The Nation, 7 November 2011

In this issue, Mark Oppenheimer (of Bloggenheimer fame)  recommends two books and a magazine article about the Church of Scientology.    The books are Janet Reitman‘s Inside Scientology and Hugh Urban‘s The Church of Scientology.  The magazine article is Lawrence Wright‘s profile of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis.  Mr Oppenheimer writes that even “liberals for whom ‘tolerance’ is a sacrament” look for ways to ban religious practices that diverge substantially from social norms.  The interest of the review is Mr Oppenheimer’s own queasiness as he considers a relatively new and aggressively evangelical religion.  Time and again he squirms about, first praising religious diversity in general, then expressing his disapproval of Scientology in particular.  For example: “[E]mbracing the free market of religion requires that we be discerning buyers. We can be grateful that America is the country where Scientology may flourish, but we need not be grateful for Scientology.”  And:

Scientology may be one of those native religions that at first seems bizarre but adapts, grows and eventually thrives in our country’s fecund, undepleted spiritual soil.

Would that be a good thing? In many ways, no. It would mean more people reading L. Ron Hubbard’s tedious books when they could be reading real literature. It would mean more people suspending critical judgment, ignoring the factual record and insisting that Hubbard was a great warrior, adventurer, intellectual and teacher. It would mean more dollars misspent on auditing, instead of on good psychotherapy, badly needed prescription drugs or some really helpful classes at a community college.

On the other hand, if Scientology is still around in fifty years, some lucky Americans will discover in its practices the right cure for what ails them. For whatever reasons, either auditing or Hubbard’s “study tech” or Scientology communication classes will give them what public school—or a Freudian analyst or Judaism or Christianity or the Quaker meeting or the local Masonic lodge—could not. Scientology will give them a community. It will give them a way of life. Yet I remain worried about Scientology, worried enough that I can say this: I hope, fifty years from now, it’s not my children or grandchildren who turn to the church. But I also believe that freedom of religion is necessary. Without it, freedom of speech is a hollow guarantee.

Scientology may not last, but there will always be something like it. Reitman’s and Urban’s books are gifts to all religious people, especially Scientologists. They pay Scientology’s hierarchy the simple courtesy of holding them to adult standards of truthfulness and ethical behavior, and they confront Scientology lay people with some hard truths about their church. They also make the case—Urban’s book, explicitly so—that government and religion do not mix, and that perhaps it would be better, less entangling, to tax religious organizations. Reitman and Urban offer religions the respect they deserve in the form of the scrutiny they require. The Constitution, guarantor of free press as well as free religion, offers nothing less.

Mr Oppenheimer’s piece includes some interesting remarks about US tax policy.   To quote:

Most fascinating is Urban’s argument that Scientology has been instrumental in shaping how the US government defines religion. Beginning in 1967, when its tax-exempt status was revoked, the church fought a lengthy battle to have its exemption restored, infiltrating the Internal Revenue Service and harassing agents; in 1993 the IRS caved, offering Scientology a full tax exemption, sweetheart terms on back taxes and an unusual promise of secrecy (the deal was eventually leaked to the Wall Street Journal). Urban seems disheartened that Scientology bullied its way to victory—in Reitman’s book, IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg Jr. emerges as either a coward or a fall guy—but Urban powerfully makes the point that the IRS should not be in the position of deciding what is and is not a religion.

“The United States does not register religious groups and has no official hierarchy of religious organizations,” Urban writes. “And yet, federal income tax law does provide exemption for religious organizations, and, therefore, there must be some means to determine whether a group claiming to be religious is ‘genuine’ for purposes of tax-exempt status.” Supporters of religious tax exemption argue that it promotes religious charitable giving and prevents entanglement of government and religion. But if the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.

In 1977 the IRS promulgated a thirteen-point list of criteria for religious exemption (a recognized creed and form of worship, a formal code of doctrine and discipline, a literature of its own, etc.). It is probably no coincidence, Urban argues, that these guidelines were written “during the height of Scientology’s efforts to reemphasize its religious profile,” to complete its transformation from a philosophy, or self-help group, or whatever, into a religion. The IRS surely would have clarified its rules about religion over time, but it seems clear that the conflict with Scientology forced its hand. Urban writes, “As such, the complex legal and extralegal battles between the church and the IRS have been central to the shifting definition of religion itself.”

It would not be startling if, years from now, Scientology’s main legacy was its substantial contribution—if it can be called that—to tax law.

Professor Urban comment on a paradox which may be inescapable in a society that values religious freedom.  If “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” as Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCulloch vs Maryland (1819,) then one would think that religious freedom requires special limitations on the government’s ability to tax religious groups.  Yet such limitations imply an official definition of “religious group,” which in turn implies an official ecclesiology. The “thirteen-point list of criteria” Mr Oppenheimer mentions is not the only test the Internal Revenue Service uses to determine tax-exempt status for religious groups, and that’s just as well.  Criteria such as “a distinct creed and form of worship,” a “definite ecclesiastical government,” “a formal code of doctrine and/or discipline,” and “schools or courses for preparation of its ministers” would all tend to rule out, for example, many of the Quaker groups that played such an important role in the USA in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Quaker ecclesiology in those days (and still, at least officially, for many Quakers today) regarded creeds, hierarchies, catechisms, seminaries, and ordained clergy as just so many idols and abominations, affronts to the Almighty.  If they had allowed themselves to be carried away by testosterone, such Quakers might have looked at the thirteen points of the IRS list and declared them to be a definition of a godless group.  Of course, if it were left up to people of that leading to replace the IRS list with their own definition of “religion,” I’m sure the result would be very nearly useless for purposes of deciding who should and who should not pay what tax.  “[I]f the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.”  Who else could it be, if not the IRS?  Congress would never dare pass a law defining what constitutes a religious organization, and without official definitions any person or group could claim the religious exemption.

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt’s column documents clueless remarks about Occupy Wall Street that media eminences made in the early days of the movement and contrasts them with relatively well-informed expressions of sympathy that similar people have made in recent days.  My favorite bit was this: “The more people join the movement, the clearer the message becomes. Former [New York] Times executive editor Bill Keller still doesn’t get it—“Bored by the soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism of Occupy Wall Street?” is how he began his October 16 column. (But then it took him till this summer to acknowledge that he’d been wrong to support the Iraq War, so maybe eight years from now he’ll apologize for snarking at OWS too.)”

A place for everyone

Laws against prostitution are usually supported by people who want to help women break free of men who are coercing them into that line of work.  When one asks why it is that such laws usually include criminal penalties for the very women they are supposed to help, the answer is often that only when police and prosecutors have such penalties to use as threats can they be sure that women will turn against their exploiters. 

In practice, those laws often seem to have the opposite effect.  Arrested, a woman needs money to make bail.  If she is under the influence of a pimp, she will likely call him or an associate of his.  Labeled a criminal, she will find it no easier than it was before the police picked her up to find other employment.  So, the law which may have been advertised as a way of helping her find a way out of prostitution may in its actual operation push her deeper into it.  The law marks prostitution as her place and acts to keep her in that place.

What reminded me of this was a column by Katha Pollitt in the 14 June 2010 issue of The Nation.  Pollitt does not mention prostitution, but mentions a set of proposed laws that seem to be designed to work the same way: bills pending before the French and Belgian parliaments that would prohibit Muslim women from wearing headscarves, face veils, or other garb traditional to women of their persuasion.  Like laws against prostitution, these bills are marketed as means to pry women loose from men who are coercing them into a demeaning way of life.  Also like those laws, the bills include penalties against the women themselves.  Pollitt expresses the fear that men who are in fact coercing women who live with them into covering up more than they would like would respond to a ban by keeping them from going out at all; surely this fear is well-founded.  Moreover, whether a woman wears the veil freely or under compulsion, the threat that if she does go out the police will arrest and search her, then take the men of her family into custody and threaten her with criminal sanctions unless she gives information against them will hardly convince her that France is her home and the Franks are her ancestors.  Quite the contrary, I should think; with such a threat looming in the background, even a woman who would not have been likely to cover up otherwise might feel herself a traitor to the only community that really wants her unless she does put on traditional Muslim attire. 

In the same issue, a number of experts argue that the direction education policy has been taking in the USA in the last 20 years has been gravely counterproductive.  I only wanted to note one of these, by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University’s education school.  Darling-Hammond looks at the country-by-country league tables for average student achievement in various subjects, pointing out that American students were not performing especially well in 1989 and that their average performance has been declining ever since.  In some subjects, the decline has been steady, in others catastrophically rapid.  Meanwhile, American schools have become more thoroughly segregated by race, the number of subjects offered has shrunk, and the prison population is booming.  Darling-Hammond not only points out these evils; she also  gives examples of countries where the same years have seen movement in the opposite direction.  While the current system tends to lock students into whatever social position they inherited from their parents, Darling-Hammond argues that it is still possible for public education to open doors for social mobility.

Movement from one social status to another often comes in tandem with physical movement from one place to another.  A review of a couple of books about African American history, under the title “Movement and Rootedness,” discusses ways in which the theme of migration has reshaped thinking about that subject in recent years.  It includes a quote from scholar Ira Berlin: “The history of the United States rests upon movement, and then embrace of place.”  The new scholarship on which the review focuses finds ways in which African Americans managed to embrace some places that would strike most of us as quite unembraceable.  While the integrationist story that has been the academic orthodoxy since the 1960s tends to reduce African American history to the relationship between African Americans and whites, so that relationships among African Americans are pushed into the shadows, the new scholars want to find out what sort of communities African Americans built for themselves even during the grimmest days of slavery and Jim Crow.

Four bureaucracies

I’ve always been interested in the power of bureaucracy.  The word “bureaucracy” is often used to mean an inefficient organization, but if that’s all bureaucracy really was it would never have become the most pervasive form of social organization in the modern world.  In fact, bureaucracies are the most efficient of organizations.  We become frustrated with them not because they can do nothing right, but because they often seem to do everything except what we need. 

The current issue of The Nation got me thinking about four major bureaucracies in particular: the regime of Nazi Germany; the state of Israel; the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church; and the criminal justice system in the USA.   

One of the writers whose works have done the most to inform my interest in bureaucracy was Raul Hilberg, the historian of the Holocaust.  An essay about Hilberg in the current issue of The Nation quotes a key sentence from Hilberg’s 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews: “The destruction of the Jews was an administrative process, and the annihilation of Jewry required the implementation of systematic administrative measures in successive steps.”  Hilberg’s masterwork lays out the operation of this process according to the drastically simplified rationality that makes an impersonal bureaucracy so powerful a form of organization. 

The essayist comments on the chapter of The Destruction of the European Jews that Hilberg devotes to an absurdly harsh diatribe against the Judenräte, the Jewish councils that tried to develop a policy of accommodation with the Nazis.  Keeping in mind that much of the power of the Nazi regime came from the smooth functioning of its bureaucratic apparatus, we can see why the Judenräte were not able to be very helpful to their coreligionists.  The informal, traditional, neighborhood-based influence of the Judenräte was no match for the modern bureaucratic state. 

Being unfair to the Jews of Holocaust-era Europe is not a way to win friends; one of the reasons the essay is titled “A Conscious Pariah” is the criticism his chapter on the Judenräte brought Hilberg.   Something else hat might have made Hilberg a pariah among the left-wingers who write for The Nation was his outspoken Zionism.  The Nation is sometimes described as anti-Israel; I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, but certainly the word “Zionist” does not often appear there as a term of praise.  The magazine is largely written by left-wing Jews from New York, and its coverage of Israel/Palestine is mostly based on reports from left-wing Jews in Tel Aviv.  So its views tend to reflect the Meretz/Peace Now line, and to dismiss arguments as to whether it was a good idea to found Israel as distractions from the peace process.  Someone of Hilberg’s orientation would almost have to be a Zionist, though.  If the only force that can resist a modern bureaucratic state is another modern bureaucratic state, then we not only have to condemn the Judenräte of the 1930s and 1940s as  worse than useless to the Jews targeted by the Third Reich’s policy of extermination, but we must also say that the only thing that could have helped them was a modern bureaucratic state with their interests at heart. 

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt voices her exasperation that the Roman Catholic Church is still treated as a source of moral authority despite the endless cascade of scandals involving bishops who have sheltered pedophile priests from exposure.  Pollitt responds to defensive Catholics who claim that the hierarchy of their church is being singled out by listing other individuals and groups that have been accused of sexually abusing children.  She goes on to say that there is a difference between the Roman church and these others:

The difference is, when other professionals who work with children are caught out, justice takes its course. People are fired. Licenses are lost. Reputations are ruined. Sometimes jail is involved. No human institution is perfect, and it would be foolish to suggest that incidents are always investigated and that abusers who don’t happen to be priests are never protected by colleagues or superiors. Still, it’s probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his suffering to Christ’s.

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