Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Wasting Stem Cells

It’s been too long since I’ve posted here, so I hope you’ll bear with my first post back being of the cupcake variety.  As a scientist who is also a religious Christian, you may be surprised to know that I approve of the president’s impending action to lift funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cells. (I actually used Bush-approved stem cells as a graduate student.)

While I’ve not had the time to post much about this issue in recent months, I have been reading others’ takes. Folks that find their way to this blog probably already know that The Washington Post with Newsweek have a nice blog/column about religion called On Faith.  Generally it gives good face time to science and religion topics. A piece likening stem cell ethics to organ transplantation caught my eye because I’ve thought about this connection before and wanted to read what an ‘expert’ would say about it. I’d recommend you check out the article by Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, and the counterpoint by Thomas J. Reese, but what I did a doubletake on was this image on the Post’s main page:


This type of tube is commonly used to store frozen cells, including stem cells. The tube pictured is thawed, because the red media is translucently clear and not a chunk of ice. I’m guessing the photographer wanted an illusion of pipetting into the vial. But in the picture, the scientist is actually pipetting into the cap. There is a good chance that the diagonal tube is a forceps (tweezers) holding the tube up, but with the cinematic techniques used so often on CSI and other science-enriched TV shows, I’m still putting my money on the theory that we’re supposed to think there’s pipet action going on.  And those precious stem cells are going to have to be thrown away once they touch a non-sterile surface!!!

Which is all to say, LOL.


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Safe, Legal and Rare

Thou shalt not kill
Image by danny.hammontree via Flickr

How to Reduce Abortions

This is important to me. I love babies. I love that I am going to be a grandfatther in June. I love children, both first decade and teen. I love women (as a general rule,) and think men are just great for the most part. In short, I am glad to be human and that our species should continue just as long as possible. So, I am not for murdering babies, but I am pro-choice and pro-life. Those two terms mean something different to me and most people who believe that the right to have abortions is a basic civil right than the political slogans imply. If you wish me to state a position based on the commonly understood meanings of the terms “Pro-Life and Pro-Choice,” then call me “Pro-Choice.”

But, and this is an important “but,” read what I have to say about it before insisting that I am in favor of murdering babies:

Women are going to have abortions. They are going to have them for reasons known often only to themselves and the people in whom they choose to confide. A law or constitutional amendment making abortions illegal is not going to stop that, no matter how draconian the penalties. I am not even going to run through the litany of reasons that women will choose not to carry abortions to term, suffice for the sake of this posting that no matter what the laws try to regulate, women will have abortions.

My goal, and I think that society’s goal, is for the women that have abortions to survive them without seriously endangering their own lives. And this is one of those areas in which science should and can guide ethical and moral decisions.

Prior to Roe V. Wade, there were abortions in the United States. Many people will be shocked, I am sure, but it is true. However, the means and methods of these abortions were variable based on the economic class of the women who had them, and also varied greatly based on other circumstance of the carrier’s social context. Abortions were performed in secret, by practitioners who didn’t have proper facilities to deal with emergencies. Abortions were performed in places that did not meet hospital or clinic standards of cleanliness. Abortionists were often not specifically trained on how to do them safely.

This placed the life of the carrier in great danger for post-procedure infections, and women died. Women were unintentionally sterilized by abortionists who were poorly trained. It was a horrifying situation for women who didn’t have access to clinics, but they would make that decision anyway, aware of the risks.

It is important that law reflect human needs, or it will have unintended consequences (this is where it gets tricky.) There has to be a way to create a hierarchy of needs that is both ethical and moral and in ways that do the greatest good for the whole of society; and in abortion law there needs to be a recognition that no matter what the courts or the legislature decides, women will make the decision to end pregnancies. Law needs to recognize this, and protect the lives and health of the women who make this choice.

In Peru, Abortion is Illegal

Peruvian abortions are performed, despite the law. It hasn’t stopped abortion, it has made it much more dangerous for the women who make this decision. (Canadian Medical Association Journal (2009, February 3). Peru Study Shows Restrictive Law Fails To Limit Number Of Abortions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 3, 2009, from Peru Study Shows Restrictive Laws Fail To Limit Number of Abortions.)

Clandestine induced abortion is a significant public health issue in many countries where access to abortion is severely legally restricted. Abortions are often available only in cases of rape or incest or when a pregnancy threatens the health or life of the woman, causing many women to pursue clandestine abortions, which are often unsafe. Forty percent of women live in countries where abortions are legally restricted.

As comprehensive official statistics are lacking, this study provides valuable public health data.

The researchers conducted a population-based survey of almost 8000 women aged 18-29 years in 20 Peruvian cities. They found that 11.6% of women reported having abortions and 7.5% of sexually experienced 18-year-olds – the youngest age surveyed – reported having had abortions.

The political faction which calls themselves “Pro-Life” seems deliberately blinded to this aspect of the abortion issue. I honestly feel their pain and struggle because I don’t like abortions. I would love to see an ideal society in which every baby was lovingly conceived and carried to term into a welcoming social family structure. It ain’t so, though, despite my wishes. I am also not able to make such a blanket statement that all abortion is immoral and must be proscribed by law. Human pregnancy is a dangerous period in a woman’s life even under the best of circumstances, and far too often the worst of circumstances make a choice necessary. When the choice is made, it can only be made by the woman who is carrying the baby with the counsel she chooses.

August Berkshire points out why such a blanket statement that “Abortion is Murder” is ethically impossible:

Beginning with some premises (#1-6) that few Religious Right anti-choice people would disagree with, we follow with a scientific fact (#7), leading to a couple surprising conclusions (#8-9).

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is all-good.
  3. Everything God does is good.
  4. God wants humans to be good.
  5. If humans imitate God, who is all-good, then humans will be good.
  6. God created the human reproductive system.
  7. At least 25% of fertilized human eggs are spontaneously aborted.
  8. This makes God the world’s biggest abortionist.
  9. Humans should have more abortions.

(January 22, 2009 marks the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion.)

While there may be a bit of snarkiness in this, the point is that one would almost have to consider miscarriage and nature-induced abortions to be suicide by the fetus. I don’t think that we can consider that. Death during pregnancy is far too common, and modern medicine can’t prevent all of these. If failure to prevent a crime is as morally wrong as committing the crime, then there is a serious ethical dilemma.

The far better approach to the issue is to reduce the frequency of abortions by making the incidence of unwanted pregnancy a rare thing. And how do we do this? Sensible birth control policies.

I have a daughter who is about to be 17. She recently found herself in a situation in which a boy tried to take advantage of her using alcohol. She escaped the situation, although she is fuzzy about the details when discussing them with me (she has confided more deeply about it with her mother.) If she had been penetrated sexually, it would have been rape. If she had conceived a child for lack of contraception, it would have been cause for an abortion.

Finally, I went to a Catholic High School for my senior year. There was a much sex among my schoolmates as their had been at the public school at which I had been a student the years prior. We had just as many, if not more, pregnant teens at the Catholic School as we had in the public school. Merely teaching kids that premarital sex is “bad, mkay” doesn’t prevent them from having sex. Access to solid, reliable information about sex and how to prevent pregnancy is important not just for your kids and my kids, it is important for society in order to make abortion “Safe, legal and rare.”

Consider the choices honestly. The “War on Drugs” and the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Terrorism” have been ineffective societal attempts to reduce the incidence of negative social functions. Laws in the United States against abortion would be just as ineffective as they were before Roe v Wade, and just as ineffective as they are in Peru. The added danger to women’s lives would cause far more death and mutilation to women than lives of fetuses a “War on Abortion” would do.

Safe, legal and rare. It’s the humane and sensible path.

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Cross-posted from Tangled Up in Blue Guy.

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Much speculation has been made over whether Barack Obama’s Christianity is genuine or not, and it’s easy to understand both the care and the confusion. Most true-believing Christians want a leader guided by “God’s Word,” and many get uncomfortable when Obama does things like point out that making public policy out of Scripture could give the green light to slavery (Leviticus 25:44–46), make it mandatory to stone your children to death should they abandon the faith (Deuteronomy 13:6–10), and criminalize the sale of crabcake sandwiches (Leviticus 11:10–12).[1] Most nontheists, on the other hand, want a leader guided by logic and evidence alone, and many get uncomfortable when Obama calls himself a committed Christian, promises to expand the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,[2] and has his Presidential inauguration ceremony include prayers given by the Christian evangelist Rick Warren.

So what to make of Obama’s faith? My own conclusion is that although there are valid reasons to believe that he might well be a Christian (as religious faith is a complex area with many shades of gray), as well as valid reasons to believe that he might not (that his public declarations about being Christian could be for political reasons only), the best answer may be that it might not matter (given Obama’s determination that when it comes to public policy, religious values must be translated “into universal, rather than religion-specific, values … subject to argument and amenable to reason”[3]).

Reasons to Believe That Obama Might Not Be a Christian

The one thing Obama has made clear is that he is not a fundamentalist. In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, for example, he reveals (albeit via through the somewhat safe vehicle of describing his mother’s views) his skepticism of both (a) creationism and (b) Christianity’s claim of an exclusive path to salvation:

[My mother’s] experiences as a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns … reinforced [her] skepticism. Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation—and who in the same breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary (p. 203).

Obama’s rejection of the idea that Christianity is “the only path” (i.e., his rejection of a literal interpretation of John 14:6’s alleged line from Jesus that “I am the way … no man comes to the Father but by me”) was reiterated in his July 2008 interview with Newsweek:

It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I’ve said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know … I do not believe she went to hell.”[4]

Obama also addresses those who would like to make public policy conform to “God’s Word,” and points out that this could lead to laws that are both cruel and absurd:

But let’s even assume that we only had Christians [and no Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, etc.] within our borders. … Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is all right and eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?[5]

Of course, someone can reject fundamentalism yet still be a Christian. But Obama’s critique of the Bible goes beyond mere skepticism of biblical literalism. In The Audacity of Hope, he drops not-so-subtle hints of his suspicion that the entire bible, as well as the so-called sacred scriptures from other organized religions, may well have originated from nowhere other than the human imagination. Note how Obama makes little distinction between the Bible, non-biblical holy texts, and folklore mythology:

In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part … Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways—and not necessarily the best way—that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.

In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well (p. 204).

Now, if Obama were writing from the position of a philosopher or a mythologist or anyone other than a politician, I would think that the cumulative effect of his four following observations:

(1) that organized religions are regional phenomena (the Arabs, Indians, Greeks, Africans, Chinese, Japanese, etc. all have their own versions of Divine Directions)

(2) that it seems dubious to suppose that one culture’s religion really came from Divinity, and inhabitants from elsewhere are just out of luck—eternally out of luck in the worst way—for being born in the wrong place (as implied by Obama’s remark about “the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation”)

(3) that unlike what one would expect from something inspired by an Omniscient Creator of the Cosmos, the Bible contains only primitive guesswork about the universe’s history (as implied by Obama’s remark about preachers who “would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary”)

(4) that the Bible includes:

(a) injustices (Leviticus 25: 44–46—slaves are property and it’s okay to own them, as long as they’re not your fellow Israelites)

(b) cruelties (Deuteronomy 13:6–10—if your siblings or wife or children choose another religion, show them no pity as you stone them to death)

(c) absurdities (Leviticus 11: 10–12: eating sea creatures without fins and scales [e.g. crabs and lobsters] is “an abomination”)

—would lead to the conclusion that there’s nothing “divine” about the Bible: that it belongs in the same category as all of man’s other works of imagination. Or as Obama himself put it when describing his mother’s dismissal of organized religions:

Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways—and not necessarily the best way—that man attempted to control the unknowable.

But although I would argue that this is the rational conclusion from a philosophical perspective, I will also argue that this is not the rational conclusion from a political perspective. For although philosophy, in its safe abstract world, may have the admirable goal of non-contradictory thinking, politics strives for the arguably higher goal of coming up with compromises that allow real world people with diametrically-opposed beliefs and interests to co-exist with as little conflict as possible.

Am I saying that even though there’s no rational reason to be a theist, nontheist politicians need to pretend to be theists—and Christian theists in particular—because politicians need votes, and we all know that most of America’s voters are Christians who won’t vote for non-Christians? Well, yes, I am … although it’s just a bit more complex than that, so before anyone labels my position as simply that of a cynical defeatist, allow me to present my defense of the time-honored and beneficial tradition of political double-talk and hypocrisy (or to cast it in a more positive light, the tradition of “political compromise”).

Look, for example, at the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals. From the philosophical point of view, it’s contradictory if not incoherent: if gays are really that detrimental to the military, they shouldn’t be allowed to serve at all, even if they can be discreet about their sexual orientation. Conversely, if being gay really has no bearing on a person’s military abilities, homosexuals should be allowed to serve under the exact same conditions as heterosexuals. But politically, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” solution was a great breakthrough: it allowed parties with nearly irreconcilable differences to come to an agreement that satisfied at least some of the major concerns on both sides (the military got to keep its prohibition of open homosexual activity, and gay military personnel became legally protected from witch hunts and the accompanying dishonorable discharges).

Or look at America’s “clean needles” programs, in which addicts who are using illegal injection drugs can legally exchange their used syringes for clean ones. Philosophically (at least in the abstract sense of the word), this is nonsensical: we’re taking the contradictory stance that people will be prosecuted for using illegal substances such as heroin, but if they walk into these clinics with used needles—clear evidence of abuse—we’ll not only turn a blind eye, but we’ll give them shiny new needles to shoot up with (which they’d better not be caught using!). Philosophically illogical or not, however, this hypocrisy comes with the societal benefit of reducing the transmission of AIDS: a goal worthier than legal consistency.

Or let’s take the tension between China and the United States back in April 2001 when the pilot of a Chinese fighter plane died after colliding with an American surveillance plane (the plane was flying off the coast of China in an area that China claimed as Chinese territory, and America claimed as international). China said that until America made a formal apology for its crime, the twenty-four members of the surveillance plane would remain captive in Chinese custody. America, in turn, insisted that its surveillance plane was flying in international airspace, that the collision was the Chinese pilot’s fault for flying too close, and that China was the one who was now committing a crime by illegally imprisoning the American crew. Neither side wanted to back down and thus appear weak before their respective countries, but the problem was resolved peacefully thanks to linguistic ambiguity. America’s official statement expressed “regret” about the pilot’s loss of life, China translated “regret” as an apology, America in turn made no comment about the Chinese translation, and the twenty-four American crew members were released.

Now, I could summarize this exchange as:

AMERICA: We don’t apologize because we did no wrong, but we regret the loss of the pilot’s life.

CHINA: Glad to hear that you’ve confessed your guilt!

AMERICA: Ahh, whatever.

—and say that it makes zero sense in the world of pure logic. But in the real life world of politics, it makes 100% sense, in that it may well have been a literal life-saver.

Many will point out that this “the end justifies the means” approach is dangerous, as it can serve to rationalize all sorts of ethical horrors in the name of political expediency. That’s true enough … but the opposite mantra of “the means can never be justified by the ends” is equally dangerous—each situation needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis and weighed for all pros and cons.

As for looking at the “ends” vs. the “means” when it comes to winning a presidential election, note that the characteristics we want from a president pull us in opposite directions (at least from my biased nontheistic viewpoint). On the one hand, we want a politician who is as intelligent and rational as possible—and from my perspective (which I prefer to call “biased” rather than “smug,” although one could argue that both apply), this means someone who doesn’t believe that an ancient text full of contradictions and scientific errors and ethnocentric absurdities could possibly be the work of an Omniscient and Omnipotent Creator. On the other hand, we want a person who will actually get elected, and once elected, will lead effectively. And in a predominantly Christian nation, this means (at least according to poll after poll after poll[6]) that a presidential candidate must at least claim to be Christian (and preferably mainstream Christian[7]). So for nontheists who would like to see fellow nontheists in office, electing a closet nontheist may be the best bet compromise.

TANGENTIAL NOTE: even though I believe that being a theist includes a certain degree of being guided by delusion and wishful thinking, one thing that continually surprises me about people is how good we are at compartmentalizing our beliefs. So if being a theist could reliably be equated with a lack of rational thought in other areas as well, then I would think it’s important to have a nontheist in office … but I have to admit that I haven’t found this to be the case. Thanks to compartmentalization, theists can just tuck that irrational part of their thought process into a small area (perhaps dragging it out on selective Sunday mornings), and then be completely rational in every other aspect of life. And being an atheist is certainly no guarantee that someone is rational in other aspects of life, or is even an atheist for rational reasons. So as long as I see that candidates have sufficient respect for the separation between church and state, their religious beliefs play little role in my decision of whom to support.

Back on track—let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that Obama’s professed Christianity really is for political reasons only. If so, why does he have to be so supportive of faith: repeatedly using religious imagery (he refers to helping others as “the Lord’s work”), promising millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to churches for his “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” program,” and giving Rick Warren—the Christian evangelist who equates homosexuality with bestiality and incest—such a prominent role at the presidential swearing-in ceremony?

My own conclusion is that these displays of religiosity simply make good political sense when it comes to being the leader of Christian-dominated nation. But even though I’m an atheist, I don’t think of Obama as “pandering” or “selling out.” Rather, I actually admire the way he doesn’t alienate the Christian masses, and at the same time manages to harness their faith in ways that I see as mostly positive.

In the below excerpt from Obama’s website (www.barackobama.com), note that when he talks about the “Lord’s work” he puts it in terms not of spreading the message that salvation comes from Christ alone, but about things like ensuring benefits for veterans, rebuilding communities destroyed by natural disasters, and working to prevent ex-prisoners from returning to crime. And when he talks about his “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” program, note that he spells out the terms in which separation between church and state can be maintained:

I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.

There are millions of Americans who share a similar view of their faith, who feel they have an obligation to help others. And they’re making a difference in communities all across this country—through initiatives like Ready4Work, which is helping ensure that ex-offenders don’t return to a life of crime; or Catholic Charities, which is feeding the hungry and making sure we don’t have homeless veterans sleeping on the streets of Chicago; or the good work that’s being done by a coalition of religious groups to rebuild New Orleans.

You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they’re particularly well-placed to offer help. As I’ve said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.

I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up. What I’m saying is that we all have to work together—Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike—to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square … make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that ideaso long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against themor against the people you hireon the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. [8]

As for Obama asking Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, well, I can understand why many people, particularly gay rights activists,[9] are offended by that. But Rick Warren is complex in his own right, because Warren is one who also believes, like Obama, in channeling the church’s energies to help solve secular problems. Even though Warren adopts the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality and abortion, he often makes these issues take a back seat to social action projects like expanding educational opportunities for the poor, helping to reduce international poverty and disease, and working to stop the spread of AIDS and global warming.

Still, many secular people (and religious liberals) feel that Warren’s inflammatory words on homosexuality—as well as his support for Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in his home state of California—overshadow all positive aspects of his social activism. But as I see it, what’s a pastor to do: say the Bible is wrong? After all, Warren’s anti-gay sentiments are all right there in the Good Book: Leviticus 20:11–17 describes homosexuality, incest, and bestiality alike as “abominations.” Warren’s condemnations are actually rather mild, in that he doesn’t follow through with the Bible’s instructions that all those who commit such offenses—including adulterers (Leviticus 20:10)—should be put to death.

In the USA Today article “Obama defends inaugural invitation to Warren,” Obama’s response to protesters includes some fuzzy language—that our “noisy and opinionated” diversity is “part of the magic of this country”—that doesn’t quite succeed, at least for me, in downplaying the fact that Warren’s influence in getting Proposition 8 passed has contributed to depriving the gay community of its rights:

“During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented,” said Obama … “And that’s how it should be because that’s what America is about. That’s part of the magic of this country — that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.”

Yet Obama also has also taken measures to counteract perceptions that inviting Rick Warren means that Obama is endorsing Warren’s biblical-based bigotry. For one, Obama has requested that his ceremony’s closing prayers will be led by Joseph Lowery, a minister who has spoken out in favor of gay clergy. The USA Today article includes the following observations from Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion at Princeton University:

By choosing Warren and Lowery as the religious bookends to the inaugural ceremony, “he’s reaching across a wide swath of the American religious community,” Glaude says. “[It’s] a sign of how shrewd he is.”

Second, Obama also specifies that he remains a “fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.” He adds, however, that his and Warren’s clash in the area of gay rights doesn’t eliminate all common ground:

We’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere … where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.[10]

The advantages of inviting Warren are clear: he is arguably the most influential evangelist in the country at the moment (his book The Purpose Driven Life is one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time, selling over 20 million copies), and having him deliver the inaugural invocation strengthens Obama’s support from Warren’s millions of Christian fans (helping to lessen the impact from the attacks Obama has received from other influential evangelists, such as James Dobson[11]). The disadvantages are also being made clear from the numerous protests from those insulted by the perceived legitimacy bestowed upon Warren’s anti-gay sentiments, but I’d like to think that Obama’s outspoken defense of gay rights, as well as the ceremony’s inclusion of Joseph Lowery, succeeds in taking at least some of the sting away from that insult.

Given that politicians will be criticized for whatever stance they take when it comes to mixing religion and politics, Obama admits the temptation for politicians to try to shy away from the subject of religion altogether (the following excerpts are all from The Audacity of Hope):

Those of us in public office may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that—regardless of our personal beliefs—constitutional principles tie our hands on issues like abortion or school prayer (p. 213).

—and indirectly (that is, by mentioning the views of “some on the left”), Obama even acknowledges the danger of mixing political power with something as “inherently irrational and intolerant” as religion:

Some on the left (although not those in public office) go further [than simply avoiding religion], dismissing religion in the public square as inherently irrational, intolerant, and therefore dangerous … (p. 213).

But Obama also points out the greater danger—the “bad politics”—of a politician taking such a secular approach that s/he appears to neglect the religious concerns of the devout. For one, he writes, this leaves a dangerous vacuum:

… over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and so avoid joining a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

To begin with, it’s bad politics. There are a whole lot of religious people in America … According to the most recent surveys, 95% of Americans believe in God, more than two-thirds belong to a church … and substantially more people believe in angels than believe in evolution … When we abandon the field of religious discourse … when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations toward one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts … others will fill the vacuum. And those who do are likely to be those with the most insular views of faith, or who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends (pp. 213, 214, 198).

As an example of a negative political repercussion of ignoring the concerns of the faithful, Obama recaps the history of how the Republican Party started taking advantage of this vacuum in the 1980s, and “harvested the crop” of alienated Christians:

By the time the sixties rolled around, many mainstream Protestant and Catholic leaders had concluded that if American’s religious institutions were to survive, they would have to make themselves “relevant” to changing times—by accommodating church doctrine to science … Academics, journalists, and purveyors of popular culture … failed to appreciate the continuing role that all manner of religious expression played in communities across the country.

What happened? … Pushed out of sight but still throbbing with vitality throughout the heartland and the Bible Belt, a parallel universe emerged, a world not only of revivals and thriving ministries but also of Christian television, radio, universities, publishers, and entertainment, all of which allowed the devout to ignore the popular culture as surely as they were being ignored.

[Yet social upheavals such as] the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, the increasing assertiveness of gays and lesbians, … Roe v. Wade, dismantling segregation, eliminating prayer in schools … seemed a direct challenge to the church’s teaching about marriage, sexuality, and the proper roles of men and women. Feeling mocked and under attack, conservative Christians found it no longer possible to insulate themselves from the country’s broader political and cultural trends. … it was the Republican Party, with its increasing emphasis on tradition, order, and “family values,” that was best positioned to harvest this crop of politically awakened evangelicals and mobilize them against the liberal orthodoxy.

The story of how Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and finally Karl Rove and George W. Bush mobilized this army of Christian foot soldiers need not be repeated here (pp. 199 – 201).

Back once again to Rick Warren: by welcoming, rather than excluding, such an influential evangelist to be at least a symbolic part of his presidency, Obama is increasing the likelihood that the Christian masses will not feel alienated, and will be less likely to be “harvested” by ultra right-wing fundamentalists with “the most insular [i.e., the most narrow-minded] views of faith”: fundamentalists—such as Dobson[12]—that make Warren look tame in comparison.

So, it may well be that Obama’s position on religion is that of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, who said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

On the other hand …

Reasons to Believe that Obama Might Be a Christian

My experience with several years of interviewing Christians[13] is that faith—even among Christians in the exact same sect—is maddeningly complex, non-uniform, and comes in many shades of gray. For although it’s common for fundamentalist Christians to claim that their faith casts away all doubt—that faith overrides even the most solid contradictory evidence—many non-fundamentalists see doubt as something they can allow space for while maintaining their Christianity. In The Audacity of Hope‘s chapter on “Faith,” for example, Obama specifically writes, “faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts” (p. 207). He ends the chapter with ruminations on exactly how he should have responded to his young daughter’s question about death, admitting his doubts about the answers offered by his religion:

I wonder whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn’t sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang (p. 226).

In a Newsweek interview, Obama goes as far as admitting that his religious views might be wrong in every way:

I’m on my own faith journey and I’m searching. I leave open the possibility that I’m entirely wrong.[14]

The fact that Obama makes repeated mention of his doubts is one of the reasons I don’t rule out the possibility that he might indeed be sincere when he calls himself a Christian: it seems that he’d be less likely to dwell on such doubts if his Christianity were strictly political. Could it be a part of his calculated act? I suppose it could … that’s why I’m calling this section “reasons to believe that Obama might be a Christian.” More importantly, however, is my next section, which present my reasons for why I believe it might not matter.

Reasons to Believe that Obama’s Christianity (or lack of) Might Not Matter

Obama’s solution to balancing the demands of the religious world with the secular is that the religiously-motivated can cite their faith as the source of their morals, but those values must be translated “into universal, rather than religion-specific, values” (again, the following excerpts are all from The Audacity of Hope):

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

For those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, such rules of engagement may seem just one more example of the tyranny of the secular and material worlds over the sacred and eternal. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice (p. 219).

Obama also cites positive ways that religion can be used in conjunction with politics, at least when religion is restricted to using its imagery as a vehicle for understanding morality:

Scrub language of all religious content and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord,” or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without reference to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible and move the nation to embrace a common destiny (p. 214).[15]

But when it comes to looking for Scripture to provide specifics, Obama notes that no one can hear “God’s voice” when it speaks in someone else’s head, so “the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know”:

The story of Abraham and Isaac offers a simple but powerful example. According to the Bible, Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his “only son, Isaac, whom you love,” as a burnt offering. Without argument, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, we know the happy ending—God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham has passed God’s test of devotion. He becomes a model of fidelity to God, and his great faith is rewarded through future generations. And yet it is fair to say that if any of us saw a 21st century Abraham raising the knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower the knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God doesn’t reveal Himself or His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true—as individuals or communities of faith—will be true for us alone (p. 220).

From my own atheistic perspective, the idea that religious values should be translated into what we might call “humanistic values” simply means that those “humanistic values” are traveling full circle. That is, from the nontheistic viewpoint, morals pre-date man’s creation of religion, and even pre-date humanity itself. Although natural selection certainly involves no small amount of violent competition, the struggle for survival also demands a degree of compassion and cooperation (cooperative traits are widespread in just about all animals that live in social groups: social animals need to band together to raise their young, warn each other of predators, and hunt their food and fight their enemies). Religious founders take innate tendencies such as care & cooperation and give them a formal structure by putting them in the mouths of their gods, but religion is only underlining pre-existing capacities.[16] (Religion underlines, of course, not only natural selection’s peace-enhancing traits like “be good to your kin” [e.g. the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on murder, at least within the community], but also its violent traits, such as the ability to be utterly ruthless with outsiders [e.g. the alleged instructions from the alleged Jehovah to go into the Promised Land and murder every man, woman, and child].)

So from the strictly logical perspective, using religion as a source for morals is like going through an unnecessary middleman, and one that comes with negative baggage as well (particularly when it comes to gay rights, stem cell research, science in the classroom, fighting “God’s wars,” etc.). But from a political perspective, we neglect the concerns of the devout at our peril—at the cost of having zero influence.

So I for one am happy to have a president who has managed not to alienate most of our religious fellow Americans, yet who has also laid out strong arguments for why scripture cannot dictate public policy, and who has even managed to project some well-placed hints of religious skepticism along the way. And to all this I say, “Amen!”

[1] These remarks are from page 218 of Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, and included in his June 2006 “Call to Renewal” Keynote Address. In response, the evangelical leader James Dobson accused Obama of “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology” (“James Dobson Says Obama ‘Distorting’ Bible,” NPR.org, 25-Jun-2008).

[2] Obama’s updated office will be called the “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”

[3] Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 219.

[4] Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding His Faith.” Newsweek, 21-Jul-2008.

[5] Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 218.

[6] Austin Cline, “Gallup Polls & Other Surveys on American Attitudes Towards Atheists: Over 40 Years of Research Show Atheists Are Despised, Distrusted.” (http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheistSurveys.htm)

Pulsar Research & Consulting, “TIME Poll: Survey on Faith and the Presidential Election,” May 10-13, 2007 (www.pulsarresearch.com/PDF/TIME_Report.pdf)

[7] James Joyner, “Black President More Likely than Mormon or Atheist” (a 20-Feb-2007 article that draws on polls taken by Gallup) http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/black_president_more_likely_than_mormon_or_atheist_/

[8] “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” (http://www.barackobama.com/2008/07/01/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_86.php)

[9] Not all gay activists are offended—see footnote 12 for comments of support for Rick Warren by Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

[10] Mimi Hall, “Obama defends inaugural invitation to Warren.” USA Today, 23-Dec-2008.

[11] In addition to Dobson’s accusation that Obama “deliberately distorts the Bible” (NPR.org, 25-Jun-2008), Dobson also released an attack called Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America—a hypothetical letter from a Christian in the year 2012. The letter describes a nightmarish America after four years of Obama’s rule: the removal of obscenity laws results in television broadcasts of explicit sex acts 24 hours a day, al-Qaida takes over Iraq, and terrorist bombs kill thousands in U.S. cities. And to top it off, homosexual marriages become the norm in all 50 states, and the Boy Scouts have disbanded rather than obey a decision forcing them to allow homosexual scoutmasters.

[12] Just as I was getting ready to submit this post to “Clashing Culture,” I came across an excellent analysis comparing Dobson and Warren in a blog from Jonathan Rauch (author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America). I’m too lazy to work Rauch’s observations properly into this post, but his commentary (http://www.indegayforum.org/blog/show/31681.html) is too good for me to leave it out altogether:

[Dobson’s Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America is] long and hysterical—another sign of how beleaguered the hard-core Christian Right is feeling. Still more revealing, I count 18 paragraphs on homosexuality and gay marriage, versus four on abortion (aka, from a pro-life point of view, murder of babies). I found no instances of the word “divorce.” “Adultery”? You gotta be kidding.

This is the kind of anti-gay obsessiveness and upside-down prioritizing that Rick Warren and others of his ilk and generation are moving away from. The more I think about Obama’s choice of Warren to lead the inaugural prayer, the more I like it. Culturally, the moment is right to reach out to reachable evangelicals and marginalize the hysterics and obsessives who have all but monopolized their movement. The cultural left doesn’t understand the difference between Warren and Dobson, but evangelicals sure will. And they’ll know Obama and Warren are publicly declaring Dobsonism obsolete.”

It’s also worth reading Rauch’s prior blog post, called “James Dobson He Ain’t”—http://www.indegayforum.org/blog/show/31676.html.

[13] The interviews were for my book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer (a dialogue between a Christian apologist and a Socratic skeptic).

[14] Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding His Faith.” Newsweek, 21-Jul-2008.

[15] Just for balance, I would have also liked for Obama to mention how this phenomenon can also occur outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and cite how Gandhi’s political use of Hinduism was key in India’s incredible and unprecedented non-violent defeat of the militarily-superior Great Britain.

[16] I explore this subject further in “The Roots of Morality,” endnote 12 of Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer (p. 213).

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Life, Science and Politics

The Election is Almost Over

In the United States, we have a new president and the election is nearly complete. There are still three seats in question in the Senate. One will be settled by a special runoff election, and two will be settled (we hope) by a recount.

There were two issues in this election which were to be settled by voting on Civil Rights issues. My personal opinion is that referendum on Civil Rights issues should never be subject to vote as this is a circumvention of the idea of a Republic and opens the door to Tyranny of the Majority. I am referring to votes on the issues of gay rights and abortion.

Three states voted to suppress the rights of gays to marry. Two states’ elections were intended to stave off court rulings which may or may not appear before their courts. One state’s election was to overturn a state supreme court ruling that laws against gay marriage were unconstitutional. The resulting outcome of the election has sparked protest and outrage throughout the country, as those of us who think that the concept of marriage should not be a matter of choosing a religious viewpoint to make policy have stated so publicly and loudly. The voters of California, Florida and Arizona made a huge mistake. The voters of Arkansas, in denying the rights of gay adoptive parents and indeed of orphan children to be adopted, made a mean-spirited decision that has no place in a free society.

In South Dakota, the voters sensibly denied a referendum to make abortion illegal and set up a new challenge to Roe v Wade. In Colorado, the voters avoided a very stupid amendment to their constitution which would have afforded unborn children all of the Constitutional rights that adults share, potentially making all forms of abortion illegal. It would have opened up a whole new series of messes in law and medicine.

Over the last two weeks, I have been wondering how science should be used to help guide the ethics of public policy. The proposed Colorado Amendment is especially troubling because of the difficulty in defining when life itself begins in the womb.

The Catholic Church, and indeed many churches who focus on the ethics of abortion, teaches that “Life Begins at Conception.” And this is an obvious first step towards the life of a human, but as gynecologists understand there are many steps between conception and birth that can be naturally interfered with to prevent the outcome of a slap on the butt and a tearful wail.

Following conception, a fertilized egg must implant in the uterus in order to start the process of dividing cells to multiply and form a pharyngula stage embryo. While this process can happen in the fallopian tubes, such events are extremely dangerous to both the mother and the fetus. These “ectopic pregnancies” are deadly and can only be treated by ending the pregancy. The proposed amendment could have led to emergency room physicians who perform procedures to end such pregnancies being prosecuted for the murder of an unborn child. Would that be a positive benefit for society? No.

The Blind Watchmaker has not been kind to women regarding the birthing process. (Epicurus, anyone?) Surely, an Intelligent Designer could have done a much better job of creating such an important process for the beginning of life for an exalted and special species such as Man. While obstetrics have done wonders at saving the lives of thousand of women who would have otherwise died, at any stage of pregnancy the mother carries enormous risk to herself and to the developing fetus inside. Careful, scientifically-based treatments to save the life of the mother may often call for the end of life for the fetus and I don’t see how the government should be able to flatly say that any such treatments should be made illegal and subject to criminal prosecution.

The government of Afghanistan under the deposed Taliban ruled that women were not allowed to be doctors because of their religious belief that women are subservient to men and subject to male whims. Their religion also ruled that no man was to examine a women’s reproductive organs unless he was married to her, and so gynecological examinations were ruled to be illegal and along with that obstetrics were severely hampered as well. While they are temporarily (and I hope permanently) deposed, the resulting unnecessary deaths of women and fetuses was a tragic situation created by religion. While some of you may think that this is an example of reductio ad absurdum, the passage of the amendment in Colorado would have had the same sort of effect.

The impetus for the amendment was religious in nature, and clearly ignored the science of conception and pregnancy. It was driven by the efforts of a young woman who wanted to “protect babies.” I want to protect them, too, by making sure that obstetricians have all of the available tools and options to protect both the lives of the mothers and the fetuses. But doctors are all too aware that saving the lives of both the mother and the fetus is impossible and that the choice belongs to those involved and not the government; and certainly not a government restricted by the questionable ethics of a subset of the population that holds no quarter for abortion of any kind.

There are now cases of priests who have told their parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama then they should perform an Act of Contrition prior to accepting the Eucharist. They have been told that voting for Obama was a sin because he is not an absolutist when it comes to abortion. For many atheists, this has led to a call for an investigation into the tax-exempt status of the parishes whose priests have made such pronouncements. Churches are not to preach on politics if they wish to remain tax-exempt.

For me, it raises a more disturbing question. Where were these same self-righteous clerics when George Bush was re-elected in 2004? By then, we all ready knew that the case for the War in Iraq was based on data that he knew were faulty and he pressed on anyway. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed (I am not arguing that Saddam Hussein should have been left to kill and torture his subjects. Please review nuance before making that accusation against me.) “Shock and Awe” was an indiscriminate bombing and shelling of targets and “collateral damage” included untold numbers of civilians.

Where was this demand for “respect for life” following the 2004 election? Tell me of a priest who admonished parishioners for choosing Bush over Kerry then. No, the focus even then was on Kerry’s public position that while he is opposed to abortion he would not in good conscience be able to impose his religious beliefs on those who don’t share them.

Too often, as a society, we look to religion for guidance on ethical issues. While this may often be appropriate as clergy usually must have some training on how to approach ethics, it is often very dangerous. I have written about the misguided policies of the Bush Administration’s policy on funding embryonic stem cell research, and the curious ethical position that disposal of frozen embryos is preferable to research which also destroys blastocysts.

The science is often ignored, and the Initiatives, both passed and defeated related to life issues, were based solely on a religious position. For me, as someone who values both women and fetuses, our policies should be more carefully targeted to reducing the frequency of unwanted pregnancies.

But then we get into the issue of contraception and factual sex education, to which the “pro-life” forces also raise strong religious objections.

To sum up, ethics are more sensibly guided by paying attention to science in these issues than to hard-line, Talibanic positions.

I invite any of my co-bloggers to address the issue of homosexuality and “lifestyle choice” related to science and religion.

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Religion and Politics

Is It a New Poison?

Feel free to disagree with me, but in my opinion the North Carolina Senatorial campaign between Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole has brought out the worst in both politics and religious discourse in the United States.  Religion has been used as a sword against The Other by one of the major parties.  Since this is a nominally non-partisan blog I won’t say who is the guilty party.

In his discussing the presidential race, fmr Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama and one of his major concerns was the way that the Republican party was using religion to divide the country between “Pro-America” and “Anti-America.”  Michele Bachmann’s comments on Hardball about both Barack Obama and a plea for the media to expose the “Anti-America” elements in the House of Representatives were especially upsetting to him.

More importantly, he mentioned the ongoing rumor which insinuates that Barack Obama is a Muslim and not a Christian.  He not only pointed out that Obama is a Christian, but then he made an even more important point.   While the denials that Obama is a Muslim and is instead a Christian are important as far as getting the facts straight, the more important point is that it should not matter.

If Obama were a Muslim, his qualificatons for leadership would not change.  Anti-Islamic bigotry should not be used against politicians.  From the transcripts:

Headstone At Arlington

Headstone At Arlington

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine.  It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave.  And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone.  And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death.  He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.  And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey.  He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.  Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way.  And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know.  But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

I am troubled at how religion has been used to divide Americans.  I don’t know if there were ever periods in our history when we weren’t facing some sort of religious dvide, but it seems to have been accentuated in this race because of a candidate whose middle name is “Hussein.”

This is not the first time that a candidate has been smeared because of his religion.  Alfred Smith was the 1928 Democratic Party nomnee, but was often cast as being more beholden to the Pope than to the US Constitution.  John Kennedy ran as a candidate in 1960, and the anti-Catholic bigotry once again reared its ugly head.  Kennedy addressed the situation with a speech that really should be used as a template when discussing a candidate’s religious beliefs:

Kenned Speaking

Kenned Speaking

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end–where all men and all churches are treated as equal–where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice–where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind–and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

I really want to be clear as an atheist that while I have serious disagreements with the role that religion should play in society, I have no qualms against voting for somebody whose religious views differ from mine if I find that the person in question has a poltical view that I share.  I vote for Christians in elections, even knowing their beliefs.  In the 2006 mayoral election, I even voted for a Conservative Christian Republican.  I practice what I am preaching here.

One more point before I get to my conclusion and open the topic for comments.  This is not a new phenomena, nor was it new in the 20th century.  Ed Darrell at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (an excellent blog whose writer is interested in correcting misunderstood versions of American History) refers us back to the 1800 presidential campaign.  John Adams, a defender of religious liberty, engaged with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton in trying to smear Thomas Jefferson as an atheist.  Hamilton convinced editors of newspapers to publish articles and editorials claiming that if elected, Jefferson would send the Army to confiscate Bibles:

One might recall Dumas Malone’s description of the election of 1800, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson thought it beneath his dignity, and not part of American politics, to discuss a candidate’s religious faith.  Alexander Hamilton, on behalf of Adams, led a campaign of calumny in newspapers throughout the U.S. saying that because Jefferson was atheist, as president he’d send the army to confiscate Bibles.  Jefferson refused to respond.  Malone notes that on election day, fully half of all American voters were convinced Jefferson was atheist.

They voted for Jefferson anyway, rather than stick with the failed policies of Adams.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

It’s not new, you see.  It’s just much more effective thanks to the internet and to 24-hour cable.  Karl Rove has mastered the technique of getting the news media outlets to “raise the question” without stating a position.  The question-raising is often enough to shift opinion against a candidate.  The Washington Post featured an article on how it is possible to convince the populace that a candidate’s religion makes his/her patriotism suspect, even if the candidate is not a member of that religion.

Kay Hagan’s response to Elizabeth Dole’s slimy campaign ads involved the disclaimer that she is a Christian.  Many atheists who had donated money to support her were disappointed that she had not used Colin Powell’s example to say that “While I am not an atheist, so what if I were?”

If I ever run for office, atheism will not be my central plank.  But since I am way out of the closet, there will be no way to hide that fact.  And I would not run from it, either.  If it were to become an issue, I would remind voters of what Kennedy and Powell said.  I would also remind them of the way that the voters responded to the charges of Jefferson’s atheism in 1800.

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When There’s No Place Left To Go

Carnival of the Liberals

Carnival of the Liberals

Remember when people used to say “This is going to be an election about the issues, and we will avoid negative attacks against our opponent?”  Yeah, I remember hearing that last spring when one old Navy guy became the presumptive candidate for a certain conservative party.  It certainly didn’t take long for that to change.  Because negativity works.  And we know from our Marketing 101 classes why.  (Sentence fragments work, too.)  Create the fear and offer the lifeline. Make people aware of body odor and sell deodorant.

This will go down in history as one of the most negative campaigns ever, exceeded only by the preceding campaign the subsequent campaign.  To believe otherwise is to have certain knowledge of things unseen.  Politics have always been negative, politics will always be negative and no election will ever be decided on the issues.  Politics are about a race to the bottom in the hopes that even if we don’t get what we want, then neither does the other side (unless they cheat.)

Doing the Carnival of the Liberals makes me grumpy, because I realize when reading the submissions that the world is not going to live up to my ideal no matter how I try.  And so, on that cheery note, I present the best ten posts of the 38 submitted this fortnight past, written by people who are trying to apply the brakes as we slide towards the bottom.

We start with the Sex-Kitten.net, and I must warn you about the site.  It is not suitable for the easily offended, but here she makes a great point of the effects of the economic downturn on the people we don’t want to admit make money from sex.  The ones that make a lot of money from sex may be the ones that do well, but in a society that hides sex work because of morality, well, people get hurt.  And Gracie has a different sort of bottom to race to.  What does the economic crisis mean for prostitutes?

Ames takes on the conservative meme that any ruling by the Supreme Court is “Liberal Judicial Activism” if they don’t like the ruling.  Hey, people, we live in a Republic, and and Submitted to a Candid World, Ames reminds us that the Constitution is only paper without an independent guardian branch of government. Ames presents Activist Judges?: Surprising No-One, Palin Doesnt Get It posted at Submitted to a Candid World.

Speaking of judging, what happens when men decide that women are tramps? Do they then invite date rape? Surprisingly, men and women in authoritarian, moralistic and paternalistic traditions like to blame rape victims. Marcella Chester presents Man’s Statement Shows How Date Rapists Can Rationalize Lowering Their Standards Of Behavior posted at abyss2hope: A rape survivor’s zigzag journey into the open.

It’s not that George W Bush has ruined the Republican party that makes him a terrible president. It’s that he is a conservative. Did I say that? Well, yes, we really need to take a look at what has shaped the current administration. I don’t think that George Bush is smart enough to be able to navigate us as sharply to the bottom. He is a stooge riding the tiger. Alicia Morgan presents Conservatism – The Elephant In the Room posted at Last Left Turn Before Hooterville.

We had a large quantity of posts to choose from on the topic if the Biden-Palin debate. Most of them were very funny. The debate itself could have been the subject of a separate carnival. I had a hard time choosing, but decided on this one. Rickey Henderson presents Rickey Presents: The Vice Presidential Debate of Submisunderestimanation (AKA The Only Vice Presidential Debate Preview Worth Reading) posted at Riding with Rickey.

It’s not surprising that Sarah Palin’s brand of lunacy has caught on with so many people. They likes her, they really do! But they also believe in Angels. vjack presents Confronting Idiocy: From Palin to Angels posted at Atheist Revolution.

The passage of the bailout bill has not helped ease the fears of the ongoing financial crisis. The frustrating part was that liberals as well as conservatives were saying they can’t pass a bill for Wall Street if it doesn’t also address the problems of Main Street. One bill can’t do it. But, then what really is Main Street? The Ridger presents Who lives on Main Street … anymore? posted at The Greenbelt.

So, what could we do to help save homeowners and the economy and thus finally save bankers? An interesting proposal (which does jack for apartment dwellers like me, but is fascinating nonetheless,) proposes the idea of “Homebucks.” When the government earns its money back from buying up all the worst instruments and then re-selling them (snicker,) the perhaps they could use the money for HomeBucks. Mr. Money presents Trickle Up Economics Beats Bank Bailouts posted at My Last Name Means Money.

Does anyone remember a TV show starring James Garner called “Maverick?” Or does anyone remember a guy in the movie Top Gun whose handle was “Maverick?” Does anyone buy the idea that John McCain and Sarah Palin are anything like Mavericks? Nope. Greta Christina presents John McCain and the “Maverick” Snow Job posted at Greta Christina’s Blog.

Well to cheer you up after this, I present a limerick from Mad Kane. Madeleine Begun Kane presents Finally, A John McCain Statement I Can Agree With posted at Mad Kane’s Political Madness.

That’s it for the Carnival of the Liberals for this week. I feel bad for not including the other submissions to this edition, but rules is rules. Anyway, liberals, get on your white horses and ride. If this was an overly negative carnival, just remember that in order to climb to the top you first have to reach bottom. Send some links for the next version through the submission form. The next one will be at Pharyngula. Getting selected for that one may just crash your server (he generates a lot of traffic.)

Later today, I will put up the other posts sent to me, and they will be at Tangled Up in Blue Guy.

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Carnival of the Liberals Coming Up

Carnival of the Liberals
News & Announcements

Dear Liberal Carnivalers,

Now that’s the way we like to do things at Carnival of the Liberals! Almost seventy great entries this time, but Gracie at XXBN Radio worked hard to find the ten rarest gems out of all the jewels sent in for Carnival of the Liberals #74. Next up is Clashing Culture on October 8th. Keep those submissions coming!

Liberally yours,
Leo Lincourt

Submit entries through the blog form linked above.  Rumor is that there were 70 entries for the lat one.  I can only include the top ten entries for brevity.  There will be no special “Clashing Culture” bias towards the selection, just my favorites of all those submitted.  Considering that there is an election upcoming in the U.S. – this Carnival will be a fairly big deal.

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