November 2008 Archives

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The 253rd 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:

Grading Issue

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I'm grading an exam that has some unusual directions. 10% of the exam is multiple choice, and I grade that unusually also, but the issue I'm facing has to do with the other 90%. I give my students freedom to choose among a number of questions to fill out that 90%. There are 10-point, 20-point, 30-point, and 40-point questions. They can skip one whole section, but they need to do at least one question from each of the other three sections. The easiest way to do it is to do one 20-point, one 30-point, and one 40-point, but there are lots of permutations to get to 90 points while doing something from each of three sections.

I've had students answer 100 points of questions. If one of their questions is a 10-pointer, then I just don't grade that one. If not, then I'll count a 20-pointer at half value (i.e. if they would have gotten an 18 out of 20, then it's 9 out of 10). I've also had students just not answer enough questions, in which case they end up with a lower score than they might have had. But for the first time (this is the third time I've used this model -- really the fourth and fifth times, if you count each section as a separate time) I've got a problem with a student answering the wrong point total where I can't think of a good solution.

This student answered three questions besides the multiple choice. She did two 40-point questions and a 10-point question. That does lead to the right point total, but it wasn't from three sections. The questions were taken from two of the four sections instead of the required three. So how do I handle this? I could simply grade the questions she did and ignore it, but that sends a message that the exam rules aren't really important. I do think some point loss is required. It's not clear how many points to penalize her, though. It isn't as if there's a question amount over the total that she's done, since she's done the right number of points. But I could claim that two 40-pointers is impossible within the rules I stipulated and then count the 40-pointer as a 30-pointer, something akin to what I do if they do too many points worth total without any 10-pointers to ignore. That 40-pointer should have been two 20-pointers or a 30-pointer and a 10-pointer. Those are the only ways for her to have followed the directions that get as close as possible to the questions she actually answered. The more generous option of those two,, then, would count one of the 40-pointers (the second one, to be precise, since that's the one that took it over the top) as a 30-pointer and insist that she should have done a 30-pointer instead and then a missing 10-pointer.

The result would be penalizing her 10 points, a whole letter grade, for not answering the right combination of questions. Does that seem too harsh? Does it seem easy enough to explain to her when justifying why I penalized her this amount? I'm not entirely satisfied with this way to handle it, but I'm also at a loss for how I might better handle this case.

Peter Kirk takes Obama's conversion experience as evangelical (but see his comment below resisting the seemingly-uncontroversial inference from having an evangelical conversion experience to being an evangelical). The interview Peter links to in support actually leads me to conclude that he's definitely not an evangelical, and a case can even be made that there's nothing distinctively Christian in his personal faith. Let me first outline what I think the boundaries of evangelicalism can include, and then I'll look at some of the things Obama says that make me think he's outside the realm of evangelicalism and perhaps even not very specifically Christian. Much of the content here is adapted from comments in my conversation with Peter in the comments.

Theologically liberal views (at least compared to the status quo in evangelicalism) would include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element (e.g. my co-blogger Wink), who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end (e.g. philosophers Dean Zimmerman and Dale Tuggy), who are universalists of the sort that they're convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so, and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real but just not eternally populated (e.g. Keith DeRose), who are inclusivists of the sort where Christ's sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view), that a homosexual lifestyle is morally ok but who feel the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view (e.g. I have a friend who holds such a view and is clearly an evangelical) rather than saying the Bible includes an immoral prohibition.

There are some who deny inerrancy (but really affirm it and just deny a straw man that they think inerrancy is), but I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical. The Fuller Theological Seminary model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don't actually follow this. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn't be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes. Once you start explicitly questioning the plain moral and theological teaching of scripture without trying to reinterpret it so that you at least believe scripture teaches your view, it's hard for me to see that as even on the fringes of evangelicalism. That's just theological liberalism in its most plain form.

So I'm certainly open to finding liberalizing tendencies within evangelicalism, even if one is on the fringes for holding certain views. Some of these are closer to the fringes than others (e.g. Wink's view of the atonement doesn't seem very extreme to me, just extreme-sounding to those unwilling to think very hard about what they've been taught). Those who combine several of these are more on the fringes than others. But one can be an evangelical and hold such views. It's a separate matter whether someone is a Christian but not an evangelical. I'm not saying here that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. I know plenty of people whom I would not consider evangelicals but who do lay claim to being more broadly Christian. Very few Catholics are evangelicals, in my view, although I personally know a handful who I think are evangelical Catholics. I do think pious Catholics are Christian in a perfectly normal English usage of that term. I know a number of people who I think are Christians in mainline denominations who aren't evangelicals by the criteria I've outlined above. Some evangelicals want to restrict the term 'Christian' so that it only applies to evangelicals, but it's linguistically inappropriate to do that given what the term has come to mean.

But suppose someone denies the reality of hell and then expresses skepticism even about the existence of an afterlife in heaven. What if you say you pray, but then when you go on to explain what you do when praying it becomes clear that you're just maintaining an internal dialogue evaluating your life? What if you talk about a power that goes out of you when you speak the truth (rather than inflating your ego or playing rhetorical games), and then when your interviewer asks you if that's the Holy Spirit, you prefer to speak instead of just seeing a common recognition of truth outside of you? What if you're willing to talk of Jesus as your personal means of bridging the human-God gap but think of that in terms of reaching something higher rather than as the solution to a problem of sin? Speaking of sin, what if you admit to believing that there is such a thing but then define it entirely in terms of going against your own convictions, as if hypocrisy is the only sin? In the above-linked interview, Barack Obama did all these things.

One justification for disallowing bans on same-sex marriage is that it's seen as discrimination to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. [In this post I'm not considering under what circumstances discrimination is wrong and when it's perfectly ok. The moral issue isn't my interest here. I'm just looking at whether it's discrimination, leaving aside the moral issue of whether such discrimination is ok. It's ok to discriminate against black people when casting a part in a play for a character that was written as a white racist. But it's still discrimination, just a perfectly legitimate kind. I'm interested in the legal implications here, not the moral ones.]

Whether a practice or act counts as discrimination depends on some assumptions. Two key issues are (a) who is being discriminated against and (b) on what basis.

Consider Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that overturned bans on interracial marriage. The Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment prevents states from treating individuals of different races differently when it comes to who they can marry. If a man is black, he couldn't marry a white woman in Virginia, but if he'd been white then he could have. That's discrimination against individuals along race lines.

Restricting marriage to same-sex couples isn't quite parallel. It doesn't discriminate against individuals according to sexual orientation. A gay man has the same rights as a straight man. He can marry an unmarried woman who is of age or who otherwise satisfies the requirements for marriage (parental consent or whatever). Both can marry women, and neither can marry men. Similarly, a lesbian has the same rights as a heterosexual woman. Both can marry men, and neither can marry women. That's not discrimination according to sexual orientation, since people of both sexual orientations (holding sex constant) have exactly the same restrictions. The law is equally applied to gays and straights.

But it is discrimination against couples. Same-sex couples are not allowed something that opposite-sex couples are allowed. Does a couple have the kind of legal status to serve as a party in this kind of legal question? My suspicion is that it would be a major innovation in our legal system to treat a couple as a legal entity. I'm not sure that's the best strategy for same-sex couples to try if they want to make headway on this issue, but it is the easiest way to end up with a discrimination claim on the basis of sexual orientation.

I've long thought that the most promising case that bans on same-sex marriage are discrimination is to ignore sexual orientation entirely and to focus on a different basis of discrimination. Men are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex by not being allowed to marry people women are allowed to marry, and women are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex by not being allowed to marry people men can marry. If you ignore sexual orientation, as many social conservatives want to do, then this complaint gets a footing. Of course you have to think any discrimination on the basis of sex is wrong or explain why this particular one is if others aren't, which puts you back to square one if you want to draw a negative moral conclusion, but I'm ignoring that in this post.

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The 252nd Christian Carnival is up at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet.

The 252nd Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet. 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:

In the wake of same-sex marriage court decisions and legislation, many seek to define 'marriage' in terms that require a marriage to be between one man and one woman. Now I'm not on the bandwagon that says that, just because the term has always meant that, it must still mean that. A lot of people apparently think that's a good argument, but words change their meaning. It's never safe to base your ethical argument on what a term has meant in the past. Nevertheless, some of the responses to this sort of view are also pretty lame. One argument I've seen a handful of times showed up recently in a comment at Pharyngula:

Sure is funny how "God ordered each and all marriages [sic] to be between one man and one woman". Gosh, I guess Solomon missed that one. And others - I'm no bible student, help me out here.

Right, you're no Bible student. A Bible student would know that Solomon was criticized for his marriages within the very same book that sees his marriages as a sign of the prosperity God had blessed him with. So the biblical narrator's attitude toward Solomon's marriages is at least complex.

But you're apparently also no logic student. Think about polygamous marriages. Did Warren Jeffs have a group marriage? Were the women he was married to also married to each other? Or was it just a bunch of marriages, each one consisting of Jeffs and a woman? Did Solomon have all these wives who were married to each other as much as they were married to him? Or was he married to each one of them in a separate marriage? Maybe group marriages have occurred. I have no idea. But that's not polygamy. Polygamy is one man marrying separate women in multiple marriages, with each marriage involving one man-woman pair. Polygamy is no exception to the claim that marriage has always consisted of one man and one woman. It's just an exception to the claim that no one has more than one marriage at once.

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The 251st Christian Carnival is up at Messy Christian.

More pictures: Jewel in her command center, being entertained and decorated by her brother and sister.

Bart Ehrman's Master Argument

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A couple weeks ago, I finished Bart Ehrman's bestselling Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. I'm not going to do a full review of the book at this point, but I wanted to record some thoughts on what I see as Ehrman's master argument.

The bulk of the book is just standard textual criticism. Ehrman tends to be more radical on a few points than the average textual critics, but most of the book simply presents consensus views on the history of the discipline and gives examples that mainly do illustrate the points he wants to make. He's often criticized for the suggestion that the examples he picks are only the most extreme and thus give the impression that the textual changes are more common and more extreme than they really are. He responds that he does say that most changes are extremely minor and that the cases he's presenting are unusual. But what his response ignores is that his own master argument makes an explicit case for the point that his critics are only accusing him of suggesting, and he takes offense even at that accusation.

His master argument is presented in the introductory chapter and then again in his conclusion. The argument is basically as follows:

1. We know that there are textual changes in manuscript transmission.
2. Some of these are ideologically-motivated.
3. The earlier manuscripts have more diversity due to less-careful copying practices.
4. It's possible that there were changes in ideology from the original manuscripts that we no longer thus have any evidence of.
5. Therefore, we can't have much confidence about what the original New Testament manuscripts said. All we can do is give arguments for which of several existing readings were the earliest.

I think he overstates the ideological changes, although there indisputably are some. I didn't find myself agreeing with all his cases, several of which were extremely controversial among scholars (e.g. I Cor 14:34-35, which a few but only very few notable scholars think is an addition to the original text). I think the fact that there are more readings in earlier manuscripts makes it more likely that the original reading is among the surviving manuscripts in any given case, even if it also raises the possibility that we can't know if the original survives. So that same fact provides some support for opposite views.

But the main issue is really epistemological. Ehrman holds to a skeptical standard when it comes to being sure of original manuscript readings that would lead to hopeless conclusions about ordinary knowledge. Hardly anyone in epistemology accepts this kind of standard anymore, even if it has had firm support in the history of philosophy (perhaps most famously with Rene Descartes). The chance that any particular well-attested reading among the NT manuscripts is really the product of an ideological change from the original manuscript is extremely low.

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The 251st Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Messy 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
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:

Pumpkin Girl

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Sam has put up pictures of Sophia's trip to the pumpkin patch with her pre-K class.

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The 250th Christian Carnival is at Brain Cramps for God.

Dawkins vs. Potter

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In a bizarrely ironic twist, Richard Dawkins has joined the anti-Harry-Potter bandwagon. I wonder if his allies in this fight will appreciate his help.

It reminds me of when secular feminists decided to recognize the harm pornography contributes toward women. The difference here is that Dawkins' reasons don't seem to be anything like the usual anti-Harry crowd's. Religious opposition to pornography typically involves some reasons the recent feminist opposition hasn't included (such as its being wrong to lust after someone you're not married to), but Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups that have opposed pornography have long accepted many of the same arguments that feminist opponents of pornography have more recently come to. It objectifies women. It sends a message about women that harms them and psychologically influences the men who view it in a way that leads them to do things that further affect women negatively. I've seen one prominent feminist, Catherine MacKinnon, claim that her religious allies against pornography didn't share any of her reasons, but when I read that I couldn't help but conclude that she hadn't actually talked to James Dobson, Josh McDowell, or any others among the most prominent evangelicals opposing pornography. I'd heard almost all of MacKinnon's arguments from evangelicals while growing up.

Dawkins, on the other hand, shares very little in reasoning with other Potter foes. He doesn't fear that kids are going to become Satanists because they read fantasy literature, and he doesn't care a whole lot about whether the series teaches kids bad morals. (By the way, David Baggett's chapter in Harry Potter and Philosophy gives an excellent response to such arguments, especialyl on the latter issue.) Dawkins just worries about whether it's a good thing to stir kids' imaginations about things that aren't possible given the way the physical world works in real life, and his reason for that is that he expects fantastical literature to open kids' minds up to the possibility that naturalism is false, which might make them more likely to become creationists or something.

Sore Winners

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It's one thing to invent all manner of conspiracy theories about how you lost an election (see 2000 and 2004). Thankfully, the Republicans don't seem to be doing anything on the same order as that in 2008. Pretty much the only questions being raised by mainstream Republicans involve an organization that's actually under investigation by the FBI on the issue in question, and hardly anyone is claiming that the election was stolen or that McCain would have won easily if not for illegal vote-stealing of some sort.

I think part of that might have been that McCain was doing so well in the polls until the financial meltdown, and then Obama clearly had that crisis to thank for his win and for McCain's inability to get back in the game. If it had been closer, maybe things would be different, and there might be more charges that voter fraud actually affected the outcome. Nevertheless, I think it's noteworthy that Republicans largely aren't pushing it to that point, and I'm glad for that. I can't honestly say that I'm sure Democrats would do the same thing were the tables reversed, and we have history to support my doubts on that.

What amazes me, though, is all the sore winners in the 2008 election. It isn't enough just for a Democrat to take the popular vote for the first time since Jimmy Carter and to win the electoral college handily [clarification: I meant winning a majority, not simply a plurality; Clinton obviously won a plurality twice]. People have to complain about the states that did go for McCain, claiming that all the white Southerners who voted for McCain were doing so merely because of racism rather than because they think Obama's policies would be awful. See Sam's post on that. Today we heard some caller on NPR's Talk of the Nation talking about how she's glad she doesn't have to listen to Palin's voice anymore, and I thought it was perhaps some preference against the pitch of her voice, but it turned out she really meant her regional accent. She was talking as if someone is ignorant for dropping the 'g' in words ending in '-ing' and several other colloquialisms.

After hearing this woman's snotty bigotry against the kind of accent you can hear not just in Alaska but across the Midwest, Sam wondered out loud why people like that caller think it's a good idea to alienate such a large swathe of voters. People did it with Bush, but he'd won, and they needed some outlet to express their frustration. So they tried to feel better than him by pretending his accent was equivalent with being an ignorant dolt. I'm not sure what people think they're accomplishing by complaining about those on the losing side, though, with these exaggerations of racism in all anti-Obama voters and by making fun of a quite common accent in a large stretch of this country. It certainly does feel like sore winning. What's the motivation for that?

Update: I was originally planning to link to this in the post, but I reworked it enough times that I forgot to put it in the final version somewhere. I did want to give Senator McCain credit for what is absolutely and indisputably the best and most honorable concession speech I have ever heard from a political candidate. He knows how to lose gracefully and respectfully.

Divine Supererogation

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Supererogatory actions are things that would be good to do but aren't morally required. In some sense, there are lots of good things that I could do that aren't morally required. I can't do every possible good deed I could do, for instance, because I only have a limited amount of time. But the difference with supererogatory acts is that they're supposed to be above and beyond the call of duty. They're actions that would be wonderful to do but are not required in the sense that I would be a better person if I did it, and the action is better than what I end up doing instead, but I still have no obligation to do it.

I've argued that Christians should not accept the category of supererogatory acts. I'm not changing my position on that, at least when it comes to human actions. I don't think there are any cases where I'd be doing a better thing if I did something different but am nonetheless perfectly ok not to do it. If I'm doing something less good, I'm failing in my responsibility to be perfect as God is perfect. I don't see how Christians can accept biblical teaching on ethics and accept this category for human action.

What hadn't occurred to me when I wrote the aforementioned post was to ask about whether certain actions are supererogatory for God. I think the standard Christian view has been that some things God actually does are supererogatory. It's hard to see grace as anything but supererogatory. It's undeserved favor, and how can God be morally required to bestow undeserved favor? I'm not going to question that line of reasoning, so I think it's fair to say that I need to revise my view. I'm not denying that any actions are supererogatory in general. It's just that human beings ought to do the best action in any circumstance.

One way to get such a result pretty easily is to take a page from Immanuel Kant, who speaks of a divine lawgiver as the sort of being who would have no obligations to begin with. His argument is that it doesn't make any sense to think of God as having obligations, because obligations make sense only if the being with the obligations could possibly fail to do the things the obligations require them to do. (William Alston interestingly applies the same line of thought to beliefs. God directly knows every truth, and therefore he must not have beliefs, because beliefs imply that the beliefs could be false, just as obligations imply that you could fail to fulfill them.) If Kant is right, then God is never obligated to do anything, and so every action God performs is supererogatory, but it still might make sense to say that no human act is supererogatory.

But I don't think that explanation is sufficient. I want to say that some things God does necessarily result from his moral perfection, and other things are a gift that his nature doesn't make him do. I want to say that he didn't need to create and would have been perfectly good had he not created. I don't want to say God is morally better for creating, and I don't want to say God is morally better for choosing to save people from the eternal destruction we all deserve. But even if all that is true, it seems that there are some things that are inconsistent with God's nature, such as making a promise and not keeping it or allowing the universe to be intrinsically bad overall. That means that something the concept of supererogation was supposed to capture is true of God in a way that it's not true of humans, and it doesn't just result from God's having no obligations.

I think the difference has to lie in some explanation why it isn't better for God to do this thing that seems like it would result in a better world, whereas it is better for me to do things that would lead to better consequences. That difference has to lie in God's nature. God would be perfectly good without even creating, so it doesn't make God's character or nature better to create. Also, God is infinitely good, so it doesn't make the totality of things better if God creates things and doesn't just exist on his own. On the other hand, I am imperfect, and there are always ways to be better. I have an obligation to seek to be better unless I am perfect. That seems to me to be the real reason why it isn't even better for God to do better things, while it's any merely human being's obligation to do the best thing possible.

The 250th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at 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:

Barack Obama should not appoint Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to head the Environmental Protection Agency, as has been reported that he might do. This is for totally non-partisan reasons. I don't expect Obama to appoint a moderate on the environment. I would hope he doesn't choose someone who regularly presents inaccurate factual information and gives credence to discredited studies that feed panic.

He makes radical statements and then stands by them while under public criticism. For example, he claimed in 2002 that factory farming is more of a threat to American democracy than Osama bin Laden and refused to moderate his comment under pressure from those who called him on it. He has published criticisms of the Bush administration riddled with lies, distortions, and ad hominem attacks. He accepts conspiracy theories about Republicans stealing the 2004 election.

But the most important reason for me is alarmism about autism and vaccines, which is downright anti-scientific. The most that's been shown about autism and vaccines is that the symptoms of autism tend to be noticeable around an age when several vaccines tend to be scheduled. Correlation isn't causation, and in this case there's an obvious explanation for the correlation. The symptoms begin appearing at an age when, for completely independent reasons, certain vaccines are given. So Kennedy does nothing more than feed anti-scientific panic. Parents of autistic kids hear this stuff, accept it without looking into it, and end up treating their kids as having been stolen from them. Instead of accepting their kids for who they are, they spend all their time pretending they don't have any anymore and trying to make other parents feel guilty for causing their children's autism by taking steps to protect them and other kids from dangerous and life-threatening microbes. They seek to divert funds into wild goose chases instead of recognizing that autism has at least a significant genetic component (which is now very well established) and that the only thing that will likely be available to help their kids is to give them intensive help, something very hard to do if you spend all your time chasing windmills in the political blame game. Never mind the fact that they're risking their kids' lives by not vaccinating them, which has already led to a resurgence in diseases that had been nearly eradicated.

Anyone who has any sympathy for the many complaints, more from the left but also from the right, about the Bush Administration's attitude toward science should oppose Kennedy as an appointment for any important government position but especially to head the EPA. [And I note that some prominent anti-ID bloggers are avoiding hypocrisy on this issue by opposing Kennedy.] If he goes forward with this appointment, it's a huge political mistake. It will mean people can call him anti-science in more ways than just on abortion (see #3). But it's even worse as a policy mistake, given how much damage someone like Kennedy could do.


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250 Nov 12 Brain Cramps for God
251 Nov 19 Messy Christian
252 Nov 26 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet
253 Dec 3 Parables of a Prodigal World
254 Dec 10 Chasing the Wind
255 Dec 17 Parableman
256 Dec 24 A True Believer's Weblog

So Much for Unity

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What would people have said if John McCain had won the election, given a wonderful speech about bringing the divided country back together in unity, and then as his first presidential act picked Karl Rove as his chief of staff? That's pretty much what Barack Obama's choice of Rahm Emmanuel amounts to. It isn't a good sign that he's picked one of the most divisive figures in national politics to help lead what he's saying is a new start to change the way people do politics and unify a bitterly divided country. I never saw Obama as really bi-partisan. It's not as if he has a record of getting together with Republicans and working together with them to put together moderate legislation. He just does what he's going to do anyway and convinces Republicans to vote for it. But Emmanuel isn't just "not really bi-partisan". He led the fight for the Democrats to retake Congress in 2006, and it was well-publicized at that time that he'd used some of the dirtiest tricks in the business to make that effort succeed. He's exactly the kind of figure Obama has spent lots of time saying he isn't and saying politicians need to stop being.

It's interesting to compare the early complaints about Bush in 2000 and 2001 for his choice of John Ashcroft, who almost didn't get approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee even to be voted on by the whole Senate. Ashcroft is a nice guy who happens to hold a position toward the extreme on the abortion issue, namely that pro-lifers shouldn't have an exception in rape cases, because the moral status of the fetus doesn't change if the cause of its existence is rape. It's an eminently reasonable position, actually. He holds prayer meetings that some of his co-workers would go to with him. That was pretty much the evidence against him, actually. His being a nice Christian who holds one view that's in the minority was reason enough that he couldn't possibly serve as an unbiased enforcer of the law. Ironically, Ashcroft was a check on those in the administration who really were extremist when it really came down to it with the wiretapping program. I don't remember any harsh words ever uttered by him against any person in the opposing party, even if he has strongly disagreed sometimes with their views. Still, no one has apologized for how the Senate Democrats treated him, and I'm sure no one will.

Rahm Emmanuel, by contrast, was the brains behind many partisan smear efforts during the 2006 election, misrepresenting Republicans left and right with the mere goal of getting a few more Democrats elected. Most politicians of any party will display some dishonesty in order to get elected, and they think their views are better enough that they think it's worth it. But it's usually slight exaggerations or focusing on aspects of a bill that someone pragmatically voted for based on other aspects of the bill or in Obama's case focusing on surface-level elements of your proposed policies while ignoring their more indirect impact. But Emmanuel is known for much more serious partisan politics, insisting that Democratic candidates should do everything possible to win their races (a view Obama has himself said isn't good for the Democratic party or for the country).

So Obama's first move after being elected is to break a significant campaign promise that he'd even reiterated in his acceptance speech the night of the election. He said he'd set a new tone. Selecting Rahm Emmanuel two days later is not setting a new tone. At least Nancy Pelosi waited a couple months before breaking her 2006 election-night promise to include House Republicans in planning congressional reform measures. Obama didn't even wait 48 hours. People are speculating that Obama was thinking he could make himself look like the good cop if he's got such a clear bad cop as his chief of staff, but that's not likely. Did Bush look like the good cop just because Rove, Cheney, and others in his administration were doing the bad copy duties? Complaints about Rove are very much a part of the anti-Bush vitriol from the left. This is only going to fuel partisanship, and Obama is now going to be associated with Emmanuel's style of politics, because when all things are said and done it's still Obama's chief of staff who is known for that kind of partisanship. He's shot his unity effort in the foot, and it's going to be very hard to get any momentum back in that attempt. He's basically going to have to convince some genuine conservatives (i.e. not Colin Powell) to work in his administration and to give them a significant place in setting policy for me to be reassured that he really does intend change of the sort he's said he favors.

Christian Carnival CCXLIX

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The 249th Christian Carnival is up at Participatory Bible Study Blog.

Voting and Calvinist Prayer

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A lot of people think it's irrational to vote if your vote isn't going to have an effect on the outcome. I live in an extremely blue district of a slightly red county in a very blue state. In local and statewide elections, my vote has so little an effect that it's not worth voting if the only point of voting is for my one vote to have an effect on the outcome. New York is overwhelmingly going to continue to support Senators Schumer and Clinton, and they tend to vote Democratic in governor elections except when there's a very moderate Republican like George Pataki on the ballot. County-wide races are closer, and so is the U.S. House district, which was almost a toss-up in 2006. Things were even more one-sided when I lived in Rhode Island.

But it simply isn't true that voting is only worth doing if you're going to be the deciding vote. There are other reasons people give for voting, some better than others. One that often occurs to me when it seems hopeless for my candidate is that if everyone voting for the other side thought it wasn't worth voting because the outcome is assured then my candidate might have a chance. Other reasons include that it helps you psychologically to feel like you're contributing and that it's simply your obligation to do what you can to influence things for the better even if what you can isn't by itself going to make the difference in who wins the election.

Any of those responses would be sufficient by itself, except perhaps the psychological benefit one (at least if that involves self-deception, and if it doesn't then it's not a distinct reason but depends on one of the others). I think there's an even better reason to vote, and I think it might actually be what motivates me most, but I hadn't actually thought about it in these terms until today. It takes a page from Calvinist responses to the objection that if the future is already determined then there's no point in praying.

Calvinists come in several varieties, but the most common sort of Calvinist (which isn't the same as being the most noticed kind on the internet) is compatibilist about human freedom and divine predetermination. If God has a plan that includes everything I'm going to do, everything every other person is going to do, and an outcome for every prayer I ever pray, then is it worth praying? My prayer isn't going to change anything, after all. Of course, my prayer would also be in this plan, and if I didn't pray then a different outcome may well have been in the works. Compatibilists about divine predetermination and human action are going to insist that God works through our choices and doesn't just force things outside our control. Our prayers are part of how God's plan works itself out as history unfolds.

One thing Calvinist sometimes say is that praying is not so much for the outcome but for us. God wants us to pray because of what God will do in us because we pray. I don't want to deny that, but it's certainly not the emphasis in scripture on reasons to pray. The emphasis seems to be on two things. One is that prayer does affect things. It doesn't change them, because the future can't be changed anymore than the past or present can. If the future is a certain way then it can't be changed. Even open theists don't think the future can be changed. Why should someone who thinks there's a definite future think it can be changed? But for the reasons in the previous paragraph, the future can be influenced. It can be caused by things in the present, and I can be part of that process of bringing it about. A compatibilist should have no trouble saying that sort of thing.

But there's another reason in scripture for why we should pray, even though God has worked out the end from the beginning, and this one (unlike the previous one) does have some relevance for voting. God wants us to communicate our dependence on him and to express our desires to him. He wants us to see him as the Father who cares for us and meets our needs and our wishes, provided that our wishes are righteous and as long as there isn't some other reason beyond our ken for why God wouldn't grant a particular wish (as there may well be). As Jesus points out, what father when presented with a request from a child for bread or fish will give a snake? God wants to bestow good things on his children and delights when we come to him with requests, for the same reasons a giving parent delights in such things. Given that, it's a privilege to call him Father, which is why it's a big deal that Jesus starts out the Lord's prayer with "our Father". Those who don't avail themselves of that title in addressing him are missing out on something great. Those who don't address him at all are missing out on even more.

The same dynamic plays out in a smaller way with voting. I'm privilege to live in a country that seeks my opinion on who should occupy certain offices. Even if my vote doesn't have an effect in putting someone in office, it's a privilege to be able to contribute my thoughts in the process of the communal decision that an election involves. I don't believe voting is a moral right. But I think I'd be wasting an opportunity to express my opinion if I didn't vote, and wasting a privilege is at least unfortunate (and I would even argue that it's immoral). This seems to me to be a much better reason to vote than any of the more common ones that I hear, even if most of them are good enough reasons.

Palin Cleared

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It's a bit late to affect the election, but I note that Sarah Palin has been completely cleared of the ethics charges directed her way by an investigation led by a partisan political enemy who had stated the conclusion of the investigation in the news media before the investigation had even started. When I looked at the facts assembled by the self-fulfilling investigation, it was hard for me to see the conclusion following from those facts, so it's nice to know my suspicions were correct. It didn't. She didn't violate any ethics rules whatsoever.

Obama on Same-Sex Marriage

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Barack Obama seems to hold all of the following mutually inconsistent propositions about same-sex marriage:

1. We shouldn't deny rights to same-sex couples that opposite-sex marriages have.
2. We should not recognize same-sex relationships as marriage.
3. Attempts to prevent same-sex couples from getting married denies them rights that opposite-sex marriages have.

Unless you equivocate in the meaning of some terms in those statements (and I'm not thinking of a way that he could be), there's no way they can all be consistently held. Yet he does seem to hold all of them. He's said repeatedly that he doesn't support calling same-sex civil unions 'marriage'. Yet every time anyone tries to pass a law preventing a state from using such a term for a same-sex union, he opposes it and says it denies that couple rights that equal treatment requires. He opposes the federal legislation that protects states from having to observe other states' marriages. He opposes California voters' current attempt to overturn the judicial enforcement of same-sex marriage in that state. Is this position consistent?

It's one thing to hold Senator Robert Byrd's view, which is that the government shouldn't recognize same-sex marriage but that such a view shouldn't be encoded into the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps Obama would extend the same reasoning to state constitutions, and thus he could explain his opposition to Proposition 8 in California. But that's not what he said. He said he opposes it because it denies people a basic right, which amounts to #3 above.

Obama is even opposed to an ordinary law (as opposed to a constitutional amendment) preventing the recognition of same-sex marriage in a state that doesn't want to recognize it. Basically, the law means New York doesn't have to recognize Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts same-sex marriages, even though New York currently does. Obama's justification for opposing this law? It violates basic rights. It's #3 again.

Now there's a possible position that opposes not just constitutional amendments on this issue but even laws, while still disapproving of same-sex marriage. Someone could think it's wrong to encode same-sex marriage in the laws but that it's also wrong to encode opposition to it in the laws. That's clearly not Obama's view. His view just seems to be inherently contradictory. This also doesn't seem to be a genuine change in positions, where he's just rethought the issue and changed his mind. He's been opposing these laws and amendments for a long enough time that in the meantime he's also kept saying that he opposes legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

This isn't an issue that I care all that much about, mostly because I don't have much hope that this issue will ever be handled right. I'd prefer the government stay out of calling anything marriage, and that means I agree with very few politicians on either side on the debate. But it's an enormously significant issue of our time, and I'd expect someone running for president at least to have a view that's consistent (or to have a view and consistently follow it), even if it's not exactly the view I would advocate. Obama doesn't seem to be able to articulate a clear and consistent position on the matter and then consistently follow it, and this isn't the first issue I've noticed this about.

It makes me wonder how many other issues there are where I haven't followed the discussion as closely and don't know the wider debate as well as I do this one and abortion, where his ability or willingness to formulate a clear and consistent position is even more lacking. He certainly has similar problems with gun control. For a guy who by all accounts is very smart, it's unlikely that he's as confused as his statements make him sound, which makes me wonder if he's being honest about his views.

Legal scholar Steven Calabresi, in a generally accurate discussion of what Obama could do to change the federal courts, offers the following very strange argument:

This raises the question of whether Mr. Obama can in good faith take the presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution" as he must do if he is to take office. Does Mr. Obama support the Constitution as it is written, or does he support amendments to guarantee welfare? Is his provision of a "tax cut" to millions of Americans who currently pay no taxes merely a foreshadowing of constitutional rights to welfare, health care, Social Security, vacation time and the redistribution of wealth? Perhaps the candidate ought to be asked to answer these questions before the election rather than after.

Aside from the issue of whether Obama meant to be saying the Constitution should be amended to change this (See this post and its comments for discussion of what Obama really meant), I find this argument extremely strange. The Constitution gives provisions for when it can be amended. If I swore an oath to uphold it, one of the things I would be upholding would be the legitimate amendment process that the Constitution specifies. A president could come along and advocate an amendment to the Constitution that changes it in extremely significant ways, but as long as due process for amending is followed it doesn't seem as if anything has been done to undermine the Constitution. What's been done is to undermine the moral principles behind why the Constitution is as if currently is, but it's not a violation of the oath to uphold the Constitution if you use the Constitution's own method of amending it to propose a change that's pretty drastic. It itself envisions that possibility.



The 249th 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:

October License Plates

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U.S. States: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, 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, West Virginia, Wisconsin

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

Canada: British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec

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

U.S. States Gained from Sept: Montana

U.S. States not seen yet at all: As of October 31, I still hadn't seen Hawaii and Mississippi since I started doing this in October 2007. [But that will change next month. I finally saw one of them today!]


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



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