Monday, February 27, 2012

Your fist – my nose

George Niederauer is beating a dead horse in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle

He is attempting to draw a parallel between the Boston Tea Party and the latest attempt by his church to inhibit the practice of birth control.   The media are alive with signs of amazement at how good the religious right is at shooting itself in the foot with this cause, and Niederauer, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, keeps supplying the bullets. 

It’s not something he has any control over, of course.  As an archbishop, he has to ignore the actual church, which practices birth control without reservation, and speak for the official church, which is still pedaling backwards as fast as it can to keep the church from entering the 20th Century.  That’s not a typo.  The 20th Century.

The Boston Tea Party, Niederauer says, wasn’t about the tea.  It was about liberty.

Well yes, of course it was about liberty.  But as far as the East India Company was concerned, it was most assuredly about the tea, and they wanted, and got, the British Parliament to pass a bill to close Boston Harbor until the loss of the tea had been reimbursed.  It’s not either/or.  It’s both/and.

When you hear somebody say, “It’s not about X” you can almost always be sure it is about X.  It may also be about Y, but it is still about X, as well.  “It’s not about…” simply signals you’ve got a difference of opinion over how a conflict is being framed.

Same-sex marriage.  Is it about “the right to marry and enjoy equal civil rights”?  Or is it about “the wisdom of keeping the “traditional” definition of marriage”?  (Never mind the wildly off-base misunderstanding of the tradition.)   Integration.  Was it about “giving black people full access to American citizenship”?   Or about “preserving the God-given separation of the races?” 

“It’s not about…” should send off an alarm bell.  Warning.  Background information needed. 

We all understand that there are situations where there is more than meets the eye.  That is attested to by phrases like, “cherchez la femme” – look for the woman (there’s bound to be a woman behind all this trouble).  Or “follow the money.”  The entire postmodern project of deconstruction is based on looking under the surface to find the real explanation.  And for the real motivation, which is bound to be a desire for power.  Or money.  Which is the gateway to power.

You’ve got to hand it to the Archbishop.  He does his job well.  Absolutely untroubled by the notion that perhaps this furtherance of male control over women his church is notorious for is on the way out in modern times.  The chutzpah!  Telling women it’s not about birth control but about liberty.

A man who has no children and is committed to having none tells women he would force children on that he’s the voice of liberty.  OK, not forcing, exactly.  They could do without sex, if they prefer.  Either one is a good Catholic choice, according to Niederauer.

For way way too long this retrograde institution has gotten away with chutzpah like this.  It’s not about your right as a gay person to dignity.  It’s about our right to declare that you aren’t worthy of it.  Well, let me correct myself.  We used to say you were not worthy of it, but now we have changed out minds and we say your are worthy of it but just not a dignity equal to ours.  And you’ve got to allow us to say this and act out on this, because if you don’t you’re infringing on our liberty to discriminate against you.  And our right to insist it’s not discrimination.  It’s not about your right to have information on how to enjoy a rich and healthy sex life without risking pregnancy with each act of intercourse.  It’s about our right to tell you we don’t want you to do that.

You see the problem.  It’s all about who has the power to frame the argument.

Generally, when two people come at an issue with different vested interests, you hope for civility, stress common ground, and allow both sides to agree to disagree, if you must.

In this instance, however, there is no middle ground.  The church dictates or it doesn’t.  What Niederauer is missing, in his insistence he has the right to discriminate because he’s following the dictates of his religion, is that he’s working out in the world, and not in the non-democratic tradition of his church.  And in a democracy, one’s freedom ends where another’s begins.

Hiding behind religious authority is nothing new for the church.  They tried it, world wide, in the priest abuse scandal.  The secular world wanted the predator priests exposed and brought to justice.  The hierarchical church wanted total control over how the matter was handled.  For decades they had simply shuffled offender priests around from diocese to diocese, protecting the church from scandal.  This control, they maintained, was their due as a religious institution.  Gradually, the world has come to understand that since the church would not take care of its children, the state had to, and in one country after another, Germany, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere, this issue once framed as the Catholic Church’s right to care for the souls of its bishops  was reframed as the right of the world at large to protect its children.  Religious rights, it turned out, had its limits.

We are at that kind of divide once more.  Where does the right of the Church to prolong its oppression and denigration of women (and LGBT people) on religious grounds end?  And where does the right of women and gays not to be put down by the Church begin?

Niederauer and Company display an astonishing ignorance of the misery they inflict on others who out of fear of eternal damnation submit to their rules at the expense of their personal liberties, including the quality of their lives.  The lenses the clerics wear permit them to discern their liberty to dictate.  And filter out the liberty of the women susceptible to their influence to choose to have children on the basis of their ability to care for them.

We were taught in kindergarten that wonderful Oliver Wendell Holmes summation of rights in a democracy: the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.

Niederauer can frame this conflict over the contraceptive mandate as a question of religious liberty all he wants.

But he must not feign surprise to find most of us thinking in terms of a broken nose.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Render Unto Caesar (but that's the easy part)

It’s no longer news that organized religion has teamed up with right-wing politics in the United States.  Or that organized religion has split into what we call “mainstream” and “born-again” or “evangelical.” 

Also familiar to most of us paying attention to what’s going on in America is the fact that this sharp divide between left and right, or liberal and conservative,  is reflected in this divide between Mainstream Christians and Christians of the Born Again variety.  And that the Christians labeled Mainstream often have more in common with the non-religious than with their evangelical co-religionists. 

I remember some interesting discussions in my seminars, on the meaning of culture, back in my teaching days, over how to frame the concepts of religion and culture.  Is religion a subset of culture?  Or is it the other way around?  It’s been some years now since I had such discussions, but I would certainly want to bring in the example of what is going on in America today to make the case that religion is a subset of culture.

Putting aside, for the sake of this discussion, the fact that clumping all the varieties of cultural ways in America into one is problematic, I would propose that “American culture” still exhibits its origins in Protestantism, both Calvinism and Lutheranism, and that Catholics and Jews and others in America have been profoundly influenced by such Protestant ideas as the importance of the individual, the work ethic, a faith in ultimate justice, the certainty of punishment and reward, in this life or the next, and the importance of working toward the progress of mankind in this lifetime.

The reason I think there is a strong case for putting culture above religion is that Catholics seem to have split themselves into evangelicals and mainstreamers in a form virtually identical to the way Protestants have evolved in recent years.  With an interesting twist – the “evangelicals” are the upper level clergy, and it has become clear just how far apart they are from the “mainstream” majority in the pews. 

Which corner of the culture (values, attitudes, beliefs) we take refuge in determines whether we adhere to an ideology of enlightenment values, universal human rights and a focus on improving our lives in the here-and-now – or to an ideology of discipline and obedience to authority.  Religion these days seems to take its cue from that cultural choice.  If one is Protestant, and given to authoritarian ways, authority is adherence to “biblical” values as the only path to heaven.  If Catholic, it’s the magisterium, the hierarchy, the infallible Bishop of Rome, and a monopoly on the keys to Heaven.

If one is anti-authoritarian (or at least non-authoritarian by inclination), and Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or purely secular, one spends one’s time seeking personal goals, whether selfish or altruistic, working for better government, greater global equity, universal education, health and welfare.  Catholics want their churches to restructure themselves the way Mainstream Protestants tend to structure theirs, run on democratic principles without regard to sex, class or ethnicity.  Catholics of this stripe focus not on the hierarchy as the church but as the entire “body of Christ” – the entire collective of believers, including the clergy.

These conflicting cultural values are what lie behind the Culture Wars which the Republicans and Democrats are now fighting, and which loom larger for the right as they see themselves losing the economic and labor arguments, and have been front and center all through the selection process of a Republican presidential candidate. 

MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes’ had two separate programs, one February 18th and one February 19th, dealing with what he took to be Rick Santorum’s Catholic attack on Protestants, but his panelists pointed out were in fact an evangelical attack on non-evangelicals. 

The issue is Rick Santorum’s comment made in a speech to Ave Maria University in 2008, which goes:

We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic but the Judeo-Christian ethic was a Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic, sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is a shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.

Chris Hayes himself, one of the more astute observers of the American sociopolitical scene, misses the division, and uses “evangelical”, as most people probably would, in contrast to Catholic.  He is corrected in this by Reihan Salam (Columnist for The Daily), one of his panelists, who also makes the point I am making from a different perspective.  Will the average American, he asks, understand Santorum’s attack in the evangelical way it was intended?  Or will they see it in the old (implication: no longer relevant) way, as Chris Hayes just did, as a Catholic attack on Protestant?

Chris Hayes repeats the charge the next day with a different panel that Santorum has “excommunicated” the majority of Protestants, this time to have somebody else “correct” his way of looking at the situation once again.  This time it’s Chrystia Freeland of who suggests Santorum is not so much maligning folks as making the objective (and accurate) observation that, as a group, mainline Protestants have lost the clout they once had in the culture.  Even they would admit they have fallen on hard times, in other words.  Sam Seder ( then makes the point that “the same thing is true for the Catholics.”  They too believe the folks at the other end of the divide – he doesn’t use the word authoritarian, but he doesn’t have to – are “theologically” wrongheaded.

What’s going on here is that, thanks in large part to Santorum, we are now openly using “religion” as a stand-in for “politics.”   Note that  “conservative religion” is a category largely synonymous with “conservative politics,” whether it’s Catholic or Protestant, and all those theological issues (sola scriptura vs. papal authority which Luther tore the medieval church apart over) seem quite secondary at the moment.  That begs the question, is this change only temporary?

Hayes points out how things have evolved in America.  When JFK was about to be president he stressed that he would be a secular president and would not take his orders from his pope.  Romney now is at pains to stress that he is theological, and not secular, and a member of the same political right – non-secular, Mormon, evangelical, Catholic – folk who take their orders from God first and foremost.

But this is telling only half the story, that with Kennedy the contrast was between the secular (bad) and mainstream religion.  Today it's between secular/mainstream religion (bad) and evangelical religion.  And whereas, to win, Kennedy was putting secular values over religious ones, today the Republican candidates, at least, are putting evangelical values over all the others.   What’s missing when the media talk about "religion" is that when we say theological, or religious, we are referencing authoritarian, power-centered, judgmental religion, not “Sermon on the Mount,” pastoral, compassionate religion.  Our battle over church and state is not over whether the secular (read: atheistic) unfeeling state rides roughshod over the rights of our citizens for their love-of-God religion.  It’s over which power group gets to call the shots and whether religiously conservative folk can impose their ways – their opposition to women’s rights, abortion, gay dignity and rights, denial of evolution, global warming – all in the name of freedom of today's kind of religion.

Mainstream Protestants (Jeff Greenberg identifies them as members of the National Council of Churches) have gone left.  Evangelicals, once apolitical, have gone politically right.  And Greenberg makes the important point that since the divide is no longer Catholic/Protestant but liberal non-evangelical/conservative evangelical, Santorum can be an extreme right wing Catholic and still get support from Protestant evangelicals.

Religion in America ain’t what it used to be.  Some would say it isn’t even religion, but politics masking as religion.  The change shows up sometimes when you least expect it.  Recently, when the Supreme Court decided unanimously to support a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church’s right to fire one of its employees on the grounds she was a minister, and therefore in the religious category and not subject to labor protections, a secular issue, I found myself agreeing with the Court, because I believed the greater principle of separation of church and state was at stake here.   Catholic theologian Bill Lindsey disagreed with me.  He saw the legal rights aspect as trumping religious freedom.  I found it interesting that I should be on the side of the power of the religious institution in this instance, and a practicing Catholic should be on my left, so to speak.  But this is surprising only when you make the mistake I did, and most people do, of allowing the bishops and cardinals to speak for the entire church.  Once you realize that even self-identified Catholic theologians (and there are many of them) can be articulate voices in opposition to their bishops and cardinals, and when you look at statistical evidence that Catholics as a whole are more liberal even than the average American, you get some decent perspective on what is right and what is left.

The point is, in the Church v. State arguments, church isn’t what it once was.

In some ways, you might wonder if we haven’t grown a whole new American religion.

Santorum’s popularity is commonly attributed to his “authenticity”.  Unlike his Mormon chief competitor and many of his evangelical ones as well, he is seen as somehow more genuine.

But let’s not for a minute confuse his sincerity and devotion to conservative Catholicism with Catholicism – or even American Catholicism – itself.

Santorum and his co-religionists would have you think the church is under attack, and if given the power to do so, he would put God back into American life.

But he represents a narrow band of authoritarians.  Not Christianity.  Not even Catholicism.  

For that matter, when you hear him lecture young rape victims on the necessity of welcoming the rapist’s baby they’re carrying and bearing it with joy, you might ask yourself how much he even represents American conservatives.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Deutschland Über Alles Anyone?

Let me tell you a little bit about Joachim Gauck, the man of the hour in Germany, although if you read only American newspapers you probably have no idea who he is.   [New York Times: “Your search - Gauck - did not match any documents under Past 30 Days.”]
He and I are just about the same age.  He’s four months older than me, give or take a week or ten days.  He was born in Germany, though, the land of my mother’s side of the family, and the place I thought I would leave the United States for once upon a time.

A little background here.

I grew up in rural New England, and early on found myself yearning to break free.  The town was full of immigrants and the places they came from – Germany most of all – held a whole lot of attraction for me.  When I finally did break out, I went to Munich and when the shock of change wore off it was as if I had left Kansas for Oz and the world was suddenly sparkling all around me in glowing technicolor.  I lived across the street from the Alte Pinakothek and got my first introduction to art and ballet and opera and all kinds of things the big city had to offer.  I fell in love with the Bach Choir, spent most Saturday nights at the Hofbräuhaus and when the time came to go back to college in Vermont, I thought about dropping out and not going back to the States, maybe ever.

Then, a few years later I ended up in Berlin and discovered I liked Berlin even better than Munich and how could I pass up a second chance to drop out and start life over in a far more interesting and exciting place than where I came from.

Well, life is what happens, they say, when you’re waiting for things to happen, and I made my life in Japan and California instead.  But the sense of connection with Germany first instilled in me by a proud German grandmother and then nurtured by the excitement of living at the geographical center of the Cold War remained strong.  And to this day, each time I go back I have to fight off waves of “what if” and sometimes “if only.”

I usually talk myself down from these fantasies of a history of things that never happened by reminding myself of Berlin’s long winter nights and the snow and the ice and the cold.

But once in a while, something happens like what happened today.  Something that brings the “if only”s back again.  Oh, and also restores your faith in politics. 

In England, as everybody knows, the Queen represents the nation and the prime minister runs the state.  Germany has something similar.  Its President represents the Nation while the chancellor runs the state.  They don’t make the mistake of giving these two roles to the same person, as we do in the United States, and then expecting this double duty performer to be a saint.  In fact, in Germany, like in Britain, when a government official turns out to be involved in some kind of shenanigans, or has a non-standard sex life, people take it in stride.  He or she is, after all, “just a politician.”

Christian Wulff was elected President of Germany in June of 2010.  I followed the election closely and was bitterly disappointed.  He struck me as just a tad too slick.  Had a beautiful wife, wore handsome man glasses, was a popular governor (premier) in Lower Saxony – he had everything going for him, but I wanted the other guy. 

The other guy was Joachim Gauck.  Much older.  Not a glamorous fellow at all.  A Lutheran minister, not a politician at heart.

But that’s the attraction.  He got involved in politics after his father was arrested by the Soviets and sent off to a Gulag.  Gauck became a lifelong foe of the communists as a result and that meant when he applied to study journalism he was turned down by the communist state.  Things didn’t get better when he joined the church.  He was under constant surveillance by the Stasi, the Secret Police, and remained a thorn in their side.  Three of his four children left the GDR for the West, but he stayed, to work against the system from within, till the wall came down and the GDR was incorporated into the Bundesrepublik.   Since then he has devoted himself to bringing to light the crimes of the Stasi.  He won’t join a political party and remains independent, working against extremes on both the right and the left.

Gauck, despite his anti-communism, didn’t have the connections to the conservative ruling coalition run by Angela Merkel that Christian Wulff, did and, as I noted with disappointment in a blog entry on July 2, 2010, it was Wulff, not Gauck, who moved into Bellevue, the Presidential Palace in 2010.  I thought the Germans had made a terrible mistake.  They have a job where being a saint is kind of a requirement, and they have one in Gauck, kind of, and they give it to a politician friend of the chancellor’s instead.    On top of that, they have a chance to have both a chancellor and a president from the former GDR in power at the same time.  Think of the symbolic effect of that for the former East Germans, who much of the time feel like they have little say in the new Germany.

Now it turns out that Christian Wulff took a financial favor while he was governor of Lower Saxony. Nothing illegal, mind you.  It just didn’t fit the job description of saint. From an American perspective, where congress people do insider trading routinely, everybody is owned by a lobbyist, and the richest political candidate controls the airwaves, Wulff’s little peccadillo couldn’t seem more trivial.  I’m not even sure it was illegal.  But the Germans went bananas, and they just bounced him out.

I didn’t think they’d actually kick the guy out of office.  But they did. 

But that’s not the good news.  The good news is they are unafraid to put right what I think they put wrong before.  Joachim Gauck has just been announced as Wulff’s successor!  How ‘bout them apples.  Germany is going to have this heroic figure as head of nation after all.

Gauck is separated from his wife and lives with his girlfriend.  A Lutheran minister.  Living with his girlfriend.  And she’ll probably move into Bellevue, the presidential palace, with him, of course.

The Germans, for some reason, are not concerned with all that.  To them, he’s still Mr. Clean.

Meanwhile here in the US of A, virtually the entire bevy of presidential candidates for president of one of our two political parties is currently fighting to take away the right of American women to get birth control information, because everybody knows when women and God get into a tug of war you’ve got to take God’s side.

You see why I still wonder from time to time why I don’t apply for German citizenship?


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Unbinding Your Feet, Part II

I’ve got a trivia question for you.  Of the 242 countries listed on Wikipedia’s “List of countries by population”  how many of them have fewer people than the number of Chinese women married to gay men?

I won’t ask you to wait for the answer.  The answer appears to be most of them.  178 of those 242 countries have a population of fewer than 16 million, the number of Chinese women that an  AsiaOne article  (from which the accompanying Reuters photo is taken) tells us are married to gay men.

Now we all know that gay men, many of them, manage to have sex and produce children with female partners, particularly when they are young and live up to macho male expectations that one can copulate with anything that moves, if one puts one’s mind to it, and a number of immobile objects as well, seen in the right light, with the right music, and the need to pop or go crazy.

Some of these men love the women they live with.  There’s ample evidence many of them make good husbands and fathers.

The trouble is, among these 16 million there are a great many who don’t.  Men who would have a much better chance of forming healthy loving relationships if they were free to form them with other men.  Men who might even make better loving fathers, for that matter.

Sixteen million sounds like a whole lot of men, especially when you realize the population of the Netherlands is only slightly over that number, and the populations of Greece, Ecuador, Cambodia, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belgium, Rwanda,  Tunisia, Portugal, to name only a partial list, are under that number.  And the populations of Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria – again to name only a partial list – are less than half that number.  That’s lots and lots of Chinese ladies chewing on the fringes of their pillowcases, if human nature is like what I think it is.

All because we have constructed a world of one-size fits all, speaking in penile terms.

But it’s not.  With a population of over a billion people, if the sixteen million women married to bent men had stuck to the five hundred million minus sixteen million who are not bent, give or take a dozen million here or there, the potential for more satisfying sighs in the land of dragons, brocades and won ton soup would increase enormously, it seems to me. 

How much better for the mental health of all concerned if China could go the way of Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden and six U.S. states and counting in allowing men to marry other men and women to marry other women.  And give them a place at the table by supporting and encouraging their partnership, as Hillary Clinton encouraged the world to do recently in an address to U.N. in Geneva.  

Heterosexual women of China, cast off your chains.  Gays are a very small minority of the world’s population.  Encourage your gay friends to come out and tell you who they are.  Encourage them to marry each other and not make promises to you they can’t keep. 

Tell the Catholic Church and all the other lousy organizations around the planet preaching that one-size-fits-all message to go take a hike.

Have your gay men friends over to do your hair, cook your meals, write your legal contracts, teach your children, decorate your apartment, give you a heart transplant, fly your planes or run your country.  But don’t ask them to share your bed and go boom boom in the night when it’s not what they want to be doing.

Rise and walk, Chinese ladies.  You got your men to stop binding your feet.  You can make them free you to take this next step, as well.