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.

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