Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.


Nov 04 2011

Meet the 18 non-Christian American presidents

Category: government,history,politics,religion,United StatesJames @ 6:00 pm

Over at GNXP, Razib Khan points out the errors1 some media commentators have made when they’ve claimed that if Mitt Romney wins the 2012 presidential election, he would be the first non-Christian president in the United States, or least the first president outside of “orthodox” Christianity.2 3 Razib points out that this is simply not true – we have had non-Christian presidents before, and cites President Taft (a Unitarian) as an example.

Well, as it turns out, we have had a lot of Presidents whose religious beliefs placed them outside of orthodox Christianity – including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – and other presidents whose devotion to Christianity are highly doubtful – including Eisenhower.

I’m not interested in the debate about whether Mormons are Christians or not; frankly, I find that debate to be fruitless and boring. But I do think it is very interesting to see just how many of our presidents have been irreligious or held non-traditional religious beliefs. It is nice to help dispel people’s ignorance about American history and about the purported orthodoxy and piousness of our forefathers, especially when people who are historically misinformed try to justify their religious prejudice on the basis of ignorant misunderstandings of American history. Some of these presidents were closer to traditional Christianity than others, but likely none of them would meet the strict definitions for orthodoxy being bandied about by commentators and conservative Christians. So, without further ado, the following is my list of America’s irreligious and non-Christian presidents:4

George Washington

Washington did attend church, but not regularly (for example, attending just sixteen times in 1760 and fourteen times in 1768).5 Ministers at the churches where he attended mentioned that he did not take communion.6 After he had died the minister at one of the churches Washington frequently attended was asked about Washington’s religious beliefs, to which the minister replied, “Sir, Washington was a Deist!”7 Deists generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and rejected the idea of a personal god who intervenes in the affairs of humankind. They were definitely not traditional Christians.

John Adams

John Adams was a Unitarian.8 Unitarians reject trinitarianism, and are thus not traditional or orthodox Christians.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the miracles of the New Testament.9 He also rejected the doctrine of the trinity.10 His beliefs seemed to have incorporated elements of Deism11 and Unitarianism.12

James Madison

Deism / Unitarianism.13

James Monroe

At least one scholar, Franklin Steiner, has concluded that it was doubtful he had religious beliefs,14 and others have classified him as a Deist.15

John Quincy Adams

Unitarian.16

John Tyler

Deist.17

Millard Fillmore

Unitarian.18

Abraham Lincoln

Historian Mark Noll explained that “Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian belief.”19 Wikipedia explains that

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, stated that Lincoln admired deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read and knew of Charles Darwin before most. “He soon grew into a belief of a universal law, evolution, and from this he never deviated.”20

Some people claimed that Lincoln converted to Christianity after his son died and as the Civil War raged on. Several of his close associates, however, denied this. Lincoln’s private secretary, Colonel John G. Nicolay, stated in 1865 that “Mr. Lincoln did not, to my knowledge, in any way change his religious ideas, opinions, or beliefs from the time he left Springfield to the day of his death.”21 Judge David Davis , Lincoln’s lifelong friend and executor said that Lincoln “had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.”22 And finally, Wikipedia explains:

His biographer, Colonel Lamon, intimately acquainted with him in Illinois, and with him during all the years that he lived in Washington, says: "Never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the son of God and the Savior of men." Both Lamon and William H. Herndon published biographies of their former colleague after his assassination relating their personal recollections of him. Each denied Lincoln’s adherence to Christianity and characterized his religious beliefs as deist or skeptical.23

Ulysses S. Grant

He was unbaptized and was never a member of any church, but he did accompany his wife to her Methodist church.24

William Howard Taft

Unitarian.25

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Until he became president, he did not belong to any church and had never been baptized. He was baptized as a Presbyterian only after he was elected president.26

Unaffiliated

The following presidents were not members of any church:27

William Henery Harrison

Andrew Johnson

Rutherford B. Hayes

Unbelievers

Thefollowing presidents have been classified as most likely being unbelievers:28

Martin Van Buren

Zachary Taylor

Chester A. Arthur

Conclusion

So,by my count, out of the United States’ forty three presidents, eighteen were non-believers or unorthodox. That means 42% of the Presidents were not “traditional Christians.” If the next president is not a Christian, he will be joining a distinguished body of some of our country’s best leaders, a body that includes close to half of our presidents!

Update: Honorable Mentions

Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quakers. The Quakers are a religious group which has no set dogma, and there is a variety of belief amongst Quakers. Many, if not most, Quakers would self-identify as Christians. Some conservative Christians, however, have accused the Quakers of not being Christian (much like they have done with Mormons). If you include Hoover and Nixon on our list, the number of non-Christian presidents rises to 20.

Footnotes

2 "Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.” http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2011/10/mormon_controversy_pastor_robert_jeffress_may_be_doing_mitt_romn.html

3 “[T]heological honesty demands that we recognize that Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-24/romney-isn-t-christian-and-that-s-all-right-jeffrey-goldberg.html

4 Most of my sources come from the citations to this Wikipedia article: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Religious_affiliations_of_United_States_Presidents

5 Ford, Paul Leicester. The True George Washington (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1897), 78.

10 Holmes, David Lynn (2006). The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. US: Oxford University Press. pp. 225 pages. ISBN 0195300920; Clark, J. C. D.. The language of liberty, 1660-1832. p. 347. (letter to J.P.P Derieux, July 25, 1788, Papers vol 13, p 418)

11 Thomas Jefferson (1803). H.A. Washington (1861). ed. April 9, 1803 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley; Albert Ellery Bergh, ed (1853). May 5, 1817 letter to John Adams.

14 Steiner, Franklin (July 1995) [1936] (Paperback,190pp). The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents: From Washington to F. D. R.. Freethought Library. NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879759755.

22 Id.

28 Id.


Oct 16 2011

The 99 Percent of Americans Who are Rich Fatcats

Category: economics,government,politicsJames @ 9:00 am

The Occupy Wall Street (“OWS”) movement has been building up steam. The press has been mentioning it more and more. A popular slogan shouted at OWS is “we are the 99,” implying that the top 1% of Americans have been exploiting the rest of us. Along with that slogan, there is a popular blog / Internt meme called “We Are the 99 Percent” in which people hold up hand written signs describing their struggles since the economic crash.

I must say that I completely agree that Wall Street, the big banks, the government, and greedy CEOs are huge problems, and that their misdeeds have tremendously hurt millions of people and plunged our country into terrible economic problems. I really feel for those who are hurting because of others’ mistakes. I really want the malfeasors to be held accountable.

But from what little I’ve read on the “we are the 99 Percent” blog, it seems like most of the people submitting their stories are complaining because they made poor life choices, and now they’re in a rough spot because the economy tanked. From what I’ve seen of the OWS protesters, I get the same impression. They don’t seem to be really suffering, and most of them seem to be doing relatively well. How many of the protesters at Wall Street have expensive Mac laptops, iPhones, pricey monthly cell phone contracts, and flat screen TVs at home connected up to a full cable tv package? Everything I’ve seen indicates that a significant percentage of OWS-types enjoy many of these perks of the upper-middle-class lifestyle. They hardly seem like people who are really poor.

And even the poorest five percent of Americans are still richer than 70% of the rest of the world. What does that mean? It means that The poorest five percent of our fellow Americans have incomes that would make them upper middle class in most of the world.

Like the OWS protesters, I worry about poverty and inequality, but I worry about REAL poverty and inequality– like people who don’t have clean water to drink and who live in huts with dirt floors. I worry about people who have to helplessly watch their children die of dehydration caused by a bad case of diarrhea (which kills millions of kids in the developing world).

By global standards, nearly all of us Americans are rich fatcats who are skimming undeserved wealth off the top. Nearly all of those OWS protesters are part of the 99 percent of Americans who enjoy unprecedented wealth and prosperity (by global standards). If those protesters really care about inequality and exploitation of the poor, they would look in the mirror and realize that, on a global scale, each of them is guilty as well. It’s easy for them to complain about all the rich people above them on the pyramid, but they don’t seem very willing to recognize the life of undeserved privilege (undeserved, at least, when you evaluated their lifestyles by the same standards they use to evaluate the merits of others’ wealth) that each of them already enjoys compared to the vast majority of humanity who sit below them on the income pyramid. If they don’t want to be hypocrites — if they really want all of the rich to held accountable and forced into a life like all of the “average” people in the world — they should each sell all their fancy first world toys, give the proceeds to the poor, and devote themselves to a lifetime of backbreaking manual labor doing subsistence farming on a small plot of land, or go live in a shantytown in New Delhi or Lagos.


Oct 06 2011

The problem with elections

Category: government,law,politicsJames @ 9:40 pm

Even though the 2012 presidential elections are still over a year away, the news is already saturated with stories about the Republican candidates campaigning. We all take for granted that democracy is the ideal system of government, and that our system of elections is an ideal way to select our country’s leaders. But is it?

Being a politician requires two completely different skill sets: campaigning skills and governing skills. The two skills sets are very different from one another. A candidate’s skill at campaigning tells you very little about their skill at governing, and vice versa.

Someone who is good at governing is a good leader and manager. They are intelligent and able to quickly get up to speed on almost any issue; they have the insight to hire intelligent and competent advisors and subordinates; they listen and consider the opinions and views of the people around them, outside experts, and the opposition; they are able to analyze and synthesize these divergent views and decide on the optimal course of action; they are not afraid to admit they’re wrong, and are willing to change their opinion in the face of convincing evidence; they are good at bringing people together and getting them to agree and reconcile their differences.

The “skills” most politicians have developed to win elections are quite different. Politicians focus on rhetorical ability and convincing people to like them. They are more concerned with appearance than substance. They are good at winning arguments and convincing people that their opinion is right (especially in campaign debates); they are good at criticizing their opponents; they are good at making promises to win votes, even though many of those promises will be impossible to keep if they win; they are good at playacting and projecting their “image”; they are good at marketing and selling themselves; they are good at using all the dirty campaign tactics, but are equally good at distancing themselves from all of that negativity.

It is easy for candidates to talk in broad terms about their policy goals and the like, but that rarely tells you very much about how good they will be at implementing their goals, or even whether they really will try to implement them.

It seems to me that many of the skills required for successful campaigning are antithetical to the skills required for good governing. And unfortunately, most people don’t pay very close attention to how a politician is actually governing. The skills that will propel a person to power, therefore, are usually their campaigning skills.

What is the end result? We get “leaders” who are good at holding fast to their pre-determined positions and who are good at selling themselves, but who lack meaningful leadership skills. I’ll write more later about how we can fix this problem with new ideas about government.