Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Religious Liberty and Living as a Sikh in America

It has been almost three years since Wade Page shot six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Many people assumed (probably correctly) that Page mistook Sikhs for Muslims because members of both groups wear similar attire (e.g., turbans). Indeed, although Sikhs have historically experienced discrimination as a minority religious group in America, since 9/11 there has been an increase in the incidents of discrimination against group members (e.g., the number of hate crimes, bullying in schools).

This and other issues related to living as a Sikh in America is the subject of the most recent Research on Religion podcast ("Rajdeep Singh on American Sikhs and Religious Liberty"), which features Rajdeep Singh, who is the Director of Law and Policy at the Sikh Coalition. Here is a brief description of the podcast:
What is the Sikh religion and how have Sikhs fit into American society? Rajdeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition explains the history, tenets, rituals, and practices of his faith, as well as the challenges this religious minority has faced in the United States. We discuss how Sikhs have been instrumental in championing religious liberty with cases about religious garb in Oregon and issues of occupational safety.
The podcast is an interesting discussion of the history of the Sikh religion and some of its core tenets, such as ”five k’s” of the faith: kesh (uncut hair), kanga (wooden comb), kara (steel bracelet), kachera (cotton underwear), and kirpan (holy sword). You can listen to the podcast at the Research on Religion website or download it from iTunes (although I had to download it manually).

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Koch Brothers and the Future of the Republican Party

The Koch brothers are the bane of Democrats everywhere. They have contributed large amounts of money to organizations that support Republican candidates, seek to repeal Obamacare, and fight against climate change legislation. They have also donated over $100 million to several free-market and advocacy organizations. However, it would be a mistake to group them together with social conservatives. They are libertarians, and social conservatives are not their biggest fans. In fact, when David Koch recently added his name to an amicus brief in the case before the Supreme Court that will decide whether there is a right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, a theologically conservative Roman Catholic journal, wrote:
The brief Koch signed seeks to encourage that outcome. He’s not a convert like Barack Obama. He’s a thoroughgoing libertarian. Our personal lives should be as free as possible from moral intervention, just as our economic activities should be as free as possible from government intervention. Nice theory. But disconnected from social and political reality. More than any other approach to public life, social libertarianism will guarantee the expansion of government, not just in size but also in control over our lives. 
In 1970, 40 percent of American households were constituted by married couples with children. In 2012, that figure had fallen to less than 20 percent. Meanwhile, “other family households” grew, along with men and women living alone. No-fault divorce, cohabitation, single mothers, and individuals living alone reflect and contribute to the weakness of the authority of the institution of marriage over the lives of most people. They also reflect and contribute to the declining influence of distinctly male and female social roles and other traditional norms governing personal behavior. These basic trends indicate what we all know: American society is being atomized by a cultural revolution that is dismantling traditional forms of life, especially the family. 
A libertarian is right to say that this means more freedom. Now we can live as we wish rather than in accord with dominant social norms. But this greater freedom means greater scope for bad choices, many of which require government intervention to remediate the consequences (especially for children, as Putnam advocates in Our Kids). The dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock births among the general population over the past generation provides the most obvious example. We know the social costs of this trend in the black community: criminality, mass incarceration, low educational attainment, and high unemployment. The more recent collapse of marriage among working-class and middle-class whites may not produce all the problems that the black underclass has, but there are sure to be dysfunctions that will call for ever greater government intervention. There already are. 
Moreover, our political culture will change. As traditional forms of life lose authority, demands for redistribution become greater. That’s because a libertarian world is one in which our identities are largely stripped down to private choices. In today’s world, that means our status is measured almost entirely in terms of money. 
Under the old system, a man who is a good father achieves something honorable, something superior to that of the man who is divorced or who has fathered a child out of wedlock. Today, not wanting to be judgmental and fearing that we’re “blaming the victim,” we repudiate this moral hierarchy. The same goes for coaching Little League baseball or being a scoutmaster. These are private choices no more valid than watching TV or playing computer games. 
Some will say that David Koch and the movement in support of gay marriage have no interest in weakening marriage. The amicus brief he signed claims that it will strengthen marriage. But saying it does not make it so. Gay marriage presumes social libertarianism, the conviction that people ought to have the freedom to make their own life choices, unhindered by traditional moral views. This undermines the authority of the old moral hierarchies, as the gay and feminist theorists recognize and champion. What they don’t recognize is that this freedom strips our social world down to the naked hierarchies of wealth and celebrity. Left with no other forms of status recognized by society, the economic losers are nothing but losers. This in turn leads any fair-minded person to say that we need to give them more money so that they can have a piece of the only currency of dignity and standing recognized in the libertarian world. In short, more redistribution. 
All of which is to say that I’m afraid David Koch is misguided. As traditional norms recede, we will not get a libertarian paradise. Instead, government will fill the void. Marriage, strong norms of behavior, and constraining moral communities provide people with a sense of security, identity, and meaning. As they weaken, government must supply those goods. Over the long term, the conservative desire to limit government is impossible without a renewed emphasis on social conservatism.
All this raises a question about the future of the Republican party. Social conservatives and libertarians have been relatively united in their opposition to President Obama, but at some point their differences will come to a head. FiveThirtyEight recently published an article ("There Are Few Libertarians. But Many Americans Have Libertarian Views."), which mapped the American electorate based on their degree of social liberalism and their support for government social programs. What they found (see below) is that approximately 22% of Americans embrace libertarian views, while approximately 25% embrace socially conservative views. If this dichotomy accurately reflects a divide in the Republican party, then a battle may be looming for control of the Republican party. It's probably too early to tell, but it does raise an interesting question: Who will the Democrats root for?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Judaism in Transition

Carmel Chiswick is a research professor of economics at George Washington University. She is also a Jew, and in her most recent book, Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition, she examines contemporary Judaism using the tools of economics. For example, she looks at how American Jews shift investments in the time and costs they invest in their religion, leading to new forms of observance, such as Reconstructionism, which has gained purchase because it provides timesaving alternatives for religious expression. She also draws a distinction between what she calls the “Great Tradition,” which is based on sacred scripture and major observances and thus less susceptible to change, and the “small tradition,” which is more open to embracing religious innovation.
Chiswick was recently featured on Research on Religion, a weekly podcast that explores the scientific study of religion ("Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of Being Jewish in America"). Here is a brief summary of the podcast:
How does an economist discuss being a religious minority in America? Prof. Carmel Chiswick returns to the podcast to discuss her new book “Judaism in Transition.” Using the tools of economics — particularly the concepts of full price, time costs, and human capital — explains the challenges American Jews face in a Christian culture and how Judaism has changed over time to reflect responses to various costs and benefits. We also talk about some of the newer demographic challenges facing Jews, including intermarriage, later marriage, and empty nesters.
You can download Research on Religion podcasts free from iTunes, or you can listen to the podcast at the Research on Religion website ("Carmel Chiswick on the Economics of Being Jewish in America").

Saturday, April 18, 2015

All Just Drunk Americans

To illustrate the inclusiveness of God's reign, the theologian David Buttrick likes to tell a story about an evangelist who threw a party for everyone in town, and just about everyone was there. There were champagne cocktails, trays of food, and a rock band beating out “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” A policeman walked by just as a scantily clad woman danced out into the street. “Every bum in town is in there,” sneered the policeman. “There’s room for more, officer,” sang the woman, “There’s room for more.”

When I first heard Toby Keith's recent song, "Drunk Americans," I couldn't help notice the parallels between Buttrick's story and Keith's song:
We ain't East, we ain't West
We ain't left, we ain't right
We ain't black, we ain't white
We just came here to drink
We're all mud flap suburbans
All ball caps and turbans
All prom queens and strippers
Where the whole kitchen sink,
And in here, we're the same,
Everyone knows your name
We just raise up our glass
We don't give a rat's ass
If you're a Democrat or Republican
We're happy to be here and that you can see
We're just all drunk Americans
We ain't second ex-wives,
We ain't Cowboys or Redskins
We ain't preachers or kingpins
We're just having fun
We're all suits in blue collars
Short orders, long haulers
Paper and plastic, too old and too young
CEOs, GEDs, DUIs, FBIs, PhDs 
We been in, we been out
We been cool, we been weird
Thank God we're still here
In the land of the free
And we all, singin' wrong
But we all sing along
Sing along 
We just raise up our glass, we don't give a rats ass
If you're a Democrat or republican
We're happy to be here and that you can see
We're just all drunk Americans
In these neon lights, we're all stars, we're all stripes,
And we're all drunk Americans
I don't mean to suggest that God's kingdom is a drunken mess, but the image of democrats and republicans, blacks and whites, prom queens and strippers gathering together at the same table is reminiscent of the apostle Paul's image of God's kingdom (Galatians 3:28):
There is neither Jew nor Gentile,
neither slave nor free,
nor is there male and female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus
There have been others, such as Tony Campolo, who have compared God's kingdom to a party ("A Church That Throws Birthday Parties for Prostitutes"). And when the late Baptist preacher, Will Campbell, who was one of four people who escorted the black students who integrated the Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools in 1957, was asked where he attended church, he referenced a neighborhood bar, remarking that its patrons would give their lives for one another, which is how the church is supposed to be. Hard to argue with that.

PS: The video of Keith's song appears below:

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

RFRA: Indiana, Arkansas, and Bill Clinton

A friend of mine posed the following question to me: What if a neo-Nazi group walked into a Jewish-owned bakery and ordered a cake with, "Happy Birthday Aldof" written across the top? Or, what if the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan ordered a cake with "Keep our Kountry Klean" on it from a bakery owned by African-Americans? Could either bakery refuse to serve them because the what was being asked of them violated their beliefs? And if so, how does that differ from conservative Christians refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay or lesbian couple's wedding? I didn't have a good answer for my friend (and if you're wondering, he attends a "open and affirming" church), probably because there isn't a lot of difference between the two scenarios.

However, we don't even have to envisage Jewish or African-American owned bakeries. Simply imagine a bakery owned by a secularist who has serious moral problems with neo-Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler's birth or the Ku Klux Klan pining for an all-white America. Can he refuse service to those groups on moral grounds? Put differently, can he bake cakes for them in good conscience? My guess is no, but can the state force him too? Possibly.

Interestingly, Indiana and Arkansas are not the first states to pass such religious freedom bills. In fact, they are the 20th and 21st states. The legislation is based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that was passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and the reason why so many states are passing their own RFRAs is because that in 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that RFRA only applied to the federal government. The legislation does vary from state to state, and the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, a church-state watchdog group that I have blogged about previously ("The Top Religious Liberty Stories of 2014"), released a statement that argues, in part, that the Indiana and Arkansas RFRAs do not adequately balance the rights of religious claimants with those of third parties:
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and state RFRAs are important to ensure heightened protection for religious liberty for all. State RFRAs should mirror the delicate balance achieved in the federal law. Both Indiana and Arkansas passed legislation that falls short of that goal in several ways, tilting the balance in favor of religious claimants and against the government’s ability to protect other compelling interests. RFRAs allow us to protect religious liberty with an eye to the well-being of society and rights of third parties, including civil rights of the LGBT community and others.
Balance is a key idea here. Peoples' rights are not unlimited. They can only be exercised up to the point that they do not infringe upon the rights of others, and striking the balance between the rights of different groups is not easy. In fact, I suspect our federal and state courts and legislatures often get it wrong.

Still, I can't help but think that some of the balancing reflects underlying notions of what we believe is good and just and right. In other words, most of us probably support a baker's right to refuse service to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan because they embrace values contrary to our notion of what is good. However, when it comes to the right of a baker to refuse service to a gay and lesbian couple, we are much more divided because a larger proportion of the U.S. supports the right of gays and lesbians to marry and a larger proportion doesn't. Notice now, however, that the debate is no longer about rights and balancing but about the morality of gay and lesbian marriage. That is a very different topic and one that I don't think will be settled (so to speak) anytime soon.

Acknowledging this divide, however, might help lead to compromises in terms of balancing the rights of different groups. In fact, the recent civil rights legislation passed in Utah may provide a model of a possible road ahead ("Utah Compromise Worth Consideration"). Compromise certainly sounds better than shoving one's morality down someone else's throat, regardless of whether it's rooted in a set of religious beliefs or a secular philosophy.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Correlation is Not (Necessarily) Causation

We are a cause-seeking people. When events occur simultaneously or in succession to one another it is natural for us to connect them, to see a cause and effect relationship. "As the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously noted, we find patterns in nature and look for the 'hidden springs and principles' that bring those patterns to life and let us navigate them. We can't help doing this. Nature made us so." (Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists)

Seeing patterns and linkages between events has served us well. We've benefited from realizing that rain helps crops grow, falling trees can be dangerous, and charging Rhinos can kill. However, sometimes we see patterns when there are none. It is helpful to remember that just because two things are correlated with one another doesn't mean that a cause and effect relationship exists. Consider, for instance, the following:
  • Ice cream sales and crime are positively associated with one another. When one increases, so does the other. Does this mean one causes the other? No. Instead, both are positively correlated with the weather. As temperatures rise, so does crime and ice cream sales.
  • Most car accidents occur within 25 miles of where the victims live. Does this mean that people drive better when they're on vacation? No. What it means is that we do most of our driving within 25 miles of where we live.
  • People who move to Florida are more likely to die than people who don't. Does this mean Florida is a more dangerous place to live than the rest of the United States. Probably not. But it does attract a disproportionate share of older Americans, who, of course, are more likely to die than younger Americans.
These are what we call "spurious" correlations, and they are all around us. Unfortunately, we are not always adept at separating the wheat (genuine correlations) from the chaff (spurious correlations). Take, for instance, the following graphs (from Steven Pinker, "The Better Angels of our Nature"). Which one do you think was generated randomly? People often pick the one on the right, but it's actually the one on the left. What typically throws folks off is the clustering in the random graph, but true randomness produces clustering.

Now consider the following plot of where V1 and V2 bombs hit during the German bombing of London. Many people thought the clustering of where the bombs hit indicated that Germans were able to target specific areas in London, but a study by R. D. Clarke demonstrated that the clustering of bomb hits did not differ from what one would expect if they landed randomly. 

In other words, many people saw cause and effect where there was none. But this was to be expected. It's in our nature to do so.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Hot Takedown: If You Like Sports and Numbers...

FiveThirtyEight is a data journalism website that relies heavily on the analysis of data with visualization and statistics. It takes its name from the number of electors in the United States electoral college and was created in 2008 by Nate Silver as a polling aggregation website. During the 2008 U.S. presidential primaries and general election, it compiled polling data through a unique methodology. Since then, it has published articles on a wide variety of topics, but it is probably best known for its election forecasts, including the 2012 presidential election in which it correctly predicted the vote winner of all 50 states. In 2010 it became a feature of the online version of The New York Times, and in 2013 it was acquired by ESPN.

Among the many topics it covers is sports (Silver is a statistician who first made his mark analyzing baseball data (i.e., sabermetrics)), and it recently began producing a sports podcast called Hot Takedown.
Hot takes are the predominant currency of sports talk these days. Sometimes they are grounded in fact; often they are based on almost willfully unsubstantiated opinion. Hot Takedown will try to measure the emerging narratives of the week (e.g., Pete Carroll made the worst call in football history at this year’s Super Bowl) against richer data (e.g., maybe Pete Carroll knew exactly what he was doing.)
For example, this week's podcast continued its coverage of March Madness, the Indiana Religious Freedom Law, the Chicago Cubs' decision to send prospect Kris Bryant to the minors (after he had an incredible spring season), and possible NFL point after changes. You can listen to the podcast at the FiveThirtyEight website ("Hot Takedown: The Final Four, The Cubs Sit Kris Bryant, Fixing The Extra Point"), or download it from iTunes, Stitcher, and ESPN PodCenter.