Monday, February 27, 2012

The Illiberal Case for Redefining Marriage

I saved this from what is now eight years ago (or so), because I was intrigued by it, and because I knew Don Browning's work. It's an interesting, if sloppy, argument.

Take justice. Some legal theorists wonder if giving marriage benefits to same-sex couples does injustice to other human arrangements where people care for one another brother caring for ailing brother, a younger daughter caring for her aging mother, two older women pooling resources without having sex. Why privilege partners in sexual relationships and not those actually dependent on one another? Rather than extending marriage to cover all dependent relations, shouldn't we find other ways to support people who need help?
Try as I might, I can't see where that argument has a discernible link to a defined concept of justice. What it is primarily concerned with is the idea that homosexuals are having sex, and they only reason they want to be married is so they will have sex with each other, because homosexual relationships, according to this paragraph, are only sexual relationships.

Then there's this:

Others ask whether same-sex marriage may be unjust to children. Doesn't it raise to the level of normative social policy the idea that children don't need the parents who gave them life? Others observe that we do not know the effects on children of being raised by same-sex parents. Recent reviews by Steven Nock and Robert Lerner of existing social-science studies of gay parenting demonstrate that all are inadequate with regard to testable hypotheses, sample, controls, and hence conclusions. In short, we have no knowledge about these effects even though recent court opinions assume we do. This raises the question, is it rational to develop social policies without better knowledge?
Two problems here, one glaringly obvious: if children "need the parents who gave them life," what of adoption? And second: should social policy arise from the people? Or should the people be guided by social policy? One vision exemplifies Jeffersonian democracy; the other sounds more like Brave New World.

And this is classic closing the barn door after the horse is out reasoning:

Same-sex marriage does not simply extend an old institution to a new group of people. It changes the definition of marriage. It reduces marriage primarily to a committed affectionate sexual relation. It goes further. It gives this new and more narrow view of marriage all of the cultural, legal, and public supports that accrued to the institution when it functioned to hold together this complex set of goods.
One could as well argue that Loving v. Virginia changed "the definition of marriage," as, in fact, it did. But what intrigues me is the idea that same-sex marriage "reduced marriage to a committed affectionate sexual relation." Not because I think it does; but because I think we've already done that.

The idea that human beings are primarily sexual beings can be traced back to Vienna in a period just prior to Freud. Freud did not sui generis decide the sex drive was the prime motivator of human conduct, he adopted the view from others in what is now called the "Viennese school." But the idea is now rampant, and now rampantly accepted in Western culture, that human beings are primarily sex machines: that all our motivations and ambitions and purpose are centered on sex; and if not on procreation, then merely on satisfaction. If Christianity has turned more and more toward sex as the enemy of the spirit, this is a part of that turn (and may well be the whole of it. Even the Puritans weren't as fascinated with sex as we imagine them to be. Hawthorne's novel is revisionist history, not documentary; and he writes in the century that ended with the rise of the Viennese school. Something new never comes out of nothing preceding it.). As Kathleen Norris points out, the Desert Fathers weren't concerned with sexual desire as a root evil. They were more concerned with spiritual sins, with matters that took the soul away from the presence of God.

If we accept that humans are primarily sexual creatures, then we accept that marriage is primarily about sex. That was certainly the message in response to the "sexual revolution:" that sex was to be "saved" for marriage, and so marriage was primarily about sex. In the movie "Diner," the married Shrevie is asked by his friends about the sex, because they imagine that's what marriage is all about:

when you're dating, everything is talking about sex. Where can we do it? Why can't we do it? Are you parents gonna be out so we can do it? Everything is always talkin about getting sex, and then planning the wedding, all the details. But then, when you get married... it's crazy, i dunno. You can get it whenever you want it. You wake up in the morning and she's there. You come home from work and she's there. So all that sex planning talk is over with. And so is the wedding planning talk cause you're already married. So... ya know I can come down here and we can bullshit the entire night away but I cannot hold a 5 minute conversation with Beth. I mean it's not her fault, I'm not blaming her, she's great... It's just, we got nothing to talk about... But it's good, it's good
And it turns out, of course, marriage is not about sex; it's about a great deal more than sex. But when you decide people are sexual beings first and foremost, and then decide they must also curtail that sexual drive until it can be employed in "accomplishing a complex alignment between sexual activity, procreation, mutual help and affection, and parental care and accountability," then marriage is already all about sexual relationships.

Except, as Shrevie found out; it isn't. And it never has been.

Of course, the Wife of Bath might disagree; she happily uses sex as a means to control her husbands. That is, when she isn't using her intellect against them, or her sheer willingness to be as physically aggressive as they are. Indeed, it's hard to read Chaucer as a proponent of the kind of social policy Browning is arguing for here. In "The Miller's Tale" Alisoun (also the Wife of Bath's name!) enjoys a win-win, as she sleeps with the young scholar and never gets punished for it, an idea Kate Chopin resurrected a few centuries later, but found she couldn't publish in her lifetime. And, of course, the Wife of Bath's tale is about a woman who uses her appearance to teach a knight a lesson in humility and proper marital relations. So marriage has never always been about "accomplishing a complex alignment between sexual activity, procreation, mutual help and affection, and parental care and accountability."

But is marriage just about sex? Advocates of same-sex marriage emphasize the other aspects of marriage, since marriage and sex are almost completely divorced from each other now (that is, fewer and fewer people think we cannot have the latter outside of the former). If anything, the topic of same-sex marriage allows us to reconsider the purpose of marriage, and to think about how much we've reduced it to legitimizing sexual relationships, and left it at little more than that and "parental care and accountability." We don't need to fear the dilution of "marriage" by allowing same-sex couples to claim the word for their relationships. We need to fear how much we've already diluted marriage as an institution and a concept, and we need to consider what we really want it to be, and how to make it into that. Because the more we cling to "how it was," the less we are going to see "what it is." And while it may be comforting to think some institution can control the concept and keep it a sacrament (on one end) or establish a social policy that defines it (on the other end), the fact is marriage as it is practiced and as people regard it, isn't conforming to any one, limited, institutional definition.

And the sooner we see marriage for what it is, the sooner we can begin to redefine marriage into what we clearly want it to be.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Open the doors....

Not that TPM has a smaller readership than this place (any smaller and I wouldn't even read it!), but this is interesting. To paraphrase: at least 3 studies cited by TPM indicate that having a four year degree increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood one will attend a church. As the 2011 study puts it:

“education positively affects religious participation, devotional activities, and emphasizing the importance of religion in daily life.”
Which, of course, is not supposed to be true. One can pile up all kinds of statistics about declining membership in mainline denominations, and establish all kinds of stereotypes about "know nothing" believers, especially in fundamentalists and evangelical Christian churches. These numbers don't refute those, nor indicate where the college educated are most likely to worship. "Religion" and "religiosity," of course, includes Hindus and Muslims as well as Christians and Jews. The popular image of Christians as bible-thumpers who think Jesus spoke the English of King James is as misplaced as the idea that "Inherit the Wind" is about fundamentalism; but it's also about as ineradicable. At the turn of the 20th century there was a burgeoning mail-order business in the "teach yourself Greek" business, as Christians sought to read the New Testament in the original texts. It may be that, again, we are seeing people turn to religion not because they are ignorant, but because they are wise. It may be there was a reason why Kathleen Norris' books were best-sellers, and why even Dom Crossan could become an almost household word.

We've spent a great deal of effort in America since the GI Bill fostering college degrees and the acquisition of knowledge. It could well be that acquiring knowledge leads one to desire to acquire wisdom, too. Not everyone, certainly; and these statistics may not indicate a "wave" at all. They may indicate something deeper, more profound, and more permanent.

As well as much more hopeful.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Opposite of Poverty is Justice (Ash Wednesday 2012)

Isaiah 58:1-12
58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

58:9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Psalm 51:1-17
1:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

1:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

1:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

1:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

1:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

1:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

1:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

1:8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

1:9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

1:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

1:11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

1:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

1:13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

1:14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

1:15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

1:16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

1:17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
5:20b We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.

6:2 For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

6:3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,

6:4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,

6:5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;

6:6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,

6:7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;

6:8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;

6:9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;

6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
6:1 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

6:2 "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

6:4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:5 "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:16 "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,

6:18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

6:19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;

6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

If you follow these readings in careful order, they make a perfect liturgy. The call from Isaiah; the prayer of confession and repentance from the Psalms; the prayer of the people from 2 Corinthians; the lesson from the Gospels that sends that the rest prepares us to hear, and that sends us out into the world where we should go and do likewise.

I like to think about who the prophet is talking to in the books of the prophets. They are often more conversations than directives, less monologues than discussions with God and/or the people of Israel, or sometimes with the prophets themselves. "Shout out," Isaiah says, and I ask myself every time: is this the prophet, speaking to the people? Or is it the voice of God directing the prophet to act? In the distinction there is everything. The prophet speaks to the people. The prophet speaks for God. If that chain doesn't start with God, then the prophet is not a prophet, and the words are meaningless. If God speaks to the prophet, perhaps those words are recorded. And those words are not rebuke and denial; they are justice. The word of God through the prophets is for justice:

"Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
There is the call to worship! And it is not a call to worship, but to act! It is not a call for reverence, but for action! It is not a demand for obedience, but a statement of truth and existence! This is a call to smash presumptions and break barriers and eliminate idols and destroy destruction. This is not a call to judge who is a Christian and who is not. This is not a call to wear a smudge on your forehead to show you believe. This is a call to let your light shine forth, and O! what a dangerous call that is!

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What is the fast of Lent if it is all for you? Why not fast by sharing, instead of fast by denying? There's too much denial in the world already! We're mad for it! We deny ourselves and think we win God's praise! We deny our relationship to others, and think ourselves wise! We deny our responsibility to others, and think ourselves prudent! We deny there is enough for all, and think ourselves far-seeing! We are mad for denial, especially if our denial keeps others from what we think is ours! Is this the fast of Lent, to deny ourselves and keep what we have from this in need? Is this the purpose of Lent, to affirm our houses are our own and hospitality is shown only to our friends, never to strangers? Is this what our Ash Wednesday begins?

1:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

1:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

1:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

1:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

1:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
Yes, you may feel a bit guilty now, but is that what God wants either? Contrition and confession are not acts of self-abnegation. They are acts of self-recognition; they are acts of humility. What is hospitality except humility, except physically giving to another that over which you have control because you realize it is not yours alone, not your possession, but your opportunity to share with those who have nothing? What is a fast when it means giving your food to someone who is hungry because they have no food? If your sin is ever before you, if you recognize you have not been humble and hospitable and your fast has been for you and not a result of helping others, if you see that your hospitality is only for your friends and your convenience, is that a cause for ashes and sackcloth and despair? Is it to despair to hear the truth that you are dust, and to dust you will return? Or is it liberation, to live in the truth and rejoice in reality and to see what you have available to do for others? Shouldn't your confession begin with the truth of what you need to do and have not done, and move on to a confession of what you believe by putting it into action because then you will be the restorer of the breach, then a clean heart will be created within you, then you will be delivered from bloodshed and a new and right spirit with be within you! Then you will "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!"

Let us not give Paul's words short shrift here, for Isaiah's words come from God, and the Psalmist's plea comes from a broken and contrite heart, but Paul's words are all about "we." We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. We urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--We are alive! This is not a day of mourning, a day of marking death as the end, of making death a sacrament or a salvation or a judgment against us! We are alive! But only because, through great endurance, placing no obstacle in anyone's way, keeping the fast by sharing, opening our doors to the homeless, confessing our fears and our weaknesses together so they become strengths, preparing ourselves for this time of cleansing and cleaning and setting straight that ushers in Easter; we will find that we possess everything. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

We can't escape it. It is the way we are made. Our heart is where our treasure is. Where else would it be, what else would be so valuable to us we would call it "treasure"? When my daughter was a child she collected bits and pieces, rocks and pebbles, and called them "treasures," and to this good day we have them, her parents, we have them, because she is where our hearts are, and her treasures are part of our treasure. How could it be otherwise? But that isn't all Jesus means! Oh, not at all. He means we should be humble and private in our praying and in our seeking God, and through our lives the salvation of God should pour forth. Through our living and our being in the world we should be repairers of the breach, not because someone somewhere says we've said the right things, conformed to the right doctrines, used the right words about God and Christ and ourselves. Who cares about that? No, we should be repairers of the breach because we seek the treasure and we keep the treasure that is of true value, and that treasure makes us want to fast by sharing our food, makes us want to be humble by showing true hospitality, makes us want to repair the breach because that is where our hearts are!

You have heard; you have seen; perhaps today you even bear the ashes on your head; perhaps you didn't, or you wiped them off at the church door. It doesn't matter! What matters is what you do, and if you remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return, then you'll realize that we are all dust! And we are all deserving, we are all going down, in the end, to the same place, and it's high time we started sharing the joy of the experience rather than fearing we won't have enough accumulated for ourselves at the end! Where is your treasure? Where rust corrodes and thief steals and moth devours? Get rid of it! Your treasure is in the homeless person you can help, in the hungry person you can feed, in the naked person you can clothe! Your treasure is all around you; now put your heart there, and open the eyes of your spirit, and see it!


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's Only Words

So today BBC World Have Your Say was discussing the infamous "Chink in the Armor" headline at The discussion, of course, centered on the word "Chink," which some insisted was as racist as "nigger" or "spic", and could not be used in polite company, and others insisted was harmless enough, or at least not blatantly racist without further evidence of intent.

And then Dahlia Lithwick was on "Talk of the Nation" defending her position that the Texas and soon-to-be Virginia laws (we're ahead again!) requiring a vaginal probe sonogram before an abortion can be performed, is akin to rape because it involves a non-consensual penetration of the genitals, which Ms. Lithwick pointed out is pretty much the definition of "rape" used by the FBI and most state statutes. This prompted three calls (TTN never leaves enough for calls, IMHO), only one of which was from someone who was professionally involved with both sonograms or abortions, and who was also from Texas and could state she knew of one case where this new requirement caused a woman to decline to seek an abortion, rather than submit to the sonogram.

Both were interesting because both revolved around words and how we use them.

Try as I might, I can't think of a word that has a dual meaning, one of which is innocuous, the other racist, equivalent to "chink." One person on WHYS, who objected to the ESPN headline, admitted the problem was not the word, but the juxtaposition of the word with a picture of an Asian-American basketball player. It was the picture, in other words, in combination with the word in the phrase, which offended. All well and good, but interesting that a word can have two very different meanings. I cannot write "nigger" without offending someone, I'm sure; and that's fine, too. But "chink"? If I use it in a sentence referring to a breach in armor or a wall, is it racist? Even Conrad's story with the "N" word in the title is dubious; but "Chink in the armor"? Do I immediately call to mind Asians and racial slurs? Should I, whether I mean to or not?

As for the "rape" issue, I quite agree with Ms. Lithwick, and I quite approve of her incendiary language (two callers did not, one more vehemently than the other). It's an incendiary topic, and the sole purpose of the law is clear: to dissuade women from having a legal procedure. I don't know how many medical procedures men are subject to in which the state requires they abandon their consent at the door just to proceed to the procedure. And consent is, legally, entirely the issue in a rape charge. After the facts of the physical assault are determined, and it is clear penetration of the genitals (or the anus) is involved, with a body part or an object, the only question left is the question of consent. The popular use of the word as a crime almost always involves the "stranger in the bushes" type of rape, but what then of "date rape," where the victim knows, at least to some degree, her attacker? Matters get very fuzzy there, but the fuzziness turns, not on the penetration, but on the question of consent. No consent, and it is rape.

It is also a word we use metaphorically, however. It is a word, like "chink," with dual meanings. A priest at Issa's famous panel of "religious liberty" likened the requirement that all employers provide contraceptive coverage to the "rape of the soul." In the '70's I enjoyed carting around a book title (if memory serves) The Raping of America. In both cases, the actual crime of rape is not intended, only the sense of violation. It was that sense the two callers (all three were women, interestingly enough) to TTN objected to. They didn't want any kind of medical procedure compared to a violent crime, to something that so represents a violation of the person. That's understandable, but the problem was not Ms. Lithwick's choice of terms, so much as the fact that the term has two rather distinct meanings. Ms. Lithwick's use of it is metaphorical and legal, at the same time: she means to catch our attention, and to point out that this provision conflicts with well-accepted criminal law. It is, in other words, a doubly strong argument; but it points out how emotionally attached we are to concepts like rape. And if we are so attached, perhaps, rather like "chink," it's a word we should use less lightly.

Such as the word "Christian," which has not become a political litmus test for Presidential candidates. In part, this is connected to Islam, and the idea that President Obama is a closet Muslim.

On Obama, [Franklin] Graham said: "You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody... You have to ask every person. He has said he’s a Christian, so I just have to assume that he is." When asked directly if he believed Obama had "accepted Jesus Christ," Graham replied, "I don't know."

While not specifying whether he believed Obama is a Christian, Graham did manage to mention the president's Muslim father, and argue that Obama has given Muslims "a free pass" during his time in the oval office: "Under President Obama…the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned, than Christians who are being murdered in Muslims countries."
Now, is this because Obama attended the wrong kind of church for 20 years? Rick Santorum noted that factoid the other day. What he hasn't mentioned lately is his attitude about "liberal theologies":

After he’d accused Obama and other Democrats of religious fraudulance [sic] for a few minutes, journalist Terry Mattingly of asked whether it’s possible that rather than being fake, perhaps, Obama was sincerely reflecting a form of liberal Christianity in the tradition of Reinhold Neibuhr. Santorum surprised me by answering that yes, “I could buy that.” However, he questioned whether liberal christianity was really, well, Christian. “You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian.” He continued, “When you take a salvation story and turn it into a liberation story you’ve abandoned Christiandom and I don’t think you have a right to claim it.”

In other words, Obama’s faith is fraudulant [sic] in part because liberal Christianity is. I’ve come across this sentiment before. To a degree rarely discussed, many conservative Christians truly doubt both the theological truth and the spiritual authenticity of liberal Christians.
I've faced this all my life, both from conservative believers and from non-believers (going in different directions, of course). What's wearying is the idea that a word can only have one meaning. As the reaction to Ms. Lithwick's argument illustrates, words have emotional resonances. So perhaps we should give more consideration to what we are really saying.

But that applies to everyone.

ADDENDUM: Late last night I caught Lawrence O'Donnell, explaining why nobody should pay attention to Franklin Graham. "Fraudulant." It's everywhere.

Pancake Day!

Apparently this is a major observance in England. Or not. Someone can post a comment and correct me. My information is all from the Google this morning, and none of it seems particularly authoritative. Still, memories of my childhood spent among the Presbyterians, where "Lent" was barely known and Ash Wednesday non-existent, are of a "Pancake Supper" on the Tuesday before Lent started. So I know the custom is an old one, if only because we were still doing what our spiritual ancestors had done before us, long after we'd forgotten why. (I think we even called it "Shrove Tuesday," though we really didn't know why at all.)

Still, dangerously ecumenical as it may sound, in the words of the old E&R order of worship, "Let it be unto you according to your faith." And this year, try some spices in your pancakes (I particularly recommend cinnamon and/or nutmeg) for, as one website observed, "a little decadence." Lent is coming, after all....

Monday, February 20, 2012

You say you want a revolution.....

I don't know which is worse: that this is happening:

At this precise moment the BBC News channel is showing an interview with a little girl. She is homeless and her mother is eating rats to stay alive. Before this interview they went down into the storm drains of Los Angeles where three to four hundred people live and where every time it rains they are flooded out.
Or that I learn about it, not from American news media (I'm as plugged in as any average person can be to American news sources), but from the BBC via a (sorry, MP) relatively obscure website.

MP thinks this will lead, finally, to an American revolution. I politely demur. Matters were far worse in the 1920's and '30's, and America was far closer to revolutionary fervor; and it didn't happen. When England went through this, when the laboring classes realized they were being exploited by the upper class (a recent British documentary on the great houses of England which was broadcast here on PBS pointed out the wages of servants in the grand homes was a few pounds a year. Basically, they were paid room and board, and given uniforms, which is how they could afford servants.), they formed labor unions. We did the same thing in America; but then we got bored, or complacent, or stupid, and here we are.

I think Orwell was more accurate in his analysis of the "proles" in 1984. It's been more than half a lifetime ago since I read that book, but I still remember the gist of the argument about the proles, the majority of people living in squalor and exploited ruthlessly, and how they wouldn't rise up against the system that abused them so, largely because it just wouldn't occur to them to do so, to organize and act as one. Thomas Hardy put paid to the idea that life in rural England was idyllic and pastoral, and yet that life ended, not in social revolution, but because of the Industrial Revolution, which brought its own forms of exploitation.

In Libya, now, competing factions battle for power; in Egypt, the military are determined to suppress all disagreement, to the point of arresting foreign citizens who are seen as threats in the mildest sense possible. That's not a revolution that's favoring the poor, either. No revolution does, except a revolution of the heart.

Which is something I believe in, but only in the sense that if you don't love, you're dead, and if you do, they'll kill you.

Oh Good Grief

This offends me:

All this ecumenical just call it faith and we can all get along stuff has always just covered up for the fact that, shockingly, people who have strong beliefs in stuff have strong beliefs in that stuff and think other people are wrong and probably going to hell for it.
Just as much as this does.

It astounds me that people who profess unending criticism for the distortions of the media, rely on that same media for distorted information which they accept as accurate. "People who have strong beliefs in stuff...think other people are wrong and probably going to hell for it" is as stupid a generalization as saying all bloggers are less than journalists because they have no journalistic ethics.

Does Rick Santorum have "strong beliefs"? Yes. Is he mindless in them? Again, yes. Does this mean all persons with "strong beliefs" are also mindless, and only those with "weak beliefs" or who profess no beliefs at all, are wise and good and tolerant?

Crap. The question answers itself.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rick Santorum, Fundamentalist Protestant

This line is all the rage on the blogosphere today:

"It's not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs," Santorum said. "It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology."*
Ironically, this is the argument Protestants have used against Roman Catholics almost since the Reformation. It was certainly the reason Puritans in Massachusetts banned any observance of Christmas when they ran the colony. Most fundamentalist and evangelical Christians today are the spiritual ancestors of those Puritans, in attitude if not in theology (there are important theological differences between the Puritans and present day fundamentalists and evangelicals, but that's another post). So Rick Santorum is using the argument directed against his very faith, as an argument against the Protestant President Obama.

Then there was this, from a few years ago:

"We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic. But the Judeo-Christian ethic -- sure the Catholics had some influence -- but this was a Protestant country," said Santorum. "And the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is a shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it."
Which is: A) hardly in line with the ecumenical spirit abroad in most of "mainline" Christianity in America, and: B) an indefensible assault on the base of the GOP, insofar as that base is fundamentalists and evangelical Christians, whose theology cannot be reconciled with the teachings and traditions and practices of the Roman Catholic church.

I do so love it when politicians try to talk about theology.

*Does he really want to go there?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

I keep being drawn back to this subject like a moth to a candle flame. But this article by Gary Wills pointed out to me, again, that no church is a monolith, despite what the "leaders" of the church might think.

Wills' argument can certainly be argued, but the simple fact is: there is always a gap between the "official" stance of any organization, and the actions of its constituent members. The United Church of Christ officially supports the use of "inclusive language" in worship, and yet my use of "The Prayer of Our Savior" in substitution of the more traditional (but no less non-scriptural) "Lord's Prayer" prompted at least one church member to denounce me and the title as "Roman Catholic" (fear and loathing of "Papists" among Protestants did not die out in the 19th century, despite the ecumenical efforts of the 20th century). I found out use of the liturgical services in the UCC Book of Worship could equally prompt anti-Papist invective from church members. In a different matter, I had two church members, waiting for the execution of their son's killer on Death Row, stop coming to church the day I used a UCC pre-printed bulletin which included information on the official church stance against the death penalty. They were shocked, appalled, and aggrieved.

The UCC, of course, is a Protestant's protestant church. We do not stand in the tradition of Calvin (to the extent that he ran Geneva as a theocracy) or of Luther (who was the first to practice "Catholicism Lite"). Each congregation is autonomous, and the basic unit of the church is the individual. It is not, in other words, the Roman Catholic church in structure or tradition. But still, as Mr. Wills points out, "Catholics [are] too sensible to go crazy every time a pope does."And that's a sentiment from 1846, not from Vatican II.

Is contraception banned by Roman Catholic teaching? Yes. Is that teaching valid? Well, depends on whether you accept the authority of the Church without question, or whether you examine the reasoning, using the skills highly praised (and exemplified) by such luminaries as Augustine, Aquinas, and Loyola. It was George Lemaitre in 1927, a Roman Catholic priest, who presented the first valid formulation of the "Big Bang" theory of cosmology. Seventy-three years later the Church officially apologized for its position on Galileo's work. The official position may be one thing, but the position in practice is clearly quite another.

Today the U.S. Conference of Bishops insists it must make common cause with such groups as the Southern Baptist Convention on the matter of insurance coverage of medical care it deems to be against church doctrine (a conclusion which doesn't seem to jibe with church teachings after all. Whose teachings are to be followed, again?). Oddly enough, many church institutions, including hospitals and major universities, do not share the views of the Bishops in this matter. The conclusion, then, rests on reasoning, not on blind obedience to ecclesiastical authority. Mr. Wills' brief article is a fascinating rejoinder to the idea that, as one caller on a call-in show this morning put it, the Catholic church has been against contraception for 2000 years. Or even that the ban is solidly grounded in church teachings and traditions.

Don't, of course, expect this argument to get made in the public discussion. There, the Bishops hold sway out of all proportion to their impact in the rest of the country, and Catholics are all a monolithic group with absolute loyalty to Rome, and they will vote accordingly. Or, at least, they will make common cause with Baptists and other conservative Protestants to keep this issue alive in American politics until November.

That's the assumption, anyway. Personally, I seriously doubt we'll be talking about it a month from now.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

At the risk of sounding Pecksniffian....

I'm going to spend my morning more productively than usual.

I'm going to try to figure out why sexual intercourse is the most desired practice of males in America (I'm limiting my sample to what I know), yet all metaphorical references to sexual intercourse involve failure, disaster, complete loss, absolute powerlessness, loss of autonomy, loss of control.

Cognitive dissonance doesn't begin to explain this......

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dragging myself back in....

I really thought this was over, until Jon Stewart convinced me otherwise. So, maybe not:

In fact, birth control use is nearly universal in the United States, even among Catholic women. One recent study shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced Catholic women will have used birth control at some point in their lives. Nearly 60 percent of women use birth control pills for something other than, or in addition to, contraception. For example for women at risk for ovarian cancer, taking birth control pills for five years reduces their risk of getting cancer by 50%. Should women have to explain to employers they need coverage for serious illnesses, not birth control, in order to obtain the medicine their doctor prescribe.
I take an aspirin a day, because of my family history of heart disease. Fortunately aspirin is not a prescription drug, so I don't have a problem with my health insurance on it. I do take two drugs that are prescription, for minor chronic conditions. I don't know why any employer would care why I take them, or that I take them.

I said below that this was an issue of power, not of ethics. Even to call it an issue of morality, is to call it an issue of power. All moral concerns always come down to the either/or that Kierkegaard associated with the ethical sphere of existence. That is, in the ethical sphere, choices must be made: you can no longer choose only for yourself and choose from among a range of opportunities (the aesthetic sphere, a life devoted to personal satisfactions); you must choose what is right: you must make the either/or. And that is a question of power: if you accept my ethical system, you must follow it as I see fit, especially if I have authority over you (priest; bishop, employer). If you do not accept it, perhaps I don't hire you.

Maybe Southern Baptist employers should complain that they can't fire employees in a community with liquor stores. Consuming liquor is, after all, a sin; and paying people is enabling them to sin, so....

So the either/or means you must make a choice, and you must choose wisely, as your choice reflects on me. It also means you must do with your choices what I wish you to do. Otherwise you have violated the either/or, and you remain in the aesthetic sphere; but there's no going back, once you accept the ethical sphere, you must accept it to the end. So who gets to decide what you can do, and what you cannot do, and on what basis is the decision made?

Is it acceptable for birth control pills to be covered by insurance, if I the employer don't have to pay for that? Why? Is it any different than if my employee uses my money that she earned, to buy the pills? Ah, but then it is no longer my money? Why? If I can refuse to pay for insurance for my employee, can't I refuse to pay my employee if she spends the money on things I disapprove of? Why not? When does my culpability end? And is insurance any less earned than wages? What employer pays an employee who never works? What employer provides insurance to an employee who never works? If the insurance policy belongs to the employer, why doesn't the money?

But we don't control our employees like that, you say. No, but the argument here is that we should. Or at least, that the state should allow us to if we wished it.

But when Notre Dame is the single largest employer in South Bend, Indiana, with Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center not far behind, how could we say, “Sorry, you should move if you want to have affordable access to these health services.” It is discordant with my Catholic and my American values that a receptionist at the local hospital making around $26,000 a year should have to shell out nearly $600 for birth control or cede control to her employer over when to start a family, when she is already paying in to her health care plan. The new agreement would take this difficult question off the table by allowing the women and men working at these religious affiliated organizations to receive the equal and affordable access through their insurers directly without engaging their employers.
If the people of South Bend, Indiana don't like it, they don't have to work for Notre Dame or St. Joseph Medical. That's fair, right? Just like it's fair if they don't want to work for the Southern Baptist who fires people found to be shopping in a liquor store. According to Mark Rienzi (the lawyer for two plaintiffs suing to have this rule overturned), the people of South Bend, Indiana should just suck on it:

Lastly, the suggestion that these schools or institutions are imposing their views or coercing people just makes no sense. There's no law that requires you to go work for a religious institution. There's no law that requires you to go to a Catholic school. If you go to a school run by monks and the monks sign your paycheck or the monks provide your education, you're probably not all that surprised that the monks have certain religious principles they want to run their school by.
In other words, screw the Civil Rights Act, you want a job with an employer, you live by that employer's dictates.

Right? And how far is that argument from saying you don't have to sleep in that motel, or dine in that restaurant? Is this really any different from the argument Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the US Conference of Bishops?

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this."

"If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate," Picarello said.
I can't see any daylight between them. If I declare racism a matter of conscience, do I win?

And I don't, let us note, want to control the employees because they are part of my group, because they have agreed to the terms of membership of my order. I want to control them because the issue involves my money, and my money carries my agency with it. If I render it to Caesar, is it still mine? Do I give myself to Caesar in my coins? Then what do I give to God? Does my money given to God also display my power? What lesson, then, is there in the widow's mite?

The ethical consideration is for the individual. The Desert Fathers understood that. They went to the desert to avoid the entanglements of who was good and who was better, because they realized it was a false hierarchy. Jesus taught his disciples that the first among them would be last, and the last first, and the least among them were the greatest. It is an order that absolutely denies power, that absolutely rests on the devolution of power and the rejection of judgment. It is a situation where you are united only in your servanthood, not in your ability to wield authority against the rulers:

MS. NOONAN: That's what the church thinks. Can I just note, by the way...


MS. NOONAN: Catholics it was so great for three weeks that we all got along. We were all in agreement.


MS. NOONAN: I mean, this is a church that...

MR. GREGORY: Yeah, exactly.

MR. DIONNE: President Obama united Catholics.

If the world is too much with you in the hospital or the university, perhaps its time for those places to close. A hospital run by a group which objects to blood transfusions wouldn't be much of a hospital. An employer who insisted no one who worked for them should be able to use employer-provided insurance to get blood transfusions would not win much support inside the Beltway. The objection might be that such a belief is too errant and outside the mainstream to be supported by the government at large, even tacitly. The real argument would be: who cares that the Seventh Day Adventists think? What power do they have?

Agency is always a question of power. What is the power of my money in the world? What are the power of my beliefs? What is the strength of my faith? And how much control do those things give me, over you? I have power over the beggar on the street. I can relieve his suffering, or prolong it, or increase his invisibility. But if I give him money, will he buy liquor with it? Is that my concern? What if my money buys a hamburger, and the next handout buys the liquor? Am I still culpable? When do I let go of what is mine, and let it become yours?

After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)
What little the widow had, was hers. When she shared it with Elijah, when she let go of it and let it become his as well, three people survived a terrible drought. But that's just a story, it's not a guideline for how to live:

“Come for water, all who are thirsty;
Though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy wine and milk,
Not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
Your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
You will enjoy the fat of the land.
Come to me and listen to my words,
Hear me and you will have life:
I shall make an everlasting covenant with you
To love you faithfully as I have loved David.
I appointed him a witness to peoples,
And you in turn will summon nations you do not know,
And nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
Because the Lord your God, Israel’s Holy One, has made you glorious.—Isaiah 55:1-5 (REB)
And that, of course, is simply crazy. How can you maintain order if you give everything important away?

Funny thing about Kierkegaard and that "either/or." Kierkegaard scholars once thought he meant to subdivide human existence into three discernible and distinctive spheres: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. He meant no such thing, however. That is the work of the pseudonyms, the works meant to undermine Hegelianism by mocking it. The "either/or" is not a condition of existence, it is an imposition on the individual by society; it is a method of control. It is a bind we put ourselves in, in order to both deny and to avoid our self-fulfillment, to prevent ourselves from fully becoming ourselves. It is, in Othello's phrase, as false as water. For Kierkegaard, self-actualization (as we call it know) was possible only in full devotion to the rigorous life of discipleship to Christ. It could not come from society, it could only come from God, the Creator, the source of life. Either/or is not a step along the way to that Platonic fulfillment, it is a step away from it. Either/or might, in fact, please Plato or Socrates; but for Kierkegaard it was a false trail, if only because the either/or is all about morality, and morality is not about God, but about playing God for others. It is, yes, a radically Protestant point of view. But then, Kierkegaard was almost more Lutheran than Luther. And yet, there is an eternal golden braid that connects Kierkegaard to Luther to one of the great Fathers of Catholicism, St. Augustine.

There is always a way to stitch these things together that brings light instead of heat, or just a spark that leaves behind a little more darkness.

ADDENDUM: although some of the people concerned about this topic seem to be a little unhinged.

Friday, February 10, 2012

It's money that matters....

The issue often arises in the argument about what institutions should provide what kind of health insurance, that money is fungible, and that money is an expression of morality. That is, what money is not spent on one effort, can still make money available to spend on objectionable efforts (this is the common argument raised against any funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides both healthcare, such as mammogram screenings, and abortions). Money, too, we are told, bears moral agency, because money we spend on something we object to, means we are forced to support something objectionable to our moral imperatives.

But what is the moral agency of money? How directly must it be connected to me in order to have any agency at all? In other words, when does your money stop being your money?

We think it obvious: money stops being your money when it leaves your hands. So if I buy a product from a company that engages in, say, sweatshop practices, I haven't supported those practices because I didn't directly pay the manager of that sweatshop. I paid a company that profits from cheap labor. Oh, no, that's no good. I've directly supported a sweatshop. That's morally objectionable.

What if I invest in a money market fund that buys stock in a company that owns a subsidiary that employs sweatshop labor to make clothing, and the clothing line is profitable because of that sweatshop? Am I still supporting the sweatshop? What if I buy an Apple computer? Am I supporting the working conditions in China? And if I buy a used Apple computer, rather than a new one? Is the connection now tenuous enough that I am free of responsibility?

How direct does the connection have to be?

If I employ people, and I believe drinking is a sin, may I fire my employees who use the money I pay them to buy alcohol? Why not? My money is going directly to support a practice I find morally and religiously objectionable. I may even find it an abomination. As the owner of a Taco Bell, say, am I not being required under federal law to not discriminate on such a basis, even if I think I have a moral right to do so? If I employ people in a community where they can buy alcohol, even if they have to drive to another county to buy the alcohol, am I not supporting the sales of alcohol, something I consider an abomination and a violation of my religious beliefs? Why can't I fire my employees who engage in this legal practice? Or what if one of my employees supports a child who is living with a person of the opposite sex without being married? What if one of my employees is married to a person of another race? Can I fire them because of that marriage, if I consider mixed race marriages an abomination?

Why not? They are using my money to engage in practices I find morally objectionable. But are they using my money? Isn't it theirs, the moment it is earned?

Why does an employer provide health insurance? As a benefit of employment? Is it, then, the employer's, even if it is provided for the employee? Even if the employee has to pay some of the cost of the insurance? Is such insurance any different from money? If I provide health insurance, can I limit how my employee uses that insurance? Can I insist they patronize only hospitals I support, say, a Catholic hospital rather than a Jewish, Methodist, or UCC one? What if I disagree with the moral stance of the UCC or the Methodist church? Can I insist my employees use their health insurance only at hospitals I find morally acceptable, based on the religious group that supports them? Again, why not? I am paying for the health insurance; why can't I direct how it is used?

Indeed, if money is fungible, does my support of a health insurance company make it easier for them to provide coverage for abortions and contraception, even if I insist on paying for a policy that doesn't provide such coverage? Am I not supporting those abominable practices by putting my money into a company that does provide coverage of those practices for other policy holders?

The limitations on my reach as this hypothetical employer seem obvious. But why? What's the basis for these limitations? The "fungible goods" argument seems absurd in most of its applications, but why? When does money lose its agency? When do I stop being responsible for how it is spent?

I've known people to give homeless people crackers, or a gift certificate for a hamburger, on the theory that money would just be spent on alcohol. Perhaps it would be. But the logical extension of the "fungible goods" argument is that even the gift certificate just allows them to spend the next dollars they accumulate on alcohol. Am I responsible for that, because my gift certificate fed them and kept them alive long enough to buy beer? Clearly not; but why not?

Am I responsible for how my employees spend their wages? Once upon a time, employers were so paternalistic. They still can be, with clergy. But most other employees enjoy a wide latitude in how they spend their money, because society at large considers it "their" money. It is the earnings of their labor, they are entitled to use it as they see fit. Are they not also entitled to use their health insurance as they see fit? Have they not also earned that benefit as a result of their labor? Or is health insurance a beneficent grant from a paternalistic employer, like a bonus or a gift? Does it come with strings attached, such as how it can be used? Can employers fire employees who use their health benefits in ways the employer doesn't like, even finds abominable, even if that use is otherwise legal? Why?

When does money lose its agency?

Addendum: after I wrote this, a compromise was announced:

Senior administration officials announced early this morning that President Obama will announce a new “accommodation” for religious liberties in the rule requiring all employers to offer contraception coverage without additional cost sharing. Under the new policy, “all women will still have access to free preventive care, including contraception,” no matter where they work.” However, if a nonprofit religiously affiliated organization objects to offering birth control, the insurance company will be required to provide the coverage free of charge and the employer will not pay for it. Sister Carol Keehan, President of the US Catholic Health Association, and Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards support the compromise, the administration officials said.

Significantly, unlike the Hawaii model, religiously affiliated organizations will not have to refer employees to contraception coverage. Instead, the same insurer that provides insurance to the employer, will be offering contraception coverage to the employee directly.
The reaction of the US bishops was to reject this on the grounds of agency:

Bishop William Lori, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, has also described the Hawaii model as a failure, arguing that it forces Catholic institutions to make a referral “to a service that it regards as intrinsically immoral.”
This isn't, as it turns out, the "Hawaii model," so the referral argument seems to be moot.* But the issue of fungible goods remains, since no insurance company is going to make a charitable donation of its coverage, and the money the employer is paying for the coverage is still, at least arguably, supporting that which is "intrinsically immoral." When does money finally lose its agency? When your morality treads on my equal protection of law, which should the government uphold?

*Separately, this is a curious argument. I know Catholic hospitals that will not allow fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization to be performed on their premises, and I have no problem with such a refusal. But if a patient presents with a condition that requires contraceptives to treat it (and there are such conditions), and the hospital refuses to administer such treatment, but refers the patient to another hospital, is that not making a referral "to a service that it regards as intrinsically immoral"? If the hospital diagnoses the condition but refuses the treatment, is it intrinsically immoral to pass that diagnosis on to another physician, or another hospital? Is any referral to another hospital or caregiver that doesn't share the moral prerogatives of the Bishops intrinsically immoral? When is participation in the healthcare system itself "intrinsically immoral"? At what point is the connection attenuated enough that it is morally acceptable? Is it more moral to refuse to treat the patient altogether, and so refuse the referral? And is such a position any more defensible than that of the Spanish king in medieval Europe ordering the consumption of pork by all the Jews in the country?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Here Comes The Son...


But the spirit behind their program also obviously had a strong appeal, particularly in the United States in the interwar years, and possibly even among groups who in historical hindsight would appear to have suffered from its consequences, whether indirectly through class and gender definitions of "objective" science and exclusion from the professions, or more directly from legislation that segregated, or otherwise restricted their role in American life. On the reasons for this appeal we can only speculated: perhaps it was because a "scientific" standard, however narrowly defined, proposed to eliminate the arbitrary and subjective from public life and policy; perhaps because the future for many Americans seemed an improvement on the past; or perhaps because, whatever its own class or cultural biases, "science" seemed the only possible standard in an increasingly pluralistic and fragmented America.
I do think there is something to the (largely) Republican concern with religion in public life, and it has to do with the re-emergence, or at least the awareness of "an increasingly pluralistic and fragmented America." Or, rather, the fact that the GOP "base" seems to be as fragmented and adrift as the country at large.

And they are looking for a standard to rally 'round. And, of course, not finding it. But they are getting this:

My father never graduated from college. He apprenticed, as a lath and plaster carpenter, and he was darn good at it. He learned how to put a handful of nails in his mouth and spit them out, point forward. On his honeymoon, he and Mom drove across the country. Dad sold aluminum paint along the way, to pay for gas and hotels.
I realize he's going for the "common laborer" image here, but are the echoes of a carpenter and his wife traveling on the cheap really accidental? From a Mormon who suddenly finds himself in a race with a very conservative Catholic in a party with a fundamentalist Christian base?

All that's missing from that story is a virgin birth and an inn with no room. Coincidence?

I think not.

O what a paradise it seems! Again.

It is interesting how much of a role religion is suddenly playing in American political life.

Orrin Hatch is upset that President Obama dared mention the obligations of being one's brother's keeper in the same context as our federal tax structure. Separation of church and state apparently demands that compassion for the last and least among us be kept very clear of any idea about a progressive tax system. Rick Santorum thinks not leaving his faith at the door means drug companies should make as much money as possible, because otherwise sick people would just buy extra iPads. And while we don't have an aristocracy in America, the "old boys club" of D. C. is very concerned about the hurt feelings of the princes of the Church.

The Bishops of the Roman Catholic church are upset that the Obama Administration is going to require all institutions, religiously affiliated or not, to abide by the same rules when it comes to health insurance for employees. The fact that this is already a requirement in 28 states does not blunt their outrage. To quote Cardinal John Ratzinger: "Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church." Or, if you want something more recent:

In a interview with Connecticut magazine published on the magazine’s Web site last week, a surprisingly frank Cardinal Egan said of the apology, “I never should have said that,” and added, “I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

He said many more things in the interview, some of them seemingly at odds with the facts. He repeatedly denied that any sex abuse had occurred on his watch in Bridgeport. He said that even now, the church in Connecticut had no obligation to report sexual abuse accusations to the authorities. (A law on the books since the 1970s says otherwise.) And he described the Bridgeport diocese’s handling of sex-abuse cases as “incredibly good.”*
That is the Bishops' story, and they're sticking to it.

And their defenders eventually fall back (I've heard it twice now; a patch of ice doth not a winter make, but the irony that the argument is being made at all is keen, indeed) on the argument that employees don't have to work for employers like religiously affiliated institutions. Which is the same argument once used against the Civil Rights Act of 1964: after all, blacks don't have to eat at restaurants that won't serve them, or hotels that won't house them. The market will provide them with alternatives (and yes, this is a Title VII issue,).

Granted, that last line is a modern one. There wasn't much talk of "market alternatives" in 1964, because everybody knew they didn't exist. But the argument that someone doesn't have to patronize a place of business, or seek employment there, is as old as the civil rights struggle itself.

And I have heard, again twice now, that the Hosanna-Tabor decision means the Supreme Court agrees that the Obama administration is wrong on this one. I've decided anyone who makes that argument (and it's been made in conjunction with the "they don't have to work there" argument every time I've heard it raised) is not credible, because the Supreme Court did nothing more than recognize an exception to Title VII that has been used for 40 years now, and doesn't apply to non-clergy staff in religiously affiliated institutions.

What is being insisted upon is not religious liberty or even 1st Amendment rights. What is being insisted upon is a principle of power. Rick Santorum wants the power to ignore the poor, and even to demonize them. Orrin Hatch wants the power to direct tax policy without any messy moral considerations. The RC Bishops want the power to do as they please in the 22 states where they can still do that. Anthony Picarello, general counsel to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, even argued that the problem with this new rule is that it's from the federal government, as if the only issue was that now, there's no escaping it at all. It isn't a moral issue, and it isn't a religious issue: it's a power issue. The Roman Catholic church has to conform to the law in 28 states; the Bishops don't want that rule extended to all 50, because...well, because they don't want to comply with it if they don't have to. Have they suffered in those other 28 states, or removed their presence there? Apparently not. Have they campaigned relentlessly to have the law overturned in those 28 states? Apparently not. So the moral issue is not the absolute here; it's the issue of a shift in power. What they don't want to give up, is any more power. They've lost this debate in 28 states; they don't want to lose it in the other 22.

As Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the ACLU points out: "There is a whole host of anti-discrimination and labor laws that institutions that operate in the public sphere like religiously affiliated hospitals and universities comply with, or are supposed to comply with." Tell me again how this one new rule is any different, or any more of an imposition on their principles, than any other.

Charles Pierce likes to point out that, if the Bishops don't like this rule, they can abandon the tax-free status of their institutions and keep their principles intact. Which is more important to them? If they don't get their way, and if they don't abandon their tax exempt status, we'll have our answer.


I had to read this more than a few times before I finally realized what it said:

That was no consolation to Catholic leaders. The White House is "all talk, no action" on moving toward compromise, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular," Picarello said. "We're not going to do anything until this is fixed."

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this."

"If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate," Picarello said.
In other words: repeal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because forcing a Catholic to comply with any provision that might conflict with the doctrines of the Church, should be verboten.

I'll retire to Bedlam....

*Apropos of this hot-button issue, one should not make the mistake of thinking that the Roman Catholic Church is monolithic, even within its own hierarchy. The Vatican has told the Bishops it considers the reporting of crimes fundamental to their role as Bishops. So not everyone agrees with Cardinal Egan (who, being retired, may not be affected by this, either).

Sunday, February 05, 2012

I read your book (or maybe not)....

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he wants to remind President Obama that he is not Jesus Christ.

"Someone needs to remind the president that there was only one person who walked on water and he did not occupy the Oval Office," Hatch said in a floor speech. "With due respect to the president, he ought to stick to public policy. I think most Americans would agree that the gospels are concerned with weightier matters than effective tax rates.”

Hatch's comments came after President Obama used a National Prayer Breakfast speech to suggest that higher income tax rates for the rich "coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’”
I am reminded of a comment made to me during my active ministry, that when the spirit of God starts moving among a group of people, the Devil gets busy.

Not that Obama was prophesying at the prayer breakfast, nor that Orrin Hatch is motivated by the Father of Lies. But the pattern is familiar to any pastor: prick the audience's conscience, and their response is to attack you for acting holier than them.

And no, I don't think Obama's tone was "holier than thou." Interesting some took it that way, though, isn't it?

In other news, righteous public Christian Rick Santorum rewrites the gospels so that whatever you did for the corporations, you did for God and the greater good:

GOP contender Rick Santorum had a heated exchange with a mother and her sick young son Wednesday, arguing that drug companies were entitled to charge whatever the market demanded for life-saving therapies.[...]

“People have no problem paying $900 for an iPad,” Santorum said, “but paying $900 for a drug they have a problem with — it keeps you alive. Why? Because you’ve been conditioned to think health care is something you can get without having to pay for it.”

The mother said the boy was on the drug Abilify, used to treat schizophrenia, and that, on paper, its costs would exceed $1 million each year.

Santorum said drugs take years to develop and cost millions of dollars to produce, and manufacturers need to turn a profit or they would stop developing new drugs.
And in case Santorum's sympathies are unclear:

"Look, I want your son and everybody to have the opportunity to stay alive on much-needed drugs," Santorum responded to the woman, CBS News reported. "But the bottom line is, we have to give companies the incentive to make those drugs. And if they don't have the incentive to make those drugs, your son won't be alive and lots of other people in this country won't be alive."
It's money that matters. Because, you know, better you should die than increase the burden on society of the surplus population:

"What happens to the cost of health insurance," Santorum said, CNN reported. "There's a reason for preexisting conditions clauses. You want people to get insurance, and if they don't, then they shouldn't be free riding on everybody else. That's exactly what's going to happen with Obamacare."

Friday, February 03, 2012

The poor will always have a safety net....

Mitt Romney annoyed the conservatives in the GOP by implying the government should take care of the "very poor," and he annoyed sentient people by implying the government had taken care of the "very poor."

Which is where the statement gets really offensive, despite his argument with Soledad O'Brien about what he really said. His meaning was clear: the "very poor" aren't really "very poor," because the social "safety net" is so generous and so supportive of them. "They're fine," Mr. Romney assures us (from his vast experience with the poor).

Contrast that attitude with the attitude of another scion of wealth, John F. Kennedy:

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida; the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.
Or consider Kennedy's approach to the poverty he saw in West Virginia in 1960:

Kennedy presented a detailed outline of his program for West Virginia in a speech in Wayne on April 25, 1960. In the speech Kennedy stressed the need to increase unemployment benefits and modernize food distribution. He outlined a plan to create a youth conservation corps to give jobs to young West Virginians and to improve the infrastructure within the state. Kennedy also discussed the need to “develop steam plants in West Virginia to better utilize coal extraction. In a speech at Bethany College two days later, Kennedy stated, “We are failing to provide for those who have too little. We are increasing our wealth, but we are failing to use that great wealth to meet the urgent needs of millions of our citizens and the demands of our growing nation.”
Kennedy was concerned, but Romney isn't.

Beware of people who tell you somebody else is trying to divide the country. Such people see the beam in their eye reflected in the eyes of everyone they look at.

(No, that's RFK, not JFK, in the photo. But try to imagine Mitt there. I can't, either.)

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Say wha?

Mark Rienzi*, professor of constitutional law at Catholic University, just told Diane Rehm that people don't have to work for religious institutions like Roman Catholic universities, and therefore aren't entitled to complain when such institutions refuse to offer contraceptive coverage in their employee health policies.

Which is absolutely no different from saying that people don't have to eat at restaurants, and therefore restaurants can refuse service based on race, creed, or religion, if they so choose.

The issue is a simple one of fairness. Just as we don't allow white supremacists to impose their value system on others, we don't allow religious institutions (i.e., not churches) to discriminate against who they hire, while other institutions cannot discriminate, and fairness means they cannot treat their employees differently than other institutions do; not on an issue like this.

Rienzi is now (as I listen) arguing that religions institutions should not be required to pay for this coverage, that the federal government should pay for it. But religious institutions that preach against contraception (a tenet of Rienzi's argument) also urge their congregants to pay their federal taxes. Should the same institution that doesn't want its money going to contraceptive coverage also urge its members to pay taxes to provide contraceptives to others? What, is it laundered somehow, at some point?

Mr. Rienzi does try to make much of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, arguing it proves the Obama Administration has far too broad of view of government power over religious institutions, and the Supreme Court struck down the Administration's overreach. But that isn't the holding of Hosanna-Tabor at all.

The issue in Hosanna-Tabor turned on whether Cheryl Perich, a "called teacher" according to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, was a "minister." The distinction is an important one, as churches are free, under First Amendment law, to hire and fire ministers, but can be subject to applicable law in the hiring and firing of non-ministerial employees. It's a reasonable enough distinction: the government can't force Roman Catholics to ordain women, or make the Episcopal Church ordain gays and lesbians, but it can keep them from firing non-ministerial employees simply because they are black, or old, or female.

The trial court threw out the suit on the grounds Perich was a "minister," and therefore could not claim protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 6th Circuit disagreed, noting that the duties of a "lay teacher", as defined by the MO Synod, and "called teacher," were the same. It was, the Court concluded, a distinction without a difference, and the only result was to allow the MO Synod to discriminate against the latter class of employees on the pretext that their duties were "ministerial."

I have to admit, at this point, that having the court decide who is, and who is not, a "minister" for any denomination is an uncomfortable one. I understand the law has to draw such distinctions; but I'm very wary of how those determinations are made. However, this matter of a "ministerial exception" is one that has only arisen under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (ironic Rienzi would fall back on the very Civil Rights Act his argument, in other ways, seeks to undermine), and as such the question of whether or not such an exception exists at all has never been handled by the Supreme Court.

So what they did is, first, acknowledge the exception, and second, decide whether it applies in this case. And they did so, declining to go beyond the facts of this case to set a broader definition of what the exception is, and what it is not. Their ruling rests heavily on what was required of Perich (v. the process for being a lay teacher), on Perich's behavior (using tax exemptions available only to ministers, and not to lay people), and on her own statements about being a minister and engaging in the teaching ministry of the church.

Interestingly, this opinion is sparking no small amount of controversy, but I find myself largely agreeing with it (which puts me at odds with Barry Lynn and some legal scholars, but so be it). If I understand myself to be an ordained minister, and understand myself to have a ministry in an organized church, and the church recognizes and acknowledges that ministry by treating me (through religious services and other practices) as a "minister," then the courts should accept me as a minister. To ask much more than that is to interfere indeed in the business of the church, and I think there are very good reasons for the government not to do that.

But does that affect Rienzi's argument? Not at all. Churches are not covered by the requirement to provide contraceptive coverage in health insurance offered to employees; only religious institutions, which regularly employ non-church members, are covered. Those in the religious institution who are clearly not ministers are not exempt from the Civil Rights Act because of their employer. And nothing in the Hosanna-Tabor decision indicates that they would be.

(*I should have mentioned that Rienzi is representing two plaintiff religious institutions in a lawsuit against this new regulation. I find his legal arguments laughable, if this program is any indication of them.)