Friday, May 28, 2004

Kerry, the Albatross, and the Trumpet of Uncertain Sound

Added to the fact that John Kerry is an inept campaigner -- weak in substance, style, and personality -- is the fact that he is in a sea with "water, water all around and not a drop to drink." He inherited this albatross from the Democratic past and may not be able to get rid of it. The problem for Democrats began in the 1960's when they started to take liberal positions on the race issue, and the South began its shift to Republican majorities. To race was added in the next decades an ensemble of other cultural and social issues -- Vietnam, abortion, women's liberation, gun control, gay and lesbian demands for justice, prayer in school, pornography, and the like. The problem was that many of the constituencies that Democrats historically appealed to since FDR are cultural traditionalists and were offended by the shift of Democrats toward the progressive side. Southern whites and working class people everywhere, including many Catholics and union members, especially men -- formerly staunch members of the Democratic coalition -- faced a conflict between their economic interests and their traditional attitudes. This disaffection was skillfully promoted by Nixon, Reagan, and now Bush -- aided and abetted by the Christian right, conservative think tanks, radio, etc. -- with great success. Meanwhile the Democrats were becoming more upscale with pro-business attitudes and moderate to liberal cultural views while the unions grew weaker. Conservatives and reactionaries took over the Republican party and marginalized moderate Republicans. Contrary to standard economic theory, people frequently vote their moral values and not simply their economic class self-interests.

Democrats have won the presidency only with moderate Southerners who managed to finesse the problem by skillful combination of some progressive economic policies and pragmatically bobbing and weaving on the cultural issues of interest to women, blacks, gays, lesbians, and many upscale voters (especially those in the knowledge industries). Increasingly bound to business and wealthy donors, the populist message is hard to sell among Democrats and is discouraged by the Democratic Leadership Council, who were fond of Clinton and later Gore, except when he attacked big business.

So now the Democrats confront a baffling question: Why do the masses of ordinary people of modest and low income not get outraged by huge tax cuts for the wealthy, including the estate tax which only rich people pay? One clue is that people vote on taxes depending on whether they think they are being taxed unfairly, not realizing that the Bush tax policies benefit the very rich and deny ordinary folks needed social services. Why don't the poor vote, since that is the only way they can get their interests met? Many lower middle and middle class people vote Republican because of their military militancy, patriotism, and cultural conservatism, but why don't they pressure Republicans to be more attentive to their economic interests instead of passively going along?

Meanwhile, the established parties, especially Republicans, have managed to create a set of political arrangements driven by the power of wealth and incumbency, along with the rigging of congressional districts, that make it difficult for insurgents to win office. Consequently, incumbents can vote for regressive policies without much fear of defeat, except when massive citizen outrage develops, which is all too rare. So the rich enjoy low taxes and disproportionate political power. The result is a society in which both economic and political inequality dominate.

If they could get outraged and moderate their cultural conservatism for a moment, the masses of ordinary working people with modest and low incomes could elect reformers even with all the power of wealth and incumbency against them. They could appropriately tax the rich, provide better health care, guarantee Medicare and Social Security, and in general improve their lot. But it is not likely to happen.

So Kerry has the albatross created by recent history around his neck with a nearly impossible task. Given his uninspiring, inept campaign, and his entrapment by his own past voting record and wobbly views, it looks grim for progressives. St. Paul asks "if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will get ready for battle?" (I Cor. 14:8). With the albatross around his neck and his trumpet giving a muffled sound, we can only hope that Bush will look so bad that the ABB phenomenon will occur, i. e., anybody but Bush. But given Kerry's own membership in the aristocracy, only modest results will follow even then, especially if the Republicans continue to control Congress. The best progressives can hope for in the near future is a Clinton-type president (preferably with his zipper up). This prospect will not change much apart from major demographic shifts or events that shake things up.

See: Thomas Frank, "Lie Down for America:How the Republican Party Sows Ruin on the Great Plains," Harper's Magazine (April 2004), and Christopher Jencks, "Our Unequal Democracy," The American Prospect (June 2004).

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Interpreting the Bible

The country folks I grew up with said, "You can prove anything by the Bible." They were 99% right.

There is only one rule of hermeneutics: No Christian allows the Bible when speaking as the authoritative Word of God for today to teach anything he or she knows or believes strongly (for whatever reasons) to be either untrue or immoral.

A thorough study reveals that 97.3459% of the time the Bible functions as a mirror in which the interpreter finds the Bible to teach what that interpreter believes. I made the study myself listening to Bible-believing people for the last 70 years.

To ask, What would Jesus do? is the same as asking what conclusion do I reach when I appeal to my highest ideals.

If is often true that the higher the authority attributed to Scripture, the more perverse the ethics that result.

Gay Marriage

The opposition to gay marriage is not based on rational or moral considerations. If it were, convincing reasons could be given in support of the position. Three reasons in particular are typically offered, but none is compelling. All fail to make the case.

1. Homosexuality and gay marriage are contrary to nature. Natural law is supposed to provide a rational basis for morality that all competent reasoners can recognize. A good theory, but it doesn't work,since fully rational persons come to divergent conclusions. In the argument over female suffrage, e. g., both the proponents and the opponents appealed to "self-evident" natural law. The test of universality fails. Problems abound:

A. Natural law is always what somebody says it is. There is no universal agreement today about what natural law teaches about gay marriage or many other subjects. What is called natural law regarding homosexuality is nothing more than a cultural belief or individual conviction given transcendent authority by locating it in the very moral structure of the universe and the mind of God. Some natural law claims may indeed reflect an objective order of truth and value, but we cannot be sure of that, and we cannot know for sure which claims,if any, in fact do so. The claim that reason rightly employed will produce universal claims cannot bear close scrutiny, since natural law changes on particular issues with cultural consciousness and interpreters past and present disagree about what natural law requires.

B. Natural law has been used in the past to defend what nearly everybody now recognizes to be evil. Slavery, the denial of the vote to women, and the segregation of the races were said in times past to be in accordance with natural law. Opinions about what natural law requires on particular subjects changes with changing cultural values. The only way to get universal agreement is to stay at some very high level of generality, e. g., that good is to be done and evil avoided. Duh!

Hence, the argument from natural law fails. It is no more than somebody's current opinion.

2. Homosexuality is condemned by Scripture. So it is in Leviticus 20:13 and perhaps in Romans 1:26-27. The problem here is that those who find compelling authority in particular passages must also affirm that gay men be killed like the Leviticus passage says, that men can sell their daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)and that disobedient sons should be stoned to death (Deut. 21:18-21. Slavery is nowhere condemned in the Bible, and is everywhere assumed. Those who condemn homosexuality use the supportive texts that are available but conveniently ignore other passages that would require them to do things that are abhorrent to them and most everybody else. There is a lot of bad morality in specific passages. Biblical morality must be judged by what is highest and best in its witness. Paul's best advice was given in Romans 13:8-10 and I Corinthians 6:12. Love of neighbor fulfills the law, and all things are permitted that are not harmful and that are helpful. Responsible same-sex love harms no one; it is helpful for those who find fulfillment in it; and it is the fulfillment of the law of love.

3. Gay sex and marriage are harmful to society. No good reason can be given to justify this claim. Heterosexual marriage could go on as always. No one would be harmed, and gay people would be greatly benefited. What are the bad consequences that would follow? Who would be hurt? What would be lost that is worth preserving? I have yet to see a persuasive argument that individuals or society as a whole would harmed. What we need is a change of attitude, thinking, and law.

Instead of persuasive reasons, what we get are ungrounded assertions,dogmatic pronouncements, taboo, visceral reactions based on upbringing, cultural traditions, bad religion, and the like, none of which will stand rational scrutiny in light of the highest moral principles of reason and Scripture.

For a more detailed version of these ideas, see: