We’re No Angels: Americans, Church Doctrine, and the Pill

What’s all the fuss about Americans not following religious doctrine? Seriously, we all know that none of us dance and drink as passionately as Baptists. Few are as happy with the invention of the Pill as Catholics. Many seem grateful that Jesus’ plea to help the poor is taken no more seriously than an Ogden Nash poem.

Oh, I have no doubt that Catholic Church leaders are quite frustrated that their flock no longer does what they are ordered to do by the self-regarding, closer-to-god Church hierarchy. And, it’s probably true that Mormons are, as these things go, a little more obedient to doctrine, right down to their underwear, than members of most other faiths. Credit where credit is due.

Lurking behind the church/state controversy over the morally righteous effort to make contraceptives available to American women is the certain truth that even the most devout Catholics ignore the Church’s medieval doctrine on this one. The controversy was truly like arguing about the number of angels on the head of a pin. There are no angels; there are no pins. Just pundits and panderers.

Denial may not be a river an Egypt, as the 12-steppers say, but it’s broader than the Mississippi in America. If there’s anything we do better than escaping religious doctrine, it’s denying that we escape it.

Now, it must be admitted that many can get themselves into a righteous snit when they discover that others have also sawed through the bars and run away across the fields. High-tailing it to freedom like the trio of miscreants in O Brother Where Art Thou, they look over their shoulders and shout at the escapees behind them, “Get thee back to God’s House, sinners!” Their indignation is born of two parents: seeing themselves unhappily mirrored in their doctrine-denying brethren makes their denial a little more difficult; and, they are worried about the lack of parking spaces near the bars, the dancehalls, and the contraceptive-dispensing pharmacies.

Speaking of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, the scene where Delmar is saved by the preacher may be the most accurate portrayal of Americans and faith on film:

Delmar: Well, that’s it, boys. I been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. And heaven everlasting’s my reward.

Everett: Delmar, what are you on about? We got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar: The preacher said all my sins is washed away,
including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Everett: You said you was innocent of that.

Delmar: Well, I was lyin’. And the preacher said that that sin’s been washed away, too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now.

Secretly, we’re all thankful for the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. God forbid (pardon the reference) that the State should enforce church doctrines under penalty of the criminal law. If we think we have a prison crisis now…

So what’s behind all the hooting and hollering over the Obama Administration’s contraception initiative? Why is it that even some progressive pundits are arguing for more deference to the Catholic Bishops on an issue that’s not even about religious freedom, but women’s health? I think it’s because they feel we’re not showing enough deference to pretense. That the health of American women would be put at risk by such deference is kind of beside the point.

I don’t mean to in any way mock religion. Many – most – of us draw deep and abiding values from the faith traditions we were raised in or discovered on our own. I think humans come with a wonderful ability to look for answers beyond what’s immediately at hand, and religions can facilitate that and a give us a sense of community, too.

But I do mean to mock those who argue that we must sacrifice women’s health on the altar of a religious doctrine no one in America takes seriously. On the other hand, Republicans who think this is a viable wedge issue might discover it’s a wedge between themselves and the rest of America. I’m tempted to say, go for it.

“If She Opened Her Eyes, Maybe We Can, Too.”

If she opened her eyes, maybe we can, too.

Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, director of the Interfaith Alliance said that on Rachel Maddow. He was speaking about the remarkable moment in President Obama’s speech when the president told us that Gabrielle Giffords had, just after his visit to the hospital, opened her eyes. It was a powerful and personal speech, reminding us of the potential heroism that resides in the hearts of all. Obama said:

We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

Many on the Right praised the speech, too, adding that it should bring an end to what’s now being called a blame game — the blaming of right-wing hate talk for the violence in Tucson. It didn’t take long for some to label the mournful cries for a more civil union as some kind of partisan bickering. This was a straw-man employed to avoid such a healing conversation. The night of the Tuscon tragedy, I wrote about our nation’s violent culture and its potential impact on our American future. This is how I concluded:

One another to hold — that is all we are given in this life, and I mean that with a fierceness that ought to set the violent to wondering. And we’ll hold them tenderly, too, because if we’re to love we must acknowledge and extinguish the fear that can twist the hearts of those who very briefly share this place with us.

The photo above is Gabby Giffords holding hands with her husband Mark Kelly in her hosptal bed. I repeat the closing sentiment from Sunday’s piece  to make clear that the purpose of discussing the use of violent language in politics is not partisan, it is not to score partisan points. The purpose is to create an atmosphere in which all views are welcome as long as they are respectfully and peacefully offered.

As Obama said, words that heal, not wound. Over the last several days many took exception to the criticism of violent, hateful language. They took it personally, as if they were somehow being accused of pulling the trigger in Tucson. No such accusation was made, at least in these quarters. However, words have consequences, and those who consciously contribute hate to the public conversation have to recognize that it never heals, it hurts our democracy.

A Troubling Pattern in America’s Obama Story

George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and was appointed president by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. A sanctimonious pundit class tells us it is crabby, unpatriotic and uncivil to dwell upon that bit of history. But questions of legitimacy (“does he really belong here?”) have dogged Barack Obama since he won the Iowa caucuses. Where have the “get over it” arguments gone? Long time passing.

There is an ugly pattern in coverage and conversation about Obama. The media’s immediate recourse to dubious language like “the Gulf oil spill is Obama’s Katrina” is just the most recent example.

Juxtaposed against the overt “get over it” arguments about Bush’s appointment, this presents us with some unpleasant suspicions about the national character. About Bush the media asked, “When will he succeed?” About Obama they ask, “When will he fail?” Obama’s the show that doesn’t belong on Broadway, and the critics clamor: when will the curtain come down?

Obama’s reflections at a San Francisco 2008 fundraiser about the source and symptoms of white, working class frustration would prove his undoing, we were told. Okay, then, surely the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” preaching would take Obama out. A poor debate performance against Hilary Clinton? Disqualifying, said many.

Obama’s handling of the health care debate? The economy? Jobs? Too often the questions turned not on healthy, objective, rational critique, but on when this guy’s Broadway show would close. It’s not a quite a birther rant, but it’s of the same family.

Part of this is just the media’s attempted fulfillment of the clichéd American celebrity narrative: the star that rises from nowhere must crash and burn. I think unrestrained and unthinking Obama worship fed the “star” part of this storyline. I’m anti-authoritarian by nature, and I read too much history and covered politicians far too long to imagine superhero exploits from any of them, ever.

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Fatal Fantasies of Our Technological Omnipotence

Behind the public’s impatience with President Obama and the Gulf Oil spill lie dangerous fantasies of technological American angels that can fly in an fix everything and anything. The same kind of fantasies, of course, lead a company like British Petroleum that they can overcome the unexpected with a combination of public relations savvy and technical know-how.

It’s not optimism. Optimism is reality based and healthy. It’s reality-defying denial. The New York Times had a weekend piece on this all-too-American trait. In it, the late physicist Richard Feynman is quoted:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

When Frank Rich is speculating that the oil spill will damage Obama, irony spills faster than oil in Gulf waters. George W. Bush was the President from the Oil Patch. Big Oil never had friends in high places like Bush and Dick Cheney. Now Sarah Palin, busy collecting oil company money more efficiently than a boom collects oil slicks, accuses Obama of being in the pocket of Big Oil.

And what do we make of Republicans who want to drown the federal government in a bathtub but shriek for federal assistance when economic, environmental and technological disasters strike near their homes?

When politics becomes dissociated from reality, bad things happen to good people, usually at the hands of bad people happy to exploit the virtual fantasy worlds they’ve helped invent. “Drill Baby Drill,” said Palin. There was never any considered thought given to what a BP-like disaster would do to the Gulf state fishing, shipping and tourist industries. Raising questions about it seemed out of place in the fantasies. Then disaster strikes and we turn into a nation of unruly children, wailing like infants who wail for their pacifiers after they throw them to the floor.

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A Socialist Primer: Rick Perry, Health Care & the Governor’s Race

Perry-RallyI’m wondering what it’s going to take for my former colleagues in the Texas press corps to call out Rick Perry for using the term “socialism” over-and-over to describe the insurance reform Congress passed last week.

Either Perry and reporters covering him don’t know what socialism is (and I doubt that), or Perry again is pushing  Tea Bag propaganda, and the press is too lazy or too intimidated to challenge it.

I’m used to Perry embarrassing Texas. So, I’m not surprised he’s parroting Dolph Briscoe’s old obsession with “creeping socialism.”  Thankfully, we’ve moved beyond the 1970s, though you wouldn’t know it from the Cold War rhetoric in a statement Perry released last Sunday and sound bites he repeated later in the week. Continue reading “A Socialist Primer: Rick Perry, Health Care & the Governor’s Race”

Justice Roberts Troubled by Open Criticism of Supreme Court

roberts-oath2Let me get this straight. The U.S. Supreme Court can choose a president it wants (Bush in 2000) or hand powerful corporations the legal tool they need to silence the voices of average Americans in elections, but no one should publicly criticize them? That seems to be Chief Justice John Roberts’ message to the White House.

Mr. Roberts told a University of Alabama audience that the setting at the joint session of Congress degenerated into a pep rally, which he found “very troubling.” Mr. Obama had directly singled out a recent ruling, known as Citizens United, that lifted restrictions on corporations and unions for election communications.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision said corporations could spend unlimited sums to influence election outcomes, tossing overboard decades of law and precedent. During his State of the Union Speech, President Obama criticized the ruling. Justice Samuel Alito, in the audience, could be seen saying to the President, “That’s not true.”

Roberts’ concern seems to be that the Court should not be dragged into settings even vaguely partisan. Oh reall? Then the Court should have let the voters of Florida decide the 2000 election outcome. What Roberts is really doing is advancing a kind of foggy belief that the Court is above it all, that the justices are Perfectly Objective Judicial Machines. The legal term for this belief is bullshit.

When I’m in a courtroom and the judge enters, I obey the bailiff and stand to the words, “All rise.” I address elected officials by their title, address them in letters as “The Honorable.” Etiquette guards against social chaos, when it’s not taken too far. It’s just a signal of common humanity. But Roberts goes too far, as do a lot of others who fancy themselves better than us average Joes.

The kind of deference Roberts wants has no place in a democracy. The judge is just another guy, appointed by a President who was hired to do stuff for us (which the particular president in questioned failed at, miserably). I don’t like kings. I don’t like people who demand their hems be touched or their rings kissed.

But, then, we might summarize the philosophy of the Roberts Court this way:  “All are not created equal.” Like I said, I’m no anarchist. I observe the formalities, grudgingly sometimes, but I do it. But there’s a limit. Roberts is over the limit.

End the Corruption: Reform Effort Gains Steam

monopoly-manWhat citizens rightly view as the failures of government are usually considered major successes by the wealthy special interests that paid politicians to do their bidding. This is particularly true in Texas, where state officeholders were paid by special interests to:

1) put our roads under the control of a foreign company;
2) trash our public schools so proposals to spend your tax dollars on privileged, private schools would be more attractive;
3) raise college tuition so families would have to borrow more from unscrupulous student loan companies;
4) destroy the civil justice system so companies who maim and kill could not be held accountable;
5) deny millions of Texans health care so big insurance profits could soar;

The U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision hands unlimited powers to corporations to go where no plain old human person has gone before. Under the ruling, special interests can buy any election outcome they want. The ruling outraged Texans and Americans. And it has galvanized support for serious reform efforts. Here’s a piece from Politico.

… A top [Obama] administration official said that “the biggest piece of reform” will be supporting congressional efforts to limit the impact of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that opened campaigns to huge independent spending by corporations and unions. “Americans really turned against this opinion, the official said. “And so the biggest reform is to ensure that our politics and our campaigns are not controlled by special interests. Getting legislation that deals with the Supreme Court decision on the floor and debated — and hopefully passed — is very important.”

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A Better Mouse Trap for the Age of Rats

American democracy is a better mousetrap. Unfortunately, it was born in the Age of the Rat.

It isn’t just any old rat, either. It is a magical rat that somehow convinces its victims that the fatter it gets, the better off they are. I refer, of course to the robber barons of Wall Street, the plump rats and plutocrats of the Industrial Revolution and its technology-empowered successors.

It doesn’t take a fine-grained historical account to see that our democratic mousetrap has proved inadequate to the task of catching rats, from yesterday’s railroad magnates to today’s Wall Street thieves. It took a civil war to stop the trafficking in human beings.

With some extraordinary exceptions – child labor laws, the New Deal, civil rights – we’ve done little more than occasionally wipe the coal dust from our faces.

What is the source of the rat-magic that has made many Americans believe their freedom depends upon the freedom of others to, well, destroy their freedom?

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The Invisible Moral Consciences of Those in the Armed Forces

vietnam memorialOne of the most surprising statistics I’ve heard in a long time is that, according to a U.S. Army study done after World War II, only 25% of soldiers ever fired their guns at the enemy. The military changed its combat training, so in Vietnam 50% fired at the enemy. That increase, however, seems to have failed to help a war many thought was immoral. My father, a WWII veteran, was a medic in Vietnam, and he would not carry a gun. The documentary “Sir, No Sir” makes a case that Nixon was forced out of Vietnam because too many troops refused to fight and pilots refused to fly bombing missions. Charlie Clements, one of those pilots, was locked in a psych ward for refusing, a nonfiction case of Catch-22.

A new book, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers, by ethicist and psychoanalyst Nancy Sherman explores the psychological and moral impact of war on the inner lives of those in military service. In revealing their moral struggles, Sheman helps us see the profound emotional cost of war. The moral and spiritual costs are also deep, even for those fighting a war they believe is just. Her book supports the vivid and compelling case that the film, “Soldiers of Conscience” makes that every soldier is a soldier of conscience. Continue reading “The Invisible Moral Consciences of Those in the Armed Forces”

Medieval Minds and the Plutocratic Plague

Medieval Flagellants
Medieval Flagellants

At the Republican caucus retreat, President Obama showed us the potential of a real-world, unscripted partisan showdown before an unblinking camera. Proving the democratic potential, FoxNews blinked and cut away from the event. That’s how important fakery and deceit are to its mission, and to the success the Right.

It takes more than a willingness to lie to convince Americans that health care reform is a communist plot or that Obama is an illegal alien. It takes contemporary political media more welcoming of artifice than truth. And, it takes money.

That brings us to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision. (The term “Supreme Court” has always given me pause, since too often the adjective “supreme” is taken to modify its wisdom and judgment rather than its standing among the many courts.) In this case, the Court, ignoring precedent, common sense and the law, said corporations can spend unlimited amounts to influence American election outcomes. The decision, Frank Rich writes today, gives “corporate interests an even greater stranglehold over a government they already regard as a partially owned onshore subsidiary.”

No one disputes that right wing spending over the last 40 years has warped our political opinion environment. Their think tanks, television networks, publishers, hate-radio hosts and front groups dominate the message environment. But our reaction too often reminds me of Medieval Europeans’ reaction to the Plague. To find a place for the Black Death in their worldview, only God could be responsible. He must be mad at them. Out of such nonsense were the Flagellants born, a 14th Century group that marched around barefoot whipping themselves with scourges in hopes of warding off Death.

Before we ridicule the Flagellants, however, we ought to check our own duffel of delusions. It’s just as nutty to believe that all forms of communications are equal, that all people are possessed of pure reason, that ideas can and are judged fairly and equally by an informed citizenry who possess free and equal voices and access to information. These beliefs don’t just inhibit discovery of a cure, they help spread today’s plutocratic plague.

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