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Monday, March 28, 2016

Islamic State, Christian Nation: Toleration as the solution

by John MacBeath Watkins

The "caliphate" of Islamic State appears, at this writing, to be collapsing. At the same time, there are people in the United States insisting that America is a Christian nation.

There are reasons that the founding fathers chose to write a constitution that bans any religious test for holding office, and in 1797 unanimously passed the Treaty of Tripoli, which states in article 11 that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

First, they had been ruled by Britain, which had a state religion, and decreed that only members of the
One result of an established church, the Guernsey Martyrs
Church of England could be officers in the military or hold public office. Many of those who settled this nation did so to practice religion as they saw fit, not as the government saw fit.

Second, the constitution and the Bill of Rights were written by men who admired John Locke, the most influential of the liberal theorists.

Locke is most famous for the Second Treatise of Government, which laid out his theory of the social contract. But another work laid out his thoughts on the relationship between church and state.
This was A Letter Concerning Toleration written originally in Latin to a Dutch intellectual named Philipp van Limborch, who thought so highly of it that he had it published. He did did so without Locke's knowledge or permission, embroiling Locke in a dispute with High Church members of the Anglican clergy.

They argued that the state has a right to force dissenters to reflect on the Anglican Church as the one true religion.

But wars were fought over which was the One True Faith. The 30-Years War depopulated parts of Europe as effectively as the Black Death had three centuries earlier.

Which is why, in his letter to Philipp van Limborch, Locke argued that:
It is not the diversity of opinions (which cannot be avoided), but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions (which might have been granted), that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world upon account of religion.
Further, he argued for separation of church and state. The argument rests, in part, on his definition of the role of civil authorities:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. 
Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.
Locke was not inclined to write briefly, and the argument has many parts, but the most important aspects were:

A) Religious wars are caused not by people believing different things, but by trying to make them all believe the same thing, and

B) You can compel people to act as if they believe in your religion, but you cannot compel them to actually believe, therefore they do not have faith that will save them, even if the state picks the right religion, and

C) When there is a state religion, the state intervenes in religion, and religion intervenes in the state. 

On the matter of religion intervening in the state:
What can be the meaning of their asserting that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms? It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the power of deposing kings, because they challenge the power of excommunication, as the peculiar right of their hierarchy.

On the state intervening in the church:
But, to speak the truth, we must acknowledge that the Church (if a convention of clergymen, making canons, must be called by that name) is for the most part more apt to be influenced by the Court than the Court by the Church. How the Church was under the vicissitude of orthodox and Arian emperors is very well known. Or if those things be too remote, our modern English history affords us fresh examples in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, how easily and smoothly the clergy changed their decrees, their articles of faith, their form of worship, everything according to the inclination of those kings and queens. Yet were those kings and queens of such different minds in point of religion, and enjoined thereupon such different things, that no man in his wits (I had almost said none but an atheist) will presume to say that any sincere and upright worshipper of God could, with a safe conscience, obey their several decrees.
The framers of the Constitution were, for the most part, admirers of Locke. They understood that to practice your own religion freely, you must be free of other peoples' religions. This is why the first amendment to the constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The boldfaced part is called the establishment clause. It means that the government cannot establish a religion, that is, make one religion the state religion. That is why a senate comprised of people who had been alive during the Revolutionary War and in many cases fought for America's freedom were happy to unanimously pass the Treaty of Tripoli, which as mentioned above, stated that  "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

What they knew, and many people apparently do not know now, is that one of the things that made America revolutionary was that the state did not dictate what religion would be approved and in some ways dictated by the state to the people. This meant that you could practice any religion you liked.

Events like the Marian Persecutions were still well known at that time, whereas most people no longer know about them.

Queen Mary I was Catholic, and came into power after the deaths of Henry VIII, who had founded the Church of England and seized the property of the Catholic Church, and his son, Edward VI, who had established the Protestant church. Mary made Catholicism the established church of England again, and started burning Protestants at the stake for heresy.

Mary had 283 people burned at the stake, ranging from Church of England Bishops, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, to working-class men and women who confessed to beliefs in conflict with Catholic doctrine.

For example Guillemine Gilbert and Perotine Massey, sisters living on the island of Guernsey, were arrested on suspicion of stealing a golden goblet. While they were found innocent of the theft, under interrogation, they admitted to beliefs that, while common among Protestants, were contrary to Catholic doctrine.

The women were sentenced to death for heresy. John Foxe (author of a book now usually called The Book of Christian Martyrs) recorded that Perotine Massey was "great with child," and that when she was burned at the stake,  "the belly of the woman burst asunder by the vehemence of the flame, the infant, being a fair man-child, fell into the fire"

Foxe was not there, and I do wonder if perhaps the baby was born in a more usual manner by a mother who must have been writhing in pain, but that's what the eyewitnesses said. They also said the child was rescued from the flame, but the bailiff had it thrown back into the fire. The Guernsey Martyrs had a great deal to do with the rise of Calvinism in the Channel Islands, and the diminishment of Catholicism in the same place.

Given that this could be the face of establishment of religion, the founders of the American nation wanted none of it. The problem is, once you say that yours is a "Christian nation," or for that matter, an "Islamic state." the apparatus of state force can be used to enforce someone's notion of what that religion consists of.  This is why Islamic State is killing people for being Shia Muslim rather than Sunni Muslim, and killing Yazidi men and enslaving Yazidi women for not being Muslim at all.

The logic is the same as applied to Bloody Mary's actions. The state does not serve the people, it and they serve God. Therefore, once you have a state-accepted religion, it is the duty of the state to punish unbelievers. No elections are needed, because the state serves God, and his earthly representatives can tell the people who God has appointed to rule them.

This also means that it is imperative for rulers to either be on good terms with God's representatives, or choose those representatives themselves. In killing the upper ranks of the Church of England, Mary I was choosing which of God's representatives should rule on her own legitimacy, and sending an unmistakable message to those who replaced them.

The people who founded America had no use for a system that could produce anything like the Guernsey Martyrs, or the many indignities short of that. They took Locke's advice and separated the state from religion, allowing the peaceful coexistence of different sorts of believers. There had, in colonial times, been individual colonies with established religions, sometimes leading followers of an entire faith to be disenfranchised. In 1718 Maryland, which had been founded by a Roman Catholic, passed a law depriving Catholics of the right to vote, reflecting in-migration of protestants, who had become a majority. Catholics did not regain the right to vote until 1776.

A Letter Concerning Toleration is not much studied today, but it should be. It contains the solution to religious strife, and the logic of the secular state, which are inseparable.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Trump as "This is Spinal Tap"

by John MacBeath Watkins

Donald J.Trump's name was on the podium, and a pre-teen dance troupe dressed in red, white, and blue uniforms was dancing around it, singing a song based on some of Trump's lines. That's when I realized that his campaign is the reality television version of a political This is Spinal Tap.

The mockumentary satirized the pretensions and wild behavior of the fictional band Spinal Tap, the dialogue largely ad-libbed by the actors. It also satirized the pretensions of rock documentaries.

Viewed in this light we can see Trump as a caricature of the narcissism common among politicians, even his hair a caricature of the efforts politicians expend to make themselves desirable to the voters. His act is so over the top, it is nearly impossible for those not seduced by it to take it seriously. And you want wild behavior? How about a candidate who encourages people at his rallies to beat up protesters?

This is Spinal Tap was wonderfully funny, and I suppose the comical policy proposals and preoccupation with the size of his hands would all seem hilarious if Trump was not an actual danger to the country and the fact that he's close to securing the nomination of a major party were not so frightening to our allies.

I suppose we can only wish this was a mocumentary, but in fact, it is beyond a joke.

http://fox2now.com/2016/01/14/trump-introduced-by-usa-freedom-kids-dancing-girl-trio/

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Trumpery and the Republican Civil War: Dog whistles and megaphones

by John MacBeath Watkins

Republicans are speaking in apocalyptic terms about the possibility that if Donald Trump secures the Republican nomination, it will be the end of the Republican Party. And we are now witnessing the unnerving spectacle of the party establishment doing everything it can to sabotage the frontrunner in its own primaries.

"The future of the GOP as we know it is in question," an article in the December issue of The National Review online states. The same article claims that the modern conservative movement started with the founding of The National Review in 1955.

The nature of Donald Trump's appeal was well expressed about 2,500 years ago by Plato in The Republic:
The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. . . . This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. . . . having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; . . . he brings them into court and murders them . . . at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands. . . . After a while he is driven out, but comes back, in spite of his enemies, a tyrant full grown.
Not, mind you, that we can expect Trump to shed the blood of his kinsmen. He has adopted the more harmless practice of dismissing them as losers, even including the party's last president and its last two nominees. Assassinating their reputations seems to be enough for him.

But he does present himself as the champion for America's Everyman. He tells his followers that they have been played for fools by the elites who have promised much and delivered little, that only he can make them great again.

But why is the Republican Party so certain he is a threat to the future of the Republican party? After all, they've been presenting themselves as the champions of working-class whites since at least 1968, when Republicans began pursuing the votes of hardhats who wanted to beat up hippies.

I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that Trumpery is behind the times -- opposition to immigration is about half what it was 20 years ago, and after the 2012 election, Republican insiders produced an "autopsy" that said Republicans need to do better among Hispanics if they hope to have a future.

There's some history that might bear on this. In 1994, California Republicans got behind Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to close off illegal aliens from using non-emergency health care, public schools, and other state services. Gov. Pete Wilson was a major champion of the initiative. Eventually, it was ruled unconstitutional in federal court, but not before it had caused an upsurge in Hispanic voter participation and a major reduction in the number of them supporting Republicans.

It seems that many Hispanics who are citizens, including many who were born here, not only knew people impacted by the law, but found themselves having to prove their citizenship while their white neighbors did not. The message that Republicans were associating themselves with prejudice against Hispanics was clear enough to prevent the party from capturing any statewide office in the last few elections. After all, many Hispanic voters remembered that they had been discriminated against in housing, education, and employment in California. Mendez v. Westminster School District, a 1947 California desegregation case, pioneered the reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal case in ending school segregation nation wide.

There's thinking in Republican circles that Trump's comments about Hispanics, such as claiming Mexico was sending murderers and rapists to our country, could lead to a defeat of historic proportions, including enough down-ballot races to even put the Republican hold on the House of Representatives in doubt.

But there is more to it than that. The National Review is a major organ (possibly the spleen) of the Republican Party. It is a guardian of the purity of conservative ideas, which is why it produced an entire issue of essays under the general title of "Against Trump."

You see, the Republican Party is a coalition of people with different interests. Racists recruited by Richard Nixon's Southern strategy are aligned with Catholics who oppose abortion, Evangelical Christian churches which did not oppose abortion in the 1960s now oppose it as they have become aligned with conservative Catholics in the culture wars, and rich people who want lower taxes and fewer unions finance the candidates they all want to see in office.

Trump is jettisoning some of the policies revered by the political donor class, such as attacking Social Security and Medicare. Those programs are used by, and needed by, the people who supply the votes.

And while the Republican establishment has been trying to move the party in a direction that will get them a larger share of Hispanic votes, Trump is moving them in something more like the Prop. 187 direction.

Republicans have been appealing to racial resentment since the 1960s. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, "I've lost the South for a generation." He was wrong, it's been a couple generation and the South is still lost. But about that time, Southern Democrats started switching to the Republican Party, a process that accelerated with Nixon's Southern strategy in 1968.

At this point, the Dixiecrat defections have depleted the Democratic Party in the South and fundamentally changed the character of the Republican Party, making it heavily dependent on the South.

Republicans usually appeal to racial resentment with "dog whistles" -- phrases that communicate to racists that you are on their side, while not being heard that way by others. "States rights," for example, has been such a phrase since before the Civil War. In the 1850s, it meant the right to continue to hold slaves. When George Wallace used the phrase in his run for the presidency in 1968, it meant the right to continue the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks.

When Ronald Reagan claimed allegiance to the concept of states' rights during the speech kicking off his 1980 campaign for president, context was everything. He gave the speech at the Neshoba County Fair grounds, a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. The message was unmistakable.

But Trump has abandoned the dog whistle for a megaphone. This puts the dirty little secret of the Republican Party out where everyone can see it. He is appealing far more directly to the prejudice of the voters, and that puts the party in danger of putting off the people who were not hearing the dog whistles.

When asked to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, and the KKK in general, he equivocated. Here are a couple lines from his interview with Jake Tapper:

Tapper, Feb. 28: I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League, which this week called on you to publicly condemn unequivocally the racism of former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who recently said that voting against you at this point would be treason to your heritage. Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election? 
Trump: Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.

And on the subject of the KKK, he said if Tapper would give him a list of groups, he would review them, but he didn't want to condemn a group without knowing more about it.

Perhaps Trump was forgetting that people can easily find comments he's made in the past. He knew who Duke was in 2000, when he condemned him. And it beggars belief that he didn't know anything about the white supremacist groups like the KKK.

Eventually he did condemn them, making excuses about a bad earpiece even though he clearly spoke Duke's name in response to the question. But where he violated the Republican playbook is, he appealed to racists without having plausible deniability about it.

It appears that one of the things the Republican Party finds distasteful about Trump is his transparency about exploiting racial animus.

He exploits racial divisions and xenophobia, just like the rest of the GOP field, but he does it crudely. His policy proposals are not credible, but neither are those of the other candidates for the Republican nomination. His sin there is that he has talked as if he were an economic populist (though is tax plan is just another giveaway to the rich.) In so doing, he's driving a wedge between the Republican donor class, who have supplied the money to power the GOP, and the white working class that has provided the votes.

The fact is, for a couple generations, the GOP has used the culture wars and racial animus to get working-class whites to provide the votes, while the donor class has set the economic agenda and reaped the economic benefits. The Republican establishment has hoped that could go on forever, but it won't.

Donald Trump is just a symptom of that.