Marching again

It’s weird what and who you think about when certain conditions are right.  I’ve been thinking about Mr. Hanlon, who was my physics teacher my junior year of high school.  

I cannot understate the damage he did to my overall intellectual growth and natural curiosity.  He was the reason why I didn’t take a science senior year of high school.  

On the first day of class, he walked in and asked us why we were all taking physics.  The simple answer to this question was that it was next in line after biology (freshman year) and chemistry (sophomore year).  His response to being told this?  “Wrong!  Physics is everything!”

In fairness to Mr. Hanlon, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about science (or whichever field a teacher teaches).  What he didn’t seem to understand is that the students who don’t share his enthusiasm need to appreciate the topic on their own terms in their own time.  

That’s not what he did, though.  He had a way of talking down to students like me who had the aptitude but not the interest.  He had the misfortune of timing being a teacher of mine after I had just come home from Penn State’s Summer Intensive Language Institute where I learned German and realized that I wanted to study languages.  

I acknowledge having the aptitude.  There was one lab report, for example, where he came out and shook my hand in front of the whole class because what I’d written was more or less what he wanted to see.  I had let other people copy my report and I guess they went a little too far in paraphrasing what I had written.  

But as the year went on, he made his opinion clear: I’d be wasting my life if I didn’t declare that I wanted to be either a physicist or engineer.  At one point, I got so pissed off at his attitude that I wrote a lab report up in French.  (For reference, I learned then that the French word for “wave” is “vague”.  He made a lame joke about the repeated use of this word in my report before he gave me an A on it.)

In college, I took my mandatory “hard” sciences, and studied the science of linguistics, which started to rekindle things but it wasn’t until my kids were born, that I started to read scientific books again.  Thanks to George Hrab’s podcast, I discovered the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. And now I am a booster for science.  

Keep in mind that I don’t like most science fiction because they still skimp too much on character development, and I can’t imagine starting to watch TV shows like Star Trek, Dr. Who, or CSI    

I don’t know what happened to Mr. Hanlon.  If he’s still alive, though, I imagine that he might have been marching this past weekend at one of the many rallies in the March for Science.   

I did just that this past weekend in Washington, DC.  It’s unfortunate that it was needed, but the anti-science attitude of much of the federal government, needs to be called out and put right.  There are stories that allege that Donald Trump was shaken by it.   I hope they’re true and that he might change things for the better.  Stopping climate change is the most important issue we’re facing.  That’s only one thing, though.  

We need to follow the evidence in public policy, pure and simple.  And if the current administration and the current congress refuse to do so, they need to be voted out and replaced by people who will.  

Who knew?

I’ve written before about how I like to read the writings of those with whom I disagree.  I actually started doing this in the late 90s when a friend of mine told me about the “review” of the South Park movie on a fundamentalist Christian movie review site called CAPAlert.  In casual conversation, I would describe it as a family filmgoer guide (like what you see in many newspapers to help parents understand, beyond the ratings, whether a movie is appropriate for young children), on steroids and with a fundamentalist Christian spin.  To the point that the Star Wars series is inappropriate because it embraces a religion that doesn’t have Jesus.   

CAPAlert has been dormant for more than four years now.   Stepping in to take its place is a website called Movieguide.   Apart from being a bit more generous in its assessments of movies (any movie with a clearly defined hero, is a metaphor for Jesus by their standards) it seems a decent heir apparent to CAPAlert.   

One thing that Movieguide does, that CAPAlert didn’t, is write essays regarding other matters of pop culture.  Such was the case when they wrote a short article on a recent instagram feud between Candace Cameron Bure, former child star from the TV show Full House and sister to the comparably insane Kirk Cameron, and drag queen Bianca Del Rio.  

The exchange went like this: Bure posted a picture of herself wearing a t-shirt that reads NOT TODAY SATAN.  Del Rio, who first used that phrase in a public setting, responded politely (if moderately sarcastically) by saying “If only, this homophobic, republican knew….”

Bure went on the defensive and questioned Del Rio for being “so nasty to me”.  She went on a tirade about how “loving Jesus” doesn’t automatically imply “hat[ing] gay people” (typical for people of this ilk.   She doesn’t hate them.  She just thinks that they’re just second class citizens and don’t deserve equal rights…) and accusing Del Rio for sending others to her page with equally hateful messages.  

Movieguide was effusive in its praise of her response.  I’m sure that some people were less polite than Del Rio in their comments but that goes with the territory of being famous and expressing an opinion.   Don’t you just love that they hate political correctness up until the point when someone makes a comment that they personally consider offensive?

All of that said, it’s good to know that both Bure and Movieguide are in agreement that calling someone a “republican” is apparently an insult.   

A good thing about the Trump presidency

In the movie JFK, Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the real-life lawyer who brought the only criminal case to trial in the assassination of our 35th president (and namesake of the movie).  While the movie’s faults are legion (not the least of which is the credibility it lent to some of the more absurd conspiracy theories about the assassination), there’s an interesting — and valid — point made when Costner gives his closing argument in the trial: the moment you have two or more people involved in something, that is by definition a conspiracy.  

When you look around in today’s media-saturated world, conspiracy theories abound.  By the expansive definition of “conspiracy” used in the movie, conspiracies absolutely do exist.  I’m not trying to make an argument that the official version of any event is necessarily the whole truth, and I readily concede that there are times when skepticism of the official version (or at least portions of the official version) of events is absolutely warranted.  

Modern conspiracy theories generally involve arguing that some group of powerful, wealthy, connected people with a vested interest in covering up the “truth” put out an official story that we shouldn’t believe.   The motivations of the conspirators — depending upon the event — range from maintaining the status quo or upending some rule they don’t like.  The conspiracy theorists argue that mass shootings, for example, are really just false flags planted to get people motivated enough to allow the government to take away guns from law abiding citizens while the anti-vaccination movement maintains that they’re being silenced because too many people (pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, doctors and nurses) make too much money off of the vaccines to look at the supposedly harmful side effects truthfully.  

I’ll grant you that the proponents of the conspiracy theories about mass shootings and vaccinations are quite harmful.  There are no shortage of stories from either survivors or grieving families of the deceased who have found themselves being harassed and threatened by people who believe that their trauma is just an act.   The health risks of vaccines are minimal compared to the overall health benefits of those same vaccines.  (And I’m saying that knowing that I can’t rule out the possibility that my father might be alive today had he not gotten a particular vaccine about 2.5 years before he died.  But that’s the stuff of another entry.  

I’ll even concede that some conspiracy theories can be tempting.  When George W Bush ascended to the presidency in 2001, he definitely wanted to help rehabilitate his father’s legacy as presidency and taking out Saddam Hussein was definitely a part of that agenda.  The September 11 attacks provided more than enough popular support for that goal.   (And, when you consider that there were nineteen hijackers, that definitely meets the definition of “conspiracy” from the Oliver Stone movie.)  That doesn’t mean Bush (or any other member of the US government at any level) was in on it.  

One fatal flaw of modern conspiracy theories, is the size and scope of the hypothesized conspiracy itself.   As more people are “in the know” about the truth, the harder it becomes to conceal it.   There is, for example, an entire industry dedicated to revealing rumors about the next big product releases from Apple despite the company’s best efforts to keep their product plans quiet.  And Apple’s stock price is at least partially dependent upon those rumors.  

Which brings me to the train wreck that is the White House under Donald Trump.  I think there are fewer leaks in the lean-tos built by the contestants on the TV show Survivor than there are in this administration.   And Trump isn’t exactly wrong for not appreciating the fact that the press is getting information not necessarily intended for public consumption.  There’s even a recent story in The Onion that’s poking fun at the leaks.  

The issues Trump is facing in maintaining an efficient, smoothly working operation are identical to any issues that a sufficiently wide-ranging conspiracy would have to deal with.   Keeping people silent, especially when they don’t have some massive motivation to be quiet, is quite difficult if not impossible.   

I’m not seeing much coming out of the White House that I can honestly say is a good thing.  But the more I think about it, maybe the leaks should help us put to rest the notion that these conspiracy theories are anything other than an occasionally amusing distraction

I have even less respect for Trump now

On January 29, 2017, a mere nine days into the nascent administration of Donald Trump, a US Special Operations force carried out a raid on the village of Yakla in the nation of Yemen.

While all of the details of this raid will be the stuff of investigations that, if they’ve even begun, certainly haven’t been completed. But here’s what we do know:

The initial groundwork for the raid was started during the Obama administration but Obama himself never greenlighted the mission. Donald Trump did that.

One US Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in the raid, as were some number of civilians. The number of civilians killed, depending on which reports you might read, ranges from the low teens to as many as 25.

Very little, if any, intelligence was gained from the mission.

To his credit, Donald Trump was present when Owens’s body was returned to the states and to offer condolences to his family.

Now let me make it clear that any number of factors can lead to the success or failure of any given mission, most of which are outside of the control of anyone who’s not on the ground in the middle of the mission. I’ve seen some articles from the fringe political left refer to Trump as a “murderer” because of the results of this raid. If I’m being at my most polite, this characterization is grossly inaccurate.

But there’s plenty of fallout from this raid that should fall squarely on Trump’s shoulders. First and foremost is the fact that he tried to shift the blame for the raid first to Ex-President Obama and then to the generals who oversaw it. I’m sorry, Mr. Trump, but you authorized the raid and therefore it’s up to you to accept the consequences, good or bad. By trying to deflect the blame, Trump has turned this mission into more of a news item than it needed to be.

The President of the United States is often called upon to make extremely difficult decisions. This particular decision involved him serving as Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces but not all decisions need to involve that particular responsibility. Some decisions prove, in hindsight to be good decisions while others prove to be, um, not so good. (And, as I’ve written before, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it was a good decision.).

I would argue that, with regard to this particular decision, Trump was lucky in that he received near-immediate feedback that caution would have been the more advisable path. Someone with good leadership skills would have taken this miscue as cause for introspection, reflection, and a changing of tactics for the next time a similar decision might be warranted.

Last night (February 28, 2017), President Trump gave an address before a joint session of congress. It had its high moments and low moments, to be sure, but the lowest moment of the night was when he called out Carryn Owens, the widow of the slain SEAL from that mission. It was arguably two minutes of the most uncomfortable television I’ve ever watched.

I don’t blame anyone who gave her a standing ovation, but she clearly was still grieving over her loss, and rightly so. What I saw was someone whose wounds from a traumatic event were still fresh, praying for strength, crying. I don’t know what was going through her head and whether or not she appreciated this gesture, but when Trump doubled down and claimed the raid to be a success despite the casualties, it was clear that he learned nothing from this basic lesson in on-the-job training for the presidency.

If I were Mrs. Owens or any other member of Ryan Owens’s family, I’d be furious at being used as a prop in his speech, his totally misguided attempts to defend the indefensible. And I do question if we’d even know about this raid had Owens not died.

I don’t know if this raid would have come out differently if Trump had waited longer before authorizing it. I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog post if either Owens, or the Yemeni civilians, or both, had survived. It’s a lot harder to get a learning experience from having made a successful decision.

But Trump had a golden opportunity to demonstrate himself as being up to the nuances and complexities of the presidency — something I previously doubted. After all, when was the last time a new president’s decisions were tested this soon after he took the oath of office? (By comparison, September 11 happened nearly eight months into George W Bush’s presidency and the standoff with David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, started a little over a month into Bill Clinton’s presidency and ended a month and a half later. Trump wasn’t even president for two whole weeks when Yakla happened.)

I may have previously doubted Trump’s fitness to be president. I don’t doubt it any more. I’m convinced that he’s unfit to be president.

Meet some low information voters

I make an active effort to see how some people whose worldview is not consistent with my own, view the world.   One website I visit with some frequency is a bulletin board called Rapture Ready, a group of evangelical Christians who look at the world and see the conditions of end times as outlined in the books of Ephesians and Revelation, thoroughly grounded in modern Christian eschatology.   They’re hyper-religious and ultra conservative, feeding each other’s fears and paranoia within the confines of their own protective bubble.  

The membership of this group is largely American, white, evangelical.   While some of them may not have supported Donald Trump from the outset, they are now almost universally supportive of him, largely due to his appointments.  
Several years ago I tried to create a profile for myself so I could troll them but I never got the promised confirmation email (to confirm that I’m neither a robot nor the victim of someone else’s spoofing campaign) so I simply didn’t make any real effort to follow up.  My original user name was a profane word in Russian but if I were to try it again, I’d likely use Matthew6-6 if it’s not taken.   If I were ever called on it, I’d simply explain that my name was Matthew and that my birthday is June 6, relying on them not knowing that particular verse of the Bible or how it basically tells them not to act the way they do…

There is a short thread on the board that I’d like to share with everyone.  In the interest of protecting people’s privacy I won’t link directly to it but it can be found in the “Breaking News and World Events” forum from the above link.   The original post is dated a little over a week ago, February 10, 2017.  I have copied all remarks verbatim.   The one link provided in the thread, I am also copying.  

Subject: Le Pen: If elected, French Jews will have to renounce Israeli citizenship

Poster 1: Le Pen: If elected, French Jews will have to renounce Israeli citizenship.

Link to Jerusalem Post article confirming same
Poster 2: a little animated icon in which one emoji is slapping another, with the label “Snap out of it”   That is what I would tell him.

Poster 1: quoting poster 2 and then issuing the correction “…her”

Poster 3: How typical of the nation of France to come up with such a ludicrous policy. However, this is exactly what you can expect from a nation without God. After all, this is the nation that held the French Revolution.

It’s obvious that neither poster 2 nor poster 3 actually read the linked article.   Had poster 2 actually read the article (or known about the election prior to it), he or she (I honestly don’t know the genders of any of the posters here…) would have known that Marine Le-Pen is a woman.  You literally need look no further than the first paragraph to know better.  

Poster 3 is the more interesting person here because of the way his or her opinion was reached.  This person excoriates the secular nature of France as a nation.  One truth about RR is their unflinching support for Israel because of its role in bringing about  the so-called end times.  

The linked article actually raises questions about the journalistic credibility of the Jerusalem Post.  The real news story is that French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le-Pen says that the only people who should have dual citizenship with France and another country, should be dual citizens with other EU countries.  By definition, that excludes Israel, and she acknowledges it as such.  

I think this is a bad idea since it drips of a modified nationalism that merely exchanges France’s borders with those of the EU, and can have horrifying implications to all immigrants in France.  

But by putting the implications in terms of Israeli citizenship rather than a greater anti-immigrant sentiment, the Post ironically risks fomenting greater anti-Semitism by claiming not that the whole policy proposal is bad, but that Jews somehow deserve preferential treatment over other non-EU members (which, let’s remember, will soon include Britain).

If either Poster 2 or Poster 3 had actually been good citizens within their worldview, they would argue not that Ms. Le-Pen’s proposal is a bad idea on its surface (as they’ve both done), but instead that there should be an exception to the policy for Israel.  

I almost want someone to let the folks at Rapture Ready know about this blog post of mine, even if it would scuttle my ability to troll them.  They claim (and try) to be informed about world events but are stuck in their own bubble and need to be broken out.  

The evolution of the Republican Party 

In 1860, a sharply divided electorate resulted in the election of the first ever president whose political affiliation was with the relatively newly formed Republican Party.  This party was generally opposed to slavery, although there were two major viewpoints within the party: those who wanted an outright ban on slavery throughout the United States and those who sought simply to prevent its expansion.   

The newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, was a smart lawyer and canny politician, which is why the pro-slavery forces were so afraid of what he would do.   Most of the southern “slave states” voted to secede from the union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and a handful of counties in the state of Virginia didn’t join their slave-holding confederates), and, as the northern army sought to prevent this separatist movement, plunged the nation into a civil war.   

The official reason for the fighting was the argument over preservation of the union or autonomy of the slave states.   And that looks good on paper, of course, but that ignores the 800-pound gorilla in the room: we essentially had to go to war to end slavery.  

The war lasted about 4 1/2 years, with heavy casualties on both sides, and ended with a demoralized south and a now-constitutional ban on slavery (the 13th amendment passed congress and was sent to the states shortly before the confederacy surrendered to the Union forces at Appomattox Court House in Virginia).

It makes for a compelling narrative to say that the north won the war because they were on the right side of history and were the ostensible “good guys”.  After all, the leaders — Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson, and countless others — of the confederacy were skilled military tacticians who were more than capable of waging the battle and who arguably had the easier job: holding the troops from the north at bay.   

But that narrative overlooks the fact that the confederacy misjudged one very important advantage the northern states enjoyed: economics.   While the ideological differences between the northern and southern states centered around slavery, there were several other differences that, simply put, favored the north in just about any other match-up, moral high ground be damned.  

The big non-ideological difference between the two sides of the war, was the contrast between industry (the north) and agriculture (the south).   The south may have relied too heavily on its perception that the goods that it provided to American trading partners around the world, were more valuable than those provided by the north.   Indeed, it’s not a surprise (at least in hindsight) that Egyptian cotton exports surpassed American cotton exports in 1862.   

The Republican Party rightly could claim victory in the management of the war and bolstered their claims on the grounds of both moral high ground and industrial acumen.   Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s victory, the republican presidential candidate emerged victorious in every quadrennial election from 1860 through (and including) 1928 with only four exceptions in that entire time period (1884 and 1892 when Grover Cleveland won it, and then in 1912 and 1916 when Woodrow Wilson won), although many of these elections were extremely close (especially 1876, but it’s the stuff of a completely separate essay).  

Over time, the business interests that underwrote the victory in the war, started to gain power within the party.  It’s tempting to say that they didn’t care about the needs of the newly liberated slaves.  That is a bit harsher than the reality but not entirely wrong: as history has repeatedly taught us, apathy and indifference often do more harm than active antipathy.   The former slave owners never truly stopped resenting the loss of their slave labor and, in many cases passed that resentment onto their children and grandchildren.  Meanwhile, the business leaders started to focus more on growing their business interests, at most paying lip service to the needs of the former slaves in their employ.   

The contentious nature of the election of 1876 was only settled when the Republican Party agreed to end the reconstruction of the south in exchange for being able to declare victory. After all, the business leaders didn’t really care one way or another for reconstruction.  Some might have even seen it as an unnecessary expense anyway.   

By the time Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, the Republican Party focused less on civil rights and more on business and free market interests.   While Roosevelt himself was quite progressive on these matters, especially given the time period, his successor, William Howard Taft, was more of a pragmatist.   It’s why he vigorously prosecuted corporate monopolies under the Sherman Antitrust Act and prompted Roosevelt to come out of retirement, paving the way for Wilson’s victory in 1912.  

Wilson, only the second democrat to be elected president since Lincoln won the presidency more than half a century before, won re-election in 1916 on a platform of how he kept us out of the war that gripped Europe, despite the pleas for help from our allies.   As often happens with wars, though, by the time it ended, the world as a whole became a very different place from what it was when the first shots were fired.   We entered the war after the Germans sank the cruise ship Lusitania and, at about the same time, the Russians pulled out of the war, having fallen victim of a revolution that created many far more pressing needs at home.    

And the rise of socialism in Russia, complete with the upheaval aimed at the upper classes in the larger cities (especially Moscow and Petrograd) was more than enough to shake the wealthy businessmen and women who by now were both the power brokers and core constituency of the Republican Party.   The earliest “red scares” date to the 1920’s during another decade of Republican control over the White House.   And they played to the fears quite deftly: they could appeal to the ultra-religious by pointing to the official atheism of the Soviet regime and to the wealthy by pointing to the official economic policy.   We still see both of these fears in the rhetoric of the modern Republican Party, nearly a century later.  

The stock market crash on October 29, 1929 created the worst economic crisis in American history, now popularly known as the Great Depression.   Numerous factors made this economic downturn worse than previous ones but the increasingly globalized economy was certainly a factor.  (And if we thought things got bad in the US, that’s nothing compared to Germany, still hurting from the aftereffects of the war a decade earlier.   Stories of how a comfortable life savings one week became insufficient to buy a loaf of bread the next are not much of an exaggeration from the realities of what led to the rise of Hitler.)

When Franklin Roosevelt swept into the presidency in 1932, he rode a sentiment that correctly viewed the wealthy as having created the crisis but put the suffering on the middle and lower classes.   In purely economic terms, the lines separating the two parties had become well-defined.   The democrats focused more on workers and the republicans focused more on the wealthy.  

I recently wrote about how it’s impossible to predict the long-term consequences of any individual decisions made.   If FDR hadn’t sought a third term as president in 1940 (on a platform not unlike Wilson’s in 1916), we might not have the 22nd Amendment today, which limits a president to a total of ten years in office.  Since it came into effect, only 1980 stands out as an exception to the rule of eight years in the White House by one party followed by eight years of the other.   (And although this is unknowable, there is evidence that an event five years earlier is the reason why FDR sought a third term: the assassination of Louisiana governor Huey Long; had Long lived, FDR might have stood aside for Long to run in 1940.)

After the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the republicans revived their anti-communist rhetoric, and it became much louder than it had been in the 1920s.   Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy personified this step-up in rhetoric.    With McCarthy, the very words “communist” and “socialist” became insults, extending far beyond the economic implications of these terms.  

(Side note: this is the stuff of another essay, but the true beauty of Karl Marx’s theories, is that he applied Wilhelm Friederich Hegel’s dialectic philosophy to history in purely economic terms.   He wasn’t wrong with the assessment of history even if his predictions for the future were overly idealistic.)

The election of 1952 is an interesting one.  The slow evolution of the Republican Party to what it is today took a bizarre turn that year.   Both the democrats and the republicans tried to recruit popular World War II general Dwight David Eisenhower to be their candidate and he chose the republicans because he wasn’t sure he liked the direction the democrats were moving in.  I don’t think this has much to do with the “Dixiecrat” revolt four years earlier when the more racist elements of the Democratic Party walked off the convention floor, but it definitely enjoyed the fruits of the aftermath.  Between 1948 and 1964, the KKK and other white supremacist groups had no political home, and this was good for both parties.  

But in the 1950s, the seeds were sown for the more undesirable elements to be welcomed into the GOP.   Sure, the business wing of the Republican Party saw the Soviet Union as an economic threat, but channeling this into something supported by the masses was … difficult to say the least.   Enter Billy Graham, who linked the economic platform of the USSR to something more easily feared by the populace: atheism as state religion.   

The United States has always had a bizarre relationship with religion.   In the realm of jurisprudence, we learned the hard way that the proper way of conducting a trial is to put the burden of proof of guilt on the accuser, not rather than putting the burden of proof of innocence on the accused.  Religiously-based witch hunts more than a century before our independence proved this.   The US constitution is a truly godless document as the only references to religion involve how there shall be no religious test for office and how the government can’t stop you from worshipping as you see fit.  Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation” between church and state, and the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated during the presidency of John Adams, says that the US “is not in any sense a Christian nation”.

But there’s no denying that the majority of residents of this country are Christian and, as is true for any group that enjoys the privileges of the majority, it can be difficult to draw lines that separate the privilege from official government sponsorship.  It’s why they push back so hard when they sense losing their privilege.  

The 1950s saw a significant amount of blurring of the line between government and religion: the addition of “under god” to the pledge of allegiance and choosing “in god we trust” as the official motto.   See my recent essay on the Johnson Amendment for more on that topic.   But moves like that are highly symbolic and it’s fair to say that moves like these are more symbolic than anything with regard to actual day-to-day governing.  

When (democrat) Lyndon Johnson wrangled congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (a brave move, considering that it was an election year), he reawakened the racists in the deep south.  Indeed, he figured that this move cost the democrats the votes from that region for at least a generation.   He was right, unless you count the fact that he underestimated the amount of time.  

It’s fair to say that the election of 1968 may have been one of the worst choices Americans ever had to make.   Two incredibly flawed candidates who would have lost to a more energizing, inspiring candidate on the other side.   The chaos outside of the democratic convention in Chicago only underscores this.   Later that year, folksinger Phil Ochs reflected that “the saddest thing about Chicago — it was exhilarating at the time but incredibly sad afterwards — was that something truly extraordinary died there, which was America.”

You can hear a recording of this quote on the album There and Now: Live in Vancouver in the spoken word intro to the song “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed”.  We can debate the accuracy of this statement but there is a truth to the fact that the so-called “establishment” effectively emerged victorious over those who sought to upend it.   

But Nixon emerged victorious in 1968 and with his victory came a renewed influence of Billy Graham.   The 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision served as a mobilizing force for the religious extremists within the Republican Party.   This emboldened other members of the religious right, namely Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, culminating in the takeover of the southern baptist convention in 1979.   

In 1980, the Republican Party was still smarting from the corruption Nixon had ushered in and needed a charismatic populist who would appeal to the business wing, the religious wing, and the relatively newly emboldened racist wing.  They found it in an actor who had been president of the Screen Actors Guild during the Joseph McCarthy “witch hunts” of the 1950s, who later went on to be governor of California.   Ronald Reagan gave enough red meat to all three of these groups and it’s no surprise that many republicans today idolize him despite the damage he did to the country.   

For a truly fascinating read, check out the Wikipedia entry on Ronald Reagan in music.  Protests against Reagan didn’t have the same effect on the greater populace as the protests of the 1960s primarily because the 80s were a time of peace while the 60s were a time of war.  

Bill Clinton once looked back on the hippie movement of the 1960s, complete with civil rights actions and the liberation from prior roles and expectations and remarked that if you thought this was a good thing, you’re probably a democrat and if you thought this was a bad thing you’re probably a republican.   

Since Reagan, two Presidents Bush further emboldened the religious right and their racist peers.   Indeed, the power brokers in the so-called Bible Belt do their best to disenfranchise minorities and have been since the end of the civil war.  It’s just been a question of which political party they affiliate with.   

And now Donald Trump sits in the White House, his closest advisers not even hiding their racist, anti Semitic, neo-Nazi sentiments.   He may have his day, and he will do a fair bit of damage to the country.  But what emerges from the ashes may be stronger, kinder, and more humane than anything this great nation has ever known.   And maybe, in the process, the Republican Party will finally disavow the racist, sexist, theocratic notions to which they currently cling.   That’s my hope.  

The Johnson Amendment

Since 1954, it has officially been a law on the books that states that a church or nonprofit organization risks losing its tax exempt status if they openly campaign for or against particular political candidates.   This is one of the few laws that push back against what was the slow creep of religion into public policies in the 1950s.  After all, this was the time of the rise of Billy Graham, creating a national motto of “in god we trust“, and adding the phrase “under god” into the pledge of allegiance (one of my first entries on this blogging site talks about that point).  

The Johnson Amendment, so named because it was proposed and written by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, has been the bane of religious conservatives ever since.  They argue that having this law on the books somehow infringes on the freedom of speech of their pastors and have, for years, promoted what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday in open defiance of the law.  

Their arguments are ridiculous on their surface.  Freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to have a platform to speak as you wish and your desired audience is under no obligation to listen or take you seriously.  The Johnson Amendment is one of the few checks on the undeserved power already wielded by some churches on their gullible parishioners.   

And it’s quite toothless if you think about it.  A minister can’t stand in front of his church and make a sermon that says that “candidate A is against abortion while candidate B is for it, so you’re going to hell if you vote for candidate B.”  They can (and often do) make sermons talking about how evil abortion is and how god would send you straight to hell if you even think about taking the life of an innocent unborn baby…

I sometimes wonder how they reconcile this position against both Leviticus 27:6 and Numbers 3:15-16, both of which argue that someone isn’t even human until a month after they’re born.   I’ve got to admit that I’d love to see a candidate for political office use one or both of those bible verses when asked the question of “when does life begin?”

The Republican Party has long been allied with forces that seek to weaken, if not eliminate, the constitutional separation of church and state.  The constitution grants people the right to worship as they please.   They twist this right into claiming they have the freedom to impose their religious beliefs on others and then claim persecution when people push back.  

A few years ago in the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby vs Burwell, this argument went beyond the ridiculous when the court, expanding on a prior decision regarding corporate personhood, said that corporations can actually have their own religious beliefs and that those beliefs can be completely devoid of any factual basis or evidence because they had a “deeply held belief” that contraceptives are abortofascents and therefore shouldn’t be covered by employer insurance.   

The rational response to the Hobby Lobby ruling ought to be the repeal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and negotiating a constitutional amendment that specifies the limits of corporate personhood.  (As taxpayers, corporations should be treated like people. In other arenas of life, such as actually having a birth and a death, they shouldn’t…)

But the less-than-rational modern incarnation of the GOP is eager to eliminate the Johnson Amendment now that they have control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.   While I think this is a bad idea — the amendment needs strengthening, not eliminating — part of me wants to encourage it.  

A repeal would free up the liberal churches too, from the same restraints.  Imagine if Martin Luther King had done overt politicking from his pulpit?  Or Jesse Jackson?  For every baptist or Pentecostal church preaching about fire and brimstone for voting the wrong way, imagine an AME, Methodist, or UCC church preaching about love and voting the right way.

Imagine an imam or a rabbi sermonizing about how to improve the American political process by breaking the stranglehold Christianity has on contemporary discourse.  

And it gets even more interesting than that.  Remember that the Johnson amendment applies to all non-profits, not just churches.  What would happen if the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Planned Parenthood or any of the scores of scientific educational foundations started doing this?   I think the only conservative non-church nonprofit that could come close to this level of clout, would be the NRA.

So it’s a double-edged sword.  I most definitely do not want to see the Johnson Amendment repealed unless it’s replaced with something with more teeth.   But if it is, I look forward to creating a “be careful what you wish for” mentality in the evangelicals who so vehemently want to see it go away entirely.