence than the spread of Confederate flags far from the South into all parts of white rural America.

It’s hard to dispute Wilkinson’s observation that the Civil War, and the battle between North and South, lives on both culturally and geographically. Only the geography has changed: the North, as he says, “has drifted out of the countryside and concentrated itself into our cities. At the same time, America’s rural and exurban counties have slowly become more and more homogenously Southern. The South has risen again … in rural Maine?”

I’ve seen the Stars and Bars flying from Iowa barns. You can see them at Minnesota county fairs. They pop up everywhere. In rural Idaho, Colorado, Oregon — places that weren’t even states during the civil war. [Correction: actually, Oregon became a state in 1859. I regret the error. Still…]

Wilkinson quotes David A. Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist, on the figures emerging from the recent census :

Many large metropolitan areas grew faster over the past decade than the Bureau had previously projected, with eight of the nation’s ten largest cities showing an increased growth rate compared to the 2000 to 2010 period. At the same time, most of rural America shrank in absolute as well as relative terms. A majority—52 percent—of the nation’s counties actually reported a smaller raw population in 2020 than they had in 2010.

[…]

The fundamental geographic division in American politics has traditionally been a sectional conflict setting the North against the South. The idioms of “red states” and “blue states” caught on widely after the 2000 presidential election because they could be applied to a regional divide—blue North, red South—that was already presumed to reflect the main axis of political debate and competition. But the partisan difference between large-metro and rural residents has now become much larger than the gap between northerners and southerners. 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the reality of the current urban/rural divide, and the extent to which it has replaced the North/South divisions that led to the Civil War. The question, as always, is “what do we do?” The answer to that question is made much more difficult by an electoral system that privileges the rural residents of the “new South”–a system that gives vastly disproportionate power to rural Americans who are adamantly resisting the consequences of “one person, one vote.”

We are beginning to see what Civil War between rural and urban America looks like. It is being carried out by the growing domestic terror attacks by groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and various Neo-Nazi organizations.

Who knew the South would rise again in places like rural Iowa and Minnesota…?

 

Looking On The Bright Side…(NOT The Monty Python Version)…

I get tired of posting “gloom and doom” essays–and you are all probably just as tired of reading about the precarious state of national and global institutions.  Every so often, it’s a good idea to remember the old adage that “dog bites man isn’t news; but man bites dog is”–to remind ourselves that what is newsworthy is by definition not ordinary. So today, as we head into fall, I want to focus on the other side of the equation: hopeful news–evidence that the hostile and crazy people who provide fodder for our newsfeeds and generate our ulcers are not representative of humanity writ large.

Let’s start with climate change.

Yes, political barriers have delayed a rational, co-ordinated response. But as the evidence of that phenomenon becomes too powerful to ignore, so does evidence of efforts to abate it. Take, for example, reports about floating wind turbines.

In the stormy waters of the North Sea, 15 miles off the coast of Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, five floating offshore wind turbines stretch 574 feet (175 metres) above the water. The world’s first floating windfarm, a 30 megawatt facility run by the Norwegian company Equinor, has only been in operation since 2017 but has already broken UK records for energy output.

While most offshore wind turbines are anchored to the ocean floor on fixed foundations, limiting them to depths of about 165ft, floating turbines are tethered to the seabed by mooring lines.

Installing these turbines in deeper waters, where winds tend to be stronger,  promises  to generate huge amounts of renewable energy: reportedly, close to 80% of potential offshore wind power is found in deeper waters.

Then there’s new appreciation for algae. It can be used to make eco-friendly plastic and fertilizer,  it can be used as fuel–it can evidently even reduce the methane from cow farts ..

The World Wildlife Federation reports that low cost solar, wind, and battery technologies are on “profitable, exponential trajectories”–and if those trajectories are sustained, they should be enough to cut emissions from electricity generation in half by 2030.

Wind and solar energy now regularly out-compete fossil fuels in most regions of the world. Electric vehicle growth has the potential to reach a 90% market share by 2030 if sustained, but only if strong policies support this direction.

The Federation also reports that nearly half of the country’s largest companies–some of the world’s largest energy users–now recognize a responsibility to tackle climate change and preserve the planet for future generations. (Granted, a good deal of this “recognition” is PR–it’s up to us consumers to pressure the business sector to make good on those public promises.)

More theoretical, but the subject of current research efforts, is “carbon capture,” which wouldn’t simply reduce carbon emissions, but would allow for actually sucking carbon out of the air. (Think negative emissions.) Even the most recent IPCC report--with its dire, widely disseminated warnings–had some good news tucked in.

It isn’t just climate change.

Vox recently had a report, complete with charts, demonstrating a range of improvements that have made life better for humanity. It described the decline in global poverty, the rise in global literacy, a dramatic improvement in global health, and even–despite the current backlash being  waged by various populist movements–an increase in democracy and individual freedom.

Sometimes, taking the “long view” allows us to escape from the doom and gloom of the daily news. In my lifetime, I have seen city centers and historic neighborhoods revitalized. Women’s rights have dramatically expanded (prompting the hysterical backlash that most recently gave us Texas…). Gays have emerged from the closet and married. Membership in fundamentalist churches has declined. Despite the daily episodes of racist behavior caught by our ubiquitous cellphone cameras and the morphing of the GOP into the White Supremacy Party, the country has made considerable progress against racism, as evidenced by the multi-racial composition of last year’s Black Lives Matter marches.

And we should be heartened by the enormous negative reaction to Texas’ effort to empower anti-woman vigilantes. That anger promises an energized and expanded Democratic vote.

The bigots and assorted crazies in Washington can slow down human progress, but ultimately, reality will bite them. (Hopefully in time to avert disaster…)

If people of good will focus only on the problems we face and the threats posed by the hysterical people resisting progress, we will get too disheartened to work for the continuation of positive change. Google “good news,” take a deep breath, then volunteer with a group that is working to solve a  problem you care about.

And if you can, send money.

PS If you want the Monty Python version, here are the lyrics…..