Friday, June 27, 2008

Onward Agnostic Soldiers

If someone were shooting at me, I'd probably want to pray.  But actually there are atheists in foxholes, who shouldn't be forced to join me.

Soldiers in uniform deserve the right to practice their faith, but don't need religion pushed down their throats.  

The New York Times ran a headline this week reporting that "Religion and Its Role Are in Dispute at the Service Academies."  Nine midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis recently asked the ACLU to petition the school to drop daily prayers at weekday lunch, where attendance is mandatory.  The cadets said that "evangelical Christianity was a constant at the academy.  They said that until recently, cadets who did not attend religious services during basic training were sometimes referred to as 'heathens.'"  The Academy's top commander, Major General Robert Caslen routinely included prayers and Bible readings at events where attendance was required.

The incident recalls troubles at the Air Force Academy, where officers made anti-Semitic remarks, sponsored an official showing of "The Passion of Christ," and displayed a banner in the athletic room cheering on "Team Jesus."

That kind of proselytizing crosses the line.  But exactly where to draw that line was a question the Founders struggled with. George Washington, for instance, followed the customary practice of appointing chaplains to serve units of the Continental Army.  But he made sure the priests and ministers were chosen by the men themselves, and resisted a move from Congress that would have appointed chaplains at the brigade rather than regimental level--fearing that making appointments to larger units, high up the chain of command, would provoke resentment among the ranks. 

When the Rhode Island Regiment chose Rev. John Murray to be their chaplain, other clergy objected.  Murray was considered a heretic, because he was a Universalist (rejecting the doctrine that God sends people to hell).  But Washington let the selection stand.  The General wasn't concerned with Murray's orthodoxy.  He believed the men should choose their own spiritual leaders. 

James Madison made it clear that he didn't believe in military chaplains at all.   Even a chaplain who reflected the faith of the majority would inevitably leave religious minorities feeling excluded.

America need to honor all its women and men in uniform, and that means honoring their deeply held convictions, whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist or Hindu, pagan or humanist.   John Adams noted that the troops in the Revolutionary War included warriors of all denominations, including "Deists and Atheists."  

If atheists fought to establish this country, shouldn't they be welcome at Annapolis and West Point?    

Friday, June 20, 2008

Honk If You Love the Constitution

I have a blue bumpersticker on my car, with yellow lettering and the message: “Be Guided By Your Faith, Not Your Fear.” Others prefer their own tailgate theologies, like “Honk If You Love Jesus” or “Born Again Pagan.” America’s vehicles reflect the buzzing variety of our nation’s religious landscape.

But now at least one state wants to replace this healthy diversity with a boring uniformity. South Carolina plans to issue official license plates bearing the image of a cross, superimposed over a stained glass window and bearing the legend, “I Believe.” The legislature authorized the plates in the closing days of its session, and Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer has offered to put up $4,000 of his own money to get the plates into production.

Naturally, the state is being challenged in court (as they should be). While the “no-establishment” clause of the First Amendment has to be balanced with the “free exercise” clause, this case at least seems to cross the line.

In response to the lawsuit, Bauer complained to a reporter from the Washington Post that "people who support Judeo-Christian values are ever under fire now." But how many Jews in that “Judeo-Christian” heritage want their state-issued license plates bearing the image of a crucifix? It’s not Judeo-Christian values that are under attack, but a militant evangelical theology that wants to make its literalistic, legalistic reading of the Bible the law of the land.

After all, no one is preventing Lt. Gov. Bauer from printing up personal bumperstickers to paste on the back of his pick-up. If he likes, he can let fellow motorists know to take caution: “This Vehicle Driverless In Case of Rapture.” Or if he happens to be Wiccan, he can confess that “My Other Car Is A Broom.” But the state of South Carolina shouldn’t be endorsing Mr. Bauer’s religious views. Free exercise belongs in the private sphere.

That was James Madison’s opinion. As he made clear in a memorandum from 1817, the Father of the Constitution opposed any intermingling of church and state—even the appointment of chaplains to the U.S. Congress. To legislators who felt the need to pray, he suggested, “If Religion consist in voluntary acts of individuals, singly, or voluntarily associated, and it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their Constituents should discharge their religious duties, let them like their Constituents, do so at their own expence.”

It seems like sensible advice for people like Mr. Bauer and the legislature of South Carolina. Put whatever gospel you want on your rear end. Honk if you love Jesus, or honk if you’re not sure. But do so at your own expense.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

James Madison: Ecological Prophet

Food shortages are in the headlines. Global warming looms as the world's population surges toward seven billion. As the Founders might have asked, what else is new?

In his “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle County” in 1818, James Madison foresaw the distinct possibility that human population increase might outrun the carrying capacity of the planet. Although it might be hard to fix the exact limits to the earth's ability to feed people, he said, "we can scarcely be warranted in supposing that all the productive powers of its surface can be made subservient to the use of man."

At the time Madison was writing, the world's population had probably just hit one billion. How many more people could the planet support? "Were the earth in every productive spot, and in every spot capable of being made productive, appropriated to the food of man …so as to produce the maximum of population on the earth, there would be more than an hundred individuals for every one now upon it." For Madison, that was clearly an unthinkable notion.

The natural balance, Madison realized, required biodiversity. "The earth contains not less than thirty or forty thousand kinds of plants; not less than six or seven hundred of birds; nor less than three or four hundred of quadrupeds; to say nothing of the thousand species of fishes. Of reptiles and insects, there are more than can be numbered. To all these must be added, the swarms and varieties of animalcules and minute vegetables not visible to the natural eye, but whose existence is probably connected with that of visible animals and plants." This interdependent network could not possibly be reduced to human use without dire consequences.

Overpopulation and excessive consumption might destroy the delicate composition of the earth's atmosphere. "The atmosphere is not a simple but a compound body," as Madison understood, and "in its natural state, and in its ordinary communication with the organized world, comprises various ingredients or modifications of ingredients, derived from the use made of it, by the existing variety of animals and plants." Upset that equilibrium and the very breath of life could become noxious.

While some might suppose the envelope of air that encircles the earth is far too big to be affected by human activity, Madison pointed out that if air were condensed to the same specific gravity as mercury, the canopy of sky would rise only thirty inches above the earth's surface. (That's what barometric pressure means.) The atmosphere is really a very thin membrane.

Thomas Jefferson predicted that clearing forests and settling the land might eventually lead to long term changes in climate. He recommended surveys of temperature and precipitation be taken at fifty or hundred year intervals, to measure the impact of human civilization on the environment. This, two hundred years before Bill McKibben or Al Gore.

Our Founders were "conservatives" in the true sense of understanding that clean air, fertile soil, and pure water are not limitless resources to be expended recklessly, but precious gifts to be preserved and passed on to future generations. Nature was not merely a storehouse of materials to be consumed. It was a Creation to be stewarded carefully, for the sake of all earth's inhabitants.

Now, amid melting ice caps and vanishing wildlife, we're still trying to catch up with their insight.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Suicide, Self-Deliverance and the Founders

What did the Founders think about assisted suicide, or ending one’s own life in the face of incurable illness?

Our nation’s founding generation often drew their ethics from classical rather than Christian sources. Many especially admired the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca. So John Adams admonished himself in his diary to “Study
Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral Writers.” A listing of Washington’s library from his Mount Vernon estate shows a copy of Seneca’s Morals, published in London in 1746, among the collection.

In those moral essays, Seneca advised that “mere living is not a good, but living well.” A wise man ought to be prepared to end his own existence whenever it grew unduly burdensome. “He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.”

Some goods were superior to survival, Seneca held, and some evils worse than death. He tells the story of a young Spartan taken into captivity. When ordered by his master to perform an undignified act—fetching a chamber pot—the boy cried “I will not be a slave!” and dashed his own brains against the wall. The illustration was likely to appeal to patriots ready to lay down lives on the altar of freedom. “Life, if courage to die is lacking, is slavery,” according to the Stoic teacher.

Clearly, though, bashing your own brains out was an unpleasant way to exit. Seneca preferred less painful means. He tells another story of a contemporary philosopher, Tullius Marcellinius who “fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about
dying.”. After distributing his meager belongings to his circle of friends, Marcellinius then stopped eating. “For three days he fasted and had a tent put up in his very bedroom. Then a tub was brought in; he lay in it for a long time, and, as the hot water was continually poured over him, he gradually passed away, not without a feeling of pleasure, as he himself remarked.”

That was the sort of gentle finale Thomas Jefferson probably had in mind when he wrote to Dr. Samuel Brown in 1813 about a lethal concoction of the herb Datura Stromonium, or jimson weed, which he praised as bringing on death “as quietly as sleep,” without the least distress. “It seems far preferable to the Venesection of the Romans, the Hemlock of the Greeks, and the Opium of the Turks. I have never been able to learn what the preparation is, other than a strong concentration of its lethiferous principle. Could such a medicament be restrained to self-administration, it ought not to be kept secret. There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief, e.g., the inveterate cancer.”

Jefferson had already reached the Biblically allotted three-score and ten at that point. Strategies for the end game were beginning to occupy his thoughts. That same year, at the age of seventy-seven, John Adams wrote to the physician Benjamin Rush, in a letter penned under the persona of his horse “Hobby.” Wouldn’t it be a kindness to the old man to simply stumble one day, “Hobby” wondered, and end a tottering life like Adams’ quickly?

Nine years later, at an even more advanced age, Jefferson wrote to his friend in Braintree, “When all our faculties have left, or are leaving us, one by one, sight, hearing, memory, every avenue of pleasing sensation is closed, and athumy, debility and malaise left in their places, when the friends of our youth are all gone, and a generation is risen around us whom we know not, is death an evil?

One suspects they both endorsed Seneca’s answer: “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as be can.”