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February 22, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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The Alabama Supreme Court on February 16, 2024, decided that cells awaiting implantation for in vitro fertilization are children and that the accidental destruction of such an embryo falls under the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. In an opinion concurring with the ruling, Chief Justice Tom Parker declared that the people of Alabama have adopted the “theologically based view of the sanctity of life” and said that “human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God.”

Payton Armstrong of media watchdog Media Matters for America reported today that on the same day the Alabama decision came down, an interview Parker did on the program of a self-proclaimed “prophet” and Q-Anon conspiracy theorist appeared. In it, Parker claimed that “God created government” and called it “heartbreaking” that “we have let it go into the possession of others.” 

Parker referred to the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” a theory that appeared in 1975, which claims that Christians must take over the “seven mountains” of U.S. life: religion, family, education, media, entertainment, business…and government. He told his interviewer that “we’ve abandoned those Seven Mountains and they’ve been occupied by the other side.” God “is calling and equipping people to step back into these mountains right now,” he said. 

While Republicans are split on the decision about embryos after a number of hospitals have ended their popular IVF programs out of fear of prosecution, others, like Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley agreed that “embryos, to me, are babies.” 

House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) identifies himself as a Christian, has argued that the United States is a Christian nation, and has called for “biblically sanctioned government.” At a retreat of Republican leaders this weekend, as the country is grappling with both the need to support Ukraine and the need to fund the government, he tried to rally the attendees with what some called a “sermon” arguing that the Republican Party needed to save the country from its lack of morality.

As Charles Blow of the New York Times put it: “If you don’t think this country is sliding toward theocracy, you’re not paying attention.”

In the United States, theocracy and authoritarianism go hand in hand. 

The framers of the Constitution quite deliberately excluded religion from the U.S. Constitution. As a young man, James Madison, the key thinker behind the Constitution, had seen his home state of Virginia arrest itinerant preachers for undermining the established church in the state. He came to believe that men had a right to the free exercise of religion. 

In 1785, in a “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” he explained that what was at stake was not just religion, but also representative government itself. The establishment of one religion over others attacked a fundamental human right—an unalienable right—of conscience. If lawmakers could destroy the right of freedom of conscience, they could destroy all other unalienable rights. Those in charge of government could throw representative government out the window and make themselves tyrants.

In order to make sure men had the right of conscience, the framers added the First Amendment to the Constitution. It read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” 

Madison was right to link religion and representative government. In the early years of the nation, Americans zealously guarded the wall between the two. They strictly limited the power of the federal government to reflect religion, refusing even to permit the government to stop delivery of the U.S. mails on Sunday out of concern that Jews and Christians did not share the same Sabbath, and the government could not choose one over the other. The Constitution, a congressional report noted, gave Congress no authority “to inquire and determine what part of time, or whether any has been set apart by the Almighty for religious exercises.”   

But the Civil War marked a change. As early as the 1830s, southern white enslavers relied on religious justification for their hierarchical system that rested on white supremacy. God, they argued, had made Black Americans for enslavement and women for marriage, and society must recognize those facts.

A character in an 1836 novel written by a Virginia gentleman explained to a younger man that God had given everyone a place in society. Women and Black people were at the bottom, “subordinate” to white men by design. “All women live by marriage,” he said. “It is their only duty.” Trying to make them equal was a cruelty. “For my part,” the older man said, “I am well pleased with the established order of the universe. I see…subordination everywhere. And when I find the subordinate content…and recognizing his place…as that to which he properly belongs, I am content to leave him there.” 

The Confederacy rejected the idea of popular government, maintaining instead that a few Americans should make the rules for the majority. As historian Gaines Foster explained in his 2002 book Moral Reconstruction, which explores the nineteenth-century relationship between government and morality, it was the Confederacy, not the U.S. government, that sought to align the state with God. A nation was more than the “aggregation of individuals,” one Presbyterian minister preached, it was “a sort of person before God,” and the government must purge that nation of sins.

Confederates not only invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in their Constitution, they established as their motto “Deo vindice,” or “God will vindicate.”

The United States, in contrast, was recentering democracy during the war, and it rejected the alignment of the federal government with a religious vision. When reformers in the United States tried to change the preamble of the U.S. Constitution to read, “We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the sources of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Ruler among nations, and His revealed will as of supreme authority, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union,” the House Committee on the Judiciary concluded that “the Constitution of the United States does not recognize a Supreme Being.” 

That defense of democracy—the will of the majority—continued to hold religious extremists at bay. 

Reformers continued to try to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution, Foster explains, and in March 1896 once again got so far as the House Committee on the Judiciary. One reformer stressed that turning the Constitution into a Christian document would provide a source of authority for the government that, he implied, it lacked when it simply relied on a voting majority. A religious amendment “asks the Bible to decide moral issues in political life; not all moral questions, but simply those that have become political questions.” 

Opponents recognized this attempt as a revolutionary attack that would dissolve the separation of church and state, and hand power to a religious minority. One reformer said that Congress had no right to enact laws that were not in “harmony with the justice of God” and that the voice of the people should prevail only when it was “right.” Congressmen then asked who would decide what was right, and what would happen if the majority was wrong. Would the Supreme Court turn into an interpreter of the Bible?

The committee set the proposal aside. 

Now, once again, we are watching a minority trying to impose its will on the majority, with leaders like House speaker Johnson noting that “I try to do every day what my constituents want. But sometimes what your constituents want does not line up with the principles God gave us for government. And you have to have conviction enough to stand [up] to your own people….”

Notes:

Gaines Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865–1920  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/21/opinion/alabama-ivf-trump-biden.html

https://www.politico.com/news/2024/02/20/donald-trump-allies-christian-nationalism-00142086

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2024/02/abortion-bans-alabama-ivf-explained.html

https://theoutline.com/post/8856/seven-mountain-mandate-trump-paula-white

https://www.mediamatters.org/qanon-conspiracy-theory/alabama-supreme-court-chief-justice-spreads-christian-nationalist-rhetoric

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2024-election/nikki-haley-sides-alabama-supreme-court-ivf-ruling-embryos-are-babies-rcna139819

https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2023/10/mike-johnson-seminars-christian-nation-speaker-far-right/

https://www.politico.com/live-updates/2024/02/21/congress/johnsons-sermon-to-gop-retreagt-00142436

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-01-02-0027

https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/virginia-declaration-of-rights

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-08-02-0163#JSMN-01-08-02-0163-fn-0014-ptr

[Nathaniel Beverly Tucker], George Balcombe: A Novel (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836).

https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_csa.asp

https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/nmah_412912

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2024/02/22/statement-from-president-joe-biden-on-alabama-court-decision/

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June 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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My First Job, at the Stanford Internet Observatory Julia Steinberg

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Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised I’d “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time,” writes Julia Steinberg. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

The Stanford Internet Observatory—a research center tasked with rooting out “misinformation” on social media—is shutting its doors. Chances are if you’ve heard of the SIO it was in a scathing piece from Michael Shellenberger or Matt Taibbi, who have accused the center of being a key node in the censorship-industrial complex.

It was also my first employer. Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised to “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time, to develop a novel curriculum on trust and safety that is a first in computer science, and to translate our research discoveries into training and policy innovations for the public good.” To me, that meant ending internet abuse like the glamorization of anorexia on social media or financial scams that steal billions every year. But mostly I worked on the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which SIO ran during the 2020 and 2022 elections. The purpose of that project was to identify so-called “fake news” spreading on social media. 

In actuality, SIO hired a load of interns to scan social media for posts deemed to be mis- and disinformation. It turns out that the posts we students flagged were often sent along to moderators at Twitter (now X), Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which took them down in order to quash dissenting viewpoints—viewpoints that sometimes ended up being right, as in the case of Covid likely being the result of a lab leak, or Hunter Biden’s hard drive being his actual hard drive—not Russian disinformation. 

Thanks to the work of independent journalists, the SIO’s work has come under a lot of scrutiny, including in Washington. A recent House Judiciary Committee report alleges that, by cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, the SIO’s Election Integrity Partnership “provided a way for the federal government to launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny.” 

The SIO has stated that “Stanford has not shut down or dismantled SIO as a result of outside pressure. SIO does, however, face funding challenges as its founding grants will soon be exhausted.” But on June 13, Platformer reported that much of SIO’s staff was on the way out: “Its founding director, Alex Stamos, left his position in November. Renee DiResta, its research director, left last week after her contract was not renewed. One other staff member’s contract expired this month, while others have been told to look for jobs elsewhere, sources say.”

The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case, Murthy v. Missouri, that addresses whether the U.S. government should be able to collaborate with social media companies to censor commentary. The plaintiffs, in their brief, lambast SIO for its role in abetting government censorship. We’ll be watching that case closely.

Julia Steinberg is an intern at The Free Press. Read her piece on the college dropout who unlocked the secrets of ancient Rome using AI. And follow her on X @Juliaonatroika.

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My Promise to Palestine Chris Hedges

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When I accepted the Tafik Diab Prize for my writing on the genocide in Gaza in Cairo on June 10 I explained why the cartoonist Joe Sacco and I are planning to do our next book together on Gaza.

Written speech:

I would like to start with a story that happened to me in Gaza on October 5, 2000. One day I was working on a report at Natzarim (Jewish settlement). There were Palestinian boys near me. The boys threw rocks towards the Israeli army. A soldier shot one of the boys — and the boy died. Four boys each lifted up a limb and we ran. The incident aftected me to such an extent that I did not shave for three weeks. After three weeks, I went to visit the boy’s house to meet his family. I told his mother I was with her son when he was killed. The mother told me that when her younger son heard that his brother had been killed he went into the kitchen, and then he left the house. After ten minutes she asked her husband where her son had gone. They went out to look for him and saw him in the street with a knife in his hand.

She asked him, “Where are you going?”

He answered, “I am going to kill Jews.” I have never been able to forget that child. I often wonder where he is. He would be a man in his thirties now. Is he still alive? Married? Does he have children? Are he and his family frightened of the bombing? Where have they taken refuge? God willing, I will write a book on Gaza with the cartoonist Joe Sacco, the author of “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza.” During that time I will look for him, I will complete his story and the stories of many others. Israel is determined to erase them from existence and from history. This is my promise.

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