Jul 30, 2012

The political expediency of 'culture war'

It's useful to remember, when "culture war" fights reach a fevered pitch, that these conflicts and controversies are stoked and perpetuated in large part by people who don't really care. 

It's politics. And political expediency. 

There are those who do care, of course, and who really are deeply concerned about religious colleges and hospitals, for example, being required to offer birth control as part of their health care plans. But there are just as many or maybe even more who seize on such issues without any convictions except political gain. As much as Republican leaders shouted about "religious liberty," it was fundamentally political "points" that motivated them, not fear of religious exercise being curtailed by a Health and Human Services mandate. 

This is clear in how the issue has been handled after it passed from the headlines. 

"But now, with the rule set to take effect Wednesday — part of the 'Obamacare' law the GOP hates so much — the fiery repeal rhetoric has fizzled. In fact, few on Capitol Hill are saying anything about it at all.

"And that House vote to block the rule? Never happened — and isn’t in the works either. A group of die-hards on the issue asked for it again in a closed-door meeting [last] Wednesday with House leadership but said no promises were made.

"Even Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), one of the most vocal critics of the rule and co-sponsor of a bill to eliminate it, has gone quiet now that the rule is about to kick in."
If one actually believed that this mandate is a violation of the free exercise of religion, this isn't how you'd respond. The actual actions of the representatives make it seem like this wasn't seen as a matter of defending the Constitution, but rather rhetoric and politics. The issue is a wedge, which might move some voters right, and motivate others to go to the polls.

There's no evidence, though, the Republican party as a party agrees with those suing the federal government over this birth control mandate that "after August 1, 2012, Plaintiffs will no longer have the right to make health care insurance decisions in line with their Catholic views," because on Wednesday the HHS rule "will go into effect and force Plaintiffs to pay, fund, contribute, or support artificial contraception, abortion, abortifacients or related education and counseling, in violation of their Constitutional rights and deeply held religious beliefs."

It's hard to see how the Republicans' very tactical response is anything other than a betrayal.

Not that there won't be congressmen and women across the country campaigning for re-election on the platform that something must be done on the issue they failed to do anything about.

Jul 28, 2012

Now I'm shifting the square / with the man from Arkansas
He took my rook, oh Lord / My king's about to fall

More Houndmouth

Porter Perkin's write-up: "When Jared told me to check out his cousin’s band, Houndmouth, I was skeptical. Jared’s from Indiana, after all."

Jul 27, 2012

Why do people still not know if Obama is a Christian?

Recent Pew poll results on perceptions of Romney's religion say pretty much exactly what one would expect. More people know he's Mormon than used to, but they're either OK with that or don't care. The poll found "unease with Romney’s religion has little impact on voting preferences."

The more interesting information, here, is that 51 percent of registered voters don't "Identify Obama as Christian."

This isn't because they think he's a Muslim, though. There are some who think he's Muslim, but the number that identify Obama with Islam has been pretty consistent and relatively small, upticking only slightly from 12 percent right before the 2008 election to 17 percent today. 

The big block of registered voters who don't say Obama is a Christian are not saying for sure what his faith is. They're saying they "don't know." Nearly a third say that they don't know, now, a number went as high was 41 percent in 2010. From the looks of the numbers, about 10 percent of voters have, over the course of Obama's first term, gone from thinking he's a Christian to not knowing if he's a Christian to thinking he's a Christian again -- all without ever saying he's Muslim.

It's possible to read this "don't know" as simply the safe version of saying he's Muslim. Some Republican officials have taken this stance of allowing doubt and encouraging distrust without actually saying anything directly. Like, "he says he's a Christian ... (but I don't know)," etc.

There's another way to read this question about Obama's Christianity, though, which has nothing to do with rumors he's a secret Muslim.

It's possible 31 percent of registered voters don't know if Obama's a Christian because they don't know if liberal Christianity is really Christianity.

Jul 25, 2012

Incarnation, in the context of demon possession

A fascinating thing about demonology and explanations of exorcisms is the way theology -- sometimes very abstract theology -- is re-cast in very different terms.
So, for example, an anonymous Catholic priest from the Midwest who participates in about three exorcisms a day talked to the Catholic News Agency about the incarnation, as thought about in the context of demon possession. CNA reports:
"The early Church Fathers, including St. Jerome and St. Augustine, speculated that these angels rebelled 'because of the revelation to them of God’s plan of incarnation' and their 'repulsion at the notion that God, who is pure spirit and infinite, should become a man.'
For this reason, the priest observed, they have a 'fascination with physicality' and 'making people suffer.'
'So once the rite begins, normally [the demon] starts to manifest himself in the suffering person different ways - violence, changing of the face, changing of the voice [so it] is different,' he said."
This means, according to the priest, 1) the demon is, from the demon's perspective, slumming; 2) the suffering person is suffering because of the incarnation; 3) suffering is inextricably linked to redemption.

This isn't so different than traditional Catholic theology of incarnation. But when those doctrines are illustrated with the image of a 13-year-old boy who falls down and starts growling in response to a priest's prayer, the context for the meaning of these ideas changes, and some aspects are more notable that they would be otherwise.

The idea that suffering is related to redemption, specifically, looks a lot different in this context:
"'These suffering people are becoming saints (by) the offering of their sacrifices' which God then receives and 'blesses large parts of the Church around the world.'

'When you remind the Devil of that it makes him furious,' because he knows he is losing and hence 'he wants to get what he can, while he can. If he can't win these peoples' souls, he wants to at least make their lives miserable.'"

Jul 24, 2012

When talk of 'religion in politics' goes in circles

In northwest Washington State, where my parents live, traffic engineers have spent the last decade or so implementing their ingenious solution to congested intersections: traffic circles.

Traffic circles, these "roundabouts," are so much better than four-way stops. More functional. More practical. They ease congestion and allow traffic to flow more smoothly. And yet: In practice, what you see is often people stuck driving around and around the roundabouts, stuck going in circles, not sure how to actually use this very useful things. Everyone just goes in circles, the whole region's traffic now a series of crazy merry-go-rounds without the music.

My fear and sometimes my frustration, in talking about "religion and politics," is that this very functional idea ends with everyone stuck going in circles.

I'd like to briefly offer two exits. That is: two different ways out of the circle. Two contradictory correctives to how we get stuck talking about religion and politics and religion in politics in the US.

Chuck Colson on Abraham Kuyper

Jul 23, 2012


Jul 20, 2012

Monologue at a Boston bookstore

Did you get my text?
My phone is about to die.
I thought I sent it to you, but it looked like it went to somebody else.
John Winthrop.
John Winthrop.
Remember him?
From the Winthrops.
You read that 38,000 page series on the Winthrops.
Well, I'm glad I didn't send you the text, then.
You would have been like, 'what is this?'

Jul 19, 2012

boston 080

Jul 18, 2012

Religious folk art painter passes

Greg Brown, who made Christian folk art in Indianapolis based on his interpretation of the kingdom of heaven parables in the synoptic gospels, who wrote a three-part pamphlet entitled "Secret of the Kingdom," and once exhibited his paintings in a show called "The Kingdom of Heaven is Like the Psychological Realm," died last week at the age of 62.

May he rest in peace.

Things to think about when interpreting religious statistics

If you study contemporary religion and are interested in religious trends in America, data is not a problem. There's a wealth of data. A surplus. Lots and lots of raw info, which one can only be grateful for.

The problem isn't numbers, but interpretations of numbers.

It could be a full time job, questioning and challenging and correcting interpretations of this data.

Part of this is just because so many of the interpretations are  political, and are essentially hack work. If your mission, in reading the numbers, is to show why your side is right and "winning," whatever winning means or is supposed to mean, you're going to be able to make the numbers say what you want them to say. But that will be a shallow and facile reading. Numbers aren't so simple as to just prove straightforwardly that a certain theology is the right theology, or to allow for easy extrapolations of truth beyond the brute fact of one number or another. Ultimately, it will involve implications you're not actually comfortable with, and will involve accepting premises which, as they say on cop shows, can and will be used against you. 

So be forewarned.

In that spirit, three things to think about when interpreting contemporary statistics for U.S. religious participation:

Jul 17, 2012

The fictitious history of the Episcopal Church

Conservative critiques of the Episcopal Church seem to have come up with a fictitious history of the church. It makes sense -- or enough sense -- on the level of critique, except that it's also always historical, and it's about how Episcopalians used to be but now have changed. And on that level it's very strange nonsense.

Ross Douthat, doing this:
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.
Russel Mead says the church's extreme irrelevance comes from the fact that it followed "the theological path of least resistance as it makes the transition from a church that once spoke to a nation to a sect in communion only with itself."

Philip Jenkins makes the same argument, essentially correlating the decline in church attendance to a change in the Episcopal Church's relationship to American culture. The church began, the implication goes, to just accommodate culture at some point, and then there wasn't any real difference between being in church or not, so what was the point? Thus the decline. Jenkins says what especially worries him, as an Episcopalian, is that the church leaders won't reverse this trend, but instead will be more accommodationist, adapting even more to "secular" "liberal" culture, instead of staking out an oppositional position that would legitimize the church's continued existence.

Except the Episcopal Church's "golden age" was actually more like the "gilded age."

The church's high-water mark came when it was most staunchly on the side of the status quo. Not when it was prophetically standing against the culture, but when it was, in large part, a club for powerful people and an endorser of proper opinion

Jul 16, 2012

Stievermann on transatlantic scholarship The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany, inaugurated. More info here.

Jul 13, 2012

Jul 10, 2012

One last song


Andrew Sullivan's anti-Mormon biogtry, ctd

Andrew Sullivan has -- kind of amazingly -- now discovered that Mormon theology of America is -- OH MY GOD! -- complicated.

A Sunday afternoon post, citing an actual news piece with actual scholars actually quoted: "it turns out Mormon patriotism has a more complex past than you might think."

Unless, of course, "you" thought about it.

Or, like, googled.

These scholars quoted in the piece, Kathleen Flake and Quin Monson, aren't exactly difficult to find. They're not hiding from the press. Flake has been on PBS. Monson on NPR. Both have been quoted in the Washington Post.

A few minutes of due diligence would have answered some of Sullivan's questions about the policy implications of Mormon beliefs about America's part in the divine plan, if those questions hadn't been just rhetorical cloaks for anti-Mormonism.

Besides, even the most rudimentary knowledge of Mormon history -- e.g., what happened to Joseph Smith, and why the Mormons ended up in Utah anyway -- would, if reflected on a little, show that Mormon patriotism is of course tempered by critiques of America.

This is how it is with "refined" and "classy" bigotry. The "scrim of rhetorical finesse" covers up sloppy, sloppy thinking, and stupid, stupid research.

And just as a general point, a good rule of thumb: theology is always complicated.

Jul 6, 2012

Marx explains German philosophical prose

"German literature, too, labored under the influence of the political excitement into which all Europe had been thrown by the events of 1830.... It became more and more the habit, particularly of the inferior sorts of literati, to make up for the want of cleverness in their productions, by political allusions which were sure to attract attention. Poetry, novels, reviews, the edrama, every literar production teemed with what was called 'tendency,' that is with more or less timid exhibitions of an anti-governmental spirit. In order to complete the confusion of ideas reigning after 1830 in Germany, with these elements of political opposition there were mixed up ill-digested university-recollections of German philosophy, and misunderstood gleanings from French Socialism, and particularly Saint-Simonism; and the clique of writers who expatiated upon this heterogeneous conglomerate of ideas, presumptuously called themselves 'Young Germans,' or 'the Modern School.' They have since repented their youthful sins, but not improved their style of writing.

Jul 4, 2012

The ambiguous economics of religious construction

Among the many economic indicators of America's lingering economic troubles, one of particular religious interest is TLRELCONS. That is: total religious construction, as measured in spending by the Department of Commerce. The latest numbers, crunched by the economic research team at the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis, show spending on religious construction fell off a cliff with the recession of 2008.

Just crashed.

And not by a little: Spending now is less than half what it was in 2006.

It's a "Bear Market in God."

But why? It's not at all clear what's causing this or driving this, or what's behind it. What are the conditions favorable or unfavorable to church, synagogue, temple or mosque construction?

Looking into the numbers, it becomes even less clear what's going on.

There are several curious things -- some unanswered and kind of perplexing questions -- about this sharp decline in religious construction spending.

Jul 1, 2012

a crocodile about to eat you at the / end

"Prosody is the articulation of the total sound of a poem"

It's got a kick in it   What a kicker   Mid-field   a 12 horse-power kicker
You got a kick?   Go tell it to City Hall

    It's as though you were hearing for the first time--who knows what a poem
ought to sound like?   until it's thar?   And how do you get it thar except as
you do--you, and nobody else (who's a poet?
a poem?
    It ain't dreamt until it walks   It talks   It spreads its green barrazza
    Listen closely, folks, this poem comes to you by benefit of its own Irish green
bazoo. You take it, from here.

    Think of what's possible--not what's new, but what it's all about   what
about it's   all   what all of a poem is. You think of it. You put down a word:
how do you put down the last word. How do you have the last word?
    Wow. Yes sir. The last word. What intervenes, is the simplest But--
    You wave the first word. And the whole thing follows. But--
    You follow it. With a dog at your heels, a crocodile about to eat you at the
end, and you with your pack on your back trying to catch a butterfly. 

-- Charles Olson, "A Foot is to Kick With."