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This is Point of Inquiry for Monday, November 12th, 2012.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney one of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and the grassroots. On this show, we always circle back to a central theme, the state of American secularism. This week, my guest has a pretty provocative thesis about this. He says that secularity in the US has clearly lost major ground. The religious right is clearly the reason and to recover from that loss. He’s got some suggestions that I’m afraid are not going to go down well. But it’s important to hear them. His name is Jack Berlinerblau. He’s author of the new book How to Be Secular. A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. He’s an associate professor at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, where he directs the Program for Jewish Civilization. And I called him on to talk about what we can do to make American secularism stronger and more vibrant. And at least consider the idea, as he suggests, that there might be a time for political allegiance with, yes. Religious moderates.
Before we get to the interview with Schoch Berlinerblau, I want to remind you that this episode is sponsored by Audible Audible as the Internet’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. Audible offers over 100000 hours of audio to download. And it’s a point of inquiry listener. You can get a free audio book just by going to Audible podcast dot com slash point. For example, we just had Oliver Sacks on the show talking about his new book, Hallucinations. You can get that book for free on Ownable again. All you have to do is go to Audible podcast dot com slash point.
Jacques Berlinerblau, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Hi, Chris, how are you? Pretty good.
It’s good to have you talk about this perennial even obsession of ours in this show, the state of American secularism or or secularity.
And, you know, that’s why I’m so interested in your book. And you say I’m in a quote. The topic is the recent crackup of American secularism and the therapeutic steps required for its rehabilitation. So let’s talk about this crackup first. Why did secularism, which is such a good idea, start to fail in one word?
And, you know, my book is about seventy five thousand words, but in two words, the Christian right. I think once they decided to get back in the game in the 70s, things unraveled really, really fast. And maybe we should dig down a little deeper and figure out why they unraveled so quickly.
Well, sir, let’s I mean, just and let me just, you know, Mark time by saying that, you know, we’re just in the center for inquiry. We’re mourning the death of Paul Kurtz, our founder.
And he was really in the 80s, especially going up against the Moral Majority and making the case for secular humanism. He was really, you know, in the lead at that time. But will you, sir, you suggest in the book, is it actually, that was when our star was waning and their star was rising.
Right. I mean, I tried to figure out who were the secularists in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And I think one of the most interesting things that I discovered was that secularism was a strange sort of coalition of isms that didn’t necessarily share a broader worldview outside of a commitment to separation ism or the walling off of church and state. And I kept coming back to that problem as I tried to figure out why the secular vision unraveled so quickly over the course of a few decades. It just kind of disintegrated. I do think the case of the late Paul Kurtz is quite interesting because he was one of the few people that took the name Secular and owned it and tried to explain what secularism was about. I have a chapter on him in the book. I don’t think the political programs of the secular humanistic movement really achieved its goals and aims and ends. Nevertheless, I find a lot to respect there and a lot to admire in what he did.
Well, it’s because, I mean, it was a program of ideas, right? And this is at a time when I think it would take probably a decade or more to really realize what the threat was when it was a new threat.
So, you know, we were more secular than or at least it was much more much more easy to be. And so it probably wasn’t really a movement of the sort. And this is getting ahead of things, but of the sort that you’re saying you need to have.
Right. It was a philosophical movement. Yes. Right.
Not a suffuse go. I think it was interesting. Don’t get me wrong. But I think the American patience for the kind of more or less complex philosophical ideas that Mr. Kurtz was advancing, I don’t think Americans have much patience or interest in that. He never managed to kind of cultivate that broad audience of people who were interested in secularism. The other parts of the coalition which were involved with secular humanism are also quite interesting. What I try to point out in the book is you had a lot of Jews, a lot of Jews who were involved in separation ism. You had groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State with their Protestant heritage. For example, you had liberal Catholics, so you had this kind of coalition of uneasy partners. There are also some professions that were involved, if I can mentioned them, teachers, teacher unions, for obvious reasons. People in Hollywood and in the media were really interested for freedom of expression, motivations and all of this. And finally, I’m sure you’ll find this interesting, Chris.
Pornographers, again, for obvious reasons, were this curious coalition that really buttressed and fortified the wall of separation in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
So what made it weaken besides the Christian right coming along? You just say that there weren’t really I mean, maybe you say this is a vulnerable coalition to begin with.
Yeah, I, I hate to say it because of where I’m sitting right now.
I think there was a failure of leadership and vision. Let me give you some names, which I’m sure you know very well. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed. I mean, those are hard core political leaders with sort of vision. I would say a dark vision and not a vision that I’m very fond of. But nevertheless, if you think of all the leaders of the Christian right, is that we could keep naming them, the two of us, for the next 50 minutes from the late 70s forward. It really is jaw dropping. How much energy and how much dynamism there has been on that side? I don’t think on the secular side. You had anything comparable in terms of leadership and leadership is obviously very important. I don’t think on the side of religious moderates, you had anything comparable in terms of leadership. As I’ve been saying quite often when Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. You didn’t just assassinate a man or an icon or the civil rights movement. You assassinated a whole entire civilizational trajectory. And nobody came to fill that vacuum among religious progressive. So these are some, I think, of the reasons why secularism unraveled as it did.
One place where I think you will be, you know, at least disagreeing with a lot of people listen to this show is you say secularism is not or or maybe should not be merely defending the separation of church and state. What do you mean by that?
Yeah, no, I’m a pragmatist. So, I mean, out here in Washington, I’m at a School of foreign service where I teach. So I deal with a lot of Washington people all the time. And I try to get a sense of how of how things get done. And separation isn’t has a lot of merit and virtue, and it is a variant of the secular version. The problem is, if you speak to folks in the legal community or they’ll tell you that separation ism is dead on the United States Supreme Court level anyhow. And it’s been dead for a couple of decades. And this is not the way the court is thinking. And on the state level, it’s even worse. So I’m not trying to disparage separation isn’t I’m trying to be really pragmatic about this. What do you do when the judicial branch, the legislative branch and the executive branch are no longer buying into separation ism? And this is literally a call to arms? We need to rethink this one. We need to come up with new and more profound legal strategies that can undermine some of the really kind of creative and dynamic. And just just almost vicious stuff. Right. That’s coming up from the other side. And I do want to say this again. I’ve spoken about leadership. I think there’s kind of a brain drain. That’s something I noticed in the 70s, 80s and 90s where the best and the brightest were no longer hooking their wagons to the secular side of things. So one thing I would like to do is figure out who the scholars, in particular the scholars are that understand the legal questions involved. I think all legal scholars agree that separation does and this kind of done. And I’d love to see them get together some kind of star chamber and chart out a legal course which isn’t necessarily separation.
Well, I want to unpack this idea that it’s done. I mean, is it done for meritorious reasons or is it done because courts have become right wing?
I mean, if you look at the Dover evolution trial, for example, which is just a district court in 2005, but it’s a powerful decision and it’s a strong separation is decision. And it’s a really strong legal victory for science reason and separation of church and state. Unless I’m missing something that that’s still happened really within recent memory. So what do you mean?
Well, that’s a good one. I mean, IRA Lupu wrote a book in the mid 90s, I think was called The Lingering Death of Separation. And so the idea that the the fundamental tenants of separation is and I do agree with you, the Dover cases, what is one bright moment? But if you look at the way the justices think about church state issues, they’re not thinking in terms of what we have to put up a wall. A wall is what the Constitution demanded. If we go by the original intention of the founders, what we will conclude is we need to erect a wall. I do agree with you that the Dover case is an important case. But look at the recent case in Arizona. I think it was called Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization versus Wind. And this is something I hear a lot from lawyers in Washington, D.C., where folks can’t even get standing in court to bring establishment cases to the attention of the Supreme Court. When this was decided in the late 60s, the Flass case was an eight to one decision. I believe it was reversed five four last year. So in terms of establishment jurisprudence, I really do think I’ll I’ll double down, if you will.
I really do think separation isn’t just isn’t working out. I’m not an opponent of separation ism. I think that’s really important that we put that out there. I just don’t see it legally having too many victories other than the one you mentioned and maybe maybe a few others.
I want to remind our listeners that Jacques Berlinerblau is new book, How to Be Secular A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom is available through our Web site.
Point of inquiry, dawg. So let’s let’s go to the fix, as you describe it. It is movement based and it is all about religious moderates. Now, what I find striking about this is it’s not so much about atheists as the non religiously affiliated for you, but that this is a really growing group. Why not put more weight on them?
You mean the nuns, right? Right. Yeah, I do. I see the atheist.
Always as the kind of spark and dynamic intellect of secular movements, they punch way above their weight. Ones that really kind of like think and plan. They’re definitely a part of this coalition that I see going forward. I think the question of the nuns is a little more complicated because as poller after pollster has said, the nuns are necessarily atheists. I think here’s a problem. When I read a lot of let’s say all pro atheists are kind of more extreme atheist literature. There’s this talk about how large the numbers are. And I think that’s really problematic in terms of the level of exaggeration that we see in all of this. The numbers are growing slowly and that’s great, but they’re not 30 million or 25 million or 15 million atheists in the United States. And it’s really important for a growing political movement to understand where its people are and where its people are. So I certainly don’t discount nonbelievers and I don’t discount the nuns vote. If you look at the size of the coalitions we’re looking at, the religious moderates are already built out and ready to go. And they’re about four or five, six times larger than all the nuns combined, including the eighties.
Well, I know it, though. I mean, the latest Pew study is just early October, and I agree with you. The nuns aren’t atheists, but I don’t think they like their fichus. Right. And and they were a fifth of the public.
Right. They came out to about 20 percent. Did did I give you the impression that I thought the nuns like the religious right? No, on the contrary, I don’t think these are big fans of the Christian right. The problem with nuns and I did get into this a little bit in the book. No, the nun stuff has been known for a while and this has been for decades. The problem with nuns, is there an aggregate right there? Not a group. So there’s no nuns society, right? There’s no nuns temple there.
Individual Americans that don’t have a consciousness of necessarily being a group. Ergo, they’re very, very hard to mobilize. And again, this star chamber of secular thinkers is going to have to ask themselves that question. How do we get a fifth of the American population into secular issues? And that goes back to the question of, well, what does secularism stand for and what is the agenda? What is the platform? So that’s a challenge for secularism in the next decade or so.
OK, well, fair enough.
I just want to I just want to press a little bit on I mean, if you see two roads, I think a lot of people in what I think of as as the secular community would be more interested in getting the nuns to wake up and engage than necessarily forming really broad partnerships with moderates.
And I just want to make clear that you are on the second pass, unpopular on demagogic pass, because I have no problem with religious people. Right. And this is where I get into a lot of, shall we say, dustups with other atheists on the Web. Religion is not the problem for me or the grand metaphysical, existential national security threat that it is for so many others in the movement. Well, let’s take it from there.
Well, look, I mean, I’ve had those I’ve had those dust ups, too. But, I mean, I just want to I just want to be fair to what is called the new Athie ism, although sometimes the people that are called that don’t like it. But I mean, you know, it’s not surprising to find in them such a strong negative reaction against people who are essentially majoritarians because they scare me and they scare you because they don’t seem to have much sense of why there might it might be important to stand up for people who aren’t the majority. You know, I mean, that’s understandable.
I get it. But I went out and I did a lecture out in Texas right in the belly of the beast a couple of weeks ago at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. And I can’t tell you how many pastors were coming to me, Methodist pastors and local pastors and saying, we’re under siege here. Help us. And it was real, Ivan. What can I do? I’m just I’m just a professor. Right. And he were essentially saying that the Christian right in the surrounding area is really doing to them what they’re doing to new atheists and what they’re doing to other atheists. To me, that seems pretty obvious. I mean, I try to identify in the book who the allies are among the religious moderates who almost down the line agree with most atheists and even new atheists on nine out of 10 political issues. How does politics get done in the United States? It gets done through coalitions. So in order to achieve some tangible and we’re just looking for a tangible political goal outside of the stray justice that makes a good decision on the court level in order to to achieve a legislative victory, there’s going to have to be some degree of coalition building. And I kind of get the feeling, Chris, we’re on the same page with this.
Well, I personally, I’m we’re both in Washington, and that’s why I’m a pragmatist. I’m all about getting things done. That’s just sort of my disposition. So I yeah, no, I’m with you, but I just want to explain why others might might bristle at this.
So let’s let’s just stay with you. And so let’s say what does this actually look like? I mean, I don’t know where in the world, in America at least it exists right now. But this kind of team building that you’re talking about, is there any example of it?
I’m sorry, is there any example of a group building coalitions with others that don’t necessarily see eye to eye to them or.
No, no, no, no. Is specifically. Well, there is that there’s no doubt there’s that. But I’m saying, you know, actually really secular atheist folks, on the one hand, real religious moderates on the other, you know, getting together and doing something and accomplishing something.
I don’t know if there are examples of that. I’d like to be I’d like there to be more examples of it. I know precisely where I would start if somebody made me head secularist in charge.
Where would you start? Where let’s go there. Because it’s it’s it’s noteworthy, isn’t it, that it’s we don’t see it out there in the world.
I didn’t think of anything. And you could you you would imagine that there would be some kind of issue where this would lend itself to happening.
All right. Well, here’s where it starts. OK, it’s easy. Honestly. Right. In terms of a starting point, not getting it all going to start with reform Jews. Have you ever been to reform Jewish synagogue and speak to the congregations as to what they think about these church state trespasses and crossings? I mean, this is all all of these folks think about right then go on to every religious minority group in the United States and read some of the kind of amicus briefs they file when these church state issues come up on state or federal levels. Speak to Sikhs. Speak to Hindus. Speak to Muslims. Speak to very small Protestant and other Christian groups in the United States about how they feel about these kinds of establishment initiatives that we’re seeing around the country. If that’s not enough and you want more, start looking at liberal Catholics and look at the way liberal Catholics think about social issues and how they feel about their own bishops and their own bishops. Meddling and politicking are obviously easier said than done. But we don’t lack for a historical track record of these groups getting very, very involved on the local, state and national level in trying to establish some type of reasonable defense against this creeping establishmentarian.
This is one thing you say you at the end of the book, you give a list of rules for having this, you having your coalition work. And I think we agree that it doesn’t doesn’t work right now. You say and this is this is why it isn’t going to work anytime soon. I’m sorry. You say do not lambaste your fellow coalition members, you know, don’t you know, litigate your belief systems when you’re trying to just get together and get something done? This is, to me against the very nature of things. I mean, it’s atheist loves to argue. They want people to argue back. Would they get energy from that, you know?
You know, atheists love to argue. And as an atheist, you know, I’d love to argue as well. I just wonder at what point a leader engages his community. Know people have been saying it actually is going to come forward and say this is this is getting, you know, counterproductive. This really is not a cooling to the greater good of the community. The reason I said that is I found an interesting historical precedent in 19th century Victorian England, where George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the term secularism frequently when he writes, he begs his fellow infidels and secularists to lay off the religion bashing, to lay off the aggressivity. I personally can’t be that person. I can’t live in a world where I’m just constantly spewing venom even against my enemies, as long as my enemies are a remotely lawful. So I. I see it as ultimately something that fatigue is a movement that drains it of energy. And as we’re seeing, Chris, anybody who follows inside baseball in contemporary Athie ism, there’s all this fraction. And I don’t know if the fraction is necessarily positive or there’s a lot of finger pointing and a lot of directions. And I’m happy to say I’m not in that right. I’m just watching it. Mouth agape like, how much anger can be directed internally within this movement? I think a good, effective leader would learn how to channel the anger and directed like pinpoint directed in the right place.
Well, I is. I’ve been inside it. I’ve been outside it. I think probably some significant percentage of it is just that you can press a button too fast on the Internet. Seriously.
But it’s real. It’s real.
It’s always been part of what we might call infidel culture. If you look at these debates. 19TH century. I mean, we’re all freedom of expression people, right? I mean, that’s a big issue for us. I have an argument in the book that 19th century British secularism, one of the drivers more than separation of church and state, is freedom of expression because these poor guys get to keep get they get thrown into the clink every time they say something which is critical of Christianity. So we are people who value freedom of expression. Right. The creative liberties in the arts. I think the dividend of that is what we are not unambiguous in sharing our assessments of one another with with one another. I do feel at some point, if not already, that’s going to start returning very, very negative dividends, at least for organized AC ism as opposed to secularism. I do think that kind of undermines what what the movement is after.
OK, so let me tell you, my my take on this is, is that I think that it’s not coincidental that, yes, there’s intellectual reasons why this this movement supports freedom of speech, dissent, and there’s also sort of psychological reasons why it’s hypercritical. And they say and they’re the same. They’re the inverse of the psychological reasons why the religious right is militant and unified. And I think that, you know, what would really be good is if there was actually sort of self-diagnosis and saying, aha, that’s me. And, you know, I get a lot of strength from being that way. But it also has a flip side and then, aha, that’s a religious right. They got a lot of strength from being their way. In other words, they get stuff done. But there’s a flipside. They’re close minded, you know, and and I think that you look in the mirror and that if you go through that process, then I think maybe you sort of start to actually steer the ship, but not if not if someone just says steer the ship.
Right. Well, let me I mean, let’s do a thought experiment. Right. What is the Christian right? It’s mostly white conservative evangelicals even steering the ship, Chris. Right.
But you know who their wingmen are. And they’re the most effective wingman. I was a traditionalist Catholics. And to my way of thinking, they do the heavy lifting. They do the heavy thinking in terms of pondering out what this movement is. Let’s just go back a couple of hundred years, 50 years, 500 years, and think about how much Protestants and Catholics loathed one another. But for purposes of achieving political ends. Look what they have, what they were brought together in a coalition of the Christian right. Mostly by Jerry Falwell. And look at what they have done to America. They’ve completely realigned our political system. They’ve basically taken control of one major political party, whether one likes it or not. And you and I don’t. That’s political results. And maybe the forthcoming messiah, secular messiah or leader of the secular movement is going to have to identify metrics. Right. This is where we want to be in five or 10 years. And this is what we need to get there. And one of the recommendations might be a sort of cease fire, especially on these on the Internet, though, as you said, it’s so much part of this culture, right? It’s so much part of what we like to do. And we so value this this freedom. It it is a complicated question. I agree with you. But if you look at the political results. Maybe something needs to be done.
No, I mean, I just I just want to I’m sorry I’m so stuck on the difficulty.
But, I mean, one thing you say that I think does does will yield fruit is you say focus on, you know, irrespective of disagreements that are going to occur over over some of the nature of the coalition building you’re talking about. You say use the immoderation of your opponents. And, you know, honestly, I think that.
The negative ads, so to speak, against the Christian right’s extremism are the best. You know, like whenever Pat Robertson says, you know, that hurricane hit Florida because gay people live there. I mean, you know, those kind of things are just really, really gravy.
And there’s no lack of. So why not just run a completely negative.
Right. I mean, look at the Christian right. If you look at most of the things they believe, a lot of things they believe are deeply offensive to the majority of right. Thinking Americans, whether they’re believers or nonbelievers. And I kind of thought that some leader would have emerged by now that would have figured that out and figured out a jujitsu style. Right. To use to use that energy against the adversary. But it hasn’t happened and hopefully it will happen soon. I mean, I’m seeing some signs in Washington of better leadership among secularists. There are some encouraging signs that people are starting to think in terms of politics. I can just get to another issue. I personally have zero toleration for metaphysical discussions. So when I went to grad school and people, everybody was religious there and I was the one nonbeliever. I literally when people started talking about God and theology and heaven to me. And this is just me. It was just like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I just couldn’t stand it. They drove me crazy. And it hit me the other day that when I read antitheist polemics, the same mechanism is triggered in my mind. Right. And it was blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. What? Because I feel these are questions that just cannot be empirically solved. I don’t think words can get at them. So let’s just shunt them aside politically, have that discussion in a theological seminary, have that discussion in an Internet chat room. But in terms of politics, I don’t have that discussion. Find the people who agree with you on the issues and we know what the issues are. Chris, the issues are this establishmentarian ism, which we’re all for. I’m very interested in lesbian and gay rights, women’s reproductive freedoms, the expressive freedoms. I mean, those are four big ones right there. You show me a person that is in a court or in general a court on those issues with me. They’re secular enough for me, Chris, as far as I’m concerned, they’re fine. No need for metaphysical discourse.
Well, maybe in the you know, the dorm room, it can just be banned in the dorm room at 2:00 a.m., nowhere else.
Well, that’s what we do as college professors by the theology departments where people talk about this. And I’m not trying to stop that conversation conversation.
It’s just not a very useful political conversation to talk about whether God exists, whether science and religion are compatible. I mean, interesting conversation, but what do you want an issue or do you want to build the old Washington statement? Right. I’d rather have a bill than initially.
OK. So. So what banner?
What is the message? A banner. In your view, does everybody walk under them? And what do they all. I mean, the only word I could come up with was what? Freedom.
This establishmentarian isn’t right.
Well, that’s not a banner. I mean, come on. That’s a word. That’s way too many those. I love it. It’s got. You want more. You’ve got to be a.
OK. Saying I’m sorry.
No, no, no. I mean, no, but. But that’s what you.
I mean, you can literally use that word to communicate with people. So what what what what is the way that you would actually do it?
I had a little slogan in the book and it was something like secularism, freedom from religions who really don’t like. And to me, that’s the unifying model. You can tell. You can even tell. Let me tell you a story. When I was down in Texas, I met a person who was a white conservative evangelical who told me that she was forced to go to Utah for work related reasons for about two years and her kids were going to the public schools in Utah. And guess what, Chris? In opposition to what the United States Supreme Court has told us, there was a lot of kind of qualified proselytizing going on there about Mormon theology. And she told me this is when she had her secular moment when she realized that her child was being inculcated with the ideas of a religion which were not her own. She got it all right. She had the epiphany, the moment of illumination, where it hit her. What this establishment thing is all about. So I think this establishmentarian ism or the slogan Freedom from Religion you really don’t like is a great place for a big capital, B capital s a big secularism to start off politically.
Yeah. I mean, as long as I think you see this, you know, during the campaign season, you know, with the outcry over over Todd Aiken and and Murdoch, you know, whenever some kind of religious extremism occurs that interferes with somebody else’s rights, everybody gets very, very upset.
And so so I do agree with you that if. If. Those were the rallying cries, you know, and mainly it was the outward. You know, they’re they’re getting into my life in a way that I appreciate. And then a lot less of the inward. You know, you guys are wrong on this, right?
There you go. That’s what I think would work. I mean, by the way, did you read that piece recently? It was called When Evangelicals were pro-choice. It was by Jonathan Dudly. Right. Really interesting piece. And it was something that I knew and many professors knew that those who really lifted the water after Roe v. Wade were traditionalist Catholics. It took white conservative evangelicals a couple of years to get worked up about that issue. And once they did, it was game over for for American secularism. Why do I mention that? Because when I look at them, the book, as I concentrate a lot on Baptists that have this long, glorious tradition of separation ism and if not separation, as in this establishmentarian ism, they could be re flipped. Chris, I mean, I know it’s hard, but it’s such a part of their tradition to be very, very suspicious of any type of entanglement between government and and religion that I do feel this is a persuasive talking point for secularism as it builds out over the next 10, 20 years. Do not ignore the possibilities of religious groups joining in common cause with nonbelievers, too. To reclaim America or rebuild America or create a different America, one that we all feel comfortable.
Well, you know, I think that that I think that that encapsulates it. I mean, I think you I think you’re gonna get some friction here. I think it’s inevitable.
I think that I think that that’s to the good. But I don’t think it’s it’s an illegitimate point at all. And I think that many aspects of what I think the outward message have to be, I think a lot of folks would agree with so.
So, Jacques Berlinerblau, thanks so much for being with us.
On Point of Inquiry was a lot of fun. Thank you.
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