Tuesday, September 29, 2009

And with Bill Ayers as John the Baptist ...

I've been accused of being a bit hyperbolic in portraying government as a religion-substitute for some people. Hmmm ... Have I gone overboard? Have I pushed the point too far by suggesting that the state has become a stand-in God for folks who just must have something ruling over their lives?

You watch the video below and tell me.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Beware of anti-Buddhist bigotry

I realize that I've been meaner to Obamatons than to McCainiacs on my blog recently. That's partially a function of my expectation that the Democrat is going to win (it's less fun to kick a man when he's down). That's also a reflection of my disgust at the cult of personality around Barack Obama. Frankly, nobody but Cindy likes John McCain; people are voting for him out of resignation.

Enthusiastic mass movements around politicians scare the living shit out if me.

But I will relate the following story. I was at the bank the other day, and the bank teller volunteered that she was voting for John McCain because she heard that Obama "is some kind of Buddhist or something."

"You mean a Muslim?" I asked.

"Yeah, that."

I briefly offered that I didn't give a damn what god the guy worshipped, then just dropped the subject. I mean, I need my checks to end up in the right account in a timely fashion more than I need the pleasure of an argument.

A Buddhist? And, if true, that would be reason not to vote for him?

Tell me again why democracy is a good idea.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Sky pilots tell federal speech police to take a hike

In a move intended to force the hand of the Internal Revenue Service, thirty-odd pastors took to their pulpits yesterday to make explicit political endorsements -- of the Republican McCain/Palin ticket in particular -- in violation of laws regulating their tax-exempt status. Led in their civil disobedience by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, the rebellious clergy want to provoke the IRS into imposing penalties that will serve as the grounds for a lawsuit intended to overturn muzzling restrictions.

Churches gained their tax-exempt status in 1913, at the birth of the convoluted and incomprehensible modern tax code. The republic somehow managed to survive the co-existence of tax-exempt status and full free-speech rights until 1954 when a prickly U.S. senator named Lyndon Baines Johnson, annoyed by criticism from non-profit groups, added the restrictive language "without the benefit of hearings, testimony, or comment from affected organizations during Senate floor debate on the Internal Revenue Code."

The argument since then has been that the arrangement is a simple tradeoff -- non-profit groups, including churches, get certain tax advantages in return for keeping their mouths shut about political candidates. In the case of religious organizations, the matter has also taken on a certain church-state gloss as some people argue that the restriction is a necessary component of the separation of church and state.

The first argument might be more compelling if the political muzzle had been put in place from the beginning -- but its imposition four decades later, as an overt effort to shut-up critics, strips the arrangement of any sense of inevitability.

But even if we accept the quid pro quo argument, what about other benefits offered by the state? If tax-exempt status necessarily strips its possessor of some First Amendment rights, why shouldn't access to public assistance or publicly funded student loans come with .. oh .. loss of voting rights for as long as the benefits are received or the loan is outstanding?

And what about holders of government licenses and permits, who benefit from legal access to professions and markets forbidden to others? Why shouldn't they be stripped of the right to criticize the regulators who butter their bread?

If the surrender of fundamental rights can be demanded in return for government benefits, we're headed in a pertty unpleasant direction -- especially given the increasing involvement of the state in our everyday lives.

As for the argument for separation of church and state ... The First Amendment applies to government, not private parties; as with the rest of the Bill of Rights, it's a protection against state interference. Government can't favor one religion over another, nor can it dictate doctrine to believers. The First Amendment doesn't say anything about what houses of worship can or can't do.

On a personal note, I'm a long-time, sleep-in-on-holy-days heathen, with little tolerance for sermons about my wicked, wicked ways. But I still recognize that preachers have the same free speech rights as any other idiots (or, occasionally, geniuses) with opinions.

That doesn't mean that it's necessarily a good idea for pastors to leaven their sermons with heavy political commentary. Polls in recent years have found declining public enthusiasm for pulpit-based political activism, even among people with, traditionally, the strongest religious views. According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, "Four years ago, just 30% of conservatives believed that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics. Today, 50% of conservatives express this view."

If pastors want to walk down that potentially perilous road, it's their right to do so. And if they tick off their parisioners in the process, so be it.

So kudos to the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" pastors who had the courage of their convictions to challenge illegitimate restrictions on their free speech rights. It's about time somebody took the plunge. For the sake of political balance, they should be joined by churches, synagogues and non-profits from across the political spectrum.

Are there any liberal priests or libertarian rabbis who care to join the pastors and take a stand for free speech?

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kids returned as pogrom against FLDS fizzles

Members of the polygamous FLDS church are getting their kidnapped children back from the Texas authorities who swiped them in the wake of two court decisions, one from the Texas Supreme Court, saying that state officials overstepped their bounds by declaring that adherence to a specific religion inherently makes people unfit parents. As the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized, "under the law in the United States, a culture cannot be indicted. Only the specific people who commit specific crimes against specific victims can be. Thank goodness."

Texas authorities are still free to pursue allegations of child abuse, but now they'll have to do it the American way: by building evidence of specific crimes and naming actual suspects instead of engaging in a pogrom. Yeah, that's a pain in the ass. Every now and then, though -- if only when folks are watching -- government employees have to do things by the rules.

Interestingly, this is at least the second time that a wildly over-the-top campaign by government officials against the FLDS church has turned the members of the odd little sect from outcasts with some unsavory practices into sympathetic victims of the state. In 1953, a massive raid by Arizona law-enforcers on Short Creek (now Colorado City), motivated by precisely the same concerns that inspired Texas's assault on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, had much the same results as the 2008 controversy. Wrote the Los Angeles Times in 2006:

By day’s end, families and crying children were separated in a scene that would haunt political leaders for years to come. In all, 36 men were arrested. Authorities loaded 86 women and 263 children aboard buses to Phoenix. ...

As sympathy built for the FLDS, [Arizona Gov. J. Howard] Pyle was denounced and ridiculed by newspaper editorials. The raid was called "Pyle’s Folly."

The Arizona Republic said the action would have made the Keystone Kops "green with envy" and resembled "too closely the hated police-state roundups of the Old World."

Religious leaders and political rivals accused him of using excessive force.

Democrats decried the action as "odious and un-American." A prominent Mormon leader denounced the "tyrannical methods" used.

The raid’s results were meager in court as well. Charges of statutory rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor were dropped. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate laws against bigamy, and open and notorious cohabitation. One-year suspended sentences were handed out. Many promptly returned to Short Creek with their families.

Pyle lost the subsequent election, and even he attributed his defeat to public reaction against the Short Creek raid.

It's too early yet to know whether there will be political fallout from the 2008 raid, but it's good to see that the courts are at least as protective of the individual rights of members of a despised subculture as they were in 1953. Once again, government officials took a step toward persecuting an entire community, and once again, they were slapped down hard.

The day those slaps stop coming will be the day it's open season on anybody who strays too far from the herd.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Beware of preachers

I don't think that clerics are necessarily crazier than, say, IT engineers or home inspectors (I know one of each to whom I smile and nod politely in social situations as my eyes rapidly glaze over), but they do have a special font of potential craziness to draw from in the form of religious inspiration. They also tend to be more publicly crazy than most people because of the nature of their jobs, so they leave a track record of nuttiness to be mined for gems by interested parties.

And when those clerics are associated with presidential candidates, there are always interested parties. That's something that should have occurred to John McCain, just as it should have occurred to Barack Obama. If you're going to associate yourself with a preacher and even seek his blessing for your political ambitions, maybe it's a good idea to check out the sheer quantity of madness that has appeared in that preacher's sermons.

That's especially true of experienced and, most likely, cynical politicians like McCain and Obama. These are pragmatic, power-hungry creatures who are unlikely to be attracted at all to the peculiar doctrines of John Hagee and Jeremiah Wright. A politician's god rules in the here and now, not in the afterlife, and its support comes from taxes, not tithes. McCain almost certainly courted Hagee solely because of the preacher's prominence among the religious right, where the Arizona senator is viewed with skepticism. Obama probably warmed a seat in Wright's church because it's a powerful institution among black Chicagoans, and so a good launch pad for a political career.

So -- big surprise -- they used the preachers for their influence.

But that influence comes at a price, and not just in favors owed. When preachers have a history of throwing a lot of crazy around, some of that nuttiness is going to stick to their political friends.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Texas court nixes mass roundup of kids

Icky beliefs are no grounds for staging pogroms.

Or, if you want more detail, the fact that a church's doctrine might, at some point in the future, lead lead some members to break the law and other members to act as willing victims is not, in and of itself, enough reason to kidnap hundreds of kids who are being raised in that church. Even if there is reason to believe that a few minors in a religious community have been abused, there is no justification for treating children in other families that just happen to be members of the same community as potential victims.

That, in a nutshell, is the decision of the Third Court of Appeals of Texas, based in Austin.
The Department did not present any evidence of danger to the physical health or safety of any male children or any female children who had not reached puberty. Nor did the Department offer any evidence that any of Relators' pubescent female children were in physical danger other than that those children live at the ranch among a group of people who have a "pervasive system of belief" that condones polygamous marriage and underage females having children. (9) The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the Department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger. ...

The Department also failed to establish that the need for protection of the Relators' children was urgent and required immediate removal of the children. As previously noted, none of the identified minors who are or have been pregnant are children of Relators. There is no evidence that any of the five pregnant minors live in the same household as the Relators' children. (10) There is no evidence that Relators have allowed or are going to allow any of their minor female children to be subjected to any sexual or physical abuse. ...

[T]he district court abused its discretion in failing to return the Relators' children (13) to the Relators. The Relators' Petition for Writ of Mandamus is conditionally granted. The district court is directed to vacate its temporary orders granting sole managing conservatorship of the children of the Relators to the Department. The writ will issue only if the district court fails to comply with this opinion.

Note that the court didn't say that nothing inappropriate has occurred in the FLDS settlement at the Yearnings for Zion ranch. What it's saying is that religious doctrines that condone illegal activity aren't grounds for brute state intervention; there must be evidence of specific violations. Those violations must then be dealt with on an individual basis, not as an excuse for moving against everybody who espouses the church's belief system.

That seems like a remarkably wise decision, rooted as it is in the centuries-old American legal tradition. The children may still be taken from their parents, but only after something that bears a closer resemblance to due process.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Texas’ Child Protective Services hasn't yet decided whether to abide by the ruling and release the children, or to appeal. I'm betting on an appeal, if only as a matter of pride.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

You mean you're not underage?

Y'know, when your justification for a violent raid on a ranch owned by an eccentric polygamous religious sect and the kidnapping of hundreds of that sect's children is a supposed crusade to save the sect's girls from being forced into underage unions with older men, it helps if you can find girls who have actually been forced into such relationships. It's not much help when many of the "underage" girls you claim to have rescued turn out to be at least 18 years of age.

Note that Texas's situation is even more complicated than the recent revelations suggest, since the state's age of consent is 17.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Texans can marry at 16 with their parents' consent. Sure, Texas doesn't recognize plural marriages, just as it doesn't recognize same-sex marriages, but we've now wandered into technical violation territory. If a relationship is illegal only because there are several wives rather than one wife, that hardly justifies armed assaults by the state, mass roundups of children and legal battles over custody.

More and more, it looks like the real crime of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is being different and ... well ... creepy. The FLDS has apparently been targeted for destruction because its tenets and practices rub America's increasingly intolerant soccer moms and suburban dads the wrong way.

We just can't let people live that way!

I'm as weirded out by the Persian-harem-via-How The West Was Won ambience that clings to the FLDS as the next guy, but I want allegations of abuse against the group to be (fancy this) based on actual evidence, and addressed on an individual basis, rather than as an excuse for a pogrom. That is, as weirded out as we all may be, you prosecute the actual abusers among the oddball minorities (as well as the bland majorities) and leave everybody else the hell alone.

As it is, we're well on the way to SWAT raids against any community that doesn't abide by the lifestyle script favored by local prosecutors and Children's Protective Services seat-warmers. If you think that's a good idea, just give me a crack at appointing the committee that decides whose doors get kicked in. Just for laughs, my nominees will all either wear leather chaps or pioneer garb.

Oh, and don't forget to review my argument for why traditional marriage, gay marriage and plural marriages should all be permitted -- as private arrangements.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

FLDS gives its version of events

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has published a Website giving its own version of the raid by Texas authorities on the Yearning for Zion ranch and the subsequent kidnapping by officials of hundreds of the odd sect's children. The photos of heavily armed raiders are especially chilling.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

FLDS raid faces scrutiny

The wildly over-the-top raid by Texas authorities on the FLDS-owned Yearnings for Zion ranch, resulting in the kidnapping of hundreds of children by state officials, is finally drawing mainstream attention over civil liberties issues.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Odd sect targeted for destruction?

There's a lot to dislike about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Basically, any religion that seemingly tailors its theology to assure old men a steady stream of teenage brides is worthy of regarding with a hairy eyeball. Church members also have a reputation for milking social services, using taxpayers to subsidize their way of life.

But does that mean that FLDS adherents don't have a right to raise and educate their children as they see fit, so long as they don't subject them to abuse?

That's the big question hovering over the hearings in San Angelo, Texas. When authorities raided the Yearnings for Zion Ranch FLDS settlement and made off with 416 children, they didn't confine their interest to adolescent girls forced into relations with older men. They took children of both sexes, and much younger than any at risk of coerced marriage. And when the women of the community tearfully demanded the return of their children, "experts" were trotted out to insist that the grown adults protesting their treatment at the hands of the state had been "brainwashed" through physical and emotional abuse, religious faith and fear of banishment.

So, of course, there's no need to pay them any attention.

Not everybody buys the argument that people who choose to live differently should be assumed to have been forced into that life. Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and author of a book on religious fundamentalism told ABC News:

"Brainwashing is actually extraordinarily rare," said Ammerman. "It implies that the person has literally lost the ability to think independently and to make choices.

"We really don't have any evidence that anything even vaguely resembling that is going on with this particular group or with most religious groups."

Some of the FLDS women went with the children to watch over them while they were held at a state shelter. But don't try to ask them how they and the sect's younger members are being treated -- they've been cut off from outside contact. According to the New York Times, "Officials first confiscated all the cellphones held by the children and mothers who went with them to shelter to prevent communication with outsiders. Later, they separated the mothers from children older than 6 in hopes of getting them to talk without a parent in attendance."

Increasingly, the Texas raid is looking less like an effort to assure the well-being of a teenage girl who called for help -- and who may or may not actually exist -- and more like a scheme to destroy an unusual religious community with some admittedly unsavory practices. Government officials targeted the FLDS for destruction once before -- in the wildly misfired raid of 1953 that turned sect members from reviled outsiders into sympathetic victims of the state. Now, in more government-friendly times, authorities seem dead-set on destroying the sect by depriving it of a next generation.

The hearing in San Angelo has been described as "chaotic" with upwards of 350 lawyers -- many of them volunteers -- involved. That's a good thing when there's so much at stake.

At the end of the day, any FLDS members involved in coercing and abusing church members should be severely punished. But the overall treatment of the sect's children by the state will tell us whether there's still room in the U.S. for people who want to raise their families according to beliefs and customs at odds with those of the mainstream.

Update: The phone calls that triggered the armed raid on the FLDS ranch appear to be bogus. That raises big questions about the legal rationale for state intervention, and for seizing hundreds of children from their families and holding them in captivity.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Courting Christians -- and nobody else

Mike "Jesus is my social worker" Huckabee has been making political hay of worn-on-his-sleeve religious faith. His latest political ad, positioned as a Christmas greeting, makes it clear that he's an explicitly -- and possibly exclusively -- Christian candidate.

The floating window frame cum cross in the background really seals the deal.

Obviously, political candidates have the right to ride to office on crucifixes, Stars-of David or prayer rugs if they want to. But, by doing so, they define themselves in opposition to voters who don't share their faith. With Huckabee trudging his way to Iowa with a ten-pound cross swinging from his neck, he risks alienating non-Christians by giving the impression that he can never, truly, be on "their side."

To put it bluntly, speaking as an atheist, Huckabee creeps me out.

That doesn't mean that religious people can't run for office; it's when they define their candidacies by one faith that they risk driving away people who don't precisely share their theological views. Huckabee has been in politics long enough to know the divisive power of running an explicitly Christian campaign. That suggests that he just doesn't care about the votes of non-believers.

Update: Is it a surprise that Ron Paul may have the most appropriate response to Huckabee's me-and-God gambit?

If you can't or don't want to sit through the video, Paul's comment is:

"It reminds me of what Sinclair Lewis once said. He says, 'when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross.' Now I don't know whether that's a fair assessment or not, but you wonder about using a cross, like he is the only Christian or implying that subtly. So, I don't think I would ever use anything like that."

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Not quite a declaration of religious tolerance

How pathetic is it that, in his big speech on why religion shouldn't be a factor in whether or not voters choose to support his presidential candidacy, Mitt Romney found it necessary to throw raw meat to the God-botherers?

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone. ...

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. ...

[I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

Oh for crying out loud. That's not quite, "I believe what I believe, but it's a personal matter. I don't intend to force my beliefs upon others just as I don't want them to force their beliefs upon me."

For some reason, Romney felt obligated to specifically assure the religious bigots that he's one of them, not like those nasty non-Christians or (worse) atheists.

Contrast this with ... oh ... how about Thomas Jefferson?

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

If you're really going to say that religion shouldn't matter, say it shouldn't matter -- don't say, "I'm all right, not like those other guys."


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Real--and unreal--threats to the First Amendment

The newspapers are full of a fair amount of hand-wringing over a First Amendment Center poll finding that almost two-thirds of Americans "believe that the nation's founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation." That the belief is ill-founded should be apparent to anybody who knows American history. Many of the founders were deists, who believed in the concept of a "creator," but didn't believe that the creator involved itself in human life and generally rejected the trappings of organized religion--including those of Christianity. There's no evidence that the founders sought to mold their new country along the lines of religious views that they didn't share.

But even though I think that a majority of Americans are wrong about their country's religious identity, I'm not convinced that I should fret more about their theological failings than I do about their overall historical ignorance. For starters, the term "Christian nation" is vague as hell. It could mean anything from a general adherence to Judaeo-Christian values (a position that wouldn't offend even my atheistic heart) to outright endorsement of theocracy and subjugation of non-believers--that covers a lot of ground. A better idea of how many poll respondents actually want to lock church and state in a close embrace lies in the 28% that want to deny religious liberty to those deemed "extreme or on the fringe."

The folks who make up that 28% are scary, but they're a far cry from two-thirds of the population.

More troubling to me--though less ballyhooed in the media--are the large numbers of Americans in the poll who apparently favor choking off private support of political campaigns.

The survey also found that 71% of Americans would limit the amount a corporation or union could contribute to a political campaign, with 64% favoring such a limit on individual contributions. Sixty-two percent would limit the amount a person could contribute to his or her own campaign.

Solid majorities of Americans apparently have no problem with letting politicians throttle off the flow of money from Americans to the activists and candidates who represent their views. That's a lot of power to hand to officials who have a personal interest in wielding such authority. We've had experience with so-called "campaign finance reform" in recent years, and the result has been to increasingly turn politicking into a specialized field reserved to well-connected experts.

It's become legally perilous to advocate for or against candidates and ballot initiatives. Spend the wrong money, in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, and you may face crippling fines. It's safer to just keep your mouth shut--and let the politicians slip just a little further out of control.

I certainly don't want to live in the worst-case version of a "Christian nation," but in the modern world, state-controlled political speech is more of a threat than the specter of theocracy.

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