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.”

For Goodness Sake, Indiana!

Remember that much-hyped slogan, developed by (undoubtedly overpaid) consultants–the one that was going to bring gobs of tourists to our state? “Honest to goodness, Indiana!” didn’t do much for me, and as best I can tell, it didn’t prompt many people to think “well, that’s a state I simply have to visit!”

I wonder if we’d do better with a teaser like, “come see one of the most gerrymandered states in the whole of the USA!”

The results of the 2020 census have been issued and the states–including Indiana–are in the midst of the redistricting that takes place every ten years. In Indiana, a coalition of citizens headed by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other nonpartisan, “good government” organizations has been strenuously lobbying for fair maps for at least the last five years; clearly, as the IBJ recently reported, the hundreds of Hoosiers who’ve called and written their legislators and descended on the Statehouse could have saved themselves the trouble.

Republicans will keep greater control of Indiana’s Legislature than merited by the number of votes they receive, according to a political analyst who on Thursday called the state’s proposed new election districts among the most skewed in the country.

The analysis came as a legislative committee held a second day of public hearings on the Republican-drawn maps, with several people criticizing the fact that the new election district maps were released less than 48 hours earlier.

The redistricting plan review conducted for the left-leaning political group Women4Change found Republicans would likely win 69 of the 100 Indiana House seats while typically receiving 56% of the vote. Republicans now hold a 71-29 majority in the Indiana House.

Christopher Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University who analyzes election data, said the proposed maps that will be used for the next 10 years boost Republicans by creating overwhelmingly Democratic districts to limit the impact of those voters.

“I think that while geography or other factors could explain part of these biases, these are so extreme that really nothing but politically intentional gerrymander could really explain the extent of the bias in these maps,” Warshaw said.

Calling Women4Change “left-leaning” is only possible in a state where opposing race and sex discrimination and favoring civic education and “one person, one vote” are considered extremely liberal positions. The organization includes a number of prominent Republicans (granted, of the sane variety) and bends over backward to be nonpartisan. But I digress.

A friend who shall remain nameless had a meeting a couple of months ago with the current Speaker of the House, and raised the issue of maps. Let’s just say the response was not along the lines of “oh, yeah, we’re working hard to make them fair…”

The only hopeful data I’ve come across was an observation from a friend who is a political science professor. He’d looked at the census numbers, and noted that this particular round of partisan redistricting was considerably more difficult than in the past, because rural areas of the state are less populated than they previously were. Those areas are continuing to empty out. Indiana Republicans are dependent upon those thinly populated parts of the state, so unless there is a significant change in Hoosiers’ population trends, the GOP’s carefully constructed advantage will disappear–probably not in 2022 or even 2024, but soon thereafter.

I sure hope his reading of the population tea leaves is correct….

Meanwhile, the voices in the heads of the far right Trumpers continue to harp on “voter fraud” and the Big Lie. Since there is exactly zero evidence supporting these attacks on the legitimacy of those who won election, I was initially puzzled. On what, exactly, do they base these hysterical, manufactured claims?

Then I figured it out.  As Jamelle Bouie noted in the New York Times, 

“Voter fraud” is not a factual claim subject to testing and objective analysis as much as it’s a statement of ideology, a belief about the way the world works. In practice, to accuse Democrats of voter fraud is to say that Democratic voters are not legitimate political actors, that their votes do not count the same as those of “the people” (that is, the Republican electorate) and that Democratic officials, elected with those illegitimate votes, have no rightful claim to power.

Yep. Members of the GOP’s super-majority in our legislature firmly believe that “those people”–city dwellers, Democrats, people of color–aren’t really entitled to cast ballots that count the same as the ballots cast by “real” Americans…so the gerrymandering that disenfranchises them is perfectly appropriate.

For goodness sake, Indiana!

 

Etcetera

When I was younger, I was incredibly–embarrassingly–patriotic. I regularly got goosebumps when I heard the national anthem. Granted, my understanding of the nation’s history was very incomplete–but I think it’s fair to say that the nation itself was stronger. it was certainly less polarized–most Americans shared a belief in both the country’s essential goodness and in a “can do” American spirit. 

Yesterday, I posted about what I now fear is our national disintegration–a multitude of thorny problems, most of which appear to defy that “can do” ethic. 

Remember this rant from the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom?  When anchor Will McAvoy responds to a question about what makes the U.S. the “greatest country in the world?

And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. 

Every issue McAvoy addresses in that now-famous rant could be ameliorated by sensible public policies. As I regularly note on this platform, we haven’t enacted those policies. The reason we haven’t is the same reason I am increasingly depressed–significant aspects of the Constitution–the Constitution that I have celebrated, defended and taught– are obsolete.

Max Boot recently made that point in a column for the Washington Post.

Sounding a lot like Will McAvoy, Boot began with a recitation of America’s dreadful vaccination performance, and the deaths of more than 660,000 Americans thanks to the some 80 million eligible Americans who “stubbornly, stupidly refuse to get vaccinated — and there is almost no way to force them to do the right thing.”

With just 63 percent of the U.S. population having received at least one dose, we now lag behind every Group of Seven country in vaccination rates. We have even fallen behind countries such as Brazil, Mongolia and Cambodia, which are nowhere near as wealthy.

As he says, this isn’t a problem with democracy.

Other developed democracies work just fine. It’s not a question of democracy vs. autocracy. It’s more a question of the United States vs. the rest of the democratic world. Look at Canada: Its covid-19 death rate is one-third of ours and its vaccination rate is 12 percentage points higher. We have a uniquely dysfunctional political system — and it’s not clear that it can be fixed.

Our failure to manage the pandemic is of a piece with our failures to manage many other endemic ills. We have the weakest gun regulations among wealthy democracies and the highest level of gun violence. We are the only advanced democracy without universal health care — and our infant mortality rate is higher than in comparable countries. We have the weakest welfare state and the highest income inequality and poverty among G-7 countries. No wonder Europeans’ life expectancy is increasing while ours is declining.

Boot attributes our problems to a political system that he notes “was brilliantly designed for 1787 but has failed in 2021.”

In 1790, the largest state, Pennsylvania, had six times the population of the smallest, Rhode Island. Today, the largest state, California, has 68 times the population of the smallest, Wyoming. Yet California and Wyoming have the same number of U.S. senators…The overrepresentation of rural, conservative interests in the Senate is stunning: The 50 Republican senators represent nearly 40 million fewer voters than the 50 Democrats. Ending the filibuster can ameliorate this inequity, but there is no way to end it when just 13 states can block any constitutional amendment.

There is more, and you really need to click through and read Boot’s indictment in its entirety. It is particularly pertinent as we watch efforts by Democrats in the Senate to enact what ought to be considered minimal safeguards of the right to vote–and the adamant refusal of the minority White Supremacy Party to even consider them.

We can’t solve our multiple problems, or unleash the energies we need to confront global realities like pandemics and climate change, until we reform our creaky, undemocratic and increasingly counterproductive framework–and those reforms will be resisted by the minority of Americans that they privilege until the bitter end.

The question is: will the “bitter end” be the passage of democratic reforms? Or the final passage of America’s claim to national greatness?

 

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.