Saturday, June 27, 2009

When God Rules

Theocracy and democracy are antithetical and incompatible. The idea of an Islamic Republic is an oxymoron, but so too is a Christian, Jewish, or Hindu Republic.  The dictionary defines republic as “a state in which supreme power is held by the people.”  In that, even “state religions” work only if they are largely ignored, relegated to the symbolic and ceremonial.  Think England and Denmark.  Any semblance of democracy under religious rule is at best destined to be compromised and at worst a cosmetic charade.  At some inevitable point, when “democracy” finds itself in conflict with God, or to put it more accurately God as those in power would define it, kiss the voice of the people goodbye.  

So it is a consideration of theocracy and in a larger sense the role religion plays in governance that comes to mind most in watching the sad and frustrating events unfold in Iran.  Not surprisingly, the newly repackaged Newsweek devotes its current issue to the subject beginning with a stage setting piece by editor Jon Meacham entitled, Theocracies are Doomed, Thank God.  Meacham, who with Sally Quinn also moderates the Washington Post’s On Faith “conversations on religion and politics”, has written extensively on religion’s role in the making of, and he would likely say sustaining, our nation.

Largely because it is out of tune with modernity, Meacham contends theocracy can’t survive.  Hopefully he’s right but I am less sanguine about that happening any time soon.  The fact is that, to one degree or another, we have been the throws of modernity for more than a century and theocracies, some relatively newly minted like Iran’s, are still with us.  When the Shah was deposed in 1979 we certainly thought of ourselves as living in modern times even if we lacked some of gadgets that have become so ubiquitous in our lives.  If the monarchy of Jordan or the constitutional dictatorship in Egypt were swept aside today, chances are they will be replaced by some kind of theocratic rule, just as would be the case if the Pakistani democracy fails.  In fact, today’s theocrats don’t seem undermined by modernity.  They actually use its tools very effectively to their advantage in spreading or solidifying their power.   Meacham would say that’s not his point, that modernity empowers the individual, and over time he may be right, but “over time” is the pesky detail that may prevent many of us, regardless of our age, from ever seeing it.

Of course you don’t have to have a full-blown theocracy to have religion playing a significant, and in my view detrimental, role in governance.  The experience of America in the last three decades has brought that home to all of us.  Alan Keyes, whose last appearance on the political stage was as Barack Obama’s opponent in the Illinois Senate race, has become somewhat of a caricature, but is perhaps more upfront about the motivations of the Religious Right than others.  Keyes is an unabashed theocrat who, understanding Constitutional restrictions at the federal level, has argued for the establishment of theocracies in individual states.  Keyes-like thinking and power grabs continue, and there is no indication that they won’t do so into the foreseeable future.  “To say that theocracies are doomed,” Meacham writes,” is not to argue that religion is any less important in our age.”  He sees it continuing its active role but within a democratic context.  Of course, the same modernity that may ultimately spell the demise of theocracies could spell trouble for religion itself.  After all in the ultimate sense, all religions believe that God rules and I see trends that modernity, especially as expressed by a growing number of our young people, is beginning to question that fundamental premise. 

Theocracies are the invention and tool of orthodox religion, often at the extreme.  That’s not surprising because democracy is anathema to all orthodoxies where “free will” in the sense that whatever individuals, even a majority, may want at any given time is simply not possible if it goes contrary to doctrine.  Mortals speaking for themselves never have the last word.  If democracy were at play, the Catholic Church would be ordaining priests and promoting protected safe sex.  There are rules and rulers who have been empowered, often claimed to be empowered, by the divine to set limits and to be the ultimate arbiters as is the case, at least to this point, with the “supreme leader” in Iran.  So whether or not votes were counted accurately or at all is really irrelevant because under any circumstance the power of the ballot box is subject to, and arbitrarily accepted by, those who invoke a “higher authority”.

However enduring religion may be and no matter how it may enrich the lives of its adherents, when God rules in whole or in part humans always come off with the short end of the stick.  The ultimate supreme ruler, the unseen and unseeable God gives enormous license and cover to those mortals who purport to speak in “the name of the divine”, those ultimately self-proclaimed surrogates here on earth.  Divine authority is a discussion stifler, a showstopper.  “God says” is the ultimate trump card of theocracies, but also of any debate whether on matters of state or those religious-based issues that still plague us like abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research and end of life.  In each, logic and even empirical evidence doesn’t play, much less have a chance.  Once God is in power, absolute democracy dies.

Of course we do live in a democracy and a majority of our citizens consider themselves religious.  They are troubled by what they see in Iran and what people are doing elsewhere in “God’s name”.  They urgently tell themselves and their children, that’s not me/us, not my/our religion.  And they are right and perhaps also wrong.  For those who have been alienated by religion, it isn’t necessarily the religion they have experienced first hand that turns them off, but where religion can, does and did go.  It may be an unfair way to judge religion as a whole, but it’s an unmistakable fact.  Looking at the vehemence of those on the hard right when it comes to social issues here or the brutality being expressed by the Mullah’s in Iran, I see a kind of desperation at play.  Perhaps I think modernity will take us to a different place than does Jon Meacham, but the passion and over-the-top action of all these “religious” bespeaks people who see their world and their particular values system coming undone.  Iran brings that sense of desperation to the fore, as did the recent murder of Dr. Tiller.   It’s hard to argue that we’re not headed for more of it as the desperation level rises.  Theocracies may be doomed, but they are still very much with us.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Our Problem" with Marriage

My father, who knew it first hand, always said anti-Semitism is not a problem of Jews but of anti-Semites.  I thought of that when seeing white men deride Justice-designate Sotomayor’s musings about the wisdom of a Latina woman.  Let’s remember that this is a country in which such men were long considered the only people wise enough to make any decisions from the bench, much less vote, and that the current President of the United States is in office despite, not because of, the start given us by the founding white males.  So, beyond the now retrograde partisanship of these extreme voices, there is also a disingenuousness that speaks much more to their problem then hers.  What’s really bothering them is not what Sotomayor said, but that they still prefer seeing “one of their own kind” sitting on the Court.

In many ways that kind of self-serving thinking is what was always at the root of the civil rights suppression that gripped and stained our history.  It is how change impacts on our self-perception, how it affects us personally that counts, so we resist it.  I believe that dynamic is what’s at play in the ongoing controversy over same sex marriage.  If you have any doubt about how personally threatening it is, just consider that bill entitled, “The Defense of Marriage” – read that “self-defense”.  In many respects, the recent brutal murder of Dr. George Tiller notwithstanding, it is much deeper than that surrounding abortion.  True, opponents of choice consider abortion a “life and death” matter, but it’s not their life that hangs in the balance or more precisely their view of themselves.  Homophobia is not the problem of gays and lesbians but of heterosexuals who feel threatened by it.  In a very profound way, what some wishfully characterize as a “lifestyle” challenges what society has ingrained in us as “normal”.  I say wishful, because those who invoke that antiquated thinking are actually afraid that sexual preferences can be influenced like choosing one hairstyle over another just as racial bigots thought color could be transmitted at the water fountain.  Sexual orientation, like the pigment of our skin, is something we’re born with.  It can’t be acquired.  Regardless, the idea that gays and lesbians represent what is just one normal expression of human life is too much for some people to contemplate or to admit.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is not why same sex couples seek the right to marry, but why so many of us oppose it.  In that opposition, religion plays a central role and one that seems increasingly hard to defend.  Rick Warren, who some see as America’s pastor, doesn’t speak for all religions – some liberal clergy do embrace the idea of same-sex marriage – but expresses a classic answer that religion gives for many “why” questions: the force of longevity.  In explaining his opposition in a 2008 interview with Steven Waldman of Beliefnet he put it this way, “For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion - this is not a Christian issue.  Buddhist, Muslims, Jews - historically, marriage is a man and a woman.”  In short, we do it this way, because we always did.  By that logic Judge Sotomayor wouldn’t qualify for any bench, certainly not our highest court.   But Warren doesn’t leave it at that, adding what are much more revealing and substantive reasons for his opposition.  “God,” he tells Beliefnet, “who always acts out of love and does what is best for us, thought up sex.  Sex was God's idea, not ours.  Like fire, and many other things God gave us, sex can be used for good, or abused in ways that harm.  The Designer of sex has clearly and repeatedly said that he created sex exclusively for husbands and wives in marriage.”  No religious argument against same sex unions could be more clearly or honestly stated.

Same sex marriage goes against tradition and everything we’ve learned since hearing “see Dick and Jane run” or that has been inculcated in us by our religious upbringing.  The idea that the ideal life culminates in coming together with that perfect opposite sex partner – being “fruitful and multiplying”, doing the right and expected thing – is ingrained in us.  And for 90% of the population that’s exactly what can or does happen, though many very happy marriages don’t produce offspring either by choice or physical circumstance.  So, beyond all the other emotional and practical challenges they face in their ”failure to live up to the dream”, same sex couples find themselves fighting an uphill battle on marriage just because it threatens so many of our self-perceptions, our ideas of the norm.  All they want is to have what the rest of us can so effortless acquire for ourselves, and we don’t like it one bit.  How dare they?  Contrary to what Rick Warren and others contend, it isn’t so much that these unions redefine marriage; it is that we see them as redefining our own marriages, which is of course absurd, totally in our own minds.

Warren is right when he says, “A committed boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is not a marriage. Two lovers living together is a not a marriage. Incest [a gratuitous and inflammatory inclusion on his part] is not marriage.  A domestic partnership or even a civil union is still not marriage.”  That’s precisely the argument put forth by same sex couples.  But what he leaves out is that, in the end, marriage which has become such a loaded word, is the simply the formal institution that transforms an emotional commitment between two people into a contractual, theoretically permanent, obligation.  No more, no less.  We may opt to impose religious ceremonial on it, “sanctify” it, but that doesn’t change the underlying fact, nor is such ritual required by our legal system.  Why entering into that legal obligation called marriage, including the sanctifying part, should be denied any couple, heterosexual or homosexual, defies logic and fairness, equality under the law.  How can we honestly speak of family values without promoting the building of family units for everyone, even those don’t look like Dick and Jane, much less Adam and Eve?

A few states have finally legalized same sex marriage.  The tide may be changing.  In that, the recently announced alliance of the famously opposing litigators (Gore v. Bush), conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, in representing litigants against California’s unfortunate Proposition 8 is particularly heartening.  It is likely that the case will end up before the Supreme Court where both are seasoned and noted practitioners.  Not only is this joint effort unusual, it may suggest that more of us are beginning to face the real and broad nature of being human in all its natural manifestations.  Indeed even people like Dick and Lynne Cheney, whose daughter is gay, understand that this is not a conservative vs. liberal but a real-life human issue.  I don’t know if the Olson/Boies Constitutional argument will prevail in court, but it appears that we are on our way to an inevitable change.  One of the benefits, perhaps the ultimate benefit, will be that it may make us think differently about ourselves.   Then it won’t be an “our” or “their” problem, but no problem at all.