Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Re: ‘Bristling with Hostility’

My recent post “What War on Christmas?” brings to mind other discussions that I’ve had regarding religious issues and what I see as severe intellectual dishonesty by those arguing that the Christian religion is unduly disadvantaged in the United States.  One such discussion is an exchange that I had with Phil Dillon on his conservative blog Fires Along the Tallgrass (formerly Another Man’s Meat) back in 2007.

Reprinting a post of his from the previous year, “Bristling with Hostility,” Phil wrote of his dismay that the Chief Judge of the Iowa Circuit Court, Robert Pratt, made a ruling against Prison Fellowship Ministries, a religious group that worked to convert inmates in Iowa prisons to Evangelical Christianity as a means of reforming them from their criminal ways.  Prison Fellowship received public tax moneys to fund their evangelizing.  This government subsidy of sectarian religion was challenged in court by the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (A.U.).  Judge Pratt ruled in A.U.’s favor, saying that Prison Fellowship’s brand of religion was a sectarian one whose evangelizing of inmates ought not to be publicly underwritten.  

Phil blogged about this case in an effort to make Prison Fellowship look persecuted.  For one thing, in describing the case, Phil never once mentioned the inciting issue of Prison Fellowship receiving tax dollars.  Phil made it sound as though what was on trial was Prison Fellowship’s very existence, and that Judge Pratt’s ruling in the case was against the ministry itself, rather than its eligibility to receive tax moneys.  As Phil wrote, mischaracterizing the judge’s ruling: “The net effect of the ruling was to declare Prison Fellowship’s faith[-]based ministry unconstitutional.”  Phil continued:

Judge Pratt’s primary rationale for the ruling was that: 

“The program was ‘pervasively sectarian,’ requiring participants to attend worship services, weekly revivals and religious community meetings. Participating inmates also were ordered to ‘engage in daily religious devotional practice.’ 

Barry Lynn, American’s [sic] United for Separation of Church and State’s executive director, couldn’t contain his joy over the rendered decision: 

“There is no way to interpret this decision as anything but a body blow to so-called faith-based initiatives.” 

The decision, if upheld, will have a major impact, there’s no doubt about it. For example, out [sic] nation’s prison recidivism rate is, according to Prison Fellowship’s president Mark Early, currently running at fifty percent. With 600,000 inmates being released from prison annually, it means that we can count on 300,000 doing something within three years to merit re-incarceration. The recidivism rate among those inmates who have worked their way through Prison Fellowship’s program is, while it’s still functioning, running at eight to eleven percent. The potential of that number is enormous. Think of it. Prison Fellowship’s number, applied to the current release rate, could mean that thousands fewer former prisoners would find their way back into the prison system. It could also mean that thousands and thousands fewer Americans might become victims of crime. 
And this is the kind of decision that Barry Lynn is hailing! Apparently, higher recidivism was a much more favorable outcome in his mind than excoriating a fellow Christian. Its anti-faith bias is much in keeping with the 2000 Santa Fe School Board vs. Doe decision that brought [a] withering dissent from Chief Justice William Rehnquist....

This prompted a series of responses from me.  Below, I have reprinted the entirety of my responses to Phil’s post, occasionally quoting Phil himself.  Because I don’t want to infringe on his copyright, for the complete texts of what Phil has written, please see his original posts.


Phil’s post ... is very disingenuous.  It never once mentions the reason for the trial in the first place: tax funding of a religious organization.  The entire tone of the post gives the impression that a religion itself was on trial.  That is clearly not the case.  The trial was about whether American tax dollars should go to a religious organization that advocates one sectarian view to the exclusion of others.  Judge Pratt wisely answered no.  Phil is spinning this decision into legal and cultural “hostility” toward a religious belief, when it is obviously no such thing.

The issue isn’t which religions are “normative” and which aren’t [as Phil said].  The issue is government funding for sectarian religion — something that the First Amendment prohibits.

Judge Pratt was not characterizing Evangelical Christianity the way he did in order to stigmatize it [which is Phil’s opinion].  He was merely specifying the differences between that version of Christianity and others in order to counter the argument that Prison Fellowship was non-denominational.  Judge Pratt found that Prison Fellowship was indeed denominational and thus ineligible for tax funding.

I am a member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (A.U.), although I am not writing on behalf of that organization.  As such, I question [Prison Fellowship’s] prison recidivism rates that Phil quotes.  In his book Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, A.U. executive director the Rev. Barry Lynn mentions Prison Fellowship:

“In 2003 the group Prison Fellowship, run by ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson, released a study indicating that prison inmates who had gone through his InnerChange program in Texas, which is steeped in fundamentalism, had a lower rate of recidivism, returning to prison less often than members of a control group.

“The media eagerly picked up on the study and reported it as a great success for [President George W. Bush’s] faith-based initiatives. But it wasn’t all that. The study simply did not hold up under scrutiny. Two months after it was released in June of 2003, Mark A.R. Kleiman, University of California-Los Angeles professor of public policy, debunked it. Kleiman noted that Prison Fellowship started out with 177 inmates. Along the way, 102 of them were kicked out of the group or left for various reasons. That left InnerChange with only success stories.

“When Kleiman added all 177 inmates back into the study, he found that InnerChange inmates actually did slightly worse on recidivism than the control group. Observed Kleiman in 
Slate magazine, ‘That result ought to discourage InnerChange’s advocates, but it doesn’t because they have just ignored the failure of the failures and focused on the success of the successes’” (pages 126-27).

Some religious activists have adopted a kind of victim mentality. Religion is alive and well in the United States, but some activists apparently feel that if the government doesn’t specifically endorse their belief system — and only their particular belief system — something is wrong.  So, activists have spun governmental neutrality toward religion into governmental hostility toward religion.  They constantly use the phrase “religion in the public square” when what they really mean is tax money in support of Christian sectarianism.  I’m tired of this intellectual dishonesty.


“IK [sic] understand what the rationale was. I understand the need to ensure that government doesn’t endorse one type of religion over another. My point was that in this case Evangelicals were being singled out, not on the issue of taxes, but based on system of belief.

“In pointing out Justice Rhenquist's opinion in the Santa Fe case I was identifying the same tone of hostility in the case against Prison Fellowship.” —Phil Dillon

And I don’t see the hostility.  To be frank, I think that you are trying to create “hostility” where none exists.  Why don’t you mention the instigating issue of taxes even once during your original post?  After all, it was Prison Fellowship’s eligibility or ineligibility to receive tax dollars — not the ministry itself — that was on trial.  Moreover, the outcome of the trial did not say that Prison Fellowship should be penalized while other religions should be funded.  This is something that your original post doesn’t acknowledge, and to my eyes, not acknowledging such a central subject smacks of willfully ignoring it in order to misrepresent the legal case.

Your original post goes on to say: “The net effect of the ruling was to declare Prison Fellowship’s faith-based ministry unconstitutional.”  This is absolutely untrue.  What was declared unconstitutional was the ministry’s ability to accept tax dollars and continue its sectarian religious practices in the name of public service.  No legal punishment was meted out to the ministry itself.  (And I do not regard the denial of federal funds to a religious institution as punishment.) 

“I’ve done volunteer work in the prison system and every one I’ve been in has chapel programs paid for by the state or federal government. I've seen Muslim gatherings, traditional protestant gatherings, etc.  Do you object to these programs as well?  Are you saying that they should be dismantled and that we have no religious influence in the prison system at all?"  —Phil

No, I am not saying that.  But why can’t those sectarian gatherings be paid for by private funds, not tax dollars?  And I would see nothing wrong with a publicly financed prison accommodating a privately financed religious service. 

Also, I would hope that any prison system would not show preferential treatment to one religion or denomination over another, such as giving an inmate a greater opportunity for parole if he attended one religious gathering but not another.  In his book Piety and Politics, the Rev. Lynn says that the Prison Fellowship program in Texas was riddled with perks for the inmates who took part, perks denied to those inmates who didn’t (p. 128).  The government should not be in the business of funding religious favoritism. 

“Are you assuming that since, as you say, I’m being intellectually dishonest, that my religious belief is also intellectually dishonest and out of the mainstream represented by Americans United?  Would that then mean that I have no public standing?” —Phil

I honestly don’t see your reasoning here.  Anyone has the right to hold any religious belief that they choose — as long as that belief isn’t unreasonably imposed upon others — however “illogical” that belief might be.  However, anytime that anyone makes an argument on issues that involve the secular — such as public tax funding for sectarian religions or the standing of religions in the broader society — the person making the argument has the obligation to represent their case as honestly and completely as they can. 

For example, if you make the argument that America must militarily invade another country because its dictator is going to attack us at any moment using weapons of mass destruction, but you rely solely on dubious intelligence while intentionally disregarding sound evidence that doesn’t support your position, that is not an honest argument. 

You, Phil, do the same thing when you ignore — willfully, it seems to me — the crucial issue of taxes in your original post.  You appear to do this in an attempt to portray Judge Pratt’s decision against Prison Fellowship’s eligibility for tax funding as a decision that somehow penalizes Evangelical Christianity itself, when the decision clearly does no such thing.  So, your characterizations of the decision as “hostile” and “anti-faith” don’t hold up. 

In my opinion, if you want to argue that certain forms of Christianity are disadvantaged in this society, you owe your readers a better argument, one that doesn’t misrepresent Prison Fellowship’s legal case or the judge’s decision.  As it stands, your argument seems intent on portraying Evangelical Christianity as a kind of victim, when, as the Rev. Lynn says, that sect actually enjoyed many privileges under Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.” 

I hope that I haven’t sounded rude or disrespectful in my post. But this issue of intellectual dishonesty can really irritate me.  While there is some of it among liberals, I think that it is especially pervasive in conservative circles, ranging from the need to go to war with Iraq to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys for “performance-related” reasons to many of the arguments made by conservative pundits.  I’d respect their discussions more if they weren’t based on false premises.  But too many of them are.  I’m sick and tired of it.


I believe you and I may be closer in thought than you think.  My primary interest is in getting results…. Where we differ is in how the difference in a life is made." —Phil

The Rev. Lynn articulates the problem that I have with faith-based prison reform better than I could myself:

“We could sum up the conflict between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist views as this: Fundamentalists reject societal causes for people’s ills.  In fact, they often ridicule the very idea.  To fundamentalists, people are poor, addicted to drugs, or homeless because they aren’t in a proper relationship with God.  If they get right with God (by adopting fundamentalist religious beliefs) their problems will be solved.  It’s that simple.

“Thus, any faith-based initiative that leans heavily on fundamentalist Christian providers will end up, by default, including government funding and support of specific religious views.  Fundamentalists do not believe that providing for someone’s physical needs is enough.  There must always be a religious conversion as well or the job remains half done.  The conversion is their end goal.  The providing of a bowl of soup, a bed on a cold night, or a job-counseling program is merely the attractive bait to bring the person to the door.  Once inside, it’s hard-sell evangelism all the way.

“Not surprisingly, I have several problems with this approach.  To begin with, I am appalled by any theology that does not recognize the societal causes of poverty and other ills.  All too often people fall through the social safety net from no fault of their own.  A woman with children who is abandoned by her husband and left destitute has a bigger problem than having chosen to attend the wrong house of worship.  A child who is neglected because his parents are drug addicts is not being punished by God for failing to pray enough.

“Fundamentalists are free to believe such simplistic notions, but I resent having to pay for them” (Piety and Politics, p. 124).

"Beyond the issue of taxes, the tone of Judge Pratt's decision was clear to me.  First, because it showed an alarming misunderstanding of Evangelicals and Pentecostals (myself).  Second, I'm at a loss to think of why he would have made statements that singled out Evangelicals as being anti-sacramental (which is not true), suspicious of other religious institutions, etc, etc."  —Phil

If Judge Pratt showed a misunderstanding, I fail to see how it is an “alarming” one.  I don’t see any judgemental tone in his writing.  You may take issue with his understanding of particular denominational practices, but I don’t see his decision as pronouncing Evangelical Christianity, in your words, “egregiously out of the mainstream of current Christian thought.”  I merely see him dispassionately listing what he determines are the particularities of Evangelical Christian beliefs that separate it from the practices of other denominations.  Judge Pratt simply concluded that by following the particular practices of Evangelical Christianity, Prison Fellowship was a denominational ministry — not a non-denominational one [as Prison Fellowship claimed] — and therefore ineligible for government funding.  Is that so difficult to understand?

I suppose that is our disagreement: You see Judge Pratt’s characterization of Evangelical Christianity as condemnatory, and I don’t.  In fact, I have read and re-read his words, and I am hard-pressed to discern any judgemental language in what you have quoted. 

“Why wasn't it enough for him to say that it was in his opinion sectarian and leave it at that?” —Phil

Because that would have left his decision more easily open to challenge.  Judges need to be thorough.  If Judge Pratt simply asserted that Prison Fellowship was sectarian and left it at that — or offered only a couple of examples — his decision could have more readily been challenged as arbitrary or lacking in specifics.

Maybe you see more similarities between Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism that the judge does, but you have to admit that Evangelical Christians practice their faith differently than most other Christian denominations do. ...

"Judicial opinions are often based on precedents and it seems to me that in this case Judge Pratt was not only ruling on the tax merits, but also paving future ground to disqualify Evangelicals in this country's courts." —Phil

And I just do not see how one follows the other.  I do not see anything in Judge Pratt’s language that portends anything about the legal standing of Evangelicals, other than their standing in regards to tax money.  I don’t see this decision as a precedent concerning religion and other (non-tax) issues. 

"I've been unable to find the 2003 study on Prison Fellowship you cited. Can you get me a link to the source material and Professor Kleiman's analysis? I'd like to read the transcript and then the professor's analysis." —Phil

I’m not sure about the rest, but you can find Professor Kleiman’s Slate article here:


I don’t mean this as a personal attack, but I need to reiterate my concerns about the original post:

First, I think it was very disingenuous to write about Judge Pratt’s Prison Fellowship decision without ever once mentioning the inciting issue of tax money.  It’s like writing a book report about Moby-Dick without ever once mentioning the white whale.  By excluding the motivating issue of tax funding, it was easy to misrepresent the entire Prison Fellowship ministry — the organization itself — as being what was on trial, rather than its eligibility or ineligibility to receive public moneys.

In misrepresenting Prison Fellowship’s court case this way, the original post misleadingly portrayed certain forms of Christianity — if not religion as a whole — as unduly put-upon in this society.  This follows what I see as a certain persecution complex among some religious activists.  They feel, it seems to me, that if the U.S. government (in a massive misreading of the First Amendment) does not recognize their version of Christianity as this country’s official faith — including the ability of that faith to receive tax money — they are being discriminated against.

Where I see governmental neutrality toward religion, they see hostility. I submit that there is no hostility. Religious hostility in America is in the mind’s eye of the religious activist.

*          *          *

In the end, Phil and I couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds: Phil saw Judge Pratt’s ruling as hostile toward Evangelical Christianity itself, while I saw the decision as merely disqualifying one proselytizing sectarian Evangelical Christian organization from public financing.  So, we agreed to drop the issue and move on.  I probably didn’t express myself as temperately as I would have liked — as I acknowledge during my discussion — and I wonder if expressing myself better would have brought Phil and myself closer to a mutual understanding.  Still, the intellectual dishonesty that I see in Phil Dillon claiming “hostility” in this particular legal ruling against a religious organization’s ability to be funded via tax dollars is similar to the intellectual dishonesty of other Christians claiming that there is a “war” on Christmas, when the religious holiday is really only losing a privileged place in society.  But losing a status of favor is not the same thing as persecution.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

‘Island of Lost Souls’: Anna May Wong as the Panther Woman?

Although horror movies from the 1930s were the first kind of film that I really got into as a kid, my enthusiasm for them hasn’t withstood the test of time.  Today, they seem rather awkward, overblown, and unintentionally laughable.  Also, I’ve grown a little skeptical of a genre based on the idea that we must fear something, rather than understand it.  However, a few ’30s horror films still hold up. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is one.  For different reasons, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is another.  If I were to name a third, it would be Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), based on the 1896 H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Island of Lost Souls spins the speculative story of one of literature’s prototypical mad scientists, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), on a remote island in the Pacific, transforming wild animals into humans, or each feral beast’s approximation of a human, through the dexterity of his scalpel.  By the time the story begins, Moreau’s isolated island is overrun with half-witted half-man/half-animal creations, which the surgeon, desperate to shield himself from the public eye, tenuously keeps in check with his bullwhip.  Complications arise when a seafarer (Richard Arlen) washes up on the shores of Moreau’s outpost.  The doctor tests his anthropomorphic abilities by introducing his most perfectly realized creation — Lota (Kathleen Burke), an apparently flawlessly formed woman whom he surgically shaped from a panther — to the castaway.  The film queasily implies that Moreau wants to test his transformative abilities by seeing if the human-like animal Lota can mate with the unsuspecting human newcomer, an occurrence which seems promising when Lota falls in love with him.  

Richard Arlen, Charles Laughton, and Kathleen Burke
in ‘Island of Lost Souls’

I like Island of Lost Souls, despite a few drawbacks, not the least of which, as others have noted, is the stilted central performance of Arlen as the square-jawed matinee-idol hero.  Also awkward is the staginess of some scenes, such as the Arlen character’s woodenly choreographed fistfight with a ship’s captain.  But none of this puts off the viewer because Island of Lost Souls seems to revel in its contrivance.  At first, the film’s decor looks a little too artificial, especially to eyes raised on shot-on-location, and everything else about the film, from its plot to its execution, looks equally contrived.  So, it’s hard to take the movie’s far-fetched premise at face value.  But gradually, the eerie artifice evokes a menacing mood that validates the story’s unsettling theme — where does the human end and the beast begin? — with an unnerving credibility.  Furthermore, Laughton as Dr. Moreau throws himself into the goings-on with such magnetic brio that he makes the bizarre twists in the story utterly engrossing and believable.  Is it possible for an actor to be understated and over the top at the same time?  And this mood of danger is enhanced by Karl Struss’s chiaroscuro cinematography.

Dr. Moreau orders one of his creations to do his bidding.

But I wanted to say something about Island of Lost Souls that many will, I’m sure, find absolutely irrelevant: I wish that the role of Lota, the Panther Woman, had been played by Anna May Wong.  No disrespect intended to any Kathleen Burke fans out there, but the Panther Woman would be a fun role in which to see the underutilized Chinese American star, who actually did some work for the film’s studio, Paramount, at the time.  Anna May Wong champions are probably shaking their heads in dismay at my suggestion.  Some exotic, saronged plaything for a leading man, they might say, is not the best kind of role for our Anna.  And they may be right. Still, AMW played worse roles. I’d rather see her claw the scenery as the Panther Woman than see her throw herself into the role of Fu Manchu’s female offspring in Daughter of the Dragon (1931).

Anna May Wong

At any rate, my comment is neither here nor there.  It would have been impractical for Paramount to have cast AMW in Island of Lost Souls, even if the studio had her under contract at the time (I’m not sure if it did, but it may have).  If Paramount had indeed cast Wong, the kiss between Arlen’s character and the Panther Woman would have had to go: kissing between the races was not allowed by the Production Code in the 1930s.

Kathleen Burke (left) and Anna May Wong

Also, AMW in the cast would have brought to the surface something buried within the story: Dr. Moreau’s creatures as stand-ins for the non-white races.  Island of Lost Souls is a thinly veiled cautionary tale about what might happen if minorities ever rose against the white whip-wielders of Western society. In this respect, the hero’s flirtation with the Panther Woman doesn’t so much evoke beastiality, as it does miscegenation — and several influential people in those pre-civil-rights days saw little difference between the two.  By casting the white actress Burke in the role, Paramount was able to keep this theme out of the viewer’s face and in the back of his mind.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how it might have looked to see Anna May Wong’s incandescent face and reed-thin arms atop the Panther Woman’s sarong.  I can’t help but wonder how she might have given the role more grace and gravity.  I also can’t help thinking about all of the other Anna May Wong movies that never came to be.  (Ironically, she did star in an unrelated 1939 movie with a similar title: Island of Lost Men, a revamped remake of the 1933 movie White Woman, another Laughton vehicle.)

Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman

Anyhow, don’t let my what-ifs ward you away.  If you watch only a handful of 1930s horror movies in your life, make sure that one of them is Island of Lost Souls.

Trailer for ‘Island of Lost Souls’

Originally printed at Amazon.com in 2005

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What War on Christmas?

I wasn’t going to post anything about the conservatives’ trumped-up “war on Christmas,” but after constantly seeing posts and links to articles about this alleged incursion by my conservative friends on Facebook, I changed my mind.  I don’t really have anything new to add to this fabricated controversy, but I’d just like to go on record saying that the so-called war on Christmas is bogus and a fraud, and I’m tired of hearing about it.

The kernel of this supposed war — I hesitate to call it a controversy, because I only see one side saying that a controversy exists — has to do with not using U.S. public schools as bastions of religious proselytizing.  Before the civil-rights era, public schools would often start off the day with a teacher-led prayer, often explicitly Christian, and sometimes requiring Jewish and other non-Christian students to stand outside the classroom door if they didn’t want to participate.  Since then, the government, which includes the public-school system, has officially recognized that it shouldn’t be in the religion business.  This recognition has led to some controversies regarding what should be considered an appropriate acknowledgement of faith in the classroom and what should be considered a case of the government endorsing a religion or belief system. 

Of course, the predominant religion among U.S. citizens is Christianity, and for quite some time, Christianity — as the majority-held faith — has enjoyed a rather privileged status in U.S. society.  The most conspicuous example of this is the national holiday of Christmas, which (as we all know) had its origins as a religious observance.  But as America becomes a more diverse country, more and more Americans are realizing that not all of their neighbors are Judeo-Christian or celebrate Christmas.  And since Christmas is only one week before New Year’s Day, it’s safer to the sensitivities of non-Christians, and more inclusive, to say “Happy Holidays.”  This is especially true for businesses that don’t want to estrange any of their non-Christian customers.  However, many (most?) Americans still say “Merry Christmas,” a greeting usually met with a warm response. 

Still, many Christian conservatives like the semi-sanctioned favoritism that the government bestows on their religion and want to preserve this preferential treatment.  Because of this, they want everyone to know, in no uncertain terms, that the U.S. is celebrating a specifically Christian holiday every December 25th, and they see any secularization of the holiday season as an attack on Christianity itself.  But what is actually happening is that Christianity is not as privileged as it used to be, and Christians are mistaking this lessening of privilege as persecution.

One of the best-known diatribes against the desanctification of Christmas comes from commentator Ben Stein.  Stein is Jewish but also a great advocate of the way Christmas is celebrated in the U.S.  He originally made some statements about the secularization of the holiday in 2005 on a CBS news program, but his words have since gone viral over the Internet.  Part of his presentation went as follows:

I do not like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Stein’s argument strikes me as disingenuous on several fronts.  He talks about Jews, Christians, and believers in God in general being “pushed around.”  This is a very vague phrase that seems to mix together the suffering of Jews — a truly persecuted people in the history of the West — with the loss of Christian advantage, but the two aren’t the same.  We all know how Jews in the West have often suffered at the hands of the Christian majority: the ghettoizing, the banishments, the forced conversions, the pogroms, and its ultimate manifestation in the Holocaust.  I certainly don’t see anything analogous to these when favoring the greeting “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.”

Stein also conflates atheism, not believing in any gods, with secularism, existing outside the purview of religion.  The U.S. is indeed not “an explicitly atheist country,” but it does have a secular government that has no business promoting religion. The whole idea of a secular government is that it won’t advocate any faith.  If Christians one day find themselves living in a United States where Christianity is no longer the religion of the majority, they wouldn’t want the dominant faith shoved down their throats via the government.  The same holds true for minority religionists living in a Christian-majority U.S. today.  Stein’s vague and deceptive wording alienates me from the rest of his argument, however valid his other points may (or may not) be.

A cartoon publicized by the Christian organization the Colson Center:
If anyone in public education knows of an actual case where a student
was sent to the principal’s office for saying the word ‘Christmas,’
I want to know about it.

Of course, Stein isn’t the only one to confuse, via faulty reasoning, a loss of privilege with persecution.  Former prosecutor Alan Sears has written an essay that sees the secularization of Christmas as — you guessed it — an attack on Christianity itself: “More and more, in America, the question of whether it’s okay to say ‘Merry Christmas’ is becoming, for many, but a cover for the real question: ‘Is it okay to believe in Jesus Christ?’” And like Stein, Sears offers unclear arguments to make his far-fetched point. 

Saying that Jesus of Nazareth was “the greatest teacher and philosopher the world has ever known,” someone who ought to be appreciated even by people who aren’t Christian (thus making him worthy of a national holiday), Sears writes: “[T]o what aspects of Jesus’ character and teachings — brotherly love, personal sacrifice, self-denial, kindness, generosity, concern for the poor, courage in the face of death, etc. — do groups like the American Civil Liberties Union so vigorously object?  If they “object” to anything, civil libertarians object to Jesus’ teaching “No one comes to [God] except through me” (John 14:6) when used in a context that could imply U.S. governmental endorsement of that belief.  That is a teaching of Jesus that (unlike kindness, generosity, etc.) not everyone agrees with, and the government ought not to imply that they should.

Sears also writes:

Mention Muhammad or Hare Krishna [sic] or Buddha or Gandhi in a classroom, and no one starts calling up lawyers. Carve a quote from any of them on the courthouse wall, and civil libertarians will sing of your tolerance and nod in sage approval. No one uses their name in a curse, or shudders to think someone might really believe what they taught.

However, the civil libertarians I know would object to words from Muhammad, Krishna, and Buddha being carved on a courthouse wall just as much as any passage from the Bible.  (Gandhi, on the other hand, is not a religious figure in the sense that the others are, and his inclusion in Sears’s list is bewildering.)  The government ought not to endorse Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism any more than it should endorse Judeo-Christianity.  So, what Sears says isn’t true.

But the holiday of Christmas isn’t in danger of going away anytime soon.  From everything I see, it will be celebrated from year to year for the foreseeable future and beyond.  What is, however, being lost is Christianity’s — or at the very least, monotheism’s — special status as something like a semi-official religion of the United States.  And, at the risk of repeating myself once more, a loss of privilege, by itself, isn’t the same thing as persecution.

The bottom line is that the U.S. government, even in the form of the public-school system, should not be used for Christian proselytizing.  However, to many Christians — because they believe that accepting Jesus’ divinity is required for any soul to escape perdition — proselytizing is the best thing that anyone can do, and they see no problem using the government as an agent of religious conversion and propagation.  Furthermore, because many of them also believe that government is a “mere” human construct that their God transcends, the idea that government should not be used for religious conversion is not as important as their religion itself, which they see as the one true faith.  

Sometimes, one tries to appeal to them via Jesus’ Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and say that just as they would not want a non-Christian government proselytizing them, they should not want a Christian government to proselytize non-Christians.  But to be anecdotal, one response that conservative Christians have to this appeal is that, according to Jesus, the Golden Rule is not as important as the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37).  Therefore, they say, converting someone to the Christian faith is more important than treating others as oneself.  Also, it’s virtually impossible for them to conceive of a United States where Christianity is not the majority religion.  And besides, many of them believe that the world as we know it will come to an end before the U.S. would ever have another dominant faith.  In other words, to them, there is no such thing as secularism because everything “falls under the purview” of their religion.  So, appeals of this kind to some conservative Christians tend to fall on deaf ears.

Given this absolutist mindset among some conservative Christians, expect tocsins of Christian persecution to be sounded anytime an instance of the loss of Christian privilege occurs.  Expect the cries of a “war on Christmas” to continue until Doomsday.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What If the Clinton Surplus Survived?

What if this thing happened?  What if that thing happened?  What if this other thing happened?

Asking hypothetical questions can be fun, entertaining, and good exercise for the brain.  However, most “what if?” questions are ultimately unanswerable because we don’t fully know what secondary elements may have changed along with the first, perhaps further altering the landscape in unpredictable ways.  “What if World War II hadn’t happened?” is an obvious example: the causes and effects and changes brought about by that war were/are so far-reaching, that the present-day planet is utterly unimaginable without them.  So, I acknowledge that hypothetical questions can never really be answered.

However, that doesn’t stop me from asking one every now and then.  One that I have recently asked myself is: What if the U.S. government hadn’t given away the 1990s budget surplus via tax cuts and thereby created the deficit? 

The federal budget deficit at the end of Fiscal Year 20013 is $680 billion, $409 billion less than the year before, but still quite considerable.  Democratic President Bill Clinton left the White House in early 2001 with a $127 billion projected budget surplus.  At the end of Republican President George W. Bush’s first full fiscal year, 2002, the federal budget was running a $159 billion deficit.  By the time Bush left the White House, the Congressional Budget Office projected a $1.2 trillion deficit, major chunks of which were caused by his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, military expenditures for Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unfunded mandate of Medicare Part D (all enacted with the aid of a Republican-controlled Congress).  We were told that Bush’s tax cuts would shift the economy into warp speed, but instead, the Bush years ended up being, in the words of the Washington Post, “the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades.”

What if the budget money hadn’t been spent like that?  Would we still be having the kinds of political discussions that we’re having today? I ask myself these pointless questions when I follow the economic news coming out of Washington, D.C.

Quick digression: I’m tired of right-wingers saying that there was no Clinton surplus.  When conservatives argue this, what they’re doing is mixing together the national debt and the federal budget, which are two different things.  The national debt is the total amount of money owed by the federal government, while the federal budget is the cost of programs, services, and obligations run by the government for a given year.  No economist realistically expects the national debt ever to go away entirely.  But when you talk about surpluses and deficits in this context, you are talking about the federal budget, which can indeed run surpluses when the government receives more revenue money in a given year than it spends that year, and some of that money can even be used to pay down the national debt.  So, yes, conservatives, when discussing the federal budget, there was indeed a Clinton surplus.  And I’ll bet that if a budget surplus had appeared during the administration of a Republican president, conservatives wouldn’t be withholding credit to that chief executive by conflating the budget and the debt.  End of digression.

The issue of the U.S. budget deficit has become a constant in the political news media — mostly because it’s a favorite topic of the Republicans in Congress, who keep harping on it.  Another reason: the Baby Boom generation is starting to reach retirement age, placing major pressures on Social Security and Medicare to handle such a large swell of the U.S. population, pressures that a large budget deficit seems unlikely to accommodate.  One proposed remedy for this deficit, because Republicans are loath to raise taxes, is to reduce benefits to Social Security, such as via a “chained CPI.”  So, the current economic debate centers upon diminishing (or if you like, slashing) the social safety net in order to appease the deficit hawks.

However, while the deficit is indeed a long-term problem, it’s manageable in the short run and needn’t dictate immediate economic policies.  Of course, the economic debate that we ought to be having is how best to create more jobs, decrease unemployment, and get the economy humming again — not how to lower the deficit as fast as we can.  So, it’s a tribute (albeit a cynical one) to the Republican Party’s political acumen that they have deflected the country’s economic discourse from jobs to deficits.  However, to most Republicans, cutting taxes and lowering the deficit is indeed a jobs program.  If you just cut taxes on the “job creators,” the argument goes, these employers will redirect every penny that they save on taxes into new jobs and thereby reduce unemployment.  But there’s not much evidence to back up this belief. 

What I’ve read says that the “job creators” will most likely save (sit on) their money, thus not creating any jobs, unless those employers see a rise in demand for their product/service among consumers, and consumer demand hasn’t been as demanding as the economists would like.  Non-conservatives say that the best way to stimulate demand is to put more money directly into the pockets of middle-class consumers — via government programs and projects, for example — so that these purchasers have cash to spend on necessities, which, in turn, puts more money into the pocket of folks selling those necessities, which those folks spend on their necessities, and so on ad infinitum.  But for that to happen, the government would likely need to either raise taxes or increase the deficit, neither of which Republicans will allow. 

Biden says “Great Recession” when he should be saying “deficit,”
but otherwise, the quote is spot-on.

Furthermore, economist Paul Krugman says that the Republican fixation on reducing both taxes and the monetary shortfall isn’t as much about lowering the deficit as it is about the GOP trying to radically shrink the size of government.  According to Krugman, Republicans in Congress believe that if they can starve the government of revenues, it will be forced to jettison some of its offices and functions (preferably, to Republicans, those dealing with the oversight of businesses).  That’s why congressional Republicans won’t countenance raising adequate taxes or revenues: they don’t want a U.S. government as large as it is today to be able to pay for itself.  So, as long as we have a Republican Party that is dedicated more to shrinking the size of government than to shrinking the unemployment numbers, we’re not going to get any legislation that tackles joblessness in any meaningful way.

Anyway, hearing these debates (or, as I think of them, quarrels) about economic policy in Washington makes me wistfully wonder what would have happened if the stars had aligned after the Clinton years to give us an American economy that could indeed handle the impending demands placed on Social Security and Medicare by the retiring Baby Boomers.  And Clinton’s mantra as he left office was to use the surplus to “save Social Security first.”  Of course that bit of advice was ignored: Bush gave away the surplus via tax cuts and pushed for the privatization of Social Security.  If the surplus money were still there, think of the worries that our country would likely be spared.

What are the chances of a surplus still being in government coffers if the Bush tax cuts hadn’t been enacted?  But in order for the Bush tax cuts not to have come about, another president would have needed to be in the White House at the time, and that hypothetical situation brings with it a whole slew of variables.  For instance, what if the U.S. had a president in 2001 who took the CIA brief “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” more seriously?  What if, under different leadership, we had a national security system that had been able to detect and arrest the 9/11 hijackers before they boarded their planes?  Or, failing that, what if the necessary Afghanistan invasion had been undertaken without the distraction of an unnecessary foray into Iraq?  In that case, we probably wouldn’t have needed to spend as much money on military operations, which also made up a big chunk of the deficit.  How much money would we have saved then?

Of course, if the budget surplus had survived after the year 2001, the money would have ebbed and flowed along with the country’s economic fortunes.  The Clinton surplus was due to several factors, many of them beyond the President’s control.  Perhaps the biggest contributor was the dot-com boom, whose lucrative new technologies, coupled with Clinton’s tax policies, provided a big boost for the treasury.  But the “dot-com boom” is also known as the “dot-com bubble” because it burst by the end of the Clinton Administration.  So, that stream of revenue wouldn’t be flowing as briskly today.  But perhaps, under different leadership, the government might have funded new technologies that would have made up for the diminishment of dot-com revenues.

Furthermore, I think it’s likely that the financial crisis of 2008, which led to the Great Recession, would have happened anyway, regardless of what party controlled the White House.  Many on the right say that the cause of the recession was due to the government-run Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac following a misguided mandate to extend mortgages to low- and moderate-income borrowers with an uncertain chance of repaying their loans.  But New York Times columnist Joe Nocera calls blaming the financial crisis on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “the big lie.”  The true cause of the crisis was the steady weakening of the Glass-Steagall Act (officially known as the Banking Act of 1933) that prohibited commercial banks from engaging in the riskier speculative activities of so-called securities firms.  Judges and politicians began chipping away at the pertinent provisions of Glass-Steagall in the 1970s, culminating in legislation signed by Clinton in 1999 repealing them altogether, thus allowing the banks to gamble more recklessly with their depositors’ money. 

Would having a surplus in the treasury have enabled the U.S. to cope with the 2008 economic crisis better?  I’m not sure.  Even if there had been a different president in office at the time, given current political realities, s/he would have probably been too beholden to the financial industry to rein in the banks’ risky practices.  If we had managed to save the Clinton surplus until 2008, I think that it would have been greatly diminished — or disappeared altogether — because of needing to deal with the effects of legislation signed by Clinton himself. 

But what if, under a different president, the effects of the financial crisis had been offset by other economic policies? 

Yes, these kinds of hypothetical questions lead to falling down interminable rabbit holes: the variables vary too unpredictably.  However, considering these questions drives home an important fact: the deficit that congressional Republicans decry is of their own making.  And it takes a great deal of chutzpah for them to say that the deficit they created is forcing the government to cut programs that — by the sheerest coincidence — the deficit creators don’t like.  Republicans clearly engineered our current unenviable economic predicament, and I don’t trust their budget-cuts-only solutions.  As many Democrats have said, we can’t cut our way to prosperity (and to those who think we can, I would say that there is a difference between prosperity — in other words, a thriving economy — and merely cutting the deficit).  Republicans keep saying that we can’t afford to keep Social Security funded at its current levels.  Maybe what we really can’t afford are more Republican economic policies.

Friday, December 6, 2013