Pre-Michigan Mitt Misgivings

My blog post about Mitt Romney’s church service and its indication of his character has attracted a host of new visitors to this blog. Welcome! I hope you stick around. You may not, though, after reading this piece.

Last month, I had occasion to spend some time with people in the LDS Church Public Affairs department. They expressed their concern that the LDS Church is perceived as an exclusively American, Republican enterprise, and they are eager to do whatever they can do to change that. One thing they are not willing to do, however, is to dictate political policy or ideology to elected officials, or to lay members, for that matter.

“Politically, with church members, we know have a very big stick,” they told me, “and, except in very rare cases, we refuse to use it.”

So, with that in mind, it’s clear that when they do feel strongly enough to enter the political arena and take a firm policy position, church members ought to stand up and take notice. And in the case of the Republican Party in general, and Mitt Romney (and Glenn Beck)  in particular, they don’t.

The LDS Church, publicly and controversially, issued a statement on immigration that is far more liberal than the Tea Party is willing to accept. They decried mass deportation and stated that “any state legislation that only contains enforcement provisions is likely to fall short of the high moral standard of treating each other as children of God.”  They came out in support of the kind of guest worker programs that immigration zealots wrongly mislabel as amnesty, and they supported Utah legislation that codified these principles into law, only to watch the Utah GOP pass a party platform that attacked those laws and targeted politicians who supported them. Utah’s Republican governor is now facing stiff primary opposition from zealots who are focusing almost exclusively on his willingness to sign the Church-supported bills into law. Ironically, his Republican opponents are all Mormons who  are angry that the governor has taken the same political position as their church leaders.

In like manner, Mitt Romney’s immigration policy is wholly at odds with the position of his church.

I suppose that might give comfort to those who think Mitt is a stalking horse for a covert Mormon theocracy, but it drives me crazy, only because the GOP’s hardline stand on immigration is bad policy, regardless of where the church stands. And as I consider Mitt as the GOP standard bearer, I find that, ideologically, he’s all over the place.

Consider his tax plan. Frankly, it stinks.

Eliminating charitable donation deductions for rich people? President Obama tried that early in his administration, and the Republicans shouted him down in unison. Now Mitt adopts the identical position without batting an eye. He targets the “1%” – we’re apparently all Occupy Wall Streeters now – and eliminates their tax break for giving money to charity. Some think that means we’re moving toward economic justice. I think it means we’re moving toward a world where rich people give less money to charity. How is that a good idea? Why can the government better spend those dollars than, say, the Red Cross? It’s just one more boneheaded, politically tone-deaf move, and Mitt is making far too many of them. Just as he’s rebuilding momentum in Michigan, he makes an offhand remark about his wife’s two Cadillacs. After his huge triumph in Florida, he makes an absurd comment about not being concerned about the very poor that is sure to make its way into Democratic attack ads in the general election… if he makes it that far.

I still think he will make it that far, but I’m not particularly comfortable with how he’s getting there. Take, for instance, his evisceration of Rick Santorum at last week’s Arizona debate. I’m no Santorum fan, but Mitt went after him using the worst possible arguments. Santorum was for earmarks, doncha know, which means he recognizes his constitutional duty to let Congress spend the money and not the president! And – gasp! – he  voted to raise the debt ceiling instead of letting the country default! There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Mitt had won Ted Kennedy’s senate seat in 1994, he would have done precisely the same thing. But since he didn’t, he had no problem throwing this nonsense at Santorum simply because it was all he had. Rick Santorum is not Newt Gingrich, a man who’s baggage has baggage and who deserves the dirt that Mitt dumped on him. But as Mitt attacks Santorum for being too reasonable, it becomes achingly clear that, for the most part, Mitt himself doesn’t really believe in anything that isn’t politically expedient.

Given that he’s clearly a man of integrity in his personal life, one wonders why that doesn’t seem to be bleeding through into his public persona.

 

On Baptismal Parodies

On Facebook, I posted the Bill Maher video at the center of my “Why Is There Bill Maher?” article I put up a few weeks back. I made it clear that I found Maher’s video, wherein he “unbaptizes” Ann Romney’s father, to be sneering, contemptuous, and tremendously offensive. The ensuing FB discussion generated well over 50 comments and focused on the propriety/impropriety of the LDS practice of proxy baptism for the dead.

So it’s no surprise that an atheist friend of mind today told me of his discovery of what he called “possibly the most offensive … anti Mormon website that I’ve seen yet. Will post link if you want to see, but I am afraid your head will explode into 3500 fragments.”

I had a pretty good idea of what he was talking about, as another friend of mine – a Mormon – had shown me the site in question the day before.

It’s alldeadmormonsarenowgay.com.

The site is a single, nondescript page which primarily consists of less than a hundred white text on a black background. It summarizes its own purpose more succinctly than I could in a paraphrase, so I’ll reproduce the text here for your perusal:

Sadly, many Mormons throughout history have died without having known the joys of homosexuality. With your help, these poor souls can be saved.

Simply enter the name of your favorite dead Mormon* in the form below and click Convert! Presto, they’re gay for eternity. There is no undo.

Don’t know any dead Mormons? Click the “Choose-a-Mormon” button and we’ll find one for you. You’re welcome!

No take-backs.

*Holocaust victims are not eligible for conversion.

The site also has a colorful rainbow banner at the top, the aforementioned dead Mormon entry form, and a “Choose-a-Mormon” button, all of which float above a button that allows you to “convert” said Mormon. Voila! Make your afterlife fabulous! (Unless, of course, you’re a Holocaust victim.)

The thing that fascinates me is that not only did I not take offense at this, but it didn’t even occur to me to take offense. I literally laughed out loud when I saw it. Yet this seems inconsistent with my viscerally negative reaction to Maher’s similarly-themed attack piece, and it got me to thinking what it was that made the difference. I think the answers are interesting, so I thought I’d share them with you.

Here, then, are my conclusions.

1) Ad Hominem Attacks Aren’t Funny
The primary problem with the Maher piece is that it focuses solely on the stupidity of people dumb enough to believe in religion. He calls them “idiots” and claims they read from the “Encyclopedia Moronica” and then proceeds to repeatedly insult and humiliate them, often doing so by addressing them directly. It’s no accident that Bill Maher’s new book is titled The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their AssFunny how, exactly? Ha-ha funny or strange-that-an-elitist-could-actually-believe-he’s-smarter-than-everyone-who-ever-lived funny?

That’s a fatuous and lazy way to address an argument, and, too often, it’s pretty much all that elitists like Maher have got in their intellectual arsenal. (“You vote Republican/Democrat? You’re stupid.”) Maher wasn’t willing to take the time or the energy to actually understand or discuss baptism for the dead; he just used it as a prop to illustrate that people who could possibly believe in such a thing are dolts. And why are we dolts? Well, because Maher doesn’t believe in it, and if Maher doesn’t believe in it, then, by definition, it’s doltish.

That’s contemptuous. That’s insulting. And, perhaps the greatest crime of all, it’s not the least bit funny.

2) Truth in Parody Is Funny
Contrast Maher’s “you’re stupid” approach with the website that transforms dead Mormons into gay dead Mormons. The site wastes no time attacking my intelligence. Instead, it focuses like a laser on an idea, not a person – the concept that Mormons believe they have the right and the power to perform posthumous baptisms that can actually convert people after death. By illustrating the supposed absurdity of that idea, it respects its audience enough to reach its own conclusions about the people who might believe it. And it does so by basing the parody on a real thing rather than a lazy, ad hominem attack.

Good parody always works this way, regardless of what’s being parodied. Which is funnier – someone telling you William Shatner is a pompous, hammy windbag, or Kevin Pollack demonstrating these specific attributes of Mr. Shatner and letting you make up your own mind?

William Shatner himself has repeatedly said how much he enjoys Mr. Pollack’s parody, but I doubt he’d have the same reaction if all Pollack did was call him names.

So, too, as a Mormon, I can enjoy a parody rooted in the truth even if I don’t fully agree with the premise.

3) The Website Parody Raises a Legitimate Issue
I have repeatedly stated, on this blog and elsewhere, that those who are offended by the practice of proxy baptism should simply dismiss it as ridiculous and move on. The website parody simply asks that I put that to the test. If what I say is true, then I ought to be able to readily dismiss their website as ridiculous, too.

They’re right. And I do.

There is one point, however, where the website, and most of the world, gets it completely wrong.

4) We don’t believe we have the power to forcibly change people after death.
Proxy baptism is offered as a gift to the intended recipient, one that anyone is free to either accept or reject. Unlike the gay Mormon button, we think there are “take-backs” and “undos,” and we don’t believe that people who are baptized by proxy are therefore “converted.” Instead, we believe that they have the opportunity to be converted if they want it.

It’s a very important distinction, one that both Maher and this website seem to miss.

It means that those who are aghast that Mormons “convert” the dead are ironically giving the Mormons far more power than the Mormons themselves claim to have. If you truly believe that a Mormon ritual can posthumously force a Holocaust survivor to abandon their Jewish faith, then why aren’t you a Mormon? You have more faith in our rituals than we do ourselves!

The other irony here is that the website is, consciously or not, subtly reinforcing the mistaken notion that people can be “converted” into homosexuals. Is that really a good idea? Hasn’t the gay rights movement provided adamant opposition to such a thing? Still, I doubt anyone would take offense, as it requires you to take the analogy far beyond its intended purpose.

That didn’t stop me from pre-posthumously converting myself to an eternity of afterlife homosexuality. Sure, there may be some drawbacks, but I’m betting I’ll have a better wardrobe that way.

Stake President of the United States

A few years back, a hive of hornets decided to make its nest on top of a second-story air conditioner outside my cousin’s Boston-area home. My cousin made an ill-fated attempt to remove the hornets, which resulted in a two-story fall and a broken foot.

“This looks like a job for your home teacher,” said my cousin’s home teacher.

The home teacher brought over his own ladder and clothed himself in homemade beekeeping gear. He then made his way to the hornet’s nest and gathered the whole thing up in a garbage bag, avoiding any stings or the more severe injuries that had beset my cousin. He did this with no public fanfare, no accolades, and no thought of collecting payment for his efforts.

And who was this noble home teacher? A man by the name of Mitt Romney.

Now, unless you’re familiar with Mormon lingo, you probably got lost when I introduced the phrase “home teacher,” or you may have conjured up images of some kind of private educational tutor who was taking care of my cousin’s kids. That would have left you wondering why a tutor thought it was their responsibility to wrangle hornets.

But if you’re a Mormon, the phrase made perfect sense, as did the rest of the story. You would know that every month, every member of a Mormon congregation receives a visit from two “home teachers,” who share an inspirational message but, more importantly, are charged with the responsibility of looking out for the family’s welfare. So if a family is struggling, the home teachers are the spiritual “first responders,” and a good home teacher jumps at any opportunity to be of service.

Among other things, Mitt Romney is a good home teacher.

People who look to Mitt’s faith for clues about how he’d govern as president usually miss the target by a wide margin. They rip the more obscure elements of Mormon doctrine out of their theological and historical contexts – polygamy or underwear or planetary real estate – and think they’ve discovered or explained something. They haven’t. The world at large, as it focuses on unusual theoretical elements of Mormon doctrine, all but ignores the eminently practical aspects of Mormonism as it is manifest in each Mormon’s daily life.

Consider the fact that “home teachers” receive no compensation for what they do. In fact, neither does anyone else in a Mormon congregation. The whole enterprise is supervised by a lay clergy that will often work over forty hours a week in their unpaid positions in addition to their “real” jobs – you know, the ones that actually earn them money. Mitt Romney has spent his entire adult life in these kinds of high-responsibility, time-intensive positions. He has been both a bishop – a leader of a “ward” that consists of a congregation of about 500 people – and a stake president, who oversees a “stake” which consist of about six or so wards, giving him ecclesiastical responsibility for thousands of people.

So what does this mean? What, precisely, does a bishop or a stake president do that eats up so much of their time?

Go to a Mormon meeting on any given Sunday, and you’ll see three dudes sitting up by the pulpit. The guy in the middle is the bishop, and he’s already spent most of the day in meetings where he reviewed the ward’s staffing needs and organizing relief efforts for families who may be struggling with health, financial, or spiritual issues. He’s also been meeting one-on-one with members of the church who look to him for counsel and support for personal problems that would turn your hair white. Usually, he’s been doing all this since before the sun came up, so don’t be surprised if he nods off while the meeting progresses.

Please keep in mind, too, that there are no elections for bishops and stake presidents, nor are there reelections. Each leader is “called” to serve, and they accept the responsibility dutifully, no questions asked. They then serve for a period of time, usually between five and ten years, after which they are “released,” meaning they rejoin their congregations as lay members and have no more responsibility than anyone else.

The call to serve can come to any priesthood holder in good standing, but it usually comes to a certain personality type. Remember, bishops and stake presidents are confronted with massive organizational challenges accompanied by the most intimate, personal, spiritual struggles imaginable. So they must lead without being authoritarian; they must judge without being judgmental, and they must minister without offending. That means the people who get this assignment are often more even-tempered that exciting, more reassuring than revolutionary, and more competent than colorful.

Sound like any particular presidential candidate you might know?

Those who remain baffled by Romney’s cool public persona have not spent a whole lot of time with an LDS stake president, a role for which Romney provides the quintessential example. If one truly understands his background, one shouldn’t expect a President Romney to dazzle the masses with rhetorical virtuosity.

One should instead expect him to practically and quietly remove the hornet’s nest from the nation’s second-story air conditioner.

Sorting Out Santorum

I don’t like Rick Santorum, and I’m not sure why.

Mitt Romney, fresh off three embarrassing losses to the guy in relatively inconsequential, delegate-light states, has turned on the high beams and is attempting to run ol’ Rick down. But just as Newt’s baggage offered a plethora of potential cannon fodder, the ammunition against Rick is pretty weak stuff. He liked earmarks? Good for him. He raised the debt ceiling? Of course he did, and he was wise to do it. He supported Arlen Specter? They were friends; they were colleagues, and it was the right thing to do.

So it’s not that I disagree with him particularly. Much has been made of his alleged homophobia, but his position is not at all different from Romney’s, and, anyway, I have very conflicted opinions about that particular issue. (Although I did check Urban Dictionary to learn the definition of the slang his last name has become. Um, yuck.)

I’ll join in on complaints that he voted for No Child Left Behind, but that’s about as far as it goes. Personally, like Mitt, his behavior has been above reproach, and politically, he’s got a more reliable, lengthy conservative record than Mitt. And Mrs. Cornell even thinks he’s kind of hot.

So why don’t I like him?

I met Rick Santorum shortly after he was elected to the Senate in 1994. He swept in as part of the Republican wave that returned control of both houses of Congress to the GOP for the first time in a generation. I remember watching the electoral returns and being giddy about the results. Election nights where Republicans win are fun to watch on TV as  the supposedly objective news anchors become increasingly churlish and dour-faced as the night goes on. I kept picking up the phone and calling my brother, who lived on the other end of the country, with each fresh win. When they called Pennsylvania for Santorum, it was one of the highlights of the night. I picked up the phone, my brother answered, and I yelled “Santorum!” as loads as I could.

That was the greatest amount of electoral joy Mr. Santorum has ever provided me and probably ever will.

At the time, I was an intern for Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and Rick Santorum was something of a curiosity in the halls of Congress. He was only in his mid-thirties, but he looked about twelve years old, and he was on the Senate floor just about every other day giving fiery speeches about how stupid the rest of his fellow senators were. Senate speeches are an interesting phenomenon. They’re given solely for the cameras. There are no other senators on the Senate floor, so the speeches are little more than hot air. As an intern, it was often my job to take tourists to watch floor proceedings, and they were almost always disappointed at how irrelevant the actual speeches were. “What a waste of time,” one disillusioned tourist remarked, and I agreed.

It was also occasionally my job to monitor the floor speeches and make sure to note anything significant that was said. We had an unofficial rule, though – we only paid attention to Senators who were actually capable of saying something worthwhile, and the only Senators who did that were every Senator except for Robert Byrd and Rick Santorum. Both of them loved to hear themselves say profound, republic-shaking things that made absolutely no difference to anyone or anything.

One of the most dramatic events I recall during that time was the vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment. For the only time in my memory, the entire Senate was convened in on the floor, and each Senator was polled individually as to how they would vote. One lone Republican, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, had the good sense to recognize that a Balanced Budget Amendment was little more than a gimmick that had the potential to make much mischief, and he was the only one willing to vote no. The amendment failed to pass by a single vote.

Rick Santorum was mad.

For days and maybe weeks afterward, Rick Santorum took to the floor and gave speech after speech about how Hatfield should be rebuked for his vote, should be stripped of his seniority and his chairmanships. The entire Republican leadership ignored him, which made him even madder. At one point, he even went so far as to say something along the lines of “I’m as much a Senator as he is!” It was nyah, nyah, I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I, second grade playground behavior, and it was ignored by leadership and mocked by everyone else.

President Obama demonstrates the main reason that Senators don’t usually make good presidents. Presidents are held accountable. When things go wrong, it’s their fault. Senators, on the other hand, don’t have to do anything, strictly speaking. They just have to make noise. And Santorum managed to make twelve years of noise without making much of a difference.

Yes, he was on the right side of many of the issues of the day, but he did little or nothing to advance the cause. He made churlish speeches and complained a lot, but that’s about it. There’s something unappealingly childish about the man that extends beyond his boyish face. It’s like he’s eager to find an excuse to take his ball and go home. Several of my friends on Facebook noted that he always looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

But there is much to admire about the man. He’s a man of faith, a fine father, and I’d have no problem voting for him if he’s the nominee. But long before I even knew who Mitt Romney was, I thought Rick Santorum was kind of a lightweight, a chihuahua who thinks his bark will sound like a doberman’s if he just yelps often enough. Nothing has happened in the intervening two decades to significantly alter that first impression.

The Parable of the Vegan Café

So yesterday, I found a vegan café on the outskirts of town. I went in, sat down, took a look at the menu, and waited for my waiter. A granola-looking gal with a large tattoo and several nose rings came to my table and asked me if I knew what I wanted to order. I nodded, looked up, and ordered a bacon cheeseburger with extra onions.

She laughed. “I can help you with the onions,” she said pleasantly, “but that’s about it.” Confused, I asked her why she was refusing my order.

“Well, because a bacon cheeseburger isn’t vegan,” she answered, a little less pleasantly.

I told her not to worry, because I wasn’t a vegan, and that I liked bacon cheeseburgers, and that I had a right to have a bacon cheeseburger.

“Well, if you want a bacon cheeseburger, I recommend the Carl’s Jr. down the road.” Her smile had vanished.

I told her I didn’t want to go to Carl’s Jr., and that I had as much right as anyone to eat at her café.

“Of course you have a right to eat here,” she said, “but we have a right to do business the way we want to do business. And we don’t sell or serve food that isn’t vegan.”

I told her she was discriminating against non-vegans.

“We allow any and all non-vegans to eat here,” she said, “but we don’t allow them to change the way we do business, and if they decide to come in here and order off of our menu, they should know that this isn’t a place where they can expect to get a bacon cheeseburger.”

I told her there were more non-vegans than vegans, so she should accommodate the majority. I couldn’t understand why she was so unwilling to see reason. Eventually, she kicked me out of the café.

By that time, I was very angry.

So I called the government, and they were very helpful. They submitted health guidelines requiring all vegan cafés to accommodate the wishes of people who want to order bacon cheeseburgers. They were even so generous as to give them all a year to comply. But for some reason, the vegan cafés didn’t understand the importance of being inclusive at all. The president of the Vegan Café Association (VCA) sent out a letter to all vegan café proprietors, urging them to protest the law, even to take to the streets if necessary. Imagine!

Fortunately, the cool people were all on my side. “The vegan hierarchy seems to be playing a cynical game of chicken and they don’t seem to care that the satiation and well being of millions of American omnivores are what’s at stake here,” said the president of the National Omnivore Rights Action League (NORAL). Even some vegans, many of whom were used to criticizing the VCA when they didn’t agree with them, came out in support of the new rules. “The VCA needs to get up to date,” one lady said. “This is the 21st Century. Everyone eats bacon cheeseburgers.”

At the same time, a prominent onion charity that used to give free onions to restaurants decided to stop providing onions to any restaurant that sells bacon cheeseburgers. This resulted in a public shaming from omnivores who were quick to point out bacon cheeseburgers only constituted 4% of the average restaurant’s business, so it was a scandal that the onion charity could think they could choose to whom they could give their onions. The onion charity then saw the error of their ways and called the whole thing a misunderstanding, and so the onions kept coming.

I’m pretty sure this parable doesn’t end with angry vegans recognizing that a government and a populace that forces people to do business in ways that violate their conscience is tyrannical.

Nope.

Instead, it probably ends with an angry VCA that doesn’t have the support of its rank-and-file members, most of whom sit back and do nothing while the First Amendment becomes a quaint historical relic that only supports freedom of speech, religion, and association for cool people who like to do cool things. And, of course, it also ends with a lifetime supply of free onions.

You get to decide whether that’s a happy ending or not.

Why Is There Bill Maher?

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
- 1 Corinthians 2:14

Interesting follow-up to my last post: I received a thoughtful Facebook message that pointed out that if a credible non-Mormon conservative candidate – Mitch Daniels, say – were running against Mormon Democrat Harry Reid, who would most Mormons, including me, end up voting for? Daniels in a walk. So tribalism is important, but it isn’t everything.

However, watching my religious tribe come under fire this election season becomes increasingly painful as Mitt gains more and more momentum. On Facebook, I posted this link to Bill Maher’s wretched “unbaptism” of Mitt Romney’s father-in-law, which is as mean spirited, sneering, and ignorant a demonstration of contempt for my faith as I’ve ever seen.

Caution: it has bad words in it, particularly when he starts condemning the “Mormon spirits” who are supposedly harassing Ann Romney’s dad. Indeed, I recommend not watching it.  Life is short, and, if Bill Maher is right, this life is all there is, so why would you want to waste any of it on Bill Maher?

Indeed, Maher’s unbaptism is just the punchline, however, to a lengthy, contemptuous diatribe launched against all people of faith. He’s upset, apparently, that anyone would claim that atheism is somehow a religion.

There is a growing trend in this country that needs to be called out, and that is to label any evidence-based belief a religion… We are not two sides of the same coin, and you don’t get to put your unreason up on the same shelf as my reason. Your stuff has to go over there, on the shelf with Zeus and Thor and the Kraken, with the stuff that is not evidence-based, stuff that religious people never change their mind about, no matter what happens. I’m open to anything for which there’s evidence. Show me a god, and I will believe in him.

The first thing that strikes me upon hearing language like this is how Maher and other Korihors like him so fundamentally misunderstand the nature of faith. Specifically, they believe all faith is blind faith, exercised in things for which there is no evidence, and that all faith is confined to things religious. This is wholly rubbish.

Do you believe that you’re going to get a paycheck if you put in your hours at work? If that belief is enough to get you to go to the office instead of lying in bed, then you’re exercising faith. Do you believe that if you give Domino’s your credit card number that someone will show up at your doorstep with a pizza within the next half hour? That’s exercising faith. Why do you put your money in a reputable bank instead of Little Daisy’s Backyard Lemonade Stand/Savings and Loan? Because you have faith in one institution, and you don’t have faith in another.

I’ve addressed this idea repeatedly on this blog – see here and here and here and here and, notably, here. In fact, having reread that last one, I just discovered that I already made the point I want to make now in my post  back then, so I’ve got to find a way to make this post newly relevant. If I fail, just reread the posts from that last link. Perhaps I should just quit writing now, but I’m already over 400 words into this thing, so I’m already in too deep.

So, anyway, Maher insists that all faith is unreasonable, and that he, as a man of profound reason, is just happy to go wherever the evidence leads him. “Show me a god, and I’ll believe in him,” he says.  He goes further.

If Jesus Christ comes down from the sky during the halftime show of this Sunday’s Super Bowl and turns all the nachos into loaves and fishes, well, I’ll think two things: first, how dare he interrupt Madonna! She is gonna be pissed! And two: oh, look at that. I was wrong. There he is. My bad. Praise the Lord. But that’s not going to happen.

Notice, please, that the last sentence of the preceding quote is a statement of faith. Faith is confidence or trust in something happening, and, contrary to Maher’s malevolent snark, it is almost always based on evidence, even in the religious realm. Religious people reach out to God, and when God responds, he provides evidence that He is there, thereby strengthening faith.

But suppose a man actually did come down from the sky in the middle of Madonna’s performance and nachos turned to bread and seafood. Knowing Maher, I think it’s highly doubtful that “Praise the Lord” would be one of the first things out of his mouth. Would levitation and transformed nachos would be enough to convince him that the person descending created the universe and died for his sins?

That would be true only if Maher truly had no faith in his “evidence-based” account for universal existence. As is far more likely, his first instinct would be to process the events through his own lens of faith.

“I, Bill Maher, have lived my entire life based on the premise that there is no God. Since there is no God, this guy has to be something else. So is this some kind of publicity stunt? Is this guy a spokesman for a bread and/or fish company? There must be some reasonable scientific explanation for how these nachos are now pumpernickel and red snapper.”

Indeed, I’m not sure what amount of evidence would be necessary to convince a confirmed atheist like Maher. I think he would cling to his own preconceived assumptions just as surely as the hicks he mocks for their “stuff that is not evidence-based, stuff that religious people never change their mind about, no matter what happens.”  Scriptural precedent would suggest that those who militantly refuse to believe can never be given sufficient evidence to change their minds. So how are they different from religious people?

Sorry, Bill. They’re not. Any answers to life’s greatest questions always require faith.

Maher and company insist, then, that the only question worth asking is a yes-or-no proposition: “Is there a God?”

Well, that is a good question, but it’s not the only question.

I offer, then, a different question, one which would require Maher to exercise faith in order to answer:

“Why is there stuff?”

Think about it. You’re alive; you’re here; other stuff is here; the universe exists. Lamentably, even Bill Maher exists. Why?

Any answer other than “I don’t know” requires faith.

Maher repeatedly defines himself as an atheist, not an agnostic, which is an important distinction. An agnostic is happy to settle for “I don’t know;” he/she is content not to bother asking the “why is there stuff” question. Maher claims this is essentially where he is, but his aggressive stance against any answer that includes divinity suggests otherwise. He has enough faith in the random processes of the universe that they somehow produced him, his world, and any other stuff that he is willing to aggressively rule out God as the answer. And the minute he definitively rules out God as a possibility, he’s exercising faith.

Alas, I’ve said all this before. I think my earlier posts on this subject were better. The only new thing I have to add is this: I have evidence-based faith in the fact that Bill Maher sucks.

Tribal Politics

Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.

I’m writing this as Mitt wins big in Nevada, and there are some press reports to suggest Newt might be considering getting out of the race. I don’t think those are accurate, but the writing is on the wall, and Mitt Romney is well on his way to being the Republican nominee.

I have very, very mixed feelings about this.

During the 2010 election cycle, my guy lost early, and the Republican standardbearer was a lunatic. Quietly and behind the scenes, therefore, I decided to help the only reasonable person who remained in the race.

The problem was that he was a Democrat.

He was a pro-life, fiscally conservative Democrat, to be sure, but there was no escaping the D by his name. Due to my own party affiliation, I was very reluctant to publicly assert my support, but I was “outed” by a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, and soon I was getting as much press as my candidate, along with hefty criticism from party stalwarts who saw my betrayal as the height of treason.

It was then that I discovered firsthand how tribal politics really is.

With few exceptions, my Republican friends privately and quietly let me know that they agreed with me that the GOP guy was a loon, and that the Democrat was the only reasonable guy left. But just as often, they told me they couldn’t vote for him, let alone publicly associate themselves with him.

Why? Because he was a Democrat, of course.

The tribal identification is very powerful, and it’s impossible to recognize just how powerful it is until you dare to step out of bounds. I could write thousands of words about this, like how many who are disgusted with the Clintonian sleaze of the other tribe but are willing to overlook Gingrichian sleaze in their own, or how the first instinct of the tribal partisan is to justify the political sins of one of their own by citing similar behavior in someone from the rival tribe. (“Obama’s a big spender, huh? What about Bush’s unfunded wars? And remember a guy named Ronald Reagan?”)

But, alas, such a piece does not interest me, mainly because I have no love lost for my own political tribe. The Utah State GOP has made it clear that I’m really no longer welcome, and the national GOP has made it clear that their largest voting bloc despises my faith, which leads me to my real point, a point which I have tried to avoid and is painful for me to make.

I’m concerned that my support for Mitt Romney, and the support of many members of my faith, is based largely on tribalism. This time, however, the tribalism is religious, not political.

Indeed, if Mitt Romney were not a Mormon, I wonder if I would be supporting him.

His asinine comment about “not being concerned about the very poor” is all kinds of terrible, even in context with the idea of the “safety net” that takes care of them. All the so-called safety net does is keep people poor. The goal should not be to strengthen the net keeping them poor; the goal should be to make them unpoor.

Then there’s this crap about indexing the minimum wage to inflation. And don’t get me started on immigration, where Mitt is way out of line with the public statements of his/my church.

He is, in many ways, a truly crappy candidate.

But he’s very much a Mormon. And for a good chunk of us Mormons, it’s very hard not to look at Mitt and see our faith on the ballot.

Evangelicals who hate my faith recognize the same thing, and, in South Carolina particularly, they voted “no” the minute Newt gave them a credible reason to do so. Nevadans, on the other hand, came pouring out to vote “yes.” Although Mormons make up less than 10% of the Nevada populace, they made up 25% of caucus goers tonight. And of that 25%, 95% voted for Mitt.

So how is voting for someone because of their faith any better – or any different – than rejecting someone on the same basis?

I don’t have an answer, although I still feel like I can make a case that Mitt, Mormon or no, is the best Republican running. Newt is nothing but baggage; Santorum seems whiny and petulant, and Paul’s nuts.

I just think, however, that it might be helpful if more of us were willing to question whether our support for any candidate, any position, or any party is a tribal reaction and not a reasonable one. That doesn’t make the two mutually exclusive, but it should be enough to get us to view things with a broader perspective.