Religion in Public Schools

The teaching of religion in public schools is a topic that stimulates a great deal of honest debate on all sides of the issue. Should religion be taught at all? And if so, what religions? Even well-meaning atheists might feel that religion should be taught, as long as all religions – and atheistic perspectives as well – are taught equally and fairly without bias.

That sounds laudable and enlightened in theory. However, many plans that sound great in theory inevitably turn out to be disastrous when put into practice. Teaching religion in public schools is one such example.

I have personal experience with this. While serving in the Peace Corps in South Africa, I worked for their Department of Education. The South African Constitution requires that all religions be treated equally. In order to comply with the spirit of their Constitution, the Department of Education has adopted a policy that all religions should be taught fairly and equally in the public schools.

Sounds great right? The trouble is that teachers, particularly rural teachers, do not know all religions and do not care to know all religions – let alone teach them fairly. At the point where lofty policies touch the students. all that this accomplishes is to give teachers cover to preach and proselytize their own religious views in the classroom and to misrepresent and disparage all other religions – and atheism is demonized most of all.

The problem of state sanctioned religious instruction is not merely a matter of the recruiting and training and monitoring of teachers. False even-handedness spills over into teaching materials as well. Science texts typically enumerate a long list of native creation myths as legitimate. In at least one science text, after describing the monkey myth, and the milk myth, and many others, it concluded with what was almost an obligatory footnote that said “and some scientists believe that the world was created by natural means and human beings evolved.”

This sort of false balance, not unlike giving equal deference to climate change deniers, is an almost inevitable consequence of a misguided and ill-fated attempt to be fair and inclusive with regard to the teaching of religion.

I came away from my experience in South Africa more convinced than ever that our American system of simply keeping religion out of our public schools is on balance the best, most practical system of fairness. There is no shortage of alternate venues where people can preach and teach religion as much as they wish. Therefore, there is no compelling need being met by including religion in public schools, that warrants the certain risk of abuse and unintended consequences.

Assiduously keeping religion out of our public schools is in fact the more fair, the more enlightened, and the more realistic policy position.


The Mortal Sin of GHW Bush

BushTimeCatholic mythology includes the concept of “mortal sin.” A mortal sin is such a grievous act that it condemns ones soul to eternal damnation – unless the sinner receives divine forgiveness. Although of course heaven and hell and god are all pure fantasy, the notion of mortal sin is based on real human ethics. It is the reality that a thousand good deeds cannot necessarily make up for one egregiously heinous act.

In his career GHW Bush certainly did a great many good things and a great many not so good things. So one could rightly view Bush as neither a sinner nor a saint, but as a typically flawed and complex human being with a mixed bag of achievements and failings.

Except for his great mortal sin.

In January of 1991 I watched, along with much of the world, as GHW Bush began what would become 42 consecutive days and nights of raining down nonstop aerial and naval bombardment upon Iraq followed by unparalleled human tragedy that still reverberates to this day. The official story is well-known. GHW Bush had to reluctantly order this massive invasion as the only way to counter reckless aggression by Saddam Hussein.

The historical record is correct of course, but it normally leaves out one crucial fact. On the first day of bombardment I was on the phone with an acquaintance who happened to be connected at the highest level in the government. He told me what he and his fellow high officials knew was happening at the time.

In February of 1989, GHW Bush had a shockingly low approval polling of 14%. He was widely seen as weak and mealy-mouthed – kind of a Barney Fife President. Bush desperately needed a war to bolster his image as a strong leader. So, ex-CIA director that he was, he looked around for an unwitting dupe to start a war with.

He found the perfect patsy in Saddam Hussein, the US-backed President of Iraq. Saddam had been vocally complaining about his neighbor Kuwait violating their oil production agreements and about their slant-drilling into his oil fields. GHW Bush sent back-channel messages to Saddam that were intended, and succeeded, in assuring him that the US would not interfere if he took action against Kuwait.

So he did. Saddam invaded Kuwait. And Bush followed up almost immediately by condemning Saddam and mustering a world-wide coalition to attack him. Is it any wonder that Saddam cursed Bush to his dying breath?

Americans reacted as they almost always do to war. Bush quickly became viewed as the strong leader he aspired to be. The rally effect skyrocketed his approval ratings to over 90% in polls conducted in March of 1991. In less than two years, Bush’s war gambit propelled his approval from 14% to 90%.

I suppose one could count this among Bush’s great successes.

And all that these fantastic poll numbers cost was an incalculable loss of life and property and the pounding of an entire region of the world into a chaotic “stone age” for generations to come.

Add to that the cost of the Second Iraq War that his son waged against Iraq, after having told by some estimates 33 distinct documented lies to justify his invasion. These were repeated by Bush Jr. and his aides over 900 times (see here). Like father, like son.

And one cannot rationalize away this war by saying that Saddam was a bad guy anyway and we cannot know what would have happened had he stayed in power. If one blows up a dam, one knows what will happen. One does not need a counterfactual in this case either. Saddam, dictator that he was, kept the region in a relatively peaceful and prosperous state. And most experts, even at the time, warned that his demise would destabilize the entire region.

Historians and analysts don’t usually include Bush’s full role in instigating this war when they discuss his legacy. Since my learning this story while talking to officials on the phone as the bombs fell, I have been dismissed every time I have tried to relate it. Only recently are some authors even alluding to it. A recent article in Politico mentions it only very mildly (see here).

As Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait, Bush sent the Iraqi strongman clear signals, through the American ambassador, that the United States had no interest in intra-Arab disputes—the exact opposite position of the one he took very shortly thereafter, in which he drew a “line in the sand.”

So I for one cannot take a “balanced” view of the life and legacy of GHW Bush. I for one cannot forgive his great mortal sin that has cost such unthinkable loss and inflicted such horrendous pain and suffering on a global scale. His self-serving war-making eclipses any good he has done by a hundredfold.

Only god can forgive a mortal sin on this scale, and god does not exist.


But My District Is Safe

ishouldvevotedstickerWe hear it quite often, especially from younger voters:

“I am not planning to vote but my district is safe.”

There are several problems with this position.

First, it may not actually be true that your district is really safe. Polls get it wrong. Sometimes all the polls get it all wrong, badly wrong. All too often, this false confidence leads to “shocking” upsets.

Second, if enough people adopt this “but my district is safe” attitude they will make it unsafe. At some point, if enough people think like you, the bad guy wins. That is why the bad guys work so very hard to suppress voting and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. The people you don’t want in office don’t want you to vote.

Third, there are the softer arguments that appeal to civic duty, tradition, and social responsibility. We hear all these arguments and admonitions often enough, but these are seldom enough to overcome the pragmatic rationalization of “but my district is safe.”

But here is an argument that amazingly I have never heard articulated by a voting advocate. And that is simply… margins matter. Even if you are correct and your district is perfectly safe, the margin by which your side wins is immensely important.

If a candidate wins by only a slim margin, partly because you stayed home, they have less political capital to spend once in office. They do not have a clear and strong mandate to push through the kind of legislation you hope for. They are seen as vulnerable and attacked more aggressively next time around. Therefore, they feel far less secure and are less likely to support the kind of bold initiatives you want to see happen.

On the other hand, if by voting all you have done is increase your candidates margin of victory by one more vote, you have done something very helpful, substantive, and important. You have given your candidate more leverage and security to advance the agenda you want to see championed. By increasing their margin of victory, you secure support for them and for their agenda while demoralizing and discouraging would-be opponents and challengers.

So next time you think about skipping out on the voting process because you feel that yours would be a superfluous, wasted vote… think of margins. Think of your vote as adding one more coin on the scales in favor of all the things you care about. Think of it as a measurable data point to disillusion and discourage those on the wrong side of the issues. Think, margins matter!


They Didn’t Really Hold Their Noses

Portrait of a young woman holding her nose because of a bad smel“The Religious Right held their noses and voted for Trump.”

You know this line all too well. Unless you live in a sensory deprivation tank, you probably hear it many times a day from pretty much every expert analyst. You’ve heard it so many times that you probably believe it without even thinking to question it.

But it is simply baseless nonsense.

The Religious Right did not in fact hold their noses and vote for Trump. They enthusiastically embraced Trump AND all of his vile, disgusting behaviors and rhetoric.  And even after nearly two years of incessent exposure to his lies and indictments and mean-spirited policies, these supposed nose-holders still support Trump without significant reservation or qualification. At this point it is fair to ask whether they support him precisely because of all his vile, disgusting behaviors and rhetoric.

You can reality-check this for yourself. Simply tune in any talk show that accepts calls from the Religious Right. The overwhelming number of these callers not only still support Trump, but they support him passionately and vehemently. You won’t detect any nose-holding from them.

The next time you hear an analyst repeat this meme, notice that they never provide any evidence or data to support it. In fact, this narrative of the mythological nose-holding, morally conflicted religious right voter is definitively disproven by impartial analysis of the facts. In a study of voting data, political science professor Paul J. Djupe at Denison University concluded that:

“To the central claim: noseholding is not disproportionately common (or uncommon for that matter) among white evangelicals (see here).”

Professor Djupe goes on to point out that:

“I understand why the claim of noseholding is attractive. It suggests that you and your group are better, more pure than a political candidate, that your support is temporary and subject to revocation. It is a claim of both independence and moral superiority.”

So any such claim of moral angst in a Trump voter is a false claim. Rather, it is a strong indicator of moral deficiency. It is analogous to my admitting to my wife that I had an affair with a seedy prostitute, but that I had to “hold my nose” to do it. And this moral failure is not only evident in their support of Trump, but in their wholehearted support of a Conservative Congress that engages in similarly egregious behaviors that are in direct conflict with their espoused moral values.

It is clear why the elite on the religious right like to push this narrative to make themselves look and feel better, particularly while they support politicians who engage in blatant behavior that is antithetical to everything they falsely claim to stand for.

But this nose-holding meme is also repeated without legitimate skepticism by mainstream analysts. I suspect this is partly because they themselves would be conflicted in such a situation. Perhaps they genuinely held their nose and voted for Hillary when their heart was with Bernie. It is natural then that they would naively project their own angst into those on the religious right.

But do not make the mistake of giving the Religious Right too much credit for basic human decency and morality. Do not underestimate their capacity to rationalize terrible behaviors as somehow moral and justifiable. I previously wrote about their support for torture as one example (see here). In the case of Trump, they did not, and still do not, even have the rudimentary decency to actually hold their noses while they fervently embrace both him and all his enablers.


Our Next Existential Battle

Right now most of us feel caught up in an existential battle against the Trumpian forces of corrupt dictatorship. With so much to deal with, it is natural to not even want to think about our next battle. Yet, assuming our democracy survives the reign of Trump, we need to prepare for the likely struggle to follow. Our next war will almost certainly be against Mike Pence and the forces of theocracy.

It is my theory of presidential succession that voters swing, pendulum-like, from one extreme to another as we recoil from and overcompensate for what we perceive as the flaws in our last president (see here). It is very likely that the disaster of Donald Trump is going to push our collective emotional pendulum right into the waiting arms of the Religious Right.

As the catastrophe that is Donald Trump unravels, Conservatives will argue that Trump was no “true” Christian, that he was rather a secular leader and that his abject moral failure as a person and as a president is proof that secular values is an oxymoron. What Donald Trump will prove is that we need a good Christian leader of high moral character to lead us. And make no mistake, many, many liberals and progressives will accept that argument.

HolyPenceMike Pence, or perhaps someone else, will eagerly assume the role of our new moral savior. Certainly Mike Pence is poised and waiting for his opportunity. In fact many Christian leaders explicitly proclaim that the Donald Trump presidency will pave their way to theocratic dominance (see here).

And as soon as the Religious Right gains even more legitimacy and power than they already have, they will proceed quickly and vigorously to impose their theocratic beliefs on everyone else. They will roll back many of the secular freedoms that we have achieved as a society through generations of blood and tears. They will impose religious tests in every public matter, further marginalize science and reason, and disadvantage anyone who does not share their particular faith.

It is certain that the Religious Right will leverage the moral and political failures of Donald Trump to push us as far toward their extreme as they can. We should not fall prey to this set-up for a disastrous pendulum swing. We should not accept any kind of false choice argument between vile Trumpian delusion and vile Religious delusion.

On the hopeful side, this is a battle we can win if we are smart. People often speculate on whether it would be a good thing to impeach Trump tomorrow if we could, and accept Pence as president. I say yes! Our democracy is frankly not well-equipped to deal with corrupt and crazy. However, we do have explicit Constitutional protections against religious extremism, provided we defend those protections.

Trump’s greatest historical impact will likely not be pulling us into a dictatorship as he intends, but rather pushing us into a theocracy as he does not intend. Protecting our separation of church and state and establishing strong secular leadership are more important than ever. If not because of Donald Trump specifically, then because of the even more consequential battle against theocracy that is almost certain to follow in his wake.


Privatizing Theocracy

privatizationThe strategy is clear. Privatize as much of the government as possible and exempt those privately run services from Constitutional protections.

If we do not wise up, we could gradually privatize our way to theocracy.

Conservatives love privatization. Regardless of where they lie on the not-so-wide spectrum from capitalist to libertarian, they all share a foundational belief that the private sector does everything better than publicly run counterparts. To them, it is self-serving economic dogma that a hard-nosed, self-interested, profit motive is somehow inherently superior to a sincere mission to serve the public good. Therefore everything that can be privatized should be privatized.

Of course, there is no actual proof of any such inherent superiority. Sure, some privately run companies can be more efficient than governmental programs. But many are not. For every inefficient, bureaucratic, slow-moving government agency, one can point to dozens of disastrous, failed, bankrupt, unresponsive, and socially irresponsible private companies with obscenely overpaid corporate leaders.

Moreover, the primary function of private businesses is not to serve their customers with the best possible goods and services, but to extract maximum profit for shareholders and executives. The idea that competition always optimizes to result in the best possible services at the lowest possible price is a convenient fiction. Private businesses actually optimize to extract the highest possible profit by providing the cheapest possible services. Their fiduciary obligation is not to serve the public good, but on the contrary it is to pass off as many of their harms and risks as possible onto the public sphere.

It is simple math. All else equal, a well-run private company simply cannot provide better services than a well-run governmental agency because the private company must extract maximum profits. And it is a lie that government agencies cannot be just as well-run. In fact, our Conservative leaders know this, which is why they work so hard to make the Post Office and other services fail so that they can justify privatizing them.

Further, there are some public functions that are simply incompatible with the profit motive, these include things like health care. I am not against all private business, but I am against private businesses running essential social services that fundamentally conflict with their profit motive. I wrote a blog on the conflict between profit and healthcare (see here). And we have all seen how well has privatization worked for prisons.

This fanatical push for privatizing everything from military service to social security in order to extract private profits has been bad enough. But now, with Citizen’s United and Hobby Lobby and the dominance of Church-friendly executives in public office, we should clearly see another terribly dark side of privatization – the synergy of privatization and religion.

As more and more government services, from social services to education and beyond are privatized, those new “public service” companies can then exert their growing independence to reject governmental policies and even Constitutional protections to inject religious beliefs into those services. Rather than serve the general public good, rather than adhere to restrictions put in place to ensure the public good, these newly privatized services can now exert their “religious freedom” to limit those services in accordance with their religious beliefs.

The Religious Right has been frustrated because they have been thwarted in their efforts introduce prayer and intelligent design in schools. Their new strategy is focused on privatizing education so that they can “teach” whatever they wish to larger numbers of children. By simultaneously asserting religious rights of conscience for these private companies, they can do an end-run around the Constitution.

As another case in point consider hospitals. We used to have a lot of public hospitals. But we have allowed private, for profit hospitals to take over without requiring them to provide the same level of service to underprivileged populations. Increasingly, churches are assimilating all of these private hospitals and refusing to offer essential services that they feel violate their religious beliefs. The New York Times recently highlighted this (see here).

Now duplicate this same strategy to privatize every government service with an ideological or profit interest. If the greedy and the religious can remove all such operations from governmental oversight, then the protections of our Constitution become moot. How can the Constitution protect us with nothing remaining under its jurisdiction? The Conservatives want less, not more of the regulations that would be required.

Make no mistake. This trend toward theocracy by privatization will continue to accelerate unless we understand the following:

  1. Private corporations do not really do everything better, and some essential public services are fundamentally undermined by a profit imperative.
  2. Private companies must not be allowed to claim personhood and religious liberty in order to abdicate ethical responsibilities and circumvent Constitutional protections.
  3. Political leaders must not be allowed to be complicit in this theocritization by intentionally destroying working public services and by putting in place governmental structures to assist in privatization and the expansion of religious exemptions.

For further reading I recommend a previous blog entitled Why Wall Street Loves Trump (see here).

Cloud Angels

CloudAngelA recent article in People Magazine was entitled Texas Driver Spots ‘Spectacular’ Cloud Shaped Like an Angel: ‘How Awesome Is That?’ (see here).

Although the question was rhetorical – well actually it was meant as more a statement than a question – I’ll answer it anyway.

Not very!

The reality is that at any given moment of any day from any point anywhere on Earth, there are clouds that we could imagine bear some resemblance to something other than a billowy mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere.

Some of these clouds might resemble boats, or alligators, or elephants, or pretty much anything really. The limit is our imaginations. So it is fun, but not particularly newsworthy, to take note of the wacky shapes that clouds happen upon. That is, unless the image is religious, and in that case it is apparently quite newsworthy.

The truth is that of all the clouds, or pieces of toast, or rotten peaches, or paint stains, that look like something, we don’t get really excited about these random resemblances unless they resemble an angel, or Jesus, or Mother Mary, or some vague Saint. All this random stuff is just random, unless it has a religious connotation. In that case, random stuff is inspiring, proof of gods hand in the world, miraculous, and fascinatingly newsworthy.

This all speaks to our powerful mental ability to create patterns that conform to our particular confirmation biases. Moreover it also speaks to our intense desire and interest in any confirmation of our religious bias in particular.

And I can see how a cloud pattern, or some lichen on a rock create powerful imagery. I had one such experience.

I was on the beach in Costa Rica watching baby tortoises dauntlessly plunge into the ocean only to be thrown back onto the sand over and over again by the uncaring waves. It was late afternoon and I glanced up, only to stare in wonder at the sky. Directly in front of me were the very gates of heaven. A glowing pathway lead up from directly before me to a shimmering cloud platform. Upon it stood two gleaming pearly gates, connected by a vibrant golden archway, highlighted by dramatic halos of light. Within the great arch, in the distance, was a glowing point of light so divine that it could only have been the glow of god almighty.

The sight was so photo-realistically detailed and delineated with vibrant color and perfect proportions that it made the Texas cloud angel look like a child’s watercolor. I gaped in wonder for a moment before I thought to reach for my camera. But by the time I fumbled to work it, the lines had begun to blur, the light to diminish, and the effect to become far more abstract. That singular moment was past. Within minutes the gates of heaven were once again just one more set of abstract cloud shapes.

Given that experience, I can understand how primitive people might be so inspired as to believe they had actually glimpsed a heavenly place revealed to them in the sky. I can understand how they might have taken this as proof of heaven. Or, perhaps, thousands of years ago someone glimpsed a sight very similar to my own and created our modern imagery of heaven based upon that one powerful awe-inspiring moment.

But what I cannot understand and cannot excuse is any modern person today believing that some vaguely angel-shaped cloud is particularly inspiring or reassuring, let alone believed to be a message from god. And I find it doubly disappointing that a news outlet, even one that is merely reporting human interest stories, would preferentially pick out these kind of “sightings” to report, thereby depositing yet another straw of religious delusion on the already straining back of the reason and rationality of our culture.