Manipulating Religion for Politics
I have never witnessed an election in which religion was so heartbreakingly wielded as a tool of discrimination. On the national level, 20 months of undying accusations of “secret Muslim,” “political Muslim,” or even just (God forbid) “Muslim,” have dogged Barack Obama, slandered him to the point of erroneously associating him with terrorists, and characterized the second-largest religion in the world as a contagious malignancy. To further similar ends, in September, a fear-mongering, Islamophobic propaganda DVD was sent as a paid advertisement to residences in battleground states in order to affect the election. On the state level, too, religion is being used to promote discrimination: Proposition 8 in California seeks to annihilate gay marriage rights, though they have been confirmed by the California Supreme Court, by amending the California Constitution. The Prop. 8 campaign has effectively played on fear and the ingrained religious notions of marriage that most people retain, no matter what religion—or even lack of religion – they profess. (“Honk if you’re for traditional marriage!” I saw blaring from a sign held by a young man in a black suit.)
We Americans pride ourselves on our cultural diversity and our separation of religion and state. But this election has been an illustration of the difficulty most people have accepting the former and separating the latter. On a brighter note, perhaps the distasteful religious xenophobia in this election will help us more clearly define our obstacles and forge a different path for the future. Colin Powell has already begun; we can, too.
Church and Government: Protect Them From Each Other
It has become fashionable to say that the First Amendment separation between church and state did not then and should not now be equated with the separation of religion and politics. The founders did not aim to keep religion quarantined to the private sphere, but to keep separate the institutions of church and government.
While an aggressive secularism that seeks to monopolize the public square isn’t the answer, we should be even more impatient with the manipulation of religion in presidential politics. Is it really okay in such a diverse country that the two major presidential candidates hold a nationally televised forum on faith that is moderated by an evangelical Christian minister? What does it say about our vaunted religious pluralism when false rumors designed as smear tactics that Osama is a Muslim have such traction? Why is there such outrage against a religious leader who speaks prophetically about the nation’s sins and failures?
The First Amendment wasn’t only intended to keep religion out of government; it was also championed as a way to ensure that religion’s prophetic power is not corrupted by politics.
Four More Days…
Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and premier oral historian of the twentieth century died at 96, on Halloween, four days before the election. A risk-taking, uncompromising, black-listed progressive and an agnostic, Terkel didn’t shy away from talking or writing about religion: On his radio program in 1945 he introduced his largely white audience to the legendary African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; and in 2001, he wrote “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a book about attitudes on religion and death.
Terkel supported Sen. Barack Obama. According to Edward Lifeson, who usually blogs about architecture at Hello Beautiful, Terkel offered this advice to the candidate:
I’d ask Obama, do you plan to follow up on the program of the New Deal of FDR? I’d tell him, ‘don’t fool around on a few issues, such as health care. We’ve got bigger work to do! Read FDR’s second inaugural address!’
The free market has to be regulated. And the New Deal did that and they provided jobs. The government has to. The WPA provided jobs. We have got to get back to that. We need more reg-u-la-tion.
Having watched Alan Greenspan’s recent testimony, Terkel also pointed out that “he’s an idiot, and by the way, so was Ayn Rand!”
Terkel’s death just before the election of America’s first African-American president: God as trickster?
The presidential election is turning into a referendum on toleration. Colin Powell pointed this out in his penetrating comment (October 19th) that “all towns have values” and that a seven-year-old Muslim American should be able to dream of being elected president. The issue is not smear tactics or “swift-boating,” deplorable though these are, it’s Americans’ ability to accept diversity and difference of all kinds, whether of religion, race, ethnicity, values or, for that matter, residence. It is a question of whether we value toleration as an ideal and a practice.
One reason toleration has not fared well in recent years is that we assume it is a secular ideal derived from the Enlightenment. Conventional wisdom, drawing on a formidable scholarship, designates secular Enlightenment thinkers such as Bayle, Locke and Voltaire the champions of toleration. They are thought to have invented toleration as part of a larger program of secular culture (in eighteenth-century parlance, “deism”) that was directly opposed to belief and the authority of religion. The result is that toleration has been enmeshed in the culture wars that pit supposedly secular liberal advocates against putatively believing conservative opponents.
Yet the truth about toleration is otherwise: toleration is as much a religious as a secular value. Created in eighteenth-century Europe, as much by believing thinkers and committed theologians—figures I would call “religious enlighteners”—as by secular enlighteners or philosophes. These figures were fervent and loyal Protestants, Jews, and Catholics.
The challenge Europeans faced after the Reformation and the subsequent century of religious wars was how a religiously plural society could live in peace and harmony given that few countries were left with a religiously homogeneous population. We are familiar with the secular enlighteners’ dual answer to this challenge. In the idea of “natural law” (equality before the law, right to property, freedom of conscience) applicable to every individual, regardless of religion, they erected a common legality. In the idea of “natural religion,” the belief in God, Providence and immortality of the soul, which were thought to guarantee morality and be inherent in all religions, they proffered a common morality. Both of these ideas were ostensibly secular since they appeared to subvert, by rendering irrelevant, established religion.
The answer we have largely forgotten was that of religious enlighteners who tried to imagine how one could erect a tolerant, and reverent, religiously plural society. Their answer was to create religious versions of both these ideas.
For the religious enlighteners “natural law” was not about equality in the courtroom but equality in church or synagogue. They posited that each individual was endowed with the right to freedom or autonomy in his place of worship: one could, and should, be taught, consoled and exhorted by a priest, pastor or rabbi, yet not coerced in any manner. Toleration in church was to be the basis for toleration in society. Respect for the individual believer would foster respect for all believers.
For the religious enlighteners “natural religion” was just a starting point. There could not be a self-sufficient secular morality; history provided no such examples. Instead, true morality required the authority of revelation. Only a developed and articulated system of belief and practice, based on divine sanction, could sustain morality in society among all classes of people. Thus the idea of “natural religion” gave people of different faiths the confidence to live alongside each other. Yet it was the potent reality of “revealed religion” that enabled people to live truly moral lives together.
For religious enlighteners toleration and belief went hand in hand. Rather than being opposed, they were mutually enriching and reinforcing.
As the election draws to a close we need to rescue the ideal of toleration, neither letting it be hijacked by the culture wars nor watching it dissolve in the slime of smear tactics. We need to see toleration as both a religious and a secular value that is required of us all, whatever we believe. Toleration is indispensable to civilized society, especially one as diverse as our own. It is a value that all Americans, secular and religious, urban and rural, suburban and ex-urban, Republican and Democratic, should contemplate, and practice, between now and November 4.
Growing up as a second-generation Pakistani-American Muslim woman in the 70s and 80s, no one in my family accepted my hyphenated identity. “You’re Pakistani. Americans will never accept you as one of their own,” huffed my uncle.
But participating in a (very long) election cycle over the past two years that has seen two women, Latino, Mormon and black candidates seek the highest offices of the land, even he had to admit something in America was now different.
Today, regardless of which side wins, history will be made. Forty-five years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. hoped that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Isn’t that what every religion seeks—a time when the service and character of each individual is recognized and appreciated without bias or hypocrisy?
As flawed as our political system is in so many ways, we took one more step toward that today.
A Washington, DC, police officer inspired me anew for the election. She told me that when she votes she always asks for two “I have voted” stickers as she leaves the polling place. In her house, she was told that there are two things were of utmost importance: education and voting. These must be powerful actions, her elders taught, because some people gave their lives and careers so that others could go to school and vote. So when this woman heads to the poll,s she always take someone else with her. She picks from an all-too-long list of people who have lost their lives: Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., et al. She tucks the name in her pocket and votes for two. She wears her stickers with pride and gratitude. She fulfills a sacred duty.
No Moral Surrender
The core of the Republican criticism of Obama comes down to one basic charge: all that talk about hope and change is naive. But increasingly it seems that the ire being stirred up isn’t simply because Obama believes he can change things; it’s because he wants to try in the first place. From McCain’s attacks on Obama’s willingness to use open diplomacy to the repeated mockery of community organizers at the Republican Convention, the Republican Party has framed itself as the enemy of making the world a better place. It’s an idea with roots in the evangelical idea of original sin, encapsulated most bluntly by Sarah Palin’s favorite Baldwin brother, Stephen: “If you got all six billion people on the planet together and went to work on all that plagues this earth, all of us collectively still couldn’t do enough to fix it because this world and its problems are too big.” Why fight poverty, when there will always be some economic unfairness? Why end one war, if there will simply be another?
This belief that because we can’t solve everything we shouldn’t really try to fix anything is an immense moral surrender, but it’s been the core of evangelical support for the likes of George W. Bush.
I believe that America wants and needs better. I believe that Barack Obama’s spirituality—one that privileges justice over personal gain, peace over binary conflict, building a better world over accepting a broken one—is a better option. And I believe that we will elect Barack Obama today because of that. If that kind of hope is naive, it can hardly be worse than the cynicism that’s led us for the last few years.
Called to Shame
A very religious thing happened when Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama on October 19. We got called to shame:
I’m also troubled by…what members of the [Republican] party say, and is permitted to be said—such things as, ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’
But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’
The answer’s ‘No, that’s not America.’
Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
You see, a lady friend of mine lives in Jordan, not far from where the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi grew up before becoming head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Shame works there. Recently my friend was in a taxicab, and the driver began propositioning her in a most disrespectful way. “Haram,” she said—”shame on you,” with deep overtones in the purity laws of Islam—and the driver suddenly jolted about and apologized profusely. She demanded to be let out of the cab and he refused payment. A simple and obvious thing to do for a man out of line who has been reminded of his religion.
But what about us? Are we going to hear Colin Powell’s call? Today the New York Times reports that Elizabeth Dole has been (spuriously) accusing her opponent of atheism in a spate of attack ads, as if that instantly disqualifies one for the United States Senate. Do we, as they do in the land of our enemies, have any place left in ourselves for shame?
A Beatnik Ode to 2008
Crypto-Muslim Arab terrorist-lover takes on tortured septuagenarian white guy burnishing his questionable maverick cred by tapping an apocalyptic fossil-fuel-besotted Alaskan for the GOP veep spot.
Californians fearing their second-grade sons might be recruited as flower girls for leather-daddy nuptials broadcast their fretting over the airwaves unembarrassed by the illogic behind the idea that boys who like girls will start liking boys if boys who like boys are allowed to file jointly.
And can’t you just hear the shredders a-whirring at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Meanwhile a black-budget surveillance spider with a dozen eyes (and counting) spins its electronic web in low earth orbit while decrepit Hubble loses sight in the single limpid lens that let us peer to the edge of the universe.
Wall Street traders gyrate between exultation and despair as corner-office titans enlist the administration’s Objectivists to refill the trillion-dollar cookie jar they’d raided and stocked with imaginary cookies.
Has anyone counted the dead in Iraq?
Lapel pins, real Americans, water-boarding and what the frak is a credit-default swap anyway?
A wise old Zen master boiled the Dharma down to this: Don’t deceive yourself, don’t make excuses and take responsibility.
Whoever wins the chance to ride this rickety rocket on November 4 had better fasten his seat belt tight. If he doesn’t straighten up and fly right he could end up looking like Slim Pickens at the end of Doctor Strangelove.
Guess who’ll be looking up at the mushroom cloud?
What Are You Doing Right Now?
The social networking site Facebook enables its members (the vast majority of whom are students) to post a “status” describing what they are doing and thinking at any given point. This morning I logged on to my computer, and in the last fifteen hours over 400 of my friends had updated their statuses—and literally all of them addressed the election.
Ninety-five percent of their statements were pro-Obama, and they ranged from prophetic, to excited, to tentatively hopeful, to explicitly religious.
“Ariel is so happy and blessed. God works in mysterious ways. Tomorrow history is going to be made! Go Barack Obama, let’s see change happen.”
“Ben reminds you that Jesus was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.”
“Faith is starting to believe in miracles of the electoral kind.”
Social networking sites are often belittled as disengaged from the so-called “real world”—but I would argue that they are critical political spaces in which young people create discourses that will (and do) sway public policy. As students joke, “It didn’t happen unless it was on Facebook.” If this election has proven anything, it is that political activism is not limited to particular age ranges or media forms.
One of my friends predicted that Obama would win the election, and someone (who had, by the way, changed her middle name to “Hussein” to show support for Obama) responded, “I hope that your religion degree also grants you powers of prophecy, dear Bobby. Let’s hope.”
Indeed, let’s hope.
Dobson, Obama and 2012[In addition to Bill Berkowitz’s feature: “The Religious Right’s Apocalyptic Visions of an Obama Presidency”], numerous commentators have highlighted the recent “open letter” from James Dobson of Focus on the Family regarding an America under Obama. The 16-page letter is sent from the year 2012 and lists the many ways Obama has brought America to its knees after four years of anti-Christian rule. Clearly, this temporal message-in-a-bottle is another example of the right-wing apocalyptic imagination at work, a politicized Rapture. But perhaps Dobson is also trading upon that other apocalypse prophesied to arrive in 2012, which is believed to mark the end of the thirteenth B’ak’tun cycle in the Long Count of the Mayan calendar? Popular appropriations of this meme find noticeably white middle-aged messianic men returning in the guise of the winged serpent Quetzalcoatl or Pahana, the “Lost White Brother” of the Hopi, to restore order to a lost world. When the Conquistadors first arrived in the Americas, a Christian appropriation of indigenous spiritual symbols was not uncommon in the expansion of white power: perhaps Dobson is better read in history than one might imagine.
He’s No Muslim, He’s a Family Man:
Colin Powell said it publicly, but how many stomachs—aside from mine—went into spasms when John McCain took the microphone from ‘that woman’ who stated flatly that Obama was an Arab. “No, Ma’am,” he answered firmly, “Senator Obama is a Christian and fine family man.” But even more stomach churning was the glow of the “liberal media” (e.g. MSNBC) at the return of the gracious ‘old McCain’ they knew and loved. Not only did Senator McCain and the media reaffirm the insult to Muslims as family men and their right to run for President, but coincidentally left out a population of several million Arabs (e.g. Palestinians) who happen to be Christian. Unfortunately, Senator Obama’s total public silence on the subject may bode well for health care, one-party control, and multilateralism, but promises little in the line of religious acceptance. We will have to leave it up to Keith Ellison of Minnesota to lead the way—if he gets reelected.
Vote With Love on Election Day
The US presidential election has awakened people and stirred our passions this year as never before. Today Americans are voting. May all be guided by the spirit of love and wisdom in our choices.
And when the polls close, may the spirit of love and wisdom continue to prevail in our reactions to the outcome—no matter who wins. In elections there are winners and losers, but we all lose if the winners fail to reach out to their fellow citizens who voted in the minority. May we move forward together.
In your many names we pray.