Thar She Blows

Any survey of “armpits of America” will laughingly include New Jersey. Having lived here for nearly seven years now, I know the apocrine insults are undeserved—I actually knew that before moving here. New Jersey has the highest per capita Ph.D. concentration in the nation. It also has the highest number of college graduates, and, for what it’s worth, the highest per capita income. These first two points come especially to the fore regarding New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s recent speech, made in Boston—a city with some small higher education affiliations itself. Propping up his creds for a presidential run, Christie said, “I think that we have some folks that believe that our job is to be college professors. Now college professors are fine, I guess. You know, college professors basically spout out ideas that nobody ever does anything about. [Rim shot!] For our ideas to matter, we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern.” (This according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.)

The United States, for many years now, has been falling behind in education because we won’t fund it adequately. I’m no jingoist, but I do believe that the principles upon which this country were founded were inspired. To thrive, we must be smart. Education has been the key to our improvement over the decades, and as the focus has shifted from education to capital, the hull has begun to leak. I know that I have felt it. With dismay I’ve watched as colleges and universities have hoisted the November Charlie and no vessel has come to their aid. Departments are jettisoned and we are still taking on water. And the governor of “the education state” guesses that “college professors are fine” but completely irrelevant. This man for president in 2016?

Meanwhile, yesterday, the unexpectedly happy news was announced that President Obama will be visiting my daughter’s university next week. Binghamton University is frequently overlooked by the monied special interests paid to the Harvards and Princetons of the green-lined ivies. It is, however, frequently cited as a “public ivy” for its quality education at state-school prices. Obama’s visit is for precisely that reason: good education can be affordable. Chris Christie went on to say, “For our ideas to matter we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.” And if we don’t win we gather up our marbles and go home. Yes, I was a child once, too. And I grew up. Higher education does matter—far more than some politicians’ bluster would indicate. Do you agree, Dr. Einstein? I’m sorry, governor, I can’t hear you over the wind flapping the sails.

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Secular Oaths

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” so begins the story. With President Obama’s second inauguration so fresh in the public mind, an article in the Sunday New Jersey Star-Ledger raised the question of using Bibles for taking this secular oath. As A. James Rudin points out, not every president has laid a hand on the Bible to take the oath—John Quincy Adams preferred a law book to do the job. Rudin points out that commentators have started to question the practice of using any religious book for taking a vow for a government position. As I read this article I had to pause for a thought. It was the particular turn of phrase “the Bible, and by implication all other religious writings,” that stopped me at this brain crossing.

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Anyone who has taken time to study the phenomenon of religion seriously (admittedly not a large cohort) has stumbled upon the blue whale in the room: what exactly is religion? We all know, but nobody really knows. Many scientists equate religion with superstition and claim that we are evolving out of it, but we still seem preternaturally powerfully attached to it, if that’s the case. While religious writings have been around for ages, the idea of a sacred book seems to have its origins in the societal reception of the Bible. There are older religious books, but the Bible seems to have defined the category. What’s running rampant in my mind is where the line is drawn between a religious and a secular book. For some, it would seem, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight would fall into that category. Some thinner, more glossy and heavily illustrated literature favored by teenaged boys might also qualify. What makes a book religious?

In current understanding, religion is a matter of belief. Not all religions insist on belief, but in the United States, in any case, it’s not properly religion without it. In our secular society belief is atomized into millions of varieties, even within the same religious family. Step outside the church, synagogue, or mosque, and the sheer varieties of religious experience would make even William James blush. “All other religious writings.” Those might include just about every pen stroke on paper (or electron on whatever it is that I’m typing this into). Those of us who venture to write know that at some level it is a sacred activity. I would swear it with my hand on my dissertation. (At graduation at Nashotah House students are hit on the head with a Bible. Perhaps this might be more appropriate to swearings in?) We lay our hands on that which is sacred, otherwise there’s no vow involved. Whether it be Bible, law book, or saucy literature, we pledge on it because all books are religious, regardless of definition.

Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…

Same Sex Sanity

When the people speak, sometimes it’s just nonsense. So the people of North Carolina believe in the exclusive rights of dysfunctional heterosexuals over committed homosexuals. And President Obama makes a powerful statement. As Americans we are reared to respect personal freedom. And what freedom could be more personal than the open expression of love? The reasons given for exclusivity of heterosexual marriage are spurious—certainly the Bible considers marriage in purely pragmatic, not sacred, terms. As citizens of their own time they were as much programmed by their environment as are people today. Marriages were arranged and the concept of sexual orientation simply did not exist. It is not that I castigate marriage—having been married nearly a quarter of a century myself I would be a fool to do so—but I in no way feel threatened by anybody falling in love with anybody else. Nor is it the right of any loving Christian to stand in anyone else’s way.

A God who created gender-changing fish to fry in Hell (particularly on Fridays) seems unnecessarily cruel. (Yes, such fish do exist.) A God who created other animals that exhibit homosexual behavior (bonobos, penguins, elephants, lizards—at least 450 animal species have been caught in the act) and then condemns it is surely working at cross-purposes with the nature he (always he) created. It has become quite clear from nature that sexuality is far more than procreational activity. If your kit is for kid making only, why do so many good, Christian couples have trouble conceiving? And don’t say “God only knows” because Fundies have no monopoly on questions that demand a verdict. What is God playing at here?

Intelligence and sexual behavior seldom go together. Religions, however, have a hard time keeping themselves out of the bedroom. Loving, committed relationships hurt no one. For a religion claiming to be based on love, declaring various expressions of love wrong is diminishing the good in the world. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality. Good, Bible-believing Christians often turn blind eyes to the many more stringent passages about divorce and remarriage, but single out the very few that mention specific same-sex acts. Do they not see how such cherry-picking makes a mockery of calling anything holy? With all the excised bits, it might be more appropriately called the Holey Bible. For me, it seems they might find it more instructive to observe the moray eels rather than trying to cover their wrasses.