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Is this really a Christian nation?

By Mike Frates

Is the United States of America a Christian nation? Well, that depends upon how you choose to construct the question.

I have a world of respect for Judge William Carey, and I enjoyed the opinion piece he submitted to The New Bedford Standard-Times published Sunday, March 11 (“Your View: A free lunch on contraceptive services.”) That said, I do wonder if Judge Carey is picking favorites regarding the specific clauses in the First Amendment to our national Constitution. “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ” is the second clause in the Amendment, and where the faithful usually hang their hat, but we do curtail religious practice in this country, don’t we? In fact, the very first time the Supreme Court interpreted this clause, that’s the conclusion it reached. “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”

The Reynolds case involved a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who married a woman already married to another man. Now, in the Mormon religion, polygamy is considered a religious practice sanctioned by their holy creed, and we stopped it dead in its tracks. As recently as 1990, the Supreme Court was willing to uphold state laws that criminalize certain religious ceremonies, albeit only indirectly. In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, our High Court ruled that Native Americans were not exempt from the laws of our land, and could not ingest peyote during religious ceremonies while it remained as a criminal offense on Oregon’s books. So long as the prohibition against peyote indiscriminately applied to all Oregonians, the faithful had to bow to it.

Notably, Florida screwed this up in 1993 with Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah when they sought to-single out a specific religion, Santeria, and criminalize a particular religious practice: animal sacrifice. We even saw a bit of such prejudice right here in my home town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, recently when William Camacho was discovered holding chickens for slaughter and consumption in accordance with his chosen religion, Palo Mayombe. A Caribbean religion similar to Santeria. With all the hoopla involving Mr. Camacho, I laughed out loud at the hysterical proposition that the chickens in Mr. Camacho’s custody met a harsher fate, prior to his dinner, than do the commercially processed birds that land on our dinner tables.

Let me tell you something, take a glance into the world of commercial poultry and you will soon realize: That was one pampered chicken.

So, here we are. The Catholic Church and its ministries, including private universities and hospitals, have a religious prohibition against providing their employees with birth control. The government has mandated that all employers in the country provide their employees with the same. The mandate in question in no way singles out the Catholic Church; it clearly applies to all employers and all employees across the nation. And, yet, the Catholic Church has hunkered down for a fight. Do they think they can win? Probably, and due in no small part to the general belief that Judge Cary touched upon in his letter: that this is a Christian nation.

This leads us to the first clause in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Is the United States of America a Christian nation? Well, that depends upon how you choose to construct the question. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian. This is both clearly true and part of the problem. It’s problematic because, as such a strong majority, they stand ready to run roughshod over the rights of their fellow religionists, and the rest of us, by promoting a vision of America that incorporates their beliefs while ignoring those of others. In the matter at hand, the Catholic Church wants preferential treatment due to its sheer numbers and kindred spirit with the far larger population of Protestants.

Implicated here are the economic and social consequences of supporting unwanted children often shouldered by unwed mothers who otherwise had dreams and opportunity of their own. I can hear the mantra now: abstinence, abstinence, abstinence. This always reminds me of that old saying, “Conservatives care a great deal for your baby – right up to the moment he or she is born.” Is this a Christian nation? No, not as long as the establishment clause prohibits that final, governmental endorsement and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment stands ready to protect religious minorities from the, “tyranny of the majority,” in Tocqueville’s words.

Judge Carey’s preferred construction of this debate is that it’s all about a, “struggle for power,” but isn’t every political, social or commercial contest a, “struggle for power,” if you so choose to view it that way? The definition of, “power,” is getting someone to do something they don’t want to do.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, March 15, 2012.


Blue Lives, Black Lives, ‘The Republic’ and ‘Leviathan’

By Mike Frates

A strong central government may be necessary to keep us in check, but that same government may be employed as a tool of oppression in the hands of a tyrant.

Plato of classical Athens, to this day, is one of the ten most cited intellectuals in contemporary scholarly publishing. This should at least give us pause since he was also one of the Western tradition’s most ardent critics of democracy. In any case, we have decided to make a go of it, and, accordingly, we can’t simply sit back and blame our problems on a tyrant. A democratic republic places responsibility for our state of affairs squarely upon our shoulders, and the loss of life in our African-American communities at the hands of the police is no exception. This piece is about the relationship between our sovereign and her citizens.

Signed during the summer of 1215, the Magna Carta was an agreement between an unpopular English king and his barons. More than just commercial issues, the Magna Carta guaranteed a modest set of civil liberties to the wealthy aristocrats subject to his rule. Within weeks, the document was scrapped, and, some years later, annulled by the pope, but the Magna Carta earned its place in history as the first time limitations were imposed upon the authority of a legitimate European monarch.

The need for such an agreement had become clear; the West has been no stranger to tyranny. The first ruling family of the Roman Empire, the Julio Claudians, gave us two of history’s most famous tyrants. Germanicus, better known by his nickname, Caligula, and Nero, whose malevolence became legendary. A democratic republic doesn’t necessarily inoculate against the rise of a tyrant. The Roman Republic, which preceded the Empire, produced Sulla, and Hitler came to power by completely legitimate means. Indeed, the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville counseled us against the, “tyranny of the democratic majority.”

This conversation was defined by Thomas Hobbes of 17th century Europe. Hobbes believed that we are a fundamentally flawed species. He believed that life for, “man in the state of nature,” was unpredictable. “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” His masterpiece, “Leviathan,” published in 1651, argued for a strong central government to check the passions and proclivities of men. “Leviathan” may be the second most influential work of political theory we have after Plato’s “Republic”.

And, herein lies the problem: A strong central government may be necessary to keep us in check, but that same government may be employed as a tool of oppression in the hands of a tyrant. In 1748, Montesquieu published “The Spirit of the Laws” exhorting us to divide our government into separate, coequal branches with a Judicial Branch dedicated to mediating the executive’s desire to enforce the law contra its citizens. President Rutherford Hayes, in 1878, signed the Posse Comitatus Act into law promising the American people that they will never face the United States military.

Today, our state and federal constitutions serve has a bulwark against such abuse. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our national Constitution, is enforceable only against the government to stem overreach. The First Amendment guarantees the government won’t punish us for speaking our mind. The Fourth Amendment ensures freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. And, the Eighth Amendment promises we won’t be subject to cruel or unusual punishment. The government must prove our transgressions in a court of law, as required by the Sixth Amendment.

Understanding manufacturing processes is part of any good business school curriculum. No one cares if you’re building cars, rugs or light bulbs; the principles are the same. So, when the professor gets the inevitable question from one of her students, she responds, “Today, we’re building ‘Widgets’.” Likewise, no two Americans are alike. We all have different histories, biases and beliefs. Some of us are caring and gregarious while others sharp or perhaps a bit slow. Some hold good will in our hearts and others less so. A police officer has no idea who he will encounter on any given shift so he is trained for any contingency.

When it comes to lives both blue and black, l would simply like to make one point. When a confrontation takes place on our streets between a police officer and a black man, consider this: On one side of this equation is a police officer with a badge and a gun. Standing behind that police officer is the municipality by whom he is employed. Standing behind that municipality is, in my case, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and standing behind the Commonwealth, by operation of the 10th Amendment, is the most powerful political entity in the history of civilization. On the other side is a widget.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, November 6, 2016.

The Enlightenment and its Enemy: White Nationalism

By Mike Frates

Our goal should be to repress our inner Troglodyte, and embrace our better angels, but that’s not the problem right now. The problem is that the troglodytes are winning.

The European Enlightenment of the 1780s made two promises. The first, if we embrace reason to the exclusion of all other human capacities, the inner workings of nature will be revealed, and the technology that results will better our lives. The price we paid was the embrace of a loving God. As the great Enlightenment philosophers began to apply reason like a scalpel to our understanding of human nature, Jeremy Bentham and Emmanuel Kant were developing sophisticated theories of moral philosophy that bring us to the second covenant. The Enlightenment also promised to make us better people, instilling the wisdom with which to wield this technology. One promise was kept, the other … not so much.

Our species survived for quite a while without the benefit of Enlightenment principles. We fashioned tools out of rocks and sticks to better manipulate our environment. Hunting methods provided us with the protein necessary to support our evolutionarily expensive large brains. And, we developed strategies to exploit the resources around us. That which was different from us may have been dangerous in the form of competitors or predators.

Hunter-gathering gave way to farming, and crop surpluses allowed families to barter for goods and services. The feudal bureaucracy was born. Militaries were assembled, and walls were built to protect us from other humans. We continued to highlight the differences between ourselves and others because that which was different may have been dangerous. The Portuguese slave trade aggravated these ingrained, superficial biases.

We share ninety-six percent of our DNA with one of the most vicious and territorial animals on the planet, Pan troglodytes: the chimpanzee. As we civilized ourselves, those hunting, social and mating strategies began to translate into two principles that will forever bedevil our species, “pride and respect.” The recognition of which became a zero-sum game. Our attempts to make sense out of our world through mythology, and, later, the three great monotheistic religions, normalized these influences. Instead of describing the evolutionary psychology that shaped our behavior, they became the values that dictated how we should behave.

Militaries grew larger, the walls got higher and the 1780s came and went. The lessons of the Enlightenment triggered Industrialization along with advances in warfare. We also witnessed the geopolitical status quo reach its culmination in balance of power politics. Germany brought the world to the brink of war when England, and the rest of Western Europe, failed to contain Bismarck. The old way of doing business had broken down, and humanity was about to pay a dear price as a result.

We responded to the two World Wars by embracing Enlightenment principles. Nations were no longer judged based solely upon their actions, but now their intentions as well. We held state action to moral standards. We embraced universal human rights in recognition of our common humanity, and self-determination flourished with the spread of democracy. We learned that pooling our resources would result in greater social justice for all. We looked forward to ameliorating human poverty and disease while we looked back upon the Holocaust.

Populist elections both here and in Britain have, for the first time, placed this global order founded on Enlightenment principles under serious attack. But make no mistake: These issues have been raging ever since Nietzsche declared God’s death. Science unleashed the wonders of nature while it reduced love to a chemical reaction. Science charted the heavens as it stripped us of our soul. The death of God meant the death of Our Father who gave our lives meaning and purpose. To embrace reason – to embrace the truth – we had to step out from beneath God’s grace, and find the courage to tackle the world on our own terms. From Roe v. Wade to how we educate our children to our justice system, everyone has a dog in this fight.

There are a few groups who oppose the Enlightenment. Pride of place goes to religious evangelicalism trying to resuscitate an enchanted vision of Camelot, but there is something refreshingly honest about these white nationalists. Instead of using religion to drape their most base impulses in respectability they put their pre-Enlightenment, tribal racism right there on display stripped of any pious pretext. Our goal should be to repress our inner Troglodyte, and embrace our better angels, but that’s not the problem right now. The problem is that the troglodytes are winning.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, April 30, 2017.

Pope Francis and American Conservatism

By Mike Frates

Modern American conservatism represents a triumph of the rich and powerful over all who remain in this country.

“Pure Marxism,” decried Rush Limbaugh in response to Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, or the Joy of the Gospel. Bill O’Reilly later said that Jesus, “wouldn’t be down,” with giving food stamps to the drug addicted: “If you’re an [addict] and you can’t hold a job, and you can’t support your children, … then you’re bringing the havoc. You’re asking people who may be struggling themselves to put food on the table to give their tax money to you, … and then you’re going to buy booze and drugs with it.” It looks like Pope Francis has rattled a few conservative cages with his new emphasis on the plight of the poor. Let me offer one reason why.

John Locke once famously suggested we are born but blank slates, and our conception of the world around us is nothing more than the sum total of our experiences imprinting themselves on that slate. Can you feel the passivity in those words? This particular theory went on to have a major impact in the 20th century, especially in the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner figured, “Why stop at knowledge?” All of human behavior, Skinner thought, could be explained by how we respond to our environment leaving the individual’s role in this analysis more of an empty vessel.

Skinner was wrong, very wrong, and a young man from MIT, Noam Chomsky, made a name for himself in 1967 when he published an academic paper blowing Skinnerian Behaviorism out of the water. Skinner’s Behaviorism was a major theory in 20th century psychology, and, as a result, had a reasonably far-reaching impact on other disciplines. One example was its impact on the Nature/Nurture debate. Much of what we understand about human nature today comes to us through that debate. Nature/Nurture asks, “What role does the environment play in shaping our destiny as opposed to the genes with which our ancestors provided us.”

This is a very touchy argument. Since the dawn of science, racists have been using the “pro-gene” (Nature) argument to make the case that certain cultures, or peoples, are inherently inferior to others. The 19th century actually had a name for it: “The White Man’s Burden.” Liberals gravitated toward the environmental (Nurture) conclusion because it gave rise to an egalitarianism they were more comfortable with. It turns out that the truth is something in between, slightly favoring our genes, but we also have learned that the strong role our genes play needn’t give rise to those ridiculous racist arguments.

Here’s where it gets interesting. This conversation triggers a principle that philosophers call, “agency.” If we can take a child of any pedigree, and turn her into a sinner or a saint, a doctor or a thief, based solely upon what environment she’s subject to (an inner-city ghetto or elite private schools), exactly what room is left for “personal responsibility?” The choices she’s making are defined by her environment. She’s reacting, albeit with a textured richness commensurate with the complexity of her brain, but reacting nonetheless.

Sure, she can choose between reading the New York Times and the Washington Post on any given morning, but her environment has defined the limits of her world as well as her idea of right and wrong just as it has from culture to culture and age to age since the dawn of time. Behaviorism fell by the wayside, but the independent science behind Nurture remained strong.

Modern American conservatism represents a triumph of the rich and powerful over all who remain in this country. Our proud progressive roots, from FDR to the Great Society, evidenced a strong Christian morality for caring for the most vulnerable among us while, at the same time, recognizing that without middle-class labor the rich and powerful in this country would have nothing. The wealthy now had to distract the middle class while they dismantled this tradition.

They chose a divide a conquer strategy, but to succeed – to pit the middle class against the poor – the poor could not simply be victims of their own circumstance. They had to be at fault. They had to bear the blame for the very poverty that shackles them. We live in a capitalist system that has a built in, “structural,” unemployment rate. When everything is working great, this system guarantees an impoverished underclass. Meanwhile, there are CEOs in this country at the helm of multi-million or multi-billion dollar corporations who will die of lung cancer because they can’t quit smoking.

When the poor lose their battle against the mental health and drug addiction issues that bedevil them, we throw them in jail. When the rich and powerful succumb to their own avarice, we bail them out, give them a tax break and send them on their way. Pope Francis hasn’t just embraced the original teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by pointing to Republican policies such as supply-side economics as the cause of the problem, he’s warming the glue that binds together an entire power structure.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, December 12, 2013.

Why are middle-class, white men hording weapons and ammunition?

By Mike Frates

Every generation watches its culture slip away as the next one lays claim to it, but what this post- 9/11 world leaves behind is a little more frightening.

Ancient Greek mythology offers priceless insights into the human condition providing a window into our hearts and minds. The Homeric Greeks were confronted with a world for which they were not prepared. They were tested by births, deaths, lost crops and meteorological events they couldn’t explain.

To cope, they superimposed the famed gods of Mount Olympus, but before Zeus explained away lightning and thunder and his father, Cronos, personified the concept of time, what was there? What was the primordial fear at the center of it all for which the Greeks were trying to account? The answer was Chaos.

Our greatest fear in this world is not our demise. It’s making it to middle age, going to school and taking on the student debt, finding a mate and growing a family with a nice house and white picket fence, then watching helplessly as a drunk driver takes it all away in the blink of an eye for no discernible reason whatsoever. It’s the role chance or contingency plays in our lives. The Greek gods provided a method to Chaos’ madness.

The Homeric Greeks understood the problem, but had no answer for it. The gods of Mount Olympus were capricious characters who embodied Chaos themselves. It took Plato and Aristotle of ancient Athens to provide a solution. The antidote to Chaos is the purpose-driven life. If there was a preordained plan for us, a cosmic order that took each one of us into account, then tragedy was no longer the product of chance in our lives, but a test of our faith in that plan. Everything happened for a reason.

Our destiny was written in the stars – Heavily laden with astrology, this cosmology cradled us in a purpose-driven life. Now, we were all cogs in this grand, cosmic machine, and happiness meant identifying your role in life and fulfilling it. There was a place for each of us. Soon after, the medieval priests welcomed this world view with open arms. Place a crown of thorns on top, and this cosmology fit like a Christian glove. The purpose-driven life became a promise fulfilled by an unchallenged allegiance to a personal God. An elegant, comfortable worldview, but one that was not meant to last.

You’ve heard that Latin phrase of Rene Descartes, “Cogito Ergo Sum,” right? “I think therefore I am,” was famously published in 1641. What Descartes did was plant a seed. Instead of embracing intuition to reveal God, the Cogito wielded human reason to penetrate the world around us. Rather than appealing to the authority of biblical texts, and their priestly interpretations, humanity stepped out from beneath God’s grace to apprehend the world on its own terms. This single idea was literally responsible for the scientific, technological age in which we live.

This rational approach developed into a mathematical perspective exploited by Kepler and Galileo, and their efforts were cashed out by Newton in his masterpiece, “The Principles of Mathematics.” Over the next century, philosophers applied this epistemology – or theory of knowledge – beyond Newton’s physics to politics, early psychology, social theory and the law. Descartes’ seed blossomed into the Enlightenment.

This was the most significant shift in understanding our species has ever experienced. We chose human reason, and the science and technology that accompanied it, over the affirmation of a purpose-driven life that followed an uncritical acceptance of God. Nietzsche declared God’s death at our hands, and lamented the loss of objective moral values, but there was another problem: Chaos was loose.

Chaos is the general anxiety that belies modem life. The great French existentialists of the mid- 20th century engaged Chaos. Without God and the purpose-driven life, we are free to chose our own path, and with that freedom comes a paralyzing fear. Jean Paul Sartre once called denying the nerve-wracking breadth of that choice Bad Faith, highlighting the absurdity of a life that lacks genuine purpose.

September 11th poured fuel on this fire; terrorism traffics in Chaos. Our political institutions can provide some stability, but conservative politics has sown distrust in them. When middle-class, white men feel life begin to fray around the edges, they revert to their role as provider and protector, and when economic recession threatens that role, look for a rise in xenophobic hate-politics like Golden Dawn in Greece, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and Cruz and Trump in the United States.

Every generation watches its culture slip away as the next one lays claim to it, but what this post- 9/11 world leaves behind is a little more frightening. Middle class, white men are hoarding weapons in an effort to project a sense of permanency on a world constantly shifting beneath their feet, but Chaos rarely presents with a bulls-eye on its back.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, February 7, 2016.

The Second Amendment and Sandy Hook: How relevant are twenty dead children?

By Mike Frates

After Newtown, this country engaged in a very serious conversation about what the loss of those lives meant to us. The problem is that our policies didn’t change as a result of that conversation.

Every once in a while, an event takes place across the globe or in our backyard that changes the trajectory of American politics . September 11th is the most pristine example, but that day does not stand alone. One would think that the massacre of twenty of our children, and the deaths of eight more adults, in Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012, would have had some impact, but, eighteen months later, it all seems like so many news cycles ago. One would think that the slaughter of twenty seven people and the suicide of a mentally imbalanced young man, with a legally purchased semiautomatic assault rifle, would have cut deeper into our national conscience. It didn’t.

One reason, I believe, is that we lack a certain kind of context within which to discuss these types of issues. The context I’m referring to is unlike the context that journalists wrangle with, or, “factual context.” After Newtown, this country engaged in a very serious conversation about what the loss of those lives meant to us. The problem is that our policies didn’t change as a result of that conversation. The implication is that what we learned simply didn’t sufficiently move us. This is what I will not accept. Every American felt the loss of those innocents that day, yet half of us resolved to change our firearm laws to reflect a, “Post-Newtown World,” and the other half reached for their ammunition. Let me offer you one reason why.

There are two different perspectives that Americans tend to embrace: the religious and the natural. Both of these viewpoints have healthy support in our current social institutions. Yet, at the same time, they are both deeply rooted in our philosophical history. In 1641, Rene Descartes, the great rationalist, published his, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” (It was subtitled, “In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul is demonstrated.”) and introduced the Western World to Cartesian Dualism. The idea is that the world (reality) comprises two different kinds of stuff: the physical and the immaterial. The world you see around you, the physical world, is subject to the laws of physics, and unfolds by virtue of unbroken natural law, but our mind (or soul, if you prefer) is a different matter (pardon the pun).

For Descartes, the physical domain is simply deterministic. This is a hard conclusion to avoid. If you spend the next 20 years of your life setting up the most complicated string of dominoes humanity has ever known, when you flip the first one, the outcome is completely dependent upon the laws of physics. No amount of wishful thinking, either by you or the domino, is going to change that outcome, save some future intervention. That being the case, what about we humans? Well, moral responsibility requires a choice, and if you can’t make that choice, then you are nothing more than one of those countless dominoes awaiting your fate. Why don’t the laws of physics act upon the neurons in our brain, the same way they act upon the dominoes?

Our mind, according to Descartes, plays by different rules. It exists, but it is neither physical nor extended. It’s immaterial; it’s made out of the same kind of stuff our ideas or dreams are made of, and it gives rise to our personality, wants, desires and talents. And, our freewill, but, since it’s not a part of the physical world, it allows us to freely negotiate our way through the, “clockwork universe.” This is big freewill: Independent freedom to choose our path in an otherwise deterministic universe.

A hundred years later, the renowned empiricist David Hume would set us on a different course. Hume was a materialist. He believed that the only stuff in this world is the material, physical matter we see around us, and the only way we have access to it is through our five senses. Hume believed in freewill, but his materialism brought him closer to the physical world, and the consequences of our interaction with it. David Hume set the stage for the Age of Science.

When a Second Amendment advocate says, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” she’s expressing a very Cartesian sentiment. She’s saying, “No matter what you say, when I pick up that gun, I have control. I can freely choose what happens next, and, whatever the outcome, I am responsible.” When someone with a naturalistic, scientific worldview is confronted with the same scenario, they think, “Hey, we’re nothing more than smart animals, and we’re subject to the laws of statistics like anything else. And, when you take 300 million people, and toss a bunch of weapons into the mix, you get (tragically) predictable results.” And, this is why this debate will never be settled.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, May 28, 2014.

Modernity and the meaning of life

By Mike Frates

Our species has an unbelievable capacity to draw arbitrary lines in the sand, like skin color, then kill, maim and persecute one another as a result.

By Mike Frates

Contemporary American Conservatism began under President Ronald Reagan, and has since become a scourge on American society with no end in sight. The Republicans’ single-minded pursuit of enriching the wealthy at the expense of everyone else has been, in large part, realized. The result has been an exploding national debt brought on by slashing taxes on the rich, a callous disregard for anyone who can’t help themselves, a deteriorating national infrastructure and the greatest inequality our nation has seen since the Gilded Age.

So, how did we get into this pickle? Between 1848 and 1867, Karl Marx, the great 19th century German philosopher, was catapulted to fame with the publication of two works: “The Communist Manifesto,” with Friedrich Engels, and, “Das Kapital.” Marx predicted that this calamity wouldn’t come to pass. He predicted that the working class would rise up, seize control of the levers of capitalism and reap the benefits of their own toil. Clearly, this hasn’t happened. Why? What did Marx miss? To answer that question, we look to another great 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the question of values.

Although the rich have monopolized ninety percent of our nation’s financial resources, they number very few. They could buy K Street lobbyists to twist arms on Capitol Hill, but they needed votes in the voting booth to advance their agenda. The problem Republicans faced was how to convince everyday Americans to explicitly vote against their own best economic interests. The brilliance of Ronald Reagan lay in how he solved this problem.

The Dixie Democrats were a group of mostly poor, white, southern folk who were essentially holding a grudge against the party of Lincoln for 130 years. Reagan’s plan was simple, “If we keep talking to these people about God, Guns and Gays, they won’t mind if we take all of their money away from them and give it to the rich.” Between saber rattling against the threat of communism and racist “dog whistle” messaging (Reagan’s “Welfare Queens”), the Dixie Democrats fell right in line. The Dixies gave way to the Evangelical Christian crowd which eventually morphed into today’s Tea Party, the Republican base.

Middle class Americans routinely vote Republican, but the most dedicated among them seem impenetrable to commonsense argument or basic scientific literacy. What I’m suggesting is that Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, was wrong when he called his party the, “Party of Stupid.” The Christians trying to introduce creationism into our public schools are not stupid. Wrong on an epic scale, yes, but not stupid. Why are they willing to forsake their children’s economic future and birthright in favor of lip service from a politician thousands of miles away? To answer this question we turn to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s genius was in recognizing the central problem of Modernity: The problem of values. When the Age of Christendom, the Dark Age, receded into the Modem Era between 1500 and 1641 A.D., God was no longer placed at the center of the Western World. Our embrace of “reason” to understand the world and our place in it, the (incomplete) definition of Modernity, undermined this uncritical acceptance of God that preceded it. That’s what prompted Nietzsche to proclaim, “God is dead, and we killed him.”

Today, Christians look to non-believers like me and say, “Without God, there are no objective moral values.” Humanists respond, somewhat indignantly, “The validity of moral judgments has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of a god.” Nietzsche would have agreed with the Theists that the death of God meant the end of objective moral principles. Values to Nietzsche have been reduced to a pastiche of beliefs cobbled together from preexisting religious systems that no longer share a foundation. What Nietzsche realized, and Marx misjudged, was the strength of this unquenchable thirst for objective moral guidance.

This is not the whole story. Our species has an unbelievable capacity to draw arbitrary lines in the sand, like skin color, then kill, maim and persecute one another as a result. Overt racism has served the GOP well. And, the creature comforts afforded the middle class today may have dulled our sense of economic injustice. Our nation’s economy is a far cry from the ruthless, laissez-faire capitalism that Marx railed against.

Dan Dennett of Tufts University wrote in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, “Is this tree of life a god one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue . . .  Is something sacred? Yes, I say with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.” The lesson Modernity has to teach us is that it is our responsibility to imbue our lives with meaning.

Mike Frates practices criminal law in the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Originally published in the New Bedford Standard Times, September 13, 2015.