The tyranny of true believers

Robert Samuelson takes a look at Bill Bishop's "The Big Sort":

It's not red and blue states so much as red and blue counties. Bishop -- a recovering newspaper columnist -- collaborated with Robert Cushing, a retired professor of sociology from the University of Texas, to examine voting patterns in presidential elections. They classified counties as politically lopsided if one candidate won by 20 percentage points or more. Their findings are stunning. In the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election, a virtual dead heat, 33 percent of counties qualified. By 2000, also a dead heat, that was 45 percent. In 2004, it was 48 percent.
Bishop, like many others, has exaggerated the extent of the polarization. Evidence of growing differences of opinion among the general public -- as opposed to tinier political elites -- is slim.

Consider two decades of polls from the Pew Research Center. On many questions, there was little change. One question asked whether "government should care for those who can't care for themselves." In 1987, 71 percent agreed; in 2007, 69 percent did. Or take immigration. In 1992, when the question was first asked, 76 percent of respondents favored tougher restrictions; in 2007, 75 percent did. On some cultural issues, opinions converged. In 2007, only 28 percent thought school boards should be able to "fire teachers who are known homosexuals," down from 51 percent in 1987. In 1987, only 48 percent thought it was "all right for blacks and whites to date each other"; by 2007, 83 percent did.
The "Big Sort" of residential segregation is still reshaping the political landscape, though more indirectly. With fewer competitive congressional districts, the real political struggles now often take place in primaries, where activists' views count the most. Candidates appeal to them and are driven toward the extremes.

What Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the vital center" is being slowly disenfranchised. Party "bases" become more important than their numbers justify. Passionate partisans dislike compromise and consensus. They want to demolish the other side. Whether from left or right, the danger is a tyranny of true believers.

Now consider this Q&A:
Mohler: Now you are affiliated with and a priest of the Diocese of Central Florida, that’s known as more of the conservative of the regions of the Episcopal Church. I would compare that to San Francisco, or Washington, or Los Angeles. In what sense are you really part of one church at this point?

Conger: We’re not part of one church in the sense that I could not function… A priest from, say, San Francisco who was a gay man or had been divorced and remarried, for example, could not come to where I am near Orlando and function as an Episcopal Priest. I could not get a job or license because of my theological views in many parts of the Episcopal Church. There is no interchangeability of clergy. It’s become Balkanized along doctrinal and theological views.

Has the Episcopal Church lost its vital center?

Related posts: Bishop's Big Sort; More on "The Big Sort"

Religious discussion in an age of incivility

Andrew Brown, writing for the Guardian, posits that much of the acrimony in religious debate today is the result of people not taking online discourse seriously, and adds that the current schism may in fact be the result of how the Internet allows people to voice their opinions without the same filter that one generally applies to their face-to-face communications. Additionally, the same online tools that allow us to connect and see things we have in common that we might not otherwise know also allow us to see what we have in opposition that we might not otherwise know.

He draws on an anecdote about his great-grandfather, who spared nothing in his distaste for the Pope but regularly had the local Catholic priest over for a bit of whiskey and discussion. More than mere civility, then; these two men were friends. Brown continues:

How very different the conduct of religious discussions on the internet. On the web the participants are often sober and they spare no pains to offend and insult one another, even when there is nothing at stake. I nearly wrote "nothing but prestige" but prestige in whose eyes? Who is watching? The strange, weightless intimacy of online communication has enabled complete strangers to hate each other passionately within minutes. This has had measurable effects in the real world. In the US, for instance, the breakup of the Anglican Communion has already resulted in some huge and juicy lawsuits and will certainly result in many more as conservative parishes try to remove their churches from the liberal central body. The schism could never have happened without the internet, which allowed each side to see exactly what the other was up to, and then deliberately to misunderstand it.

Brown also notes that there is a similar "listen but not hear because I already know I'm right" attitude that comes from "the New Atheists." He's concerned that religious differences, to some, might seem like a game one can play over the internet without heed of how it affects other people. But what happens to those for whom religious differences can get them killed?

The whole thing is here.

Bishops react to presidential election

There are numerous articles appearing about the reactions around the world to Tuesday's presidential election results. The Church Times in the UK has collected a number of reactions from African American leaders in the Episcopal Church and other reactions are being shared from around the world. President-elect Obama is featured on the front cover of the issue.

From the opening paragraphs of the article in the Church Times,

"The Bishop of North Carolina, the Rt Revd Michael Curry, said on Wednesday: ‘This is a day that I honestly never dreamed I would see. I think about my grandmother, who was the daughter of a sharecropper here in North Carolina. My ancestors were slaves here. My daddy went to jail so folk could vote.

‘My great-aunt Callie was a Sunday-school teacher at Sixteenth Street Baptist chapel where the little girls were killed in 1960. Somehow, all the things that people did without knowing how it was going to turn out helped to make this moment possible.

‘But they never dreamed this. Americans have said what we want to be: a country for all. That was the American dream from the beginning. God blesses us sometimes, in spite of ourselves, and, every once in a while, something happens that says that dream is real, and don’t give up on it for America, and ultimately for the whole world.’"

Read the full article in the Church Times here.

The Church Times blog also has this reaction from the Bishop of the Diocese where President-elect's father's family lives:

[...]the Rt Revd Joseph Wasonga, told Ecumenical News International: “I want to congratulate Obama. I think his winning will bring hope and healing to the whole world. His election has shown that America is truly democratic. . . I hope he will be able to challenge bad governance in Africa.”

The Bishops of the Church of Canada have released a statement as well.

NAE official resigns over remarks

Richard Cizik, the Vice-President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, has been forced to resign as a result of his comments that he is "shifting" his views on same-sex marriage.

According to an article on Christianity Today:

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The end of alone

Neil Swidely in The Boston Globe Magazine:

"We've gone from an American ethic that championed the lone guy on a horseback to an ethic of managing multiple data streams," says Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University and author of the new book Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. "It's very hard for people to unplug and be alone -- and be with the one data stream of their mind."

What's fueling this? Conley says it's anxiety borne out of a deep-seated fear that we're being left out of something, somewhere, and that we may lose out on advancement in our work, social, or family lives if we truly check out. "The anxiety of being alone drives this behavior to constantly respond and Twitter and text, but the very act of doing it creates the anxiety."

This is particularly true among young people, mainly because they don't know life when it wasn't like this.

Losing faith in droves

A survey of Canadian youth reveals that the religious middle-ground of those who believe in God, but do not go to church or practice religion, is disappearing, leaving behind teens who are either very religious or those who don’t believe in God at all.

Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge sociologist who heads up Project Teen, says “For years I have been saying that, for all the problems of organized religion in Canada, God has continued to do well in the polls. That’s no longer the case.”

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An alien legacy

Human Rights Watch has detailed how laws forbidding consensual homosexual conduct were introduced into countries that had been colonized by Europeans. The group says that more than 80 countries around the world still criminalize consensual homosexual conduct between adult men, and often between adult women.

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Social media and the Church

One of our favorite blogging bishops, the Rt. Rev. Alan Wilson, describes the Diocese of Oxford's Social Media Day which he recently chaired. He says that "the aim was to gather people working for the Church with an interest in communications, to scope the scene and its possibilities."


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New Hampshire Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

Six states and Dick Cheney have now dared to go where the Episcopal Church will not.

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Gay marriage: heading toward a tipping point?

Andrew Gelman at FiveThirtyEight:

In 1995, support for gay marriage exceeded 30% in only six states: New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Vermont. In these states, support for gay marriage has increased by an average of almost 20 percentage points. In contrast, support has increased by less than 10 percentage points in the six states that in 1995 were most anti-gay-marriage--Utah, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Idaho.

I was stunned when I saw this picture. I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some "regression to the mean," with the lowest values increasing the most and the highest values declining, relative to the average. But that's not what's happening at all. What's going on?

Some possible explanations:

- A "tipping point": As gay rights become more accepted in a state, more gay people come out of the closet. And once straight people realize how many of their friends and relatives are gay, they're more likely to be supportive of gay rights. Recall that the average American knows something like 700 people. So if 5% of your friends and acquaintances are gay, that's 35 people you know--if they come out and let you know they're gay. Even accounting for variation in social networks--some people know 100 gay people, others may only know 10--there's the real potential for increased awareness leading to increased acceptance.

Conversely, in states where gay rights are highly unpopular, gay people will be slower to reveal themselves, and thus the knowing-and-accepting process will go slower.

- The role of politics: As gay rights become more popular in "blue states" such as New York, Massachusetts, California, etc., it becomes more in the interest of liberal politicians to push the issue (consider Governor David Paterson's recent efforts in New York). Conversely, in states where gay marriage is highly unpopular, it's in the interest of social conservatives to bring the issue to the forefront of public discussion. So the general public is likely to get the liberal spin on gay rights in liberal states and the conservative spin in conservative states. Perhaps this could help explain the divergence.

Federalism and the gay marriage debate

One of the claimed benefits for federalism in the U.S. is that differences in state public policy provides natural experiments by which to empirically assess the cost and benefits of alternative policies. Writing at Reason, Steve Chapman points out that differences in state policies towards gay marriage is about to provide just such an experiment:

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GLBT notables from D.C., Houston, California


With 53 percent of the vote, Annise Parker, Houston's openly gay City Controller, has been elected the city's next mayor. In her brief victory speech, she noted:

This election has changed the world for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, just as this election is about transforming Houstonians’ lives for the better.

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Ill fares the land

Tony Judt, the distinguished European history scholar, writes of his fears for the moral direction of the United States in this week's issue of The New York Review of Books:

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'Without care' - singles and the church

The Church of Scotland's Mission and Discipleship Council has made its report "Being Single, Being Christian: A resource for congregations" available by download.

Some tidbits:

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These eyes won't judge you

To have the fortitude to gaze into someone, in silence, and then to have your gaze returned to you without judgment, soul to soul: this may just be the essence of a healthy ethic of spiritual direction. After all, as we're told in Mark: before Jesus gave advice to the man who had so precisely followed the commandments, yet still yearned for eternal life, it was that "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." And then he spoke.

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Westerners are the WEIRD ones

Psychologists have long run experiments on college students to draw conclusions about the behavior of the general population. While students are a convenient sample, the criticism is that they may not be representative. Now comes evidence that what we think we know about behavior of people is biased because it is almost entirely based on the study of Westerners.

The Financial Post:

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Canadian Anglicans working against a 'pandemic' - suicide among youth

The Anglican Church of Canada files a report of its efforts to stem the tide of suicide among youth, especially in Aboriginal communities.

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Gallup: Religion losing influence

New Gallup survey finds near-record numbers of people see religion losing influence in America:

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Two gay heroes thwart assassination attempts

LA Times:

Oliver Sipple was in a crowd outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco more than 35 years ago, on Sept. 22, 1975, as President Gerald Ford was leaving the hotel.

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Daylight Savings Time begins

Just a friendly reminder from your Café staff on this the Eve of the first Sunday in Lent. In most parts of the continental United States daylight savings time begins very early tomorrow morning. Hawaii and Arizona (except for parts of the Navajo Nation) ignore the change.

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Fat and (un)happy

In an essay that comes to us courtesy of ABC Religion (a service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation), David Malouf ponders the modern malaise: if we are so successful as a species, why are we so unhappy?

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Attendance declining, not just at church

Fewer people are attending cultural events says new analysis by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Food distribution takes churches' coordination

When it comes to food pantries and to feeding the hungry, we wonder if this is a notable trend. (Our emphasis added.)

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The theological rehabilitation of hackers

Starting by drawing a distinction between "crackers" (who break into things) and "hackers" (who try to create new unexpected things) a Jesuit priest writing in a Vatican approved publication sees much in common between Christian thinking and the efforts of the hacking community.

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Bowling together in Lagos

Although civic associations have declined in the United States, they're growing in the developing world and in not-so-democratic countries.

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You remember a little ... I'll add a piece

On his blog Becoming, hospice physician and Episcopal priest Steve Thomason recounts some of his memories of what happened at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest on 9/11/2001.

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The Lululemon murder and the "bystander effect"

People of a certain age--mine--will remember the story of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death near her New York City apartment in 1964 while 38 of her neighbors allegedly watched and did nothing. The recent "Lululemon murder" in the Washington D. C. suburb of Bethesda has once again raised the question of how bystanders (in this case two employees of an adjoining store) could hear cries for help and do nothing.

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Presents are kind of the point

Sarah Ditum hits the nail on the head in an essay about Christmas on the Guardian website:

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Climbing the fence between fear and possibility

The Rev. Susan Russell shared the content of her sermon with The Huffington Post. In it, she quotes the Presiding Bishop, whose words to the Episcopal Church on its re-imagining and restructuring seemed to also fit in post-Aurora context:

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Worshiping false Gods: Joe Paterno and Penn State football

Lay preacher and writer-in-residence at SSW Greg Garrett writes of "Joe Paterno, Football, and False Gods" on Patheos.

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Akin & Augustine: Scholars muse about early church views on rape

What does Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) have in common with St. Augustine? More than you might think. Scholars Thomas Laqueur and Virginia Burrus chatted via e-mail with Sarah Morice-Brubaker of Religion Dispatches about what Augustine and other leaders of the early church had to say about rape. Laqueur notes that when he first heard Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" and a woman's ability to "shut that whole thing down," his first thought was "Good God, ... seventeenth-century forensic medicine is alive and well in Missouri. There must be a folk tradition that quietly perpetuates these views beneath the surface of science." Burrus had this to say:

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The burnout season

With Facebook ablaze with New Year's resolutions, Susan Brown Snook wonders in her blog A Good and Joyful Thing where everyone gets the energy:

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Angry. Young. Men.

Lisa Miller has written a provocative column for New York Magazine dilating on the fact that whatever their motives and whatever their mental conditions, the perpetrators of mass bloodbaths tend to be angry, young and male.

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When baby is a boy, unwed dad more likely to claim paternity

This is depressing. When unmarried men become dads, research out of Michigan shows they are more likely to acknowledge paternity if their newborn is a boy. From D'Vera Cohn at the Pew Research Center:

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Bells ringing today in honor of MLK's speech

From The Washington Post article:

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Starbucks asks people to leave guns at home

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has written a open letter asking customers to leave their weapons at home:

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Do God's work in the world; Cook up something to eat

I believe fresh, healthy food is a gift from God. I pray for a future in which everyone has access to good food, and knows what to do with it. And I believe Michael Pollan is doing God's work in the world, encouraging us all to cook. Pollan writes that cooking "is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable" Enjoy this video and then cook yourself something good for dinner:

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Is the Internet eroding our faith in God?

A new study suggests that the rise of the Internet has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation. From Technology Review:

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1 in 5 adult Americans have never married

Pew Social Trends reports a record share of adult Americans have ever married as values, economics and gender patterns change. In 1960 1 in 10 adults had never married. Today that figure is 1 in 5.

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