Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Religion vs Credibility

When religion loses its credibility
Galileo was persecuted for revealing what we now know to be the truth regarding Earth’s place in our solar system. Today, the issue is homosexuality, and the persecution is not of one man but of millions. Will Christian leaders once again be on the wrong side of history?
By Oliver "Buzz" Thomas

What if Christian leaders are wrong about homosexuality? I suppose, much as a newspaper maintains its credibility by setting the record straight, church leaders would need to do the same:

Correction: Despite what you might have read, heard or been taught throughout your churchgoing life, homosexuality is, in fact, determined at birth and is not to be condemned by God's followers.

Based on a few recent headlines, we won't be seeing that admission anytime soon.

(Illustration by Adrienne Lewis, USA TODAY)

Last week, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops took the position that homosexual attractions are "disordered" and that gays should live closeted lives of chastity. At the same time, North Carolina's Baptist State Convention was preparing to investigate churches that are too gay-friendly. Even the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) had been planning to put a minister on trial for conducting a marriage ceremony for two women before the charges were dismissed on a technicality. All this brings me back to the question: What if we're wrong?

Religion's only real commodity, after all, is its moral authority. Lose that, and we lose our credibility. Lose credibility, and we might as well close up shop.

It's happened to Christianity before, most famously when we dug in our heels over Galileo's challenge to the biblical view that the Earth, rather than the sun, was at the center of our solar system. You know the story. Galileo was persecuted for what turned out to be incontrovertibly true. For many, especially in the scientific community, Christianity never recovered.

This time, Christianity is in danger of squandering its moral authority by continuing its pattern of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the face of mounting scientific evidence that sexual orientation has little or nothing to do with choice. To the contrary, whether sexual orientation arises as a result of the mother's hormones or the child's brain structure or DNA, it is almost certainly an accident of birth. The point is this: Without choice, there can be no moral culpability.

Answer in Scriptures

So, why are so many church leaders (not to mention Orthodox Jewish and Muslim leaders) persisting in their view that homosexuality is wrong despite a growing stream of scientific evidence that is likely to become a torrent in the coming years? The answer is found in Leviticus 18. "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination."

As a former "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" kind of guy, I am sympathetic with any Christian who accepts the Bible at face value. But here's the catch. Leviticus is filled with laws imposing the death penalty for everything from eating catfish to sassing your parents. If you accept one as the absolute, unequivocal word of God, you must accept them all.

For many of gay America's loudest critics, the results are unthinkable. First, no more football. At least not without gloves. Handling a pig skin is an abomination. Second, no more Saturday games even if you can get a new ball. Violating the Sabbath is a capital offense according to Leviticus. For the over-40 crowd, approaching the altar of God with a defect in your sight is taboo, but you'll have plenty of company because those menstruating or with disabilities are also barred.

The truth is that mainstream religion has moved beyond animal sacrifice, slavery and the host of primitive rituals described in Leviticus centuries ago. Selectively hanging onto these ancient proscriptions for gays and lesbians exclusively is unfair according to anybody's standard of ethics. We lawyers call it "selective enforcement," and in civil affairs it's illegal.

A better reading of Scripture starts with the book of Genesis and the grand pronouncement about the world God created and all those who dwelled in it. "And, the Lord saw that it was good." If God created us and if everything he created is good, how can a gay person be guilty of being anything more than what God created him or her to be?

Turning to the New Testament, the writings of the Apostle Paul at first lend credence to the notion that homosexuality is a sin, until you consider that Paul most likely is referring to the Roman practice of pederasty, a form of pedophilia common in the ancient world. Successful older men often took boys into their homes as concubines, lovers or sexual slaves. Today, such sexual exploitation of minors is no longer tolerated. The point is that the sort of long-term, committed, same-sex relationships that are being debated today are not addressed in the New Testament. It distorts the biblical witness to apply verses written in one historical context (i.e. sexual exploitation of children) to contemporary situations between two monogamous partners of the same sex. Sexual promiscuity is condemned by the Bible whether it's between gays or straights. Sexual fidelity is not.

What would Jesus do?

For those who have lingering doubts, dust off your Bibles and take a few hours to reacquaint yourself with the teachings of Jesus. You won't find a single reference to homosexuality. There are teachings on money, lust, revenge, divorce, fasting and a thousand other subjects, but there is nothing on homosexuality. Strange, don't you think, if being gay were such a moral threat?

On the other hand, Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how we should treat others. First, he made clear it is not our role to judge. It is God's. ("Judge not lest you be judged." Matthew 7:1) And, second, he commanded us to love other people as we love ourselves.

So, I ask you. Would you want to be discriminated against? Would you want to lose your job, housing or benefits because of something over which you had no control? Better yet, would you like it if society told you that you couldn't visit your lifelong partner in the hospital or file a claim on his behalf if he were murdered?

The suffering that gay and lesbian people have endured at the hands of religion is incalculable, but they can look expectantly to the future for vindication. Scientific facts, after all, are a stubborn thing. Even our religious beliefs must finally yield to them as the church in its battle with Galileo ultimately realized. But for religion, the future might be ominous. Watching the growing conflict between medical science and religion over homosexuality is like watching a train wreck from a distance. You can see it coming for miles and sense the inevitable conclusion, but you're powerless to stop it. The more church leaders dig in their heels, the worse it's likely to be.

Oliver "Buzz" Thomas is a Baptist minister and author of an upcoming book, 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Stem Cell Clarity

From a molecular biologist. His research is in an area of cell biology related to cancer. As such, he is following the findings and debate surrounding stem cell research very closely.

First let's define what stem cells are. There are two major kinds, adult and embryonic.

A stem cell can be roughly defined as a cell that can divide, such that one or both of the resulting daughter cells can go on to become a progenitor (or founder) for a large number of other cells that have a specific functions (brain cells, muscle, bone, etc). In adult tissue the stem cell remains a stem cell, providing new progenitor cells throughout its lifetime, but only dividing slowly when new cells are needed. These are adult stem cells. In the embryo, a stem cell could continue dividing rapidly, producing not only progenitor cells of a particular cell type, but also other stem cells.

As adults, we are likely to carry stem cells in all major tissues of our body, including brain. Much effort has taken place over the last decade in trying to identify and isolate these cells (without compromising the function of the tissue). For example, in skin researchers have shown that the stem cells are located in a small bulge structure that is part of every hair follicle. Thus, if we can isolate enough of these from for example a burn victim, we could theoretically resupply the necessary skin cells in the laboratory using the stem cells as the progenitors. These cells could then be grafted onto the wounded areas, without all the graft-host rejection problems when donor skin is used. One can now imagine similar strategies for replacing damaged brain tissue (Parkinsons, Alzheimers, accidents, etc), lung tissue, liver, kidney, muscle, and so forth.

Why take stem cells from embryos if we can do the above? That is more a practical problem. Right now skin and bone marrow are amongst the few adult tissues where identifying and isolating the stem cells can be done efficiently. And even in these cases it will be some years before these techniques are widely applied clinically. Embryonic stem cells on the other hand are usually easier to propagate in culture (they divide much more rapidly), and often can be directed towards a particular cell type. The holy grail in stem cell research would be to isolate cells that can be directed to become any cell type, using the right culture conditions.

Advances in stem cell technology are coming every day, whether made in the US or abroad. In fact, with the current federal funding restrictions, we can be assured that most of the major advances will not be in America, unless funded by private sources, as is taking place in California and Massachusetts (not coincidently blue states). We need to continue stem cell research if we are ever to advance beyond the need to isolate stem cells from embryos.

Those whose power is based on clinging to tradition and maintaining the status quo (religious leaders, conservative politicians) are once again standing in the way of scientific advancement. And as always, they stand on the wrong side of history.

The children and grandchildren of people like George Bush and Pat Robertson (and the Pope, in a non-literal sense) will live longer and healthier lives, not because of anything they've done, but in spite of their ignorance.

Seven blunders of the world that lead to violence

"Seven blunders of the world that lead to violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle," - Mahatma Gandhi.

Some Levity

These bumper stickers were compiled by Jerry Paull, a
former Methodist minister in Lakeside, Ohio, who
writes:
"The following are actual bumper stickers on cars. I
didn't write any of them. I'm only the messenger.
If they make you laugh, good. If they make you cry,
good. If they make you angry, that's good too."

BLIND FAITH IN BAD LEADERSHIP IS NOT PATRIOTISM

IF YOU'RE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION

IF YOU SUPPORTED BUSH, A YELLOW RIBBON WON'T MAKE UP
FOR IT

POVERTY, HEALTH CARE, AND HOMELESSNESS ARE MORAL
ISSUES

OF COURSE IT HURTS. YOU'RE GETTING SCREWED BY AN
ELEPHANT

BUSH LIED, AND YOU KNOW IT

RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM: A THREAT ABROAD, A THREAT
AT HOME

GOD BLESS EVERYONE (No exceptions)

BUSH SPENT YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY ON HIS WAR

IF YOU SUPPORT BUSH'S WAR, WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?
SHUT UP AND SHIP OUT

FEEL SAFER NOW?

I'D RATHER HAVE A PRESIDENT WHO SCREWED HIS INTERN
THAN ONE WHO SCREWED HIS COUNTRY

MY VALUES? FREE SPEECH. EQUALITY. LIBERTY.
EDUCATION. TOLERANCE

IS IT 2008 YET?

DISSENT IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF PATRIOTISM -- Thomas
Jefferson

DON'T BLAME ME. I VOTED AGAINST BUSH -- TWICE!

ANNOY A CONSERVATIVE: THINK FOR YOURSELF

VISUALIZE IMPEACHMENT

HEY BUSH! WHERE'S BIN LADEN?

STOP MAD COWBOY DISEASE

GEORGE W. BUSH: MAKING TERRORISTS FASTER THAN HE CAN
KILL THEM

KEEP YOUR THEOCRACY OFF MY DEMOCRACY

DEMOCRATS ARE SEXY. WHOEVER HEARD OF A GOOD PIECE OF ELEPHANT?

ASPIRING CANADIAN

DON'T CONFUSE DYING FOR OIL WITH FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM

STEM CELL RESEARCH IS PRO-LIFE

HATE, GREED, IGNORANCE: WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

HONOR OUR TROOPS: DEMAND THE TRUTH

REBUILD IRAQ? WHY NOT SPEND $87 BILLION ON AMERICA?

FACT: BUSH OIL 1999 - $19 BARREL, 2006 - $70 BARREL

THE LAST TIME RELIGION CONTROLLED POLITICS, PEOPLE GOT
BURNED AT THE STAKE

I'LL GIVE UP MY CHOICE WHEN JOHN ROBERTS GETS PREGNANT

HOW ON EARTH CAN 59,411,287 PEOPLE BE SO DUMB?

Democratic Reminder

From the GREAT STATE OF MAINE...from www.dailykos.com

A Message to the Democratic Leadership:

Okay, you're in and they're out. Welcome to the winner's circle. Since C&J is the most widely read publication on "The Hill" (named after Senator Hillary Clinton) I know you're expecting me to provide some personal guidance. Consider this a freebie:


Do the nation's bidding, not just the Democrats' and certainly not just your own (one Joe Lieberman is enough, thank you).

If I have to fork over a third of my income to you guys in taxes, I damn well expect you to be responsible with it. My broker doesn't take my money with the intent of building bridges to nowhere and neither should you.

I'm retiring in 23 years. I don't expect sweets and flowers but I do expect Social Security to be strong and non-privatized. Make it so and keep it so.

Silly flag-burning and gay marriage amendments are a waste of everyone's time. They are now off the table. A constitutional amendment establishing a permanent three-day weekend is back on the front burner.

Communicate with the netroots once in a while. Come to YearlyKos in August. Talk to us---we're a big ball of Democratic fusion (or is it fission? Whichever one doesn't make us literally explode, that's us) and we're here to help. That said, we will be watching and judging you based on spine, principle, talent and the swimsuit competition.

President Bush is not a moron---he just plays one on TV and in person. To put it diplomatically: when dealing with "43" "31 Percent," trust but verify. To put it less diplomatically: don't trust him ever.

The days of Republicans calling our side terrorist sympathizers are over. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can show you how to deliver a right hook to the jaw. If that's what it takes to stop this nonsense, so be it.

America's health care system is ranked lower than Cuba's. Fix that.

There is much Republican-fueled chicanery to investigate and many subpoenas to issue. Start with the war profiteers, the real traitors in our midst. Make them pay for putting their country club lifestyles ahead of our soldiers' lives.

You will memorize the following phrases and use them when the traditional media tries to push an inaccurate frame or outright lie about you or the Democratic agenda: "Where do you come up with this stuff?" "Prove it!" "Who said that?" "You've got to be kidding---is that what you really think?" "You want to step outside and tell me Democrats are weak?" You will not let the talking heads off the hook until they either prove their assertion or they admit they're full of bull. If the interviewer has been a total jerk, end the interview with, "Thanks for having me on. I hope next time we talk you'll do your homework first."

We understand that democracy is messy. We get that you're all jockeying for position and protecting your little fiefdoms---it goes with the territory. Just try and keep it a notch or two below Level Embarrassing, okay? If you're stooping, you're losing.

You promised to bring transparency and accountability back to Congress. Good. We the People are your boss and we pay your salary. We deserve to see what you're doing in our name.

For our men and women in uniform: 1) Body armor NOW. 2) Vehicle armor NOW. 3) Full funding of VA services NOW. 4) Unrelenting pressure on the president NOW to present his "plan" for getting us out of Iraq. (He, not you, is the Commander-in-Chief. This is his hot potato.) Our troops have been through---and continue to go through---hell. Let's reverse the Republican course and start showing `em some goddam respect.


You've got a helluva mix of seasoned veterans and new recruits with a golden opportunity that's been a long time coming. We don't expect you to be perfect. But we do expect you to be competent. Dear Lord, at least be that.

Sincerely,

---Bill in Portland Maine
American Pundit of Great Influence

Jim Webb Seems to Get IT

Class Struggle
American workers have a chance to be heard.

BY JIM WEBB
Wednesday, November 15, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.

Incestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives and others that are out of logic's range. As this newspaper has reported, the average CEO of a sizeable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.

In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn't happen. Despite the vaunted all-time highs of the stock market, wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth. At the same time, medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years alone. Half of that increase comes from wage-earners' pockets rather than from insurance, and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.

Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Many earned pension programs have collapsed in the wake of corporate "reorganization." And workers' ability to negotiate their futures has been eviscerated by the twin threats of modern corporate America: If they complain too loudly, their jobs might either be outsourced overseas or given to illegal immigrants.

This ever-widening divide is too often ignored or downplayed by its beneficiaries. A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris. When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials, and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind. A troubling arrogance is in the air among the nation's most fortunate. Some shrug off large-scale economic and social dislocations as the inevitable byproducts of the "rough road of capitalism." Others claim that it's the fault of the worker or the public education system, that the average American is simply not up to the international challenge, that our education system fails us, or that our workers have become spoiled by old notions of corporate paternalism.
Still others have gone so far as to argue that these divisions are the natural results of a competitive society. Furthermore, an unspoken insinuation seems to be inundating our national debate: Certain immigrant groups have the "right genetics" and thus are natural entrants to the "overclass," while others, as well as those who come from stock that has been here for 200 years and have not made it to the top, simply don't possess the necessary attributes.

Most Americans reject such notions. But the true challenge is for everyone to understand that the current economic divisions in society are harmful to our future. It should be the first order of business for the new Congress to begin addressing these divisions, and to work to bring true fairness back to economic life. Workers already understand this, as they see stagnant wages and disappearing jobs.

America's elites need to understand this reality in terms of their own self-interest. A recent survey in the Economist warned that globalization was affecting the U.S. differently than other "First World" nations, and that white-collar jobs were in as much danger as the blue-collar positions which have thus far been ravaged by outsourcing and illegal immigration. That survey then warned that "unless a solution is found to sluggish real wages and rising inequality, there is a serious risk of a protectionist backlash" in America that would take us away from what they view to be the "biggest economic stimulus in world history."

More troubling is this: If it remains unchecked, this bifurcation of opportunities and advantages along class lines has the potential to bring a period of political unrest. Up to now, most American workers have simply been worried about their job prospects. Once they understand that there are (and were) clear alternatives to the policies that have dislocated careers and altered futures, they will demand more accountability from the leaders who have failed to protect their interests. The "Wal-Marting" of cheap consumer products brought in from places like China, and the easy money from low-interest home mortgage refinancing, have softened the blows in recent years. But the balance point is tipping in both cases, away from the consumer and away from our national interest.


The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of "God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag" while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet. But this election cycle showed an electorate that intends to hold government leaders accountable for allowing every American a fair opportunity to succeed.

With this new Congress, and heading into an important presidential election in 2008, American workers have a chance to be heard in ways that have eluded them for more than a decade. Nothing is more important for the health of our society than to grant them the validity of their concerns. And our government leaders have no greater duty than to confront the growing unfairness in this age of globalization.


Mr. Webb is the Democratic senator-elect from Virginia.