24 March 2004

Faulty leap in Ryan’s logic

Ryan contends the following:

[F]or people without a deracinated, ecumenical God, religion actually means something, and scriptures should be taken literally.

Let us play opposites here.  For people who don’t have a
hyper-particularized God, can their religion actually mean
something?  And if religion actually means something, must its
scriptures be taken literally?

I don’t think either of his contentions bear up.  By “mean
something”, Ryan has generally opined that for a religion to mean
something, it must spur its adherents to extreme acts, but acts of a
particularly negative character.  Ryan often talks about “strong
religion,” but the ways in which it spurs its followers to act, in his
citations, are generally destructive acts.  My two beginnings of a
counter-example are the following questions.

First, can religion that “means something” — so-called “strong”
religion — spur its adherents to acts, not of superhuman brutality,
but acts of superhuman charity and love?  (Yes, I opine.  And
I can cite a couple of examples.)

Second, why must an act require extreme (in time or in impact) action
to “mean something”?  In other words, can there be meaning in
actions and attitudes that are not extreme?  Why or why not?

As for Ryan’s project of poking fun at people’s seriousness about God
and their images of Him/Her, I’m all for it.  If people are threatened
by it, they’re probably done exactly as Mark Twain said we do with
God.  “God created man in His own image, and man, being a
gentleman, returned the favor.”  We’ve gotta kill our Buddha, as
it were, and humor provides one of the best ways to do that.

Posted in Rayleejun on 24 March 2004 at 10:07 am by Nate
23 March 2004

Political theology

Ryan posts this morning about David Brooks’ column in the Times this morning.

I too found it disappointing.  I sometimes enjoy Brooks, even if I
don’t agree with him, but lately his ideas have been pretty loose and
logicaly flawed.  Ryan points out one of the flaws (sort of

But let’s have a look at part of what Brooks says, since what he says right after this affects some of my own people.

Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible and commentaries on the
Bible can be read as instructions about what human beings are like and
how they are likely to behave.

Maybe.  At least on the face of it, this could be plausible. 
Political theorists deal in texts that have definite theories “about
what human beings are like and how they are likely to behave.” 
Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Arendt, and many other political
philosophers all had the project of trying to explain why humans behave
politically as they do and how human construction (whether or not any
particular philosopher affirmed or denied “human nature”) can influence
behavior.  You could read the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as doing
something similar.

But there seems a difference in that many of the texts of “political
theory” are generally offered as somehow different than a religious set
of writings.  There’s (usually) no claim to access the divine or
deified in the creation of the texts.  Biblical texts do not
(generally) seem to offer an idea of what a polity should look like, as
political theory does.  It’s not that one is “religious” and the
other “political” because those are recent categorizations and the
distinction breaks down before about 500 years ago.  But in
reading each set of texts (and I have), there’s a difference in focus,
in intent (which I can’t quite name right now).  So I’d be leary
of reading Biblical texts as mandating a particualr concept of

Besides, we owe much of our concept of government not only to the
Bible, but also to Plato, Locke, Montequieu, and so forth.  Brooks
seems to slide right over that.

Then he goes on:

Moreover, this biblical wisdom is deeper
and more accurate than the wisdom offered by the secular social
sciences, which often treat human beings as soulless
utility-maximizers, or as members of this or that demographic group or

Where’s he getting this pipe of crack?  What does he mean by
“deeper” and “more accurate”?  And how would he apply that to our
public, political life?  Sure, the Bible says we should act justly
toward our neighbors.  So does Socrates.  So does J.S.
Mill.  So do the Federalists.  The problem is figuring out
what (for example) “justice” is.  And for that, we have to
actually study the ways human beings live in terms of group
affectation, values, and, yes, even utility.

How would Brooks propose to understand how the soul affects our
decision to go to war or not?  To pay for old peoples pensions or
not?  More abstractly, does Brooks assume that all peoples souls
are so much the same that we can somehow understand, on the basis of
“soul”, what people will do and why?  How does an understanding of the soul help us understand out politics?

Whether the topic is welfare, education, the regulation of
biotechnology or even the war on terrorism, biblical wisdom may offer
something that secular thinking does not — not pat answers, but a way
to think about things.

For example, it’s been painful to watch thoroughly secularized
Europeans try to grapple with Al Qaeda. The bombers declare, “You want
life, and we want death”— a (fanatical) religious statement par
excellence. But thoroughly secularized listeners lack the mental
equipment to even begin to understand that statement. They struggle
desperately to convert Al Qaeda into a political phenomenon: the
bombers must be expressing some grievance. This is the path to
permanent bewilderment.

Hold on a minute, buckaroo!  “Secular” thinking does offer
“ways to think about things.”  What political theorists — and a
number of more empirical social scientists —  do does not offer “pat
answers.”  What we attempt to show is how a large complex of
motivations drives human behavior, and that when faced with a universe
configured in a certain way, humans prioritize some values above others
and then act upon those prioritizations. 

The problem with “secular Europeans” lies less in not having a way to
think, but in a general unfamiliarity with a particular way of
thinking.  Just like Americans don’t understand communal ways of
thinking, monarchist ways of thinking, or scientific ways of thinking
very well.

Even if the phrase “one nation under God” goes away from the pledge of
allegiance, it’s hardly going to affect the religiosity of
Americans.  And it’s hardly a matter of citizenship, like Brooks contends.

For Americans, this is not an easy topic to grapple with, because we’re the only
country to divide religion and state so definitively.  The real
challenge that we face as a nation lies in concurrently learning to
acknowledge religion in the public sphere and learning not to
acknowledge religion in the public sphere.

Posted in Politicks on 23 March 2004 at 12:39 pm by Nate
15 March 2004

The new front in the war on terror

Yesterday, on one of the news programs (I think it was “Face the
Nation”), Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, in discussing links to Al
Qaeda in the terrorist attacks in Spain, noted, “The–the one thing I
would say is there seem to be growing connections between terrorist

It’s one line in a one-hour program, but it was noteworthy enough to
put on the evening news broadcast in my market (Boston).  And
good political theorist and scientist that I am, I ask, “What does it

Well, we know that this is an administration scrupulous about its control
of message to the press (to the extent that it is now
producing its own “news” segments for local news
).  So it’s
hard to believe that anything is a throw-away comment.

The comment Rumsfeld made immediately struck me as the opening for
next phase of our national war on terror.  We’ve “dealt”
Iraq, we’re supposedly mounting a spring offensive against the
region of Pakistan-Afghanistan to find Osama, and we’ve aggressively
asserted the idea that we will root our terror wherever it

If terror groups are building linkages to one another, then there are
two consequences for American foreign policy and the world. 

  1. We can further expand our presence around the world (at
    theoretically, if not materially or militarily — even our military
    limits).  If all fights are parts of the war on terror, then
    become part of all of them.
  2. Consequently, we can continue to not find Al Qaeda, because we
    will fight a proxy war with people acting at his behest.

What’s funny is that we’ve been to number one before — it greatly
resembles our anti-Communist policy of the Cold War — with a couple
important exceptions.  First, we’re fighting a set of
instead of one.  Yeah, there’s Islamist totalitarianism, but if
link all the terrorist groups together, we’re lumping Islamists with
nationalists with directionless rebels.  Second, unlike with
Communist states that we can arrive at some accommodation with after
negotiation, there’s no one to talk to in the case of
So we’re constantly in a state of playing reaction games, rather than
being able to make initial moves of our own.

Posted in Politicks on 15 March 2004 at 11:26 am by Nate
13 March 2004

“I am an Anglican” song

To be sung to the tune of “God Bless America”:

I am an Anglican,
I am P.E.,*
I am High Church and Low Church,
I am Protestant and Catholic and free.
Not a Presby, or a Lutheran,
Or a Baptist white with foam,
I am an Anglican,
Just one step from Rome
I am an Anglican,
Via media, my home.

* Protestant Episcopal, the “old” name for the Episcopal Church

Posted in Rayleejun on 13 March 2004 at 11:44 pm by Nate
12 March 2004

Just a couple of links….

AKMA posts an excellent summary of the MAJOR problem with the theology of substitutionary atonement, especially as portrayed by Mel Gibson.

New York Times noted the following, in an article about President
Bush’s address to the National Association of Evangelicals meeting:

One of the few discordant notes at the convention came
from Robert Schuller, a televangelist and senior pastor of the Crystal
Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., who delivered an address gently
criticizing some conservative evangelical Christians for acting as if
they know the only possible route to salvation.

upsets me about religious leaders of all faiths is that they talk like
they know it all, and anybody who doesn’t agree with them is a
heretic,” he said later in an interview.

Mr. Schuller said he
did not know enough about the proposed amendment banning same-sex
marriage to express a view. But he suggested that politics could be a
distraction from more important matters.

“Politics is a force that pulls answers towards mediocrity,” he said, “That is why when issues are politicized, I am gone.”

I had to say that this surprised me, coming from such a publicly prominent and vocal evangelical preacher.

Posted in OnTheWeb on 12 March 2004 at 3:20 pm by Nate
11 March 2004

Busy, but that’s good

Sorry that’s there’s been no real news here of late.  I’ve been
really busy with dissertation work of late, and there’s been scant time
for blogging.  Actually, it’s more about the fact that I have been
writing and thinking 8 or more hours a day, and blogging seems to be
more liek work than fun after that.

But never fear!  The weekend is coming!

Posted in Day2Day on 11 March 2004 at 5:32 pm by Nate
7 March 2004

More on the Gibson flick

I had another thought about Gibson’s cartoon Jesus film.

At the end of the film, as we see the Resurrection portrayed, the stone
creaks, and light passes over the walls of the tomb.  Then we come
to the body, wrapped in burial cloths, lying on a stone table. 
The clothes deflate and collapse, and then we pull back and see Jesus
sitting next to the table.  In the background, a drum-backed
triumphal sort of theme starts.  Jesus looks forward, and then he
stands.  He walks out of the tomb, and we can no longer see his
face, but we are privy to his hand, and there is a hole in it that we
can see through to his leg.  Then we fade to black.

Some of the undergrads in my dining hall were making fun of this scene
the other day, saying that it’s almost as if Gibson were leaving
himself room to make “J2: The Return.”  And they’re exactly
right.  The last scene of the film exactly follows that action
movie motif — it’s less Resurrection than it is Terminator or Lethal

But I have been struck at how much the film relies upon pretty standard
Hollywood visual motifs (in addition to the classical anti-Semitic
portrayals of Jews and so forth) to tell its story.  It really is
the story of Jesus filtered through an action film.  And just like
with the anti-Semitic imagery and so forth, i wonder how much of it was
unwitting acquiesence on Gibson’s part.  It’s almost as if he did
this without any awareness of the lineages of the various ways of
portraying certain types of events.

Lots of ink has been spilled on how Gibson made his film without any
reference to history, how he portrays Jews, Romans, and so forth. 
But even in the medium in which he’s an expert (I think it’s safe to
say that Mel’s not an expert in ancient Roman or Palestinian customs
and culture), he seems not to recognize what he is doing.

Posted in Rayleejun on 7 March 2004 at 11:57 am by Nate
6 March 2004

More student concerns

A friend asked this recently, and I thought I’d put it out the blogosphere as to what you all would do.

A female minority student told me that she was intimidated in my
class because of (a) all the white males in it, (b) all the white
students in general in the class, and (c) the lack of respect the
former groups, particularly the white males, are expressing in their
comments and behavior toward others in the class and that she wanted me
to do something about it. What exactly I am not sure — maybe express
that we need to elevate the level of respect toward each other and try
to keep the side jokes to a minimum. I’m not really sure what to do
with this one because I want to take her seriously and respond in a way
that communicates I heard her concern, but I’m not sure what to do.

Any ideas?

Posted in IvoryTower on 6 March 2004 at 12:53 pm by Nate

Voting in the US

I was at a party last night where a couple of the good people there
were advocating that the US needs mandatory voting, like Australia, to
boost the number of voters.  (What’s funny is that no one seemed
to question why it was better
to have more voters.  Any good answers out there [by which I mean,
do you have any supportable reasons based on logic, rather than the
typical “It’s just better when more people vote”]?)(

So I asked a friend who’s much better with American politics than I am
why we perceive that the voters in the US are so low.  Here’s his

When people talk about “low turnout” what they really are talking about is
declining turnout. I argue that most of the causes of low turnout have to do
with the denominator. When we hear reports about voter turnout, we hear about
turnout in the voting age population — many of which are excluded from voting
for a variety of reasons, including felony convictions and non-citizenship. If
we look instead at the voting eligible population (those that could vote if they
wanted to), turnout is much higher and has actually remained pretty stable since
the 1950s. There have still been declines since the turn of the century, but
that has to do more with expansions in the voting eligible population (i.e.,
extending the franchise to women and 18 – 21 year olds) than anything

If you look comparatively, however, the US does indeed have lower turnout
than most other democracies. No one is really sure about why this is the case.
One argument is that unlike voters in most democracies because of federalism
voters in the US have the opportunity to vote on a very large number of
electoral questions. We vote for local government officials and issues. We vote
for state government officials and issues. We vote for national government
officials. Voters in many other democracies only vote for the national
government, which then appoints the local and regional government officials.
Other possible explanations include: (a) weak partisanship as opposed to weak
parties  — we just don’t get excited about political issues let alone political
parties (although that appears to be changing in this election); (b) no
requirement to vote — voting in the US is a choice, but in many other
democracies there are penalties for not voting in an election; and (c)
restrictions (e.g., residency requirements and registration requirements) that
limit the pool of who is eligible to vote in a given election in the US.
Posted in Politicks on 6 March 2004 at 12:45 pm by Nate
3 March 2004

Another political bludgeon

Anna Quindlen writes recently about how religiosity — which is not the same as faith — has become the Roman flaying of politics.

When did it first become gospel that only
conservatives knew God? It sure wasn’t true 40 years ago for a Roman
Catholic kid in a Catholic neighborhood, when the knock on John F.
Kennedy was that religion was likely to be too much a part of his
politics and he’d be on the phone to the Holy See so often, the pope
would be a de facto cabinet member. Jimmy Carter’s faith was as much a
part of his persona as that Chiclets smile, and I’d like to meet the
guy who could go head to head with Mario Cuomo on theology and not cry
for mercy by the end of the exercise.

that made perfect sense to me because I had long ago concluded that I
had become a liberal largely through religion. Loving your neighbor as
yourself, giving your cloak to the man who had none, blessed are the
peacemakers: taken together, all of it seemed a clarion call to social
justice and the obligation of individuals and institutions to help
those who needed help. Jesus was the first radical rabble-rouser I’d
ever read about in school, and the best.

…What emerged was the knee-jerk assumption that those with left leanings
were never people of faith. This was also complicated by the fact that
many of us not only lack a simplistic way to talk about the subject but
also resent even being asked to do it, to slap the contents of our soul
down to establish the bona fides of our political positions. Those
positions are the product of the ability humans have been given to
reason, to interpret and to understand, not some literal textual
interpretation that makes dialogue or disagreement unnecessary or

…Any time I hear a guy going on and on about
how his road to the statehouse or the White House was paved with prayer
(not to mention a good bit of soft money), I get the uncomfortable
feeling he’s doing what Mel Gibson has done with his movie: trading on
God for personal gain. The modern version of 30 pieces of silver.

connection between politics and religion for me lies in the motto of
Cornelia Connelly, the Philadelphia wife and mother who founded the
order of nuns by whom I was lucky enough to be educated. Actions, not
words. Touch the sick, the poor, the children, the powerless, as Christ
did, and never mind quoting Leviticus. For the record, I have never
written the name of God without capitalizing the G. But that is the
letter. What truly matters is the spirit.

I was told as kid, by a former John Bircher who was also a youth leader
in my church, that you couldn’t be a Christian and be a Democrat,
because the Democratic party stood for so many things that were
anti-biblical.  The only example I recall him offering was the Dems
position on abortion.

So you want to know what motivates my politics? 
It’s complex.  I have religious reasons for each of the positions
that I take — my theology of public life is carefully thought out, so
that I can talk to my fellow Christians, to Jews, to Muslims, to
Buddhists about the interaction of my spiritual and political
lives.  So my positions on gay rights, war, the care of the poor,
the divide between church and state, and all that sort of stuff has
roots in what I believe spiritually.

But I also believe in the project of the
republic, and I believe that I must not have purely particularist reasons
for the positions I take on public issues.  So I also — right
alongside the “faith-based” reasons and NOT as a “cover” for them — have arguments and positions
based on reason, logic, and analysis.  I believe that the public arena
deserves nothing less.

Quindlen points out the “worship gap” — the idea that weekly church
attenders tend to be much more conservative than those who don’t attend
every week.  But she also rightly notes that among those who go
“most of the time” or “several times a month”, support for Democrats
and “liberal” positions is much stronger.  Also, importantly,
these people are the vast majority of the people polled.  Those
who claim to go to church “every week” or “never” are the vast minority
of Americans.  (And people tend to overestimate in polls about
stuff like this and the good works they do.)  Those who
occasionally miss church but are still faithful attenders are the great
mass of Americans.

(I might note that I attend church two or three times a week.)

But I have grown tired of a highly politicized
group of religious believers laying exclusive claim to labels like
“Christian.”  I usually identify as an “Episcopalian” because the
word “Christian” has been co-opted by a group with a particular agenda,
a particular politics, and a particular theology, none of which I agree
with.  And it seems to me that some members of these groups, like
the “Christian” Coalition, and such ilk, by participating in politics
exactly as everyone else does, engaging in “war” and working mostly in
demagoguery toward their opponents, bear false witness to the faith
they proclaim.  Although they believe in a transformative God,
their faith has not transformed them.

I’m with Quindlen and the nuns who taught her:
“Actions, not words.”  Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach
the gospel at all times.  Use words, if necessary.”

Posted in Politicks on 3 March 2004 at 10:51 am by Nate