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“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love”

[ 134 ] April 30, 2015 |

An oft-repeated theme in Rod Dreher’s lengthy, frequent, and increasingly unhinged posts (no need for links, they comprise around 40% of his voluminous output) about the increasing respect of the full equal citizenship (and humanity) of LGBT people and decreasing respect for those who insist on publicly denying them that status in various way is his insistence (against mounting evidence) that from a Christian (sometimes he remembers to add the ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditionalist’ modifier here, but he often, revealingly, drops it) perspective, rejecting same sex marriage and family formation is simply non-negotiable; it’s too close to core, unchanging and unchangeable Christian teachings. To succumb to social pressure on this issue is tantamount to abandoning Christianity, properly understood. That this position has no merit is obvious in both theory and practice. The reason same sex marriage (and equal rights and social acceptance for LGBT people) has made such progress is primarily because Christians are changing their minds, at more or less the same rate as everyone else. The liberal Christians and Catholics lagged behind non-religious people, and conservative and evangelical Christians lagged behind them, for predictable and easily understood reasons. But what we’re witnessing is the latest iteration of an utterly banal fact of American life playing out yet again: Christianity has always been, its various affectations of countercultural status notwithstanding, a fundamentally and deeply mainstream American identity and set of values, and has demonstrated, time and time again, sufficient flexibility to remain mainstream as the content of American values has shifted over time. And, of course, when the mainstream is split (with respect to, for example, slavery and white supremacy) we see a split in Christianity as well; as it became deeply tied to the defense and the attack of these institutions.

These reflections were motivated by Dreher’s deeply ugly post yesterday about Baltimore and Freddie Gray. Rod Dreher’s reflected on the deadly police violence and its aftermath was to piss on the grave of the recently deceased victim of state violence. If you tried to square this with his avowed devotion to traditionalist, orthodox Christianity by examining the teachings, actions and attitudes of the Jesus as presented in the Gospels, you’d be hopelessly lost. If you tried to square the argument of post with Dreher’s own general mode of social explanation, you’d be equally confused. (His sneering contempt in this post toward societal and structural explanations for social behavior might be easier to swallow coming from someone who didn’t routinely assume that the sexual mores and practices of the upper middle class is clearly and straightforwardly responsible for the broken families of the lower middle class.) The post makes sense only when you remember that solidarity with the downtrodden–the victims of excessive abuses of the power of the state and the choices of powerful economic actors–is tainted by liberals, the declared enemies of American Christendom, properly understood.

Update: fairness compels me to note that Dreher has put up a lengthy and somewhat rambling post that expresses regret over his lack of mercy in describing Gray. While it’s nice to see Mr. Gray removed from the role of scapegoat for Baltimore’s woes, his replacement candidate for that role–the dangerously excessive generosity of America’s social welfare state–provides further support for the point I’m trying make here.

“Pity the poor Christian photographer” is a tactic

[ 184 ] April 8, 2015 |

As I mentioned earlier, my views on the general approach embodied in RFRAs to protecting religious freedom as a general matter are complicated and conflicted, but my views on the political dynamic at work in the current push for them are not. Another reminder, via Dan Savage, comes this morning from Springfield, Missouri, where an effort to roll back civil rights and social equality for LGBT residents was, depressingly, successful:

Voters have narrowly repealed an LGBT-rights law in Springfield, Missouri, according to ballot results Tuesday night.

With all precincts reporting, the Greene County Clerk shows Question 1 passing 51.43% to 48.57%.

“We are very disappointed that we didn’t have the exact outcome that we wanted, but we are encouraged that the vote was so very close,” Crystal Clinkenbeard, a spokeswoman for the LGBT-rights campaign No Repeal, told BuzzFeed News.

The vote comes after a fierce clash between LGBT advocates and religious conservatives, who invoked campaign themes of Christian-owned businesses forced to sell products for gay weddings and cross-dressing predators lurking in women’s restrooms.

Whether one is personally sympathetic or not, it’s hard to deny that the image of the hard-working independent baker/florist/photographer, portrayed as perfectly decent to gay customers most of the time but bound to avoid participation in a same sex wedding ceremony not by animus but by deep personal religious conviction, is probably the most broadly sympathetic face those opposed to civil and social equality of LGBT people can construct for their movement. (And they need it: when the question is posed abstractly, the American public is much less conflicted about anti-discrimination protections than they are about same sex marriage.) But of course what happened in Springfield yesterday was not the carving out of a narrow exception–the citizenry not only overturned protection against discrimination in all public accommodations, they overturned it in housing and employment as well.

When we treat the current debate as being about whether we should carve out a very narrow, specific in anti-discrimination in public accommodations laws, we fall for a trap in two ways. First, because such a framing contributes to the widely held but false impression that anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people are widespread (for example: all the bad coverage of the Indiana law telling us it would “allow” what was already perfectly legal). Second, because for a significant number of the people pushing the ‘pity the poor photographer’ narrative, the photographer is little more than a wedge; a means to an end; an appealing and pitiable image designed to disguise a far uglier and less pitiable cause. This is a close cousin of the previous decade’s successful efforts to use the specter of Churches forced to solemnize same sex marriages to persuade voters to not only constitutionalize existing bans on same sex marriage, but also any legal recognition or protection whatsoever for their relationships and families.

As Dan Savage also notes, the short-term victories produced by the decision to maximally oppose any and all rights and protections for LGBT people, while occasionally still successful, comes at a very real cost in the long term:

When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

The Weaponization of Religious Exemptions

[ 197 ] April 2, 2015 |

Some musings inspired by the Indiana backlash and the backlash to the backlash:

Some “meta” preliminaries: obviously, freedom of religion at its core is a non-negotiable requirement for any society wishing to plausibly call itself a liberal democracy. What is the core? The right to join and form religious organizations, worship freely, and speak openly about one’s religion in the larger society, regardless of the degree of overlap between the content of these religious views and the mainstream of official state ideologies. Of course, there’s a lot more to how states support freedom of religion as a matter of practice; from tax-exempt status to cooperative educational and charitable projects to the possibility of exemptions from general religious law. By saying such things are not the ‘core’ of freedom of religion, I don’t mean to suggest they are inappropriate or wrong, or even unnecessary. But unlike the religious freedom’s core, they should be understood as negotiable—that is, they’re the proper subject for democratic deliberation and contestation, and there ought be to no particular expectation there’s a universal proper liberal-democratic answer to these kinds of questions. Which are most appropriate for a particular political society is based, to a significant degree, on local circumstances. Any democratic society that finds itself debating whether to honor the core of religious freedom has badly gone off the rails, but a democratic society debating the non-core scope of religious freedom is just doing what democracies do.

On a less meta level, my own views on religious exemptions are quite fluid. I find myself shifting between being mostly (but never entirely) comfortable with the pre-Smith status quo balancing tests and original RFRA framework, and mostly (but never entirely) resigned to a Smith-like restrictive approach. I teach a seminar on multicultural policy in every Spring, so it’s not like I haven’t thought about it much; I just seem prone to change dramatically the relative weighting of different goals and values.

If there’s a pattern to shifts in my uncertainty, though, it’s probably that I find myself drifting toward a more restrictive approach. In watching the politics of the Indiana law and its backlash, I think I’m getting a better sense of why that’s the case. What’s currently underway is what I’ll call the weaponization of religious exemptions. To explain what I mean by this, here are some classic examples of requests for religious exemptions: permission to use otherwise illegal substances for religious ceremonies, such as the Smith plaintiffs and Peyote, Catholics and sacramental wine during prohibition, Rastafari and marijuana);exemptions from zoning laws for the construction of Sukkahs and rules regarding the religious use of public property for the constructions of eruvs; exemption from mandatory military service, schooling requirements, or vaccinations; exemptions from incest laws (regarding Uncle/Niece marriages for some communities of Moroccan Jews); Native American religious groups seeking privileged access to sacred spaces on federally owned land;exemptions to Sunday closing laws for seventh-day Sabbatarians. I find some of these easy to support and others profoundly problematic, but they collectively share a common feature: they are fundamentally defensive in character. Their primary objective is to protect a practice or tradition or community, and little more. These exemptions are political but not in the sense that their exercise is directed toward the larger community in any concrete, meaningful sense. In these cases, the end sought in pursuing the exemption is, more or less, the exemption itself.

The requested accommodation in City of Boerne is a kind of transitional case. The exemption sought was to modify a church in a Historical District where such modifications were not permitted. While the exemption was clearly sought for the purpose of the exercise of religious activity, it wasn’t really a religious exemption per se—they wanted a bigger, more modern facility for more or less the general kind of reasons a private business or homeowner might have liked an exemption—accommodate more people, better amenities, etc. There was no connection between their status as a religious group and the nature of the particular exemption they were seeking; in essence they were arguing that the RFRA gives them license to avoid a law they found inconvenient. (Hypothetically, if a religious organization sought an exemption to historic zoning on grounds that their religion prohibited worshiping in buildings over a certain age for ceremonies, this case would have more merit.) Turning religious exemptions into a license for religious groups to evade general laws when inconvenient seems entirely deserving of pushback.

But this is only a partially weaponized use of religious exemptions; they’re being used as a weapon to advance the Church’s goals, but not striking against their political enemies. The quintessential case of a weaponized religious exemption is, of course, Hobby Lobby; Obamacare was to be the subject of a blitzkrieg, to be hit with any and every weapon imaginable, and that’s what the RFRA provided. Their efforts to make the claim appear credible could hardly be lazier or more half-assed. One possible check on weaponization, in a better and more decent society, could conceivably be a sense of embarrassment or shame; exposing one’s religious convictions as a cynical political tool to be wielded against one’s political enemies might be hoped to invoke enough embarrassment that it might be avoided, but we were well past that point. A remarkable document of this trend is this post from Patrick Deneen–fully, openly aware of the fundamental absurdity of Hobby Lobby’s case, cheering them on nonetheless. I mean, you’d think they’d at least have found a company owned by Catholics.

In light of that case, the transparent push for a super-RFRA deployable in private torts is not quite as egregious. It’s passing a bill that is by no means guaranteed to get them the results they want (my understanding is that no attempt to defend discriminatory behavior under any RFRA has yet been successful), and has plenty of other potential applications, some of which may be salutary. But the politics of it are undeniable; as in Kansas, Arizona and elsewhere, it’s plainly the case that this is simply the latest effort in the longstanding war on full social equality for gay and lesbian people. (If not having an RFRA at the books on the state level is such a grave threat to religious liberty, why haven’t we been hearing more about this since 1997, seeing as most states have no such law?) That this is a considerably less ambitious project in denying social equality than most previous battles fought in this war merely reflects the ground they’ve lost recently.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have confident or strongly held views about the ideal and proper scope of religious exemptions, although I’ve probably been drifting further from the RFRA framework and closer to Smith. The backlash against the Indiana bill—a bill that, private torts provision aside, isn’t that different from something that once passed the house unanimously and the senate with 97 votes—not to mention even conservative Republicans vetoing similar legislation in Arizona and Arkansas–suggests something very real has changed. The assumption on the right is that it’s liberals who’ve changed; we don’t support religious freedom like we did back in the 90’s. They’re not entirely wrong about that, but it’s an incomplete view about what has changed. Insofar as liberals changed their minds about the proper scope of religious exemptions, they didn’t do so in a vacuum, they changed their mind about it because the context we’re now in—facing an utterly shameless political movement that treats any conceivable political tool as fair game to achieve its political ends—is just simply not the kind of environment that fits well with an expansive approach to religious exemptions. The personal, faith-based nature of religious conviction makes it clearly inappropriate for the state to question the sincerity of the professed belief, even when that insincerity is obvious and barely concealed; which in turn makes exemptions easier to support in an environment where there’s some degree of trust that this process won’t be routinely abused. As noted earlier, which approach to exemptions best serves the interests of justice and freedom depends to a significant degree on the details of the society in question. We may have been something closer to that kind of society suited for expansive religious exemptions in the past, and we may someday be that kind of society at some point in the future, but it’s becoming difficult to deny we’re not such a society now.

The Indiana backlash

[ 114 ] March 31, 2015 |

I’m not particularly troubled that some of the backlash against Indiana right now is a bit confused on the law, in large part because the backlash clearly gets the politics so straightforwardly and obviously right. But if I were the backlash coordinator, I’d direct my minions to start following up assertions that “of course it’s not our intent to authorize discrimination against gay people” if perhaps one way they could make their protestation seem vaguely sincere would be to follow 20+ other states and their largest city and make discrimination against LGBT people illegal. Because right now “God told me to” and “gays are icky” are equally lawful reasons to discriminate against LGBT people in Indiana with respect to housing, employment, schools, public accommodations and insurance markets. A group of legislators who really, really don’t intend to authorize discrimination against their LGBT citizens would surely want to do something about that, wouldn’t they?

A follow-up to the Seattle restaurants/minimum wage story

[ 27 ] March 18, 2015 |

A reader sends along a link to this Bethany Jean Clement piece in the Seattle Times.  Clement, in a refreshing act of journalism against her employer’s editorial interests, asks the restaurant owners about this, and all four openly repudiate the assertion that the coming minimum wage increase is a ‘factor’ in their decision. One owner in particular expressed some annoyance at being made a poster child for right wing nonsense:

We were never interviewed for these articles and we did not close our … location due to the new minimum wage,” Kounpungchart and Frank said in an email. “We do not know what our colleagues are doing to prepare themselves for the onset of the new law, but pre-emptively closing a restaurant seven years before the full effect of the law takes place seems preposterous to us.”

Frank went so far as to send a note to the author of the Washington Policy Center post saying: “Our business model is conducive to the changing times and we would appreciate it if you did not make assumptions about our business to promote your political values.”

As a point of clarification, the absurdity of the original Seattle Magazine story becomes even more clear if we look at the implementation schedule. The minimum wage in Seattle is presently 9.47, up from 9.32 on January 1st (Washington has an annual inflation adjustment for the minimum wage). On April first the implementation of Seattle’s minimum wage begins, but for employers with under 500 the minimum compensation goes to 11.oo an hour, but the minimum wage for tipped employees only goes to 10.00. So it’s a 53 cent increase in most cases, and 1.53 in the case of non-tipped employees making bare minimum.

Are Seattle Restaurants Closing in “Record Numbers”? (Spoiler: No.)

[ 98 ] March 15, 2015 |

Since the initial story about Seattle restaurant closings is making its way through the right wing blogs at the moment, prompting one wingnut outlet to declare that Seattle restaurants are closing “in record numbers,” let’s take a loot at the actual evidence provided in the story that launched the chain reaction. Before we begin let’s note despite long having one of the highest minimum wages in the country, while being located in one of only a handful of states with no ‘tip credit’ for wages, Seattle still manages to have the highest density of restaurants anywhere in the country, except for San Francisco and the greater New York City area.

What’s the evidence? The Seattle Magazine article that started this game of telephone identified four (4) restaurants that have closed or will close between February and May 2015. (A 5th restaurant is seeing its award winning chef resign to move to Spain; the alleged relevance here is unclear.) Included in these four restaurants is one that remains open at its original location, shifting its focus back to their original model, another is owned by one of Seattle’s most successful and celebrated restaurateurs, who continues to own five thriving establishments and is in the process of opening two new restaurants. The owner of the third closing restaurant  (easily the most over-hyped Indian restaurant openings I’ve ever seen), identifies the reason for closing as a poor fit between format and location, which seemed pretty obvious to me when they opened. The space the fourth restaurant occupies will be immediately replaced by another new restaurant.

What isn’t included is any analysis to suggest openings are failing to keep pace with closings. Given the short typical lifespan of a restaurant and the size of Seattle, we should expect annual openings and closings to be in the hundreds in a typical year. Identifying four closing restaurants over a four month period is evidence for the thesis in the same way finding a bunch of Democratic voters who don’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton is ‘evidence’ her campaign is in trouble. Indeed, the right wingers are hoping you don’t read the original article, which closes by refuting its own highly speculative thesis:

Despite these serious challenges, however, brave restaurateurs continue to open eateries in Seattle, which, remembering basic supply and demand, also naturally accounts for closures we’ve already seen and more that will come. Capitol Hill alone is carrying on an unprecedented dining boom, and in mid January, Capitol Hill Seattle announced that Nue, Chris Cvetkovich’s modernist global street food joint, was the neighborhood’s 100th food and drink opening in three years.

Other major Capitol Hill additions from the last few months include Stateside, (Eric Johnson’s long-awaited French-Vietnamese outpost), Tallulah’s (Linda Derschang’s [of Smith and Oddfellows] casual neighborhood café) and Serious Pie Pike (Tom Douglas’s third location of his pizza joint, now open in the new Starbucks Roastery). Moreover, just this week on the Hill, we’ve got news of Lisa Nakamura opening the Gnocchi Bar in the Packard Building on 12th Avenue (formerly the Capitol Hill D’Ambrosio Gelateria Artigianale) at the end of March.

Those keeping score at home will note that the article identifies more restaurants opening than closing.

I have no idea what impact, if any, Seattle’s minimum wage increase will have on total employment in the restaurant industry. It’s well worth watching, because knowing at what point more aggressive minimum wage increases have this kind of impact may be useful for shaping future policy. It’s also important because business owners and ideological opponents of the minimum wage will lie and obfuscate to create a false impression of negative impacts, whether they exist or not.

Let’s be fair to SAE

[ 165 ] March 13, 2015 |

This Daily Kos diary is an unfortunate rush to judgment. Sure, it might appear as though SAE implemented the promise of their traditional song with extreme prejudice. But before we rush to conclusions about racial bias motivating their manslaughter for sport, we should check to see if there’s any racial pattern to the victims; the body count is sizeable enough that we ought to be able to detect a pattern. Besides, they’ve now banned manslaughter for sport because the liability insurance was out of control they realized it’s very, very wrong.

….if my calculations are correct SAE comprises roughly 3% of the total collegiate population of fraternities. Since 2006, they account for 15-20% of fatalities associated with hazing and other fraternity rituals.

SAE at UW. The hits just keep coming.

 

 

Israeli election

[ 36 ] March 12, 2015 |

This is starting to get interesting. I’ve long had this vague notion that Likud would pull away just before the election, although I admit I can’t give a particularly compelling narrative about why, other than generalized pessimism about anything good ever happening again in that part of the world. But the polling seems pretty robust at this point, and time is very nearly up. At this point it seems pretty clear the speech stunt didn’t do him any favors. The man who may be kingmaker, Moshe Kahlon, seems to be playing it pretty close to the vest.

This is mostly just an Israeli election open thread. Is Bibi really in trouble? And what’s Kahlon’s deal? If he ends up in a position to choose the next prime minister, what sort of concessions might he seek to extract from Bibi, or Herzog?

#Rapalbumsthatcausedslavery

[ 55 ] March 11, 2015 |

So this morning Bill Kristol went on television and said something profoundly stupid, offensive, and wrong. In other words, a pretty typical day. However, unlike the last several hundred times that happened, this one launched a gloriously hilarious twitter hashtag.

The Logan Act is an illiberal anachronism

[ 65 ] March 11, 2015 |

To state the obvious, the Republican letter to Iranian leaders is ridiculous and awful on both procedural and substantive grounds, and they deserve all kinds of scorn and criticism for it. But to attempt to suggest the letter is constitutes a criminal seems to have inspired some breathless pundits to revive the Logan Act (last seen in the hands of Ronald Reagan, threatening Jesse Jackson with persecution), an illiberal, speech-limiting anachronism that hasn’t actually been used in a prosecution in over 200 years. Here’s the relevant text:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

There’s a case to be made that Cotton letter appears to be in technical violation of this law. But there’s a much more important case to be made that this law deserves to stay dead and buried. Consider the following crank-penned missive, adorned with sufficient postage to make it to Sofia: “As a proud Bulgarian-American, I am dismayed to learn of the ongoing negotiation of the Bulgarian-American blah blah blah treaty. This policy would be a tragic, short-sighted mistake for both countries for reasons XYZ and I encourage you to abandon this plan.” The notion that sending this letter ought to be a felony is indefensible, but it’s as much a violation of the above standard as the letter.

I don’t know enough about first amendment jurisprudence to know if this statute would stand up to scrutiny. It shouldn’t, though, and given its longstanding disuse it would be a strong candidate for desuetude. Since obviously prosecution isn’t going to happen, there’s little to be gained to try to revive a terrible law like this. The Cotton letter can be criticized on several other less problematic but devastating grounds; there’s no need to revive sort of thing.

See also Brian Beutler.

 

….to clarify, since some commenters are missing this point, I am not making the argument that my cranky Bulgarian letter and the Cotton letter are ought to be seen as “equivalent.” There’s are important distinctions between them, all of which clearly make the Cotton letter more objectionable. My point is merely that as written the Logan Act fails to make this distinction. It’s not my suggestion they are equivalent, it’s the implication of this terrible, unconstitutional law that they are. If the Cotton letter should be illegal (and I don’t think it should, probably, but I take no argument on that here) we need a less overbroad, unduly speech-restricting statute.

Coates on Ferguson

[ 130 ] March 5, 2015 |

If you’ve been following him on twitter, you’ve waiting for this, which is excellent. No quotes, just read the whole damn thing. Have a stiff drink at the ready.

As the media and general public consume and digest the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson PD, I very much hope we don’t make the mistake of focusing on the findings regarding Darren Wilson, or on the racist jokes the officers passed around so freely. The story we very badly need to focus on is that the Ferguson PD was, in effect, little more than a legal, open, ongoing conspiracy to expropriate black wealth and redistribute it to white people.

….Relatedly, Henry Farrell is correct to see Charles Tilly here.

Transit/urbanism links

[ 116 ] February 25, 2015 |

that I might be blogging about if I had time to blog at the moment.

It’s somewhat shocking that even in the one American city where it’s generally widely acknowledged a car is not necessary, we still have such absurd parking requirements. So this is very good news. Good for DeBlasio and the planning department; when it comes to housing costs parking minimums matter.

Speaking of housing costs: significant construction of new units and rent increases often occur simultaneously, providing a handy cum hoc ergo propter hoc for people who’d like their anti-development preferences to fit more comfortably with their broader political views and/or stated preference for the availability of less expensive housing. But the dodge doesn’t work; supply and demand matters. Even in San Francisco.

Although it relies on a single study from Australia a bit more than I’d prefer, this is a thoughtful reflection on the issue of ‘mode bias’ in public transportation. That riders prefer trains to buses is clear. What we should do with that information isn’t. The worst public transit fad of the last couple of decades, the return of the (toy) streetcars–expensive and shiny but stuck in traffic, and slower than buses–is a good example of overcompensating for perceived mode bias.  I would be curious to hear any SoCal readers thoughts on the characterization of the Orange Line–and its local perception–presented here.

On the urban planning consequences of children mapping slums in India.

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