Category Archives: Religion

The Case for God

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.

Image result for arthur c brooksThe 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.
Dr. ESP

 

CT, Call Home

Call it a seasonal epiphany four and a half years in the making, but late is always better than never.  As you are already aware, on December 19, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli declared, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office.”  And right on cue, the modern day Judases–Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.–exacted another down payment on their souls in exchange for proximity to power and past donations from the Trump Foundation.  (NOTE: As some commentators have pointed out, Galli’s major concern was not the fate of American democracy and values, but the credibility of the evangelical movement.  Even if it was self-serving, I learned a long time ago, never criticize someone for doing the right thing, even if their motives are suspect.)

Image result for evangelical preachers lay hands on trumpAs welcomed as Galli’s denunciation of Donald Trump as an immoral human might be, I am afraid his salvo was misdirected.  In the age of social media influencers, Galli would have been better served by addressing his remarks, not to the flock, but to the shepherds.  How do you expect the minions to understand what they have become when members of the clergy, who weekly preach the gospel to them, remain silent or fail to draw on their own training as pastoral counselors to point out the hypocrisy of evangelical devotion to Trump.

Imagine if Galli had chosen a different tack in which he does not humble the masses, but shames the messengers for abdicating their role as moral influencers.  Consider the following as an alternative to the December 19 editorial.

The dilemma of reconciling one’s political support and Donald Trump’s lack of a moral compass is not a collective one for the evangelical movement, but a personal one for each and every member of your congregation.  And one that demands the clergy provide pastoral counseling as we are taught “to mirror the way Jesus cared for people and taught his disciples to do the same.”

Make it personal.  Ask your congregants, “Would any of you be okay if you came to me for spiritual renewal and I told you Christ is okay with …

  • satisfying one’s lust by committing adultery?
  • constantly comparing your accomplishments and possessions to others?
  • expressing anger at anyone who disagrees with you?
  • equating success with net worth?
  • indifference to the suffering of others?
  • bearing false witness to justify your actions?
  • overindulgence or excessive desire for material goods?
  • the ends justifying the means?”

Would you call someone who lived their life based on such advice a true Christian?  Would you look to that person for leadership or as a role model?  I would hope not.  But you have.

As Jesus says in Matthew 22:21, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”  You can leave governance to our political leaders, but you must never let them become the arbiters of your values.  And when they try, you must reject them.

But the evangelical community is not alone.  Every day we watch professionals in every walk of life excuse Trump for behavior they know is wrong.  The latest example emerged in this morning’s edition of our local paper which includes a regular op-ed column titled, “Coach’s Corner.”  The author Howard Pines is a local resident who presents his credentials as follows.

…has more than 30 years experience as CEO, chairman and founder of BeamPines, a premier firm in the executive coaching business.

Today’s edition with the title, “Presidential Tantrums,” compares Trump to other commanders-in-chief who were known to let off a little steam on occasion.  These include (drum roll) George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.  Can you say “moral equivalency?”  I knew you could.   But the icing on the cake comes in the final paragraphs which include the following two sentences.

I believe that Trump’s mannerisms are not unique, and if history remains true, his actions to date do not threaten our democracy.

My sense is the real question with President Trump is will he retain a first rate team, and does he have the objectivity and clarity of judgment to not let his emotions color his decisions.

Let’s take these one at a time.  I do not know what history books Mr. Pines reads but they must not include the evolution of any nation in which fascism emerged as a viable ideological alternative.  My history books document how none were more democratic when the dictator who led the movement left office voluntarily or involuntarily.

As for sentence #2, remember Mr. Pines is an executive management coach.  Imagine him telling any corporate client, “Don’t worry if you’ve gone through several chiefs of staff, communications directors, department heads.  Give it more time.  Let’s see if it works out.  Just keep doing what you’re doing.”  Or after observing the CEO’s behavior for three years, making the following report to the board of directors, “I know the boss is a little thin-skinned and sometimes it hurts the bottom line, but he’s only been CEO for three years.  Maybe he’ll grow into the office.  And I know you’re concerned he hasn’t shown you the books in three years.  I’m sure he’s not hiding anything.”

“Galli” gee, I “Pines” for the day when we hold the president of the United States to the same standard we hold the person who sits next to us in a house of worship, the CEO of a major corporation or just the people we call friends.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

After B*R*A*S*H

Image result for trump and netanyahuOne thing I never thought I would ever have to do in America was figure out, by virtue of being born and raised in the Jewish faith, whether I am “uniformed” or “disloyal” or both.  But there is no doubt I am one of the people Donald Trump has been referring to this week.  Though a strong supporter of Israel having been there four times (dare I say more than Trump has),  I disagree with many of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies. I believe such challenges to the status quo make me neither un-American nor anti-Israel.  But according to the self-proclaimed “chosen one,” I am now a traitor to my own people.  Maybe I should ask a Trump supporter if I can borrow his “Proud to be a Deplorable” t-shirt.

Trump’s comments have been rightfully denounced by civil rights organizations (e.g. ADL and NAACP), the mainstream media and others with two exceptions, Republican in Congress and white Evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr.  But their selective support for religious freedom is a story for another day.  Among the concerns raised is whether Trump’s rhetoric will trigger retaliation from his most extreme followers ala Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh or El Paso.  However, being a student of political science versus a theologian or psychologist, I am less concerned about the present than the near future.

So, let’s go to the video tape or, in this case, the CNN exit poll.  In 2016, the Jewish vote made up three percent of total ballots cast.  Of those who went to the polls, 71 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, 23 percent for Trump and six percent for other candidates.  Did they write-in Netanyahu?  After all, in an April 2019 address to the Republic Jewish Coalition, Trump referred to the Israel leader as “your prime minister.”

Fast forward to 2018 and according to CNN, the Jewish vote split 79 percent to 17 percent in favor of Democratic congressional candidates.  It is hard to make a statistical case based on two elections, but the trend is unmistakable.  Clearly the assault on a Pittsburgh synagogue carried out by someone echoing Trump conspiracy theories about Jews funding illegal immigrants two weeks before the election did not help Republicans.  As a result, Jewish support for Democrats was higher than any other religious denomination including non-believers with a 70 percent pro-Democratic vote (which as a devout agnostic, I also find hard to believe).

From a counter-intuitive perspective, while I share others’ concerns,  the “stable genius” occupying the Oval Office must realize that more violence against Jewish targets will push this demographic’s anti-Trump vote even higher.  The Jewish share of the population in three states Trump must win to reach 270 electoral votes rank in the top 13–Florida (3.0 percent), Pennsylvania (2.3 percent) and Ohio (1.3 percent).  An energized anti-Trump Jewish electorate could mean an inside straight (as was the case in 2016) will not be enough.  His campaign will need a royal straight flush to stay in power.

Which brings me to the near future.  Imagine exit polling during the 2020 election shows the difference in battleground states was a greater deterioration of Trump support among Jewish voters.  What if Jewish turnout increases by half a percent from 2016 and the partisan split is 85 percent for the Democratic candidate and 13 for Trump?  We already know Trump will blame everyone but himself for the defeat.  But so will the all-right media and that is where the true danger lies.

Breitbart news and the Daily Stormer will surely claim Jewish money and an international Zionist cabal brought Trump down.  I can already hear Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson bemoaning the fact “Jews turned their backs on Trump after he did so much for Israel.”  And how will their audience receive this message?  We know many already feel their situations or misfortunes are the fault of “the others.”  How will some react if they believe those same forces of evil have deprived them of the one person in American politics who, on a national stage, vocally agreed with them?

That is why a counter-intuitive view of the next presidential election is critical.  As much as I and many others think a second Trump term, unencumbered by the need to run for re-election, will be a disaster, a Trump defeat could be even worse.  That is why silent Republican leaders must speak up now.  If post-Trump, radical right domestic terrorists, deprived of their #1 spokesperson, still believe their cause is just, the past three years may be looked back on as “the good old days.”

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Chutzpah

(Chutzpah)…that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.

~Leo Rosten/The Joys of Yiddish

I have been pretty tough on white evangelicals the past few weeks.  And with good reason as most recently evidenced by the latest Pew Research Center survey on attitudes toward refugees in which 68 percent of white evangelicals do not believe the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees.  Which makes you wonder if they are channeling Bill Clinton when citing the sermon on the mount. “It depends on what the meaning of ‘welcome the stranger into your house’ is.”

However, it is unfair to single out one group when there are equally hypocritical representatives of all the major religions and among the unaffiliated.  Today, my focus is the domination of which I am most familiar.  Although my adherence to religious practice associated with Judaism becomes more distant daily, I still consider myself a “member of the tribe,” with deep historical and cultural ties.  Among the latter is the concept of “Tikkun Olam” which roughly translates into “heal the world.”  The concept first appears in Orthodox Judaic commentaries as a call to eschew all forms of idolatry.  In “Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law (1997)”, the four authors write, “In the modern era, this concept calls for Jews to bear responsibility not only for our own moral, spiritual and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.”

Sadly, there are anecdotal instances in which individuals raised in Jewish households–e.g. Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Epstein–by virtue of their greed and perversity result in disgrace and embarrassment and, most unfortunately, affirm the stereotypes of those who hate and have persecuted Jews throughout history.  Don’t believe me?  Readers’ comments on The Daily Stormer website in response to coverage of the Epstein story include, “Jews do not fear wrongdoing…they fear getting caught and exposed for who they are…jews.”  Or, “If it wasn’t Epstein, it would be another Jew.” It is unconscionable this kind of bigotry is given cover in Donald Trump’s America.

So, how do you fight prejudice?  With role models.  John F. Kennedy’s election forever debunked the fear a Catholic president would be more beholden to the Vatican than the Constitution.  And Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House demonstrated that a black man with power did not have to be angry a la Putney Swope who, in the 1969 movie of the same name, said, “I’m not going to rock the boat.  I’m going to sink the f***ing ship!”  Equally important, the Obama family stood in stark contrast to many of the images we see of the African-American experience on the news and in popular culture.  My favorite commentary on inauguration day 2017 accompanied a picture of Obama and Trump on the White House steps before heading to the Capitol.  “Guess which man has five children by three different women?”

Which brings me back to Judaism.  Would the election of the first Jewish president affirm or refute the prejudicial memes spouted by those who believe in the international Zionist conspiracy?  An “N” of zero makes any empirical analysis impossible.  But we do have data on Jewish-Americans in or near positions of national power.  And the reviews have been less than glowing.  For example, Abe Fortas was nominated by Lyndon Johnson to become the first Jewish chief justice of the Supreme Court.  His confirmation was derailed when Judiciary Committee chairman James Eastland (yes, the same James Eastland Joe Biden referenced last month) opposed Fortas’ promotion from justice to chief justice.

Unfortunately, Fortas brought his own nails to seal his coffin when it was revealed he had accepted speaking fees from business interests presenting a conflict of interest if and when these interests had cases before the court.  By today’s standards, this indiscretion would barely make the news.  But opponents used it to suggest Fortas could be controlled by moneyed interests.  And eventually Johnson withdrew the nomination.

Then there is the case of Joe Lieberman who came within a hanging chad of becoming vice-president.  Instead of continuing to support the Democratic agenda, Lieberman became an independent and supported John McCain in 2008.  I understand they had become close compadres while serving together in the Senate.  But that does not explain Lieberman’s endorsement of Sarah Palin, saying, “She is the leader we can count on to help John shake up Washington.”  As we now know, his affinity for McCain was more than support for a personal friend.  In 2016, he tossed aside years of progressive ideology and backed Trump amid rumors he might become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  Can you spell “opportunist?”  I knew you could.

And now, although not elected, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are perhaps in the highest position of national influence than any Jewish couple in the nation’s history.  And how would they use that influence?  In May 2017, Jodi Kantor, Rachel Abrams and Maggie Haberman wrote the following in a New York Times article titled, “Ivanka Trump Has the President’s Ear. Here’s Her Agenda.”

In interviews last week, she said she intended to act as a moderating force in an administration swept into office by nationalist sentiment. Other officials added that she had weighed in on topics including climate, deportation, education and refugee policy.

I know, Ivanka was not born into Judaism.  She converted when she married Kushner.  However, it is said that converts often become stronger believers of their chosen theology than those who come to a religious denomination by birth. And based on the 2017 Times report, Ms. Trump would seem to support the principle of “Tikkun Olam.”  But like her father, selective amnesia runs deep.

  • Where was she when daddy decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords?
  • What happened to the “moderating force” when Trump demonizes refugees and authorizes raids to deport immigrants whose only crime is wanting a better life for themselves and their families?
  • When has she ever spoken out against Betsy Devos’ proposals to slash funding for public education, deregulate predatory for-profit colleges or weaken protections against sexual assault and harassment under Title IX of the education act?

Not to be outdone by his wife, Kushner, a modern-day Shylock, is more than willing to use his connection to his father-in-law to grease his own financial position.

You have to appreciate the irony.  I, born and raised as Jewish, find myself wondering if, based on the attitudes and behaviors of some at the doorstep of national influence, there is a kernel of truth in the negative stereotypes of my people promoted by the alt-right.  Equally ironic, Jared and Ivanka are Jews only a white supremacist or neo-Nazi could love.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Putting a Human Back on the Story

The common journalistic technique of focusing on one individual in order to bring attention and clarity to a global, complex issue is referred to as “putting a human face on the story.” There are numerous examples, many Pulitzer Prize winners, which remind us behind every statistic there are living, breathing human beings.  Perhaps the most iconic was Nick Ut’s photograph, taken during the Vietnam War of a young, naked girl suffering from napalm burns running down a road ahead of U.S. soldiers.  Some claim the image was a factor in their own shift of sentiment away from supporting the war effort.  Something the daily U.S. and Vietnamese casualty rates could not initially do.

Sometimes we need not even see the face.  Consider Jeff Widener’s 1989 picture of “tank man,” a solitary protester standing in front of four Chinese tanks the day following the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square.  Or Spider Martin’s snapshot of a woman’s blistered feet after a day of marching in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday.”

Many people prefer not to look.  Some find the pictures more obscene than the events they chronicle.  They are shocked the media would reproduce the images.*  But that is the point.  They are designed to shock us.  Shock us out of our apathy.  Our complicity.  And out of our lack of connection to the individuals, often innocent people, captured in horrific situations and unbearable conditions.

This morning we were again exposed to one of these personal moments behind the headlines.  The Associated Press “put a human back,” actually two backs, on the narrative of the continuing and unnecessary tragedy on our Southern border.   Julia Le Duc’s photograph depicts an El Salvadoran father Oscar Ramirez and his 23-month old daughter Valeria who drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande River, only because the family had been denied access at a border crossing to the LEGAL (yes LEGAL) procedure by which refugees can seek asylum under UNITED STATES and INTERNATIONAL LAW.

If their sacrifice in any way contributes to an easing of the suffering Donald Trump has inflicted on those who look to America with hope and promise, it makes me wonder, when Trump refers to “bad hombres” invading America, should we be more worried about the “bad hombres” in the White House?

POSTSCRIPT:  THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE EVEN UGLIER

In recent posts, I have been highly critical of both the media and the evangelical community, but coverage of the Trump administration’s actions and defense of those actions which require infants and children to live in sub-human conditions seems to have turned a few hearts, even among Donald Trump’s staunchest supports.  Yesterday, in response to the Associated Press stories about the detention center in Clint, Texas, Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted:

The reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.

One could expect no louder clarion call from the religious right to remind Donald Trump and Mike Pence of Jesus’ teachings.  Sadly, some turned the other cheek (or should I say a deaf ear).  Among those was Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty College, who responded to Dr. Moore as follows:

Who are you @drmoore? Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee- a bureaucrat.

Maybe Falwell missed the Bible lesson when, in John 2:16, Jesus says of money changers, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

Was I surprised?  No and yes.  No, this is the same faux Christian who gives more mulligans to Trump than revelers hand out strings of beads at a Mardi Gras parade. I am, however, bewildered he could not come up with a more clever retort.  Maybe, “I’ll say it with great respect, these children are not my type.”

*NOTE: USA Today, after warning readers of the graphic nature of Le Duc’s photograph, wrote, “We believe the photo is important in telling the story of what is happening at the border.”

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP