Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pretzel Buns

Apparently Boston Blackie's is about to shutter it's doors, so in honor of good burgers, here's 5

Top Notch Beefburger (2116 W. 95th St., 773-445-7218)
There’s a reason they’ve been in business for more than 60 years: they buy a quarter of a cow at a time, grind the beef on-site, toast their buns, offer deluxe fixin’s and fresh-cut fries cooked in pure beef fat. The original burger joint.

David Burke’s Primehouse (616 N. Rush St., 312-660-6000)
The ground chuck from the burger comes from pieces of meat that have aged for 40 days; on top, garlic spinach and crispy shallots, plus a potato bun slathered with a bacon-mayo spread.

The Twisted Spoke (501 N. Ogden Ave., 312-666-1500)
The Fatboy reigns supreme here: a hand-formed half-pounder, offered with a range of excellent toppings (bacon, BBQ sauce, gouda, among others) served on a garlic toasted egg bun with incredibly tasty fresh-cut fries.

DMK Burger Bar (2954 N. Sheffield Ave., 773-360-8686)
Grass-fed burgers, pounded thin, served on the best (potato) buns anywhere in town; homemade condiments are de rigueur. Lamb burgers are great with fried egg and bacon!

Kuma’s (2900 W. Belmont Ave., 773-604-8769)
They have their rules and their in-your-face servers, but the burgers are still pretty solid, despite the fact the pretzel buns and superfluous proteins (bacon, pulled pork, pancetta?) can overwhelm the beef. Don’t even think of asking them to turn down (or, God forbid, change) the ear-splitting music. They’ll probably throw you out on your ass. The Baroness will leave you drooling.

Why Johnny Can't Read

Waiting for Somebody

Let’s talk for a minute about education.

Already, I can see readers racing for the doors. This is one of the hardest subjects in the world to write about. Many, many people would rather discuss ... anything else. Sports. Crazy Tea Party candidates. Crop reports.

So kudos to the new documentary “Waiting for Superman” for ratcheting up the interest level. It follows the fortunes of five achingly adorable children and their hopeful, dedicated, worried parents in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., as they try to gain entrance to high-performing charter schools. Not everybody gets in, and by the time you leave the theater you are so sad and angry you just want to find something to burn down.

My own particular, narrow wrath was focused on the ritual at the heart of the movie, where parents and kids sit nervously in an auditorium, holding their lottery numbers while somebody pulls out balls and announces the lucky winners of seats in next fall’s charter school class. The lucky families jump up and down and scream with joy while the losing parents and kids cry. In some of the lotteries, there are 20 heartbroken children for every happy one.

Charter schools, please, stop. I had no idea you selected your kids with a piece of performance art that makes the losers go home feeling like they’re on a Train to Failure at age 6. You can do better. Use the postal system.

On a more sweeping level, the film has sparked a great debate about American education. The United States now ranks near the bottom of the industrialized countries when it comes to reading and math. It’s not so much that schools here have gotten worse. It’s just that for the last several decades, almost everybody else has gotten better. Finland, what’s your secret?

The director of “Waiting for Superman,” Davis Guggenheim, says he’s not offering an answer: “It’s not ‘pro’ anything or ‘anti’ anything. It’s really: ‘Why can’t we have enough great schools?’ ”

But plot-wise, the movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. However, about halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools “produce amazing results.”

In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.” I’m still haunted by a debate I stumbled across in the Texas Legislature a decade ago in which conservatives repelled any attempt to impose accountability standards on the state’s charter schools, even after only 37 percent of the charter students passed state academic achievement tests, compared with 80 percent of the public schoolchildren. There’s something about an unfettered school that lifts the hearts of the Born Free crowd.

Then there’s the matter of teachers’ unions. Guggenheim is the man who got us worried about global warming in “An Inconvenient Truth.” In his new film, the American Federation of Teachers, a union, and its president, Randi Weingarten, seem to be playing the role of carbon emissions. The movie’s heroes are people like the union-fighting District of Columbia schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada, the chief of the much-praised, union-free Harlem Children’s Zone.

“I want to be able to get rid of teachers that we know aren’t able to teach kids,” says Canada.

That’s unarguable, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has turned out to be a terrific engine for forcing politicians and unions and education experts to create better ways to get rid of inept or lazy teachers. But there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back. Finland, which is currently cleaning our clock in education scores, has teachers who are almost totally unionized. The states with the best student performance on standardized tests tend to be the ones with the strongest teachers’ unions.

Older teachers tend to respond to calls for education reform with cynicism because they’ve been down this road so many times before. In 1955, a best seller, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” stunned the country with its description of a 12-year-old who suffered from being “exposed to an ordinary American school.” Since then, the calls for reform have come as regularly as the locusts. Social promotion has been eliminated repeatedly, schools have been made bigger, then smaller.

But dwelling on that won’t get us anywhere. Right now, the public is engaged. The best charter schools are laboratories for new ideas. But the regular public schools are where American education has to be saved. We can do better. Superman hasn’t arrived. But we may be ready to fly.

The Dude Abides

Reefer Gladness By TIMOTHY EGAN

It was early still, and daylight, so when I called up The Dude to get his take on new polls showing California on the verge of becoming the first state to legalize, tax and regulate recreational use of marijuana, I knew he wouldn’t be, um, distracted. Not just yet.

“I only smoke a little pot at night — never in the day — and I prefer brownies,” said Jeff Dowd, who is best known as the inspiration for the other Dude, the laconically mystical character played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers movie “The Big Lebowski.” I’ve known The Dude for years, and the Coens got him mostly right, except for the White Russians. Jack Daniels is his drink.

And before Hollywood-area enforcers get any ideas, let’s make it clear that Mr. Dowd has a legal right to his medical marijuana, though he complains about the prices (“more than $300 an ounce!”). If anyone is entitled to some whining about price gouging for prescription weed, it’s The Dude.

Jeff Dowd(Matt Sayles/Associated Press)
Jeff Dowd posed for a portrait at his home with the poster for the film “The Big Lebowski.”

But before the Coen brothers applied the Los Angeles slacker-noir treatment to my old friend and made him a cult hero on college campuses, he was a man of often unintelligible but occasionally brilliant political insights.

And on Proposition 19, The Dude speaks truth to power. We talked about the opposition to legalizing pot — the alcohol industry and people currently making the most money off California’s nutty medicinal marijuana retail scheme.

“If you take out the special interests, the entrenched groups, with any of these issues — whether it’s energy, the financial sector, or legalized marijuana — it’s always very clear what the right thing to do is,” said The Dude.

He was echoing, in his way, an old truth of politics: that the best way to judge what’s really at stake in an election is to follow the money. And the source of the funds being used to dissuade Californians from legalizing pot says a lot about the end-stage hypocrisies of the arthritic war on drugs.

As a societal ground-shaker, a voter-imposed act to legalize the most popular illicit drug in the United States — with about 17 million current users — will hardly bring down any of the nation’s foundations. Like most tectonic shifts, Prop 19 is long in coming, and the actual slip of the earth will not be apocalyptic.

Cannabis became illegal in most states not long after alcohol was freed of the folly of Prohibition, the greatest crime-booster of the 20th century. The legalization movement, now 35 years and running, acknowledges the obvious: pot is a mildly mind-altering recreational diversion that is not worthy of having the weight, misery and money of the criminal-judicial-industrial complex against it.

Of course, too many people abuse marijuana. And too many young people escape in a cannabis cloud when they should be studying calculus or kicking a soccer ball. But these cautionary notes also go for sugar, trans fats, television, computer games and a big pair of destructive legal drugs — alcohol and nicotine.

And therein lies the first lesson in this potpourri: The real threat posed by Prop 19 is not from the “message” that society would send by allowing legal pot use. Talk about message: it’s impossible to escape the drugs pushed relentlessly on television — pills to help you sleep or have sex, or drinks to make you sociable. No, the threat is to the established order that controls profitable legal drugs, and to the criminal cartels who benefit from our absurd prohibition of pot.

So, it’s not a bit surprising that one of the biggest contributors to the campaign against legalization is the California Beer and Beverage Distributors. Having branded their products with nearly every major American recreational ritual, Big Alcohol does not want marijuana to get a piece of that large pie of legal money spent to distract ourselves from ourselves.

The other major opponents appear, at first glance, to be somewhat of a surprise. The California Cannabis Association, representing medical marijuana dispensaries, has come out against legalization, claiming it would be “a direct assault on medical marijuana patients.”

Prop 19, in fact, would be a direct assault on the profits made by those dispensaries. A Rand Drug Policy Research Center study this summer found that the price for an ounce of pot could drop 90 percent — before a hefty tax — if it’s legalized in California. This is in part because the law would allow people to grow a small plot of their own weed, further cutting into the cartels — legal and illegal.

And that’s really the crux of the issue. Most of the bad things associated with marijuana come from its criminalization. If legalization curbs the violence — of the Mexican drug lords, of the gangsters who still wage turf wars in parts of California, of the powerful and paranoid growers in the north — it will have done society a big favor.

Politicians have cowered in the wake of Prop 19’s appeal, as have most of California’s newspapers. It would bring chaos, they say, leaving it up to the counties to decide how to tax, sell and regulate. Oh, the chaos! And worse — “it would make California a laughing stock,” in the words of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He should know. Schwarzenegger runs a state that is bankrupt, broken and ungovernable. God forbid he should let common sense into California.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mortgage Rates Are A Funny Thing

Historical Graphs For Mortgage Rates
Three Month Trends 2010:
Three month trends of mortgage rates: 30-Year FRM, 15-Year FRM, 5/1 ARM, 1-Year ARM.

One Year Trends:
One year trends of mortgage rates: 30-Year FRM, 15-Year FRM, 5/1 ARM, 1-Year ARM

Three Year Trends:
Three year trends of mortgage rates: 30-Year FRM, 15-Year FRM, 1-Year ARM

Historical Graphs For Mortgage Rates:
Long-Term Trends
30-Year FRM, 15-Year FRM, 1-Year ARM Rates, 1992 - 2010:
30-Year FRM, 15-Year FRM, 1-Year ARM Rates, 1992 - 2010
30-Year FRM, 15-Year FRM Rates 1984 - 2010:
30-Year FRM, 15-Year FRM Rates 1984 - 2010
30-Year FRM Rates 1971 - 2010:
30-Year FRM Rates 1971 - 2010

How Could I Do Anything Else?

When retiring University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Bill Ayers co-wrote a book in 1973, it was dedicated in part to Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy's assassin.

That came back to haunt Ayers on Thursday when the U. of I. board, now chaired by Kennedy's son, considered his request for emeritus status. It was denied in a unanimous vote.

"I intend to vote against conferring the honorific title of our university to a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father," he said.

"There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so."

Later, Kennedy told the Chicago Sun-Times he and the board have not seen any signs of remorse from Ayers in the nearly 40 years since the dedication.

"There's no evidence in any of his interviews or conversations that he regrets any of those actions -- that's a better question for him," he told the Sun-Times.

Kennedy, who was 4 when his father was killed in 1968, said the board's decision did not hinge on his own personal feelings.

"The decision was grounded in great university governance," he told the newspaper. "Obviously, there was a personal angle for me, but Ayers' actions were inconsistent with open dialogue and debate that should define any great university."

Ayers should not expect any change in that position.

"He asked for this privilege," Kennedy said. "He's not going to get it from me or that board."

Kennedy runs the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

In his remarks to the board Thursday, Kennedy noted that emeritus status is a privilege and not automatic, and that Ayers had initiated the request.

"Our discussion of this topic therefore does not represent an intervention into the scholarship of the university, nor is it a threat to academic freedom."

Emeritus status at the U. of I. is purely honorific and does not include perks granted by some other schools, such as office space, insurance benefits and free parking.

University spokesman Tom Hardy said no one could recall the last time a request for emeritus status had been denied.

"It's highly unusual," he said.

Before he became a professor of education at UIC, Ayers was a co-founder of the radical anti-Vietnam War group the Weather Underground. The group participated in several bombings, and Ayers spent time on the run from the FBI.

Federal charges against Ayers were dropped, and he joined the UIC faculty in 1987.

The dedication to Sirhan Sirhan appeared in the book Prairie Fire. Sirhan was one of more than 150 "political prisoners" to whom the book was dedicated.

Ayers went on to contribute to Chicago's school reform program and was one of three co-authors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant proposal that won $49.2 million to study public school reform.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Ayers' connections to Barack Obama became a lightning rod. Ayers has denied any close association with Obama.

Contacted by a reporter, Ayers declined to comment about the board's action, but when he announced his retirement in August, his former boss, Vicki Chou, dean of UIC's College of Education, told the Sun-Times, "He's done a spectacular job as a teacher here."

Kennedy told the board that he "is guided by my conscience and one which has been formed by a series of experiences, many of which have been shared with the people of our country and mark each of us in a profound way.

"My own history is not a secret. My life experiences inform my decision-making as a trustee of the university."

Full Letter From Chris Kennedy In Response To

Bill Ayers Request For Emeritus Status:

There are times like today when we must make difficult decisions and perhaps those that are controversial or simply create a spectacle.

In my decision-making capacities as a trustee, I am not given the luxury of taking a poll on every issue and simply voting with the majority.

Instead, like those leaders of our republic who serve our community in a representative democracy, I must ultimately vote my conscience.

Today we take up the topic of emeritus status.

There are provisions for emeritus status in the university-organizing documents.

The emeritus status is an honorific status.

It is a title that is one of prestige.

It is not earned by right, but it is given as a privilege by the board of trustees.

I need to point out that this is a purely optional act.

While the process of conferring emeritus status may end with the board of trustees, it is important to note that it must begin with the individual faculty member who must request this honorific status for themselves.

Apparently, Mr. Ayers, who has been a teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has asked for this privilege and honor to be bestowed on him.

Our discussion of this topic therefore does not represent an intervention into the scholarship of the university, nor is it a threat to academic freedom.

It is, rather, simply a response to his request.

In my role, I am simply responding to something which has been presented to me.

I am guided by my conscience and one which has been formed by a series of experiences, many of which have been shared with the people of our country and mark each of us in a profound way.

My own history is not a secret.

My life experiences inform my decision-making as a trustee of the university.

In this case of emeritus status, I hope that I will act in a predictable fashion and that the people of Illinois and the faculty and staff of this great institution will understand my motives and my reasoning.

I intend to vote against conferring the honorific title of our university to a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father, Robert F. Kennedy.

There is nothing more antithetical to the hopes for a university that is lively and yet civil, or to the hopes of our founding fathers for their great experiment of a self-governing people, than to permanently seal off debate with one's opponents by killing them.

There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so.

We are citizen trustees whose judgments should be predictable to the community that we serve, and I would ask anyone who challenges my judgment, "How could I do anything else?"

Every Tuesday @ The Hideout

Let's See How Well That Works

Taking back the country -- but to where?

Tea Partiers expecting to gut government --

it won't happen

September 20, 2010

So let me get this straight: The Tea Party expects to win big this November, which in their eyes will constitute the nation being "taken back" by its rightful owners through the electoral process, as opposed to the election of 2008, in which the Democrats won big and was a fraud perpetrated by impostors.

That's their thinking?

And the difference between the two elections, between the spurious one of 2008, which represented the nation being hijacked, and the genuine one of 2010, assuming it goes their way is ... the assumption that it goes their way. That's the difference? If they win, it's the legitimate expression of a free people. If they lose, well, a nation deceived yet again...

Just so we're clear on that.

I suppose it's similar to when judges rule in favor of conservative causes, those ruling are applauded, while liberal rulings are dismissed as activist judges pushing their social agendas.

Hypocritical? Sure. But that's what they believe. They also believe that Democrats are cringing in fear at the coming elections. Should Republicans and their Tea Party allies win in the fall -- and part of me hopes they do, just for entertainment's sake -- the Democrats are supposed to take their cue and start howling how the election somehow doesn't represent the national will.

Not me. God bless America, the people decide at the ballot box, and if they elect a gang of glittery-eyed zealots whose primary distinction is lack of participation in the government they intend to shutter, well, power to 'em. Let's see how well that works.

They believe their victory will signal a return to some previous state of society and government. Eden perhaps.

"We're going to take this state and this country back," Illinois Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady told Glenn Beck's revanchist pep rally in Hoffman Estates over the weekend. "We'll take back the government."

We know from whom, but take it back where? Going back is not the most dynamic form of political thought, though there is, in every country at every time, a group of political Luddites who feel threatened by whatever is happening, and wants to return to some Shangri La of their imaginings.

Whenever I talk to someone who believes this, I try to pin him down. What year should we return to? When was the government operating at that lean, mean efficiency you have in mind? Was it 1805? 1911? Be specific.

And which federal programs get scrapped? The Department of Education, of course, because schools are still locally funded and locally run, for the most part, and federal involvement can be shrugged off as meddling.

But the Department of Education is not really the epicenter of our nation's woes, is it? Surely, that has to be just the beginning of their revolution. What else? Should we next scrap Medicaid first or roll back Social Security benefits? Halve the military? What?

Democrats are supposed to be panicking at this point, gazing with rapt horror at Nov. 2, hurtling toward us like the canyon floor coming up at Wile E Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon.

Forgive me for being calm. And not because Tea Parties won't win. Some will win -- heck, Scott Lee Cohen won. You put enough money into TV commercials, and Americans will elect a sock monkey.

I'm calm because the country the Tea Partiers want -- federal government reduced to minting coins and securing the borders and not much else -- isn't going to happen. When we look around to the industrial nations of the world, we don't see that. We see countries that have national health care and environmental standards. Their taxes far outstrip ours, and yet their rich people still get dressed in the morning.

Sure, these are scary times, and any charlatan who claims that he or she will lead us back to the Promised Land will get a following of knuckleheads. But let them try to go back -- there's no back to return to. There's only forward, and going forward is hard enough, as our president has learned.

What does the future look like that's so spooking these people? It sure isn't white. The U.S. Census tells us that while 75 percent of the nation now are non-Hispanic whites, that number falls to 46 percent in the next 40 years, while the number of Hispanics double, from 15 percent to 30 percent.

So of course they want to seal the borders, ship home all the illegals, and strangle the government that allowed all this to happen. But it's happening no matter who's elected.

Some proclaim that their victories this fall -- if they have victories -- will constitute a new Lexington and Concord. They'll hack away the government because the people the government helps shouldn't be here anyway, forgetting that they might be a paycheck away from being one of those people.

Maybe Americans will snap awake, take a hard look at what these candidates are advocating, and November won't be the sea change they're predicting. Or heck, maybe enough voters are scared enough to want to try to head back into history, and they'll all get into office, grab the leash of this great country, and give it a pull.

Barack Obama did that, and discovered it isn't as easy as it looks. He discovered -- as any puppy owner knows -- holding the leash and getting the beast to go in the direction you want are two very different things.

You Survive; Well, Some Do...

Voltaire's satire nicks ox of paralyzed,
fading America

September 29, 2010

If I had to point to one single historical episode to explain the entire human condition, I would highlight the little-known fact that a number of survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, fled to Nagasaki in time for the second bomb dropped three days later.

This out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire quality, so horrible that it becomes comic -- at least when happening long ago to people far away whom you don't know -- flashed as I sat in the Goodman Theatre Monday for opening night of "Candide."

I loved it.

Then again, I'm an odd mix of deep cynicism and childlike innocence. I enjoyed the way the play's characters were casually butchered, its cities destroyed, sailors drowned, maidens defiled, all with director Mary Zimmerman's full palette of cute theatrical devices -- ships on sticks, stoic red toy sheep, ribbons as blood -- sugar-coating the three hours of musical mayhem. How many plays are there where the line "Throw the Jew into a ditch" draws a hearty laugh from the audience?

For those unfamiliar with the story, Candide is a pleasant young simpleton who gets evicted from the idyllic palace where he was raised. He's forced to wander our world of endless outrage, misery and atrocity, searching for his lost love, Miss Cunegonde (played with show-stealing zest by Lauren Molina).

No experience, no matter how awful, blunts Candide's optimism -- I hate to say it, but he is very Barack Obama-ish in his tendency to place his trust in obvious enemies and his reluctance to let a steady rain of betrayals dampen his worldview.

'A chain of astonishing calamities!'

The music, alas, is not memorable. Bernstein wrote it, but "West Side Story" this ain't. Though when you have lyrics like "What a day for an auto de fe!" who cares about melody? Several of my associates, more experienced theatergoers than myself, complained that Zimmerman's bag of stage tricks has grown stale, so maybe enjoyment reveals a Candide-like naivete on my part. But how could you not love a musical with a number celebrating the transmission of venereal disease, sung by a character with a silver nose? ("Untreated syphilis destroys the cartilage in your nose," I explained to my 14-year-old, eager to show off knowledge that I never thought I'd have the chance to use. "People really did wear those noses.")

That either intrigues or repels you. Now that every new musical seems designed to help 12-year-olds feel good about themselves, it's bracing to be reminded that theater used to be something adults did to make our scary world seem less so.

A few who fled Hiroshima to Nagasaki survived both, by the way, living to face life's fresh horrors. Which is the message of the play. You survive; well, some do.

Deadlocked and Drowning

When Chinese historians someday try to figure out how a great nation such as the United States slid from world preeminence into whatever second-rate position of shamed servility awaits us, assuming we're not there already, dwelling in the ruins of our former glory, they will no doubt focus on our two main political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

Of course that would seem suspect to Chinese Communists, with their monolithic single party. Once, I'd have argued they are missing the benefits of our system, the dynamism of two rival schools of thought battling over the helm of power. Should the big labor, bind-up-society's-woes-with-money Democrats get too close to their all-encompassing nanny state, there were always the Republicans to yank them back. And should the big business, funny-you-don't-look-like-an-American Republicans go too far dismantling the government so they won't have to pay for it, the Democrats were there to object.

And there was still a middle ground -- key policies both sides agreed upon. There were pauses, it seemed, when the squabbling stopped and things got done.

No more. Now the partisan eye-gouging and ear-biting never stop, the middle ground has narrowed to a center line, and our pressing problems go unaddressed. The two parties are locked in a mutually destructive embrace, drowning together as the nation plunges over the falls.

When the history books are written in Mandarin, it won't matter whether the Republicans or the Democrats were right. What will matter is that our country was in the soup and, unable to decide what stroke to use, we neglected to swim at all.

Please Leave Your Religious Tolerance At The Door

America's True History of Religious Tolerance

The idea that the United States has always been a bastion of religious freedom is reassuring—and utterly at odds with the historical record

  • By Kenneth C. Davis
  • Smithsonian magazine, October 2010

Wading into the controversy surrounding an Islamic center planned for a site near New York City’s Ground Zero memorial this past August, President Obama declared: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.” In doing so, he paid homage to a vision that politicians and preachers have extolled for more than two centuries—that America historically has been a place of religious tolerance. It was a sentiment George Washington voiced shortly after taking the oath of office just a few blocks from Ground Zero. But is it so?

In the storybook version most of us learned in school, the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon followed, for the same reason. Ever since these religious dissidents arrived at their shining “city upon a hill,” as their governor John Winthrop called it, millions from around the world have done the same, coming to an America where they found a welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith.

The problem is that this tidy narrative is an American myth. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side. And much of the recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau.

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

First, a little overlooked history: the initial encounter between Europeans in the future United States came with the establishment of a Huguenot (French Protestant) colony in 1564 at Fort Caroline (near modern Jacksonville, Florida). More than half a century before the Mayflower set sail, French pilgrims had come to America in search of religious freedom.

The Spanish had other ideas. In 1565, they established a forward operating base at St. Augustine and proceeded to wipe out the Fort Caroline colony. The Spanish commander, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, wrote to the Spanish King Philip II that he had “hanged all those we had found in [Fort Caroline] because...they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.” When hundreds of survivors of a shipwrecked French fleet washed up on the beaches of Florida, they were put to the sword, beside a river the Spanish called Matanzas (“slaughters”). In other words, the first encounter between European Christians in America ended in a blood bath.

The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to persecution that these religious dissenters had experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill” was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or political.

The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. From Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.

Throughout the colonial era, Anglo-American antipathy toward Catholics—especially French and Spanish Catholics—was pronounced and often reflected in the sermons of such famous clerics as Cotton Mather and in statutes that discriminated against Catholics in matters of property and voting. Anti-Catholic feelings even contributed to the revolutionary mood in America after King George III extended an olive branch to French Catholics in Canada with the Quebec Act of 1774, which recognized their religion.

When George Washington dispatched Benedict Arnold on a mission to court French Canadians’ support for the American Revolution in 1775, he cautioned Arnold not to let their religion get in the way. “Prudence, policy and a true Christian Spirit,” Washington advised, “will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors, without insulting them.” (After Arnold betrayed the American cause, he publicly cited America’s alliance with Catholic France as one of his reasons for doing so.)

In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.

In 1779, as Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson had drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for citizens of all religions—including those of no religion—in the state. It was around then that Jefferson famously wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But Jefferson’s plan did not advance—until after Patrick (“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”) Henry introduced a bill in 1784 calling for state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.”

Future President James Madison stepped into the breach. In a carefully argued essay titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” the soon-to-be father of the Constitution eloquently laid out reasons why the state had no business supporting Christian instruction. Signed by some 2,000 Virginians, Madison’s argument became a fundamental piece of American political philosophy, a ringing endorsement of the secular state that “should be as familiar to students of American history as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” as Susan Jacoby has written inFreethinkers, her excellent history of American secularism.

Among Madison’s 15 points was his declaration that “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.”

Madison also made a point that any believer of any religion should understand: that the government sanction of a religion was, in essence, a threat to religion. “Who does not see,” he wrote, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” Madison was writing from his memory of Baptist ministers being arrested in his native Virginia.

As a Christian, Madison also noted that Christianity had spread in the face of persecution from worldly powers, not with their help. Christianity, he contended, “disavows a dependence on the powers of this world...for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them.”

Recognizing the idea of America as a refuge for the protester or rebel, Madison also argued that Henry’s proposal was “a departure from that generous policy, which offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our country.”

After long debate, Patrick Henry’s bill was defeated, with the opposition outnumbering supporters 12 to 1. Instead, the Virginia legislature took up Jefferson’s plan for the separation of church and state. In 1786, the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, modified somewhat from Jefferson’s original draft, became law. The act is one of three accomplishments Jefferson included on his tombstone, along with writing the Declaration and founding the University of Virginia. (He omitted his presidency of the United States.) After the bill was passed, Jefferson proudly wrote that the law “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Madison wanted Jefferson’s view to become the law of the land when he went to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. And as framed in Philadelphia that year, the U.S. Constitution clearly stated in Article VI that federal elective and appointed officials “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

This passage—along with the facts that the Constitution does not mention God or a deity (except for a pro forma “year of our Lord” date) and that its very first amendment forbids Congress from making laws that would infringe of the free exercise of religion—attests to the founders’ resolve that America be a secular republic. The men who fought the Revolution may have thanked Providence and attended church regularly—or not. But they also fought a war against a country in which the head of state was the head of the church. Knowing well the history of religious warfare that led to America’s settlement, they clearly understood both the dangers of that system and of sectarian conflict.

It was the recognition of that divisive past by the founders—notably Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison—that secured America as a secular republic. As president, Washington wrote in 1790: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. ...For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

He was addressing the members of America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (where his letter is read aloud every August). In closing, he wrote specifically to the Jews a phrase that applies to Muslims as well: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

As for Adams and Jefferson, they would disagree vehemently over policy, but on the question of religious freedom they were united. “In their seventies,” Jacoby writes, “with a friendship that had survived serious political conflicts, Adams and Jefferson could look back with satisfaction on what they both considered their greatest achievement—their role in establishing a secular government whose legislators would never be required, or permitted, to rule on the legality of theological views.”

Late in his life, James Madison wrote a letter summarizing his views: “And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

While some of America’s early leaders were models of virtuous tolerance, American attitudes were slow to change. The anti-Catholicism of America’s Calvinist past found new voice in the 19th century. The belief widely held and preached by some of the most prominent ministers in America was that Catholics would, if permitted, turn America over to the pope. Anti-Catholic venom was part of the typical American school day, along with Bible readings. In Massachusetts, a convent—coincidentally near the site of the Bunker Hill Monument—was burned to the ground in 1834 by an anti-Catholic mob incited by reports that young women were being abused in the convent school. In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, anti-Catholic sentiment, combined with the country’s anti-immigrant mood, fueled the Bible Riots of 1844, in which houses were torched, two Catholic churches were destroyed and at least 20 people were killed.

At about the same time, Joseph Smith founded a new American religion—and soon met with the wrath of the mainstream Protestant majority. In 1832, a mob tarred and feathered him, marking the beginning of a long battle between Christian America and Smith’s Mormonism. In October 1838, after a series of conflicts over land and religious tension, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered that all Mormons be expelled from his state. Three days later, rogue militiamen massacred 17 church members, including children, at the Mormon settlement of Haun’s Mill. In 1844, a mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum while they were jailed in Carthage, Illinois. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

Even as late as 1960, Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy felt compelled to make a major speech declaring that his loyalty was to America, not the pope. (And as recently as the 2008 Republican primary campaign, Mormon candidate Mitt Romney felt compelled to address the suspicions still directed toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Of course, America’s anti-Semitism was practiced institutionally as well as socially for decades. With the great threat of “godless” Communism looming in the 1950s, the country’s fear of atheism also reached new heights.

America can still be, as Madison perceived the nation in 1785, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.” But recognizing that deep religious discord has been part of America’s social DNA is a healthy and necessary step. When we acknowledge that dark past, perhaps the nation will return to that “promised...lustre” of which Madison so grandiloquently wrote.

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of Don’t Know Much About History and A Nation Rising, among other books.

Future Moral Condemnation

What will future generations condemn us for?

By Kwame Anthony Appiah
Sunday, September 26, 2010; B01

Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father's duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved -- in fact, invented -- by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.

Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?

Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.

Is there a way to guess which ones? After all, not every disputed institution or practice is destined to be discredited. And it can be hard to distinguish in real time between movements, such as abolition, that will come to represent moral common sense and those, such as prohibition, that will come to seem quaint or misguided. Recall the book-burners of Boston's old Watch and Ward Society or the organizations for the suppression of vice, with their crusades against claret, contraceptives and sexually candid novels.

Still, a look at the past suggests three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation.

First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn't emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, "We've always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?")

And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they're complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. That's why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.

With these signs in mind, here are four contenders for future moral condemnation.

Our prison system

We already know that the massive waste of life in our prisons is morally troubling; those who defend the conditions of incarceration usually do so in non-moral terms (citing costs or the administrative difficulty of reforms); and we're inclined to avert our eyes from the details. Check, check and check.

Roughly 1 percent of adults in this country are incarcerated. We have 4 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. No other nation has as large a proportion of its population in prison; even China's rate is less than half of ours. What's more, the majority of our prisoners are non-violent offenders, many of them detained on drug charges. (Whether a country that was truly free would criminalize recreational drug use is a related question worth pondering.)

And the full extent of the punishment prisoners face isn't detailed in any judge's sentence. More than 100,000 inmates suffer sexual abuse, including rape, each year; some contract HIV as a result. Our country holds at least 25,000 prisoners in isolation in so-called supermax facilities, under conditions that many psychologists say amount to torture.

Industrial meat production

The arguments against the cruelty of factory farming have certainly been around a long time; it was Jeremy Bentham, in the 18th century, who observed that, when it comes to the treatment of animals, the key question is not whether animals can reason but whether they can suffer. People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.

Of the more than 90 million cattle in our country, at least 10 million at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture. In the European Union, many of the most inhumane conditions we allow are already illegal or -- like the sow stalls into which pregnant pigs are often crammed in the United States -- will be illegal soon.

The institutionalized and isolated elderly

Nearly 2 million of America's elderly are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight and, to some extent, out of mind. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Other elderly Americans may live independently, but often they are isolated and cut off from their families. (The United States is not alone among advanced democracies in this. Consider the heat wave that hit France in 2003: While many families were enjoying their summer vacations, some 14,000 elderly parents and grandparents were left to perish in the stifling temperatures.) Is this what Western modernity amounts to -- societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?

Sometimes we can learn from societies much poorer than ours. My English mother spent the last 50 years of her life in Ghana, where I grew up. In her final years, it was her good fortune not only to have the resources to stay at home, but also to live in a country where doing so was customary. She had family next door who visited her every day, and she was cared for by doctors and nurses who were willing to come to her when she was too ill to come to them. In short, she had the advantages of a society in which older people are treated with respect and concern.

Keeping aging parents and their children closer is a challenge, particularly in a society where almost everybody has a job outside the home (if not across the country). Yet the three signs apply here as well: When we see old people who, despite many living relatives, suffer growing isolation, we know something is wrong. We scarcely try to defend the situation; when we can, we put it out of our minds. Self-interest, if nothing else, should make us hope that our descendants will have worked out a better way.

The environment

Of course, most transgenerational obligations run the other way -- from parents to children -- and of these the most obvious candidate for opprobrium is our wasteful attitude toward the planet's natural resources and ecology. Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you'll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That's the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe's first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth's surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.

It's not as though we're unaware of what we're doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions -- the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won't be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.

* * *

Let's not stop there, though. We will all have our own suspicions about which practices will someday prompt people to ask, in dismay: What were they thinking?

Even when we don't have a good answer, we'll be better off for anticipating the question.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, is the author of "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Buy, Buy, Buy!!!

If Mortgage Rates Plunged to Zero

CHICAGO (MarketWatch) —SmartMoney Real Estate by Amy Hoak

Imagine financing a home purchase with a no-interest mortgage. You’d probably never want to move again. Granted, it’s doubtful you’ll ever have that luxury.
But if rates continue to drop, as some in the mortgage industry suggest they may — especially after the Federal Reserve’s recent statement that it was prepared for more extraordinary measures to pump up the economy — mortgage rates could inch in the direction of 0%.

Continued concerns of deflation may also put pressure on mortgage rates.
“So long as the Fed allows the word ‘deflation’ to get bandied about, mortgage rates will ease lower,” said Dan Green, loan officer with Waterstone Mortgage, in Cincinnati, in an email. How much lower?
“In theory, the only stopping point there is is 0% — that’s where all nominal interest rates have to stop,” said Mike Larson, real-estate analyst for Weiss Research.
Think about it: 0% financing has long worked as an incentive in the auto industry. And home builders have been known to pay down mortgage rates for their buyers, so these days it wouldn’t be unheard of for them to entice people with a 2% or 3% mortgage rate, at least for a period of time, Larson said. But mortgages are different than car loans.
“Do I think we will see 0% mortgages in our lifetimes? No, I don’t,” Larson.
Even during times of deflation, try telling an investor that he’d do well to buy a security with zero return, said Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH Associates, a provider of consumer loan information. It’d be a hard sell. Practically, Jim Sahnger, mortgage planner with Palm Beach Financial Network, isn’t sure how a 0% mortgage would be funded, “keeping in mind that rates on the street come from lower priced coupons than what borrowers pay,” he said in an email. In essence, to fund a 0% mortgage, the investor would get a negative return — “unless there were significant fees on the front to compensate for costs to originate, deliver, default, etc.”

That isn’t to say mortgage rates couldn’t drop from their levels now. After all, two years ago, few people would have thought a 4% mortgage was possible, Larson said.

Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have dropped more than a percentage point since the end of the recession in June 2009, averaging 4.37% last week, according to Freddie Mac’s weekly survey. This summer, the average rate on the 30-year loan broke record low after record low. Since 1975, fixed-rate mortgage rates have fallen over the 12 months following every recession, with the exception of the 1980 downturn, Freddie Mac chief economist Frank Nothaft said. The 0.7-point decline from June 2009 to June 2010 was “the largest decline during the first year of recovery over the last six recessions,” he said. Of course, as Larson said, “this is not your father’s recession.”

Hitting Bottom

We don’t know how much lower rates could fall, if they fall at all. But let’s continue to play a little game of ”what if mortgage rates hit zero.” Rates at or near 0% could bring more first-time home buyers out of hiding to seek out extremely favorable financing for a house, Sahnger said. Get more buyers in the mix, and demand for homes could kick up, thereby helping home prices to rise, he said.
If this 0% financing was available for refinancing, “demand would surge to the point where banks, title companies and appraisers would be over-capacity and understaffed. In theory, hiring would increase to meet demand,” Green said. “In addition, refi-eligible homeowners would see a marked reduction in monthly payments, spurring consumer spending.” It’s important to note, however, that eligibility is no small matter, especially due to the ranks of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages, meaning the home is worth less than what they owe on it. Without the help of a government program, many of those homeowners can’t refinance.
To refinance, a borrower also needs income and a decent credit score. But a recent study by Zillow Mortgage Marketplace found that nearly one-third of Americans are unlikely to qualify for a mortgage because their credit scores are too low. And only 47% of Published September 27, 2010 Americans qualify for the best rates; these are borrowers with credit scores of 720 or higher. “We are in an era of historically low mortgage rates, reaching levels not seen in decades. Coupled with four years of home-value declines, homes are more affordable than we’ve seen for years,” said Stan Humphries, Zillow’s chief economist, in a news release. “But the irony here is that so many Americans can’t qualify for these low rates, or can’t qualify for a mortgage at all,” he said.

For comparison’s sake — and to show how rates affect home affordability — consider a $200,000 home purchase, assuming a 20% down payment to bring the mortgage amount to $160,000. The monthly payment of principal and interest for that home is $1,011, assuming a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 6.5%, Sahnger said. That goes down to $811 for a 4.5% mortgage and $444 for a 0% mortgage, he said.
Keep in mind, “the impact of the tax deductibility of the mortgage interest shrinks the net impact of dropping from 4.5% to 0%,” Sahnger said.

Swift drop
Today’s potential buyers have been conditioned to expect low rates, Larson said. Right now, “you have less of a reason for people to jump off the fence because the trend is their friend,” he said. If rates were to take a sharp drop instead of continuing a step-by-step decline, however, heads might turn. As Gumbinger said: “The difference between a 4.5% and a 3.5% mortgage isn’t that great. If we were at 10% and rates fell to 5%,” that drop would attract much more borrower interest. “When you’re talking about incremental declines in interest rates, it does add
some [demand] but not as much as you’d think.” Still, as always, low rates won’t mean much to someone who doesn’t have a job to buy a home or isn’t optimistic about the economy.
Buying a home is an expression of confidence in the economy, and these days, finding that confidence is difficult, Gumbinger said.
“People are concerned that tomorrow is not going to be better than today,” he said. “And today isn’t that great.”

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Losing My Religion

Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion. Test yourself.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

“Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Among the topics covered in the survey were: Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation? Which Biblical figure led the exodus from Egypt? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Joseph Smith? Mother Teresa? In most cases, the format was multiple choice.

The researchers said that the questionnaire was designed to represent a breadth of knowledge about religion, but was not intended to be regarded as a list of the most essential facts about the subject. Most of the questions were easy, but a few were difficult enough to discern which respondents were highly knowledgeable.

On questions about the Bible and Christianity, the groups that answered the most right were Mormons and white evangelical Protestants.

On questions about world religions, like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, the groups that did the best were atheists, agnostics and Jews.

One finding that may grab the attention of policy makers is that most Americans wrongly believe that anything having to do with religion is prohibited in public schools.

An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents, asked whether public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, correctly answered no.

But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” And only about one third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class comparing the world’s religions.

The survey’s authors concluded that there was “widespread confusion” about “the line between teaching and preaching.”

Mr. Smith said the survey appeared to be the first comprehensive effort at assessing the basic religious knowledge of Americans, so it is impossible to tell whether they are more or less informed than in the past.

The phone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish in May and June. There were not enough Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu respondents to say how those groups ranked.

Clergy members who are concerned that their congregants know little about the essentials of their own faith will no doubt be appalled by some of these findings:

¶ Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

¶ Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

¶ Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

The question about Maimonides was the one that the fewest people answered correctly. But 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon, and 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic.

From The Chicago Sun-Times:

Take it on blind faith --

or learn about religion

Sunday school teachers across the country have to be shaking their heads about this one.

A new survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that although 86 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a higher power, many can't answer basic questions about their own faith or that of others.

In fact, the average American correctly answered only half of the questions they were asked about topics such as the name of the holy book of Islam, the religion of the Dalai Lama and the significance of the bread and wine Catholics use for Communion. You can find the Pew survey at

Ironically, atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about religion, an outcome that likely reflects the careful consideration and study they undertake before deciding to become nonbelievers. Jews and Mormons came in second and third place, respectively, while Protestants and Catholics scored the lowest overall.

The survey seems to make a compelling argument for more high schools to offer comparative religion courses as an elective, something that, contrary to what many Americans think, wouldn't violate the First Amendment.

Such courses would give students a common base of knowledge with which to combat misinformation and to make sense of what's happening in the world.

Given the enormous impact religion has had -- and continues to have -- on the history and culture of this country, it's a shame we know so little about it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Listen Carefully to a Conversation from 1963................ By James Warren... September 18, 2010


The Focus on the unorthodox winners in Delaware and New York (Christine O'Donnell & Carl Paladino), and how they affect the Republicans in the 2010 midterm election, obscures the fissures of the Democratic Party.

We’re left with a dispiriting amalgam: voters who believe that virtually no good can be done by government and voters for whom virtually nothing is good enough.

For both cadres, there is an evil lurking everywhere: compromise.

It’s a synonym for weakness and a reason to batter and berate an opponent, whether in your party or another.

Democrats are riding a tiger, as a friend put it, and best not be naïve about positive aspects of the Tea Party victories. The Democrats seem weak, unfocused, struggling with money and up against a Republican opponent with increasing amounts of cash and a simpler, though simplistic, message.

And now comes a voice from the grave — that of Everett M. Dirksen, Republican of Illinois, who was in Congress for 36 years, the last 10 as Senate minority leader — with a lesson for all.

His once famously hoarse baritone can be heard in a just-released tape of a conversation from Sept. 9, 1963, among President John F. Kennedy, Dirksen and Senator Mike Mansfield, the majority leader from Montana.

The secretly taped chat, which most likely took place in the Oval Office, was declassified recently by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and attracted no news media interest beyond an online tale in USA Today. That’s too bad.

The subject at hand was a big deal, namely debate in the Senate on whether to ratify the Limited Test Ban Treaty, or Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, basically barring all nuclear test detonations except those done underground. It had been signed in Moscow a few weeks earlier by the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain.

Given the cold war, Kennedy had to allay the qualms of many senators to secure a two-thirds vote of approval, even though his party controlled the chamber by 66 to 34.

That inspired the 33-minute chat dominated by Dirksen and including a late cameo appearance by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

Dirksen spoke of the “overriding fear” of two key conservative Southern Democrats, Senators John Stennis of Mississippi and Richard B. Russell of Georgia. “The question is how you overcome it,” he said, adding that their anxiety turned on “whether we’d be disadvantaged by the Soviets.”

He proposed that Kennedy send a letter of reassurance to the Senate. “I hope you don’t mind that this is a little presumptuous on my part,” a deferential Dirksen said, proceeding to read aloud a copy he had already drafted.

It said that underground testing would be pursued without delay, that our detection facilities would be expanded and that we would support a “dynamic program of weapons development” and pursue nuclear explosives for peaceful purposes under the treaty’s rules.

Dirksen, a Republican, then counseled Kennedy, a Democrat, on how to mollify specific colleagues of both parties, as well as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. To that end, he included a passage about using “every weapon at our command, including our entire arsenal of nuclear weapons” if any aggressor threatened our national interests.

Dirksen conceded that he had taken heat for his support of the treaty, for which The Chicago Tribune “excoriates me.” Kennedy joked that such barbs did not compare with those in a new book — “J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth” — by the conservative columnist Victor Lasky.

The president was clearly grateful for Dirksen’s counsel, underscoring that without such a treaty lots of countries, including Israel and Egypt, would seek a nuclear option. “We’d have a bitch of a situation,” he said.

Kennedy did send a letter to the Senate, and the treaty was ratified.

Now, can you imagine Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader and a Republican from Kentucky, lifting a finger to similarly assist President Obama?

I should have sent a transcript of the conversation to the crowd of Tea Party advocates who were set to cheer Glenn Beck on Saturday at Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates.

Imagine the hissing. Such compromise would be seen as treason.

For the moment, party power, even to do nothing, is more important than the national interest.

A Weekend in Chicago

36 Hours in Chicago By FRED A. BERNSTEIN

All cities have their ups and downs, but Chicago has been on the rise by playing to its strengths, adding parks, architectural crowd pleasers and public art. Much of this has happened on the watch of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who, after 21 years in office, announced this month that he would be stepping down.

Friday 4 p.m.


Chicago is a city of architecture tours, but one of the best is right above you: the “L,” the elevated subway that circles the Loop ( Get on the brown, orange or pink lines — it doesn’t matter which color, as long as you sit in the first car by the front-view window — and round the two-square-mile area. If you’re going clockwise, look to the left. Among landmarks you’ll see are Bertrand Goldberg’s spectacular Marina City, the new Trump International Hotel and Tower, Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion band shell and Louis Sullivan’s historic Auditorium Building. Miss one? No problems. The $2.25 ticket buys unlimited loops.

8 p.m.

Credit the recession, but a number of good midprice but high-style restaurants have opened in Chicago in the last two years. A favorite is Gilt Bar (230 West Kinzie Street; 312-464-9544;, a casual restaurant in the River North neighborhood that isn’t casual about its cooking. The menu features New American dishes like blackened cauliflower with capers ($7) and ricotta gnocchi with sage and brown butter ($13). After dinner, head downstairs to Curio, a basement bar with a Prohibition theme. Try the Death’s Door Daisy, made with artisanal Wisconsin vodka and Aperol, a blood orange liqueur, for $10.

11 p.m.

There are so many clubs on Ontario Street, just north of the loop, that it’s sometimes known as Red Bull Row. Get away from this area for a mellower feel.

Saturday 9 a.m.

Couldn’t get to dinner at Frontera Grill, the nouvelle Mexican restaurant owned by the celebrity chef Rick Bayless? No worries. Just head over for breakfast at Xoco (449 North Clark Street; 312-661-1434;, Mr. Bayless’s newest restaurant. It’s served till 10 a.m.; expect a line after 8:30. Favorites include scrambled egg empanada with poblano chili ($3), and an open-face torta with soft poached egg, salsa, cheese, cilantro and black beans ($4). Chocolate café au lait ($3.25) comes with a single hot, crisp, sugary churro.

11 a.m.

The Magnificent Mile area is filled with flagships (Gucci, Vuitton — you know the list). But there are still some independent stores you won’t find at your hometown mall. Ikram (873 North Rush Street; 312-587-1000; is the stylish boutique that counts Michelle Obama among its customers, with fashion-forward labels like Jason Wu and Martin Margiela. East Oak Street has a couple of cool shops, including Sofia (No. 72; 312-640-0878; Next door is Colletti Gallery (No. 102; 312-664-6767;, with a gorgeous selection of Art Deco and Art Nouveau furniture and objets. It’s a short walk from there to the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 East Chicago Avenue; 312-280-2660;, which has a spectacular exhibition of works by Alexander Calder — and works inspired by Calder — through Oct. 17.

2 p.m.

Walking around Hyde Park, a leafy enclave about seven miles south of the Loop, it’s easy to see why the Obamas settled there. Their house, on South Greenwood Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, is nearly invisible behind Secret Service barricades. Luckily, the nearby Robie House (5757 South Woodlawn Avenue; 800-514-3849;, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, is open for tours. See if you can find an abstracted male figure in the Japanese-inspired leaded-glass windows. Across the street, the beautifully landscaped University of Chicago campus is worth exploring for an afternoon.

7 p.m.

Chicago was once the meatpacking capital of the world, and it still knows what to do with offal. Take Girl & the Goat (809 West Randolph Streeet, 312-492-6262;, a much-blogged-about new restaurant where the Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard takes livestock parts seriously. The often-updated menu recently included lamb ribs with grilled avocado and pistachio piccata ($17), and braised beef tongue with masa and beef vinaigrette ($12). If you’re not a carnivore, try chickpeas three ways ($11), and for dessert, potato fritters with lemon poached eggplant and Greek yogurt ($8). The soaring dining room, designed by the Chicago design firm 555 International, is warm and modern, with exposed beams, walls of charred cedar and a large open kitchen. Reservations essential.

10 p.m.

The owners of the Ontourage nightclub (157 West Ontario Street; 312-573-1470; were tired of waiting until midnight for the crowds to gather, so they began offering comedy shows at 10 on Saturdays. You won’t find big names, but a hit-or-miss roster of itinerant comedians, some who heckle the audience in language that can’t be printed here. Tickets, $10 include admission to the upstairs lounge, where bottle-service vodkas start at $200.

Sunday 10 a.m.


Logan Square, about five to six miles northwest of the Loop, is a remnant of Chicago’s late-19th-century beautification movement, with a statue of an eagle by Evelyn Longman where two of the grandest boulevards meet. Nearby, Longman & Eagle (2657 North Kedzie Avenue; 773-276-7110; is a rough-edged bar that serves a refined brunch: a chunky sockeye salmon tartare with pickled mango ($10) or a wild boar “Sloppy Joe” ($10). Six hotel rooms are set to open upstairs.

1 p.m.

Chicago knows how to mix neo-classical architecture with contemporary design, and no place does it better than the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue; 312-443-3600;, which opened its celebrated Modern Wing last year. Designed by Renzo Piano, it the luminous addition contains a magnificent set of galleries for 1900-1950 European art (Picasso, Giacometti, Klee are a few of the big names) and a capacious room for the museum’s design collection. Hungry or not, check out Terzo Piano, the stunning rooftop restaurant with views of the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park across the street.

3 p.m.

From the museum, walk over the pedestrian bridge, also designed by Mr. Piano, to Millennium Park, and rent bikes from Bike and Roll (312-729-1000;, about $35 a day, for a ride up the shore of Lake Michigan. You’ll pass Navy Pier, skyscrapers by Mies van der Rohe, and hundreds of beach volleyball courts, which make this the Malibu of the Midwest on summer and fall weekends. Along the way, you’ll pass Lincoln Park, with a new pavilion by the Chicago architect Jeanne Gang — another example of how the city is updating its open spaces.


Nonstop into Chicago round-trip flights start at about $219 for travel in October from New York via Delta, AA, & United.

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