Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Wed, 01 Jul 2015 22:04:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Obergefell and the End of Religious Reasons for Lawmaking Mon, 29 Jun 2015 17:19:33 +0000 (Getty/Alex Wong)

(Getty/Alex Wong)

In Obergefell v. Hodges, marriage equality for same-sex couples became the law of the land. In the wake of the decision on Friday, focus has intensified on religious freedom for traditionalists. Few of the questions about religious accommodation are novel—they had been playing out in the states for some time. Yet the decision did have important ramifications for the relationship between religion and government in the United States, and it does mark the formal beginning of a new phase in the so-called culture wars.

The most significant impact of the Obergefell decision for the relationship between religion and government is that it put an end to lawmaking solely on the basis of religious reasons. From the beginning, the only real basis for excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage was religious. At the oral argument in the Supreme Court, as in lower courts, the states struggled to justify marriage exclusion in terms that all citizens could understand. Their theory that expanding civil marriage would weaken a conception of marriage linked to procreation, and thereby lead opposite-sex couples to remain unmarried, was nonsensical. In the Obergefell opinion, the Court called it “counterintuitive.”

So when the Court struck down exclusions of same-sex couples from civil marriage, it implicitly—but clearly—rejected the idea that such a law could be based on religious reasons alone, without understandable secular aims. Those justifications could not suffice to justify discrimination with respect to a basic freedom like the ability to marry.

To be sure, in Obergefell, the Court did not equate religious convictions with animus, hatred, or bigotry. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy recognized that “[m]any who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.” But religious convictions may be decent and honorable without providing sufficient grounds for determining the content and scope of our constitutional liberties.

In this case, Justice Kennedy made exactly this point with respect to prohibitions on same-sex marriage, stating that when “sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the state itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those who liberty is then denied.” Religious traditionalists may hold their views in good faith, and still the imposition of their beliefs through law cannot be justified to those who do not share their religious perspectives. Without some significant and publicly justifiable basis for rejecting same-sex marriage—which was never forthcoming in the public and legal debates leading up to Obergefell—excluding same-sex couples is arbitrary. And a state that violates fundamental rights on arbitrary grounds ultimately disparages and demeans those it governs.

Obergefell should put to rest the idea, which had been persisting, that American law touching on fundamental rights can be based purely in religious reasons. The Court leaves open some important questions, such as whether legislation may be based on nonreligious moral disapproval alone, independent of any concern for whether regulated conduct harms others. But its statement on the impermissibility of religious reasons for restricting basic rights is impossible to miss.

Now, after the decision in Obergefell, attention is shifting more strongly to the question of whether religious traditionalists should receive accommodations from laws guaranteeing equality to LGBT citizens. In some sense, that is a canard. Nothing in Obergefell directly affected the most pressing questions. Because comprehensive civil rights laws protecting LGBT citizens do not exist on the federal level or in the majority of states, marriage equality does not affect the ability of businesses to discriminate against gay people in most jurisdictions. (The ability of public officials to decline to administer same-sex marriages is an exception—it is directly raised by Obergefell).

Yet the Obergefell dissenters gave the impression that the Court’s decision had direct ramifications for religious freedom—an impression that was misleading and should be corrected. Chief Justice Roberts, for instance, said, “Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage.” He gave as examples a religious college that excludes gay couples from married student housing, and an adoption agency that refuses to place children with same-sex couples. But Obergefell does not create either of these conflicts.

After the decision, religious colleges can continue to exclude same-sex couples from married student housing, unless the state or town happens to have an independent law protecting against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status. And adoption agencies may continue to disfavor gay couples in those jurisdictions. Moreover, the withdrawal of tax-exempt status for organizations that oppose same-sex marriage, which Roberts also mentioned, is extremely unlikely. Certainly nothing in Obergefell requires the IRS to take that step. Thus, Chief Justice Roberts was warning about conflicts that are either already underway or unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Justice Thomas was closer to the truth when he said that the Obergefell decision changed the political dynamic in the clash between LGBT rights and religious freedom. Before the decision, religious traditionalists could advocate in democratic politics for the preservation of traditional marriage. “Had the majority allowed the definition of marriage to be left to the political process,” he wrote, “the People could have considered the religious liberty implications of deviating from the traditional definition as part of their deliberative process.”

After Obergefell, that political strategy is no longer available. To the extent religious traditionalists continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they cannot demand robust protections in exchange for agreeing to marriage equality, as they did in each of the states that enacted same-sex marriage by statute. Instead, they must oppose civil rights protections for LGBT people. Or they must demand religion accommodations in exchange for civil rights guarantees, as they did in Utah.

The Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith, written in 1990 by Justice Scalia and endorsed by the Court’s conservatives, prevents these religion accommodations from being required as a matter of federal constitutional law (and much state constitutional law follows suit). That means advocates for religious accommodations must rely on statutory protections for religion, and they must do so using the methods of ordinary politics. Unless the justices are willing to reconsider Smith, religious traditionalists will continue to pursue accommodations in legislatures, administrative agencies, and through ballot initiatives. They can do that because legislatures can accommodate religion for reasons that are not themselves religious—like solicitude for the burden that some laws may place on citizens’ deeply held convictions. For example, the Court recently accommodated a prisoner who wished to grow a half-inch beard despite prison grooming regulations. That was perfectly appropriate.

What lawmakers can no longer do is burden basic rights for purely religious reasons. Obergefell puts an end to that campaign. Laws supported by religion can continue to be enacted, but only if they can be justified by concern for harm to others or some other public rationale. Chief Justice Roberts understood this implication when he argued against the majority that the Constitution does not enact John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which famously defends the view that infringements on personal liberty can only be justified to prevent harm to others. Whether he is right about that or not, the Constitution does not permit the government to pass laws that interfere with individual rights on the basis of religious reasons. That too is now the law of the land.

Micah J. Schwartzman is Edward F. Howrey Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Richard C. Schragger is Perre Bowen Professor and Barron F. Black Research Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Nelson Tebbe is Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and Visiting Professor of Law at Cornell Law School.

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The Pope and Laudato Si’: Is the Ecology Encyclical a Moral Analysis or a Political Indictment? Wed, 24 Jun 2015 15:50:38 +0000 (Getty/Vatican Pool)

(Getty/Vatican Pool)

U.S. politicians who happen to be Catholic in the age of Pope Francis display a knack for religious privatization that would impress even the most avowed secularization theorists. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals, or from my Pope,” shrugged Catholic convert Jeb Bush on the campaign trail. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Slightly less blunt was Catholic-Baptist hybrid Marco Rubio’s assessment that the pope speaks with moral authority on humans’ obligation to care for the environment—but economic well-being remains a politician’s domain. Why the fuss?

Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home, offers significant and trenchant critiques of contemporary economic assumptions that beguile U.S. political leadership. While environmental degradation is a moral problem, it argues, ecological paroxysms are also linked to failures of the world’s dominant economic paradigms. Laudato Si’ lays out a case that, while economic and technological prowess have certainly improved the living circumstances of millions of people, these paradigms also contain internal dynamics that benefit the few at the expense of the vulnerable. Thus, in the encyclical’s introduction, Francis writes: “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (13).

It is this Catholic moral concern for protecting the dignity of the vulnerable—in this case, people living in poverty and the planet’s life support systems—that has given U.S. politicians occasion to pontificate on where the Pope’s domain ends and theirs begins.


THE VATICAN IS CLEAR that environmental problems, social inequities, and economic paradigms are linked—and that addressing that intersection is the proper purview of moral leadership. “Morality has to do with the decisions and choices we make in certain concrete situations, including economic situations,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a recent interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour. (He also noted how surprising and unfortunate it is that political leaders would deny such an obvious connection.)

In fact, this idea—that moral principles can and should be brought to bear on contemporary social and economic realities, and therefore bear political implications—is at the heart of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine, a tradition that began in 1891 with Leo XIII’s encyclical on the rights of laborers. Encyclicals written throughout the past forty years by Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have consistently raised questions about economic practices and their resulting inequalities, while laying out the requirements of an “authentic” or “integral” development (an idea that points to the pursuit of multi-dimensional well-being for every person as an individual, and for all people around the world—not merely on the sole metric of economic growth).

In their encyclicals, John Paul II and Benedict XVI highlighted linkages among economic globalization, social injustice, and environmental degradation. Both leaders talked about climate change as a moral problem and about the obligation to care for creation, while clarifying that biblical injunctions to have “dominion” over nature should not be interpreted as “domination.”

Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate was promulgated within a year of the global financial crisis and critiqued excessive speculative finance while also calling for super-developed nations to take up considerable duties in light of global inequalities and ongoing environmental problems. These themes percolate throughout Laudato Si’, which (unsurprisingly) draws heavily upon the teachings of Francis’s predecessors, as its quotations and footnotes indicate. But Francis’s ecology encyclical is new in that it centralizes environmental themes and raises the level of moral analysis and exhortation.

Something else is new: more people in the U.S. are taking note of these teachings than ever before. The body of Catholic social doctrine is no longer out of sight and out of mind. Thus, the Pope’s encyclical has evoked some consternation: Is it, or is it not, a political document?


THE POPE BEGINS Laudato Si’ by addressing himself not just to Catholics but also to “every person living on the planet.” Chapter 1 details some of the most egregious planetary shifts that have resulted from human misuse of the earth’s goods (including climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and economic inequality). Chapter 2 recalibrates Christian biblical understandings of human beings and creation.

But it is Chapters 3 and 4 that hone in on how humans have become an earth-altering force; it is here that Francis analyzes the moral fissures wrought by our industrial, technological, and economic powers.

Among Francis’s concerns is what he sees as a misplaced faith in economic structures, which he also refers to collectively as a “technocratic paradigm.” He sees contemporary, political and economic leaders and their institutions as focused on market efficiencies, profit and growth, and technological solutions—but without sufficient accountability to the people or environments that bear the burdens of these structures.

Such an approach makes some North American pundits nervous. Some commentators have charged Francis with a blithe “catastrophism” that refuses to recognize the benefits of economic and technological progress. Such an analysis may be politically appealing in the U.S. context, but it is overly simplistic and simply incorrect.

As Francis sees it, technology and economics are proper expressions of the unique human capacities for reason, creativity, and sociality. His worry, however, is that these products of human ingenuity can be perpetuated in ways that bring significant harm to vulnerable forms of life. (These ideas appear consistently in the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well.) It is irrational for human beings to behave “as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such,” says Francis, but this is precisely the assumption built into contemporary forms of political economy (105).

But let’s be clear on two things that the encyclical is not doing. Francis’ line of critique is not endorsing socialism or communism (see para. 104 for critiques of those specters). Nor is Laudato Si’ a simplistic exhortation to return to an imagined, nostalgic pre-industrial pastoralism: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” the pope writes, “but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur” (114).

Instead, Francis calls for a dynamic, global moral conversation that entails conversion and transformation on all levels of scale, from the individual to the societal. In this way, Laudato Si’ can be read as a summons to rectify widespread moral confusion over means and ends. What goals are being sought through economic and social relationships? Are those goals worthy and just? Have political economic arrangements become ends in themselves, instead of means to integral development?

Francis’ constructive upshot is to put forward an idea of “integral ecology,” which he develops in chapter 4. Humanity must reinvigorate a broader, moral vision of what it means to be embodied, dependent, and in healthy relationship—with God, other people, and the earth that sustains all life.

Certainly, the notion of integral ecology has distinctly Catholic tones in this encyclical. But it is also a notion that appears in ecological theory, environmental and social activism, and constructive political and economic efforts (including, for example, attempts by environmental leaders like James Gustav Speth to re-integrate human and ecological values into a “new economy” that conduces to the good of all people and the planet, now and in the future).


WHAT IS THE upshot for citizens and politicians in super-developed nations like the U.S.? Is there a moral imperative for us?

This encyclical on environmental, economic, and social ethics is a call to action, both in the concrete lives of individuals and in the functioning of societies. It is a dialogue that must include everyone—and “dialogue” implies more than a congenial chat. “Dialogue,” here, is the first step in setting ethical goals and then pursuing a noble, just course of human affairs. Such a trajectory, Francis insists, requires leaders (in business and in politics) to re-evaluate and revalue their actions.

Protection of the planet for current and future generations, and pursuit of dignified living circumstances for all people, requires people in power to attend to big-picture concerns. A renewed commitment to truly moral leadership means eschewing “the myopia of power politics” and remembering that “true statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy” (178).

This is not an easy task in contemporary U.S. society, obsessed as we are with election cycles and fiscal quarters. Laudato Si’ continues:

Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term. … To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. (181)

Granted, Laudato Si’ doesn’t name names of particular nations that need to come to the table. But it is not hard to read between the lines. As Benedict XVI put it in 2009, these critiques apply in particular ways to “super-developed” nations like the United States. And Francis offers numerous, specific, and exquisitely salient challenges to the interpretative biases of pundits and politicians in the United States, as the following three examples show.

First, there is Francis’s acceptance of scientific consensus on climate change and other environmental problems. He has little patience for those who would denigrate or ignore the facts: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (14). Surely, James Inhofe’s infamous presentation of a snowball to the Senate—part of an attempted argument against global warming—is but one example. Even so, politicians are merely the most visible face of the American denial problem, which is not only an intellectual failure but also a spiritual malaise. “This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices,” writes Francis later in the encyclical: “trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen” (59). Denial, obstructionism, and indifference must give way to real conversation about global responsibilities.

Second, consider how Francis insists that wealthy/industrialized nations owe an ecological and social debt to other countries, as a result of disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources. The pope speaks of common but “differentiated responsibilities” for social and environmental justice, an oft-invoked term in global geo-diplomacy: industrialized nations and developing nations all share in responsibility for planetary realities, but not every nation’s obligations are the same.

With his papal predecessors, Pope Francis insists that highly developed nations should bear most of the costs (economic and otherwise) of remediating environmental ills from which they have disproportionately benefited. In the case of global warming, “reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage, and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are the most powerful and pollute the most” (169). With a fraction of the world’s population but a dramatic share of its carbon emissions, the U.S. is directly in this line of critique.

Finally, Francis critiques the history of “weak international political responses” to problems of poverty and environmental degradation. He notes, too, how “economic powers” (presumably including strong U.S. lobbies and multinational corporations of many types) “continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain,” while ignoring negative “effects on human dignity and the natural environment” (54, 56).

Here, Francis delivers a succinct rhetorical salvo for super-developed nations: “We believers,” Francis writes, “cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to these present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.”

Of course, the responsibility to act is not God’s. It is ours.


Christiana Z. Peppard is an assistant professor of theology, science, and ethics at Fordham University and the author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Follow her @profpeppard.

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For Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E., a Legacy of Hope and Resistance Thu, 18 Jun 2015 23:09:00 +0000 (Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool)

(Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier via AP, Pool)

Charleston is known as the holy city, for its many steeples and spires that tower above the landscape. On Wednesday night, a most unholy act happened in one of the city’s congregations. Suspect Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, is believed to have entered the doors of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. According to authorities, he sat among church members for nearly an hour before he started shooting. A state senator and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was murdered along with six women and two men in his congregation. “I do believe this was a hate crime,” the police chief said. Black men and women were targeted while they held Bible study. An act of terror happened in a sacred space.

There are still so many questions. In the hours and days and weeks to come, details and analysis will surface: who are the victims and what are their stories; how do we combat racism and violence; where did the shooter get a gun; did he suffer from mental illness; how much was he known to authorities. But some things we may never know, or understand. This is not the first attack on an American house of worship. But in a year of cries for justice over police brutality and lost black lives, this mass shooting again brings us to the dreadful realization that injustice continues and tragedies mount.

I was born and raised in South Carolina. Last fall, I got married in a church three blocks west and a half-mile south of Emanuel A.M.E. I am a descendant of the region’s white Methodists, the same people who so ostracized their black congregants that the Rev. Morris Brown left in 1818 and formed a church for black members, who would later comprise Emanuel. And, if early reports are true, the alleged shooter attended high school in the same town where I did. I am angry. I mourn. I want to atone. My destiny is tied up with their destiny, both the oppressed and the oppressor.

It is impossible to see the attack on Emanuel apart from the church’s history. Emanuel has been a symbol of resistance since its inception, when Brown gathered more than 1,000 black Charlestonians into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. One of the group’s founding members was Denmark Vesey, who had bought his freedom and began organizing a slave uprising. When the plot was discovered in 1822, Vesey and 34 others were hanged. In retaliation, his church was burned to the ground. But it rebuilt, again and again. In 1834, when all-black churches were outlawed, it resurrected itself with underground meetings. In 1865, it was again publicly recognized, taking on the name Emanuel (“God with us”). The church hosted Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And in recent months, the slain Rev. Pinckney fought tirelessly for legislation for police to wear body cameras, which passed in the wake of the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston.

“This church is more than just a local congregation. It is a jewel that represents the rich heritage of worldwide African-Methodism and its commitment to preach the liberating Gospel of Christ,” wrote my friend, the Rev. Marcus McCullough, in an email exchange. (McCullough is a lifelong member of the A.M.E. and an ordained A.M.E. minister, but he did not speak to me as a representative of his denomination.) He continued, “This isn’t just about a church or even a denomination, rather it’s about a people and the relentless desire to extinguish its past, present, and future. It is then, perhaps, no coincidence at all that this occurred amidst the clarion call that #BlackLivesMatter. And that, for sure, is what makes this hurt so bad.”

History pervades Charleston, but publicly it often offers a selective memory. The city and the state have been slow to reckon with their legacies. Just off the coast, the first shots of the Civil War rang out. By some estimates, nearly half of all Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through the ports of Charleston and its surrounding areas. The legacy of racism, of Jim Crow, and of slavery’s brutality mark each cobblestone step and grand home that still stand.

And yet, visitors are too often given a sanitized image of the Old South—genteel accents, hoop skirts, and sweetgrass baskets. The Confederate flag still flies on the state house grounds in Columbia, and it lines the walls and hallways of many of Charleston’s historic buildings. Charleston is a city full of museums, but it was just in 2007 that the city officially opened a museum dedicated to understanding the slave trade. In 2014, after a nearly 18-year effort, a monument to Denmark Vesey was unveiled in one of the city’s parks.

Michael Altman, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Alabama and a high school classmate of mine, went to college in Charleston. When I reached out to him over email, he wrote, “The Civil War isn’t distant there. Slavery isn’t distant there. It’s not uncommon to happen upon a guy dressed up like a Confederate soldier. The Confederacy is banal in its ubiquity in town.” He continued, “So, when this happens, when a white man walks into a historic black church—a church literally driven underground by Southern white supremacy—it feels like all of those ghosts, all of that cultural memory bubbling just below the surface has violently erupted. All of those moments where you noticed the Confederacy was still around that seemed ‘historic’ or ‘cultural’ suddenly seem insidious.”

Emanuel, like many black churches, has countered these insidious narratives. The church offered a defiant history and a subversive spirit in the face of opposition, before emancipation and during Jim Crow, through the civil rights movement and to this moment. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Barbara Savage has argued, “African American religion and political struggle [have] seemed poignantly and inextricably intertwined.”

In the churchyard where I got married, there is a marker to honor the memory of the enslaved workers who built the church. Covering the bricks is a sculpture of a bird looking over its back. It is a sankofa, a Ghanaian symbol that means “looking back in order to look forward.” It is a reminder to learn from the past.

There is no sense to be made from senseless violence, no meaning that I can make. But we can remember. In this time of uncertainty, I am certain that Emanuel A.M.E. will continue its legacy of defiance, of resistance, of hope. Now it is needed as much as ever.

Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of Religion & Politics.

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Franklin Graham Is Winning at Facebook Tue, 16 Jun 2015 16:21:58 +0000 (AP Photo/Erie Times-News, Greg Wohlford)

(AP Photo/Erie Times-News, Greg Wohlford)

On June 5, Franklin Graham took to his Facebook page to provoke a boycott of Wells Fargo. The bank has released a series of nine new commercials profiling their customer diversity, including one featuring a lesbian couple learning sign language in advance of adopting a deaf child. Incensed at the “tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats,” Graham announced that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of which he is CEO and president, would be “moving our accounts from Wells Fargo to another bank.” He encouraged his Facebook followers to think of other pro-gay companies to boycott: “Let’s just stop doing business with those who promote sin and stand against Almighty God’s laws and His standards. Maybe if enough of us do this, it will get their attention. Share this if you agree.”

As of this writing—72 hours after that post—more than 90,000 people agreed. Rather, more than 90,000 people had clicked “Like” on the post, which is the most basic Facebook way of saying “I agree.” Nearly 41,000 had followed Graham’s instructions to “Share” the post onto their own pages. Both types of clicks register affirmation, and both drive more attention to Graham’s post—in Facebook’s system, any sort of user interaction can boost a post’s visibility.

At the risk of playing gotcha, it’s worth asking whether Graham’s boycott of pro-gay businesses will extend to Facebook. If so, he’ll need to delete his very successful page. In February 2014, the company added a “custom” option to the Gender field in profiles, and they’ve indicated their support of gay marriage on multiple occasions. Everyone who uses their Facebook profile does business with Facebook—indeed, users are the product Facebook sells, and users improve the product line and build Facebook’s advertising revenue with every post, every click, every moment of attention they give to the site. Thanks in no small part to people like Franklin Graham, Facebook’s business is very good.

Aside from the televangelists Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, Graham appears to be the most popular Christian leader on Facebook. In an era where Facebook has become a primary filter—in many cases, the primary filter—for what people pay attention to online, Graham is building a Facebook presence that surpasses every other vocal Christian leader in America. Graham wears multiple hats—he’s the president of the humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse in addition to the BGEA—but his Facebook page is mostly a fount of advocacy for his vintage Christian Right political worldview. Graham’s forbears, such as Jerry Falwell, would have salivated at the easy attention-gathering power of today’s social media platforms. Culture war leaders of yesteryear worked hard to gin up media attention, spinning out urgent press releases and offering inflammatory quotes on trending national news. Franklin Graham simply has to go to Facebook and fill out his answer to the status update box: “What have you been up to?”

Well, maybe not “simply.” Graham is winning at Facebook because he—along with, one presumes, his communications team—is smart about using Facebook.

At the height of his career, Billy Graham could speak to half a million people or more during a preaching crusade, though it often took several consecutive days of work. Thanks to Facebook, Franklin Graham can speak to that many people every day. Osteen and Meyer have more likes than Graham—10 million and nearly 9 million, respectively. The piety page Jesus Daily, which posts inspirational pictures and quotes, is even larger; its 26 million likes rank it among the most popular pages on all of Facebook. Jesus Daily is beating Kim Kardashian and Christina Aguilera, who have roughly 25 million each, though it is well behind Taylor Swift (71 million) and Shakira (100 million). Those are impressive numbers, especially compared to Franklin Graham’s 1.6 million likes. Yet in terms of actual visibility on Facebook day in, day out—in terms of gaming Facebook for peak user engagement around the clock—Graham is outgunning them all.

When I visited the page on June 5, 709,022 people were “Talking About” Graham’s Facebook page, about 45 percent of his total fans. The number of “People Talking About This” fluctuates, and I happened to check that stat at a high water mark—when it was buoyed by his bank boycott. But Graham’s figure is often strong: I’ve seen it go as high as 908,228, and never as low as 400,000 since I began paying close attention in April. The “Talking About” metric is a measurement of fan engagement—not “How many likes do you have?” but “How many people are interacting with your posts right now?” Joel Osteen’s number of likes is many times higher than Graham’s, but when I’ve looked a few times recently, only around 23 percent of those fans were talking about his page. At Joyce Meyer’s page, 17 percent of her fans were talking about her posts. Rick Warren? Nearly 2 million fans, but barely 1 percent of them are engaged. Graham is far and away the leader of the pack.

That’s in part because Graham gives his fans much more to talk about. He posts at least twice per day, nearly every day. The page is sprinkled with amusing personal miscellany—one recent post extols his Fitbit—and Christian quotes or Bible verses. He also reports occasionally on the vital aid work of Samaritan’s Purse and calls for prayer on widely felt tragedies. But most of Graham’s posts are conservative Christian hot takes on the news. This spring, he has touched on the Baltimore riots, Bruce Jenner (and, later, Caitlyn Jenner), Hillary Clinton’s cash, homosexuality, and militant Islam. Those last two subjects predominate. In all cases, his tone tends toward the visceral—appeals to emotion primed for clicks.

Consider this post from May 16: “Can you believe these idiots? Gender fluidity? Here’s an example of some of the wicked things misguided educators today want to expose our children to—look at this Fox News story. It should make your blood boil that they want to brainwash our children!” The post links to a Todd Starnes op-ed—not, nota bene, the same thing as a “story”—with the headline: “Call it ‘gender fluidity’: Schools to teach kids there’s no such thing as boys or girls.”

Or consider this post from May 28: “CNN reported today that scientists have discovered ancient jawbones and some teeth in Ethiopia that they say may shed new light on our earliest ancestors. If you really want to know where our earliest ancestors came from, check the original source, God’s Holy Word.”

Both posts are longer than the above quotes, though not much longer—Graham’s lengthiest Facebook posts hover around an economical 150 words. On Facebook, that’s enough material to proclaim a position and engender weeks of reaction. The comment threads on Graham’s posts can run on for weeks. The two posts above have (again, as of this writing) 10,654 and 5,198 comments, respectively, and are still active. The threads themselves are about what you’d expect if you’ve spent any time at all reading web article comments on religion and politics topics. Let the reader beware.

But constructive dialogue, of course, is not the goal of media strategies like Graham’s. The goal is attention. That’s what Franklin Graham and Facebook are winning together. Facebook has 1.4 billion users, and roughly half of them get their news from the site. More and more people are tuning into Facebook as a front page of world events and commentary. All sorts of media companies use Facebook, but the ones that perform best are the partisan outlets—conservative outlets like The Blaze, liberal outlets like Mother Jones. The same holds true for partisan persons like Franklin Graham.

Successful Facebook pages have a way of compromising one’s mission. Once you figure out what people click on, you start creating posts that get those clicks. There are a few tricks to the Facebook trade, and they’re fairly easy to reproduce. We’re awash in evidence of this today—it’s why so many web headlines sound the same; it’s why so many viral posts are viral in the same way; it’s why BuzzFeed works; it’s why Clickhole exists (and is necessary).

But if you’re committed to an editorial mission, or a political mission, or (to be sure) a religious mission, what works on Facebook may not be what’s best for that mission. Sure, you can figure out how to get clicks on Facebook. But is getting clicks on Facebook consistent with your larger purpose? Can you go viral repeatedly on Facebook and maintain your intellectual integrity? Can you go viral and still care for people—for the human beings who have lives beyond their Facebook user profiles? Once you have a smart Facebook strategy and a successful Facebook page, you tend to stop asking.

A question for Franklin Graham: Do you want to address the problem of radical Islam? Refusing to admit Muslims into the fabric of American life (as you do here and here) runs directly counter to that aim. Another: Are you serious about ensuring a place at the table for traditionalist Christian views on marriage? Rather than boycotting Wells Fargo into submission, it might be wise to build strategies for a true democratic pluralism that makes room for your perspective. Your Facebook speech acts are the inverse of real-world action that might protect and advance your views.

Graham is clearly—and rightly—concerned that his Christian worldview is on the wane in America. He also clearly—but wrongly—believes the wisest response is to fight for that worldview by lobbing truth bombs into the public square. That sort of approach is increasingly puzzling. Technologies like Facebook are laying the strategy bare. Full of sound and fury, it accomplishes nothing. Except sound and fury.

Think about the basic structure of a Facebook post on pages like Graham’s. Consider its potentiality as a cultural product. Graham shares his opinion. Maybe he asks a broad question or two, inviting response. That’s the full extent of his participation. He does not moderate the discussion. He does not try to win people over to his ideas. He certainly does not consider his interlocutor’s ideas and figure out how they might challenge his own, even for the purpose of improving his own position. His goal is not persuasion. It is not participation in a public discussion. The only goal is proclamation.

Like all of the big media that preceded it, Facebook turns out to do proclamation very well. This is what a successful Facebook strategy looks like for anyone nurturing a bully pulpit: Post your opinion. Make it as provocative as possible. Encourage people to like and share if they agree. What if they disagree? Or what if they agree but have some questions? No room for that. Due consideration is not a viral strategy. Proclamation is. Promote yourself. Get as much attention as possible. Ignore dissent. Reject intellectual modesty. Refuse charity. Assume the worst of your opponents.

Now, watch the likes roll in.

Franklin Graham is winning Facebook. But winning this game does not seem like a very Christian thing to do.

Patton Dodd is a writer and editor in Maryland.

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The Rise of Christian Conservative Legal Organizations Wed, 10 Jun 2015 16:30:35 +0000 Conservative Christian Legal Organizations

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Law students visiting from Liberty University arrive at the Supreme Court. The students are with Liberty Counsel, a non-profit public interest law firm and ministry.

Two years ago, a longtime customer walked into Barronelle Stutzman’s flower shop with a request: the customer—who is gay—asked Stutzman to provide flowers for his wedding. Stutzman declined, citing her Christian faith’s objections to same-sex marriage, and was eventually charged with violating Washington’s state anti-discrimination statute. With Stutzman facing thousands of dollars in fines, attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom stepped in to defend her in court. Today, the case is under review at the Washington Supreme Court, where Stutzman’s attorneys are hoping for a reversal of a lower court’s ruling against her.

“Barronelle and numerous others like her around the country have been more than willing to serve any and all customers, but they are understandably not willing to promote any and all messages,” Kristen Waggoner, one of Stutzman’s attorneys, said in a statement. “No one should be faced with a choice between their freedom of speech and conscience on one hand and personal and professional ruin on the other.”

Alliance Defending Freedom—a legal organization with a multi-million budget, several regional offices, and more than three dozen staff attorneys—has specialized in taking on these types of cases. But it’s not alone. ADF is just one of many Christian conservative legal organizations, or CCLOs, that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. These groups promote and defend the interests of the Christian conservative community in the legal arena, with activities ranging from filing legal briefs and arguing at the Supreme Court to educating public school officials on the legality of after-school Bible clubs. Included in their ranks are the Liberty Counsel, which is tied to the law school of Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, and the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by Pat Robertson as the Christian Right’s response to the American Civil Liberties Union.

But who exactly are these organizations? What do they do? How do they differ from one another? And what does the future hold for the Christian legal movement? Examining CCLOs not only sheds light on an influential legal community in the United States—it shows how a broader political movement has tried to adapt to new challenges in a changing society.


ALTHOUGH MANY CHRISTIAN Conservative legal groups dot the current American legal landscape, it has not always been this way. For decades, legal advocacy—that is, marshaling legal tactics in support of broader policy goals—was a tool of the political left in the United States, dominated by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Traditional outlets of political engagement were generally unsuccessful for these groups, due to the unpopular nature of their beliefs or the lack of political support for their goals. Legal advocacy gave these marginalized peoples victories unavailable to them otherwise.

Eventually more established, conservative interests saw the value of legal advocacy. The Federalist Society, organized at various law schools in 1982, provided an outlet for conservative legal ideas in an environment traditionally dominated by liberals. Today it is arguably the most influential conservative legal community in the United States, supporting libertarian, business, and socially conservative legal interests.

The 1980s also saw the emergence of expressly Christian legal interest groups. John Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute was one of the earliest of these, focusing mainly on defending religious freedom and opposing abortion. And though its mission has since evolved beyond the Christian legal movement, Rutherford’s successes helped set the stage for the CCLOs active today.

Just as the Federalist Society spurred and lent credibility to the conservative legal movement, the Christian Right did the same for CCLOs. Specifically, elites in the Christian Right, sensing the promise of legal advocacy for their causes, lent organizational support and resources to new legal interest groups: Pat Robertson founded both the National Legal Foundation and the American Center for Law and Justice; James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Bill Bright (among others) were instrumental in organizing Alliance Defending Freedom; and Jerry Falwell lent Liberty Counsel institutional support. Without this early assistance from the Christian Right, many CCLOs would not exist as we now know them.

Today, CCLOs generally focus on three major issues: strengthening religious liberty, supporting the traditional family, and defending the sanctity of life. CCLOs uniformly take the position that religious liberty is crucial in a thriving society, even when exercised in ways the broader culture deems unpopular—as is the case with Barronelle Stutzman. Likewise, most CCLOs take an accommodationist approach to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, arguing that public displays of religion—such as crèches and displays of the 10 Commandments—are consistent with the Judeo-Christian roots of the country. CCLOs’ work on religious liberty and establishment illustrates the flexibility of legal advocacy, emphasizing that lawsuits are not necessary for success: Sometimes the mere threat of a lawsuit may be enough for victory, as is often the case when dealing with public schools and local governmental agencies.

For CCLOs, marriage is more than a legal contract: it is a union between a man and a woman ordained by God with enormous cultural significance. Thus, these groups uniformly oppose expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples. Their past arguments have included appeals to the religious foundations of marriage, but more recently they have relied on controversial and largely debunked research suggesting children are raised better by a mother and father than parents of the same sex. They have also emphasized the importance of the democratic process in defining what marriage is, taking jabs at “unelected judges” redefining the institution. Opposing abortion also remains a critical element of their advocacy—and one where they have been making gains at the state level in creating more abortion restrictions, most notably through supporting “personhood” amendments to state constitutions. CCLOs have also defended pro-life protesters and supported “conscience clause” protections for doctors and pharmacists opposed to abortion and contraception. Here, attorneys appeal to broad rights like free speech and religious exercise, downplaying the content of the activity—namely, opposition to abortion—and focusing on the activity itself. In doing so, CCLOs highlight their clients’ expressive freedom, a value familiar and popular among most Americans.


WHILE DEFINING “CHRISTIAN Conservative legal organization” is in some sense a subjective task, one definition is that it is a multi-issue organization dedicated to the interests of Christian conservatives primarily through legal strategies and tactics. There are several groups that can be identified according to this definition, a testament to the growth of the Christian legal movement in the United States:

Alliance Defending Freedom – Founded in 1994, ADF was originally a funding source for other legal interest groups, but transitioned into direct advocacy and case sponsorship in the early 2000s. Led by Alan Sears, an attorney with roots in the Reagan administration, it has a network of affiliated attorneys around the country to go along with staff attorneys in several areas of law and policy. With annual revenue approaching $40 million, ADF boasts an impressive media presence and sponsors a series of legal training programs for law students and seasoned attorneys alike.

American Center for Law and Justice – Since its inception in 1990, the ACLJ has been led by the most well-known Christian conservative attorney in the country: Jay Sekulow. Under his leadership the ACLJ has grown into perhaps the best recognized CCLO in the country, and rivals ADF in terms of overall resources. The ACLJ is officially tied to Regent University School of Law (also founded by Pat Robertson), and has established branches overseas in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Center for Law and Religious Freedom – The oldest of the CCLOs, the CLRF was founded in 1980 as the advocacy arm of the Christian Legal Society. Today the CLRF is small, with only one attorney—senior counsel Kim Colby—working full-time. But it is active nonetheless, especially in filing amicus briefs and writing statements for public consumption.

Liberty Counsel – Mat Staver founded LC in 1989 out of his private practice in Florida. Since then, it has grown into an active, well-funded ($6 million annually) organization with its own policy office and educational arm. Staver is still in charge, along with his wife, Anita, and several staff attorneys. Like the ACLJ, LC is also tied to a law school: the Liberty University School of Law, where Staver served as Dean for several years.

Liberty Institute – Based in Texas, LI was born of a marriage between the Free Market Foundation and Liberty Legal Institute, founded in 1972 and 1997, respectively. Kelly Shackleford heads the organization, which includes several staff attorneys, an affiliated network of pro bono attorneys, and over $8 million in annual revenue. LI is especially active on religious freedom issues, but also tackles other issues of importance to Christian conservatives.

National Legal Foundation – One of the older groups on this list, the NLF was founded in 1985. For years it was led by Robert Skolrood, who argued Westside Community Schools v. Mergens before the Supreme Court, which upheld the Equal Access Act for religious student groups. Steven Fitschen is now the group’s only attorney, although it remains active primarily in filing amicus briefs.

Pacific Justice Institute – PJI was founded in 1997 by Brad Dacus, who currently serves as its president. With annual revenue nearing $2 million, the group is the only CCLO based in California, and most of its legal work is focused there. PJI is perhaps most famous for its defense of the phrase “In God We Trust” in federal court. The group is particularly active in migrant communities in California, touting the similarities of their beliefs to the views of recent immigrants.

Thomas More Law Center – Founded in 1998 by Catholic businessman Tom Monaghan, TMLC is based in Michigan and led by Richard Thompson, who successfully prosecuted Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the 1990s. With $2 million in annual revenue, TMLC is staffed by three attorneys and numerous affiliated lawyers, and is one of the few CCLOs with explicitly Catholic foundations.

Thomas More Society – In the midst of defending pro-life activist Joseph Scheidler in a lengthy court battle, Thomas Brejcha was told to cease his pro bono work. Instead, he left his firm and founded TMS. In the years since its 1997 founding, TMS has expanded its agenda beyond the sanctity of life to include other issues prominent in Christian Right circles.

Noticeably absent from this list is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has made a name for itself by winning a number of recent Supreme Court cases, including Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Holt v. Hobbs. This omission is intentional: just as the Christian Right is concerned with more than one issue, CCLOs should be defined by their attention to multiple issues and causes in their advocacy. Due to its focus solely on religious liberty and the fact it represents non-Christian clients, the Becket Fund does not belong to the community above, despite some overlap with CCLO interests.* 


WHILE AGREEING ON MAJOR issues, CCLOs are not, it should be noted, copies of one another. These groups have carved out niche identities in an otherwise crowded field. The American Center for Law and Justice consistently critiques the Obama administration on issues beyond the traditional purview of Christian legal advocacy, like immigration, gun control, and the separation of powers. Liberty Counsel has made support for Israel and the Jewish people a central component of its agenda. The Pacific Justice Institute routinely opposes the normalization of homosexuality and transgender identity, especially in public schools. Alliance Defending Freedom has encouraged pastors to “break the law” by taking political stances from the pulpit, in order to challenge IRS regulations prohibiting such activity. And the Thomas More Law Center is active in opposing the advancement of Islam in the United States. Despite an overarching agenda, there is diversity within the ranks of the Christian legal movement.

Christian legal organizations of all kinds have undeniably proliferated over the past three decades, building their fundraising capabilities and gaining important court victories. But now, there is evidence that the groups’ primary constituencies—conservative Christians—are becoming less wedded to the culture war battles that gave CCLOs their initial footing. What, then, will be the future of the Christian legal movement?

Most CCLO attorneys I speak with express optimism about the future of their organizations. This optimism is laced with disappointment, though, as future opportunities depend on legal challenges. Much of the future of this movement is linked to the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. If the Court determines there to be a right to same-sex marriage, CCLOs will shift their attention to carving out exemptions for individuals and businesses (such as florists and photographers) morally opposed to participating in same-sex weddings. Some legal observers also believe sexual orientation will soon be considered a protected class, along with race, gender, and other categories. Should this happen, CCLOs will move to shield religious institutions—including churches and universities—from new anti-discrimination laws. In framing these battles in broad terms, CCLOs will paint their advocacy as less about disagreement with homosexuality and more about protecting constitutional freedoms for everyone—which is essentially how they portray their efforts now.

Regardless of the Obergefell decision, the Christian legal movement is too well funded and organized to simply disappear. Armed with million-dollar budgets and attorneys committed to a broader cause, CCLOs are not built to fade away. Some of its groups may dissolve over time, but the broader Christian legal movement is poised for a sustained presence on the stage of legal and cultural conflict.


Daniel Bennett is assistant professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University. His book on the Christian legal movement in the United States is under contract with the University Press of Kansas.

*This sentence has been updated to clarify that the Becket Fund does not just represent Christian interests.

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Mad Men and the Enlightenment of Don Draper Mon, 08 Jun 2015 16:48:18 +0000 (Courtesy of AMC)

(Courtesy of AMC)

The pleasures of Mad Men were many. Fans of the recently concluded AMC series about advertising in the 1960s obsessed over the meticulous detail of each episode, the hair and clothes and furniture rendered in such loving beauty. We watched as the characters witnessed, through the TV sets in their offices and hotels rooms, the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the March on Washington, the Kennedy assassination, the King assassination, the moon landing; history re-told as image and emotion. And of course, the gender politics: the emerging feminism of Joan and Peggy; the style and swagger and frat-house boorishness of Roger; Betty’s deep sadness, born of the “problem that has no name,” as another Betty so famously described the plight of the era’s housewives.

But mostly we were consumed with Don. His life of deception and reinvention, of reckless indulgence, of promises kept and (mostly) broken, testified to the magic—the tantalizing hope and inevitable disappointment—of the very art form he so deftly practiced. He was advertising embodied. From the very first season we knew that the entire arc of the show, ultimately, would hinge on one question: What, in the end, would become of Don? At first, the scope of the questions seemed rather narrow: Would his great secret—that he had stolen another man’s identity—be discovered? Would he achieve the wealth and power, the respect and dignity, he so coveted? But before long, we realized the stakes were much higher. Would Don drink himself to death? Would he die by suicide, as the image of him tumbling through space in the opening credits seemed to portend? For most of the run of Mad Men such dire fates were all that seemed possible—and indeed even just—for Don. And yet, in moments of hope, or weakness, we fantasized about redemption as well.

Midway through the final season I experienced such a moment of hopeful weakness. I began to believe that Don just might be saved. Saved, that is, as in Billy-Graham-style saved, as in come-to-Jesus, born-again, praise-the-lord saved. A friend suggested such a possibility on Facebook, and even looked up the dates and locations of Billy Graham-led revivals in 1970, the year in which the final season was set. It was possible. The more I pondered the possibility, the more it even made sense. He had already been born-again once before, after all, when Dick Whitman, his name at birth, became Don Draper, his assumed identity. It could happen again.

Once I had taken to this idea, the signs seemed everywhere. As Don rambled across the country in the show’s final episodes, a road trip likened by the show itself to Kerouac’s On the Road (and recall, Kerouac described the book as “really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God”), I waited. He would find the God he was looking for, or that God would find him. At the end of the third-to-last episode, the ex-husband of Don’s latest love-obsessions says to Don (who had pathetically used yet another fake name to ask after his lover), “You can’t save her. Only Jesus can. You know he’ll help you too. Ask him.” Here it comes, I thought.

The very idea of watching a great American ad man come to Jesus sent my mind reeling. Advertising and evangelicalism are deeply entwined in American culture, and have been for more than a century. The great revivalists—Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham—have all been showmen and entrepreneurs, the lords of great media empires. One of the pioneers of modern American advertising, Bruce Barton, a preacher’s son, wrote in 1925 the bestselling biography of Jesus ever published, The Man Nobody Knows, in which he presented Jesus as the archetype of the modern businessman.

But the ties go deeper. Recent historical scholarship from Kevin Kruse and Tim Gloege has shown how corporate titans funded much of twentieth-century evangelicalism, and most especially how advertisers—the J. Walter Thompson Company, the Ad Council, and others—aggressively pushed evangelical Christianity in the mid-twentieth century as a path to personal betterment and social stability. And the ties go deeper still. As historian Jackson Lears demonstrated in his pioneering cultural history of advertising, the very idioms of modern advertising—its promises of the transformative, the redemptive, the miraculous—emerged from the pitches of nineteenth-century patent-medicine salesman, itinerant faith healers on their own sawdust trails. Lears calls advertising “the modernization of magic,” yet modern evangelicalism, with its focused-grouped worship centers and media-driven spectacles, just as surely represents the sacralization of advertising. American advertising offers redemption, a new self and new life, while prosperity preachers promise health, wealth, and a great sex life. Don would get saved. It made sense.

And yet, as we all now know, this did not come to pass. Don Draper did not come to Jesus. He did something even better—if not better for himself, certainly something better for the show, something better to dramatize the spiritual allure and danger of advertising. Don meditated. As we watched the final episode last week, we witnessed showrunner Matthew Weiner find the only corner of American religious life more deeply entwined with consumerism, more fully a creature of advertisers’ dreams, than evangelical Christianity. Don, if only for a moment, joined the “spiritual but not religious.”

In the climactic scene of the series, Don found himself alone at the Esalen Institute in Northern California, the epicenter of the human potential movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Desperate, confused, and alone, Don sat in a group encounter session. Overwhelmed by emotion, Don finally let go. He hugged, he cried, and soon he meditated, back to the breathtaking cliffs of Big Sur. And there he achieved enlightenment, revealed by a sly knowing smile.

In his moment of insight, however, we soon came to see that Don did not realize the root of suffering, the importance of right intention, or any other great spiritual truth. Rather, Don used his clarity of mind to write an ad, in fact to write the greatest ad of all time, the “buy the world a coke” ad:

I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

Some fans of the show, I learned over the next few days, were outraged by this turn of events. How could the great arc of the show end here—not in final glory or despair, not with Don drunk or dead or redeemed, but with a Coke ad? Yet Weiner would have none of it. In an interview published after the final episode, he proclaimed, “It’s a co-option, but it’s pure.” Elsewhere he noted, “I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny. It’s a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism … Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that’s very pure — yeah, there’s soda in there with a good feeling, but that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place.”

I think Weiner indeed got the ending just right, but not quite for the reasons he’s stated here. Don in no way created something “pure” in his enlightened state; he created a Coke ad. But he did create something that, like the best of all advertising, tantalized us with the promise of something pure, and if Don in his rapture believed in its purity, all the better.

The “buy the world a Coke ad” was so groundbreaking, and so successful, because it offered precisely and exactly what Americans in 1970 wanted—after assassinations and riots, war and Kent State, it offered “turtle doves” and “perfect harmony.” It offered what we wanted and what it—a can of fizzy sugar water—could in no way, shape or form, deliver. The ad was so great because it lied so spectacularly and shamelessly. A great ad must tap into our deepest longings and lie to us. Don, ever the deceiver, understood this better than anyone. Advertising must tell us that it and it alone can satisfy, and yet it can never, must never, deliver on that promise, or else we’d be relieved of the longing that keeps us coming back for more.

An ending with Don dead by suicide or drink—or with Don redeemed and saved—would have been too thick, too meaty and real, for a show about advertising. Fittingly, it ended instead with spiritual banality, with a tasty empty-calorie buzz, with a promise of the real thing but no such thing at all.

Matthew S. Hedstrom is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the author of The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century.

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Will Same-Sex Marriage Split the United Methodist Church? Tue, 02 Jun 2015 16:30:07 +0000 (UMNS/Kathleen Barry) Delegates and visitors gather at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida.

(UMNS/Kathleen Barry) Delegates and visitors gather at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida.

This month the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to make same-sex marriage legal in the United States. While the courts and lawmakers have been wrestling with the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, so too have the country’s churches. In recent decades, more than ever, Christian denominations have been debating what the Bible says about homosexuality and what it means for LGBT persons. Several mainline Christian denominations, from the Episcopal Church to the United Church of Christ, allow clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or blessings. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America grants congregations the power to decide the issue for themselves. And earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to change its definition of marriage as a commitment “between two people,” not just between a man and a woman.

Despite rapid changes in church polity and public opinion, and with gay marriage now legal in all but 13 states, the nation’s largest mainline denomination—the United Methodist Church—remains officially opposed to same-sex marriage.

“I think that the Supreme Court decision will get attention,” said the Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. “It will give encouragement to one side of the debate or the other, but I don’t expect the debate to change.”

Official United Methodist Church (UMC) policy holds that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth,” but that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”—dual principles that its critics find contradictory. Ordained clergy are prohibited from officiating same-sex weddings, and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are forbidden from ordination. In 2004, around the same time Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage, the UMC declared support for “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”

There is widespread debate within the denomination over these stances. In polling, a majority of American Methodists support same-sex marriage, but in 2012, the church reaffirmed its LGBT policies at its General Conference, a global gathering of the denomination’s nearly 13-million members that happens every four years. Two prominent pastors offered a proposal to replace current church policy with a statement that noted the disagreement within the denomination, but it was voted down. Pro-LGBT protesters disrupted the proceedings, singing the hymn “What Does the Lord Require of You,” after a proposal to reverse church policy failed in a 368-572 vote.

The next year, in 2013, the UMC again made national headlines when the Rev. Frank Schaefer from Pennsylvania was put on trial for officiating his gay son’s wedding. Schaefer was found guilty and lost his ministerial credentials. He was later reinstated on appeal and is now a pastor in California.

Including Schaefer’s, there have been 13 public complaints against UMC clergy in the past two years for being LGBT or for officiating same-sex weddings, according to the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial organization of United Methodists working to make church policy LGBT-affirming. In the 45 years prior to Schaefer’s trial, there were only nine such complaints against clergy—about half of which occurred after 2004.

Some church watchers have predicted disagreements around homosexuality will bring the UMC to schism, much in the way it has disrupted the Anglican Communion. Some members have even suggested that a split is the church’s only option. Last May, the Good News movement, an organization that calls itself “the leading evangelical advocate” of the UMC, released a statement on behalf of more than 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians that called for a split in the denomination. The statement asserted a “need to recognize the reality that we – laity, clergy and even the Council of Bishops – are divided and will remain divided.”

The UMC boasts a diverse membership across the globe, and much of its growth is centered in more theologically conservative regions. Within the United States, it spans the political spectrum. After all, it is the church of both former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The UMC may be the mainline denomination that has encompassed the broadest spectrum of viewpoints on homosexuality,” says Heather White, a scholar of American religious history and author of the upcoming book Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights. “They encompass, in one denomination, some of America’s earliest and most radical activists for LGBT rights and also some of the most adamant supporters of what has been called the Christian Right.”

But what will its stance on same-sex marriage mean for its membership going forward? The UMC, like most Christian denominations, is facing membership decline. The church lost more than 380,000 members from its rolls between 2009 and 2013. Though church attendance is on the wane for many reasons, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has found that this trend happens in part because of the relationship between religion and LGBT issues, especially when it comes to how millennials identify with the church. (Disclosure: I have worked with PRRI in the past.) A quarter of Americans who left the religious affiliation of their childhood did so, at least in part, because of policies against LGBT people. PRRI also found that nearly 6-in-10 Americans think “that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.”

“The more than twenty percentage point shift in support for same-sex marriage over the past decade is virtually unparalleled compared to other issues,” Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, wrote in an email. He added, “Most notably, while only about one-third of religiously affiliated Americans supported same-sex marriage in 2003, nearly half—47 percent—do today.”

In many ways, the UMC’s struggles are a bellwether of the debates around LGBT rights taking place across the globe. As a lifelong United Methodist, I have watched this strife from the inside. But how are this denomination’s internal issues unique? And where can it go from here? While the rest of the country awaits the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, United Methodists on all sides of the issue are busy preparing for the 2016 General Conference to be held in Portland, Oregon, next May.

As a United Methodist friend and I discussed the denomination’s complicated maze of politics and belief, he commented with a mix of melancholy and hope in his voice, “If the Supreme Court rules in support of same-sex marriage this year and we don’t change, I don’t know what will happen.”


THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH traces its roots back to the 1700s and the leadership of British evangelist John Wesley. The current iteration of the denomination formed in 1968 with the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The denomination exists without an individual executive who can dictate policy changes. Its ultimate authority remains with the General Conference, its legislative body, made up of an equal number of clergy and laity from all over the world.

The denomination’s 1968 merger happened just as the gay rights movement was gaining momentum. Heather White notes that in those years, it was the church’s progressives who were outspoken about homosexuality, and some local churches hosted gay activists and officiated same-sex unions. “Conservative Methodists had little to say about homosexuality in the 1960s and early 70s,” White says. “During those years, the most active and vocal Methodists on the issue on homosexuality were actually progressives, who played a key role as advocates of the early gay rights movement.”

Human sexuality remained contentious within the church, and church policy often followed political policy shifts. In 1972, United Methodists began debating their stance on homosexuality after Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco made headlines when it held a same-sex ceremony. That same year, the UMC added the language that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” to its social policy. In the 1980s, as the stigma around HIV/AIDS increased, the church passed prohibitions on ordaining gay clergy. In 1996, as the country wrestled with Defense of Marriage Act, the church issued a policy against same-sex marriages. That year, the General Conference also called on the U.S. military to refrain from excluding service-members “solely on the basis of sexual orientation”—three years after the implementation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In September of 1998, the Rev. Greg Dell, a UMC pastor in Illinois, officiated a church wedding between two gay men—something that was specifically outlawed under church policy adopted only two years earlier. The following March, Dell became the first United Methodist minister in the United States to be penalized by the denomination for marrying a gay couple. The UMC held a trial, with a retired bishop presiding and 13 ministers acting as jury. Dell was found guilty of disobeying UMC order and discipline, and was suspended indefinitely. His suspension was later limited to one year upon appeal, and he was later reappointed as a minister, continuing to bless gay couples until his retirement. The pastor told the Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine in 2008. “Thirty percent of my church was gay. What was I supposed to say, ‘I’ll take your money, I’ll baptize your babies, but I can’t marry you if you love each other?’”

More clergy trials followed, and other ministers echoed the Rev. Dell, arguing that the prohibition on officiating same-sex marriage precluded them from upholding their mandate to minister to all persons. In the same year, Jimmy Creech was also found guilty for presiding over the ceremony of a North Carolina gay couple and stripped of his clergy credentials. In 2005, Beth Stroud was defrocked for “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching,” after acknowledging that she was in a committed lesbian relationship.

The punishments were often meted out in different ways. Some clergy, like the Rev. Amy DeLong in 2011 and the Rev. Gordon Hutchins in 2014, faced shorter suspensions but were not stripped of their credentials. And not all complaints led to clergy trials. In Michigan in 2014, the Rev. Ed Rowe and the Rev. Mike Tupper were able to avoid trial by agreeing to what the Church calls a “just resolution.” As a part of the resolution, they acknowledged that they violated church rules, but they were tasked with organizing an event series to help reduce “our church’s harmful rhetoric and actions toward LGBTQ persons.”


SOME UMC LEADERS are now seeking a middle-way to heal the fractured debates and avoid more clergy trials. Last year, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, who leads the denomination’s largest church in Kansas, and the Rev. Mike Slaughter, who leads a Methodist megachurch in Ohio, put forth what they entitled “A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church.” Citing a UMC study that found that more than 90 percent of United Methodists did not think the church should split over the human sexuality debates, Hamilton and Slaughter proposed a plan that would “entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.” The plan also proposed that each regional UMC body be given the authority to decide whether or not to ordain gay and lesbian clergy.

Although more than 2,700 UMC leaders have since signed on in support of Hamilton’s plan, it is not without its critics, on the right and the left, who believe it does not go far enough. Hamilton has stood by the proposal, writing last month in a blog post against a “one-size-fits-all policy” for either side. He argued that conservatives were underestimating the pastors who have come to see this issue differently recently, and that progressives were underestimating the number of members who were not ready to support same-sex marriage.

The church writ-large is also trying to negotiate a compromise. Hoping to avoid a repeat of the contentious 2012 meeting, the Commission on General Conference, which is charged with planning the legislative gatherings, is preparing to do things differently at its 2016 conference in Portland. In April, it held a closed-door gathering, bringing together leaders from five UMC advocacy groups that span the LGBT rights spectrum. According to the United Methodist News Service, the meeting discussed how to prevent bullying of LGBT individuals and their allies, as well as how to handle protests that have become commonplace around the issue.

The commission also laid the groundwork for an alternative process for the General Conference to consider legislation related to homosexuality. The process will allow for each delegate to have input on any proposals through a series of small groups. A team elected by the General Conference will then compile the information from the small groups and craft a proposal or proposals to be considered by the full legislative body. In May, the Connectional Table—an official UMC coordinating body—voted to submit a proposal to the 2016 General Conference that would create a “third way” for clergy, allowing them to identify as gay or preside over same-sex marriages without facing charges.

Many observers—both inside and outside of the church—note that the global nature of the church, in particular its growth in Africa, where homosexuality is often still taboo, is a major hurdle for those hoping to change church policy. For the 2016 General Conference, the proportion of delegates from outside the United States will increase. But even with the increased proportion of delegates from the global church, delegates from the United States still make up 58 percent of the legislative body—enough to change policy if they were all in agreement, which of course, they are not.

Bishop Brown wants the church can find a way forward together. “I think the sentiment among the bishops is that it is our hope that a schism can be avoided and that we stay together because we’re stronger together,” he said.

The path to remain the United Methodist Church may be a rocky one, given the pain and entrenchment on all sides of a long historical struggle over sexuality. What isn’t up for debate is that next year in Portland and in the years to come, the UMC will have to decide whether it’s stronger together—or apart.

Shannon Craig Straw is a writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonStraw.

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No Politics in Church? Not So Fast. Wed, 27 May 2015 16:28:29 +0000 (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

American Christians are increasingly aware that the church has a political image problem, and are increasingly eager to repair it. Association with the Religious Right, the once-dominant political machine whose public credibility seems to be in steady decline, is quickly becoming a source of embarrassment for all but the most conservative congregations. Several studies have attributed declining participation in organized religious communities to the politicization of churches. In their 2012 book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons report that two-thirds of young non-Christians and half of young Christians consider the church “too involved in politics.” Their research reveals that 110 million adult Americans—including half of conservative Christians—are concerned about the role of conservative Christians in politics.

The problem is not only with the Christian Right, of course. The Christian Left has also failed to articulate a political vision compelling enough to attract broad support among the faithful. As the recent Pew Research Center study reports, the religiously unaffiliated—or “nones”—have jumped nearly 7 percent over the past seven years, now forming 23 percent of the American population, many of them leaving left-leaning mainline congregations. And as political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell report in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, one of the most significant reasons that “nones” cite for not attending church is that churches are “too political.”

American culture teaches that politics is fundamentally about partisanship. Therefore, as long as the church looks to the state or the media to define and model politics, its political imagination will be stunted by an overwhelming ethos of partisan rivalry, and its political identity bound to a framework of partisanship. In the absence of a compelling alternative model for faithful Christian political engagement, churches often fall into one of two traps—avoiding politics entirely, or pledging allegiance to a particular issue or party.

Both responses reflect a poor understanding of the political nature of the church itself. What Christians cannot escape is that the church they read about in Scripture is in fact deeply, inherently, and inescapably political. Jesus’ ministry began with the proclamation of the good news of a coming kingdom, and ended with his execution at the hands of an empire threatened by his own quietly confident claim to kingship. Jesus’ life was about inaugurating a new kingdom, an alternative political order, to be embodied in the world by his church. As theologian N.T. Wright puts it in his book How God Became King, “Jesus’ launch of the kingdom—God’s worldwide sovereignty on earth as it is in heaven—is the central aim of his mission, the thing for which he lived and died and rose again.” This is a different sort of king—and a different form of politics—but it is unmistakably political.

Politics, we contend, is really about the authority we recognize, the citizenship we claim, and the values we hold to as we pursue a vision of the common good with and for our neighbors. And like the political powers of this world, Jesus claimed authority, demanded allegiance, and offered a citizenship that relativizes his followers’ relationship to other political orders. If the church is an inherently political body—a community defined by its allegiance to the authority of the king, its citizenship in a new world, and its call to pursue a new way of life with and for its neighbors—then perhaps its call is not merely to run from the language and activity of politics. Maybe the church’s call is something deeper: to embody and witness to a different type of politics.

While many scholars have examined the ways churches engage in political activity, these treatments are often limited by a thin definition of political activity, locating the political only in partisan endorsements or policy advocacy from the pulpit. They also tend to focus too heavily on armchair theology, removed from the lived experience of churchgoers. If theology is to be truly in service of the church, it needs to pay closer attention to what is actually going on in churches.

It was this conviction that led us, just as the 2012 election season began picking up steam, to embark on a journey to explore the ways churches engage and avoid politics in the midst of a fraught political climate. Employing a style of theological research and writing called lived theology, we visited churches, talked with church leaders, participated in church meetings and events, and reflected on our observations. During these visits, we caught glimpses of ordinary practices that have the potential to help the church build a new political imagination.

We began our project at Saddleback Church, just a short drive from the wide sandy beaches of Southern California. Five congregations, thirteen plane rides, two stolen iPhones, and nearly two years later, we concluded our research in the middle of a Polar Vortex in Atlanta, thankful to finally retreat indoors, sift through hours of interviews and pages of notes, and begin to answer our core questions: What does it mean for the church to be political? How should the church make decisions about when to engage or avoid politics? And what visions of politics are communicated by the actual practices of congregations—their lived theologies?

Churches all over the country embody this new political imagination every day, whether they realize it or not. Take Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, which established partnerships with Catholic Charities USA, local government, and secular nonprofits to serve its inner-city neighbors. Or First & Franklin Presbyterian in Baltimore, whose congregation reads aloud the names of people killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—from both sides of the conflict. Or Saddleback Church in California, whose medical missionaries were so effective that they were asked to testify before Congress about global healthcare strategy. These actions may not seem political in the way we have been taught to understand that word, but each demonstrates a way that churches allow their allegiance to Christ’s mission to break down dividing walls and offer a vision of the kingdom to their congregation, their neighbors, and the world.

These ordinary practices (and many others like them) show that the church’s response to an overly partisan public arena need not be to join a camp, nor to abandon politics altogether, but to orient its allegiance toward the only political reality that transcends parties and nations, tribes and tongues, cultures and generations. The church can learn to understand politics not fundamentally as divisive, but as a framework that unites believers in allegiance to a common king and kingdom. And maybe—just maybe—churches that take this posture could find greater unity with people who do not share their ultimate allegiance, by identifying and pursuing common loves with and for them.

Many American churches are understandably ambivalent about calling their everyday practices “political.” But we submit that claiming their practices—indeed, their very communal identity—as deeply political might help churches more faithfully integrate their goals of spiritual formation and social transformation, and thereby witness to a world weary of politics that an alternative, even redeemed, political vision is possible.

The churches we visited accomplished this in several different ways. Some tended to avoid discussing important social or moral issues for fear of being “too political.” But when they recognized the deeply political character of all of the church’s activity, they were able to recast the act of taking a stand on controversial issues not as an act of allegiance to a party, but as an act of allegiance to the God they call Lord. A church that is radically secure in its political identity is free to engage controversial issues all over the political spectrum without the crippling fear of being pigeonholed as “conservative” or “liberal.”

For churches (both left-leaning and right-leaning) that tended to align themselves too closely with a particular party or overemphasize a particular political issue, recognizing the depth and breadth of the church’s political mission could keep them from a disordered allegiance to party or issue. This might helpfully broaden the church’s imagination about the kinds of political causes it should support, or the kinds or partners it could work with.

For churches that overlapped with both categories, understanding the church as deeply political might help leaders harness the formative power of their congregation’s practices. Regularly performed practices of worship and mission shape members’ lives and their beliefs about the nature of God, God’s kingdom, and their role in it. N. T. Wright argues that “practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works … Our conscious mind and heart need to understand, ponder, and consciously choose the patterns of life which these practices are supposed to produce in us and through us.”

Before Christians too quickly allow another political ideology rooted in partisanship to fill the growing vacuum left by the Religious Right, perhaps they ought to take this opportunity to reimagine what it means for the church to be political. Cultivating a political identity rooted first in Christ—one that pursues compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and protection for the weak as an expression of faith in and allegiance to Christ—might free Christians to engage in politics with a renewed spirit, confident in the knowledge that their hope is not in candidates, parties, or laws, but in the God they believe is making all things new. As missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin writes in Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History: “Christians [ought] to be the strength of every good movement of political and social effort, because we have no need either of blind optimism or of despair.” For the church, perhaps healthy political engagement is not about staking out real estate on the American political spectrum, nor about retreating behind feigned political neutrality, but about orienting allegiance to Jesus before any nation or party, claiming and prioritizing a common citizenship with Christians around the world, and working, humbly and persistently, to love and serve their neighbors.

Sam Speers and Kristopher Norris are co-authors of the book Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church, from which this article is adapted. The research for this book was funded by The Project on Lived Theology.

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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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