MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.
From the earliest days of the Republic, religion has been intertwined with the American story. From Columbus' voyage to the New World, financed in part from the properties confiscated during the Inquisition, from the Pilgrims quest for religious freedom to America's founding documents this has been a nation under God as well as law. But as America now confronts enemies abroad, animated in part by religion as well as divisions at home over issues like gay rights and stem cell research, author Sam Harris says it is time to get religion out of public life.
Harris first came to public attention with a book he wrote after the 9/11 attacks called The End of Faith. In it he questioned whether the problem of young men killing people in the name of religion was not the young men but religion itself. The book struggled to find a publisher at first, but when it did Harris received critical acclaim, a prestigious literary award as well as thousands of letters and e-mails from Christians who wrote to tell him he was wrong.
Letter to a Christian Nation is a brief book that evolved from the letters he wrote in response to his critics. In it he asks the provocative question - does faith have any place in a society that believes itself to be animated by reason?
Today we begin a two-part discussion on religion and politics. Tomorrow we'll speak with religious leaders and thinkers who take a different view. And later in the program, Beirut-based journalist Rami Khouri reports on a recent visit to Dubai, where he sensed a shift developing among younger Arabs in their attitudes toward national identity.
But first, Letter to a Christian Nation. Is religion the problem or the answer? If religion is based on faith and not reason, what is religion's role in determining public policy? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Harris joins us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome, Mr. Harris.
Mr. SAM HARRIS (Author, Letter to a Christian Nation): Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Thank you for coming. Who are you hoping to reach with this book?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, really everyone who's open to argument on the subject. I'm just profoundly worried about our situation in the world. We have a world that has been shattered quite unnecessarily by competing religious dogmas. We have Christians against Muslims against Jews. We have societies reliably breaking down along these lines.
And so I think civilization is really threatened primarily by the religious fragmentation of the human community, by religious impediments to clear thinking and just by a willingness on the part of millions to sacrifice the real possibility of happiness in this world for what I consider to be a fantasy of a world to come. And so this - and yet it is taboo to criticize these competing certainties, and that's the dysfunction that I'm really talking about in both my books.
MARTIN: Well, you - and just as a point of clarification for those who haven't had the opportunity to read it, it's called Letter to a Christian Nation and you specifically talk about Christian theology at great length and with a depth that I frankly say indicates that you certainly have studied the topic. You are very familiar with the scriptures and so forth, but you are addressing all religions.
Mr. HARRIS: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: You're not singling out Christianity per se. You really believe that religion itself is a negative force...
Mr. HARRIS: And...
MARTIN: ...for the advancement of society, I would say.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, and at a more general level than that I'm talking about dogmatism. I'm talking about high levels of certainty uncoupled to the world of evidence and argument and rationality. And it's just that religion has more than its fair share of dogma, but if - you can find dogma elsewhere and we criticize it elsewhere.
When people claim to be certain about things they're clearly not certain about whether it's astrology is an exact science or Elvis is still alive or their neighbors are being abducted by space aliens. These are not ideas that have much currency in our culture because they're not coupled to good evidence and good argument. And yet you can have a president of the United States who talks as though he's in dialogue with the creator of the universe, and this is a double standard that I think we're all paying a terrible price for.
MARTIN: You said you wanted to arm secular Americans, or secularists in general, I would say, with the ammunition to fight against fundamentalist religious thinking. So I know that you've written an entire book on this topic, but if you could summarize what your key points are I think that would be helpful.
Mr. HARRIS: Well, there are a few points. One is that this idea that atheism is somehow irrational. I mean you hear this a lot from religious apologists, that atheism is itself a faith. It's the faith that God does not exist. The atheist cannot prove that God does not exist, and therefore we're kind of at a standstill.
But we all reject Zeus. We all know that Zeus is a product of the human imagination. No one can prove that Zeus does not exist. No one needs to assume that burden. The burden is upon the pagan who wants to get Zeus taken seriously as a matter of our public policy.
And so I'm simply using the same standards of evidence that people use to reject Zeus and even that Christians use to reject Islam. I mean Christians are not lying awake at night worrying about whether to convert to Islam. They see the discourse of Islam as this tissue of self-deception and unverifiable claims. The Muslims think that the Koran is the perfect work of the - the perfect word of the creator of the universe. They - why do they believe that? Because it says so in the book. I mean this is a bad argument, and Christians recognize it. They just don't recognize it with respect to their own book and their own miracles and their own fantasies of a world to come.
And so what I'm arguing is that we all know what it's like to demand evidence and argument from our neighbors, and yet it has been rendered taboo to do this on the subject of religion. And now what we have quite literally are millions of people who can rationalize the violent deaths of their children by recourse to fairy tales.
And this happens in the Muslim world and it happens here, where we have 44 percent of Americans apparently who think that Jesus is going to come back in the next 50 years and rapture them into the sky so that they can witness a sacred genocide. I mean this is astonishing that people think this...
Mr. HARRIS: ...but this has been polled every which way, and people apparently do think this.
MARTIN: Okay, but the question would be what are the consequences of their belief system for you?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, the consequences...
MARTIN: I mean because you don't care I mean that people believe that Elvis is still around or that, you know...
Mr. HARRIS: Right.
MARTIN: ...if Tupac, for that matter, is on vacation in the Bahamas. I mean you don't - you're not writing a book about that, so...
Mr. HARRIS: No, there are...
MARTIN: ..what are the implications of that for you?
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, there are dogmas that are benign, but there are dogmas that aren't. And even dogmas that are seemingly benign, when you map them onto the world, often produce surprising suffering.
You just take the idea that contraception is sinful. This is basically a Catholic dogma, though other Christians have adopted it. And it seems benign enough. It's going to lead to a lot of pregnancy, but it's not going to get people killed necessarily. But then you see that there are Catholic ministers in countries like Sudan, where in Sub-Saharan Africa three to four million people die from AIDS every year, preaching the sinfulness of condom use in villages where the only information about condom use is coming from the ministry.
This is, as I argue in Letter to a Christian Nation, an instance of really genocidal stupidity, and yet because it's a religious dogma we cannot criticize it to the degree that we would otherwise. So that's just...
MARTIN: But you are criticizing it. I mean despite the...
Mr. HARRIS: Well, I am, but...
MARTIN: I mean you are and you have, and you are the not the only person. There are many groups - Planned Parenthood - many, many groups that have been fighting this policy.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah, and that - we have to do that, but we are in a profound minority. And just imagine how the Vatican would have been treated if it were a secular organization and promulgating these ideas, not to mention the child molestation scandal in the Vatican. I mean that was treated in a way that would be unthinkable in a secular organization.
MARTIN: Well, okay. All right, let's go to a caller. Let's...
Mr. HARRIS: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: ... just because it's - it appears that, you know, as we are - as I'm sure you know that the whole question of how institutions protect themselves vis-à-vis persons who are inappropriate with children is now very much the talk of Washington, D.C.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: In reference to Representative Mark Foley, and that's not a religious organization, but I take your point. Let's go to a caller. Let's go St. Louis, Missouri, and Dave. Dave, what are your thoughts?
DAVE (Caller): Yeah, I just wanted to point out something he seems to be overlooking in what you just brought up, by the way, with the conduct of people and how they believe is what defines other actions. But also that communism, it's anti-religion and anti-God and so forth, and they believe stuff to - and they thought their kids were dying for a noble cause as well and there's no God involved in it.
Mr. HARRIS: Right, right. Well, that's why I talked about dogmatism itself at the front of this interview. The problem is false claims to certainty that are divisive and empowering and invoke all of the tribalism that we are struggling to outgrow as a species. And communism was certainly an example, and so was Nazism and fascism, generally. These are examples of rigid ideologies that were dogmatic through and through.
This is not reason run amuck. This is not people demanding too much evidence for their core beliefs. These were essentially political religions. And when you look at what the Nazis believed - I mean these were - frankly, many of these people in positions of power were quite deranged. Himmler thought that the Aryans had descended since the beginning of time and had been preserved in ice, and he created a meteorological division of the Reich to test this ice theory. I mean these were not the kings of reason.
And so I'm not arguing that we create gulags for people who believe in Jesus or in Islam. I'm saying that we simply need to throw off this taboo that keeps us from calling a spade a spade. And when...
Mr. HARRIS: ...and when a politician claims to be certain that Jesus is looking out for the American people, we have to deflate that certainty because there's not a person alive who is certain that Jesus was born of a virgin and is coming back who really has good reasons for that certainty.
MARTIN: Okay, Dave, thank...
Mr. HARRIS: And that's just not the thing we...
MARTIN: Dave, thank you.
Mr. HARRIS: ...the kind of thing we know.
MARTIN: Dave, thanks so much for calling us.
MARTIN: Sam Harris, without being too personal...
Mr. HARRIS: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: ...have you ever fallen in love?
Mr. HARRIS: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: Well, can't you make the same arguments about love that you do about faith?
Mr. HARRIS: No, no.
MARTIN: You know, it can make people act crazy. It can make people do crazy things. It can make people do crazy hateful things and make people do crazy wonderful things. It can make you dig inside yourself in ways you never anticipated, and it can enlarge, you know, it can enlarge your world. It can shrink your world.
Mr. HARRIS: But it...
MARTIN: And you can't prove it. If somebody said prove that you love this person, could you do it?
Mr. HARRIS: Oh, of course you can. We know what we mean by love, and there's nothing irrational about love. There's nothing irrational about valuing love as an experience. Love is one of the most enriching experiences we have as human beings.
MARTIN: But how is that any different from faith? How is it - how could you say I can prove with scientific validity that I love this person...
Mr. HARRIS: Well...
MARTIN: ...and that I am right to love this person?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, you...
MARTIN: How is it different?
Mr. HARRIS: ...you don't need to. These are very different claims about reality. When you say you love someone, you are talking about the character of your experience. You're not making claims about the origin of certain books, the final events of human history, invisible entities who are doling out good fortune to you or not.
I mean you're - religious claims are - the reason why they're in conflict with science is because they purport to describe the way the world is and was and will be, and they are just claims made on bad evidence. I mean faith is simply the license religious people give one another to make strong claims when reasons are not good enough...
MARTIN: We need...
Mr. HARRIS: ...and that's dysfunctional.
MARTIN: (unintelligible) Mr. Harris, we need to take a short break.
Mr. HARRIS: Sure.
MARTIN: We're talking about religion in public life with author Sam Harris. We'll have more. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.
We're talking with author Sam Harris. His new book, Letter to a Christian Nation, is a call to remove religion from public life. Tomorrow we'll hear different views on this subject. Right now, though, we'd like to hear from you. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Let's go to another caller. Let's go to Mesa, Arizona, and Jeff. Jeff, what's your question or comment?
JEFF (Caller): Yeah, I just wanted to ask the author - and first I want to compliment him. I think he's very, very brave and very knowledgeable on this, and I think it's great he's bringing up these topics. But I wanted to ask how would you define rationality or just rational thinking, because my personal view is just that nothing really seems rational. I mean what's the basis for the direction one takes or a nation takes when you say we just need to be rational?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, it's a good question. It's actually a deep question when you talk about what rationality is at the level of the brain, because we now know from a variety of functional neuro-imagining experiments that rationality and emotions are not entirely separable.
I mean there are kinds of reasoning that require certain emotional functionality, and without that functionality, without being able to feel the difference between something being right and wrong or true and false, you're unable to reason and you're unable to let your reason really inform your behavior. So it's actually quite a deep question, scientifically.
But we all know what reason is at the level of common sense. We all know that when someone makes extravagant claims that that should be based on really extraordinarily compelling evidence. And when it's not, we immediately discount these claims in every other area of our lives.
And just to take a specific example - because one thing I'm not discounting here is the fact that people have spiritual experiences. I think spiritual experience is one of the most interesting parts of the human experience, and it may be necessary. But what I'm arguing is that we can't make extravagant and divisive metaphysical claims on the basis of our spiritual experiences.
If you go into a cave and pray to Jesus for 10 hours a day and feel more love than you've ever felt in your life and come out of that cave an extraordinarily good person, that's great. But what you have to observe is that there are Buddhist who do that and they never think about Jesus. There are Hindus who do that who never think about Jesus.
So at the very least it is only rational to conclude that there is a deeper principle here, and the principle is not that Jesus is the son of God and that everyone who dies outside of his dispensation will spend eternity in hell. I mean that is not the reasonable thing to conclude from the evidence. And so I'm just arguing that in our spiritual life and in our ethical life we have to make intellectually honest conclusions and engage in intellectually honest dialogue.
MARTIN: Okay, Jeff, thank you so much for calling.
JEFF: Okay, thank you. Thank you.
MARTIN: But yet you - there are believers in all of these denominations or religious groups that you mentioned who do believe in interfaith dialogue...
Mr. HARRIS: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: ...who do believe in - that believe philosophically that there is - that they may call themselves Christian or Buddhist or whatever, but they believe that there are other paths to God than the one that they have personally chosen, but you're also critical of them.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: I mean you're critical of fundamentalist Christians, but you're also critical of the so-called liberals or moderates in these other religions as well. Why is that?
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, well, there's a bit of a paradox here and it's - there's a tension between encouraging moderation, which I think we absolutely need to do, especially in the Muslim world. We need moderate Muslims and Christians in dialogue, so that is a good thing intrinsically. And yet the people who profess to be moderates, the people who do not take their books all that literally and in many cases don't even read the books in their entirety, are in some perverse way uniquely unable to appreciate just how seriously their co-religionists take their dogmas.
I mean it's the moderate in our culture and the religious liberal, the progressive, who, when he sees the jihadists look into the video camera saying things like we love death more than the infidel loves life and then blows himself up, it's the moderate who's thinking, well, that's not really faith. That's propaganda. He did it for other reasons. He was brainwashed.
And the moderate loses touch with the fact that, to speak specifically of the Muslim world at this moment, there really are people willing to blow themselves up simply because they think they can get to paradise that way, that martyrdom and death in defense of the faith really is, for a subset of the Muslim world, a genuine metaphysical belief. And, you know, we have people, well-educated, well-off people willing to hit the wall at 400 miles an hour because of an expectation of eternal delights.
And moderates almost systematically obscure that fact, and they talk about Islam really being a religion of peace or Christianity really being a commitment to helping the poor. And it would be great if that were true, and we have to somehow make it true, but we have to be honest about what is animating the lives of millions of religious extremists.
MARTIN: In effect you're criticism of religious progressives or liberals, if you will, is the same as the criticism that conservative Christians have of them, which is that they don't take religion seriously enough.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah, and the other thing is that they're just on very shaky ground theologically because they're not being honest about where there moderation is coming from. It's not coming from the books. It's not like if you read the Bible more and more closely in its entirety you find all these reasons to be a moderate Christian. You don't. God never says this is a metaphor, this is not to be taken literally. And certainly the God of the Koran never says that.
MARTIN: Well, couldn't it be said, though, that God is in effect saying that by the very thing you criticize in the Bible, which is it counter testimonies, that there are contradictions in the Bible. I mean as you point out very ably in your book that the - many of the - the birth story of Jesus, for example, is not the same - identical in its details. The testimony about when the crucifixion occurred is not consistent in its details.
Mr. HARRIS: Right.
MARTIN: And could it not be said that the reason that all of these books are considered inspired is to offer those counter testimonies to give humility to folks who would interpret them.
Mr. HARRIS: Well, that's a very artful move that religious apologists have made over the centuries, is that somehow the flaws of these books are really part of their virtues, and I just think that that would be laughable in any other context.
The problem is the contradictions are not good enough. If you look at the Bible in its totality, it really does suggest that the creator of the universe hates homosexuals, at the very least homosexual men. I mean it's not an accident that our Christian conservatives are talking about gay marriage as though it were the greatest moral issue of our time, because they do get that from a plausible reading of the Bible.
Likewise the Bible - a plausible reading of the Bible would support the practice of slavery, not condemn it. I mean nowhere does God or does Jesus condemn slavery, and yet you can cherry pick the Bible and work up a rationale for abolitionism, which obviously the abolitionists did and that was a good thing. But the truth of the matter is that the slaveholders of the South were on firmer ground. And we got rid of slavery not because we looked more closely at the Bible but because we looked more closely at our world. We looked more closely at the dogmas that were separating white from black and realized that they were indefensible and that it was indefensible to own other human beings and make them work for you.
MARTIN: I want to ask...
Mr. HARRIS: And that's part of a larger conversation that we need to have across the board.
MARTIN: I want to take another call. I do want to ask you more about this, though, in a minute, but after we take this call, about what the world according to Sam Harris should look like. But let's go to a caller. Let's go to Toledo, Ohio, and Bob.
BOB (Caller): Yes, thank you very much for taking my call. To lay the groundwork, I am a progressive or liberal Christian. I attend two churches, a fairly liberal church and a fairly conservative evangelical church.
There are a lot of Christians who believe that the Bible is literally true, notwithstanding what to me seems clear evidence that it's not. When I run across them, I always ask them who came first, the animals or Adam because Genesis gives us two answers to that question.
I think one of the difficulties here, one of the things the speaker - and I'm sorry I didn't catch your name - is the extremes get the attention, the extremists make the noise, the extremists get heard. But there are a tremendous number of in fact moderate Christians who find our lives informed and enlightened by the Bible without taking every word literally. And as in many areas of life, the middle rarely gets heard even though it's a significant number of people.
Mr. HARRIS: Well, I would agree with you, Bob, except the extremes unfortunately are not that extreme. Fifty-three percent of Americans think the universe is 6,000 years old and we have no genetic precursors in the natural world apart from Adam and Eve. I mean this is not extreme. This is a majority.
BOB: I know and I'll tell you. This is a mystery to me. I grew up on the East coast. I'm in my late 50s. I don't think that I had ever met anyone who did not believe in evolution. I moved to northwest Ohio about nine years ago and I started running into people who didn't believe in evolution. And at first I thought to myself well, you're either dumb or you're uneducated.
But after running into people who were clearly not dumb and they were clearly very well educated and yet they still had that, quote, “belief” - and it is a complete mystery to me as to how, you know, educated people can still hold that belief.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, well, it's actually not that mysterious when you see how well protected these beliefs are in our discourse. How - I mean I can tell you - I'm getting a PhD in neuroscience - there is no point in the training to become a scientist where somebody sits you down and says, ok all of these dogmas you're holding onto that are religious need to be talked about and subjected to the same tests of credulity that we're going to subject all of your other scientific beliefs to.
I mean it's just not a conversation that gets had. It's taboo. And so you quite literally - in the Muslim world you can be so well educated that you could build a nuclear bomb and still believe you're going to get 72 virgins in paradise. I mean that's really how partitionable the human mind is. And in the Christian West, you can get a PhD in Biochemistry and not believe in evolution. And that's a problem of discourse. It really is a massive problem of conversations not being had.
MARTIN: Bob, can I just ask you - if you don't mind - what is your thought about the core question of our discussion today? I mean, Mr. Harris - his name is Sam Harris - is making the argument that religion is such a destructive force, it is so much the antithesis of the kind of rational discourse we need to move society forward that really we need to remove it as a major force in public life. What is your thought about that?
BOB: Ok. My thought on that is that we should not allow religion to infest public policy, but that our public policy makers should use the core positive values that religion infuses in them to inform the decisions that they make. Unlike what's her name in Florida - Katherine Harris - not just Christians have good values.
People, you know, atheists have good values. We all ultimately have experience with good values and those values should inform us in the decisions we make. But I firmly believe in the so called separation of church and state, that we should not use religion as a part of government.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, well we definitely agree there. It's just that I don't think the establishment clause of the constitution is enough. It just turns out that beliefs are going to find their way into public policy if they're really believed.
And if you really believe that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception and, therefore, that three-day-old embryos in a petri dish are fully ensouled and require all the care of little girls with spinal cord injury, you are going to block stem cell research or at the very least not fund it. And it's just going to find its way into policy.
MARTIN: Ok Bob, I'm sorry we need to take a short break Bob. Thank you so much for calling.
BOB: Ok. Well, thank you. It's a very interesting discussion.
Mr. HARRIS: Thanks Bob.
MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Mr. Harris, the question I was asking while we were talking to Bob, what would public discourse look like in the world as imagined by Sam Harris? Given as you discussed that so many people hold these beliefs, that these are deeply held beliefs, how would public discourse happen? I mean, would you suggest that people lie about the source of their beliefs and values? How would we proceed if people were to take you seriously and to follow your advice, other than to eliminate religion from their lives, which - or is that really the end goal?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, I think we have to recognize that this world already exists to a significant degree in Western Europe and in countries like Canada and Australia and Japan, where you cannot be a public figure professing absolute certainty about the divine origin of the Bible and be taken seriously.
I mean, these are embarrassing convictions in much of the world. And, in fact, we are virtually alone in the developed world as a society that still conducts its national discourse under the shadow of religious literalism. And we are alone - I mean if you look at - we have an institution like Patrick Henry College.
You know, this college started six years ago, it's only 240 students. It promotes home-schooled Christian kids into government, essentially. And it places more interns in the White House now than any other university in the United States, more than Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Yale. We've got Patrick Henry University placing White House interns.
Now every student at Patrick Henry University signs a declaration of faith, which reads something like, all who die outside of Christ will be confined in conscious torment for eternity. I mean this is apparently what you need to have in your brain if you're going to run the U.S. government.
MARTIN: Ok, but what about the civil rights movement? I mean, what about the fact that these activists were very much animated by their faith and belief in a new world that could be brought here on Earth, that they - and the abolitionists, as you pointed out, were animated by faith.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I don't think they were. You know, it's as Bob pointed out, morality is deeper than religious dogmatism. If you don't already know that cruelty is wrong before you read the Bible, you're not going to discover it by reading the Bible.
And when you read the Bible and you encounter something like the Golden Rule and you recognize it to be a brilliant distillation of your ethical intuitions, you are recognizing it on the authority of your intellectual intuitions, your ethical insights and a larger discourse about ethics.
And when you read in the Bible that you're supposed to kill a girl for adultery, you reject that on the basis of a modern conversation about ethics. And so this idea that we get our morality out of religious dogma or religious faith, I think is an illusion. And it's readily seen as illusion if you just ask what would have to be true of the world if it were so.
I mean, atheists - if faith was important for morality, atheists should be terribly ill-behaved. I mean you should go into -
MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait - I'm just - I'm sorry, I'm intrigued by your statement that you don't know or we don't believe that the abolition movement was animated or the civil rights movement, for that matter. Isn't that a faith statement of yours?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, no, no. Just look at Martin Luther King. I mean, he is the poster boy for the most benign and most energetic and socially responsible Christianity. He is the guy everyone goes to as an example of why Christianity and its connection to morality are unassailable. And when you look at where he got his commitment to non-violence, he got it from Gandhi. He went to India to study with Gandhi's disciples.
And Gandhi, where did he get his non-violence? He got it from the Jains. The Jains are truly a religion of non-violence. They're vegetarians. They won't kill a fly. They're - no matter how dogmatic you get as a Jain, you're going to become less and less violent. So, one problem here is that we have this one word, religion, as though it named a totally homogenous class of human preoccupation. It doesn't. There are very different religions. Some are terrifying, some are benign.
MARTIN: Ok. Mr. Harris, a very rich discussion.
Mr. HARRIS: Thank you so much, Michel.
MARTIN: Perhaps we can continue it sometime.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, take care.
MARTIN: Sam Harris is the author of The End of Faith. His latest work is called Letter to a Christian Nation. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.