Current Events

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark contrasts the killings of Saudi Arabia’s Osama bin Laden and Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani:

[Unlike bin Laden] Soleimani was no stateless outlaw. He was a decorated public figure in a nation of more than 80 million people. He was the most renowned of the Iranian generals, hugely popular within Iran — and in Iraq, where supporters of an Iranian-backed militia stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad early this week. If the killing of Soleimani was a response to that attack, it was clearly disproportionate…

… nothing in the 40 years of American struggle with Iran has indicated that it will back down from a military challenge. When [the president] stepped away from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018 and opted instead to crush Iran with economic sanctions …, the administration should have anticipated a long, difficult struggle….

The conflict enters a new phase now: Reciprocal, escalating military actions are a good bet…

Campaigning in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked if she would have ordered the attack on Soleimani:

No… Much of this started back when [the president] decided to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Even though the Iranians had been certified as adhering to the terms of the deal. Even though our allies all stayed in the deal and wanted us to stay in the deal. [The president] off on his own, started escalating, escalating, escalating, until now, he has taken us to the edge of war. It is dangerous for the United States and it is dangerous for the world.

Asked about the administration’s claim there was an imminent threat, Warren said “the administration has no credibility in truth telling, either at home or around the world”.

As we wait for Iranian retaliation, Republican politicians and their propaganda machine are offering vague and inconsistent justifications for the president’s decision. Anyone who expresses doubts about the attack is already being accused of “siding with terrorists” or “not supporting the troops”. One crank with a Fox News program says we need to honor our “obligations” to “this leader” who is doing so much for us.

Shortly after it happened, Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times, reported on the genesis of the attack:

I’ve had a chance to check in with sources, including two US officials who had intelligence briefings after the strike on Suleimani…. According to them, the evidence suggesting there was to be an imminent attack on American targets is “razor thin”.

In fact the evidence … came as three discrete facts: (a) A pattern of travel showing Suleimani was in Syria, Lebanon & Iraq to meet with Shia proxies. (As one source said, that’s just “business as usual” for Suleimani).

More intriguing was (b) information indicating Suleimani sought the Supreme Leader’s approval for an operation. He was told to come to Tehran for consultation and further guidance, suggesting the operation was a big deal – but again this could be anything.

And finally, c) Iran’s increasingly bellicose position towards American interests in Iraq, including the attack that killed a U.S. contractor and the recent protest outside the American embassy.

But, as one source put it, (a) + (b) + (c) is hardly evidence of an imminent attack on American interests that could kill hundreds, as the White House has since claimed. The official describes the reading of the intelligence as an illogical leap.

One official described the planning for the strike as chaotic…. Killing Suleimani was the “far out option”….

Since the strike, Iran has convened its national security chiefs. Chatter intercepted by American intelligence indicates they’re considering a range of options. Cyber-attacks, attacks on oil facilities and American personnel and diplomatic outposts have all been cited so far. But among the “menu options” … were: (1) kidnapping and execution of American citizens. (This might explain why the State Department has ordered the evacuation of all US citizens in Iraq, not just government and embassy employees).

Another is attacks on American diplomatic and military outposts not just in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, but as far afield as UAE and Bahrain. The official I spoke to was particularly concerned for American troops stationed in Iraq, some of whom are co-located with Shia militias.

… Let me just say the obvious: No one’s trying to downplay Suleimani’s crimes. The question is why now? His whereabouts have been known before. His resume of killing-by-proxy is not a secret. Hard to decouple his killing from the impeachment saga.

It sure is.

The Times published an article partly based on Callimachi’s reporting:

When [the president] chose the option of killing General Suleimani, top military officials, flabbergasted, were immediately alarmed about the prospect of Iranian retaliatory strikes on American troops in the region.

Why anyone with working neurons would present an option to the Toddler that they considered too extreme, assuming he wouldn’t choose it, is a terrific question.

A great way to understand the president’s “thinking” in this instance is to review his Twitter account. From Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly:

One of the themes that has emerged in [this era of politics] is that “there is a tweet for everything.” It refers to the fact that whenever the president says or does something, there is a tweet from his past demonstrating his hypocrisy. For example, even as the current occupant of the Oval Office has spent twice as much time on a golf course as Obama, [he] regularly complained that his predecessor played too much golf, tweeting about it 27 times from 2011 to 2016.

There is no great mystery about why there is a tweet for everything. Anyone as sociopathic as [him] engages in projection when attacking their opponents. That is because they are incapable of empathy or being able to see another person’s point of view. Absent any other point of reference, they simply project their own reactions onto others. [He] is obviously obsessed with playing golf, so regardless of the facts, he projected that obsession onto Obama.

The assassination of Qassem Soleimani and escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran led to another moment of “there is a tweet for everything” on Thursday night.

Before the Electoral College screwed us, he repeatedly claimed Obama would start a war in the Middle East in order to insure his re-election:

“@BarackObama will attack Iran in the not too distant future because it will help him win the election,” [he] tweeted on Nov. 14, 2011.

Days later, he said, “Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. He’s weak and he’s ineffective. So the only way he figures that he’s going to get reelected – and as sure as you’re sitting there – is to start a war with Iran,” according to a video posted this week by a Washington Post video editor.

“In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran,” he followed up on Nov. 29, 2011.

Nearly a year later, on Oct. 22, 2012, [he]repeated the same claim, writing, “Don’t let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected – be careful Republicans!”

In October 2012, [he] also suggested that Obama would “launch a strike in Libya or Iran” because his “poll numbers are in tailspin.”

The president’s poll numbers haven’t gone down (they’ve been consistently negative since 2017), but he is facing re-election and, as the Times correspondent said, there is the impeachment saga. The evidence for his impeachment and removal from office continues to grow. Newly-released emails from the Office of Management and Budget to the Pentagon confirm that the president personally delayed military aid to Ukraine. A judge is allowing one of the president’s shady Ukrainian pals to give the contents of his cellphone to House Democrats. Last week, one of the president’s aides was ordered to obey a House subpoena. And there is a report from a small investigative news site that those mysterious Deutsche Bank loans were underwritten by VTB Bank. VTB is owned by the Russian government (if true, that would certainly explain a lot!).

It should also be noted that Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence have been pressuring their boss to assassinate Soleiman. Why? Because they think it might lead to something truly wonderful: the end of the world.

Again, from Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly:

[In July, Pompeo gave a speech] to a group known as Christians United for Israel (CUFI) that was the brainchild of [Texas televangelist] John Hagee… Vice President Mike Pence addressed the same group in 2017.

One of the things Hagee is known for is the elaborate charts he has created to predict the rapture and events leading up to the end times….

What we are witnessing is a secretary of state who is conducting U.S. foreign policy in alignment with Christian Zionism, with the support of the vice president. While neoconservatives like John Bolton have their own twisted logic for wanting regime change in Iran, it is the belief that events in the Middle East align with Biblical prophecy about the end times that motivates Christian Zionists like Pompeo, Pence, and Hagee.

…. Rising tensions in the Middle East are a feature, not a bug, for these folks. That’s because all of this was prophesied thousands of years ago as a prelude to the rapture. In other words, they welcome the escalation.

Enough said.

The Passing Parade

The year is almost over and so is the decade that’s strangely ending with a “19” instead of a nice, round “20”. There is lots of news and commentary out there. An extremely truncated summary:

It didn’t make a splash, because this is 2019, not 1971, but The Washington Post reported:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable…

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking … Who will say this was in vain?”

The Afghanistan Papers won’t get as much publicity as the Pentagon Papers. They should have called them the “Afghan Papers”, more concise language now being the custom.

The Post also explained the history of the “It was Ukraine, not Russia” myth that has taken up permanent residence in what’s left of the Toddler’s brain and is so popular among right-wing politicians and propagandists everywhere. In a few words, the Russian government created the myth in order to cast blame on somebody else:

The president’s intense resistance to the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia systematically interfered in the 2016 campaign — and the blame he cast instead on a rival country — led many of his advisers to think that Putin himself helped spur the idea of Ukraine’s culpability, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity [of course]. . .One former senior White House official said [the president] even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because “Putin told me.”

The Popular Information political newsletter summarized new analysis of the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors:

An extraordinary analysis by top legal experts, published by Just Security, clearly explains how the impeachment inquiry [implied] that [the pres] committed at least three (and probably more) federal crimes. All of these crimes involved him abusing his presidential powers, making them particularly relevant to impeachment….

  • Federal campaign finance law
  • Bribery
  • Honest services fraud

[This last one] occurs “when a public official breaches his duty to act in the best interests of his constituents by performing an official act in exchange for personal gain”, such as “withholding funding that had been allocated by Congress —  money intended to advance U.S. national security by helping Ukraine combat Russian aggression — to advance his personal political interests”.

Cool.

By the way, Congressional Democrats and Rep. Justin Amash (an independent who was kicked out of the Republican Party when he exercised his conscience) finally got around to impeaching the monster. Paul Krugman reacted:

What we saw Wednesday was a parade of sycophants comparing their leader to Jesus Christ while spouting discredited conspiracy theories straight from the Kremlin. And as they were doing so, the object of their adoration was giving an endless, rambling, third-world-dictator-style speech, full of lies, that veered between grandiosity and self-pity…

Republicans, in other words, are beyond redemption; they’ve become just another authoritarian party devoted to the leader principle. And like similar parties in other countries, the G.O.P. is trying to rig future elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression, creating a permanent lock on power

But if Trump’s supporters look just like their counterparts in failed democracies abroad, his opponents don’t.

One of the depressing aspects of the rise of authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice has been the fecklessness of their opposition — disunited, disorganized, unable to make an effective challenge even to unpopular autocrats as they consolidated their power.

Trumpism, however, faced determined, united, effective opposition from the beginning, which has been reflected both in mass marches and in Democratic electoral victories. In 2017 there were only 15 Democratic governors, compared with 35 Republicans; today the score is 24 to 26. And last year, of course, Democrats won a landslide victory in House elections, which is what made the impeachment hearing and vote possible.

Many of the new Democratic members of Congress are in Republican-leaning districts, and some observers expected a significant number to defect on Wednesday. Instead, the party held together almost completely. True, so did its opponents; but while Republicans sounded, well, deranged in their defense of Trump, Democrats came across as sober and serious, determined to do their constitutional duty even if it involved political risks.

Now, none of this necessarily means that democracy will survive….

What we learned Wednesday, however, was that those who define America by its ideals, not the dominance of a particular ethnic group, won’t give up easily. The bad news is that our bad people are as bad as everyone else’s. The good news is that our good people seem unusually determined to do the right thing.

Finally, speaking of good people, the widely-read evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for the Toddler’s removal from office. The editorial got so much attention, their website crashed:

His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused…. .Whether [he] should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election — that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments….

To the many evangelicals who continue to support [him] in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of [the president] influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off [his] immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

You have to wonder how many of the president’s supporters understand that, if the Senate did its duty in the new year, our convicted president would be replaced by super-Christian Mike Pence, not the dreaded mainline Protestant who failed to carry Wisconsin.

In conclusion, it seems to me that we face two major issues:  climate change and bringing majority rule to America.

Majority rule would mean dealing with the courts, the Electoral College, a skewed Senate, gerrymandering, election security, campaign finance reform and voter suppression. It’s quite an agenda. But, as Senator Warren [subject of the latest Rolling Stone interview] keeps saying, we need big, structural change in our political system if we’re going to make progress on issues like climate change, inequality and much more.

Oh, and you might check out “The Historical Case for Abolishing Billionaires” in The Guardian. It begins by quoting another well-known proponent of regulated capitalism, Adam Smith.

This Passed for a Sermon Tonight

We decided to deliver our own Christmas Eve sermons this year. This was mine:

It was on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where 3,512 soldiers who died in the battle were still in the process of being buried.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract….

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s speech. In his book, Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills quotes an article from the Chicago Times published a few days after Lincoln spoke. The author of that article pointed out that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of equality and accepted the institution of slavery. Lincoln, therefore, was supposedly betraying the soldiers who fought to defend the Constitution as it was written and adopted. From that article:

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Garry Wills, on the other hand, argues that Lincoln’s words were important because they gave new meaning to the Constitution, to the battle at Gettysburg and to the entire Civil War. Lincoln avoided “all local emphasis”. His speech “hovered far above the carnage”. He mentioned “no particulars” — “no names of men or sites or units, or even sides”. Lincoln didn’t even mention slavery.

Listening to Lincoln, it was as if the Southerners, against their will and without realizing it, were also engaged in the “unfinished work” of making sure government of, by and for the people would not “perish from the earth”.

In addition, Lincoln claimed that America had been founded on the proposition that all men, and perhaps all women, were created equal, despite the obvious fact that some people, including women, weren’t born with the same rights as the men who wrote the Constitution. And by expressing the hope that government of, by and for the people should not perish, he implied that such a government already existed.

Despite Lincoln’s exaggeration or imprecision, Wills concludes that the Gettysburg Address was a tremendous success. It “cleared the infected atmosphere of American history … tainted with official sins and inherited guilt”. Lincoln’s words changed the meaning of the Constitution in the minds of most Americans:

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one … they brought with them. They walked off, from those … graves on the hillside, into a different America.

I n fact, how different was it? Did America become as different as Lincoln would have wanted it to be after the Civil War, or in the 20th century or the 21st? We all know that progress has been made, but it hasn’t been enough.

From The Atlantic last month:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Maybe we will never cure humanity of tribalism, the tendency to favor people who look and sound like we do. Fear of strangers was probably built into us through thousands of years of evolution. But we have made progress. There is less slavery in the world. There is more equality, even with the economic inequality that’s increased since the 1980s. But we all have more work to do. Lincoln’s implied promise of a government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people has not been fulfilled. In recent years, we seem to have gone backward.

So it’s worthwhile at this time of the year, when “joy to the world” is proclaimed, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” are sung, and A Christmas Carol always ends with “God bless us, everyone”, to remember the words and the challenge delivered by a real president, 154 years ago, at the dedication of a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

A Few Choice Paragraphs

From “God and the Don” (CNN):

Two days before his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump greeted a pair of visitors at his office in Trump Tower.

As a swarm of reporters waited in the gilded lobby, the Rev. Patrick O’Connor, the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Queens, and the Rev. Scott Black Johnston, the senior pastor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, arrived to pray with the next president….

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation… 

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”

From “Why Are Republicans Getting So Little Done? Because Their Agenda Is Deeply Unpopular” (The Washington Post):

Is there anything — anything — on the agenda of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress that enjoys the support of the majority of the public?

… The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds that an incredible 84 percent of Americans say that it’s important that any replacement of the Affordable Care Act maintains the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. Even 71 percent of Republicans said so. Which is a problem for the GOP, because rolling back the Medicaid expansion is the centerpiece of the Republican repeal plan….so that they can fund a large tax cut that mostly goes to the wealthy.

The Senate is right now tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to pass something that satisfies the GOP’s conservative principles but that the public won’t despise, and it may be slowly realizing that this is impossible. “I don’t see a comprehensive health-care plan this year,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday, and he’s probably right.

Let’s move on to taxes. At yesterday’s speech announcing his pullout from the Paris climate agreement, President Trump made this little digression:

“Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well. I think a lot of people will be very pleasantly surprised. The Republicans are working very, very hard. We’d love to have support from the Democrats, but we may have to go it alone. But it’s going very well.”

It was certainly interesting to hear that the tax bill is moving along in Congress, because there is no tax bill, neither moving along, standing still or spinning in circles. The administration has produced nothing more than a one-page list of bullet points on taxes, and congressional Republicans haven’t written a bill, either. There have been no hearings, no committee votes, nothing. This is one of those moments when it’s hard to figure out if Trump is lying or genuinely doesn’t realize what’s going on; earlier this week he tweeted:

Yet nothing has been submitted, nothing is moving along and nothing is ahead of schedule.

[Republicans] know that whatever bill they come up with is going to be hammered by Democrats for being an enormous giveaway to the wealthy. They could solve that problem by not making it an enormous giveaway to the wealthy, but then what would be the point?…

Are there other Republican initiatives that the public is behind? If there are, they’re awfully hard to find…. 

The deep unpopularity of this agenda goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has gotten almost nothing done this year… All Republicans feel nervous these days … That’s enough to make a lawmaker skittish about doing anything that might make the voters even more disgusted. So the legislative process gets dragged out for longer and longer.

Congressional Republicans complain that all the drama and scandals in the White House suck the air out of Washington… But the real problem is that the public just doesn’t want to buy what they’re selling.

From “I Can’t Stop Laughing at the Trump Administration. That’s Not a Good Thing” (The Washington Post):

Rex Tillerson has given zero indication that he knows how to run the State Department. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made clueless comments about Saudi Arabia that left the impression of him as a doddering fool. As secretary of homeland security, John F. Kelly keeps saying things designed to scare the hell out of people rather than make them feel more secure. He seems to have fallen victim to the worst pathologies of the Bush administration….. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn seem to be focused far more on pleasing the president than offering cogent advice…. Jared Kushner? Please.

The rest of the White House staff is busy trying to be more absurd propagandists than Kim Jong Un’s flacks. So far, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are the only foreign policy hands who have managed to retain their dignity, and that’s mostly because what they say contradicts Trump….

Then there’s the president himself. Just a glance at the decision-making process he used on withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord makes it clear how manifestly unfit he is to do his job….he’s getting played left and right….It’s hard to overstate just how badly Trump has navigated the global stage. The Chinese and Saudis have figured out how to buy him off with a couple billion dollars and some flattery. There is zero evidence of any appreciable policy gains. U.S. leadership is being constantly questioned…. Outside of the Persian Gulf, Trump’s approach has done nothing but alienate allies and bolster potential rivals….

Heck, I could be on Twitter all day and only pay partial attention to briefings and still do a better job than the current clown show.

Finally, from “Trump’s Pathological Obsession with Being Laughed At” (The Week):

If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the last couple of years, you know this is a topic he returns to again and again. Search Trump’s Twitter feed and you’ll find that who’s laughing at whom is an obsession for him, with the United States usually the target of the laughter. “The world is laughing at us.” China is “laughing at USA!” Iran is “laughing at Kerry & Obama!” “ISIS & all others laughing!” “Mexican leadership has been laughing at us for many years.” “Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush.” “Putin is laughing at Obama.” “OPEC is laughing at how stupid we are.” “Dopey, nobody is laughing at me!” I could go on (and on, and on), but I’ll spare you.

This is nothing new for Trump; he’s been talking about us being laughed at for his entire career in public life. In his first major foray into politics in 1987, he spent nearly $100,000 to buy full-page ads … lamenting the fact that America helped defend countries like Japan without getting enough in return (sound familiar?). The last line of the ad was, “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.” 

It is Trump’s gift to future biographers that he makes so little attempt to hide his psychological issues, but the desire to avoid being laughed at truly stands out. Perhaps there was some childhood trauma that led to this obsession, a schoolyard incident in which a bully pulled down Donny’s short pants to the guffaws of the other tots (particularly the girls!). It would be only fitting if Trump, the world’s foremost avatar of anxious masculinity, lived in terror of women’s laughter, but he seems concerned with everyone’s laughter, whether it comes from people or governments. As much as he cares about winning and getting the better of someone, defeat is marked by the ultimate humiliation of being laughed at.

Yet ironically, no president in history has ever been laughed at as much as Trump….

In America, Christianity Ain’t What It Used To Be

If you want to understand how America got this way, reading Chris Lehmann’s book The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity and the Unmaking of the American Dream might help. This is from a review by Barrett Swanson at Dissent:

Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics.

John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential…. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life feeling like miserable failures,” Osteen warns. “God wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.”

How we got from Winthrop to Osteen is the subject of Chris Lehmann’s new book, The Money Cult. Lehmann is interested in how the communitarian spirit of mainline Protestantism was eventually tarnished by the logic of private enterprise. But in the end what he discovers is that, far from being pious victims of a rapacious economic system, mainline churches were very much complicit in “the gradual sanctification of the market.” In fact, throughout the history of the United States, Christian theology was routinely contorted to fit within the narrow priorities of capitalism.

One of the reasons Christianity caught on in the Roman world was that it functioned as a mutual aid society. Helping one’s fellow Christians made a difference in people’s lives, because Rome wasn’t big on universal healthcare or unemployment insurance. But neither was 17th century England. So it makes sense that redistribution (something along the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) was a guiding principle for the Christians who founded Plymouth Colony.

Today, of course, our fellow citizens who call the U.S. a “Christian” nation think that “redistribution” is a dirty word. A headline in The Washington Post earlier this month noted that “the debate over the Affordable Care Act is really a debate over wealth redistribution”. From Karen Tumulty’s article:

Redistribution of wealth — one of the most radioactive subjects in American politics — has moved from being a subtext in the national debate over health care to being the core of it….

[There is] a bedrock philosophical and ideological question that has always been in the background of any argument about the government’s role in health care: What is the minimum that society should provide for its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, and how much should be taken from the rich and powerful to do it?

…There [are] many ways that Obamacare [redistributes] the burden of medical costs — from the sick to the healthy, with provisions such as the one denying insurers the ability to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions; from the old to the young, with a mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a penalty; from the rich to the poor, with an array of new taxes.

It’s almost as if right-wing opponents of the ACA don’t understand what insurance, including health insurance, is. Tumulty quotes economic historian Bruce Bartlett:

“Republicans argue that redistribution is inherently immoral without acknowledging that the very nature of insurance is redistributive. You’re taking money from people whose houses don’t burn down to give it to the people whose houses do burn down.”

As far as I know, Jesus never talked about health insurance and neither did the Puritans. But Christianity in its pure form is clearly pro-redistribution. Any preacher or politician who says otherwise shouldn’t claim to follow Jesus.

If you’re interested in reading more about Christianity as it’s frequently practiced today, I recommend a long article from 2014 by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It’s called “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”: 

…With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well-established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote … pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

No doubt, Paul Ryan would beg to differ. But who sounds more like Jesus? Was it Ryan when he said the healthy shouldn’t be taxed to help the sick, or John Winthrop when he said “we must bear one another’s burdens”? Here’s a hint from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:  

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:

dawkins_scale

Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.