Is Trump’s Action on National Monuments Really Unprecedented, Disgraceful, and Illegal?

“The little guys’ voices were heard. Voices in the community were heard. This administration has the strength and the will to be there for us. This is a great day for Utah.”  — state Rep. Gregory H. Hughes, the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives

President Trump in Utah (CNN)

Earlier this week and at the recommendation of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, President Trump announced that he was signing two presidential proclamations that would reduce the sizes of the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Based on the invective by some (mostly on the Left), one would think this move was historically unprecedented (as if that’s necessarily bad), a “disgrace” and an “ugly violation of stewardship responsibility”, a vandalization of “our wild heritage”, an “assault on our humanity”, and probably illegal. One retail company is even launching a PR campaign and suing the President, and they aren’t the only ones taking legal action. But, then, most of these are environmentalists and Trump-haters who could find some way to vilify him even if he saved a box of puppies out of a fire.

“We need more [national parks], not less. This government is evil and I’m not going to sit back and let evil win.”  — Yvon Chouinard, environmental activist, founder and CEO of outdoor gear maker Patagonia

Before deciding to issue the proclamations, Trump consulted with friends in Utah (including U.S. Senators Hatch and Lee and local legislators) on the matter:

“They said this would be incredible for our country, will be incredible for Utah. Finally, you’d be giving people back their access to the land they know, to the land they understand, and most importantly to the land that they love….

As many of you know, past administrations have severely abused the purpose, spirit, and intent of a century-old law known as the Antiquities Act. This law requires that only the smallest necessary area be set aside for special protection as national monuments. Unfortunately, previous administrations have ignored the standard and used the law to lock up hundreds of millions of acres of land and water under strict government control. These abuses of the Antiquities Act give enormous power to far-away bureaucrats at the expense of people who actually live here, work here, and make this place their home….

Public lands will once again be for public use. Families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land and how to conserve this land for many generations to come.”

As per CNN’s Bill Weir,

“Locals in the area saw the designations as nothing more than a 3-million-acre federal land grab. The drillers, miners and frackers who were shut out by Clinton’s and Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act would have new leases on life. Sen. Orrin Hatch and his fellow Utah Republicans would have a major victory to celebrate.

But those who believe the rocks can talk, through countless fossils, sacred ruins and desert solitude, are bracing for a fight.”

Sixshooter Peaks in Bears Ears National Monument

As part of an agenda to rein in executive overreach, this move by the administration is essentially a partial annulment or repeal of certain federal land protections initiated under Presidents Clinton and Obama. Bears Ears will be reduced by over 80% (from 1.35 million acres to over 228,000 acres) and divided into two sections, whereas Grand Staircase-Escalante will shrink roughly 45% (from 1.87 million acres to just over 1 million acres) and be split into three sections. Thus, it frees up about 2 million acres, returning control to the citizens of Utah.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to address the titular questions out of order….

Illegal?

Most of the legal complaint I have seen is the claim that, while the 1906 Antiquities Act gives the President the right to declare a national monument by proclamation, it does not grant him the right to unilaterally remove such protection status from an existing monument. Only Congress can do that. This may be true. However, consider the following caution to FDR written by his Attorney General, Homer Cummings, in 1938 (Time, citing a 2016 Congressional Research Service report):

“The statute does not in terms authorize the President to abolish national monuments, and no other statute containing such authority has been suggested. If the President has such authority, therefore, it exists by implication…. While the President from time to time has diminished the area of national monuments established under the Antiquities Act by removing or excluding lands therefrom, under that part of the act which provides that the limits of the monuments “in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” it does not follow from his power so to confine that area that he has the power to abolish a monument entirely.”

There is some debate about whether or not Cummings’ recommendation against abolishment of a national monument via presidential proclamation is legitimate or fully binding. But, since Trump is shrinking the sizes of the two monuments and not trying to get rid of them, it would seem that the law is on his side. At least, as far as this primary complaint goes, though some are claiming the President has no authority to reduce their size, either.

Unprecedented?

This brings me to the matter of Trump’s action being unusual or unprecedented. Notice that Cummings mentions matter-of-factly that “the President from time to time has diminished the area of national monuments established under the Antiquities Act by removing or excluding lands therefrom”. It is unclear to me if he is referring to FDR in particular or to the office of the President in general. (Though, only 6 preceded FDR since the Antiquities Act was passed under his fifth cousin, Teddy Roosevelt.) Regardless, that meant there had already been precedent prior to 1938, and there have been many since. Newt Gingrich points out,

“Similar actions have been taken at various federal monument sites nearly 20 times before by presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

Where it might be legitimate to claim lack of precedence is in the total number of acres relinquished by the federal government from Trump’s proclamations. That sounds like a good record to set, to me.

Two million acres is a lot, especially considering that the combined land “seized” by Clinton and Obama for these two national monuments was roughly 3.37 million acres. Utah is getting nearly 60% back. Of course, even this seems small when you look at the total numbers. From The Daily Signal (with my added notes):

“[T]he Obama administration set aside 554 million acres and the George W. Bush administration set aside another 215 million acres. [Note: Yes, Bush declared some monuments which are of questionable wisdom and legality.] Before that, only 71 million acres were set aside by all previous presidents combined. [Note: This would have included the 1.87 million acres appropriated by Clinton for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.]”

Disgraceful?

As for the third type of accusation (e.g., “disgraceful”, “degrading”, “vandaliz[ation]”, etc.), it’s mostly fearmongering rhetoric, imo — especially by those who claim Trump is on a warpath to shut down all natural monuments in a massive land-grab effort, so that they can be ruthlessly exploited. On the contrary, his April 26 executive order to review national monument designations under the law since 1996 is an effort to return federally-seized lands to state control (even if still managed by federal agencies). As summarized by the Daily Caller:

“The Interior Department will focus on “righting past overreach,” according to an official, by protecting national monuments in a manner that’s “consistent with the law.” The agency will also ensure lands [are] properly cared for, and that critical infrastructure, like roads, bridges and trails, don’t fall into disrepair….

The agency’s plan for national monuments will focus on six priorities: preserving traditional uses, public access, infrastructure, local consultation, tribal rights and protecting hunting and fishing rights.”

Fortune‘s Joseph Hincks writes,

“Native American and environmental protection groups fear removing federal protections paves the way for environmentally destructive corporate activities on land of archaeological significance.”

Former county commissioner and Navajo elder Mark Maryboy cites past desecrations of sacred ruins, as well as demonstrating a healthy skepticism that his fellow Native Americans will benefit from any new jobs.

“The experience that Native Americans see in this county is discrimination. They are the last ones to be hired for any position. Even if there’s a huge mining operation opening up, they will not be hired for that position. And they will be exposed to the toxic materials that are left on the ground or in the air.”

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Now, I can understand their concerns to a degree, and there may even be some basis for them. There is, after all, a huge economic advantage to “freeing up” these lands. It opens up the potential for more and better access to in-demand natural resources — namely, over 60 billion tons of coal reserves in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area and uranium, oil, and natural gas reserves around Bears Ears. This will mean jobs and money for the local economy (also resulting in tax revenue for the government, of course), which is in a very poor region of Utah. I think Maryboy’s concerns need to be addressed, though. Also, to be fair, one has to wonder what the impact may be on those who depend on spending from tourists. Overall, will it be better? Worse? Or balance out? Is tourism truly better for the land than the alternatives?

According to CNN’s article, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman “argues that oil and gas extraction would have less impact on the landscape than the brand of adventure tourism that has transformed nearby Moab. ‘By designating a monument, you are using a tool that will bring hordes of people to a place that is very sensitive,’ he says.”

It’s worth noting that it is primarily outside groups that are raising all the ruckus. Back when the Bears End designation was still merely a proposal, it was the (non-local) Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and various environmental activist groups that supported and campaigned for Obama’s plan to declare Bears Ears a national monument. The local Native Americans — along with the San Juan County Commission; Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R); the GOP-controlled state legislature; and Utah’s representatives in Congress — were largely opposed to it. According to a UtahPolicy.com poll conducted in May 2016 by Dan Jones and Associates, only 17% of respondents wanted Obama to declare Bears Ears a national monument. Thirty-one percent were in favor of a bill by Representative Rob Bishop that would make Bears Ears a national conservation area, with some protections and local land control, and would also allow energy development in certain areas. Another 36% thought Bears Ears should’ve been left alone.

“Whereas supporters of a monument see it as a way to best protect Bears Ears from looting, mining, and drilling — and a tourist boon for the area’s struggling economy — local Native Americans who oppose it don’t trust the federal government to look out for their interests.”  — Josh Siegel, The Daily Signal

From what I understand, it was a similar situation back in 1996, when Clinton wanted to designate the Grand Staircase-Escalante lands a national monument. Seems to me that the people of the region in question should be able to decide what the land is used for, by whom, and the best way to preserve sacred sites and cultural heritage. There’s nothing disgraceful or degrading about that.

Benjamin Arie from Conservative Tribune makes the following observation regarding Bears Ears National Monument:

“Isn’t it interesting that the left seemed completely fine with the exact same area of land not being a national monument during seven and a half years of Obama’s presidency? It was only designated as such in the final six months of Obama’s tenure, but suddenly Trump is an anti-environmental monster for putting it back to how it was before?”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gives his informed reading of the situation, as well:

Newt Gingrich

“[As a life-long conservationist], allow me to set something straight: Despite what the Administration’s critics might say, redefining the boundaries of these monuments will not harm the environment, open the flood gates for dangerous mining or natural resource exploitation, or endanger Native American artifacts or historic locations.

The land around the monuments will continue to be federally protected and managed by one of our several highly-qualified federal land management agencies – which are the same agencies that manage national monuments. These surrounding public lands will be reclassified and will become national forests, wilderness areas, or other federally-controlled, cherished natural sites.

Here’s the difference: The regulatory regime for a national monument is focused entirely around protecting specific objects, so federal regulators have more control over what activities can and cannot happen on the designated land…. This reclassification may change which federal agency manages a particular portion of the surrounding land…. What the changes mean is that the people of Utah will have increased access to the land for grazing cattle, hunting, fishing, harvesting timber, and other traditional uses.”

I noticed Gingrich left mining out of his list at the end, and he earlier dismissed the idea that the re-sizing would “open the flood gates for dangerous mining or natural resource exploitation”. I’m not sure if this means there would still be restrictions against mining or merely that he believes any mining would be limited and responsibly managed.

In the end, it seems that the alarmist cries by some (non-local) groups are mostly, if not completely, unfounded. As President Trump expressed, it is the people who live and work in the region who know it best and should be the ones to determine how best to both exploit (in the positive sense) and conserve it.

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Net Neutrality Is Bad and Here’s Why

“At the most basic level; if Google, Amazon, and Facebook are for it, it probably isn’t in your best interest.”  — Tim, commenter on The Daily Wire

In less than 2 weeks (Dec. 14), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be voting on whether or not to reverse current Net Neutrality rules. This has a lot of people very worried — mostly those on the political Left, since they are the ones that pushed for Net Neutrality in the first place. They’ve been worried about this since Trump was elected, and they knew he’d be replacing FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, likely with Ajit Pai, which he did. But, I also see some on the center-Right (including some of my friends) pushing the “Save Net Neutrality” mantra, and that‘s what worries me.

I got an alarmist email from my domain name registrar the other day, which included the following:

“What are the implications if Net Neutrality rules are reversed?
•     Censorship and blocking of websites, apps, and services for any reason without transparency or accountability
•     Charging Internet users extra fees just to access sites or streaming services
•     Demanding payments from small business, video creators, musicians, and online services just to reach an audience
•     Slowing internet speeds to a crawl on any platform that doesn’t pay up

These rules are so important to us because they affect our customers. Our customers consist of small businesses and entrepreneurs, so our customers are the ones who will feel the impact most if Net Neutrality rules are reversed.

By rolling back the rules, the FCC is threatening the ability for anyone to start a business and have their voices heard. Also, broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T will be let off from adhering to basic consumer protection laws. We strongly believe that this action by the FCC is fundamentally wrong.”

Sounds pretty scary, right? Except that these are the same fear-mongering talking points that have been used all along, and they are not entirely based on reality. Or, at least, not on probability. I first blogged on this back in 2015, and I encourage people to read that post for more background and explanation of the issue. Consider it Part 1, and this is Part 2. (Go ahead; I’ll wait….)

For more good information, I recommend this 2014 article by Heritage Foundation’s James Gattuso and Michael Sargent: “Eight Myths About FCC Regulation of the Internet”. In short those myths are:

#1 Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation.

“Net neutrality is a recent invention, first articulated only a dozen years ago. Some say that the principles behind net neutrality have always been part of the fabric of the Internet. These principles, which say that Internet access providers must treat all content equally, are very similar to an engineering concept known as the “end-to-end principle,” which dates to the early days of the Internet…. David Clark, an Internet engineer who was among the first to articulate the principle, wrote that “the end-to-end principle is not an absolute rule, but rather a guideline that helps in application and protocol design analysis.” …[T]he literature on the principle shows that it always recognized that there would be exceptions. In fact, there were cases in which intelligence in the “pipes” was found to be necessary. [E.g., spam filtering and network security.]”

#2 Without net neutrality, the very start-ups that make the Internet a force of innovation will be throttled.

Prior to 2015, the Internet functioned just fine without any government restrictions on how ISPs handled traffic. “At no time were unchallenged rules in place that limited the behavior of ISPs. In fact, wireless broadband — such as 4G cellular service — was exempt from previous FCC rules and thus was never even temporarily subject to FCC “neutrality” mandates. Rather than suffering reduced innovation, wireless service has been even more innovative than its wired cousin…. Jeff Pulver, a pioneer in Internet telephone service, has stated that potential investors in his venture held back for a decade, fearing that the FCC would use regulation “as a club to force conformity and stop new upstarts.” The constant innovation that has long defined the Internet would be stymied by government regulation, not the absence of it.”

#3 Net neutrality is a David versus Goliath battle.

“Certainly, many of the Internet providers that would be subject to the restrictions are large. Yet the pro-regulation camp represents firms that are as large as or even larger than ISPs, including Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. Nor would regulation necessarily aid “small” firms in their dealings with “big” firms. Many of the content providers that would benefit from such regulations are huge players in the marketplace, such as Netflix, which accounts for 34 percent of peak Internet traffic in America. At the same time, many firms that would be subject to the proposed rules, such as Sprint and T-Mobile, are relatively small players in the field.”

#4 All bits are created equal.

“It is not just a matter of separating out a few classes of content, such as video or voice telephony, that would be permitted special treatment. Even within these general categories, there are differences: What type of video is it? Is it urgent? Does it involve a medical issue or is it a cat video? Did the recipient request that particular content? How much does the end user value quick downloads? How important is that speed to the content originator? Accommodating the variations is not a simple matter,” and regulators are always playing catch-up. “A far better approach would be to allow content providers, ISPs, and consumers — working through markets — to sort out the varying preferences of users and various service providers. Regrettably, these market interactions are exactly what net neutrality rules would ban.”

#5 No one pays for “fast lanes” on today’s Internet.

Paying a premium for a better product/service is common in many markets, and it’s not new to the Internet, either. “[C]ontent generators have long employed third-party networks to expedite their traffic. Companies such as Akamai and Level 3 have long operated such “content delivery networks” (CDNs), with servers installed near or at ISP data centers. For a fee, content providers can store content at these locations, allowing their data to reach the ultimate consumer more quickly and reliably…. These arrangements are clearly beneficial to consumers because they enable users to stream high-quality digital video smoothly and quickly.”

#6 Internet regulation is needed because there is no competition in broadband service.

Former FCC Chair Wheeler painted a misleading picture by speaking of higher-speed broadband (25-50 Mbps), whereas very few people use such services. “The market looks a lot different at more common speeds. At 5 Mbps (fast enough to receive streaming high-definition video), the FCC says 75 percent of consumers have a choice of providers, and 15 percent have three or more. The chairman also excluded wireless broadband from his calculations. If wireless providers are included in the mix, more than 90 percent of Americans have a broadband choice.”

#7 Internet regulation will increase competition.

Actually, Net Neutrality rules “do nothing to increase competition among Internet access providers and could hinder it. No barriers to entry [are] lowered, no costs reduced, and no resources made more available. To the contrary, the costs of operating a network increase, and potential returns decrease. Costs [become] significantly greater and present more of a risk to smaller contestants in the marketplace, who have less ability to bear regulatory burdens. Moreover, [Title II neutrality requirements] create a hurdle for new competitors in the marketplace” and hinder innovative strategies for differentiation.

#8 Without FCC rules Internet access providers would be unregulated.

“In a competitive marketplace the first line of defense for consumers is competition, not government regulators. The ability of consumers to switch providers if they feel they are not receiving what they want is a greater and more effective constraint than any slow-moving bureaucracy. Even if competition is insufficient for some reason, the federal antitrust and other laws provide additional protections for broadband consumers. While not perfect, the existing competition laws are informed by a century of legal precedent and economic analysis on all manner of alleged anti-competitive activity and have a time-tested framework for enforcing them….”

Gattuso and Sargent concluded that the Net Neutrality regulations were — or, would be, at the time — misguided and (would) have the opposite of their claimed effects.

“Rather than a long-standing set of rules that have protected innovators, it is a recently articulated idea that threatens innovation. Rather than a tool to introduce competition in a monopoly market, it would discourage competition in what is now a dynamic marketplace. These and other misconceptions obscure the lack of a compelling case for FCC regulation, and the dangers to Americans that such regulation would pose.”

Harry Khachatrian’s article in The Daily Wire also has some helpful information, beginning with a brief explanation (with pictures!) of what the Internet is and how it works. Building on this, he explains what Net Neutrality rules require and why its effects range from ineffective to stifling. Much of this is due to the fact that huge content-deliverers like Google maintain their own global network infrastructure, so they can peer directly with ISPs at internet exchange points (IXPs). In other words, they are effectively their own ISP and can avoid many restrictions imposed on actual ISPs.

“Google is a huge proponent of Net Neutrality. [They are] privy to the fact that smaller companies, competitors, and start-ups bereft of the resources and capital available to build a global network infrastructure and peer with providers, must instead become customers of higher tier service providers to reach end users.

And what better way to stifle competition in the market, than have these smaller companies subject to a bevy of regulations you’re free of?

Enforcing “net neutrality” does the exact opposite of what its proponents claim. It results in an internet where a handful of large corporations have access to peering agreements with large transit providers (what some people refer to as “the fast lane”), and the rest are subject to far fewer options in terms of services, and even upon growing and gaining market share, will be denied the opportunity to shop around for different ISP plans that suit them best.”

Do you see now why Net Neutrality is not only unnecessary but a bad idea? I hope so. If you are so inclined, then, you might want to let your local lawmakers* know you are in favor of FCC Chairman Pai’s plan to reverse the Net Neutrality regulations.

* Though the FCC is independent, Congress still has oversight (and other areas of influence), so it can exert pressure on the agency.

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The Jewish Thanksgiving Connection

“How can I repay Adonai for all His bounties to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call on the Name of Adonai.”  — Psalms 116:12-13 (Tree of Life Version (TLV))

I know we’re past Thanksgiving Day, but I figured I could still squeeze a related blogpost in before the long weekend ends….

Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”, “Blossom”) is one of those progressive liberals that uses her public “pulpit” to occasionally comment on social and political issues. Kinda like I do, I guess, except I’m not a celebrity and I am the opposite of “progressive liberal”. Anyway, I don’t usually listen/read or care what she says. But, the other day I read an article on The Daily Wire that commented on Bialik’s “4 Reasons I Don’t Like Thanksgiving” video, and it sparked my interest.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, by J.L.G. Ferris (1863-1930)

Two of her issues have to do with her vegan beliefs and Zinn-like accusations of genocide by the Pilgrims. In other words, the usual rubbish. Another is about gluttony. But the interesting one to me was the fact that the Thanksgiving holidays fall so soon — several weeks, really — after some Jewish holidays, so she’s just tired of planning, cooking, feasting, etc. (Fair enough, I suppose, but she could just go out for Thanksgiving or let someone else cook.) Specifically, she points out that the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), aka Succoth (or Sukkot), is basically “the Jewish Thanksgiving”. The DW article links to an article by food-blogger Tori Avey that looks at the holidays — technically, note that Succoth is a multi-day festival rather than a single holiday — and this connection. Avey goes into some explanation of what Succoth is/was all about and what it involved. Then,…

“You might have noticed that the Sukkot holiday resembles the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Believe it or not, the similarities between Sukkot and Thanksgiving actually have a historical frame of reference. Before coming to the New World, the Pilgrims lived for a short time among Sephardic Jews in Holland. In fact, our American Thanksgiving tradition may have been indirectly inspired by the Jewish holiday of Sukkot….

This possible tie between Thanksgiving and Sukkot is pretty intriguing, and can be seen on many symbolic levels. While harvest festivals were not unique during that time period (many Christian groups had their own harvest celebrations), there are some particular aspects of Thanksgiving that seem at least loosely connected to Sukkot. The first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 is said to have been eaten out-of-doors, which would correspond to the Sukkot tradition of dining outside in the sukkah. Sukkot, like Thanksgiving, is a holiday of welcoming; the Pilgrims welcomed the Wampanoag Native Americans to the original Thanksgiving table just as Jews are encouraged to welcome friends and extended family to dine in the sukkah. This was only fitting; the Wampanoag people and their leader, Massasoit, taught the Pilgrims vital harvesting and life skills after their arrival in the New World; the Pilgrims would not have survived without their help and guidance. The cornucopia, a Thanksgiving symbol of plenty, resembles the Jewish shofar that is blown during Yom Kippur (the holiday that precedes Sukkot). And of course, there’s the food: both Sukkot and Thanksgiving feature bountiful menus of delicious, seasonally-inspired foods….

While we may never know if the first Thanksgiving was directly inspired by Sukkot, it is fun to ponder!”

There’s a bit more, of course, so you might want to read Avey’s blogpost. I just found this Jewish connection to our American Thanksgiving feast interesting and thought I’d share.

I’d like to wish a belated “Happy Sukkot!” and “Chag Sameach” to my Jewish friends and readers!

And, for all Americans, Happy Thanksgiving!

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About That Newest Exoplanet…

“If scientists are able to detect gases like oxygen in the atmosphere of Ross 128 b, that could be a good indicator of biological processes on the planet.”  — Molly Rubin (Quartz Media)

It seems like a new exoplanet (aka “extrasolar planet”, i.e., a planet in a solar system other than ours) is found every couple of weeks these days. And that’s awesome! The latest has been dubbed Ross 128 b, and it is currently 11 light years away from Earth, though slowly getting closer. It was discovered by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) team, using their High Accuracy Radial-velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at La Silla Observatory in Chile, though no other instruments have detected it, yet. The paper describing the team’s discovery has now been published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Milky Way shines over La Silla Observatory
(Photo by José Francisco Salgado, an ESO Photo Ambassador.)

The exoplanet’s star, Ross 128, is a red dwarf or M-class star. This is the most common type of star in the universe, and the fact that they are smaller and dimmer than other types makes it easier to find planets in their vicinity. HARPS detects exoplanets via spectrographic analysis, using high-contrast imaging and high-dispersion spectroscopy. (Specifically, this is hooked up to the 3.6 meter telescope on the right in this image.) In other words, it identifies a regular shift in a star’s light, indicative of “a tiny wobble in the star’s position toward and away from us, due to the gravitational tug of an orbiting planet.”

Unlike its neighbor Proxima Centauri, Ross 128 is rather “quiet”, in that it does not produce flares, which normally douse any nearby planets in deadly radiation. Our own Sun — a G-type main-sequence star or “yellow dwarf” — is relatively well-behaved, its solar flares/storms having so far only temporarily disrupted GPS satellites and other electronic equipment. Solar radiation emitted from Ross 128 is thought to be roughly comparable to that from our Sun.

Now, from some of the headlines and statements in the popular press, you might think that this “potentially habitable”, “newfound Earth-like” world was almost certainly an “Earth twin”. Truth is, though, the scientists involved aren’t saying anything close to these claims, ‘cuz they can’t. The data doesn’t (yet) support it. But, such hype about these types of subjects — i.e., Earth-like planets and the search for life (or a possible explanation for the origins of life) — is common, because they are hot topics among many scientists and laymen alike. It seems like science writers, and occasionally even the researchers being interviewed, can’t help but throw out slight exaggerations and speculations, while sometimes leaving out other information that might put a damper on some of the excitement.

Why do they do this? For one, sensationalistic headlines generally attract readers/subscribers, which means more money for the publication. For another, keeping the general public excited about (potential) discoveries and advances in scientific knowledge helps gain support for funding for more research. In other words, follow the money. I can understand and accept a certain degree of this, but the more they stretch the truth, the more they undermine the journalistic integrity of their publication and the industry in general. It results in a misinformed public. And, it allows for some funding to be misdirected to undeserving projects. (Just speaking in general, here.)

As much as I enjoy seeing scientific discoveries and advances and love speculating about the future, I think too many people have very unrealistic expectations about space travel, the likelihood of (sentient?) extraterrestrial life, etc. For example, people are now becoming familiar with references to a planet’s “habitable zone” — i.e., “the range of orbits around a star within which a planetary surface can support liquid water given sufficient atmospheric pressure.” So, in this case, the mantra is “Follow the water!” But, there is a huge number of other fine-tuning factors that need to be just right for life to be possible. (See, for example, my series “Living on a Razor’s Edge”. Here’s Part 3.) Dr. Hugh Ross has even identified nine different types of overlapping habitable zones that the Earth sits in which allow it to support advanced life or possibly life at all:

1. Liquid Water
2. Ultraviolet
3. Photosynthetic
4. Ozone
5. Rotation-Rate
6. Obliquity
7. Tidal
8. Astrosphere
9. Electric Wind

Back to our current exoplanet discovery…

What can so far be deduced (or, at least, inferred from statistical data) about Ross 128 b ?:

o  rocky(?) planet with mass at least 1.3x (maybe 1.35x) that of Earth
o  orbits its star in ~9.9 days at 1/20 the distance that Earth is from our Sun
o  rotates slowly and has weak magnetic activity, which increases likelihood of atmospheric retention

A few crucial things we do not yet know:

o  any atmospheric oxygen?
o  surface temperature? (needs to be between -60°C (-76°F) and +20°C (+68°F) to be considered temperate)
o  any liquid water? (“the distance from its star potentially puts it in the “habitable zone””)
o  mineral composition

I was pleasantly surprised that the article from Slate was fairly honest about what has and hasn’t been determined about Ross 128 b:

“As with every other exoplanet we like to call “potentially habitable,” there’s no indication whether the planet has water on its surface. There isn’t even any sign as to whether the planet possesses other elements essential to life as we know it, like atmospheric oxygen. So unfortunately, it would be a stretch to label Ross 128 b as “potentially habitable.””

Good for them!

Artist’s impression of Ross 128 b

In fact, if you read just the paper‘s Abstract, you will find habitability mentioned once but no grand claims or promises of life. They list various readings and a few inferences made, but they admit that there is a lot that they don’t know and must wait for much more data and advances in instrumentation. As the Slate article summarizes,

“Some of these questions could be resolved relatively soon. The ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) could find out whether Ross 128 b possesses oxygen or other chemical markers that could be signs of habitability or extant life. But others, such as the presence of water, are going to require more advanced instruments that we have yet to develop. Maybe we’ll have them by the time the planet gets closer.”

Notice that they say “could be resolved relatively soon”, “could find out”, and “could be signs…”. This sounds more hopeful than factual, since the CBSNews article I read indicates that the current instruments probably can’t do it.

“The astronomers studying Ross 128 b hope the next generation of telescopes set to come online in a few years can determine what kind of atmosphere Ross 128 b has and check for signs of life, including the presence of oxygen.” (italics added)

Bottom line here is that this is all very exciting, even without the hype and wishful thinking. As a general rule, when reading articles about such discoveries, take notice of words and phrases like “could reveal”, “may discover”, “might be”, “potentially”, “seems to be”, etc. They may sound like “weasel words”, but they probably indicate that the scientists in question are more cautionary in their rhetoric than the hypesters. Also, if you can find it, you might want to check out the Abstract for any paper connected to the discovery being reported. You will likely find that the link between the popular headlines and what the researchers actually say is often rather tenuous.

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Thoughts on the Roy Moore Situation

“It never happened, and I don’t even like hearing it because it never happened, and they’re doing this a month away, four weeks [before the election], after 40 years in public service.”  — Justice Roy Moore, speaking with Sean Hannity

I haven’t really been following Roy Moore’s career closely. Though, of course, I remember the hullaballoo over the Ten Commandments monument several years ago. (Not sure where I stand on that, since I don’t remember the details or the arguments given.) My sense is that he’s a good man and Christian brother, whom I mostly agree with in principle and whose motives I generally understand. But, the way he has handled certain matters — both in what he says and/or does — I sometimes take issue with. As for the current accusations against him of sexual misconduct, I tend to doubt he is guilty, and I am highly suspicious of the timing of the “revelations”. On the other hand, I don’t actually know the man or the alleged evidence, so I can’t really say.

A few weeks ago, I shared a piece by Tim Dukeman. This week, I’d like to cite another Facebook friend, Derick Dickens. Derick and I don’t always see eye-to-eye (e.g., he treats President Trump more harshly than I do), but he’s a smart, insightful guy, and I value his observations and opinion. Lucky for me, he decided to put a few thoughts down in a FB post in regards to Roy Moore, which I appreciated, and he then gave me the thumbs-up to share them with you.

“Since I have been involved in politics, I have been asked this week to weigh in on the Roy Moore situation.

On purpose, I have avoided any conversation on Moore for years. Roy Moore, a former champion Martial Arts fighter and Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has been in the news since his fight over the 10 Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building. Many liberals have compared him to the Taliban while some conservatives believe he is one of the greatest politicians in America today.

There are people quick to scorn Moore and others quick to almost deify him, but I appreciated Marvin Olasky’s comments over a decade ago when he said concerning the 10 Commandments issue, “Christian activists, for their part, should not rush either to support or scorn, but should think through whether this is the issue [the 10 commandments issue] on which they want to concentrate their attention.” Olasky expresses my views well.

Yet, I have had some troubles with Moore and company as it has divided many Christians. The divide is immense as seen in the division between the Attorney General Bill Pryor and Roy Moore. Both supported the 10 commandments but were on opposite sides on their removal. It seems that Bill Pryor’s view has won over the Trump Administration, which seems sort of ironic considering Moore’s supporters tend to be Trump supporters. Roy Moore’s bitterness against Pryor is well known. Moore said that Bill Pryor was unrepentant for his role in removing the 10 commandments, using language that assumes Pryor sinned. Pryor, on the other hand, felt that Christians are under authority to obey the laws of the land and Moore’s move was unwise and with no Biblical warrant.

In retrospect, I agree with Pryor. Removing the 10 Commandments did not violate our religious beliefs and was within the jurisdiction of the state government. As a result, Moore is required to obey the law. Moore did not. While good Christians can disagree on this issue, Moore and company attacked those who did disagree.

Besides calling Pryor to repentance, Moore attacked other Christian Leaders like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, who advised Justice Moore that he’s trying to defend a bridge too far. These leaders were all lambasted by some Moore supporters as traitors to the Alabama or U.S. constitutions, or to the Bible itself. Today, I still see some calling those who disagree with Moore socialists or RINO’s.

Onto the Sexual misconduct charges: After allegations of sexual misconduct, many are discussing whether Moore is innocent or guilty of those charges. The charges are serious and they are made by four different ladies. Even some Christians supporting Moore said the charges seem like credible statements, even if they believe the statements themselves are false. Others say this is an underhanded trick played by the Democrats and the Washington Post.

In the end, I do not know if Moore is guilty or innocent. While I am not a fan of Roy Moore, I do not have the evidence one way or the other and will be slow to pass judgment.

Yet, let’s be clear. If Roy Moore committed these acts, he should be in jail and should not run for office. However, we should take the charges seriously and be ready, if evidence demands, to abandon Roy Moore.

I have not always been a fan of Moore and while I personally tend to believe the accusations, I also know these could be lies. Either way, these accusations should be taken seriously and investigated. Yet, all Christians should be quick to say, “If true, Moore should resign and if untrue these are horrible lies.””

Interesting that Derick tends to believe the current accusations against Moore, while I am giving him the benefit of the doubt, for now. But, we are both trying to be fair and balanced and to reserve judgment until the facts are in.

I don’t know about you, but it bothers me that so many even on the political Right, particularly GOP Establishment, are withdrawing public support from Moore. Essentially, they are doing exactly what the Dems/Libs want: assuming the worst, running in fear, and generally giving in to the “guilty until proven innocent” mindset that dominates many in America these days. “Trial by media” strikes again. As Derick said, if the accusations turn out to be true, Moore should do the right thing and bow out of the senatorial race. But, until then, those who are demanding this are jumping the gun.

Derick brings up another phenomenon that I wanted to mention — namely, the way that Moore and many of his supporters automatically assume the worst about fellow-Christians who happen to disagree with them on a controversial issue (e.g., the 10 Commandments debacle), even to the point of making counter-accusations of, for example, compromising the Bible and/or the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, Christians do this sort of thing more than we care to admit, often on non-essential issues.

Is it really so hard to admit that there might be another principled position that well-meaning, honorable people can hold to? Is it also necessary to publicly bash those people we disagree with? (I struggle with this impulse a bit myself in the science apologetics arena.) I suppose I should be used to politicians acting in an unprofessional or, um, less-than-mature manner, especially when they are on the defense. But, I hold my fellow followers of Jesus Christ to a higher standard, which would make Moore’s guilt in any of the current accusations against him particularly sad. I pray that’s not the case.

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State and Property Tax Deductions Need To Go

“Those who voted for the budget and support the full elimination of the SALT [i.e., state and local tax] deduction have shown they understand the key [tenets] of pro-growth tax reform for individuals: lowering marginal tax rates and doing away with tax subsidies.”  — Adam Michel, tax policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation

One of the hot topics these days — and something President Trump is anxious to approve — is the long-awaited tax reform plan being developed in the Republican-led Congress. From what I have seen so far, the proposed plan is sort of a mixed bag — i.e., I would have liked to see income taxes simplified/reduced even more, other things eliminated that were left in or vice versa. While businesses and most middle-class families should benefit, many upper middle-income families may very well see a net tax increase. However, there is a lot to applaud, and overall I think it will have a *very* positive impact on the U.S. economy.

Prior to the unveiling of the House Republicans’ tax proposal last Thursday, I noticed several articles come out last month (mostly just last week) from The Heritage Foundation on the impact of various tax cuts (or non-cuts), and in particular from Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst in economics and entitlements. In short, she argues that federal tax deductions for state & local income taxes, municipal bond interest, and property taxes are bad ideas and should be eliminated. This seems counter-intuitive to a layman like me and will likely not be easy for most people to accept. But,…

Leaving property taxes aside for the moment, let’s look at SALT and municipal bond interest deductions:

“A forthcoming analysis from The Heritage Foundation will show that these state and local tax breaks amount to nearly $1.7 trillion in lost federal revenues over 10 years.

By eliminating these deductions, policymakers could reduce marginal tax rates by as much as 16 percent without losing any revenue. This would give tax relief to the 70 percent of federal taxpayers who do not itemize, and therefore receive no benefit from the state and local tax deduction.”

Greszler goes on to explain how:

  • The tax deduction encourages states to tax and spend more than they otherwise would.
  • Wealthy taxpayers receive the bulk of the deduction.
  • The state and local tax deduction benefits high-tax states.
  • The municipal bond deduction distorts infrastructure spending.
  • State and local tax deductions make federal revenues beholden to state and local government decisions.

After reading Greszler’s summarized points, getting rid of these deductions makes sense. Of course, it’s a particularly hard-sell for Congresspersons representing those high-tax states (e.g., CA, NY, NJ, etc.), which is why many of them are pushing to retain the deductions as is or perhaps somehow revised. GOP Representatives in those states are conflicted, but 24 out of the 35 voted in favor of the House bill.

(Full report with charts and graphs can be found here: “Why Tax Reform Should Eliminate State and Local Tax Deductions”.)

Similar reasoning pertains to property taxes:

“[Property tax deductions] only encourage state and local governments to raise their property taxes, hurting low and middle-income Americans[, most of whom] don’t itemize their deductions at all. This means that higher property taxes would not be offset with relief from a federal property tax deduction for many of the most vulnerable taxpayers….

While holding on to the property tax deduction would be a big win for wealthy taxpayers in high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, and California (where the average millionaire deducts $32,000 in property taxes), it would be a huge loss for most Americans because it would mean higher marginal tax rates.

If the final tax plan includes a doubling of the standard deduction, as included in current tax reform frameworks, even fewer Americans would benefit from a property tax deduction.”

Again, lawmakers from high-tax states are working very hard to keep those property tax deductions in the new plan, and a compromise may indeed be reached that does just that. Greszler commented further on the impacts of keeping the property tax deduction while eliminating other deductions:

“That would cause property taxes to gain a leg up over income and sales taxes because property taxes would remain the lone federally subsidized means of revenue collection for state and local governments.

States could relieve wealthy taxpayers of their lost income and sales tax deductions by shifting more of their tax burden onto property taxes. This would, in turn, shift part of that burden onto federal taxpayers.

But this could make it harder for middle-income Americans, especially those on fixed incomes, to become homeowners as they are less able to pay higher property taxes.

Higher property taxes could even displace existing homeowners, as unaffordable and artificially high property taxes could force them to sell their current homes.

Furthermore, keeping the property tax deduction would hurt all Americans by reducing the size of possible marginal tax rate reductions.”

Despite this, I can already hear the liberals exclaiming how mean and unfair it would be for Republicans to eliminate any of these deductions, especially for the poor souls in high-tax states. In fact, they are always screaming that the GOP favors the wealthy, but analysis of 2015 IRS data shows that “the property tax deduction is worth 22 times more to millionaires as it is to middle-income households.”

Of course, the focus needs to be turned right back on those high-tax states’ lawmakers and their own policies.

“If removing the property tax deduction (and other state and local tax deductions) would create a big burden for taxpayers in high-tax states, that’s a problem for state governments to address by lowering their tax burdens. It’s not the federal government’s job to help high-tax states compensate for their poor policy decisions.”

What’s the bottom line?

“Tax reform is supposed to be about lowering rates and getting rid of deductions and credits to help generate higher economic growth, and to let Americans keep more of their hard-earned money.”

The Heritage Foundation is known for its solid research and its conservative approach to economics and policy in general, so I tend to trust their facts and conclusions. I just hope that enough lawmakers will do so (especially Senators, who now get to amend the House Bill or propose their own), so that the best possible tax reform bill can be enacted for the benefit of Americans (and legal residents) everywhere for decades to come.

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Here I Stand…

This Reformation Day (10/31/2017) marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is the traditional beginning of the Protestant Reformation, though rumblings of dissent within the Roman Catholic Church began long before.

Martin Luther appears before Diet of Worms

On the other hand, others would push the actual start of the Reformation to a few years later, when Luther, an Augustinian monk, gave his famous speech before the Imperial Diet of Worms (April 1521). This assembly in a modest-sized German city included various lords, princes, and Church dignitaries, with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V himself presiding. Luther was called in to answer charges and to recant from certain “heretical” teachings and accusations against the Church, as evidenced in his many books and several of the infamous “theses”.

After being granted an additional day to consider how he would answer, Luther returned to the assembly with a renewed sense of confidence in Scripture, the conviction of his cause, and in God’s purpose being worked through him. I couldn’t find the full text of his stirring speech online, so I have transcribed it from Max McLean’s audio performance of the Diet’s events….

“Most serene Emperor, illustrious Princes, gracious lords:

In obedience to your commands given me yesterday, I stand here beseeching you, as God is merciful, to deign mercifully to listen to this cause, which is as I believe the cause of justice and of truth. And if through inexperience I should fail to apply to any his proper title or offend in any way against the manners of courts, I entreat you to pardon me as one not conversant with courts but rather with the cells of monks, and claiming no other merit than that of having spoken and written with that simplicity of mind which regards nothing but the glory of God and the pure instruction of Christ’s faithful people.

Two questions have been proposed to me: whether I acknowledge the books which are published in my name, and whether I am determined to defend or disposed to recall them. To the first of these, I have given a direct answer, in which I shall ever persist that those books are mine and published by me, except so far as they may have been altered or interpolated by the craft of rivals. To the other, I am now about to reply.

I must first entreat Your Majesty and your highnesses to consider that my books are not all of the same scription. For there are some in which I have treated the piety of faith and morals with simplicity so evangelical that my very adversaries confess them to be profitable, harmless, and deserving to be read of a Christian. Even the Pope’s bull, fierce and cruel as it is, admits some of my books to be innocent. Though, with a monstrous perversity of judgment, these same books are included in the same sentence! If then I should think of retracting these books, should I not stand alone in my condemnation of the truth therein, which is acknowledged by the unanimous confession of all, be it friends or foes?

The second species of my publications is that in which I have inveighed against the papacy and the doctrine of the papists — men who by their iniquitous tenets and examples have desolated the Christian world both with spiritual and temporal calamities. No man can deny this! The sufferings and complaints of all mankind are my witnesses that through the laws of the Pope and the doctrines of men, the consciences of the faithful have been ensnared, tortured, and torn in pieces, while at the same time their properties and substance have been devoured by an incredible tyranny and are still devoured without end and by degrading means and that, too, most of all in this noble nation of Germany. Yet, canon law states that the laws and doctrines of the Pope be judged erroneous and reprobate when they are contrary to the Gospel and the opinions of the Fathers. If then I shall retract these books, I shall do no other than add strength to tyranny and throw open doors to this great impiety, which will then stride forth more widely and licentiously than it has dared hitherto, so that the reign of iniquity will proceed with impunity and, notwithstanding its intolerable oppression upon the suffering poor, be still further fortified and established, especially when it shall be proclaimed that I have been driven to this act by the authority of Your Serene Majesty and the whole Roman Empire! What a cloak, blessed Lord, should I then become for wickedness and despotism!

Luther statue in Worms

In the third description of my writings are those which I have published against individuals, against the defenders of the Roman tyranny and the subverters of the piety taught by men. Against these I do freely confess that I have written with more bitterness than was becoming either my religion or my profession. For, indeed, I lay no claim to any especial sanctity and argue not respecting my own life but respecting the doctrine of Christ. Yet, even these writings it is impossible for me to retract, seeing that through such retraction despotism and impiety would reign under my patronage and rage with more than their former ferocity against the people of God. Yet, since I am but man and not God, it would not become me to go further in defense of my tracts than my Lord Jesus went in defense of His doctrine, who, when He was interrogated before Annas and received a blow from one of the officers, answered, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil. But, if well, why smitest thou me?” If, then, the Lord Himself, who knew His own infallibility, did not disdain to require arguments against His doctrine even from a person of low condition, how much rather ought I whom am the dregs of the earth and the very slave of error to inquire in search if there be any to bear witness against my doctrine? Wherefore, I entreat you by the mercies of God that, if there be anyone of any condition who has the ability, let him overpower me by the sacred writings, prophetical and evangelical. And, for my own part, as soon as I shall be better instructed, I will retract my errors and be the first to cast my books into the flames!

It must now, I think, be manifest that I have sufficiently examined and weighed not only the dangers but the parties and dissensions excited in the world by means of my doctrine of which yesterday I was so gravely admonished. But, I must avow that to me it is of all others the most delightful spectacle to see parties and dissensions growing up on account of the Word of God. For such is the progress of God’s Word; such its ends and object. “Think not I am come to send peace on Earth. I came not to send peace but a sword.” I could show more abundantly by references to scriptural examples — to those of Pharaoh, the king of Babylon, the kings of Israel — that they have brought about their own destruction by those very councils of worldly wisdom which seemed to promise them peace and stability. Yet, I say not these things as if the great personages here present stood at all in need of my admonitions but only because it was a service which I owed to my native Germany, and it was my duty to discharge it.

And, thus, I commend myself to Your Serene Majesty and all the Princes, humbly beseeching you not to allow the malice of my enemies to render me odious to you without a cause. I am done. Since Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer, without horns and without teeth:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and by plain reason (I do not accept the authority of the Popes and Councils, for they have frequently erred and contradicted themselves), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

[Note: You may come across minor differences in wording elsewhere, which is due to translators’ choices, of course. I should also point out that the authenticity of the famous sentence “Here I stand; I can do no other.” (alternatively, “…I cannot do otherwise.”) is contested, since it is not included in either official transcripts of the Diet (though it has been inserted in some copies) or in eyewitness accounts.]

While Luther retreated under the protection of his benefactor, Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, the assembly conferred. On May 26, 1521, Charles V issued the Edict of Worms, which declared:

“For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.”

Martin Luther

Pope Leo X had already labeled Luther a heretic the year before, but the monk was now an outlaw and, for his own safety, forced to stay under Frederick’s protection at Wartburg Castle at Eisenach. However, not only was Luther’s popularity growing among the German people, but he had powerful friends (Frederick primary among them), which helped to dissuade the authorities or any enterprising individuals from arresting him, and he was able to return to Wittenberg 10 months later. Luther put this time of “exile” and excommunication to good use, though. He wrote many more works of doctrine and polemics — e.g., a “Refutation of the Argument of Latomus”, wherein he explained the principle of justification — and a new translation of the New Testament into vernacular German (1522). (It wasn’t until 1534 that he and a few associates completed their German translation of the Old Testament.)

Whether or not he actually said (the German equivalent of), “Here I stand; I can do no other,” we can thank Martin Luther for taking a courageous and principled stand on some very important matters of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy (and at great risk to his own life and livelihood), thereby kicking the Protestant Reformation into high gear.

Happy Reformation Day!

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Snippets of True Reason, part 4

This is the final installment of this series, which we began back in May (2017). I hope you enjoy the last four snippets from Gilson & Weitnauer’s True Reason, as the contributors continue to address important topics that are often raised against the rationality and moral consistency of Christianity by atheists and other skeptics.

Fifteen: “The Problem of Evil and Reasonable Christian Responses” (John M. DePoe)

“One of the oldest and most persisting challenges to the rationality of the Christian worldview is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a wholly good, all-powerful, all-knowing God…. On its face, the problem of evil raises legitimate questions and challenges that Christians need to address if they proclaim the rationality of their worldview. However, the reasonable atheist who raises the problem of evil should not simply raise the problem of evil and abruptly check out from the marketplace of ideas…. This piece is written for those who not only ask questions but also have the intellectual integrity to listen to the answers.

…[My thesis] is that it is not reasonable to conclude that God does not exist because of the existence of evil. While it is easy to allow one’s emotions to sway one’s judgment when the problem of evil is raised, it is crucial to let reason — and not emotion — be the judge of what is rational to believe.” (pp.206-207)

Sixteen: “Historical Evidences for the Gospels” (Randall Hardman)

“One final comment on oral tradition, concerning the basic question of fallibility in memory. It is certainly true that we don’t always remember things accurately, we forget important material, we mix up events, and occasionally just get something really wrong. Often these sorts of failures are ascribed to the Gospels, as if that settles the matter once and for all. But it’s important to realize that one cannot draw a sound analogy from highly technologized and literary culture to a predominantly oral/aural non-technologized one. We use our memories in drastically different ways. This must cause us to reevaluate the mental capabilities of predominantly oral cultures. When one looks to the ancient world, one realizes that the inherent capabilities of their minds to remember significant information far exceeds our own. It would not be at all difficult for Mark to recall the traditions that Peter would have told, or more accurately performed, on numerous occasions.” (pp.242)

Seventeen: “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites” (Matthew Flannagan)

“While Deuteronomy 7:2 and 20:16-17 command Israel to ‘utterly destroy’ the Canaanites and to ‘not leave alive anything that breathes,’ numerous other texts claim the Canaanites are to be ‘driven out,’ ‘dispossessed,’ ‘thrust out,’ and so on. In fact, often the ‘drive out’ language is juxtaposed with the language of ‘destroy.’ Taken literally, these pictures are inconsistent. If I stated that I had driven an intruder from my house, one would not assume the intruder was dead in my lounge. Similarly, if I said I had killed an intruder, one would not normally think this meant the intruder had fled. The Hebrew confirms this; the language of driving out and casting out is used elsewhere to refer to Adam and Eve being driven from Eden (Gen. 3:24), Cain being driven into the wilderness (Gen. 4:14), and David being driven out by Saul (I Sam. 26:19). All are cases where the meaning precludes something being literally destroyed.” (pp.268-269)

Eighteen: “Christianity and Slavery” (Glenn Sunshine)

As per nycreligion.info: Lewis Tappan and his brother Arthur were legendary evangelical businessmen with social consciences. After reading a biography about the English evangelical Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce, Lewis launched himself into defending African Americans and abolishing slavery. He founded over 200 churches dedicated to equal rights for African American. The brothers were the primary fundraisers for the defense of the African slaves who went on trial in Brooklyn after mutinying on the ship La Amistad in 1839. Portrait of Lewis Tappan. The underground rail road. William Still. 1872. Slavery pamphlet collection. Brooklyn Historical Society.

“[I]t is true that there were instructions for dealing with slavery as a fact of life in the Roman Empire. but the actual significance of the New Testament teaching on slavery and its impact on the early church is rarely appreciated. First, although a number of Pauline epistles and I Peter instruct slaves to be obedient to their masters, they also tell masters to treat their slaves with dignity and respect, in essence recognizing their humanity. Even more radical was Paul’s insistence on the spiritual and moral equality of all people since in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:28). It is hard for us to appreciate how remarkable this teaching was in the first century. Slaves were seen as being intrinsically inferior, as ‘living tools’ in Aristotle’s memorable phrase in the Nicomachean Ethics. The teachings of the New Testament could not be more different from the prevailing views of the wider culture….

The Quakers and the Evangelicals fought slavery for the same reasons as the Catholic Church: they were committed to the biblical ideas that humanity was made in the image of God, that all were descended from the same parents and so are equal, and that we all have equal rights given by God that no one can arbitrarily take away. While some secular Enlightenment thinkers, such as the atheist Diderot, also argued for the equality and right to freedom of all individuals, it was the Quakers and the Evangelicals, not Enlightenment figures, who led the fight [for] abolition, who created the awareness of the horrors of slavery among the general population, who led the boycott and the publicity campaign against the slave trade, and who worked persistently for years to see the fight through to the end. Slavery in the British Empire was abolished because of religious conviction, not Enlightenment rationalism.” (pp.290,297-298)

As in previous installments, DePoe et al. not only answer the challenges graciously and with aplomb, providing additional information and historico-cultural context, but they counter-challenge the other side to be fair, intellectually honest, and consistently rational in their own reasoning. I think skeptics and believers alike will find True Reason a helpful volume in assessing these issues and others like them in a thoughtful manner.

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A Second Look at John 3:16

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  — John 3:16 (KJV)

The above verse is one of the most familiar and often memorized Bible verses in the English language, whether among orthodox or heterodox, Christian believers and non-believers alike. (The only rival I can think of is Genesis 1:1, the first verse of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Scriptures).) The above wording from the King James translation is arguably the most well-known version, too. It is fairly easy to memorize and is essentially a summary of the Gospel message, which is why it is so popular.

Recent linguistic studies coupled with careful exegesis, however, indicate that not only has the phrasing not been the most accurate, but most of us probably misunderstand what a few key words/phrases mean. There are four sections I would like to address. (Note: The proper, contextual understanding of the Greek word often translated “perish” (<apollumi>) is a potential fifth area for (re)consideration and discussion, but I’m not prepared to dig into that particular subject at this time.) I only present this information for educational purposes and am *not* looking for a debate. I am tempted to address the four in sequential order, but I think it best if I do the two less controversial ones first.

1) “so loved”: Ever since I was a kid, I always thought that it was talking about how much God loved the world. This was reinforced in sermons, poems, and quotes like the one pictured above. But, as you may have noticed, some Bibles these days state it differently (e.g., “For God loved the world in this way” (HCSB); “For this is the way God loved the world” (NET); “For this is how God loved the world” (ISV)), indicating that the proper connotation is not “how much” but “how” or “in what way”. Many other translations still keep it “so loved the world” (e.g., NKJV, NASB, NIV), but at least the ESV includes a footnote about the alternate phrasing.

Why have some translations opted for this change? As per the HCSB footnote (at Biblegateway.com),

“The Gk word <houtos>, commonly translated in Jn 3:16 as “so” or “so much” occurs over 200 times in the NT. Almost without exception it is an adverb of manner, not degree (for example, see Mt 1:18). It only means “so much” when modifying an adjective (see Gl 3:3; Rv 16:18). Manner seems primarily in view in Jn 3:16, which explains the HCSB’s rendering.”

The NET translation note is a bit more involved, including references to academic works, but it concludes thusly:

“With this in mind, then, it is likely that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.”

2) “only begotten”: This phrase trips up a lot of people, since the act of “begetting” elsewhere in the KJV (and other older translations) usually refers to producing physical offspring. While the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, was indeed birthed in a biological manner, the Second Person of the Trinity was not. So, our understanding of this verse may impact our understanding of the Trinitarian nature of God.

As with the previous phrase, you may have noticed that some newer Bible translations use — or, at the very least, footnote — variations like “one and only Son” (NIV, NET) or “One and Only Son” (HCSB) or “uniquely existing Son” (ISV) or even “[One and] [a]only begotten Son” (AMP w/ footnote). Others keep “only begotten”, but even the NASB has an appropriate footnote (i.e., “Or unique, only one of His kind”).

Why? First, allow me to throw a little Greek at you by way of James White’s The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (2009):

“The translation only-begotten is inferior to unique. It was thought that the term came from <monos>, meaning “only” and <gennao>, meaning “begotten.” However, further research has determined that it derives not from <gennao> but from <genos>, meaning “kind” or “type.” Hence the better translation unique or one of a kind. [White then lists three books, which titles, etc., I’d be happy to provide upon request.]”

I will also cite the translation note from the NET, which I think is helpful:

“Although this word is often translated “only begotten,” such a translation is misleading, since in English it appears to express a metaphysical relationship. The word in Greek was used of an only child (a son [Luke 7:12, 9:38] or a daughter [Luke 8:42]). It was also used of something unique (only one of its kind) such as the mythological Phoenix (1 Clement 25:2). From here it passes easily to a description of Isaac (Heb 11:17 and Josephus, Ant. 1.13.1 [1.222]) who was not Abraham’s only son, but was one-of-a-kind because he was the child of the promise. Thus the word means “one-of-a-kind” and is reserved for Jesus in the Johannine literature of the NT. While all Christians are children of God (<tekna theou>), Jesus is God’s Son in a unique, one-of-a-kind sense. The word is used in this way in all its uses in the Gospel of John (1:14, 1:18, 3:16, and 3:18).”

Discussion of the next two phrases can be a bit more heated, since they touch on the doctrines of election and predestination and, therefore, impact the question of who is / can be saved.

3) “the world”: When writing on matters of Creation and the Flood, I have pointed out the wide range of uses of “world” in biblical and extra-biblical texts. Just by himself, John is known for using <kosmos> (the Greek word) in several ways. So, how do we know what definition is meant in this passage?

In Debating Calvinism, White points out that it can’t be “the ‘world’ that Jesus says He does not pray for in John 17:9, a ‘world’ that is differentiated from those the Father has given Him…. Neither is it the ‘world’ that is arrayed as an enemy against God’s will and truth, as seen in I John 2:15.” Exegetically, then, the most we can say is that “the world is shown love through the giving of the Son so that a specific, particular people receive eternal life through faith in Him. Since we know that not all are saved by faith in Christ, it is utterly unwarranted to read into <kosmos> some universal view of humanity.”

At this point, White digresses into the second part of verse 17. “[M]any see ‘but that the world might be saved’ as some kind of weak affirmation, when in fact the idea is, ‘God did not send the Son for purpose X but, instead, to fulfill purpose Y.’… While the subjunctive can be used in conditional sentences, it is also used in purpose/result clauses without the insertion of the idea of doubt or hesitant affirmation. The word might, then, is not to be read as ‘maybe,’ ‘hopefully,’ or ‘only if other things happen’ but as in ‘I turned on the printer so that I might print out this letter.’ The idea here is purpose, not lack of certainty.”

So, will the “world” truly be saved through Christ? “When we see the world as the entirety of the kinds of men (Jew and Gentile, or as John expresses it in Revelation 5:9, where every ‘tribe, tongue, people, and nation’ means world) the passage makes perfect sense. God’s love is demonstrated toward Jew and Gentile in providing a single means of salvation for both.”

4) “whosoever believeth” (or “whoever believes” in NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIV, TLV, etc.): Given the above, what are we to make of this phrase? Doesn’t it make it clear that ANYone who puts his/her trust in Christ will receive eternal life? Not necessarily.

“In the Greek, the phrase ‘whoever believes’ is <hina pas ho pisteuwn>. In the English translation the term whoever is meant to communicate ‘all without distinction in a particular group’; specifically, ‘those who believe.’ <Pas> means ‘all’ and <ho pisteuwn> means ‘the one(s) believing’; hence, ‘every one believing,’ leading to ‘whoever believes.’ The point is that all the ones believing have eternal life. There is no such thing as a believing person who will not receive the promised benefit; hence, ‘whosoever.’ This is a common form in John’s writings…. All the passage is saying is that all the ones who believe will have eternal life. It does not even attempt to address who will believe or any of the related issues like human ability or inability and the nature of saving faith.”

Thus, I prefer the phrase “everyone who believes”, as found in some translations (e.g., HCSB, NET, ISV, LEB). In fact, for comparison’s sake, here is the full verse as found in three of my favorites:

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (HCSB)

“For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (NET)

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his uniquely existing Son so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life.” (ISV)

There ya go. That’s the rationale, anyway, for why the beloved John 3:16 is partially misunderstood. Whether you agree with all, some, or none of these arguments, the end result should be, at the very least, an increased familiarity with the text and possibly a more precise understanding of what God was communicating via the Apostle John and, hopefully, of the Gospel message.

P.S.  Again, comments are welcome, but I am *not* looking for a big theological debate here.

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A Few Ideas Re DACA Replacement

While mulling over what to write on this week, I kept thinking about last week’s post. So, I decided to follow it up with a few thoughts — not entirely original, of course — on what I’d like to see in the imminent DACA/DREAMer-oriented legislation. Nothing profound, just my two cents.

Knowing that I am rather conservative in my socio-political leanings, you may be surprised at some of what I suggest. A hard-line “justice” position might say to “throw ’em all out!”, no exceptions. But, believe it or not, I do have a heart and am sympathetic to the plight of many DACA beneficiaries. As I said at the end of my last post, any legislation on this needs to somehow balance compassion, wisdom, and justice. I think the “wisdom” component must take into account things like short-term vs. long-term expenses, public sentiment, and other practical concerns.

Unlike House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, I do not believe that all DREAMers are “lovely” or that we “owe a debt to [their] parents for bringing [them] here….” This is just foolishness. On the other hand, I do not believe that those who were brought over illegally as minors are guilty of breaking immigration law. It is their parents who committed the crime. It is sometimes argued that these DREAMers — many/most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, now — are equally guilty for not having turned themselves in to immigration authorities as soon as they became aware of their illegal status or became of age. If they are legally responsible, I think it is for a lesser crime. All else being equal, I can certainly understand such a person wanting to lay low and hope that they are granted amnesty or, at least, legal status.

Nor do I believe that DREAMers are all or equally “ugly” or unwanted. Some are indeed “living the American Dream” as responsible, law-abiding residents, while others are guilty of rape, murder, fraud, larceny, drug-trafficking/dealing, and/or any number of other serious crimes. Many others are struggling somewhere in the middle. In other words, they run the gamut, just like all immigrants, both legal and illegal. So, I don’t think it is fair or just to treat them all the same.

What would I like to see in the new bill? Well, I’d start with what Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) said,

“Build the wall, secure that border, internal enforcement, and then eliminate the incentives people have to enter this country illegally.”

I can understand if the matter of The Wall might be delayed to a later date, but it mustn’t be taken totally off the table. I’m still in favor of it and of making Mexico pay for it. (See my “Mr. Peña Nieto, Pay For That Wall!” post from last year.) The hiring of thousands of new border agents and upgrading the E-Verify system for hiring new employees, which Townhall’s Guy Benson pointed out already got the approval of a Democratic Senate, are eminently commonsensical. Other “tough border security measures” should also be discussed.

That last measure mentioned by Biggs needs to be done immediately. Like a virtual wall, a law must be implemented that makes it clear going forward that no more “illegal minors” will be given even deferred status but will be detained and deported. (Kindly and humanely, of course.) Obviously, that should cover unaccompanied children (UACs), which were such a problem 3 or so years ago. Similarly, no more “chain migration” or “anchor baby” benefits to the parents or extended families of such children. Nothing should encourage people to bring/send more minors over the border illegally.

No automatic amnesties or citizenships should be granted. After extensive background checks, the current DACA enrollees should be split into three groups:

1) Those with violent criminal histories.
2) Law-abiding residents who are currently in school or gainfully employed.
3) Everyone in between.

The first group should be immediately deported or imprisoned, as should any other illegal immigrants who are guilty of serious crimes. The second group should be immediately given the option of applying for a green card, which when granted would give them lawful permanent resident status in the United States. There might also be some sort of fees they would have to pay (via payment plan) to compensate for any minor violations while an adult and/or to partially offset certain benefits they have enjoyed at taxpayer expense. After a minimum 5(?) years in good standing with a green card, they can apply for naturalized citizenship like anyone else (i.e., with no “special” consideration, either good or bad). Or, maybe citizenship shouldn’t be an option — I haven’t quite decided.

The third group would immediately be put on a sort of probation, taken on a case-by-case basis, with their future status dependent on circumstances and what they do (or not) in the near future. (For example, a teen or 20-something who “needs direction” but hasn’t done anything really bad might be given an option of taking school seriously, getting/maintaining an above-board job, maybe pursuing a degree or joining the military.) Assuming they become responsible, law-abiding residents, they can apply for permanent residence (i.e., green card), but the option for citizenship might be off the table.

In other words, something like the SUCCEED Act, but with more security measures attached. I realize that there would need to be many more details ironed out (e.g., where do you deport someone, when their country of origin cannot be determined?). But, the above seems reasonable to me. As Benson has pointed out, polls indicate:

“Americans overwhelmingly [86%] support an equitable resolution for DREAMers, and by nearly a 40-point margin, they’re willing to couple that legislative goal with ‘more border security.'”

Keep in mind, I am only holding out the possibility of citizenship for those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors and who have subsequently become productive, law-abiding residents. Even so, they would not get it right away, nor would they get any other special treatment. (Except, of course, for not being deported first.) Those who immigrated here illegally as adults are another matter (and possibly the subject of another blogpost in the future).

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