Agriculture Secretary’s answer to nation’s drought: prayer and rain dance


Image: Clipart

If you’re like most of the US this summer, you are currently living in a region experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. According to Reuters (via Yahoo News*), 60% of the contiguous 48 states are now in drought, with a state of natural disaster declared in nearly 1300 counties across this great land.

You might hope our government would be on top of the situation, engaging the public in a serious discussion of the likely causes (climate change, anyone?) and short- or long-term measures that might be needed to deal with a situation that will affect millions if not billions of people in our country and, as the top grain exporter in the world, across the globe.

Well, I’ll let you be the judge of how seriously the worst natural disaster in US history is being taken. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told reporters that faced with the current situation, “I get on my knees everyday and I’m saying an extra prayer right now […] If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.” And then, at least according to the Reuters/Yahoo News article, he went on to discuss the economic effects of the drought on farmers and the stock market, but no mention of why there might be a drought or what concrete solutions there might be for those in drought regions.

Let’s give Mr. Vilsack the benefit of the doubt and assume he was joking about the rain dance and “rain prayer.” Is the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farmers, as well as millions of people worldwide who may be affected by not having access to affordable food, really something to joke about?

But perhaps a more important question is: is he truly going down on his knees to pray “everyday” for more rain? If we take him at his word, it sounds like it. I suppose if he wants to waste his breath on his own time talking to a sky god who apparently would withhold much-needed rain from his creation if he doesn’t hear enough prayers (wonder what the quota is?), then Mr. Vilsack is free to do so on his own time in private.

In his role as Secretary of Agriculture, however, one of the highest-ranking officials in the country, he is representing the American government and all of its people when he is speaking as a public figure. Instead of cracking jokes about rain dances and discussing his religious practices, why is he not engaging the country in an actual discussion of this recording-breaking heat and drought? For example:

  • What he or his fellow cabinet members can or cannot do to aid farmers should the drought continue and decimate this year’s yields
  • What the science says about how likely this year’s conditions are just a freak blip or more likely a foretaste of what’s still to come
  • Which steps need to be taken this year or in the future to deal with extreme weather conditions
  • How average citizens can or cannot help (using less water so that more can go to farmers? practicing fire safety to avoid causing fires in the city or countryside?).

To be fair, it is possible the secretary touched on some or all of these issues, but the article left them out. If this is the case, maybe he should realize that he should be on message and not talking about whether or not he thinks his god is going to send rain our way one of these days, but rather what government officials should actually be talking about: governing the country. Hopefully the drought will soon be coming to an end, but if not we need to know our officials are looking for real-world solutions and not just hoping for a Deus Ex Machina.

UPDATE: FFRF (the Freedom From Religion Foundation) was also offended by our Agriculture Secretary’s religious remarks. Here is their press release and letter to Tom Vilsack

* Note: As is seemingly becoming more and more common, news sites are updating their articles and sometimes significantly changing the content (not just correcting typos, or posting add-on updates as above.). As of this update, the Yahoo News story is almost completely rewritten from what it was last night, and does not even mention the praying that was in the original headline for the story. The Indian Express has the article in its original form, or at least the form I saw it in originally.

Churches fight transportation fee on 1st Amendment grounds

Image from http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/13909

The Alliance Defense Fund, which is known for trying to tear down the wall of separation between church and state, is now claiming that churches in one town do not have to pay a new tax because of church-state separation.

According to the Huffington Post, Mission, Kansas has instituted a new “transportation utility fee” which taxes properties based on the amount of traffic they get.

“It was just a fair way to spread the cost among those who are generating the traffic,” said Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, “to help pay for the roads that you need to bring people in either for your business or for the churches or to people’s homes.”

But some churches are apparently none to happy about the tax and have asked the Alliance Defense Fund, known for fighting for religious symbols on public property and defending convocations at public schools and government meetings, to help them on 1st Amendment grounds, arguing that the 1st Amendment prohibits the government from taxing churches. Again from the Post

“It makes no sense to tax churches and to limit their ability to provide their services, and it does damage to the constitutional separation between church and state,” argues Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund […] He acknowledges that church-state separation is generally not an argument made by his conservative Christian law firm; but in this instance, he says “there should be a separation here.”

So apparently the 1st amendment somehow prohibits the government from taxing churches? We could play the Christian Right’s game and bring up the fact that the exact words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution, nor does it explicitly say “The government will not apply transportation utility taxes on churches.” But that would be somewhat disingenuous since the exact wording is not what matters, but the idea behind the words. And no matter how you twist it, the 1st amendment does not even come close to saying churches should pay no taxes. It is ridiculous that churches are exempt from most taxes to begin with. And in this specific case, the transportation fee has absolutely nothing to do with establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Hey, maybe that’s their plan: they’re going to claim that “free” in the Constitution doesn’t mean “unrestricted”, but rather “without cost.” If religion should be “free”, then they shouldn’t pay taxes!

The sad thing is, if the Alliance Defense Fund can suddenly become church-state defenders when it suits them, I wouldn’t put it past them to try to twist the word “free” in the Constitution. I’m glad to see the Religious Right finally recognizes the idea of Church-State separation; it’s too bad it’s only when taxes are concerned.

War on Christmas meets War on Terror

Before the end of 2010, one last story on the craziness involved with the so-called “War on Christmas,” which has apparently now started to overlap with the “War on Terror.”

From AlterNet comes an article by the Nashville City Paper describing how a letter sent by the Tennessee branch of the ACLU was placed on a Homeland Security map as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.”

The ACLU had the audacity to remind schools that during the end of the year, public schools should not be celebrating Christmas to the exclusion of other religious observances because the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing religion. Tennessee Homeland Security’s website’s explanation for why it was placed in that category was exactly that: “ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday’.”

So the ACLU reminding schools about what the Supreme Court has found in terms of state-church separation apparently puts them with Bin Laden and the shoe bomber. Browning, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Homeland Security, said it was a “mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a “suspicious activity”. When contacted about it, the spokesperson claimed that it had been reclassified into their website’s “general information category.”

The story doesn’t end there. The Nashville City Paper checked up on this though and found out the ACLU’s letter had now been classified as “general terrorism news.” The Homeland Security spokesperson explained that “That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism.” (Why not just take the darn thing off the website, then?!)

So at first the ACLU sending out a letter about schools respecting the First Amendment was first described on Tennessee’s Homeland Security site as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” and is now described as “general terrorism news.” Scary times we live in, especially since being associated with terrorist activity can get you on no-fly lists, among other things.

Hopefully 2011 will be a better year for freethought, atheism, and just all-around. Happy New Year!!

Prop 8 proponents — which kind(s) of Biblical marriage do you support?

A quick follow-up to my post on Prop 8. As pointed out by in a comment by a member of Atheist Nexus, the Bible is far from supporting only what Prop 8 proponents think of as “traditional” marriage. According to the site Religious Tolerance, there are at least 8 types of marriage the Bible specifically condoned by God in the Bible.

If Christians are going to only go to bat for god-friendly weddings, they’ll have to either endorse forced marriage of unwed, unbetrothed rape victims to their attackers or else explain why they are not campaigning for what the Bible clearly outlines as a required form of marriage. Do they really want to make their god angry by not allowing polygany (a man marrying multiple women) or thousands of concubines?

If we’re going to pick and choose what parts of the Bible to follow or legislate, I guess then that means that men “lying” with men (and women with women) should be fair game, too.

Image from http://www.slapupsidethehead.com/2008/11/proposition-8-is-discriminatory-nonsense

Christian leaders condemn overturning of Prop 8

As most people who follow the news likely know, California’s Proposition 8 (the ban against same-sex marriage in that state) was just overturned last week in federal court. There will of course be appeals, but this is a major step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage not only in California, but if it survives appeal, possibly at the national level.

Since Christianity is all about love, they are throwing their full support towards gay marriage, right? (Did you detect a note of sarcasm there?)

Here is a link to an article by Christianity Today (which I saw posted in a few freethought-friendly places) which provides some reactions from the Christian community. To be fair, there are some quotes that are fairly neutral or even supportive of LGBT community, but here are a few gems to give you an idea of the other side of the coin.

Majorities are unstable, and while traditional marriage has the upper hand now, it may not in 20 years. [What is going to happen, LGBT people will suddenly become a majority in the next 20 years? Now that’s what I call evolution! Or will they just corrupt the rest of God-fearing people by then?]

Because gay marriage is less than God’s best for relationship, we need to equip ourselves to minister to those who will choose it and later realize it might not have been the best decision. [Will they also equip themselves to minister to those who will choose and later realize it was the best decision of their life?]

At stake in the debate is the very nature of marriage itself. Thinking biblically does not allow us to regard marriage as merely prudential or preferential (I like strawberry, you like pistachio), but as a covenantal union of one man and one woman established by God for a purpose that transcends itself. [Comparing the love and devotion of two adults committing to spend the rest of their lives together…to liking pistachios. It’d be hard to make a more ignorant or belittling comparison. Although  “my cute little strawberry” does sound like a nice pet name.]

The Bible makes clear that marriage is God’s idea rather than a social contract that we are free to renegotiate based on changing social trends. [So if we have to follow God’s ideas on marriage, does this mean we’re sticking with the whole you-must-marry-your-rapist thing dictated in the Bible, then? (Deuteronomy 22:28). If we mustn’t follow social trends when it comes to marriage, should we also wear BC-era wedding attire?]

The gospel is deeply serious while Judge Walker’s decision is a jumbled mess of sloppy thinking […] [That’s funny; I would have said the exact opposite.]

Hopefully this ruling will lead society towards understanding of those who are not in the mainstream, instead of the continuing legacy of bigotry towards the “Other” that religions too often help perpetuate.

Woman sentenced to death by stoning

An Iranian woman, after already being lashed 99 times for adultery, has now been sentenced to be stoned to death. It’s hard to believe such barbaric punishment can occur in the 21st century, but Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani, who is a 42-year-old mother, has exhausted all her legal options and could be put to death any day for her alleged crime.

According to CNN

Ashtiani, 42, will be buried up to her chest, according to an Amnesty International report citing the Iranian penal code. The stones that will be hurled at her will be large enough to cause pain but not so large as to kill her immediately.

People continued to be cruelly tortured and killed like this because of religious dogma. Some Muslim apologists claim that since stoning for adultery isn’t in the Koran, that it’s not an Islamic but rather a cultural practice. While it’s true that the Koran doesn’t condone stoning for adultery, it is condoned in hadith writings which are meant to interpret and give guidance to Muslims about the Koran. While interpretation and application of hadiths can vary (notably between sunnis and shiites), the fact remains that this practice stems from Islamic tradition.

Even worse are the facts that

• there is no conclusive proof that the woman actually committed the crime she has been sentenced to death for.
• she has already been punished for her alleged crime (99 lashes), and

According to the Guardian:

Sakineh already endured a sentence of 99 lashes, but her case was re-opened when a court in Tabriz suspected her of murdering her husband. She was acquitted, but the adultery charge was reviewed and a death penalty handed down on the basis of “judge’s knowledge” – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.

Amnesty International has a campaign trying to get Iran to abolish stoning, but there appears to be little chance it will work in time to save Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani or at least 10 other people who as of 2010 are awaiting stoning.

Debating whether or not there is a god may be an interesting intellectual enterprise, but in the meantime the horrible crimes committed in the name of supernatural beings goes on. Governments, no matter whether they claim to be Islamic, Christian, or secular, should not be punishing people based on religion.

Photo source: Amnesty International

Protecting victims not in the name of God, but in the name of Justice

I could not believe this headline when I saw it.

Irish cardinal to stay on despite abuse concerns (AP via Yahoo News)

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, is refusing calls to step down even though he is involved in the cover-up of sexual abuse (assault and/or rape) cases.

Can you imagine the head of any other organization—the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a prime minister of a country, even the den master of a cub scout troop—refusing to step down when he admits having knowledge not only of the sexual abuse of minors, but also of efforts to coerce victims into not reporting the abuse, yet he did not come public with this knowledge while other kids were being abused?

According to the article:

In the 1970s […] he was at meetings where children had to sign oaths of silence about allegations of abuse against a Nobertine priest, Brendan Smyth, who was later convicted and died in prison.

Who else in this world, besides a so-called man of the cloth, would be allowed to continue leading an organization (with thousands if not millions of kids as members in that country, mind you) after he witnessed and kept silent about such a thing? And with 200 new allegations of abuse being brought to light between April 2009 and March 2010, who would have the audacity to declare he is going to stay on in his position?

Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to Irish Catholics apologizing for the abuse in these and other cases, but

Victims of abuse said they were deeply disappointed by the letter as it failed to address the role of senior church leaders in the scandal.

But this news deeply disturbed me on the face level of sexual abuse, and the man’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his complicity in the matter, but on several other levels as well.

  • The AP article starts out by saying the cardinal was involved in “a cover-up of a sexual abuse case decades ago”. It isn’t until later that we read that “a sexual abuse case” (singular) involves “children” (plural). I find the use of the singular in the lead paragraph to be misleading.
  • Since the article doesn’t deem it worthy to mention the details of the case, I looked it up and found several sites (including a BBC News article from March) that state that it was two teenage boys, aged between 10 and 14 (is a 10-year-old a “teenager”?), who were abused. I don’t say “allegedly” because of the facts that the offender was found guilty and the Cardinal does not appear to be disputing the facts.
  • The BBC News article states that at the time Brady was a “relatively junior cleric it was not his responsibility to report Smyth to the police and that he passed all relevant information to his superiors. Smyth’s child abusing continued for many years after 1975.” The fact that he did not report the abuse and cover-up to authorities meant that other children were abused, for years.
  • The media are largely playing down the viciousness of the abuse that happened in these pedophile priest sex cases. As has been pointed out in many venues, the euphemism “abuse” in the media particularly irks me when referring to despicable rape and sexual assault of minors. “Abuse” sounds like maybe a priest touched or fondled children, which would be a serious, life-damaging event in and of itself. But Brendan Smyth was later accused of “rape”, according to a number of sites (including an article by Ireland’s public service station RTE).
  • I could not find information as to the nature of the abuse in the specific cases of the two children who were forced to sign the oath of silence, but if later children were allegedly raped, one can imagine the abuse might have gone beyond inappropriate touching. The article should have mentioned that the priest was later accused of rape. I have yet to see an American article that says a priest has been accused of rape, as Smyth was in later cases at least. For other accused rapists, and people who help cover up their tracks, do the media talk about “abuse”? Priests deserve no special treatment when it comes to reports of crime.
  • Not only do religious people not deserve a pass when it comes to reporting, they also should be equal under the law. I don’t know enough details about Cardinal Brady, but in other cases of accused rapists and abusers law enforcement and government officials have looked the other way, or given unfair and unjust treatment to accused pedophiles. I recently watched the film Deliver Us From Evil which describes an American priest (O’Grady) who abused numerous children over decades. Complaints to the police didn’t help: the church promised to keep him in a monastery away from children (which didn’t happen). If any other organization promised to keep a child abuser and raper away from children, would the law enforcement just let him go scott free, or would they be tried in the courts? He eventually was jailed, but is now free again. My understanding is that this is not an isolated set of incidents, but that some police and public officials have been knowingly letting the destruction of children’s lives go on for decades just because the accused are priests, clerics, and other religious people.
  • Lastly, when is public outcry going to be loud enough that police, government officials, and churches no longer protect rapists, abusers, and the people who cover up what they have done? It’s obvious they won’t protect children when left to their own devices, so people need to demand justice. I think some people still think the abuse is minor or not widespread, but slowly but surely the word seems to be getting out that these are not isolated incidents, but systematic cover-up allegedly going as high as the current pope (London Times, The Guardian).

The rape and sexual abuse of children is sickening and horrendous, and so is the cozy treatment the accused and their cohorts have been getting for years. The Catholic Church needs to be disabused of the notion that it is above the law and that their priests and cardinals are more important than the victims they leave behind. It is time for secular justice to get to the bottom of this and punish these criminals, not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (since that apparently isn’t enough to set them straight), but in the name of justice.

Image source: Wikipedia

Praying for Toyota?

Image source: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/eng/eed/research/peater/links/toyota.jpg

Individuals are free to pray as they want. But should elected officials be telling people they should pray for the success of a company?

According to Reuters, here are the comments of Kentucky state representative Charlie Hoffman.

“They are our great corporate citizen. We’ve got to pray for Toyota.”

It bears mentioning that, according to the same article by Reuters, “Toyota has invested over $5 billion in Kentucky. Some 6,600 people work full time at its Georgetown factory, the firm’s largest outside Japan and its first in the United States.” I’m sure economic concerns have nothing to do with the representative’s desire to pray for Toyota. After all, as Georgetown’s mayor, Karen Tingle-Sames, says, plant workers

“are not just employees of Toyota — they are our friends and family members. The people we go to church with and the people we shop at Wal-Mart with”

So as long as you go to church and Wal-Mart with someone, they are deserving of God’s grace, it would seem. If they didn’t go to church, I supposed the workers could just go to Hell (figuratively, of course)?

It is this sort of intrusion of religion into the state that seems the most common: elected representatives acting as if everyone can and should believe in God. Whether it’s telling people to pray, or emblazing “In God We Trust” in the U.S. Capitol entrance, it is illegal religious intrusion into our secular government.

State-Church Separation (parody of “My Generation”)

Here’s my latest project, which I’ve just posted on YouTube. It’s called “State-Church Separation”, and is a political parody of The Who’s song “My Generation.” I wrote the song last month and just finally was able to finish recording and make a quick YouTube video. It’s a very nice coincidence that The Who will be doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl! When I found this out, it gave me even more motivation to finish this up and post it this weekend. (I’m an amateur singer and this is my first YouTube video, so please bear that in mind when viewing it or commenting!)

More and more, I’ve been reading about cases of government officials ignoring the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state. I’ve reported on the Memphis City Council having official Chaplains of the Day who pronounce prayers, often in Jesus’ name, and get cuff links emblazoned with the city’s logo paid for at taxpayer expense.

Cases such as these, with the government promoting or endorsing religion, or even more egregious ones (such as a Mississippi police department trying to collect funds to rebuild a church in Haiti, saying “Jesus Christ [is] the answer for this life and the next”) are coming to light as more atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and other non-religious people are standing up for their rights. We are being marginalized in society, often by our own government at the local, state, and national levels.

This country was formed on religious freedom for individuals, not state-sponsored religion imposed on citizens. There are thousands of religious denominations in the United States, as well as millions of Americans who do not subscribe to any religious beliefs. The government should not be spending taxpayer money to support the religious practices of their choosing (nativity scenes, religious memorials, etc.). Our elected representantives, and other government officials, should not be holding religious prayers while doing government business for their constituents, many of whom may believe in a different god than that of the majority, or in no god at all. There is a time and place for everything. A church service is not the time or place for goverment business, and a city council meeting is not the time or place for prayer.

There is a growing movement of atheists and other freethinkers who are speaking out, and I thought a parody of “My Generation” might be able to capture this. Hopefully as more people speak out about this issue, public officials will realize that the rights of all citizens, no matter what religion if any they profess, need to be respected.

God-awful week

It’s been a god-awful week for me personally. Nothing at all compared to the horrible situation in Haiti (Doctors Without Borders is one of the many secular charities helping there). But probably the worst week I’ve had in a very long time.

Things seems to be looking up, though. And this afternoon I finally had a little time to breathe, and was able to finish writing a song parody I got the idea for about a week ago. I’m pretty happy with it, and I plan on doing like I had done with my Baby Lord parody on my previous blog: posting a version of it online here with the lyrics. So please stay tuned!

I have to get going, but in the meantime, for those who may not have seen this yet (or heard about it on Dogma Free America), there’s been news about a US Defense Department weapons contractor who’s been sneaking Bible verses….onto guns. Not only is it illegal for the government to be providing weapons to soldiers that advertise Christianity, but there are obvious problems with using these “spiritually transformed firearm[s] of Jesus Christ” (as some have called them) while waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan…

http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/us-military-weapons-inscribed-secret-jesus-bible-codes/story?id=9575794