Monday, October 29, 2012

The Holy Mess of God and Politics: Bring It On!

(Writer’s note: This Sunday November 4th, Boston College Professor Alan Wolfe, one of America’s foremost experts on the interaction of American faith and American politics, will speak at the eighth annual Cornerstone Forum in Sherborn on the topic “God and Politics: Divine or Divisive?”.  It takes place at 4 p.m. at the Sherborn Community Center and is free and open to the public.  With less than a week to go before our national elections, Wolfe’s topic got me to thinking about religion’s role in the democratic process.)

“Do you ever talk about politics from the pulpit?”  Now there’s a loaded question.

My Mom recently asked me this as we talked about the election next Tuesday. Clergy from her church had come out against Massachusetts ballot question 2 (“Prescribing medication to end life”) and were encouraging members of her church to vote “no”.  As her church’s leader, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, wrote in his blog, “I believe all people of good will should join me in opposing this deplorable ballot question.”

Should clergy and churches take public stands on political issues that they believe are of great moral, ethical or spiritual importance to our nation?  To push this question even further, should clergy and churches endorse or oppose specific candidates for office? And what of the folks in the pews? Should they bring their God and religion into the voting booth?

As a person of faith, a clergy person and a citizen I believe one precious concept and ideal trumps all others when it comes to God in the voting booth: human freedom. This is the sacred notion that as free thinking and informed citizens, it is finally up to each one of us, in the privacy of the voting booth and in the privacy of our relationship with God (if we claim such a belief) to decide for ourselves how to vote.

The Constitution protects both freedom of religion and religious practice, and freedom from any government endorsed religion, freedom from religion in a way. The government cannot tell me how to worship my God or whether or not to even believe in God. Religions and religious folks are then free, if they so choose, to take all the public stands and make all the public endorsements they want.  Now that’s real freedom!

Pro-life or pro-choice.  Anti death penalty or pro death penalty.  Health care for all as a moral imperative or health care for the few as a private affair.  Even though the IRS frowns upon communities of faith endorsing specific candidates for office and threatens to pull the tax exempt status of such institutions, I’d say let them be as free as they wish. Endorse away if they want to!  Let the fractious and sometimes chaotic cacophony that ensues from the interaction of American politics and America’s religion continue unfettered and free. 

That’s the miracle of democracy: freedom. We do not fear ideas based upon whether or not we believe they come from God or come from man. We do not fear the free exchange of ideas either: from a church or a clergy person or club or a corporation or a person or any one or anything.  In a way we as Americans say, “Bring it on!” and then we make up our own minds.  We freely choose for ourselves.  We politic. We debate. We argue.  We wade into a free press and research.  And then we vote. If we want to bring our God along with us on election day we can.  If we want to leave God at home or reject any notion of such a Deity, we can do that too, all because we are free. 

God and American politics: yes it can be holy mess. But I’d have it no other way.  See you at the polls.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Democracy Belongs To Those Who Show Up

“Don’t blame me. I’m from Massachusetts.”       
--1970’s bumper sticker

The death of Senator George McGovern this week recalled the most lopsided presidential election in United States history, fifty years ago next month. The 1972 race between incumbent Richard Nixon and McGovern was a blow out for the ages. Nixon beat McGovern with 68 percent of the popular vote and 97.7 percent of the electoral vote.  Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia went for McGovern. But it was the coda to that election which was most startling. Just twenty-two months later, Nixon became the first President to resign from office, facing impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors that he and his staff committed, ironically, all to get him re-elected in ’72.  But that’s how it is in a democracy. You never, ever really know.

We can never predict what will happen in an election or post-election. Until the vote actually takes place and the ballots are counted, no decision has been made, no man or woman elevated to our highest office. History is still unwritten, just waiting for us to participate.  Whether an election is a landslide or a squeaker, every vote does really count. Consider John F. Kennedy who defeated Nixon in 1960 but did so only by .17 percent of the popular vote.  

So why do so many Americans still not even bother to show up and vote in our presidential elections?  We may call ourselves the land of the free and the home of the brave. 2012 may be the most important presidential election in our lifetime, as many pundits and pols declare. But then why will millions of our fellow neighbors and citizens stay at home on election night and neglect to make their voices heard?

In 2008 131 million Americans eligible to vote did vote, but 98 million other eligible voters just sat out.  57.1 percent voted but 42.9 percent didn’t bother to go to the polls.  That was the highest percentage of voters in fifty years, back to that infamous ’72 election, but I wonder.  Why all the no-shows? 

Is it apathy about the process? Cynicism about the candidates?  Maybe frustration with the whole chaotic process?  I get that many Americans are fed up with the way our country elects its Presidents.  By November 6th, Romney and Obama will have spent a combined $2 billion to get elected, about $15 per vote. Voters have been buried under hundreds of thousands of hours of radio and TV spots and scores of robo phone calls.  I think most Americans are polled out, debated out, and electioned out.   

Yet this does not excuse any American of eligible voting age from embracing the most precious and hard fought human right we possess as citizens: the simple privilege of voting.  Think of it. We show up at the polls and there are no tanks parked out front to intimidate or harass us, no gun toting soldiers blocking the doors.  There is no one looking over our shoulder in the privacy of the voting booth. We do not fear arrest or imprisonment or torture because we choose to vote.  No religion or political party or movement or tyrant rules us with an iron fist.  We are free. We can vote.

So yes, feel free to join in on all the complaining about how democracy is such a messy experiment at times.  Argue your point.  Praise your candidate or skewer the other guy. Make some civic noise—that’s the right of every single American.  But then a week from next Tuesday, vote. VOTE!

Get up off the couch, put down the screen, click off Facebook and Twitter, stop texting for just a little while, get to your local polling station and then vote.  Be freedom in action, freedom embodied, freedom alive.

As the patriot Samuel Adams declared in 1781, “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote he is…executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”

Don’t blame me. I’m from Massachusetts and I’m going to vote.  How about you?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Girl Who Wanted To Go To School

“Few…are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”   --Ernest Hemingway

If you don’t yet know the story of 15 year old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, you should. Every one in our world should.  If you care at all about human rights and dignity, get to know this incredibly courageous young woman. 
      Her dream was and is the dream of many children and youth in our world: to be able to go to school and to learn.  But for that desire, and for her very public advocacy of this hope for all the girls and young women of Pakistan, a week ago last Tuesday Malala was shot point blank in the head by a Taliban assassin. As I write this column, she lies in a hospital bed in Great Britain, breathing through a ventilator and clinging to life.
      Malala’s public story began in her hometown of Mingora in the Swat district of Pakistan. For years Swat has been the focus of radical Islamic fundamentalist Taliban insurgents who seek to impose harsh religious laws upon the populace, including a total ban on the education of girls and woman. The Taliban has already blown up and destroyed hundreds of schools for girls and women across that nation. In 2009 Malala became a very visible target for her outspoken and thoughtful opposition to this policy. While her neighbors and fellow Pakistanis often turned a blind eye to the Taliban or even agreed with their warped religious views, Malala spoke right up.  She wrote a very public blog for the British Broadcasting System and was the subject of a New York Times documentary on her life and work, and all at just 11 years of age! 
      As Malala blogged, “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 students attended the class out of 27.” And, “On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you.’ I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”
      Yet Malala’s fears turned out to be all too true.  Her public stature grew. She was nominated for an international peace prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  She became the Chair of the District Child Assembly in Swat.  The Taliban warned her and her family that she would be shot if she continued to go to school and to speak out.  And so on October 9th, as she and her classmates sat on a school bus, Taliban “soldiers” boarded the vehicle, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. All because, in the words of one BBC editor, “She was just the girl who wanted to go to school.”
      Such brutality, cruelty, and evil leaves me almost speechless.  What kind of “army” or human being or supposedly “religious” person or movement would assassinate a teenage girl all for the “crime” of trying to go to school?  Pakistan is supposedly America’s ally in the war on terror but where are the Pakistani voices of outrage, protest, and bravery to speak up for and protect the children like Malala? 
      Where and when will the voices of moderate Islam finally emerge in that country and the world? Who will have the guts to finally wrest their faith back from the hands and hearts of folks like the Taliban and their supporters, who use the cover of religion to justify patriarchy and cold blooded murder? Seems to me the citizens of Pakistan need to show much more courage. They already have a great role model in Malala Yousufzai. 
      In an interview on a morning news show in Pakistan last December, Malala said she was speaking up in spite of the danger and even imagined confronting face to face the Taliban. “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”
      Pray for Malala.



Monday, October 8, 2012

Big Bird Wins But Voters Lose

“All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players..."              
 --William Shakespeare, "As You Like It"
     I only watched the first fifteen minutes of the Presidential debate last week before I switched the TV over to view the last Red Sox game of the season.  Admittedly that wasn’t a very inspiring choice either, as the Bronx bombers destroyed the BoSox 14-2 on a rainy Wednesday night. But I’ll admit it. I nixed the first debate. I don’t plan to tune into the other two debates either, nor the Vice Presidential smack down between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan or even the televised tussles between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, which I like to call “He Said-She Said”.
      I’m guilty as charged, a civic slacker I guess. Unlike 67.2 million of my fellow Americans who watched Obama and Romney go toe to toe, the next time the dark suited contenders stride on to the stage to perform, I’ll be watching a rerun of “Mythbusters” or maybe “CSI” to chill out after a long work day.  Yes I’ll absolutely read the newspapers and listen to the radio and surf the net the next day to learn about what happened and what was said. But watching it live? I’ll pass.
            Because there is one truth I think most citizens, politicians and media types know about the debates but are reluctant to name out loud. Debates are about performance more than anything else. Debates are theater, political theater sure, but theater nonetheless. Debates are for the most part highly scripted events, right down to each and every body movement, gesture and seemingly “spontaneous” remark. 
            It’s no mistake debates happen on the stage, before an audience, in a theater like setting.  The stars are two actors who have prepped for weeks and weeks to learn their lines cold, and have rehearsed over and over before the big night. Then finally it is show time. The curtain rises. The thespians stroll on stage and the drama begins. Act 1. Scene 1.  They act. They perform. And just in case one of them actually says something unplanned or unrehearsed their minions and sycophants await just offstage ready to spin it all back on script.   
            And then there’s us, the audience. I’d like to believe that when we watch a political debate we’re sincerely trying to learn more of the substance of what a candidate might actually do if elected. Yet the truth is we are also hoping to be entertained and amused by a candidate’s flub or a debater’s one line zinger, right?  We secretly watch a car race for the crashes.  Why should this blood sport be any different?
            The most talked about, tweeted about, discussed remark by Obama or Romney last week was not the Governor’s plan to cut federal taxes. It was not Obama’s defense of universal healthcare either. No. It was Governor Romney’s remark about cutting funding for Big Bird and “Sesame Street”.  Big Bird.  Is this the central takeaway from the two men who would lead the United States of America for the next four years? Yes it is a cute line and certainly quotable and I’ll bet Obama wishes he’d come up with something similar.  But really?         
            Yet that’s how it has always been for these Presidential sitcoms, political reality TV writ large. No one remembers the substance of the debates but everyone can recall that one great line. Walter Mondale asking President Reagan in 1984, “Where’s the beef?”  Candidate Reagan grabbing a microphone at a 1980 Republican debate and angrily declaring, “Mr. Green I paid for this microphone!” 1988 Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen skewering Dan Quayle: “Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!”   
            Lots of light.  Lots of flash. Lots of heat. Lots of posturing.  Good for a YouTube viewing. Then lots of critiquing the next day about who “won” and who “lost”, who “came across” as Presidential and who seemed flat and listless but not a lot of substance. Not much gravitas. Reading the debate articles the morning after, I wondered if I was perusing theater reviews rather than cogent political analysis and thought. 
            One New York Times reporter wrote Romney looked like an upbeat choirboy and Obama like an uptight college professor.  Well thanks for that analysis!  We certainly now know much better who can govern our nation through the most challenging and momentous times in a generation or more.
            So during the next month I pray that every American will read and think and consider carefully all the issues before casting their vote. But for me and my civic discernment, how a candidate “performs” on a debate stage has little or nothing to do with the real work of the Oval Office.
            All the world may be a stage, but finally, being President of the United States is not an act.