Saturday, May 30, 2009

James Dobson and Big Business-Friendly Christianity

This is a follow-up to the previous post about James Dobson’s despondency with a Democratic Washington.

As a “small-D” democrat, I think James Dobson’s input is as important as anyone else’s, AND I think he is dead wrong when he starts talking politics. I don’t think he should shut up, but if he is in retreat, it is probably good news for everybody. I hope it means the political movement he has helped to lead will break up and that his former followers will begin to approach politics from a different perspective. To some extent, I think that exactly what’s happening with younger evangelicals.

After the last post, the question was raised about whether I'm guilty of a double standard for calling Dobson a “Republican soldier” while not calling out folks like Jim Wallis or Rick Warren for their political activism. My first reaction is, Hey, if you give me enough time, I’ll probably write inflammatory posts about everybody!

Seriously though:

--Rick Warren’s political views are less clear to me than Dobson’s. And he doesn’t say crazy things, as far as I know. He also seems to have a sort of thoughtful uncertainty going on, which I like and respect.

--As for Jim Wallis, I generally agree with what he says about politics and with his actions (Call to Renewal, Consistent Ethic of Life, Mobilization to End Poverty, etc). He’s definitely a leftie. But I don’t think he compromises anything about his faith in order to be an activist.

Politics—especially electoral politics—is all about alliances and coalitions. When we’re a member of a coalition, such as a political party, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I ignoring anything I believe in in order to go along with the group?”

I think Dobson and the religious right are compromising most of the "social gospel" in their alliance with big business within the Republican Party. I think folks like Dobson went in with good intentions, but over the years the alliance shaped their faith into a stripped-down, finger-pointing Christianity that is pleasantly convenient for big business. Ask yourself this: 

Would Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, or Halliburton’s Board of Directors be uncomfortable with anything that Dobson preaches?

If the answer is no, then it must be a very narrow and selective Christianity he's preaching. 

And what do you know, that's exactly what we find! From what I gather, Dobson is pretty orthodox about what I would call the supernatural parts of the faith (the identify of Jesus, the Resurrection, etc). All good. But in Dobson's view, how does this radical, blow-your-mind, faith affect how we should interact with the rest of the world? Well, he's really heavy on sexual issues and abortion and light on everything else. Kind of a weird take on following Jesus in today's world, if you ask me.

To illustrate Dobson's narrow view of the social implications of Christian belief, let's look at two things.

1. "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America"  Focus on the Family released this 16-page fantasy in October 2008 to mobilize evangelical support for Republican candidates in the run-up to the election. (Thanks to Mason for linking to it in a previous comment!)

First of all, I'll admit I couldn't read all of it. When I got to page six and he was still talking about gay sex, I gave up. So then I decided to look at the frequency of certain words in the letter. (You can do this by pressing CTRL or Apple key + F and then typing in a word.) Here's what I found:

  • "Sex" (or some derivative of the word) appears 54 times
  • "Abortion" appears 13 times
  • "Pornography" appears 7 times.
  • "War" or "Peace" appears 7 times. Combined.
  • "Poor" or "Poverty" appears 5 times. Combined. And two of those are used mockingly to attack an imagined response by Obama to future terrorist attacks.
  • "Disease" appears 2 times. Both in footnotes. he wrote this letter trying to describe how bad things could get under Democratic Party dominance. He wanted to stir fellow Christians to political action. And he cast homosexuality as the great scourge of 2012. Not cancer, AIDS, water scarcity, war, poverty, hunger, climate change, or authoritarianism. But homosexuality. Why in the world should that be the major focus of Christian activism, Dr. Dobson?

2. Focus On The Family's website  At FOTF's website, if you click on the "Social Issues" tab to see what they're focused on, you'll find these issues:

  • "Abstinence"
  • "Bioethics and Sanctity of Life" -- subtopics are Abortion, Euthanasia, and Stem Cell Research
  • "Education" -- First sentence says, "American public schools have become a frontline in efforts by gay activists to indoctrinate our children to believe dangerous and misleading messages about homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identify issues." That's apparently the most important issue with education right now.
  • "Gambling" -- The only completely nonsexual social issue they list!
  • "Law and the Courts" -- largely about gay marriage and abortion
  • "Marriage and Family" -- largely about gay marriage
  • "Pornography"
  • "Sexual Identity"
Sexual morality is tremendously important, but not so important that it should be Christians' main focus in society and our face to the world. To make it so is to be, I think, intentionally narrow.

So why have Dobson and the religious right so narrowed their social focus? In part, it's because they've become reliable "Republican soldiers," as I said before. They've been playing on big business' team for so long that they've adopted big business positions. They've had to adjust their faith accordingly to remove the cognitive dissonance of being Christians who--for example--campaign against minimum wage increases and nuclear arms reductions. As I heard a pastor say on the Sunday before the 2004 elections, "You know, the economy, foreign policy, all that stuff, God's not real interested in that." He then delivered a sermon about abortion and homosexuality that quoted recent Republican talking points, but he said he couldn't tell us who to vote for. Wink, wink.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

James Dobson Pitches a Hissy Fit

Along the same lines as the previous post about Liberty University, here's an example of another loser's tantrum from the religious right. This one comes from Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. 

Dobson used to actually focus on the family. For a long time he was a professor of pediatrics. He studied child development, became a family, marriage, and child counselor, and wrote a number of books on parenting. When I was a kid, my United Methodist church bulletin included monthly inserts written by James Dobson on family issues. It was pretty standard stuff, I think.

But in recent years, Dobson and Focus on the Family became increasingly involved in Republican politics and conservative causes that had little to do with family issues. With the millions who listen to his radio programs, Dobson became arguably the most prominent figure of the religious right, which has been one of the most important pillars of the Republican coalition of the last 30 years. In the past, Dobson spoke out on conservative causes but tried to maintain and aura of nonpartisanship. Lately, however, he's been a loud and loyal Republican soldier. He first endorsed a presidential candidate in 2004 when he worked hard to give President Bush a second term. In 2008, after initially opposing the Republican nomination of John McCain, Dobson fell in line when McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, calling it "one of the most exciting days of my life, because everything that we had hoped for and been working for had come to pass."

Well, Barack Obama's landslide victory extinguished that excitement, and now it looks like Dobson is utterly depressed. On the radio he recently offered what US News and World Report called: 
I want to tell you up front that we're not going to ask you to do anything, to make a phone call or to write a letter or anything.

There is nothing you can do at this time about what is taking place because there is simply no limit to what the left can do at this time. Anything they want, they get and so we can't stop them.

We tried with [Health and Human Services Secretary] Kathleen Sebelius and sent thousands of phone calls and emails to the Senate and they didn't pay any attention to it because they don't have to. And so what you can do is pray, pray for this great nation... As I see it, there is no other answer. There's no other answer, short term.

How freaking silly. Yeah, things are so bleak right now that all a good Christian can do is "pray, pray for this great nation." Everything else is futile! Oh the darkness!

The Republican culture war machine was dealt a major blow in November 2008, and James Dobson is crying a self-righteous river. It must be really tough for him right now. He and other conservative Christian leaders have worked hard since the late '70s to bring evangelical Christians into the Republican coalition. In 2004, Karl Rove's election strategy depended on increasing evangelical Christian turnout in the election over what it had been in 2000. So, homosexuality and abortion filled the airwaves. The timing worked exceedingly well. The religious right had been organizing around these issues for decades, and gay marriage questions were on the ballot in many states around the country. Dobson got culture war in the headlines, and Rove got the turnout he needed. 

Republicanized Christianity had reached its high-water mark. Everything seemed to be going their way. They had a man in the White House who spoke their language, and their people staffed the administration. Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, a majority of governor's mansions, and a majority of state legislatures. In related activity, the United States occupied two Muslim countries, systematically tortured suspects in the "war on terror," and illegally spied on its own citizens. Corporation representatives staffed the government's regulatory agencies and the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans owned a larger portion of the country than at any time since 1928. 

On all those fronts we have begun to reverse course, so it is understandable why Dobson is so sad. But what is truly bizarre--and illustrative of the religious right--is the specific thing that originally set him off on this hissy fit. The House had just passed a new bill that would expand the definition of "hate crimes" to include attacks based on sexual orientation, gender identify or mental or physical disability, in addition to the criteria of race, color, religion or national origin, which were already covered under hate crimes legislation. Maybe there's some reason to oppose this law (though I can't think of a good one), but no reasonable person would take Dobson's view on it. He referred to it as "the utter evil that's coming out of the United States Congress." That's right, because Christian families need lighter penalties for assaulting people for being gay or handicapped.

Anyway, I'm getting dizzy on this tour through Crazyville.

I just hope James Dobson was happy for a little while to see the accomplishment of what he had worked for. And I literally thank God that his work began to crumble. His political retreat will be good for the country and good for evangelical Christianity.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

I grabbed this picture from my sister's blog. She writes:
"I cannot stop looking at this picture. It is so poignant and heartbreaking to me. Look how her hand is resting on the headstone. I wonder what she's thinking about. I wonder what I'd be thinking about if it were me laying there on the grass in Arlington. It's strange to get to that point of your adulthood where you see others younger than you dealing with life's tragedies and making great sacrifices. Just feels surreal. You know what I mean?"

Religious Right Growing Sillier, Sadder Each Day

The right-wing, dynastic Liberty University finally decided to ban the campus Democratic Party club last week. Yep, "Liberty" University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, is officially a one-party zone. OK, right off the bat two questions jump out: There's a Democratic club at Liberty University? What took them so long to stamp it out?

The university administration, headed by president Jerry Falwell Jr. (the family just keeps giving, just keeps serving), sent the club an email saying the Democratic club had to stop using the university's name, holding meetings on campus, and advertising events. In other words, it cannot exist as a student organization.

Can someone with a better vocabulary please give me a word that means appalling, hilarious, and pitiful all at the same time?  (UPDATE: "Redonkulous" Thanks Becky!)

The university administration offers abortion policy as the main reason for the ban. They say,"We cannot remain silent when the political policies or politicians themselves promote the destruction of innocent human life."

They cannot remain silent, so they bravely silence college students. There's no word yet that the Republican Party club has been banned from campus. I guess that Republican politicians sometimes saying that abortion should be illegal while they increase the poverty, hopelessness, and fear that make many people seek it is good enough for Liberty.

You simply cannot be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time, according to Liberty. The vice president of student affairs wrote, "The Democratic Party platform is contrary to the mission of Liberty University and to Christian doctrine." I agree it's probably contrary to the mission of Liberty University (spreading right-wing propaganda and denying evolution and climate change etc.), but saying it's "contrary to Christian doctrine" is, well, precisely wrong and intentionally narrow-minded. The social darwinism of the Republican Party is what's contrary to Christian doctrine. Fend-for-yourself, greed-is-good conservatism is contrary to Christian doctrine. But Liberty cannot handle that discussion, so they are trying to shut it down. It's a favorite tactic of the religious right in general (see personal story below).

Anyway, I've not seen any reporting on why the university is doing this now. Maybe it's because Liberty and the Falwell-brand of politics is becoming more and more irrelevant, and they need to do something to get attention. The country has changed, and the hated Democrats and the progressive movement are on the march. Maybe Liberty wanted to find someplace where they could win even a symbolic victory and they simply looked down at their own campus and saw the little Democratic club. The article that broke the story mentions that LU "recently completed a policy that would govern clubs and organizations on campus." Was the Democratic club the only organization which the new policy led them to ban? I wouldn't be surprised. 

The [redonkulousness] of this story reminds me of something from my own college days. I went to a big public university where I started a Christian Democrats student club to organize Christian students around progressive causes. It went well. True, a lot of conservatives lost control at the very idea of the club and screamed in our faces. But our numbers grew and we got our message out.

One of the classic stories is the time I got "rebuked" by a Christian friend who went to the same campus church I did. He called me up one day and said I needed to shut down the Christian Democrats club and ask God's forgiveness. I laughed. "Galen, I appreciate your concern for me. But forgiveness for what exactly?" I asked. When he saw that the conversation was heading toward specific doctrines and policies, he retreated. He didn't actually want to have a discussion. He wanted a symbolic victory that would make him feel good. Kind of like the Falwell gang at Liberty University.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

On Those Secret Photos of Systematic Torture

Last week, President Obama said he would attempt to block the release of photographs showing military personnel abusing detainees in seven prisons across Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration. The 44 photos were set to be released after the ACLU won a 2003 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Defense. 

The Argument So Far

Back in April, the President and the Pentagon were all set to release the photos to the ACLU on the court-ordered date of May 28th. But as the date approached, Obama decided the photos should not be made public, saying they don't add much to what the public already knows and they would "further enflame anti-American opinion" and endanger Americans soldiers. The government will now appeal the case a second time, and there's every reason to think they'll lose again. The judges who have heard this case have already specifically dismissed Obama's arguments, saying that a vague notion that the release would endanger American troops is outweighed by "the significant public interest in the release of these photographs" and by "[furthering] the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners."

The photos are going to come out eventually. It's unfortunate that President Obama is attaching himself to the stonewalling we grew to expect from the Bush administration.

The Real Issue With The Photos

Let me tell you why these photos are important and why the White House wants them to go away. The photos will further confirm what is growing harder to ignore: Abu Ghraib was not an aberration but part of a widespread system of torture and abuse. Lindy England and the gang at Abu Ghraib were not just a few "bad apples." They were following an inhuman policy that was passed down to them from the highest levels of government. And similar abuse was happening in at least six other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add all this to the growing evidence that the Bush administration used torture to try to justify the invasion of Iraq, and the story just keeps getting darker. 

When released, these photos will be met with outrage both here and overseas. Absolutely. But then they will be met with a stronger movement to hold the architects of torture and abuse accountable for their crimes. And as I've said before, the Obama administration would rather not be bothered by this stuff right now. They've got other things going on, plenty of which are great, and prosecuting war crimes is not on their to-do list--which is of course illegal in itself.

A Potential Compromise

How about this as a sort of middle ground, while we wait for the eventual release or just in case the release is successfully blocked: The government should show the photos to a group of media who could report what the pictures show. They would not be allowed to take photos themselves or make copies, and there could be a time limit on how long they can look at them. It would be sort of like the weird thing John McCain did with his medical records during the campaign. The public gets the benefit of having the pictures described to us by someone other than Pentagon officials (which is all we've had so far). And the administration avoids having embarrassing pictures all over TV.

On a final note... 

The ACLU kind of kicks ass. Don't they? We wouldn't even be talking about these photos if the ACLU hadn't been fighting for them in court for six years. And it's the same for countless stories like this. So many of the basic components of our democracy are maintained because the ACLU is in the trenches. It's easy to see why right-wingers fear and loathe them. 

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is the 'S' Word Making a Comeback?

The Nation recently launched a forum called Reimagining Socialism. Over at Union Gal, bendygirl drops the S-Bomb in the first sentence of her latest post. The cover of Newsweek recently declared:
We Are All Socialists

Socialism, the idea that the economy and society should be run democratically to meet public needs, doesn't have to be talked about in whispers anymore. There are a few reasons for this. 

First, we're in the middle of another capitalism-induced disaster, so people are wiling to look at alternatives. We're living in the Era of Bailouts. Even President Bush pumped $700 billion of bailout money into the financial sector last year. It's beginning to dawn on people that if the pillars of the economy require public money to keep them standing, maybe they should also be under some measure of public control and run for the public good. 

Second, we just witnessed a presidential campaign where the Republicans repeatedly characterized the Democratic candidate as a socialist. It was apparently a major strategy of the Republican campaign. Then the Democratic candidate won a landslide victory. During President Obama's first few months in office, Republicans and the right wing media have labeled most of his agenda as socialist, and the president has remained immensely popular. So the former toxicity of the S-word is wearing off, thanks largely to conservatives' repeated use of it. (With enemies like these, who needs friends, huh?) Or, as Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. point out in The Nation:
"If 'capitalism' is represented by right-wing populist blowhards like Limbaugh and Beck, while 'socialism' bears the far more appealing face of Barack Obama, the choice is not too difficult."
Finally, the Cold War is over. Conservatives can no longer argue that America needs to stand as a polar opposite to all things socialist in order to win some global ideological struggle. That struggle should never have been against "socialism" in the first place, by the way, but against authoritarianism. But for much of the last century, the Left in America was hamstrung every time the Right pinned it to the Soviet Union and authoritarian communism. Basic movements for justice and sustainability like the civil rights movement and the environmental movement were derided as "communist." Now the Soviet Union is dead, and we can do what makes sense rather than rush to the right for argument's sake.

So if "socialism" is making a comeback, the Left needs to articulate what we mean by socialism. At every turn, conservatives will try to equate socialism with Stalinism. They'll try to paint democratic socialism as authoritarian communism a la North Korea. That should be easy enough to dismiss. But we'll need to make it clear that socialism doesn't have to mean giant, unwieldy government. It doesn't have to kill the incentive to work hard. And it absolutely doesn't have to consist of democratic bailouts for anti-democratic institutions, as we've recently witnessed. (The Newsweek article, intentionally or not, makes the latter mistake.)

To me, this is an exciting time. Bold ideas are in fashion again. The political debate won't be an argument over minor tweaks and adjustments. Whether or not you consider yourself a socialist, if you're reading this blog you're probably a progressive. And whatever stripe of progressive you may be, the rising popularity of socialism is good news. I think history shows that the possibility (or threat) of fundamental systemic change is crucial to winning even the incremental changes. (More on this later.) So in the end, if all we want to do is slightly raise taxes on the rich or tighten regulations on business, with "socialism" on the table, we'll be in a much stronger position.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Which Minority to Scapegoat Next?" Right Wing Wonders

Wasting no opportunity to try to divide working people against one another, right wingers took to the airwaves over the last few days to blame Mexicans and Latinos for the swine flu virus. As usual, sociopath and popular conservative radio host, Michael Savage, led the chorus.

Wingers like Savage are continuing the long conservative tradition of stoking fear and exploiting public distress to turn one group against another. Race, in particular, is an easy fault line to work with and has been crucial to long-term conservative strategy and short-term electoral success. 

For example, in early America, the Southern Slaveocracy worked diligently to keep three main groups resentful of one another and in vain competition: poor Whites, Black slaves, and Native Americans. Occasionally there were stories of two or three of these groups uniting to resist the autocrats (poor Whites joining in a slave revolt, runaway slaves joining fugitive Indian tribes, etc.) but such unity was crushed with all possible speed. It wasn't so much the danger of any one particular local uprising that stirred such quick reaction from the Southern Nobles as the creeping fear that such uprisings might be contagious, that they could demonstrate a possibility not previously considered by the great majority of people: reordering society for the benefit of the many rather than the benefit of the few big owners. But as long as the poor White farmers competed with slave labor and poor White frontier families were fighting with Indians, the Established Order was safe.

In the North--really all over the country--you could follow the same story, with different actors. The Irish immigrants must hate the Chinese immigrants and the German immigrants must hate the Italian immigrants, and so on. They must be played against one another, to ensure that they never stand together, organize, and improve their common condition by remaking the whole system. Over the course of our history, the only way for the "profit first" system to prevail against the push for a "people first" system was for the powerful to keep the people divided and distracted.

Today, the same divide-and-conquer impulse is behind the conservatives' anti-Mexican campaign. Think about it, if we weren't distracted by hyped up fears and feuds, it wouldn't be long before we won medical coverage for every American, a full employment program, a reverse of the always-increasing military spending, a "Green New Deal" to name a few things. 

But if half of this latest anti-minority effort is part of the long-term strategy on the part of what Americans once called the Money Power, then the other half is the short-term, tactical maneuvering of Republican politicians and conservative media personalities. For over 40 years, the Republican coalition won in large part by exploiting White resentment and fear of Blacks. The "Southern Strategy" worked for a long time. But the country has grown more diverse and more tolerant, so the strategy doesn't work for a national party anymore. The problem for Republicans is that after doing this for so long they can't simply turn the party's message around on a dime. For one, the GOP is largely dominated by people who were won over by the racial and cultural wedge issues and who aren't going to give them up easily. The other reason is that feeding red meat to this crowd is not just a tool of big business, it is big business (talk radio, Fox News, the pop culture surrounding Sarah Palin, etc). There is an eager audience who eats this stuff up. 

So Michael Savage and his ilk fill the airwaves with a familiar anti-minority tune, and Republican politicians almost have to dance along. The difference is that, in 2009, most people are sick and tired of it. The Savage gang is playing for a smaller and smaller crowd, as reasonable people drift away and the political balance continues to shift.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why We Celebrate May Day

First, some perspective. It's 2009, and 30 years of "rugged individualism" and conservative attacks on all things social have had their intended effect. We've seen: 
  • Three decades of declining unionization rates, 
  • Three decades of rising productivity coupled with stagnant wages, 
  • Three decades of redistributing the nation's wealth up to the rich. 
The wealthy have enriched themselves at the public's expense through both the management of corporations and the manipulation of the tax system. For some perspective:
  • In 1980, the average pay for a CEO of a major American company was 42 times the pay of his average worker; today that CEO makes 431 times the workers' average. 
  • In the 1950s, a time many Americans remember as a middle class Golden Era, those making over $3 million a year (in 2009 dollars) had an income tax rate of 91 percent. Today the same group pays just 35 percent
  • In 1976, the top one percent of households received 8.9 percent of the nation's pre-tax income. In 2006, the top one percent received 22.9 percent of all income, the greatest concentration of income since 1928.
Simply put, democracy is unsustainable with this concentration of power. Organized labor was critical to building the broadly shared prosperity of those three decades after World War II. And organized labor will be critical to building it again. 

May Day, or International Workers' Day, was born in America on May 1, 1886. 350,000 workers across the country walked out on strike for the eight-hour workday. In Chicago, the struggle was violent. Police and company "detectives" attacked workers' public gatherings. A workers' rally was held in Haymarket Square, and when police charged forward to break it up, someone threw a bomb. In the shooting and chaos that followed, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed.  

The "Haymarket Affair" was just what business needed to crush the eight-hour-day movement. No one knew--and still no one knows--who threw the bomb. But police arrested eight men who were connected to the rally and the workers' movement. Eight guilty verdicts were returned, and four men were executed:  August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel. Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison on the eve of his execution. 

Working people around the world were shocked and appalled by the trials and executions. By 1890, May 1st had become an international day of demonstration to protest for the eight-hour day and honor the Haymarket martyrs. That's how May 1st became International Workers' Day.

Eventually, "Labor Day" was created in the United States to disassociate the labor movement from the radical left and to avoid the international worker solidarity that May Day celebrated. Congress made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as Loyalty Day and as Law Day.

But old May Day is making a comeback. In 2006, there were big marches for immigrant worker rights on May 1. Since then, the May Day focus in America has been solidarity between workers--those with "documents" and those without. Democracy and justice are making a comeback too. We've seen a big shift to the Left in Washington, and more importantly, a big change in the nation's political atmosphere. People are waking to the fact that the greed-is-good philosophy of the last 30 years has sapped our country of its strength and character. People are waking to the fact that a sustained movement for economic justice will require grassroots organization. It will require bigger, stronger unions. It will require solidarity with working people around the world. And all of this will require some historical perspective.

So thank you, Congress, for Labor Day, but we'll keep May Day too.