Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Indiana’s Holocaust Observance and My Closing Remarks

Today I had the privilege — in my capacity as President of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council — to offer the closing remarks at the State of Indiana’s annual Holocaust Observance program (this year’s title was “A Holocaust Day of Remembrance: Honoring the Past, Remembering for the Future”). The program is presented by the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Indiana Holiday Commission, and Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

The speakers at the program included Clayton A. Graham, Chair, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Indiana Holiday Commission, and Indiana Civil Rights Commission; Tony A. Kirkland, Executive Director, Indiana Civil Rights Commission; Cantor Janice Roger, Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation; and Phil Lande, son of a Holocaust survivor. The featured speakers were Richard Mourdock, Indiana State Treasurer (who, though I may disagree with him on many things, impressed me with very powerful remarks for which I express my sincere gratitude), and Norbert Krapf, Indiana Poet Laureate. Mr. Krapf spoke of growing up in a German-Catholic community in southern Indiana and his efforts to learn about his heritage and how those efforts, in turn, led to his learning about the Holocaust. He read several very moving selections from his book Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany. You can read more of Mr. Krapf’s story in A Poet Discovers a World of Complexities in His Background archived from The New York Times.

Of course, given that this blog is about Me Me Me Me Me, I decided to reprint my prepared remarks:

In Indiana, the law requires that Holocaust education be a part of the curriculum. However, teaching about the Holocaust is not the same as understanding the Holocaust. Unfortunately, this distinction was made all too apparent earlier this school year in a central Indiana middle school.

The class was an 8th grade English writing class. Some teachers in other 8th grade English classes were teaching The Diary of Anne Frank; unfortunately, they later explained, they didn’t know much about the Holocaust themselves, especially how to teach it to 8th graders. In the particular writing class, the teacher was focusing on creative writing and wanted to avoid some of the same exercises that she’d used for years. So, with the help of some materials and suggestions that she’d found elsewhere, she tried to get her students to think about bad things. She wanted them to write creatively, and especially to try to find some of the good that might be found in those bad things. While this may have been a laudable goal, in some cases — like the Holocaust — there simply isn’t an easily found silver lining. And thus the assignment went awry.

One of the possible assignments for the students was to sell something. Before I describe how this assignment relates to the Holocaust, let me first relay the first of the two examples of something that could be sold provided by the teacher:

For Sale: America. This 200+ year old country could be just what the medicine man ordered! Nestled between 2 major oceans and bordered on the north and south by 2 friendly countries, the United States of America has already been subdivided into 48 convenient parcels plus a vast tract of land near the Arctic Circle and a few heavenly islands in the Pacific. Though it no longer contains huge herds of buffalo to hunt and crystal clear streams and lakes to fish in, native peoples will still enjoy the vast tracks of farmland and those with Visa cards will be able to buy food and manufactured items to help them forget the pristine beauty which was lost. They could also watch nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel.

Though some may agree with the political viewpoint of that example, one must query its appropriateness as an example for an 8th grade English class. But what about the Holocaust? Here is the second example:

For Sale: Auschwitz. Looking for a place that would make the perfect summer camp? Think about this concentration camp. Poland would like to take the bad reputation of Auschwitz and turn it around! Think of the possibilities! The barracks could be renovated to house thousands of people. We have ovens big enough to bake bread for thousands. The razor wire will prevent students from making a break for it. There is plenty of room for exercise, where role call used to be taken. Railroads can go right through camp, meaning supplies will be at your fingertips at all times.

Yes, you heard me correctly: We have ovens big enough to bake bread for thousands. That is what I mean when I say that there is a difference between teaching about the Holocaust and understanding the Holocaust.

And that wasn’t the only example in the assignment packet. Students could also write a letter of recommendation for a job. One example provided was to have Adolf Hitler write a letter of recommendation for Dr. Joseph Mengele for a job as a plastic surgeon. For those who don’t recall, he was the “doctor” who performed experiments on twins at Auschwitz, including Terre Haute resident Eva Kor and her twin sister. Or students could create a trading card about a historical figure. The example provided was Adolf Hitler. Some of the data on the example Hitler trading card:

Hobbies: Planning New Ways to Rule the World

Pet Peeve: Jews.

You see, so long as we live in a world where people can make jokes about ovens used to destroy the bodies of millions of people murdered for no reason other than their religion, so long as we live in a world where people don’t take seriously evil experiments done upon unwilling human victims, so long as we live in a world where people can look at the evil of the Holocaust and chalk it up to one man’s “pet peeve”, then we remain at risk for the same things happening again and again.

Our world continues to face genocide. From Rwanda to Bosnia to Darfur. We give lip service to learning the lessons of the Holocaust, but it seems clear that we’re not really digesting those lessons. All too often we allow hate to fester and guide our actions.

The issue in the school has been largely resolved and those involved have used the incident as a learning opportunity, so I don’t want to spend time rehashing issues of blame or to even note which school was involved. I’m satisfied that the teacher understands the inappropriateness of the assignment.

We need to continue teaching about the Holocaust, both in terms of the facts of what happened and in terms of the lessons to be learned. And we need to be sure that we give Indiana’s teachers the tools and lessons that they need so that they can tackle this subject with the seriousness and understanding that it requires. For to teach the Holocaust as something other than one of the worst evils the world has ever seen is to teach our children that genocide isn’t a danger and that hate is an acceptable guidepost to life.

The program had a small audience. The Jewish community was well-represented. But those of us in the Jewish community need to do an even better job of attending at and participating in events such as this one (or the Holocaust Observance program being conducted by the City of Carmel on Friday) to demonstrate to the broader community that we really do care about the Holocaust and that we’re appreciative of the efforts of our state and local municipalities to commemorate the Holocaust. More importantly, we need to be sure that more Gentiles are in attendance so that we can be sure that memories of the Holocaust do not become the sole province of Jews.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Will This Finally Convince People to Stop Paying Attention to Glenn Beck

Over the past year or so, Glenn Beck has made some pretty wild accusations and statements, whether declaring President Obama to be a racist, fear-mongering about FEMA concentration camps, or any of a host of other wild and often dangerous claims. Yet people continue to watch his program and listen to his rants (though advertisers continue to flee his program). A few days ago, however, he may have finally taken a step to show people how truly deranged he is and, at least to me, that derangement is dangerous.

On his radio show Beck said this (audio available here):

I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!

For the record, I’m a conservative Jew. So I followed Beck’s advice and looked (I knew what I’d find…) at the website of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and found a whole page on Social Action including a sub-topic of Social Justice that includes such things as climate change, Civility in Public Discourse, Confronting the Common Enemy: Hatred, Dialogue with Presbyterian Clergy, Jewish Community Budget Priorities, Domestic Violence, Heading Off Bias Crimes Before They Occur, Serving Our Seniors, gay marriage, Judaism and Health Care Reform, Organ Donation, and numerous other issues. Ooh. Scary stuff, right? Well, no. Not really. In fact, those positions are things that make me proud to be a Jew and proud of my affiliation.

My synagogue is also affiliated with Reconstructionist Judaism. Guess what? There is a social justice component to Reconstructionist teaching as well (though sadly the website doesn’t have a dedicated social justice page). Similarly, the website for the Union of Reform Judaism also has a whole page devoted to social action that includes, among other things, Heath Care for All, Economic Justice, and Greening Reform Judaism.

Now according to data that I found on Wikipedia (I know, I know…), there are between 5.1 and 6.5 million Jews in America (the lower number does not include children). Apparently, 4.3 million are “strongly connected” to Judaism. Of those, 46% belong to a synagogue and of those who do belong, approximately 71% are affiliated with either the Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist movements, all of which have a social justice component. So by my rough math, Beck has told approximately 1.4 million American Jews to leave their respective Jewish affiliations!

If that wasn’t offensive enough, here’s why Beck wants people to disaffiliate from churches that advocate for social justice:

That’s right, social justice led to the gassing of 6 million Jews. At least it did in Glenn Beck’s paranoid, freakazoid, sleazy, world o’ fear. (For the record, Beck was raised Catholic but became a Mormon.)

I’ll leave members of other religions (especially Catholics) to talk about how offensive Beck’s comments are to them; I can’t and won’t speak on their behalf. But for Beck to attack social justice — which is a central focus of much of modern (progressive Judaism) — is so far beyond the pale it is hard to fathom. But to then tie that social justice to Nazism is … well … frankly, I’m at a loss for words on this one.

Tell Fox News that it is time for Beck to go before he manages to incite his own racial, religious, ethnic, or political civil war. Then again, maybe that’s what Fox wants. After all, a good ol’ fashion civil war or even simple race riots or an assassination or two might be good for ratings.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How Do You Compare to the Wingnut … er … Republican Population?

Research 2000, a “nonpartisan full service research firm” just finished a poll on behalf of Daily Kos. The poll was conducted in late January 2010 and asked just over 2,000 self-identified Republicans a series of questions. The results are … well … staggering. But before diving into the results, let’s play a little game. Below, I’ll reprint the most interesting questions. Take out a piece of paper and write down both your answer and the percentage of those polled who you think answered the same way that you did. Let’s see if you’re a wingnut or sane.

  • Should Barack Obama be impeached, or not?
  • Do you believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, or not?
  • Do you think Barack Obama is a socialist?
  • Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?
  • Do you believe ACORN stole the 2008 election?
  • Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama?
  • Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates White people?
  • Do you believe your state should secede from the United States?
  • Should openly gay men and women be allowed to serve in the military?
  • Should same sex couples be allowed to marry?
  • Should gay couples receive any state or federal benefits?
  • Should openly gay men and women be allowed to teach in public schools?
  • Should contraceptive use be outlawed?
  • Do you believe the birth control pill is abortion?
  • Do you consider abortion to be murder?
  • Do you support the death penalty?
  • Should public school students be taught that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world?
  • Do you believe that the only way for an individual to go to heaven is though Jesus Christ, or can one make it to heaven through another faith?

Well, how would you classify yourself after answering those questions? Do you think that your answers are similar to the majority of self-identified Republicans or do you think that you found yourself in the “minority”?

Let’s take a look at the results (for full crosstabs [results], take a look at the detailed information at Daily Kos):

  • Should Barack Obama be impeached, or not?

Before telling you the percentage of self-identified Republicans who answered this question in the affirmative, it is worth remembering what the Constitution says about impeachment: “The President … shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. (Article II Section 4.) Just out of curiosity, what treason, bribery, or other high crime or misdemeanor has President Obama committed, other than trying to push forward the agenda upon which he campaign and for which he was elected by a majority of Americans?

Anyway, 39% of self-identified Republicans believe that President Obama should be impeached and another 29% of self-identified Republicans aren’t sure! Only 32% of self-identified Republicans do not believe that President Obama should be impeached. Too bad the survey didn’t also ask respondents to identify the grounds for impeachment. But think of what those numbers mean and then tell me how in the world bipartisanship is supposed to work. How is an elected Republican expected to work with President Obama or Congressional Democrats when this is what the Republican base believes (and maybe the elected Republican agrees…)? Also, think about the fact that President Clinton was impeached for lying about a blowjob and Republicans want President Obama impeached for … um … something. But President Bush got a free pass for torture, imprisoning people without right to counsel, warrantless wiretaps, going to war on the basis of a lie, ignoring intelligence that warned of an impending attack against the US, perhaps using aircraft, and the list goes on and on. What does it say about people who (I presume) did not want to impeach President Bush but do want to impeach President Obama?

  • Do you believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, or not?

Now don’t forget that, despite everything you may have read, President Obama did release his birth certificate and it was fact-checked by the non-partisan Factcheck.org. Nevertheless, 36% of self-identified Republicans do not believe that President Obama was born in the United States and another 22% aren’t sure. Add to this the fact that much of the “birther” community argues that President Obama is not a natural born citizen on the basis of his father’s British (Kenyan) citizenship, not that President Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii (though a segment continues to argue that he was born in Kenya [and has offered several obviously fake birth certificates to “prove it”] or even Indonesia [on the basis of nothing more than sheer idiocy…]). The point is that if President Obama was not a natural born citizen then he would be ineligible to be President. If only 42% of self-identified Republicans do believe that President Obama is the legitimate President, then what does that say about his ability to govern or the ability of Congressional Republicans to work with him.

It is worth comparing the “birther” conspiracy to the 2000 Bush v. Gore election. Despite ample evidence that President Obama is a natural born citizen, Republicans don’t believe it. In 2000, despite evidence of electoral shenanigans and a hotly disputed court case, once President Bush took office, Democrats didn’t refuse to work with President Bush on the grounds of “illegitimacy”. How many military officers did we see refuse to serve because they didn’t believe President Bush was the lawful Command-in-Chief? So what is it that gives the “birther” conspiracy the strength to endure even after it has been repeatedly debunked? To me, the fact that so many people are so willing to believe the “birther” theories in the face of contrary evidence says much more about the “birthers'” themselves than anything else. “We don’t need no stinkin’ facts; we know the truth, goshdarnit!”

  • Do you think Barack Obama is a socialist?

I still wonder how many Republicans (or Democrats for that matter) really understand what it means to be a socialist or really understand what policies are socialist. Anyway, 63% of self-identified Republicans believe that President Obama is a socialist and another 16% aren’t sure. Only 21% don’t think that he’s a socialist (though I wonder if a percentage of those answered “no” because they think that he’s either a fascist or a Marxist). Of those who believe that President Obama is a socialist, what percent do you suppose would be willing to forego Social Security, Medicare, public education, interstate highways, NASA, and a whole host of other government programs?

  • Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?

Before I tell you the results of this question, go back and read it again. And again. Think about what you’d have to believe to answer this question in the affirmative. Well 24% of self-identified Republicans do think that President Obama wants the terrorists to win and another 33% aren’t sure. Less than half of Republicans believe that President Obama does not want the terrorists to win. Query why so many Republicans think that President Obama wants terrorists to win. Is it because he doesn’t want to torture them? It is because he wants to close Guantanamo and have trials? Is it because his middle name is “Hussein”? It can’t really have anything to do with Afghanistan or Pakistan given that President Obama has increased troop levels in Afghanistan and increased the number of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan. But next time you hear a Republican complain about trials for suspected terrorists or the refusal to torture those in custody, think about those complaints in the context with the fact that it appears that those policy differences mean that President Obama “wants the terrorists to win”.

  • Do you believe ACORN stole the 2008 election?

21% of self-identified Republicans believe that ACORN stole the 2008 election and another 55% aren’t sure. Think about that, three-quarters of Republicans either believe that ACORN “stole” the 2008 election or aren’t sure. Again, one has to wonder what the basis for this belief (or inability to decide) could be. Could it be the thousands of prosecutions in formerly red states against ACORN for procuring fraudulent votes? Um, wait. There haven’t been prosecutions for procuring fraudulent votes. The only thing that really makes sense here is the sense that ACORN = BLACK and African-Americans turned out to vote in 2008 and helped elect President Obama. And of course President Obama’s election must have nothing to do with the financial meltdown, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sen. McCain’s policies, President Bush’s unpopularity, or Sarah Palin. Nope, none of that could have been a factor. It must have been ACORN. But it is interesting to note the extent to which, among Republicans, a largely African-American community organizing group has become the bogeyman for what they perceive as the ills of America.

  • Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Barack Obama?

I’m going to answer this one in the reverse first: Only 14% of self-identified Republicans believe that Barack Obama is more qualified to be President than Sarah Palin. 14%. Please go back and read my previous essays American Idol Candidate and A Victory for Thought. I don’t really have much more to say about this issue; between those essays and other things that I wrote during the campaign, I think that I’ve pretty well exhausted the subject. But for those who didn’t read my previous posts, let me just say this: I believe that being educated at some of the finest schools in the country, including law school, lecturing at one of the finest schools in the country, acting as a highly successful community organizer, and serving (even if briefly) as a state legislator and in the United States Senate makes Barack Obama far more qualified than Sarah Palin who served as mayor of a town with a population of just over 5,000 and governor (until she quit) of a state with the 47th largest population. Then again, we do have to give Palin credit for discovering those non-existent “death panels” and publicizing them on Facebook, don’t we?

  • Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates White people?

Don’t forget that President Obama was raised by his white mother and white grandparents. Well, 31% of self-identified Republicans still think that he is a racist who hates white people and another 33% aren’t sure. Barely one-third of self-identified Republicans don’t think that President Obama is a racist who hates white people. I wonder what percentage of that 31% are themselves racists? Just for fun, go back and take a look at my posts about some of the tea parties from last year (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) and think about the issue of racism and who (President Obama or the Republicans who think that he’s a racist) might better be characterized as the racist. And for those who do think that President Obama is a racist who hates white people … um … why?

  • Do you believe your state should secede from the United States?

Before I tell you the results of this question, query how many of those who answered “yes” would also identify themselves as patriots. Anyway, 23% of self-identified Republicans think that their state should secede from the United States and another 19% aren’t sure. While it is true that 58% percent don’t think that their states should secede, that still leaves an awful lot of “patriots” who favor secession or who haven’t ruled it out. Can you imagine the outcry from Republicans if a single Democrat were to favor secession or even discuss the issue of secession? Anne Coulter would write a a book; Glenn Beck would cry; Rush Limbaugh would give himself a coronary; and Sean Hannity would … what the hell is it that Hannity does anyway? But the Republican Governor of Texas openly talks about secession as a legitimate option. How very patriotic.

Let me quote Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, about the responses to this particular question:

42 percent of Republicans aren't really patriotic. They pretend to love America only when they approve of the president. These traitors don't believe in democracy, in our nation's founding ideals, or in our flag. To them, those colors run. They are cowards.

Note, secession sentiment is MUCH stronger in the South than elsewhere -- 33 percent want out, compared to just 52 percent who want to stay. In the Northeast, "just" 10 percent want out, in the Midwest, its 18 percent, and in the West, it's 16 percent. Can we cram them all into the Texas Panhandle, create the state of Dumbfuckistan, and build a wall around them to keep them from coming into America illegally?

I guess I should feel good that “only” 18% of Midwestern Republicans want to secede.

  • Should openly gay men and women be allowed to serve in the military?

Republicans still favor a “big tent” philosophy, right? Um, not so much. 55% of self-identified Republicans don’t think openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military and 19% aren’t sure. I wonder how many Republicans will change their mind now that Admiral Mullen has come out in favor of repealing “don’t ask don’t tell”? After all, in their proposed purity test, Republicans wanted to follow the advice of military commanders (“We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges”). Nevertheless, I recognize that repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” and the issue of gays in the military is hotly debated, not just among Republicans, so let’s look at Republican views on other “gay” issues.

  • Should same sex couples be allowed to marry?

While the general outcome of this question probably won’t come as a surprise, the “margin of victory” as it were was somewhat surprising. Only 7% of self-identified Republicans believe that same sex couples should be allowed to marry. 77% do not believe that same sex couples should be allowed to marry! It is worth noting (though I’m not sure what it means) that 80% of men oppose same sex-marriages, but only 74% of women oppose same-sex marriages. It is also worth noting that while only 5% of self-identified Republicans aged 60 or over favor same-sex marriage, 11% of Republicans aged 18-29 favor same-sex marriage. There appears to be a direct correlation between age and support for same-sex marriage. That, in part, explains Republican efforts to amend state constitutions. They see that the demographic tide is shifting in favor of gay marriage, even among Republicans (though by a much smaller majority); thus, they want to amend constitutions now so that more socially open generations that follow can’t easily have their state laws adapt. I still wish that I understood what these people are really afraid of…

  • Should gay couples receive any state or federal benefits?

Well maybe Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage would be more comfortable with something “less” than marriage. Or not. 68% of self-identified Republicans oppose state or federal benefits for gay couples. So much for civil unions, I guess.

  • Should openly gay men and women be allowed to teach in public schools?

Ooh. Scary. A homosexual teaching kids. Well, it apparently is scary to self-identified Republicans: 73% are opposed to openly gay men and women being allowed to teach in public schools.

Just to recap, no gays in the military, no gay marriage, no state or federal benefits for gay couples, and no gay teachers. Do you suppose that it would be fair to say that Republicans are opposed to gay rights? Or, said another way, given that some Republicans would argue with the phrase “gay rights”, is it safe to say that Republicans are opposed to gays? It seems to me that the Log Cabin Republicans really need to think about who they’re associating with and why.

  • Should contraceptive use be outlawed?

Before diving into this question, remember that it is Republicans who talk about keeping government out of our lives, who were scared of “death panels”, and are usually opposed to “on demand” abortion. So you’d think that Republicans would support the use of contraceptives to avoid unwanted pregnancies and would be opposed to laws restricting what people can do, right? Um, not so much. 31% of self-identified Republicans believe that contraceptive use should be outlawed and another 13% aren’t sure. Remember, the question isn’t whether Republicans think that they shouldn’t use contraceptives, but rather, whether the use of contraceptives by others should be outlawed.

  • Do you believe the birth control pill is abortion?

Now that we know that nearly one-third of Republicans want to outlaw the use of contraceptives, can you begin to guess why? Yep. 34% of self-identified Republicans believe that the birth control pill is abortion and another 18% aren’t sure. In other words, less than half of self-identified Republicans disagree with the statement that the birth control pill is abortion. Given that, how in the world is any pro-choice or family planning advocate supposed to find any kind of common ground with Republicans? But it gets better…

  • Do you consider abortion to be murder?

Only 8% of self-identified Republicans answered “no” to this question. Less than 1 in 10! 76% of self-identified Republicans do believe that abortion is murder and another 16% aren’t sure. No wonder people like Dr. George Tiller are killed (well, that and people like Bill O’Reilly egging on those pre-disposed to anti-abortion violence). I do wish that the survey had asked a few deeper follow-up questions to gauge whether this opinion moderated in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the health of the mother.

  • Do you support the death penalty?

Well, at least we know that the vast majority of Republicans recognize the sanctity of life. Except that 91% of self-identified Republicans support the death penalty (with another 5% not sure). I don’t think that I’ve really addressed my views on the death penalty in this blog previously and I don’t really want to get into a long discussion of that now. Broadly speaking, I support the death penalty in a limited number of truly heinous crimes when we really, really, really know that the defendant is guilty; but I temper that support with the belief that as new technologies become available we need to make every effort to utilize the technology to confirm guilt before putting someone to death. I’d much rather have guilty people rotting away in jail than innocent people being killed. I don’t know if Republican support for the death penalty has any sort of nuance, but if I had to guess, I’d wager that Republicans would probably say, “hey, if they’re guilty, fry ’em”. Of course, I suspect that those same Republicans would also be willing to eliminate Miranda warnings, right to counsel, and a whole host of other protections afforded to criminal defendants.

  • Should public school students be taught that the book of Genesis in the Bible explains how God created the world?

Think about this question for a moment and what a response really tells us about someone. First, if you answer in the affirmative, doesn’t that mean that you perceive your religion as right and all others as wrong? After all, we would only be teaching the “truth” to our kids and another religious tradition that disagreed with that truth must, by implication, be wrong. Second, think about what an affirmative answer to this question says about your view of science. If Genesis explains how God created the world, then doesn’t that mean that not only evolution but also anthropology and astronomy are wrong? Note that this question isn’t even asking if Republicans think that “intelligent design” should be taught instead of or alongside evolution; it is asking if the Bible should be the source material for certain aspects of the science and history curriculum. Third, those answering in the affirmative need to address which creation story from Genesis should be taught in schools to explain the creation of the world. Read Genesis 1:25-27 and Genesis 2:18-19 and then tell me whether God created man or animals first. Then read Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:18-22 and tell me whether man and woman were created at the same time or if woman was created after man. I continue to marvel at the ease with which people will assume that the Bible is the inerrant truth and ignore obvious problems that interfere with that belief.

Anyway, with all of that out of the way, let’s look at the results. Drum roll please… 77% of self-identified Republicans believe that public school students should be taught that the book of Genesis explains how God created the world. Another 8% aren’t sure. Thus only 15% of self-identified Republicans do not think that we should be using the Bible as the basis for certain history and scientific curricula in public schools. The obvious antipathy toward science evidenced by the desire to teach the Bible instead of science is worth remembering next time you hear a Republican talking about the lack of “evidence” for climate change or evolution.

Which, of course, brings us to the real heart of the matter, the question that helps to explain so many of these previous answers:

  • Do you believe that the only way for an individual to go to heaven is though Jesus Christ, or can one make it to heaven through another faith?

67% of self-identified Republicans believe that the only way for an individual to go to heaven is through Jesus. 18% aren’t sure. I wonder what portion of the 15% who answered negatively aren’t Christians? I’d certainly presume that any Republicans who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any faith other than Christian would have answered “no”. But what this response really tells us is how Republicans view everyone who isn’t a Christian. At least 67% of Republicans, if not substantially more, think that I’m going to hell. Wow. Moreover, it is worth remembering the response to this question when you next hear a Republican demonizing a political opponent; after all, why bother to humanize or cooperate with someone who you believe is going to hell anyway. And perhaps this answer helps explain why Jews identify so strongly with the Democratic party.

Whew. I know that there’s a lot to digest here. There were several other questions in the poll that, frankly, didn’t interest me that much or for which the responses weren’t particularly revealing or meaningful.

It seems to me that asking Republican candidates some of these questions in upcoming elections might be a good strategy; their responses might shore up support with their base, but might also further alienate them from the moderate center of the American electorate.

The main thing that I take away from the results of this poll is that a large percentage of self-identified Republicans really are bigoted wingnuts.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Fear of Sex Leads to More Book Bannings

You'd think that by the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, book bannings, especially for matters involving ... gasp ... sex ... would be ancient history (or at least history). But no. Parents of middle school students are still demanding that books be removed from school libraries and curricula because of references to sex or, even worse, descriptions of actual, real, honest-to-goodness female body parts.

First, we have the events in Menifee, California, reported in the Press-Enterprise:
After a parent complained about an elementary school student stumbling across "oral sex" in a classroom dictionary, Menifee Union School District officials decided to pull Merriam Webster's 10th edition from all school shelves earlier this week.

School officials will review the dictionary to decide if it should be permanently banned because of the "sexually graphic" entry, said district spokeswoman Betti Cadmus.
Think about that one for a moment. A dictionary had a definition for a sexual act that a parent found offensive, so the dictionaries were removed from the classrooms. Really? Come on. Who didn't look up "bad words" in the dictionary when they were a kid? Besides, wouldn't you prefer that kids get a clinical, correct definition for certain terms than the more likely (and probably wrong) definitions that they'll undoubtedly learn from classmates? But more troubling is the fact that, after a complaint by a single parent, the school removed the dictionaries. In wonder if that dictionary included definitions of words like penis or vagina. Speaking of which...

According to the Culpepper, Virginia Star Exponent, The Diary of a Young Girl (The Diary of Anne Frank) is being removed from the Culpepper school system's curriculum. Why? According to The Washington Post, it was removed because of the following passage:
There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can't imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!
So, because one parent complained about two sentences in one of the most important, most beloved books of the twentieth century, the school system pulled the book. To that one parent, the perceived harm of his or her child reading about a teenage girl, who knew she would probably die, wondering about her vagina, sex, and birth, is reason enough to prevent the rest of the children in the school system from reading a book about hate and love, heroism and hope in the face of the Holocaust.

I'm curious how the parents that complained about the dictionary or The Diary of Anne Frank would feel if their child had access to a book with the following:
He shall lie all night between my breasts.... His left hand under my head, and his right doth embrance me.... Thy young breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lillies.... Come, blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out.... My beloved put his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. Thy stature is like a palm tree, and thy breasts are clusters of grapes. I will go up the palm tree, and grasp the boughs. I am a wall, and my breasts are as towers.
Um, no wait. Those descriptions of sex are probably OK. After all, they're from The Bible (Song of Solomon). I guess it's only non-Biblical sex that probably drives these parents to demand censorship.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Apparently I’m Not Eligible to Run for Office as a Republican; How About You?

So the Republican National Committee is considering a “purity test” to determine which candidates will get party support in the 2010 elections. For those who’ve missed this, here is the full text of the resolution (sponsored by Indiana über-conservative James Bopp):

Proposed RNC Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates

WHEREAS, President Ronald Reagan believed that the Republican Party should support and espouse conservative principles and public policies; and

WHEREAS, President Ronald Reagan also believed the Republican Party should welcome those with diverse views; and

WHEREAS, President Ronald Reagan believed, as a result, that someone who agreed with him 8 out of 10 times was his friend, not his opponent; and

WHEREAS, Republican faithfulness to its conservative principles and public policies and Republican solidarity in opposition to Obama’s socialist agenda is necessary to preserve the security of our country, our economic and political freedoms, and our way of life; and

WHEREAS, Republican faithfulness to its conservative principles and public policies is necessary to restore the trust of the American people in the Republican Party and to lead to Republican electoral victories; and

WHEREAS, the Republican National Committee shares President Ronald Reagan’s belief that the Republican Party should espouse conservative principles and public policies and welcome persons of diverse views; and

WHEREAS, the Republican National Committee desires to implement President Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates; and

WHEREAS, in addition to supporting candidates, the Republican National Committee provides financial support for Republican state and local parties for party building and federal election activities, which benefit all candidates and is not affected by this resolution; and

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Republican National Committee identifies ten (10) key public policy positions for the 2010 election cycle, which the Republican National Committee expects its public officials and candidates to support:

(1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill;

(2) We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;

(3) We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;

(4) We support workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check;

(5) We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;

(6) We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;

(7) We support containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat;

(8) We support retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;

(9) We support protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and

(10) We support the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership; and be further

RESOLVED, that a candidate who disagrees with three or more of the above stated public policy position of the Republican National Committee, as identified by the voting record, public statements and/or signed questionnaire of the candidate, shall not be eligible for financial support and endorsement by the Republican National Committee; and be further

RESOLVED, that upon the approval of this resolution the Republican National Committee shall deliver a copy of this resolution to each of Republican members of Congress, all Republican candidates for Congress, as they become known, and to each Republican state and territorial party office.

Chief Sponsor:
James Bopp, Jr. NCM IN
Donna Cain NCW OR
Cindy Costa NCW SC
Demetra Demonte NCW IL
Peggy Lambert NCW TN
Carolyn McLarty NCW OK
Pete Rickets NCM NE
Steve Scheffler NCM IA
Helen Van Etten NCW KA
Solomon Yue NCM OR

I don’t want to waste time discussing whether a purity test is a smart idea or a bad idea; hey, it’s their party. But I do want to take on each of the ten themes expressed in the test itself.

(1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill;

OK. I get that Republicans were opposed to the stimulus bill. The problem is, I don’t recall hearing many Republican ideas to help prevent the economy from taking a nose dive into a true depression. One thing that Republicans don’t seem to grasp right now is that there is a huge difference between being opposed to something and offering up a viable alternative. Think of it this way: If you suggest eating Chinese for dinner, I could say, “Gee, I don’t feel like Chinese; why don’t we go for Italian, instead.” From there, we could have an open and honest debate about which would be a better meal choice. On the other hand, if I was a Republican, my response would be more like this: “Gee, I don’t feel like Chinese (after all, they’re communists!); so we’ll just skip dinner tonight.”

I also fail to understand the constant mantra about “smaller government” as if by simply making government “smaller” we make it better. I’m less worried about the size of the government than I am with the effectiveness of that government.

As to the national debt and deficits, I seem to recall these going up, not down, under a Republican administration. It seems that Republicans are firmly opposed to debt and deficits except for debt and deficits that they like. Finally, I’d like to be certain what Republicans mean when they say “lower taxes”; lower taxes on whom? The wealthiest Americans who can easily afford to pay a bit more from the money that they’re parking in illegal offshore bank accounts? Why is it that I doubt that “lower taxes” means repeal of regressive taxes like sales tax.

(2) We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;

First, does that mean that Republicans will support an end to the anti-trust exemption for insurance companies? After all, an anti-trust exemption doesn’t really seem consistent with market-based insurance reform. Second, when Republicans talk about “Obama-style government run healthcare” does that mean that they oppose Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, and military healthcare? Those programs are, of course, all government run. What about the insurance provided to members of Congress? Finally, what type of reform do Republicans support? Remember that the plan offered by Senate Republicans didn’t prohibit exclusion based on pre-existing conditions (among a host of other failings). We’ve had a largely “market based” system (with anti-trust exemptions) for years and look where that’s gotten us. And how exactly do Republicans plan to handle the millions of uninsured Americans? Insuring a measly 3 million additional Americans over 10 years (while leaving 30-50 million uninsured) doesn’t really seem to be a solution to the problem. Then again, so long as the “solution” is merely opposition and obstruction…

(3) We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;

I wonder how many Republicans can actually explain what cap and trade legislation means. And, for that matter, I wonder how many of the Republicans who oppose cap and trade also believe that global warming is a myth. The funniest part of this is that cap and trade is a market-based reform. That is the whole idea; allow the market to put a value on the right to pollute and provide cost incentives for reducing emissions. And again, note that as usual, what Republicans oppose is spelled out clearly (Obama’s stimulus bill, Obama-style government run healthcare, cap and trade) but what Republicans support is much, much more nebulous (smaller and market-based). Again, it is easy to be opposed to a particular, narrowly-defined policy; it is much more difficult to articulate an alternative.

(4) We support workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check;

In all honesty, I don’t know enough about card check to really get into this discussion. I will note, however, that it seems strange, in the entire universe of issues for Republicans to focus on, that card check makes the top ten.

(5) We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;

This point is one of the most insidious of all of the points on the Republican purity test. Why? Did you note that Republicans don’t just support legal immigration, but also support assimilation? In other words, Republicans are telling immigrants to come in legally, but once here, they had better jettison their cultural (and religious?) heritage and assimilate into American society. And why is that I suspect that the Republican version of “American society” is the same thing as Glenn Beck’s “white culture”?

In addition, I’m not quite sure how supporting legal immigration and assimilation is accomplished “by opposing” amnesty. What does one have to do with the other? More importantly, what precisely is the Republican plan to deal with illegal immigration and the illegal immigrants who are already here? Again, they oppose a particular policy (amnesty) without offering a solution to the existing problem.

(6) We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;

First, who doesn’t support “victory in Iraq and Afghanistan”? Do Republicans really think that either President Obama or Democrats support “defeat”? It seems to me that the real question is the definition of “victory”. More importantly, I find it quite odd that when the Republican purity test finally gets around to specific things that Republicans are supposed to support, the focus is on a particular strategy advocated by the military. The last time I checked, the military was overseen by civilian leadership. It is important to remember that the issues being looked at by military planners are almost exclusively military. We don’t ask or expect military planners to look at diplomatic consequences of a particular policy, the cost to implement that policy (what about that support for a smaller national debt…?), the cost in lives or impact upon military families (I suppose that the military might factor this in to the calculation, but I don’t really know), or the desire of the American electorate to engage in the particular military operation. I suspect that generals recommended attacks on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but we allowed civilian leadership to decide what was in the best interest of the country. So too should civilian leadership decide what is in the best interests of America when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan. If that means a surge, then so be it; but the decision needs to be made on the basis of all known information and should take into consideration all relevant matters, not just the matters relevant to the battlefield itself. Military strategy options should be developed by military planners but decisions regarding those strategic options should be made on the basis of national interest, not just military necessity.

(7) We support containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat;

This one leaves me a bit puzzled. First, the use of the word “containment” harkens back to the Cold War and fears of Soviet expansion. I suspect that the real issue being “supported” is limits on the ability of North Korea or Iran to export nuclear technology or terrorism. And again, who doesn’t support those ends? Do Republicans really think that President Obama or Democrats oppose “containment” of Iran or North Korea? More problematic is the phrase “effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat”. What precisely does this mean. Again, I doubt that anybody supports ineffective actions. The real question, of course, is what action would be effective? So, for example, are harsh sanctions “effective”? Maybe I’m wrong, but when I read this particular point of the purity test, I take it to really be referring to military action as the “effective action”. Maybe I’m wrong. But if not, I’m troubled by the idea that Republicans are being asked to support a military action without necessarily considering either alternatives or consequences. Forget Iran for the moment; what would be the consequences of the use of force against North Korea? Do we really want to elect leaders who want war on the Korean peninsula?

(8) We support retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;

I’m not going to take the time in this particular post to explain why I oppose the Defense of Marriage Act (and why I believe it might be unconstitutional) or to explain why I support same sex marriage (or at least domestic partnerships that have all of the benefits and obligations of marriage). Instead, I’ll simply note that of the items that Republicans apparently view as the litmus test for whether a candidate is worthy, opposition to same sex marriage counts for 10%. I still don’t understand how the issue of whether a loving, committed couple can be allowed to enjoy the benefits of “marriage” can rise to this level of importance. And, for the record, I note that those states that have allowed same sex marriage have neither imploded, been struck by wave after wave of natural disasters, nor sunken into the bowels of the earth; moreover, I note that in those states the institution of heterosexual marriage remains alive and well.

(9) We support protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and

I’m glad that Republicans oppose health care rationing. I’m curious to know how they plan to stop insurance companies from continuing to ration care or, for that matter, how they intend to stop the effective rationing for those people who can’t afford health insurance. Republicans also oppose the denial of health care. That seems like a pretty clear blanket statement; yet last time that I checked, Republicans were set against health care for illegal immigrants (remember Rep. Joe Wilson’s “you lie” moment?). And recall, once again, that the Republican health care reform proposal did not prevent insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

With regard to the funding of abortions, first I note that it is a blanket opposition. There is no nuance or exception for matters of rape, incest, or life of the mother. “Gee, sorry, that you’re gonna die ma’am, but if you can’t pay for the abortion on your own, we can’t help you!” Talk about compassionate conservatism. I also have a problem with enshrining certain types of moral issues into federal funding policies. Why, for example, are Republicans opposed to funding abortion but not drugs for erectile dysfunction or hair replacement? More importantly, why are Republicans opposed to funding abortion but not opposed to funding the death penalty, wars, torture, and illegal wiretaps? If every issue to which a large group of voters objected on moral grounds were excepted out of government funding, I suspect that very little would be funded (then again, I suppose that Republicans would view that as good, so long as the military was still fully funded). I also have a problem with the exception for abortion given that other religious traditions come to the issue of abortion with a different understanding and mindset. Thus, while the denial of funding may satisfy a conservative Christian worldview, it may also run directly contrary to a Jewish understanding of when abortion is acceptable. If my religious tradition has a different understanding of the issue, why should someone else’s religious understanding determine how federal spending impacts upon my religious beliefs? (For a more in depth discussion of religious views of abortion, see my post Keep Your Religious Doctrine Out of My State’s Laws from January 2008). I get that conservatives don’t want their tax dollars to pay for abortions; I don’t want my tax dollars to pay for torture. Republicans will do almost anything to protect the “unborn”; but once a child is born, don’t look to the Republicans for help or protection, no sir!

(10) We support the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership;

Like abortion, I’ve written before about my thoughts on gun control and the Second Amendment and I won’t belabor the point here. But I do want to point out the fact that the opposition to “government restrictions on gun ownership” is another blanket statement. There is no exception for children, the mentally ill, or felons (or terrorists for that matter) and there is no exception for assault rifles or armor piercing bullets or rocket-propelled grenades (or nuclear weapons…). So it would seem to me than any Republican who supports even modest gun control legislation would not pass the party’s proposed purity test.

And what happened to honoring the tenets of this recitals from the preamble of the proposed resolution:

President Ronald Reagan also believed the Republican Party should welcome those with diverse views

Somehow the notion of welcoming diverse views doesn’t seem to come through in the proposed purity test.

As a counterpoint to the Republican purity test, take a look at this purity test for Democrats proposed by Devilstower on Daily Kos:

(1) We support the rights extended to Americans extended under the Constitution. All the rights. For all Americans.

(2) We support thoughtful, pragmatic solutions that protect American lives, American standards, and American pocketbooks. This includes finding solutions that don't require bombing anyone.

(3) We support an America that has diversity in race, thought, background, and religion not out of some hazy idealism, but because it is our nation's greatest strength.

(4) We oppose torture in any form, in any place, at any time, for any reason.

(5) We support American business, and recognize that an unregulated market is an unfair market, an unstable market, and a market doomed to failure.

(6) We support American workers, and know that when workers are allowed to organize they make their jobs, their companies, and their nation stronger.

(7) We believe that the reputation of our nation is valuable and must be zealously guarded against those who place expediency ahead of law.

(8) We believe in spreading democracy and human rights to the rest of the world by vigorously upholding those ideals here at home.

(9) We believe that access to our government is not for sale. Not in the courthouse, not in the White House, and not in the legislature.

(10) We believe that the health of our planet is not a zero-sum game, not a game of "you go first," and not a game.

What is interesting is that I don’t necessarily completely agree with each and every point in this “purity test” either (for example, I’m very hesitantly willing to consider torture in a true ticking time bomb case). Nevertheless, I think that the ideals espoused by this purity test are certainly worth considering, at least as a comparison to the proposed Republican purity test. Read both sets of positions and then ask yourself in which version of our country would you rather live?

Finally, ask yourself whether a purity test like that proposed by the Republicans makes sense. Which would you prefer: (a) party that has pre-determined how its members must think and how they must vote on certain issues; or (b) a party that tells its members to think for themselves, honor their ideals and values, and represent the voters that elected them, rather than the party to which they belong.

Oh, one more thing, as long as I’m looking at purity tests and lists of values and ideals. Charles Johnson, the founder of the right-leaning blog Little Green Footballs has announced that he is parting ways with the right because of:

1. Support for fascists, both in America (see: Pat Buchanan, Robert Stacy McCain, etc.) and in Europe (see: Vlaams Belang, BNP, SIOE, Pat Buchanan, etc.)

2. Support for bigotry, hatred, and white supremacism (see: Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Robert Stacy McCain, Lew Rockwell, etc.)

3. Support for throwing women back into the Dark Ages, and general religious fanaticism (see: Operation Rescue, anti-abortion groups, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, the entire religious right, etc.)

4. Support for anti-science bad craziness (see: creationism, climate change denialism, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, James Inhofe, etc.)

5. Support for homophobic bigotry (see: Sarah Palin, Dobson, the entire religious right, etc.)

6. Support for anti-government lunacy (see: tea parties, militias, Fox News, Glenn Beck, etc.)

7. Support for conspiracy theories and hate speech (see: Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Birthers, creationists, climate deniers, etc.)

8. A right-wing blogosphere that is almost universally dominated by raging hate speech (see: Hot Air, Free Republic, Ace of Spades, etc.)

9. Anti-Islamic bigotry that goes far beyond simply criticizing radical Islam, into support for fascism, violence, and genocide (see: Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, etc.)

10. Hatred for President Obama that goes far beyond simply criticizing his policies, into racism, hate speech, and bizarre conspiracy theories (see: witch doctor pictures, tea parties, Birthers, Michelle Malkin, Fox News, World Net Daily, Newsmax, and every other right wing source)

And much, much more. The American right wing has gone off the rails, into the bushes, and off the cliff.

I won’t be going over the cliff with them.

I disagree with Charles Johnson on many issues, but I’ve always found him to be reasonable and fair minded. When he takes a position, he almost always backs it up. Ever since I came across Little Green Footballs during the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006, I’ve found his site to be a destination to see what the rational right is thinking. As Johnson has frequently noted over the last several months, too often what the right is thinking isn’t rational at all.

So anyway, it looks like I won’t be eligible to run for office as a Republican in 2010. Shucks.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Prayer for Obama: When Hate Invokes the Bible

Apparently over the last few weeks, a new slogan has been gaining some momentum among those opposed to President Obama. The slogan has been used as an email signature and on hats, buttons, shirts, and bumper stickers:

lets_all_pray_for_obama_bumper_sticker-p128174371548093129tmn6_210On its face, this looks like a pretty nice sentiment. That is until we read what Psalm 109:8 says ("I’m using the King James Bible; I doubt those responsible for the sentiments expressed by this bumper sticker read the Hebrew Bible):

Let his days be few; and let another take his office

Um. OK. Not terribly nice, but I guess it isn’t much different than the bumper stickers that said 1/20/2009 referring to the day that President George W. Bush’s successor would be inaugurated (and, hence, President Bush’s term in office would end). I mean, it looks like this is simply a prayer that President Obama serves a single term; after all, nobody would pray for President Obama to die, right? Well, no (remember the videos of the Arizona pastor praying for President Obama’s death…).

Unfortunately, this prayer is not quite so benign; the quotation from Psalms takes on a much different, and much more dangerous connotation, when read in conjunction with the lines that follow:

8Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

9Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

10Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

11Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.

12Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

13Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

14Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.

Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow? Sorry, but that sounds like people are praying for President Obama to die, maybe even praying for his assassination. If you see someone with one of these bumper stickers or hats, ask them how they can in good conscience, no matter whether they agree with President Obama’s policies or not, pray for his death and for his daughters to become fatherless vagabonds. Ask them how they could ever utter such wishes for anyone. Then ask them what could possibly make them hate anybody so much. Heck, while your at it, ask ’em What Would Jesus Do?

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Offensive, Over-the-Top Rhetoric in Opposition to a Domestic Partnership Bill

I don't normally like to bash other religions. However, sometimes an official statement from a religious official bears mention and critique.

Apparently Guam is considering a domestic partnership proposal. For those who forget, Guam is actually a territory of the United States, has a non-voting member in Congress, votes in the presidential election (though without any electoral votes, that vote is meaningless), and sends delegates to the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Like other states that have considered domestic partnership laws (or gay marriage or other civil rights issues related to sexual orientation), debate on the issue is apparently impassioned.

However, the Catholic Archdiocese of Agaña (Guam) has stepped over -- way over -- the line of decency in a political debate on domestic issues. Here is the penultimate paragraph of a letter (the entire letter can be read here), allegedly* from the Archdiocese:
The culture of homosexuality is a culture of self-absorption because it does not value self-sacrifice. It is a glaring example of what John Paul II has called the culture of death. Islamic fundamentalists clearly understand the damage that homosexual behavior inflicts on a culture. That is why they repress such behavior by death. Their culture is anything but one of self-absorption. It may be brutal at times, but any culture that is able to produce wave after wave of suicide bombers (women as well as men) is a culture that at least knows how to value self-sacrifice. Terrorism as a way to oppose the degeneration of the culture is to be rejected completely since such violence is itself another form of degeneracy. One, however, does not have to agree with the gruesome ways that the fundamentalists use to curb the forces that undermine their culture to admit that the Islamic fundamentalist charge that Western Civilization in general and the U.S.A. in particular is the “Great Satan” is not without an element of truth. It makes no sense for the U.S. Government to send our boys to fight Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while at the same time it embraces the social policies embodied in Bill 185 (as President Obama has done). Such policies only furnish further arguments for the fundamentalists in their efforts to gain more recruits for the war against the “Great Satan.”
I'm short on time today, so I'm not going to go through a line-by-line examination of how flawed the reasoning and offensive the conclusions of this letter really are. Besides, I think the letter really does speak for itself. But query what it is about homosexuality -- and not, by way of comparison, the death penalty, torture, degradation of the environment, or any of a host of other issues -- that leads anyone, let alone a church, to condone such an offensive viewpoint.

*I say "allegedly" because I have been unable to confirm that this letter really does come from the Archdiocese of Agana. The website for the Archdiocese does not appear to have been updated since February 2009 (at the latest). However, I have seen numerous references to the above-quoted letter as well as a second (far less inflammatory letter on different letterhead from the Archbishop of Agaña) and I have not found any indication of a claim by the Archdiocese that it is not responsible for the quoted letter. Nevertheless, I recognize that until the authorship of the letter has been verified, criticism of the Archdiocese needs to be tempered. If this letter was not authored by the Archdiocese, you would certainly expect a strong (and prompt?) denunciation of the viewpoints attributed to the Archdiocese by the author of the letter. If, on the other hand, the Archdiocese is the author of the letter, then I would also expect strong denunciations of those viewpoints from a whole host of sources.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

IN Touch: Keep religion out of alcohol sales debate

My tenth post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. I'm going to keep re-posting those entries here (at least until someone from the Star asks me to stop). Go ahead and visit the post on the IN Touch site, anyway.

A recent article in The Star ("Panel thirsts for facts in Sunday alcohol sales debate") discussed some of the pros and cons of Sunday retail alcohol sales. Among the arguments promoted by the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers against expanded Sunday alcohol sales was this: "Remember the Sabbath: Sunday is a religious day. Liquor shouldn't be sold on it." There are, of course, two problems with this particular argument.First is the recognition that alcohol is already sold on Sunday in bars, restaurants, and at sporting events. The issue is not whether alcohol should be sold on Sunday, but whether retail sales should be allowed. I doubt many Hoosiers would support a return to the ban on restaurant alcohol sales on Sunday.

Second, and more problematic, is the suggestion that "Sunday is a religious day." Well, it is for some, but not all. Jews worship the Sabbath on Saturday, Muslims on Friday, and others not at all. Some religious traditions ban all use of alcohol while others include alcohol as an important part of religious observance. If government is going to legislate on the basis of religious tradition, how should government reconcile those competing positions?

It should not be the job of the government to regulate what people can and cannot do on religious grounds. If your religious views tell you not to purchase, consume, or sell alcohol on your Sabbath, then that is your right. But those religious views should not be enforced, through governmental action, on others who may have honestly held but divergent religious views (or no religious views at all). There may be good arguments against Sunday retail alcohol sales, but religious belief should not be among them.

(Note that in the above-copy I've corrected several typos that were created by the editing that was done to the original version of the post that I submitted. I also added the link to the original article that my post referenced.)

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Furor Over President Obama Speaking at Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame has invited President Obama to speak at the University's commencement ceremony this spring and this invitation has stirred up a furor among some Catholics both within and without the University community. Apparently, the problem is that President Obama supports women's reproductive rights (i.e., abortion) and, because this view is antithetical to Catholic teaching, some have argued that the University should not have invited President Obama to speak. I have several problems with this whole matter.

First, I want to be clear that I am not criticizing any Catholics for their personal theological or moral views. They have the right to those views and I have the right to agree or disagree. I don't know much about Catholic theology or teaching with regard to abortion or anything else. But the issue at hand has nothing to do with whose views are "right" or whether those views are well-founded or properly based in theological doctrine. Rather, the issue is whether those views should bear upon the decision of whether to invite the President of the United States to speak at graduation.

So, let's examine the issue of whether President Obama should have been invited to speak at Notre Dame. The first thing to remember is that he has been invited to speak at commencement, not to a class on theology or morals or ethics. Students at prestigious universities look forward to the opportunity to hear from "important" people at their commencements; it is a right of passage, in a way. To that end, it is likely that President Obama's speech will center on a universal topic like living a good life, helping the needy, getting involved in the community, or any of a host of the topics and themes regularly heard in commencement addresses. I doubt that President Obama will use the opportunity of that speech to lay out a major policy proposal or to address a controversial issue (such as abortion); a commencement address is rarely the time or place for such a speech. And, with all of the issues presently facing both our nation and the world, it seems highly unlikely that President Obama would choose the issue of abortion to be the focus of a commencement address.

It is also critical to keep in mind that President Obama is not just some random person chosen to speak. Nor is he merely a well-known person of marginal import. No. He just happens to be the President of the United States of America. The very idea that any institution, let alone a premier academic institution, would turn down an opportunity to have the President of the United States speak is a bit hard to comprehend. President Obama was, in all likelihood, invited to speak at commencement because of his office, not because of his viewpoints, past endeavors, or the fact that he hails from nearby Chicago. The University extended an offer to the leader of our country; that the invitation was accepted should be viewed by the University community as an honor.

I'm also troubled, however, by the degree to which abortion (and, to a lesser extent, support for stem cell research) has been the focal point of the discussion. I understand that abortion is against Catholic teaching and that therefore, on that issue, President Obama's views conflict with those of Catholics (or at least Catholic teaching if not the actual views of many of America's Catholics). But I also understand that Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty; yet President Bush, an ardent supporter of the death penalty (and a frequent "enforcer" of the death penalty during his time as Governor of Texas) was invited to speak at Notre Dame (twice, I believe). I also understand Catholic teaching to oppose wars not fought for defensive purposes; yet President Bush sent the United States to war in Iraq on false pretenses. It is also worth noting that President Carter (pro-choice) spoke at a Notre Dame commencement ceremony, as did former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (who introduced the law that decriminalized abortion, homosexuality, and contraception in Cananda) and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (who was instrumental in establishing the Global AIDS and Health Fund [now the The Global Fund] which, among other things, distributes millions of condoms in the Third World). So what it is about President Obama's support for reproductive rights that makes him different from all of these other speakers that the University of Notre Dame has welcomed?

And why, of all of the issues that President Obama has taken a stance on, is abortion so important as to be seen by some as disqualifying? Is abortion the absolute cornerstone issue of the Catholic faith, more so even than social justice? Is abortion the sole issue by which a person's "Catholic-ness" is to be measured and judged? Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it would seem to me that Catholics would, with the exception of issues relating to reproductive rights, have far more in common with those of President Obama than they did President Bush. I've already mentioned the death penalty, but what about torture, imprisonment without access to counsel or trial, and war? According to CNN, in the November 2008 elections, Catholics supported Mr. Obama 53% to Sen. McCain's 45% (don't forget that Sen. McCain was opposed to reproductive rights and his Vice Presidential candidate ... shudder ... I don't even want to go there).

One final point that I'd like to make. Yes, I understand that Notre Dame is a Catholic institution. But neither its student body nor faculty is homogeneous. In fact, a review of the University's website shows that the University's campus ministry includes services for Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and other Christian denominations, as well as Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. I find it hard to believe that students or faculty of these other faith traditions must be uniform in their beliefs, words, or deeds, in strict conformance to Catholic teaching; for that matter, I find it hard to believe that Notre Dame's Catholic students and faculty must be completely faithful to Catholic teaching either. And I find it hard to believe that every word articulated by every professor or speaker at Notre Dame must be in conformance with Catholic teaching (I wonder; do biology classes at Notre Dame teach evolution or creation...?).

Notre Dame is a highly respected academic institution. President Obama is the President of the United States of America. There is nothing that he has said or done that should disqualify him from speaking at Notre Dame's commencement and Notre Dame should be nothing but honored to have a sitting President accept the offer to speak at a commencement ceremony.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Indiana Teachers Should Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences (But Can Apparently Ignore Religious Differences) (update)

Earlier this week, I wrote about Indiana House Bill 1187 (cultural competency for teachers) and an amendment that stripped "religious" as one of the categories of cultural competency for teacher education. Since publishing my original post, it has been suggested to me (by a lobbyist) that the stated intent of the amendment was not a slap at religion as I suggested, but rather, a recognition that state (or federal?) law prohibits schools from asking students about their religion and, thus, the school would have no way of knowing what religions should be included in the cultural competency training of teachers. Bullshit.

First, while schools may be prohibited from asking students about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), they are, I presume, also prohibited from asking those same students about their ethnic or national heritage and are probably prohibited from asking whether a student is from a socially disadvantaged family. So why remove just one area from the competency training? There is no way for a teacher to know whether a particular child is originally from Mexico or Guatemala or Argentina, from Croatia, Bosnia, or Serbia, from Sudan, Nigeria, or South Africa, yet we are willing to include ethnicity in the list of groups for which teachers should have some exposure to cultural differences.

More importantly, it seems that there a core group of religions that we can presume a teacher might encounter and for which a school district could include a component in its cultural competency education (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, seem the most likely). Wouldn't it be better to provide teachers some degree of understanding of these religions rather than removing religion as an educational component entirely? And, if a school district happens to know of a particular religious group (Amish, for example?) in its community, it could easily add that to the competency training.

The "explanation" for the amendment may provide good political cover, but it simply doesn't hold water.

As further "evidence" for my belief that Rep. Thompson's amendment was, in fact, aimed at minority religions and was not merely an attempt to "protect" schools from trying to learn what religions their students are, we can examine another amendment that Rep. Thompson offered to HB 1187 (which, so far, has not been brought to a vote):
"diverse needs" does not include harmful behaviors, including the following: (1) Homosexuality. (2) Sexual relations outside of marriage [citation omitted]. (3) The use of tobacco. (4) The illegal consumption of alcoholic beverages, or the excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. (5) The use of illegal drugs. (6) Excessive overeating. [internal periods included in original]

Yes, you read that correctly. In Rep. Thompson's worldview, homosexuality and adultery are to be compared with the use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. And, the way that I read that amendment, what it really means is that when teachers learn about cultural competency so that they can best serve the diverse needs of their students, they should not be learning about any of the aforementioned "bad behaviors" and, therefore, should not consider those issues when trying to deduce the best way to teach a child.

Perhaps in Rep. Thompson's district there aren't any families that consist of same-sex domestic partners who are raising a child; and perhaps there aren't any families where a parent is an alcoholic or a drug user. I find it hard to believe, but maybe there aren't any families with unwed parents (or even a divorced or widowed parent with a boyfriend or girlfriend). But wouldn't it be better to allow a teacher to adapt teaching methods to best serve each individual child's "diverse needs" instead of telling teachers not to consider certain needs that some consider "bad"? I think that we do our children a disservice in their education if we stick our collective heads in the sand and ignore the reality of the actual diversity of our students and their families.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Indiana Teachers Should Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences (But Can Apparently Ignore Religious Differences)

Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) has authored House Bill 1187 which would require the Indiana Department of Education to require standards for cultural competency teacher training. House Bill 1187 requires standards for teacher education to prepare teachers:
to teach successfully in a manner that serves the diverse needs of all students, including: (1) racial minority students; (2) low social economic status students; (3) English language learners; (4) students who are exceptional learners (citation omitted); and (5) students of various ethnic or religious groups.

House Bill 1187 would also require as part of teacher training "methods that use the cultural knowledge, experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for those students".

These certainly seem to be a laudable goals; after all, how can it hurt for our children's teachers to be sensitive to the diversity of their students and to consider that diversity when determining how best to help those children learn? I'm not sure that the goal can be readily accomplished and I have some concerns about how the training would be done, but by and large, this seems like a generally good idea. Plus, I really like Rep. Porter.

But imagine my surprise to see the amendment offered by Rep. Jeff Thompson (R-Lebanon/Danville) that stripped "religious" from the list of diverse backgrounds for which competency training is to be mandated. Even more unbelievable, this amendment passed the Indiana House by a vote of 77-15!

Take a moment and think about what Rep. Porter has proposed and what Rep. Thompson's amendment has done to that proposal. Rep. Porter wants the Department of Education to formulate education standards so that teachers can be sensitive to the needs and cultural backgrounds of an ever-diversifying student population. Rep. Thompson apparently agrees that teachers should be sensitive to those diverse needs and cultural backgrounds except for religious differences. I guess in Rep. Thompson's world, a teacher should understand and be sensitive to students of a minority racial background or to students from a low socio-economic standing or those just learning to speak English and even those whose native culture differs from that of mainstream America. But Rep. Thompson doesn't want those teachers to have the same education about or sensitivity to students who are from a religious minority. Said differently, Rep. Thompson apparently doesn't think that teachers should be sensitive to the needs and differences of students who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or any of the myriad other religious traditions represented in Indiana's classrooms. Rep. Thompson wants teachers to operate under the presumption that all students, whether white or black, rich or poor, native English speaker or new immigrant, and coming from any cultural background around the world, are Christian. Why else is Rep. Thompson willing to encourage cultural competency but exclude religious groups from that sensitivity?

I suppose that some might suggest that Rep. Thompson's amendment was for the purpose of maintaining the separation of church and state, but that is, in reality, a patently false notion. Teachers are not being asked to teach religion; nor is the Department of Education being asked to teach religion. Rather, Rep. Porter's initial bill would have required teachers to be instructed on the basic differences between students as a result of their religious upbringing. What is wrong with a teacher knowing that some students might not eat certain foods or might be required to wear certain clothing for religious reasons? What is wrong with a teacher recognizing that certain students may celebrate different holidays and might be absent from school for those days? More importantly, what is wrong with a teacher knowing that a certain example that might be used to illuminate a point might not be understood by children raised in a different religious context (for example, certain biblical parables that might, in fact, be excellent examples, may be completely meaningless to children unfamiliar with those parables; similarly, discussions of holiday observances may serve to exclude those who don't follow those observances).

I'm certainly willing to listen to another explanation for Rep. Thompson's amendment, but to me it looks like nothing short of religious intolerance and a desire to further enshrine Christianity as the de facto (maybe even de jure) religion of Indiana's schools.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ben Stein, Chain Emails, & "Happy Holidays" (Part 2)

Now that you've had a chance to read (in Part 1 of this post) the original commentary and embellished chain email, it is time to turn to my response. Some of my friends and family have already read this, but after receiving yet another version of the Ben Stein chain email, I decided that it was finally time to share. As you will see, my response was written as a direct response to the woman who first posted the chain email to the mailing list. Rather than try to rewrite my response, I've simply removed specific references to her but left the overall tone and message intact:


I have a number of grave problems with the "Ben Stein this is great..." [some versions are entitled "Ben Stein Food for thought"] email that is being circulated. On most days, I might have just brushed my concerns aside and not worried about it. But at the time that I first read this email, I was trying to figure out how to answer the concerns of my very sensitive then7year old daughter who was upset that she had to listen to "Santa stories" in her public school classroom and who didn't want to make a Christmas stocking in art class [and ironically, the same week that I'm posting this response, I've had to deal with concerns from that same daughter, now 9, who was upset that she was being made to draw images of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the Three Wise Men in her elementary school Spanish class]. It was in this frame of mind that first I received the email bemoaning the absence of God from our schools and public life. Thus, I experienced a visceral response that prompted my original drafting of this essay.

As you will see, the separation of church and state is a major issue for me; perhaps it is simply because I am a part of a religious minority or because I have been on the receiving end of prostelyzation and religious bigotry. In any event, I have long been an advocate for the separation of church and state and even lobby the Indiana General Assembly on behalf of the Jewish community of Indianapolis on church-state issues [and let me reiterate again that what I say on this blog and in this essay in particular I am saying for myself and am not speaking on behalf of anyone else or any agency with whom I am affiliate]. I have no problem with people expressing their faith. Nor do I have a problem if a business elects to follow a religious path or erect a religious symbol. And obviously, I have no problem with a church or other house of worship taking steps to foster its religious viewpoint.

However, I do have a problem when the government becomes enmeshed in religion, especially when the government my government tries to tell me that I must pray, how or to whom I must pray, or which religious holidays or religious beliefs meet with "official" approval (or, conversely, chooses to ignore other equally valued religious beliefs). I have a problem when others are not satisfied with prayer in their homes, churches, or other private places and, instead, feel the need to force their prayer upon me, whether or not I agree with their religious beliefs, especially when they want to force their prayer and religious beliefs upon me through the government. And I really have a problem when people want to force those religious viewpoints upon my children in the public schools. I am old enough to make my own religious decisions; I know enough about religion to know what I do and don't believe; I am not worried about peer pressure; and I am confident enough in myself to stand up and so "no" when asked to do that which violates by sincerely held beliefs. But my now 9year old twins should never have to bow down to public pressure to believe a certain way, be made to feel different or an outsider, or be forced to consider their own religious beliefs all because someone else is not satisfied with prayer in their own home or church. I'm curious to know how comfortable you are that your children would be able to handle prostelyzation from another religious faith, especially if your child were confronted by questions or accusations that go to the core of your religious beliefs or involved questions of religious understanding to which your child had not yet been exposed.

Before delving further into some of the issues raised in the email, however, there are few important preliminary points that must be addressed:

First, the email begins by attributing the text to Ben Stein (and, I must say, that it is getting somewhat tiring having the opinion's of a single Jew thrown in my face, almost as if because one Jew believes a certain way, those of us who disagree must be wrong; I suspect that many Christians would take offense if I were to pick and choose the words of a few particular Christians and use those words to paint broadly the viewpoint of all Christians or to challenge the legitimacy of contrary opinions held by other Christians). Anyway, while Mr. Stein did, indeed, make some of the comments attributed to him in the email, his comments end before the paragraph that begins with "In light of the many jokes..." See Mr. Stein's website for the full text of his comments (which, by the way, differ slightly from those that he actually gave on CBS Sunday Morning).

The email then goes on with a series of other statements and quotations (without recognizing that these statements or quotations were not made or quoted by Mr. Stein). The first of these references an interview between Jane Clayson and Rev. Billy Graham's daughter Anne Graham (Lotz). The email suggests that this interview and Ms. Lotz's response were "regarding Katrina". However, considering the fact that the interview took place on September 13, 2001, it obviously was not in reference to Katrina (but, just as obviously, was in reference to the events of September 11, 2001). Moreover, the statements the email attributes to Ms. Lotz, while close in substance, are not accurate and include far more than what she actually stated [in particular the numerous additional statements noted in blue in Part 1]. For additional information, see She Said He Said at BreakTheChain. One of the dangers of the Internet is the ease with which people can be misquoted, quotations taken out of context, or entire quotations fabricated, and then those mistakes are given a life of their own. Before attributing statements, we owe it both to those whom we are quoting and to those whom we want to influence to check the source material for accuracy. Similarly, before forwarding a chain letter (or email), it behooves us all to check the accuracy of the statements therein; after all, when we send that email we are, in essence, putting our name and reputation behind the content of that which we distribute.

The email also goes on to suggest that "recent events" (such as terrorist attacks and school shootings) began when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (her name is actually spelled Madalyn Murray O'Hair) complained that she didn't want "prayer in our schools". For information on Ms. O'Hair, see the entry for her at Wikipedia (I know, I know, but it is a decent starting point...). In fact, Ms. O'Hair complained of coercive prayer in public schools in the early 1960s! And, by an 81 majority, the United States Supreme Court agreed that it was improper for coercive prayer or bible study in public schools. More information on the decisions can be found on the Wikipedia pages discussing Abbington School District v. Schempp and Engel v. Vitale. It is worth noting that four of the Justices on the Supreme Court that decided those cases were appointed by a Republican President. Yet Ms. O'Hair is somehow being blamed for Islamic terrorists attacking America. Timothy McVeigh, perhaps... but the lack of coercive Christian prayer in American public schools does not seem to be one of the things that has sparked fundamentalist Islamic terrorists to attack America. Generally speaking, we Jews don't believe in prayer in public schools, yet I haven't seen many Jewish children engaging in school shootings or terrorist attacks; nor, for that matter, have I seen adherents to other religious faiths behind the trigger in school shootings, either.

The email next furthers the foregoing argument by suggesting that America is in trouble because we no longer read the Bible in schools and it is the Bible that teaches "thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself". I guess, that we are to understand that, if we still taught the Bible in our public schools, we wouldn't kill or steal and we would love each other. First, just because our children don't read the Bible in public schools doesn't mean that we can't (or don't) teach our children not to kill or steal or can't or don't teach them to love one another. And even when children did read the Bible in public schools, bad things happened: Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting or forced them to sit at the back of the bus (and sometimes left them hanging from a tree), but I would be willing to wager that supporters of those laws prayed quite a bit. Murder and burglary did not suddenly start the day that prayers ceased in the public schools; it seems that those societal ills have been with us (and with all of humanity) from the beginning of time, whether or not people prayed (and irrespective of the type of prayer or the deity to which those prayers is offered). It is simply too easy to say that things are bad and to place blame accordingly without empirical evidence supporting the allegation.

Next the email implies that people have been wrong to follow the advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock and appears to ridicule Dr. Spock's advice because, according to the email, Dr. Spock's son committed suicide (as if to suggest that if Dr. Spock's own son committed suicide, then Dr. Spock's child-rearing advice must have been wrong). While this suggestion is, itself, almost uncertainly unfair, it is wholly misplaced given that Dr. Spock's son did not kill himself. Rather, Dr. Spock's grandson killed himself after a long battle with mental illness (for more information, see Doctored Spock and the entry for Dr. Spock on Wikipedia).

[I added this paragraph after receiving some of the alternate versions of the chain email that added the text that was not in the original version.] Some versions of the email then proceed through a litany of social issues in the buildup to the general premise that the "world is going to hell" as a result of American society's decisions on those social issues. The authors of the email want us to believe America is in danger and that God is angry because we oppose corporal punishment of our children by teachers and principals, because we support a woman's right to choose and oppose certain restrictions on that right, because we support giving condoms so that kids who are sexually active don't become pregnant or get sexually transmitted diseases, because we support the notion of privacy, especially within the confines of our own bedrooms, because we allow pornography to exist, because we allow child pornography (I'm stumped by this one given that child pornography is not only illegal, but it is not protected by the First Amendment and mere possession of child porn is punishable), and because some segments of the entertainment industry espouse viewpoints that may not conform to mainstream beliefs and practices. I could just as easily turn the entire discussion around and argue that America is in danger and God is angry because we don't take care to properly feed the poor and house the homeless, because we allow children to go without proper health care and make some of the elderly choose between food or medication, because we glorify greed and allow the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, because we use violence rather than diplomacy and include torture as an accepted way of getting information, because we don't uphold our own democratic traditions and allow our civil rights to be trampled, because we are willing to discriminate against people on the basis of their religious beliefs or their skin color or their national origin or their sexual orientation, because we use the airwaves to espouse hate and bigotry and to talk about our political opponents as the enemy, because we allow our environment ("God's green earth?") to be polluted, and because we are egotistical and/or stupid enough to suggest that natural disasters have anything whatsoever to do with human thought.

Finally, the email offers a number of statements that repeat the general allegation that the "world is going to hell" because "public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace".

Which leads me back to the main point. Those of us who feel strongly about the separation of church and state do not suggest, not even for a moment, that children are not or should not be allowed to pray in public schools. Nor do we argue against public "discussion" of God, gods, or religion. Rather, we argue against public prayer. We argue against government sponsorship or endorsement of particular religions or particular religious viewpoints. We argue that our children should not be compelled to pray in public schools and that the government should not compel a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. If a child wants to pray in school, he or she can do so any time, whether on the bus, at recess, at lunch, or even quietly seated at his or her desk. But the government should not tell my child (or your child, for that matter) that the child must pray (and certainly not with a particular prayer or to a particular deity).

And before you say, "but without prayer in public schools, our country has gone to hell", just consider for a moment what you are really saying: Either, you are saying that we, as parents, have failed at teaching values to our children (because, if the schools aren't teaching values and children aren't learning those values, then who else is there to blame but the parents who are not properly teaching and raising their children?) or you are saying that the U.S. should be a religious country in which minority religions are merely tolerated. As to this latter point, remember that the U.S. was initially settled by many people looking to escape religious persecution and bigotry. More importantly, which religious viewpoint should be the dominant one? Assuming that Christianity would be the "national" religion, would that be from a Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, or other viewpoint? Who's interpretation of scripture would be correct? Who would get to pick which prayers are to be said in our public schools?

For that matter, which Bible would we be using? The Jewish Bible (the Old Testament)? The Catholic Bible? The King James Bible? It is worth noting that the different versions of the Bible have very different texts and meanings. Just consider the Ten Commandments, about which so much has been made recently. Many people want the Ten Commandments posted in the schools and courts. But which version would that be? A simple Google search will reveal a number of examples of different versions of the Ten Commandments. Consider simply the commandment quoted in the email that "Thou shalt not kill". The use of the word "kill" finds its way into certain translations, while other translations (in particular those that do not go through an intervening Greek and/or Latin translation) usually use the word "murder" instead (and just consider the difference in meaning between those terms). Or, consider that some versions of the Ten Commandments do not include a prohibition against graven images. Even the Bible itself has several versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). For more discussion of the differences and meanings, see the Wikipedia entry on the Ten Commandments. And which Biblical lessons would we be teaching? I suppose that we should teach how to place a proper monetary value upon our daughters when we sell them into slavery (as permitted by Exodus 21:7). We should teach men how to recognize when a woman is having her menstrual cycle so that we can avoid touching them (as prohibited by Leviticus 15:1924). Perhaps we will need to revisit our teaching of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights movement; after all, Leviticus 25:44 states that we may possess slaves. We will also need to settle once and for all whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the true Sabbath (just when exactly did God tell Christians to move the Sabbath from Saturday [the last day of the week on every calendar that I've looked at recently] to Sunday [the first day of the week]; after all, I thought God rested after finishing creation not before getting started)? Why is this important? Because Exodus 35:2 requires that we put to death those who work on the Sabbath. It seems best that we know which day not to work on and schools would be a good place to teach that. We will also have to be sure that our schools don't serve any kind of shellfish as eating it is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10). I guess, too, that the hippie movement will be forced to make a comeback as our schools should probably teach that trimming a man's hair, especially around the temples, is forbidden (Leviticus 19:27). I am worried about forcing schools to stop playing football, but given that touching the skin of a dead pig makes a person unclean (Leviticus 11:68) it would seem, at bare minimum, to require that we switch to a synthetic ball. For that matter, ham sandwiches and hot dogs will certainly have to go (Leviticus 11:68) and cheeseburgers will be a thing of the past (Exodus 23:19). And I can't wait to see how school dress codes are modified to take into consideration that prohibition against wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread; alas, no more cotton/polyester blends (Leviticus 19:19). And I'm particularly looking forward to the part of the curriculum that deals with the proper way to make animal sacrifices.

And before you say that we don't need to follow all of those commandments from the Bible, please tell me just who it is, precisely, that gets to decide which commandments we keep and which ones we ignore; which commandments still have a place in the modern world and which should be relegated to the past? I don't recall God saying that we get to pick and choose the rules that we want to follow. But then I guess that will be part of the school curriculum as well.

And how are we to reconcile all of this with Jesus' own prescriptions against public prayer:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret....

(Mathew 6:56). It would seem to me that coercive (or even optional, but organized) prayer in the public schools would violate this admonition. But maybe our new Biblical public school curriculum will include proper instruction on how and where and to whom to pray, too.

Perhaps we can settle these questions in the civilized way that Europeans have used over the millennia: War. Consider, for a moment, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which all of Europe was embroiled in a war over competing versions of Christianity (Catholics v. Lutherans v. Calvinists). By some estimates, millions of people died during this particularly bloody war. European history is filled with examples of war over religious doctrine and dogma. The Spanish Inquisition was a particularly pleasant way of addressing religious differences. And don't forget Henry VIII who created an entirely new church just because he wanted a divorce. More recently, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants have seen fit to blow each other up. Christians aren't alone in their use of violence to resolve religious disputes. Just look at the violence between Muslims and Hindus over Kashmir, between Muslims, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox in the Balkans, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, if we were to decide that blowing each other up was the best way to resolve our own petty religious differences, then we wouldn't be much different from the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims presently engaged in their own conflict in Iraq in which wholesale kidnapping, torture, and slaughter is apparently an acceptable way to address religious differences.

Consider the following statement from ReligiousTolerance:

Religion is a unique force in society. It motivates individuals to do both good and evil. Historically, it has promoted: an end to slavery, racial integration, equal rights for women, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. It has motivated individuals to create massive support services for the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the broken. Conversely, it has been used to justify slavery, racial segregation, oppression of women, discrimination against homosexuals, genocides, exterminations of minorities, and other horrendous evils.

Religion motivates some to dedicate their lives to help the poor and needy. (e.g. Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa.) It drives others to exterminate as many "heretics" as they can. Consider the mass murders and genocides in Bosnia, East Timor, Indonesia, India, Kosovo, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tibet, etc.

Religion has the capability to generate unselfish love in some people, and vicious, raw hatred in others.

Americans love to stand up and say how proud they are of their country and the freedoms and liberties that America stands for. Yet, when those freedoms and liberties challenge us, how many of us are still ready to stand up and support the rights of those with whom they disagree? You pray the way you want, I'll pray the way I want (if I want), and we'll leave the schools to teach our children about math and reading and science (and let's not even get started on the whole issue of creationism or "intelligent design").

Do we honestly believe that simply offering a public prayer that conforms to a particular religious viewpoint will suddenly cause all children to be good, that burglars and murderers will suddenly repent, that terrorists will leave us alone, and hurricanes will limit their destruction to Mexico or Cuba? Just think about it: Canada allows gay marriage, but it doesn't appear that God has punished Canada. For that matter Massachusetts also allows gay marriage, but Hurricane Katrina landed far to the south of Boston. So maybe, just maybe, the fact that we don't allow prayer in public schools has little or nothing to do with how God views our country. Or, perhaps, if God is angry at the U.S., it is because we have not lived up to the challenge of always acting as we should when we support dictators, don't give enough money to help impoverished nations, continue to allow the environment to be destroyed, rely upon torture to obtain information, and continue to use God and religion as an excuse for political viewpoints that demonize those with whom we disagree. Or maybe, God just wants us to allow gays to marryY

Just consider my own childhood in which the principal at my public elementary school used a derogatory term to describe my mother after I (a somewhat precocious 5thgrader) expressed discomfort at singing "Silent Night" in the school's Christmas program. When I asked the music teacher if I could simply remain silent during that song, I was given the choice of singing (and not just "mumbling", I was reminded) or quitting the choir. Or consider that Good Friday was a recognized absence for the Catholic children, but Jews had to call in "sick" to be excused for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Or consider that every student at our public high school had to sit through a performance of Handel's "Messiah" by the school choir (and rise at the appropriate moment). I was told that if I did not attend the performance, I would be suspended. When I later asked the music teacher why that particular piece of music was chosen, she claimed that it was due to the beautiful harmonies and not for its religious content. So, I asked her why it was not included in the spring music program and she replied that it "would lose its meaning". I could go on and on with examples of the government, through the public school system, attempting to impose a particular religious viewpoint upon me. It was clear to me, as I grew up, that because I was not Christian, I was different and something less than a full participant in my own country. That is wrong. That is not American. I am no more a guest here than any other citizen, whether a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Wiccan, or any of the myriad other religions that make up America. And an atheist is no less a citizen than any believer. I am not a guest and my country should not make me feel that I am anything less than on equal footing with every other citizen, no matter my religion (or lack thereof).

And finally, back to Ben Stein. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Stein that it doesn't bother me when people refer to Christmas trees as such. Nor am I particularly bothered if someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas". My wife even likes to listen to some Christmas music (I have allegedly been caught humming "Frosty the Snowman") and our family will occasionally drive around and look at our neighbors' Christmas lights. However, while I am not offended, I do wonder what is so wrong with saying "Happy Holidays" as that term is fully inclusive of all people, of whatever religion (or none the phrase includes New Year's Day and Thanksgiving and maybe even the winter solstice) rather than being exclusive. So, while I have no problem with Wal-Mart deciding that its greeters should say "Merry Christmas" (can anybody explain why Wal-Mart needs to greet me?), I also have no problem giving my business to Target where diversity is welcomed and inclusiveness is valued. That said, I am offended when someone who knows me says "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Holidays" because that tells me that the person doesn't care enough to be considerate toward me. If I know that someone is Christian, I will try to remember to say "Merry Christmas". Otherwise, I usually say "Happy Holidays"; I want to be inclusive and be sure that my greeting is appropriate for everyone (but, I'll acknowledge that when an acquaintance who knows that I'm Jewish wishes me a "Merry Christmas" I am likely to respond with "Happy Hanukkah" if I'm in a bah humbug sort of mood).

Like Mr. Stein, I am not offended by a manger scene. The church on the corner near my home has a lovely living nativity each year. I am, however, offended, when my government chooses to erect a manger scene or allows one to be erected on public property. Why exactly does the government need to erect a manger or to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Don't churches and private homeowners (not to mention stores and businesses) do a sufficient job of that? The hue and cry about the "attack" on Christmas would make one think that those of us who favor the separation of church and state want to prohibit churches and individuals from showing their faith and devotion when that simply is not the case at all. By all means, hang up your Christmas lights, decorate your tree, erect your crèche. Just do it at your home or at your business or at your church and not on government land and do it without government tax dollars. Is that really too much to ask?

I also agree with Mr. Stein that America is not an "explicitly atheist country". I am unfamiliar with that claim. Instead, I believe that America is a country that is (or should be) neutral toward religion. America is not atheist any more than it is Christian or Jewish or Muslim or tied to the earth and ancestor spirit faiths of Native Americans. America is all of those things. America is made up of hundreds of different religions (and of those who have either no particular faith or who don't believe in a god or gods), each of which may be a valuable contribution to the fabric that makes our country (and each of which may also have negative influences as well). But that does not mean that America as a country and through its institutions should show favoritism toward any particular religious belief or form of worship (or lack thereof). To exclude coercive prayer from public life, to recognize that not everyone shares the same religious views and beliefs, to value diversity (and the rewards and challenges that diversity can bring) is not "atheist". But it is American.

Happy Holidays.


Well, I did warn you that this would be long. If you've stayed with me the whole way, thanks. If not ... well, I guess that you wouldn't be reading this would you? Anyway, as I'm sure you can tell by now, the issues that I discussed above are very important to me and about which I tend to get very exercised.

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