America’s God Problem

There is a fine line between tonic and toxin and many Americans have crossed it during our climb from Puritan hardship to sententious abundance, perhaps most of all in our contemplation of God.  What follows is not a harangue about religion and faith; I have neither the conviction nor explicatory skills of renowned atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris.  To me, neither theists nor atheists have made their case, my head and heart remain open to discovery.  Whether religious or not, however, we Americans had better come to understand both the virtue and vice of our religiosity.  Projected beyond the self, let alone beyond borders, piety creates predictable yet preventable disasters.  And the final victim may be the stability of our republic.

As philosopher Robert Wright observes in his study, The Evolution of God, belief in the supernatural has been with us since primordial times, initially as a way “to explain why bad things happen … and offer a way to make things better.”[1]  Since then religion and faith have been expressed and reinterpreted in both monotheistic and polytheistic ways, but essentially fit within the definition offered by psychologist William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, as “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”[2]  The evolution of God in America has taken its own particular course, dominated by Christian sects and quite unfortunately without consistent regard to James’ concept of harmonious adjustment to an unseen order.[3]

In 1630, just before arrival on the shores of what would later become the state of Massachusetts, John Winthrop gave a sermon of sorts to his shipload of anxious pilgrims aboard the Arbella.  He borrowed from Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and offered both prescriptions and proscriptions.  He said, “the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own Articles” and that “he ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission [and] will expect a strikt performance of the Articles” that if neglected in any way would cause “the Lord [to] surely breake out in wrath against us” but if we set the example of His Word, “hee shall make us a prayse and glory… for we must Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.”[4]  Winthrop set the stage for what became a broad new interpretation of America that is alive and (too) well today.  America was a new land that could set its own rules and, as long as Americans abided by them, and set the example of “His Word,” they would live as a “City upon a Hill” that the world would look to for guidance and inspiration.  In Winthrop’s relatively few words, America became the new Israel, and Americans were God’s chosen people.

What followed was the development of a special American identity expressed in many new and different ways, from notions of “manifest destiny” to several presidential doctrines that all contemplate a role for America, divinely ordained, as the purveyor of Truth to the world about both seen and unseen order.[5]  In the process the world became America’s province.  Meanwhile, religion ebbed and flowed to and from the political sphere in America through wars, so-called “great awakenings,” and other exigencies, becoming firmly ensconced in political discourse by the mid 1970s.  Along the way, intoxicated by the certitude of evangelism and honed against the anvil of godless communism and modern-day terrorism, Americans neglected their own “Articles” and compliance with “His Word” and have exchanged the role of exemplar for zealot, sliding further still toward dispensing condemnations and even waging preventive war while caught in the mystical allure of the “City upon the Hill.”  Today, the prospect of the Lord’s wrath Winthrop warned of has been reassigned to non-Americans and, moreover, non-believers.  James’ notion of “harmonious adjustment” has been long forgotten.

The results of such zealotry now lay at our feet: a country that has lost much of its respect (and yes, power) around the world, and that is now attacking itself from within.  The tonic of freedom our Founding Fathers fought so hard to preserve in both word and deed has been poisoned by the toxin of righteousness. Virtue has yielded to vice.  What is called for now are the better religious values of humility, tolerance, and sacrifice; but what we hear from too many religious leaders, and by pols and pundits masquerading as theologically pure, is ever-increasing righteousness and venomous condemnations.  It is upon this altar our republic will either be lost or renewed, but as columnist Lisa Miller recently pointed out in Newsweek, the religious right have hardened their resolve to make the elections in 2012 about “God’s own special country” and remain furious advocates of “fear and domination.”[6]

I remain convinced that the next few years in America will prove as important as the first few some two hundred thirty years ago.  The way we behave now, toward the world and each other—whether or not we corral the perversions of Christian nationalism—will largely determine the fate of the republic.  As we gather this holiday season to celebrate our various traditions, family, and community, I would encourage each of us to address America’s God problem, summoning our better selves by setting aside bigotry and isolation in favor of tolerance and inclusion.

[1] Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (New York: Little Brown & Co., 2009), p. 27.
[2] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Press, 1982), p. 53.  (The original publication date is 1902.)
[3] I recognize, as Robert Wright did, that the mere suggestion of evolution and God in the same sentence, let alone the “evolution of God,” would seem heretical to many.  So be it.  The historical record is all anyone needs to demonstrate the gradual and certain variance that develops into seemingly new cognitive iterations of God over time. The most historical Christian document, the Bible, was written in many languages by many people at different times and has contributed mightily to the evolutionary dynamism of God.
[4] John Winthrop in Conrad Cherry, (ed.), God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 40.  For more of Winthrop’s writings see his Modell of Christian Charity in volume II of his works at The Massachusetts Historical Society, www.
[5] Among the more important so-called presidential doctrines are the Monroe doctrine, which began as a hemispheric caution to the Europeans; then the Teddy Roosevelt ‘corollary’ that gave Monroe’s concept an expanded imperial tone; then the Truman doctrine that was directed principally at the Middle East; then the Reagan Doctrine that addresses essentially the entire world; and, more recently, the Bush doctrine that promulgated preventive war.
[6] Lisa Miller, “One Nation Under God,” Newsweek, December 9, 2010,
By |2017-05-27T18:30:45+00:00December 13th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The Age of Apate´

In the last fifty years, the American experience has hurtled forward from Kennedy’s Age of Camelot, to the Age of Aquarius, and now the Age of Apaté (a-pat’-ay), named for the Greek goddess of deceit whose evil spirit was released once Pandora opened her box. The lid on Pandora’s mythical box (actually a jar) was loosened by the alchemy of Ronald Reagan and the ambition of Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. When Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika-styled reforms slipped perilously toward revolution the Soviet model imploded. However, what was once widely considered a great victory over godless communism—the collapse of the Soviet Union—quickly became affected, or perhaps more accurately infected, by the spirit of Apaté. Hubris and deceit were easier and, let’s face it, more fun than humility and honesty. With the Soviets out of the way, we Americans were free to assume a wide berth of exceptionalism to expand our reach and reign. And, we did it on the wings of Apaté.

Today, many debate today whether we have entered another Great Depression, or just a Great Recession, but it may be more accurately considered a Great Deception. From WMD, to credit default swaps, to non-reform reforms and unreal reality shows, we Americans have elevated the art of deception from a hapless wizard deceiving a dream-addled girl from Kansas, to a metastasized algorithmic ethos denominated in fraud. We face unimaginable deficits while we continue to ignore their obvious causes lest a noisy constituency or moneyed lobbyist objects. We wage war without a clear objective and no exit strategy to, among other things, protect our access to a source of energy that compromises our health and security while slowly but surely killing the planet on which we live. We are re-writing our history books to expunge our liberal heritage in favor of Christian nationalism—a crown of thorns to replace Uncle Sam’s top hat—as we elbow both reason and tolerance out of the public square. Bigger lies and more hate are essential ingredients in contemporary narrative.

Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, may indeed be the defining period piece of the era. As Charles Baxter aptly points out in his review of Freedom in The New York Review of Books (9/30/10), “the noble lie serves as the pivot point around which almost everything in Freedom turns.” Alas, at least all elements of American culture, including politics, economics, religion, literature, and entertainment are aligned—albeit around an axis of deceit.

Fear not, we will find our way out of this sticky web of deception; or perhaps more likely hurled into the stubborn certainty of a reality based in truth. The fanciful altered state of the last twenty years is coming to a painful end. As with most empires that vanquish their enemies, the last and greatest challenge is in facing itself. This too is America’s final imperial test. Our future rises or falls on our capacity to see things as they are under the blinding light of truth. We may or may not be different than the fallen empires that preceded us, but we will most certainly fail if we continue to indulge Apaté’s nefarious ways.

By |2017-05-25T18:38:13+00:00October 10th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Out of Crisis, a New US

Every seventy-five years or so America endures a period of crisis that lasts from twelve to seventeen years.  They include both profound economic and security effects that put the country at leviathan levels of risk.  The founding of our country was itself a period of crisis; later was the Civil War and Reconstruction, and in the twentieth century the Great Depression and World War II.  The current period of crisis in now three years old—marked by the date our capital markets began to realize they were standing in the quicksand of credit default swaps secured by vapor and hubris.  I would argue we are far from seeing the depth of the current crisis, nor are we even near a midpoint.  It would be ahistorical to predict otherwise.  We have yet to even seen the axe of conflict fall.  No, 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan don’t count – at least not yet, although they probably provide the framework for much wider conflict—a wider War on Terror— with many more actors involved.  I remain convinced that our capacity to start and perpetuate war far exceeds our ability to end it.  The preposterous realization that we are unable to even define what a win is, is all the evidence anyone needs to defend that claim.  Be that as it may, my intent here is not to debate the dilemmas that face policymakers and provide fuel for Gadarene punditry today; rather to explore what historians will later observe with the crisis behind them, as they write the inevitable story of how American identity was changed forever (or at least until the next crisis in around 2095).  If we are smart, we will write a different future than historians might expect.  But we better wise-up soon.

As we stumble our way by fit and spasm toward the future, we have choices about how we reckon with a world that, in the words of columnist Thomas L. Friedman is “really unusually uncertain.”[1]  Those choices are largely formed based on our cognetic disposition: a combination of intellectual capital and cognitive traits, which allow us to simplify the world and make decisions.  Our cognetic dispositions are formed through the processes of education, experience, socialization, and indoctrination.  We also forge relationships with those similarly disposed—of similar cognetic disposition—and wage confrontation with those who differ.  In America today, four major groups have formed that dominate socio-political discourse. They are: the Angry Patriots, the Faithful Followers, the Elite Globalists, and the Transcendent Epistemists.[2]  Each group competes with and between the others in elections, boardrooms, classrooms, media, and the streets.  Besides wrestling over resources, rights, power, and wealth, the larger and more important long-term battle will be over American identity.  This battle will determine the answer to “What does it mean to be an American?”

The Angry Patriots (APs) are perhaps the most familiar, given to the volume with which they assert themselves in the media.  They are a boisterous bunch – Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et al.  The process of experience, as opposed to education, socialization, or indoctrination, dominate development of their cognetic disposition.  They claim they are a product of the school of hard knocks.  They are the torchbearers of American exceptionalism.  Fear is their currency of persuasion.  Mostly Republicans and Tea Partiers, they are publicly pious, although theologically shallow.  God is on their side by entitlement, but while they claim humble abidance to religious proscriptions and secular law, they often behave as if their pockets are filled with dispensations.  Their principal aim is to return America to the “good ol’ days” when they were on top of the socio-political pecking order in a world that (to them) is inherently hierarchical.  Knowledge is nice as long as it is rooted in common sense, but loyalty is more important.  Reason is often subjugated to muscularity; bigger bombs and bigger walls are more dependable than intelligence.  Signs or documents written in any language other than English are an attack on their sense of patriotic purity; language is symbolic – not about communication or understanding.  When challenged or threatened they favor isolation from the world.  Free trade or other theories of economic specialization can only cost Americans jobs.  Diplomacy is for sissies. For APs, the first clause of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State” has no bearing on the second clause, “ the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  Mosques are monuments to terrorism even while Christian churches are not so to the murderous Crusades, nor are Catholic churches to pedophilia.  APs employ a fair amount of libertarian rhetoric, as long as their entitlements remain—especially Medicare and Social Security.  Their mantras are “America first!” … “Not on my watch!”…  and “Not from my pockets!”

Faithful Followers (FFs) see the world through the lens of religion.  They find grace, solace, and power in their faith.  America is great, but God is supreme.  The Bible is the inerrant word of God, whose greatest witness was Jesus Christ.  Their cognetic disposition was predominantly formed through the process of indoctrination.  The Reverends Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, and John Hagee are FFs’ speakers of truth.  Evangelism is not only good, it is a biblical duty.  A day of reckoning is coming; God is on your side as long as you remain fearful of his wrath.  Faith trumps reason in a world that is scary and dangerous.  Sin is everywhere and can only be ameliorated by sacrifice to affect redemption and salvation.  And, while FFs are certain of their faith, their own self-esteem requires the frequent condemnation of others.  Certitude and rectitude are their dominant modality—unknowns are obviated by faith. Proselytizing, judgment, and damnation are paradoxically both liberating and oppressive.  Zionists are their theological and political allies.  They share a common belief in Eretz Israel, occupied only by Jews, at least until Christ returns and then the Jews had better see the light—fast.  FFs have come and gone from the political sphere throughout history, but today they are firmly entrenched.  They believe America is a Christian nation and advocate a revisionist history that casts the Founding Fathers as devoted and pious Christians.  If they had their choice, there would be one political party: the Christian Nationalist Party, but they most often settle for Republican candidates who pledge allegiance to their family-values dictates.  “Thou shalt not kill” is a situational commandment, which does not apply to murdering homosexuals or doctors who perform legal abortions.  Nor does it apply to Muslims.  FFs don’t see the relevancy of the question “Should we bomb Iran?”  They wonder why we haven’t.  Men are the dominant gender among FFs; they run the world, while women are caretakers of the home.  Like the APs, fear is the prevailing currency of manipulation for FFs.  If they had a crossover candidate to share with the APs, it would be Sarah Palin.  Social order is non-hierarchical.  It is (mostly) flat. There is God, and then there is man.  While race, ethnicity, and heritage matters to many APs, religion is all that matters to FFs.  If one has (a Christian) God, they have everything.  They have one mantra: “Praise God!”

Elite Globalists (EGs) are the too-cool bunch—the rising technocrats.  Socialization is the primary process for the development of their cognetic disposition.  The world is their oyster.  Borders and convention are irrelevant and technology can solve virtually anything.  EGs are actually quite engaging people if you can get them to put down their smartphone and quit talking about themselves.  Thomas Friedman (cited above), who drives his Toyota Prius to and from DC from his energy-gluttonous, 11,400 square foot mansion just up the road from the Bethesda Country Club (where he is a member), is an EG patriarch.[3]  Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are spokespersons.  If not for grooming issues, Michael Moore would be too.  Hip is important, pretty is essential.  Celebrities are the diplomatic ambassadors of EGs; knowledge and intelligence are defined by camera angle, not IQ.  While APs might call EGs lawless liberals, EGs see themselves as caretakers of liberty and the font of social invention.  FFs see EGs as interlopers who will be vanquished in the Rapture.  EGs look down on APs as pre-Mad Men-era carnivores, and see FFs as homespun curiosities who provide fodder for film festival documentaries.  Neither APs nor FFs will make an EG’s Facebook ‘friends’ list, unless accepted as a matter of charitable impulse.  No ideas are too big, or too grand to EGs.  America is limited only by its ability to re-imagine itself.  If it can be designed, it can be realized.  The United Nations, and both non-governmental and governmental institutions are good, and corporations are bad—unless an EG happens to own or run one, in which case it is assuredly green.  The institution of marriage is also important to EGs, if only for their homosexual friends.  Balancing a checkbook has never been a priority for EGs.  Public debt is a nebulous, transient, and essential component of economic development.  Religion is an inherited and quaint historical artifact that provides seasonal shopping opportunities, but is otherwise an archaic, albeit powerful source of conflict and oppression in an African nation they’ve never been to.  EGs who claim a relationship with a higher being describe it as spiritual, rather than religious.  God is love, not power.  While EGs eschew ideology and orthodoxy they are ardent subscribers to their own; and, they love their obscure, narrow special interests, which define who they are.  EGs want to be left to their own devices—and they have lots of them.  Social order is amoebic in the form of multi-dimensional integrated networks.  In other words, there is no social order.  EGs can be a powerful political block, and demonstrated as such when bound by hope and technology by team Obama, but by design they lack cohesion beyond their common fantasy to one day be on the cover of Vanity Fair.  They are confident, bright, quirky, self-indulgent, and bi-coastal.  They do not set their feet farther than 25 miles from either coast unless they are skiing in the Rockies.  If they’ve been to Kansas City, it was because their flight was diverted, and they will claim they never deplaned.  Their mantras are elongated monosyllabic exclamations like “Cooool!” and “Niiiiice!” and “Reeealy?!”

Transcendent Epistemists (TEs) are the (usually) quiet intellectuals whose cognetic dispositions are formed by education, which is a lifelong commitment.  APs like microphones, FFs like the pulpit, EGs the spotlight, and TEs just like books.  The eldest among them are described as wise and comprise the portion of the “Greatest Generation” who have not been co-opted by the purveyors of fear among the APs or FFs.  TEs live by the lyric of Lyle Lovett, “I live in my own mind / Ain’t nothin’ but a good time.”  They abhor certitude and cope by transcending the rabble of humanity where they can contemplate that which is not yet known.  Conversations about who, what, and how bore them.  They want to talk about why.  They view faith as the crutch of the common man.  TEs are areligious—mostly agnostics who have yet to hear a compelling argument by either theists or atheists.  Like Christopher Hitchens, they will not allow themselves to be saved on their deathbed when that day comes.  They indulge APs, FFs, and EGs regrettably, although they are at times both humored and terrified by each.  Their least favorite days of the year are holidays, when their focus on epistemology is interrupted and they are forced to endure the banality of socialization.  They don’t do Facebook.  They are inelegant, or worse.  Lousy guests, and lousier hosts.  Like EGs, they see the world as a borderless seamless system, and though they embrace the ideals of Immanuel Kant, they find the world is often better explained by the lessons of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli.  They read the columns of fellow TEs like David Brooks and Fareed Zakaria, but know that knowledge seldom wins in the development of public policy.  They understand that to move the masses Dante’s sins must be teased and tweaked—titillation is essential.  But, they won’t descend into the muck to do it.  TEs are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, so neither today’s Republicans nor Democrats should waste their time with them.  TEs have few if any contemporary heroes in government; they simply view America’s liberal democracy as an experiment that has been hijacked by venal charlatans.  TEs believe entropy is inevitable, and even healthy.  They are, however, ironically optimistic.  They believe every question will be answered someday, and that today’s problems are absolutely solvable, if everyone would stop screaming and start listening.  They arguably get it better than APs, FFs, and EGs, but have no audience who’ll listen because of their unwillingness to subscribe to popular myths and contemporary orthodoxy.  Their silence is both contemptible and potentially tragic for America.  Their mantras are, “Question the givens” and “Leave me alone.”

These groups will shape the narrative that emerges from the current crisis—that defines a ‘new’ America.  On first take, simply as a function of exposure, the battle appears to have already been won by the APs.  They are also likely to bring a large portion of FFs with them in their quest to save America.  But their message—denominated principally in fear—may not prove durable in the long run.  Fear seldom is.  And, they do not appear to have a prospective leader that can attract a majority of Americans to the polls.  Palin already didn’t.  Another question is will whomever occupies the White House matter anyway?  My guess is they still will, if not for policymaking, for the symbolism that plays its own significant role in identity.  EGs are probably too self-interested to come together again soon as they did behind Obama, unless of course Obama regains his voice.  Which leaves the TEs.  They may find their own voice when and if the fear-mongers fade, or the depth of crisis forces them from the sidelines and people become desperate enough to shut up and listen.  Knowledge is a far superior basis for decision making than fear or celebrity.  Meanwhile, we do indeed stumble forward toward a new America, whether we like it or not.  Individually, all we can do is be careful who we listen to and exercise the best judgment possible in our own decisions. And, every once in awhile, tug on the sleeve of the quiet ones and ask them what they think.

[1] Thomas Friedman, “Really Unusually Uncertain,” The New York Times, August 17, 2010.
[2] This is far from an exhaustive taxonomy.  There are many smaller groups, and most people don’t fit neatly into just one.  But, these are the big ones who will form allegiances of convenience or necessity to assert power during the current crisis.
[3] See Garrett M. Graff’s feature on Friedman, “Thomas Friedman is On Top of the World,” Washingtonian, July 1, 2006.


By |2017-05-27T18:34:32+00:00August 22nd, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Israel’s new Soviet Union (Iran) and Why Christian America Doesn’t Get It.

Recent events in Israel and Gaza are certainly troubling, not only as to the violence and loss of life involved in the interdiction of aid ships by Israel bound for Gaza, but also for the fragile coalition of mostly western allies (that includes Turkey—the homeland of those killed) whose aim it is to corral Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  As with all things in the Middle East, there are multiple consequences that originate from singular events.  Too many people of too many races, ethnicities, and religions on too little land assure it.  It is also troubling that Israel’s closest ally—the United States—continues to tolerate Israeli behaviors that compromise U.S. interests in the region. Under the watchful eye of the Israel-can-do-no-wrong American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), every U.S. president starting with Harry Truman has pledged his unwavering support for virtually anything Israel desired. However, there is more than political power at work here, there is also a fundamental lack of comprehension among predominantly Christian American policymakers about Israeli-Jewish identity, which routinely produces poor interpretations and decisions that form U.S. foreign policy.  AIPAC’s power combined with passive ignorance—however innocent—is a dangerous combination.

Understanding Israeli Jews is really not that complicated, but it requires setting aside Christian history and, in particular, the New Testament, while considering specific historical events and Hebrew Scriptures.  It is also worth realizing that while the Middle East is obviously rich in Christian history, few Christians live there today.  Lebanon has the largest Christian population of around 30%; the rest of the Middle East, including Israel, is less than 5%.  In towns of founding Christian history, like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, Christians account for less than 3% of the population.  The Middle East is a Judeo-Islamic region, not a Christian one.  In short, the New Testament doesn’t get much playing time there.  Think Kings, not Disciples.  The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Holy Qur’an establish history, morality, and law—and they are founded on a contested inheritance since they both claim the heritage of Abraham.  Among other things, these historical texts condone a different morality than the Western Christian world professes today.  Violence, retribution, slavery, torture, and polygamy are not necessarily immoral.  So, Christian Americans who want to understand why things are the way they are must start by erasing their own Christian indoctrinations.  They do not apply.

Historical events and Hebrew Scriptures have produced five fundamental ‘truths’ held by Jews that the Western polity must come to understand.  First, all the land from the Dead Sea and the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea was bequeathed to the Jewish people included in the territory of Greater, or “Eretz” Israel.  They are God’s chosen people in the Promised Land.[1] This includes the long-contested West Bank and Gaza.  Second, “Never Again!” is a mantra that every Jew everywhere in the world understands and will never forget.  It is a sorrowful maxim to never allow another Holocaust.  Third, God is power, not love, as is the Christian interpretation from the New Testament.  Fourth, peace is security from the enemy, not some ethereal contemplation of a just, harmonious, or serene coexistence with non-Jews.[2]  Furthermore, security is defined by who has the most weapons and controls the most borders.  It is not the absence of threat, it is the constant vigilance required to control existential ever-present threats. Finally, ‘trust’ is inconceivable between Jews and non-Jews, especially Muslims.

Given these truths, after the Holocaust Jews established their homeland in the Promised Land and adopted an “Iron Wall” strategy to produce their peace (security).[3]  They have never, nor will they likely ever, consider that a just and lasting peace—of the Western Christian variety—can be made with their Muslim neighbors.  Their source of peace/security is an exclusive relationship with a powerful state—a patron—not neighborly relations.  In the beginning, this relationship was with the British, now it is with the U.S.  The “Iron Wall” strategy requires that conflict be sustained to maintain a fully pressurized system to attract resources from the patron; ‘peace’ is little more than a rhetorical exercise.  In other words, peace and prosperity (in the traditional sense) could be profoundly destabilizing for Israel.  During the Cold War, the Soviet Union played well the role of existential threat and kept the U.S. closely tied to Israel.  Oil reserves in the Middle East also bind the U.S. to Israel (although this often cost the U.S. when Arab states and OPEC used oil prices and embargos to punish the U.S. for its allegiance to Israel).  Today, Iran is cast by Israel in the role of the former Soviet Union, which is why provocative interdiction of ships bound for Gaza by Israel, which has strained relations with Turkey, may not be unintentional.  Threats—perceived or real—must be maintained.  They are critical to Israel’s “Iron Wall” strategy.

It is unclear if the current frosty relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu portends a fundamental change in U.S.-Israel relations.  I would never bet against AIPAC and its capacity to control U.S. policymaking in the Middle East.  However, there are signs of divergence between a hardening, militaristic, right wing led by Netanyahu in Israel and a more liberal American Jewish community.[4]  For the time being, I expect the U.S. will continue to endure condemnation in the Arab world for its support of Israel—including terrorism aimed at U.S. targets—at least until new sources of energy are produced, and new boogey-man states like Iran no longer grab headlines.  These factors may change, but the ‘truths’ that undergird the “Iron Wall” strategy of Israel, formed in a Judeo-Islamic non-Christian context, will never change.  Christian Americans take note.[5]

[1] For an excellent summary of this “Promised Land” theology, see Irvine H. Anderson, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), p. 10-15.
[2] After reading hundreds of pages of declassified documents from the Carter Administration, my own revelatory interpretation regarding these different definitions of ‘peace’ were formed.  Carter nearly always characterized peace as a “just and lasting peace” where enemies were transformed into friends.  Prime Minister Menachem Begin, on the other hand, seldom mentioned ‘peace’ without framing it in terms of security.  I found no evidence either of them ever acknowledged the difference.
[3] The “Iron Wall” strategy is comprehensively studied by Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001).
[4] See Peter Beinhart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010, p. 16-20.
[5] Among members of ‘Christian America,’ I exclude Christian Zionists who have formed their own theological alliance with Israel.  See Victoria Clark’s Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
By |2017-05-27T18:46:27+00:00June 6th, 2010|General|0 Comments

Hijacking Jesus

My fellow Texans have a longstanding and attractive reputation for independence and enterprise, complemented (unfortunately) by a penchant for delusion and ethno-phobic evangelism.  The latter is on ugly display by a small group of fervent Christian fundamentalists who are hijacking Jesus to re-write American history and promulgate the primacy of White Conservative Protestants (WCPs).  Don McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, Texas, who was appointed chairman of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) by our governor-turned-secessionist Rick Perry, leads them.  Their central argument—that the United States is a “Christian nation”—is the veil behind which they are attempting to codify the primacy of WCPs as the originators and preferred arbiters of American ideals, as well as the central actors of American history. Make no mistake, their agenda has little if anything to do with Jesus Christ. It is all about power.

There are no Christian values in their rhetoric. No Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12, or God’s love from John 3:16, or contemplations of enduring love from 1 Corinthians 13.  Their arguments about America as a “Christian nation” amount to little more than mental parlor tricks performed with a blindfold to ignore the historical record.  That’s not to say they haven’t worked hard to produce their arguments; delusion is not easy.  It is that they require more leaps of faith than a tent minister whose pants are full of brimstone.[1]  We can have hearty debates about their claim of a “Christian nation,” but that is not the issue. The question is, so what if it is, or isn’t?  What difference does it make?

The answer is found in the substance of their proposals to the SBOE.  Their agenda has little to do with Christianity and everything to do with maintaining a social hierarchy that places them at or near the top.  César Chávez gets erased from textbooks purchased for Texas schools in favor of Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority.  Ted Kennedy is replaced by Newt Gingrich.  The Reverend Pat Robertson is nearly as important as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. As McLeroy’s cohort and fellow SBOE board member Cynthia Dunbar reveals: “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.”[2]  Re-writing history to highlight the primacy of WCPs is the pathway to enduring political power.

The aim of these Texans is to set a standard of citizenship that favors WCPs over people of color, or theological difference. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and Indians must join Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists in accepting an America founded in a Puritan-esque mystique that favors WCPs.  They must accept their lot as second-class citizens marginalized by an ethno-phobic doctrine that fantasizes the historical record of America.  Or, if they live in Texas, they can go to the polls on March 2 and vote people like McLeroy out. They can send a message of tolerance, inclusion, and compassion, consistent with the American ideals of liberty and justice for all. They can out-Jesus the WCPs.

[1] For a well-researched, comprehensive article on the WCP’s arguments and proposals at the Texas State Board of Education see Russell Shorto, “How Christian were the Founders,” The New York Times Magazine, February 14, 2010. For scholarly work on the religious heritage of America’s founding, see David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) and Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House 2007).
[2] Dunbar in Shorto’s New York Times article.
By |2017-05-25T22:30:42+00:00May 16th, 2010|General|0 Comments

A Christmas Message

As the holiday season reaches a crescendo, let’s take a moment in the midst of assembled families and celebrations of faith to evaluate what religion means to us and, moreover, what we mean to religion.  As my brief bio states, “I am non-aligned … I belong to no one party, religion, or ideology.”  But, not ‘belonging’ doesn’t mean the trinity of head, heart and power doesn’t fascinate me, or that I don’t grant each their due respect.  In fact, they are what I study every day. My doctoral research examines the effects of religious convictions on US foreign policy over the transom of presidential ideology.  And, not ‘belonging’ allows me the advantage of indifference—my interpretations of the historical record and today’s events endure no predestination (sorry St. Augustine).

In the American experience, dominated by Christianity, three tenets emerged that inform much of our American identity.  Individualism rose from the Protestant Reformation to grant the individual primacy over institutions. Rights became intrinsic to humans rather than bestowed by monarchs or churches.  Perfectibility, or the belief that humans could make the world right in advance of a Second Coming gave us hope and a reason for the “pursuit of happiness.” And, exceptionalism rose from a belief first uttered by John Winthrop as his ship, the Arbella, approached the coast of modern-day Massachusetts, that “we shall be as a city upon a hill”—a chosen people in a promised land—the new Israel.

Each of these tenets has found expression in and out of the private, public, and political spheres.  At times, they remain more or less dormant; at others, they seem prominent.  They ebb and flow. Our American religious convictions remained away from the political sphere after they were shamed to the sidelines during the Scopes trial in 1925.  They found new expression in the public sphere during the 1950s as a point of differentiation to ‘godless communism’ and as a center of socialization while the suburbanization of America got underway.  Then, they entered the political sphere in the late 1950s and early 1960s, providing compelling arguments for civil rights and anti-war sentiments. By the late 1970s religion was completely ensconced in the political sphere providing a political whipping-post for casting social judgment and filling the coffers of televangelists.   Finally, more recently, they have provided cover for the hubristic projection of power to remake the world in our own image.

These tenets can be both beneficial and/or dangerous depending on their application.  They are double-edged swords.  In their benign state—where each is pursued and expressed with both confidence and humility—they act separately and collectively to build stronger citizens and a cohesive, powerful, and compassionate nation.  In the last thirty years or so, they have been twisted and torqued reaching a level of perversion that threatens the future of our country and those upon whom we project our power. Our individualism has morphed into narcissism, perfectibility into entitlement, and exceptionalism into hubris.  Our national self-righteousness has been deluded by its first cousin—self-deception—producing a decade of deceit beyond the values of any religion, or the expectations of any god.

In this season of celebration and reflection allow me a personal appeal—my hope for you and America.  May we set aside judgment in favor of service, choose reflection over projection, and turn our evangelical zeal inward—that we might be exemplars of our beliefs and convictions rather than agents of their demise.  If we don’t take care of our head, heart, and power our souls may be lost forever.

By |2017-05-27T15:49:02+00:00December 24th, 2009|General|0 Comments

Human Rights: War and the Righteous

Human rights scholars and advocates were busy last week.

While President Obama reconciled security, morality, and human rights in his speech in Oslo, members of Congress were tied to an effort to incarcerate and/or execute homosexuals in Uganda.  In Obama’s remarks at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, he identified one of the principal tensions our leaders must wrestle with as they uphold their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States: between assuring our security and protecting human rights. Throughout most of American history security has held primacy over morality as the modal framework of foreign policy. As a result, human rights, based in a moral precept of liberty, have been occasionally compromised to achieve security. But, as Obama pointed out in his elocution of the contradiction of waging war to achieve peace, “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend.” He argued that the “United States of America must remain the standard bearer in the conduct of war” to serve its dual aims of security and morality.[1]  In these words he rejected the advocacy of realpolitik prominent during the Nixon-Kissinger era, as well as the hyper-exceptionalism of the George W. Bush era, for a nuanced hybrid of realism and idealism—waging war with moral compass in-hand—an ideological approximation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism.”[2]

Meanwhile, a few senators and congressmen waged their own war against Ugandans by supporting its leaders who are about to pass an anti-gay law that would deprive suspected homosexuals of their freedom and, under certain circumstances, their lives.[3]  Why are these senators, who presumably have a grasp of the American concept of human rights, supporting leaders in Uganda who are trying to legalize the incarceration and execution of homosexuals?  The short answer: because they can.  Their motive and means reveal the dark side of a network of powerful fundamentalists—of a dubious and power-centric theology—who wield influence saturated by righteousness and bigotry. Their common bond with the president of Uganda: they are all members of “the Family.”[4]

The Family is an informal network of Christian fundamentalists that has existed in the United States for many years.  They are also referred to as the “Fellowship,” or “Fellowship Foundation” and sponsor the annual National Prayer Breakfast, attended each year by numerous politicians including the President of the United States.  They own and operate residences in the Washington DC area for the care and fellowship of members, including members of Congress.  Their “man in Africa” according to Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, is Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda. The relationship between Museveni and the Family dates back many years and includes business and moral development.

Uganda has become the sandbox of righteousness for members of the Family who believe their particular interpretation of the Bible is supreme to the laws of man. Their “life equation” according to their leader, Doug Coe, is Jesus + 0 = X.[5] Jesus plus nothing is everything.  Jesus is all you need.  And, not surprisingly, homosexuals are evil.  In Uganda, they have twisted the concept of God’s love with such abandon they have morphed it into hate. Personal liberties, as conceived by the Founding Fathers, are no match for their righteousness. Their concept of separation of church and state is a “myth” that, when interpreted through their evangelical lens, only prohibits the state from influencing the church.[6]  Their concept of human rights includes the right to imprison and execute humans who do not conform to their beliefs.

Human rights are likely more safe than they were under Bush with Obama’s contemplation of foreign policy.  But, human rights remain in peril every day as religious fundamentalists, like those who claim membership in the Family and occupy seats in Congress, operate as rogue warriors waging hate.

[1] Barack Obama, December 11, 2009, “Obama’s Nobel Remarks,” New York Times,
[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.)
[3] Rachel Maddow of MSNBC has been on this story for several days now. See
[4] For a comprehensive study of the Family, see Jeff Sharlet, The Family (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).
[5] Ibid., p. 58.
[6] Ibid., p. 339.
By |2017-05-27T18:53:27+00:00December 13th, 2009|General|0 Comments

The Dark Side of Religion

When things don’t make sense—and as ‘rational’ humans we need them too—we make them make sense.  Our mental health depends on it.  When reason doesn’t provide answers we invite faith to fill the void. This is, at a cognitive level, one of the principal functions of religion.  We accept what our theistic traditions offer to reconcile knowns and unknowns and justify our response to a complex world that too often defies reason.

In David Brooks’ column in the New York Times (10 November 2009) titled “The Rush to Therapy” he points out “The stories we select help us … to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore others. The most important power we have is to select the lens through which we see reality.” Mr. Brooks gets that part right, then he chooses the wrong lens—of Judeo-Christian American exceptionalism—through which he interprets the case of Army Major Nidal Hasan, the shooter at Fort Hood, Texas.

Army Major Nidal Hasan, is an American Muslim and, undoubtedly, a murderer.  He suffered demons we may never fully understand.  Islamic extremists who wage violence throughout the world may have radicalized him.  While we have much more to learn about his story, those with their own agenda or point of view have preemptively written it.  Hasan and his victims have become fodder for our relentless pursuit of a truth that fits our preferred narrative, which serves our innocence while reconciling dissonance to keep us sane. In his column, Brooks writes his version while criticizing those who wait to know more.

Mr. Brooks proceeds by outlining the danger of “malevolent narrative” that has “…emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world … that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other.”  He then offers criticism of those of us who chose restraint over judgment in the case of Major Hasan, producing a “shroud of political correctness [that] settled the conversation” and characterizes it as “patronizing” and a “willful flight from reality.” He claims evidence that proves Hasan “chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.”  In so doing, Brooks reveals his lens of Judeo-Christian American exceptionalism.

Mr. Brooks’ narrative about Islam waging war on Christianity and Judaism could easily be exchanged word-for-word by a columnist at al-Jazeera to criticize moderate Muslims who exercise restraint—crafting an inverse narrative of Christianity and Judaism’s war on Islam.  But Brooks, who is blinded by his lens of exceptionalism, totally, and uncharacteristically, misses this.  He could have led us forward to a higher level of understanding—pointing to the dangers inherent in all religions that allow us to not only make sense of the world, but which also justify violence, oppression, and murder.

All religions claim they are religions of peace.  Few meet the standard.  Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not among the few.  As long as we believe our particular religious traditions are exceptional—that rise above all others—we will forever remain in the same trap as Brooks, feeling better in the moment and forever in danger.


By |2017-05-27T16:19:33+00:00November 10th, 2009|General|0 Comments
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