The Religious Right’s Assault on Religious Freedom

In 1785, a bill proposing a tax expenditure for Christian Teachers was opposed by the writer of the First Amendment. Today, even as such laws are commonplace, those who benefit from these expenditures seek to extend their purview to the spending habits of their employees. On what basis do they claim to have the right to do so? The First Amendment itself.

The particulars and context of the situation are fairly straightforward: the Little Sisters of the Poor (LSP) v. Burwell seeks to force taxpayers to fund health services for their own employees, who are to a significant extent already taxpayer funded. Having already won the ability to avoid paying into the healthcare fund, the tax exempt LSP organization asserts that even signing the voucher to opt out violates their right of religious exercise by providing other sources of payment for these services, making them, they argue, complicit in the procurement of contraceptives.

In doing so, they oppose the logic at the core of the First Amendment itself. James Madison, its author, drew on several sources for inspiration, one of whom was John Locke, who said:

Nobody, therefore, in fine, neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion.

We have already proved that the care of souls does not belong to the magistrate. Not a magisterial care…But a charitable care…cannot be denied unto any man. The care, therefore, of every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself. But what if he neglect the care of his soul? I answer: What if he neglect the care of his health or of his estate… Will the magistrate provide by an express law that such a one shall not become poor or sick? [ 1 ]

Another was Thomas Jefferson, a close confidant and friend of Madison’s, who established the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777. He wrote:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. [ 2 ]

Here is Madison himself, in his pamphlet attacking the bill to fund Christian Teachers:

Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. As the Bill violates equality by subjecting some to peculiar burdens, so it violates the same principle, by granting to others peculiar exemptions. [ 3 ]

Now bear in mind that the freedom of religious exercise clause, which Madison clearly indicates refers to preventing the government from forcing citizens to participate in a religious ceremony or organization they do not believe in, which he specifically buttresses as being necessarily distinct from civil law, is claimed by the LSP as the right to make the following demand:

Petitioners would have no legal obligation to provide such contraceptive coverage, would not pay for such coverage, and would not be required to submit any separate notice to their insurer, to the Federal Government, or to their employees. At the same time, petitioners’ insurance company—aware that petitioners are not providing certain contraceptive coverage on religious grounds—would separately notify petitioners’ employees that the insurance company will provide cost-free contraceptive coverage, and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners’ health plan. [ 4 ]

That is, they demand the special right of being entirely excluded from the law, of making no request for an opt-out, nor any payment for such specific services whatever, and further demanding that private insurance companies foot the bill for their religious opt out.

Consider that the premise of the case is that signing the voucher forces complicity on the LSP and their fellow litigants in the provision of birth control, and that they in this response explicitly demand the provision of these services by others. Consider as well that they argue the organization maintains an explicitly religious nature, which provides them standing to sue on the basis of the first amendment, but that they also accept government funding, as an expenditure, in the form of tax exemption. Their DC home for the elderly alone took in over $6,000,000 of donations in 2014 [ 5 ], which is neither taxed as income for the LSP, nor for the donors. They nevertheless intend on pitting an interpretation of the exercise clause which is wildly different from that of the Founders’ against the establishment clause.

In other words, the Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Burwell represents nothing so much as an attack on the Establishment clause and a redefinition of the Exercise clause in such a way as to ensure the special privileges from government the First Amendment was specifically written to prevent.

To my religious cousins, while I realize the internecine conflicts between Christian churches is much diminished in our age, have you considered the consequences of such a move in terms of other religions, not least of which is Islam?

To my atheist cousins, how can we remain true to our secular nature in light of these special rights for the religious, without allowing it to be said of us that we are a religion as well?

References follow:
[ 1 ]…
[ 2 ]…
[ 3 ] http://founders.archives.go…
[ 4 ]…
[ 5 ] http://www.charitynavigator…

Originally posted here.


The God that Lied: the Impossibility of an Independent Moral Authority

The religious argument that all morality would be relativistic without god’s law, in addition to being false outright, makes an argument which cannot be fulfilled. Without god’s law, the say, we’d have no idea what was truly good. In other words, knowledge of good and evil in itself is dependent on knowledge of god and the truth of its moral authority.

The usual argument is that god is by definition perfect, and thus its morality is necessarily good. Therefore knowledge of god’s nature – whatever it might be – is knowledge of perfect morality.

Note, however, that this argument presumes to tell god what it must do, which among other things is to tell the truth. But an omnipotent god must retain the ability to lie and therefore no revelation of god can be accepted at face value. In other words, no command of god can be considered either perfect or good of its own nature. This leaves humans once again in the position of deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil.

What’s more, if assume god exists, it doesn’t naturally follow that this god has established absolute morality. Who among the theists can demand of god that it establishes such law?God itself might well have created relativistic morality.

From a theist’s point of view, this moves the problem of knowledge of good and evil from god into untenable territory. The reason is simple, as it is a necessary property of god that its mental capacity is far beyond the comprehension of man. The task of determining what god actually thinks, then, is beyond the possibilities god has given us.

Have we not some interior, a priori knowledge of good and evil? Does this knowledge not confirm for us the truth of god’s morality? Now here are dangerous questions for theists to ask, as any innate moral sense would seem to contradict their argument that without god, man would quickly degenerate into baby eating monsters (I’m not kidding, I’ve had this example put to me several times). So the usual answer to this is to argue that god has provided us this innate sense. Does this not prove the goodness of god’s morality?

It cannot. The inherent unreliability of man’s knowledge of god forces us to find some means of determining for ourselves if god’s word is true. We judge god, in other words – and cannot escape doing so.

In the end theists find themselves in the very position atheists do regarding morality; they must determine it for themselves. In this regard, simply choosing to accept biblical morality is arbitrary, and thus definitely relativistic. The inevitable arbitrariness of biblical morality does not, however, preclude an actual and true objective morality. We are all objects as well as subjects. Our needs can be observed rigorously as well as our resources, and matching the one to the other is not a matter of subjective and arbitrary desire.

Theists could well consider this problem a gift of god, as it could be understood as a challenge given us to use the means with which it endowed us to find a global, truly objective morality with the only universal tools we have: logic and science.


Eurokrisis, circa 2015: No to German Austerity, No to British Racism

For a time I commented at The Guardian about the Eurokrisis and particularly Greece’s part and parcel of it.  At first I was stunned by the extent of outright and nasty racism in the comments section there, which in retrospect looks like a prelude.  In the end I was shocked at the degree of editorial misinformation and censorship by the paper itself.  I’ll post these flashbacks once in a while to remind myself of what I thought then, and to see if it stands up at all now.

. . . . .

Well well well…Another Guardian article on Greece followed on by a comments thread with more than its fair share of xenophobic piffle…

Before you continue outing yourselves as racist know-nothing shills for German ordoliberalism, do please try to get at least some facts right:

1) The OXI was not a vote to default, and it did not result in harsher austerity. Most Greeks did and still do want to remain on the Euro, but with a chance to grow their economy and emerge from the most damaging macro-economic regime in the post war era. What’s more, most actually want to honor the debt, despite the fact that much of the debt was obtained illegally and without their knowledge, much less their permission.

2) Greece itself has not cost “taxpayers” anything like what is being claimed here, to say nothing of the Greek people. German and French banks, among others, had committed to malinvestment which, in aggregate, was many times the GDPs of the banks respective countries. The malinvestment was, in fact, much worse than that in the United States.

In order to save themselves politically, their own banks, their economies, and quite likely the euro itself, Scheauble, Merkel, and DSK among others engineered back-door bailouts for their own banks, forcing them on unprepared and weak governments – particularly Greece. Thus it was that Dr. Scheauble bailed out French and German private investors, many of whom profited quite nicely, while transferring losses to the public sector – to European taxpayers at large.

3) Nevertheless, Syriza proposed a plan that would ensure both growth for Greece and repayment for the creditors. With the 2012 “bailout” the terms of Greek debt became much easier to manage with minimal growth – the definition of solvency. On the other hand, the so-called “reforms” forced on Greece ensure both that its economy would shrink to levels it could literally never recover from, and that its external debt ballooned in proportion to GDP.

Syriza’s solution for this was to focus on the solvency solution (one of two paths identified by the Pringle ruling, the other being austerity). With a restructuring of Greek debt and a pause in the rate of increase in austerity, the Greek economy could recover enough growth that it could service its debt without the wholesale destruction of its political economy.

4) The actions of the troika were not made due to a lack of trust. These are national level organizations, and do not operate on the basis of personal trust. Syriza offered an economical reasonable and feasible plan to repay all of the debt, and the creditors refused, foisting onto Greece an economically illiterate approach demanded by politics, not economics.

5) No country has benefitted more from the euro than Germany, and no country has more to loose from its dissolution. At the same time, Germany’s economy enjoys a significant trade advantage with every crisis that lowers the value of the euro, without actually endangering it.

Every move Germany and the ECB have made since the crisis began has been to extend the crisis into the future, doing as little as possible in the present to resolve it. This is usually and wrongly attributed to Merkel’s mercurial manner, but is in fact the point of the German involvement in the euro.

6) Germany’s economy is nearly 4 trillion in GDP, and more than 30% of that is from export. Nothing affects the German economy as much as its trade surplus, and nothing affects its trade surplus as much as currency policy. Germany, in pegging its currency to a basket of weaker currencies, effectively devalued its own when its currency should have, in a free market, appreciated. This policy, a sort of Reverse Remnibi, is at the heart of German policy in the crisis.

7) The ECB, Mario “Do whatever it takes unless it’s Greece” Draghi aside, is dominated by German ministers and German policies. It’s interest rate policy serves Germany’s interests pre-eminently, and its monetary policy has been revealed as entirely politicized in its extremely dubious decision to cut Greece off from its own funding. This in turn caused the solvency crisis in Greece which scotched Syriza’s plans for growth and debt repayment.

The result is that Greece and its creditors shall have neither. Those of you who imagine that, like Olivier Blanchard, Greece hasn’t done enough “reforms” to grow, must explain how that can be true of an economy which has enacted more such “reforms” than any other in Europe. The truth is Greece has succeeded all too well, and must be made to suffer for it.


The End of the Secular State


It isn’t just the decision that is so shocking, but the support it has among Supreme Court Justices. Justices Roberts, Kagan, Alito, and Kennedy agreed in full, Thomas, Breyer and Gorsuch agreed in part. Only Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented, with the latter writing the dissenting opinion. Roberts describes the logic of his decision this way:

Held: The Department’s policy violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the Church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status. Pp. 6–15.

(a) This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion. Thus, in McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U. S. 618, the Court struck down a Tennessee statute disqualifying ministers from serving as delegates to the State’s constitutional convention. A plurality recognized that such a law discriminated against McDaniel by denying him a benefit solely because of his “status as a ‘minister.’ ”…

(b) The Department’s policy expressly discriminates against otherwise eligible recipients by disqualifying them from a public benefit solely because of their religious character…

The Department contends that simply declining to allocate to Trinity Lutheran a subsidy the State had no obligation to provide does not meaningfully burden the Church’s free exercise rights. Absent any such burden, the argument continues, the Department is free to follow the State’s antiestablishment objection to providing funds directly to a church. But, as even the Department acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions”…

(c) The Department tries to sidestep this Court’s precedents by arguing that this case is instead controlled by Locke v. Davey. It is not. In Locke…Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do. Here there is no question that Trinity Lutheran was denied a grant simply because of what it is—a church…

(d) The Department’s discriminatory policy does not survive the “most rigorous” scrutiny that this Court applies to laws imposing special disabilities on account of religious status…That standard demands a state interest “of the highest order” to justify the policy at issue…Yet the Department offers nothing more than Missouri’s preference for skating as far as possible from religious establishment concerns. In the face of the clear infringement on free exercise before the Court, that interest cannot qualify as compelling.

This is the majority ruling with which seven of the court’s nine judges agreed in full or in part. It is a farce, and represents such a direct assault on the intent, meaning, and purpose of the Establishment and Exercise Clauses that the decision can only be considered illegitimate, if not illegal.

Consider the weakness of the ruling’s own logic. Paragraph (a) argues that religious individuals and organizations cannot be denied generally available benefits due to their religious identity. Yet the decision succeeds in doing exactly this: the Court has decided that the state should tax citizens and use these monies to pay for clergy, which violates everyone’s freedom of exercise by forcing all citizens to financially support religious activities with which they disagree. Christians will pay for Satanists, Muslims for Jews, and Jews for Catholics, and atheists will be forced to support them all.

This is manifestly a violation of the Framer’s logic in establishing religious liberty in law. Thomas Jefferson, mentor to the writer of the First Amendment James Madison, established the template for American law regarding religion in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in which he wrote:

II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

The phrase “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever” is notable in that it represents the first clause of what is clearly a definition of religious exercise. What’s more, there is no conceivable means by which freedom of religious exercise can be interpreted without also including freedom from being forced to support any religion, since doing so forces one to commit religious acts with which one does not agree.

This contradiction is made explicit in paragraph (b), which in extraordinarily blatant language uses the Exercise Clause to directly attack the Establishment clause. In ( c ) a singularly specious logic is introduced to invent a new legal status, in which one’s religious identity is a question of who one is, rather than what one does. Beyond being well outside the scope of the First Amendment, this argument simply elides the fact that the religious identity of Trinity Lutheran is an explicit indication of what they will do, putting the Court’s logic in opposition to itself.

Paragraph (d) argues the state of Missouri violated the “most ‘rigorous scrutiny'” required of a law which, in Roberts’ language, “imposes special disabilities” on religious organizations. The language of the law he refers to reads:

(a) Under the Free Exercise Clause, a law that burdens religious practice need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest if it is neutral and of general applicability. Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872. However, where such a law is not neutral or not of general application, it must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny: It must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and must be narrowly tailored to advance that interest. Neutrality and general applicability are interrelated, and failure to satisfy one requirement is a likely indication that the other has not been satisfied.

What is clear, therefore, is that the Missouri decision to withhold state funding from Trinity Lutheran was a neutral and general law inasmuch as it pertains to all religions equally, and is required of it by the Exercise Clause. The Supreme Court has now ruled in Walz, 1979 that the state may provide taxpayer funds to religious organizations if such funding is available to all religions, and now that the state may not deny funding to religious organizations even if such funding is unavailable to all religions.

This decision, then, is an open assault on the meaning, logic, and historical purpose of the First Amendment. It’s more than that, however. It quite purposefully demolishes the authority of the Establishment Clause by doing for religious organizations what the Citizen’s United decision did for corporations: it makes them legally people, protected by law in the same way any citizen would be. It is, as Roberts has written, a question of identity, not purpose – even when the purpose of that identity is expressed in terms of itself. Roberts goes so far as to use the phrase “the Church’s free exercise rights”, which is a fabrication by him literally conferring the rights of citizens to religious organizations. Churches have no rights, to free exercise or any other kind. Citizens have rights to form organizations, which do not extend to forcing other citizens to pay for their religious observances.

Make no mistake: this is a calculated act intended to further weaken state secularism, to establish a de facto state religion, and to further consolidate the political union between the Republican party and American Christians. It is, in other words, the nail in the coffin of the secular state, and the beginning of a particularly American kind of quasi-theocracy.

I encourage all readers to write their Senators and Representatives, as well as their local media, to protest this grotesque assault on religious liberty and the US Constitution.


Trump is laundering money for Russian oligarchs


Or, it’s an international oligarchy of the superrich which is systematically dismantling the ability of sovereign states to determine their own economic policies.

I recall reading that after he’d won the election, the price of cocktails at Trump Tower went from $14 to $25, a premium that was justified by the fact that important political and business figures were spending more time there to meet with Trump and his associates. This is small time grifting, though. The tax cuts are big time, as will be his so-called “infrastructure” initiative, which will throw taxpayer money at his associates in the construction industry and, I’m sure, his own holdings, however obscure they might be.

I suspect the real money, at least as far as Trump is immediately concerned, will be in money laundering. There is reason to believe, as suggested by the findings of Fusion GPS, that Trump’s worth is ( as usual ) greatly overstated, and as Don Jr. has openly said, Russian money is a large part of their portfolio. It may well be the case that Trump has been floated by Putin ( who is thought to have forty to eighty billion US$ ). The IRS has a financial crimes unit attached to Mueller’s FBI investigation, and they have furnished the FBI with what they’ve been able to discover of Trump’s financial dealings, not least of which is his tax returns.

So Trump has something to hide in his tax returns, appears to be worth less than claimed and may have made false statements to the IRS. We know he has ties to the American mafia, to Russian oligarchs ( and therefore quite likely the Russian mob as well ), and he seems intent on making the world safe for Putinism. But what’s in it for Putin?

The damage done to Russia’s economy by falling oil prices and economic sanctions has been severe, and Russian oligarchs would be at risk of seeing their worth diminish simply through foreign exchange rate losses. The Ruble collapsed as a consequence of these twin pressures, and anyone whose savings were denominated in Russian currency would have quickly lost their shirt in terms of international buying power. They – Putin foremost among them – need a means of moving money out of Russia. They had already bought off the financial sector in Cyprus, which would’ve allowed them to hedge the fall of the Ruble by loading up Euros. But with the financial crisis, the Cypriot financial sector became a ward of the Eurogroup, and it became more difficult to launder cash into Europe for the Russians.

I suspect the highly regulated European financial sector made things more costly for Putin than he’d like, and the US financial sector is, in terms of oversight and taxation, laissez-faire by comparison. No country on earth has access to more markets, or more money, than the US. Most importantly, given the fall in the value of the Euro, the oligarchs need a hedge against further depreciation. The US Dollar is the “gold standard” of currencies, and hedging against it give Putin some degree of protection from US led economic warfare.

Warfare which, ironically, was critically weakened by the collapse in the Bretton Woods agreement and the subsequent abandonment of capital controls. Not only did this facilitate the continuation of neoliberalism, the growing indebtedness of the American working class, and the Great Global Recession, but it fundamentally defeated the restraining feature of capitalism as Adam Smith saw it. This restraint he called “the hidden hand”, by which the interests of capitalists would align with the working class as each had a stake in the other’s interest, and thus left to their own devices, their investment and spending decisions would in aggregate be in the best interest of that economy. Smith’s model was that of the nation state. The effective end of capital controls means that capitalists are no longer bound to the interests of a single state economy, and they are free to use their enormous resources to promote economic policies which may well damage a single economy, even one as large as the US, because their financial interests are no longer grounded in that economy.

We have, in my view, witnessed the rise of a new global political economy, which has abandoned the traditional role of nation states and has created in its stead a transnational oligarchy with no vested interest in the nations whose markets made them wealthy.

So when the US led the international sanctions against Russia, it imposed capital controls not on itself, but on Russia. Money was free to flow to all its usual destinations outside of Russia. Including Cyprus. The sanctions are only as effective as the sanctioning body’s knowledge of who and what it is targeting, and just as Trump has obfuscated his financial dealings for the IRS, so too have people like him, like Flynn, like Manafort, and yes like the Clintons, hidden the complex web of terminals through which Russian money flows to Europe and the US. What might’ve been an existential problem for Putin becomes just another job for lawyers and accountants.

At first glance I think this story should be falsifiable through its predictions about capital flows from Russia in context of Trump’s elections and the sanctions. A high level test will provide some basic validation of the idea, but since the real test is at the level of international intrigue and money laundering, it’ll be impossible to get a strict test. So, not only am I interested in what you, dear reader, think of this little story, but also in any ideas you might have for falsifying it.

Thanks for reading.