Category Archives: Religious Liberty

America: Pick A Torch

It’s impossible to read a newspaper without encountering a solemn “analysis” of what the Democrats absolutely must do in order to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.

Meanwhile, it becomes clearer every day that–stripped to its essence– the 2020 election will be about one overarching issue: what kind of country do we want to be?

A widely shared visual summed it up nicely with two photographs, side by side. One was a picture of Neo-Nazis with their tiki torches in Charlottesville; the second was a photo of the Statue of Liberty, focused on her torch. The caption asked “which torch will you choose?”

I rarely visit Twitter, but a friend directed me to a thread directly relevant to that question. 

The author was Tim Wise, a political consultant who was involved in two Louisiana campaigns against David Duke. Wise dismissed the handwringing, trolling and well-meaning advice being heaped on the Democrats.

If the Dems blow this election it will not be because they were “too far left on policy” or because they “weren’t left enough.” It will have little to do with policy at all. They are making a mistake caused by traditional consultant theory that does not apply here…

And by listening to influential pundits in liberal media who also don’t get the unique nature of Trumpism, relative to normal political movements & campaigns…this election is NOT going to be won by talking about all your “great plans” for health care, jobs, education, etc..

 And the reasons are several…Let me begin by saying that I have experience confronting the kind of phenomenon we see in Trumpism, and far more than most. Any of us who were involved in the fight against David Duke in LA in 90/91 know what this is and how it must be fought…

Wise then relayed his experience with campaigns against Duke. Political consultants warned against highlighting Duke’s racism; they said such a focus would play into Duke’s hands, and allow him to set the agenda.

Sound familiar?

In the Senate contest, the campaign followed mainstream advice not to “make a big deal” out of Duke’s racist appeals. To the extent they went negative, they talked about Duke paying his taxes late and avoiding service in Vietnam. They won, but very narrowly.

Wise regrets that approach because it normalized Duke. Attacking his bill paying habits or inadequate policy proposals “treated him like a normal candidate. But he was/is a NAZI…”

And none of his voters were voting 4 him bc of jobs, or tax policy or support for term limits, etc. And none were going to turn on him over late tax payments, Vietnam, etc. Indeed throwing that stuff out there & downplaying the elephant in the room (racism) seemed desperate..

It allowed people to say “well if he’s really this racist, white supremacist, why are they talking about all this other stuff?” It actually undermined our ability to paint him as the extremist he was/is. And as a result, the threat he posed was not clear enough to voters…

 And this didn’t just allow him to get votes he might not have gotten otherwise; it also depressed turnout among people who almost certainly disliked him but didn’t think he could win or would be all that big a deal if he did. In fact I recall convos with “liberals”…

Who said they weren’t going 2 vote bc after all Duke’s Dem opponent was just a shill for the oil and gas industry, and that was just as bad, blah blah fucking blah…because some lefties can’t tell the difference between corporatist assholes and actual literal Nazis…

 But we bore some responsibility for that because we got suckered into playing this conventional game and “not playing into his narrative.” Anyway, black and white liberal turnout is lower than it should have been and Duke gets 44% of vote…

In the Governor’s race we dispensed w/all that bullshit. We talked about Duke’s ongoing Nazism and the moral/practical evil of his racist appeals. We discussed how that moral evil would have real world consequences (driving tourists and business away, rightly so, from LA)..

Because it was wrong, and it was not who we wanted to be, and it was not who we were. We were better than that and needed to show the rest of the country that…

Now, did this flip any of Duke’s 1990 voters? Nah, not really. Indeed he got 65k MORE votes in the Governor’s race than the Senate race. But it was never about flipping them. We knew that would be almost impossible…

To flip Duke voters would require that they accept the fact that they had previously voted for a monster, and people are loath to do that. Our goal was not to flip them, but to DRIVE UP TURNOUT among the good folks, many of whom stayed home in 90…

And that is what happened. The concerted effort of the anti-Duke forces (not just us), challenging Duke’s “politics of prejudice,” and making the election about what kind of state we wanted to be, drove turnout through the roof…

When it was over, Duke had gotten 65k more votes than in 90, but his white share went to 55 (from 60) and overall to 39 (from 44) because the anti-Duke turnout swamped him…So what does this have to do with 2020 and Trump? Do I really need to explain it?…

First, trying to flip Trump voters is a waste of time. Any of them who regret their vote don’t need to be pandered to. They’ll do the right thing. Don’t focus on them. That said, very few will regret their vote. They cannot accept they voted for a monster or got suckered…

Duke retained 94% of the folks he got the first time out (and got new people too), as Trump likely will. So forget these people–or at least don’t wast time tailoring messages to them. And policy plans for affordable college don’t mean shit to them, nor health care…

Their support for Trump was never about policy. It was about the bigotry, the fact that he hates who they hate…

Wise is right. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, in 2020, America will choose a torch. Pray it’s the right one.

 

Crosses And Christmas Trees

File this one under that growing category: Be careful what you wish for.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overruled lower courts, and held that a huge Maryland cross can remain on public land–that its location on public property and the fact that it is maintained with tax dollars is not enough to find that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The reasoning here is significant.

The cross “has become a prominent community landmark, and its removal or radical alteration at this date would be seen by many not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions,” the court wrote. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion for the court.

“And contrary to respondents’ intimations, there is no evidence of discriminatory intent in the selection of the design of the memorial or the decision of a Maryland commission to maintain it. The Religion Clause of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.”

In a truly impressive demonstration of cognitive dissonance, Justice Alito characterized removal of the cross as “hostility to religion” and denied that the cross had religious significance.

Alito argued that the cross had essentially become secular. He invoked the history of World War I memorials noting the rows and rows of crosses and stars of David at cemeteries that memorialized those who died in that war and that established in people’s minds, in his view, that that was a way to honor to dead.

Gee, I wonder why Justice Ginsberg disagreed with Alito’s “history.”

“Decades ago,” Ginsburg wrote, “this Court recognized that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution demands governmental neutrality among religious faiths, and between religion and nonreligion. … Numerous times since, the Court has reaffirmed the Constitution’s commitment to neutrality. Today the Court erodes that neutrality commitment, diminishing precedent designed to preserve individual liberty and civic harmony in favor of a ‘presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices.'”

She adds, “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’ … Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Court was trying to avoid another culture war reaction by the White “Christians” still smarting from more significant rulings like same-sex marriage. The ruling by its terms only protects monuments already erected and longstanding; it is unlikely to protect efforts at new construction.

Ironically, what it is likely to do is further the “secularization” of symbols previously considered Christian. That transformation has already occurred with Christmas trees, after the Court declined to attribute religious significance to them. I doubt seriously if the sight of those ubiquitous, gaily adorned trees triggers theological reactions in anyone these days.

A Christian clergyman friend of mine opposed prayer in school irrespective of the First Amendment, because–as he put it–“I don’t pray to ‘whom it may concern.'” His opposition was based on experience;  when religious devotions or symbols become public, they inevitably become generic, losing their religious character.

White Christians who fear their loss of social dominance will undoubtedly cheer Justice Alito’s intellectually incoherent decision.

Christians who care about protecting the meaning of their religious iconography will be less enthusiastic.

 

Pining For Those Enlightenment Entrails

Denis Diderot (Enlightenment philosopher, Jesuit, art critic and writer) is quoted as having said “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

The sentiment is a bit excessive, but I’m warming to it.

What got me going was a recent issue of a weekly newsletter I receive called “Sightings.” It is published by the University of Chicago’s Divinity School,  and is devoted to issues at the intersection of religion and society. A few weeks ago, the newsletter was titled, “Politics and Priestcraft: Oh where is our Voltaire?” 

It began:

In our postmodern, global, and increasingly divided society, few thin threads of shared conviction seem to bind us together. One of those spindly threads has been a rejection by many people of our Enlightenment heritage, which fueled democratic revolutions, helped to shape the US Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and, at its best, ignited a drive for emancipation, both hither and yon.

The author acknowledged the recognized deficiencies of the times: yes, there was racism, sexism, exploitation, etc. etc. But there were also profound thinkers and witty philosophes, and as he noted

This Sightings is about an Enlightenment motif that is sadly missing in our public life, and dangerously so. Call this a “non-sighting” of the Enlightenment’s philosophes and their wit and satire against those politicians and priests—of all religions—bent on duping “we the people” and thereby upending democratic sovereignty. It’s a matter of fanaticism and tyranny of the mind. The question is: where’s our Voltaire?

This diatribe was prompted–we learn about halfway in–by reports about several conservative “Christians” who have  been peddling the notion that Donald Trump is a modern day King Cyrus, commissioned by God to re-Christianize America. (Actually, as the author points out,  America hasn’t historically been all that Christian.–  at least not if you are talking about churchgoing folks. But why let facts spoil a good story?)

Evidently,  “a charismatic preacher” named Lance Wallnau appeared on a television program that is currently being hosted by disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker (do these disgraced preachers ever just fade into the sunset? Evidently not) to hawk a Donald Trump/King Cyrus gold coin.

He claimed that the coin can be used as a ‘point of contact’ between Christians and God as they pray for the re-election of Trump in 2020.” My goodness, for a mere $45 you too can own this holy talisman to connect you with God, and it’s authenticated by a TV preacher to boot. Such folderol is rife in the religious world, of course… But so too is preying (not praying) on the desperate, the lonely, or those confused and losing hope.

And that brings us to Voltaire (and Diderot).

Such priestly, predatory actions were the target of Voltaire’s wit and that of other Enlightenment philosophes as well. For all of his gleaming faults, too many to recount here, Voltaire campaigned vigorously against superstition and fanaticism.

The author defines “priestcraft” as the use of “religious means” to secure power and to control people. (Priestcraft would be Mike Pence’s ostentatious piety as opposed to the genuinely religious passion of, say, an equally political William Barber.)

Priestcraft… can fuel secrecy, misogyny, and hatred even in the most public forums of social media. Friedrich Nietzsche, on this point a good philosophe, would say that it is driven by ressentiment, that is, feelings of hatred and envy that cannot be acted on and are therefore transmuted into self-abasement or, in the case of priestcraft, wily ways to gain and keep power. If that is the case, then, priestcraft within a democracy usurps the sovereignty of “we the people.” …

We do need to have the truth of conviction to combat priestcraft in all its forms, subtle and crude, and so reclaim some, though (rightly) perhaps not all, of our Enlightenment heritage. At stake is our freedom as a people, religious or not, and, for religious folks, clarity about what really deserves adoration. At least this is what a “non-sighting” of Enlightened social criticism seems to suggest. In Immanuel Kant’s words: “Sapere Aude. Dare to think for yourself.”

For myself, I think Diderot was onto something….

The Problem With Selective “Liberty”

Michael Gerson has a way with words.

His descriptions of Donald Trump are dead-on; in a recent column in the Washington Post, for example, he considered Trump’s recent attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who came to the United States as a Somali refugee, using the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and an out-of-context quotation.

It is cruel because Trump essentially delivered his political rant while standing on desecrated graves. The images he employed not only included burning buildings but burning human beings, drafted into a sad and sordid political ploy. Is nothing sacred to Trump? When said aloud, the question sounds like an absurdity. Trump has never given the slightest indication of propriety, respect or reverence. His narcissism leaves no room to honor other people or to honor other gods. Both the living and the dead matter only as servants to the cause of Trump himself.

In the remainder of the column, Gerson documents what we all know–Trump is an anti-Muslim bigot. (Not that his hatred of Islam is exclusive–like all White Nationalists, he also manages to find room for racism and anti-Semitism.)

Gerson goes through the ugly characterizations, the anti-Muslim rants.

Trump has a long history of animus — raw animus — against one of the Abrahamic faiths. He has said, “We’re having problems with the Muslims.” And: “There is a Muslim problem in the world.” And: “The United Kingdom is trying hard to disguisetheir massive Muslim problem.” And: “Islam hates us.”

The Koran, in Trump’s scholarly opinion, “teaches some very negative vibe.” He has claimed: “You have people coming out of mosques with hatred and death in their eyes.” He once called for a “total and complete shutdownof Muslims entering the United States.” He has variously and publicly considered the closing of mosques, warrantless searches and the creation of a national database to track Muslims. In Trump’s view, “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before.”

Then Gerson gets to the point: liberty is all or nothing, and Trump’s version of liberty as  “freedom only for the faiths he prefers” threatens every religion. When government has the power to “award” liberty to some and deny it to others, the people who are favored aren’t free; they simply have been granted privileges that the government may choose at some future point to withdraw. That isn’t genuine liberty.

As Gerson writes,

Religious freedom is either rigorously equal, or it becomes an instrument of those in power to favor or disfavor religions of their choice. And those believers who are currently in favor may someday discover what disfavor is like.

As a wise person once told me, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

 

Liberty Or Favoritism?

As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide another religious liberty case–this time, concerning the constitutional propriety of a 40-foot cross in Maryland–it might be helpful to revisit the origins of the competing definitions of “liberty” that are at the heart of so many of these cases.

We are told that the colonists who originally settled in what is now the United States came to the new world for religious liberty. And that’s right; they did. But their view of religious liberty was that it was “freedom to do the right thing.” And that involved establishing colonies where the government would make sure that everyone did “the right thing.”

Around 150 years later, George Washington became the first President of a country founded upon a very different understanding of liberty. Liberty was conceived of as freedom to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to accord an equal right to others.

What had changed the definition of liberty? The scientific and intellectual movement we call the Enlightenment, which had occurred in the interim between the original Puritans and the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Constitution may have been based upon the definition that emerged from the Enlightenment, but America still is home to lots of Puritans. And their “sincere belief” is that liberty means the government should be able to impose–or at least, privilege– their religion.

An editorial in The New York Times explains the case currently pending before the Court:

This week’s hearing, in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, involved a 40-foot cross in Bladensburg, Md., that was erected 93 years ago to honor fallen World War I soldiers. The question before the court: Is Maryland in violation of the First Amendment because the memorial is on public property and maintained with public funds?

There would be no constitutional violation if the cross were on private property. The issue is government endorsement of religion, which is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The editorial notes that there is considerable confusion about the application of the Establishment Clause to public monuments.

Lower court judges are confused about how to apply the Supreme Court’s dictates in this area of the law, so more clarity from the high court — if not a definitive, bright-line rule — is in order.

Alas, such clarity doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. After Wednesday’s hearing, the court seems poised to allow the cross — which otherwise bears no religious inscriptions — to stay. But the justices don’t appear to be any closer to consensus on this issue than they’ve ever been.

“I mean, it is the foremost symbol of Christianity, isn’t it?” Justice Elena Kagan asked at Wednesday’s session. “It invokes the central theological claim of Christianity, that Jesus Christ, the son of God, died on the cross for humanity’s sins and that he rose from the dead. This is why Christians use crosses as a way to memorialize the dead.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, who in the past has wrestledwith the Constitution’s religion clauses, pondered whether “history counts” when assessing a monument’s legality. Maybe older displays, erected when the nation wasn’t nearly as religiously diverse, should be allowed, he suggested. “We’re a different country,” Justice Breyer said. “We are a different country now, and there are 50 more different religions.”

Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration–which wasn’t a party to the case and need not have offered an opinion–weighed in on the side of those who want the cross to remain.

The editorial concluded:

With its recent rulings, the Supreme Court has only muddied the separation between church and state by taking seriously religious objections to contraception, civil rights laws and the allocation of public funds. It is hard to fathom the justices being nearly as accommodating with a publicly funded monument to atheism or a Wiccan pentagram. And last month, the court couldn’t even agree that a Muslim death-row prisoner from Alabama deserved the same rights as Christians in his final moments.

However the justices resolve this the dispute, they would be wise to not sow more confusion in this area of the law and feed the perception that only certain religions and practices get a fair shake in public life.

When those “certain religions” are privileged, equality before the law takes a hit.