Will faith in a ‘divinely-inspired’ Constitution save us?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

During a recent hearing of the House January 6 committee, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) stated that the U.S. Constitution is “divinely inspired.” She was referring to testimony from Rusty Bowers, the Speaker of Arizona’s House. In his testimony, Bowers said, “it is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired.”

Bowers was explaining why he refused to help President Trump overturn the 2020 election. And yet, when asked by who he’d support if the next election pitted Trump against Biden, Bowers said he’d vote for Trump.

Bowers is not alone. Former Attorney General William Barr also said he would vote for Trump again even though he thought Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election was “detached from reality.”

Faith in a ‘divinely-inspired’ Constitution is not enough to save our Republic. Let’s talk about what will.

Political theology in the Trump era

Consider the strange theology associated with Trump. A number of people, including members of his own Cabinet, thought that Trump was chosen by God to be President. As I explain in more detail in my book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump, some Christians saw Trump as a fallen person chosen by God for divine work. According to a recent scholarly paper on the topic, evangelical Christians saw Trump as an “ungodly tool that God chose to use for the benefit of his people.”

Trump’s religious views are connected to Norman Vincent Peale, the pastor at Trump’s family’s church. Peale advocated a theology of self-help, prosperity, and “the power of positive thinking.” This idea seems to fit Trump’s worldview. It is easy to see how this might lead Trump to view faith as a mere political prop. This came to a symbolic head in the infamous photo of Trump holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

The Trumpian theology is external and political. This kind of faith lacks depth. It is about images, appearance, and power. Trumpian faith focuses on outer greatness, while ignoring internal goodness.

Are faith and integrity enough?

We might think that a deeper faith could correct this. But integrity and faith alone are not enough. This point is as old as Socrates and the philosophical quest for enlightenment about morality, politics, and theology.

Does it make sense, for example, to call a fearless bank robber “courageous”? Should we praise gangsters for their loyalty? And what about faith in a God who commands murder or suicide? Philosophers want faith and morality to be part of a coherent and rational system of life.

Courage and loyalty are only praiseworthy when linked to other good things. And irrational and immoral faith must be criticized.

We often forget this, as we aim to be tolerant and inclusive. Many Americans have a kind of reflexive admiration for religious faith. But faith divorced from reality is not admirable.

Is the Constitution divinely inspired?

This comes to a head in the idea that the Constitution is divinely inspired, which is historically strange, morally problematic, and theologically perverse. 

The Founders were a diverse bunch who disagreed about religion. Thomas Paine, for example, was a darling of the revolution who was cast aside as an atheist. And Alexander Hamilton accused Thomas Jefferson of being “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics.”

Were Paine and Jefferson ungodly tools used by God for divine purposes? Or is the story of the Revolution and the Constitution more human and less divine?

The truth is that the Constitution was the result of horse-trading and compromises. The result still gives inordinate power to small states. And the original Constitution contained the nearly fatal flaw of slavery.

Do those who claim the Constitution was divinely inspired think that God was okay with slavery and the exclusion of women? The story of divine inspiration also forgets that it was human beings who argued, fought, and died to improve the flawed system they inherited.

A rational and moral theology would have serious questions about the idea that God inspired the original Constitution. The Constitution is a human-all-too-human product, in need of further refinement and improvement.

The need for enlightenment

Faith and integrity alone are not sufficient. Rather, they are invitations for more profound questioning. Founding fathers like Paine and Jefferson thought that enlightenment provided an antidote to tyranny. As Jefferson put it: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

The cognitive dissonance of Speaker Bowers’ continued support for Trump shows us the need for further enlightenment. Of course, Bowers was not asked to give a lecture on theology and politics. Maybe his conscience is more subtle than it appears.

But in the Trump era, we seem to have lost the knack for deeper reflection. Our political culture operates at a superficial level. We exchange platitudes while ignoring truth. Too many of us are content to surf on the surface of things. We use Bibles as props. And we nod along at the obtuse idea that God inspired the Constitution.

Our country is in crisis. And Americans remain confused about history, politics, and theology. Citizens need to think more carefully about morality, the Constitution, and religion. In short, we need enlightenment.

The post Will faith in a ‘divinely-inspired’ Constitution save us? appeared first on OnlySky Media.

The Ethics of Fatherhood: On Rights, Responsibilities, and Abortion

Fresno Bee, June 19, 2022

Since this is Father’s Day weekend and our country is expecting a U.S. Supreme Court decision about abortion, let’s consider how the ethics of fatherhood connects to the ethics of abortion. Abortion is a matter of women’s rights. But as they say, it takes two to tango.

The Roe v. Wade decision briefly mentioned the ancient idea that abortion violated a “father’s right to his offspring.” In the old days, husbands and fathers controlled the reproductive lives of their wives and daughters. But Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to decide for herself, within limits, about terminating a pregnancy. Subsequent decisions, such as Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, clarified that when there was a conflict between mother and father about abortion, the mother’s right should prevail.

And yet, fathers may want a say in the matter. There are two very different ways this might occur. Some fathers may want the mother to keep the child. Other fathers may want the mother to abort.

This last kind of case has led some men to seek a so-called “financial abortion.” The idea here is that if a mother remains pregnant against the father’s wishes, he should not have to pay child support. So far, there is no legal basis for financial abortion. Instead, if paternity is established, fathers are liable for child support.

I suspect that if more men understood the obligation of child support, they would be more responsible about birth control. If you dance without protection, you may have to pay the piper.

This points us toward the importance of responsibility. It is not only the woman who is responsible for avoiding pregnancy. She didn’t dance alone. And when a child is born, both parents are responsible to care for the child.

Responsibilities are different from rights. Discussions of rights are typically about what we are free to do without interference. If you have a right to dance, you are free to dance with whomever you want, without the government preventing you. The right to an abortion is similar, as a kind of freedom from interference. Rights give us permissions, while responsibility gives us duties.

Responsibilities are harder to enforce. You are free to tango. But no one can force you to dance well. Nor can anyone force you to use protection when you dance. That area of responsibility is left up to the dancers.

Ethical men behave well before, during, and after the tango. They are respectful of the women they dance with. They are not selfish or cruel when they dance. And after the dance is over, they take responsibility for the outcome.

Of course, in our libertarian society, you are free, within limits, to be a bad father. “Dead beat dads” and abusive fathers can be punished. But apart from those extreme cases, there is no legal obligation to be a good dad.

And what do good dads do? Well, they love their children. This means that they are responsible and caring, compassionate and supportive. This lovingkindness extends throughout a child’s life.

One way that paternal love unfolds is through a kind of identification. Paternal love is like the Golden Rule but more intimate. We love our children as ourselves because they remain a part of us. A father’s love is both selfish and selfless. There is no room in paternal love for jealousy, resentment, or cruelty.

Good fathers also respect the autonomy of their children. A father does not own his children. They will transcend him. Good fathers do not impose or command. Rather, they encourage and support, knowing that when the child becomes herself, she will leave him behind.

Again, the metaphor of dancing comes to mind. Dance is responsive. It involves structure. But it also includes freedom. A dance without freedom is a slogging march. But dance without structure is merely a spasm of movement. Somewhere in the middle there is beauty, grace, and joy.

Let’s not forget the importance of paternal love and responsibility as we think about the ethics of abortion in the coming weeks. We have a right to dance. But we also have a responsibility to dance well. And somewhere in all of this, we ought to seek transcendence, joy, and love.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article262610487.html#storylink=cpy

Trump and January 6: What’s the remedy for tyranny?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Tyrants surround themselves with sycophants. The smaller the circle of suck-ups, the worse the danger. The tyrant’s isolation is part of the problem, which was a lesson to be learned from the first public hearing of the House committee investigating Trump and January 6. Secrecy and sycophancy are common problems in tyrannical regimes. So what’s the remedy?

Cheney says Trump was too dangerous to be left alone

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), Vice-Chair of the House committee suggested that a number of people in Trump’s orbit understood the peril posed by a tightening circle of sycophants, as Trump worked to subvert the 2020 election. Cheney explained that White House staff “knew that the president needed to be cut off from all of those who had encouraged him.” They knew, she continued, that President Donald Trump was “too dangerous to be left alone.

On December 18, 2020, a small group of Trump loyalists met, including Rudy Giuliani, Sydney Powell, and Michael Flynn. This team formed plans that included the possibility of using the military to seize voting machines. According to Cheney, when White House lawyers discovered that this meeting was taking place, they “rushed to intervene.”

After the meeting concluded President tweeted for his supporters to come to Washington on January 6. “Be there, will be wild!” Trump tweeted, in a message quoted by the House committee. As things got worse in the aftermath of January 6, there was talk of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power. A number of Trump’s team resigned, while others threatened to leave. Among the notable departures was Attorney General William Barr, who said, in a video played by the committee, that what was going on was “complete nonsense” and “crazy stuff.” In further video testimony of William Barr aired by the committee on June 13, Barr suggested that President Trump was becoming “detached from reality.”

The tyrant’s isolation

Most of this story was already known to those of us who are paying attention. And in the background is a cast of players familiar from ancient Greek literature and philosophy. A tyrant rants and rages, a group of sycophants schemes and plots, and the mob takes to the streets. 

I describe these three characters in my book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump. They came to life in Washington during the Trump years. The good news is that a would-be tyrant was prevented from consolidating power, but the bad news is that our democracy came close to failing.

An important part of this perennial story is the tyrant’s isolation. Oedipus, the tyrant of Thebes, was isolated and alone. Scholar Richard Seaford describes this as “the horribly isolated autonomy of the tyrant.” The more the tyrant asserts his will, the more isolated he becomes, and the more detached from reality.

Plato explained that the tyrant has no friends. Plato says, “The tyrant lives his whole life without friends. He is always either a master or a slave. He never enjoys true freedom or genuine friendship.” The tyrant’s sycophants are not real friends. Rather, they are playing a game of power that is not concerned with truth or justice.

Genuine friends encourage us to be better. They tell us when we are behaving foolishly or immoral. And they refuse to play along when do something stupid or immoral. 

The isolation of the tyrant is familiar from the history of tyranny. Nero ended up isolated and alone. So too did Hitler. And unfortunately, in Russia today, Putin appears to be increasingly isolated.

The remedy: Transparency and friendship

This points us toward one of the perennial solutions to the problem of tyranny. We need good friends who operate out in the open. Non-tyrannical people have no need for sycophants and secret meetings. Decent people do not make secret plots, whispered in the dark. Instead, decent leaders welcome scrutiny and critique. 

This is why there are steering committees and advisory boards in businesses and other organizations. To avoid ethical mistakes, you have to put your cards on the table for public inspection. This is the function of checks and balances in constitutional democracies. And it is why a free press and freedom of speech help prevent tyranny. 

We also need genuine friendship. Friends do not agree about everything. Sycophants conform themselves to the will of the tyrant. But true friends are oriented toward something more stable and objective—toward the good and the true. They keep us connected with reality.

Polarization means that we view each other as enemies. Instead of listening to each other, we isolate ourselves and only listen to what we want to hear. These are the conditions in which tyranny can fester and grow. Hopefully, by shedding light on the problem of Trump and January 6, Rep. Cheney and the House committee can be part of the solution.

The post Trump and January 6: What’s the remedy for tyranny? appeared first on OnlySky Media.

How much carnage is enough?

Fresno Bee, June 5, 2022

Social policy involves managing risks. But we, the people, are not good at this. We fear some things that are unlikely, while ignoring other very real dangers. In some cases, our fears are irrational. In other cases, our fearlessness is rash and uninformed.

Our track record is not reassuring. Over 1 million people in the U.S. have now died of COVID-19. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 234,000 of the deaths that occurred since vaccines became available could have been prevented by vaccination. But some people are more afraid of the vaccine than the disease.

This makes you wonder whether we will make wise choices with regard to gun violence. The schoolroom massacre in Uvalde, Texas was horrifying. One event like this seems to be too many. The good news is that most schools remain safe. Mass school shootings remain rare. An analysis published in Scientific American reports that since 1966, there have been 13 mass school shootings (with four or more victims). But the carnage is horrific, with 146 people killed.

And many more people die in “ordinary” gun violence and from firearm suicide. The Pew Center reports that in 2020 — the most recent year of complete data — more than 45,000 people were killed by guns. More than half of those deaths (about 24,000) were from suicide.

These numbers are appalling. But how do they compare with other risks? One point of comparison is drug overdose deaths. The National Institutes of Health reports that in 2020, nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses. This is another appalling number.

We might also consider traffic fatalities. The California Department of Transportation reports that in 2020, nearly 39,000 people died in car crashes. This means that in 2020, more people died from guns than from car crashes. But more people died from drug overdoses than from car crashes and gun violence combined.

So how do we compare these depressing apples and oranges? Well, the benefits of cars are obvious. We need them to get to work. But are guns such an obvious necessity? Some view them as necessary for self-defense. Others enjoy shooting as a fun hobby. And a few believe that an armed populace prevents the slippery slope toward authoritarianism. Are those supposed benefits worth the annual bloodbath? What level of carnage is acceptable?

Some ask whether any of this is acceptable. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, announced the ambitious goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero. Buttigieg said, “We cannot and must not accept that these fatalities are somehow an inevitable part of life in America.” What if we had a similar goal of zero deaths with regard to COVID-19, drug overdoses, or gun deaths? This seems impossible. But that all depends on what we are willing to trade off and what we accept as inevitable.

Imagine what we’d need to do to eliminate automotive fatalities. We’d need safer cars, better roads, and more enforcement. Drivers would need better training. We’d need to eliminate drinking and driving, as well as cell phone distraction. And we might have to change the speed and size of our vehicles.

A similar comprehensive agenda would be needed to reduce gun violence and drug overdose death. Are we willing to make those kinds of changes? Or are we willing to tolerate all of this misery and death?

Some gun control measures seem blatantly obvious. One step would be to coordinate gun ownership with the legal drinking age, as it is in California. The Scientific American analysis indicates that the average age of mass school shooters is 18. The Uvalde murderer bought his weapon legally after he turned 18. It makes little sense for 18-year-olds to be able to purchase assault weapons, as they can in Texas, when they are not old enough to buy beer or cigarettes.

But even that modest proposal is controversial in a world out of whack. I am frankly not very hopeful that we’ll do much to reduce any of this American carnage. Our nation is too polarized. And we are not good at managing risk. But if we are going to move in the right direction, we’ll need to keep asking how much blood and how many tears we are willing to accept.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article262100462.html#storylink=cpy

Against perfectionism

Reading Time: 6 minutes

To be human is to be a work in progress. Human beings grow, change, and fail. That’s why we need compassion and forgiveness.

We ought to give people a break, show some patience, and stop scolding one another. No one is perfect. This goes for other people and ourselves.

But we remain strangely wedded to the idea that people should be perfect. Sometimes this appears as pearl-clutching indignation when other people say dumb things and behave badly. Social media is full of holier-than-thou outrage. It comes in a variety of flavors, liberal and conservative, woke and anti-woke.

Turned inward, perfectionism becomes pathological. In social contexts, it fuels anger and polarization. Let’s climb down from our high horses, study compassion, and look at ourselves in the mirror.

Pathological perfectionism in sports

Perfectionism can crack that mirror. Some people are incredibly hard on themselves. A mirror can magnify our flaws. Pathological perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, self-loathing, and even suicide.

One alarming example is the shocking number of recent suicides by college athletes. Last month, a 19-year-old cheerleader at Southern University ended her own life. From the outside, these young folks seem to be excelling and achieving. But at what cost?

Suicide is complex. The mental health of young people has been battered in recent years, and perfectionism is part of the problem, especially for athletes and other over-achievers. The quest for perfection can lead to despair.

The stress of perfectionism was part of the story of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from competition at the summer games in Tokyo. A New York Times article about Biles was headlined “The Weight of Perfection.”

Another recent article about elite athletes and mental health, “The Problem with Perfection,” cites research suggesting that one-third of elite athletes suffer from anxiety and depression. Athletic perfection demands constant effort, self-critique, and the ever-present risk of failure.

The competitive spirit is linked to deep psychological forces. Tennis star Andre Agassi once explained, “I’ve internalized my father—his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage—until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own.” The sidelines of youth sports are full of parents who scream at their own kids. Few will be as great as Agassi. But some will internalize the rage and impatience of pathological perfectionism.

Fear of failure is part of the mix. In describing those recent student-athlete suicides, sports columnist Shalise Manza Young suggested, “Maybe you believe you must be perfect in everything you attempt and any perceived failure is unbearable.” The mother of one of those student-athletes explained, “There’s so much pressure on athletes, especially at that high level, balancing academics and a highly competitive environment. And there is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be No. 1.”

The danger of the GOAT

Our culture reinforces this mindset. Most recently it has taken the form of the acronym “GOAT,” for “Greatest Of All Time.” That superlative is obviously absurd. But fans are obsessed with this kind of assertion.

As coach and philosopher Jack Bowen has noted, the truth of athletic competition is that there is only one winner at a time, only one MVP per season, only one gold medalist per event per Olympiad. And everyone loses eventually. Even the MVPs grow old and eventually lose. No one wins everything or stays on top for long.

RELATED: Sports are for losers: On unavoidable suffering and learning to flourish

When the struggle for perfection runs into the inevitable fact of loss and failure, there is a recipe for trauma and despair. One need not be a world-class athlete to understand what it means to pursue greatness. The struggle to be perfect takes a toll on academic overachievers, on musicians, in the business world, and elsewhere.

There is only one winner at a time, only one MVP per season, only one gold medalist per event per Olympiad.

Our culture celebrates GOATs, and we pile on to scapegoats. The danger of chasing the title of GOAT is that you’ve got a target on your back. The more successful you become, the more enemies you create, and the more fragile your perfection becomes.

The menace of merit

Pathological perfectionism exists wherever there are meritocracies.

Academia is plagued by the problem. Helicopter dads and tiger moms urge their kids up the academic ladder. The recent PBS documentary “Try Harder!” chronicled the anxiety of youth who dream of Ivy League perfection. One student said, “the pressure is insurmountable at times.”

When those overachievers land in universities, the competition redoubles. They compete for entrance to law schools, medical schools, and Ph.D. programs. Then these young “goats” move on to intense competition for residencies, partnerships, and tenure-track jobs, only to pass their perfectionism on to their own children. The motto of meritocracy is publish or perish, eat or be eaten.

In The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel, cites research indicating a “hidden epidemic of perfectionism” among the youth. In a meritocracy, “the demand to achieve comes to define one’s merit and self-worth.” Sandel continues, “Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.”

The winners gloat and their hubris grows. The losers sulk and their resentment festers. The result is an embittered society that forgets sources of value other than winning. Sandel suggest this causes us to forget the common good. It also ignores the need for compassion and forgiveness.

Pathological perfectionism grows out of a winner-takes-all environment. But no one can win at everything all the time. That’s why we need to forgive our own faults and learn to be compassionate, even to ourselves.

Tyrannical ambition

This pathology also shows up in politics. Mary Trump, the niece of Donald Trump, explained the pathological perfectionism of the Trump family. In the Trump family, she said, “Life is a zero-sum game. There’s one winner. Everybody else is a loser. If you’re not winning, you’re losing.”

This helps explain the former President’s tendency toward hyperbolic exaggeration, including allegedly fraudulent asset valuations. Trump wanted to be the GOAT. His MAGA slogan was all about “greatness.”

It was not surprising, then, that he lied about his crowd sizes. Trump also apparently lies about his golf scores. Those banal lies and his insatiable appetite for winning eventually gave way to the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election, which continues to destabilize our country.

The dream of perfection is part of the pathology of would-be tyrants. They want to be gods and to have god-like power, as I explain in my book Tyranny from Plato to Trump. Tyrannical ambition is the strange desire to win the game of life. A would-be tyrant wants, in Plato’s words, to “fill the whole world with his name and power.”

Of course, this is absurd. We are mortals, not gods. But hubris and perfectionism make us dream of being gods and GOATs.

Perfectionism in politics can lead us to think that our political opponents are evil foes who must be defeated at any cost. And it can cause would-be tyrants to lie, cheat, and worse, in pursuit of the dream of perfect power.

To prevent tyrannical perfectionism from taking root in political life, we need a system that guarantees that no single party or individual is able to establish itself permanently in power. This is the virtue of a system of checks and balances. A secular political structure prevents anyone from imposing their vision of perfection onto the rest of us.

Grumpy moral saints

And what about moral perfectionism? Well, we are all flawed. And those who claim to be saints are more often than not a pain to be around. A kind of perfectionism also helps to explain the pearl-clutching outrage that we find on social media.

Perfectionism makes us grumpy. We are quick to judge the failures of others. We set the bar quite high. And when people fail to jump over it, we pile on with scorn and contempt. Often this is perfectionist resentment projected outward. “I’m not perfect,” the critic says. “But at least I’m not as lame as you are.”

But no one is perfect. Our heroes and saints have their faults. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves. Gandhi has been accused of racism. FDR, JFK, and MLK each had extramarital affairs. Our heroes all have the same feet of clay we do.

We arguably need heroes anyway, and there is a value in moral striving. It is good to aspire to be better. But perfectionism can lead us to think in a toxic moral binary: if you are not perfect, you are evil. And the impossibility of perfection leaves us all in a hell of our own devising.

Perfectionism creates guilt and anxiety when turned inward. When projected outward, it becomes censorious and mean.

Secular compassion and forgiveness

In the Christian world, much of this is connected to the problem of sin. Christianity offers a remedy in forgiveness and atonement. But some religious people seem to forget that forgiving is part of the story. Religious scolds are quick to judge but slow to forgive.

Nonreligious people can, ironically, fall into the same holier-than-thou trap. Secular perfectionism may grow from the realization that this is the only life we’ve got. In struggling to make the most of this life, we may believe that the goal is to win.

If there is no God to forgive us, we must learn to forgive ourselves.

That is a strange view of life. Life is not a zero-sum game. There are no winners. Rather, we struggle onward and do our best. And soon enough, every GOAT passes on.

The remedy is compassion and forgiveness. This is as true for secular scolds as for religious fault-finders. Some humanists seem especially eager to attack the failures of religious hypocrites. But we’d do better to tread lightly and stop judging.

Indeed, in a world without sin and metaphysical atonement, the need is obvious for compassion doled out between humans. We’ve got to take care of one another. If there is no God to forgive us, we must learn to forgive ourselves.

We should do our best to live as well as we can in an imperfect world. There are no saints, and no one is the GOAT. Nor should we expect anyone to be, not even the person in the mirror.

The post Against perfectionism appeared first on OnlySky Media.