Archives for January 2012

Inspecting the “Anti-Religious Bigotry of Elites”

Richard Dawkins: "Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

It’s easy to pick apart claims by some presidential contenders that America is facing an assault from within by adamant secularists, by the elite purveyors of “anti-religious bigotry,” as Newt Gingrich pronounced in his victory speech after the South Carolina primary.

The accusation is often aimed at President Obama, who is, according to former contender Rick Perry, waging a “war on religion,” and who is, according to cooler heads, a theologically serious and sober Protestant. And let’s not overlook a supremely elite institution: the 538-member U.S. Congress, in which there is, by most tallies, one person who goes so far as to label himself a nonbeliever. He is Democratic California representative Pete Stark.

But it’s also worth noting that anti-religious elites do exist and their eschewal of all things spiritual may run deeper than even Gingrich suggested.

One of the most unequivocal among them is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He not only constantly upbraids the faithful but also serves up an entertainingly bleak and nihilistic view of human existence and the cosmos. Dawkins writes that there is, at bottom, in the universe, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” He forgot to say, Have a nice day!

As a New Yorker by birth and attitude, I feel more at peace with Woody Allen’s old quip that there is in fact meaning in the universe—except for certain parts of New Jersey. (And it was a mere quip. Allen the film director would seem to drift more toward Dawkins’s almost cartoonish view of the cosmic condition.)

Beyond Matter and Motion

The Gingrich forces would be right if all they were saying is that there’s a recently influential cadre of hard-core atheists, who have turned out some lively, readable books like The God Delusion (Dawkins), The End of Faith (Sam Harris), and God is Not Great (by the late great Christopher Hitchens). There does seem to be a brassy challenge to religion and theology issuing from these precincts. The result in recent years has been, for the first time in a long while in the United States, a real debate about faith. Not necessarily about religious conservatives or radical Islam or this or that religious movement, but about faith as such—whether there’s a God, whether there’s a transcendent reality, whether there’s anything in the universe besides matter and motion.

Still, the “New Atheists,” as Dawkins and the gang are dubbed, have been more provocative than they’ve been proliferative.

Many casual observers point to the growing numbers of Americans who don’t identify with any faith tradition; these Americans now comprise about 16 percent of the adult population, according to the most authoritative surveys. But a little over a third of these people affirm that they’re religious even though they’re religiously unaffiliated, and most of the others could be classified as “spiritual but not religious.” Most say they pray regularly or from time to time, as reported in studies such as the Pew Forum’s 2010 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. These aren’t the shock troops of the New Atheism.

What’s left is a trifling four percent of Americans who see themselves as atheists or agnostics, according to Pew. Maybe they’re the elites who are allegedly subverting our culture, purging religion from public schools and cracking down on religious freedom. But my guess is that not even most of these people would belong to the ranks of religion haters. Besides, the anti-secular warriors are firing mostly in other directions, at Obama and the Democrats, at the schoolteachers and journalists, and others. There are multitudes of believers in all of those directions.

Popular Reruns

Gingrich and others have some real grievances.

They have an argument to make about public school policies that at times go overboard in limiting religious expression. They can point to federal edicts like the Obama administration’s recent move to insist that Catholic colleges, for example, include free contraception services in their healthcare plans for employees. These, however, aren’t skirmishes in the final battle between good and evil. These involve legitimate questions about how to negotiate lines between church and state, between faith and society, between personal conscience and public policy.

Most people know this, but there’s an appreciative audience for the depictions of “war on religion” and “the growing anti-religious bigotry of elites.” We could expect to see those cartoons replayed for much of the presidential primary season. …read more

The Mormon Difference, and Romney’s Other Church

Thomas Jefferson once vowed that he would never “bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.” During this election season, pollsters have repeatedly inquired into the religious opinions of voters, especially evangelical ones, to find out just how many of them are genuflecting specifically at the altar of intolerance toward Mormons, who include in their fold the Republican presidential frontrunner. The polling and analyses could use a little redemption.

The pivotal question in those surveys is whether Mormons should be considered Christians. And the casual assumption, among too many pollsters and pundits, has been that people who say “no” are probably disposed against Mormonism as well as a former Mormon bishop named Mitt Romney. (In the Mormon Church, a bishop is the leader of a local congregation.)

The approach undoubtedly ferrets out some bigots, but it’s a crude device. I’m not sure what I’d say if I were rung up for such a survey. In my mind I’d probably start enumerating the breaking points between Mormon and Christian theologies. But my answer would be off the subject of who I think is qualified to lead the United States.

This question of whether Mormonism is Christian or a different religion really needs to be spun off from the question of religious intolerance.

Bill Tammeus, in his always perceptive Faith Matters blog, spoke wisely when he wrote last week, referring to the Mormon/Christian matter: “I suspect there will always be this kind of divide about Mormonism in America. What there should not be is fear of and prejudice against Mormons because of their religious beliefs—even if a majority of Americans would describe some of those beliefs as unbelievable.”

Tammeus was commenting on the latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that one-third of all American adults don’t look upon their Mormon neighbors as Christians, and another 17 percent aren’t sure if they’re Christians. My guess is that the ranks of the religiously intolerant are thinner than that. And, as other polls have indicated, scarcely few of those adults would be so theologically vigilant as to slight the Mormon Romney in a matchup with the Protestant Christian Barack Obama.

The Theological Divide

One theological perspective often described as a deal-breaker between Mormonism and Christianity has to do with God and Jesus. Mormons do not consider Jesus to partake in the same being as God; Jesus is seen as physically separate from the Godhead. In other words, Mormonism doesn’t really uphold the Christian Trinity, the “Three in One.”

As a Christian who would prefer to see a tad more daylight between God and Christ, in popular faith discourse if not theological commentaries, I wouldn’t be inclined to enlist in a jihad against Mormonism on this point of difference. Still, it is an essential difference that could lead someone without a bigoted bone in his body to conclude that Mormonism isn’t Christian.

Then there’s the lesser cosmic distance that Mormons place between God and humans. According to authoritative accounts of the Mormon faith, the divine and the human are of the same species. God is himself a flesh-and-blood man with a wife in heaven. (Jesus was his literal son.) Many Christian scholars, liberal and conservative, cannot square this doctrine with their sense of the chasm between the Creator and the creature.

True, the Mormon view could make it harder to contemplate the utter transcendence of God, the One who is beyond our ken, beyond human grasp. Then again, a lot of Christians, too, don’t seem to fully appreciate the Otherness and ineffability of God. I’m thinking, for example, of Christians who speak as though they know with certainty what God thinks about Obama-care, and what God had for lunch today. They and others would appear to be worshiping the Most Effable One.

What does all this say about Mormons as citizens and contributors to the general good? Nothing I could think of. In a Jeffersonian spirit, I’d wish the questions about Mormon theology weren’t even surfacing in the public square (or, to be specific, in the context of one candidate’s qualifications). But they are. See the New York Times article this past Sunday, “The Theological Differences Behind Evangelical Unease With Romney.”

In the past few days, with the South Carolina primary upon us, attention has turned from Romney’s Mormon faith to another church in which he is an active communicant. It is the Church of the One Percent, which holds, among its many influential doctrines, that fabulously wealthy people like him deserve to pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.

Now that is a belief worthy of intense theological inquiry in the public square. …read more

Shades of ’63, in Birmingham, Alabama

Some recent news from Birmingham, Alabama, made me think, What is it about black kids that makes some people want to spray them violently?

NPR’s All Things Considered reported that police assigned to inner-city schools there have been pepper-spraying high school students who get a little out of hand. The prototype for the story was a 17-year-old girl who, one day last winter, was crying in the hallway because some boys had been calling her names. An officer arrived, told her to calm down and handcuffed her—not the surest way to ease distress. And then, “I got maced. My eyes was burning. My face was burning. Like, I couldn’t breathe. And then like, afterwards, I threw up,” she told NPR. This girl was pregnant at the time.

You’d think Birmingham would be especially wary of using weaponry on African American schoolchildren.

In May 1963 the city attracted world attention when thousands of Negro children flooded its downtown to march with Martin Luther King Jr., in nonviolent demonstrations for civil rights. Police attacked with clubs and dogs and—infamously—high-powered fire hoses that slammed the little ones across the pavement. But the spraying didn’t stop the marching. “In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations,” Taylor Branch wrote in his magnificent trilogy America in the King Years.

In Place of Hoses

Today, students who face the Birmingham police at their schools are not exactly practicing civil disobedience. They’re usually engaging in routine misbehavior like cursing, talking too loudly, and violating dress codes by wearing, for example, baggy pants.

In other words, they’re doing the kinds of things that might normally earn a trip to the principal’s office. But at certain high schools in Birmingham, they’re being punished not just with detention but also with chemical weapons. The incidents—reportedly more than 100 of them over the past five years—have taken place primarily at a handful of city high schools with predominantly African American student populations.

President George W. Bush spoke of the “soft racism” of low expectations. He was speaking of academic standards in inner-city schools, but just how low are the expectations of those who feel that the disciplinary toolkit in those schools must include inflammatory agents?

Some students are resisting once again. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of seven Birmingham students who have been sprayed, alleging that the city’s school system and police department have “created a police state” within the schools. Black students are also speaking up in places like the Washington, D.C., area, where—according to a Washington Post analysis—they are up to five times more likely than white students to be suspended. Lawyers for the Birmingham students say they could find no other school district in the United States where students are being repeatedly punished with mace.

That they are fighting an apparent injustice would be unsurprising to King, whose birthday we observe this coming Monday. “Many children took it upon themselves to participate in demonstrations even in defiance of their parents and school officials,” writes theological ethicist Rufus Burrow in his handy volume Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians, referring to the Civil Rights era. “Such behavior only confirmed for King that children not only had a major stake in the struggle against racial injustice but also had a strong awareness of what was going on. They wanted to participate and would do so in defiance of any adults.”

In the Birmingham of 2012, the adults include African American school administrators: they’ve invited the police into the schools to help keep order. That makes this case less than black and white, morally speaking. Still, it is hard to picture unruly white students in suburban districts being routinely shot with canisters of mace. It’s hard to see this clash entirely apart from the narrative of racial inequity in America, apart from the unfinished work of what King often described as “the beloved community.” …read more

What You Won’t Hear from the Santorum Choir

Throughout this political season, social conservatives have grappled to make their case that concerns about marriage and family are relevant to America’s economic woes. And now, Rick Santorum’s virtual victory in the Iowa caucuses has provided them with a quick onramp to election-year discussions of bread-and-butter issues.

At almost every turn of his improbable bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Santorum has knitted the pro-family perspective to worries over economic wellbeing. For instance, at the October 11 Republican primary debate in New Hampshire, Santorum declared: “The biggest problem with poverty in America … is the breakdown of the American family…. We need to have a policy that supports families, that encourages marriage.”

On that stage at Dartmouth College, the former Pennsylvania senator served up stats indicating that two-parent families are far less likely to slip into poverty than those headed by a single parent. His figures were a little off, according to the fact-checking organization PolitiFact. But Santorum, social conservatism’s new standard-bearer, uttered the truth—or should I say, virtually half of it.

Ample studies have shown that family implosion is often a ticket to poverty and economic insecurity. These findings go well with the moral and religious understanding that social solidarity, including that basic unit of solidarity, the family, is essential to human flourishing. On this, the social conservatives are basically right.

What they don’t acknowledge is that the reverse is at least as true. Prolonged economic insecurity makes it much harder to hold a family together or even start one.

Minding the Gaps

Look at the recent patterns of family breakup in the United States.

Divorce rates have tapered off, but that is because of a steep drop in divorce among the college-educated middle class. Family breakup is in fact plaguing poor and working-class communities, creating what some researchers have dubbed a “divorce gap” along socioeconomic lines. In his 2009 book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin pointed out, “The tensions in the marriages of the non-college-educated reflect, in part, the declining job prospects that husbands face.” Cherlin and other researchers were reaching this conclusion before the Great Recession.

A study released by the Pew Research Center last month highlighted also a marriage gap along those same lines of income and education. People with less education and economic prospects are increasingly less likely to get married in the first place.

In other words, you really can’t talk seriously about family breakdown without dealing with issues like wages, access to higher education, and economic inequality. It’s also hard to argue credibly that single-parent families are the cause of rising poverty. Indeed, as experts point out, those rates have spiked in recent years even as the numbers of single-headed households have held steady. The real problem at the moment is with something called the job market.

All that could be noted from a moral as well as empirical vantage. According to most theological ethicists, people need material things like affordable healthcare, adequate housing, and jobs that provide a decent income. Many would say people have a right to such goods, because these are basic props of human dignity—of life in community, in families.

But you probably won’t hear that from the social conservatives as they take their onramp to New Hampshire and South Carolina. …read more