An American Life

January 11, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


January 11, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

The Humanist:

Speaking to his congregationat Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, in September, Pastor Paul Blair proclaimed himself a “God-fearing Oklahoman” and a “patriotic American.” As such, he said, “I will be casting my ballot for Representative Mary Fallin for governor.” Blair also is founder and director of Reclaiming Oklahoma For Christ. In that capacity, he sent an email urging recipients to attend a political rally for zealously anti-gay Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern, who was facing opposition from a transgender candidate Blair claimed was “recruited” by “the homosexual lobby.” Fallin and Kern easily won their respective races in November.

Blair is one of dozens of pastors on the religious right who are increasingly flouting a longstanding Internal Revenue Service regulation that bars 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations from intervening in political campaigns. This includes endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Violating this section of the tax code can result in revocation of an organization’s tax-exempt status and financial penalties. Yet the IRS—while well aware of this activity—has done little to stop it, and the churches of Blair and others who have brazenly violated the IRS rule continue to be tax exempt.

Some on the far right portray the IRS restrictions as discriminating against churches. They’re not. The limits apply to all 501(c)(3) nonprofits. In 2004 the IRS reports it reviewed 110 referrals on possible prohibited political activity by such tax-exempt organizations. Of them, sixty-three, or 57 percent, were not houses of worship. In 2006 the IRS looked into 100 complaints, with fifty-six, or 56 percent of them, being non-churches. So as a practical matter, those clergy who challenge the IRS regulation are seeking preferential treatment not given to other tax-exempt nonprofits.

“They never talk about removing this restriction from all charities. They only talk about removing it from churches,” says Barry Lynn, an ordained minister and lawyer who serves as executive director of the non-partisan Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It’s a tax-exempt nonprofit bound by the same IRS curb on politicking as churches.

Emboldened by the indifference or inertia of the IRS, evangelical leaders are becoming more aggressive in mixing politics with prayer. They are daring the IRS to sanction them, insisting that to do so is an unconstitutional muzzling of their First Amendment rights. On a designated Sunday in September 2010, as many as 100 pastors preached politics from the pulpit, openly defying the IRS regulation. Indeed, some of them sent audiotapes, videotapes, or copies of their sermons to the IRS. In 2009 eighty-three pastors did this, up from about thirty-three who participated in 2008, says the Alliance Defense Fund, which has organized these annual “Pulpit Freedom” events.

Survey results released in October by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press confirm that members of the clergy are indeed actively politicking their parishioners. Some 15 percent of the respondents said political information was made available at their place of worship, and 5 percent said they were urged by clergy or other religious groups to vote a certain way. (Some political activity, such as urging the congregation to vote, is permitted at houses of worship as long as it isn’t partisan. And clergy can preach about volatile social issues such as abortion and homosexuality as long as they don’t endorse or condemn a candidate’s views on those subjects).

The IRS created the Political Activity Compliance Initiative in 2004, ostensibly to crack down on political activity by pastors and churches. While the agency sometimes sent written advisories to rogue churches in the 2004 and 2006 election years, it didn’t revoke or propose revoking the tax-exempt status of a single one, according to its own records for those years.

The IRS did not respond to verbal or written requests from the Humanist to explain its tepid response to politicking pastors. The agency confines its limited enforcement resources to those cases in which it has a chance to collect hefty excise taxes from wayward churches, says Robert W. Tuttle, a George Washington University law professor who also holds a doctorate degree in religious ethics. Lynn says the IRS has been especially inactive since early 2009 in pursuing offending clergy while it works to tweak the applicable language in the tax code.

The far-right lawyer group, the Alliance Defense Fund, has been the driving force behind these pastor protests. Based in Scottsdale, Arizona, the alliance is anti-abortion and opposed to same-sex marriage and boasts of having “more than thirty-five full-time Christian attorneys.” The organization did not respond to a request for comment, but has made no secret of the fact that it’s itching for a court fight—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. “I think it’s almost entirely about getting a case,” Tuttle says. “It continues to be an interesting legal problem. I just think they’re wrong. This is part of the culture wars, and people do it regardless of whether there are good legal arguments…

Read it all.

Foreign Policy:

Of all of Samuel Huntington’s contributions to the study of politics, the most important was his 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies. This book was probably the last major attempt to write a general theory of political development, and its significance needs to be placed in the context of the ideas that were dominant in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was the heyday of “modernization theory,” probably the most ambitious American attempt to create an integrated, empirical theory of human social change. Modernization theory had its origins in the works of late 19th-century European social theorists like Henry Maine, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Max Weber. While based primarily on the experiences of early modernizers like Britain or the United States, they sought to draw from them general laws of social development.

European social theory was killed, literally and figuratively, by the two world wars. The ideas it generated migrated to the United States, and were taken up by a generation of American academics after the Second World War at places like Harvard University’s Department of comparative politics, the MIT Center for International Studies, and the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Comparative Politics. The Harvard department, led by Weber’s protégé Talcott Parsons, hoped to create an integrated, interdisciplinary social science that would combine economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology.

The period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s also corresponded to the dissolution of European colonial empires and the emergence of what became known as the third or developing world — newly independent countries with great aspirations to modernize and catch up with their former colonial masters. Scholars like Edward Shils, Daniel Lerner, Lucian Pye, Gabriel Almond, David Apter, and Walt Whitman Rostow saw these momentous developments as a laboratory for social theory, as well as a great opportunity to help developing countries raise living standards and democratize their political systems.

If one were to sum up the Americanized version of modernization theory, it was the sunny view that all good things went together: Economic growth, social mobilization, political institutions, and cultural values all changed for the better in tandem. There was none of the tragic sense of loss that one sees in Weber’s concepts of disenchantment or the iron cage of capitalism, or in Durkheim’s anomie. The different dimensions of social change were part of a seamless and mutually supportive process…

Read it all.

The Guardian:

How do we deal with a purposeless universe and the finality of death? From Victorian séances to the embalming of Lenin’s corpse to schemes for uploading our minds into cyberspace, there have have been numerous attempts to deny man’s mortality. Why can’t we accept the limits of science?

The séance that Charles Darwin attended in January 1874 at the house of his brother Erasmus brought the pioneering biologist together with Francis Galton, eugenicist and one of the founders of modern psychology, and the novelist George Eliot. All three were anxious that the rise of spiritualism would block the advance of scientific materialism. They were unimpressed with what they witnessed – Darwin found the experience “hot and tiring” and left before sparks were seen and rapping heard – but they would have been seriously concerned had they known the future career of a fourth participant in the séance, the classical scholar and psychologist FWH Myers.

The inventor of the word “telepathy” and the writer who first introduced the work of Freud into Britain, Frederic Myers went on to become one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research. Supported by some of the leading figures of the day, including the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick and Arthur Balfour, president of the society and later prime minister, the psychical researchers believed human immortality might prove to be a scientifically demonstrable fact.

Their quest for an afterlife was partly driven by revulsion against materialism. Science had revealed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. For nearly everyone the vision was intolerable. Not fully accepted by Darwin himself, it led the biologist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace – acknowledged by Darwin as the co-discoverer of natural selection – to become a convert to spiritualism. Wallace insisted he did not reject scientific method. Like Sidgwick and Myers, he was convinced science could show the materialist view of the world to be mistaken.

Very often these Victorian seekers also had other, more personal motives. Members of an elite that protected itself from scrutiny by keeping to a code of secrecy, leading psychical researchers used their investigations to reveal, and then again conceal, aspects of their lives that they or their culture could not or would not accept. For Myers the search for evidence of survival became a passion when a married woman for whom he had formed a deep attachment committed suicide, leading him to spend the remainder of his life trying to contact her through mediums. Sidgwick spent decades earnestly searching for proof of life after death because without this evidence, he believed, there is no reason for living a moral life. If the visible world is the only reality, he wrote at the end of Methods of Ethics (1874), morality is “reduced to chaos”. He excised this passage from subsequent editions of the book, but never altered his view. Sidgwick feared the finality of death because it left no reason to restrain one’s desires – a thought he must have found extremely troubling, since he seems to have spent much of his life suppressing a part of his sexuality.

Balfour was celebrated for his aloof detachment. Yet through his brother Gerald, a former Conservative minister who gave up politics to study the paranormal, the former prime minister entered into what purported to be a correspondence with a long-dead woman, whom many believed he had once loved. Balfour’s ostensible correspondent communicated by automatic writing – texts produced without conscious awareness in which another mind seems to be guiding the pen, which became a vehicle for unresolved personal loss and secret love.

Starting early in the 20th century, tens of thousands of scripts were produced by different mediums in several countries over a period of more than 30 years. Known as the “cross-correspondences” because they seemed to be linked together, the scripts contained texts claiming to be messages from deceased psychical researchers, including Sidgwick and Myers, which together demonstrated the reality of life after death. As the flow of scripts continued an even larger claim emerged: the dead had taken on the task of saving the world of the living by means of a post-mortem experiment in eugenics. Scientists who had passed to “the other side” were fashioning an exceptional human being, a posthumously designed messiah-child who would deliver humankind from chaos and bring peace to the world.

A child was in fact born – the offspring of Balfour’s brother and the medium who transcribed the scripts, the wife of a much older man who took up automatic writing under the cover of a pseudonym after her daughter died in infancy – but seems to have known nothing of the role he had been assigned until late in life, and then probably less than the whole truth. Featuring a spell in MI6 (where for a time he worked alongside Kim Philby) followed by life in a monastery, the career of the supposed messiah was certainly unusual. But he had no impact on the world at large, which continued its normal course of conflict and drift.

The idea of dead scientists engaging in an experiment in eugenics is incredible enough. Yet the most striking feature in this episode – only fully revealed more than 100 years after the scripts began to appear – is the power that is ascribed to science itself. While spiritualism evolved into a popular religion, complete with a heavenly “Summerland” where the dead lived free from care and sorrow, the intellectual elite of psychical researchers thought of their quest as a rigorously scientific inquiry. But if these Victorian seekers turned to science, it was to look for an exit from the world that science had revealed. Darwinism had disclosed a purposeless universe without human meaning; but purpose and meaning could be restored, if only science could show that the human mind carried on evolving after the death of the body. All of these seekers had abandoned any belief in traditional religion. Still, the human need for a meaning in life that religion once satisfied could not be denied, and fuelled the faith that scientific investigation would show that the human story continues after death. In effect, science was used against science, and became a channel for belief in magic.

Much of what the psychical researchers viewed as science we would now call pseudo science. But the boundaries of scientific knowledge are smudged and shifting, and seem clear only in hindsight. There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith. The psychical researchers used science not only to deal with private anguish but also to bolster their weakening belief in progress. Especially after the catastrophe of the first world war, the gradual improvement that most people expected would continue indefinitely appeared to be faltering. What had been achieved in the past seemed to be falling away. If the scripts were to be believed, however, there was no cause for anxiety or despair. The world might be sliding into anarchy, but progress continued on the other side.

Many of the psychical researchers believed they were doing no more than show that evolution continues in a post-mortem world. Like many others, then and now, they confused two wholly different things. Progress assumes some goal or direction. But evolution has neither of these attributes, and if natural selection continued in another world it would feature the same random death and wasted lives we find here below.

Darwinism is impossible to reconcile with the notion that humans have any special exemption from mortality. In Darwin’s scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; there is no impassable barrier between human minds and those of other animals. How then could only humans go on to a life beyond the grave? If all life were extinguished on Earth, possibly as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the after-world, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. Then again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead – not only the human generations that have come and gone but the countless animal species that are now extinct – living on in the ether, forever?

Read it all.

Silver Lining

January 11, 2011

Via TribLive

The Apocalypse

January 11, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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