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Liz Joyner: The Darwin bicentennial and shades of gray

darwin-large On a recent London holiday (my mini-tribute to Mother England for her role in providing me so fine a vacation experience), my Westminster Abbey tour found me standing directly atop the grave of Charles Darwin right when our quirky bird “London Walks” tour guide first mentioned the notables buried there. It was actually a bit of a shock, seeing his name right at the tips of my tennies.

Quickly moving on to be wowed by the likes of Chaucer, Newton, and Churchill, I didn’t give a whole lot of vacation thought over to Darwin’s place of rest until I rested my own Yankee arse back at my computer sorting through the snaps (still tributing).

Then it finally dawned. (I am a quick study.) Ironic, isn’t it, that the scientist most thoroughly associated with the irreligious occupies such a high place of Christian burial.

As an enthusiastic lover of irony (I’d be a groupie if irony had groupies), I felt it my duty to investigate.

Turns out that most characterize Darwin (who was actually the Chaplain on board the HMS Beagle before being drawn, on the same voyage, to his signature naturalism) as having died an agnostic. He lost a lifelong mooring in his Christian faith not with his famed discoveries but when his daughter Annie died tragically at age ten. That he might has succumbed to doubt seems understandably human in reading his eulogy to Annie:

…the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness. Her joyousness and animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance and rendered every movement elastic and full of life and vigor. It was delightful and cheerful to behold her. We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age.”

Apparently Darwin’s wife remained a woman of deep faith who he, as a consummate family man, was seriously disinclined to want to ever offend.

A memorial sermon on Darwin’s passing was preached in the Abbey on the Sunday following the funeral by the Bishop of Carlisle:

“I think that the interment of the remains of Mr. Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen; It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr. Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.”

Some one hundred and twenty-ish years after his death (and exactly 200 after his birth), we clearly haven’t sorted through that can of worms.

But with this bicentennial blurb, I wish to hereby serve notice that our subconsciously-drawn generalizations about people tend to be pretty half-baked, if baked at all.


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

All about Abe


President Obama, recalling last night an apt story about Lincoln, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth, at an event in Springfield Illinois:

It was here nearly 150 years ago that the man whose life we’re celebrating today… bid farewell to this city that he had come to call his own. And as has already been mentioned, on a platform at a train station not far from where we’re gathered, Lincoln turned to the crowd and said:

“To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”

And on this night, surrounded by all of you, I share his sentiment. But looking around this room at so many who did so much for me, I’m also reminded of what Lincoln once said to a favor-seeker who claimed that it was his efforts who made the difference in the election.

Lincoln asked him “so you think you made me President?”

Yes, the man replied “under Providence I think I did.”

“Well,” said Lincoln, “it’s a pretty mess you got me into. But I forgive you.”

So, for whoever thinks you’re responsible for this, we’re taking names.

“There’s no Republican way to collect garbage”


On tonight’s Hardball, Chris Matthews, when discussing Judd Gregg bowing out of consideration for Commerce Secretary, referred to former New York Mayor John Lindsay (R), who according to Matthews said “there’s no Republican way to collect garbage.”

A wise man clearly ahead of his time.

(To my dear friend Anne: 1. Fact check, just like old times 2. More wise John Lindsay quotes 3. I remembered I always got the Ann vs. Anne wrong so I worked hard to get it right)

We must disenthrall ourselves


Historian Eric Foner on Bill Moyers Journal commenting on Abraham Lincoln’s presidency on the occasion of the upcoming 200 year anniversary of his birth:

… when he becomes president, he realizes that he’s going to have to rethink his assumptions. You know, he says in his great message to Congress in December 1862, “We must disenthrall ourselves.” Unchain ourselves literally and from our old ideas. And the “we.” We. He includes himself as part of that “we.” “We’ve got to slough off our own assumptions and think anew,” he says. And so it’s that strong moral compass but willingness to listen to criticism and think anew that I think is the characteristic that leads him into greatness.

“Find the truth and print it.”

— John S. Knight, from The Knight Foundation website

That’s all.

I believe in journalism and journalists (one in particular)

A dear friend of mine just turned 50. She has a big job at a major daily. I want you to think about the last time you said something snippy about the media, and I want you to consider it while I tell you about my friend.

First, she comes from a solidly conservative family, despite the fact that she has to regularly field many complaints about liberal bias and probably a few about conservative bias, and lets just say some of the complaints aren’t polite. She takes them very seriously though. Her vision in assessing the complaints has to be wide, not tunnel (as you and I have the luxury to have when we’ve got a bone to pick).

There wasn’t ever a time when I went to her house as a child when there weren’t ideas being flung back and forth at 100 miles an hour. I credit our friendship and my semi-child status with her parents for my interest in the public square, in the business of America. These people were real citizens of this country, and they had the rolled-up sleeves to prove it.

They were also real writers. They sometimes kept a manual typewriter (yes, this was a looong time ago) sitting with a sheet of paper in it with a couple of seed sentences to start a story. Someone else would come along and add a couple sentences of their own, and so on.

She is smart as a whip and somehow manages to put up with my trailing a few seconds (ok… sadly, minutes) behind her.

Please think of something you know about recent events. Did you learn it because of journalists like her? Some of them put themselves in harm’s way just so you can know.

This business of journalism annoys people. It kind of has to. This business of journalism has a lot to do with keeping us a free country, of keeping the powerful accountable to us little citizens. Sure, at times they do it imperfectly (a little thing we humans bring to everything we undertake). But look at where there isn’t an independent press to rankle and I’ll show you people who “yearn to breathe free.”

Journalists are the unsung heroes of democracy, in a business that’s tougher today than it was yesterday. And despite all that, they’ll get up again tomorrow and take your abuse and mine because they believe deeply in free speech, a free press and this little thing called democracy.

Thanks to my friend for spending her years doing something really really important. And Happy Birthday.

Liberty of Conscience: A fundamental American plumb line

From Noah Feldman’s Divided by God:

The revolutionary American idea that the people were sovereign profoundly disturbed the old model: How could the state establish the religion of the sovereign if the sovereign people belonged to many faiths? The framers rose to the occasion. For the first time in recorded history, they designed a government with no established religion at all.

… The early republic was religiously diverse in that it was inhabited by several different Protestant denominations. This “multiplicity of sects,” as James Madison brilliantly realized, ensured that no one denomination had the capacity to establish its own state religion at the national level.

… The dominant idea organizing church-state relations in the framers’ era was the liberty of conscience, understood to protect religious dissenters-representing the religious diversity of the time-against compelled taxation to support teachings with which they disagreed.

…In America, the establishment of religion by the government came to be seen as posing a fundamental danger to the liberty of conscience by threatening dissenters with the possibility of coercion. The constitutional guarantee of nonestablishment sought to protect conscience from coercion by guaranteeing a division between the institutional spheres of organized religion and government.

“The Village Square creates a place for civilized conversation”

By Sharon Kant-Rauch

When Pastor Rick Warren was invited to give the invocation at President-Elect Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration, gays and others on the left raised a loud and vociferous chorus of protest about Warren’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Some on the right were also offended – they say Warren isn’t conservative enough and shouldn’t share the stage with someone who supports a woman’s right to choose.

It’s exactly that kind of political polarization that Liz Joyner and The Village Square, the group she helped found, hope to break. For more than a year, Joyner has brought Democrats and Republicans together every quarter for dinner and what she calls “civilized” conversation – no name-calling and yelling allowed, just thoughtful, engaged discussion.

At Tuesday’s dinner, a bipartisan panel will tackle a particularly thorny topic: Faith in the Public Square.

“We seem to be living in a time when we’ve stopped talking to people we disagree with . . . and we aren’t having good conversations about things that matter,” Joyner said. “I think we can do better than that.”

On Tuesday, Joyner said, she is going to tell the panelists to fight like the Founding Fathers.

“Have a real discussion, but do it with civility and grace.”

The relationship between the co-chairs of The Village Square – City Commissioner Allan Katz and Tallahassee Community College President Bill Law – provides one example of the possibilities for dialogue. Katz, a Democrat, and Law, a Republican, have different views on how to solve social problems, but during periodic jogs together and informal monthly get-togethers, they’ve learned to respect and trust one another’s judgment.

“We come from different places, but we realized that just sitting down together with our talking points wasn’t going to get us anywhere,” said Katz, who will act as moderator for Tuesday’s panel discussion. “We had to be willing to really listen to what the other one was saying.”

Lea Marshall, a Republican who has attended all of The Village Square dinners, said she goes to listen to the speakers she supports. But she often comes away with some truth from the other side.

During the last dinner, for example, which took place before the election, one speaker said that people who believe that only “their guy” could save the country were verging on idolatry.

“That made me look at the election differently,” Marshall said. “The take-home lesson didn’t come from the person I originally went to hear.”

Ken Connor, one of Tuesday’s panelists, said it was important to create a calm atmosphere where people have a chance to listen to the merits of an argument. Connor, an attorney, is the former president of Florida Right to Life and the author of “Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty.”

“If the volume is loud and the face is red, there is little opportunity to convince and persuade one another,” Connor said. “Sounds to me like what The Village Square is saying is ‘Look, we want people to have equal access to the marketplace of ideas.’ I think the outcome of that discussion will demonstrate that some ideas are better than others.”

Connor’s fellow panelists include:

W. Dexter Douglass, an attorney who has practiced Florida law for half a century, was the lead counsel for Al Gore in the infamous “Florida Recount” of 2000 and is a 16-year member of the board of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

The Rev. Allison DeFoor, who served as vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 2002 to 2006, is an Episcopal priest who works in prison ministries and an environmental consultant who has served as director of the Florida Audubon Society and president of the Florida Land Trust Association.

Leo Sandon, a professor emeritus of religion and American studies at FSU, longtime religion columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat and ordained Presbyterian minister.

Nonsectarian religion in our schools: a mini-history

I’m delighted to make persuasively argued edits to the following, if advanced with civility.

(Corollary: I don’t even care if you’re right if you’re rude…)

1. Framers of our Constitution had a wild and crazy idea (that was more likely than not to get them hung) about people being the bosses instead of kings. Not only would we run the whole dang country, but we’d make our own decisions about God. No one, really NO ONE had ever had the unmitigated gall to do this before. They were pretty dang sure that God looked favorably upon their endeavor because they succeeded against some ridiculously long odds.

2. Many of their ideas were firmly planted in Protestant soil, more or less the only religious game in town at the time. The idea of liberty of conscience (the basket the Framers put all their eggs in) was very mushed up together with the Protestant concept of a personal relationship with God, vis-a-vis direct study of the Bible, not mediated by the Catholic dudes in funny hats or even those bossy Brits in purple.

3. All those old guys in tights and wigs saw religion and talk of good behavior and the threat of a good eternal comeuppance as an important influence on the masses of people who might otherwise have been a bit prickly and hard to manage.

4. Sooner or later, they figured out that well-educated citizens would make better bosses, so – tada – they formed common schools. Religion and morality were fundamentally critical to that education.

5. But, hmmm, since this new country of theirs had a bunch of bosses with a bunch of different Protestant religions, exactly whose religion and morality would be taught? They decided to agree where they could and not get too fussy about doctrinal differences. Nonsectarian Protestant Christianity was officially the coin of the realm in schools.

6. A lot of Catholics died in Ireland during the Great Famine.

7. A lot of Catholics came to America because the word had gotten out about all these people who could be their own bosses in America. And when they got here they noticed that when they went to school they were taught things that the Pope didn’t exactly intend to teach them. So they asked if they could not come during the Bible reading part of the day, or if they could have their own schools paid for that the Pope liked better.

8. They were pretty much told “no” because of the republican ideas and Protestant ideas that were pretty mushed up together. (And, truth be told, because there were fewer of them to squawlk about it.) They learned to live with it and some of them paid to go to their own schools. (Some states even passed some laws making it so government wouldn’t ever pay for the Pope’s sort of schooling.) The Catholics did learn a lot about being American in these schools and pretty soon started to fit right in.

9. Then, because the word got out about this country that let people be their own bosses, Mormons came. And Jehovah’s Witnesses came. And eventually just about every stripe of religious people came. Even people who didn’t believe in God liked the idea of liberty of conscience. And they came too.

10. Darn it if there weren’t just so many different sorts of beliefs that they had a really hard time agreeing about what they agreed about.

11. Eventually some of these people started speaking up about their different ideas about God and the dudes in black robes agreed with them that they had liberty of conscience too and told the schools they couldn’t read the Bible anymore. The schools can teach the things that you need to know to be an American, but without the religion part of it that we can’t possibly agree on.

12. Many of the Protestants who had actually started this whole ball of a country rolling considered it so fundamental to the success of their country that morality be teamed with democracy that they were very worried indeed and also pretty seriously sore at the dudes in black robes.

13. Some of them even started to reconsider those laws that say government can’t pay for religious schooling, even the Pope’s kind.

14. They were in a bit of a pickle. But, then again, this country full of individuals had already learned a lot about working things out…

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Written by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is worth a read. At the time of its writing, the Church of England was Virginia’s official church and there had been a run of violence against Protestant dissenters. It was the hotbed of religious disagreement in the founders’ day. Here’s a clip:

…that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry…

Armstrong on “logos” made lethal

From Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God:

One of the worst atrocities had been perpetrated by Germans, who lived in one of the most cultivated societies in Europe. It was no longer possible to assume that a rational education would eliminate barbarism, since the Nazi Holocaust revealed that a concentration camp could exist in the same vicinity as a great university. The sheer scale of the Nazi genocide or the Soviet Gulag reveals their modern origins.

For decades, men and women had dreamed of a final apocalypse wrought by God; now, it appeared, human beings no longer needed a supernatural deity to end the world. They had used their prodigious skill and learning to find the means of doing this very efficiendy for themselves. As they contemplated these new facts of life, peofle became aware as never before of the limitations of the rationalistic ethos. Faced with catastrophe on such a scale, reason is silent; there is-literally-nothing that it can say…

The Holocaust was an example of scientific and rational planning, in which everything is subordinated to a single, limited, and clearly defined objective. Born of modern scientific racism, the Holocaust was the ultimate in social engineering in what has been called the “garden” culture of the twentieth century. Science itself was also deeply implicated in the death camps and the eugenic experiments carried out there. At the very least, the Holocaust showed that a secularist ideology could be just as lethal as religious crusade…

The death camp and the mushroom cloud are icons that we must contemplate and take to heart so that we do not become chauvinistic about the modern scientific culture that so many of us in the developed world enjoy.

Armstrong also writes that many Christian thinkers blamed Darwinism for the tragedy in Nazi Germany. If true, could this speak to the error of turning logos (Darwinian evolution*) into a mythos that powered a genocide?

*Yes, I know, some would disagree that evolution is logos

Liz Joyner: The Seesaw

tree-small.jpgNeither of my kids spent much time on the seesaw at the park in their younger days. If I had to guess why, it would be that it was a little too much work for a day at the park. It was rare when they got a seesaw partner who didn’t require serious weight and momentum adjustment—sliding forward or backward, pushing hard at the bottom to get your end back up in the air, or, as was more often the case with my slender little girls, perched suspended three feet up, pretty much unable to control a thing.

As my sixteen-year-old has grown into a young woman, she’s been exposed to many a political dinner table conversation from the perspective of my side of the political seesaw. But as much as she’s heard me yammer, I’ve only now just noticed that she’s suspended in mid air with her feet dangling, no where near solid ground. I’m afraid I’ve been responsible for providing her only half the argument in a country that requires citizens to understand the whole one.

Trying to give her a shove back down to terra firma, I’ve had a series of conversations with her about—ultimately—what I deeply believe. There’s been a bit of personal political archeology involved here, as, in the daily shuffle, there are times when I’m too immersed in the veneer to reach for the foundation. Here’s where I found my foundation: What lasts, what matters from all of our daily political struggles is what keeps America who we are. What matters is the two-party system that creates a tension of opposites, the left keeping the right from marching into fascism, the right keeping the left from slipping into communism. What lasts is the best ideas that rise to the top, the product of our endless, sometimes painfully difficult dialog. Were it not for the tension, the struggle, we wouldn’t be America.

When power concentrates on one side of this non-stop American seesaw, it’s time for the grown-ups to give it a firm shove on one side. I sense the American public is ready to give a firm parental shove right about now too. But there is risk in this weight adjustment when we’ve been so used to pushing hard and having nothing happen… we risk that we’ll send the other guy miles into the air. Okay, so I’ll admit it, right now that may not seem so bad, but pause for a moment to consider what happens after the other guy’s fanny lands back on the seesaw. I never took physics but I’m fairly sure that all that energy has to go someplace and it may not be pretty when it does.

So, here’s to keeping the big picture in mind as each “side” shoves to get more momentum… hoping there are enough grownups to keep the traffic on the seesaw well-behaved.


Liz Joyner is the cofounder of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

**This post represents the genesis of the thinking that would ultimately become The Village Square. I first wrote “The Seesaw” in March of 2006, when the Democrats had no political power. Now they control both Congress and the presidency.

The seesaw works both ways, folks.

Team of Rivals; Team of Neighbors


Back when The Village Square was just a gleam in a few of our eyes, the concept of “A Team of Rivals”, as described in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book of the same title, was highly recommended to us as intellectual fodder by journalist, friend, thinker and all-around-smart-guy Neil Skene.

Perhaps our Village Square version could be best described as a “Team of Neighbors”?

We’re glad to see that President-Elect Barack Obama is finally falling in line behind our “Big Idea.” (Yes, it should be duly noted that we had this idea well before Barack Obama, although – to be honest – a few years after Lincoln.)

To be sure, Lincoln’s team contained a component of the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” But political calculation aside, a connection between divergent camps of prominent thought yields an expansion of creative thinking (even if difficulty comes in holding its hand), serving to improve the success of any solution chosen.

Better discover the weaknesses of your “side” with an “opponent” before finding out in blood and money.