Americanism

I’m a bit too much of a contrarian to be a regular bestseller reader. I do occasionally bow to curiosity though, and I do have a lot of time on the bus. But that wasn’t the reason I turned to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Purchasing this book was a statement. Another in a long line of protests in which I’ve taken part since January of 2017 (and even before). You see, I mourn. I mourn what our country has become. My first indication that I should write (which I of course ignored) was the winning of a statewide essay contest my senior year in high school. The topic of the essay was “Americanism.” My piece was respectfully cynical; I was surprised I won. This was in the days before personal computers and I didn’t think to keep a typed, or even hand-written copy.

The essay was cynical not because I don’t believe in America, but because I do. I’ve been confronted on this issue concerning my blog occasionally. My jeremiads. You see, you only get this fed up with things when you love them deeply. I sometimes rail about higher education, for example, because I care about it. Fire and Fury created in me a—to borrow from the book’s vocabulary—Kafkaesque bewilderment about how a nation based on high principles could possibly sink so low. Politicians are perhaps the most self-serving of human beings, but at least they try to make sure the country doesn’t go off the rails. This train leapt the tracks months ago, and our elected officials refuse to do anything about it, each playing their own angle, hoping personally to come out of it ahead. Worth a jeremiad, I’d say.

I was a Republican in high school. I wasn’t old enough to vote, so that party affliction was never official. When I did register at 18 it was as an independent (remember, contrarian). As a Fundamentalist I was ahead of the Tea Party, at the time. Even with this level of patriotism I wrote an essay taking my country to task. I was raised in a poor family. Told an education would improve my chances, I found myself facing predatory loan officers and others eager to wring my blue collar until it was possible to twist no further. If I had no money, my future money would do. I’d already had a taste of that as a high schooler. That was three-and-a-half decades ago now. I kinda hoped the country might improve in all that time. And I kinda wish I’d kept a copy of that essay as a memento of more optimistic days. Fire and Fury sells so well, I suspect, because I’m not really alone in feeling this way.

American Bible

BibleInAmericaAny book that sets itself the task of addressing American culture has, it seems, a built-in obsolescence.  Culture shifts are radical and swift, and it would seem that distance is necessary for any serious analysis.  I am reminded of historian Barbara Tuchman’s opinion that history cannot be written without the passage of at least a half-century. We’re simply too close to the subject matter otherwise.  The Bible in America, edited by Nathan G. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, does not claim to be an analysis of the current situation, but it stands as a representative of how much has changed since the 1980’s.  The era in which the book was written is stamped all over it like the Preppy look or Doc Martens.  American culture was very different then.  Some of the contributors noted that the Bible, as we’ve often been told, is on its way out.  Elections of the new millennium would give the lie to that observation, and we might now argue the same, but I wonder if our view is long enough.
 
The source of my wonder is a basic observation.  The Bible was foundational for the idea of the United States.  Those who have joined the “melting pot” (willingly or unwillingly) have been brought into a soup whose stock is Bible flavored.  I’m not naive enough to think that it is undiluted or even anywhere near its original form, but as a former biblical scholar I’m sensitive to the motifs and themes of the Bible and I see them daily in undiminished numbers.  Transmutation is not the same as exodus.  I make no judgment whether this is a good or bad thing.  It simply is.  Those who think it is an exaggeration to put such prominence on the Bible in American culture should read the first couple of essays in this book.  It may have been that without the Bible the will to cross the dangerous water to an uncertain (and to many, catastrophic) future would not have been so pressing.
 
Like most collections of essays, this little volume has a grab bag of wisdom.  Reading it is like taking a stroll through the ’80’s again.  We seemed to know things with a certainty then that has all but vanished these three decades hence.  The Fundamentalist movement provided a Tea Party appropriate to Mad Hatters and White Rabbits alike.  Presidents declared that we were on Crusades again.  Megachurches have the budgets of small developing nations.  I’m not about to make any predictions for the future of the Bible here.  An observation, simple, but fairly obvious, will have to suffice.  Since colonial times, Americans have always had their Bible.  It hasn’t always been the same book, and it hasn’t always been interpreted in the same way, but it hasn’t ever gone away.  I can’t say about the future, but right now I’m about ready to put on my Ray-Bans listen to some Madonna.
 

The Problem with Apocalypses

Over on The Daily Beast, Joe McLean points out “How the Tea Party’s Apocalyptic Politics Are Destroying the Republican Party.” I say good riddance. Let me explain. It’s not that I have a problem with apocalypses. (Zombie apocalypses are especially fun.) My problem is that the mythology of one religion endangers us all. This is not some leftist-leaning rant, or at least not a leftist-leaning rant that’s uninformed. I grew up in a very conservative, apocalyptic Christianity. I was looking for the end of the world before I considered a college major. Even my (limited) choice of classes in high school were determined by a kind of eschatological laissez faire: the world’s going to end any day now, so why plan for a career? I was a true believer. In my Christian college I majored in religion. If the end is near, it pays to be ready for it. I know this doctrine inside-out. If Christ is returning any day now (can’t you hear the hoof-beats?) then we should pillage this poor old earth for all its worth. That’s what it’s here for. Do we want him coming back and saying we’re poor stewards? Besides, if we can ramp up the crisis in the Middle East far enough, Jesus will have to return. Won’t he? And these are “rational” adults thinking this way.

There was likely a naive cynicism on the part of the Republican Party when it realized that aligning itself with what was considered the religious fringe would boost their numbers. After all, the fringe surrounds the whole of the cloth. Apocalyptic Christianity is very popular because it appeals directly to the emotions. Although our society believes the study of religion is pointless, those of us who’ve persisted have noticed a few things. The religions that are really taking off are the ones that appeal to the emotions. Many Spock-like scientists intone their message of materialism only in the face of massive crowds of true believers. Who do you think is likely to win out? We have had presidents in the Oval Office who believed that triggering the apocalypse was a presidential prerogative. When society finally shook off its goofy grin and slowly pressed the electoral brakes, the Tea Party took off. Guess what? Apocalypses are all about destruction. If you invite apocalypticists to your party, the results are pretty predictable.

In the article McLean uses the word “zealot.” Rationalists might find the use of their dictionaries helpful here. Zealots do not respond to logic. Zealots are driven by emotion. Have you ever tried to argue with one? I have had years of experience teaching religion in a variety of classroom settings. Long ago I learned to lay down the sword when a zealot spoke up. Logic is not spoken here. The media, the scientific, the academic, they scratch their heads. How can any rational person believe this? The answer doesn’t require much effort to find. It might mean consulting someone who understands a bit about religion, though. Otherwise, the smart money is on stocking up on canned goods, gas masks, and a good supply of water. This could take a while.

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?

Mary in the sky with circles, or the apocalypse?

Shut Down? Shut Up?

So, what does it mean really?  Can you tell the difference?  Although it is undoubtedly a pain for many government workers, and a huge, colossal waste of tax-payers’ money, I guess the Tea Party showed us!  Over something as simple and humane as healthcare, the neo-cons have shut down the US government.  To be honest, I can barely recall the last time this happened.  Why do I suddenly feel the need to sit on a rocking chair on the front porch and kvetch? Perhaps we don’t pay them enough to care?  Maybe the poor just aren’t worth saving?  What can possibly be going through the minds of elected officials who are willing to punish the entire nation just because they can’t pack up their marbles and go home?  Of course, I am presuming that they have marbles to pack up.  As a tax-payer of over thirty years (pushing on forty), I think I have earned the right to say, “Children behave!”  The Tea Party shenanigans have been childish from the start, trying to co-opt the spirit of rebellion against tyranny in a country that plainly has too much.  Too much time on its hands, among other things.

I often ponder how a nation with the resources of the United States can proudly tote one of the most inhumane healthcare systems in the developed world (and I’m not talking about Obamacare!).  We live in a country, if best-selling author John Green is to be believed (and I’m a believer), we pay more for healthcare than countries with socialized medicine and get less out of it.  Why do we put up with it?  Tea, anyone?  Who has the actual gumption to climb aboard a ship and throw the cargo overboard?  Today we call it piracy—hey! Stop that download!  And we throw people into jail for it.  But shut down the government?  That’s okay.  The bus still runs and I’m still expected at work.  Oh, and I work for a UK company.  The irony of it all. When I lived in the United Kingdom, people complained about the healthcare, but I will say there was no child left behind, if you get my meaning.

Our military, I see, remains open for business.  We won’t cut off the life-support of the Tea Party’s favorite department.  We have our priorities.  Somebody has to defend the millions that can’t afford health insurance.  There was a time when Christianity was all about healing and taking care of people.  Of course, in those days it wasn’t yet called Christianity, or even the Tea Party. It was just a guy and his healing touch.  Today, some of the most abstract tenets of a fully corporate religious infrastructure determine who it is that deserves health care and who does not.  Call it morals or call it marbles, we have a right to decide who can be afforded and who cannot.  And anybody who tries to start legislating fair treatment better not try to stand in the way of our comfortable worldview where those who can afford to withhold compassion can do so under the rule of law, and the unborn smile until they become born when they will soon have to fend for themselves with a government that demands monetary exchange for bodily health.  Gee, my blood-pressure seems to be up.  Good thing the doctor’s office is open.  At least I hope it is.

Outside the United Nations

Outside the United Nations

Great Caesar’s Cost

College has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Thinking back to my own experience, I chose a school, as a first-generation college student, based on what I knew at the time. It wasn’t much. I chose a school close to home, and safe. A place friendly to, in what I believed to be a world in open hostility to, “Christianity,” by which I meant the conservative, Evangelical variety. The school I settled on, Grove City College, was at the time a selective school. This was the early 1980s and the “Religious Right” was just beginning to appear on the political horizon. Grove City was a Presbyterian college, and the Reformed, although sometimes theologically conservative, have generally been a bit more socially progressive. I recall the admissions numbers being trotted out to the incoming class, about how elite we were (something I’ve always denied and find personally objectionable) at having been admitted to a selective, private enclave such as GCC (“God’s Country Club” as it was locally known). Many of the kids did come from monied families, but I was there on the basis of government subsidized (and unsubsidized, as if I knew the difference) loans.

When my daughter was considering colleges she had been warned about Grove City. One of her friends was contemplating it, but soon wisely cast her thoughts elsewhere. Nevertheless curious, I picked up the Princeton Review’s The Best 376 Colleges, a kind of Bible for the collegiate-bound, to see if my old alma mater rated a mention. Sure enough, Grove City was present. For those wishing to make it in the heartless world of business, it can be a good training ground. What caught my attention, however, was the acceptance rate. According to the 2012 edition, 74% of applicants were admitted. So much for selective! This figure swirled around my gray matter for some months as I started to sort out the implications.

Over the past few decades, Grove City College—which was always conservative—has allied itself closely with the posturing of Tea Party types. Herein lies a true dilemma for the educated bourgeois: how to be intellectually progressive and socially repressed at the same time. To accomplish this difficult trick, a non-negotiable bedrock is required, and since even the earth is spinning crazily on its axis the only true solidity in the universe is religion. Claiming that, despite the 14.5 billion years of this universe’s elapsed lifespan, only one thing never changes and that is a particular interpretation of Scripture, you can go ahead with your science and your arts. But most of all, with your business. Although black holes may exist, and textual criticism may indicate Scripture has its own gray areas after all, nothing counts much at the end of the day if you don’t have capital to back you up. Open admission policies can be interpreted in more than one way, depending on your point of view.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

Wars and Holy Wars

An article by James P. Byrd, promoting his new book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution recently appeared in the Washington Post. Byrd asks a very relevant question in our era: “Was the American Revolution actually a holy war?” He suggests that perhaps it should be interpreted so. The reason is straightforward enough—our nation, our culture in the United States, is so deeply steeped in scripture that even our Deist founders knew their Bibles better than many preachers today do. Byrd suggests, in his article, that people who believed in the separation of church and state could still have a deep sense of divine mission, and a belief that their war for freedom was a divine cause. Early state leaders were not anti-religious, nor über-religious. It is a balance that we would benefit from regaining.

Declaration_independence

I guess I’ve seen enough political shenanigans to realize that such posturing as the Tea Party and the Religious Right or Moral Majority present are deeply cynical. The use religion as a platform to achieve political ends while conveniently slashing and burning huge swaths of biblical reasoning leaves many questions in its wake. Were such motives sincere, I would expect a lot more turning of the other cheek, and walking the second mile uncoerced. I suspect there would be fewer hungry people and even fewer living in positions of extreme wealth and power. In short, without the agenda of political religion, I suspect we would be a more Christian nation.

War is difficult to justify from a strong ethical stance, as most ethicists know. Our founders decided to go to war against what they believed was unfair oppression by a more powerful nation. This takes on the cast of a holy war because people were being oppressed. The pre-emptive strikes were throwing crates of tea into Boston Harbor, and yet the more advanced nation refused to lessen the pressure. In the Bible, Pharaoh declared the Israelites should make bricks without straw, and we all know where that got him. Or we would know, were we as literate as our forebears were. Freedom was considered a sacred trust. We live in a time when trust is at a premium. You can’t fly or surf the internet without being watched in intimate detail. There is no talk of holy wars, it seems, since the sacred has no place in a society that does not promote the concept of liberty with all the risks and benefits it entails.

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…

Science Friction

What hath CERN to do with Jerusalem? It might seem that the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology would be a reasonable place to look for members of Congress with a grip on science. But then, I often live in a fantasy world where things make sense. It is with some sadness, but no real surprise, that I read about the words of Georgia Representative Paul Broun, lambasting evolution and the Big Bang as theories from the Devil. Broun is a medical doctor who, under conviction of his Fundamentalist faith, has rejected the basic tenets of science. According to the Associated Press, he told a Baptist church congregation, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” Sounds like Satan had a very busy pre-history.

Anyone who knows me knows that I begrudge no one their personal religious beliefs. Someone who does not believe in embryology, however, might have selected a career more commensurate with his religion than medicine. Election year does tend to bring out the shock value statements in politicians. Having to convince their constituencies that they are just simple folk, they deny what their faith belies every time they accept an inoculation. If evolution is a lie, so is vaccination—something most medical doctors would have to have understood before facing medical school examinations. In the United States, however, such wrong belief is a generally apt qualifier for Congress. Especially among the Tea Party. Broun hails from the ironically named Athens, Georgia.

Over the weekend I watched the Star Trek (original series—please, I’m a connoisseur) episode, “The Mark of Gideon.” It is one of the episodes I don’t recall from childhood, but then, with Kirk and all that “mushy stuff” of being alone on the Enterprise with a woman, well, maybe it just didn’t stick when I was in my tender years. In any case, the symbolically named Gideonites have overpopulated their planet to the point of disaster by good clean living. They attempt to hijack themselves a disease “inadvertently” to reintroduce population control. Captain Kirk asks why they don’t use safe methods of birth control, even volunteering the Enterprise to be a kind of inner-galactic condom-dispenser. The Gideonites explain that they believe all life is sacred, and that preventing life is a great crime—regardless of the misery it causes. I had to smile to myself. Sounds like the people of Gideon may have had been lectured by a Georgia medical doctor who had gone off on a peculiar flight of fancy.

Like Clockwork

It is probably safe now to reveal something that occurred at Grove City College over a quarter of a century ago. I often feel I must justify my choice of college, but I was a first-generation college student who knew nothing about higher education. I was raised with a Fundamentalist orientation, Grove City was a “Christian college,” and it was only about 30 miles from home. I do give Grove City credit for shaking me out of my Fundie way of thinking; as a religion major I met some genuine honest thinkers in the department who let me question the inconsistencies of Fundamentalist beliefs. I broke free in my own time. One of the literature professors, however, insisted that we both read and watch the movie version of A Clockwork Orange. It was my senior year and I felt ready to handle it. As I watched the movie again over the weekend, the first time since college, I was shocked that the institution Grove City College has become would have ever allowed such a movie to be shown. Although there is Kubrickian nudity, the movie was initially given its rating because of the violence, which, by today’s standards, is somewhat tame.

Anthony Burgess’ book is so well known that I don’t need to summarize the story here. What struck me in a new way was the religious element in the plot. While Alex is in prison, and wanting to be reformed, it is the prison chaplain who advises him against it. Undergoing the famous movie treatment, Alex indeed proves docile after testing, leading the priest to declare, “He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” Of course, the government is satisfied with this kind of morality, the sort that upholds appearances at any price to humanity.

What I find particularly disturbing is Burgess’ prescience. A Clockwork Orange was published fifty years ago, and since that time we have seen politics shift from care of the citizen to the ultimate window dressing of courting the Moral Majority to make it look as if all governmental decisions are moral. The Tea Party seeks to underscore that charade, claiming that all who would argue for Alex’s humanity deserve the fate that he so wrongfully dispensed before his “reform.” This view of the world suffers for its lack of complexity. Humans do not come in black and white. Ironically, Burgess chose to make the clergyman the only the objector to the inhuman treatment imposed on Alex. This is the kind of dilemma on which Stanley Kubrick thrived, but it has become even more poignant in the decades since his movie was released. True, Kubrick’s film is based on the apocopated American version of the novel, perhaps obscuring the intended meaning of Burgess. But isn’t that exactly what he was attempting to do?

Hair Cut

“This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” So we hear in the first number of the musical Hair. Since my daughter is learning about the 1960’s counter-culture in US History, she asked her middle-aged parents what life was like then. Well, my wife and I were both born in the early sixties and were a little young to get the full scope of things through juvenile eyes. Besides, I was raised in a biblically literalist family—probably not the best place to gain a great deal of insight into popular culture. We decided to watch Hair instead. One of the few aspects of that era I recall is the Vietnam War (something George W. Bush apparently didn’t remember). The optimism of the hippie movement never really came to fruition leaving an entire era of disillusionment to hang over the remaining years of the millennium. Nevertheless, there is a sense of freedom in Hair that conveys the exuberance of young idealism—something I can honestly claim to have never outgrown. Without idealism we, as a species, are lost.

As I watched the movie for the first time in years its biblical subtext occurred to me this time around. The identity of the youthful protestors is in their counter-cultural hair. Indeed, the show takes its very name from that aspect. Apart from the ubiquity of the hirsute righteousness on the screen, it is essential to the plot. As Claude Bukowski stops in New York City on his way to join the army, he falls in with the Philistine element of society—the long-haired (read uncircumcised) misfits who defy the principles of decency. The dinner party at the Franklin residence makes that perfectly clear. When thrown in jail Woof protests over-strenuously to having his hair cut, leading to the title number. When the friends decide to visit Claude on the army base on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, George Berger has his hair shorn (by a woman) and subsequently loses his strength. His vital force of arguing his way out of any predicament is sapped as he marches to the troop transport plane that flies him to his death. Singing about believing in God as he goes.

I have never used drugs—life has a way of being weird enough already without them—but the sixties seem to have had a moral righteousness that the Tea Party just can’t claim. It was a righteousness borne of speaking the uncomfortable truth to a society that honored the status quo above all else. The very status quo ante the Tea Party craves—a society of bigotry and inequality. A society of privilege and strict conformity. A balding society that has lost its voice. Drugs are not necessary to see unbelievable things. One of the Bible’s original Avengers, Samson tears his Hulk-like way through any crowd, felled only by the cutting of his hair. Hair also led to the death of Absalom, the son whose life David valued more than his own. At the end of the show it is quite clear where the righteousness really lies.

Blazing Forest

Back in 1996 an angel was on the big screen. In a manner of speaking. Michael, starring John Travolta as the archangel Michael, may not have been an instant classic but it did have a memorable line or two. The image of a smoking angel had been contrived by Van Halen over a decade earlier, but the idea of the prince of the army of Yahweh being a guy just like the rest of us was strangely refreshing. No Park Avenue deity this. When the reporters first meet Michael and wonder if he’s the real thing, one suggests tugging on his wings to see if they’re real. Michael responds by asking if he should pull the reporter’s privates to see if they’re really attached. His companion comments, “An angel that says ‘pecker.’” While the very idea of “bad words” is an unusual one, it is well-nigh a universal. In just about every culture there are words or phrases that just aren’t uttered in polite company. Those who can’t control their mouths, suggests the book of James, can’t control their lives. So it is with a kind of perverse wonder that I read about the bullying bravado that issues from the lips of New Jersey’s governor.

Don’t get me wrong. I never fault anyone for speaking like they were taught. I was raised in a blue collar family and at times the talk could get pretty blue as well. I would, however, point out that you’ll not find a student I taught over my two decades in the classroom that every heard me cuss in class. It is a matter of standards. Emotions, those great clawing monsters inside us, rage to escape. The building blocks of society—restraint and control, and dare we even wish? subtlety and refinement—are signs of civilization. Some of us were taught to leave name-calling on the playground. I am profoundly saddened when politicians believe they are the best America has to offer when in reality they reveal themselves coarse, vulgar bullies. Enter Chris Christie.

In a public venue on Wednesday New Jersey’s governor called the chief budget officer for the Office of Legislative Services, “idiot,” “jerk,” and “numbnuts.” Here’s where we see Tea Party values incarnate. Belittling others, especially in a public forum, reveals a nature that should make all civilized civilians hang their heads in a surfeit of collective shame. America has come to this? Admiring bullies and slashing and burning services for those who need a little communal support? And he has been posturing for a vice presidential nomination. And angels will be smoking cigarettes in the wings. A President/Vice-President who says “numbnuts?” America deserves far better than this. Where is Michael when we need him?

Take that, you #!@&$!

Free Tea

I first became aware of The Town Hall, I have to admit, through the Christopher Guest mockumentary A Mighty Wind. In the movie, three aging folk groups are brought together for a concert in Town Hall to honor the memory of one of their early promoters. When I began to walk past Town Hall on my way to work, I grew curious about its history. This curiosity was piqued by the scriptural quotation engraved on the façade: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” New York City is an architect’s smorgasbord and I am often intrigued by the little gems I spy here and there. I discovered that The Town Hall was originally a political venue built by The League for Political Education, an organization sorely needed now. Built because of the need for a public space to discuss the Nineteenth Amendment (which the League supported), Town Hall was originally a venue to keep the public informed.

The Nineteenth Amendment—which the Tea Party seems to have overlooked, along with much of what we recognize as democracy—was drafted by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It took congress only four decades to ratify it. Women were finally given the right to vote. Stanton was noted for her suffrage activities, including the production of The Woman’s Bible. The idea that an entire half of the human race should share the rights of the other half seems to have required a building erected to educate the public. Of course, there were moments when even The Town Hall couldn’t bear the words spoken on stage, as when Margaret Sanger was arrested for speaking about contraception there in 1921. I suspect there were Tea Partiers in the audience.

The same stage also provided a venue for Edna St. Vincent Millay to have her poetry reading breakthrough. Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff performed there, as did any number of other greats. Truth may take many forms. Certainly human equality is as basic a truth as can be found. Art and poetry are equally as parsimonious, in the formal sense of the word. These things that we value are the very aspects of culture that the Tea Party would like to curtail. Thankfully there have been believers in the truth in the past who have been willing to construct monuments to sanity. And I can’t help but think that there would be even more of them if we still had a League for Political Education to help promote the truth. Without it, as it says in stone, we can never be truly free.

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.

Stormy Weather

The privileging of one literature over others is problematic. Of course, the entire industry of biblical studies is built around such preferential treatment. And so is a large share of Christianity. I’ve just finished reading William H. Jennings’ Storms over Genesis: Biblical Battleground in America’s Wars of Religion. For someone who has taught Genesis before there wasn’t too much new material in here, but it strikes me as a very good primer for those who wonder about why the issues of gender inequality, global warming, and evolution remain firmly entrenched in evangelical minds, and therefore, our society. Just the first three chapters of Genesis, as Jennings points out, have led to the much of the irrational, at times inane, arguments that just won’t go away. Tea Party kinds of issues.

At the base of it all is the concept that Genesis somehow represents the way the world is supposed to be (rather than the way it actually is). As if seconding my choice of bus reading, The Economist recently published an article on Glen Rose, Texas. I’ve known about Glen Rose since I was a child. There, in a bizarre twist on the Flintstones, locals claim human and dinosaur footprints intermingle in a nearby creek bed. As the article points out, some locals see this as evidence of young earth creationism—seems Fred and Wilma missed the ark along with Dino. For decades paleontologists have tried to explain that the “human” tracks are actually dinosaur tracks as well. Given their size and stride, if they were human Adam must’ve been a giant. Despite the science, the myth persists. Even the article in The Economist doesn’t give the scientific answer.

It would be difficult to find a book more influential than Genesis. It would also be difficult to find one that is less scientific. Anyone who has studied ancient societies knows that they delighted in telling outlandish stories to explain the origin of the world. After all, there were no eyewitnesses. No channel 11 helicopters hovering overhead to bring you the story live. It all comes from mistaking a good story for a good book. In an era when evidence of evolution literally abounds, we still have nearly half the population of this technological nation trying to make room for the Valley of the Gwangi. Jennings may not hold the answers to all the problems Genesis raises, but if people would read Storms over Genesis, we might be able to afford a little more energy to solving global warming rather than running from dinosaurs in Texas.

And Then There Were None

Whatever happened to evil? There was a time—when I was being reared in a conservative, evangelical, Republican household—that certain kinds of behavior were considered evil. And not all of them took place in the bedroom. Some of the most blatant acts of evil included using others for your own advantage, putting yourself first, and valuing things above people. Somewhere in the decades that I’ve been alive, all of that has changed—from a politician’s eye-view, anyway. Now that we’re in what’s passing for winter, some days are decidedly chilly. Seeing the homeless hunkered down in the Port Authority Bus Terminal (where there is even an organized, charitable group that tries to help them out), or sitting on subway vents to catch some of the warm air, or shivering on a street corner day after day, I wonder where the evil has gone.

In the neo-evangelical world of cheap prosperity and cheap family values, the name of Jesus gets bandied about like an over-inflated beach-ball. Many who utter his name obviously don’t read his life story. According to the Gospels, Jesus spent his adult life as a homeless wanderer who was particularly sympathetic to the poor. He doesn’t refer to them as evil, but he does have very harsh words for the privileged establishment. Such words harsh the euphoria built upon our own self-importance. As I see the homeless in the winter’s chill, it occurs to me that their lifestyle is much closer to that of Jesus than is the that of the executive who works 33 floors above them. Their demands on life are minimal. Their stares should make us uncomfortable.

And yet, look at those running for office. The amount of money they spend to make each other look bad is obscene. They try to make themselves look righteous for the Tea Party crowd, but their assets weigh them down. I shiver for the homeless. I shiver when I see the news about the ultra-wealthy bragging about who can dig up the most mud. Most of them would have no idea which end of the shovel to use. I’m afraid that having grown up in a modest setting has forever biased me against posers and average guy wannabes. I’ve had jobs that have involved shovels, sledgehammers, and hard scrubbing. The average person struggles and shivers sometimes. The average person spends some time on his or her knees and sometimes ends up on the ground. And even though the average person falls down more than our shining leaders, we never get quite so dirty. Politicians don’t sling the mud at us. To be honest, I think they don’t even see us.

The son of man has no place to lay his head