Tag: common good

The Echo Chamber of Religion Leads To Extremism

The strange case of Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ leader, ended today in Jeffs’s conviction for child rape.

We wonder how it is possible in the 21st century for hundreds of men and women to be deluded by Jeffs’ bizarre, perverted religious expression.  Jeffs and the FLDS are the extreme result of religion unmoderated by common decency and the wisdom of the greater culture.

Put differently, isolated individuals tend to believe what their leaders tell them.  Cut off from media and outside contact with non-FLDS acquaintances, the FLDS compound reinforced daily that the word of Warren Jeffs was the word of God.

The nation was riveted to news coverage when authorities raided the FLDS “Yearning For Zion” compound near Eldorado, Texas, in April, 2008.  The isolated FLDS women and girls drew comments for the homemade, plain-style dresses they wore.  But, the real oddity was that this break-away sect of the Mormon Church had refused to give up the practice of polygamy and child marriage.  Jeffs was their leader, and his word was regarded as divine by his followers.

The clincher in the case was an audio tape found in Jeffs’s possession when he was arrested as a fugitive. The tape reveals sexual encounters with three underage girls, which Jeffs characterized as “heavenly comfort” sessions .  The  earthly reality was that a jury found Jeffs guilty of sexual assault on these poor girls, ages 12-15 years.  The conviction carries a potential life sentence.

Of course, this is the activity of a cult, we tell ourselves.  But looking more closely, it isn’t hard to find examples of those who live in their own echo chambers, listening only to their own voices.  There are many sad examples of those who cut themselves off from the corrective conversation that engagement with others provides. And, examples come from both the right and the left of the religious spectrum.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he found himself embarrassed by the sermons of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Wright’s fiery pulpit presence and his condemnation of America was understood by his parishioners within the context of his own church sanctuary.  But the sermon in which Wright called on God to “damn America” did not play well in the wider culture.   No explanation of the context, or the tradition of the church, or any other disclaimers mitigated the uproar over Wright’s sermon.  Obama eventually disavowed Wright, distancing himself from a pastor who was understood by his constituency but who was not ready for national media coverage.

Media experts tell us the internet enables us as never before to listen to media personalities who reinforce our own positions.  This “silo effect” insulates those who only watch Fox News or Keith Olbermann, for example,  from legitimate challenges to their ideology.

The same effect is present in the religious community.  The most strident opponents of other religions are usually those who listen only to their own voice.  Rev. Terry Jones, the vitriolic anti-Muslim pastor from Florida, represents the same extreme dressed up in evangelical garb.  Of course, Jones’s ministry is more like that of another cult figure, Tony Alamo, who also isolated his followers, compelling them to work long hours for no pay in order to enrich himself.

But the tendency to one-sidedness tempts all of us.  In his new book, Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts, Douglas Noll, a lawyer-turned-peacemaker and international mediator, cites one of the primary reasons international peacemaking fails — opposing parties will not listen to each other’s stories.  Noll also adds “group identity,” with its “us-versus-them” mentality, to his list of peace impediments.  In other words, the failure to listen to each other, and to value one another as human beings prevents the resolution of many conflicts.

When religious leaders whip their constituents into a frenzy with exclusivist claims that “we have the truth and no one else does,” they do a grave disservice to the common good.  When we listen only to ourselves and those like us, we cut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters who might feel and think differently than we do.

To those who object that we must hold up the banner of truth, and keep ourselves apart from “others,” Jesus had a story to tell.

It was about a Jew who set out on a journey, got beaten up, robbed, and left for dead.  Those like him, devout religious leaders, passed him by.  But a man from Samaria, whose religious beliefs were anathema to the Jews, and who were engaged in a centuries-old feud with Jews, stopped to help the Jewish man.  He gave first aid, carried the man to the safety of an inn, paid for his lodging, and left money for the victim’s recovery.  In a rhetorical end to the story,  Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man who was beaten?”  The obvious answer was someone unlike him in faith and practice, someone despised  and reviled by the victim’s people, someone who should have had nothing to do with the victim.

Conversation with others who are not like us, religiously or culturally, tempers our own tendency to isolation-induced arrogance.  Interfaith dialogue, racial reconciliation, tolerant conversations, and engaging with a diverse culture helps us see our common humanity, and serves the common good.

Sunday Beer Sales and Bad Public Policy

300_595151In their infinite wisdom, our board of supervisors has decided the way out of our county’s financial squeeze (we’re the 2nd poorest county in Virginia) is to allow beer and wine sales on Sundays.  One supervisor commented tonight, “This isn’t about religion, it’s about economics.”

I would agree.  I don’t think Christians can make a credible case any longer for Sunday blue laws.  Blue laws restrict goods that may be bought and sold on Sundays here in Virginia, as they do in many states, although fewer now than in past years.

Baptists say we believe in the separation of church and state, and if we do, we should not look to the state — or county — to protect Sundays.   Our blue laws don’t protect the Jewish sabbath, or the Seventh-Day Adventist day of worship, so why should Christians get special treatment from the government, local or otherwise?  No, I don’t think we can make a civil case for keeping blue laws.

But we can make an economic case.  The assumption our supervisors are making is that Sunday sales of beer and wine will generate more tax revenue for our struggling county.  However, let’s take a closer look at this assumption:

1.  The supervisors don’t really know how much revenue this will generate.  No economic impact study has been done, probably because the county can’t afford it.

2.  No one has considered the economic cost of allowing beer and wine sales on Sunday.  Adding one more day per week increases the opportunity to buy beer and wine by more than 15%.  Will our county supervisors also increase the sheriff’s department budget by 15% to put more deputies in patrol cars on Sundays?  Will the supervisors increase the budgets of local rescue squads and fire departments who respond to car wrecks?  Do we know what percentage of car accidents, domestic abuse cases, and child abuse cases involve alcohol?  And, are we going to increase the budgets of all those agencies by 15% to handle the potential increase?

3.  The state of Virginia previously did not allow alcohol sales on election day, presumably so that our citizens can make clear-headed voting decisions.  Apparently that’s changed now.  However, the current law does not allow alcohol sales statewide on Sundays (except urban municipalities over 100,000, but only after 1 PM), Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  Why not establish one day a week, Sunday or not, to stop alcohol sales just to give us all a breather from the problems associated with alcohol?  We regulate who can purchase alcohol, where it can be sold, in what types of containers and quantities, and the tax on alcohol sales.  Why not regulate the days on which it is sold on a regular basis?

4.  Finally, our county is not a destination for tourists or those seeking recreation.  The only people needing to buy alcohol on Sundays are most likely the ones who have problems with it in the first place.  Just like state lotteries, alcohol sales are geared to those who can least afford it.  Our county already has a higher than average rate of substance abuse, and a long culture of alcohol-related crime, including bootlegging.

I agree with our esteemed county supervisor — this isn’t about religion.  It is about economics.  I just wish our supervisors would do their homework before trying to buffalo us with their new-found concern for “keeping our shopping dollars in Pittsylvania county.”

Lifting the ban on Sunday beer and wine sales without assessing the impact is bad public policy, economic or otherwise.  I for one plan to oppose their efforts.  What do you think?