Tuesday, August 31, 2004
But, if Sen. Elizabeth Dole is our guide, they sure do defend it. What is a serious Christian to make of her statement — which I can't believe I just heard her utter — that George W. Bush "has brought the peace that passeth understanding"? Excuse me! And although Dole inverted language from the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus uses to describe his own mission, I found it appalling to hear a biblical allusion to Christ's "yoke" and "burden" applied to the president of the United States.
The Presidency tests all who have been there. It has tested you, sir. Your road has not been easy; your burden has not been light; yet you have displayed the peace that surpasses all understanding. We salute you.
Theologians, I ask you: Has the president "displayed" the peace of God?
I hold back on offering much commentary on the Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly here on Philocrites while I'm writing UU World's GA coverage. But now that the September/October issue of the magazine is arriving in people's mailboxes, here's my report — and here's the section on this year's "language of reverence" conversation:
Reverence Revisited. Several workshops and plenary speeches expanded on conversations begun at last year's Assembly about religious language. Last year, a delegate's request opened up forty-five minutes of plenary discussion in response to President Sinkford's call for a renewed “language of reverence” in the UUA. Some perceived his call as a reactionary move toward mainline or conservative Christianity, but others saw him urging religious liberals to acknowledge the spirituality that is already among us.
This year, Sinkford invited the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of the Unitarian Universalist Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, to lead the Assembly in some “deeper reflection” on the subject. Barker invited UUs to ask two questions as they considered religious language. “First, how are you personally deepened by your experience of Unitarian Universalism? And second, what key words did you use to answer the first question?”
Two Meadville Lombard professors then addressed the plenary session on religious language. History professor Dean Grodzins suggested that UUs are focusing too narrowly on how we talk about religion. “Driving this debate is a widespread sense that UUism is not living up to its potential as a religious movement,” he said. “People wonder whether these problems would be eased or solved if only UUs would talk differently about religion.” In all our talk about words, however, Grodzins argued that UUs have ignored the history of Unitarian and Universalist religious behavior.
“Religion,” Grodzins said, “is above all something that you do.” He urged UUs to pay attention to the history of our religious actions—from rituals like communion and chalice lightings to community activities like book groups and sports teams—for signs of Unitarian Universalism's “vital element.”
Meadville Lombard theologian the Rev. Dr. Thandeka told the Assembly that “our reverence for the spirit of life—for life itself—is not a creed, an idea, or a thought. It is not a doctrine. It is a feeling—the feeling of being held, loved, and cherished.” She argued that this feeling comes before words, thoughts, or concepts. Our religious tradition, she said, helps us articulate these feelings in a language of reverence, which she summarized in three affirmations:
First, hold life dearly. Nurture and attend to life, all of it, come what may. This principle makes us a justice-seeking people. Second, love life deeply. Know the worth and dignity of all persons and treat them with respect. Revere life. This rule makes us a moral, compassionate people. Third, cherish life always. Honor life. Honor the life of others. Our ethics of interrelationship begin here.
In other workshops and lectures, the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, urged UUs to embrace the religious purpose of the church. “We are not a social club,” she said. “We are not a debating society. We are not a place where like-minded people come to confirm their beliefs. We are a religious movement. Every meeting, every class, every Sunday morning service should be framed in the context of our reason for being.” She identified that fundamental religious purpose with Universalism's proclamation of an ultimate forgiving Love.
The Rev. David Bumbaugh, another professor at Meadville Lombard, revisited the controversy he inspired three years ago when his lecture, “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence,” inspired President Sinkford's advocacy of “reverence.” Bumbaugh lamented that Sinkford and others had embraced words like “God,” which, he argued, have been irredeemably corrupted by a history of ecclesiastical abuse and commercial manipulation. “I do not believe we will find a language of reverence adequate to our times or our own experience of the world,” he said, “by embracing the rituals and language of others or of the past or by rummaging around in someone else's traditions.”
The Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, responded to Bumbaugh by arguing that there are three legitimate purposes for a language of reverence: to respond to the experience of reverence, to describe the experience of reverence, and to elicit the experience of reverence. “We do not invent love, or even suffering, for ourselves,” she said. “We learn what to do with our feelings by the example and precept of others, who demonstrate what love looks like in action, or how to endure pain, or how to express reverence.”
Gibbons defended humanism and religious naturalism, but said: “To think that we must dispense with all traditional language and symbols and concepts in order to speak about that which is deepest and dearest, the enduring focus of our commitment and the precious source of human good, is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever, so profound, or so committed as we are, that those who have been down the path of life before us have no wisdom to teach, and that we can learn nothing from all that they have left to us.”
She said she interpreted Sinkford's call as a recognition that “a religious tradition that does not help its members to discover meaningful and satisfying ways of expressing and responding to the human experiences of reverence . . . is missing a crucial and central piece of its function.”
If you have $12 to spend on a recording of one event at this year's Assembly, I'd recommend the session featuring David Bumbaugh and Kendyl Gibbons's essays. It's session 3126, although there's also an extended report about a repeat session at the UUA Web site.
Bella English has been following the closing of St Albert the Great in Weymouth, Massachusetts, for the Boston Globe. St Albert, a thriving Catholic parish led by an outspoken priest, is among the 82 parishes the Archdiocese of Boston is closing this year. St Albert's last Mass was Sunday night. English reports that the parishioners learned one of the more valuable lessons of the Protestant Reformation — and the Second Vatican Council — the hard way:
At the last Masses, a member of the parish council read a statement thanking [the Rev. Ron] Coyne for creating a family feeling in the parish and for teaching them to ask questions. "We will no longer blindly follow the mandates set down by the institution," the statement said. "We now understand that we are the church and we are followers of Christ and not the Archdiocese of Boston."
Unresolved: How many parishioners will become Episcopalians? And will Father Coyne ever be given a parish again?
("Weymouth parishioners stage sit-in to protest closing," Bella English, Boston Globe 8.31.04)
You said it, Mr President! Four more years of catastrophic successes, and we'll really be getting somewhere.
Monday, August 30, 2004
The headline over Bill Broadway's article in the Washington Post says: "In Congress, Religion Drives Divide: Polarization of Political Parties Strengthened by Differences in Faith Affiliation." But after reading the story I can't see where it shows that religion can take much credit. What the research reported on in the Post really seems to show is that both the Republican and Democratic Parties have been taken hostage by ideologues in the abortion war.
I was hoping to find out what trends there were in representation from different religious groups, but we only learn that the number of Evangelicals in Congress has gone up from about 10 percent in the 1970s to about 25 percent today. When it comes to changes in the Catholic or mainline Protestant delegations, we only find out that the conservatives are more conservative and the liberals are more liberal. Sigh.
In another important development, Roman Catholic legislators are no longer predominantly aligned with the Democratic Party. Traditional Catholics land on the Republican side and theologically liberal Catholics on the Democratic.
"Religion is much more aligned with partisanship than it was in the past," said Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Evangelical Protestants recruit other evangelicals to run for office, as do theologically liberal Catholics, conservative mainline Protestants, and so forth.
The most visible examples of such alignments have occurred among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, according to D'Antonio and Tuch.
Most mainline Protestant denominations have taken a formal position supporting a woman's right to have an abortion, while the Catholic Church has steadfastly opposed any form of abortion. Yet some lawmakers affiliated with those faith groups in recent sessions have voted the other way.
From 1979 to 2003, mainline Protestant Democrats — Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and United Church of Christ — generally followed their church's teaching, increasing their abortion-rights votes by 13 percentage points, from 62 percent to 75 percent, according to the study.
During the same time, mainline Protestant Republicans in the Senate shifted from being split on abortion — 45 percent for abortion rights and 55 percent against — to being 80 percent antiabortion in 1996. Mainline Protestant Republicans in the House have remained steady — 80 percent are against abortion rights, D'Antonio said.
Not surprisingly, Catholic Republicans remained overwhelmingly antiabortion during the period of the study, voting almost unanimously with the antiabortion position taken by the Vatican and by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, D'Antonio said.
At the same time, Catholic Democrats have evolved from being strongly in favor of abortion rights to overwhelmingly so.
On other key issues taken by the bishops, the roles are reversed, with Catholic Republicans opposing the positions Catholic bishops have taken and Catholic Democrats supporting them. Such issues include taxes, minimum wage, health care, removing sanctions against Cuba and nuclear weapons.
Another way to look at this, of course, is to observe that the mainline denominations have also been divided by "culture war" issues during the last quarter-century. And because the article doesn't tell us how the number of mainline Protestants or Catholics in Congress has changed since 1979, it's not that easy to see what's driving the polarization. We learn that the number of Catholic Republicans in Congress has gone up — but not by how much — and we learn that the number of Evangelicals has gone up, too, but all we learn about mainline Protestants is that the differences of opinion among them have hardened along partisan lines.
(Hat tip to The Revealer.)
Sunday, August 29, 2004
The broad and contentious coalition of ideologies and interests otherwise known as the Democratic Party has found an amazing amount of focus this year in George W. Bush, whom we all agree needs to go. But that clarity of purpose is giving moderates, liberals, lefties, and everybody else under the Democratic big-top the momentary illusion that we're all marching toward the same long-term goals.
It's nice to see, through David Brooks's long and fascinating New York Times Magazine cover story today, that Republicans are similarly uncertain about the long-term direction of their party:
When [Republicans] nominated George Bush in 2000, they had no idea that Mr. Small Acts of Compassion was going to be transformed into Mr. Epic War Against Evil. They had no idea they were nominating a guy who was going to embark on a generational challenge to transform the Middle East. They had no idea they were nominating a guy who would create a huge new cabinet department for homeland security, who would not try to cut even a single government agency, who would be the first president in a generation to create a new entitlement program, the prescription drug benefit, projected to cost $534 billion over the next 10 years. They had no idea that a Republican-led government would spend federal dollars with an alacrity that Clinton never dreamed of, would create large deficits, would significantly increase the federal role in education, would increase farm subsidies, would pass campaign-finance reform and would temporarily impose tariffs on steel.
The Republicans who gather in New York this week love George Bush. They admire the stalwart way he has fought the war on terror. They understand why, post-Sept. 11, he has governed the way he has. But they are a little shellshocked by the unexpected transformation that has come over their party, and they do not know how it is going to turn out.
Democrats may imagine that the G.O.P. is an amalgam of fat cats and conservative ideologues, but things feel different inside Republican circles. Inside there are, beneath the cheering and the resolve, waves of anxiety, uncertainty and disagreement. You hang around Republicans, and you begin to hear all sorts of discordant things. Jesse Helms recently remarked he wouldn't have voted for the tax cut if he'd known how bad the deficit would become. Three of the senior right-wing columnists — George F. Will, Robert Novak and William F. Buckley Jr. — have come out, in their different ways, against the war in Iraq. I had lunch recently with a senior Republican official who said his party had succumbed; it was ''defeatist'' about reducing the size of government. As Will himself has observed, under President Bush, American conservatism is undergoing an identity crisis.
I haven't digested the whole article yet, but definitely check it out. ("How to reinvent the G.O.P.," David Brook, New York Times Magazine 8.29.04, reg req'd.) Oh, and if you need something to scratch your conspiracy theory itch, here's yesterday's peek behind the curtain: "Club of the Most Powerful Gathers in Strictest Privacy" (David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times 8.28.04, reg req'd).
As the Archdiocese of Boston closes 82 parishes this week, one doomed congregation has found an inspiring way to transform its closing into a gift: The parishioners of St. Alphonsus Church in Beverly are using the rest of the church's operating budget to build a church in the Dominican Republic. The parish is also sending many of its sacred objects to the remote Dominican village.
Mrs Philocrites observes that this act of faithful stewardship is also a way to put the parish's money somewhere other than the Archdiocesan piggybank, which is still trying to cover millions of dollars in settlements with the victims of clergy sexual abuse.
("A rebirth for Beverly church," Michael Paulson and Kathy McCabe, Boston Globe 8.29.04)
Sometimes it helps, when Americans grow so short-sighted as to turn "liberalism" into a bad word, to step back and see how important liberalism really is — as in places where people could really use some:
Even as Saudi Arabia struggles internally with violent extremists and externally with its image as the country that produced most of the attackers of Sept. 11, 2001, the desert kingdom's rulers are moving on multiple fronts to modernize and moderate their nation.
Partial local elections are scheduled, starting in October, for the first time in the kingdom's history.
A series of highly publicized national dialogues is opening public discussion on religious and social topics, ranging from the sensitive to the previously taboo.
Women are increasingly outspoken in asserting their rights to participate in society, both economically and politically.
And the rigid religious hierarchy that a few years ago was sending morality police into the streets to enforce an extremely strict version of Islam is seeing its powers erode.
None of this means irrevocable change has occurred toward moderation or liberalism in Saudi Arabia, the world's most austere Muslim nation. Critics say that the pace is far too slow and that change is coming not because it is seen as good for the average citizen but because since Sept. 11, the United States is demanding it. Others say the changes are occurring because Saudi Arabia itself has become a target of deadly Al Qaeda-linked terror attacks that have killed more than 50 people, most of them Saudis, in recent months.
But there is broad agreement that the momentum for change has not been this strong since 1979, when a radically different set of regional and international circumstances pushed Saudi rulers into what would prove a disastrous adventure with Islamic extremists.
The rest of the story is fascinating. ("Vote nears, Saudis push to modernize," Charles A. Radin, Boston Globe 8.29.04)
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
And now I'm off the air for two weeks. This is an open thread for Philocritophiles to carry on whatever conversation about liberal religion and politics you'd like to have while I'm away. I'll miss you all — but I've got boxes of Ikea furniture to assemble and some novels to read, so life is good.
Yet another wake-up call to liberals, who seem caught in the conundrum that it's awfully hard for a lot of people marching to the beat of their own individual drummers to fend off a handful of people marching in unison:
The Christian-right Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is organizing up to 4,000 homeschooled kids "to do grass-roots campaigning for socially conservative candidates in hotly contested races throughout the country." The effort, dubbed "Generation Joshua" — round and round the walls of separation of church and state they'll go, till the walls come a-tumblin' down — is not an isolated new developement.
With 81,000 members, HSLDA represents fewer than 10 percent of homeschoolers, according to Steve Grove in the Boston Globe's Ideas section. But it is the only homeschooling organization with political aspirations — especially at the national level — beyond advocating for homeschoolers' rights. "We believe that some day homeschooled young people will help reverse Roe v. Wade [and] stop same-sex marriage," writes HSLDA president Michael Farris, who also heads Patrick Henry College, the finishing school for conservative Christian homeschoolers.
The dilemma is not that liberal and moderate homeschooling parents should somehow discover some sort of rival political agenda to mobilize around. The dilemma is that liberals do not yet have a bevy of organized grass-roots groups all focused on a shared set of goals — but social conservatives do. I don't think the Christian right poses a direct political threat like the advent of some sort of evangelical theocracy because even a really well-organized minority can't simply mobilize itself directly into office. Our political system forces everybody to compromise with somebody along the way. But the fact that conservatism has gained considerable ground in American society over the last forty years is both a tribute to conservative persistence and ingenuity and a testament to a severe failure of liberal imagination. Personally, I rue the day that "protest" became synonymous with liberalism, making us seem like petulant teens complaining that things should be done differently. Sure they should. But by whom? If we're not also in positions to make changes, demanding that someone else do it reveals our own powerlessness. And this is what conservatives learned over the past thirty-five to forty years.
Grove interviews NYU sociologist Mitchell Stevens, who studies the homeschooling phenomenon. Grove writes:
Stevens sees the lack of any national political organizing among liberals and other "inclusive" homeschoolers that approaches the visibility and clout of the HSLDA as symptomatic of the left's broader problems.
"This is really emblematic of a larger story about idealist politics on the left and right," he said. "Conservatives love Washington. It's 'Politics is great, sign me up, let's go, let's figure out how to get our voice heard!' But what the left has done since the 1970s is to talk about how the system is tainted."
The religious right, Stevens says, has made involvement in politics an admirable goal for young people. "Look around. Where are the idealist people on the left going? Are they dreaming of becoming Senate aides, stuffing envelopes on 17th Street?"
Like I said, a wake-up call.
("Reading, Writing & Right-Wing Politics," Steven Grove, Boston Globe 8.15.04)
Jonathan Rauch, my favorite advocate of same-sex marriage, sees two very different stories in New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey's dramatic resignation. The political story is one of a kind: "A rich and seemingly unique concatenation of homosexuality, adultery, suspicions of political featherbedding, and rumors of extortion and sexual harassment made the McGreevey scandal look like an aberration."
But the personal, human story — the tragedy of a gay man who marries a woman, betraying himself and eventually his wife — is all too common:
Opponents of same-sex marriage sometimes insist that gays can marry. Marriage, they say, isn't all about sex. It can be about an abstinent, selfless love. Well, as Benjamin Franklin said, where there is marriage without love there will be love without marriage. I'm always startled when some of the same people who say that gays are too promiscuous and irresponsible to marry turn around and urge us into marriages that practically beg to end in adultery and recklessness.
For most human beings, the urge to find and marry one's other half is elemental. It is central to what most people regard as the good life. Gay people's lives are damaged when that aspiration is quashed, of course. Mr. McGreevey can probably attest to that. But so are the lives of spouses, of children. Mr. McGreevey can probably attest to that, too. . . .
The McGreevey debacle suggests why all Americans, gay and straight alike, have a stake in universalizing marriage. The greatest promise of same-sex marriage is not the tangible improvement it may bring to today's committed gay couples, but its potential to reinforce the message that marriage is the gold standard for human relationships: that adults and children and gays and straights and society and souls all flourish best when love, sex and marriage go together. Nothing will ever make the discovery of homosexual longings easy for a young person. But homosexuality need not mean growing up, as Jim McGreevey and I and many others did, torn between marriage and love.
("Imperfect Unions, Jonathan Rauch, New York Times 8.15.04, reg req'd)
That's the verdict from Father Eirinaios Nakos at the Athens Orthodox Cathedral in Greece, in a great Boston Globe article about the Greek Orthodox Church's attitudes toward the "pagan" Olympics — and about Greece's unmatched concessions to its state religion and largest landlord. One Chicago-born Greek Church official tells the Globe's Thanassis Cambanis, "There is no state without the church," but a Greek ex-pat back for the Olympics from Switzerland sees the other side of the coin: "We still have a dictatorship of the church here."
And where were all the Greeks on Sunday? Celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin Mary — "the biggest religious holiday in Greece other than Easter." Would it have been so hard for the NBC announcers to name the festival that emptied the bleachers during Sunday's Olympics events?
("They Flocked from Games," Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe 8.16.04)
Hank Peirce shares the story of his predecessor at the Universalist Church of Medford, Mass.: the Rev. Eugene H. Adams, who died last week. Adams was quite a character, according to the Boston Globe obituary based on Hank's account:
As a teenager, Rev. Adams became a boxer. He fought professionally under the name ''Red Adams," but his career ended by way of a knockout on the canvas of the old Boston Garden in 1938.
Rev. Adams turned instead to the classroom. Despite a number of hurdles, including lacking the proper high school credits for college admission, he entered Tufts College with a special student permit and graduated in four years. By 1945, he had a master of divinity degree from the university.
His first steps in the ministry, however, were staggers. At his first post, in Iowa in 1945, he lasted three days.
A church member denounced his smoking, saying it would lead to drinking and fraternizing with ''wild women," said Rev. Peirce. Rev. Adams quit the post, not the habit.
After a stint as a social worker, Rev. Adams joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Binghamton, N.Y. This time, he lasted for three months, dismissed amid accusations that he was a Communist. . . .
In 1961, Rev. Adams began serving at the First Universalist Church of Worcester and his social activism soared.
A leader in the local civil rights movement, he embraced several other causes; for three years, he wore denim in the pulpit to show his support for migrant farm workers.
A reminder that there's not only a religious left in this country, but some honest-to-God religious leftists, too.
("Rev. Eugene Adams at 87, civil rights leader, minister," Michael Busack, Boston Globe 8.16.04)
I'm not officially on hiatus just yet: My last round of blogging was interrupted by a third Philocrites family trip to Ikea yesterday, where Mrs Philocrites and I have been acquiring new bedroom furniture. (We've spent four days traveling back and forth through Connecticut, where, I should tangentially report, we have seen only one Bush/Cheney 04 bumper sticker.) I'm spending part of our vacation assembling all sorts of things Swedish. If Ikea would simply print its instruction booklets in color, one might conclude that Ikea really is Lego for adults, because I felt like I was reverting to childhood and setting out on a great weekend of Lego-building when I put together the Leksvik six-drawer chest. All the pieces! The orderliness of it all!
(One cautionary note to anyone else assembling the six-drawer chest: It is almost impossible to complete Step 24 after doing Steps 17 through 20. You don't really need to anchor the chest to the wall while building it, so skip Step 21 and attach the anchor to the inside of the chest before putting the back of the dresser on. Trust me.)
And now, the rest of my pre-hiatus blogging . . .
Monday, August 16, 2004
The Rev. Stephen S. Josoma, presiding at a Mass on Boston Common protesting the leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston, asked forgiveness "for the times we have paid, prayed, and obeyed." Approximately 2,000 Catholics attended Sunday's outdoor Mass, which was sponsored by Voice of the Faithful, the lay reform movement launched in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
("Thousands protest church in public Mass," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 8.16.04)
Concord in Emerson's day was the closest thing to Lewis Mumford's notion of the ideal community. But Philip McFarland says that Nathaniel Hawthorne moved away for the same reason folks like me don't live there today: "The rent in Utopia . . . was too high."
("Almost paradise," Joshua Glenn, Boston Globe 8.15.04)
Ethics of fiction.
Joshua Glenn also interviews critic James Wood, whose reviews in the New Republic are consistently rewarding. Wood gives a great definition of what I call "moral imagination":
[W]hat I'm most interested in, as a critic, is what we might nebulously call human truth — a true account of the world as we experience it, and of the full difficulty of being in that world. Creating living characters, and writing fiction expressing what Henry James called "the present palpable intimate," entails, for me at least, some kind of morality. Requiring readers to put themselves into the minds of many different kinds of other people is a moral action on the part of the author.
("The morals of the story," Joshua Glenn, Boston Globe 8.15.04)
If you're an investment advisor who practices Transcendental Meditation, what do you do? Move to Vedic City, founded by followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, of course. (You'll probably also consider changing your title from chief executive officer to "chief spiritual officer.") That's what Eric Schwartz did — and he's not the only successful businessman in Iowa's new boom town who finds inspiration in TM.
("Unlikely meditation outpost finds some business in Iowa," Kari Lydersen [Washington Post], Boston Globe 8.15.04)
Update 8.31.04: Here's even more about Vedic City and the "Meditators" in Iowa, from NPR's Morning Edition.
Ah, summer vacation! The Philocritai are enjoying a break, and I've decided to take advantage of my real-world vacation — and a crashed iBook — by taking a little blogging sabbatical. After a flurry of posts to come very shortly, I'm going to sign off for about two weeks. I'll clear spam out of the comments from time to time, but otherwise I'm going to see what life is like without feeling like I ought to be adding something new. (I've been blogging away since the start of 2002, so I think a break is in order.)
With a crashed iBook and only one other modestly capable computer in the house, I've discovered an even more portable way to blog. (Neo-luddites: This is your moment to cheer. It's also the moment when I reveal that I actually do most of my newspaper and magazine reading using actual woodpulp publications. Which makes me a retrograde blogger. Well, that and my AOL dialup account.) While Mrs Philocrites was working this morning on various Sunday School-related writing projects, I went through my weekend reading with paper and pencil and wrote out my blog entries long-hand. There are a lot, partly to atone for my relative silence the last few weeks, partly out of guilt for leaving without a last hurrah, and partly because it turns out I'm much more productive when I'm not typing! Hmm . . .
A final thought: While I'm off-line for the next two weeks, please feel welcome to carry on conversations with each other in the comments. I'm going to (try to) be disciplined about not chiming in myself, but don't let that stop you from sharing good news, bad news, great ideas, and questions.
Friday, August 13, 2004
From E.J. Graff's TNR Online essay about the governor of New Jersey and his not guilty by reason of coming out of the closet plea:
Gays and lesbians should leave this guy dangling on his self-constructed gallows. We've worked hard over the past thirty years to make it possible—to make it legal—to live an out, honorable life. Backing McGreevey only gives ammunition to the religious right, which will spin his resignation like this: "See, gays really are breaking up the American family. Gay sex equals adultery, literally. Those homos really do want men to race irresponsibly off seeking gonadal bliss, rather than staying home and fulfilling their God-given duties to the wife and kids." No, let McGreevey clean up his own scandal, whether he's fleeing a lawsuit or blackmail or some other ugly consequence of sexual double-dealing.
Meanwhile, let us redirect our attention back to the other coast. On the same day that McGreevey resigned his governorship while holding his wife's hand and confessing his sins, the California Supreme Court declared that Mayor Gavin Newsom wrongly overstepped his authority when, last winter, he issued marriage licenses to same-sex pairs. That was, alas, the procedural ruling observers had expected. But heartbreakingly—and instead of waiting to hear the substantive constitutional arguments for or against same-sex marriages—the Golden State's top court also vaporized the 4,037 marriages that resulted. All those longtime couples who dared to commit themselves to each other, not just in life but in law, are once again legal strangers.
On one coast, yet another politician announces that he cheated on his marriage vows; on the other coast, thousands of men and women are being cheated out of theirs. One event is an entertaining tabloid headline, but a flyspeck on history's windshield. The other is a speedbump on the difficult drive toward civil rights, one of American history's greatest themes. That's the real story.
("Broken Vows," TNR Online 8.13.04)
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Over at Beliefnet, three lively conversations about Unitarian Universalism are worth checking out: In one, ChaliceChick asks: "What motivates liberal christians to come to UUism?" (My own experience is that Unitarian Universalism enables many of us to emerge from a cautious uncertainty into liberal Christianity.) In a followup conversation, allpoints23 asks: "Is the UU future theist?" And Matthew Gatheringwater launches a conversation in response to Jaroslav Pelikan's "Speaking of Faith" public radio program, "The Need for Creeds." In essence, Matthew asks, do we need a creed?
New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier writes that Checkpoint, Nicholson Baker's new novel about a scheme to assassinate President Bush, is "scummy." And he takes the opportunity of his review to call liberals back out of the political gutter:
[T]he virulence that calls itself critical thinking, the merry diabolization of other opinions and the other people who hold them, the confusion of rightness with righteousness, the preference for aspersion to argument, the view that the strongest statement is the truest statement — these deformations of political discourse now thrive in the houses of liberalism too. The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left. . . .
Liberals must think carefully about their keenness to mirror some of the most poisonous qualities of their adversaries. It was never exactly a disgrace to American liberalism that it lacked its Limbaugh. But demagoguery now enjoys a new prestige. Thus, a prominent liberal thinker writes a book against George W. Bush that refreshingly prefers ideas to innuendoes, and a sympathetic reviewer in this newspaper laments that "instead of 'Reason,' which the left already has too much of, the Democrats need a book titled 'Brass Knuckles.' " The argument for liberal demagoguery is twofold, tactical and philosophical. There are those who believe the Democrats cannot succeed without the politics of the sewer. These are the same people who believe it is the politics of the sewer to which the Republicans owe their success. This view significantly underestimates the depth and the nature of George W. Bush's support in American society, and significantly overestimates the influence of the media and its pundit vaudeville on American politics. Rush Limbaugh did not elect a president and neither will Michael Moore. All the professional manipulation of opinion notwithstanding, reality is still more powerful than its representations. If it is not, then all politics is futile.
The philosophical argument for liberal demagoguery is that it is merely an expression, or an exaggeration, of American democracy. But then this must be true also of conservative demagoguery, which also claims to speak (but rather less plausibly) in the voice of the common man. It is when politics becomes a competition in populist credentials that demagoguery, and the sophistry of the slippery slope, flourishes, and the voice of the common man is stolen. The demagogue's gravest sin is not incivility, it is stupidity.
("Nicholson Baker's wild talk," Leon Wieseltier, New York Times Book Review 8.8.04, reg req'd)
After reading this, I thought about the polling data that show just how few of us are likely to change our political preferences between now and November, no matter how loudly we proclaim the villainy of the other side. Every party needs its Machiavellis and its counterintelligence agents, but that doesn't mean we all have to be conscripted for those roles. I have no doubt that folks on "my side" will entertain and rally themselves by painting the Republicans as all manner of evil — just as, needless to say, conservative activists and pundits keep on saying things that ought to shame them right out of civil society — but I don't want any part of it.
I wouldn't be a liberal if I didn't believe in liberal ideals, but I believe in liberal methods, too. On the whole, I think this site has tended to avoid trading in gross stereotypes — and I want to keep it that way. I believe in dialogue: I want to find ways for liberals, conservatives, and moderates to communicate with each other about solving the real problems in our society. (I suppose I'm feeling just a bit guilty about the caption contests, although I think the photographs themselves are revealing.) So between now and November, I'm going to do my best to stay out of the mud. This doesn't mean I won't be critical of President Bush, whom I regard as the worst U.S. president in at least 80 years, but I don't expect to swing any votes here — and I know I won't convert anyone to liberalism by shouting or spleen-venting.
I'm thinking about two "Wayside Pulpit" sayings that have appeared outside Unitarian Universalist churches over the years:
In hatred as in love, we grow like the thing we brood upon. —Mary Renault
Hate and mistrust are the children of blindness. —William Watson
Some of us are going to have to start putting the pieces of this divided society back together.
Wednesday, August 4, 2004
Here's President Bush on the campaign trail today, out there swaying hearts and minds in his inimitably personable way:
What do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Mormon missionary? Someone who knocks on people's doors for no apparent reason. That chestnut may be true — but is it funny? Head over to Coffee Hour and crack us up, or if you can't help yourself, go metacomical and try to figure out what makes UU humor UU.
Update 9.21.04: Until I can manage to fix my spam blacklist program, I have suspended comments on this post.
In what may be a first, UU World magazine is the subject of an Associated Press religion column. Richard Ostling reviews Forrest Church's essay, "Choose Your Enemies Carefully," along with a passage from a letter by Adlai Stevenson, both of which appeared in the "Reflections" section of the July/August issue. Of course, I think this is notable because that's one of the sections of the magazine that I edit.
("A Unitarian pastor examines the nature of — gasp — sin," Richard Ostling [AP], Toronto Star 8.1.04)
Sunday, August 1, 2004
Hurray! David Gessner blows a raspberry at contemporary nature writing — "a literary form that, for all its wonder and beauty, can be a little like going to Sunday School."
As the 150th anniversary of "Walden" approaches on August 9, it may pay to remember that Thoreau's great book also has its share of fart jokes, including references to Pythagrians and their love of beans. Bad puns, too, but you get the feeling that that isn't what the anniversary party is going to focus on. Instead the same, tired old cut-out of Thoreau as nature saint will be dragged out, St. Francis of Concord, our sexless — and increasingly lifeless — hero. It makes you wonder if anyone's actually taken the time to read his strange and wild book lately. If they did they would find sentences that fulfill Emerson's epigram: "My moods hate each other." Sentences that are, in turn, defensive and direct, arch and simple, upright and sensual, over-literary (even for the times) and raw. Of course I'm not claiming that Thoreau's book is free of nature reverence, just that the pious tone is often contradicted — delightfully, thornily — by moments like his confession that, for all his reasoned vegetarianism, "I could sometimes eat a fried rat with good relish, if it were necessary." . . .
As with so many endeavors, nature writing has become specialized and polarized. On the one hand there is the generally healthy movement from the anthropocentric to the biocentric, from human-focused to world-focused, a movement that Thoreau anticipated late in his life with his more scientific writing. This movement has led to some fine objective writing, but it has also led to many dull pages, exhaustive and occasionally exhausting works. The problem is that most readers are human beings and therefore naturally interested in the human. The driving youthful question that enlivened "Walden" — "How to live?" — has been all but forgotten.
Or usurped by the opposite camp. At the other pole are writers with a too easy access to the "spiritual," writers who replace hard-won thought with idealized references to Native Americans and who repeat the word "wonder" over and over. Theirs is a cloying and simplistic philosophy of "nature is good," and they see symbols in every acorn. Nature becomes a kind of bland church, and these writers seem intent on smearing themselves with what Mark Twain called "soul butter." Long gone are the fried rats.
If you've found yourself feeling a bit oppressed by the nature-writing pious — say, if you're a Unitarian Universalist minister and just can't bring yourself to read "Wild Geese" one more time — read the rest of Gessner's essay. You'll still have to work that poem into one or two services a year, because it is Holy Writ, but you'll feel a lot better.
I used to read a lot of nature writing after falling in love with Walden: lots of Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and Edward Abbey, mostly, even Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge and Mary Oliver's poetry (which haven't really left a lasting impression), but my most intense literary crush was Loren Eiseley, the brooding anthropologist whose book The Unexpected Universe was the subject of my over-written college honors thesis. Since then, I've had a terrible time trying to read much more in the genre. Gessner recommends Jack Turner, Joy Williams, and Carl Safina — and UU World's Thoreau retrospective reviewer Rich Higgins adds Mary Rose O'Reilly and Ian Marshall — so maybe I have some new points of entry. Gruff, edgy, and lyrical: that's what I want in a nature book. Nature isn't nice, so why should nature writing be?
("Sick of Nature," David Gessner, Boston Globe 8.1.04)