Sunday, February 29, 2004

Random Thoughts on Religion and Politics

Mel Gibson loves Jews.  That's what he's telling all the interviewers when asked if he is anti-Semitic.  I'm relieved to hear it because I'd hate to even contemplate how he would treat history if the reverse were really true.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I haven't seen Passion, but it's hard to escape either its tone or content in this media age.  And of course, it is precisely the media age that is making the film such a phenomenon.  Gibson and company have gone all out to promote this business venture.  I'm not suggesting that his work doesn't bespeak a heartfelt religious conviction and point of view, but let's not forget who will be taking the loot to the bank.  Indeed, that's the big difference between earlier Passion plays and even Hollywood Crucifixion flicks, Mel is making bundle.  They didn't.

The contrast between Gibson's bloody cinematic epic reading of Jesus' last days and the peaceful drama taking place in San Francisco is striking.  The young mayor of that city Gavin Newsom, like Gibson, is a Roman Catholic and a heterosexual.  His reading of his faith, undoubtedly rooted in the same Crucifixion, is one of peace, understanding, and love for his fellow human beings.  It would seem to me that we have enough blood in the name of religion these days and that the active promotion of respect for differences is the better course.

Tomorrow is Election Day in New York and the Times invited the two Johns to contribute Op Ed essays about a critical event that shaped their character early on.  Not surprisingly, John Kerry wrote movingly about 1968 and what drove him to transition from soldier to anti-War activist.  Equally touching in its way was John Edwards' account of the trust placed in him as a young lawyer by a badly crippled client in a malpractice case.  Without placing a value on them – we are where time takes us – the difference in these stories is telling.  It is why personally, while liking the Senator from North Carolina very much, I opt for John Kerry.  It all comes down to experience.  No doubt Edwards has that human touch, a deep understanding of the underdog, the individual.  These are qualities that I value almost above everything else.  But Kerry, who may lack the touchy feely, has faced and, more importantly, faced up to the kind of global issue that we know Presidents encounter.  His experience goes to the basic fabric of who we are as a nation.  Howard Dean may have been the prophetic voice to remind us of our contemporary connection with tragic and divisive times past, but John Kerry's experience is what may help us turn the corner.  I think that's why so many people have flocked to him, a reason that goes far beyond electability.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Doctor and the Viet Nam Vet

It's time to talk about Howard and John -- no not John Kerry, John McCain.  The pundits will be dissecting Howard Dean's rapid fall from front runner to marginal participant and then ex-candidate for some time to come.  Dean undoubtedly made some mistakes including being sucked into the negative duel with Dick Gephardt in Iowa.  But in the final analysis, as in any political race, the voters reaching the privacy of the booth simply wouldn't turn down the Dean lever.

And despite my own attraction to Howard Dean, particularly to his forthright critique of this misguided War, it really isn't so surprising.  Dean is both candid and a maverick, two qualities that make for great news bytes but not necessarily electoral success.  He says what he thinks and what he thinks is not always politic or popular.  In that regard, despite the obvious sharp ideological differences, he is very much like John McCain.  Howard and John are provocative, intriguing, more often than not, absolutely on target.  Both are ultimately unacceptable in prime time.  They entertain in the most positive sense of the word, they challenge in the most productive way, but they unnerve American voters because they are as unpredictable as events.  Neither, to use a medical metaphor, has sufficient bedside manner to put people at ease.  Dr. Judy Steinberg Dean may have done better.

Howard Dean proved to be an electoral loser, perhaps even more so than John McCain, but his impact upon the campaign in which he participated has been far more profound.  McCain interested the public, but had little impact upon the candidate of his party.  Dean, on the other hand, changed and focused the conversation in 2004.  His single minded opposition to the War in Iraq pulled along all of the leading candidates, made them rethink their positions giving them the courage to distance themselves from the Bush policy.  Dean did challenge his primary opponents, but his primary and most blistering criticism was always reserved for George Bush and policies that have set America on a dangerously wrong course both in foreign affairs and the economy.  If Democrats are now fully engaged and intent on winning, we can largely thank Howard Dean for building the fervor and attracting minions of young people who have energized the party in a way not seen for generations.

Dean awakened hope — the idea that George Bush could be defeated — and ironically it was precisely that accomplishment that did him in.  Democrats became convinced, as had Republicans four years earlier with John McCain, that translating this hope into reality required a different kind of standard-bearer.  That doesn't suggest even the remotest similarity in style or substance between Bush and Kerry, only that both were perceived as being the most electable.  In 2000 Bush had the support of the GOP establishment and the hard Right (of whom he turned out to be one), Kerry in this day of security hysteria, the compelling military credentials.  Unless he makes a big mistake, it is why he, not John Edwards, is likely to capture the nomination.  He'll make a fine President.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

What's in a Marriage?

When officiating at a wedding ceremony, I do so as an agent of the State.  New York State, for example, has chosen to deputize me into civil service by virtue of my ordination from an accredited Seminary, but they don't view marriage as a religious event.  Orthodox Jews may insist on a Get to recognize a divorce as religiously valid, Catholics may insist on calling it an annulment, but when it comes to child custody or the division of assets, it is state law that prevails.  So whether a rabbi, priest, minister, imam or judge presides and signs the documents, the State sees the marriage as a matter of contractual secular law.  It may inquire about religious affiliation (often an optional question) but only for statistical purposes.  Legally, it could care less whether the individuals have the same or different religious, racial or ethnic backgrounds.

So the current furor about same-sex marriages from the State's point of view is a bit disingenuous to say the least.  It's a topic most politicians, especially those currently running for office, wish would go away.  They are afraid to touch what has become yet another example of the Religious Right seeking to tear down the walls of Separation.  This is not to say that clergy of individual faiths don't have every right to refuse to officiate at such marriages or to preach against them if they find such unions inconsistent with their religious belief.  I may not agree with them, but Separation and freedom of religion embodies that privilege.  By the same token, many clergy also refuse to officiate at mixed marriages which, while recognized by the State, may not comply with their religious laws or convictions.

It always strikes me as odd that those who speak so piously of "family values" seem to be against the building of any family that does not conform to their definition of the word.  That's really sad at a time when the building of families has never been more important and where so many people have problems making commitments of any kind.  The fact is that many states now allow adoptions of children whom they know will be brought up by gay or lesbian couples, even though they pretend that not to be the case.  Perhaps it isn't yet de jure, but nobody can honestly deny its reality.  In that regard alone, rules against same-sex marriage potentially undermine the de facto family which is an essential element in this entire issue.

It seems to me that to stand for religious and civil rights, and to deny the right of two people who love each other to solemnize that union – civilly or religiously – is to be inconsistent.  But it goes much further than that.  For untold years religion and society were in denial of  homosexuality.  We pretended that Joe and Frank, Sally and Helen were very good friends but, despite what we knew was the truth of their relationship; we never afforded them the respect or the "permission" to live openly and honestly.  How many lives did this charade cost in the epidemic of AIDS?  How many lives would have been spared had we created a nurturing or accepting society that naturally promoted monogamy regardless of orientation.  Keeping relationships going takes a lot of work by the individuals involved but also the support of the world in which they live.

We're very good at killing.  We're specialists in conflict.  We're habitual degraders of our planet.  Perhaps, we ought to rethink our strategy.  Talk about being inclusive is cheap, action takes some humanity.  The willingness of same-sex couples to leave their closets behind and demand the rights given other partners, including marriage, may be a great gift to all of us, a unique opportunity.  Rather than rejecting their generosity of spirit, perhaps we should see it as an urgently needed lifeboat for ourselves and our decency.  I think we have it in us, will be better for it.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Obliterating the Separation

When John F. Kennedy stood for the Presidency the big issue that dominated the primary was whether he, a Roman Catholic, would be controlled by the Vatican.  The truth was that while JFK had a very devout mother (whose faith sustained her in multiple tragedies to come); his public work never embodied any kind of religious agenda.  He was a strict Separationist.  Much attention has been given to George W. Bush's appearance on Meet the Press this past Sunday.  It was disconcerting to watch the notoriously tough Tim Russert playing lap dog and annoyingly letting the President get away with repeatedly connecting those illusive dots between Iraq and 9/11, dots as real as the WMD's.  No wonder so many Americans make that erroneous leap.  I for one was far more interested in the 60 Minutes segment that aired that evening on Evangelicals and their influence on the leadership of both the current executive and legislative branches of government. 

How things have changed.  If JFK had said, as did Bush during a 2000 campaign debate, that Christ was his most influential political philosopher it would have destroyed his candidacy on the spot.  Gary Bower, one of the Golden boys of the religious right, intimated that the GOP equated with piety in pointing out that 80% of active church goers vote Republican.  I don't mean to disparage others he added.  Right.  JFK had no religious agenda, but George Bush does and makes no bones about it.  It's not that he is moved by his religion, but that he thinks his religion should move us.

Bush's crossing the Separation barrier ran through his recent State of the Union, but nowhere is it more evident than in his systematic undermining of potentially life saving stem cell research.  And it was only four days after 60 Minutes aired that we received the news of the breakthrough achieved by South Korean scientists, unencumbered by restrictive rules promulgated by the President.  Perhaps there are ethical issues surrounding cloning, particularly its potential use in reproduction, but in a country that is supposedly agnostic with regard to particular religious points of view, it's a debate that belongs somewhere else.  On the most fundamental level, if someone is opposed to stem cell research on religious grounds, no one is forcing them to use the therapeutics that may emanate from it.  No one forces a woman to have an abortion.  If you don't approve what's being shown on TV, you can always change the channel or turn it off altogether. 

Standing in the way of this important new area of discovery is impinging on my rights as a citizen and my freedom of religion or, for some people, freedom from religion.  I'm not saying George Bush shouldn't feel personally opposed to this research, shouldn't abstain from its benefits, only that he shouldn't make a private belief, no matter how heartfelt, into public policy.  And there is one more thing.  Many of us feel that the foreign policy of this government has weakened our position in the world community with broad implications for our future.  The fact that Koreans made this breakthrough speaks to the potential erosion in our scientific power as well.  Make no mistake about it, a decline in scientific leadership can ultimately impact not only on our national health but our national security as well.  Wasn't security "Job 1" for Bush and company?  I guess not.

Monday, February 2, 2004

The Song Goes On.  Bravo!

A break from the timely to the timeless.  I spent last Sunday afternoon at the 10th Annual Marilyn Horne Foundation Concert at Carnegie Hall.  I've missed only one of these.  I love music and no instrument more than the human voice.  To paraphrase George Orwell, "all voices are unique, but some voices (very, very few) are more unique than others."  Marilyn Horne has one of those voices, the kind that stop you dead.  Regardless of the clutter around it – often very beautiful clutter – it consistently stands out as unmistakably her own.  It is widely accepted that she is one of the great singers of all time, some believe the greatest of her generation.  While she sang only briefly, and then in a duo with Barbara Cook, those tones, ever rich and powerful, broke through and I enjoyed even the glimpse of them.

But Jackie, as she is known to her friends, is so much more than the vessel of an astounding musical instrument.  When she turned 60 a decade ago and looked ahead toward a less active performing career, she decided it was give-back time.  Thus the Foundation devoted to preserving and encouraging vocal music, nurturing upcoming artists and bringing the recital to places around the country where it was heretofore unavailable.  And still at its active center ten years later is Jackie, with her generous spirit teaching and promoting these young talents with the kind of dedication and warmth all those who know her understand are the essence of her natural force.

It's a honor to among her friends, but what strikes me every time I attend one of these concerts and dinners to follow is how many of us there are.  I've known her now for about 30 years, but many of her friendships reach much further back to every part of her life.  There are friends from Pennsylvania, from California, from New Jersey; all can depend on her loyalty and caring.  Perhaps symptomatic of this capacity for friendship was the enduring relationship she maintained with her former husband the gifted conductor Henry Lewis, a man with both razor sharp mind and integrity.  And it wasn't simply because they shared and loved a wonderful daughter Angela, now a mother herself.  In the initial years of these concerts Henry was always there, but that ended with his untimely death midstream.  He is sorely missed by all of us who knew and loved him, no more than by the enduring Jackie herself, which says it all. 

So the song goes on, and it continues to be a very good song.  God knows, we need a good song in these often dark days.  Brava, Jackie.