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Spray-On Christianity

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And now, just in time for Christmas, a post on religion!

Let me expand a bit on the last post. The priceless quote came from an unnamed fellow soldier of the interviewee, Josh Stieber, a disillusioned American soldier who eventually claimed conscientious objector status rather than continue to serve in Iraq. Stieber's response to his friend's comment about Jesus was pretty appropriate: if being arrested, tortured, mocked, forced to wear a crown of thorns, and then crucified is not being 'punked', then nothing is. The notion of Jesus as behaloed Rambo, resentfully taking a beating but then returning with some sort of blessed bazooka, is as blasphemous as it is ludicrous.

Yet I have no doubt that Stieber's friend genuinely believed that Jesus was into the occasional ass-kicking. It's just one of the more amusing instances of a general phenomenon: Huge numbers of Americans who consider themselves Christians will happily convince themselves that their faith permits -- or encourages -- whatever it's in their interest to do at any given moment. Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, was renowned for his aggressively public religiosity. Nor is he alone: here's the website for the Real Estate Prayer Breakfast: "At Real Estate Prayer Breakfast, we lead people in the real estate community into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ by creating business environments where God can be discovered." By joining the Host Committee, you agree to "[f]ill your seats with individuals from the real estate community that do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

I have no beef with Christians, or real estate agents for that matter. But what's eerily amusing about all this mixing of Christ and capitalism is the unstated presumption that real estate brokers in suburban Houston are at the very epicenter of God's concern -- perhaps even of his Plan for the World. The realtors go to their prayer breakfast, secure in the belief that their God is smiling down approvingly on their listings, and no doubt many of them will say a quick prayer of thanksgiving after closing a major deal. The notion that God might actually disapprove of their line of work or -- even worse -- not give a damn about it has never crossed their minds. Of course, all of those troubling Bible verses about selling your possessions have long been smoothed over by generations of pro-free-market exegesis, a form of gob-smackingly shameless special pleading known informally as the 'prosperity gospel.'

Over at Slate, Shankar Vedantam has an interesting theory about American spray-on Christianity:

Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists...

There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.

Except they are not.

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it's like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They'll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

If you ask Americans whether they went to church last Sunday, many of them will say yes. But if you ask them how they actually used their time last Sunday, without specifically mentioning church, the number who "went to church" drops by half:

[A recent study] found that the United States and Canada were outliers—not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans. The significant difference between the two North American countries and other industrialized nations was the enormous gap between poll responses and time-use studies in those two countries.

Or, to put it another way, Europeans are honest about whether they go to church or not, while Americans are hypocrites. The two phenomena are intertwined: Americans ostentatiously trumpet their claimed Christianity because they think it helps them be seen as 'good' people. Similarly, they feel no shame in spreading this comforting, all-purpose balm of diffuse righteousness over every single part of their lives, no matter how mundane or questionable.

I can't think of any better way to close this post than to quote H.L. Mencken on the U.S., where I'll be sojourning over the next few weeks:

Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.


Dang, Baby, You's Cuter than a Cross-Eyed Opossum!

In today's globalized society, you just might get the latest opossum-related news out of Germany from an Italian newspaper. Who do I see staring out from La Stampa but this charming creature?

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It's Heidi, the cross-eyed opposum from the Leipzig Zoo. The Italian newspaper ejaculated: "Germania, allo zoo l'opossum strabico Heidi!", which loosely translated, means: "After German SS torture, the slimy tree rat sees no more!" To show your solidarity with Heidi, join me in liking her facebook page.

And now to the public service portion of today's post -- ME Pearl on proper opossum pedicure --


The Students are Revolting

I've been following the British student protests over the recent Parliamentary vote to raise the ceiling on tuition fees at British public universities. There have been some high points, like Barnaby's eloquent protest above. However, the protests have descended occasionally into violence or fatuity, as protests so often do. The video of some drunken yob monotonously moaning 'off with their heads' as Charles and Camilla drove through a crowd of protesters was not particularly edifying. Another low point came when long-haired Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, was photographed waving a red flag with 'revolution' written on it (edgy!) and then twirling around the Cenotaph on a Union Jack. He has already issued a groveling apology for screwing with Britain's war dead, but nothing will erase the stain of being a half-witted scion of wealth.

Nevertheless, the protesters have a point: As soon as you embrace the principle that students should pay for their own higher education up-front, by taking on debt, the government immediately starts dumping more and more of the cost of higher education onto the students. This is what Australia has done, and what Britain has just done -- it's slashed state funding of universities by a huge margin (except for certain "strategically important" sectors), and dumped the task of financing higher education onto students. This is why German students are protesting against the very idea of introducing tuition fees, with some success (g). They understand that any concession to the idea of debt-financed higher education is the camel's nose under the tent.

Sure, the transition to student-debt-financed higher education starts out with all sorts of promises that the plans will be 'social' and 'fair', but those goalposts always move, gradually, in the direction of more debt. It's a no-brainer for governments of any political stripe. Students are a small minority of the population, they don't vote as religiously as seniors do, and they're often the target of resentment by the less-educated. Therefore, the gradual, creeping off-loading of education financing onto students arouses protest, but not sustained, painful political opposition. Furthermore, since governments of all political stripes generally like to plug budget holes by moving to debt-financed education, opponents of tuition are often left with no political party to vote for. Britain's Liberal Democrat party used to profile itself as the lone outpost of principled opposition to tuition fees. Before it completely caved in, that is, causing a party-internal crisis.

I'm not opposed to students paying for the valuable skills they acquire at university, mind you. There seems to me to be no reason why ordinary taxpayers should subsidize the education of a law student who graduates to a six-figure salary at a private firm, or a dermatologist who goes on to work at a private Swiss clinic Botoxing the wealthy and vain. I'm just opposed to the model of forcing all students, regardless of major or career plans, to take on mountains of debt when they're in their early 20s. Something like the 'graduate tax' plan envisioned by Robert Reich, among others, seems like a reasonable compromise. But debt-fuelled higher education is a model whose time has come and gone.