Our advent sermons this year are from Isaiah 59-60, and this week we are starting with the first half of chapter 59. (I know this isn't the first week of advent, but we were working through Genesis and had to finish chapter 50 last week.)
One thing that stood out to me about this week's passage is the progression of pronouns in Isaiah 59. The prophet starts out in verses 1-3 speaking in the second person. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God" and "have hidden his face from you." He speaks to the people about their own sin and its effect on them. At this stage he is accusing them, and he is not part of what he is criticizing. They do this.
He then shifts to third person in verses 4-8. At this point no one calls for justice. They give empty arguments, speak lies, conceive of trouble, are quick to shed innocent blood, and walk paths without justice. No one who walks in their ways will know peace. He isn't just accusing others now. He's talking about an objective situation, without placing himself in it our outside it. He's noting something that is true.
Then we see a shift to the first person in verses 9-13. "Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows." He speaks of his own people, him included, as if they collectively walk around blindly and mourning, looking for justice and deliverance but not finding it.
But verse 12 shifts to an explanation. "For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities." Rebellion against God, oppression, revolt, and lies are in the same breath given as the reasons why "we" end up with the effect of verses 14-15. Justice is driven back, righteousness pushed off at a distance, truth stumbling in the streets, honesty unable to enter. "Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey."
He's still giving the effects on those around him, but he's identifying with them in their sin and collectively recognizing that it's not just some other group of evildoers that he is calling out. We are all in this group. And when he calls for justice, the reason it's not happening is because of the doing of injustice that he is also participating in.
You might argue that he's just collectively identifying with his fellow Jews the way Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel do in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 when they weren't committing the sins of the people but were still offering prayers of collective repentance for the people they belonged to. But I think this is different. Ezra didn't commit the sin of marrying pagans who didn't worship God that he was lamenting. Daniel didn't bow to the idols around him in Babylon. Yet they collectively repented as a way to lead their people to repent.
But the things Isaiah is dealing with here, though not all sins we all commit, includes things that he and any other generally righteous people in his time, were complicit in. So even though he starts out pointing out the sins of others and describing the effects on them, none of that false, he ends up identifying with it enough to describe it as something true of "us" in a way that leads him to express public and collective repentance that he seeks those around him to join with him in. And then he says that the reason they have not experienced the justice that they now long for (which they started out not even wanting) was because of their own injustice.
If, as I think is true, the presentation of the prophecy of Isaiah should be taken at face value, and it was actually composed by Isaiah himself in the 8th century looking forward to a time much later when the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon, then there are even more interesting implications of this. Isaiah is here identifying with not just his own generation of God's people in their current rebellion but with the future rejection of God's ways by a generation that he isn't even part of. His notion of collective responsibility and group identity is that strong, which speaks volumes about how easily we get away from those notions with Western individualism. And all of this is compatible with recognizing that in one very important way we really are responsible for what we ourselves do. That runs all through this (and through the other collective repentance prayers of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel).
And it's also jarring to many of our sensibilities, where we like to think of things in an oppressor/oppressed binary, to see God's prophet speaking to oppressed people and telling them that one chief reason why they are oppressed is that they are themselves complicit in injustice, and then he has his prophet communicating this identify with them in that injustice, as much as he also seeks in that identifying to offer a prayer of repentance for them to turn from that injustice and experience the fruits of righteousness and peace.
It's hard for me to read this passage and think anyone in our current setting (politically left or right) should come away from this feeling comfortable about themselves. If they do, they are either rejecting its teaching or not understanding it.
I've been paying attention to what I am seeing about the Dobbs case on social media, but I've had some time today to do some reading of the opinions and figure out which things people are saying are actually true. I'm seeing some real ignorance about how the Supreme Court works and about the legal issues in the Dobbs case. We live in a time where there is a grand tradition of social media activists who don't know very much about the issues they are commenting on but still feel like they need to further their own and everyone else's ignorance by chiming in on things they don't understand, and you end up with lots of hot takes that don't reflect reality. There is a good deal of misrepresentation of what the decision does and what some of the concurring and dissenting opinions actually say. Here are a few things I think need to be recognized.
1. Justice Alito, in the majority opinion, distinguishes between the abortion issue and other cases of privacy rights that served as a basis for the original Roe decision and the Casey case that partially overturned Roe while partially upholding it. Those other privacy rights, says Alito, do not involve one important thing that sets this issue apart. That one important thing is called "potential life" by Roe and Casey and actual unborn life (the more scientifically honest term) by the law at issue in Dobbs. You don't have that issue with any of the other cases that served as a basis for Roe's use of substantive due process. I also note that Justice Thomas signed on to this decision in full, which means he also recognizes that. The justices are often willing to say when they sign on to all of a decision except for one small part. He didn't say he disagreed with any of the decision. In fact, he said he agreed with all of it. He isn't denying privacy rights in other cases. But more on that in the next point.
2. Justice Thomas, in his concurrence, points out that those other cases rely on substantive due process. He indicates, as he has been doing since he first got onto the Supreme Court, that he is willing to consider overturning the entire substantive due process framework, because it is completely at odds with what due process in the 14th Amendment actually was about. To present that as threatening to overturn cases truly misunderstands how the court works. He isn't proposing legislation. He's simply affirming a principle that he has argued for his entire career, that substantive due process is a fictional notion not grounded in the Constitution and should be revisited. This is not actually even news. It's his longstanding view.
3. Also, it is worth pointing out what Justice Thomas does not in fact say. He does not say that he would overturn those cases in their result. He explicitly denies that, in fact. He says that the substantive due process ground in such cases needs to be reconsidered, because there is no constitutional notion of substantive due process. Rather, the privileges and immunities clause is what needs further investigation to see if that clause can ground such rights. And he does not forecast an opinion about whether it does. He says it needs investigation. He has signaled that he is open to seeing lots of rights assumed in that clause that are not explicit in the Constitution. What you would have to look to is where the framers of the 14th Amendment got such language and what rights they thought the notion involved. He has argued in some dissents that there are some such rights. He has long thought that the court should be considering that question, and they consistently ignore him. But some of the younger justices have shown more interest in that. Perhaps now is the time they will follow his lead in that. In any case, he is simply reiterating his view here that they ought to be turning to that clause in future cases and not allowing cases that were wrongly decided on the basis of substantive due process to have any place as a precedent for future decisions. To see this as a call for the Supreme Court to declare contraception illegal or to decide out of the blue to roll back the current status quo on same-sex marriage is just nonsense. He is saying no such thing. The people who are saying that do not understand his long-time view on this or the particular opinion he wrote for this case.
4. Also on the reasoning of Justice Thomas' concurrence: I have seen people claim that Thomas, to be consistent, should have included the Loving v. Virginia decision, suggesting that it also relies on some of the stuff that Roe later relied on, and if you question the precursors of Roe-like rights you also have to overturn that decision. But of course Thomas is in an interracial marriage, so they are claiming that pure self-interest leads him not to include that. The most obvious problem with this take, other than its extreme lack of charity, is that Loving v. Virginia does not solely or even mainly rely on substantive due process. It relies mainly on equal protection, which is a different clause in the 14th Amendment. Bans on interracial marriage violate the equal protection clause, and they would do so regardless of whether substantive due process view continues to operate or whether we return to a more historical view of what due process is. That is why he does not mention it.
5. I also think a couple points in the concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh are worth noting. He says that a constitutional right exists to disallow bans of abortion without exceptions for saving the life of the mother. He cites Justice Rehnquist's dissent to Roe for evidence that conservatives on the court have always had such a view. Presuming that at least Chief Justice Roberts agrees with him (and I suspect others do too), there are at least five votes, then, probably more, to overturn any ban on abortion that does not have an exception in the case of saving the mother's life. It's in fact likely that all nine justices accept a right to self-defense as the ground for that. That right is clearly in the second amendment, according to the Heller decision that I'm quite sure at least six of the justices on this court agree with.
6. Kavanaugh also says that a right to travel in the Constitution bans any laws against banning travel to another state to have an abortion that would be illegal in one's own state. Assuming Chief Justice Roberts agrees, as is almost certain, that would pretty easily be five justices in support of such a view, which means no such law would survive constitutional review under this court.
7. I've seen a lot of reiteration and endorsement of Senator Susan Collins' claims that several justices lied to her in private meetings. Of course, we can't know what anyone actually said in a private meeting, but she has claimed that they reassured her that they would vote to uphold Roe if it ever got challenged. I tend to doubt that that's what they actually said, and when she has been more precise she has said something very different. She has said that they affirmed that they saw Roe as settled law, which is of course not a statement that they would always vote to uphold it.
To a legal scholar, saying that something is settled law is a contrast with being not genuinely in effect. Something that is not settled law is something that is not clearly in effect, and maybe you don't even need to follow it. Or it's not clear whether you do. Settled law does not mean it can't be overturned. It means it's the actual law in place at the moment. I would affirm that Roe was settled law until Casey, and then the parts of Roe that Casey upheld were settled law until they were overturned. But that doesn't mean its being settled law means it couldn't be overturned.
And one reason we should know that, even apart from what I've just said, is that every single one of these justices consistently stated that they would not forecast how they would vote in particular cases. And that means that they could not have meant that saying something is settled law would mean they would not vote to overturn that settled law.
The notion of stare decisis means strong consideration is given to precedents of the court, but it never means a decision can't be overturned. Different justices have different views on how strong that principle is and what it would take to overturn a particular precedent, but none of them take stare decisis as absolute. The Lawrence v. Texas decision that declared a right to sex acts between same-sex couples overturned a settled precedent in Bowers v. Hardwick. That was settled law, and stare decisis gave strong reasons not to overturn it without strong enough arguments to overcome those reasons. But the court decided there were such strong reasons, and it overturned the decision. That doesn't mean they didn't believe in stare decisis.
Any senator who doesn't realize this does not understand the principle. So assurances that they support stare decisis are, like assurances that they think Roe to be settled law, not really very clear evidence one way or the other of how they would vote in a particular case. And they all said so explicitly. They said it over and over again, because Democratic senators kept asking them about it, despite having gotten all the answers they were going to get.
So any conclusions she drew that conflict with their explicit and repeated claims were just wishful thinking on Collins' part. What she has now done is to turn around and call them liars because of her wishful thinking. And Kavanaugh actually spends a bit of time explaining the high bar needed for stare decisis and why he thinks that bar was met. He has in his opinion answered the question in very explicit terms and given detailed reasoning why he could affirm stare decisis and say that a high bar must be met to overturn Roe, all the while being willing to consider and ultimately be convinced by arguments to vote to overturn it. His opinion is publicly available for those who want to see that reasoning. In any case, the fact that he does give such reasoning shows that the claim that he lied is simply false. Anyone is free to disagree with his opinion, but don't go claiming that he has no such reasons. Any claim that he lied is in fact refuted by his actual opinion in this case.
8. The opinion by Chief Justice Roberts interestingly focuses mostly on whether the case needed to be decided so broadly. He identifies a narrower issue the court could have decided and simply left it at that. But it's worth noting that what he says about that narrower issue would substantially have eroded what Roe and Casey have allowed. Roe and Casey both considered viability the place at which states could sometimes regulate abortion, but it had an absolute prohibition on regulating abortion before that point. His opinion would have erased that point as the point that regulation can begin, but it would have not established any point after conception to replace it. It would have a replaced a point of development that is constantly moving as science advances. The viability point is thus not constant, since viability has moved earlier in the time since Roe.
But viability is relatively precise at any given time compared with what Roberts would have left us with. His incredibly vague non-answer to when states could enforce abortion restrictions is the sort of thing that is generally considered unconstitutional in Supreme Court decisions. His attempt to find a narrower spot would leave great unclarity and many continued court cases to establish what states could actually do. He seems very resistant to rolling it back to conception but very adamant that it couldn't remain at viability.
That seems weird to anyone who recognizes that the best pro-life arguments rely on the difficulty in finding any point of development to draw as a line between conception and birth for when moral status begins. There scientifically can't be any such thing. Unless you go with the view that moral status and its consequent right to life develops gradually and thus is also vague, which can then serve as a vague ground of when rights begin, the view seems incoherent. But if you look at his actual reasoning, you will see that he's actually dodging that question. He's not grounding his moving back from viability in any view about when moral status begins. (I assume he thinks it does start at conception, because he seems personally pro-life, but that's not where he goes for this question. It's quite obvious that viability can't be when moral status begins anyway, unless you want to build in a bunch of ableist assumptions about moral status. What you are capable of doing cannot be the ground of what moral status you have if people with severe disabilities have moral status. But that's a side note. That issue isn't raised in his opinion.)
Roberts doesn't ground it in moral status. He grounds it in the ability for someone to discover being pregnant and to have time to decide whether to have an abortion. His view is thus not a pro-life view at all but a pro-choice view, at least in terms of deciding when the law can ban abortions. He wants to allow some time for that, and clearly the three months of the law being considered in this case is enough time for someone in a normal situation to discover being pregnant and make that decision. So he's fine with three months, but he thinks viability is late enough that it doesn't need to be the line. Three months is enough time to discover that you are pregnant and decide to have an abortion, so why does it have to be viability? That would be a very serious revision to Roe if his view had won out. But it would be a pretty different situation than the one that did win out. I don't think a lot of the commentary I'm seeing recognizes how different his view would have been than simply upholding Roe would have been. Simply upholding Roe is not what he would have done, despite the fact that many have presented his narrower view as doing so.
Matthew Franck notes [note: link is now dead, and I haven't been able to find the specific post if it's still up) that on one of Barack Obama's exam questions from when he was teaching law, he asks whether an equal protection challenge can be brought against a law requiring states to be color-blind. Franck says he knows of lots of people who think the equal protection clause requires states to be color-blind, but he hasn't encountered a serious argument anywhere that such laws violate the equal protection clause. I haven't either, but I don't read law reviews. Still, such an argument isn't hard to imagine, and I think it's actually a sound argument.
The equal protection clause entitles people of all races to equal protection of the laws. The laws therefore need to be able to rely on the distinction between members of one race and members of another if they are to ensure that each race is equally protected by them. Therefore, color-blind laws, which disallow the state from paying attention to race, violate the equal protection clause.
It sounds like a pretty good argument to me. As a policy issue, I don't mind restricting affirmative action in universities to class rather than race, or at least ensuring that the standards aren't lowered as much as they are. There's a significant argument that the way affirmative action is typically practiced in that setting (as opposed to in the workplace, which is a very different matter) seems to me to harm the people it's intended to help, given that admissions officers already go out of their way to promote diversity (so there's no discrimination to combat at that level), and it means accepting people who won't be able to do as well and then will appear less good when they graduate than they would at a lower institution with much higher grades and more time for extracurriculars. There are other negatives too, but that's the one that seems decisive to me. I think it's much better to work at the high school level and below to help kids do better in school, to care more about school, and to think of college as something worth doing.
But I can't see how it could be good to ban affirmative action by not allowing a state to recognize racial distinctions in any way. That sort of law is not just bad policy. It really is unconstitutional because it prevents enforcement of the equal protection clause.
I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses the teaching of philosophy, and every once in a while someone says something that I really want to comment on, but it would move enough away from the conversation and be very long and just feel out of place. I found myself writing a very long comment this morning about something that I think should be preserved, but I ended up not posting it to that conversation, because it’s really off point and probably wouldn’t be appropriate to pick out one side comment and turn it into a lengthy issue. But I think what I have to say about it is worth posting, so here it is.
The conversation was about a student who engaged in inappropriate behavior in class to support (but not actually defend) his view that morality is connected with religion. He actually stood up and looked around at the class to assert his view, as if he could win people over by the sheer force of saying it. One of the commenters pointed out that movies like God Is Not Dead probably fuel perceptions of a liberal and secular bias in philosophy classes, and to someone who has seen that movie and has no familiarity with philosophy they might think philosophy classes are actually like that and see this kind of behavior as an appropriate response. (Hint: philosophy classes are usually nothing like what that movie portrays, and this kind of behavior is totally inappropriate in a philosophy class.)
Someone else came along and mentioned a case where her insistence on using proper terminology led to a student’s parents accusing her of inappropriate bias in her teaching. That’s unfortunate when that happens, and I actually think in the case these parents were pushing back against they were wrong. But the case started from something preventable that I think would predictably lead to that perception in a lot of people.
Several politically right commentators have criticized Hillary Clinton's recent remarks about implicit bias, charging her with expressing her own bigotry in the process. See, for example, the Federalist and the Weekly Standard. A quick Google search turns up several others. When I first saw this, I thought it was a big of a lapse, given how quickly the right turned to the defense of Juan Williams when he was fired by NPR for basically saying the same sort of thing about people dressed in Muslim garb in airports. (See similar Google search for him.)
Williams admitted to an unconscious bias at airports when he sees people who he expects to be the more common demographic to be terrorists. He expressed some regret about this, clearly indicating that he thought something was unfortunate about being that way, but he said it's sort of understandable how people end up being fearful in that way. He was fired from NPR for being a bigot.
Clinton comes along and describes the implicit bias many white people have against young black men in hoodies. She says it's honest, open-minded, well-meaning people who have this fear, which is certainly true. That's what makes it implicit bias. It happens even among those who don't want it to, who oppose racism with every moral fiber they have. In context, it's clear that she's saying this is something that needs to change. She's not saying this is a good thing. But these critics latch on to it to insist that she must feel this fear herself, as if that somehow would make her hypocritical and a complete bigot worthy of condemnation (in a way that Williams apparently was not, at least the way many of the right acted at the time).
The point of both Williams and Clinton is that this is something unfortunate that our psychological makeup leads us to do, and it's something that ideally we should seek to change, but it's nonetheless part of how we experience race in this country. There's bad there, and there's something normal about it. Both are true. There might be slightly different nuances between the two cases, but I find it hard to believe that there's enough difference between the two cases to justify such radically different treatment. (And I'd be shocked not to find the mirror image of the right's treatment as the left begins to defend her, despite many of them having criticized Williams for saying the same thing.)
It's not hypocritical for an anti-racist to point out that they probably have implicit bias and wish that were otherwise, expressing a desire to try to find ways to deal with that. I don't have a lot of confidence that either Juan Williams or Hillary Clinton would have a lot of good things to say about what a positive response to it would be, and that's not because of their political views or anything like that. I don't expect politicians or political commentators to have much to say of value on the subject. Psychologists and psychologically-informed philosophers might have some things to say that are worth listening to, but no one has a lot of interesting and helpful suggestions about this particular problem. The best work on it shows that it forms at a very young age and doesn't really go away. Most of the ways people come up with to deal with it are very temporary or very gradual, and the best help for it is to have a more integrated society (especially at the most intimate levels of friendships and relationships). That's a good reason not to make a speech about it, as if there are a bunch of policies politicians can implement that will change this. But it's not hypocritical to do so. What is hypocritical to treat these two differently unless you can point to something that explains why he's heroic and she's evil for saying the same thing (or vice versa, for any who might defend her after having seen Williams as a bigot).
The Supreme court released a bunch of opinions yesterday. One of them isn't all that interesting to me, but a little exchange on a side point caught my attention. From the SCOTUSBlog writeup:
In a five-page concurrence, Justice Kennedy went out of his way to raise concern over the proliferation of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, bemoaning the extent to which "the conditions in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest," even though "consideration of these issues is needed." Thus, he concluded, "[i]n a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required . . . to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them." Justice Thomas responded in a rather curt, one-paragraph opinion, noting that "the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims . . . now rest," and that "Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth."
I'm not interested in adjudicating that particular dispute, but I'm interested in (1) its very existence and (2) the particular reasoning used in each case. There's a correct moral principle behind each justice's point (just retribution for a heinous act and ensuring we don't ourselves do evil in how we treat those who do evil). It seems as if this might be a case where we can't satisfy either concern without going against the other concern, so we have to decide which principle we'll give more importance to. These two justices end up on opposite sides on that question.
I've long thought that whether something is terrorism is independent of the motivation. You can be a terrorist for financial gain, such as the villains in 1970s spy movies. You can be a terrorist because of political ideology, striking at those you view as your political opponents. You can be a terrorist for an environmental cause. You can be a terrorist to achieve goals in an otherwise legitimate war. You can be a terrorist seeking to achieve legitimate goals of justice. You can be a terrorist purely to get revenge. It isn't tied to religion or especially to any particular religion. It isn't tied to whether the goals are good. And it isn't tied to whether the ultimate target is bad. Terrorism to achieve an overthrow of an oppressive government is just as much terrorism a kidnapping the kids of rich people to get a ransom, blowing up supermarkets to continue a long-standing conflict, or threatening to use bio-warfare on innocents if your fallen comrades don't get acknowledged by their government as heroes (as in The Rock).
I also don't see how it matters who the actor is. A legitimate government can engage in terrorism just as much as a group of dissidents can. The United States military can use terrorist tactics as easily as a militant revolutionary group. Individual people acting on their own, political organizations out of power, and criminal organizations are no more deserving of the term than governments who oppress their people through terrorism or governments who wage war on others through terrorism.
What is distinctive about terrorism is the use of violence or at least some kind of threat to produce fear in a third party, typically someone innocent of the conflict but at least someone who isn't the primary target. The ultimate enemy is someone else, and this person or these people who are receiving the threat or who are actually being harmed are innocents or relative innocents in comparison to the real conflict going on. It doesn't matter if you're threatening to poison the water supply if you don't get money from the government or if you're burning down homes in Long Island communities because a few manufacturing facilities there are polluting. It doesn't matter if you're flying planes into buildings because you see the majority of the people who work there as complicit in an evil system or blowing up entire cities with nuclear weapons to end a war. The real target is someone other than the immediate victim. It sends a message to someone else, and that's what makes it terrorism.
A lot of people in my Twitter feed are saying the church shooting last night is an act of terrorism and that hardly anyone is acknowledging it because the victims were black. If there is a message that this shooting was intended to spread, then I would say that it is terrorism. It's mainly people on the left who seem interested in pointing out this kind of case as terrorism. Most people wouldn't think of it that way, but it seems like it might be. I don't have a problem with that, provided that the perpetrator really did this so that a larger audience would come away with a certain message. That would indeed count as terrorism, I think.
At the same time, the very same people who are quick to call this terrorism were very hesitant to say anything negative about the Baltimore protestors engaging in terrorist acts. On the above analysis, it's pretty clear that it's terrorism to burn down a home for poor black retirees built by a black church, just to send a message about an unjust system of justice and law enforcement. This, of course, happened in Baltimore. The right called it rioting, and the left called it protesting, but it's terrorism. Those outraged about calling the church shooting terrorism are inconsistent if they don't think that was terrorism too. And the difference is that we knew the motives in that case, since it was part of the larger protesting/rioting phenomenon, which was a reaction to a particular incident we already knew much about (and certainly knew the protestors' view on), while in this one it's still a breaking story, and we need to be hesitant about making hasty judgments when we don't know all the facts. But I think it's clear that both sides of the political spectrum need to realize that there are certain kinds of terrorist acts that they're more inclined to recognize as terrorism and certain ones they're less inclined to recognize as terrorism, and it would be nice if we could be more consistent.
The imminent ban on 40-watt and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs is going to impose a significant cost on our household. This is an interesting case of a somewhat bi-partisan attempt to save energy while imposing what they took to be only a small cost on most households. But it is a cost, and it's cost that poorer households will be more burdened by. So, like New York's recent bottle bill that adds 5 cents to the cost of a larger variety of bottles, people with lower income will be more burdened by it if they continue to buy products in those bottles, while more affluent households will not notice as much of an effect of the increased cost. Our household, however, will be much more burdened by this than most.
The alternatives to incandescent bulbs don't seem to me to be genuine alternatives for our household. LED bulbs really are the best you can get. LED flashlights fail when the flashlight itself fails. It's never the bulbs that are the problem, and the batteries should last a very long time unless you leave them on all the time or never turn it on (in which case the batteries will corrode). But LED bulbs for ordinary household lights are still very expensive. The prices I'm finding for them online are something like $10 per bulb. This might be fine if they last forever and will never need to be replaced, and the energy savings might also help make up for it, but that's for a household where you won't need to replace them except when they fail on their own. We have a child who actively seeks to smash light bulbs whenever people forget to turn the lights on when he's home or when we let our attention turn to deal with anything but him, allowing him to climb on something to reach them. I think we lose a light bulb or two every week, and we can't be spending $10 per bulb at that sort of replacement rate.
Compact fluorescents are not a viable alternative either, for two reasons. Fluorescent bulbs do last longer than incandescent bulbs if you simply measure how many hours they can be left on before breaking, but that's not how most people use them. For businesses that leave the lights on for long stretches of time, they make sense. But if you turn them on and off regularly, they break far, far sooner than incandescent bulbs. They often don't last more than a few months with the kind of use they get in our house. I've seen them last a day or two more than once. They might save energy if you're willing to eat the cost of constantly replacing them, but they're not cost-effective unless you keep them on all day. This is not easy if you have been conscientious enough to develop a muscle-memory habit of turning the lights off when you leave the room, and it's next to impossible if you have children who will turn lights on and off all the time. I have to remind myself constantly not to turn the lights off in my office at work and in the classrooms I teach in, because it will cost the college too much money to keep turning them off and on again and replacing the bulbs regularly. The bulbs in our office are constantly in need of replacement, because people often turn them off when they leave the room, either not knowing of this problem or not thinking about it when they leave. And those are adults. There's really no way to control for what small children or children with autism will do with lights, and we've got both.
Even worse is the health hazard given the amount of mercury inside compact fluorescent bulbs. It's not a huge amount of mercury in a given bulb. It's about the size of a period in standard-size type. But even that amount is not a good idea to have around small children, and the EPA's recommended precautions for cleaning them up are simply not possible in our household. When you add in an autistic child who goes out of his way to unscrew them and smash them on the floor, it's simply not viable to have them in any bulbs he can either reach or stand on something to reach, which means none except in lights with closed cases.
Fortunately, the law doesn't ban incandescents altogether, just ones that are below a certain energy efficiency. The market provided a solution in the first phase of the ban. The light bulb industry managed to produce some 100-watt and 75-watt bulbs that met the standards that the first phase imposed, and we've been buying those bulbs (and will have to buy exclusively those bulbs until the industry produces similarly more-efficient 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs). We're not actually going to see incandescent bulbs disappear. We'll just see more expensive ones. This is an expense we'll have to absorb without seeing as much benefit as most households would get from it, since our the bulbs will have a shorter life than in most households. But it seems to me to be the best alternative for us.
I’ve determined that there’s a political faction out there that needs a name, because it’s a group of conspiracy theorists with a particular agenda that’s becoming somewhat influential, and it’s achieving its agenda fairly well. Its agenda is to discredit mainstream evangelicalism by confusing it with extremist figures who have nearly zero influence on much of any importance. I’m going to call this group the Dominionismists, because their whole agenda depends on this fictional line of thought called Dominionism.
Dominionismism begins, as far as I can tell, with a sociology Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, by a woman named Sara Diamond. Diamond’s dissertation sought to expose a group of Christians she was calling Dominionists, who held the view “that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns”. Dominionismists like to lump together such diverse figures as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, R.J. Rushdoony, James Dobson, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Randall Terry, Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and Nancy Pearcey as influential figures in the development of Dominionism.
Now while most of these people are nearly household names to me, many people reading this might not know who any or many of them are, so let me break it down a little. Abraham Kuyper was a prime minister in the Netherlands a little more than a century ago, and his vision of a Christian interaction with politics was that Christianity includes both (a) influencing non-believers with the good news of salvation and (b) attempting to do what good we can in the world, and that involves seeking to implement policies that Christians agree with. He thought it was perfectly proper for people of any mindset to seek to implement the policies they thought would be best, and therefore Christians should implement policies that are based on principles they hold as part of their Christian worldview. He didn’t think there was some biblical obligation for Christians to take over all the positions in every secular institution. He did think it was appropriate for Christians to seek a biblically-aware worldview that informs how they influence society for good, including occupying positions of influence.
Francis Schaeffer was of the same mindset, basically, and he was influential in bringing Protestants to care about the abortion issue, which before Schaeffer was mainly a Catholic issue. Schaeffer is more importantly credited with bringing evangelicals to care about theology, philosophy, and intellectual endeavor more generally, playing a large role in influencing evangelicals to go back into the academy that fundamentalists had left in the early 20th century as it was becoming more dominated by secularists and theological liberals. Schaeffer’s main influence in evangelicalism is in opposing anti-intellectualism and calling on evangelicals to think through their worldview and the worldviews of those around them, considering what sorts of views are out there and influencing them and how to think more carefully for themselves whether their views fit with scripture and whether they fit together consistently. He emphasized the gospel message’s importance in influencing every aspect of someone’s life, with an impact on how you live, how you pursue your career, and what sorts of intellectual pursuits you engage in if you have a career that has any relation to such pursuits. Nancey Pearcey is a Schaeffer-influenced contemporary author who has published works that continue largely in the pattern of her mentor.
Some of the figures in the list are politically-active evangelicals of various stripes. D. James Kennedy was a Presbyterian minister who had a TV ministry that was very much not like most televangelists. His Reformed theology set him apart for one thing, compared with Baptist Jerry Falwell and Pentecostal Pat Robertson. All three spent time arguing on behalf of particular causes associated with the religious right, but Kennedy’s theological background was much closer to Schaeffer’s. Schaeffer spent time trying to rein them all in, according to Schaeffer’s son-in-law Udo Middelmann (see his 9:52am comment here on 8-11-11), [note: comments are now paywalled, unfortunately] preferring to influence society with the gospel and to change people’s minds with argument, rather than simply putting Christians in government positions with a disproportionate representation without changing the opinions of those whose worldviews did not support the agenda of those Christians. So here we have a further distinction among the figures in the list between those who want Christians to seek to occupy positions in government or to influence policy directly (without necessarily thinking Christians somehow have a right to all such positions, as Dominionism purportedly holds, and those who think Christians shouldn’t even bother with that sort of thing but should instead seek to influence people’s hearts, and then they’ll vote their conscience.
Then there’s a very different mindset out there called Christian Reconstructionism. R.J. Rushdoony, Gary Bahnsen, and Gary North argue that the proper Christian view of law and politics is a Christian theonomy, which means applying God’s law as revealed in the Bible fairly directly in the laws of whatever society we’re part of. Rushdoony argues for imposing penalties from the Torah for our day, including putting people to death for having gay sex or for getting married under false pretenses of virginity. Rushdoony also argued independently for several theses that have caught on among non-theonomists, such as the idea that the founders of the United States saw this country as a Christian nation and did not intend for the First Amendment to prohibit states from endorsing a particular Christian denomination but that it simply prevented the federal government from taking a stance among the Christian denominations. He saw the American Revolution as motivated in significant part by an orthodox Christian resistance to a secularized British government, and many in the homeschool movement have been attracted to those ideas, without necessarily buying into the whole theonomist project. He also saw the institution of slavery as relatively benevolent, opposed forced integration and interracial marriage, and bought into Holocaust deniers’ claims that the number of Jews killed by Nazi Germany has been wildly exaggerated.
It’s not hard to see the huge gap between standard Religious Right social conservatism and its claims of this being a Christian nation that needs to be restored to its roots and the kind of vision Rushdoony had, even apart from the racial elements I just mentioned. It strikes me as irresponsible to lump him together with Francis Schaeffer and those influenced by him, especially given Schaeffer’s many recorded instances of resisting exactly the kinds of views Rushdoony developed. Indeed, it strikes me as an error of the magnitude of some of Rushdoony’s own historical nonsense to consider there to be such a view called Dominionism [sic] that Rushdoony, Schaeffer, James Dobson, and all the other people in the list somehow share and that it seeks to get Christians and only Christians into all the influential positions in secular society. Those who are perpetuating this lie are conspiracy theorists, and it strikes me as irrational and contrary to the evidence as Birtherism and Trutherism.
Dominionismism is of the same sort, except for one thing. Terry Gross (most recently here but see also here) and Diane Rehm (e.g. here) of NPR regularly have these people on their shows and let them spew forth this historically inaccurate and slanderous nonsense with hardly a critical comment or request for genuine support, and then they treat it as a big secret conspiracy that no one is interested in investigating. A recent article in The New Yorker (see Ryan Lizza’s hit piece on Michele Bachmann) presents this conspiracy theory as investigative reporting. Dominionismism has mainstream support among influential purveyors of information. That’s the big difference between it and Birtherism and Trutherism, because prominent people have raised suggestions along Birtherist and Trutherist lines, and the mainstream media just laughs at them. Just look at how Donald Trump was treated by Fox News when he was spouting off questions suggestive of the Birther thesis. They gave him time on their shows, as they probably should do with someone of his influence claiming to run for the presidency, but it was obvious that no one who actually worked for the network thought what he was saying had anything to it.
There are figures in the Dominionismist movement who are more careful, for example Chip Berlet (and he says the work of Sara Diamond is too, but I can’t testify to that, and it’s obvious to me that many using her work are not very careful). Even so, some of what he says strikes me as still very problematic. For one thing, he sees Sarah Palin as a dominionist. I’ve seen no evidence that Palin thinks Christians and only Christians should occupy every position in secular society. I have seen evidence that she thinks it’s good for Christians to seek office and to transform society for the better, with what’s better determined in part (and for all I know only in part, for all I’ve seen) by what can be gleaned from the Bible. He thinks there’s this large class of people who think the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve to have dominion over the planet is really about Christians having dominion over everything rather than the far more common (and far more plausible) interpretation that we all have an obligation to be stewards over God’s creation, and it’s just those with the right views who are doing so responsibly (and Christians should think their views are more in line with what’s right, just as any other group would think their views are more in line with what’s right, or else they obviously wouldn’t happen to have those views but would have other views). Dominionismists would do well to look at Bertlet’s chart showing views along the continuum between Triumphalism and Christian Reconstructionism, and I would inform them that people like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry are at most Triumphalists, as far as I can tell, and certainly not in the non-existent camp of Dominionists as Diamond defines the term.
I should also note a massive misuse of the term “Dominion Theology”. There is actually a view called Dominion Theology, but it has nothing to do with these issues. It’s associated with the Vineyard third-wave Pentecostalism and people like John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner, who see Christians’ duty as not taking the government and secular institutions back from secular society but as taking the world back from Satan’s control, which has been the reigning order since the fall. Christians have the right and authority, according to this view, to exercise dominion over demons and reclaim God’s authority over the fallen world by prayer and confident assertion of God’s reign. People who practice Wagner’s methods will walk around cities proclaiming that God has reclaimed this and will speak to demons declaring them no longer to have dominion over the city. This, as should be obvious to anyone thinking about it, is such a clearly distinct phenomenon from anything to do with the relation between Christians and the government that it’s amazing not only that they’ve been so often confused but that so many people have now attached the name of their theology to the non-existent Dominionism that it’s largely taken over Google’s searches for the term. It’s actually hard to find any references to actual Dominion Theology by searching for that expression, and the first one I turned up was someone confusing them as a wing of Dominionism (one of three wings, according to that site, and Rick Warren has somehow managed to unite the three, as if that could make any sense; Warren is well-known as a political progressive/liberal except for some socially-conservative views).
[Note: cross-posted at First Things; that version of this post parodied a stylistic oddity of a well-known philosopher with a popular blog, who puts "[sic]" after the names of views he doesn't like, in a way that is out of step with normal practice for that expression, but the joke was lost on a good portion of readers, and I have removed it in this version for clarity.]
There are several different things someone might mean when they speak of imposing religious beliefs on those who don't hold them. There are two different axes to pay attention to. One is what is meant by "imposing", and the other is what is meant by "religion".
On the first axis, what is meant by "imposing", I can think of a number of things in decreasing order of severity:
1. Forcing people with threat of force or imprisonment
2. Coercing people by some manner less severe than force or threat of imprisonment (e.g. giving them incentives like a right to vote, to drive, to hold an independent job) that most Americans consider rights or close enough to it
3. Incentivizing by some manner less severe than coercion (e.g. government influencing social acceptance, giving tax credits or deductions, criminal penalties of smaller sort such as a fine)
4. Calling on people to change their mind or behavior, perhaps with strenuous argumentation
5. Explaining one's attitude on the issue
6. Simply stating what one's view happens to be
On the second axis, what is meant by "religion", I can again think of a number of things, in decreasing order of centrality to religion:
A. espousing a statement of faith or unfaith (that they might not actually agree with)
B. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) merely by religious beliefs and not by any attempt at rational argument
C. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but also by some attempt at rational argument, even if it's not a strong argument
D. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but is held by most who hold it (even if controversially) by rationally-motivated arguments that, while disputed, at least are philosophically-driven in addition to or, for some, without the religious motivation
E. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but is commonly held by most people, and for most people there is motivation that in their minds is on grounds entirely independent of religion
There are those who insist that even stating one's religious views counts as imposing them in an improper way, never mind preaching them. Fortunately, in the United States even 4A is protected speech by the first amendment. I'm not about to argue for 1 either, so we're really looking at 2 and 3. In the history of the world, we've certainly seen pseudo-conversions coerced at swordpoint or recantations of religious beliefs at the threat of martyrdom. In comparison with that, the idea that one is imposing one's religion merely by trying to make a case for it seems absurd. It's similar to the War on Christmas people complaining of Christians being persecuted in the United States just because schools are refusing to sing Jingle Bells in schools on the ground that the song is tied to a religious holiday. (In my experience, schools nowadays don't reduce Christian content at Christmas but simply include it alongside religious content for other religions' holidays too, so this complaint is getting even more stale than it was when I was younger, when such songs might have been excluded on the strange claim that they're somehow religious).
We do have some laws that are all the way down to 1E or sometimes 1D, however. For example, same-sex sodomy laws, bans on selling contraceptives, and bans on teaching evolution (all deemed unconstitutional now) were often religiously-motivated but did include arguments, often arguments widely accepted at the time, that didn't rely on religious premises. Evolution was thought not to be as well-supported as its proponents think. Creation science has insisted that evolution is just bad science. This isn't about whether their arguments are good but about what kind of arguments they are. Similarly, bans on same-sex sodomy were justified more by disgust at such acts than any biblical prohibition on them, and the Connecticut ban on selling contraceptives was supported by an argument about population control.
But there remain some laws at level 1E or 1D and some attempts at instituting laws at this level. Sodomy laws are deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court since 2004, but incest laws vary from state to state. It's not criminal in Rhode Island to have sex with a close relative, but you can't marry them unless you're Jewish (to allow for Levirate customs, I assume). In Ohio it's criminal to have sex with your children, but only the parents are criminal even if the children are adults. But in Massachusetts you can get 20 years in prison for having sex with your adult sibling, even if one of the two parties is demonstrably infertile or if it's a same-sex act, in either case removing any chance of genetic problems with offspring. Such a law is, as far as the courts have so far indicated, perfectly constitutional. Yet I can think of no easy argument against it unless you rely on beliefs that are either very controversial and often supported by religion or simply feelings of disgust. Arguments against pornography aren't all religious (see the feminist arguments), but we make distributing or producing certain kinds of pornography illegal in part because a lot of people have religious objections to it. (But I should say that this is clearly 1E and not 1D, since almost all religious people who object to pornography would agree with just about the entire feminist case against pornography, despite feminist claims to the contrary.)
In fact, 1E prohibitions occur all the time. Laws against murder or robbery fit into this category. People certainly have religious reasons for thinking such acts are wrong and ought to be given severe penalties. But the arguments for them are widely accepted by religious and non-religious people, and the secularly-accessible arguments are usually present even for religious people.
Coercion of sorts 2 and 3 is a little more commonly thought of as imposing religion, and there are some ways that can occur today in the United States with legal sanction (although for letters further down the list than happens with Islam). You're not going to find 2A or 3A in the U.S. today, but you will find both in Islamic countries. Most debates in the political context of the U.S. about imposing religion aren't even about 2B or 3B. The kinds of things that get labeled as Taliban-like behavior in the U.S. aren't about matters that have purely religious support. They at least make an attempt at rational argumentation. But that's also true of the Islamic laws requiring women to wear veils or prohibiting girls from being educated in any formal way. The supposed rational argumentation in both cases is extremely weak and based on false views of the capabilities of women or false priorities, elevating the concern with provoking male lust to a point where it overcomes eminently reasonable considerations about freedom in how women might dress and conduct themselves in public. Even the most stringent Christian concerns about modesty in women's dress are going to allow for much more freedom than you'll find in many Islamic prohibitions on female dress.
I think most cases I'm aware of on level 2 are actually all the way down to 2E. I'm thinking of laws that prohibit minority religious behavior, such as requiring a photo ID for a driver's license (which some orthodox Jews resist and even some Muslims, or like the Florida law requiring a photo ID not to have a face covered too much, which some Muslim women won't do). The attempted ban on peyote even in Native American religious ceremonies would have fallen into this category, but Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, overturned that. Banning certain kinds of political protests that someone might have religious reasons for insisting on doing, e.g. perhaps an abortion protest of a certain nature, amounts to a 2C imposition.
Level 3C is much more fair game for a lot of issues in the U.S. We don't imprison people for much at level C, but we do incentivize religious charitable giving by giving tax deductions, and we recognize (so far) a privileged position for opposite-sex unions to be called marriage at the federal level and in most states. That gives government sanction for something with some secular arguments but also based on religious motivation for many supporters of that policy, and it has an effect of cultural sanction or respect for certain behavior over other behavior. If we ban a certain religious act but without criminal penalty other than a fine, that would fall under 3C. There are religious and non-religious arguments for abortion protests that cross the line into illegality to a point of a fine but not to the point of imprisonment.
In the UK and Canada in the last couple years, pastors have been carted off to prison for preaching that same-sex sexual acts are immoral. This isn't quite an expectation of having a certain view, but it's prohibiting the speaking of such a view. It's a level 1 prohibition of level 6 behavior. Americans rightly deride such policies as contrary the value of debate as a basic, fundamental component of civil society. Speech codes that prohibit even stating your religious views if such views are considered offensive to someone, while indisputably unconstitutional in the United States, somehow manage to appear at most universities anyway. Even 4A is uncontroversially protected speech under the first amendment, unless it takes it to a level of actually provoking people to a fight or to the level of panic that would result by yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Yet I've encountered a number of people who have considered it a clear case of immorally imposing one's religion, as if trying to persuade someone of a view you happen to find true is somehow wrong. Some take it to a further extreme, considering even the reporting of your view to be inappropriate when it's a controversial view that some might find offensive. Merely indicating that one believes Jews who don't accept Christ as the Messiah will go to hell would, to some people's mind, count as imposing one's religion in an immoral way. I find such an analysis so unhealthy that I almost consider it undeserving of a reply. But if pressed I would insist on the value of philosophical debate, the importance of understanding those who disagree with you, and the moral importance to certain religions of attempting to win people over to something they consider very urgent for all humanity, which prevents them from remaining silent if they're taking their own religion seriously.
What's the moral of the story? Mostly what motivated me to work through all this is that I think we should be wary of anyone who makes blanket statements about imposing religion, whether moral statements or simply factual claims that it has happened. It should be pretty clear from all this that it's never clear what people mean by that unless the specify, and the debate that might ensure once they do specify is probably worth having. Most people who make such comments haven't thought them through and could benefit from some effort to explore precisely what they mean. The term "imposing religion" is at this point so unhelpful as to be worth avoiding whenever we can, and in its place let's clarify the particular elements that we're concerned about, since the different items in both lists above certainly do involve different moral considerations.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.