Tuesday, October 31, 2006

JFK and religious prejudice, commentary.

The Prescience of JFK
By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 31 October 2006

Religious and ethnic bigotry have long been at the root of the most heinous abuses of America's freedoms. For years, Jews were the targets: They controlled the banking system, the press, and all the other levers of power. Absurdly, they were also Bolsheviks and Communists.

Bolsheviks and Communists were, of course, the bull's-eyes in later episodes of government target practice. During the 1920s, American fears were whipped up by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, who rounded up and deported hundreds of US citizens and legal residents. Thirty years later, the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy famously dragged the nation into a scary and pathetic "Red Scare."

Then there was Papism. Espoused by many prominent Protestant clergymen and embraced by millions of their followers for more than a century, Papists equated the Roman Catholic Church with the absolute obedience of its adherents to the orders of the Pope.

It was against this background that, on September 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy decided to take the bull by the horns and deliver his now-famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

He told the group he believed in "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act ... For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew - or a Quaker - or a Unitarian - or a Baptist ... Today I may be the victim - but tomorrow it may be you - until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."

I wonder if JFK realized how prescient he was. The Cold War is over. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism are of course still with us, but have been largely marginalized to the lunatic fringes of our society. But today - post 9/11 - we have a new target of hate: Islam. And there is ample evidence that it is being embraced not only by the lunatic fringe of America, but by a majority of our people, including clergymen on the religious right, and by the US government.

In the hysterical days and weeks following 9/11, hundreds of Muslims, along with South Asians mistaken for Arabs, were rounded up and imprisoned by John Ashcroft's Justice Department, though not a single person was ever charged with any terror-related crime.

Sadly, many prominent members of America's evangelical community have joined the Muslim-bashing crowd. Evangelical leaders like the Rev. Franklin Graham, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, have publicly branded Islam, or Islam's prophet Muhammad, as inherently evil and violent.

Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham and head of a global missions agency, Samaritan's Purse, said that Islam was "a very evil and wicked religion." Vines described Muhammad as "a demon-possessed pedophile." Falwell said in a "60 Minutes" interview that "Muhammad was a terrorist."

According to a nationwide survey conducted by Cornell University, nearly half of all Americans believe the US government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Our Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence has shut down five major Muslim charities in the United States since 2001, and seized millions of dollars in assets. As of today, not a single officer or organization has been convicted of any crime connected to terrorism. But charitable giving - one of the pillars of the Muslim faith - has fallen precipitously, out of prospective donors' fear of becoming a target of government investigation.

President Bush has lavished praise on Muslim-Americans. But simultaneously, the FBI and our Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are clearly practicing ethnic profiling and conducting surveillance at Mosques and other Muslim gathering places. At the same time, they are actively conducting "outreach" programs to Muslim-American communities in the US.

They are also aggressively attempting to recruit Arab and other Muslim-Americans into the CIA, FBI, and other national security agencies (these recruiting programs have largely failed because, when the agencies learn that many of these prospective employees have friends and family in the Middle East, they are denied security clearances).

Many other forms of more and less subtle discrimination are taking place. For example, seven Muslims who have been waiting years to become US citizens were finally notified that their applications had been approved, but only after they joined a lawsuit accusing immigration officials of illegally delaying background checks and allowing applications to linger indefinitely. In Texas, three Muslim Americans wrongly accused of planning a terrorist attack on a Michigan bridge, and after having their bank accounts closed and their neighbors accuse them of being terrorists, demanded that authorities issue a public apology for targeting them because of their race. And an internal investigation by the Justice Department concluded there was "reasonable cause" to believe that senior FBI officials retaliated against the bureau's highest-ranking Arabic speaker for complaining that he was cut out of terrorism cases despite his expertise.

The academic community has suffered as well. For example, for more than two years, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar, has been denied a visa to teach at Notre Dame. First he was told he had endorsed terrorism and violated the USA Patriot Act. Later, after filing a lawsuit against the government and having a federal judge force the State Department to reconsider his application, his visa was again denied because between 1998 and 2002 he had contributed small sums of money to a French charity supporting humanitarian work in the Palestinian territories.

Is this Islamophobia working? Is it smart? Is it helping us to find and prosecute terrorists?

My view is that we're using some pretty primitive blunt instruments to conduct our search for the bad guys. In the process, we're alienating the very people who probably could help us most - the millions of law-abiding Muslim-Americans who live among us - and who are just as terrified of terrorists as the rest of us.

I suppose I might be able to understand our approach if we were still back in 2001. But 9/11 happened five years ago. Isn't it long past time that all the clever folks in our government came up with something that actually works?

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Grace, Perception, Image. Fox vs Limbaugh

October 30, 2006

Fox vs. Rush: Why The Little Guy Won
Katie Couric

After a Fox-free weekend, following a Fox-filled week, I was looking forward to a relatively quiet Monday. Imagine my surprise when I came in and found our C&C mailbox flooded with still more comments about the Michael J. Fox story.

People have seized on this story and just won’t let it go.

I can appreciate that. It gnaws at you. When I pull the issues apart and hold them up to the light, I can’t help but feel with utmost certainty that…both sides are right.

I know. That makes me a spineless twit. Living without a spine makes it harder to sit at my desk and type, but it does make airline travel easier.

Anyway: I’ve been spending some time chewing over this story, and how it all unfolded. And I think one thing is absolutely clear. This is a story about image and perception, more than fact and argument.

And in the war of images, Michael J. Fox is the winner.

This idea –- the power of pictures -- was something politicians have known for a while. The media have been slower to grasp it. Evidently, it still eludes Rush Limbaugh. Because, whatever the merits of his argument - and some viewers were eager to send us e-mails and let us know how right Rush was -- they dissipated into mere mist when you actually saw him on television.

There Rush was, flailing his arms, imitating a man with Parkinson’s disease.

After that, anything he said was moot. Or mute. It didn’t make any difference. What America saw on television was a big fat guy making fun of a little skinny guy -– a sick little skinny guy, at that. All that was missing was a beach, so that Rush could kick sand in the face of a 98-pound weakling.

What made matters worse for Limbaugh was that when the object of his derision finally appeared to tell his side of the story, Fox looked like a perfectly reasonable guy, without a trace of anger or bitterness or righteous indignation. He didn’t mind being mocked by someone twice his size. If someone wanted to pick a fight with him, he’d just let them kick sand in his teeth.

People have commented that what Michael J. Fox displayed was courage, or dignity, or character. I’m tempted to call it something else: grace. He showed us the best that we can be, and called out to the better angels of our nature.

And Rush? He showed us how to bully people suffering from chronic debilitating illness.

There are a lot of clear-headed, passionate people who argue against everything Michael J. Fox is trying to do, for reasons that are ethical, or political, or religious. They are persuasive. But whether they realize it or not, they’ve already lost this battle, because they’ve lost the war of images. No matter what they say, or what they argue, this moment in political history will be remembered as the day a big fat guy made fun of a little sick guy.

When Katie and I were talking about this after her interview, she noted: “Rush Limbaugh may be the best thing that ever happened to Michael J. Fox and his foundation.”

She had a point. Limbaugh could learn from it. Be careful who you pick on. You might look worse than you think.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


How We Lost It, How to Get It Back
By Andrew Sullivan
HarperCollins. 304p $25.95

The Conservative Soul is a dense, passionate argument for a simple thesis: In the United States, true conservatism has been hijacked by the forces of fundamentalism, rendering the Republican Party increasingly unacceptable to principled conservatives. In Andrew Sullivan’s narrative, fundamentalism represents not an extreme of conservatism, but rather its denial. Fundamentalists claim to know the single truth with certainty; conservatives believe that knowledge is at best provisional. The fundamentalist mind-set abhors doubt; the conservative celebrates it as the human use of reason. The fundamentalist sees morality and faith as propositional, organized around dogmatic truths and rigid laws; the conservative sees them as forms of learned practice, as habits of the heart.

The conservative favors limited government; the fundamentalist insists on a robustly interventionist government acting with paternalistic intent. The conservative favors limiting government through constitutions that mediate among differing beliefs and faiths through common means and procedures rather than shared ends or purposes. The conservative distinguishes between public and private; the fundamentalist insists on the application of public principles to private life, using coercion as needed. The conservative insists on the separation of church and state; the fundamentalist rejects this as a form of dogmatic secularism. Fundamentalists believe in foreign policy as “great crusades” guided by “grand notions of history” and “utopian fantasies”; conservatives see foreign policy as a sober matter of self-defense and the abatement of violence in a mostly anarchic international system. The conservative distinguishes between earth and heaven; the fundamentalist yearns for, and wants to accelerate, the coming of heaven on earth. Above all, the true conservative reveres individual freedom, conscience and choice, while the fundamentalist sees them as adversaries of what is known, with certainty, to be Good and True.

Sullivan, senior editor at The New Republic, has certainly captured a defining element of contemporary American politics. The Republican Party of 2006 is dominated by religious conservatives far more than was the party Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan vied to control 30 years ago, and the influence of these conservatives has been deeply felt in foreign as well as domestic policy.

Oddly (for a well-trained political philosopher and serious Catholic), Sullivan runs into more difficulties at the level of theory and theology. Let me begin where he does, with conservatism. Sullivan declares, sensibly enough, that the “need to conserve” is the “essence of any conservatism.” But he fails to draw the obvious inference, that conservatism will therefore be a local matter. Because Britain and the United States have different traditions, the substance of what British and American conservatives seek to conserve will differ accordingly. Because the idea of rights as both unalienable and self-evident, which Sullivan spurns as pertaining to liberalism rather than conservatism, is woven into American tradition, it would be surprising if American conservatives did not rise to its defense, as many do.

In a similar vein, Sullivan insists that “all conservatism begins with loss”; the hope (often against hope) of resisting loss by slowing if not stopping change is what motivates the desire to conserve. Again, a plausible if not original proposition. But Sullivan does not take the next and necessary step. He does not ask whether the skepticism he embraces and the freedom he endorses are consistent with the impulse to conserve, or undermine it. Socrates, whom Sullivan invokes along with Montaigne as the archetype of the reasonable skeptic, was hardly a force for conservatism. Whether or not they should have executed Socrates, the Athenians were not wrong to see him as politically corrosive. The conservative, says Sullivan, sees his grasp on truth as “always provisional,” because the human mind is inherently fallible, limited, capable of deluding itself and seeing what it wants to see. I cannot imagine a better description of the scientific mind-set, yet modern science is anything but a conservative force. The freedom of thought and action that Sullivan places at the center of his political philosophy is a human good of a very high order, but its thrust is hardly conservative.

The late philosopher Michael Oakeshott was a critic of “rationalism” in human life. In both morals and politics, he taught, the heart of the matter is sound practice, not true doctrine; and sound practice is the sort of thing one learns not by reading, but by doing. This teaching, which Sullivan endorses and expands to cover faith as well, generates all manner of difficulties. It leads him to mischaracterize the U.S. Constitution as dealing only with means and procedures, overlooking the Preamble, which declares in no uncertain terms what the Constitution’s purposes are and by clear implication what they are not (the blessings of liberty but not the promotion of virtue, the common defense and general welfare but not the inculcation of the One True Faith, and so forth).

Most astonishingly, Sullivan’s Oakeshottian stance leads him to deny the force of “principles or dogmas” and to insist that “our religion is simply what we do.” I am not a Catholic, but Sullivan insists he is. I had always thought, perhaps mistakenly, that Catholic practice could not be disentangled from Catholic doctrine, that devices such as the catechism were designed to instruct Catholics in that doctrine, and that the Catholic hierarchy had as one of its principal purposes the elucidation of right doctrine. While Catholicism is hardly blind to the centrality of love in Jesus’ teachings and example, it cannot accept the sharp antithesis Sullivan creates between love and doctrine, or between love and law. Love unconstrained by truth and not translated into rules of conduct risks error or worse. William A. Galston

Michael A. Galston is the Saul Stern Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, where he is director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.

The Conservative Soul

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Evangelicals do not contribute to Community Building and Healing.

Published on Monday, October 23, 2006 by the Winnipeg Free Press (Canada)
The Super-Powered Gospel:
Evangelical Sabre-Rattling Doesn't Advance Global Understanding
by Will Braun

AS awkward as it feels to talk about God in the daily paper, the Almighty is an unavoidable player in world events. Presidents, politicized clerics and suicide bombers claim the stamp of divine endorsement. They're all fighting "evil" and they're all claiming the guarantee of ultimate victory.

So depending on what you believe, our world is either engaged in a cosmic battle to the apocalyptic finish, or just mired in raw politics with some players bluffing a divine trump card.

In either case, Christianity currently has the upper hand. With the undisputed world superpower officially presenting itself as a God-blessed nation, Christianity has the biggest guns. President Bush is never shy about framing his policies in religious language, from his God Bless America political mantra to quoting Psalm 23 after 9-11. According to a BBC report, Bush even claimed the orders to invade Iraq came directly from on high.

The days of the Crusades no longer seem as distant -- days when medieval Christian armies slaughtered infidels to protect Christianity's geo-political domain. Politics, religion and military might are still a powerful cocktail.

Many prominent American religious figures lend their clerical credibility to president Bush and his super-powered religion. Key among them is Rev. Franklin Graham, who came to Winnipeg this weekend to preach at the MTS Centre.

Perhaps more than any other clergy, Franklin Graham and his father Billy -- one of the most prominent Christian figures of this era -- have served to put the stamp of Godly blessing on the U.S. and its government. Ever since Eisenhower, Billy Graham has served as the nation's pastor, to use George Bush Sr.'s description. Graham has had a role in eight presidential inauguration ceremonies, was with Bush Sr. at the White House on the eve of Desert Storm, and can claim as his most famous convert, George Junior. One fundamentalist writer called Graham the "minister-in-chief."

With the elder Graham well into his 80s, Franklin is the heir apparent to the ministry. He filled in at the last presidential inauguration and has been vocal in his support of the U.S. government and its troops.

The Grahams -- widely respected in Christian circles and beyond -- have consistently provided a visible, public symbol of the church's blessing of the United States and its international forays, both in Republican and in Democratic eras.

This may be good or bad, depending on your view of the U.S. or a particular president, but it raises an issue beyond partisanship and national allegiance: What is the role of religion in an increasingly divided global village? With political leaders on many fronts talking tough, waving their guns and clinging to national self-interest, is the best role for religion that of bolstering the bravado?

Franklin Graham, brandishing a tone not heard from his father, called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" and, in the wake of 9-11, said the U.S. should drop nuclear weapons on Afghanistan. He has backed down somewhat from the former statement but refuses to retract the latter. Rather than countering increased division in the world with calls for understanding and unity, he is digging the trenches deeper.

To be clear about what Rev. Graham suggested for Afghanistan, picture in your mind the apocalyptic images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- disfigured people and a lifeless smouldering moonscape.

Is that what the religious imagination has to offer the world?

Compare that with the Amish of Nickel Mines. When faced with senseless violence, they did not respond with righteous vengeance but reached out to the family of the man who killed their children, setting up trust funds for his kids. Confronted by unthinkable violence, they responded with unthinkable forgiveness and compassion.

For them, faith meant replacing the human impulse for fear and retaliation with something kinder and gentler.

Whether or not one believes in God, war or America, likely we would all agree that our volatile, fearful world would benefit from more voices of compassion and calm rather than more voices that turn us against each other? In this world, does religion not have a higher calling than aggression? As the world becomes increasingly polarized, will religion simply follow suit?

Right up until his final sermon in New York last year, Billy Graham called his services crusades, maintaining this allusion to Christianity's most violent and impositional phase. Though President Bush was forced to apologize for referring to the war on terror as a crusade, Graham somehow gets away with it. Though Franklin is moving away from the term, the undercurrent of aggression still seems strong.

The point is not that religion should necessarily retreat from the public sphere. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu and Gandhi all blended religion with fearless engagement in the public realm, but they did it in a way that brought people together and dissipated violence. Gandhi went so far as to say: "I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew and so are all of you."

Where are the religious leaders with the courage and breadth to make such a statement today?

Perhaps religion, at its seldom-seen best, should allow society to imagine the unimaginable -- like responding to evil with goodness and forgiving murders. Maybe the power of such actions can do more for our world than the superpower of religio-political might.

Will Braun is editor of Geez magazine and attends Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.

© Copyright 2006 Winnipeg Free Press

Monday, October 02, 2006

Graham no longer belives the Bible is inerrant.

From Frank Lockwood, Bible Belt Blogger, Herald - Leader, Lexington, Ky
re Newsweek cover article on Billy Graham:

"By the way, if you haven't seen Meacham's entire article, it's quite a read. It shows a mellower, less conservative evangelist than in years past. Unlike millions of other Baptists, Graham apparently no longer believes the Scriptures are inerrant. "I'm not a literalist [about the Bible] in that every jot and tittle is from the Lord," he says.