Physics and the laws of the heart

On Christmas Day, the New York Times published a column about Jeffrey Wright, a physics teacher in Kentucky. It’s not his teaching skill that merited the article, but his living with a special needs son, and a lecture he delivers each year to his students.

“There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”

“Love,” his students whisper.

“That’s what makes the ‘why’ we exist,” Mr. Wright tells the spellbound students. “In this great big universe, we have all those stars. Who cares? Well, somebody cares. Somebody cares about you a lot. As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”

Faith in the military

Paul VanderKlay picked up on an interesting essay by Frank Bruni in  the New York Times. Does religion and specifically, Evangelical  Christianity, play too big a role in the military and generally in civic life? Clearly for Bruni, the answer is yes. He desires a God-free space, an American laicite . Whatever our love for things French or for simply the NYT, this is nonetheless an awkward issue for Calvinists who believe that all life belongs to God. But the underlying issue is important, particularly as it applies to the military.

When Blake Page, a fourth-year cadet at West Point packed his bags and left, less than six months shy of graduation, in protest of what he portrayed as a bullying, discriminatory religiousness at the military academy, we have a problem. An Evangelical problem.

To extent that they form a distinct social group within a military, this is a point of caution. Indeed, in one sense, it is entirely natural: the Evangelical sub-culture is among the most disposed to the military, to sending its sons and daughters to serve. So they naturally compose a disproportionate portion of the service. And this is actually a spiritual as much as a political problem. To serve, one must die to self, to the presumptions of one’s own culture.

There is also a civic danger, as well, that of mistaking the particular for the common good.

The framing of military duty by pre-existing social identities is not only a threat to individuals serving but ultimately to civil society, as well. At least civil society that aspires to be broadly democratic.


The missing decoder ring

George Conger at Get Religion is in something of a snit. As he explains

The New York Times story is a European-style advocacy piece. Though it appears on page A12 in the news section, it rightly belongs on the opinion pages as it is more of a lecture than reporting. I know what the Times‘ thinks about adultery after reading this article, but I did not learn much about adultery.

As Conger goes on, it is clear he sees the article as a lightly veiled attempt to make adultery more acceptable — part of the sexual agenda of East coast elites like those at the New York Times.

I evidently do not have the decoder ring that he does. Whether this article is to be considered advocacy turns in part on whether one reads it as a limited exploration of the status of adultery in the criminal code, or as a broader discussion of adultery’s status in culture, a moral argument.This latter position however is not supported by the article in question.

The outrage that apparently is generated by a comment from Universit of Washington professor Peter Nicolau on adultery “adulterating” male perogatives. However such controversy gets  settled in the subsequent graf, where Ethan Bronner turns to Boston University professor Linda McClain, who provides an 1838 case using precisely the language of adulteration, and then contrasts it with a 1992 case reflecting the current relational understanding of adultery.

The difficulty for Conger lies in the practice of journalism itself. Were one interested in the status of adultery in U.S. law, wouldn’t one consult precisely the sorts of experts cited in the article (e.g. in 2010 Professor Melissa Murray was recognized as one of the top junior faculty in the country)? Even the kick at the end, that “nobody is going to say that adultery is OK,” reinforces the frame of the article, that it is about the legal status of adultery, and not its morality.

It is difficult given the nature of the quotes, to believe the piece was in fact engaged in advocacy  unless one holds that the mere consideration of a topic constitutes its advocacy. What is at stake is the cultural frame around marriage where the law both provides direct penalties but more broadly also expresses cultural values. The loss of those common values — the weakening of the older cultural and religious norms — is real, something Murray notes in the article, citing how Lawrence v. Texas weakens the status of adultery as a prosecutable crime, even as adultery on the lawbooks continues to have a continuing utility in divorce proceedings.

Obviously, I do not have the decoder ring, but from my reading the article presented a rather limited inquiry into the status of adultery in American legal code.  I can not see how this rises to the level of advocacy, let alone meriting the sort of indignant hrummphing it received.


Suicide can carry a dreadful impact on the surviviors, all the more when the loss is so high profile. That truth was on display, painfully on display in last week’s article  in The New York Times, about how the Clementi family has adjusted to the loss of their son Tyler.  But is that all?  Bobby Ross Jr. wonders if there is also a hidden agenda

What prompted a promising college freshman to kill himself? The story turns on that key question.
The obvious answer from the Times’ perspective: the young man’s evil, gay-bashing church:

With Ross, I also thought it curious the church wasn’t identified, and  there’s no mention of exactly where they have gone (if anywhere). Or for that matter, even the fact that the Clementis were faithful members of an evangelical church — there really is something sad to see a young man contributing to his congregation knowing how things will turn. That’s an ache.

Nonetheless, the article did not seem to be on the evangelical-bashing mode that Ross hears. Rather, it is more about  the family dynamics, the recovery, and the flavor of “where are they now?” In that light, I read the anonymity of the congregation as a sort of respect, the point wasn’t the church’s teachings per se, but a painful sad, mistaken relationship; this line in particular stood out:

” What has troubled her most is the thought that Tyler believed she had rejected him. ”

Tyler was the eldest, the “good” son, even religious, yet he thought of himself as pushed from home, and from his church home; he jumped because he was homeless.

Where there is a condemnation of the Evangelical church (and thus might have benefited from another perspective) it is here: The Evangelical church (or at least the churches I am familiar with) has too often used exile as the way of dealing with its gay youth. That’s a story yet to be told, one larger than that of the Clementis, and certainly it would be more polemical in nature. For now, I’m simply glad that I got to meet the parents.

Traditional belief

Traditional belief of Native Americans can be difficult for non-Natives to follow, in part because of its holistic framework. Culture, life  — all of it is properly religious. Calvinists have a vague sense of this. So one cannot blame Bobby Ross Jr. for wondering about the the state of Native American Religion, particularly on the Blackfeet reservation. In reacting to fine article in the New York Times, he wonders

After reading the lede, I wanted to understand how and why many residents see the land as “sacred.” The story proved a disappointment in that regard.
Instead, the Times skirts at the edges of those crucial questions:
To find the opposing view, one needs only to drive five miles west from Browning, past the casino, heading straight toward the mountains, and pull off at the red gate on the right. There, on a recent summer afternoon, over mugs of horsemint tea, Pauline Matt and a handful of Blackfeet women were trying to find a way to persuade the tribal leaders to stop the drilling.
“It threatens everything we are as Blackfeet,” she said.
What exactly does that “everything” encompass? Does it relate to these tribal members’ view of their Creator and place in this world?

As I said, I don’t blame him for the confusion.

The one element left off is how native religious beliefs are intimately tied with tribal identities as well as being emblematic of sovereign tribal nations. This confluence of identity and religion means that issues regarding land resonate with particular force. In recent years the resurgence of Traditional practices (e.g. learning of language) is often linked to the recovery of Traditionalist religious beliefs — both of these pointing to the question of sovereignty as a people, and more personally as Native. I take the question of Sovereignty as being the central concept, and with it who controls the land and its resources.

Traditional practices then acquire not only a religious element but often function in what we might think of as political. These are struggle about identities. With the rise of Native sovereignty, the further question of relation to the Euro-American society becomes central, particularly with the history of missions, thus making religious practices a useful demarcation: in or out. Thus the importing of industry brings to mind the notorious record of treaty violations and even more, the failure of trust policies: Religion then becomes the tool to push back, to not sell out.

All this is to say, I was not surprised at the Traditionalists asserting a claim to the land. But as others have noted, there is something of an artifice at work here. The difficulty in speaking of native religious belief arises from how many of the distinctives of the older ways have been washed away, leaving behind a sort of soft animism. At the same time that this re-emergent faith relates to the land, many more in urban settings (the actual reality for most native people) use traditionalist beliefs in a more cultural frame. This link with culture means that behaviors may or may not be religious depending on who does it. E.g. does one smudge or not? Inhale or not? Is it one thing on the Rez but different in the City?

The Real Digital Gap

Emily Loney picks up on an important article from The New York Times

“Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap.” Comments?
New ‘Digital Divide’ Seen in Wasting Time Online As access to devices has spread, children in poorer families are spending considerably more time using them for purposes other than for education.
I think this might be thought of under the same heading as the question of obesity and poverty. We eat, we possess, we play as a means to gain something, often a sense of self-worth, or of participation. The seduction of games or FB is  that I belong, that participating, playing with this I am part of some larger narrative.  And the insidious thing about the food the fuels obesity or of the digital content, is that both are alike self-validating, self-fulfilling. So it takes work to break free.

Mollie Hemingway raises some useful questions about the political handicapping of the President’s change of view on same sex marriage, highlighting a useful comments and commentary from Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Christianity Today, and Mickey Kaus.

Or as Kaus put it:
But 39% said it would–and they split two-to-one against Obama and gay marriage. Since the election is currently not two-to-one against Obama, that’s a net loss right there.
Worse, among independents, 23% said it would make them less likely to vote for Obama while only 11% said it made them more likely–a net negative for 12% in this group. Obviously, “less likely” doesn’t mean it’s going to be the deciding factor for that 12%–there are bigger issues, and gay marriage seems likely to fade in salience. But even if it’s the deciding factor for a tenth of that 12%, it’s a blow to Obama’s chances.
It goes without saying that one should correctly interpret the polls before explaining why voters are responding as they are, an area where religious views surely play a significant role.

As a practical difference, the question is whether those who say they are more (or less) likely to vote for the President in fact already have some disposition to vote for or against. It may be this is a tie-break sort of issue, but if tonite’s NYT/CBS poll is any indication, probably not the deal-breaker for most voters. At this stage, the issue seems more to be the economy. This morning’s Times, Peter Baker also got in a nice story on the damage control the White House is doing — so the concerns of Kaus et al. are at the least being heard.

As a matter of practical politics, we might want to think of it in terms of the 25 percent of Evangelicals who voted for Obama in 2008 — will the president’s decision erode that share? Perhaps, though the CT article Mollie noted picks up on the age split even among Evangelicals, so one may not be sure. And given the emergence of a Christian alternate to the standard Evangelical lines, this question is likely to remain muddied at least for now.