Saturday, June 20, 2015

One Nation Under God

One Nation Under God

The U.S. pledge of allegiance was written in 1893 as follows:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."  Notice that there is not a reference to a specific country nor a reference to God.  The author Francis Bellamy, a Christian minister who was also a fervent Socialist,  actually hoped that the pledge could be used in any country.  However, he was actually enlisted to create the pledge and an accompanying flag raising ceremony by a magazine, The Youth’s Companion,  as part of a campaign to sell a U.S. flags to American schools and to increase subscriptions to the magazine.

The pledge was modified, against Bellamy’s wishes,  in 1923 to be more specific about which flag was being referred to:

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Bellamy ran a successful campaign to popularize the pledge.  He appealed to school superintendents, governors, congressmen, and the president.  After being used widely for decades, the pledge was formally adopted by the U.S. congress in 1942.

It was modified one more time in February, 1954 with the addition of “under God” as follows:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

The change was made following six years of campaigning by various individuals and organizations, especially the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution, and The Knights of Columbus.  President Eisenhower, baptized only a year earlier, was moved by a sermon that spoke of the need to make clear the spiritual foundation of the republic. His pastor, George Docherty, said "there was something missing in the pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life." With Eisenhower’s fervent support, the pledge was adopted after previous failed attempts in Congress.

The Declaration of Independence, was written in 1776 and formally adopted by the Continental Congress, the forerunner to our current U.S. Congress.  The first two paragraphs made the spiritual foundation of the new nation very clear.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Armed conflict towards independence had been underway for over a year by the time this declaration was adopted.  The references to a single God, creator of mankind, and the giver of basic human rights were foundational in explaining the need for such extreme measures.  If secularists were to revamp the Declaration of Independence, I find it hard to imagine what foundation they could use in God’s stead.  The idea that adding God to the pledge of allegiance was counter to the spirit and intent of our nation’s founders is absurd given their very clear references to God in the document that proclaimed the United States as a nation.

Recently, I was strongly struck by how thoroughly we have removed references to the one true God, our creator, from our everyday discourse, both private and public.   How is it that the very foundation of our successful country, with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities, could come to be seen as an aberration, or even an embarrassment, in daily conversations and in our social and public media?

I believe in God.  I trust in God.  I talk to God.  I do my best to hear God when he speaks, and to obey as he directs.   I am not ashamed.   Are you?

Monday, June 08, 2015

Contributing to a Better World

Each one of us contributes to the improvement or degradation of our culture.  In order to decide which of our actions are positive and which are negative, we have to establish a basis for deciding what is good and what is evil.   Without such a basis, how could we possibly decide whether our activities are making things better or worse.  Even with such a basis, we may struggle to demonstrate that our actions are making a desirable contribution and are without unintended consequences that negate the good we strove for.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote:  “Without God all things are permissible.”   Let us consider some alternatives to Dostoyevsky’s proposition.  

  1. There is no God, but some things are not permissible.     We could say,    “The universe as we perceive it was not created by anyone or anything.  It came into being out of nothing with assistance from nothing.  We see it change.  So we may ask what is the desirable future state of the universe?   We humans are sentient beings, and perhaps there are others.  Each of us desires pleasure, and not pain. Yet, we see that maximizing our pleasure may require us to defer some immediate enjoyment and apply ourselves to uncomfortable tasks.  Tilling a field and planting a crop may not be pleasurable, and yet having enough to eat presumes that it must be done.   We can persuade or coerce someone else to do the necessary work and share the produce with us.  We could also simply wait for others to decide that the work is necessary for their own welfare, and then steal all or some of their produce from them.  We are aware that we do not wish to be coerced or stolen from, but we decide that it is no problem for us to treat others that way.   We would be acting in accord with the natural world.  The cat allows the mouse to forage for food and grow fat, then the cat can simple eat the mouse.  A bear may wait for bees to collect plant nectar and turn it into honey, and then simply take the honey for the bears own sustenance.  Generally, we do not see the cat as a murderer or the bear as a thief.  Many civilizations adopted the idea that work was a necessary evil, and best done by slaves.   Slavery is coercion.   An elite could enjoy the fruits of the slave’s labor while leaving only enough to ensure survival of the slaves so that the work could continue.  The decision as to who should be a slave and who should enjoy elite status is made arbitrarily, and is usually backed by force. These sorts of arrangements have been common enough over the centuries, and even in our present age, quite a bit of social structure seems to support a version of this.   In the 21st century, in America and a number of other economically advanced countries, there is a strong sentiment that it is not permissible to force others into a form of slavery, nor is it acceptable to allow some to steal the fruits of others labors.    Yet, there is also a strong belief that some provision be made for those who are unable to work to create their own produce.  Yet slavery and stealing are far from rare even now, even in the rich countries.  

One proposal is  that the moral behavior is necessary to maximize happiness among the general populous.  Yet, why should I care about anyone other than myself or those whom I choose to include in my inner circle?   Why is maximizing happiness a worthy goal?   Another idea is that the continued existence of any given group of us depends on all of us working according to certain principles.  But again, what do I care whether our race continues to exist beyond my own life time.   Perhaps if we presume that I care for my own children, we can make an argument for urging kinds of cooperation that will enable them to have a future.  How many generations shall I give such consideration to?  To the best of my knowledge, all will live and die, generation after generation until such time as some cataclysmic event beyond our control destroys the entire species.   Whether it is an asteroid hitting the earth, the sun burning out, or some other unforeseeable catastrophe,  it seems likely that only a finite number of generations will survive me.   And even if only three of four generations survive me, it is likely that they will have forgotten me and my contribution to their survival.  I’ll have no more meaning to them than the longstanding existence of sun and rain.  I will simply be a primal force of the past that contributed to their future, anonymous and unheralded.  

Logic, tradition, compassion.  All may be ignored.  If the one who ignores them is disapproved of by the majority of the human race, so what?  Does the majority presume the right to enforce their ideas on the majority?  Even if they presume that right, do they necessarily have the ability to coerce the minority into operating by principles that the minority eschew?

2.  There is a God, creator of the universe, and all things are permissible.  God has either no preference regarding morals or no ability to intervene if he does has a preference.   It seems we are in the same predicament as the previous scenario.  Why should we pay any attention to someone who attempts to coerce us into adopting the same code they choose to live by.

3.  There is a God, creator of the universe, who intervenes in human affairs in order to make them suffer or not at his whim.  He is all powerful.  His moral law is non existent, or non-comprehensible, to those he has created.  Well, now we may be blessed or cursed, but we are without recourse.  Have a nice life!

4. There is a God, creator of the universe, who has designed that universe to operate according to moral principles that he has communicated to us.  He punishes those who transgress those principles.  Even assuming we have been diligent in understanding the principles he has communicated to us, can any of us really claim to never have violated those principles.  Are there those among us who operate flawlessly and need fear no punishment?

5.  There is a God, creator of the universe, who has communicated moral principles necessary for peace and joy to prevail in the universe.  God ignores or forgives those who violate his principles.  Pain and sorrow exist, and will continue as long as the universe does.
No doubt some of us will do our best to operate by his principles, but we are aware that we will fail.  Some of us or all of us will fail to some degree.  Perfection is never attained.  In the face of perpetual pain and suffering, some choose to do whatever seems best to them to gain whatever momentary pleasure they may.

6. There is a God, creator of the universe, he has communicate moral principles that will enable us to live in peace and joy.  He is aware that we fail to obey to principles.  He arranges for a sacrifice at great cost to himself that will enable us to turn to him and accept forgiveness for our failures.  Further, he arranges for his spirit to dwell in us and guides us if we are willing to accept that help.  What is more, he has put a limit on the time that we will have to live in a world where we struggle and fail.  He will make all things new, including those of us who have failed to obey, but have asked for his forgiveness and help to do better.   This is the Christian universe.  All things are not permissible.  God has given us both forgiveness for failing to obey and means for doing better.  It all depends on our being willing to live in relationship with him, acknowledging his as our Lord (Boss, King, Ultimate Leader, etc.) and as our Savior (friend, lover of our souls, who is able to make all things right).

I once saw an interview with Richard Dawkins, an atheist who scoffs at the idea that God exists or is necessary to the order of things.  And yet, in that interview, he was asked if he would like to be granted eternal life.  No, he said, probably 10,000 years or so would be more than enough.  Even that may predicated on the idea that his pleasures will outweigh his pain and suffering as those 10,000 years pass.  Why stop at 10,000?  We may get 10 or 100, as things stand.  Is a 1000 too little.  100,000 too much?  Why?  It seemed to me that at some level, Dawkins is aware that things are not right in this universe, and to exist in it eternally would be hellish if their were no hope to an end to it all.

It has been said that this life is the closest that those who reject Christ will come to experiencing heaven, and that it is the closest that those who accept Christ will come to experiencing hell.    It is hope in an eternity where all is made right that can help us to endure this life where so much is wrong.  May God have mercy on those who are blind to his existence and his plan for us.  May those who are blind, make the necessary choices to enable them to see.

Our only hope for making a meaning contribution in this life is to understand God and his plan for us and to serve him as best we can, by his grace, using gifts that are all from him.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Gun Debate Re-Framed

Gun Debate Re-Framed

Positions in the gun debate range from the idea that virtually no civilian should be allowed to own a gun, to gun ownership that is tightly controlled, and on to the idea that gun ownership is a right for every citizen and that few, if any,restrictions should be placed on ownership.  I will tackle a broader question.  How much military power should a civilian be allowed to possess?

Some social theorists divide the power of institutions into three broad classes:  socio-political, economic, and military.   In thinking of countries, we could see Russia as a country with a lot of military power, but relatively little economic power, and perhaps a middling amount of socio-political power since Russia has a large population, heavily influences a number of its neighbors, and has developed ties with some regimes which the U.S. considers to be pariahs.  In recent decades China progressed from having almost no economic power to approaching being the largest economic power in the world.  Chinese military power has lagged, but is growing rapidly.  Chinese socio-political power has been significant in Asia even at times when it’s military and economic capabilities were weak.

Institutions like universities, political parties, and citizen militia’s can also be seen as having various degrees of power in each of the three realms.  Likewise, each citizen in a country has a degree of each sort of power.  Voting in elections and spending or investing our money are examples of how we can exercise socio-political and economic power.  The ways in which individual citizens can exercise socio-political or economic power, and the means by which they may be restricted from doing so, are beyond the scope of this article.

The foundational issue in the gun debate is this:  How much military power should citizens possess?   Some would be quick to say that the citizenry should be restricted from having any military power.  Even were that desirable, it is not possible.   There is a large selection of weaponry available to anyone.   From bare fists to molotov cocktails, every citizen has immediate access to at least some means of conducting a military campaign.  History is replete with examples of citizenry who have utilized such tools as part of their campaign to effect change in their society.  The  Sturmabteilung (Storm Attachment or Brownshirts), were civilians who provided physical violence in support of the Nazi party during its early years.  At first their primary weapons were fists, boots, and nightsticks.  Later, as the Sturmabteilung grew in size, organization, and armaments, it was seen as a threat by the Nazi party and was forcibly disbanded by the SS (Schutzstaffel), which was originally a small separate bodyguard for Adolf Hitler within the Brownshirts. That disbandment was accomplished by murdering many  leaders among the SA (Sturmabteilung) and arresting hundreds of others.  Hitler and the Nazi party gained complete control of the German government, but  the SS remained separate from the regular German army and was seen as an ultra loyal enforcement arm for the party.  The SS also absorbed all police functions within Germany.

Gun registration laws implemented during the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s helped the Nazi’s to confiscate all civilian weaponry during the 1930’s as part of consolidating the party’s power.   The Nazi’s restricted gun ownership to those members of the citizenry that were willing to use them in support of the party.

Guns were not necessary to enable violent support for the ascendence of the Nazi party.  Gun registration benefitted Nazi’s in gaining complete control over the German government, including the police and army.

For centuries, the word gun has been used to designate weapons that propel a projectile using explosives.   In the current gun control debate, the the term is restricted primarily to hand held weaponry, generally divided into “handguns” and “long guns”.  The main reason for such a distinction has to do with how easy or difficult it is to conceal a gun about one’s person.  Civilian ownership of knives, clubs, and even projectile firing weapons like bows with arrows, are not included in the debate, perhaps because it would be so difficult it to restrict ownership of weapons that also serve as kitchenware, baseball equipment, and archery sets.  Also, the manufacture of knives, clubs, and bows is easily done by anyone with access to even rudimentary tools.  However, guns can also be built by skilled citizens with access to a relatively simple set of machine tools.   The advent of 3D printing will soon enable very inexpensive manufacturing of the critical components of guns, and little specialized skill will be involved in the manufacture.  All that will be required are digitized designs which exist and are easily copied and distributed.

We can, and have, passed laws making it illegal to use any of the weapons I have described to harm, or even threaten,  another person in all but very specific self defense situations.  A gun is only different in terms of the amount of power it puts at the disposal of the owner.  A very ordinary hunting rifle gives a citizen the ability to project lethal power up to and beyond a thousand yards.  I propose that the argument should not be whether a citizen should own a gun or what restrictions should be imposed on ownership.  Rather the question is this:  How much power shall we allow a citizen to gain easy, legal access to?   

I doubt there is a sizable contingent of voters who would want to see individuals allowed to own artillery guns, weaponized missiles, and all manner of explosives.  The debate is mostly around “small arms” that give substantial power to an individual, but not enough power to kill large numbers of people before they are prevented from doing so by governmental authorities or others.   Semiautomatic guns fire a projectile each time the trigger is pulled.  Highly adept users of revolvers and other manual action guns (such as bolt action rifles) can achieve rates of fire that are comparable to semiautomatic weapons.  Many hunting rifles use an explosive charge and projectile that provide substantially more power than the so-called “assault rifles”.  Opponents of “assault rifles” are correct in observing that the gun has been designed for ease of use in armed conflict: lightweight, modified grips, larger magazines, etc.  They are easier to carry and maneuver in combat situations, but are no more deadly that much more mundane long guns.  The magazine size, or number of rounds that can be fired without reloading, is another factor in the weapon’s usefulness, but makes only an incremental change in its lethality.  Fully automatic weapons fired rounds continuously once the trigger is pulled.  A common term is machine gun.  Ownership of fully automatic weapons has been highly restricted in the U.S. since the 1930’s.

Manufacturer’s of guns in the U.S.  must be licensed and are subject to governmental oversight.  The ownership of guns requires no license in most of the U.S.   Background checks for individuals purchasing guns from a licensed dealer are only required for handguns.  Private sales are relatively unregulated.

A completely different approach to carnage is the use of explosives, flammable substances, and poisons.  The largest mass murders in U.S. history have all been accomplished without the use of guns.  The Oklahoma City bombing was accomplished primarily with chemical fertilizer and diesel fuel.   The 911 destruction of the twin towers was carried out with unarmed civilian aircraft.  Powerful poisons or biological weapons are relatively difficult to acquire and deploy and have seldom been used for mass murder.

There seems to be little debate about  current fairly restrictive U.S. laws regarding manufacture and ownership of explosives, poisons, biological weapons, etc.  U.S. citizens seem willing to surrender these particular types of power.  But debates about laws relative to guns (small arms) are highly contentious.

It is not coincidence that the country with some of the greatest freedoms in other areas such as press, speech, and assembly, has been reluctant to part with the freedom to own guns.  We have much to lose if even the relatively modest military power of guns can only be used by police and armed forces.

There are many in the U.S.  who can’t foresee there being a need for civilians to mount armed opposition to our own government.   It has been 150 years since the Civil War, and there have been no other instances of such large scale combat to resist governmental initiatives as was the case with the abolition of slavery.   Much smaller instances of armed resistance occurred during prohibition in the 1930’s and during various political movements in the 1960’s.  The use of weapons to resist the government was extremely limited compared to the Civil War.  Furthermore, since the last large armed insurrection was in support of maintaining slavery as an institution, the use of weapons to resist the government during the Civil War is seldom seen as a positive development.

In the example of the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany, it is important to note that the party grew from a fringe group to totalitarian control of all of Germany in a decade or so. Some Americans find it credible that a similar threat could arise quickly in the U.S.  Such radical change might be precipitated by large scale unrest due to financial crises or military emergencies such as numerous large scale attacks on U.S. soil by terrorist organizations.  A single such attack, the destruction of the World Trade center buildings, resulted in rapid adoption of previously politically unacceptable changes to U.S. laws regarding how the citizenry are policed.  In the years since that attack, we have accepted radical expansions of how we are searched and tracked by government officials.   The government has gone from covert assassinations of foreign agents to very public use of drones to eliminate people seen as enemies of the state.  And such killings have not been limited to non-citizens of the U.S.  It appears that the Justice Department is even loathe to forswear assassinations of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

We should hope and pray that we find solutions to problems of government overreach that do not require armed resistance by the citizenry.  However, in the event that such resistance becomes necessary, civilian ownership of small arms would be a very significant factor in the ability to mount that resistance.  Although the military and sometimes the police in this country are equipped with much greater firepower, the hundreds of millions of small arms owned by American civilians would still be a very significant factor in resisting tyranny.

Armed civilians can also be effective in preventing the rise of tyrannical groups intent on subverting our current government and the freedoms we enjoy.  They also act as a first line of defense against criminal activity when police are unavailable (when seconds count, the police are just minutes away)  or overwhelmed as in the case of large scale rioting.

Some argue that wide scale ownership of weapons is more likely to increase the incidences of violent crime or deadly rioting.   However, horrendous violence exists in many countries that have a very low rate of gun ownership.  Low crime rates and high security exist in some other countries where gun ownership is far higher.  Switzerland is often used as an example of high gun ownership, low crime country.

If we properly frame the debate about the ownership of firearms, we can spend a lot less time arguing over irrelevant side issues such as the difference between guns for sport and guns for killing people or guns for self defense against crime versus guns for self defense against organized tyranny.  It should also be clear that the number of guns in circulation in a society bears little relationship to the crime rate there.  The central question should be this:  Is it wise to enable the civilian population of a country to own effective means of resisting tyranny by governments or criminals.