Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Role of Faith in the Public Square

Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one. – Thomas Jefferson
On September 12, 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy, hoping to dispel concerns over the role his Catholic faith would play in the event he became President of the United States, gave a speech on the role of religion in public life before a group of protestant ministers in Houston, Texas. “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair,” Kennedy said. “Whatever issue may come before me as president – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject – I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

Although he did not say how his moral conscience or personal ethics may have been shaped or molded by Catholicism, Kennedy assured his audience, and ultimately the American public, that his personal religious beliefs, whatever they might be, would not play a role in fulfilling his duties as president. In his official actions, on issues as wide ranging as the economy and foreign affairs, from policies addressing poverty at home and economic aid abroad, to prayer in school and matters of war and peace, President Kennedy would not be influenced by his religious convictions.

Kennedy’s view on the public neutrality of government in matters of faith has been the standard liberal position for most of my lifetime; whatever a candidate or elected government official may believe or not on matters of faith should have no role in how the nation is governed. It is a uniquely American belief, embedded in the nation’s founding and reflected in our Constitution. The separation of church and state as set forth in the First Amendment is as essential to American notions of freedom as any constitutional doctrine upon which our democracy is based.

For Thomas Jefferson and many of our Founding Fathers, the ideals of religious freedom were more important than one’s specific religion. In Jefferson’s time, and for the next 150 years or so when the religion of most Presidents deviated little from mainstream Protestantism and religion was not used as a wedge issue in presidential politics, it was easy to maintain a principled and neutral view regarding a candidate’s faith. For me personally, and for most liberals (and many others), the principle that religious faith is a private matter, which should have no bearing on a candidate’s public responsibilities, has always been accepted wisdom.

Kennedy’s presidency put to rest the unfounded fears concerning a Catholic president. Not until Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 did a candidate’s religious beliefs again become a matter of some notoriety. Indeed, Carter’s brand of born-again Christianity made certain segments of the Democratic Party uncomfortable, particularly the secular left and many Jews, 40% of whom broke from their historically Democratic leanings to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Although I believe that this was the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding of Carter’s faith -- which emphasizes a concern for all of God’s people and is what motivates his passion for human rights -- and a failure to distinguish Carter’s brand of Christianity from the more conservative elements that dominate evangelical Christianity today, it was also a reflection of America’s ambivalence toward expressions of religion in public life.

Ironically, it was Reagan’s presidency and the ascendancy of right-wing conservatism in the 1980’s that introduced a more aggressive form of politically inspired religion into the public arena. It was during this era when we witnessed the rise of the Moral Majority and the prominence of televangelists such as Pat Robertson, who advocated a conservative political agenda and founded the Christian Coalition and other socially conservative “Christian” groups that advocated a reversal of Roe v. Wade and the outlawing of abortion, pushed for a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to between a man and a woman, and called for the re-establishment of prayer in the public schools and public displays of religious symbolism.

As someone who was raised in a mainline protestant denomination, one which engages in public advocacy in a manner more respectful of America’s diverse religious and ethnic makeup, I am continually perplexed that conservative, often fundamentalist, Christians so dominate our public discourse. That the media makes little effort to point out the many misconceptions these self-proclaimed Christians have concerning their own religion and their lack of respect for the religious diversity and pluralistic traditions of American democracy, only adds to my frustration.

But while religious conservatives tend to dominate discussions of morality in the public square (particularly on issues of personal morality, to the exclusion of issues like economic justice and peace), liberals too often fail to understand the significance of religion in public life and are often reluctant to openly connect religious and moral principles to the issues that most matter to them. On this, our current president is different.

On June 28, 2006, forty-six years after Kennedy’s speech in Houston, then Senator Barack Obama reflected on what he perceived to be the role of religion in public life and how his personal faith has guided his own values and beliefs. Unlike Kennedy, Obama argues for the relevance of religion to political argument, declaring it particularly apt for liberals and progressives. For Obama, it is a mistake for progressives to “abandon the field of religious discourse” in politics. “The discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms.” Obama contends that religion is, historically and culturally, a source of political rhetoric that resonates with many Americans, who comparatively speaking are a religiously inspired and devout people. He recognizes that the solution to many policy issues, from social and economic problems to issues of war and peace, require consideration of the moral dimensions of those problems.

“Our fear of getting ‘preachy’ may . . . lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems,” Obama said. But to address problems like “poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed” often requires “changes in hearts and a change in minds.” Obama believes it a grave mistake to insist on a complete separation of religious conviction from public life, or to insist that moral and religious convictions are irrelevant to one’s views of politics and law.

Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.
As different as Obama’s and Kennedy’s statements are concerning the role of religion and public life, they actually concern two different notions. For Kennedy, it was important to emphasize that a President’s duty is to his country and the Constitution. He was attempting to counter the concerns then being expressed in some parts of the country to a Catholic president. Although some of this concern was simply anti-Catholic prejudice, there was at the time a sincere worry as to whether a Catholic president would be beholden to the Vatican and Catholic doctrine in the conduct of his public affairs. Similar concerns have been raised, and properly dismissed, of the potential influence the Mormon Church may hold on a candidate such as Mitt Romney. Indeed, Romney, who holds a position of importance in the Mormon Church and who proudly identifies as a Mormon, gave a speech in 2007 not dissimilar from Kennedy’s.

That Obama believes one’s religious convictions are relevant to politics and policymaking, however, does not mean he disagrees with Kennedy’s view of the official separation of churchly influence on public policy. What Obama contends is something altogether different – the notion that one cannot truly separate out the moral and religious influences on a candidate’s life and, ultimately, his or her policy positions. As I watch from afar the Republican presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, I believe it is important to know something about what the candidates believe, religiously, morally, and spiritually, and how those beliefs may affect their actions should they become president. Personally, any candidate who believes that evolution and creationism are worthy of equal treatment in our public schools, or who doubts the scientific efficacy of climate change and its importance to our planet’s future, is not a candidate I can trust to have a reasonable conclusion about anything. If a candidate’s brand of Christianity is one of judgmental piety, or is based on a literalistic misinterpretation of the Bible, it is a candidate I cannot support.

Although I do not care what religion our past, present, and future presidents are (or are not), I do care what moral and religious influences motivate their positions on matters of policy. One’s religion (or lack thereof) is an important part of one’s worldview and should not be off limits for any candidate. President Kennedy’s youngest brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, who symbolized and articulated a consistent vision of political liberalism for over forty years after his brother’s death, noted late in life that his politics were very much influenced by his Christian beliefs, specifically in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and in Matthew 25: 44-45 (Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? [Jesus replied,] I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.) This religious underpinning of Christian social justice, which molded the likes of Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day, and which forms the basis of Catholic social statements on economic justice, is what motivated Senator Kennedy in his lifetime to work for laws and government programs that benefitted the poor and the working class, to fight for human rights around the world, and to oppose discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. It is this kind of morality, not one’s personal moral shortcomings, which are of greatest concern to me in how a candidate will govern a country as diverse and complex as the United States.

Of course, one need not be a Christian to share Kennedy’s political vision, or to believe in equality, justice, and the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to quality health care, adequate housing, and economic opportunity. There are certainly many other moral and ethical influences to his brand of liberalism and a belief in the common good. But whether one is motivated by Christian or Jewish or secular ethical principles, I believe it relevant and important to know what religious and moral influences underlie a candidate’s positions.

The separation of church and state is a fundamental aspect of American constitutional democracy, and must never be diluted. A free society depends on a proper distinction between theology and law, between the free exercise of religious belief and the imposition of religious doctrine. But the personal influences and beliefs of our political leaders is always a relevant consideration in deciding whether they can effectively lead the nation in times of turbulence and despair, and whether their vision of America is one I can abide.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Climbing the Verrazano

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss, but that it is too low and we reach it. – Michelangelo
For most of my life, I have been afraid of heights and small enclosed spaces with no windows. Last week, as part of a work related tour of bridges and tunnels in New York, I overcame both fears to stand on top of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. A beautiful and clear sunny day, the temperature a mild 51 degrees, I stood atop the Brooklyn side tower with my arms outstretched. As I breathed in the slightly chilled air above the New York Bay, I embraced the Manhattan skyline and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Life offers a fresh perspective from such heights. The world looks a little different from up there; it opens the mind and forces one to take stock of life. Standing atop the Verrazano, I understood the wisdom of Thomas Carlyle, who said, “The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss.”

The opportunity to climb the Verrazano was presented to me by chance and without planning, as part of a security assessment my firm is conducting for a government agency. Accompanied by a police captain, a maintenance worker, and a colleague, we stuffed into a very small, very old Otis elevator, with rusty metal gates, the kind of elevator one normally avoids at all costs. When I asked if it ever broke down, the maintenance man replied in earnest, “Just don’t jump up and down.” It was at about this point that my palms began to sweat and my lungs contracted. I questioned my sanity. Feelings of panic set in as the elevator moved slowly, creakily, upward, ascending into an abyss of heightened darkness. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, imagining the rescue efforts required to excavate us from a metal box dangling 1,200 feet above the channel where the Hudson River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. I was fairly certain that my cell phone would not receive service from up here, though I was not anxious to test it.

After what seemed like several long minutes, the elevator came to a stop. Naively believing we had reached the top, I quickly realized after the metal gate opened that our ascent was only partially completed. We now had to step into another small, tightly-constricted enclosure and climb four stories of metal ladders affixed to the wall of the tower. Each ladder led through a small tank-like hole. As there were no open spaces or windows, I had no idea precisely where we were at this stage. I sensed only that we were very high off the ground with but one way down. After climbing the ladders and pulling myself up through the fourth hole, I was relieved to find open space expanding the full width of the tower. My claustrophobia slightly receding, I breathed easier as we walked up four normal flights of stairs before reaching yet another ladder and hole. We finally reached what I thought was as far as they would allow us to go, where I glanced through a small window and looked out onto Staten Island, the roadway and New York Bay a long distance below.

The police captain then unlatched a door that opened onto a small ledge with a metal railing. Stepping out onto the ledge, suspended high in the air, I experienced a sensation simultaneously exhilarating and frightening. While peering down the cables that held up the bridge, I became slightly faint and quickly remembered my fear of heights. I stood there anyway for a few moments longer, staring at the wide expanse of the horizon with the Manhattan skyline in the foreground, acknowledging the uniqueness of the experience.

Mistakenly thinking that our “climb” was completed, I was somewhat surprised when the captain led us to yet another ladder, this one thirty feet high and leading to another small hole through which, I was told, was the top of the bridge tower. Did I mention that I am scared of heights? My disdain for tall ladders? I thought good and hard about sitting this next phase out, but after witnessing the 55 year-old police captain and my colleague climb up the ladder, I did what any self-respecting, stupid, testosterone-filled man would do, and I said, “Fuck it.” So, up I went, refusing to look down and tightly gripping each prong of the ladder as if my life depended on it. To eliminate the concern over my sweaty palms, I had put on a pair of work gloves that the maintenance man had offered to me. Finally, I reached the top, climbed up and through the last hole and pulled myself to the platform. I stood straight up and looked all around, in wonderment.

The view of New York from atop the Verrazano is breathtaking. From there, one experiences a panoramic view of all of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Staten Island. I looked around and soaked it in, feeling fresh and alive. Although my knees were weak and I could hardly believe I was doing it, I savored every minute of the experience, recognizing the rarity of this once-in-a-lifetime moment of overpowering proportions.

* * * *

There are times in one’s life it is important to take stock, to examine how one’s journey is progressing. Standing on top of the Verrazano, I thought of the many things I desire to do before I die. Travel to Israel and pray at the Western Wall; tour the Vatican and stroll quietly through the many small towns and villages of the Italian countryside; visit with my distant relatives in Denmark; view the Northern Lights on a clear night in Iceland; go whale watching in Alaska; spend a night at a medieval castle in England; learn to play the guitar; walk atop the Great Wall of China; and hit live batting practice at a major league ballpark. Although climbing Mt. Everest is not (and never was) on my list, I can at least find satisfaction that I “climbed” the Verrazano.

With the possible exception of live batting practice, there is no reason I cannot eventually do all or most of these things during my remaining time on earth. But for most of my life, something has often stood in the way – obligations of school and work, the strictures of time and family, and the many other distractions and excuses that so often prevent us from ever achieving that which we most desire to accomplish. But perhaps there is more to it than that. As nice as these experiences will be, how essential are they to a good and meaningful life? How important a contribution do they really make to a life filled with purpose, connection, and fulfillment?

When I returned home last week, still flying high from my experience on the Verrazano and having just parked my car in the driveway, I received a call from my very good friend who was distressed over another friend’s sudden illness. I knew his friend, Jerry, as someone I had worked with many years before in Washington, D.C. A former college basketball player and, until about two weeks ago, a very active and healthy person, he woke up one day unable to walk, and he quickly lost his ability to stand, sit, or even talk. Suddenly bedridden and fed intravenously at the hospital, the doctors completely mystified as to the cause of his condition, he confronted the possibility that he may be paralyzed forever, that he may no longer be the man he had always been, and could not be the father, husband, and man he wanted to be. “All I could think about,” Jerry said a few days later, “was how am I going to live my life in this condition?” Thankfully, Jerry has since recovered most of his physical capacities, and he is now walking (with the assistance of a walker), and trying to rehab and regain his full strength. The doctors still do not know what caused his sudden demise, but I am in awe of the immense courage and strength Jerry demonstrated in refusing to give in or give up. For the rest of us, “There, but for the grace of God…”

A very wise person once stated, “The real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.” Hearing of Jerry’s health problems and learning of the many tragedies and heartbreaks that people face every day, I regret not the failure to achieve certain of life’s goals, my bucket list of sorts, but in having failed to pursue a more perfect life, one full of love and laughter, passion and joy. One that constantly strives, in some small way, to assist others in finding the strength to imagine a life filled with inspiration and hope. I would like to believe it is what motivated me to start this blog and to publish my book, Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011), to build a lasting legacy that will remain long after I have departed from this world. But I am never satisfied that I have done enough, because I know that I can always do more, that I am constantly constrained by the practicalities of life and the strictures of conventional thought.

“We all have two choices,” said Jim Rohn, “we can make a living or we can design a life.” When my friend told me of Jerry’s physical ailments, he confessed to his own spiritual crisis of sorts. The demands of his career, his long commute to New York, and his everyday obligations, left him with little else to give. “I’m existing, but I’m not living,” he said. It is a statement that strikes at the heart of the American conscience, a soul wrenching crisis that most of us, at some point in our lives, must confront. How often do we truly make a difference in someone’s life? What have we really done for others, for those less fortunate than ourselves, for the lonely, the sick, the poor? How many simple acts of random kindness have we initiated? Is it only when things are going well, when we are in a good mood that we do for others? How committed are we to our cherished principles and values? These are difficult questions to ask and even more difficult to answer.

“Everyone who got where he is,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “has had to begin where he was.” It is a comforting thought, for it explains a lot and lessens my own disappointments in not achieving greater things. When I think back from whence I came, I am often astonished at how far I have traveled – college and law school, a career as a trial lawyer and federal prosecutor, a managing director in a worldwide risk management firm, living and succeeding in two major metropolitan areas – not too bad for a small town kid from central New Jersey. And yet, I think back on the many things I probably could have accomplished, and the places I could have been, if only I had the courage and insight to follow my heart and pursue my dreams. “If we did the things we are capable of,” wrote Thomas Edison, “we would astound ourselves.”

Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” As the year comes to a close and a new year embarks around the corner, I vow to examine my life more carefully, to better understand my sense of purpose, and to appreciate the everyday blessings that have been given to me, my health and my family. I vow to live and not simply exist. As Diane Ackerman wrote, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”