August 2008 Archives

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The 240th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Participatory Bible Study Blog. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the complete list at
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Obama on Abortion

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I've tried hard to make sense of Barack Obama's various statements, stumbles, votes, and explanations related to abortion. With many of them, I haven't succeeded. I've come to the conclusion that he simply hasn't thought hard about the issue and that he's grossly unaware of many of the important background facts, both about the legal background and the general philosophical conversation about this important issue. I wanted to put my conclusions together in one post, with links to some of the places where I've spent more time on the details for some of these things.

1. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks it prohibits using the word 'person' for a prematurely-born infant. Supreme Court precedent does prohibit certain kinds of laws from restricting abortion, but it never does so by defining the moral status of a fetus (it simply ignores that issue as if it's unimportant) or by declaring anything about which human beings count as persons. I've discussed this issue at length here, with some followup discussion here, and those who were defending him in the comments didn't seem to me to have anything that really helped.

2. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks he can require the kinds of exceptions to abortion that his voting record shows he insists on (and the Supreme Court has consistently required) while saying that mental health exceptions only mean diagnosed mental illnesses. This is not how pro-choice politicians opposing laws without mental health exceptions have based their opposition, and it's not how the Supreme Court has taken it. Any mental distress or psychological harm counts as a legitimate exception, according to Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and pretty much all abortion decisions the Supreme Court has rendered where it's come up. (The only exception is the one instance since the 80s when the conservatives have won the day, the second time the Supreme Court heard a case on a partial-birth abortion ban. The removal of the mental health exception there applies only to one method of late-term abortion and not to all late-term abortions.)

What's interesting about this is that it pulls Obama (1) to the left of the Supreme Court on the first issue, to the point of refusing to support a law that requires doctors to comfort and care for born infants who happen to be premature enough that it's unlikely but possible that they'll live and (2) to the right of the Supreme Court on the second issue, to the point of refusing to accept the limit on abortion restrictions that the Supreme Court has imposed, that any psychological trauma, even if not a diagnosed mental illness, can justify an abortion no matter what other circumstances occur (including bans against exactly that instance of abortion). So far there's no inconsistency.

But what Jan Crawford Greenburg points out is that Obama is on record opposing what he's been saying in #2. It's not just that he's on record saying it but has flipped to oppose it. He's currently supporting legislation that opposes his current position in #2, and he's promised that it will be a top priority upon assuming the office of president. The Freedom of Choice Act would basically remove all state and federal restrictions on abortion at any time and for any reason. Is Obama just talking out of both sides of his mouth? Or does he really not understand how badly he's mucked things up on this issue?

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240 Sept 3 Participatory Bible Study Blog
241 Sept 10 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet
242 Sept 17 Ancient Hebrew Poetry
243 Sept 24 A True Believer's Weblog
244 Oct 1 Chasing the Wind
245 Oct 8 The Limitless
246 Oct 15 Tale of a Kansas Girl
247 Oct 22
248 Oct 29 Fish and Cans
249 Nov 5 Participatory Bible Study Blog
250 Nov 12 Brain Cramps for God
251 Nov 19 Messy Christian
252 Nov 26 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet

Numbers 5 and Abortion

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Until I saw this post by Chris Brooks at Homeward Bound, I'd never encountered any pro-choice use of Numbers 5. The passage describes a procedure for determining whether a woman accused of adultery was guilty or innocent. It's generated a lot of discussion for other reasons, and since I read two commentaries on Numbers a few years ago I remember a lot of the issues that occur in those discussions. But abortion wasn't one of them, as far as I remember.

The pro-choice use of this passage is as follows. The penalty for a divine determination of guilt is for the woman's stomach to swell and for her to become barren. Pro-choicers then say that if she's already pregnant as a result of her adulterous relationship (which would happen often enough that it's going to matter for a lot of cases over many years) then the punishment would mean the death of the fetus. That reveals God's attitude toward fetuses that they don't have the kind of moral status adults have.

Now there are a number of things to say about this argument. Chris said some of them. But one thing in particular makes me think of this argument as completely crazy, and it didn't occur to me until I saw commenter Vinny's response to a comment I had left. Suppose following this procedure would lead God to cause a miscarriage every time the woman was pregnant and really had been unfaithful. Why couldn't God just prevent conception in the cases where he knew he was going to judge someone in this way? Vinny is assuming God couldn't.

But that kind of response is even unnecessary. Think about all the people God causes to die throughout the pages of the Bible. Some of them are punished for outright sins, such as Uzzah's refusal to follow the prescribed manner of carrying the ark when he touches it, Ananias and Sapphira's willingness to lie about how much they'd given to appear to have given everything they'd gotten, or Aaron's two oldest sons' burning of strange fire in the early days of the tabernacle, contrary to God's command only to burn a certain mixture of incense with a specific recipe. On the other hand, some people die because of other people's sins, and sometimes this is directly decreed by God. David and Bathsheba's first child dies as a judgment for their sin, a nice parallel of an infant in the same circumstance as Numbers 5 would be describing for a fetus if it indeed implies a miscarriage. God's judgment for David's census involves a very large number of people dying, and the same is true of a few occasions during the wilderness wanderings in Exodus and Numbers, where likely not everyone who died was guilty.

So it may well be that Numbers 5 reveals God's attitude toward the unborn. I'll grant that as long as the pro-choicer grants that these other passages reveal God's attitude toward adult human beings, even ones innocent with regard to the crime being punished. Once that's clear, it's very hard to make this pro-choice argument without also claiming that it's ok to kill adult human beings because God does so. Murder is still forbidden, even if there cases where God kills a human being in judgment for someone else's sin. You can't infer a lower moral status of a fetus from Numbers 5, because you'd also have to infer the same lower moral status for adults based on other biblical passages.

Christian Carnival CCXXXIX

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The 239th Christian Carnival: The Very Long Roman Numeral Edition is up at Thinking Christian.

[Cross-posted at Prosblogion] Open theists distinguish between two different varieties of their view. There are actually a number of ways to divide up open theism into varieties, but one particular division that open theists make among themselves is between the following two positions:

1. There is no such thing as a future to be known, and that's why God doesn't know the future exhaustively. It's not a limitation on God that he doesn't know everything that will happen. There's nothing to be known, so God can't know it. So God is omniscient in knowing all the facts about the future. There just aren't very much such facts yet.

2. God could know the future, but it would prevent our freedom, so God chooses to limit his knowledge, knowing that knowledge about what we would choose to do would make us unfree. God doesn't know all he could know metaphysically, but he does know all he could know given his choice not to know future free choices.

I'm not really sure these are distinct views. It sounds as if one view has God unable to know the future, and the other has him able to know it but choosing not to. But think about what would make him unable to know the future in the first case and unwilling to know it in the second. If he's unable to know the future because there's no future to be known, we're working with a picture of a world that's not deterministic. When people make free choices, they can do otherwise, and the idea is that open choices like that require an open future, which requires there being no fact about what you will do until you do it. But on view 1, it seems God could arrange for me to choose a certain thing. I just wouldn't be free if God did that. So God chooses not to know what I'll do in order to ensure that I have the chance to make free choices. But isn't that view 2?

Now think about the second view. What would happen if God chose to know what I'd do ahead of time? On view 2, I wouldn't be free if God chose such a thing. So God voluntarily chooses not to make me unfree, and he chooses to let the future be open with respect to my choice, which means he can't know my future choice, and we're really dealing with view 1.

So I'm not really sure these views are different views after all. In both views, God could know what I will do, and it would require me not being free. View 1 expresses this by assuming God won't ensure that I do any particular thing and then says God can't know my future choice. View 2 expresses it by making it explicit that God has chosen not to know and acknowledging that God could have known but it would mean I'm not free. But I'm not sure we're dealing with a different picture of what's going on, just a different way of describing it.

This is the sixth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason.

Having presented the Augustinian background to my approach to Christian political interaction, I want to move now to an application of Augustine's principles to contemporary American politics. I should say that I write as an evangelical, with particular views on what Christianity amounts to and what the church is. But these are views that I believe I share with Augustine, and thus those who are not evangelical may well agree with me on enough of them to arrive at similar conclusions.

I want to keep two kinds of questions separate. First, there are Christian motivations for certain views on how Christians should seek interact politically with the rest of society. Second, there are political reasons that might appeal to people who are not Christians regarding how much role religion should play in political decision-making. I want to focus on the first question in this post. For now I'm ignoring questions about what Christians (or members of any religious group) have a right to do politically, to what extent it is legitimate politically, morally, legally, constitutionally, etc. In other words, I'm leaving aside what sort of role religion should have in the public sphere as a general question that people of different faiths and people of no faith could all agree upon. I'm simply considering what a Christian should be motivated to think about these issues.

I am not ultimately going to ignore such questions, however. My next post will focus on exactly those questions. For now, I want to restrict myself to why I, as an evangelical Christian, should be motivated to play a role in the political process in a largely secularized society and what sort of role my Christian convictions should lead me to want to have. I'll begin with a very quick review of some of the general principles from Augustine that I agree with, which I've covered in more detail in previous posts in this series.

Augustine recognizes that Christians have two overriding principles that summarize all Christian teaching. One is love for God, and the other is love for neighbor. The New Testament clearly teaches that you cannot do the former without doing the latter. (It also teaches that you cannot truly do the latter without doing the former, although that isn't important for what I want to say now.) The highest calling of the Christian, indeed the Christian's most important moral obligation, is to love God, and that requires loving one's neighbor. In applying this point, Augustine insists that loving one's neighbor involves seeking what is good for those around us, including those who are not themselves Christians. To put it in terms of the Two Cities model, those who are citizens of the City of God have a moral responsibility to seek what is best for the earthly city.

The 239th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Thinking Christian. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the complete list at
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In the Mutants and Race piece that I'm trying to get into its final form, I'm trying to figure out a good way to avoid using a certain word. Philosophers sometimes use the word 'categorical' to refer to terms that denote categories of various sorts. But there's also the meaning of the word that Kant means when he talks about the categorical imperative, which is opposed to hypothetical imperatives. A categorical imperative is universal (applying to everyone) and absolute (applying in every case). A hypothetical imperative applies only in certain cases, given certain hypotheticals that may not always apply. So the term can mean "absolute/universal" or "having to do with categories".

I explain some problems with thinking of mutants as a race, even if there are analogous features. It really is an analogy, which means it can be pushed too far if you assume the category mutant is an actual example of the kinds of categories that we call races. Yet characters in the various X-Media regularly speak of mutants with racial language? I then try to capture how sometimes this sort of thing can be perfectly fine as long as we don't take the language too strictly. Here's the sentence as most recently returned to me by the editors (with the following sentence for a little context):

On the other hand, we often speak loosely and use certain categorical terms in an extended or even metaphorical sense. For example, people sometimes refer to co-workers as family.

The word 'categorical' was inserted by an editor, and I removed it in my next draft. I'm not entirely sure whether it's supposed to mean that some terms that are normally absolute are sometimes used in an extended sense, i.e. not absolutely, or whether it means that some terms for categories can be used to include things not technically in those categories. Either one is consistent with what I meant. But it's ambiguous, and good philosophical writing removes ambiguities. Also, it's a technical term, and this is a popular-level work that's supposed to explain technical terms. I thought it best to avoid it, so I rewrote several sentences to say what I meant without needing it. A later draft then came back with the word inserted once again. So I'm not sure what I want to do to avoid the word and yet also express what I mean and whatever the editors thought was unclear without that word.

One thought is just to replace 'categorical' with 'category', but I suspect whichever editor keeps inserting this term doesn't approve of that word as an adjective. They obviously didn't like it the way I had it without adjectives, though. I haven't been able to think of a good word instead of 'categorical' if I don't change it much. I'll put the two paragraphs discussing this issue below the fold. I've love any suggestions.

I'm not a big fan of semicolons. I could actually find the passage I'm going to go by searching for a semicolon in the document. It took ten seconds. I don't use semicolons very often. So imagine what I'm thinking when the following passage:

We just don't pick out features that depend on genetic structure. We sometimes oversimplify, and some people defy categories. There are borderline cases. We haven't thought to put a name to every category that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy.

comes back from the editor changed to this:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify; some people defy categories; there are borderline cases; and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

It's not just the succession of semicolons. The final item in the series has an 'and' in front of it, as if it had been a series of commas. When you combine two sentences, it's perfectly fine to use a semicolon or to use a comma with 'and'. When you have a longer list, you can use several commas, and then the last item has a comma with 'and'. Some people like to use semicolons for a longer series. I don't like to, but it's not a grievous punctuation move. But you don't put an 'and' after the last semicolon the way you would with a series of commas. That seems to me to be as bad as putting after the sole semicolon when you're just combining two sentences into one.

But then I don't like what happens when you do it just with semicolons:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify; some people defy categories; there are borderline cases; there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

Also, the editors clearly preferred something like what they did rather than what I had. What I'm hoping is that they'll accept this:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify, some people defy categories, there are borderline cases, and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

Or does anyone have any better suggestions?

This is the fifth post in my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.

In my last post in this series, I looked at Augustine's views on authority and his analogy between civil government and other levels of authority. That took me through City of God 19.16, and now I'm ready to move into section 19.17, which is where he focuses on the main question I wanted to move toward. I thought the issues I've been expositing so far are important to have some grasp of to see what motivates Augustine on these issues, but this is the real payoff. In 19.17, Augustine gives us his view of how members of the earthly city and members of the heavenly city interact in society, and that leads to his discussion of the principles I'm going to want to apply to Christians interacting with a society like what we have in the U.S. today.

So far we've seen the value Augustine places on order in society. It's relatively easy to see why order and authorities in society would be important within the system of the earthly city. It's a compromise between human wills much like the kind of social contract some of the ancient philosophers envisioned (most notably the Sophists and Epicureans). Augustine has no problem talking about that as an explanation of how it is that governments or slave relations might form, at least when they do so in as ideal a manner as is possible from the mindset of the earthly kingdom. People seek rulers for an ordered society and thus give up what they might otherwise be able to do in order to protect themselves from further harm and get what they can of peace in this life. People thus compromise and unite because it would be worse for them not to.

Slavery could also be explained this way in some cases, since in some cases it was something like the bankruptcy system of the ancient world. You would sell yourself into slavery to serve someone else for a certain period of time, and your benefactor would thus assume your debt and pay it off. You transfer a debt you can't pay for a debt you can pay, but it means giving up your economic independence for a time. Even slaves taken as a result of war are exchanging service for someone for the chance to continue living rather than to die as a result of being the spoils of war. So even forcible slavery can in many cases be seen as a kind of compromise between two wills.

But what about the heavenly city? How can its incompatible mindset cooperate with the earthly city's self-interest-based social contract? Doesn't it have higher aims? According to Augustine, the heavenly city in this life also has the limitations of this life and the surroundings of evil people, and thus there is a need to participate in such systems. The people of the heavenly city really belong elsewhere, but for now they're here and thus need to participate while awaiting the restoration of the ideal state when such things are no longer necessary. So the earthly city and the heavenly city are thus intertwined in a sense, both seeking the same goal of peace in what form it can be had here.

The earthly city seeks that as its only possible goal (given that others will prevent one's absolute self-interest), and the heavenly city seeks it as the best possible thing for now (but with the expectation of something greater to come). Members of the heavenly city should seek to obey laws, honor authority in the earthly city, and observe the kinds of earthly relationships that exist in this life that will not be necessary in the next, because that's important for loving our neighbor. Members of the early city will do the same out of self-interest. Thus for both the earthly city and the city of God, this seeking of order in society through authority and law is merely a means to an end, even if the ends differ for the two groups. The intermediate goal is common to both, and it thus makes sense for the two to agree to seek the intermediate goal to the extent that it fits within the ultimate goal of both cities.

What about cases when they can't agree on intermediate goals? If laws in the earthly city involve religion, and they conflict with the heavenly city's obligation to serve God first and foremost, then the heavenly city's laws take precedence. But this also means that the heavenly city couldn't have laws in common with the earthly city that involve religion, since the heavenly city's laws would not serve the interests the earthly city has carved out for itself. If it really knew what was best for it, it would serve God and not whatever other religion it may follow (if any), but everyone serves something, and the earthly city replaces the true God with other things, whether gods or other pursuits. In the early Christian period, this meant persecution of Christians for not following the religious laws of the earthly city.

The heavenly city thus follows whatever laws do seek some sort of earthly peace, provided that they don't conflict with the obligation to follow God above all. Those in the heavenly city should follow whatever different methods of seeking peace their particular earthly government follows, which will differ in different governmental systems.

In my next post, I'll look toward how Augustine might apply this in our contemporary setting.

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The 238th Christian Carnival: The Quotable Edition is up at Parables of a Prodigal World.

This is the fourth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.

So far this series has been background for Augustine's views on civil authority and the relation between Christians and civil government. Before I get to the final payoff in terms of that issue, I want to present his views on various levels of authority in society from his concentrated treatment of that subject in City of God 19.14-16. It's the closest thing in that work to a political philosophy, even if it's really more of a social philosophy. I'll turn to City of God 19.17 and his views on the relation between the two cities in the next post, and then I'll look to the contemporary scene after that.

City of God 19.14 looks at the desires of the earthly kingdom. Augustine sees the earthly kingdom as naturally tending toward a self-interested ethic. In our natural state, apart from conversion to Christianity, we all want peace of body and soul, and that means not wanting distress or hardship. Animals demonstrate this by shunning death and seeking to satisfy their pleasures, but we have reason and can do it on a more rational level. He sees fallen humanity as imperfect and unable to do this perfectly without help from God. Thus the life of those in the earthly kingdom won't be the life that really is best in terms of self-interest. He thinks only the Christian life is the good life in that sense. But the aim is the best life in terms of self-interest.

While the members of earthly kingdom have self-interest as a root motivation, Augustine insists that the citizens of the city of God have a higher motivation. God commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourself. The highest thing to want for oneself is to love God fully, since God is the most perfect good and most worth loving. Therefore, it counts as an equally high goal to want others to love God, from family to complete strangers. This requires being at peace with everyone, which in turn requires (negatively) seeking to do no harm to others and (positively) seeking to do good to others whenever possible, particularly in spheres when one has authority over others.

An ideal leader has in mind the best interests of those being led. Someone good at this is seeking to love the other as self, which means doing what's best for that person. That means that giving orders from an authority position, when done in the ideal way, is just helping that person along. This would be true of a political leader, a leader in a family, and those who oversee the work of others (which would include the master-slave relationship).

He provides little evaluation of the social structures of his day. There's no comment on whether slavery is the best form of handling the problems that led to its institution in the ancient world. There's no comment on whether households should be structured as they were. As we'll see, he also offers no view on what sort of government is best. These aren't the questions he's interested in. Augustine is seeking not to restructure the societal relationships of his day but to reverse how authority figures should think about their role in their relationship, so that they see themselves as serving those they lead instead of the more natural view that people manage other people in order to get the others to do whatever they want them to do.

Baby Coming Soon

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Sam's water broke at 3:15 this morning. She had over five hours of good contractions, but they stopped for over two hours, which is a little unusual. We went in to the doctor's office, and he doesn't seem bothered. He sent us home to wait until things progress more. She was at 2 cm when we were at the office, and the contractions have resumed (but still not nearly frequent enough to justify going to the hospital). So we might have to wait for a while.

Update: Jewel Elisabeth Pierce was born at 10:36 pm on August 18, 2008, weighing in at 6 lbs. 9 oz. Mommy and baby are both doing fine, even if Daddy is still too sick to breathe well.

Jewel basically delivered herself. She had her whole head out without any medical personnel in the room and without any pushing. The nurses finally arrived just in time for one of them to catch her so that my infection-spreading hands didn't have to touch her, and the doctors all walked in after her cord was already cut to find the nurses well into their instrument-poking and information-recording.

Update 8/21: Sam's put up a picture here. She's put a few more on Facebook, but this is the only one so far that's accessible to the whole internet (except China).

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The 238th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Parables of a Prodigal World. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the complete list at
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

This is the third post from the Right Reason series I did last year.

In my last post, I presented some background views of Augustine that will inform his views on the relationship between Christians and civil government. Before I move on to his specific treatment of that issue from City of God chapter 19, I want to look at two other related background issues in this post.

First, it's always worth remembering that for Augustine the ultimate governor of all things is God. In City of God 4.33, he dwells on the significance this has. If God is the governor over all creation, and God is omnipotent and has exhaustive foreknowledge (as Augustine thought), then nothing happens without at least God's permission. There's an ordering of events. This strong view of God's sovereignty required him to come up with something to say about the problem of evil, which he does spend a great deal of time on in other sections of City of God, but even without that additional work it's clear that Augustine doesn't think God sees everything that happens as morally good. It's just that it all somehow fits into a larger plan that God is in control of.

What political relevance does this have, then? God distributes worldly power irrespective of whether people are good or bad. We could tell that by just observing the world. Why would this be? One reason is that if only good people got it, then people would begin to expect such gifts from God, and that involves seeing worldly power as important. Augustine says it's not of any real importance, so it wouldn't do for God to promote it as if it is. So it gets distributed among people of various sorts to diminish the likelihood of people drawing that kind of conclusion.

Augustine thinks the Old Testament promises of land and other physical things to Israel have a hidden meaning of a spiritual reality, i.e. to be in the spiritual land is to be in God's kingdom as a citizen of a higher reality, etc. Those in the City of God, i.e. Christians, are not citizens of the earthly kingdom and do not primarily identify with it in terms of its mindset or desires (as I discussed in the last post).

After Augustine discusses the material I'm going to turn to in the next post, he looks at one issue that I wanted to have in front of us at the outset. In City of God 19.24, he looks at the expression "a people" (or at least the Latin expression translated as "a people"). He defines 'a people' as a group united by common goals, purposes, and loves. In part, he's responding to Cicero's definition that a society is a group united for the sake of serving justice. Augustine doesn't want to define it that way, because you can evaluate a people based on what its goals, purposes, and loves are. If it loves good things, it makes it a good people. If it loves bad things, it is a bad people. So you can't define a society as a group with good goals, as if other groups aren't societies. Any group with shared interests is a society. It's just that some societies are united by justice, while others are not.

Rome in its most corrupt state was still a people. True justice isn't present unless reason triumphs over what's not excellent. Ultimately for the best sort of justice, a people must love God, but it might make sense to speak of lesser forms of justice that involve something more virtuous than another people, even if neither truly loves God. So his distinction between (a) true peace that only the City of God looks forward to and (b) a semblance of peace in the earthly city corresponds to a distinction between (c) true justice that can occur only when fully and completely motivated by love for God (and won't appear fully even in the still-sinning members of the City of God here and now) and (d) a semblance of justice in the earthly city.

In City of God 4.4, Augustine defended the claim that unjust regimes are no more than criminal gangs on a large scale, and this account of what it is to be a people helps shed some light on that earlier passage. As Augustine sees it, an unjust government is nothing more than a bunch of criminals. The fact that they have much power and get to be called an empire makes no difference. The thing they have in common is that they are both groups organized around a common purpose, and in these two cases it's a bad purpose. His emphasis here is that empires can be no better than gangs. But the assumption behind this also means that gangs are like small scale societies, because they have the kind of common association that a society has. Just because the organizing principle doesn't line up with what's right doesn't mean that it's not a society. It's just a bad society.

So enough of the preliminaries. In the next post, I'll move to his main discussion of this issue in City of God 19.14-17.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 16, 2007 6:41 PM

[This post had no comments at the original Right Reason posting, so there are none to reproduce here.]

Matthew Franck notes that on one of Barack Obama's exam questions from when he was teaching law, he asks whether an equal protection challenge can be brought against a law requiring states to be color-blind. Franck says he knows of lots of people who think the equal protection clause requires states to be color-blind, but he hasn't encountered a serious argument anywhere that such laws violate the equal protection clause. I haven't either, but I don't read law reviews. Still, such an argument isn't hard to imagine, and I think it's actually a sound argument.

The equal protection clause entitles people of all races to equal protection of the laws. The laws therefore need to be able to rely on the distinction between members of one race and members of another if they are to ensure that each race is equally protected by them. Therefore, color-blind laws, which disallow the state from paying attention to race, violate the equal protection clause.

It sounds like a pretty good argument to me. As a policy issue, I don't mind restricting affirmative action in universities to class rather than race, or at least ensuring that the standards aren't lowered as much as they are. There's a significant argument that the way affirmative action is typically practiced in that setting (as opposed to in the workplace, which is a very different matter) seems to me to harm the people it's intended to help, given that admissions officers already go out of their way to promote diversity (so there's no discrimination to combat at that level), and it means accepting people who won't be able to do as well and then will appear less good when they graduate than they would at a lower institution with much higher grades and more time for extracurriculars. There are other negatives too, but that's the one that seems decisive to me. I think it's much better to work at the high school level and below to help kids do better in school, to care more about school, and to think of college as something worth doing.

But I can't see how it could be good to ban affirmative action by not allowing a state to recognize racial distinctions in any way. That sort of law is not just bad policy. It really is unconstitutional because it prevents enforcement of the equal protection clause.



The 237th Christian Carnival is up, or rather Down (Under) at

Remember that Born-Alive bill that requires an additional doctor present at an abortion to keep any survivor of an abortion alive? Back in February, I wrote about Barack Obama's insistence on not passing such a law in Illinois, finding it at best puzzling given his party's wholehearted passing of the law in the U.S. Senate, with people like Barbara Boxer and organizations like NARAL endorsing the law.

As I said in my previous post, I don't think it's fair to call Obama a supporter of infanticide (as distinguished from abortion) because of this. At the same time, I don't see any consistent justification for opposing the law, and his own official reason didn't hold up. He said it was because the federal version had a neutrality clause that stated that the law takes no stance on the issue of the moral status of the fetus, while the Illinois law had no such clause.

At the time, it seems that Obama himself had held up a neutrality amendment in committee, so he was the one to blame for the laws not being similar in that way, and that's no reason not to pass the law if you do support the federal one. I concluded that either he didn't really support the federal law (and was thus lying about his views) or he was just inconsistent in the various things he's said without any sense of really believing anything clear on the matter.

Now it seems Obama actually did put the neutrality amendment before his committee. But then he and all the other Democrats on the committee voted against putting the amended law before the whole Illinois Senate. So, again, I'm not sure what to make of this. Is this another example among many of him simply lying about a past position that embarrasses him politically because it's far to the left of the mainstream, hoping no one would catch up with him on it? Or is there some way to put together what he's said with this revelation? I suppose he could have forgotten what his reasoning at the time was, but it's been an issue in the campaign long enough that he should be thinking it through and preparing a response that fits with the actual Senate records.

What possible motivation could he have had to pass this amendment and then still vote against the bill? It's not just inconsistent with what he's been saying happened. I'm not sure it's even internally consistent. What would be the point of voting for the amendment (an amendment that I'm pretty sure the Republicans had added) and then voting against the amended law? Was there some other amendment to the law that his party, who was in the majority on the committee, somehow couldn't get away from the law? That sounds unlikely. But if it was something in the law proper, then why would he say he would have been fine with the federal version?

According to Justin Taylor, Obama had also defended his past actions by saying "there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances...." (See the 8/12 JT comment here.) He cites a David Freddoso book that says that's factually incorrect. Perhaps Obama misunderstood the law, so he may not have been lying, but if that's right then he at least hadn't done his homework, which as a legislator he ought to have been doing. This is second-hand information, so I'm open to correction on this, but I think if these things are right, then this piece of Obama's past that already reflected very badly on him is probably at least a little worse than it had seemed.

The 75th Philosophers' Carnival is up at Wide Scope.

This is the second post in my Right Reason guest series from last year at the now-defunct Right Reason blog.

I want to begin this series looking at Augustine's views on the topic I'll be discussing, but before I get into his views on the direct issue I'd like to present a few of his background views that will be relevant to the more direct discussion of religious motivations in public life and civil government.

Augustine doesn't ever (to my knowledge) discuss the best form of government. He's not really interested in political questions for their own sake. He is interested in God's role in history, in individuals and among nations and rulers, including both good and bad rulers. He does think there are ethical questions about how to govern, and he's interested in how Christians as part of a political entity should live and participate, but his ultimate concern is the relation between what he calls the City of God and what he calls the early city. This does include those in government, and thus he does have some things to say that affect political matters.

The City of God is an important enough concept that he named what's considered by many to be his most important work after it. The City of God is not actually a city or political entity but rather a spiritual reality, manifested by people who follow Jesus Christ. Christians compose the City of God, and their primary identity is in that relationship, not in any political, cultural, social, ethnic, or whatever other identity-forming relations they may have. The stark contrast between the City of God and the earthly city is crucial for understanding Augustine's views on Christians and civil government.

Each group has its own mindset and what we would now call its own value system or worldview. Augustine sees the City of God as valuing what God would value (or at least valuing to move toward valuing those things more). The earthly city, on the other hand, is largely self-interested. It's not that all ethical theories developed by those in the earthly city are hedonistic. Augustine is well aware that that's not the case. He discusses Plato and the Stoics at great length in City of God, and he acknowledges the difference between their views and those of the Epicureans, who were genuinely hedonistic in their explicit normative theory.

But even the views of Plato and the Stoics are self-interested, even if they aren't selfish. All the ancient philosophers were concerned with the good life, i.e. a life of flourishing, a life of well-being. But this mindset takes the good life to be merely what's a good life for me to have. For Plato and the Stoics, the good life is an internal matter. It's what sort of inner state is good for me to have. For Epicurus, it's also internal to me. It's about avoiding pain. The ancient skeptics sought to avoid having beliefs. Even Aristotle, who recognized external goods, was primarily concerned with how such goods help the individual to flourish, to lead a fulfilling life.

In contrast, Christianity places primary value outside oneself, in God, and in the concerns of a God who is directed by the concerns of his creation. He does say that such a life is the most fulfilling, the life with the most value for me. But what gives it that value is not merely that it's the best life for me to have. This is why he thinks those outside the City of God are in a sense merely self-directed. Without a divine purpose, he sees nothing but what kind of life you want for yourself, even if the life you want for yourself involves doing altruistic deeds.

It's also worth being aware of Augustine's views on human motivation. He sees all human beings since the fall as having disordered desires. We don't want what's best, at least not in a way that reflects how good different things are. We want things that are less good more than we want things that are more good. He sees virtue or excellence as having rightly-ordered desires, having your desires organized in a way that your highest priorities are the things most worth desiring, with other things occupying a lower priority level. Disordered desire is a consequence of the fall, and only those whose priorities are reordered by God in conversion to following Christ can begin the process of moving in a direction of excellence. This is ultimately his explanation of why the earthly city doesn't have the most important good (i.e. God) as its highest-motivating factor, and the City of God does (at least when its members are not sinning). That allows him to form such a stark contrast between these two mindsets. There's a metaphysical difference between the two groups.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 14, 2007 8:48 AM

The 237th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the complete list at
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

I just discovered that the Right Reason blog is no longer online at all. It was a politically conservative philosophers' blog hosted at the same server that hosts this blog, and I knew that it had stopped producing new posts, but I didn't expect all the archives to disappear. I managed to recover all the content from the guest-posting I did toward the end of that blog last year, including the whole comment thread on each post. I didn't know about, but it apparently saves the content of any web page at various intervals so you can go back and check what was once there. So I'm going to be posting that series here on days when I have less time to blog new stuff. Here's the introductory post. I'll put the comments below the fold since this initial post led to quite a lengthy discussion despite its brevity.

Introduction: Christianity and Politics (Guest Posting)

I'm very happy to have been asked to contribute some guest posts to Right Reason for the next week or two. Max asked me to take on the theme Christianity and Politics, and I'd like to use this opportunity to explore Augustine's views on how Christians should relate politically to a religiously pluralist society. I think he has a lot to offer to those current debates, and his views line up nicely with my own in several ways. I don't expect just to present Augustine's views, however. I expect this to be as much about how I see myself as an evangelical and how I relate to the pluralist society we live in, including how religious views can affect both political discourse and ground my support for particular policies.

I imagine some readers of this blog know who I am, since my blog Parableman is listed in Right Reason's blogroll, but I'll say a little about myself for those who don't know me. I'm a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University, working on a dissertation with Linda Alcoff on the metaphysics of race (and races). My primary philosophical background is in analytic metaphysics and philosophy of religion. In addition to my personal blog, which includes discussions of philosophy, politics, theology, and Christian apologetics, I contribute to the philosophy of religion blog Prosblogion, and I was part of the OrangePhilosophy blog when that was active.

NYT Libels McCain

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Remember that ad used against Harold Ford that portrayed him as a philanderer in the 2006 Senate elections? Since Ford is black and the woman in the ad was white, a lot of people concluded that Tennessee voters were intended to draw the connection that this black boy was fooling around with their white womenfolk. I don't think there's any way to prove it in that case, but it sure was a lot more plausible as a possible play on racist sentiment than this current one.

So the McCain campaign comes along and compares Barack Obama to the substanceless Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Criticize the McCain all you want for its insinuation that Obama is like them, but please don't pretend that it's like the Harold Ford ad, as the New York Times editorial board does. The comparison is revealing, about those making it anyway, but it's logically invalid. I knew some people were touting it about, because someone on NPR mentioned it only to give a pretty decisive argument against it. Nevertheless, I'm a bit surprised to see it being endorsed by the NYT editors on their blog. That's pretty prominent for what I had thought was a position on the extremes.

There was no insinuation whatsoever in the ad that Obama is getting it on with these women. There was no suggestion at all that he's after white women. The ad compared Obama with these women, suggesting that he himself is like them, not that he's doing something with them. Even granting the premise that the anti-Ford ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage, there simply is no argument that the McCain ad is remotely in the same ballpark. The ad criticizes Obama, but being black should not make remove someone from the possibility of criticism, even unfair criticism, especially in politics at this level. Criticism, even unfair criticism, is not the same thing as racism, and it's not the same thing as attempts to make use of others' racism. This is, in effect, the NYT editors' argument:

1. The anti-Ford ad had a black man and a hot white woman in it, and that was playing on racist fears of intermarriage.
2. The anti-Obama ad has a black man and hot white women in it.
3. Therefore, the anti-Obama ad is playing on racist fears of intermarriage.

It's not hard to see that the argument is logically invalid. There are any number of explanations for why an ad can have a black man and hot white women. The one offered in premise 1, even if it's true, is not the only one or even a remotely plausible one in this case. The ad portrays these white women as moronic celebrities, not as potential lovers for Obama. The point is absolutely clear to anyone with any political sense, and many pundits have criticized the ad in a way that recognizes its point without adding nonsense to it.

So why is the New York Times editorial board making it out to be racism? I have two theories. Either may be false, but I can't think of another, so I'm assuming one is true. Either (a) they're really, really stupid and can't see how fallacious this comparison is or (b) really, really immoral and want to make McCain look like a racist when they know there's no evidence in this ad that he or anyone in his campaign is. The first is uncharitable about their intelligence, and the second is uncharitable about their motivations, so the principle of charity can't help us out. There is no charitable explanation of their behavior.

If it's the latter explanation, then we have good reason to think this constitutes criminal defamation of character. If they know full well that they're lying to make him look like a racist, then it's legally prosecutable as libel. Perhaps they're not directly motivated by wanting him to look bad so much as to defend Obama's recent claims that the McCain campaign would use racist attacks by pointing out just such an attack, but I don't think that matters legally. They know they're lying about something that they know will defame his character. As I understand the law, that's sufficient for criminal defamation, and Wikipedia seems to confirm that judgment. On the other hand, they could believe the above argument is actually a good one, but then they'd be much dumber than you'd expect for people as highly educated as they are.

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The 236th Christian Carnival is up at Brain Cramps for God.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

I'm working on a chapter for the forthcoming Blackwell Philosophy and Harry Potter on the topic of destiny, and one of the things I'm trying to do in the chapter is distinguish between different metaphysical analyses of prophecy. I've come up with three, and I'm inclined to think that it might be exhaustive enough for the purposes of a popular-level work like this, but I'm curious if anyone here can think of any others.

Here's what I've got (and how I'm presenting it in the draft I'm writing):

1. They involve mere likelihoods. No one has access to the actual future, but someone might have magical access to information that's derived from what's likely. Given what's true about the various people involved, it's very likely that a certain outcome will happen. That means prophecies, even the ones Dumbledore is inclined to call genuine, are not infallible. They can turn out get it wrong.

2. They do not derive their content from the actual future. Rather, they make the future happen. When a genuine prophecy occurs, it influences those who hear it in such a way that they end up doing things that will fulfill the prophecy. This kind of prophecy is self-fulfilling in a very literal sense.

3. The seer has some intuitive connection with the way things will really happen, such that the words of the prophecy are true about a future that really will be that way. If it's a genuine prophecy, it can't be wrong, because its origin lies in the very future events that it tells about. In the same way that a report about the past can bring knowledge about the past only if there's some reliable connection with the actual events in the past, a genuine prophecy in this sense must derive its truth from a reliable method of getting facts about the future.

My understanding of J.K. Rowling's view of prophecy, judging by this interview and my sense that the Albus Dumbledore character represents her views when he discusses this issue with Harry Potter, is that she wants to treat Professor Trelawney's two genuine prophecies as the first kind, a kind of prophecy an open theist could accept.

There are hints in at least two of Dumbledore's conversations with Harry that he thinks something like the second kind is going on, but it's clearly not a reduction of prophecy to what happens in #2, because the characters in question (mostly Lord Voldemort) still make free choices and aren't simply caused by the prophecy to do anything the way some ancients thought Laius was caused by Apollo's prophecy to do what he did that led to Oedipus eventually killing him.

My argument at this point is that there isn't really a way for Dumbledore to distinguish between Trelawney's two genuine prophecies and all her vague predictions that can often be interpreted as coming true unless the genuine ones are of the third kind (because the pseudo-prophecies are of the first kind, and the genuine ones can't be completely explained by the second kind). Rowling doesn't seem to want to accept that, and Dumbledore is clearly with her, so there's a consistency issue here both for the character and the author. But my argument depends on the options I've listed being exhaustive. Is that true?


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Sam's put up some more pictures on her picture blog. This might be more frequent now that we have a camera that both works and will connect to the computer.

The first was actually from months ago. For some reason I forgot to link to it: Sophia putting on Mommy's makeup

Ethan and Sophia listening to the baby. Ethan still thinks he's getting a new little brother, and Sophia still thinks she's getting a little sister.

Ethan doing his new construction worker thing. They tore up about ten feet of concrete sidewalk right in front of our front walkway and then spent exactly a month (to the day) tearing up other people's concrete and filling in new concrete on other people's sidewalks. Exactly a day after they rendered our front walkway nearly useless, they filled it back in again. It's nice now except for the rocks they used to fill in the parts of Sam's garden that they uprooted, which clearly don't look remotely appropriate in the middle of a garden patch. I have to wonder if the exact month was to avoid some legal issue, if for instance we could sue them for taking too long if they went over a month. Anyway, Ethan had a lot of time to watch construction workers while waiting for the bus during that month.

Isaiah just lost his two front bottom teeth. It really is impossible to get a good picture of him if he knows there's a camera anywhere near him, but I suppose this isn't as bad as it sometimes is. Redeye is pretty common, but he's got Goldeneye! I always thought he'd be a good evil dictator, and being a Bond villain at such a young age is a pretty good start.

Bush or Batman?

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A friend sent my brother a link to Bush or Batman?. It's a pretty funny juxtaposition of quotes from President Bush and the Adam West version of Batman, and the people they find on the street can't seem to distinguish which are which. A moments reflection and a quick look here show that they've clearly picked quotes by each that sound like something the other might have said, but the fact that there are so many is pretty interesting. So does Bush talk about evil the way the superheroes he grew up watching on TV did?

(I should say that I'm not sure why some of the YouTube commenters think this entire video is an attack against Bush. There is one line about the Bush not believing the Batman quote about the Constitution, but I could see a Bush supporter even saying something like that, intending it ironically because so many people do think such a crazy thing about Bush. Anyway, I thought the comparison actually reflected well on him.)

I was originally going to connect this with yesterday's post on Obama and Evil because it relates to the way President Bush talks about evil, but I decided not to do too many things in one post. That does raise an extremely important issue. A lot of people complain about the way the current president talks, but they don't realize how grateful they ought to be. If he's modeling his speeches on Adam West's Batman, then we may have just narrowly missed having a president who talks like the Burt Ward version of Robin.

Obama and Evil

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Last year, I expressed my consternation at those who think anyone who talks about fighting evil is relying on a conception of a force of evil, some even going as far as calling it dualist in the sense of good and evil being permanent, equal forces of reality that constantly war against each other. I gave several examples that show this is a normal way of talking that has pretty much no metaphysical assumption about what it means for something to be evil.

There's a tendency on the other side to assume that those who don't speak of evil must not understand it. See, for instance, the criticisms in the comments of Jim Lindgren's post about Barack Obama from about a month ago. Lindgren's argument is very interesting, and I think a lot of what he says is right. He read The Audacity of Hope and concluded that Obama really does think the United States is the best country in the world, rather than hating it as a number of people have pretended, but he thinks it's got some problems nonetheless and most of the time focuses on those problems rather than constantly praising all that's good about the U.S. Since it's my general personality tendency to do the same sort of thing, I have no criticism of that. It's good to point out problems, because otherwise you don't know they're there and thus can't do anything about them, and spending more time pointing out problems than recognizing what's good simply doesn't amount to not recognizing what's good.

On the other hand, Lindgren was looking for hints in the book that Obama has a deep grasp of the nature of evil rather than simply thinking everyone is basically good but misguided. Since I think no one is basically good, and everyone has downright awful motivations almost all of the time, short of the grace of God (which includes common grace and thus is not present just in Christians), I would have to disagree with such a stance. I realize that most people don't share this view. It's fairly extreme, in fact. I do contend that it is the Christian view, however, and if Obama does not think of default human motivational structure as deeply evil, then he does not accept the Christian view of human nature.

I'm not especially interesting in distinguishing between what I think is the biblical view and other, less extreme, views of deeply evil motivations. One might not think most human motivations (short of God's grace) ultimately stem from sin to think that there are deeply evil motivations. What I'm interested is whether Barack Obama admits to the reality of deep evil, not whether he holds the biblical view that takes this to be the default condition of all humanity (although if he's commented on that explicitly, I'd love to hear about it). There is one reason to question whether he does. Should we think someone who recognizes so many problems in the U.S. and points them out, despite having a positive view of the U.S., would also do the same with human beings if it comes to deeply evil motivations? Lindgren didn't recognize anything like that in Obama's book, and I can't remember ever hearing anything from Obama like that.

Has Obama has given any evidence that he believes in the depths of evil rather than just unfortunate structural problems in society and misguided motivations? A number of the commenters on Lindgren's post rightly pointed out that not using the word 'evil' doesn't amount to not believing in it. On the other hand, if Obama's autobiography presents him as a believer in mostly -misguided good at the heart of those who don't see the light as he does, then we probably should wonder if he admits to real evil in the hearts of human beings, short of strong evidence in his language for such a belief. I'm skeptical at this point. I'm curious if anyone can point me to anywhere that Obama does talk about evil in this way. It doesn't have to use the word 'evil' (and a Google search for "Obama evil" isn't going to turn up much that's helpful; I already tried it). My standards for this aren't as high as Lindgren's.

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Brain Cramps for God. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the complete list at
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

I'm not going to dignify this enough to give it a further link beyond all the attention it's getting, but I can't resist commenting on the idea of desecrating the Eucharist in an internet stunt. In case you haven't heard of the events this is about, there are two posts about it in the latest Christian Carnival. You'll have to follow the links there.

This is one of the lamest things I've ever heard of, and the fact that people are insulted is extremely unfortunate, because they shouldn't be.

Consider the Catholic view. According to transsubstantiation, this action takes something that isn't a piece of bread but is literally Jesus, the same Jesus who was pierced by swords, spears, and rusty nails on the cross. So someone pierces Jesus with a rusty nail and attaching some pages from the Qur'an and Richard Dawkins' diatribe against theism. I'm not sure what the fuss is. He didn't do anything that hasn't already been done, if to the Catholic view is correct. In fact, the person performing this act (along with the rest of humanity) was already the cause of Jesus' death, and thus he'd already done the thing that he so proudly did. He'd already killed Jesus, never mind poked a hole in him with a rusty nail.

Of course, if the Catholic view is wrong, then this action is of little significance except as the immoral act of deliberately trying to cause offense to a large group of people, most of whom are very peace-loving. That's nothing at all to proud of, but why should I as a Protestant be offended that someone seeks to offend Christians? Isn't that what Jesus said to expect? Didn't he announce that lots of idiots will come along and say all sorts of nasty things about his followers? So someone from an anti-theist site decides to offend Christians, and he does so publicly. It's ok to recognize the immorality of his motivations, but I don't understand why people are up in arms about this.

July license plates

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U.S. States: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

other U.S.: District of Columbia, U.S. Government

Canada: Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec

U.S. States Lost from June: Kansas, New Mexico

U.S. States Gained from June: Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota

U.S. States not seen yet at all: I still haven't seen Hawaii and Mississippi since I started doing this in October.


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