Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Signs from God

Evangelicals who whine about being marginalized in America have not taken a road trip lately. Drivers on the nation’s highways are smothered in a steady cloud of religious exhaust. Sitting behind the wheel, you can choke on the toxic fumes from all the Christian gas.

As you travel through the South, from Florida to Kentucky, you learn one important fact. Billboards, road signs, and bumper stickers tell you again and again that “Jesus is Lord.” Considering the impeccable sources, the statement must be true. My favorite version is the one painted on the outfield fence of a baseball field in a roadside sandlot that abuts I-4, not far from Orlando. I’ve passed this site dozens of times, at all hours, and have yet to see a single kid playing there. Jesus lords it over emptiness.

Other billboards sport alarmist verses from the bible. A faux U-turn sign tells motorists that Christ urges them to “change direction,” even though traversing the median on the highway is illegal. One gigantic message warns—ungrammatically—that the wages of sin is death. (Someone other than Jesus must be Lord of English Usage.)

In case the continuous print barrage doesn’t nail you, crosses of all sizes practically smack you in the face from the edges of the interstate. The crucifixes are user-ready in case Jesus-is-Lord decides to come back and get hammered up again. He has a number of appetizing sites to choose from nestled amongst the Fireworks! and Boiled Peanuts! signs. My guess is that he’d favor the huge metallic eyesore that casts its shadow about 100 feet onto Tennessee’s porn-again landmark, XXX Adultworld XXX.

Another symbol of Jesus-is-Lordness is the ubiquitous fish. All kinds of variants propel themselves along the backsides of cars and trucks. On some of these finned friends, the word “Jesus” leads you to the truth—just in case you mistakenly think that the vehicle’s owner works in the tuna business instead of angling for soul. On others, a cross is planted like a sloppy kiss on the swimmer’s cheek, so that the fish seems to be looking forward from the point where the horizontal bar meets the vertical beam; the creature is cross-eyed.

Interestingly, the people who cart around the portable marine life often festoon their autos with ribbons that urge other drivers to “Support Our Troops.” Apparently, Jesus-is-Lord does not offer sufficient assistance to our men and women in uniform. While evangelicals believe wholeheartedly in him, he apparently does not believe in them—or at least in their war effort.

And that’s something they should be whining about.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Praise the Lord and Pass the Mashed Potatoes

As an atheist, I’m ambivalent about Thanksgiving.

On the one hand, no matter how secularly you try to slice it, the feast is clearly meant as a huge suck-up to god. Although we travel long distances to be with our loved ones, we don’t expect them to address their gratitude to us for putting up with them all these years; nor do we act particularly grateful to them. No one says, “I went through all the indignities of airport security just so that I could express appreciation to Cousin Harold.”

Thanksgiving is a national religious holiday, pure and simple, dedicated to doffing one’s cap to the deity. Among the presidents from the founders’ generation, only Jefferson believed that ordering a thanksgiving day would conflict with the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Tradition has made that judgment obsolete. No American president today would dare disagree with Washington’s recommendation that we gather together for a day of “PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER” (the capitals are his, the revulsion mine) “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of …that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….” In other words, “we’re glad you’re on our team, big fella. Keep up the good work.”

On the other hand, there’s Thanksgiving in practice. The only one who actually chastens and hastens his—or her—will to make known is the cook. The day is really all about hedonism: way too much food and drink, long hours of real or faked conviviality, occasional emotional outbursts, and, in general, doing whatever has felt good since childhood. As such, it’s a celebration of which even Jefferson, that old sensuous fox, would have approved.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Now, It's Everybody's Concern

Perhaps it's because I've been on the road since Friday, that I've been thinking so much about Keroack. I'm referring, of course, to Eric Keroack, the newly appointed family-planning honcho at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Until his appointment to the Office of Population Affairs, Dr. Keroack had been the medical director for A Woman's Concern, a so-called Pregnancy Health Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The group's primary concern does not seem, however, to be a woman or her health. No, its primary concern is spreading the usual agenda of the nation's bible bullies. Here's what's good: abstinence until marriage. Here's what's bad: contraception and abortion. In other words: Baby machines are our business, our only business.

Keroack has now been put in charge of $283 million taxpayer dollars to spread the Gospel of Keep-Your-Legs-Closed. Because there's no senatorial advise-and-consent for Keroack's position, the public must just grin and bear it—as so many young women will unfortunately find out.

In naming Dr. Keroack to his new job, President Butch once again proves how slimily religious—or religiously slimy—he can be. While he doesn't believe that single women should have sex, he has no difficulty in making sure that they get screwed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

But Can It Say "Mama"?

Anyone who doesn’t believe that evangelicals are still scheming to take over America, must not know about one of their latest ploys: the Chatty Jeezy. According to an Associated Press story today, an ultra-Christian organization decided to donate 4,000 talking Jesus dolls to the Toys for Tots program run by the Marine Reserves.

The Marines' response had me whistling “From the halls of Montezuma ...” all day long. They now have yet another reason to be proud; they nixed the propaganda playthings. The vice president of “Toys for Tots,” Bill Grein, acknowledged that the Marines, as an institution of the government, may not prefer one religion over another. He is quoted as saying, “We can’t take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family.” He apparently did not mention Hindus, Rastas, Wiccans, or followers of the Great Unidentifiable Bird—and certainly not atheists—but his point was clear. Foisting these Jesus toys onto unsuspecting children is unconstitutional. Grein’s other major talking point, was that the dolls didn’t seem like they’d be much fun.

The manufacturer of the talking Jesi is a company called “one2believe.” Unbelievably, that entity is a division of the well-known Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company, which, its Web site claims, “handles the design, manufacturing, distribution, and sales” of plush and/or animatronic versions of a wide range of kiddy-culture icons: Paddington Bear, the Muppets, SpongeBob Squarepants, 102 Dalmatians, Shrek, Dora the Explorer, and the Grinch (press his chest and he steals the Jesus doll's birthday).

Michael La Roe, the minister of culture for both the parent firm and its divine child (the AP calls him “the director of business development for both companies”) was flabbergasted at the Marines’ reaction. He couldn’t believe that families might be offended by “three-dimensional teaching tools for kids.”

But these are not your father's Barbies. La Roe's what-did-I-do? reaction is indicative of the sneakiness of theocratic Christians. One2believe is well aware that it’s shoving religion down little throats. At its Web site, the agenda is clearly presented in a mission statement: “Teach 10 million children 50 Bible stories by 2007.”

To view the toys, themselves, though, you have to access the “Messengers of Faith” site, where you are exhorted to “Teach Your Children the Bible ... One Character at a Time!” (See the little miracles with your own eyes.)

At the top of the Home page, you’re greeted by an inspirational picture of a lovely child and her attractive mother holding Tickle-Me Jesus while poring over a book of obviously kid-friendly stories. Scroll down the page and you can see various dolls from the get-‘em-while-they’re-young collection. Perhaps appropriately, all the characters appear to be cross-eyed. The cost of each: 20 bucks. Except of course for poor tots, whom the company offers to brainwash for free.

Elsewhere on the Messengers' interactive message board, you can hear sound files from the company’s line of propagandolls. These toys would be laughable, if the god bullies had not given serious consideration to spreading them like a plague among the neediest youngsters. One of Jesus’s fun sayings, for example, is, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” What child of any religion wouldn’t want to wake up to that on Christmas morning?

The blurb for the Christ doll tells potential buyers that he was “the most important person in history. Ever.” But one2believe sells other, lesser, biblical figurines, as well. Moses, for instance, intones, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, or his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” After hearing that inspirational speech, could any normal child ever think again of coveting his or her neighbor’s wife or manservant?

The Esther character utters an urgent announcement, in what one2believe calls “easy-to-memorize style.” And indeed, it's hard to imagine how any little boy or girl would have trouble rattling off the words: “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” That'll be a ball to chant in the playground.

Sadly, the company does not mention whether any of the dolls wet themselves.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

You Had Me at Hello, but Lost Me at Hallelujah

Today’s New York Times Book Review contains an essay intriguingly entitled “God Fearing,” written by one John Wilson. Mr Wilson is identified by the Times as “the editor of Books & Culture.” It’s not a magazine I’m familiar with, but, gee, I like books. I like culture. Let’s see what Mr. Wilson has to say.

The beginning of the essay discusses the unfairness of evangelical stereotypes found in current fiction. In Wilson’s opinion: “... part of the job of a writer in 2006, so it seems, is to comment on evangelicals or ‘conservative Christians’ more generally, the way that many writers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s ... felt obliged to weigh in on blackness, often with embarrassing results.”

That sentence is a ridiculous assertion, unsupported by facts. The author cites four context-free examples of anti-evangelism from current literature. The most noteworthy of these—a character’s 11-word quote in a forthcoming novel by Thomas Pynchon—is taken from a one-page excerpt that appeared in a publisher’s catalog. This bit of advertising is apparently enough to tell Wilson everything he needs to know about the Book and how it will affect our Culture.

In the same unsupported pronouncement quoted above, Wilson also fails to mention by name any writer who wrote on blackness so embarrassingly in the past, or to include a single literary example. The subtext of his innuendo is repugnant, a sneaky attempt to equate the evangelical movement with the movements for civil rights and black pride.

Wilson’s hyperbole propelled me onto the Internet, where a quick search revealed that Books & Culture is subtitled “a Christian Review.” The magazine does not even have its own Web address; it can be found – along with dozens of other holier-than-thou links – on a site called

To be fair to Wilson, he does confess his affiliation—about halfway through the article. Because of my own set of anti-evangelical prejudices, brought on no doubt by all those stereotypes I’ve been reading about in modern literature, I found myself doubting the intellectual and emotional honesty of the author throughout the rest of the essay. He does reveal, although probably not to anyone’s surprise, that evangelicals do not always agree about everything; he says that they are “notoriously riven by disagreement on matters large and small.” That loaded word “notoriously” is disingenuous. The divisions within the evangelical movement are not well-known to the rest of us because they don’t count outside the collection plate. Granting Wilson’s declaration that evangelicals’ opinions diverge on dozens of issues, we can still be certain that there’s one main belief they share unwaveringly: Jesus knows best. Between Christ and the Constitution, there’s not an evangelical in America who would pick the latter.

I managed to glean a few other points from Wilson about American evangelicals:
(1) They are not as dangerous as Mao Zedong’s Red Guards.
(2) Sometimes their children convert to other faiths or stop going to church entirely.
(3) Your mail carrier may be one of them.
(4) They do not proselytize any more than other proselytizers.

What is Wilson's essay, which is about neither books nor culture, doing in The New York Times Book Review? The author's motive in writing his insincere drivel seems to have been to reassure non-evangelicals that the mega-Christians pose no danger to the rest of us. I, for one, remain unrapturous.

Just look around: They’re all over the place, dragging their little metal fish behind them. They’ve taken over whole shelves in mainstream bookshops and CD stores. They jam the country’s airwaves. They use fear tactics to influence major retailers. Why, they’re even given space for their propaganda in eminent national newspapers.

No threat? Evangelists like Wilson remind me of the garden club ladies in "The Manchurian Candidate." The kind of thinking found in Books & Culture already pervades our society and it continues to spread. Soon, there will be very few books and no more culture.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Well, Somebody's Gotta Play Cassandra

Although many atheists may be exulting in the nationwide repudiation of President Bush, we need to be reminded that none of yesterday’s Democratic winners has gone on record as being a non-believer, a freethinker, or even a doubter.

If, as the TV pundits claim, the Democrats won big because the religious right was angry at Republican deviations from the true path, we church/state separationists find ourselves pretty much in the same position as we were before the vote: holding the supernatural bag. The evangelicals’ message would seem to be “Support our theocratic vision wholeheartedly or we will defeat you.”

Is that what really happened? Experts everywhere are busily trying to parse each vote to find out exactly what combinations of background, race, gender, age, income, education, cosmic disorder, animal magnetism, and bowel health led to the electorate’s decisions. No matter how high-tech the wise guys’ methods, however, the results will still be the equivalent of asking a ouija board to explain the balloting; they will usually conform to the subconscious hopes or expectations of the analysts. And the analysts, particularly those on the right, love hellfire and brimstone. Religious fervor makes great TV.

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, when the “numbers” substantiate the commentators’ gut reactions. That’s why I expect to hear a lot in the next few weeks about conservative Christians’ temporary disaffection with the current administration. Watch for that word “temporary.” It’ll be used as a bludgeon by the faithful.

So here’s my unhappy prediction: There will come to pass a new plague of faith-based initiatives and religious entitlements, supported enthusiastically by both political parties.

It’ll be Sunday morning in America.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Get Me to the Polling Place on Time

In the county where I live, nearly half the polling places are in churches. Allegedly, these are convenient venues in which to gather votes because they have good locations, plenty of parking, and wheelchair-accessibility. They’re also easy to find for even the most directions-impaired; church structures often lord it over neighboring edifices.

Of course, these qualifications are equally true of Wal-Marts, Targets, and Home Depots. Churches, however, are willing to rent out their space at the low, low rates the government pays. Some churches even waive the fee and serve doughnuts and coffee while you wait your turn to vote. For houses of worship, election day is a loss leader.

If you’re uncomfortable voting in a church, though, our county’s Supervisor of Elections reminds you that you can still do your civic duty by voting early and elsewhere or sending in an absentee ballot.

My particular polling place is not in a church and I am only marginally uncomfortable about voting in the community room of a trailer park. (My discomfort is due to taste rather than principle). What I am uncomfortable about, however, is all the other people voting in churches.

Many churches—and I use that in the non-Catholic catholic sense to include synagogues, mosques, and other supernatural profit-centers—adopt an explicit political stance. Religious leaders gull their believers into thinking that voting in a certain way will induce omnibenevolent glee. Some churches go as far as printing position papers, fliers or pamphlets telling congregants what their sky-buddy thinks about specific issues, and comparing his views with those of the candidates. On election day itself, all political literature is, by law, removed from within 100 feet of the polling place. But voters who belong to a politicizing church have already gotten their marching orders drummed into them. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.

You might make the argument that the particular voting site is not important. Most believers claim that god is everywhere. He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so vote ultra-conservative for goodness sake. But to the mass of Sunday worshippers, god seems especially to enjoy hanging around churches. Those are his houses, aren’t they? Members of the electorate who might otherwise dare to think for themselves if they were entering a library or a Wal-Mart or the community room of a trailer park, may find themselves blinded by the holy light. The minute they set foot in Our Lady of the Far Right, they are reminded that the heavenly punisher is peering over their shoulders while they cast their ballots.

In a phone call to the Supervisor of Elections’ office, I was told that most churches “probably” removed their religious iconography from the space used for voting. Even though the woman I spoke with could give me no guarantees, she tried to reassure me. “I think it’s likely that they mostly use church gyms and community rooms,” she said. “You might have to look at some basketball hoops, but I don’t think there’s any religious art around.”

Still, it's an unfair advantage for the Jesus-jumpers. The ball’s in their court, isn’t it?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Our Haggard Government

Because I’m an atheist, the hypocrisy of the nation’s high priests entertains me immensely. It’s spiritually delicious to discover a religious muck-a-muck with his holy pants down. But whether or not Ted Haggard was “massaged” by a male prostitute or purchased methamphetamines affects me not at all.

What does affect me, though, is that Haggard’s reading of fish entrails—or whatever other religious marvels he claimed to perform—was a subject of serious presidential consideration. Not only that, but for years the reverend’s outworn opinions may well have influenced the votes of elected representatives in both the Senate and the House. As the Associated Press writes today: “Haggard ... has participated in conference calls with White House staffers and lobbied Congress last year on Supreme Court nominees.” This phraseology beats around the Bush, but The New York Times was more direct yesterday when it stated that Haggard was a communicant in “the White House’s Monday conference calls with conservative Christian leaders.”

Now, the President and Congress certainly have the prerogative to seek out any advice they wish, even from the witch-doctors that the religious right and its minions seem to favor. But at what cost to Americans do they allow voodoo to control decisions best left to reason? Just like Ted Haggard, we ought to be told the price we’re paying to get screwed.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Jesus's Pal and the Playboy Bunny

I’m so tired of reading about poor Harold Ford, Jr. and the Republicans’ Playboy bunny ad.

Didn’t he ask for just such a response when he ran his own commercial recorded in a church? That's the dirtiest piece of political pandering in the Tennessee Senatorial race.

Ford’s message begins with the image of cross-laden stained glass windows and the sound of an organ playing a crypto-hymn. "Hey, Christians, have I got a guy for you!" We hear the candidate’s voice as the camera slowly pans back to reveal him in all his heavenly glory. A wall-hanging of yet another cross, a white one on a pink background—is that color supposed to reassure liberals?—casts Jesus’s approval on the candidate’s message. “Here, I learned the difference between right and wrong,” Ford says glibly, as he marches piously toward us. Then he rattles off a number of issues for which his vote was “right”—not at all in the moral sense, but certainly in the Republican one.

At the end, Ford positions himself in a pew so that the symbol of right-wing hate shines with a holy glow over his shoulder. The camera slowly moves in for a closeup—on both the candidate and Christ. Ford intones, “I won’t let them make me someone I’m not.” What he’s not is a politician we can depend on to take a stand against theocracy. “I’ll always fight for you,” he vows. The implication: As long as you’re a Christian.

But please don’t take my word on faith. See the ad for yourself. Watch it now.

This is the kind of political spot that most Republicans would never dare to approve for themselves. But Ford is a Democrat, so it’s OK for him to pretend he has the endorsement of the conservatives’ sky-buddy.

And once again, we atheists are left without a viable candidate to protect our rights.

The way I see it, the Republican ad does not defame Ford; it defames Playboy bunnies.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Abortion Rights and the First Amendment

South Dakota is allowing its electorate to vote on whether or not to repeal an anti-abortion law, HB 1215, which passed last spring. Both sides of the abortion issue are gearing up for a court challenge—either to that law, should the repeal fail, or to some hypothetical similar law that may pass at a later time in a different state.

The text of HB 1215 includes the following language:

“The Legislature accepts and concurs with the conclusion of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion, based upon written materials, scientific studies, and testimony of witnesses presented to the task force, that life begins at the time of conception, a conclusion confirmed by scientific advances since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, including the fact that each human being is totally unique immediately at fertilization.” (italics mine)

It seems to me that a talented lawyer could make an excellent case that such an abortion ban flies in the face of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

First of all, let’s seemingly digress for a second and rid ourselves of some ridiculous terminology. In so doing, I hope to establish the basis of what I believe is a First Amendment argument.

The people opposed to abortion call themselves “pro-life.” However, that’s a dubious term. Do all these people refrain from swatting mosquitoes, pulling weeds, or killing plants and animals for food? It’s probably safe to say that they don’t. How then are they pro-life? OK, let’s say that they’re merely pro-human-life. Are they all against capital punishment and war? Again, probably not.

So, in the main, the people who oppose abortion are really pro-fetus. More specifically, they are pro- the belief that the Fetus is Human. Let’s call them pro-FisH. You can recognize many of them from the medallions on the bumpers of their cars. Those medallions, we should not forget, are symbols declaring specific religious belief.

A human being is clearly alive from the moment of birth until the moment of death. Whether or not that human being is alive as a human being before birth and/or after death is a religious question, not a legal—or even a scientific—one. Science can tell us that the fetus is a potential human, but it cannot honestly say that the embryo is a human, in all the variant definitions of that term. An egg is a potential bird but no one would eat an omelet and claim that he was having a chicken dinner. It would take an outrageous leap of faith to maintain that position.

The definition of human-hood is, of course, inextricably woven into the concept of “soul.” Many pro-FisHes believe that the soul enters the embryo at the moment of conception. Hence, to them, the fetus is a human life. It follows from such a belief that killing the fetus is the same as killing a human—and it’s only a short theological hop to a ban on abortion.

However, many Americans—most, if we believe the polls—do NOT subscribe to the religious definition of a fetus as a human. A law banning abortion as the killing of a human imposes a sectarian definition of "human" on the entire populace.

But the First Amendment says the government may not favor one religious viewpoint over another. Doing so would be the Establishment of a Religion, and, as such, strictly forbidden.

Therefore, HB 1215 is unconstitutional.