John Henry

Don't call me Nueman.

Book Review – Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

I have been intending to write a long review of Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics, for about seven weeks now, but due to various obligations and, well, the NBA playoffs, that hasn’t happened. So here’s a short review: it’s an excellent book that accomplishes three basic purposes: one descriptive, one controversial, and one normative.

The descriptive section, consisting roughly of the first half of the book, is a useful, accessible account of the rise of a vibrant, frequently orthodox, Christianity following World War II, and the decline of orthodox Christianity and the institutions that undergird it over the past sixty years. Douthat is even-handed in his treatment of a wide variety of theological movements, theologians, and denominations. While most of the material will be familiar to those who pay attention to these matters closely – including many readers of this blog – it should be acknowledged that most Americans do not fall in this category. And even for those who do, Douthat’s synthesis of events, movements, and people is perceptive and sympathetic. Refreshingly, he avoids most of the exaggerated caricatures that populate popular writing on these themes. The average religion reporter for the Washington Post or the Associated Press would do well to use Bad Religion as a starting point and model for writing intelligently about religion in the contemporary U.S.

The second half of the book is straight forwardly controversial, as Douthat explores a variety of influential religious works and figures, ranging from Joel Osteen to Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) to participants in the Jesus Seminar, and criticizes the superficiality, self-absorption, and lack of scholarly rigor that characterizes Christianity-lite and Christian-influenced spirituality in much of the contemporary United States. In many respects, it reads as an update on Chesterton’s Heretics, although it must be said that none of Douthat’s targets approach the caliber of H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, or any of Chesterton’s original antagonists. To a certain extent, Douthat is shooting fish in a barrel; but at least they are the biggest fish, if book sales, packed stadiums, and cultural notoriety are any indication.

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The HHS Mandate: Why the Cost Issue Is Irrelevant

One issue that mainstream and even some Catholic commentators seem to be bungling to my mind is the relevance of costs. According to the Obama Administration, under the new rule insurance companies will provide sterilization and contraception free to employees of Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities. Further, the Administration has claimed that insurance companies are happy to do this because the costs of contraceptives and sterilization are lower than the costs of pregnancy and all of the associated doctors visits. This certainly seems plausible. Pregnancy and the associated doctors visits cost a lot of money. I’ve heard it claimed that policies without contraceptives typically cost more than their counterparts that include them, and so it’s possible that the new policies will be even cheaper than the prior policies (absent all of the costs imposed by other new regulations, but that’s another story).

But this just brings into starker relief the fact that no compromise has been offered at all. Let’s assume for a moment that it is actually cheaper for an insurance company to offer sterilization and contraceptives without charge than to not offer them at all. In that case, Catholic hospitals and universities have historically been able to purchase plans at a higher cost that enables them to avoid providing coverage that violates their consciences. The original rule said that they could no longer purchase such plans, and most right thinking people recognized this as an infringement on religious liberty. The new rule says: “good news, you won’t have to pay more than you currently do!” Which, of course, is completely non responsive. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

The HHS “Accommodation”: Lie to Me

So the Obama Administration released a proposed compromise today on the recent contentious HHS rule and there was good news: The Administration is now saying that Catholic institutions will not need to pay for abortifacients, sterilization, and contraception for their employees. The bad news is that the good news is a lie.  Catholic institutions will still be paying for these things, but health insurance companies will be instructed to tell Catholic institutions that they are free.

It’s possible that this will provide the Administration with enough cover to defuse the issue; it is clever in its own way. “Obama Administration requires Church to pay for abortifacients” is a straight forward story that even a reporter can understand. “Obama Administration uses accounting gimmick to force Church to pay for abortifacients, while assuring them they are free” is harder to explain. A little misdirection can go a long way with a sympathetic press. But, for Catholics, I think the takeaway is clear enough: this is no compromise at all. The Obama Administration has decided to double down on the mandate, and Catholics can no longer expect him to deal in good faith with Catholic institutions and their leaders.

Update: This post is probably superfluous here, but I’ll leave it up. See also Paul and Tito’s earlier takes.

Live-Blogging the CNN South Carolina Debate

With the field reduced to four and the possibility that this is the last significant Republican primary debate, the moment appeared ripe for a live blog. Feel free to discuss in the comments.

By way of disclaimers, I’ll mention that I dislike all of the candidates to varying degrees and that Macallan’s 12 may or may not be influencing some of my remarks:

8:05: CNN says we will have audience questions. Oh, great.

8:07: Romney mentions how long he has been married and his kids. I wonder if that remark was influenced by any recent events…

8:09: And CNN leads off with the ex-wife story. Newt blames CNN and the news media for lowering the level of discourse; says the story is false. Not clear what part is false, though. Update: The ‘open marriage’ part.

 8:13: What do the other candidates think about the ex-wife story: Santorum says personal life is part of what people examine. Romney says get to the ‘real’ issues. Ron Paul disses media, says nevertheless he’s proud of his long marriage. Not sure what the best tack is there. I like Santorum’s.

8:15: Ron Paul, to the shock of all observers, says that we need to get the government out of the way.

 8:17: Bain Capital. Newt says the business model was leverage, cash out, and leave’em. Romney responds with: let’s get America working again! Then, as the moderator presses, that ‘free enterprise works’! Then describes job creation record at Bain again….mentions Dominoes pizza…”there’s nothing wrong with profit”. “Freedom makes America strong!” I suppose we are lucky Newt didn’t respond to the initial question with “Marriage is great!”; “Marriage works!”; and “Marriage makes America strong!”

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Compassionate Conservatism Revisited

A quasi-confession: One of my favorite politicians of the last fifteen years is George W. Bush. Unfortunately, I don’t mean George W. Bush, the President. I mean, George W. Bush, the candidate for President in 2000. The one who criticized Clinton-era attempts at “nation-building” and promised a “modest” foreign policy. The one who prophetically predicted the events that would undo his own Presidency several years later:

If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I’m going to prevent that.

Well, he may have been a little off on the second prediction. 

Bush the Candidate was able to articulate pro-life principles effectively. He promised to appoint judges who were willing to occasionally glance at the Constitution. He favored raising the Earned Income Tax Credit for low and moderate income individuals. He was committed to implementing accountability in Education. Bush the Candidate advocated for expansion of social services (e.g. what would become Medicare Part D). At the time, it appeared to me that he was the best option by a mile from a Catholic perspective.

Of course, 2000 was an interesting time. No one was interested in health care reform after the Clintonian debacle in the early 90’s (other than Medicare Part D). A bipartisan compromise on welfare reform appeared to be overwhelmingly successful. There were no pressing international political issues, and Bush, as mentioned above, promised to be more modest in our dealings with the world than Clinton had been. Which left culture war issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research as the primary differences between the candidates in what amounted to a Coke/Pepsi culture clash. Good times, with internet-bubble fattened 401k’s for much of the middle class.

U.S. politics have changed a bit since then. But I still think Bush’s platform was a good one. To be sure, it basically charted a European-style Christian Democrat course for the U.S., but then I like European-style Christian Democracy, which after all, was consciously modeled in part on Catholic Social Teaching. Obviously, there are a lot of complications with any political philosophy, but, on the whole, I’m in favor of both functioning markets and generous social safety nets (taxes on individual earnings and consumption; less regulation and corporatism). Although, unlike Bush in practice (and the Affordable Care Act), I think we need to pay for social services when we expand them. I suppose most AC readers are to the right of this point of view, but I’m curious:

How did you view Bush the candidate circa 2000, and what are your thoughts on Christian Social Democrats, particularly their effortso to model political philosophy on Catholic Social Teaching?

Positivism, Ethics, & Law

“A positivist conception of nature as purely functional, in the way that the natural sciences explain it, is incapable of producing any bridge to ethics and law, but once again yields only functional answers.”

– Pope Benedict XVI

“This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent.  Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.”

– Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing on the Troy Davis case

I am curious about reader’s thoughts on the connection (if any) between the type of legal positivism endorsed by Justice Scalia and the gulf between ethics and law  described by Pope Benedict in his recent address to the German Bundestag. One possible view is that vigorously upholding the rule of law (even when it appears that the legally correct result may result in injustice) can be part of a larger moral project aimed at establishing a just society. When laws and legal precedent are infinitely malleable at the discretion (or, more pejoratively, whims) of individual judges, the law can quickly become an arbitrary and capricious exercise.

On the other hand, there is something surreal about making slippery slope arguments when the issue is whether or not a (very probably) innocent person should be executed (typically executing the innocent is at the bottom rather than the top of the slippery slope). At any rate, I would have struggled to explain to Troy Davis that his execution was a regrettable but necessary consequence of my larger theoretical legal project and the creation of a just society.

Now that I’ve phrased the question in a one-sided fashion, I’ll leave it open to the readers. Is there a tension between the positivism espoused by Justice Scalia and Pope Benedict’s insistence that law and ethics must always be linked? Does the belief that upholding the rule of law produces, in the aggregate, a more just society, resolve the tension in individual cases between legally correct but substantially unjust outcomes?

 

First Graders and History

As we have learned, there was much hatred of Catholics by English Protestants in Maryland. One great Catholic man was able to overcome this hatred and he is one of our great patriotic heroes. His name was Charles Carroll. Charles Carroll was born in Maryland. His parents sent him to a Catholic school in France where Catholics were respected…Charles Carroll said that his greatest accomplishment was that he “practiced the duties of my religion.” Many Protestants began to realize that their prejudice against Catholics was unjustified.

The sentences above begin and conclude a typical lesson in a Catholic homeschooling course on American History intended for first graders.  This is not a genre with which I have much familiarity (we’re homeschooling for a few months to finish out the school year after a move), and so I thought it might be interesting to offer some comments as an outsider on the homeschooling materials we’ve received.

The most obvious (if superficial) feature of the homeschooling materials is that they are drenched in religious art, regardless of subject. As an alum of a mixture of public and parochial schools, I was surprised to find Spelling and Math textbooks adorned with (often very beautiful) religious art work. I don’t think there is anything right or wrong with decorating textbooks in this manner, per se, but it takes some getting used to.

As the passage quoted above suggests, the next thing that I noticed is that the history narratives tend to be awash in a type of Catholic triumphalism. I like a small dosage of triumphalism as much as the next guy, but it seems to me it should used (at most) as cream or sugar in coffee; the tendency with this particular textbook is instead to include a few (uniformly favorable) facts in the ongoing account of noble-Catholics-doing-good-things.

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He Leadeth Me and Paul Krugman

I suppose it may be a symptom of an unbalanced intellectual life, but one question that occurred to me while reading He Leadeth Me (an excellent and moving account of a Catholic priest who was  imprisoned for over two decades in the Soviet Union) several months ago was a question about the failure of the Soviet economic system. In the book, Fr. Ciszek recounts year after year of back-breaking labor for 12-14 hours a day in Siberian labor camps. He and his fellow prisoners lived in squalid conditions, and were provided with hardly enough food to keep them alive. This is all horrible, of course, and I’d recommend Fr. Ciszek’s work to anyone who has a tendency to complain about the difficulties of pursuing sanctification in their jobs.

But it seemed to me that, unless the prisoners were basically digging ditches and filling them back up again,  this type of coercion would increase economic efficiency, given that the inputs required to organize the prisoners were minimal and the workers were producing a great deal. Certainly, Soviet workers in these mines were producing more than unionized U.S. workers of the time. As it turns out, I am not the only who thought this way. As Paul Krugman helpfully explains, claims about the economic superiority of the Soviet Union were commonplace in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and many prominent economists reluctantly concluded that centrally planned economies had unique efficiency advantages:

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Wishful Thinking Revisited

Following the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, it looked for a time as is if the passage of the recent Health Care Reform legislation was unlikely. The most common arguments aimed at moderate Democrats in the House during this time period were as follows:

1) That the Health Care reform bill would become more popular after it had passed.

2) That given widespread voter ignorance, it was unlikely that this particular vote would have much effect on any individual House member’s re-election campaign.

The first argument has long since been proven false. And now it appears the second was incorrect also:

Out of the original 50 districts, only 41 had members who cast a vote on health care reform and are running for reelection.  If we just divide these members based on their health care votes, those who voted for health reform are running 2.7 percentage points behind those who voted against it.  But, of course, we should control for other things, especially district conservatism, since those from the more conservative districts voted almost uniformly against reform.  I also included the members’ DW-NOMINATE scores to distinguish the health care vote from the members’ overall voting records.

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Lies People Tell Children

Ann Althouse has fun with a recent back-to-school speech delivered by President Obama:

President Obama’s back to school speech contained blatant lies…and if there were any students not bright enough to notice that they were hearing lies, the lies, in their particular cases, were, ironically, bigger lies. Check it out:

  • “Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach, so long as you’re willing to dream big, so long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish, not a single thing. I believe that.”

If you believe that, you are so dumb that your chances of controlling your own destiny are especially small. But it’s absurd to tell kids that if only they dream big, work hard, and get an education, they can have anything they want. Do you know what kind of dream job kids today have?  A recent Marist poll showed that 32% would like to be an actor/actress. 29% want to be a professional athlete.  13% want to be President of the United States.  That’s not going to happen.

Even young people with more modest dreams — like getting a decent law job after getting good grades at an excellent law school — are not getting what they want. To say “nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach” is a blatant lie, and Barack Obama knows that very well…

…Does [Obama] look at a poor person and say, his life is what he made it? Of course not.

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Glenn Beck: Evangelical Outreach Coordinator?

I’m on record as not being a member of the Glenn Beck fan club. I don’t like his overly emotive mannerisms, his politics, or his theology. I’d rather the president of my alma mater was more circumspect in praising him, and I’ve written to the university to that effect. At the same time, I’m somewhat fascinated by the accounts of his rally in DC this past weekend. For instance, here is David Weigel (erstwhile Washington Post reporter and Journolist member) reporting on the event:

“It’s about as angry as a Teletubbies episode….The Democrats who pre-butted Beck’s rally by predicting an overtly political hateananny were played for suckers. They didn’t pay attention to Beck’s “Founder Fridays” episodes on Fox, his high-selling speaking tour, or his schmaltzy children’s book The Christmas Sweater. It’s not his blackboard that makes him popular. It’s the total package he sells: membership in a corny, righteous, Mormonism-approved-by-John Hagee cultural family. The anger is what the media focus on, he says, joking several times about what “the press” will do to twist his words.

Beck’s rally ends just as he said it would—without incident, political or otherwise. He’s just taken the world’s most derided TV audience, put them in the National Mall, and presided over the world’s largest megachurch. “Bring out the bagpipes,” he says. Bagpipe players then walk onto his stage, and the sound of “Amazing Grace” fills the mall.

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On Media and Mosques at Ground Zero

One of the interesting (by which I mean dull, predictable and repetitive) aspects of the 24 hour news cycle is that all forms of media have incentives to magnify and actively seek out controversy. Not only does this increase ratings/page views/newspaper sales, it provides media outlets with something – anything in a slow news month – to talk about. I can’t help but feel that the recent outburst of commentary about the construction of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks is the type of story designed to increase media consumption and accomplish little else. The First Amendment is not in dispute here; freedom of religion is well established and protected by settled case law. Furthermore, the proposed mosque is to be constructed on private property, and there is no legal reason to challenge its construction. And so most of the discussion revolves (and frequently devolves) around taste and symbolism.

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C.S. Lewis on Anscombe, France, and Meritocracy

Perusing the local used bookstore last weekend, I came across a copy of the Third Volume of the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. On the whole (or, rather, through the first hundred pages or so), they make an enjoyable light read, at least for Lewis fans. He is always readable and often insightful. Moreover, the letters offer an interesting window into life in mid-twentieth century England. It’s rather striking that six years after the end of the Second World War, common items like envelopes and certain foods were still either rationed or unavailable (many of the letters are expressions of thanks to sympathetic American friends who have sent Lewis one package or another). Here, in no particular order, are a few passages I found either amusing or interesting:

Writing to a U.S. Friend About the Korean War

“Seriously, though, we all sympathize with you in the position into which you have been forced; it’s all very well to call it a UNO war, but so far as I can gather, it is a USA war. Have you noticed the French contribution? One gunboat!”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….

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Is Arguing About Politics a Waste of Time?

This study suggests an interesting reason why that may be the case:

The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions — essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted — not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward — similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

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General Motors and "Repaid" Debt

I usually don’t go in for thought experiments, but for once I’ll make an exception. Let’s pretend for a moment that I need $50,000 to maintain a struggling business, and you, being the wealthy and charitable individual you are, provide me with $50,000 in the following manner:

1) $30,000 in ownership (a share in future profits, if any)
2) $13,000 for emergency cash (to be repaid at no interest)
3) $7,000 in debt (at an interest rate 7% lower than I could get elsewhere for accepting a similar risk)

Not too many angel investors, venture capital funds, or private equity funds would sign up for such an arrangement, and that, dear reader, is why I am relying on your generosity. After one year, the business still has not made a profit. However, I have managed to “pay back” the initial $7,000 in debt in the following manner:

1) I borrowed an additional $10,000 from you for environmentally friendly investments.
2) I used some of the $13,000 in emergency spending cash to pay back the $7,000.

In other words, at the beginning of the year, you provided me with $50,000. I now owe you $53,000 (plus the emergency spending cash I used and the interest you’ve lost), with no real prospects for paying the money back. However, I am confidently assuring my customers and you(!), of all people, that I have “repaid my loan in full,” by which I mean the $7,000 in debt, not, of course, the $53,000 you provided that has not yet been returned. Change the thousands in the thought experiment to billions and the debtor to →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Krugman v. Levin on Climate Change

Jim Manzi, a conservative expert on climate change, recently reviewed Mark Levin’s coverage of the subject in his book Liberty and Tyranny. Mr. Manzi was unimpressed:

I’m not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I’ve spent some time studying – global warming – in order to see how it treated a controversy for which I’m at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail.

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times – not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.

Levin argues that human-caused global warming is nothing to worry about, and merely an excuse for the Enviro-Statist (capitalization in the original) to seize more power. It reads like a bunch of pasted-together quotes and stories based on some quick Google searches by somebody who knows very little about the topic, and can’t be bothered to learn. After pages devoted to talking about prior global cooling fears, and some ridiculous or cynical comments by advocates for emissions restrictions (and one quote from Richard Lindzen, a very serious climate scientist who disputes the estimated magnitude of the greenhouse effect, but not its existence), he gets to the key question on page 184 (eBook edition):

[D]oes carbon dioxide actually affect temperature levels?

Levin does not attempt to answer this question by making a fundamental argument that proceeds from evidence available for common inspection through a defined line of logic to a scientific view. Instead, he argues from authority by citing experts who believe that the answer to this question is pretty much ‘no’. Who are they? – An associate professor of astrophysics, a geologist and an astronaut.

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The Timeline of Abuse

One of the more oft-heard responses to the recent outbreak of coverage on the abuse scandals in the Church is the following: ‘when is the Church going to respond to this and protect children?’ This question is entirely sensible. We have heard about these scandals in the past, and yet fresh stories of abuse are appearing on a weekly basis. Moreover, the responses of many in the Vatican, as in several other incidents in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, has been disheartening. At the same time, I think it is important to point out for those concerned about the abuse of children (as opposed to the competency of the Vatican press office), that the crisis phase of the abuse scandal has been over for the better part of twenty years in the U.S. (and notice the recent reporting has focused on incidents at least that old). The following graph summarizes the annual reports of abuse by priests in the United States over the last fifty-five years (for those who are curious about post-2004, there were six reported incidents in 2009):

Source: the John Jay Report, h/t Ross Douthat.

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