Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Wolfgang!

Several years before my father passed away, a new technology was coming of age: the digital audio compact disc, or CD for short. I recall trying to convince my father of the idea that this was a technology likely to endure. After some initial resistance, he finally went along with my assessment and decided to buy one of these newfangled CD players and discs. The Sony player he purchased cost over $300! I still have it today, and it still works like a charm. (Love those Sony products.) His choice for music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

The disc my Dad chose was not just a digital conversion of an older analog recording, but a recording originally engineered and mastered with the new digital technology. So impressed was he with the sound quality of this recording, he immediately started a whole new music library of compact discs.

Being the big Mozart fan that I am, every year I quietly celebrate the commemoration of his birth - January 27, 1756. One way I do this is by putting that first disc my father bought into that still-perfect Sony CD player and listening to it in its entirety. As I perform this annual ritual, I am able to relive the better part of what our father-son relationship had to offer: achieving a measure of intimacy by sharing our love for the music of Mozart.

It's January 27th again, and time to spend a few moments with Mozart and my Dad. Thanks, Pop, and happy birthday, Wolfgang!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Calculated Deference: Selecting Pastor Warren for the Inauguration Invocation

In selecting mega pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church to give a religious invocation at his inauguration, President Obama continued a trend widely employed during his campaign: deferring to ideological opponents in a manner designed to surreptitiously induce their engagement.

In much the same way candidate Obama maneuvered to engage conservatives by reversing his FISA vote or pandering to Christian conservatives, he carefully considered the possibility of a net gain in the long term by risking offending important constituents in the short term in selecting Pastor Warren for the invocation task.

Upsetting some of his most vociferous supporters at this stage no doubt involves a small measure of risk. Those who support gay rights came out in a big way for Obama during the election, and allowing the controversial Pastor Warren his moment in the sun surely calls for some explanation, given that Mr. Warren is equally vociferous in his opposition to gay marriage.

As for the merits of Rick Warren's views, reasonable minds can differ assuming reasonable minds can be found among right-wing Christians. It says much about how little secular proponents have achieved that there should even be a religious invocation at the swearing in of a new president. It also says something about how much they have achieved that their mere existence should deserve mention in the president's inaugural address.

If there's one thing President Obama appreciates, it is symbolism. An important reason given for closing the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center is that it has become a symbol which controverts professed American values. Americans themselves understand symbolism as well, and the symbol of a conservative, Christian Evangelical pastor momentarily presiding over the inauguration of a new president for the purpose of summoning a Christian deity for its blessing also contradicts a few uniquely American values.

Being able to assess the political ramifications of his decisions appears to be an Obama strength, and he has cautiously calculated that the Pastor Warren debacle will subside and a political benefit will ultimately be achieved.

One weapon President Obama will undoubtedly deploy from his arsenal of rhetoric and governance will be the same one he used in the Pastor Warren decision - the ability to calculate.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Inclusion of Non-Believers: Overdue

During his inaugural address, President Barack Obama uttered a simple yet somehow controversial phrase acknowledging the mere existence of non-believers among the many social constituencies in America. Predictably, many Christians took offense at this. Fearing the dilution of their own cultural dominance, many of these Christians simply won't accede to the notion that diversity, not religiosity, is the value much more worthy of precedence and celebration.

What many among the Christian majority seem to want is to live in denial - denial that those who prefer not to practice any religion at all make up a substantial portion of society. This non-religious segment is also beginning to shows the first signs of morphing into a political entity, which may in fact be what the religious right fears most. While it will likely be a very long time before atheists command anything close to a majority faction among voters, it is certainly foreseeable that they could form a swing voting block significant enough to threaten the domination of Christian conservatives. By first cooperating with liberal evangelicals and other religious progressives, non-believers can begin the slow but inexorable march toward political viability.

It has been said that former president George H. W. Bush did not even think atheists should be considered as citizens or patriots at all. This being the case, the mere acknowledgment by President Obama of the rightful place in society of non-religious citizens is an important first step.

But what can atheists do to further their own legitimacy? First, the ones who engage in the same type of fear mongering that many right-wing conservatives do, should cease their own extremist rhetoric and moderate their tone. Intolerance is not the answer to intolerance. Getting the message out that non-believers are in no way trying to remove God from public life, but rather trying to remove overt religious influence from institutions of government should be first and foremost. Further, aligning themselves with religious constituents who understand the wisdom of separating church and state would be a symbol that cooperation between these two groups is possible. In other words, the surest way to get respect is to give respect.

When President Obama dared to include non-believers as part of the American ideological melting pot during his inaugural address, he was acting in a manner the duty of the office demanded: to be the president of all, not the cultural spokesperson of the religious majority.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Glorification of Suffering: Another Empty Doctrine

If something can be said to be as certain as death and taxes, it is suffering. In all its manifestations, suffering is one of the most defining aspects of humanity. The pervasiveness of suffering stirs many to attempt deciphering its meaning, rationalizing its potential and assigning it a redeeming value.

Suffering also has a timeless quality as a core component of the Christian theme of redemption. According to doctrine, death and resurrection complete the mysterious triad of achievement accomplished by none other than the man who immortalized for his followers the very concept of suffering, Jesus himself. To this day, many Catholics continue the longstanding practice of a devotional meditation known as the Stations of the Cross, during which intense contemplation of the final suffering and ultimate death of Jesus is commemorated at 14 distinct points, or stations, along the road to his crucifixion. The message of 'The Stations' is clear: suffering is the path to salvation.

But is the assignment of suffering as something people should aspire to truly healthful, functional or enlightened? In a somewhat ironic twist, rather than actually accepting the church's teaching that the suffering of Christ was endured precisely so that humanity would not have to suffer, many believers take from this the idea that man's calling is rather to emulate Christ's suffering as a means of assuring their own redemption. Suffering thereby becomes the price of admission to one's future heavenly abode, and driven by the urgent desire to gain this admission, the faithful amid this flock will stop at nothing when it comes to disregarding the human duty to mitigate suffering, especially one's own.

At its core, suffering is a symptom - a symptom of illness, failure, dysfunction, injustice, etc., and treating this symptom demands a moral imperative be made of the action required to alleviate it. Blindly accepting suffering as an inevitable consequence of human interaction without challenging its moral underpinnings is an act of cowardice. Further, the glorification of suffering suggests a futility amid efforts to minimize its effects thereby contriving the need for many to create for themselves an entity fully capable of eradicating suffering altogether - an entity many refer to as God.

There is no escaping the responsibility we freely impose upon ourselves to acknowledge, confront and eliminate the ubiquitous scourge of personal pain. Guided by innate goodness, man is destined to serve as the enforcer of his own moral charter, and in the trenches of daily human life, there is no higher calling than to relieve one's fellow man of the inimitable burden of suffering.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The New(t) Fascists: Gays and Secularists

The O'Reilly Factor (of the Fox Network) is, of course, well known for handing megaphones to those of far-right political orientation, and a recent appearance by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reaffirms why "The Factor" is just where this cultural Neanderthal belongs. Newt has knocked a few of us liberals right back to reality by revealing just how brazen the tongue of this ultra conservative icon can truly be.

Just as it appears Gingrich may be moderating his image by acknowledging some of the mistakes and excesses of his own Republican Party, Newt has retrenched and reverted to his tried-and-true methods of inane bloviating. His latest ideological gem assigns the volatile label of "fascist" to gays seeking equal rights and secularists seeking the separation of church and state. In doing so, Gingrich has officially removed himself from consideration for the office of Arbiter-General for Morality and Reason.

Newt suffers from the same affliction most of the rest of the tyrannical religious majority does: he doesn't understand that he and his kind are not the only ones living in this country. They believe we all live in the United States of God-Fearing Christians as opposed to the United States of America. Their intellectual integrity is challenged by concepts like pluralism, equality and fairness. They don't comprehend the absurdity of advocating for a virtual theocracy while living in an evolving democracy.

Newt claims gays and secularists are trying to "impose their will on the rest of us." He can't quite seem to wrap his head around the fact that the religious have been imposing their will on the rest of us for two hundred years! Gays and secularists want nothing more than to be freed from the cultural, legal and political underground to which they have been relegated for far too long. Newt has it backwards. Gays and secularists have been discriminated against, ostracized, marginalized and totally subordinated for no other reason than the fact that those of the religious right think this country belongs to them.

One hundred and fifty years ago this country believed slavery was a legitimate enterprise and Blacks were naturally inferior to Whites . . . A hundred years ago men believed women had no place in the palace of politics . . . Fifty years ago straight people believed gays were morally bankrupt and had no place in society . . . For two hundred years religious people believed this country was theirs and atheists and secularists were virtual demons. Times change. The moral zeitgeist marches on.

Rest assured another one hundred years from now history will judge the Newt Gingriches of the world to have been as tragically misguided as those who owned slaves, refused citizens the right to vote, celebrated the hatred of homosexuals, and demonized atheists and free thinkers. Without missing a step, the moral zeitgeist will continue its methodical march onward and upward.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

"Jesus Camp": A Haunting Exposè

The 2006 documentary film Jesus Camp, directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, confirms the suspicion many of us hold about Christian Evangelicals and their agenda. Jesus Camp features the efforts of Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer and her Kids On Fire summer camp to win over the hearts and minds of young children to the cause of Christ.

So questionable are the tactics employed by Fischer that much of Jesus Camp plays more like a case study in megalomania. Fischer's emotional investment in her camp - and in the minds of her child minions - is so consuming, at one point while preparing to address her followers she allows the telling sentiment, "I get exhausted doing this."

Despite openly advocating for a Christian theocracy in America, Fischer denies her motives are in any way political. There's no mistaking, however, what Fischer means when she says "we must reclaim America for Christ."

Fischer mistakenly claims that "our nation was founded upon Judeo/Christian values" ignoring the much more accurate notion that while Judeo/Christian values have held a dominant stake in the cultural stock of America for a long time, it in no way changes the fact that the United States was explicitly founded upon secular precepts including the separation of church and state as delineated in the First Amendment.

At several points throughout Jesus Camp on his Ring of Fire radio talk show, Mike Papantonio, a Christian himself, lambastes his more extreme fellow Christians for the practice of turning children into ideological soldiers in a culture war that is much more appropriately manned by informed adults. When he gets Becky Fischer on the line, she does not hesitate to stand by the practice of "indoctrinating" children for her purposes. She also reveals her own belief that democracy is ultimately nihilistic because it allows for competing religions and viewpoints which she claims undermine the only thing that will save America - Christianity.

What was hard not to notice in Jesus Camp were the powerful marketing tools used to manipulate the children. Besides a Christian brand of rock music and even rap-style songs that were sure to appeal to the young, the shirt of one rather charming boy named Levi had the word "Jesus" emblazoned across the torso in such a way so as to precisely imitate the Reese's peanut butter and chocolate candy bar brand. Ingenious and nefarious at the same time.

What did the producers of Jesus Camp have in mind when making this movie? From one perspective it appears as though exposing Becky Fischer, her camp and her tactics has the effect of portraying evangelicals in such a poor light it has the power to galvanize public opinion against them. On the other hand, there will no doubt be those who see this film as a virtual manifesto for Christian evangelising intended to inspire people of a similar mind to go out and inculcate as many children as possible.

Where directors Grady and Ewing succeed is in pulling back the curtain on evangelicals and exposing their sinister agenda: to spread their message via the vile practice of child mind control. And like a virulent cancer, what is being spread is not nearly so important as the fact that it is being spread.