Defining Our Terms

A recent headline asked the wrong question. The TIMES headline read “America’s Becoming Less Religious. Is Politics to Blame?”

The correct question is: has politics become religion?

The article begins with statistics. It quotes results from GallupPew, and PRRI, showing that the percentage of Americans who identify with any religion is in steady decline, “as are those who believe in God, the devil, Heaven, Hell, or angels; who say religion is a very important part of their life; maintain membership in a church or synagogue; or attend church regularly.”

The article proceeds to examine the possible causes of that decline.

Economic prosperity and functional governance (both wonderful things) can weaken our felt need for religious resources. For example, much of what religious institutions historically provided America’s citizens—education; counseling; support for the needy; marriage options; entertainment; and explanations for how the world works—are increasingly provided by the state and the market. Church participation has become more optional, just one more activity middle-class families do in the suburbs—or not.

Another factor is simply the inevitable consequence of living in an increasingly cosmopolitan, multiracial democracy where liberal values of tolerance are celebrated. Diverse neighborhoods, schools, and civic institutions force us to confront the reality that there are wonderful people out there who don’t share our religious beliefs. Our children will be friends with one another, maybe even spouses. Rising generations find the divisive dogma of many religious groups increasingly strange, if not offensive.

There is another explanation that the article explores: politics.

For the past few decadessociologists and political scientists have demonstrated across multiple studies that as Christianity has become increasingly aligned with right-wing conservatism and the Republican Party, Americans who might have otherwise identified as Christians on surveys are now identifying as “nothing in particular” or “none.” The conclusion many seem to be drawing is “If this is what it means to be religious, count me out.”

We see quite a bit of that reaction on this site. And as the article notes, that reaction is mirrored by political conservatives, who have become increasingly likely to identify with religion because they see it identifying them as Trump supporters–actually (although the article doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it) as White Nationalists. White Americans identifying as “White Evangelical,” see the label itself as meaning “pro-Trump MAGA conservative.”

The article assumes that “This is another way that politics has driven secularization”– that the association between right-wing politics and religion driving young progressives away from religion is also secularizing religious folks. It compares the former phenomenon to the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy in Putin’s Russia, where the number of Russians who identify with Russian Orthodoxy has grown, but the growth doesn’t reflect a rise in religious practices like church attendance and prayer. Instead, it reflects a rise in nationalistic fervor, ethnocentrism, and a fondness for the old Soviet Union and Stalin.

And that brings me back to my long-ago interpretation of Soviet Communism, which I saw not as an economic theory–at least, not primarily–but as a religion, a belief system.

The linked article is interesting, and as far as it goes, informative and factual. But it doesn’t grapple with what I see as the most important question, namely what is religion? I’d define it as a belief system based in faith rather than on demonstrable fact– a belief system that elevates certain values and behaviors on the basis of convictions that are simply not subject to empirical confirmation.

How is a belief that White Christians are superior beings entitled to pre-eminence in American life any less “religious” than a belief in the existence of heaven or hell?

You can undoubtedly come up with numerous examples of what we usually call “ideological” beliefs. What the studies cited in the linked article really demonstrate is that–at least in today’s contentious culture– “religion” and “ideology” have become virtually indistinguishable. And that’s a problem, because what we have come to call “culture war” is really a debate about whose belief system should be imposed on everyone else.

Political scientists tell us that laws are legitimate when they are agreed to by majorities of citizens holding very different world-views: for example, Americans of virtually all beliefs agree that murder, robbery and rape are wrong, and should be punished. (Although we still debate the definitions of even those terms.)

Americans aren’t really getting “less religious,” but they are admittedly getting less traditionally religious. Political ideologies have morphed into a different kind of religion. One is grounded in respect for pluralism and equal liberty of conscience. The other is intent upon protecting what they believe to be their god-given superior social status.

Compromise seems unlikely.


The Court Plays ‘Let’s Pretend’

This rogue Supreme Court no longer shocks me; at this point, I’m numb with disbelief.

The day after overturning affirmative action for Black students (while leaving preferences benefitting Whites intact), the Court didn’t simply ignore decades of  precedent, it went even further afield, ignoring a constitutional rule against issuing “advisory opinions” in order to privilege a “sincere” religious belief.

Robert Hubbell addressed the constitutional principle:

Friday, the Court’s reactionary majority issued opinions in two cases that did not include a constitutional prerequisite to the Court’s jurisdiction—that the issue to be decided presents an actual “case or controversy.” That requirement is set forth plainly and simply in the Constitution. You can look it up.

Instead, the reactionary majority ignored the absence of jurisdiction and proceeded to issue decisions in fake controversies because they can. Looking for deeper meaning is pointless. The reactionary majority has reduced the rule of law to brute force in the service of religious nationalism.

In the days before the Court issued its opinion in 303 Creative, multiple media outlets had confirmed that the entire “case” was bogus. As Heather Cox Richardson explained, not only was the  online business non-existent, the “complaint” had been manufactured.

Smith claims she wants to start the business because “God is calling her ‘to explain His true story about marriage.’” She alleges that in 2016, a gay man approached her to make a website for his upcoming wedding, but yesterday, Melissa Gira Grant of The New Republic reported that, while the man allegedly behind the email does exist, he is an established designer himself (so why would he hire someone who was not?), is not gay, and married his wife 15 years ago. He says he never wrote to Smith, and the stamp on court filings shows she received it the day after she filed the suit.

The Guardian quoted him:

“I can confirm I did not contact 303 Creative about a website,” he said. “It’s fraudulent insomuch as someone is pretending to be me and looking to marry someone called Mike. That’s not me.

“What’s most concerning to me is that this is kind of like the one main piece of evidence that’s been part of this case for the last six-plus years and it’s false,” he added. “Nobody’s checked it. Anybody can pick up the phone, write an email, send a text, to verify whether that was correct information.”

So here we have a case that is entirely prospective, with a fact situation that is falsified–yet radical Justices were so eager to undermine government’s ability to protect marginalized populations from discrimination that they were willing to ignore a basic constitutional principle. As Hubbell correctly notes, the “decision authorizes American business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Period. It is a first step, taken in bad faith and wrapped in lies.”

Richardson reminds us that segregation used to be defended as a deeply-held religious belief.

The widely criticized Court withheld issuance of its most indefensible decisions to the last, and the shameful and dishonest holding in 303 Creative was only one. The Court also ignored a clear lack of jurisdiction in the student loan forgiveness case. The actual party in interest—the corporation that serviced the student loan debt—had refused to file suit. Roberts ruled that the state of Missouri could assert the interests of a party not before the Court –a party that claimed no injury. 

The lack of jurisdiction wasn’t the only problem with that case: constitutional analyst Ian Millhiser wrote that the “decision in Biden v. Nebraska

is complete and utter nonsense. It rewrites a federal law which explicitly authorizes the loan forgiveness program, and it relies on a fake legal doctrine known as ‘major questions’ which has no basis in any law or any provision of the Constitution.”

The majority’s repeated dishonesty is simply stunning. Norman Ornstein said it best:

It is not just the rulings the Roberts Court is making,” he tweeted. “They created out of [w]hole cloth a bogus, major questions doctrine. They made a mockery of standing. They rewrite laws to fit their radical ideological preferences. They have unilaterally blown up the legitimacy of the Court.

The arrogance is breathtaking.

Many Americans will undoubtedly cheer these wildly improper decisions because the results accord with their own policy preferences. That is very short-sighted; the Supreme Court was not created to be a super-legislature, and– as a colleague from my ACLU days used to warn– poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

Robert Hubbell is right: “The time for hand wringing and half-steps has passed. Real people have lost real liberties—starting with Dobbs and ending 303 Creative. If we do not stand up to protect them with every ounce of our will, we deserve what’s coming.”


That “Hot Mess”

Eugene Robinson’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post had a concluding paragraph that really summed up America’s political situation. After explaining that we need at least two political parties, he wrote:

Right now, we have one center-left political party — the Democrats — and one flaming hot mess of ego, resentment and paranoia. It’s going to be a long two years.

The disgraceful antics of the crazies at Biden’s State of the Union address was just one recent illustration of that “flaming mess.” The newly-constituted “oversight” committees were another–evidently, they fell so short of proving misbehavior by the Biden Administration (while unintentionally disclosing Trump’s efforts at Twitter censorship) that Fox News decided against live coverage of committee shenanigans. 

Speaking of shenanigans, the media has been all over wacko George Santos, who appears to live and work in an alternate reality that he managed to peddle  during his Congressional campaign. Santos has been described as an outlier–rejected by “normal” Republicans.

The GOP’s purported outrage hasn’t found expression in Santos’ expulsion from the House, of course, and pathetic Kevin McCarthy (talk about your “hot messes”!) has appointed him to spots on important committees.

Now it turns out that Santos isn’t the only Republican fabulist.

Twelve years before she was elected as the first Mexican American woman to represent Florida in Congress, Anna Paulina Luna was serving at Whiteman Air Force Base in Warrensburg, Mo., where friends said she described herself as alternately Middle Eastern, Jewish or Eastern European. Known then by her given last name of Mayerhofer, Luna sported designer clothing and expressed support for then-President Barack Obama.
By the time she ran for Congress as a Republican, she had changed her last name to Luna in what she said was an homage to her mother’s family. A staunch advocate for gun rights, she cited on the campaign trail a harrowing childhood that left her “battle hardened.” She said she and her mother had little extended family as she grew up in “low-income” neighborhoods in Southern California with a father in and out of incarceration. She said she experienced a traumatizing “home invasion” when she was serving in the Air Force in Missouri.

Luna’s sharp turn to the right, her account of an isolated and impoverished childhood, and her embrace of her Hispanic heritage have come as a surprise to some friends and family who knew her before her ascent to the U.S. House this year. A cousin who grew up with Luna said she was regularly included in family gatherings. Her roommate in Missouri had no recollection of the “home invasion” Luna detailed, describing instead a break-in at their shared apartment when they were not home, an incident confirmed by police records. And three years before her first congressional bid as a conservative, Luna registered to vote as a Democrat in Washington state, voting records show.

I wonder how many other GOP Representatives have dramatically re-invented themselves in order to appeal to the GOP’s White Christian Nationalist base.(Calling Elise Stefanik…) 

The New Republic recently published a less snarky and more analytical look at the GOP’s departure from sanity.The article began by quoting from a speech in which former President Kennedy had characterized political clashes as disputes about  

“ways and means of reaching common goals—to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues…. What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy.”

As we’ve all noticed, that civilized era didn’t last long.

Ideological warfare resumed in the United States with the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s and with the rise of the New Right in the early 1980s. Today, those ideological storms have subsided. This time, though, ideology is over not because right and left have reached rough consensus; far from it. The contest is done because the Republican Party walked off the field. We have arrived at the end of GOP ideology….

 The author, Timothy Noah, explained that he wasn’t’t using the term ideology to describe pathologies, or resentments, or ethnic hatreds.

I’m not using it to describe the mob’s surrender to an authoritarian leader. I’m not using it in any of the broadly pejorative senses in which the term is commonly used today.

Rather, I’m using the word “ideology” to describe, in a neutral manner, some set of reasoned and coherent principles and policies, however mistaken, around which a society can be organized.

Instead of ideology (what I would call philosophy) Noah says we have GOP nihilism: “a party’s self-perpetuation for its own sake driven by an opportunistic indifference to fact and reason, expressed through coarse and incendiary rhetoric.”

In other words, a hot mess.


Policy Versus Personality

A major benefit of the transition from Trump to Biden is that we have an opportunity to leave the politics of personality and return to boring and oh-so-welcome debates about public policy. Rather than acrimonious exchanges pitting those of us who were appalled by the buffoon and his incompetent mafia appointments against those who endorsed his assault on American values, we are gradually returning to arguments about lawmaking.

I thought about that change as I was going through some of my old teaching materials, and came across notes for my lecture on the requisites of good public policy. Since the demotion of Mitch McConnell means we may actually see policies enacted rather than stymied, I thought I’d share them.

Consider it a framework for further discussion….

The first question lawmakers must address is firmly rooted in political philosophy: does this proposal lie an area that government should control or even be involved in? Americans have very different ideas about the proper scope and authority of the state, and those ideas will affect the perceived legitimacy of any policy chosen.

One of the reasons that issues like equal civil rights for LBGTQ citizens and women’s control over their own reproduction are so salient and contested is because they begin with a profound disagreement over the legitimacy of government laws that are seen (I believe correctly)as privileging some religious beliefs over others.

This question—the right of government to decide certain matters—underlies many other policy debates. (Masks, for example.)To what extent should government dictate business practices? What areas of the economy should be left to market forces, and what services should be delivered collectively?

Disagreements about the propriety of government action are at the heart of many policy debates.

Once there is agreement that government action is appropriate, however, there are four further elements that will determine whether the policy that emerges is sound.

First, we need to agree upon both the existence and nature of the problem. Is the growing economic gap between rich and poor a problem, or simply an expected attribute of market economies? If it is problematic, why? What accounts for its growth and existence, and why and how is it damaging? Is there unacceptable racism in American policing? How do we know? If so, why has it persisted? If those making policy cannot agree that a situation or condition or existing law is a problem, and cannot agree on why it is a problem, correcting it is obviously impossible.

Second, once policymakers concur on the existence and nature of the problem, they will need to come to some agreement on the efficacy of proposed solutions. If there is agreement that the gap between rich and poor is impeding economic growth and generating social unrest, they will need to determine the probable causes of that gap, and analyze the probable consequences of the various steps being advocated to diminish it. Which “fixes” are likely to accomplish the goal? What does the available evidence suggest?Do the policymakers even agree upon the outlines of that goal, let alone the likelihood that a specific approach will accomplish it?

Third, does government have the ability to implement the solution that is chosen? Does the unit of government making the decision have the authority to impose it? Is the chosen remedy something that government can do? Would enforcement violate Constitutional principles or democratic norms?

If a proposed policy meets these standards—if there is agreement on the existence and nature of the problem, agreement on a chosen remedy, and the ability to implement it without doing violence to the country’s legal framework—a fourth necessity (and one most often ignored) arises: Are policymakers willing to evaluate the consequences of that policy? Are they willing to monitor its effectiveness and modify or reverse it if it doesn’t work, or has unanticipated negative consequences?

As I used to tell my students, Ideological, cultural and economic interests make each of these steps difficult. But difficult is not impossible–if  we elect people of good will who understand that their mission is to advance the common good.

Okay…we need to work on that last bit…


A Fair And Balanced Economy

I have seen a fair number of articles recently suggesting that–if elected–Biden should pattern his economic approach on that of FDR.

Historians tell us that FDR was no ideologue; to the contrary, he was pragmatic. When he assumed office, he was faced with an economic situation for which there were no obvious remedies, and as David Brooks recently reminded us,

New Dealers were willing to try anything that met the specific emergencies of the moment. There was a strong anti-ideological bias in the administration and a wanton willingness to experiment. For example, Roosevelt’s first instinct was to cut government spending in order to reduce the deficit, until he flipped, realizing that it wouldn’t work in a depression.

“I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is,” one of his top advisers admitted. That pragmatism reassured the American people, who didn’t want a revolution; they wanted a recovery.

One of the things about Joe Biden that I personally find reassuring is precisely that lack of rigid ideology, and what I perceive as a willingness to respond to the challenges of the moment. Sometimes, a proper response will be ambitious, sometimes cautious.

It depends.

There are two very different approaches to economic policy displayed in the comments readers post to this blog. There are those who have a favored economic system that they insist is “the” answer to every problem, and there are those who– recognizing the ambiguities and complexities of economic life– have come to terms with the fact that neither capitalism nor socialism is a one-size-fits-all answer to what ails us. Both systems are subject to distortion and capture, and both are destructive when they operate in economic areas for which they are unsuited.

Every successful economy currently operating is a mixed economy. That includes Scandanavia, which on several measures has a more robust free market than the U.S. According to research from the World Happiness Report

What exactly makes Nordic citizens so exceptionally satisfied with their lives? This is the question that this chapter aims to answer. Through reviewing the existing studies, theories, and data behind the World Happiness Report, we find that the most prominent explanations include factors related to the quality of institutions, such as reliable and extensive welfare benefits, low corruption, and well-functioning democracy and state institutions. Furthermore, Nordic citizens experience a high sense of autonomy and freedom, as well as high levels of social trust towards each other, which play an important role in determining life satisfaction. On the other hand, we show that a few popular explanations for Nordic happiness such as the small population and homogeneity of the Nordic countries, and a few counterarguments against Nordic happiness such as the cold weather and the suicide rates, actually don’t seem to have much to do with Nordic happiness.

The benefits of a comprehensive welfare state–the “socialism” element–are well documented. A reliable “floor” gives citizens a basic sense of security that research tells us mitigates crime and conflict, among other things. Taxes are high (although not as much higher than ours as Americans think), but citizens get real value for that money–they save what Americans must pay for education and health care, for example.

As economists will confirm, other than their generous welfare states, the Nordic countries are mostly free market economies–in fact, they rank high on several indexes of economic freedom. Businesses are not run by the state, nor are their employment practices dictated by the government. (That isn’t to say that there isn’t reasonable regulation of Scandanavian markets–the sort of reasonable regulation that America has largely abandoned.)

The bottom line is that any successful economy must be a mixture of appropriately-regulated capitalism and judiciously socialized public goods.

As I have noted many times, in order to operate properly, a market requires a willing buyer and willing seller, both of whom can access all information relevant to the transaction. We “socialize” police and fire protection and infrastructure provision, among other things, because that description doesn’t fit those services. (It doesn’t fit medical care, either.)  It does fit the production and purchase of consumer goods.

The challenge facing Joe Biden (and hopefully, a Democratic House and Senate) in the wake of the Trump administration’s destruction of both the economy and social trust, is to strengthen the social safety net and return a level playing field to a market that has been corrupted by crony capitalism.

That’s harder and more complicated than one-size-fits-all economic ideology. But properly implemented, it works.