erikars: (Default)
Finished The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's Founders edited by Forrest Church. This short book contains extracts of revolutionary era writings about the separation of church and and state. Favorites such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington make an appearance as do less well known writers such as Isaac Backus and Oliver Ellsworth.

"Separation of church and state" is a phrase that is bandied around without knowledge of its historical origins. First, as I hope we all know, the phrase itself does not appear in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Instead, it first appeared in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson (Ch. 14 in the book):
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
One common disagreement in modern discussion is whether we should aim for freedom from religion or freedom for religion. Both threads find expression in the writings in the book. As the author says in the introduction:
As was true of the broader American struggle for freedom, the revolution that led to religious liberty was powered by two very different engines: one driven by eighteenth-century Enlightenment values, the other guided by Christian imperatives that grew out of the Great Awakening, a spiritual movement that spread like wildfire across the American colonies throughout the middle decades of that same century. The former movement, emphasizing freedom of conscience as both a political and a philosophical virtue, stressed freedom from the dictates of organized religion. The later, stemming from a devout reading of the gospels (especially their proclamation of spiritual liberty from bondage to the world's principalities and powers), demanded freedom for religion.
I feel that freedom of conscience suffers from poor health in modern America. Not just with respect to religion but, in general, Americans are quick to judge someone based only on what they believe, not on their actions. I see this, of course, in debates about religion and its proper role in a secular society. But I also see it more widely. I see it in the fact that some said Larry Summers should not be an economic advisor to the President because of what he had said about gender at Harvard (how is that relevant to being an economic advisor?). I see this in the very current debates about race in this country where we are obsessed with whether or not people think racist thoughts, not whether or not they act on them.

I do not want to imply that people's opinions are irrelevant, but we have come to a place in American society where beliefs are often considered more important than actions. That is sad and destructive. Reading books like this remind us about the fundamental debates that define our country have, at their core, something much deeper than superficial displays of religiousity.
erikars: (Default)
Rare is the topic on which I do not want to have an opinion, but I wish I could just ignore health care reform. Getting the proper background on the topic will be a huge time sink, and I have many other things I would rather be doing. If I felt I could responsibly ignore the whole thing, I would. But health care reform is super huge with respect to both cost and potential impact on actual people.

Can someone just wave a magic wand and make me one of those people who can form opinions without knowing the facts (at least on this topic)?
erikars: (Default)
In general, I don't like genetically modified foods, and I will try to avoid them. But I will freely admit that my fear is intuitive not scientific. Thus, I do not support decisions, like the ones in this article which try to ban GM corn when there is no scientific evidence that it is unsafe. I would say this is true especially in cases like this where there is such strong consumer demand to not have GM produce. (Note that I am assuming that the studies themselves are considered unbiased, which I did not research at all. Note also that I fully approve of funding further research.)

I think that the evolution of the response to BPA in plastics in the US provide a better model. BPA starts becoming a big deal so some people start avoiding it. Studies find some effect on rats so more people start to avoid it and companies start to provide more alternatives. Studies find evidence that high BPA levels may be linked to problems in people so companies start abandoning BPA and it starts to be banned.

I strongly encourage people who dislike GM foods to stop consuming them and to make a fuss with their food providers. Such an approach may not be effective in the US where GM crops are more effective (although that is changing). But in a company like Germany where, according to the article I linked, over 70% of consumers do not want GM food, consumers could make a difference if they acted on their principles. (This assumes that non-GM foods can label themselves as such and that such labeling is properly regulated. I think this is happening in Germany, and I strongly support such labels. I strongly disapprove of moves like those some companies are making in some US states that try to disallow "rBST free" labeling.)
erikars: (Default)
Yay for a garden on the White House lawn! It has little practical importance, but is symbolically spiffy.

But that's not the real reason I am linking the article. I am really linking it for the first picture. At first glance, I thought the President looked like he was on a presidential scooter.

erikars: (Default)
Worldchanging presents some interesting data the real decrease in the standard of living of most Americans. I find the article interesting, but I disagree with the author's conclusion that what we need is aid for low- and middle- income individuals and legal caps on carbon emissions.

We should not use aid to solve this problem because this problem spans a wide income range. Aid is not the solution to what is really a systemic problem in our society; it is a bandage. Caps on carbon emissions are not a solution to the problem of decreasing spending power (although the investments spurred by such caps are likely part of the long term solution). I suppose you could say that aid is too short term a solution and legal caps are too long term a solution.

I do not know what the best solution is. It may have elements of aid and legal caps on carbon emissions. Aid for the truly needy is fine (I support welfare, just not as a way of life). Laws that will spur long term investment are worth looking into. Raising the minimum wage might help. But it seems that solving this problem will involve many more components, the most fundamental of which is a change in the attitude of employers which makes them realize that they have a moral obligation to look after the livelihood of their employees, and a change in the attitude of investors which makes them realize that they should hold a company responsible for more than just profit. (The negative consequences of seeing investing as a way to make money rather than as a way to have part ownership in a business could fill an essay I am not qualified to write.) Fundamentally, the problem is that money and goods are seen as more important than people and changing that attitude is a necessary condition for long term equity and prosperity.


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Erika RS

May 2012

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