Grateful on the Fourth of July

July 7, 2015

As we celebrated the Fourth of July I found myself thinking back to a trip my wife and I made to visit friends on Long Island by way of the Ferry. We knew that there was a ceremony taking place at my alma mater, Yale Law School, for the swearing in of Judge Calabresi to take his seat on the federal Court of Appeals. Justice Souter was coming to perform the ceremony. And one of my classmates was already on the Court and would be there. So it would be a great party.

Judge Calabresi had been one of my teachers. His appointment to the Court was the occasion for his resigning as Dean of the Law School, a position he’d held for a decade. When it was his turn to speak, Judge Calabresi described how he and his family had left Italy in the early days of World War II when he was young. Calabresi is one of the most gifted and eloquent speakers I know and he described how America had been ready to give people like him – an immigrant and a Jew – an opportunity when they arrived. And he spoke about how he hoped to continue that tradition as a Judge, to be able to extend the benefits America had to offer to others, whether new to our shores or people we have been calling minorities.

My father and I were lucky to be born here but my mother and my grandparents were not. Looking around, the world could only impress me with the great good fortune of being born an American, in an age when America was prepared to extend opportunities to people like me as it did for Calabresi. Looking around now, we have visions of genocide on several continents. The sanctuary of America is such a special blessing. It is no wonder that so many want to come.

Like Calabresi, though not nearly as eloquent a spokesman, I grew up wanting to share and extend those blessings. I grew up understanding instinctively the blessing of what before the feminist revolution we used to call brotherhood – I keep looking for a good successor to the warmth and humanity of that term. The understanding that we are all God’s children, that none of us is an island, that the world we want for ourselves depends on extending the benefits of that world to others, is our heritage, our glory and our security.

But those glories have been hard won and have never been secure. In our own generations we have struggled to extend the benefits of America to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and immigrants from the various struggles of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. After the Supreme Court declared segregation inherently unequal and unconstitutional, cities all over the country, tore down the areas where minorities lived, destroyed their communities, declared them unworthy of investment, and the federal government financed white, but not black movement to the new suburbs, a move that took the jobs too, leaving in their wake poor, dysfunctional communities where once decent, striving, and thankful communities had once stood.

America has been good to me. I do not take it for granted. I want to recognize, encourage and support decent people of all colors and languages. Truly they add to the strength and the glory of this country, and brotherhood adds to the security of all of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 7, 2015.


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).


The American Melting Pot

February 17, 2015

I’d like to share with you some thoughts that came out of a short piece I was asked to write about the Roberts Court. I’d like to dedicate this commentary to Yusor Abu-Salha, who spoke on NPR’s Story Corps about how wonderful the U.S. is, where people of all backgrounds share one culture, shortly before she, her husband and sister-in-law were killed in Chapel Hill because they were Muslims, and to all the others, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and all who have been murdered or tortured because they had what bigots defined as the wrong parents or beliefs.

You might think that the melting pot is the result of a lot of individual private decisions. But you’d be mostly wrong. Actually the melting pot is the result of a series of very public decisions. We made the decision, centuries ago, to provide a public education to everyone. That put us in the forefront of the world as an educated, progressive, productive and egalitarian society. We made the decision almost two centuries ago to provide public coeducational schooling. That put us in the forefront of the world in creating decent and progressive gender relations. We made the decision long ago to provide an education to immigrant children alongside the children who had been born here. That made us one people, regardless of where we came from. And all the private decisions in the great American melting pot took place in a world defined by our public schools.

Finally in the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that we would treat race the same way that we had treated gender, language, religion and ethnic differences – that is, we would bring everybody into the same public schools. That opened the melting pot to still more of us so that our racial divisions are less sharp than they were a century ago – nowhere close to erased, but less sharp.

Chief Justice Roberts famously wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”[1] But he wrote that in connection with a decision to prevent a pair of school districts from bringing people together across racial lines. No melting goes on with Roberts at the stove.

When decisions are made that advantage the majority, Justice Scalia makes it plain he thinks that’s just normal; he sees no need to ask whether anyone was discriminating or intending to treat minorities differently.[2] But there’s no vice versa for Scalia – any decision favoring racial minorities is automatically suspect for him. Indeed, he and Thomas have described “legal protection from the injuries caused by discrimination” as “special protection” and “favored status.”[3]

In 1782, French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, famously wrote that immigrants “melted” easily into Americans, and freed themselves from the slavery of the Old World.[4] The same year, the Founders of our country adopted our motto, e pluribus unum, Latin for out of many one. Our Founders did all they could to welcome immigrants, making e pluribus unum a reality for us. That has been our country’s glory. That welcome has peopled our continental expanse, brought to our country the most talented and driven from all parts of the world, and allowed us all to share in the benefits of each other’s talents and accomplishments. That welcome has allowed us to build a country without the hostilities that have torn and still so blatantly tear other countries apart. There is nothing more truly American than e pluribus unum. And nothing more central to the development of our great country than the melting pot, even if some of those who now lead our highest institutions can no longer see it or enjoy its savory aroma. It was left for the British writer Israel Zangwill in 1909 to put the immigrants into “the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” adding, “Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”[5]

The Founders worked specifically to welcome Muslim immigrants to America. They would have been proud of the Abu-Salhas and ashamed of Craig Hicks, and would join us in cherishing the diversity of people who share decent lives in America and praying for that mutual respect everywhere.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 17, 2015.

[1] Parents Involved v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 748 (2007)

[2] League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 515-18 (2006) (Scalia, J., dissenting in part).

[3] Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 645, 652-53 (1996) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[4] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782).

[5] Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: Drama in Four Acts (1909).


Speaking Across the Aisle about the Killing of Babies

February 10, 2015

I’d like to speak across the aisle. We have values in common even though we sometimes draw different conclusions. My point is simple. We are all against killing babies, their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. A religious revival in this country has focused on one form of what many consider baby-killing. There are, however, other ways of killing babies in unspeakable numbers.

Babies by the billions will be the first to die because manmade pollutants that change the climate will kill in innumerable and excruciating ways. That should be a cause that left and right, religious and nonreligious should join on, with passion, action, and dedication. Global warming and burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses should be the third rail of politics, an absolute no-no, IF we truly agree that killing billions of babies is a tragedy we cannot ignore, cannot be neutral about, must act about – unless we’re merely hypocrits. So I appeal to the religious right, and the religious left and all the rest of us, to all those who really care about babies and protecting them from killers, to stop the burning of carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses now.

  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our food sources. Burning carbon-based fuels acidifies the oceans, killing the reefs and much of the food we get from the sea. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change, contributing to the extinction of the plants and animals we depend on for food as their climates disappear.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as we lose our water sources. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates the climate change that depletes the glaciers that feed the lakes, streams and rivers we depend on for water. And burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that contributes to the drought and the expansion of deserts that rob us of drinking water.
  • Our babies will be the first to suffer as unfamiliar diseases spread out of the tropics. Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that brings tropical and hot weather illnesses to us.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that takes our land as the sea encroaches on us, making refugees of families, mothers, fathers, babies and children.
  • Burning carbon fuels into greenhouse gasses aggravates climate change that adds to the violent storms that engulf cities, towns and villages all over the world including the U.S. where hurricanes and tornadoes have been striking with unaccustomed fury in places that seemed immune. As in all these tragedies the most vulnerable and first to die will be the babies and children.

In each case, the most vulnerable to the disease, drought, storms and starvation will be the babies. Who then are the baby-killers? Who wants to authorize pipelines that make it easier for millions of gallons to flow to be burned? Who wants to drill, baby, drill? Who opposes every measure to add to carbon neutral sources of power like wind and solar? Who are the baby killers? Would you support and vote for baby killers?

Really, let’s by all means talk about killing babies. Yours, mine, our children’s babies. Global warming does not distinguish by faith, color, ethnicity, or gender. It is and will be an equal opportunity killer. So let’s show some real heart and understand this is the number one threat to infants all over the world, and their brothers and sisters, parents, and the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 10, 2015.


A Blessing on Both Their Houses

July 29, 2014

Listeners and readers of my commentary know that I have spoken out against what I believe is Israeli misbehavior. So I get flooded with one-sided petitions condemning Israeli behavior. To make myself completely clear, I see merit and fault on both sides. I will not sign one-sided petitions.

I am reminded of my conversation with a Palestinian student who argued with me that Palestinians have the right to kill Israelis, any Israelis, military or civilian, and they have no right to shoot back, only to accept their fate. I questioned him to make sure I was hearing him accurately. What he was making clear was the attitude, or brain-washing, that dehumanized the other side. That is the attitude we have to fight against. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Environmental Catastrophe Ringing from the Pulpit?

May 27, 2014

Let me lead with a question – Is the threat of environmental catastrophe ringing from every pulpit and ethical organization in the country? If not, why not? The Bible records many prophets and the price of ignoring them. Surely making clear the moral and religious imperative of preventing catastrophe is a basic function, a duty of the clergy. Read the rest of this entry »


Passover – The Indivisibility of Freedom

April 15, 2014

This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others. Read the rest of this entry »


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