Thursday, September 13, 2012

Salman, The Messenger

“Salman was the messenger” -- Christopher Hitchens

Ayatollah Khomeini had not read The Satanic Verses at the time his fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie was proclaimed. After all on February 14, 1989, the novel had yet to be translated into Arabic, let alone Farsi. Rather, the Iranian leadership had witnessed on television the immolation of a copy of Rushdie’s book by a council of Muslims in Bradford, which triggered a succession of replicate demonstrations of ire and rage across parts of the Islamic world. Heine’s assertion, “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen”, was thus eerily appropriate – “Wherever they burn books, they also burn people in the end”.

‘The Rushdie case’, as it was dismissively referred to at the time, has been pushed back into the public consciousness with the upcoming release of Rushdie’s memoirs, Joseph Anton, and his torture has come to seen as a forewarning. The order of Rushdie’s execution by a theocratic dictator in Iran, the assassination of the novel’s translators, the bullying and intimidation of publishers, the destruction of bookstores, and the burning of books – all for the offense of writing a literary novel – was not an isolated incident, but the precursor to a larger campaign of Islamist terror waged upon the peoples of New York, London, Madrid and elsewhere during the last decade – a war which is still very much ongoing.

But as important as the physical consequences of the fatwa was the test it placed on our most fundamental, inalienable right, that of freedom of speech. For, at the time of publication and reaction, there were a good number of cultural and political commentators who deemed that Rushdie had made a rod for his own back by daring to write a novel which played with themes pertaining to the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Romney’s Problem with the First Amendment

I always think it odd when any religious American starts up about the perils of having a strict separation of church and state. In spite of having a secular constitution, nowhere in the Western world — indeed, the world entire — are the rights of the religious afforded greater protection than in the United States. As a consequence, the inhabitants of the land between the Atlantic and the Pacific are far more religious, and overtly and militantly so, than in any European nation.

So, here’s Mitt Romney on the role of faith in American political life:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney believes that “some” Americans have taken the separation of church and state too far, “well beyond its original meaning.”

In an interview released Tuesday with the Washington National Cathedral’s magazine, Cathedral Age, Romney said those who “seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God” aren’t acting in line with the Founders’ intent.

Odd that such a keen constitutionalist should have such a problem with one particular passage. The First Amendment could not be more clear on this issue: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Thomas Jefferson expanded on this point in a letter of 1802 which assured the American people that there shall be a “a wall of separation between church and State”, adding that “the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions”. Nobody is stopping Gov. Romney or anybody else from discussing religion in the public square, then. Rather, it is the role of government to stay out of the religion business — thus, no prayer in public schools — unless there is the possibility of harm.

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Friday, April 6, 2012

An American Education, or Why Peter Beinart is Wrong

I choose to believe, given Peter Beinart sends his own children to a Jewish day school, that his recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is well-meaning. Beinart’s angst seems heartfelt and altogether sincere when he observes that parents who elect to send their offspring to privately-funded Jewish schools in the United States “are often asked to pay top dollar for schools with makeshift gymnasiums and antiquated science labs”.

In order to plug the funding gap which philanthropy alone cannot fill so that religious schools might “flourish”, Beinart’s solution is for the federal government to provide “substantial aid to religious schools”, picking up “pick up part of the tab” for those who wish to give their children a Jewish or indeed any sort of religious education. This approach strikes me has highly irregular, counterproductive, and in the longer term a grave threat to the unique American separation between church and state.

Beinart praises the Jewish schools of Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Indeed, here in the United Kingdom we do possess many first-rate Jewish schools, such as the Jews’ Free School in north London or Beis Yaakov High School in Manchester, which receive government monies (38 in number as of 2011, or 0.19% of all state-funded schools in the country). The schools cited are labelled as voluntary aided schools, where the state employs the staff and sets admissions criteria, but the buildings are owned by the charitable foundation which has a great deal of influence regarding how the institution is run – a model I sense Beinart may favour.

In the United Kingdom, faith schools are largely Christian in character: 22.88% of state schools for run by the Church of England; 10% by the Roman Catholic Church. Places in these schools are oft in great demand in catchment areas across the country. Regarded for their academic attainment and educational rigour, the phenomenon of competitive secular parents appearing at Sunday Mass for the sake of their kids is sadly not uncommon.

But above-average levels of accomplishment or an ostensible sense of religious pluralism does not make the funding of faith schools by national governments correct or just. The very notion of state funding for religious schools is antithetical to the basic principles of public education, which ought to be accessible to and actively encourage interaction between children of different races, religions, and social strata. By their very nature, faith schools are exclusionary, since they discourage admission of those who do not share in the faith of that institution.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Rick Santorum has proven himself unqualified to be President, not merely by the sum total of all his previous remarks (some racist, others oftentimes homophobic), but by virtue of the fact that he has now more-or-less explicitly stated that he does not believe in the separation of church and state.

The First Amendment is a cornerstone upon which the Republic has been constructed, yet with reference in part to President Kennedy’s speech on religion made during the 1960 campaign, Santorum said:

I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. …The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion — that means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square.

The First Amendment, if I may clarify for Rick, means pretty much the exact opposite of what he just described. It is designed to at once prevent the government from prohibiting the free excise of religion, whilst making sure that the state does not make establishment of religion, in other words, that government nominates no one faith above all others and that churches ought not influence the business of government.

This Amendment is precious, and dare I say it, sacrosanct, and I will not have it sullied and misinterpreted by a gentleman of such little standing as Santorum, a man who after all once compared a love betwixt two people of the same gender to man-on-dog intercourse. If there were ever a reason to consign Santorum to scrapheap of failed, corrupted, and beggared candidates, it would be this.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Perry Bubble: Faith, First and Ten

Here’s the question: is America willing to tolerate another presidential campaign from a conservative evangelical Republican governor from Texas? Apparently, enough people in the Republican Party are, since all signs angle towards the White House at the moment for Rick Perry. For those unfamiliar, the best way to sum him up is to say that he’s the candidate for those who considered George W. Bush too bookish, Dick Cheney too liberal, and Sarah Palin not pretty enough.

In an atmosphere where, as Christopher Hitchens put it so wickedly, all politics is yokel, Perry – having thrust himself upon the national stage over the past few months – would appear to be the candidate of the moment. A handsome, dapper poster-boy for the ADHD-affected conservative movement which emerged following the election of Barack Obama, Perry has amongst other things sought to privatise Medicare and withdraw from the federally-funded Medicaid programme. At the height of the healthcare battle in 2009, he even threatened to have Texas secede from the Union.

His appeal amongst the Tea Party in particular comes not just from his fundamentalist interpretation of the Tenth Amendment, but also from his fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. As if America were Job, Perry has stated that this recession which has thrown millions out of work and out of their homes has a purpose: to bring the country back to biblical principles. Washington D.C. is like ancient Egypt, Perry argues, with the American people as the Israelites, slave to the mighty Pharaoh – as ever for ‘biblical principles’, read free-market economics.

The faultlines of Perry’s brash religiosity and his newly-acquired place in the national imagination have now collided, on account of an event initiated and endorsed by the Governor called “The Response”. In what constitutes a gross violation of the First Amendment – with Perry as government making establishment of the Nazarene faith – Perry is welcome all Americans (well, all Christian Americans) to Reliant Stadium in Houston for a national day of prayer and fasting. The purpose: to “call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles”, at a time when America is “besieged by financial debt and terrorism” and “the youth of America are in grave peril economically, socially, and morally”.

While of course it is commonplace in America’s middle to have overtly religious and indeed overtly Christian governors, it is without precedent for a state executive to organise a massive evangelical service of this nature. The event’s faults are myriad, beginning with its unconstitutionality. Justice Souter, writing for the majority in the case of Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet (1994), concluded that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion”. Jewish rabbinical leaders in Texas were correct to petition Perry on that matter, arguing that The Response marks a day of “exclusionary prayer”:

By his actions, Governor Perry is expressing an official message of endorsement of one faith over all others, thereby sending an official message of religious exclusion and preference to all Texans who do not share that faith. We believe our religious freedom is threatened when a government official promotes religion, especially one religion over all others.

That a secessionist has little regard for the Constitution of the United States ought not to be a surprise, but it really speaks to Perry’s moral fortitude when the list of attendees, organisers and speakers is even lightly examined. As one might expect of a religious gathering of extremists and literalists in Texas, it’s a most awful collection of bigots, chauvinists, ahistorians, creationists, flat-Earthers, anti-Semites and homophobes.

Amongst the honorary co-chairs of The Response, there’s James Dobson, who has compared the campaign against women’s health clinics and abortion providers like Planned Parenthood to William Wilberforce’s moves towards the abolition of slavery. Dobson’s response to September 11 was as disproportionate and as shameful as those of other hucksterish preachers like Jerry Falwell. The terror attacks against the people of New York, Dobson said at the time, were the result of God’s displeasure at the “killing of 40 million unborn babies”, adding that “this nation will suffer in many ways for departing from the principles of righteousness”.

Dobson is the founder of the Family Research Council, one of a number of evangelical groups which sprung up during Christianity’s Reagan rebirth in the 1980s. The organisation lobbies against stem cell research, gay rights, abortion and euthanasia, and in favour of abstinence-only sex education and breaking down the barrier between church and state. Its current president Tony Perkins – who has argued that LGBT teens have “a higher propensity to depression or suicide” because of an “internal conflict” driven by their knowledge of homosexuality as an abnormality – is also a co-chair of The Response.

Below the co-chairs are the endorsers. These, in brief, include the faux-historian David Barton, who warned America’s mothers of their children that “unless you’re willing to monitor what’s going on in the classroom, I guarantee you they are getting homosexual indoctrination”. And then there’s the notorious Christian Zionist John Hagee, he who called the Catholic Church the “great whore”, Hurricane Katrina the “curse of God”, and once preached that Hitler was a “hunter” sent by God to “get the Jews back to the Land of Israel”.

I could go on in this vain for a while longer, but the picture is hopefully complete of a Governor who is so absent of judgement and good character that he believes it acceptable to organise an unconstitutional day of prayer with such prejudiced and amoral leaders. More worrying still is the message of the event, namely that Perry seems willing to abdicate his principal executive duty to solve his state’s economic and social woes to a celestial power. At this hour of national economic crisis, the United States does not need a leader who seems at ease which giving up so easily what ought to be most precious to us: free thought, inquiry and self-determination.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Huntsman, Romney and The Book of Mormon

When John F. Kennedy gave his landmark speech on his Catholicism, he allayed the voting public two principal fears with regard to this alien faith: he would adhere to the separation of church and state, and would be answering to the American people, not the Pope. Mitt Romney’s speech on faith of 2007 was a somewhat woollier affair. He used the word ‘Mormon’ but once: “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavour to live by it”. He added the following:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

Indeed, the Mormon Church’s beliefs are not the same as other faiths, but Romney is fundamentally incorrect to argue, sheltering under the umbrella of tolerance, that we ought not to critique it. He and Jon Huntsman should be required to answer a number of very direct and specific questions about their faith: the Book of Mormon test. Do you believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America? Do you believe that the current President of the LDS Church Thomas S. Monson speaks directly to God? Do you believe that in 1978 God did change his mind about black people? Do you believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob? and that Jesus has his own planet as well? Do you believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri?

One of the qualities which make the United States one of a few exceptional nations is its absolute freedom of religion, as set down in the First Amendment of the Constitution. This freedom is a two-way street: it grants individuals the freedom to practice their faith free of federal or state influence; and it prevents one faith from dominating all others by separating church from state and keeping religious proselytising out of public life. Americans have the right and the duty to question all those who seek elected office about their faith, be they Catholic, Mormon or Southern Baptist (or indeed, maybe one day, their absence of it), and Romney is wrong to argue that religious freedom is a shield, preventing all faiths from any kind of criticism. The absence of religious criticism would mean the death of the American experiment.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A wasted revolution

Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.” - - The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The French Revolution, prior to its spiral into terror and autarky, was, as embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a rebellion in the spirit of universal, natural rights based on liberty, egality and brotherhood. The idea that ‘men are born and remain free and equal in rights’, including ‘property, security, and resistance to oppression’ was alien and nouveau to the continent, and would provoke strong opposition from thinkers such as Edmund Burke.

It seems all the more unfortunate, then, that such a radical revolution celebrating the boons and fortunes of freedom took place in Gaul, where the people are so unreceptive to, and unappreciative of, any true sense of liberty. French philosophy was then, as can be seen in Article VI of the Declaration, too preoccupied with oppressive concepts such as Rousseau’s ‘general will’ – the tyranny of the majority in effect – to appreciate the real value of individual sovereignty.

Gallic interpretations of liberty and the rights of the individual today are very much derivate of, and are expressed clearly through, the experience of empire. French imperialism became at its core a mission civilisatrice – exporting the Enlightenment to those yet to be warmed by its lovely light. There was a desire to bring colonials into the life and culture of the métropole; as such French citizenship was extended to those who adopted their language, values and faith.

Compare this to say Great Britain, where the emergence of imperialism was more a matter of economics than philosophy. This is not to say that exporting culture was not an important fragment of the colonial project: observe from Calcutta to Cape Town and across to Christchurch the prevalence of cricket, or indeed rugby for the latter. But certainly during the reign of Victoria, greater importance was placed on free trade than developing British civilisation in untended pastures.

Colonialism therefore entrenched in the French collective consciousness a definitive and unshakeable conception of national identity. Moreover, the relationship between French citizens and subjects, if you will, has extended well into the post-imperial era. Those who come from the Maghreb in particular are actively encouraged, if not forced, to adopt French customs or face exclusion from mainstream society.

The most recent manifestation of this occurred when the French parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban the burqa in public places. Sarkozy may believe that they are a ‘sign of debasement’, but this prohibition flies in the face of the Rights of Man, which states that ‘no one shall be disquieted on account of his religious views’. Any true notion of liberty, then, has been disregarded, as what are perceived to be customs incongruous to French identity are persecuted.

As such, a dualistic society has emerged within France: of the empowered, those who are culturally French in the nationalistic sense of the term; and the oppressed, those who are not. Visit any city on the mainland and observe the ghettoisation of Arabs and West Africans on the peripheries and in the suburbs, whilst the masters inhabit the expensive and affluent centres.

The storming of the Bastille was then, for the French at least, a squandered opportunity. It was a wasted revolution. Nothing true to the essence of liberty can be uncovered in modern France. To find it, we must turn west, across the Atlantic, and study the other contemporaneous rebellion: the American Revolution. For there, ingrained in its constitution, are the glorious and unchanging words of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

If we are seeking admirable values, we shall find more to like these few words, than in the entire history of a nation which now seeks to dictate what its citizens can wear.