What is Vanderbilt University’s Problem with Traditional Christianity?

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Vanderbilt University has recently been “investigating” Christian groups on campus after an openly homosexual member of a Christian organization was expelled, not for being homosexual, but for openly stating that practicing homosexuality is morally acceptable. That belief violated the organization’s constitution. Such an attitude by Vanderbilt’s administration reflects a bias in academia as a whole, with the exception of those Christian schools who still remain traditional (and which are becoming fewer in number) against traditional Christianity. Many people in academia hate (and that word is not too strong) the moral views of traditional Christians: their opposition to abortion, to practicing homosexuality, to premarital sex, to a hedonistic lifestyle. The academics claim to be open minded and tolerant, but their open mindedness and tolerance ends at the door of traditional morality and religion.

I attended Vanderbilt from 1986-87 as a student in the Graduate Department of Religion. Conservative Christian students lived in fear of saying something that offended theologically  and morally liberal faculty members. I found the atmosphere far more stifling and intolerant than the very traditional Churches of Christ religion in which I was reared. If I talked to a traditional student about the bodily resurrection of Christ or about traditional sexual morality, the student would often look around, put his finger to his mouth, and say “Shhh…. you want to remain a student here, don’t you?” Even Professor James Barr, certainly no Fundamentalist or Evangelical, said in his parting article in The Spire, Vanderbilt Divinity School‘s newsletter, that there was closed-mindedness from the theological left at Vanderbilt. Although the philosophy department was a bit more open-minded, it was still hostile to traditional Christian moral positions on sexual ethics. It is no surprise, then, that the Vanderbilt administration shares such hostility and is willing to enforce it by discrimination against Christian groups’ rights to determine which members meet their standards.

If a student wanted to join a chess club but openly argued that a knight should move like a bishop and vice-versa, and then tried to use that rule in the games he played, any self-respecting chess club would expel that member for violating the standards of chess. In religion, however, both secular agnostic and atheistic university administrators as well as liberal administrators of all faiths, refuse to allow traditional Christian groups the same privilege. Would the administration be consistent and investigate Muslim or Orthodox Jewish groups who also accept traditional moral values? Or is it only traditional Christianity that is the target of administrative ire?

Concerned alumni who disagree with these administrative moves at Vanderbilt (and at other colleges and universities) need to speak up–and if the administration ignores them, to talk with their closed wallets. Legal measures are also an option, as well as communicating what is happening to other traditionalist of all religious stripes as well as to sympathetic secular people who recognize the academic totalitarianism in the attack on Christian organizations. A strong, concerted, and consistent response is essential to keep administrators in line with their supposed commitment to freedom of speech and religion.

The Fundamental Goal of Medicine

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The fundamental goal of medicine is the patient‘s good. Edmund Pellegrino and David Thomasma both focus on that point in their 1981 book, A Philosophical Basis of Medical Practice, the book that has most influenced my approach to medical ethics. All other goals–having an up-to-date facility, having the best equipment at a clinic or hospital, turning a profit, and efficiency in finances, must be subsumed under that primary goal. The good of the patient may involve curative care, or it may involve palliative care in the case of a dying patient. The human person is a whole, body and soul, so medical practice must focus on the good of the whole person and not just on body parts and diseases. The good of the patient may include physical good, but it may also include psychological and spiritual good. Recognizing the complex dimensions of personhood and treating a patient as a person, not as a thing, will do more for the good of the patient than merely diagnosing and treating a physical disease. Even a “physical disease” contains a psychological component, since the patient’s mood can influence the course of the disease for good or ill. Sometimes a physical disease can be triggered by psychological stress. Extreme emotional stress can activate the HIV virus so that a person gets full-blown AIDS. Other diseases may be activated by stress: cardiovascular disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, infectious diseases. Part of a medical practitioner’s job is to recognize when a patient is having a great deal of emotional stress and encourage the patient to deal with that stress.

Treating the patient as a person implies that assembly line medicine is not ideal. Despite massive debt that young physicians often try to pay off with a high volume of appointments, at some point a provider is spending too little time with patients and comes across an uncaring. Constantly looking at one’s watch does not help. Talking to a patient in a real conversation does. Of course any doctor, PA, or nurse practitioner must have some limitations on patient appointments in order to receive all those in need. Finding the correct balance is not subject to exact rules and is a matter of prudence. Prudence is the ability to make a good decision in both routine and in more troublesome and complex situations. It is an essential virtue, necessary for both everyday medical, as well as for moral, decision making. A list of absolute rules to follow will not help in ethical dilemmas in which rules conflict and are only prima facie, which higher-level rules may supercede.

The fundamental end of medicine implies the principles of benevolence, nonmaleficence, and justice. Autonomy is trickier, since it is an enlightenment concept that may be conditioned by contemporary Western Culture. Kant himself thought we would autonomously give ourselves the moral law, but the term is used today for “the right of every adult to make choices based on their own value systems.” In practice, there is limited autonomy in medicine; not everyone can practice medicine, and drugs must pass FDA approval before being placed on the market. These limitations are so patients will not be misled by quacks or those pushing an untested, ineffective, and perhaps dangerous, drug. Autonomy in patient decision making recognizes that it is the patient’s body who is being affected by medical treatment, and that the patient’s values are not necessarily the physician’s values. I think of respecting autonomy in terms of respecting the free will of patients to make their own decisions regarding health care.  This helps preserve the dignity of the patient in a setting in which the sick patient, feeling powerless, tends to lose a sense of dignity.

There are a number of controversial issues in medical ethics that focus on the nature of the patient’s good, or even if there is a patient present to whom the health care provider does good or harm. The abortion issue is one of these–if the fetus is a patient, then abortion amounts to murdering a living human person. If the fetus is not a patient because he is not a person, then the opposite conclusion seems stronger. My own view is that personhood begins at conception, so that any doctor or health care worker helping with an abortion is violating the fundamental end of medicine. The same would follow for euthanasia and for physician-assisted suicide. Many people will disagree with these positions, and I welcome rational argument on any position I set forth in this blog.

Most issues regarding the fundamental good of medicine are more mundane that the large scale bioethical issues often discussed in undergraduate medical ethics courses. Usually the practical everyday issues involve the amount of time spent with patients, dealing with difficult patients, keeping information confidential, keeping medical records accurate instead of falsifying “the little stuff,” and so forth. All these issues involve remembering that the patient is a human person with feelings, with a life, with loved ones, just like the health care provider–and that providers can help a person leave better than when he arrived.

Are Some Temptations Too Difficult to Bear?

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Orodruin ("Fiery Mountain")

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Is it possible to experience such a powerful temptation to evil that it is practically impossible to resist? St. Paul does not think so; in in I Corinthians 10:13 (KJV) he writes: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

Normally I would accept such a statement as is–after all, St. Paul is in the canon of Scripture, and I am not. So what he says must be taken seriously. Some distinctions are necessary, however, before proceeding. First, what would it mean for a temptation to be “impossible to resist.” Possibilities include the following:

1. Temptations logically impossible to resist–This does not make sense, since whether a person resists or does not resist temptation is not a matter of logical necessity or logical impossibility–there is no logical contradiction to say, “No temptation is impossible to resist.” Nor is it a logical contradiction to say that “Some temptations are impossible to resist.” Logically these are contingent statements that may be either true or false.

2. Temptations naturally impossible to resist: This is not a likely interpretation either. Natural law may be involved if certain temptations are impossible to resist, but it is not the only or deciding factor.

3. Temptations practically impossible to resist: This is the most likely meaning of there being some temptations that a person cannot resist. Some have such power that no human being, short of Christ Himself, could resist them. Theoretically a person could, but de facto this is not practically possible. The issue arises of whether there are such temptations.

J. R. R. Tolkien believed that some temptations are practically impossible to resist. He says explicitly in his letters that Frodo Baggins could not have resisted the temptation of the Ring, and that some radically contingent act such as Gollum‘s cutting Frodo’s finger off and falling into Mt. Doom was the only way the Ring could be destroyed. Tolkien had no problem extending this reasoning to actually existing human beings as well. Thus, he did not agree with St. Paul on this issue. With deference to the authority of the Catholic Church if I am wrong, I must agree with Tolkien. There are some temptations which a person cannot practically bear. I will give some examples.

1. A person who has, but is unaware of, a strong genetic propensity to alcoholism takes a drink. He craves more, and figures another drink is okay. He continues to drink until he is thoroughly plastered. Now if he knew he had such a propensity, perhaps he would not have begun to drink in the first place. But it is, I would argue, practically impossible for him to stop drinking once he starts due to the strong craving his body has for the drink.

2. A married man meets a married woman. She is charming and manipulative, and he trusts her. She has an almost intuitive grasp of what he wants in a woman, and plays that particular role to perfection. He feels safe, figuring that they are both married. She, however, leads the man along slowly, flirting very little at first, but raising up the seduction level so slowly that the man does not notice the web being spun. How he should know better–but perhaps he has mild autism or Asperger’s Syndrome and does not read people well. He is drawn in and starts to have feelings for the woman, and she encourages those feelings, backing away when he gets scared. When she finally offers him her body, he finds he cannot resist the temptation.

Now there is no logical or physical impossibility to resisting these temptations. But I would argue that at a practical level, some people simply cannot resist them. Everyone has a particular issue concerning which they are tempted the most. With some people it is money; with others, power. Others may be tempted by sex; still others by envy or malice. Apart from a near supererogatory effort, the person cannot resist a strong temptation in his most vulnerable area of temptation. Now I am not tempted by money or power, but I have other areas in which I would be vulnerable, and in the right (or “wrong”!) combination of circumstances, it would be practically impossible for me to resist temptation–mea maxima culpa. The sin would still be my fault if I committed it, and I would blame myself and pray for forgiveness–even if a temptation were too hard to bear, I would still be responsible for the sin–there is no logical of physical necessity in my yielding. At a practical level, though, the difficulty in fighting off some temptations may be so high that it is practically impossible to resist such temptations. If someone yields to temptation in those situations, he should take responsibility, repent, and find strategies to avoid such temptations in the future. Human beings are “miserable sinners,” fallen creatures. The fact that with their damaged (but not destroyed) nature they are unable to resist every temptation to sin should be no  surprise.

Does Thomism Really Avoid the Lockean Epistemological Gap between Idea and Thing?

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John Locke thought of himself as a realist (not in the Medieval sense of accepting the reality of universals, but in the modern sense of believing in a mind-independent world). Yet it seems that his philosophy leaves no room for any knowledge of that alleged world, as Berkeley and Hume pointed out. Locke believed that all knowledge comes by means of sense experience (thus he is an empiricist, as opposed to being a rationalist such as Descartes–it is ironic that in his hierarchical classification of knowledge Locke lists intuitive knowledge as first, demonstrative knowledge as second, and sensory knowledge as the lowest form of knowledge, barely to be called knowledge). Locke believes that knowledge arises by means of ideas in the mind. Whether these ideas are images or something else remains a subject of debate among Lockean scholars. In any case, Locke believes that that a quality is the power to produce an idea in the mind. Primary qualities are actually in the thing-in-itself, and our ideas of primary qualities are isomorphic with the actual structure of the physical substance we perceive. Primary qualities are measurable, and include size, shape, and mass. Secondary qualities are not in the thing itself; our ideas of secondary qualities are not isomorphic with the actual structure of the material substance. However, the primary qualities interact with human sensory organs and with the human brain to produce ideas of particular colors, odors, sounds, and tastes. Thus, secondary qualities have a partial basis in the thing-in-itself despite the lack of isomorphism between idea and thing.

The classic problem with this view is that Locke claims that we are only aware of our own ideas. We do not have any direct access to the material substance, to the thing-in-itself. In fact, substance is just that which underlies the qualities, a “something-I-know-not-what.” But if we lack access to the thing-in-itself, there is no way to compare our ideas to the actual object allegedly causing those ideas to determine which qualities are primary and which ones are secondary. Access to knowledge of extramental reality seems impossible, and a trip down the phenomenalist brick road of Berkeley, Hume, and the sense data theorists of the early twentieth century. Such an idealistic journey is not what Locke wanted to make. Idealism has serious difficulties; the source of the ideas (our own minds? the mind of God) remains a mystery, and the orderly nature of the phenomena we experience is left unexplained unless a person takes the Berkeleian route of positing God to explain natural laws. Direct realism is another option; the label of “naive realism” is a pejorative and is a blatant attempt to beg the question regarding the truth or falsity of direct realism. As for the straw men critics of direct realism try to knock down, no direct realist has denied the possibility of illusion. It is Berkeley and Hume’s phenomenalism that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality except by taking Hume’s route of more vivid ideas (which he calls impressions) being the most “real.”

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were both direct realists. Aquinas accepted the idea that knowledge comes through the “phantasm,” or sensory image, from which the mind extracts the intelligible content from a material substance. Thomists today often say that the difference from Locke’s view is that Locke believed we have access to ideas, not the thing in itself–it is the ideas that we know. In contrast, Aquinas believes that it is through the phantasm that a person gains some knowledge, albeit limited, of the thing-in-itself. But does this really avoid Locke’s problem or does it evade it by a kind of word game?

After reading more of how contemporary Thomists deal with the epistemological gap, I must back away from my earlier position that Thomism does not avoid an epistemological gap between mind and thing. Contemporary Thomists believe that humans have evolved as part of their environment, not as creatures separate from their environment. Even thought knowledge is of “external” things, there is a communication of intelligible content from object to subject–agent causation is not limited to human agents. The phantasm contains the information that human beings extract to help them to live in the environment in which they are embedded, to the point that the person becomes “intentionally one” with the thing-in-itself. While Duns Scotus posited intuitive knowledge of an object as existing in addition to a rather traditional Aristotelian account of knowledge, I am not sure that such an intuitive knowledge is necessary for human beings to get by in the world. If such intuitive knowledge exists (perhaps in the form of psi), such knowledge could speed up our apprehension of a thing and determine whether or not it is dangerous. But if the mind is not considered a container, but as one way of an organism’s acting in the world, that seems to eliminate the Lockean gap between idea and thing. The phantasm becomes that “by which” a person apprehends some aspects of the being of a thing.

 

Why Library Sales Have Such Good Choices in Books

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I love library sales. Lately, I love them even more. The choices in books, especially the classics of Western literature, are incredible. Libraries are discarding good books so they can make room for those from a multicultural perspective. With all the officially accepted minority groups (African Americans, Arabs [Muslim Arabs, not Christian Arabs], Latinos, women [feminists only], homosexuals [only when they write on gay culture]), libraries are hard-pressed to include all these perspectives without discarding a large number of books. The books that suffer most are those that reflect the great tradition of Western Culture from its ancient roots in Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Jewish and Christian thought to present day writers who focus on Western culture. Thus, poorly written, highly politicized books from a predominately Marxist perspective (Marx through the lens of Marcuse) replace literary classics, science books, and any other work that does not reflect a so-called “minority viewpoint.” For traditionalists, this situation provides a great opportunity. We can go to library sales, buy the fine books they have, and be enriched by the treasures of Western Culture. Those individuals who only read politicized pseud0-scholarly pablum will become dumber than ever. The bad thing about this situation is that people who visit libraries are exposed to intellectual left-wing multiculturalist ideology rather than to good, or even average, literature and scholarship. The course libraries and educational institutions have taken will leave the common person isolated from Western Culture unless he knows the Internet provides excellent options for reading great classic works. For more recent material, say, in popular science, the common person will have to look elsewhere than a library if he wants a good selection of books. Libraries today, especially academic libraries, are becoming more ideologically driven as library schools take over the values of multiculturalism, moral and epistemological relativism, and a lack of respect for Western civilization. Those of us who take advantage of the intellectual void in some libraries should buy wisely, read the books, and use their insights to live a better life–and to teach others the value of works that are classics, of informational guides in science–of any work that can increase knowledge and encourage wisdom, the wisdom that helps a person to develop good moral virtues. Hopefully students who miss good books in the library will go online to see which books are available. Years from now, what is left of Western Civilization might be preserved by some customer at a library sale.

Liberalism and the Failure to Recognize Human Limitations

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2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush...

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Do you remember your mother or father telling you the old saw, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” You were a child and wanted something your parents could not afford. You may have thrown a fit, but if your parents were responsible, they would not give in in order to teach you a valuable lesson about human limitation. Human beings can only buy as much as their resources allow. Any responsible parent knows that going into unnecessary debt can harm the entire family. A family receives a finite income every year. A family whose income is $50,000 a year should not buy a $40,000 car or a $1,000,000 home.

Businesses also realize that they can overreach–when a business overspends beyond the benefits and loses money, that one failure can sometimes destroy, or at the very least weaken–that business. The same thing is true with local governments and most state governments. California, with its past history of profligate spending, is an important exception–and an important lesson on recognizing that resources have limits.

The federal government has not learned these lessons. George W. Bush began the current spending spree, with the mainstream Republicans in Congress, wanting to gain votes, appropriating the money. When the banking crisis occurred, Mr. Bush and Congress spend billions on a massive bail out. But what Mr. Bush did is child’s play compared to Mr. Obama’s free spending ways. What was billions in debt quickly became trillions, to the point that there seems no end to the massive debt of the United States. China holds us over a more precarious pit than was present in the Bush administration. Problems with the Euro have helped the dollar to survive as a viable currency despite massive supply due to the government printing more money–but eventually supply and demand will catch up with the dollar. The threat of hyperinflation looms over the United States to a greater degree than in any recent decade except the 1970s.

The American people’s desire for a utopia on earth has driven massive spending. Unlike Europe, which spent freely due to people wanting la dolce vita after seven years of brutal war, American’s desire to benefit from government had already begun in the 1930s with the Roosevelt administration‘s rapid expansion of federal programs in response to the Great Depression. Americans, no longer disciplined by hardship and war, turned to government to solve social problems and to provide benefits for the middle class. The idea was that only government had the massive resources to fight poverty (Lyndon Johnson‘s “Great Society“)  and protect the middle class through social security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid. Now government has been used by Mr. Obama to solve another financial crisis and to expand social welfare benefits. Cuts in defense spending are not nearly enough to make up for massive social programs. Thus the problem of debt is just as unsolvable in the United States as it is in Western Europe. Mother was right–money does not grow on trees–and the worth of money is not guaranteed by the government’s printing more bills.  Currency traders will not ignore economic reality forever. The United States, like Western Europe, will be driven to recognize its limitations if it must be driven kicking and screaming.

Classical liberalism is superior to social democratic liberalism, but it still has an overly optimistic view of human nature and often does not recognize human limitations. Many classical liberals believe that science and the private sector will create an ideal society, and such a belief can clash with economic and other human limitations. Adam Smith believed that a society made up primarily of virtuous people, civilized by Christianity and Western culture, would make the “invisible hand” work. With the breakdown of key virtues such as taking responsibility for one’s behavior and integrity, the capitalist system will be corrupted. Even if it were not corrupted, resources for the well-being of people are finite, not infinite. Science and the market can substitute for God just as much as “the People” substitute for God in Marxism.

The truth is that there is no ideal world that any economic system can make. The world will always be a mixed bag of good and bad. People can do what they can to alleviate the negative and “accentuate the positive” (as my late colleague Parker Wilson used to say). To do so with massive government aid programs or social engineering programs creates programs that almost always fail, and the government spends more money and goes deeper into debt. Because social democratic liberals cannot follow a mother’s or father’s aphorism that “Money does not grow on trees,” the country in which I was born and reared may become unrecognizable sooner rather than later.

Why I am not a Democrat

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George McGovern, in Congress

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My granddaddy loved the Democratic Party. He always said “it is the party of the poor man while the Republicans are the party of the rich man.” He thought that FDR was the best president the U. S. ever had, appealing to WPA and Social Security as evidence. For many years in the South, the Democratic Party was the conservative party, and while it held some positions (on segregation, for instance) that were wrong, it also defended the Tenth Amendment regarding state’s rights–and I must agree with their view on that. Sending federal troops to the South, putting school boards under dictatorial federal judges who imposed asinine social engineering schemes such as forced busing, were abuses of power by the federal government. Better to use persuasion in a grassroots movement to encourage a change in people’s attitudes than to send in the 101st Airborne. Those in power could have been pressured by a grassroots movement to end segregation from within the individual states–with enough pressure, they would probably have given in, segregation laws abolished, and race relations would have been better than they are today.

Republicans had no problem abusing federal power, especially liberal Republicans in the North. The Republican Party had historically been the party of corporate welfare, and had formed an unholy alliance with railroads and with banks in the nineteenth century. It was the Republicans who forced states, which would have been almost universally considered to be sovereign just a few decades before, into the federal fold using U. S. military forces, with the attendant loss of over 600,000 lives.

There were some liberal democrats in the South in the 1950s–Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee is a good example–but even the liberals of that time period accepted the Judeo-Christian ethic that had been dominant in the United States since the Second Great Awakening. Except for a few radicals, abortion was wrong, and no one would have dreamed of supporting same-sex marriage. Even with the expansion of federal power and the government’s use of the military against the states, the federal budget was relatively small as well as the number of federal employees. The budget was balanced three times during the Eisenhower administration.

Then came the 1960s with the spoiled baby boomers calling for a radical transformation of society. These radicals gained control of the Democratic National Convention when it nominated Senator George McGovern (who seems almost moderate by today’s standards) for president. The Democratic Party became the party of radical social change, advocating abortion rights, looser rules concerning the family unit, and, more recently, same-sex marriage. It also extended the federal welfare system immensely, especially during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. This in turn helped to expand a permanent underclass, leading to more money being spent on welfare, leading more people to become dependent on the system. It became a vicious cycle.

The Democratic and Republican parties “switched” in the South, especially after the old George Wallace voters voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1976 presidential primaries. He almost the Republican nomination from Gerald Ford that year. In 1980, the trend continued, and over time, the Republican Party moved to the right at the same time the Democratic Party shifted radically to the left. Republicans were not always true to their promises, unfortunately, but to many voters, including me, they were the “lesser evil” to voting for a liberal Democrat. There are a few conservative Democrats around, and I will vote for one from time to time. Now, though, almost all my votes are for Republicans, with an occasional foray into voting for a Libertarian.

Why am I not a Democrat? Because:

(1) Most Democrats believe in nearly unlimited abortion rights–and I believe abortion to be murder. It is difficult for me to vote for someone who believes that it is morally acceptable for a mother, with the help of her “doctor,” to murder her own unborn child (and to someone who claims Catholic identity who told me an unborn child was not a child, my message is, “You are an utter hypocrite to call yourself Catholic).

(2) Democrats have generally supported radical social changes such as same-sex marriage, something I believe to be an affront to natural law and something that will be, long term, destructive to society.

(3) Democrats have, for the most part, supported social engineering schemes such as forced busing of schoolchildren.

(4) Most Democrats continue to support an overly large welfare system. They also have the idea that they can spend themselves out of any economic crisis. The United States will never recover from its debt given the amount of money the Democratic Obama Administration has spent.

(5)  The Democratic Party engages in race, sex, and class warfare. Many Democrats falsely accuse those who oppose the party’s policies on welfare, for example, of racism. Many Democrats love to stir up racial strife it can help the party with the minority groups in its voting base. The Party supports the most radical measures of certain feminists, supporting unlimited abortion and the continual disempowerment of men. The Party seems to think that “taxing the rich” will solve all our problems, although if the government seized all money from the rich it would only make a drop in the deficit.

(6) When Democrats could do some good and stand up to the warmongering Neoconservatives in both parties, the majority of Democrats  fail and end up supporting unnecessary wars just as much as Republicans (this is my biggest beef with the Republican Party).

(7) Many Democrats are hostile to traditional Christianity. They do all they can to remove traditional Christianity from the “public square.”

I get frustrated with both parties. I do not remember who wrote in Chronicles magazine that politics in the United States consists of the “Stupid Party” (Republicans) and the “Evil Party” (Democratic). He went on to say when they compromise one gets “stupid evil.” Given my choice between the alternatives, I would rather support stupidity rather than support evil. That is why in the presidential election between Bush and Kerry, I voted Libertarian, since I believe that both the Iraq War and the U. S. use of torture was evil. I am not duty-bound to the Republican Party–but I cannot be a Democrat unless the party makes a 180 degree turn to the Right–and that is not going to happen.

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