Jesus Was Wrong: Give Charity in Public, And Don’t Diversify

June 22, 2008

Peter Singer is the sort of philosopher that everyone feels free to sneer at and denigrate… all without ever actually reading his actual writing or seriously addressing his arguments. Which is too bad, because he’s one of the few ethicists out there that sincerely treats moral inquiry as an exercise in figuring out what’s actually right to do, as opposed to simply finding ways to better justify what we already do… or at least already believe is right (our moral habits, as it were).

Along these lines, Singer has recently challenged Biblical instruction of Jesus to give charity in private.

Singer doesn’t deny that the abstract idea of some person anonymously giving large sums of money without any hope of thanks appeals to our sense of what true altruism entails. But the reasons that we find that image so appealing and the actual good that the ideal accomplishes simply may not match up.

The abstract nature of the image the core of its virtue: it’s nice an clean and untroubled in our minds. It allows us to conceptually rule out all possible suspect motives from the person’s action other than either true concern for others and secretly feeling good about oneself. Thus, in our minds, we can be certain that the person’s act was pure and saintly. This was the ideal Jesus was so approving of: an otherwise reasonable disgust with people who give lavishly to impress others rather than to actually help them.

But as Singer argues, people in the midst of disasters don’t need anonymous saints, or require some level of purity in motive. What they need are actual people with faces to help and comfort them and as many charitable resources as possible applied to their problem.

And here’s the key point: everything we know about human behavior implies that people respond to peer pressure when it comes to charitable giving: if they see their neighbors giving, they’ll be more likely to give, and give still more. Thus, the good that setting an example does by far outweighs whatever secret motives someone might have for doing it. Those motives remain as mere thoughts in the head. The aid is still aid, and public knowledge of it sets and example that can be followed.

Singer doesn’t deny that a lot of lavish giving and “nameplate” philanthropy is contaminated with bad motives. But that’s largely because those bad motives lead people not to think very seriously about what charities are really the most important, not because the public nature of giving is itself bad:

Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

On that note, economist Steven Landsburg has even more interesting advice about charitable giving: if you want to do the most good, it rarely, if ever, makes sense to diversify the recipients of your charity.

His argument is deceptively simple:

You might protest that you diversify because you don’t know enough to make a firm judgment about where your money will do the most good. But that argument won’t fly. Your contribution to CARE says that in your best (though possibly flawed) judgment, and in view of the (admittedly incomplete) information at your disposal, CARE is worthier than the cancer society. If that’s your best judgment when you shell out your first $100, it should be your best judgment when you shell out your second $100.

So why is charity different? Here’s the reason: An investment in Microsoft can make a serious dent in the problem of adding some high-tech stocks to your portfolio; now it’s time to move on to other investment goals. Two hours on the golf course makes a serious dent in the problem of getting some exercise; maybe it’s time to see what else in life is worthy of attention. But no matter how much you give to CARE, you will never make a serious dent in the problem of starving children. The problem is just too big; behind every starving child is another equally deserving child.

That is not to say that charity is futile. If you save one starving child, you have done a wonderful thing, regardless of how many starving children remain. It is precisely because charity is so effective that we should think seriously about where to target it, and then stay focused once the target is chosen.

And, through, the suspicious sorcery of economic theory, he even translates his argument into mathematics. Landsburg also makes the case that diversification may be a far better gauge of selfish motives than mere publicity:

People constantly ignore my good advice by contributing to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, CARE, and public radio all in the same year–as if they were thinking, “OK, I think I’ve pretty much wrapped up the problem of heart disease; now let’s see what I can do about cancer.” But such delusions of grandeur can’t be very common. So there has to be some other reason why people diversify their giving.

I think I know what that reason is. You give to charity because you care about the recipients, or you give to charity because it makes you feel good to give. If you care about the recipients, you’ll pick the worthiest and “bullet” (concentrate) your efforts. But if you care about your own sense of satisfaction, you’ll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, “I gave to all those!”

The lesson here is clear: if you want to do the most good, give a lot of money to a single cause (one whose problem is huge relative to your contribution, and the one you think most objectively worthy), and tell everyone you know. Maybe they’ll conclude that you’re a bragging, self-aggrandizing sociopath. Who cares? The research shows that they’ll still be shamed into following suit. And for desperate people in need, the issue of what a bunch of first-world philanthropists think of each other is laughably irrelevant.


Almost Final Word on Obama Seal Nonsense

June 22, 2008

I honestly haven’t had a lot of interest in doing much election commentary here at the Bad Idea Blog, but there’s always just so much stupid flying around that it’s often hard to help myself.

Bland... but outrageous apparentlyTake this latest manufactroversy: the Obama campaign has been sporting a new logo, which sports elements of the standard U.S. Seal designs.

Can you guess what happens next? Of course: people immediately declare that it’s a bastardization of the Presidential Seal. And that particular Seal, something no one gave any thought to two days ago, has suddenly become one of the most sacred and inviolable images in the national consciousness. Holy Arrogance Batman! cries one anti-Obama website.

Even if it was actually a version of the Presidential Seal, I’d still be at a loss as to exactly how it would be arrogant: campaigns remix all sorts of patriotic iconography for their materials all the time. But, in fact, it’s not even that.

SighFolks, if you want to style yourself the proud defenders of the honor of U.S. icons from the petty purposes of politicians, perhaps you should learn more about them first. The symbolic elements on Obama’s logo are not, in fact, unique to the Presidential Seal. They are, in fact, known as the Great Seal of the United States, and it’s found all over the place. It’s on various Congressional Seals as well, as well as various government agencies. It’s stamped on most official U.S. documents. (And no, desperate defenders, a non-forged non-reproduction of similar elements is not a violation of federal law, as some have claimed)

And it gets even more ridiculous. The Drudgereport has headlined the logo as “Obama Changes U.S. Presidential Seal…” Can you get any more ridiculous than that (yes, you can, for instance: John A. Davison)? Well, sorry to deflate the hew and cry, but the Presidential Seal has not been “changed.” It’s still exactly the same as it was as far as I can tell.

This is just yet another example of political pareidolia: people hyped up on campaign crack who inevitably fit every single news tidbit into the same caricature of already chosen candidate of their ire.

You see, the logo isn’t, can’t possibly be just some of the standard sorts of US iconography used and remixed a million different ways on lots of campaign materials. It couldn’t even just be a seal similar to the Great Seal. No no: it’s THE Presidential seal, and bastardized by Obama’s fabled ego.

From the way these people go on about it, it’s as if they imagined Obama personally stole an official seal a trip to the White House, cut it up with scissors, scrawled all over it, and spray-painted it blue.

Folks, that’s not even remotely how campaigns work. Here’s pretty much the spectrum of where these sorts of things usually come from:

1) Whatever random Democratic design firm Obama’s campaign employs is tasked with coming up with a new logo. They, a bunch of random folks in a boardroom with a whiteboard, sit around brainstorming, pump out a few clunkers, and campaign people eventually reject most of them, liking bits of others. At the end of the process, they end up with the one everyone hates the least. And we’re off.

2) The campaign goes more grassroots: it needs a new logo, and fast, and HQ scrambles. Some random teenager “hey, I’m pretty good with photoshop!” and whips this up. The campaign, or even the candidate pats them on the head, and says “uh, thanks kid!” And we’re off.

But of course, none of that sort of inoffensive everyday nonsense fits easily into the “arrogance” narrative.

I can’t wait until this election is over, and the collective IQ of the country shoots back up to normal.


Ben Stein, Still Classy, Tells ADL to Shove It & Finally Doubts Darwin Quote

June 21, 2008

Via Thoughts in a Haystack, I see that Expelled is currently appealing to Canadian audiences and reviewers… and getting about the same critical results it saw in the US.

John Pieret highlights two interesting new elements of the story.

First, there’s Stein’s response to the Anti-Defamation League, which was understandably unhappy about the way in which Stein’s film played the Holocaust for a cheap ideological goose, and completely ignored the rather pertinent role of antisemitism:

When I asked Stein about this statement, his response revealed his hostility toward the Anti-Defamation League more than anything else, as he told me bluntly, “It’s none of their f—ing business.”

Next comes the rather shocking realization that Stein is apparently only just now either realizing or openly admitting that the Darwin quote he reads in the film from Descent of Man… the one supposedly showing Darwin’s love of eugenics and amorality… was a highly edited, misleading quote mine:

When I alerted him to the alteration of the Darwin quote and read him the full passage, he said he was “kind of dismayed if that’s true.”

It’s a little late to be “kind of dismayed.”

I have a lot of sympathy for creationists who basically read lists of carefully compiled and context-excised quotes supposedly from biologists, and are basically hoodwinked into a bunch of misconceptions about what those biologists really thought and argued.

But when you put together an entire motion picture whose premise is that the majority of working scientists are basically giant conspiracy of dunces and you know better… well, we’re rather past the point where you can employ ignorance as an excuse.


Obama Goes There: Pulls Race Rank on Republicans

June 20, 2008

Bad move, I think.

“We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run,” said the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?’”

Even if Obama is dead positive that Republicans are going to push hard on racial prejudice, getting out there ahead of them is just dumb. It might help rally Democrats who’ll believe nothing but the worst of their political opposites, but the unavoidable implication Obama is making here is that Republicans and Independents are dangerously susceptible to racist cues.

Believe that’s true if you want. But you still can’t avoid the implication that it’s simply insulting to anyone who fancies themselves undecided and thus the implied fertile target of subtle bigotry. And that’s just not likely to win anyone over. As I noted before in response to an Obama support who sees racism everywhere, it’s basically a lose lose move.

In similar comments at a Chicago fundraiser last Thursday, Obama told supporters that Republicans would try to portray both him and his wife Michelle as “scary.”

“They’re going to try to make me into a scary guy,” he said last week. “They’re even trying to make Michelle into a scary person. Right?” And so that drumbeat – ‘we’re not sure if he’s patriotic or not; we’re not sure if he is too black.’

“I don’t know, before I wasn’t black enough,” said Obama. “‘Now he might be too black. We don’t know whether he’s going to socialize – well, who knows what.'”

It’s especially unfortunate, because otherwise Obama has things dead right here about what everyone from Fox to 527s will be busy doing over the next few months. Well, and of course what everyone from MoveOn to Michael Moore will be busy trying to do to McCain. They’ll just be telling different sorts of stories.


McCain Needs to Win Over Hillary’s Voters, Not Hang With Hillary’s Wackiest Fans

June 20, 2008

As a follow up on my post about bitter Hillaryites, I wanted to highlight something FiveThirtyEight has noted about McCain’s recent strategy. He stands to win over millions of disgruntled Hillary Clinton former supporters. But if he’s really looking to woo the bulk of them, then he’s talking to all the wrong ones. The crazy ones. And worse, the crazy ones who are already rather obviously in the bag for him. When someone’s spent the time to found a group called “Party Unity My Ass” in response to Hillary’s primary loss, you can pretty much count on them not voting for Obama.

Instead of rubbing shoulders with fringe groups, McCain might do better by just focusing on his image as a experienced, middle of the road, policymaker: the sort of thing that drew many conservative Democrats towards Hillary in the first place. As xpostfactoid observes, McCain wasn’t just right on the Iraq surge by accident or because of inevitable party loyalty, as were many Republicans. He was right about it for all the right reasons.


Teacher Who Burned Crosses into Student’s Arms Gave Extra Credit for Expelled Film

June 20, 2008

The science-blogosphere has been following the story of John Freshwater, a Mount Vernon public school teacher, for some time. The man is clearly off his rocker. He burned a cross into the arms of one his students. In class. And in addition to a host of definitive religious assertions to students during class time, Bibles and other religious materials featured prominently in the classroom, Ed Brayton also notes that:

He kept creationist books and videos in his classroom, including at least one video and one book by Kent Hovind. He also kept the book Refuting Evolution there. Parents showed the investigators handouts from religious groups slamming evolution and claiming that dinosaurs and humans lived together, among other things.

He even used, as a class example of how “science can be wrong” (a perfectly legitimate and even important thing to teach) the idea that science may have found a genetic basis for homosexuality, which of course meant that ‘In that case science is wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin’ (which is not even close to a legitimate thing to teach in public school).

But from Panda’s Thumb comes word of an even more intriguing tidbit in the recently released report on his conduct:

Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.

Mmmm hmmm…

Interestingly, this is one of the few cases in which I’ve heard about Expelled successfully penetrating into a school classroom, which was supposedly one of its primary goals. And, surprise surprise, it comes from a young earth creationist using a public school classroom as his bully pulpit.

One who feels at liberty to brand his religious beliefs directly into the skin of his students. Teach Burn the controversy!

Update: Freshwater fired. Countdown watch until the DI claims him as another martyr for intellectual freedom…


McCain “Really Didn’t Love America Until…” Either & The Unreality of Political Blogging

June 20, 2008

Michelle Obama has been under attack for some time for a comment she made: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” She’s since explained that what she meant was her country’s politics, and that it is, of course, comparative hyperbole, not really a literal absolute. Seems reasonable enough to me to be a non-issue.

But conservatives, seeing blood, pounced. They attacked her patriotism. They worked this comment into their overall narrative of the Obama’s being elite, self-centered ‘too-fancy and enamored of themselves’ folks. It was an easy sell for them.

Myself? I’m embarrassed for anyone that styles themselves an honest, straight shooter that bought into this faux-controversy: who see cable talking-head narratives as reality instead of theater. I’m disgusted at the quiet glee that otherwise interesting and thoughtful conservative bloggers take in peppering their posts with the quote, and the pride they take in seeing media accounts of ordinary citizens hating on the Obamas for it. I have little patience for the two-faced pretense of supposedly analyzing it with the quiet motive of simply repeating it over and over.

No less than the always charming Laura Bush has come out defending Mrs. Obama and her defense is dead on.

“I think she probably meant I’m ‘more proud,’ you know, is what she really meant,” Bush told ABC News. “You have to be very careful in what you say. I mean, I know that, and that’s one of the things you learn and that’s one of the really difficult parts both of running for president and for being the spouse of the president, and that is, everything you say is looked at and in many cases misconstrued.”

And now, the ridiculousness of it all has come to a head, because MSNBC has caught Presidential candidate John McCain saying something quite similar, repeatedly, with no outcry from anyone. Quoth John McCain: “I really didn’t love America until I was deprived of her company…”

Ooooo, didn’t appreciate America until locked in a cage and tortured? What a selfish twit, right?

No. Wrong. Sigh.

In real life, people say things all the time that are silly, overwrought. They get worked up about something, and then, in a moment of clarity, come down off it. And because in real life they have to deal with other human beings face to face, day in and day out, they often realize how foolish they were being, and they apologize for them. Not because of equally phony formulaic political demands for public apologies. Because they actually, though simple self-awareness, come to feel foolish about their behavior.

Just once, I’d like to see campaign cable spin-miesters or their bloggy enablers suddenly look sheepish and self-aware, just like ordinary humans do all the time. Say “wait a minute, what the heck am I going on about?”

The fact that virtually no one ever does that, when they do it all the time in real life, is as sure a sign as any that political blogging is still fairly far removed from both humanity and reality. People play against partisan type from time to time, sure. They have their opinions. But somehow they virtually never get upset about something and then later, after whipping up a frenzy, reconsider. I’m not claiming that I’m innocent of it either. I just wish we could all commiserate a little more about the collective problem.

Even if you’re inclined to defend your outrage at Mrs. Obama, deny that this one, super important and telling quote, is part of that unreality game… can you at least admit to the general vice, and that you may well indulge in it?


More Sex Meant Safer Sex in Thailand: Counterintuitive Economic Theory

June 19, 2008

Steven Landsburg has to be one of my favorite authors: contrarian in all the right ways, ruggedly skeptical, utterly unafraid to buck conventional wisdom. There’s never guarantee that you’ll agree with what he argues (at least at first), but you will be entertained, engaged, and forced think of issues from entirely new angles.

His most recent book (sadly not that recent) was More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, in which he argued (among many other things) that there were social situations in which increased promiscuity amongst the sexually prude could actually reduce the transmission of disease. Indeed, he argued that prudishness was, in some cases, as much a socially harmful vice as sleeping around.

His argument was essentially theoretical, but it wasn’t entirely out of the blue: it was based on research by another economist, Michael Kremer and some pretty solid models of sexual behavior and disease transmission.

And now, it seems like it’s no longer even just hypothetical.

That’s because, according to Marginal Revolution blogger Alex Tabarrok, the recent history of Thailand provides a real world example of more total sex leading to a reduction in disease transmission. A drastic, culturally driven increase in normally chaste women engaging in premarital sex coupled with a (not causally unconnected) drop in the number of men going to prostitutes cratered the rates of HIV transmission: even in sex workers.

And to top it all off, the place where Alex Tabarrok discovered this little gem? Elizabeth Pisani’s new book called “The Wisdom of Whores.” It’s all enough to make social conservatives scream.

Of course, in all seriousness, those conservatives have plenty of worthwhile concerns. And just as a disclaimer before you run out and lose your virginity in the service of public safety: the particular effect here relies on a particular sort of sexual situation that may or may not have any relevance to your society. And in any case, it still unavoidably involves the former prudes taking on more risk to their own health in order improve the lives of others. So, please, read the books instead of rushing out to do anything foolish and frisky just on my word.

Elizabeth Pisani explains it all herself here:

Isn’t counter-intuitiveness grand?


“Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

June 19, 2008

A number of thoughtful interchanges today between Rick Hills at Pawfsblog and the Volokh folks.

Hill starts everything off by recounting an exchange with a former colleague that disturbed him: his colleague seemed shocked to hear that a mutual friend was a Christian. The friend goes as far as to worry that “if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.”

Hill thinks that this reaction is a sign of, well, mental illness:

Read the rest of this entry »


In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat

June 19, 2008

Here’s how it starts:

A Fox News sexpert declares that many spouses view “using porn, at least beyond a magazine like Playboy, [as] the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

Reason journalist Julian Sanchez can’t quite wrap his head around this comment:

This is tossed off as though it ought to be obvious to the ordinary reader. It strikes me as obviously insane. I can think of any number of valid concerns one might have about what sort of porn one’s partner is consuming, or the extent of it. But the proposition that one of them is any similarity between porn viewing and “having an actual affair” would not have occurred to me. Is this view held by any significant number of sane people?

But over at Atlantic Monthly, the often laudably contrarian conservative blogger Ross Douthat points out that, well, yes, plenty of spouses do see things that way:

Then consider: Is there any similarity between having sex with a prostitute while you’re married and paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for your voyeuristic gratification? Again, I think a lot of people would say yes: There’s a distinction, obviously, but I don’t think all that many spouses would be inclined to forgive their husbands (or wives) if they explained that they only liked to watch the prostitute they’d hired. And hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

(Heck, even Dan Dan Savage, sex-adviser extraordinaire, agrees with Ross that “porn as cheating” is quite a common idea.)

Next, quite a lot of Douthat’s commenters seem to lose track of the discussion entirely: they think that Douthat is trying to make an argument that pornography really is perfectly equivalent to having an extra-marital affair, when in fact he’s only trying to illustrate that there are reasonable similarities that might lead some quite sane spouses to consider porn a form of cheating. Much confusion ensues.

Finally, the discussion turns to the issue of the morality of pornography in general. Some people raise the issue of Jesus’ famous pronouncement that to look upon a woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart. And then, Douthat regular Hector, who seems to believe that pornography is immoral by its “essential nature,” pops in to say that he’s “not sure what any of you would maintain are the good things that porn brings into this world.”

Well, allow me to re-introduce myself.

What’s good about porn? It’s hard to even know where to start: it’s the question an alien visitor the the earth might ask, like “what good is baseball?” It’s a question that must seem obvious to some, utterly bizarre to others.

Read the rest of this entry »


Rolling Stone Sloppily Slams John McCain’s Love of Evangelical Joel Osteen

June 18, 2008

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone journalist and special reporter on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” isn’t happy with John McCain. Not at all. And he’s got a long list of complaints, the most valid and snicker-worthy one being that John McCain may be one of the few Presidential candidates in history who now opposes not one, but “two different bills bearing his own name.”

Taibbi, however, is particularly peeved by McCain’s choice of inspiring evangelical authors:

McCain’s transformation is so complete that at a recent town-hall meeting in Nashville, when asked to name an author who inspired him, the candidate — who once described televangelists of the Jerry Falwell genus as “agents of intolerance” — put none other than Joel Osteen at the top of his list. “He’s inspirational,” McCain said.

Standing at the meeting, I didn’t write Osteen’s name down in my notebook — apparently because my brain refused on some level to accept that McCain had actually said it. Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us,” Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for “go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.

Taibbi, who’s famous for penning the poorly received “52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope” while “coming out of a Vicodin haze,” has quite a talent for outraged posturing. But no matter how many fulminating expletives he tosses out, I just don’t buy it.

He’s got this thing exactly backwards.

God Chairs About Each and Every One of YouSee, the thing is: Osteen is actually one of the least offensive of televangelists I can think of. The primary complaint most people have about Osteen is that is not that he’s a fire-breathing hatemonger, but rather that he’s milquetoast. He preaches happiness and self-improvement, at times with only the barest hints of scripture or doctrine. Some conservative critics have even hinted (hyperbolically, certainly) that his ministry is “atheistic” in character, or even that it represents the last gasp before Christianity collapses into materialism and embrace of popular culture. When Larry King grilled him on his theological views, “I don’t know” was Osteen’s most common answer. And he took considerable heat for being unwilling to clearly state that Christ was the only way to heaven.

Osteen does toe the general conservative evangelical party line when called on it. But the point is that he rarely goes out of his way to emphasize traditional religious right stalking horses. He’s even famous for his “no politics from the pulpit” principle, which, if you know anything about politics, is nigh unthinkable in some quarters (Democratic politicians who regularly run whirlwind tours of African American churches, I’m looking at you).

Like most evangelicals, Osteen’s views on homosexuality are hardly laudable… but they’re also about as tame as one could possibly expect, given his chosen religion:

“We don’t think it is God’s best and we have personally seen many homosexuals changed through the power of God. But we aren’t going to judge or turn people away because they are gay. We all have sins in our lives and it is no worse than any other issue.”

Translation: ‘yeah, homosexuality bad, yadda yadda, let’s move on to another subject.’ And don’t think that this ambivalence has gone unnoticed by the more traditional neighborhood gaywatch patrol.

What’s especially silly about the sudden Osteen-hate is that Taibbi had just finished launching a salvo of preemptive accusations about McCain being an inevitable race-baiter (“watermelon-waving” is one particularly polite phrase he uses). But Osteen’s mega-church empire is characterized by a degree of racial integration that few progressive churches can match. I’m willing to get that there’s a far higher percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in Osteen’s congregation and leadership than there are African American and Hispanic writers at Rolling Stone.

I’m also willing to bet that Osteen’s church has given far more money in charity, both percentage-wise, per parishioner, and of course in total, than Taibbi ever has, despite Taibbi’s whining about Osteen’s supposed obliviousness to Jesus/”hippie crap.”

In short, while there’s certainly plenty one can criticize about Osteen, he’s by far least threatening of any of the crowd-pleasing evangelical names McCain could have tossed out to his audience. I’m not exactly in tune with what Osteen believes, but then I’m not in tune with either Obama or McCain when it comes to religion, and I doubt I’d find Obama’s religious inspirations all that compelling either. That doesn’t mean I think they’re all vile: I just don’t agree with how they see the world.

Taibbi, on the other hand, clearly just hates Osteen’s guts. But at least for this atheist, I think that tells me more about Taibbi’s than it does about Osteen. Or McCain.


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.