The difficulties of defining religion, COVID-19 religious exemptions edition

With people seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the question of how to define religion arises.

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Exemption requests are testing the boundaries of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”

To the benefit of objectors like Holmes, the provision defines “religion” broadly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

They cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs. That means employers must try to distinguish between primarily political objections from people who may happen to be religious and objections that are actually religious at their core.

For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.

This would not be a surprise to sociologists of religion and others who analyze religion in the United States. On the one hand, American religiosity has formal patterns. There are established religious traditions, denominations, and congregations. Christianity has been a dominant religious form and so its beliefs and practices are widespread. The First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and no state religion have provided room for religious groups to develop and grow.

On the other hand, for at least a few decades, American religion has been marked by a willingness by many to decide what their own religion will be comprised of. This ranges from people who attend a congregation but do not necessarily agree with important doctrines or practices to those who create a highly individualized faith that draws on multiple traditions. From the “Sheilaism” of the 1980s discussed in Habits of the Heart to those today who would say they are spiritual but not religious,

This then means that a definition of religion is difficult. Is it as simply as saying that someone “would know religion when they see it?” If the law needs precision in order to make decisions, this definition and its interpretation will be very important to deciding who has a viable religious exemption and who does not.

Water shortage hits the Colorado River and the agreement governing water distribution dates back to 1922

Updating infrastructure to meet new challenges is an issue in numerous areas, including in securing water. The current case of the Colorado River illustrates how updating is needed:

The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water – whether you’re a city, an irrigation district, or a rancher – essentially operate like dibs or calling shotgun in a car.

The phrase that people like to use in the West is “first in time, first in right.” The water users who arrived first in these places where the water is used and claim the water when they got there, hold the most senior water rights, and their water rights remain senior no matter who comes after them. Those senior water rights trump junior water rights even to this day, with an exception: The law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights…

Why has the frontier mindset survived to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?

Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives. In the north, in the mountains, it’s a culture of rugged individualism, and in the south, it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. The rights to the water track to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. [These] cities didn’t exist in the mid-1800s, so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are. So literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.

Future battles about access to water will be fierce, particularly in places where less water is available than in the past.

Will this slow growth in states where growth has been a feature of life for decades? This could affect communities, metropolitan areas, states, and a whole region.

Does this help break the obsession Americans have with green grass lawns? The drought in California half a decade ago could have been just a taste of the future.

Does this become a major issue in elections? How exactly does a water distribution renegotiation occur, particularly if elected officials have little direct influence?

What would a more collectivist mindset to water look like in the United States compared to a more individualistic approach or one rooted in history in the area? I could imagine a quick switch of systems would be difficult but phasing in changes over time might be possible.

Facebook and powerful actors

The Wall Street Journal reports on the ways powerful people interact with the platform differently compared to regular users:

The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.

At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

This will likely get a lot of attention for the different approach to different kinds of users. That elite members are treated differently could get interesting in an era with an increased focus on inequality and the influence of social media.

I am also interested in hearing more about how much Facebook and other social media platforms rely on powerful and influential people. Celebrities, whether in politics, entertainment, sports, the arts, or other spheres, are important figures in society. Elite figures may not be like regular users in that they attract a lot of views and promote engagement among other users. Social media platforms want users to engage with content and elites may provide just that.

Going further, social media platforms have power users. For example, a small percent of Twitter users are highly engaged. Social media use and content generation is even across different users. Should those who generate more content and engagement operate under a different set of rules? Is having provocative users or people who push the boundaries (or even get away with breaking the rules) good for business?

This makes me wonder if there would be a market for a social media platform that puts users on a more level playing field. If we know that certain resources, statuses, and social markers lead to differential treatment, might an online platform be able to even things out?

The Sopranos prequel highlights the path from Newark neighborhood to suburban McMansion

The Sopranos’ McMansion is a key part of the original show. The new prequel movie might help explain how the family ended up in a New Jersey McMansion:

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By the 1990s, the mob was operating out of detached villas with swimming pools in upstate New Jersey, but if you want to learn precisely why the adult Tony Soprano lives in a gilded McMansion rather than a clapboard house with a stoop in Newark like his mother’s, The Many Saints Of Newark has the answer.

As Harold’s fortunes rise, black families move onto the same streets as Italians, causing much angst to the latter, including Tony’s parents, Johnny Boy and Livia Soprano. It makes Tony’s racism that much more obvious when, 30 years later, his daughter, Meadow, brings home her mixed-race college boyfriend. “I think there was talk, back in the day, about ‘Were black people getting short shrift on The Sopranos?’” says Odom Jr. “Was our story being told? I think David had a desire this time to look at an arc that really didn’t get explored the first time, at how the two communities intertwined and where they butted up against each other.”

This sounds like a white flight story line: as the population of Newark changed, as more Black residents moved into what were exclusively white neighborhoods, white residents moved out. This happened in numerous cities across the United States (as my own research on religious groups in the Chicago area adds to). In The Sopranos, Tony and cronies make money off housing programs in the city.

At the same time, this narrative could say more about a general move to the suburbs and less about the specific move to the suburban McMansion at the heart of the show. Tony Soprano presumably used his wealth to purchase a big home in a quiet subdivision to hide his work and give his family an opportunity at a more normal suburban life. But, did he go straight from Newark to the suburban McMansion? Did his journey include a more modest suburban starter home or a suburban apartment (as it did for other characters on The Sopranos)? Did a young adult Tony Soprano make his moves from a suburban split-level or anonymous apartment off a major suburban road?

The housing path of Tony Soprano is not an inconsequential part of the story that is being developed here; it highlights his family history, his success, and his goals in life. If I see The Many Saints of Newark, I will be keeping an eye on the residences depicted within the film.

The capacity of a big box store with COVID distancing guidelines

Big box stores are ubiquitous in the United States today. From Walmart to Costco to Home Depot and more, they line major roadways and attract many shoppers. Outside of briefly considering how many people could fit into one of the buildings during Black Friday shopping or when seeing an empty building serve as a COVID-19 vaccine site, I do not regularly contemplate the capacity of the structures.

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Yet, in a recent trip to a nearby Target, I saw a sign stating how many people could be in the store given COVID-19 distancing guidelines. The number: 672 people. If that is the crowd allowed during COVID-19, the capacity during regular times must be quite a bit higher. Here are some numbers for Walmart stores in April 2020 when they imposed restrictions:

Starting Saturday, Walmart stores will allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet of space. The restrictions will keep the stores at roughly 20% of their capacity, the company said. The average Walmart store is about 180,000 square feet. About 900 shoppers would be permitted in a store that size under the new restrictions.

From these numbers, the regular capacity for a 180,000 square foot store would be about 4,500 customers. The name big box store does not then solely refer to square footage; at full capacity a single store could hold more people than a small town or more than many full high school buildings.

Even during COVID-19, a large number of people are allowed in the building. I have been to big box stores during COVID but I do not think the stores were ever close to the reduced capacity. This does not mean I was not close to other customers; big box stores are set up like suburban subdivisions where foot traffic is funneled to main arteries (primary roads) and different sections have their own aisles (side streets). Still, there was a lot of room to operate in buildings that sometimes can seem to stretch out to the horizon.

9/11 occurred during a different era

As the United States marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, it also provides a reminder that the events happened a while ago. American society and the world were different then. Here are a few scattered thoughts on how this passage of time influences how Americans view that day.

The Ground Zero Memorial in July 2012

-I saw a statistic that roughly 1/4 of Americans alive today were not alive on September 11, 2001. I have been aware of this for at least a few years as the college students I teach were either very young or not yet alive then. To a significant number of Americans, 9/11 is history.

-So much has happened since then that makes it all seem like a different era. The response to the attacks kicked off the War on Terror and the consequences are still being felt (see recent events in Afghanistan). Political polarization increased. The housing bubble burst and more economic instability seems present. Two presidents served their time in office and did so in very different ways.

-The commemorations often stress the quick coming together for rescue and cleanup efforts alongside the expressions of unity among members of Congress and Americans. This did not last long.

-We now have official memorials in numerous locations, including at the sites of the attacks and in communities around the country. Will these be altered or viewed differently as years go by?

Future commemorations will face these issues even more. The United States is not new to such change – how D-Day and Pearl Harbor are marked differs with the increasing age of those alive at the time and World War II might seem like eons ago, the memory of the Civil War has been a conflict for over a century – but subsequent decisions and events could solidify or change 9/11 narratives in ways that might be hard to predict.

Is the politeness of a “Please… pick up after your pet” sign effective?

On a recent walk down a nearby street, an older man stopped, pointed at the sign pictured below, and said, “It should say: Don’t be a jerk and pick up after your pet.” I made a startled quick response and continued on my walk.

The sign is very polite. It includes both “please” and “thank you.” The politeness is hard to miss in multiple ways: the polite words are at the top and bottom in a different font and the signs are all throughout the neighborhood.

At the same time, the niceties cannot cover up several unpleasant aspects of this sign. The polite words surround a command (“pick up after your pet”). The sign references poop. Finally, the need for the signs suggests not everyone follows these rules.

Would the sign be more effective if it did away with the politeness? Is the potential offender of this request going to be swayed by the politeness? There are other options for the sign. It could include no polite phrases. It could reference consequences, such as fines. It could appeal to shared norms (example: “keep our neighborhood clean”).

The politeness of the sign might be more about the people putting it up and upholding these guidelines. They want to reference a community atmosphere where people collectively care for the environment. Pronouncing a command does not seem to be as bad when couched in polite terms.

The comment of the man who talked to me hints at the ongoing issue at hand: a polite sign may not produce the desired outcome. But, if signs become more pointed or punitive, all semblance of peaceful neighborhood life might disappear.

Why I would choose to read a 700+ page book versus an 11 page summary on an important historical period

I recently read two histories of a similar time period and both texts addressed the North American aspects of the Seven Years’ War. However, the texts had very different lengths. One book was over 700 pages and included many details. The other book included a summary of the same war in 11 pages. Which was the better read?

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Much of this answer depends on what I hoped to accomplish in my reading. Months ago, I had stumbled onto the Wikipedia page for the Seven Years’ War and realized I knew relatively little about it. The North American branch of this conflict involved relatively few troops yet had very important implications for the subsequent history of the United States. I searched out some recommendations on notable academic histories that addressed this period and received a few books from my library. I wanted to know more and now I had options.

I enjoyed reading the 700+ page book. Did I need all the details in my life? Probably not, but much of what I read was fascinating and provided insights that shorter summaries could not. I am glad that I read all of this so that at least at one point in life I could say I tried to take in all of this knowledge.

The 11 page summary was also interesting and well-written. It also took much less time. I recognized the high points of the conflict from the much longer narrative. These high points made a lot more sense given all the details I had read not too long before.

In the academic world, we run into these sorts of issues all the time: how much knowledge do I need to proceed? Would a one page summary be sufficient or should I devote years to studying this? We publish different length materials, ranging from encyclopedia entries and shorter notes to longer articles and books. One cannot read and study everything so we must be judicious in what we spend our time on. Yet, the joys of diving deeply into material is one of the best parts of study and research.

Having read both texts, I am still in favor of reading the much longer text. I may go years before reading anything on the Seven Years’ War and the longer text gave me plenty to consider. I had the time to spend on it and I may not make the same decision regarding another subject area given different circumstances. But, for two weeks this summer, reading a lot about the Seven Years’ War was a good decision.

Keeping Donald Trump in front of impressionable suburban voters

Several November 2021 political races involve a consistent invocation of former president Donald Trump:

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The suburbs have always been competitive political territory, but they have taken on a different significance with urban and rural voters spinning further and further away from one another. Last December, a top Democratic operative laid out for me one way of thinking about the party’s future: Had Democrats just rented the suburbs under Trump, or do they own them? The suburbs’ highly educated, middle-class, family-oriented, moderate, predominantly white, and (in terms of actual swing votes) mostly women voters may be ready to stick with the Democratic Party for the long haul. But just in case, McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats are doing their best to make sure that the former president is still a part of this year’s elections.

The battle for suburban voters continues (most recent posts on the topic here and here).

A twist not mentioned in this article is that Trump had a particular vision for suburbia that he expressed multiple times in the summer of 2020. The particular current issues might be different or in a different form – COVID-19 has ongoing implications for suburbanites in year two of the pandemic, especially in places devoted to raising kids – but there are some underlying questions Trump raised: should suburbs be exclusive to particular groups? Should communities be free to exercise local control? The suburbs have changed in recent years and will likely to continue to change but what narratives will be told about this could still be up for grabs.

While Trump is the focus here, this seems to continue a pattern employed by both parties in recent years: tie local or state issues to who the parties think are disliked national figures. Democrats want to tie Republicans to Trump, Republicans want to tie Democrats to Nancy Pelosi. While these national figures might have some influence over more local contexts, there are also important local issues to consider.

What are the odds that a proposed 5 million person American city built from scratch gets off the ground?

A recently unveiled plan from an American billionaire for a new large city verges on the utopian:

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The cleanliness of Tokyo, the diversity of New York and the social services of Stockholm: Billionaire Marc Lore has outlined his vision for a 5-million-person “new city in America” and appointed a world-famous architect to design it…

The former Walmart executive last week unveiled plans for Telosa, a sustainable metropolis that he hopes to create, from scratch, in the American desert. The ambitious 150,000-acre proposal promises eco-friendly architecture, sustainable energy production and a purportedly drought-resistant water system. A so-called “15-minute city design” will allow residents to access their workplaces, schools and amenities within a quarter-hour commute of their homes…

The first phase of construction, which would accommodate 50,000 residents across 1,500 acres, comes with an estimated cost of $25 billion. The whole project would be expected to exceed $400 billion, with the city reaching its target population of 5 million within 40 years…

On Telosa’s official website, Lore explains that he was inspired by American economist and social theorist Henry George. The investor cites capitalism’s “significant flaws,” attributing many of them to “the land ownership model that America was built on.”

From what I read here, I would say the odds are low that this comes close to the proposed population. Playing Simcity is one thing; building a large city from scratch and with such a master plan is difficult to pull off in the United States. At the same time, having a good plan and incorporating the latest ideas could help avoid problems later that cities face as they age (such as with infrastructure). Taking the best of older cities and adding more recent ideas could break through the problem of updating existing communities.

One factor I could see in favor of this plan is a significant public-private partnership developed with a state or a local government. The United States has a long history of public-private partnerships to address public goods. Imagine a state or county or public agency that is looking for a unique opportunity or a way to generate economic activity. Starting a new city with multiple funding sources could help provide jobs, residences, and a new sense of community. This could be the “garden city” of the twenty-first century on a grander scale compared to the smaller American efforts in the twentieth century.