Monday, October 10, 2005

October 8, 2005

An Article of Faith

What to do about Harriet Miers? She has no judicial record to grill her about. And, since she has been working in the Bush White House as the President's lawyer, all her memos and advice is privileged. Senators can ask her what her personal view are on Roe v. Wade, but she doesn't have to answer them, and won't.

That would apparently leave Senators with a very short list of non-controversial, non-enlightening questions, like "what's your favorite color," and "what three books would take with you on a desert island?"

But that's not true. There are heavy questions that need to be asked, questions that would reveal more about who Harriet Miers is and the kind of Justice she would be, than all the legal mumbo jumbo in the US code.

The only question is will Senators have the nerve to ask her? Before I list the questions that should be asked of Miss Miers I have to set the stage.

I'm old enough to remember when JFK ran for President. There was grumbling then that, as a Catholic, he would be beholding to the Pope. Kennedy nixed such paranoia by clearly and convincingly stating that his personal religious beliefs would not influence his obligation to the nation.

Kennedy's position was consistent with the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which is actually a contract between the government and the governed. That contract stipulated that, in return for not interferring with citizen's free practice the faith of their choice, no one would be allowed to force the establishment of a state-favored religion.

That contract held for 200 years, until the Ronald Reagan made his pact with the Christian right, and it's been chipped away at ever since. The Christian right's opposition to abortion was just the thin-edge of the wedge -- more followed; prayer in public schools, Christian monuments on public property, Biblical creationism taught as science.

The Christian right has broken that contract – or at least are trying their best to do so. So, it's different now than when Kennedy ran. Back then the contract was intact and not under attack. Today it is clearly and demonstrably under attack and threatened. Threatened by whom? By evangelical Christians -- evangelical Christians like Harriet Miers.

While that contract was intact no one hat the right to probe the religious beliefs of a candidate for high public office. Doing so would have been correctly seen as the lowest form of bigotry – a kind of anti-religious McCarthyism. But over the past 25 years or so evangelicals have not been shy about attacking those who do not share their religious beliefs, or in trying to impose those beliefs on everyone else.

So, the deal's off. I want to know what's rattling around in Harriet Mier's evangelically influenced brain before I put her in a position to interpret my my rights under the US Constitution.

So, here we go. Swear Harriet in and let the questioning begin:

Question: Miss Miers, you are a member of the Valley View Evangelical Christian Church in Dallas for 25 years, correct?

Question: Does your church believe the Old and New Testaments are tobe taken literally and do you share that belief?

Question: Under what circumstances do you believe biblical law trumps secular law or rights?

Question: If a case comes before you as a Justice of the US Supreme Court in which established law supports the case of the petitioner but is in direct violation of biblical law and/or your religous beliefs, could you still rule for the petitioner?

Question: Do you believe that humans evolved or were, as all evangelicals believe, man was created fully developed as we know ourselves now?

Question: How old do you believe the Earth is? Do you believe the science that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, or as many evangelicals believe, just 6000 years old?

Question: Do you believe, as many evangelicals do, that modern man co-existed with dinosaurs?

Question: Can you explain your understanding of the term "the scientific method?"

Question: How do you intellectually and emotionally reconcile the results of exhaustive scientific research when those results directly contradict the bible and/or your evangelical religious beliefs?

Question: You have been quoted as saying that you feel President Bush is the most brilliant person you have ever known. The BBC recently reported that President Bush said he believes God speaks to him directly.

Quote: God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan'.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq...' And I did.....'And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.' And by God I'm gonna do it',"

Miss Miers, do you believe that God literally speaks directly to President Bush? And that the policies he mentioned in that quote were indeed ordered by God? And do you believe God speaks to you directly?

As I said, the answers to those questions would tell us all we need to know what kind of Justice Harriet Miers would be. And Senators have a right to ask them because the Christian right has put them squarely on the table.

Evangelical Christians like to argue that "God has been banned from the public square." Well, fine, then let's put God back in the public square. But understand, the public square in not a lecture hall, it's a debating society.

So, let the debate begin. Would a Justice Harriet Miers continue America's tradition of separation of church and state, or erode it? Would she rule for mankind, or impose her narrow evangelical beliefs?

I think we have a right to know that. And the only way to find out is to probe what's going on in Miss Mier's head and heart. Look at it this way, if Harriet Miers were discovered to be a member of a pro-communist study group you could bet she'd be grilled on those beliefs. So why not grill her on her evangelical beliefs as well? After all, a true-believer is a true-believer.

One last observation. In his novel, "Mother Night," Kurt Vonnegut's protagonist tells of meeting a nice couple that, in all respects seemed entirely normal. Their friendship grew, until one day they invited him to a meeting. It turned out to be a meeting of American Fascists. He mulled how this could be. How could two people who, on the surfaced seemed so sane, become followers of something so insane? He concluded that some people's minds operate like gears that mesh normally as they turn until they reach a certain spot where a tooth is missing, and there they slip.

I want to know how many teeth, if any, Harriet has missing from her gears. Don't you?

And Chew on This
From The Los Angeles Times

The dark side of faith
October 1, 2005

IT'S OFFICIAL: Too much religion may be a dangerous thing.
This is the implication of a study reported in the current issue of the Journal of Religion and Society, a publication of Creighton University's Center for the Study of Religion. The study, by evolutionary scientist Gregory S. Paul, looks at the correlation between levels of "popular religiosity" and various "quantifiable societal health" indicators in 18 prosperous democracies, including the United States.

Paul ranked societies based on the percentage of their population expressing absolute belief in God, the frequency of prayer reported by their citizens and their frequency of attendance at religious services. He then correlated this with data on rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, abortion and child mortality.

He found that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics. Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) — also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

This conclusion will come as no surprise to those who have long gnashed their teeth in frustration while listening to right-wing evangelical claims that secular liberals are weak on "values." Paul's study confirms globally what is already evident in the U.S.: When it comes to "values," if you look at facts rather than mere rhetoric, the substantially more secular blue states routinely leave the Bible Belt red states in the dust.

Murder rates? Six of the seven states with the highest 2003 homicide rates were "red" in the 2004 elections (Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina), while the deep blue Northeastern states had murder rates well below the national average. Infant mortality rates? Highest in the South and Southwest; lowest in New England. Divorce rates? Marriages break up far more in red states than in blue. Teen pregnancy rates? The same.

Of course, the red/blue divide is only an imperfect proxy for levels of religiosity. And while Paul's study found that the correlation between high degrees of religiosity and high degrees of social dysfunction appears robust, it could be that high levels of social dysfunction fuel religiosity, rather than the other way around.

Although correlation is not causation, Paul's study offers much food for thought. At a minimum, his findings suggest that contrary to popular belief, lack of religiosity does societies no particular harm. This should offer ammunition to those who maintain that religious belief is a purely private matter and that government should remain neutral, not only among religions but also between religion and lack of religion. It should also give a boost to critics of "faith-based" social services and abstinence-only disease and pregnancy prevention programs.

We shouldn't shy away from the possibility that too much religiosity may be socially dangerous. Secular, rationalist approaches to problem-solving emphasize uncertainty, evidence and perpetual reevaluation. Religious faith is inherently nonrational.

This in itself does not make religion worthless or dangerous. All humans hold nonrational beliefs, and some of these may have both individual and societal value. But historically, societies run into trouble when powerful religions become imperial and absolutist.

The claim that religion can have a dark side should not be news. Does anyone doubt that Islamic extremism is linked to the recent rise in international terrorism? And since the history of Christianity is every bit as blood-drenched as the history of Islam, why should we doubt that extremist forms of modern American Christianity have their own pernicious and measurable effects on national health and well-being?

Arguably, Paul's study invites us to conclude that the most serious threat humanity faces today is religious extremism: nonrational, absolutist belief systems that refuse to tolerate difference and dissent.

My prediction is that right-wing evangelicals will do their best to discredit Paul's substantive findings. But when they fail, they'll just shrug: So what if highly religious societies have more murders and disease than less religious societies? Remember the trials of Job? God likes to test the faithful.

To the truly nonrational, even evidence that on its face undermines your beliefs can be twisted to support them. Absolutism means never having to say you're sorry.

And that, of course, is what makes it so very dangerous.