Monday, July 27, 2015

Are we a Christian nation, a nation founded on religious principles or a secular nation with lots of believers?

In One Nation Under God, Kevin M. Kruse, a Princeton history professor, reconstructs the story of the growth of the twin ideas that the United States is a Christian nation and that a free-market, deregulated, de-unionized United States fulfills the ideals of Christ. 

Kruse starts his history with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who Kruse says was the first to bring religious language into political speeches. FDR associated religious—and specifically Christian—ideals with the New Deal. Corporate interests fought back by spending enormous amounts of money to associate Christian values with free market and anti-union principles. They failed miserably, but that did not end the attempt to use religion for political ends. Eisenhower consciously inserted religion into politics, but it was a wishy-washy ecumenism that boiled down to “We are one nation, under god.” A general consensus formed that included politicians of both the left and right to support the idea that the United States was founded on broad religious principles shared by all monotheists. Many added a stark contrast with godless communism to their rhetoric. Some manifestations of the 1950’s religious consensus were the placement of “under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance and attempts to insert specific prayers into the public school curriculum.  

In the early 1960’s, Kruse relates, a series of Supreme Court decisions essentially ended prayer in public school. The justification for both the state laws that injected school prayer into the curriculum and the defense of school prayer in court was that the customs of the United States, e.g., placing “In god we trust” on money and starting Congressional sessions with a prayer, demonstrated that we are a religious nation. Opponents to prayer in school included many prominent clergy of many religions, most of whom feared that a specific prayer in classes would establish one religion as the state belief, thereby suppressing all other faiths; for these purposes, every Christian sect counted as another religion. 

The court cases essentially split the loose religious coalition of the 1950’s into left and right, the left proposing that we are a religiously secular nation in which individuals are allowed to practice any religion and all religions are allowed to thrive.

Enter Richard Milhous Nixon, who revived the idea of connecting right-wing economic values to Christianity. With the help of Billy Graham, Nixon used corporate money to organize those Christians who believed in prayer in school and other governmental manifestations of Christianity to support the basic economic principles of the extreme right-wing.  That’s where Kruse’s story essentially ends. 

As we all know, Nixon’s coalition has endured and grown into a powerful force in American politics, representing about 20% of all voters, although it is an aging constituency. This 20% of the voters now controls the Republican Party. While virtually all politicians of all ilk invoke god, only the Republicans want to follow fundamentalist Christian ideas in teaching science and mandating social mores.      

Kruse makes a convincing case, except for one thing: His premise that corporate America invented the concept of America as a Christian nation is not correct. The view that America is fundamentally Christian, founded on Christian principles, has a long history.  

For example, Another book I’ve been reading, Figures publiques, by French cultural historian Antoine Lilthi analyzes the attempts of the very early and popular biography of George Washington by Mason Weems to transform our first president, an avowed nondenominational deist, into the incarnation of a Christian evangelist. Weems made up a pack of lies about Washington’s private life and beliefs, essentially setting in stone most of the myths we learned as children about the general, e.g., the cherry tree incident. As his source for this distortion of history to serve ideological ends, Lilthi cites Francois Furstenburg’s In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation, which studies how the publishing industry in early America helped to establish America’s civic culture. FYI, Lilthi’s book, which unfortunately is only available in French at this time, is a valuable guide to the creation of the contemporary concept of celebrity from 1750-1850 in France, England and North America. 

Among other examples of the imposition of religious values on the political scene in American history are the abolitionist movement, the movement to stem the growth of unions, the opposition to giving women the right to vote and prohibition. Plenty of rich folk with real estate and factory holdings funded these movements. To marvel that corporations from 1940-1970 introduced the concept of “American the Christian,” requires one to forget that on one level corporations are merely organizations of convenience for the wealthy. 

Weems book is still worth reading because his documentation of religion in the public square during the years before and after World War II is detailed and fascinating. More importantly, he reminds us that Richard Nixon was instrumental in the creation of the ultra-right coalition that assumed power with Reagan and has succeeded in transferring enormous amounts of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy, destroying our public education system, turning us into a near police state, re-establishing a Jim Crow system in mass incarceration and puttering away more than 30 years in the fight against human-induced global warming. Although they all portray the United States as a devoutly Christian nation, if Reagan is the devil and Bush II, Cheney and their crew the devil’s spawn, then Nixon is the devil’s father.



Sunday, July 26, 2015

OpEdge Redux: New book documents how jellyfish are inheriting the oceans, with a lot of help from humans

By Marc Jampole

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on October 14, 2013.

If even just half of what Lisa-ann Gershwin reports in Stung! is true, then many younger readers may be telling their grandchildren stories about the long ago days when humans caught ocean fish and ate them. Stung! gives the depressing news about how we’ve managed to pollute the oceans probably beyond saving. By beyond saving, Gershwin means a return to Earth’s oceans some 500 million years ago when disgustingly slimy and stingy jellyfish ruled.

Gershwin catalogues overfished areas, red tides, jellyfish blooms, heated and oxygen deprived waters, waters polluted by fertilizer and other human wastes and man-made catastrophes that collectively are killing many fish species and destroying the ocean’s delicate cycle of life.  She gives copious examples of all the problems we have created:
·         Over-fishing, which means taking so many fish out of the water that a species is doomed to extinction.  Included in overfishing is the problem of bycatch, which occurs when fishing for one species leads to the capture and destruction of other species.  There is also bottom trawling, which essentially runs a large rake across the water’s floor, picking up delicacies like shrimp but destroying plant and other animal life.
·         Eutrophication, which is a type of pollution caused by excessive fertilizer and sewage runoff causing an accelerated growth of algae and other plant life, leading to a disturbance in the balance of underwater life.
·         Other kinds of pollution which causes deformities or contaminates fish and other sea creatures.
·         The decline in oxygen levels in the oceans, which leads to the death of virtually all higher forms of life.
·         The increasing acidification of the ocean, which dissolves shells. Particularly alarming is the fact that ocean acidification destroys diatoms, tiny creatures at the base of the food chain of higher order animals like fish, whales and penguins. Acidification also makes it more conducive for the type of tiny creatures upon which jellyfish love to graze.
·         Climate change, which is warming the waters, again upsetting nature’s balance and leading to the imminent extinction of many sea dwellers.

As it turns out, each of these conditions makes the waters more conducive to jellyfish, since jellyfish can live in many environments and adapt well to a lack of oxygen.  Moreover, once jellyfish get a hold on a body of water, they multiply to the point of crowding out other life forms.

Stung! holds out absolutely no hope that we can fix the oceans. Gershwin’s last words in the book are “If you are waiting for me to offer some great insight, some morsel of wisdom, some words of advice…okay then…Adapt.”

But what does adaptation mean? I’m guessing that it means giving up on eating any creature from the ocean and figuring out how to eliminate the pollution from industrial fisheries, which right now contribute to the problem by dumping waste matter from production into the water. We’ll have to limit water sports to pools and other manmade structures, which we can keep clean of pollutants and jellyfish.  We’ll have to figure out how to keep jellyfish from destroying the filters of a variety of operations sited on bodies of water. It might mean developing technologies that actively clean carbon-dioxide out of the ocean water. It certainly will mean ending our dependence on burning fossil fuels, which is both warming the waters and injecting carbon into them.

Another recent book, Countdown by Alan Weisman, tells us what else we have to do: reduce the human population. We currently have about 7 billion people in the world and counting.
Some biologists think we can sustain 1.5 billion people living the kind of life we live in industrialized countries. My own back-of-the-envelope, seat-of-my-pants, pulled-out-of-thin-air estimate of the earth’s carrying capacity for humans is 1.0 billion. I pick that number because it’s the number of people on the earth in 1800.

My own belief—and it is only a belief—is that humans are so smart that we will survive, even if that means a return to living lives that, as Thomas Hobbes once put it, are “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  I assume that survival of humans will only come at the cost of a great decline in our population. My only question is whether war, epidemics, famine and chemical poisoning—the four horsemen of the Apocalypse—will cause the decline in our numbers or if we will take matters into our own hands and do it through birth control and family planning.