Tag Archives: Religion

The Secularist’s Rise

Atheists gathered this past Saturday in Washington, D.C. for what they called the “Reason Rally”. The purpose, according to a quote in this article, was to show America that “we are here and we will never be silenced again.”

An estimated 30,000 people of diverse backgrounds showed up. It was a heartening turnout for what is becoming a necessary cause in the United States of America.

Since the end of the 1960s, a Christian fundamentalist movement has been afoot. There were wide swaths of the population who were disoriented by the changes of that era. Technology, morals, politics and everything else were undergoing rapid change. Religion provided solid answers and stability amidst these changes.

The simplicity of fundamentalism made it a great vehicle for political organization. We started seeing signs of this with the election of Jimmy Carter, who wore his religion on his sleeve and even in his policies. Through televangelism, Jesus camps and church organization, southern-style Christianity became a form of political activism. The Culture Wars of the early 1990s provided the fertile ground needed to turn the Democrats out of Congress and elect a crop of very Christian Republicans. This bore fruit later with Clinton’s impeachment and the election of George W. Bush.

Since this time, we have seen attacks on women’s reproductive rights, homosexuals and Muslims. We have taken to seriously debating the merits between creation and evolution, as if they occupy the same intellectual plane. We have become a country where policies inspired by a small but organized group of Christian fundamentalists impact the lives of everyone around the world.

Around this trend is the rise of a counter narrative of American history that portrays the Founding Fathers as intolerant Christians. Although the Founders talked a lot about God, it was the God of Enlightenment Deism that ruled their day. It was a mechanical God, a “watchmaker” as Isaac Newton would say, under which they lived. It was a God that had created the universe and then walked away, allowing humans to use their brains to divine the underlying laws of nature.

So, it is necessary that the secularists gathered in the nation’s capital over the weekend. Unbelievers need to show that they can be a political force as well. Leaders need to see that there is a base of very organized, very vocal Americans who feel attacked by religious fundamentalism.

At the same time, secularists need to take care of not falling into the trap of the fundamentalists. It is very easy to be dogmatic. My own views on religion are complex. I am more agnostic than anything. There is a danger of falling into dogma whether you are a believer or unbeliever. What the secularists are fighting against is the intolerance, the demagoguery, the arrogance of Christian fundamentalism. We should be careful not to replace religious dogmatism with secular dogmatism.

What we should be fighting for is a free and open society. There are atheists who are just as demeaning as fundamentalists. Faith in science can be just as severe and unyielding as faith in God. Our aim should not to be severe, but to be free.

Separation of Church and State and the Tyranny of the Private Sector

While religious congregations of poor people get evicted from New York City public schools in the name of throwing up the barriers between church and state, President Obama is bending to forces that want to tear those barriers down. On Friday, he backtracked on his original proposal requiring religiously-affiliated businesses to pay for birth control services as part of their employees’ health insurance package. Instead, he proposed that the insurance companies pay for those services themselves.

This is, of course, a political move on the president’s part. The original proposal stirred up religious conservatives who balked at the idea of businesses being forced to cover services they consider morally wrong. He did this despite the fact that his poll numbers among Catholics were little impacted by the controversy. The vast majority of Catholics that oppose Obama have most likely always done so, while the same can be said for the Catholics that support him. Bending to his opponents in this way will not bring them over to his camp. There is probably little he can do on any front to bring them over. If history is any guide, Christian fundamentalists of all stripes: Catholic, Protestant and Mormon, are the most intractably conservative voters around. Obama once again finds himself pandering to the other party’s base.

The pollsters have made entirely too much of how this issue might impact Obama’s support among Catholics. Within that group of Catholics is a wide swath of Hispanics, America’s largest immigrant group. They support Obama not because of religion, but because Hispanic immigrants (not to mention immigrant groups stretching back to the days of Andrew Jackson) have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. Catholics who oppose Obama on purely religious grounds do so because they have always opposed the Democratic Party. This explains why Obama’s poll numbers in the Catholic community have remained relatively static throughout this entire controversy.

Like abortion, this really should be a non-issue. This is not about religion. It is about women being able to have control over their own bodies. While certain businesses might have religious affiliations, this does not mean all of their employees share those affiliations. Obama’s detractors really want businesses to be able to use their power as employers to make religiously-motivated decisions about the healthcare coverage of the people they employ. Considering many of these institutions are providing healthcare because of “Obamacare” (a federal law that uses federal funds), this really would constitute a violation of church/state separation.

The irony should not be lost on anyone. Poor people in New York City get their congregations evicted from public school buildings and the Catholic Church is nowhere to defend them. Wealthy employers want the right to use federal money to deny birth control to their employees on religious grounds (on what other grounds can you reject someone’s access to birth control?) and the Catholic Church is in their corner. While it is unlikely the religious conservatives will get their way on this issue, the controversy surrounding it points to a larger problem of just how tyrannical the American workplace has become over the past 35 years.

Thanks to the erosion of labor unions and OSHA laws, employers have been accustomed to wielding the type of power over their employees rivaled only by the sweatshop owners of the late 1800s. They can hire and fire at will, institute mandatory overtime and employ illegal immigrants who they use and abuse with little oversight. (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed is a particularly great book on this matter). The fact that people like Rand Paul can even comfortably broach the issue of repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under the guise that it violates the rights of business owners, proves how high the tide of employer power has risen.

Supporters of these policies are careful to use the language of free markets, tying the freedom of business owners to do as they please to some vague notion of American liberty. In reality, the increasing power of the American employer has been used as the battering ram to destroy all of the gains workers have won during the Progressive Era and the New Deal, not to mention the gains of individual citizens during the Civil Rights Era. This is what the Reagan Revolution was all about. It is a testament to the absolute victory of this Revolution that both Republicans and Democrats have been on board, and remain on board, in the destruction of the American citizen and worker.

And on no single issue are Democrats and Republicans more in agreement than education reform. Despite Obama’s attempts to distance himself from the No Child Left Behind law of his predecessor, his Race to the Top program is merely NCLB on steroids. States can only opt out of NCLB’s requirements if they institute, among other things, more charter schools. As Norm over at Ed Notes reminds us today, charter schools provide the same sort of tyrannical workplace found throughout the rest of the economy. They are privately run (non-profits are a boom industry, despite their benign designation) and require their staff to work long hours for less money than their counterparts in public schools. Just like the rest of the private sector today, there are no unions to prevent any of this from happening. This tyranny reaches down to the ranks of the children, who are counseled out of charter schools if they prove too difficult to educate. It is the trademark of the Reagan Revolution: hand over more power to private entities that have no obligation to respect the rights of workers or their patrons. In this way, all of the democratic gains of the past 100 years vanish.

That is why public sector unions are so important. They are the last rampart against the destruction of all of these hard-won gains. When unions like our own United Federation of Teachers roll over and play dead, they disappoint the entire American workforce, public and private. This demonstrates the need for public sector unions to be militant. Just as the pro-private sector policies of the Reagan Revolution have thrown the country back 100 years, unions also need to reset themselves 100 years. Those were the days when the International Workers of the World (“The Wobblies”) were not afraid to meet the intractable demands of management with the intractable demands of the working class. It was their activism, as well the activism of countless groups like them, that forced government to institute the worker protections of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. What the unions of today need, every single one of them, is a coup d’état that wrests control away from the comfortable functionaries who have made themselves fat from making concessions to the demands of the Reagan Revolution. In their place, we need a cadre of leaders who militantly defend every last right workers today still have while ruthlessly fighting to regain all of the rights we have lost.

The entire birth control controversy in which the president has been mired is about a whole lot more than the separation of church and state. It touches upon issues of workplace tyranny that this country has yet to face honestly.

Bloomberg’s Destruction Of Poor Communities Continues

It is the 11th hour for churches in New York City who use public schools on Sunday. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his sock puppets in the Department of Education, this is the last day congregations will be able to hold service in public school buildings. It is tough to find any in-depth reporting on this issue, religion not necessarily being a hot-button topic in the big city.

From the scraps of information that are out there, it seems the DOE based its decision on the separation between church and state. Being an agnostic, it is an issue that would normally elicit little reaction from me. Being a history teacher, I know the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from encouraging particular religious sects over others. However, something tells me there is more than meets the eye in the DOE’s ruling.

The first clue comes from city Councilman Fernando Cabrera who states “Minorities make up the congregations of many of the churches being evicted…They’re staples in our community and they provide a volunteer base that the city can never pay for.” Many of these churches are small congregations located in the Bronx and Washington Heights, places where the local church may be the only force for community organization. They rent spaces in schools because they are relatively cheap in a city where even the smallest space can be prohibitively expensive. In many cases, the DOE’s eviction notice is tantamount to the destruction of these congregations.

If churches are paying for these spaces, does this mean the government is encouraging the establishment of particular religious sects? If these spaces are being used on Sunday mornings, when staff and students are not in attendance, is there a danger of proselytizing or indoctrination on government property? In other words, does the use of school buildings by these religious groups really violate the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment? It seems an argument can be made that it does not.

On the other hand, if these were fundamentalist sects somewhere in the Sunbelt who were facing eviction, I would probably not bat an eyelash. Yet, those sects seem to have enough funds to rent out stadiums, organize Jesus camps and buy television time. In fact, they have been buying airtime ever since the days the airwaves were still owned by the government. How was that not a violation of non-establishment? It was the Evangelical groups of the Sunbelt that led the religious revival that peaked in the 1990s, giving birth to the era of the “culture wars” that culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton.

So perhaps the DOE is trying to unblur the lines separating church and state. The culture wars are behind us, the Conservative Revolution is in retreat and Bloomberg is doing his part to roll back the religious awakening that took place with the help of the state over the past 20 or so years. It is a politically safe thing for him to do in such a secular city as New York. He will not have to worry about thousands of angry Christians camped out in front of Gracie Mansion.

Despite all of these possible recommendations in favor of eviction, I am still not buying it. If Bloomberg has proven consistent in one area, it is in his willingness to destroy inner city communities. His DOE is poised to close down another 23 inner city schools, no doubt with the intention of replacing them with his beloved small school model featuring no enrichment activities and inexperienced teachers. He has allowed his friends like Eva Moskowitz to set up shop in public school buildings, taking millions of taxpayer dollars away from public schools in order to help pay for her nearly $400,000 yearly salary and glossy fliers advertising her Success Academies. In short, he has done everything in his power to rip the heart out of any vehicle of community-building people in the inner city might have.

And this, I believe, is the real reason for Bloomberg’s and DOE’s newfound constitutional scruples. Evicting these religious groups is a safe and effective way to continue his war on poor communities. It is part of the crescendo of a mayoral administration that has seen gentrification and displacement as suitable policies for poor neighborhoods. The tiny enclaves of community that exist for the urban poor, like schools and churches, have been ravaged by an out of touch mayor that has made screwing poor people the one consistent part of his legacy.

After all, if the mayor had any constitutional scruples at all, the New York City Police Department would have never had a “stop and frisk” policy in the first place.