Friday, March 31, 2006

Prayer Flunks Scientific Study - My Newsletter Article

So prayer doesn't work. That is the finding of a major study being reported in all the media today. More than 1,800 patients were divided into three groups: those who were told someone was praying for them; those who were told only that someone might pray for them and got prayers; and those who were told someone might pray for them but received no prayers. Two groups of Catholics and one group of Protestants were asked to do the praying. And the only difference in results was that those who knew they were being prayed for developed more complications.

I have already seen some remarkable comments to this study including one that suggested that God was not amused that "his" power was being tested, and he refused to cooperate.

I am not surprised at the results of the study, but it is not because I think God refused to cooperate. I don't think prayer is about getting God to produce
results. I don't believe in a God who is up there or out there somewhere who can be influenced by human prayers to intervene in a miraculous way and change the outcome of ones illness or surgery or predicament. I am always leary of claims that prayers have produced results because I have known far too many people whose prayers have not produced the results they wanted. Does God listen to some prayers and not others? What about those who don't have anyone to pray for them? Are they out of luck?

Prayer for me is not about asking God to produce results or even attempting to channel energy in a particular way. It is in fact an exercise in letting go of all attempts to control the outcome. It is also an act of recognition: in prayer I recognize that there are limits to our science and my human understanding. Most importantly, it is an expression of trust. I trust that regardless of any outcome Love will be there, deep enough and strong enough to bring healing - not physical healing, necessarily - but emotional and spiritual healing. I pray and trust that love prevails.

What do you think about the prayer study, or my thoughts on prayer?

House Republicans vs. Emma Lazarus

Said Representative Bob Beauprez, a Colorado Republican:
My fear is that if we continue down this path that the Senate has established, that we will have created the biggest magnet ever. It would be like a dinner bell, 'Come one, come all.
Said Emma Lazarus:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Prayer Flunks Scientific Study

From the AP:
In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.

Researchers emphasized that their work can't address whether God exists or answers prayers made on another's behalf. The study can only look for an effect from prayers offered as part of the research, they said.They also said they had no explanation for the higher complication rate in patients who knew they were being prayed for, in comparison to patients who only knew it was possible prayers were being said for them.

Critics said the question of God's reaction to prayers simply can't be explored by scientific study.The work, which followed about 1,800 patients at six medical centers, was financed by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion. It will appear in the American Heart Journal.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.

The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.

The researchers didn't ask patients or their families and friends to alter any plans they had for prayer, saying such a step would have been unethical and impractical. The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who didn't take part in the study, said the results didn't surprise him."There are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result either," he said. "There is no god in either the Christian, Jewish or Moslem scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted."Within the Christian tradition, God would be expected to be concerned with a person's eternal salvation, he said, and "why would God change his plans for a particular person just because they're in a research study?"Science, he said, "is not designed to study the supernatural."

This last statement is just strange. God cares about a person's eternal salvation, but not about their well-being in this life? Then why bother praying for a person's health? Why would God "change his plans for a particular person just because they're in a research study?" So God knew that this was a trick study to test the power of prayer and "he" decided not to cooperate?

The basic problem with the premise of Dr. Koenig, and with some believers, is the belief that there is an omnipotent God up there who could and occasionally does step in to violate the laws of nature and heal people - or hurt them, whether through the power of prayer or simply on a whim.

On the other hand this study seems to call into question the belief of those who hold that we can send healing energy around the world to benefit others.

I suspect this won't be the last word on this issue.

The Catholic Vote

John Dilulio served briefly in the Bush Administration as the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He has served on the domestic policy steering committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a recent article in Commonweal, the liberal Catholic journal, he talks about the political makeup of American Catholics, and what it means when the Catholic Bishops speak out on issues. Here is an excerpt:

Catholics are closer to the general public than are Evangelicals, Jews, and nonreligious citizens in agreeing that elected officials who are deeply religious should be willing to compromise with other elected officials whose views are different. Catholics also echo the general public regarding whether politicians mention their own faith or religion too much or too little (21 percent of Catholics and 20 percent of the general public say “too much,” while 37 percent of Catholics, and 41 percent of the general public, say “too little”), and whether churches should express views on political matters (55 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of the general public say they should, while 42 percent of Catholics and 44 percent of the general public say they should not).


So, Catholics are less likely than other religious believers to deviate widely from national norms related to voting, public opinion, and political ideology. There are big political divides between Catholic bishops and their flocks on controversial issues. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns and forbids abortion. The first entry in the subject index says it all: “Abortion: condemnation in the early church; excommunication as penalty; inalienable right to life; protection of human life from the moment of conception.”

Yet, in a June 2004 survey of Catholics likely to cast votes in the November 2004 national elections, about 60 percent of Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal under some or all circumstances, and roughly three-quarters of Catholics denied that Catholics have a religious obligation to vote against prochoice candidates. Asked whether Communion should be denied to Catholic politicians who support abortionÂ’s legality under some or all circumstances, Catholics were more likely to disagree (78 percent) than the general public was (64 percent).

I don't have a bone to pick in this fight since I am not Catholic. But I think the Catholic Bishops have every right to speak publicly about Catholic teachings and to challenge their flock to live up to them. And while I differ with their position on abortion, I have appreciated the leadership Catholic Bishops have offered on the recent immigration debate. Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, for instance, has said that if the House version of the immigration bill is passed he will instruct his bishops to defy it.

I think, however, that ordering priests to deny communion to Catholics whose views differ from official Catholic teaching is way overboard. I suppose Bishops have this power in their "office." But it is a throwback to the days of the medieval church when the church could label people as heretics and deny them communion and thus salvation. There are probably some Catholics and Protestants who long for those "good old days" but its a sure recipe for emptying the churches of people and respect.

The days are over when churches could assume that everyone belonged and from that position of assumed authority in the community they could speak the "truth" of God and everyone would listen. Today churches need to assume that no one is listening and then give them a genuine reason to pay attention, like offering spiritual meat while at the same time respecting and expecting the exercise of individual conscience.

Prosperity Gospel

This would be my message if I didn't have a conscience (NYTimes Link):
"I believe God wants us to prosper" is the gospel according to Mr. Osteen, 43, who offers no apologies for his wealth.

"You know what, I've never done it for the money," he said in an interview after Sunday's service, which he led with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. "I've never asked for money on television." But opening oneself to God's favors was a blessing, he said. "I believe it's God rewarding you."


Again and again in the first book, Mr. Osteen exhorts readers to shun negativity and develop "a prosperous mindset" as a way of drawing God's favor. He tells the story of a passenger on a cruise ship who fed himself on cheese and crackers before realizing that sumptuous meals were included. "Friend, I don't know about you, but I'm tired of those cheese and crackers!," Mr. Osteen writes. "It's time to step up to God's dining table."

Or, as he also puts it: "God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner."

He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. "Better yet," he writes, "it was the premier spot in that parking lot."

This bears no resemblence to either the actual message of Jesus or the message about Jesus that was developed in the Gospels and then in the Creedal church.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Supreme Court Challenges Bush on Detainees

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the merits of a case brought by the former driver of Osama bin Laden, who is trying to argue that he shouldn't be tried in a military court. What caught my attention in this New York Times article is this exchange between Justice Souter and Solicitor General Paul D. Clement:

What appeared to trouble Justice Souter most was Mr. Clement's discussion with Justice Stevens about whether Congress's removal of the federal courts' jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions from detainees at the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, amounted to "suspending" the writ of habeas corpus.

Suspending habeas corpus is an action, limited by the Constitution to "cases of rebellion or invasion," that Congress has taken only four times in the country's history. Habeas corpus is the means by which prisoners can go to court to challenge the lawfulness of their confinement, and its suspension is historically regarded as a serious, if not drastic, step.

Mr. Clement's position was that Congress had not in fact suspended habeas corpus, but that it might constitutionally have done so given "the exigencies of 9/11." Addressing Justice Stevens, the solicitor general said, "My view would be that if Congress sort of stumbles upon a suspension of the writ, that the preconditions are satisfied, that would still be constitutionally valid."

Justice Souter interrupted. "Isn't there a pretty good argument that suspension of the writ of habeas corpus is just about the most stupendously significant act that the Congress of the United States can take," he asked, "and therefore we ought to be at least a little slow to accept your argument that it can be done from pure inadvertence?"

When Mr. Clement began to answer, Justice Souter persisted: "You are leaving us with the position of the United States that the Congress may validly suspend it inadvertently. Is that really your position?"

The solicitor general replied, "I think at least if you're talking about the extension of the writ to enemy combatants held outside the territory of the United States —— "

"Now wait a minute!" Justice Souter interrupted, waving a finger. "The writ is the writ. There are not two writs of habeas corpus, for some cases and for other cases. The rights that may be asserted, the rights that may be vindicated, will vary with the circumstances, but jurisdiction over habeas corpus is jurisdiction over habeas corpus."

The Solicitor General's position captures the essence of the way the Bush Administration has operated. It doesn't matter what the law actually says. If the law is explicit then Bush can use a signing statement to ignore it if he doesn't like it. And if the law is vague it is possible to read into it whatever they want. Congress did not suspend the writ of habeus corpus in the aftermath of 9/11, but they might have, probably intended to, just forgot to do it. So we will.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Vaclav Havel on Same-Sex Marriage

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that the great Czech hero of democracy Vaclav Havel supports same-sex marriage:
Former president Vaclav Havel is very glad that last week, the Chamber of Deputies passed the law on registered partnership of the people with the same sex, Havel told CTK today.

"Though with a very tight margin, I am very glad that the legislation eventually made it through parliament," Havel told CTK.


"I was most intrigued in the debate by the absurd ideology advocated by the Christian Democrats and Klaus, who argue that family should have advantages since, unlike homosexual couples, it brings children to life. This is the concept of family as a sort of calf shed in which bulls can inseminate cows so that calves are born," Havel said.


"This is nothing spiritual, nothing intellectual. This is a purely material concept of family. This is what made me most upset in the debate," Havel said.

Support for Gay Marriage Amendment Erodes

As I said yesterday, I think this is the last hurrah for the supporters of the the gay marriage amendment to the constitution. Today's Pioneer Press tells why:


According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "the atmosphere surrounding the issue of gay marriage has cooled off, and public intensity has dissipated compared with two years ago."

Back then, Pew found that 58 percent of Americans 65 and older strongly opposed gay marriage. Today, that opposition has dropped to 33 percent. Republicans who strongly oppose gay marriage fell from 59 percent in 2004 to 41 percent now.

The passion has cooled even among white evangelical Protestants, whose strong opposition has receded from 65 percent in 2004 to 56 percent today.

Closer to home, a study of 625 registered Minnesota voters by the Minneapolis polling firm Decision Resources Ltd., commissioned by the advocacy group Equality Minnesota, found that Minnesota voters may be getting cold feet about a constitutional amendment. Only 40 percent say they'd support one. Support drops to 28 percent if the amendment also bans civil unions.

This is markedly different from a year before, when a Mason-Dixon poll for the advocacy group Marriage for Minnesota found that 61 percent of Minnesota residents said they would vote for a constitutional amendment.

So what happened? Could it be the constant attention focused on this constitutional amendment has reminded voters we already have a law against same-sex marriage? Could it be discussing the news with friends and family — some 40 percent of Minnesota voters say they have a close friend or relative who is gay — has somehow softened the resistance of the voters who might have been most opposed? Or could it be that pushing such a ban in a state that has other problems to solve seems like the most cynical of election year ploys?

Researchers didn't phrase a question quite like that. But when they asked whether the anti-gay marriage amendment "could be a distraction from other important issues facing Minnesota," three out of four voters said yes.

For months now, amendment supporters have claimed opponents are afraid to let Minnesota voters have their say on the issue in a general election.

But judging from these new numbers, the folks consuming precious time at the Capitol forcing a constitutional amendment on the ballot may have more to fear come November.

War on Christians Conference

Somehow I missed this conference:
A summit of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholic and Jewish activists yesterday produced a "Values Voters' Contract with Congress," an outline of what the religiously minded expect their elected representatives to bring about in the near future.


"It's time for the values voters to tell the government what we expect of them," said the Rev. Rick Scarborough, founder of the Lufkin, Texas-based Vision America, which organized the summit. "This contract tells Congress they can count on our vote if these things become front-burner issues."

It also addresses President Bush, Mr. Scarborough added.

"With all this discussion of marriage before the election," he said, "we just heard a State of the Union message where there was no mention of a marriage amendment."

The "contract" was released at a "War on Christians and the Values Voters in 2006" conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, where speakers painted a gloomy picture of a war by "neo-pagans" against "values voters" for about 300 listeners.

"Let's not say, 'Oh, it's not that bad,' " said the Rev. Tristan Emmanuel, director of the Equipping Christians for the Public Square Centre in Jordan Station, Ontario. Secularists, he added, practice "Christophobia," which he deemed "an irrational fear of anything Christ-based."

"When you listen to their rejection of our participation in the public square, it's visceral," he said.

Neo-pagans unite! All ten of you.

Jewish Community Leaders Speak Against Gay Marriage Amendment

In today's Star Tribune, three Jewish community leaders speak against amending the Minnesota Constitution:

As a religious minority, the Jewish community is intensely aware of the importance of the protections contained in federal and state constitutions. Historically, constitutions in America have served two complementary functions: the creation of government power and the protection of the people -- especially minorities -- from government power. Amending Minnesota's Constitution to injure a minority group is precisely the opposite of what constitutions are for and represents a dangerous break with American tradition and Minnesota values.

The amendment sets a frightening precedent. Once we use the Constitution to limit freedom, what minority group will be next to have rights stripped away by the very document that is supposed to protect us? If we have learned anything from Jewish history -- from Egyptian enslavement to the Holocaust -- it is that we must preserve the societal institutions that protect minorities even when we disagree with those minorities. Thus, even though not all Jews support same-sex marriage, we are united in our passionate commitment to maintaining the Minnesota Constitution as a source of freedom, and we oppose any effort to transform it into a document that abridges liberty.

As Jews, we also view this proposed amendment as a form of religious discrimination. The institution of marriage is recognized by government, not created by it, and this amendment would permanently prohibit our state from recognizing Jewish marriages.

Rabbis in two of the four major American Jewish denominations have been performing same-sex marriages for over a decade. A third denomination will consider blessing same-sex unions later this year. We understand that the citizens of our state may not yet be ready to embrace these marriages. But amending the Minnesota Constitution to forever prohibit recognition of these Jewish marriages flies in the face of Minnesota's long-standing tradition of religious pluralism.

Minnesota law today recognizes only opposite-sex unions. Our democracy is built on ongoing dialogue and discussion, and we hope that one day our fellow citizens will come to recognize, as our faith has, that members of the same sex should be permitted to marry. This amendment is undemocratic because its purpose is to cut off this dialogue in our state, to prevent future generations of Minnesotans from reaching different conclusions. We may have the power to amend the Constitution as proposed, but amending the Constitution to cut off debate is an abuse of that power.

I am fairly confident this attempt to amend the constitution is going nowhere this session. Another attempt to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote was defeated today. We need to be vigilant for the remainder of the session. But I also believe that this issue is beginning to play into the hands of political progressives. It has galvanized a variety of progressive religious communities who have organized and spoken out more forcefully this time. This has had the positive effect of helping the public see that there are Christians and Jews and Muslims who are accepting of gays and lesbians. In addition, the politicians who continue to push this issue look increasingly like right-wing crazies who are out of the mainstream and who can't let the legislature focus on the work that everyone else knows needs to be accomplished.

Fat Clergy

Clergy are apparently getting fat at a faster rate than the population. This merits an article in the Washington Post. The cause of their weight gain:
Clergy's weight issues "have more to do with their sense of isolation because there has been a loss of status for clerical professions," she said. "They are in a job without a great deal of respect, the pay is low, and there is a lot of depression among clergy. This is reflected in their bodies."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Gay Marriage Amendment Finally Gets Press Scrutiny

The press is finally moving beyond covering the political intrigue of the proposed constitutional amendment (in Minnesota) to ban gay marriage and beginning to look at what the amendment actually says. It doesn't only propose writing into the Minnesota constitution a ban on same-sex marriage, it would also make constitutionally illegal "its legal equivalent." Those words would not only make same-sex civil unions illegal, the rights of non-married straights could be open to challenge. The benefits provided by businesses to non-married partners might be challenged. The wording is dangerously vague, and finally getting some attention.

Yesterday, Kate Parry, the "reader's representative" for the Star Tribune said that the newspaper was doing its readers a disservice by not educating on this issue:

Same-sex marriage already is illegal in Minnesota; the bill would build the prohibition into the state Constitution by defining marriage and its legal equivalent as "the union of one man and one woman."

The phrases "same-sex marriage" or "gay marriage" have shown up regularly in coverage. But the equally important phrase "its legal equivalent" was scarce until about a week ago, after the newsroom's style committee raised concerns that the description of the bill being used was incomplete.

Now some stories have referred to "same-sex marriage or civil unions," but still have not explained the potential scope of "its legal equivalent."

Those three words significantly expand the proposed amendment beyond the "ban gay marriage" shorthand most use, according to Jill Hasday, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, who specializes in constitutional, family and discrimination law.

Those words mean the amendment would "clearly include domestic partnerships and civil unions" as well as same-sex marriage, she said. It also allows for judicial interpretation of other rights often associated with marriages that could be banned, she added. This has potential impact on adoptions, inheritance and many other issues facing gay couples, Hasday said.

"Even if you don't like gay marriage, to add this is going to create endless litigation on what exactly is a right of marriage," Hasday said.

The newspaper hasn't polled Minnesotans on these issues for nearly a year, but past polls have shown that while a majority of Minnesotans oppose gay marriage, they're less certain how they feel about civil unions. It makes a difference to some whether the amendment is crafted narrowly or broadly.

The newspaper has not made this clear, allowing the language to spin in a direction favoring those who want to see the amendment on the ballot. It's more likely to get there if lawmakers and citizens believe it applies only to marriages. But that's not the case, and the newspaper needs to quit implying that it is, through the language it uses -- not to defeat or support the bill, but to make sure everyone knows exactly what's up for a vote.

Today, the St. Paul Pioneer Press has a front-page article tackling it:

It won't ban gay marriage, because that's already banned. But a marriage amendment to the Minnesota Constitution could change some other things, legal experts believe.

The amendment's broad language will open the door for legal challenges to the benefits and arrangements that unmarried couples — gay and straight — use for themselves and their families, experts say.

"It's not simply outlawing same-sex marriage; it does more than that," said Beverly Bales, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

Health care coverage for unmarried partners could be challenged, especially at state-funded institutions like the U. Minneapolis' domestic-partnership registry might not survive. Even legal contracts between unmarried partners might face challenges, some scholars say, affecting health care directives, insurance claims and financial arrangements — although others dismiss that concern.

But mostly, legal experts in Minnesota are hard-pressed to say what the reach of the amendment would be, because its language is broad and the courts haven't yet addressed the specifics.

This is a mean-spirited and dangerous bill, and its supporters know that in all likelihood this is their last chance for passage (Republicans lost 13 state House seats in the last election and given their low standings in the polls will likely lose the House of Representatives in the next election), so it is important to expose it for what it is right now.

The War on Terror Isn't a War

In an article in the History News Network, Joyce Appleby and Gary Hart make an important point about the Presidential powers George Bush is claiming to have because we are at "war." We need to challenge the framing of Bush's language. We are not fighting a "war" on terror. There is no institutional adversary like Nazi Germany that can be defeated, with a peace treaty signed to signal the end of the war. There is no foreseeable end to this conflict. And whatever the merits of other Presidents trampling on civil rights in the name of fighting past wars, the wars had a clear beginning and end point. The real danger here is that this President is claiming dubious powers as a "war President" that are challenging the constitutional system of checks and balances, and there is no end in sight. And while it is unlikely we will elect another President anytime soon who cares so little about protecting civil rights, human rights, and the Constitution, the powers he is claiming need to be curbed now before it is too late. An excerpt from the article:
George W. Bush and his most trusted advisers, Richard B. Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, entered office determined to restore the authority of the presidency. Five years and many decisions later, they've pushed the expansion of presidential power so far that we now confront a constitutional crisis.

Relying on legal opinions from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Professor John Yoo, then working in the White House, Bush has insisted that there can be no limits to the power of the commander-in-chief in time of war. More recently the president has claimed that laws relating to domestic spying and the torture of detainees do not apply to him. His interpretation has produced a devilish conundrum.

President Bush has given Commander-in-Chief Bush unlimited wartime authority. But the "war on terror" is more a metaphor than a fact. Terrorism is a method, not an ideology; terrorists are criminals, not warriors. No peace treaty can possibly bring an end to the fight against far-flung terrorists. The emergency powers of the president during this "war" can now extend indefinitely, at the pleasure of the president and at great threat to the liberties and rights guaranteed us under the Constitution....

Krugman on Immigration

Immigration has lept onto the stage as a political issue in response to a House Republican immigration bill that would turn illigal immigrants into felons. This bill in its present form is a political disaster for Republicans who have had some success courting Hispanics away from Democrats. For that reason alone it will be changed. But Paul Krugman (subscription only) has some wise words about the economic issues surrounding immigration reform:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I'm proud of America's immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I'm instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1 percent.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration — especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren't for Mexican immigration.

That's why it's intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do "jobs that Americans will not do." The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays — and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should — and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they're here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country's experience with immigration, "We wanted a labor force, but human beings came." Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas, which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn't exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a "modest role" in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants.

But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we'll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests — legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care — is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's plan for a "guest worker" program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who'd love to have a low-wage work force that couldn't vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I'd still be careful. Whatever the bill's intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice — that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I'd rather see Congress fail to agree on anything this year than have it rush into ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles.

I get tired of hearing that illegal immigrants are doing the jobs Americans don't want to be doing. American businesses want a steady stream of illegal immigrants because they can get away with paying them less than they would have to pay American workers. They get to avoid all those messy tax and benefit issues that cut into their bottom line. But once they are here, those illegal immigrants, darned if they don't need to eat and find a place to live and educate their children and go to the doctor. And then who pays? They don't, because they are undocumented and underpaid. The taxpayers do, at least in California if not in Texas. But the problem here is the American businesses who are all too happy to break the law. That is where real immigration reform needs to begin.

Fukuyama on Democracy Promotion

Francis Fukuyama, the penitent ex-neocon, has an editorial in the Wall Street Journal today that calls for the Bush Administration to ratchet down its democracy promotion efforts in the Arab world and focus first on fixing Iraq and Afghanistan and fighting terrorism. Why give democracy promotion a rest:

Promoting liberal and democratic institutions in the Middle East should be decoupled from this fight, since it is a much more long-term project--and a project in need of significant redesign. The Bush administration has not admitted to itself the degree to which it has been knocked off its own timetable by the chaotic situation in Iraq. Its Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative to promote democracy in the Middle East through high-profile rhetorical support for democracy and funding for local democratic organizations was originally conceived as a way of capitalizing on the momentum gained from a successful Iraqi transition to democracy. But there is no such momentum right now, only backlash. Many would-be democratic opponents of regimes in places like Syria or Iran now say they'd prefer the status quo to the situation the Iraqis are in. This does not paint a rosy picture for the Bush administration's new initiative to promote democratic regime change in Iran; it will be hard to find any takers for the $75 million in new funding for this purpose.

To put it mildly, the Iraq war has not increased the prestige of the U.S. and American ideas like liberal democracy in the Middle East. The U.S. does not have abundant moral authority for promoting the rule of law, since the first thing people in the region associate with America today is prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. Many Americans have explained these events to themselves by saying that the abuse was an aberration that has been hyped by enemies of the U.S., and that in any event such things just happen during wartime. Perhaps; but the fact remains that Guantanamo is still open, and nobody except for a couple of lowly enlisted soldiers have been prosecuted for prisoner abuse by the Bush administration. Fair or not, American insistence on rule of law and human rights looks simply hypocritical.

The Bush Administration has done major damage to the image of the United States as a beacon of human rights and democracy promotion. And the damage continues since no one in authority has been punished and the prisons are still open. Fukuyama is right but it is going to take regime change at home before we are in a position to implement his ideas.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Watchman and the Realm of God

A parable by Franz Kafka:
I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: “I ran through here while you were looking the other way.” The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. “I suppose I really oughtn’t to have done it,” I said. The watchman still said nothing. “Does your silence indicate permission to pass?
What to do? Stay or go? If I go, will I be in trouble? Why is he there? What is he guarding? Where is the fence? Why is he there and not saying anything? Maybe this is a test of some kind? But what kind? Do I fail if I go on, or do I fail if don't go on? It is really bugging me that he is there. Who put him there?

The answer to that last question is that we did; we humans put the watchman there. And we give him/them whatever power they have or do not have. They guard "the truth." They guard God. They guard religion. They guard the boundaries that define who is in and out, who is good and evil.

They exist in our minds, the watchmen. That doesn't mean they are not real, because if enough people give them power they come to life and actually create real physical boundaries and real emotional and spiritual borders around truth, god, and religion.

But as soon as anyone sees the true nature of the guardian, then they come to realize that no permission is needed to enter. In fact, they don't even need to enter. The boundary between in and out is juillusorylusary as the guardian. They are already in.

And this is the way it is in the realm of God. It is already here and we are already in it. There is no "up there" or sometime in the distant future or in an age to come. There is no holy room or holy person or holy ritual. There is no one with the moral or religious authority who can tell us that we don't belong; we are not good enough.

A saying by Jesus:
You won't be able to observe the coming of God's realm. People are not going to be able to say, "Look, here it is!" or "Over there!" On the contrary, God's realm is right there in your presence. Luke 17:20-21

Monday, March 20, 2006

Are Opponents of Gay Marriage Bigots

Conservative columnist Katherine Kersten says today in the Star Tribune that if gay marriage is legalized those who oppose it will become bigots:
Supporters of same-sex marriage often insist that "extending marriage rights" to gay people is no big deal. It won't change life for the rest of us, they say. But if same-sex marriage becomes a civil right, the belief that one-man, one-woman marriage is best for kids becomes discriminatory, and those who hold it become bigots.
What does Kersten think about single moms and dads raising children? I bet she doesn't think too much of it. I bet she thinks that kids are better off having both a mom and a dad at home. Does that make her a bigot? I don't think so. She has an opinion about what is best for children; she is entitled to her opinion. Same goes for same-sex couples raising children. She believes children are better off in homes with a man and a woman, not two mommies or daddies. That is her opinion. It doesn't make her a bigot.

On the other hand, if she believes that gays and lesbians are in some way inherently intellectually or morally inferior and that it is O.K. to discriminate against them on that basis, then she is a bigot. But I don't hear her saying that here.

It is important to point out, however, that she is intentionally confusing the issue that is at stake here. The issue is not what is the best family situation for raising children. Single parents, common law opposite-sex partners, same-sex couples, husbands and wives, grandparents are all legally able to raise children in their homes. We can debate what is the best family situation for children. I would argue that anywhere there is love and a strong network of support there is a good family situation for children.

But again, that is not the issue. Those who are trying to amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman are trying to write discrimination into the state's founding document. This is a fundamental departure from the historic practice of rarely amending constitutions at all and then only doing it to clearly defend and broaden minority rights. That is what is at stake here.

The Bible and the Constitution

A friend passed along this story:
On Wednesday, March 1st, 2006, in Annapolis at a hearing on the proposed Constitutional Amendment to prohibit gay marriage, Jamie Raskin, professor of law at American University, was requested to testify. At the end of his testimony, Republican Senator Nancy Jacobs said: "Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?" Raskin replied: "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible." The room erupted into applause.
A Google search reveals that Raskin is running for the State Senate in Maryland. Good for him.

Separation of Mosque, State Wanes in Indonesia

Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim population. It is also a secular, democratic state, but the reach of religious fundamentalists is growing there, too:
Yusman Roy, a former boxer and a convert to Islam, is serving two years in prison because he believes that Muslims should pray in a language they can understand.

Roy, who led bilingual prayer sessions at his small East Java boarding school, is seen as a heretic by conservative Muslims here. They believe true prayer can be conducted only in Arabic.

Roy's desire to pray in Indonesian has sparked such an outrage that he was convicted last year in criminal court of "spreading hatred." Animosity toward Roy ran so high that police posted guards to keep an angry mob from torching his house and school.

Now, he is kept in a cell by himself at overcrowded Lowokwaru prison, and the warden has warned him not to preach to his fellow inmates in any language.

Roy is one of at least 10 Muslims incarcerated in recent months for what the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, the country's most influential Muslim body in setting religious policy, has deemed deviant thinking.

Another Movement Conservative Exits the Fold

Four decades ago Kevin Phillips was the brilliant conservative political strategist who coined the phrase "sun belt" and described how Republicans could build a conservative majority and win elections by focusing on the south and their issues. He was right. But now we have Bush and his policies and the full fruition of Phillips' predictions, and Phillips is dismayed. He has a new book out, American Theocracy. This New York Times Book Review article gives us a glimpse inside:
Although Phillips is scathingly critical of what he considers the dangerous policies of the Bush administration, he does not spend much time examining the ideas and behavior of the president and his advisers. Instead, he identifies three broad and related trends — none of them new to the Bush years but all of them, he believes, exacerbated by this administration's policies — that together threaten the future of the United States and the world. One is the role of oil in defining and, as Phillips sees it, distorting American foreign and domestic policy. The second is the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government. And the third is the astonishing levels of debt — current and prospective — that both the government and the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. If there is a single, if implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is the failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.

Afghan May Get Death Penalty for Conversion to Christianity

I thought this is what we got rid of in Afghanistan:
An Afghan man is being tried in a court in Kabul for his conversion from Islam to Christianity. He could be sentenced to death for the act and his refusal to recant... He acknowledged during his trial that he did convert 16 years ago while a medical aid worker with a Christian group helping Afghani refugees in Pakistan. The prosecutor, Abdul Wasi, said he had offered to drop the charges if Mr Rahman would convert back to Islam, but he had refused to do so. Mr Wasi said therefore that Mr Rahman must get the death penalty. The trial judge has also described Mr Rahman's action as an attack on Islam.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Students Flock to Seminaries, but not to Churches

The New York Times has an article talking about the increasing numbers of students going to Protestant seminaries. But they are not going into churches after graduation:
Across the country, enrollment is up at Protestant seminaries, but a shrinking portion of the graduates will ascend the pulpit. These seminarians, particularly the young ones, are less interested in making a career of religion than in taking their religion into other careers.
One reason for this not mentioned in the article: there are fewer and fewer churches that can pay a living wage. Four years of college and three years of seminary to take a part-time job? Many seminaries have adapted their marketing and their program offerings in response.

Court to EPA: Not a Humpty-Dumpty World

A federal appeals court slapped down the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday in a major ruling and victory for states, the environment and our health. At issue was the speed at which power plants need to be upgraded with new pollution control equipment. The nearly three-decades old clean air law requiring the power plant upgrades was itself a compromise that gave industry time to upgrade, but the utility industry has fought it all along, waiting and hoping for a friendly administration to come along that would do its bidding:

President Bush took office in 2001 promising to ease regulations on coal-fired power plants as part of a larger energy production initiative. Three successive administrators of the EPA have tried without success to alter the rules and policies adopted during the Clinton administration that cracked down on aging power plants and refineries that were not equipped with modern air pollution equipment when they were upgraded and when their output was expanded.

Under the revised policy that was rejected by the court yesterday, power plants and other industrial polluters would not have to install new pollution technology if they modernized less than 20 percent of their operations.

The central question in the case focused on what constitutes an industrial facility "modification," because that is what triggers the federal requirement to cut down on the smog or soot emitted by utilities, oil refineries, incinerators, chemical plants and manufacturing operations. Previous administrations, including Bill Clinton's, had interpreted that phrase to encompass any physical activity that increases pollution from a given facility, with the exception of routine maintenance.

EPA officials in the Bush administration sought to broaden this exemption by asserting that "routine maintenance" is any activity that amounts to less than 20 percent of a plant's value. But the ruling, written by Judge Judith W. Rogers, rejected that reasoning as illogical.

"EPA's approach would ostensibly require that the definition of 'modification' include a phrase such as 'regardless of size, cost, frequency, effect,' or other distinguishing characteristic," Rogers wrote. "Only in a Humpty Dumpty world would Congress be required to use superfluous words while an agency could ignore an expansive word that Congress did use. We decline to adopt such a world-view."

The industry may appeal but the unanimous ruling was so strongly written that it is difficult to imagine it being over-turned.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Polygamy Diversion

Suddenly conservatives want to talk polygamy. Yesterday is was columnist Katherine Kersten in the Star Tribune; today it's the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer. Legalize and legitimize gay marriage and the advocates of polygamy will be knocking at the door next. These fear tactics are the surest sign that they know the game is up. Societal attitudes are changing about gay marriage. It isn't going to happen immediately but we are a generation away from it no longer being an issue.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

How Low Can He Go?

Via Laura Rozen, Pew poll results put the President's approval rating at a record low of 33%. The single-word destriptors most used to describe the President:
The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is "incompetent,"and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: "idiot" and "liar." All three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago.
The man couldn't show up to complete his service in the National Guard, couldn't run an oil company or a baseball team, was a lousy governor, and we made him President. It's taken six years of one disaster after another, but it is finally becoming plain for all to see -- even Republicans -- that the emperor has no clothes.

Why Do We Pick on Wal-Mart?

Because when it comes to union busting, gender discrimination, low wages, and off the clock work, they really are the worst.

Can Book Burning Be Far Behind

From The New York Times:
The Federal Communications Commission leveled a record $3.6 million fine yesterday against 111 television stations that broadcast an episode of "Without a Trace" in December 2004, with the agency saying the CBS show suggested that its teenage characters were participating in a sexual orgy.

The program was among nine cited yesterday for fines totaling about $4 million on agency accusations of violating decency standards between February 2002 and March 2005. The fines are the first indecency actions by the commission since Kevin J. Martin, a Republican, became chairman last March.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bart Ehrman and Misquoting Jesus

Over on the VOS listserve (Church of the Brethren progressive group) Craig Alan Myers of the BRF (Church of the Brethren conservative group) posted a link to a review of Bart Erhman's book Misquoting Jesus by a Denver Seminary professor Craig L. Blomberg. Here is the link. It's a good read. I replied to Craig with this:

Mr. Blomberg acknowledges the fact the Ehrman is a first-rate scholar and that after reading this book the lay reader (the target audience for the book) will know much more about the Bible than they did before. It is, according to him and with a few noted exceptions, very good scholarship.

But Mr. Blomberg also discovers something troubling about the book - Mr Ehrman has "an axe to grind." He is writing from a biased perspective. So, too, by the way, he says, was Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar.

My response to this is: and who doesn't have an axe to grind? What scholar, preacher, teacher, or writer doesn't have a particular theological or intellectual axe to grind? If you don't believe that you have something to say that is worth saying and different than what others are saying, why bother saying it? Ehrman and Funk know this. One of the reasons they tell us their personal stories in their books is so that we get a better sense of where they are coming from and can then better understand their bias. And both of them openly acknowledge in their writings that as time goes on and we learn more about history, make more archeological discoveries, enter different periods of time when other issues matter more, the thinking of scholarship will evolve and change. It is the nature of the beast of scientific discovery: theories are built on the foundation of what we know today with the full understanding that the final word has not been spoken. What is important in scholarship is that the bias is acknowledged.

Mr. Blomberg himself has a bias. It is on display in this passage:
But otherwise, the most disappointing feature of the volume is Ehrman's apparent unawareness of (or else his unwillingness to discuss) the difference between inductive and deductive approaches to Scripture. The classic evangelical formulations of inspiration and inerrancy have never claimed that these are doctrines that arise from the examination of the data of the existing texts. They are theological corollaries that follow naturally from the conviction that God is the author of the texts (itself suggested by 2 Tim. 3:16, Jesus' own high view of Scripture and his conviction that the Spirit had yet more truth to inspire his followers to record). But if the texts are "God-breathed," and if God cannot err, then they must be inspired and inerrant.

Ehrman offers no supporting arguments for his claims that if God inspired the originals, he both could have and should have inerrantly preserved them in all subsequent copies. It would have been a far greater miracle to supernaturally guide every copyist and translator throughout history than to inspire one set of original authors, and in the process it probably would have violated the delicate balance between the humanity and divinity of the Bible analogous to the humanity and divinity of Christ. All that is necessary is for us to have reason to believe that we can reconstruct something remarkably close to the originals, and we have evidence for that in abundance. No central tenet of Christianity hangs on any textually uncertain passage; this observation alone means that Christian textual critics may examine the variants that do exist dispassionately and without worrying that their faith is somehow threatened in the ways that Ehrman came to believe.
Note where he says: "They are theological corollaries that follow naturally from the conviction that God is the author of the texts .... But if the texts are "God-breathed," and if God cannot err, then they must be inspired and inerrent." This is Blomberg's bias: he has a conviction that God is the author of the texts (and as he notes between his parentheses, don't the scriptures themselves suggest this), and therefore since God cannot err, then they must be inspired and inerrant.

Here is the Jay Steele simple-minded common-sense response to that bias and quote. Simply substitute "Jay Steele" for the words "the text": >>They are theological corollaries that follow naturally from the conviction that God is the author of Jay Steele. (and don't we believe this to be true about the creation of humans and that we are God-breathed) But if Jay Steele is "God-breathed," and if God cannot err, then he (Jay Steele) must be inspired and inerrant.<<

Why? The conclusion doesn't necessarily follow. It most certainly doesn't about me and I believe it doesn't about the scriptures either. But that is my bias. Mr. Blomberg begins with a theological assumption and seeks to prove it or protect it. That is his bias. You can see it again here: "I went to a liberal Lutheran liberal arts college that was rapidly changing its approach to religious studies to try to conform to the secular university model, despite its Christian heritage, yet my studies demonstrated to me that it was needlessly running too fast too far." He, too, tells us his story so we can better understand his bias. Good for him. But my response to this last quote is that he left out two important words at the end: "for me." Which is fine. He was only willing to allow his scholarly studies to lead him down a path so far, and then he had no wish or no need to go any further. That is his bias.

Mr. Blomberg's bias is that the scriptures reveal the complete truth of God; no matter what we might learn in science, biblical scholarship, or life there is nothing that is ever going contradict that truth.

My bias is that the Christian scriptures reveal the beginning of theological reflection about Jesus, God, truth, and the meaning of life. But "The Truth" is being revealed to us little by little in the unfolding of life. And every time we get a little closer and understand a little more, another level of depth and truth is opened up to us. The joy of life and the key to spiritual growth is following the truth fearlessly wherever it leads.

Thai Buddhism and Political Activism

The Washington Post provides an interesting window into Thai Buddhism and political activism:
In the morning, they pray and collect alms. At night, they march and shout for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to resign.

Clearly these aren't your ordinary tranquil Thai Buddhists.In fact, they are members of the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect, and have dubbed themselves the "Dharma Army," in reference to the teachings of the Buddha that promote virtue. It's a jarring name to people who associate Buddhism with pacifism.

"It is our duty to Lord Buddha to oust the greedy and sinful Thaksin," says their charismatic and outspoken leader, Phra Bodhirak.

The group's members have joined the growing demonstrations to force Thaksin _ whom they accuse of corruption and abuse of power _ to step down.

A senior member of the sect, former Bangkok Gov. Chamlong Srimuang, is one of the leaders of what have become nearly daily anti-Thaksin protests. He last played such a role in 1992, when pro-democracy demonstrators forced out a military-backed government.

More than 20,000 people gathered Monday night near Bangkok's Grand Palace on the eve of a mass rally to demand Thaksin's resignation.

"We will wait with great patience (for Thaksin to resign) and use nonviolent means," Chamlong said. "If we use violence, it is our fellow Thais who will die."

Santi Asoke is not shy about flexing its political muscle, in the streets as well as at the ballot box. The group was in the vanguard of the 1992 demonstrations, and last year turned out in force to demonstrate against a beer company's plans to list on the Thai stock exchange _ alcohol being anathema to a virtuous Buddhist.

Once loosely affiliated with a political party founded by Chamlong, the group has now formed its own party known as "Pua Fa Din," or "For Our Land."

About 2,000 members of Santi Asoke are a steady presence at the anti-Thaksin rallies, which attract tens of thousands of people. Most wear the traditional blue Thai farmer's shirt called "mohom," symbolizing their devotion to simplicity.

There is a strong tradition in some schools of Buddhism _ in India and Vietnam, for example _ to engage in organized social and political struggle. But Thai Buddhism generally reflects the country's easygoing nature, which is respectful of authority and generally avoids confrontation.

Even so, Santi Asoke's street marches are peaceful and disciplined. The group prepared for a recent street action by viewing a video about the struggle of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian's national independence hero and apostle of nonviolence.

Monday, March 13, 2006

South Dakota and the Death Penalty

The Star Tribune has an article this morning about the return of the death penalty to South Dakota. In January the South Dakota Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences for two convicted killers. One of them has said he is set to accept his punishment and his execution has been set for August.

This is the same state that just recently passed a near-total ban on abortion. And I would venture a guess that if you asked the political leaders in South Dakota who pushed for this anti-abortion measure you would hear them say they were supporting a culture of life. But what they are really supporting is governance according to conservative religious principles. It's using the power of the state to execute criminals and using the power of the state to control women's reproductive choices. We used to call it "Old Testament" justice, but it could just as easily be conservative Islamic or Christian justice. Whatever you call it, South Dakota has taken a step backward in time.

Liberals and Religion

Steve Waldman is still writing and taking comments over at The Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal, about his article in the magazine, The Framers and the Faithful. I previously commented on it here. Apparently Waldman took some flack from commenters about his suggestion that the current iteration of liberalism is hostile to religion. But then he quotes from a new book by Rabbi Michael Lerner, "The Left Hand of God." Lerner is a well-known "spiritual" liberal who edits the magazine Tikkun. Lerner's quote and Waldman's response:

"Overwhelmingly, the white activists who shaped the Left of the 1960s have remained mired in a culture of hostility toward religion and spirituality. If this were merely a historical curiosity, I'd leave this issue to the cultural historians. But since the Left's hostility to religion and spirituality has become such a major stumbling block to the chances that progressive forces will ever win enough power to actually change the socially and environmentally destructive policies of the West, it becomes important to explore the roots of this hostility."

I had been making a narrower point – that many liberals carry an elitist attitude toward evangelical Christians. Lerner's indictment is far more sweeping. Is he being unfair? I think a distinction should be made between the elites and the rank and file on this. The fact is that most Democrats are religious. But secular liberals, who made up about 16% of the Kerry vote (more stats here) seem to have a disproportionate impact on the party's image and approach.
So are liberals hostile to religion? I think it is fair to say that there are some secular liberals that have a deep hostility towards right-wing religion, and a general distrust of religion in general. It might also be fair to say that they are over-represented in the image and image-making of the Democratic party.

But let's not forget that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry are all life-long church-goers. Carter and Clinton were always at home speaking the language of religion. Gore and Kerry never were, but that doesn't mean they were not genuinely religious. What it does mean, however, is that Democrats have had no trouble supporting religious leaders. But none of these leaders ever wore their religion on their sleeves. None of them ever dreamed of using religion as a wedge issue to divide right-wing Christians from secular and religious liberals.

All of these leaders represented the best of progressive religious values (including the fact that they were not perfect). They modeled and fought for tolerance and respect for all: religious or non-religious. Their political platforms emphasized suport for human rights, compassion for those less fortunate and government initiatives to level the playing field, respect for minority rights, global interdependence, care of the environment.

In my book these are religious values, but they are the kind of religious values that can speak to secular humanists as well as progressive evangelicals. They are not, however, the kind of wedge issues that Rove has used and Bush has preached as he courts the right wing.

In short, there is a smidgen of truth that liberals are hostile to religion. The rest is buying into the Rove playbook.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Interview with Key Witness in Dover ID Case

DailyKos science writer DarkSyde has an interview with Dr. Barbara Forrest. Dr. Forrest was a key witness in the Kitzmiller Vs Dover case concerning Intelligent Design Creationism. The Dover, PA School Board tried to introduce ID into the science curriculum. The resulting trial was a devastating defeat for ID. In this interview Dr. Forrest talks about her role in the trial and explains why ID isn't science and is just repackaged creationism. Here is an excerpt:

DS: How did Intelligent Design come about, who cooked this up?

Barbara: It's important to distinguish between the development of the ID creationists' Wedge Strategy, which I describe below, and the development of the ID movement itself. The ID movement began in the early 1980s with the publication of The Mystery of Life's Origin (MoLO 1984) by creationist chemist Charles B. Thaxton with Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olsen. Thaxton worked for Jon A. Buell at the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) in Texas, a religious organization that published MoLO. When FTE published MoLO, work had already begun on the book that later became Of Pandas and People, written by creationists Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis. Thaxton was the Pandas project chairman and academic editor. Thaxton called a 1988 conference, "Sources of Information Content in DNA," which attracted creationists such as Stephen C. Meyer, who later helped Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman establish the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (1996). In December 1988, Thaxton decided to use the label "intelligent design" instead of creationism for his new movement. He was the ID movement's most important early figure. He and Bradley later became Discovery Institute fellows at the CRSC.

It is important to note that both Thaxton's conference and his decision to use the term "intelligent design" occurred after the 1987 Edwards ruling. In addition, as I showed during my testimony in the Kitzmiller trial, the terminology used in Pandas was changed after the Edwards v. Aguillard ruling in 1987: the term "creationism" and its cognates were changed to "intelligent design."

All of this activity marked the beginning of the post-Edwards transformation of creation science to "intelligent design." ID proponents knew they could not continue to call themselves creationists. But Kenyon, who had been an expert witness as a "creation scientist" in the Edwards case at the same time he was writing Pandas, has plainly stated that "Scientific creationism, which in its modern phase began in the early 1960s, is actually one of the intellectual antecedents of the Intelligent Design movement" (Source).

In 1987, Stephen Meyer had met Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, while Johnson was on sabbatical in England and Meyer was completing his Ph.D. at Cambridge. Meyer told his fellow creationists about Johnson, who had undergone a religious conversion and decided to devote his life to crusading against evolution. After Johnson returned to the U.S., Meyer and his creationist associates united under Johnson's leadership, and Johnson developed his "Wedge Strategy." As I mentioned above, the ID movement was deliberately crafted, with Johnson as chief strategist, to avoid the constraints of the Edwards decision.

The "Wedge Strategy," Johnson's term for his plan to split open the "log of naturalism," began with Johnson's 1991 book Darwin on Trial. He rejects science's naturalistic methodology and wants to alter the definition of science to include the supernatural. He wants to reinstate in the public mind a pre-modern-- and pre-Darwinian-- understanding of science. Johnson considers his early work to be the "thin edge of the wedge," creating an opening for the work of younger ID creationists to gain entry into the science curriculum. Moreover, working with Religious Right groups such as Focus on the Family, American culture will be "renewed," i.e., returned to what ID proponents regard as its properly Christian foundation. (This reveals their agenda not only to subvert evolutionary theory, but secular constitutional democracy. See "The Wedge of Intelligent Design: Retrograde Science, Schooling, and Society," which Paul Gross and I wrote for Noretta Koertge's book, Scientific Values and Civic Virtues, Oxford University Press, 2005.)

After the 1996 establishment of the CRSC, ID creationists began to execute the Wedge Strategy in earnest. They sketched out their goals for the next twenty years in a tactical document entitled "The Wedge Strategy." Intended as a fundraising tool, it was leaked by Matt Duss, a part-time employee of a Seattle company who was instructed to photocopy it. His friend, Tim Rhodes, posted it on the Internet in February 1999. The Discovery Institute did not directly acknowledge ownership of the document until 2002. I had independently authenticated it in early 2000 during my research for Creationism's Trojan Horse. The "Wedge Document," as it is familiarly known, has served as a yardstick by which to measure the ID movement's advancement of its strategy.

DS: So, is there even a theory of Intelligent Design?

Babara: No. A scientific theory is a well-established scientific explanation of natural phenomena using abundant data acquired through rigorous scientific testing and research. ID proponents have produced absolutely nothing except a spate of books aimed at the popular audience. They have produced not one scintilla of scientific data because they have no scientific research program. ID is nothing more than a slightly repackaged extension of pre-Edwards creationism, advanced through the Discovery Institute's political connections, lucrative donor funding, Religious Right allies, and a slick public relations program. The Discovery Institute recently hired Creative Response Concepts, the same PR firm that represented Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Although scientific research is listed as the first goal in Phase I of the Wedge Strategy (probably as reassurance to potential donors), no scientific research on ID has even been attempted in any meaningful way by ID proponents. No scientific data supporting ID has ever been published in a peer-reviewed science journal. If such data existed, the Discovery Institute could make it readily available on one of its many websites. Of the relative handful of scientists who have endorsed the ID agenda, not a single one uses intelligent design as a working, professional scientist. Even biochemist Michael Behe, ID's premier scientist, has produced absolutely no scientific data to support it, nor does he himself use ID as a scientific theory in his own professional work as a scientist. Kenneth Chang's August 22, 2005, New York Times article on the ID movement refers to an ID research center called the Biologic Institute. But no announcement of it is posted on the Discovery Institute's website. An Internet search turns up neither a website or a phone listing. I suspect that the Discovery Institute tossed this out in advance of the Dover trial, which began one month after the article appeared.

Muslim in Los Angeles Criticizes Fellow Muslims

This is one brave woman:
Three weeks ago, Dr. Wafa Sultan was a largely unknown Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles, nursing a deep anger and despair about her fellow Muslims.

Today, thanks to an unusually blunt and provocative interview on Al Jazeera television on Feb. 21, she is an international sensation, hailed as a fresh voice of reason by some, and by others as a heretic and infidel who deserves to die.

In the interview, which has been viewed on the Internet more than a million times and has reached the e-mail of hundreds of thousands around the world, Dr. Sultan bitterly criticized the Muslim clerics, holy warriors and political leaders who she believes have distorted the teachings of Muhammad and the Koran for 14 centuries.

She said the world's Muslims, whom she compares unfavorably with the Jews, have descended into a vortex of self-pity and violence.

Dr. Sultan said the world was not witnessing a clash of religions or cultures, but a battle between modernity and barbarism, a battle that the forces of violent, reactionary Islam are destined to lose.

In response, clerics throughout the Muslim world have condemned her, and her telephone answering machine has filled with dark threats. But Islamic reformers have praised her for saying out loud, in Arabic and on the most widely seen television network in the Arab world, what few Muslims dare to say even in private.

She is also correct. The struggle is not between religions or cultures, it is between modernity and conservatism. It is the same struggle that goes on in Christianity, except in Christianity the struggle is largely over, except for a few fundamentalist holdouts. Islam still is dominated by the conservatives. But people like Dr. Sultan will help bring change.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The New Republic and Universal Healthcare

The New Republic, an occasionally liberal magazine, once participating in the pilloring of Hillary Clinton over her healthcare initiative under Husband Bill. The editors now have repented of the error of their ways and admit that the American healthcare system is a disgrace and the only answer is some form of goverment-funded universal care. It is a good article; here is an excerpt:

Over the last 25 years, liberalism has lost both its good name and its sway over politics. But it is liberalism's loss of imagination that is most disheartening. Since President Clinton's health care plan unraveled in 1994--a debacle that this magazine, regrettably, abetted--liberals have grown chastened and confused, afraid to think big ideas. Such reticence had its proper time and place; large-scale political and substantive failures demand introspection, not to mention humility. But it is time to be ambitious again. And the place to begin is the very spot where liberalism left off a decade ago: Guaranteeing every American citizen access to affordable, high-quality medical care.

The familiar name for this idea is "universal health care," a term that, however accurate, drains the concept of its moral resonance. Alone among the most developed nations, the United States allows nearly 16 percent of its population--46 million people--to go without health insurance. And, while it is commonly assumed that the uninsured still get medical care, statistics and anecdotes tell a different story. Across the United States today, there are diabetics skimping on their insulin, child asthmatics struggling to breathe, and cancer victims dying from undetected tumors. Studies by the Institute of Medicine suggest that thousands of people, maybe even tens of thousands, die prematurely every year because they don't have health insurance. And even those who don't suffer medical consequences face financial and emotional pain, as when seniors choose between prescriptions and groceries--or when families choose between the mortgage and hospital bills.

These are not the sorts of hardships that an enlightened society tolerates, particularly when those hardships so frequently visit people who, as the politicians like to say, "work hard and play by the rules." Yet American society has tolerated this situation for a long time. It has done so, at least in part, because the majority of working Americans still had private health insurance, generally through their jobs--the consequences of losing health coverage were, for the most part, somebody else's concern. Universal health care promised them security they already had. Change would only be for the worse.

But how many people can really count upon such security now? Precisely because working people expect to get insurance through their jobs, they are dependent upon the enthusiasm of employers to help pay for it--an enthusiasm that is waning in the face of rising medical costs and global competition. Companies have responded by reengineering their workforces to shed full-time workers that receive benefits, by redesigning their insurance plans to offer skimpier coverage, or by simply declining to offer coverage altogether. Soon, the only employers left offering generous health coverage may be the ones forced to do so by union contracts--employers like the Big Three automakers, which, when we last checked, were barely skirting bankruptcy themselves.


It's time for the government to be much bolder, to try something even more far-reaching than what it attempted in the '60s: making health care a right, not a privilege. And doing so for everybody, even if that means having the government provide insurance directly. Such a proposal might confound the conventional notions about what works and what doesn't work in public policy. But providing health insurance happens to be a job the public sector has already proved it can do very well. The most popular health insurance plan in the United States is Medicare--which, except for the drug benefit and a few HMOs that contract for the business, is a government-run health care program. And Medicare isn't only popular. It's also efficient. Nearly all of the money that goes into the program, via taxes and the premiums seniors pay, goes back out to purchase actual medical services. Private insurance, by contrast, inevitably diverts a much greater share of its premium dollars to administration, marketing, and profits, which means less money for the beneficiaries. In theory, insurance companies should be competing to provide their subscribers with the best, most cost-effective medical care. In practice, they compete over who can enroll the healthiest patients, since that is the surest way to improve profit margins.

Why I Am a Christian (Sort Of)

I don't believe in God.

I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don't believe exists.

Given these positions, this year I did the only thing that seemed sensible: I formally joined a Christian church.
So begins an excellent article by Robert Jensen in Alternet. Read it to see why he thinks, and I agree, he can still call himself a Christian.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar

Yesterday I received my latest issue of The Fourth R (as in religious literacy), the publication of the Westar Institute. Westar is the organization that brings together the Jesus Seminar scholars and publishes much of their work. The new issue is dedicated to Robert Funk, the founder of the Westar Institute and the Jesus Seminar. He died last year. It includes tributes by members of the Jesus Seminar and some of the other scholars Funk collaborated with over the years.

Long before he became better known for his work with the Jesus Seminar, Funk was acknowledged as one of the foremost language and biblical scholars in his generation. Anyone who has studied New Testament Greek or followed the issues of serious academic scholarship over the years (and this is admittedly a small group of people) has encountered his work as a translator of German scholarship and then his own textbooks and scholarship on Greek grammar.

I have some of those works on my bookshelf. But I am grateful to Funk for a different reason. In 1985 he founded the Jesus Seminar and invited John Dominic Crossan to be his co-chair. As Crossan says in an article in The Fourth R, Funk founded the Jesus Seminar for two reasons: one, he believed biblical scholars have an ethical responsibility to speak publicly and clearly about what they are learning; second, he believed there was a constituency of non-academics, including clergy, lay people in churches, and non-church people, who would relish the opportunity to learn and be part of the conversation. Crossan says he agreed wholeheartedly with the first point and doubted the second, but was most happy to be proved wrong on point two. In the last 20 years, the Jesus Seminar has educated, inspired, angered, and engaged a significant audience of non-academics in conversation about Jesus and Bible scholarship. I am one of those who has appreciated the opportunity to be part of the conversation. And I have tried to carry the spirit of Funk into my work as a pastor. I believe there is no reason people in the church should not know the truth about what scholars are learning and writing about Jesus and the Bible, and I believe this truth can be a source of re-invigorated faith and intellectual integrity. Thinking encouraged, Diversity (of beliefs about Jesus) Welcomed.

In another article about Funk, Stephen J. Patterson comments on the fact that Funk left the conservative church of his youth and never came back to any church as a member. But his work as a public scholar and the first face of the Jesus Seminar brought him back into churches on a routine basis and back into conversation with the institutional church about the place of Jesus in the church. Patterson says that Funk came back to the church not to be welcomed back "in" but "to draw the church out into the great wide, secular world, where it will have no special place, no privileged claim to Truth, but where it can rediscover the power of the sage it worships, and the transcendent reality to which he pointed."

Here is my own interpretation of Patterson's comment: Jesus never spent a day of his life inside a church. Of course, there was no church and no Christianity in his day. But Jesus also spent very little time inside the religious institution he grew up in: the temple. And what stories we have about him in the temple tell us that when he was there he usually found himself in conflict with its leadership. Why? Because their God was too small, their membership rules were too restrictive, and their club was too exclusive. For Jesus, the real work and the real world was outside the temple in the homes, markets, and public forums where people lived their everyday lives. It was there that he spent his time. It was there that he showed people how to see God in the everyday; it was there that he "comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable."

Funk reminds us that this is where our real work and ministry happens too. Our spiritual calling isn't to come to church and receive a weekly dose of the "Truth." The Truth is found and served wherever we are when we see the presence of God in our midst and act to make the realm of God a present-day reality. We make the Truth real by the manner of our living. This is the "street" Wisdom of Jesus, and the task of the church is to give us the skills to see God everywhere and the courage to be God's people in our daily lives.

I am grateful for the part that Robert Funk has played in helping me see this about Jesus. It may not have brought him back into the church, but it is a large reason I am still in the church doing what I am doing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Negative Perception of Islam Increasing

The Washington Post reports that Americans have a more negative view of Islam now than immediately after the 9/11 attacks:

As the war in Iraq grinds into its fourth year, a growing proportion of Americans are expressing unfavorable views of Islam, and a majority now say that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The poll found that nearly half of Americans -- 46 percent -- have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when Muslims were often targeted for violence.

It is an unfortunate fact that there is a radically violent minority of Muslims. It is also an unfortunate fact that we made the mistake of plopping ourselves down in the midst of a huge predominantly Muslim country with a history of tension among Muslim factions, and with not a clue about how to proceed. And now, unsurprisingly, we are dealing on a daily basis with that radical Muslim minority. They make our news day after day. And unfortunately, it shapes our perception of the all Muslims. I think religious and political leaders in our country have a responsibility to speak out against bigotry and stereotyping, but I don't have much hope that perceptions will change until we get ourselves out of Iraq - and then get ourselves off our Middle East oil fix.

Conservative Rabbis Delay Vote on Gay Issues

Conservative Judaism is apparently on the brink of accepting gays as Rabbis and same-sex unions:

A committee of legal experts who set policy for Conservative Judaism decided yesterday at a closed-door meeting in Baltimore to wait until December to vote on whether to lift the movement's ban on gay rabbis and same-sex union ceremonies.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been considering the issue for three years, and many Jewish leaders had anticipated that the two-day meeting that ended yesterday would produce a change.

But members of the committee said in interviews that the decision is a momentous one, and that they are still divided on whether acceptance of homosexuality is permissible under Jewish law, known as halacha.

The four legal proposals on the table were sent back to their authors for "extensive revisions," said Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, a nonvoting member of the law committee and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the movement's 1,600 rabbis.


Of the four proposals the committee is considering, two essentially oppose any change to the current law, and one advocates a substantial change of the law. One tries to find a middle ground by permitting gay rabbis and same-sex ceremonies, but prohibiting anal sex, an effort to stay consistent with a Bible passage that says, "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Abramoff in Vanity Fair

It looks like the next edition of Vanity Fair is going to be a collector's edition:
VF: Ex-Lobbyist Abramoff Dishes on Ex-Friends

Opening with a double-page bleed-to-the-edge photo of a smiling Jack Abramoff golfing with Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), the April issue of Vanity Fair (hitting next week) devotes nine pages to the disgraced lobbyist and his attempts to set the record straight. Paticularly on all those who have forsaken him:

President Bush, who claims not to remember meeting Abramoff - the lobbyist says Bush once joked with him, "What are you benching, big guy?"

RNC Chair Ken Mehlman, who said he didn't really know Abramoff - it turns out he had Sabbath dinner at Abramoff's house, did him political favors, and even offered to pay Abramoff's tab at Signatures, the lobbyist's restaurant.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), who says Abramoff never influenced him - "Every appropriation we wanted [from Burns' committee] we got. Our staffs were as close as they could be. They practically used Signatures as their cafeteria."

Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose spokesman says Newt wouldn't have known Abramoff "if he fell across him" - "I have more pictures of [Newt] than I have of my wife."

Caucus Thoughts

I attended the DFL caucus last night as a caucus convener who became the precinct chair. There were considerably fewer folks this time than two years ago, but more than in previous off-election years. Caucuses are a unique political event. Delegates to the state Senate District convention are elected, and these delegates are important for hopeful candidates. But the most unique aspect of the DFL caucuses (I can't speak to what happens at other party caucuses) is the resolution process where resolutions are proposed, debated, and voted on, to be passed on in their journey towards the state platform. It is in the resolution process that you get a sense of who is in the room and what people are angry or engaged about. My precinct group was surprisingly liberal and united around resolutions to have single-payer healthcare, higher taxes for transportation, getting out of Iraq, and more. It was an enjoyable evening.

There were some shenanigans in my Senate District by the old guard to give CD2 congressional candidate Sharon Marko an opportunity to speak to the whole body. It is highly unusual to gather everyone together for a pep rally, and it was planned for Marko's benefit. She must have been twice surprised to see so many Coleen Rowley supporters and then Coleen herself there to speak. There are a couple of people in the SD that have to go.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Framers and the Faithful

The Washington Monthly has outdone itself this month with a series of great articles focusing on various aspects of evangelical religion. Yesterday I commented on the article about moderate evangelicals who are abandoning Bush. Today I want to call attention to the article by Steve Waldman, editor of Beliefnet, on the founders and religious freedom.

It is a great article. Read it all. But the gist of it is that both religious conservatives and religious and secular liberals argue about the founders intent regarding the separation of church and state. Conservatives argue that the founders were simply concerned to legislate against religious establishment; liberals argue that the founders wanted a high "wall" that would keep religion out of the public sphere. Waldman points out that the reason it is possible to look at the founders and argue both positions is because the founders themselves disagreed about what the intent was:
John Adams, Patrick Henry, and others believed the First Amendment really was meant to block the formal establishment of an official church, but allowed much mixing of church and state. For instance, Adams endorsed national days of fasting and prayer and appointment of congressional chaplains. Jefferson and Madison were on the other end of the spectrum, demanding the clearest separation of church and state. As president, Jefferson reversed the practice initiated by Washington and Adams, and refused to have a national day of prayer. Madison agreed. He cited the appointment of chaplains as being a direct violation of the “pure principle of religious freedom,” especially given how “strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Government in the Constitution of the United States.”
But Waldman also points out there was one religious group that consistently sided with Jefferson and Madison - evangelicals:

Just as the Founding Fathers disagreed, so too did people of faith. Congregationalists and Episcopalians were the chief defenders of state-supported religion and more aligned with the views of Adams and Henry. It was the evangelicals who backed the more radical views of Jefferson and Madison. Leland (J: Baptist minister who sent Jefferson a 1200 lb. block of cheese in thanks for Jefferson's fight for disestablishment), for instance, agreed with Jefferson's opposition to congressional chaplains. “If legislatures choose to have a chaplain, for Heaven's sake, let them pay him by contributions, and not out of the public chest,” he once wrote. Indeed, as Rabbi James Rudin notes in his new book The Baptizing of America, “Leland was even against the Sunday closings of U.S. post offices, feeling this represented government favoritism by officially recognizing the Christian Sabbath.”

In other words, the Founding Fathers were divided on separation of church and state—but most of the evangelicals weren't. They overwhelmingly sided with Jefferson and Madison.

On one level, this little-known alliance between Jefferson, Madison, and the evangelicals was pragmatic; for different reasons, they shared similar goals. But the connection went far deeper. When evangelicals smashed ecclesiastical authority—by, say, meeting in the fields without the permission of the local clergy—they were undermining authority in general. They were saying that on a deep spiritual level, salvation came through a direct relationship with God and that the clerical middleman was relatively unimportant. Jefferson and other enlightenment thinkers were glorifying the power of the individual mind to determine the truth—through evidence rather than merely tradition. As the historian Rhys Isaac put it, “Jefferson's system proclaimed individual judgment as sacred, sacred against the pressure of collective coercions; the evangelicals did the same for private conscience.”

Today's Christian conservatives often note that Jefferson's famous line declaring that the first amendment had created “a wall separating church and state” was not in the Constitution but in a private letter. But in that letter, Jefferson was responding to one sent to him by a group of Baptists in Danbury, Conn. We usually read Jefferson's side of that exchange. It's worth re-reading what the Danbury Baptists had to say because it reminds us that for the 18th-century evangelicals, the separation of church and state was not only required by the practicalities of their minority status, but was also demanded by God. “Religions is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals,” the Baptists wrote, warning that government “dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehova and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.” Government had no business meddling in the affairs of the soul, where there is only one Ruler.

Today's evangelicals are free, Waldman says, to argue for the tearing down of the wall between church and state, but they are straying far from the roots of the evangelicals who worked so hard to build it up.