Sex Drives Conservatives Wild

Sex drives conservatives wild. It drives conservative Christians really wild. But it doesn’t drive them wild in a good way. Many of the social issues conservatives are most concerned about involve sex in one way or another. Pornography, promiscuity, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage all clearly involve sex. Other hot button issues are more of a by-product of sex. Abortion for example. Conservative Christians may say it’s about ‘life,’ but the whole issue clearly starts with sex. If you pin them down they’ll often say something along the lines of ‘well, they shouldn’t have had sex’ or ‘those are the consequences of having sex.’ Most conservatives hate former President Bill Clinton for many reasons, but they’ll never forgive the fact that he had sex in (or near) the Oval Office. They find it much easier to forgive former President Bush his many transgressions, not simply because he shares their views, but because his trespasses didn’t involve sex.

Conservatives complain about the moral decline of America over the past fifty years, and most of their complaints touch on sex. They hate the vulgarity of modern music, the provocativeness of modern fashion, and the tawdriness of contemporary television. I agree with them about television, but find it telling that they’re so outraged by sexuality on the small screen, but largely unconcerned by the pervasive violence on many television shows.

What is it about sex that drives conservative wild?

They’re wild about sex because, well because when you’re having sex, you are wild. You are fulfilling a wild, natural, animalistic urge. Biologists know that the sex drive is one of the strongest and most primal force in nature. Sex is life. Sex creates life. The main function of all living organisms is to pass genes on to the next generation, and most living organisms do this through sex. Therefore, sex is life, and life is sex.

Conservative Christians fundamentally disagree with this. They disdain Darwin, and abhor the idea that humans are animals. But here’s the problem: when they’re humping, they are animals. They might call it copulation, they may confine it exclusively within marriage, and they might do it staidly in the missionary position. But when they’re going at it, their hips are rocking, their butts are bouncing, and they’re grunting and groaning. Even the most religious person must understand, or at least feel, that they’re acting like an animal when they’re having sex.

It’s not surprising that European missionaries taught African natives the “missionary position.” Other positions are clearly animalistic. Seeing people copulate ‘doggy style’ is like watching … well, like watching dogs go at it.

Sex is a deeply natural urge. No one is taught how to have sex, they just figure it out. Perhaps two virgins will fumble around the first couple of times, but with very little practice they’ll be happily humping like rabbits. No one has to explain it because the conscious mind doesn’t really control it. The body insists on friction, and the hips comply. Even if you are conscious of what you’re doing, there comes a point when the body takes over and it’s almost impossible to stop. The body moves virtually on its own, often with a certain amount of animalistic moaning.

During sex, even the most committed conservative Christian must feel in his or her loins that the body has taken over. They must realize on some level that they’re doing what nature intended them to do. They may take comfort in the belief that God is the author of nature, and therefore what they’re doing is Godly, but they also must know that they’re behaving like an animal. And if they’re no different from an animal, then they are not a uniquely Godly creature, separate and apart from the animals.

Let me be blunt: sex is Darwin’s friend. There’s an old saying many Christians like to quote to justify religion: “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” It’s a cliché of dubious accuracy, but the point is that in certain situations there is doubt. Under fire everyone may seek divine intercession, which purportedly proves God’s existence. Let me suggest a corollary: “There are no creationists in the sack.”

Religious people sense this, and it worries them. The Catholic Encyclopedia’s definition of “Lust” talks about the inherent nature of sexual desire: “The pleasure which this vice has as its object is at once so attractive and connatural to human nature as to whet keenly a man’s desire, and so lead him into the commission of many other disorders in the pursuit of it.” Sex is gateway sin. It’s so desirable that people will engage in other sins – adultery, dishonesty, etc.—to get it. But perhaps the real problem is that once you’ve committed this sin and realized how un-sinful it really is, you may question the other teachings on sin.

Conservatives’ sex troubles don’t end there, because sex doesn’t just tug at your loins, it can pull at your heart and soul as well. This challenges many deeply held conservative beliefs, starting with the way that they believe that people interact with the world around them.

There’s a moment during intercourse when it seems as if everything in the world disappears except your own body, and the body in your arms. At that moment your only connection to the world is through another human being. You’re not connected to humanity by a shared acceptance of religious doctrine, or a shared sense of being one of God’s creatures. You are connected to humanity by a person. We’re Darwinists during the throws of passion, but at the end we’re Humanists.

There are many aspects of religion. People are religious because it provides lessons in morality, it provides historic continuity, and it provides social companionship. Some people seek tradition, some a sense of the supernatural or a way to understand things that seem inexplicable. Others seek moral clarity. But one common element is that religion provides a sense of connection to humanity, and an explanation for that connection.

Every person feels, on some level, that they’re connected to other people. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that empathy is universal, and extends even to people we’re not related to or don’t even know, though it’s stronger the closer we are and diminishes the further a person is from us. This innate sense of empathy provides a connection with other people, and creates a sense of the external. It makes us feel that there is something beyond ourselves. Throughout history the most common way to explain this feeling was through the divine. We are connected to each other because God made us all. We feel connected because we are mutually connected to our common creator.

But what happens when we feel that connection in a different way? What happens when that connection occurs during sex? We’re connected at the groin, but in that perfect moment when the world slips away and all that remains is what you hold in your arms, at that moment we’re connected to humanity not through God, not through shared beliefs, but through the person in our arms.

It shouldn’t be surprising that many young adults lose interest in religion at about the same time they become interested in sex. It’s no wonder that the least religious group is the most sexually active. According to a study by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, young adults age 18 to 24 are the group least likely to attend church, and a majority of people 18 to 34 don’t attend church.

Young people often feel adrift, and clearly church and religion don’t provide a sufficient sense of connection, so some kids search for this connection elsewhere. Some find it through sports or drugs or gangs, or a variety of positive and negative associations. Any many kids find this sense of connection through sex, and the relationship that often comes with it.

But once these young adults begin to marry and have children, their attitudes change. According to the Evangelical Lutheran study, church attendance begins to rise when people have children, and becomes a majority when those children reach the age of six. These young parents are worried about how their kids will deal with society. No parent wants their child to venture out into a crazy world. Parenthood is the time when people start to wonder about the behavior and motivation of other people. It’s the time when parents want to start teaching their children more stable and traditional values, and religion certainly provides all of those things. It provides an easy and convenient framework for lessons about human behavior, as well as a safe social environment for children to interact.

But the cycle repeats. When these children reach adolescence, and have their first sexual experience, they turn away from religion. But the reason they turn away from religion is not simply that they gain a sense of human connection with another person, or feel the Darwinian tug in their loins. The reason they turn away from religion is that they are often pushed away. One of the reasons they abandon religion is because many religious people, particularly in deeply conservative denominations, have a convoluted, contradictory, and even hypocritical view of sex. Young adults abandon religion because it is through sex, more than anything else, that many religious leaders expose their base hypocrisy.

Young people turn away from organized religion at this point because of the illogical and inconsistent teachings they are hearing from religious leaders regarding sex. And this makes them question religion in general. The problem is that the Bible offers very contradictory lessons about sex. Conservative Christians promote abstinence, and justify it with scripture. “Don’t be immoral in matters of sex. That is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is.” (1 Corinthians 6:18 CEV) “Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people.” (Ephesians 5:3 NLT) “Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage. God will surely judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery.” (Hebrews 13:4.)

The problem is that while the Church and parents push this view, any mildly curious kid can read the Bible and find wildly diverging lessons about sex. Kids this age are curious about many things, and this curiosity certainly extends to the Bible. The Bible contains rigid rules regarding sexual morality, but there are also stories of wild promiscuity by some of the most famous men in the Bible, including Abraham (the father of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), King David, and King Solomon.

There are some choice lessons about sex in the Bible. For example a man who rapes a woman is to pay her father 50 shekels and marry her. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29.) That might have made sense in ancient times, but it sounds horrific today.

The Old Testament condemns adultery, (Exodus 20:14, Lev. 18:7-17, Deut. 5:18) but seems to defined it exclusively as a married woman having sex with a man not her husband. (See, Leviticus 18:20, 20:10 and Deuteronomy, 22:22-23.) Nothing prohibits a married man from having sex with a woman not his wife. In fact there are many examples throughout the Old Testament of men having concubines, like Abraham, or multiple wives, like Solomon and David. This double standard sounds grotesque to modern ears.

King David, one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, had multiple wives. The Bible names at least three: Michal, Abigail, Bhinoam, (1 Samuel 25:42-44). But that wasn’t quite enough for David. A woman named Bathsheba caught his fancy, but she was married to one of David’s soldiers. So David sent the man to die in battle so that he could have Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2-27). Of course the Lord was displeased, and punishes David by killing the child he had with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 12:15-16). Not only does this story make David sound like a total creep, it also makes God sound a bit misogynistic.

David’s son Solomon decided to outdo the old man, and had “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.” (1 Kings 11:3.) Solomon clearly had an erotic bent, which can be seen in his poems, collected as the Song of Solomon. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.” Song of Solomon 1:2.

Giggling teenagers might like this stanza:

I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on?
I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door,
and my bowels were moved for him.
I rose up to open to my beloved;
and my hands dropped with myrrh,
and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh,
upon the handles of the lock.
[Song of Solomon 5:3-5 KJV]

Plenty of Biblical scholars believe that “my bowels were moved for him” implies an orgasm. Dirty minds throughout the ages have read that passage as a not so veiled metaphor for sex and its sticky byproducts.

Curious young minds are hearing parents and preachers promote abstinence with carefully selected scripture, while Solomon seems to encourage them to get their freak on. Teenagers are particularly aware of the hypocrisy of adults, and just at the time when they are skeptical of authority, authority figures give them ample reason to be skeptical.

It’s hard for anyone reading these stories not to conclude that the Bible is inconsistent, if not hypocritical about sex. And if it’s so inconsistent and wrong about sex, couldn’t it be wrong about other things? And if the Bible is wrong, could other aspects of religion be wrong as well? So the inconsistency about sex undoubtedly leads some kids to question not just the Bible, but also religion.

It seems strange that someone would give teenagers a reason to be skeptical, but a rigid adherence to inconsistent Biblical rules does exactly that. If, as the Fundamentalists say, the Bible is Truth, then how do the rules for sexual morality set out by Paul coexist with the rules applied to David and Solomon?

If David can pretty much get away with having a sexual rival killed, your average teenager might wonder, how much trouble can I get in to for a little tumble after school?

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that sex, or sins of the flesh leads to: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.” (Gal. 5:19 – 21.) It also leads one to question authority, and in particular Biblical authority.

For Paul, sex was a gateway sin which leads to other transgressions. For modern conservative Christians, sex leads to curiosity and doubt. And so sex must be stigmatized, demonized, and punished. But the problem, as the Catholic Encyclopedia pointed out, is that sex is so central to human nature that it can’t be completely suppressed. It turns out that the harsher the attack, the greater the hypocrisy, and the more people are repelled. And so the harder conservative Christians fight, the more people they turn away. It’s enough to drive you wild.

Cherry Picking The Bible

Opponents of gay marriage, and gay rights in general, always refer to the Bible to support their views. But surprisingly they never mention Jesus and what he thought of homosexuality. Could it be because he never condemned homosexuality?

The opponents of gay rights, primarily conservative Christians, are correct that the Bible condemns homosexuality, specifically in Leviticus and a few references in the New Testament. But there are many other things that are condemned in the Old Testament, like getting a tattoo or eating shellfish, and these same Christians don’t get worked up about those. In fact, much of Leviticus consists of lists of prohibitions, condemnations and abominations, but conservative Christians aren’t trying to influence public policy based on those teachings. In fact they virtually never mention the vast majority of prohibitions from the Bible. They focus almost exclusively on issues of sexual morality in general but are particularly worked up by homosexuality.

It bears repeating that Christ never once condemns homosexuality. He actually never even mentions it. Not a single reference: and absolutely no condemnation. And when given the chance, Jesus didn’t condemn sexual immorality, but rather condemned the hypocrisy of those leveling the charges of sexual impropriety.

Why then do some “Christians” look past Christ’s lack of teaching on the issue, and his clear example of forgiveness, to pull out a few select statements from the Old Testament to condemn certain sexual behavior? By the same token, why do they ignore all of the other things that the Bible and the Old Testament condemn? Why do they ignore rules on food, grooming, human relations, and religious observation? Why do they ignore things that are condemned, like tattooing, as well as things called an “abomination,” like eating shellfish? Why do they sort through all of the prohibitions in the Old Testament, and pull out the one condemning homosexuality?

Is there something in the Bible that justifies this selective application of the Old Testament? In other words, is there a rule in the New Testament that explains what provisions of the Old Testament are important and must be observed by Christians? Well, yes, actually there is. In fact there are a couple of rules in the New Testament that specifically describe the application of provisions of the Old Testament. Unfortunately, like much of the Bible, these rules are ambiguous and contradictory. And here is the best thing, even though there are rules, modern conservative Christians ignore them.

The rules in question developed in the early years of the Christianity as different groups of evangelists sought converts in different parts of the Roman Empire. The evangelist Paul spent most of his time in the Eastern Roman Empire (modern Greece and Turkey) preaching to pagans and non-Jews. The remaining disciples, chief among them Simon Peter, Jesus’s one time right hand man, and James, the brother of Jesus, stayed in Jerusalem and sought converts among the Jews. A debate arose between the two groups over whether or not a convert to Christianity had to follow Jewish law. After all, Jesus was a Jew. So did this mean that his followers must be as well? Those preaching to non-Jews were encountering two issues that were making people reluctant to convert to Christianity through Judaism. The first involved “kosher” dietary restrictions, which were difficult for many non-Jews to follow. The second was circumcision, which was scaring off potential male converts.

One time, when Paul was in Jerusalem, the two groups gathered to discussion the issue. The discussion plays out in two sections of the Bible – Chapter 15 of Acts, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians – and they have two slightly different versions of events. In Acts the two groups each present their views, and then James, the brother of Jesus, speaks.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)

A group of “elders” then wrote a letter explaining these provisions for evangelists and for the new churches in the east. Acts doesn’t specify Paul’s role in the discussion or letter, but implies that he was one of the “elders.” The letter paraphrased James’ statement, and essentially said that the rules on sexual immorality and a number of rules dealing with food were the important rules to follow. So that’s one version. How closely to modern conservative Christians adhere to this rule? Well, they obsess over the rules on sexual morality but completely ignore the rules on food.

The story set out in Galatians indicates a great deal more conflict between the two groups. During the debate Simon Peter began to distance himself from the group opposing the requirement for circumcision. Paul got angry and accused Simon of hypocrisy because he was known to eat un-kosher food with Gentiles.

“You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? … We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2: 15-16, emphasis added)

A bit later Paul summarized his views: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. … I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:19-21) Paul is saying that if salvation can be found through adherence to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, then there is no reason to follow Christ. This creates another possible rule for applying the Old Testament: belief in Jesus is the key to salvation, and not adherence to Laws set out in the Old Testament. This sounds like a nearly complete rejection of Old Testament teaching. Modern conservative Christians like to preach the part about belief in Jesus as the key to salvation, but conveniently and completely ignore the part where Paul repudiates “the law.”

Of course they can do this because Paul doesn’t completely repudiate the law. He refers to rules set forth in the law, but he just selectively incorporates them. For example, in Romans, Paul condemns homosexuality, but also condemns in equally harsh terms, slander, insolence, disobedience to parents, and a host of other transgressions. (Romans 1: 24-32) In Corinthians he not only condemns homosexuality but also fornication, idolatry, adultery, drunkenness and extortion. (1 Corr. 6:9-10.) And modern conservative Christians downplay most or what Paul condemns, except homosexuality and sexual morality.

So the New Testament has ambiguous rules regarding the incorporation of the teachings of the Old Testament. Can Jesus give us any guidance? After all, Christianity is supposedly based on his teachings. Unfortunately Jesus also seems to have an inconsistent view of the Old Testament and its teachings.

Jesus only specifically mentions the “Law” of Moses only once, in the Sermon on the Mount. During this extensive Sermon he said that he would not change a “jot or tittle” of the Law so long as heaven and earth endures. (Matthew 5:18) That seems pretty clear, but unfortunately in the same sermon he specifically rejected certain provisions of the Old Testament. He rejects the law on divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) and harsh punishment like an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38). Elsewhere in the Gospels he rejects dietary laws (Matthew 15:11), and strict observance of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). It’s notable that in most cases he rejects harsh provisions from the Old Testament in favor of a broader, more forgiving interpretation. Rather than an “eye for an eye” he says to “turn the other cheek.”

The rules from both Acts and Galatians set out above don’t specifically mention divorce or punishment, so it’s not clear if Christ was following either of those rules. But both Acts and Galatians do specifically condemn sexual immorality. How did Christ deal with this issue?

There are two stories in the Gospels where Jesus is presented with women accused of sexual immorality, and in both cases (Luke 7:44-48 and John 8:3-11) he forgives the accused, and seems to condemn her accusers. In one of the most famous stories in the Bible, when a group of Pharisees bring him a woman accused of adultery, Jesus says “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Jesus then looked down and drew letters in the dirt. After a few moments he looked up and the crowd was gone. He asked the woman if anyone had condemned her and she said no. He said, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11) Jesus clearly doesn’t condone her behavior, but he hardly seems worked up about it.

This is a curious incident to consider when discussing Christ’s approach to the Old Testament. The Pharisees seem to believe that Jesus’ teachings contradicted the Law. When they brought the woman to him they said, “Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?” (John 8:5.) Why would they ask that question if they thought that Jesus assiduously taught the law? The Gospel of John even says that they asked this question to test him. (John 8:6.) The incident strongly suggests that Jesus had a reputation for diverging from the Law of Moses.

Jesus doesn’t provide a uniform rule for applying Old Testament teachings, but he does provide a clear example of behavior throughout the Gospels. Instead of “do as I say, not as I do,” Christ’s lesson was “do as I do, not as I say.” What he said may occasionally be unclear, but what he did was not. The clear lesson of his example is tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness.

But perhaps he did provide a rule. At the Last Supper, after Judas left to inform the authorities, Jesus tells the remaining disciples that he will be with them only a little longer, so he provides them with a parting lesson. He then tells them, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

This New Commandment was Christ’s last admonition to his followers: Love each other. This commandment certainly explains Christ’s behavior, and defines his attitudes towards the lessons of the Law of Moses. Can we develop a logically consistent rule for incorporating the teachings of the Old Testament into the New based on this Christ’s new Commandment? I think so.

Paul said that “a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” While one aspect of faith is belief in Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins, another aspect of faith in Jesus Christ must be faith in his lessons and examples. I would go further and suggest that “faith” must mean faithful adherence to these lessons. Christ said that “everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” That was the example he lived, and the lesson he gave to his followers. Christ’s overarching example was love, and He selectively applied a few teachings of the Old Testament based on this lesson. Let me suggest that the application of this rule would mean that the provisions of the Old Testament that comply with Christ’s New Commandment should be followed, and those that contradict it should be ignored.

Many conservative Christians ignore Christ’s New Commandment and the clear example of Christ’s behavior, and arbitrarily cherry pick provisions from the Old Testament to justify their beliefs. Those who use the Bible to justify intolerance can certainly find words to support their beliefs. But they won’t find those words in Christ’s mouth. They don’t find support for their actions in Christ’s behavior. And they certainly can’t justify their beliefs with Christ’s new commandment.

Jesus for the Non-Religious

In an increasingly secular and non-religious society, why should anyone care about religion, why should they learn about Christianity and Jesus?

The reason is that modern society is the product of its history and what came before. A person can’t truly understand the modern world without understanding the ancient world, and religion shaped ancient societies and was a major force in the ancient world. A person can’t truly understand the modern Western world, the world we live in today, without understanding the development of “Western Civilization,” and a person can’t understand “Western Civilization” without understanding Christianity. Christianity is one of the major foundations of the Western world. Christianity planted the seeds which flowered into the Enlightenment, which is the foundation for the modern liberal democracies that we live in today, and the scientific revolution, which created all of the technological marvels that define our world. So to understand the modern world a person needs to understand the influence of Christianity on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. A person will only understand those eras if they have some understanding of Christianity itself. So even atheists should learn about Christianity. But they should understand the reality of Christianity, and not the Christian myth of Christianity.

To truly understand Christianity a person needs to understand Jesus his life and his teachings, Paul and his teachings, and the history of the early church.

My point here is not to explain Christianity for the non-religious but to explain why Christianity is important. Christianity is important in the creation of political liberalism and the scientific revolution.

Here is an interesting historical fact that explains why it is important to understand Christianity: the “scientific revolution” only happened in Europe, in Christendom. It did not happen in the Arab world, despite their illustrious scientific history, and it did not happen in China despite its technological achievements.

There were many amazing Arab scientists, and the foundation of modern mathematics and chemistry were laid by Arab thinks and scientists. (And the Arabs learned a great deal about math from the Indians.) Yet for some reason Arab scientists never produced anything akin to the European Scientific Revolution. For some reason, around the 12th Century, scientists in Arabia seemed to stop in their quest for new discoveries. But European scientists and thinkers took those Arabian discoveries and developed modern science.

It is also important to understand that many important technological advances were first developed in China. The Chinese developed the printing press hundreds of years before Gutenberg. But they didn’t use it to print books to disseminate scientific, theological, and philosophical knowledge. They used it to create beautiful posters. The Chinese also developed gun powder hundreds of years before the west. But they didn’t use it to create weapons that allowed nations to expand, or explorers to venture into hostile lands. They used it for fireworks. Europeans took those technologies and created the modern world.

There was something about the West that made it particularly open and amenable to scientific advances. One component is the legacy of the ancient Greeks. But another is Christianity.

Christianity opened the door for the scientific revolution. It began with Martin Luther who began the Reformation by challenging the control of the church over the religious beliefs of individuals. Luther’s idea, that Christians had the inherent freedom to develop their own understanding of God eventually morphed into the idea that thinkers could explore ideas outside of the confines of religious teaching. And this led to a flowering of both scientific and political thought. One branch led to the scientific revolution and the other led to the development of political liberalism and the era known as the Enlightenment. Just as the scientific revolution only developed in Christendom, the Enlightenment and political liberalism only developed in Christendom. There is no parallel in any other religious tradition. Political liberalism is the end product of the Reformation. Luther liberated believers from the Church, and subsequent thinkers liberated individuals from the state.

It is also important to understand that many of the early European scientists were deeply religious and thought that their discoveries were glorifying God’s creation. Galileo and Francis Bacon were deeply devout. Isaac Newton wrote more about religion than about his scientific discoveries, and he was absolutely convinced that his discoveries were merely revealing God’s genius. Charles Darwin first studied theology and intended to become a priest until he became interested in biology. He too thought he was revealing the miracle of God’s creation, up until he put together his basic idea of how living organisms change over time. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk.

The hatred that many Christians have for science and liberalism is curious because both are the product of Christianity. And the antipathy that many scientists and liberals have for religion is also strange because their beliefs only exist because of Christianity.

I talk about this a bit more in The Paradox of Christianity [link]

So to understand the modern world, the world of science and the world of political liberalism you have to understand the influence of Christianity on the development of those ideas during the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. And to understand the Enlightenment you should understand the Reformation, and how Christianity split into Catholics and Protestants. And that requires an understanding of the central teachings of those branches of Christianity.

But in order to understand any of this it is clearly necessary to understand Christianity. And to understand Christianity is it necessary to understand Christ, and to understand Christ we need to understand Jesus, and how he became Christ. And that is what I have tried to do in my novel

Jesus and the Old Testament

I find it interesting that Conservative Christians seem to prefer the harsh and judgmental teachings of the Old Testament to Jesus’ more ecumenical teachings from the New Testament. This has long made me wonder (and was part of the reason I wrote Heaven and Earth): what did Jesus have to say about the Old Testament? I also wonder how Christ’s teachings about the Old Testament influenced the way modern Christians view Jesus, and view the Old Testament.

Jesus makes only a handful of specific mentions of Old Testament teachings, which I discuss below. But it is clear that he didn’t strictly teach or observe Old Testament teachings. Why then do those who claim to be Christ’s followers want to strictly apply a few provisions from the Old Testament? I deal with that issue in a separate essay, but for now, let’s go through the Gospels and look at how Jesus approached the Old Testament.

First, however, let me note that at the time of Jesus there wasn’t an “Old Testament.” The Jews had the Torah, which was a collection of religious writings and teachings. At the time there was no definitive or canonical “Torah” made up of specific teachings beyond the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Many of the books that are now considered part of the Old Testament were also part of the Torah, but the specific list varied from place to place, and more importantly not all Synagogues had a complete set of these “books.” That raises a second point. The “books” were actually scrolls, as the modern bound books that we are familiar with today did not exist at the time. And so there was no set order to books, beyond the Pentateuch. So when I speak of the “Old Testament,” keep in mind that Jesus and his followers didn’t have a copy of the King James Version of the Bible for easy reference.

If you read the Gospels in order, the first time you hear Jesus specifically discuss the teachings of the Old Testament is in the Sermon on the Mount. And he seems to suggest strong adherence to its teachings. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19)

This seems like a pretty definitive endorsement of the Old Testament. Jesus says that he will not change a letter, or even the stroke of a letter of the law. The King James Version uses the wonderful term “jot or a tittle.” A jot is the jot, or stroke of a pen, and a tittle is the accent mark used on some letters.

I should note that to many evangelical Christians, Jesus is saying that he has “fulfilled” the law. Since He has “fulfilled” the law, he is somehow beyond it, and can therefor alter it. So many of the following examples, where Jesus alters or contradicts the Law of Moses, or other Old Testament teachings, are OK, because He has “fulfilled” the law. This, of course, creates a separate problem. If Jesus has “fulfilled” the law, why then do some conservative Christians want to rigidly apply certain provisions of the Old Testament? And in particular why do they want to enforce provisions that Jesus never even mentioned? (I address that question in a separate essay called Cherry Picking the Bible.) (I should also briefly note that a number of Paul’s letters are addressed to church congregations where the followers of Christ thought that because he had “fulfilled” the law, they didn’t have to obey it. That issue is beyond the scope of this essay.)

There is a section of Luke, often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain, where Jesus addresses some of the same issues as the Sermon on the Mount. In the version in Luke, Jesus says that the “law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.” (Luke 16:16) But then Jesus says “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luke 16:17) So in Luke it is John the Baptist who has fulfilled the Law, but in Matthew it is Jesus.

Not long after saying the law will remain unchanged in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-22). Jesus says “it was said to the people long ago” as if it was some obscure legend, little more than an old wife’s tale. But it was more important than that. It is actually one of the Ten Commandments. (You shall not kill. Exodus 20:13.) Of course Jesus isn’t specifically contradicting the Commandment, but enhancing it, and creating an even harsher rule. That’s fine, but it does change the Law, which means that he is not applying the rule literally.

A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount he takes exception to the teachings on adultery, and again creates a harsher rule. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28) He has similar rules regarding divorce: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt 31-31) Jesus also tweaks the rules on oaths “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…” (Matt. 5:33-34. See also Matt 19:2-12) In each of these cases his rule is harsher than the rule from the Old Testament. But if, as he said, he was not going to change a word of the teachings of the Old Testament and the Law of Moses, shouldn’t his rule be precisely the same as the rules from the Old Testament? Even making the rule harsher is technically a change.

Jesus goes on, and this time he does contradict the Old Testament more directly. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matt. 5:38-39) The punishment of an eye for an eye is directly from the Law of Moses as set forth in Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 19:21. Leviticus 24:20 says that “if a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Here Jesus is directly and explicitly contradicting the teaching of the Old Testament. So much for not changing a “jot” or “tittle.”

In the next paragraph Jesus actually misquotes the Old Testament. He says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:43-44) The Old Testament, in Leviticus says “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev. 19:18) but it doesn’t specifically and directly say to “hate your enemy.” Of course other parts of the Old Testament certainly allude to hating one’s enemies.

There is a story, told in slightly different versions in Matthew (12:1-11), Mark (2:27) and Luke (6:1-4), where Jesus and his disciples are walking through a wheat field on the Sabbath. Someone observes the disciples plucking the head of the grain to eat them, and they confront Jesus, saying “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:2) This violates the Fourth Commandment, which is to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. “On it you shall not do any work.” (Ex. 20:8). So the accuser in this situation is referring to a clear rule from the Ten Commandments. And how does Jesus, who promised not to change a jot or tittle of the Law, respond? In Matthew and Luke he notes that Priests work on the Sabbath, but in Mark he says “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark2:27. This certainly sounds like an almost direct repudiation of one of the Ten Commandments. (In the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus also heals a man on the Sabbath, and is admonished. (Matt. 12:9-10, Luke 6:6-11, Luke 13:10-17, Luke 14:1-6, John 5:8-17.)) In each case Jesus has an excuse, but also in each case he has violated the Fourth Commandment.

In Matthew there is a story where Jesus is questioned by a group of Pharisees about the habits of his disciples. They note that his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. (Matt. 15:1-2) Jesus responds by accusing the Pharisees of creating rules that contradict the commandment to honor your father and mother (that’s the Fifth Commandment, Ex. 20:12). Jesus then says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Matt. 15:11. (There is a parallel story in Mark 7:15.) This is one of my favorite statements by Jesus. It is a variation of the old saying, “by your words you shall be known.” But this statement clearly contradicts a whole range of dietary laws from the Old Testament. See in particular Leviticus 11:1- 46.

Let me digress briefly here to discuss Christians and dietary laws of the Old Testament. In Acts there is a lengthy discussion of dietary laws and whether the newly converted Gentile Christians had to follow them. This was at the “Council at Jerusalem,” where the apostles discuss the important teachings of the Old Testament, and how the Old Testament should apply to the new followers of Christ. The elders, which included Paul, Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, agreed on a letter to be sent to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. The letter said, in part, that ”You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29) So it sounds as if they endorsed at least some of the Kosher rules. This is interesting since modern Christians ignore this admonition, but it is also interesting since it seems to puts them at odds with Jesus.

And then, in the Gospel of John, at the last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood. (John 6:53) Catholics hear this passage at every mass, and it can certainly be read in conjunction with the idea that Christ has “fulfilled” the Law. But it clearly violates the prohibitions against blood, which is from Genesis Gen. 9:4) as well as the letter cited above (Acts 15:29). But obviously if you see Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament then he can violate the Old Testament laws at will. But doesn’t that also mean that Christ’s teachings on the Old Testament should supersede Old Testament rules, as well as Paul’s interpretation of those rules? (So why follow Paul’s condemnations of sexual immorality while ignoring Christ’s much more tolerant approach?)

Towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked a couple of direct questions about the Old Testament teachings, and his answer are quite revealing. In the first story a man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus says “keep the commandments.” The man replies “Which ones?” (Matt. 19:16-18. Similar story in Mark 10:18.) Now if you believe that the Bible is literally true, and you believe, as many Christian’s profess, that you should “keep the commandments,” and you believe that Jesus has not changed a jot or tittle of the Law, then Jesus’ answer should obviously be, ‘why all of them, of course.’ But that, in fact, is not what Jesus says. He says “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is actually only five of the ten, and “love your neighbor” may be a wonderful rule, but it’s not in the Ten Commandments. (See, Exodus 20:1-17.)

In Exodus, God gives Moses the following 10 commandments: “(1) You shall have no other gods before me. (2) You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. … (3) You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (4) Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. … (5) Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (6) You shall not murder. (7) You shall not commit adultery. (8) You shall not steal. (9) You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house … wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:1-17. Reference numbers added.)

When Jesus instructs the man he misses the first four, and sort of twists the tenth commandment. But his version of the Ten Commandments actually comes from a different book of the Pentateuch, from Leviticus. Leviticus 19 includes the provision that you should not “seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) That is a truly wonderful idea, but it is not in the Ten Commandments that God gives Moses on Mount Sinai as set forth in Exodus.

A bit later Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees and Sadducees (these were Jewish sects of the time), who question him. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:35-40. There is a similar story in Mark 12:29-31.) Again it is noteworthy that the Ten Commandments that God givers Moses on Mount Sinai does not mention a commandment to Love God, or love your neighbor. That’s in a different version of the Commandments, set out in Deuteronomy Chapter 6. This is a section known as the Shema, which is a Jewish blessing, that begins “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” (Deut. 6:4-6) It is interesting that Jesus quotes from this most Jewish of the versions of the commandments. It is also interesting to note that this provision to “Love God” is not contained in the version of the Ten Commandments from Exodus. And neither is the admonition to “love your neighbor.” Certainly the Ten Commandments tell you not to covet or steal from your neighbor, but that is very different from loving your neighbor. So Jesus is quoting the Shema and not the Ten Commandments of Moses.

There are similar stories, told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, where Jesus’ mother and brothers comes to see him, but he ignores them. He says, motioning to the crowd gathered around him that “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21) That’s great, but doesn’t the Fifth Commandment specifically say “Honor your father and mother”? And so hasn’t Jesus directly violated the Fifth Commandment?

In Luke, Jesus is eating with a group of Pharisees and a woman comes and washes his feet. The woman is described as having lived a “sinful life” and one of the Pharisees asks Jesus if he knows what kind of woman she is. Jesus responded by saying that she has shown what kind of woman she is by the love she has shown him by washing his feet, and because of this “her many sins have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:44-48). A second similar story from the Gospel of John is one of the most famous in the Bible. Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem and a group of Pharisees come to him with a women “caught in adultery.” They say that “the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (Adultery violates one of the Ten commandments, Exodus 20:14, and the punishment for adultery is death, Lev. 20:10.) Many Biblical scholars contend that it was a trick to get Jesus to explicitly contradict the teachings of the Law of Moses. But Jesus doesn’t explicitly contradict the Law, he makes an end run: “Let any one of you who is without sin,” he says, “be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-11) No one does, and he forgives the woman and tells her to leave her life of sin.

This second story raises an obvious question: why would the Pharisees think that they could get Jesus to contradict the teachings of the Law of Moses if he had a reputation for scrupulously following the Law? It seems clear that he must have been known for contradicting the teachings of the Law, or perhaps for altering or expanding on those teachings. And so they confronted him.

In both situations Jesus noted that these women have sinned, but then he ignored Old Testament rules on sexual morality and implicitly ridiculed those being judgmental and applying a strict interpretation of Biblical teaching. Is he changing a jot, a tittle, or quite a bit more?

Finally near the end of the Gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples that he will not be with them much longer. (John 13:33) And so he leaves them with a parting message. He says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) He reiterates this commandment twice more. In the next chapter he says “If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15) Note that he does not say keep the commandments, but “my” commands. And then, as he sends his disciples out to preach he says again: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Matt. 15:9-12) Now, this is the version of Jesus that I believe in, and this is the commandment that I believe is the sum and substance of Christ’s message. But there is absolutely no denying that this particular “commandment” is not found in the original Ten Commandments, or even in the Old Testament. Certainly the Christ who has fulfilled the Law can proclaim a new Commandment. But just as certainly this New Commandment changes far more than a jot or tittle of the Law of Moses.

Reading the Gospels and looking at Jesus’ relationship with, and teaching of, the “Old Testament” or the Law of Moses, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t scrupulously adhere to those teachings. This raises a couple of issues. First, if Jesus didn’t strictly adhere to the “Old Testament” what does that say about Biblical literalism? How can it all be literally true if the main character in the second episode disagrees with things in the first episode? Second, if Jesus takes issue with Old Testament teachings why should contemporary society be forced to abide by those rules. Specifically, if Christ never mentioned homosexuality, and in many other situations disagreed with harsh and judgmental teachings from the Law of Moses, why do modern “Christians” want to foist that one law onto society?

The World’s Most Famous Patent Examiner

Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2007, 551 pages, $32.

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, he was not only the most famous physicist of all time, he was also perhaps the most famous person of his own time. That says a lot for a century that produced many outsized figures from Joseph Stalin to Winston Churchill. Those men, like Einstein, changed the world. But Einstein also changed the way we look at, and think about, the world. His theories in various aspects of physics led to the development of lasers and the atomic bomb, but his theories of quanta, relativity and the space time continuum changed the way we understand the universe and our place in it.

Albert Einstein died at the age of 76, and in his long and eventful life he was not only the world’s preeminent physicist, but also a noted peace activist (due in no small measure to his horror at the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his feeling that he was complicit by urging FDR to develop the atomic bomb), Zionist, and ladies man (with two marriages and innumerable affairs). This new biography, by Walter Isaacson, covers this life in copious and loving detail. But Isaacson spends considerable time on Einstein’s theories, describing not only what he discovered, but how he developed his theories.

Much of Einstein’s fame derives from five brief papers he published when he was an obscure patent examiner in Bern, Switzerland. Most historians assume that the years that Einstein spent as an examiner were wasted, little more than a way-station on his way to greatness, and a means to make money while engaged in more worthy intellectual pursuits in his free time. But according to Isaacson, Einstein’s work at the patent office provided an important practical grounding that directly contributed to his theoretical work.

Einstein took the job as an examiner because he was unable to find work as a teacher after graduating in 1900. His grades in college had been mixed: good in physics but mediocre in math. (The story that he failed math is a myth.) But he frequently clashed with his professors—due in no small part to his irascible nature and unvarnished contempt for authority—and graduated fourth in his class of five students.

While working at the patent office, Einstein spent many evenings with a group of like-minded friends, reading and discussing philosophy. Einstein was particularly influenced by David Hume and Ernst Mach. Hume believed that the only reliable knowledge was that perceived directly by the senses. From Mach, Einstein learned that “concepts have meaning only if we can point to objects to which they refer….”

In 1905, Einstein published five groundbreaking papers that ultimately changed physics. The first paper proposed that light came not only in waves but also in packets of energy that Einstein labeled quanta. The second paper, which was also submitted as Einstein’s doctoral dissertation, determined the number of molecules in a specified volume of matter. The third paper explained Brownian motion, the odd (and at the time unexplained) movement of visible particles in an otherwise stable environment such as water. Einstein proved that the molecules were essentially bouncing around even when the environment (gas or liquid) appeared stable. This proof, when taken in conjunction with the second paper, proved that all matter is made up of atoms, a point that seems obvious today, but was widely disputed at the time.

The fourth paper set forth Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Relativity is a counterintuitive theory, which makes it difficult to describe and even harder to comprehend, but Isaacson makes it understandable. The simple explanation for special relativity is that all of the laws of physics are the same for all observers moving at a constant velocity relative to each other. Relativity, along with quanta, disproved the then dominant “ether” theory of the void of space.

The fifth paper, which was merely a three page addendum to the special relativity paper, noted that since the speed of light is the only true constant in the Universe, mass and energy must be related. As Einstein explained in a letter to a friend: “light carries mass with it. …. [t]he relativity principle, together with Maxwell’s equations [proving that the speed of light is constant] requires that mass be a direct measure of the energy contained in a body.” He described this concept with the simple equation: E=mc2.

Isaacson attributes a number of factors to the development of Einstein’s theories. Chief among them was the fact that Einstein thought largely in pictures. This probably hindered his mathematical studies, but it allowed him to visualize theoretical problems (including patents), and helped him develop the thought experiments that underlay most of his theories. A second important factor was his disdain for authority, which compelled him to question existing ideas, including long established physical theories. Another important factor was his understanding of the philosophies of Hume and Mach. But a significant factor was Einstein’s work at a patent examiner.

Dealing with patents grounded Einstein’s thoughts in tangible things and not the more speculative world of academia. He spent his days working with real world problems, so it is not surprising that he explained his theories with real world examples: balls dropped in moving trains, riding endless elevators, moving observers watching stationary clocks, etc.

Einstein himself credited his time at the patent office with contributing to his theories, stating that there was “a definite connection between the knowledge acquired at the patent office and the theoretical results” of his papers. In particular, working at the patent office “stimulated me to see the physical ramifications of theoretical concepts.”

Working as a patent examiner also freed Einstein from some of the drawbacks of academia. According to Einstein, “an academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality.” Isaacson claims that had Einstein “been consigned to the job of an assistant to a professor, he might have felt compelled to churn out safe publications and be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions.”

Even after publishing these five groundbreaking papers, Einstein was unable to secure an academic position for another four years. He remained at the patent office and continued to write papers in theoretical physics, publishing six papers in 1906, and ten in 1907.

It would be a stretch to say that any of Einstein’s great theories were a product of his job as a patent examiner. But it is beyond dispute that his experience working with patent applications played an important role in his understanding of the world, and in his description of the theories that changed it.

Unequal Democracy

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age
By Larry M. Bartels
Princeton University Press. $29.95. 2008. 303 pages.

Reviewed by Michael Coblenz
Michael Coblenz is an intellectual property attorney in Lexington, KY.

I distinctly remember the reaction of many of my conservative friends when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. “We’re going back to the days of double digit interest rates and double digit inflation,” one friend confidently predicted. His comment mirrored one of the major avenues of attack against Clinton during President George Bush’s reelection campaign. One of the iconic commercials of the campaign showed desolate scenes from Arkansas while describing its woeful economy, implying that Clinton ruined the state’s economy and would do the same to the national economy.

The ‘92 election was also the first time I saw a graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average showing that the stock market historically did better under Democratic presidents than during Republican administrations. The numbers were skewed wildly by the disastrous Crash of 1929 under the Republican Hoover Administration, but ever with Hoover’s numbers factored out, the Democrats still had an edge. The chart’s implication was that the election of a Democrat would not destroy the economy but could actually help it.

The economic predictions of my conservative friends (and the conservative pundits and politicians they were parroting) turned out to be totally wrong. The chart was right: the Dow went up and the economy grew substantially under Clinton. Curiously none of my friends, conservative pundits, or Republican politicians ever admitted their error. Instead, they said the good economy under Clinton stemmed from the policies enacted by Reagan, some four years before. (This, of course, made hash out of their campaign claims about the president’s power to affect the economy, but never mind.) In a similar vein, many conservatives claim that the current economic woes are not the fault of the last eight years of the Bush Administration, but either the fault of the Clinton policies some eight years before, or the seven month old Obama Administration.

The implication, then and now, is that Democrats just don’t know how to handle the economy. (This accounts, to no small degree, for the fact that business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rarely endorse Democratic politicians.) According to this logic the purportedly “pro-business” policies of Republican Presidents are better for the national economy than the supposedly anti-business or pro-labor policies of Democratic Presidents. But then how to account for the performance of the Dow? Is it a fluke, a statistical anomaly unrepresentative of the economy as a whole?

According to Larry Bartels, since the end of the Second World War the economy has consistently performed better during Democratic administrations than under Republican presidents. Bartels, a professor of public policy and international affairs at Princeton University, presents a detailed economic analysis of these issues in his book “Unequal Democracy.” He analyzes the overall gross national product (GNP) and the cumulative income growth by income percentile of the population, instead of the Dow, but the results are similar. He finds that since 1945 the real per capita GNP grew 2.78% under Democrats and 1.64 % under Republicans. In the roughly sixty years that he studied, Democrats controlled the White House for 27 years and Republicans 32 years. There have been major changes in the national economy—a switch from a manufacturing to a service economy, computerization, and globalization—during both Republican and Democratic administrations. Even accounting for these changes, the economy has performed better with a Democratic in the White House than a Republican.

As noted, American’s incomes grew during both Republican and Democratic administrations, but the real growth under Democrats has been among those families in the lower income percentiles. “On average, the real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans.” [Bartels at 3, emphasis in original.] Bartels also finds that from 1945 to 1974 every income group benefited almost equally from the growing economy, but since 1974 most of the benefit has gone to those in the upper incomes. Cumulative income growth for the bottom 20th percentile (the poorest fifth of the population) was 10.3% during this period, while the income growth from the top 20th percentile was 42.9%. The numbers are even starker farther up the income ladder, with the richest 5% of the population gaining 62.9% in income from 1974 to 2005.

Bartels believes that this is more than mere happenstance. Instead, it represents the result of distinct partisan policy choices. Since the end of the Second World War the gap between the top 20% of income and the bottom 20% has “increased under each of the six Republican presidents in this period …. In contrast, four of five Democratic presidents—all except Carter—presided over declines in income inequality.” [Bartels at 36.] The curious fact is that while the wealthy do much better than the poor or middle class under Republicans, overall they still do better under Democrats. On average, since 1945, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans have seen their income increase approximately 2.1 % during Democratic administrations but only 1.8% under Republican administrations.

If this is true, why is there the perception that Republicans are better managers of the economy than Democrats? Bartels notes that most of the growth in the economy under Democrats occurs early in their administrations, while for Republicans it occurs later in their terms. He suggests that the greatest predictor of an election, or reelection, is the state of the economy in the year immediately before the election. As Bill Clinton’s policy adviser James Carville aptly noted, “It’s the economy stupid.” Bartels suggests that Republicans are somehow much better at stoking the economy in the year before the election, and benefit from this in public perception and at the polls.

But how do Republicans do this? Bartels doesn’t tell. In fact, one of the major drawbacks of the book is that he never provides any details about specific policies that produce the results he so painstakingly describes. Bartels claims, for example, that the rich benefit under Republican presidents while the poor do better under Democrats, but he doesn’t explain the economic policies that produce these results. Is it tax cuts, reduced regulation, Federal Reserve policy? We never learn. Bartels does provide a few broad generalizations: Democrats accept inflation if it means job growth, while Republicans fight inflation to protect the investor class. Democrats favor progressive tax policies with higher taxes on the wealthy, and they favor increases in the minimum wage and funding for domestic programs to help the poorest citizens. Republicans, in contrast, favor cutting taxes, and limiting government regulations of business and the economy. All that is well and good, but it doesn’t explain the connection between these policies and the effect that Bartels’s data seems to show.

Bartels is clearly more interested in proving the effect than in addressing the cause, and he often goes overboard to prove his point. More often than not he presents data through regression analysis rather than through a straight statistical description. When, for example, he discusses the likelihood of people in various income groups voting for the incumbent party we learn that election year income growth affects the “probit parameter estimate” of high income voters by .082, while it affects middle income voters by .110. I’m sure economists understand what this means, and I suspect it is more statistically accurate, but to me it is meaningless. The book would have been improved—it would be more understandable and would reach a broader audience—if the economic data was more meaningful to the average reader.

Bartels addresses a very important issue: the effect of partisan policy choices on the economy. But he misses something important by failing to discuss, even briefly, the specifics of those policies. He also fails to address an even more fundamental question: what is the purpose of government? Is it to ensure the success of businesses? Is it to ensure that investors make the highest return, or that their investments are secure? While each is a noble goal in and of itself, it seems like government should be about more than that. The CEO of GM once famously said that the business of America is business. That sounds nice, but where does it say that in the Constitution?

In contrast, is the purpose of government to make sure that as many citizens as possible enjoy the fruits of the economy? Is it the purpose of government to structure the system so that prosperity is as broad based as possible? That is clearly Bartels view (and I happen to agree), but again, where does it say that in the Constitution?

It is a partisan political choice to say that the government should regulate the economy to ensure the broadest possible income growth for the greatest number of citizens. That makes sense from a utilitarian perspective—the greatest good for the greatest number. But that doesn’t make it inherently right or wrong. It is equally valid to say that the purpose of government is to ensure a level economic playing field: let the strong prosper and the weak fall by the wayside.

This book provides evidence for one side of the debate, but since it fails to address why one policy choice might be better than another, it will simply be dismissed by those who have a different idea about how the economy should be structured.

The Paradox of Christianity

This past summer the ACLU of Kentucky sent a letter to Kentucky school districts reminding them that if they allow Christian groups, like the Gideon’s, to distribute Bibles in school they also have to allow other religious organizations, including from other religions, to distribute their religious texts. When this made the news the response was pretty predictable. The newspaper was full of letters to the editor saying that the ACLU in particular, and liberals in general, hated Christians. There are similar letters whenever the paper reports on scientific discoveries that challenge or threaten Christian belief or doctrine, but those letters say that scientists hate Christians.

I always wonder if the letter writers know that both liberalism and science arose out of Christianity. That’s right. The grand paradox of the modern world is that Christianity laid the foundation for both liberalism and modern science, and then both turned on their creator. Let me explain.

The first people to call themselves “liberals” was a group advocating for individual liberty during the French Revolution. They said that a liberal is someone who seeks liberty, and coined it as a political term. But they were not the first people to seek liberty. That distinction belongs to Martin Luther, who, after breaking with the Church over doctrinal matters, called for Christian Liberty, or the liberty of each individual Christian to define his relationship with God. Luther said that each individual was created by God, and therefore had the God-given ability, and right, to define his relationship with God, and should not be subject to acquired dogma, or other arbitrary external restrictions. The only guide should be the word of God, from the Bible, and individual consciousness. The Church in Rome (later to redefine itself as the Catholic Church) pushed back, but Luther eventually prevailed.

I should note that there were many other thinkers and theologians pushing similar ideas. Men like Erasmus,Thomas More, John Wycliffe, and Pico della Mirandola, also were discussing changes to the church, and ideas about the dignity and liberty of individual Christians. But Luther was the most forceful, and most successful, and became the father of the Reformation.

After Luther other religious leaders sought liberation from excess control from the one Apostolic Church (as the Catholic Church defined itself). Many religious leaders in different countries sought to allow the teaching and preaching of religion in the native language. This push meshed nicely with efforts by secular leaders to free their nation from fealty to Rome. King Henry VIII’s push to create a Church of England was as much of a power grab as an attempt to gain favorably ecclesiastic support for his personal affairs. Similar fights were taking place in many of the other nations of Christendom.

Soon other thinkers started taking Luther’s idea of individual consciousness and extending it to other areas of life and human affairs. First political philosophers suggested that people had a right to choose their religion, then that was extended to the idea of the right of freedom of conscious, or freedom of belief and thought in areas outside of religion. Eventually some thinkers came up with the idea that individuals had a right to think about their government, and then had a right to participate in their government. (Some counter-revolutionaries suggested that Kings ruled by divine right, so people had no right to any input.)

Liberalism’s early spread was based largely on variations of Luther’s ideas, and in fact many early liberal writers and philosophers – like Locke, Hume, Mill, Montesquieu – based their theories, in part, on teachings from scripture.

One area where the idea of liberating thought from scriptural dogma quickly spread across Europe was in science. Luther’s ideas spread quickly because of the recently developed printing press. Gutenberg perfected movable type in the early 1400’s. Luther presented his Ninety-Five Theses to church leaders on October 31, 1517. It was quickly reprinted and spread throughout Europe within a matter of months. Printing allowed all sorts of ideas to spread. It allowed scientists to share their discoveries, and this allowed other scientists to learn about, apply, and refine those ideas. Many of these early scientists thought that their discoveries were glorifying the wonders of God’s creation. In fact, for a long time many early scientists were deeply religious and many were priests and members of the Church. Copernicus was a lay church official, Mendel (the father of genetics) was an Augustinian monk, Mendeleev (the creator of the Periodic Table) was trained at a seminary. While Isaac Newton is most famous for his theories about gravity, optics, astronomy and mathematics, he actually wrote as much about religion, theology and the Bible.

But it wasn’t long before scientific discoveries began to contradict Biblical teaching. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system was one of the first, but many others soon followed. One of the first was the development of the geological theories of a British scientist named James Hutton in the 1780’s. Hutton observed that layers of rock in the mountains had fossils, and wondered if some of the rocks had once been on the sea floor. As he observed exposed strata in the mountains around Europe he developed the idea that the earth had moved dramatically, and that this must have occurred over great lengths of time. The earth, he surmised, was very very old. This meant that it could not be the age suggested by the Bible. Some thinkers at the time dubbed this concept “deep time.”

At about the same time as Hutton’s discoveries, a British astronomer named William Hershel began building increasingly powerful telescopes, and peering further and further into space. He discovered, among other things, the planet Uranus, and star nebulae, or visually undistinguishable astronomical objects. Scientists at the time had a rough understanding of the speed of light, and Hershel knew that he was looking thousands, if not millions, of years into the past. Once, when asked about what he was seeing in deep space Hershel replied “I have searched through the heavens, and nowhere have I found a trace of God.” [Holmes, Age at 198].

Scientific discoveries were challenging and disproving religious theories, and many scientists were increasingly skeptical of religion. One of the more famous stories (which may be apocryphal) involves the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace published a book on astronomy in 1799, and Napoleon Bonaparte read it with great interest. He invited Laplace to his palace to discuss the book. Napoleon noted that the book never mentioned God, and supposedly said that even Newton described God in his works of astronomy. Supposedly Laplace replied, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

Science did not become directly hostile to religion, but increasingly saw religion, or more particularly religious teaching, as largely irrelevant to their activities. But a strong relationship between science and religion remained, particularly since most of the universities of the time were run by religious orders.

But increasingly scientific discoveries contradicted religious teaching. Far and away the most prominent was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was published in 1858. (I’ll note briefly that Darwin was deeply religious early in life, and had considered the ministry. He, like Copernicus delayed the publication of his theories out of concern for its impact on religion.) Evolution described the development of life in a way that directly contradicts Biblical teachings. This was a scientific discovery too far, and religious leaders struck back, vigorously challenging Darwin’s discovery. They knew that if this theory was right, or if people began to believe it was right, it would invalidate much of their teachings regarding all living creatures on earth, including man.

But this wasn’t the only scientific challenge to religion. During this era of broad scientific exploration some scientists began to evaluate the Bible based on new scientific teachings about history, archeology, and linguistics. What they found directly challenged long held views about the Bible, particularly regarding when it was written and by whom. (The famous scientist and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer was a prominent scholar in this area.) By the end of the 1800’s an increasing numbers of scientists were openly skeptical of, if not hostile to, religion. And in response many Christian denominations became hostile to science. A new strain to theology, Fundamentalism, argued that the Bible was literally true, every word of it written by God. The battle between science and this new fundamentalist view hit the headlines in the 1920’s with the Scopes “Monkey Trial” where a school teacher was tried for teaching evolution. By the early Twentieth Century the split between science and religion was largely complete.

But science was not purposefully hostile religion. Science simply pursued science, and in many cases made discovered that directly contradicted religious teachings. Scientists were not doing these things out of some animus towards religion, they were simply engaged in scientific inquiry. But many religious people didn’t see it that way and felt that it was the product of hostility. And so, since the 1920’s, many Conservative and Fundamentalist Christians became deeply hostile to science. I should note that the Catholic Church does not share this hostility, and has accepted the teachings of evolution.

The relation between political liberalism and religion did not devolve in quite the same way as the relation between science and religion. Well into the 1800’s, most political liberals were deeply faithful. But things began to change, as so much did, with the French Revolution. Religion was seen as justifying and supporting the old regime, and so political revolutionaries began to attack the Church as well as the state. As revolution spread across Europe in the 1840’s many took on an anti-religious tone because of the Church’s support for the existing order, and hostility to the demands of the reformers. Things soured considerably when Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses,” there to keep the people in a stupor so that they don’t complain about their lot in life and challenge the existing order.

The hostility between religion and reform did not take the same tone, or follow the same path in the United States. In fact, most of the reform movements were driven by people of deep religious faith. Perhaps the most important example involves the fight to abolish slavery. The fight over abolition, however, marked the beginning of a turning point between religion and political liberalism. Most of the abolitionists were deeply religious and used scripture to oppose slavery, but many southern churches also used scripture to justify slavery. And so denominations were set against each other. Increasingly the opponents of change, those who wanted to stop or slow the growing movement for more liberty and autonomy, relied upon religious teaching to oppose these movements. Religion began to change from a source of liberation of the individual to an opponent of liberation. The opponents of abolition used scripture, as did opponents of women’s suffrage. This split became more pronounced over the years. In the 1950’s the Civil Rights movement was largely dominated by Black and Progressive Churches and church leaders. But there were many other prominent religious figures, particularly but not entirely in the South, who opposed civil rights. Martin Luther King’s seminal “Letter for a Birmingham Jail” was directly addressed to the leaders of many southern churches that opposed civil rights for African Americans.

But as liberation movements moved into personal liberty issues, like women’s rights, sexual freedom, and gay rights, the church increasingly became the opponent of expanding liberty. As more churches moved away from the expansion of liberty, liberals moved away from the church. And as conservatives Christians increasingly justified their policy positions on scripture, liberals became increasingly hostile to religion.

And here we are today. Science, and political liberals, are largely contemptuous of religion. And some of these liberals now even suggest that religion, in and of itself, is a bad thing. What they don’t seem to understand is that without religion, and more specifically without Christianity, they would not be here today.

This paradox cuts both ways. Many conservative Christians disdain science and liberalism without understanding that Christianity laid the foundation for both. And many liberals disparage Christianity without understanding the debt they owe it.