Ted Cruz like you’ve never seen him before

Originally posted on Friends of Justice:

I bet you didn’t know Ted Cruz was a criminal justice reformer, but it’s true. It rarely benefits his partisan agenda to beat the reform drum, but in this essay written for the Brennan Center for Justice, he lays out some excellent policy suggestions.

How do we account for such enlightened prose from a man who is normally dismissed as a narrow-minded bigot?

First, Cruz is smart. They don’t let dummies on the Princeton debate team. Secondly, the junior senator from Texas understands that the deep flaws in our criminal justice system could be turned on conservative Christians if anyone had a mind to do so. I doubt this is likely, but when you live on the losing side of the culture war a measure of paranoia comes with the territory.

Here’s Ted’s critique of the demise of the jury trial. I encourage you to read the entire essay.


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Ted Cruz like you’ve never seen him before

I bet you didn’t know Ted Cruz was a criminal justice reformer, but it’s true.  It rarely benefits his partisan agenda to beat the reform drum, but in this essay written for the Brennan Center for Justice, he lays out some excellent policy suggestions.

How do we account for such enlightened prose from a man who is normally dismissed as a narrow-minded bigot? 

First, Cruz is smart.  They don’t let dummies on the Princeton debate team.  Secondly, the junior senator from Texas understands that the deep flaws in our criminal justice system could be turned on conservative Christians if anyone had a mind to do so.  I doubt this is likely, but when you live on the losing side of the culture war a measure of paranoia comes with the territory.

Here’s Ted’s critique of the demise of the jury trial.  I encourage you to read the entire essay.

The third problem, which is exacerbated by the first two, is the demise of jury trials. Plea bargaining has become the norm in our criminal justice system, while the constitutional right to a jury trial — which the Founders understood to be a bulwark against tyranny — is now rarely exercised. Contrary to popular perceptions, we no longer have a system where a jury determines a defendant’s guilt or innocence in a public trial. In 2013, 97 percent of all federal criminal charges that were not dismissed were resolved through plea bargains; less than 3 percent went to trial.

In this plea-bargaining system, prosecutors have extraordinary power, nudging both judges and juries out of the truth-seeking process. The prosecutor is now the proverbial judge, jury, and executioner in the mine-run of cases. Often armed with an extensive menu of crimes, each with their own sentencing ranges, federal prosecutors can wield their discretionary charging power to great effect by threatening the most serious charges that theoretically (if not realistically) can be proved. If the accused succumbs to the threat and pleads guilty, which often happens, the prosecutor agrees to bring lesser or entirely different charges that carry a lower sentencing range.

Given the risks involved in turning down a plea offer, it is not unheard of for people to plead guilty to crimes they never committed. Of the 1,428 legally acknowledged exonerations recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations since 1989, 151 (or roughly 10 percent) involved false guilty pleas. It is estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of convicted felons who have pleaded guilty are actually innocent. In a federal prison population of 218,000 — the number at the end of fiscal year 2011 — where 97 percent pleaded guilty, that means that anywhere from 4,229 to 16,916 people could be imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

The plea-bargaining system is premised on the assumption that there is relatively equal bargaining power between the accused and the state. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Mitigating the coercive effect of the plea-bargaining process will require empowering the defense. And one way to do that is to reduce the informational asymmetry between prosecutors and defense counsel. Plea offers are often foisted upon the accused before the defense has had enough time to investigate the facts, and the longer the investigation takes, the less generous the plea off may become. Congress should pass legislation that requires the government — whether constitutionally required or not — to disclose material exculpatory evidence before the accused enters into any plea agreement. This reform will reduce the risk of false guilty pleas by helping ensure that the accused is better informed before sealing his or her fate.

Not all criminal justice reforms benefit criminal defendants. I, for instance, strongly supported Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) Military Justice Improvement Act, which would have transferred charging authority for many non-military-related crimes, including sexual assault, from unit commanders to independent military prosecutors — a change that may well make it more likely for charges to be brought against defendants. Such a reform will better serve the interests of justice. Likewise, the reforms discussed in this essay would serve the interests of justice by giving much-needed protection to individuals — many of whom are poor or minorities — who find themselves in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors

Public Schools are NOT a Godless environment: Charles Johnson tackles the critics of public education

Anyone shocked by the assault on public education this legislative session was delivered clear rationale for the attack by those closest to the one leading it, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

On April 21, Patrick’s hand-picked advisory board condemned Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency prekindergarten agenda item by labeling our public schools “a Godless environment.”

Pastors for Texas Children are compelled to strenuously confront this lie.

As ministers and faith leaders mobilizing in support of our neighborhood and community schools, we have been silent too long while those purporting to speak for God demean, belittle and slander Texas teachers as “Godless.” This could not be further from the truth.

Many public school educators are faith leaders themselves. They serve as pastors, ministers, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, committee chairpersons, mission and music directors, accompanists and in many other positions in their churches.

It is axiomatic among pastors that we often turn to public school teachers to provide religious instruction — to rely, for example, on teachers who work long hours for low pay all week to teach our Sunday school classes.

Further, it is common for the pastor’s spouse to teach in the local public school. Our sons and daughters also are employed in public schools as coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians.

My daughter-in-law, who is a public school educator, did not get the memo that God has been taken out of our schools. She takes the love she showers on our grandchildren into the classroom and pours it out on students all day long.

We see our local classrooms as a center of God’s love. Education is a gift from Almighty God accorded to every human being regardless of race, religion, economic status and special need. The public school, unlike the private school, receives and accepts every child and meets that child’s needs as sensitively and lovingly as possible.

Our loved ones and fellow church members carry the love and grace of God with them every hour of every day. Indeed, those who labor in our schools show love, unconditional acceptance and physical assistance to children who have special needs, come from emotionally deprived circumstances and suffer the ill effects of crushing poverty.

It’s what a teacher does. It’s a calling before God.

So, we are more than a little outraged to learn that those personally chosen to counsel Lt. Gov. Patrick on matters of public policy have determined that our public schools are Godless.

We have witnessed firsthand the attack on public education this session and heard it called a “monstrosity” by one member of the Senate Education Committee. We have heard loose talk, calling our schools “failed” and our teachers “incompetent.” When we testified our shock at this language, we were rebuked by two members of the committee.

When numerous rural Republican senators confessed to us their personal opposition to a tuition tax credit voucher bill, acknowledging it contrary to the will of their constituents, we were told they felt forced to vote for a policy that is harmful to their districts.

Then, when the Senate Education Committee began churning out bills designed specifically to demoralize teachers — opportunity school districts, A-F ratings, parent trigger — we came to the unpleasant conclusion that something more insidious was unfolding before our eyes — the intentional dismantling of a constitutionally mandated public trust: universal education.

The accusation from the lieutenant governor’s selected advisers that our schools constitute a “Godless environment” isn’t just the harmless political theater that hardened legislative observers often consider politics as usual.

Rather, it a lie designed to demonize a system in which educators do the Lord’s work most faithfully. Is this being done to allow public schools to be replaced, privatized and turned into a profit-making enterprise? In the buckle of the Bible Belt, would the accusers seek to turn our classrooms into markets and our kids into commodities by calling our local schools Godless?

We ask Lt. Gov. Patrick to publicly repudiate this absurd statement from his chosen advisers and issue an apology to all faithful women and men who serve God’s common good by nurturing and shaping the “least of these” among us — our precious children — as public school educators.

Johnson is pastor of Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth and the executive director of Pastors for Texas Children.

David Simon on Baltimore, the War on Drugs and the Freddie Gray saga


If you want to understand what’s going on in Baltimore, David Simon is your man.  Simon worked on the crime beat in Baltimore in the 1980s and the relationship between the city’s cops and corner boys served as a muse throughout the 90s, culminating in The Wire (2002-2008), what many call the best TV series ever produced in America.

The Wire was all about the drug war, and the drug war, Simon says, provides the interpretive backdrop for the Freddie Gray story.

Simon recently sat down with his colleagues at The Marshall Project and laid out his perspective in great detail.  You can find the article here and, since it is a comprehensive piece, I have shared a few excerpts below.

David Simon on Baltimore’s Anguish

Freddie Gray, the drug war, and the decline of “real policing.”

BK: What do people outside the city need to understand about what’s going on there — the death of Freddie Gray and the response to it?

DS: I guess there’s an awful lot to understand and I’m not sure I understand all of it. The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.

Probable cause from a Baltimore police officer has always been a tenuous thing. It’s a tenuous thing anywhere, but in Baltimore, in these high crime, heavily policed areas, it was even worse. When I came on, there were jokes about, “You know what probable cause is on Edmondson Avenue? You roll by in your radio car and the guy looks at you for two seconds too long.” Probable cause was whatever you thought you could safely lie about when you got into district court.

Then at some point when cocaine hit and the city lost control of a lot of corners and the violence was ratcheted up, there was a real panic on the part of the government. And they basically decided that even that loose idea of what the Fourth Amendment was supposed to mean on a street level, even that was too much. Now all bets were off. Now you didn’t even need probable cause. The city council actually passed an ordinance that declared a certain amount of real estate to be drug-free zones. They literally declared maybe a quarter to a third of inner city Baltimore off-limits to its residents, and said that if you were loitering in those areas you were subject to arrest and search. Think about that for a moment: It was a permission for the police to become truly random and arbitrary and to clear streets any way they damn well wanted.

How does race figure into this? It’s a city with a black majority and now a black mayor and black police chief, a substantially black police force.

What did Tom Wolfe write about cops? They all become Irish? That’s a line in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” When Ed and I reported “The Corner,” it became clear that the most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism. I think the two agendas are inextricably linked, and where one picks up and the other ends is hard to say. But when you have African-American officers beating the dog-piss out of people they’re supposed to be policing, and there isn’t a white guy in the equation on a street level, it’s pretty remarkable. But in some ways they were empowered. Back then, even before the advent of cell phones and digital cameras — which have been transforming in terms of documenting police violence — back then, you were much more vulnerable if you were white and you wanted to wail on somebody. You take out your nightstick and you’re white and you start hitting somebody, it has a completely different dynamic than if you were a black officer. It was simply safer to be brutal if you were black, and I didn’t know quite what to do with that fact other than report it. It was as disturbing a dynamic as I could imagine. Something had been removed from the equation that gave white officers — however brutal they wanted to be, or however brutal they thought the moment required — it gave them pause before pulling out a nightstick and going at it. Some African American officers seemed to feel no such pause.

What the drug war did, though, was make this all a function of social control. This was simply about keeping the poor down, and that war footing has been an excuse for everybody to operate outside the realm of procedure and law. And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble. The code was really ornate, and I’m not suggesting in any way that the code was always justifiable in any sense, but there was a code.

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was MARTIN O’MALLEY3. He destroyed police work in some real respects. Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart. Everyone thinks I’ve got a hard-on for Marty because we battled over “The Wire,” whether it was bad for the city, whether we’d be filming it in Baltimore. But it’s been years, and I mean, that’s over. I shook hands with him on the train last year and we buried it. And, hey, if he’s the Democratic nominee, I’m going to end up voting for him. It’s not personal and I admire some of his other stances on the death penalty and gay rights. But to be honest, what happened under his watch as Baltimore’s mayor was that he wanted to be governor. And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in real policing.

The situation you described has been around for a while. Do you have a sense of why the Freddie Gray death has been such a catalyst for the response we’ve seen in the last 48 hours?

Because the documented litany of police violence is now out in the open. There’s an actual theme here that’s being made evident by the digital revolution. It used to be our word against yours. It used to be said — correctly — that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force was the last perfect tyranny. Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that were between him, you, and the street. The smartphone with its small, digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.

In these drug-saturated neighborhoods, they weren’t policing their post anymore, they weren’t policing real estate that they were protecting from crime. They weren’t nurturing informants, or learning how to properly investigate anything. There’s a real skill set to good police work. But no, they were just dragging the sidewalks, hunting stats, and these inner-city neighborhoods — which were indeed drug-saturated because that’s the only industry left — become just hunting grounds. They weren’t protecting anything. They weren’t serving anyone. They were collecting bodies, treating corner folk and citizens alike as an Israeli patrol would treat the West Bank, or as the Afrikaners would have treated Soweto back in the day. They’re an army of occupation. And once it’s that, then everybody’s the enemy. The police aren’t looking to make friends, or informants, or learning how to write clean warrants or how to testify in court without perjuring themselves unnecessarily. There’s no incentive to get better as investigators, as cops. There’s no reason to solve crime. In the years they were behaving this way, locking up the entire world, the clearance rate for murder dove by 30 percent. The clearance rate for aggravated assault — every felony arrest rate – took a significant hit. Think about that. If crime is going down, and crime is going down, and if we have less murders than ever before and we have more homicide detectives assigned, and better evidentiary technologies to employ how is the clearance rate for homicide now 48 percent when it used to be 70 percent, or 75 percent?

Read the entire interview here.

How Corporate America messed with our religion

By Alan Bean

One Nation Under God could change the way we think about civil religion in America.  Forget about the 1970s, or even the 1950s, Kevin Kruse says, this story begins in the heart of the Depression.

A good book can change your questions, even if you’re not entirely convinced by the author’s answers.  A stout thesis, cogently argued, sets the reader to thinking.  I learned the most from the arguments in One Nation Under God I agree with the least.

“Throughout the 1930’s,” Kruse tells us, “the nation’s industrialists tried to counter the selflessness of the Social Gospel with direct appeals to American’s self-interest but had little success.”

In other words, there was a time when American politics was controlled by a strategic blend of liberal theology and progressive social policy.  This brand of religious politics had its limits, of course.  As Ira Katznelson recently reminded us, a New Deal that applied to people of color was a non-starter in 1930s America.  But, limited as it was, this synergy between little-guy politics and compassionate religion was powerful.

Kevin Kruse

Kevin Kruse

As Kruse reminds us, corporate critics of the New Deal got nowhere with crude appeals to middle class self-interest.  Enter James Fifield Jr., a theologically liberal Congregationalist.  Trained at Oberlin, the University of Chicago and the Chicago Theological Seminary (a bastion of Christian “modernism” and the Social Gospel), Fifield was theologically liberal and politically conservative.

Fifield, an inveterate organizer, created Spiritual Mobilization, a loose association of Christian clergy that drew a stark line between reliance on God and reliance on government.  Fifield’s “Christian libertarianism” quickly won the support of tycoons and corporate leaders across America.

You could rely on government programs or you could rely on God, Fifield taught, and America under Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made the wrong choice.  A message easily dismissed when it came from Wall Street had a strong appeal when draped in religious vestments.

Entrepreneurial brilliance fueled by oceans of corporate cash transformed Rev. Fifield into a force of nature.  He had built up his congregation in California by telling the business community what it desperately wanted to hear, and was determined to take his show on the road.

Time and time again, [Fifield] condemned a variety of ‘socialistic laws,’ such as ones supporting minimum wages, price controls, Social Security pensions for the elderly, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits, and the like, as well as a wide range of federal taxation that he deemed ‘tyrannical’ in nature.  In the end, he judged, such policies violated ‘the natural law which inheres in the nature of the universe and is the will of God.’

James Fifield

James Fifield

Fifield’s loose reading of the Bible proved indispensable.  He acknowledged that a straightforward reading of the gospels might encourage the simple reader to support New Deal policies, but Fifield taught that reading the Bible was “‘like eating fish–we take the bones out to enjoy the meat.’  All parts are not of equal value.”

Fifield’s hermeneutic allowed him to ignore virtually everything Jesus said about unrighteous mammon.  None of that mattered because “the salvation of the individual” was the sole concern of enlightened Christianity.

This focus on personal salvation reached its zenith in the preaching of Billy Graham.  In 1951, the North Carolinian “chided Democrats for wasting money on the welfare state at home and the Marshall Plan abroad.”  Graham

insisted that the poor in other nations, those those in his own, needed no government assistance.  “Their greatest need is not more money, food, or even medicine; it is Christ,” he said.  “Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic conditions”

The word “libertarianism”, in its most simplistic and Utopian application, captures this worldview perfectly.  Men like Fifield and Graham didn’t believe governments could help the poor without doing irreparable damage to their souls.

Eventually, Fifield’s opinions would be bolstered by the libertarian economics of Ludwig von Mises and the musings of Rousas Rushdoony, a libertarian theocrat who blended reformed orthodoxy with small government conservatism.

Although Fifield’s marriage of religion and politics was eventually championed by Christian fundamentalists, there was no logical connection between fundamentalism and small government economics.  In an earlier era, William Jennings Bryan, though staunchly conservative in matters theological, denounced American imperialism and was famous for his trust-busting politics.

The relationship between men like Billy Graham and deep-pocket supporters like Forth Worth’s Sid Richardson was pragmatic–especially from the perspective of the money men.  “The earthy Richardson had little use for Graham’s religion,” Kruse reports, “but the two shared a common faith in free enterprise.”  In Graham’s mind, especially in the late 1940s, Christianity and capitalism were practically inseparable–neither would work without the other.

Abraham Vereide

Abraham Vereide

Abraham Vereide, a Methodist minister who taught Billy Graham how to meld religion and politics, was a master at injecting Christian libertarianism into Washington politics.  A fixture on Capitol Hill, Vereide organized prayer groups for politicians beginning in the early 1940s.

The groups were officially nonpartisan, welcoming Republicans and Democrats alike, but that was not to say they were apolitical.  Most of the Democratic members of the House breakfast group, for instance, were conservative southerners who held federal power and the activism of the New Deal in as much contempt as the average Republican did.

An incipient Southern Strategy was coming to life long before the Nixon administration.  Vereide created a coordinated campaign linking conservative politicians from both parties with the business and religious communities.  “The more politically connected he became,” Kruse says, “the more leading businessmen sought time with him.  And the more backing he secured from corporate titans, the more eager politicians were to count themselves his friend.”

In short, the Christian libertarianism sponsored by men like Fifield, Vereide and Graham was bought and paid for from the beginning.  Entrepreneurial preachers could count on a steady stream of funding for their projects if they extolled the virtues of American free enterprise.

Traditionally, historians have associated this marriage of religion and conservative politics to the torrent of anti-communism that gripped America in the post-war period, but Kruse regards this as a serious mistake.  The red scare created a perfect storm for the religious salesmen at the forefront of the movement, but the script had been written decades earlier.

The link between corporate money and small government religion dominates the first half of Kruse’s book, then recedes into the background.  But Kruse interprets men like Fifield, Vereide and Graham as unreflective salesmen who believed the customer (the business community) is always right.

The idea of America as “one nation under God” was part a staple of Christian libertarian rhetoric from the beginning, but this idea caught fire during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower.  Unlike Harry Truman (who saw Graham as a cheesy buffoon) the war hero president was eager to harness religious themes to his political ambition.

eisenhower-grahamTo men like Graham and Vereide, Eisenhower looked like the perfect standard bearer for the tenets of Christian libertarianism, but Eisenhower’s embraced the words and symbols of American civil religion with pure evangelical passion.  He understood the strategic upside to working with men like Graham, but he wanted to unite a nation traumatized by a hellish war.

For Eisenhower, the most important thing about religion was its power to unite Americans around a common understanding of their past and to dedicate them to a common plan for their future.  While critics mocked the president for being ‘a very fervent believer in a very vague religion,’ that was exactly his intent.   He understood that, in a diverse nation long divided along doctrinal lines, religion could serve a public role only if it was reduced to its lowest common denominator.

The quest for “a common understanding of [the American] past” opened the door to the printing of “in God we trust” on paper money and the addition of the phrase “under God” to the pledge of allegiance.

The results ran counter to Christian libertarian strategy.  “After Eisenhower,” Kruse argues, “religion would no longer be used to tear down the central state but instead to prop it up.  Piety and patriotism became one and the same, love of God and love of country conflated to the core.”

With the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Reuther and Eleanor Roosevelt giving their blessing to the “under God” addition to the pledge of allegiance, Eisenhower’s plan to unify America via civil religion seemed to be working.

The power of this “ceremonial deism” (Eugene Rostow’s phrase) can hardly be overstated.  A study conducted by sociologist Christian Smith discovered that the real religion of American young people could best be described as “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” “Moralistic” because the focus is on right behavior as a ticket to heaven; “therapeutic” because the goal is personal fulfillment with little attention to the greater good, and “deism” because the American God pops up when needed and disappears when his presence would be inconvenient.

I would argue that Smith’s moralistic therapeutic deism is largely a product of the Eisenhower era.  A powerful revival of religion was sweeping the nation, grounded in the simple idea that America had always been a Christian nation and would only survive if God remained central to the life of the nation.  It was that simple.

Kruse says America’s new civil religion was reinforced by popular entertainment.  “When it came to the role of religion in American life,” he says, “political culture and popular culture sang from the same hymnal.”  The lyrics of popular songs reflected the wholesome cast of the times and millions of Americans, from every point on the ideological spectrum, flocked to see movies like The Ten Commandments, The Robe, and The Greatest Story ever Told.

Have you have ever wondered how American Christianity bears little relationship to the core teaching of Jesus?  The ceremonial deism of the Eisenhower era contributed to this problem.  To work its unifying magic, American civil religion honored a generic, ill-defined God, but rarely mentioned Jesus or any of the religious teachers associated with the great religious traditions of the world.  Americans who absorbed their religion from Hollywood, popular songs, the pledge of allegiance and public invocations of piety, “Christianity” was ceremonial deism and vice versa.

For many Americans, catch phrases like “In God we Trust” and “one nation under God” evoke a catch in the throat and a tear in the eye. Kruse reports that a Gallup poll conducted in 1950 “found that while 80 percent of Americans believed the Bible was ‘the revealed word of God,’ only 47 percent could name even a single author of the gospels.”  In a nation characterized by fervent piety and religious ignorance, the ceremonial deism of the Eisenhower years provided the perfect creed.

“Unlike Christian libertarians, who had long presented God and government as rivals,” Kruse writes, “Eisenhower had managed to merge the two into a wholesome ‘government under God.'”  The president’s strategy, Kruse argues, “ironically undercut the key argument of many of his earlier backers, making their old claims about the ‘pagan’ origins of statism seem suddenly obsolete.  The state was now suffused with religion, and so it would remain.”

Ceremonial deism worked well on a national stage, Kruse says, but created problems when injected into local politics.  Soon school boards nationwide were mandating school prayers and Bible reading and the courts were giving these innovations a green light.  Asked to justify school prayer and Bible reading in the face of legal challenges, judges argued that America had been a self-consciously religious nation from the beginning.

This argument demonstrated “how swiftly and thoroughly the religious revival of the 1950s had taken root, these judges cited changes that had occurred in their own recent memory as proof that the country’s religious roots stretched back to time immemorial.”

The case against mandatory school prayer was eloquently argued by Supreme Court justice Hugo Black.

It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America.

Hugo Black

Hugo Black

The founders, Black argued, established the First Amendment because they regarded faith as “too personal, too sacred, too holy to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate.”

Black had no objection to adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance or “In God we Trust” to the dollar bill.  “Such patriotic or ceremonial occasions,” he opined, “bear no true resemblance to the unquestioned religious exercise that the State of New York has sponsored in this instance.”

In other words, the Supreme Court justice regarded the ceremonial language of public religion as too innocuous to carry any genuine religious significance.  This may have been true for jurists and religion scholars, but, as the violent protests that greeted the Supreme Court’s decision made clear, for the majority of Americans phrases like “one nation under God” were profoundly religious.

Kruse largely ignores the impact of the civil rights movement.  This is a major oversight in a book that concludes with an extended contrast of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.  He notes, however, that the backlash against the Supreme Court’s school prayer decision was especially severe in the South.  “They put the Negroes in the schools,” a congressman from Alabama noted, “and now they’ve driven God out of them.”  The addition of Negroes, in his mind, was as ungodly as the elimination of prayer.  But Kruse never asks if the shift in national mood between the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations had more to do with the civil rights movement than opposition to the Vietnam war.

It is true that Richard Nixon, as part of his infamous “Southern Strategy,” used the iconography of ceremonial deism to drive a wedge between religious conservatives in the South and secular liberals in the North.  But Kruse fails to appreciate the complex interplay between American civil religion and civil rights rhetoric.

The civil religion emerging from the Eisenhower era effectively sacralized the flag of the United States and the republic for which it stood.  The claim that America, unique among the nations, had been “one nation under God indivisible” from its earliest days, whether true or not, was an exercise in parochial self-congratulation utterly at odds with civil rights rhetoric.

Rev-Martin-Luther-King-delivers-his-famous-I-Have-A-Dream-speechThe civil rights movement, personified in the soaring cadences of Martin Luther King Jr., came as a stinging rebuff to the religion of American exceptionalism.  King gained a hearing in white America by appealing to symbols of American civil religion: “Let freedom ring!”  But he subverted these symbols.  The declaration that “all men are created equal” had always rung hollow in a nation built on slavery and King’s speech at the culmination of the March on Washington, delivered short months after the Supreme Court’s school prayer decision, exploited the contradiction:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

For a nation in the throws of self-deification such talk was sacrilege, it was heresy.  You either admitted the truth of the charge or you wrapped yourself in the flag and shouted the pledge of allegiance with renewed vigor.  This helps explain why, as James Fallows argues in a recent Atlantic article, we laud the sacrifice of soldiers while giving little thought to the wars they wage.  When our patriotism centers on the heroic exploits of selfless soldiers, the self-glorification at the heart of America’s civil religion is less obvious.

To a limited but significant extent, many American politicians and religious leaders embraced the logic of King’s critique even though that required a solemn reappraisal of ceremonial deism.

Kruse devotes a large section of his book to a description of the “Honor America Day” on the 4th of July, 1970 that was planned and organized by Billy Graham and Richard Nixon.  Throughout a long, hot and humid Washington day, an  army of middle class, middle aged white people faced off against a thousand scruffy and profane war protesters.  But, as Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland makes clear, America’s “silent majority” was even more horrified by the riots following Dr. King’s assassination than by war protesters.  By focusing exclusively on one facet of this complex equation, Kruse minimizes the intimate interplay between ceremonial deism and racial resentment.

In the end, opposition to the war in Vietnam and opposition to racial injustice were mirror images of the same reality.  You couldn’t understand what was going on in Vietnam or Selma without rethinking America, and the deeper you peered into these ugly realities the more problematic knee-jerk patriotism became.

This helps explain why reaction to the Supreme Court’s school prayer decision revealed a yawning gulf between religious leaders and the folks in the pew.  When the wisdom of a constitutional amendment allowing mandatory prayer in public schools was debated in congress, denominational leaders lined up in opposition.  But, as a Time reporter reported at the time, “Millions of U.S. Christians emotionally reject the Supreme Court’s successive decisions against prayer in schools.  Laymen have not been convinced of the court’s wisdom to the degree that clergymen are.”

Kruse sees the origins of the culture war in the clergy-lay divide over school prayer, and I concur.  But the emotional reaction to the school prayer decision can’t be understand apart from the civil rights revolution.  The years separating Eisenhower from Nixon are given short shrift in One Nation Under God; the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson dismissed with a few cursory lines.

Perhaps this is understandable in a book about civil religion, but important piece of the puzzle go missing.  Kruze notes in passing that Billy Graham was a close friend of Lyndon Johnson’s and a big fan of the war on poverty.  Really?  Had Graham transcended the Christian libertarianism of his early career, or was America’s greatest evangelist irresistibly drawn to whatever spotlight was illuminating center stage?  The author doesn’t help us here.

That said, Kruse grasps the question at issue in the American culture war: Is America God’s holy and chosen nation or is she not?  Liberals addressed the gap between aspiration and achievement; conservatives argued that, minor faults accepted, America was defined by her faith in God Almighty and would disintegrate without it.

The school prayer debate, Kruse suggests, restored the God v. state logic of the Christian libertarian movement.  A state that could remove prayer from the schools could just as easily remove God from the pledge of allegiance or erase “in God we trust” from our money.  And if they could do that, freedom of worship might be next on the hit list.

In their eyes, liberty came directly from God.  If Americans ever came to believe that their rights stemmed from the state instead, then those rights could just as easily be taken away by the state.  Thus, the debate for the pro-amendment side was about much more than school prayer; it was about the survival of the nation.

But the God v. state argument also worked in reverse.  A government that stripped the First Amendment of its essence by enforcing mandatory school prayer was also fostering “a broader but blander public religion, one drained of the vital details that animated individual faiths.”

The clergy-laity split of school prayer was particularly prominent in Baptist circles.  Denominational leaders, led by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, reinforced the traditional Baptist emphasis on the separation of church and state.  The rank and file moved in the opposite direction.  The resulting disconnect eventually would eventually lead to civil war within the Southern Baptist Convention as savvy conservatives tapped into grassroots frustration.

Coming to power five years after the school prayer controversy, Richard Nixon worked the cognitive disconnect between liberals and conservatives to his political advantage. In the process, Billy Graham was manipulated by a conniving and profane president who viewed religion as grist for his political mill.

The Nixon White House had hoped to repeat the earlier work of the Eisenhower years, in many cases tapping the same political and religious figures for leadership positions, the same conservative philanthropists and corporations for funding, the same patriotic and fraternal organizations for grassroots support, and even some of the same sympathetic entertainers as its public face.  But the political climate had been thoroughly transformed.  The rhetoric of ‘one nation under God’ no longer brought Americans together; it only reminded them how divided they had become.

Kruze suggests that the religious revival of the Eisenhower era eclipsed a culture war sparked by opposition to the New Deal.  But, as the travails of the Nixon administration made clear, the culture war had merely been postponed.  With the advent of the Reagan administration, the Christian libertarianism of James Fifield had merged with the ceremonial deism of the Eisenhower years?

Whatever the case, our current crop of corporate-sponsored preacher-politicians move with ease between the nation-worship of 1950s-style civil religion and the tenets of small government religion.  Men like Ted Cruz don’t hate the government so long as they control it.

Guns_Bible_US_FlagAnd the shape of civil religion keeps evolving.    In post-9-11 America, the flag continues to unite Americans; open carry laws are valued for their power to divide. Has an AK-47 wrapped in Old Glory the shape of an emerging civil religion?  The folks who find this imagery compelling are ostensibly in the Jesus camp.  But one wonders if they understand the non-violent logic of Jesus any better than their cultured despisers.

Does God need the Third Degree?

By Alan Bean

Jon Burge

Jon Burge

Jon Burge (the name rhymes with ‘surge’) was hired by the Chicago Police Department in 1971, just three years after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention.  Chicago was looking for a man with Burge’s unique skill set.  Described as “all man” by the men who interviewed him for his first job with the department, Burge was studied in the arts of torture; records suggest he learned creative uses for electricity while interrogating prisoners in Vietnam.

Soon Jon Burge was slipping plastic bags over his victim’s heads before attaching electrodes to sensitive parts of the anatomy.  He would then crank the handle on a little wooden box.  The combination of suffocation and agony produced confessions in short order.

Soon Burge was presiding over a team of detectives famous for solving horrifying crimes by extracting confessions from suspects.  No one asked too many questions.  Burge and company have always denied that suspects were tortured, and his superiors were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Until 1991, when Burge’s luck ran out.

Prior to the Wickersham Report of 1931, torture was routinely used by American police officers to extract confessions from the “bad guys”.  It wasn’t legal, even then, but it enjoyed a-wink-and-a-nod tolerance.

“The third degree” was a polite synonym for torture. Suspects were beaten, scalded and electrocuted into compliance.  At the time, the law enforcement community was convinced they couldn’t do their jobs properly if deprived of the third degree.  You couldn’t expect the criminal element to confess of their own good will.

The Wickersham Report was inspired by law enforcement’s failure to enforce Prohibition.  Only when investigators took a peek beneath the surface did the widespread use of torture come to light.

Researchers argued that third-degree techniques made it impossible to know if a suspect was actually guilty or merely copping to a crime to make the pain stop.

Police officers would pick a suspect, extract a confession through torture, then build a case to suit the details of the confession.  This often required threatening potential witnesses with beatings and perjury charges if they refused to harmonize with the state’s narrative.

When the case went to trial, police officers routinely lied on the stand.  The biggest lie was insisting, under oath, that no one was tortured in the course of the investigation.

Initially, the third degree produced scores of easy convictions, but unintended consequences began to accrue.  Juries began acquitting criminal defendants because police testimony was viewed as inherently suspect.  The third degree, it turned out, was a great way to close cases, but a lousy means of distinguishing guilt from innocence.

Forty years after it was officially repudiated, Jon Burge and company revived the third degree in Chicago.  But in 1991, twenty years after joining the force, Burge was fired when an investigation determined he and his men had tortured a man suspected of killing a police officer.

Only then did Burge’s victims gain a hearing.  In 2000, Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. The widespread use of torture during Burge’s tenure made it impossible to assess the legitimacy of criminal convictions.  Abuses continued after Burge left the force because the practices he introduced had become institutionalized.

This week, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel backed a plan that would pay fifty of Burge’s victims (more than 200 have been identified) up to $5.5 million in reparations.  The police commander served three years in federal prison on perjury and obstruction charges and is serving the final year of his sentence on house arrest.  He continues to receive a monthly pension of almost $4,000.

God doesn’t resort to torture (or threats of torture) to get his way.  God doesn’t need a little wooden box to extract confessions from the guilty.

Like police officers in the 1920s, evangelists claim they couldn’t do their job without the third degree.  Why would anyone choose to be a Christian, they ask, if they didn’t think a Burge-like deity was waiting to slap a plastic bag over their faces before attaching those nasty electrodes and cranking that nasty wooden box?   If crime pays, what will stop the criminals.

Threats of divine torture in the not-so-sweet-by-and-by once worked sufficiently well, at least on some suspects.  But those days are gone.  Most Americans (60% by one recent survey) say they believe in hell (including a slight majority of mainline Protestants), but most feel you have to do something really awful to go there, and practically no one thinks they fit the bill.

But whether the threat of torture availeth much or little, the doctrine raises questions about the character of God.

westboro1-3d0baab9ccc674c5428c2cf5342da0ffcee7da0e-s6-c30The good folks at Westboro Baptist believe in hell with all their hearts and they’re willing to live with the theological consequences.

The Westboro God revels in the death of practically everyone, gays and Muslims in particular. Like Jon Burge, their God has refined the arts of torture and can’t wait to strut his stuff.

Good people everywhere are horrified when Westboro Baptist yells despicable slogans at military funerals; but is Westboro theology, stripped of the over-the-top rhetoric, that much different from what most Americans believe?

Only in one particular.  We believe only the baddies are going to hell; they believe practically everyone in America is headed for the pit.

For a long time no one paid the folks at Westboro Baptist Church any mind.  Then someone had a eureka moment: what if we express these precious truths in the most objectionable way imaginable?  It took a while to come up with something as toxic as “God hates fags,” but the church didn’t quit until its shtick was perfected.  They’ve been making headlines ever since with dismal regularity.

We love to hate the haters.

But if our God is willing to torture the intransigent for eternity (whether they be few or many) doesn’t the deity bear a marked resemblance to old Jon Burge?  We may object to Westboro’s syntax, but their theology possesses a relentless logic.

However you slice the theological cheese, if God punishes unrepentant sinners, and if the GLBT community (and practically everybody else) is guilty of unrepentant sin, Westboro Baptist Church has the equation about right.

Denny Burk, a Southern Baptist professor of biblical studies at Louisville’s Boyce College, did us all a favor when, in good Westboro spirit, he argued that same-sex attraction is just as sinful as gay sex.  Burk doesn’t care if sexual orientation is innate or chosen; it’s rebellion against God.

Denny Burk’s God is meaner than Jon Burge.  Way meaner.  A little wooden crank box can’t hold a candle to the blazing fire of eternal hell.

If I thought God looked even a little bit like Jon Burge (or any other torturing thug you might name) I’d get in line behind Ivan Karamazov to turn in my heaven card.

Torture doesn’t work any better for the Almighty that it worked in Prohibition-era America or for Jon Burge and his cronies.  God doesn’t need threats of torture to get through to a broken humanity; he has the amazing love revealed in Jesus Christ and that produces much better results.

Theo Shaw, Jena 6 defendant, wins full-ride law school scholarship

Originally posted on Friends of Justice:

Theo Shaw during his college days Theo Shaw during his college days

By Alan Bean

Almost five years have passed since I wrote a blog post called “Jena 6 to Law School”.  Back then, Theo Shaw was ready to graduate from the Louisiana State University, Monroe and was dreaming of law school.

Theo Shaw is dreaming no more.  As this article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, Theo has been awarded a full-ride scholarship to attend the School of Law at the University of Washington.

Since graduation, Theo has been working with the New Orleans office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a job that frequently saw him working with prison inmates.  Interviewed in 2012, Shaw explained why he wanted to be a defense attorney.“This could be my ego,” he said, “but I really think I could be an awesome trial attorney as far as being able to advocate on behalf of other people – being…

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Theo Shaw, Jena 6 defendant, wins full-ride law school scholarship

Theo Shaw during his college days

Theo Shaw during his college days

By Alan Bean

Almost five years have passed since I wrote a blog post called “Jena 6 to Law School”.  Back then, Theo Shaw was ready to graduate from the Louisiana State University, Monroe and was dreaming of law school.

Theo Shaw is dreaming no more.  As this article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, Theo has been awarded a full-ride scholarship to attend the School of Law at the University of Washington.

Since graduation, Theo has been working with the New Orleans office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a job that frequently saw him working with prison inmates.  Interviewed in 2012, Shaw explained why he wanted to be a defense attorney.“This could be my ego,” he said, “but I really think I could be an awesome trial attorney as far as being able to advocate on behalf of other people – being able to tell their story to a jury in a compelling way.”

Now, thanks to the University of Washington, Theo will get his chance.

This isn’t just another feel-good redemption story.  Theo grew up on the poor side of Jena and, as a high school student, was much more interested in football than books.  But being indicted on grossly overblown charges in 2007 changed everything.  Only a miracle saved Theo and his co-defendants . . . and there aren’t many of those in the criminal justice system.

Until Friends of Justice, the non-profit I direct, got involved in the case, no one from outside central Louisiana had taken an interest in the Jena 6.  It took months of community meetings, media outreach, and coalition building to get the Jena story big enough to attract pro bono legal representation.  In the end, however, the defendants benefited from the best legal council money can buy and Theo Shaw knew he just dodged a bullet.  He was one of the lucky ones, and that gave him a sense of obligation.

Theo has always denied involvement in the beat-down of Justin Barker, and I am inclined to believe him.  Eye witness testimony taken on the day of the assault is so inconsistent that, had any of these cases gone to trial, it would have been very difficult to win a conviction . . . unless you had an attorney like Blaine Williamson who rested his case without calling a single witness.

But Theo wasn’t stuck with Blaine Williamson clone; he had a top-flight cadre of attorneys defending him headed by Rob McDuff, one of the top civil rights attorneys in Mississippi.  The Jena 6 saga died as soon as 50,000 protesters left town in September of 2007, but, though it took DA Reed Walters a while to admit as much, the legal fight was over.

All six Jena defendants have made the most of their second chance, but Theo Shaw would never be satisfied with a college diploma, a decent job and a couple of kids–he wanted to be an attorney.  This isn’t just about making money (defense attorneys make well under six figures unless they represent rich folks); it’s about paying a debt.  A debt of gratitude.

‘Jena 6′ defendant Theo Shaw wins full scholarship to law school

By Jarvis DeBerry

Louisiana almost threw Theo Shaw away. This state – which discards black men and boys like pecan shells, like potato peels and coffee grounds — nearly added Shaw to its refuse pile, to its towering heap of incarcerated bodies.

A Louisiana prosecutor had Shaw charged with attempted murder, alleging that he participated in an attack at Jena High School, a high school so simmering with racial tension that three white students there had hung a noose from a tree.

Shaw and the other young black men who became known as Jena 6 were presented to the world as the epitome of savagery. They needed to be charged with attempted murder for sending a white schoolmate to the emergency room. It didn’t matter that he was soon discharged or that he was feeling well enough to attend a school event the next night. The Jena 6 needed to be taught a lesson. They needed to be thrown away.

But in September 2007, several thousand people from across the country converged in Jena and expressed outrage at Louisiana’s attempt to permanently ruin the young men’s lives. Shaw, whose inability to post bail had left him in jail seven months, was eventually released. Though he insists that he played no role in the attack on the student, in court Shaw pleaded no contest to misdemeanor simple battery.

Almost eight years after that massive march in Jena, Shaw is breaking free of Louisiana. He will enroll this fall at the School of Law at the University of Washington. That law school, which U.S. News and World Report puts in the country’s top 30, has chosen Shaw as one of the incoming class’ five William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholars. It’s a full scholarship, covering tuition, books and even some money for room and board and incidental expenses.

“You have already shown yourself to be a person of commitment and drive,” the letter congratulating Shaw reads. “Your participation as a Gates Scholar will help us continue to build our law school community, and will also help in making our world a better place.”

We wouldn’t be talking about Shaw’s potential to improve the world if he were still in prison. And he’d probably be in prison without that mobilization on behalf of the Jena 6. Those protesters didn’t know Shaw personally. They may not have even been able to call his name, but, he said Monday, “They knew me, they knew us, through history.”

It’s a history that includes young black boys being thrown away as trash. It’s a history that’s bigger than Louisiana’s.

Shaw said in a May 2014 interview that he was so unconcerned with school that he thinks he was ranked dead last in his senior class. Black, poor, uneducated and male in Louisiana. What better candidate for being thrown away like trash?

All the more reason, perhaps, that the state of Louisiana, in the form of LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters, had no qualms about throwing Shaw away.

It was widely reported that before the incident leading to Shaw’s arrest, but while racial tensions at Jena were simmering, Walters warned a Jena High assembly that he could change their lives “with the stroke of a pen.”

Read entire article here.

When God Changes His Mind*

Peter's vision

By Alan Bean

It wouldn’t be the first time, you know.

If Fox News wants to see what “fair and balanced” looks like they should check out National Public Radio.  You know the folks at the helm are left of center, but they invariably pass the microphone to folks on both sides of controversial issues.

Take Morning Edition’s coverage of the firestorm of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  On Thursday morning, the suave and unflappable Steve Inskeep interviewed the Rev. Tim Overton, a Southern Baptist pastor from Muncie, Indiana who supported the Indiana RFRA in its pre-clarification form.  The following day, Inskeep visited with the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

What is more, these opposing voices had enough time to lay out a nuanced position: Watkins, had five minutes; the Overton piece was two minutes longer.

The coverage was as fair and as balanced as it gets; but what did we learn?

First, we learned that people of faith aren’t all on the same page when it comes to gay marriage.  Frank Bruni made this point in a New York Times column this week, but it is commonly supposed, on the left and the right that real Christians oppose gay rights.

This misunderstanding exists for two reasons.  First, the conservative position on gay rights lends itself to bumper sticker simplicity.  Second, there is little theological consensus, on this or any other hot-button issue, within the Protestant mainline community.

These realities shaped the twin interviews of Morning Edition.  The Southern Baptist pastor knew his congregation, and his denomination, had a simple response to gay rights:

As a Baptist pastor who believes the Bible, I believe God made us male and female. And embracing God’s will is embracing our gender and acting accordingly.

Nothing complicated about that.  Because the Bible teaches that God created only two sexual orientations, men should marry women and women should marry men.  So, if you think you are gay or lesbian, you’re mistaken because God, by definition, doesn’t make mistakes.

Tim Overton came across as a nice guy who just wants to honor God will his whole being.  He knows that a lot of people disagree with his stand because they don’t share his commitment to biblical authority, and he respects that.  Still, he says,

I would hope that society would make allowances for traditional Christian theology and belief and allow us to practice our faiths in the workplace and in public as well as our houses of worship.


Rev. Sharon Watkins

Sharon Watkins couldn’t speak with that kind of clarity.  She appeared on Morning Edition as a denominational representative and the Disciples of Christ have struggled to achieve consensus on the issues of gay marriage and ordination.  True, at least 80% of the folks attending the 2013 National Convocation accepted a resolution affirming gay marriage and opening the door to the ordination of gay men and lesbians.  But, Watkins made it very clear that pastors, congregations and regional assemblies were free to reject the resolution if they so chose.

Steve Inskeep wanted to know how Watkins dealt with people in her denomination who, like Tim Overton, believe the Bible opposes gay marriage.  Her response was revealing:

Yes, that is one of the words that is heard for sure. A couple of years ago, we had quite a discussion on this, and I can’t say that we came to consensus. But we acknowledge that just as we think and understand that Jesus welcomes all in love that we have to try to do the same. And so we just struggle to learn from our disagreement about the power of God’s love to hold us together, even when our opinions would seem to tear us apart.

Jesus welcomes all, so we must welcome all.  That is at least the kernel of a theological argument.

Inskeep was too polite to state the obvious rejoinder, so let me lay it out for you as bluntly as possible: If Jesus welcomes all, and the Bible doesn’t, are Jesus and the Bible at odds?

You know how Tim Overton would have answered that question.  We find God’s Word in Jesus and in the Bible and the two witnesses agree.  God doesn’t contradict Himself.*

Could Sharon Watkins handle that question with a crisp soundbite?  No, she could not. No denominational leader in her right mind would pit Jesus against the Bible.  That doesn’t play in Peoria.

But it doesn’t take a lot of theological perspicuity to notice that conservative Christians argue from the Bible while liberals appeal to Jesus.  There is a good reason for this.  It is fairly easy to find several passages in a big book like the Bible that appear to condemn homosexual behavior.  Leviticus calls it an “abomination”, along with eating the meat of a sacrifice on the third day (days one and two are fine), eating unclean birds (eagles, vultures, buzzards and the like), and eating unclean animals (camels, rock badgers, rabbits and, of course pigs).

The Old Testament understanding of “holiness” isn’t primarily a matter of ethics or morality.  God created the world with a certain order, and when you mess with that order life goes bad.  Which is why Tim Overton, the Baptist pastor from Muncie, says that “embracing God’s will is embracing our gender.”

Simple enough, right?  If you believe the Bible you reject gay marriage.

But it isn’t that simple.  Take Peter’s vision in the eleventh chapter of Acts.

There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

Maybe God can contradict himself.  Or maybe this is a test, like when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Peter takes his stand on the Bible, certain that God would approve.

But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth’

Peter was expecting God to say something like, “Well spoken, my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.

Or, what God has called clean, you must not call an abomination.

So, maybe God can change his mind after all.*

Jesus preached, and lived, radical inclusion.  The company he kept sparked scandal at every turn.  Why does he consort with tax collectors, prostitutes, women, Samaritans, the poor, the sick and the insane?  Doesn’t he know an abomination when he sees one?

To which Jesus replied, in effect, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”

Logically, God, being God, cannot contradict himself or change his mind.  But if the Bible is anything to go by, God can change his mind six times before breakfast and regularly does.  It doesn’t just happen in the ministry of Jesus or in the New Testament, the Bible is a book about an mystifying God who shifts directions when you least expect it.

Are we comfortable with that kind of God?  Of course we’re not.  So what?  That’s the kind of God we’ve got.  How do I know?  The Bible tells me so.  Over and over and over.

Once again, the rejoinder is obvious.  If God is radically welcoming, who is excluded?  Nazis, pedophiles, drug dealers, terrorists?  I mean, where do you draw the line?

Maybe drawing lines isn’t as important to God as it is to us.

Moreover, if God can change his mind about the nature of abomination, how do we know he hasn’t changed his mind about homosexuality?  Or, to put a slightly different spin on the ball, what if we have been wrong about God all along?

All the evidence points in one direction: sexual orientation is not something we choose.  Some of us are born with long legs.  Call it a blessing or a curse, but, as Jesus himself noted, you can’t change it.   God is responsible for the length of my legs, not me.

You can see where I am going with this.

May I introduce the Honorable Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth?  Texas has its own version of RFRA, a bipartisan measure passed in 1999 that resembles the federal statute.  The intention was to protect the religious liberties of individuals against unwarranted government intrusion and has functioned admirably in that capacity.

But some Republicans wanted to amend the law in ways that would protect those wishing to discriminate against the LGBT community.  This wouldn’t be stated explicitly, of course, any more than it was in the original form of the Indiana bill, but the intention is clear.  The Indiana statute was carefully written to protect businesses from civil rights suits filed by individuals.  Instead of protecting individuals from the government, the Indiana bill (and the proposed changes to the Texas law) protect businesses from aggrieved parties, in general, and LGBT couples in particular.

Although the proposed changes to the Texas law protected businesses, the chamber of commerce and other pro-business groups were alarmed.  Identifying Texas as a gay-hostile state, they argued, would be bad for business (and this was before the Indiana fiasco).

Matt Krause

Matt Krause

Matt Krause didn’t care.  When others dropped the amendments to the Texas law, Krause picked them up. The proposed amendment to the Texas RFRA might be bad business, he admitted, but it’s good law, and even better theology.  (Krause has a law degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University so he knows the law, the Bible, and how the two should overlap.)

When reporters asked if Texas really wanted to mess with a toxic bill that was being reconsidered in red states like Indiana and Arkansas, Krause had his talking points ready:

Should a Jewish bakery have to bake a cake for the neo-Nazi convention coming into town? Nobody would say that. Nor would anybody say a gay florist couple has to give flowers to a Westboro Baptist protest at funerals.  All [the proposed bill is] saying is that if you feel like it has been burdened, that gives you a chance to go to court to say the government is infringing on my religious freedom because they are forcing me to do this.

Wrong analogy, bro.

If sexual orientation is God-given (as all the evidence suggests), it isn’t gays and lesbians who we should be comparing to Nazis and the haters at Westboro Baptist Church.

How does the “God hates fags” theology espoused by Westboro Baptist differ from the position Indiana pastor Tim Overton and Texas politician Matt Krause are defending?

Overton and Krause eschew the term “fags” and they don’t protest military funerals (thanks on both counts, guys), but they embrace Westboro theology with an unholy passion.  Their God might not hate fags, but he calls homosexuals “an abomination”.  Written either way, the equation yields the same answer.

A majority of Americans have learned to see their gay brothers and sisters as . . . well, brothers and sisters.  You know, real people.  Just like straight folks.  Any God who hates these people (or finds them abominable) is a morally compromised deity.  And no one gets a pass for pumping up the hate just because their morally challenged God says they must.

If gay people were consciously messing with the straight orientation God gave them, the abomination argument ring true; but they aren’t.  They just aren’t.  And that changes the moral equation.

Now for the Nazis.  In the Third Reich, homosexuals were verboten.

Beginning in 1933, gay organizations were banned, scholarly books about homosexuality, and sexuality in general, were burned . . . and homosexuals within the Nazi Party itself were murdered. The Gestapo compiled lists of homosexuals, who were compelled to sexually conform to the “German norm.”

The wiki article on homosexuals in Nazi Germany starts there and gets worse with each succeeding paragraph.

homosexuals in the 3rd Reich

Homosexuals arrested in Nazi Germany

Matt Krause’s Nazi analogy might work if he had compared gay-haters to Nazis.

It wouldn’t have been a perfect fit, of course.  Rev. Overton doesn’t want to see gay people punished, harassed or discriminated against and I trust that Mr. Krause concurs (you do, Matt, right?)  No one (well, hardly anyone) wants gays shot on sight or shipped off to death camps, but what is the appropriate response to abominable people?  Public shunning at the very least, I would think.

Abominable people should certainly be denounced from the pulpit, and we shouldn’t give the wretches any special legal protections.  Not when the fix is so simple.   At any moment, by Pastor Overton’s account, gay men and lesbians could simply “embrace their gender and act accordingly.”

But they don’t.  That’s why they are abominable.

Begin with a faulty premise and you’re headed for strange territory.

If Jesus could welcome a traitor (tax collector), a terrorist (zealot), and a scoundrel (Judas) into his inner circle, surely he can make room for us.  All of us.  We might prefer to live in separate silos, but Jesus says no.

If you don’t care what Jesus says, that’s not an issue.  But if you are Matt Krause, or Tim Overton, the radically inclusive Jesus is impossible, an illusion, a figment of the liberal imagination.  What God has called unclean, they say, let not Jesus call clean. God spoke once and for all in Leviticus and, like the law of the Medes and Persians, God’s immutable Word stands for eternity.

The real Jesus can’t be boxed in like that.  The real Jesus reverses the verdict of Leviticus whenever he chooses.  He does that because he is God’s Son and, like they say, the apple don’t fall far from the tree.

*I realize it is bad theology to use exclusive pronouns for God; but good theology sometimes translates into clunky prose.  My apologies for those who, for excellent reasons, are offended by references to a boy-God.

The marriage of Christ and anti-Christ

XXX TED CRUZ 2016 HDB327.JPG A  HKO USA VAWhen Ted Cruz launched his presidential campaign at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University reaction on the left was predictable.  Some suggested that Liberty students were only in their seats because attendance at chapel is mandatory at Liberty. Liberals don’t like Ted and the feeling is mutual.

Libertarian response was mixed.  Ted’s political career is funded by billionaire libertarians Charles and David Koch, he despises Obamacare, and he wants to abolish the IRS.

Libertarians haven’t forgotten that Cruz’s famous filibuster speech against Obamacare was studded with Ayn Rand quotations.

Who could ask for anything more?

But hard core, “objectivist” libertarians are baffled by Ted’s fervent embrace of the religious right, in general, and his staunch opposition to abortion, in particular.  Why, for instance, did a lifelong admirer of Ayn Rand announce his candidacy at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University?

Ayn Rand hated philosophical compromise as much as she hated Jesus; and she hated Jesus very, very much.  Consider this oft-quoted line from her novel, The Fountainhead:

The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent.  He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves . . . this is the essence of altruism.

Jesus and Ayn share one quality: consistency.

Rand asserted that nothing beyond the demands of the detached and independent ego really matters.  Altruism, living in response to the needs of others, was thus the worst kind of heresy.  When we live in service to others, she taught, we become slaves.

Randian objectivists wish Ted would lose his religion so they wouldn’t have to qualify for their support.  But everyone, even libertarians, appreciate that Ted’s career arc would plummet to earth if he trampled on the cross.  In America, we are free to disagree with Jesus on every important point, so long as we’re singing “Oh How I Love Jesus”.

A cynic would assert that Ted Cruz embraces both Christ and anti-Christ because he is a pragmatic politician. But you can’t understand the Junior Senator from Texas apart from the culture that shaped him.  Religious superstars from Dwight L. Moody to Billy Graham embraced Wall Street for the same reason Ted Cruz courts the Koch brothers–publicity is expensive.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

The best way to impress the wealthy is to tell them how wonderful they are, and Ayn Rand made a comfortable living singing paeans to the powerful.  They were the only people that mattered to her; everybody else she called ‘looters’, ‘moochers,’ and (when she was feeling kind) ‘parasites’.

Not all wealthy people enjoy praise and adulation, of course, but most of them do. Charles and David Koch love Ayn Rand and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter because they speak rapturously of the wealthy and contemptuously of everyone else.  No surprises there.

Ted Cruz grew up in a religious subculture in which Christianity and laissez-faire capitalism dovetailed neatly.  Mainstream evangelical Christianity soft-pedals Jesus’ teaching on money, greed and solidarity with the poor because, while no one was watching, we became a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate America.  If you think this is overly-harsh, check out the Sermon on the Mount and you will see the problem.

But this marriage of Christ and anti-Christ goes deeper than political pragmatism and the lure of mammon.  Ted Cruz isn’t just a conservative Southern Baptist who occasionally shows up at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas; he is also an enthusiastic Dominionist.

This stealth enterprise goes by a variety of names: the Reconstructionist Movement, Dominionism or, more recently, the New Apostolic Reformation (I have written extensively on this subject).

Dominionism is rooted in the “presuppositional” theology of Cornelius Van Til and the political-religious musings of Rousas John Rushdoony.  (If you are unfamiliar with Cornelius and Rousas, this primer will come in handy.)

Think of it as the Reformed doctrine of election on steroids.  Rushdoony put it like this:

“The purpose of Christ’s coming was in terms of the creation mandate… The redeemed are called to the original purpose of man, to exercise dominion under God, to be covenant-keepers, and to fulfill “the righteousness of the law” (Rom. 8:4) . . . Man is summoned to create the society God requires.”

The theological category of “election” makes the marriage of Christ and anti-Christ possible.

Both Randian objectivists and Christian dominionists contrast the glories of “us” with the depravity of “them”.

It’s an anti-Christian species of Calvinism.  The wealthy and the powerful have the right to dictate to the poor and the powerless because, well, they’re so super.  Dominionists associate this authority with God (from whom all blessings flow).  For Randian objectivists it’s the law of the jungle: If the makers don’t rule the takers, the takers will rule the makers, and we can’t have that.  Both conservative Christians and anti-Christ objectivists dream of that great day when the elect will triumph and the unworthy will get a richly-deserved comeuppance.

I am not suggesting that everyone associated with the religious right thinks this way. They don’t.  But culture war logic ensures that conservative critics of this marriage of Christ and anti-Christ will be consigned to the outer darkness.

Liberals, for their part, don’t know enough about Ayn Rand or Christian Reconstructionism to discern the elephant in the room.  Besides, it’s too easy to lampoon politicians like Ted Cruz if you’re working with a liberal audience.  You can make jokes about Liberty University students compulsory attendance at the Cruz announcement speech in twenty quick seconds flat.  Liberty students wearing Rand Paul T-shifts is a great five-second sight gag.  So why do the hard work of answering hard questions that no one is asking?

Mainstream analysis, desperate to sustain the illusion of objectivity, eschews in-depth analysis of anything.  Cruz kicked off his campaign at Liberty University in an attempt to court religious conservatives.  End of story.  The marriage of Christ and anti-Christ rarely gets a mention on CNN or CBS.  It sounds mean-spirited and it smacks of liberal bias.  We don’t want to lose more conservative viewers to FOX.

But our silence comes with a price.  Ted Cruz holds this marriage of convenience together by pretending that neither Jesus nor Ayn Rand were serious.

They were; and they are.