Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Fri, 22 May 2015 15:34:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Perilous Journeys of Syria’s Refugees Tue, 19 May 2015 16:30:24 +0000

(Bryan Denton/Corbis/AP Images)

In August, Ahmad* calls from Greece. He got himself there from Turkey in a bilim after the smuggler took off.

“What’s a bilim?” I ask.

“A small inflatable raft,” my husband Maalik says. The Arabic adaptation of the word blimp: any vessel filled with air. Ahmad is telling how he took the helm from another Syrian after the man almost capsized their raft in heavy swells. He pulled him off the tiller and figured out how to tack perpendicular to the waves—“you can’t go with them, you have to go against them,” he explains. Out of the last hours of dark and on into morning they hazarded a course between low-sliding bulks of islands, navigating using someone’s cell phone wrapped in a plastic bag. There in the boat were two dozen men, women, and children who had decided to chance it on their own after the smuggler ditched them.

“Why did the smuggler ditch them?” I ask.

“He had their money,” Maalik mutters, with a look that says, enough questions. “Did you ever steer a boat before?” he asks Ahmad.

“No!” Ahmad says. “I’d never been on water before where I couldn’t see land on the other side.” Ahmad is from Douma, a Damascus suburb that has been protesting against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian president, since the spring of 2011. In the subsequent three-plus years of regime shelling, Ahmad’s handy neighbors have pioneered a new genre of upcycling: drums, hookas, and even motorcycle bodies made of shell casings. In 2014, tired of improvised survival, Ahmad resolved to make his way to the few relatives he has in Austria.

But for those traveling on a Syrian passport, the number of countries without prohibitive visa restrictions is small and shrinking. In 2012, when intensified aerial attacks—in response to rising infantry casualties—triggered the first wave of mass exodus, there were seven: North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. I know this list by heart. It was the one Maalik and I faced when we decided to leave our home in Damascus late in the summer of 2012.

We had met there in February of 2011, just before the first protests broke out, and once they did, I decided to stay and witness what came next—even after my cushy embassy-sponsored English teaching job disappeared when the American embassy quietly closed up shop in December 2011.

Nine months later, when Maalik finally insisted that it was too unsafe to stay any longer, we discovered that our short list of options was, well, pretty short. Since I’m American, North Korea and Iran were out, while Cuba had me torn. I speak good Spanish and even studied Afro-Cuban drumming, but how would it look to the U.S. government? How would we explain that after four years in Syria—and just as we were petitioning for a fiancé visa for Maalik—that I’d hopped over into Cuba for a spell? Venezuela we seriously considered until I read about its gangs that target airport roads. Maalik loathes Lebanon’s sectarian politics and as a Syrian felt (correctly) vulnerable to them.

In the end it was Turkey that we chose. A taxi to Beirut and then a flight to Istanbul landed us in that sprawling commercial crossroads just in time for onset of cold October rains. A year of waiting yielded—finally—a visa for Maalik, allowing us to move to New York in September of 2013, even as the list of countries admitting Syrians was shrinking. In July of 2013, Sisi’s coup crossed Egypt off the list, and last December, Lebanon too imposed visa restrictions on Syrians.

So when Ahmad finally decides to make his leap west, he too comes through Turkey, hoarding a wad of euros he hopes will be enough. From our tiny studio in the Bronx, we follow his progress anxiously.

His crash course in maritime skills has landed him on the far side of the Aegean, in Thessaloniki, a city whose name he hasn’t fully grasped. I have a vague memory of night at a Thessaloniki rest stop, standing beside a bus in the dark breathing cold mountain air. When I lived in Damascus, I spent most of my ten-day vacations between teaching terms on endless bus and train routes northwest, Antakya to Istanbul to Sofia to Belgrade and back. Once I went as far as Sarajevo where I caught a cold and spent most of my time sleeping in the office of a disused hostel. Its owner had turned it into a two-room distillery, and I tossed and turned on a cot surrounded by rows of bottles and tubes on floor-to-ceiling shelves.

Ahmad resorts to the same buses when he discovers that his carefully guarded cash, slowly whittled down by even the cheapest food and shelter, isn’t enough for any smuggler to take him north. At the northern edge of Greece, he walks two nights across the mountains into Macedonia—“the worst route in the world,” he says—then catches another bus to the Serbian border, where he again manages to slip across on foot. His luck finally runs out at the Hungarian border, where after hours of evasion he is caught by the combined forces of heat-sensing cameras and well-trained dogs. He tells the story from a holding camp full of Ethiopians, Afghanis, Iranians, and other Syrians, then warns us not to call again: the camp authorities are tracing every call he receives to track down the “international smuggling ring” that they imagine delivered him to them.

“I will escape tomorrow,” he says. His voice is glum.

“They made him give his fingerprints,” my husband explains. By force, Ahmad says. He recounts that when he refused to put his hands on the scanner, they beat him with batons and twisted one arm up behind his back. This record, Maalik explains, means Ahmad cannot now apply for asylum in Austria, since under EU law an asylum-seeker must request asylum from the first safe country he crosses into; in practice, this means the first country to register his presence. As long as he went uncounted, unnoticed, unverified, he could pass through sullen cities like a ghost. Now that he’s been registered, he’s stuck.

I cannot imagine making such a leap, plunging into gusts of luck and chance. It’s illegal! This is what my Midwestern brain keeps flashing whenever I try to picture myself standing beside a raft laden to the waterline with scared passengers. I am someone who gets anxiously enmeshed in the blandest rules and contracts. I invent extra provisions I think I read in our rental contract: no smoking, no pets. When I seem to remember this—though I’m not sure if it really said so or not, and I feel too nervous to check—the sight of our two newly adopted orange kittens fills me with furtive guilt as if I’d been caught shoplifting. One has a persistent cough and I pay the exorbitant vet bill, squirt a dropper-full of white antibiotic down his throat twice daily and feel bad when I forget one dose. We cannot change their food suddenly, I lecture disbelieving Maalik; their stomachs will get upset.

In Syria meanwhile people are dying of hunger as well as injury, since it’s cheaper to cut off a town’s food supply than to bomb it. And of course the bombing continues, in desultory daily raids. Besides the barrel bombs the regime has been dropping for years—oil barrels filled with scrap metal and dynamite and pushed out of helicopters—there is a new kind of “vacuum bomb” that produces a tsunami of flame, sucking up all the oxygen around it, then igniting whole blocks in a lateral roar. Typhoid, rape, and beheading punctuate the tedious lack of everything from water and electricity to vegetables and even birdsong: in Yarmouk, I discover via a YouTube video that the sparrows have all been eaten, while residents of Homs’ besieged Old City have made a Facebook page to share recipes for locusts and wild roots.

The video, called “Blue,” is an elegy for the 80th person to die of hunger in Yarmouk, a once-bustling Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus, and for the life of the camp itself. I visited Yarmouk perhaps half a dozen times when I lived in Damascus. Mostly I went for the weekly potlucks thrown by Mazen, a tall, middle-aged Arabic teacher with a generous belly and a frizzy salt-and-pepper ponytail, whose inexhaustible hospitality guaranteed him an endless supply of foreign students of Arabic, some of them my friends. His house was in the center of Yarmouk, a large Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, and every “movie night” saw it packed with Palestinians and foreigners flushed with the romance of resistance and sweet arak liqueur.

That party is long over since the residents of Yarmouk found their first meager protests fired upon by local PLO leadership, long allied with the Assads. Yarmouk’s streets are now gray troughs of rubble, and most of its residents scattered. In the video, over a shot of a dusty boulevard lined with tattered trees, the narrator recalls how their branches were once filled with birds. The trees are silent now, he says, because the birds have all been eaten by the children of Yarmouk. Swaddled in a white shroud, the 80th victim of starvation is a bird-like parcel wheeled on a makeshift bier. Surrounding it, the men comprising the somber wake walk starving, their faces haggard and wooden.

It is as if the ghettoes of World War II Europe were resurrected in order to die again on YouTube, I tell Maalik. But he dismisses my sentiment.

“Maybe 80 people have died of hunger in Yarmouk. Do you know how many Syrians have drowned trying to get to Europe?”

I do not.

“Over two thousand.”

In fact, I discover, when I research his rebuff, the numbers are much higher—and getting worse. In 2014, the UN estimated that of the 165,000 “irregular” migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean, around 3,500 drowned. In the first quarter of this year, the death toll was already more than 1,700. Of those who made it to Italy, Syrians were the most numerous, at 42,323—not counting the more than 6,000 Palestinians, many of whom were fleeing Syria—followed by Eritreans.

Of course, not everyone gets caught, and not everyone goes by bilim. For those who can afford it, 10,000 euro buys a fake passport and a plane ticket to northern Europe. For 7,000, you can go by car or truck—or a vacation camper for small groups, hidden in the back like drugs or guns. Then there are the regular boats, priced by size and distance. One extended Syrian family made a successful sea journey from Italy to Sweden by posing as a floating wedding party; whenever a patrol vessel came near, they turned up the music and danced, danced, danced as if their lives depended on it.

But from the smugglers’ point of view, little bilims have distinct advantages. Number one, they’re cheap—for the passengers, who pay $1,000 to $1,200 to be piloted from Turkey to Greece—and for the smugglers. The only real cost is the motor; everything else, including the human cargo, is dispensable. Then too, unlike larger boats, they do not need to be registered, meaning fewer bribes to pay, and no chance of tracing the owners. And being smaller, they stand a better chance of making it unobserved through the maze of islands separating the Greek and Turkish mainlands. Sure, they capsize faster than a larger vessel would. But to maximize profits, boats of all sizes are dangerously overloaded.

This overbooking saved another friend’s life. Allan, a tall, redheaded Syrian Kurd from Amouda, tried for years to get from Istanbul to his brother in Berlin, and failed more miserably with each attempt. In September 2012 he reserved a place on a fishing boat bound for Italy. He spent a fretful week in a cheap hotel crowded with other Syrians waiting for the day of departure, only to be left behind when the boat finally set out, since places had as usual been oversold. The boat wrecked 50 meters from the Turkish coast. At least 61 migrants drowned, more than half of them children.

“I knew them name by name, face by face,” Allan said. He had played with them every day for the last interminable week of their lives. “I kept thinking, it should have been me, not them.”


SAKHER CALLS NEXT, in mid-October, from Athens. An old friend from Damascus, he often ate with us during Ramadan since his family lived in Homs’ Old City and neither he nor I can hold a candle to Maalik’s cooking. In the fall of 2012, when we left for Turkey, his family finagled him a visa to Abu Dhabi. Barred from legally working and priced out of tuition at one of the hothouse Gulf branches of American universities, he stewed for two years on the margins of prosperity before deciding to stake his future on a sea crossing.

Sakher too came by Turkish bilim sans smuggler. The man he’d paid to pilot him from Turkey to Greece showed up just long enough to collect his fee, then told him and the 45 other migrants to scatter because the police were coming. Seventeen ran. The 29 who didn’t waited until 4 a.m. for the smuggler’s return, then decided to go for it on their own.

“Did you steer?” my husband asks.

“No,” Sakher says, “there was a guy from Jebleh”—a small city on the Syrian coast. Instead, Sakher’s job was to keep an eye on the guy packing a knife.* Having been turned back nine times previously, the man swore that if the Greek coast guard spotted them, he would destroy the raft as fast as possible—a gamble intended to force the Greeks to rescue them directly into their jurisdiction. If the Greeks did not take them, there was a risk the Greeks would summon their Turkish counterparts to haul the migrants back to Turkey. They landed without having had to use his knife and Sakher found his way to the Arab section of Athens. A seedy boomtown mining human desperation, a bottleneck of Syrians all dreaming of Europe.

Everyone wants to smuggle him, he says. The guy who rented him a room. The barber who cut his hair. Because the easy part of his trip is behind him: the next, costlier leg of the journey is getting from Europe’s cash-strapped southern fringes to its prosperous north.

“Watch your back,” my husband says. Like the blankets, medicines, and parcels of food distributed by NGO workers a few miles inside Syria, then smuggled back into Turkey and sold in border markets, Sakher is now a commodity on the great black market of war, a drop in the flood of exodus that far outstrips the supply of safe and licit passage.

In Athens he lives on shawarma and sleeps in a room full of other Syrians. When he calls late at night, the snores of the guy asleep in the next bunk punctuate the pauses in our conversation. Where will he go? Germany could be good. Or Sweden, but that’s more expensive. Really he wants to go to the U.K. so he can continue his studies faster, since he already speaks some English. But everyone agrees the U.K. is impossible. He studies his options, watches others attempt to pass through the layers of airport security and get turned away, useless tickets in hand. On Halloween he goes to a party—“very European,” he says—and asks how we celebrated.

We tell him about the party we attended. Here in New York, Maalik says, the women go naked on Halloween. I tell how we got stuck for half an hour in the L-train tunnel behind an Ebola isolation chamber costume that blocked most of the passageway, with Maalik outraged and worried we’d be trampled to death if the crowd panicked.

“Did you see the Acropolis yet?” he asks Sakher. They studied philosophy together at university, and Socrates and Plato are touchstones. “What did you think when you first saw it?”

“I was surprised,” Sakher replies. “I thought I’d see one of every Greek guy’s nipples—that they’d all still be wearing togas.”

He laughs at his own joke, but under the comedy is the shock of being plunged for the first time into another life on another continent, of wandering through a reality he’s only read about. Athens, he says, bears no trace of Plato’s republic, though it is amazing. “It’s not so bad being a forced tourist,” he reflects. But he frets his next move. Some of these guys, he says, have tried ten, fifteen times at the airport. And been turned back each time.

Europe doesn’t want Syrians, now overshadowed by the specter of ISIS. Gone and forgotten are the images of grinning Syrian children holding up two fingers for peaceful protest; the nightly news has moved on to ISIS and its theater of revenge in which a handful of westerners—Kassig, Henning, Haines, Sotloff, and Foley—dressed in orange prisoner costumes are forced to play payback for the humiliations of Abu Ghraib.

Outside the frame of these close-up executions, more than 10 million uprooted Syrians—nearly 6 million displaced within Syria and almost 4 million outside its borders—continue their search for safety, a struggle that has far outlasted the span of prime-time attention. Lost from view, they migrate back and forth across provincial and international borders and are of no interest to anyone save the governments taxed with corralling them and the NGOs whose budgets wax and wane in tandem with their losses. In March 2013, the rate of exodus from Syria is 10,000 per day. By summer of 2013, nearly a hundred thousand Iraqi refugees who’d spent a decade in Syria have crossed back into Iraq, along with tens of thousands of Syrians; the following September, 400,000 Kurds fleeing ISIS’ assault on Kobani, a Kurdish town just south of the Turkish border, cross into Turkey.

Kobani also is the main focus of initial U.S. aerial attacks on ISIS in Syria. Just as Sakher is ogling the Acropolis for the first time, American drones are recording the accelerated destruction of jihadists and their bases. In the black-and-white videos released by U.S. Central Command, American prowess looks like the clean, clear winner. It appears as a white square or asterisk hovering above a gray swath of terrain, marking the spot from which each strike sends a soft white blast-cloud billowing up. That civilians are sometimes among those killed—62 in the first five months of bombings, 52 in a single attack south of Kobani—is part of the inevitable, and largely invisible, collateral damage.

Though now besieged by ISIS, Syria’s Kurds have fared better with the regime than other groups. In 2011, the government granted them official nationality and use of their own language—de facto autonomy in exchange for quiescence. Now, alongside this regime support, their self-defense is carried out under an American aegis buzzing with drones. The remaining mass of displaced and exiled Syrians have no such backing. The sky remains naked over the tents and shanties in which they have been left to tally their losses, and the early faith that the West would heed their cry for freedom has been replaced by a desolate fatalism.

“What Syria is there to go back to, if everyone is gone?” exclaimed my friend Abed. He was reacting, in May of 2013, to the news that five friends from his street had been killed that day in a bombing run that killed 30 altogether. A veteran of the coastal insurgency and the little brother of two martyrs, he said he wanted to be the third.

To be clear, Abed had nothing to do with ISIS. His old unit, insofar as it belonged to anything beyond his village, was allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the initial umbrella of defectors and insurgents that declared war on the regime, and thus at war—more and more a losing one—with ISIS. In spring of 2013, when I met Abed and other wounded members of his brigade on a visit to eastern Turkey, the FSA was riven and exhausted, already losing ground to jihadist factions, many of which would later coalesce into ISIS.

With his long, black beard and matter-of-fact piety, Abed might look to many Americans like an extremist. But he shakes my hand firmly, meets my eye squarely and calls me “sister.” When Maalik and I accept his invitation to tea with his family, his seven-year-old niece Haneen quickly befriends me. She informs me that I am like a beautiful cat, then recounts how soldiers shot her family’s horse in a reprisal raid on their village.

“Six bullets,” she says, and it strikes me that she regards the world already with the same level solemnity as her young uncle.

With their home and orchards now beyond the pale, Haneen and Abed’s family is part of the inmost circle of displaced Syrians. Having fled Syria to save their lives, they are scarcely able to afford the inflated cost of living in eastern Turkey. For them and millions of their compatriots subsisting along Syria’s borders, Europe might as well be the moon. They can hardly scrape together the rent at the end of each month. After waiting for months for a spot in a Turkish refugee camp to open up, Haneen’s parents run out of money and return to Syria in early 2014, to a hard-scrabble existence on rebel-controlled turf. In September, Abed tells us, the house they were living in was struck by a barrel bomb, but none of the children were hurt.

Their family, so limited in its options for self-preservation, exemplifies system of unequal aspirations to which Syrians are reduced according to their means. Those who can afford to leave can reasonably afford to dream of a better life. Allan, who married an Italian woman he met in Istanbul, can now fulfill his dream of visiting his brother—and as a tourist to boot. Staring at the crumbling Parthenon, Sakher can feel himself drawing just a bit nearer to a Ph.D. Even as Hungarian border guards are wailing on him with their clubs, Ahmad knows at least he won’t be killed. Stuck closer to home,

Abed’s ambitions zigzag between war and peace. It takes him a year and a half to recover from the two bullets that shattered his shin-bone on his first day of fighting back in winter of 2012. Once his leg is sound, he follows his brother’s family back into Syria. When they are settled, he heads further east—to Raqqa, he tells us last November, speaking from his rented house in eastern Turkey. He went, he says, to see this caliphate.

“You can imagine,” he replies when Maalik asks how it was. “I mean, here I am, back in Turkey.”

Sometime in the last two years he must have overcome his fear of speaking to women—or more precisely, his fear of being seen as shamefully importune—as he recently married a girl from his hometown. This March, their first child was born, and it seems his dream is now to put down roots in this life.


JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Sakher makes it to Germany. He too walked across the mountains of Macedonia, three shivering nights of slipping and falling and picking himself back up, shivering in his brown fall coat that was no match for Balkan winter. Then a bus to Belgrade and a smuggler’s car into Germany. He calls from Dortmund to tell us his good news: After two full days of medical tests and immunizations, he’s been officially declared disease-free. With all the needles out of the way, he feels optimistic about his case.

Now that he’s safe, I feel I can finally grill him about the risks he took.

“Well, death only happens once,” he says. And adds—though it usually goes without saying—he would rather be dead than in a Syrian prison.

It’s not an idle calculation; in May of 2012, he was arrested on the street in Damascus for no reason anyone could figure except that his ID showed he was from Homs’ Old City, an insurgent stronghold. By then his parents had already fled, unscathed save for the bullet that passed through his mother’s shoulder as their taxi sped around checkpoints.

Luckily, his captors only beat him a little and shaved his head before releasing him. Our friends shaved their heads in solidarity, and through the summer months—our last summer in Damascus—they often gathered at our place. Lured by Maalik’s cooking, they sprawled out on our couches and talked till dawn. In retrospect it was a strangely fluid time. In response to rising casualty rates from guerilla battles, the army had just switched tactics from infantry assault to aerial bombardment, ushering in a whole new scale of obliteration that seemed, at first, incredible. From the capital at least, the scale of destruction was so new that it still felt surprising, malleable, not yet hardened into the leaden same-same of daily loss. The stark choice—fight or flight—was starting to close in on my friends, but they were still debating which course to choose.

One whose older brother had joined the insurgency felt torn between leaving to pursue his education or staying by his brother’s side. (He left.) One was waiting and praying for a cousin to successfully desert from the most famous, or infamous, infantry brigade. (He did.) Most felt alienated by the increasingly Islamist tone of local militias, though the rumor was that their beards and shows of piety had a lot to do with fundraising. Most had friends or relatives who had joined the armed rebellion, and all had friends or relatives serving in the regular army, which was compulsory for all Syrian men. But there were constant rumors of Sunni soldiers shot in the back as they advanced into battle, or blindfolded and shot point-blank in the head, as the mainly Alawi officers didn’t trust their loyalty under fire. It was assumed that they would fire high, or desert with their weapons—and many did.

“We should make a movie,” I remember saying at around 3 a.m. one night. A movie that showed all the complications, interconnections, and contradictions. It wasn’t that farfetched. My little sister is a producer in New York; she could send us a camera, help us edit it.

It should have four main characters, we decided, then debated where they should be from, and from which classes, sects, and ideologies. How their lives would intersect and change in ways that would illuminate everything. Sakher was the most eager to set to work on it.

We never wrote a word. And now its imaginary scope has grown, as we have bounced around, learning new systems of payment, measurement, transportation. What we pictured as the constellation of relations between cities and between each city and its countryside is now a tangled cats-cradle of multiple countries and continents. What are left are stray clips and shots caught by cell phones, unscripted glimpses of a society broken and scattered.

There’s Ahmad’s video of a dull, white expanse of German countryside. The scene spins around to a close-up of him laughing, his beard, coat, and shoes covered with snow. He has made good on his promise, and in December he walked out of the Hungarian camp and onto a bus to Germany, where in February, his petition for residency got rejected. His fingerprints, after all, are still in Hungary.

There’s Sakher’s photo of morning on the Aegean: Visible over the shoulders of migrants crowded into the bilim, beyond its thick gray prow, is the green-and-tan curve of Caius Island. Many more pictures show him posing, safely ashore, in the garish tropical shorts and fat fanny pack of a tourist.

And then from Syria, ground zero of the exodus, there is Abed’s video of his niece and nephews returned to the green mountains of their birth. It is a bittersweet homecoming: the land is hardly their own, and a regime plane circles overhead, dropping bombs on a nearby village. Against this backdrop, Haneen is trying to cheer her fretful youngest brother up.

“You’re not afraid?” Abed encourages her from off camera. “Are you laughing at the plane?” Grinning and clutching a bouquet of bright yellow dandelions, she laughs her assent. “Do you want to dance at the plane, to show you’re not afraid?”

It is not in her power to stop the bombs from falling, or to escape their reach. So she makes the only choice she has: giggling, with a spastic shimmy, she dances.

*Several names have been changed because of safety concerns.

*Correction: This sentence and paragraph have been changed. Originally they incorrectly stated that Sakher was holding the knife on the raft. He was not; he was watching the man who was holding a knife.

Jennifer MacKenzie is a professor of English and journalism at Lehman College in the Bronx. Her book of poems, My Not-My Soldier, winner of the Fence Books Modern Poets Series, was published in December of 2014.

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Terrorism in the Age of the Internet Tue, 12 May 2015 17:29:30 +0000 (Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/AP Images)

(Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/AP Images)

The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace
by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara
Oxford University Press, 2015

Issue #12 of Inspire magazine came out in the spring of 2014, in the form of a 37 page-long .pdf file. Published by al-Qaeda, Inspire features opinion writing, interviews, and instructions for making bombs, all in English. There’s professional-grade graphic design. Near the back, the magazine also includes a poem. It begins:

To understand the present u must study the past,
To prevent more reaction u better make change fast.
2007 this bloody chapter began,
During the invasion of Irāq and Afghanistān.

Inspire launched in 2010. It’s only available online. Reading it, you feel like you’re encountering not just a piece of propaganda, but an entire genre, characterized by paranoia, casual references to violence, and an obsessive contempt for authority. All of this is expressed with a kind of ironic swagger. “Inspire Magazine’s goal is to empower Muslim youth,” explains the introduction to a bomb-building tutorial in Issue 12. “In this section we give you strength, power and intelligence. Believe me, using car bombs gives you all that.”

Inspire is just one of the many digital tools that violent religious groups employ. By one recent estimate, ISIS supporters now operate at least 46,000 Twitter accounts. It reaches potential recruits through platforms like Tumblr. Al-Qaeda operatives post videos online. Issues of Inspire appear, again and again, on the hard drives of terror suspects and plotters (Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly used instructions from the magazine to build their Boston Marathon bomb). So do the digitized sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda cleric killed in a 2011 drone strike. Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian, spent years haunting Christian nationalist and white supremacist blogs and chatrooms before murdering 77 people on a single day in 2011.

Is the Web somehow implicated in all this violence? Many of these attackers are millennials, and one begins to feel that our cultural anxieties about terror dovetail quite neatly with our anxieties about the Internet. In both cases, there’s the feeling that it’s easier than ever to come unmoored from real life (whatever exactly that is) and drift off into some private, intangible niche—a World of Warcraft avatar, a network of pseudonymous friends, or, perhaps, the encompassing ideology of a violent religious fringe.

The link between the Internet and radicalism is scary, unprecedented, and vague. As a result, it is ripe grounds for hyperbolic punditry. So let us celebrate the The Devil’s Long Tail for the rarity that it is: a serious, scholarly book about extreme behaviors on the Internet. Its authors, the British academics David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara, study politics on the Web. For them, the question is not whether the Internet is a useful tool for violent extremists—it definitely is—but whether there’s something distinctive about digital technology that drives radicalization, or makes radical positions turn violent more readily.

Stevens and O’Hara are too constrained in their analysis to fully answer those questions. But even their partial analysis is meticulous and important. Above all, The Devil’s Long Tail forces us to confront some pervasive, poorly founded assumptions about contemporary acts of terror: namely, that radicalism stems from the spread of dangerous ideas, and that the Web somehow changes certain fundamental dynamics of human society. The Internet may be a tool for violent extremists. But it alone can neither create nor eliminate them. “There is no ‘solution’ to the problem of violent religious extremist,” Stevens and O’Hara conclude. “The violent are always with us.”

The Devil’s Long Tail may be an unflashy book, but it frames its central questions with the help of a TED-talk-friendly concept—the long tail thesis. Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson coined the term “long tail” in 2004 to describe what he saw as a key difference between online and offline commerce. Anderson observed that store space online is unlimited, unlike in a physical store. As a result, he argued, the web makes it easier to sell products that are esoteric, fringe, or niche.

If a physical shop has to choose between stocking Taylor Swift’s 2012 album “Red” or the Tom Tom Club’s self-titled 1981 release, they’re almost certainly going to find a bigger customer base for Swift. On iTunes, it’s possible to sell both. The Taylor Swift fans are happy, but there’s more room for Tom Tom Club fandom to develop and thrive. “There’s still demand for big cultural buckets, but they’re no longer the only market,” Anderson wrote in his 2006 book, The Long Tail. “The hits now compete with an infinite number of niche markets, of any size.”

The idea has a kind of intuitive appeal, in that it confirms two widely held cultural beliefs about the Internet. The first is that the Internet is driving the growth of weird subcultures (kids these days!). The second is that the Internet elevates the marginal—that it’s a tool not only for those with wayward artistic tastes, but also for political dissidents, protesters, and others with limited access to traditional media. This is the democratizing case for the Internet, and it’s one that we hear repeatedly in the wake of major social upheavals, such as the first months of the Arab Spring, when protesters in Tahrir Square organized their campaign using social media.

But as Stevens and O’Hara remind us, the people organizing on the fringe aren’t always so friendly. If you view the Web as a marketplace for everything, including ideological positions, then religious radicalism is certainly a niche product. “When the marketplace of religious ideas moves online, the hypothesis is that it will manifest properties of online markets,” Stevens and O’Hara write. “In particular, minority views will be better catered for.” You no longer have to be in a major city to encounter, say, a community of al-Qaeda sympathizers. They’re as accessible in Roanoke and Grand Rapids as they are in London and Paris. The devil, too, can have a long tail.

But does it? Stevens and O’Hara argue, convincingly, that the long tail thesis probably doesn’t do much to explain religious radicalism today. For one thing, the empirical evidence for the long tail thesis has proven to be spotty. The Web does make it easier to sell niche goods. But it also includes systems of recommendation and networking that draw people back toward mainstream ideas. In the case of political countercultures online, the Internet does offer a new forum for fringe players—but also new tools of surveillance and broadcast for those who are already in power. The technology cuts both ways.

A bigger shortcoming is that the long tail thesis does little to explain where these tastes come from in the first place. Why do I prefer the Tom Tom Club to Taylor Swift? Or, more relevantly, why does someone prefer the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki to those of a less violent cleric?

One possibility, of course, is that the Internet helps create new preferences. In market terms, it actually manufactures demand. A teenager goes online, and comes into contact with new, dangerous ideas. These ideas transform the individual from a mild-mannered thinker into a violent extremist. Stevens and O’Hara call this the DAM (dumb-and-malleable) thesis. The idea is that people on the religious fringe are brainwashed by “charismatic leaders preying on the emotionally and mentally vulnerable.”

The authors of The Devil’s Long Tail have little patience for these ideas, which, they decide, butt up against “a feature about religious belief that causes a significant problem for the DAM thesis: namely, the facts.” There’s little evidence that religious people are dumber than non-religious people. Even as the world modernizes and globalizes, religion persists. And there are disturbingly rational reasons someone might seek out a radical ideological position. None of these details, Stevens and O’Hara point out, support the DAM thesis.

In the specific context of the Internet, it might be better to call DAM the Little Red Riding Hood thesis of radicalization. Essentially, the Web is excellent hunting ground for wolves. It’s big, it’s messy, and it’s elegantly engineered for predatory marketing. Young people—our Little Red Riding Hoods—wander onto the Internet and fall into the clutches of these mongers of dangerous ideas. Next minute, they’re off to Syria.

Bad ideas, corrupting the youth: this may sound like a caricature, but it’s the basis for quite a lot of serious policy interventions aimed at Internet radicalization. The French government runs online ad campaigns to discourage would-be militants. The Netherlands has developed a program designed for “tackling the content of the terrorists’ narrative.” A major United States government document in 2006 described the war on terror as “a battle of ideas.”

Ideas matter. But young people aren’t passive sheep. When it comes to joining a radical group, Stevens and O’Hara argue, “the reasons are not primarily spiritual or theological, but rather the comparatively mundane ones of social goods and belonging.” Radical groups offer a tight-knit social group, a strong sense of purpose, and social power. You can seek those social goods without being dumb, malleable, and brainwashed. And you can hold onto them even if the intellectual justification doesn’t quite hang together.

To return to our analogy, Little Red Riding Hood isn’t taken unawares. Posting signs that warn, “Hey, wolves are here, watch out!”—which, essentially, is what government counter-propaganda does—is unlikely to be effective when Little Red Riding is in the forest expressly because she wants to find a wolf.

It’s also possible that Internet culture makes people likelier to want the kinds of social perks that some radical groups offer. Stevens and O’Hara suggest that digital culture could be making us lonelier and more isolated. They wonder if the Internet engenders a kind of digital anomie—a condition in which “the individual feels purposeless, uninvolved in wider society,” and outside of social norms. Under those conditions, they speculate, some young people might heed the call of ideological violence. Cut off from mainstream culture, they may fall into narrow, self-reinforcing subcultures—what the scholar Cass Sunstein calls an echo chamber effect.

To test this idea of anomie, The Devil’s Long Tail draws on the work of Sherry Turkle, an MIT scholar who studies relationships in the digital era. Turkle is a prominent critic of digital life, which she sees as isolating. Stevens and O’Hara apply Turkle’s ideas to their model of radicalization, to see if it all fits.

Unfortunately, this focus on Turkle is baffling. Of all the commentators on Internet culture, why did they choose write so much about Turkle? It’s not clear, especially because Stevens and O’Hara seem to have little regard for her work, which is fairly polemical and anecdote-driven. The basement-dwelling chatroom radical is mostly an illusion. “Our online friends tend to be our offline friends as well,” Stevens and O’Hara caution. There’s ample data to back them up. “Indeed, the division between our online and offline lives is not easy to draw.”

As a springboard to investigate the effects of Internet use on the mind, it’s not clear why The Devil’s Long Tail focuses on this one vague, poorly supported notion of digital anomie. And, in doing so, Stevens and O’Hare avoid a major area where Internet culture is entangled with violent extremism: the world of online celebrity. Slick videos have become an ISIS hallmark. Both Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse school shooter, and Amedy Coulibaly, who took more than a dozen hostages at the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery store in Paris this past January, carried GoPro cameras during their attacks. The light, portable cameras are popular among extreme sports enthusiasts, who post their videos to YouTube. Coulibaly reportedly recorded footage during his standoff with the police. Merah posted graphic video of his attacks while on the run.

Terror is a route to cultural significance and celebrity. And there’s no question that the Web has reshaped the dynamics of celebrity in our culture. Is there a connection here? The book needs some exploration of the issue. Still, Stevens and O’Hara have done a service, in that they help refocus the conversation away from the narrative of brainwashed-teens-online, and toward a more disturbing reality: namely, that extremist positions, even violent ones, may offer something real and enticing to many young people.

The Internet, of course, can help things along. But “we should always remember that technology does not cause violence or terrorism; it may facilitate it, like roads, telephones or Hallowe’en masks, all of which can be and have been used with profit by terrorist groups,” Stevens and O’Hara write. You can fret about Twitter or spar over doctrine, but you’ll just be obscuring far older, more entrenched issues at play. In mass society, religious radicalism is a way to wield power. As long as people want that particular form of power, they will find ways to get it.

So what should governments do? The answer, perhaps, at least when it comes to online radicalization, is disconcerting: very little, if anything at all. Bumbling efforts at counter-propaganda seem to do little, failing to address the individual desires that, according to Stevens and O’Hara, drive young people to radical positions. Massive programs of surveillance and restriction curtail the freedoms of the many in order to inconvenience a few. “The hardest thing for a politician to do is ‘nothing,’” Stevens and O’Hara write at the end of their book. It’s sobering advice. And, absent a compelling reason otherwise, it may be the best we have.

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C., and an associate editor at Religion Dispatches magazine, where he co-produces The Cubit.

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A Parade, a Boycott, and a Jewish Group’s Struggle for Acceptance Tue, 05 May 2015 15:51:55 +0000 (Getty/Michael Stewart)

(Getty/Michael Stewart)

On the 11th floor of a Seventh Avenue office building in New York City, an oversized silver mezuzah hangs beside a mahogany door. The dark wood is emblazoned with the words “New Israel Fund” in gold letters, inscribed in both English and Hebrew. Inside, the walls of the office are painted with the same blue and white of the Israeli flag.

The New Israel Fund (NIF) was founded in 1979 to expand the reach of the United Jewish Appeal, a philanthropic organization that worked to provide aid for Jewish and Israeli communities worldwide. Today, the NIF has offices in 12 cities in 6 different countries, from Jerusalem to Miami. The organization advocates for the advancement of “democracy and equality for all Israelis” by providing funding for NGOs that promote “human rights, social justice and religious pluralism” for every inhabitant of the Jewish State, both Jew and Arab. “The NIF is a pro-democratic, Israeli organization that’s based in the roots of Zionism,” says Itzik Shanan, an Israeli employee of the NIF in Jerusalem.

The NIF states that it works towards a progressive Jewish State that lives up to its founder’s vision of a just, egalitarian society. “Work needs to be done to close the gap between where Israel is now and what was outlined in the Declaration of Independence,” says Jimmy Taber, NIF’s associate director for development in the NY/Tri-State area.

The organization, however, has sparked controversy because of its opposition to Israeli settler and military activity within Palestinian territories. The NIF considers the settlements to be an impediment to the peace offered by the two-state solution and this position is reflected in the agendas of the NGOs they fund. For example, NIF supports Breaking the Silence, an organization that documents testimonies of Israeli soldiers, which highlight the abuses of the military against Palestinians. The NIF’s opponents are adamant that this practice is treacherously anti-Israel. “They fund organizations that are calling for the delegitimization of Israel in the European community,” says Richard Allen, founder of the conservative watchdog group JCCWatch. “These are organizations that are very, very evil.”

For several years now, Taber and his colleagues at the NIF have been dealing with this controversy in the context of, of all things, a parade. The NIF’s critics have wanted the organization banned from New York City’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade, an event that bills itself as “the single largest gathering in the world in support of Israel.” Last year more than 200 Jewish organizations, from the conservative Park Avenue synagogue to the Chai Motorcycle Riders Association, joined in the event as more than 35,000 participants waved Israeli flags and banners while they marched and rode floats down Fifth Avenue. The UJA-Federation of New York, the current incarnation of the United Jewish Appeal, funds the event, which will be held on May 31 this year. Michael Mittelman, the director of the event, says that the intention behind the American parade has always been to “show there is much affinity for Israel in our community and that celebrating Israel can unite people with different views, beliefs and agendas.” For this reason, overt political lobbying groups, such as the progressive group J Street, are excluded from participating.

The parade was inaugurated in 1965, and the New Israel Fund has been marching since the organization was founded in 1979. But this year, thanks to new parade rules, the anti-NIF camp has reason to believe that the group might actually be banned. The furor surrounding the NIF’s participation in the parade illustrates how tough it can be to maintain a progressive Zionist identity at a time when the Jewish State is feeling particularly besieged, both by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and from international opposition to the state’s policies. In this anxiety-provoking climate, the voice of the liberal Zionist finds itself attacked all on sides.

In the registration form for the 2015 Celebrate Israel Parade, the parade’s organizers, the New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the branch of the UJA-Federation that coordinates community events, explicitly banned any organizations that support the boycott of Israel. The stipulation stems from antagonism against the 10-year-old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which wants the global community to impose non-violent pressure on Israel so that it ends what BDS proponents consider to be the colonial oppression of Palestinians. The new rule reads: “All groups must oppose, not fund, nor advocate for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel by not recognizing it as a Jewish State.”

The New Israel Fund insists it opposes BDS. “The reality is we don’t support BDS,” Taber says. But not everyone believes the organization’s leaders. “They are calling for a boycott of Israeli companies,” Allen argues. “Their goal is to distance American Jews from supporting the state of Israel, which is clearly against the purpose of the Israel Parade.” Allen has been leading the charge against the NIF’s parade participation for several years. Last April, he organized a rally of 200 people outside the headquarters of the UJA-Federation to protest their inclusion.

The NIF’s position on the boycott movement is nuanced and easily misunderstood. Their statement on the movement reads: “NIF will not fund global BDS activities nor support organizations that have global BDS programs.” While they are against the global movement to boycott the Jewish State as a whole, they are willing to support organizations that advocate for a boycott of companies that profit from Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. However, Naomi Paiss, a spokeswoman for the NIF, recently told Haaretz that this policy remains, at this point, hypothetical. Currently, no NIF grantee advocates for a settlement boycott. “Recognize and explain the difference between the global BDS movement and the right that Israeli citizens have to protest with their pockets,” writes Stephanie Ives, the NY/Tri-State state director for the NIF, in an op-ed for The Jewish Week.

The NIF’s opponents refuse to see the distinction. “[The settlements] are part of Israel, and any boycott of Israel is harmful,” writes Ronn Torossian, a PR expert who represents conservative Israeli interests, in an editorial for The New York Observer. “This isn’t a matter of right versus left,” argues Torossian, in another op-ed penned for The New York Post. He writes, “Those who stand with the New Israel Fund are wrong—as are those who’d let it march in our city’s Celebrate Israel Parade.”

Since February, the NIF’s opponents have ramped up their attacks, and criticism of the NIF has gone beyond concern over the legitimacy of their presence at the parade. The Jewish Daily Forward went so far as to describe it as a smear campaign. “This is a character assassination of the worst kind,” wrote Deborah Lipstadt and David Ellenson. In early March, Pamela Geller, the controversial conservative political activist, announced that an ad campaign worth $100,000, indicting the NIF of seeking Israel’s destruction, would soon be running on the sides of New York City buses, just in time for the parade. The banner ad is jet black. In one corner reads the hashtag “Jewicidal” and in another corner is the slogan “BDS: the new Nazism.” Just above the text is a wartime photograph depicting Nazi persecution of German Jews. “There’s one side of it that’s just sad,” Taber says. “It’s a real violent rhetoric that seems to be coming from a place of fear.”


THE BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT and Sanctions (BDS) movement was initiated in 2005. A multitude of Palestinian groups endorsed a global “Call for BDS,” which requested that the international community impose on Israel similar cultural, trade, and financial restrictions to those placed upon apartheid-era South Africa. The call was intended to peacefully delimit Israel until the state agreed to three concessions: first, to end its “Occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”; second, to ensure “the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel”; and third, to grant the right for all Palestinians to return to “their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

For many Jews, the problem with the initial Palestinian call for BDS and the traction the movement has since gained internationally is that it encases an anti-Israel agenda in what Ilan Troen, the director of Brandeis University’s Center for Israel Studies, maintains is merely “the language of human rights.” Gideon Aronoff, CEO of Ameinu, a liberal Zionist organization that is firmly against the boycott movement, says, “When people say they support the global BDS movement they, intentionally or unintentionally, are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.”

Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and political writer at Columbia University, agrees. Writing in Tablet magazine last year, he described the global BDS movement in terms of what he calls “the politics of ‘radical’ gestures.” He wrote, “BDS looks like a plausible feel-good proposition for people who are weary of endless bloodshed,” but “many supporters of BDS do not understand, or have not thought through, just what they are subscribing to.” For example, while the Call’s first objective appears to be a reasonable, progressive request, Gitlin says the phrase “is coded to imply the very existence of the state of Israel, as recognised in 1948, is what constitutes ‘colonization.’” In other words, for the occupation and the colonization of all Arab lands to end, Israel would have to be geographically dismantled. Aronoff argues that the parade’s new rule thus reflects a “fairly mainline Jewish organizational position.”

Mittelman did not respond to a request for an explanation as to why the new anti-BDS rule was added to the event registration. Aronoff, though, said, “The Celebrate Israel Parade is intended by organizers to be a feel-good, unifying event. There is a strong desire for it to not be a source of controversy.” Clarifying parade policy was meant to prevent further protest. It was not, he argues, an attempt to exclude progressive organizations like the NIF. But unfortunately the new rule, rather than allay uncertainty, has only contributed to the confusion.

At the beginning of this year, when the parade’s registration packet was first released, the New Israel Fund’s conservative opponents rejoiced because it seemed clear that the NIF would not be able to participate. “Those who dedicate their time to demonizing Israel have no place in a parade to celebrate Israel,” said Michael Dickson, director of a pro-Israel advocacy organization called StandWithUs, who “lauded the new guidelines,” according to the Times of Israel. In the same piece, Matan Peleg, CEO of Im Tirtzu, an Israeli extra-parliamentary Zionist group, is quoted as saying that the new rule “is a giant leap for American Zionism. It is saying that those who reject Israel as a democratic state and are pro-BDS are not with us.”

However, it’s currently impossible to know for certain whether the NIF will or will not participate. In February, Mittelman told the Times of Israel that a list of participating organizations will not be released until a week prior to the date of the parade. Taber says, “We’re preparing for the parade the same as every year.” He says that the New Israel Fund’s policies match the parade’s developed guidelines, so he thinks they will be marching. “ It’s important for us to participate because we are part of this community,” he says.

Meanwhile the attacks on the NIF continue to rage. Taber mentions a cartoon that was uploaded to YouTube in the middle of February. It’s titled “The Eternal Jew?” The animation portrays a hook-nosed Jewish caricature carrying out the nefarious bidding of a European financier who wants to run newspaper headlines depicting Israel in a negative light. The cartoon ends with the traitorous Jew hanging himself from a tree, the final order of his European puppet-master. Logos belonging to a number of progressive organizations, including the New Israel Fund’s, are then displayed next to the swinging body. A narrator announces, “The Europeans may seem different to you … but to them you are exactly the same.”

“It’s the most anti-Semitic attack I’ve ever suffered,” Taber says, “and it was made by Israelis.” The Samaria Settler Council, an organization that protects Israeli rights in the occupied territories, produced the piece of propaganda. Aronoff stresses how this “grotesquely un-nuanced way of thinking” serves as a political tool for the far right. It works to “silence voices on the left and to promote their exclusive political orthodoxy,” he says. By bracketing all leftist groups under the alarm-sounding label of the global BDS movement, ultra-conservative Jews are able to “justify a campaign against all progressive organizations.”

Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, who works at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center, says that this is what’s truly problematic about the controversy surrounding the parade. “People are getting a suspicion of something that’s based on lies, and yet it’s a very powerful campaign,” she says.

In spite all of this Taber remains undeterred. Being a Zionist while sustaining a progressive vision can certainly have its challenges, but that’s why he’s proud to be a part of the work the NIF does. “People feel shutdown by the dominant discourse,” Taber says. “They feel alienated.” He adds, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Jas Chana is a freelance journalist who is based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @jsjchana.

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The Past Imperfect of Barack Obama Tue, 14 Apr 2015 14:03:47 +0000 (AP Photo/Bill Frakes)

(AP Photo/Bill Frakes)

Speaking at the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches last month, President Obama posed a question that captured why many continue to view him as hope personified, while others seem to see him as an existential threat. “What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished?” he asked.

“Not yet finished”: That’s the line that separates worship of the founders from belief in the unrealized potential of what they began; it divides those who are nostalgic for freedoms supposedly lost which now must be restored, from those who recognize that the freedoms enjoyed by some have always been partial, while the struggle continues to guarantee them for all.

In case anyone missed that first “not yet,” Obama offered it four more times before the Selma speech was done: “We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won … Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.”

More than merely a well-crafted string of phrases on a significant occasion, the notion that the United States is “not yet perfect” may be the single most enduring theme of Obama’s political life.

The speech largely credited with saving his candidacy in 2008—itself called “A More Perfect Union”—relied on the rhetorical interplay of “perfect” as an adjective and “perfect” as a verb. “This union may never be perfect,” he said, “but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

Given in response to the controversy surrounding his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, the speech addressed race especially as “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.”

This was for him not only an assessment of history, but a profession of faith. “I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people,” he said, “that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Many commentators have proposed that the president’s “A More Perfect Union” speech and his recent remarks in Selma are companion pieces. But they might be seen instead as reframings of the same simple yet subtly subversive idea that has repeatedly emerged for Obama at moments of crisis or reflection: While at no point in its history could the United States be described as perfect, he insists, it remains the responsibility of its citizens to attempt to perfect it. Hints that the word matters more to him as an act than a description were there even in his 2007 announcement that he would seek the presidency: “I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America.”

Given the number of times he has said the words, and all that those words say about his understanding of what the country has been and could be, there’s a case to be made that “Not Yet Perfect” might prove to be Obama’s “Shining City Upon a Hill.”

Of course, it is also the antithesis of everything Ronald Reagan intended whenever he used that more famous phrase. For Reagan, the biblical “city upon a hill,” which Governor John Winthrop entreated the settlers of Massachusetts to build, presented a scriptural vision of history as something to be emulated rather than overcome. And while the promise of “not yet perfect” is for Obama ultimately a matter of faith, Reagan’s “city” suggests a very different religious interpretation of the past. As he explained a moment before he first used the phrase, at Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974:

You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage … Call it chauvinistic, but our heritage does set us apart.

Reagan would go on to use his version of the “city upon a hill” at every major juncture in his public life, including three campaigns for the presidency, two administrations, and most significantly in the farewell address that marked his departure from the national stage. Describing his last week in the White House in January 1989, he closed his final remarks as president with an elaboration of his understanding of what Winthrop might have had in mind three and a half centuries before:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

Had PolitiFact been around in 1989, someone might have noted that Winthrop’s city was never “shining,” nor was it as well established as the thriving and cinematic cityscape Reagan described. It is also a remarkable feat of revisionism to praise the governor who exiled iconic figures of early American religious dissent like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams as a “freedom man.”

Yet the most interesting departure from history in this American creation myth may be that though Reagan spoke often of the courage it took to reach this city, his city upon a hill, “built on rocks stronger than oceans,” was divinely guaranteed success in a way Winthrop’s was not. The past was not only prologue, it was an ideal to which he hoped the nation might return.

In the forty years since Reagan successfully repainted the origins of the United States with this broad brush, nearly every national candidate has repeated some version of “city upon a hill” as creed and shibboleth. Even Obama made use of this well-worn phrase—and perhaps inevitably he did so through the filter of “not yet perfect.” Invoking Winthrop while speaking in Massachusetts as the junior senator from Illinois, he delivered a 2006 commencement address that at once echoed and questioned earlier allusions:

It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a city upon a hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.

For over two hundred years, it has. Not because our dream has progressed perfectly. It hasn’t. It has been scarred by our treatment of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation of women, wounded by racism, shaken by war and depression. Yet, the true test of our union is not whether it’s perfect, but whether we work to perfect it.

Obama’s “city upon a hill” did not depart as far from Reagan’s interpretation as it at first might seem. After all, he still insisted that it was with a Puritan dream that the “American experiment began.” He would not embrace this dream, however, without acknowledging how it had been “scarred”—a mixed metaphor, but an arresting one: a wounded city upon a wounded hill.

Taking into account as it does the many ways the country it describes has not lived up to its ideals, this revised sense of the “city upon a hill,” has not yet supplanted the 40th president’s “shining” notion, and it is unlikely to do so. But in any case, since Obama first spoke the words nearly a decade ago, the limits and the potential of the nation’s perfectability have set the tone for much of the campaign and presidential rhetoric that followed.

Heard by some as an apology or admonishment, and by others as a stirring call to action, recognition of the nation’s flaws is risky political theater. Yet after overwhelming victories in two elections, Obama’s past imperfect has mostly paid off— certainly in terms of his own astonishing rise, and perhaps also as a catalyst for increased willingness to consider the light and the dark of the nation’s history.

Only the coming campaign season will tell if this kind of retrospection has had lasting effect. When asked to choose between directions for the future, voters in 2016 may also face a choice between visions of the past.

Peter Manseau is the author most recently of One Nation Under Gods: A New American History, from which this essay is adapted. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.

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What Can Be Done about Segregation in Churches? Tue, 07 Apr 2015 17:04:38 +0000

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Pictured is the Rev. Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In the wake of police violence that led to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the protests that followed, religious leaders are again confronting the challenges racism continues to pose for them and their communities. This is nothing new for African American clergy, who have long been active in combating racism. But there is also growing evidence that white Christian leaders are taking these issues more seriously. A December 2014 poll by Lifeway Research found that “9 in 10 (91 percent) white pastors say racial reconciliation is mandated by the Gospel.”

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), was especially unequivocal: “A government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.” In late March, the SBC hosted “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation Summit” in Nashville, to discuss and plan for greater interracial unity in its churches. “There is a biblical command and a national command that we hold all people equal,” said John M. Perkins, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi. He added that the best way to overcome racism “is to develop multi-cultural churches.”

Of course, the SBC event was only one prominent effort out of many that religious communities have organized this past year to confront racism and diversity issues. In January, the United Church of Christ released a pastoral letter on racism as part of conversations it hosts “to confront the sin of racism in our desire to see the Church live and be as one.” Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church’s Wesley Theological Seminary hosted a panel of white and black church leaders on how faith communities can address the U.S. racial divide. The bishops of the Episcopal Church met on March 17 and announced they will write their most far-reaching pastoral letter on the “pervasive sin” of racism. The letter, according to Bishop Todd Ousley, will discuss the legacy of slavery and the “contemporary experience of the results of racism and divisions in this country and elsewhere around race.”

Although racial reconciliation has become a buzzword, its meaning in today’s social and political landscape eludes easy definition. The old adage, that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, still rings true today. According to Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson, churches are 10 times more segregated than the neighborhoods they inhabit and 20 times more segregated than nearby public schools. One sociological study, to which Emerson contributed, notes that all Christian traditions—Catholic, Mainline, and Evangelical—are “hypersegregated.”

To ministers who are sensitive to the religious injunction to overcome racism but who understand their institutional reality, the tremendous challenge posed by racism weighs heavily upon their minds. Amid this confusion, many church leaders wonder what is to be done. Yet too often another equally important question gets ignored: What has been tried already?


IN 1946, THE AGING scholar and pioneering civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois observed a church on the West Coast, which he noted was doing what some might deem “strange and unpleasant things.” What he meant was that this church, to his astonishment, was bringing people of different races together. “I noted in my recent visit a movement which has no parallel so far as I know in other parts of the United States; and that is an attempt at interracial churches; at actually welcoming into a Christian church representatives of various races of people and carrying on the services and activities with reference to the well-being of these people.”

Du Bois was speaking of the interracial Church of Christian Fellowship of Los Angeles, a church planted in 1946 by Harold M. Kingsley. But he could have said much the same thing about three other California faith communities: the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, the South Berkeley Community Church, and the Albany Fellowship Church. These were experimental churches, which self-consciously brought together clergy and laity across racial lines.

As one congregation put it in WWII-era language, “Some people call us a ‘mixed’ congregation, for we are of many races: Negro, Oriental, Caucasian. We come from many economic backgrounds. But we do not think of ourselves as ‘mixed.’ We are a homogeneous people, liking each other as people, and knit together in the belief that God’s wisdom does not tolerate the words, ‘minority’ and ‘prejudice.’”

These congregations started small but grew quickly. A newspaper reported that the South Berkeley Community Church had grown to 175 within a year of its founding in 1943 and “attendance at Sunday services averages 55% Negro, 40% white and a few Chinese, church records reveal.” In a few years it would reach a peak of about 300 members. Du Bois observed that the Los Angeles church’s chief pastor was black, one assistant pastor was a white Quaker, and another was of Japanese descent. They were integrated in both pew and pulpit.

These churches developed a multiculturalism that would become common later in the century. The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, for example, organized a choir that was “a United Nations in miniature, is demonstrating harmony—both musically and racially,” according to the church’s newsletter. The quintet, four men and one woman, went professional and organized a singing tour and put out a record. They were even invited to the United Nations cultural meetings as a model of racial harmony.

California’s interracial churches traced their roots to Philadelphia and to clergy who created the Philadelphia Fellowship in 1936 as a means to gather people from established churches, mostly black and white, to meet each other. It was modeled on the “Interracial Sunday” meetings, which began in the 1920s as a once-a-year gathering of congregations of different races. Its guiding assumption was that bringing people together would undo harmful stereotypes and reduce prejudice. Fellowships based on the Philadelphia model were also organized in Baltimore, New York, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. In the 1940s, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all boasted full-fledged interracial churches as well.

But California played a pioneering role. In the 1940s, racial tensions in California were mounting as African Americans migrated from the South in search of work in defense industries. The black population of Berkeley, for example, rose by more than 400 percent, while Oakland’s black population rose by more than 500 percent in the 1940s. During WWII, race riots in Detroit and New York left dozens dead and hundreds injured. In addition, virtually all people of Japanese descent—the vast majority of them American citizens—had been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into internment camps. These events were on the minds of the founders of the interracial churches.

Alfred Fisk, a white philosophy professor, proposed founding an interracial church to the local Presbyterian board as a way to alleviate mounting racial tensions in San Francisco. Fisk, an ordained Presbyterian minister, convinced the famous African-American theologian Howard Thurman to serve as co-pastor at the Fellowship of All Peoples. In Berkeley, Buell Gallagher and Roy Nichols served as co-pastors at the South Berkeley Community Church, which opened its doors in 1943. The South Berkeley Community Church was self-consciously placed in a “transitioning” neighborhood—one that was once predominantly white but was experiencing an influx of African Americans—in order to keep the neighborhood integrated by first creating an integrated church.

Looking beyond their neighborhoods, interracial churches weaved themselves into a national network of activists. At the San Francisco Fellowship of All Peoples, Thurman boasted, “There are nearly 2500 associate members and friends scattered throughout the United States and several in foreign lands.” These churches served as meeting places for anti-racist political organizations, they became active in local politics, they plugged into the nationwide struggle against segregation, and they became part of the movement that helped end Jim Crow in America.


ON A SUNDAY MORNING in February, I sat in the pews of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. About 20 people attended the service. Many of them had graying heads, like the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, who was a captivating and sincere speaker. The church has retained a diverse membership and the co-pastor system. The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton led the congregation in a meditation session. Despite its diminished stature, the Fellowship is doing better than its peer institutions from the 1940s in the Bay Area. The South Berkeley Community Church is defunct, with a small group of well-wishers working to save the empty building by declaring it an architectural landmark. The Albany church has entirely vanished.

Interracial churches met the same fate as the mainline denominations that sponsored them, which lost many of their young members beginning in the 1960s and have been shrinking and aging ever since. But that is only part of the story. Beginning in the 1950s, tensions in these congregations increased between its black and white members. At the South Berkeley Church disagreements developed over worship style and control of resources that ripped the congregation apart. The old idea of bringing people together to dispel prejudice had run its course and congregants began asking more enduring and intractable questions about power and control over resources. People of different races had been brought together, but now, what was to be done when prejudice did not seem to melt away?

Howard Thurman’s answer to these tensions was interracial worship: through mystical experiences achieved during joint worship, an underlying spiritual unity would be achieved without sacrificing the distinctiveness of each individual’s cultural background. He implemented a ministerial internship program, designed to train young pastors to be more sensitive to the problems of racism and segregation. He hoped interracial worship would spread like wildfire throughout the country.

Others took an opposite stance, insisting on black power and autonomy. One such pastor, Albert Cleage, had trained at the Fellowship of All Peoples with Thurman in the 1940s. The ultimate barometer for Cleage was not how many blacks and whites worshiped in the same church but how vibrant and dynamic the black church was. Disillusioned with the trappings of Thurman’s church, Cleage went on to found the Shrine of the Black Madonna, where he preached black self-determination and became an important political figure in Detroit. Cleage reminds us that the goal of blacks and whites worshipping together is always in tension with questions of power and control, especially when it comes to worship style and church governance.

The interracial churches of the mid-twentieth century also remind us about the limits of what used to be called “social engineering.” Today many African Americans argue that they have a thriving religious tradition that they see no reason to give up in order to create integrated churches, especially if the burden is placed on them to join white churches. There is also good reason to believe that church leaders value increasing diversity in their congregations much more than most churchgoers.

Much like today, the enthusiasm for interracial worship spaces in the 1940s was much more prevalent among denomination leaders and among the more liberal members of the clergy than it was among the laity. The interracial churches attracted mostly upwardly mobile African Americans and Asian Americans from the surrounding neighborhoods and white members were mostly racial liberals who came from faraway places. As projects to create organic communities that drew a broad swath of area residents, these churches were a failure from the beginning.

Where the interracial churches achieved lasting influence was in their political advocacy. Roy Nichols headed the local chapter of the NAACP in the 1950s and was the first African American elected to the district school board. Howard Thurman moved on to Boston University, where he mentored the young Martin Luther King Jr. Buell Gallagher joined the Harry Truman administration, and later became president of City College of New York, where he was known as an outspoken opponent of racism. William Rumford, the first black assembly member to join the California legislature, held organizing meetings at the Berkeley Community Church.

As importantly, interracial churches helped transform their denominations’ position on racism. Nichols, for example, helped integrate the United Methodist Church’s bureaucracy. Likewise, Gallagher pushed for the Congregationalists, and later the United Church of Christ, to combat racism. Protestant leaders like them had not lost sight of church integration as their major goal but they refused to wait for integration to happen at the grassroots before tackling injustice at the local and national level.

As predominantly white denominations make plans for racial reconciliation over the coming years, it is worth remembering that African Americans might have good reasons for not going along with their agenda. If mostly white churches are asked to become more inclusive, some might wonder why African Americans are being asked to join white churches and not the other way around. It is imperative to keep these power dynamics at the forefront and to ask, forthrightly, who is being asked to bear the burden.

There’s very little in this country’s history to suggest that most churches will integrate or that the process will be easy. But other tasks are available to church leaders that do not rely on the vagaries of volunteerism. In addressing racial discrepancies in denominational institutions or in political action, clergy could lead the way. Should Southern Baptists decide to use their political influence to push for legislation designed to monitor local police or alleviate urban poverty, for example, such action could have a far-reaching impact.

The interracial churches of the mid-twentieth century were, indeed, transformative but not in the way their leaders expected. The churches struggled to overcome the difficulties of bridging the racial divides of their era but 11 a.m. hour remained largely segregated across the country. It’s what they did with the other 167 hours of the week that constitutes their most important legacy. Today’s leadership would be wise to learn from their example.

Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation is titled, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960.” Follow him on Twitter.

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Why Law Professor Douglas Laycock Supports Same-Sex Marriage and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law Wed, 01 Apr 2015 15:19:29 +0000 (University of Virginia)

(Courtesy of the University of Virginia)

Last week, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law SB101, the state’s religious freedom bill, which prompted a sharp and vocal backlash. Critics say the bill will allow discrimination against the LGBT community on religious grounds. Amid the furor, law professor Douglas Laycock, himself a supporter of same-sex marriage, has come to the law’s defense. Religion & Politics corresponded with him over email about his views.

Laycock is a leading scholar on religious liberty issues. He had a role in crafting the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act on which state laws like Indiana’s are based. He has also argued a number of important religious liberty cases at the Supreme Court. He is a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia and vice president of the American Law Institute.

R&P: You support same-sex marriage, but you also have come out in support of Indiana’s religious freedom law. Why do you support SB101?

DL: A right to believe your religion, with no right to practice it, is meaningless. It is no more reasonable to expect religious believers not to act on their understanding of God’s will than to expect all gays and lesbians to remain celibate.

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment protects your right to believe a religion, but it provides limited, ambiguous, and highly contested protection for your right to practice a religion. Congress passed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), unanimously in the House and 97-3 in the Senate, to restore legal protection for religious practice. Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed it.

In 1997, the Supreme Court said the federal law could not be applied to the states. If states wanted to protect religious practice they would have to do it themselves. There are now 20 state RFRAs, and 11 more states that have interpreted their state constitution to mean the RFRA standard, so 31 states altogether. This includes all the largest states except California: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, and Florida.

Most of your readers have probably never heard of these laws, except for Hobby Lobby, because they haven’t done anything very controversial. There are very few cases, and the religious side loses far more often than it wins; these laws have been under-enforced, not over-enforced.

The critical fact with respect to all the hysteria over Indiana is this: No one has ever won an exemption from a discrimination law under a RFRA standard. Few have tried, and none have won. There is absolutely no basis in experience for the charge that these laws are a license to discriminate.

R&P: This week Gov. Mike Pence and the state legislature said they would amend the bill to clarify that their state RFRA does not allow discrimination against LGBT individuals. How could this be accomplished? And what precedent is there for this in other states?

DL: They could do something clumsy like exclude all discrimination claims, or all civil rights claims. The Texas RFRA does that. Of course religious liberty is a civil right.

They could do something more nuanced, that identifies the very small set of discrimination claims from which some religious objectors should be exempt, create specific exemptions for those, and exclude all the others from the state RFRA. The recent Utah legislation made an important start in that direction. There is now a statewide law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Utah—the reddest of red states. And there are important religious exemptions. The religious exemptions made it possible to enact a gay rights law.

They didn’t deal with all the issues; the new law doesn’t cover public accommodations. And the national gay rights organizations immediately denounced it and said it’s not a model for anywhere else. My understanding is that conservative legislators thought they had given away far too much, and held their noses as they voted for it.

And that’s really the problem. The two sides are so far apart, so polarized, so deeply mistrustful, that it is extremely difficult for them to agree on anything. The gay rights side increasingly appears to oppose any exemptions at all, except that they still seem to agree that the clergy don’t have to do the weddings. And we can’t even enact basic gay rights laws in most of the red states.

R&P: More broadly, how can states balance the civil liberties of LGBT persons with the religious liberty of others?

DL: Each side has to be allowed some space in which to live their own lives by their own values. We need to enact non-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation in the states that don’t have that. I have filed a brief urging the Court to require marriage equality as a matter of constitutional law, and then to protect the religious liberty of dissenters.

Churches and religious organizations, which generally understand marriage to be an inherently religious relationship, should be allowed to retain their religious definitions of marriage. And for purposes of conducting the work of the church, they should not be required to recognize same-sex civil marriages that are simply not marriages on their religious understanding. This is the most important thing from the religious liberty perspective: inside the religious organization should be an enclave where religious rules control. The gay rights side has been unwilling to concede even that.

No one should get an exemption that permits him to refuse to serve gays and lesbians as such. Gays and lesbians should be free to go about their daily lives without fear of encountering discrimination. No substantial business should get any kind of exemption, even in the specialized cases I am about to discuss. If tasks that are religiously prohibited in the owner’s view will come in ordinary course to a rank-and-file employee who does not object, or can easily be delegated to such an employee, you don’t really need an exemption.

I would exempt counselors from doing marriage counseling or relationship counseling for same-sex couples. It is in no one’s interest to force a counselor to work with a couple, or subject the couple to working with a counselor, if the counselor thinks the couple’s relationship is fundamentally wrong in its very existence. But the gay rights side will not concede even that; important forces want to drive all these conservative religious folks from the helping professions. The principal battleground has been efforts to force graduate students out of their degree programs.

I would exempt very small businesses, where the owner has to be personally involved in providing the services, from doing same-sex weddings. If you understand marriage to be an inherently religious relationship, and a wedding to be an inherently religious event—and if you understand your job as a wedding planner, or caterer, or photographer, to make this wedding the best and most memorable it can be for your clients—and if you understand same-sex marriage to be fundamentally at odds with the Christian or Jewish understanding of marriage, then you believe that you are being asked to commit a sacrilege. You are being asked to promote and help celebrate a religious ceremony that is religiously prohibited.

So I would exempt the very small businesses in the wedding industry, provided that some other reasonably convenient business nearby is available to provide the same goods and services. The gay rights side is unwilling to even think about that. They don’t see that weddings are a religious context; they don’t distinguish declining to do a wedding from simply refusing to serve gays.

I think that any such exemption for small businesses in the wedding industry would have to be specifically legislated. The general language of a state RFRA is not likely to be interpreted to create such an exemption, because judges have always believed that nondiscrimination laws serve a compelling government interest.

And if I sound frustrated with the gay rights side, I am equally frustrated with the conservative religious side. They are often equally adamant in refusing to concede any rights to gays and lesbians. Most of their churches do not teach discrimination against gays as such, but they generally prevent the enactment of gay rights laws in red states, and they remain adamantly opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Neither side is willing to respect the liberty of the other, and that’s the central problem.

R&P: You helped craft the original federal RFRA, signed into law in 1993. What was the purpose of the law then? And why does it still matter now?

DL: I was pretty junior then, and my role has been greatly exaggerated over the years, but I did help. The law was a response to a Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, in 1990. Smith said that the Constitution never protects religious practices from generally applicable laws. It’s still not clear what the Court meant by a generally applicable law. But it was clear that for religious practices to be protected, legislation was required. The federal RFRA was a direct response.

There have not been many cases, but there have been a few. In 2006, the Court unanimously protected a small group in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which uses hoasca as a central feature of its religious services. Hoasca is a mildly hallucinogenic tea from the Brazilian jungle; this is a much larger religion in Brazil. The services are tightly controlled, under the supervision of a religious leader; the participants report a heightened state of spiritual consciousness. The trial judge held a nine-day hearing, and found that the government had not proved either a health risk or a risk of diversion to recreational markets.

And then there is Hobby Lobby, which has also been widely misunderstood. The owners of Hobby Lobby believed they were being asked to pay to kill babies. I wouldn’t characterize it that way, but if that’s what you believe, that’s a very serious thing. For the first time in American history, government had made it unlawful, at least if you were an employer, to practice a well-known teaching of the largest religions in the country. The same-sex marriage debate has the same feature. This attempt to suppress practices of the largest faiths is a new thing in the American experience. And this huge escalation in the level of government regulation of religious practices is of course producing a reaction from religious conservatives, and is part of the reason for the current polarization.

The Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby was actually very narrow. The case was decided on the ground that the government had another way to provide free contraception to all female employees without making the employer pay for it. So the impact on female employees would be “precisely zero.” Hobby Lobby did not say that employees had to do without to accommodate the religious views of their employer; that would be a different case.

The Court recently heard a case based on a similar federal statute that applies the RFRA standard to prisoners, and the Court unanimously protected a Muslim prisoner’s right to grow a beard. [Editor’s note: Laycock was one of the lawyers for the plaintiff in this case.]

So RFRA remains important to protect both tiny minority religions like the group that uses hoasca, major world religions that are a minority in the United States, like the Muslim prisoner, and occasionally, major American religions that are slipping into minority status and losing public policy battles over their fundamental religious commitments.

R&P: Critics argue that the Indiana law is unique compared to the federal and state RFRAs in that it extends protection to businesses and allows lawsuits to be brought by individuals and not just the government. Are those assessments fair and are these differences in Indiana’s law significant?

DL: The assessments are not fair and the differences are not significant. The substantive standard in the Indiana and federal RFRAs is identical, word for word: If government substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion, that burden must be the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

On businesses, both the Indiana RFRA and the federal RFRA protect any “person.” The Indiana RFRA defines “person” to include corporations. Federal law also defines “person” to include corporations, in the very first section of the United States Code, commonly called the Dictionary Act. So the only difference is that in Indiana, the definition appears in the same statute; in the federal RFRA, it appears in a different statute and a different section of the code. In 1998-99, when Congress debated re-enacting a version of the federal RFRA that could be applied to the states, all the leadership on both sides agreed that the language of the federal RFRA covered corporations. When the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby held that the federal RFRA protects corporations, that was a perfectly straightforward reading of the words of the statute.

On private parties, the federal RFRA was clearly intended to provide a possible defense (subject, as always, to the compelling interest test) when a religious organization or believer is sued, whether by a government or a private citizen. The statute specifically mentioned relief against a government, because of concerns about sovereign immunity (the rule that you usually can’t sue a state). And that created an ambiguity; did it mean only against a government? The drafting history is very clear about how this happened, and “only” is not what they said or what they meant.

Most states copied the federal language, and copied the ambiguity. And the New Mexico Supreme Court took advantage of that, and said no RFRA defense in a suit by a private citizen. So the Indiana bill addresses that ambiguity. If your church is feeding the homeless, and the neighbors don’t like it, it really doesn’t matter whether you get sued by the neighbors or sued by the city.

The Indiana RFRA is clear that no one can sue a private citizen under the state RFRA. It merely provides a possible defense if the private citizen sues a religious organization or individual. And the Indiana RFRA is also clear that no one who establishes a successful RFRA defense can recover attorneys’ fees from a private citizen. Fees can be awarded only against the government. I think that each of those points would also be the best reading of the federal RFRA, but the federal RFRA is actually ambiguous on those points. So Indiana didn’t just clarify that it could be invoked against private citizens; it also clarified the protections for those private citizens.

R&P: Two legal contributors to Religion & Politics recently argued that Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on same-sex marriage have spurred on the recent uptick in state RFRAs. What do you think of this claim?

DL: That is partly true. Twenty state RFRAs have been enacted gradually over the last 22 years; most of them are not recent. They are needed with or without the contraception mandate and with or without marriage equality. But some conservatives who feel threatened by marriage equality have pushed RFRAs in response. And some legislators have said silly things about all the protection state RFRAs will provide, promising the base things that they can’t possibly deliver with the general language of a RFRA.

No state RFRA will protect anybody from a Supreme Court decision that says the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage. No more specific language would protect against that either. States will have to recognize those marriages, and every county will have to issue marriage licenses, and if judges perform marriages, some judge in every locality will have to perform same-sex weddings.

All that a state RFRA can protect against is state law. So in Indianapolis, Bloomington, and South Bend, where there are sexual-orientation nondiscrimination laws, a state RFRA could be offered as a defense. But as I said at the beginning, judges have always thought that nondiscrimination laws serve compelling government interests, and no one has ever won a RFRA exemption from a nondiscrimination law. Such a thing may never happen, and if it ever does, it will be in very narrow contexts.

In the rest of Indiana, it was perfectly legal before the RFRA to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; there is no law for anyone to be exempted from. Indiana reporters who have called me have not been aware of any significant practice of discrimination against gays and lesbians. It must happen occasionally, in isolated instances, but if it were happening to any significant extent, there would surely be complaints to the media.

Marriage equality will affect nondiscrimination laws in one way: it raises the religious stakes. As I already discussed, seriously religious folks view a wedding as an inherently religious event. So once there is marriage equality, those nondiscrimination laws in Indianapolis, Bloomington, and South Bend now apply in much more seriously religious contexts.

R&P: Do you think the Indiana religious freedom law has been misunderstood?

DL: It has been misunderstood by some people, and deliberately distorted and lied about by others.

R&P: What is your take on the reaction to it?

DL: It is very sad. It is very bad for liberty in America when neither side will respect the liberty of the other, and when a basic and widespread provision for protecting religious liberty makes a state the subject of boycotts and denunciations. It is a disaster that religious liberty has become a partisan issue, with one party in favor and one party opposed, and both parties exaggerating what religious liberty can actually protect.

Of course the folks denouncing the Indiana RFRA would claim that they still support religious liberty. But they don’t. It is meaningless to say that you support religious liberty only so long as the religious practice isn’t anything you seriously disagree with. Anybody can respect the liberty to do things that are OK with him. Just as we protect the freedom to say things we disagree with, we have to protect the liberty of religions we disagree with.

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America’s Broken Politics: A Conversation with Senators Joe Lieberman and John C. Danforth Tue, 24 Mar 2015 16:34:24 +0000 (Washington University in St. Louis)

(Washington University in St. Louis)

Almost everyone across the liberal to conservative spectrum seems to agree that American politics is deeply damaged. It often feels as if nothing gets done in Washington. Republicans and Democrats seem to despise each other. The most extreme voices appear to win over and over again, while everyone else has to live with the consequences. Religion, too, has played a role in the gridlock: sometimes it exacerbates the polarization; sometimes it improves it. Regardless, most of us today feel bleak about our political present and we worry profoundly about the future.

In an attempt to examine America’s broken politics, Washington University in St. Louis recently hosted a conversation between former Senators John C. Danforth and Joe Lieberman, two politicians from different political parties who served and worked together. Marie Griffith, the director of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, moderated the discussion, which took place on the campus of Washington University last December.

John C. Danforth recently retired as a partner with the law firm Bryan Cave. He began his political career in 1968 when he was elected attorney general of Missouri. He served in that post until 1976, when Missouri voters elected him to the U.S. Senate, where he served a total of 18 years. He later represented the United States as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and served as a special envoy to Sudan. As an Episcopal priest, Senator Danforth has been open about his Christian faith and commitments, and he has presided many important occasions, including the funeral of President Ronald Reagan. He has also written a book on the subject, Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together, and he is currently completing a new book for Random House, titled The Relevance of Religion. Danforth has been a generous patron of numerous organizations, including the Center on Religion and Politics that bears his name at Washington University, which publishes this journal.

Joe Lieberman is perhaps best known as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States in 2000. In 1970 he was elected to the Connecticut State Senate and served there for a decade. He then served as Connecticut’s attorney general. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1988, and he served 18 years before being elected to a fourth term as an Independent in 2006. Senator Lieberman has spoken and written widely about his Orthodox Jewish faith and its relevance to politics, and he is the author, among other works, of the 2011 book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath. Lieberman now practices law in New York and is co-chair of the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project, a cross-party initiative designed to rebuild a bipartisan consensus around American global leadership and engagement.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MG: I’ll ask you first, Senator Lieberman. When did politics seem to function well and when didn’t it? And how can we begin to think better about our broken politics today?

Lieberman: Let me just say how much I’ve been looking forward to this evening. I’m really fascinated by the topic, because religion and politics have played a big role in my life.

I came to the Senate in 1989, which was the beginning of Jack’s third and last term. I came from Connecticut, where as the old saying goes, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” In other words, there was some partisanship to it. But even then, I was surprised at some of the debates that became partisan, such as the debate on whether we should be involved in the Gulf War, to give the first President Bush the authority to go on. I must say that every year since then, the Senate has become more partisan. I told Jack this story when we were talking about tonight on the phone, which he asked me to repeat, so I will.

The Senate is so divided in terms of party, even in schedule. Every Tuesday, Republicans meet separately at their caucus lunch; Democrats meet separately at their caucus lunch. One Tuesday evening I was at a reception in Washington and ran into a Republican colleague, and I said, “How are you doing?” and I said, “Did you have a good day?” and he said, “Oh, it was all right, but oh my god, those caucuses kill me.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said: “Well you know, Senator So-and-So gets up for the first 20 minutes and he’s the head of the campaign finance committee, and he calls our names out and tells us how we’re letting him down and we’re not raising enough money for the next election. Then Senator So-and-So gets up and talks about how we’re going to essentially make the Democrats look terrible in what happens on the floor this week, and that goes on for about a half hour. And that leaves about ten minutes for constructive discussion.” And I said to him, “I got to tell you the truth: the Democratic caucus is the exact mirror reflection of what you have just described.”

We’re at a point where George Washington, in his farewell address, which reads pretty well after more than two centuries, warned of what he called “the danger of factions” in America’s future. Really, I think he meant parties—that loyalty of members of the government to their faction would become more important than loyalty to the country. And I think we’re living Washington’s worst nightmare now. I mean I can talk if you’d like about why it’s happened, but basically people who run for Congress with the best of intentions—most of them have worked very hard to get there—and then acting in a way once they get there—because of party divisions, ideological rigidity—in a way that cannot really give them any satisfaction. It’s not why they ran and it’s certainly not why their constituents voted for them, and the result is a gridlock that makes the government dysfunctional.

If I had to say in one or two simple sentences why isn’t the place working anymore, what does it mean that people are too loyal to party ideology, big campaign contributors, it’s because people have lost the ability to compromise. If you go into a debate or discussion on a major piece of legislation and you’re going to take the position that if this one piece is not in there I won’t support it or, as some do, if I don’t get 100 percent of what I want in this bill, I’m not supporting it, the end result is that you and the Senate and the country are going to get 0 percent because we’re a country of almost 320 million people represented by 535 people in Congress. We’re an extraordinarily diverse country, and all of that is represented in Congress. You can’t get anything done unless people are willing to be reasonable with one another and compromise, and that’s not what happening. Who was it who had the definition of insanity—that you keep repeating the same fruitless behavior over and over again? The net effect of all this is that Congress is at a historic low in terms of public approval. The numbers hover somewhere around 10 percent or below. My friend John McCain says that when your numbers are that low, you’re basically down to close relatives or paid staff. And usually I say, “You know, I’m not so sure about all my paid staff.” Anyway, that’s a sad introduction with a joke at the end.

Danforth: Joe, thanks for being here. It really is great to see you. Believe it or not, I left the Senate 20 years ago. There are only three ways to leave the Senate. Two have to do with boxes, and you don’t want either of those. But I’m not sure I’ve seen you since, and I just want to let you know that you haven’t aged a day.

Lieberman: So good of you. That’s why I love you, John.

Danforth: I’m fishing, I’m fishing. Well, Joe talked about the Tuesday caucuses, the party caucuses—they have been going on for a long time. I got to the Senate in January 1977 and we had our party caucuses then, and they were reasonable affairs. But beginning in my last couple of years in the Senate, they changed, and they became basically schemes to embarrass the Democrats. And I take it that it was pretty much the same on the other side, and it’s easy to do it. The way you try to embarrass the other side is you concoct amendments for members of the Senate to vote on that will put them in a bad light. This is not a new strategy. When Ronald Reagan was first elected president, he put in place with the help of Congress what was popularly called Reaganomics, which was essentially, “Let’s cut taxes and trim back some of the spending programs.” The Democrats offered a series of floor amendments that we Republicans had to vote on, and basically they were to the effect of, “Let’s restore money for the halt and the lame and the veterans and so forth,” and not give tax breaks to the rich, and that was the kind of thing we had to vote on. The other side has done it to Republicans. And so these Tuesday meetings became increasingly “gotcha” meetings, where members of my party would stand up with real glee on their face—“Make em vote on it”—something that would make the Democrats look bad. Now, my understanding is that instead of the parties meeting once a week on Tuesdays for lunch, they now meet Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday for lunch, just as parties. And all of these meetings are in the same vein, namely, let’s do the other guys in and set ourselves up for the next election. So everything has to do with, how am I going to gain advantage for my party in the next election?

It really is remarkable, you know, that we just had an election a month ago and now you’re hearing the TV commentators say, “Well they better get with it in Congress because in a few months they won’t do anything because another election is coming.” And it’s as though it’s always the election right around the bend and everything that is done in Congress is to try and create an advantage, particularly by offering embarrassing amendments. What’s happened in the Senate, is that the majority leader, now outgoing, Harry Reid, decided, “Well I don’t want that to happen to my party, so I’m going to get control of the floor and not allow any amendments to be offered.” And so the Republicans say, “We’re going to do the same kind of thing. If anything comes up, we’re going to filibuster it.” So now it takes 60 votes to get anything. That is new. I mean that was the filibuster rule, but when the filibuster is just tried occasionally, okay, that’s what it takes to invoke cloture and end the filibuster. Now it’s the standard way of proceeding. So the effect is gridlock. The effect is, nothing gets done. And that, I think, is the current state of American politics.

Now I have one further thought. And that is, why is it that partisans in Congress take these exceptionally hardline positions? And compromise has become a dirty word? We won’t allow it. Why is that? Why no compromise? Why is the spirit of compromise gone? That really is a big change recently. It’s gone because politicians want to succeed and the way they succeed is to get reelected, the way the get reelected is to get nominated, to get nominated they have to appeal to their so-called base, and the base, certainly in the Republican party and I think increasingly in the Democratic party as well, are the purists. And their view is, don’t give an inch. And this is what members of Congress hear: Don’t give an inch. So the moral of the story is that there have to be other voices, and there has to be participation on the part of people who are not just the party regulars who show up at primary elections. It’s very important for more people to vote in primaries and very important for more people to show up at political meetings and be counter-voices to what the politicians are hearing.

Lieberman: I agree with everything Jack has said, and I think the analysis particularly about appealing to the core constituencies has been heightened by the misuse of a good thing, which was the Supreme Court decision, which I think was in the 60s, Baker v. Carr, which said basically that the Congressional districts had to be about equal after every 10-year census, because otherwise people who had 200,000 in their district would have more weight in Congress than people with 2 million. That led to redistricting every 10 years, and the politicians took hold of that and drafted lines to protect incumbents in the House. And so the districts became more and more partisan. Basically, to just put an exclamation point after what Jack has said, most analysts say that out of all the 435 seats in the House, almost 400 are really uncontested on Election Day, on most normal election days. It’s all about the primary. And here’s why this has a bad consequence—this and dependence on partisan and ideological contributors to your campaign—because you won’t take a risk. You can’t solve the country’s most difficult problems. Take the debt—now over 17 trillion dollars—it’s hard to believe, and we’ve done that over the last 14 years. You can’t solve that and make everybody happy. You’ll do the right thing for the country, you’ll probably be unpopular with some groups for a while, but in the end I think you’ll be popular because the economy will get better. But the whole place is risk averse because they don’t want to offend the partisan group back home.

You know, I thought of something. When Jack was still there, there was a tradition in the Senate that seems quite quaint and outdated now. During my first term the best I can recall no incumbent senator would go into the state of another incumbent from the other party and campaign against that person. That happens all the time now. Now you can imagine the effect that has when you get back in the Senate. You go to incumbent Senator B, who you’ve just campaigned against, and ask for his or her support on a bill, and, you know, “Hell no! Where were you last November?” [Laughs.] So you know, that’s just a little anecdotal response to what Jack has said.

Danforth: I was elected to the Senate in 1976, so I went to Washington and started in the Senate January 1977. I was then 40 years old. And the Republicans only had 38 seats. 38 seats is nothing. It’s just nothing. And I landed on the Senate Finance Committee, and what a great committee. It has this terrific jurisdiction over taxation and international trade, healthcare, social security, all the big issues. And so I show up, one of 38 republicans, the junior member of the minority party in the Finance Committee, and the chairman of the committee is Russell Long. One of the great experiences was to know Russell Long. He was just terrific. So I take my seat, I’d never met Russell Long before, this was my first day! And I’m sitting at the end of the table and the finance committee was at work drafting a letter to the budget committee about what our plan was going to be for the next year. Here is what we’re going to do this ensuing year. There was a little pause in the proceeding and I put my hand up and I said, “Mr. Chairman,” and he looked down the table at me, and I said, “I have an idea.” And he said, “Oh? What’s your idea?” and hey, I’m a Republican, and I said, “I think we should have a tax cut.” And he said, “How much?” Well, I hadn’t thought about that. [laughter] So I said, “5 billion dollars.” And this was 1977—5 billion dollars was worth something. [laughter] And he said, “All right. Any objection?” Nobody said anything. And he said, “That’s agreed to.” And I thought, “Wow!” [laughter] “This is going to be great!” So I hustled back to my office and cranked out press releases telling the people of our state that on my first day on the job I’d gotten a 5 billion dollar tax cut. Actually I had done nothing of the kind—we were writing a letter to the budget committee, it didn’t have anything to do with real legislating—but I put it in my press release. Here’s the question: why did Russell Long do that? Senior Republican, junior nonentity, one of 38 Republicans—why did he do that?

Fast forward 8 years, Republicans are now in control of the Senate. I become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and I decide I’m going to call on Russell Long and ask him, how do you become a good committee chairman? He gave me two pieces of advice. One is never hold a grudge, because your opponent today you’ll need as your ally tomorrow, and the second is, give everyone on your committee a sense of belonging, a sense of participation, a sense of being part of the action. That’s what he was doing. He was making me look good! I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

Lieberman: It’s rarely the case, Jack. It’s a wonderful story. So it leads me to this response: It reminds me and everyone here that politics is not a science, it’s an art. Even though there are departments of political science at great universities like Washington University, and even though some of the most important decisions in politics are based on numbers—the number of votes you get, the number of votes you have to pass legislation—ultimately I say it’s art because it really deals with people being able to work together, people being able to trust each other, people feeling like they belong on the committee. There’s very little of this. It’s part of the reason why the place is dysfunctional and the parties have dominated. The parties are some of the cause of that, but there’s more to it than that. I could go on too long about it. Part of it is the schedule of the Senate. The joke in Washington is that the two worst things to happen to Congress were the advent of air conditioning and modern airplane travel. Air conditioning because Congress can stay there during the summer. Before that, Congress used to come in January and pretty much stay until late spring and then go home. But air travel, because generally speaking, senators arrive for a vote Monday afternoon—a bed check vote, so-called, usually not a very important one. They work Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday—you can talk to Harry Reid in the last several years and Mitch McConnell will have the same experience next year—the members are going over to the leader and saying, “I got an event back home,” or “I got a fundraiser in St. Louis or New York” or whatever. “I got to get out of here, early today, Harry or Mitch.” And by midafternoon—sometimes a little later—they’re on the plane out of town. When they’re there they’re running around to different events. There’s very little time for members to get to know each other and particularly across party lines because of the division of the caucus and all the rest. So what I’m saying is that in the end, the Senate—all the big debates and big issues and real problems—in one sense it’s 100 people going to work in the same place every day and it’s really like pretty much any other workplace. If you trust the person you work with and perhaps you even like the person you’re working with, you’re more likely to cooperate with him or her. And the prospects for that are less and less today because members really don’t know each other that well besides the “you’re in my caucus” and “you’re not in my caucus.”

Just a brief story. I was part of a group with Lamar Alexander from Tennessee that was trying to figure out a couple years ago, how do we break through some of this partisanship? And we invited in two of the senior members of the Senate: Ted Stevens from Alaska, Republican, and Danny Inouye, Democrat from Hawaii. Both are now gone from the Senate and this earth. They were really remarkable people. Interestingly, both were the first senators from their states after statehood, and neither from the continental U.S. They had an unbelievable relationship. For years and years and years they were the top Republican and top Democrat on the all-powerful Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and then the full committee. They used to say you have more staff when you’re in the majority; when one party would lose the majority the other would come in and pay for the other’s staff, so they could keep the same staff. Ted Stevens told me a story that was so quaint. He said, “One of the reasons how I learned about the Senate—when I first came, I used to carpool in with Mike Mansfield, who was later the majority leader and a Democrat,” and I forgot a couple of others. “Basically we were in town all the time and we’d rotate when we’d leave the car for our wives”—this was the old days—“and we just got to know each other.” Stevens said, “Once I put an amendment on a bill, and a Democratic senator got up and opposed it and all the Democrats fell in line, they were in the majority, and defeated the amendment. And I knew he didn’t know a damn thing about it”—knowing Stevens, his language was a little more florid than I have just spoken—and he said, “I went over to Mike Mansfield, and I said, ‘Mike, I don’t think your folks understand this amendment.’” And Mansfield said, “Well, tell me.” And he told him about it, and he said, “Mansfield moved to reconsider the vote. And explained that he’d talked to me and thought I was right, and he urged all Democrats to vote for the amendment, and it passed. That would never happen today. And part of it was because we carpooled together, we knew each other.”

Danforth: It sounds like it’s not a big point, but it is. There is a breakdown in social interaction, I think. And I’ve really been gone a long time, but I do know that we had a lot of social interaction across party lines. And when you’re in someone’s home and you know the senator’s spouse and you know the children of that family, it does have an effect on how you act. I was told by one incumbent senator that this person couldn’t think of six other senators he would have over at his house for dinner. Part of it is the cost of living in Washington. It’s the great populist thing: Never give these people a pay raise, that’s terrible, they’re in it for the money. They’re not in it for the money. All of them could make more money elsewhere. But they can’t afford to have their families there. And it’s just one little thing—Marie, do you mind if I just briefly interrupt this program for a commercial message?

Griffith: Go right ahead. About what?

Danforth: Religion.

Griffith: Okay! Well, that was next.

Danforth: I want to talk about why this breakdown is, I think, a religious issue. Because I think that the message that politicians are hearing now—members of the Senate, members of Congress—is basically from the base, “Don’t compromise, don’t move an inch.” And from everybody, “Your job is to give me mine, now. Give me my benefits and don’t raise my taxes.” And politicians who want to be popular and want to be reelected a) attend to their base and b) don’t say anything that’s not popular. I think that the antidote to those messages is essentially religious. Because I think religion says to the ideologically pure, the true believers, it says, it’s just politics. It’s not absolute. There are no absolutes in politics. It’s only politics, it’s only sausage-making. And it should not be confused with religion. Back in 1982 I was running for reelection, and I thought I was going to lose the election. I was in a deep depression, oh my gosh, my whole career is going to be ruined. And my daughter DD, who is here tonight, was trying I guess to cheer me up, and she said during my despair, “Well, it’s not the World Series.” [laughter] And it isn’t. And it isn’t religion. And I think religion says—faithful people say—compromise is something that is expected from politics. Because if it’s not compromising, first of all it’s not respectful, it’s a violation of the love commandment. But secondly it’s idolatry. It’s making a political ideology an absolute. That is idolatry—it’s not making something out of wood, it’s making something out of ideas. It’s making politics something that it really isn’t. And I think that that is really, really an important thing for religious people to say to politics.

Lieberman: So I want to join in your commercial message. I think that’s a brilliant insight. How does religion organize itself to influence politics in that way? You’re right: Religion is really about what ought to be. There’s a great rabbi of the last century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who talked about there being in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, two covenants, if you will. One was with Abraham, which he called the “covenant of fate,” which is the original covenant, but really what we are, what one is—in this case as a Jew but more broadly of course because Abraham transcends the monotheistic religions

The other covenant was entered at Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the rabbi called that the Covenant of Destiny, the values that we aspired to. In other words, not what we are, as in the Covenant of Fate, but what we hope to be, as in the Covenant of Destiny. And religion generally is about as you said what we ought to be. It’s about vision, perhaps a prophetic vision. Politics is deep in what is but really at its best it tries to mediate between what is and what ought to be. So that’s where religion can have an impact if we can figure out how to organize it: in raising politicians above where they are now, particularly the ones in Congress. In the Hebrew Bible the most powerful expression or illustration of the prophetic vision is the long journey of the children of Israel through the desert for 40 years with a lot of difficulties on the way, making it hard on their leader Moses and even turning against God, or complaining to God, but ultimately seeing that the way they reached the promised land was by joining together and working together. It wasn’t easy.

It may be that you’re on to something really unique, because frankly nothing else so far has worked to disenthrall those in power in Washington from where they are—the gridlock—and to liberate them back to where I think most of them really want to be. Of course the point of leverage here is that most Americans and most members of Congress are religious. But I think that what happens, which happens in other parts of our lives, is they separate their religious beliefs and aspirations and values from the work that they’re doing in Congress. I don’t mean even substantively, I mean the way they’re going at it—the fact that they’ve allowed themselves to be trapped by loyalties they have made idols.

Danforth: But I think it’s not just the politicians. Politicians, look, they’re human beings. They want to win, they want to tell people what they want to hear, which is exactly what they do. And what people want to hear is, “I’ve got it coming. I’ve really got it coming. I’ve been treated so unfairly. I deserve more than I’m getting from politics.” And the politicians say, “Oh, of course. You’re right.” Where’s the counter-message to this? There was this concept of our first four presidents that was one of the great Republican principles in the early days of our country. And it was called virtue. Virtue to them meant great conduct, but it meant something else: It meant not grabbing everything yourself but putting the common good ahead of personal interest. All of them—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison—spoke about virtue. Madison, the consummate political realist, Madison said, “Without virtue, everything is just going to fall apart.” Well, where’s that message anymore? It’s not coming from politics. JFK, when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and he said, “Let the world know that we will pay any price and bear any burden in the pursuit of liberty,” that was more than 50 years ago, and have you ever heard anything from any politician like that since? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s any politician that would say, you should pay any burden at all, pay any price, however small, no. You should get a tax cut. Keep your social security checks coming. Medicare! All of this stuff. So we’ve got the 17 trillion dollar national debt, and growing. So where does the counter-message come from?

Griffith: Religion has been part of the problem at times, too. It sounds like both of you are in some ways talking about cultivating a particular kind of virtue, or returning to certain kinds of virtues, rather than talking about “all” religion. Can you be more specific about what you’re advocating?

Lieberman: You know, I was just thinking as Jack was talking that if there’s a place to be encouraged about this, it is that some of these values and virtues are actually still lived out in the lives of people. There’s still an awful lot of volunteering for charitable or communal organizations, religious, not religious, etc. It’s the fundamental feeling that people get tremendous satisfaction out of serving a cause larger than themselves. At some point they want to feel that they’ve done something that may leave the place better when the leave, or is just beyond taking care of themselves. And it’s perhaps easier for you and me, out of office now, to say, but I think that there’s a lot of people in this country, and it might just be a majority, who would respond to a leader who would challenge them to be more selfless. To make the country as strong as they want it to be again. And I hope somebody tries it in the next presidential election. It may be that the country is so fed up with the status quo and knows that it’s not just that Congress is not producing widgets—the Congress is not solving problems that people have that are real. Whether it’s the debt or the condition of too many of our public schools—we’re failing a lot of kids, including mostly poor kids—whether it’s something like climate change, we have a series of problems that it seems as if Congress is going to wait to become crises or catastrophes before they deal with them, and it’s going to be very hard. I wish somebody would come along and appeal to our better nature. Incidentally, if I had to cite two things or three that got me into public service, it would be that Kennedy inaugural address. I was going into college that year, and it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of people of my generation who were catalyzed into public service by those ideas.

Griffith: Speaking of problems and issues to be solved, one issue as you know that’s facing the St. Louis region is the tension around race, racism, and inequality in and around Ferguson, and here we’re just about 10 miles from Ferguson. I think we talked a little bit in our conference call about ways you might think about bringing some of these ideas about religion to bear on these kinds of broader issues that are very live across the country. Senator Danforth, could you speak to that?

Danforth: I think this whole thing has been heartbreaking for all of us who love this town. I mean, we love it. When I left the Senate I didn’t leave because I was tired of it or I didn’t like it. I loved being in the Senate. I wouldn’t like it now, but I loved it at the time. I wanted to come home. This is our home. If you go around and talk to just scads of people in St. Louis, you’ll get the message, “We love it here.” And then we have become sort of the national or international standard for something awful. And we got to make it right. So I think that we need a project here. There are just so many good people in this town. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands of them. And they’re not mean, nasty, violent, racist people. They’re good people, and they take pride in having a community in which they live, so we got to make this thing right. We got to have a project, in my opinion, and part of the project, a lot of it, is governmental stuff. People are working on this. So what are we going to do? People say we need more representative police departments. Good, let’s work on that. We can do that. There are ways to do that. People say that these traffic tickets, speed traps and so on to make money for these little municipalities, basically poor municipalities, it’s just wrong, it’s asking for trouble. We can fix that. We can do that. Or the body cameras, if that’s a good idea. There are things we can do; let’s just get on with it. Let’s turn this from St. Louis being the standard for just awfulness to a community that can turn it around, and I think that this, too, is a responsibility for particularly our religious congregations. It’s not just “okay, let’s change the law on how much revenue municipalities can get from traffic tickets,” or “let’s recruit more African American police officers.” That’s good stuff to do. But I believe that being a faithful person must entail more than writing a letter to your congressman or your state legislator. So what can religious congregations do? What would happen if our religious congregations—I’m a great believer in congregations—maybe some people worship God on the golf course, but I bet they don’t—

Lieberman: [laughs] They may pray to God on the golf course.

Danforth: More likely curse God. [laughs] But let’s suppose that our religious congregations started thinking about, “Okay, let’s get some projects going here.” What could they be? “Let’s support some schools.” Our daughter Mary is involved in starting the Hawthorn School. It’s going to be on North Kingshighway and it will be a charter school for girls, teaching them STEM curriculum. That’s a big deal. Why couldn’t our congregations say, “Okay, we’re going to help something like that,” or “we’re going to have a mentoring program,” or “we’re going to have a one-to-one relationship with another congregation in another part of town, we’re going to make them stronger. We’re going to make them community centers. That’s something we can do.” And I think that’s what people in St. Louis want to do. So let’s get on with it.

Lieberman: I don’t have much to add to that. I’d say, Jack, your response is both characteristically constructive and characteristic of you, to take on that kind of personal feeling of almost guilt for this region. I do want you to know from the perspective of somebody who’s been in the Northeast since the trouble broke out in Ferguson, after the grand jury decision, that I don’t think anybody I’ve talked to sees it as a St. Louis or Ferguson problem. In other words, we don’t see it as “that’s them.” I think people are seeing it as us. And feeling that notwithstanding that we have an African American president, notwithstanding that we have African Americans at higher and higher levels of every area of activity in America, there are still a lot of African Americans who are left behind and are not treated equally. That we don’t have equal opportunity. And I agree with you. I think that in some ways religions and religious entities have pulled off that particular battlefield. I mean religions were really—I’ll say a good word for religion here—American history religion has played a very constructive role overall. In the beginning the founders framed our founding documents based really on a lot of their religious beliefs. Self-evident truth that all of us are created equal and endowed not by the philosophers of the enlightenment but by our creator with the rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The abolitionist movement was led by religious leaders and religious congregations, and so too with the Civil Rights Movement, particularly with Dr. Martin Luther King. But it’s time for religious groups to come back onto the field and continue the work because it’s not over, the need is not over.

Danforth: I wrote a book several years ago and it was a reaction to what I thought was the misuse of religion to divide us, and the creation of religiously fraught wedge issues and the use of them for political purposes. I wrote that book and Rush Limbaugh spent a couple of segments attacking my book. I bet you’ve been the topic of Rush.

Lieberman: Yes. Something else we have in common. [laughter]

Danforth: Anybody else? You haven’t lived! [laughter] But he said, “Oh no, Danforth says religious people should get out of politics” No, I think they should get into it, not out of it. But it’s really interesting. Religion can be used divisively, has been used divisively—look at Iraq. Very divisive. That’s why we kept it out. We don’t want the entanglement of religion and politics in the United States and we certainly don’t want political agendas. But the meaning of religion, the meaning of the word, the root of the word, is the same as for “ligament.” It means “to bind us together.” That’s what it means. In Hebrew, “shalom,” as I understand it, means “wholeness.” In Christianity, “in Christ all things held together.” Holding together—the ministry of reconciliation—really is religion in a constructive, positive way, not to try to win elections—“I’m on God’s side, you’re not”—but religion is binding us together. And that’s a great national project as well as a great religious project.

Griffith: Please join me in thanking Senator Lieberman and Senator Danforth.

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Nebraska: A Cornhusker Prays with FCA Tue, 17 Mar 2015 17:56:50 +0000 A Cornhusker Prays with FCA.

(Courtesy of The Gospel Coalition)

(Courtesy of The Gospel Coalition)

My childhood was oriented around Nebraska Cornhusker football. A pastor’s kid growing up in McCook, a town of 8,000 in southwest Nebraska, I came of age during the Cornhuskers’ string of championship runs in the 1990s. I was more likely to skip church on Sunday than miss the Saturday radio or television broadcast of the Cornhusker game. Occasionally I scored tickets to see the action in person. I have vivid memories of the four-hour pilgrimage east to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, where I joined fellow Huskers as we sang hymns like “Dear Old Nebraska U,” chanted “Husker Power!” and participated in the call-and-response liturgy of “throwing the bones” (crossing our arms into an X) after a spectacular defensive play.

Not everyone in Nebraska roots for Cornhusker football, but nothing else unites the state quite as much. Even for dissenters, the power of the Big Red cannot be avoided. Fall weddings must be planned around football games; trips out in public on game day must be taken with the assumption that the radio broadcast will be piped through the speakers of whatever establishment you are visiting. It is no wonder that scholars have found Cornhusker fans useful when exploring the “sports-as-religion” thesis.

There are plenty of others states that love college football (see: every state in the South). But there is something different about the context in which Nebraska football operates. This difference can be traced, in part, back to the Morrill Act of 1862. The law offered the sale of federal lands in the West (lands from which American Indians were forcibly removed) to fund the establishment of land-grant colleges in participating states. In states like Kansas (Kansas State), Alabama (Auburn), and South Carolina (Clemson), the Morrill Act funded new public colleges separate from the state university—inadvertently creating long-lasting intrastate athletic rivalries. Elsewhere, in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, the state university and land-grant college were joined together in one institution. The decision by Nebraska to create one unified statewide public institution of higher education—combined with the absence of professional teams or large private universities—ensured that as college athletics developed in the twentieth century, the loyalties of Nebraska’s football fans would be united. “No mountains. No beaches. No big-league teams,” Tom Callahan wrote in TIME in 1983. “Other than slow-changing seasons, burning summers, bitter winters, and autumns that can be rather a brilliant compensation, only this football team gathers up an entire state of people and brings them to one emotional place.”

The University of Nebraska first fielded a football team in 1890. By 1893 Nebraska student Willa Cather was singing the praises of the program. “A good foot ball game is an epic,” Cather wrote in the student newspaper, “it rouses the oldest part of us.” From 1900 until 1940, the Cornhuskers had only two losing seasons, emerging as a national football power. The team struggled in the 1940s and 1950s, but as more Nebraskans attended the school in the postwar years and as the era of big-time college athletics emerged, head coach Bob Devaney led a Big Red renaissance. Under his watch, which stretched from 1962 until 1973, Nebraska won 81 percent of its games, eight Big Eight conference titles, and two national championships. Devaney’s successor, Tom Osborne, kept the football program rolling until his retirement in 1998. Osborne’s last five years were especially remarkable: from 1993 until 1997, the Cornhuskers won as many national championships (three) as they lost games.

Devaney and Osborne are both revered figures in the state. It’s fitting that they also represent Nebraska’s two leading twentieth-century religious denominations: Roman Catholicism (Devaney) and United Methodism (Osborne).

Devaney generally didn’t make a public display of his Catholicism, but some Catholics in Nebraska found it necessary to make a public display of their Cornhuskerness. This was particularly true in 1973, when Nebraska and Notre Dame matched up in the Orange Bowl. Loyalties collided: while the Cornhuskers claimed to represent Nebraskans, Notre Dame claimed the same for America’s Catholics. In Huskerville: A Story of Nebraska Football, Fans, and the Power of Place, Roger Aden recounted the story of a young Nebraska Catholic boy going to mass on the day of the game. “The entire parish was wearing red,” the fan recalled. “They wanted to show that the fact they were Catholic did not mean they were going to refuse to be Nebraskans.”

Under Devaney, Cornhusker football became a kind of religion of its own. Under Osborne, the state’s devotion to the program became a means through which Christianity could be promoted. One of the primary beneficiaries and agents of this mingling of faith and football was the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

FCA, founded in 1954, was viewed early on as a tool to harness the nation’s growing obsession with sports and use it for civic good by channeling it into Christian expression. FCA aimed to strengthen Christian churches with an infusion of newly committed Christian youth, who would then go on to make better citizens. Few raised eyebrows as FCA’s celebrity athletes came to public schools in the South, Midwest, and California, dishing tales from the big leagues and selling students on the benefits of Christianity. True to its ecumenical nature, an FCA campaign in Omaha in 1957 featured stops at public schools and Catholic schools. But despite its more broad-based appeal in the 1950s, by the 1970s FCA had moved decisively into the conservative evangelical sphere alongside organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ.

Osborne’s connection to FCA dates back to 1957 when he had a profound religious experience while attending a national FCA camp. As he wrote in his book More Than Winning, “Until 1957, most of what I believed about God was a sort of second-hand religion.” At the FCA camp that year he mingled with Christian sports stars. For the first time, he recalled, Christianity seemed exciting. By the end of the camp Osborne felt that “my faith really became my own.”

In 1967, soon after Osborne became an assistant at Nebraska, he helped launch an FCA huddle on campus. As FCA expanded in the state and as its institutional infrastructure matured, Osborne provided FCA with access to the Nebraska football team and served as a powerful statesman for the organization. FCA huddle groups in Nebraska expanded from 30 in 1976 to 220 by 2001. In the 1980s, a “Cornhuskers for Christ” group featuring Nebraska football players regularly toured the state; by the mid-1990s Cross Training, a publishing house based in Nebraska, churned out books connecting Cornhusker football with the conservative evangelical faith favored by FCA. I still have from my childhood library four Cross Training books: I Can, a religious biography of Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown; Lessons from Nebraska Football, featuring moments from Nebraska football history combined with bible lessons; Hearts of Champions, a collection of twenty evangelical conversion narratives from Cornhusker coaches and players; and One Final Pass, a biography of Nebraska quarterback Brook Berringer, who tragically died in 1996 while flying to speak at an FCA event.

Berringer’s story, in particular, shows just how connected FCA was with Nebraska football. In 1995 during his senior season, Berringer became born-again through relationships developed in FCA. Months later, in April 1996, the beloved backup quarterback died in a plane crash, triggering a statewide outpouring of emotion. Ron Brown immediately saw the evangelization potential: in print, radio, and television media across the state, he (and other FCA leaders) highlighted Berringer’s recent conversion and the suddenness of his death. Would Nebraskans catch Brook’s “one final pass,” Brown asked in a video made with support from the University of Nebraska athletic program, and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior?

For many Nebraskans, using Nebraska football to evangelize was not a problem. Since the 1940s Nebraska had been a bastion of conservative politics and Nebraskans generally supported a prominent public role for Christian institutions and expressions. Most Nebraskans took it for granted that faith was a central part of the Cornhusker program. It helped that many Nebraskans saw in FCA a generalized Christianity imbued with the character traits and values Nebraskans liked to think that they possessed in a unique way: working hard, doing things with integrity, believing in a higher power; “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory,” goes the oft-quoted phrase inscribed on the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium. Those generalized notions of Christianity were what Sister Mary Hlas, a nun well-known for her Husker enthusiasm, had in mind in 1982 when she congratulated “Tom Osborne and his players” because they “are not members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in name only, but they truly live out their philosophy.”

For his part, Osborne cultivated goodwill by leaning towards an irenic, cooperative brand of evangelicalism. He remained a member of the United Methodist church and he encouraged players to pursue the benefits of a committed spiritual life within their chosen religious traditions. Thus, when Milt Cooper, the national director of programs for FCA, said in 1998 that “the Christian atmosphere” within the Nebraska football program was “one of the best in the nation, if not the best,” most Cornhusker fans took it in stride, if not pride.

But not all Cornhusker fans. The team was too central to the state’s identity to allow its connection with an evangelical-leaning Christianity—or even a generalized Christianity—go unchallenged. Especially for those affiliated with the Nebraska ACLU, the public Christian image was potentially unconstitutional. Beginning in the 1990s, the ACLU increasingly scrutinized FCA’s access to Cornhusker football and to public high schools. In response, FCA defended itself on legal grounds and argued that the ACLU’s views represented only a tiny fraction of Nebraskans. Since the majority of Nebraskans did not oppose what FCA was doing, why did the ACLU have a problem?

The frequent battles between the ACLU and the FCA often centered on the actions of Assistant Coach Ron Brown, the leading representative of the FCA/Cornhusker fusion in the post-Osborne era and a longtime member of an evangelical, nondenominational church in Lincoln. As an African American, Brown occupied a unique place of prominence in Nebraska. African Americans constitute just five percent of the state’s population, but are usually a majority of the football team’s starting lineup. Brown used his position to support racial equality and reconciliation—albeit in ways that other African American leaders, like longtime State Senator Ernie Chambers, found ineffective.

Unlike Osborne, Brown wears his evangelistic zeal on his sleeve, and he has often spoken out against homosexuality. For example, in 1999 on his weekly radio show he called on Christians not to abandon gay and lesbian individuals to “a politically correct world that honors this lifestyle.” Rather, Brown said, Christians should “win the homosexual to Christ” through love and active evangelism. Brown’s supporters have claimed that he treats all his players with equal respect, even if they disagree with his religious views: Eric Lueshen, an openly gay player, and Ameer Abdullah, a Muslim player, seem to back this up in supportive statements they have made about Brown. Yet for Brown’s opponents, his treatment of individual players did not take away from the controversy of his public statements. Nor did it address the larger structural and power issues at play. The matter for them was simple: Brown used his position in a public university to tirelessly promote his exclusionary conservative evangelical views and to demonize those in the LGBT community. “Nebraska is not a Christian state,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel said in response to Brown in 1999. “The University of Nebraska is not a Christian university.”

For the most part the culturally conservative politics of Nebraska meant that Brown was protected from his opponents. But the tide began to shift somewhat in 2012, when he gained national attention for publicly opposing an ordinance in Omaha that would ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Before making his public comments, Brown listed his address as “Memorial Stadium.” His appropriation of a powerful state symbol prior to giving his inflammatory remarks raised the ire of his Nebraska opponents and more than a few national writers. Although Brown was not fired, and although he did not back down from his comments, even some of his supporters felt he had gone too far. Omaha World-Herald columnist Dirk Chatelain, who lauded Brown as a strong spiritual influence, nevertheless wrote that Brown spoke about homosexuality “in a way that reflects negatively on Nebraska and—more importantly—on Christianity.”

Brown’s forays into the political realm contrasted sharply with Osborne’s more moderate tone. Yet, even Osborne found that his football-based reputation could only carry him so far when it came to politics. After leaving coaching, Osborne served three terms in Congress for Nebraska’s third district, never receiving less than 82 percent of the vote. But then he lost his bid for governor in 2006 when he was defeated in the Republican primaries. The former coach faced an incumbent governor, and GOP voters disliked some of his moderate stances, such as his willingness to give college tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. Though he never attained another elected office, his approval ratings did bounce back: A 2011 survey of the state by Public Policy Polling found Osborne to be “the most popular person PPP has ever polled on anywhere.”

Earlier this year Ron Brown announced his departure from Nebraska, a casualty of the recent firing of head coach Bo Pelini. His longtime co-laborer and former Husker Gordon Thiessen penned a heartfelt goodbye to Brown on an FCA website, commending him for using his “platform as a Husker football coach in a football-crazed state to tell people about Jesus.” Others probably felt less charitable. Regardless of one’s sentiments, it certainly felt like an era had ended: the link to the Osborne-initiated blending of faith and football was gone. Who will carry on the torch? Perhaps Brown’s departure portends to a future in which FCA does not have the same access to Nebraska football. Or perhaps another sport will take the lead. Nebraska’s wildly popular women’s volleyball team is coached by John Cook, another FCA stalwart whose connections may continue to pay dividends for the organization.

As those changes are sorted out, a new generation of Nebraskans—pastors’ kids and otherwise—are learning the rites and rituals of Cornhusker fandom. The glory years of the 1990s may seem like the distant past, but devotion to Cornhusker football remains strong. And as long as Cornhusker football serves as a powerful symbol of state identity, residents and organizations will continue to integrate faith and football—and to challenge unwanted attempts at such integration—in ways that inevitably spill over into politics.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He lived in Nebraska for 28 years prior to moving to Baylor. Follow him @p_emory.

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AP Course Controversy: When Do We Say “We” in History? Tue, 10 Mar 2015 16:08:49 +0000 (Getty/John Leyba​)

(Getty/John Leyba​)

Afunny thing has happened to a petition posted online by Larry Krieger, a former Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher, and Jane Robbins, a conservative opponent of the Common Core educational standards. In their petition, written as an open letter to the president of the College Board, they ask readers to support their quest to reform the newest version of the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course, which the College Board implemented in the current school. Nearly half a million high school students took the College Board’s AP U.S. History exam last year to try to earn college credit. The course’s new framework, Krieger and Robbins argue, presents a negative view of the American past, emphasizing the “oppressors and exploiters” among our lot, rather than the “dreamers and innovators.” The old course taught students that early British colonists sought “to build a ‘City upon a Hill.’” The new one teaches them that these same colonists, possessed by “a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority,” organized their society according to “a rigid racial hierarchy.” Among other things.

Since late February, when an Oklahoma State House committee voted to eliminate AP U.S. history instruction in the state (they’ve since walked it back to a review of the curriculum), a number of people have signed the petition with fake names. Many of these are vulgar complaints directed against the petition’s authors, but a few are clean, and some are even funny. For example: “America Was Born Perfect Then It Got More Perfect.” Another: “I Fully Support AP Standards. The Authors Of This Letter Can Not Meet Them.” And, perhaps contributed by someone who can, and who is playing a deep game, both historically and humor-wise: “JOHN ADAMS SIGNED THE TREATY OF TRIPOLI.” (Wikipedia tells me that the Treaty of Tripoli signed by Adams contains a disputed passage stating that the U.S. government was not “founded on the Christian religion.”)

Robbins and Krieger published their petition on August 4, 2014. On August 8, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution calling for the rethinking of AP U.S. History education. Echoing Robbins and Krieger, the RNC argues that the new framework departs from the balanced view of American history traditional to the course: where, the resolution laments, are “the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history”?

It’s true—George Washington is only mentioned glancingly in the new framework. But as this document itself states, it does not—nor is it meant to—provide an exhaustive list of the historical events, people, and primary sources a given teacher might use to illuminate the conceptual knowledge and skills of historical analysis that students must absorb to do well on the exam. Where the framework gives examples that teachers might use to communicate a particular concept, it does so because teachers who reviewed the guidelines for the College Board indicated that they had difficulty coming up with examples they might use to teach that concept. Throughout, the framework emphasizes that teachers are by no means bound by these examples. The sermon in which Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop described the new settlement “as a city upon a hill”—one of the foundational texts that critics claim is absent from the new framework, and the Oklahoma bill lists as a text it would require in high school U.S. history classes—would fit right in as a source that could spark classroom discussion of the founding ideals of Puritan New England.

But whether conservative critics of the AP U.S. History framework tendentiously misread the primary source document isn’t really the most interesting question one could ask. Their response to the new framework exposes deeper, underlying tensions in how we think and talk about history, particularly national history: when do we say “we” in history? With whom do we say it? When we look around at the past, who do we point to and say, “Them. Those are my people. Those are our people”? These are questions whose history is at once troubling and exalted. The answers necessarily include some, exclude others. They’re the foundation of a nation, or a religion, both of which find their identities by tracing their own particular thread of “we” through history. Answers to these questions can also be the premise for action—often violent—as when nations, or subgroups within them, seek to subordinate, or even eliminate, those who don’t fit a particular vision of who “we” are.

Yet, perhaps these questions don’t belong in a U.S. history classroom—or, at the very least, in that space, their answers should not be assumed. The AP framework seems to take this stance; this may be one of the reasons it so frustrates its critics. In its discussion of the early history of settlement, warfare, and colonial expansion in the territory that became the United States, the new framework resists saying “we.” On the religious roots of the American Revolution, it reads, “Protestant evangelical religious fervor strengthened many British colonists’ understandings of themselves as a chosen people blessed with liberty, while Enlightenment philosophers and ideas inspired many American political thinkers to emphasize individual talent over hereditary privilege.”

This is hardly neglect: evangelical fervor is right there, strengthening British colonists’ resolve when confronted with challenges to their liberties. But in speaking of “British colonists’ understandings of themselves,” the language also sets up a distance between us and them. They understood themselves as a chosen people blessed with liberty; we can adopt that view if we wish, but we don’t have to take it on uncritically. The framework creates this measure of historical distance not only between us and early American Protestants, but between us and each of the many different kinds of colonial Americans it discusses—enslaved Africans, Indians, and colonists, traders, missionaries, and adventurers from France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. It presents colonial history as a diverse space inhabited by many different kinds of people, with many different kinds of aims. Students of a range of backgrounds might see themselves here—though the framework certainly doesn’t force them to.

Avoiding the historical “we” isn’t necessarily easy. I teach early modern European history. A few years ago, I caught myself, mid-lecture, somewhat startled, saying “we” in reference to historical figures. But not all of them, I realized. Who was I saying “we” with? Did I say it with Glückel of Hameln, a seventeenth-century Jewish businesswoman, mother, and wife, whose memoir we read and discussed? No. Did I say it with the Algonquian Indians that explorer and mathematician Thomas Harriot encountered when, in the late sixteenth century, he voyaged to a land he called Virginia—on our maps, coastal North Carolina? No. Oh. When I said “we” in the classroom, I was assimilating myself to the perspective of white, Christian Europeans, many of them men. What train of inheritance was I implicating myself in? My students?

At the university where I taught at the time, in the mountains of North Carolina, most of the students in my specialized, upper-division courses on early modern Europe or Britain were white. Occasionally, they brought up their religious backgrounds in class: when we discussed the Reformation, for example, or the early history of the Methodist movement, John Wesley’s eighteenth-century push for the spiritual reform of the Anglican church. Many students identified as some variety of Christian—non-denominational, Baptist, or Methodist, occasionally Lutheran or Catholic. There was a bit more ethnic diversity in the classes that I taught for non-majors, general surveys of European political, religious, and intellectual history, with a few Black, Latino, and Asian American students scattered amongst the majority white student bodies.

Since that day, I’ve done my best to escape the historical “we,” at least in the classroom. This “we” was as much a disservice to my white students as it was to their Black, Latino, and Asian American peers, whom it tended to exclude. It encouraged white students to assimilate, uncritically, the perspective of those in history who happened to share their skin color and (for many of them) their religious identity. In truth, over four centuries, so much has changed in the lived experience of racial and ethnic identity and religious belief that my students have much more in common with each other than with their racial and religious forebears.

The AP U.S. history framework’s conservative critics, Krieger, Robbins, and the Republican National Committee, seem most troubled that high school students would learn that while not all colonial-era Americans were white, plenty of the white ones were racist, and this racism shaped the country just as much as Protestant ideals of religious and political liberty. Indeed, it’s more than that: the Protestant ideals and the racism were deeply intertwined. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonists believed that different kinds of bodies, under different kinds of circumstances, were fitted for different kinds of liberty, as can be seen in American historian Eric Foner’s popular college U.S. history textbook, Give Me Liberty!

How do we acknowledge and move forward from the sins of the past? The historical “we” in place, the distance between past and present falsely collapsed, we can only understand them as our own. Here is where the historical distance created by the AP U.S. framework, with its careful locutions, pays off. For, of course, in seeing that U.S. history has been shaped by racism, one may be lead to reflect upon our inheritance of that history, and how it plays out in daily life, in ways big and small, across the United States. Our history, properly told, should push students towards these kinds of reflections (though it won’t dictate their outcomes). But such thoughts may be particularly painful—too painful to confront—for those who look back on the “Founding Fathers,” and say, “Them. Those are my people. Those are our people.”

Recently, I’ve returned to reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, composed in the mid-seventeenth century just as the second and third generations of British colonists in America were settling in for the long haul. The poem expresses many of the Puritan ideals that the New England colonists themselves held. I read a few lines each night as a kind of Lenten discipline. It’s the Zeno’s paradox of books, one I return to every few years, but never quite seem to finish. But there’s something I love about being the reader that Milton did not anticipate: an educated woman, mother of children, teacher of students, an Episcopalian in the New World.

Milton didn’t go in for women’s equality. In Book IV of Paradise Lost, when a newly created Eve first speaks to Adam, she proclaims not only her inferiority to Adam, but also her perfect contentment in that inferiority. As Satan watches on, Eve confesses to Adam that she owes God daily thanks for her creation, especially because she occupies “So far the happier lot, enjoying thee Preeminent by so much odds, while thou Like consort to thyself canst nowhere find.” God made Adam from the dust, and Eve from his rib: alone in the world together, Eve had a fit companion, one superior to herself, while Adam had no one to call a friend and equal. “He for God only,” Milton wrote, “she for God in him.”

Milton didn’t think much of me, apparently. Why not return the favor?

I could say a number of things in answer to this question: that Paradise Lost makes me laugh—as when upon viewing Adam and Eve in the garden for the first time, Satan exclaims, “Oh hell!” Or, that I love reading Milton’s sentences out loud, puzzling the meaning out of the grammar. Or, that sometimes the beauty of a phrase, or a passage, stops me for a moment, and I read that out loud, too. Or, that literary scholars, reading the poem in its historical context, disagree as to what, precisely, Eve’s speeches tell us about Milton’s attitudes towards women. Or, that in some maddening, allusive—and elusive—way, Paradise Lost is a book with which I say “we.” But perhaps all I should say is this: it must be a fragile faith that can be broken by the knowledge that its heroes—that we—are human.

Elizabeth Yale is the author of Script, Print, Speech, Mail: Nature, Nation, and Learned Communication in Early Modern Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming). She teaches at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

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State Legislatures Pit Religious Freedom Against Civil Rights Tue, 03 Mar 2015 18:31:41 +0000 (AP/Matt York)

(AP/Matt York)

The debate over last summer’s Hobby Lobby decision has a new source for conflict: state legislatures. The Supreme Court decision, which expanded corporate religious liberty, rested on an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute that Congress passed in 1993. In the post-Hobby Lobby era, it has become common to hear of states gearing up to buttress their own versions of RFRA. At least 20 states have enacted RFRAs, and in the past several months, state lawmakers in several jurisdictions have proposed RFRA amendments to protect business owners against claims of discrimination.

In Georgia, where a same-sex marriage ban is currently being challenged in federal court, the state legislature proposed the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act” in late January. The bill would amend the state’s RFRA to shield businesses and employers who engage in discriminatory practices, if their motives are religious. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed similar legislation after both business and civil rights leaders objected. Kansas, Michigan, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma, among others, have also considered such bills.

The legislation is being pushed by religious conservatives. They have been alarmed by lawsuits that have been brought in several states against small business owners—photographers, florists, and bakers—who refused services to customers involved in same-sex weddings. They contend they have a right to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws that prohibit denying service on the basis of sexual orientation. Against this claim, courts have consistently held that business owners do not have the right to refuse to serve gay and lesbian couples. But these decisions have been reached in states like New Jersey and Washington, which do not have RFRAs. In Idaho, which does have a state RFRA, a similar case had a very different outcome in late 2014; officials from the city of Coeur d’Alene concluded that a wedding chapel run by two ministers would be exempt from a city anti-discrimination law as a religious organization.

When the Supreme Court agreed in January to decide whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to license and recognize same-sex marriages, the fight over religious exemptions from civil rights laws intensified. States that have proposed shoring up their RFRAs are doing so in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. The politics surrounding these questions are acrimonious and there is genuine pain on both sides. According to proponents of bills like one being considered in Georgia, the “right” to discriminate is the only refuge for otherwise imperiled religious commitments. On the other side, critics deplore the subordination of equality to religious freedom. Noting that anti-discrimination laws protect against invidious distinctions by race, national origin, and sex, as well as religion, they argue that enacting the broadly phrased RFRA laws that religious conservatives are promoting would shield many kinds of bad behavior—not just refusals to serve same-sex couples.

For both sides, there are monsters lurking in the rapidly changing law of religion and marriage.

We have seen a similar conflict before. In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s marriage debates, the law of marriage was also at the center of debates about the Fourteenth Amendment that took place a generation ago in the 1960s through the 1980s, when the issue was racial equality, not sexual equality. In the end, in the face of protracted resistance, a head-on collision between religion and race produced a strong win for anti-discrimination, with racial equality deemed to be more central to American constitutional life than sincerely held, racially discriminatory religious beliefs. After the Supreme Court held in 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws (which prohibited interracial marriage) violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, some religious organizations fought back by seeking religious accommodations for segregation. A case in point is Bob Jones University, which had traditionally refused to admit students of African descent. After 1971, it accepted black students but only if they were already married. In 1975, in response to pressure from the federal government, the university accepted unmarried black applicants, but prohibited interracial dating.

The issue of religious accommodations came to a head in the early 1980s. Acting on a 1970 regulation that prohibits granting tax-exempt status to any educational institution that maintains racially discriminatory policies, the IRS had long maintained that Bob Jones should be ineligible. The university fought back, citing the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. Finally, in 1983 the Supreme Court took up the question. In an 8-1 opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Court held that the government as “a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education … which substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the university’s] exercise of their religious beliefs.”

This decision, which involved statutory as well as constitutional law, was attacked by religious conservatives, some of whom claimed that the Bob Jones case would rank next to Supreme Court cases on school prayer and Bible reading, which they had long condemned as the imposition of “secular humanism” on the people of America. In fact, the outrage eventually subsided. In 2000, Bob Jones University announced that it would permit interracial dating on campus, and now formally apologizes for the “segregationist ethos” that underlay its earlier policy. By mid-2013, a record 87 percent of Americans approved of marriages between those of African and European descent.

The new proposed amendments to state RFRAs seek to undo the result in Bob Jones, by exempting those who discriminate on religious grounds from the operation of statutes protecting civil rights. Supported by conservative religious groups such as the Beckett Fund and the Alliance Defending Freedom, such laws have become the go-to solution for states that seek to resist what they predict will be the law of marriage nationwide, after the Supreme Court decides the question by the end of its current term, in June 2015. We know that the right to marry is considered a fundamental right, and that considerations of equality are paramount constitutional concerns. The question raised by the current proposals to amend RFRAs at the state level is whether statutory laws exempting religious actors will be allowed to trump those long-standing rights in a new era.

What lessons are we to draw from this history, especially in light of the new campaign to amend state RFRAs? One lesson is that the current controversy about religion and discrimination is part of a long series of related conflicts, especially over marriage. For almost 50 years, equality has intruded into the blended religious and civil status of marriage, dividing those who welcome changes that reflect new understandings of equality and those who feel deeply threatened by those changes. Equally important, however, is the recognition that change has come before and has not resulted in lasting social conflict. Concepts of equality have been debated, deployed, and challenged in legislative chambers and church pews. Refusing accommodations will exacerbate the current conflict, say proponents. But history suggests otherwise. Denying religious exemptions may actually lead some religious groups to adjust to change that once seemed contrary to religious beliefs (as happened in the case of interracial marriage).

Change has been as important as continuity in American law and life. Religious groups have as often been advocates for change, as well as forces resisting such shifts. This was the case in the earlier battles over race discrimination, when religious leaders spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement at the same time that other religious organizations, like Bob Jones University, resisted it. And this is equally true today, when a strong religious campaign in favor of same-sex marriage plays an important role in combatting those who invoke religious interests against it.

Marriage has frequently been the focus of conflict over race, religion and equality. Religious accommodation has frequently been the last refuge of those who seek to escape the imposition of new anti-discrimination laws, especially in the field of sexuality and marriage. Bob Jones reached the right result more than thirty years ago. The newly proposed state RFRA bills would undo that result, abandoning our nation’s commitment to equality before the law. That would be a dangerous development, and a sadly counterproductive outcome for all religious interests.


Sarah Barringer Gordon is Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law & Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is co-editor of Studies in Legal History, the book series of the American Society for Legal History, published by Cambridge University Press.

Nomi Stolzenberg is the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at the University of Southern California Law School. She is the director of USC’s Program on Religious Accommodation and co-directs USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture.

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