If you haven’t watched the 5 episodes of The Family on Netflix – based on Jeff Sharlet’s book of the same name, you should. Fascinating, and a bit creepy. Jesus has no place in the corridors of power, per my reading of the Christian Bible, but these dudes think otherwise.
The series profiles an American evangelical Christian organisation, sometimes dubbed “the Family” but more often known as the Fellowship – which presumably was felt to lack the connotations of death cults and organised crime that make for a juicy documentary title. For decades, the Fellowship was overseen by the mysterious Doug Coe: a series of amusingly Zelig-esque photographs of him lurking smoothly behind US presidents and foreign leaders confirms Coe (who did Netflix’s lawyers a favour by dying in 2017) as the most powerful guy you never heard of.
It is made clear to Sharlet that the gang he has joined is all about power, based on a Bible reading that sees Jesus – and, in the Fellowship’s reading of its favourite scripture story, murderous home-wrecker David – as a sort of original alpha male, lending legitimacy to men who believe they have been chosen to be in charge. The faith and devotion are perfunctory, a means to an end, an excuse.
The Family’s focus on the Fellowship hides what is really a portrait of the whole “Christian” right wing in the US – as well as the type of (white) man who has thoroughly infected western postwar politics. A stale whiff of viciously inadequate masculinity hangs over the whole show, from the young Fellows’ awkwardly enforced celibacy to the episode that sets out how Fellowship missionaries have been sent to less developed countries that might be vulnerable to campaigns against gay rights. As an LGBT activist in Romania puts it: “They have a purpose in their life now. To hate you.”
A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for quite some time: Nonreligious voters are a critical part of the party’s base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting, the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of Democrats. In response, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor with close ties to Trump, appeared on Fox News, saying the Democrats were finally admitting they are a “godless party.”
This was hardly a new argument. Conservative Christian leaders have been repeating some version of this claim for years, and have often called on religious conservatives and Republican politicians to defend the country against a growing wave of liberal secularism. And it’s true that liberals have been leaving organized religion in high numbers over the past few decades. But blaming the Democrats, as Jeffress and others are wont to do, doesn’t capture the profound role that conservative Christian activists have played in transforming the country’s religious landscape, and the role they appear to have played in liberals’ rejection of organized religion.
Researchers haven’t found a comprehensive explanation for why the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased over the past few years — the shift is too large and too complex. But a recent swell of social science research suggests that even if politics wasn’t the sole culprit, it was an important contributor. “Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.” “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”
I find this topic fascinating. Speaking of my own experience, after a relatively short bout of religiosity in my early teens (7th & 8th grade), I became an agnostic, and then a flat out atheist mostly due to encounters with right-wing zealots like those discussed in this article. The majority of so-called Christians don’t appear to have read much of the New Testament, nor do they seem to follow the teachings of their messiah.
In other words, the right-wing evangelicals have turned me off of religion; I want nothing to do with their fear-mongering intolerance, their racism, hatred of others, love of violence, and their public displays of (false) piety. Any organization they belong to wouldn’t want me anyway.
Kudos to the Democratic Party for finally acknowledging there are secular people in their party too. For too long the party of Clinton (both Bill & Hillary) was in a race with the Republicans to be Holier-Than-Them, despite all these factors.
Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.
It was a simple but compelling explanation. For one thing, the timing made sense. In the 1990s, white evangelical Protestants were becoming more politically powerful and visible within conservative politics. As white evangelical Protestants became an increasingly important constituency for the GOP, the Christian conservative political agenda — focused primarily on issues of sexual morality, including opposition to gay marriage and abortion — became an integral part of the the party’s pitch to voters, but it was still framed as part of an existential struggle to protect the country’s religious foundation from incursions by the secular left. Hout and Fischer argued that the Christian right hadn’t just roused religious voters from their political slumber — left-leaning people with weaker religious ties also started opting out of religion because they disliked Christian conservatives’ social agenda.
At the time, Hout and Fischer’s argument was mostly just a theory. But within the past few years, Margolis and several other prominent political scientists have concluded that politics is a driving factor behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. For one thing, several studies that followed respondents over time showed that it wasn’t that people were generally becoming more secular, and then gravitating toward liberal politics because it fit with their new religious identity. People’s political identities remained constant as their religious affiliation shifted.
Other research showed that the blend of religious activism and Republican politics likely played a significant role in increasing the number of religiously unaffiliated people. One study, for instance, found that something as simple as reading a news story about a Republican who spoke in a church could actually prompt some Democrats to say they were nonreligious. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and one of the study’s co-authors.
Yes, an allergic reaction is exactly correct. Listening to disgusting hypocrites like Mike Pence and Rick Perry proclaim their faith in the public square turns my stomach. Spending time in church with sanctimonious jerks like Ted Cruz? No way.
Wow, someone send these Board members a bouquet of flowers or something, because too frequently the non-Christian citizens are treated as second class by politicians.
Naperville Sun reports:
The DuPage County Board may evaluate its tradition of starting meetings with a religious invocation after several Democrats questioned the need and reason for the prayer.
DeSart, who has been an active member Alleluia Lutheran Church in Naperville for the last two decades, said she respects other religions, and she asked for guidance from other board members on how to go about stopping invocations. “This is the right thing to do on behalf of our Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, agnostic, etc., constituents,” she said.
Her opinion was shared by District 6 board member Sheila Rutledge, of Warrenville, and District 4’s Mary FitzGerald Ozog, of Glen Ellyn, both Democrats.
Rutledge raised concerns about the separation of church and state.
“By doing the invocations, there is no one to speak for the agnostic, atheist, some of the maybe more fringe religions,” Rutledge said.
In her request to get rid of prayers, Ozog spoke of her mother who came to the United States from Ireland, an island that experienced 500 years of religious warfare because of the lack of separation of church and state, she said. “I think this is an idea worth considering,” she said.
Seriously, this is all too rare, and it shouldn’t be. Our constitution is clear on the subject, but the Christians have bullied the rest of us for so long it has been taken for granted that Christians are the only group worth listening to.
And for the record, you are quite welcome to perform your religious rites in your own way in your own houses of the holy, just not in government buildings.
Chicago Archdiocese pays $1.65 million for Lincoln Park home to be used as parish priest residence. The Archdiocese of Chicago recently paid $1.65 million for a four-bedroom, 3,044-square-foot house on an upscale Lincoln Park street and is using the home as a residence for parish priests at the nearby St. Clement Catholic Church.
As Jesus would have insisted: nothing but the most luxurious of accommodations. Mary and Joseph would have insisted on upgrading the countertops to marble and receiving an allowance to re-do the kitchen cabinets, but whatcha gonna do…
It isn’t as if there are cheaper places to be had in other areas of the city, right? Four priests, and their entourage, staying in a 3,000 square foot house is an efficient use of parish funds, right? Maybe they will devote a couple of the floors to house orphans and Honduran refugees or something.
HE HELD RADICAL LIGHT The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art By Christian Wiman
With all the stonings, smitings, beheadings and bear maulings in the Bible, it is easy to miss the rather staid death of Eutychus. As recounted in the Book of Acts, the young man nods off during a long sermon by St. Paul, and falls three stories from a window in Troas. In a reprieve for dozing parishioners everywhere, Paul resurrects him.
Poor Eutychus comes and goes in only a few verses, but I thought of him while reading the poet Christian Wiman’s curious new book, “He Held Radical Light” — not because it’s in danger of putting anyone to sleep, but because, like Acts, it’s an episodic account of equally strange encounters, in this case, with apostles of verse. A. R. Ammons shows up for a reading in Virginia but refuses to read, telling his audience, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this”; Seamus Heaney winks before stepping into a cab in Chicago; Donald Hall orders a burger for lunch, then confides to Wiman, who was then 38: “I was 38 when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last”; Mary Oliver picks up a dead pigeon from the sidewalk, tucks the bloody carcass into her pocket and keeps it there through an event and after-party.
Wiman had met a few poets by the time he finished college at Washington and Lee and completed a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, but he really started to collect them at Poetry magazine, where he was editor for 10 years. The most straightforward version of those years would be a literary tell-all, along the lines of the former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb’s “Avid Reader.” But “He Held Radical Light” is something else: a collection of private memories, literary criticism and theology, plus an eccentric anthology of poems Wiman holds dear, all drawn into an argument about art and faith.
The New York attorney general’s office has issued subpoenas to all eight Roman Catholic dioceses in the state as part of its investigation into whether church officials covered up allegations of sexual abuse of young people, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The subpoenas, which come on the heels of a Pennsylvania grand jury report last month documenting the molestation of more than 1,000 children by priests in that state, are part of a broader civil investigation by the office, the existence of which was revealed Thursday. The probe of the dioceses, which are nonprofit institutions, is being conducted by the office’s charities bureau.
“No one’s happy a man’s life is going to be taken,” said Michael Fischer, 35, a Republican and a financial planner in Omaha who, like many along the streets here, said he supported capital punishment. “But if you take the death penalty off the books, the fear is there won’t be strong discouragement for people to commit crimes.”
Uhh, it obviously didn’t work so well for the guy on Death Row, did it? How many people are murdered every day in states with death penalties on the books? Dozens? More? Specious reasoning. No, the reason for the death penalty is to take revenge for the cruelty of the universe by killing someone. Revenge killings are bad enough for individuals, but revenge killings by the state is not solving anything.
Should Have Been You
On a related point, if one is a Cubs fan, one is also supporting the Death Penalty Governor, Peter Ricketts, in his mission to kill as many humans as he can.
When Nebraska lawmakers defied Gov. Pete Ricketts in 2015 by repealing the death penalty over his strong objections, the governor wouldn’t let the matter go. Mr. Ricketts, a Republican who is Roman Catholic, tapped his family fortune to help bankroll a referendum to reinstate capital punishment, a measure the state’s Catholic leadership vehemently opposed.
After a contentious and emotional battle across this deep-red state, voters restored the death penalty the following year. Later this month, Nebraska is scheduled to execute Carey Dean Moore, who was convicted of murder, in what would be the state’s first execution in 21 years.
The prospect has renewed a tense debate in a state that has wrestled with the moral and financial implications of the death penalty for years, even before the 2015 attempt to abolish it. Protesters have been holding daily vigils outside the governor’s mansion to oppose Mr. Moore’s execution.
Complicating matters, Pope Francis this week declared that executions are unacceptable in all cases, a shift from earlier church doctrine that had accepted the death penalty if it was “the only practicable way” to defend lives. Coming only days before the scheduled Aug. 14 execution here, the pope’s stance seemed to create an awkward position for Mr. Ricketts, who is favored to win a bid for re-election this fall.
Mr. Ricketts, scion of the TD Ameritrade family fortune and an owner of the Chicago Cubs, has made the death penalty a signature issue as he seeks a second term as governor. In the past, he has repeatedly said that capital punishment deters violent crime. He contributed $300,000 to help with a petition drive that led to the restoration of the death penalty by voters.
Mr. Ricketts declined requests to be interviewed for this story, but in an interview in The Omaha World-Herald in 2015, the governor said that his position in favor of executions was in keeping with the tenets of his faith.
“As I’ve thought about this and meditated on it and prayed on it and researched it, I’ve determined it’s an important tool.”
Executions are in keeping with the tenets of his faith. Hmmm. Wonder what religion that is exactly? Sounds barbaric.
Fascinating story about a new line of anti-environmental attacks from the Kochs, and the ensuing counter-attack from religious people. We only have on Earth, let’s keep it habitable, and not exploit it for money for a few, leaving our planet despoiled.
At another rally focused on fossil fuels a year earlier in Richmond, religion was front and center.
In December 2016, gospel music stars descended on a local community center in Richmond’s East Highland Park neighborhood. Hundreds of residents from throughout the area had answered the call to attend a concert marketed as an opportunity for enlightenment, both spiritual and environmental.
As a sea of hands waved through the air as eyes closed in prayer, what many in the crowd didn’t know was that they were the target of a massive propaganda campaign. One of the event’s sponsors was a fossil-fuel advocacy group called Fueling U.S. Forward, an outfit supported by Koch Industries, the petrochemicals, paper, and wood product conglomerate founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The gospel program was designed to highlight the benefits of oil and natural gas production and its essential role in the American way of life. During a break in the music, a panel discussion unfolded about skyrocketing utility costs. The lobbyists and businesspeople on the panel presented a greater reliance on fossil fuels — billed as cheap, reliable energy sources — as the fix. Later, a surprise giveaway netted four lucky attendees the opportunity to have their power bills paid for them.
The event was one big bait and switch, according to environmental experts and local activists. Come for the gospel music, then listen to us praise the everlasting goodness of oil and gas. Supporting this sort of pro-oil-and-gas agenda sprinkled over the songs of praise, they say, would only worsen the pollution and coastal flooding that come with climate change, hazards that usually hit Virginia’s black residents the hardest.
“The tactic was tasteless and racist, plain and simple,” says Kendyl Crawford, the Sierra Club of Richmond’s conservation program coordinator. “It’s exploiting the ignorance many communities have about climate change.”
Rev. Wilson likens that gospel concert to the Biblical story of Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Like many African Americans in Virginia, he initially didn’t connect environmental policy with what he calls the “institutional racism” — think racial profiling, lack of economic opportunity, etc. — that can plague black communities nationwide. Now he considers “the sea level rising or the air quality in the cities” another existential threat.
So in response to the Koch Brothers’ attempt to sway their flocks, Wilson and others affiliated with black churches in Virginia have channeled their outrage into a new calling: climate advocacy. For Wilson, environmentalism has become a biblical mission.
As a keen amateur historian, I feel strongly that if one is interested in a topic, one should seek out the primary documents as frequently as possible. Sure, you might also need expert opinion to help decipher and interpret what you read, but a key part of understanding a subject is familiarity with as much source material as you can find.
Of Ghosts and Grit
This seems an obvious point, but I’m constantly surprised at how infrequently people take that extra step. For instance, if you were a Christian, why wouldn’t you spend part of every weekend reading the words of Christ for yourself, instead of listening to a preacher tell you an interpretation. You might discover that Christ isn’t too enthusiastic about people who accumulate wealth, or that he was pretty adamant that helping poor and sick people was key. Fake Christians like Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions, Rick Perry profess their religion in the public square, but yet seem to do the opposite of the teachings of their primary source material.
Anyway, I’m not religious, but I do follow American politics rather closely. And since this blog is nothing but a catalog of my fickle obsessions, I want to have spot where I can refer to a few primary documents of the Trump (mis)administration.
No Puppet! No Puppet!
Such as the infamous Steele Dossier:
A dossier making explosive — but unverified — allegations that the Russian government has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” President-elect Donald Trump for years and gained compromising information about him has been circulating among elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists for weeks.
The dossier, which is a collection of memos written over a period of months, includes specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts documented by the Russians. BuzzFeed News reporters in the US and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them. CNN reported Tuesday that a two-page synopsis of the report was given to President Obama and Trump.
and the testimony of Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS in front of the Senate’s Judiciary Testimony:
The political battle over the FBI and its investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election intensified Tuesday with the release of an interview with the head of the firm behind a dossier of allegations against then-candidate Donald Trump.
The transcript of Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn R. Simpson’s interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee was released by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the panel’s senior Democrat, over the objections of Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Feinstein’s action comes alongside an effort by Republicans to discredit the dossier as a politically motivated document that the FBI has relied too heavily upon in its investigation. Feinstein sought to push back against that perception and to bolster the FBI’s credibility.
“The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation,” she said.
The Post is making public today a sizable portion of the raw reporting used in the development of “Trump Revealed,” a best-selling biography of the Republican presidential nominee published August 23 by Scribner. Drawn from the work of more than two dozen Post journalists, the archive contains 407 documents, comprising thousands of pages of interview transcripts, court filings, financial reports, immigration records and other material. Interviews conducted off the record were removed, as was other material The Post did not have the right to publish. The archive is searchable and navigable in a number of ways. It is meant as a resource for other journalists and a trove to explore for our many readers fascinated by original documents.
David M. Simon elaborates on a point I’ve made before: wealthy non-profits like churches and universities shouldn’t be tax exempt.
Illinois is the land of special favors for those with lobbyists, connections or clout. Just look at the state’s property tax laws and the exemptions for rich nonprofits.
Retired homeowners living on fixed incomes pay hefty property taxes, despite the so-called “senior exemption.”
On the other hand, real estate owned by many rich nonprofits is completely exempt from property taxes. This includes private university campuses and their sports facilities, the gleaming skyscrapers of qualifying private hospitals and magnificent church cathedrals. And lots of other expensive real estate owned by other qualifying nonprofits. All completely exempt — and unfair.
Wealthy nonprofits with expensive real estate use and benefit from the same law enforcement, fire protection and other basic services as other property owners. These nonprofits may not principally use their real estate to make money, but neither do most families.
This system also dumps the hefty shares of the tax burden that these nonprofits should pay on the rest of us.
What are these organizations doing for our society? Is it justified for them to be takers on the basis of whatever their so-called mission is? For instance, Scientology? Or college and professional sports stadiums? Not if I had a vote.
I had a 3 A.M. thought. Mayor Daley the Younger was bad for the city in a lot of ways1 but inarguably there was one aspect he was better at than the current administration: keeping the city gleaming, especially downtown, but everywhere really. Today, in many nooks and crannies of the city, there are mounds of McDonald’s wrappers, Starbucks coffee cups, cigarette butts, puddles of stale urine that haven’t been touched in years. Rain washes some of this detritus off the streets and sidewalks, but then it accumulates in stairways, alleys, and other locations. Nobody is power-washing the sidewalk, nobody is picking up the garbage that doesn’t make it into a garbage can.
What if in exchange for tax-exempt status, a non-profit had to adopt a city block and keep it clean? There could be some formula based on the annual financial report of the organization and the total number of city blocks. So the Heritage Foundation would be required to keep clean 5 blocks on the South Side somewhere near the Koch Brothers coal dust repository, while Northwestern Memorial Hospital would be responsible for 23 blocks in a cluster near Garfield Park. Or however the math works.
Impractical, unlikely, and unwieldily, like most 3 AM thoughts…
enthusiastically privatizing city assets, allowing the police free rein to ride roughshod over civil liberties, frequently walking right up to the line of corruption, and even putting his toe over the line, and so on [↩]
I was no fan of Christopher Hitchens’ politics, post-1998, especially as he became a cheerleader for George Bush’s illegal and immoral wars, but Hitchens was a clear-headed writer about religion, so count me among those skeptical of Hitchens suddenly converting to evangelical Christianity on his deathbed.
Our Lady of Perpetual Decay
Matthew d’Ancona agrees:
In this respect the trail was blazed by the world’s great religions, which routinely claim recruits among the dying. Indeed, the faithful have form when it comes to falsifying deathbed conversions – notoriously so in the case of Darwin. In 1915 the evangelist Elizabeth Cotton, better known as Lady Hope of Carriden, declared that the great scientist, readying himself for the end in April 1882, had repudiated his life’s work (“How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done”) and asked her to gather an audience so he could “speak to them of Christ Jesus and His salvation”.
This was preposterous, and quickly dismissed as such. Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta Litchfield, was with her father at his deathbed and insisted that Lady Hope had not even visited him during his last illness. None of his family believed a word of her testimony.
Almost as flimsy is the Catholic church’s claim that Antonio Gramsci returned to the faith and died taking the sacraments. Though a former Vatican official maintained that the Marxist philosopher embraced Catholicism afresh shortly before his death in Rome in 1937, none of the official or personal documents relating to his last days support this extraordinary account.
It is in this context that one should consider the meretricious new book by Larry Alex Taunton, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.
The religious knew that it was worth claiming the spiritual scalps of the founding father of evolution theory and of Italy’s pre-eminent Marxist. In our own era, a resourceful Alabamian evangelist is exploiting his friendship with Hitchens, who died in 2011, to allege that the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was, in fact, on a secret spiritual journey and halfway to embracing Jesus.
I forgot to write this up yesterday, but Bill Maher and Michael Moore discussed their new film idea on Overtime With Bill Maher (you’ll have to skip ahead about a minute to hear the beginning of Michael Moore’s response which leads to discussion of the film, or jump ahead to about the 3:30 mark to hear the exact discussion begin)
The idea for The Kings of Atheism is simple: Michael Moore will follow around several atheist comedians as they tell religious-themed jokes in the Bible Belt area of the South. Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Seth MacFarlane, and possibly others. Michael Moore says he is not an atheist, and playfully joked about a vengeful god sending down thunderbolts directed towards them, and not wanting to be there for that.
I’d love to watch this film: make it happen guys!
Ricky Gervais has one of my favorite god jokes, paraphrased thus: “I don’t believe in any gods, if you are Christian or Muslim etc., you are nearly the same, you don’t believe in most of the gods humankind has created either.”
Ricky Gervais tells it better of course
The dictionary definition of God is “a supernatural creator and overseer of the universe.” Included in this definition are all deities, goddesses and supernatural beings. Since the beginning of recorded history, which is defined by the invention of writing by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, historians have cataloged over 3700 supernatural beings, of which 2870 can be considered deities.
So next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one? Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra?…” If they say “Just God. I only believe in the one God,” I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869.
Americans who are not religious have long been marginalized and ignored by politicians. And yet our numbers keep growing. When will the nonreligious get a representative who respects us? The opposite of Christian Taliban like Ted Cruz, in other words…
Susan Jacoby writes:
THE population of nonreligious Americans — including atheists, agnostics and those who call themselves “nothing in particular” — stands at an all-time high this election year. Americans who say religion is not important in their lives and who do not belong to a religious group, according to the Pew Research Center, have risen in numbers from an estimated 21 million in 2008 to more than 36 million now.
Despite the extraordinary swiftness and magnitude of this shift, our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.
The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.
Never Seems To Smile
Freedom of conscience for all — which exists only in secular democracies — should be at the top of the list of shared concerns. Candidates who rightly denounce the persecution of Christians by radical Islamists should be ashamed of themselves for not expressing equal indignation at the persecution of freethinkers and atheists, as well as dissenting Muslims and small religious sects, not only by terrorists but also by theocracies like Saudi Arabia. With liberal religious allies, it would be easier for secularists to hold candidates to account when they talk as if freedom of conscience is a human right only for the religious.
Even more critical is the necessity of reclaiming the language of religious freedom from the far right. As defined by many pandering politicians, “religious freedom” is in danger of becoming code for accepting public money while imposing faith-based values on others.
Secularists must hold candidates to account when they insult secular values, whether that means challenging them in town hall meetings or withholding donations. Why, for example, would any secular Republican (yes, there are some) think of supporting the many Republican politicians who have denied the scientific validity of evolution? Politicians will continue to ignore secular Americans until they are convinced that there is a price to be paid for doing so.
“God bless America” has become the standard ending of every major political speech. Just once in my life, I would like the chance to vote for a presidential candidate who ends his or her appeals with Thomas Paine’s observation that “the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason.”
More than 300 years after Salem’s famous trials, American popular culture remains preoccupied with the supposed witches of 17th-century Massachusetts. But we do not hear much about the women accused of witchcraft across the ocean during the same period in Württemberg, Germany. In “The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother,” Ulinka Rublack, a professor of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, introduces us to one of these witches, Katharina Kepler, who was tried in Württemberg in 1615-21.
Katharina was the mother of Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that had begun to sweep Europe. In 1609, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, Johannes used the remarkable naked-eye observations of his predecessor Tycho Brahe to discover that the planets orbit the sun in paths that are elliptical—overthrowing the belief in circular orbits that had held since Aristotle’s time and strengthening the arguments for a heliocentric universe. Johannes was a deeply religious Lutheran whose scientific work was imbued with spiritual beliefs. He cast horoscopes, listened to the “music of the spheres” and understood the cosmos to be a living organism possessed of a soul. Like most people of his time, he believed in the existence of witches.
Witchcraft trials in Germany were family affairs. A woman prosecuted as a witch had to rely for her legal defense on her husband, if she had one, and on her brothers and sons, if she did not. Widows were frequent targets of such accusations, because their right to engage in commercial activities—denied to other women—gave them an independence that went against the social order. Many widows, including Katharina, earned money as healers, using strange herbs and incantations. People feared the power of these women.
Katharina’s first accuser was her own son Heinrich, a ne’er-do-well who had returned home after 25 years of fighting as a mercenary throughout Europe. Angered that she did not have enough food on hand to satisfy him, he “publicly slandered her as a witch,” as Ms. Rublack recounts, and died soon afterward. His comment would come to haunt the trial, which was prompted by a persistent neighbor of Katharina, who claimed that she had become lame after drinking one of Katharina’s potions. Once Katharina was charged, other disturbing facts came to light, such as her request that a gravedigger exhume her father’s head so that she could fashion the skull into a drinking vessel. Hearing this, even Johannes wondered if there was something to the allegations.
What happened to Katharina Kepler is a morality tale about the dangers faced by independent, strong-willed and sometimes disagreeable women in Germany in early modern Europe. It is also a valuable reminder that the Scientific Revolution was made by men with deeply held spiritual, religious and metaphysical views, including the belief that there were witches all around them—even, perhaps, at home.