On Politics and Religion

I wouldn’t really care what other people chose to believe, whether it’s in Jesus Christ or the coming of the New Age, except that it can have such deleterious consequences on political discourse. The truth is that beliefs have consequences: in the United States, in particular, evangelicals have hijacked a large part of the political agenda. Ever since the days of the Moral Majority, political debate has been defined largely from the right side of the political spectrum. The left, by contrast, has far too often been tepid and disorganized. The voices of those with progressive, non-demoninational views of morality have rarely been heard in this political debate.

Let’s look at some of the “hot button” issues that have been part of the political debate in recent years, including prayer in schools, religious installations, teaching creationism in science class, gay marriage, medically-assisted suicide, and of course, abortion. And let’s not completely ignore poverty, which generally isn’t (but should be) a concern for any Christian community.

The Public Policy Consequences of Certain Kinds of Belief

Prayer in School

First, there is prayer in school. The question was essentially settled by Abington School Dist. V. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), the case that made Madalyn Murray O’Hair famous. In Abington the the Court ruled that the sanctioning of a prayer by the school amounted to a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment is short, and the entirety of its text is this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment of the United States

There are five rights established in this one little amendment, most of them central to the American concept of liberty: (1) the right to believe and worship as one pleases (the “free exercise” clause), and the corollary that the United States would not establish a state religion (the “establishment” clause); (2) freedom of speech; (3) freedom of the press; (4) the right of assembly; and (5) the right to petition.

In May of 2014 the Supreme Court decided the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12–696, in which it found that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance with an (almost exclusively) Christian prayer at the beginning of monthly town board meetings did not offend the Constitution. Their decision was largely grounded in the historical precedent that the Founding Fathers opened a lot of their own meetings with a prayer. Whether that’s a good justification or not, it really doesn’t offend me. I can join in or tune out, just as I please, as long as no one actually asks me to lead a prayer On the other hand, I can also understand why the parents of non-religious children might not want to have their school days open with a prayer, since to do it in schools and especially with grade school children is clearly a kind of Christian indoctrination.

Religious Installations

Second, on the question of nativity scenes and other religious installations, I really believe this is a non-issue. As far as I’m concerned, there can be as many nativity scenes and other religious installations on public land as people want. Public spaces can also use symbols of Jewish and Muslim worship. The more the merrier, I say. Of course, as an annual ritual, the good people at Fox News bray about the “War on Christmas,” and Jon Stewart lampoons them for it. The year 2013 got off to an especially good start when first Gretchen Carlsson got upset because in Florida someone put up a “Festivus” pole (see the old Jerry Seinfeld show) in front of a nativity scene, and second when Megyn Kelly claimed that it was a “historical fact” the Santa Clause is white, producing the predictable repost from the Daily Show. Megyn Kelly subsequently claimed that she was and Fox were “big targets” and that she had just been joking (even though, if you watch the clip, it’s pretty clear that she was not joking).

Just for the record, Saint Nicholas was actually Greek and lived in what is now Turkey in the Fourth Century; Sinterklaas, the Dutch figure partially based on the Norse God Odin, as well as the 16th Century English Father Christmas, are the actual inspirations for the present-day Santa Claus. Nor was Jesus white, as Fox News would have you believe, since it’s reasonably certain that Jesus was both Jewish and Semitic in appearance. But enough merriment; what is truly sad is that Fox News would think that Christians are some kind of oppressed minority in the United States. If you want to know what it feels like to be a repressed religious minority, just ask a Jew. Or a Muslim. Or an Atheist.

Teaching Creationism

Third, with respect to the question of teaching creationism in science class. This is where things quickly get silly: only in this country would people seriously advocate teaching creationism in science class. Why not just teach the Norsk and Roman creation myths in science class? Or the creation myths of Native Americans? These have as much scientific validity as the book of Genesis, and some of them are much more elegant.

Nor is “intelligent design” — the cleverly-named offspring of the Discovery Institute — any more deserving of an appearance in science classes. It’s not that one couldn’t make an argument that some aspects of evolution are guided by forces that are more than just random; it’s just that this is not the argument that intelligent design makes. But that’s not what intelligent design proposes. The proponents of Intelligent are also opponents of the “theory” of evolution (which at this point is no more a theory than the “theory” of gravity).1

To those people who don’t believe in evolution I say, then don’t use antibiotics. Because antibiotics cannot exist without evolution.

Gay Marriage and Transgenderism

Gay marriage is the next issue impacted by Conservatives in the Abrahamic faiths. I firmly believe that in the not too distant future we’re going to look at gay marriage just as we now look at antimiscegenation laws. As in, what was all the fuss about? However, opponents of gay marriage find credence for their opposition in the Bible, even though the Bible has no explicit interdiction of gay marriage. What the Bible does have is passages like Leviticus 18:22, which says “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.”

Of course, Leviticus also says “The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness” (18:7 ); “The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness” (18:8 ); and “The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or daughter of thy mother, whether she be born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover (18:9 ).” Leviticus then goes on to recite about a half dozen other people whose nakedness you can’t uncover. This may be part of the reason why so many of us are so hung up on nudity in this country. And, lest we forget, eating shellfish is also an “abomination” cited by Leviticus: “These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat” (11:9); “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you” (11:10); and “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you (11:12). This is the problem with taking the Bible too literally. There is a parody website — www.godhatesshrimp.com — that makes this point much more cleverly than I have. If you’re going to use scripture to justify social policy, then you had better be careful what you ask for.

For the time being, from a legal perspective, the debate has resolved itself in favor of gay marriage. First the issue was resolved in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by a decision known as Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (Mass. 2003), which established gay marriage as a civil right for the citizens of the Commonwealth. The United State Supreme Court then followed suit with Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2071 (2015) a dozen years later, finding a constitutional right for gays to marry in a close 5:4 decision. Right now it’s the law of the land. But as the Roe v. Wade abortion case proves, dons’t ever count out evangelicals in the fight for things that they care passionately about.

Medically Assisted Suicide

In November of 2012, Massachusetts had a ballot question that would have allowed medically assisted self-administered suicide for patients with only six months left to live: in effect, it would have legalized a kind of assisted suicide. Not the Dr. Kevorkian kind — to have the medical doctor administer the lethal dose — but rather it simply would have allowed doctors to write prescriptions for doses that the patients still had to self-administer. There were plenty of safeguards in the legislation, including the requirement that a doctor certify the medical probability of death and that the patient be referred to a psychiatrist to make sure he or she doesn’t have a “treatable depression.” Even so, the Catholic Church opposed it, and because of their influence in the Commonwealth, the measure was narrowly defeated.

Why does the Catholic Church care if certifiably terminally ill patients want to end their lives early? Because of Christian thinkers of the early and late middle ages like St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas who deemed that suicide was a sin. I don’t care what these ancient, ancient men thought centuries ago. I’m not Catholic. And yet, their thinking is intruding on my political rights in 2013. These “Saints” were writing and thinking long before Ferdinand Magellan proved that the world is not flat, or before Nicolaus Copernicus proved that the Earth actually rotates around the Sun. What they might have thought of medically-assisted suicide is as relevant to me as what the Founding Fathers might have thought of net neutrality. I don’t care.


Which brings us, inevitably, to Abortion. This is the Rubik’s Cube of social policy and religion.2 Let me begin by saying that I was once part of a program called the Public Conversations Project. The Project gathered together three people who were pro-choice and three who were pro-life and put them all in a room together for a “mediated” conversation, without telling anyone who in the room was pro-choice or pro-life. I came to realize that people in the pro-life community are as sincere as can be, and that they are animated by the belief that at the moment of conception, a human being with a human spirit has already been created even if, at that point, it is simply a collection of undifferentiated cells. This is not a belief that I share. But when a fetus being becomes a human being is a truly tricky question that has no easy answers.

About five days after fertilization, a human egg becomes something known as a “blastocyst.” At that stage, the human blastocyst consists of about 70 to 100 cells. For the sake of comparison, there are more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. When an egg is fertilized, it is not yet a human being. When the baby comes out approximately nine months later, just about everyone would agree that it is a human being, albeit a small one. Somewhere in that time period the transformation has occurred. The Supreme Court, in its landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), decided to draw that line at the point of “viability,” which was at that time the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. In short, the state’s could not prohibit abortions in the first trimester — although they could be regulated — but they could prohibit abortions after the first trimester.

Now, “viability” is a moving target. As the boundaries between when life begins and when life ends have become more and more fuzzy because of advances in Western medicine, these kind of questions have become harder and harder to deal with. The Catholic Church doesn’t draw a fuzzy line, however. They believe that at the moment of conception a human “spirit” is also conceived and that we have, in effect, a fully realized human life. The basis for this belief goes back as far as the Didache, or the teachings of the Twelve Apostles in the first or second century after Christ. In this belief they are joined by most evangelical religions. On the pro-choice side, we have not dealt adequately with the question of when a fetus becomes a human being. On the pro-life side, they have not dealt adequately with the fact that the fetus is growing inside another human being, the mother. While we may not want to admit it, until a baby is born, it’s essentially in a kind of parasitic relationship with the mother, it’s host. Like the baby, the mother has rights, which are largely ignored by the pro-life side.

One might ask the question, what did Jesus say about abortion? The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing at all. Jesus talked a lot about poverty and the coming Kingdom of God; he spoke of the necessity to keep the Jewish law; he spoke in parables that still resonate to this day; and said absolutely nothing about abortion. And that is not because abortion was unknown in the greater Palestine of his day. The practice of abortion, which likely existed much longer, was already documented in ancient Egypt as long ago as 1550 BCE. The absence of any discussion of abortion by Jesus, or really any direct mention of it in the Bible, is not insignificant.

A religious person can, of course, believe whatever they want. That is part of the well-known rights inscribed into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The problem arises when silly beliefs are used as the reason for setting public policy. As the saying goes:

  • If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one.
  • If you don’t believe in gay marriage, don’t marry a person of the same gender.

But, don’t keep others from doing so who don’t share your belief. This is the problem. And I realize that we all have underlying beliefs that inform our political choices, our public policy choices, and one can have strong differences of opinion.

Take this example: there are some people who believe that vaccines cause autism. Their belief on this matter is derived primarily from falsified research conducted by the British researcher Andrew Wakefield. Various celebrities, including Jenny McCarthy and (remarkably) Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have promoted this false theory, which has managed to gain a lot of momentum over time. However, this particular belief can be overcome by better science. It’s not a fixed belief — notwithstanding that it is notoriously difficult to change beliefs once they have been established — but if you acquired the belief through science you may be able to change it through science as well. If, on the other hand, the reason that you believe that vaccines cause autism is because some preacher cherry-picked an obscure passage from the Bible about myrrh or tinctures or a guy surviving inside the stomach of a whale for three days, and that’s the basis for your belief, better science is not going to change that belief.

On the What Works Question

Back in 2005, the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner published a book called “Freakonomics.” The book has been described as attempt to meld together pop culture with economics. By 2009 it had become a New York Times bestseller. The book garnered a lot of press for its theory that the noticeable drop in juvenile crime rates that had been observed beginning in the early 1990s were not a function of community policing or other innovations in public safety, but a function of the 1973 abortion decision Roe v. Wade (discussed above). Levitt and Dubner argued that an entire cohort of unwanted children were not born, especially to poor and minority populations (the cohorts that were most likely to engage in crime as juveniles). They tested their theory in part by looking at the states where abortion had been legal prior to the 1973 decision and comparing those statistics with the states where Roe changed the law. They also looked at the state where abortion was now legal but had limited availability in practice. Because the political implications of this theory were explosive, Levitt and Dubner received a lot of push-back to their thesis, necessitating a number of responses to their critics. (Some of the push-back was about a spike in murder rates of mostly young black men, which Dubner and Levitt trace back to the crack epidemic of the early 1990s.)

In the end, this is an important public policy question to get correct: was it community policing and other innovations, or the availability of legalized abortion that brought down the juvenile crime rate. The “what works” question is the one that interests me the most, and it should really interest all of us. In that regard, we should be looking as objectively as possible at questions like:

  • Do corporate tax breaks really stimulate the economy (and how does each dollar spent on corporate tax breaks compare to each dollar spent on unemployment insurance benefits?)
  • What can actually be done about global warming (and does it really make sense to rebuild the New Jersey shoreline after Hurricane Sandy?)
  • What actually contributes to increases in education (and do standardized test really measure this accurately?)

Freakonomics was sufficiently successful that the authors wrote a follow-up book entitled Superfreakonomics. This second volume explored the hidden side of things, looking at issues like whether it is more dangerous to walk drunk than to drive drunk, among many other questions. The issue that I found most intriguing had to do with the question of global warming.

Levitt and Dubner report on the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 — an eruption that lasted for nine straight hours and discharged more than 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere — causing the Earth to cool of by an average of nearly 1° Fahrenheit for the next year. Subsequently, a paper in the prestigious journal Science concluded that a Pinatubo-size eruption every few years would “offset much of the anthropogenic warming expected over the next century.”

The authors note the efforts of a particular company, Intellectual Ventures, and their efforts to find ways of mimicking the effects of erupting volcanoes, and how to get sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, where it could act like a “sunshield” and offset much of the global warming currently caused by human activity.

Levitt and Dubner also argue that the amount of beef that we eat is a big part of the problem with global warming because the methane discharged by cows contributes much more to global warming than the carbon dioxide emitted by cars.3 One of the potential solutions is to transfer the gut bacteria of kangeroos to cows, thereby causing them to belch and fart way less methane.

Is this feasible? Who knows? But it’s an interesting question, and most importantly, it’s a question that we should consider seriously because our beef-eating behavior is unlikely to change dramatically, so a technological fix may be what’s required.

A more measured, less enthusiastic approach to the “what works” question has been taken by former Yale Law school professor Peter Schuck, and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, whose book Why Government Fails so Often is an unflinching look at the programs of the federal government, which ones are effective, and which ones are not. One doesn’t need to be a conservative to acknowledge that some federal programs were never effective to begin with while others lose their effectiveness or are distended over time. Some, on the other hand, were and remain effective. Three of them that fall into this category and are highlighted in Schuck’s book include the Social Security Act, the interstate highway system, and the food stamp program (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The food stamps (SNAP) program has been effective, for example, because it has low overhead, direct benefits, and takes advantage of the multiplier effect.4 Other programs suffer from insufficient information about their efficacy, the perversion of incentives, or simply lose their effectiveness over time. For example, why do we still have a deduction for the mortgage interest of homeowners? While that was clearly designed to incentivize home ownership when it was enacted back in 1913,5 in 2020 home ownership is incentivized primarily by the rapid increase in the price of housing.

My point about all of the foregoing is really this: the “what works” question should be an inquiry in critical thinking, and nothing else. It should not be tainted by religious belief, or, for that matter, by political bias or other kinds of propaganda. In a world as fragile as ours, in our perilous environment, we all need to be very clear-eyed and cold-hearted, and do what is effective as opposed to doing what makes us feel good.

Return to a discussion of Cognitive BiasesProceed to a discussion of the Wizard of Oz
  1. To be sure, there are still plenty of details about the mechanics of evolution and how things evolve which still need to be worked out. But no serious scientist doubts that evolution exists or that things evolve.
  2. This topic is covered in much greater detail by my “full length” article on it, Looking at Abortion, elsewhere on this blog.
  3. Some experts take issue with this notion, arguing that while it’s true in the short run that cows contribute more to global warming, in the long-run automobile exhaust is more problematic because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere much longer than methane.
  4. The multiplier effect is the notion that certain kinds of direct spending gets “multiplied” in its economic effects on a local economy. So for example, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the city of Boston had a project, formally known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (which everyone knew as the “Big Dig”). This project brought in literally thousands of construction workers to the Boston area to work on the project. Each one of these had to be housed, and clothed, and fed, all in the Boston area. The landlords, the restaurants, the retailers who had to house, feed and clothe these workers all had a significant uptick in business as a result. This allowed them to do things like make home repairs, hire more waiters and waitresses, hire more retail staff, and so forth. Each of these hired staff also had more money to spend on things, and so the economic activity ‘multiplied’ and spread throughout the Boston economy. With respect to food stamps, the government spending is very direct, providing cash assistance to recipients, who use that cash assistance to make purchases in their own local communities.
  5. Some people have argued that at the time of its enactment in 1913, it was more difficult to separate business and personal expenses, and so it was simpler to just allow deduction of all interest. That may be so, but in the intervening years it has clearly become an incentive for home ownership, enough so that the National Association of Realtors now strongly opposes eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, claiming that housing is “the engine that drives the economy.”