Challenging Assumptions

I was recently removed from a Facebook discussion after I challenged a cherished axiom of social/political/theological juncture.  (And no, it wasn’t about immigration.) I have also noticed that when I blog about anything that hints at scrutinizing accepted talking points, the traffic drops to nothing. People don’t even read just to say, “What an idiot.” When I want hits, I write sentimental schmaltz. Critical thinking is not a particularly popular pastime.

So what sorts of challenges are unwelcome? How about the one that most recently made me persona non grata.

Ever since Engel v. Vitale was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1962, prayer has become increasingly banned in public schools. What began as a ban on school-sponsored prayer during educational time eventually led to the decision in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), that student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games violates the Establishment Clause.  By extension this covers any student-led student initiated prayer at any school function.

Because Engel is a flawed example of judicial activism, it is bad. If prayer was constitutional for 171 years, it doesn’t suddenly become unconstitutional. This is just like the three-prong test of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that sets out the requirements of any legislation that touches upon religion. If three prongs weren’t necessary before 1971, they don’t somehow become necessary afterwards. Any cases based on Engel and Lemon (like Santa Fe ISD) are, ipso facto, flawed.

To this point, I no doubt have my cheering section of politically active, conservative Christians behind me. This is, after all, pretty standard Strict Constructionist, Original Intent stuff. However, I think there is a need to re-evaluate, not the legal arguments, but the moral arguments that have become a popular extension from them.

As I mentioned above, I had my comments removed from a Facebook thread. This happened after I challenged the following statement: “Morals declined when we took prayer and God out of school.” (Being removed from a discussion is nothing new to me. I’ve even been thrown out of an entire conservative Facebook group for holding a minority opinion on an issue.)  This proposition has become as much a part of the warp and woof of Christian conservativism as the legal analysis of Engel and its progeny. How dare I question the unquestionable. Yet that is exactly what I do.

I do this for two reasons. First, and most simply, because the truth matters. Second, and perhaps more controversially, because, as I addressed in another instance on this blog less than a year ago, conservative Christians have succumbed to sloppy scholarship.

I do this from two sources of evidence. First, it is worth examining school-sponsored prayer in state education outside of the United States. Second, there is the issue of the historical record and proximate cause.

I bring to this discussion seven years of experience as a teacher in the state schools in England and Wales. As recently as 1998, it was statutorily re-affirmed that in state schools all pupils must take part in a daily act of collective worship unless their parent has requested a waiver. The acts of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.” Not only that, but children are also required to attended Religious Education lessons throughout the entire course of their compulsory education. The majority of these RE lessons must also be based on Christianity.

With that experience, and over a decade of living in conservative rural England, I can assure you that the continuation of prayer and even of Christian education in state schools has done nothing to slow the decline of morals, of the young or the not-so-young, in the United Kingdom. Robert Bork once wrote that America is slouching toward Gomorrah. If the United Kingdom sought to pursue the moral standards of Gomorrah and its sister city Sodom, it would be an upward move. These two ancient conurbations of sin are veritable Cities Set Upon Hills compared to the morality of Sceptred Isle.

But what of the possibility of an actual causal link between Engel and moral decline? This raises a couple of related questions. First, did the removal of the content have an effect? What was the nature of that content in 1962?

We first have to recognize that in 1962, prayer in school wasn’t particularly widespread across the United States. It was actually at its peak in the 1920s, though it had been ruled out in quite a few states before or shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Along with mandatory Bible reading, it was the subject of considerable litigation in the state courts, sometimes upheld and sometime overturned, based on state constitutions.

Even though it was patchy across the US, what was the content of prayer in schools in 1962? Let’s look at the prayer that was ruled unconstitutional in Engel. In New York, the following prayer had to be recited by a school official each day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” After Engel, that one sentence was no longer recited publicly at some point during the day. It that enough to send the nation into a moral tailspin?

I cannot count how many examples I’ve seen of charts, graphs, and tables marking the decline in morality since the Engel decision. The interesting thing is that they don’t chart back before 1962 to indicate trends already in the making and unchanged by Engel or its progeny. And of course they don’t demonstrate a direct causal link between the removal of a one-line prayer and the rise in violent crime, sexual promiscuity, music piracy, or whichever evil they are attempting to emphasize. Generally they are based upon the self-evident statement that such evils are what happens when God is removed from public schools. A little circular reasoning goes a long way.

I will finish by going to the heart of the matter. Did “we” (through Supreme Court justices appointed by three different Presidents before almost all of us were born) take prayer or God out of schools? I know I prayed in school long after Engel, which was decided two years before I was born.  Prayer is, after all, talking to God. And can anyone remove God from a school or any place else? On the other hand, how many kids were actually praying when a teacher or principal recited “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country”? Or was it form over substance?  Can the acts of Supreme Court justices confer collective responsibility upon anyone, not to mention lives not yet in being?

In the UK, God is mentioned everywhere in school and He gets his own lessons, yet almost no one acknowledges Him. In the US, He is not officially mentioned and churches (other than liberal Protestant denominations) continue to grow. He is more openly acknowledged in the media and in politics than in 1962. There are more open visible followers of Jesus amongst young people in America than ever before. In trying to make a connection between the virtually symbolic act of removing prayer from schools and the abundance of sin, there has been ignorance of the fact that grace has much more abounded.

Would it be nice if we returned to the practice of a content-free, one sentence, ecumenical prayer in public schools each day? Perhaps. Is it going to stem the dishonesty, violence, fornication, or whatever other ills we identify in our young people or in our society? No. That takes real prayer. That takes changed hearts and changed lives.

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The Sound of Silence

It was covered by Fox, but not as a major story. It was also buried in the ABC News.  But CNN, MSNBC/NBC News, CBS? Nothing. Breitbart? Nothing. Redstate.com? Nothing. After Arizona’s SB 1070, there was a general uproar for other states to follow suit. Now that Utah has, nobody’s saying anything.

Utah passed HB  497, with the same sort of enforcement provisions as Arizona’s SB 1070, except that it focuses on felony and serious misdemeanor suspects. It passed with strong support in this conservative state with Republican super-majorities in both houses. So where is all the flag-waving and cheerleading we have come to expect for such measures?

Utah even got innovative and the same overwhelmingly Republican legislature also passed HB 116. That’s the guest worker program for undocumented aliens. As I recall, a lot has been said about Washington in general, and the administration in particular, not dealing with the immigration issue, so it is up to the States to fill the gap. Isn’t this what everyone wanted? A solution by conservative state legislators to deal with all the undocumented workers?

When I saw that this legislation had passed, I thought that when or if I blogged about it, I would be lost in the thunder of all the bigger louder voices. It now appears I will be lost to the deaf ears of apathy.

Parsing the Tennessee Sharia Bill

First it was Oklahoma and the Save Our State amendment. Then there was the more subtly worded South Carolina Senate Bill 444 and Georgia’s House Bill 45.  Oklahoma, South Carolina and Georgia (and there are probably other states at this point) are trying to prevent the courts of their states applying sharia law. A pointless vote-getter. And a legislator can hardly vote against these ridiculous measures without then being accused of supporting jihad.

Now it is Tennessee and Senate Bill 1028. And once again, it is legislators who know nothing about the thing they are trying to legislate against, but this time with a new twist. Tennessee is doing something different. SB 1028 makes it a felony to support sharia. And it’s not subtle about it at all. Muddled and unconstitutional, but not subtle.

Tennessee needs to be saved from the perils of sharia law on the verge of engulfing the state. Apparently. After all the bill starts off with “The threat from terrorism continues to plague the United States generally and Tennessee in particular.” Tennessee is plagued with the threat from terrorism. In particular. No doubt. Not since the Battle of Stone’s River has sponsoring Senator Bill Ketron’s home of Murfreesboro been under such a siege.

By paragraph 3 we learn that “sharia is based historically and  traditionally on a full corpus of law and jurisprudence termed fiqh and usul al-fiqh, respectively, dealing with all aspects of a sharia-adherent’s personal and social life and political society.” So sharia deals with all aspects of a “sharia-adherent’s” personal and social life. The other name for a “sharia-adherent” is “Muslim”. Just so we are sure of how comprehensively the bill defines “sharia-adherent”, in paragraph 2,  it is described as a “legal-political-military doctrine and system adhered to, or minimally advocated by, tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of its followers around the world.”

And all of them want to plague Tennessee with terrorism and overthrow the government.

“The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities constitutes a conspiracy…” (Paragraph 11)  “The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government and the government of this state through the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions by the likely use of imminent criminal violence and terrorism with the aim of imposing sharia on the people of this state.” (Paragraph 13)

Nowhere in the bill is “foreign sharia authority” defined. However sharia is defined as “any rule, precept, instruction, or edict arising directly from the extant rulings of any of the authoritative schools of Islamic jurisprudence of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Ja’afariya, or Salafi”.  This is the equivalent of saying “any interpretation of the Bible by any pastor or Bible teacher, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist…”

So being a Muslim constitutes a conspiracy and is prima facie evidence of that conspiracy to overthrow the US government – and of course the government of the plagued state of Tennessee – by criminal violence and terrorism. But I am curious about this “likely use” of imminent violence. Is the violence likely or imminent? If it is imminent isn’t it a bit more that likely? But when it comes to Muslims, who has time to worry about things like this? Tennessee is in the midst of a plague, after all. (Evidence of the plague usually takes the form of, “I hear told someone even saw a woman wrapped in one of them funny scarf thangs at the Family Dollar in Smyrna t’other day. Sakes alive! She might’a had a bomb under that thang.”)

I could parse out all the statements in the thirteen paragraphs of findings that, if enacted, the Tennessee General Assembly will have found to be true about sharia and sharia-adherents, but because they are repetitive while also managing to be occasionally contradictory, it would take more space than you have patience. If you are a member of the Tennessee General Assembly and voting for this bill, things like repetition, contradiction and violation of the First Amendment aren’t going to stand in your way.

I will, however, point out that in paragraph 9, there is a reference to the “jihad groups identified by the federal government as designated terrorist organizations pursuant to § 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act”. On the other hand, the bulk of the bill sets out procedures for the Tennessee Attorney General to designate “sharia organizations” so that anyone who is associated with them can be prosecuted and liable for all sorts of civil causes of action. If the federal government has already designated jihad groups – a task for which they expend considerable federal tax dollars on extensive covert operations – why does the Tennessee AG need to do the same? And if the members of these organizations are already subject to federal law, why does Tennessee need to step in?

Now I wish this was just a looney bill introduced by a lone ranger legislator. Every legislature gets some of those every session. Those sorts of bills grab a newspaper headline and then die quietly in committee without a hearing. Unfortunately in this case, there are three Senate co-sponsors, the chairs of the Education, Transportation and Judiciary committees, the last of which has the bill under consideration. Ketron is the GOP Caucus Chair. And like the legislation in the other states, it has a companion bill in the other chamber, in this case sponsored by Rep. Judd Matheny. It has twelve co-sponsors, including the chair the State and Local Government committee.

And finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the goofiest bit of legislative drafting I’ve seen in a long, long time. It goes back to that definition of sharia. “‘Sharia’ means the set of rules, precepts, instructions, or edicts which are said to emanate directly or indirectly from the god of Allah…” The god of Allah? What is the god of Allah? “The god Allah” maybe. I can allow that some people think that Allah, as worshipped in Islam, is a different god than God as worshipped in Christianity, rather than just a erroneous understanding of God. And I understand that most American Christians are completely clueless that Arab Christians call God “Allah” because that’s the Arabic word for God. And most are Islamo-illiterate enough that they don’t know that Muhammad came up with Islam after lots of contact with Judaism and Christianity and in essence derived his idea of God from them and his intent was to worship the God of Abraham. But “god of Allah”? Is this the god that this Allah putatively worships? Who knows? Probably not even the real author of this legislation, David Yerushalmi, a self-proclaimed expert on Islamic law.

Yerushalmi has contended in the press that the bill does not prevent Muslims from practicing their religion – you know, that old First Amendment thing. This only raises the question of why this legislation was so appalling poorly drafted – so vague and contradictory – even if the intent is supposed to be more narrow.

Just like there is no case of sharia having been applied by any judge in any court in the US, there is no instance in which Tennessee, its government or Constitution, or Ellie May down at the Family Dollar have been harmed by sharia-adherent jihadists or could be harmed in such a way that having the state attorney general proscribe anyone or any group would make any difference whatsoever.

More Than Willing (for Someone Else) to Pay the Price of Security

Now that the 112th Congress is in session, immigration reform will be off the table. Not immigration, just immigration reform. The sole focus will be on border security. So what does “border security” mean?

For a number of people with whom I have discussed the matter, it really isn’t that complicated. You put enough troops on the Mexican border to stop every person trying to cross illegally. If they don’t stop, you shoot them. Can’t find them? Put up more of those satellites that can read license plates from space. What’s so difficult about that?

Now, you may think I was having these discussions with Joe Sixpack from Wal-mart (or peopleofwalmart.com, perhaps). Actually I was having them with evangelical pastors and pastors’ wives. People who generally go out of their way to share the love of Jesus.

One of these pastors said if illegals are interdicted and attempt to evade arrest rather than be taken into custody, you simply have to apply the rule that it is justified to shoot fleeing criminals and you gun them down in the desert. I have to say he had to slightly rethink his position when I mentioned that many of these “invaders” are women and children. Do you shoot the women and children in the back as well?

His revised view was that you don’t shoot the women and children. Just the men. Or at least the ones that look like men. Tall boys and women with short hair might get it, too, but that was just too bad. After all, if you kill the men, the women and children will probably give themselves up.

Of course the little legal problem with this (I would bring that up – which is no doubt one of the reasons that people want to kill lawyers, too, regardless of citizenship or immigration status) is that the gun ’em down rule is a fleeing felon rule. Entering the United States without inspection is not a felony. In fact, it is not even a crime. It is a civil matter.

As you might guess, I’ve already been offered the answer to that: Make it a criminal matter – and a felony at that. Then we can shoot ’em. The only problem is that when they get captured, they are entitled to all sorts of rights under the Constitution. If we do that, we can’t shuffle these people with no money through a deportation hearing system in which they have no right to public defense. ICE are already upset with the judge who said mentally retarded deportees should be given lawyers. If everyone gets a lawyer, they might find out that ICE are deporting a lot more people who have a right to be in the country than we already know about.

It wouldn’t be fair not to give the other argument. It is easy to get around this whole problem with providing lawyers. If we shoot them in the desert, who will know that they weren’t fleeing? The economic security of the United States is at stake. Sometime we just have to do what we have to do to make sure Americans have jobs and no one gets welfare benefits to which they are not entitled. I know some of you think I’m employing sarcasm, or at least hyperbole. (I am given to that at times, I admit.) I wish.

I have honestly asked good conservative evangelical Christian folks whether it worth killing someone made in the image of God? I have honestly been told – as point blank as they would like American troops on American soil to use their weapons – yes, it is. What if they are fleeing the Zetas or the Gulf Cartel and certain death in a war zone far more dangerous that either Iraq or Afghanistan? Too bad. What if they are Christians? They better pray for God to protect them – on their side of the border, of course. If they are good Christians, then they will obey they laws of our land and not enter it without permission. (Honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) At least if they get killed, they will go to heaven. God can afford to take them in – America can’t.

And what about those spy satellites that we can use? If the government build enough of them that we can constantly monitor a 2000-mile border at the magnification to see individual brown faces, we can trust the government to just use this surveillance technology for good, can’t we?  The Executive branch always operates within the law and with the consent of Congress and would never hurt us. We are citizens, after all. They already monitor the internet to make sure no one says something wrong and we’re not worried about that, are we? And they keep us safe with all those body checks in the airports. (They can only get more invasive with those, but that’s the price of freedom, and it’s for our own good.)

And if your neck (or at least your state) is red enough, you may find yourself nodding in agreement with my friends. But maybe you will pause for just one moment and think: we have we become? Are these really conservative values? Are these really Christian values?

The Death of a DREAM

Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. America will not be destroyed. The undocumented children living in the United States will stay in the shadows and margins of society where they belong. Sure, we’ll be forced to give them a high school education – heck, we give anyone a high school education whether they deserve it by birth-right or not – but they won’t go using it to get a college education or a tax-paying job.

As I predicted – and I need not have been much of a prophet to do it – the DREAM Act failed to get enough votes in the Senate to move the bill forward. Only three Republicans dared to support it – lame duck Bob Bennett of Utah, undefeatable Dick Lugar of Indiana, and the write-in re-elected Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Even former sponsors Orin Hatch and John McCain felt too much heat from the fear-mongerers to continue their support.

The opponents of a productive future for undocumented children demanded all sorts of concessions in the bill to which sponsors acquiesced, including attaching hefty fees for those wanting to apply for conditional residency under the Act, narrowing the eligible age group, making sure the relatives of those using the Act could never gain residency though sponsorship like those of other legal residents, and extending the period of conditional residency from six to ten years before someone under the act could apply (again with hefty fees, lots of complicated paperwork, and up to a year-long wait) for permanent residency (which would then have to be followed by another five years before being eligible to pay more fees, file more paperwork, and wait months for citizenship).  Yet despite having all the demands met to water down the bill, those who made the demands still refused to vote to let the bill be considered.

I was particularly disappointed by the excuses given by the Senators from my home state of Texas. John Cornyn said, “I am sympathetic to the plight of children who have no moral culpability for being in this country illegally and I support the intent of the bill today, but not this legislation and not this way.” Unfortunately, he didn’t say which legislation and which way would allow him to vote with his sympathies.

Kay Bailey Hutchinson opted for a outright lie rather than Cornyn’s ambiguous drivel. She said, “I could not support the DREAM Act legislation brought before the Senate today because it expanded the scope of the bill beyond the intended individuals who were brought here as children and were educated in the United States.” Not only is that made up out of whole cloth, but the real reason Hutchinson could not support the bill was because she had been threatened by conservatives. After all, when a much broader bill was before the Senate in 2007 she said,

“This is such an important piece of legislation, and I do think this is isolated from the entire immigration issue because there … are young people who have been brought to this country as minors, not of their own doing, who have gone to American high schools, graduated, and who want to go to American colleges. They are in a limbo situation. I believe we should deal with this issue. We should do it in a way that helps assimilate these young people with a college education into our country. They have lived here most of their lives. If we sent them home, they wouldn’t know what home is. There is a compassionate reason for us to try to work this out.”

In the meantime, she alienated the furthest right-wing of the GOP in running against Rick Perry and can’t afford to lose their support in 2012. Somebody has to pay the price and it is certainly easiest to put it on those who have no voice and if her supporters have their way, will never have a voice.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

The Greatest Entitlement

Americans, for the most part, do not like the idea of someone getting something for nothing. You want something, you pay for it. We conservatives especially cringe at the idea of entitlements.

Except for citizenship. For most Americans, the best citizenship is free citizenship. Sure, we are happy to let a few selected customers pay for a second-class version of it, but for the vast majority, it is something that neither has to be earned nor purchased.

Those few who pay for it also have to prove they deserve it. They have to spend a lot of money and go through a complicated process just to prove they should be allowed to even get the chance to earn it. Once that hurdle it overcome, they have to contribute to the economy for a specified period of time during which they can be thrown out of the country at the caprice of a judge or a legislature. They have to pass an exam to show that they know enough to become a real American. They have to pay another considerable amount of money to the Government, in addition to anything they pay to a lawyer to help them find their way through the maze of naturalization.

Wouldn’t it be the real American way to make everyone pay for it? Why not make the right to vote contingent on passing an exam and paying a $680 fee? Why should people get this for nothing just because they happened to be born in the US or have parents who happened to be born American? After all, many of these people have not contributed anything to the economy and for some even their parents have contributed nothing.

If we are going to deny millions of willing, working people the opportunity to even pay their way to citizenship then it only seems right that those who are not assets to the country should not be deciding its future as an entitlement of the accident of birth.

Why We Can’t Afford to Outlaw Abortion

In these difficult times, when we are trying to get public spending under control and balance state and federal budgets, in addition to keeping the economy going, it’s a good thing we have legal abortion. Maintaining the access to abortion is the only fiscally responsible thing to do. It’s the truly conservative approach. The evidence is so overwhelming, I’m sure you will have to agree with me.

First, abortion is an industry. We need all the industry we can get. It keeps lots of people employed. In 2005, there were 1,787 abortion providers in the US. Each one of those equals a group of doctors and nurses, orderlies, receptionists, clerks and office cleaners. You know, people with jobs who then pay taxes and buy things from other businesses that pay taxes, and so on. I can’t get figures for the size of the whole abortion industry, but just Planned Parenthood generates revenue of over $1 billion each year. After paying all of its expenses, including all of those salaries and supporting the pharmaceutical and medical supply industries, it runs a net profit of between 8% and 10%.

But second, and more importantly, we have to look at the cost of all of the children who wouldn’t be aborted. There are about 1.2 million abortions performed in the US each year. That number does not include the morning-after pill, because there’s no way of telling how many abortions that has induced. If you just add that there is a lot more than 1.2 million, you’ll have the picture, but we’ll use the lower number for illustrative purposes.

If there were 1.2 million more babies each year, that would mean 1.2 million more children in each grade in our public schools. Schools are generally funded by property taxes, which these addition children would not be generating. The tax base would stay the same, while the numbers of pupils wouldn’t. Spread across grade K-12, that’s 15.6 million additional students.

But it doesn’t stop there. If all of those 12th graders then go to college, that’s an additional 1.2 million college students each year, mostly going to state colleges and universities. Most of those will go to colleges and universities in their home states. You know what that means: in-state tuition subsidized by state budgets. That would place an unreasonable burden on taxpayers. It also means that they will be taking the places of students who were going to be born anyway and should be entitled to those places and the financial aid that goes with them. Is that fair to the wanted children of our states?

It gets worse. Those who would have been aborted will be competing for jobs with those who were wanted, both amongst their peers and those already in the workplace. They will be putting wanted people out of work – people who are entitled to those jobs by birth.

We then have to consider the overall political impact. The only reasons a political party would oppose abortion would be to have those who are not aborted vote for them. An additional 1.2 million eligible voters each year will reduce the voting power of those who already have the right to vote. This could change the outcome of elections.

No, clearly we have to support those who are rightfully born and wanted. It’s the responsible thing to do.

If you can’t see my point, all I can say is that you clearly have not read enough Jonathan Swift.