(Positive) Signs Of The Times

One of the multiple newsletters that hit my inbox comes from Religion News Service. (Given the influence of religion–especially Christianity–on American policy, it has always seemed prudent for this very irreligious observer to keep tabs on what’s happening to and among the purportedly pious…)

Recent reports have signaled a welcome–if belated–effort by those I consider to be genuinely religious to respond to the ugly perversions that excuse bigotries of various kinds as exercises in “sincere” religious belief. I’ve previously shared statements from “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” Here are a couple of other examples:

Within the last two years, students at religious schools across the country have made headlines pushing back against university policies regarding LGBTQ students or staff.

They’ve staged a monthlong sit-in at Seattle Pacific University, a private school associated with the Free Methodist Church, against a policy that forbids the hiring of LGBTQ people. They’ve called on Baylor University, that affirms marriage between a man and a woman as the “biblical norm,” to officially recognize an LGBTQ student advocacy group. They’ve protested at Brigham Young University after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates the school, said same-sex romantic behavior was “not compatible” with university rules, despite the removal of the “homosexual behavior” section from its Honor Code, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The article reports that students at more than 100 campuses staged a walk out on Oct. 11–coming out day– to protest religious exemptions to Title IX, “carve-outs”  that allow discrimination against LGBTQ students by the presumably devout.

One university observer was quoted as saying that students “are done being told that in order to be a good Christian, that means you must be a white, straight Christian, or embrace white, straight Christian values.”

An equally intriguing story involved a massive ad  campaign. Dubbed the “He Gets Us” campaign, it is a $100 million effort to “redeem Jesus’ brand from the damage done by his followers, especially those who say one thing and then do another.”

The campaign, funded by the Signatry, a Christian foundation based in Kansas, will expand in the next few months, with an updated website, an online store where people can get free gear if they forgive someone or welcome a stranger, and an outreach program for churches, all leading up to a Super Bowl ad.

Lee said organizers also want to start a movement of people who want to tell a better story about Jesus and act like him.

Our goal is to give voice to the pent-up energy of like-minded Jesus followers, those who are in the pews and the ones that aren’t, who are ready to reclaim the name of Jesus from those who abuse it to judge, harm and divide people,” Lee said.

Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, a branding firm based in Grand Haven, Michigan, said the movement hopes to bridge the gap between the story of Jesus and the public perception of his followers. The campaign has done extensive market research and found that, while many Americans like Jesus, they are skeptical of his followers.

That last observation reminded me of a bumper sticker I’ve seen a couple of times, proclaiming something along the lines of  “Jesus–Protect Me From Your Followers.” It also reminded me of that quote from Mahatma Gandhi–“I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.”

The president of the marketing firm handling the campaign said Christians see their faith as a great love story, while increasing numbers of others see Christians as a hate group.

“Jesus said people are going to know my followers by the way they love each other and the way they interact with each other,” he said. “I think when we look at American Christianity now, we don’t see nearly as much of that — and that concerns a lot of people.”

We certainly haven’t been seeing much loving-kindness from the loudest, ostentatiously pious, self-identified Christians–or for that matter, from the fundamentalists of most religions.

Religion and philosophy can assist people in finding meaning, in dealing with the complexities of life and  wrestling with its inevitable moral ambiguities. To appropriate another observation, religion can be used as a shield or a sword. When people find comfort in their beliefs, using those beliefs to shield them from life’s “arrows,” it serves a defensible purpose. When it becomes a sword with which to label and attack unbelievers, dissenters, and various “others,” it is no longer defensible.

Apparently, a lot of genuinely religious folks are fed up with the hypocrisy and hatefulness of their sword-brandishing brethren. I’d call that a positive sign.


There it is In Black and White

Since I’ve been on the subject of bigotry of various kinds…..

Recent news reports have highlighted academic research that confirms the degree to which animus toward President Obama is based on simple racism. I know that many readers will file this research under “duh,” but the fact that it merely confirms something we felt we knew, rather than telling us something we didn’t know, doesn’t make it any less valid or valuable.

The first study looked specifically at Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party.

Researchers at Stanford University found that when they showed white subjects photos of President Barack Obama with darkened skin, those people became more likely to support right-wing political organizations like the Tea Party.

According to the Washington Post, sociologist Robb Willer and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments from 2011 to 2015 in which they demonstrated that some white voters may be driven by unconscious racial biases against people with darker skin.

The study came about when Willard found himself pondering why racist hysteria has ratcheted up in this country since the election of President Obama in 2008. The ranks of white supremacist groups swelled after Obama entered the White House and watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center report that hate groups have become more active in recent years.

Willard’s study group published their work a few weeks ago on the Social Science Research Network. This research joins previous studies confirming  that racism has been an essential factor in Republican electoral victories.

In another study reported by the Washington Post, researchers from Harvard and Stanford found that racist attitudes remain stronger in areas of the South where slavery was most prominent. Not only was racism harder to eradicate in the counties where slavery had been most integral to the economy, but white Southerners who live today where cotton was king are substantially less likely to identify as Democrats.

Among otherwise similar counties, a difference of 20 percentage points in the enslaved population in 1860 was correlated with a difference of 2.3 percentage points in the share of white Democrats…

Polls consistently show that Republicans are more likely to hold racial prejudices, and not just in the South. Nationally, almost one in five Republicans opposes interracial dating, compared to just one in 20 Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. While 79 percent of Republicans agree with negative statements about blacks such as the one about slavery and discrimination, just 32 percent of Democrats do, the Associated Press has found.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions about the present-day composition of the party of Lincoln.

Sears of the University of California has found that even among white voters with equally conservative views on issues unrelated to race, those with more negative views about African Americans are more likely to vote Republican. He and Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, showed that there were many racially conservative white voters who supported John Kerry and President Clinton when they were candidates, but who voted against President Obama.

It is worth emphasizing that–just as all chairs are furniture, but not all furniture items are chairs–the fact that people with racist attitudes are more likely to be Republican is not the same thing as saying all or most Republicans are racists.

But these research findings–which tend to corroborate anecdotal observations–do help explain why Donald Trump’s attacks on “political correctness” and “those people” found enough fertile ground among the GOP base to make him the Republican nominee.

And the research also reminds us why America’s effort to eradicate the legacy of its slave-owning past is such a hard slog.


I Really Have to Stop Reading the News…

It isn’t even light yet, and I’ve already read stories that make me want to crawl back into my bed and pull the covers up over my head.

In national news, the Southern Poverty Law Center has released a new study showing a dramatic rise in hate groups–especially anti-government, “patriot” groups. And closer to home, Mother Jones reports that

On Saturday night, when Mother Jones staffers tweeted a report that riot police might soon sweep demonstrators out of the Wisconsin capitol building—something that didn’t end up happening—one Twitter user sent out a chilling public response: “Use live ammunition.”

From my own Twitter account, I confronted the user, JCCentCom. He tweeted back that the demonstrators were “political enemies” and “thugs” who were “physically threatening legally elected officials.” In response to such behavior, he said, “You’re damned right I advocate deadly force.” He later called me a “typical leftist,” adding, “liberals hate police.

Only later did the reporter realize that JCCentCom was a deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana.

Apparently, this Deputy AG–one Jeff Cox–has been communicating similar messages for most of the ten years he has been employed by the people of Indiana to uphold the rule of law. The Mother Jones article contains more quotations, along with his defense that he has a First Amendment right to express his opinions.

I don’t debate his right to voice opinions (although a semanticist might quibble on the grounds that infantile name-calling can hardly be dignified by the term “opinion”). I do wonder what sort of “logic” fails to recognize that the protesters also have First Amendment rights, or that he is one of the “public workers” being vilified by people like Governor Walker and…Jeff Cox.

I also wonder what kind of job performance the people of Indiana have been getting from someone so intemperate and lacking in judgment. Those aren’t exactly the qualities that make for good lawyering.

Perhaps he would be better suited to a job defending some of those “patriots” the Poverty Law Center identified.