Listen for the right alarm

Even in the best of journalism, where the story is at once true and fair, not inflammatory or emotionally manipulative, you still want to catch the attention of the reader/listener/viewer/clicker so that they will read/hear/see your story (and be enriched by the experience).  So don’t think you know all there is to know when the headline on a Pew Research Center poll blares “45% of Americans Say U.S. Should Be a ‘Christian Nation’” because the truth is less alarming than that.

In the past couple of years I’ve written a few times about the concept of Christian nationalism, and not in an approving way.  By definition,

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term “Christian nationalism,” is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity.

Most of the Founding Fathers did profess a belief in a Supreme Being. If they believed that the success of their new creation was inextricably linked to Christianity as it was understood in their day – even IF  that is true – that’s not what it says in the structure for government they wrote.  Historical scholarship has lauded the American experiment that protects the rights of citizens to worship freely while disconnecting the religions from having any governmental authority.  It’s been one step on the still-being-paved path to a free society willing to give everyone a chance to contribute and to reap the rewards of their work.

So the headline roaring that nearly half of us think we should be a “Christian nation” is concerning, but it turns out there’s not so much worry there as one might imagine since the survey also finds that we don’t agree what that phrase even means:

For instance, many supporters of Christian nationhood define the concept in broad terms, as the idea that the country is guided by Christian values. Those who say the United States should not be a Christian nation, on the other hand, are much more inclined to define a Christian nation as one where the laws explicitly enshrine religious teachings.

Overall, six-in-ten U.S. adults – including nearly seven-in-ten Christians – say they believe the founders “originally intended” for the U.S. to be a Christian nation. And 45% of U.S. adults – including about six-in-ten Christians – say they think the country “should be” a Christian nation. A third say the U.S. “is now” a Christian nation.

At the same time, a large majority of the public expresses some reservations about intermingling religion and government. For example, about three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) say that churches and other houses of worship should not endorse candidates for political offices. Two-thirds (67%) say that religious institutions should keep out of political matters rather than expressing their views on day-to-day social or political questions. And the new survey – along with other recent Center research – makes clear that there is far more support for the idea of separation of church and state than opposition to it among Americans overall.

A Washington Post analysis makes clear that this poll hasn’t found a burbling caldron of restive theocrats across the country; in fact, “comfortable majorities want daylight between politics and faith.”

Sixty-seven percent of all adults, for instance, say churches should stay out of politics, while 77% say they should not endorse candidates for elected office.

Among the 45% who want the United States to be a “Christian nation”:

  • 28% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation, while 52% say the government should never declare an official religion
  • 24% say the federal government should promote Christian values, while 52% say it should promote moral values shared by many faiths
  • 39% say the federal government should enforce separation of church and state, while 31% say it should stop enforcing it.

Among all United States adults, 15% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation (69% do not), 13% say the federal government should promote Christian values (63% favor values shared by many faiths), 54% say the government should enforce separation of church and state (19% say it should stop).

So, the percentage of Americans who don’t believe in the separation of their Christian church from state authority is small…but the success of Christian evangelicals in winning political office is undeniable: give them credit for playing the game on its own terms and taking control of the levers of power at a rate beyond their real numbers in the population.  Those people are the ones fighting to make secular society look more like their preferred variety of Christianity.  Here in Texas they are hard-charging to use public tax dollars to fund private religious education for their children and leave the rest of “the little skoolchirrun of Texas” to languish in an underfunded and second-rate (at best) public education system.

“Texas, a friend used to say, is hard on women and little things” is how Christopher Hooks started a May article in Texas Monthly that let Texas’ Republican leaders have it (no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994!) over their treatment of children and the public education system:

It is a grotesque and cruel irony that the Republican primary this year, like several years of political activity before it, was dominated by an all-consuming and comically misdirected argument about the protection of children and by a multifront war against long-neglected public schools. There were essentially no contested policy proposals in the GOP primary that would affect the practical and economic circumstances of all Texans. (There rarely are.) There was, however, ceaseless discussion about the well-being of children, their morals, their internal lives.

The most acute panic was over transgender children. In February, [Attorney General Ken] Paxton’s office issued a formal opinion holding that gender-affirming care, such as the prescription of puberty blockers to trans kids, constituted child abuse. Shortly after, [Governor Greg] Abbott tasked the Department of Family and Protective Services, an overworked and underfunded agency he had overseen for close to eight years, with investigating the families of trans kids for such abuse.

The more widespread crisis concerned books. This panic was conjured up by right-wing parents and elected officials in roughly equal measure. The first target was “divisive” material about race. Then, elected officials began to agitate about “pornography” in schools, a category that included mostly literature featuring queer characters. Lawmakers proposed lists of books to be banned. In November, Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to investigate cases of pornography in public schools and prosecute those responsible “to the fullest extent of the law” because, he wrote, it had to be a top priority to “protect” Texas students.
Public school teachers and children’s librarians—members of two professions that offer highly beneficial services to society, for little pay—became villains to activist parents and candidates alike. They were called “groomers” and “pedophiles” on social media. In Granbury, near Fort Worth, two women lodged a criminal complaint in May against the local school’s libraries, prompting a police investigation. At a subsequent school board meeting, one of the women opined that a committee assembled to review troublesome books comprised “too many” librarians instead of “people with good moral standards.”

That’s right: no intersection in this Venn diagram of the universes of “librarians” and “people with good moral standards,” according to this woman.  She’s not alone in that kind of sentiment.  It’s so tiresome.

A year of manufactured outrage about the specter of loose morals in public education had the effect of making all of public education worse—which, for some, seemed to be the goal. Test scores have dropped. Even parents who strongly favor public schooling have begun to search for alternatives. State leaders, including Abbott, who have presided over an education system that spends about 20 percent less than the national average on each student, began to lay the framework for a renewed push to expand school choice and perhaps introduce a voucher system in which taxpayer dollars would be used to fund private schools.

Our right-wing lieutenant governor has been championing vouchers for years, and that came up in a terrific column by Chris Tomlinson in the Houston Chronicle this summer that highlighted the on-going effort by right-wing extremists and their rich Texas patrons to “gut Texas public education.”

Their top priority is helping Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pass a school voucher bill that allows parents to spend state money to send their kids to private, religious schools, effectively defunding public schools. To inspire support for their plan, Patrick and his allies have set public schools up for failure by cutting their budgets.

Texas lawmakers have shrunk state spending per student over the last 15 years. Occasionally, they’ll authorize an increase, only to cut it later. Texas spends $9,900 per student, while the national average is $13,185, the Education Data Initiative reported.

Political vilification, school shooters, and poor compensation have led two-thirds of teachers to consider leaving the profession, the Texas American Federation of Teachers found in polling its members.

Texas already ranks 35th in the nation for pre-K through 12 education, U.S. News and World Report determined. WalletHub ranked the quality of Texas’s education as 33rd in the country. An exodus of experienced teachers will only worsen matters.

Few Texans can afford the $30,000 or more that a top private school charges and most do not want their child enrolled in a fundamentalist indoctrination camp. If we want our children and state to prosper in a competitive global economy, we must defend our public schools from those who would destroy them.

Self-described “conservatives” who demonstrate with their actions (and their money) that they do not believe in the American ideal of a free public education for all, nor do they believe in the separation of church and state or in real freedom of religion.  I can’t say how many of them fall into the 15% of all American adults who want the federal government to declare America a “Christian nation,” but I find it alarming enough to say I will have that in mind on election day.

Eyes open, moving ahead

To be an American and believe in the American system is to respect the outcome of elections, especially when your side loses or, in this case, when the side you especially fear and detest wins.  The right to vote does not come with a guarantee that the majority will make a good decision, but I believe we have to give the winners their chance.

Let’s start by giving the Donald Trump voters the benefit of the doubt, and assume that most of them are people with legitimate concerns about how our government has operated in recent years, who have worries about the dysfunctionality of our system that many of us share; that they are people who voted their conscience for a positive change.  You may feel, as I do, that they made a poor choice of candidate, but the truth is they won and they get their turn at bat.

Trump won the election fair and square; there was no rigging, or at least, none beyond the whole Electoral College thing for which we have the founders themselves to thank.  Congratulations, Mr. President-elect; I join with President Obama’s sentiment that “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”  To me, that means starting with whatever common ground we share and all working together to make changes we agree on; next, we discuss the issues where we do not agree, and work toward a resolution we can all stand behind.  I’m not saying that Trump deserves to be immune to criticism or opposition to his statements or actions, but that we judge him on his actions as president and president-elect; give him a chance in the new job.

He started on Thursday with a pretty low-key trip to Washington to start the transition of power, and I got the impression that he was a little in awe with the realization that this all is real.  Right after that he reminded us of his proclivity to a lack of restraint when it comes to any criticism.  In light of the large protests of his victory the past couple of days, the “real” Trump returned to Twitter Thursday evening:

Of course the best part of this is that the protests we’ve seen this week are exactly the thing Trump called for four years ago:

The totally unsurprising irony, though, is that Trump himself called for a march on Washington in the wake of President Obama’s 2012 win.

“We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”

He also tweeted, “He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country!”

Trump finished the full hypocrisy circle nine hours later (degree of difficulty, apparently: zero):

And it took four more hours after that before he tweeted a perfunctory Veteran’s Day message.  S.E. Cupp summarizes:

…in Trumpland, there are no consequences for rank hypocrisy. This is the total lack of self-consciousness that was once disturbing and now only merely amusing. Remember, Hillary Clinton would make a great President, he once said, until she deserved to go to jail.

The Republican primary was rigged, until he won it. FBI director James Comey was a Clinton hack, until he was very fair and professional. Trump would contest the election results, unless he won. It’s impossible to keep up with Trump’s in-the-moment justifications and hyperactive moral relativism.

But, we must try.  It’s our job as Americans to participate in our own governance; that includes working together for common goals and the general welfare, and calling bullshit on our leaders when it’s deserved, and Trump needs to learn that.  Religion scholar William Martin put it this way in Texas Monthly in 2007: “Whether in Mormons or Methodists, prophets or presidents, distaste for dissent and opposition to open inquiry are not admirable qualities and do not foster freedom.”

Furlough Journal: Finding the past in the present

The “partial government shutdown” means I’m at home this week with time to kill; yesterday I had planned to play golf but it rained…a lot.  (Today it rained again; hey, aren’t we in a drought?)  So, I finished off the last two issues of Golf magazine, which I had allowed to lapse, and then organized the more than two and a half years of back issues of Texas Monthly that I’ve been ignoring since…well, since March of 2011, our state’s 175th birthday.  Texas Independence Day, March 2, 1836; while the siege at the Alamo neared its end, 59 Texans gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos and declared Texas a nation independent of Mexico.

The cover story in “The Terquasquicentennial Issue” is a tour of 175 historic events and places in Texas history.  From 113 million year old dinosaur fossils west of Glen Rose (#1) to the invention of the integrated circuit (#23) and the frozen margarita machine (#22), both in Dallas (dammit), to the sites of infamous murders (#4, #7, #15, #34, #46, #62)  and great literature (#29, #81) and the first Dr Pepper (#145) and important sports milestones (#10, #18,  #53), the list is a great read for Texans and, I think , at least amusing for non-Texans.  But #31 made me stop and think: the first Confederate monument in Texas, erected in 1896 and still there today on the grounds of the Grayson County Courthouse in Sherman, in north Texas.

I’ve lived in Texas for more than 45 years, and I’ve seen plenty of monuments to Confederate war dead, including some pretty impressive ones on the grounds of the state capital; I never gave much thought to any of them.  Even when I considered the probable impropriety of praise for the losers in a civil war, I reconciled it to myself with the thought that it was a memorial placed by good-hearted people to honor lost brothers.

But the wording on this memorial got me thinking (emphasis mine):

“Sacred to the memory of our Confederate dead, true patriots, they fought for home and country, for the holy principles of self government—the only true liberty. Their sublime self sacrifices and unsurpassed valor will teach future generations the lesson of high born patriotism, of devotion to duty, of exalted courage, of Southern chivalry.”  “Fighting for the preservation of family, homeland and rights is never a lost cause. So great the valor, so supreme the sacrifice, so red the rose . . .”

Maybe it’s just me, but all I can hear in my head as I read that is the echoes of today’s far right.  The invocation of traditions of faith and righteousness are the buzzwords of today’s extreme conservative political machine; the people who claim to love and cherish the U.S. Constitution and the laws of this country, and who are fighting the good fight to take their country back (from whomever), are using the same language as people who supported and honored the traitors who took up arms against the United States of America, who claimed the backing of the Almighty in a fight to defend the practice of human slavery.  Today, conservatives impugn their political enemies for an alleged lack of patriotism using the same language that was used to exalt traitors to this country.

Do many of the extremist Republicans who are responsible for today’s standoff in the current fight over “family, homeland and rights” look to those rebels as examples of “high born patriotism” and “devotion to duty”?  Do any?  It makes me wonder.

Don’t let the rules of evidence get in the way of a guilty verdict, not when you can change the rules

Did I grow up on another planet?  Was my education about the basics of a criminal trial, or even just the nature of plain old fairness, totally alien?  Apparently so, when I read what the Texas Legislature is up to

We here in the Texas state senate are voting to change a rule of evidence in criminal trials.  Now, this wouldn’t be for every criminal trial, just a special kind of case, one where the defendant is accused of rape or sexual assault.  Y’see, people accused of rape or sexual assault—not convicted or admitted rapists, mind you, but accused rapists—they are so clearly evil (evident by the fact that they have been accused) that we think our good God-fearing prosecutors deserve a little help inflaming the passions of connecting with the jury.

This bill would make it legal in rape and sexual assault cases for the state to present evidence to a jury—after the judge hears the evidence outside the presence of the jury and decides that it is relevant—that at some time in the past there had been similar allegations of rape or sexual assault made against this same defendant.  Now, we’re not talking about telling the jury about a person’s record of criminal convictions during the punishment phase of the trial, after they already found the guy guilty of the new charge; that’s already in the law.  No, we mean telling the jury before they reach a verdict in this case about any time in the past when the same defendant was ever even accused of a similar crime.

Now, just to be clear: we’re not saying the jury should know that this guy was once arrested, or indicted, or tried on a similar charge; that’s OK and all, but we mean we want it to be OK for the jury that hasn’t yet decided if this scumbag’s defendant’s guilty of this crime to be told if he was ever accused of any similar crime—doesn’t matter if he was never arrested, or indicted, or tried on the previous accusation.

You and I both know that there’s some of them whiny types (folks who came here from New York City, probably) who’d say we’re ignoring fundamental rights and revving up some kind of witch hunt, but they just don’t understand how we do things here in Texas, is all.  We’re putting this together to go with a new package of laws we think’ll be good for Texas, stuff like:

Not getting all spun up about $27 billion in state budget “challenges” and starting the session off with having Governor Haircut declare that things like mandatory pre-abortion sonograms and outlawing sanctuary cities and demanding Congress pass a balanced budget amendment are emergencies, and need to go to the head of the legislative line; and

Making sure we get our money’s worth out of our lazy-ass liberal college professors by putting a premium on productivity and emphasizing more time in the classroom, not that egg-headed research they’re so keen on; and

Seeing to it that the long-suffering public servants in the Legislature get the treatment they deserve and can carry their concealed handguns in places like bars and amusement parks, places where we already decided it wouldn’t be safe to have everyone packing.

Any questions?  Well, thanks for your attention.

These are my favorite stories about the Texas Legislature:

There was a “typo” when they wrote the state constitution back in 1876—they didn’t mean to have the legislature in session for 140 days every two years, they meant for it to be two days every 140 years.

In the 1970s the mayor of Austin, who was noted for an irreverent sense of humor, was holding his weekly news conference and a reporter idly mentioned, “Well, the Legislature’s coming back to town soon.”  The mayor’s immediate response: “Lock up the kids and dogs!”

Hard economic truth for $2000, Alex

If only that were the figure—the real issue on deck in Washington, D.C., the issue that drove last week’s election results, is economic recovery: when will the economy get stronger, when will job growth get stronger.  It’s the issue that all of most of the nation’s journalists largely ignored, except for predictable emotional pitches.  Alan Mutter recently pointed out the reasons why: the economy is a hard story to tell, and it has nothing to do with easy stories like who is the new president and what will he do, and why do we think he’ll do it, and what do the polls say about what the people think about what he’ll do.

…the myopic press stuck to covering the inside-the-Beltway story of the day – health care, Afghanistan, Supreme Court picks – instead of zeroing in on the things that really mattered to all but the very wealthiest Americans.  Things like: Will I keep my job? What will I do if I get fired? Can I keep my house? Will I be able to send my kids to college? How can I afford to retire?

It’s anybody’s guess if the myopia will be cured soon; the prognosis is not encouraging, but there’s always hope.  There are some trying to sound the alarm: Mutter points out Paul Krugman at the New York Times as one good example (and notes that the good professor is, in fact, not a journalist in the usual sense of the word, but an economist).  I’ll give kudos to Loren Steffy, the very good and very readable business columnist at Houston’s Leading Information Source.  He’s written an excellent summary of where we stand, and it’s not pretty.  Quoting the Congressional Budget Office,

“Unless policymakers restrain the growth of spending substantially, raise revenues significantly above their average percentage of (gross domestic product) of the past 40 years, or adopt some combination of those two approaches, persistent budget deficits will cause federal debt to rise to unsupportable levels.”

Some of the people crying about the national debt these days come off as wacky, but there is a scary kernel of truth in that cry and our government is going to have to address the problem—and blindly rubberstamping an extension of tax cuts followed by another round of collecting campaign donations from lobbyists is not the answer.

The national economy, at its core, is subject to the same rules as your household economy and mine.  If you spend more than you take in, you go into debt; reducing your income doesn’t magically translate into higher revenues; you pile up enough debt and most of your payments are going to the interest and very little to principal, and you never get out of debt.

I’m not saying you and I, or the government, should never borrow money, although it would be sweet not to have to.  But you borrow money to buy a house or a car; sometimes you have to charge to your credit card, like when the extra thousands it takes to buy a replacement air conditioner are not just sitting there in your savings.  But you can never borrow enough to repay all of the principal—ask Bernie Madoff.  At some point you have to bite the bullet and make unpopular choices.

Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka writes today about how the economic rescue plan known as TARP catches flak as an example of big government run amok, despite (a) the fact that it was dreamed up and implemented during the Bush Administration, allegedly a conservative regime that believed in small government, and (b) is costing less than one-tenth of the advertised $700 billion.  TARP was the best thing the administration could come up with to save the whole economy, and if some of the bad guys who caused the collapse got caught up in the rescue then we’re going to have to learn to live with that.

What will Congress and the president do to get this country’s economy headed in the right direction?  I hope more news agencies commit the resources to dig into the question and produce some journalism that will help the economic illiterati like me understand what’s going on.

For that to happen we need more of them to adopt the idea Jack Shafer discusses today in Slate: we don’t need journalists to be unbiased in the sense of not having an opinion on issues, we need more who are honest and curious and hard-working and are committed to using an objective process to reach some verifiable conclusions.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism, traditionally, it was the journalistic method that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist. As long as the partisan journalist comes to verifiable conclusions, we shouldn’t worry too much about the direction from which he came.

This will require an agreement that there are—as a…well, as a matter of fact—certain verifiable truths, and abandoning the current craze of dismissing as biased any “facts” that don’t conform to one’s current opinions.  How about we start with a little optimism about each other on that score.