America’s philanthropy problem?

170616141515-amazon-whole-foods-jeff-bezos-grocery-brick-and-mortar-00001001-1024x576A debate that is becoming salient, over the past few years is if philanthropic foundations are becoming powerful by the day? A recent article in The Huffington Post points this out. The writer points out, correctly, that Jeff Bezos solicited ideas for his philanthropy, just a few days before the purchase of Whole Foods. PR stunt? Astute move to buy some social capital? Or perhaps a combination of both?

For some, this is a problem – arguing, as does the Huff Post writer, Matt Stoller. But for others, this is nothing but a transactional idea. A means of buying some legitimacy in a world where raising questions such as this is moot. The battle of ideas over the legitimate use of power is over, in this other world-view. The capitalists have won and rightfully decide what needs to happen in our world. Whether it is by monopoly or other means is irrelevant.

A friend recently pointed out Hypernomalization, a documentary that also makes this point. The thesis in this documentary, that giving away of democratic power to those with wealth is dangerous and has brought us to the current state of affairs – with a climate change denying President and a world where the state is increasingly being made irrelevant and the real power resides in the handful of oligarchs around us.

This is not just a political problem but also a social problem. And in that sense, a philanthropic problem as well. For those of us who study (and practice) philanthropy, this should be disconcerting – simply because of the ramifications of how the act of philanthropy is perceived.  Whether it is a genuine act – aimed at bringing about social change or a PR stunt depends as much on one’s motivations and style of managing it. The current tilt towards hi-networth philanthropy makes it less egalitarian and ‘normal,’ it seems.

An artist as philanthropist : Umm Kulthum as an exemplar

For those who know Umm Kulthum , the Egyptian singer and iconoclast, they are also familiar with her role in rallying the entire Arab world together, in times of great need. Her role as the ‘voice of Egypt’ is well known. Not so well known may be her role as a philanthropist.

Umm Kulthum
Photo credit : Al bustan culture center, Philadelphia

 

We recently  attended an event honoring Umm Kulthum in Washington D.C. organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that organized an event as an homage to the great artist. Here are some interesting vignettes from the panel discussion that discussed not just her philanthropy, but also her life, her  career and the forces that shaped it.

  • Umm Kulthum was a peasant girl, who made the transition to Cairo, the big city, with a lot of grace
  • As she did this, she remained true to her roots, often referring to her humble origins
  • While maintaining a dignified presence, Umm Kulthum was a trendsetter of sorts – both in terms of style of singing and her own image
  • She contributed to the post-six day war period through her own salary  and her own wealth, towards the Egyptian state, which needed all the money, for its war efforts
  • She also encouraged women to donate jewelry, towards the war efforts
  • Her greatest contribution was to showcase Arab unity, when it was most needed, through Art
  • She was a businesswoman, diplomat and an artist.

As an exemplar of the value of giving oneself, and one’s time, Umm Kulthum demonstrates that an artist can make a difference. And it is perhaps fitting that she is celebrated, to this day; almost 40 years after her death, as one of the most important singers in Arabic language.

Ten Commandments for an International Relations Professional

I received an email from a relative in India, requesting me to speak with his niece, who is considering grad school in the U.S. She wants to specialize in International Relations. This is perhaps the fifth or so request I have received in the last year. So, I thought of writing a blog post for her and also fellow scholars/ learners who may be interested in issues of International Development/ Affairs.

Photo credit : http://international.ucla.edu/media/images/career-ek-1wz-23-nfo.jpg
Photo credit : http://international.ucla.edu/media/images/career-ek-1wz-23-nfo.jpg

As someone who graduated from the top Public Policy program in the U.S., I feel (slightly) qualified to talk about this topic. I think it had more to do with timing, luck and perhaps a few other factors, including my work experience; rather than sheer talent. Nevertheless, I will attempt to outline a few things for wannabe IR professionals. I believe I have done a few things right and feel confident in sharing what I have learnt, along with way. While these are not literal rules to follow, here are my ‘Ten Commandments,’ for an IR professional.  Here goes:

  1. Start with an end in mind – Why do you want to study what you want to study? This may seem counterintuitive to the whole philosophy of education, but in the case of an applied field such as IR/ Public Policy/ Development Studies, it is almost mandatory that you start with this in mind. If not, you will drift aimlessly. As much as you should ‘learn for the sake of learning,’ a professional degree such as International Relations/ Public Administration should be approached with a clearer focus. Have a vague ambition, at the least. Do you want to work for an International NGO/ the U.N./ Your government? Or pursue a Ph.D? What impact do you want to make in this world, through your work?

For instance, I wanted to work for the United Nations, before I came to Syracuse University. My goals have changed, since. But at least, I knew why I wanted to study at Maxwell School.

  1. International development is messy – You will quickly realize this, if you haven’t already. The whole ‘development’ talk can be very glamorized and ‘done up.’ You must read widely, intern during your course-work and also possibly try to spend some time in the country you see yourself working (if it isn’t you home country), to see the realities ‘on the ground.’
  2. It is not what it is made out to be – Related to the point above, you will also realize that development/ diplomacy/ administration of organizations is very different, once you start doing it. Skills that you think are important can become redundant and you may be called upon to use other skills that you have not developed too well. For instance, during my previous job as the Executive Director of a small NGO in Washington D.C., I realized quickly that managing people, their anxieties, concerns were equally important, as running the NGO itself. As an NGO that had undergone a crisis, both the donors and those who wanted to work with the organization had deep doubts. I had to address many such issues, before I could focus on performing my task. Watch Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, for a good laugh about this issue.
  3. Be careful about wanting to ‘change the world’ – A bit of humility will help. Look around the countries that the U.S. and E.U. have tried to develop – Iraq, Afghanistan can be two examples – to see the complications and challenges involved. Sometimes, the best of intentions can have extremely negative consequences.
  4. Be aware of the politics involved – As much as ‘technical’ skills are involved in the process of ‘development,’ and ‘diplomacy,’ the processes are deeply political. This is the nature of the game and it would be wise to be conscious of it.
  5. There are no free lunches – Nations, like individuals are motivated by incentives. Is it all about ‘Carrots and Sticks?’ On a lighter note, watch this.
  6. Read critical development studies – It is not all good news, throughout. Read critical theorists, they will expand your mind about what can (and often) does go wrong. But don’t let their cynicism stop you from pursuing your work. Encountering Development by Arturo Escobar is a great start.
  7. Be humble, about what is possible – Studying and working in the U.S. can make one feel that the U.S. is literally the center of the world. In some ways, it is. People in Washington D.C. do feel like it is the global capital. But this ‘American exceptionalism,’ is a myth, like many other myths. Learn some humility, along the way.
  8. Learn to network – People underestimate the value of knowing people. Network not to just ‘get a job,’ or schmooze, but to genuinely connect with people, who will help you: to think clearly, to collaborate, to work with and also to guide you. You can and must have a wide range of people, who you will reach out to, and who should be able to reach out to you for advice, help or guidance. Most people will help you, if it doesn’t cost them much. Also, genuinely help people when you can. All it takes to land a job is one good connection. Remember this.
  9. Don’t stop dreaming – Finally, never stop dreaming. Imagine a better world, both for yourself and for those who you ‘serve,’ whether it is an organization, national/ state government or even your community. Be aware that human agency and your own actions can change a lot – for the better or for the worse – and that ultimately, politicians, leaders are human: just like you and me. Even the president of the U.S. is human and makes mistakes. As one of my colleagues in Dubai used to say about celebrities: Their shit smells just as bad as mine.

Is there a ‘rational’ way to Discuss Immigration Reform?

America is a country that equally loves and hates immigration. With public opinion on this issue being divided, it does not look Americans will reach a consensus on what is good for the country, anytime soon. If history is any indicator, then this question has not been settled in the last three hundred years. So, as urgent as this matter is – and I do believe that immigration reform should take place – I think we need to step back and look at this issue for what it is – a deeply rooted one, that is intertwined with the very identity of America. Is America really a ‘melting pot’ of cultures and people? Or is it not? There is no right answer to this question, as it is a normative one, whose meaning will be defined and re-defined by every generation. I would argue that it is impossible to determine this purely on the basis of polls, public opinions or even voting, because this question is about values and normative assumptions about what constitutes America.

Liberty

By this, I mean that there is no ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ way to go about immigration reform in the U.S. I believe the best way to think about this issue is to think of it as an ethical value, rather than as a ‘rational’ one, that would either benefit or harm America’s economy. President Obama’s recent moves to allow millions of undocumented workers is not a new story, in the sense of being totally novel, but one that is part of a struggle between nativists who did not want to dilute the character of America versus liberals, who believed that the melting pot of America should be kept open to all, who wanted to be a part of it. As this article in the New York Times points, one key piece of the Executive Order may allow up to five million undocumented workers to work in the U.S. with work permits and not fear being deported. The benefits of this measure could be potentially limited to those who have lived in the country for more than ten years, the report added. This brings us to the question of why immigration continues to be such a big issue? Why is it so divisive and what is the history of this discourse?

Since the early 19th century, this has been the pattern of existence for most Americans. While the immigrants have changed – from Irish in the early nineteenth century to Asians, Arabs and now Latinos. The anti-immigration sentiment has been based on fear. This is a dominant theme that emerges time and again. This could be a fear of several things: Fear of lack of resources, vanishing jobs, ‘dangerous criminals’ and fear of ‘diluting the true identity’ of what it means to be an American have all been invoked, from the early 19th century onwards. While we are witnessing anti-immigrant sentiment against Latinos and Muslims now; the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Arabs to South Asians have faced this in the past.

Latino immigration and fear of the ‘foreigner’

While President Obama has been slow to push for comprehensive immigration reform, given the nature of divisive politics in Washington D.C., there is indication that he will issue an Executive Order, soon. This is meant to allow for greater access and mobility for undocumented workers, who are predominantly from Mexico, but also come from Latin American countries.

Nativists argued for banning the Irish from entering the U.S. in the 19th century and then later in the 20th century, the same arguments were propounded against Arabs and those from Asia. As Wuthnow suggests, we must critically examine the mythos that make up America – that is a land of opportunities, or that it is really a religious place. These myths are not helpful, and can do more harm, he suggests and goes on to say “For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” Any such examination should take into account that we are becoming more individualistic, as a society and this needs to give way to a more collective way of thinking, he suggests. So, is the anti-immigration sentiment a purely rational decision of individuals deciding to keep those not ‘fit’ to be part of the U.S. out, while allowing others to come in? Or is there something more to it? Can we explain this through purely rational choice paradigm or do we need more than that?

So, while it is important to examine the narratives on which America is built, it is also crucial for us to look at the narratives and myths about the immigrants themselves. I would argue that this is equally important, if one were to arrive at some approximation of ‘truth’. While several studies have shown that immigration is good for America, there are an equal number of them that would point to the opposite – that immigrants are harmful to our economy, they take away jobs from deserving Americans etc. This sort of ‘instrumental rationality’ of measuring everything from a purely ‘scientific’ perspective is not helpful. In social sciences, we need more ‘value rationality’, as suggested by Flyvberg (2001) and others. This means that we actually go beyond purely epistemic or quantitative analysis and make normative, ethical judgments about issues – whether an issue is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our society.

As Wuthnow argues, renewal of America – as an idea – is not purely about material conditions, though economy is always part of the political discourse, but rather about where people feel the country is headed. This is evident in the mid-term elections that concluded, where a majority of voters did not recognize Obama’s achievements in reducing unemployment, budget deficit etc. and instead voted for the Republicans. How does this fit into the arguments that I have made thus far? It confirms in some ways what Flyvbjerg says that people do not make ‘rational’ choices but rather those that are based on normative choices. So, in our analysis of issues like immigration, climate change etc. perhaps we must be open to including judgment and decisions made in the manner of a ‘virtuoso social and political actor’, as Flyvbjerg suggests, rather than just focusing on the rules of the game. Rules are often now followed and are often broken, when it comes to practical, everyday life – a fact that ‘rational’ social science does not take into account.

 

Hyper-patriotism in the heart of Manhattan: My visit to the 9/11 memorial

 I visited the National September 11 Museum, more out of curiosity, rather than any sense of wanting to know more about the tragedy that struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001. While most of us know the facts – enough to know the bad guys, the heroism of the people involved and the reactions from dubya and what transpired later on, what is not so well known is the narrative of 9/11 and how it is being shaped. While I respect the sentiment with which the memorial was built – to honor the lives of 2,977 people who died on that fateful day- the execution of this vision leaves much to be desired. While the memorial is beautiful, the museum fails on many accounts.

Photos by author.
Photos by author.

photo(2) photo(3) photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First off, I must lay bare my own normative biases – I am not a huge fan of memorials – of any kind- and in particular those of the type that are particularly nationalistic or jingoistic. The only exception to this is the Taj Mahal, which is also a memorial, but considered a wonder of the world, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful architectural pieces in the world. While I don’t consider nationalism to be utter nonsense, but let’s say that I am deeply skeptical of a project built entirely on just one identity – often based on exclusion, false pride and a visceral suspicion of the other. That is just not me.

The museum is somewhat of an aberration. It is based in perhaps the greatest city in the world – New York – a city that I truly believe represents freedom, diversity; but ironically is highly securitized and represents ‘unfreedom.’ A fact that Adam Gopnik highlights in this New Yorker story. The level of securitization just before one enters the museum is quite shocking, and one feels as if one is about to take off on an aircraft, bound to enter the ‘free world,’ except that one is leaving this free world to enter a world where one is quite literally held hostage. To the credit of the museum curators, the exhibits are quite well organized and often detailed with audio recordings – of the people who were trapped in the towers, of the fire fighters who risked, and often lost lives saving those of others and also that of an astronaut, who said something thoughtful about this tragedy from space.

The museum itself is hard to find. I took the subway to reach the closest station, near the Financial district. Walking around, I got lost twice, having passed West Street, from where one can enter the ticketing area. On reaching the ticketing area, I was finally met by a line of about 100 people before me and the possibility of entering the museum three hours later. Given the summer season and high volume of visitors, this was the earliest I could go. I decided to buy the ticket ( $18 for students, $24 for regular adults). As someone who frequented Smithsonians in Washington D.C. ( all of which are free entry), I feel this is too steep a price to pay. Thank the lord that I am a student and can get some discounts, even if it is $ 6 – enough to buy me a falafel sandwich on the street side food cart. A more scathing review of the museum is here.

On a positive note, the memorial itself is beautiful. It stands at the exact location of the two towers, and has water falling from all four sides, into something like a huge square bowl. The water then goes into a smaller square and into the ground- viewers cannot see the entire depth of the water falling. But it is a touching memorial in many ways – aesthetically pleasing and it also bears the names of all those who died on the side walls. This is truly the most positive aspect of the whole experience.

Firefighters – the real heroes?

One fact that came home to me was that real heroes that day were the firefighters – the first responders, who came together to save thousands of lives. The exhibits are meant to give a real sense of the tragedy and they do. The reaction that many people who visited the museum was quite strong – I saw a few young ladies cry as they saw videos of the devastation that was wrought that fall morning. Others just stood there, in a daze, not believing what they were seeing. To me, it was as shocking a spectacle as it was normal – in a sense that the amount of imagery that I have consciously and unconsciously been exposed to has perhaps dulled my senses. I did not cry, but I did feel a strong sense of empathy with all those who died and a sense of respect for those who responded to the call for help– especially the first responders, including the ones from Ladder 3 Company, all of whom perished that day. “They died, saving the lives of thousands. You must remember that there were over 15,000 people in both towers that the fire fighters tried to save. We lost very few, compared to how many were there in the buildings,” pointed out the old lady who was volunteering as the point of contact at the burnt display of one of the fire trucks.

 

The ‘essentialising’ of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

While there is large consensus that Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks and extremists who used the rhetoric of Islamic jihad were behind the planning, there is definitely a problem in the way that ‘Islamic terrorism’ is portrayed in the Museum. Some commentators have taken issue with how the rise of Al-Qaeda is portrayed and the word ‘Islamic’ terrorism is a misnomer and that it is terrorism carried out by those who were claiming to follow Islam. Nothing Islamic about their actions. While this may be a linguistic nuance, and one that I would agree with, vast majority of academics and intelligentsia seem complacent and happy with ‘Islamic terrorism’ and the word has gotten a lot of play. It seems almost banal to bring it up. Except that it is not banal and harmless.

Consider this: For all the effort at portraying and including all evidence and narratives, the Museum brochure does include a few languages – to ensure that people from around the world understand what they are seeing. I did see Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and German – but noticeably there was no Arabic script. Are the Museum staff telling something through this omission? I find it hard to believe that they left out Arabic – one of the world’s most widely spoken languages from the brochure, in a city that has a large Arab population and also hosts millions of Arab speakers on an annual basis. And I don’t think it is an unconscious omission. There is more to it than just a slip on someone’s part. I find that disturbing. The museum also fails on this account, of leaving out close to a billion people. And is there a valid reason for this?

 

 

Can the ‘Golden Age of Philanthropy’ Transform America?

As I visited Indianapolis last week to attend the ARNOVA Young Leaders Forum, I met some of the people from Lilly School of Philanthropy, the world’s first school of philanthropy. While the two day meeting was meant as a professional development opportunity, it also served as a way for the young leaders – most of who are PhD students – to network and also listen to some of the leading researchers in the field of philanthropy about the ‘state of philanthropy’ in the U.S.

 

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Incidentally, one of my colleagues also forwarded me a newly released report titled A Golden Age of Philanthropy Still Beckons: National Wealth Transfer and Potential for Philanthropy Technical Report released on May 28th by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College points to a new ‘ golden age’ of philanthropy, that could be ushered in, considering the inter-generational wealth transfer of about $59 trillion that is likely to occur in the duration between 2007-2061. I will discuss this briefly, in this blog post. This is the first of a series of blog posts and I will come back to discuss the issues in this post, in subsequent posts.

For the uninitiated, it may help to start off by pointing out that philanthropy is the most American value. As one speaker argued, it is more American than Apple pie – given that more Americans give to organizations than the number who vote or take part in any other social activity. Here are some key highlights about American philanthropy:

–          The average giving by Americans has hovered around 2 % of GDP for the last four decades

–          The total giving (estimated) in the U.S. was about $ 300 billion in 2013, according to Giving USA report

–          Giving to religious institutions has declined over the decades from about half of all giving to only about one-third of all giving in 2013.

Consider a recent story about Detroit in the New York Times that showed that about $ 850 million are needed to rid the city of blight and deprecated buildings. Problems of urban poverty, homelessness are far too big and widespread to be addressed by philanthropy alone. While the figure of $ 300 billion may seem big, when one considers the scale of social problems facing the U.S., this figure is miniscule, compared to the total amount of money needed to ‘fix’ all the problems, provide the poor and vulnerable with services they need and also to invest in the future of the next generation. Philanthropy by itself cannot solve these problems.

 

How is this relevant ?

While the figure of $59 trillion may seem an impressive one and perhaps transformative, several questions remain unanswered too. Would those who get the bequests actually use this money towards philanthropy or would they hoard wealth? What about the newly wealthy, who may not be inclined to support causes that address social issues, but may in fact veer towards political advocacy or other parochial means of spending their wealth. As the press release for the ‘A Golden Age’ report says: “The study reveals a 12 % increase in this “give while you live” trend since the authors 199 study. Over 55 years, nearly $ 27 trillion are estimated to be given through lifetime giving and a further $ 6.3 trillion through estates and various estate planning approaches.” What is of interest to non-profit professionals in this is that the portfolio of transfers is shifting, according to the authors of the report. One of their conclusions is that the transfer portfolio will include nonprofit organizations, donor advised funds, family foundations as well. This diversification of portfolio is what the authors claim makes this trend in giving transformative.

This report and other similar ones point to one important sociological shift in America: Giving patterns are slowly shifting, though giving has somewhat remained at 2 % of GDP over the last forty years or so. This shift towards ‘giving while living,’ may potentially be a game changer, as the report indicates. And there is good reason to believe this claim. But the hype of philanthropy solving all major societal problems is a very big claim that is not substantiated by facts, as the example of Detroit above shows. While I believe in the power of philanthropy to have a transformative effect in certain niche areas, the claims being made in many cases are outright exaggerations.

 

What the Religious Right in America can teach us about Pluralism

Religion in the public sphere has not always been problematic, as American history demonstrates. Clergy have taken both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions when it comes to issues such as civil rights, anti-war protests etc. This is seen as in the 1960s, when the clergy lead demonstrations for civil rights while in the 1980s they vehemently protested abortion. This hard-nosed pragmatism is a feature of American public life and will likely continue, says Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Professor of Sociology in his essay The Religious Right and Symbolic Politics (1991). In analyzing the effectiveness of the Religious Right in American public and political sphere, Wuthnow asks: What worked for the Religious Right and what did not? An answer to this may point to the direction in which the future leaders of the Religious Right may strategize, he suggests. Further, Wuthnow shows that the Religious Right has consistently tried to mold public policy, defined as the outcome of the political process with respect to specific substantive issues. While the stated position of the Religious Right has consistently been to ‘uphold morality’, the way to achieve this has varied, depending both on the power that the groups have enjoyed as well as the relations between local and national politics.

photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/
photo credit : http://defendingcontending.com/2008/10/14/has-the-religious-right-lost-its-voice-in-american-politics/

In an insightful remark Wuthnow captures the paradoxes of American life : “ The American public does not want our public policy makers to be devoid of value considerations, but neither does it want its seminaries and churches to become halls of public administration.” (p.89). By this he means that while there is a great desire to see values reflected in the public sphere, Americans deeply pragmatic in several ways, and are conscious of keeping the separation of Church and State. Americans do not want Clergy to run be Surgeons, nor carry out bureaucratic functions, he reminds us. At the same time, he reminds us that one of reasons the Religious Right was successful in the 70s and 80s was because of its ‘outsider’ image, of being the ‘Moral majority’, standing up for what was right, and being ‘anti-establishment.’ When this gave way to being ‘inside’ the corridors of power, the legitimacy that they enjoyed began to wane. The reason for this is that the anti-government sentiment among most Americans is still prevalent among most Americans, who are ambivalent about the ‘over-reaching’ aspects of the federal government.
Also, this moral majority succeeded post-Watergate and other business scandals of the 1960s and 70s’, when Americans were worried about growing immorality, drugs and teenage pregnancies and a drop in general morality. The ‘flower children’ of the 1960s had grown up and were becoming responsible adults. Further, he argues that it may be prudent to look to the Right for lessons by considering some of the ways in which it influenced public agenda. This theme is well developed and illustrated in his book Red State Nation (2012), where Wuthnow argues that the Republican Party and the centrist conservatism of the state’s two religious denominations – Methodism and Catholicism- in Kansas State actually deterred radical religious and political movements from gaining ground during most of the state’s history. Though Kansas is a paradigmatic case for how the Republican party has established a strong hold, there are many internal debates, inconsistencies and struggles between the Religious Right groups that are not fully appreciated, Wuthnow reminds us. For instance, the tension between Methodists, Catholics and Baptists is not taken into consideration, when we speak about the Religious Right. Nor is the ‘moderate’ side of the Republican Party itself, which in many cases goes against the extreme Republican perspective.
The ‘moral majority’ of today seems to be decidedly liberal, by many measures. As recent studies have shown, the fundamental structure of American family is changing. As this in-depth report by NY Times argues: “Yet for all the restless shape-shifting of the American family, researchers who comb through census, survey and historical data and conduct field studies of ordinary home life have identified a number of key emerging themes. Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.” The report goes on to say that increasing intermarriage between races, religious denominations is causing a shift in how people conceptualize kinships. “ In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the “voluntary kin” movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally. Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.” This level of mingling, complication of associational life has not occurred before, according to observers. While there is little doubt that this is impacting the shift towards a more liberal and plural outlook towards moral values, the exact shift is yet to be determined.

Hobby Lobby and the debate about religion

Several important legal cases in the past few months have made the issue of pluralism salient, in the American public consciousness. Issues related to marriage equality, Immigration and most recently, healthcare have brought forth some deep underlying tensions in American society, to the fore. While these cases are about particular issues, I would argue that they are ultimately about defining the scope of religious pluralism in America. This case, like the others is about what Wuthnow has called ‘symbolic politics,’ i.e., the strategy of gaining attention for symbolic issues and ensuring that the Right Wing’s agenda stays in the public policy realm. The decisions that courts reach in deciding these cases will have far-reaching implications on how the future generations come to understand the limits of religion. Also, these debates involve ‘factions’, in this case, special interest groups, that are often accused of undermining democratic participation.
I will briefly discuss the impact of religion in the public sphere and use the example of Hobby Lobby case that has challenged the neutrality of courts and the state in implementing laws. In this case, it is the federal healthcare law that is being challenged. While it is not possible to go into all the details of this case, a quick synopsis of this case is as follows: Two companies: Consestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby, want to be exempt from providing their employees contraceptive coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act. While these two firms are not religious organizations, their owners say that they are the ‘victims of an assault on religious liberty’, as the owners disapprove of some of the contraceptives, points out a New York Times editorial.
The question that is at the heart of this debate is whether the contraceptive coverage rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that government may not “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it be to “further a compelling government interest.” The NY Times editorial argues that the Supreme court should not allow the corporations to get away with this, as it would mean permitting the companies to impose their views on thousands of their employees.
As the editors further argue: “If there is a Supreme Court decision in favor of these businesses, the ripple effect could be enormous. One immediate result would be to encourage other companies to seek exemptions from other health care needs, like blood transfusions, psychiatric care, vaccinations or anesthesia. It could also encourage toxic measures like the one vetoed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona that would have given businesses and individuals a broad right to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of religion. The Supreme Court cannot go there.” The arguments about religious freedom are being used to deny services to women in this case, as they were used to deny equality to African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. While this particular instance could be seen as ‘government aggression’ against religion, the principle of non-discrimination would be violated if the Supreme Court supports the corporate case.
Beyond the immediacy of the issues we are discussing and the legal wrangles involved, the big issues involved are those of the changing morality in America. This is related not only to the changing family structures, as mentioned earlier, but also increased shift in religious denominations, conversion to other religions as well as a moving away, from religion, generally. An article in The American Scholar points to the declining influence of the Evangelical Church, and the impact this is having on other denominations. Call it the ‘fall of Evangelical Church and the Rise of Catholic Church,’ if you will. As the article argues: “But the reality, largely unnoticed outside church circles, is that evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.” Simultaneously, while the growth of ‘spiritual shoppers’- those who are religiously unaffiliated but spiritually active, grows, other religions such as Islam gain more converts and the Catholic Church also becomes an attractive proposition for the more liberal minded Millennials, we have the shift of an entire generation of Christians.
Further, pointing to the broader sociological changes, the American Scholar article claims: “ Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.” So, taking a cue from this, one can ask: Are the Hobby Lobby and related cases an attempt by the Religious Right to assert its ‘moral authority.’ Can it be seen as a desperate effort to claim its own moral territory, that it is afraid of losing?
A related concern that comes up, in this examination of the changing demographics, religious affiliations and moral values is: How is the notion of pluralism (pertaining to religion, ethical values, morality) shifting in this context? A careful analysis of the aforementioned factors suggests that there seems to be a gradual expansion of the idea of pluralism. Also, if the Republican Right’s strategies of using pluralism to advocate a more narrow vision of society is not working, might we see a broader vision of pluralism in America? At the level of discourse too, are we seeing a gradual relaxation of how we seek out ‘morality’ in the public sphere. As Connolly argues in his book Pluralism (2005): “ What is needed today is a cautious relaxation of discourse about the sacred, one that allows us to come to terms affirmatively with the irreducible plurality of sacred objects in late modern life. With respect to sovereignty it is important to underline the significance of acts by which deep conflicts are settled; but it is equally important not to elevate them to the level of the sacred.” (2005,p.39). By this, Connolly is referring not to the relaxation of moral norms, but the entrenchment of positions, that often goes when people are discussing deeply normative values.