Showing posts with label ProvidencePhoenix. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ProvidencePhoenix. Show all posts

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Holy war How an unholy alliance of Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals seeks to control our lives

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

And so it came to pass, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical Protestants have banded together to battle, well, the rest of us — the heathens, the godless liberals, the Hitchens-reading progressives.

If you are unmarried and have sex, you're one of us. If you are married and use birth control, you are among the damned. If you are gay, you are especially damned. And if you are straight and favor gay rights, you're just as fucked.

This triple entente of sky-god worshipers — call them the Unholy Alliance — have amassed an almost unlimited treasury with which to wage war on abortion rights, birth control, and legislation that might support women's or gay equality.

The rest of us can run, but none of us can hide from the Unholy Alliance. From California to Maine, the Alliance has done a hell of a job killing same-sex marriage. There is no way to deny the unholy triumph.

The weirdness of all this is that each faith's tradition holds as a central belief that the others are not true believers; Catholics go further, believing that Mormons are not even Christians.

There are similarities among the three, of course — a professed desire to do good in the world, and to help people be part of something larger than themselves. As a result, many interfaith groups work together to fight hunger, poverty, and low-quality health care, bringing to bear their congregations' numbers and wealth to make others' lives better.

Now, though, as religious leaders from these sects — previously suspicious of each other — collectively redirect those resources to gender and sexual politics, they are looking beyond doing good in this world, toward creating what they view as God's world.

To really understand what's happening, we have to look beyond rhetoric and into theology. At the heart of this political work is an unwavering approach toward sin. Most faiths teach that there are certain practices that followers should shun, such as the Jewish and Muslim ban on eating pork. But some teachings in conservative sects go deeper, asking followers not only to refrain from forbidden behaviors themselves, but to work to prevent others from engaging in them.

A good example of this comes from Elmer Towns, the 77-year-old evangelist who in 1971 co-founded Liberty University with Jerry Falwell. "We no longer believe the Bible is the means of authority for how people should live," he laments to the Phoenix over the phone from his home in Virginia. "Sin is sin."

Towns would prefer Americans to live more godly lives — whether they are believers or not. "America has always been, let the minority have their say — let the majority have their way," he says. (He is careful to note Jesus's Biblical urging to "love your neighbor as yourself," but still sees the active purging of society's moral wrongs as "God's work.")

It is an aggressive and prescriptive interpretation of the concept of being one's brother's keeper. While some, like Towns, won't come out and say it directly, their line of argument is clear: not only are we responsible for our own salvation, but we must endeavor to save others, even from themselves. The consequences of failure are severe: true followers of each of these three faiths believe that, if one of their flock is aware of a sin, even one committed by others, and does not act to prevent it and reform the sinner, then the believer is as guilty of the sin as the person who actually committed it. And it is true that there is no better way to impose a set of restrictions across the entire population than by law.

What it looked like
This phenomenon was first seen in modern America during the '70s and '80s with the rise — and then fall — of the Moral Majority. Towns recalls the criticism directed at Falwell then for suggesting that evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics "join together not for salvation purposes but for ethics and for family."
Driven by their shared objections to what they view as the excesses of modern culture, the churches were driven into each others' arms.

Towns cites Falwell as an example of a religious-political leader who "felt he had a mandate from God to bring this nation back" to a remembered glory. (It won't surprise you that Towns is a fan of the Tea Party movement, although he doubts its chances of success.)

The collaboration resurfaced and drew national attention in 2008, with California's gay-marriage debate, though it had begun to come together in 2006, when President George W. Bush nominated conservative judges John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

"They recognize that the Supreme Court plays a very important role in shaping political and cultural dialogue," says Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Public Research Associates, a Boston-area progressive think-tank that watches the political actions of the religious right. The Unholy Alliance solidly backed Roberts and Alito, seeing them as like-minded activists who would continue to shift government toward churchly goals, particularly on gay-rights and abortion issues.

The Alliance opposed Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and are working to block Elena Kagan's appointment, seeing them as too liberal. "If Obama gets to appoint the people he wants to appoint," Berlet says, "it will shift the political scene over the next 30 years" — and not in a way the religious right are hoping for.

When Proposition 8, which set to outlaw same-sex marriage in California, was placed on that state's ballot in 2008, the Unholy Alliance was again at the forefront. Led by the Mormon church, Catholic and evangelical leaders also donated church funds and urged followers to contribute time and money to the campaign.

In Maine last year, the same thing happened, led this time by the Roman Catholic bishop of Portland, Maine, Richard Malone, who personally testified before lawmakers in opposition to a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. When it passed, Malone spearheaded the repeal effort, issuing letters to be read from pulpits statewide, and ordering special collections during services to send their proceeds to "defend marriage." Evangelicals were prominent in the campaign, and the Mormon-linked National Organization for Marriage provided two-thirds of the funding. (Nationwide outcry against this overt political action by churches led to a backlash; see sidebar, "Paying Taxes?")

In the national health-care debate, the Alliance — often in the form of the Family, an evangelical group with ties to many members of Congress (and Maine governor John Baldacci, a former congressman), — stepped in to protect the godly from the godless. Berlet sums it up neatly, saying their argument was that big government is really a form of collectivism, which leads to totalitarianism, which leads to authoritarianism, in which a person is substituted for (or alternately believed to actually be) a god. And so, in their eyes, Obama's desire to expand government's role in health-care is evidence that he is both Stalin and Hitler.

The underpinning 
Scholars of the intersection of religion and politics agree that this development is both new and startling. But they also see a rationale: "Religion fundamentally has moral values and principles," says Roger Keller, Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University. "When those get tweaked by social issues . . . that's what normally draws people into the political arena."

"It's the emotional appeal based on references that are largely Biblical and widely recognized in an evangelical culture in which every political action has to be linked to a Biblical background," says Berlet.

Rhys Williams, director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at the Jesuit-run Loyola University Chicago, says there is a core belief that "politics has to be moral and we want to get our religious views in there." He characterizes the political aspirations of religious movements as "a way of protecting the public sphere as part of their image of what a moral society looks like."

Williams says, in an aside, that many of these individuals may not have problems with homosexuals as people, but rather object to any form of public approval, such as having those relationships recognized by the government as in any way similar to heterosexual marriage.

And while the focus of moralist social reformers has shrunk over the past century (giving up on Prohibition; reining in zealotry around the content of television shows and musical recordings), the conflict between the godly and the rest of us is likely to continue for some time.

Keller says part of this battle is theological: "Some of them are trying to save their neighbors." A converted Mormon who is a former Presbyterian and Methodist minister, he has a more detached view than some of his co-religionists; he argues that his beliefs don't give him the right to say what the government should impose on others. "I shouldn't ask the government to do the job of defining for everybody my moral standards."

But Keller admits, "often, religious organizations don't make that kind of distinction."

That may be dangerous, warns Traci West, a professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Codifying in law a specific prohibition, she says, demonstrates lack of the humility most religions preach. "Christians ultimately never know who is right based on who is saved," she says. "It is only God who separates the wheat from the chaff."

As a result, she suggests an alternative faith-based approach to morals: urging the government to protect "some common values of supporting each other to be caring and respectful across our differences, which of course we're going to have."

Looking forward 
And so we come down to the crux of the matter: those who believe the United States should be "a Christian nation," and those who want it to remain the open, pluralistic society it has always been. "We shall be as a city upon a hill," John Winthrop wrote of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "The eyes of all people are upon us." But America as a whole was created as bigger than that, with tolerance and mutual understanding of our differences underpinning the communal ability to be a far greater whole than the sum of our parts. (That's also, by the way, the origin of Ben Franklin's "Join, or Die" cartoon, which is one basis for the Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag so widely waved by Tea Partiers today.)

Perhaps the best news, if it can be called that, is this: Williams predicts that the positions that are aggressively defended by religious organizations, and their mutual alliances, are likely fairly solid now, having retreated to the most basic fundamental human ideas of family, marriage, and sex.

The energy with which those positions will be held, however, worries Keller, who likens churches "imposing" their doctrines on government to the religious-political connections in Iran's government, which is largely run by clerics acting behind the elected lay politicians.

West, as might be expected of a scholar of African-American culture in northern New Jersey, sees America as a "very pluralistic society" in which all types of people must learn to coexist. Opposing same-sex marriage is, to her, supporting "destruction of family life"; she says she wants to ask church leaders who oppose it, "Why that sense of urgency?" — especially when the Catholic Church, in particular, is facing significant obstacles both financial and scandalous in places as far-reaching as Germany, Ireland, and Wisconsin.

But she acknowledges that faith and religious teachings will always be in the political discussion. The question is whether dogma and belief spread themselves into the secular realm of backroom deals. "It's a fine line between standing up for what I believe is true about how we should live as a society because I am inspired by my faith" and prescribing "things in law should be aligned with my faith," says West. "Spending money to shape public policy to fit your religious tradition crosses the line."

sidebar: The Future of the Unholy Alliance

Stem-cell research arose as a controversy not long ago, because researchers were experimenting with embryonic stem cells, which required destroying embryos (which were usually surplus eggs fertilized through artificial insemination, and later donated by their parents). That furor has largely quieted down, mainly it turns out stem cells donated by consenting adults have a lot more promise than previously thought — nearly as much, in many cases, as embryonic ones. Now scientists are focusing on understanding and expanding the capabilities of adult stem cells; at some point they may seek to return to embryonic work, but that may be decades in the future.

Or will there even be an Unholy Alliance to take on issues like this?

Fred Karger, a leader in the movement to expose the exact size of religious contributions to political campaigns, says he thinks the alliance "will unravel without any outside help," observing the Mormons' public retreat in the face of public outrage after the Prop 8 campaign. "The Catholic Church will be right behind them," Karger predicts, saying that even though their efforts succeeded in repealing same-sex marriage in Maine, the backlash did "tremendous damage to their reputation."

We should be so lucky.

sidebar: Pulling Political Churches' Nonprofit Exemptions
We might think we're safe from this religious injection into politics, because of the Constitution's separation of church and state. But there's a loophole: while the government cannot favor one religious tradition over another, there is no legal structure that prevents religious groups from wielding political might. (Some Republicans have, at various times in the past decade, introduced federal legislation that would actually protect the ability of churches to spend on political matters. Fortunately, it hasn't gotten anywhere — yet.)

Religious organizations, at present, get automatic certification from the IRS as nonprofit groups. There are some rules limiting how much political activity nonprofits can have, but churches — most notably the Catholic Church — don't pay those rules much mind, preferring instead to wield significant political muscle both in person and with money.

Particularly in response to the religious war waged on same-sex marriage, there have been a number of public campaigns to revoke nonprofit status for churches that break the rules.

Some — including the Phoenixin a 2009 editorial — have argued that religious groups should have to apply for tax-exempt status (rather than automatically receiving it), and that their lobbying efforts and related spending should be made public.

But perhaps the best measure is with a relatively simple, possibly administrative change. At present, IRS rules limit only religious groups' efforts in support or opposition to "any candidate for elective public office." But same-sex marriage is not a candidate; it is a referendum question. If the IRS prohibition were expanded to ban church efforts regarding, say "any question put to the voting public on a ballot," the stakes would be raised, and the enforcement much clearer.

sidebar: The Keys to Heaven Can Make For Good Fundraising
How much money can the Unholy Alliance bring to bear on campaigns? In California, reports have estimated that as much as half of the $42 million spent to support Prop 8 came from organized religion, or from individuals inspired by appeals from conservative church leaders.
In Maine, the Unholy Alliance and its members gave $2.7 million of the total $3.1 million in cash and in-kind donations generated by Stand for Marriage Maine, according to official campaign-spending reports on file with the state. (As far as organizations go, the National Organization for Marriage, which has been linked to the Mormon Church, gave $2 million; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland gave another $570,000, including more than $250,000 from dioceses elsewhere in the country. The national Knights of Columbus Catholic service organization gave $50,000. And the evangelical-supported Focus on the Family gave another $120,000.)

But that's not even close to their fundraising capacity. "It's unlimited. It's as big as they want it to be," says Fred Karger, an activist seeking to expose the exact amounts religiously motivated donors have contributed to banning gay marriage. Donations can often be channeled through churches to make them tax-deductible, Karger observes.

And some donors have effectively unlimited resources. Naming vastly wealthy evangelicals Howard Ahmanson Jr. and John Templeton Jr., Karger says they would write checks for any amount, as long as their names were not connected to the funds.

For them — and for everyone — Karger jokes, " 'Give us all your worldly goods or eternity is in jeopardy' is a very effective fundraising tool."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

White-supremacist code printed nationwide

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

Imagine you are a white supremacist who is getting on in years. You've spent your life writing, extolling the virtues of Nazism, and denouncing Jews and African-Americans. You even wrote a book (published only online) that claimed the Jewish holy book, the Torah, demands the slaughter of Christians, and used that spurious beginning to justify the slaughter of Jews instead. You know full well that it was part of Hitler's justification for the Holocaust.

As 2009 dawns, you are nearing 90 years old, and you have watched your fellow World War II veterans struggle and suffer their ways through slow, degenerative deaths. You have no desire to endure that. You see yourself as a warrior, even perhaps a holy warrior. So you hatch a plan that will bring you a warrior's death, and simultaneously make you a white-supremacist martyr. And you realize that your age gives the plot an incredible twist only those in the know will discover: it is the key to getting all the world's media to print "Heil Hitler" in your obituary. But time is short — your birthday is in July.
The Southern Poverty Law Center last week confirmed that it is investigating a theory similar to my own, which is described above, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, on June 10. In that incident, James von Brunn, a long-time white supremacist and neo-Nazi, allegedly shot and killed an African-American guard before being shot by other security staffers.
And while von Brunn survived to face federal criminal charges and may yet die slowly in federal prison, he did manage to get newspapers around the globe to print a white-supremacist code praising Adolf Hitler right next to his name. "James von Brunn, 88," was a phrase in almost every news story — indeed, it was a common piece of harmless information that would have been more noticeable if reporters had left it out. It is his age.
But white supremacists and those who monitor hate groups know it is also a numeric code meaning "Heil Hitler." The letter "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet, and hatemongers around the world have long used "88" to mean "HH," or "Heil Hitler," honoring the leading historical icon of hate and intolerance, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Von Brunn himself knew and used this code often. Even before this year, he signed many of his Web postings "James von Brunn 88" — differing only by a comma from how newspapers and online news sites described him after he put his tragic plan into action.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gulf War vet 'saved' by Phoenix article

Published at; a version was also published in the Portland, Boston, and Providence Phoenixes

Mike Fitzgerald spent 10 and a half years in the Marine Corps. He'll turn 43 tomorrow (March 13), and has been out of the corps since he was honorably discharged in 1997. A Gulf War veteran, he lived in Providence, Rhode Island, after he left the service, and worked as a housekeeper at a VA building there — not just as a job, but as a way of keeping himself "under their nose," he says, so they would know what he needed and be sure to help him.

In January 2008, he moved back to Maine, where he grew up, and began to fight against his country, for his life.

I found all this out earlier today. Yesterday, we published "Soldiers Committing Suicide," by Jason Notte, and just hours later, Mike left me a voicemail on my office phone, saying he's experiencing the same things that a man described in the story had. That man, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, had struggled with federal Veterans Administration officials to get proper healthcare after his return from Iraq, and had killed himself in 2004.

In the morning, Mike and I spoke for about 15 minutes, in a conversation whose ramifications would take over most of my day, and would ultimately involve me crying quietly to myself in my office, and then writing this short piece.

Diagnosed with bipolar, he has been prescribed lithium and Effexor, but "they won't refill my medications until I take the last pill." And when he calls to order more, they mail it to him, which takes seven to 10 days. As a result, every few months he suffers withdrawal, and then has to go back on the meds.

He told me Thursday that he was in his ninth day of withdrawal, having run out of all of his meds a week and a half ago. "I'm angry," he says, not only for himself but also for fellow Marines like Lucey, who have ended up killing themselves. "These kids didn't get killed over there," he said. Lucey, Mike told me, got "to come home and have the VA kill him."

Mike also gets upset when he sees news coverage of celebrations for troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, because he knows what many of them will face. "In two months, they will be me," he says. "No wonder we're knocking ourselves off."

Mike thanked me over and over again for publishing the article; he told me he had written to local and national news organizations, including e-mailing Katie Couric at CBS News, trying to tell his story. He has contacted Senator Olympia Snowe's staff, and even brought a copy of the Phoenix article to her Biddeford office to show her staff.

After speaking with Mike, I got in touch with Jason, who had written the original story. Jason suggested I call Mike back and suggest a local counseling service for veterans, if I could find one that was not actually part of the VA, with which Mike was having such trouble.

Fortunately, our staff writer here in Portland, Deirdre Fulton, had done a story back in July 2007 about efforts in Maine to help returning veterans with mental-health problems. (See "Coming Home," July 11, 2007) When I asked her which she would suggest contacting first, she immediately told me that I should get in touch with the Community Counseling Center here in Portland. (207.874.1030).

I gave Mike their information, and he promised to call them. Jason Notte, who had written the article, also spoke to Mike for a while.

A little later on, Mike left me a short message saying that he has an appointment with a counselor scheduled for early next week. In the middle of the message, he choked up, and said that between the article and Jason's and my conversations with him, "You guys saved the life of a veteran."

Then I heard from a woman who works in an attorney's office in Bar Harbor. She said she had just talked to Mike, who is a client of the firm, and also thanked us for saving his life. She said her office has been keeping in close touch with him lately, because he was, she said, "close to the edge." She asked about the counseling service I had suggested to Mike, and I gave her that information and the link to Deirdre's story.

Jason and I will continue to check in with Mike, and we'll see how things go from here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fretrosexuals: Reconnecting can be fraught with peril

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

Some people really enjoy the potential of reconnecting with folks from the past, and I'm usually one of them. Through the wonder of the Internet, old friends and I have found each other. When I see such a request in my inbox on Facebook, I almost always immediately click "Confirm." Of course, those reunions haven't been sexual — just friendly. But the prospect of a reconnection with one person has left me conflicted.

More than a decade ago, my relationship with "Anne" ended. Ours was the longest either of us had been in to date, and we had seriously contemplated our future together (marriage, kids, house, all that stuff). Ultimately, though, it finished badly.

While from time to time I have wondered about what ever happened to her, I've never tried to get in touch with her, and she has never contacted me. We have a few friends in common, from whom I have heard ultra-brief updates every few years — "Saw Anne the other weekend" or whatever — and maybe she's gotten the same about me. But that was the extent of our "contact," if you can even call it that.

Then last fall, thanks in part to those friends in common, Anne popped up in my "People You May Know" box on Facebook. Of course, I looked at her profile: she's married, living near Boston, and her photo shows her with a big grin amid a group of friends. All that's great: time has healed many of my wounds (though, I find, not all). I don't wish her ill. I might even have a drink with her if we run into each other somewhere, to catch up. But I'm not proud of how I behaved all those years ago, and I don't want to revisit those times.

Beyond that, I don't suffer from the illusion that we have much in common any longer. (Apart from our memories of what happened between us, which are probably more similar than either of us might ever admit.)

Too much time has passed, and what I did in the years since would have happened very differently, if at all, had we stayed together. While I've now settled down and gotten married, the person I am today owes more to the fact that things ended with Anne and I got on with my life than to the fact that we ever were together.

So if we did run into each other again, and caught up over lunch or a drink, I wouldn't expect us to stay in touch, much less to become friends. And I (and our respective spouses) sure would be nothing less than astonished if we wound up in bed together.

Given all that, Facebook is more of a get-in-touch-and-stay-in-touch kind of site. Privacy settings aside, anyone who is a "friend" can see my status and other information as I update it. Distant though it is, I'm not sure if that's a level of connection I want with Anne.

So I decided not to initiate contact. After about a week went by, I assumed she had seen me in her "PYMK" box and made the same decision. Not so. Another week later, I got a friend request from her: a short, friendly note ending with "It's been a looooong time . . . "

Waiting game
That was at the end of September. It has now also been "a looooong time" since her friend request, and I still haven't clicked "Confirm" — or "Ignore."

But this dallying has only made matters worse. Every time someone sends me a friend request, I have to face Anne, lined up first in the "Friend Request" queue. And all the well-meaning friends I already have on Facebook deluge me with kajillions of pokes, thrown sheep, drinks, and other application requests — never knowing that every time they do, I have to face Anne then, too.

(Almost) every time I see Anne's request, the debate begins again. If I click "Confirm," then she'll be able to see photos, videos, notes from other friends, all kinds of stuff that I'm not sure I want to share with someone who's not, technically, a "friend."

On the other hand, if I ignore her request, then I'm putting up the Berlin Wall, severing completely a chunk of my past that, while hanging on only by the barest tendril, was still somehow a connection.

Then again, by virtue of the fact that I've taken this long to make any decision at all, Anne probably thinks I've long since clicked "Ignore," and has written me off. The terrible irony is that, as a result of Facebook, I've thought about her more — and more often — in these past few months than I had in the last decade.

One last wrinkle: if you're wondering whether my wife knows about all of this, the answer is yes. She actually brought up the bizarre topic of what do to about old loves in new media because she was wondering if an ex-boyfriend was ever going to show up online. To date, she hasn't had the pleasure.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Defending the universally loathed: TV: Shopping channels

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix; part of a multi-part story

TV: Shopping channels
As detestable as they are, someone loves those shopping channels on TV. They bring in more than $10 billion a year to the washed-up non-celebrities pitching second-rate knives, dresses, jewelry, and cleaning supplies.

There is, however, a very compelling reason you, too, should love the shopping channels, and thank your lucky stars they exist: your cable bill would be higher than it is now — by as much as a few bucks a month, depending on where you live — if the “basic cable” package did not include shopping channels.

In many markets, cable companies are required by federal regulations to carry shopping channels. As a result, the cable companies don’t pay to transmit shopping channels (just as they don’t pay to carry other local broadcast stations or community-access channels). But unlike those other channels, shopping networks kick back a percentage of their sales revenues. So the more knives sold, the less likely your cable bill is to rise.

(Sure, nothing is stopping your cable company from racking the rates, except competition from satellite TV and Internet video, but if the feds require cable companies to sell channels individually, you’ll pay more for the same channels, and losing that shopping-network revenue is part of why.)

So every now and again, when you’re feeling bored, check out a shopping channel, and make sure you have a knife for every occasion. If you’re missing one for, say, cutting out your own appendix, go ahead and buy it. It’s just $9.99, you can pay in 15 easy installments of just 67 cents each, and you’ll keep your future cable bills down, too.