Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Ominous Parallels

As my regular readers -- both of you -- know, I think evangelical Christian homophobia is a mistake that time will correct.  Fifty years from now, Mark Driscoll's grandchildren will be sitting around a dining room table saying, "Wow, can you believe that at one time people used the Bible to condemn homosexuality?"  Just as today, evangelicals sometimes say, "Wow, can you believe that at one time people used the Bible to teach racial segregation?"

Obviously race and sexual orientation are different, and so it's not a perfect comparison.  But I think the process of how the church got from segregationist to racial egalitarianism is probably a pretty good roadmap for how it will get from homophobia to gay-accepting.  Even though I certainly hope I'm wrong.

At one time, white Southern churches were almost uniformly pro-segregation.  Southern Baptists, Southern Presbyterians, Southern Methodists and Southern Episcopalians all accepted as an article of faith that God didn't like it when the races mixed, or when Blacks were treated as the equals of Whites.

Today, one would have to look hard to find an evangelical church that still takes that position.  They're probably still out there, but they're the lunatic fringe instead of the mainstream.

Unfortunately, it was not an easy process.  Within the churches, the move to egalitarianism was bitter, acrimonious, bloody (sometimes literally) and ruthless.  There were churches that split over it.  There were pastors who were defrocked over it.  There were churches that were torched, and others in which people were killed.  It was a horrible, nasty period within evangelical church history.  But, when the smoke cleared, a new consensus emerged within the church, that segregation was evil and the wall of racism needed to come down, as come down it did.

So where does this leave us on the evangelical church and gay issues?  There are those on my side of the issue who think that all it takes is a bit of dinner table diplomacy and opponents of gay rights will see the error of their ways and welcome God's gay and lesbian children back, with a big group hug for all.  I think this is incredibly, incredibly naive.

Sure, the wall of Christian homophobia has some cracks in it.  A few bricks have come loose here and there.  I would like, in my best Ronald Reagan imitation, to turn to the evangelical pastors and say, "Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall!" if I thought they would pay any attention.

Someday that wall will come crashing down, and evangelical leaders will have to decide for themselves on which side of it they wish to be when it does.  But I think the lesson of the Black civil rights movement is that it's not going to be easy.  It's going to be a long, nasty, drawn-out, vicious and acrimonious affair.  Churches will split.  Some pastors will be defrocked.  There may even be violence here and there, though I certainly hope not.

And, when the dust clears, people will sit around kitchen tables and say, "Wow, can you believe that people used to use the Bible to condemn homosexuality?"

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is the United States governable?

Glory be, the election is finally over; I thought I was going to have a buy a new wastebasket just for all the political junk mail.  Now that the dust has settled, I think the lesson is that the United States is largely ungovernable.

We have an electorate that is more or less evenly split between the Republicans and the Democrats, with about ten percent in the middle who actually decide the election.  (That plus the two-thirds who stayed home, which calls into question whether the election is even an accurate reflection of what most people are thinking.)

What that means, in practice, is that neither side has the votes to actually govern effectively.  The Republicans have spent the last six years mostly blocking any Democratic proposals (including ones that they used to support themselves before the Democrats did).  Now that the GOP controls both houses of Congress, the Democrats will spend the next two years blocking GOP proposals.  Nobody can get anything done, but both sides can keep the other from getting anything done.

What this means is that nothing will get done, and two years from now the electorate will be furious that nothing has gotten done.  Which party the ten percent in the middle blames remains to be seen, but the next election will be one of voter anger at gridlock, just like the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that.  And, one party or the other will have a Congressional majority (and maybe the White House too), but not enough of a majority to get past the other party's ability to block stuff.  So, two years after that, there will be another election in which the voters are ticked off that nothing has happened.

So I will make a prediction:  Whichever party wins in 2016, will get clobbered in 2018.  Meanwhile, we muddle through.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A few random thoughts on Mark Driscoll (and his critics)

Mark Driscoll is the founder and, until recently, senior pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  He stepped down in the wake of allegations of bullying, plagiarism, possible financial improprieties, authoritarianism, and other flaws.  He leaves behind a megachurch that will take months if not years to heal.  As usual, he has supporters who believe he is being unjustly persecuted, and detractors who think he is the anti-Christ, Judas Iscariot and King Ahab all rolled into one.  Also as usual, the truth is most likely somewhere in the middle.

I was never a huge fan of Driscoll's; his raw sexism (he once referred to women as penis houses) and vicious homophobia ruined it for me.  He always struck me as an angry man, which makes it easy to believe the bullying charges may have some basis in realty.  But perhaps it would be helpful to move away from specifics and into generalities.

In general, it takes a certain type of personality to have the drive to build a megachurch.  I could never do it; I'm a shy, retiring, introverted. bookish. academic kinda guy.  I might do okay as a teacher in somebody else's megachurch, but the Type-A personality required to bring such  a church into existence; that's just not me.  And I deeply respect and admire those who do have the personality to make it happen.

At the same time, the reality is that often those same traits that make someone a super-leader also make them very difficult to live with.  Megachurch founders, and leaders of Fortune 100 corporations, often do not play well with others.  They often don't do things by consensus, and they frequently don't tolerate opposing viewpoints.  Nor could it be otherwise; it's those very traits that make them super-leaders in the first place.

So how surprising is it, then, when the founder of a very successful megachurch turns out to be a bully who thinks the rules don't apply to him.  And maybe, just maybe, the rest of us simply need to accept that reality.  I'm not saying that bullies shouldn't strive to do better; I'm just saying that sometimes they just are what they are.

This then takes us to the board of directors that forced him out.

That board is made up of people who, one assumes, mostly don't have the talents to start a megachurch of their own, and who therefore owe their positions and salaries to the efforts of someone who did.  How very strange it must be to be in the position of having to fire someone without whose work the megachurch from which he is being fired wouldn't exist.  It's almost as if, once the Constitution had been ratified, the country had told Jefferson, Madison and Monroe that their services were no longer needed.

I suppose that sometimes the good of the institution requires getting rid of people who, at an earlier stage, were necessary.  But I'm not sure I have the personality to do that either.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Be Not Afraid

Some years ago I saw a movie; I'm too lazy to look up the name of it, but it starred Albert Brooks.  The premise of the movie is that people who had died were either allowed into heaven or sent back to earth for a do-over depending on how well they had managed to overcome their fears.

I thought at the time that it was a really stupid premise.  Of all the ways to define someone, why would the single most important be how well one faces one's fears?  But over the years, I'm come to realize that most people do in fact allow their major decisions to be fear-based rather than hope-based.

The political parties certainly understand this.  That's why one party scares the voters to death with illegal immigrants, crime and terrorists, and the other tries to frighten them with elderly people dying of poverty in the streets with no health care.  Fear will get you more votes than hope, any day of the week.

There have been two major news stories this week that, while unrelated on the surface, are both about using fear to make policy.

The first is Ebola.  In the United States, you are more likely to get dumped by Brad Pitt than you are to catch Ebola.  Most of the health care workers at the Dallas Hospital who cared for the Liberian Ebola patient did not catch it even without taking precautions.  Most of the people who shared an airplane with an infected nurse traveling between Dallas and Cleveland did not get it.  While I would not advocate exchanging bodily fluids with someone in the final stages of Ebola, it's just not that easy a disease to catch.  Yet for all the fearmongering taking place in the media, one would think we were all going to die of Ebola.

The second was the Vatican announcement earlier in the week that the church would welcome gays and lesbians, which was backtracked a few days later after the scaremongers had been heard from.  I do not understand what the righteous are afraid of -- do they think homosexuality is contagious? -- but they're obviously afraid of something.  In a few years, after the Curia has calmed down, the church will do what the pope tried to do this week, which is welcome gay people.  But for now, the very idea still gives the bishops a very bad case of the vapors.

Hope is a much better policy basis than fear.  Oh, that we as a species could learn that.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Do All Roads Lead to Rome?

I have always been terribly interested in comparative religion.  Ideas have consequences, and few ideas in human history have had greater consequences than those that fit under the general heading of religion.  That is true at both the personal level -- there's a wonderful line in a novel in which a woman reflects on how very different her life would be if she only worshiped different gods -- and at the human history level.  Had monotheism never arisen, for example, the world would be a very different place today.  And it is for that reason that I'm actually less interested in the theological trivia of any given religion, even though I'm reasonably well versed on the theological trivia of most of them, than I am in how any given individual's life is actually different than it would be if he worshiped other gods.

When I was living in New Orleans, I took advantage of my stay there to learn about voodoo, which, after all, is another comparative religion.  The woman I studied under said something that struck me then as wrong, but which over time I've come to believe she may have had a point about.  She told me that everyone, of all faiths, believes basically the same thing (minus theological trivia that varies from one faith to another) and they just have different names for it.  The example she gave is that voodoo teaches about the existence of spirits; the dear departed to whom the living look for inspiration, guidance and aid.  Christians, on the other hand, believe in saints, which are the dear departed to whom the living look for inspiration, guidance and aid, albeit Protestants less so than Catholics.  Voodoo has its spirits; Christianity has its saints; but both of them basically boil down to the same fundamental concept:  Those who have gone before continue to take an interest in human affairs and can be called on for help.  The idea that everyone believes essentially the same thing is, incidentally, also the central tenet of the Bahai faith:  All religions are valid.

In college I studied the major schools of Greek philosophy.  Later, when I was learning about the great Eastern philosophies, I was immediately struck by how very similar they were to what the Greeks came up with.  Confucianism is basically a Chinese version of Greek stoicism, and Greek epicurianism is effectively a Western incarnation of Taoism.  Yes, there are bits of theological minutiae that distinguish them, but overall it's the same general idea.

So what is the cash value of all of this?  I said at the beginning of this post that I was less interested in theological trivia than I am in whether anyone's religion has actually made them a better person.  And so, for an example of what I mean, let us take up the theological question of whose wife will she be in the judgment.

The Sadducees, who didn't even believe in the resurrection, once came to Jesus with a question:  There was a woman who had been married seven times, and none of the marriages had produced any children.  She then died herself.  Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  OK, why would the Sadducees, who didn't even believe in the resurrection, ask such a question?

As it happened, Jesus had recently ministered to a Samaritan woman at the well, who had had five husbands, and was then living with a man to whom she wasn't married.  The Sadducees had two choices.  They could either be happy that this woman who had spent an entire life in isolation, pain, alienation and loneliness, had met Jesus and something wonderful had happened as a result.  Or, they could start a doctrinal dispute over whose wife she would be in the judgment (even though they couldn't even get their facts straight and tacked on a couple of extra husbands just for good measure).  Because they couldn't bear the thought of being happy for her, they invented a theological dispute.

Now, theology has its uses, and Jesus did in fact answer their question (after first telling them it was based on a flawed premise).  But at the end of the day, the life-changing event was far more important than the theological trivia in which the religious leaders wished to engage.

So, you want to convince me that your particular religion is the true one?  Don't even bother trying to dazzle me with your theology.  Show me that it's changed your life.  Because if it hasn't, I'll go amuse myself by finding some Nietzsche to read.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Them durned liberals

One of the most effective public relations campaigns ever waged was to convince the American public that "liberal" is a dirty word, even though polling data indicates most Americans are liberal when polled issue by issue.

They've been convinced that Obamacare is a Marxist plot, even though they like many of its specific provisions and presuppositions:  No one should be denied medical care because they can't afford it, nobody should be denied health care because they lost a job, nobody should be denied health care because of a pre-existing condition, and students should be able to stay on their parents' health care plan if they can't afford their own.

Americans like strong public schools, federal money for medical research, solid infrastructure, and abortion rights.  They've generally come around on gay marriage.  They want social security to be there to take care of them in their old age.  They like breathing unpolluted air and drinking uncontaminated water.  They understand that people who have done well should pay it forward so other people can do well too.  And none of those are the conservative positions.

So why, then, did so many Americans become convinced that liberalism is a bad thing, even as they themselves agree with the liberal view on issue after issue after issue?

It's all in the marketing.  Or, to put it another way, in politics perception is far more important than reality.

It is in the best interests of one of our political parties -- I'm not going to say which one -- to have people believe that liberals are evil and un-American and completely out of step with American values.  Liberalism, like every other belief system, has its liberal fringe that is easy to parody, and parody they did.  And if you want to know how we arrived at a situation in which a political party so completely out of touch with the pulse of the average American voter managed to acquire and keep such a disproportionate amount of political power and influence, that's it.  Tell people over and over and over again that liberals are stupid and evil, and they'll start to believe it, even if they themselves have liberal leanings.

While appalled at the results, I have to admire the artisanship of it.  It was a brilliant strategy.  Unfortunately it worked.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The police state is already here

In United States v. Dreyer, the US Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of a child pornographer because of the manner in which the government collected the evidence that was used to convict him.  You can read the opinion here:  Standing alone, this isn't news; convictions get reversed all the time because the government violated somebody's Fourth Amendment rights.  But this was not a Fourth Amendment case.

A detective with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (yes, the same agency with a television program starring Mark Harmon) found a computer program that allowed him to search every computer in the State of Washington.  Yes, you are reading correctly, and no, that is not a typo.  Every computer in the State of Washington.  Let that sink in for a minute.  If you live in Washington, and have a computer, it was probably searched without your knowledge or consent by an employee of the US Department of Defense.

The agent found child pornography on a computer belonging to Michael Dreyer, who lived in suburban Seattle.  Based on that evidence he was arrested, convicted of child pornography, and sentenced to prison.

Now, I yield to no one in my contempt for people who exploit children.  I'm fine with locking child pornographers up and throwing away the key.  But that is not the point.

There are few things I find more outrageous than child pornography, but the idea that somebody who works for the Pentagon can search every computer in an entire state, without a warrant, is one of them.

Fortunately the Court of Appeals saw it that way too, and tossed Dreyer's conviction.  They did so, not on Fourth Amendment grounds, but on the basis of a statute that says the military cannot be used for normal, run of the mill law enforcement.  The government is outraged and is promising an appeal to the Supreme Court.  I don't see that that gets the government anything, because even if the Supreme Court agrees with it on the statute, I don't see how such a search clears the Fourth Amendment; since the Court of Appeals ruled on statutory grounds they did not reach the Fourth Amendment issue.  They almost certainly will reach the Fourth Amendment issue if the Supreme Court sends it back.

But the troublesome take home message is that the government not only has the technology to go snooping around in anyone's computer they take an interest in, with no warrant, they already have.  Further, the government is taking the position that they have the right to.

Fortunately, as of now, the courts have smacked them down.  This is the sort of police state tactic that needs to be smacked down, and hard.