"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Money, Honey–Dollars Buy Politics And Everything Else

During the recent Presidential campaign Bernie Sanders criticized Hillary Clinton for a Hollywood fundraiser with George and Amal Clooney – a crass clambering for money to fuel a campaign already financed by high rollers.  He, on the other hand, is proud of the legions of small individual contributors whose checks may be small but represent a more honest, sincere, and ultimately more moral support.

His support among young people and committed progressives was not surprising.  Socialist policies whether articulated in the former Soviet Union, Europe, or America in the early 20th century have all focused on a redistribution of wealth, an institution of educational programs engineered and administered by government to promote and inculcate principles of social equality, social programs to ‘empower’ the disadvantaged, and economic programs designed less for profit than for the public good.  

Soviet communism, the most radical attempt to socialize a society, bankrupted the economy, profited the powerful, abridged civil and human rights, and threatened world stability.  European socialism has been gradually but surely eroded by free market forces, and even the most ‘progressive’ governments have been forced to adopt more conservative economic policies to compete with the newly enterprising nations of former communist East, Asia, and the United States.

George McGovern’s neo-socialism was largely discredited, and he was trounced in the 1972 election in which Nixon won 97 percent of the electoral vote and over 60 percent of the popular vote.   Hubert Humphrey, a committed progressive, lost the 1968 election to Nixon by a wide margin.

Image result for images george mcgovern

Times have changed, say progressive commentators.  The nation is tired of monied politics, the One Percent, the vast inequality of wealth and social opportunity, the continued influence of established power and privilege, and persistent prejudice.  Only drastic structural change and aggressive public policy and programs can set the country on a more sensible, reasonable, and just course; and Bernie Sanders is the man to lead the revolution.

Once again as in the case of 1972 and George McGovern, the young have rallied to a radically progressive candidate.  The electoral results will be no different.  Most Americans do not want dramatically higher taxes, more intrusive government, divisiveness caused by ‘diversity’ and social separatism, affirmative action, and the domination of secularism and cultural relativism.

It is understandable, predictable, and expected that Bernie’s political philosophy and fundraising strategy are in harmony.  It would be unconscionable for him to raise money with glitz, glamour, and sex appeal when thousands of Americans are starving, disabled, marginalized, and put upon.  Only the idealism of modest but heartfelt  donations (the Sanders average contribution is $30)) can match the idealism of his policies.

This strategy and these principles, however, put Sanders in a double bind.  He can never match Hillary Clinton’s campaign treasury if he relies only on little widows’ mites, and he can never win without an overflowing war chest.

Are the Bernie Sanders and George McGoverns of the country always doomed to electoral favor because idealism and campaign financing are contradictory?

The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.  Not only is the country fundamentally economically, socially, and religiously conservative and not ready to accept the radical changes that Sanders proposes; not only does idealism live and survive only in the young and the unreconstructed older liberal voters of the Northeast (a very small proportion of total voters); but  money, always  and without exception, rules. 

Candidates with the sparest of qualifications but deep pockets have managed to rise in the polls because name recognition in the age of media can be bought.  Image can be created in politics just as successfully as it is in Hollywood or Madison Avenue.  A candidate with money can create himself in whatever image he wants, be seen in key electoral markets, and stand a good chance of winning.
Our media age is one where careful, detailed scrutiny of policies, programs, and character is not required.  Images go viral, emotions are touched, and commitments made based on flimsy, superficial, but widespread ‘evidence’.

No serious voter would ever consider the sponsorship or even presence of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, or Scarlett Johansson as politically relevant.  Outside of Hollywood celebrity, good looks, and acting talent, these stars are political amateurs like the rest of us – no particular credibility of credentials.  Yet we listen. 


Any candidate who understands that money buys image, reputation, and especially recognition and fame has an insurmountable edge over his or her opponent.  Of course candidates stumble and misspeak.  Media coverage works both ways and candidates can be tailed mercilessly; but those with money still have the advantage, for they can often spend their way out of trouble.

Campaign finance reform has never gotten anywhere because politicians on the Left and the Right know that money talks; and without it candidates are doomed.  Money funds not only electoral politics but corporate and citizens’ lobbies.  AARP has power and influence not only because of demographics but thanks to donations.  Environmental groups would get nowhere if they relied only on MoveOn.Org petitions and viral support. 

Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Rick James, and a hundred other televangelists would not stand at the head of wealthy, influential mega-churches without money.  Money influences what we buy, how we vote, where we worship, when we play, and who we marry. “The business of America is business”, said Engine Charlie Wilson, former president of General Motors; and nothing could be more true 75 year later.

Image result for images engine charlie wilson

Money from the pockets of individuals, groups, corporations, churches, and foundations fuel everything in America  Nothing runs on ideas alone.  We are a capitalist society down to our marrow.
So while it is understandable and politically expedient for Bernie Sanders to howl at the excesses of the Clooney political gala, it is only sour grapes.  There are few in America who really believe in or want to return to a simpler, more modest life where much of their hard-earned income is transferred away from them; where Big Government, finally turned back and held at bay returns; and where a secular politically correct rhetoric becomes even more shrill and insistent.

When all is said and done, Hillary and her monied interests won out while Bernie’s young faithful and old Eastern liberals licked their wounds and decried American crassness and capitalist greed.
The popularity of Donald Trump is no accident.  He is the very image of monied America.  He has made millions, flaunts his wealth and the power it affords, runs on a platform of opportunity and prosperity, has no patience for ruffling progressive feathers, and is applauded as a national hero.  He is the anti-Bernie.  He and Hillary are cut from the same monied cloth but wear it differently.  Among other things, money won in November.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The End Of Moral Relativism–Is Absolutism Returning?

The writers David Brooks and Jonathan Merritt have commented recently on  the death of moral relativism which is being replaced by a shaming culture.  Campus activists now see the world in black and white, good and bad and do not hesitate to censure and condemn those who do not agree with their convictions. Free speech – if not supporting of progressive principles of inclusiveness, diversity, and the rights of the marginalized – is only the tool for heretical expression and must be stifled in the name of higher order values which are not relative but absolute.   All discussion concerning abortion, homosexuality, sexual behavior, wealth distribution, education, and ethnic identity has been clotured.  There is no need to consider opposing views let alone tolerate them.  There is no such thing as a morally pluralistic world.

While the censorious environment of college campuses does indeed reflect a growing intolerance, it is less about moral relativism than personal identity and status.  Political correctness has provided a justifiable cover for anti-democratic actions of supposedly moral zeal but no more than expressions of belonging.  Shouting down illiberality, carrying out vigilante justice, and persecuting the innocent in the name of righteousness are acceptable when campuses must be purged of racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes and behavior. 

This is not the end of moral relativism.  It is just a peculiar expression of it.  The same protesters who shut down campuses and force the resignation of university administrators in the name of doctrinal purity still reserve their judgment on female circumcision, a barbaric practice which dehumanizes and de-sexes women, because of a belief in cultural relativity.   Who are we to judge Africans for traditions which have existed for centuries and which reflect indigenous values?

The protestors insist in the rightness and cultural legitimacy of Palestinians whose violence, terror, and murder of Israelis is justified because of a Third World solidarity.  The poor, marginalized, dispossessed, and downtrodden of the Arab world have more rights than the world’s victors, wealthy, and powerful.  They are the blacks of the Middle East who deserve unmitigated and unqualified support in their struggle.  It is right not to condemn them for their economic backwardness and stubborn refusal to assume responsibility for their own development, advance the prospects of women, and join the ranks of the mature democrats.  It is wrong to judge them by American standards of liberal, tolerant social attitudes, private enterprise, and judicial wisdom.


By all rights campus protesters should be as censorious of the Muslim world as they are of American bigots and retrograde racists.  Are these societies not guilty of the same sexism, homophobia, and ethnic hate as Americans?  No.  They refuse to lay a hand on them because there is a universal quality that only the oppressed share.  To be poor, struggling, and incarcerated by the privileged is noble and absolutely admirable.

In other words cultural relativism and selective censoriousness are part of the same progressive package.  The struggle of the Arab poor trumps their retrograde beliefs about women and homosexuals.  Criticism of these beliefs would undermine the solidarity of their struggle.  At the same time these critics have no problem unleashing a cannonade against conservative, poor, Southern fundamentalists who hold similar views.

Of course you can’t have it both ways.  Either there are universal standards of behavior which must always be criticized or condemned; or all values are relative.  Progressives in America are caught between the two.   They tolerate the same unconscionable behavior in some groups while not others, suggesting a moral and cultural relativism.  Yet their own creed, doctrine, and liturgy are based on the conviction of their absolute right.


If one believes in the right of religious expression then all such expression should be protected whether it counters progressive values or not.  French Muslim separatism and defiance of the secular state should take precedence over statist ideas of inclusiveness.   Why do progressives lionize European Muslims for their insistence on cultural identity while attacking American religious fundamentalists for theirs?

While it is true that moral and cultural absolutists are in the ascendancy, many Americans are still unsure of their anchors.  If they were truly confident of their values, then they would be on a crusading jihad just as seriously as ISIS. Either poverty and oppression as expressions of a common grief of humanity and they must be eliminated regardless of culture and relative values; or that racism, sexism, and homophobia are the real curses of the world and that they must be eliminated wherever they are found.

ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram have no such doubts and have only one goal in mind – the establishment of a Muslim caliphate in the Middle East – and that no Western moral compunction will deter them.  They are absolute in their beliefs, and undeterred from their goals.

America’s foreign policy is still hindered by a type of moral exceptionalism which is based in cultural relativism.  The present administration simply cannot bring itself to identify religion as the fundamental if not principal motivation for terrorism.  President Obama and European leaders who follow his example are still fearful of offending other cultures; when in fact we should be condemnatory in the extreme.  Moreover we should be unafraid to announce the rightness of our Judeo-Christian beliefs in law, justice, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and respect.  Our Holy War would not be like that of the Crusades when the objective was to indeed spread Christianity (and its political hegemony); but to simply to galvanize our resolve to defeat the enemy by bringing the power of cultural righteousness to bear.


Either we believe that the forces of Christian enlightenment must prevail over the darker forces of medieval tribalism or not.  If we do, then the roots of Islamic extremism must be torn up and burned.   Molenbeek must be sequestered, raided in house-to-house searches, civil rights suspended, mosques invaded, imams arrested, madrassas closed down, and martial law applied.  Concerns about upsetting ‘another culture’ must give way to a clarity of strategic objectives based on moral absolutism.  Immigrants to Western Europe cannot be given a free pass but scrutinized with all the power of the state. Military arsenals should be unleashed on all terrorist targets regardless of collateral damage.

So moral relativism infects international politics and policy while moral absolutism reigns in academia.  The United States must give up its concerns about cultural inclusivity in the fight against Islamic terrorism, and those set upon by progressive zealots in the Unites States must mobilize and fight back.  There is plenty of space between right and wrong on all social issues in public discourse for lines to be hardened.

As Brooks and Merritt rightly observe, the world is headed towards moral absolutism, separatism, and cultural enclaves.  We need to recognize the legitimacy of the end of the nation-state and of liberal democracy, and mobilize our effort as a political and cultural and religious one.

We need to condemn political correctness and the stifling of free speech and encourage those groups who oppose the received wisdom of the Left.  We must encourage absolute beliefs among those who have been unrelentingly attacked for them. 

There is no longer room for a soft, malleable, tolerance.  We have evolved into a contentious world society, and those who ignore that fact and insist in inclusivity do so at their own peril.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Voices From The Pulpit–The Volatile Mix Of Religion And Politics

The Episcopal Bishops in their Letter to the Church (3.15.16) wrote the following:
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us
In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.
While religious leaders may use secular example to illustrate a Biblical point – here, one supposes, the especial compassion of Jesus Christ for the poor, his warnings to the rich about the eye of a needle, and his reprise of the Ten Commandments’ injunction against idolatry – such examples my override any spiritual message.


The Letter to the Church, criticizing ‘the false idol of power and privilege’, the marginalization of the poor, the enflamed rhetoric of the Presidential campaign, and the conclusion that Americans (read political leaders) have ignored their responsibilities while feathering their own nest has stepped directly into secular debate.

Wherever one might be on the political spectrum, wrote the bishops, it is time to change our ways and recommit ourselves to the common good.   Yet it is clear that the bishops are far from neutral in their observations.  They, for example, have  taken a page out of progressives’ playbook when it comes to the assumption that a concentration of wealth and power is an evil. 

Conservatives dismiss this argument entirely.  Accumulated wealth, they argue, has been a feature of all societies in history; and far from an evil, it has been the treasury for patronage of the arts, the building of monuments and urban architecture, the spread of Christianity, industrial and agricultural revolutions, and the engines of economic enterprise. 


Concentration of power is no different.  Every human society from Amazonian tribes to the empires of Europe has been segmented and always with a top, middle, and bottom.  Those at the top – the more intelligent, ambitious, strong, savvy, and intuitive – have always attempted to consolidate their power; and although their reigns were always replaced by pretenders, they did their utmost to defend, extend, and increase their territories, wealth, and influence.

America today is no different.  The top tiers of the economic pyramid do indeed possess vast wealth and through it exert proportionate political influence.  As a result of the checks and balances of our political system, laissez-faire capitalism – the natural enterprise of self-interested individuals – has been controlled and moderated.  Our society may be just as economically ‘unequal’ as that of the age of the English kings, but far less arbitrary.

The bishops claim that we are ‘turning against our neighbors’, especially on the margins of society – a claim persistently made by political liberals.  Conservatives have no less concern for others, but see social integration and economic progress resulting from competition and individual enterprise not enforced cooperation.   Without a doubt aggressive competition for land and resources has resulted in wars; but human societies have fought for them since the first settlements.  Both the simplest tribal societies and the most evolved states have always been in conflict over the same rights. 

This challenge of social wills, when looked at from the larger perspective of history has always resulted in social and economic evolution   The European Union is a direct outgrowth of World War II.  Never again, say the Europeans, will we have a devastating war on our continent.  The current struggle between the West and radical Islam is less a fight for territory than it is for the life or death of democratic liberalism.  However this war turns out, the world will be less defined by national borders and democratic institutions and more by religions, ethnic, and racial interests.

As far as the enflamed rhetoric of the current political campaign, it is nothing compared to that of 1828 pitting Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams which has been called the dirtiest in American history.
Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a national hero was based on his military career,…..but his  military glory was turned against him when a Philadelphia printer named John Binns published the notorious “coffin handbill,” a poster showing six black coffins and claiming the militiamen Jackson had ordered executed had essentially been murdered.
Jackson's wife Rachel had been married to another man before Jackson, and a question arose about when her first husband had divorced her and when she began living with Jackson. The explanation was that Jackson and his wife believed she had been divorced when they first married, but there was (and still is) some legitimate doubt about the timing.
Jackson’s marriage on the frontier nearly 40 years earlier became a major issue in the 1828 campaign. He was accused of adultery and vilified for running off with another man’s wife. And his wife was accused of bigamy.
The supporters of Andrew Jackson began spreading a rumor that Adams, while serving as American ambassador to Russia, had procured an American girl for the sexual services of the Russian czar. The attack was no doubt baseless, but the Jacksonians delighted in it, even calling Adams a “pimp” and claiming that procuring women explained his great success as a diplomat.

                Thomas Sully, Andrew Jackson
Congressional fights have been no different. LBJ ran one of the nastiest campaigns ever seen in Texas while running for Congress. 

Local politics have always been characterized by bluster, bribes, libelous and scandalous ad hominem attacks.  Politics is a dirty business, and today it is no different.  To couch the 2016 campaign within the context of the compassion and inclusiveness of Jesus Christ is disingenuous to say the least.

The Episcopal bishops are not alone in their entry into the political fray.  Jerry Falwell as an outspoken televangelist with a large following; but he was also the founder of The Moral Majority, an overtly political organization created to promote conservative political values; and he was successful at merging the principles of religious fundamentalism within the rubric of politics.  Family values, prayer in the schools, freedom of religious expression, and the dismantling of all government regulation which impeded individual spiritual growth were issues which resonated with Christians and secular conservatives.


Pope Francis is the latest religious leader be become overtly political.  He and the Episcopal bishops have both criticized concentrations of wealth and power, the lack of concern for the poor, and the divisions and inequalities in society.  Francis like the bishops, however, was singular in his attack on political conservatives.  There is no doubt about the target for his admonitions and warnings, no real understanding of capitalist economics and philosophy, and no appreciation for the fundamental and valid differences in approach between liberals and conservatives.  He, like the bishops, can only see a world rent by venal ambition, greed, indifference, and raw individualism.


The world has more than enough politicians, pundits, academics, and political philosophers to weigh in on matters of social policy, economics, and world affairs without religious leaders doing the same.   As the the Gospels and the letters of Paul amply illustrate, the only goal of an individual is to have faith in Jesus Christ and hope that he will bestow his grace upon him.   Hinduism is based on the principles of spiritual evolution, karma, and release from reincarnation – all matters between an individual and God.  The world, after all is an illusion, and the sooner one realizes the vanity of commitment to it, the better off he will be.

 “We all die alone”, says Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  All else – family, friends, colleagues, society, and business mean nothing at the moment of death.


In short the Pope, the bishops, and every other religious leader in the world should focus on spiritual evolution and the principles of religion which can facilitate that journey.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The New ‘Authentics’ - Locavores, Leather, And Ralph Lauren In An Age Of Glitz

Ralph Lauren has made millions from his Polo brand.  His simple, classic styles, evocative of Old England, Nantucket, afternoon tea, castles, downs, and the privileged, elegant life respond to a very American envy of upper class ways and a  belief in the value of authenticity.

Lauren’s ads appeal to both.  Old, leather bound books, faded Persian rugs, ivory-headed walking sticks, dried grasses from the dunes, comfortable leather armchairs, Townsend furniture, and Seth Thomas clocks are both ‘natural’ and aristocratic.  The best of both worlds respects the past, abhors plastic and excess, and is above all an enclave of good taste.

Image result for images best ralph lauren ads interior shots

Downton Abbey was one of the most popular shows on PBS because it portrayed the forefathers of America’s Nantucket, Main Line, Beacon Hill, and Park Avenue elites in all their restrained, tasteful, mannerly ways; but gave them their comeuppance.  It is all well and good for Americans to idolize the rich and privileged, but there must be a fall otherwise the principles of the Revolution would be compromised. 

We tuned in to Downton Abbey because we liked to watch the super-rich, the English aristocracy, and lives of quiet elegance and all that we would never have.
Victorian England has always had a hold on America.  Empire, Churchillian values, confidence, reverence for God, King, and Country, the discipline of Eton and Harrow that made leaders of men; and above all, pomp and ceremony. 

In all PBS Edwardian soap operas, like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, we may have rooted for the scullery maid or the footman, enjoyed the camaraderie and earthy enjoyment of the staff, but we cared only for the toffs.

Victorian and Edwardian England may seem remote, but the images of an even earlier England, that of the imperial King George who ruled us in the 1700s, are American emblems.  Our Founding Fathers looked like Englishmen, dressed like them, behaved as aristocratically as their forefathers, built English-style homes as graceful and elegant as the country manors of England.

                                            Montpelier, country estate of James Madison

Our Eastern city neighborhoods are English. Georgetown, Beacon Hill, and Rittenhouse Square are like South Kensington or Holland Park.

Aristocratic England is all the more appealing because it is remote and impossibly unattainable. We would fumble and drop our forks at Downton Abbey or trip over the Persian carpet at Montpelier.  English Lords and their estates, fox hunting, understatement, and chauffeurs are way beyond us.  We can imagine having a beer with Matthew McConaughey, but not the Third Earl of Hereford. 

Authenticity may be based on our aristocratic past; but for many it has more local roots.  It was no accident that both Ronald Reagan – Hollywood actor and The Great Communicator – and George W. Bush, patrician son of a president, grandson of a Senator, and inheritor of 200 years of storied family history, were photographed clearing brush.

There was authenticity in the simple, practical, necessary action of tending to one’s property.  Repairing fences, digging wells, building barns, and riding the herd were very much iconic acts.  They represented rugged individualism, conquest of the harsh frontier, Westward expansion, and American courage                     

Image result for ronald reagan on ranch images

The American quest for authenticity goes far beyond politics.  A return to nature has been a part of our romantic history since Thoreau and Robert Frost.

"I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion”, said Thoreau in Walden , echoing the sentiments of Shelley in Mont Blanc:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be
But for such faith with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.
Early Americans discovered the land.  Although many early English and Scandinavian settlers had been farmers in Europe, they were stunned at the fertile vastness of the Midwestern prairies, the rich lands of the Tidewater, and the black dirt of the Mississippi Delta.  Those that populated Texas and the rangelands of the Southwest could not believe their good fortune.

It is no surprise, then, that today’s Americans, inheritors of a legitimately ‘natural’ legacy of land and tradition, long for a more authentic past.  Those with money can find refuge in the privileged enclaves of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Maine, or Northern California.  Those without make do with Ralph Lauren and Downton Abbey.

Nostalgia has always been big business.  Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris was all about how disaffected, often lonely people who look to the past for romance.

Image result for images movie midnight in paris

The Burt Lancaster character in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City,  an elderly, gentlemanly gangster looks out over the ocean and says to his young friend, “ The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days”.

Image result for images burt lancaster atlantic city movie

The organic, locavore, farmers’ market consumers express a different but still very American sentiment for the past.  There is little evidence if at all for the health benefits of organic, locally-grown food; yet a strong urban movement has lionized local farmers, vilified GMO advocates, and helped quasi-organic enterprises like Whole Foods to make millions.  These young advocates for a more pure way of eating are reflective of thousands of disaffected American who are unhappy with the Hollywood-Las Vegas culture of faux reality, plastic recreations, and erosion of fundamental Enlightenment values.

Good luck.  The majority of Americans are quite happy with glitz, reality TV, People Magazine, and lowbrow sensual culture.  We love the Kardashians,  Donald Trump, Madonna, Adele, and Justin Bieber.  We want to see more of their bodies, hair styles, babies, and antics in Antigua.

Those who feature Downton Abbey, the Brontes, Nantucket, or the North Coast in their cultural repertoire are antiques, historical wannabees who don’t get it. Tweeds, leather, silver tea services, and English manor houses are not more than expected fantasies – understandable given our colonial past, but irrelevant in an age of virtuality and glitz. 

America, although romantically attached to Victorian England, the Old South, the Texan cowboy, and the rugged individualist, is at heart middle-brow and movie star besotted.

The locavore, organic, and leather devotees are but an interesting aberration.  Alice Waters, Redzepi, and the underground favorites of the Mission are but blips on America’s cultural radar.  The mainstream is, as it always has been, Hollywood, Las Vegas, blitz and bling.

This is not a bad thing.  There is no accounting for taste, after all; and American popular culture is our biggest export.  In the American century, fantasy and image are our products to be celebrated.  Our age is coming to an end, but all do.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Separation Of Church And State–Time To Rethink An Old Principle In A Time Of Holy War

America and the West is fighting a war against the Islamic extremism of ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and their many affiliates and offshoots.  While the enemy is like all others in history seeks an expansion of territory, power, and political influence, it is also committed to spreading a religious and cultural empire – a new Muslim caliphate which harsh, punitive laws, medieval piety and obedience, and an absolute devotion to God.   The division between church and state is not only meaningless to ISIS but is laughable.  There is nothing more logical and desirable than the complete merging of the two.  There must be law in the new kingdom, but it should be God’s law, for nothing can possibly supersede it.  To assume that man’s secular law would have primacy or even a place in a religious caliphate is in itself blasphemous.

Ivan Karamazov, a character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov argues that the state should be subsumed within the church, for what better way to assure morality, social harmony, and civil justice with sin and apostasy as weighty threats, and the threat of damnation and excommunication punishment?

Yet Ivan does not go so far as to argue for a theocracy.  In his mind there must be a valid secular side to his ideal society.  Church law, he knows, can be as arbitrary and unjust as secular law.  A balance must be struck, but the Church would always be primus inter pares.                   

In the Muslim Caliphate of ISIS there would be no such distinctions.  Secular life would disappear and all human activity would be governed and ordered by the ‘church’.

This idea is not new.   For conservative Hindus there is nothing but God’s law, although the individual is free to obey or disobey it.  Escape from endless reincarnation and final spiritual evolution to a pure state is impossible without following the precepts of the religion and applying the principles of its philosophy. Disregard them if you must, Hindu sages warn, but a life of perpetual rebirth into a profitless and illusory world awaits you.

There was nothing but the Law for the ancient Jews; and so deliberate and assiduous were they in its application that, at least according to Jesus Christ, they had become slavishly secular.  Christ was offering a new law, a new kingdom, and a new promise – one which was based on free will, not on legal absolutism.

ISIS has befuddled Americans who, in their belief in American exceptionalism, the absolute rightness of liberal democracy, and the principles of the Constitution, struggle to find an ‘appropriate’ response to Islamic terrorism.  Progressives advise that we have no brief with Islam, only its militant, extremist fringe; and our war is only with them.   Our military strategy must follow the familiar ‘hearts-and-minds’ doctrine of Vietnam later applied to  Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Our fight is a principled, moral one and inclusiveness, tolerance, and respect are its keystones.  We must demonstrate through our extreme caution in words and military actions that we have nothing against Muslims or Islam.

Today (3.22.16) another terrorist attack has occurred in Europe, this time in Brussels apparently as a reprisal for the arrest of the presumed mastermind of the recent Paris bombings which killed 130 people.   A suicide bomber is the likely cause of the carnage and destruction at the airport. 

Suicide bombings have been so common in ISIS’ war that it has become simply one more instrument of combat.  Yet it is far from that.  Few young men and women in any country would kill themselves for a secular political cause.  Few doubt that the  martyrdom of jihad and the promise of eternal reward is the principal motivation for them.   Suicide is not the same as dying for Napoleon or the Czar at the Russian front in the Battle of Borodino; or dying to save wounded comrades.  It is a willing renunciation of life for a superior end.  It is not a secular act.  It is a religious one.

The United States is slow to realize and even slower to admit the nature of the fight with ISIS and al-Qaeda; and until the enemy is named, described, identified, and targeted, the war will never be won.

Yet this alone may not be enough.  Can a Holy War be won without a moral resolve that goes beyond secularism?  Is liberal democracy really enough to motivate a nation or a region? 

Right now our secular exceptionalism has gotten us nowhere.  The Middle East no longer looks at America as a beacon of hope and prosperity.  Nationalism, political borders, the rule of law and a moderate civil society are considered constructs of former colonial powers who persist in their attempts at hegemony.  Religion, religious factions, ethnicity, and tribal loyalties have taken their place.  Dictators maintain the peace, but the surging movement of sectarianism cannot be held down for long.   ISIS may be the most extreme expression of this new sectarian ideology, but there is no doubt that it reflects the will of many in the region.

If liberal democracy, secularism, capitalism, individualism, and commercial enterprise are giving way to the other side, what chance do we have? Isn’t it time to throw off the old, faded and worn mantle of the Founding Fathers and face the new world?

To make matters worse, not only is the Middle East becoming more caliphate-minded, but America is doubting its own religious character.  We are not a Christian nation, say progressives who promote multiculturalism and ‘inclusiveness’.  We are a rainbow coalition, a multi-colored quilt of religions, all valid, valuable, and untouchable.

Yet we are indeed a Christian country.  Whether Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or Sikhs practice their own faiths privately, they subscribe to Christian values.  These values – family, compassion, fidelity, respect, equality, and individualism - have been so uniquely and completely incorporated within the American ethos and character than they are universal.  Jesus Christ may have been the innovator,  but the Founding Fathers in their insistence on a Christian-based republic were his latter-day evangelists.  There can be no distinguishing the Jewish or Hindu American from the Christian one.  The homogenization within a Christian ethic is too universal and complete.

America is one of the most profoundly religious countries on earth, perhaps second only to India.  Not only Christians who make up over 70 percent of the population, but citizens of other faiths are also practicing believers.  We are a Christian country because as above, we subscribe to Christian principles regardless of our confession; and we are a religious country because we practice our faiths more dutifully than most other countries.

Why not, then, cast the fight against Islamic extremism as a Holy War?  Have we retreated so far from our Christian identity that we hesitate to martial religious sentiments if not zeal in our fight with an Islamic foe? Have we become so intimidated by progressive policies of ‘diversity’ that we are afraid of religious-based militancy?

Liberal democracy is in its death throes not only in the Middle East but in Russia and the former Soviet Union.  Vladimir Putin has dismissed nationalism as a Western construct and acknowledged the rightness of Russian ethnic identity, its imperial past, and its cultural destiny.  France has Europe’s highest Muslim population and these citizens are increasingly demanding separation from the French State whose policies and laws are offensive to Islam.   The waves of Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees are sure to add fuel to the separatist fires.


The United States has put voting first and foremost in the developing world; but with few exceptions elections have been laughable farces.  Yet US leaders continue to sanctify the vote.  Once people have voted and seen the power of popular elections, they will never go back, and democracy will be right around the corner.  Nothing has been farther from the truth.  The vote has been a mythical silver bullet and nothing whatsoever with the harder reality of the structural institutional change which is required for democracy.

So why not put these fading principles aside?  History is bypassing us. The world is returning to a pre-democratic, autocratic, theological world and we are flummoxed.  Where is our Charlemagne?

Monday, March 21, 2016

America Without Religion –A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?

Emma Green writing in The Atlantic (3.21.16) notes that in the United States, fewer young Americans identify as religious or attend regular services than members of any other living generation, and speculates on how this lack of faith will change the way we live:
Religion tends to make people happier, healthier, and more civically engaged. It creates a foundation for communal and social life, provides a common set of behavioral rules for people to abide by, and can be a useful guide for navigating the exhaustion and pain of everyday life. Looking out at a generation full of folks who don’t go to church or synagogue or mosque, some sociologists and commentators can’t help but wonder: What will become of us?
Yet, should the increase in young ‘nones’ really be of concern?  Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov assuredly and cynically believed so. Morality is predicated on immortality, he said..  Without a belief in the afterlife and the moral rules which govern accession, there would be chaos.  Rakitin, an associate of Father Zossima responds angrily, and says to Alyosha:
Did you hear your brother Ivan’s stupid theory just now,” Rakitin said, “that if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful. (And by the way, do you remember how your brother Mitya cried out: ‘I will remember!’) An attractive theory for scoundrels! Or maybe not scoundrels, but for pedantic poseurs, ‘haunted by profound, unsolved doubts.’ He’s showing off. His whole theory is a fraud! Humanity will find in itself the power to live for virtue even without believing in immortality. It will find it in love for freedom, for equality, for fraternity.”  (II.7)

It is difficult to take sides in the matter since all societies practice some form of religion; and there are too few atheists with too short a history for longitudinal studies to track their morality.  However, since morality – or at least the principles of right and wrong – is taught to children well before they reach what Catholics call ‘the age of reason’ and before their First Communion and official entry into the world of faith, one would have to suspect that Ivan was wrong.

No, say some critics.  Although the foundations for morality are laid during childhood, they are infirm.  How can a child, they say, anticipates the tests and trials of morality that await them in adult life?  How can fibbing and sneaking cookies out of the cookie jar possibly intimate the betrayals, deceit, murder, greed, and antipathy that await them?  Unless children are constantly reminded of their obligation to parents, family, friends, and society, they will certainly follow the dictates of human nature -  a nature, as history has amply shown, is aggressive, self-serving, territorial, and exclusive.  And what better reminder and enforcer of morality than the Church?

Morality is neither absolute nor a product of religion others say.  It is merely a social construct – one which ensures that these most venal and self-interested instincts are kept in check.  Religion is not at all necessary to maintain civil order because socialized men all respect the law as a means of justice.  One’s personal ambitions may not always benefit from the law, but without it in a tooth-and-claw world, the risk of losing everything is great.

It appears, therefore, that morality does indeed exist without religion.  Man has always found secular means to keep the selfish desires of other in check.

What, then, about the argument that religion is the foundation for a social and communal life?  As above, there seems to be no need for religious faith to keep our worst instincts in check.  A secular respect for the law is enough to preserve, support, and promote the social integrity needed for survival. 

On the other hand the American church has always been the focal point of community life; and faith may only be incidental.  Religious affiliation is a marker of both subscription to prevailing social norms and a common faith in God.  Churches in many parts of the country are not just places of worship but venues for schools, elder care, social and psychological support, and safe adolescent engagement.  Certain Protestant denominations in the North pride themselves on social activism.  Many political progressives add the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian Universalist Church to their secular resumes.

Yet is disingenuous to believe that if these churches no longer existed, they would not be replaced by other, equally accommodating institutions.  Human beings are socially hardwired.  Survival is always predicated on some degree of social insulation.   Atheists, for example, are exhibiting the same need for social belonging, approval, and justification as their religious brothers and sisters.   Atheism is rapidly becoming the secular church in America.  Environmentalism has acquired all the trappings of religious faith – a belief in a Supreme Being (Mother Earth), an anti-Christ (Wall Street and its corporate demons), an Apocalypse (a fiery end to the planet), and salvation through both faith and works.  It has become the secular religion in America.  We all need belonging, purpose, status, and identity, and environmentalism does the trick.

Finally Green talks of religion as a way of “navigating the exhaustion and pain of everyday life”.  A safe haven, in other words.  In a world where trust is at a premium and where deception, greed, arrogance, and venality are the rule, where better to find solace and support than with a merciful, understanding, and loving God?

There is no doubt that religion’s primary raison d’etre is shelter from the storm.  No matter what disaster, disease, infirmity, accident, or freak of nature may occur in one’s life, there is always God. 
Tolstoy wavered between nihilism and religious faith for most of his life and despite his avowal of belief in A Confession, his later writings betrayed that conviction.  Tolstoy, therefore, was always a religious man, for nihilism is as articulate and convincing a philosophy as any enunciated by Paul, Tertullian, Aquinas, or Augustine. 

Life without meaning is not so terrible.  It is not so difficult to accept, as Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina) could not, the irony of being created with intelligence, wit, insight, creativity, and passion and then after a few decades of life consigned to eternity beneath the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  A life without meaning offers tremendous license – one which may be led within the circumscription of society’s norms, but one equally without guilt or remorse for a sybaritic, epicurean existence.


Nietzsche, the greatest nihilist of them all, was not content with such indulgent lifestyles.  In the face of a meaningless life, one had the obligation to act.  The expression of personal, individual will was man’s only validation of his existence.

Whether one  is either a follower of Epicurus or Nietzsche, religion is irrelevant.  A life of pleasure, attainment, dominance and glory or one of quiet, resolved resignation are both logical and acceptable alternatives to God.


Green closes by noting that while traditional Christian faith is less confessed in America, other religions are.  We are no longer a nation of Jesus Christ but of Rama, Mohammed, the Buddha, and Gaia.   While this may be true, the fact remains that the ‘nones’ are outnumbering everyone else.  America may be a pastiche of the world’s religions, but those who are faithful are becoming fewer and fewer.

In closing, there is absolutely no cause for concern.  Human nature is such that the ‘nones’ will look elsewhere for moral and social support, status, belonging, and meaning.  The fabric of American society may fray, but not because of the decline in religious belief.