Obama’s Faith Based Mistake

July 1, 2008

An Obama presidency, apparently, will mean more “faith-based” programs funded by the government. Starting life as Bill Clinton’s “Charitable Choice” and then becoming yet another a clumsy partisan bludgeon in the Bush administration under the name of his “faith-based initiatives,” the drive to drive more government money into the hands of religious groups has always had a questionable track record. Religious groups themselves have been wary of government strings attached, and a whole lot of questionable programs with dubious efficacy have ended up with oodles of handouts (and the payouts have often been suspiciously partisan).

So color me somewhat skeptical that an Obama-run version is going to be any better. I’m mostly with Barry Lynn: shut the program down entirely. Go back to simply funding non-profits to provide services, and let churches figure out how to organize as non-profit charities, including all the same regulations and responsibilities, if they want any moola. Let the rules be the same for everyone, instead of trying to give religious groups special treatment.

On the other hand, Obama does get the above issue mostly right where Bush got it wrong:

And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. “That makes perfect sense,” he said.

It does. The issue is simple: when the government contracts out some service to a private organization, what they’re paying for is the service, not the promotion of someone else’s ideology. For many religious organizations, this is potentially a problem: they don’t want the taking of some government money to force them to change all of their programs and services and ideals. The solution is simply to keep a separate set of books: to separate out the charitable service from the religious part.

Catholic charities have, in fact, functioned like this for decades, mostly without any problems at all. The modern Catholic attitude here has always been the most laudable: help people first. Not as a means promote their religion, but because their religion calls us to do it. And if people are inspired by that, want to understand what would motivate such charity, well great.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical organizations basically see the promotion of their ideology itself as the primary act of charity in many of these endeavors. Sure, we’d like to get you off drugs. But it’s getting you hooked on Jesus that will really help you. And that’s where we run into problems… and get lame whining like this:

That’s because telling a small organization to keep employees hired with federal funds separate from others “is unmanageable — and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission,” Towey said.

Sorry, but that’s just pathetic. If you care more about your own vision and ideology than providing the charity or service you’re supposed to be providing, that’s fine. But in that case, you don’t have the right to expect other taxpayers’ money to pay for your proselytizing, or to get a gay taxpayer’s money for your program only to turn around and discriminate against the person who’s unwillingly paying for it.


Is Gay Marriage Posed to “Obliterate” Religious Freedom? Uh, No.

June 17, 2008

As wedding bells ring out in California, opponents of gay marriage are left facing a government and culture that are increasingly failing to take their warnings of impending social disaster seriously.

According to Dale Carpenter over at Volokh, the reason is plain and simple: critics of gay marriage have failed demonstrate that it will cause any tangible harm:

They have tried many harm-based arguments but so far nothing has stuck. Not “evidence” of social decline from Scandinavia or the Netherlands. Not polygamy. Not population implosion.

With that failure in mind, the search is on for some suitably scary gaypocalyptic scenario with which to shock Americans. And the current favorite is the claim, recently advanced by Maggie Gallagher and Marc D. Stern, that gay marriage threatens to destroy religious rights.

Argues Gallagher (who spend the first half of her article aptly demonstrating that she’s either ignorant of or oblivious to swingers):

Gay-marriage advocates are willing to use a variety of arguments to allay fears and reduce opposition to getting this new “equality” principle inserted in the law; these voices may even believe what they are saying. But once the principle is in the law, the next step will be to use the law to stigmatize, marginalize, and repress those who disagree with the government’s new views on marriage and sexual orientation.

Claims Stern:

If past rulings are any guide, it is religious rights that are likely to be “obliterated” by an emerging popular majority supporting same-sex relationships — and it seems unlikely that the California courts will intervene. That’s a shame.

But as Carpenter points out, these fears are dishonest on at least two counts.

First of all, what’s at stake in many of the “horror stories” these and other critics cite are the right of religious groups to discriminate against gay people in situations where the groups are either using government money, or some public assistance, for the relevant function. That’s a rather different matter than religious expression and core worship services themselves being targeted for obliteration or discrimination lawsuits. It’s an issue of a much smaller scope. It’s lame enough when religious organizations generally claim that they should not be taxed, since “taxation is the power to destroy.” But what these critics are essentially arguing that religion is in danger of obliteration unless it receives special, no-strings attached, taxpayer support and legal treatment for their charitable programs.

Secondly, the actual issue in all of these cases isn’t even gay marriage in the first place. Again, nearly every “horror story” that’s cited involves anti-discrimination laws proper. Gay marriage is irrelevant. Carpenter again:

Neither the viability of the discrimination claim nor the viability of the religious objectors’ desired exemption turns on whether the gay couple is officially recognized. In most of the cited cases, in fact, the couples’ relationship was not recognized by the state, but adding such a status to the cases would change nothing about their legal significance. The most egregious abuse of these examples to undermine gay marriage is the Catholic Charities case, which involved the application of a 1989 antidiscrimination law. That dispute arose because the Catholic Church objected to complying with the law for the first time only after gay marriage was permitted in the state. It was a fortuitously timed conflict for gay-marriage opponents given that the state legislature was at that very moment considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In short, what Gallagher and Stern are really objecting to in these passages are anti-discrimination laws that have been around, in some cases, for decades. If they really oppose those laws, they are welcome to argue their case. In fact, they’re 100% right about some of them, in my opinion: I’m generally against all anti-discrimination laws that affect purely private businesses in any case (yes, even racial ones). But presenting these situations as if they are unique challenges that only now exist thanks to gay marriage is deeply misleading.

And if there really are any good reasons to see California’s latest newlyweds as portents of doom, they’ll have to be found elsewhere.


Liberal Christianity vs. The Bible: Why a “Bible” at All?

June 8, 2008

I’m going to pose a question here, and hopefully not in the spirit of impertinence, but rather in sparking discussion and illumination.

My question: why would so many liberal Christians and their denominations (very broadly defined to include those Christians who do not acknowledge there being any unified canon of beliefs about God or exactly how God communicates textually: even those Christians that reject the idea of a traditional theistic god entirely), continue to retain and use the Bible in its (relatively) traditional form as a centerpiece of worship?

I’m not asking this rhetorically, quietly snickering at the idea or accusing liberal Christians of being inconsistent. But I do want to present it as something of a challenge, because I think there is a real choice to be made here, and not an easy one. Having the Bible as the Bible remain unchanged and/or at the center of worship inevitably means giving up other spiritual options, other theologies.

Let me try to explain what I mean in more detail, and indeed, make a sort of case for “breaking” the Bible:

Read the rest of this entry »


More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

May 19, 2008

That Steven Pinker article “The Stupidity of Dignity” is now out in published form, and continues to be a source of controversy. For those who detest Pinker’s tone, Russell Blackford has his own, similar, take to the concept of dignity that he penned a few years ago in response to Francis Fukuyama.

A recent commenter suggested I give my own thoughts on one of the Bioethics Council’s “dignity” essays, and I figured I’d expand my comment into a fuller review. The essay/chapter in question is Patrick Lee and Robert P. George’s “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity.” And they start off with a definition of dignity that I find problematic right off the bat:

Read the rest of this entry »


Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

May 17, 2008

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.


McCain Mispeaks, Hagee Hems and Haws

May 14, 2008

Republican Presidential candidate John McCain has gotten himself in hot water lately by toadying up to a couple of the “agents of hate” peppering the religious right. One of these is John Hagee, who believes that God destroyed Katrina because of gay dancing, called the Catholic Church “the great whore,” and is a good buddy to Israel… in the fond hope that the Second Coming will imminently roast it, and all non-Christian Jews, off the face of the Earth.

Hagee has now apologized, sort-of, for the “Great Whore” remarks.

When it comes to the comparison between Obama and his pastor’s Wright’s nutty, anti-american sermons, I think McCain comes out worse here. A church is a faith community, a family, not a magazine subscription that one cancels when someone in it, even a leader, says something you disagree with. McCain, on the other hand, actively courted these people in an explicitly political fashion: gaining their support specifically, wanting people of their views to endorse his campaign’s positions.

McCain’s response to these charges has been characteristically evasive, bristling with irritation that anyone would even bring anything critical up, and then wont to make lazily grandiose dismissals that don’t make a lick of sense. Case in point, when asked by George Stephanopoulos if seeking Hagee’s support was a mistaken, McCain replied:

“Oh, probably, sure. But I admire and respect Dr. Hagee’s leadership of the — of his church,” McCain said, later adding: “I’m glad to have his endorsement. I condemn remarks that are, in any way, viewed as anti-anything.” (emphasis added)

So McCain is anti-anti-anything? Does that mean he’s for everything? Come on. Obviously this statement is nigh incoherent, particularly for a politician who is anti-plenty of things. The sweeping nonsense of this statement comes, I think, from simple disinterest in thinking or addressing the specific controversy and his place in it. As far as I can tell, the man who once thoughtfully lambasted “agents of intolerance” in his own party no longer exists.


Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

May 12, 2008

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?


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