One More Atrocity from the Supreme Court

Today the SCOTUS issued a decision that will allow public school coaches and teachers to bully and intimidate students into participating in prayers against their will. This is what passes for “freedom of religion” in the imperium per iudices of the United States.

I wrote about Kennedy v. Bremerton School District in April, when the Court heard the case. See SCOTUS, Culture Warriors, and School Prayer for background.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Gorsuch, and Ian Millhiser writes at Vox that Gorsuch misrepresented the facts of the case. (This is the pattern with this Court; if the facts don’t support how you want to rule, then change the facts.)

Moreover, because Gorsuch’s opinion relies so heavily on false facts, the Court does not actually decide what the Constitution has to say about a coach who ostentatiously prays in the presence of students and the public. Instead, it decides a fabricated case about a coach who merely engaged in “private” and “quiet” prayer. …

… In the real case that was actually before the Supreme Court, Coach Kennedy incorporated “motivational” prayers into his coaching. Eventually, these prayers matured into public, after-game sessions, where both Kennedy’s players and players on the other team would kneel around Kennedy as he held up helmets from both teams and led students in prayer.

After games, Kennedy would also walk out to the 50-yard line, where he would kneel and pray in front of students and spectators. Initially, he did so alone, but after a few games students started to join him — eventually, a majority of his players did so. One parent complained to the school district that his son “felt compelled to participate,” despite being an atheist, because the student feared “he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”

See A coach coerced students to pray, and the Supreme Court just said it was OK by Paul Peterson, father of four former Bremerton High School students.

It’s not the job of coaches or teachers to lead schoolchildren in prayer or coerce them, whether explicitly or implicitly, to join in religious activities. Students and their families, not public school employees, get to decide their religious practices and beliefs. Religious indoctrination is not the instruction that I or the parents I know want the public school involved in.

Well, yes. The issue was never that the coach was seen saying prayers on the 50 yard line; it was that team members were coerced into joining the prayers. And some of the players felt uncomfortable with this, because the prayers didn’t reflect their religious views.

“There is no indication in the record,” Gorsuch wrote, “that anyone expressed any coercion concerns to the District about the quiet, postgame prayers that Mr. Kennedy asked to continue and that led to his suspension.” Perhaps the Justice overlooked the amicus brief joined by parents like Paul Peterson, who felt that Kennedy’s prayers were coercive and out of bounds. Mark Joseph Stern reported,

The plaintiff’s lawyers insist that he was fired from his job as a football coach for engaging in “quiet, private prayer” at the 50-yard line after games. The extensive record developed in the district court tells a different story. It demonstrates that Kennedy formed prayer circles with team members after each game, leading the students in audible Christian prayer while in the midst of his formal duties. When the school district asked him to pray privately instead, he claimed he had been persecuted for his religious exercise.

Kennedy hired far-right lawyers who threatened legal action against the school district, transforming the postgame ritual into a media spectacle. Eventually, students began racing onto the field to join the prayer circle, creating a 500-person stampede that injured multiple people. Put simply, there was nothing “quiet” or “private” about Kennedy’s proselytization. (Also, he wasn’t fired; he was placed on paid leave.)

Not every member of the football team shared their coach’s Christian faith. But virtually all of them felt compelled to participate. Team members later explained that praying with Kennedy was “expected.” The coach even encouraged his own players to recruit their opponents and their coaches into the prayer circle. Some students joined in only because they feared they “wouldn’t get to play as much” if they declined, or because “they did not wish to separate themselves from the team.”

One member of the football team during Kennedy’s tenure, who came forward under a pseudonym for fear of retaliation, attested that he refused to bow his head because Kennedy’s prayers did not align with his own beliefs. He was then “persecuted” for failing to conform, treated poorly by the coaches and permitted to play only because of his talent on the field. The experience still haunts him, as well as others who felt queasy about the indoctrination they faced at school. These players, the student said, “would rather forget about that time of their life.”

Kennedy hired far-right lawyers who threatened legal action against the school district, transforming the postgame ritual into a media spectacle. Eventually, students began racing onto the field to join the prayer circle, creating a 500-person stampede that injured multiple people. Put simply, there was nothing “quiet” or “private” about Kennedy’s proselytization. (Also, he wasn’t fired; he was placed on paid leave.)

Not every member of the football team shared their coach’s Christian faith. But virtually all of them felt compelled to participate. Team members later explained that praying with Kennedy was “expected.” The coach even encouraged his own players to recruit their opponents and their coaches into the prayer circle. Some students joined in only because they feared they “wouldn’t get to play as much” if they declined, or because “they did not wish to separate themselves from the team.”

Christian nationalism, here we come.

Trump’s Bitter Enders: White Evangelicals

The only poll I’ve seen about the phony national emergency, by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, says that the public disapproves of Trump’s phony national emergency declaration by 61 to 39 percent. “Nearly 6-in-10 also don’t believe there is an emergency at the southern border and that the president is misusing his presidential authority. They also believe that his decision should be challenged in court,” NPR reports. Here is a more detailed demographic breakdown.

Republicans, naturally, are more approving of the declaration than the public at large. But Paul Waldman points out that this isn’t necessarily good news for Trump.

The question is whether he can duplicate his 2016 electoral college hat trick by dramatically energizing noncollege whites again, and by winning independents and others who decide they don’t like either candidate (as Trump did in 2016).

And among those groups, the poll finds surprising levels of opposition. Large majorities of independents tilt against Trump on these questions. And non-college-educated whites disapprove of the national emergency declaration by 53 to 43; they lean slightly against the idea that there’s even any emergency (49-47); and even marginally say that it makes them less likely to vote for Trump (46-41).

However, there is one demographic that’s still in the tank for Trump.

White evangelical Christians. They approve of the declaration by 67 to 26; think there is a national emergency on the border by 70 to 22; say he’s properly using his powers by 69-23; and say this makes them more likely to vote for him by 60 to 22..

I have to say that even I am a bit nonplussed by the white evangellical Christians, even though as a child of the Bible Belt I suppose they shouldn’t surprise me.

There was a very disturbing op ed in the New York Times a couple of months ago that relates to this — “Why Trump Reigns as King Cyrus” by Katherine Stewart. There’s a big chunk of white evangelicals — a not insubstantial part of the population — that sincerely wants Trump or somebody like him to seize power and establish a right-wing theocracy. That’s more important to them than those piddly theological concerns such as morality and Jesus.

Today’s Christian nationalists talk a good game about respecting the Constitution and America’s founders, but at bottom they sound as if they prefer autocrats to democrats. In fact, what they really want is a king. “It is God that raises up a king,” according to Paula White, a prosperity gospel preacher who has advised Mr. Trump.

Ralph Drollinger, who has led weekly Bible study groups in the White House attended by Vice President Mike Pence and many other cabinet members, likes the word “king” so much that he frequently turns it into a verb. “Get ready to king in our future lives,” he tells his followers. “Christian believers will — soon, I hope — become the consummate, perfect governing authorities!”

The great thing about kings like Cyrus, as far as today’s Christian nationalists are concerned, is that they don’t have to follow rules. They are the law. This makes them ideal leaders in paranoid times.

“When are they going to start rolling out the boxcars to start hauling off Christians?” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, asked in 2016. If you’re hearing those boxcars pulling up in the distance, as it were, you don’t merely overlook the antisocial qualities of a prospective leader, you embrace them as virtues.

See also this discussion on white Christian evangelicals and Christian nationalism at Vox. White evangelicals have a long history of cherry-picking scripture to support whatever they want to believe, going back to their antebellum support for slavery in the South.

You never hear devout evangelicals say that God raised up Trump to punish or chastise evangelicals for placing too much of their hope in power politics or political strongmen. Evangelicals are modern people — they believe in certainty and often insist that they know the exact will of God on all matters. In other words, they do not share the Catholic or Orthodox idea of the “mystery of faith.” They also have a long history of cherry-picking from the Bible to justify their politics.

Some believe that Trump, like King Cyrus, is delivering them from the “captivity” of the Obama administration. Bible verses calling for obedience to government are used to justify immigration policies that seem to contradict the teachings of the Scriptures in relation to refugees and “strangers.” They find some verses useful and ignore others.

If the Obama Administration is their idea of “captivity,” obviously there’s no reasoning with these people. They are nuttier than a Payday bar. But this also explains the Trump/Republican bizarre obsequiousness to Bibi Netanyahu and their conflation of being anti-government of Israel with anti-Semitism. White evangelicals are anti-Semitic lovers of Israel because Israel fits into Dispensationalist ideas of prophecy; see Nancy LeTourneau, “A More Twisted Form of Anti-Semitism.” They’ve figured out a way to complain about alleged rising anti-Semitism on the Left while absolving themselves of the same sin.

Is there anything Trump could do to shake their faith? Maybe if it was proved he had paid mistresses to get abortions, but I doubt even that would do it. However, as Paul Waldman says, there aren’t enough of them to re-elect Trump by themselves.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

A Sham of Biblical Proportions

I really don’t want to talk about politics. It all sucks. So instead let’s have fun laughing at the noobs who poured so much money into the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

The Museum of the Bible announced Monday that at least five of its Dead Sea Scrolls — among the most valuable and historically significant items in its collection — are fakes. …

…The five scrolls represent a major proportion of the museum’s 16-piece collection of Dead Sea Scrolls, acquired as part of the 40,000-piece Green family collection over the past decade. Doubts about their authenticity were first raised two years ago by scholars in the academic journal Brill. Since then, scholar Kipp Davis of Trinity Western University has argued that at least seven of the scrolls were fake, based on the language used in the fragments and other textual evidence.

The announcement of the forgery comes after years of controversy and criticism over the museum’s approach to scholarship, which is heavily rooted in its evangelical Christian ethos. The 430,000-square-foot, $500 million museum, which opened in November 2017, is the brainchild of the Green family, the evangelical Christian owners and founders of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby. Last year, the museum sent five of the disputed fragments to a German laboratory for testing. The results, which were publicly released this week, cast serious doubt on the authenticity of all five.

Inside the Museum of the Bible, which apparently is a 430,000-square-foot cheese fest.

The controversy over the Dead Sea Scrolls is about more than just the Green family’s academic rigor, or lack thereof. It’s also about the very particular way that many evangelical Christians see the Bible — a perspective that has made the evangelical market particularly susceptible to forgeries.

Basically, evangelicals try to argue that the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the current Bible has been unchanged through the centuries, while scholars say the Dead Sea Scrolls prove just the opposite.

Charles Pierce:

This fills me with a flood tide of entirely un-Christian glee. The Green family, the sex-obsessed theocrats behind Hobby Lobby, have done quite enough damage to the country to have earned being played for suckers like this. And, as is customary for all modern Christian evangelicals in politics, the Greens ignored the warnings of experts in Biblical archaeology who told them they likely were buying fakes. …

… Blessed are the theocrats, for they shall be called marks and rubes.

The Greens had broken laws importing the stuff they bought on the antiquities black market, so I can’t feel too sorry for them. I wonder if the thing is making them a return on their investment. Maybe it will be as big a money loser as Ark Encounter.

When “People of Faith” Don’t Know Faith from Fritos

I’m about to lay a sermon on you. I hope you don’t mind.

Roy Moore of bad horsemanship fame has still refused to concede the Senate race he lost to Doug Jones on December 12. Moore has filed suit to block state officials from certifying the results. State officials certified the results today anyway.

One wonders what Moore thinks he’s trying to prove; the election was close, but not that close. Some cynics have said he’s just dragging things out to scam more donations out of the faithful, which is the only explanation that makes sense.

But let us consider at least one explanation that doesn’t make sense, which is that Moore seriously believes God wants him to be senator. That’s basically what he told his supporters on election night instead of conceding. If he believes that, then he must also believe that the election results are a mistake caused by demonic forces, such as African Americans and Democrats.

“That’s what we’ve got to do,” Moore said, “is wait on God and let this process play out.” So he filed suit to give God more time to set things right. God ran out of time anyway.

Even the right-wing Jim Geraghty wrote at National Review

… we’re watching a man who had so much faith in his own victory that he cannot mentally comprehend that he lost.

Maybe that’s part of it, that Moore convinced himself that God would speak through the results and simply can’t fathom the reality that he wasn’t chosen. That reminds me of his spokesman, Janet Porter, allegedly telling Nancy French in 2008 that she didn’t love America because she preferred the Mormon Mitt Romney to the evangelical Mike Huckabee in the GOP primary. If Huckabee versus Romney was a litmus test on patriotism and Christian virtue, imagine how much more of a litmus test Moore versus Jones was. Surely the good lord prefers the former to the latter. So how can the vote totals be accurate?

Moore may consider himself to be a “man of faith,” but his actions reveal he doesn’t know faith from Fritos. To the great theologians of the past, faith was about love of or trust in a God whose nature and opinions were beyond human understanding. One was to accept one’s role in God’s Unfathomable Plan with humility, even when that Plan demands that one loses. To declare you know what God thinks about anything would have been blasphemy to them.

Moore’s is a faith with conditions, and the condition is that Roy Moore be elevated to greatness. That’s not faith, my dears. That’s ego. It’s also delusion, and many of the early patriarchs of Christianity would have called it heresy. Mistaking one’s own desires for God’s Will is one of the most common pitfalls of the spiritual path. And it’s a pitfall Christianity has fallen into many times over the centuries. But it seems to be getting worse.

Many theologians have decried the loss of humility in modern Christianity. This was a major theme of Reinhold Niebuhr‘s, for example. I don’t always see eye to eye with Niebuhr, but I like what he wrote about humility.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

In other words, in the grand scheme of things our opinions and views are pitiful little relative things; a mere drop in the ocean. Great faith is not an insistence that we must be right, but rather it acknowledges that we could be wrong as we stumble on doing the best we can. (See my old series of several years ago, the Wisdom of Doubt.)

Niebuhr wrote a lot about the evils of moral pride, spiritual pride, and self-righteousness. Those who claim divine support for their own values and positions are the cause of most of the evils of the world. This is from his book The Nature and Destiny of Man  (1941).

Moral pride is revealed in all “self-righteous” judgments in which the other is condemned because he fails to conform to the highly arbitrary standards of the self. Since the self judges itself by its own standards it finds itself good. It judges others by its own standards and finds them evil, when their standards fail to conform to its own. This is the secret of the relationship between cruelty and self righteousness. When the self mistakes its standards for God’s standards it is naturally inclined to attribute the very essence of evil to non-conformists.

The character of moral pride is described in the words of St.Paul: “They have the zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For being ignorant of God’s righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness they have not submitted themselves onto the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:2-3).

Moral pride is the pretension of finite man that his highly conditioned virtue is the final righteousness and that his relative moral standards are absolute. Moral pride thus makes virtue the very vehicle of sin, a fact which explains why the New Testament is so critical of the righteous in comparison with sinners. …

… The whole history of racial, national, religious and other social struggles is a commentary on the objective wickedness and social miseries which result from self-righteousness.

I would like to add that one doesn’t have to be religious to be self-righteous. There are none more self-righteous than die-hard political ideologues, left or right, or crusading anti-religion atheists, for example

One of my favorite works of theology is Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith (1957). Tillich defined “faith” as “the state of being ultimately concerned.” It is a free and centered act of one’s total personality. The content of that faith does not matter to the definition. Tillich separates faith from belief, as the older theologians did; what you believe is not necessarily where your faith lies. This ultimate concern makes demands, he said, but it also holds out a promise of ultimate fulfillment. “Man is driven toward faith by his awareness of the infinite to which he belongs, but which he does not own like a possession.” For Tillich, doubt and courage are essential elements of faith. He also said,

Love is the power in the ground of everything that is, driving it beyond itself toward reunion with the other one and ultimately with the ground itself from which it is separated.

Obviously I’m skipping a lot here. Tillich defined God not as a being but as the “ground of Being-Itself” that is manifest in all beings.

“The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion,” he wrote.

An idolatrous faith which gives ultimacy to a preliminary concern stands against all other preliminary concerns and excludes love relations between the representatives of contrasting claims. The fanatic cannot love that against which his fanaticism is directed. And idolatrous faith is by necessity fanatical. It must repress the doubts which characterize the elevation of something preliminary to ultimacy.

In other words, “faith” that is tribal, that pits my tribe against your tribe, that demands its finite doctrines and understandings be unquestioned, is idolatry to Tillich. What we’re seeing among a lot of white U.S. Christians these days is a descent into idolatry, and Donald Trump is the golden calf. Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, made a similar point in an editorial titled “Speaking Truth to Trump.” Support for Trump may seem strategic, in that he offers conservative Christians the power to impose their moral values on the nation. However, “Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence,” Crouch wrote.  

I would add that in Buddhism, the word from Sanskrit that is often translated as faith could also be translated as trust, confidence or fidelity. It’s faith in the practice; it’s faith to keep going even if you can’t see where.  Older theologians spoke of faith in those same terms.  The relatively recent notion that religious faith is merely a synonym of belief has done Christianity a lot of harm, I think.

Charles Mathewes, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, wrote,

When we’ve reached a place where good Christian folk think it’s a matter of major theological principle not to sell pastries to gay people but are willing to give pedophiles a pass, I think it’s safe to say that American Christianity today — white American Christianity in particular — is in a pretty sorry state. …

… There are many factors — historical, social and political — that have helped shape white American Christianity into what it is today. But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. Theologians as well as psychologists will tell you that there is a spiritual peril in acting out of fear and a sense of danger. Fear drives us into patterns of “reasoning” that are far from reasonable, but more akin to reactionary patterns of cause-and-effect. And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.

It’s up to Christianity to reform itself. We’ll see if it can. Miracles do happen; one-time neoconservative toady and apologist for all things George W. Bush, Max Boot, has written a column for Foreign Policy acknowledging his white male privilege. I’d link to the article itself, but Foreign Policy currently is offline. Miracles have their limits.

Hobby Lobby and the Bible Totem

After a stressful week I’m ready to indulge in some schadenfreude over Hobby Lobby’s recent tangle with the Justice Department.

The arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of ancient Iraqi clay artifacts smuggled into the United States, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

In addition to the fine, Hobby Lobby will forfeit thousands of clay bullae, cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals that were falsely labeled and shipped to the company through the United Arab Emirates and Israel, according to a civil complaint and settlement agreement in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Hobby Lobby says they didn’t know the tablets were stolen.

According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby got conflicting information about where the artifacts had been stored and never met or communicated with the dealer selling them. When it came time to pay, the company wired money to seven separate bank accounts. …

…Starting in late 2010, a United Arab Emirates-based dealer sent 10 packages to three different Hobby Lobby addresses in Oklahoma City, with shipping labels reading “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample),” according to the complaint. No formal entries were made for the shipments. Prosecutors said the use of multiple addresses was “consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection later intercepted five additional packages, all of them falsely declaring that the artifacts inside came from Turkey. A final shipment containing about 1,000 clay bullae arrived at one of Hobby Lobby’s addresses from Israel in September 2011. That one also misrepresented the artifacts’ country of origin, according to the complaint.

They didn’t know the artifacts were stolen. They didn’t understand the laws about shipping antiquities into the country. Yeah, right.

Making all this even juicier is that the Green family that owns Hobby Lobby also is the main force behind a new Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open soon in Washington DC near the Mall. The Greens had promised to house more than 44,000 biblical texts and artifacts in this museum. Museum administration is in damage control mode, righteously declaring that all the tablets the Greens were importing were not intended to be put in the museum. So the Greens were going to line their driveway with them?

Or, maybe not.

Candida Moss, the co-author of a forthcoming book on the Green family’s rapid acquisition of Biblical antiquities and attempts to promote the influence of Christianity on public life, said that the museum has tried to distance itself from its chairman and his craft stores since the media began reporting on his antiquities acquisitions two years ago.

“The Greens remain very much involved. Green is still head of the board,” she said. “The fact is, they’re not as separate as they claim. Many of the artifacts will be on loan from the Green collection. There are other items in their collection that scholars are asking questions about.”

Brent Clark, an Oklahoma lawyer also working on a manuscript about the Green family, agreed: “Steve Green is going to be in charge of that thing, come hell or high water.”

The museum is still expected to be a popular tourist attraction, but scholars are likely to keep their distance.

Yates, the art crime expert, said that many major journals of archaeology research refuse to publish articles based on artifacts whose provenance can’t be proven, and researchers won’t be willing to do work that they can’t publish.

I’m not an archaeologist, but it’s not hard to imagine that if an artifact is looted from its original site so that its provenance is lost, its value for historical research is greatly diminished.

Candida Moss and Joel Baden, who are writing a book titled Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, wrote an op ed for the New York Times that vigorously pooh-poohed the idea that the Green’s looted stuff was not intended for the museum. Further, they allege that a whole lot of the stuff that is scheduled to be displayed in the museum has a sketchy provenance as well.

Although we can now point to a large number of items in the collection that were illicitly acquired, there remain thousands and thousands more about which we can say nothing: not because their provenance is clean, but because it is unknown. Though scholars have been pleading for years with the Greens and the Museum of the Bible to provide all of the information for all of their artifacts, there has been no transparency whatsoever.

What part of “Thou shalt not steal” skipped your attention, folks?

The particular legal issue of falsified import papers is merely the tip of a much larger ethical iceberg. The real issue here is the black market in looted antiquities, a market that has loomed beneath the surface of storied museum collections and private holdings for many years, but that became especially visible during the first Iraq War and the period of regional destabilization that followed.

It is not the case, as some have alleged, that Hobby Lobby bought artifacts from ISIS. Though it is true that ISIS profits by looting artifacts and passing them on to dealers and collectors in the West, the shipments for which Hobby Lobby was scrutinized predate the rise of ISIS.

But Hobby Lobby did participate in and perpetuate the same market from which ISIS profits. If collectors like the Green family were unwilling to purchase unprovenanced antiquities — items that do not have a clear and clean history of discovery and purchase — the black market would dry up. As long as there are buyers, there will be sellers. It is because collectors like Hobby Lobby are willing to pay a premium and look the other way that looting continues. They dramatically expanded the market for biblical antiquities in the late 2000s.

Note that Moss is a professor of New Testament studies at Notre Dame, and Baden is a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Yale.

The point is not just that the Greens have been encouraging the looting of historical artifacts in the name of “preserving” them, they’ve also been breaking biblical law to stock their glorified Museum of the Bible. Yeah, that makes the Greens hypocrites of the first order, but what else?

The whole champions of Christianity pose may have just been a marketing ploy all along. But it’s also the case that for the more fanatical Christians in the U.S., the Bible ceased to be a scripture a long time ago. It’s become more of a totem, a sacred symbol assumed to have spiritual power that represents the tribe of self-proclaimed conservative Christians. What it actually says about anything is irrelevant.

The Christian Right’s Original Sin

Donald Trump not only is dividing Republicans from Republicans; he is dividing Christians from Christians.

Christianity Today published an anti-Trump editorial, and several prominent evangelical clergypersons also have spoken out against him. However, a lot of the big shots of the Christian-Political Right still stand with Trump — Jerry Falwell, Jr., Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, James Dobson, and the animated fossil of Pat Robertson, for example.

I wrote a few days ago,

I can think of two explanations. One, they think somehow they will maintain more influence in a Trump administration than in a Clinton administration. And maybe they would. Trump obviously doesn’t give a hoo-haw about religion, except when it can be made to reflect well on him somehow. He might very well support their anti-LGBT and anti-women agenda if they flatter him enough, because it’s obvious he doesn’t give a shit either way.

The other explanation is that these people have become so twisted that oppressing women and LGBT people is the only “morality” they care about any more, and all the stuff about lying, stealing, coveting, adultery , etc., are just details that can be sacrificed for their “greater good.”

The truth probably is a combination of both. Remember, these are guys who were elevated to prominence, directly or indirectly, by political operatives like Paul Weyrich who saw the usefulness of framing the right-wing political agenda as a moral crusade. These guys gave their blessings to the political Right in exchange for fame, wealth and the promise that they could become America’s moral arbiters.

Which brings me to Original Sin. Yes, Christian theology is a bit outside my usual area, but it does interest me. And I have no beef with Christianity; it’s just a shame more Christians don’t follow it.

I never appreciated the Original Sin doctrine until I read Reinhold Niebuhr‘s explanation of it, which differs considerably from what most of us were taught. But Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a highly regarded theologian, and I argue his opinion is as authoritative as anyone’s. And please note that both Niebuhr and I read the Genesis story as myth, not as natural history.

Niebuhr noted that the Serpent had said of the forbidden fruit, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” In other words, the great temptation was to be like God. This is a point that seems to get lost a lot.

So Adam and Eve ate the fruit and gained the knowledge, and from there came all human hangups, not to mention psychiatrists and lawyers. But we can put that aside for now. Water under the bridge.

Anyway, for Niebuhr, this is not something that happened only in a mythical past. Every human generation has succumbed to the same temptation by seeking power and self-glorification, he said.

“Man’s situation tempts to evil, provided man is unwilling to accept the peculiar weakness of his creaturely life, and is unable to find the ultimate source and end of his existence beyond himself,” Niebuhr wrote in Discerning the Signs of the Times (1946). “Being an insignificant creature with suggestions of great significance in the stature of his freedom, man uses his strength to hide his weakness and thus falls into the evil of the lust for power and self-idolatry.”

Just about the worst sin, to Niebuhr, was presuming perfect knowledge of God. He died before the modern Christian Right got off the ground, but his opinion of such creatures as Falwell (father and son), Reed, Perkins and Robertson comes through clearly in his writing. These are the guys who fell into the temptation; they ate the forbidden fruit; they assumed to know God’s mind and to hand out judgments on the rest of us.

Original sin, by tainting all human perceptions, is the enemy of absolutes. Mortal man’s apprehension of truth is fitful, shadowy and imperfect; he sees through the glass darkly. Against absolutism Niebuhr insisted on the “relativity of all human perspectives,” as well as on the sinfulness of those who claimed divine sanction for their opinions. He declared himself “in broad agreement with the relativist position in the matter of freedom, as upon every other social and political right or principle.” In pointing to the dangers of what Justice Robert H. Jackson called “compulsory godliness,” Niebuhr argued that “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.” Religion, he warned, could be a source of error as well as wisdom and light. Its role should be to inculcate, not a sense of infallibility, but a sense of humility. Indeed, “the worst corruption is a corrupt religion.”

If there was ever a better morality play than what’s going on now in the presidential election, I can’t think of it. Those who were raised up through hubris and self-glorification are now being exposed as fallible and corrupt. Truly, their own sinful ways are revealed.

Dana Milbank wrote,

In the past, as Pulliam Bailey has chronicled, religious-right leaders claimed to care about personal morality. “We will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character,” Reed said back in the Monica Lewinsky days. Evangelical leader James Dobson advocated Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 because he set a bad example about “respecting women.”

But Dobson supports Trump, excusing his behavior because the candidate is a “baby Christian.” Franklin Graham, though formally neutral, draws equivalence between Trump’s “crude comments” and Democrats’ “godless” agenda. …

… But where are the high-profile figures in the movement, such as Reed, Robertson and Falwell? In January, Falwell said Trump “lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught.” He likened Trump to his father.

And now, no regrets. Falwell said that years from now, “I don’t think anybody is going to be sitting around thinking about whether Donald Trump said this or that on the videotape in 2005. I think they’re going to be sitting around saying, ‘Gosh, I wish we had different Supreme Court justices.’ ”

Or maybe they’ll be wondering how differently things might have turned out if Falwell, with his ends-justify-the-means logic, hadn’t made a deal with the devil and destroyed the moral credibility of the movement his father built.

Some Liberty University students are rebelling, and they criticized Falwell for using their university as a vehicle for electing Donald Trump. Do read the letter they wrote; they understand that Trump is a moral cesspool and even quote the Gospels — Matthew chapter 7 — to express their opposition. The fallout from this election is going to be massive, and it won’t just affect the Republican Party.

The Fantasies of Terrorism

A couple of days ago I wrote that Omar Mateen “wasn’t so much a jihadist as someone who poured his excessive rage into a fantasy of jihad.” Turns out that may have made him a typical jihadist.

At the New York Times Peter Bergen writes that he did exhaustive research into more than 300 individual incidents of terrorism to find out what motivated the terrorists. He concludes,

The easy explanation — that jihadist terrorists in the United States are “mad” or “bad” — proved simply wrong. Around one in 10 had mental health problems, below the incidence in the general population. Nor were they typically career criminals: Twelve percent had served time in prison, compared with about 11 percent of the American male population.

I found that the perpetrators were generally motivated by a mix of factors, including militant Islamist ideology; dislike of American foreign policy in the Muslim world; a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose; and a “cognitive opening” to militant Islam that often was precipitated by personal disappointment, like the death of a parent. For many, joining a jihadist group or carrying out an attack allowed them to become heroes of their own story.

The “heroes of their own story” turns out to be key.

But in each case, the proportion of the motivations varied. For instance, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, was a nonpracticing Muslim who became an Islamist militant once his dreams of becoming an Olympic boxerfaded. At the time of the attack, he was unemployed. For him, bombing the marathon seemed to allow him to become the heroic figure that he believed himself to be.

On the other hand, his younger brother, Dzhokhar, never seemed to embrace militant Islam. He smoked marijuana, drank and chased girls — hardly the actions of a Muslim fundamentalist. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s motivations for the bombings were instead largely molded by his older brother, whom he admired and feared, and by his own half-baked opposition to American foreign policy.

Nidal Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009, seemed to be a more classic jihadist. He was a highly observant Muslim who objected to American foreign policy. But according to Nader Hasan, a first cousin who had grown up with him, the massacre at Fort Hood was also motivated by Nidal Hasan’s personal problems. He was unmarried, both his parents were dead, he had no real friends and a dreaded deployment to Afghanistan loomed. “He went postal,” Nader Hasan told me, “and he called it Islam.”

David C. Headley of Chicago, who did much of the planning for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which more than 160 people were killed, was not an observant Muslim. He juggled multiple wives and girlfriends. He was motivated more by a passionate hatred of India — and his enjoyment in playing the role of a jihadi James Bond, hanging out with Bollywood stars for cover while secretly planning one of the most spectacular and deadly terrorist assaults since Sept. 11, 2001.

Bergen doesn’t say if he found any examples of well-adjusted people not facing a life crisis or nursing a boiling personal grudge who decided only from their reading of the Quran that they had a duty to be jihadists, but my guess would be no.

I had said something similar in my book about the 9/11 terrorists, who were known to drink alcohol and go nightclubbing. Deep down, what they did was not really about religion. Meaning, religion didn’t provide the prime motivation. If you look closely, the “motivation” is nearly always some tangled mix of political, economic, social, cultural and historical factors with some big, honking Personal Issues mixed in. I wrote,

But it’s rarely just about Buddhism. Or Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, or any other religion. Like any other part of human civilization, religions exist in a context of culture, society, politics, and history, not to mention the various psychological issues of the participants. Religion has been the prime driver of some violent situations, but sometimes it’s just one factor among many, and the violence probably would have happened without it.

And sometimes religion may not be the prime driver but acts more as an accelerant, or at least an excuse, giving people a moral “cover” or context for their rage, even when their rage is being driven by something else entirely. If you can persuade yourself that your vehemence is sanctified, and that you are entitled or even anointed to strike at the object of your anger, it’s a lot easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

And this, I think, is at the root of why so much of the mass violence in the world today has a connection to religion. Religion has become the last refuge of the furious.

In short, religion can be used to craft a cosmic permission slip and provide a kind of holy absolution (in the minds of the perps, anyway) for what would otherwise be unjustifiable savagery. And, of course, ultimately it’s still unjustifiable.  But terrorists do tend to be the world’s worst cherry pickers, as far as doctrine is concerned. They’re only interested in the parts that might be used to justify what they were going to do, anyway. The remainder can be ignored.

In the book I went back to this great quote:

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. —  Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) 

I propose that these factors tend to come together to form “terrorists.”

The first is some kind of association with an idealized mass movement.  As Bergen said, they seem to have “a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose.” However, this association may exist only in the head of the perp, as it did in Omar Mateen. In other words, the association may exist as a psychological factor but not a physical or operative factor, and it’s important for us to keep that straight. Otherwise you’re off into Crazy Land with John McCain, who has said President Obama is responsible for the murders in Orlando because he hasn’t bombed ISIS enough.

The idealized mass movement comes with a “holy cause.” But the holy cause is not necessarily religious; nationalism or or extremist political ideologies or white supremacy or a lot of other things will do just as well. If the “holy cause” is religious, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot if the individual perp really believes it that much. It’s the idea of having a holy cause to rally around, rather than personal devotion, that’s important. Without a holy cause to fight for, one cannot be the hero of one’s own story.

Finally, and possibly most important of all, is the fanatical grievance. I think if you look hard enough, in the soul of every terrorist or mass shooter or anybody who feels a need to express himself through violent slaughter is a festering grievance that the world simply is not giving him what he is due. Whether this grievance is primarily personal or collective, or a little of both, may not matter.

This is why people who make Islam, or religion, out to be “the problem” don’t get it. In the presence of the other psychological factors any mass movement/holy cause will do, including (in theory) atheism. It hardly matters if atheism has no doctrines, as doctrines aren’t that important to “religious” terrorists, anyway.” What’s important is the Cause, which ultimately is just something to reflect glory on the perp’s own ego.

New Jersey Just Poked China

And now for something completely different … New Jersey just released a list of approved religious holidays, meaning holidays that give a child a legitimate excuse for being out of school. A number of Buddhist holidays showed up, which of course is nice. But one jumped out at me —

April 25 The 11th Panchen Lama’s Birthday (Buddhist)

The Panchen Lama, a high lama of the Geluk school, is the second highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism. At the moment there are two, one recognized by Tibetan Buddhism and the authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and one recognized by the government of China.

April 25 is the birthday of the Panchen Lama recognized by Tibetan Buddhism. The other one was born in February.

Historical background: The 10th Panchen Lama, who spent a large part of his life in Chinese prisons, died in 1989 shortly after giving a speech mildly critical of Beijing. Officially, he died of a heart attack.

In May 1995, a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, of Chinese-occupied Tibet, was recognized as the tulku, or rebirth, of the Panchen Lama. Two days later the child and his family were taken into Chinese custody. They have not been seen or heard from since.

Later that year, Beijing named another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu — the son of two Tibetan Communist Party officials — as the 11th Panchen Lama. Gyaltsen Norbu spent most of his childhood in seclusion in Beijing. But in recent years he has been given a number of functions, such as representing Tibetan Buddhism at official conferences and releasing statements praising Beijing for its wise governance of Tibet. (See also “The Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism: A Lineage Hijacked by Politics.”)

You may ask, why is this a BFD? Because it relates to the 14th Dalai Lama and possibly to the 15th as well.

Beijing harbors an irrational and all-consuming hatred for the 14th Dalai Lama. Just as an example of how far Beijing will go to smack down His Holiness — back in 2009 the revered Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh expressed a wish on Italian television that the Dalai Lama might be allowed to return to Tibet. Later that year 400 nuns and monks who were followers of Thich Nhat Hanh were forcibly evicted from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam.

Although Hanoi gave no sensible reason for the eviction, it was understood by everyone that Beijing had ordered it. A number of U.S. presidents have carefully not met with His Holiness in the oval office for similar reasons.

Among the traditional functions of a Panchen Lama is to recognize the rebirth of a Dalai Lama. And here we come to the crux of it. Gyaltsen Norbu has been prepared his entire life to carry out one function, which is to recognize some young boy as the 15th Dalai Lama some day. Beijing has claimed sole authority to recognize all important rebirths, in fact, through a lot of historical revisionism. (See “China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.”)

Beijing has made no secret that it intends to recognize and enthrone a 15th Dalai Lama once the 14th is gone. They appear to believe this will help pacify the Tibetans. The fact that Gyaltsen Norbu is not recognized by Tibetans even in China — indeed, the young man requires a substantial guard when he makes ceremonial visits to Tibetan monasteries — ought to tell the Chinese officials this might not work. But they bought into this plan years ago, and aren’t about to let go of it. (See also “Buddhism in China and Tibet today.”)

Whether New Jersey officials realized what they were getting themselves into by recognizing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama I do not know, but bravo! Well done, somebody!

And maybe Beijing won’t notice. If they do, we could offer to let them keep Chris Christie as hostage.

A couple of other odd things about the New Jersey holiday list — It does not include the birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama himself (July 6), but it does let kids take September 7 off for His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s birthday. This lama is head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of four to six schools depending on who’s counting. I’ve only recently become aware that there was anything of the Sakya school in the U.S. at all; most of western Tibetan Buddhism is Geluk, Kagyu or Nyingma, from what I’ve seen. Kagyu and Nyingma are not represented on the list. However, I don’t doubt Sakya Trizin is a fine fellow whose birthday deserves a day off of school.

This Is What Happens Without Separation of Church and State

Brunei has banned public Christmas celebrations, and the usual promoters of the War on Christmas are apoplectic. The commenters of Jihad Watch are calling for a ban on Islam, while others snark that Muslims must be weenies (my word, not theirs) if their faith can’t stand up to Santa Claus hats.

This is from the same people who threw an epic fit over the building of an Islamic center in lower Manhattan and who whine incessantly about being oppressed because people wish them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” These are the same people whose god is such a wimp he can be ordered out of public schools by Supreme Court decisions. And these are the same people who insist they can use government offices to enforce their own religious beliefs, such as by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Many of these people would vote for Marco Rubio, who declared the United States is governed by God, not the Constitution. And don’t get me started on Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.

(Note that several GOP candidates have claimed God told them to run for president. Why does God hate America?)

What these meatballs don’t get about Brunei is that this is what happens when there is no separation of church and state.

On my other website I devote several articles to Buddhism in China. It seems lots of people in the U.S. think China bans religion, and that is not true. Officially, the government in Beijing supports religion. In recent years, Beijing has sunk a lot of money into restoring temples (many destroyed during the Cultural Revolution) and building big religious displays, such as the gigantic Guanyin of the South Sea.

They do this for other religions, too. The government has restored many cathedrals destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Sounds nice, right? But the cathedrals are administered by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, part of the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy. The CPCA also appoints bishops and, I believe, pays the salaries of clergy. The Vatican doesn’t recognize Chinese clergy as authentic. See also China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.

In the case of Buddhism, Taoism, and other traditional Chinese religions, much of this investment is about tourism. Monasteries, shrines and temples are expected to make money. I understand the fabled Shaolin monastery is a regular cash cow for Beijing.  See also The Disneyfication of Tibet.

This is what happens without separation of church and state.

As most of you know, the establishment clause of the First Amendment essentially forbids Congress  (and through the Fourteenth Amendment, state and local government also) from favoring one religion over another. This is not about banning religion from the public sphere outright, just not showing favoritism. Governments can either ban nativity scenes on public (as in government) property or allow other religions to promote their holidays as well, including Muslims, Satanists and Pastafarians. Lots of groups are demanding that Festivus poles be displayed on public grounds this year, in protest of nativity scenes.

Last month a Pew survey found that white Christians are now less than half of the population. Conservative Christians who continue to claim separation of church and state is the work of the Devil had better think about what might happen if a non-Christian religion ever claims enough followers to become a majority in the U.S. Without separation of church and state, what happened in Brunei could happen here.