Author Archive: gregbentall

Urgent Election Reform


Elections

 

ELECTION REFORM

Elections are the sacred well of democracy. When the waters are poisoned there is nothing left. Without fair and open elections the choices of the people are thwarted and democratic government collapses. When this happens, the government ceases to be the servant of the people, and instead allows the usurpation of government authority by an unqualified but well organized oligarchy. Oligarchs rule rather than govern. Government becomes the tool of tyrants. The United States has in recent years failed to provide fair and free elections.

The collapse of fair and open elections has already resulted in a substantial loss of our democracy. Our country, despite our boasting of being the world’s oldest and strongest democracy, has allowed our basic institutions to crumble. We have gone from “Every vote counts in the election,” to “The election will be decided by who counts the votes.”

There are a series of reforms that are urgently needed if we are to salvage what remains of our democracy. The following is a partial list of those urgently needed reforms.

Abolish the Electoral College

Twice in the past sixteen years the Electoral College has thwarted the will of the American people. This is simply unacceptable. In 2000, Al Gore lost Florida and the election by only some 500 votes out of 103 million votes cast. There was a cluster of errors in the Florida vote count. It is estimated that Pat Buchanan erroneously gained an estimated 32,000 votes that were intended for Al Gore due to the “butterfly ballot” fiasco. There were other irregularities as well, including the handling of absentee ballots. By counting ballots on a state-by-state basis, such irregularities come to the forefront and determine the outcome of the election. But when the national vote is taken as a whole there is a different outcome. Any irregularities are “averaged out” and the winning candidate is the overall choice of the electorate.

In 2016 we had the will of the people thwarted again by the Electoral College. This time it was 80,000 people across three states that would have changed the election outcome. In the end, Hillary Clinton received 3,800,000 more votes than Donald Trump in what turned out to be her losing effort.

The Electoral College perhaps made sense in the 18th Century. At that time the United States was a confederation of states, much like the European Union is today. But by the time of the Civil War, our nation became one nation and not a collection of states. The Electoral College, that vestige of the 18th Century, makes no sense in the 21st Century.

End Gerrymandering

We have gone from voters selecting their candidates to office holders selecting their voters. Our current system of gerrymandered districts thwarts the will of the voters. Elected officials can stack the deck on state legislative chambers and the United States Congress by manipulating district boundaries. These boundaries are normally set by the very state legislators that benefit from manipulating these boundaries. We need to remove the setting of district boundaries from the political process. In California district boundaries are set by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Since implementation in June 2012, independent studies have confirmed that California now has some of the most competitive districts in the country. Other states need to follow similar procedures.

Support Voter Registration

New voter registration procedures have become a new form of poll tax. Estimates are that hundreds of thousands of citizens have been disenfranchised by these efforts. The burden of these procedures fall disproportionately on the poor, people of color, and the elderly, and those for who English is a second language. We need a new national voters’ rights act to replace the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was essentially struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

No one could deny that we need to clean up our voter rolls. There is no systematic effort to purge the rolls of deceased voters or those who have moved away. But so far this has not been a real issue. After searches for voter fraud spanning decades, no one has ever found more than a handful of actual voter fraud issues, and certainly never enough to sway an election.

In many states convicted felons have a lifetime ban on voting. African Americans make up 13% of the population, but 38% of the prison population. Voter disenfranchisement due to a felony conviction has a strong racial component. It is possible to disenfranchise whole communities by refusing to allow convicted felons to vote, including those who have already paid their debt to society.

Maintain Poll Access

Every election seems to have issues with voter access to polling places. Amazingly, such issues only seem to occur in selected precincts. There is misinformation as to poll locations or hours. There are shortages of ballots or voting machines that do not work. Too often people in these “selected” precincts must wait for hours to cast their ballots. This is another burden that falls disproportionately upon the poor. An hourly worker might have to rush to vote before work, while a salaried manager could vote at his or her leisure.

The act of voting should not be an ordeal. Instead of a 12 hour election window we should be given an extended time of perhaps one week to vote. We should be able to vote by any number of means. We can invest and do banking online. Calculate and pay taxes online. We should be able to vote online as well. For those without computer access, voting computers could be set up in libraries, schools, offices, or other public places. There should also be mail in options for those who are computer challenged. If we can use our bank ATM cards in Mexico City, or Bangkok, we should be able to vote from anywhere during an election period without difficulty.

Demand Election Integrity

Somehow we need to make our elections work. There have been endless reports of lost ballots, voting machine malfunctions, and absentee ballots that have been lost or ignored. Elections should be determined by the votes casted and not by who counted the votes. Here again is a situation where “selected” precincts seem to have much greater irregularities than the norm. If we cannot trust our state and county officials to conduct fair and accurate elections then perhaps we should have outside parties, such as fiduciary institutions, or CPA firms, to collect and count the ballots.

Voting machines, ballot counts, and any online or mail voting methods must be fool proof. This is our democracy we are talking about. We need to provide the resources and make the effort to insure that every vote counts. “Accidents,” “oversights,” and “unavoidable situations” must not be allowed as excuses. These can be avoided by proper planning, training, and redundancy.

Require Financial Disclosure

We must never again allow any candidate to run for President of the United States without submitting at least five years’ worth of federal tax returns. In the past this has been the custom, but it was not a requirement. Trump was able to avoid this disclosure despite his frequent assurances to the contrary. The president must be free of any conflicts of interest. Without the income tax disclosure there is not even a roadmap to look for possible conflicts. This disclosure must be made at the start of the election cycle so that voters have a chance to review and analyze these documents. For this reason the documents must be disclosed before any names are placed on the primary ballots. California now has such a law. We need a similar rule for congressional candidates as well.

 

Faith Demystified – The God Paradox: when bad things happen to good people.


paradox

On May 22, 2011, a devastating tornado left the town of Joplin, Missouri in shambles. There were 162 dead and 1,150 people injured. St. Mary’s Catholic Church was in splinters. The Catholic priest was asked if God could have prevented the tornado. The priest’s response was that, “Of course he could. He is God and he could do anything.”  He was then asked why God did not prevent it if he could. The priest said that God is a mystery, and that mere mortals often cannot understand his ways. He spoke about how God would use this tragedy somehow for good. As the priest struggled to explain this conundrum, his logic became more and more twisted and awkward. The priest had inadvertently stumbled into the God paradox.

The God paradox is simply this: If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. If God is all good then he cannot be all powerful. Otherwise, there is no explanation of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no simple exit from the God paradox. Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the harder we pull, the tighter the grip becomes. The result becomes some elaborate web built of prevarications. And the more we try to work the story the sillier it becomes. The priest’s whole congregation would need to wrestle with this. No doubt the priest would need to spin more yarns for the faithful in the process, thereby polishing the illusion that God the guarantor of our wellbeing.

The Holy Bible speaks of a God that intervenes in persons and communities. The Bible tells us that even the hairs of our heads are numbered, and that God is our ever present help in times of trouble. We want desperately to believe in a God who loves us and cares about our fate. This is the message that Christians hear most every most from clergy who seek to polish this illusion. This is not just a Catholic issue, but one that is carried out by clergy everywhere. It is just what clergy do, to try and soothe the faithful when bad times happen.

On days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing it is easy to live comfortable inside the illusion of a benevolent universe that will provide for our every need. We feel that we are being coddled by life, and embraced by a loving God. But other, darker days we are jolted back to reality by a tantrum of nature, a tragic accident, a life threatening illness or injury, a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one or other such disrupter of our comfortable existence. At times like those we rediscover how vulnerable we truly are. There are potholes in life that demolish our illusions and shatter our easy comfort.

The Joplin tornado had nothing to do with God. It is not that the good people of Joplin were being punished. There was no malevolence in the tornado, only indifference. To try to moralize about the destruction is pointless and totally wrongheaded. It just happened. Sometimes we think that bad things happen to us because we are doing something bad and we punish ourselves accordingly. We are somehow unworthy of God’s grace. This can drive some into fanaticism as they try to assuage their guilt. Others seek scapegoats to blame for the calamity. “If only we had gotten rid of THOSE people this would have never happened.”

The only graceful exit from the God paradox is to acknowledge that the situation at hand has nothing to do with God.

In truth the tornado is indifferent to our fate. The tornado does not either know or care whether we are just or unjust. It simply runs its course according to the immutable laws of weather systems.  

Tornadoes are among the most capricious of disaster agents. A tornado can destroy all buildings on one side of the street while leaving the other side unscathed. The owners of destroyed homes might be thinking, “What did I do to deserve this?” while the people across the street might be thinking, “Thank you, God, for sparing us.” In truth both of these sentiments are but an illusion.

 

Do not be deceived by health savings plan proposals


U.S. Capitol

 

As the Congress discusses the reconfiguration of our health care system, one “solution” that keeps coming up is various options related to health savings plans. These plans need to be recognized for what they really are, a con of the health care consumer. Sure, you can get health care, but you must pay for it yourself with money that you have saved. Saving money sounds like a good idea, and it is. It is great to have saved a little extra to cover those expenditures that fall outside of your normal budget. The problem here is that the cost of medical care can be so excessive that it would be virtually impossible to save enough.

Medical care is expensive. There are stories of Canadian tourists who find themselves with a two hundred thousand dollar medical bills for having a baby in the United States.  Any serious medical illness can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about an emergency situation such as a heart attack or a stroke. And for those who believe that they are too healthy for such an emergencies, think about getting hit by a car while walking or riding your bicycle.

That is why insurance is needed. Perhaps the best that you could ever hope for from a health savings plan is enough money to cover your deductibles and copays. That is pretty much what happened to me last year.

I have excellent medical coverage for myself and my wife through my employer. I have no deductibles and modest copays that are capped at $3,000 per year. I had a series of medical issues, nothing major and certainly nothing life threatening. I had three emergency visits, three nights in the hospital, and two outpatient procedures. The total cost paid by my insurance carrier was in excess of $65,000. My out of pocket cost was capped at $3,000.

When a patient does not have medical insurance the hospital will jack up the cost to well above what an insurance carrier would pay. If Blue Cross would pay $30,000 for a particular procedure, an uninsured patient will likely be charged $50,000. The reason for this is that the hospitals offer volume discounts to major insurance carriers. Thus, the $65,000 in medical expenses that I incurred last year could have easily been charged at over $100,000 if I did not have insurance.

It is one thing to save $3,000 to $5,000 to cover deductibles and copays. It is quite another thing to save the hundreds of thousands that a serious medical condition might require. And for many households, even saving $3,000 to $5,000 is virtually impossible. There are so many other priorities for our dollars. It is estimated that for 40% of the households in our country, an unexpected bill for $500 could be a financial calamity. What happens if the furnace goes out or the truck breaks down? For some, saving $3,000 to $5,000 in a Medical Savings Account could take 5 to 10 years, and that assumes that no withdrawals from that account would be required during that time period. .

The idea of offering up health savings plans as an alternative to health insurance is beyond ludicrous.  It is a glib and irresponsible diversion tactic offered up by those who wish to deny coverage for medical care.

An Administration Based on Falsehoods


trump-clown-kingThe Trump team has done nothing but lie to us. His people would tell the most outrageous lies throughout the election and transitional period. Now they are continuing their outrageous lies from the White House.

On day one of the Trump administration, Saturday, January 21, Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave his first official briefing. In it he berated the media for “distorting” the crowd numbers at the inauguration, and then proceeded to list a series of “facts” that were nothing more than fabrications. There are numerous pictures, videos, and statistics to support the media’s version of events. Then, Spicer spewed out a torrent of lies. In this case Spicer simply made up numbers such as mass transit ridership that had no basis in fact. These utterly false statistics were disputed by the transit authority. According to CNN, four of the five main statements made by Spicer at that event were totally fallacious. The Orwellian notion herein being enacted is that falsehood becomes truth when trumpeted loud and long.

Kellyanne Conway went on television the next day to explain that Spicer had not lied, but only presented “alternative facts”. I do not know about how this works in your world, but in my world an “alternative fact” is simply a lie.

And of course the larger issue here is that Trump, on his first day in office, must have higher priorities than arguing about attendance figures at the inauguration. This raises the problem of his extreme narcissism which will be a topic for a later chapter.

Trump during the campaign would hammer the same lies over and over, often times repeating each lie multiple times in one sentence. The Trump people routinely tell more lies than can even been debunked. While the press and pundits are trying to analyze the first lie, the Trump team has issued a hundred more. Trump complained about unfair media coverage even when the media did nothing more than show video clips of Trump’s prior pronouncements.

The Donald wants to suppress freedom of the press under the First Amendment. He wants to decide what is news and to punish those who publish otherwise. This is not the thinking of a democratically elected leader. It is rather the rantings of a dictator seeking absolute power and control.

The Trump team refuses to answer questions, and instead pivot and distract by changing the subject. During the campaign the standard pivots were to Hillary’s emails and Bill’s sex life. Neither of these are relevant now, so get over it.

Kellyanne Conway was just one of dozens of Trump spokespersons who lied to us throughout the campaign and transition period. There was also Kayleigh McEnany, Katrina Pierson, Jeffrey Lord, Chris Christie, Paul Manafort, Corey Lewandowski, Rudi Juliani, and more. Paul Manafort is now under investigation for the Russian connection. All of these spokespersons spread an endless barrage of lies, distortions, pivots, and distractions. All of them would pivot and throw red-herrings in order to not answer questions. Now it looks like the Trump administration will continue in the same vein.

Apart from lies The Donald’s other rhetorical techniques includes bullying, heaping abuse on others, and scapegoating problems. He would also promise much but never provide any plans or solutions. Real solutions must be grounded in facts and not fantasy. No one is going to build a wall. No one is going to deport 12 million people, breaking up millions of families in the process. No one is going to be excluded from the United States based solely on their religious affiliation.

The inaugural address was despicable. Rather than addressing the nation Trump only addressed his supporters. Part of being “presidential” is to realize that a president must serve all of the people, and not just those who voted for him or her. Trump attacked all those who oppose him, blamed the media for under reporting the inaugural crowds, and then whined to the CIA that the media was biased. Trump acts more like a playground bully that anyone who could govern this country.

Trump is now and will always be in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution which forbids the president to take any money from foreign powers. Trump has business entanglements in at least 50 countries, and many of these involve foreign governments. Trump denies having any business interests in Russia, but the record is clear that he has been working to establish businesses in Russia for the past thirty years.

Trump’s lease of his hotel in Washington from the federal government is now illegal and must be terminated. Sean Spicer has told us that as president, Trump is above the law and can have no conflicts of interests. But Spicer is describing a dictator, not a president bound by a constitution. More lies from Spicer. More lies is all that we can expect from The Donald and his rabid attack dogs.

The White House website now has a plug for Melania’s ongoing jewelry business. Trump will use every opportunity to abuse the office he holds for personal gain. Spicer two days before the inauguration told everyone to stay at the Trump hotel in Washington. The Trump administration will be marked by endless scandal and corruption, so get used to it.

And let us remember Trump’s tax returns. Trump promised over and over that he would release his tax returns 1) if he ran for election, 2) when the IRS audit was completed, 3) when he was elected to office. This, like everything that the Donald has told us is simply a self-serving lie. We can only assume, along with Mitt Romney, that Trump will never release his tax returns because they are toxic if not radioactive. Without his tax returns we cannot even begin to grasp what is needed for the Donald to be free of conflicts of interest. What we know about his businesses is bad enough. What we do not know is potentially horrifying.

On day one there is enough to impeach The Donald based on the emoluments clause alone. His ties to Putin and his relationship to Russia is further grounds, but this will take more time to substantiate.

And finally, the election irregularities, most of them predicted by The Donald, are grounds for his resignation. Nixon was right. Watergate was indeed a “third-rate burglary” compared to what has happened now. The Russian connection and the various election irregularities will take several years to sort out. But the emoluments clause and the numerous financial conflicts of interest are immediate grounds for impeachment.

We need to trust a Republican Congress to impeach Trump and to put an end to this obscenity that is the Trump administration.

 

Faith Demystified- When Religion Turns Toxic


 

know-you-by-your-loveWhen Religion Turns Toxic

When religion turns toxic it can become one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Whether we are talking about the Crusades, Mayan human sacrifice, the Inquisition, the genocidal conquest of the New World, the KKK, the Salem Witch Hunt, Islamic terrorism, or the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, we are talking about hatred justified by religious fanaticism.

Of course not all religion is toxic. There are beautiful expressions of faith that can have world changing effects upon both believers and those whose lives they touch. There are religious beliefs and practices that transcend our ordinary existence, and make us one with the divine, the cosmos, the world in which we live, and our fellow travelers on this journey through life.

Think of Jimmy Carter building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Think of the gentle spirituality of the Dali Lama. Think of Albert Schweitzer, or Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolcata giving their lives to serve the poor. Think of the divine transcendence of taize worship, wherein Christians and even non-Christians of diverse tribes come together to focus on the God of all. Think of the Baha’i faith, with its nine doorways of enlightenment.

What is necessary then is to understand the signs of toxic religion and to prevent it from developing.

Tribalism

Humanity throughout its history, even its prehistory, has been organized into tribes. Tribes can represent bonds of kinship, race, ethnicity, nationality, lifestyle, religious sects, or other demographic groupings that give us our primary identity. As we are social creatures, tribes are essential to our existence. Our culture and language are of tribal origin. Our tribal membership is an overwhelming factor in how we live, act, think, and believe.

Our tribal memberships give us a place in our community, and this is essential to human life. But the downside of tribal membership is that it can separate us from those who are not of our tribe.

If your tribal religion causes you to hate another tribe then it is toxic. If your tribe is the standard by which all other tribes are to be judged then it is toxic. If your tribe proclaims superiority over all other tribes, then it is toxic.

True spirituality rejects superiority and embraces inclusiveness. It embraces curiosity and the desire to learn about the ways of other tribes. It seeks to understand all science, human behavior, and wisdom gleamed from diverse sources. A mountain may be climbed by many different paths, and yet it is the same mountain with the same summit. The path that we chose may be the favorite path of our tribe, well known by our tribe’s long history. We know each step and handhold from those who have climbed the path before us. But to really understand the mountain we need to know the paths others have climbed.

Absolutism

Absolutist religion is highly toxic. When a tribe believes that it possesses the truth, and that all other tribes are misguided infidels, then there is no room for compromise or even dialogue. The absolutist tribe is ready to punish or even exterminate those who follow a different path. Their opponents are demonized as godless, heathens, infidels. Even related tribes which share most of their beliefs with the absolutist tribe believe are still singled out for contempt that may lead to persecution. Intra-religious warfare between Protestant and Catholic Christians, or Sunni or Shia Muslims can be even fiercer than inter-religious rivalries. Sometimes it is hard to tell the Christians from the lions without a program.

Control Needs

Toxic religion seeks to control others. Freedom of religion begins with freedom from the religion of others. The fanatic believes that they alone speak for God, that they alone can interpret their tribe’s sacred scriptures, and that they have the right to rule over others even by force of law. Those who most demand obedience to the sacred scriptures seem not to have even read them!

The fundamentalist always begins by expounding on the authority of the scriptures. And after doing that, then begin to spout off about their own personal beliefs and prejudices. “Yoga pants are a sin!” That one is a comic example, but others are utterly toxic. “God helps those who help themselves!” says no scripture ever. “Life begins at conception.” The ancients had no notion of conception whatsoever. They knew that a man could plant a seed in a fertile woman that would occasionally lead to new life.  But reproductive biology was well beyond their ability to understand.

A serious read of the Christian gospels reveals that Jesus spent a lot of time and energy disputing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were part of the religious right of his day. These people were hyper religious, self-righteous, fanatical control freaks that somehow believed that they alone could interpret the scriptures or to speak for God. Jesus preferred the company of Roman tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.

Living in Fantasy

If you fail to understand the world through scientific eyes, you will wallow in superstition and expend your energies trying to appease an angry god. We laugh at stories of primitive tribes throwing virgins into volcanoes to prevent eruptions. In truth the volcano is indifferent to human life, and the sacrifice of the virgin is both tragic and wasteful. Volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and not divine displeasure.  Throughout our history, and even our prehistory, tribes have made sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to appease their angry gods. We need rain at the right times and in the right amount. We need fertile fields and abundant crops. Our ancestors needed seasonal animal migrations at their appointed times in order to survive. We feel powerless over the forces of nature that can bring storms or fair weather, abundance or starvation.

We may laugh at such primitive views of religion, but in fact we still practice them today. How many times have you heard that God is punishing us due to abortion or gay marriage? Such theories are the modern equivalent of throwing virgins into volcanoes. My standard reply to such absurdities is that if God did not smite the United States over chattel slavery or genocidal warfare against the Native Americans, we can be assured that God is not losing any sleep over gay marriage.

Others believe that God will protect us from all harm. Global climate change cannot happen because God will protect us! Nuclear war? God will prevent that from happening. Destruction of the ecosystem from the variety of poisons that we use to grow our food? God will feed us manna from heaven.

Those who are locked into an anti-scientific world view deny reality. They refuse to accept facts or logic or even common sense. They are sure that the religious mythology that they have been taught is the only way to view the world. Religious mythology becomes a closed loop system that proves itself true and everything outside its narrow bounds as false. It denies the very real and present dangers that threaten to destroy our civilization.

We can survive and even thrive as a species and a civilization but only if we learn to manage the Earth as trustees. We need to lessen the effects of global climate change, nuclear proliferation, pollution, poverty and hunger. We need to work at a sustainable economic system that provided food, shelter, potable water, energy, education, and health care for all of the Earth’s people.

 

 

 

The Electoral College Has Failed Us Again


It’s time to dump the Electoral College (November 2016)

statue-in-grief

For the second time in recent history, the Electoral College has thwarted the will of the American voter. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, as did Al Gore in 2000. That is twice in 16 years that the Electoral College has failed us. The Electoral College is an 18th Century anachronism that may have made sense back then. But is the 21st Century it has become a disaster.

No one wants to see another Electoral College tragedy like the one that occurred in 2000.  George W.  Bush was elected by a handful of votes in Florida that overrode the choice of millions of voters across the country.  In truth, the election was decided by one vote when the US Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision gave Florida and the election to Bush. Now it has happened for a second time and the results will be even more devastating.

The Electoral College is full of mathematical aberrations which make for unfair elections.  Wyoming has a population of 563,626 and 3 electoral votes, or one electoral vote for every 187,875 people.  California has a population of 37,253,956 and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote for every 677,345 people.  Thus the vote of a Wyoming resident counts 3.6 times as much as the vote of a California resident.

But there are even more to worry about. The rules are not even consistent from state to state. Maine and Nebraska split their votes according to congressional districts. While this might actually make sense, the rules should be standardized across the nation.

Even more troubling is the potential for an “unfaithful elector.” One of the electors from the state of Washington declared that he would refuse to cast his ballot for Hillary Clinton out of personal conscience. On election night there were some scenarios that pointed to an Electoral College tie vote at 269 each. In such a situation, one unfaithful elector could change the results of the election out of personal whim, and not be accountable.

The Electoral College system disenfranchises those who vote for the losing parties in each state.  If you are a Republican in California or a Democrat in Texas you need not even bother to vote for president.  Your vote for president will not even be counted in this winner-take-all system.  The only way to make your vote count is to move your voter registration to a swing state, like Florida, where it just might make a difference.  But such shenanigans are shameful and ought not to be necessary.

The Electoral College made sense in Eighteenth Century America.  Back then America was much like Europe is today.  The European Community is still a collection of nations, even though there is the beginning of a European government. In the Eighteenth Century colonial America was also a collection of nations.  People were Virginians or Georgians or New Yorkers.  No one thought of us as a federation.  In the Eighteenth Century it made sense to vote for the president by states.

The name “The United States of America” comes from the Declaration of Independence.  But what the Declaration of Independence really says is, “… the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA.”  The emphasis was on the individual states and not on a union.

It was the Civil War that finally fused this collection of states into a nation.  The Spanish American War in 1898 marked the birth of the American superpower, capable of influencing events beyond our borders.

Now in the Twenty-First Century the Electoral College is a dangerous and destructive historical anachronism.  We are one nation and we need to vote as one nation.  The elected president should be the person who commands the most votes regardless of the states in which those votes were cast.

 

 

Why We Are Not Ready For Mars


Why We Are Not Ready for Mars

mars-surface-2

There is a lot of buzz about going to Mars, but in truth we are very far from sending humans. We need a dose of reality before we get too carried away with this fantasy.

Our success rate for sending robotic probes to Mars is about 50%. A human expedition to Mars will be vastly more complicated and dangerous.

The fact is that we do not even have a design for a Mars mission. In the near future we could possibly send a crew to do a fly-by of Mars with no landing. This would involve enormous risks and costs. Even such a limited mission would require a minimum of 18 months in space.

What we cannot do is to land a crew on Mars. And even if we could, we have no way of getting the crew off of Mars and returning it to Earth.

The Mars base will need to sustain the crew for up to two years on the surface. This would require a very large and complicated setup. We will need advanced life support systems including radiation shielding, oxygen production, air recycling, water extraction and/or recycling, and electrical generation. We will also need space suits and vehicles for exploration, and laboratory space and equipment for research.  And finally we will need maintenance and repair systems and spare parts to keep it all running. We will also need a medical facility. Eventually we will want to grow our own food as well.

I would envision the proposed Mars base would be as large and complex as the International Space Station. While the existence of the ISS proves that we can build such a structure, the problem comes when we try to land it on Mars. Even if the Mars base is to be built in modules, as was the ISS, there is still a lot of weight to land on the surface. As the Mars atmosphere is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s parachutes are of extremely limited use. It has been a struggle even to land small, robotic crafts on the surface. But a human mission to Mars will require modules that are much larger and heavier than anything we have sent thus far. The only way we know to accomplish such landings is to use descent engines requiring massive amounts of rocket fuel. This fuel would be very heavy and would need to be sent from Earth.

Lifting off from Mars creates its own problems. We might assume that there will be an ascent ship carrying the astronauts to an Earth return vehicle parked in Mars orbit. But the details of this part of the mission have yet to be worked out. Here again there is a fuel issue. Where is the fuel for the ascent vehicle and the Earth return vehicle going to come from? Either we need to haul it from Earth, or else we need to manufacture it on Mars. A fueling station on Mars would add even more to the cost, complexity, and weight of the Mars base. The fueling station would extract water from the Martian environment, split it into oxygen and hydrogen gasses using electricity, and then both gasses would be loaded into the fuel tanks of the rockets. The same fuel might also be used to power the rovers on the surface as an alternative to solar power.

There is no way to cost out a human expedition to Mars at this point. The mission design is still unknown. Preliminary estimates from NASA have suggested a cost of $500 Billion (one-half trillion) for one crewed mission. It would be safe to assume that we could send a thousand robotic missions to Mars for far less than the cost of one crewed mission. And, when it comes right down to it, there is very little that a crewed mission could accomplish that could not be done with robotic missions except for the flag planting photo opportunity.

We live in a time when cruise missiles have largely replaced manned bombers, and drones are replacing fighter jets. When we remove the human factor from the cockpit we greatly improve the aircraft and its performance. A cruise missile or drone has no need for life support, windows, or complicated safety equipment such as ejection seats, fire extinguishers, or life rafts. A drone is far more maneuverable than a fighter jet and can perform high-speed turns at g-forces that would kill a human pilot. Removing the human element, and the requisite life support and safety gear, creates a vehicle with a greatly reduced size and weight, and a higher power-to-weight ratio.  In the same way that a motorcycle can out maneuver and outperform a car, a drone can out maneuver and outperform a piloted aircraft. And most importantly, a drone can be flown from a control room in Oklahoma instead of risking a pilot’s life in a combat zone.

Our robotic technology is increasing geometrically. Soon self-driving cars will become commonplace. So why not self-driving rovers on Mars?

Almost all of our actual science in space has been done by robotic means, from the Voyager spacecraft to the Hubbell Space Telescope to the New Horizons mission to Pluto. The Mars orbiters and rovers have yielded some great science and continue to do so even after years of activity.

And then there are the human factors to consider in a crewed mission to Mars. Just the trip out and back will be difficult for the crew. Imagine sharing a recreational vehicle with three to five other people, except in this case the trip will last about three years and all of the doors and windows will be welded shut. There will be no chance of getting away from the constant pressures and tensions that might be created from such close contact. And what happens if there are problems back home such as a seriously ill child or the loss of a loved one?

The human body is not meant for life in outer space. Extended periods of zero gravity cause a breakdown of bone and muscle mass. Even extensive exercise requiring hours each day do not fully compensate for this deterioration. Imaging an astronaut stepping onto the surface of Mars and breaking her leg due to atrophy caused by months of zero gravity.

The astronauts on the Mars mission will also be subjected to all of the diseases and conditions that affect all humans. Additionally there can and will be accidents. What can be done about appendicitis, breast cancer, heart attacks, burns, puncture wounds, and all of the other situations requiring emergency medical care when an astronaut is in deep space and several years from Earth?

Away from the Earth and its protective atmosphere and radiation belts, astronauts could be fried by radiation caused by a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection. Even cosmic background radiation could impair the crew and its mission. Micro meteors could puncture the hull or damage essential equipment.

One thing is certain. Beyond near-Earth orbit, any form of rescue is out of the question. Apollo XIII managed to limp back from a catastrophic explosion on the way the moon. But Apollo XIII was only a few days from Earth.

Three things from the world of science fiction are needed right now before we can be truly prepared for long duration space missions:

  • Advanced propulsion systems that can get us to Mars and back in weeks instead of years.
  • Shields or force fields to protect us from radiation and impacts with space debris.
  • Artificial gravity to prevent muscle and bone loss.

With these technologies in place a crewed mission to Mars begins to look like a possibility.

 

 

 

 

mars-base

The Republican Party is Everything Wrong with America


THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS EVERYTHING WRONG WITH AMERICA

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There was a time when Republicans were decent people, drawn from the mainstream, who loved their country and believed in the American Dream for all people. Those days are now long gone. The Republican Party has become the party of obstruction, the party of bitter and unremitting partisanship, the party of the one percent, the party of the billionaires and the big corporations, the anti-science party, the party of “voodoo economics” to quote from George H.W. Bush. It is the party of big wars, big deficits, and an unrelenting attack on the poor and middle classes.

Governance

The Republican Party has become the party of obstruction. The Republican Congress has voted to end the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) over fifty times. This type of relentless partisanship is destroying our ability to govern ourselves as a nation. Republicans believe in shutting down the government whenever they do not get their own way. This has happened at great cost to our nation and tarnished our reputation around the globe. It has hurt our credit rating and caused billions of dollars in damage to our economy.

The Republicans stated in 2010 that the party’s primary goal was to keep Obama from getting a second term in office. They were so willing to attack and obstruct Obama and his legacy that they did not mind damaging the nation in the process.  The GOP can now best be described as the Get Obama Party.

The House of Representatives has been Republican since 2010, and the Senate since 2014. And yet no one can suggest one thing that this Congress has accomplished. Here the fifty-plus votes to end Obama Care do not count as an accomplishment. Where is the Republican jobs bill? Where is the Republican immigration reform bill? Where is the Republican tax reform bill? Where is the Republican voter protection bill?

The Republican Party complains bitterly that the government is failing the nation. And yet, the Republicans control both houses of Congress, hold 31 governorships, and until the recent death of Antonin Scalia, controlled the Supreme Court. Perhaps it is time for Republicans to acknowledge that the gridlock in Washington is of Republican origin.

How can we elect Republicans who say that they do not believe in government to actually govern the nation? How do we elect people who believe that government is the problem to run our government?

The Senate Republicans have refused to even hold confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. The lengthy delay in the confirmation process is unprecedented. The Constitution of the United States clearly spells out the confirmation of federal judges as a principal duty of the Senate. And yet the Senate has refused to do its constitutional duty. The excuse given is that Obama is in the last year of his presidency. But historically this has not been an issue. Ronald Reagan nominated a Supreme Court Justice with just 13 months left in office.

To prevent Senate obstructionism, we need a constitutional amendment which states that should the Senate fail to conclude confirmation hearings within 90 days of any nomination, the nomination will automatically be confirmed.

Voter Suppression

The Republican Party is conducting a major campaign of voter suppression. It is trying to keep the poor, the legal immigrants, the minorities, and the aged from voting. There has been precious little voter fraud in the Unites States, unless of course you count the Republican drive to disenfranchise voters. Requiring government ID’s to vote seems like a sensible idea, but not to anyone who lacks such a document. In the State of Alabama, the State has closed voter registration offices in majority black counties. So, if a citizen from one of those counties wants to register to vote they will be forced to travel long distances just to register. In the bad old days there was a poll tax that kept poor people from voting. This was declared unconstitutional by the 24th Amendment passed in 1964. In 1966 the Supreme Court struck down poll taxes even for state elections. Republicans are seeking other means of voter suppression to replace the poll tax. The voter ID laws are a part of that effort.

Apart from the voter ID issue, states can suppress voting by closing registration offices, allowing (or planning) ballot shortages at non-Republican polling places during elections, circulating inadequate and even erroneous information about poll times and locations. States can ignore absentee ballots from certain counties or districts, or fail to process registration papers. These tactics were used in the presidential election in Florida in 2000. The effect of these and other irregularities in Florida was to elect George W. Bush as president by less than 400 votes.

On top of this the Republican Party has engaged in wholesale Gerrymandering as a method of disenfranchising democrat and minority voters.

It is clear that we need a new voters’ rights act that will protect our electoral process, and insure that every vote counts.

The Party of the One Percent

The Republican Party represents the interests of the billionaires and the big corporations. Its patron saint is the unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge. Its motto is: “I got mine, and to hell with everyone else.”

Of course not all Republicans are billionaires. The party is also full of very poor people who do not know that they are being played. All Republicans should be advised as follows: Republicans are either billionaires or suckers. Check your pockets to see which you are. There are many poor Republicans that are still waiting for their share of wealth from Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” economics.

Republicans seem to have two and only two ideas for building the economy. Since Reagan took office in 1981 these two basic platform planks have not changed, even though they have proved to have been disastrous for the economy.

The first Republican principal is, “More tax breaks for the richest.” Never mind that the rich are far richer than they have ever been. Never mind that the gap between the rich and the poor is unprecedented and growing daily. It appears that the only way to incentivize the rich to build factories and businesses is to grant them ever larger tax breaks and subsidies. Republican “logic” goes like this. We need to incentivize the wealthy by giving them more money. But when talking about the poor, Republican “logic” reverses itself. Doing anything to help the poor, such as by increasing the minimum wage or providing food stamps will dis-incentivize them and keep them from wanting to work.

Even if we assume for a moment that the Republicans are on the right track, should not the tax incentives and subsidies be tied to actually creating more jobs? What is to stop a billionaire from simply using the proposed tax cut to purchase a fifth or sixth house in the south of France?

The Republicans tell us that America is the most overtaxed nation on Earth. This is a total Republican fabrication. Our tax rates are actually lower than many developed countries. But to sell their key economic talking point they must repeat this ridiculous lie even knowing that it is untrue. When counting up the tax burden, Republicans are loathe to mention the payroll taxes paid by every worker on the first $118,500 of earned income. This tax is paid by all wage earners and self-employed persons without deduction or exception. A favorite dodge of the Republicans is to talk only about income tax rates, and not about payroll taxes (FICA and Medicare) paid by all poor and middle class workers, but from which the wealthy are substantially exempted.

Our country is a consumer market, with over 70% of our GDP generated by consumer purchases. The Republicans have got this all backwards. If you want to increase jobs and economic growth the best method is to increase the size and purchasing power of the middle class. When poor people become middle class they have money to spend, and those who started out in the middle class will have even more money to spend. That consumer spending increases demands, and leads to more business activity, growth, jobs, and increased wages.

There are an endless list of ways to increase the size and purchasing power of the middle class, including:

  • Increasing minimum wage
  • Day care
  • Early childhood education
  • Affordable and available medical care
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Job training
  • Making higher education more affordable
  • Building and repairing our infrastructure

The Party of Deregulation

Apart from tax breaks for the wealthy, the Republican Party stands for deregulation. Again, the “logic” here is that government, including all government regulations, is bad while unrestrained greed is good. It is not that deregulation is totally bad. Economies and societies function best when there is the right balance of regulation. But to Republicans, the correct balance seems to mean no regulation at all.

The Republicans tell us that we are the most regulated country on Earth. Again, this is a total Republican fabrication meant to sustain their talking points.

In a totally unregulated environment, the vulture capitalists are free to pillage, plunder, lute, and pollute to their hearts content. Without regulation we would have poisoned food, children working in coal mines, catastrophic environmental degradation, and financial fraud of epic proportions. We need the right balance of regulations to restrain the excesses of the marketplace which would otherwise be driven only by greed.

Thinking of environmental regulations alone, we are living in the sixth great extinction event. This latest extinction event is called the “Anthropocene Extinction Event,” meaning that it is totally caused and controlled by human activity. Global climate change is not something that will happen in the distant future. It is already happening today. We have more severe storms than we have ever had. We have massive flooding, forest fires, and droughts. Each month, including the just finished month of July 2016, is the hottest month on record in world history. We may have already doomed our civilization. We cannot continue with business as usual. We need to cut carbon emissions, reduce pollution, maintain wildlife habitats, foster sustainable agriculture, and find ways to mitigate the damage already done.

The Party of Deficits

The Republicans love to blame the Democrats for deficits. It is Obamacare, proposed increases to the minimum wage, early childhood education, and lower college costs and student loan costs that break the bank. But the Republicans can spend money on tax breaks for the rich, subsidies for corporations, and endless Bush family wars in the Middle East that last for decades without conclusion or even progress. The Republicans would cheerfully shred the entire social safety net for the poor and middle classes in order to give even more breaks for the wealthy.

Likewise, the Republicans refuse to invest in our crumbling infrastructure. To any rational person, when your roof leaks you fix it, for to postpone would incur greatly increased future costs. The owner of the roof would fix the roof even if it meant borrowing money to do it.

Infrastructure improvements do far more than just to maintain our present capital assets. They are an investment in the future. In the 1950’s President Eisenhower saw the benefit of the German autobahns, and made the building of our Interstate Highway network a priority of our country. It is hard to imagine what our country would look like today without the Interstate highways. Our commerce would be greatly diminished over what it is now with the Interstates. Products would cost us much more. Transportation would be much more difficult, time consuming, and costly. It takes vision to invest in the future. What is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is forty years ago.

The Party of Privatization

Republicans will tell you that government is the problem and the private sector is the solution. While this may be true in part, it does not apply everywhere and to everything. Particularly it does not apply to most government functions. If we really believe this our roads would all be toll roads built and maintained by private companies.

The Republicans are trying to kill the United States Postal Service by forcing it to prepay all pension obligations. There is no other organization, either public or private, that must deal with such an onerous financial drain. This requirement, if not reversed, will result in the death of the USPS, and the privatization of all mail delivery. The private companies will “cherry pick” the deliveries that they want, and abandon the unprofitable routes.

The Republicans want to privatize Social Security. This would be impossible from many standpoints. To begin with, there is no pot of money set aside by Social Security to pay for my retirement. As I am still working, the money I pay in on Tuesday goes out the door on Wednesday to fund the benefits of those already retired. The government, starting under President Reagan, has looted any reserve funds from Social Security so as to fund the burgeoning deficit. The simply is no funds available to place into private hands to be invested for future benefits.

A further concern is that if individuals are made fully responsible to invest their own retirement savings, the possibility of a total meltdown is unavoidable. Instead of having retirement savings managed by Social Security, imaging a situation wherein people’s retirement savings decisions are determined by commissioned sales representatives at such firms as Morgan Stanley or the now defunct Lehman Brothers.

There is always risk in the market. As President Obama once noted, “Some people bought Google early while others bought Enron late.” Social Security is supposed to be a financial safety net and not a lottery.

Republicans want to privatize healthcare. Under typical Republican plans being proposed, instead of Medicare, the elderly will receive a monthly voucher and told to go purchase their health care on the open market. Good luck with that! It is clear that this plan will only help big insurance, big pharma, and their highly compensated sales people.

The Party of Religious Tyranny

The Republicans are the party of Religious Tyranny. The United States was NOT founded as a Christian nation. Rather, it was founded as a haven of religious freedom by Europeans that had endured centuries of religious warfare and persecutions stemming from sectarian divisions. The freedom of religion begins with being free from someone else’s religion. Freedom of religion means that each of us has the right to worship God in our own communities, and in our own ways, or not at all. It is not a license to discriminate against others or to impose our beliefs upon them by force of law.

Republicans support the effort of right-wing Christians to teach creationism in the schools. Creationism is nothing like a science. It is religious mythology pure and simple. It is no more valid than the Australian Aborigines creation stories, the Mayan creation stories, or those of the followers of the Norse Gods.

Right-wing Christians act like they have authority over all manner of public morality. Republicans have supported these fundamentalists in imposing their religious and moral views upon the nation. Gay marriage is not an issue of public morality, but rather of private relationships. No preacher, priest, or politician can tell anyone who to love. Abortion is a similar example. I do not need the permission of a Catholic bishop to have a vasectomy, or to make any other type of family planning decision for myself or my family. Religious freedom is freedom from the religious tyranny of others.

Limits on reproductive freedom deny the personhood of all women. Women are more than just mandatory incubators. They, as everyone, have the fundamental right to control their own body and destiny. Family planning decisions belong to the woman and her family, with advice from her health care providers. This is not the domain of priests, preachers or politicians.

The Ten Commandments should never be displayed at any public office or meeting. The First Commandment “You shall have no other Gods before me,” stands is direct conflict with the First Amendment “The Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion…” The harm of displaying the Ten Commandments at a courthouse is very real. For example, suppose a Buddhist comes to the courthouse seeking justice. A judge, jury member, or other government official sees the Ten Commandments and considers the Buddhist to be an idol worshiper and a heathen who is unworthy of American Justice. Now Buddhist do not worship idols any more than Catholics worship candles. But the Buddhist has already been denied justice due to the prejudice of the official.

The Republican Party is consistently on the wrong side of every issue. They claim to be the party of limited government, but they want to invade our bedrooms and to regulate every aspect of our personal lives. People are to be supported and big companies are to be regulated. As usual the Republican Party gets this and everything else backwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith Demystified – Living Without Religion


confucius104563Faith Demystified – Living Without Religion

I was admitted to the hospital recently. As part of the admittance process I was asked to state a religious preference. I surprised myself by saying, “None.” For the first sixty-one years of my life I participated in public acts of worship at least fifty times each year. I spent seven years in academic preparation for ministry, plus several more years after I was ordained. I spent 20 years as a pastor and regional church administrator. Religion has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. So why would I choose to claim no religious affiliation?

In recent years I have become increasingly unhappy with the Church. Calling one’s self a Christian today seems to indicate a belief in ignorance, bigotry, superstition, fanaticism, and self-righteous zealotry. There was a time when there were progressive voices in the Church that stood against the dark tide of this hateful fanaticism, but those voices have grown strangely silent. Never has it been so embarrassing, or intellectually offensive, to call myself a Christian. That does not mean that I am embarrassed to proclaim Jesus as Lord. I am only embarrassed to be in any way associated with the Church that seems to have lost Jesus all together. There seems to be no Christ in Christian. Those who thump the Bible the loudest seem never to have actually read it. The raw, unbridled ignorance is appalling. The arrogance is stultifying. The self-righteous zealotry is insufferable.

As I contemplated my choice of no religious affiliation at the hospital, I realized that I had made the correct call.  What do I need with a religion? As I ran my mental checklist there was nothing that any religion could offer me.

I am aware of my own mortality and of my own health issues. I know that one day I will die, whether that death may come in fifteen days, or fifteen years. I do not believe that I will live twenty more years, and would not wish to do so unless I could be vigorous and productive. Until my death I will live every day. And then die without either sadness or fear. Life is not measured by its longevity. Many live long and useless lives, and die without ever having lived.

I do not need a priestly presence to utter magic incantations, or to perform symbolic rituals over me. For all such things are simply an illusion that gives comfort to the fearful. Life and death are so much bigger than these illusions.

I do not need a shoulder to cry on. In times of illness, loss, or despair I will survive and even thrive. I know how to be strong. I can find comfort without some religious illusion. Life is grand beyond measure. Even death does not dismay. There is nothing sad about death. It is the inevitable end of life. I do not need a grief counselor as there is no grief. And when it comes, death will be a remarkable experience.

I do not need to rail at the unfairness of life, for nothing in life is fair. We all have our obstacles. We all take our lumps. An old proverb says, “I complained that I had no shoes, until I saw the man with no feet

And most certainly, I do not need some hillbilly preacher to come and save my soul, filling my final hours with ludicrous superstition and ignorance in the process. I do not need to be manipulated into faith, or be forced into making a confession. I do not need to work some arrogant preacher’s checklist before I exit my life. Those who would save other people’s souls are nothing but scalp hunters. They think that they have the power over salvation or damnation. They think that they can work their magic with God and in doing so to earn their own divine reward. Surely these are the most arrogant and delusional of all “Christians.”

So spare me all of this religious nonsense. Let me go with a clear head and a sense of fulfillment that comes from a life well lived. Let me study science and all manner of human knowledge. Let me explore the cosmos and learn of its wonders. Let me read great literature and learn what it is to be human. Let me walk and talk with my fellow travelers as we make our way on this journey of life. Let me find God in the eyes of a friend or the face of a stranger. And together may we fulfill our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord


Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord

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Religious discord comes from bumping into belief systems that do not match our own, however illusory our own systems of belief may be. When I was a pastor, there was a young woman who had been baptized and raised Presbyterian. She was marrying a Baptist and joining his church. The problem for me was not that she was leaving the church, the problem was that the Baptists required that she be rebaptized!

The Presbyterians have a view of baptism that made perfect sense to me. Children of believers are baptized as infants. In this baptism both the parents and the congregation vow to raise this child in the Christian faith. This baptism is an act of God, and not human will. In this act God claims the child as part of the community of community. Baptism in the Presbyterian Church is seen as complete and final in and of itself. There is no need to have the baptism “confirmed” when the child reaches the age of consent. We Presbyterians sometimes slip and talk about “confirmation classes” for adolescents, but only because that term is so prevalent in the broader Christian community. What we mean to say is that there are “commissioning classes” for adolescents which signify that the child is now ready to participate more actively in the life, worship and governance of the church. The one new right established at the time of commissioning is the right to vote and hold office in the church.

Baptists have a very different view of Baptism, and it clashes radically with the Presbyterian view. It is not that one side is “right” and the other side is “wrong.” It is just that these two sets of doctrine cannot mesh together.

To join the Baptist Church, this young woman was required to undergo a Baptist baptism. Presbyterian doctrine eschews any form of rebaptism, believing that the first baptism is sufficient for the believer’s entire life.

If this woman from my church did not undergo a Baptist baptism, she would be only a visitor in the Baptist church, and not a full participant. Baptist believe that only believer baptism, entered into by someone old enough to consent to the proceedings, is valid in the eyes of God.

Also, of course, Baptist use much more water than Presbyterians. Baptists generally practice a full body dunking, while Presbyterians simply sprinkle water on the head. I will agree with the Baptists that the very word “baptize” means to dip or dunk. But personally I do not believe that the amount of water used in a baptism is of any more significance than the amount of food consumed during communion, and a church does not need to spread a full meal in order to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

While I fully understood why this young woman needed to undergo a Baptist baptism, it pained me because it felt like it was a denial of her upbringing in the Presbyterian Church. It felt like the Baptists were saying, “Your whole spiritual life as a Presbyterian was not legitimate. Now you must start over as a Baptist, unlearn everything that the Presbyterians taught you, and learn our Baptist ways.” Let me be clear that this message was not coming from the Baptist Church, but playing inside me head.

In summary, there is nothing wrong with the Presbyterian notion of baptism, and nothing wrong with the Baptist notion of baptism. The problem is that when we try to combine them there are discordant notes and emotional turmoil.

As part of this discourse on religious discord, In all honesty I need to raise my personal disdain for the Mormon religion. I am a strong believer in religious liberty, and I would never want to constrain or harm another religious community. I would never discriminate against a Mormon or refuse to vote for them solely because of their religious affiliation. But my personal vexation with the Mormon religion is that it presents to the world a counterfeit version of Christianity. The Mormons have usurped our Christian language, our Christian symbols, our Christian music, and even our Christian sacraments. In places where Mormonism is strong, people confuse the two very divergent religions and hence fail to understand Christianity or its message. It does not help that the Mormons insist on placing the name of Jesus in that religions official title, with the words “Jesus Christ” made bigger than the other words. It feels like they are saying to all of Christendom, “Screw you! We are the real church!”

A good example of this religious divergence is how the Mormon religion practices baptism. The Mormon’s do extensive genealogical research. A large reason for this genealogical research is to create lists of people who are long dead so that these deceased may be baptized. When we hear “baptism,” this sounds like Christian baptism, but in practice this is something very different. Nowhere in the whole history or doctrine of the Christian Church does it talk about baptizing dead people. This is the kind of practice that causes me to say that Mormonism represents a counterfeit version of Christianity. On the outside it looks Christian, but when you dig deeper it seems anything but.

I will cite one more example of religious discord, this time related to Holy Communion (Eucharist). The Presbyterians believe in a free and open communion. Anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as their lord and savior are welcomed to participate. If I think in terms of rules and regulations for a moment, I might also add that the believer should have been baptized. Communion is an outpouring of God’s grace upon the assembled faithful. It is the Lord’s Table and not our own.

Whenever I am worshiping in a Catholic Church there is always a dilemma. I know full well that I am not welcome at a Catholic communion because, first of all, I am not a Catholic. The Presbyterian notion that the Eucharist is open to all of God’s people is shattered.

But furthermore, even if I was a Catholic, I would still not be eligible to participate in the Eucharist. I am divorced, and that is a disqualification. To be restored to the Catholic Church’s good graces, at least in the days before Pope Francis, it was necessary for a Catholic to first pursue and complete the divorce proceedings in the civil courts. And after that, the believer would need to appeal to Rome for an ecclesiastical annulment of the marriage. Such a process could take decades and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

And thirdly, even if I was a Catholic, and even if I was not divorced, there is still the issue of completing all of the pre-Eucharist requirements, such as attendance at Confession. There are sorts of things that need to be done in order for a Catholic to get his or ticket punched so as to be ready for communion. So, the Eucharist is not an outpouring of God’s grace, but rather a reward for loyalty and good behavior granted to Catholics in good standing.

Thus, the Catholic Eucharist turn on its head everything that I as a Presbyterian hold dear. Again, it is not that the Presbyterians are right and the Catholics are wrong. It is just that we have two different and radically divergent versions of what the Eucharist means. Normally, when worshiping in a Catholic Church, I will take communion because I believe in the Presbyterian rules which say that I am eligible, and because I want to share in the Lord’s Table with a larger group of Christians that are beyond my own community.

The sad part of all of this discord is that it really does not mean a thing. It is like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exchanging insults instead of focusing on policies that actually matter. All of this is a great distraction that keeps the Church from being the Church. None of this is going to feed hungry children, rescue refugees, or free people held in human trafficking.

When the Church cannot come together even over such common themes as the sacraments, what hope is there to talk about science vs. fundamentalism, gay marriage, economic disparities, refugees, or reproductive freedoms?

This article has only dealt with discord within religious traditions. We have not even mentioned discord between various religions.

In short, religious beliefs can create a climate of discord. There are endless disputes over the minutest points of doctrine. There is the obsession with the details of symbolic acts that in reality have no importance. There is the doctrinal rigidity that says that my understandings are correct, and therefore yours are all wrong. Wars have been fought and gallons of ink spilled throughout Christian history just trying to define the Trinity.

Islam was born out of officially Christian territory. An important historical fact was that the nations of Islam generally rejected the officially sanctioned language used to describe the Trinity. Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet of God. But for the Muslim who could not call Jesus the “Son of God,” or embrace any sort of Trinitarian language, the only solution was to reject Christianity and start their own religion.

DISORDER