Religion Chautauqua Style

August 1, 2017

Instead of the mess in Washington, let’s talk about something positive. We just got back from a brief vacation in Chautauqua. I’ve been going there whenever possible since 1955 and I think it is valuable to talk about what it has meant to me, especially in this time when discussion of religion is so fraught.

Chautauqua had been founded in 1874 as an ecumenical summer school for protestant Sunday School teachers. Before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, ownership of property was still restricted to Protestants, although lots of us learned to love the place regardless of religious commitments. I’ve always felt welcome, no matter whom I’m talking with, who’s running things or whose chapel I’m in. Neighbor or stranger, I’ve been included and welcomed. That welcome was important to me; it influenced me to move beyond the familiar terrain of where I grew up in my choice of college, law school and subsequent career decisions.

The spirit of Chautauqua has always taken the sermon on the mount seriously. As Ben Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.”[1] For Franklin that service to mankind was by no means limited to people of one’s own faith.

This summer I took a seat in the amphitheater at the Sunday evening Sacred Song Service. For some years, religious gatherings in the amphitheater included material from across the Abrahamic tradition, the three great religions which all trace themselves back to the patriarch Abraham. I have heard this religious and primarily Christian congregation recite from the Qu’ran along with Christian and Jewish liturgical prayers, poetry and song. This year I was particularly struck by the inclusion of a gorgeous Native American chant.

It’s a good feeling, affirming our mutual respect and appreciation. No one is diminished as we celebrate the best in ourselves and in each other. We walk out feeling stronger, wiser, more confident. Bridges among us are also bilateral entree, enlarging our options, prospects and opportunities as well as our understanding. They amplify both the good we can do in this world as well as our own security.

We shared embraces with friends from many traditions and from all over the country, shared a home cooked dinner with a pair of old friends, both of whom are Lutheran ministers, and went out for dinner with a former student of mine here in Albany who has become a Methodist minister. There is of course nothing unusual about this. But it is worth noticing that this is one of the strengths of our country and of Chautauqua in particular.

Nor, at my recent college reunions, was I diminished by reciting a Muslim prayer at a memorial service for deceased members of my college class along with prayers from the Christian and my own Jewish tradition. We are and were all human, with the strengths and frailties common to mankind. We find a common end in death as we shared the world in life. We remember each other fondly without regard to where they prayed.

Part of what made this country a beacon for the world was that we left our prejudices behind in the old world our ancestors left. Our First Amendment is, after all, a cry for brotherhood as much as it is a restraint on government. We keep government out of the religious tent because we celebrate both the rights of all faiths and our common humanity in brother- and sisterhood.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 1, 2017.

[1] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin With Introduction And Notes (P F Collier & Son Company, ed. Charles W Eliot, New York (1909) [available online at The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Release Date: May 22, 2008 [EBook #148] [Last updated: November 10, 2011]]


A Scary Election

October 25, 2016

Over a century ago, populism was sweeping the country, with white and African-American workers standing together, until a scared Southern aristocracy started race-baiting. Whites took the bait, breaking the back of Southern populism. The rest of the country surged forward because their governments cared about the people, the regular people, not just the fancy financiers. But not in the South, which languished.

That race-baiting aristocracy also killed political competition, leading to the one-party South. No democracy, no concern for the people, no progress. Because race-baiting broke the back of Populism.

Trump uses rhetoric to divide the people hoping he and his cronies can conquer while the rest of us fight each other. Trump attacks everyone – immigrants, African-, Hispanic-, and Muslim-Americans, women, hard-working, warm-hearted, caring Americans of every background.

Democracy is in danger when people can’t accept the legitimacy of disagreement, drown out and threaten opponents, and don’t respect the right to vote of other people because of where they live or where their parents came from. Losing respect for others threatens democracy. Most of us believe that everyone has a right to their opinion. Democracy is in trouble when some try to shut down that right.

Democracy is threatened by campaign crowds yelling “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets.” Promising to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Hillary, Donald feeds their hostility to democracy. Like Italy’s Berlusconi, Donald tries to cover revelations about his behavior by throwing hate to angry crowds. Hillary responds “That happens in dictatorships, not democracies.” She’s nailed it; Trump does not want to lead a democratic country; he’s trying to sabotage it.

Trump’s racism and nativism has broken the back of the movement for economic justice. His invitation to settling the election by beating people up and using their Second Amendment rights encourages force, intimidation and even guns, to take Hillary out. Telling his supporters to prevent the polls being rigged codes Trump’s message to control the election by threats and intimidation.

Democracy is in serious trouble when police and military institutions take sides. Individuals in the uniformed services have every right to their political views. But we’ve had a tradition of keeping the military out of politics. We should be able to rely on them to protect every voter’s rights regardless of politics. The military and police need to be above politics or democracy is at risk.

Trump is trying to forge a coalition to muscle democracy out of the way.

If the self-proclaimed rich guy wins, he knows how to enrich himself and his cronies. But he pulls his supporters along with constantly repeated half-truths, lies and fabrications until they seem true because he says them so often – stringing them together like a rant overwhelming any attempt to answer because there’s too much to deal with.

Economic desperation leaves many open to his lies. But they cannot put a populist program together on the back of a divided America. They cannot get government to work on behalf of all the people, not just the super rich, by dividing over skin color, national origin and gender.

The Constitution, the Declaration, the Founders’ legacy, are in trouble when despondent and demoralized people lose faith in self-government. When democracy is in trouble, everyone is in trouble because dictators don’t take care of their people – they take care of themselves.

These same patterns have brought democracy down in many parts of the globe. But for Mr. Trump, we’re all losers and our democracy is a loser too. For Trump, only Trump counts.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 25, 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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