Uncategorized Archive

Maybe Obama's Serving a Different, and Bigger, Faith

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

President Obama has rattled some liberal critics by affirming his version of a link between state and religion.  He opens his public rallies with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by his people, and set up an “Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” as a 25-voice council.  These words from one of his campaign speeches are quoted:

“I still believe it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular….”

He talked about his personal understanding of religion in a democracy in his 2006 “Call to Renewal” address:

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.  Democracy requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. … At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise.  It's the art of the impossible.  If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences.  To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy-making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing."

This president is both too bright and too savvy to underestimate.  Under Bush, the partnership was mostly with the lowest and most repressive levels of Christian evangelicalism.  But Obama’s interest is in the kind of high ideals that can serve the best interests of our heterogeneous society, whether they come from secular or religious sources, from “faith-based” or “neighborhood partnerships.”  He’s reclaiming our highest ideals from religion, not for it – and it’s high time.

Religions serve within the boundaries of their guiding theology, and expecting them to see beyond it is like asking drug companies to be the gatekeepers for holistic health care, or asking weapons manufacturers to supervise peace conferences.  And theologies are by definition too small to serve an America where only about 17% attend any church regularly, and “nonbelievers” are the fastest-growing “faith” group.  At about 15% of Americans, they’re the third largest, behind Catholics and Evangelicals.

It looks like we are watching the slow death of all Western religions.  No religion in America has kept up with population growth for over a hundred years, and in the last few years church attendance has declined in all fifty states.  Religions are failing in the marketplace because their values are too narrow to serve a world that has outgrown their vision by miles and miles.

Critics and modern-day prophets like the angry quintet of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher say that, since religions can’t see beyond the blinders of their little theologies, they can all go to hell.  Apologists for those religions, often disciples of the goddess Pollyanna, think religions can be agents of heaven.

The wiser middle road is to say we can leave heaven and hell to those people who like to talk that way, but in the meantime we live on earth, where our governments have the responsibility for serving our complex societies more wisely and well than any religion can.  The governments have to serve a calling bigger than theology.  Why not tap all resources that can respond to these callings from our basic humanity, whether they come from inside or outside of the churches?  That’s what I hope and believe President Obama is thinking.

I suspect Obama’s instincts or advisors are telling him that it is the government’s job to serve the most inclusive and humane ideals we can articulate, and everyone is to be invited into these efforts, though no religion may be allowed to set the agenda.

The quiet and overdue revolution here is the realization that in a pluralistic society, no religion may ever be allowed to speak either for God or for goodness.  Religions are in a desperate condition, trying to stop the loss of members and defend their too-small worldviews long after it was possible to do so without becoming spiritually schizophrenic.  This quiet revolution is simply acknowledging that in a complex society, religious beliefs are a matter of personal taste, much as musical or literary tastes are.  Religions are free to compete within their marketplace for whatever people they can attract, or keep from leaving.

In the meantime, there’s a country to run, and no reason to exclude the limited but sometimes useful social services some churches will be willing to give to a cause transcending even their theology, even their limited notions of what a word like “God” would have to mean in today’s world.  If I’m reading Obama’s intentions correctly, it’s smart politics and good government.

Davidson Loehr has been a liberal minister since 1986, a scholar, theologian, a Fellow in the Jesus Seminar and author of the book America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2005)

All the Pretty Stolen Horses

Monday, March 16th, 2009

The kind of scam represented by AIG and so many others was its own kind of Ponzi scheme, with an insulting little flip added.

There were all these valuable horses kept in elite stables, out of reach of the smudgy masses who – well, what do the masses know about good horses, anyway?  It’s not in their world.  The guards who watch the barn doors were fired or bribed because – well gosh, if you can’t trust horse-thieves, who can you trust?

Besides, it’s not like a lot of those horses could go very far.  The ranches were held among friends and fellow rustlers.

Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch had argued in the past that derivatives were valuable risk-management tools that skilled investors could use wisely without any intervention from federal regulators. Initiatives to regulate financial derivatives were held at bay during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. If we would sleep through that, why awaken now?

Goldman Sachs had said that its exposure to A.I.G.’s financial trouble was “immaterial.” CNBC has rebounded from its rebuke by America’s most trusted newsman so they hardly even remember Jon Stewart’s flailing of Jim Cramer, and are back in their job as carnival barkers, drawing in the marks.

This is a class thing.  Some horse thieves had nearly perfected the deal since about 1980 when the class war was begun in blood.  High-level investments simply aren’t part of the rabble’s world or understanding.  This is at bottom a transfer of wealth from the many to the few, protected by the guards, congressmen, judges and other elected officials of the few – the few who are there to protect the interests of the opulent from the persistent hunger of the multitudes.

When the horses inevitably got out, only the privileged set – and only the right members of them – could understand why obscene bonuses still had to be paid to those who let out the horses.  It’s just the way things worked — plus the necessary slap in the face for workers and others who scurry about, reminding them of where their place is, and isn’t – they mustn’t forget that.

So of course the incompetent and complicit horse traders must be paid enormous bonuses by the masses – not for having done a good job, but because these are the rewards of being in, and faithfully serving, the right job and the right caste.  The ignorant thundering herd will get over it; they always do.

And soon some of the owners of our grand media of distraction will be able to leverage another sensationalist diversion back onto the front pages, for the masses love them so.  Good grief, we have missed a chapter in the continuing sagas of Brad and Angelina, Chris and Rihanna, Apple’s next wave of iPhone hype, or how Hong Kong stocks have risen for five whole days now – so settle down, foolish workers, there isn’t really a problem after all.  Go back to sleep.  Everything will be fine.  Close your door so you aren’t awakened by the Brinks trucks all driving by in the same direction.  Daddy’s fellows are back in charge of the barns; you’re safe.  Just close your eyes.  It’ll all be fine.

Stewart vs. Cramer's Sponsors

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

The Jon Stewart-Jim Cramer battle was a heavyweight fight with what seemed like a clear winner.  In religious terms – which nobody used – it was about what we’re serving, whether gods or idols.  That’s really too simple, though.  It seems like a cloudier picture.

Gods, as theologians define them, are those values and ideals that can give us a more noble and authentic life when we serve them faithfully – a life of which we can be proud in front of any audience.  Idols, by contrast, are the far more seductive values pushed on us by our social group, our religious club, our economic and racial castes.  They promise a privileged, entitled kind of life, but in the end we may find they got their power by sucking it out of us, with nothing of substance to offer in return.  That’s a theological teaching many centuries old.

In this scenario, the “salvation” plot is clear.  Expose the idols, exalt the gods, convert the unsure, and lead them to Life More Decent and Pure.

If you ask the masses, as public opinion is doing, it’s clear who served what in this recent fight.  Stewart won, so he was sponsored by God.  Cramer, who was billed as God, embarrassed himself as soon as he appeared before a broad audience no longer limited to True Believers (“In Cramer We Trust”?  Even Aesop knew that pride goes before a fall.)  He was obviously the plaything of idols.  Cramer played stocks as a game for the idle rich, on his CNBC network with fewer than 300,00 viewers, none getting food stamps.  They must keep their smug discussions confined to The Faithful because their arguments are repugnant when made in front of an audience of workers rather than investors.  So the venue itself – just putting Cramer in front of Jon Stewart’s audience, then millions more through internet and YouTube amplification – doomed Cramer.  The fact that he was both unprepared and wrong didn’t help either.

But history is on the side of Cramer’s group.  The rich have almost always ruled and made the rules.  Even this country’s founders were divided on this, with the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declaring that “The people who own the country ought to govern it,” and James Madison saying the primary responsibility of government is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” because those “without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights.”  And serving the rights and privileges of property is the route to the only salvation worth scurrying after.  They would have been watching CNBC, not Comedy Central.  So this recurring claim that the government should serve a majority of the people is, seen against a background of real history, way out of touch with reality.  There is a God here too, and it is clearly the God of history.

What the masses have on their side, besides never-ending battles in a game against a stacked deck, are all the noblest and dearest teachings of every religion and almost every philosophy on earth.  When the greedy conspire to increase the power of their greed, as they must, they couldn’t and wouldn’t try to defend it as loving, compassionate, as doing unto others as they would have others do unto them, as being in harmony with the Tao, or as nurturing the Buddha-seeds or God-seeds within them.  It’s about them, their greed, their cunning, their power, and the resulting shape of the world, pure and simple: believing that the people who own the world ought to govern it.  The masses don’t really count, as even the stock market shows.  In 1960, when we actually had an empowered middle class, the Dow was well under 1,000.  When worker unions win, workers get higher wages and benefits, get health care and decent pensions, and stock prices go down because it cuts into the short-term profits of the cleverer.  Perhaps the only religious theme available to Jim Cramer’s CNBC audience is the claim to the unalloyed selfishness every religion has identified as the most fundamental and damaging of all human sins.

Maybe this isn’t so cloudy after all.

Saved by Our DNA

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

We need to start listening to better animal stories. The other day there was an article about a chimpanzee in a Swedish zoo who hoards stones and pebbles to throw at visitors, referred to as "ammunition” caches. And since we share over 98% of our DNA with chimps (I know people who share even more), these are really thinly masked stories about how violent and dangerous we are. This missile-hoarding chimp story came at the same time “Barbie” turned 50, Martha Stewart’s dog died, and the story of the Octuplets mom was still being used to generate comedy skits by Jimmy Kimmel.

These stories are meant to draw crowds for media who aren’t getting many.    Stories of innate violent streaks in other animals are used to reinforce dire pictures of our most dangerous tendencies.  They’re tendencies, we’ve been taught, that can only be countered by … well, what?  Certainly not religion.  Nobody who reads the news would buy that any more.  We’re past the time when religion can claim any great moral leadership (think priest scandals, evangelists caught in motels, hate campaigns against gays, or megachurch pastors urging us to nuke Iran).

This could make our situation pretty dire, if we had to count on religion to save us.  Hype aside, church attendance is down to 17% in America now, and much lower in European countries.  The Catholic Church’s future is in third world countries, which turns that church back to its more literalistic, magical and authoritarian days and ways. But in the West, the churches can’t save themselves, and following the religion beat in the media makes it look like ninety percent of them are giving the other ten percent a bad name.

So we obviously need better animal stories to read about.  Luckily, there are some better stories, not as often reported, that show that we may already have everything in us that we need to live decent and compassionate lives.

You may remember the 1996 story of the gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago who rescued a toddler who fell into the gorilla enclosure and handed him over to safety.  And we’ve all heard stories about dolphins saving humans from drowning, or the many YouTube clips showing the easy compassion that exists between animals, even between species.

Here’s another one, from our other closest relative: bonobos.  Bonobos are a lot like chimps, only nicer.  It happened at the Twycross Zoo in England, in the bonobo enclosure.   Since apes can’t swim, zoos used to surround their islands with moats, giving them a bit more pseudo-nature for their captivity.  On this day a starling flew into a plate glass window facing the enclosure, and fell to the ground, unconscious.  An adult female bonobo they’d named Kuni went over to the bird and picked it up.  While bonobos don’t eat as much meat as chimps do, they’ll still eat some, and the zookeeper thought this could be a messy scene in front of visitors and all.  She tried to get Kuni to hand the bird over, but no dice.

Instead, Kuni went to the tallest tree on the island and, holding the starling in one hand, used her other three to climb to the very top of the tree.  This looked like the setting for a dramatic and awful finale.  But once at the top, Kuni gently took the bird by both wingtips, stretched the wings out to a flying posture, and tossed the bird into the air.

Nobody would argue the ape had been taught to do this.  She simply seems to have responded to another living thing in distress, and creatively tried to restore it to what looked like its most natural position – wings spread, flying.  This is even beyond the Golden Rule, extending compassion not only to those who have different customs, but also to those in different species – the churches should take notes.

Kuni seems to have done it because that kind of caring is at least as innate as aggression – in apes, dogs, dolphins, and a thousand other species, including our own.  She didn’t learn it in church, and we really don’t either.
It looks like altruism, compassion, and active caring for other living things is innate in us, part of what we are when we are living up to our full natural potential as naked apes.  So while part of our animal nature stockpiles weapons, an equally ancient part naturally feels empathy, compassion and instinctively acts on it as a blessing to the world around us.  We don’t have a fate; we have a choice.

The Flying Saucers Aren't Coming

Monday, March 9th, 2009

What a show — the Republican Party and its operatives, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, staging righteous rants against All Things Obama. Limbaugh praying our President fails, and one of Glen Beck's guests actually referring to the present administration as "a tyranny of incompetence"? And all this after the failures of a president destined to go down as one of the worst in US history. You’d think they’d all be lining up at the Confessional booth, or at least begging the public to whip them. Yet they seem more arrogant and unrepentant — as though the social, economic and military innovations of the past eight years were points of pride rather than shame.

This may just seem like early dementia or the aftermath of a bad drug trip. But actually, this is a famous phenomenon, first identified over fifty years ago in a similar situation.

A charismatic woman they called Marian Keech had a devoted cult following who believed her when she said the world would be ending at midnight December 20, 1956. The faithful, thank goodness, would be ok — a flying saucer would be picking them up and saucering them away to safety as the world crumbled.

Social scientist Leon Festinger was studying the group, and accurately predicted what would happen to the group when the world didn’t end. Those who had never really bought her theory in the first place would just quietly get as far away from her as they could. But the true believers, those who had invested heart and soul in her teachings, would become even more devoted after the real world proved to be way out of touch with her.

The world just kept on keeping on at midnight, as her faithful followers began to get nervous. By 2 a.m., the actual fact-based world had sloughed the little cult off. But at 4:45, Ms. Keech had another revelation, as creative as the first. The world had been saved, she announced, by their faith! “And mighty is the word of God!” she trumpeted, as they swooned the swoon of true believers trying for their second wind. The fact that the world remained reality based was the world’s problem – they’d been right all along! Certainty, as Festinger had predicted, is just an attitude with no necessary connection to facts at all. And being dead wrong can make you even more dead certain, if you had bet the farm (and your public image and perhaps livelihood) on the fantasies.

This makes it easier to understand how Limbaugh can actually pray that our President fails, those determined Fox hounds can line up the true believers to yearn for the good old days of social, economic and military disasters. It helps understand how and why Republicans in Congress would stand as a lump against All Things Obama. The real world hasn’t ended (though theirs has), there’s no sign of spaceships, and they are trying for that second wind that lets them trump facts with certainties.

We don’t much care what people believe as long as they don’t affect anybody else. You can find about anything you want out there. But the past eight – or twenty-eight – years weren’t harmless. The innocent victims outnumbered the smug victors by twenty to one. A bad and unreal story was imposed by force, as even the most minimal protections of our citizens went up for sale. Health care to protect citizens, unions to protect workers, enough protection to keep needed jobs at home were sold out because a few had seen how to turn rights for the many into profits for the few. This was so much worse than a sad little religious cult. Still, it’s worth remembering some pesky facts.

No flying saucer is coming to rescue Republicans still clinging to the miserable failures of the past eight years. Those who defended Bush’s economic, social and military policies have lost all rights to question almost all things economic, social or military. Maybe it’s time to consider politics grounded in a reality that serves at least 95% of the people 95% of the time, and time to move away from both Republican and Democratic cults.

The Hope That Might Save Us

Friday, March 6th, 2009

So much hopeful rhetoric is flying around. Since Obama’s campaign, "the audacity of hope" has inflamed millions of Americans – not since the days of JKF, many say. To have a leader this bright, this charismatic, and with such an apparently strong moral center to boot. No wonder people are hopeful that maybe this one can lead us to where we need to be.

That’s all powerful stuff. But it isn’t the hope that can save us. The hope that can save us – the one for which we should truly be praying – is the hope that we citizens can get our own moral voices back. We’ve been spoken for by people for whom greed, violence and brutality were the paramount American traits, while we mostly just stood silently by.

We the American People invaded a sovereign nation six years ago – in violation of international law – to steal their oil, establish a military presence, and drive a wedge into the Arab and Muslim world, trying to pass it off as a bizarre sort of defensive move, or in search of the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, or just to remove their leader. We have lost over 4,000 American soldiers, with estimates of our wounded running as high as 100,000. And we have killed over a million fellow humans who had the misfortune to live in Iraq when our violent greed erupted. It happened because we would or could not find our individual voices, and let ourselves be defined by values that brought us worldwide shame.

Years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said that we begin to die on the day we remain silent about things that matter. And as Americans over the past six years we indeed began to die in the judgment of good people all over the world – people who used to admire us.

One of the painful lessons of history seems to be that bad leaders drag a whole nation down to their moral level. There is a lot of hopeful and exciting talk right now about regaining a quality of pride and confidence we have not had since the 1960s. It is one of those rare pivotal moments in a nation’s history when we are given the chance to be raised rather than lowered in the eyes of good people everywhere.

To some extent we can still just sit back like children and let our new leaders speak for us. So far, they seem to represent far more decent values than we've seen in awhile. But the rebirth is likely to be shallow and fleeting unless we can get back in touch with those deep parts of us that say greed is unworthy of us, military invasions driven by greed and covered in lies demean and disgrace us, and torturing other human beings is simply unconscionable.

We can learn something from the "Good Germans" of seventy years ago – all those good German citizens who knew what was going on but played deaf, blind and mute rather than confront those with authority. Bernard Schlink, author of the best-selling book and award-winning movie "The Reader," shared these thoughts during an interview with Charlie Rose in December:

"How thin the ice is on which we live, and how easily it can be broken… How fragile society is, which we build so these atrocities can’t happen." "The individual moral sense was too weak to let us resist."

During the past six or eight years, the individual moral sense of Americans was too weak to let us resist leaders who have embarrassed and disgraced our nation in front of the whole world. As individuals, we run the gamut from saints to sociopaths. But as a country, we are no better than those we have allowed to speak for us. The hope we most deeply need can come only from choosing a moral center, then finding the individual and collective courage to act on those high ideals and nothing less. The world is watching to see if we’re up to it. But the ball is not only in play by our elected leaders; the ball is in our court.