Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thanksgiving Then and Now

America has always been a land of diverse faiths. And in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, George Washington particularly enjoined gratitude for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

While nominally Episcopalian, he himself was never a formal communicant in that church, and his Proclamation avoided specifically Christian language. Indeed, Washington’s writings virtually never referred to the deity as Christ or Redeemer or Savior, and his Thanksgiving decree was typical in calling on God as “the beneficent author all good” and “the Lord and Ruler of Nations,” seeking in his own way to find an inclusive vocabulary that could unite rather than divide his fellow Americans.

Religion, Washington felt, should be force that brings people together across sectarian lines. So in a letter he wrote as President in 1790 to the Jewish Synagogue in Newport, he assured the sons of Abraham that all in the newly founded nation “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

Americans may finally be embracing what Washington called “the enlarged and liberal policy” of respect for religious differences. According to a Pew Forum poll conducted last year that interviewed 2,905 adults, only 29% of respondents surveyed agreed with the statement, “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” Solid majorities of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Evangelicals all agreed that other paths–even non-Christian religions–may lead to salvation.

Thanks largely to the separation of church and state, which our Founders so wisely instituted, the United States today has become the most spiritually diverse nation on earth. Harvard’s Pluralism Project counts 1660 mosques currently operating in our country, 724 Hindu temples, 2228 Buddhist centers, and 252 Sikh temples. For over two hundred years, devotees of most of these traditions have been able to co-exist amicably with their Christian and Jewish neighbors. Friendship, rather than strife, has been the norm.

As we gather round our tables in the spirit of George Washington’s Proclamation, that truly is a reason to give thanks.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Old Time Religion and End Time Religion

The end of the world is coming—again.

Apocalyptic prophecies are a recurring phenomenon in Christian history and in America’s past. Puritan theologian Cotton Mather foresaw the end would come in 1696, then in 1736, and finally in 1716. In the next century, William Miller famously selected the date of October 22, 1844, for Christ’s Second Coming. Thousands of followers were left disappointed on hilltops, where they’d gathered to be closer to the heavenly dispensation, when the appointed day came and went with no grand finale.

Now 2012 is the pre-determined moment for the final curtain to fall. Hollywood, the Mayan calendar, and a cottage industry of New Age catastrophizers say so.

While doom sayers have deep roots in America soil, however, their prognostications are far removed from the vision of the country’s founders, who believed that history was just beginning, not coming to an end.

Tom Paine, for instance, called the American Revolution “the birthday of the world.” As the Constitutional Convention drew to a close in 1787, Ben Franklin was convinced that the image on the back of the moderator’s chair, depicting the sun upon the horizon, represented a dawning moment, not a dusk. Similarly, the Great Seal of the United States, designed by Charles Thomson, called for a Novus Ordo Seclorum or “New Order of the Ages.” The phrase, interestingly, came not from Biblical sources, but from the Roman poet Virgil:

Now comes the final era of the Sibyl’s song; The great order of the ages is born afresh. And now justice returns, honored rules return; now a new lineage is sent down from high heaven.

The motto captured the upbeat mood of that generation. How many would have thought independence worth fighting for, had they imagined a general cataclysm was imminent?

If films like “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow” are any indication, the “world-is-coming-to-an-end” message will always draw a big audience. Global warming, AIDS, H1N1, shifting weather patterns and similar threats will be seized upon as evidence that all is lost. The task for our time will be to recapture the faith of the founders, not to abandon hope, but to take melting ice caps, nuclear proliferation, economic recession and all the rest as problems for human ingenuity to solve.

“Do not anticipate trouble,” advised the wise Mister Franklin, “or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.” The alternative is to let worst case scenarios become self-fulfilling predictions.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hate Grandma Bill?

President Obama’s decision yesterday to sign a federal hate crimes law, named for Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr, was criticized by figures on the Christian right, who fear the statute will be used to prosecute preachers who condemn homosexuality.

James Folger of Faith2Action typifies the hyped-up rhetoric. "The 'Hate Crimes' bill is better named 'Hate Grandma' or "hate Free Speech' bill as it poses a serious threat to the freedom of speech for every American. We must stop it before they send your grandma, your pastor, or you to jail for sharing your faith or speaking the truth about an agenda that seeks to silence us."

But no pastor or grandma will be put in prison for preaching from Leviticus. The First Amendment continues to protect freedom of expression in pew and pulpit. Fanatics like the Reverend Fred Phelps, who recently picketed Vermont for passing a gay marriage bill–would still be at liberty to spread their venom. Only actions–or direct incitements to action–could be charged under the new law. Words and opinions can be expressed with impunity.

There is some irony here, for based solely on crime statistics there is every reason in the world for even conservative clergy to support this legislation. According to FBI statistics, there are hundreds of people assaulted annually, not because of their sexual orientation but because of their faith.

Jews are the favorite targets, with 848 incidents of anti-Semitic violence reported in 2005. But Christians are also attacked frequently–115 times--almost as often Muslims, who were attacked for their beliefs 128 times that same year.

Over all, religious prejudice inspires even more mayhem than prejudice against lesbians and gays. Jihads, holy wars, and crusades are apparently even more virulent than homophobia.

The rationale for hate crimes legislation, of course, is to protect whole classes of people. When a synagogue is defaced by a swastika, or a church is burnt down, it harms not only the individuals who belonged to that particular congregation. It terrorizes an entire category of citizens and chills their ability to gather and worship according to their own conscience.

No piece of legislation can put an end to hatred. Only love can do that. But clergy of all faiths should support the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which guards religious freedom–the very thing right wingers say they want to protect.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Freemasons: Fact & Fiction

Freemasons are the buzz, thanks to novelist Dan Brown, whose book The Last Symbol promises to blur fact and fiction regarding America’s Founding Fathers the way The Da Vinci Code did with the historical Jesus. But the truth remains more interesting than the creations of Hollywood or the publishing industry.

Conspiracy theories trace the freemason’s origins back to the builders of ancient Egypt, to Solomon and his Temple and other secret orders shrouded in the obscurity of time. But the real story is that the masonic order was an outgrowth of the European Enlightenment.

Freemasonry as the Founders knew it was part philosophical society, part social improvement club, part mystic brotherhood. It had its beginnings in 1717 with the organization of the Grand Lodge in London. Earlier masonic lodges were composed mostly of stone workers, remnants of the craft guilds that build the medieval cathedrals. But with the opening of the 18th century, these guilds were on the wane. The Grand Lodge revived masonry by drawing in an entirely new breed–called “speculative” masons–whose interests were mainly scientific and intellectual. Like their predecessors, these newcomers evinced an enthusiasm for architecture and engineering. Not content to carve in stone, however, “speculative” masons hoped to lay the foundations for a whole new society.

John Desaguliers, whose Huguenot family brought him to England shortly after his birth in 1683, was among the principal founders of the lodge where these ideas germinated. As chair of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford, he was an intimate of Isaac Newton and became Curator and Demonstrator for the Royal Society. His great gift was as a popularizer. He was able to lecture freely on gravity, optics, geometry and mechanics and, with the aid of ingenious working models, bring the concepts of elementary physics within the reach of non-scholars.

An ordained deacon in the Church of England, he became the proponent for a faith whose God owed more to the harmonies of physics than to the traditional Christian scriptures. For deity should be demonstrable, Desaguliers argued, like the laws of science, which his own work had proven to be within the grasp of even average minds. So theology should look to the natural world rather than to revelation for inspiration–to the vast Creation and the orderly working of its laws. For just as Newton’s laws seemed incontrovertible and beyond dispute, a purely natural religion might avoid the disputations that had so vexed human history. Persecutions of the kind that drove his own family from France would become a thing of the past if only people would reorient their faith, away from doctrinal differences and variant readings of the Bible, toward what to Desaguliers seemed beyond question–the existence of God (whom he called the Great Architect and Organizer of the World) and the unity of humankind.

This was religion shorn of supernaturalism, devoid of the Trinity, simplified to an affirmation of the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of man. And it was this simple faith that appealed to many of America’s founding generation. Early America masons included figures like John Hancock and Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington–who laid the cornerstone of the nation’s capitol building with a masonic trowel. With lodges around the world, from Russia to France to Britain, masonry was poised to become a unifying, international force for the uplift of society, they believed.

There is no Harvard Department of Symbology to “decode” the hints and clues of the fiction writer’s brain. But ultimately none is needed. Symbols like the pyramid, the compass and all-seeing eye which capture Dan Brown’s imagination were far less important to America’s Founders than the moral substance of masonry–promoting general education and public virtue rather than dividing people along narrowly sectarian lines.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where the People Rule

September 17 is designated as national Constitution Day, when citizens old and young are encouraged to study our nation’s founding charter. Most know the famous preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

What a wonderful opening phrase, “We the People.” Conventional wisdom in that day held that government was established from the top down. Some men were born to rule, others to obey. That was known as the divine right of kings. But in the newly established United States, government was not mandated by heaven. Legitimacy flowed from the bottom up, from the consent of the governed.

That’s why the Constitution doesn’t mention a deity anywhere in the text. The framers in Philadelphia weren’t clergymen but lawyers by and large. Thirty-four of the fifty-five present were either attorneys or judges. They were more comfortable with the language of contracts than with theological discussion. And government, they believed, was based on a social contract–a voluntary association of individuals joining together by mutual consent. Legislation didn’t spring from a holy book, therefore, but from the People instituting their own laws. So John Adams asserted that the framers “never had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven,” calling ours instead “the first example of government erected on the simple principles of nature.”

The Constitution they drafted was criticized at state ratifying conventions for leaving out the Almighty. The only place where faith is mentioned, in fact, is in Article Six, where it is specified there should be no religious tests for public office. Some tried to modify this language–to insert a provision that only candidates sufficiently orthodox could stand for election. That was the practice still in effect in Britain, for example, where only Anglicans were entitled to the full privileges of voting, serving in Parliament, or attending state universities at Cambridge and Oxford. The King was head of the Church, as well as head of State. But America took another path.

So on Constitution Day, those of all faiths—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists–can celebrate the genius of our founding document, where all are equal citizens, regardless of their personal beliefs, and where “We the People” rule.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Right to Die?

The right to die is again in the news. This coming Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court will consider the case of Robert Baxter, who, afflicted with incurable lymphocytic leukemia, claimed that a doctor’s refusal to help him die abrogated his rights under the state’s constitution.

But what about the federal constitution, or the Declaration of Independence? Do rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” imply an individual’s power to exit life on his own terms, and in her own time? 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.”

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Patent Nonsense

One of Thomas Jefferson’s lesser known contributions to the republic was as first chief of the U.S. Patent Office.

Known for his own ingenious inventions—like a revolving bookcase and a duplicator he called the “polygraph” that was the eighteenth century version of a Xerox machine--in 1790 he was tasked with creating a system that would encourage the development of useful contraptions.

For Jefferson, the emphasis was on “useful.” He was less interested in protecting an abstract right to “intellectual property” than in fostering a climate where good ideas could flourish. Public utility trumped private gain.

In a letter he wrote in 1813 to Isaac McPherson, Jefferson ruminated that “It has been pretended by some, (and in England especially,) that inventors have a natural and exclusive right to their inventions, and not merely for their own lives, but inheritable to their heirs. But … If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea.”

Ideas were essentially free, self-propagating, and could not be restrained once brought to birth.

So Jefferson’s own inventions, like an improved plow mathematically designed to offer least resistance in breaking through the soil, were never patented. He was less motivated by hope for riches than by desire to benefit humanity.

Today most patents runs twenty years, roughly a generation, while copyrights can last a hundred years or longer (the author’s lifetime plus fifty years). Many would say that’s too long to keep cheap generic drugs off the market, or to give an author or musician a monopoly on their creations.

Thomas Jefferson would agree. Patent laws should create enough profit incentive to spur inventors. But when they impoverish the many to enrich the few, that’s just patent nonsense.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Brain Science and Sotomayer

Should a judge have empathy for legal defendants? Be able to experience compassion and understanding for the motives that might have driven an offender to commit a particular crime?

Sonja Sotomayer, Barack Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice, has been questioned repeatedly about whether she could be objective on the bench. White southern Senators like Alabama’s Jeff Sessions (who once called the NAACP an un-American organization) have accused her of harboring racial prejudice because she remarked that a “wise Latina woman” might make better decisions than a white man. This is racism in reverse.

But Sotomayer’s critics have also fretted that the President listed “empathy” as among her qualifications to serve. It’s a sexist ploy. Women are stereotyped as soft-hearted rather than hard-headed, governed by emotion rather than reason. So it’s implied that Sotomayer will be unable to separate her personal feelings from the ability to do her job.

Actually, judges need empathy, which is part of what makes us fully human.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks describes the case of a judge with a brain impairment that stripped him of the ability to feel emotion. “It might be thought that the absence of emotion, and of the biases that go with it, would have rendered him more impartial—indeed, uniquely qualified—as a judge,” Sacks comments. “But he himself, with great insight, resigned from the bench, saying that he could no longer enter sympathetically into the motives of anyone concerned, and that since justice involved feeling, and not merely thinking, he felt that his injury totally disqualified him.”

A judge without empathy would be working with half a brain---entirely lacking the emotional intelligence that lets us enter into each other’s joys, sorrows and inner struggles.

That’s what the attacks on Sotomayer seem to be: the confused conjectures of a partial brain.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Journeys to Space: Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong

Benjamin Franklin was a man ahead of his time. On the fiftieth anniversary of the moon walk, he might have asked, “What took you so long?”

In a letter to Jane Mecom dated 1786, he mentions an Italian Poet who gives an account of a voyage to the moon, “telling us that all things lost on Earth are treasured there.” Franklin quips that, if so, the Moon must hold a great storehouse of Good Advice.

The Italian author Franklin’s referencing is probably Cyrano de Bergerac, a freethinking philosopher who penned The Other World: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon in 1657. In this story, the traveler’s first attempt at space travel involves tying various glass globes filled with dew to his torso; when morning comes and the dew rises, he begins to ascend toward the sun, but then begins to break the globes when his ascent becomes too fast and plummets back to terra firma. Eventually successful in reaching his destination, he discovers a world where the inhabitants live in cities built on wheels, equipped with giant sails and mechanical bellows to self-propel across the landscape. The rest of the account is equally fanciful.

Franklin records quite a different encounter with moon men in a fragment posted to the American Philosophical Society in 1768, where he details the experiences of one William Henry who lived as a captive among the Seneca Indians. On hearing that Europeans believe there is but a single God, the native chieftain objects: “You say there is but one great good Manitta. You know of no more. If there were but one, how unhappy must he be, without friends, without companions, and without that equality in conversation, by which pleasure is mutually given and received! I tell you there are more than a hundred of them; they live in the sun and in the moon; they love one another as brethren; they visit and converse with each other; and they sometimes visit, though they do not often converse with us.” As an avowed polytheist, Franklin was probably not shocked by the idea.

The idea of space travel—and of encountering the inhabitants of other spheres--has stretched the imagination throughout time. From Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong, Americans will continue to explore the universe, in dream and reality.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Slavery's Dark Shadow

When President Obama visited the slave fort Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where millions of Africans were penned for shipment to southern plantations, it was a measure of how far our nation has traveled from it dark past.

Many seem to think that racism is now a closed chapter in the book of U.S. history. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, dealt a legal blow to affirmative action two weeks ago when it upheld a complaint from white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, aggrieved that the city tried to scrap a test that seemed to favor Caucasians over blacks and Hispanics seeking promotion. Two years ago, the Court virtually reversed Brown v. Board of Education, ordering Seattle and Louisville to dismantle voluntary school desegregation plans that used students’ racial background to balance and diversify the make-up of their classrooms. The Court, and many others, apparently feel that we have “done enough” to remedy racism.

But the effects of 250 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow are not so easily overcome.

Look at the numbers. Before the economy tanked, the country’s overall poverty rate was 12.5%. For African Americans, the rate was 24.5%. Unemployment stands now at 9.4%. Among blacks, the jobless rate is 15%. For every dollar of net wealth owned by white families, blacks own just one thin dime. What this means is that in the race of life, children of color are far more likely than whites to hobble forward from the starting gate with a severe disadvantage.

That disadvantage shows up in educational test scores, in higher incarceration rates for African Americans, in larger numbers of single parent households, and more.

In a speech on race a year ago, candidate Obama proclaimed (paraphrasing William Faulkner) that “the past isn’t dead and buried. It’s not even the past.” Unless Americans work harder to guarantee every child an equal start in life, Cape Coast Castle will continue to cast its shadow across the generations.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Founding Father's Day

On this holiday when Americans remember and celebrate their fathers, I’m reminded of the gratitude we owe to the nation’s founders.

Watching the convulsions in Iran this past week, where a rigged election seems to have taken place, I’m especially grateful to the Father of our Country.

Though many urged him to become a king, George Washington voluntarily relinquished the presidency after two terms in office, handing over the executive office to his duly elected successor John Adams without tumult or strife, establishing a precedent for the orderly transfer of power in the U.S. that has endured to this day.

Accused of aristocratic pretensions, Washington revealed his true nobility not by amassing power, but in his willingness to give it up.

Whatever one’s opinion of George W. Bush, he got on a plane for Crawford, Texas, on Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day and flew into the sunset, the way he was supposed to—the way it’s happened with 43 presidents since Washington served. So conservatives were appropriately angry last week when CBS News tacitly compared Bush to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denying, anti-Semitic bully who is the current president of Iran. Unlike the scene Tehran, there were no mass rallies, no riot police gassing protesters when George Bush lost the vote. Just a peaceful, democratic succession.

In 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution codified the two-term rule for the presidency. But before then, from Washington’s time up to Roosevelt’s extraordinary run in the White House, it was nothing but the power of precedent and George Washington’s towering example that prevented the nation’s leaders from grasping at lifetime tenure.

Iranians are naturally suspicious of the United States, which helped overthrow their popularly elected government back in the 50’s. Still, President Ahmadinejad might find a lesson in history here:

Graceful farewells are the signature of great leaders.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Year of the Bible?

A misguided Georgia Republican named Paul Broun last week introduced legislation proclaiming 2010 as “The Year of the Bible.” One wonders, is it the Hebrew scripture that he wants to honor, the Roman Catholic Bible (which includes books like Tobias, Judith and Ecclesiasticus that Protestants exclude from the canon), the Greek Orthodox Bible (whose pages make room for the book of Odes), the Slavonic Old Testament (with its two books of Maccabees), the Ethiopian Bible (which includes Jubilees, the Book of Enoch and other unique testaments) or perhaps the Jefferson Bible, which our third President crafted in two versions during his first term in the White House and which excludes the miracle stories and resurrection from his version of the gospel?

Rep. Broun’s proposal reminds me of a quotation from the Reverend Edward Everett Hale, who served as chaplain to the U.S. Senate from 1903 until his death six years later (and who was the grand-nephew of Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale). Asked if he prayed for the Senators, Chaplain Hale replied, “No, I look at the Senators and pray for the country!”

There is a reason men like James Madison insisted on a division of church and state in our First Amendment, because they believed religious faith was stronger and healthier when entirely voluntary and non-coerced, not the product of Bible Bills or other government-sponsored programs.

The Good Book is an incredibly robust document, a collection of history, poetry, moral reflection and myth that has survived and evolved for thousands of years, revered by many as the word of God, and regarded as a centerpiece of Western culture even by those who deny it any divine inspiration. It has been translated into hundreds of languages around the world. Presumably Holy Writ needs no boost from Congress.

Representative Broun should find better outlets for his piety and return to minding the public’s business. The Bible doesn’t need his help.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Founding Trekkes

The latest Star Trek flick took in $75 million at almost four thousand theaters nationwide on its opening weekend—not the biggest ticket bonanza in history, but close. What accounts for the persistent popularity of a sci-fi saga that began as a TV series over forty years ago, in 1966? Maybe the fact that Star Trek is a story about America--our dreams and values as a people.

It’s little known, but our Founding Fathers were fascinated with extraterrestrials. Deep space had just been discovered in the eighteenth century. Observations of the transit of Venus in 1761 confirmed the distance from Earth to Sun as 93 million miles, expanding the known universe by orders of magnitude. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant were speculating that the smudges of light astronomers were glimpsing through their telescopes might actually be “island universes” or separate galaxies, each containing billions of stars, many with planetary systems like our own.

John Adams mused, “Astronomers tell us with good reason, that not only all the planets and satellites in our solar system, but all the unnumbered worlds that revolve around the fixed stars are inhabited, as well as this globe of earth.” What rational Creator would have made such a lot of worlds, only to leave them devoid of intelligent life? Educated thinkers in the Age of Reason supposed that even the Moon and Sun might be inhabited. Pointing out that God left no part of the Earth unoccupied, Tom Paine asked, “why is it to be supposed that the immensity of space is a naked void, lying in eternal waste? There is room for millions of worlds as large or larger than ours, and each of them millions of miles apart from each other.”

Belief in a reasonable deity made our forbears theologically deviant. The Founders didn’t accept all the miracles of the Bible, for instance. Yet they had a quasi-religious faith in engineering and technology. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are renowned for their inventive flair. But George Washington, Adams, and James Madison would have been equally at home in our world of cell phones and rampant gadgetry. Tom Paine, when not discoursing on the Rights of Man, was busy tinkering with smokeless candles, iron bridges and planing machines. Warp drive? Just one more step for our nation’s inquiring, innovative spirit.

As with the crew of the Enterprise (whose very name is All American), our Founders were committed to religious and ethnic pluralism. Catholics, Protestants and Jews, immigrants from shtetls and barrios, could learn to co-exist, just like Vulcans, Klingons, and Romulans. And the “prime directive” for the United Federation of Planets sounds a lot like our own U.S. First Amendment. “As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture.” In other words, don’t interfere with other people’s holy traditions, whether they’re Amish or Betazoid. No proselytizing allowed.

Imagine: a self-governing association of peoples who thrive on diversity, use logic to solve their collective problems, and harness science for peaceful ends rather than for purposes of conquest or colonizing weaker races. Is it any wonder that Star Trek, even after eleven major motion pictures, still draws the crowds?

Throw in a computer that can materialize cappucinnos and it’s the American Dream!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Day of Prayer

Today is the National Day of Prayer.

Note: the Founders weren't averse to prayer. Benjamin Franklin famously proposed that each session of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia open with a petition to the Almighty, a motion the delegates rejected (Alexander Hamilton quipped the delegates didn't require any "foreign aid.") But few of the Founders would have been comfortable with the narrowly sectarian focus of a National Day of Prayer.

The National Day of Prayer was established by law in 1952. It was the height of the Cold War, when Congress was anxious to counter the perceived threat of "atheistic communism." This was also the period when the phrase "under God" entered the Pledge of Allegiance (in 1954), and when Congress adopted the phrase "In God We Trust" as the nation's official motto (in 1956). The Founders would have been uncomfortable with all this legislation.

Today, volunteers for the National Day of Prayer are required to subscribe to a strict doctrinal confession: "I believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant word of the Living God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation." A Lutheran clergy friend of mine received a letter stating that "ecumenical" Christians weren't welcome. Only "evangelicals" need apply.

That's a far cry from Franklin's non-dogmatic faith. Old Ben said of Jesus that "I have some doubts as to his divinity" and, far from regarding the Bible as inerrant, actually re-wrote the Lord's Prayer to make it shorter and make the King James version conform to what he considered better English.

The Founders intended the United States to be a land where people of all faiths were welcome--not just Christians. In this country, Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists alike are free to proclaim and practice their beliefs. That why religion flourishes here as nowhere else on earth, and why people of differing spiritual views have managed for over two hundred years to co-exist as equal citizens, in friendship and in peace.

Let's pray it stays that way.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torturing Our History

Revelations that detainees at Guantanamo were waterboarded hundreds of times have brought torture screaming back into the headlines.

How far our country has strayed from its founding ideals! George Washington, after capturing a thousand Hessians at Trenton, commanded his subordinates to “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army,” who were notorious for maltreating POWs aboard their prison ships.

As Chair of the Board of War and Ordnance, John Adams complained of hearing “continual accounts of the barbarities, the cruel murder in cold blood, even by the most tormenting ways of starving and freezing, committed by our enemies” and advised a policy of “Yankee virtue” toward captives in American hands. During the War of 1812, President James Madison called torture an “outrage against the laws of honorable war and against the feelings sacred to humanity.”

Sentiments like these were codified in Lincoln’s administration under the “General Orders No. 100” which affirmed that “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty—that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.” Lincoln’s humane policy became a model for other European nations and eventually for the Geneva Conventions.

Can America regain its moral bearing? Even President Obama, who has favored a policy of “let bygones by bygones,” is now hinting there may need to be criminal investigations of interrogations that took place in the Bush years. But first, Obama may need to clean up his own act. Both Aljazeera and Democracy Now report that torture may be continuing at Guantanamo. According to Democracy Now, “Another Guantanamo Bay prisoner has come forward to back accounts of worsening torture since President Obama took office.”

Gitmo inmate Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, in a letter to his attorney, asks, “America, what has happened to you?” It’s a question a question every citizen should be asking.

(For a full article on America’s Founding Fathers and the policy of “harsh interrogation,” see an article I wrote for Tikkun last fall titled “Torturing Our History.” You can access the magazine online at

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Passing the Plate

Ben Franklin said nothing is certain but death and taxes. Where I come from, there’s one more thing that can be counted on. Preachers are always asking for money.

If you’ve ever attended a church service, no matter the denomination, you know it’s customary to pass the plate for an offering. Some find this offensive, wondering why organized religion always has its hand out. But I find it bracing, particularly as April 15 approaches, the date when taxes come due.

I’m reminded that churches and synagogues in America are supported voluntarily, by the contributions of their members, not by the IRS. That’s the way the founders—especially James Madison—thought it should be done.

Madison was the author of a famous document, the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. He wrote it in response to his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry, who in 1784 had introduced an act into the House of Burgesses levying a tax to pay for “teachers of the Christian religion.” Patrick’s bill would have made the Episcopal Church the state’s officially sanctioned religious institution. In a conciliatory gesture, there were some provisions for non-Anglicans to opt out and direct their taxes toward their own places of worship. George Washington straddled, indicating that he wasn’t opposed in principle toward “making people pay toward the support of that which they profess,” yet deeming Henry’s proposal “impolitic.”

But Madison was adamantly opposed. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, he took the position that government support eroded genuine faith. Think what happened to Christianity, after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. What started out as a religion of love and non-violence quickly became a religion of crusading and conquest. Christianity became, in Madison’s words, a tool of “superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”

Madison’s arguments ultimately proved persuasive, especially for religious minorities like Baptists and Quakers, who had been harassed under the Church of England establishment that prevailed when Virginia was still a British colony. Our current separation of church and state is largely Mr. Madison’s legacy.

That legacy should be celebrated. Perhaps it won’t make April 15th a day of rejoicing, but it should sweeten the experience the next time you’re sitting in a house of worship and the offering is announced. Passing the plate is a quintessentially American ritual—one of the rare practices that congregations of almost every description in this spiritually diverse land have in common.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

America's Religious Neutrality

The United States has fought wars against many enemies. But it has never fought a religious war or declared itself the adversary to any creed.

So Barack Obama returned from Turkey yesterday, declaring that the U.S. “is not and never will be at war with Islam.” He was careful to separate the practice of Islam from terrorism, which he called “a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.”

Obama’s words are reminiscent of an earlier president’s, when our nation was engaged in another “war on terror.” In the eighteenth century, the newly founded country was in conflict with the Barbary pirates---maritime kidnappers and privateers operating out of Tunis, Algeria and Morocco who seized ships, took hostages, and held them for ransom or sold them into slavery.

They were an earlier equivalent of Al Qaeda. Two American ships were captured in 1785 and their crewmen held for $60,000. Rumors that Benjamin Franklin, who was en route to France about that time, had also been captured, were especially alarming. Something had to be done.

To neutralize the threat, the United States negotiated the Treaty of Tripoli, more formally called the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. The pact was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by John Adams in 1797.

And just as Obama has been keen to make it clear that we have no quarrel with Islam (reminding Turkish listeners that his own father was Muslim and that he lived in Muslim-majority Indonesia as a child), the Treat of Tripoli was careful to stipulate that—officially speaking--Americans observed strict neutrality in matters of religion.

Article Eleven of the Treaty of Tripoli states that, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

The text of the ratified treaty was printed in New York papers and the Philadelphia Gazette, without any evidence of public opposition or dissent.

Though it has been said many times over our history---from an almost forgotten Treaty whose origins lie in George Washington’s administration to the words of our 47th President, Barack Obama—it bears repeating: our is not a Christian nation. And to a spiritually pluralistic world, we say, let us be friends, not foes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gardeners of the Spirit

My wife started her seedlings indoors last weekend, looking forward to planting once the soil warms up at the end of May. Gardeners have a short season in Vermont.

But planning the rows, perusing the catalogues, readying the cold frames takes months. Working the earth has a comforting ritual that gives shape to the year.

So it was for our Founders, most of whom were farmers. As a boy, John Adams was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. His dad, hoping to instill higher aspirations in the boy, took him to the marsh to spend a wet, muddy backbreaking day cutting thatch. That night the senior Adams “Yes sir, I like it very well!” the sprout replied. It was not to be—until late in life, when overseeing the patch of land he called Peacefield became one of Adams’ greatest pleasures. asked the lad, “Well, John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?”

Early on, Thomas Jefferson started a garden journal. To artist Charles Wilson Peale he wrote that “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth.”

George Washington, at Mount Vernon, went in for “scientific” agriculture, planting seeds of oats, barley and other grains within a variety of clays, silts, and sandy soils in carefully controlled settings to measure the effects of differing composts on their growth. He devoured texts on horticulture, and was one of the few among our forefathers who actually managed to make a profit from his farming.

James Madison became president of his local agricultural society, where he became a forceful advocate of crop rotation, contour plowing, careful woodland management and other conservation techniques.

Did farming inspire their spirituality? As practical types, they weren’t much interested in metaphysical disputes, but more concerned with religion’s earthly effects—the fruit that faith bore in the form of charity, honesty and goodwill. They preferred ethics to dogma. Any religion was worthy that helped raise crops of good citizens.

Of course, Jefferson was convinced that America should be a nation of yeomen farmers. Agriculture and virtue were equated, in his mind. Where else is there such a direct correlation between hard work and pay-off in the end? You reap what you sow.

So maybe the “Garden Song” should be our new national anthem? Planting a garden—like our new First Lady Michelle Obama—could become the true mark of a good American. And politicians could try spreading manure in a new and very helpful sense.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Entitlements for the Rich?

Before the dismantling of welfare and shredding the social safety net, decryng “entitlements” was a right-wing rallying cry. Political capital could be gained stoking resentment against so-called welfare queens.

Now it’s the ultra-wealthy who feel they entitled. AIG Execs are getting multi-million dollar bonuses from the public trough. They seem to believe that ordinary, hardworking people have an obligation to support them---in the style to which they’d like to become accustomed.

The founders had their own ideas about entitlements. Section Ten of Article I of the U.S. Constitution assures that “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

America’s founders were opposed to the idea that some men were “entitled” to rule over others, as dukes or princes. Although some believed there might be a natural aristocracy of talent and hard work, no one was born with special privileges—or “entitled” to live off the sweat and toil of other men.

Look at the domicile of a man like John Adams—who did believe in natural aristocracy. Visit the homestead managed by the National Park Service in Quincy, Massachusetts, and you’ll find a comfortable and spacious but otherwise modest home. Visit Mount Vernon in Virginia. At 7,000 square feet, it’s big. But then contrast Washington’s home with Versailles—or with Bill Gates’ 48,000 square foot “Xanadu” outside Seattle. There’s no comparison.

Things have gotten out of whack when American CEO’s earn 400 times as much as their workers. Or when Allen Stanford can have himself knighted by the island nation of Barbuda, calling himself “Sir,” while stealing other’s hard-earned cash.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that “the rich are different from you and me.” But no, they’re not different. They’re not necessarily more intelligent or more talented. Many are just more unscrupulous and greedy.

Benjamin Franklin believed that a man was “entitled” to whatever possessions were necessary for his own maintenance, but beyond that “all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick.” Following Franklin’s philosophy, let’s get back those AIG bonuses. And while we’re at it, stop “welfare” for the rich.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy Birthday Jemmy!

Born this day, March 16, in 1751, James Madison is the forgotten founder. He was a generation younger than Washington, Adams and that crowd. Soft spoken and small of stature, he avoided the limelight. He was more depth than dazzle.

It was Madison who proposed the tripartite structure of the United States government---legislative, executive, and judiciary branches—which would check and balance each other. Mr. Madison was the one who was responsible for calling the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and, by securing the participation of General Washington, insuring it had the clout to get the job done.

Although initially opposed to adding a Bill of Rights to the nation’s charter, Madison was the primary architect of the first ten amendments. In addition to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, trial by jury, guarantee of due process, protection against self-incrimination, freedom of the press and the other fundamental liberties we take for granted, Madison proposed other safeguards never adopted---exemption of conscientious objectors from military service, for example.

Of all the founders, Madison was most strict about separating church and state. He broke his own rule during the War of 1812, when as President he issued an official prayer offering thanks to the “Great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe.” But later in life he regretted issuing the prayer at all. If he had his way, he would have eliminated military chaplains as well.

Mingling church and state, he had observed in his youth, led to the decline of organized religion. Faith should be voluntary, he realized—not a civic requirement. He and his best friend Thomas Jefferson engineered the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom that officially dis-established the Church of England in his home state. And if he had the power to write amendments to the federal constitution, Madison would have dis-established churches in other states as well. (As it happened, Massachusetts was the last to eliminate government support for an established church in 1833, just three years before Madison’s death.)

He believed that a religiously diverse America was the best guarantee against spiritual tyranny. With many denominations vigorously competing for converts, none was likely to attain a monopoly of temporal power. In the Federal Papers, he wrote that “the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, in the other case in the multiplicity of sects.”

Thanks to Madison, America today is not only one of the most intensely devout countries in the developed world, but also the most spiritually diverse. It is a precious legacy. Happy Birthday Jemmy! We are grateful for your life’s work.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Town Meeting: A Radical Tradition

Tomorrow is Town Meeting Day in Vermont. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1762 in this state, when the citizens of Bennington gathered to discuss and vote on community concerns. And it’s as close as America gets to real democracy. Thomas Jefferson called the New England town meeting "the wisest invention ever devised . . . for the perfect exercise of self-government.."

At least forty towns will weigh in this year on the future of Vermont Yankee, our state’s aging (and increasingly problem-plagued) nuclear plant. Three years ago, in 2006, Newfane and several other southern Vermont towns voted to impeach George Bush. In the past, agendas have included votes on the nuclear freeze, banning the production of land mines, and other issues that reach far beyond the municipal basics of school budgets and road repair.

Recently, the phrase “town meeting” has been co-opted by the media and political campaigns, used to describe stage-managed events that include hand-picked audiences and moderaters who keep dissent on the sidelines. Questions are as canned and predictable as the answers. “Town meeting” at this level has become just another televised exercise in political spin. That’s a perversion of our unruly New England tradition.

As a child, John Adams (our nation’s second president) attended town meetings in his hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts, where participants became so rowdy that a resolution had to be passed requiring participants not to stand up in the pews of the church where the people assembled. Now that’s grassroots!

Burlington, the city where I live, held its first town meeting in 1787. I’m not sure when the tradition died out. Now we go to the polls to elect a city council and mayor. There’s still a lot of room for citizen input here in the “People’s Republic,” but with over 40,000 residents, town meeting—where everyone has a voice and a vote--may no longer be practical. Yet we’ve lost something of value.

Suppose that at least once a year, neighbors of differing opinions (blue and red) , of all races, actually assembled in one room to talk about the issues that concerned them most, from taxes to foreign policy and healthcare? Imagine the conversations, the listening across ideological boundaries, the moments of learning and encounter. How different might America be if we had “Town Meeting Day” all across this land?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Summum Flunks Weirdness Test

Where’s the proper line between church and state?

In a rare unanimous decision, this past Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Tenth Circuit that would have forced the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, to accept a granite pyramid inscribed with the “Seven Aphorisms” of a quirky sect called Summum.

The heavily Mormon municipality of Pleasant Grove already displays the Ten Commandments in its town park. (The Eagles Club donated the Decalogue years before.) So the argument went that in the spirit of fair play (and Constitutional law), the town should accept a monument etched with the precepts of a religion dating back to 1975, when Claude “Corkey” Nowells got a revelation from cosmic beings styled “Summum Individuals.”

After all, the First Amendment forbids the government from showing religious favoritism. That’s what the “no establishment” clause of the First Amendment is all about.

So if Pleasant Grove accepts “Thou shall not kill” and ”Do not commit adultery,” it should also display Summum’s metaphysical principles of Psychokinesis, Correspondence, Vibration, Opposition, Rhythm, Cause and Effect, and Gender. Right?

Wrong, said the Court. The display of the Ten Commandments was really about the town’s right of free speech, not about the establishment clause at all.

I’m not sure I follow the Court’s reasoning, or agree with it. But it’s hard to imagine another conclusion. The Supreme Court itself is housed in a building whose eastern fa├žade is decorated with a frieze of famous lawgivers like Hammurabi, Solomon, Confucius, Lycurgus and Moses. Had Wednesday’s ruling gone the other way, Corkey Nowell’s image would presumably have joined that of Solon and company.

And the Court’s frieze seems to suggest that we are a religiously pluralistic nation, drawing on many legal (as well as faith) traditions. America is not by any means an exclusively Christian nation, nor was that the Founder’s intent.

But there are limits, too. One wonders how the Court might have ruled had the local mosque demanded Pleasant Grove display the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Dharmadatu requested a monument etched with the Four Noble Truths?

Either one might have made a more interesting case. As it was, the Seven Aphorisms just seemed too offbeat to the Justices. But the “weirdness test” won’t last long, nor should it.

Last fall, as the case went to Court, I wrote that 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.

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