Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Religion. Politics. Morality.

August 31, 2011

Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of The New York Times opined last Sunday that he would like to ask candidates for public office (and particularly the Presidency) tougher questions about their faith than have been asked in the past. He shows understanding of the complexity and interweaving of the evangelical right among Christians in this country while wanting to ask the same kind of questions that were asked of John Kennedy when he ran for public office as a Roman Catholic. Are you going to follow the Pope or the Constitution? Keller also wants to know whether or not a candidate will allow her or his religion to lead them to beliefs contrary to “serious science and verifiable history”, and whether or not she or he will serve as a “Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.”

I wish him well in the task of sorting out the role of religious faith in the public square. Phrases and ideas that are common parlance among large swaths of conservative Christians can sound like fanaticism to those outside those circles without in fact revealing the speaker as a religious fanatic. In general I prefer leaders who have convictions about God that give rise to a degree of genuine humility. That is what I listen for, along with a genuine concern for the poor and downtrodden that includes at the moment and in particular the jobless and the uninsured. I think debates about the role of government and economic policy are useful, but not as a smokescreen for what appears to be fear-based and selfish greed. There is a joke that is told in the mountains that ‘an environmentalist is someone who has already built his mountain home.’ “I’ve got mine and I’m going to protect it from the likes of you (who might mean that I will pay higher taxes)” is ugly-think and not worthy of those who would be followers of Yahweh, Jesus or Allah.

In this regard we must note that tea party sweetheart and republican Presidential ‘hopeful’ Michele Bachman has referred explicitly to the recent earthquake and hurricane on the East Coast, saying “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.” She said that this was God’s way of underlining the “roaring of the American people”. She later said that she was speaking in a “humorous vein” about serious matters. The humor eludes me. The ‘roaring’ does not.

While I disagree profoundly with the solutions of the political right, I share the sense that much of the West has gone off the rails when we think that we can fight wars and leave our children to pay for them, when we spend and spend on ourselves and then justify doing nothing in the near term for the jobless in a recession which requires a measure of government spending calling it ‘austerity’ and so on. I share the sense that we have somehow lost our way and that it is a moral issue.

The chief rabbi of England (technically chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) and a person whose thinking I have long respected is called Jonathan Sacks. He has argued persuasively in The Wall Street Journal that we have lost a sense of “self restraint and pursuit of the common good”. He believes that in much of Europe and even the United States, religion is a thing of the past and there is “no counter-voice to the culture of buy it, wear it, flaunt it, because you’re worth it.” I don’t agree with him in every detail (Niall Ferguson, now an historian at Harvard, far from being “one of our great British exports to America”, is someone I would be more likely to put in the embarrassment column based on some of his unfortunate articles in Newsweek,) but will be thinking about his argument and insight in particular as we prepare for the reflection that must come with the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


August 30, 2011

A recent edition of The Economist (August 6-12, 2011) yearned for a British innovator to emerge (“Where’s Britain’s Bill Gates?” p.13) and be supported by a package of government policies. In another magazine a review article (which I cannot now find) talks about how innovators require a degree of genius and cannot be otherwise created.

The vote to take place at the United Nations session in September over whether or not to grant Palestinian statehood brings to mind a past British innovative genius. Michael Korda has written a readable biography of T. E. Lawrence called Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (Harper Collins, 2010). Korda assesses Lawrence’s work and significance including how his military strategy was the basis for the hugely successful Long Range Desert Group, praised by Field Marshall Rommel, no less. (p.686) He also bore some responsibility for his role in shaping today’s Middle East, even though the eventual outcome was for him a source of guilt and disappointment. In a map he prepared and proposed in 1918 he sought to divide the Ottoman Empire in a way that “sought to respect the geographical, tribal, religious, and racial realities of the Middle East…He tackled head-on some of the problems that are still plaguing the region, like the claims of the Kurds for an independent nation, and the need to find a place for the Armenians.” (p.532) “He tried to create states or indigenous areas based on the religion or the racial and cultural identity of the people living there, and so far as possible to take into account geographical features and water resources.” (p.533) He clearly supported what was to become the state of Israel but wanted much more for those who sought an ‘Arab Nation’ in the process.

The extraordinary circumstances that gave rise to the current shape and issues of that troubled region could have been quite different had Lawrence been granted more influence than he had among the swirling rivalries and colonial aspirations of the major powers of the day. What it seems he knew was that everybody had to ‘win’ in some way and they did not. So we are left with the UN voting on potential statehood for a people who deny the right of Israel to exist. Should there not be some kind of mutual and explicit recognition of the right of Israel to exist and the ability to defend itself. Such a requirement would by no means be a blank check for Israel, nor allowing the reality of the ways in which Palestinians have been victimized at the hands of Israel to afford them a kind of moral superiority. I realize all this is way above my pay grade (as they say) but I oppose statehood without something that serves as an explicit recognition of the rights of Israel.

Hero is a very good book.

Monday, August 29, 2011

History and Harlot’s Ghost

August 29, 2011

In The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (Harper Collins, 1991) Paul Johnson tackles two theories at once. He wants to show (and largely succeeds) that what we know as the ’modern age’ was shaped over one fifteen year period in the 1800s. He also wants to deal with the whole world and employ “no one angle of vision” (p.xviii). He ranges over the whole world, not neglecting chronology, but not limiting himself to grand political movements, literary history or personal remembrances from peoples of the time. In a single section of the book he might deal with literary and musical genius, medical schools, body snatching and surgery, alcoholism, the weaknesses of Chinese government and ‘the invention of the Great Game’.

His book came to mind a lot for me this summer as I took on reading the monumental Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer (Random House, 1991), a ’novel of the CIA’ which I had thought about trying but was spurred into action by a kind person delivering a copy to our parish summer book swap called ‘Trading Graces’. It is not a world history with no single perspective, but it had the same all-encompassing feel as Johnson’s history. It covers major events of the sixties (Castro, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy assassinations and so on) from the perspective of a handful of memorably drawn characters, all of whom are patrician New Englanders and who work for the CIA. It is not a spy novel in any traditional sense, although the writing, color and atmosphere are recognizable from John Le Carre and Robert Littell. It is also, (surprisingly at nearly 1300 pages) not a novel in which I was able to ’lose myself’. It was less summer escapism and more being drawn into a world of characters with all of the complexity of real life in a time I remember from my own early years and a places I do not.

In a way this time was the beginning of so much that makes up for modern politics: the place of secrecy and the ubiquitous presence of ‘spin’ as those with power seek to control how a story is told. I remember seeing the original film about the Cuban missile crisis in a seminar reflecting on ’leadership in response to a crisis’ (The Missiles of October, 1974) and being aware how different (and how much more complicated) the whole crisis would have been with today’s political realities in play.

Mailer’s novel is beautifully crafted with real historical reality and extraordinary psychological depth. He neither avoids nor over simplifies the moral dilemmas of personal or international relations. His prose sometimes enters the realm of poetry. Overall I’m not sure I enjoyed the book, but I’m glad I read it, as we watched the old social compact of political life in this country be overturned by right wing politicians who declined to play by the old rules and made the debt ceiling debate into a manufactured crisis for everybody. I don’t think there is anything particularly marvelous or moral about having ‘an establishment’ run things, but I prefer it in many ways to the anarchic effects of the radical (and far from ‘conservative’) right.