With God on Our Side

Originally posted Wednesday, October 27, 2004:

I don’t agree with many things said by Patrick J. Buchanan; but twelve years ago, as Americans prepared to elect Bill Clinton as President, this most conservative of American observers made an observation that was exactly right. “As polarized as we have ever been,” he wrote, “we Americans are locked in a cultural war for the soul of our country.” It was true then, and it may be even truer as we turn the corner and head into this election week.

The President makes no apologies for his born-again Christian beliefs, and social conservatives claim God on their side as they do battle with the forces of secular society.

I believe that people of faith have every right to bring their faith into the marketplace of civic ideas. I’m one of them. And yet, few trends terrify me more than the idea of involving religion in government.

We have seen in the past twenty years the harm done to emerging and progressive societies by ayatollahs and mullahs. Some triumphal Christians suggest that these excesses are unique to Muslim fundamentalism; nothing could be further from the truth. At the heart of these excesses are clearly identifiable habits of mind: the tendency to view life in absolutes; the assumption of infallible wisdom that comes from on high; the refusal to seek common ground; and the damning of opposition as heretical, immoral, or godless.

Religion is the subtext of our nation’s political life. America’s religious right is fond of saying that America was founded as a Christian country. Actually, we’re a good deal more conflicted than that. Clearly, most of our early settlers were Christian, as were the countries from which they came. Many of them came to this country in search of religious freedom, and then, once established in their respective colonies, started denying it to anyone who didn’t share their precise set of religious convictions. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the first amendment leads off the Bill of Rights by guaranteeing freedom of religion; nor should we be surprised that states and cities all over the country enacted blue laws that limit what can be done on the Sabbath.

Buchanan despaired of every reaching any common ground in the Cultural War; but in a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks point out that there is still a center in American politics. I’m trying to find it. Here are some thoughts.

First, seek humility and avoid arrogance. Catholics last week heard Luke’s story of the pharisee who prays a self-congratulatory prayer thanking God that he is not like other men. The religious right are the Pharisees of our time.

Second, use honest language and avoid distortion. Nobody favors abortion itself. If a candidate’s position is that all human life is sacred, that the death penalty should be abolished, that the nation should wage war only in self-defense, and that abortion is homicide, then that candidate can claim to be pro-life. Neither of the candidates for President is pro-life. Neither the religious right nor the Bush campaign is pro-life; they’re simply against abortion rights. It’s correct to say that Kerry’s campaign favors abortion rights; it’s inflammatory to charge that it favors abortion itself.

Third, use religious authority responsibly. Isaiah (40:13) asks, “Who has known the mind of God?” Eleven of America’s 400 Catholic bishops believe they do, and have stated that they would deny Communion to Catholics who support Kerry’s candidacy. They make a mockery of our religion and the dignity of their position. Regrettably, the secular press has exaggerated that minority position so that it sounds like a groundswell.

Fourth, don’t claim exclusive use of labels. I’m tired of Christians who appropriate that label only for their own interpretation of Christianity. And within Catholicism, we have our own faction that does the same thing with the label “Catholic.” If you want a religious label that you control, start your own church.

Fifth, respect differences. The fact that you think Harry Potter is satanic doesn’t mean you have the right to prevent other children from reading it. The fact that you want your children to believe that babies come from Wal-Mart doesn’t mean you have the right to deny comprehensive sex education to the children of others.

Sixth, get the facts straight. As I noted in a previous blog, public education in America started in a Puritan colony as a way to make sure than children could read the Bible and be protected from“that old deluder, Satan.” It has evolved into a nonsectarian educational system in which children can pray but not be compelled to pray and can study religious texts in literature classes but not in science classes. Some of them pray pretty regularly, but they do so on their own initiative and not because the school directs them to. The same Bill of Rights that keeps public schools from leading prayer bars them from preventing it. Yet I see all sorts of articles saying that “children can’t pray in public schools.”

I can’t support President Bush because he, and the people around him, have succeeded in turning faith into a political vice. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their beliefs; what I oppose is their excesses. The broad middle of American belief needs to reject the religious right, and one way to do that is by electing John Kerry.

Hinckley buzzards

Originally posted Tuesday, October 26, 2004:

I have been sending these articles to a rather diverse group living all over the country, and so
far I’ve dealt only with national matters. However, it’s probably time to deal with some Ohio issues. The rest of you can take a break if you like.

Here in northeastern Ohio, we have a wonderful natural phenomenon that never fails to bring out the TV crews. Every year on the 15th of March, turkey vultures–buzzards–return to the Hinckley reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. Buzzards are ugly birds, so we shouldn’t be surprised that, while a pretty song was written about the swallows’ annual return to San Juan Capistrano later in March, nobody writes songs about buzzard love.

The TV crews are fond of saying that it’s a mystery why the buzzards come back every year; but it’s not hard to figure out. They come back to Ohio every year because what buzzards do is to circle high in the sky above things that are dying; and Ohio is on life support. Experts differ on what started our decline, but there’s pretty good consensus on the status quo.

1) Ohio’s population is getting poorer, older, and dumber. Incomes declined between 1990 and 2000, and our young people–particularly those with college educations–leave the state in record numbers. Since 2000, the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs made matters worse. The population left behind is more likely to need medical care, prisons, and welfare.

2) Everybody agrees that part of the solution is better education, but nobody seems to have a clue how to achieve it. With our richest school systems spending about a dollar for every quarter available to our poorest schools, the state has a serious equity problem. Since 1992, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled four times in the DeRolph v. State of Ohio case that Ohio’s school funding system is unconstitutional. Last year, in their final DeRolph ruling, they said that it was still unconstitutional, told the legislature to fix it–and then threw up their hands and gave up jurisdiction over the case.

3) The major target of DeRolph is a school system that depends on local property taxes to raise the major part of school district funds. In its rulings, the Court directed the General assembly to find a way to fund public schools that ended the dependency on local property taxes; today, school funding is as dependent on property taxes as ever. In the November 2 election, 44% of Ohio’s school districts have at least one tax issue before the voters; fifteen have more than one. Speaking of education-funding inequities, author Jonathan Kozol recently said, “Ohio is, perhaps, the most shameful example in the nation. The entire system is archaic, undemocratic and ultimately unfixable.”

4) Most honest observers acknowledge that in order to improve the system, additional funding must be found. But all observers–honest or not–remember that the way Democrats became the minority party in Ohio was by raising taxes. So if you listen carefully, the background noise of Ohio politics is the waffling of politicians of both parties as they try to say, without sounding silly, that they’ll somehow find new money without actually raising it.

5) Meanwhile, Ohio provides more tax dollars for nonpublic schools than any other state in the nation. Those tax dollars fund vouchers for Cleveland students and a wide variety of charter schools, including for-profit charters and online charter schools in which the students never actually meet their teachers.

6) So far, I’ve been talking about Ohio’s K-12 school systems; our support for higher education is far worse. Studies generally indicate that Ohio’s funding of its public colleges and universities is ranks 49th among the states. Our percentage of college graduates is among the lowest of industrialized states, and compared with other states, we make it more expensive for our citizens to get degrees.

7) Ohio needs to reform its business tax system: Ohio’s tax structure is archaic, unfair, complicated, and counterproductive. According to a recent series in The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, businesses frequently choose not to locate in Ohio because our business taxes are among the highest in the country. To hear the business lobby tell it, they can’t make a nickel, our highways are paved with silver, and our schools made of marble. They aren’t, of course, because legislators and businesses have enacted a thicket of exceptions: if a company hires the right tax lawyers, it can pay no business taxes at all. The net result is that Ohio businesses typically pay about average taxes, but they have to go through all sorts of corporate contortions to take advantages of the various loopholes that have been built in to the system. What a deal: businesses hate us, and we still get mediocre revenue.

8) Even for people of great good will, finding a solution to such complicated problems would take tremendous legislative skill. Ohio’s legislators generally don’t have it. One reason is that in 1992, Republican leaders persuaded voters to impose term limits on legislators. Legislators in Ohio can’t hold their jobs longer than eight years, so they’re constantly jockeying for new positions and their turnover rate is incredible. More important, they aren’t on the job long enough to learn complicated subjects like school finance or business tax law. Generally they just give up and either wait for the next political job or get ready to leave politics and go back to their careers.

9) If it’s possible, things are made even worse by a group of right-wingers whom even mainstream Republicans call the Caveman Caucus. While the state’s economy circles the drain, this group pushes for creationism in the public schools, concealed weapons carry, a “defense of marriage act,” and (as if that weren’t enough) a constitutional amendment (Issue 1) that, if passed, will make it illegal for any public employer to offer benefits to unmarried couples.

10) The net result is that progressive businesses that have a chance of locating anywhere see a state with unfair business taxes, a troubled educational system, a shrinking supply of educated workers, regressive laws, and a neanderthal legislature, and locate elsewhere. The businesses that remain consist disproportionately of the ones you don’t want to have.

11) Ohio’s only hope is the wholesale replacement of its elected officials. The only force powerful enough to make that happen is the rage of an aroused electorate. I do see some signs of increasing public alarm, but things may have to get significantly worse before they’ll get better. Since the Republicans have essentially owned the state for the past fifteen years, the simplest way to register outrage is to vote Democratic on all the downticket contests.

Ohio’s legislators and governor have a lot of issues to work on, but only one–education–has the potential to lift the state out of its quagmire. They evidently aren’t motivated to improve the situation. One solution would be to elect a Supreme Court that would enforce its previous rulings. I’m starting by voting for C. Ellen Connally for Chief Justice, since incumbent Thomas Moyer voted against all four DeRolph rulings. I’ll vote to re-elect Justice Paul E. Peiffer, a DeRolph supporter who is running unopposed. I’ll pick William O’Neill to replace Terrence O’Donnell and Nancy Fuerst over Judith Lanzinger.

Ohio is a wonderful place to live, with an incredibly diverse population, a proud history, breathtaking scenery, valuable natural resources, and a terrific location. But if we don’t work out some very serious problems, we may have to remind the last Ohioan leaving to turn out the lights.

Scopes Monkey Trial

Originally posted Monday, October 25, 2004:As a youngster, I was impressed by the motion picture Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the 1925 “Monkey Trial” in which the state of Tennessee charged high school biology teacher John Scopes with illegally teaching the doctrine of evolution.

Later, when I was a high school teacher myself, I screened the stage play for possible production and saw another school’s production of the play. It’s a terrific story, which probably explains why it’s been remade for TV three times. For me, it’s always been a little more than just a story, perhaps because academic freedom and the intersection of faith and science are topics that mean a lot to me.

Although there have always been questions about the specific mechanisms of natural selection, I don’t remember ever hearing any serious question about the general validity of the theory of evolution: not in school, not in church, nowhere. From kindergarten through graduate school, I attended nothing but Catholic schools; but Catholicism isn’t a fundamentalist religion, and in 1998, even John Paul II–generally thought of as a fairly conservative Pope–made it clear to any who were still in doubt that the Catholic church does not oppose evolution as an explanation of God’s mechanism for creation.

And so for years, I thought of the play as a period piece, reflecting a quaint period in our history before society had reached a consensus about the theory of evolution.

Imagine my shock when, a few years back, and seventy years after the Scopes trial, some fundamentalist Christians began campaigning for the removal of evolution from science curriculum–not in some Bible Belt bastion of fundamentalist Christianity, but here in Ohio, which likes to think of itself as a diverse and progressive state. Their mechanism, here and in other places, is a theory called “intelligent design,” which argues that creation is so complex it must have required a Supreme Being to pull it off. Since they’ve been unsuccessful in getting evolution removed from science curriculum, the idea is to introduce intelligent design, or “creation science,” into the curriculum and to insist that it receive equal time.

As a religious doctrine, intelligent design isn’t a problem. Thomas Aquinas used a similar argument as one of his proofs for the existence of God; but he was a theologian, not a scientist. Creationists tout intelligent design as a scientific theory, which it clearly is not. And while the Biblical creation account is read in many public school literature classes, the creationists’ goal is to have it taught in science classes, where it clearly doesn’t belong.

Here in Ohio, creationists have tried to mask their specious theory as an academic-freedom issue. They argue that some people, including some teachers, believe the theory to be true; therefore, those teachers should be free to teach creationism. This is a distortion of the term “academic freedom.” There are relatively few things that we teach in schools on which there is absolute unanimity of thought; teachers can acknowledge the existence of minority theories, but they’re obligated to teach the best that our present state of knowledge says. Teaching every crackpot theory as if it were established fact isn’t academic freedom, it’s academic malpractice.

Even now, in 2004, there are people who argue that the holocaust didn’t happen; are we to teach in our history classes that there is serious doubt about the holocaust? A few people believe that Neil Armstrong’s 1969 lunar landing was a faked media event; are we to teach in our science classes that there is serious doubt about that landing? And of course, there are all sorts of people who believe that women are inferior to men or that blacks are inferior to whites; should we shoehorn their views into the curriculum as well? What’s next–flat Earth theory? Alchemy?

So, what’s the relevance of this question to the current Presidential campaign? First, according to an article on CNN’s Web site covering the Republican primary campaigns back in 1999, then-Governor George W. Bush believed that both evolution and creationism are valid educational subjects for science classes. “He believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught,” a spokeswoman said.

The truly scary thing about President Bush’s belief on evolution is that it is just one example of his Presidency’s tenuous grasp on reality. We went to war in Iraq not because of what the intelligence actually said, but because of what the administration’s idealogues wanted the intelligence to say. We went to war prematurely because some of his advisors insisted on jumping in with a leaner force which proved inadequate to winning the peace (ignoring the Powell Doctrine, which calls for amassing overwhelming force). Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Vice President Cheney continues to profess belief in the presence of WMD in Iraq and a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

The administration’s denials of reality and scientific evidence don’t end with Iraq. The U.S. refuses to sign the Global Warming Treaty because the administration doubts the scientific evidence of global warming. Embryonic stem-cell research goes to other countries because the administration is convinced, against virtually all scientific testimony, that it’s not necessary. The administration pushes an education agenda based on statistics from the Houston School System, later found to have been distorted by then-Superintendent (now Secretary of Education) Rod Paige.

The President of the United States has access to more intelligence sources and more experts than any other person in the world. He has a responsibility to make sure that all that information is considered honestly. Congress can mitigate a President’s potential legislative mistakes; but no Congress can make a President evaluate evidence responsibly if he chooses not to.

The evidence is that the President believes whatever he wants and ignores evidence to the contrary. In a friend or family member, that would be eccentric and faintly amusing; in the President, it’s dangerous.