DeflateGate Meets Legit Data Analysis

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Slate’s got a great article about the backstory behind DeflateGate, complete with some really excellent data analysis. What can I say? I’m a data geek. Throw together some charts that tell a clear story that really deepens understanding of a current event and I’m ecstatic.

Now my buddy who is coming over to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday and is a huge fan of the Patriots? He might be less excited, because the article doesn’t make Tom Brady look very good.

The story is basically this, Tom Brady (and Peyton Manning) urged the NFL to change the rules so that traveling teams could provide their own footballs for their own offense. Back in the day, the home team always provided the balls for both teams. After this change was made, suddenly the Patriots proved incapable of fumbling the football. Behold:

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They went from having about 42 plays per fumble (about average) to having 74 plays per fumble after the new rules went into effect (off the charts). Now, I’m not sure what he’s going for with his statistics mumbo-jumbo after that, but since I’m not getting paid I’m not going to do math. I’m just gonna say: that doesn’t look like chance to me. “The bottom line is,” according to the article, that “something happened in New England. It happened just before the 2007 season, and it completely changed this team.”

Oh, and a final thought, some folks have suggested that if you take a properly inflated ball from inside where it’s warm to outside where it’s colder it will lose pressure. Technically: yes. But (given actual weather conditions that day) probably not enough to explain DeflateGate.

Overcriminalization in America

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Politico Magazine ran an article a few weeks ago about overcriminalization in the US that was interesting in two ways. The first was the recitation of statistics and examples that show just how ridiculously overcriminalized our society has become. We have 5% of the world’s population. We have 25% of the worlds prisoners. Think about that: one out of every four human beings in a jail is in an American jail. That seems insane. What’s more, the sheer scope of our criminal code is absurd:

Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year. Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.)

Not that we’re just addicted to criminal statutes, by the way. In How the Stock Market Works, Professor DeGennaro notes that:

The tax code contained just 11,400 words in 1914, one year after the Constitution was amended to permit the federal government to levy an income tax. It didn’t stay that way. Forbes contributor Kelly Phillips Erb said that the code was up to about 4,000,000 words by January 2013. That’s about four times as long as all of the Harry Potter novels combined. And you know what? That vastly understates the complexity of the US tax system. The code itself is just the law that tells the IRS what to do. The IRS has to devise regulations to put the law into practice. I doubt anyone really knows how many words are in the regulations, and the story gets worse.

The Forbes article he referred to is here, and it includes another jarring fact:

Since 2001, Congress has made nearly 5,000 changes to the Tax Code. That’s more than a change per day.

At this point we are way, way, way past the point where any normal human being could possibly be certain that they had not violated the law even if they made it their full-time job to do so. This is what led Harvey Silverglate to write his book Three Felonies a Day, suggesting that is how many felonies a typical American commits on a daily basis without ever knowing it. Sound crazy? So do some of the violations summarized in the Politico piece:

This explosion of criminal laws has led to imposing liability on activities that ordinary citizens would have no reason to believe would be criminal such as converting a wild donkey into a private donkey, bathing in the Arkansas Hot Springs National Park without a doctor’s note, and agreeing to take mail to the post office but not dropping it off. It has led to criminal liability for amateur arrowhead collectors who had no idea their hobby could be a federal crime, as well as criminal charges and a conviction for a former Indianapolis 500 champion who got lost while snowmobiling during a blizzard and unwittingly ended up on federal land.

So let me make one point (something not brought up in the article): the way Americans think about our government has a serious, serious flaw. We tend to view the job of legislators and the executive to get things done. Which, for most purposes, means to pass laws. When government doesn’t pass enough new laws you hear about gridlock and the assumption is that our government is defective. It is as though Americans have this bizarre picture in their minds that Washington DC is a factory for churning out legal statutes, and if we don’t get our quota than there’s something wrong with the factory. Why are more laws automatically better? Clearly we have too many laws already. Not every problem needs to be tackled by adding new laws. We can also think about repealing, reforming, consolidating, and streamlining the laws and the agencies we already have. But nobody gets elected by making enemies, and so our obsession with manufacturing new laws continues.

Here’s the thing, though, the average law-abiding, middle-class, educated American doesn’t have that much to fear from overcriminalization. Sure, you might get lost in a blizzard and end up on federal land and get slapped with a criminal charge, but for the most part if your life is more or less together before such a freak accident occurs, you can probably depend on your savings, education, friends and families, etc. to survive the ordeal. In this way, breaking the law (on accident) is a lot like having your house burn down or losing your job or other life emergencies: they are the biggest threat to the most vulnerable.

And that’s the second interesting thing about this article. It is written by Charles G. Koch and Mark V. Holden. Yes, one of the infamous Koch Brothers (Holden is General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Koch Industries, Inc.) And yet the primary point of the article is that overcriminalization is basically a form of systmatic, state-oppression of the poor and vulnerable. For example:

African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues. According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

Now, even if you’re very skeptical and you think that that Koch Brothers are just pretending to care about the African-American community, fine: you should still read the article. Whatever you think of their motives, the fact remains that they have presented a very good argument for why overcriminalization is hurting America’s poor and even included a 6-step plan to fix it. Check it out.

Meg Conley on Operation Underground Railroad

985 - Meg Conley at OUR Premier

This is my friend Meg Conley. She  blogs at Meg In Progress, and she is awesome for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is her involvement with Operation Underground Railroad. OUR is an independent non-profit with a very simple mission: they save children from sexual slavery. They do this by sending in former CIA agents, Navy SEALS, etc. in undercover sting operations (coordinated with local governments) to set up deals with sex traffickers. Once the money changes hands, local law enforcement comes in and arrests the dealers, and the children are freed. Putting bad guys away is a big deal, but OUR never takes their focus away from what matters most, the kids. Here’s Meg:

Yes in the movie, bad guys were caught and evil was disrupted. But the beauty of OUR is that they understand that while catching the criminals is necessary and invaluable, their focus remains on the children. We saw babies rescued from the filth and despair of an orphanage run as a front for child trafficking. We heard the stories of girls that had been rescued from a daily life of darkness infused with violation. Girls that hurt and never expected to stop being hurt. Girls that “never knew there were people out there that worried about girls like me.” Girls that even amidst the lingering pain and trauma are finally learning to dream again. To see the value in life and, oh my blessed heaven, to see the value in themselves. And we saw men and women willing to sacrifice hard-earned resources, time with their families, and physical safety to save even one life.

Meg knows about OUR because she has been on one of their sting operations. Here she is again:

In August, I went on an undercover sting with them in the Dominican Republic. While there, my skin was touched by human traffickers as we shook hands and I pretended to want they were selling.  My heart was branded with the faces of the children as they marched past me at the end of the operation, out the door and onto a different, better life. My life was changed. I know firsthand the, at times, miraculous works of O.U.R. And yet, the movie last night pushed me back into my seat and pulled my eyes wide open.

The movie Meg is talking about is The Abolitionists, which Meg saw at an early screening yesterday. The movie tells the story of OUR. Here’s what the trailer looks like:

There are a lot of problems in the world, and there are a lot of good organizations trying to fight them. Child sexual slavery is one of the worst problems. OUR is one of the best organizations. Please read the rest of Meg’s piece and then help OUR expand their efforts.

Speaking in Tongues and Building Bridges


I am religiously multilingual. I grew up in a devout Mormon family, I learned all the Mormon songs, heard all the Mormon stories, and read all the Mormon scriptures. I identified as a Mormon, and I still do. When I was in elementary school my best friends were all Mormon. But during that traumatic shake-up that happens to kids as they transfer from elementary school to middle school I missed my footing and fell out of favor with the other Mormon kids. For about the next decade, I didn’t have a single close Mormon friend I saw on regular basis, and the Mormons I did get along with most were those on the margins. Throughout the formative years of middle school, high school, and college the people I trusted, depended on, and interacted with outside of regular church meetings were almost exclusively with non-Mormons. And during regular church meetings? I was very lonely.

The upside of the loneliness was that I learned a religious version of code-switching. I’ve always had a keen interest in religion and politics and all the controversial topics you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company, and I spent all my time talking about those issues with non-Mormons. So I picked up some of the vocabulary, paradigms, values, and cultural touchstones of the Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, agnostics, and atheists around me.

One of the biggest impacts of religious multilingualism is that it changes how you view your own faith. The first realization is the most basic: you start to see how many of the unspoken assumptions about what you think and how you behave are not universal, but are particular to your own religious and cultural background. You start to realize just how much variety there is to the way different people view the world.

Along the way, you may also catch glimpses of your own religion reflected back to you in the eyes of others. This is a strange experience. It’s like vertigo or an out-of-body experience to see what is most familiar and close to your identity appear suddenly strange and distant. It’s a kind of radical dissociation, like what happens when you repeat an ordinary word until meaning and sound of the word separate. Try it, if you’re curious. The word “tub” is fun to use. Just start repeating it to yourself, out loud, at normal speed. Give it a couple of minutes at most, and suddenly you’ll feel like you’re making sounds instead of words.

Every now and then when I’m sitting in Elder’s Quorum and we’re saying a prayer I can’t help but look around at all the other guys in the room and think: “This is weird.” We’ve all got regular jobs with regular people and we know how to get along just fine in the regular world. But every Sunday we keep coming back to this brutally ugly meetinghouse, sitting in these weird pseudo-rooms made by moving giant curtains to subdivide a carpeted basketball court attached to a chapel, and we pray in front of each other like it’s the most mundane thing in the world. It is, by the experience of most of the American people, not a normal way to behave. For the non-religious the whole project is bizarre, and even for religious Americans the particular habits of Mormons—like our lack of formality or professional leadership—are definitively abnormal.

None of this is to say that I love my weird religion less. On the contrary, there are some things I appreciate about Mormonism that I wouldn’t have noticed without the experience of being religiously multilingual. High on that list is the fact that, as a general rule, Mormons proselyte with a positive message. That might seem obvious, but a Mormon living in the Bible Belt will soon be disabused of that notion. I’ve been told that I’m going to Hell simply for being Mormon on more than one occasion, and when I tried to join a Bible group on campus (because Institute seemed far away and, frankly, non-Mormons often know the Bible much better than we do), the leader staged what I can only describe as an intervention to try and rescue me from “Joe” Smith’s nefarious clutches. So, as it turns out, there are actually other ways to go about it. Of course individual Mormons fall short from time to time, but as a people we have nothing like the countercult movement, and I’m proud of that.

Being religiously multilingual has helped me be a better Mormon in other ways as well. As I’ve learned more about other faith traditions, I’ve grown to view them with respect and admiration. Treating other religions this way is an intrinsic aspect of the Mormon view on truth.  Joseph Smith said that “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may,” and his successor Brigham Young reinforced that sentiment as well: “I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” Mormon scholar Terryl Givens described Joseph Smith’s belief in his calling as “an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration,” but also wrote that Smith was “insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations.”

This puts a very different light on the Mormon teaching that our church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” I do believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true Church, but to me that means something fairly narrow and limited. It means we’re the one authorized, formal institution. But it doesn’t mean we’re perfect, doesn’t mean we’re better, doesn’t mean we know it all, and doesn’t even mean we know the most. Mormons have no monopoly on truth. That is plainly evident from our leaders and in our scriptures. For example, Doctrine and Covenants section 49:8—a revelation given to Joseph Smith—talks about “holy men ye know not of,” cementing in scripture the principle that God is quite busy interacting with a lot of people other than Mormons to accomplish His purposes. Apostle Orson F. Whitney said the same thing in 1928 when he said that: “God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people.”

I’ve become a huge fan of Krister Stendahl’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding and in particular rule number three: “Leave room for holy envy.” This isn’t a rule that I think Mormons have always fully grasped, but—as the quotes in the previous two paragraphs illustrate—it has always been a part of who we try to be.

I’d like to think that I’ve also been able to use my multilingual perspective in ways that have been constructive for other folks as well. Many years ago when Facebook groups had discussion boards, I was part of a particularly large group where the longest running-thread was titled “Protestants vs. Catholics” (or something similar). I often enjoyed participating in that discussion as the third leg of a tripod: Christian, but neither Protestant nor Catholic. No one ever really wins a debate of that nature, of course, but I think that changing the dynamic from simplistic one-on-one to a more fluid and stable three-way conversation sometimes improved the tenor and expanded the breadth of the discussion.

These, then, are the three primary benefits of religious multilingualism: an increased capacity for introspection, an increased capacity to learn from others, and an opportunity to engage more effectively in ecumenical discussions. Each of them, I believe, can be applied at the macro level to Mormonism as a whole just as I have seen them work in my own life.

One of the big surprises for the world travelers who came to Salt Lake during the 2002 Winter Olympics was that there were all of these conventional-looking white men and women who, at the drop of a hat, could hold forth in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, German, Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and dozens of other languages.”Mormons Project Image As Diverse as Olympics,” wrote the New York Times. This is a natural consequence of the Church’s ambitious missionary program. There are about 50 languages taught at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo and the Church also runs MTCs in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

It’s obvious when you think about it: lots of Mormons serve missions, and so lots of Mormons speak foreign languages. Mormons don’t just learn the language when they live in foreign countries. They learn and come to love the culture. Talk to any Mormon missionary—even those who served stateside and didn’t learn a new language—and they will almost invariably be able to tell you about the best local cousine and speak with adopted pride about local traditions and history from wherever they served, be it Alabama or Albania.

All of this international exposure and cultural multilingualism means that Mormons—and especially American Mormons—have an opportunity and an obligation to try and separate our cultural heritage from the essence of Mormonism. If instead of a young American farmer named Joseph Smith, God had restored His church to a young Indian or a young Japanese farmer, what would the institution look like today? What part of what Mormon missionaries export is essential Mormonism and what part is Wassatch Front culture? These are murky and sensitive questions, but important ones.

The process of attempting to distill religion from culture is uncomfortable and can never yield truly definitive results, but it is important in understanding ourselves and reaching out and engage with a global audience. In years to come, it may very well be that one of the most important consequences of our global missionary effort is not what we teach to others but what, by seeing our faith refracted back in different languages and cultures, we learn about our own religion.

Of course it’s not just our own religion we should learn about, but the religions, traditions, and cultural insights of the people of the world. This is a matter of scriptural injunction for Mormons: “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” I also find it very interesting that the topic of faith crises is so prominent in our discussion these days, and is linked in our scripture to the command to learn: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” We may come to learn that when it comes to faith crisis in our secular age, the best way out is through. The solution is not insularity, but greater exposure and the inoculation that comes with the habit of being exposed to many, many new ideas and developing the skill of synthesizing what we learn that is new into our traditions and beliefs.

Now that I’ve covered briefly how Mormons can use our cultural multilingualism to achieve greater introspection and learn from others, let’s consider the third benefit of multilingualism, engaging beneficially in ecumenical discussions.

The relationship between Mormonism and the broader Christian community has always been fraught. Mainstream Christian denominations have reacted to Mormonism’s stark claims to being the only truth Church by refusing to recognize Mormon baptisms. Mormons are occasionally miffed about that without realizing that Mormons don’t recognize anyone else’s baptisms either! The biggest sticking point in this relationship, of course, is that many other Christians denominations assert that Mormonism is not Christian at all.

Mormons, who unambiguously view themselves as Christians, are torn by conflicting desires to enter a broader ecumenical community and to maintain their distinctiveness. Mormon scholar Armand Mauss writes about this as the tension between assimilation and differentiation in, for example, The Angel and the Beehive . Early Mormons like the Pratt brothers emphasized Mormon distinctiveness, but more recently President Hinckley (who led the Church until 2008) oversaw a period of engagement that downplayed the more revolutionary teachings of Joseph Smith and emphasized common Christian doctrines.

Although clearly important, this emphasis on the relationship between Mormons and mainstream Christianity has distracted attention from a different set of bridges that Mormons could be building. In an age in which it often seems as though traditional religious voices are declining in prominence and importance, Mormonism may be uniquely positioned to enter into dialogue with rising secular voices, shifting the emphasis from intra-Christian discussions to inter-faith discussions where “secularism” is considered a faith group in its own right. That’s a controversial classification, of course, but other than that nomenclature there isn’t really that much to debate: secularism is clearly more than the mere absence of religion. In our society, secularism entails a suite of philosophical commitments (such as to materialism/physicalism and analytic reductionism) and cultural attitudes that function in ways that are broadly equivalent to a religion, and it is a religion with which Mormonism is uniquely positioned to interact with.

Mormonism has long held, for example, that there is no conflict between science and religion. Brigham Young taught that “Our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular,” and he even viewed that as a distinctive element of Mormonism that set it aside from other Christian denominations. Mormons have also long taught a kind of metaphysical monism that, while not necessarily identical to physicalism, is certainly more akin to it than to traditional Cartesian dualism. “All spirit is matter,” reads a canonized revelation to Joseph Smith.

Mormons also reject the conventional Christian idea that God created the world ex nihilo, which means “from nothing.” Instead of God creating by conjuring something out of nothing, Mormons believe that the world was created by organizing materials that were already present. More importantly, Mormon scripture contains hints that some kernel of the human soul itself is fundamentally uncreated: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”

The precise philosophical implications of these beliefs are unclear, especially since Mormonism has no official theology and no authoritative theologians. But some general trends are clear. The first is that, in a sense, Mormons reject supernaturalism. Instead, we embrace a variant of Clarke’s Third Law: Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from miracles. How far Mormons run with this notion is a matter for individual deliberation, but the extreme position that posits God as a kind of super-evolved person is not inconceivable. And that is a definition of God that even Richard Dawkins could learn to live with.

And, even without precisely working out the theology, the Mormon perspective does have relevance to important topics like the Problem of Evil. How does one reconcile why bad things happen to good people? The most prominent response involves citing free will, but if you believe that God created human beings out of nothing then that explanation doesn’t work very well. Sure, we’re free to act out according to our sinful natures, but if God made us then He made our natures. Why didn’t He make them better? Discarding the doctrine of creation ex nihilo doesn’t solve the Problem of Evil in one fell swoop, but it does have a significant and meaningful impact on the conversation.

It is, however, not an ecumenical conversation. The Problem of Evil is an example of a theological problem that is of interest to anyone who  believes in a creator God and also serves as a linchpin in many atheist arguments. And so, rather than jumping into the Protestant vs. Catholic debate as I did many years ago, I have to wonder if Mormonism might be able to fill a similar role in the more general religious vs. secular discussion going on in our world. It would be a stretch to say that Mormonism has a foot in each domain, but it is at least in the unique position of being able to survey both landscapes from where it stands.

This may seem like an absurd position, so I want to spend just a little time on it. Lots of faiths can adapt to secularism by simply downplaying supernatural claims and reducing everything to symbolism. Mormonism is as capable as any other denomination of taking that route. There is nothing unique to Mormonism in that strategy. There’s also nothing interesting or useful in that strategy. Assimilating religion into a secular worldview does nothing good for either religion or secularism, and history shows that religions which go down that road gradually fade and die.

Instead, what Mormonism offers is the prospect of maintaining the vitality of historical religious propositions in a secular environment. To be clear: I’m talking about Mormons who believe a man named Jesus Christ walked the Earth 2,000 years ago, performed various miracles, died, and was resurrected. The Mormon difference isn’t to deny that miracles can happen, it’s to imagine that miracles do not violate the laws of physics but operate at a higher level. This is weird, yes, but quantum mechanics is weird. Again: the best way out of the religion vs. science conflict is through.

It is also worth noting that the idea of synthesizing religious and secular views is not a new one for Mormons. One of the greatest examples comes from Orson Scott Card’s greatest work The Speaker for the Dead. The book recounts how, after exterminating humanity’s rivals in the events of Ender’s Game, Ender created a new, secular religion. The religion is secular in the sense of not making any supernatural claims or even discussing God, and it is clearly modeled on the cultural place Mormonism actually occupies in American society. Mormonism is at once scoffed at by traditional religions for being irreligious in its conceptions of deity and by secular society for being overly religious in its belief in angels in the age of railways. Similarly, in Card’s writing, the religion of the Speakers is viewed with mistrust both by the futuristic Catholic Church and the dominant secular society. It’s an uncomfortable and strange place that Mormonism occupies, but also a potentially fruitful one.

Perhaps the biggest thing holding Mormonism back from this kind of bridge-building between religious and secular society is our own reticence. One of the reasons Mormonism seems weird is that in trying to emphasize our commonality with other Christian denominations we sometimes refuse to speak up clearly and plainly about beliefs that would emphasize our distinctiveness. And, since we suddenly go silent exactly where people are most interested in what we believe, it’s no surprise that the vacuum gets filled with tangential, obscure, or false versions of what we believe. Being more willing to speak explicitly about uniquely Mormon beliefs is an important part of being seen as less weird or, at least, being seen as weird for the right reasons.

Mormonism, both because of our unusual doctrine and our far-flung missions, is truly multilingual. We can and should use this trait to better understand ourselves, better learn from our neighbors, and more productively engage in the great religious discussions of our day, which is happening not within the overtly religious community, but between secular and religious philosophies.

Why John Dehlin Faces Church Discipline: Updated for Meridian Magazine

Meridian Magazine is running an updated story about the real reasons John Dehlin is most likely facing disciplinary action. The article merges and updates my Real Clear Religion post and my Difficult Run post.

This is not a topic I enjoy writing about for several reasons. First, I feel no ill-will towards Dehlin and therefore no happiness at all that he faces disciplinary council. It is simply sad. Second, there is a lot of material to read through in order to write a post like this, and none of the material is intrinsically interesting or uplifting. Lastly, this kind of post tends to bring out the more adversarial aspects of Internet communication, and that is something that I do not enjoy. My days of being excited at the prospect of a flamewar are long, long gone.

I wrote my initial piece because I thought it was important for there to be a rigorous and balanced alternative to Dehlin’s narrative. When Meridian invited me to republish the post there, I did the work of merging and updating for the same reason. I hope I’ve accomplished that goal.

EDITED 2017-Mar-28: There was originally an image on this post. The image was a screenshot of an iOS device with a notification from the New York Times stating “Prominent Mormon Faces Excommunication for Backing Gay Marriage.” The person who took that image contacted me today and asked me to remove it and also his/her name, and so I have.

Foucault: A Possible Colleague of Neoliberals?

French philosopher Michel Foucault is a darling of the academic left; one that I have been strongly encouraged to read. I own several of his works, but have yet to delve into his writing much. The release of a brand new book, however, has sparked my interest even more. In an interview with Jacobin, sociologist and editor Daniel Zamora explains,

Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a “much less bureaucratic” and “much less disciplinarian” form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.

On those who often dismiss neoliberal intellectuals like Hayek, Becker, or Friedman, Zamora says,

The intellectual left…has often remained trapped in a “school” attitude, refusing a priori to consider or debate ideas and traditions that start from different premises than its own. It’s a very damaging attitude. One finds oneself dealing with people who’ve practically never read the intellectual founding fathers of the political ideology they’re supposedly attacking! Their knowledge is often limited to a few reductive commonplaces.

Reason‘s Brian Doherty writes that “Foucault saw something in “neoliberalism” that anyone who pretends to care about human liberty, possibility, or dignity should respect.” Several years ago, Doherty’s fellow Reason editor Nick Gillespie pointed out that

five years before his death in 1984, Foucault gave a generally appreciative series of Paris lectures on classical liberalism that have finally been translated into English. In The Birth of Biopolitics (Palgrave MacMillan), Foucault, always focused on the exercise of power and repression, tells his students to read Hayek and crew “with special care.” He found much to commend in their work. First and foremost, true liberalism is “imbued with the principle: ‘One always governs too much.’” As important, it asks (and answers) the question, “Why, after all, is it necessary to govern?”

This is encouraging. Tufts professor Daniel Drezner thinks “conservatives should embrace [Foucault] and his work. From a conservative perspective, the great thing about Foucault’s writing is that it is more plastic than Marx, and far less economically subversive. Academics rooted in Foucauldian thought are far more compatible with neoliberalism than the old Marxist academics.” Drezner’s article title goes even further: “Why Michel Foucault is the Libertarian’s Best Friend.”

Given my attraction to much of the rhetoric and concerns of the Left, I’m excited to begin my Foucault journey.

March for Life 2015

Photo of crowds at the 2013 March for Life. (
Photo of crowds at the 2013 March for Life. (

The annual pro-life March for Life on Washington DC is huge, and it seems to be getting bigger (and younger) every year. Crowd estimates are very controversial, but here’s what the Wikipedia entry has just to give you a sense of the scale:

The march has previously drawn around 250,000 people annually since 2003, though estimates put both the 2011 and 2012 attendances at 400,000 each. The 2013 March for Life drew a claimed 650,000 people.

The March for Life in 2013 was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which explains the huge numbers. Yesterday’s 2015 iteration was down from the high numbers, with early estimates of up to 200,000.

But don’t expect to hear about “hundreds of thousands” from mainstream media coverage. Don’t even expect to hear about “tens of thousands.” You might, if you actually go out and search for them, find an article about “thousands” of people marching. More likely, however, you’ll hear crickets chirping. This is one event the media does not like to cover.

For anyone who is already associated with the pro-life movement: you know how much this movement means. You know what is at stake in principles and in innocent lives. For anyone who might not know, however, let me just quote from an address given at the 2008 March for Life:

We contend, and we contend relentlessly, for the dignity of the human person, of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, destined from eternity for eternity—every human person, no matter how weak or how strong, no matter how young or how old, no matter how productive or how burdensome, no matter how welcome or how inconvenient. Nobody is a nobody; nobody is unwanted. All are wanted by God, and therefore to be respected, protected, and cherished by us.

We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until all the elderly who have run life’s course are protected against despair and abandonment, protected by the rule of law and the bonds of love. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every young woman is given the help she needs to recognize the problem of pregnancy as the gift of life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person—of every human person.

You might not readily associate this quote, with its talk of support for young pregnant women and for babies even after they are born, because the stereotypes of the pro-life movement is sex-obsessed and devoid of compassion for anyone except the unborn. Well, whatever you may have heard, these words echo my convictions. They echo the conviction of every ardent pro-lifer I have ever met.

I encourage you to read the rest of the speech, which First Things reprinted today.

This is what we stand for.

This is who we are.

Why John Dehlin Faces Church Discipline

John Dehlin applauds for a performance of “The Book of Mormon” musical, as covered in the New York Times:

Real Clear Religion is running a post I wrote about the probable reasons behind John Dehlin’s upcoming disciplinary council:  The Real Reason Why One Mormon Is On Trial. Dehlin promulgated a heroic narrative in which he will face down Church discipline because he refuses to abandon his support of same-sex marriage and Ordain Women. The narrative is attractive to a secular audience, which has picked it up and run with it. Examples so far include:

  • New York Times
    First paragraph: Mormon leaders have moved to excommunicate the prominent founder of an online forum for questioning Mormons, charging him with apostasy for publicly supporting same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, and for challenging church teaching.
  • Daily Beast
    Headline: The Coming Crackdown on Mormon Liberals
  • Slate
    In the first paragraph: Dehlin… said his regional church leader scheduled a hearing for Jan. 25, and that if he didn’t take down podcasts that are critical of the church and disavow his support for the organization Ordain Women as well as gay marriage, he would likely be excommunicated.

The narrative initiated by Dehlin and echoed by these sources is not accurate. My article at RCR explains why by relying on two of Dehlin’s fellow liberal Mormons: Steve Evans and Chris Henrichsen. Both openly support same-sex marriage and sympathize with Ordain Women. Neither have (as far as we know) faced discipline. And both doubt that gay marriage and Ordain Women are central to Dehlin’s disciplinary council.

You should read the article, of course, but there are a couple of points that got left out of my RCR piece (mostly for length constraints). I want to point those out here, and then make a final observation that wasn’t in the original RCR piece.

Letter from Stake President Bryan King

First and most importantly, Byran King (Dehlin’s stake president) sent Dehlin a letter dated August 11th, 2014 in which he specifically said that gay marriage and Ordain Women were not the primary concerns:

I fear that in my willingness to engage in a discussion on all of the issues that you chose to address during our lengthy conversations, the direction of my true concerns may have not been clear… I am focused on five core doctrines of the Church: (1) The existence and nature of God; (2) Christ being the literal Savior of the World and his Atonement being absolutely necessary to our salvation; (3) the exclusive priesthood authority restored through the Church; (4) The Book of Mormon as scripture and the revealed word of God; and (5) the governance of the Church by doctrine and revelation through inspired leaders. As you know, and as my letter outlined, in the past you have written and spoken out against these core doctrines on numerous occasions and in numerous public contexts.

When Dehlin provided a document dump with his initial press release about the disciplinary council on January 17 he left that letter out. In a January 19th follow-up in which he repudiated Steve Evans’ assertion that gay marriage and Ordain Women were probably not central issues, he provided a different version of the document dump that included the August 11th letter. But he only quoted from an August 7th letter that seemed to bolster his case. (Hat tip to Angels in the Architecture for alerting me to the Aug 11th letter and the two different document dumps.)

The letter shows that Dehlin’s Stake President clarified his real concerns to Dehlin back in August of 2014, and that same-sex marriage and Ordain Women were not on the list.

Changing Stories

Yesterday Dehlin revised his January 17th statement in which he had repudiated Steve Evans’ assertion that gay marriage and Ordain Women were not central issues. He now claims that:

Even though the media have chosen to focus on SSM and OW in many of their stories, I don’t believe that I have ever claimed that SSM and/or OW were the only causes for the disciplinary council, or even necessarily the main causes (if I have done so, I’m more than willing to apologize/clarify).

Logically, this makes no sense. Steve Evans said SSM and OW were not the “main causes.” If Dehlin didn’t feel differently, why would he have written a response solely to contradict Steve Evans?

Pragmatically, however, it makes all the sense in the world. Dehlin fed a dishonest narrative to the media on January 15th. Now that they have taken the ball and run with it (see articles above) he can disavow the narrative and still reap the benefits.

Final Thoughts

I read a lot of comments, Facebook posts, and other quotes from John Dehlin as I researched my piece this weekend. Through it all there was one unexpected feeling: empathy.

Dehlin is a man who has spent the last 10 years straddling two diametrically opposed worlds. He has ardent fans within the Mormon and post/ex-Mormon communities, and both sets of fans are sure that he is really one of them. One of the quote that RCR trimmed from my piece came from a post-Mormon commenter who wrote of Dehlin that “he does not make it crystal clear he isn’t a Mormon… [but] everyone knows Dehlin is a mole in the Mormon church.” Within the post/ex-Mormon community, there is a belief that if Dehlin is excommunicated they will lose their best undercover agent.

It’s easy for someone who is a Mormon to be angry about that. The first thing to point out, however, is that as far as I could learn the post/ex-Mormon community is just as much in the dark as the Mormon community. Just as some Mormons are convinced Dehlin isn’t a “real” Mormon, some of them are convinced that he isn’t a “real” post/ex-Mormon. So my point is not that we should just take the word of an anonymous post-Mormon commenter as final.

I sort of recognized some of what Dehlin has been trying to navigate from my own similar (but not identical) experiences. I’ve never made any effort to hide the fact that if you’re going to put me in a bucket, I pick the conservative bucket over the liberal bucket. But I have also worked pretty hard to keep minds and channels of communication open. And this means that some of the conservatives I tend to admire the most for their forthright and bold positions view me as a kind of untrustworthy, counterfeit conservative. Meanwhile, some of the liberals who might actually have a lot in common with me in terms of values even if not policies view me as a kind of dangerous alien who wraps sinister right-wing dogma in moderate-sounding rhetoric. Building bridges can be thankless work.

And so when I say that I have no desire to judge or demean Dehlin I mean it sincerely. I don’t think he started out a decade ago with an aspiration to become an undercover anti-Mormon. That’s not because I’m unwilling to believe that anyone could be so evil. People are capable of great evil. They just aren’t, in my experience, capable of great long-run planning. Who has a plan that works out like clockwork over a 10-year period? So I think it’s much more likely that Dehlin’s roller-coaster ride in and out and in and out of the Church reflected a lot of genuine turmoil on his part.

But, as important as bridge-building can be, so is being honest. Trying to relate to widely different viewpoints shouldn’t ultimately come down to masking your own intentions and beliefs. It’s one thing to refuse to choose sides because you’re sitting this one out. It’s another to be actively involved in the game, but playing for both teams.

And so my analysis stands. His initial post did plant the SSM / OW seed in the media. It is a false narrative. The most probable reasons for the disciplinary council are his public repudiation of core Mormon beliefs and his work–in consequence even if not in intent–to drive Mormons in faith crisis out of the Church. We can’t know how the disciplinary council will go, and it’s not really our business. But as long as Dehlin chooses to make this part of his story public we should at least have the facts.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Christian Radical

In a 2011 post, historian John Fea acknowledged the idea that the United States is a “Christian nation” is typically associated with the Christian Right. People from Glenn Beck to Newt Gingrich have claimed America was founded and meant to be a Christian nation. “Rarely, if ever,” Fea writes, “do we hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., included in this list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today”:

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (June 14, 1954). It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity. Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” “offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.” Furthermore,

King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God. King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it “degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth. He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.” …By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Every side of the political spectrum attempts to lay claim on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. But as one writer put it, “The texts we argue about most—the Bible, the Constitution, Orwell’s wartime essays, MLK’s civil rights sermons—are the ones whose force of enlightenment, poetry, passion, and morality have risen above the cacophany of human language to almost universally stir souls and inspire liberation. People don’t fight over words that only apply to one side of most arguments…Like the Declaration [of Independence] itself, MLK’s words were considered radical upon utterance, yet universal within a couple of generations.”

Jesus is often seen as a radical (even when he was at times more conservative in his interpretation of the Torah than his peers) whose love was universal. In an effort to follow in his Master’s footsteps, King was also a radical advocating for the universal.

May we all be a bit more radical in pushing forward the universal.

You Must See these Stunning Posters from NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau

Did you know that NASA had an Exoplanet Travel Bureau? I did not. Of course, they don’t, not really. But they do have these really incredible images about some real-world exoplanets that have been recently discovered. I applaud both the art and the science. Here are the images, along with the NASA text that accompanies each one, but you should definitely head over to the site to get super high resolution versions suitable for printing your own posters.

992 - Kepler-186f

Kepler-186f is the first Earth-size planet discovered in the potentially ‘habitable zone’ around another star, where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. Its star is much cooler and redder than our Sun. If plant life does exist on a planet like Kepler-186f, its photosynthesis could have been influenced by the star’s red-wavelength photons, making for a color palette that’s very different than the greens on Earth. This discovery was made by Kepler, NASA’s planet hunting telescope.

Experience the Gravity of a Super Earth

Twice as big in volume as the Earth, HD 40307g straddles the line between “Super-Earth” and “mini-Neptune” and scientists aren’t sure if it has a rocky surface or one that’s buried beneath thick layers of gas and ice. One thing is certain though: at eight time the Earth’s mass, its gravitational pull is much, much stronger.

990 - Kepler_16b

Like Luke Skywalker’s planet “Tatooine” in Star Wars, Kepler-16b orbits a pair of stars. Depicted here as a terrestrial planet, Kepler-16b might also be a gas giant like Saturn.