Rod Dreher

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Wisdom, Let Us Attend!

My niece — Ruthie’s daughter Hannah — is finished with college and substitute teaching in West Feliciana schools until she figures out her next move. Reaction after her maiden voyage captaining a classroom:

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Somehow, I think the teachers in this blog’s readership know exactly what she’s talking about.

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‘The Libyans Defeated Everyone’

The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson visits post-Qaddafi Libya, and finds that the country has gone to hell. Excerpt:

Other officials were more blunt about the limits of the intervention. The senior Administration official believed that three failures had led to the fiasco in Libya: “The lack of a single national-security apparatus, replaced by militias; a real terrorist problem, which was small but has gotten much worse; and a proliferation of arms. How does the world respond to all this? The U.N. gets a mandate, goes there, and finds out there’s no one to work with—the ministries are Potemkin. The I.M.F. goes in, says what’s wrong, and doesn’t do much about it. The World Bank hardly does anything. Vast numbers of people came to Libya to look for contracts, but nobody got any money, so they went away.NATO tried to design a national-defense system, but the Libyans failed to engage with them. The French were going to train three thousand police. Instead, they trained thirty. Then some cadets were sent to Jordan for training, but the Jordanians kicked them out after they burned down a sports facility, because they were angry about a flight delay.” In November, the official noted, three hundred Libyan soldiers being trained in the U.K. were expelled after half a dozen of them ran amok in an English village, sexually assaulting several women and raping a man. “The Libyans defeated everyone,” he said. “It didn’t matter whether you were Gandhi or Stalin. It didn’t matter how hard we tried, they defeated us all.”

Sounds like the entire Middle East, doesn’t it?

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Whittaker Chambers, American


Alyssa Rosenberg says that the TV series “The Americans,” about Philip and Elizabeth, two KGB spies in 1980s America, has a substantive, fascinating take on Christianity. Paige is the teenage daughter of the spy couple; she does not know her parents are Soviet agents. Rosenberg writes:

Over the past two seasons, Paige’s attraction to Christianity has dovetailed with a more sinister plot: the KGB’s request that Philip and Elizabeth recruit their daughter, turning her into a second-generation, American-born spy for the agency. This season we learn that Elizabeth has been accompanying Paige to church, convinced that what’s drawing her daughter to faith is the opportunity it offers her to work on issues such as the anti-nuclear movement. “Ideologically, she’s open to the right ideas,” Elizabeth reports to Gabriel (Langella), who has asked for a status report.

But after Paige asks whether Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife can be his guests for her birthday dinner, Philip and Elizabeth start to recognize that their daughter is growing away from them in a very different direction from what they’d expected. Over dinner, they learn that Paige doesn’t want anything of this world, be it a necklace or a bike, capitalism or communism. “What I really want this year is to get baptized,” Paige tells them. “It’s kind of like an initiation,” Pastor Tim explains to a confused Henry. “You wash away your old self and make yourself clean for Jesus Christ,” Paige tells her brother eagerly.

It’s a profoundly disturbing concept to Philip and Elizabeth. Where most shows might suggest that behind the veil of baptism lies only human psychological needs that can be filled by religious rituals, the couple now perceive profound mysteries, a draw to something they can’t understand or divert into another channel. Paige’s faith threatens the couple as communists, as atheists and simply as parents of a teenage girl who thought they knew their daughter. By shifting the baseline perspective of their main characters, “The Americans” gives Christianity the real power it so often lacks in pop culture.

Funny that I read this today, after going back to my copy of Witness, ex-Soviet spy Whitaker Chambers’s 1952 memoir about his years working for the KGB, and what made him turn on communism. From the book:

Communism is what happens when, in the name of Mind, men free themselves from God. But its view of God, its knowledge of God, its experience of God, is what alone gives character to a society or a nation, and meaning to its destiny. Its culture, the voice of this character, is merely that view, knowledge experience, of God, fixed by its most intense spirits in terms intelligible to the mass of men. There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

The crisis of Communism exists to the degree in which it has failed to free the peoples that it rules from God. Nobody knows this better than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism’s materialist vision, is so dazzled by the logic of the materialist interpretation of history, politics and economics, that it fails to grasp that, for it, the only possible answer to the Communist challenge: Faith in God or Faith in Man? is the challenge: Faith in God.

Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age. The Western world does not know it, but it already possesses the answer to this problem — but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as Communism’s faith in Man.

As you know if you read the book, it was studying his child’s ear, and intuiting the existence of a Creator, that brought Chambers out of the depths of his dedication to Stalinism. He wrote, of his conversion away from Communism and to Christianity:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step. If I had rejected only Communism, I would have rejected only one political expression of the modern mind, the most logical because the most brutal in enforcing the myth of man’s material perfectibility.

An astonishing book. What kind of faith can convert a man from a rival faith to one (Christianity) that he feared was on the losing side of history? That’s the mystery I want to see explored in popular art.

In any case, as Chambers’s case shows, and as it sounds like “The Americans” demonstrates, everybody believes in a sacred order, whether they believe in God or not.

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The Ancient Creed of MTD

Charles Featherstone found this literary description of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. I’ve taken the name of the character out of this passage:

If you had asked [N.] what his religion was, he would have answered in sonorous, Boosters’-Club rhetoric, “My religion is to serve my fellow men, to honor my brother as myself, and to do my bit to make life happier for one and all.” If you had pressed him for more detail, he would have announced, “I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church and naturally, I accept its doctrines.” If you had been so brutal as to go on, he would have protested, “There’s no use discussing and arguing about religion; it just stirs up bad feeling.”

Actually, the content of his theology was that there was a supreme being who had tried to make us perfect but presumably failed; that if one was a Good Man he would go to a place called Heaven ([N.] unconsciously picture it as rather like an excellent hotel with a private garden), but if one was a Bad Man, that is, if he murdered or committed burglary or used cocaine or had mistresses or sold non-existent real estate, he would be punished. [N.] was uncertain, however, about what he called “this business of Hell.” He explained to Ted, “O course I’m pretty liberal; I don’t exactly believe in a fire-and-brimstone Hell. Stands to reason, though, that a fellow can’t get away with all sorts of Vice and not get nicked for it, see how I mean?”

Upon this theology he rarely pondered. The kernel of his practical religion was that it was respectable, and beneficial to one’s business, to be be seen going to services; that the church keep the Worst Elements from being still worse; and that the pastor’s sermons, however dull they might seem at the time of taking, yet had a voodooistic power which “did a fellow good—kept him in touch with Higher Things.”

Know who this is? Charles tells you. Sure seems like MTD is not some perversion of American religion, but rather is American religion.

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Is ISIS Islamic? How Would We Know?

From the ISIS magazine Dabiq
From the ISIS magazine Dabiq

A reader writes:

Do we call the Lord’s Resistance Army “Christian”? They say they’re Christian. They say their motivation is the creation of a biblical state in Uganda and Sudan. Their tactics are not unlike those of ISIS.

For some reason, we don’t regard their claims as sincere. We call them terrorists and criminals. How and why is ISIS any different?

I leave it to Muslims or non-Muslim readers who understand Islamic theology and jurisprudence to explain. I have read in the past, can’t remember where, that the reason radical Islam is so hard to defeat, even within Islam, is because there is so much scriptural and jurisprudential justification for their views. That is, even if an individual Muslim, or school of Islamic jurisprudence, finds them to be theologically wrong, their beliefs are still close enough to a strand of Islamic orthodoxy to be plausible.

Does the theology of the Lord’s Resistance Army sound remotely Christian? Seriously, does it? Graeme Wood, in his great Atlantic piece, writes:

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.


Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Haykel’s words call to mind the observation that I read years ago, can’t remember where, that said what we call “Islamic fundamentalism” or “Islamic extremism” is so hard to defeat because it is so clearly rooted in Islamic history and Scripture. To tell the followers of ISIS that they are “un-Islamic” in their practices when they are doing, or trying to do, exactly as the Prophet and his early followers did, is a hard sell.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out that we in the West are profoundly unqualified to decide if ISIS is authentically Muslim or not. Excerpt:

Our public deliberation relies on the idea that ‘religion’ is a constant, stable category that can be established empirically, but is not sensitive to the internal logics of individual religions. In September 2014, more than 120 scholars of Islam from around the world directed a letter to ISIS, in which they carefully detailed the multifarious ways the militant group defies the laws and obligations of Islam. “The letter is written in Arabic. It is using heavy classical religious texts and classical religious scholars that ISIS has used to mobilize young people to join its forces,” Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations said at the time.“This letter is not meant for a liberal audience.”

Awad wasn’t using ‘liberal’ in the way it is pejoratively deployed on Fox talk shows, but in its purest sense, the sense that refers to the intellectual attitude arising from the Enlightenment, the one that still colors much of our political discourse. These Enlightenment ideas include the notion of a religious tolerance that confines certain beliefs and practices to a specifically religious sphere, and the idea that reason provides a stable, universally accessible guide to investigating all manner of problems. In the liberal mindset that gives us individual rights, freedom of belief among them, religion is a broad category into which almost any belief or practice can be promised an equal guarantee of protection in the eyes of the law. In the liberal formation, a lapsed Catholic who rarely makes it to Mass is as authentically ‘religious’ as the deeply observant Jew who never works on Shabbat. Which, for the purposes of our government, is a good thing.

But since most of our public discussions of religion take place within this liberal framework, we lack a grammar and vocabulary for arguing about the content of religions in the public sphere. Because our presumptions about how to source religious authority are largely private and rarely interrogated in public (especially in interfaith contexts) we presume those assumptions are either broadly shared or simply correct, and base our public statements about the authenticity of religious belief and practice on them.

Here is a link to the long letter to Baghdadi written by the Sunni Islamic scholars. If ISIS is going to be defeated ideologically, then they are the ones to do it. But how do we know that ISIS will listen to them? Perhaps the leaders of ISIS consider them to be heretics or apostates, and therefore their opinions are meaningless. Do you know?

Yesterday I had a post up about how a fringe group of radical Protestants had decided that the only true Christians in the world are those who hold to their narrow fundamentalist views. They are Southern Baptist, and blast leaders of their own church for being sellouts. How much good would it do to convene a group of Evangelical leaders to issue a long letter telling those hotheads that they don’t represent true Christianity? They don’t care, any more than the rest of us Christians care that they have anathematized us. At least in Catholicism there is a settled framework for deciding which beliefs are authentically Catholic and which are not. But nowadays, quite a few American Catholics don’t respect the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority). You can quote the Catechism at them all day long, and they’ll just blink, and go on their way.

Is this dynamic playing out among Muslims regarding ISIS? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. After all, as far as I know, ISIS are reformers in the Wahhabist mode: trying to strip away all the historical accretions that Islam has acquired over the centuries, to get back the the “pure” Islam of the Prophet. Could it be that learned Sunni Islamic jurists are in a similar position here as the divinity school faculty writing to a band of hellfire-and-brimstone Christian fundamentalist backwood preachers — the kind of crusaders who understand themselves as standing against the corrupt establishment preachers who have gone soft and let the enemies of the faith triumph?

This reminds me of something I read the other day in Ralph Wood’s great book about Flannery O’Connor and the South. Wood talks about slavery, and how the Southern preachers who defended that evil had — alas — a more Scripturally sound argument than Northern Christians. Wood draws on the scholarship of the historian Eugene Genovese, whose Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made is considered one of the best books on the American South. Wood writes:

[Genovese] maintains that these Southern vindicators of slavery were more biblically astute than their Yankee counterparts. Most of the abolitionist divines made easy targets: they argued on broadly humanist — rather than strictly theological — grounds that injustice should not be tolerated, that personal aspiration should not be thwarted, that legitimate government should not be overthrown, that freedom of conscience should not be violated. While contradicting nothing Christian, such claims required no distinctively Christian warrants. Southern ministers answered these sub-biblical arguments by supplying a theology that justified slaveholding on abundant biblical grounds: that the Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, that Jesus nowhere condemns slavery, that Paul and other New Testament writers quite clearly sanction it. Paul even urged the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his master, Philemon.

Continues Wood, “Repeatedly, Genovese commends the Southern theologians for besting their Northern abolitionist opponents in biblical argument.” And the argument had to be on biblical grounds, given the Evangelical nature of Southern religion.

So they went to war (mostly) over slavery, and the South, thank God, lost that war. The war settled the matter, though it certainly didn’t convert white Southerners to the Northern view of race and theology. But what if the South had won? What would Americans consider to be authentically Christian thought today on slavery and race? It’s impossible to say, but we may expect that soldiers of the pro-slavery Christianity having prevailed on the battlefield would have put pro-slavery theology in a stronger position in society. Similarly, ISIS has done something al-Qaeda never has: it has its own territory, and its fighters have humiliated far stronger forces in the field. We must hope that Islamic religious authorities can delegitimate ISIS in the eyes of Sunni Muslim publics, especially young men. But it can be difficult to argue with success.

Finally, there is the apocalyptic aspect of ISIS. Charles Cameron read ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, and says it reveals a core aspect of the group that few in the West understand. “Dabiq” is the name of a town in Syria that Islamic End Times prophecy says will be the battleground for the Final Confrontation between good and evil. Jesus will return, along with an Islamic Christ figure called the Mahdi, to deliver a crushing defeat to Islam’s enemies. It’s as if they had named their magazine Armageddon. ISIS openly talks about how its aim is to prepare the way for the Islamic Apocalypse. Excerpts:

Read by western secular eyes, all this talk of the end times can easily be glossed over in favor of the photos of Toyotas filled with gun-toting, flag-waving jihadists, the descriptions of battles won and jurisdictions established – the military and to some extent political side of things. But that would be a mistake.

Seen through the eyes of a prospective recruit, perhaps disenchanted with the wars the west has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, troubled by western support of dictators like the Shiite Assad overlording the Sunnis in Syria, egged on by friends and eager for a life of adventure and significance in a world which seems to offer little of either one, the picture looks quite different.

The images of battle victories, the killing of enemies and the distribution of food and essential services in conquered territories suggest that God may be blessing the newly proclaimed caliph’s efforts – but the greatest thrill comes from the promise of the end times.

Here the wannabe jihadist is offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to fight, not in just any old war, not even in a war to protect his religion, but in the greatest and most glorious of wars — the final war between good and evil which ends with the inevitable triumph of good. To die in that war is to be a martyr and hero at the epic, culminating moment of history, and rewarded as such in paradise. And to fight and live and see the end is to be among the companions of both the returning Christ and the Mahdi: there could be no greater honour.

I get that. Boy, do I get that. If you’ve never given your mind over to the thrill of apocalypse, you can’t imagine how electrifying it can be. When I was 12 and 13, the US had just gone through the horrible decade of the 1970s, with all its economic turmoil. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Iranians overthrew the Shah and took US hostages. Talk of the Cold War and a nuclear holocaust was everywhere. It was a scary time, especially for an impressionable teenager like me.

I was raised with a very mild form of Christianity, one that taught nothing about the Apocalypse. When I stumbled into the bestselling End Times book The Late Great Planet Earth, suddenly I understood what was happening in the world. Clearly we were close to the Second Coming of Christ, and everything that was happening in the world right now had been prophesied in the Bible, just like author Hal Lindsey said. I may have been a fat teenage nerd living in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do, but I knew something the rest of the people in my family and in my school did not: that the world was in the middle of an unprecedented historical drama — one that would culminate in fire, blood, and the triumphant return of Jesus.

What young man wants to sit around listening to theologians talk when the world is on fire?

Mind you, there is no Christian scenario in which Christians are obliged to fight in this battle. In fact, Hal Lindsey’s belief is that all the faithful will be taken off the earth in the Rapture, before things get really bad. So we got to savor the fact that we were witnessing the final act of human history, while having the assurance that we were not going to be around for the worst of it. Nice.

What the Hal Lindsey vision gave to me was a sense of purpose and meaning that I did not get anywhere else. Specifically, it charged daily life with intensity. I would read the newspaper in the morning over breakfast, and find my newfound apocalyptic beliefs confirmed in the headlines. Any time the Soviet Union would make a move, I would think, “Ha! Gog and Magog! We know where this is headed.” It is a crazy way to live, but I’m telling you, if you are inside that mindset, it is a kind of spiritual methamphetamine. You want to believe it, because it delivers you from boredom, insecurity, and the difficult business of getting through the day.

I remember sitting at a table in the school library in 7th grade, reading a newspaper and looking up and thinking, “If the Rapture happened five minutes from now, what would they all think of me? I would be gone, and most of them would be left behind. That would show them!” You see the power of this kind of thinking on the mind of a 13 year old kid who feels lost, scared, and overlooked. That’ll show them. They thought I was a social reject, but in the end, I will have been one of God’s favorites, and these of little faith will be left behind to suffer.

It’s childish and simplistic and every bad thing … but if you are overcome with anxiety, shame, and a lack of meaning in your life, the Apocalypse is a kind of deliverance. And I had disdain bordering on contempt for all these lukewarm pastors who wouldn’t preach the book of Revelation, who wouldn’t preach the book of Daniel, and who were leaving all their flocks unprepared for the End of the World, which was about to overtake us. I remember reading anti-Apocalyptic literature back then, things showing that the Rapture and all of it was a 19th century invention, and thinking, “Wow, these lukewarm Christians will say anything to discredit the plain truth.” There was no religious authority on earth that would have been able to convince me otherwise. The very fact that they didn’t believe in the Rapture, or that we were in the Last Days, was to me a sign of their apostasy.

Of course I burned out after a couple of years of that, thank God. It was nonsense. But the apocalyptic vision of Islam, especially as interpreted by ISIS, is a much different thing, and I can easily see its appeal to young, bored Muslim men who feel humiliated by the impotence of themselves and their societies. The Middle East has undergone traumas unimaginable to us in the United States. If the late Seventies and the humiliations of America at the hands of the Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the Iranians were a shock to our sense of order and justice, I cannot imagine what it is like to be an Arab Muslim living in the Middle East. The dream of apocalypse is a fantasy of utopia, and that has always held a powerful grip on the human mind, especially the minds of the young. In his memoir Witness, Whitaker Chambers, the former Soviet spy and defector from communism, wrote that we in the West underestimated communism (which he expected to triumph) because we underestimated communists themselves. He pointed out that the true believers among the communists weren’t kidding. They were willing to sacrifice themselves for the dream of the Revolution, which they believed was at hand. They may have believed in a crazy, destructive, sinister lie, but that was beside the point. They had vision, and they had commitment, and they believed that History — which, for a Marxist, is God — was on their side.

All of which is to say that we almost certainly have no idea what we’re dealing with in ISIS. In particular, it seems to me that we in the West, certainly at the level of elite leadership in our institutions, lack an experience of the intensity with which religion is felt in most of the world. And this is a problem.

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The WEIRD (Mis)Guide to Religion

I have written about the WEIRD mentality before. If you have forgotten what that is, take a look at this article. Excerpts:

In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” (pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.


Norenzayan became interested in how certain religious beliefs, handed down through generations, may have shaped human psychology to make possible the creation of large-scale societies. He has suggested that there may be a connection between the growth of religions that believe in “morally concerned deities”—that is, a god or gods who care if people are good or bad—and the evolution of large cities and nations. To be cooperative in large groups of relative strangers, in other words, might have required the shared belief that an all-powerful being was forever watching over your shoulder.

If religion was necessary in the development of large-scale societies, can large-scale societies survive without religion? Norenzayan points to parts of Scandinavia with atheist majorities that seem to be doing just fine. They may have climbed the ladder of religion and effectively kicked it away. Or perhaps, after a thousand years of religious belief, the idea of an unseen entity always watching your behavior remains in our culturally shaped thinking even after the belief in God dissipates or disappears.

Why, I asked Norenzayan, if religion might have been so central to human psychology, have researchers not delved into the topic? “Experimental psychologists are the weirdest of the weird,” said Norenzayan. “They are almost the least religious academics, next to biologists. And because academics mostly talk amongst themselves, they could look around and say, ‘No one who is important to me is religious, so this must not be very important.’” Indeed, almost every major theorist on human behavior in the last 100 years predicted that it was just a matter of time before religion was a vestige of the past. But the world persists in being a very religious place.

I offer that to you as background for a great comment that Ken Myers — creator and host of the indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal (if you are a Christian interested in the life of the mind, you must subscribe) — left on a previous thread about Obama and Islam:

According to classical liberal orthodoxy, “religion” is the label given to beliefs that are private, personal, and spiritual. Religion properly understood (according to this orthodoxy) is never public, communal, and political. It appears that the Obama administration is straining to be faithful to this orthodoxy.

The President’s recent comments at the National Prayer Breakfast celebrated the separation of Church and State, which (whatever its virtues) has been interpreted for many decades as an expression of the essentially private and spiritual nature of religion.

To acknowledge that the acts of ISIS and other Muslim groups are the consequences of sincere religious convictions is problematic for liberalism. It serves the liberal definition of religion (safely domesticated and cordoned off in the realm of spiritual life) when all public acts and all claims about political order are discussed purely in terms of an allegedly neutral secular politics.

William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence) once quipped that the really interesting question is not what caused the politicization of Islam, but what encouraged the “religionization” of Christianity. Western Christians have largely embraced the liberal understanding of the separate spheres of religious and secular. But that configuration is not theologically neutral, contrary to what liberal pundits and politicians may believe. As Oliver O’Donovan has pointed out (The Desire of the Nations), for most of Western history, the corresponding term for “secular” was not “religious” or “sacred,” but “eternal.” And they were corresponding terms, not opposites. The secular, “this passing age,” was not a religion-free zone, but an era which had to be ordered in light of eternity.

The modern redefinition of “religion” and “the secular” is at the root of many of our contemporary crises and confusions. It is not a “neutral” definition, and should be contested at every opportunity. I’m glad that many have taken issue with the White House’s rhetorical policy on this matter, but this is a problem deeper than political correctness.

It is one thing for the church to be separate from the state, but a meaningfully different thing for religion to be separate from life. This is something very hard for Western liberals (of both the left-wing and right-wing sort) to grasp.

Here is an interview with William Cavanaugh, who talks in part about how we in the West think of ourselves as perfectly rational in our actions, and the others to be religious crazies. Excerpts:

William T. Cavanaugh: A speech given by a Department of State official four years into the occupation of Iraq condemned those “who try to achieve their goals through the use of violence.” His target was Sunni and Shi’ite partisans. Journalist Rami Khoury remarked on the speech: “as if the US had not used weapons when invading Iraq.” The myth of religious violence works so that secular violence just doesn’t seem to count as violence. As I illustrate in the book, one of the primary motivating myths behind the spread of secular social order—by military means if necessary—is the idea that only secular social orders successfully solve the problem of religious violence. So the US spends more on its military than all the other nations of the world combined, but we are much more interested in talking about someone else’s violence. Despite all the current talk about drastic budget cuts, the military budget is off limits, in part because our violence isn’t violence. It goes by other, more honorable, names, like peacemaking and patriotism.

More Cavanaugh:

The reason that it is so hard to distinguish “real” religion from the religion of nationalism, for example, is that, as Durkheim saw, people treat all sorts of things as sacred. Political theory and theology are inseparable; to try to banish theology from the university is to ignore the fact that we are all doing theology, including those in the so-called social sciences.

My previous theological work is all about showing the inseparability of theology and politics, both revealing the covert theologies of state and market, and the latent politics of Jesus in Christian theology. I wrote this book without any overt theology because I wanted to appeal to a secularist audience with historical arguments that can be assessed on their own terms. But from another angle, the theological theme of the book, though I don’t mention it explicitly, is idolatry. People spontaneously worship all kinds of things, flags and money among the most prominent of them. Where I depart from Durkheim is that I think that there really is a God, and that we can try, tentatively and humbly, to discern true worship from idolatry. One of the signs of true worship, I think, is the attempt to eschew violence.

Here’s a link to Brad Gregory’s review of Cavanaugh’s book in First Things. Excerpts:

William Cavanaugh seeks “to help us in the West see into a significant blind spot that we have created for ourselves.” He succeeds so well that many readers might wish he had left them to their impaired vision. The blind spot Cavanaugh illuminates is the conviction”widespread among liberals and conservatives, religious believers and unbelievers alike”that religion is particularly and inherently prone to divisiveness and violence. Its pervasive corollary is that religion”in contrast to secular, ideologically neutral liberalism”must be vigilantly contained in its public expressions at home just as it must be suppressed in its dangerous militancy abroad by the peace-loving, democratic state.

Considering the consequences of the aggressive renewal of Wilsonian foreign policy during the Bush administration, all Americans should read Cavanaugh’s book, although few will find it comforting. And Americans prize few things more highly than feeling good about themselves and their country. Cavanaugh’s clear-sighted analysis sheds subversive light on the self-justifying, self-exempting legitimation of violence perpetrated by modern Western states”above all, in the early twenty-first century, by the United States. The Myth of Religious Violence is a tour de force.


Cavanaugh has no interest in denying the obvious, that human beings are sometimes motivated by religion to act in violent ways. Nor does he seek to differentiate between “genuine” and “so-called” religion in an effort to keep the sincere and the devout free from the taint of violence.

Exposing the myth of religious violence means something else: the careful demolition of the variously argued idea that in ostensible contrast to rational, modern, secular ideologies, there is something distinctively disruptive, divisive, and dangerous about religion that makes it, across historical epochs and cultures and peoples, inherently prone to irrational, intractable violence. Because of this, the argument goes, religion must be resolutely corralled and controlled by the benign secularism of the liberal state, if necessary by justifiable, pacifying violence of the state’s own.

According to Gregory, a Notre Dame historian, Cavanaugh reveals that there is nothing especially violent about religion per se; people are willing to kill and be killed, and to bring force to bear against enemies of “secular” things that they hold sacred.

The book is The Myth of Religious Violence. Let’s be clear here: Cavanaugh does not claim that the religious are not violent. He is claiming that there is nothing especially violent about the religious; in fact, the myth that there is serves to mask the violence within secular forms of thought and social organization by taking it as axiomatic that secularism solves the problem of religious violence. This is something WEIRDoes don’t get — and it gets them in trouble. Us in trouble.

UPDATE: DGR is an ex-Muslim who was part of a radical group:


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Yes, Obama, The Killers Were Muslim

President Obama has been playing some delicate word games regarding recent atrocities committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. In a recent interview with Vox, he described the slaughtering of Jews in a Paris kosher supermarket as an act of “random” violence. Which was a flat-out lie, and a lie he told for political reasons. David Frum says journalists who refer to the president’s word choice as a “gaffe” are missing something important:

I think all this is very wrong. President Obama’s choice of words in his Vox interview in no way constituted a gaffe. He spoke about the Charlie Hebdo attack in a way consistent with the way he has spoken in the past—and for reasons integral to his administration’s distinctive approach to terrorism. President Obama described the Paris attack as random not in order to conceal the Jewishness of the victims. He described the attack as random because, for deeply considered reasons, he did not wish to acknowledge the anti-Jewish ideology of the assailants.

The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character. In Europe, where attention is so focused now, the great majority of the most lethal terrorist incidents of the past 15 years have been carried out by people professing to act from Islamist motives. The huge effort made to deny this truth is its most ironic confirmation.

In dealing with this threat, the Obama administration has confronted a pair of difficult questions: What exactly is the nature of the threat? What are we trying to contain? This is a surprisingly difficult and contentious issue, and governments across the Western world have wrangled over it since 9/11.

The 9/11 Commission Report — the one that the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration are continuing to redact 28 pages from — said clearly that in order to fight the threat, we have to be willing to name it, to call it by its religious content, which is Islamic. That is not to demean all Muslims as terrorists. But it is to point out what is plainly the truth: that almost all terrorists in the world today are Muslims.

Take a closer look for example at another much-discussed recent statement by President Obama about terrorism, his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. The president’s claim that “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” ignited a major ruckus. The fuss obscured something more remarkable in the speech, which is that there was no bookend reference to “terrible deeds in the name of Islam.” Instead, in every place where the word “Islam” might have been expected, the word “religion” was substituted. Thus, “we see a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.” Thus, “we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion—any religion—for their own nihilistic ends.” Thus, most strikingly, the group that calls itself the Islamic State, referred to only by the acronym ISIL, is condemned as a “a brutal, vicious death cult” that “carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism,” and does so “in the name of religion.”

When mention of the Islamic inspirations of terrorists becomes truly inescapable, administration spokespersons will emphatically insist that their actions do not represent the true Islam. At times, the president has baldly claimed that “ISIL is not Islamic.” That locution soon collapsed of its own ludicrousness.

Here’s how the president described the mass execution of 21 Egyptian Christians, which ISIS said they killed because the men were Christian. From CBS:

The White House is being criticized for its statement over the beheadings of nearly two dozen Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-affiliated group in Libya.

The line that critics are pointing to is referring to the Christians as only Egyptian citizens.

“The United States condemns the despicable and cowardly murder of twenty-one Egyptian citizens in Libya by ISIL-affiliated terrorists,” the statement reads. “We offer our condolences to the families of the victims and our support to the Egyptian government and people as they grieve for their fellow citizens.”

Fox News contributors George Will and Charles Krauthammer criticized the White House for not referring to the Egyptians as Christians.

“Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall in the room where the White House semanticists meet every morning and figure out how they could probably make this announcement without offending those who did it. I think the phrase they should come up with is non-Islamic randomness,” Will said on Fox News Monday. “That would explain just about everything that they have to deal with, but it does – at this point, it is beyond burlesque, its pathological, it’s clinical their inability and unwillingness to say – to accurately describe things.”

It is pathological. It is disgusting. It is a lie. This administration and its State Department are more interested in appeasing Muslims than they are in calling the nature of this particular evil what it is. The ISIS goons say explicitly that in the name of Islam, they killed these Jews because they were Jews, and that they killed these Christians because they were Christians.

Our president finally got around to acknowledging today yesterday that the murdered Egyptians were Christians. Hey, it’s a start.

UPDATE: Reader St. Louisan remarks:

It’s always beneficial to interpret others’ actions as charitably, extending the benefit of the doubt when evaluating motives (perhaps today more than most days). If I understand the Frum piece right, he’s identifying three reasons Pres Obama and his staff are using such vague terms:

1. A desire to avoid distinguishing “American/civilized” from “Islamic,” in deference to the Muslims who loyally serve or support the United States;
2. A desire to avoid implicitly agreeing with ISIS’ self-conception as the only true manifestation of Islam and rightful sovereign of all Muslims;
3. A desire to avoid language that might prevent forming ad hoc alliances with Muslim groups almost as extreme as ISIS but either less violent or more bribeable, who may be useful in isolating ISIS.

One might disagree with the prudence of any of these reasons of course, or argue that respect for the victims demands the casting aside of stratagems like Reasons 2 & 3. But to say “This administration and its State Department are more interested in appeasing Muslims than they are in calling the nature of this particular evil what it is” seems rather callous and unfair. I mean, is that really the only interpretation of the motives at play here? If someone you knew personally as a generally good, upright person worked at the White House and had sway in these decisions, would you not allow more room for charity in assessing their actions?

You may be right.

UPDATE.2: A related thing I worry about is that the government, in denying the explicitly religious aspect of the conflict, completely misreads the nature of the threat. You will have seen, maybe, the State Dept spokesman who said the other day that Libya needs a jobs program to fix the ISIS problem. These WEIRDoes simply cannot imagine that people would be motivated by something other than purely material concerns. ISIS is not lopping the heads off of Christians and blowing Jews away because they lack a 9-to-5 job and good health care. Most of the world lacks these things, but most of the world (including most Muslims) do not go around committing mass murder against others in the name of their religion or ideology.

UPDATE.3: More news on this front today. The White House is changing its tune somewhat:

[White House press secretary Josh] Earnest also addressed the flak that he and Obama have taken for not specifically mentioning the religion of the 21 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded over the weekend.

Asked whether the religion of the victims is relevant, he answered: “It sure is.”

“The ISIL extremists that carried out this attack indicated that the reason they were killing them wasn’t just because they were Egyptian, but because they were Christian,” he said, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.

“There’s a responsibility of people of all faiths to stand up and reach out when individuals try to use faith and distort space to try to justify an act of violence.”

Earnest also sparred with a reporter over why he didn’t mention the Egyptians’ religion in the first White House statement on the killings, while Obama’s statement on the recent murder of three North Carolina students, who were Muslim, mentions theirs. Earnest said that the North Carolina murders are still under investigation, but that the president felt it was important to “articulate a very clear principle” that people should not be targeted because of their religion.

But the President wavers not:

President Obama offered an extended defense of his approach to countering violent extremism on Wednesday, saying those who have criticized his administration’s reluctance to single out the threat specifically posed by Muslim extremists are in danger of offering extremists the kind of legitimacy they crave.

“Al Qaeda, ISIL, and groups like it, are desperate for legitimacy,” he said. “We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grand these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders, they are terrorists.

“We are not at war with Islam,” he added. “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

Well, no, we are not at war with Islam, and to be fair to the president, I’m not exactly sure what there is to be gained by telling the truth that we are at war with a strain of Islam, instead of these weasel words “violent extremists.” Still, the phony euphemisms grate. The grated when Bush used them (“war on terrorism”), and they grate when Obama uses them.

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Who Is a Christian?

Here is how Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist pastor who heads the church’s Washington office, responded to the murder of the 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS:

A number of Southern Baptists had similar responses. The Southern Baptist bloggers at Pulpit & Pen will have you know that this is a betrayal:

Do Southern Baptist leaders and other evangelicals really not know what a Christian is or how you become one? Is it being born into an ethnic group that denies the dual-nature of Christ in his full deity and humanity? Is it embracing a meritorious, works-based salvation nearly identical to that of the Roman Catholic church? Is it in aggressively denying salvation by a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ? We ask because that’s what Coptic ‘Christians’ believe. This really isn’t new, and we have to wonder why our leaders don’t know what Coptics believe and if they do, what on Earth makes them think they should be categorized as Christians.

Now, sure. In the broadest possible (and most inaccurate) sense possible, the term Christian is applied to the Coptics for the same reason it is applied to Roman Catholics by major media. To secularists, all one has to be to be considered Christian is to call themselves one. In this same sense, the press refers to cultists like the LDS and Jehovah’s Witnesses as Christians as well. There should be no outrage that the press calls them such, or even their outrage representative to evangelicals, Todd Starnes. We get it; they don’t get it. But why again do our Southern Baptist leaders not grasp that?

Maybe it’s one of those “Today we are all Republicans” type things – the expression used by Ronald Reagan’s surgeon the day he was shot – and often used to express solidarity to those suffering. A few weeks ago we are all Charlie Hebdo. So maybe what they mean is, “Today, we are all Coptics.” I think we’re fine with that, in a way. But that’s a far cry from saying, “Today, Coptics are Christians.”

My first response to this is that it is repellent pedantry. Their execution video shows that some of these men called out the name of Jesus as they were having their heads chopped off by these barbarians. Yet these Baptist bloggers contend that they are not Christian because they hold to the faith as delivered to them by their ancestors (the Coptic Church was founded around the year 42 by St. Mark, author of one of the Gospels). Yet because they didn’t hold in their heads — the same heads the Muslims cut off — doctrines espoused by Southern Baptists, a church that came into existence approximately 1,900 years after the Coptic Church began, they are not Christians?


I like what Pope Francis said about the martyrs, and agree with him 100 percent:

“They only said ‘Jesus help me…’ The blood of our Christian brothers is testimony that cries out. Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn’t matter: They’re Christian!”

I wish it were possible to dismiss the legalistic posturing of the Baptist bloggers without giving it a second thought, but the discomfiting truth is that they have a point.

What they’ve done is draw a line between who is in the Church, and who is out of it. This is historically and theologically a sound practice. This is something that has always been done in Christianity. Go to Acts 15 to learn about the Council of Jerusalem. What counts as authentically Christian, and what puts one outside the Church? It might sound silly to many of us that these Southern Baptists do not consider Catholics, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox (e.g., the Copts) — that is, most of the Christians in the world today — to be truly Christian, but few of us would deny the importance of drawing the theological line somewhere. 

In the year 451, the Pope and the other Patriarchs excommunicated the so-called Oriental Orthodox for holding a heterodox Christology. In other words, they put them outside the Church. I don’t know what the status is today among the churches.

Kyrill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, sent condolences to the Coptic Pope and the Egyptian president regarding the murder of the 21 Copts. Kyrill referred to the dead as “Christians,” and told the Coptic Pope that “we” Christians must stand together. I don’t know for certain how we should interpret that, but it seems clear to me that Kyrill sees the Copts as Christians, however imperfect our communion.

In the Christian past, we have murdered our own for heresy. Think of the Catholic crusade against the Albigensians. The Russian Orthodox hunted down the schismatic Archpriest Avvakum, tortured him, and burned him at the stake. Calvinists burned Michael Servetus at the stake for denying the Holy Trinity.

Was Avvakum a Christian? Were the Albigensians? Was Michael Servetus?

Whatever their theological errors, might they have been more essentially Christian than the theologically correct who murdered them for their heterodoxy?

Difficult questions. Speaking for myself alone, I believe that the fullness of truth, as it can be known to us mortals, is taught by the Orthodox Church, but that we can only say who is and is not in communion with it; we can’t say who God will or will not save. The formulation I like is, “We can say where the Church is, but we cannot say where it is not.” I would say that all Christians should be in union with Orthodoxy if they would have the fullness of the truth, but I would not say, “Therefore, those who are not Orthodox are strangers to Christ.” In fact, Jesus Himself said to us, in Matthew 25, how He will know His own:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

I’m not God, but if I were a betting man, I would place my money on Coptic Christians who called on the name of Jesus as they were about to be killed for being Christian to make it into the Kingdom before Americans who stand on doctrinal differences to deny the faithfulness of the martyrs. Note well: doctrinal issues are important! They just aren’t the most important thing. I believe I hold the correct doctrines, but I have absolutely no doubt that there will be countless Southern Baptists (and others) who go before me into the Kingdom (assuming that I will make it!) because however incorrect their doctrines, they embodied the spirit of Christ in the lives they lived.

To be a true Christian is not simply to hold all the correct propositions in your head. These legalistic American theologians have given their minds over to ideas about Christ; those Copts gave their heads for Christ.

UPDATE: I have delinked to Pulpit & Pen after receiving this e-mail from a reader:

Thanks for your most recent piece (“Who Is a Christian”). As a Southern Baptist, I found it correctly oriented and articulately worded.

One thing I want to warn you about: Pulpit and Pen. Before you give their website any future hits, you should know about their founder, JD Hall. Hall is a militant SBC pastor in Montana who until recently was infamous in Baptist culture for using his Twitter account to antagonize any and all public religious figures he dislikes. Keep in mind, this guy is a full time pastor and leads an evangelical network called Reformation Montana.

You won’t be able to find JD Hall on Twitter anymore, and here’s why: Last spring, Hall approached and bullied the son of a controversial Baptist teacher named Ergun Caner. You can read the details in this Christianity Today piece, but the sum of it is that Hall berated publicly Caner’s son and humiliated him, and a few weeks after the Twitter encounter, Caner’s son committed suicide. In fairness, it seems that the suicide was not directly connected to the online exchange, but even Hall admitted that the incident had changed and “crushed” him. That was several months ago, and though Hall has gotten rid of his twitter account, he has taken the reigns of his organization’s account and seems determined to return to his trolling ways.

This man is still a pastor and still a spiritual leader. He is addicted to wounding people with words and needs serious Christian help and prayer. You’re a smarter man than I am, Rod, but I’d think twice before sending anybody, even by accident, to that man’s website.

Unbelievable. Thanks for the tip-off, reader.

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The Horrible Truth About Chipotle

Awful news! If you’re counting calories, then it’s hard to eat at my favorite fast-food place without blowing your diet. Excerpt:

With the help of a large sample of online orders, we set out to answer a question that piques our interest every time we walk into a Chipotle (which is a lot): What do people actually order here? How healthy is a normal Chipotle meal?

Today, we have a ballpark estimate. The typical order at Chipotle has about 1,070 calories. That’s more than half of the calories that most adults are supposed to eat in an entire day. The recommended range for most adults is between 1,600 and 2,400.

The histogram above shows the distribution of calories for all orders. The spike around 1,000 calories represents “standard” burrito orders – a meat burrito with typical additions: cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, rice and beans. If you order a meat burrito at Chipotle with these toppings, it’s very likely to reach 1,000 calories.

But there’s so much more to this data than the averages. Chipotle customers can and do order meals with fewer than 650 calories, such as a cheese-free burrito bowl. On the other end of the spectrum, about one in 10 meals had more than 1,600 calories.

An order of those fantastic, limey-salty Chipotle chips? 570 calories. It’s like eating eleven Oreos. The tortilla in a burrito? That’s 300 calories right there.

Man. When I go to Chipotle — and yes, I go as often as I can — I typically get either an order of chicken soft tacos, or a barbacoa burrito without rice (to save calories). Half the time I get chips and hot salsa. I always avoid sour cream and guacamole, for calorie reasons.

In the future, I’ll get a salad bowl, no beans or rice, and avoid the chips. Dang.

Sorry to break the news to you.

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Politicizing History

Yesterday I got into a brief Twitter fight with a self-described Christian conservative woman who did not like one bit, no she did not, my pointing out that there was a time not too long ago in the history of our country when we publicly executed black people as an act of terror. We even burned them and distributed their body parts as souvenirs. The woman accused me of “sympathy” for ISIS. She said it didn’t happen here. When I tweeted photos, she said it was a long time ago, and besides, all those things weren’t so bad. I tweeted back that I believe I saw her standing next to me in the crowd yelling, “Crucify him!” She thought that was rude. We ended the conversation.

People have a hard time confronting history that doesn’t tell a propagandistic story. A committee of the Oklahoma House of Representatives just did a stupid thing, in my view. From the Tulsa World:

The legality of teaching Advanced Placement courses in Oklahoma public schools was raised Monday during a House Common Education Committee hearing on a bill aimed at the AP U.S. history guidelines.

That measure, House Bill 1380, by Rep. Dan Fisher, R-Yukon, would direct the state Board of Education to review those guidelines and bar the use of state funds for AP U.S. history courses.


Fisher, who has been active in a church-and-state organization called the Black Robe Regiment, said the AP U.S. history course framework emphasizes “what is bad about America.”

Larry Krieger, a teacher who spoke to the committee via conference call, implied that the AP framework was created by some of the same people responsible for Common Core.

Both said the framework omits the concept of “American exceptionalism.”

What do we know about the Black Robe Regiment? Well, let’s consult its website:

The Black Robe Regiment is a resource and networking entity where church leaders and laypeople can network and educate themselves as to our biblical responsibility to stand up for our Lord and Savior and to protect the freedoms and liberties granted to a moral people in the divinely inspired US Constitution.  The Regiment had its historical beginnings during the Revolutionary War when Pastors from across the colonies arose and lead their congregations into the battle for freedom.  Unlike today, the church during this time served as the center-point for  political debate and discussion on the relevant news of the day.  Today’s church leaders have all but lost that concept of leading their congregations in a Godly manner in all aspects of their worldly existence and are afraid to speak out against the progressive agenda that has dominated our political system for the past century.

Uh oh. More, from its History page, in which the group deifies the United States:

These folks who now inhabited this New Jerusalem (this New Eden that Christopher Columbus saw), were living out what they saw as a life and a country that was fashioned entirely by their Creator.  The Constitution (Part 1–the Declaration of Independence, and part 2), was and is a covenant between the people of America and their Heavenly Father.  It was written for a Christian people….who are fully able to internally govern themselves.  Thus, the meaning of a Republic that was inspired by God’s Word and spells out the mission of God’s children and Christ’s ambassadors on Earth.

Well. As a Christian and a conservative, I could not possibly object more strongly to this idolatrous view of the nation and its Constitution. And I would not want my kids to learn this view of history in school, or to have AP classes, which are optional, denied to them because the College Board, which is responsible for AP classes, does not reflect this fringe theocratic view of US history. Note well that the bill passed out of the committee on a party line vote; all 11 Republicans voted for it, and all four Democrats voted against it. Good for the Democrats.

It should be said that those who are suspicious of the creeping progressivism in AP History courses may not be entirely wrong at all. I mean, you don’t have to believe that America is the New Israel to be concerned. Stanley Kurtz wrote last year:

It is true, of course, that as on much else, Americans are divided about how best to teach and understand U.S. history. This is precisely why the new, lengthy, and detailed AP U.S. History Framework is such a bad idea. The brief five-page conceptual guideline the Framework replaced allowed sufficient flexibility for teachers to approach U.S. History from a wide variety of perspectives. Liberals, conservatives, and anyone in-between could teach U.S. history their way, and still see their students do well on the AP Test. The College Board’s new and vastly more detailed guidelines can only be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective. The College Board has drastically eroded the freedom of states, school districts, teachers, and parents to choose the history they teach their children. That is why this change must not stand.

So, you don’t have to be a Black Rober to object to the new AP Framework, it seems.

This seizing the historical narrative as a means of exercising political power is by no means a right-wing thing. California is notorious for using state law to compel the teaching of history to progressive ends. In 2011, the state passed a law requiring public schools to include LGBT contributions in their history courses. From the NYT’s report:

California will become the first state to require public schools to teach gay and lesbian history.

As expected, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Thursday that mandates that the contributions of gays and lesbians in the state and the country be included in social science instruction and in textbooks. School districts will have until next January to begin implementing the new law, which was also promoted in part as a way to combat bullying of gay and lesbian students.

It’s not simply a matter of teaching about LGBT people in history class. As with other minority groups, teachers are only allowed to say good things about them (and everybody else). From an official state education department document explaining the law:

The bill added language to Education Code Section 51204.5, which prescribes the inclusion of the contributions of various groups in the history of California and the United States. This section already included men and women and numerous ethnic groups; the expanded language now includes (additions bolded):

“…a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”

The legislation also added some requirements with regard to instructional materials.

Education Code Section 51501 outlines prohibitions on material included in textbooks or other instructional materials. This section already included prohibitions on matter “reflecting adversely upon persons because of their race, sex, color, creed, handicap, national origin, or ancestry”; this bill added “sexual orientation” to the list. Education Code Section 60044 includes a similar prohibition; the language was added there as well, along with a prohibition on materials that contain materials that reflect adversely on persons on the basis of their occupation.

So we have the sanitized progressive version of history, where everybody participated equally in the building of America, and no group ever did anything bad. This is better?

American history as theology. History as ideology. History as therapy. Is it possible to have a reasonable balanced, neutral approach to teaching history?


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