Monday, December 31, 2018

The Top Ten of 2018

I haven't been very productive this past year.  Once again, I've written fewer posts than I did the previous year, with a couple of periods of months in which I wrote (or at any rate completed) nothing at all.  It's not like I don't have anything to say, it's just that I can't muster the initiative or energy to sit and write it down.  It happens to all writers, but that doesn't make me feel any better about it.

Ah well: one good thing about not writing so much is that it's easier to sort through the year's work and track which posts got the most traffic.  A surprisingly large number got more than 200 views.  Here are those which attracted the most attention.

10.  Where Do You Draw the Line?  (240)  I wrote quite a lot last summer, during the controversies over America's supposed lost civility.  The event that occasioned the most handwringing was the quiet and perfectly civil request by a restaurant owner that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders take her business elsewhere.  I had, and still have, more questions than answers on the subject; not so much about Sanders, who as a dedicated Trump apparatchik ought not to be served anywhere, as about the principles which ought to guide the refusal of service or other interaction with those we disapprove of.

9. How to Be Good  (241)  Betty Smith's novel Joy in the Morning improved my mood at a time when I sorely needed it.  (Well, I nearly always need it these days.)  Here's why goodness in fictional characters is so important.

8.  You $@#!&% Kids Get the #%&! Off My Mother#@%&* Lawn! (248)  Some uneasy reflections of the widespread use in edgy social media of the F-word.

7.  But What About the Whataboutism, Huh?  (250)  Also last summer, accusations of "whataboutism" flew thick and fast in the discourse over civility and in claims about Russian interference in American elections.  Like incivility, accusations of whataboutism are used on all sides.  In this post I clear away the confusion. You're welcome.

6.  If You Don't Know, I'm Certainly Not Going to Tell You!  (258)   Why, and how, people delight in talking past each other in a variety of spheres.

5.  It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know  (279)  A theologian of the Force mistook story for proof, confusing happy endings with the way the real world works.

4.  Kindness Is Not Enough  (284)  This one got a boost because I chose it as my representative post in Vagabond Scholar's Jon Swift Memorial Best of 2018.  Now that I've seen the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? I'm even more sure that Fred Rogers's adult fans are dishonoring his legacy and his memory.  For example, one of Rogers's PBS colleagues said in the film that she was shocked when he told her that adults have a responsibility to protect children.  She just couldn't wrap her head around that radical, extreme idea.

(It's not nice to say, but one thing that bothered me as I looked through what other bloggers chose for their best posts, was how often they consisted of childish parodies of folk or popular songs to make them mock So-Called Donald Trump.  It's one thing to vent like that, and quite another to choose it as your best work of the year.)

3.  Dude, I'm a Lesbian and Gay Academic  (369)  The first of three posts I wrote about Toni A. H. McNaron's Poisoned Ivy: Lesbian and Gay Academics Confronting Homophobia (Temple UP), a 1997 survey of homophobia in academia.  On the whole I liked it a lot, but I was bemused by some strange historical lapses in her account.

2.   Hold That Thought (539)  Some ruminations about Louise Erdrich's latest novel, an exchange on Facebook with a Christian Facebook friend about the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible, and the uses even liberal Christians make of their scriptures.

1.  Rorschach Snapshots  (546)  A beautiful photograph of a young Brazilian boy enraptured by New Year's fireworks went viral last January, and I was struck by the wildly varying interpretations people made of the situation, the boy's feelings, and the Meaning Of It All.  Unfortunately the tweet linked to the photo is now gone, but I've had occasion to write before about the way people "read" images, and I probably will again.  And here's a good article about the photograph and the responses to it.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Vagabond Scholar's Jon Swift Memorial Best of 2018

Once again, Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, carrying on the good work of the late Al Weisel, alias Jon Swift.  Bloggers choose their own favorite post of the year, and Batocchio posts them.  I'm in there, of course, but so are a good many other writers you might not have heard of.  Take a look and see what you think.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Have You Stopped Endorsing Genocide? or, One Wants One's BBC

I admire Chomsky, but I admit he didn't answer this dishonest question (excerpted from this video) very well.  That's partly because it's constructed like "Have you stopped beating your wife?", beginning with a false premise.  Chomsky doesn't say that America is a terrible country: he freely admits that the US is a free country, perhaps the freest in the world.  It is rich, and of course many people have wanted to come here.  What he says is that America has done terrible things.

Perhaps one way to answer the question would be to ask why, since America is such a great country, it has done and continues to do such terrible things.  One might also ask what should be done to a country that does such terrible things.  Most Americans and American apologists have no doubt what should be done to other countries that commit crimes: sanctions, invasions, bombing, missile strikes, "regime change."  They have trouble coming up with plausible reasons why such measures should not be inflicted on the US.

But then, they don't need plausible reasons.  Like any good team players, they think that a loss by their team is a disaster.  Sometimes I'm surprised that sports fans are able to tolerate another team's daring to try to take the victory from their  guys at all.  They cultivate an inability to imagine sport, let alone the world, from another person's point of view.  Apologists for sport are mostly as dishonest about this as apologists for their country's violence.

Maybe an analogy or two will help.  Germany is the most civilized nation in the world.  People everywhere look up to it for its intellectual, cultural, and political accomplishments.  How can you call it barbaric, brutal, murderous for a few little missteps that any nation might have made?

Or: For almost two hundred years, millions of people have been inspired by communism to fight for the oppressed and downtrodden.  Sure, it isn't perfect, but if it's so terrible, why do so many people still -- even after the fall of the Soviet Union -- look to communism as humanity's best hope for a better world?

There are plenty of reasons why poor people, people in danger of their lives from religious or ethnic terrorism, people wanting to avoid conscription into the army, would have wanted to move to the United States despite its flaws.  One might be that they were more concerned with saving their own lives than with the harm the US did to others, and indeed might have figured that they were not likely to be the targets of US violence once they had immigrated.  European whites were not likely to be enslaved, or driven onto reservations.  Maybe they didn't care what happened to other people as long as they and their families were relatively safe.

Or maybe they had unrealistic ideas about the US.  Moving here often meant a fall in earnings and status, as many Europeans and (later) East Asians found to their consternation.  They were doctors or lawyers or other professionals in their home countries, but ended up working in sweatshops, running convenience stores, or driving taxis because their credentials weren't valid in the US, and their English wasn't good enough to acquire new credentials here.  But they couldn't go back, either because there was nowhere to go back to, or because they didn't want to lose face.  They may have borrowed money from relatives to make the move, and had to pay it back.  (Some did go back anyway, but they seem to have been the minority.)  But none of this has any bearing on the bad things that America has done.

It's understandable that people would not want to believe anything bad about a country or a person in whom they've invested all their love and admiration.  If that person, or that country, is proven to have done terrible things, they don't give up their adoration and allegiance lightly.  They blame the messenger, often harshly and hatefully.  It's understandable, but it's wrong, and should not be tolerated.  In the case of Stephen Sackur, the BBC interviewer here, it's not entirely clear whether he had even that excuse.  He's English, so he should be capable of some critical distance from America.  Maybe he thought he was playing the devil's advocate, giving Chomsky a chance to answer a charge that is commonly made against him.

In all this, it's ironic that many of the people who hate and lie about Chomsky, and about all critics of US foreign policy, nevertheless hate the US government and lie about it.  Recently a right-wing Christian with whom I went to high school posted on Facebook one of those absurd stories that many people love: a convoluted tale of a smart-aleck farmer who meets what turns out to be a rich city slicker from the US Congress, and tells him off (eviscerates him, destroys him, bam boom burn!).  It's a familiar theme, going back to the Eloquent Peasant stories of ancient Egypt, and persisting in the Marine Todd and That Student Was Albert Einstein urban myths of today.  It's very popular among people who are basically ignorant about ideas and the world.  Yet this guy and those who share such stories generally love a rich city slicker like Donald Trump, and even right-wing political and cultural figures who have enriched themselves at the public trough, and they are indignant if some radical liberal criticizes them.

That indignation is reciprocated by liberals who don't like it if some Rethug mocks rich city-slickers like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, whom they work very hard to see as Just Folks.  An attack on their idols is an attack on Regular Americans like themselves.  Despite the popularity of the term in lefty circles, I don't think "tribalism" is the right word for this pattern of thought.  Until I come up with a better one, though, it's important to keep challenging and trying to refute those who justify American (or any other country's) atrocities by minimizing them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Satisfied Mind of American Fundamentalism

Speaking of the Bible, I just read Carl F. H. Henry's 1947 tract The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry (1913-2003) was a prominent fundamentalist / evangelical divine and intellectual, a founding editor of Billy Graham's neo-evangelical magazine Christianity Today.

The book is still in print after seventy years, which isn't surprising because fundamentalism ought to have an uneasy conscience quite apart from the doctrine of Original Sin.  Most serious human problems tend to persist despite much handwringing about them, which is why people mistake older complaints for prophecy.  I thought Henry's book might be worth reading because it reminded me of Albert Mohler's We Cannot Be Silent, which I confess I still haven't read yet: a heartfelt cry that traditional Christianity must stop being so narrow and address modern issues sincerely or it will die out, and then what will happen?*

I was also curious to see which issues made Henry's conscience uneasy in the 1940s.  Homosexuality and gender were issues in those days, but in different ways.  Women had just lost some of the gains they'd made during the war, forced out of jobs they'd held successfully in order to free them up for returning men.  Gay people who'd gotten a taste of freedom, despite official prohibitions, found that they were no longer indispensable; and many were discharged dishonorably and had to rebuild their lives.  The postwar gay and feminist movements emerged from these problems, but they had little visibility or influence for a long time.  So what did Carl Henry think evangelicals had failed to deal with in 1947?

Henry lays it out right away:
[S]uch admitted social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, and exploitation of labor or management, whichever it may be.  

The social reform movements dedicated to the elimination of such evils do not have the active, let alone vigorous, cooperation of large segments of evangelical Christianity.  In fact, Fundamentalist churches increasingly have repudiated the very movement whose most energetic efforts have gone into an attack on such social ills.  The studied Fundamentalist avoidance of, and bitter criticism of the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America is a pertinent example [loc 105 of the Kindle edition].
So far so good, I guess.  Since 1947 "the liquor traffic" has largely been replaced by a concern with "drugs," and "the exploitation of labor or management" is an intriguing bit of false equivalence.  Henry repeats the phrase several times but never expands on the point to make sense of it; later he says that the "The problems of management or labor were now referred not to a regeneration-conditioned submission to the divine will but rather to the leftist precepts of political Socialism or Communism" [loc 220-225], which is not much help.

Fundamentalism, says Henry,
was a Bible-believing Christianity which regarded the supernatural as a part of the essence of the Biblical view; the miraculous was not to be viewed, as in liberalism, as an accidental and superfluous accretion [loc 125].
I don't see that this stress on the supernatural makes much practical difference.   Henry warns that
to become articulate about evangelicalism and its social implications was not an easy task.  There is the danger that it might involve an unstudied and superficial analysis of the specific modern evils.  For example, one recent Fundamentalist discussion of the social program of the Federal Council of Churches bitterly condemns the Communist leftist trends in that group, while exhibiting a contrasting silence about the evils of a Capitalistic system from which the redemptive reference is largely abstracted [loc 245].
There's always the danger of an unstudied and superficial analysis of specific evils, no matter where you're coming from.  Nothing, as far as I can see, prevented Fundamentalists from producing a studied, deep analysis.  They would have claimed that "the supernatural" guided them away from "leftist Communist trends," but why didn't it guide them to something better?  Henry frets about this, but he has no answers.  Over the long haul, Fundamentalism has consistently chosen the unstudied and superficial.  There were individual exceptions, of course, but they weren't representative or influential in the movement. 
It should be emphasized that this despair over the present world order grows, for contemporary Fundamentalism, not out of any lack of confidence in the ability of the supernaturalistic Gospel. Rather, it issues from the fact that the Scriptures, as interpreted by premillenarians and amillenarians, hold forth no hope for the conversion of the whole world, and center upon the second coming of Christ as crucial for the introduction of a divine kingdom.  The despair over the present age, then, is grounded in the anticipated lack of response to the redemptive Gospel, rather than in any inherent defect in the message itself [loc 200].
I wonder about this.  When the Southern Baptist Convention broke with other Baptists in the 19th century to support slavery, the "despair over the present age" Henry mentions was hardly present.  Nor was it when the Southern Baptists joined with other denominations to defend white supremacy after Brown v. Board of Education a few years after The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was published.  A couple of times Henry writes something like "There are here and there conservative denominational groups, like the Reformed movements and the great Southern Baptist Convention, which have maintained or are beginning to reflect a vigorous social interest" (loc 606).  I wonder what "vigorous social interest," aside from Jim Crow, Henry thought the SBC was maintaining.  White racist Fundamentalists did not seem hampered by an "anticipated lack of response to the redemptive Gospel" they proclaimed.  People don't choose their courses of action because of their interpretations of Scripture; they interpret Scripture to rationalize the course of action they choose.

Henry isn't entirely unaware of this.  Early on he admits
the shifting standards in various sections of the country among Fundamentalists themselves.  Among evangelicals, for example, smoking is hardly considered that sin in the southern tobacco-growing states that it is in the north.  And the northern Baptist pastor who would join his wife for mixed public swimming would be called before his board of deacons in many a southern church [loc 145-50]
And so on.  But, like racial segregation, these who promulgated these regional differences would have regarded them as God's will, questioned only by Communist haters of Christ.  Henry laments that
While the modern world wrestles with its global dilemma, the evangelical conscience is troubled because the historic Christian message is dismissed arbitrarily as a dead option for dissolving the ills of Occidental culture [loc 175].
But why shouldn't it be dismissed?  In the case of slavery and white supremacy, the "idealistic atmosphere of judgment upon its environment in any age" (loc 259) Henry touts came down squarely against emancipation and racial equality.  The SBC later (in the 1990s) repented and apologized for those judgments, but why?  If Christians don't stand firm against the spirit of the age, how surprising is it that their message is dismissed -- not at all arbitrarily -- as a dead option?  And now that Fundamentalists like Albert Mohler are drawing a line in the sand over sexual orientation and gender identity, why should anyone credit them with any moral authority?  While the modern world wrestles with its global dilemma, the evangelical conscience is more concerned with whether the Thousand Year Reign of Christ will happen before or after the Rapture.
As against secular humanism, Fundamentalism has consistently witnessed to the fact that any culture from which the redemptive element is absent is essentially distinct from the kingdom of God [loc 366].
I don't imagine that even in 1947, Henry would have wanted to claim that "the redemptive element" was present when Southern Baptists executed a schism in support of slavery.  But why not?  Surely the SBC would have claimed that it was.  As an atheist, I am neither competent to, nor interested in deciding where the redemptive element was present and where it was absent.  I think such cases show that appeals to the redemptive element are at best irrelevant, even frivolous.  Far from leading, Fundamentalists have usually followed, and then tried to take credit for whatever improvements were enacted.

And here's a curious claim.
No political or economic system has utopian promise if the essential redemptive ingredient is missing from it. A redemptive totalitarianism is far preferable to an unredemptive democracy; a redemptive Communism far more advantageous than an unredemptive Capitalism, and vice versa. But the very element which is abstracted from currently proposed solutions is this redemptive element [loc 565].
As I've said before, I'm not much interested in utopias.  Leaving that aside, what the hell is a "redemptive totalitarianism"?  I don't think Henry would consider the antebellum South to have much of the "redemptive element," because its elites weren't evangelicals.  No doubt he thought a redemptive totalitarianism would be tolerable -- to him -- because it would be run by people like him. Whether it would be tolerable to those groaning in its dungeons and torture chambers, even if they were evangelicals, is another question.  By contrast, a nonredemptive democracy, while filling its citizens' stomachs, providing them with an education and shelter and medical care, would allow Fundamentalists to seek and preach redemption on their terms.  This would not be enough for Henry, or for his theological descendants; he wanted evangelical domination.

Evangelicalism, Henry declares, "must contend for a fair hearing for the Christian mind, among other minds, in secular education ... [T]he universities seem studiously to avoid the competent presentation of the Hebrew-Christian view by those who hold it" [loc 533].  A fair hearing might not, probably would not, lead to the outcome Henry assumes it would.  Like political conservatives of a later generation, Henry is essentially calling for affirmative action for his sect.  Of course I'm not being quite fair there, because affirmative action is not supposed to give positions to the unqualified.  If anything, the Reagan era showed that liberal humanists were all too willing to tolerate and even endorse incompetent clowns from the religious or cultural right.  There have been Christian, even Fundamentalist thinkers who are competent, capable of deep, studied analysis; but they were generally attacked by their brethren and kicked out of their institutions.  But those aren't the Fundamentalists Henry has in mind when he whines that "It is quite popular at the moment to crucify the Fundamentalist" (loc 449).  (Shouldn't a real Christian celebrate that, especially since the 'crucifixion' he's talking about is purely figurative?)

There are those who point to the participation of Christian ministers and laypeople in the Civil Rights movement to try to vindicate religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a moral force.  It's important to remember that that movement, opposed by many (most?) white evangelicals, was not driven or motivated by religion: rather it used religion as a lever.  Both racists and antiracists claimed  to possess the "redemptive element."  Henry is no help.  On his own account, as you can see from the passage about "redemptive totalitarianism," it seems to be irrelevant in dealing with these questions.  He has no substantive suggestions for social amelioration or reform, and as can be seen by the sides they took in the following decades, neither did other evangelicals.

The reason I think it's worthwhile to examine this old book is to compare it with the work of today's evangelicals.  Little has changed in their assumptions, basic claims, or complaints about how unfairly the larger culture has treated them.  Their consciences may be uneasy, but their confidence, indeed their pride in their right to dictate to the world, is intact.

Having said all this, I must add that neither liberal Christianity, any other religion, secular humanism, or revivalist atheism has authority either.  Every important question has to be approached critically, with awareness of human limitations and our abundant history of failure.  No one has a monopoly on knowledge or wisdom.  Even Fundamentalists may participate in the discussion, not because they are believers and not despite it.  I suppose they should be allowed a minute or two to preach when goals and tactics are being evaluated, but if they can't address the issues apart from that, they're declaring that they have nothing to contribute, that Fundamentalism is a dead option.  The choice is theirs.

* Indeed, Mohler contributed a chapter on Henry to a 2001 book on theologians of the Baptist tradition.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Male Bondage

It could just be my dirty mind, but it occurred to me the other day that terms like "mancave," "manbun," and so on, remind me of gay male pornographic jargon: "mantool," "manjuice," and the like.  I don't want to press the comparison too far, but it seems to me that in both cases the prefix "man-" is intended to ease profound anxiety among the audience about their masculinity.

I'm not sure where it began -- in fact I think I first encountered the idea in cultural feminist writers -- but there was at one time a popular pseudoscientific dichotomy between women, who create womblike spaces, and men, who create pointy phallic towers.  So, for instance, "mancave" is meant to reassure a guy that he's not being swallowed up by a woman's orifice, but is in a cave that is his, perhaps built by him, for a man, without any polluting female cooties.

Taking it in the butt is scary but it's less so if a mantool is penetrating a manpussy.  Or when a Southeast Asian sissy penetrates a bigger, older man, it's okay as long as he "rolled on a condom and made manly love to Anton."

For either group, though they're probably not mutually exclusive, it's the use of fetishistic language, the mantra of "man" and "manly" and so on, that soothes and reassures the frightened little boy inside.  I shouldn't be snide.  What bothers me is not the need for reassurance, but what seems to me a stubborn refusal to engage the reasons why they're afraid.

(This post is from my Drafts folder.  There's more to be said on this subject, but this will do for now.)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

ROKing in the Free World

Yesterday was the anniversary of the assassination of Park Chung-hee, the dictator of South Korea from 1963 to 1979.  (Which qualified South Korea for membership in "the Free World" in those days.)  He was shot by the head of the Korean CIA, one of his own people. Park was the father of Park Geun-hye, who was elected to the Korean Presidency in 2013, removed from office in 2017 and imprisoned for numerous crimes in the following year. So it isn't surprising that there was a rather big rally today by Park's faithful supporters. (According to Hankyoreh, these "Taegugki" rallies, referring to the South Korean flag, have been happening every weekend.)  I wasn't expecting it, but I was out walking in the area and saw some of it.

First, in Jongno, I heard this truck's PA system playing military music. There were also numerous people walking with it, carrying South Korean and American flags.  But it was a tiny group of demonstrators, so while I noticed it, I didn't see it as a big deal.

The truck and the marchers, guided by police, proceeded to the forecourt of a Buddhist temple, where chairs and a sound system had already been set up.  The American flags waved along with South Korean flags gave me a clue to the occasion for the march -- I'd seen the same conjunction last year -- and this confirmed it:
That's ex-President Park, of course.  Still, it didn't look to me like they even had enough people to fill the seats they'd set out -- on a chilly, blustery day -- so I figured that this demo was a fizzle.  (On the same day, a protest had been announced near Hyehwa Women's College, by men aggrieved by a judgment against several men for sexual harassment of women.  Only about 50 or 60 of the promised thousands showed up, so after about an hour the police got back into their buses and left.)  I decided to move on toward City Hall in Gwanghwamun, my original destination.

This straggler, delayed by a traffic light, approached the temple as I was leaving.

Something bigger was happening in Gwanghwamun.  There were more PA systems playing a cacophonous mixture of military and other music, and a lot more police.  A few people were carrying conjoined ROK/USA flags.  But most people I saw had other things and destinations on their minds, it seemed.

I kept telling myself that this too was a fizzle, and I might as well enter the nearby subway station and head to my hosts' home.  But I dawdled around, curious to see what was happening.

I moved further down the sidewalks and looked down the street, where I saw that people were massed on the pavement, and approaching.

This struck me as odd, because usually the farmers' outfits and drums are associated with the student pro-democracy movement of the 1970s, when college students tried to build solidarity with farmers and factory workers, and to recover "folk" arts.  But apparently it's not always so.  Perhaps these people -- many of whom were old enough to remember that era and to have participated in the movement -- wanted to appeal to its prestige.

Speaking of which, I estimate that 90-95 percent of the marchers were fifty years old or older.  (Don't be fooled by the black hair -- many Koreans of both sexes dye their hair as they age.)  That was true of the smaller pro-Park demo I saw in Jongno last year.  There were a few token youngsters - fascists were young once, too - but only a few.

The marchers kept coming.

Some of the costumes were, erm, inventive:

But the message was not entertaining: release President Park from prison, restore her to the presidency, remove the communist Moon Jae-In, bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb NK.  The gentleman in first photo below obligingly (insistently) held his placard so I could get a good shot.)

I should have made a better note of when the parade started, and when the last group of marchers passed me.  Looking at the time stamps on the photos I took, it was about half an hour.  I presume they were on their way to the open space further down the street where the candlelight vigils usually happen.  I'm not good at guessing crowd size, but I speculate that there were a few thousand people on the street -- nothing like the hundreds of thousands who called for Park's removed two years ago, every week for many weeks.  Most of the spectators seemed merely curious, like me, and there weren't all that many of them.  Still, this was a fairly big demonstration.  Park's loyalists are a small minority, but they still can muster some numbers, as they did when some of them confronted a pro-diversity, pro-refugee demonstration in Seoul a few weeks ago.

So far I haven't seen any news reports on this event; I don't think the English-language Korean press publishes on weekends.  And I'm told by friends that there was also a demonstration in another location, commemorating the second anniversary of the candlelight vigils that helped drive Park Geun-Hye out of office.  But I missed that one.

Incidentally, a number of Korean churches participated in the demo.  I was gratified to find that one of their signs was translated into English:

Did you know that the Book of Revelation is about Korea, Christ's chosen nation?  Well, now you do.  And as the god-botherers like to say, you can't break Scripture!

Monday, October 22, 2018

Demagoguery for Me, But Not for Thee

This is the latest example of a syndrome I've observed before on the Left: alternately agitating about how "extremely dangerous white supremacists are, how they're the new Nazis and if we aren't ceaselessly vigilant there will be a replay of 1930s Germany here in the Homeland" and at the same time "seem[ing] to believe that white supremacists are not really dangerous at all, that because Antifa's heart is pure they need only to chant some slogans and the Fascists will collapse and surrender; the Fascists' bullets will either bounce off Antifa's Breastplate of Virtue, be repelled by Antifa's wristlets of power, or simply dissolve into the air."

In McInnes' case there's no doubt that he's dangerous, he's been cultivating a gang of thugs for street fighting, and they've been actively doing their job.  And I must admit, having grown up on recycled WWII propaganda cartoons on children's TV in the 1950s, that the syndrome I'm describing is neither new nor limited to the Left: it was common to treat Hitler and Tojo as silly-looking clowns who would be brought down by laughter, and as dangerous enemies of all that was holy.  It's probably a lot older than that.  But I don't get it, not least because I remember how effective such tactics have been against Donald Trump: he's fat, he has stupid hair, he has tiny hands (and therefore a tiny wee-wee), he's Putin's cockholster, etc. -- and you see, here we are.  It's of a piece with the popular Internet tropes that this or that celebrity or liberal icon has schooled / taken down / destroyed / EVISCERATED etc. this or that Republican.

I guess I can understand the impulse, it's a way of letting off steam, and not actually incompatible with taking real action against these evils.  But it suggests to me that many if not most people have trouble concentrating on issues for more than a few minutes at a time.  That's just as true of the right-wing base, but liberals and the left like to claim that they're Better Than That.  And please note: I'm not at all concerned about McInnes's feelings.  This has little or nothing to do with him personally.  (Would the person who posted the above tweet feel differently about him if he were a hot Aryan stud, with a prominent chin?  Does it hurt less if you're beaten up by goons answering to a large-sized cartoon earthworm?)  What I find, however, is that many, perhaps most of the people who let off steam in this manner turn out not to be very thoughtful or knowledgeable about the issues involved.  Does that matter?  Maybe not.  Maybe all that matters is that you cheer for your team, which by definition is the Good Team because it's yours.  It puts important, life-and-death issues on the level of spectator sports, which are not important at all.

But is this the only way to build and maintain solidarity?  If so, I think we're in trouble.  If not, I think it's counterproductive.  It's demagoguery.  It's a tactic beloved of the Right: remember the memes depicting Barack Obama as a witch doctor, his family as monkeys?  Those upset liberals and progs no end.  But only, I think, because it was their guy being mocked.  The slut-shaming Melania memes circulated by liberals and leftists in 2016 were just as despicable, but defended by liberals and leftists in the same terms the Right used to defend the racist Obama memes.  And don't forget, kids, what liberals and conservatives alike agree: Michael Moore is fat.

I'm not sure that this kind of mockery is necessary to build and maintain solidarity.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for one, seems to manage very well without it.  So does Bernie Sanders.  I put the tactic's popularity down to intellectual, moral and political laziness.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Public Displays of Religion

For a while I thought I was mistaken in my criticism of the historian Brent Sirota's claim that religious freedom litigation will "eventually ... make the state the arbiter of orthodoxy."  After giving it more thought, though, I'm not so sure.

What gave me pause in the first place was Winnifred Fallers Sullivan's book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton, 2005).  Sullivan bases her argument on a single 1998 case, Warner v. Boca Raton, in which
a group of Florida residents ... sought to prevent the forced removal of the numerous statues, plantings, crosses, Stars of David, and other individually crafted installations that, with the tacit permission of city officials, they had placed on the individual graves of their deceased relatives over the course of ten to fifteen years ... The principal issue at trial was whether the non-conforming memorial arrangements assembled by plaintiffs were an "exercise of religion," and therefore protected by the relevant statues and constitutional provisions [2].
The issues were complicated.  Although the plaintiffs had been erecting these installations for a considerable time, they were in violation of "local cemetery regulations that limit the size and placement of memorials to small flat metal plaques, flush with the ground, giving only names and dates, and that can easily be mowed over" (ibid.).  In purchasing their cemetery plots, the plaintiffs agreed to abide by those regulations; but they saw that the cemetery contained many such decorations already, and assumed that their additions would also be permitted.  In many cases, cemetery staff not only knew that the decorations were being installed, they helped with the work.  It was unsurprising, then, that the plaintiffs believed that their installations were compliant with the regulations.

Strictly speaking, then, the problem was not one of religious freedom but of compliance with a secular contract.  It may have been a mistake for the plaintiffs to pursue a religious-freedom exemption, since they lost the case; but then, except for the cemetery's tacit toleration of the decorations over a period of years, they probably didn't have a leg to stand on otherwise.  Sullivan draws on the testimony of the plaintiffs and the contributions of several academic experts in religion, including herself.

The question Sullivan poses with respect to Warner v. Boca Raton is what constitutes religion, and it was this that led me to agree at first that the case put the state in the position of determining orthodoxy.  Were the statues, plantings, crosses, etc. exercises of "orthodox" religion, or were they "folk" observations, even "individual" practices that the First Amendment was not intended to protect?  In the end the court ruled that they were not religion, because they were not mandated by religious authorities.  Florida already had a Religious Freedom protection law at this time, and the judge's decision tended to ignore its provisions, yet as far as I can tell his ruling was upheld on appeal.

So, is religion for legal purposes a set of doctrines and practices neatly defined by elite leaders, or do lay believers and practitioners have a say?  If the courts must decide this, then yes, they are deciding what is orthodoxy and what is not.  But if laypeople are allowed to determine what they consider religion, wouldn't almost anything be defensible as religion under the First Amendment?  The answer is probably Yes, but I suspect that's the consequence of a policy of religious freedom, because there is no reliable way for an outsider to distinguish between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy.  That may not be a bad thing, and under our present regime of religious freedom the legislatures and the courts should not, as I argued before, try to settle, let alone enforce the distinction.

Nor need they do so: after all, such invented religions as Scientology, the Pastafarians, and the Church of Satan have been able to use the doctrine of religious freedom to their own advantage or, in the case of the Satanists, educationally.  It's evidently not necessary, in the view of the US courts, for a religion to have existed from time immemorial or to have the prestige and dignity associated with ancient cults in order to be recognized as religions.

While I agree with Sullivan's main point, then, I disagree with a lot of her analysis.  She tries to tie the plaintiffs' position to "individualism," fostered by Protestantism and secularism.  She's aware that most of the plaintiffs were not Protestants but Catholic and Jewish, but she explains that away by pointing to the influence of American Protestant individualism on other traditions.  I'm not persuaded, because all the plaintiffs claimed that their installations conformed to what they'd been taught by their training in their own religions.  For example:
But I know that Jesus' grave was protected, was guarded, and it was not allowed to be walked on.  And we were created in his image [39].
Sullivan points out that "Nowhere in the New Testament accounts of Jesus' death does it say that Jesus' grave was protected so that it would not be walked on. The plaintiffs often elaborated on biblical accounts, making such untutored and naive, sometimes plainly heterodox, efforts to articulate positions of biblical interpretation and theology, searching their personal repertoire of stories and teachings to explain what they had done and why" [39].  But "orthodox," officially authorized beliefs and practices also play fast and loose with biblical material, a practice that in Christianity goes back to the New Testament itself.  Christianity originated in rebellion against orthodox religious authority, appealing sometimes to "untutored and naive" elaborations of the Hebrew Bible, at other times directly to higher authority, God or the Holy Spirit.  Jesus himself sometimes set his own personal authority against tradition: "You have heard that it was said to those of old ... but I say to you ..." (Matthew 5:21, ESV).  That fits better with Sullivan's characterization of American religion, but I didn't notice any of the plaintiffs going so far in their testimony.
This is what I've been taught always, that it is a desecration to walk on a grave [43].

Polish people love the Blessed Virgin.  If you know anything about Polish people, that's one thing they do [52].

It's a tradition, as I say, it's a tradition, it's how it is done in the Jewish religion in England ... It's not necessarily a religious belief.  It's a tradition which in turn is my belief [127].
This doesn't sound to me like "locat[ing] religious authority in their own religious experience and judgment" (139), very much the opposite: one's religious judgment is authorized by the tradition, which one accepts, "which in turn is my belief."  I don't see how anyone could look at American evangelicalism and claim that it locates religious authority in one's own religious experience and judgment.  Appeals to the Bible as authority are universal; if the appeals are often naive and untutored, they are not any more fanciful than the interpretations of duly authorized scholars and clergy.  There's always a circularity in such use of authority, of course.  How do I know? The Bible says so.  Why does the Bible settle it?  Because I believe the Bible.  Why do you believe the Bible?  Because the Bible says so.

Sullivan refers to the "Church's efforts to control popular piety, efforts interestingly parallel in some ways to those of the City" (38).  Indeed they are, but those efforts are as old as the Church, as is the popular piety they attempt to control.  Neither is limited to the United States, or to Protestantism -- for that matter, not even to Christianity.  As one of the contributors to Stereotyping Religion, quoted here, pointed out, popular piety and smorgasbord religion are virtually universal around the world.  It's the "high," authoritative religion that isn't representative, except as it represents a minority of believers who are interested in constructing intellectually interesting systems of dogma and practice -- and in controlling the beliefs and practices of others.  What Sullivan describes as the Protestant assertion of individual religious autonomy is in fact the worldwide and historical norm, characteristic of cultures that I don't think anyone would call individualist.

Sullivan often refers to "secular courts" deciding these questions.  Would "sacred courts" do any better?  Of course not; that's why the ideal of religious freedom was advanced in the first place.  Religious courts may at most decide what is orthodox for the orthodox, and even then they aren't to be trusted, nor should their power to discipline believers be unregulated. Orthodoxy is a construct meaningful only within a given community, like grammatical correctness, and like grammatical correctness it's subject to disagreement and change.  It's often been said that a language is a dialect with an army; analogously, a religion is a heresy with an Inquisition.  At the same time, though, the Warner plaintiffs' attempts to support their (yes) religious observances with regard to the dead have no authority either.  They don't need to.

Sullivan's attempts to sort out the "lived religion" of the Warner plaintiffs vs. orthodoxy seem to be based in an assumption that the difference is real in some sense of the word.  What really seems to have been at stake in the case were issues around property (who owned and could regulate the use of the burial plots) and class (there were some complaints that the contested decorations were "garish," for which probably read "tacky").  Only the first set of issues were really the domain of the court, I should think, and the real problem was the confusion and inconsistency of the cemetery management's enforcement of the contractual standards.  Orthodoxy really wasn't the issue, which I think confirms my previous sense that religious freedom doesn't necessarily involve "secular courts" deciding what is orthodox and what isn't.  A major difficulty would be getting judges to recognize this, and if experts like Sullivan and her colleagues struggled vainly with the problem, nonspecialist judges are not likely to do much better.

It also seems to me, as I've suggested, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts are bound to backfire, much like the Reagan-era Equal Access Act of 1984.  This bill was meant to guarantee access to public school facilities for religious groups, but it ended up being the backbone of defense of Gay-Straight Alliances. Warner v. Boca Raton might be an example of such unintended consequences, and could constitute more reason why RFRAs are not a good idea: believers are giving the courts authority to decide matters they should not be deciding.  As with liberals who want the State to decide what is true news and what is fake, the faithful will quickly discover that they, and not those they hate, are suffering disadvantage or even being penalized.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

You $@#!&% Kids Get the #%&! Off My Mother#@%&* Lawn!

I keep worrying that I'm getting old, partly because I am, but you know what I mean.  These two tweets this morning from someone I follow, who will remain anonymous for now:
If y’all can name me five poor or working people that give half a fuck what [first name of prominent journalist] fucking [surname of prominent journalist] has to say about anything I’ll kiss your ass.

Got grown motherfuckers on the left "[first name of prominent journalist] you're being dishonest!!" Like the fuck did y'all expect? Quit pining for the approval of these limp dicks and damn sure quit assuming best intentions in their coverage.
These were in response to a Bernie Sanders tweet chiding the journalist for spreading misinformation about Medicare for All.  Now, my first impulse was to ask what I would have to do for them not to kiss my ass.  (First prize, one week in Philadelphia; second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia.)  My second reaction was that while they had a point -- one should have a decent skepticism about the corporate media and their works -- at the same time it is perfectly legit to point out when corporate media figures promulgate falsehoods about important issues.  I'm a working person, and I give at least a quarter of a fuck what anchorcritters with vast platforms have to say about such things, because thanks to their elite positions they influence what most people believe.

Imagine asking, say, who cares what Donald Trump has to say about anything?  No sensible person would take Trump's word on anything, or pine for his approval or assume best intentions in his ravings.  But I don't think Sanders was doing any of these things.  He was trying to correct misinformation that might, either directly or through trickle-down, affect poor or working people's opinions of a good system for providing health care in the United States.

My third reaction was, as noted, to fret that I'm getting old in a bad way (oh no, I'm sounding like my mother!), because it bothers me when people think that putting a bunch of fucks, motherfuckers, and shit into their discourse makes it somehow more persuasive -- or makes me pine for their approval, assume their best intentions, or believe that they're commentators I should take seriously.

This person doesn't always resort to naughty words in their Twitter output, so I've been trying to figure out why they did it here.  I listened to one of their podcasts once: it was heavily peppered with fucks. The participants were mostly male; the one (?) female joined in, but it was, like Chapo Trap House, basically a boys' club in manner and content.  So my first guess is that they think they sound Street, which incidentally is cultural appropriation: white kids trying to sound like black kids.

At one time saying "fuck" a lot could have been defended as breaking a taboo.  I remember how thrilling it was when Jefferson Airplane sang "Up against the wall motherfuckers," on a major-label album, but that was almost fifty years ago. And it's a lousy song.  Ditto for the Sex Pistols, forty years ago, though they did it better.  Certainly many people would still regard "fuck" as taboo, but not the audiences this person is addressing.  If anything, it's conformist, safe, boring. yet irritating. The two can go together: think of a mosquito buzzing around your head when you're trying to sleep.

I could probably overlook the fucks on the grounds that it's a generational thing, if not for all the British rock stars older than I am who also season their speech with fucks.  As the examples of Pete Townshend, Jefferson Airplane, Johnny Rotten and others suggest, this kind of talk is now old people talk: your grandma talking salty.  When certain people misuse "literally," I wonder what word they use when "literally" is the right word to use.  And when wannabe Internet celebrities talk nasty for street cred or fitting in with the cool hipster guys, I wonder what they'll do when "fuck" loses what is left of its obscenity.  It still has it in boy culture, of course, when somebody tries to be macho by saying "Fuck the Republicans," and that's not a sign of wokeness either.  It's the opposite of being edgy, bold, independent.  It's a way of showing you belong.  And much of the time it's a substitute for substance, as in the tweets I quoted here.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

An Army of Non-Conformists Cannot Lose!

I've been reading numerous fascinating books about the history of "religion" as a concept and social phenomenon, which I should have written about here before.  Currently I'm in the middle of Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), edited by professors Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin.  It's intended as readings for college-level courses, and draws on the same scholarship that has taught and clarified so much for me.  The writing is meant to be accessible to undergraduates, so it's probably a good introduction for anyone who's interested in sorting out what religion is.  That question interests me as an atheist, and ought to interest other atheists as well as theists because so much discussion of atheism vs. religion makes assumptions about what religion is or isn't.  If you're a champion of rationalism and critical thinking, you should be concerned that your own assumptions are correct, no less than your opponents'.

Briefly, the scholarship I've been reading shows that there's a specifically modern, historically and culturally contingent concept (or definition) of religion that, if it didn't originate in the Christian "West," became normative here at around the time Europe was coming into contact with other cultures it hoped to conquer and colonize.  There was considerable debate as to whether these culture had "religion" that should be respected, or mere "superstitions" that could be replaced (by force if necessary) with True Religion, viz. Christianity.  The case of Islam, which had achieved enough temporal power that it couldn't be so lightly dismissed, had also provided fodder for debate as to its nature and status.  At around the same time, the rise of Protestantism raised questions about the status of religious dissent within Europe.  Up till then, "religion" was an inseparable part of one's culture, not a freely chosen lifestyle from a smorgasbord of possible "faiths."  By the time the US forced its way into Japan in the late 1800s, demanding "religious freedom" (meaning the freedom to missionize) for its nationals there, the question had to be addressed because "religion" and "religious freedom" had to be translated into Japanese for inclusion in treaties, and the Japanese had no equivalents for those terms.  Conflict and confusion over the meaning of "religion" persists down to the present day.

This summary oversimplifies, of course, and I refer interested readers to such works as Timothy Fitzgerald's Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (Oxford, 2007) and Jason Ananda Josephson's The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago, 2012).  I'm glad I read them before I got to Stereotyping Religion, because it seems to me that most of the contributions, while drawing on their scholarship, also get some things wrong.  One recurring motif is a tendency to blame the formation of "religion" as a concept on Protestantism and its associated "individualism."  I think this is mistaken, because it tends to reify Protestantism in much the way that "religion" reifies religion.  For one thing, the nature of religion would have had to be sorted out anyway, just because of European imperialism and the need to deal with different beliefs and practices in the places Europe sought to dominate.  For another, there had always been "religious" dissent in Christian Europe; Protestantism got a foothold and survived by aligning itself with political trends that weakened, undermined, and eventually broke down Roman Catholic hegemony.  But Protestants didn't originally see theirs as a separate "religion" -- they accepted the prevailing conceptions.

After all, Christianity originally emerged as a cult of individual salvation, hostile to established institutions of Family and State, and there are precursors of arguments from individual conscience in early apologetics; it only became Religion after its competitors had been effectively eliminated.  Something similar was true of, for example, Buddhism, which required individuals to split off from their families and conceptions of holy thought and practice.  Remember, for example, that when Buddhism got a foothold in China, traditionalists attacked it for its rejection of traditional values.
Judged by these standards, the ideal monk presented a disturbingly flawed picture of aberrant manliness.  He abjured marriage, renounced fatherhood, was ill positioned to care for parents, did not own property, declined public office, deprecated secular learning, mutilated his body (a gift from his parents) by shaving his head, and rejected orthodox manners and rituals for an alien set of rites.  According to the masculine standards of the time, how could such a person even be called a man?*
Here you can see how new, imported "religious" practices were characterized as attacks on a culture assumed to be natural, the mandate of Heaven.  In time, Buddhism became part of the Chinese landscape, and what had been outrageous violations of common sense became acceptable variations. (Though it may be that Buddhism also compromised on some matters to conform to Chinese culture.)  As with Christianity, one asserted "individual" rebellion by appeal to higher authority, that of the Buddha or of Christ.  This tactic was also used by the early Christians against Judaism.  In the gospels, for example, Jesus defends his innovations by asserting that they are the law of God rather than the law of men, by which he meant the supposedly God-dictated Torah.  Religious dissenters within Christianity used the same tactic centuries later.  (I'm not a rebel, you're a rebel!)  But a standard approach by traditionalists trying to refute rebels appealing to a higher authority is to define them as selfish individualists.

In the chapter of Stereotyping Religion I'm now reading, the authors, Andie R. Alexander and Russell T. McCutcheon, discuss the popular "I'm Spiritual But Not Religious" (SBNR) position adopted by many people in the US today.  Alexander and McCutcheon see SBNR as a modern, individualist stance, though their argument is that those who adopt it are mistaken in seeing it as such: any individualist, they argue, doesn't really stand alone:
[W]hat do we make of someone who comes along and says: “I’m spiritual but not religious”? For, as already suggested, this claim (at least as understood by some who make it) seems to signify that there exists something pre-social, something this person (and not that—the one who simply identifies as being religious, we guess) possesses or experiences that is more deeply significant because it is outside of (i.e., preexisting) all institutional constraints. While our commonsense way of understanding ourselves might suggest that such a claim is sensible—lots of people seem to think it sensible to say it—the excursion we just took into an alternative way of thinking about meaning now suggests that such assumptions are rather problematic, inasmuch as they seem to take the social work and thus institution-specific setting of all meaning-making as invisible, as if it wasn’t even there [loc 1879 of the Kindle version].
They then ask rhetorically (and don't you love rhetorical questions?):
What is it about our age that prompts some members of our society to understand themselves as existing apart from it, despite using the same language, economic system, and so forth as those from whom they feel alienated? [loc 1889]
As I've already suggested, it's not really about "our age" or "our society" but about the felt necessity of defending a minority position in any society.  The apostle Paul, for example, like other early Christians, characterized his sect as in the world but not of it, despite his reliance on the same language, culture, economic system, and so forth as those from whom he felt alienated.  Alienation too is not "natural" but constructed and maintained.  Rhetorical details vary in emphasis, but the overall picture hasn't changed much.  I also think that this question caricatures the SBNR, leaving out some important features that I'll return to in a moment.

Alexander and McCutcheon conclude:
For if we instead start from the standpoint that it’s, well ..., standpoint all the way down and that there is nowhere to stand that isn’t situated, that isn’t invested, that isn’t implicated, that isn’t part of a prior conversation that we didn’t start ourselves, and that isn’t therefore part of a social and thus institutional world, then those who talk as if their private, true, or authentic self somehow trumps the so-called derivative forms that other people’s lives take will be seen by us as fascinating players in an ongoing contest, working with what’s at hand, to give their position a competitive edge [loc 1898].
This is true enough as far as it goes.  As a whole, this part of the book makes many important and valid points.  But as here, the writers omit to recognize that the proponents and defenders of "social and thus institutional world" against which SBNR define themselves are also individuals: they seek to pretend that they stand on solid ground, that it isn't "standpoint all the way down," and that the absolutes they espouse weren't created and perpetuated by people like themselves.

What occurred to me while I was reading this material was that people who present themselves as SBNR do not always claim that their "private, true, or authentic" selves trump the forms that other people adhere to. They generally draw on a buffet of ascended masters, spiritual teachers, cultural icons and other sources as authority for their personal versions of spirituality -- even though many of those figures are associated with Organized Religion themselves. They also frequently find community in study groups, classes, shops of spiritual paraphernalia and merchandise, and the like; they rarely stand completely alone.  As Alexander and McCutcheon point out, standing alone is a tactical claim, not a reality. We are all both individuals and members of collectivities; these are aspects of ourselves, and neither one represents us completely.

And then I remembered that in the previous chapter of Stereotyping Religion, Steven W. Ramey had argued against the belief that "religions are mutually exclusive," that people can and should be classified as belonging to one and only one religion.
This cliché, though, is far from universal, as people in other parts of the world often have different conceptions. Many people in Japan, for example, participate across a lifetime in practices associated with both Buddhism and Shinto, seeing them as addressing different aspects of human existence. Some people understand all religions to be doing the same thing, allowing people to employ whatever practices or beliefs that they find beneficial. Within the context of South Asia, praying at the shrines and temples associated with different religions provides opportunities to access supernatural power or wisdom, without undermining a person’s identification with one religion. For example, Qutb Ali Shah, whose followers in British India identified him as a Muslim Sufi, did not require his followers who identified as Hindu to convert to Islam. In fact, he incorporated deities and practices commonly seen as Hindu in his own activities (Gajwani 2000, 39–41), and Hindus and Christians who claimed a high social status often participated in each other’s festivals as an expression of their higher status while excluding others who identified with the same religion from participating (Bayly 1989, 253, 289–90). Many people who identify as Chinese do not identify as a follower of any particular religion but follow practices that we commonly label Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, and folk traditions. In fact, it is common for temples in Chinese communities to incorporate a range of figures that we commonly identify with different religions [loc 1428].
This is true and important, though Ramey overlooks similar attitudes and practices within European and American Christianity: think of the welter of "pagan" elements in European and North American celebrations of Christmas.  Rabbinic Judaism has been trying to root out magic and "superstition" among lay Jews for millennia.  (But also think of New Atheist Sam Harris, who practices his own version of Buddhism, trying to convince himself that there's no conflict.)  Christianity itself is a syncretistic mix of Judaism and Greco-Roman religion and philosophy.  Which didn't mean that the early Christians didn't refuse to conform to Jewish or Roman demands for conformity that they found objectionable (burning incense to an image of the Emperor, for example), or to represent their sect vis-a-vis Judaism and "paganism" as mutually exclusive.

Ramey even acknowledges that
One trait of what people sometimes call New Age religion is the adoption of practices associated with different religious traditions, which becomes a point of critique for some people opposed to New Age practices. A similar issue arises in the language of “spiritual but not religious,” which rejects institutional forms of practice for an individualized selection of practices ... For example, in the British colonies that became the United States, those identified as Christian incorporated astrology and similar practices despite the common Puritan teachings that such practices were not acceptable for people who identified as Christians [locs 1584, 1594].
So I think there's a contradiction here: "Spiritual But Not Religious" is not a modern, Euro-American, Protestant, individualist deviation (even if some of its adherents may defensively present themselves as such); rather, it fits comfortably into traditional, almost universal cross-cultural practices of people around the world and throughout history.  Attempts to purify a particular tradition are not inherent in religion, but represent minority, usually elite efforts to construct regularized systems that appeal to them aesthetically and intellectually.  Most people construct the constellations of meaning that they use to structure their lives ad hoc, opportunistically; the "Cafeteria Christian," as objectionable as he or she may be in many ways, is simply being religious in a normal, traditional manner, the way most believers have always been religious.

*Bret Hinsch, Masculinities in Chinese History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), p. 50.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I Don't Care What Yahweh Don't Allow

According to this article, the resident artiste of the Masterpiece Cakeshop is suing his state government, alleging harassment and persecution for his deeply held religious beliefs.  This is due to another suit accusing him of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake for a transgender person's transition. There aren't enough details in the article for me to discuss that case; anyhow, what I'm interested in now are the remarks of the person, Brent Sirota, who linked to the article in a tweet.  He's an academic, a "Historian of sacred and profane things" according to his profile, with a focus on "Disenchantment operations, mostly."  I follow him because he often shares useful information, including recommendations of several books that I have found very useful.  But his complaints today made little sense to me.

I simply don't see the bottom to this. Any number of prejudices can be and have been swathed in theological garb--many quite recently, historically speaking: against interracial marriage and integration, antisemitism, anticommunism.
This is true as far as it goes.  What's missing is an acknowledgment that it's not only "prejudices" that have been "swathed in theological garb."  His use of "prejudices" is tendentious and disingenuous.  Just about any position at all can be and has been tarted up in theological drag.  How is anyone supposed to tell which positions are legitimate and which are merely prejudices?

One example of this came up a couple of Christmases ago when I criticized a liberal/progressive Christian reading of the Nativity stories that cast the Holy Family as "refugees."  I pointed out that there were other ways to read the texts, based on the narrative and indeed theological framework of the New Testament itself.  I was advised to study some theology by someone who was unaware that I've spent many years doing that.  What my reading had taught me was that the meanings of biblical stories and the doctrines Christians constructed were manifold, and largely determined by what the interpreter wanted to find: theologians work backward from their conclusions to get the texts to mean what they want them to mean.  (This is not true only of theologians, of course.)  The irony was that my critic assumed what he accused me of believing, that each story has only one meaning.  You couldn't prove that from a reading of theology; rather the opposite.

Sirota continued: 
Eventually, this will make the state the arbiter of orthodoxy. Courts and legislatures will have to determine that transphobia is a legitimate application of Protestant doctrine, but opposition to "race-mixing" or "popery" is not.
I can't see anything in the article that supports this overwrought claim.  Perhaps the courts and legislatures will take it on themselves to decide Christian doctrine, in defiance of the First Amendment, but there's nothing in the article or the case that obliges them to.  If anything, Sirota seems to want the courts to determine that transphobia is an illegitimate application of Protestant doctrine, which isn't acceptable either.  (I don't quite understand why he specifies "Protestant" here, since Catholic doctrine is also anti-trans.  I suspect he's alluding to - and misusing, in my judgment - scholarship which traces religious pluralism and toleration to the rise of Protestantism; but of that, more some other time.)

Now, it's true that probably most Americans (including their elected representatives) don't understand the First Amendment, largely because they don't see why it should prevent them from imposing their beliefs on other people, at their expense.  I've mentioned before some gay Christians I know who, not content with a mere civil ceremony, wanted the government to force their churches to provide them with a church wedding.  They didn't care that this would violate the First Amendment: they wanted it, and thought they were entitled.  (As white middle-class Christian-American males, of course they were!)

There are other ways of understanding this issue, of course, but it seems to me that even if a doctrine is a legitimate application of Protestant doctrine, it can still be regulated or forbidden by the state.  Slavery was held to be theologically legitimate for centuries by Catholic and Protestant divines, and though most people don't realize it, the American Civil War and Emancipation did not change that.  Even if your church still considers slavery to be in conformance with the will of God, it is still illegal for you to own other human beings.  The same can be said of polygamy: there is nothing in the Bible to forbid it, and it appears that Christianity abandoned the practice not for theological reasons but because Roman society disapproved of it.  (Oh ye of little faith, letting the World determine doctrine for you!)  If Protestants want to burn papists, or vice versa, because of their sincerely held theological doctrines, tough luck.  Nor is the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy acceptable because the Church hierarchy refused to do anything about it.  Because the United States does not, thanks to the Bill of Rights, have a state religion, we are not at the mercy of theologians in deciding public policy.

Sirota concluded:
And that was precisely Madison's complaint in the Memorial and Remonstrance in 1785, that such policies imply "that the Civil Magistrate is a competent judge of Religious Truth . . . an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages."
James Madison certainly did not mean that churches should be given free rein, however.  Remember that he opposed tax exemptions for churches and a chaplain in the Congress.  He was correct that the Civil Magistrate is not a competent judge of religious truth; I would only add that neither is the theologian, as shown by their contradictory opinions in all ages.  No one is.  Happily, as I've already said, the magistrate need not judge religious truth; he or she only needs to keep the arrogant pretensions of churchmen and believers from disturbing the public peace.  "Only" is probably not the right word here, because it's no small task to balance the competing claims of religious freedom, which usually involve one religion's freedom versus another's.  Even if believers could agree on what their gods require, their gods have no authority in this country.