At Least the Cop Wasn’t Thinking At the Time

A high school student in South Carolina disrupted a class by talking on her phone. The teacher and a school administrator demanded that she leave the room. She refused. A police officer assigned to the school was summoned. He told her again to get out of her chair and leave the room. She was now sitting quietly and no longer using her phone. She said she had done nothing wrong and wanted to stay.

He reacted by flipping her and her chair upside down and dragging her across the floor. The white police officer, who is also one of the school’s assistant football coaches, did not break the black girl’s neck.

From the New York Times article, which includes a link to the video:

Witnesses to Monday’s incident said that in an Algebra 1 class, the girl, a sophomore, was on her phone, and the teacher told her to put it away. The teacher summoned an administrator, who brought in the deputy. The adults repeatedly asked the student to get up and leave the class, but she refused.

When the altercation occurred, students stood up, confused about what was happening, but the deputy told them, “Sit down, or you all will be next,” said one student, Charles Scarborough, 16. Adding to the surprise and confusion, several students said the girl was usually quiet and not a troublemaker.

The deputy also detained a second student, Niya Kenny, 18, who told a local television station that her only offense was objecting to his treatment of the other girl.

“I was crying, like literally screaming, crying like a baby,” Ms. Kenny told WLTX. “I’d never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl.”

As she protested, she said, “he said, ‘Since you’ve got so much to say, you’re coming, too.’ ”

I can almost understand the cop’s reaction. He got frustrated and gave in to his worst impulses. He didn’t de-escalate the situation. He treated the girl as if she were a dangerous criminal. He treated her worse than he’d treat a dog. But I presume he wasn’t using all his mental faculties at the time. His lizard brain, his adrenaline and his racism took over.

What I can’t understand at all is that people read the article and watched the video and then composed a comment to the Times suggesting that the girl was responsible in any way whatsoever for what happened to her. She disrupted the class. She refused to get out of her chair. She wasn’t respectful of authority. Maybe she provoked the cop’s reaction. We should wait for all the facts before passing judgment.

What total bullshit. Let’s face it. Many of our fellow citizens here in the United States would make good Nazis and there doesn’t seem to be much the rest of us can do about it. (All right, I do understand it.)

There’s more here, including how a police officer using more of his brain could have handled the situation.

It Was the Understatement of the Year

Planned Parenthood’s president Cecile Richards said it this morning when she testified before the Republican-run House Oversight and Reform Committee:

It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to get to the truth here.

If only Ms. Richards had noticed the inscription on the wall behind her.

Richards

“We are not trying to get to the truth here” is the committee’s official motto.

Of course, I made that last part up (with apologies to the Associated Press), but it might as well be true.

For more sober coverage of today’s event, National Public Radio has a few choice audio clips that “you should hear”, Jezebel has a summary that’s painful to read and Mother Jones shows how to make a misleading chart by leaving out the y-axis.

Wow! Could This Be the Beginning of a Movement?

Shepard Smith works for Fox News but sometimes doesn’t sound like it.

It was still quite a surprise to see what he said about Pope Francis and President Obama today:

I don’t know — I think we are in a weird place in the world when the following things are considered political. Five things, I’m going to tick them off. These are the five things that were on his and our president’s agenda. Caring for the marginalized and the poor — that’s now political. Advancing economic opportunity for all. Political? Serving as good stewards of the environment. Protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom globally. Welcoming [and] integrating immigrants and refugees globally. And that’s political? I mean, I don’t know what we expect to hear from an organization’s leader like the Pope of the Catholic Church, other than protect those who need help, bring in refuges who have no place because of war and violence and terrorism. These seem like universal truths that we should be good to others who have less than we do, that we should give shelter to those who don’t have it. I think these were the teachings in the Bible of Jesus. They’re the words of the pope, they’re the feelings of the president. And people who find themselves on the other side of that message should consult a mirror, it seems like. Because I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as a people, whatever your religion. I mean, it seems to me and I think to probably, as Bill O’Reilly would put it, most clear-thinking Americans — that that’s how we’re supposed to roll.

Yes, that’s how we’re supposed to roll! 

The remarkable video in which Mr. Smith states the obvious (at around 0:36) is available here.

Evangelical Christians for Sanders, the Left-Winger?

Two articles about Christianity and American politics caught my eye this week.

The first was a New York Magazine interview with someone named Jim, an alumnus of Liberty University, who now works as a pastor and therapist. Liberty University is the Southern Baptist school in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell, the well-known televangelist and right-wing troublemaker. Jim posted some anonymous remarks on Reddit in response to Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s recent speech at Liberty. Here’s the part New York Magazine quoted:

As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair — this Jew — and he proclaimed justice over us, he called us to account, for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful, and for abandoning the poor, the least of these, who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to.

Jim grew up supporting right-wing politicians, as so many evangelical Christians are taught to do. But he eventually realized that his politics conflicted with the Bible. He says that Bible study convinced him:

that the gospel of Christ is what he says it is in the Book of Luke. He says the messenger comes to bring good news to the poor, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. If our gospel is not good news to the poor, to the captives, to the indebted and the broken, then it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ…

The Bible talks about God destroying those who destroy the Earth and standing for the weak and the penniless. That same God was being displayed on our flags and in our songs as this warrior king who doesn’t like the Muslims and who doesn’t like the poor and who wants us to have free-market capitalism and no regulations. I thought that was inconsistent. This is the same God who designed … his theocratic government in Israel so that the poor were cared for. This is the same God that designs into the concept of ministry a tithe of 10 percent to care for others…

Jim is remaining semi-anonymous for the time being. He says he doesn’t want his patients or congregants caught up in controversy. Nevertheless, he’s going to continue explaining why it makes sense for an evangelical Christian to support Senator Sanders:

I’m calling my fellow Evangelicals to raise their eyes and to pay attention, to read their Bibles carefully, as I was taught to do in an Evangelical school. So many get their faith points from [right-wing TV personalities] Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, but if they would get their faith from Jesus, they would be surprised at how he does not fit into any box and flips the tables of the money-changers and stands with the adulterers and prevents the death penalty…

Bernie at Liberty, for me, struck such a nerve because he treated us like grown-ups. He presented the message thoughtfully, politely. He was warmhearted, he was jovial, he didn’t play any political games. He didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear. He was just plain, and it reminded me of John the Baptist.

But why does someone like Jim seem like such an outlier? Aren’t evangelical Christians the natural ally of right-wing politicians and Big Business?

No, not according to One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, a book by Kevin Kruse, Professor of History at Princeton. As explained in a review at the website of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Kruse argues that there was an organized effort in the 1950s to link religion and corporate capitalism. For example, a group called:

Spiritual Mobilization sought to rally clergymen to fight liberalism, arguing that the only political position compatible with Christianity was laissez-faire. They aimed to counter the ideas—summed up as the Social Gospel—that good Christians might have obligations to help the poor, that there was something spiritually problematic about the love of money, and that working to create a better and more egalitarian social order might be necessary to live a righteous life. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt had celebrated the expulsion of the money changers from the “temple of our civilization,” and called for replacing the “mad chase of evanescent profits” with a return to more noble social values. Spiritual Mobilization begged to differ, insisting instead that profit could be the cornerstone of a moral vision.

Spiritual Mobilization was funded by conservative businessmen and a number of corporations, including General Motors and Gulf Oil. Its leader “embraced his identity as a man who preached to the rich: “I have smiled when critics of mine have called me the Thirteenth Apostle of Big Business or the St. Paul of the Prosperous.”

Kruse says that:

 … long before the 1970s, religious leaders … and the businessmen who backed them sought to politicize the country’s churches, seeing them as a natural and sympathetic base. Their concern was not social or sexual politics, but rather economics—they wanted to advance a libertarian agenda to undermine the economic program that became ascendant during the New Deal. This top-down Christianity in turn provided an image of the United States as an explicitly religious nation, creating a rhetoric that inspired the populist Christian conservatives of a later generation. When the men who built the religious right in the 1970s—such as Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority—issued their jeremiads about the United States as a fallen nation, they made the implicit case that the country had hewed more closely to faith before the 1960s. But in fact, Kruse suggests, the pumped-up image of America as a Christian nation had gained popularity only a decade before.

Before Jerry Falwell, there was the evangelist Billy Graham:  

… one of his major concerns [was] the encroachment of the liberal state… Graham opposed the Marshall Plan and the welfare state, and attacked the Truman Administration for spending too much on each…  [In 1951] Graham warned the audience at a North Carolina crusade that the country was no longer “devoted to the individualism that made America great,” and that it needed to return to the “rugged individualism that Christ brought” to humankind.

America has been a Christian nation for a long time in the sense that most Americans have thought of themselves as Christians and still do. The question is: what role should Christianity play in a our democracy? The Constitution requires separation of church and state, but people have the right to support politicians who share their religious ideals. This makes me wonder what America would be like if there were more Christians like Jim.

Good and Bad Behavior From a Perspectivist Perspective

And God said: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering.”

A few days later: “They came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an alter there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the alter upon the wood…And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

But God presented Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead!

Now, some people think God would never have let Isaac be sacrificed. God does not or cannot do bad things. Other people think God could have let the sacrifice proceed. In that case, depending on who you ask, Abraham should have killed Isaac, because that was God’s will, or he shouldn’t have, because it would have been immoral (and maybe God was hoping Abraham would spare Isaac anyway, just like the tricky aliens in Star Trek often test the humans). Then there are people like me who think these verses from Genesis are nothing but a provocative story.

What makes the story provocative, of course, is that it sets up a supposed conflict between God’s commands and morality. On one hand, disobeying a direct order from God might be a very big mistake, not just because of the lighting bolt thing, but because the Supreme Being presumably knows what’s best for all of us. On the other hand, morality is often thought to be the ultimate perspective from which to evaluate behavior, whether human or divine. The ethical thing to do is always the right thing to do. 

So what should Abraham have done? It’s relatively easy for the non-religious or anti-supernatural among us, comfortably moralizing in 2015, to say Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac. But from a religious perspective, one can easily conclude the opposite. From that perspective, our fundamental responsibility is to obey God’s commandments, whether they’re truly ethical or not. The theologians who argue that God can’t do anything immoral seem to be trying to glorify God, rationalizing like those of us who do bad things but want to believe our actions are ethically justified. If the religious perspective is different from the ethical perspective, perhaps the ethical perspective isn’t supreme after all. Not for everyone anyway.

If you don’t think a religious perspective could ever trump the ethical one, consider a perspective we might call the “relational”. In 1793, William Godwin asked his readers to consider which of two people they would rescue from a fire: a great humanitarian who would serve mankind for years to come or a lowly chambermaid who would never rise above her station. Godwin thought it was obvious from an ethical perspective that the humanitarian should be saved first, risking the life of the chambermaid, since that would have the best consequences for the most people. You might agree, but what if the chambermaid was your mother? 

It could be argued that saving your mother would be the ethical choice because of your special relationship. What kind of unfeeling, disloyal child would let his or her mother burn to death instead of some stranger, even a world-famous humanitarian? But giving special consideration to the members of one’s family is questionable from an ethical perspective. We can try to explain how favoritism can be ethical but that’s simply more rationalization.

Kant, for example, took morality so seriously that he once claimed we should never tell a lie, not even to “a murderer who asks us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house”. If there is an absolute ethical prohibition against telling a lie, and the ethical perspective is the supreme guide to life, so much the worse for your relatives hiding in the basement when the Nazis show up. Or consider the ethical argument for donating much of your income to help refugees in Africa or the Middle East. Is it ethical to pay for music lessons for your children when you could use that money to make a Somali child’s life more bearable? Perhaps favoritism should trump morality sometimes (where the “should” isn’t meant in the ethical sense). We know it often does.

Of course, I’m not saying that the ethical perspective is unimportant. Society could hardly exist without it. But I think there are other perspectives that are also important. They come into play whenever we make a decision or evaluate behavior. In fact, the only way to justify ethical behavior as a whole is by appealing to non-ethical perspectives (just as you cannot justify being practical from a practical perspective or viewing the world scientifically from a scientific perspective). 

Why should we concern ourselves with morality at all? Historically, it’s often been justified from a religious perspective (God commands us to behave ethically) or from a practical perspective (society couldn’t function without it; you’ll get into trouble if you’re unethical) or from a personal perspective (I want to act like a virtuous person). Another justification that’s been popular among philosophers is from a rational or logical perspective (we should treat all people equally since there are no relevant differences between us).

I think it’s important to understand the various perspectives from which we view the world and try to live in it, as well as the relationships between those perspectives. Admitting that we don’t always behave as if the ethical perspective is paramount is a good first step. We might then do a better job figuring out how to balance our many perspectives, such as the ethical, religious, “relational”, practical and scientific; as well as my perspective, your perspective and the perspectives of other living things. After all, even when it comes to morality, the fundamental rule we first learned is to evaluate behavior from other people’s perspectives as well as our own.

Religious Liberty and Same-Sex Sex

Marriage isn’t an obscure practice. I bet you know married people even if you aren’t married yourself. Since marriage (the monogamous kind anyway) has always been defined as a relationship between a man (the husband) and a woman (the wife), it’s understandable that many of us are having trouble with the new definition. 

It’s also understandable that some people, including blinkered members of the Supreme Court, are resisting same-sex marriage, arguing that it’s just too weird or that the Constitution doesn’t require legalizing it (their argument being that “equal protection of the laws” doesn’t necessarily mean equal protection of the laws). 

But there’s another reason being offered against same-sex marriage that I’m having more trouble understanding. Here’s the relevant language from Justice Thomas’s dissent (which begins at page 78 of this file):

… the majority’s decision threatens the religious liberty our Nation has long sought to protect….In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well….Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples….

Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons . . . as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths” …  Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice [pp. 14-15 of the dissent].

Thomas’s concern is that religious liberty includes “freedom of action in matters of religion” and that legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to lots of situations in which people won’t be allowed to practice their religion as they wish. He doesn’t provide any examples, but claims that demands will be made to “participate in and endorse” marriage-related activities to which people object on religious grounds. In support of his position, Thomas refers to the amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief submitted by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

The Church anticipates problems of two kinds:

(1) Churches and church-affiliated organizations won’t be eligible for certain benefits if they discriminate against same-sex married couples. For example, church-run adoption agencies might lose their state licenses if they refuse to place children with same-sex couples. Church-run homeless shelters could lose government grants. Religious colleges might lose their accreditation or their access to government financial aid programs. Likewise, individual employees might lose their jobs or be disciplined if they refuse to provide services to same-sex couples.

(2) Individuals will bring lawsuits against churches and church-affiliated organizations that discriminate against such couples, charging illegal discrimination. Religious institutions might be subject to public accommodation laws that require businesses to provide products and services to anyone who can pay. Same-sex couples denied student housing might sue. Employees in same-sex marriages might sue religious organizations in order to keep their jobs.

In these various cases, the Church is arguing that anyone who conscientiously objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds should have the right to discriminate against same-sex couples. On the face of it, that sounds illegal. But it might not be. An article in The Atlantic explains why:

No law, state or federal, forbids “discrimination” generally. Employers, landlords, and businesses “discriminate” all the time—on the basis of low credit ratings, bad references, and poor employment histories, among other factors. Any type of private discrimination is legal unless a state or federal law specifically forbids it….

Thus, a civil-rights statute has two key parts. The first lays out the traits it governs, the forbidden grounds—for example, … “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” To state a claim, plaintiff must show that he or she has been treated less favorably than others who differ in one of the covered traits, and that the unfavorable treatment was because of that trait….

Then the law specifies what activities it covers, and usually offers certain exemptions. For example, … the Fair Housing Act bars a landlord from refusing to rent to anyone because of “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.” But it allows religious organizations that own dwellings to favor members of their own sect…

The question, therefore, is where to draw the line between people’s freedom to practice their religion as they see fit and other people’s right to be treated fairly. Religious opponents of same-sex marriage want to draw the line so they can discriminate against same-sex couples in lots of different ways (“we won’t let you attend our college”). Supporters of same-sex marriage want same-sex couples to be treated like other married couples.

Maybe everyone would agree that a minister who thinks same-sex marriage isn’t sacred should not have to officiate at a same-sex wedding. It makes some sense to me that a church-run adoption agency might not want to give a child to a same-sex couple (a Catholic charity in Boston apparently shut down their adoption services to avoid doing that — I’m not endorsing their decision — I’m simply saying it’s understandable from their perspective). But it’s hard to believe there are good religious reasons for the many kinds of discrimination the Seventh Day Adventists and other churches apparently want to practice. 

How can it be against someone’s religion to provide counseling to a same-sex married couple? Or give them food or shelter? Or allow them to attend the college you administer? Or buy flowers or a cake from your shop?

The answer, of course, is that those kinds of discrimination aren’t required by anyone’s religion. In this case, claiming to have religious reasons (or “core religious beliefs”) that justify treating certain people worse than others is a way to attack or renounce their sexual orientation. That’s why the phrase “aid and abet” sometimes appears in discussions of this issue. Opponents don’t want to “aid and abet” what they consider to be deviant sexual behavior, as if that behavior were criminal. They somehow think that acknowledging same-sex marriage or providing aid and comfort to same-sex couples amounts to endorsing same-sex sex.

Certainly, many oppose this evolution in the definition of marriage because it’s strange and new. Following religions that are thousands of years old tends to foster conservatism (the kind that honors tradition, not the fake “conservatism” we hear so much about these days). But the real reason same-sex marriage bothers some people so much is that being in a same-sex marriage is public confirmation that a person has same-sex sex. A person can be gay or a lesbian without announcing that fact to their minister or rabbi, or their college administration, or the staff at their local county clerk’s office. But getting married to someone of the same sex delivers a very clear message. You have the kind of sex that really bothers some people. And you’re planning to have a lot of it for a very long time. You aren’t going through a phase. You aren’t going to change your ways with a bit of counseling. So deal with it.

As a religious person, you can react to this new situation in different ways. You can say “Yuck! I don’t like this at all!” and maybe offer some reasons, religious or otherwise. Or you can mind your own business (“let him who is without sin…”). Or be thankful that more people will be getting married, which is supposed to be a good thing. But you shouldn’t use your religion as an excuse for discrimination. Why make life difficult for people who haven’t done you any harm? Their liberties are just as important as yours.

Who Knew the Pope Would Turn Out To Be a Christian?

And a Christian who believes in science!

Pope Francis is upsetting a lot of people, including the fools and knaves seeking the Republican nomination (you know, the make-believe Christians who won’t admit nine people were murdered by a racist in Charleston because that would imply racism is still a problem in America).

The Pope issued a message to the world this week. From The Guardian:

Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’, is the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years, since it is addressed not just to Catholics, or Christians, but to everyone on earth….

We need nature, he says, and we need each other….The care of nature and the care of the poor are aspects of the same ethical commandment, and if we neglect either one we cannot find peace….

Starting from that premise, he launches a ferocious attack on what he sees as the false and treacherous appetites of capitalism and on the consumerist view of human nature. For Francis, there is a vital distinction between human needs, which are limited but non-negotiable, and appetites, which are potentially unlimited, and which can always be traded for other satisfactions without ever quite giving us what we most deeply want. The poor, he says, have their needs denied, while the rich have their appetites indulged. The environmental crisis links these two aspects of the problem.

… The document is absolutely unequivocal in backing the overwhelming scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is a clear and present danger. It blasts the use of fossil fuels and demands that these be phased out in favour of renewable energy. But it is also explicitly opposed to the idea that we can rely on purely technological solutions to ecological problems….There will never be a technological fix for the problem of unrestrained appetite, the pope claims, because this is a moral problem, which demands a moral solution, a turn towards sobriety and self-restraint and away from the intoxications of consumerism.

The New York Times offers this summary (followed by selected paragraphs from the encyclical with explanatory comments):

Pope Francis has written the first papal encyclical focused solely on the environment, attempting to reframe care of the earth as a moral and spiritual concern, and not just a matter of politics, science and economics. In the document, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” he argues that the environment is in crisis … He emphasizes that the poor are most affected by damage from what he describes as economic systems that favor the wealthy, and political systems that lack the courage to look beyond short-term rewards….Its 184 pages are an urgent, accessible call to action, making a case that all is interconnected, including the solutions to the grave environmental crisis.

Perhaps we will do nothing about climate change until it’s too late. Last year was the warmest since records have been kept. This year is on track to be even warmer. But the climate isn’t changing fast enough to generate concerted global action. Short of a message from on high (from much higher than the sky), there may be nothing that will act as a sufficient catalyst. For now, however, Pope Francis has done his part.

Here are the first paragraphs of Laudato Si’:

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.

The entire text is here.