Secularism is the Future. The Present Still Kind of Sucks.


A recent piece by noted-skeptic Michael Shermer in Politico, “Who Cares if Trump is Religious?,” underscores how all is not lost in the age of Trump. As Shermer writes:

I’m not saying Trump is a closeted atheist, but he’s no evangelical. As a self-proclaimed Protestant, or Presbyterian, or something he describes as “a wonderful religion,” Trump nominally attends the nondenominational Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Marble Collegiate was the one-time pulpit for the self-help evangelist Norman Vincent Peale, author of the mega best-seller The Power of Positive Thinking, an amalgam of pop psychology and cherry-picked scripture (without the guilt and sin), who presided over Trump’s wedding to Ivana. In other words, at most this is Christianity Lite, or Cafeteria Christianity, where one orders only the most appealing items on the menu.

Shermer argues that Trump was easily the most secular candidate on the Republican side during the 2016 election and that the U.S.’s demographics are moving toward a more overall secular polity. “It looks like the U.S. religious reawakening from the 1950s through the 2000s, then, might have been an anomaly. The long-term trend is certainly toward secularization,” Shermer noted.

While it is safe to say that Trump is not the most godly man to enter the Oval Office (remember the “Two Corinthians” thing), evangelicals still voted for him by 81%. That’s higher than for Romney (76%), McCain (74%), or even George W. Bush during the values-voters-drenched election of 2004 (78%). If he’s so secular, why did the evangelicals support him more than they did George W. Bush?

The answer is fairly simple, which makes Shermer’s piece a bit disappointing; he can’t see the trees for the forest. While the trend towards secularization is steadily growing in the U.S., our current problems are continually plagued with the usual evangelical patina. As such, Trump gave the religious right what they wanted in exchange for their votes. He didn’t play to their piety; he played to their pocketbooks.

Candidate Trump routinely said that, as President, he would undo the Johnson Amendment, a 1950s era tax code regulation mandating that preachers can’t politic from the pulpit. According to the Washington Post, Trump met with faith leaders in February and recommitted himself to this promise. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would allow churches and religious non-profits to function as dark money political operations, all the while continuing to receive donations and income tax-free. This would completely eliminate the line between charity and electioneering, at least in regards to taxes. So much for freer and fairer elections.

Trump also chose noted climate “skeptics” for his cabinet, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and EPA Administrator Tom Price. Trump has also indicated his interest in having the US pull out of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, despite a split cabinet, potentially unraveling the first realistic global effort against climate change. He’s even signed executive orders curtailing Obama-era regulations on “greenhouse pollution from coal-fired power plants.” As for his education secretary, Betsy DeVos is nothing more than a well-connected Republican Party hack who advocates for school choice as a way to “advance god’s kingdom.”

This isn’t the kind of leadership we’d expect from a secular leader who studies the issues and makes reasonable conclusions. These are the kinds of decisions that an evangelical, corporatist Christian would make, with an attitude of “Who cares if the Earth goes up in a ball of flames? We’ll be taken up in the rapture anyway.”

Finally, and I think this is linchpin for why evangelicals supported Trump, he promised them a conservative on the Supreme Court. As early as the fall of 2016, the Trump campaign released a list of prospective candidates for the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. The choices underscored his commitment to giving evangelicals what they wanted: a conservative, Scalia-esque justice that would side with them on issues of reproductive rights, religious freedom, and the role of government. This led to the nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, one of the candidates on Trump’s list who will do the evangelical’s bidding, especially in a pivotal church-state case this month.

As writer Trav Mamone noted earlier this week, “Trump’s lack of religiosity doesn’t mean a damn thing to me because his secular values are not humanist values.” Mamone rightly pointed out that Trump’s travel ban (known colloquially as the “Muslim Ban), policy reversals on transgender rights in public schools, and the choice of uber-Christian dominionist Mike Pence as his Vice President don’t resonate as being very secular. In fact, they strike me as being exactly what we’d expect from the presidency of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or even Ben Carson (come on, weirder things have happened).

Like Shermer, I acknowledge that our world is getting better every day, in so many demonstrable ways. Extreme poverty and disease are being eliminated; innovations are making our lives easier and cheaper, and the average American consumes cheaper, nutritious food more than at any time in our history. There’s so much to be proud of, but we still face enormous challenges in energy, climate change, education, health care, and tax reform. Even though our nation is getting more secular, especially within the last ten years, our leadership doesn’t reflect that. Trump may not be much of an evangelical Christian, but he sure as hell governs like one. That I do care about.


One of These Things is Not Like the Other

trump_machado-jpg_1718483346I was recently browsing one of my favorite bookstores when a realization hit me—again. I was in the presidential book section, gleaning over the latest titles they had shelved. Among the biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, I spotted a couple of books both by and about Donald J. Trump. I thought to myself, “wow, that’s rather odd. Did someone misplace these books? Surely they don’t belong here.” And then it happened; the stark truth hit me in the face like a cold, unwelcome breeze. Those books did belong there, because he will be the 45th President of the United States.

Donald Trump’s election to the White House is a reality I still haven’t gotten used to. With each passing day it feels like a bad nightmare coming apart at the seams. This incoming administration is getting dangerously close to being not only one of the most plutocratic but also one of the most ignorant. His cabinet picks are akin to a rogue’s gallery of villains, each with their own disastrous idiosyncrasies. First, there’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General. His own antipathy towards civil rights during the 1960s made him too toxic for a federal judgeship in the 1980s. Also, he’s a climate change “skeptic,” which is a theme we will come back to.

Next, there’s Betsy DeVos, the prospective Secretary of Education. A billionaire and school choice advocate, DeVos has been a champion of voucher programs and charter schools, which have been shown in initial studies to be either below or barely on par with public schools on basic reading or math. She’s also never been educated in the public schools, sent her children to public schools, or served as a public schools administrator. On top of all of this, vouchers have been consistently used to fund religious and parochial schools, which are often at odds with a proper understanding of evolution, climate change, or reproductive health. If you are someone who values public education as I do, having attended them my whole life, this is a terrible choice.

Trump’s potential cabinet is also filled with climate “skeptics” who seek to undermine the international community’s efforts to combat climate change. Scott Pruitt, the man he’s chosen to run the EPA, was described by Rolling Stone’s Tessa Stuart as a “climate denier who fought the expansion of the Clean Water Act and formed a secretive alliance with energy corporations to fight air-pollution regulations. . . .” His pick for Interior, Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, also doubts the science of climate change, saying that, “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.” Finally, there’s Rick Perry, his choice for Secretary of Energy, who’s called climate change a “contrived, phony mess.” As a coincidental aside, Perry also currently serves on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline. So much for trying to take climate change seriously.

The most outlandish pick he’s made since becoming president-elect is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Carson, who backed out of becoming HHS secretary because he thought he was unqualified, is now more than happy to take a job he has even less qualifications for. How does being one of the best brain surgeons in the world prepare you to lead a multi-faceted government bureaucracy dedicated to fair housing and urban planning? I guess being a critic of desegregating housing practices, standing against government programs for those he simply calls the “needy,” and having a friend who helped orchestrate successful real estate deals before his conviction for fraud in 2007.

Then there’s the vice president-elect, Mike Pence. As governor of Indiana, Pence supported its controversial version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which harmed its business reputation as well as harmed the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. He also supported a law that required miscarriages and abortions to be given cremation or burial. To be fair, the law never mandated the parents be present or choose which method, and it was deemed unconstitutional, but the fact that he supported it is still pretty egregious. And, as the icing on this fundamentalist cake, he gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in support of intelligent design in the classrooms. (Check out AAA President AronRa’s YouTube video, PWNing Pence, which refutes the former representative’s ideas on intelligent design and evolution.) Yet, I haven’t even given you the half of it.

So Trump’s cabinet picks and his vp-elect are only the initial soundings of things to come, but they have nonetheless shocked most of the scientific, atheist, and freethought communities. His choices have shown a complete lack of regard for science, the separation of religion and government, and plain common sense. As I reflect back on that day in the bookstore, I keep saying to myself, “One of these things is not like the other.” Trump certainly isn’t like most of the others leaders we’ve had. While there have been presidential failures like James Buchanan and Warren Harding, Trump feels like he belongs in a class of his own. As such, his choices for some of the nation’s most important jobs demonstrate that he has no idea what it means to be reasonable, ethical, or presidential.

The Peril and Promise of Democracy


It’s been a while since I’ve written for the blog, and in particular, about the election. Honestly, it has depressed me more than anything. Even if he wins California, Bernie Sander’s electoral chances are nil, making Hillary the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump has unfortunately become the presumptive Republican nominee. The sheer fact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the presumptive nominees for the major parties is truly an indictment of our system. In fact, polling suggests that they might be the most disliked major candidates in all the history of contemporary public polling. So, what does this say about Democracy?

It reminds me of a little book that I read in college by one of my favorite authors, polemicist H. L. Mencken. Notes on Democracy, originally published in 1926, presented his critique of democratic government and the means by which it gains and retains power. Mencken’s libertarian, often elitist outlook nonetheless shines light on some of the lesser angels of the democratic process. I find his words valuable in understanding this mess of a presidential election.

Here’s Mencken’s skepticism of the supposed “distinction” between “representative democracy” and “direct democracy”:

The truth is that the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy is a great deal less marked than political sentimentalists assume. Under both forms the sovereign mob must employ agents to execute its will, and in either case the agents may have ideas of their own, based upon interests of their own, and the means at hand to do and get what they will. Moreover, their very position gives them a power of influencing the electors that is far above that of any ordinary citizen: they become politicians ex officio, and usually end by selling such influence as remains after they have used all they need for their own ends. Worse, both forms of democracy encounter the difficulty that the generality of citizens, no matter how assiduously they may be instructed, remain congenitally unable to comprehend many of the problems before them, or to consider all of those they do comprehend in an unbiased and intelligent manner.

The choice this year of Clinton or Trump is based on a false assumption that Mencken destroys in this passage: democracy somehow produces the best results. Now, it would be unwise to assume that authoritarianism or anarchy would be better (even though I haven’t ruled out a theoretical, market-based version of the latter), but democracy exists as a game of averages. When you go in casting a ballot for the “lesser of two evils,” not only do you still get evil, you get something much more depressing: mediocrity.

Hillary Clinton is a hawkish, neoliberal establishment policy wonk who has trouble acting like a real human being. Donald Trump is a “short-fingered vulgarian” whose manic and megalomaniacal persona only attempts to mask the dangers of his rascism, xenophobia, and economic ignorance. Both options suck, and Hillary definitely sucks less, but is this really the best we can do as a citizenry? While things look bleak, I think there are also fantastic new opportunities this election opens up.

First, what about Bernie? He has done very well, and seems poised to win the majority of the remaining primaries, but he will not be able to shore up the nomination. However, he has been able to select known progressives like Bill McKibben, Dr. Cornel West, and Representative Keith Ellison to the Democratic platform committee. This is a start, even though the majority of the electorate don’t know or care about the platform. It’s just a kind gesture to Sanders, nothing more.

Now, the thing I’d like to see happen, because it would help the Democrats and Clinton, would be the name Sanders as her VP. It would ensure many Bernie supporters (myself included) would vote for him and would mend the wounds of the primary. This is exactly what Obama did in 2008, when he named Clinton to be his Secretary of State. The centrist wing and the progressive wings of the party would have a top ticket that balances out their interests and it would signal that Clinton is serious about being a change-maker. Also, Sanders has consistently polled far better against Trump than Clinton has, so his name would add more points to her column. He has said he would be open to it, and I think the Democratic party would be tremendously helped.

How has this post become more optimistic, even though I used Mencken to slam democracy towards the top? The reason for my optimism is two-fold: the hope that Sanders could be a major player in the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party and the rise of the third-party candidates.

Not since 1992 and 1996 have we had a better moment for a third-party insurgency. Jill Stein, perennial favorite of the Green Party, has positioned herself as an alternative to Bernie voters put off by Trump and Clinton. And then there’s the Libertarian party, whose presumptive nominee, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, can attract disaffected fiscal conservatives and social liberals who are tired of the status quo. Of all the third-party candidates, Johnson is the one I like the most. His commitment to getting America’s fiscal house in order, ending the drug war, fighting crony capitalism, and encouraging entrepreneurship inspires economically-conscious liberals like myself.

While the major candidates thoroughly blow, the plethora of second-tier candidates like Sanders, Stein, and Johnson represent the best of American democracy. Their visions of America, while differing, give voters a chance to select candidates for ideas, rather than just personalities or recognized names. Democracy is often messy, counter-intuitive, and sometimes flat out terrible, but if we start choosing candidates for values over bluster and popularity, it might start to suck a whole lot less.

As H. L. Mencken wrote 90 years ago:

I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself—that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating.

With that in mind, let’s enjoy the spectacle and make the best choice for ourselves.

Iowa and the Rejection of the Establishment


Man, would I hate to be Jeb (!) Bush today. His Super PAC spent nearly $15 million in Iowa and he only received 2.8 percent of the vote. This means that, according to the Weekly Standard, he spent $2,884 per vote in the Iowa Caucus. This does not bode well for the establishment wing of the Republican Party, who is desperately trying to find someone who could potentially beat back both the ultra-conservative base and the presumptive Democratic nominee.

What does this say about Iowa all together?

Last night the politics of consensus were shattered, on both sides. The first place victory of Ted Cruz cements the possibility that the Republican Party could nominate its most divisive candidate since 1964. But then there’s Donald Trump, who is arguably more divisive that Cruz, and he placed second! Poor old Jeb placed sixth in Iowa, with the other establishment standard-bearers John Kasich and Chris Christie placing eighth and tenth, respectively. The only establishment pick that came close to Cruz and Trump, Marco Rubio, placed third. If the establishment wing of the party desires to win, they should encourage Bush, Kasich, and Christie to get out of the race and shift their energies to Rubio. But all bets are off on this one.

And then there’s the Democratic caucus, which is one of the closest races in Iowa history. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in a virtual tie, separated by only four delegate votes. Some precincts were so close that a literal coin toss relegated its votes to Clinton. It was an amazing showing for Senator Sanders, who a year ago polled in the single digits in Iowa. Sanders may not have had a clear electoral victory last night, but he sure had a political one. The momentum his campaign gained going into New Hampshire might lead to one of the most unexpected upsets in recent memory.

Such is presidential politics at the nadir of the Obama era. The establishment bearers (Bush, Rubio, and Clinton) either placed far behind the pack or came away with a squeaker of a win. Conversely, the victors of the night were the firebrands, the radicals, and the disestablishmentarians (Cruz, Trump, Sanders). While Iowa isn’t always the best gauge on who will be the nominee (remember, Huckabee won in 2008 and Santorum won in 2012), it did provide a young, charismatic Senator from Illinois the momentum to pull off one of the most influential political candidacies in American history. In other words, Iowa matters.

Yet, what came of the young Senator’s idea of a new era of bipartisanship, pragmatism, and consensus building? It never really happened. Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency, successful in many areas of policy and politics, resulted in the country being more divided, ideologically rigid, and gridlocked.

But to blame all of this on Obama would be absurd, since George W. Bush ran on the same type of platform and dealt with the same frustrations. Rather, it speaks to the fact that Americans want an ideologically motivated president. They are tired of the politics of conciliation and want a candidate who is steadfast about their ideals. If they didn’t, the candidacies of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders never would have gotten off the ground.

From my reading of this race and the Iowa caucus, Obama’s notion of a post-ideology America has bitten the dust, at least for now.