Monday, December 31, 2012

Leaving 2012, and Entering 2013

We're about to start a new year!  In this post, I'd like to review some of the things that I've done on this blog and in my life in the year 2012, as well as discuss what I'll be doing in 2013.

2012 was a good year for me, in terms of blogging.  In February, for Black History Month, I blogged through Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights, something that I've been wanting to do for Black History Month since I first saw the book in the Cincinnati Public Library a few years ago.  In March, which was Women's History Month, I blogged through feminist Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which (in my opinion) was an effective critique of conservative arguments regarding the pay gap between men and women in the workforce; I also read parts of a couple of books that were edited by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, which contained mostly conservative voices, but one of them had a presentation that conveyed an interesting liberal perspective (see here).  In April, which was National Autism Month, I blogged through The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron.  I tried to read this book in 2006 but I did not finish it (perhaps due to my own insecurity about my Asperger's, my fear that I may be doing things wrong, my lack of interest in the topic, and my failure to identify with what the authors were saying), but I read all of it in 2012, and I found it to be a profitable experience.  It was around that time that my Wordpress blog started getting more followers. 

I continued to blog through academic books on the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity, which I was reading in my attempt to come up with a dissertation topic, and also to beef up my knowledge.  Near the end of the year, I changed my strategy for trying to find a dissertation topic, which entails actively seeking a topic rather than passively reading books.  At that time, I started blogging through books that weren't as relevant to biblical studies or antiquity, such as George Marsden's excellent biography on Jonathan Edwards, as well as Paul Knitter's book on religious pluralism.  But I did continue to blog about a Psalm each week throughout 2012, as I drew from academic insights and thoughts from the History of Biblical Interpretation.  I went through Psalms 58-109.

2012 was an election year, and I decided that it was time for me to read some political books that I wanted to read.  For a long time, I had wanted to read Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, and, since as a candidate he was appearing on television a lot, I thought that 2012 was a good year to do that!  I had books by Newt Gingrich, and, since I admired his intelligence, I wanted to read about his solutions to issues involving health care and the environment.  Along the way, I picked up Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, books by Ron Paul, Rick Perry's controversial Fed Up, Mitt Romney's No Apology, a biography of Mitt Romney, and autobiographies by Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.  I evaluated what I considered to be the positives and negatives of what these politicians were saying, and, in the process, I learned a lot.  I then went on to read left-leaning books, along with books on free trade, and one by Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas on the role of religion in politics.

This coming year, in 2013, my plan is to blog through books by and about Richard Nixon, since January 9, 2013 will be the centennial of his birth.  I'll start this project in January, after I finish M. Stanton Evans' Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government.  I'll also be blogging through books that are about religion, spirituality, or self-help.  I'm not ruling out the possibility of blogging through books by scholars, for I recently got an apologetics sort of book to which a conservative New Testament scholar contributed.  Moreover, there will also be secondary literature that I will be reading in researching for my dissertation (though I most likely won't tell my readers what my topic is, lest someone steal it).  And, of course, I'll be blogging through the Psalms.  This will take me the whole year, for I'm planning to spend a week on each section of Psalm 119.  I will also continue my practice of blogging about my church, both the services and also the Bible studies that I'll attend.

In terms of other aspects of my life, I'm cutting down on the number of daily devotionals that I read.  I'm sticking with My Daily Bread, and also my daily reading of Scripture.    My reason for this is practical: I'll be going to my sister's wedding in Indiana this coming February, and I don't want to pack too many books!

This year, on my Wordpress blog, people clicked "like" on a number of my posts.  I've appreciated that.  This is the first year in which that happened, at least on so considerable a scale.  Recently, that has dropped off significantly, but I'm still happy that people liked my posts during at least some of 2012!  I'm trying to get used to having days in which nobody clicks "like" on my posts, which is hard after I have experienced months in which more than one person each day clicked "like" on what I wrote!  But getting used to this will help me to prepare for this coming year, for I'm not exactly expecting for a lot of people to click "like" on my posts about Nixon!  I'm doing my Year (or More) of Nixon for my own edification, since I am fascinated by the man and feel an affinity for him because he (like me) was an introvert.  Many readers may not be interested in the nuances of Richard Nixon's life.  But, if you actually like those posts, feel free to click "like"!  Moreover, whether people click "like" or not, I still think that my blog is a helpful source of information, at the very least for myself.  There have been a number of times in which I have conducted searches on my blog to remind myself of what I read in a book a while back.  My blog is also an indicator of my growth, or lack thereof.

Have a happy 2013!

Clear and Present Dangers 8

In my latest reading of M. Stanton Evans' Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government (copyright 1975), I finished the chapter on health care, read the chapter on "The Population Scare", and started the chapter on the environment.  Here are three items:

1.  On page 211, Evans quotes economist Herbert Klarman, who said that Medicare and Medicaid's reimbursement of hospitals was based in part on the hospital's cost of operation, and that discouraged hospitals from keeping down costs because having a higher cost of operation could get them more money from the government.  Klarman states: "The hospital administrator can no longer deny requests for higher wages or more supplies on the ground that money is lacking; to get money, he need only spend more."  According to Evans, government intervention has increased the cost of health care.  Evans is critical, however, of government attempts to solve this problem, since it entails government bureaucrats snooping through medical records to see that doctors are behaving themselves and imposes high fines if the government concludes that they are not.

Evans may have a point that government intervention has increased the cost of health care.  At the same time, I doubt that health care prices were especially low before the government stepped in, which was why the government stepped in in the first place: the poor were having problems paying for health care, and many private health insurance companies were reluctant to cover the elderly because there was more illness among that particular population.  Consequently, I don't favor getting the government out of health care, for I believe that this would leave many people vulnerable.  But I do support reforms.  If Obamacare, for example, is living up to its claim to control costs, then I support it.

Evans also critiques federal drug regulations.  I don't know if he's for eliminating them, but he does believe that the rigor with which the government practices such regulation hinders the supply of potentially life-saving medication.  Evans is often a critic of the European health care systems, but he notes that a number of new drugs are appearing in Europe, but few have made it to the U.S.  Evans doubts that even penicillin would have passed the FDA's "'safe and effective' meter'", for it has caused "unfavorable reactions in some people [and] is less effective in certain cases than in others", even though it has saved many people's lives (Evans' words on page 215).

I do know people in the health food industry who had to put up with the FDA and its rules regarding vitamins and supplements, but, when it comes to pharmaceuticals, the complaint among many today is that the pharmaceutical industry has too much power.  It's interesting that Evans notes that new drugs were appearing in Europe, which many conservatives regard as socialistic in its health care policies, for conservatives often have argued that the U.S. system's stress on the profit-motive provides incentives for the development of new drugs in the U.S.  Since Evans in the 1970's appeared to lament that new medications were not sufficiently making their way into the U.S., I wonder if Evans would support the importation of cheap prescription drugs, something that a number of Republicans have opposed.

2.  Evans does not buy into the population scare, the notion that the number of people is rapidly increasing even as space and resources are limited.  For one, Evans notes that the birth rate is decreasing in the U.S., even as there is a lot of space in the country.  While Evans is not into scare tactics regarding population, he does appear to be concerned about the decline of the birth rate, for that would result in a smaller workforce, which would not be able to adequately sustain the Social Security system.  Second, even in the Third World, Evans argues, people having children may be helpful because it could result in more human-power and thus increased productivity.  For Evans, productivity is important because that entails that there is more food to go around.  Evans notes on page 220 that Malthus wrote "before the full effects of industrialization became apparent", and that "it is precisely this neglected factor that makes all the difference."

I first heard about the population crisis when I was in seventh-grade social studies, which was in 1989-1990.  And, in the 1970's, there was a lot of concern about over-population, as was evident in such movies as Soylent Green (which is made of people!).  I don't hear much about the population crisis nowadays, though I do think that there is a belief that overpopulation is a problem in the Third World, and thus we should encourage contraception there.  And yet, it seems to me that contemporary discussions about contraception revolve more around women's rights than over-population.  

3.  I started the chapter on the environment.  I've encountered some of Evans' arguments in other conservative and libertarian writings that I have read: that businesses pollute public lands that nobody owns, and thus privatization of parks and beaches can reduce pollution; that DDT is not a danger to humans, for too much of it was pumped into animals when it was tested on them and it had ill-effects; that nature causes more pollution than human beings do (and Evans documented this claim better than Ronald Reagan did when Reagan claimed that Mount St. Helens caused more pollution than cars, or that trees cause pollution, for Evans refers to a team of Harvard researchers), etc.  Evans also made arguments that I had not read as much before: that human-caused pollution was decreasing prior to the onset of federal anti-pollution legislation, that there is no evidence that leaded gasoline harms human beings (Evans quotes Dr. Robert Kehoe of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and a 1972 National Academy of Sciences Report), and that there is a potential danger that oil refineries could substitute something more hazardous than lead (Evans quotes E.P.A. Administrator William Ruckelshaus).

Evans may make some good points, here.  But there's probably more to the story than what he presents.  While Evans may be correct that pollution declined prior to the onset of federal anti-pollution legislation, and this was probably due to improved technology, I've still heard stories about how smog was at one time a problem in major cities.  Moreover, if businesses would do a good job by themselves in keeping the air clean, why would they have a problem with federal mandates for air quality?  Granted, they may feel that there are better ways to keep the air clean than what the government is prescribing, but I wouldn't be surprised if, on some level, companies think that pollution is an unavoidable side-effect of the services that they provide.  On DDT, I'm somewhat skeptical that scientists wouldn't have recognized that there is a difference between animal and human ability to absorb DDT and that the quantity of DDT injected into the animals is important, and that the scientists didn't take that into consideration in their studies.  On privatization, I wonder if that would hinder businesses, since businesses would be restricted in terms of where they could log or drill or dump their waste.  Wouldn't that lead to higher costs for consumers?

Personally, though, I'm a person who hopes that we can have our cake and eat it, too: that there are ways that we can have cleaner air and cleaner water, without harming the economy.  I hope that technology, both existent and developing, can make this possible, and there are many who argue that it indeed can.

Numbers 2: Focus, Unity, and Authority

In Numbers 2, the tribes of Israel surround and face the Tent of Meeting, which is God's Tabernacle, protected by the Levites.  Each tribe has a leader.

I thought about how much better I'd feel if I focused on God rather than my resentments, my problems, etc.  Moreover, perhaps I'd be united with other Christians more if my focus was on God.  Then, my hurt feelings and jealousies would not get in the way as much.

But are things that simple?  I think that there's a degree of truth to what I just said.  At the same time, I recall some of my problems with evangelicalism: feeling as if I'm not adequate for certain tasks (i.e., witnessing, fellowship), evangelical jerks who put me down for not believing or acting a certain way (or simply because they're jerks), the suppression of individuality for group-think, how people with "authority" abuse their power, etc.  I can't sweep that stuff under the rug like it doesn't exist.

If we're to be united, shouldn't we define what our goals are?  In the case of Numbers 2, the Israelites were encamping for battle against the Canaanites and any other enemies they'd meet along the way.  The Israelites had a clear goal.  In my case, I have to ask myself to what extent my goals overlap with those of evangelicalism, or Christianity in general.  Am I interested in witnessing, which is based on the assumption that people would find inner peace were they to accept Jesus Christ (a notion that I don't think is fool-proof)?  Am I interested in spiritual growth?  Am I interested in serving the poor? 

Perhaps it depends on how you define those things.  On witnessing, yes, I'd like for the church to proclaim that God is a God of love.  No, I don't feel compelled to try to compel everyone I meet to become a Christian, for people are on different pages spiritually and religiously.  On spiritual growth, yes, I'd like to hear constructive ways that I can be at peace with myself and others, have more patience, and show others love.  No, I don't want to be beaten up for not being extroverted enough.  On helping the poor, yes, I should probably help the poor more than I do.  Thankfully, my church makes that possible by sponsoring a charity each month.  But maybe I'm not on the same page as every other Christian on this, for there are Christians who think I should go without Internet and use that money to help the poor, or that I should move to the inner-city, or that giving money to charity is not good enough but I should enter into deep relationships with the poor. 

Maybe I can find common ground with evangelicals, or Christians of whatever stripe.  But I may have to focus on the positive rather than the negative, or make clear what I will stand for and what I won't----which means, not that I'll tell others what they can or cannot do (as if I can), but that I won't allow others to bully me.  Perhaps the weakness of my approach----or, rather, where my approach differs from what is in Numbers 2----is that I don't defer to authority, for I make my own choices about what works for me.  But is there a way to respect people as individuals with the right to make their own choices, and to respect authority?  Authority may not mean obeying someone no matter what, but rather such things as respecting the order of an institution and the importance of order in making things flow, not being a troublemaker (unless there is a clear need to speak out), etc.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit Revisited

Someone at church this morning asked me what I thought about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  In the course of our conversation, he and I agreed that God doesn't condemn or forsake people for being mad at God, for Moses, David, etc., were mad at God sometimes.  What went on in my head (but I didn't say it out loud) was, "What do I think about the passages concerning blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?  I wish they weren't in the Bible, that's what I think!  It seems to me that they've done more harm than good."

I expressed my problems with the conventional understandings of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit a while back, in my post here.  If you want to read it, you should also read the comment by "Mike", who disagreed with me.  I still have many of the same questions and problems that I asked in that post----except that my understanding of the Greek aorist is different today in that it recognizes more nuance----but perhaps the conventional understanding I was critiquing is not so wrong.  Maybe Jesus was warning his critics that they should beware lest their hearts become hardened against God, since, once it becomes hardened, they are closing the door to God forgiving them because they most likely will not repent when their hearts are hardened.  I wouldn't make that an absolute, though, for there are times when God can soften a person's heart.  But I myself don't want to find myself in a place where I am hardened against God, or at the very least against what is good and right.

Clear and Present Dangers 7

In my latest reading of M. Stanton Evans' Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government (copyright 1975), I read the chapters on education and inflation, and I started the chapter on health care.  I have three items.

1.  In the chapter on education, Evans disagrees with the liberal view that more government spending on education will improve educational quality, and he also argues against school busing.  In this item, I'll focus more on the busing issue.  Evans discusses the work of a scholar, James Coleman, who contended that African-American students would do better academically if they were removed from their own impoverished community and put around white people, and that became the rationale for busing African-American children for long distances to public schools that are largely white.  When I read that, I thought about Robert Reich's argument in I'll Be Short that students who are around other students who don't plan to go to college will probably themselves lack the aspiration to go to college (see here).  Reich there was not arguing in favor of busing, nor was he suggesting that it's awful for African-Americans to be in their own communities.  But I was reminded of Reich because both he and Coleman (as Evans describes him) make the point that one's social environment can affect one's educational achievement and aspirations.

Evans contends that school busing has failed, for it has not resulted in higher academic achievement among African-Americans, and it has exasperated rather than improved race relations.  Evans also quotes the 1964 Civil Rights Act in arguing that busing is a violation of that law.

Evans may have a legitimate point that school busing was problematic.  As I mentioned in my post here, I once talked with an African-American woman who said that busing was a bad idea because it removed African-American children from their neighborhoods.  Prior to busing, she said, an African-American doctor could mentor an African-American child in his neighborhood who wanted to be a doctor.  With busing, however, this was less likely to occur because African-American children were removed from their communities for long periods of time each day.

Where I differ from Evans, however, is that he does not seem to think that unequal schools were much of a problem.  Evans appeals to "a compilation of papers derived from a Harvard seminar on the Coleman Report, edited by Frederick Mosteller and Daniel P. Moynihan" (page 179), and he says that scholars in this study found that "in many respects the level of spending on Negro schools is higher than that for schools that are chiefly white, and that where discrepancies exist in favor of whites they are less discernible in the South, not more", and also that "variation in school facilities has little to do with variation in achievement" (Evans' words on page 180).  I don't have the time or the energy right now to read the Coleman Report or to do a research project to refute what Evans is saying----but see here for wikipedia's documented description of the Coleman Report.  I will say this, though: I'm sure that there are a number of scholars who have arrived at conclusions different from what Evans is arguing.  Moreover, I should note that even Republicans, such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, argued that there was an achievement gap between whites and minorities, which (according to them) No Child Left Behind helped to close.

2.  In the chapter on inflation, Evans argues that the wage and price controls of the 1970's did not work because they resulted in shortages, for they discouraged people from making products because the price controls would inhibit them from charging enough to make the profit that they desired.  Evans locates the problem of inflation in the increase in the money supply, and he contends that deficit spending makes this problem worse because the government prints money in an attempt to satisfy the growing government budget, while avoiding increases in interest rates and the tax burden.

I'm sure that there's something to Evans' arguments.  At the same time, I wonder: How have inflation rates managed to be low, when government spending continues to rise?  See here.

3.  I started the chapter on health care.  Evans argues that there is not much of a health care crisis in the U.S., for the U.S. has reduced infant mortality, plus there are more doctors per patient in the U.S. than exist in a number of other countries, and Evans argues that there are long lines to receive medical care in Great Britain.  But Evans acknowledges that the cost of health care is rising, and he believes that Medicare and Medicaid are contributing to that, for treating people for free requires higher costs for the people who pay.  In a sense, Medicare and Medicaid patients are not treated for free, for their care receives a reimbursement from the government.  But there have been concerns that the reimbursement is not adequate, and so a number of physicians either choose not to see Medicaid patients, or they pass costs on to others.

I think that Evans' critique of the Swedish system is worth quoting.  On page 207, Evans states: "Since nobody [in Sweden] has any incentives to control costs, patients come to hospitals for the most minor or imaginary ills and hospital stays are protracted.  Private practice of medicine on an outpatient basis has been discouraged, although steps are afoot to alter this.  In addition, the Swedish system has discouraged entry into medicine by new physicians, and it is noteworthy that the doctor-patient ratio is considerably lower than in the much more populous United States."

I don't think that a person should be afraid to see a doctor, for even "minor or imaginary ills" may indicate that something is seriously wrong with the patient.  At the same time, there should be efforts to control costs----to ensure that doctors are not ordering unnecessary tests to get more money, to focus on results, to value preventative care as a way to prevent more expensive emergency care from being necessary down the road, and to seek cost-effective ways to meet patients' needs.  In my opinion, Obamacare either does these things, or is moving the health care system in the direction of doing these things.

I agree with Evans that the doctor-per-patient ratio is important, for a greater supply of health care facilities can result in lower prices.  Otherwise, you probably would have long lines to receive medical care!  In my opinion, newer physicians should be encouraged to enter the field rather than discouraged.  Regarding how the U.S. compares with other nations on this, there are countries that have the sort of system that Evans opposes----a single-payer national health insurance system----that have better doctor-per-patient ratios than the U.S., and there are countries with a single-payer system (such as Canada) that have worse ratios than the U.S. does.  See here.  In my opinion, a single-payer system is compatible with a decent ratio of doctors to patients. 

There has been concern, however, that Obamacare is scaring people from the medical profession or is encouraging doctors to leave the profession early.  I think that the government should take steps to encourage people to enter the medical field.  One professor I had suggested that people who decide to enter medicine should receive their college education for free.  Maybe that would be costly, but it could also bring down the cost of health care.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Clear and Present Dangers 6: Government Makes Matters Worse

In my latest reading of Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of American Government (copyright 1975), M. Stanton Evans argues essentially that government intervention makes problems worse.  According to Evans, increasing the minimum wage discourages businesses from hiring African-American teenagers, thereby depriving them of opportunities to develop job skills.  Government mortgage insurance, super-highways, and zoning have encouraged the construction of homes in the suburbs rather than the inner-cities.  Government subsidies for part of the mortgages of lower-income people have inhibited the lower-income from being able to negotiate a lower price for their home.  Urban renewal, an attempt by the government to refurbish cities, has resulted in the demolition of poor people's homes, as people with higher incomes move into the area.  Labor and other regulations have resulted in railroads that sit idle, and regulations have encouraged higher prices for airlines while inhibiting potential competitors from entering the airline and taxi market.

Is Evans, therefore, for no government intervention?  There are times when he seems to lean in that direction, as when he says that the marketplace can handle the housing issue and questions Congress setting wages.  At other times, however, he appears to be open to some government intervention.  For example, he says that the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) should be eliminated and safety functions should be transmitted to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which indicates that he is for safety regulation, on some level.  And Evans also seems open to the idea of exempting teenagers from the minimum wage, while still allowing others to receive it.  This idea may have its strengths, but my concern is that such a policy would encourage businesses to hire teenagers rather than people offering to work a minimum-wage job to support their families, since teenagers would be cheaper to employ.

I don't know a great deal about housing and transportation, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were legitimacy to many of Evans' arguments, for government becoming involved in the economy can easily privilege businesses that are able to work the system.  I'd be hesitant to go the laissez-faire route, though, for I doubt that the private marketplace would solve all problems.  In my opinion, even if government intervention made some problems worse in certain respects, the problems were around before the government interfered, which was why the government interfered in the first place.

But I am open to the government reforming how it intervenes.  I once had an economics teacher who was a moderate rather than right-wing, and he said in class that deregulation of the airline industry worked (and this particular deregulation occurred during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter), whereas it did not work in a number of other fields.  Actually, according to this article, under the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, "The Civil Aeronautics Board's powers of regulation were phased out, eventually allowing passengers to be exposed to market forces in the airline industry", but "The Act...did not remove or diminish the regulatory powers of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over all aspects of air safety."  That's what M. Stanton Evans proposed in 1975!

Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is often classified as an imprecatory Psalm, one of those Psalms in which the Psalmist calls down curses on his enemies.  But some scholars believe that the dramatic imprecations in Psalm 109:6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies, not the words of the Psalmist himself.  In this view, the Psalmist's enemies are claiming that the Psalmist persecuted the poor and the needy, killed the broken-hearted, and delighted in cursing, and these enemies are hoping that the Psalmist might be judged for his parents' and his own sins, that he might die soon, that another might take his office, and that his children might suffer.  Even the nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon, in his Treasury of David, refers to the view that Psalm 109 contains the curses of David's enemies upon David, rather than David's curses of his enemies, but Spurgeon disagrees with that particular notion.

Many scholars treat Psalm 109:6-19 as the words of the Psalmist, not the Psalmist's enemies.  One reason is that there is no explicit indication in the text that Psalm 109:6-19 is a quotation, plus quotations of the Psalmist's enemies elsewhere in the Book of Psalms are short, whereas Psalm 106:6-19 is a pretty significant chunk!  While it has been observed that vv 6-19 use the third-person singular (i.e., he) whereas the rest of the Psalm employs the third-person plural for the Psalmist's adversaries, many don't think that's enough to classify vv 6-19 as a quotation.  Erhard Gerstenberger says that "Liturgical texts may easily switch from singular to plural passages, and vice versa, in keeping with the liturgical agenda" (Psalms, Part 2, and Lamentations).  The Jewish commentator Radak says that vv 6-19 use the third-person singular because they're talking about the leader of David's enemies.

Just speaking from my present knowledge, I don't think that there's evidence that vv 6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies.  Moreover, Leslie Allen refers to a view that, even if they are a quotation, that wouldn't redress the theologically troubling nature of the Psalm to those who believe that we should love our enemies, for the Psalmist in v 20 expresses his hope that God will do to his enemies the horrible things in vv 6-19!  And, for Christians, especially conservative Christians, there is the issue of the use of Psalm 109:8 in Acts 1:20, where "let another take his office" (KJV) is related to the need to replace Judas as apostle after Judas' death.  Was Acts 1:20 treating as authoritative the curses that the Psalmist's enemies made against the Psalmist?

But I think that regarding Psalm 109:6-19 as a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies can yield some intriguing results.  Here, I'll be drawing from Leslie Allen's discussion in the Word Biblical Commentary as well as Patrick Miller's thoughts in the HarperCollins Study Bible, while also adding some of my own thoughtsLet's pretend that vv 6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies. 

What does Psalm 109 now look like?  According to the view that vv 6-19 are a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies, the Psalmist in Psalm 109 is responding to his enemies' curses of him.  The enemies are saying that the Psalmist oppressed the poor and killed the broken-hearted; the Psalmist responds that he himself is poor, needy, and wounded in heart (v 22).  The enemies hope that the Psalmist and his offspring will not receive mercy, but that God will remember the sins of the Psalmist and his parents; the Psalmist in v 26 hopes for God's mercy.  The enemies desire that a Satan (an accuser) will stand at the right hand of the Psalmist, presumably while the Psalmist is being judged (see v 7, cp. Zechariah 3:1), but the Psalmist in v 31 affirms that God will be the one who will stand at the right hand of the poor (presumably himself) and save him from those who condemn him.

Many scholars don't apply the Psalms to David's life, but are there events from David's life that could fit Psalm 109?  I think of David when he was on the run from Absalom.  David was still king, but Absalom wanted his office (think v 8).  And the wise counselor Ahithophel was on the side of Absalom, perhaps because Ahithophel was upset by how David had treated his (Ahithophel's) granddaughter Bathsheba and his son-in-law Uriah.  Maybe Ahithophel regarded David as a brute who abused his royal power to oppress and to kill others.  But David himself was poor and vulnerable when he was on the run from Absalom.  I guess that the problem with applying Psalm 109 to David's flight from Absalom (and we're still assuming that vv 6-19 are the words of the Psalmist's enemies) is that the enemies ask that the Psalmist's offspring might suffer.  Would Absalom want for David's offspring to suffer, when he himself was among David's offspring?  Why would Absalom desire for the curse to be transgenerational?

Overall, I like the ramifications of treating Psalm 109:6-11 as a quotation of the Psalmist's enemies, for doing so affirms the hope that God will stand by you, even if people in the name of God slander you and regard you as unrighteous.   

Friday, December 28, 2012

Clear and Present Dangers 5

In my latest reading of Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government (copyright 1975), M. Stanton Evans critiques the notion that big government helps the little guy while afflicting the better-off.

Well, sort of.  Evans also says that the better-off already pay a lot of taxes, and he doubts that soaking them even more will generate enough revenue to support a huge and growing government.  But he does attack the liberal narrative that big government helps the little guy while afflicting the better-off.  For one, there are a number of cases in which the government is actually on the side of the better-off.  As Evans notes, large corporations have been beneficiaries of government dollars that go to anti-poverty, housing, and other programs.  Plus, there are many public school teachers who have quite a decent standard of living.  Second, there are cases in which the better-off are supported at the expense of the lower-income.  For example, the sales tax that raises money to alleviate the cost of higher education benefits students who are largely middle-income, the ones who attend universities, but it hurts lower-income people who have to pay more when they go to the store.

Evans also talks about progressive and regressive taxes.  Evans argues that taxes are a burden even on those who are not upper-income, for there are regressive taxes, such as the sales tax and the Social Security tax, and even the middle-income are affected by the tax on capital gains.  Moreover, corporations pass on the cost of their taxes to consumers, resulting in higher prices for the middle and lower-income.  Evans does not appear to think that rearranging the tax burden is the solution, but rather he argues that high taxes are the result of high and increasing government spending.

Another point that Evans makes is that, were we to equally divide up the money that the government spends on anti-poverty programs among the poor, that would lift the poor out of their poverty.  I'm not sure if Evans supports doing this, but that is an interesting thought!

Do I agree with Evans, as someone who lives in the year 2012?  (Evans does too, but this book was published in 1975.)  First, I'd say that he's right that government is allied with corporations, for that occurs both when Democrats are in power, and also when Republicans are in charge.  Sometimes this makes a degree of sense, for wouldn't it be wiser for the government to outsource (say) the building of homes for the low-income to businesses that have experience in building, rather than for it to build those homes itself?  And yet, there have been plenty of times when the cooperative relationship between big government and big business has resulted in corruption, the suppression of competition, and businesses over-billing the government.

Second, is it necessarily a bad thing for the government to create jobs that give people a decent standard of living, such as teachers?  Teachers then spend the money that they make, and that helps the economy.  Or does it if, as Evans argues, lower or middle-income people are paying more in taxes (whether they be property taxes, or from another source)?  I'm not sure how to answer that question.

Third, do public universities primarily benefit the middle-income today?  I wouldn't be surprised if they primarily serve the middle-income, but perhaps affirmative action, scholarships, grants, and loans have helped more people from lower-income families to attend college, too.  I hope so.

Fourth, is the tax situation still as grim as when Evans wrote this book in the 1970's?  I'd say that Ronald Reagan made some things better.  There's the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example.  But there are still a number of regressive taxes that hit the lower and middle-income.  This occurs at the state and local level, but it's also the case with federal payroll taxes.

Why Inter-Religious Dialogue?

One question that has appeared more than once in my reading of Paul Knitter's No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions concerns the purpose of inter-religious dialogue.   Knitter wants for it to be much more than chit-chat in which people from one religion affirm other religions, and vice versa.  My impression, and I'm open to correction on this, is that Knitter would like for inter-religious dialogue to get at a truth.  But Knitter also appears to be skeptical of Christian claims that Christianity is superior to other religions.  He refers to thinkers who regard such a stance as inhibiting dialogue rather than fostering or encouraging it.  Moreover, he seems to believe that the claim crashes against reality, in which history and culture are in flux, and people from non-Christian religions appear through their good lives and their insights to have experienced the divine.

I suppose that one reason to be aware of other religions is that this helps us to better understand our own religion, as we see what we are like in comparison to others.  There are evangelicals who practice this principle.  Some look at Islam and think that Muslims have something to teach evangelicals, since Muslims have a much less casual attitude to God than a number of evangelicals do, or Muslims are serious about their regular practice of worship.  Others look at Islam and conclude that the evangelical intimacy with God is preferable, and they may regard the Muslim rituals of worship as legalistic.  Either way, they're thinking about their own religion as they compare it with another.

Mutual understanding is another reason for inter-religious dialogue.  There are plenty of stereotypes out there.  These stereotypes shape how we view and treat the other.  Listening to people define themselves rather than how others define them can help correct this problem.  It's important to hear people's own side of the story.

I'm rather skeptical of the notion that Christians have to become liberals for inter-religious dialogue to occur.  Not only do I believe that genuine dialogue occurs when people are themselves, but I also think that excluding conservative practitioners of religions from the discussion----just because they hold a stance that is not considered conducive to dialogue----brackets out a significant number of people who play a key role in shaping the religion.  If you want for inter-religious dialogue to be an elite enterprise, then perhaps a way to do that is to say that only liberal Christians can show up as representatives of Christianity.  I don't think that approach is very productive, however.

I'd say that from the standpoint of my own spirituality, however, I prefer a Christianity that does not dismiss the notion that God may be at work in other religions, and that other religions may have insights to teach me.  But that's part of my own spiritual search, not so much my stance on inter-religious dialogue.  At the same time, I think that being open to learning can assist dialogue, and that even conservative Christians can see their own blind spots as they compare themselves with other religions, and may in the process even draw the conclusion that other religions have insights that are compatible with Scripture.  On page 163, Knitter refers to a thinker who held that Christians can learn important lessons from Judaism, such as "the Jewish insistence on salvation as communal and as demanding historical transformation, the goodness of creation, and the danger of making anything final before the kingdom of God has come" (Knitter's words).

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Armed Guards at Schools

I'm puzzled about why the National Rifle Association's President has been lampooned for suggesting that there should be armed guards in schools.  I'm not saying that I agree with the NRA's entire agenda, but what's wrong with schools having armed security-people?   

In the debate about whether or not teachers should be armed, the "pro" side appeals to examples in which a person with a gun prevented a mass shooting.  The "con" side then retorts that the person with the gun who saved the day was usually someone who was trained in the use of firearms----a police officer, for example.  Okay, so is the "con" side open to people who have been trained in the use of firearms being at schools to prevent mass shootings?  Isn't that what the President of the NRA was proposing?

An argument that I have heard against having armed guards at schools is that there have been schools that had such guards, yet shootings occurred at them.  Yeah, and there have been schools that did not have these guards, too, and shootings occurred at them.  Why should we focus on the former, while ignoring the latter?
Please feel free to comment, but I won't publish any comments that call me or anyone else stupid.  Plus, I probably won't debate, but I'll read the comments that people leave.

Clear and Present Dangers 4

I have two items for my write-up today on M. Stanton Evans' Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government (copyright 1975).

1.  A significant point in my reading of Evans' book thus far has been that the Left has not been consistent in its stances on the distribution of power within the U.S. Government.  Prior to President Richard Nixon, prominent leftists supported a strong Presidency and a weak Congress, for they believed that the President should have the leeway to enact reforms, whereas they regarded Congress as slow and too tied to the status quo.  What's more, a number of liberals applauded Executive Privilege when the Eisenhower Administration used it to keep information from Senator Joseph McCarthy!  And, even during Nixon's Presidency, there were leftists who supported giving the President broad powers, such as the authority to implement wage and price controls.  And yet, with Watergate and other scandals in the Nixon Administration, many on the Left were bemoaning that the Presidency had become too strong and abusive of power, and they expressed support for greater congressional oversight.

Evans narrates that, during the 1930's, there were leftists who were critics of judicial review, since judges had overturned key aspects of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.  With the Warren Court, however, the Left was singing a different tune, and courts were even legislating from the bench, going so far as to mandate school bussing in certain regions of the U.S.

Evans' problem with the Left is that it supports a government of human beings rather than a government of law.  For Evans, the Left doesn't care which branch of the government has more power: it's just interested in its agenda getting passed!  Evans acknowledges that conservatives, too, have been inconsistent on the distribution of power within the U.S. Government, and he believes that the government's authority should be limited by laws.  According to Evans, if government authority rests on the whims of human beings rather than law, disaster can result, for what if the human being wielding power chooses to abuse it?

I wrestled some with this issue in my second post about Evans' book, so I won't do so here.  I'd like to ask a question, though: Where would (or did) Evans stand on the nuclear option during George W. Bush's Presidency?  Remember when Democrats in the Senate were hindering the confirmation of some of Bush's judicial appointments, and Republicans were calling for a nuclear option that would eliminate a filibuster and thus expedite the confirmation process?  What did Evans think about that?  On the one hand, Evans appeared to support a congressional filibuster in Clear and Present Dangers.  On the other hand, Evans on page 104 expresses concerns about judicial activism, in which the court sets policy rather than simply negating laws, and he states that "the Congress and the Presidency should have at their disposal means for limiting the court if, in extremis, such limits are required."

2.  Chapter 6 is entitled "The Growth of Government".  Evans argues that government spending is increasing massively and is becoming a burden on taxpayers, and not just the wealthy ones.  Evans will talk later about the issue of progressive and regressive taxation, and I'll discuss that tomorrow.  In my latest reading, however, Evans challenges a liberal argument that defense spending is the main problem in the federal budget, and that there would be more money to go around (for the poor and others) if the defense budget were cut.

Evans acknowledges that the defense budget has waste, but he does not believe that the defense budget is the main problem, for U.S. government spending on defense is rising at a slower pace than domestic spending, plus domestic spending takes up more of the federal budget.  Evans may have a point there.  You can see here a chart on U.S. Government spending for Fiscal Year 2010, and the defense budget makes up 20 percent (though the article raises other considerations, sometimes documenting its claims, and sometimes not).

Quite a few times, I've heard people on the Left say that welfare does not make up much of the federal budget, for, in terms of the federal budget as a whole, not a whole lot of money has been spent on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).  That is true, but there is more to federal domestic spending than that, for federal domestic spending includes health care, education, public housing, job training programs, and the list goes on.  I would not propose abolishing these programs, mind you, but I tend to agree with Evans that, if we are concerned about the growth and the amount of U.S. government spending, then we cannot just expect for cuts in the defense budget to suffice.  In my reading thus far, Evans primarily focuses on how more government spending leads to a greater tax burden, but many of us can think of other problems that accompany more government spending: deficits, a higher national debt, etc.  I wouldn't revert to being a conservative over these issues, however, for I think that one can reconcile a leftist political orientation with fiscal responsibility.  After all, countries that have national health insurance spend less on health care than the U.S. does!  I don't have to support an inactive federal government to believe that the federal government should spend money wisely.

I liked something that Evans said on pages 110-111: "All of us stand in two different relationships to government spending: On the one hand we are, in some fashion or other, beneficiaries of what government is doing----if not in the form of subsidy, then in the enjoyment of some protection or service we consider essential.  On the other hand, we are all in a sense victims of the system, in that we must pay the bills through taxes or inflation or submit to other social costs imposed by the enlargement of government powers.  Politically speaking, the crucial question is which of these capacities is uppermost in our minds.  If most people view themselves as beneficiaries of what the government is doing, then it is reasonable to expect them to favor increased spending and official intervention.  If most people view themselves as victims of what the government is doing, then it is reasonable to expect them to favor less spending and official intervention.  The subjectively onerous tax level is that which causes the second perception to replace the first."

Evans goes on to argue that many Americans are seeing themselves as victims rather than as beneficiaries of government.  My guess is that there are good and bad factors behind that: there are many who feel overtaxed because, well, they are overtaxed, but there are also some who don't want to pay taxes to support the common good: public schools, parks, etc. I'm not talking so much about those who believe that there is a lot of government waste that taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for, but rather those who don't care about public schools because their kids are not in public schools (to use an example).

But I can see Evans point: for people to support government spending, they have to believe that it helps them somehow----at the very least by making their society a better place.  A while back, I referred to economist Bruce Bartlett's statement that, in Europe, people don't mind higher taxes as much because they get what they're paying for, in terms of benefits (see here).  Similarly, I once heard a Canadian say that, even though he paid more taxes in Canada, he didn't mind that because at least he didn't have to worry about his medical needs there.  In my opinion, the U.S. Government has to work on taxpayers getting their money's worth, by ensuring that money is spent wisely and efficiently.  One reason that I like President Barack Obama is that he supports the government helping people, but he also has expressed a desire to eliminate governmental inefficiencies and waste, and in some cases he has done so (I think of Medicare).

Is Christian Inclusivism Really Inclusive?

In my latest reading of Paul Knitter's No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, I read Chapter VII, "The Catholic Model: Many Ways, One Norm".

Where I was confused in reading Knitter's discussion of Catholicism's stance towards non-Christian religions was on this: According to Catholicism, once people hear about Jesus, is their religion any longer good enough to bring them salvation?  The post-Vatican II theologians whom Knitter discusses believed that people in other religions could be saved, even though they did not subscribe to an explicitly Christian creed.  As Knitter notes, these theologians overlapped with what certain prominent ancient Christians averred, for (to use an example) Justin Martyr affirmed in his apologies that those who partake of the logos (who would later be incarnated as Jesus Christ) and behaved reasonably were Christians, even though they did not know about Jesus of Nazareth.

But what happens when people from other religions hear the Christian Gospel?  Can they be saved while still following their own religions, or are they now held responsible for accepting Christianity?  As I read this chapter, I encountered what appeared to be elements of both sides: there was an element that said that Catholics should encourage Buddhists to be good Buddhists, and there was an element that treated other religions as preparatory to Christianity and that seemed to hold that other religions became inadequate once Christianity entered the picture.  In terms of how Knitter understands Catholicism, my impression is that he thinks that Catholicism holds that even people who have heard about Christianity can still be saved in their own religions.  He discusses the relevance of the Catholic stance to inter-religious dialogue, and the very existence of inter-religious dialogue presumes that the other religions at least know about Christianity----so Knitter is talking about a scenario in which Catholics are bringing their inclusivist stance into a setting in which non-Christians know about Jesus.

Is the notion that people can be saved in other religions actually inclusive?  I'll grant that it is more inclusive than the view that those who don't affirm the Christian faith will burn in hell forever and ever.  But there does seem to be a stress on works in the notion that people from other religions will be saved----that they have to be saved because they do good deeds or live rationally, and that is evidence that they have experienced God's grace.  In my opinion, though, basing salvation on works is quite unstable, for how good is good enough?  At what point can I have assurance that my works are good enough for me to be saved?  I can identify somewhat with the Protestant idea that I need to be covered with the perfect righteousness of Christ because my own righteousness is not good enough.

That doesn't mean that I want to dismiss the good works of non-Christians, however.  I'd like to think that God is happy when anyone does something that's good.  When it comes to salvation, though, I'd prefer to root that in God's love for humanity, not in any good works that people do.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Clear and Present Dangers 3: Regulations

For my write-up today on Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government (copyright 1975), I'll use as my starting-point something that M. Stanton Evans says on page 76, in a footnote:

"A principal horror story in this department has been written by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration----OSHA for short.  This agency has been given sweeping powers to fine businesses and in some cases shut them down for every kind of alleged violation concerning toilet seats, guard rails, stairways, ladders, garbage cans, window shades, doorways, furnaces, air conditioners, and countless other items.  Employers are subject to surprise visits by compliance officers and may be heavily fined for alleged violations by their employe[e]s, even if these violations are concededly beyond the power of the employer to control.  In pursuit of these objections, OSHA one day in 1971 published 375,000 words of rules and regulations in the Federal Register----laws that small businesses all over America, most of whom have never heard of the Register, are supposed to know and adhere to on pain of instant punishment."

I've heard and read similar stories.  I myself support the existence of government regulations, for I think that there is a temptation among businesses to cut corners for financial gain.  Yes, employers probably recognize that an unsafe business environment could result in financial harm for the business, since a person getting injured on the job would cost the business time and money in terms of retraining the injured worker's replacement as well as workman's comp.  That's why there are libertarians who believe that regulation is not necessary: they think that businesses will police themselves because the businesses have a financial motive (and other motives, such as public relations) to keep their work-environments safe.  But is that realization enough to keep businesses on the straight and narrow?  There are still businesses that try to cut corners, and this is so even though there are regulations.  Why do they do so?  Perhaps it's because they want the short-term financial gains that come from disregarding regulations, and they don't take seriously the possibility that an accident can occur.

But, although I believe that government regulations are necessary, I wonder if there can be a way to reform them.  If, say, a toilet seat works fine for a business and has resulted in no injuries, yet it does not accord perfectly with OSHA regulations, is it really necessary to fine that business?  And is there a way to educate small businesses about regulations?

Flexibility may have downsides, though.  After all, it's probably easier for OSHA to define what constitutes a safe toilet seat, than it is for OSHA to tolerate a number of conceptions of what constitutes a safe toilet seat.  My hunch is that the former is more easily enforceable.  But is there a way to fashion regulations that are not as oppressive?

(UPDATE: On my blogger blog, my friend Davey left informative links to web sites that defend OSHA or stipulate what certain OSHA regulations actually are: see here and here.)

We're Flawed, and There Needs to Be Justice

In my latest reading of Paul Knitter's No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, I read Chapter VI, "The Mainline Protestant Model: Salvation Only in Christ".

Can the religions of the world be ground-preparation for people to accept Christianity?  Contra the mainline Prostestants whom he discusses, Knitter appears to maintain that salvation is possible even in non-Christian religions.  But Knitter makes the point that non-Christian religions recognize that there is something seriously flawed in how human beings think and what they do.  Some religions, such as Hinduism, may even maintain that our sins carry some sort of debt that needs to be paid, and that occurs through the sorts of lives that we get when we are reincarnated.  (I am speaking here from my own understanding of Hinduism.)  Does Christianity contain the answer to the problems that non-Christian religions recognize?

My impression from reading Knitter is that the mainline Protestants whom he discusses do not believe that you go to hell for not saying the sinner's prayer before you die.  One theologian held that everyone at the end will get a chance to receive Christ.  Another maintained that people in non-Christian religions can arrive at some state of salvation, albeit incomplete.  Even the thinker whom Knitter featured in his chapter on conservative evangelicalism, Karl Barth, has been said to have had universalist leanings.

I struggle with evangelicalism, but I do agree with its insight that there is something wrong with human nature----that we all fall short of some righteous standard.  I have difficulty going from this insight to the proposition that God, therefore, will condemn to eternal hell those who don't accept Christ as their personal savior.  I'd like to think that God is more loving than that, and that God is in the business of solving problems, not just beating people up for having them.  One reason that I identify with the doctrine that we are morally corrupt is that it means that I don't have to regard another person as better or worse than me: that person has flaws, just like me and everyone else.  But God is above our flaws.

I also, on some level, identify with the Christian notion that God is just: that God punishes sin, and that somehow Jesus' death satisfied God's justice----either in the sense that Jesus died in our place to appease God's justice, or in the sense that we die with Christ, and so we have paid the penalty for sin in that way.  I agree with what one evangelical once told me: If God did not punish sin, then he would not be God.  Okay, I wouldn't exactly phrase the thought that way, but the point is that God needs to uphold some system of justice----in which right and wrong have consequences, otherwise the cosmos would arguably be amoral.  Again, I have difficulty going from this to the notion that everyone who fails to accept Jesus before he or she dies is doomed to eternal torment in hell.  Perhaps there are other ways for there to be consequences to wrongdoing than eternal torment.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas 2012

On Christmas Eve, my Mom, my Mom's husband, and I watched It's a Wonderful Life, then we went to midnight mass.  The priest's homily was about how Jesus was a light amidst darkness, and how we----who have Christ inside of us----should be lights in the darkness, too.  

It's difficult to be light in the darkness, when we ourselves have so much darkness inside of us.  I was thinking about this last night when the priest talked about us becoming worthy through Christ to be in God's presence.  I thought to myself that I certainly was not worthy!  But then I reflected: I'm no more or no less worthy than most other people!

In my opinion, everyone is a mixture of light and darkness.  In some of us, the light is stronger.  In others of us, the darkness is stronger.  And then there are a number of cases in which we fail to cultivate the light that is within us by loving others because we are swamped with our own problems.  This world is a mixture of light and darkness.  There are plenty of people, both Christian and non-Christian, who can bring themselves to care for at least someone, even people they may not know.  And yet, the world can be a pretty cold place.

On It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey was a mixture of light and darkness.  He had light because he cared for the people of his community and supported his father's ideal that people should be able to have decent and affordable housing, for their sake, and also because that would make them better citizens.  George was compassionate towards people, acknowledging when they fell on financial hard times and seeking to work with them when that was the case.  What's more, George was light in the midst of darkness, for, without him, Mr. Potter would have taken over, and people would have been resigned to living in his shoddy yet expensive slums. 

But there was also darkness within George, for George was bitter because he had to stay behind in Bedford Falls (which he considered a crummy little town), when he wanted to go out and see the world.  He needed to be reminded that what he did (and what he had) truly mattered.

As I've said before, I'd like to think that George and his wife got to see the world!  I know that such a story is non-existent, but it can exist within my mind, I suppose.  In my opinion, those who are lights in the world----the clergy who take the time to help their congregants with their problems and their challenges, parents, etc.----should get a decent vacation to help them to recharge their batteries.  Even Jesus needed to take a rest, every once in a while.  He did that when he recharged his spiritual batteries by praying, and also when he went on retreats with his disciples.  A person's light can get beaten down, and perhaps even extinguished, when he or she does not take the time to rest and to rejuvenate.  That does not mean that a person becomes evil without rejuvenation, but rather that a person may become bitter, frustrated, unhappy, or uncaring if his or her spiritual batteries are not recharged.

Anyway, those are my disorganized ramblings for today!  Have a good Christmas! 

Clear and Present Dangers 2

In my latest reading of Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government, M. Stanton Evans discusses and is critical of liberal justifications for expanding the role of the federal government, even though the Tenth Amendment limits the federal government's powers to those enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.

These liberal justifications include the following: the argument that small government made sense in the Founders' time but since then we have learned that small government doesn't work because it leads to unfettered capitalism and thus the inequality of wealth, plus we live in a more advanced time; a liberal application of Article I, Section 8, which includes the Commerce Clause allowing the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, the stipulation that the legislative branch of the federal government can collect taxes for the general welfare, and the Necessary and Proper Clause permitting the U.S. Congress to enact whatever laws it deems necessary to carry out its enumerated powers; the Fourteenth Amendment, which Evans says has been abused to justify many examples of federal intervention in state and local affairs; and the notion that the U.S. Constitution is a living document.

In terms of Evans' critique of these liberal justifications, I'll only mention three points that Evans made:
First, Evans says on page 45 that conservative judges in the early 1900's deserve some blame for the abuse of the Fourteenth Amendment, for they appealed to that amendment to overturn "industrial regulations enacted by the states."  My guess is that, because the Fourteenth Amendment says that states cannot deprive people of life, liberty, and property, conservative judges maintained that states cannot impose industrial regulations, which (in their minds) undermined liberty and property.

Second, Evans critiques the notion that the U.S. Constitution is a living document by noting that it lays out a formal process for it to be amended, which (according to Evans) would be strange if its Framers believed that the U.S. Constitution was living and breathing and could be "changed from age to age merely by interpretation" (page 47). 

Third, Evans says on page 44 that "Most favored by the centralizing interest from the time of Hamilton on has been the phraseology in Article I, Section 8..."  This intrigued me because Evans was acknowledging that a liberal interpretation of Article I, Section 8 went back to the early days of the United States, as far back as the time of Hamilton.  Would that call into question the argument that some liberals have used that small government worked in the early days of America but has since become outdated, since there were some who did not care for small government even in the early days of the United States?

I started Evans' chapter entitled "The Power of the President".  In this chapter, Evans argues that, while a number of liberals have criticized President Richard Nixon for making the Presidency more powerful, liberals themselves----including some of the liberals who were criticizing Nixon----spoke highly of a strong Presidency when it came to Presidents prior to Nixon.  It's easy for ideologues to be inconsistent, to think that a strong Presidency is all right when it serves their ends, but not when it does not. Even today, there are people who criticize President George W. Bush for circumventing the legislative branch at times, even though President Barack Obama has done the same thing.

But, if the Presidency is given the power to do good, would it also have the power to do evil?  I think that this is a significant reason that libertarians support limited government.  Personally, I'd hope that the election process would keep leaders in check.  The danger there, however, would be that the majority could become a tyranny, which could potentially stomp on the rights of the minority.  Should there not be limits on government power, even if the majority wants for the government to have power that exceeds those limits?  I wrestle with this question.  I do think that a reason that government exists is to enact policies that promote the general welfare as well to stop wrongdoing that harms people.  Consequently, I have a hard time saying that it's an abuse of power for the government (say) to require everyone to have health insurance, and to stop health insurance companies from dropping people who get sick.  Are we on a slippery slope when we give the government the right to make those decisions, though?  Wouldn't we be on a slippery slope if we gave the government any power?  And yet, libertarians could then argue that this is why the government should respect the Constitution: it legally sets limits on government power by telling the government what it can and cannot do.

I'll stop here.

We're Right, Even If You Can't See How...

In my latest reading of Paul Knitter's No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, I read Chapter V, "The Conservative Evangelical Model: One True Religion".  Although Knitter recognizes that there are evangelical critiques of Karl Barth, he still appeals to Barth to describe a prominent conservative evangelical model of Christian interaction with world religions: to believe that Christianity is right while the other religions are wrong.  Knitter acknowledges that, according to Barth, Christianity itself can have the same pitfalls as other religions: self-righteousness, people trying to save themselves, etc.  And yet, Barth held that Christianity was where God's grace and revelation shone.  Knitter speculates, however, that God could be present in other religions as well, for there are people in non-Christian religions who do good works, and that could be because they themselves have experienced God.

As Knitter described Barth's thought, I was reminded of something about conservative evangelicalism that particularly irks me.  I've heard a number of conservative evangelicals say that, because we as human beings are limited in our knowledge, then we have to accept the conservative evangelical spiel by faith, and we cannot critique it.  I don't think that one follows from another, however.  I mean, just because I'm limited in my knowledge, I should accept one group's spiel about what it considers to be truth?  Give me a break!  And what do we do when that spiel appears to contradict what we see in the world around us?  Many conservative evangelicals would probably tell us that their perspective does fit the world around us, only we may not see how, with our limited knowledge.  We just have to trust that their view is right, even if we can list tons of reasons that their view is wrong.  Well, Whatever!  In my opinion, even if our knowledge is limited, we can acknowledge when things fit and don't fit!

I did appreciate something that Knitter said on page 88: that, even though our knowledge is limited, it does appear that there are times when people are lifted up by a power greater than themselves.  That's why I don't give up on the notion that there is a supernatural out there, and that part of it wants to help us.  I can't point to any supernatural experiences in my own life, but I'm encouraged by others' testimonies that there is a God, and I try to trust that this God cares for me.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Clear and Present Dangers 1

I started M. Stanton Evans' 1975 book, Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America's Government.  You can read more about Evans here.  The reason that I am reading this book right now is that it will set the stage for my "Year (or More) of Nixon", in which I will blog through books by and about Richard Nixon throughout 2013, which is the one-hundredth year after Nixon's birth in 1913.

Why would blogging through Evans' book set the stage for my "Year (or More) of Nixon"?  For one, this book by Evans dates to 1975, which was soon after the Presidency of Richard Nixon.  Second, Evans had definite opinions about Richard Nixon: Evans didn't care much for Nixon's foreign policy or domestic policy, but he started to like Nixon when Watergate happened!  It will be interesting, therefore, to see how Evans addresses Nixon's Presidency.  And, third, I bought this book because it appeared to me to criticize the expansion of the Presidency's power and the decline of Congress, and that reminded me of a book by John Dean that criticized George W. Bush's Administration for expanding Presidential power.  It's interesting that what is considered right-wing and what is considered left-wing can vary with time.  You'd expect for conservatives, who claim to believe in less-government, to oppose a more powerful Presidency, but that's not always the case!

In my latest reading of Evans' book, at least four things stood out to me.  First, Evans says that he is challenging the liberal consensus that few in that day were challenging.  That intrigued me because, nowadays, a significant number of people challenge liberalism.  Back in Evans' day, however, that was probably not the case, at least not as much. Although I am rather left-wing, I happen to admire contrarians----those who challenge conventional wisdom.  That's probably why I played that role for so many years, even though people may not have thought that I was intelligent when I did so.

Second, Evans argues that the American system (the ideas of equality, limited government, opposition to tyranny, the value of the individual, etc.) is based on biblical rather than Greek values, and that liberals have tended to accept moral values while detaching them from their theistic roots.  Evans may have a point when he says that biblical values influenced the development of the American system.  At the same time, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the American system is entirely consistent with biblical ideas, for the Bible in some places is quite supportive of monarchy, stomping on the religious freedom of idolaters, and the fusion of religion with government (whereas Evans says on page 10 that the state in the Hebrew Bible is merely a "peace-keeping agency", not a "compact religious-political institution").  Conversely, there are liberals who root their liberalism in the Bible and religious beliefs, so I think that Evans is wrong to characterize liberals as people who detach ethics from religion.  Even if Evans can make a solid case that prominent liberals have done this, such a characterization disregards the many liberals who have not.

Third, Evans wrestles with the apparent inconsistency of liberals in supporting an active state that subordinates the individual to the common good, while maintaining an almost absolutist regard for certain rights, such as free speech.  Evans believes that there is a thread that ties all of this together, but, at the moment, I'm unsure what exactly he believes that thread is.  It will be interesting to see how he handles conservatism's inconsistency in supporting economic freedom but also restrictions in the social and cultural sphere.

Fourth, Evans talks about federalism and the Tenth Amendment.  I'll have to admit that the Tenth Amendment is a challenge to my liberal support for an active federal government, for Evans is probably correct to note that a number of Founding Fathers sought to limit the federal government's authority to certain enumerated powers, while reserving other powers to the states and the people.  I guess that the question then would be what powers the U.S. Constitution enumerates for the federal government.  Many liberals interpret the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution quite expansively, which means that they believe that the federal government can regulate, not just interstate commerce, but also whatever affects it (see here).  The Commerce Clause may have originally been intended to allow the U.S. government to regulate trade between the states, but liberals have a more expansive application of it.  Is this wrong?  Perhaps, in the Founders' time, what went on in an individual state primarily affected the state itself, and the Constitution granted the U.S. Government the power to step in when one state impacted another through commerce.  Nowadays, however, what goes on in one state can arguably impact the entire country.  Would that not necessitate a broader interpretation of the Commerce Clause? 

Jesus the Mythical Archetype?

In my latest reading of No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, Paul Knitter discussed psychological explanations for religion, particularly those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William James, Abraham Maslow, and Robert Assagioli.

One point that stood out to me was Jung's view that the unconscious (which appears to be both personal and collective) has certain archetypes that are evident in a number of religions: "the divine mother, the wise old man, the dying god, the young virgin, the hero-savior, the cunning evil one, [and] the hidden treasure" (Knitter's words on page 57).  My impression from Knitter's discussion is that Jung thought that these archetypes were symbolic.  For example, on page 61, Knitter refers to Jung's view that Jesus' incarnation was a model for "individuation"----as the self is realized, the ego is left behind, and the person is integrated "into the mystery of the self-in-God" (Knitter's words).

This reminded me a lot of Joseph Campbell.  I have not read most of Campbell's works, but I did watch Bill Moyers' interviews with him.  I rolled my eyes at some of what Campbell was saying, for it appeared to me that he was reading pop psychology into myths and religions----such as the notion that we should find our "bliss".  I don't want to dismiss the idea that the archetypes that appear in various world religions are getting at something psychological----needs that we have as human beings.  But I also want to listen to what the religions, myths, and cultures themselves are saying, without reading stuff into them that they do not explicitly say.

One question that Jung inspired Knitter to address was whether or not Jesus' historicity is important for Christian theology.  Jung focused on Jesus as a mythical archetype.  I'm not sure if Jung dismissed the notion that Jesus historically existed, but his focus was on myth and story.  I know people who affirm that the historicity of Christian claims about Jesus (i.e., the incarnation, the virgin birth, miracles, Jesus' death for our sins, and the resurrection), and even Jesus himself, are not important for Jesus to have a place in one's spiritual and religious life.  After all, can't we draw inspiration from the story of Jesus----the values that he exemplified as a character----whether or not he actually existed?

That may work for some people.  It just doesn't work for me.  I need to see a story about a hero-savior as grounded in history for it to do anything for me, spiritually.  To use another example, I can draw inspiration from Luke Skywalker, but I can't form a religion out of Luke Skywalker that is meaningful to me personally, unless the story actually happened and literally had an impact on me----as does Jesus' death for my sins, according to Christianity.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Sages, Leave Your Contemplations..."

At church this morning, something that stood out to me was a stanza from the hymn "Angels from the Realms of Glory".

"Sages, leave your contemplations
"Brighter visions beam afar,
"Seek the great Desire of nations,
"Ye have seen his natal star:

"Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ, the newborn King."

This made me think about intellectualism and how there are Christians who believe that we can find the answers to our questions in Jesus.  I often find myself discontent within intellectualism, seeing it as a process of continually trying to find a place on unstable ground and having empty discussions without arriving at anything satisfying to the soul.  But I'd also be discontent were I to force myself into an evangelical mold, which disregarded nuance and assumed that we have all the answers.  There is a joy that comes from not having a lot of the answers and therefore going on a quest to find them, only to find that those "answers" are not entirely adequate.  Life then becomes an adventure, of continuously unpacking mysteries.  But there's also a joy that comes from finding the answer, and that answer giving you joy, peace, and a sense of mission in life.  Can one have both? 

Sheila Suess Kennedy: Republican in the ACLU 6

I finished Sheila Suess Kennedy's What's a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing in the ACLU?  I have two items.

1.  A significant theme in Kennedy's book is the need for civility in political discussions.  On page 164, Kennedy states: "Direct mail campaigns by the ACLU aren't much different than those conducted by the Christian Coalition or the Republican National Committee.  Only the enemy has been changed.  Such appeals may fill organizational treasuries, but they do a serious disservice to public dialogue.  Worse, as the public becomes more sophisticated, they contribute to a dangerous and growing cynicism about American institutions."

I appreciate this passage because Kennedy acknowledges that the ACLU itself needs to work on being part of the solution rather than part of the problem in the area of public dialogue.  When she referred a few pages earlier to a "Campaign for Civility" that the Indiana Civil Liberties Union initiated in 1994, I was rather skeptical about the effectiveness of such an enterprise, for I thought that the right-wing could simply come back and say that the ACLU and people on the Left (not that Kennedy regards the ACLU as left-wing) were themselves uncivil and thus had no authority to lecture people on civility.  But Kennedy acknowledges that there is enough guilt to go around.

The thing is, what do you do when you believe that somebody else is a genuine threat to the well-being of society?  Well, the ACLU and the religious right choose to warn people about what they think is a threat.  This is understandable.  But how productive is it?  Wouldn't it be better if people sat down and talked and listened to one another, rather than just fighting?

Although Kennedy talks about fruitful interactions that she has had with people who disagree with her, overall, she appears to be skeptical that the religious right is even open for dialogue.  She is probably right about that, in an overall sense.  But I do believe that a fruitful discussion between elements of the religious right and the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way, etc., is conceivable.  Back in the 1990's, Ralph Reed came across as someone with whom you could have a conversation.  He was tactful.  He was open to addressing questions.  He approached discussions as a place where he could listen and clarify his own position.  Whatever his tactics in the political arena, he modeled respectful engagement of others in dialogue whenever he appeared on TV news programs.  And this is not surprising, for he has a Ph.D. in American History from Emory!  Nowadays, my impression is that Reed does not have the same level of star power that he once did, on account of questions about his relationship with Jack Abramoff, and other factors.  It would be nice if the religious right could have somebody like Ralph Reed, at least in terms of modeling respectful dialogue.  Or perhaps elements of the religious right are already moving in the direction of being open to constructive dialogue.  Tim Daly of Focus on the Family has talked in the past about making Focus more open to conversation (see here).  I hope that this happens.

I will say, though, that there are times when I am glad that personal attacks are a part of political discourse.  Case in point: the 2012 Presidential race.  I suppose that Barack Obama could have sat down with Mitt Romney to have a dialogue about the issues of the day, and, on some level, they did.  But, in my opinion, Obama needed to bring up Bain Capital and Romney's continual flip-flops in order to win.  Positions are important, but it's also important for people to know what kind of person would be representing them were he or she to win!

2.  One question that has been swimming around in my mind is the school of constitutional interpretation to which the ACLU belongs.  Is it strict constructionist?  Originalist, in terms of wanting us to go with the intentions of the Founding Fathers?  Textualist and literalist?  Or does it regard the U.S. Constitution as a living, breathing document?  I seriously wondered this.  A number of people on the right-wing probably assume that people who disagree with them are in the "living, breathing" school of constitutional interpretation, but I was not certain that this could be said about the ACLU.  The ACLU, after all, strikes me as strict and almost absolutist when it comes to the Bill of Rights, and that, to me, lacks the flexibility of the "living, breathing" approach.  At the same time, it seems to me that a narrow, over-literal interpretation of the Bill of Rights has been used by judges to restrict people's constitutional rights, and so I wouldn't be surprised if the ACLU shied away from textualism.

In terms of Kennedy's book, she does treat the intentions of the Founders as significant in trying to understand the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  At the same time, she highlights her problems with originalism on pages 183-184.  She notes that it's difficult to uncover the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, for there was more than one Founding Father, each of whom may have had a different original intent.  She also says that the Founding Fathers did not foresee some of the issues that exist today, such as pornography on the Internet.  But she does believe that we should look at the principles of the U.S. Constitution and seek to apply them to the concerns of today.  Speaking for myself, I think that looking at original intent is important in this task, for we should see what the Founding Fathers intended each amendment in the Bill of Rights to accomplish.  Is there an alternative to this approach that is not arbitrary?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sheila Suess Kennedy: Republican in the ACLU 5

In my latest reading of What's a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing in the ACLU? (copyright 1997), Sheila Suess Kennedy explains why she differs from the national American Civil Liberties Union in her opposition to discriminatory government-sponsored affirmative action programs, and she also defends public schools and criticizes government-sponsored vouchers for children to attend private schools.

What I want to use as my starting-point in this post, however, is something that Kennedy says on page 159, as she discusses a mutually-respectful correspondence that she had with a pro-life woman: "Subsequent correspondence has revealed a common concern for the free speech rights of abortion protesters.  We both worry that government is using RICO laws to stifle dissent."

Earlier in the book, on page 15, she mentions other common-ground that the ACLU has found with groups that many would characterize as right-wing.  She refers to common-ground between the ACLU and the libertarian Cato Institute on the drug war, and between the ACLU and the National Rifle Association "on issues stemming from the 1993 tragedy in Waco."

I admire the integrity of the ACLU: it has principles, and it does not care if those principles put it on what people would label as the left-side of the political spectrum, or the right-wing side.  It just stands up for people's rights!  Some right-wingers have told me that the ACLU is pretty selective about what rights it defends, however, for the ACLU does not exactly take on gun control laws, which a number of right-wingers believe are in violation of the Second Amendment.  You can see here that the ACLU regards the right to keep and bear arms as a collective right, not an individual right.  I can see some of the ACLU's point, for the Amendment does mention a militia.  But I wonder why a collective right would be placed inside of a document (namely, the Bill of Rights) that primarily concerns protecting the rights of the individual from government infringement.  In any case, whatever the merit of its stance on the Second Amendment, I appreciate the ACLU's integrity on the other rights in the Bill of Rights, as it defends left-wingers and right-wingers, the mainstream and the extreme.

(UPDATE: Regarding Kennedy's views on gun control, on pages 188-189, she appears to be critical of the government confiscating guns to reduce crime and violence.  Yet, in her post here, she disapproves of a measure allowing people to carry guns into the workplace.) 

I'd also like to mention that Kennedy on page 128 criticizes Congress for exempting itself from the laws that it passes.  This was an issue in the 1990's, for, in 1995, the U.S. Congress passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which applied to the U.S. Congress a number of federal laws from which it had exempted itself.  This law was passed soon after Republicans gained majorities in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, for the first time in over three decades.  It was a time in which many anticipated reform, as Republicans in the 1994 elections had ousted long-time career politicians, and fresh blood was coming into the chambers of Congress.  Of course, the outcome of the Republican triumph was not entirely positive, for the Republican Congress had its share of scandals.  But I remember with nostalgia the fresh, innocent Republican optimism that I had right after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.

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