Monday, February 20, 2012

Political update for February, 2012

Ah, religion. It is back. Back as a divisive force in our presidential election. It’s not all Newt Gingrich’s fault or Barack Obama’s or even Rick Perry’s, but they all tried and contributed. It’s just one of those things that is going to happen in predominantly free countries from time to time. But, there is one reason we handle this better than any other country. We have a first amendment which has possibly more than anything else allowed us to get along with each other despite religious differences which have in so many other countries raged out of hand.

First, my overall perspective on religion presented blessedly briefly. Faith in a deity or afterlife is not for me. Never has been. The most that can be said is that I make no pretense of understanding First Cause (as if anyone can), and that is a puzzler, but one never made simpler for me by the concept of God. I have been surrounded by religious people my whole life, mostly Christians and Jews, but I’ve known a handful of Hindus, Muslims, Christian scientists, atheists, agnostics, Mormons, etc.. What I find (and, some religious leaders too) is that religion does not seem to make someone a better person in terms of what we commonly think of as morality (in terms of lying, cheating, violence, taking advantage, blah, blah, blah), but I have come to learn that as well as being a divisive and even destructive force (both individually and societally), religion can also be a beneficial and unifying force, if come to voluntarily, and not under duress, and is filled with the spirit of toleration.

For the most part, this spirit of toleration imbues our society, whatever some people will tell you. Even very religious people are often extremely open to other views. Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life has found (with a huge 35,000 person sample) that those who claim association with most religious groups, actually have a wide range of religious beliefs, some which are far from the orthodoxy of their own chosen faith.

For example, a large majority of Americans affiliated with some faith or another belong believe that other religions can lead to eternal life. That includes over 80% of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, but over 66% of Protestants (including 57% of evangelicals), 72% of Greek and Russian Orthodox and 79% of Catholics. Only the relatively small majority of Mormons do not so believe and a large majority of Jehovah’s witnesses. To the contrary, even a majority of American Muslims believe other religions may lead to eternal life. Christians are, of course, by far the largest group, just shy of 80% of the population. Over 1 out of 5 Christians believe in reincarnation and/or astrology, neither of which is acceptable to most of their religious doctrines.

Very similar numbers are reached when asked if there was more than one way to interpret their religion.

Despite the cries of a few, and the muted cries of many more who listen to them, there is no war on religion in America. Here are the real statistics, from Pew. 92% of the population believes in God. Even a higher number (94%) of unaffiliated religious people do. An astonishing 21% of atheists are actually not atheists at all – BECAUSE THEY ACKNOWLEDGE BELIEVING IN GOD. An even higher number (55%) of agnostics say they believe in God. More, 10% of atheists pray WEEKLY and 18% of agnostics do to. Sorry if that seems to make no sense. Since those two groups make up only a tiny percentage of Americans (3-4% total), and so many of them actually believe in God and are in the wrong category – where is this alleged war on religion supposed to be coming from?

And, despite the best efforts of Messrs. Gingrich and Perry (and others), only 14% of Americans believe that religion is the main influence on their politics compared to 13% for education, 19% by what the see/read in the media and 34% by their personal experience.  Of course, many of them may be wrong because other questions show that religion seems to have quite a strong effect on beliefs. For example, 64% of evangelicals, 68% of Mormons and 61% of Mormons believe that homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged while only 15% of Jews, 12% of Buddhists and 14% of atheists believe it. Those numbers are not likely random results.

Religious toleration of other people’s beliefs has existed throughout history. But, so has intolerance and butchering or enslaving them. The first amendment of our constitution, derived from enlightenment principles of individual freedom of conscience and propelled by the American idea that government should keep out of religion, is one of the main reasons we have avoided religious wars. I’ve been hearing too much from conservative candidates how they will shred the first amendment (though, of course, they don’t put it that way at all). Herman Cain, for instance, argued that any American-Muslim cabinet member he appointed would be required to take an oath of allegiance. Apparently, he is thinking that instead of picking some well vetted, experienced person for the job, he might choose someone dressed a bit like the late Osama bin Laden and wearing a bomb belt. He also is forgetting that all cabinet members take an oath of office. He’s also forgetting, and this is the biggee, that to single out Muslims to take an oath (presuming others didn’t), would obviously violate the first amendment.

Both Cain and Gingrich argued for a moratorium on mosque building. Do I even need to show why this violates the first amendment? Yet, no doubt it helped both in their campaigns. It would not have helped had either reached a general election. In fact, I believe it would have hurt immensely with the most important group right now – the group without a group – independents.

Most recently, a new issue has reached public awareness. The administration has issued regulations which would require religious organizations doing business (say, as a hospital) which provide insurance coverage for employees, to make certain they provide things like free pre-natal testing and contraceptives. The Catholic Church has protested mightily, as this is against their religious teachings.

Apparently, only two pundits (I’ve appointed myself a pundit – what are the requirements anyway? Dick Morris is a pundit, for crying out loud, and he is wrong about almost everything) have correctly assessed this issue - me and Ann Coulter. There are differences between the two of us, though. She helped fuel this religious dispute nonsense by writing that ideologies she does not agree with are religious in nature. But, here is the insurance problem in a nutshell, and we do agree on that. This insurance issue should not be a religious freedom issue at all. It is just a freedom issue, period - amen.

Let me expand a bit. The Catholic Church, and any religious group, for that matter, is entitled to believe whatever it is that they choose to believe. No one doubts that. Despite the first amendment, there are a smattering of ways that our courts have determined it is okay for government to give religion an advantage. For example, Sunday blue laws, that is, forcing businesses to close on that day, have been upheld (McGowan v. Maryland [1961]). Tax breaks for religious groups has been allowed as well (Walz v. Comm’n of the City of New York). I oppose those decisions, but that is the law.

The government is not allowed to establish religion – the other strand of the first amendment – either. Sometimes the two clauses don’t work smoothly together and there must be some play around the joints, as Justice Kennedy described the interpretation of conflicting clauses in his Senate confirmation hearing. One such problem arises when an otherwise neutral law is passed (that is, it applies not just to a religious group) that conflicts with a religion’s beliefs. The general rule is that – too bad on the religion. It must obey the same rules as everyone else.  But, there have been exceptions, and it is difficult to tell if this will fit in with it. In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), Justice Scalia wrote for the majority that religious belief cannot allow every person to become a law unto themselves and cited laws against polygamy, child labor, Sunday blue laws, registering for selective services or paying social security taxes. I think that should be the decision here, but it is too dense a thicket to chop through at this early date without a lot of research I am not prepared to make right now. But, I can have an opinion, and that is that the Catholic Church’s theology is not a defense. If it is a defense to the law, then the general public and perhaps especially conservatives, will have to take a step back in its criticism of a certain New Jersey judge a few years back, who excused a husband’s violence against his wife, because he had done it in accord with his Islamic beliefs. Now who would want to accept that as a sensible decision? No one, and it was reversed on appeal. Yet, isn't that analogous to what the church is saying in this situation?

Despite all of that, I do believe the Catholic Church should be freed of this requirement (not yet in effect), but I think everyone should. On the most basic level, the federal government (I think not even the state government – but others would reasonably disagree), should not be telling a business what insurance they need to provide for their employees. On a constitutional level, the power that the federal government has afforded to itself on the basis of a now longstanding interpretation of the interstate commerce clause and the necessary and proper clause, allows it to intervene in virtually anything that they can assert is commerce and interstate in nature – and that is not hard to do.

The Supreme Court has intervened to say - too far, a few times in recent memory, but it has to be a really long stretch for it to do it. Obviously, under this interpretation of the constitution, it is easy to reach insurance issues. The Supreme Court will determine later this year whether the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare by its detractors, can mandate the purchase of insurance policies, which may provide a clue as to where it might go in a case brought by the Catholic Church. 
Without any hope on my part that the broad interpretation of the Interstate commerce clause be greatly scaled down, I can suggest an alternative – that it be limited to laws in which it can be shown that federal regulation or intervention is needed to prevent a state from impinging on interstate commerce or discriminating on out of state commerce (and there are many cases like that). Just because an industry is found in more than one state or does business in more than one state should not be a reason either. That does not mean every federal law we have would go away as there are other avenues for the federal government to regulate – e.g., national defense, navigation, monetary issues, due process or equal protection, those liberties now know as fundamental rights, and so on. But, there is no need for federal laws about insurance (as long as it is non-discriminatory) and we should be free to make our own decisions about what insurance coverage we want for employees.

As I write this, Rick Santorum has surged in the polls, and there are those who believe that he will beat Mitt Romney for the nomination. I am not overly confident about Romney's chances, but still believe that he will survive and prevail as he has done against Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich challenges. However, even if he bests Santorum, he will still likely face one greater challenge. At some point either Gingrich or Santorum might drop out, and the supporters of either of those candidates will gravitate overwhelming to the other - not Romney. No one can be sure if Romney can survive that, but he must to win the nomination.

How has Santorum managed to suddenly corral all this new support? Mostly, it is just by still being around when many Republicans realized that Newt Gingrich would be more divisive than he would be unifying among them. But, he was well suited for the lead at this point, even if temporarily, because of his religious bent, with which he started and is ending his campaign (for a time he claimed his message was mostly economic, but I have trouble seeing that - he is a big government guy - and is aimed at getting the vote of the cultural or religious right. One way he has done it is by jumping on the insurance regulation issue, which he has repeatedly mentioned.

But, yesterday, he seemed to cross another threshold, signaling to an audience about religion in a way that turned me off big time. I think it will have the same effect on other independents too and maybe even some fiscal conservatives. Speaking on the administration’s environmental policies, he said: “It's not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible -- a different theology.”

This is where Ann Coulter comes in again as she popularized the idea, at least in recent times, that liberal ideology is actually a religion. It is a very popular notion on the right. My own appreciation of it, as I’ve written before, is that both the left and right enjoy certain canards which are not based on fact, but they believe it nevertheless without the necessity of argument. You can compare them to religion, but I cannot go the full analogy, because unlike with the central idea of most religion – the existence of a deity and creation as his/her/its product based on faith – you can combat many if not most of the ideological myths with facts and reason.

Santorum had to spend sometime backpedaling from this – claiming he was speaking about environmental policy and not the president’s faith. He might have been. I am not quick to read code words, but I think that's what it is here, especially after he received cheers for what he said.

If Santorum is successful in winning the nomination, I cannot see him being equally successful in the general election. His beliefs as to contraceptives and gays, for example, are too far outside of the mainstream as to be successful anywhere outside of evangelical or other very religious politics, where it is popular. Our country does not look for or vote for politicians who put religion in the forefront of their campaign. Even the issue of contraceptives has changed in my lifetime. Back in the 60s and 70s, conservatives might have been dead set against contraceptives, and some still are. But, many of them use them themselves and have used them. Many conservatives now say it is no issue at all. Even one of Santorum’s spokesmen the other day was surprised to learn on a television show that Santorum was anti-contraceptive.

I say, not for the first or last time, I would like Obama defeated. But, that does not mean I want just anyone to replace him. I know I don’t want Gingrich, who is up there in John Kerry territory concerning politicians I do not want to see be president. If he was the Republican candidate I would go third-party. Ron Paul is, of course, okay with me as is Romney, the only one I think could win a general election (I’d like to imagine Paul could win if given the chance, but I really doubt it). I do not think Santorum could win and I’m not sure I would want him to either. I actually like the guy personally. There are many people in this world I like who I disagree with politically. Doesn’t mean they are not good people or I will hold it against them. If you listen to his story, it is actually very appealing. But, that doesn’t mean he should be president. And anyone who engages in this war on religion or Christianity or anything of like kind, is not going to be getting my vote either.

And, that also means Mr. Romney, you have to be careful too, as far as I'm concerned. But, whoever is the Republican nominee, they should remember that while candidates must evince a belief in God, no president in the United States has ever won running on a primarily religious platform.


  1. Well Frodo, I was all set to be a smart aleck, and the truth is, this was one of your most well reasoned, eloquent essays on religion and politics. I don't have hardly a quibble with any of it. Well said.

  2. Bear must have the flu or something.

  3. The same forces that required Roger Rabbit to answer the knocking of "shave and a haircut" requires me to say - and he just can't bear it.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .