Sunday, February 12, 2012

Evangelicals and Global Warming (Part 1)

I visited my parent’s church today. It’s a very Pentecostal church, and while I haven’t been particularly Pentecostal for many years now, there are many things about the church that I admire. First among these is its well established and effective ministry with recovering alcoholics and drug users. It brings a smile to my face when I think about how many folks once sitting in jail cells are now sitting in pews and shouting hallelujah. I can imagine that first century Christians once nudged each other and said, “See her? She was possessed by seven demons before Jesus cast them out.” I’ll often hear similar comments in my parents’ church: as folks pass by, they’ll say something like, “See him? Before he got saved, he was sleeping under a van down by the river.” Or, “That guy over there? He was selling drugs out of a drive-through window.” If comments like these strike you as condescending, I’d venture to say that you probably don’t know Evangelicals very well.

The sermon this morning was solid, and gave me a lot to chew on. It took Romans 12:1-2 as its text, which says, “Do not conformed to this world, but instead be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That seemed especially relevant in light of my renewed skepticism of the mainstream media’s portrayal of social and religious issues. As I mentioned in my last post, recent events have driven home to me the importance of a pretty strong filter when the media tries to cover social conservatives.

Still, I was taken aback when the pastor said (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but this is pretty close):

You’ve probably heard a lot about global warming. But that’s just another example of how the media doesn’t tell us the truth. Global warming is just one more big hoax that the media has tried to pull over on us.

My wife and I looked at each other, to make sure we’d actually heard what we thought. I was pretty surprised, both that this pastor (whom I like and respect) would believe this, but even more that he’d choose to bring it up in a sermon. It had nothing to do with the Gospel, and worse, he made it seem like it did. It sent the unmistakable message that if you want to be a good Christian, you ought to believe that global warming is a scam. And that’s a shame, for more reasons than I can begin to count.

Still, because I’ve recently expressed my extreme disappointment with liberals on the matter of religious liberty, it seemed an appropriate time to blog about how frustrated I am with conservative positions on the environment, particularly with respect to global warming. I know lots of folks conservatives who would agree with my parent’s pastor, that climate change is a hoax. And I’m really, really curious about why this is this so.

I’ll start by saying that it’s clearly not because they’ve made an independent and sufficient evaluation of the evidence, and have rejected it as inadequate.  The plain fact of the matter is that nobody I know personally (and this obviously includes me) is anything like qualified enough to offer an authoritative opinion on the science behind scientists’ claims regarding climate change. Yes, I suppose most of us have a cursory understanding of the physics of global warming: CO2 and methane act as “greenhouse gases”, trapping more warmth in the atmosphere, thus raising temperatures worldwide. Some of us may have observed the retreat of glaciers with our own eyes, most of us have read about the increased rate of polar ice melting, and probably a good number have read mainstream summaries of the science behind it (this piece by The Economist is probably the best). But the fact remains that the earth’s climate is composed of innumerable systems whose interactions are mind-bogglingly complex, and the measurements, the math, and the models that real climate scientists use to predict their behavior are only slightly less so. I could spend the next four or five years doing nothing but studying climate change, and I’d barely be qualified to comment on the quality of a few journal articles, and still less on any overarching conclusions that real scientists might reach after having critically digested thousands of them. I simply don’t know enough; and neither does anybody else that I know. There are roughly 7 billion humans on this planet, and maybe a thousand of them possess the knowledge and experience that I freely admit I lack. (This study, for instance, was able to identify 1,372 individuals actively publishing in the field of climate change.) In other words, folks qualified to comment authoritatively on climate science are not just one in a million: they’re quite literally one in seven million. The vast majority of folks who reject global warming, as well as the vast majority of folks who accept it, are doing it for other reasons entirely.

And here’s another red herring. Your typical climate change skeptic doesn’t reject the idea of global warming because the folks who are qualified to judge haven’t made up their minds. If you want to know how convincing the evidence is for climate change, don’t start with this Wikipedia article (on the physics), but with this one (on the consensus opinion among scientists). There’s a lot of data in there, but this gives you a feel for its conclusions:

The predominant scientific opinion on climate change is that the Earth's climate system is unequivocally warming and it is more than 90% certain that humans are causing it . . . No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion . . . 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In other words, there’s a consensus. I have some reasonable idea of what a consensus looks like, and trust me, that looks like one. And yet some 50% of Americans reject it. Why?

Well, I’ve got a theory about that, but it’ll have to wait until my next post.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Discovering What It’s Like To Be a Partisan

Most of my life, I’ve been a political moderate. My father is a Rush Limbaugh Dittohead, his father before him was a Yellow Dog Democrat, but I’ve never felt particularly comfortable in either strongly liberal or strongly conservative circles. I’m a registered Democrat mostly because, back in college, the guy doing the voter registration drive was pushing very hard for me to register as a Republican. But since then, on both issues and candidates, I’ve sometimes favored the Republicans, sometimes the Democrats. And in political discussions, I’ve generally found that it’s easier for those discussions to be interesting and productive when the person on the other side isn’t swayed by party politics, and isn’t trying to ascribe unworthy motives to the other side while trying to pretend that they themselves are pure as the driven snow. My default position when it comes to controversies is to be fairly sober-minded, to try to see both sides of the picture, to be realistic about my own and others’ motives, and not to claim more for an argument than it really warrants. As you can imagine, this makes me a pretty bad Democrat, and probably an even worse Republican. My glee at the rise and ungainly fall of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry has been anything but seemly. I’m annoyed at the inability of our congressional representatives to work together, and if there were an intelligent candidate somewhere in the political middle, ready both to cut spending and raise taxes to fix our fiscal woes, he or she would find it difficult to not get my vote.

However, several recent events have upended a great deal of my self-satisfied centrism. First, in what could only have been a cynical election year ploy to excite his base, Obama decided to make the Catholic Church pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients, in an obvious violation of several hundred years of American jurisprudence, along with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, not to mention the First Amendment. (And of course, it turns out that this did excite the base: but the wrong one.) Second, the Susan G. Komen Foundation first dropped their support of Planned Parenthood, and in the ensuing uproar, re-established it, their hand having been forced by the media’s blatantly one-sided coverage of the move.  And finally, when I pointed these things out to friends, and expressed my astonishment, I was repeatedly met with either blank stares or outright hostility. Folks simply didn’t get why I found these two things – the Obama administration’s trampling of the First Amendment, and the news media’s blatantly biased reporting on Susan G. Komen – so objectionable. And that shocked me. After all, if someone thought that it was wrong for the government to force a particular moral viewpoint on a woman carrying a child, shouldn’t they mutatis mutandis think that it was wrong for the government to force a particular moral viewpoint on Roman Catholics? But apparently they didn’t see any problem with that sort of government intrusion.

More than that, though, my arguments with them put me in a very odd position. I dislike the smell of partisan politics intensely. Nothing is so likely to turn me off in a debate as the realization that the other person not just thinks he’s right, but is convinced that that anyone with a different perspective is operating in bad faith and with impure motives. But that’s exactly what I’m convinced has happened in these two instances. Obama is an expert on Constitutional law: there’s no way that he couldn’t have realized that the HHS decision was a blatant violation the First Amendment (especially after taking a 9-0 shellacking from the Supreme Court on a closely related issue in Hosanna-Tabor just two weeks prior). The media prides itself on its objectivity: but take a look at this interview by Andrea Mitchell, and see if you think there’s any reasonable way you could describe it as fair and balanced.

The result is that I’ve started to feel quite differently about the Republicans, and all the nasty things they’ve been saying about the Obama administration. The strong emotions animating the Tea Party have been even more of a turn-off to me than the actual positions for which they’re advocating. But now that I’ve found myself backed into a political corner, it turns out that I’m suddenly as angry as, well, a Tea Party conservative. I’m unbelievably pissed-off that the Obama administration has decided that the ideology of secularism gets to operate from a privileged position: that our country is no longer pluralist, but actively and specifically secular: that I’m welcome to my religious beliefs only so long as they extend no further than the door of my church. The logic of the Obama administration and its defenders, that public expressions of religious beliefs must always give way to the power of the state, is astonishingly similar to that of the Chinese government. This is a big hairy deal, in other words, and it represents a breathtaking invasion by the federal government into the realm of ultimate truth. It makes me angry to think about it. It’s not right, and Obama should have known better. The realization that he actually thinks this way has revealed a yawning, probably unbridgeable gap between his worldview and mine. He can talk about his respect for religion all he wants: but when it comes right down to it, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t respect any religion so long as it insists upon actual truth claims about the fundamental nature of God, humanity and the world (in other words, all of them). I will not vote for any president who thinks that way, and I’m going to be a damned sight more suspicious of anything he says going forward.

As a side note, I was gratified to hear that as of this morning, Obama has more-or-less backed down, and is offering a compromise. But in the spirit of my newfound hermeneutic of suspicion, it’s worth pointing out that in his press conference, he baldly lied about the state of the rule-making process. The proposed compromise was not, as he portrayed it, a “speeding up” of a process already under way, but an actual change in the actual rule, a political volte-face after realizing that he’d just managed to push a whole bunch of fence-sitters like myself firmly into the waiting arms of his conservative opponents. And it’s also worth noting that the changes he has proposed seem to be purely verbal: see this analysis, which calls it “economic nonsense”; or this one, or this, which wonder how insurance companies could possibly avoid using premiums from their Catholic clients to pay for contraceptive coverage. As Robert Miller puts it:

Under the old rule, the employer had to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception. Under the new rule, the employer has to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception, but President Obama will say that it doesn’t, and we’ll believe him. That fixes everything. And to think, some people accuse President Obama of empty rhetoric.

That’s the sort of wonderfully snarky comment that would have gotten my dander up in the old days (i.e., two weeks ago), but sounds pretty good to me right now.

Moving on, when you layer the Susan G. Komen debacle onto the contraception controversy, it’s made me increasingly suspicious of anything the media has to say as well. I’ve found myself reading a variety of conservative blogs that critique the media’s portrayal of religion, and I’m a little astonished at how much sense they make. You can make the case (as liberals often do) that the mass media is owned by corporations, and hence are likely to present a conservative slant on economic issues. That may or may not be the case: but there’s no remaining doubt in my mind which direction the media leans when covering social and religious issues. This bias shows up in a thousand subtle and blatant ways, and ranges from the scare quotes around “religious liberty” in the third paragraph of this article, to the numerous mistakes of fact in this article, and the decision by the Dallas Morning News to feature a dozen protesters of Susan G. Komen’s decision on the front page, after having completely ignored an 8000-person March for Life the previous month.

So here’s the first thing. Like I said, I’m angry at Obama, and I’m newly suspicious of the news media. I’m in no mood to compromise, and right now, I’d love to see Obama filing for unemployment because of his attempted betrayal of the First Amendment. And I guess that makes me a conservative.

But here’s the other thing. For perhaps the first time in my life, I understand what a political partisan feels like. I now know what it means to be angry and frustrated, because you’re so convinced that you’re right and that your opponents are mulish and stubborn miscreants. And I know that folks on both sides feel like that. I’m able to understand a great deal of why folks on both the right and the left respond the way they do to each other. I sympathize with the partisans. I get it now. I feel their pain. And I guess that makes me a liberal.