TheReligiousLeft.org

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gunfire Deaths in Children vs Pro-Life: A Political Double Standard

By Dr. Art Kamm
Cross-posted from Art on Issues

Summary

This article discusses the political double standard of legislating to protect the ‘unborn child’ while consistently opposing legislation that would help protect those that have already been born from the documented risk of gunfire-related death and injury.  The nature and effectiveness of the NRA’s political contributions and lobbying efforts are discussed, and the often used argument of traffic-related fatalities to defend the loss of life by firearms is explored.  It is postulated that the issue of gun-related injuries and death in children, regardless of a ‘constitutional right’, will become the indefensible issue that will put pressure on politicians to enact sensible firearm legislation despite political contributions and lobbying efforts.

The Double Standard

The gun lobby and the Pro-Life movement both largely reside on the political right.  Both have impressive lobbying presence and both seek to have legislation enacted favorable to their cause.  Yet, when it comes to the issue of protecting ‘children’, conservative politicians treat these two entities as legislative opposites.

The Pro-Life movement argues that life, with all the rights and privileges thereof, begins at conception (ref).  Thus abortion, performed at any point during the pregnancy, is held to be equivalent to murder, some even opposing the procedure in cases of incest and rape as is the stance of former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry (ref) and current candidate Rick Santorum (ref).  The National Pro-Life Alliance (NPLA) (ref) and the Susan B. Anthony List (ref) have each published their legislative agenda and include such items as Defunding Planned Parenthood, H.R. 3 (No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act), Overturning Roe v. Wade with a Life at Conception Act, and others.  The view of the embryo/fetus being equivalent to a child is clear in NPLA’s opinion of their legislative agenda: “None of these battles will be easy.  But they are ultimately winnable.  Pro-lifers owe the unborn nothing less”.

Some attempted legislation is noteworthy: a Georgia state lawmaker attempted to redefine rape victims as ‘Accusers’ (ref); this past year South Dakota State Rep. Phil Jensen (R), sponsored a bill that would have let some people legally kill abortion providers by changing the definition of justifiable homicide – a homicide would be permissible if committed by a person “while resisting an attempt to harm” that person’s unborn child or the unborn child of that person’s spouse, partner, parent, or child (ref);  and another piece of legislation sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), H.R. 358 (the Protect Life Act) would have freed hospitals from any abortion requirement, e.g., a woman requiring an emergency abortion, even including the transfer of the patient to a facility that would (ref).

And, there is much religious conviction behind the Pro-Life movement.  Consider GOP presidential candidate Santorum’s position that a rape victim should accept “this horribly created baby” as it was still a gift from God, even if given in a “broken” way - ref).

Regarding legislating on this belief, the matter is not without ambiguity as there are valid questions as to when the life of a child actually begins.  The field of reproductive biology has shown that, at minimum, two-thirds of all human eggs fertilized during normal conception either fail to implant at the end of the first week or later spontaneously abort; and some experts feel that the number is even greater describing the pre-implantation loss of embryos (that are well along the way regarding cellular division) to be “enormous”, as high as 80% (ref).   The implantation of embryos in humans has been described as being ‘horribly inefficient’.  So, if life begins at conception and we require baptism for salvation, a valid question would be why a compassionate Creator would design a reproductive system that results in such a high rate of lost lives (ref) and denies so many innocents the opportunity for salvation.  And if one wants to take the stance that conception only counts as life if the embryo survives implantation, then what would be the basis for opposing embryonic stem cell research?  Yet, despite the legal and medical/scientific uncertainties, the convictions/beliefs are strong enough to propose and enact legislation to protect the ‘unborn child.’

However, when it comes to infants/children who become victims of gunfire, there are no such uncertainties.  These individuals have been born into this world, have a certificate of live birth, and are entitled to protection under many enacted laws.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has called the mortality and morbidity associated with firearm-related injuries in children as being ‘epidemic’ (ref).  As was reported in a University of Michigan Health System report, the CDC has reported the rate of firearm deaths in children under age 15 as being almost 12 times higher in the US than 25 other industrialized countries combined.  American children were found to be 16 times more likely to be murdered with a gun, 11 times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die in a firearm accident than children in those other countries.  And when researchers studied the 30,000 accidental gun deaths of Americans of all ages that occurred between 1979-1997, they found that preschoolers aged 0-4 were 17 times more likely to die from a gun accident in the 4 states with the most guns versus the 4 states with the least guns.

The nature of some of these firearm injuries/deaths in the pediatric population is horrific as reported by the media: a family returning from a baby shower had their car ambushed by two gunmen wounding both parents and killing their two-month-old infant (ref); an infant being shot and wounded in the home by another child handling a gun (ref); a four-month-old infant being shot and wounded in an exchange of gunfire in a neighborhood (ref); a 12-to-18 month old boy being one of four killed by gunfire in an act of domestic violence (ref); a pregnant teen being shot and killed where the fetus did not survive delivery (survived about a week as an infant girl) (ref); a father, engaged in substance abuse, who murdered his 3-month-old son by gunshot (ref).  The list could go on and on.  I submit that these infants are every bit as defenseless as a fetus.  And although the Pro-Life movement sometimes invokes a picture of an aborted fetus as an emotional way to make their point, the same could be done with a murdered infant (WARNING: the image contained in the following link involves a graphic display of a gunshot wound to the head of a young child and is not suitable for viewing in a work setting: image 1).

Yet, despite these statistics, incidents, and opinion issued by reputable associations and agencies regarding the health risks guns pose to children, conservative lawmakers in large part consistently oppose legislation that could help curb this loss of life, such as expanding background checks, requiring safe storage of guns in the home, and closing gun show loopholes that facilitate firearms falling into the hands of criminals, the mentally-ill, terrorists and drug traffickers (all of whom are known to have taken children’s lives).  A law was passed in Florida this past year that not only prohibited physicians from enquiring if a gun was in the home (asked as part of injury prevention) but actually imposed penalties up to and including loss of the license to practice medicine if the questioning was deemed to be ‘unnecessary harassment’ (ref).  Further, lawmakers are expanding public exposure to guns without imposing tighter regulatory controls governing gun safety; e.g., reciprocity of concealed carry across state lines despite widely varying requirements for such a license, and permitting concealed guns in parks and restaurants (including those that serve alcohol) where our children play and our families eat.  And it doesn’t help that legislation was signed into law that defunded federal research on gun safety, first with the CDC (1996) and just recently with the NIH, the NRA referring to the work of those agencies as being ‘junk science’ (ref).

And therein lies the glaring political double standard: staunchly defending the life of the ‘unborn child’ through legislation while failing to enact legislation to protect those that have already been born.  I submit that arming up under the claimed ‘right to defend oneself’ is irrelevant as a solution to this appalling loss of young life, and must actually be a contributing factor to the problem as gun show vendors certainly wouldn’t sell their products to anyone other than a ‘law abiding citizen’, right?  But then again, how would one know unless one checks.  Consider Colin Goddard’s ability to walk out of an Ohio gun show within 20 minutes where he purchased an Egyptian-made AK-47 variant and a Tech-9 assault pistol – obtained without a background check and without producing any identification (ref). (Colin is a Virginia Tech massacre survivor who sustained 4 bullet wounds and now works for The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  The purchases mentioned here were part of an intentional undercover operation, involving a hidden camera, to show the need to tighten-up gun sales).

This hypocrisy represents politics at its worst and reveals that the actual political agenda has little to do with protecting children.  It is about manipulating hot button issues and pandering to special interest groups for political and financial gain.

The NRA: Political Contributions and Lobbying

A recent article (ref) described the NRA’s ties to the firearms industry (both in representation on its board and the substantial financial support it receives), how the relationship between the NRA and the firearms industry changed during the long-term decline in personal and household gun ownership in America, and how that organization’s manipulation of fear and paranoia are used to enhance gun sales and drive fundraising.  This section will detail the nature and effectiveness of that organization’s political contributions and lobbying efforts.

A document detailing NRA political contributions and lobbying expenditures has been published by OpenSecrets.org (ref).  Quoting from its summary:
“The National Rifle Association goes to great lengths (and spends a huge sum of money) to defend the right to bear arms. It is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, background checks for gun owners, and registration of firearms. NRA’s influence is felt not only through campaign contributions, but through millions of dollars in off-the-books spending on issue ads and the like….  During the 2010 election cycle, the NRA spent more than $7.2 million on independent expenditures at the federal level — messages that advocate for or against political candidates. These messages primarily supported Republican candidates or opposed Democratic candidates”.
In 2011 the organization spent $2,085,000 on lobbying efforts, with 28 lobbyists hired, 14 current revolving door personnel, and with 56 bills mentioned.  In the current 2012 election cycle, and consistent with its long-term record, political contributions were heavily weighted to Republican vs Democratic lawmakers, 89% vs 11%, respectively.  In the US House of Representatives this current election cycle, the NRA has contributed $33,000 to 20 Democratic lawmakers while contributing $218,838 to 157 Republican lawmakers, the leading recipient being Eric Cantor (House Majority Leader) with $7,450.  A listing of various bills lobbied by the NRA in 2011 is contained in the document and include H.R. 822 (National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011), S.570 (A bill to prohibit the Department of Justice from tracking and cataloguing the purchases of multiple rifles and shotguns), H.R.308 (Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act), and others (see document for complete list).

Are lawmaker’s legislative votes tied to political contributions?  Consider 2000, the year following the Columbine High School massacre, when there was strong public support for enacting gun control legislation.  That assault, carried out by two senior students on April 20, 1999, killed 12 students and one teacher, injuring 21 others directly, making it the deadliest such high school massacre in American history (ref).  In 2000 close to a million moms marched on Washington and other cities on Mother’s Day, demanding sensible legislation out of Congress on the issue of gun safety.  Although polling consistently showed that their demands were backed by public opinion, they found that it was the flow of millions of dollars in campaign contributions that mattered most.  Quoting from a PublicCampaign.org article published in 2000 (ref):
“Since 1997, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies have made political expenditures outweighing those of gun control groups by a ratio of almost twenty-three to one, $5.8 million to $258,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, Congress voted down proposals to require background checks for sales at gun shows-where three out of four of the weapons used at Columbine were bought.

The 44 senators who said “no” to background checks on three separate roll call votes over the course of a week in May 1999 were the beneficiaries, on average, of nearly 29 times more campaign cash from gun rights groups than the 40 senators who said “yes” to background checks on all three votes — $23,340 v. $815. After the Senate finally approved a three-day waiting period for gun show purchases, the House took up the issue in June 1999. The 212 House members who voted the NRA’s way on two separate roll call votes were the beneficiaries of 31 times more campaign cash from gun rights groups than the 189 members who voted in favor of background checks — $11,195 v. $355″.
And in Colorado, the NRA gave thousands of dollars to state lawmakers in a successful effort to defeat several gun control laws inspired by the Columbine massacre (ref), including requiring background checks at gun shows, increasing the age of buying a handgun from 18 to 21 years, and safe storage of guns at home (the latter defeated after a 1997 publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that gun safe storage laws significantly reduced unintentional shooting deaths in children younger than 15 years – ref).  In the month before the gun debate the NRA sent Colorado lawmakers more money, $16,950, than in the previous three years; and as political contributions go in Colorado, that figure was very high, one government watchdog group describing it as “a financial arms race”.  These legislative defeats came the same week that Littleton, CO, was rocked with two new murders – two Columbine High School sophomores (15 and 16 years old) were found shot to death at a sandwich shop near the school (ref).

In a previous article, Our Unrepresentative Representation (ref), I describe how politicians have become beholden to special interest contributions as they can not raise nearly enough money in their own districts to support the cost of a campaign (and SCOTUS’s Citizens United decision has only made matters worse).  It is not unusual for more than 90% of the contributions to come from outside their districts and for the majority to come from out-of-state with the largest single out-of-state source typically being the greater Washington DC area from which many lobbying groups operate.  And politicians are reliant on such funding to keep their job as campaign spending is highly correlated with campaign success.

Although the votes being ‘bought’ to support the agenda of the NRA and the firearms industry may be good for gun sales under the pretense of a constitutional right, they have not been so good for the health and well-being of children in our country.

The Gun vs Automobile Fatalities Argument

One of the counter-arguments often made by ‘gun rights’ advocates is that of traffic-related fatalities, including those in children; i.e., what’s the problem with guns when automobiles claim more lives than guns do in this country.  And they do.  However, that argument creates a false comparison in at least a couple of ways.

First, it is not the absolute number of deaths that is as important as determining the risk of death.  For example, when considering a medication or undergoing a medical procedure, one does not want to know the absolute number of individuals who have suffered an untoward event, one is interested in understanding the odds that it may happen to them.  For that reason, untoward events are expressed in terms of a ‘rate’.  And, in assessing product safety, a summary of deaths is the very first starting point.

When data are normalized to control for factors such as size of the population and economy, we can examine the rate of firearm homicides (ref) and traffic-related deaths (ref) in America versus peer countries.  In instances where comparisons can be made, there is typically a marked difference.  Some examples follow.  In America the per capita adjusted rate of traffic-realted fatalities is 1.78 times that of Spain, but the rate of firearm homicide in America is 14.66 times that of Spain.  The US rate of traffic-related fatalities is 2.73 times that of Germany, but our rate of firearm homicide in is 7.71 times that of Germany.   And the rate of traffic-related fatalities in America is 1.6 times that of Australia, but our rate of firearm homicides is 11.71 times that of Australia.  Consider also that automobile ownership in the US is widespread with most households owning one or more private cars (ref), but that gun ownership is concentrated in less than a third of US households (ref).  Although one might argue specific numbers, what is important is directionality, and the disproportionate rate of firearm-realted deaths in the US versus peer countries derived from these sources are in the same direction as those published by the CDC and other sources such as the field of actuarial science (ref).

Second, automobile-related deaths are largely occurring within the intended purpose of the product, i.e., transportation, the vast majority being highway related.  This risk is recognized and as such the product has been heavily regulated typically including proficiency testing in the presence of law enforcement prior to the issuance of a license (as well as periodic retesting), mandatory registration with an insurance requirement, product recalls when safety issues are identified, and child safety issues are also addressed (ref).

On the other hand, the fatalities being described for firearms (e.g., homicide, suicide) are not a result of the product being used within the intended purpose of protection, hunting, etc.  This falls under what is known as ‘product abuse potential’ and that is when regulation is usually applied to limit the opportunity for such ‘off label’ use, such as is the case with a narcotic that can cause health risks outside of its intended purpose.  Consider that firearm-related deaths have been identified as the second greatest cause of the life expectancy gap in America compared to peer countries (ref) (automobiles being first), and yet the notable difference in regulatory requirements between the two.  Washington state, for example, does not require training nor permits before a gun purchase, does not compel registration, and allows individuals without a serious criminal record or history of mental illness to obtain permits to carry a concealed weapon (ref); and should H.R. 822 (concealed carry reciprocity) become federal law, these individuals would be legally allowed to carry their concealed guns across state lines, and depending on the state into public parks, restaurants and bars.

And some risks between the two products are clearly different, e.g., a car stored in the garage has been shown to pose little risk to a child in the home, however guns stored in the home have claimed many young lives (ref).  Regarding ‘concealed carry in bars/restaurants’, an intoxicated automobile owner can arrange for one in the party to be a designated driver; but with the holder of a gun who becomes intoxicated (and we know with certainty that some licensed gun owners will become intoxicated while in possession of their firearm, as was the case for Tennessee state lawmaker Curry Todd who sponsored that very legislation and claimed that no responsible gun owner would - ref) the idea of a designated gun operator is ridiculous.

This argument is best taken off the table until the firearm-related death rate in America versus peer countries approaches what we see for traffic-related fatalities, and firearms face a similar level of regulatory oversight as do automobiles.

Discussion

Although the ‘gun rights’ versus ‘gun control’ debate is often painted as an ‘us versus them’ matter, the issue of safeguarding the health and well-being of children should not be.  It was certainly never the intent of a constitutional right to trump the protection of children.  And it is time to stop construing the need for safety regulation as an assault on a constitutional right and ‘trying to take our guns away’; automobiles are regulated to address safety concerns and still have widespread ownership in America.  The health risk guns pose to children has been recognized by major associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and such notable agencies as the CDC.   It’s time that we stop trying to treat the symptom of the illness (advocating the carrying guns to protect ourselves) and begin striking at the heart of the illness which is our markets readily arming the less-than-law-abiding citizen and the mentally-ill, as well as failing to store guns properly in the home (as I write this article a 4-year-old child in a neighboring town shot himself after finding an unsecured gun in the home – ref).  And, frankly, having been awarded a NIH training grant during my graduate training, I find it a bit incredulous that an organization such as the NRA, that is tainted with industry money, refers to the work of the CDC and NIH as ‘junk science’.

What is occurring with the gun industry and its advocate group, the NRA, is strikingly reminiscent to what we witnessed with Big Tobacco that denied the health risks and where that industry used its lobbying clout to fight regulation and continue marketing strategies that were ultimately shown to be harmful to the youth of this country.  And, as was discussed in a prior article, the effectiveness of gun safety education in children is questionable as a solution and we should not be transferring the responsibility of safety to children (ref).  If history is any lesson, the issue of gun-related injuries and death in children, regardless of a ‘right’, will become the indefensible issue that will put enough pressure on politicians to enact sensible legislation despite political contributions and lobbying efforts.  Where Big Tobacco fought against regulatory intervention to defend their customer’s ‘right’ to smoke when and where they wished, the health risks of second hand smoke were ultimately confirmed.  The effect on health with guns is much faster than that of tobacco, but the end result is the same – death, disfigurement and debilitation, and steps should be taken to reduce those risks, especially with children.

Regarding the Pro-Life movement, although not agreeing with them on the issue as to when a human life actually begins, I respect their right to such a belief but feel that it is best left within the practice of their faith.  I personally want to see abortion minimized and believe that an effective intervention would be the widespread availability of family planning counseling and sex education, rather than the defunding of it.  And I do not agree that a woman who has had her body assaulted by rape should be made to bear the consequence of that crime.  However, politics is a world where special interests are played for financial and political gain, and the Christian Right has been so played by the very party where it largely resides.

David Kuo, a conservative Christian, was second in command of President GW Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.  in his book “Tempting Faith” (ref)  he detailed how that office was used almost exclusively to win political points with both evangelical Christians and traditionally Democratic minorities.  Prominent national Christian leaders were referred to as “the nuts” by the president’s political strategist Karl Rove, and although greeted with smiles were referred to behind their backs as being ‘ridiculous’, ‘out of control’ and ‘just plain goofy’.  This while Kuo’s office was being used to mount ostensibly ‘nonpartisan’ events designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted states.  Regardless of what side one sits on, such tactics are offensive.  We are best served by honest debate, not political manipulation.

The issue discussed in this article, protecting the health and well-being of children from a an established health risk, should be one that unites the vast majority of Americans.  And, regarding our politicians who claim that their Pro-Life stance is about the protection of children, I believe they will be much more believable when we see the same legislative fervor they show for the unborn being extended to those that have already been born.

Arthur R. Kamm, PhD (Dr. Art Kamm) has devoted his career to the study of patient populations and the research and development of treatments to alleviate pain, suffering, improve quality of life, and save lives. His blog is dedicated to his study of many topics including, but not limited to, debt, deficits, economy, leadership, healthcare, climate, politics, hunger, intolerance, etc. The intent is to disseminate information and open dialogue based upon consideration of information rather than spin.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Reason and Racism in the New Atheist Movement

By Be Scofield 
Originally posted 1/26/12 at Tikkun Daily 

Perhaps one of the most widespread claims by the New Atheists is that religion is harmful. For Richard Dawkins it is a virus that spreads and infects the mind and is comparable to child abuse. For the late Christopher Hitchens religion “poisons everything” and is a “menace to society.” Greta Christina claims that the belief in supernatural entities makes people “more vulnerable to oppression, fraud and abuse.” Sam Harris likens religion to mental illness. One could go on and on with examples like these.

Given that the New Atheists ground their arguments in science, reason and logic it behooves us to hold these conclusions to very high standards when analyzing them. It goes without saying that truth or knowledge claims should be supported by data, cross-cultural research and empirical evidence whenever possible. This should be measurable and certain principles of reasoning should be employed. Claims of this nature should also be scrutinized amongst a community of experts to try and reach a consensus before drawing conclusions. Unfortunately, the New Atheists fail tremendously in this regard.

The idea that religion is “harmful” or “poisonous” should of course be a hypothesis first and a conclusion second. For whatever reason, these twenty-first century super-heroes of science seem to skip over this important step. There are of course anthropologists, sociologists, scholars of religion and mythology, historians, psychologists, and philosophers who have been studying religion for very long periods now. They’ve used peer-reviewed journals, scholarly book publishers, case studies, and other academic forums to present their ideas and receive critical feedback. Yet, there have been no scientific findings concluding that religion is poisonous, that belief in supernatural entities leads to harm or that it infects people like a virus. These types of claims are limited to a chosen few.

Case in point: How can any of these New Atheists claim that the Dinka religious tradition of Africa is harmful? They’ve probably never heard of it, let alone conducted any sort of anthropological or sociological studies to determine the degree of harmfulness it poses to its members or others. Dawkins claims “I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence.” I’d love to see the data and research he’s gathered to reach such sweeping conclusions about religion. Has he investigated the Japanese religion Tenrikyo? The Korean tradition Wonbulgyo? Have any of these atheists been to Iraq or Iran to interview any Mandeans? Do these atheists ‘know’ in some scientific way that the traditional mythological beliefs of the Inuit of the polar regions were harmful or led to more harm? Are the teachings of Native American religious traditions really child abuse?

The website Adherents.com currently lists that there are 4,300 different faith groups worldwide. Wouldn’t information need to be gathered from each of them before reaching scientific conclusions about whether or not the entire category of religion is harmful or poisonous? Furthermore, what kinds of research questions would need to be asked? What sort of variables would be involved? Are there measures that could be agreed upon by a community of researchers to analyze what makes a particular religion harmful? Helpful? Would the researchers be all white, middle/upper class men like those that have predominantly defined new atheism? Or would diverse voices from around the globe and located in various social locations be included? Given the widespread findings due to the varieties of religious expressions how would you summarize them into one neat conclusion? The simple answer is that you can’t. These atheists’ knee jerk conclusions are laughable and an insult to all of the legitimate efforts that qualified researchers and scholars have undertaken. In short, there is nothing scientific about them.

Greta Christina claims that with the belief in supernatural entities “the capacity for religion to do harm gets cranked up to an alarmingly high level – because there is no reality check.” This is a hypothesis that needs to be tested with some sort of measurable evidence and scholarly insight. Has Christina looked at how religion is expressed in cultures throughout the world, both indigenous and not and found data that supports her assertion? Is she in relation to anthropologists and scholars who have reached similar conclusions? Or is she simply an armchair atheist relying on anecdotal examples rather than evidence? What is the relationship between belief in supernatural entities and violence? It’s an incredibly complex question that Christina attempts to answer in a single blog post. None of her claims are backed up science or evidence for that matter.

Christina also states, “If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife…people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree.” First of all, one could easily point out that there were many “martyrs” for Stalinism. Second, Christina’s claim is another hypothesis. But this one seems disproved on even the most cursory examining of the facts. What percentage of the billions of people on this earth who believe in an after life become “martyrs for their faith?” How many Inuit martyrs were there? The population of people who kill themselves in the name of God is very small when compared to those who don’t. Plus if you look at actual scientific research done on the subject such as Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by University of Chicago professor Robert Pape you’d learn “The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. … Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” Furthermore, “The world’s leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka-a secular, Marxist-Leninist group drawn from Hindu families.”

Racism In the New Atheist Movement

When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism or Dawkins likens religion to a virus that infects the mind, they are effectively saying “we know what’s best for you.” This is the crux of the problem with the New Atheists. They’ve identified belief in God or religion as the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives and feel justified in liberating people from it because they have “reason” on their side. However, as Reinhold Niebuhr warned, reason is always tainted with the prejudices of the privileged groups in society. He called this the historicity of reason. Thus, the way the New Atheists understand the designation “harmful” or “poisonous” is largely shaped by what they view as most harmful from their own social location.

In her book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars author and atheist Sikivu Hutchinson describes the heart of the problem with the New Atheists:
New Atheist discourse purports to be “beyond” all that meddlesome stuff. After all, science has been cleaned up to redress the atrocities of the past. The “bad” racist eugenicist science and scientists of back in the day have been purged. Religionists of all stripes are merely obstacles to achieving greater enlightenment in the generic name of science and reason. Race and gender hierarchies within the scientific establishment are immaterial when it comes to determining the overall thrust and urgency of the New Atheism. Non-believers who argue for a more nuanced approach to or progressive understanding of the political, social, and cultural appeal of religion are toady apologists. Religious bigotry and discrimination are deemed the greatest threat to “civilized” Western societies. As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity. In this universe, oppressed minorities are more imperiled by their own investment in organized religion than white supremacy. Liberation is not a matter of fighting against white racism, sexism and classism but of throwing off the shackles of superstition.
If you are in a privileged position, as many of the white New Atheists are, you may think that it’s easy to just give up your religion. But this of course ignores the complexities of how religion operates in the lives of people everyday. For African Americans, Christianity and Islam have played a central role in the process of humanization – both in the eyes of the dominant culture and in building up the community, personal identity and psychological resilience to resist white supremacy, slavery and segregation. “Reason” as articulated by the new atheists makes no room for marginalized populations need to resist these forms of oppression, nor recognizes the important role that religion has played in this process. Rather, the simplistic labels of harmful, poisonous or virus are carelessly used to discredit it.

The queer identified Metropolitan Community Church (MCCSF) in San Francisco played a central role during the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. Their website describes it as such:
It is impossible to overstate the impact of HIV/AIDS on the life of MCCSF during those years when there were no effective treatments for HIV. During the peak of the crisis, it was not uncommon for there to be three or four funerals on each day of the weekend, and growth in church membership could barely keep pace with the rate of deaths. And yet, even in the midst of this virtually unbearable period, the church persevered, with fellow members supporting one another during the most painful times, and the church served on the vanguard of advocacy efforts for people living with HIV/AIDS.
I don’t think that belief in God or religion was the thing these people needed to be liberated from.
As citizens of the U.S. we of course live on occupied land. Over the course of hundreds of years we systematically wiped out Native American cultures that were indigenous to the area. The arrogance of “we know what’s best for them” dominated. Their religious and cultural traditions were prohibited. It was the height of cultural imperialism. Of course Native Americans are extremely marginalized and face numerous pressing social issues today. Rest assured, their oppression has nothing to do with their beliefs in God or their traditional religious practices and ceremonies. Unfortunately, when Greta Christina says we’d be better off without religion and insists that we convert believers to atheism she is reproducing cultural imperialism against Native Americans. She knows best because she has reason on her side. 

Furthermore, home foreclosures, poverty, homelessness, oppression, inadequate mental health and social services, poor health care and violence plague America. Whether we like it or not, religious organizations are often the first to provide the much needed spiritual, material and social services to this sick society. As much as the new atheists would like to pontificate about religion in a context free environment, there is no such thing. As long as these social ills go unaddressed religious organizations will continue to play central roles in combating them. The broad and sweeping attacks against “religion” by the New Atheists do little to advance any sort of helpful conversation about what communities or people really need. They also don’t adequately interpret the positive role that religion plays in these issues.

If many of the New Atheists want to hold to an absolutist position that religion is harmful (despite not being based on any scientific evidence) then they inherently sweep into their critique Native Americans, the gay men who benefited so immensely from MCCSF during the Aids crisis and the Dinka tradition of Africa. Any benefit that the Nation of Islam or the Black Church had for African Americans is negated by the insistence upon religion or belief in God as the single most oppressive issue. If they make qualifications and recognize that yes, there is something wrong with waving a finger at Native Americans and scolding them for their childish ways, then they must abandon generalized sweeping notions like “religion is harmful.” They can’t have it both ways. Either they lecture every culture in the world about their religious traditions (after all you’ve discovered the TRUTH) and as a result reproduce cultural imperialism or make room for a more complex analysis.

Many of these New Atheists claim that holding onto the belief in supernatural entities is absurd or irrational. However, there is nothing more absurd than whiteness, class oppression and patriarchy. Resisting these absurdities means a more nuanced approach to religion – one that recognizes the positive role it can play in undermining such systems of domination. Ultimately, it means relying upon relationships more than reason.

UPDATE:

I wanted to comment on an important point. As someone who has experienced white, male, heterosexual and class privilege I’m most likely far more privileged than Greta Christina. This privilege is assigned to me by the dominant society whether I like it or not. As a white American I’m no less capable of reproducing racism or cultural Imperialism than Christina is. My article is not meant as an attack or a “gotcha.” I don’t address these sorts of issues like that – rather I try to uncover ways that we all might be reproducing forms of oppression. Despite my best intentions I unwillingly think and say things that are racist, sexist and that may reproduce cultural imperialism. Thus, by highlighting how some of the effects of the New Atheists or Christina’s ideas/actions may reproduce the same, I’m not saying that I’m better, more holy, or less racist. I’m fully implicated in these processes as well. People like Tim Wise have written entire books about their white privilege; I could do that as well. But here I’m talking about a few specific areas related to religion, atheism, and oppression.

I chose to highlight a few of Christina’s statements because she has publicly advocated converting believers into atheists as well as written passionate and sweeping claims about why she believes religion is harmful and wrong (the subject of my article). When I hear someone advocating the conversion of believers into atheism without any sort of qualifications or context it concerns me. Because I do think of African Americans in the 50′s and 60′s in the Nation of Islam and the Black Church. I do think of Native Americans. I think of queer people who find strength and solace in religious communities. I’m concerned that this statement can be viewed as a sort of panacea and is made without any real relationships to the people or communities that could be affected by it. I’m concerned that people will see this and believe that throwing off superstition is the most pressing issue, when I think it is a non-issue when compared with whiteness or class oppression. Again, I simply don’t see why believing in the afterlife is such an urgent issue to liberate people from. Yes, many religious expressions have reproduced sexism, racism and bigotry. But this is not because they believe in God or heaven (one can believe in those without having to be bigoted). It’s because the religions reflect the larger institutional forces of oppression. Dr. King and Malcolm X believed in God but also fought staunchly against white supremacy. Again, I simply don’t see how liberating Dr. King from his theism takes precedent over ending whiteness or is even an issue.

I do know that Christina has written lists of atheists of color and is perhaps one of the more concerned people when it comes to these issues. But she still makes sweeping denunciations of religion and publicly advocates converting believers from their beliefs. What is the context here? What sort of relationships are formed before doing this?

I simply wish that a fraction of the energy that goes into attacking people’s personal beliefs about heaven were to go into educating or writing about the larger social forces of oppression that also shape a believers life. Imagine if much of the passion and fire that characterizes much of the New Atheist community could be directed towards the racial, class and patriarchal oppression that believers experience rather than their beliefs about God or heaven. Of course, as atheists are marginalized in a Christian and hegemonic culture there is a need to resist this persecution. As I’ve said before I think those who are affiliated with religion have a direct responsibility to aid in ending this misguided attack upon atheism.

Follow me on Twitter. Because, why not?

Be Scofield is a San Francisco-based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. Be writes for Tikkun magazine and Be's work has appeared on Alternet.org, IntegralWorld and FactNet.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Bully Pulpit

By Jeff Fulmer
A version of this article was published in The Tennessean, Voices.

On Friday, January 20th, a gay fourteen year old young man named Phillip Parker hung himself in Gordonsville, Tennessee. Phillip’s parents said they reported the bullying to the high school, but their son’s persecution only continued to the point he felt he could no longer go on. This tragedy comes less than two months after another Middle Tennessee high school student, Jacob Rogers, was taunted by classmates about his sexuality until he also took his own life.

A backdrop to these heartbreaking stories is the Tennessee House of Representatives preoccupation with trying to legislate the state straight. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB229) limits all sexually related instruction to “natural human reproductive science” through the eighth grade. The intent of this bill is not to allow any mention of “gay” in schools, which would presumably include speaking out against bullying gay teens such as Phillip. It is as if we don’t talk about homosexuality, it won’t occur to young people to become gay. (This bill is currently being discussed in subcommittee).

Richard Floyd, a State Representative from Chattanooga, filed a bill that would make it illegal for a transgender person to use a bathroom or dressing room if it’s not for the same gender on their birth certificate. Since you are already not allowed to change the gender on your birth certificate in Tennessee, transgender people would apparently be required to hold it. The “Police the Potty” bill did not get picked up in the State Senate. However, what is unfortunate is Representative’s Floyd’s explanation for the bill:

“It could happen here,” Floyd said. “I believe if I was standing at a dressing room and my wife or one of my daughters was in the dressing room and a man tried to go in there — I don’t care if he thinks he’s a woman and tries on clothes with them in there — I’d just try to stomp a mudhole in him and then stomp him dry.” With comments like that, Representative Floyd is setting a fine example to bullies across the state.

Finally, and perhaps most shocking, is the “License to Bully” bill (HP1153), which would change the wording in Tennessee’s current state bullying laws to actually protect the bully if he or she is acting from their religious beliefs. David Fowler of the Family Action Council (FACT), who is the driving force behind the bill, said in their December newsletter that he hopes “to make sure [the law] protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality.”

So, in a perverse twist, FACT is trying to protect the religious rights of students to verbally abuse students like Phillip Parker and Jacob Rogers. The idea that our legislature would consider protecting what amounts to "hate speech” is offensive. I’m not sure which religion the Family Action Council is trying to protect, but it’s not Christianity, at least not the version where Jesus condemns judging others and commanded his followers to love their neighbors as themselves.

More details are coming to light about Phillip Parker and the tribulations he faced on an almost daily basis. Jonathan Cole of the Tennessee Equality Project went to Gordonsville to pay his respects. While there, he visited with a former teacher of Phillip, who confirmed bullying took place even in elementary school. She also said he had to listen to anti-gay sermons, and his pastor recently told him to “pray the devil out of him, so he could be straight.” In spite of all this, Phillip is remembered for always smiling and telling his peers how beautiful they were.

Phillip’s grandmother, Ruby Harris, said her grandson told her he felt like a rock was on his chest and he “wanted to take the rock off where he could breathe.” It reminded me of the story in the Gospel of John (7:53 to 8: 11) when Jesus comes across the public stoning of a woman who was accused of being guilty of adultery. The Pharisees ask Jesus what they should do with her, and Jesus tells them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.

I am not equating adultery with a young man trying to figure out his sexual orientation. My point is that Jesus protected the “sinner,” because he knows we are all sinners. He also stood up against a mob of self-righteous bullies. I believe Jesus would make the same stand in our high schools. At least the Pharisees were convicted enough to drop their rocks and go home. It’s not certain what our Tennessee Legislature will do. One can only hope and pray.

Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Forgotten King

By Jay Youngdahl
Originally posted 1/11/12 at East Bay Express

On January 16, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. One of America's greatest heroes, King was a well-known Civil Rights champion who was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers.

It is a wonderful thing when holidays or public places like streets and parks are named for progressive heroes. When I leave our office, I'm often stopped by the traffic light at the corner of Gerry Adams Way, named in 2002 after the Irish militant who fought British oppression for many years, and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Having grown up in the South where many cities and streets are named after long-dead racist leaders, I smile every time I see these two Oakland street signs.

Yet a problem comes when the ubiquity of the naming lets the meaning of the person named fade from our consciousness, or when the person so named becomes one-dimensional in our memory. And it always rankles me to see those who fight the ideas of the named person basking in the limelight at memorial events. Many of those who are politically attacking public employees today will be at holiday events loudly claiming their affection for King and his legacy, even though they know that King was killed as he was trying to win more wages and benefits for public servants in Memphis.

King had numerous accomplishments: his nonviolent activism; his extraordinary "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, DC in 1963; his Nobel Peace Prize; and his efforts at the end of his life focusing on ending the war in Vietnam. But one often-unrecognized aspect of King's work and of his differences with fellow Civil Rights leaders of the Sixties came in his unbridled belief in the importance of community as compared with individualism. It is only recently that I have realized the depth of King's writings. Known mainly as an activist and orator, his writings are profound. For Martin Luther King, all human life was interrelated and survived, as well as culminated, in a beloved community.

Others, like his mentor Howard Thurman, framed the issue in the relationship between a person and her God. King's view is explicitly Christian, yet at its core it defines any productive society as "the mutually cooperative venture of persons in which they realize the solidarity of the human family by assuming responsibility for one another."

King argued for the sacredness of the "beloved community," and the importance of all of us in this community. King stressed notions of love, power, and justice and their relationship to the economic and political nature of social existence. It was through his conception of the beloved community that King framed and fought for the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, maybe the most important movement in the history of this country.

King's emphasis on community included his vision of agape, the love for the other. In his concern for social justice, King believed "the interior religious experience finds meaning in the context of social relations based on power." His emphasis was on persons as social actors. As such, he had a notion of freedom that can only be exercised in the social existence with others. Outside of this social existence, he wrote, "freedom is a misnomer." Here, King aligned with Aristotle, who wrote that "man is by nature a social and political being." Aristotle just left out women and slaves in his framing.

From this position came King's theoretical argument against segregation, which he said was mainly at fault for creating a social system that constrained a person's ability to be free and to exercise that freedom. While he was for legal rights, the problem with racism is not that it violates rights but that it is morally wrong. We would do well to understand this dichotomy in our current obsession with using human rights language as the be-all and end-all in every moral situation.

King saw the coming of the focus on "me" that infects the narrative of the American Dream today, and argued against it. He saw that an age of individualism would strip workers, minorities, and the poor of the ability to unite. In this belief, he found common ground with social Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh, Catholic liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, and his fellow African-American Christians involved in the American Civil Rights Movement.

In the last few centuries, it is within such religious communities that the many explicit examples of the use of community in social change can be observed. Coming out of the progressive aspect of their religious traditions with concerns for the poor and against war and bloodshed, people were able to perform heroic acts because their actions were framed within their communities.

King identified three social manifestations of evil and sin that hinder the actualization of beloved communities: poverty, racism, and war. While King understood the importance of overcoming personal sin to achieve the personal self-actualization that is found only in community, his emphasis was on the social dimension of evil and sin and the necessity of cooperation in overcoming or ameliorating them. This is a timely lesson for us all. Have a happy holiday.

Jay Youngdahl is a lawyer and writer who holds a JD from the University of Texas and MDiv from Harvard University. Currently he is a Fellow at the Initiative for Resonsible Investment at Harvard and writes the "Raising the Bar" column for the East Bay Express in Oakland, CA.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

By Chris Saxton
Preached at Trinity College Chapel – Toronto. Jan 11, 2012. 

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
 wailing and loud lamentation, 
Rachel weeping for her children;
 she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ - Matthew 2: 16-18 

Today’s celebration of the Holy Innocents, the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by Herod, has led me to reflect on the concept of innocence. We have a romantic view of children and childhood and the concept of innocency plays a large part of it. William Blake’s poems the Songs of Innocence and Experience reflect this. One of his songs of innocence:

'I have no name; 
I am but two days old. '
What shall I call thee?
'I happy am, 
Joy is my name.
'
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
 Sweet joy,
but two days old.

Sweet joy I call thee:

Thou dost smile,
 I sing the while;

Sweet joy befall thee!

I will never forget the day my son was born. He was two weeks late and my wife’s labour was induced. It was not an easy labour as my son was facing the wrong way and eventually the doctor tried to turn him around using forceps before deciding that a caesarian delivery was the best option. This was a scary and helpless time for me especially as they allow you in the delivery room and the mother is awake for the procedure. I will never forget my first real sight of my son – I confess that I didn’t look closely as he was born and I was busy reassuring myself that my wife was well. I finally looked over to the side where the nurses were weighing him and doing the Apgar assessment of his health. I had a hard time believing that I had anything to do with this new life… and then I saw his long gangly arms and legs appear over the side of the scale and I thought: “Yup. He is mine!”

The gift of a cesarean birth for a father is that I had almost an hour sitting in a rocking chair holding him and bonding with him while my wife was in recovery, and trying to figure out what name to call him. Nadine and I had several names in mind with Alexander on the top of the list but we felt that Alexander was a strong name for a child and we wanted to see if it was warranted. I looked my son in the eyes and asked him if he was an Alexander. In response, he took a deep breath and began to wail. Because of the forceps, only one half of his face was mobile (this was only a temporary condition) and when he cried that night he looked just like a really ticked off Popeye the Sailor Man! This was no innocent cherub in my arms – this was a really angry old man! He seemed tough enough to bear the name Alexander. An innocent? Nope. But so strong and so human!

The feast that we celebrate today, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is an example of a veneration of innocence that I am uncomfortable with. It is the death of “innocent” children that has become seen as the tragedy here. The slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem on Herod’s orders… Were the children innocent? Were they depraved or guilty? Does it really matter?

This is one of the dangers of Christianity this black or white dualism. Does God really love the innocent more than the rest of us? Many Christians believe that He does. My late Systematic Theology professor would tell us that God loves everyone “just enough” but that he loves some of us even more. With all respect to my much missed and beloved brother and teacher...I disagree. God loves all of us – period. But, if I were to editorialize and theologize I would venture that God loves the broken, the flawed, the guilty, and the sinner best of all. Really, who needs God’s love more? When the prodigal son returned, the father celebrated. Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. When the one sheep strayed did the Shepherd stay with the good sheep or did he go after the lost? This is the Love of God, the anxious parent, the lover. As Henri Nouwen points out: "God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end…No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found."

Does God love the innocent more than the rest of us? The thought that He does leads to a dangerous dichotomy. It can allow us to abandon the lost sheep and the guilty with a clear conscience.

I asked another professor here at Trinity who studies Evangelism in the United States why it was that the most fervent pro-life Christian politicians were the first to cut programs for single mothers or food and medical supplements for children on the margins. The professor responded that their view was that the “pre-born” were innocent and deserved protection and the post-born were not. Does the lack of innocency abrogate the Christian responsibility to care for those on the margins. This is the result of the innocence/ guilt duality.

American David French has been writing on this subject in the National Review Online: “It is past time to admit a very hard truth,” he says: “America’s poverty problem is also a depravity problem.” He goes on to write. “It is simply a fact that people who work hard, finish their education, get married, and stay married are rarely — very rarely — poor.” The depravity of the poor…

By French’s definition the children of Bethlehem for him, were not innocent – they were poor, and therefore depraved.

For me, they were so beloved of God, they were broken as we all are.

My past career was as a sommelier and wine educator and I think the grape has an example to offer here. The grape of vitus vinifera is a perfect self-contained wine factory. Every part of the grape contributes to the making of wine. From inside out, the pips (seeds) at the center contain tannins and other antioxidants that contribute to human health and to the preservation of wine giving it protection from the adverse effects of oxygen and in-amicable bacteria. The pulp is the next layer containing water, sugar, and other nutrients, vitamins etc. Enclosing the pulp is the skin. The skin also contains tannins and antioxidants that assist in the preservation of wine as well as colouring and phenolic compounds that contribute to the flavour of wines. On the outside of the skin is a waxy compound known as the “bloom.” This sticky layer traps native yeasts that are resident in vineyards. Each grape is created by God to be a perfect self-contained factory and all that is required for the process of winemaking to begin is for the skin of the grape to be broken and the yeasts on the bloom to come in contact with the sugars in the pulp. Then the process of fermentation begins with the sugars being transformed into carbon dioxide and alcohol. As with humanity, brokenness leads to transformation, the transformation for the grape is in the creation of alcohol, and the transformation for us also lies in our brokenness. It is our brokenness that brings us closer to God. The purpose of the wine grape is not realized in its plump, rosy, waxy perfection – its innocence. It is only when broken, that the grape is transformed into what God planed for it to be.

These are comfortable thoughts for those of us who are no longer innocent. Those of us who like me are guilty of many sins. That God loves the brokenness in us. That through our sin, DESPITE our sins, because of our sins, that God loves us.

William Blake again, this time from a Song of Experience:

My mother groaned, my father wept:

Into the dangerous world I leapt, 

Helpless, naked, piping loud, 

Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my father's hands,

Striving against my swaddling bands,

Bound and weary, I thought best

To sulk upon my mother's breast.

This is a child I know. Not innocent. Feisty. Naughty. Sulky. And Human.

This is the child that my son Alexander turned out to be. He has been feisty, naughty, sulky, and he has been joy and innocence and sweet and brilliant. He is a child of God. He is light and dark. He is brilliant and obtuse. He is caring and careless. He is loving, and he breaks my heart. It is his complexity that I adore and I know that God loves all of him (as do his parents) – and never more that when he is wrestling with his shadows. It is his brokenness that allows the light of God to shine through him.

Does God love just the innocent among us? Does God hate the guilty? No and NO! God does not call us to be simply Holy Innocents. He calls us to find the holy in our sins, find the holy in our brokenness, to find the holy in our transformation: To find the holy in each other.

We mourn the children of Bethlehem – innocent or not. As we mourn the children of Masada – innocent or not. We mourn the children dead from disease through the ages – innocent or not. We mourn the children of the Holocaust. We mourn the children of starvation. We mourn the child soldiers of Africa. We mourn First Nations children sent to residential schools or living on substandard reserves. We mourn the children of anger and despair and hopelessness. We mourn the children of poverty and on the margins in this city. We mourn all children. The children of Bethlehem are not mourned for their innocence but for their humanity.

Broken and very human.

They are beloved children of God, as are we all. 

Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tim Tebow, Displaying Religion, and the Myth of Marginalized Christianity in the United States

By Andre E. Johnson
Originally published 1/12/12 at Rhetoric Race and Religion

I want to start by saying that I have no problem at all with Tim Tebow and I can understand some of the fascination with him. As he illustrates in the commercial, “They Said,” many have doubted Tebow and he currently uses those words as fuel to drive him to succeed. This story resonates with me because many have told me at different points throughout my life that I could not “do” and for a long time, I had a chip on my shoulder wanting to prove the naysayers wrong.

I also do not have a problem with Tebow "being" who he is. He is an Evangelical Christian and for him at least, that means he displays his Christianity in public. Whether he is thanking his “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” before every press conference, whether he decides to display scripture passages on his “eye black” during football games, or whether he does the now infamous “Tebowing” after every touchdown, I am sure that Tebow believes himself to be authentic and honest with his display. Matter of fact, for Tebow not to display his religion publicly, would be to denounce Jesus and incur the wrath of Luke 9:26, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels.”

What I do have a problem with is the backdrop in which Tebow feels the need to display his religious affiliation. For many, to claim publicly "Jesus is Lord and Savior" goes further than just a confession of faith. It also plays to the belief that Christianity is somehow under attack. Tebow and people of his mindset believe Christianity to be some marginalized religion in the United States and therefore, to proclaim publicly Jesus as Lord and Savior is really a radical thing to do. Fed a steady diet of "War on Christmas" and other media derived "Attacks on Religion," and my personal favorite, Obama's "War on Religion," many would argue that Tebow is acting prophetically by this proclamation.

By praying on the field and wearing scripture references under his eyes, Tebow is resisting the establishment and following Jesus—even if it means offending people, losing friends, endorsements or losing something meaningful as a result. Many would proclaim that Tebow is facing the barrage of attacks—not because of his play, but because he is a Christian who would openly confess his Christianity. Moreover, by doing so, Tebow is a Christian hero—upheld by Jesus—to endure these attacks against his faith. Tebow and others like him become role models for Christians; especially young Christians navigating through life discerning their options and how they can be authentically Christian in a hostile Christian world.

However, the problem with the marginalized Christianity belief (in the United States anyway), is that it is a myth. Though the numbers are dropping, according to the Religious Identification Survey, though the number have decrease (and I have my own theories on that), we still make up 76% of people who claim any religious affiliation. Matter of fact, according to the same survey, people not affiliated with any religion; affectionately called the “Nones,” make up 15% which is more than people who are members of other religions (3.9%). Christians demand and get more air time in the media more than any other religious group. There are television and radio networks dedicated to Christians and Christianity.

One would shudder to think if there was a Muslim religious channel as prominent as say TBN, the WORD, or GOD TV. There are churches are on every corner or every city and town in America. I wonder what would be the response to building a Mosque. I am sorry, we do not have to wonder—we already know the response. We Christians can form Christian family oriented groups (no matter how small) and almost be assured that we will get media coverage. We can threaten to burn Korans or even get a major corporation to pull advertising from a TV show because the leaders of the "powerful" Florida Family Association declared that the show was propaganda designed to depict Muslims as "ordinary folks" while excluding "many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to the liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish." 

Moreover, thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision, we good church folks can openly discriminate against employees by claiming that what the discriminated employee did was against our religious beliefs.I do not belief the justices had Hindus and Scientologists in mind when rendering this decision. And one cannot think of running for president unless she or he has a “personal relationship with Jesus” (Romney is about to find out if his personal relationship with Jesus is acceptable or not to religious conservatives). So to claim oneself a Christian in this Christian supported nation; to openly wear scripture references under one’s eyes or to pray openly on the football field or anywhere else is not being prophetic—its being safe and assured that you have millions of people who will come out and support you in all that you do.

No, we are no longer that little underground movement that continued after Jesus’ execution, that offered a new way to live, by loving all and standing up to the Empire when proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior (and not Caesar) really could have meant losing something, even one’s life. We are now part of the Empire and to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior will not get you in any trouble at all—matter of fact, as Tebow and others soon find out, others may reward you nicely for saying it. Just displaying religion it turns out is good enough.

Rev. Andre E. Johnson, PhD is the Dr. James L. Netters Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies t Memphis Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor at Gifts of Life Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee. He is also the editor of the Rhetoric Race and Religion blog.
 
Share