The Violence of Bigots; the Devil’s Pox on the Skin of America

November 6, 2018

October ended painfully: an anti-semitic attack in a Pittsburgh temple killed eleven; a racist attack at a Kentucky grocery store killed elderly African-Americans. Though hundreds of miles from here, friends and colleagues had losses. Close friends were married at that Pittsburgh Temple.

We missed the Sunday interfaith memorial in Albany but joined the Monday gathering at Temple Gates of Heaven in Schenectady. Approaching it, I saw friends who’d been Peace Corps Volunteers. Our job had been to extend this country’s hand of friendship to peoples abroad. Now we shared the pain from prejudice at home.

Schenectady Clergy Against Hate organized the memorial for a standing room only crowd, to share our grief for the dead, the injured, their families, and our country. The Clergy Against Hate consists of many denominations of Christian, Jewish, Islamic and eastern faiths, all of whom mourned the losses and stood for a world of love and concern. Minister Jonathan Vanderbeck, of Trinity Reform Church, told us “We stand against hate and oppression,” adding “that really carries throughout all our religious traditions.”

Our country included people of multiple faiths, origins, and languages from its founding. America’s revolutionary armies included free and enslaved Blacks, as well as Jews who had first settled in the colonies under the Dutch.

The Founders described America as a beacon shining a path from wicked, murderous hate elsewhere to an enlightened place of brother- and sisterhood. A “hundred years war” had scourged Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Thirty years of religious war devastated it in the seventeenth century. A global seven years’ war reached us as the French and Indian War. America’s Founders struggled to protect us from the killing, unifying us into one enlightened country, where we could learn to live with and benefit from each other.

Even before the First Amendment prohibited any establishment of religion or interference with each other’s freedom of religion, the Constitution made three references to religion, reading “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”[1] and providing for a secular affirmation as an alternative to each provision for an oath.[2]

The Founders welcomed and encouraged immigration in order to people the continent. Most understood freedom and human rights as universal. Prominent members of the Constitutional Convention led anti-slavery societies. Southern insistence on slavery postponed the extension of freedom to all until the Civil War, after which the opening words of the Fourteenth Amendment were “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Think about the importance to America of that commitment to universal human rights. By coming here, immigrants from all over the world not only shared the effort and ingenuity that built our country, they showed by their presence that others could see themselves in America. Feeling that bond, civilized countries repeatedly allied with us to protect their freedom and ours. America helped create the European Union in order to bury centuries of warfare among European countries, uniting historic adversaries lest they fight again, and pull us into yet another World War. America led in developing international institutions and alliances which project the power of American ideals to protect us and much of humanity.

Racists claiming to represent the real America, are instead ripping out the veins and arteries that power our country. They’re doing the devil’s work to destroy all that has been great about America.

So don’t forget to vote – we’ve got work to do.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 6, 2018.

[1] Par. 3 of Article VI.

[2] Art. I, §3; Art. II, §1; Art. VI, §3; and the 4th Amendment.

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Iftar

June 28, 2016

This is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. We were invited to Albany’s City Hall for an Iftar, the evening feast after the sun-up to sun-down fast. Meetings aren’t polls and people put their best feet forward at public events. But I also know these folks. We greeted friends: a physicist, President of a Mosque on Central Avenue; an engineer who escaped repression in Iran, and ran a radio program to celebrate and protect American freedoms. We greeted a doctor whose daughter was my student and valedictorian at Albany Law, now working for the NY Attorney General. There were scientists, programmers, medical professionals, Sunni and Shi’a, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic clerics and public officials.

One woman described her six year old daughter lying awake at night, terrified, crying and asking where they’ll go if they are kicked out of this country – mother and daughter were born in the U.S., raised in this area, and have no other homeland. Her mother spoke with the girl’s first grade teacher, and the two women shared their tears – this wasn’t schoolyard bullying; the girl had been terrified by what she was hearing over the air.

Speaker after speaker rose to describe how lucky they were to reach America, how grateful they felt for the welcome they received and the chance to rebuild their lives. They celebrated America’s protection for people of all faiths, from all parts of the world, and their own determination to protect that freedom for everyone. Muslim clerics speaking to fellow Muslims, rejoiced in what America offered and encouraged them to do what they could to protect those values for all. Others spoke about the need to remember the blessings of America in times which are quite worrisome for Muslim men, women and children, and to do their best to protect America and its liberties.

Some had made the greatest sacrifice. The Muslim woman I described a moment ago explained that an older brother, also Muslim, had enlisted in the U.S. Army right after 9/11 to defend this country – serving our country which was also his, her brother was killed in action in Afghanistan. To her and to all of us he was one of the heroes of this conflict. Stereotypes must not obscure the contributions of real and good people. It was important to her, and should be important to us, to recognize the sacrifice that her brother and other Muslims have made to protect American freedoms.

Sitting there I realized I was watching the way the best of American values are renewed, revived and passed on as they have been for centuries. Sometimes we Americans show surprisingly little confidence in the strength of our ideals to flower in the hearts of immigrants. That, after all, is why they came.

Mayor Sheehan delivered a warm welcome and later pointed out to some of us that Muslims had been part of Albany since the city’s Dutch beginnings. In fact many of America’s founders made it clear that Muslims, along with Jews, deists, Protestants and Catholics were all included in the Constitution’s protections, and some took steps to make sure that Muslims and immigrants from all continents would feel welcome to come to America.

Every community has bad apples. But the bad apples in non-Muslim communities have been responsible for the vast majority of murder, arson and domestic terrorism in America. Stereotyping hasn’t protected us. Reaching out and welcoming these new Americans is much healthier.

Like many of us, immigrants and their children try to preserve the good parts of their heritage. But they came from war zones. Many risked their lives to escape. They have the strongest reasons to love and celebrate America, because they know what was in store for them or their parents in the lands of their ancestors. They’re trying hard to be helpful and constructive. It’s important that the rest of us recognize that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 28, 2016.


Canadian Comparative Religion Case

May 19, 2015

I’d like to tell you about a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious education.[1] Quebec has a “mandatory core curriculum” which includes a Program on Ethics and Religious Culture, to teach “about the beliefs and ethics of different world religions from a neutral and objective perspective” as the Court described it. It “requires teachers to be objective and impartial” and “to foster awareness of diverse values, beliefs and cultures.” The court decided that freedom of religion required Quebec to allow a Catholic school, to teach about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, but the Court held that the school nevertheless needed to present other faiths in a neutral way, a position that the school largely accepted.

I understand the problems with the case. I understand that there will be difficulties interpreting and enforcing the decision and the law on which it is based, and in balancing the rights of the schools and the students. But it’s also very interesting.

It has always been legal to teach comparative religion or the history of religion in public schools in the United States. The so-called “wall of separation” has always been about fairness toward all the students, denying government the power to promote any religious viewpoint over others. It has not been about total exclusion from the classroom. Here’s what our Supreme Court wrote:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. [2]

We perceive “exclusion” from public places and programs because litigants typically want to promote a specific religion or doctrine rather than treat us to a display of inter-faith brotherly love. Multi-faith displays aren’t generally a problem – except for the promoters. Most Americans support that kind of basic fairness. And there is much to admire in what Quebec has tried to do.

Some congregations themselves teach their young people about the differences in the ways people pray, taking them as a group on tours of other houses of worship. Sometimes the little congregation where I pray plays host to such groups, a practice I admire very much.

I’ve felt lucky over the years to spend time at Chautauqua where religious lectures and services are programmed into the Amphitheatre, so even if you don’t plan on attending you may be mesmerized just passing by, as I was a few years ago hearing thousands of people in the Amphitheatre in this historically Protestant religious community reciting a prayer in Arabic as part of what they called their Abrahamic initiative, exploring the different faiths that have roots in the religious world of the patriarch Abraham and the ancient Hebrews. They explored it by including clerics from each of those traditions.

My college experience was similar – we had to go to services, regardless of whose, and programming in the main university chapel was ecumenical – so I heard some of the world’s finest theologians of the era, regardless of faith.

I came to appreciate the fact that the finest minds of most faiths understand the similarity of their religious worlds, and the identity of unanswerable questions with which we all struggle. Most of all I appreciate what unites us and the import of that unity for us all.

Given the rise of religious war and cruelty in many parts of the world, I can’t bring myself to take brotherhood for granted. It is the hard won prize of our America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 19, 2015.

[1] Loyola High School v. Quebec, 2015 SCC 12 (2015), available at http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/14703/index.do

[2] Epperson v. Ark., 393 U.S. 97, 106 (U.S. 1968) quoting McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 225 (1948).


World-Wide Radiance of the American Melting Pot

February 24, 2015

In this world the grossest of inhumanity is euphemistically described as ethnic cleansing. The mutli-directional genocide of the old Yugoslavia has become routine. Boko Haram takes aim at education and at religious difference in Africa, targeting connections with America and the west. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Middle East, with tentacles into much of the Muslim world, target whoever doesn’t belong and subscribe to their version of Islam or dare question their authority, They have targeted America, England, Spain, France Norway and counting. It is terrifying how quickly decent peace-loving communities have been dismembered and destroyed.

The past is prologue, but can’t be undone. The question is what do we do now. This is partly an ideological struggle because terrorists depend on recruits. How can we handle such a high-stakes ideological struggle? One aspect of that is at home.

Urging the U.S. Supreme Court to end segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration explained to the Court that our respect for people of all races, faiths and national origins were central to American worldwide success, especially in the fight against Communism.

Our melting pot and mutual concern and respect define the best of America. Our unwillingness to give in to bigots and bigotry, racists and racism, our willingness to see, confront and deal with bigotry and racism, our determination to stop it, make our strongest appeal. It is our tolerance, our neighborliness, our welcome to all from everywhere that makes us the shining city on a hill that our Founders hoped we would be. It is not our bloodlines but our coming together to make ourselves and welcome each other as Americans that makes us so. That e pluribus unum is what the world admires. They want our neighborliness; they crave the American idealism that gives anyone and everyone a chance to make a decent living and a decent life. They crave the welcome that glows from our melting pot.

People dream of America in corners of the world where they are crushed as if they are worthless except for the masters’ business, worthless unless they are of the masters’ bloodlines, worthless unless they have something to offer, at least a bribe. We need to keep the dream of the American melting pot alive both for their sakes and for ours.

Our American melting pot is more important than ever to the world we inhabit. But make no mistake it is crucial here at home. If the hatreds that once fanned the Old World and now fan the so-called Third World land on our shores, none of us are safe. We were all melted in that pot and we all live or die together. There is no safety in a cauldron. We have to sustain the values of our shared tolerant American culture.  For all our sakes. We are all beneficiaries.

I pointed out last week that the American melting pot, one of our most fundamental of institutions, was the result of very deliberate decisions to educate us all together, without regard to wealth, faith, gender, national origin or spoken language, and then, finally, without regard to race. And yet, the Court that once announced Brown v. Board of Education is not helping to preserve that centuries-old melting pot. Instead it is making it easier, in some respects even forcing us to re-segregate ourselves by race, religion and wealth.[1] By doing that, the Court is plunging a dagger into the heart of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 24, 2015.

[1] See, e.g., Ariz. Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 131 S. Ct. 1436 (2011); Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007); Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002); and see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press 2010); Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee and Gary Orfield, “A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools: Are We Losing the Dream?”  The Civil Rights Project Harvard Univ. (Jan. 2003) available at http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/reseg03/AreWeLosingtheDream.pdf (June 22, 2007).


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