This is the first in a series of posts with the title “The Case for …” In the coming days, they will focus on the remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. However, there is one other figure, central to political dialogue in 2020, who deserves our attention. And this week, he or she made the best case for staying in the race.
As a devout agnostic of Jewish heritage, I am probably the least qualified individual to make this case, but comedian Lewis Black, a kindred agnostic raised in a Jewish household, provides the cover I need based on a 2006 performance at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. One segment focused on differences between the Old and New Testaments.
Every Sunday I turn on the television set. And there is a priest or a pastor reading from my book. And interpreting it. And their interpretations, I must tell you, are usually wrong. It’s not their fault, it’s not their book. You never see a rabbi on TV interpreting the New Testament, do you? If you want to truly understand the Old Testament, if there is something you don’t get, there are Jews who walk among you, and they, I promise you this, will take time out of their very Jewy, Jewy day and will interpret for you, anything you are having trouble understanding. And will do that, of course, if the price is right.
Never in the history of civilization was the chasm between the faithful and the heretic more apparent than the 24 hours beginning at 2:00 p.m EST on Wednesday. At that hour, Utah Senator Mitt Romney explained why he had no choice but to vote guilty on the first article of impeachment against Donald Trump.
But my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and political biases aside. Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.
The next morning Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast following the keynote by Arthur C. Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute, who used the gospel of the New Testament to promote reconciliation post-impeachment as follows.
To start us on a path of new thinking to our cultural crisis, I want to turn to the words of the ultimate original thinker, history’s greatest social entrepreneur, and as a Catholic, my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus. Here’s what he said, as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapter 5, verse 43-45: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Trump was moved by Brooks’ rhetoric and apologized for his role in promoting division and offered his hand to Nancy Pelosi who was also seated on the dais. I’m kidding, of course. Trump began his remarks by stating, “Arthur, I don’t think I agree with you.” He went on to vilify those who dared challenge his authority and mocked their faith. As Joe Scarborough, a born-again Baptist evangelical, pointed out Thursday morning, Trump did not disagree with Arthur Brook. He contradicted the words of Jesus Christ. And pseudo-religious leaders such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. refused to call him out, one more stain on the white evangelical movement.
The case for God exists partially due to Jean Paul Sartre and the existential movement. In that vein of thought, the shape or form of something is not as important as the concept. For example, there are an infinite number of ways to design and manufacture a chair. But the concept of the chair is universal.
As has been true throughout ancient and modern history, it is the dissidents of all faiths who have relied on the concept of God, not the specific literary manifestation or name given to the deity. One can argue, among agnostics and atheists, there is also a higher calling which we prefer to call conscience or ‘the still small voice.” Or simply our obligation to fellow humans. Ironically, it was Mitt Romney who best articulated why the rewards of heaven and eternal life, for us, are unnecessary. The respect of family and our place in history are enough reward.
The concept of God has also forced us to continuously reassess societal norms, proving there is no absolute divine will, but a call to evolve philosophically as well as physically. The Jewish traditional of questioning faith is introduced in Genesis 32:28, when a holy surrogate tells Jacob, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.” Without the option of challenging the “word of God,” there would be no New Testament or Book of Mormon or even the Koran.
The God of the Old Testament ruled by fear. The text, particularly Leviticus, is a laundry list of taboos for which you will be punished. The same is true of the ten commandments. With the exception of honoring one’s parents and the Sabbath, all the others begin, “Thou shall not…” The God of the Old Testament is willing to kill thousands of children because of the stubbornness of one person, Pharaoh. But as Lewis Black suggests, maybe this was necessary at the time. In the beginning of recorded history, members of ancient society were “just one hair short of being orangutans.”
Fifteen hundred years later, civilization was open to a new morale code. One based on “thou shall” as opposed to “thou shall not.” Maybe this might have happened without the emergence of a divine savior. But if belief in an omnipotent being gave Jesus the strength to defy authority knowing the personal risk involved, so be it.
That is the beauty of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion. It does not matter if you are moved by someone who walked the earth thousands of years ago or another leader who settled in Utah in the 1800s. Or if the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The common trait among the righteous, spiritual or sectarian, is the willingness to look outside oneself for truth. If the concept of God floats your kite, I wish you steady winds and enough line to soar as high as you can.
For what it’s worth.