Sunday, December 18, 2005

Together for the Holidays

Christmas and Hanukkah coincide this year, bringing them into special focus.  While sharing common Winter Solstice roots, they are in fact polar opposites in both intrinsic religious content and heft.  Christmas is a major holiday, celebrating the birth of a religion; Hanukkah a minor holiday, remembering but one event in a religion’s past.  That they are so closely and inaccurately linked has long been a matter of consternation to those who are affronted by that blurring of history into what is euphemistically described as “seasonal” celebration (which if you haven’t noticed is the Right’s talking point this month).  For them, saying that Christmas and Hanukkah clash (rather than coincide) this year might be more appropriate.  The idea of clashing is certainly in tune with the era of universal misunderstanding and discord in which we find ourselves.  But, in describing what’s happening this year, I would opt for the word “merge”.  That fits the kind of celebrations that for many (perhaps the majority) have come to constitute a difference with functionally no distinction at all.  To be sure many Churches will be filled to capacity at midnight mass or Christmas morning worship and some Jews will light the candles with special intent, but whatever religious content these holidays may have, it has been largely neutered away in most households.  Were it not for the presence of tree or Menorah (which is not always there), a visitor unfamiliar with the holidays’ content would likely discern little difference as young and old eagerly demolish the once carefully constructed wrappings that separate them for their gifts.

The merger of the holidays this year is a mixed religious metaphor.  On one hand the different celebratory songs being sung on the very same day remind us of a world so sadly and hopelessly divided.  On the other, if we can celebrate together, perhaps others of disparate beliefs can as well.  The rare occasions when Christmas and Hanukkah merge probably offers some relief to the ever growing number of interfaith couples who normally feel so conflicted at this time of year, or who may feel somewhat guilty in celebrating one holiday more lavishly than the other.  Of course, to which ancestral family they should go on December 25th could turn this seeming calendrical blessing on its head.  Well, in the larger scheme of things in this tumultuous year, they‘ll work that minor problem out.  That Christmas and Hanukkah come at the same time won’t foreshorten what has become an endless period of seasonal hype which now sneaks up on us right after Halloween.  Why wait for Thanksgiving and Black Friday, when you can get a few more shopping days into the calendar?

That commerce has taken Christ out of Christmas is a well worn but long outdated cliché.  The secularization of these holidays reflects something much more profound, the ambivalence so very many of us have about our respective faiths, the growing detachment.  Of course, suggesting that the way we celebrate these holidays mirrors the considerably diminished role religion plays in our lives goes against the conventional wisdom that mindlessly repeats the unchallenged truisms of both religious resurgence and of America being the most religious nation in the West.  I guess those who foster that myth haven’t noticed all those empty pews at weekly services, most likely because they themselves are among the absent.  Sure there are many who love the holiday decorations, the sound of carols or songs and, most especially, the gathering of family.  But for more people than might admit it themselves, this celebratory participation masks what in reality is nothing more than a most tangential tie to religion.  Being a lover of choral works, I look forward annually to the many performances of Handel’s Messiah this time of year. But however moved I may be by his music or by a great performance it is only that; as a Jew I have no relationship whatsoever to the masterwork’s content or message.  That’s pretty much how many others including Christians view the holidays themselves.

The most visible religion in our day, the one that plays a central role in domestic and global politics, seems more destructive than constructive.  People at its outer edges, which they proclaim to be its center, have taken hold of the megaphone.  Aside from a few lonely voices like Jimmy Carter in this latest book, they have met virtual silence from those whom we might expect to respond.  Religion, for many Americans, has become the neighborhood bully whether interfering with our health and reproductive choices, questioning the validity of our life partnerships or insinuating its ideology into our children’s education with the misinformation of pseudo-science.  It is a religion enamored of its own “truth” and of fundamental intolerance for other points of view.  That religion in today's world is the Grim Reaper, the executioner of the innocent carried out in the name of God.  Simply put, the face of religion we see on the daily news doesn't seem to be such a good thing.  No wonder that so many Christian and Jews (many of them our best and brightest) have minimized or neutralized it in their daily lives as long evidenced in how they celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah.  The only difference this year is that they will be doing their seasonal thing the same time.  We can blame its religious neutrality on Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Bloomingdales and on the fundamentalists of all stripe who are threatening our way of life (personal and societal) but in the end perhaps most of all on what is, and what is not, going on at the corner Church, Synagogue and to be fair, Mosque.  That's not merely a reality of this year of convergence.  It has been in the works for a very long time.  Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Trust Deficit

An article in The New York Times business section caught my attention earlier this week.  It reported on an investor survey conducted last summer by the Harris organization.  Of those polled, only 27% thought President Bush “very trustworthy”, only 25% the Supreme Court, 4% each the Congress and the media and an astoundingly low 2% the Fortune 500 CEOs.  While reflecting only a slice of the population, these troubling numbers were further confirmed by a poll I found on the Web where FOX asked a more representative audience in November how the Bush adminstration (to whom it is friendly) compared with previous ones on the trust question.  29% said it was more trustworthy, but 39% said less.  Polls can be very misleading.  Results are colored by the specific questions asked (which are often inconsistent across studies) and by timing.  That we are facing a real trust deficit, however, is becoming increasingly self evident.

Much has been made about the sharp divisions within the country and around the world.  From media hyped red state-blue state conflicts to the ongoing bitter and lethal cultural-religious battle for ideological and political supremacy between West and East.  We have become a world of adversarial shouters not mutually respectful conversationalists and it’s taking a big toll.  One of the most troubling findings in the Harris poll is that the Supreme Court is now less trusted than the president.  But that too shouldn’t be surprising.  Politicians and religious leaders on the Right have been consistently bashing the activist (code word) courts for years.  Nowhere was this more evident than during the hyperbolic rhetoric that accompanied the Terri Schiavo saga down in Florida and on the floors of the Senate and especially the House.  The controversial Bush vs. Gore decision shook people on the left who heretofore had been consistent supporters of the Court which, while not always deciding on their side, was always seen as a fair and impartial arbiter.

The trust deficit didn’t happen overnight, but it nonetheless emerged pretty quickly.  Business leaders who were at the bottom of the Harris list, are feeling the pinch in the wake of Enron et al, not to mention the bubble burst in whose aftermath even blue chip high-tech companies are still trading at a fraction of their previous valuation even when they report record earnings.  Who would have dreamed that a U.S. Secretary of State would find herself in daily damage control mode denying that a country built of human dignity and fair justice tortures prisoners?  Who would even have thought before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo that torture could be an option for us?  When the Catholic Church tried to cover up decades of known sexual child abuse by its priests and when the killing of the innocent in the “the name of God” (Muslim but also among other faiths) became routine, even religion on whose “truths” so many rely appears untrustworthy, or at least potentially so.  Perhaps most devastating and far reaching of all is that because these things are going on in the world not so much of the Patriot Act per se, but in its spirit, many of us no longer trust our “next door neighbor”.

The trust deficit is not a partisan problem despite the fact that much of its cause can be laid at the doorstep of the current administration.  When the United States can no longer be counted upon to live up to its previous commitments on issues like global warming (whose far reaching reality and urgency it inexplicably still denies) or when it disses long time allies and the United Nations which it helped create, trust is undermined.  But Democrats, the press, religious leaders and many of us individually are equally to blame either for our participation or in our silence – it’s hard to know which is worse.  The trust deficit is of all our doing and certainly is our collective problem.  We may ultimately be destroyed by a runaway nuclear weapon, or drowned by the rising tides coming from melting polar caps, but morally we could be done in by the trust deficit.  The polls suggest, it is a problem that's here, now and unmistakable.  How we face it may well be our greatest test yet.