Thursday, November 29, 2007

God and Politics

If you want to feel good about being a Democrat, just watch the kind of debate held in Florida last night among the GOP’s presidential hopefuls.  To be sure, the candidates were not in control of the questions, which CNN selected from citizen U-Tube submitted clips.  That said, it’s fair to assume that those asked reflected the perceived core interests of the candidates and their Republican primary voters.  No healthcare, economy, environment and scant little about education came to the fore as the eight white men scrambled instead to claim who best could protect us from illegal immigrants, abortion and taxes, not to mention insure our well stocked gun closets.  As to Iraq, John McCain and Fred Thompson (more tepidly) proclaimed we’re “winning”.  McCain let us know (repeatedly) that he shared Thanksgiving with the troops  and the former Law & Order DA that he was tired of our defeatism.  Rudy and Mitt led the charge on immigration accusing each of harboring illegals and defending their own toughness.   The focus on immigration shows how important this issue has become, along with it an unmistakable xenophobic undertone.  Romney’s defense -- it was his contractors who brought illegals to the Governor’s Mansion – included reference to someone with a “funny accent”, assumably Hispanic.  I wonder how it made members of that fast growing community feel to have the way they talk characterized as “funny”?

God was a big presence at the Republican debate.  Again, CNN chose the questions but at times one would think that those on stage were competing for leadership of a church rather than a secular democracy.  Indeed, being not merely God-fearing but Christian seemed to be a core qualification for the presidency.  Do you believe in the Bible (a leather bound copy of which was put forward by the questioner)?  Then followed a series of answers that included professed belief in divine revelation, “God’s word” as Romney put it.  Mike Huckabee was fast to remind us of his special qualifications being an ordained minister and student of theology, an obvious edge for any aspiring President.  What would Jesus’ position be on the death penalty also came into play giving the former Arkansas Governor one of his now trademark laugh lines.  Among the many subtexts of the evening was the question, not asked but implied, as to whether a Mormon has the proper bone fides to steer the Christian ship of State.

Mitt Romney is considering addressing the issue of his faith much as did Jack Kennedy during his primary battle against Hubert Humphrey in 1960.  Then as now there is the question of whether their respective authoritarian churches would allow for independent governance.  Ironically both served Massachusetts (where separation is fiercely respected), each with a track record of unfettered public service.   As such, the whole religion issue is somewhat of a red herring, and a very disturbing one at that.  In the case of Romney it is particularly so because the questions raised seem to revolve around whether he is a “real” Christian.  Taken at its face value, what does that, and last night’s debate, say about potential Jewish, Moslem, Hindu or, dare I suggest, atheist candidates for public office?

The religious issue raised in JFK’s campaign was put to rest and he did become the first Roman Catholic President.  The Pope did not rule the land as had been suggested.  This year, half of the Democratic candidates are Catholics, which, in light of 1960, is good news.  Of course, none is a front-runner and Kennedy remains the only Catholic to have held the office, which may say something as well.  As to Mormons, Republicans seem to be concerned about their relationship with Christ and the New Testament neither of which should have anything to do with leadership of our democracy.  If there is any concern, it should rather be directed at the theocratic tendencies of LDS Church seen in the role it plays in Utah where the line between church and state is sometimes wafer thin.  That said, being a Mormon doesn’t seem to stand in the way of Republican Orin Hatch or Democrat Harry Reid in carrying out their duties in the US Senate.

The large shadow cast by religion on our presidential campaign, and it extends to both parties, is the legacy of the past decades of social conservative dominance.  Among the most important byproducts of the US Attorney scandal was the revelation that 150 graduates of Liberty University’s fledgling law school “committed to academic and professional excellence in the context of the Christian intellectual tradition” now serve the Bush Administration.  What we’ve seen over the last years is not so much America’s turn toward God, but a systematic effort on the part of the theocratically minded to effectually gain appointive or elective power at all levels of government.  It is an effort so chillingly detailed in Michelle Goldberg’s book, Kingdom Coming.  This past October, both Frank Rich (in his column) and David Kirkpatrick (in The Times Magazine) wrote about the waning power of, and changes in priorities for, the Evangelical movement.  Perhaps so, but the damage is done and what they have wrought won’t soon disappear.  They have left an indelible impression on our public square, one that is largely religiously exclusive.  If you want high office in America today you’d better get God on your side and don’t even consider expressing the slightest doubt that there is a God, because your candidacy will be dead on announcement.

It is this atmosphere that accounts for the display of unseemly pandering done by Republican candidates at the recent “values” conference.  It also mandated that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama inject professions of faith into their campaigns.  It is the very same phenomenon that produced the sickening embrace of Rudy and Pat Robertson.  Mr. 9/11 Mayor now linked with the good reverend who agreed (with Jerry Falwell) that the towers had fallen as retribution of ungodly acts of abortionists, gays and the ACLU.  Pardon me, but even in writing about it, I feel compelled to go out and wash my hands.  Yes religion is front and center even seen in Rudy’s complaint, “You had a Democratic debate and not a single one of those Democratic candidates used the word Islamic terrorism.”  While the brunt of his message decried painting Islam with one brush, the continued insistence by Republicans of using terms like Islamo-Fascism is yet another symptom of this holy war, us vs. them, syndrome employing guns over there and ballots over here.

If you had any doubt about the urgent need to reassert the separation of church and state, then watch the unfolding Republican campaign and debates.  I neither question their heartfelt faith or that religion enriches their personal lives.  But don’t bring it to the office, and don’t impose it on my home.  They may claim that faith is essential to public service and to us as a nation, that it provides a moral compass.  The record doesn’t necessarily support their assertion.  The deeply religious Mitt Romney couldn’t bring himself to disavow waterboarding last night any more than could the Orthodox Jew Michael Dukasey at his confirmation hearings.  Perhaps God wants global peace and a good meal on all of our tables, but getting either will depend on us.  There is a lot to do in a world that, among others, men professing a religion they want to foist on us have mucked up.  Taking that or any religion out of the mix is an essential first step if we are to right the ship of state.  I wish one cold be optimistic that we’re on that course, but at least I haven’t lost my capacity to dream.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Rebellious Roots

Alex Haley had it right – where we come from informs who we are.  Nowhere is that root influence more evident or direct than from our parents.  I was most fortunate in that regard.  Ours was a home of nurturing, love, intellectual stimulation and, above all else, mutual respect.  We also always understood that we were different, in large measure because the father who was such a constant and immediate presence in our lives had a public persona.  At home and outside, he was a larger than life presence always dominating the room whether the nook where we breakfasted or the two thousand seat synagogue in which he preached.  No one had a greater influence in my life.  Sometime in the 1970s he began to commit his life’s story to paper. “This story”, he wrote in his introduction, “ is neither terribly exciting nor terribly boring. It will contain a great many matters which deal with my very personal and intimate life, but also with the fact that I have lived through periods of great historic importance, and at times I was permitted to play some role in them.”  He began writing his memoir late in life, a process cut short by the diminished strength of his last years.  Consequently, it only carried his story to the mid-point.  After my mother’s death, I converted the manuscript into electronic form but with scant hope that it would reach its deserved audience.   Memoirs like this are often consigned to that dustbin known as the family attic.  That could have happened here were it not for the efforts of our friend Clifford Kulwin who now occupies his former pulpit.  The result of his forwarding it to the eminent scholar Michael A. Meyer is the just published Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi, deftly edited and greatly enhanced by the historian’s insightful introduction.

Having someone tinker with your father’s words can be tricky, but from the start we were confident that Professor Meyer was absolutely the right person to undertake this project.  Like my siblings and I, he is the son of Jewish parents who escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany.  We gave him a free hand and he more than lived up to that trust.  Michael Meyer read my father’s story and, from the start, he got it.  Nothing is more symbolic of that than his choice of the title he shared with me before passing it on to the publisher.  “Rebellious”, that says it all and, in so many profound ways, it is the legacy that I cherish most.   Joachim Prinz, from his early rejection of his father’s prosaic disengaged lifestyle through the last days of his life was an unabashed rebel.  In different ways at different times he found himself entering doors of comfortable opportunity but chose always to go against the grain, to provoke rather than to sooth.  He repeatedly paid the price for being the infant terrible.  He held a series of prestigious positions – rabbi of the stodgy Berlin Jewish Community and of a large American Congregation, President of the American Jewish Congress and leader of other organizations – but he never was totally comfortable in those establishment roles.  In fact, being such an anti-organization man with no sense or stomach for the necessary political machinations, it’s remarkable that he got so far.  That he did, can be attributed only to his enormous talent and charismatic force. 

He could do just what most others could not, or at the very least do it better.  With no text before him, he could frame words, first in German and then in English, which would capture and transcend the moment.  His oratorical style moved the listener and countless numbers were drawn in just to hear the cadence of his powerful voice.  He was not in the pantheon of great scholars, but could communicate great ideas in language that even the untutored could easily understand while never courting what he often described as the “lowest common denominator”.  He respected those to whom he was most close, but equally his audience whose intelligence he consistently refused to insult.  He was, like one of his many compatriots in the struggle Martin Luther King, Jr., a man of peace.  He never picked up arms and was a proponent of “Peace Now” in Israel/Palestine long before it became fashionable.  But, like King, he was an obsessed protester who fiercely raised his voice, often risking life and limb to say what he thought was right, regardless of the circumstances.  He was by nature always suspicious of authority and never intimidated by wealth, power or position.

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi’s pages reflect a memoir freely verbalized rather than prose carefully crafted, which is what it is.  While no doubt putting his editing pen through the draft, for the most part he dictated it to his longtime secretary Elsie Nathan.  It is nonetheless a compelling record of a moment now gone, of a history that should not be forgotten.  The times to which he referred in his introduction began in the relative calm of Germany at the turn of his Century but emerged into the nightmare of National Socialism.  It was the moment when a Jewish community (including our family) that could trace its roots back centuries found itself an outsider in its own land.  It was the period of the Second World War, when a generation of European immigrants had to find their way and carve out a productive place in a new country with a new language.  That required a rebooting and overcoming of great obstacles.  It was the time when, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world somewhat reluctantly, granted the survivors a new chance in their own homeland.  In all of this, he was at the center as he would be in the years that followed, most proudly when he stood with King and addressed the nation at the 1963 March on Washington or painfully when he opposed our intervention in Viet Nam.

What would this rebel think of our world?  He would, I’m convinced, be largely appalled.  The idea that his beloved United States could be in its present tarnished state would have devastated him.  Who would have thought that the home of the brave and the free, the bright beacon on the hill, could be debating torture, much less engaging in it?  Perhaps he wouldn’t be surprised at the sharp right turn taken by the American Jewish establishment including the then progressive organizations he once led, but he wouldn’t like it one bit.  Surely he would have expected peace among Arabs and Jews in a shared land, flowing with milk and honey not littered with the casualties of war and hate.  He would not be happy, but neither would he allow himself even a brief moment of self pity and defeat.  He would be on the stump, the in your face rebel reflected in the pages of his memoir.  I hope you’ll read it because his kind doesn’t come around too often, certainly not where we find ourselves today. 

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi may be found at your bookseller or on line at Amazon and other places.  For additional information of his life and other writings check his website.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Agent of Change

Cyril de Grasse Tyson is eighty.  If so fortunate, most of us have encountered truly extraordinary human beings in our travels through life.  It doesn’t happen often and, if the encounter has any substance, the experience never leaves us.  It becomes part of who and why we are.  Cyril Tyson, whose friends simply know him as Ty, is a force of nature who came into my life in the 1960s as we both – he as its first executive director and I as one of its principal officers – gave our heart and soul to Newark’s United Community Corporation.  He was young and fresh from a stint at the groundbreaking Haryou-Act bringing his considerable experience and talents to a city in deep distress and a fledgling (the first funded under the 1994 Equal Opportunity Act) anti-poverty program that desperately needed a powerful jump start.  We bonded instantaneously and I, even younger, found in him not merely a wonderful lifelong friend but a masterful teacher.  Ty is the consummate teacher with a mind that keeps on churning 24/7 spewing profound lessons for anyone who will listen and most importantly hear.

Ty’s message has always at been consistent and constant.  It can best be characterized by the well-worn cliché that if you want to feed people don’t give them food but teach them how to plant a garden.  It was that incendiary philosophy that he brought to the UCC in those infant days of the “War on Poverty”.  He had no interest in philanthropic handouts but in building institutions of change that would empower a generation, many yet unborn, to take hold of their own lives and determine the direction of their community.  The UCC was not merely the administrator of programs, but an incubator for governance.  It was the only place where the powerless of that blighted city, albeit already a numerical majority, would be in control.  The logic of his ideas were unassailable, the execution bound to be bumpy.  Those in control – a combination of corrupt public officials, the business and religious power structure and, not inconsequentially, long entrenched black leaders – were in self-protective mode.  They knew where this grain of authentic democracy was heading.  The powerless were hungry for change and for self-determination, some of their nascent leaders already showing the promise that would one day carry them to public office.

With the now infamous riots that followed so soon afterward, some will suggest that the best we did was to stir the pot adding just another incendiary spark to the combustible dry wood that lay strewn on the streets and alleyways of Newark and other major American inner cities.  They would be wrong and principally so because Ty, unlike most of us in this instant gratification obsessed country, thinks long term.  He assuredly had no illusions about the then present state of things nor, despite his own education and sophistication, was he untouched by the extent and reach of baseless discrimination that frustrated so many of his people.  I remember him telling me of being pulled over by the Newark police who routinely harassed black men behind their wheels not for what they had done (in most cases nothing) but for who they were.  Ty wasn’t looking for overnight miracles nor, more importantly, for the ephemeral tokenism of one-off leadership.  He was demanding fundamental change and willing to wait out the unruly and often ugly process required to make it happen.

In Newark’s case it took almost four decades and a series of highly tarnished black administrations before the bright star of Cory Booker could take hold.  It may take many years more before that young mayor’s dreams morph into a modicum of reality.  But without Ty it never would have happened and, for that matter, without people like Ty who have been at the vanguard of leadership and co-agents of change, it’s unlikely that Barack Obama would stand before us as a viable Presidential candidate.  I’ve often heard actors interviewed by Charlie Rose or James Lipton talk about how significant a role luck has played in their career successes.  Perhaps, but when it comes to the affairs of state luck has nothing to do with it.  It takes vision, work and a great deal of patience.  It takes people like Ty.  They attack the job with purpose and with a doggedness that simple mortals like you and I so often lack.

Ty’s tenure in Newark was intentionally brief.  His objective was to prepare the ground and sow the seeds.  His planned departure was written into the agreement.  His succeeding career, which included high office in the Lindsay administration in New York, continued to be characterized by the same laser focus on empowerment of the disenfranchised and substantive change making.  His good friends, I among them, came to a Westchester hotel last weekend to celebrate his longevity.  The room was filled with people who have walked (or in his early years run) arm and arm with him.  His remarkable wife and three accomplished children paid tribute not merely by what they said but by who they are.  Too few Americans even know the name Cyril de Grasse Tyson, and they are poorer for it.  Many, and not merely African Americans, unknowingly are the beneficiaries of his lifelong work, advances and change that they now take for granted, see as their birthright.  In a world where we prize what was invented here, invented by us, many with Ty’s talents might resent their sense of entitlement, of unacknowledged accomplishment without struggle.  I'm certain that Ty revels in it, that he is satisfied most by what he has done not by the deserved (in my view far too limited) recognition that he has received over the years. Race remains a meaningful unresolved presence in our national room and poverty a cancer whose cure still eludes us, but the train has left the station and Ty remains one of its most distinguished drivers dragging it and us toward the destination that, however far off, lies ahead.