Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Critical Mom’s Guide to Obama’s U.N. Speech

     Apropos his condemnation of the “crude and disgusting” anti-Muslim video that has gone viral on You-Tube, President Obama said, “As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day.  And I will defend their right to do so.”  Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Barack Obama did not elide personal insult with insult to religion:  “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” Jefferson observed.  Skeptic, occasional atheist, always “of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” he foresaw the day when an ever-growing evangelical religious minority would perceive no parody in statements like “Jesus loves me but he can’t stand you.”  He could make sure the constitution mandated a separation of church and state.  He could insist that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom must "comprehend, within the mantle of it's [sic] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination," granting equal protection and equal choice to religious persons as well as to unbelievers.  This proved to be sensible self-protection, for who was the father of our Declaration if not “the infidel of every denomination?”  He'd sampled them all.  He could do his damnedest to keep religion out of politics, but like illicit lovers the two of them jumped into bed every chance they got, and continue to do so.
     American religious and secular togetherness have a long tradition:  in 1835, de Toqueville remarked in Democracy in America that "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention, and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting  from this new state of things."  The fusion of a volatile force, politics, with religion, concerned de Toqueville, who appears to have foreseen the ways in which that fusion would pervade U.S. culture, right down to typical definitions of that hackneyed phrase, "the American Dream"—which Robert Bellah called "the gospel of wealth and the ideal of success." In other words, success goes hand in hand with following the gospel, especially in the deeply influential world of American Protestantism, where to be financially successful means to be saved from eternal damnation.   A similar fusion of religion and politics appears in in President Clinton's reference to the American dream as "a simple but powerful one--if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you."  Apparently, American atheists need not apply, since whatever abilities they may have are not considered "God-given," so no matter how hard they work and how much they play by the rules, they don't fit the cultural requirement for achieving the American dream, having broken the unstated, but assumed, rule about believing in God. George Bush went much further, claiming that God told him to run for president.
     In Obama’s rebuttal to the crudeness of the video, he spelled out  “why we don’t just ban such a video.” Following a pervasive American trend that directly opposes the constitutional separation of church and state, he said that “The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.” It’s that particular verb, "enshrined," that drives his message home:  our holy article of faith is free speech.  Our religion is the political right to free speech.  We do defend to the death the right of everyone to say anything—no matter how personally uncongenial, indeed repulsive, that “anything” may be.  We don’t like insults, we don’t like disrespect, but we don’t consider them destructive to any beliefs, and that is why we have free speech.We are a nation of contradiction.  Politics is our religion and religion is our politics, absolutely because each is forbidden to touch the other.  
     When President Obama defended the right of his detractors to call him “awful things,” people cheered.   Optimism thrives:  the American ambassador in Libya can get blasted by terrorists but our America is still the City upon the Hill, Justice will be done, and the good can expect their reward in heaven.  If only optimism cured intolerance.   I like Rachel Held Evans’s take on tolerance:  “I disagree.  But I’m pretty sure you’re not a heretic.”  If only religion remained where it belongs—between the believer and his or her God or gods.  And if only any important American politician still felt free to say out loud, on TV, to the U.N., what Thomas Jefferson declared in 1814, admittedly in private, in letters: "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law" (Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814) and "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.  He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." (Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814).

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