Sunday, September 30, 2012


A few random thoughts as we look to the first debate of the presidential campaign. 

There is a huge difference between being the president and seeking the presidency.  Nowhere was that more evident than in Barack Obama’s twin speeches at the United Nations and then at the Clinton Initiative and in Mitt Romney’s at the latter.  Presidents have deal with the realities of governance and their words have consequence.  That isn’t a partisan thing. W the candidate, and George W. Bush the president were two different things.  Candidates can engage in, if you will, free speech presidents not so much.  Romney can criticize Obama for not being more aggressive in Syria or not meeting with Bibi in New York.  The president has to enunciate policy in a fragile and changing environment.

That was evident in his UN Address devoted mostly to the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  He bookended his talk with the story of Chris Stevens, the fallen diplomat who both supported the people’s uprising in Libya and fell victim to what appears to have been an extremist pushback in that country.  Just as Obama has been trying to put back the pieces of our damaged economy, his speech in many ways can be seen as attempting to correct a long course in which the United States has been on the wrong side of democracy, supporting a series of authoritarian governments in the Middle East.  Much of that can be attributed to our insatiable thirst for (cheap) oil, but we shouldn’t underestimate a desire for predictable and friendly regimes.  The president struck a strong balance between support for the Spring and reminding his listeners that free expression is among democracies essentials. That violence can't be tolerated.

At the Clinton gathering the contrast between the two men, not to mention equally their current roles, came into even sharper relief.  Obama set politics aside in delivering an impassioned address on human trafficking equating it to slavery.  Romney on the other hand used his time for what amounted to a campaign speech whose underlying message was that free enterprise was the solution to, yes, just about everything.  That may be a somewhat exaggerated assessment, but not by much.

The basic thrust of the Republican campaign this year is that there should be less government and a greater reliance on free enterprise.  It’s not a new theme and I think it’s helpful in spelling out the contrast between the two parties, their approaches and worldviews.  In all of this, Governor Romney’s singular and much touted credential is as a businessman, who assumably knows how to get the trains running and, most importantly, people back to work.  The problem here is that we Americans tend to be lose with words and imprecise about what they mean.  Businessman is a very broad brush designation much like the title doctor that can be applied equally to a physician and a philosopher.  So there are businessmen and there are businessmen.

When applied to Mitt Romney businessman does not equate to Henry Ford, Sam Walton or Bill Gates.  These were people who created and ran large companies with concrete products or services generating millions of jobs.  When I think of Mitt Romney as businessman, it would be more accurate to think Gordon Gekko.  Again that characterization may strike you as unfair even hyperbolic, but is it?  The fictional character who was fond of saying, greed is good, may not exactly match the likes of Bain Capital, but look at the story portrayed in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street and you’ll see a reflection of the private equity business.  These enterprises are dedicated to making a profit for themselves and their investors usually by applying some form of financial reengineering.  I don’t think any of them claim to be job generators or even business managers.  Sometimes what they do results in bringing health to troubled enterprises, but not always as the story of both Bain and Stone’s fictional yarn suggest.

Elections often have as much to do with myth as with reality.  You might fairly say that 2008 rested on the myth (even though it was not promised) that a vote cast could bring about instant change to a troubled country.  Would that it could be so simple.  This year one candidate would have us believe the myth that his business experience is the answer to all our problems.  But let’s remember that Gekko is not Ford, Walton or Gates.  With that in mind, I’d suggest Romney the businessman doesn’t bode well for the country.   

 Now, on to the debates.

I call them Transcenders.  To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default.  Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For more read my book.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Under God

Trying to prove or disprove God’s existence, I contend in my book Transcenders, is a fool’s errand.  People on both sides are likely to disagree.  I respect and understand their point of view, but think that when it comes to the divine in the absolute, we must ultimately rely on a leap of or from faith and move on from there.  My chapter on God is called The Arrogance of Attribution.   The problem that many of us have is not with a god per se, but with what is attributed to that deity with such absolute and arrogant surety.

Over the past weekend Republican nominee Mitt Romney used the pledge of allegiance as the text for a campaign speech in Virginia Beach.  The effort by some committee members to eliminate God from the Democratic Platform, made for a sure-fire Republican campaign applause line.  In using it, Romney sanctimoniously promised never to do such a thing.  What a surprise.  Whether God belongs in a a political party platform is a valid question — I think not — but challenging its incorporation only serves as distraction at a moment when the election stakes are so high.  Moreover, that platforms have become such a sham is probably the more important issue as is whether the conventions themselves make sense any more. That’s for a future post. 
Michelangelo's Creation from the Sistine Chapel
What interests me here is not the applause line but the content of Romney’s remarks.  According to the NY Times, he said: 
“We pledge allegiance to that flag, we believe in a nation under God, a nation indivisible, a nation united, a nation with justice and liberty for all and for that to happen we’re going to have to have a new president that will commit to getting America working again, that will commit to a strong military, that will commit to a nation under God that recognizes that we the American people were given our rights not by government but by God himself (my emphasis).”
Justice Anton Scalia made similar claims from the bench during 2005 oral arguments before the Court regarding the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on public property. 

It isn’t that Governor Romney and Justice Scalia believe in God; they are hardly alone in that and in some very good company.  It’s that they so arrogantly claim divine actions or intent they can’t possibly know.  Every time such pronouncements are made I want to stand up and ask, “how do you know that, Sir?”  It may be accurate to say with some surety that those who fashioned our Constitution were, for the most part, individuals who believed in God.   Moreover, Scripture and other religious teachings might well have informed their moral compasses.  But to go from there to claiming “God himself” gave us rights is a real stretch and an arrogant one at that.  It is the kind of thinking and attribution that also gives license to the religious imposing their ideologies on the rest of us in so many other areas.  Romney, for one, has reiterated his support of overturning Roe as well his opposition to same-sex marriage.  Both positions can be justified only on religious grounds, and of a certain orthodox kind.

Romney’s comments at that Virginia event were not new.  The candidate also believes that some Americans have taken the separation of church and state too far, "well beyond its original meaning."  In an interview with the Washington National Cathedral's magazine, Cathedral Age, Romney said those who "seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God" aren't acting in line with the Founders' intent, which was not, "…the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God, 'and in God, we do indeed trust."

With a still deeply troubled economy and the more overriding issue of government’s role in our society on the table, one would have wished that dueling over God would not factor in the 2012 campaign.  In large measure of course it is just a smoke screen.  If God were in the mix, isn’t it fair to ask if the sad state of the economy reflects divine will or for that matter if the Almighty favors more or less government.  Are Democrats or conversely Republicans carrying forward God’s will or are they subverting it?  Is it God’s providence that the disparity between rich and poor is so great or that the gap is widening between those of have far more than they will ever need and those who need so much more than they can ever hope to have?

When all is said and done, the majority of our government officials believe in God or at least profess such a belief.   Many feel guided by their faith.  So the issue between them is not whether they see our nation as “Under God” — something which they would assumably attach to the world as a whole — but rather, what is the human role?  What should the humanly run government do, and what should we do as individuals?  In that discussion we dare not pass the buck, dare not claim that we carry endorsements of any “higher” order, stacking the cards in favor of our point of view.  God shouldn't factor in a partisan or philosophical debate.  In a country where those living without religion are growing faster as a percentage of the population that those who with follow one, God’s role will need to be addressed at some time in the future.  For now, we have more immediate and urgent questions to resolve.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


A journey.

Leaving the pulpit was like exiting any bubble — we all inhabit them — and finding myself in somewhat unfamiliar territory.  Until then my working years had been punctuated by religious holidays, my weeks measured by their Sabbaths and my days largely filled with pastoral activities.  To be sure, the pews were rarely filled to capacity but they also weren’t empty.  There seemed a natural cohesiveness to it all, a sense of “everyone is on board”.  It’s been decades now and I’m in a very different place.

What struck me early on was that in this regularly proclaimed “religious country” many people outside the bubble had at best a tangential relationship to religion, much more so than I could have imagined.  It wasn’t that I ever deluded myself into thinking everyone is religious, but rather the realization that being religious was far from a given or even necessarily the norm.  Perhaps more surprising was finding myself traveling down the same road.  This was somewhat of an eye opener since I hadn’t left the rabbinate for loss of faith, but simply wanted to do something different with my life.

Over the years my awareness of and interest in people’s living without or beyond religion became more acute.  I saw my own evolution, a distancing from religion in my own children, family members and of course among those with whom I came into daily contact.  It had nothing to do with having grown up Jewish or Christian (the people I encounter most).   It was birth-faith agnostic.  My interest became more serious about six years ago when I started sketching out a book on the subject, one that seemed not to have been written by others.  What began as an impression that more individuals were moving from religion grew into a conviction, sustained in the release of Pew’s 2008 Religious Landmark Survey.  As noted in previous posts, Pew found that 16% of us were saying, “none” when asked about their faith and that number shot up to 25%, 1 in 4, among those 18-29.  That’s a number one can’t ignore.

Most stunning, the “none” group had doubled – 100% — in just a decade.  We’re talking here about 50 Million Americans.  To put this in a larger context, 16% is the same number as Latinos, considered our fastest growing demographic.  But they have grown only 33% in a comparable ten-year period.  Add to that my own experience with consumer research, which would suggest that if anything Pew’s number likely understates the reality.  Against the backdrop of being told that ours is a religious country, you can expect some respondents to either feel intimidated or engage in wishful thinking.  “Are you keeping on your diet, or going regularly to the gym?” Of course!  Even if we accept the reported number, 16% is significant, second only to Christians in Pew’s landscape.

Since I began this journey, a number of best selling books came to market, all written by what I would describe as public atheists.  Each made a compelling case for their collective cause, and that’s exactly what it seemed to be.  Somehow they missed the bigger picture, and the far bigger story.  For the most part Pew’s 16% are not ideological and they certainly aren’t angry — living without religion is not a cause.  They neither disdain those who follow religion or, for that matter, do they give much thought to religion any more.  The latter is probably a mistake.

Part of my challenge in writing on this subject was coming up with a better name for all of these people.  “None” certainly isn’t helpful.  Who am I?  None — right.  To me, even worse is the widely used descriptor “nonbeliever”.  Not only does that assume religion as the default, it implies (meant that way or not) that those who don’t believe in a god don’t have beliefs.  I see it a pejorative.  Of course those who live beyond religion have beliefs, they are just a different set with a different grounding.  So I came up with the name “transcenders”, people who have transcended to another place.  It isn’t prima fascia a better place than those who follow religion but the right place, even an excellent place, for them.

Out of this comes my book, Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars.  While hopefully telling a compelling story that will resonate with many readers, it seeks neither to proselytize nor to dismiss the religious.  It speaks with conviction, but rejects out of hand the notion that anyone possesses the truth, a claim often made by both followers of religion and by some atheists. I believe that my take on this very important phenomenon is different from what has been offered by others.  Most important, the fastest growing group in this country, a large percentage whom are our children, demands our serious attention.

Transcenders: available exclusively as a Kindle e-book.