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What Happened to Those Fiscal Priorities? (2)

Via the New York Times (emphasis added):

The state budget plan that moved toward enactment on Wednesday calls for 10 percent cuts in aid to public colleges and universities, but it would add about $18 million a year in tuition assistance for students attending some private religious schools.
The added money would be available to any theological student who met a new set of criteria for the state’s so-called Tuition Assistance Program grants. The major potential beneficiaries would be an estimated 5,000 men who attend dozens of Orthodox rabbinical schools in New York, state officials and religious leaders said.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat whose Brooklyn district includes a large Orthodox population, called the additional financing “a matter of equity, to rectify the fact that New York State has denied rabbinical college students tuition assistance for all these years.”

Mr. Hikind and other lawmakers have sought unsuccessfully for about 10 years to adopt the new criteria by amending the Tuition Assistance Program rules, eliminating a long-established ban on state tuition assistance for undergraduate students who attend religious schools, like yeshivas, that are not chartered by the state Board of Regents.

In negotiations this month, Republican leaders in the Senate asked that the new rules be included as part of the 2011-12 budget agreement. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Democratic leaders in the Assembly have agreed, said Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the State Division of the Budget.

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Playing the Victim

This report caught my eye:

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich screened his Catholic documentary “Nine Days That Changed the World” Monday night in Washington Hall and urged the audience to carry the film’s lessons into an increasingly secular nation. “Nine Days That Changed the World,” produced and narrated by the former speaker and his wife, Callista, chronicles Pope John Paul II’s historic first visit to Poland in June 1979 and the subsequent beginnings of the solidarity movement that overthrew the Polish Communists in 1990… At the end of the screening, the Gingriches greeted audience members and posed for photos with members of the College Republicans.

“It’s easier to be an atheist in America than a Christian,” Callista – a lifelong Catholic – told The Observer after the screening. Callista said there are many parallels between Poland under its communist regime and America today. “You see people that want to take down crosses or cover crosses. You see opposition to school prayer,” she said.

Oh good grief. I’m the last person to defend some of the stupidities of excessive separation-of-church-and-state symbolism, but just pause for a moment to take a look at the photograph below.

I took it in the churchyard of St. Stanislaw Kostka, Warsaw, during the final months of communist rule (in September, 1988, to be precise). Four years earlier, its parish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, a fierce anti-communist and Solidarity supporter, had been beaten up and murdered by three secret policemen.

The heroic Fr. Popieluszko was very far from being the only martyr for his faith in the more than four decades of Communist dictatorship in Poland. To make the sort of comparisons that Mrs. Gingrich has apparently been making is to insult their memory.




Obamacare & Religious Privilege

I don’t know what eventually happened to the curious  proposal  (via Senators Hatch and Kerry) that Obamacare should cover Christian Science prayer ‘treatments’, but it does appear that the notion of religious privilege is alive and well elsewhere in the new healthcare legislation:

Fox News has the details (a phrase that always fills me with anticipation):

Most Americans would have to prove they have insurance or face a fine under the health reform legislation that is now nearing the finish line in Congress, but at least one group won’t have to worry, on religious grounds. Democrats are planning to exempt the Amish and similar religious groups from the health insurance mandate in the final health care bill. That’s because when the Amish need medical care, they go to regular doctors and hospitals and pay in cash often with financial help from their church and neighbors. They rely on each other, not the government or insurance companies as a tenet of their faith. “The Amish believe it’s the fundamental responsibility of the church to care for the material needs of the members of the church,” said Steven Nolt, a professor at Goshen College who has written books on the Plain community of Amish.

“And so they don’t buy commercial health insurance and they don’t participate in public assistance programs.” So while most Americans would be required to sign up with insurance companies or government insurance plans, the church would serve as something of an informal insurance plan for the Amish. Law experts say that kind of exemption withstands scrutiny.

“Here the statue is going to say that people who are conscientiously opposed to paying for health insurance don’t have to do it where the conscientious objection arises from religion,” said Mark Tushnet a Harvard law professor. “And that’s perfectly constitutional.”

This would not be the first time the Amish received this type of special accommodation. Congress exempted this and other communities from Social Security and Medicare taxes since 1965 for the same religious reasons.


I have little doubt that all this is constitutional, but it still leaves the impression that some forms of belief are more equal than others.

Via American Thinker, where there is also speculation that this exemption could also apply to some Muslims. At least on some interpretations of Islamic law health insurance is apparently forbidden.

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The New York Times Magazine has a long piece, How Christian Were the Founders?, which outlines the efforts of school board members of fundamentalist inclinations to shift the narrative about the founding of the American republic. In short, these activists would like children to understand that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian men. From this generality follows specific points, such as the rejection of the legal validity of the concept of church-state separation. In any case, I tend to endorse this position:

In fact, the founders were rooted in Christianity — they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition — and at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason. “I don’t think the founders would have said they were applying Christian principles to government,” says Richard Brookhiser, the conservative columnist and author of books on Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and George Washington. “What they said was ‘the laws of nature and nature’s God.’ They didn’t say, ‘We put our faith in Jesus Christ.’ ” Martin Marty says: “They had to invent a new, broad way. Washington, in his writings, makes scores of different references to God, but not one is biblical. He talks instead about a ‘Grand Architect,’ deliberately avoiding the Christian terms, because it had to be a religious language that was accessible to all people.”

Or, as Brookhiser rather succinctly summarizes the point: “The founders were not as Christian as those people would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”

I suspect that a knowledge of historical context really makes this much more comprehensible But most people are either too ignorant or plain stupid to really attain any level of knowledge which would allow for context. And we do not live in a culture which cedes to men such as Richard Brookheiser, a biographer of the founders, any special credibility.

We do have personal and public pronouncements of men such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The issue with moderns interpreting their words and associations is that these men must be understood in the context of their times, not our times. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson seem to have been proponents of Unitariantism. Today when we talk about Unitarianism in the United States we are talking about a predominantly non-Christian religion (i.e., the Unitarian-Universalist association does not affirm a Christian creed, or, for that matter any creed, though a minority of Unitarian-Univesalists are part of a Christian faction within the denomination). Adams was a public Unitarian, not atypical in New England where the sect was a liberal movement within Congregationalism (his son, John Quincy Adams, was also a Unitarianism, though he admitted to personally being attracted to Trinitarianism in his correspondence). Jefferson was in private a proponent of Unitarianism, but his religious associations in public were with the traditional Episcopal (formerly Anglican) church of his class and region. Both of these men rejected Trinitarianism, while for most of his life Jefferson seems to have strongly leaned toward a spare Deism. To modern Christians and non-Christians living in the United States these men would not be considered Christians. But, it seems that both would consider themselves Christian (Jefferson may have sworn off the term earlier in his life when his hostility toward religion was strongest).

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Less More, Please

During the course of his visit to Britain next year, the Pope will be addressing the country’s parliamentarians from the spot, reports the Daily Telegraph, where Sir Thomas More was sentenced to death in 1535.

The choice of venue is, I reckon, largely a coincidence (Westminster Hall is the usual venue for addresses of this nature – it’s where Reagan spoke, for example), but it does give me an excuse to post about Thomas More, a brilliant, fascinating individual who ought also to be seen as terrible warning of the danger that one man’s spiritual (or wider philosophical) certainty can pose to others when harnessed to the power of the state. Unfortunately, that’s not how he is seen. The old boy gets a pretty good press these days. Maybe that’s because he was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1935. Maybe.

I suspect that the real key to More’s shiny modern reputation is to be found in Hollywood’s hagiographic A Man For All Seasons, a highly watchable, deeply annoying film. As a mild corrective to Paul Schofield’s fine portrait of doomed nobility, it is perhaps useful to recall that, as Lord Chancellor (England’s top lawyer), More showed himself to be a savage ideological enforcer, quite pleased, for example, to support the burning alive (“the short fyre…[prior to] ye fyre eurlasting”, as he so charmingly put it) of heretics.

Was More sincere in his beliefs? Sure, but then again so was Felix Dzerzhinsky.

Having said that, it’s important not to fall into the the current all-too-common mistake of  judging historical figures solely by the standards of our own time. More’s attitudes were hardly uncommon in his era. But having conceded that point, it’s also worth remembering that the fate that ultimately befell him was not so unusual either. He defied the king. He lost. If More was no Dzerzhinsky (although there is this), then Henry VIII was no Stalin…

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A nation without divine favor

Reading Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism I am struck again by the peculiarity of the American nation, and its fundamental radicalism. I have already stated that this is implicitly an Anglo-Protestant nation. As a point of fact Protestant churches were established and supported in most American states at the Founding, with Massachusetts not disestablishing until the 1830s. The emergence of the Roman Catholic educational system was in large part a reaction to the Protestant content which was taken for granted in the public school system. The arrival of waves of Catholic German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s prompted the rise of the “Know Nothing” movement and a deep suspicion of “Romanism.” In 1830 the United States was a deeply Protestant nation within the dissenting tradition.



Church & State

England has a state church (a fact that–quite reasonably–gives that church, the Church of England, some privileges), but only the one. Now it seems luckless Brits are going to have to put up with this:
 John Denham, the communities secretary, said the values of Christians, Muslims and other religions were essential in building a “progressive society”…Mr Denham revealed that a new panel of religious experts has been set up to advise the Government on making public policy decisions. The move has been criticised by secularists who warned that it represented a worrying development. However, Mr Denham argued that Christians and Muslims can contribute significant insights on key issues, such as the economy, parenting and tackling climate change.
 H/t David Thompson who also has a few unkind remarks to make about absurd comments recently made by the absurd Archbishop of Canterbury and on which I posted here yesterday.




Dealing with the big colorful lie

The British ruling on “Who is a Jew” seems to have a lot of legs, see The Atlantic Wire for a link round-up. One of the problems with the intersection of religion and policy is that everyone has different standards and perspectives as to issues of fact. As an atheist who adheres to no religion I view all religion as ultimately a product of human history and psychology. Many adherents of a specific religion are atheists when it comes to the claims of other religions. And finally, there are shades of universalism; a liberal Episcopalian may assent that the conservative Muslim has a valid window upon the true sliver of the infinite, but the conservative Muslim may believe that the liberal Episcopalian is going to hell because of the manifest falsity of their beliefs.

In a democratic society which is also pluralist in regards to religion there is always the problem that the manner in which a given religion is accommodated is contingent upon the opinions of other religionists and irreligionists. In fact, this is also the case in a non-democratic society. Jews are an excellent illustration of this dynamic, what we today term “Orthodox Judaism” is a religious tradition which was incubated largely within the civilizational framework of Christianity and Islam. Though Jews within Christian and Muslim polities had a certain level of autonomy, they were strongly shaped implicitly and explicitly by the will and opinions of non-Jews (guess whether European Jews or Yemeni Jews accept polygyny). One thesis for why Jews as a whole adopted matrilineal descent is that it was a Roman legal practice, and most Jews were resident within the Roman Empire, or right beyond the frontiers of Rome (in Mesopotamia, where the population was likely mostly Christian by the 5th century despite rule by Sassanian Zoroastrians). I mooted this thesis to an acquaintance who was an Orthodox Jew. As a point of support I noted that Joseph, the son of Jacob, had two sons by an Egyptian woman, and that these two sons were the ancestors of two tribes of Israel. This fact presented no problem for my friend, she reported that “oral law” held that in fact Asenath, the Egyptian wife of Joseph was adopted by the priest Potipherah, and that she was by origin Jewish. As a non-Jew, and non-believer in the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims at that, I immediately found it more likely that the rabbis simply concocted this story after the fact to “tie up loose ends.”



What separation of church & state?

Healthcare provision seeks to embrace prayer treatments:

Reporting from Washington – Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist.

The role of Kennedy & Kerry is explicable by the fact that the Church of Christ, Scientist is based out of Boston and has a large presence in New England. Christian Scientists have a demographic profile similar to Unitarian-Universalists, white & well educated. Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is a Christian Scientist. They’ve been getting exemptions for their weird beliefs for generations. Welcome to democracy!



Religious diversity & its discontents

CONGREGATIONAL CHURCHOver at ScienceBlogs I’ve put a comment up about tensions in New York City between a mosque & an establishment across the street which serves alcohol. The issues around public displays of religion, and the norms which are enforced around religious establishments, are both complex and cross-culturally general. In India riots have often occurred when a group of Muslims or Hindus march by an establishment of the other community in the course of a religious procession. Similar issues occurred in Europe during the Reformation when religious diversity was extant in many areas. Catholic festivals and parades relating to saints and relics were ripe targets for zealous Protestants to engage in disruption & violence. Apparently the same sort of clashes are now occurring in Latin America as sizable evangelical Protestant minorities challenge the Catholic domination of public space.

The relationship of Protestants and Catholics in the United States has often been fraught as well, not to mention strife between Protestant denominations themselves (in the latter case, one might read up on the oppression which Baptists and Methodists in New England complained of even into the 1800s at the hands of the Congregationalist establishment). John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom relates the sordid 19th century history of conflict between the majority and the minority, which often resulted in violence, as well as its 20th century ramifications. To a great extent the resolution was achieved once American Catholicism evolved into just another denomination in the American order, when American Catholic’s began to espouse beliefs and norms approaching those of Protestants (“traditionalist Catholics” resist this tendency, but they’re numerically marginal). Because Jews were so much less numerous the similar tensions never manifested. American Judaism before the emigration of Hasidic rabbis in the wake of the chaos in Europe in the mid-20th century, turned itself into another denomination, with the Reform Movement setting the tone. Unlike Catholics Jews simply did not have the numbers or political power to bargain for anything more. In fact, Reform Judaism in the 19th and early 20th century was more assimilated than it is today, having disavowed the concept of a Jewish nationality and recasting themselves explicitly as analogous to the Protestant groups which populated the American scene (see American Judaism). McGreevy describes how these Jews, Protestantized and often secular, formed an alliance after World War II with the post-Protestant WASP establishment and initiated the modern Culture Wars, with conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews arrayed on the other side.

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