The Poverty of Conservatism

 

A continuing crisis plagues Arkansas. Like a snake eating its tail, poverty, addiction and mental illness, teen pregnancy, sexual violence against women, and low educational achievement perpetuate themselves as a result of entrenched conservative thinking. Costs for addressing these problems continue to skyrocket while the state’s earning power lingers near the bottom.

Where do we cut the snake?

Arkansas ranks 48th out of 50 states in terms of poverty. In 2015, 19.1% percent of the state’s households—one fifth—have incomes below the federal poverty line of $24,250 for a family of four.[1]  For 2016, the state’s population of 2,887,337 included 550,508 people living in poverty.[2]

In a direct correlation to the poverty rate, the state ranks 39 out of 50 states in how well students are educated.[3] The state slips further down the scale for persons 25 years of age when considering the following factors: Only 84.8% graduate high school. Only 21.1% obtain a bachelor’s degree, a ranking that puts Arkansas at 48th out of 50. And only 7.5% obtain graduate degrees, a rank of 49 out of 50.[4]

We hover near the bottom at 46 in terms of mental illness in a compilation of 15 factors including all ages, availability of treatment, and addiction rates.[5] Between 2010 and 2014, over one third of teens in need of mental health treatment did not receive it while over 53% of adults did not. Only 20% of Arkansas residents with drug dependence and 10% with alcohol dependence received treatment.[6]

The state consistently ranks in the top five for teen pregnancies with up to 80 births per 1000 occurring among teen girls ages 15 to 19. Of these, 60% are white, 27% are black, and 11% are Hispanic. Counties with the highest rates included Sevier, Nevada, Arkansas, St. Francis, Mississippi, Jackson, and Randolph.[7]

According to a 2014 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Children born to teen parents are more likely to enter the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and to become teen parents themselves. Every year, thousands of young Arkansans enter one or both systems. Research shows that, nationwide, the children of teen mothers are twice as likely to be placed in foster care as their peers born to slightly older parents. Sons of teen mothers are 2.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than the sons of mothers aged 20 to 21.[8]

The crisis becomes most apparent in the number of Arkansas children in foster care. From March 2015 to March 2016, the total number of available and in-use beds in foster homes increased from 2,801 to 3,306, but the number of foster children also increased, from 4,178 to 4,791. A 2016 report states that substance abuse by caregivers accounts for over 50% of children in foster care.[9]

Despite such high rates of teen pregnancies, many Arkansas school districts do not provide any sex education. Many others offer abstinence-only education including a virginity pledge (14 districts[10]), a ridiculous non-starter since census records show that over 52% of Arkansas teens are sexually active. Only seven school districts provide comprehensive sex education addressing contraceptives, sexually transmitted infection, abortion, and sexual orientation.

The Centers for Disease Control report that 37.4% to 38.5% of women in Arkansas experience at least one event of sexual violence during their lifetimes. These experiences include rape, sexual coercion, and/or unwanted sexual contact.[11] Among sexually active teens, 18% of females report acts of violence (being hit, slammed into something, or injured with an object or weapon on purpose by someone they were dating) and 16% reported being raped.[12]

Are Arkansas citizens somehow genetically predisposed to suffer these conditions? Is it something in the water? Or might the answer be found in the conservative mindset of a majority of Arkansas citizens?

Arkansas ranks 5th in the number of churches per capita. Seventy percent of adults define themselves as ‘highly religious’ with 65% saying they pray daily and 77% saying they believe in God with absolute certainty.[13] The predominant religion practiced in Arkansas is Southern Baptist, a conservative Protestant sect which believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Predictably, any push for sex education and contraceptives in public schools provokes conservative outrage. By religious thinking, unwanted pregnancies serve as punishment for illicit sex. The burden borne by women in unwanted pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare is God’s retaliation for the sins of Eve. As stated in Southern Baptist doctrine, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”[14] Prevention either through birth control or abortion upends the natural order of things as ordained by God.

The prevailing idea of conservative parents is that talking about sex and especially advocating for birth control of any kind creates a permissive attitude wherein teens are more likely to have sex. Data clearly dispute this belief. But the refusal to accept widely accepted evidence about the effectiveness of sex ed fits perfectly with the greater mindset of religious conservatives: willful ignorance about any and all information that doesn’t square with religious teachings.

Under the belief that addiction or non-marital sexual activity are moral failings, many efforts to address non-marital sex, sexual abuse or substance abuse rely on faith-based programs. Yet as noted by a counselor with twenty years in faith-based addiction treatment, “Often times, Christian programs view the secular approach to recovery as counterproductive to their message and will often discredit and even disregard medical or empirical based advice to addiction recovery.”[15]

While embracing some aspects of modern science and the advances of civilization such as automobiles, cell phones, DVRs, and medical progress, conservatives refuse to acknowledge other key findings of our times. Early religions strictly regulated a woman’s sexual activity out of concern for proving paternity and reducing conflict between competing males, among other things.  None of that matters today. Genetic testing quickly solves questions of paternity. But religion has become so institutionalized its practitioners can’t back up far enough to consider its origins or usefulness.

There’s a blind adherence to the tradition of making babies as the primary goal in life.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that teen pregnancy leads to lack of education which in turn leads to poor employment opportunities, or that a state with a high rate of poorly educated adults won’t attract many employers. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that poorly educated people with poor job opportunities are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol or suffer other forms of mental illness. Inadequate nutrition also plays a role, another cause and result of mental illness and poverty.

Further, an embattled position in poverty with subpar education leads people directly to unreasoned fear of Other—xenophobia and racism.

We have to start with the head of the snake. If we hold any hope of interrupting this vicious cycle, our state and national educational standards must require sex education. Such requirements must be imposed even in private, religious, and home school settings.

The requirements can’t stop there. All children must be required to learn the basics of science, history, political science, and other fields that serve as major elements in critical thinking about the modern world. While the state cannot dictate whether someone embraces any particular religion, we can dictate that our children are adequately prepared to make an informed choice about what to believe.

We cannot allow reactionary religious beliefs and tribalism to undo what civilization has achieved thus far.

The hue and cry against such reforms in education will be loud and long. State and federal legislators will be hard pressed to maintain a firm stance in the face of entrenched dogmatic beliefs. It will take true leaders to enact reforms in a time when leadership seems missing from public life. That means we must elect educated progressives who will carry the weight. The future of our nation depends on it.

~~~

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_poverty_rate

[2] https://talkpoverty.org/state-year-report/arkansas-2016-report/

[3] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/education  The

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_educational_attainment

[5] http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/ranking-states

[6] https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/2015_Arkansas_BHBarometer.pdf

[7] “Say no to sex, most state districts teach,” Ginny Monk. Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Sunday September 24, 2017. Page 1.

[8] http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/teen-pregnancy-in-arkansas.aspx

[9] “Children in foster care in Arkansas reaches all-tine high.” Brian Fanney. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 22, 2016. Online access October 18, 2017

[10] “Say no to sex, most state districts teach”

[11] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf

[12] https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/facts-and-stats/national-and-state-data-sheets/adolescent-reproductive-health/arkansas/index.html

[13] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/how-religious-is-your-state/?state=arkansas

[14] http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/basicbeliefs.asp

[15] http://www.addictioncampuses.com/resources/addiction-campuses-blog/3-reasons-christian-rehabs-dont-work-according-to-a-pastor/

 

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Those Southern Baptists!

Behold the Southern Baptists! Meeting recently for their annual conference, they decided to extend the warm hand of evangelical brotherhood to Blacks and Native Americans. As one headline put it: “American Indians seen in need of evangelism.” Because, you know, those folks are struggling. Who better to help than the Baptists?

Surely this benevolence isn’t due to the continuing drop in the denomination’s membership. No, surely not. And with that drop, we might point out, tithes flowing to the denomination’s treasury also dropped.

Oh my God!

Okay, there are undoubtedly those within these ranks who honestly and sincerely want to help the downtrodden. But the group’s recent convention exposed a painful truth: on a personal level, racism is alive and well among the Southern Baptists.

There’s nothing new about the Southern Baptist’s narrow-minded view. While they’re courting membership from Blacks and Natives, they’re at the same time refusing to have anything to do with the LBGTQ community. Guess they don’t need membership that bad. Yet.

It’s only been 170 years since the Southern Baptist denomination sprang into existence to embrace racism. In a 2015 article in The Atlantic by Emma Green, she reviewed that year’s Southern Baptist convention, citing the founding rationale:

In 1860, a Southern Baptist pastor from Virginia, Thornton Stringfellow, defended the institution of forced enslavement of millions of African men and women in Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, with the full force of scripture: “Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command. … Under the gospel, [slavery] has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham’s descendant’s among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin.”[1]

To the Southern Baptists (and many others), God’s chosen people are white, descended from God’s favored sons of Noah. That was not Ham. As the story goes, Noah got pretty deep into the wine and passed out naked. Ham saw this and told his two brothers Shem and Japheth. These two backed up to their father with a blanket between them so as to cover Noah without looking on his nakedness. So when ole Noah sobered up and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham as the progenitor of Canaan:

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. 26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

Multiple interpretations of this scripture lead pretty much anywhere you’d want to go. Noah was supposedly over 500 years old when this happened and pretty tight with God. Why God let him get away with cursing one of his sons for something he himself did remains an unanswered question. Some interpretations claim the event actually involved Ham giving his dad oral sex. Another says he castrated Noah. These quirky ideas are based on scholars’ erudite studies of Biblical text.[2]

This is why there are over 33,000 Protestant denominations, a number argued when the concerned parties take a breath from discussing what happened with Noah and Ham as well as countless other minutia preserved in religious writings. According to one Catholic observer, 33,000 is an inflated number.[3] Be that as it may, the point is that when modern-day beliefs, laws, and actions are based on materials passed down orally for centuries before ever gaining the permanence of writing, and then those written records are subjected to successive centuries of translation, revision, and interpretation, these beliefs might as well have been snatched out of midair.

Which is exactly what happens when people formalize their spiritual beliefs in a way that excludes, discriminates, and otherwise separates them from other groups of people. These aren’t spiritual teachings. They are an outward expression of the smallest darkest part of primitive humans, fearful and ready to do violence. The only legitimacy such beliefs can claim is that our animal instinct assesses threat from another human first by how they look. If they look like us and talk like us, then there’s less chance they’re going to harm us.

In the times of slavery, any spiritual belief system other than the Baptist belief was counter to God’s will. Any effort to see minorities as ‘equal’ came hard up against the reality of life circumstances of minorities, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a sort, that there they are, those ignorant Africans, not well educated, not able to even clearly speak English, living in poverty—how can you say we are equal?

Or the Natives, living like savages in shelters made of skins, painting their faces, hunting with spears. They’re not like us.

A rational analysis points out that as slaves, Blacks were purposefully kept from learning to read or write, denied the right of marriage, and not taught skills of any trade other than the manual labor for which they were kept. In their homelands of Africa, from which they were torn against their will, they enjoyed well-established social order. They had family structures, spoke their language fluently, and otherwise had achieved a culture that succeeded for millennia.

As whites, we’ve got a few more millennia to go before we can say the same.

The same level of prejudice supported violent racism against Native Americans. Aside from genocidal acts such as outright slaughter or distributing blankets contaminated with smallpox, white invaders of the North American continent mitigated their murderous inclinations with attempts to bestow a “relationship with Christ” upon the Natives.

Take, for example, the ripping away of Native American children from their parents and forcing them into residency at schools where they were forbidden use of their native language. The schools intended to teach them to live like white men. In all ways—clothing, language, and worship—Native children were cut off from their ancient heritage and forced into a social construct for which they had no foundation or kinship.[4]

Like taking Africans from their successful societies and forcing them to labor at white’s man pursuit of wealth, ripping Natives from their ancient traditions and cramming them into reservations under the supervision of white law destroyed their foundations of belief and self-worth. They held value only by the metric of white civilization. In that, they hardly reached the scales.

Which makes it all the more outrageous that now, in 2017, as Southern Baptist membership continues to plummet, the conference decides to target reservations because “American Indians are 510% more likely to die of alcoholism and 62% more likely to commit suicide in comparison with the rest of the U. S. population.”[5]

Gee, can they possible be more ridiculous?

It’s not that the Southern Baptists don’t understand that their predecessors were wrong in declaring slavery the will of God or in trampling the ancient traditions of the Natives. They do. Some even claim to pray for forgiveness for their previous ignorance and the misdeeds committed against these minorities.

It’s that no matter what they do, these and other religionists seem to always conclude that their current decision is righteous and unerring and God’s will. They embrace their decision with fervor, rushing out to force the rest of the world to follow.

This is the hubris that created the Southern Baptists in the first place, and all the other evangelical denominations, and arguably every single religion that has plagued the world since such organized activities began. With the force of God’s blessing behind them, they have mounted wars and inquisitions and executions, overthrown governments and imprisoned the wayward, and marched across the globe leaving devastation in their path.

~~~

Recently with the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, Arkansas’ own Southern Baptist Pastor Ronnie Floyd opined that this level of violence against the Trump Administration is a new and abominable level of hatred.

In my life, I have never seen a more volatile political environment. Hyperbolized speech, wild accusations and blatant character assassinations have taken stage front and center … as a society we must be able to recognize that celebrating an ideology that says violence, especially against our elected officials, affects the way we think. Words have power. As the ancient biblical proverb says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

Floyd never once blinked in the face of the hypocrisy of his remarks despite living through eight years of outrages perpetrated against former-President Barack Obama that included effigies of Obama being lynched and burned, his daughters and wife smeared in every possible way, and the conservative Christian stance embodied in a Republican Party that obstructed every effort of Obama’s rightful governance.[6]

This year’s Southern Baptist conference heard a resolution put forth by Dwight McKissic, a black pastor from Texas, that would have affirmed the denomination’s opposition to white supremacy and the so-called ‘alt-right.’ At first, the committee in charge of resolutions refused to advance McKissic’s contribution to the full assembly. After all, they had resolutions about Planned Parenthood and gambling that needed consideration.

The next day, McKissic attempted to present it on the floor. According to one observer, “Chaos reigned.”

Once more attendees realized what had happened (and the glaring hypocrisy of their actions), “a number of leaders started lobbying to get the motion reconsidered.” After emotional debate on both sides of the issue and another twenty-four hours to confront the situation, leaders brought an amended version of the resolution to a vote.[7] Newly-elected leader Steve Gaines announced the results: “The affirmative has it. Praise the living God.”[8]

Oh yeah, membership.

~~~

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/southern-baptists-wrestle-with-the-sin-of-racism/389808/

[2] Wikipedia article on Ham: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ham_(son_of_Noah)

[3] http://www.ncregister.com/blog/scottericalt/we-need-to-stop-saying-that-there-are-33000-protestant-denominations

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_boarding_schools

[5] Quoting the National Congress of American Indians, from an article by Francisca Jones, “American Indians seen in need of evangelism,” Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Tuesday, June 13, 2017. Pages 1 and 4.

[6] http://www.christianpost.com/news/america-dont-forget-words-have-power-188393/

[7] Amended resolution may be found at https://static.coreapps.net/sbc-am2017/documents/f618b2f02b1fc085697b4f5d147cb58e.pdf

[8] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/14/532998287/southern-baptist-convention-votes-to-condemn-white-supremacy