A Year Later — Justin Harris

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Last year I blogged about a “State of Perversion” in Arkansas. The news broke with a sensational expose by the Arkansas Times on our local state representative Justin Harris. Now a year from his outing, this seems an appropriate time to check on how far we’ve come. (Or haven’t.)

Here, in part, is what I wrote:

“Justin Harris is serving his third term in the Arkansas Legislature where he has introduced conservative measures ranging from abortion restriction to denying funding to the state’s department of human services under the campaign promise to reduce government spending. He and his wife own and operate a preschool in his legislative district town of West Fork, a largely rural constituency with a high percentage of fundamentalist church followers. Alongside the alphabet and fingerpainting, Mr. Harris’ school teaches religion.

  • UPDATE: Since the scandal broke, Mr. Harris announced he would not run for another term. However, he refused to resign, meaning he continues to serve at the state capitol until January 2017. Even more disgusting has been the utter and abject failure of any Republican legislator to criticize Mr. Harris.

“In 2012, Harris found himself on the hot seat after a formal complaint was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Seems Mr. No Government Funding had his hand in the public till by obtaining grant funding for his preschool. Over a million dollars had flowed into his coffers, courtesy of a state agency charged with providing tax monies in support of preschools that addressed the needs of ‘underserved’ youth…

“Mr. Harris mounted a vigorous and outraged defense of his right to all that money. He brought in a team of attorneys from Arizona who specialized in defending schools who want to teach Jesus on the public dime. Subsequently, the ABC program promulgated a set of rules specifically addressing the issue of religious instruction. It is unknown whether the ‘solution’ was put forth by the Arizona attorneys, modeled on rules operating in other states, or sprang from a singular Arkansas process, but the novel approach defines an ‘ABC day’ as a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends would not be the state’s concern.

“Since then, Mr. Harris has expanded his operation and state funding approaches a million dollars annually. His students arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m. The ABC day begins at 9 and lasts until 3. Before and after, it’s all about Jesus.

  • UPDATE: An exchange of information with Americans United for Separation of Church and State reveals that under current federal guidelines, states can use tax dollars in this way. Apparently there’s no compelling interest in establishing a viability test where a school would have to prove that its religious instruction could exist separately without the use of tax dollars. In the case of the Harris school, if tax dollars didn’t support the rent, utilities, and salaries for operations, the school would cease to exist. Repeated questioning of DHS money managers produced zero interest in developing or implementing such a test.
  • Likewise, we can hardly expect much interest for reform among current members of Congress who quake in fear of the Religious Right. Closing a loophole that recruits so many young minds to their way of thinking is simply not to be considered even if that loophole stands in clear violation of the U. S. Constitution.

“Soon after the flap over school funding, the Harrises…decided to adopt little three girls whose dysfunctional family had lost custody. The girls were fairly well adjusted in a foster home, but the natural mother allegedly made a personal plea to Justin Harris. This arguably admirable effort left many to question Harris’ quick use of the girls in a family portrait promoting his re-election campaign (a violation of adoption policy), the nearly $30,000 tax break that came with the adoption, and the monthly stipend allotted to Harris in the form of state support. Clearly, the adoption wasn’t all about benevolence.

“Firmly fixated on the adoption idea, the Harrises refused to listen to DHS field agents who reported that the girls would not be suitable in the Harris household. With all the arrogance befitting a person who believed God directed his acts, Harris apparently used his elected office to pressure DHS to approve the adoption. Local caseworkers opposed to the adoption mysteriously changed their recommendation after their boss advocated on the Harris’ behalf. That Justin Harris held a powerful position in the legislative committee which controlled DHS funding seems never to have been examined as a possible contributor to this department head’s advocacy, which resulted in a local juvenile court judge granting the adoption. Unfortunately, because the case involves adoption, DHS has not released any information.”

  • UPDATE: Unfortunately, nothing is known to have changed regarding inappropriate legislator influence over DHS activities. But the incident does reveal the ugly underbelly of an organized evangelical movement to adopt children. The objective is two-fold: provide a viable argument against abortion rights for women and brainwash vulnerable youngsters to extremist religious views.

“Within a year, the Harrises decided to ‘rehome’ the girls to another family. By early 2014, one of the girls had been raped by her new ‘father,’ Eric Cameron Francis. Later that year, Francis would be convicted of multiple counts of child abuse and is currently serving time. As it turns out, Francis had been an employee at the Harris preschool and his wife was good friends with Mrs. Harris. Not surprisingly, Harris chose to stay quiet about his role in placing the victim in the Francis home until a reporter from the Arkansas Times connected the dots. The story went public in March 2015.

“When the adoption/rehoming scandal broke, Harris held a press conference as reported by the Arkansas Times. He presented himself and his family as the damaged party.

“…He said one of the girls — the implication was the middle sister — had to be medicated to stop hurting her sister, and that he was advised by therapists to treat her RAD [Reactive Attachment Disorder] by removing toys and other belongings from her room.

  • UPDATE: Harris never publicly accepted responsibility for the harm inflicted on these girls. While his initial reaction seemed to portray him and his wife as the aggrieved parties, his last public statement on the issue included a comment to the effect that he felt sad about what happened to the girls…as if he personally had nothing to do with it.
  • ABC News produced a close-up on the Harris adoption scandal. The report failed to address the ignored caseworker input and accepted at face value the excuse of Reactive Attachment Disorder. In response, a statement from a collective of mental health professionals criticized the ABC report and refuted RAD as a legitimate diagnosis.
  • On a more promising note, however, the girls are reportedly well adjusted in their new post-Harris adoptive home. And newly-elected Governor Asa Hutchinson saw fit to accept the resignation of the head of DHS and has hired a new person to fill this slot. He has also instigated a complete revamping of the department.

“Harris said he sought DHS assistance at that time but was given none. He said he thought he’d found the ‘perfect solution’ in handing the girls over to…Eric Cameron Francis. Eric Francis is serving 40 years in prison on charges of raping the child.”

  • UPDATE: Justin Harris has continued to hire questionable employees to care for the vulnerable young children attending his preschool. A school bus driver failed to notice that a child remained on the bus. The child was not discovered until early afternoon. Fortunately, the temperature remained fairly mild that day and the van was parked in the shade. The child suffered no ill effects. Nevertheless, the driver was prosecuted. The Harrises fired the driver immediately upon discovery of the incident and accepted no responsibility even though the school failed to abide by its own protocols in checking attendance which would have discovered the missing child.
  • Additionally, word has leaked out that another male employee was fired in December 2015 for inappropriate contact with the students. Seems the Harrises might need to employ better screening methods for prospective employees other than learning whether the candidate regularly attends church.

“Within a month of the revelation that Arkansas DHS had no rule or restriction on the rehoming of adopted children, the state legislature passed a law making rehoming a felony. Harris voted for the bill, in essence making himself a retroactive felon. He resigned from the chairmanship of the public health committee, but failed to yield his legislative seat. He has also refused to accept any responsibility for the little girl’s sexual abuse. At the peak of this fiasco, his school billboard proclaimed that ‘God Himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.’”

  • UPDATE: Happily for all of us in South Washington County who must drive past the Harris pre-school on a daily basis, the school’s outside billboard has remained empty of Godly exhortations since the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, with the exception of a brief period during Christmas.

“Throughout the intense scrutiny on Harris and his failure as an adoptive parent, a considerable body of information has come to light about ongoing religious activities at his preschool. Although random spot inspections by the state theoretically rule out the chance of illegal religious activity during the ‘ABC day,’ reports from former teachers and others allege that children who misbehave are routinely taken to the office where they are prayed over to ‘cast out demons…’

  • UPDATE: There’s been no official (or unofficial) statement from any elected leader or state agency on the use of prayer to cast demons out of misbehaving youngsters. Why would it be so difficult to issue a blanket policy statement about the negative impact on young minds of promoting the belief that demons might inhabit a person or that such demons, rather than oneself, is the party responsible for misbehavior?

“…While firmly denying funding to DHS based on his campaign promise to reduce government spending, Mr. Harris (as legislator) fought for government handouts to fund his religious school in spite of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law by teaching religion in a tax-supported program. As an elected person who held himself up as an example of Christian righteousness, he should have been the first person to recognize he was crossing the line between church and state as delineated in the U. S. Constitution. Instead, assuming he understood the thrust of the Founding Fathers’ intent, he no doubt privately justified his behavior with his belief that God willed it…

“This kind of simplistic medieval thinking lies behind the ability of political handlers to capture votes from the evangelical demographic. The compelling argument is that demons rule the ‘other’ party, that gay marriage, abortion, and other private activities are the proper province of political action, and only by voting for Mr. Righteous can we satisfy the will of God.

“There are many features of modern life that scare the hell out of those who simply cannot understand science or other changes increasingly widespread in the world. Our technology and culture have evolved faster than our mental or physical state. Everything is too fast and too complicated. It’s only been a hundred years since picking peas and saddling a horse served as the requisite skill set to get through life.

  • UPDATE: Which brings us to the candidacy of Donald Trump. Although no one would claim that Trump is a model of evangelical righteousness, he embodies another characteristic evidently more important to the religious right: the ability to dominate. Of almost equal importance is Trump’s wealth, which evangelicals view as God’s gift to a righteous man.
  • Just as the religious right’s concept of a Supreme Being embodies power and arrogance, so does Trump. By reflecting back the anger, fear, and blind hatred toward those unlike themselves, Trump approaches the brink of gaining the Republican nomination for president. The collusion of willful ignorance and the result of years of religious education (versus education based on logic and fact) now stands before us.

One final encouraging note: Justin and Marsha Harris’ West Fork home is up for sale. It may be asking too much, but one can hope that at least this one preschool operation will be taken over by an educator, not another evangelist, and that the children there will learn rational thought along with their ABCs.

Finally, we’re pleased to note that Mr. Harris earned the top ‘dick’ award for 2015.

Coming soon…an update on the Duggar family’s equally outrageous 2015.

 

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Dazed and Confused

ID-100184515For every new technology, archaeological discovery, or advancement in medical science, there is an equal and opposite reactionary impulse to dive deeper into the ignorance enshrined in fundamentalist religion. Evidence of this mind-jarring disconnect can be found on all fronts.

In March, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott issued a fatwa forbidding state employees from including the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ in their studies and reports. He justified his stance by stating that he wasn’t a scientist, which of course is all the more reason he has no business restricting educators, researchers, and scientists on the state’s payroll from using whatever scientific terms they may deem appropriate. Ultimately, this rightwing Republican deferred to his religious beliefs, intimating that God is in control of everything.

Including, evidently, the weather.

A recent proliferation of similar inanities include the appointment of science-denier Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to the chairmanship of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, the placement of rabidly anti-science Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) in charge of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency, and the positioning of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to chair the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, which oversees the NOAA. As noted by one report, “Rubio is a climate change denier…and the NOAA is, after all, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Putting him in charge of the NOAA is like installing an atheist as Pope.”[1]

In the same vein of self-righteous stupidity, last fall the House passed a bill that forbids scientific experts from “participating in ‘advisory activities’ that either directly or indirectly involve their own work. In case that wasn’t clear,” says Salon columnist Lindsay Abrams, “experts would be forbidden from sharing their expertise in their own research — the bizarre assumption, apparently, being that having conducted peer-reviewed studies on a topic would constitute a conflict of interest.” Abrams cites Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew A. Rosenberg in his editorial in RollCall: “…academic scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.”[2]

The rush to deny science is hardly new. At least since the Middle Ages, persons in the thrall of religion have ignored, repudiated, tortured, and/or burned at the stake anyone who tried to break out of the prevailing mythological bubble. One might have hoped such mindsets were things of the past, but alas, the tendency has picked up steam in recent years. It seems the more we learn about our world, the greater the rush to fundamentalism.

Why and how can this trend occur in the United States of America, where supposedly we enjoy a higher level of literary and education than much of the world?

Would you be surprised if I told you that your tax dollars are part of the reason?

Would you care if substantial portions of state and federal education dollars find their way into funding for religious instruction, much of it extremist?

How can this be? What happened to separation of church and state?

A quick survey finds that through its Child Care Development Fund, the U. S. Department of Education hands out vouchers for low-income working parents to use on childcare anywhere including religious programs. Government similarly looks the other way while handing out tax money to pre-school programs which acknowledge a religious mission, as long as the school claims to isolate the religious instruction to hours before and after the ‘education’ hours, a convenient ruse.

Another effort to spread religion through public education has focused on athletics. Since 1954, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) has built a multi-level, global Christian outreach targeting junior high, high school and college campuses. They sponsor team Bible studies, chaplain programs and Bible studies for coaches. One of the requirements for its adult leaders is ‘sexual purity,’ a blanket term covering marital fidelity as well as sexual orientation. So called ‘team-building’ exercises for college athletes include mandatory attendance at church services.

The push for religion in college athletics has resulted in use of tax dollars to pay salaries for chaplains who pray over athletes, counsel coaches, and lead college athletes in religious activities. In some instances, chaplains volunteer for such powerful positions while a few have wages paid by the FCA. Whether on the public dime or not, Christian advocates are given unfettered access to captive audiences in our schools, access provided to no other outside group.

In recent weeks, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has singled out the University of Georgia as “one of the major offenders.” The organization noted that Kevin “Chappy” Hynes, UGA’s chaplain, is head coach Mark Richt’s brother-in-law, and cited Hynes as saying, “Our message at Georgia doesn’t change, and that’s to preach Christ and Him crucified, it’s to win championships for the state of Georgia and win souls for the Kingdom of God, so we’re going to continue down that path.”[3] All chaplains investigated by FFRF were promoting Christianity, usually with an evangelical bent.[4]

Aside from the outrage of forced religious activity for non-religious athletes, there’s the mind-boggling absurdity underlying this effort. Does God Almighty care who wins a football game?

All this and still the steady drumbeat of demand for prayer in schools.

The insidious creep of religion into public education and the equally alarming rise in religion-based home schooling steadily increases the number of adults who are functionally illiterate in terms of reasoning capacity. Given the dedicated efforts of fundamentalists to infiltrate all levels of education for our young people, it’s not difficult to understand why an increasing number of legislators don’t understand climate change and refuse to accept any responsibility for the condition of the environment.

The rejection of science and reason in terms of public policy results in steadily increasing collateral damage. The longer we continue to use fossil fuels, the more severe climate change becomes. The more restrictions are placed on sex education, birth control, and abortion services, the more unwanted children are born to desperate lives of deprivation and abuse. The more religion commands top role in policy making, the more likely we will wage war on those of different faiths.

In short, reliance on religion as the most important element in public policy ensures greater human suffering.

It’s not supposed to work that way, as any reasonable person of faith would attest. Religion is supposed to be a path toward love for our fellow man, among other things. The extent to which extremist religion has become an agent of harm is the measure of how its use has been twisted to a less than divine agenda.

Unlike previous times when religion ruled nations, voters still retain the power to rule the United States. Even though approximately 75% of the population claims to embrace some religious belief, only 25% are evangelical Christians. It’s a bigger interest group than any other force in American politics, but they are ultimately less than one out of five of the rest of us.

Reality demands a change in how we regulate tax dollars. Too many inroads have been made in allowing those who cling to outdated beliefs to risk the future of every life form on the planet. It’s time to stand up to the extremist bullies in our midst.

[1] http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/01/13/nasa_trouble_science_denier_ted_cruz_will_oversee_senate_committee_for_oversight.html

[2] http://www.salon.com/2014/11/19/house_republicans_just_passed_a_bill_forbidding_scientists_from_advising_the_epa_on_their_own_research/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2015/08/21/why-25-public-universities-have-been-asked-to-drop-their-college-football-chaplains/

[4] http://ffrf.org/news/news-releases/item/23528-state-church-watchdog-issues-report-damning-college-football-chaplains-coaches#sthash.KhWg2v2N.dpuf

Image courtesy of stock images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Us and Them

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We thought we were the top of the world. The most advanced. The richest. The strongest. The U. S. of A., best of the best. All those things are true in so many ways. Aside from our wealth of natural resources, the nation’s strength and riches are what we, each and collectively, have to offer.

But strengths and riches aren’t all we have to offer. We also perform acts of insane violence that kill young children or innocent churchgoers, of smug self-righteousness that allows a brother to repeatedly molest his sisters, that allows an adopted six year old girl to be ‘rehomed’ and raped by her new ‘father.’

Why do deep veins of ignorance, hate, and fear continue to burn through our national body like a stream of caustic lye?

More urgently, what are we going to do about it?

Cultural Tradition: The Scots, for example

Following centuries of armed conflict between the native Scots and the British, in 1745 the British brutally terminated the last rebellion. Traditional Scottish kilts were outlawed and inherited lands were taken from the ruling class. A century earlier, Britain had moved large numbers of Scots into northern Ireland in an effort to weaken the equally rebellious Irish. (The volatile results of that maneuver continue to simmer today.) This Scots population of northern Ireland became known as the Scotch-Irish.

Aside from the desire for self-rule, the Protestant Scots and Catholic Irish fought the Anglican British over religion.

Between 1717 and 1775, nearly a quarter million Scots and Scotch-Irish migrated to the American colonies. Earlier settlers had already built their towns, farms, and plantations along the eastern seaboard so these newcomers moved west to unsettled land. They fought Native Americans and the wilderness to carve out a life where nobody told them how to worship or what to wear.

quotescots copy (Wikipedia)

These are the people who formed the predominant original working class white populations of the southern states and parts of the Midwest. Already inured by generations of religious conflict in their native lands, the Scots clung fiercely to their religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and desire for independence from government rule. Generally not slave-holders, they nevertheless rallied to the Confederate cause, seeing it as their own because it was against government control, against someone telling them what to do.

The defeat of the South with its quarter-million deaths, injuries that came home with the veterans, and the loss of land, homes and families added to a long memory of defeat and humiliation. It is in this memory that the South will rise again, just as Scotland will once again enjoy independence from its British overlords. This is the vein of anger that holds tight to the Confederate flag, not because it is celebrated as a symbol of white over black, but because it serves as the rallying point for independent men against a conquering army. Rational analysis or details don’t matter. It’s the feeling of injustice that holds sway.

Many American Scots and Scotch-Irish have moved on, accepted the evolution of modern society and its rewards of broader understanding and tolerance. But many have not. For these folks, if you’re not with them, you’re against them.

They are but one example of ancient traditions which continue to guide attitudes and influence behavior in modern America.

Instinctive Fear: Racism

Humans innately tend to associate with others of our own kind. Researchers have given the labels of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ in discussing this behavior. Within an ‘in-group,’ individuals are assured of mutual support in everything from caring for an injury to defending against attack. We can count on our in-group guys.

At the most primal level, an instant response rises when confronted with someone who doesn’t fit the model of our ‘in-group’. This was an important survival instinct among early humans who relied on visual cues while the stranger remained at a distance. A fight-or-flight reflex rises from the old brain upon encountering a person clearly not of our in-group and we respond accordingly.

What we hope for and strive for in an advanced multicultural, multi-racial society is an immediate secondary and reasoned response that supersedes the instantaneous first reaction to a stranger. We look again and think about whether there’s a real risk. Just because that person doesn’t fit our in-group criteria doesn’t mean he’s a threat.

A fear-based response underlies behavior like freshman Senator Tom Cotton’s advocacy for a new war against Islam. Extremist Christianity such as embraced by Cotton focuses on differences as a way to define and protect group identity. Kill the out-group! A more loving and confident mindset seeks grounds of commonality. A more realistic stance for responsible elected leaders involves negotiation and understanding to lower barriers between groups.

But the more stressed the person or occasion, the more likely the primal reflex remains in force. Cotton may suffer residual PTSD from his two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tests have shown that people are more likely to identify an ambiguous object in a stranger’s hand as a weapon if the stranger is from an out-group. Most importantly, people who regularly operate from a position of feeling threatened are more likely to react instinctively. Everyone but me and my known friends are ‘other.’ (Click here for more.)

Within our most stressed populations, acts of violence are committed by persons of a self-identified group against those seen as outsiders. The outsider is a target for the anger, frustration, and hatred of the in-group member who wants desperately to prove himself to the rest of his group. This behavior can be found in gang warfare, where fabric color designates group identity. It can be found in acts of violence in the Middle East, where a disagreement in 632 about the rightful heir to Mohammad’s leadership resulted in Sunni and Shia still killing each other 1383 years later.

Such acts on behalf of the in-group are carried out as a moral imperative.

The Charleston shooter clearly stated his moral imperative in murdering nine innocent people. They were African-American. “They” were raping “his people, taking over his country.” He did it for his group, whites. His reality, his moral imperative.

Jesus: Not What I Meant. Not What I Meant At All

Murder on behalf of racial purity is little different from those who murder on behalf of their religion. Each Islamic sect claims to be the true follower of Allah. By definition, all others are not ‘of God.’ All others deserve to die. Similarly, many Christian denominations in the U. S. believe all but their kind will burn in the fires of hell.

Faith traditions are, by their very nature, a useful measuring stick by which people may define their most important in-group. More than any other group, religion and its rules ensure a mutual understanding of appropriate behavior, ethics, traditions, and hierarchy. Ideally, religion could serve as the bridge between disparate groups and unite us in spiritual brotherhood.

Sadly, religion has more often than not become yet another means of categorizing a person as out of ‘our’ group. Thus Ronnie Floyd, current head of the Southern Baptist Convention, second largest religious denomination in the U.S. after Catholics, has proclaimed his intention to defy the highest court in the land if it rules in favor of same-sex marriage. He stated that “God, not the Supreme Court” holds final authority over marriage, as if the licensing of marriage were not a legal function of the government.

The issue of gay marriage is but one conflict between primal instinct and the tolerance and acceptance evolving as a world culture. “Raising consciousness is a persuasive enterprise,” Michael Walzer writes in his new book The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, “but it quickly turns into a cultural war between the liberators and what we can call the traditionalists.” This conflict gives rise to fundamentalism and religious ultra-orthodoxy in unexpected places around the world, including the United States.

The more threatened an individual may feel, the more likely he will invest in behavior that he believes will strengthen his in-group. Floyd speaks for all Southern Baptists in voicing fear of a social change perceived as a threat to their religion. This unreasoned primal reaction ignores the reality of the situation: gay marriage has no effect on traditional marriage—unless, as the quip goes, one of the partners in a traditional marriage is gay.

Ideally, religion serves as a pathway not only to seeing the entire human family as the in-group but also to higher self-esteem, respect for others, and a general sense of well-being, all of which help move an individual toward a less fearful stance in life. But this is where religion often plays its most destructive role. Extremist teachings emphasize differences and negatives. Only a few will be chosen. Homosexuals are not like us. Demons can control our lives. We have no personal power. Everything derives from an angry and punishing God.

Differences in economic status are also seen as a reflection of God’s will. The Protestant work ethic involves the relationship between religion, work, and capital. In order to demonstrate our Godliness, we are expected to work hard. With sufficient effort, our labors produce wealth, a sign that we have pleased God. This is why the wealthy are seen as uniquely imbued by God’s grace. For the religious extremist, the wealthy are almost worthy of worship in their own right.

If you’re poor, it’s because you’re unworthy of God’s blessings.

This is why worshipers gravitate to big fancy churches. God likes it there.

Our natural inclination is to accept authority from those we deem more worthy than ourselves. This is why corporate interests have been able to shape American lives around materialism and consumption, a development staunchly supported by religious extremists in spite of Biblical teachings that specifically condemn wealth. (More here)

Adoration of the rich and powerful is why marginalized populations resent any effort by government to assist the poor. It defies God’s will to give  assistance, especially since the funding for such assistance derives from those who have worked hard and gained God’s favor. This holds particularly true in prejudices against African-Americans or Hispanics, who are often caught in a vicious cycle of economic disadvantage and notable markers of an out-group (different skin color, speech patterns, social traditions).

Likewise, yielding authority to self-anointed leaders of religion occurs as a form of obeisance to the leader of the in-group. Recently the Arkansas Times quoted employees of a preschool operated by Arkansas legislator Justin Harris, whose failed strict parenting of two adopted girls resulted in rehoming and the subsequent rape of a six year old: “This was way out of control,” said the worker quoted throughout this piece. “You know how you have an ‘aha moment’? I said the other day to [a co-worker], ‘Why didn’t any of us make a hotline call?’ She said, ‘I don’t know’ … I think because Justin is so religious, we sort of accepted it.”

Did the Charleston murderer understand instinctively that his act would call into question the entire concept of group trust? Should the church members now carry guns, mistrust all newcomers? There can be little doubt that his act, in his tiny mind, served a goal of his self-identified in-group which was/is to destroy the ‘other.’ In that, he now sees himself as a victorious hero.

Similarly, the murder of Christians or other non-Sunni sects by ISIS serves the purpose of their in-group. As one cleric has stated, “We’re ridding the world of polytheism and spreading monotheism across the planet.” (Cite)

The Failure of Education

Our nation’s citizenry can’t operate on a level playing field if they are not educated equally as children. Breaking through destructive cultural, economic, and religious barriers seems an obvious avenue toward eliminating or at least defusing in-group fears and prejudices. And it is.

Which is why members of extremist in-groups violently resist efforts like school integration and uniform curriculum standards.

One might assume that any parent wants his/her child to love learning the lessons of history, the ways of numbers, the use of language in communication and reasoning, the amazing details of biology. We have, as a nation, understood that a thriving economy and successful democracy depend on the fruits of education, which is why we dedicate significant tax dollars to support our public schools. It is why we have set standards for teacher education and defined specific educational goals, why we have forced integration and provided school lunches. We need every child to develop to his/her fullest potential.

For some, the nation’s success or even the child’s well-being hardly register on the radar when held up against the perceived value of in-group traditions.

The more embattled parents feel in protecting their religious beliefs, for example, the more likely they will fight efforts to extend their children’s acceptance of broader cultural norms.

The increase in homeschooling is a product of this mindset. Homeschooling gained its first significant boost after forced integration. With the cultural changes of the 1960s and the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, it continued to pick up steam. From 2003 to 2007, the percentage of students whose parents resorted to homeschooling in order to provide religious or moral instruction increased from 72 percent to 83 percent. (Other reasons given for homeschooling included concerns about the school environment such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure and dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools.)

Germany, among others, has outlawed homeschooling for this very reason. But in the United States, Supreme Court decisions have found that parents have a right to homeschool their children or send them to private schools based on the definition of ‘liberty’ in the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The only saving grace of these court decisions was the finding that the extent and content of private or home schooling must meet standards set by the government. (See more here.)

Because of the ‘liberty’ protected in the high court’s rulings, not all homeschooling is equal. Each state has its own set of rules about what is or isn’t required for homeschooling. While homeschooling can produce thoughtful, well-rounded children ready to pursue life as a functional American citizen, many such efforts fail utterly to meet that goal. The end result is a significant population of undereducated adults. Currently about 3.5% of young people, or around two million, are homeschooled. A majority of this segment of our nation’s people poses a real and present danger to the future of the American way of life.

Which is just what their parents intended.

Critical skills such as the scientific method of investigation and logical reasoning processes are often left out of extremist curriculum, partly because the parents have never understood such things and therefore have no appreciation for the benefits they offer. For these reactionary parents, already threatened by their perception that valued cultural traditions are being eroded, the goal is not to provide an excellent education by academic standards which mesh with the rest of the nation and world but rather to insulate their children from those very things and thus preserve the norms of their in-group.

There seems no easy resolution. The most recent effort has been the development of Common Core Standards, a widely vilified move to bring clarity and commonality to the nation’s education systems including homeschool curricula. The result of a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare children for college and the workforce.

These standards focus only on language arts and mathematics, unfortunately leaving aside a more ambitious (and contentious) goal of setting standards for such important subjects as history, social studies, or the sciences. The government’s method of enforcing these bare-bones standards is to withhold federal education funds from states which do not adopt the standards. Eight states have so far refused to adopt them, but the situation remains in flux.

Inevitably, American children fall through the cracks all the time. The Charleston assassin had advanced only as far as ninth grade, a fact which underscores his likely inability to reason clearly or appreciate the broad scope of the world around him. (As noted in a previous blog post, persons with low intelligence are more likely to nurture racial prejudices and view the world from a perspective of threat.)

At their most progressive moments, federal and state governments attempt to break into the cycle of poverty, ignorance, and entrenched in-group thinking. Whether the methods actually help is another question. For example, in an effort to reach children in at-risk populations, the U. S. Department of Education hands out vouchers through its Child Care Development Fund which parents can use anywhere including religious schools.

Such programs target children with at least one of the following characteristics: Family with gross income not exceeding 200% of federal poverty level; Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening; Parents without a high school diploma or GED; Eligible for services under IDEA[1]; Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces); Income eligible for Title I programs; Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth; Limited English Proficiency; Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction; Parent has history of abuse or neglect; Or is a victim of abuse or neglect.[2]

Noble goals. But by inadvertently encouraging the expansion of religious instruction, such programs may do more harm than good. In Arkansas, this avenue of government aid for children in need has become heavily trafficked by people on a religious mission.

Rep. Justin Harris’s preschool, Growing God’s Kingdom, receives nearly a million tax dollars a year through such programs. Despite theoretical restrictions that religion cannot be part of the academic day, these schools teach religion in the hours before and after the academic day, taking advantage of the extra time children are in their care while parents remain at work. Further, the state’s only method of monitoring these schools for violations is through random inspections.

That’s effective. “Stop praying, the state is here.” Numerous current and former employees of Harris report that children who misbehave during the academic day are taken to the office where they are prayed over in order to cast out the demons causing their misbehavior.

The message inculcated in these young minds is that God is in charge and prayer is the answer.

Rational thought? Personal responsibility? It’s all up to God. Join God’s group and everything will be fine. Such early indoctrination easily leads to a continuation of the conditions that led to their qualification for such programs in the first place. Pregnant at 16? God’s will. Pray. Victim of domestic abuse? Women are to submit to their husband. Pray. Addicted to meth? I’m a sinner. Pray.

At the height of Mr. Harris’ public shaming over the rehoming and subsequent rape of his adopted six year old girl, his school’s signboard proclaimed his membership in his self-identified in-group: “God Himself will fight for you.” To date, Mr. Harris has not acknowledged that he did anything wrong.

In states with the highest populations of at-risk children, legislators in charge of determining everything from curriculum to school funding are increasingly drawn from the ranks of religious extremists. Unable or unwilling to see beyond the walls of their in-group, such legislators circle the wagons against ‘outsiders’ who attempt to set new standards or otherwise interfere with group identity. In Arkansas, the only entity legally empowered to remove Justin Harris from his elected office were his like-minded legislative colleagues. Despite evidence that he illegally used his elected position to gain adoption rights to the two girls he subsequently gave away, there was no investigation. He remains in office and his school remains in operation.

Nowhere in such arguments do we hear that professional educators should be in charge of deciding the best methods of education. (This makes about as much sense as allowing politicians to decide best accounting methods for CPAs or best construction methods for engineers.) A consensus among professional educators is that homeschooling often involves inadequate standards of academic quality and comprehensiveness, lack of socialization with peers of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, the potential for development of religious or social extremism/individualism, and potential for development of parallel societies that do not fit into standards of citizenship and community.

Specifically because parents fear of loss of in-group values, professional educators do not control the purse strings or the programs. Children continue to be victims of their parents’ fears and prejudices, prey to the ebb and flow of political opinion. We continue, as a nation, to suffer the consequences.

What are the solutions?

I don’t pretend to have presented all points relevant to this complicated state of affairs. Nor are my proposed solutions an exhaustive or foolproof list.

But given the failure rate to date, I think it’s safe to say that religion does not and cannot serve as the unifying force for humanity.

What we need is for each person to develop so fully that his/her self-esteem and intellectual skill set outweighs the primal need for narrow in-group identification.

We need to invest in strategies which reduce perceived threats and increase opportunities to break down barriers between groups.

We need broader educational standards so that children in private and home schools have to pass tests for subjects including state, national, and world history; basics of scientific method and the facts of biology, geology, and other sciences; social studies—how government works, the role of voters. Parents need to be held accountable if 17-year-old homeschooled kids can’t pass key tests.

We must stand firm against attempts to teach Creationism as an alternative to science. We must eliminate tax funding which in any way supports religious instruction at any grade level.

We must find ways, both institutionally and personally, to facilitate in-group/out-group encounter sessions and counseling alongside cultural education at all grade levels.

We must end the war on drugs. Legalize and tax all of it. Get over the idea that government can dictate what people ingest to alter their consciousness or that altered consciousness is in itself a crime. Demilitarize our police forces and deliver our communities from the tyranny of criminal gangs. Use tax dollars currently wasted on bigger prisons along with new revenues produced from legal drug sales to initiate pro-active programs in support of early childhood health and education, family intervention in cases of abuse and neglect, substance abuse treatment, and free/low cost mental/physical health care in every community.

We must require a significant period of public service from young people. Such service would broaden the scope away from a family or church or racial in-groups and instead build ownership in the in-group of our nation.

Don’t agree with the actions of our current elected leaders? Don’t support the policies of our nation? The instrument of change lies in our hands. An informed, self-confident electorate can be—should be—the strength of America.

We can feel a bit of relief in the amazing power of television and the Internet to instill greater understanding of different lifestyles, different races, and unfamiliar cultures. Social media such as Facebook allows us to engage in constructive dialogue with members of out-groups without the immediate threat of physical violence. These are opportunities we must use carefully in order not to trigger an even more visceral in-group identification among the ‘other.’

Many of these things are already being done.

Finally, there’s this:

“…The data…demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of life’ that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.”[3]

[1] http://idea.ed.gov/

[2] http://www.arkansased.org/public/userfiles/rules/Current/ade_257_Arkansas_Better_Chance_October_2012.pdf

[3] “National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Gregory S. Paul. Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005) http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2005/2005-11.pdf Accessed June 19, 2015

The Threat of Willful Ignorance

willful ig

There’s an ignored bigger picture behind the by-now worn out topic of the Duggar family’s hidden sex abuse scandal. In case you missed it, the vaunted head of that household stated last week that when he found out about his son’s incestuous molestation of several sisters, he spoke about it with his peers at church. “Most of them told me their sons had done the same thing to their daughters so we didn’t think it unusual or cause for great concern.”

That’s right. He said that.

For someone not of similar mindset, it’s difficult if not impossible to understand how anyone could be that stupid. In what world, religious cult or not, is it acceptable for a teenage brother to molest his younger sisters? Duggar clarified by adding “This wasn’t rape or anything like that.”

Pardon me while I quietly lose my breakfast. Yes, Jim Bob, it was precisely ‘anything’ like that.

[This space left blank for lengthy rant.]

[One of several excellent commentaries about the victimization and objectification of women within extreme-right religions can be found here.]

Moving on to the less obvious point: Is this radical subculture of the religious community simply less intelligent than the rest of us?

Actually, yes, Virginia, there is a correlation between low intelligence, prejudice, and conservative beliefs.[1] Lower capacity for analytical thinking increases the perceived risk of complicated situations. More than one study has found that “strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world.” This is especially true for those raised with the sets of rules inherent in legalistic or evangelic fundamentalist faiths.

In these circles, the only ‘information’ that matters is the Bible. “The Bible says” typically precedes angry proclamations about the sin of homosexuality, abortion, or same-sex marriage. The Bible says God created the world in six days, so evolution can’t be true. The Bible says women are made to serve men, so that means women belong to men. With the Book of Revelations detailing how God will end the world, why should anyone listen to that gobbledygook about global warming?

There is no argument that can penetrate beyond that stubborn wall of self-ordained righteousness. It doesn’t matter if the stated belief is not exactly what the Bible says, or if the Bible also says other things that mitigate or even conflict. It doesn’t matter if the Bible could, shockingly, not be the actual Word of God but instead a collection of folk tales borrowed from older cultures and passed down through narration before finally being written down by men who had their own ideas about what it all meant and didn’t hesitate to edit in order to ‘clarify’ or emphasize a specific meaning. All well intentioned of course, as were the nuances inserted in later translations and transcriptions over the intervening two thousand years.

That the Bible is not the literal Word of God simply does not compute. La la la, I can’t hear you. That God might not be a male patriarch with a flowing white beard or in fact an actual physical presence at all is similarly incomprehensible. These beliefs are seared into the hearts and souls of religious extremists. Losing those beliefs would be a form of death more threatening than physical death because the beliefs promise the eternal existence of ‘self’ if only the Word is obeyed.

Along with facing the challenges of rational analysis and increasingly complicated social constructs, people raised in conservative religions are taught that learning isn’t necessarily a Godly pursuit. After all, wasn’t Original Sin about knowing too much? God guides each person’s life to the challenges that will increase his or her faith, and there’s a risk that too much learning would cause one not to listen to God’s will. This has been the reasoning behind Michelle Duggar’s production of nineteen children following a miscarriage which signaled, in her mind, God’s anger for her use of birth control.

This is not to say that spiritual beliefs and intelligence are mutually exclusive. Many learned men and women past and present embrace and benefit from faith traditions. Yet history shows us that in societies ruled by religious extremists, people were tortured to death for speaking openly in contradiction to the then-known ‘facts’—for example, that the world was flat, or that the heavenly bodies revolved around the earth.

Climate change, men on the moon, a woman’s right to decide what happens inside her own body? These are complicated topics which require a grasp of basic scientific and/or legal principles. Not only are extremist children underserved by (preferred) home schooling, they are (apparently) products of a gene pool less likely to possess the intellectual capacity for learning and utilizing advanced reasoning skills. They are actively trained not to develop such skills in the risk of angering God.

Observers might surmise that behind such intellectual laziness is not only a blind trust in God’s ability to steer seven billion lives through minute-by-minute monitoring down to whether Michelle used birth control but also—more importantly—the urgent and secret desire not to be responsible. Inborn or learned, inadequate reasoning ability fosters an insecurity that predisposes its victims toward herd behavior. The world is simply too much to understand. Who can know enough to decide what to do?

The solution is to put all faith in God and don’t worry about it. Read the Bible again. Come the Rapture, they’ll get their reward and rest of us heathens will burn in hell.

If it stopped there, if these folks simply led quiet lives holy by their own definition, there would be little cause for alarm. But that’s not the case.

They want to take over the country.

They won’t be happy until homosexuals are ‘cured’ and women submit to male authority. We’re left to wonder, if they did manage to achieve their heartfelt goal, which of the disciplines would be banned first: Geology with its flagrant rejection of Biblical chronology claiming the earth is only 6000 years old? Physics with its insistence on the Big Bang theory? Psychology with its exploration of human motivations and denials?

Can we muster any sympathy for the intentionally benighted who don’t understand how climate change can be real when it snowed six inches just last night?

The Duggar sex scandal made big news because for nearly a decade, the family has presented itself to the American public as the model of Christian piety. For those who reacted to the show with disbelief and disgust, it’s been a moment of breathless irony. For their sympathetic fans, the reaction to their fall from grace has been an angry spate of straw-man arguments—the publicity re-victimizes the sisters, the release of information was illegal (not), the poor young man already said he was sorry. A clear-eyed view of the hypocrisy, criminality, and deception involved is simply not possible for those wallowing in their own ignorance.

For the rest of us, the Duggar debacle shines a light on the cesspit of rightwing politics. The family’s celebrity rewarded them with money they’ve used to support extremist political candidates. With his GED in hand, Josh achieved placement among the ranks of the nation’s top extremist political lobbying organization, the Family Research Council. All of them—the Duggars, the rightwing legislators, the Family Research Council—seem oblivious to the elephant in their highly moral living room—that is, the incessant proof of their own immorality.

Leaders in the movement have made their objective clear. Kathryn Joyce, author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, cited the movement’s strategy that “…if just eight million American Christians began supplying more ‘arrows for the war’ by having six children or more, they propose that the Christian Right ranks could rise to 550 million within a century.”  A stated objective of such an effort is to increase the number of conservatives in Washington.[2]

Extreme religionists cannot fathom the connection between their political choices and the troubled state of their own communities. The largely white, low income, less educated ranks of the religious right are the same populations that rank highest in need of government handouts: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. They have the highest rates of divorce, child hunger, child abuse, and alcoholism/drug addiction. They have the highest use of Internet pornography. They have more reproductive services restrictions and more teen pregnancy, more high school dropouts and lower levels of education which go hand in hand with lower average incomes. More of these populations are in poor health, obese, and—inanely—resent the Affordable Care Act for providing health insurance.

These facts simply do not compute for the willfully ignorant. Any suffering by the extremists and their neighbors surely means that God is testing them. It might even anger God if they did anything to remove this suffering. That’s why government programs meant to provide assistance to those in need are high on the fundamentalist hate list.

The extremists do not understand that their myth of a Christian nation is contrary to the Founding Fathers’ intent. The concept of separation of church and state eludes them. Don’t bother them with facts or quotes from the U. S. Constitution. They lack the capacity to imagine how they would feel if a religion other than Christianity took control of the nation.

The urgent desire to “get back America” among religious extremists may stem from the creeping realization (despite heroic efforts at denial) that their beliefs somehow fail to inoculate them from sinning. They still molest boys in their care (Hastert). They still commit adultery (Gingrich and too many to name). They still participate in homosexual behavior (CA State Sen. Roy Ashburn, among the many).

In a perfect world by their definition, government would help Christians adhere to the straight and narrow by enforcing God’s law through the power of the state. Efforts to warn of the tragedy inherent in theocracies fall on deaf ears. Don’t they see what’s going on in the Middle East?

drink copyPerhaps a form of transference drives the fundamentalists’ need to force everyone else to the extremist way of life in the largely unconscious assumption that it’s the homosexuals and transgenders who somehow infect the good people with sin. Such a concept is discernible in the upwelling of “religious freedom” laws, as if baking a cake for a same-sex wedding somehow rubs the sin of gayness off on the baker.

Did Jesus refuse to touch the leper or prostitute? Evidently these folks don’t read their own literature.

But then, what can be expected of those who are uncomfortable with or incapable of approaching any topic on a logical basis? Sin is a result of demons who come to sit on our shoulders, and we must pray to cast them out. There is no personal responsibility. God wills it or Satan is in control.

Legislators placed in office by zealots do not understand, refuse to acknowledge, and/or refuse to participate in the basic principles of informed debate or negotiated compromise, foundations of a democratic representative government. This enormous beam in the rightwing’s eye results in treasonous acts such as newly-elected zealot Senator Tom Cotton’s direct communication with Iran intended to disrupt the multi-nation negotiation on nuclear energy.

The rest of us have failed to fully recognize or effectively counter the threat. There’s been an underlying hesitancy to criticize those who proclaim themselves avid Christians, especially among more moderate Christians. “19 Kids and Counting” has been one of several exposures of this lifestyle to the public view which has brought little to no public censure. Rather, the program resulted in a bemused sense of wonder that anyone could have that many kids. Why worry? These are the good people, aren’t they?

Do we really think these extremists will stop at some point, fold up their tents, and let the rest of us live our lives as we see fit? Come to their senses? Actually comprehend Christ’s teachings about loving their neighbors and not judging?

10000 copyCan we accept the Christian nation these fearful, ignorant extremists envision? What’s the distance between the current effort to “take back America” and armed conflict? The instinctive reaction of people who see themselves as cornered and fighting for a ‘holy’ cause is to stockpile weapons. It’s no coincidence that those most vehement about guns and open carry are also eager to rant about secession or claim there are “10,000 pastors” ready to die for the cause.[3]

We may think the Duggars benign, an isolated amusement that crops up on our television screen. Peculiar, out of sync, quaint—doing their best to be good in a difficult world. It’s past time to sit up and realize they and their kind are about as benign as misdiagnosed cancer.


[1] Pappas, Stephanie. “Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice,” Live Science. January 26, 2012 http://www.livescience.com/18132-intelligence-social-conservatism-racism.html

[2] Blumberg, Antonia. “What You Need To Know About The ‘Quiverfull’ Movement,” The Huffington Post 5/26/2015.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/26/quiverfull-movement-facts_n_7444604.html

A State of Perversion

Religion 0159Based on recent news emerging from Arkansas, a casual observer might assume that a child molester lurks around every corner right along with married cousins and toothless hillbillies. I’m sorry that my beloved native state suffers such disrepute, but the fact is, there’s truth in it. In March, a story came to light about Arkansas State Representative Justin Harris and his wife and how they had ‘rehomed’ two little girls they had adopted, one of whom was raped by the new ‘father.’ Most recently, last week a Duggar family skeleton involving incest and pedophilia emerged from the closet, resulting in the prompt suspension of their popular television show “19 Kids and Counting” which aired for years on TLC network.

Is there any connection between these horrific incidents? I think there is.

The Harrises and the Duggars are evangelical Christians. They have, each in their own way, placed themselves in the public eye to advocate on behalf of their faith. There’s risk in holding up oneself as an example, as they are finding out.

Justin Harris is serving his third term in the Arkansas Legislature where he has introduced conservative measures ranging from abortion restriction to denying funding to the state’s department of human services under the campaign promise to reduce government spending. He and his wife own and operate a preschool in his legislative district town of West Fork, a largely rural constituency with a high percentage of fundamentalist church followers. Alongside the alphabet and fingerpainting, Mr. Harris’ school teaches religion.

In 2012, Harris found himself on the hot seat after a formal complaint was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Seems Mr. No Government Funding had his hand in the public till by obtaining grant funding for his preschool. Over a million dollars had flowed into his coffers, courtesy of a state agency charged with providing tax monies in support of preschools that addressed the needs of ‘underserved’ youth. Originating through the Arkansas Department of Education, federal and state taxes are channeled to the Department of Human Services (DHS) and its ABC program (Arkansas Better Chance), which awards grants based on a lengthy list of criteria including family income.

Mr. Harris mounted a vigorous and outraged defense of his right to all that money. He brought in a team of attorneys from Arizona who specialized in defending schools who want to teach Jesus on the public dime. Subsequently, the ABC program promulgated a set of rules specifically addressing the issue of religious instruction. It is unknown whether the ‘solution’ was put forth by the Arizona attorneys, modeled on rules operating in other states, or sprang from a singular Arkansas process, but the novel approach defines an ‘ABC day’ as a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends would not be the state’s concern.

Since then, Mr. Harris has expanded his operation and state funding approaches a million dollars annually. His students arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m. The ABC day begins at 9 and lasts until 3. Before and after, it’s all about Jesus.

Soon after the flap over school funding, the Harrises—who already had three sons—decided to adopt little three girls whose dysfunctional family had lost custody. The girls were fairly well adjusted in a foster home, but the natural mother allegedly made a personal plea to Justin Harris. This arguably admirable effort left many to question Harris’ quick use of the girls in a family portrait promoting his re-election campaign (a violation of adoption policy), the nearly $30,000 tax break that came with the adoption, and the monthly stipend allotted to Harris in the form of state support. Clearly, the adoption wasn’t all about benevolence.

Firmly fixated on the adoption idea, the Harrises refused to listen to DHS field agents who reported that the girls would not be suitable in the Harris household. With all the arrogance befitting a person who believed God directed his acts, Harris apparently used his elected office to pressure DHS to approve the adoption. Local caseworkers opposed to the adoption mysteriously changed their recommendation after their boss advocated on the Harris’ behalf. That Justin Harris held a powerful position in the legislative committee which controlled DHS funding seems never to have been examined as a possible contributor to this department head’s advocacy, which resulted in a local juvenile court judge granting the adoption. Unfortunately, because the case involves adoption, DHS has not released any information.

Within a year, the Harrises decided to ‘rehome’ the girls to another family. By early 2014, one of the girls had been raped by her new ‘father,’ Eric Cameron Francis. Later that year, Francis would be convicted of multiple counts of child abuse and is currently serving time. As it turns out, Francis had been an employee at the Harris preschool and his wife was good friends with Mrs. Harris. Not surprisingly, Harris chose to stay quiet about his role in placing the victim in the Francis home until a reporter from the Arkansas Times connected the dots. The story went public in March 2015.

When the adoption/rehoming scandal broke, Harris held a press conference as reported by the Arkansas Times. He presented himself and his family as the damaged party.

“The older girl, who would have been about 6 years old at the time she entered the Harris household, presented an imminent danger to his older three sons, Harris said. DHS ultimately placed the child into a hospital after just a few months of living with the family, and the Harrises did not proceed with the planned adoption [of that child]. He also said the younger sisters, ages 4 and 2 when they entered the Harris home, were violent. He said one of the girls — the implication was the middle sister — had to be medicated to stop hurting her sister, and that he was advised by therapists to treat her RAD [Reactive Attachment Disorder] by removing toys and other belongings from her room.

“After one of the two younger girls crushed a family pet to death, Harris said, he and his wife were advised by “a therapist, a psychiatrist and a pediatrician” to remove the children from the Harris home. He said he sought DHS assistance at that time but was given none. He said he thought he’d found the “perfect solution” in handing the girls over to Stacey Francis, a longtime friend of his wife’s, and her husband, Eric Cameron Francis. Eric Francis is serving 40 years in prison on charges of raping the child.”

[Francis had also been a children’s church group leader in Northwest Arkansas and abused other children besides the Harris adoptee.]

The foster family who had custody of the girls prior to the Harris involvement repudiated Harris’ allegations about the girls. They said the girls had been kind and loving, happy to be in a solid home situation and eager for affection. Other witnesses came forth to give similar statements. Unfortunately, no one other than the Arkansas Times has investigated the facts of this case, and since the Arkansas Legislature is the only agency with authority to remove Harris, he remains in public office despite a petition demanding his resignation signed by over 5000 people.

Within a month of the revelation that Arkansas DHS had no rule or restriction on the rehoming of adopted children, the state legislature passed a law making rehoming a felony. Harris voted for the bill, in essence making himself a retroactive felon. He resigned from the chairmanship of the public health committee, but failed to yield his legislative seat. He has also refused to accept any responsibility for the little girl’s sexual abuse. At the peak of this fiasco, his school billboard proclaimed that “God Himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.”

Throughout the intense scrutiny on Harris and his failure as an adoptive parent, a considerable body of information has come to light about ongoing religious activities at his preschool. Although random spot inspections by the state theoretically rule out the chance of illegal religious activity during the ‘ABC day,’ reports from former teachers and others allege that children who misbehave are routinely taken to the office where they are prayed over to ‘cast out demons.’ Harris has made efforts to gain official approval for singing religious songs during the lunch hour, since this was not an education period. It’s unclear at present exactly what level of religious activity occurs during the tax-funded ‘ABC day.’ Apparently the state isn’t all that eager to find out.

With the name of “Growing God’s Kingdom,” the school certainly should have received intense scrutiny from agencies charged with the responsibility of appropriately dispensing tax dollars. Instead, as previously stated, the state had blissfully doled out funds not only to the Harris school but also to several other religion-teaching preschools across the state, some of which were owned and operated by others elected to public office. And they continue to do so.

Currently, the new Republican governor Asa Hutchinson and the first-time-since-Reconstruction majority Republican legislature have passed a special dispensation to allow one of those religious pre-school owners/elected officials, Johnny Key, to serve as head of the state education department. The governor, himself a conservative religionist, formerly served as a member of Congress during which time he led the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. At the same time, Asa’s brother Tim Hutchinson held elected office as a U.S. Senator. It came to light after the impeachment that Christian family man Tim had been carrying on an affair with his legislative director, Randi Fredholm, whom he married as soon as he divorced his wife. Lucky for him, no one initiated impeachment proceedings.

After the Harris rehoming debacle erupted, a bevy of complaints about DHS surfaced, especially about adoption practices. Governor Hutchinson appointed a special investigator to examine the department’s policies and procedures. While it is too early to say as the investigation results are due any day now, a cynical bystander might assume that the governor’s investigation will not examine whether Harris abused his office to obtain the adoption.

Also unclear is the legality of Arkansas preschool operations which comingle the Bible and education. Queries to the compliance office at DHS receive less than informative replies. For example, a recent question asked whether there is a viability test (for preschools which include religious instruction) to determine whether religious instruction could exist without tax funding of the ‘ABC day.’ Local contributions, the only funding that can be legally used for religious teaching, comprise only ten percent of the school’s funding. Would that ten percent be enough to provide the facilities and support needed to provide religious education?

No one knows. DHS confirmed that there is no viability test.

Like Justin Harris, the Duggar father Jim Bob served a stint in the state legislature, elected from a conservative district near Springdale. (The geographical distance between West Fork and Springdale is about twenty miles.) Duggar gained media recognition after his wife Michelle produced their twelfth child (or at some count along in there). Their home-schooled family has promoted themselves as the model for clean Christian living as Michelle continued to squeeze out another Duggar clone every other year. While Duggar originally supported his tribe through used car sales, the income from their television appearances superseded used cars sometime around 2010. It helped the bottom line that the family became a hot ticket item for talk shows and other celebrity circuit events.

Well, probably not so much since last week, when it became known that the Duggar’s oldest son Josh had been sexually molesting his younger sisters and other young females unfortunate enough to spend the night at the Duggar family home. The story first came to the parents’ attention in March 2002 when one of Josh’s victims came crying to her parents about his nighttime visits to her bedroom. He admitted his bad behavior and was disciplined. Four months later, he admitted to more of the same. More discipline.

The family had adopted ‘basic life principle’ instruction from Bill Gothard’s “Advanced Training Institute for Homeschooling.” As advised by Gothard, persons involved in a sexual abuse situation shouldn’t ask why God let it happen but instead consider what the abused person did wrong, such as dress immodestly, indecently expose the body, or hang out with evil friends. Further, “if the abused is not at fault,’ he/she should welcome the gift of gaining spiritual strength from the experience.

[Mr. Gothard resigned in March 2014 after female employees alleged over thirty incidents of sexual abuse. Evidently, they didn’t find their ‘gift’ of spiritual strength sufficiently rewarding to offset the experience of Mr. Gothard’s harassment.]

In March 2003 the now fifteen-year-old Josh Duggar was again outed by his siblings that he was still slipping into his sisters’ bedrooms at night to fondle their breasts and genitals. His touching also occurred on the living room couch, in the laundry room, and on at least one occasion, outside the home. At this point, the father arranged for Josh to spend three months with a family friend in Little Rock who put Josh to work helping remodel a house.

Upon his return home, his father took him to speak with an officer of the Arkansas State Police. It seems Corporal Hutchens was selected for good reasons. He did not file an official report despite a mandatory reporting requirement for law enforcement officers in such cases. Rather, the young man was subjected to a “very stern talk.”

[Subsequently, unrelated to his dereliction of duty in the Duggar case, the now 69-year-old Hutchins is serving a 56-year sentence for repeated child pornography.]

No doubt everyone prayed over everyone’s demons.

The cover-up of Josh Duggar’s pedophilia continued over the years until the statute of limitations had run for any sexual abuse charge. Then, triggered by a note that came to light in 2006 describing these activities, the local police department interviewed all family members and established a record. That too would remain a secret during the coming years including during a 2014 campaign funded and led by the Duggars in an effort to overturn a city ordinance passed in the neighboring city of Fayetteville, Arkansas, which established anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender people seeking housing, employment, etc. Michelle Duggar personally narrated a robo-call that urged the ordinance’s overthrow because under the law, she alleged, a transgender male could get into the women’s bathroom and sexually molest little girls.

Oh, the irony.

Die-hard supporters of Justin Harris and Josh Duggar lament that everyone is casting aspersions on them when they’ve asked Jesus for forgiveness and promised never to rehome or molest again. Duggar fans vow to boycott TLC programs until the “19 Kids and Counting” show returns to the air. They’ll probably be waiting a long time. Reportedly General Mills, one of the show’s top sponsors, made it abundantly clear to TLC that they would not be in that parade. Pundits remark that the Duggar explosion “taints the whole brand.”

One can only hope. Never mind that for years the Duggars have made a sickening spectacle of indiscriminate and unconscionable reproductive excess. Never mind that a more caring and responsible approach to a large family, assuming one absolutely must have a house full of children, would be to produce one or two of your own gene pool and then, for God’s sake, adopt some of the many children languishing in adoption facilities and foster homes here and around the world.

Above all else, the hypocrisy involved in the Harris and Duggar stories staggers the imagination. While firmly denying funding to DHS based on his campaign promise to reduce government spending, Mr. Harris fought for government handouts to fund his religious school in spite of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law by teaching religion in a tax-supported program. As an elected person who held himself up as an example of Christian righteousness, he should have been the first person to recognize he was crossing the line between church and state as delineated in the U. S. Constitution. Instead, assuming he understood the thrust of the Founding Fathers’ intent, he no doubt privately justified his behavior with his belief that God willed it.

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Eric Francis, intake photograph at time of arrest, Benton County, Arkansas. 2014

We’re left to wonder if rehoming was God’s will. Or if God wanted that already traumatized six-year-old little girl to suffer rape at the hands Eric Francis.

Similarly, the Duggars must have decided that hiding Josh’s sexual perversion was God’s wish. After all, they undoubtedly prayed on it and God didn’t say to tell. The family had a mission to spread the Good Word to the world via their television show. Even a moron could figure out that TLC probably wouldn’t like to hear about Josh’s nighttime recreation. The Duggars called in favors from local friends and church members to sidestep the law. They failed to put Josh in the hands of a professional therapist who might have helped the young man overcome his predilection for sexually assaulting young children.

As it is, Josh now has a captive audience within his own family and only God knows whether he manages to resist the temptation to fondle them. We can only guess whether his sisters and other victims of his teenage abuse have received any professional help. Chances are, they prayed on it.

Underlying this sickening avalanche of news about Harris and the Duggars is a growing national problem. The evangelical right believes in demons, and they believe that praying can send the demons packing. The implicit teaching from infancy onward is that we as individuals are not responsible for our acts, but rather it’s those damn demons who creep in when we’re not looking. If we can just send those demons away, we’ll be smiled upon by Jesus and everything will be fine.

This kind of simplistic medieval thinking lies behind the ability of political handlers to capture votes from the evangelical demographic. The compelling argument is that demons rule the ‘other’ party, that gay marriage, abortion, and other private activities are the proper province of political action, and only by voting for Mr. Righteous can we satisfy the will of God. So far self-sustaining through multiple election cycles, this obsessed minority turn out to vote in numbers unlike other less fanatical segments of the population. In the most recent Arkansas election, the prevailing vote represented about 30% of the eligible voter base.

By voting sympathetic legislators into office, adherents are able to skirt the intent of the law that requires no tax dollars be spent in promoting religion and to place compatriots in positions of authority such as, in Arkansas, to head the state’s entire educational system. Johnny Key does not hold the master’s degree or ten years experience as a teacher which, until the 2015 actions of the Arkansas governor and legislature, would have barred him from serving the state’s top education post. Now, as long as the number two man meets those requirements, the state can put a favored religious legislator in the top slot.

Further, evangelical right wingers are able to spawn a network of pseudo-professional responses to serious matters of sexual abuse and direct the blame for such abuse toward the abused.

Fundamentally, the movement toward dozens of children, homeschooling, and the non-response to incestuous sexual molestation has to do with—at least in part—the liberation of women from their long history as male property. I’ve recently learned that my own great-grandfather molested one of my aunts, and probably many more, but none of this was discussed openly, nor was any action taken. It was his ‘right’ as the patriarch to thump his Bible and fiddle one of his pretty little ‘properties’ on the side. The aunt herself did not speak of it until old age, at which time she shared it with her sisters. Some of those sisters chose not to believe it really happened and continue to attend fundamentalist churches where women are not allowed to speak.

There are many features of modern life that scare the hell out of those who simply cannot understand science or other changes increasingly widespread in the world. Our technology and culture have evolved faster than our mental or physical state. Everything is too fast and too complicated. It’s only been a hundred years since picking peas and saddling a horse served as the requisite skill set to get through life.

Obviously not all evangelical Christians sexually abuse children or try to use tax dollars in support of religious education. However, a study examining the correlation between fundamentalism and such abuses would be interesting. A January 2014 article in Psychology Today summarized several studies which found positive correlation between low I.Q. and religious belief. One result of the studies was the conclusion “that conservative and fundamentalist religious beliefs can discourage learning.”

From ignorance comes fear, and for many fundamentalists, fear rules the day. Fomenting that fear serves a calculated political purpose that ultimately assures that power rests in the hands of the super-rich. The success of their calculation is demonstrated in increasingly skewed wealth distribution and an exponential increase in fear mongering.

For many, especially in southern states where low income and poor education help spawn the idea that cultivated ignorance is a form of virtue, the solution is to crawl back into the Middle Ages and believe that the problem is abortion, minorities, immigration, or homosexuality. We’re in real danger of allowing this misbegotten movement to gain power over our schools, political structures, and way of life. As long as the system loops back on itself with brainwashing in the early years and rejection of any understanding beyond their closed belief system, the Taliban is looking more and more like a local organization.

The Difference Between Men and Women

goddessSince 1998, I’ve interviewed over sixty people about their experiences of the 1960s, all them ‘baby boomers’ who shared that particular cultural upheaval. The stories have a lot in common. We wanted to break away from entrenched beliefs and stereotypes to embrace a more tolerant view of the world. We saw a responsibility to work for change. We searched out environments where we had the freedom to reinvent ourselves as citizens of a new age.

But recently I’ve reached a startling realization having to do with a striking difference between the male and female narrative. That is, the men I’ve interviewed rarely if ever mention their sexual activities of those times. Women, on the other hand, describe sexual activity as a key point in their lives.

At first I thought this had to do with the natural reticence of men to discuss emotional and/or personal experiences, and their tendency to focus more on activities and interactions having to do with work and other external matters. But it occurs to me now that the difference more likely is a result of the fact that for men, not much of the tradition of male sex lives changed with the ‘60s. (Unless they were gay, of course.)

Not so for women! The Sixties and the Seventies were times of major change in women’s sex lives, and from there, a change in just about everything else as well. Birth control pills meant that for the first time, women could enjoy sex without the overwhelming risk of pregnancy. On the heels of widely-available birth control, the U S Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade meant that even if raped or confronted with the failure of birth control, a woman could obtain a safe medical abortion.

Suddenly women were masters of their own lives. Without the unnatural expectation to wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity, women could focus on education, political action, and career building. For the first time, women could approach men as an equal in the sexual arena, pick and choose sex partners, and be just as promiscuous as men had always been. Not that all women were. The liberation of women had to do with gaining options.

So of course women who came of age in those years would include stories of how those changes affected them. Raised in the mindset of earlier times, women of the ‘boomer’ generation suddenly could set aside the old threats of illegitimate children and the social stigma that inevitably followed such public evidence of out-of-wedlock sex. A female’s identity no longer centered around her role as wife and mother, but rather what she could offer her community in any of multiple roles.

Maybe women are more likely to discuss private emotional experiences than are men. But I think that women of my generation are rightfully proud to be the ground upon which a revolution took place. From this has flowed a wealth of new ideas in the workplace, changes in the arts including erotic literature in a manner never before imagined, and exciting relationship options inconceivable fifty years ago. I encourage all of us to tell our stories so that our daughters and all women coming after us never lose sight of what we have won.

No Ecstasy Here

godWe shouldn’t hold our breath. Phil Robertson and the Church of Christ aren’t going to change. They pride themselves in rigidity, which they see as their unwavering discipline in the Word of God. Descended to American backwoods and byways from the Puritans and Presbyterian Scots tradition of strict religious practice, the practitioners of this fundamentalist sect forbid women to speak in church, refuse instrumental music, and do not offer Sunday school. Worship is intellectual rather than emotional, an embrace of rules and edicts interpreted from the King James version of the Bible.

I was raised in this church. There were preachers in the family, and church formed the social and political center of our lives. We went every time the door was open—literally. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, plus special nightly meetings with a traveling preacher or “singing” services where the church elders would take turns leading songs…a cappella, of course—all were mandatory to the true Christian.

None of this was fun. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. Oh, there were the sometimes pleasurable associations with others of our own kind. This was our world. There was the benefit of being relieved, temporarily, of our duty to work without ceasing. But whatever enjoyment might be gained in the gathering had to be tempered by the greater framework of our purpose in obedience to the Almighty Father’s plan. Outright laughter in the House of the Lord would have been unseemly.

The teachings were that humans were born with sin, and that we were here to suffer for it. Without a life of suffering, we couldn’t get to heaven. Sensory gratification formed the greatest temptation to sin, especially delight in The Flesh. It all served as major stumbling blocks on the road to salvation. Our embodiment in corporeal form was punishment, no ecstasy allowed. Joy came after life—if we toed the line. Otherwise we would burn in eternal hellfire. Church services dragged on with a few songs to break up sermons where a certain cadence of voice marked the rising passion of the message until the thundering conclusion arrived meant to stir every heart to confess the inevitable sin we all carried.

At the conclusion of the sermon, a song invited sinners to come home. Those with guilty consciences were expected to walk down the aisle of the church toward the front, where—if previously baptized—he/she would kneel and confess before the congregation. If not baptized, this wayward soul would be scheduled for full-immersion baptism, usually on the heels of the regular church program. Everyone would cluster in excited hushed conversation while the sinner was taken to a private room, dressed in a white gown, led to a tank of water which in many cases had not been warmed, and lowered into the water while the preacher called on God to welcome His new servant.

Although as a thoughtful female child I had resisted much of what the preachers had to say, I still wanted to belong to this club. I wanted to be saved, to experience the blessings of God, and partake in the weekly communion of wafers and grape juice given as a symbolic sharing of the body of Christ. I wanted that magical sense of well-being in my otherwise fretful existence. So when I was fourteen I walked down the aisle. My parents wept at my salvation. The water in that small Oklahoma church was ice cold, and I gasped as it surrounded me. Water flooded into my nose and mouth and I strangled. The thin cotton gown hid nothing when I stood up coughing in the miserable icy water, newly formed as a child of God but shivering as the wet fabric clung to my naked pubescent form. The overriding sensation was not that I had been welcomed to the loving arms of Jesus but that I wanted to die of humiliation

I didn’t feel saved, relieved, or welcomed. I would never admit it, not in those early years, but I didn’t really believe in any of it. How could a loving God also be an angry and vengeful God? Why was God a man if we were made in his image? Where did God come from? I asked these questions but quickly learned that these were questions not to be asked. Certain things were to be taken on faith. Shut up and listen.

I wanted to feel ecstasy about God the way I felt when I looked at a stunning blue sky or the wings of a butterfly. Everywhere around me I saw beauty, yet I wasn’t supposed to embrace the pleasures of the earth. Slowly I came to understand that only a sadistic, evil God would create a sensational world and people who gained such joy in experiencing those sensations, and then threaten eternal damnation for enjoying it. Nothing sacred or holy existed in that God. I rejected all of it.

For those who accept this belief system, the official expression is dour. Like Phil Robertson’s stern face, outward demeanor is meant to convey the seriousness of God’s judgment and unceasing fear of His wrath. Everything is sin, but especially certain things that threaten the patriarchal foundations of the faith. Women are advised to be obedient and serve their husbands in the same way that men are to serve God. As the lesser sex, woman’s path to God is through her husband, as he was formed in God’s image and she was formed from man’s rib. Many a sermon centers on woman’s innately sinful nature and her duty to suffer for tempting Adam to eat that damn apple.

In spite of their Christian belief in the role of Jesus Christ and the New Testament as the foundation of their religion, fundamentalists love to dredge up Old Testament bits as a rich source of rules and exhortations, with quoted sections carefully chosen to serve the featured topic of the day. Other parts of these old conglomerated writings, not so useful bits about slaves (how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves) or war captives (Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked.  Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.) tend to be left out.

As I grew older and made a point to study the entire Bible’s text, these selective uses of Scripture caused a growing cognitive dissonance that affirmed my instinctive rejection of this narrow-minded view of the world and of God. Perhaps most alarming, those most faithful to the dogma seemed to lack any real belief in their own salvation. Satan lurked at every corner. Constant fear and anxiety haunted my parents and others in the congregation. And ironically, instead of benefitting from their religious practice, they suffered. There was no joy.

To me, the most unacceptable tenant of the Church of Christ was the belief that this faith is the only path to God. Followers of all other belief systems are going to hell. There is no wiggle room on this point of total arrogance and closed-mindedness. Any hint of updating to a more open-minded view of our fellow man is trumped by the feverish fear of offending God.

Mr. Robertson and his ilk risk hellfire and damnation if they don’t exhort against sin. They believe it’s their Christian duty. Perhaps he faintly recognizes that he’s already skirting condemnation because he has accumulated great wealth, and this drives him to an ever-more agitated thumping of his holy book. (“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”)

If A&E had persevered in its banishment of Phil, he might have secretly welcomed his exile as a suitable end to his dabbling in the perverse world of commercial entertainment and all the divorce, blended families, homosexuality, half-dressed bodies, independent women, and other defilements of God’s plan that are routinely displayed there. Secure in his manly beard and violent conquest of Nature as his God-given right, Phil will always sink to the level of his ultimate comfort, the ways and beliefs he has always known.

As it is, he and his Ducky family can continue to feel righteous as they judge the rest of us. Once again in the tradition of all fundamentalists, they’ve managed to skip over key parts of their own literature:  “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”