Thursday, December 14, 2017

Will organized religion 'take ownership' of the President?

Thoughts on this book:

The main learning I took away from Stephen Mansfield's Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him (Baker Books, 2017) was the personal influence of Norman Vincent Peale over Donald Trump as a young man. Apart from this biographical detail, I struggled with complex reactions to this book. It didn't hit the nail on the head but neither did it have fatal flaws.

Mansfield appears to tread a fine line between heavily criticizing President Trump for transparently ridiculous behavior that cannot but be criticized and yet grasping for biographical details — if only, perhaps, in the interest of fairness or charity — that make Trump seem like a heavyweight who can coherently assume, if not deserve, the mantle of the President of the United States. Most readers will probably feel that the author goes too far in one direction or the other in its opposition or support for the President. Mansfield acknowledges says the book he's written is "dangerous" (at least for its publisher) because it "critiques a sitting president" yet also "takes [the president] seriously" when he is deeply unpopular. This nebulous idea of taking the president seriously makes the book a little maddening or bewildering. What exactly does it mean to take Trump seriously? He is a wealthy celebrity who has made high-stakes business transactions throughout his life and got elected president. He has a biography similar to others who grew up in a wealthy family. He has psychology and motivations that, like any other human's, can be examined, analyzed, and interpreted. In that regard, the book takes him seriously. But I am not certain that the book — which doesn't mention global climate change or the North Korean nuclear tensions — fully and directly engages the extent of the influence the president has on others and the lasting damage he can do to the nation and the world.

On a related point, the author does not directly reveal his own religious and political beliefs. (At his most explicitly theological, he writes of "the good that courageous voices of faith can do. If they will set themselves to tell the truth, if they will remember that they are emissaries from another land, they can remind leaders — who are too often mired in the temporal — of higher purposes and surer boundaries. They have the power to fix vision upon the eternal.") What peeks through occasionally is a form of political moderateness that rings either a bit insincere or underinformed. For example, on “the all-important issue of race,” he says that the president has delivered “at least racially inappropriate if not outright racist statements on many an occasion.” If one really believes the issue is all-important, the president's well-documented outright racism should be easy to call out. "Inappropriate" is far too mild a word, unless one believes that racial justice and race relations are mostly about being well-mannered (and thus not genuinely all-important). For another example, the author describes the record of Barack Obama on LGBT rights and the position of Hillary Clinton on abortion rights as “extreme.” It is hard to tell if that is his personal view or if he is reflecting how he thinks many religious people perceive them. But, again, if you really believe in LGBT rights and abortion rights, defending them is not "extreme." Trying to toe some kind of moderate line in these contexts doesn't work very well, especially if you don't attempt to explain what your view is and exactly why you believe it to be fair and good despite its avoidance of the "extremes" of nondiscrimination and liberation movements. Mushing around the topic results in a kind of diplomacy that, while trying to be polite and reassuring, achieves the opposite. This undefined moderate stance, perhaps attempting to represent neutrality, does not help the reader understand the author's view and therefore it muddies his moral portrait of the president because it is hard to understand exactly where his points of disagreement are.

The analysis ends at events that happened shortly after the January 2017 inauguration, but the book was not released until Oct. 3. The details of Trump's tumultuous first year in office could not have been anticipated, so Mansfield does not address how bad the presidency really is, and therefore the book will strike many readers as a little tone-deaf. For example, the problem of the president's persistent falsehoods is ever more serious and means something different as he approaches a year in office. The Washington Post counted "1,628 false or misleading claims" through mid-November. We are no longer mainly interested in evaluating his character to know whether to vote for him or to predict how he will govern; we are (or should be) interested in how the government is now being run and how foreign relations are being conducted. We have passed the point where his character flaws are impacting people's lives and causing lasting damage.

True, the purpose of the book is only incidentally, and not primarily, to do the three things discussed in the previous paragraphs — respectfully and seriously assess the president as a full human being who has lived over 70 years on Earth, project one's own moral beliefs to judge how he handles his current role, or concretely assess from a historian's viewpoint what he has accomplished since his inauguration — but rather to explain, as its subtitle announces, "why Christian conservatives supported him" in the election. This it does in a general sense. The answer provided is: Because they were angry and Trump's personality appealed to them. The book is far more about Trump than it is about the Christians who supported him. For a sociological study of those Christians, I recommend The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones, released four months before the 2016 election, a book that Mansfield unfortunately doesn't reference.

Trump's Character

First, this is a man who "has lived the life of a celebrated hedonist."

He developed a "juvenile" obsession with the size of the crowds who came to see him. "When he spoke at Liberty University in 2016, his first words had to do with breaking an attendance record. He was in a church service at the time."

He avoids taking expert advice. As a result, his wife Melania's inaugural speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama's eight years earlier. Melania's interesting life story was "worthy of a great speech" and there was no reason for her to "borrow from the one person on the planet from whom she most needed to distinguish herself". Mansfield believes this was an accident due to incompetence, and he attributes it to Donald Trump's reliance on advice and assistance from a disordered family team where "[n]o one was put in charge." A professional speechwriter would never have made such a sophomoric error.

He also likes to fight. At school, he threw things and needed constant attention. He has asserted that his own "temperament" hasn't changed much since first grade. In second grade, he disagreed with a lesson and gave his teacher a black eye. In business, he said that "most people aren’t worthy of respect” and in Think Big he wrote, "You need to screw them back fifteen times harder...go for the jugular, attack them in spades!" At his campaign rallies, he incited violence.

Americans note his "almost complete lack of the character that is usually the fruit of sincere religion." Americans expect that a president's character is fixed by the time he or she is elected, unlike the Pope whose ordination transforms him, and, when considering Trump, a "deeply imperfect man" with apparent "deformities" and "oddities," the thought of him remaining the same "can be a disturbing experience."

Influence of Norman Vincent Peale

The famous religious leader Norman Vincent Peale was Trump's greatest personal mentor during formative years, and in return Peale called Trump his "greatest student of all time." Even though this faith "largely failed him [Trump] as both a public and a private man," he returned to these roots in the 2016 campaign, revealing "a softening in religious matters". The nature of this softening is not clearly identified.

Peale was one of the earliest promoters of "the power of positive thinking" as demonstrated in his book of the same title. "Peale believed, for example, that 'attitudes are more important than facts,'” Mansfield writes. If "true religion" is defined as the "ultimate concern" that passionately animates a person's thoughts, words, and actions (as Paul Tillich proposed), then Trump's true religion is “self,” “winning,” “being rich,” and “being the best.” This is inspired by Peale, who showed him "a religion of empowerment, not of transformation." Mansfield sees limitation in this approach. As he explains it, adding what seems to be his own theological commentary: "Trump took from this that it is God’s will to carry him further in the direction he was already going. He did not understand from his time under Peale’s ministry that God empowers a man only after he remakes him."

(For a similar take on Peale's influence, see this short video featuring Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps.)

Ignorance of religion

Speaking to pollster Frank Luntz, Trump was unable to name anyone in the Bible he admired, and, when asked for his personal beliefs about God, "he spoke at length about buying a golf course." Asked by a radio host to name a favorite Bible verse or story, he babbled and the only thing he could come up with was "an eye for an eye." He said he'd never asked God for forgiveness and was unable to say whether he preferred the Old or New Testament. To Fox News, he identified himself as "Presbyterian" but "also busy." In church, where he said he went mainly for Christmas and Easter, he seemed not to recognize a communion plate. Addressing Liberty University, he showed off his baptism photo and certificate but had no personal conversion story. Moreover, Mansfield believes, the students saw that Trump's vengeful attitude in business and past marital difficulties did not align with their idea of Christianity and they had hoped to see "'fruit,' evidence of a life changed by conversion and modeled on the message of Jesus Christ." "It was, in short, the worst presentation of religion by a presidential candidate in recent memory," Mansfield opined.

Yet Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, in 2012 called Trump “the greatest visionary of our time.” This seems key to understand. Why was he elevating Trump, if Trump was so ignorant of religion? What did he hope to get? Mansfield addresses this.

Why religious conservatives wanted Trump

First, they

"were traumatized by the Obama years and fearful a second Clinton presidency would mean more of the same. They would back anyone who could win. They would take a nonbeliever. They would accept a candidate of doubtful morality. They were even willing to risk racial and gender offense on the part of their candidate. They could not endure more years of bombardment from a religious left intent upon remaking the nation."

Exactly how they thought liberals in power would "remake the nation," and why that was more exhausting or existentially more threatening to them than ordinary policy disagreements, is not made clear in this book.

They were angry — that much is made clear. They had a sense of being

"sidelined by history and feared their country as they knew it was slipping away. They wanted change, at nearly any cost, and they looked beyond more experienced candidates to set their hopes upon the sharp-tongued, hard-hitting, angry-as-they-were billionaire from New York. He won them by promising to give their country back to them and to win a future for their children. They believed him, largely because he spoke of faith like a crusader, like one who understood religion as a perpetual call to arms."

In 2016, voters wanted the angry candidate. They asked themselves: "Who best gave voice to our political rage? Who best channeled the anger that kept us up at night? Who was the standard-bearer of our wrath?" When they saw Trump, they felt "they would take him, flaws and all, if he would help them take their nation back."

Donald Trump publicly announced early on in the campaign that he felt he could do better with religious people than Hillary Clinton could. Mansfield wonders why Clinton did not pay closer attention to this and act on it. After all, she "possessed a deeper religious history and wider religious knowledge, and was more articulate in expressing her faith than her opponent" yet she managed to "neglect" those voters. Her choice to give her first speech after receiving the Democratic nomination at a Planned Parenthood event may have been principled, but it wasn't savvy.

Religious people were attracted to how Trump "speaks publicly in the same way that millions of Americans do around kitchen tables, at bars, and among their closest friends. Crass, insulting, bullying, sometimes ill-informed, always opinionated, usually prejudiced, Donald Trump is very much the private voice of millions of Americans." Mansfield continued: "When Trump declared at the 2016 GOP convention, 'I am your voice,' he meant it mainly in an economic sense. Yet he may have inadvertently stated a broader truth. He is a supercharged version of what America has become." This is well put, but it's not obvious what it has to do with religion. Plenty of people are ill-informed and have reason to be angry. Religion, in its most noble self-declared intentions, is supposed to do battle with the ego and replace it with humility and patience. Are white Christians angrier than everyone else? Why? And why do they think, more than anyone else, that Trump is the answer?

(One possible answer I found: Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, wrote in May 2017 that today's American Protestant evangelical "religious not born of traditional, innocent faith" but is rather "intellectualized" and "highly politicized". They are suffering from "an alienating hyper-commercial culture" that breeds "emotional insecurity." Evangelical support for Trump is transactional; what they seek is "community and identity".)

Moreover, Mansfield omits the early sexual harassment accusations against Trump and other politicians. The most he says is that Trump's "treatment of women was sometimes obscene" including occasional "disparaging" or "raunchy terms" for them. It seems he is mincing words out of a sense of propriety. The president has said worse things about women than Mansfield is willing to print. This is a book about voters, so everyone is over 18, and we need to address our adult issues head-on. If we can't call out big issues like this, then it is hard to figure out why people voted the way they did in the past; if we can't say what should be done differently in the future, then it is hard to know why we care why anyone voted the way they did in the past. Sexual morality used to be a matter of concern for religious voters. Now something has changed. Sexual harassment and the changing response to it has become part of the zeitgeist, such that the many women who reported harassment were named Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2017. We need to understand the religious conservative response — or, more accurately, the lack thereof — to abusive behavior by men in the Republican Party. Why is it tolerated? Why don't such accusations hurt candidates at all today? (Marie Griffith recently called it an "extreme politicization of Christianity" and said that evangelicalism "has become so focused on power.")

Trump does like being gently challenged by people he trusts, and so the "reticence to urge him toward a broader faith and deeper character was unfortunate...The religious leaders who surrounded him in the 2016 campaign might have been just such teammates, had they been willing to take the risk of calling him to a more vibrant Christian faith."

Ed Simon wrote on Dec. 31, 2017 of the large majority of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and Moore that it is human nature to resist or abandon the demanding ”countercultural” commitment of Christianity and to betray the faith "for thirty pieces of silver." The irony he sees is that, since the evangelicalism of Reagan’s time, "many apocalyptic minded conservative Christians made a sort of prophetic parlor game out of conjecturing who the potential anti-Christ could be. Figures from Hal Lindsey, to Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and Jerry Falwell often fingered world leaders or liberal politicians as being in league with Satan. An irony since if the anti-Christ is supposed to be a manipulative, powerful, smooth-talking demagogue with the ability to sever people from their most deeply held beliefs who would be a better candidate than the seemingly indestructible Trump?" Simon does not wish to identify a "literal ant-Christ" but worries that so many Christians "seem to lack the self-awareness to identify something so anti-Christian in Trump himself. Or worse yet, they certainly recognize it, but don’t care."

Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic July/August 2020:
The three most important members of Trump’s Cabinet—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General William Barr—are all profoundly shaped by Vichyite apocalyptic thinking. All three are clever enough to understand what Trumpism really means, that it has nothing to do with God or faith, that it is self-serving, greedy, and unpatriotic. Nevertheless, a former member of the administration (one of the few who did decide to resign) told me that both Pence and Pompeo “have convinced themselves that they are in a biblical moment.” All of the things they care about—outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, and (though this is never said out loud) maintaining a white majority in America—are under threat. Time is growing short. They believe that “we are approaching the Rapture, and this is a moment of deep religious significance.” Barr, in a speech at Notre Dame, has also described his belief that “militant secularists” are destroying America, that “irreligion and secular values are being forced on people of faith.” Whatever evil Trump does, whatever he damages or destroys, at least he enables Barr, Pence, and Pompeo to save America from a far worse fate. If you are convinced we are living in the End Times, then anything the president does can be forgiven.

How much of our differences are due to religion and how much to race?

Words like “white,” “black,” “African-American,” “Hispanic,” and “race/racial” — used in their racial sense and not in other senses like “race for the White House” — occur, in total, about 75 times throughout the book. That is to say that the subject of race is addressed substantially but isn’t the main focus. The term "white supremacy" doesn't appear at all. Many people have come up with the answer that white people voted for Trump because they are white but this is not quite the same answer Mansfield finds. He recognizes that Trump supporters are mostly white, but he wants to focus on religion. It's fine if he has a different conclusion or passionate interest. The question for me is how well he makes his case. For an entire book focusing on how Christians vote, the words “Protestant” (6), “Catholic” (7), and “evangelical” (20), alongside “Jew” (8) and “Muslim” (8), seem relatively underused. And I am including the bibliography. (These demographics are critical to understand because, as Pew Research found, three-fifths of white Catholics and four-fifths of white evangelicals voted Trump over Clinton, but for Hispanic Catholics it was the other way around, and black Protestants preferred Clinton almost nine-to-one. The vote looks more predictable along color lines than along theological lines.) When I find myself searching an ebook I’ve just finished for keywords so I can retroactively piece together the themes, it underscores for me that something was a little off from my experience as a reader.

Johnson Amendment

As someone who likes to fight, Trump could not understand why clergy did not pick political fights from the pulpit even when they felt themselves "under attack in nearly every arena of American culture." Some clergymembers explained to Trump that they could not make political statements or endorse candidates due to an IRS restriction called the Johnson Amendment. Trump "saw an opportunity both to right what he considered a moral wrong and to unchain a vast army of influential supporters. The Johnson Amendment had to go." He announced this on stage in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2016. The crowd was elated to see an atypically secular candidate nevertheless recognizing their needs and rising to meet them. In so doing, "Trump could win support from some of the nation’s most powerful religious leaders." After his election, he told his evangelical advisory council: "The only way I’m going to get to heaven is by repealing the Johnson Amendment." (One of the members corrected him on that theological point.)

Joy-Ann Reid didn't mention the Johnson Amendment in Fracture in which she traces the current manifestation of racial/political polarization to Johnson's election to the presidency, ten years after the Johnson Amendment was passed. Johnson's rival, Barry Goldwater, was a racially polarizing figure. By the time of the election, religious leaders had been ten years' silenced about political campaigns, thanks to the previous work of Johnson, who was a Democrat, and the last Democratic presidential candidate ever to win a majority of white voters. He got 59 percent of the white vote, but his popularity declined while he was in office, and, in the next election, the Democrat got only 38 percent of the white vote. The man behind the Johnson Amendment may explain why, to this day, it is white evangelical leaders who object most vocally to this rule.

Neither did Robert P. Jones mention the Johnson Amendment in The End of White Christian America. He spoke instead about the broader issue of so-called "religious liberty," emblematized by the example of Christian bakers who are asked to provide wedding cakes for same-sex couples. This would allow the freedom to refrain from speaking or acting in the way ordinarily required by antidiscrimination law, whereas the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would allow the freedom to actively speak or act. These are different problems. The complete absence of the Johnson Amendment from Jones' book, plus the self-undermining assertion by Mansfield that most Americans, including the religious, "not only do not understand what the Johnson Amendment is but may not wish it abolished once they do understand it," makes me curious to confirm the importance of the Johnson Amendment in the minds of evangelicals today. If they don't know what it is, they can't be angry about it, much less be willing to negotiate its repeal in exchange for willfully discarding their fervently held beliefs about, say, sexual harassment and assault and public morality and piety for politicians. My sense is that Mansfield meant that it is mainly the religious leaders who are aware of and concerned about the restriction.

Christianity Today reported in December 2017:

"...overall, most evangelical leaders — and most people in the pews — did not want to see pastors endorsing politicians. Among the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), 90 percent of its board of directors, including the leaders of major denominations and ministries, said they opposed pulpit endorsements in a survey conducted earlier this year.

A LifeWay Research survey conducted during the 2016 campaign found that 73 percent of Americans with evangelical beliefs said pastors should abstain from endorsing candidates, and about 65 percent said churches overall should abstain."

Repealing the Johnson Amendment is not the only way religious people can feel powerful. Mansfield praises, by contrast, "the art of prophetic distance" through which a religious leader delivers a message and models right action to political candidates without endorsing any candidate over another.

Furthermore, Mansfield observes that, if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, then liberal as well as conservative clergy can become politically active. Indeed, most of them, Mansfield believes, "are more left-leaning and will become champions for the other side. Trump may be dealing both himself — if and when he runs for a second term — and other conservatives a difficult hand to play."

What does it mean to take ownership?

Mansfield believes that "the religious voices Trump allows a hearing" may be able to hold sway "between the better angels of human nature and the lesser spirits that lurk in the dark". He warns that for clergy "[t]o support Donald Trump without caveat, to extol him as chosen by God without identifying what is morally objectionable in his politics and behavior, is much the same as extolling American culture without expressing any moral reservation." If religious leaders are not "courageous" and "true," then "they may pay a great price and draw the ire of later generations for being cowardly and unprincipled — all while owning Donald Trump."

But what does it mean to "own" him? The word suggests to me that they already have a particular level of influence over him as well as the future ability to take credit and blame for his deeds. It also suggests to me that Trump has somehow insinuated himself into the religion so that the ownership is mutual. Mansfield does not pinpoint the level or scope of influence nor does he anticipate exactly who might need to apologize for what in the future or, more pressingly, who might be able to fix it. If there is a catastrophe and the best we can hope for is a public apology, then "owning Donald Trump" isn't a very high stakes wager for the faithful to take. This is what we really need to know: not only why white Christians voted for Trump, but what everyone is going to do right now as 2018 rolls in about the terrible mess we are in and how we are going to avoid a similar outcome in the 2020 election.


For more on the Johnson Amendment, please see the June 2018 blog post on Disruptive Dissertation.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Roy Moore's movement to promote the Ten Commandments in American civic life

For years, there has been a movement to place large monuments representing the Ten Commandments outside U.S. courthouses. An activist in this movement is Roy Moore, who is currently running to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate in tomorrow's election (Dec. 12, 2017).

Roy Moore's monument

In August 2003, Alabama's Judicial Inquiry Commission suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore because he refused to obey a federal court order to remove a 2.6-ton granite Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama state judicial building. Moore claimed that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of U.S. law. "Moore installed the privately funded monument in the early hours of August 1, 2001, without consulting any of the other justices on the Alabama Supreme Court," according to CNN. He personally supervised the installation. Three Alabama attorneys claimed offense and sued in October 2001. In 2002, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of the attorneys and, upon Moore's appeal, in July 2003 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the attorneys. Moore was given a deadline of August 20, 2003 to remove the monument. A week in advance of that deadline, he argued: "It is not a question of whether I will disobey or obey a court order. The real question is whether or not I will deny the God that created us." Responding to a last-minute appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to involve itself in the case.

Moore did not comply with the order to remove the monument and he was suspended with pay. The monument was moved out of public view on Aug. 27 and, the next day, about a thousand supporters of Moore rallied at the building. Rev. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, addressed the crowd: "The separation of church and state is not in the Constitution." Dobson also complained about rulings against prayer in public schools, abortion rights, and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, attributed these rulings to "activist judge[s]" and said: "The symbolism as well as the substance of this moment cannot escape us. One federal judge has placed the Ten Commandments in a closet. That came after the United States Supreme Court recently welcomed everything else out of the closet." Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove offered to display the monument at the Mississippi capitol building for a week "to show support for our common Judeo-Christian heritage."

It was not Moore's first time doing this:

"Moore was a circuit judge in Etowah County, northeast of Birmingham, in the late 1990s when he fought a lawsuit seeking to remove a wooden plaque depicting the commandments from his courtroom.

The legal battle propelled him to statewide office in 2000, when the Republican jurist was elected chief justice after campaigning as the 'Ten Commandments Judge.'" [CNN, 8/28/2003]

Choosing a version of the Ten Commandments to display, Bob Minor wrote in 2003, “is to take sides in centuries-old battles between Protestants and Catholics as well as in the history of anti-Semitism” and, furthermore, to accept the final commandment in its entirety is to accept a definition of property that includes a man’s “slaves, his animals, his land, and also his wife.“

As a result of Moore's 2003 protest, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed him from office in November 2003.

He returned to the bench when he was elected Alabama's Chief Justice in 2012. The previous year, he had expressed interest in running for President, but his early campaign in 2011 did not succeed.

Influence throughout the nation

In 2003, the city of Casper, Wyoming voted to move a Ten Commandments monument out of a public park where it had been since 1965 and into a separate plaza to be dedicated to showcasing history. The city had been threatened with two lawsuits: one from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and one from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The latter wanted to install their own monument in the park to announce that a gay victim of a hate crime was burning in hell.

In 2006, the Christian ministry Faith and Action built a large granite monument outside its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The headquarters are located behind the U.S. Supreme Court, and "the group's president said the tablets were angled so that justices arriving at the high court would see them." It was vandalized in 2013.

In 2011, in Ohio, Judge James DeWeese, upon being challenged by the ACLU, removed a poster of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and replaced it with a poster called “Philosophies of Law in Conflict” [see it here] that contrasted the Ten Commandments with the “humanist precept” of "moral relativism." The poster asserted that there are “only two views: either God is the final authority, and we acknowledge His unchanging standards of behavior. Or man is the final authority, and standards of behavior change at the whim of individuals or societies.” The 6th Circuit ruled against DeWeese, who was represented by Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. (The ACLU had previously sued DeWeese in 2000 and 2008 for similar displays.)

In 2012, two state representatives in Tennessee, Mike Bell and Matthew Hill, "introduced a bill authorizing counties and cities to set up displays of 'historical documents and monuments and writings' that have been 'recognized to commemorate freedom and the rich history of Tennessee and the United States.'" Bell said that "the Ten Commandments would be one of them." [read the bill] Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said that the other documents mentioned in the bill were already legal to display, so the bill was only aimed at permitting the display of the Ten Commandments. Lynn pointed out that Protestants, Catholics and Jews recognize separate versions of the Commandments; half of the commandments are not reflected in current laws; and it is "absolutely false" that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of the nation's law.

In 2012, Oklahoma City placed a 6-foot-tall granite Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in late 2012. (Two years later, a man who claimed to be mentally ill and off his meds and on a mission from Satan pissed on it and drove his car into it, and then walked into the federal building and threatened President Obama and the federal government.)

In 2013, American Atheists designed a 1,500-pound granite monument for the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Fla. in response to a Ten Commandments monument that had been placed there the previous year by an organization called Community Men's Fellowship. Bradford County agreed to allow the atheist monument following court-ordered mediation. (The county's attorney said: "What the atheists agreed to is something they could have originally been approved for without a year of money and litigation.") The atheist monument was funded by Stiefel Freethought Foundation and was to have "quotes related to secularism from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair" and the Treaty of Tripoli. American Atheists director of regional operations Ken Loukinen said: "We'd rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the Ten Commandments, we will have our own." Community Men’s Fellowship posted a statement on Facebook acknowledging that “this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don't be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It's their right.” In 2014, Florida's Levy County, which already had a Ten Commandments monument outside its courthouse, denied a request by the local group Williston Atheists to build a monument similar to the one in Bradford County. The Levy County Commissioners said that the proposed atheist monument did not meet county guidelines because the quotations in the intended design were incomplete.

In 2017, a new Ten Commandments monument outside the Arkansas state capitol was intentionally destroyed by a man who drove his car into it. It was the same man who had driven his car into the Oklahoma monument several years earlier.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Why the American president is a 'Despot's Apprentice'

According to Brian Klaas, who has studied despots and their victims in many countries, Donald Trump isn’t a despot — yet. He was democratically elected and is bound to the institutions of U.S. democracy. Yet much of what protects democracy are people’s expectations, not law. In “careening through the soft guardrails of American democracy,” the president “is corrupting political norms, as Americans gradually come to accept previously unacceptable behavior.” Ultimately the Constitution is “ink on a piece of parchment.” People must be responsible for upholding democracy.

How can we understand what Trump is doing and where he is leading the country? Klaas explains it in his excellent new book, The Despot's Apprentice, a lively and enjoyable read despite its grim diagnosis.

Distinguishing himself through unusually harmful deeds, hateful words, and useless noise

He does things that most other U.S. politicians of any party would never do. During the campaign, his staff tweeted an anti-Semitic meme of the Star of David, stacks of money, and the word “corrupt.” Trump never apologized; his Jewish son-in-law covered publicly for him. Trump attempted to prevent Muslims from entering the US, refused to release tax returns, criticizes Democratic opponents more severely than foreign leaders, and has refused to clearly condemn domestic hate groups. He has tweeted approximately 1,000 times about “ratings,” “crowds,” and “Fox and Friends” (a television show that “offer[s] only overwhelmingly positive coverage of his administration, even in the midst of its most egregious scandals”) but only 40 times about Afghanistan, 12 times about poverty, and about “human rights only once—to mock them”.

Sowing distrust of the press

Trump deliberately turns public opinion against journalists. As Klaas puts it, for a despot, “[w]hen you can’t bend the press to your will, the next best thing is to bend public opinion against the press itself.” In one poll, only 9 percent of Republican voters said they trust the press generally, and a large majority of Republican voters said they would trust information from Trump above information from longstanding respected news outlets (whether liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning).

In March 2017, Trump tweeted “Change libel laws?”, meaning he wanted to make it easier to prosecute the press for unflattering coverage, given that the New York Times has “gotten me wrong for two solid years.” Klaas pointed out that the complaint was about “’wrong’ analysis or interpretations of him” and not malicious or deceptive reporting. Prosecuting the press ought to be difficult to avoid a chilling effect; this is part of longstanding First Amendment interpretation. In June, Trump tweeted a threat against Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, to inflict sales tax on Amazon because he doesn’t like the coverage in the Washington Post. Another despot might think to threaten “something other than,” Klaas quipped, “a tax they already pay.”

The New York Times reported that a senior administration official discussed using the potential merger as “leverage” against CNN. “In other words,” Klaas said, “they are openly acknowledging a terrible conflict of interest—even embracing it, contemplating an egregious abuse of power—in order to threaten CNN into submission.” More childishly, Trump retweeted a video showing a person with “CNN” over his face being punched. The Internet user who modified the video had the word “Asshole” in his username and had also posted numerous comments “using the N-word and joking about killing African-Americans.” Trump thereby “amplified the voice of a racist who joked about murder while endorsing a culture permissive of violence against media representatives”.

Legitimizing outlets that lie

Years ago, Joseph Farah claimed that Democrats intended to open concentration camps, soybeans turn people gay, and Obama was born outside the US. Trump connected with Farah and promoted the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory about Obama. Trump also appeared on InfoWars which has claimed “that the parents of twenty young schoolchildren who were murdered [at Sandy Hook] made the entire thing up as part of a government conspiracy” and he has retweeted “people who peddle bogus conspiracy theories like the now infamous Pizzagate hoax, which falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC pizzeria.”

“It goes without saying that the president should never be even remotely tainted by such people,” Klaas said, much less encourage them.

More subtly, after a press conference in Riyadh featuring Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, American journalists had to rely on “a transcript from Saudi state television. In this absurdist twist, the world’s most powerful democracy had to rely on journalists from one of the world’s most brutal autocracies—one that lacks a free press—in order to report on a press conference featuring a US secretary of state.”

Telling his own lies

"In modern American history, no president has ever told so many easily debunked lies in such a short period of time," Klaas asserts. In this book he spends a lot of time explaining different types of lies and different motivations for them.

In the 2016 election, the popular vote went to Hillary Clinton. These votes were cast legitimately by American citizens, according to everyone who has looked into it, including Trump’s lawyers. It is Trump himself who insists, without evidence, that immigrants voted fraudulently. (Of course, “40% of American adults didn’t vote at all,” and therefore “[a]pathy beat Trump by 10 points”.) His electoral college win was fairly narrow yet he asserts otherwise. Lest we mistakenly believe that Trump cares in general about the validity of democratic elections, we must note how quick he was to congratulate the Turkish president Erdogan on his 2017 “win” of a rigged election and accept Trump’s own explanation of his “conflict of interest” in matters concerning the Turkish president due to owning property in Istanbul.

Six months into his presidency, when Trump claimed that he’d signed more legislation than any president since Harry Truman, he had in fact “signed fewer bills than Presidents Clinton, Carter, Truman, and FDR,” and none of them were the ten pieces of legislation that, as candidate, he’d promised to implement within his first 100 days as president “as part of his ‘Contract with the American Voter.’” Twelve of the 38 bills he'd signed simply “renamed buildings or memorials, made low-level appointments, or were procedural tweaks.”

In July, after giving a speech to the Boy Scouts of America “in which he thanked the children attending for voting for him (they can’t vote)” and then telling them about an orgy on a yacht, he said that “the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to say that ‘it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.’ This was untrue," Klaas writes. "The Trump administration later acknowledged that no such call had happened.”

Trump continues to insist on the guilt of the Central Park Five in a crime that occurred in 1989, “ignoring clear and acknowledged evidence that he was wrong about a clear-cut racist miscarriage of justice,” after DNA evidence and a confession pointed to someone else and the Central Park Five have been released.

The consequence of so much lying is to normalize it and make it a joke. Sean Spicer, Trump's former spokesperson, appeared on the Emmy awards in September, joking, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period...’” It was a reference to the first and perhaps most famous lie Spicer was instructed to tell: that more people had turned out for Trump’s inauguration in Washington than for anyone else’s inauguration, even though aerial photography, police records, and subway records indicated otherwise. The fact that Spicer could transform his lie into a public joke alarms Klaas. “When you live under the cloud of an incompetent government that routinely lies, jokes are a common coping mechanism,” Klaas explained, noting that he’s seen it “firsthand while living in authoritarian states.”

Sowing distrust of courts, intelligence agencies, science agencies, and the Congressional Budget Office

As a candidate, Trump said that a judge should recuse himself because of his “Mexican heritage,” which Paul Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Trump was “encouraging the public to believe that the courts and their representatives are not independent arbiters of law, but biased by their own race and therefore untrustworthy.”

Intelligence agencies determined that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Trump ordered them to find Iranian noncompliance within three months so that he would have a reason to back out of the deal. It is dangerous, Klaas notes, when intelligence agencies are asked to give "politically motivated findings rather than dispassionate, objective ones.” The information is already distrusted based on partisan identity. A poll in June found a Republican/Democratic split among the American public: Democrats accepted “the unanimous conclusion of the intelligence community” that Russia interfered in the US 2016 election, while Republicans rejected this information.

Under the Trump administration, an EPA climate scientist was reassigned as an accountant. In August, “a group of scientists leaked their latest climate change report to The New York Times before it could be buried by the Trump administration. That’s a truly shocking canary in the coal mine—when researchers from thirteen government agencies, including NASA feel the need to leak the latest findings of a clear scientific consensus for fear that their government would refuse to publish it.” In September, Trump picked Rep. Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a climate change denier with degrees in business and psychology, to lead NASA.

He casts doubt on the “independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office” (“fake news” according to the White House, “deep state” according to Newt Gingrich), even though Trump’s own Health and Human Services secretary hired a Republican to lead it, so “it’s hard to see how it would be biased against the Trump administration.” Reports like the CBO’s “serve a crucial function in a democracy: they are the legislative scorekeepers that everyone can trust.” Today, however, “undercutting the gravitas and authority of independent institutions is crucial to eroding democracy and amassing greater power.”

Shrugging off other countries’ violations of human rights and democracy

As candidate, Trump publicly “mocked the international condemnations” of the 1988 chemical attack that killed thousands of Kurds in Halabja. He also endorses torture, which is “a crime under both international and American law” and “despite just about every military official in the United States disagreeing” that torture yields usable, accurate information.

Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016 as president of the Philippines, promised that he would assassinate journalists and give police impunity to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office. Under him, police have indeed been killing people in the street, and some people have been tortured. The European Union has condemned Duterte, but Trump gave Duterte a personal phone call to compliment his approach to crime.

Before Trump took office, he swore he would not allow Putin to invade Ukraine, something Putin had already done years previously. When a talk show host pointed out to him that Putin kills journalists, Trump responded on air, ”I think our country does plenty of killing also,” adding of the assassinations, “I haven’t seen any evidence,” and that Putin “hasn’t been convicted of anything.” (Most authoritarian despots are not convicted of their crimes, Klaas helpfully notes.)

While the European Union tried to push Poland toward better democratic principles, Trump chose to “endorse Poland as a model for the West” because, according to Klaas, he preferred Poland’s “good optics with rapturous crowds chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’...he sold out democracy in a friendlier major European nation, in exchange for a good photo opportunity.”

Nepotism and conflicts of interest

Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner know about “jewelry design, how to run a fashion business, or New York real estate development,” yet are leading the way on “counterterrorism, trade deals, and how to cope with the threat of a nuclear North Korea.” Ivanka did not even register to vote in time to vote for her father in the presidential primary. Between the election and inauguration, she tried to sell access to herself for a coffee date for tens of thousands of dollars (before being forced to call it off as it violates political ethics). She was given the formal title “Special Assistant to the President” despite the Trump Transition Team having said she would not get a title. Klaas compares Ivanka Trump’s role to that of Gulnara Karimova and talks about Trump’s nepotism having reached a level

“unfathomable in other functioning democracies. It’s hard to imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister Theresa May surrounded by a cadre of men in uniform, jockeying for influence against a daughter and son-in-law. This is banana republic stuff. If this staffing pattern existed in some other country, with generals being hailed as saviors rescuing the people from the civilian leader, alarm bells would be going off for every pro-democracy monitoring group in the world.”

Klaas also discusses “a core tenet of democracy: that public service should be dissociated from private interest.” These conflicts of interest play out in numerous ways. “But at least Americans never had to wonder,” Klaas said, “whether Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide because he was worried about Clinton Tower Kigali, or whether Obama failed to stand up to Assad in Syria because his daughter Malia had a clothing line pending in Damascus.” In April, Trump’s family hosted China’s President Xi for dinner at their private resort. Ivanka Trump’s brand sells shoes that are manufactured in China, and, during that dinner, China approved the sale of new Ivanka products. In July, Trump praised Xi “hours after prominent human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobao died in China while in state detention for his outspoken pro-democracy, pro-human rights views”.

Anything else?

In addition to all the despot-in-training approaches above, Trump exploits the fact that “[p]artisanship has become more about tribal identity than about disagreements on how to govern American society,” and he wearies people with the sheer number of onslaughts “because you can’t fight 100 battles all at once. Citizens are forced to pick and choose.”

The conclusion by the author, an expert in despots, is that Trump is uncomfortably similar to one and can swiftly lead the country down the path to authoritarianism if ordinary citizens are not careful and do not make a greater effort.

Published in the US on Nov. 14, 2017, this book is a timely accompaniment to the neverending cascade of scandals besetting the president. If there is a book of similar quality challenging this argument or its conclusions, I am not aware of it. No need to "Buy Ivanka's Stuff," but I will give you a "free commercial" (as Kellyanne Conway might put it) and suggest buying The Despot's Apprentice.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

On tolerating intolerance: Thoughts from 'The Atheist Muslim'

Ali Rizvi begins The Atheist Muslim with his memoir of his formative years growing up Muslim and then proceeds to general atheist arguments. He is concerned about human rights and also about logical arguments for the existence of God. He identifies “when I let go of religion completely” as the moment when he learned that the Big Bang created time itself and therefore eliminated the necessary frame for the idea of creation.

The most valuable chapter for me is the sixth one, “Islamophobia-Phobia and the ‘Regressive Left,’” where he ties together modern identities and arguments for Islam and atheism. In this chapter, he begins by identifying as a “free speech absolutist” because individuals, not governments, should decide what constitutes “hate speech.” For one thing: “Criminalizing hate speech like France does infantilizes people. It doesn’t just take away someone’s right to speak; it takes away your right to form your own opinions and response to them.” Furthermore, “The uncomfortable truth is this: if you really wanted to ban all hate speech, the Bible and Quran would be the first to go. Next would be the preachers who read from them and quote them in their sermons.” (p. 132)

He goes on:

“In their well-intentioned effort to protect what they see as a targeted minority [people with Muslim identity], Western liberals unwittingly find themselves fighting to guard and protect the same backward values [of the Muslim religion] that their counterparts in Muslim-majority countries are fighting against.” (p. 133) He asks us to “Consider the case of my friend Raif Badawi, the liberal Saudi blogger who is currently serving a ten-year prison term with a sentence of one thousand lashes; or all the Bangladeshi bloggers who have been hacked to death for writing critically about Islam.” (p. 134)

It is more important now than ever to challenge and criticize the doctrine of Islam. And it is more important now than ever to protect and defend the rights of Muslims. Both of these must go together. … The only rational position between Islamic apologism and anti-Muslim bigotry is one espousing secular and liberal values. This is the only position that allows both the right to criticize bad ideas and the right to believe in them — both of which must be protected in order to set the stage for meaningful dialogue. (p. 135)

"Again, it’s crucial to emphasize the difference between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. The first targets an ideology. The second targets human beings. This is an obvious, significant distinction, yet both are frequently lumped together under the unfortunate, reductive umbrella term ‘Islamophobia.’ Again, human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Ideas, beliefs, and books don’t and aren’t. The right to believe what one wants to believe is sacred. The belies themselves aren’t. Challenging ideas moves societies forward. Demonizing people rips societies apart. If anything, it’s precisely because of how I’d seen ordinary Muslims suffer under theocratic policies and Sharia law that I wanted to start a dialogue to help shatter the taboo of criticizing religion." (p. 137)

Some nuance is missing here. Much of the modern debate over tolerance of sexual orientation has centered on the question of whether same-sex desire is something that one chooses or something that is an immutable feature of one's being, and therefore whether same-sex behaviors (and the tolerance thereof) can be said to be ideologically motivated. My point in bringing this up is not to shift the topic from tolerance of Muslims to tolerance of gays, but rather to suggest that a similar dynamic might be at play in assumptions about how much of religious belief is ingrained in someone's personality from an early age and can't easily be unwound upon mere instruction from others.

“Criticizing, satirizing, and even mocking any belief system is never bigoted or racist.” (p. 143)

“When legitimately criticizing illiberal elements of Islam — as we might do any other religion or political ideology — elicits accusation of bigotry and racism, it abruptly ends an important conversation that needs to be had. Calling someone a bigot, racist, or Islamophobe isn’t a counterargument. It’s a lazy substitute for one. Yet we all fall for it.” (p. 146)

He quotes Reza Aslan: “People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion...Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text.” Rizvi challenges Aslan’s overstatement that religious texts have “nothing” to do with values. “So, every time a jihadist yells ‘Allah Akbar!’ and severs an infidel’s head from his body with a knife, citing verses like 47:4 and 8:12-13 from the Quran,” Rizvi asks, “you would blame every possible factor for his actions except the one that literally contains the words, ‘Smite the disbelievers upon their necks’?” (pp. 148-149) He also observes that blaming the people (identified, for example, by their culture that supposedly determines their values) does tend toward bigotry.

“Our criticisms of religion aren’t an attack on people, but a challenge to what we consider bad ideas that drive bad behavior, and the sacred status afforded to them. Our opposition to religion isn’t a demonstration of bigotry; it is a demonstration against it.

Bigotry against bigotry isn’t bigotry, and tolerance of intolerance isn’t tolerance.


Liberalism isn’t just about tolerance of dissent. It is also about an intolerance of those that don’t tolerate dissent.” (pp. 159-160)

Page numbers from:

Ali A. Rizvi. The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Fatal flaws in 'Mere Christianity' by C. S. Lewis

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis is a book beloved by millions of people. When I first read it out of curiosity, at age 18 and having just started college, I found it to be a string of fallacies. I did not expect ever to change my mind about this, but I did expect one day being asked to explain why. Twenty years later, I reread the book, and here is my explanation. The long essay is on Medium.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

'War eunuchs' in Hirschfeld's 'The Sexual History of the World War' (1930)

In 1930, Magnus Hirschfeld published Sittengeschichte des Weltkrieges in German. Panurge Press produced an abridged, adapted English translation as The Sexual History of the World War in 1934. Another English edition was produced by Cadillac Publishing Co. in 1941. The last one, since 2015, is available to read free online through the Internet Archive. Chapter 12, "Genital Injuries, War Eunuchs, etc." includes the following information.

"Above all, it was shot wounds in the testicles and also injuries to the spinal marrow which induced a complete disappearance of the sexual functions. Injuries of this sort were not uncommon during the war which explains their frequent occurrence in literature. Yet it appears that poetry gave much more attention to this problem of emasculation during the war than did science. One of these cases became famous in medical literature because the patient became a subject for transplantation experiments."

Dr. Robert Lichtenstern reported having to remove both testicles from a soldier in 1915 in Vienna due to an infected gunshot wound. The patient immediately ceased to have erections "despite various devices calculated to arouse him"; he rapidly lost his facial and body hair; and

"he read nothing and manifested no interest whatever in the war....For the most part the patient sat near his bed or at the window, ate voraciously, slept a lot, and busied himself with absolutely nothing at all. The loss of both testicles resulted in a remarkable increase of adipose tissue, especially around the neck which gave the patient a peculiarly stupid appearance."

Doctors then transplanted another man's testicle into him, with these alleged results: "Various castration symptoms, such as adiposity, altered trichosis, loss of libido and psychic indifferentism, all receded temporarily so that the patient actually entertained the idea of marrying."

Dr. F. Pick's study found "commotion neurosis" in 10 out of 25 officers and in 7 out of 75 soldiers. These men were unable to ejaculate and in some cases also unable to get erections. Pick attributed this to physical and psychic stresses of battle, including sexual abstinence.

Several literary passages are referenced in this same chapter of Hirschfeld's book:

From an author named Bruno Vogel: "I saw Sczepczyk again. With amazing precision his generative organs had been shot from his body. 'Herr Leutenant,' he whispered, a little bit ashamed and in deep confidence, 'Herr Leutenant, and I have never yet had a girl.' He gladly accepted the cigarette I gave him and I softly stroked his hair and forehead. Finally I slipped my hand over his eyes and, as a little smile of pleasure curled over his mouth, I pushed my mercifully brutal sword into his side." The title was not mentioned, but possibly this was Vogel's Es lebe der Krieg! (1924).

The Siberian diary of Edwin Erich Dwinger The Army Behind Barbed Wire: A wounded soldier says that his wife (whose picture shows her to be "a perfect child-bearing machine") wanted at least six children. "Until now we weren't able to have any children because there wasn't any money for them." When he is told that he cannot have children due to his wound, "he turned around slowly and walked to his bed, stretched himself out painfully and never spoke to anyone else until they sent him to Siberia. It is significant that we meet the tragic figure of this emasculated man further on in the novel, but at this later stage, he rejoices that he does not have to suffer the sexual hunger which the others are being plagued by."

The poet Ernst Toller has a man named Hinkemann who "may be regarded as the final literary formula of the emasculated soldier who returns home from the wars, and the inability of his wife to continue a veritably inhuman sacrifice in his behalf....we are dealing with a group of men who will never be able to find their lost happiness by the side of a woman. From every outcry of Toller's hero, we hear the whole dismal and appalling tragedy of a creature who has gone through the vast hell of war, and it is a cry which can never be silenced. How brutal is the reply to Hinkemann by his wife's seducer, Paul Grosshahn, who rebukes the cripple for seeking to keep his wife a nun. Hinke- mann is informed by the seducer that he is in reality nothing more to his wife now than a ground for divorce!"

Panurge Press and other early 20th century distributors of erotic books

Jay A. Gertzman's Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940 gives an engaging history of the difficulties in New York City with distributing literature that had any sexual content. "The federal antiobscenity statues, lobbied through Congress by Anthony Comstock in 1873 and enforced just as powerfully half a century later, called their wares 'obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile.' * * * By the early 1920s, a group of young New York publishers was providing Americans with literature from European writers whom the older publishers considered too subversive to touch. Beginning in 1922, a series of court rulings made it more difficult to suppress sexually explicit material that could not be termed flagitious by any general consensus." (pp. 1, 10)

The most detailed figures in Gertzman's history include Esar Levine of Panurge Press (Esar was editor, and his brother Benjamin was business manager) and Benjamin Rebhuhn of Falstaff Press (he ran it with his wife and nephew). The Levines and Rebhuhns both had mail-order businesses and were close friends with each other. "Many Panurge titles were transferred to Falstaff in 1936 (and reprinted as new editions), and later became property of Metro Books, distributed by Benjamin Levine." (p. 30) The most important character is probably Samuel Roth, whose Golden Hind Press at 122 Fifth Avenue was raided on October 4, 1929. (p. 16) These men endured repeated prosecutions and incarcerations.

The majority of the names of booksellers in this narrative belonged to Jews. "In New York at least, during the period from 1880 to 1940, many [erotica dealers] were members of Jewish immigrant families," Gertzman writes. He adds that "German immigrants were skilled printers, lithographers, and typesetters". (pp. 28- 29)

"Although avoiding ethnic scapegoating, John Sumner [secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice] sometimes specifically described the purveyor of 'obscenity' as a Jew (or Italian or German). Rooted in his opposition to erotic literature was a fear of contamination by the unclean outsider. Society as a whole, as well as the immigrant neighborhoods, was in danger of contagion. Sumner's annual reports stigmatize individuals arrested (whether convicted or not) as 'foreign looking,' 'mentally defective,' 'exhibitionists,' 'fly-by-night.' 'Most of these defendants,' he wrote in his 1928 report, 'were of the young, radical, irreligious and over-educated type. Their personal writings wherever found, indicated an utter disregard for the law, public decency or any of the proprieties of organized society. They are literally anarchists.'" (p. 45)

The Panurge books were overpriced for the Depression era. Consequently, "Panurge classified its clients into groups. There were twenty-five 'prominent individuals'...ten 'professors'; fifty 'army officers'; twenty 'reverends'; two hundred eighty 'lawyers'; and fourteen hundred 'doctors,' including more dentists than physicians — thirty-five fully typed pages were needed to list them." (p. 57) Gertzman also says: "Judge Learned Hand appears to have recognized the more complex reality, when he found Esar Levine guilty of pandering to prurience with the circulars for his Panurge Press books. He refused to admit into evidence the Panurge Press mailing list, with its 'professors,' 'army officers,' and 'physicians.' 'Even respectable persons may have a taste for salacity,' he wrote." (p. 144)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Alan Turing's story as told in the film 'The Imitation Game' (2014)

"The Imitation Game" (2014) stars the actor Benedict Cumberbatch playing the mathematician Alan Turing. Turing was famous for his work on early computers. During World War II, he worked for the British government on a team that deciphered intercepted Nazi communications. His successful cryptography is believed to have shortened World War II.

In the film, Turing is portrayed as a reclusive personality without strong ties to friends or family. He knows from an early age that he is attracted to other men. This was illegal in Britain at the time; sexual relations between men were punishable by prison. He is briefly engaged to a fellow codebreaker (Joan Clarke, played by the actor Keira Knightley), but he breaks it off with her, admitting his true feelings.

When finally convicted of "gross indecency," Turing was given the choice between prison and a "treatment" of chemical castration that was supposed to moderate or eliminate his sexual feelings. Both possibilities devastated him; Turing chose treatment. The film depicts him as gaunt and frail after beginning the chemical castration. He lasted one year on treatment and then committed suicide on June 7, 1954 by biting an apple poisoned with cyanide.

Another retelling

Another way you can learn about Turing's story is through the 2018 novel Murmur by Will Eaves. A reflection on this novel was published on the Firestarters blog of Tiny Flames Press.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The long and misguided history of swearing in on Bibles

Using any particular religious scripture for the swearing-in ceremonies for politicians and court witnesses poses the obvious problem that not everyone endorses the content of the given scripture. If someone does not believe at all in a particular God or scripture, then they may object to being forced to invoke this foreign or disagreeable belief system. Even if they are willing to recite the words and mimic the gestures, their oath would not carry the intended religious weight, since they do not believe that this particular God holds them accountable. This problem applies on a "sliding scale" to people who believe in the Bible in diverse ways or with loose or inconsistent interpretations. People do not all believe in the same God in the same way, and there is no sense in making them recite words that presume they do.

For example, Donald Trump, who was raised Presbyterian, was heavily influenced by the so-called "prosperity gospel" and, when he was sworn in as U.S. President, didn't currently belong to any church, according to Ken Briggs, writing for the National Catholic Reporter in January 2017. Omarosa Manigault Newman's book Unhinged claims that Trump wanted to be sworn in as president on a copy of his own book, The Art of the Deal.

In secular contexts, swearing on the Bible is nonsensical and causes dissension. Its practice for politicians' swearing-in ceremonies in the United States nevertheless has an interesting history that can be traced hundreds of years back to England. Melissa Mohr explains it well in her 2013 book "Holy Sh*t:  A Brief History of Swearing," which is about the history of oaths as well as obscenities.

When England was a Catholic country, swearing oaths on physical copies of the Bible held a prominent place in the culture. A religious movement whose adherents were known as Lollards opposed this practice in the early 15th century, as did Quakers in the 17th century. Lollards were willing to swear verbally by God, but were burned at the stake for being unwilling to swear on the Bible. Quakers would not swear at all, which meant that they couldn't take oaths of allegiance and couldn't testify in court. Mohr writes, "A good technique for getting rid of a Quaker you didn't like was to accuse him of doing something illegal. Whether or not he was guilty, when he refused to take an oath his property would be confiscated and he would be thrown in jail for contempt of court."

Aware of this religious history in England, the American founding fathers aimed for a more secular start to the nation in the 18th century. The U.S. Constitution prescribes this presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." This secular statement avoids the difficulties that presented themselves in England. Article VI of the Constitution additionally clarifies: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."


The term 'book-oath' goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's Henry IV. Part II contains the words: "I put thee now to thy / book-oath: deny it, if thou canst." In pre-Revolutionary America, swearing on the Bible served as a religious test "designed to marginalize infidel deists like Thomas Paine, and religious dissidents especially like members of the Dutch Reformed Church," according to information received from Ray Soller.

Placing one's hand on the Bible

Despite this, many U.S. presidents have recited the oath with their hands on a Bible. George Washington did so at his first inauguration. (For the next several presidents after him, there are only persistent but unconfirmed national myths.) The next well substantiated claim to this is for the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, at his inauguration in 1829, followed by the eleventh U.S. president, James Polk, who also kissed the Bible when he swore on it at his 1845 inauguration, an event that was publicized by telegraph. Social critic and comic Dean Obeidallah singled out "two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, [who] did not use a Bible at their swearing-in ceremonies," but many others certainly did.

Saying 'So help me God'

David B. Parker wrote for the History News Network:

"...we have no convincing contemporary evidence that any president said 'so help me God' until September 1881, when Chester A. Arthur took the oath after the death of James Garfield. William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt said 'so help me God,' as has every president since then. But before 1933, we have good evidence for only four (of thirty-one)."

Of potential interest, see "Kiss the Book...You're President...: 'So Help Me God' and Kissing the Book in the Presidential Oath of Office," Frederick B. Jonassen, 2012 in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 20, Issue 3, Article 5.


In the nineteenth century, England's laws for swearing-in ceremonies were challenged by the elections to Parliament of Lionel de Rothschild and David Salomons, who were Jews, and Charles Bradlaugh, who was an atheist. The Jews' proposed modifications to the oath were not accepted, while the atheist was willing to swear the Christian oath but was denied the opportunity. For showing up to work in the chamber to which they'd been elected, Salomons was fined heavily and ejected from the room, and Bradlaugh was arrested and jailed. With perseverance, eventually the Jewish Relief Act (1858) and the Oaths Act (1888) enabled non-Christians to complete the oath of office.

A secular approach seems the obvious solution to the conflict. U.S. CIA Director John Brennan was sworn in on a copy of the U.S. Constitution in 2013. Yet some politicians, seeing that Christian politicians swear in on Bibles, wish to swear in on a copy of their own religious text. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim to be elected as a member of the U.S. Congress, was sworn in on a copy of the Koran that was published in 1764 and was owned by Thomas Jefferson. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) participated in the ceremony and also placed her hand on the book.

Endorsers of the Bible, meanwhile, often are reluctant to allow others the opportunity to use their own texts, so the conflict perpetuates itself. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) took advantage of Ellison's pending swearing-in to release a statement calling for stricter immigration laws, without which, he said, "there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran." Goode claimed that restrictions on immigration, particularly from the Middle East, "are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped." (All this, despite the fact that Ellison is African-American and was born in Detroit.) Similarly, Dennis Prager, a talk-show host and a member of the council that oversees the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., complained about Ellison's anticipated use of the Koran. He said he feared that the nation would "abandon its Judeo-Christian values" and that he himself, as a Jew, would "get hurt" as a consequence. At their base, Goode's and Prager's expressed concerns are not about the ritual use of the Koran in American politics, but rather about Muslim Americans in public service.

Debates like this occur in many countries. For example, Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," is written from a Jewish point of view and refers to Jews living freely in their land of Zion. This often causes distress for the one-quarter of Israelis who are not Jewish. In the February 2013 swearing-in ceremony for new parliament members, several Arab politicians left the room to protest the words of the anthem. Mere suggestions to make the language more inclusive, even when those suggestions are vague and are made by Jewish politicians, still prompt strong opposition.

Alternative choices based on values

When Eric Lander was sworn in as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in June 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris’ office asked him what book he wanted to use in the ceremony. Lander is Jewish, but he says his religion is “complicated to describe" beyond that. He understood the question of what book to swear in on as a question of "what’s in my mind and what’s in my heart," and he discussed it with his family, who realized "the question was values." He recalled a phrase from Jewish thought in Pirkei Avot within the Mishnah: “It’s not required that you complete the work, but neither may you refrain from it.” He located an edition that had been printed in 1492 and chose that book for the ceremony.

Legal arguments

In their book Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore wrote (as excerpted in LitHub) that courts sometimes

insist that government invocation of God is not state sponsorship of religion but the solemnization of public occasions, as if there were no secular ways to give solemnity and gravitas — like taking the oath of office with a hand laid on the Constitution. The courts’ other defense of the governmental invocation of God is to maintain that through repeated use, “rote repetition,” religious language loses its religious significance and is merely and only “ceremonial.” Lost sight of here is the inherent contradiction; how can religious language both give solemnity and also be insignificant?


In short, the use of the Bible for swearing oaths originated hundreds of years ago as a Catholic tradition, and despite some Protestant opposition and American secularist reform, the practice continues today. The custom is confusing and unnecessary. Unless one literally believes in a God who holds people accountable for their oaths, one cannot believe that such an oath has any inherent force that makes people keep their promises.

From an irreligious or non-literal religious perspective, the only extra force of a public religious oath lies in its potential activation of reverence and shame in the oath-taker. But this assumes that the oath-taker (or perhaps the audience) has certain religious sensibilities. Not everyone does, so mandatory swearing on Bibles is a transparent affront to individuals' true belief systems. It is a coercive effort to tamp down intellectual and religious diversity in favor of a public show of conformity. Some find the ritual inspiring, but others find it off-putting. Therefore, it discourages unity while being mostly useless in enforcing promise-keeping.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on Dec. 10, 2013. It has been significantly revised in January 2017 thanks to input from Ray Soller.
Image by: Adrian Pingstone, 2005. The photograph is of a Latin Bible made in Belgium in 1407. © Public domain. The Bible is on display in Malmesbury Abbey in England. Wikimedia Commons.