Anti-Christ Legions of the Underworld

If you think that doctors should practice medicine according to their own consciences, you’re the Anti-Christ.

… ought to be the name of a Heavy Metal band.

But it’s actually how a spokesman for Colorado Right to Life described the ACLU, for its support of the right of a physician at a Catholic hospital to give medical advice dictated by medical research rather than by a bishop. Full quote: “It’s not surprising that the Anti-Christ Legions of the Underworld would use the police-state force of government to compel an institution to aid and abet the dismemberment of unborn children.” Note that the “police-state” tactic under discussion is defending a professional practicing his profession according to his own conscience against outside pressure.

Query to supporters of “conscience clauses” allowing individuals and institutions to opt out of providing medical services or products of which they conscientously disapprove: Do you believe that Dr. Demos is entitled to the conscientous practice of medicine? If not, what is the meaning of “conscience clause,” execept that everyone should have to conform his conscience to yours?

The Woman Taken in Adultery and the question of capital punishment

How do Bible Christians reconcile support for the execution with the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery?

I recently had the experience of lecturing at Pepperdine University on the (possible) roots of Jewish liberalism in the Book of Deuteronomy and the connection it makes between the redemption from slavery in Egypt and the obligation to help the disadvantaged. The subsequent discussion reminded me of something that has puzzled me for a long time: the apparent irrelevance of those passages (especially, in the current context, the ones about not mistreating “the stranger”: i.e., immigrants) to the political commitments of many who consider themselves Bible Christians.

That, in turn, reminded me of a related puzzle, this one based on a passage from the Gospels rather than the Hebrew Bible.

Consider, if you will, John 8:1-11, the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery.

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

It’s a familiar story, having supplied two phrases (“casting the first stone” and “Go, and sin no more more”) that any reasonably literate English-speaker will recognize, even if unaware of their source.

And yet I have never heard it quoted in the debate on capital punishment. It seems, on the surface, to be quite decisive. The message seems to be that even if an offender has earned the death penalty under the law, no sinful human being is fit to carry it out. Is the Governor of Texas “without sin”?

So consider this an invitation to readers who know more about the Christian tradition than I do: What is the theory that reconciles this passage with support for actual imposition of the death penalty? (There seems to be more than a trace of doubt as to whether the passage was a part of the original Gospel of John, but that’s not someplace evangelical Protestants want to go.)

Footnote Some ground rules: This is not an invitation to argue about capital punishment, or about the truth or value of Christianity, or about the authority of the Bible. My question is how Christians who take the Bible as authoritative have actually dealt with the issue.

As to why death-penalty opponents don’t use this text, I think I have a good guess: it’s because, being liberals, they have swallowed the Rawlsian principle of “public reason” and thus consider the use of sacred text inadmissible in political argument. Since the words attributed to Jesus aren’t binding on non-Christians, they shouldn’t be used - says Rawls - in public discourse. Here I would add “The fool!” save for my fear of Hellfire.

The theocratic party

55% of Reps favor making Christianity the official state religion. Only a third support religious freedom.

Fifty-five percent of Republicans in a YouGov poll would support making Christianity the official religion in the states where they live. Only 33% support religious freedom, only 15% “strongly.” A plurality of Republicans, but short of a majority, would amend the Constitution to make it the official religion of United States.

And you probably thought I was kidding, or exaggerating, when I called the GOP “theocratic.”



What may be the most unenlightening collection of pop epistemology, or theolosomethingorother, ever somehow commanded space in the NYT this week, beginning with totally wooly noodling by a self-proclaimed creationist that somehow got six more people to outgas on it. The operative question is framed as  “believing in” science (and its big-bang, old-universe, evolutionary branches), or a literal interpretation of Genesis.

What, I wonder, is the operational definition of belief in a debate of this kind?  As a devout Bayesian, and allowing for all the tricky heuristics and biases of rational process, I give “how you bet” priority over “what you want to be heard saying”.  The problem is that we practically never have to bet on science or the Bible.  Where in daily life does anyone get to act in a way that will work out much worse, or much better, if  science is right and the Bible wrong on this stuff?  Even Christian Scientists‘ health statistics are about the same as everyone else’s, because we all have the same plumbing keeping the sewage away from the drinking water, the same FDA keeping bad stuff out of the food, the same EPA keeping poison out of the air, etc.  (On the other hand, we do not see even a few Christian Scientists leaping off tall buildings on the proposition that the physical world is not real…) Continue reading “Belief”

Richard Dawkins, God’s Secret Agent

Richard Dawkins’ atheist fundamentalism drives some people to become religious

Matthew Norman, tongue-only-partly-in-cheek, advances a conspiracy theory: Uber-atheist Richard Dawkins is actually working for “Big Religa”:

I write as one who became a devout atheist at the age of nine, and has encountered nothing since — with the two exceptions of the globe artichoke and the mango — that hints at the work of an intelligent super-being. And yet whenever I hear Dawkins on the car radio, spluttering lividly at the stupidity of those who cannot see the truth as clearly as he does, the instinct is to do a handbrake turn and drive like a maniac to the nearest church, synagogue, temple or mosque. He preaches so conceitedly, and with such poisonously illiberal scorn for those who follow the great faiths, that I want to worship alongside every one of them…Dawkins is more repressively dogmatic than the Ayatollahs.

Conservative Morality In Action

Via Jared Bernstein, we learn about how the sequester has made us a stronger country:

At least two Indiana Head Start programs have resorted to a random drawing to determine which three-dozen preschool students will be removed from the education program for low-income families, a move officials said was necessary to limit the impact of mandatory across-the-board federal spending cuts…

Columbus resident Alice Miller told WTHR-TV that her 4-year-old son, Sage, was one of the children cut from the program. She spoke about how the program has helped her son advance academically and socially…“He loves school,” Miller said. “I don’t know how I’m going to tell him he’s not going back.”

To this, Bernstein responds, “If that doesn’t break your heart, you might want to get to the emergency room to see if it’s still there.”  I part company with him somewhat on this.  This story doesn’t make me heartbroken: it makes me angry.  I am sad for the little boy who now cannot go to school, which he loves.  But I am outraged at those who think that this bears any relationship to justice.  Sage Miller can’t go to school because Republicans think it is more important to protect the carried-interest loophole.  The supposedly religious Christians who think we need to bring God into public policy might want to review the story of Nathan the Prophet after they finish demonizing gays and lesbians.

It also outrages me as a taxpayer.  We are injuring these children, and that will injure our country in the future.  You don’t have to be a bleeding heart, or Nathan the Prophet, to object to this.  You just have to be a patriot.


Untier of Knots?

A prediction that Pope Francis will move on clerical celibacy.

Wonkette points to Pope Francis breaking a tradition by washing the feet of two young women prisoners in the nice Maundy Thursday rite he shares (in a bowdlerised dry form) with Queen Elizabeth II. Wonkette doesn’t draw any conclusions, but I think it’s another straw in the wind.

Line up the other data points.

  • The young Jorge Bergoglio had an major adolescent crush on a girl, Amalia Damonte, now 76. Later as a seminarian he fell for another girl seen at a dance. He seems to have sublimated desire on the positive route of troubadour idealisation rather than the more typical fearful misogyny.
  • He is close to the Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic churches that sprung from them. He had a formative friendship with a saintly Ukrainian Catholic priest, Stefan Czmil, and speaks Ukrainian. These traditions - including those in communion with Rome - allow married parish clergy, but not bishops. (The term “Uniate” is no longer PC: you learn something every day from Wikipedia.)
  • His statement as cardinal on clerical celibacy was a defence of the current Catholic line, couched in notably lukewarm and conditional language:

    For the moment, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures. What happens is that the scandals have an immediate impact. Tradition has weight and validity

    Francis clearly doesn’t find the idea of priestly sex icky.

  • He is a Jesuit, skilled in threading doctrinal and practical needles, and a devotee of a rather sweet cult of Mary Untier of Knots. The founding image is a second-rate piece of German baroque:
    But the idea is from the estimable and first rate anti-Gnostic Church Father St Irenaeus of Lyons, whose theodicy is still the best Christian product on the market. It’s a comparatively sunny and optimistic approach to human dilemmas, and suggests a Yankee can-do spirit in the new Pope.

I’ll bet that this papacy will see movement on clerical celibacy, perhaps involving supervision of married priests by Eastern Catholic bishops, or an expanded married diaconate. The Virgin Mary has her deknotting work cut out though.

[Easter morning update]
The new Pope’s Easter homily is another straw in the wind. H/t and text from TPM. It’s impeccably orthodox and conventional doctrinally. But choosing to emphasise that according to Luke the first witnesses to the Resurrection were women?


The god of irony is everywhere and never sleeps.  Who would have guessed that the first pope from the global South would be an ethnic European, from the most European southern country? …that this third non-Italian pope in several centuries would be from the most Italian country outside Italy and have Italian parents?  Who would think that he would be right about poverty (against it, woo hoo) -  and wrong on every other social issue, along with a dirty war  history that, let us say, has not been trotted out by the Vatican flacks for our admiration.

If he’s not what the church needs, of course, it won’t be stuck with him forever, as he’s only nine years younger than the guy who just ran out of steam and resigned.

Popes can be surprising, like Earl Warren. But I’m not betting the farm that the church stops taking on water.