Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Stamp Collecting

Like most awkwardly shy children, I used to collect stamps. Even today a bright one will catch my attention although it’s been years since I actively sought them in a household not really important enough to receive much more than bills. To make up for not getting our own mail, I’d go to the local hobby store (not Hobby Lobby, thank you) and get those cheap packages of cancelled stamps from countries I’d never heard of. Using special strips designed for introverts, I’d mount them carefully over their black-and-white image in my stamp album. Looking at those carefully engraved pieces of miniature art was a way of traveling for a kid in a lower-income family who considered a trip to Pittsburgh the big time. I’ll still save a flashy stamp although the album was lost decades ago.

The other day I saw a Liberty forever stamp. Looking at the headlines, I think the stamp has been lying to me. The idea of liberty doesn’t seem to involve using “Nuclear Options” to stack the Supreme Court after illegally refusing a hearing for the lawful candidate our last true president nominated. Liberty doesn’t involve beefing up security so we can deport those we normally exploit and then firing our missiles at those we personally dislike. No, my philatelic informant seems to be sadly misinformed. Nothing is forever. Indeed, some of the stamps I purchased before the price went down are now more expensive than they need to be. We can always use the surplus to buy more missiles, I suppose. But wait, the price has gone back up! All reprieves are short-lived.

As I daily watch our government dismantle the freedoms we’ve so carefully built over the past two centuries, I glance at my liberty forever stamp and wonder what went wrong. When did hatred of others trump the desire to be free? When did the slimmest of crooked margins become a mandate? When did braggadocio become a sufficient substitute for intelligence? When you place “forever” as the value of a stamp, you no longer know just what it’s costing you. I was born in the age of the 4-cent stamp. Since 1885 the price had never gone over 3 cents. Stamps were more honest in those days. They didn’t say “forever” on them since, it seems, we all knew that nothing lasts forever. Not even liberty.

Inventing Concepts

A neologism is an invented word. Of course, it is impossible to be certain about the origins of many words, and even the many neologisms attributed to William Shakespeare may have been overheard by the bard at the local pub. Still, one of the things I sometimes dream of is inventing a word that will come into wide circulation. I think it must be easier to do in fiction than in non-fiction writing. When I first wrote my book, Weathering the Psalms, I chose what was, at the time, a neologism for the subtitle. “Meteorotheology” was a word I’d never read or heard before and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how to pronounce. Although the world-wide web existed when the book was written, scholarly resources were still few, and tentative. Amazingly, that has changed very rapidly. Now I’d be at a loss to find most basic information if I were isolated from a wifi hotspot. In any case, the web has revealed that others beat me to it when it comes to meteorotheology.

I suppose that some day, when I have free time, I might go back and see if I can trace the web history of the word. It is used commonly now to refer to God taking out wrath on people through the weather. For example, when the Supreme Court decision on the legality of gay marriage was handed down this summer, there were various websites—more popular than mine!—asking a “meteorotheological” question: when was God going to send a hurricane to punish the United States for its sin? These were, as far as I can tell, all tongue-in-cheek, but there can be no question that some people treat meteorotheology that way. It is a sign of divine wrath. My own use of the word had a wider connotation. When I was invited to present at talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan a few weekends ago, I was reminded of my line in the book: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.”

That’s an idea I still stand by, but it is difficult to move beyond. What exactly does the weather say about beliefs in the divine? There’s plenty of room for exploring that. I know that when I walk outside to fetch the paper on a clear fall morning when the moon and stars are still out, I know that I’m experiencing a kind of minor theophany. The brilliant blue of a cloudless October sky can transport me to places unlike any other. What exactly it is, I can’t lay a finger on. That’s why I came up with the word meteorotheology. I many not have been the first person to use it. I may even be using it incorrectly. But the weather, in my experience, has many more moods than just anger. Any autumn day is enough to convince me of that.

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More Rainbows

There’s been a lot of rain this June. In between there have been some glimpses of sunshine. When the rain and sun combine, I always look for rainbows. Yesterday there were rainbows. You see, I didn’t realize until physics class that the sun has to be behind you to see a rainbow. It stands to reason, of course, because the light has to be refracted before it can break into its beautiful constituent colors. If any of the colors were missing, true light wouldn’t exist. Even with many of the religious grumbling, the United States took a fumbling step toward justice yesterday. Justice is something that always comes as a bit of a surprise these days. I’m not sure that we can always trust those that money puts into power. Nevertheless, gay marriage is so in the spirit of America that I wonder it has taken so long to become legal.

I’m heterosexual and I’ve been married for over a quarter century. I know the benefits of married life, so why should they be denied any couple that love each other? Raised on conservative Christian literature that taught me homosexuality was evil, it took some intensive education to unlearn what I’d been told. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality, and in each instance where it does there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered. The Bible, which hasn’t become authoritative for stoning adulterers (heterosexuals all) had somehow been the final word to oppress those whom nature has oriented to the same gender. I had been told “no animals are homosexual.” That is wrong. Documented cases time and again show that homosexuality is as natural as rain. Just ask the bonobos. For literalists that’s a problem because we’re not even, from their point of view, evolutionarily related.

So although it is a cloudy, rainy Saturday morning, I’m strangely optimistic. There may be rainbows today. Now if only we could spread the message wider, raise our voices louder, and maybe join in singing “Amazing Grace.” Maybe we could dare to dream that races and genders should be treated equally. Will our Supreme Court ever make true equality the law of the land? Yesterday brought us over a major hurdle. I don’t want to rain on this parade. Still, justice demands that more work be done. I rejoice with all loving humans that marriage is open to all. Charleston is still on my mind. And if some rain does fall today I can always keep what sun there is to my back and hope that there will be more rainbows.

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Lobby Hobby

I can recall a time when hobbies seemed less than threatening. Indeed, the idea was to relax, not to lobby. My hobbies—collecting just about anything you could get without money—didn’t involve going to a store. Stamps (because everybody used them back then), coins (ditto), fossils from the local river bank, bottle caps that we collected while Mom was doing the wash at the laundromat, all kinds of handouts from society’s detritus made for many hours’ entertainment. I also collected Bibles. That was when I was old enough to earn some money and spend it on books. And I read those Bibles until I’d run out of versions, then I’d start over again. Now my hobby has come back to haunt me.

According to the New York Times, the Hobby Lobby family is planning to build a Bible Museum in Washington, DC, prompting fears of evangelization. Right there in the nation’s capital, not far from the Mall, a museum showing the importance of the Bible would indeed send a message. But is it really a threat? We live under the judicial decisions of a Supreme Court weighted towards the literal already. It might not hurt to have a museum dedicated to finding out what’s going through our justices’ minds. Clearly it’s not women’s rights. If we wander those proposed halls, we might see that museums are indeed dedicated to outdated stuff that has some importance. Rare are the contemporary museums that show right where we are at the moment. Rarer still, those that show the future that remains undecided. In many senses, Washington is already a museum.

The secular world seems to fear the Bible. It is, however, not going to go away. Although I left literalism decades ago, I’m still pleasantly surprised how much the Bible has to offer by way of insight into human nature and contemplation. You might even find some workable ethics if you can get away from the non-issues of birth control, stem cells, or same-sex marriage. The Bible doesn’t need to be a threatening book. In the wrong hands, it may at times seem like The Book of Eli had its eyes right on the target, but those who would use the Bible to harm others are those who read without understanding the words. No, I don’t think the Green family’s plans for such a museum are innocent. Neither can I believe that hobbies are a $3 billion industry. Reading books and picking up other people’s cast-offs may be the only hobbies you need.

Engraven images?

Engraven images?

It’s My Body

Those who believe mythology is dead have to look no further than the Supreme Court. Amid pictures of women protesting religious freedom to be told what to do with their bodies, the Court decided that employers may withhold rights to birth control under the rubric of religious belief. The ones who raise the issue, however, biologically never carried a baby to term. One gender making decisions for the other. We all know that the official stance of Roman Catholicism, closely followed by radical Evangelicalism, is that God intended sex only for procreation. Those women who find themselves on the receiving end of unwanted conception are helpless in the eyes of the law, depending on who their employer is. Blind justice indeed. Obamacare is intended to help level the playing field. Too few people have any real control over what medical treatment they can afford. I know more than one fixed-income person who suffers chronic pains due to lack of adequate treatment. I also know people who have used the system for plastic surgery before a trip to the beach. It seems that your employer now has the right to decide—but only if you’re a woman, and only if it involves what might be euphemistically called your “private parts”—what care you deserve.

Legislating morality, we religion majors debated even when I was back in college, cannot be effectively executed. If you presume there is a God, then enforced obedience is no obedience at all. Even conservative undergraduates could see that. Now our “Supreme” Court, with its male majority, has followed the lead of closely held corporations (doublespeak for certain patriarchal, Evangelically based companies) and declared that half the humans in America don’t deserve the same health care as the other half. The reason? Closely held companies don’t want women to have access to birth control. Our courts strike a blow against freedom and justice for private religious interests.

Within days of one Christian denomination declaring that gay marriage will be—should be— sanctioned, our own judiciary sides with the right of upper management in private corporations to discriminate based on gender. At least the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga can sleep better at night knowing that they’ve prevented women from having their basic rights upheld. And metaphorically crawling into bed with closely held corporations are a male majority of supreme court justices who believe one man’s religion (yes, man’s) has the right to overturn the freedom of his employees. With the blessings of a male God. A situation like this prevailed, it seems to me, until 1863, also with the backing of scripture. Only in those days the argument was, I believe, that God is clearly Caucasian.

Looks balanced...

Looks balanced…

Greece Lightning Rod

Eds and op-eds are popping over the Supreme Court decision to allow sectarian prayer at Greece, New York town council meetings. Some citizens complained that the prayers made them feel disrespected and excluded. Who hasn’t from time to time? I’m no advocate of government-sponsored religion, but I do wonder how we can live in a society in which the mere mention of God offends some as much as the “f word” offends others. Are we, perchance, getting a little thin-skinned? After several long years of neo-con rule, we have learned that opposition is a form of treason, and that conflicting opinions cannot coexist. As an erstwhile teacher of religion, the implications make me shiver. Isn’t the point of learning about religion to train people in toleration? If I sued every time I was offended, I’d be the richest man in the country.

Ironically, the United States is one of the rare cases of a developed, “first world” nation where skirmishes over religion often and vocally take center stage. We have, as a society, dismantled the apparatus of dispassionate, scholarly discussion of religion (“no need for it,” “budget can’t afford it,” “superstition and nonsense”) and wonder why it always brings us to verbal blows. Religion is that which we can’t define, but we can surely fight about. We’re offended by public prayers, the wearing of hijab, and idols to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Religion, like sex, is relegated to private places only, but for diametrically opposed reasons. What are we so afraid of?

Lost in the clutter.

Lost in the clutter.

We have no trouble when someone with private money spends it to introduce religion into the public sphere. You can walk down the street in Manhattan and see crosses outside churches and “Jesus saves” scrawled in the cement of well-trod sidewalks. Nobody seems to be offended. Finding practitioners of the “exotic” religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Vodou, Theosophy, and Scientology is hardly a challenge in a city of millions. Over what is there anything to be offended? I’m offended by those with too much money keeping everyone else below them because the law says that they can. I’m offended by those who pollute our common environment because they can afford lawyers to find loopholes. I’m offended by those who use their religion to oppress women and non-believers. Those who want to pray to a god, any god, before a civil meeting, as long as that god demands nothing from non-believers, aren’t hurting anyone but those who never learned to agree to disagree.

A Theistic Nation

That’s a dill-pickillial of a peccadillo, if you’ll pardon my Ned Flanderism. I’m referring to the issue of the Supreme Court dealing with public prayer. Again. In a recent Chicago Tribune story, prayer before town board meetings in Greece, New York have led to accusations of violation of citizens’ rights. In a similar, but unrelated, situation, a friend asked me what I thought about religious symbols on public property. He asked the basic question that if atheism relies on no symbols, isn’t the absence of symbolism tacit approval of atheism. These issues are very difficult to resolve for a number of reasons. The first non-partisan elephant in the room is the fact that we do not have an acceptable definition of religion. Universities shy away from hiring specialists in religion and we, as a society, and, more restrictively, as an academy, can’t agree on what religion is. Is atheism a religious belief system? Some would argue that it is, and that it shouldn’t be the default stance—that would favor one religion. From what neuroscience seems to tell us, atheists aren’t born, they’re made. Religion, of some description, is normal human thinking.

A further issue involves both symbols and prayers. A symbol means nothing without interpretation. As I told my friend, unintentional crosses are ubiquitous. You might have to look a bit harder to find unintentional stars of David or yin-yangs, but I’m certain they exist. Without the Christian eye, however, those unintentional crosses are just architectural features or natural spaces between corners. The same applies to prayer. If I decide to speak, it is a matter of interpretation whether my words are prayers, a guy talking to himself, or, increasingly, somebody chatting on their blue tooth phone as they walk past a church. Intention, a specific aspect of interpretation, certainly plays into the sometimes coercive power of a symbol or a prayer. Do those Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn just represent a nice piece of art, or do they bear an intended message? Do intended messages not attempt to persuade others that they are true?

Smart folk like Supreme Court justices have difficulty with this issue every time. I’m not surprised. We don’t know how to quantify religion, even though most of us are pretty sure of it when we see it. Some would argue that many eastern religions are in fact philosophies. Some would claim that atheism is the opposite of religion. Atheism is not so very far from some strains of Buddhism, however. And like it or not, people are all subject to belief. We seem to like forging ahead in the darkness on this issue. State universities hide their religious studies programs like embarrassing warts. What rational person would want to waste time studying such superstition? The Supreme Court of the United States, I might point out, just for one.

Religion or not?

Religion or not?