An Open Letter to My Congressional Representative

December 7, 2017

As I’ve said, most responses I’ve gotten from politicians look more like MadLibs than genuine communications; but First Amendment remedies are more legal, more moral and, I think, more likely to succeed than the Second Amendment remedies so often recommended by conservative politicians and pundits.  And I’m told that physical letters weigh more heavily with the Unlearned Elders of Washington than do phone calls, which themselves have more impact than email or petitions.  So, having tried petitions, tweets, e-mail and phone, I’m now trying actual letters.  I urge you to do the same.

Congressman Brett Guthrie

2434 Rayburn H.O.B.
Washington, DC  20515

 

Dear Congressman:

I oppose both tax plans, at least so far as any information has been shared with the people you work for. This tax plan is a budget buster, relying on bookkeeping tricks and flat-out fictions to look like it “only” raises the deficit a trillion dollars. It will raise my taxes, perhaps not immediately but in a few years, so any extra I get will go into savings, as Joseph saved during the years of plenty to withstand the coming famine. Taxes on the poor will be raised immediately. The LORD commands that we care for the poor (gleaning laws, Jubilee, restrictions on creditors etc.) and the prophets excoriate those who raise taxes on the poor to fatten the rich (see Isaiah 10:1-3, Amos 2:6-8, etc.).

Not only do your tax plans violate the Gospel and the Law, they violate economic sense and experience. You are following the theories which Gov. Brownback tried in Kansas; the result was the near bankruptcy of his state, until even most business owners were asking him to raise their taxes. It didn’t stimulate the economy then and won’t now. Kansas survives because it is part of a United States that is doing better; in particular, states like New York are contributing more to the Federal budget than they take out, and subsidize states like Kentucky and Kansas. Trickle-down economics will turn our economy into a trickle, when you are promising a flood of prosperity.

You seem to be calculating how much you can bleed your voters to feed your donors before we notice the pain. You offer us temporary cuts and later tax hikes, but give the wealthy permanent cuts. Either you intend to trick us, or you (as has been said) plan to make the tax cuts for everyone permanent despite the fact that this would push the deficit over two trillion dollars; and you know that this will only harm the economy, as it has in Kansas, Louisiana and elsewhere.

Reject this rushed, half-assed process that passes tax cuts for the wealthy in the dead of night, and leaves future generations to clean up your messy, thoughtless, hand-scribbled law. Start over, and do tax reform the way Reagan did: over years, working through committees, getting the best information and negotiating sound, thoughtful legislation.

 

Yours truly,

 

P.S. I am not just spouting uninformed and partisan opinions. In addition to numerous Scriptures, I have gathered objective empirical and historical data. I won’t bore you with a full bibliography, but I suggest this future reading for whatever intern might end up actually reading this letter:

Which states are most dependent on Federal funds? https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700/

What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously? https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously

Thank you for your time.

 

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Another open letter to my senator, Mitch McConnell

December 5, 2017

I’ve tried repeatedly to phone my senator, but his phone never answers and his voicemail box is conveniently full.  I’ve also tried the contact form on his web page, but his responses fail the Turning Test.  I’ve been told that physical letters have more impact, so I’m mailing this tomorrow.  I am not, alas, overly optimistic that it will actually be read either.  So that maybe another human being will read some of this and give me a rational comment in response, I’m posting it here.  Besides, this blog needs more recent content!

Senator Mitch McConnell

317 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

 

 

Dear Senator:

I’ll try to state the main points quickly, since I doubt any human being is going to bother reading this anyway. Your answers to my previous calls and e-mails have been so off-target that I know no one bothers to read past the subject line. But I’m told that physical letters get a bit more attention, so I’ll try again.

I’ll give the conclusion first, and then the proofs leading up to it. This tax cut is a scam. It will raise my taxes, perhaps not this year but certainly in ten. However, tax cuts for the millionaires and billionaires, like you, your donors and Trump, are made permanent. You promised and still promise to give the middle-class and poor people a “big, beautiful tax cut,” and even say that you’re raising taxes on the rich. That is a lie, but you can make it the truth. Make the tax cuts for corporations and for the super-rich temporary, as you propose to do for the middle-class. Make the tax cuts for the middle class and poor permanent. The numbers that you have deigned to release suggest that you could do this easily, since the amounts you wish to raise from the middle class by abolishing their tax cuts match the money you wish to give away to the super-rich. You say that you need the ability to take the cuts back from the middle class if giving huge breaks to the rich doesn’t jump-start the economy. That’s insane. Instead, you should make the rich prove that having these big, beautiful tax cuts will encourage them to create jobs. If the economy tanks, they’ll have shown they don’t deserve or need tax cuts to stimulate the economy since it grew for over eight years without the cuts, but they’re still rich so they have enough money and to spare. This would go a long way towards convincing people that the GOP cares about its voters, and not only its donors.

Now for some backing for this suggestion. After eight years of hypocritical whining about how terrible it was that President Obama and the Democrats had passed a health-care bill without any Republican votes (though incorporating Republican ideas and soliciting Republican input throughout the process), your party rammed through a tax reform plan with less popular support, not even a pretense of seeking bipartisan input, and with so little discussion that few if any of the people who voted for it had any idea what it said. You said the ACA was rushed, but it was discussed in committees and debated publicly for nearly a year. Your tax plan was rushed through in about two months. During this time, the government has moved closer to a shutdown; but rather than deal with that first and work on tax reform for a year, you chose to ram through an ill-conceived tax cut for the wealthy. The CHIP program was allowed to expire; but rather than deal with insurance for sick children, some of whom may die, you felt it was more urgent to cut taxes on corporations so they could create jobs when we have extremely low unemployment rates already. I suppose some of the nurses who get laid off due to the loss of funding for children’s health can get jobs as gravediggers. Economists tell us that ending DACA could cost the U.S. economy $280 billion dollars (see http://fortune.com/2017/09/05/daca-donald-trump-economic-impact/), but you thought it was more urgent that we cut taxes to corporations when the CEOs tell us bluntly that most likely they will not invest the money in job growth, but use it for stock buybacks, dividends and executive bonuses. You are relying on economic theories and predictive models used by Gov. Brownback in his disastrous experiment with the Kansas state economy, which led to reduced economic growth and massive deficits. Kansas can survive because it is part of a United States that is generally doing better economically; in particular, New York and California pay in far more to the Federal government than do most “red states” like Mississippi, Alabama or our own home state, Kentucky (see https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700/). If you do to the nation what your party did to Kansas, the nation might not survive. In fact, it seems unlikely that the world economy could survive.

I understand that conservatives want to reduce taxation on general principle. I am in favor of sound, frugal economic policy. What the GOP is proposing is not that. You say this is a middle-class tax cut, but anyone who can read knows this is another of your “alternative facts.” In the real world, this is a middle-class tax hike, giving people like me a few dollars now only to yank it away just as I will be needing to retire. It is a major tax cut for the wealthy and for corporations. That is why the tax cuts for the poor and middle class, if they get them at all, will disappear in a few years, while tax cuts for the super-wealthy and for corporations are permanent no matter how badly the economy does in the future.

Rather than simply be negative, please let me offer the following suggestion: Reverse your priorities. Make the tax cuts for corporations temporary, tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires temporary, and the tax cuts for the middle class permanent. Instead of eliminating deductions that middle-class and poor people need, like the tax deduction for medical expenses, keep them, and cut tax deductions for private jets, for golf courses and other things that only benefit Donald Trump and other billionaires. Right now, you are proposing cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest sliver of the American population by shifting more of those expenses onto the poor and the middle-class. You say that doesn’t matter, because we’ll have so much economic growth that we’ll be able to renew the tax cuts for the middle-class when they are set to expire. If that is true, then why not just reverse that reasoning? If, as Republican economic theorists claim, the economy grows in ten years, we could renew the tax cuts for corporations and for the wealthy at that time; so schedule those cuts to end in ten years. Let the tax cuts for working people be the ones that are permanent. Show that you care about voters, not just donors.

Also, you claim we need tax reform because you want to simplify the process of paying taxes by reducing the number of brackets. That is absurd. If you really want to make it easier for us to pay our taxes, let the IRS send out a bill (see https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/16/technology/personaltech/turbotax-or-irs-as-tax-preparer-intuit-has-a-favorite.html). The government has our tax information already. The only reason the task of calculating our taxes is thrust upon us is because lobbyists for the finance industry have paid you and your colleagues to keep both the taxpayer and the IRS doing the same job of computing our taxes, so we’ll have to keep paying Intuit, H&R Block and others to help us with our taxes. If the government handled our taxes the way most other nations do theirs, we could reduce fraud as well as anxiety for millions of people. Right now, paying taxes is like trying to pay for a meal at a restaurant without seeing the bill, and getting punished if our numbers don’t match what the waiter says we ordered. I suggest instead that you, the waiter, hand us the bill, and if we need to dispute part of it we can deal with that.

When I was in college, Republicans were the party of hope, of international engagement, of moral principles, of sound, clear-eyed economic realism, and above all of patriotism. I didn’t always agree with Republican positions, but most of my best friends were Republicans or Libertarian. The conservatives I knew were able and willing to discuss evidence and to debate rationally. That Republican party is dead, and you, sir, are one of its murderers. As Bobby Jindal famously said, the Republicans have become “the Stupid Party.” My Libertarian friend once debated an avowed Communist who claimed Marxism was the only “fair” system. He replied simple, “But Robert, it doesn’t work.” Kansas is just one of several Republican states, as well as some nations, that have tried to apply the theories of Laffer and Ayn Rand. Those policies have failed, and hurt a lot of people, although the rich like you may not have noticed (see https://qz.com/895785/laffer-curve-everything-trump-and-republicans-get-wrong-about-trickle-down-economics-and-reaganomics/ and https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously). Instead of being the realistic party facing down dewy-eyed, empty-headed idealists, you continue to push policies that have brought corporations, states and even nations to the edge of ruin. You are the party of dewy-eyed, suicidally-devout fanatics The party of Reagan would not do this. Regan worked for years on tax reform, talking across the aisle, allowing Congressional committees to do their work, and so on. And when the policies didn’t work and deficits ballooned, despite the reassurances of the Hayek-Laffer school, he backed off instead of doubling down. I say to you what the Libertarian said to the Marxist: What you propose doesn’t work, so try something else.

 

Yours truly,

An open letter to a FOX News viewer

November 8, 2017

I’m writing this to a family member who, I’m told, has been posting FOX News.  Perhaps you also have a loved one who needs intervention; if so, I hope this helps.  Friends don’t let friends drive news cycles.

Part 1:  I’ve been told you’re posting links to FOX News.  Those of us who share your concern that Donald Trump is destroying conservatism in this country, and destroying this country, wonder why you would start repeating stories from a source that dedicates itself to promoting his virtue, accomplishments and authority even when these claims are contradicted by his crimes, vices, failures, bullying, lying, pettiness and proud, profound ignorance.  I thought I would take the opportunity to remind you, and others, about “the FOX News Effect:”

http://www.businessinsider.com/study-watching-fox-news-makes-you-less-informed-than-watching-no-news-at-all-2012-5

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/07/21/a-rigorous-scientific-look-into-the-fox-news-effect/#609265ce12ab

There are many other reports, but these two cover things pretty well, and so far as I know neither can be accused of liberal bias.  It is simply a fact that FOX News viewers, on average, are less informed, and less willing to become informed, than people who watch no news at all, according to some research; other less thorough studies suggest that perhaps they aren’t more ignorant than the totally uninformed, but still know less (while thinking they know more) than NPR listeners, PBS watchers, or even CNN consumers.  There are some important caveats:

  1.  MSNBC viewers do not do much better.  The problem seems to be not so much right vs. left, but right hemisphere vs. left hemisphere.  FOX and MSNBC are both partisan, serving up lots of slanted, emotionally appealing news stories to their chosen niches while avoiding stories that might challenge their narratives.  The right side of the brain is more involved with the emotions; the left side is more analytical, logical, and factual.  The partisan news media, whether left-wing or right-wing, appeal more to people who do not value facts or critical thinking, and encourage people not to try.
  2. As the Forbes article points out, correlation is not causation.  We’ve done little research to find whether FOX viewers are ignorant to start, or whether viewing FOX makes them ignorant.

At the same time, there are reports like this:  http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/23/503146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a-covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/why-liberals-are-more-intelligent-conservatives and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/why-liberals-are-more-intelligent-conservatives

What these suggest are:

  1.  Either smarter, better-educated and better-informed people tend to be more liberal, or being liberal makes you smarter.  Conservatives tend to be more gullible, either because they are less educated and informed, or because they tend to be more trusting.  Conservatives are more authoritarian, more trusting of people seen as leaders; and they are more group-oriented, more inclined to trust people within group boundaries and inclined to distrust outsiders.  That’s not intended as an insult; it’s a psychological and definitional fact.  To be a social conservative is to be anti-multicultural and more respectful of authorities and institutions, whether they are Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads” or the people who won’t watch the NFL because players “disrespect the flag.”  That does not mean they respect all authority, but they do respect the authorities that they accept more uncritically than liberals do.  Liberals tend to be more skeptical, more cynical, and more willing to accept ambiguity and open questions.
  2. Being too extreme either way could be bad, but the liberal echo chamber is less impermeable and less effective than the conservative one.  The false news manufacturer had more trouble creating fake liberal news, because eventually some liberal would fact-check him; conservatives were far more likely to keep repeating a story that was factually false, but which fit their preconceptions and which seemed to be endorsed by a trustworthy authority (i.e. a leader of their group as opposed to an outsider).

Part 2:  The particular news story in this case illustrates much of the problem.  The story is originally reported as “Michelle Obama Speaks At Obama Foundation Summit.”  http://abc7chicago.com/politics/michelle-obama-speaks-at-obama-foundation-summit-in-chicago/2591352/ The original story, reported by the local news, mentioned how this was a meeting of young future leaders from around the world, how entertainers and artists as well as people in the political realm made speeches intended to advise and inspire, and Michelle Obama was one who spoke with a message encouraging young women in particular to be self-confident and to seek to be a positive force in the world.  The article also mentions, towards the end, that she advised young people to think twice before posting their opinions on social media.  This was at the end of a report that discussed comments from Manuel-Lin Miranda, Chance the Rapper and President Obama, as well as mentioning performances by other artists.  Overall, the event appears to have been a very large, star-studded, exciting and positive experience for those who attended.

CNN reported the same event somewhat differently:  “Michelle Obama to Young People:  Never Tweet (sort of)” http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/politics/michelle-obama-chicago-twitter-men/index.html.  The CNN report barely mentions the event, doesn’t mention any of the other events or participants at all outside the interview, and presented it more as a slap at the Tweeter-In-Chief than as simply advice to young people.  It then goes on to discuss other advice and encouragement she gave to the participants, and particularly to young women.  She discusses how most societies today are traditionally dominated by men, and that often women are overlooked, harassed or exploited by some men.  This is made easier because the traditional upbringing for young girls is to be nurturing and supportive, to take care of others; Michelle urged her hearers to find their own voice and their own destiny.

FOX News seems to be reporting on a different event:  http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/11/01/michelle-obama-says-men-are-entitled-self-righteous-because-women-protect-them-too-much.html.  Not only is there barely any mention of the event and no mention of other participants, there is hardly any discussion of anything Ms. Obama actually said.  This isn’t fake news; she did say the things that are discussed, but they are edited and spun to seem more like the rants of a castrating harridan than the advice of an accomplished and educated woman of color speaking to other young women starting out on the path she has traveled.  There is no mention of her advice to avoid blasting your unedited and thoughtless opinions into cyberspace, which CNN presented as an attack on Donald Trump since he does exactly that; and there is little mention of anything else she said.  The only part of the event that receives any real attention in the FOX story is her comments on males and females.  They report:

“It’s like the problem in the world today is we love our boys, and we raise our girls,” Obama said. “We raise them to be strong, and sometimes we take care not to hurt men — and I think we pay for that a little bit.”

This is presented as an unjustified slam at men, who feel “entitled” and “self-righteous” but who are in fact being unjustly maligned.

It seems pretty clear that there is some spinning going on.  The event was not, as CNN implies, simply a Trump-bashing; nor was it simply two days of man-bashing.  The local news presented Michelle Obama’s discussion as a positive and empowering message for young women, the culmination of two days and multiple speakers and artists reaching out to these delegates.  Both cable news services edited the event to fit their own narratives:  one, the “this president is a twittering fool” narrative, and the other the “liberals be hating men” narrative.  Both left a lot on the cutting room floor to emphasize what they wanted.

Of the two spins, even FOX has been jumping on the Harvey Weinstein story, so it’s more than a little hypocritical of them to act as if these comments about “entitled” men are totally unjustified.  And given their own problems (Ailes, Stone, O’Reilly etc.) it’s a little self-serving of them to simply pretend that too many men feel morally empowered and socially entitled to “grab’em by the pussy” anytime they want, while perhaps other men wish they, too, were powerful and famous so they could do the same.  In fact, as J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor pointed out a century ago, whenever any system is dominated by one group for a long time, the values of that system will tend to reflect the interests of that group.  For hundreds, even thousands of years young girls have been raised to please and care for others, particularly males.  Until about a hundred years ago, women could not vote, own property, work without the permission of their husbands or (if unmarried) oldest male relative, and those norms hold today in many parts of the world.  And even in the U.S. the idea that women should be subservient and unthreatening to men is powerful.  For example, Donald Trump divorced his first wife because he heard her on the phone talking to people doing business with Trump Inc. and thought she sounded “harsh.”  He said she lost her “softness” when she began working in his business, and that he wasn’t able to see her as a woman once he heard her raise her voice on the phone with someone who was doing business with the Trump casino (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/donald-trump-1994-putting-wife-work-dangerous-thing/story?id=39537935).  So it seems more than a little disingenuous to pretend that no men think women should focus on taking care of their men first, and themselves second.

The CNN spin, by contrast, is definitely a spin, but does not seem obviously false to the speaker’s intent.  But even if she were totally ignorant of the fact that Trump broadcasts his own unfiltered and often misinformed views, with spelling and grammatical errors that make them look silly even if they aren’t, the fact that she was warning this group of young future leaders to not do what the current president* does would be at least worth noting.  A president of a major nation is supposed to be a role model, not a cautionary tale.  But to imply that it was the main intent of Michelle Obama’s comments is also a falsification.  Yes, she spoke to young people who might be inclined to “tell it like it is” by tweeting without thinking.  Yes, she spoke to young men who might feel inclined to try to dominate and mistreat women, and to young women who might feel inclined to keep quiet and not stand up for themselves.  But her main intent was not to divide and not to discuss anyone who wasn’t actually in the room; rather, her focus was on providing advice and inspiration to young people who hopefully would make their lives forces for positive change in the world.  So both cable news channels were somewhat distorting the original event for their own editorial reasons, but the conservatives were more misleading and uninformative.

Part 3:  “The FOX News Effect,” then, is that viewers of FOX News and other right-wing news organizations are often more ignorant than people who pay attention to no news in particular.  While the apathetic may be uninformed, FOX viewers are often misinformed.  In some cases, this may be flat-out fictions or speculations presented as fact, as in Pizzagate or the Seth Rich story.  This story about Michelle Obama seems to be an example not so much of lying, but vigorous spinning of actual facts.  Yes, Michelle said those words, though they are neither obviously false nor as vicious as suggested.  People who get their news only from FOX are naturally mystified why Michelle Obama hates men and why Crooked Hillary hasn’t been arrested; they’ve heard only a mix of slanted news and the occasional deliberate falsehood, leaving them not ignorant, but misinformed:  not zero knowledge but negative.  Furthermore, they are emotionally agitated, which is the enemy of sound thought and reflection.

The FOX News Effect has been magnified by four further factors:

  1.  The Social Media Effect:  Trump supporters are far more likely to find even FOX News too “mainstream/lamestream” for their tastes, and to report that they get most of their news from Facebook, Twitter, private web sites, blogs and so on.  These are even less well researched, less vetted, and more biased than partisan cable news.
  2. The Falwell Effect:  Conservative religious “authorities,” such as Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr, Pat Robertson and other Christian Dominionists and Prosperity Gospel preachers, have many millions of devoted followers, and have announced that anyone who questions Donald Trump for any of his known sexual, financial or other sins is challenging the will of God.
  3. The Russia Effect:  as an instrument of state policy, Russia has flooded the world with false news stories and even funded socially divisive social movements, largely through social media and individual blogs.  Furthermore, because Russia is an authoritarian, mostly white nation with a state religion (Russian Orthodoxy), Putin and Russia have been held up by conservative media as superior to democratic and Democratic pluralism.  Thus, FOX viewers, and consumers of alt-right media, are not only not worried about Russian distortion of their news; they welcome it.
  4. The Trump Effect:  President* Donald Trump gets most of his news from FOX and Breitbart and InfoWars, ignoring the CIA, FBI and other government authorities that get their information from actually observing the world.  This turns the conservative echo chamber into an Ouroboros, where the conservative news gets its news from uncritically repeating what Trump says, who in turn is uncritically repeating what they say, turning the old news ticker-tape into a vast Mobius strip where, with a simple twist and by attaching one end to the other, what was once an ongoing narrative becomes a one-sided, infinite, closed circle.  No new ideas can come in, no disconfirming facts can break the circle, and the system runs endlessly.  It is impossible to say whether alt-right news runs the country by flooding Trump’s brain with false and misleading ideas, or he controls them by filling the news feed with his fact-free tweets and rants.

I will cite one example, current in the news, which I think illustrates all these factors.  The concept is “collusion.”  In law, this refers to an illegal conspiracy.  In common parlance, it might refer to any secret plot to deceive.  For almost the entire Trump presidency* there has been ample, objectively verified evidence that members of his inner circle and campaign colluded with agents of the Russian government to swing the election towards Trump, as part of the Russian government’s stated support for Trump.  And for years there has been objectively verified evidence that Trump Inc. has substantial financial ties to Russian oligarchs and mobsters.  This fits not only the common definition of “collusion,” but also the legal definition.  It is illegal, under American law, to receive campaign help from a foreign government.

In conservative circles, the focus has been on the Democrats.  Because of the Ouroboros circle, it is impossible to tell whether conservative news created this idea and Trump repeats it, or Trump started the claim as a way to deflect criticism and now they repeat it as news.  There are three threads in this tapestry of bullshit (I use the term philosophically, as developed by Harry Frankfurt in his tome on the subject). One thread is that since the information on Trump deals with Russia, and the researchers who did the research talked to Russians, and the anti-Trump Republicans and the Democrats paid for this opposition research on Trump, they colluded with Russia.  This is just patently false:  talking to Russians is not conspiring with the Russian government, and opposition research is a common part of elections today.  If the Democrats hired a research firm, and that firm in turn contacted a highly-respected former spy to find out things about Trump’s Russian ties, that’s legal, and thus does not qualify legally as “collusion.”  And it isn’t collusion with the Russian government in any case, but only contacts between private citizens.

The second thread, related to the first, is the so-called “Uranium Deal.”  According to this assertion, Hillary Clinton accepted a bribe to allow Russians to control American uranium production.  And yes, given that Russia has sought to ingratiate itself with everyone it could easily do so, it might have donated to the Clinton Foundation hoping for some goodwill later.  However, no actual security or energy expert has said there was any weakening of the U.S. by the takeover of this one mine.  The Russians don’t even have a license to export the uranium; it is just a Russian company that is managing the mine, which produces a small amount of the uranium used in this nation every year.  Most of our uranium is imported, so foreigners controlled it already; in this case it’s just a business deal where the uranium starts and stays in the U.S. and some money goes overseas.  And eleven other people signed off on the deal, so either there was a vast and undetected conspiracy by eleven heads of various agencies, and the employees of those agencies, or this whole thing is nonsense.

The third is perhaps the most interesting, both because it is partly true and it is ironic.  There has long been evidence that the Clinton campaign had used the levers of power within the Democratic party to favor her candidacy over that of Bernie Sanders.  That does seem to fit the popular notion of “collusion.”  It was a secret, albeit open secret, conspiracy to tilt the results of what was supposedly a fair and even competition.  It stinks.  It reminds me of the sorts of games the student government clique ran when I was in college, both for its pettiness and its arrogance.  But it is not, so far as I know, illegal.  A political party can pick its candidates however the hell it wants.  And it is certainly not collusion with a foreign power, which is what the Mueller probe is authorized to investigate as part of the FBI mandate for counter-intelligence and internal national security.  In fact, and this is the ironic part, we would not even know about this apparently legal but distasteful collusion to stiff-arm Bernie if it weren’t for the illegal and unpatriotic collusion to subvert the American political process to aid Russian aims by promoting the Trump campaign.  And at this point, it is simply a known fact that there was Russian support for the Trump campaign, the Trump campaign knew about it at the highest levels, they encouraged it, Trump himself publicly supported it, and thus there is already more evidence against Trump than they had against Nixon for eighteen months after the Watergate break-in.

But you won’t hear about this on FOX News.  What you will hear is a “news” agency that reports excessively on the legal shenanigans of some stupid and arrogant political hacks, while downplaying the illegal crimes of a current president, his family and his closest advisors.  Just as Sean Hannity once defended Cliven Bundy, a tax dodger who supports slavery and says he does “not recognize the United States as existing,” so now Hannity and the FOX (or FAUX) News agency supports and defends the indefensible actions and falsehoods of the Trump-Kushner Crime Family; or, Trump mindlessly parrots what he hears on “FOX & Friends” as if they were an independent verification of his own dreams, rather than simply repeating what he himself tweeted two hours earlier.

So, if you want to be conservative, fine.  As David Brooks said, liberal vs. conservative is an argument over how to distribute the goods of society, and that’s necessary and rational.  But seek out information sources that are themselves as rational and objective as possible.

Why Epistemology Matters

November 6, 2017

These days, it seems everyone should study philosophy.  Consider this article.  It discusses the social and political implications of the victory of relativism.  Humans run this planet because we are better able to organize ourselves than can any other species; and we are losing that ability.  Our ability to lie so effectively that even the liars are suckered is outrunning not only our ability to sift out the truth, but even our interest in doing so.

Sixteen years ago, I began to reevaluate my own appraisal of my chosen profession.  I have a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology, which was an interdisciplinary program combining Philosophy and Religious Studies.  Before that I earned a M.Div. with a concentration in Philosophy, and before that a B.A. in Philosophy with enough Religion courses to qualify for a double major if I’d wanted to.  I’ve been working the seam between Philosophy and Religion for longer than many of my students have been alive.  Arguably, I’ve been doing it since I read Walden when I was fourteen years old.  I always thought it was important for someone to do it.  I could see that most of the people around me were unhappy with the lives they were living, or were living lives that others had lived already and found unsatisfying, so the rest maybe just weren’t unhappy yet.  But I also thought, as almost everyone around me said, that philosophy was too hard and strange for most people, so it would be up to the few of us to sort this out and then teach it to others.  Just as hardly anyone really understands calculus, but our modern world couldn’t exist without it, I thought some small subgroup of academics were all that were necessary to philosophize for the rest.  And furthermore, I figured that if most people ignored us, that would be okay too; they’d muddle along, we’d try to influence things around the edges by teaching a few future politicians and legal scholars a little morality before they set out shaping the world.

In 2001, I realized how dangerous that had become.  Everyone thought the “important” things to study in school were the things that could make you rich:  business, accounting, engineering, law and medicine, maybe sports and a few others.  Philosophy, religion, humanities, history—- who needs them?  But no one is flying planes into buildings because of a disagreement over the Pythagorean Theorem or the relative merits of whole-life vs. term-life insurance or even over how to fight cancer.  They are committing acts of mass murder because they have given up on the possibility of rationally defending their own world-view.  They have given up on logic and observation leading us to a shared sense of reality, within which we could solve problems that affect us all.  They have given up on trying to understand people who disagree with them or who have different values, who love and fear different things.  The religious fundamentalist isn’t dangerous because he is religious, any more than the atheist is dangerous because she isn’t.  What is dangerous is the person who resorts to force to impose his or her standards on another, or on a group, without understanding their views.  Such a person generally hasn’t even understood his or her own views.   “Those who know only one religion know none,”  said Max Müller, and it is true:  to understand anything, you have to have some sort of comparison.  To understand your own beliefs, you have to briefly step outside them and look at them from another angle; that’s what analysis and reflection are.  So the fundamentalist usually, probably always has a truncated view of his or her own faith, whether it’s the religious fanatic or the Communist fanatic or the racist or some other ideology.  They don’t understand others or even themselves, but they’ll fight and maybe kill to defend their mistakes from any real and imagined threats.

Through 2015, I mostly believed that greater understanding could lead, if not to consensus, at least to mutual tolerance and agreement on rules of engagement.  That was the motivation behind this book.  In 2002, the economy of the nation was sliding towards recession, and there was a debate how to respond.  One side said that the best way to stimulate and repair the economy after the 2008 crash was to increase aid to the poor, such as food stamps.  That would undoubtedly have worked, since poor people spend what they get right away—they have to, they’re poor, they have debts and bills and mouths to feed.  Rich people don’t need more money, by definition, so when they get more money they are less likely to immediately stimulate the economy by spending it.  They might invest it in new businesses, but more likely they’ll squirrel it away in tax havens—-they already have thriving businesses, remember: they’re rich.  Middle-class people will save a little, pay down debts, maybe finally open that small business they’ve always wanted to.  So, practically speaking, according to the vast majority of economists, Bush should have pushed for a one-time bonus to the food stamp program, together with a modest but noticeable rebate in taxes for the poor and middle classes, leaving the rich alone.  But this suggestion was met with seeming moral outrage.  How could you punish the hard-working middle class by rewarding poor people?  (The implication was that if they’re poor, they don’t work hard enough; anyone who thinks that has never done real manual labor.)  How could you punish the rich for working hard and being smart?  (The implication here is that everyone who is rich must have worked hard and be really smart; I’ve met too many rich people to believe that.)  So I set out, in this book, to examine how we came to have such different moral judgements about how we share the profits of our joint economic activities as a nation.  My hope was that if people could see that the other side was not evil or lazy, but just had different moral and practical assumptions, maybe some sort of conversation would be possible.

What I’ve seen since that book was published is nothing short of epistemological genocide, a wholesale annihilation of truth.  Cardinal Ratzinger once complained about a “dictatorship of relativism,” but today we have something perhaps even worse:  sheer anarchy.  We live in the epistemological version of a Hobbesian state of nature, with war of each truth against all others, and the life of every truth is nasty, brutish and short.  Perhaps once there was a dictatorship, imposing mutual tolerance and a cease-fire at the expense of rejecting the possibility that any truth could be real; but in these days there is no king and everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes (Judges 21:25).  And like that Biblical story of anarchy, rape and murder, the epistemological breakdown leads to political chaos and moral collapse that starts to make a Hobbesian totalitarianism seem almost preferable, or at least acceptable.  Hence, in 2016, the yearning for a “strong man” who would impose his view of reality on everyone else and give us order.(1)    But historically, dictatorships never end well for the dictated to.  Hobbesian monarchism gave way to Lockean representative democracy, because politically speaking a participatory government that depends on mutual discussion and mutual agreement to at least fight according to non-lethal political means rather than guns is more stable than a totalitarianism that leaves dissenters no option but violence.

Democracy dies when the majority choose to opt out; the society becomes an oligarchy, a ruling elite of actual voters and those who serve them dominating the nonparticipants.  Something similar happens in the realm of epistemology.  When the majority decide it is too hard to figure out what is true or false, they allow others to dictate reality.  Once you’ve handed your eyes over to someone else who tells you where to look and what to see, and handed your brain over to others who tell you what to think and your heart over to others who tell you what to feel, you are a slave, no matter how badass you feel because your masters tell you you’re tough and strong and better than those others.  And that is why epistemology matters, for everyone, and why every single individual citizen needs to learn some philosophy.  We need to learn enough to not just accept, but understand this:

  1.  Truth exists.  Some things are real
  2. Truth matters.
  3. Truth is hard to find but it’s worth the effort.
  4. You will never have all the truth; it’s too big for one person to see all at once.  But you can at least see the side that’s facing you.
  5. Everyone can, with effort and discussion, figure out more truth, by hearing from people who have other perspectives.
  6. When you don’t know, sometimes it’s okay to withhold judgement.
  7. When you can’t wait for certainty, you may have to choose without being certain.  If you’ve headed out on the wrong direction, though, you can still realize this and turn around.
  8. It takes humility to admit when you might be wrong.  It takes courage to stand your ground when you might be right.  Therefore, you need to be both brave and humble to find any truth in this life.

I think everything else—-Aristotle vs. Plato, Locke vs. Descartes, and all the other epistemological and ethical debates of philosophers through the ages—-are less important than these few, simple principles.  And maybe this list is not complete (I’d be breaking my own list if I insisted it was).  If you have some others, or think any of these is wrong, let’s discuss it like reasonable people.  But the important point, which I will not yield, is this:  You may not know much about Plato or Aristotle or Kant, and get by just fine; but you need to know something like these principles here to function as a citizen, or even as a rational being.  Otherwise, you’re liable to end up cowering in your basement waiting for the mythical hordes of antifa marauders or Mexican rapists or zombies or whatever that someone has invented to keep you terrified—-and submissive. Read the rest of this entry »

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 3)

September 6, 2017

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review; pt. 2)

August 30, 2017

The fundamental difference between the two, as Comey presents it, is the different ways each uses Christian scriptures to support his views. Following David H. Kelsey, Comey distinguishes between “direct” versus “indirect” authority.[1] Direct authorization is when a claim is based on a direct quote from Scripture, or is analytically true based on a direct quote from Scripture. While Comey does not give an example, I would presume that refusing to eat pork because Scripture says that you shall not eat any animal with cloven hoofs that does not chew its cud would fit. What Kelsey does say is that it is hard to find examples of direct authorization, because usually the scripture is more the basis of the theological command and not its content. Again using my example, the Torah commands the Israelites to “bind these words (the Shema) as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,” but it does not say how to do this; Orthodox Judaism has interpreted this mitzvoth to come up with the form of the tefillin. It’s not much of a leap, but it is an interpretation; that makes this an indirect rather than a direct authorization. Why write the scriptures on a paper and put them in a box, rather than write them on a ribbon and tie them on?

Further complicating the question of scriptural authorization for a theological proposition is that the Scripture may serve any of several functions. It may be a direct warrant for the theological conclusion, or it may be backing for a warrant, or data in the argument, or even a rebuttal. In each case the use of the Scripture will be different. For example, in the abortion debate, there simply is no direct warrant saying “thou shalt not commit abortion.” It simply wasn’t an issue that they debated or felt needed much explanation.[2] Instead, attempts to produce a biblical pro-life argument will use some scriptures to attempt to show that the unborn is in fact a person (data) and others to show that killing a person who has committed no crime is wrong (backing) and that since abortion is thus the killing of an unborn person, abortion itself is wrong (an indirect warrant).

Falwell, as you probably suspect, generally claims that his interpretations of Christian ethics and political goals are directly warranted by Scripture. He is a fundamentalist and hence an inerrantist. Comey points out that this does not mean that he is always a literalist. Falwell is claiming that all Scripture is inerrant, without error or contradiction; in cases of apparent contradiction, he is quite willing to claim that a particular passage is not literally true. For example, when Jesus says “if your eye offends you, pluck it out,” that is not a literal command to self-mutilation but rather a hyperbolic expression to teach the importance of avoiding sources of temptation.[3]  Furthermore, because the Bible must be without mistake or contradiction, seemingly contradictory passages must be harmonized, rather than allowed to stand in isolation or to remain distinct in tension with each other. For example, Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus did not find him but were met by an angel who said he was alive, and that they were so terrified that they ran away and told no one. Matthew says they did tell the apostles. Luke says Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. John says that Jesus appeared in person to Mary Magdalene, and that she told the apostles. Rather than accept that there are four distinct witnesses to the same event that report it differently, the fundamentalist must attempt to harmonize all the accounts into one story incorporating all (or at least most) of the elements of each. Furthermore, it cannot be left to the individual to decide what “really happened,” what one actuality lies at the basis of all four reports; the fundamentalist commentator must produce the harmonious interpretation and present it to the layperson as the authoritative understanding.[4]

Reinhold Niebuhr, by contrast, relies on indirect warrant from Scripture for his theological thinking.[5] While fundamentalists like Falwell treat the Bible as factually true, even describing it as “superscience” and insisting that the philosophy, history, science and even basic cause-and-effect reasoning have no place in Christian faith, Niebuhr argues that the Bible is in fact often factually wrong and even calls it “myth.” He argues that the Bible tells great truths, revealing the true nature of God and of ourselves, but that it “falsifies some of the details” in order to express a deeper reality. As Comey puts it, “Science and history give the facts while religion and myth tell the truth.”[6] The purpose of the myth is not to report facts, but it is not mere fiction either; it is a symbolic expression of realities that exceed the ability of the human speaker or writer to express directly, and likely exceed all human ability to verbalize.

From the Fundamentalist perspective, this sort of reasoning is hopelessly vague at best, and blasphemy at worst. If you can’t trust God’s truthfulness on things like the origin of the world, then you won’t be able to trust Him about heavenly things like salvation; therefore, you must hold onto the belief that everything in the Bible is not only “true” but also “factual.” Niebuhr argues that not only is this sort of factuality demonstrably false, it also falsifies. It risks making our historically conditioned, finite judgments about God into absolute eternal truths, rather than recognize that they are true expressions of God but only partial.

Both Falwell and Niebuhr would say that the Bible is central to all human thought about God and about our place in God’s creation. For Falwell, it is the accurate, direct statement of what God has done in history and what God has commanded humans to do. Scientific, historical and ethical thinking must first accept the inerrant revelation of truth through the Bible; any human thought is only appropriate as it is necessary for explaining and applying that core biblical data. For Niebuhr, the Bible expresses God’s nature and our own, not by revealing literal events and literal words but by expressing fundamental truths. For example, to Falwell it is essential that the Christian affirm the creation of the world in six days. For Niebuhr, the truth of the Creation story is that God is in command, God is other and beyond the world as well as involved with it, that God loves the world and us and that the world is good; and we too are originally and essentially good, although we also fall into sin and separate ourselves from God and our essential nature.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review)

August 28, 2017

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.”  Honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982.

 

After President* Donald Trump fired James Comey, several news stories appeared discussing his undergraduate senior thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and how his theological convictions might have affected his performance of his duties as Director of the FBI. My first thought, naturally, was, “Wow! A religion major found a job!” My second though was, “ I have got to read that thesis!” So much is on-line these days that my first thought was to Google it. No luck there. So I went to the public library, found the thesis title listed in a database of college theses, and requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Unless I get permission from the College of William and Mary to post it, I suggest you go to your library and request it yourself; it is a fascinating read, well-written and informative, reflecting some deep thinking from its young author.

Comey’s thesis compares two theologians who each had a powerful effect on Twentieth-Century American politics. The first, Reinhold Niebuhr, was one of America’s most influential religious thinkers from the 1930s through the 1960s, still widely read after his death in 1971. The second, Jerry Falwell, was at that time something of the new kid on the block, described by Comey as “a well-known fundamentalist television preacher” and an example of the Religious Right, which had been very influential in the 1980 presidential election. [1] Both were Protestant Christian theologians who urged Christians to become involved in politics as part of living out their faith. However, while both rejected Communism and urged the United States to oppose its spread, they had very different political agendas and very different strategies for linking their political teachings to their biblical studies. Comey’s project was to compare the two theologians, to examine each one’s approach to the Bible, politics and the task of connecting them, and to critique the strengths and weaknesses he found in each writer’s position.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 5, conclusion)

August 25, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 5

 

James seems to ask, if you are not stealing from your workers, how did you get so rich? And if you are not too much in love with your money and your luxuries, why are you so rich? But is this what he’s doing? Is this an indictment of the wealthy as a whole? Is it a call to repentance, a reminder that they need to be honest and to love God more than money? Paul reminds his readers that “not many of you were of noble birth,” not to condemn those who were but only to remind them all not to think too much of themselves (1 Cor 1:26-29). Therefore he tells his readers in Corinth that those who have should live as if they did not have, those who buy should not live as if they could hold their possessions forever, and that those who live in the world should not love it too much (1 Cor 7:29-31). When you have a lot of money, James and Paul are both saying, you are tempted to love your money and your goodies more than you love your Lord and what is good. Money indeed can change everything: your relationship to God, to your neighbor, even how you see yourself.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In the Torah, those who have and those who need are tied together in God’s covenant; the rich are called to lend to the poor and to give generously. James writes, “Faith without works is dead;” it is in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked that our faith comes alive. Without a hungry person to feed, the rich person’s faith could not come alive. And without a rich person living out his or her faith, the hungry person might not live at all. Both need each other, one to live and the other to live spiritually. Both can live in community, by the grace of God since our own human instincts are not sufficient, giving joyfully and lovingly and receiving joyfully and gratefully. We all get our turn to give and to receive, and everything we give and everything we receive comes from God, belongs to God and should serve God. Money changes everything. It changes us, it changes our relationships to others, and it changes our relationship to God. It can become a force that divides us, rich versus poor, proud versus humble, self-righteous versus repentant. Or, it can become a means of building up the body of Christ, as each person does what he or she can to build up God’s Kingdom using whatever resources God has given. Do what God commands you this day, that there should be no poor among you.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)