Faith and loss in America

The debate about separation of church and state has been in the news a lot lately. This year, Kansas school boards have tried to promote “Intelligent Design” and discredit evolution in their schools. Judges insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments in their court-rooms. George W. Bush, whose supporters in the religious right expect action in return for their votes in the last election, has increased funding for “faith-based initiatives”. Fundamentalist Christian politicians like Bill Frist have been trying to break down traditional barriers between the government and pulpit. And a hard-line religious conservative has just been elected in a landslide. (Sorry. Don’t know how that one slipped in there.)

These stories reflect a greater conflict within American society. A new poll by the AP finds that “40 percent of Americans think religious leaders should influence public policy”. It seems that some groups want the United States government to promote one official religion, and not tolerate alternative religious beliefs. That’s a theocracy.

So I was especially pleased to see that This American Life had produced the show Godless America about the separation of church and state. It’s a terrific show. And not only because it helps validate my world view. It offers a warning against religious dogmatism, but does so with grace and humor.

The first segment exposes the mine-field that is today’s religious and political landscape. The second is an interview with Cornell government professor Isaac Kramnick, co-author of The Godless Constitution. He talks about just how radical it was for the framers of the constitution to found a secular state, and how the effort just barely passed. He counters claims by the religious right that the U.S. is really a “Christian nation”, and talks about how they were motivated by the writings of John Locke, and the religious intolerance in the early colonies. (Did you know that they hung Quakers in Boston Common in the Massachusetts colony? Just for being, well, Quakers.)

But the final segment, “God said Huh?”, is just incredible. In it, Julia Sweeney talks about how she recently embarked on a course of religious study. And how as a result she lost the faith she had held since childhood.

Sweeney is a former Saturday Night Live comic, had previously produced a one-woman show “God said Hah!”, about her brother’s battle with lymphoma, and her own diagnosis of cervical cancer. That show combined humor and pathos in an ultimately uplifing story. Her latest one-woman show, which she performed a few months ago in L.A. to rave reviews, is called “Letting Go of God”.

Now, I’ve lived in California for 11 years, and I have never visited L.A. But if Sweeney’s show was still being performed there, I would drive through the night to see it. It’s that good.

They played an excerpt on TLA. She begins by telling how two earnest young Mormon missionaries came to her door to explain their beliefs to her. The whole story about the lost tribes of Israel and the golden tablets in New York state sounds unbelievable. But then, on reflection, not much more unbelievable than the Catholic faith in which she was raised.

She resolves to study the bible, to learn more about her church. And what she reads horrifies her. The more she reads, the more she finds her faith called into question. By the end, when she sees a beautiful family walking to church in their Sunday best, with bibles tucked under their arms, she wants to yell at them: “Have you even read what’s in that book?”

But as always, her story is told with humor and poignancy. It will make you laugh, and make you think. So listen to the broadcast. And keep thinking for yourself.

Carved in Celluloid

Amid the controversy about displays of Ten Commandments monuments in state houses and court rooms, the original intent of those monuments is often forgotten. That intent, of course, being promoting a movie.

You may have noticed a striking similarity among the granite monuments representing the tablets that Moses supposedly carried down from Mount Sinai. That’s because, in the mid-1950s, amid the fears in the U.S. of “godless communism”, and rampant anti-Semitism, Hollywood tried to redeem itself by producing religious epics like “The Ten Commandments”. And what better way to promote the movie than to build hundreds of monuments to the tablets across the country?

When Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille launched the epic film “The Ten Commandments” in 1956, he agreed to engage in a unique educational and promotional campaign. DeMille cleared the way for the display of hundreds of granite monuments of the Ten Commandments in communities across the country – a project financed by the service organization, the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
E.J. Ruegemer, a retired judge who assisted DeMille, told The Wall Street Journal, “The Commandments are not just a religious rule, but a good code of conduct which can be followed by everyone, regardless of creed.”

Right. At least, according to Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News, the two men were able to find “Catholic, Jewish and Protestant scholars willing to come up with a version of the Commandments that incorporated all three traditions.(In different texts, the Commandments have different wordings, even different numberings.)”

About 4,000 granite slabs were eventually placed by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. They include the one in Austin that the Supreme Court is considering – and one in Fair Park in Dallas.

We feel so ashamed

The folks at Scientific American wrote a hilarious April Fool’s editorial responding to the rising tide of religious pseudo-science:
Okay, We Give Up — We feel so ashamed

In retrospect, this magazine’s coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies. True, the theory of common descent through natural selection has been called the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time, but that was no excuse to be fanatics about it.
Moreover, we shamefully mistreated the Intelligent Design (ID) theorists by lumping them in with creationists. Creationists believe that God designed all life, and that’s a somewhat religious idea. But ID theorists think that at unspecified times some unnamed superpowerful entity designed life, or maybe just some species, or maybe just some of the stuff in cells. That’s what makes ID a superior scientific theory: it doesn’t get bogged down in details.
Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong.

Unintelligent Design

The New York Times magazine published a critique of so-called “Intelligent Design”. That’s the argument that life around us is far to marvelous to have been created “randomly”. Naturally, then it must have had a designer.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was first offered by Darwin’s early opponents as an argument against evolution. Even though the idea of a Divine Designer was soundly discredited long ago, today’s creationists have resurrected and renamed the idea, and offered it up to school boards across the country.

What can we tell about the designer from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre.