Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Rise of the Uber-Christian Right in American Politics

Continuing with the theme of religion and U.S. politics, one of the most important trends in recent years has been the stealthy rise of the uber-Christian right in state and federal government offices. These days, Tea Partiers get all the press due to their goofy Obama=Hitler signs and the fact that many of them are armed to the teeth. Unlikely the Christian right, however, Tea Partiers are likely to remain on the margins of U.S. politics because they have not learned to hide their more odious opinions (see Rand Paul on the Civil Rights Act); for the most part, the Ayn Rand/One World Government/Don't Tread on Me crowd is far too weird and clownish to win higher office.

Not so with the New Christian right--a movement that dates back to televangelist Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the 1980s. Over more than two decades, the Christian right has honed its multi-vocal message. Activists, politicians and civil servants belonging to the movement have learned the fine art of speaking in code to their believers while sounding believably mainstream, multi-cultural and progressive to Americans outside the movement. Their most salient victory was electing George Bush Junior to the presidency.

In recent years, an even more radical offshoot of the radical right has made inroads into American politics. The Charismatic or neo-Charismatic or neo-Pentacostal movement is characterized by revivals and the use of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, miracle healings, and exorcising demons (I am not kidding). The New Apostolic Reformation movement includes a network of "prayer warriers" in all fifty states who conduct spiritual/territorial warfare to cleanse cities and towns of demons that they deem responsible for society's ills. Over the longer term, they aim to reclaim the "Seven Mountains of Culture" (business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion) and ultimately establish a theocratic government.

This would all be rather amusing if the movement hadn't already succeeded in making substantial inroads into state and local governments (including Sarah Palin in Alaska, both gubernatorial candidates in Hawaii, and police departments in Newark, Orlando, Baltimore and elsewhere). As for Palin, an astonishing video went viral around the time of the 2008 elections showing a Kenyan "Apostle" and NAR director for East Africa giving Sarah Palin a blessing to protect her from witchcraft and demons.


Bobby Jindal, Louisiana governor and rising GOP star, is said to have performed exorcisms when he was in college. Other connected GOP luminaries include Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (MN) and Senators Sam Brownback (KS) and Jim DeMint (SC). The uber-right Christian movement has also infiltrated the military, and there are reports of American servicemen and -women proselytizing and handing out bibles in Afghanistan, in open violation of the military code. Under the Bush administration, the Justice Department was staffed with graduates from a right-wing Christian law school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, and right-wing Christian-dominated school boards have rewritten history textbooks to include God as a major player in our nation's history. The NAR also has extensive ties with public officials in foreign countries, including the backers of the "kill the gays" bill in the Ugandan parliament that would make homosexuality a capital offense.

Secular and moderate Americans are encouraged to pay closer attention to the activities and goals of this insidious movement.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Religion and Gay Marriage Redux

In an earlier post, I wrote about the recent documentary, 8: The Mormon Proposition, which traces the Mormon Church's secretive, well-funded campaign to ban gay marriage in California (about 70 percent of the funds for the "yes" campaign came from Mormons, even though they make up only two percent of California's population). Most disturbing for me was the failure of Mormon leaders to reflect on the fact that Mormon polygamists in the nineteenth century had themselves been victimized by attempts to strip away their marriage rights. Mormons do not need a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance" to appreciate what it would be like to be the target of unjust discrimination; they (or at least their great-grandparents) have first-hand knowledge of it. This, however, did not stop the leaders of a once-marginalized religious minority from pushing through initiatives to take away the rights of a marginalized sexual minority.

I ended my post by implying that organized religion fosters a kind of totalitarian mentality for their adherents whereby the only rights worth defending are those that support their religious worldview. It is worth noting, however, that opposition to gay marriage is not shared by all American churches. In 2005, the United Church of Christ (Obama's church) became the first major Christian denomination in the U.S. to officially support gay marriage. And while American Quakers are split on gay rights, Quaker communities in Australia, the U.K., New Zealand, and Canada are actively lobbying for gay marriage and same-sex unions. The Episcopal Church, too, officially sanctioned same-sex marriage in March of this year.

Many Christian clergy also support same-sex unions. A recent poll by Progressive Religion Research indicates that the vast majority of mainline Protestant clergy (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian) support hate crimes legislation and same-sex civil unions or same-sex marriage. The position of churches and clergy matters immensely for public policy because of their impact on public opinion. For church-going people, the single best predictor of their position on gay rights is the position of their minister.

Even so, societal attitudes on gay marriage are changing rapidly, and recent ecclesiastical shifts suggest that many churches have altered their positions accordingly. There is also a generational shift in attitudes on gay rights--even among Christian conservatives. Although the vast majority of older white evangelical Christians oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions with only 9 percent favoring gay marriage, 58 percent of under-30 white evangelicals support legal recognition of same-sex unions with 26 percent favoring full marriage rights.

American churches that have changed their positions on gay marriage are right to do so, if only to remain relevant to their congregations.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Steep Costs of Inequality

One thing that is absolutely clear is that the so-called Great Recession has impacted the wealthy and the poor differently. Hunger has long been a problem among the nation's poor, but in 2008 a record 50 million Americans did not have enough to eat ; almost one in four children were reportedly undernourished. Bank foreclosures have also reached epidemic proportions. According to a survey conducted by the Mortgage Bankers Association, 1.2 million households lost their homes from 2005 to 2008, despite an increase of 3.4 million in the studied population; over 1 million households are expected to lose their homes in 2010 alone. The result is a spike in the homeless population; the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated in early 2009 that the current recession would force an additional 1.5 million people onto the street over the next two years.

Needless to say, none of these calamities have been visited on the rich, many of whom have barely noticed the recession.

Businesses who cater to the rich, such as Louis Vuitton and Tifanny's, have been doing gangbusters, with an increase in sales of over 20 percent in the first quarter of this year. But the real wins are among the uber-rich, who have increased their net worth by 20 percent in 2009. In 2008, the average Fortune 500 CEU took home $10.5 million in compensation.

Why should it matter that the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" is increasing? The skewed distribution of wealth and income has direct consequences for the health of our economy. An article published by the Nation in 2008 includes a chart by the Institute for Policy Studies that plots massive wealth gaps against major economic crashes over the past century. As can be seen, periods with the smallest gap between rich and poor and the highest marginal tax rate are associated with economic prosperity, while the greatest gaps in wealth and lowest marginal tax rates(late 1920s and late 2000s)were immediately followed by economic crises. Obviously, correlation is not causation, but we can surely establish that lowering the top tax bracket is not the economic panacea that supply-siders would like us to believe.

Click here to link to the article and see the full-sized chart.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fox News On Sherrod & Dem Cowards

It is not exactly news that Fox News is not exactly news. They have been pushing an ultra-conservative line for years, serving as apologists for the Bush admin for most of the 2000s, and since 2008, propagating the meme that black civil rights activists are racists, as is pretty much everyone in the Obama admin. The theory goes something like this: "Obama wants to hurt America (or at least the white race) because he is a racist and also because he is a National Socialist Nazi Marxist-Leninist Stalinist Maoist black nationalist radical. And so are all the other people in his admin. And also he wants reparations for slavery." Seriously.

We should stop being surprised and appalled by Fox News because they put out a very consistent product. What is surprising, disappointing, and really galling is the fact that the Obama admin is so scared of them. So much so that they snap to attention every time Glenn Beck issues an order. Beck has successfully smeared Van Jones and Anita Dunn with misleadingly edited video. Van Jones was fired over the incident. Fox News got ACORN defunded by Congress following a doctored hit piece in which a young conservative activist claimed he posed as a pimp to try to get tax advice from ACORN employees. People lost their jobs as a consequence, and ACORN is suing.

Most recently, Beck and his colleagues went after USDA employee Shirley Sherrod based on a deceptively edited video of a talk she had given at an NAACP event. The edited video suggests that she discriminated against a white farmer. The *rest* of the video reveals that her experience with this white farmer taught her that class mattered as well as race, and she went on to help them save their farm (this has since been corroborated by the farmers themselves). Disgustingly, the Obama admin immediately demanded that she resign without even hearing her side of the story, the person who told her to resign said the admin wanted to get her resignation before Glenn Beck went back on air. She has since been exonerated, and when Glenn Beck went back on air, he proceeded to villify the Obama admin for improperly firing her (!) The guy is a piece of work.

This event shows more than anything that the Obama admin is shaking in its boots, fearful of being criticized by demonstrably dishonest adversaries (who are going to villify Obama no matter what he does). The admin would be far more effective and garner much more respect if they simply told Beck and co. to die in a fire.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

8: The Mormon Proposition | Trailer US (2010)

For anyone who has not yet seen 8: The Mormon Proposition and is interested in the influence of religion in politics in the U.S., get thee to Netflix immediately. I finally watched this last night and was again reminded of how hypocritical religious people can be, and also how comfortable they are with their own hypocrisy. For those of you unfamiliar with the story (the trailer explains it pretty well), proposition 8 was a constitutional amendment put on the California ballot in 2008 to forbid gay marriage. Following a heated and well-funded campaign both for and against, the initiative passed by a tiny margin, effectively overturning the right for gay people to marry in California. The "yes" campaign was spearheaded by a "coalition" of Christian churches and other concerned citizens under the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). The documentary explains that NOM was basically a front group for an initiative that was organized, directed and primarily financed by the Mormon church.

There are a lot of interesting angles here, such as the fact that the First Presidency of the Church instructed its members to contribute their time and money to the "yes" campaign or that the Church refused to disclose its financial contributions to the campaign on grounds that it is a religious organization or that the Church enjoys a tax exempt status as a religious institution, even though as such they are forbidden to make "substantial contributions" to politicians, PACs or other campaigns.

What I am interested in is the fact that Mormons are so unselfconscious about the irony that they are actively attempting to take marriage rights away from gay people in the same way that anti-Mormons in the 19th century tried to take marriage rights away from Mormon polygamists. You would think there would be a little self-reflection here on that point, but then, absolutist religions are not exactly big on self-awareness, fairness, equality under the law, or any other liberal, democratic principle. Instead, they doggedly pursue what they consider to be The One True Way, which must be legislated for everyone, not just members of that religion. One of the many, many reasons I am not a fan of organized religion.

In the end, it is a losing proposition because gay marriage will ultimately be the law of the land. Way to get on the wrong side of history...

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Retirement Nightmare: Half of Americans Have Less Than $2,000 Banked for Their Golden Years | Economy | AlterNet

I ran across this piece on alternet about the dire situation of prospective American retirees; half of Americans have less than 2000 USD saved for retirement (!); one-third of Americans have no savings at all. The author argues that this will have to be made up by saving (one source suggests one-quarter of one's income socked away) and by individual retirement accounts. Problem is what retirement analysts have been saying for years: IRAs are no substitute for workplace retirement plans. Why? Because with the former, all the contributions are made by the employee, whereas with the latter, the employer contributes a matching amount. The upshot is that, to make up for lack of employer contributions, people with IRAs have to put in double what people with workplace retirement accounts contribute to get the same amount of money in the end. Fact is, individuals cannot do it on their own unless they have incredible good fortune with their investments. This is not a good omen. Even if you are set up for retirement (and I know very few who are), what kind of economy are we going to have when half of the retired population is living solely on social security? And if Republicans have their way, even this program will get drastically scaled back. I don't see any other solution than a government fix.

The Retirement Nightmare: Half of Americans Have Less Than $2,000 Banked for Their Golden Years | Economy | AlterNet