Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Unchurched President?

Should our President go to church more often?

Candidate Obama held his first presidential debate in Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. He worshiped regularly with his family at Chicago’s Trinity Church, until his fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright started sounding like an angry radical. But a recent news story on Boston.com headlines the President’s religion taking a private turn, reporting the family has attended church just four times in the year he’s held office.

The retreat from visible, public piety is drawing fire from some who voted for Obama on the basis of his Christian credentials. The Gallup Poll shows Americans becoming more tolerant in some respects, with larger numbers than in the past saying they might vote for a woman, an Hispanic, or a divorcee for President. But the majority still indicate they could not abide an atheist in the White House.

Apparently, voters want their Chief Executive to believe in God, or at least pretend to believe by warming a pew each week.

But one wonders whether the Founding Fathers would have ever been elected, had this standard been enforced. George Washington’s diaries, for example, indicate that in 1748, he spent 15 Sundays going to church, recording 49 days spent fox hunting, attending two balls, one play and receiving a reprimand from a Scotch Presbyterian acquaintance for spending too much time at the card table. In January the following year, he hunted on twelve days and went to church just once.

Shortly after being elected, President Washington was virtually “arrested” for not attending church, apparently detained by the local tithing man responsible for enforcing New England’s blue laws prohibiting travel on the Sabbath. Delayed and anxious to reach his destination in New York, he was intercepted on Sunday morning in the Connecticut village of Ashford and forced to halt. The President’s diary indicates that he used the interlude to rest his horses, but he found the tavern where he cooled his heels “not a good one” and the sermon of Mr. Pond, the parson of a nearby church, “very lame discourses.”

Some Presidents, like John Adams, attended church almost every Sunday of their lives. Others, like Jefferson and Madison, rarely bothered. But all of the nation’s first half dozen Presidents were enormously discreet about their personal spiritual lives. None would have engaged in the kind of “media spirituality” that voters seem to demand now.

Voters should judge their President on the basis of his economic policies, his ability to work with Congress to pass important legislation, and his strength in protecting America’s interests around the world. Obama’s church attendance (or lack thereof) is just not the public’s business.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Breaking Our Energy Addiction


In his State of the Union address last month, our President called for the development of “safe and clean” nuclear power, which is like asking for “pure and healthy” heroin.  Radioactive nuclear isotopes, the necessary by-product of these plants, are carcinogenic, mutagenic, and essentially indestructible, a toxic threat that lasts practically forever.

Here in Vermont, an aging nuclear facility is leaking tritium into the Connecticut River, poisoning ground water, and ready for the scrap heap as cooling towers collapse and other equipment failures multiply almost daily.  Unfortunately, the private corporation which profits from Vermont Yankee doesn’t have the money to de-commission the plant or restore the site to its former condition.  The taxpayers of the state are in real danger of inheriting a gargantuan clean-up bill, along with a Chernobyl-like industrial dead-zone that puts an ugly blot on the Green Mountain State’s carefully cultivated pristine image.

To supply the world’s energy needs, thousands of plants like Vermont Yankee—or like the new reactors receiving federal loan guarantees that Obama announced today-- would have to be built, each with a lifetime of 30-40 years, each a meltdown waiting to happen.  Or if all technical and human error could be miraculously avoided and no disasters happened, those thousands of reactors would all become perpetual gravesites: concrete encased tombs covering hundreds of square miles, testifying to our short-sighted addiction to cheap energy.

Nuclear, coal, and oil are like heroin, crack and meth.  The corporations that supply our petroleum and other short-term “fixes” are like pushers, reaping fantastic profits by keeping us dependent on their deadly products.  And American consumers are like junkies, willing to trade their long term well-being and sell their children’s futures for the rush of driving bigger cars, heating bigger homes, eating more burgers and squandering more resources than any other people on earth.

The fix America needs won’t be found in nuclear power, but in breaking the bad habit of expecting instant gratification without considering the consequences to our neighbors, our bodies, or the natural environment.

Really, isn’t it time to go clean?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Whites Only Tea Party?

A photograph in this week’s Economist shows an actor dressed in a tri-cornered hat and colonial garb attending last week’s national Tea Party convention, surrounded by a sea of white faces.

Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who led the roster of speakers, lamented the fact that citizens who couldn’t even speak English or spell the word “vote” sent a socialist to the White House.  Tancredo didn’t mention that President is black, yet his tirade against “multiculturalism” and his call for a return to the kind of literacy tests that disenfranchised African Americans in the Jim Crow South spoke for itself.

While the blogosphere ponders just how racist the Tea Party counter-revolution really is, historians agree that the original American Revolution was anything but. Every school child knows that Crispus Attucks, the first patriot to fall in the Boston Massacre, was a black man.  But most don’t know that  African Americans were present in nearly every major battle in the War for Independence. The Continental Army was probably the most racially integrated up until the 1950’s, when Harry Truman officially de-segregated the armed forces.

And while I am anything but a linguist, Americans in the colonial period spoke Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, a variety of African dialects and dozens of Native American languages as well as English.  In a document titled  “Colonial Irish Immigration to North America,” Jerry Kelly observes:

English spies and Tories reported back to their English masters that "Irish is as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English," which thereby puts English speakers at about 30% of the Continental Army once you count in the Gaelic-speaking Irish from every state; the German-speakers from Pennsylvania and Virginia; the Dutch from what had been New Holland (Long Island, northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and the Mohawk Valley); the French of the frontier and Louisiana; the Finns and Swedes of what had been New Sweden (parts of Delaware and New Jersey), the Spanish of what had been Spanish Florida and Louisiana, and our Algonquin and Iroquois allies. Anybody who had a serious grudge against the English went into rebellion, and that was a lot of people. Anglo Saxons and their language were a minority. The Continental Army was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and ready to welcome the likes of Lafayette, Von Steuben, Kosziusko, and others as valued officers even if (or because) they barely spoke English or didn't speak English at all. English was regarded as the language of the enemy - Tories and Regulars alike.

That may be stretching a point.  But Tea Party nativists who want the nation to “return” to its English-speaking, Euro-centric roots surely misunderstand the racial and linguistic diversity that the American experiment has welcomed since its very beginning.

That diversity, which extended hope to all races and manners of people—not a phony homogenous “Tea Party” of Sarah Palin look-alikes—constituted the real American Revolution.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How Christian Were The Founders?

An article in today's New York Times asks, "How Christian Were the Founders," reporting on efforts of the state Board of Education in Texas to re-cast the nation's as fundamentalist Christians.

One member of the Texas Board, Don McLeroy, is a dentist rather than an historian, but declaims that "The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible.."  McLeroy thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, and thinks that the 47 millions textbooks his state purchases each year should reflect that Biblical "fact."

But facts are stubborns things--and history shows that America's founders and framers were not fundamentalists, by any stretch of the imagination. Ben Franklin re-wrote the Lord's Prayer. Jefferson edited his own version of scripture, eliminating the miracles. Washington was never a formal communicant in the Episcopal Church, and avoided attended services on Sundays when communion was served, probably because he didn't believe in the all the doctrines required of orthodox Christians. John and Abigal Adams were both Unitarians, .who rejected notions like original sin and eternal damnation. The Constitution never mentions God, because the framers believed government was based on the consent of its citizens, not upon any divine mandate. 

Yet the founders were not secularists or opposed to organized religion. They simply believed that faith should be exercised in the private sphere rather than assert its authority through law or tax-funded initiatives. Unfortunately, today's evangelicals want their own brand of dogma to receive government recognition and support, eliminating the barrier separating church and state. This is a recipe for sectarian conflict. America is the most religiously diverse nation on earth, where Buddhists outnumber Presbyterians and Muslims may outnumber Jews. There is no creed or confession that can unite these various religious systems. Only a philosophy of mutual tolerance and forbearance will enable us all to live together as Americans, inhabitants of a land that--as the founders intended--welcomes people of all beliefs.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Religious Bigotry and Nazi Nonsense


To score easy debating points by hitting below the belt, just compare your opponents to Nazis.  Transform the folks you disagree with into goose-stepping personifications of evil.

That’s the strategy of right wing religious leaders that include four Roman Catholic Bishops and evangelical hotheads like James Dobson of “Focus on the Family,” who are now circulating a petition called the Manhattan Declaration, comparing those who support gay marriage and women’s reproductive freedom to Nazis.

The manifesto equates “those who today assert a right to kill the unborn, aged and disabled” with the ideologues of the Third Reich who advocated eugenics to build a master race.

The Catholic signers include Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville—all very reverend, no doubt.

But wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for the Roman Catholic hierarchy to denounce the Nazis when Adolph Hitler was actually in power?  During World War II, our current pontiff, Benedict XVI, was a member of the Hitler Youth.  And according to Shira Shoenberg of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “For much of the war,” Pius XII, the reigning pope at the time, “maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed.”

So when actual Jews were being gassed, the Church was silent.  When homosexuals were being rounded up and put in Dachau, the Church was silent.  But when gay marriage is has become a viable prospect on the political landscape, the Church has finally found its moral voice.

All in all, not one of Christianity’s finer moments.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Obama, King, Niebuhr

It’s been said that Martin marched because Rosa sat, and that Barack ran because Martin marched.  President Obama has more than once acknowledged his debt to the man who, more than any other single individual, helped put him into office.  Gone are the decorative china plates that adorned the Oval Office during the Bush administration.  In their place on the bookshelf rests a framed program from the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.  And in one of his first acts upon occupying the White House, Mister Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British people to replace it with a sculpted head of the civil rights leader.  In a telling measure of how far the country has come, that bronze bust of King was last on display in the White House Library when Bill Clinton borrowed it from the Smithsonian in the year 2000.  And that, believe it or not, was the very first time that the image of any African American had ever been exhibited in a public space in the White House since the day John and Abigail Adams moved into the residence over two centuries ago! So a black man’s occupancy there as Chief Executive is little short of a miracle, and his inauguration a scant twelve months ago felt more like a moral redemption than like a partisan political victory.  Post election surveys showed that far more Americans remembered voting for Obama than actually cast a Democratic ballot.  For nearly everyone, whatever their party, experienced a moment of elation that November.

We’ve come a ways since Selma, when TV images of Alabama state troopers beating non-violent protesters with billy clubs led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the enfranchisement of millions who never had a voice before.  And in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech last month, President Obama referred to the sacrifices of an earlier generation.  “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work,” Mister Obama told the audience in Oslo, “I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive - nothing na├»ve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”  He recalled Dr. King’s own words upon accepting the same award years before, that “violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” Surely the President’s homage to King’s legacy was real.

Yet then, Obama began to distance himself from that legacy by noting that “as the head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation,” he had to face real threats from abroad. “For make no mistake,” the President declared, “evil does exist in the world,” a curious observation, as though Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t quite noticed the existence of malevolence around him or fully faced up to the destructive and demonic dimensions of human history.

But King knew about evil.  Over the course of his career, he was stabbed with a knife and had his home was bombed twice, once with his wife and daughter inside.  He was thrown into jail in Albany, Georgia, thrown into jail in Birmingham, Alabama, and wiretapped by the FBI who tried to blackmail him into committing suicide.  Martin Luther King Jr. received death threats almost daily and was hit on the head by a brick hurled at him during a march in Chicago.  He was spat on and had crosses burned on his lawn.  Indeed, Martin Luther King had encounters with the kind of thugs and villains that our current President can only imagine.  And it was precisely his deep analysis of evil, with its twisted capacity to distort the personality and deform the soul, that enabled King to battle hatred and violence without becoming vengeful or violent in the process.

One suspects that it’s the President who hasn’t been tested or wrestled with such dark forces, who tends rather to assume the best about human nature.   In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Obama said that he personally had been mostly insulated from the “bumps and bruises” that beset many other African American men, although he had suffered his share of what he called petty slights: “security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason."  Perhaps that relatively sheltered background accounts for his reaction last summer when the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by a white police officer in his Cambridge home on suspicion of burglary.  After initially accusing the cop of behaving stupidly, Obama tried to defuse the situation by inviting everyone over to the White House for a friendly beer.  Whether the issue happens to be racial profiling or heath care reform, his guiding instinct seems to be that, deep down, most people want to do the right thing.  If only they can be cajoled to sit down across the table from each other, sweet reason and dialogue can surely overcome whatever misunderstandings or ill feelings might have arisen.  Bipartisanship, compromise, and cooperation are the watchwords for this kind of dewey-eyed idealism.  Can we all sing Kum-ba-yah?

Hopefully Obama is more realistic than that, and there are reasons to believe that he might be.  The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, has recently written about Obama’s intellectual debt to Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the more influential religious thinkers of the last century and the founder of a tough-minded doctrine that he called “Christian realism.”

I read Niebuhr back in college and he certainly had an impact on me.  He was born in Missouri in 1892 and after attending Yale Divinity School went to pastor a Lutheran church in Detroit, where Henry Ford was union-busting on his assembly lines, and where large numbers of African Americans from the South had started migrating to work in the plants.  A northern, industrial city gave him a perfect laboratory for the study of social conflict—the push-and-shove between capital and labor, between blacks and whites.  And Neibuhr concluded that this simmering conflict was not going to resolved or adjudicated through sharing a Budweiser or appeals to mutual goodwill.  These were fundamental antagonisms that could only be resolved through some form of power struggle.

Because every society is based on power, he said.  The concentration of power in the political sphere enables a certain amount of law and order to prevail. The concentration of power in the economic domain enables factories to function.  The concentration of firepower in the military enables the nation to defend itself against foreign enemies.  But power also corrupts, by its very nature, Niebuhr cautioned.  It corrupts even good people, because all of us are egoists to some degree, not quite as fair or even-handed or impartial in our judgments as we imagine ourselves to be.  Our loyalties to our own family and tribe are always stronger than our sense of duty to the outsider and stranger.  And so, whoever happens to be in charge, the very forces that enable the country to defend itself are inevitably turned to warlike ends.  The creation of vast economic wealth for some leads to poverty for others. The same powers of government that insure domestic tranquility have a tendency to produce totalitarianism and tyranny. Thus Niebuhr’s philosophy was marked by irony, by paradox, by a sense of inescapable tragedy where human motives are never entirely pure or disinterested and where the very best of intentions always carry an undercoating of naked self-interest.

Niebuhr was a complex thinker and “Christian Realism” had a profound influence on Martin Luther King.  To appreciate just how profound, let me read you a passage.  This is what Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in a book called Moral Man and Immoral Society, which was published in 1932, when the future civil rights leader was only three years old, and when the Montgomery bus boycott was still a quarter century in the future:

“It is hopeless for the Negro to expect complete emancipation from the menial social and economic position into which the white man has forced him merely trusting in the moral sense of the white race.”  Appeals to fair play or brotherhood or Christian charity wouldn’t suffice, in other words. Such tactics hadn’t worked in the past and they never would.  Pressure would have to be applied to force whites to give up their privileges.

“On the other hand,” Niebuhr continued, “any effort at violent revolution on the part of the Negro will accentuate the animosities and prejudices of his oppressors.  Since they outnumber him hopelessly, any appeal to arms must result in a terrible social catastrophe.”  Watts and Newark and other cities that burned in riots in the 60’s proved the truth of that prediction.

But Niebuhr then goes on: “The technique of non-violence will not eliminate all these perils.  But it will reduce them.  It will, if persisted in with the same patience and discipline attained by Mr. Gandhi and his followers, achieve a degree of justice which neither pure moral suasion nor violence could gain.  Boycotts against banks which discriminate against Negroes in granting credit, against stores which refuse to employ Negroes while serving Negro trade, and against public service corporations which practice racial discrimination, would undoubtedly be met with some measure of success … One waits for such a campaign with all the more reason and hope because the peculiar spiritual gifts of the Negro endow him with the capacity to conduct it successfully.”

You can bet that Martin read that passage when he was in seminary, and perhaps Mr. Obama has read it, too.  According to David Brooks, he was interviewing the candidate on the electoral trail back in 2007, both of them tired of talking about the horse race when out of the blue, Brooks asked if he had ever read Reinhold Niebuhr.  According to the columnist, Obama’s weary tone suddenly changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So  Brooks asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard ….”

Those are lessons that I hope the President has taken to heart.  Because the moral  quandaries facing our world demand leadership that is both clear-eyed and compassionate.  Afghanistan is in danger of turning into Obama’s Vietnam, a war that both King and Neibuhr denounced.  But the challenges here at home are equally difficult, particularly regarding civil rights.

For despite the euphoria of last year’s election, racial justice remains an elusive goal for our country.  A report released by the UCLA Civil Rights Project just a few days before the President’s inauguration warned that school segregation is on the rise, with black and Latino students more likely to be isolated from their white peers in the classroom than at any time since the dawn of the civil rights movement.  Young black men living in the United States today are more likely to go to jail than to go to college, while here in Vermont there are ten times as many people of color behind bars as might be explained from their numbers in the state’s population.   Compared to whites, blacks have double the infant mortality rate, double the risk of stroke, twice the rate of diabetes, and are twice as likely to be uninsured.  And when it comes to money, the net wealth of black households amounts to just ten cents for every dollar owned by whites.

These are systemic problems, which go beyond the elimination of personal bigotry.  They are symptoms of a dilemma that Neibuhr knew well: upstanding, conscientious, enlightened individuals who would never use the “N” word tolerating class and economic structures that perpetuate savage inequalities. Or as King put it, “It’s not the bad people I can’t forgive, but the good people who do nothing.”  Redressing institutional racism demands more than learning how to mix at a party or operate in an office with people of diverse ethnicities.  It also requires a redistribution of power and money and resources, at the very time the Supreme Court is dismantling affirmative action programs and declaring even voluntary school de-segregation plans to be unconstitutional.

Whether we call ourselves Christian or not, I think we need to be realists, in the manner of Niebuhr and King.  For while the President campaigned on a promise of “Change You Can Believe In,” we need to realize that genuine change always requires struggle, beginning with the struggle to reform ourselves but not ending there. Those with a vested interest in the status quo have never given away anything of value without a contest and they never will.  The question is, what kind of change do we believe in, and are we willing to fight for it and sacrifice for it, as earlier generation did?  Whether American continues to progress toward a brighter day of justice and opportunity or backslides into the shadows of yesteryear depends less on who’s in the White House or whose head is on the bookshelf than having hard heads about the tasks before us.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Anti-Abortion Lawlessness

On January 29, anti-abortion fanatic Scott Roeder was found guilty of first degree murder for killing Dr. George Tiller as he attended worship services at a Lutheran Church last May. The jury took just 37 minutes to convict the shooter, rejecting Roeder’s ridiculous claim that he had to kill the doctor, who provided late term abortions, to save innocent life.


Roeder was a terrorist—not just trying to kill one doctor, but to intimidate and frighten thousands of women and the physicans they depend on for help when facing the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. Since 1977, there have been 5,800 acts of violence directed at women’s health clinics, and eight abortion providers killed since 1993. People like Roeder are the spearhead of a concerted campaign to substitute bullying and thuggery for the rule of law.


But the ones who actually pull the trigger are not the only ones who should be on trial. Those who equate abortion with “murder” are guilty in some sense, too, inciting others to violence and vigilantism with their overheated rhetoric.


America needs more tolerance, greater civility, and more mutual respect between citizens who call themselves “pro-life” and those who consider themselves “pro-choice” (who happen to constitute a majority of the electorate). What it doesn’t need are more self-defined holy warriors who appoint themselves God’s avenging angels, using political opponents and people of differing faiths for target practice.


What it doesn’t need is to let guys like Roeder off with “voluntary manslaughter,” a lesser offense suggesting that he honestly but mistakenly believed his cold-blooded plot, which he admitted spending years planning, was somehow necessary and justified.


There are too many nut-jobs out there already who mistakenly believe it’s “necessary” to bash gays, take multiple wives, collect arsenals of high-caliber weapons and generally run amok.


Thank goodness for the jury system, and the good sense of the twelve men and women in Witchita who said “no” to chaos and put Roeder behind bars. That’s where lawlessness belongs.

Followers