Religion can be a comforting fiction. It’s much easier going through life with an imaginary friend, especially one who is powerful enough to have created the whole world, who answers your prayers and provides a home with many mansions for you to live in with all your loved ones after you die. Religion can also be a toxic waste dump. It frequently supplies the motivation and the justification for cutting off people’s heads, invading one’s neighbor's turf, subjugating women to male control and replacing a healthy appreciation for sexual pleasure with shame and disgust.
Fortunately, there are lots of people who don’t use religion to make believe or to justify an attack on people just too different from themselves for comfort, but to collect their ideas about moral behavior and the virtues of compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and love. They associate it with lofty thought, uplifting music, great art and architecture, optimism about the future and a shared fate with one’s fellow human beings. Religion is not exclusively an excuse for uncritical thinking or domination. Religion is what you make it.
Unfortunately, American religion tends toward the toxic variety. Shoddy religion is on full display in the Trump administration. Despite our official endorsement of the separation of church and state, the Republican Party has managed to sucker the authoritarian religionists of the nation – the Evangelicals, the traditionalist Roman Catholics, the Mormons and a few others (but mainly these groups) – into thinking they have a friend in Trump. Vote for our side, these groups are told, and I’ll rid the nation of abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex and other evils. Just follow us. This is your time up at bat.
Those of us fed up with the daily dismantling of decency, fair play, truth and honesty in government, are told that we must not call Trump supporters stupid or uninformed or wrong-headed. We must try to see things through their eyes and find common ground. I understand it’s not only practical, but both smart and high-minded to go easy on the criticism, that the best way to handle an enemy is to turn them into a friend, whenever possible. But there are times when one cannot give way. One does not suggest to a parent putting cigarettes out on on their child’s arm that they should spank the child instead; one gets the child out from the dysfunctional home into a safe space. One does not tell Jews that they have to be nice to neo-Nazis and “lead by example.” One joins forces with Jews against anti-semitism so they don’t have to fight this battle alone. One does not let white supremacists run school boards so they can bring in textbooks that teach kids black people in the Southern Confederacy were “mostly well cared for” and the Civil War was fought for the dignity of states’ rights. One makes sure the history of genocide of the American Indian and the slavery and segregation of the ancestors of modern-day African-Americans is recognized as a stain on American pride every bit as much as the holocaust is on Germany history.
And one recognizes that in this country no religious group can be allowed to speak for the rest of us. And that a terrible thing took place when the Trump Administration moved the U.S. Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem. It rode roughshod over the sensibilities of the Palestinian people who have as much claim to Jerusalem as Israelis do and is to the Mideast Peace Process what strangling a child in the crib is to educating the next generation. On top of this, the insult to both Palestinians and peace-seeking Israelis is compounded by a knife in the back. The opening prayer of the dedication ceremony was assigned to the likes of Pastor Robert Jeffress and the closing ceremony to Pastor John Hagee, two of America's best known Christian zealots. Hagee made a name for himself declaring Hurricane Katrina to be God’s punishment for New Orleans’ sinful ways. Jeffress once suggested that the Holocaust was God’s plan to return the Jews to Israel.
These are not momentary lapses in judgment, but clear indications these men are Christian supremacists who on many other occasions have preached to the masses that Jews, Mormons, Hindus and Muslims are going to hell. Hagee is known as America’s chief apologist for, and uncritical supporter of, Israel. Jeffress' and Hagee’s support is bible-based, they declare, because the Rapture and the Second Coming cannot take place without the conversion of the Jews and the damnation of those who fail to get on board. Israelis are only too happy to have them exercise their influence among American evangelicals. Most Israelis are secular and tend not to question support for their besieged country wherever they can find it, even if they know the support is based not on a dedication to Israel's right to exist but on a conviction that God will soon demolish the Jewish nation. They accepted help from apartheid South Africa; why not the likes of a wacko American evangelist?
These are American voices clearly selected not for their special power to persuade the Good Lord to rain down his blessings on Israel and the new embassy, but for reminding Him and the rest of the world that Trump is His chosen president.
It’s one thing to tolerate religious differences, to allow anybody to claim God loves them and hates you. Free speech is free speech.
But it’s quite another to go about the government’s business of establishing embassies with foreign nations while granting semi-official status to religious bigots.
While all this adoration of the Liar-in-Chief was going on, by the way, while Jeffress was assuring the crowd that God is on Trump’s side, no mention was made of the fact that the Israelis had shot and killed 58 Palestinians, as of this writing, and injured another 2700 for protesting this very bad decision.
The Palestinians don’t stand a chance. How could they possibly participate as equals in negotiating a fair and balanced peace with the Israelis when Americans such as John Hagee represent the United States? Hagee believes Americans must support Israel because it’s part of biblical prophecy, conflating the Nethanyahu government with the nation of Israel and giving no thought to whether today’s Israel is in fact the Israel of biblical prophecy. If there is a better example of the toxicity of religion and the need for keeping religion out of politics, I can’t imagine what it might be.
I recognize that with Pruitt’s systematic dismantling of the EPA and the removal of oversight in all directions, having a couple of right-wing Christian zealots speak for America at the Jerusalem embassy is pretty small stuff.
But not if you’re a Palestinian. Or an Israeli with any pride in your country.
And if you’re an American, could you speak up, please?
photo credit: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images