Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Religious Freedom

Indiana Governor, Mike Pence, a reliable conservative
according to the American Conservative Union, which gave
him a 100% rating in 2012.
A couple of days ago Indiana Governor, Mike Pence, signed the controversial "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." Indiana now joins nineteen other states that have passed similar laws. Reactions have been swift--from the NCAA's "concern" to threats by cities and corporations to boycott the state because of the implications regarding LGBT rights. The law does not mention homosexuality, or any terms invoking LGBT issues, and Governor Pence insists that the law is not about permitting discrimination but rather the prohibition of state laws and rules that force people, organizations, and corporations to violate their religious beliefs. It is aimed at the Affordable Care Act, not a category of people. As he stated in a press release after the signing the law (in private, curiously):
One need look no further than the recent litigation concerning the Affordable Care Act. A private business and our own University of Notre Dame had to file lawsuits challenging provisions that required them to offer insurance coverage in violation of their religious views.
Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition, an orthodox Christian evangelical organization, provides a useful summary of similar legislation and related Supreme Court decisions, and argues that the Indiana law is not "anti-gay." Like Governor Pence, he relies on Notre Dame--a consistent source of conservative Catholic views on social issues (so ecumenical of the evangelicals!)--to argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not give anyone a 'license to discriminate.'"  Carter goes on to blame "the media" for hysterically misrepresenting the law.

But even the irascible Janet Brewer, governor of Arizona, vetoed similar legislation a month ago because of its anti-LGBT implications (see The Atlantic's excellent analysis of that veto here).  No matter how much Governor Pence and his allies might poo-poo the discriminatory aspects of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law's supporters acknowledge that it's a about allowing Hoosiers to discriminate against LGBTers based on religious beliefs. As reported by The Blaze, Glenn Beck's online right-leaning news site:
Conservative groups say the Indiana measure merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds.
Sad how that word "merely" blithely dismisses a significant minority population, denying it the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause.

But an Indiana University law professor says not to worry, noting that
courts generally have ruled that the government has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination and that this interest precludes the recognition of religious exceptions. Even in the narrow setting of wedding-service providers, claims for religious exemptions recently have been rejected in various states, including states that have adopted the RFRA test. A court could rule otherwise, protecting religious freedom in this distinctive context. But to date, none has.
"Generally?" "Various?" Hardly an overwhelming put-down of the Indiana law--though the last line provides some comfort for those of us who don't think of members of the LGBT community as second-class citizens (see here for a map of state level LGBT policies).

Mildred and Richard Loving, 1965, denied equal protection
under the law until the landmark Supreme Court decision
Loving vs. Virginia in 1967.
Mark Silk, editor and blogger for the Religious News Service, is more certain of the ultimate outcome. He cites the Supreme Court's 1967 Loving vs. Virginia decision striking down laws banning mixed race marriages and notes a 2014 federal appellate court's declaration that Indiana's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. As with mixed race couples, the judicial message to states is that same-sex unions are protected by the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. That is, photographers, caterers, wedding planners, won't get to deny services to same-sex couples on religious grounds.

If the Supreme Court doesn't end discrimination against the LGBT population in the US, time will. As revealed in a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the generational cohort we label millennials, those between 18 and 35 years of age, perceive homosexuality (and presumably all the gradations between homosexuality and heterosexuality) differently than white evangelicals. 55% of millennials say that homosexuality is "morally acceptable/depends on the situation" while 38% declare it "morally wrong," compared to 20% of white evangelicals who accept homosexuality with 78% finding it morally wrong.

Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI, sums up the findings on issues of homosexuality and other sexual morals in this way:
Millennials seem reluctant to make blanket black-and-white moral pronouncements about issues they see as complex,” said Jones. 
They don’t only make legal allowances for circumstances, they also make moral allowances for people in difficult circumstances. It’s more about empathy than it is about autonomy.
Ah, complexity and situational ethics--both anathema to religious fundamentalists. But in a couple of decades, the millennial generation will be climbing into positions of decision-making power vacated by the aging or dead baby-boomers.  Or as the Religious News Services puts it:
...the influence of white evangelicals on public opinion in the future may be muted by their small — and aging — numbers. White evangelicals are the oldest of the major religious affiliations, with 49 percent of them age 50 and older.
And this principled stand by many (certainly not a principle shared by all) white evangelicals, their argument that they are entitled to discriminate against the LGBT population, is not winning many converts among the millennial generation.  According to a Pew survey, 16% of the US population is religiously unaffiliated, and about a third of the unaffiliated are under the age of 30. And as Robert Putnam and David Campbell observed in their magisterial work, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us:
In the 1960s religious observance plummeted. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s a conservative reaction produced the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative politics, have abandoned organized religion entirely. The result: growing polarization.
Abandoned church, Detroit, 2013
Well, at least this time we don't have the spectacle of governors blocking schoolhouse doors to gays, or shouting "Homophobia now, homophobia tomorrow, homophobia forever!"  Still, no matter how innocuous the legal language, a law that sanctifies the unequal treatment of a category of people in the name of freedom is not only unjust, but mangles the meaning of freedom. To paraphrase an old saying, one's freedom to swing a bible ends just where another's nose begins.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Postcards Reveal Jeffrey Lebowski's Previously Unknown Missouri Synod Origins

My wife found old postcards from the 1950s and 60s at a used bookstore, and bought a small stack of them for me. Here's some of my finds....

I don't know. I'm guessing Jeff would have felt like a fifth wheel in this happening Sunday School gang. Or maybe that girl in the green dress--the one with the giant head who's doing the Exorcist thing at the waist--might have freaked him out?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I'm thinking that Jeff was really into plaid. Particularly plaid skirts. That's the real reason he held onto this set of postcards (the others were misdirection). You'll also see that Pastor Pete's comment about gravity shows that science and religion don't have to be at odds.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Clearly, this Nashville, TN outfit, Broadman Supplies, knew nothing about Midwestern Lutheran churches in the early 1950s. First off, the addition in the back, I'm guessing a Tennessean approximation of a fellowship hall, would be just one-story. The only stairs Lutherans abide are the two or three steps up to the small choir loft in the back of the nave. And those columns? A bit too Romish, if you know what I mean. Besides, the front door would not open right into the nave--where's space for the crucial narthex? And where would the choir loft go? And what about a parking lot? And where's the knot of middle-aged men in black suits and horn-rimmed glasses--and maybe the organist, Mrs. Schonobski--outside, sneaking a smoke before Sunday School?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Poor Pastor Pete. We know something's wrong when a Lutheran gets a bit strident.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The only thing more disturbing than this might be a postcard depicting Jezebel's horrific death (2 Kings 9:33-37).

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

From the Hartville Herald:
Herald Staff Report, January 2, 1956 (Hartville)  In the early hours of this morning, Hartville police arrested Reverend Peter Paul Penderson for drunk and disorderly conduct, public nuisance, and resisting arrest. According to officers at the scene, the Reverend Penderson was dressed as a clown and pounding on the door of the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Lebowski at 1:30am. Officer Ned Starky added "He had a bowling ball in one hand, and Luther's Catechism in the other. When my partner and I approached, he rolled the bowling ball at us and shouted, 'What letters are missing in your alphabet, Jeff?' Then he ran away, laughing. We gave chase, and shortly had him in custody. His clown shoes were his downfall." 
Reverend Penderson, more commonly known as "Pastor Pete," has served at the Forever and Ever Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hartville for 23 years and is a long-time member of the local Shriners Chapter, and founder of the Hartville Martin Luther Lodge, sponsor of the annual Lutheran Liturgical parade and the Hartville Inter-Faith Bowling League. He is currently held at the Hartville city jail, and will be arraigned tomorrow.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Next GOP Card to Drop...

Lee Atwater with Ronald Reagan.
Just checked out the survey results of the Public Religion Research Institute. Wow. People identifying as "unaffiliated" at 22%, the 3rd largest group behind Catholics, who have dropped to 23%. And Protestants at less than 50%. I'm guessing that GOP Presidential candidates catering to the religious right (Huckabee, Perry, Carson, Santorum, Pence) will get favorable attention only in the South (excluding Florida), and maybe Indiana, Kansas, Utah, and West Virginia. That attention will not translate into significant primary votes.

Lee Atwater played the race card to help Reagan and Bush, Sr.. Remember the line from from this 1981 interview? Atwater said: ''You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff." And who from my generation can forget the infamous Willie Horton attack ad?

Karl Rove with George W. Bush
Then Karl Rove played the religion card for Bush, Jr:
NARRATOR: Both Rove and Bush knew that the election of 2000 had depended upon a core constituency, the conservative wing of the Republican Party, particularly the religious right.
DEBATE MODERATOR: Governor Bush, a philosopher-thinker. And why?
GEORGE W. BUSH: Christ, because he changed my heart.
When you accept Christ as your savior, it changes your life.
NARRATOR: George Bush had the genuine faith to appeal to religious conservatives. Karl Rove had the political instincts to see their campaign potential.
WAYNE SLATER, Dallas Morning News: Karl never really talked about religion very much. In fact, I got the clear impression that he was a person who was not religious at all.
DANA MILBANK: Now, where Karl's interest is, is in the mechanics of this. And I think it's fair to say that religious conservatives, evangelical churches, have become sort of the new labor unions (from this 2004 Frontline episode, "Karl Rove: The Architect").
See also David Kuo's Tempting Faith. Kuo was the Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives from 2001-2003, and claimed that "some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders were known in the office of presidential political strategist Karl Rove as 'the nuts.'

What will be the next card? Those scary undocumented immigrants? Denizens of places outside of Sarah Palin's "real America?" All those treasonous people who don't think the US of A is the most splendiferous country in the history of the universe? NPR addicts? Spongebob Squarepants enthusiasts? We'll soon find out...

One possible GOP card: depict the Democrats this way.
Maybe add some Beanie Babies for good measure.

Friday, February 20, 2015

American Giuliani-ism

Just read Jamelle Bouie's thoughtful essay on Obama's brand of exceptionalism ("The Past Perfect"). Bouie describes a recent speech by Rudy Giuliani to "businesspeople, conservative elites, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker," in which he lambasts President Obama's character and questions his patriotism. Hardly new. Obama's opponents have been doing that since he first ran for the presidency. Bouie doesn't take on Giuliani, though. Rather, he proposes an explanation for Obama's "less triumphant" version of exceptionalism:
The best answer, I think, lies in identity. By choice as much as birth, Obama is a black American. And black Americans, more than most, have a complicated relationship with our country. It’s our home as much as it’s been our oppressor: a place of freedom and opportunity as much as a source of violence and degradation. We’re an old American tribe, with deep roots in the land and a strong hand in the labor of the nation. But we’re often seen as other—a suspect class that just doesn’t fit.
I have less patience than Bouie with myopic visions of the US's exceptional role in the world. Consider this Giuliani line: “What country has left so many young men and women dead abroad to save other countries without taking land? This is not the colonial empire that somehow he has in his hand. I’ve never felt that from him.”

Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, 1898
 Well, Mr. Giuliani, we did take land by force. Since 1781, how did we gain "land" west and south of the original 13 states? The Seminole wars in Florida, in the first half of the 19th century. The invasion of Mexico in 1846. Warring against Native Americans, from the Cherokee wars of the 1780s-90s, to the last bloody skirmishes in the early 1900s. And there's the War with Spain in 1898, winning "land" in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

And not all forms of colonialism require direct, permanent occupation--just an occasional intervention by US marines, or covert operation (for a list of US interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, from 1890 to 2009, visit this site).
US-supported right-wing Contras
in an Honduran training camp, 1989

That said, I do not make the claim that our country is evil. That's too simplistic a characterization of the US's complex history of war-making and foreign relations. As simplistic as Giuliani braying that we are innocent.

I'll finish with these lines from the Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío (from the poem "To Roosevelt," 1904):

...You think that life is fire,
that progress is eruption,
that wherever you shoot you hit the future.


The United States is potent and great. When you shake there is a deep tremble that passes through the enormous vertebrae of the Andes. If you clamor, it is heard like the roaring of a lion...You are rich. You join the cult of Hercules to the cult of Mammon, and illuminating the road of easy conquest, Liberty raises its torch in New York.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Revised Top Five Movie Lists

A couple of years ago I posted my top five movies, organized by various categories. Recently, a friend had a lot to say about my choices, and my brother sent me his comments, and his own top fives. In response, I've slightly revised some of my choices, and added some categories. Because I love almost all Coen brothers' movies, and John Sayles, I gave them their own categories. I almost did the same for Wes Anderson films, but he doesn't have enough feature length films yet. Both my friend and brother mentioned a category for sports movies. At first, I couldn't think of any, but on second thought, there were a number a really liked. I also added a category for movies on US politics. Can't believe I didn't think of this before. And I added a "Honorable Mention" for each category, a way to sneak in more movies.

A word about my criteria. In my earlier post I said "My criteria [are] basically two, what stands out in my immediate memory as being memorable, what would I watch again without much question." But it's more than that. Some are 'time and place' selections, like Camelot. I do like the movie and the music, but it's wrapped up in a fond memory of my first date (during which, to my 15-year-old horror, I spilled my soda in between my legs). Some of my choices have some serious flaws, like Q & A. Sidney Lumet unfortunately cast his daughter as a principle, and the music has not aged well, but the story is still relentlessly intriguing, and its analysis of race and ethnicity still resonates today. My brother thought my choices for top romances were odd, but I associate romance with tragedy (e.g., Terms of Endearment) and failed love (e.g. Broadcast News). I like intricate stories, so I included Brick, a noir story set among high school students. Finally, I selected movies that moved me. As with books, I don't see movies as distractions from life, but explorations of that life, ones that encourage me to think about that life in new or critical ways. I even want my comedic films to do that.

So many other movies I could have included. Off the top of my head, Fruitvale Station, Eastern Promises, History of Violence, American Hustle, Gandhi, High Fidelity, Say Anything, a ton of Woody Allen flicks, The Constant Gardner, and on and on...

Top five dramas
            Dr. Zhivago (1965)
            The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
            Quiz Show (1994)
            Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
            The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Honorable Mention: Brick (2005)

Top five comedies
            Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
            Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983)
            Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
            Raising Arizona (1987)
            Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Honorable Mention: There's Something About Mary (1998)

Top five horror
            The Exorcist (1973)
            Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
            Mulholland Drive (2001)
            Psycho (1960)
            Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Honorable Mention: Poltergeist (1982)

Top five romances
            Out of Africa (1985)
            Broadcast News (1987)
            Terms of Endearment (1983)
            Accidental Tourist (1988)
            When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Honorable Mention: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Top five with spiritual themes
            Doubt (2008)
            Donnie Darko (2001)
            Flesh and Bone (1993)
            Magnolia (1999)
            Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Honorable Mention: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Top five guilty pleasures
            Angel Heart (1987)
            Wild Things  (1998)
            Lost Boys (1987)
            Basic Instinct (1992)
            Underworld (2003)

                                                      Honorable Mention: The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

Top five war movies
            Platoon (1986)
            Gallipoli (1981)
            Breaker Morant (1980)
            Apocalypse Now (1979)
            The Thin Red Line (1998)

Honorable Mention: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Top five musicals
            Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog (2008)
            Camelot (1967)
            Wizard of Oz (1939)
            Funny Girl (1968)
            Singing in the Rain (1952)

Honorable Mention: Enchanted (2007)

Top five cop and crime
            Godfather I (1972)
            Godfather II (1974)
            Miller’s Crossing (1990)
            The Departed (2006)
            Leon: The Professional (1994)

Honorable Mention: Cop Land (1997)

Top five sci-si/fantasy
            Brazil (1985)
            Alien (1979)
            Princess Bride (1987)
            Serenity (2005)
            Bladerunner (1982)

Honorable Mention: Wall-E (2008)

Top five Latin American
            City of God (2002)
            Kamchatka (2002)
            The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
            The Official Story (1985)
            The Silence of Neto (1994)

Honorable Mention: Destiny Has No Favorites (2003)

Top five documentaries
            Hoop Dreams (1994)
            Roger and Me (1989)
            The Fog of War (2003)
            Spellbound (2002)
            Jesus Camp (2006)

Honorable Mention: Wordplay (2006)

 Top five Coen Brothers flicks
            Miller's Crossing (1990)
            No Country for Old Men (2007)
            The Big Lebowski (1998)
            Raising Arizona (1987)
            O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Honorable Mention: Fargo (1996)

Top five John Sayles flicks  
            Lone Star (1996)
            Passion Fish (1992)
            Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)
            City of Hope (1991)
            Sunshine State (2002)

Honorable Mention: Casa de los Babys (2003)

Top five sports movies
            Chariots of Fire (1981)
            Bull Durham (1988)
            Raging Bull (1980)
            Jerry Maguire (1996)
            Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Honorable Mention: Hoosiers (1986)

Top five movies about US politics
            Q & A (1990)
            Bulworth (1998)
            All the President's Men (1976)
            Missing (1982)
            Syriana (2005)

Honorable Mention: The Contender (1992)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Book Review: Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith is an excellent survey of the history of "religion in American war and diplomacy," though I'm not sure why he says "religion" when he really means Christianity, the principle focus of this work.

The title is drawn from Ephesians, chapter 6, where Paul instructs believers to put on the "armor of God." Preston uses this to sum up his argument that Christianity has placed two distinctive, even contradictory, pressures on US foreign relations.  "Sword of the spirit" refers to the one current of Christians who believe in American exceptionalism and that their country, in both peace and war, can or does serve a providential role.  "Shield of faith" is a contrary current, one in which we find Christians taking pacifist or anti-interventionist stances.  Not sure the biblical reference really matches this current--no doubt the exceptionalists (like Romney and Ryan in the 2012 presidential campaign, or Bush before them) think their position is about lifting up that "shield of faith" as well as the "sword of the spirit."  Might be more appropriate to reference one of the jeremiads in the Old Testament (like one of those of my favorite prophet, Amos), or Jesus advising people to take the log out of their own eyes before trying to remove the speck from someone else's.  But it's hard to turn either of those into snappy titles, and anyway, it's silly of me to get snippy about a title.

Preston's history moves back and forth between three levels--cultural, organizational, and individual.  That is, he describes Christianity's impact on foreign relations works via ideas, religious pressure groups, and prominent religious and political leaders.  This broad approach probably wouldn't satisfy those political scientists looking to locate and weigh the explanatory weight of this or that factor.  But Preston is not out to make an argument about causation.  Rather, he wants to give us enough evidence to make his thesis believable--that we can't fully comprehend US foreign relations without some reference to religion.

I think he makes a pretty convincing case (though since I already agreed with the thesis, I may be biased). However, I don't agree that "religion has had an almost uniquely intimate relationship with American war and diplomacy."  After all, religion played prominent roles in the Roman, Spanish, and British empires and other imperial ventures (for example, state-sponsored Shintoism accompanied the Japanese bid for regional hegemony in the 1930s and 40s in East Asia).  But that's about the only time that Preston seems to share the exceptionalism he examines.  The book on the whole neither trumpets Christianity's impact on US foreign relations, nor criticizes it, though, as he says at the outset, "Readers will of course use the material in this book to support their own beliefs that religion is either a productive or pernicious force in American foreign relations."  Thus 19th century US missionaries were both agents of informal empire-building and also brought the outside world back to their parishes, putting at least a small dent in the parochial character of many Americans.  But, really, the bulk of Preston's evidence is about the collaboration of many Christians with US interventionism and war-making.  Those with a "shield of faith" sensibility will wonder why their side lost out repeatedly, from the colonial massacres of Native Americans and conquest of a huge chunk of Mexican territory in the latter 1840s to the Vietnam war and our most recent bloody follies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of Preston's more significant arguments is his chapter on the early Cold War period, which he titles "The Great Schism and the Myth of Consensus."  There he criticizes what he says is the common depiction of the years after WW II--a homogenous religious landscape.  He reminds us that there was a great deal of debate among Christians about whether and how the US should conduct its Cold War with the Soviets. I was surprised and fascinated to learn that even the president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1946 thought the USSR had potential for good, and that Catholic groups refused to participate in air-raid drills.

The rest of the history is a recounting of the growing diversity of religious affiliations in the US, the schisms within mainline Christian denominations, yet their ongoing impact on US foreign policy via their mission activities, not to mention the importance of the Vatican II reforms and the later resurgence of Christian fundamentalism, particularly important to Reaganism in the 1980s. He wraps up the post-Reagan history quickly, perhaps too quickly, in an epilogue titled "The Last Crusade?" George W. Bush's administration gets about two pages. It deserved a bit more. This is a period, to my mind, that shows the declining purchase of conservative Christianity on US foreign policy. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but despite Bush's efforts (and those of his allies) to compare himself to Truman, and infuse the "Global War on Terror" with the religious sensibility evident in the early Cold War, he failed. The subdued narrative of US's providential mission in Afghanistan and Iraq never achieved purchase among the majority of Americans.  Yet Preston ends with a deft description and analysis of President Obama's religiosity, and its roots in Reinhold Niebuhr's "Protestant realism." It's a position that doesn't mollify the Left and its relativistic predisposition, nor the Right, and its pining for an exceptional, sinless America that does the Lord's work in the world.

In short, Preston has done us a service with this book. A complicated, rich history of the relationship between an ever-shifting religious tableau in the US, and its dealings with the world.

Book Review: Religion in America

Here's a worthwhile read: Denis Lacorne's Religion in America: A Political History.  He's French, and the book is an argument with his compatriots whom he believes have oversimplified the religious landscape of the US, and religion's relationship to politics.  He thinks puritanism has drawn too much attention, and suggests that the early 19th century evangelicals and the Great Awakenings contributed more to democratization--because American Christianity emphasized individualism and therefore anti-authoritarianism, and an egalitarianism that comes with believing that all are equal in the eyes of God.  Along the way, he examines and criticizes the observations of de Toqueville and other French visitors who have written about their travels in the US in the last two centuries.

He provides a good historical summary of the debate about the "wall of separation between church and state," and deftly dismantles the ahistorical argument of some Christian conservatives who maintain that the wall was never meant to exist, or that it's too high or thick.

He finishes with a quick take on Obama's "faith-friendly secularism," noting that the President has been a friend to the former President's creation--the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  He says in theory there shouldn't be a problem with this Office's activities if "No particular religion is favored and public funds are distributed equally between secular and faith-based organizations." I guess I'm not near as confident as Lacorne that this is indeed the case.  Still, if you're interested in a French point-of-view, and a useful, concise history of religion and politics in the US, one that doesn't attribute a host of current US political ills to evangelicals, you might check this one out.