'Monkey Girl' and Religious Tribalism

I’ve just finished Edward Hume’s Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul.

Although I followed the trial obsessively back in 2005, and have previously read two books about the trial (The Devil in Dover and 40 Days and 40 Nights), Monkey Girl went further into the action behind the scenes, particularly with the School Board.

One of the things that struck me was the degree of (often toxic) religious tribalism shown by the advocates and supporters of the Board’s ID policy, a tribalism exemplified by the book’s title. This included:

  • Board member Casey Brown being subjected to “fellow board members repeatedly quizz[ing] her about whether she had been ‘born again’ making it clear that answering no would render her suspect, or worse …”

  • Brown being “pronounced an atheist” for her opposition. This also happened to lead plaintiff Tammy Kitzmiller on multiple occasions, as well as to other plaintiffs.

  • Taunting at school of children of opponents of the policy.

  • Intimidation of plaintiffs and their families: “Tammy Kitzmiller, whose name was now the most prominent of the group, regularly received hate mail. The Rehms eventually stopped going to restaurants in town, because of several incidents in which strangers approached and insulted them, in one case shouting profanities at them with their children present.”

  • Villifcation by the Board of local reporters for accurately reporting their antics:

Left unsaid, though it was widely known in Dover, was that board members regularly made insulting comments about the reporters during public meetings; the journalists would have to sit there red-faced and take it. Some board members took special delight in trashing the two freelancers when they knew that reporters from national publications were present in the audience. (A glimpse of this sort of venomous sentiment emerged at the trial when the former board member Jane Cleaver took the stand and said, "Joe [Maldonado] doesn't know how to tell the truth. He only knows how to tell a lie.")
  • Board member Heather Geesey on the stand “smilingly admitting to near-total incuriosity and ignorance regarding the curriculum changes she had mandated for her constituents’ children”.

  • Geesey, Bonsell and Buckingham making blatantly false claims in attempts to bolster their policy in court. The first two provoked Judge Jones to question them directly, in unsuccessful attempts to get to the bottom of things. Buckingham was impeached by his own recorded statement in a news video.

  • Death threats being made against Judge Jones for his ruling.

This tribalism, and the often connected willingness, nay eagerness, to impose your religious views on others (through legislation, public education, employment, etc) is one of the things that make me most distrustful of religion. I am not claiming that it is ubiquitous in conservative American Christianity (nor that it is exclusively an American [religious] problem), I have however seen nothing to indicate that it does not hold considerable prevalence there.

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I don’t see tribalism as exclusive to religion. Tribalism is common in any place where people feel threatened by the presence of another group with differences - whether it be ethnicity, race, economic status, political views, religion, and so on. So I don’t understand why you choose to pick on religion in particular. (We have seen tribalism crop up in internet atheism as well.) Imposing your tribalistic views on others via legislation is also not exclusive to religion. People generally want to accomplish their goals with whatever means is possible.

Perhaps in the US tribalism based on religion has been prevalent recently, but that is also debatable. Arguably racial issues have been just as important recently.

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@dga471:

I explicitly stated that this was neither a ubiquitous nor exclusive problem for conservative American religion (to the extent that I was ambiguous as to the latter, I have just clarified my OP).

I agree that tribalism simpliciter “is common”, and would go further and state that it is ubiquitous wherever groups congregate, even without some form of perceived threat. It is present in the rivalry between supporters of rival sporting teams, it is present in high school cliques.

It does not however typically rise to the level of toxicity that Edward Hume documents in his book (summarised in my OP). It does not typically lead to violation of others civil rights. It does not typically lead to plaintiff intimidation, it does not typically lead to death threats.

From what I have read over the years, intimidation (including death threats) of plaintiffs in civil rights cases involving imposition of religion have become sufficiently common in America that courts now routinely allow them to be filed anonymously. (@Puck_Mendelssohn may be able to shine more light on this point.)

This is not normal. This is ugly and this is dangerous. People who feel sufficiently “threatened” merely by others simply seeking to have their civil rights respected, that they feel entitled to issue death threats, are the sort of people that I want kept far, far away from me, and far, far away from control of nuclear arsenals.

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I’m afraid I can’t. It certainly is the case, however, that plaintiffs in such cases can try that, and that the courts may allow it. Whether it is very common or not, I do not know.

I know. I’m just skeptical that religion is uniquely bad in this sense. It is just one of many forms of tribalism. And no, I wasn’t thinking of tribalism of sports teams or high school cliques when I said that tribalism is ubiquitous.

How do you know that? Have you investigated plaintiff intimidation and death threats in other types of tribalism, such as those to do with racial issues? Political issues?

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US fundamentalism is uniquely bad. You may need to get out of the northeast to see just how bad it is.

It shouldn’t be any part of any Christianity that takes Jesus’s teachings seriously.

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Maybe it’s bad compared to other stuff happening in the US, but at least the Dover Trial didn’t lead to any actual deaths. In many other places tribalism leads to actual killing and violence against minorities.

It shouldn’t, but I’m a pessimist who thinks that any large scale religious or political movement will result in tribalism, no matter the actual teachings or ideals of the movement. That’s just human nature.

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Many of those other places with actual killing and violence are inside the US, not outside it.

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I never said that “that religion [and specifically American conservative Christianity] is uniquely bad in this sense.” Chinese treatment of their Uighur, Tibetan and Mongol minorities is worse. Burmese treatment of their Rohingya minority is worse. Iran and Suadi Arabia’s treatment of their own populations are worse. But is that really company that someone claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ would want to keep?

Because, as I said, tribalism is ubiquitous, and violation of people’s civil rights, plaintiff intimidation and death threats are not anywhere close to ubiquitous. A society where they are ubiquitous (or even close to it) would be a society that has ceased to function above the level of the tribal unit.

No I have not. And given that I have not claimed, and have explicitly and repeatedly disavowed, that this toxic tribalism is unique to religion, I do not need to. This, @dga471, is a strawman argument!

But let us look at the likely candidates for tribalism sufficiently toxic to lead to widespread intimidation of court opponents and/or to widespread death threats.

The most obvious examples would be those that already involve violent crime (e.g. Street Gangs, Drug Cartels, etc). Nobody would see this as either particularly surprising or as in any way excusing emulation.

The next would be extremist politics. The US Far Right is already widely viewed as dysfunctional and pathologically toxic (a dysfunctionality highlighted in the days since the election). It would therefore surprise nobody if it indulged in such behavior. The US Far Left, regrettably, has also become increasingly involved in arguable civil rights abuses (‘Cancel Culture’). I have however not heard any indication that this has risen to widespread intimidation of court opponents or to widespread death threats.

Racism is already viewed as beyond the pale, and also has considerable overlap both to Far Right politics and to violent criminal activity. Therefore a high level of toxic tribalism is to be expected.

None of these comparitors in any way serve to normalise or justify the activities of conservative Christians against First Amendment plaintiffs.

As far as providing evidence that such intimidation is sufficiently widespread that plaintiffs are seeking to file anonymously, I can provide this journal article: When Fear Rules in Law’s Place: Pseudonymous Litigation as a Response to Systematic Intimidation.

On socially-charged issues, a history of backlash and intimidation against plaintiffs may convince potential plaintiffs that court proceedings are too dangerous to pursue. For example, plaintiffs bringing separation of church and state cases regularly receive nasty, vitriolic threats. Because describing these threats as disturbing fails to convey the emotions they induce, I spotlight three examples below:
Letter received by a plaintiff You would look so cute without an eye to offend you and without a tongue to offend me and mine . . . We will make some lovely incisions in your filthy bellies and pull out those nervy Guts one by one, slow and easy.
Twitter post directed at a plaintiff your home address posted online i cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped you fucking worthless cunt.
Note received by a plaintiff You're Next! (accompanied by parrot's severed head).
Alongside countless threats and attacks like these, named plaintiffs have had their houses firebombed and burned to the ground, their children assaulted, and more. Sadly, a plaintiff who considers bringing a case to enforce separation of church and state6 protections should expect similar threats. Compounding the issue, modem technology has made it easier for non-parties to disseminate litigants' contact information and to encourage others to harass plaintiffs.

I cannot state categorically that no other scholarly article has been written about intimidation by some other group. I would however suggest that any other group whose intimidation rises to this level is likewise worthy of severe disapprobation.

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Now you’re strawmanning my argument. I didn’t claim that you claimed that toxic tribalism is only present in religion. However, you did claim that tribalism in other forms “does not typically rise to the level of toxicity” in the case of the Dover trial:

As I said, I’m skeptical of that claim and I’m unconvinced that toxicity from religious tribalism in the US is worse than other types of tribalism. And I don’t think you disagree with me, given your own provided examples of toxicity in extremist politics and racism. While the things you listed in your OP are no doubt terrible, not normal, toxic, and extremely embarrassing for Christians to be associated with, unfortunately I’m not surprised, given how prominent the Dover Trial was at the time (especially among many religious communities across the country, including all kinds of extremists) and the presumably fundamentalist and conservative environment of the town. The toxicity surrounding the Dover Trial seems to be a harbinger of the extreme political polarization we find ourselves in today. At the same time (correct me if I’m wrong), at least the Dover Trial didn’t lead to protests, riots, and physical violence.

However, as @thoughtful alluded to, toxicity and tribalism is unfortunately not uncommon behavior everywhere in the world between majority and minority groups. In fact I think we are very fortunate that in the US there is at least a presumption that these things are not normal in a civilized, functioning society and that there are many Christians (myself included) who would condemn such behavior.

My feeling is that the US is still in the middle of a great shift in terms of demographics and religious beliefs and different groups have not yet fully figured out how to function in this new societal structure. Christians are all over the map regarding this, too. An example is Rod Dreher, who wrote a much-discussed book a few years ago suggesting Christians should retreat from society and live in their own communities.

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@dga471:

If I am NOT being purported to being claiming that religious tribalism is unique, then perhaps you should tell me WHY I am expected to have “investigated plaintiff intimidation and death threats in other types of tribalism”?

A degree of tribalism exists everywhere where there are groupings, or sub-groupings, of people, whether the groupings be for work, sports, social, etc. In the past, this did not matter so much if that tribalism became hostile, as people worked, played and prayed within the same tribe or village, with little contact with the next tribe or village. With the complexity and mobility of the modern world, if such tribal hostility was typical, to the extent of intimidation and threats, we would have social collapse. This is why I view your ‘skepticism’ as blatantly counterfactual.

Street gangs and drug cartels are not typical. Far-Right MAGA/Proud Boy/etc politics is not typical. Violent racism is not typical. If they were, the US would be in a far worse state than its currently, admittedly far less than ideal, state.

Dover may not have resulted in “protests, riots, and physical violence”, but conservative Christian opposition to church and state litigation has resulted in fire-bombing and assaults on children (as the paper I quoted above states). And the level of intimidation has been sufficiently common for plaintiffs to file pseudonymously to attempt to avoid it, and for academics to write about the issue.

No, @dga471, this level of threat and intimidation is NOT “not uncommon behavior everywhere in the world” (my emphasis). I would suggest that in developed countries, they would only be common where authoritarian regimes have subverted democracy and the rule of law.

Are you then taking comfort in the fact that the US is better than most third world and/or authoritarian countries? That is cold comfort, and hardly “a city upon a hill”.

The reaction to this “great shift in terms of demographics and religious beliefs” has increasingly been emphasis on voter suppression and intimidation, gerrymandering, and the more regressive parts of the US Constitution (the Electoral College, and the ability of a population minority to control the Senate, and this Senate’s veto over judicial appointments) to entrench a minority viewpoint over that of the new majority. This is blatantly anti-democratic, and dysfunctional. It should therefore not be surprising that voter participation in the US trails that of most developed countries. Where citizens feel ignored and marginalised, it is historically not uncommon that they resort to “protests, riots, and physical violence”.

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Unfortunately, almost half of the population appears to believe that they are desirable.

“Many” isn’t “most.” Evangelical leaders are actively promoting much of this tribal behavior.

Because you claimed that the toxicity from religious tribalism is worse than other types of tribalism. To establish A is worse than B, C, D, you should take a look at all of them first, right?

You misunderstood what I said. I’m not saying that we should expect intimidation and threats to be common in all everyday interactions. Rather, I’m saying that criminal and extremist behavior occur in all sorts of societies, including well-functioning ones. That’s why we have government agencies and law enforcement authorities which are supposed to keep track of these threats. But simply the presence of conflicts and threats of violence does not mean society is imminently going to collapse. In fact, if we’re talking about social collapse, the incidents you cited regarding the Dover Trial in your OP seem pretty mild. A school board member unfairly accused of being an atheist is a sign that society is going to collapse? Really?

In the paper you attached, for example, the firebombing incident occurred in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp, which was back in 1963. Does that mean that back in 1963 the US was on the verge of social collapse? Was it not a developed country back then? It’s 2020 now. (The paper also cited a case of arson in 1982.) I’m not saying these incidents are OK. I’m not saying that we should just let them happen or think about them as “normal”. No, we should clamp down on extremism and violence whenever we can.

I’m not from the US. I come from a place where violence and intimidation against minority religions and ethnicities is considered less of an outrage. Yet we still have a society. Maybe not functioning as well as the US, but it’s livable. So, perhaps I better appreciate what we have in the US compared to someone who’s lived here all their life. That being said, I don’t understand American exceptionalism and rhetoric about being a “city on a hill” at all. The US has its own flaws like anywhere else in the world.

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But you don’t appear to grasp the deterioration of the US.

It’s absurd, mostly coming from people who’ve never traveled.

Its flaws are increasing in number.

No @dga471!

I . DID. NOT!

The most I claimed is that this behavior is “not typical”, of the (as I have repeatedly pointed out) very broad range of manifestations of tribalism in a modern society.

This broad range covers everything from the very innocuous and very commonplace, to the very rare and very toxic (e.g. genocide).

And this places not-insubstantial elements of conservative American Christianity into this class of “criminal and extremist behavior”, a class that would include ISIS and Al Qaida. I think it is highly unusual for a democratic developed nation to have a politically influential religious group responsible for such religious terrorism. The closest that comes to mind in recent history is Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’ – both a very different set of circumstances, and hardly an example for emulation.

I never stated that “the US was [or is] on the verge of social collapse”, in fact again this is viewpoint that I’ve disavowed:

It appears however that you are living in the US. I’m not in the US either, but have lived and worked in two countries, Australia and New Zealand. Neither is perfect, but neither demonstrates the degree of voter-disenfranchisment, violence, inequality or religious animosity I see reported in the US. I also try to keep abreast of events in (particularly Western) Europe, and whilst I know that there are problems there, particularly in countries with significant immigrant populations, I have seen no indication that these problems rise to the level of the US’s.

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You claimed that other types of tribalism “does not typically rise to the level of toxicity” as that displayed in the Dover trial case. To reword your statement:

  1. Religious tribalism can be very toxic, as in the Dover case.
  2. Other sorts of tribalism can exist, but they are not usually as toxic as the religious tribalism in the Dover case.

It’s fair to phrase that “religious tribalism is worse than other forms of tribalism”.

Here are some quotes to back up what I’m saying:

Next:

You’ve forgotten the context of my comment, which is to respond to the following comment of yours, where you argued against the notion that tribal hostility is typical by saying that if it were, then society would collapse:

My point is, tribal hostility exists in many functioning societies in varying degrees (and so it is “typical” in that sense, similar to how it is typical for any large city to have a busy police department), and that does not mean that that such a society is on the verge of collapse. You need a lot more of such incidents to cause collapse, and in the case of the Dover trial, I don’t think we were anywhere close. So I don’t think you have disproven by argument that while we should denounce the despicable behavior surrounding the Dover trial, it’s unfortunately not uncommon in high-profile cases like that, and that does not mean that society is going to collapse.

Again, I don’t think that the behavior displayed by Christians in the 2005 Dover trial should be regarded as “normal” or praiseworthy. But it’s a real stretch to compare their actions to what ISIS and Al Qaeda have done. ISIS “systematically committed torture, mass rapes, forced marriages, extreme acts of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, genocide, robbery, extortion, smuggling, slavery, kidnappings, and the use of child soldiers.” Did anything even close to that happen in the Dover trial? Even in the US today, which is much more polarized than in 2005, nothing close to that is happening on a systematic scale like what happened with ISIS. I think there’s a large, large difference between the Dover Trial and ISIS that it’s ridiculous to put them in the “same class”.

Since you don’t live in the US and obtain most of your information about it from news reports, have you considered to what degree your perception is biased in paying more attention to the bad things that are happening in the US?

I’m not saying that the US is perfect, or that the “media is lying”, or that what you’re reading in the news is completely false. I’m just saying that bad news and shocking developments are naturally more likely to be reported compared to more mundane, regular features of everyday life.

  1. This argument leaks like a sieve.

  2. Even if true, the most that could be claimed about it was that I made statements that could be interpreted as implying that I meant “that the toxicity from religious tribalism is worse than other types of tribalism.” IT DOES NOT demonstrate that I myself “claimed” it (a much stronger claim.

The main flaw in your argument is that in order to reasonably accurately paraphrase my statements you had to say “but they are not usually as toxic as the religious tribalism in the Dover case” not “but they are not as toxic as the religious tribalism in the Dover case” let alone “but they are all not as toxic as the religious tribalism in the Dover case”.

From this you can, at most, garner the conclusion that “religious tribalism is worse than more usual forms of tribalism” or “religious tribalism is worse than more common forms of tribalism”. And I would stand beside such a claim.

Which do you think is more usual or common: somebody ribbing an acquaintance that their favorite team lost (probably one of the most common and most inoquous forms of tribalism), or threatening plaintiffs in a court case? That was my point.

You keep citing that statement over and over again, as though it is admitting to something that it is not!

This appears to be avoiding my point rather than addressing it.

  1. I was not talking about tribalism, or even tribal hostility, simpliciter, I was explicitly talking about it rising to the level of “of intimidation and threats” (in the context of court proceedings).

  2. I was not talking about a complete lack of such behavior as being necessary for society to survive, I was stating merely that such behaviour could not be “typical”, i.e. common or routine.

  3. I was specifically talking about a complex and mobile modern society. Such societies are typically reliant on an impersonal court system, and so are more vulnerable to plaintiff and witness intimidation (as it is only when they speak up that the courts know there is a problem to be dealt with).

The US, and most developed countries, rely on a functioning court system to maintain law and order. If threats and intimidation became “typical” or common throughout society (rather than being confined to certain areas, and certain types of court case), the courts would be unable to function effectively. The result would likely be vigilantism at war with criminal impunity – the Gotham City of Batman might give some idea – an interesting place to set a story, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

I merely said “in the same class” – not that they were directly comparible. Are you denying that attempting to use threats and intimidation to get your own way on a religious issue could be reasonably classified as a form of religious terrorism? Terrorism, like tribalism, is a spectrum.

“Bad things” also happen in Australia and New Zealand: Aramoana, Port Arthur, Christchurch come immediately to mind. I have family members that live, or have lived, in two of those locations, and know people who lost family in one of them (and I’m fairly sure that my family member who had lived at that location knew some of the victims). The difference is (i) how common they are, and (ii) how serious the government, and the population, are in making serious efforts to make sure that they are less likely to happen again. This is not just a matter of sensationalist news reporting, it is a matter of political will, and the fetishising of firearms – ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammo’.

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You keep going back to to the cases of tribalism of team sports. But that’s a distraction and strawman. No one has ever claimed that sports team tribalism (in the US, at least) or high school clique tribalism is typically as toxic as religious tribalism.

Rather, my point is: any sort of tribalism which is rooted in the deeply held self-conception and/or identity of a person or community has a potential to result in overt hostility, intimidation, threats, even violence. Religion is one of those things. Ethnic, racial, national, or political identities are other common examples. Even sports teams can occasionally become a proxy for one of these tribal identities, leading to similar levels of tension and potential for violence, such as ultras in European football, or the Nika riots during the reign of Justinian in the Byzantine Empire.

Again, perhaps we are already on the same page regarding the above, and we were just misunderstanding each other.

I’m fully aware that we shouldn’t expect intimidation and threats to be normal in most court cases. However, I’m aware that they commonly happen in the few high-profile, controversial cases which touch upon some tribal identity such as religion, race, ethnicity, or political affiliation. This is borne out by the law journal paper that you cited above, which shows that the US, despite being a “complex and mobile modern society”, has had a long and sordid history of such cases starting from at least 1963. And of course we know that there are just as many, or even more, such cases when we’re talking about racial relations in the US.

Am I trying to say that we should not worry about these things, or that we should do nothing to reduce tribalism and its impacts on high-profile court cases? Again, NO. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that picking out religious tribalism in particular as somehow being worse than all of these other cases is not productive. It is just a rehash of the 2000’s new atheist argument that “religion is the root of all evil” and that if we get rid of religion the world will have no more conflict or violence. Note: before you say “strawman!”, I’m not accusing you of explicitly advancing this obviously naive and incorrect argument. What I’m saying is that your complaints appear to come out of that implicit assumption and frame of mind. The fact that you appeal to the ID court case of 2005 (which is part of the reason why such arguments were popular in the 2000’s, together with 9/11 and the Iraq War) supports this.

But such a mindset is outdated. It is clear that if you look around in the US right now, religious tribalism is not the main source of tension - it is political tribalism, of which religion plays an important part for sure, but it’s not reducible to it at all.

I am not an expert on terrorism, but terrorism usually involves a series of coordinated actions designed to intimidate by violence or the threat of it. Out of the examples of egregious behavior you cited in the OP, probably only the death threats made against Judge Jones can be reasonably classified as terrorism. Most of the other instances are more correctly classified as examples of bullying and abuse, which is, again, for sure not morally defensible or OK. Pronouncing people as atheists, insulting reporters, lying in court, being ignorant and smiling about it - these are all bad and morally indefensible behavior, and some of it (such as lying in court) may be actually illegal. But it’s a real stretch to call that terrorism. Even if there is a “spectrum” of terrorism, we have to be careful about the use of that word.

Even regarding the death threats - do you have any evidence that the board members (or other religious organizations) were coordinating to make death threats in order to influence the case? Or was it just random members of the public who heard about the case?

None of this really answers my question. I can’t judge about the situation in Australia and New Zealand since I don’t live there and I am not familiar with the situation there. My question is on the US: do you think you get a balanced picture of the situation on the ground in the US by just reading news articles?

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How can it be a “strawman” if the original claim about ‘typical tribalism’ was my own?

My point was, and remains, that tribalism is a very wide spectrum. and generally the more toxic it is, the rarer it is.

@dga471, I AM NOT saying that this is “somehow being worse than all of these other cases” (my emphasis)! In fact I have repeatedly, from my OP onwards stated THAT I DO NOT BELIEVE THIS! Your REPEATED MISREPRESENTATIONS are therefore starting to make me really, really angry.

I would however state that such intimidation and threats would be likely to be fairly rare. Organised Crime, Violent Racist Organisations (such as the KKK), and extremist political movements (the Soverign Citizen movement comes immediately to mind), are all that comes to mind as far as groups commonly perpetrating such things. This is a very select, and widely regarded as beyond-the-pale, class that conservative Christianity is placing itself with. This is not simply a matter of ‘New Atheist’ hyperbole. (Note, before you start huffing and puffing – I am not saying that conservative Christianity is as bad as these groups, but that there seems to be only a small number of groups that are as bad or worse than them.)

What would happen if everybody did this? (To take a viewpoint from practical morality.)

What would happen if, instead of filing court cases, Atheists and dissenting Christians instead decided to take matters into their own hands and threaten and intimidate school and city officials to get their own way? What would happen if minorities decided to threaten and intimidate police officers they viewed as racist until they resigned?

If every religious, racial, ethnic, or political grouping decided to do this, whenever they perceived that the issue “touch[ed] upon some tribal identity”, we would see a far less stable society.

So why should conservative Christians get a free pass?

I know enough to know that murder rates are higher in the US than in the rest of the developed world (and over 5 times that of Australia’s or New Zealand’s). I know enough to know that mass-killings are sufficiently common (at least before Covid shut schools down) that schools were starting to hold ‘Active Shooter’ drills. I know that there is little or no bipartisan political will to improve this situation.

Do I really have to compile a list, with statistics, on the quality of life factors that the US lags the rest of the developed world in? I suspect it would be more limited by the time I was willing to spend on it, and my imagination for thinking of further factors to check, than by the number of factors themselves.

Actually, I think I probably have an impression of the US that underplays how bad the situation is. Mass shooting have become so commonplace there that they get minimal coverage, and start to blend together after a while. Here, any mass killing is viewed as cause for real change.

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