Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Personal Improvement: America's Real Religion

New Years is the moment for resolutions. From losing weight (attaining health of the body) to taking up yoga (achieving serenity of the soul), we aspire to be better than we are--reminding us that America’s real religion is the cult of self-improvement. Being good (or failing that, looking good) is our national religion.

This obsession with perfecting both the inner and outer self goes back at least to the nation’s founders. As a youngster, George Washington studied 110 Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior that became a guide to his future conduct. The Rules included such practical advice as “Spit not in the Fire,” and “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet,” essential tips for social decorum and worldly success. Biographer Willard Randall suggests that these homely proverbs, designed to create a gentleman, became more important to the future president that any official creed.

Think dieting is a recent fad? Thomas Jefferson reminded a granddaughter that “We never repent of having eaten too little.” That nostrum was included in “A dozen Canons of conduct in Life” that included other tips like “Never spend your money before you have it” and “Take things always by their smooth handle.” When angry, count to ten, the sage of Monticello reminded the little girl, or when very angry, count to a hundred. It’s not bad advice—but not otherworldly or intensely spiritual, either.

But Ben Franklin virtually invented the genre of self-improvement. In his autobiography, he relates how “I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.” He created a list of virtues he wished to acquire, from frugality and cleanliness to honesty and industry. Each week, he evaluated his own performance. Achieving perfection was a little more difficult than young Ben first imagined, however. He experienced particular shortcomings in the area of “Order.” Most objective historians would add that “Chastity” was never one of his personal strengths, either.

Our founders practiced a faith that focused on improving one’s own character, getting along with others, and enjoying the good things of life—not unworthy aspirations, if not strictly Christian, either.

What virtues do you want to cultivate in the New Year? What is your definition of success? Whatever resolutions you decide on, “Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth” remains a wise rule for ladies and gentlemen of the 21st century as it was for George Washington in the 18th.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Obama's Unitarian Roots

Barack Obama bid farewell to the grandmother who reared him in a memorial service Tuesday at the First Unitarian Church in Honolulu. Madelyn Dunham and her husband Stanley had first discovered Unitarian Universalism on the West Coast, living in Washington State, where they attended the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue.

Many early U.S. Presidents had Unitarian connections, like John Adams (who is buried at the Unitarian Church in Quincy, Massachusetts) and Thomas Jefferson (who told his nephew Peter Carr that he had to be a Unitarian by himself, since there were no organized congregations near Monticello). John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and Howard Taft were card-carrying Unitarians. But since Adlai Stevenson ran for office in the 1950’s, no Unitarians have been near the Oval Office.

Honolulu’s Unitarian Church first came to national attention in 1969, when it offered political sanctuary to U.S. servicemen protesting the war in Vietnam.

President-elect Obama described his grandmother as "a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank" in Honolulu. He called her Toots, short for tutu, the Hawaiian word for grannie.

Perhaps our new president owes some of his intellectual curiosity and willingness to entertain varying opinions to the liberal religious principles of tolerance and respect for diversity that infused his upbringing. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Unitarian faith has had an impact on our nation’s history.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pastor Rick Warren: Healer or Divider?

Reaching across the aisle is all very fine in principle. But is there such a thing as going too far? What about president-elect Obama’s pick of Reverend Rick Warren, pastor of the 20,000 member Saddleback Church, to deliver the invocation at his inaugural?

Admittedly, Mr. Obama has the right to choose whatever spiritual figure he likes for the role. But the choice angers supporters of gay rights and reproductive freedom. Warren campaigned tirelessly for California’s Proposition 8 striking down gay marriage and opposes a women’s right to an abortion. What message is Obama sending?

Mr. Obama is demonstrating flexibility and bi-partisanship, perhaps. But Rev. Warren didn’t demonstrate much flexibility himself during the general election debate he hosted last August. Instead he tried to pin Obama down on litmus tests dear to the Religious Right. Tell me the exact moment a fetus acquires human rights, Warren demanded. (“Answering that question is above my pay grade,” Obama responded, prompting murmurs of disapproval from the audience.)

The question itself betrays a literalistic mentality without room for nuance or imagination. Warren sees the world in black and white. ”Does evil exist,” he asked both McCain and Obama in that forum, “and if so, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it? Some of the world’s greatest literature, from the book of Job to The Brother’s Karamazov, has grappled with the problem of evil. But Warren expected a sound bite response to his multiple choice question—because it was not a complex issue in his mind. Judging from his performance that night, Warren seems to me to be fundamentalist in his thinking---dividing the world into simplistic categories of right and wrong, saved and unsaved—and condemning to outer darkness those who disagree with his interpretation of the Bible.

On January 20, I’ll be listening closely to Rev. Warren’s prayer. Does it express inclusivity for Americans of all faiths (and for those without any formal religious affiliation)? Or will Warren pick at the wounds Americans have suffered in the very culture wars our new president is trying to transcend?

Whether Obama begins his office on a note of healing or division will depend on the answer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

'Tis the Season?

Come the winter holidays, you can bet there will disagreements over religious displays. Should the town square be allowed to have a nativity scene? Can Hanukkah songs be included in a school pageant? What about the star and crescent? In Vermont, the latest furor is over the Charlotte Elementary School, where several pillars near the front door are wrapped to resemble candy canes.

According to the Burlington Free Press, William Gerson wrote the local school board to complain. “To me, the candy cane has only one context — and that is Christmas and because of this it is truly a religious sign.”

I see his point. Candy canes are associated with Christmas, in my mind, too. But so are snowflakes, Norelco razors, eggnog, animatronic polar bears, and Lord Calvert Gin. Surely these aren’t all Christian symbols as well?

The Founders tried to separate church and state, but there was never a bright line of demarcation in their minds. Thomas Jefferson regarded the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of his proudest achievements, for example, but saw no conflict in taking his daughters to Sunday worship in the newly constructed capitol building. The Founders gave us a First Amendment broadly written to guarantee free expression of spiritual beliefs, with a prohibition on erecting an official establishment. But we are still interpreting their words–probably because they weren’t entirely sure in their own minds what they intended.

Next month, our president will place his hand on a Bible and swear to uphold a Constitution that makes no mention of God and guarantees people of every faith equal rights of citizenship. This is a logical and legal contradiction, no doubt.

But like candy canes on the school house door, it is a tension I can live with.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas at Valley Forge

Did George Washington pray at Valley Forge? A week before Christmas, on December 19, he camped there with his troops to tough out the winter. According to the famous legend perpetrated by his first biographer Mason Locke Weems (an Episcopal minister):

“In the winter of '77, while Washington, with the American army, lay encamped at Valley Forge, a certain good old friend, of the respectable family and name of Potts, if I mistake not, had occasion to pass through the woods near headquarters. Treading in his way along the venerable grove, suddenly he heard the sound of a human voice, which, as he advanced, increased on his ear; and at length became like the voice of one speaking much in earnest. As he approached the spot with a cautious step, whom should he behold, in a dark natural bower of ancient oaks, but the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees at prayer.”

Why the American commander would have been kneeling on the cold, snowy forest floor is truly mysterious, since Washington preferred to stand at prayer, even when warm and dry inside an Anglican church, where bending the knee is expected. Parson Weems, who invented the episode of chopping down the cherry tree along with other “curious anecdotes” intended to clothe the Virginian’s memory in an aura of piety, never let the facts get in the way of good story.

Still, the fable of Washington at prayer would work its way into American folklore. It became the subject of a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration in 1935, and was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp in 1977, despite the fact that Washington was not particularly devout or conventionally religious.

He purposely avoided going to church when he knew communion would be served. He never used the Christian terms Lord, Redeemer, Christ or Saviour in his pronouncements on faith, preferring more naturalistic and neutral terms like “Providence.” On his deathbed, he called for no priests, psalms or other spiritual comforts. Bishop William White, frequently a guest at Mount Vernon, said he never heard Washington utter any remark that would lead him to believe our first president was a believer in “the Christian revelation.”

In his own way, George Washington was a man of the strongest possible convictions and highest principles—just not “born again” or doctrinally correct. As usual, fact is more interesting than fiction. And the best possible tribute we can pay our Founding Fathers is to appreciate the religious complexity that has characterized our nation from its very beginning.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Independence, he
probably couldn’t have foreseen where his words would lead. And of all the
Declaration’s promises, the pursuit of happiness may be closest to the core of the American Dream.

It hints at what’s visionary. More than a promise of good government or popular
sovereignty, the pursuit of happiness captures the deep yearnings behind our nation’s birth. The hope for a new beginning, a fresh start; possibilities to make a meaningful life for oneself, attain a measure of felicity and personal fulfillment in this world.

But for a birthright, happiness still seems to elude many of us. Polls tell us who’s
happy, which is sometimes surprising. Men are happier than women, for instance. Married couples are happier than singles, and the mainly monogamous at least say they have better sex than swingers. Those whose work involves an element of service, like school teachers and firefighters and nurses, report being happier with their choice of vocation than tax accountants or corporate attorneys who usually get paid a lot more.

People with a strong faith or spiritual practice are likelier to say they are generally
satisfied than those without any religious grounding. But money isn’t completely
insignificant, either, and people earning middle-class incomes are more content than individuals struggling with poverty. Still, having a bigger house, or a fancier car, doesn’t correlate with feelings of inward well-being in any direct way. So if there’s a secret of happiness, it’s not a simple one. And if there are ingredients for more joyful living, many of us are still looking for the recipe.

What was Thomas Jefferson thinking when he said that following our bliss was a
fundamental human right? In his rough draft for the document, Mr. Jefferson had at first written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and inviolable,” but at the urging of Ben Franklin thought better of this religious phrasing and substituted “self-evident” for “sacred.” The truths Franklin wanted to enunciate didn’t come from Bibles or theologians, but were more like the laws of physics or geometry, not dependent on any special revelation but obvious to all.

But the terminology “pursuit of happiness” was Jefferson’s own invention. Conventional wisdom in the eighteenth century said that governments were instituted to protect “life, liberty and property.” Those were the exact words of John Locke, the English philosopher whose theories of the social contract were so influential with the nation’s founders. Protecting property was the impetus behind the Tea Party and the rallying cry “no taxation without representation.” Pocketbook issues were at stake. But Jefferson’s genius was to realize that accumulating wealth was not among the chief ends of life, an insight that probably came from his study of philosophy.

Not all of the founding fathers had opportunities for such leisurely education. Franklin had just two years of formal schooling. As a teen, Washington learned surveying but never went to college. But Jefferson was luckier, attending William and Mary where he gained fluency in Latin, pursuing the kind of classical education common for gentlemen of that time. In Williamsburg, he studied the thinkers of Greece and Rome, who had a major influence on him.

The central inquiry that occupied all the philosophers of antiquity was the question of how to be happy. What constitutes the good life? How do we define success? Stoics and Cynics and other schools formulated differing answers, but the figure Thomas Jefferson found most enchanting was Epicurus.

He lived roughly at the same time as Aristotle, and most of his original works have been lost, so Epicurus is known mostly through his followers, but even more from his detractors. He gained a reputation as a libertine and hedonist, advocating a life devoted to the cultivation of refined tastes and sensual delights. For “epicure,” my dictionary gives synonyms like “gourmand” and “bon vivant.” But these are distortions of the philosopher’s actual teaching.

Epicurus indeed believed that pleasure is the greatest good. But virtue was the
gateway to pleasure. For without prudence and self-restraint, unlimited appetites could only lead to misery. “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little,” he wrote. “Bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips. To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes one alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries dispose us better towards them.”

In short, Epicurus believed in moderation and balance, tempering desires which tended to multiply without end, like the desire for immortality or life without limits. Fear of death, the dread of personal extinction, caused undue misery for the mass of the human race.

But Epicurus held that the end of life was nothing more than a cessation of the five senses and, like the quenching of any desire, and ought to be looked upon with equanimity. As he put it, “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Friendship was among the chief pleasures of life for Epicurus, and in a home with
fragrant gardens nearby he gathered a company of like-minded souls to live out and apply these teachings in everyday life. Kind of an Athenian ashram. Because
philosophy, in ancient times, was no mere intellectual pastime. It was intensely
practical, a seminar in the art of living.

That’s how Jefferson understood it, and early on he called himself an Epicurean, a lifestyle he described as dedicated to “ease of body and tranquility of mind.” He
enjoyed fine wine but refrained from hard liquor, for example. As Chief Executive, he dressed simply and informally, often receiving dignitaries in worn out slippers. In contrast to the rather regal ways of his predecessors, he walked to his own inaugural from the rooming house where he was lodging. No one can visit his home in Virginia without seeing the classical influence on his taste: the emphasis on balance and restraint. For while an estate like Monticello can seem grand by some standards, compared to Versailles and the palaces of Europe’s ruling class, it is remarkable mainly for its modesty.

As President, however, Jefferson began to re-evaluate his philosophy. For in the spring of 1803, he received a small pamphlet titled Jesus and Socrates Compared from his friend, the Reverend Joseph Priestly.

Priestly was an English Unitarian who shared many of Jefferson’s scientific interests. It was Priestly who first discovered oxygen, who initially recorded the tale of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite, who was in some ways a British version of old Ben: inventor, philanthropist and political gadfly.

But because of his democratic sympathies, his laboratory in Manchester had been burned by angry mobs, and he’d emigrated to the newly formed United States in the 1790's, where he’d settled and opened one of the first Unitarian churches in the new world, outside Philadelphia. Priestly was the author of two volumes on The Corruptions of Christianity that Jefferson claimed to have read “over and over.” And Priestly’s little pamphlet on Jesus and Socrates made the third President pause and reflect.

The pagan philosophers whom he once felt offered a “more full, more entire, more coherent” ethic than Christian moralists had begun to seem too narrow, too concerned with self-fulfillment and too little with the greater good. So in a little booklet called a "Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others,” Jefferson spelled out his growing sense that personal happiness involved caring for others, in broader feelings of benevolence.

Of Jesus, Jefferson noted that “like Socrates ... he wrote nothing himself.” But unlike Socrates, he had no Plato to transmit his wisdom to succeeding generations. “On the contrary,” said the President, “all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life & doctrines fell on the most unlettered & ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, & not till long after the transactions had passed ... According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy & combination of the altar and the throne.” And yet “notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.”

Love God and neighbor, Jesus taught; love everyone and love the whole creation, with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength. The recipe for bliss, for entering into the kingdom, is as easy (and as hard) as that.

In a letter accompanying the syllabus, Jefferson went on to explain that “to the
corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to him every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

I think Jefferson was right, that Jesus was one of the great spiritual reformers of all time. And I think Jesus was right, that the happiest people are the ones who love the most; more than passing satisfactions, they find abiding joy in living. I agree that virtue is essential, in the sense exercising self-control, particularly in regard to material possessions in this culture of excess and instant gratification. And I think the wisest people are the ones with a consistent philosophy of life, who know that the chief end of human existence consists in something more than accumulating property, but in pursuing higher aims.

More than pleasure, we need purpose in our lives. More than immediate rewards, we need a sense that our struggles and frustrations have some relevance in the longer view of history. More than happiness, we’re called to pursue beauty and fairness, to seek justice and kindness, to strive to be good as a prerequisite for feeling good.

These are truths I hold to be self-evident, but that America in its obsession with endless wealth and power seems to have forgotten. Ironic that a pagan from Greece, a Jew from Galilee and a Unitarian might call this supposedly Christian nation back to the real meaning of its creed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Each of us will be grateful this Thanksgiving in differing ways,
Gathered in our separate families,
Each with our own distinct recipes, customs and traditions;
For some will have pies of mince,
And others of pumpkin or apple;
And some will dine early
And some sit down late to the meal,
Passing on the wisdom of the elders
As to the question of whether the stuffing
Should have raisins or currants,
And whether to add sage to the gravy.
For such differences of opinion,
Make us truly appreciative,
Realizing that as there is no one right way
To celebrate the gifts of life,
So there is no wrong way
To share in love or friendship.
But amid our diversity,
Let us also be united
In our gratitude
For a world in which there are many faiths,
A nation in which there is freedom of worship,
A community in which people of many backgrounds
Can gather in mutual care and respect.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thanksgiving Then and Now

In 1789, George Washington proclaimed the First Thanksgiving. Designating the 26th of November as a day for national devotions, he acknowledged “the many and signal favors of Almighty God,” and gave special thanks for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

From the beginning, Americans have been a religious people, but also a nation where freedom of worship prevails. Our is not a Christian nation, but a land of many creeds, where from revolutionary days, Catholics, Jews, varieties of Protestants as well as atheists and freethinkers have managed to co-exist in tolerable harmony.

In his proclamation, Washington used diverse language in naming the divine. He called upon “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations,” and also on “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that shall be.” Typically, he avoided specifically Christian terminology like Savior, Redeemer or Christ. In his own way, he was searching for an inclusive religious vocabulary that would embrace all citizens while excluding none.

Religion, the Founders believed, should be a force that brings people together, rather than dividing them across sectarian lines. And perhaps we’re making progress in that regard. In the recent election, a major of Catholics and even Evangelicals told pollsters that neither abortion nor gay marriage should be at the top of the religious agenda. Poverty, peace, concern for the environment and building a just economy were equally important values to be considered.

Can we put the culture wars behind us? Can people of faith begin to cooperate—whatever name they give to God—to provide healthcare for the sick, housing for the homeless, education for the young and a green future for the planet? Can religion become, as the Founders intended, a force that unites people and helps them find common ground, rather than a polarizing us?

That would truly be reason for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is the Race About Race?

Judging from polls, America appears ready to elect its first African American president. And should Barak Obama claim the White House, it will be an historic day for a nation that was conceived in liberty–but built on the backs of slaves.

African Americans fought bravely in the American Revolution but their descendants lacked even the right to cast a ballot. Historians say that about 5,000 blacks were in the ranks of the Continental Army, making it the most racially integrated fighting force until Harry Truman officially de-segragated the armed forces in the 1950's. They helped win independence for the United States, but didn’t win freedom for themselves.

Failure to confront the evil of slavery head-on was our Founding Fathers’ original sin. Even slave-holders like Jefferson recognized that the business of buying and selling Africans was a moral corruption that would have to be eradicated. And the author of the Declaration of Independence realized his fine phrase that “all men are created equal” was contradicted daily by the reality that blacks–denied not only life, liberty and happiness but every shred of human dignity--numbered about forty percent of Virginia’s population by the end of the eighteenth century.

Jefferson and other slaveholders like James Madison hoped that future generations would deal with the problem–never suspecting it would take a Civil War, a century of Jim Crow, and the mass mobilization of a Civil Rights generation to begin to remedy their failure.

The election of black president will be a fulfillment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965–legislation that finally enfranchised the ten percent of Americans left out of the Founder’s version of self-government. That legislation was finally passed by Congress only after Dr. King’s march from Selma to Montgomery left peaceful protesters beaten and bloodied–and one Unitarian minister named James Reeb dead–for demanding that people of all races be treated as citizens under the law.

Not much of this is being mentioned in the presidential debates or in the campaign advertising. But it is a deep undercurrent in this election. And a victory for Barak Obama will represent a redeeming moment for a nation still trying to live up to its original promise of equal opportunity for all.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Rule of Law and the Blessings of Liberty

What separates the jungle from civilized society is that, while one rests on the law of force, the other is founded on the force of law. What differentiates legitimate government from an organized protection racket is just this. Hoodlums and tyrants rely on the rule of power, while honest leaders depend on the power of rules. For it's the rule of law, based on principles of mutual fair play, that guarantees our well-being, creating a community where contracts are enforceable, where environmental and workplace standards can be insisted on, where property is secure, where police are professionals rather than serving as private armies for whatever gang is currently in office.

To bring the rule of law to a world drenched in anarchy, the United Nations sixty years ago adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To protect the individual against the mob, and to resolve conflicts without resort to violence or vigilantism, people around the world needed the safeguards of due process. So in words reminiscent of our own Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration affirmed that "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." The opening articles, like our own Bill of Rights, guaranteed a list of legal protections. "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. All are equal before the law … Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals … No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. Everyone is entitled .. to a fair and public hearing … of any criminal charge against him. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence." Peace, the originators of the U.N. realized, has to rest on a foundation of justice. And justice has to be written in the language of legalese.

It's not hard to see that the Universal Declaration was the work of jurists and attorneys, just as our own Constitutional Convention in 1787 was a delegation made up primarily of lawyers who believed the rule of law was key to obtaining the blessings of liberty. Like our own nation's charter, the Declaration of Human Rights was intended to protect people against arbitrary assault--bullying, threats and capricious harassment. It would secure them in their homes and families and livelihoods, by working toward a social order founded on right, not might. For where the rule of law is missing, corruption thrives. Cronyism flourishes. Lawlessness prevails. Think of the mercenaries of the security firm Blackwater—which claimed to be immune from Iraqi law, exempt from U.S. military codes, and also beyond the reach of American jurisprudence. In such an environment, thuggery is rewarded. The scum of society rises to the top.

And sadly, this is the situation in much of the world today, and increasingly in our own country also, under an administration which has demonstrated contempt for both the Constitution and internationally binding agreements, an administration which has become an outlaw regime in the eyes of much of the civilized world.

Criminal charges are mounting. Italy last year indicted twenty-six Americans involved in the extraordinary rendition of Abu Omar, a Moslem cleric disappeared from a mosque in Milan and subsequently flown to be tortured in Egyptian prisons. The indicted include the former CIA station chief in Milan, who said his opposition to the plan to kidnap the imam was overruled by those higher-up the chain of command.

In Spain, which successfully tried and convicted the Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, a lawsuit is now pending against former U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and CIA Director George Tenet, a case strengthened by the willingness of Abu Ghraib commandant, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, to testify against her superiors.

More recently, according to the New York Times, a confidential investigation by the International Red Cross into conditions at Guantanamo Bay called the mistreatment of prisoners there "categorically torture," in contravention of both U.S. and international law, and "warned that the abuse constituted war crimes, placing the highest officials in the U.S. government"—presumably including the President—"in jeopardy of being prosecuted."

While the White House Chief Counsel called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete," it's important to realize that these rules and other laws of war like the Hague Conventions that prohibit rape and torture, that forbid targeting civilians, the use of child soldiers, and other outrages, are neither recent inventions nor outmoded relics. They reflect centuries of religious reflection on what constitutes a just war, and until recently they embodied a non-partisan consensus that claimed solid Republican support from Abraham Lincoln to Colin Powell.

But torture is only a symptom of the lawlessness in Washington. A deeper sign appeared at our church door last week: Ali with his wife Rawa and their six-year-old daughter Sama, newly arrived in Burlington from a refugee camp in Syria, where they had fled from their home in Baghdad. A balding, middle-aged man, with a friendly, deferential manner, Ali spoke good English. He and his wife each had college degrees and were looking for work. I learned they were temporarily being housed with a host family through Refugee Resettlement, and were actually living just a few doors away from me in the New North End. They were literally my neighbors. So I wrote them a small check. I promised that our congregation could help if they needed bedding or furniture or other practical items for setting up a household. But then I remembered Martin Luther King's advice—that being a good neighbor means more than playing the Good Samaritan, dispensing charity to those in need. It also requires investigating the entire Jericho Road to learn why so many wayfarers are being robbed and beaten by life's roadside.

Why are so many people arriving at our doors in need of shelter? A July newsletter from Vermont Refugee Resettlement gave part of the answer, indicating that Iraqis for the third year in a row make up the world's biggest contingent of new refugees. Somalia, another battleground in the so-called "war on terror," is the second leading source of new refugees, according to the Resettlement office. But new or old, most of the world's dis-located people come from Afghanistan. If you see a pattern there, you're beginning to glimpse the Jericho road.

All come from nations marked by sectarian strife, civil unrest, ethnic rivalries run amok. Many, especially those from Iraq, are people who have been brutalized because of U.S. wars of aggression. Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a war based on false pretense, a war that was unprovoked, a war that the majority of Iraqis regard as an occupation rather than a liberation, a war that has cost the lives of over four thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, uprooting untold numbers from their homes. Official statistics put the figure at two million, while Ali told me the refugee total was closer to five. Such wholesale suffering inflicted on the innocent, on children, women and other non-combatants is why the International Tribunal at Nuremburg called such a war of aggression "not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

And who is responsible for such a war if not the commander-in-chief? Recently I stood for half an hour with the peace vigilers who meet each afternoon at the top of Pearl Street, in front of our meetinghouse. From a big bag of prepared placards, I chose a sign to hold, lettered in red and black, announcing the message "Stop War." A good sentiment, perhaps. But stopping war, I realized, would take more than holding signs or getting motorists to wave. It would require tribunals like the International Criminal Court–courts with the legal authority to hold rogues and warmongers accountable.

The Court was instituted in response to the horrors of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's, to hear cases involving crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and wars of aggression. Countries like France, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Finland have all signed the treaty making their citizens subject to the Court's rulings. But not the United States, which joined despotisms like Libya, Quatar, and Yemen in opposing the Court's creation.

Make no mistake: fear of prosecution is the main reason the United States has refused to sign. While President Bush can pardon himself along with Dick Cheney and others in his cabinet before leaving office, and while the Military Commissions Act he pushed through Congress exempts military personnel from being charged with torture under U.S. law, Mr. Bush remains subject to being criminally charged abroad. And this is why the administration has worked hard to bribe other nations into signing bilateral immunity agreements. Caribbean states, for example, have been told they would lose needed funds for hurricane relief unless they promised to never prosecute any American citizen–from army privates to U.S. presidents-- for violations of human rights. Thanks to bilateral immunity, the Bahamas may be a safe place for war criminals to vacation or retire.

But the rest of the world should demand accountability. Of the two candidates, Barak Obama has pledged to end torture as a tool of U.S. policy. John McCain, after being tortured himself as a P.O.W., in North Vietnam, reversed his longstanding opposition to "enhanced interrogation" this past winter. Unfortunately, neither presidential contender has promised to join the community of nations supporting the ICC. That has to change. But more importantly, those responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and plunging the world into war need to be brought to the bar.

Nothing less will restore America's moral standing in the world. Nothing less will restore respect for the rule of law in our country. In the long run, nothing else will stem the tide of humanity uprooted from their homes and knocking on our doors. Nothing less will make the whole Jericho road safe to walk again for all earth's people.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Violent Rhetoric, Deadly Results

Freedom of speech, according to the courts, is not absolute. Hate speech (like burning a cross across the street from a black family’s home) isn’t allowed. It’s an act of overt racial intimidation.

And the law also prohibits “fighting words.” In a 1942 case called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously established the doctrine that "insulting or 'fighting words,' those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" are beyond the protections of the First Amendment.

These thoughts were sparked by today’s mail. The postman brought me an electioneering envelope from an organization calling itself “The Judeo-Christian View” that accused Senator Obama of promoting “child sacrifice.” With extremist rhetoric like that directed at the Senator, is it any wonder that the crowds at Republic rallies have recently been yelling “Kill him” and “Off with his head?”

“The Judeo-Christian View” was signed by a variety of clergy–Rabbis, Catholic priests, and Protestant ministers who explain that they abhor racism and slyly proclaim that “it is irrelevant to us that his father was Islamic, that he was enrolled in a Muslim school in Indonesia, or that his middle name is Hussein.” Very open minded.

But when the religious right equates abortion with murder (or worse, “child sacrifice”), they are almost inviting the trigger happy to take the law into their own hands.

That’s what happened with James Barrett, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, serving as a protective escort to clients at a women’s reproductive clinic in Pensacola, Florida in 1994 when he was gunned down by Paul Hill.

Defending his crime, Hill proclaimed, "If you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it." Vigilantes are only doing God’s will.

So the problem with “the Judeo-Christian view” that Obama endorses “child-sacrifice” is that another Paul Hill will draw the homicidal conclusion.

With Obama ahead ten points in the polls, maybe that’s their secret agenda?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Summum & the Supreme Court

Are the Ten Commandments God’s word? According to a religious organization that calls its Summum, Moses revealed the Decalogue to the Israelites because he saw they were incapable of understanding the higher truths divulged to him atop Mount Sinai. The cognescenti received a more profound teaching, however. And these higher truths are contained in the Seven Aphorisms.

The Seven Aphorisms of Summum are admittedly whacky. They include the Principle of Correspondence, the Principle of Virbration, the Principle of Opposition, and so on, all explicated with a good deal of metaphysical, New Age mumbo-jumbo. But then many mainstream religions, including Judaism and Christianity, might seem weird to an anthropologist from Mars. Is the requirement of circumcision any more rational than Summum’s Principle of Gender, which proclaims that all existence has male and female poles?

Summum might remain one more fringe spiritual movement, except that this fall, the Supreme Court will hear a case that challenges the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, which allowed a display of the Ten Commandments in a public park, while rejecting a proposed pyramidal monument that would be inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms.

A number of groups have filed amicus briefs, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Jewish Committee. They note that a diversity of religious opinion flourished in the American colonies during the 18th century—Quakers, Freethinkers, Universalists, Jews, Roman Catholics, Hutterites, Dutch Reformed and a multitude of other denominations--and that the Founders sought to maintain a strict neutrality toward these various religious traditions. It is hard to argue with the reasoning of James Madison, who wrote in his Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of other Sects?”

Granting Pleasant Grove the power to erect a shine to the Ten Commandments, by Madison’s reasoning, means the town (or any other governmental body) could equally well erect a shrine to the goddess Kali, to the exclusion of non-Hindus. That would be bad.

Personally, I like the Ten Commandments much more than the Aphorisms of Summum. Some of the rules, like the ones about idol worship and not taking God’s name in vain, seem a bit dated. But prohibitions on murder and false testimony never go out of style. I predict that “honoring your father and mother” will be a precept that stands strong, long after Summum is forgotten.

But my own religious preferences weren’t meant to be written into law. So while I’m free to display the Commandments in my home and in my church, they shouldn’t be memorialized on Pleasant Grove’s town green.

Here’s my aphorism: Keep the Commandments in your own ethical life—but don’t keep them in the public park. That was the Founder’s view. And I think the God of Moses would probably agree.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pulpit Freedom or Pulpit Folly?

This past Sunday, pastors from several dozen congregations around the country joined in deliberately defying the IRS in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

The Alliance Defense Fund, which organized the stunt, declared that “Pastors have a right to speak about Biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment. No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights.”

What they demand is an end to the rule that religious organizations refrain from partisan political endorsements. To keep their tax-exempt status, churches currently have to steer clear of outright electioneering.

But this Sunday, Reverend Gus Booth of the Warroad Community Church told his congregation that God’s word demanded a vote for John McCain. Supporting Barak Obama would be heathen and un-Biblical.

Funny, I don’t remember that verse from the Good Book. And I’m not sure the Bible was intended to be a voting guide. But Reverend Gus is entitled to his opinion.

“I have a First Amendment Right to say whatever I want to say,” as the pastor declaimed.

No one questions that ministers, priests or rabbis can privately support whatever candidate they choose. But if their churches start acting like political action committees, shouldn’t they be taxed as such?

Otherwise, what’s to stop the formation of a Presbyterian Party or a Catholic Caucus? What exactly is the difference between a worship service and a Young Republican Rally?

Americans, already polarized between red and blue, can be further divided by faith and doctrine. Religion will lose whatever ability it had to lift citizens toward a vision of the common good. It will become even more a divisive, sectarian force in the culture wars tearing at our nation.

That’s not a move I want to subsidize with my tax dollars. And pastors who deliberately try to move the country in that direction should lose the privilege of their tax exemption.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Alaska's Witch-Crazed Governor

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been following the story of Sarah Palin's connection with a witch-hunting pastor from Kenya. Pastor Muthee is known for identifying sorcerers within his community, accusing a local woman named "Mama Jane" of casting spells, telling fortunes and causing car accidents in the town. Mama Jane was threatened. Her pets were killed. Muthee demanded she either be saved or leave town--and she left!

In 2005 Thomas Muthee visited Sarah Palin's Assembly of God church, where he laid hands on the future Republican Vice Presidential "in the name of Jesus" and asked that she be protected from witchcraft on her road to political success.

What would the founders say about our witch-crazed Alaskan governor? Ben Franklin, born just a few years after the witch trials in Salem, wrote a biting satire of the hysteria that was still common in his time. Nineteen people were hanged in Salem, and two dogs executed (like in Kenya). One of the accused wizards, Giles Corey, was crushed to death under heavy stones for refusing to plead either guilty or not guilty to the offense of witchcraft. If the founders were careful to build into our constitutioin protections against cruel and unusual punishment, the right to confront your accusers in court, trial by jury, and other procedural safeguards, it was because "guilty until proven innocent," torture and trial by ordeal were not so far in the past.

You can listen to an interview on our founder's faith I did this morning with CBC host Anna Maria Tremonti at http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Washington, Jefferson and Palin?

Is America a Christian nation? Sarah Palin, who signed a "Christian Heritage Week" proclamation last year celebrating "the role Christianity has played in our rich heritage," and went on to cherry-pick quote from the Founding Fathers dressing them up in evangelical guise, thinks so. Of course, Palin's formal education was spotty to say the least!

To set the record straight, I'll be doing an interview on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "The Current" (www.cbc.ca/radio) this Thursday morning 9/25/08. Listen in to find out what our founders really thought! If you miss the broadcast, check the archive, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Presidential Replay

Imagine two contenders for the presidency, one rather squat and plainspoken, the other lean, lanky and given to elevated discourse. Sound familiar?

At the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where they first met, John Adams was the older man, a known quantity, but far from exciting. Jefferson was a newcomer to the scene, younger and without much track record but a rising star.

History doesn't repeat itself. But sometimes the eighteenth century seems to have presaged the twenty-first. Contrast the personalities of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson with those of Barak Obama and John McCain.

Ideologically, Jefferson was more democratic, yet came off as elitist and aloof. Paradoxically, Adams believed in a natural aristocracy of brains and talent, but his everyday speech was simple and his manners homespun.

In his book Inventing America, historian Garry Will explains that the terms "conservative" and "liberal" are misleading labels in most cases, but rarely as skewed as when applied to these two.

"Adams had a theoretical caution but a headlong, informal, risk-taking manner in person," Wills observes. "He was quick to trust or suspect, to take or give offense, to act on a moral 'feel' for any situation."

Along with his cousin Samuel, John was a scrapper. He enjoyed not only the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary battle, but shared a warrior's exaltation for combat. He nominated Washington to be commander-in-chief of the continental armies, practically invented the United States Navy, and himself served as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance during the revolution—a post roughly comparable to today's Secretary of Defense. One feels that like McCain, he would have been comfortable commanding a fighter wing. And like John McCain, the other John was known as headstrong, egotistical, and given to occasional fits of temper.

"Jefferson, by contrast, was rather quick to spill literary blood, but slow to the point of timidity in facing actual violence," says Wills. This wasn't a question of physical courage; Jefferson disliked even legislative conflict and preferred to harmonize differences rather than wrestle with them. He was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence (with the concurrence of Adams) because of his soaring rhetoric. But his record as wartime governor of Virginia was spotty at best, and of all the titles he possessed, "colonel" was his least favorite. Says Wills, "He exasperated others by seeing inevitability where they saw only crisis, by a long-range vision that treated day-to-day struggles as already settled in their outcome. He brushed troubles aside as distractions from the main point of large patterns."

A preference for bipartisanship, a promise for revolutionary change but no killer instinct, optimism about a beaconing future that's vague on the messy details of how to get there … sounds a little like the junior senator from Illinois, doesn't it?

The choice facing Americans in November is like the choice voters faced in 1796. Adams won that election, but Jefferson bested him four years later. Then as now, both candidates were intelligent and capable. Briefly bitter adversaries, they ended up the best of friends. But one was a hot head (some would say much too combustible), while the other was a cool character, with an air that could be professorial rather than practical.

Most chroniclers agree that Jefferson ultimately made the better chief executive. Political scientists surveyed over the past half century consistently put the man from Monticello among the top half dozen to occupy the White House. Adams ranks further down the list. But the voters, not historians, will have to make the judgment this time around.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Liberals Under Fire

John McCain’s campaign came out swinging from the Republican National Convention. They called Barak Obama the worst name they could think of. They said he was a liberal.

Try googling images of “liberal” and you’ll find some ugly, vicious, nasty stuff. There’s a photo looking straight down the barrel of a six-shooter with the caption: “Liberals, this is the only view you ever need to see,” presumably a reference to liberals’ namby-pamby habit of trying to see differing points of view. There are multiple pornographic variations on liberals with their heads stuck in a place where the sun doesn’t shine. A mock recruiting poster shows an airman climbing into the cockpit of a World War II era plane with the legend, “Shut the F— Up. We’ll Protect America.” I can’t print the rest of message without being indecent.

There are no positive images of liberals. Only violent threats that equate liberalism with cowardice and treason.

Yet “liberal” was a label that America’s founders wore with pride–especially in matters of faith. George Washington, for example, spoke of separation of church and state as an “enlarged and liberal policy” the rest of the world should emulate. Abigail Adams said she and her husband John both preferred “liberal good sense” from the pulpit when they attended church. Thomas Jefferson, responding to protests that his newly founded University of Virginia made no room for religious teaching, invited a variety of sects to set up private seminaries on grounds adjacent to the campus, hoping that “by bringing the sects together and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”

Where did America start to lose it’s way? Maybe in the McCarthy era, when “liberals” were accused of being soft on communism. Maybe in the sixties, when “liberals” who questioned our tragic mis-adventure in Vietnam were labeled unpatriotic. Maybe in the 1970's, when Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority proclaimed in a July 4th sermon that that “the idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”

Liberals have been demonized long enough. Religious liberalism was the faith of America’s founders. Political liberalism is the philosophy enshrined in our Constitution and protected by the Bill of Rights. Liberals must reclaim their history and heritage from the rabid right-wing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Nation of Laws (and Lawyers)

Are attorneys always agents of revolution?

When Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf stepped down last week, there were lawyers to blame. Hundreds of counselors clad in courtroom attire, black suits, white shirts and power ties, took to the streets last winter to protest the Islamic leader’s heavy-handed dismissal of that nation’s Supreme Court Justice. What a grand sight to see the barristers clamoring at the barricades, pulling down barbed wire and chanting “Go, Musharraf, go!”

I was reminded that legally trained minds also made America’s revolution. Of the fifty-five delegates from twelve states who participated in our country’s Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, a solid majority were lawyers.

That explains why our nation’s framers were so enamored with the concept of “contract.” Contract is a cornerstone of legal theory–required of every first year law student.

Society, our framers held, was based on a reciprocal, legal agreement among its members. According to social contract theory, government comes into being when free agents enter into mutual compact with each other. Each individual agrees to cede a limited portion of his or her own personal freedom to the sovereign or central power in exchange for the order and stability that comes from living under a nation of laws.

There was not a clergyman among the delegates in 1787. None claimed that government originated from God, or that laws were enjoined by holy writ. Rather, just authority derived from the consent of the governed ... from “we the people,” in the immortal phrase of the Constitution’s preamble. Those were lawyers talking.

Isn’t it time Americans regained respect for the rule of law? Our current president (the latest King George) has claimed on numerous occasions that his power and judgment derive from the Almighty. He has overridden the will of Congress repeatedly with “signing statements, ” flouting legislation intended to constrain executive hubris. He has ignored international treaties that prohibit torture, including the Geneva Conventions.

Perhaps lawyers in the U.S. should follow the example of the brave barristers of Pakistan, and of our own founders. Lawyers arise! More than a verdict or jury award is at stake. Our character as a nation of laws is on trial.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Will the Real Founding Fathers Please Stand Up?

Virtually everything that can be known about America’s founding generation can now be known--virtually. The digital archives containing the writings of our first four Presidents are accessible to anyone with a modem. Despite that, their innermost thoughts about God and faith remain an enigma to most people, simply because biographers have given the subject short shrift.

John Adams, for example, was featured this March in a seven-part HBO mini-series based on David McCullough’s portrait of the figure whom Ben Franklin called “an honest man, and often a just one, but sometimes absolutely mad.” Adams was an eccentric genius. But readers of McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning bio learn only that Adams was “both a devout Christian and an independent thinker.”

The 751 page book never mentions that young John originally intended to enter the ministry, or that he grew cynical about the church when Rev. Lemuel Bryant, minister of the local parish in Braintree, was subjected to a heresy trial in the Adams family living room: “I perceived very clearly that the study of theology, and the pursuit of it as a profession, would involve me in endless altercations, and make my life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow-men.” Readers don’t realize that Adams was studying at Harvard at the height of the schism, his attention was drawn increasingly to science, especially astronomy, where the discovery of deep space was beginning to stretch traditional notions of divinity in strange, unexpected directions.

Enlightened thinkers in the eighteenth century were starting to understand the cosmos was teeming with stars and planets, many of them presumably inhabited, some undoubtedly with civilizations superior to our own. As a student, John wondered whether it made sense to suppose that the Creator of “Newton’s universe” had really taken flesh as an earthling—or found it necessary to morph into the form of Martians, Moon Men, or other extraterrestrials—to accomplish the work of salvation? Trying to square doctrine with plain arithmetic, he questioned the Trinitarian formula that three could equal one, any more than two plus two could make five. If he was not exactly “a devout Christian,” he was certainly an idiosyncratic one.

David McCullough is a great historian, but on the subject of religion, it is important to set the record straight, precisely because the founders were so complex. Dumbed-down depictions of them as red state Bible thumpers, on the one hand, or secular humanists, on the other, harness their memory in the service of culture wars our nation’s architects would have deplored. Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all believed faith should be a cohesive force in public life. Portraits that are one-sided, or oversimplified, undermine that goal.

So it is nice to know that Thomas Jefferson, the apostle of separating church from state, recommended “Death to Tyrants is Obedience to God” as a motto for the nation’s great seal. That Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion to open the Constitutional Convention each morning with prayer was countered by Alexander Hamilton’s quip that the delegates didn’t need any “foreign aid.” That George Washington, who called religion and morality the “indispensable supports” of political prosperity in his Farewell, frequently skipped Sunday worship. Men this complicated are hard to categorize on the spiritual spectrum as right or left, and that is a healthy corrective.

The time for mythologizing is over. So what if Washington never knelt in supplication in the snows of Valley Forge? By all historical accounts, the General liked to stand erect at prayer, even warm and dry inside an Episcopal church where bending the knee is customary. Knowing the truth, we respect the Father of our Country no less, and appreciate the diverse, irreducibly messy religious identity that characterizes our country all the more. So please. Will the real Founding Fathers stand up?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Info-Tainment Meets Inspir-Mation

Tonight’s show was predictable and a bit creepy.

Fox, CNN and most other news stations carried the dialogue as Reverend Rick Warren quizzed senators McCain and Obama on national TV. Warren wanted to know how Christianity played out in their personal lives. He wanted to make sure neither believed in gay marriage. He pushed them on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Pastor Rick wanted to know how they would address religious persecution around the world. And he invited them to confess their biggest moral blunder in front of the cameras.

The mega-church pastor didn’t talk much about the poor, except to boast that he personally had sold 25 million copies of his guide to living a more purposeful life, and to quip that an annual income of $150,000 a year, which Obama defined as middle-class, was a poverty wage in his southern California neighborhood. Funny, I remember Jesus had a lot to say about the poor and not so much about stem cell research. Me and Rick must have gone to different seminaries.

One of his last questions to both candidates: “What would you say to folks who think it’s inappropriate for you to be talking with me here tonight?” Rev. Warren said that while it was important to keep church and state distinct, there was nothing wrong with mingling faith and politics. “Faith” was just another name for a world view, he explained, and everyone had one of those, whether Baptist or Buddhist or Bahai. Both Obama and McCain enthused about how delighted they were chatting with such a prominent religious leader.

But I had a different reaction. I thought it was another example of America’s growing problem with boundary issues. Specifically, our nation seems to be losing sight of the appropriate lines between news and entertainment, between entertainment and religion, and between religion and politics.

Tonight’s show tried to somehow be all of those things, set in a church that looked like a TV studio on steroids. Info-tainment meets Inspir-mation.

Not a pretty sight.

A Purpose Driven Debate?

Should a presidential candidate’s personal religious beliefs be fodder for a candidate forum?

Tonight Barak Obama and John McCain appear in conversation with Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of the 22,000 member Saddleback Church and author of a best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life. Warren is an evangelical Baptist, but known for broadening the faith-based agenda beyond hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage to include care of the environment and combating AIDS.

The event is being co-sponsored by “Faith in Public Life,” a liberal coalition whose Board President is Reverend Meg Riley, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who headed the denomination’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns, and whose members include a spectrum of Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.

But despite the wide base of religious leaders involved in planning Saturday’s event, it still seems odd to have the Democratic and Republican nominee hold their first post-primary public appearance in such an explicitly religious setting.

Reverend Warren says he wants to ask the candidates questions that aren’t usually discussed, like “What’s Your View of the Constitution?” But if he’s sticking to secular and legal questions, why is a spiritual leader especially qualified to ask them? Will Warren also ask Obama and McCain about their bona fides as Christians? What they believe about Jesus and the Bible?

America’s founders seldom discussed their faith in public. Rev. William White, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, said that he often dined with George Washington, but never heard the great man refer to his religious beliefs in any shape or manner. Thomas Jefferson wrote a syllabus on the life of Jesus, but kept it’s circulation limited strictly to friends and confidantes—not intended for publication. While James Madison expressed an interest in ministry as a young man attending Princeton, in later life he rarely mentioned his spiritual inclinations. Why not? Because like the other founders, he considered faith a private matter, and too important to be used to hustle for votes.

Perhaps the current nominees might take a cue from the founders in this regard. I am looking forward to watching tonight’s forum with Reverend Warren and the two senators. But I’d rather be watching McCain and Obama on PBS than in a sectarian place of worship.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Natural Bridges, Now and Then

A stone bridge collapsed last week at Arches National Park. According to the park’s chief interpreter, gravity and erosion, the same forces that created the photogenic formation, eventually caused it to collapse. “They all let go after a while,” he said.

At thirty-three feet tall, the Arches sandstone bridge was considerably smaller than Virginia’s limestone wonder, an archway that towers 215 feet above the ground, spanning over 90 feet. Thomas Jefferson, who lived in the neighborhood, described it rapturously. “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here,” he wrote, praising the bridge as “so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light” that it was well worth a trip across the Atlantic for any European visitors who might wish to gaze upon it.

Jefferson often speculated on the geological forces that conspired to create such a marvel. Could it have been an ancient cataclysm? Or the slow work of eons as water trickled over stone, as Cedar Creek (located at the bottom of the bridge) wore down the solid rock? Jefferson eventually embraced the latter hypothesis–one modern geologists would share.

He didn’t think of the Bible as a textbook on geology that would explain the age or history of such mineral formations. He looked for scientific explanations of how mountains were formed, rocks laid down, and fossils generated. But his embrace of science never diminished his capacity for awe and wonder or his curiosity about the earth’s origins.

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson finally bought the land that contained Virginia’s natural bridge. He often thought of building “a little hermitage” on the property: a place to retreat and meditate on the ancient, elemental forces of nature.

And although many in his day accused him of being an “infidel,” he was in this sense a deeply spiritual man.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Non-Trivial Pursuits

Despite the important role they played in history, the founding fathers remain little known or appreciated by ordinary Americans. For example:

Which of the founders grew marijuana? That would be George Washington, who cultivated hemp at his Mount Vernon estate, to be used in making rope rather than to smoke. We shouldn't confuse him with Thomas Jefferson, who grew opium poppies for more medicinal purposes.

Which of the founders had the biggest feet? Again, George Washington wore size thirteen shoes. That's why John Adams, his successor, was elected to just one term in office. Adams had such big shoes to fill!

Who called John Adams "an honest man, and often a just one, but sometimes absolutely mad?" Ben Franklin said that. And why? Because Adams suggested that the office of the presidency have a title capable of inspiring suitable awe. He proposed "His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of the Liberties of the Same." For that bit of ridiculousness, the portly Adams was jeered as "His Rotundity" by his enemies in Congress. James Madison sensibly suggested the title "Mister President" would do just fine, and that's what we've called our chief exec ever since.

But the reason for learning about our nation's founders isn't just to accumulate trivia. It's to value and cherish the freedoms that go along with self-government. You know, we often tell children that anyone in this country might grow up to be president. And we tell kids that because we really believe it. It's truer today than ever in our history. This November when we go to the polls, we'll have the first opportunity ever to cast a ballot for a black man. A woman very nearly captured the Democratic party nomination. What a shift in consciousness and culture in the last forty years.

But not so great a shift as the one instituted in 1787. Before then, the prevailing wisdom held that kings and autocrats reigned over their subjects by divine right. Monarchs were appointed by God to be obeyed. The framers of our Constitution, on the other hand, asserted that rightful governance is grounded in the consent of the governed. Not a self-appointed aristocracy or priesthood, but the people should decide.

So whoever we vote for, Republican or Democrat, male or female, black or white, we are united in our belief that "we the people" should choose our own rulers. It's our government and our right and responsibility to keep it accountable. That's a legacy we've inherited from our founders, and it's no trivial pursuit.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

How Old Is Too Old?

How old is too old? And when it comes to the presidency, how young is too young? Both candidates this season have taken flak on the question.

The Constitution sets the chronological bar for the office at thirty-five, and that may be a reflection of the document’s authors. James Madison, who devised the “Virginia Plan” for three separate branches of government, restrained by checks and balances, was himself just thirty-six when he earned the sobriquet “Father of the Constitution.” Alexander Hamilton was six years younger. Jonathan Dayton of the New Jersey delegation was only twenty-six years old. The overall average for the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 was never over forty-three years-of-age. Perhaps people grew up faster in the eighteenth century, but even accounting for cultural differences, the framers who wrote our country’s charter make Barak Obama seem like a geezer.

On the other hand, Benjamin Franklin was still able to participate and lend an air of gravitas to the proceedings at age eighty. And the man people rightly assumed would ascend to the office of the presidency, General Washington, was old enough to be a card-carrying member of the AARP. A champion wrestler in his youth, Washington could still pin men half his age when commanding the armies of the republic. But neither he nor Franklin, as far as I know, was familiar with how to use a personal computer. So John McCain shouldn’t be ruled out just because he is (in his own words) “older than dirt.”

The issue in November shouldn’t be age, but each candidate’s policies, his leadership qualities and vision for the nation. That’s the way the framers would have wanted it. And you can call me old-fashioned or geriatric on that score.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Liberals in the Cross-Hairs

“Liberal” has become a dirty word in America. Right wing radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh use it like a term of disgrace, tantamount to treason. The rhetoric has become vicious, and it was only a matter of time until the irresponsible potshots ended in real shooting.

Sunday morning, Jim Adkisson walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church with a shotgun hidden inside a guitar case. He’d been planning his attack for at least a week, and chose a special children’s service for the assault. Before he was tackled, Adkisson managed to kill at least two parishioners and seriously wound seven others.

Adkisson targeted the church, according to Knoxville’s WBIR-TV, “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets."

The shooter told reporters that "he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them in to office."

Inside Adkisson's house, officers found Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder by radio talk show host Michael Savage, Let Freedom Ring by talk show host Sean Hannity, and The O'Reilly Factor, by television talk show host Bill O'Reilly. So it wasn’t just another random act of violence that took place Sunday. It was the culmination of years of mean-spirited fulminating from the fanatic right.

These right-wing pundits have made a travesty of America’s liberal political tradition. Because our nation’s founders almost all described themselves as “liberals.” Not all of them were Unitarian—the denomination that Adkisson decided to put in the cross-hairs—though John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both identified as such. But certainly others shared in the liberal spirit: respect for personal freedom and tolerance of cultural diversity coupled with a non-dogmatic approach to life.

If a white supremacist bombed a black church, one hopes that people of goodwill would speak out against such bigotry. If a neo-Nazi targeted a synagogue, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims alike would ideally be quick to condemn that kind of violence. I wonder, will the presidential candidates, or other political and faith leaders, speak out against Sunday’s mayhem?

Liberals should not be intimidated or silenced by Sunday’s attack, but defend the progressive legacy they bequeathed to this country. The Declaration’s dictum that “all people are created equal” and endowed with inalienable rights to life and liberty was a radical precept. The defense of human rights inevitable led to the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights of labor, gay rights and the rights of indigenous people--even animal rights. The world is a better place thanks to these “liberal” innovations which lie at the heart of the American Dream.

We can’t let that Dream remain in the cross-hairs.

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