To Obey the Scout Law

Society’s prurient interests have been on display again with the intense media blitz concerning Boy Scouts of America and the fraught issue of sexual orientation. As is to be expected, certain religious bodies have sounded the final trump once again as they frenetically posture against equality. The story is so old it is difficult to see how it counts as news. When I saw that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the oldest sponsor of Boy Scouts and the denomination with the highest numbers) had made a statement about the issue, I almost didn’t even click on the link. We already know the official stance of such conservative groups, right? So I was genuinely surprised when I saw the note. This Mormon Church has no problem with the admission of homosexual boys since, and rightly so for a youth organization, the members are expected to behave according to the code of conduct. That code forbids sexual relationships, no matter a boy’s orientation, no matter with whom.


We all know that ideals are seldom observed. We should lead by example. I spent my high school years deeply involved in the feeder program for future clergy in a major Christian denomination (the one with the second highest number of Scouts). The youth programs frequently involved having hundreds of youths together for multi-day events. Chaperoned, of course. But kids with active hormones are about the most clever creatures on the planet. I frequently heard that opportunities to find some time alone with your favorite “spiritual advisor” were not difficult to arrange. And when I enrolled in a program to study for the ministry officially, I learned that the name seminary was somehow overly appropriate. Codes of conduct exist for a reason, and those who hold to them reward the trust of adults who institute them. Society can’t operate without such rules. What happens in reality, however, is a different matter. Anyone who reads the headlines can see that.

I applaud the Mormon Church’s stance on this issue. The Boy Scouts is a social organization with nary a merit badge for sexual knowledge or experience (at least not in the Handbooks I’ve seen). Those matters, as with adults, are private. Religious groups often act as if admitting admitted homosexuals somehow changes the Jamboree into a Woodstock. The problem is with the imagination of puritan adults. The solution to the anxiety is rather simple. For those concerned, volunteer to lead a troop. Attend a meeting. See what actually goes on. The fact is, kids will be kids, and making rules to satisfy uptight adults will not change that. Many groups could learn from the Mormons here: Scouting is not about sex. It takes the imagination of adults to make it so. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys.

Rise of Religions

mansdominion Imagine my surprise when, as a boy raised in a fundamentalist family, I arrived at a liberal seminary to find myself accused of sexism. Like most kids I had been taught not to question religious dictates. Majoring in Religious Studies, even in as conservative a college as Grove City in the 1980s, even there I learned that to be educated meant learning to question. I’d thrown off fundamentalism by the time I reached seminary—I supposed I was making great strides. I’d always been in favor of equal rights for all, just because it seemed right. I supported gender and racial equity, but I was obviously still guilty of something. It has taken me decades to realize it, but being male is sufficient grounds to be despised. Perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe it’s worse.

Sheila Jeffreys’ Man’s Dominion: The Rise of Religion and the Eclipse of Women’s Rights was nevertheless a sobering read. I supposed that it might be a historical introduction to the problem, but instead it is a bold declaration of some uncomfortable facts. All ancient religions, at least those that survive, had subordinated (and continue to subordinate) women. That’s not path down which a liberated religionist wants to stroll. I found myself resisting these assertions at first, but as Jeffreys keeps the examples coming, they are difficult to deny. Yes, religions have been founded by men and they favor men. Not that belief necessitates that, but history seems to. Even in religions where women’s leadership is allowed, it is because some men have decided it is okay. There’s no changing the historical trajectory to the past. Religions were invented by men. Given their druthers, they will, at best, treat women as somehow less important than men. The missing element here, however, is sincerity of belief.

I doubt that Jeffreys would claim that religions were devised by males in order to subordinate females. It’s hard to say whether that first inventor of religion really believed all the stories he told, but soon people came to do exactly that. And those stories grew into something more than myths, and became the basis by which lives were lived. They became literal. And women, who played only supporting or villainous roles, soon became the victims. I know that’s too simplistic. I also know there’s some truth in it. I went to seminary to learn more about religion. What I discovered was often an unwelcome reality. Although I never personally tried to oppress women, I participated actively in a club that did—the club of masculinity. It may be that religion itself will always lead to oppression of the other, for religions don’t form in perfect worlds. If you have any doubts about that all you have to do is ask half the human race.

The Future of Theological Education

It is almost like stepping into a time warp. To be honest, it is difficult for me to admit that I graduated from Boston University School of Theology a quarter of a century ago. Standing here outside 90-92 Bay State Road, where I once lived, is like looking into a shattered mirror. Behind those doors much of what made me who I am took place. Perhaps I left some of myself there. I don’t even know if the property is still the single student “dorm” for the school of theology or not. Kenmore Square has transmogrified from an area that felt like Times Square in the ’80’s to an upscale dogtown. When I stepped into 745 Commonwealth Avenue, it was like being hit in the face with a combination of nerve gas and roses. The hallways look wider now then they did back then. The hallways where so many of my assumptions curled up and died. They still have chapel and community lunches. The Boston Book Annex is closed.

Boston University has sure poured a lot of money into the Back Bay redevelopment. Whence that sense of personal offense when I see a multimillion dollar new building there and recall the financial aid interviews where I was told, like in a Bruce Springsteen song, “we’d like to help you out, but we just can’t”? Has social justice come to live in these halls? In those days anyone who didn’t have an oppressed status was a minority. And I learned as much about hate as I did about love within these implacable walls. Is it ghosts that I feel rushing through me as i walk down Bay State Road, and stare out over Storrow Drive? I’m not sure of the future of theological education. Until schools of theology can lay down their swords and become truly ecumenical, can any change truly occur?

Theology is an exercise in the unknown. When I donned my red robe and graduated here, the world seemed to be full of possibilities. A lot of erosion can take place in twenty-five years, you know. I thought I was contributing to the future of theological education when I studied the Bible so minutely that no single letter existed that didn’t have a prehistory deep in the realm of pre-Israelite society. I assumed that truth was the end goal of theological inquiry. Problem is, for many, the end goal was written two millennia ago and we of the lost generations ever since have as our task simply to reinforce the crumbling foundations and assure our benefactors that we did have it right, we have had it right, all along. As I write this a very able colleague at another seminary is undergoing what can only be considered heresy trials for teaching the truth. Is theological truth so fragile? Maybe this is why it has taken a quarter century to return. Maybe this is the future of theological education. Those of us who still believe in theological education seem to be a dying breed, along with the ghosts of Bay State Road.

Premature Transportation

Few experiences encapsulate one’s lack of control like commuting by bus.  As my first year of a daily commute to Manhattan draws to a close, I have experienced many mornings of standing in cold or hot air while a bus leisurely makes its way toward my appointed stop twenty, thirty minutes late.  The commuter can’t head back home for a moment’s warmth/coolness, because the bus could come at any time.  The sense of utter helplessness as you know that you’ll be late for work, and that you got up at 3:30 a.m. for this, settles like an iron blanket over what might have begun as an optimistic day.  Then there are those who sit beside you, totally beyond your control.  I’m a small guy and I sit scrunched next to the window to get as much light for my reading as I can.  Very large people find the extra space next to me attractive, although sometimes they insist I squish even more against the window so they might fit.  Overall, however, the exchange of comfort for reading time makes the arrangement palatable.  It’s the loss of time that bothers me.
Without traffic, my bus can be at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in an hour. To manage this feat, it has to reach my stop before 6 a.m.  On rare occasions it comes perhaps five minutes early.  When you take a bus, subject to the vagaries of traffic, the only wise course of action is plan on being a few minutes early.  Drivers who watch the clock are dangerous.  So it always annoys me when passengers down the line complain if a bus is one minute early.  On those exceptional mornings I hear strident voices raised, “you’re two minutes early—I had to run!” or “I was sitting in my car; you came too early!”  The driver is scolded and the next day we’re all half an hour late for work.  It is the problem of premature transportation.  Time, to the best of our knowledge, is something you never get back.  I would rather be early rather than late.
I first conceived of wasted time as a religious problem when I was in seminary. There was always so much to do, and relinquishing time to pointless activities such as standing in line, or waiting for the subway, grew acute.  Now that I’m an adult anxious about holding down a job that requires a lengthy commute, the issue has arisen again. Clearly part of the difficulty lies in that time is frequently taken from us.  The nine-to-five feels like shackles to a former academic.  I had classes anywhere from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. without considering the drain on my time.  It was largely, I believe, because pointless waiting was not very often involved. Time, like any limited resource, must be parceled out wisely. Time to bring my morning meditation to an end and get ready for the bus. And if it’s early I will consider it as a divine gift.

Whose Call?

I think about religion quite a bit. Well, it’s actually a big part of my job. I also spend quite a bit of time sorting out where religion is represented in the spectrum of human learning, specifically in higher education. One can’t help but notice a profound disconnect between reasoned thought on religion and the often brainless way that it is played out in public forums. Often this ineptitude comes through the mental fumbling of politicians, but just as often the culprits are well-heeled preachers who learned their trade at the hand of like-minded individuals who castigate the usual methods of examining evidence. Even as recently as this week I saw disparaging remarks made in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about seminary education—something I understand a little too well. For all their faults, most seminaries try to teach students to interpret their faith intelligently.

Perhaps it is too fine a line to be etched in the sand, but the study of religion and the promotion of religion are entirely different entities. Our society desperately needs more of the former. I quite often lament the short-sighted lack of education about religion in higher education. Given the frequently destructive nature of religious teaching, it would behoove us to understand it a bit better. In my research on the state of education about religion in the United States, it has become clear that many—perhaps most—high-powered institutions of higher education do not offer the opportunity to study religion. Many secular schools, seeming to fear religious cooties, simply avoid the subject like Yersinia pestis. There is nothing particularly alarming about that. Until one starts to count the number of accredited institutions that teach indoctrination as education.

A simple survey of institutions of higher education in the United States will reveal hundreds of doctrinally based colleges that generally teach uncritical attitudes towards religion. Students graduate from such schools with bona fide parchments that claim them to be proficient in the subject. Meanwhile, at the local state university, no one can study religion because it is considered a subject unworthy of academic research. Maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble reconciling this lack of interest with what I see in a society where Tea Parties are steeping and sabers are rattling in the name of religion. Same sex unions are being shouted down. Women are paid lower wages for the same work as men. The ground is being fracked beneath our feet. The impetus for these destructive behaviors takes is fueled by religion, and they only scratch the surface. I would humbly suggest that if we want to see the state of the union clearly it is best done with eyes open rather than hiding behind an amendment and pretending religion is not there.

Rhetorical Criticism

An insidious force far more devastating than it’s generally given credit for being, religious rhetoric is one of the oldest tricks in the book. With all the news about Osama bin Laden’s death, one can’t help but to think of his former rhetoric laced with religious archetypes on how his personal enemies were allied with the raw forces of evil themselves. Religion often has little to go on beyond rhetoric. The high point in many religious services is the sermon, a piece of individually crafted rhetoric sometimes claiming divine authority. The average person in the pew has no experience or knowledge of how the preacher comes by his or her secret knowledge. With eternal stakes in the scales, they are taught simply to accept what is a modern word of God. Those of us with long experience at seminaries know those who teach homiletics, we’ve learned the craft, and we keep the secret within the guild. The secret is that these words are simply rhetoric.

Rhetoric aplenty

Some denominations prefer their clergy seminary-free, inspired mavericks who hear directly from God. Their rhetoric may be even more flamboyant, not having been tempered by critical study of their scriptures. If even one of these dissenters is speaking truly, then all the others are wrong. The preacher with the mightiest rhetoric gets to take all the marbles and go home the winner.

Rhetoric is not evil. Religious rhetoric, however, often tears families apart – ripping friends away from those they once loved – because we undervalue its power. Education in the humanities (and rhetoric is about as human as one can get) is underfunded and devalued. Better to teach kids how to make a quick buck. Sadly in paper after student paper among the denizens of higher education the inability to recognize, interpret, and apply rhetoric is painfully evident. These kids run whirlwinds around their instructors in technological knowledge and ability, but can they write a sentence to move or stir a teacher, let alone a crowd of accepting followers? No matter, there are those with religious rhetoric who are only too pleased to step up onto the vacant soapbox. Without the critical ability to recognize what they hear, the masses will follow.

West Texas Dead

A small item from the Star-Ledger wire services proclaims, “Former priest accused of trying to hire hit man.” Since the story was bylined Texas I started to wonder if the accused was someone I knew. Nashotah House boasted more Texans than any other statehood citizenship when I was there, so it was natural enough of a gut-level reaction. Fortunately, it was wrong. A former Catholic priest named John Fiala stands accused of trying to hire a neighbor to assassinate a teenager who’d accused him of sexual abuse. In a travesty of at least three of the ten commandments, a man of the cloth allegedly attempted to bare false witness (the error is intentional).

We hold clergy to a high standard in our society. The mystique of being “called” by God, secreted away in a provocatively named “seminary,” and emerging ontologically superior to other humans has a touch of whimsy that is difficult to dismiss. Having twice been a victim of seminary, once as a student and for even longer as a faculty member, I learned some important truths about those trained for ministry. They are merely human. In fact, my best students were those who recognized and embraced this fact. When I was informed that an ultra-pious candidate was about to “shed the shackles of the laity” and would return from his weekend ordination “ontologically transformed,” I rolled my non-ordained eyes. I had seen the test scores and intense faculty evaluations. Ontological change? We should be so lucky.

So, a man barred from any sexual outlet seeks a silent victim. We should not wonder. Attempting to get a neighbor to become an assassin is a bit over the top, even for most Texans. It does, however, illustrate my point that the laying on of Episcopal hands does nothing to change the essence of a person. Clergy are just as human as anyone they serve. It is when they think otherwise that problems arise. Secular students in the halls of Montclair State University are talking about the Vatican’s changing collective mind on condoms. Discussion and exegesis of the issue cover the front page of the New Advent website. Too bad the decision hadn’t been made a few months earlier. This situation might not have emerged at all. As the paper states, “the Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in the West Texas community of Rocksprings [is] a rural enclave known for sheep and goat herding.”

Don't let it get your goat

Faker or Fakir?

An article posted on CNN on Friday, “More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians,” suggests that many American teenagers aren’t really Christian. Whether that is a bad thing or not I’ll leave up to the reader to determine (Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, cited in the article, has no doubt that it is bad). My concern with the premise and the presentation of Dean’s data is much larger: who has the right to determine what is “authentic” religion? In a world daily faced with the clash of religious views, particularly among passionate believers, most scholars of religion seem to agree that one’s religion is what an adherent claims it to be. There is no way to test the authenticity of a religion empirically. Whose Christianity does Dean mean? That of Jesus? Or of Paul? Or of the Pope? It seems to me that what she suggests is that “true” religion is “passionate” religion.

Religion, however, may extend well beyond belief structures. Religionists recognize many forms of religion that are primarily activity-oriented rather than belief-oriented. Does that mean the adherents of such religions are only half-hearted members of their tradition? Do only passionate believers qualify? Who is it that has the authority to decide what any religion is? If it is seminary instructors, I’d rather face the apocalypse right now. I’ve known far too many of those to trust their judgment on defining authentic religion.

Christianity is perhaps the most fragmented religion in the world, with tens of thousands of different denominations, each declaring itself correct and authentic. What person ever purposefully believes in an incorrect religion? “I know my religion’s wrong, but I think I’ll stick with it…” Who gets to determine which is the real real religion? Passion may not be an adequate measuring stick. The clashes of religious views that leave the highest body counts are between groups equally passionate about their beliefs. In such a world where people need to learn to control their religious passion, it is my hope that mere theological assent might be more than enough in most cases. And only for religions that are belief based.

The only true religion?

Jesus at the Prom

This week I read Susan Campbell’s Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. Parts of her autobiographical narrative seemed so familiar that it was almost like we could have been siblings. Other parts demonstrated just how widely a religious upbringing in America may vary. Fundamentalism is a powerful force, and one that often feels impossible to outgrow. The added dimension of a constant, insistent criticism of gender made Campbell’s account truly wrenching at times. Having been raised in a similar environment, I had been taught that ministry is a male prerogative, an activity women were separated from just as surely as begetting babies. Having been raised mainly by my mother, however, I was more sympathetic to a woman’s plight than most of the outspoken advocates for male privilege. Campbell’s story hit close to home.

One of the most tenacious aspects of Fundamentalism is the brain patterning it impresses on young minds. Who doesn’t know that baby birds impress parenthood on the first creature they see after hatching? Young children, trusting well-meaning parents, are impressed with a religious branding iron before they can sort things out for themselves. We make our children in our own image. Few ever undertake the intense reflection later in life to challenge these impressions. Like Campbell, I attended seminary because I was curious. Many of my classmates had no questions in their heads – they knew already that they were to be ministers. Seminary was a hoop to be leapt through rather than a rung to be climbed for a different perspective. And their children will be taught their perspective. Denominations will continue to increase in numbers as acorns roll not far from the tree, but just far enough.

Campbell’s memoir is a gentle indictment of the male establishment. What once began as a biological division of labor has been given a religious imperative; male dominance is ordained by God, and women have no option but to comply. Even as the divine gets pushed into an unlit corner of everyday life, the deity may always be drawn back out for a session of gender oppression before being tucked safely away again. In these days of advanced technology and wide perspectives, women are still held down as some kind of inferior sub-species by men who believe that they are the default version of the image of God. It is time to be honest and admit that the only reason women are kept from the male preserve in any field is because of a jealous green-eyed god called privilege.

Bible Experts All

I seldom write follow-ups to my own blog posts – I’ve always found self-referential academics somewhat distasteful, and besides, what is creativity without some variety? Nevertheless, it seems that yesterday’s post has garnered a bit of interest in the disaffected outlook of a self-professed biblical scholar. (Actually, I have three “higher education” diplomas rolled up neatly in tubes in some untidy closet that show that some universities also accuse me with this charge.) Perhaps I need to clarify.

When reading a blog post, it is very difficult to determine the position of a writer’s tongue in relative proximity to his/her cheek. (Those with eyes to see, let them hear!) The subject might be funny if it weren’t so deadly serious. Despite my reservations with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher, they have all underscored a vital point – biblical literalism is very dangerous. This is even more so the case when, in their own minds, all people are Bible experts. We attend school and learn to read. Some learn to read more deeply than others, yet all “know what the book says.” There is no way to dispute that belief. Belief is belief, requiescant in pacem. Some commenters wondered why the opinion of “Bible experts” should matter at all.

When I’m feeling ill, I would prefer to ascertain the opinion of someone who has actually earned a proficiency in human physiology. When the car breaks down (again), I prefer to have someone who understands machines well as the repairer. When many, many people want to know what God doth require of thee, they turn to individuals who have not been thoroughly trained in Bible. I taught in a seminary for many years, and as an administrator, became quite familiar with the accrediting requirements of the Association of Theological Schools, the nation’s main seminary accrediting agency. I may unequivocally state that few seminarians emerge as full-fledged Bible scholars. Some “denominations” do not require any seminary training at all. So when your spiritual life breaks down, most folks head to an “expert” ill-equipped to handle the Bible, a homeopathic (no slur intended) literary diviner.

Purely from my own perspective, I would prefer to know what the Bible, in its own context, language, and words, is more likely to have meant. Delusions and all. Can’t buy that at your local church, with rare exceptions. That is the role of the humble Bible expert. As with any field of study, it is obvious when you have found a true expert. Such a one will readily admit that she or he has more questions than answers.

Religious Democracy

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s paper raised some important issues concerning religion and the unfortunate fall of Mark Souder. The article, by E. J. Dionne, pointed out that Souder once said, “To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do.” This pointed affirmation of faith is precisely the dilemma of a democratic system that allows for freedom of religion. All religions (those that are serious attempts to deal with the supernatural, in any case) are defined by the conviction that their practices, their beliefs, their ethics, are correct. When a religious individual is elected, or even converted after election, in a democratic system their religion is given power. With their faith they vote on issues that cut across religious boundaries, binding those who do not agree to their personal faith stance by law.

Europe in the Middle Ages is perhaps the most obvious example of what might happen when one religious body (in that case, the Roman Catholic Church) gains excessive political power. Problem is, these days folks don’t agree on which is the right religion. America was not founded as a Christian nation, let alone an evangelical Neo-Con one. It has become, perhaps because of this fact, one of the most actively religious nations in the developed world. As befits a consumer mentality, religions are offered in a marketplace. Within Christianity alone there are aisles and aisles of churches from which to choose. When a public servant is elected and her or his religion dictates their votes, have we not just lost freedom of religion?

Teaching for many years in a seminary is a sure way of becoming aware of the limited training that religious leaders generally receive (if any). The short time they spend being educated does not equip them to think through all the implications of their convictions. They attain the pulpit and the congressional leaders who happen to be in their congregations receive an inchoate theology confused by their three years earning a “Master of Divinity” degree. Not all are equal to the task. Those religious leaders with promise, often because of internal church politics, end up in smaller venues, their voices effectively silenced. Those with the most strident voices reach larger congregations, often without the humility of admitting that the more you learn about theology they less you know. Their congregants, armed with faulty perceptions of their own religion, burst into their congressional chambers full of conviction based on problematic conceptions. It is a very serious dilemma.

Perhaps what is needed is an oath of office for politicians rather like the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Perhaps they should swear to put their own religious outlooks in check while considering social issues on which their constituents vary widely. Perhaps their integrity in truly representing the population they govern would lessen the impact of their inevitable personal foibles. And naturally, this oath would not be superstitiously sworn with a hand on the Bible.

Two Mites for the Truth

“Abuse scandal puts heat on Vatican for more transparency,” runs a headline on the front page of today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. The reference, of course, is to the recent divulging of alleged abuse that implicates the brother of the Pope. The wording of this particular headline, however, contains the kernel of a very important religious preserve. Like the X-Files, religious structures thrive on secrecy. If the mystery were removed from religion, what would be the motivation to believe? Science provides facts and theories that do not require as much belief as they do acquiescence. Religion, on the other hand, deals with intangibles shrouded in murky darkness.

Religions cannot be transparent. “Naked business” models simply do not work when the wealth of the ages is at stake. Few religious believers ever question how or why the leaders of their traditions hoard wealth and valuable objects and real estate. The great medieval European cathedrals, as magnificent as they are, represent loss, pain, and toil on the part of a great many faithful. Those with severe consciences will always drop an offering in the plate, basket, or tray when divine pressure is laid upon them. Even if they really cannot afford it. Two mites for the salvation of an eternal soul is a real bargain!

No one can truly claim to have comprehended the whole of a religion. After all, many religions have centuries of accumulated lore and tradition that must be passed along in ways opaque to the general issue believer. If glass walls were erected around every seminary and religious training institution, those who have not had the experience of being involved in clergy instruction would find the sight blinding. No, religion will never be transparent. Nor will it ever be extinct. It is simply far too easy to believe what one is told.

Two mites, and then some

Naughty Religion is Bad Science

In the continual struggle of Fundamentalist Christianity against the rest of the world, new Creationist grounds have been made in Connecticut. Connecticut is not exactly the first state to spring to mind when it comes to extremist conservative religion, but Fundamentalism knows no bounds. Perhaps the largest disappointment, from the point of view of a student of religion who knows the Fundamentalists a little too well, is that otherwise intelligent people simply accept what their clergy tell them. Having been a seminary student and professor, however, I know the kinds of training clergy receive and if the whole wide world knew things would be different.

Clergy of all stripes of all denominations of all religions are just as human as the rest of us. They do not have special physiognomic features in their brains or hearts or cellular structures that allow them to receive private messages from God/the gods. Many are trained in special schools where people like myself teach them, often against the blustering of their clergy supporters back home, what we factually know about the Bible and other aspects of religion. Many successfully block out what they are forced to hear and emerge just as ossified, if not more so, as when they entered. In other words, their “education” has been an exercise in learning to ignore the truth. They are then made into clergy who continue the deception. Even worse are the clergy who receive no training at all, frequently fresh from an overly-heavy-dinner-induced religious experience, who claim that the biological responses to overtaxed gastric juices is some message from beyond.

The average citizen naively accepts the religious credentials of their clergy, supposing that this “holy” person has had some special word from on high. That word is often factually wrong, especially concerning evolution and the origins of life, but it is accepted as gospel truth and disseminated among unsuspecting children. Religion is a matter of belief, not of fact. As America lags farther and farther behind even developing nations in science education, Fundamentalist clergy give a self-satisfied smile. They have become the gods of a nation that was once able to land some of its citizens on the silvery moon in that great literal dome that surrounds our flat earth.