Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gifts of Christmas

Our family exchanged a lot of gifts this Christmas. Fifteen of us sat in a big circle, so it took hours to open all the presents, one by one, everyone commenting as each package was unwrapped. It’s fun to see your family express themselves in the presents they want and the ones that they give. This year Santa brought photographs and other works of art, scarves, cooking utensils, and many books. My dogs got new leashes and I got pajamas from the Three-Legged Dog. There were many squeals of delight as we got exactly what we hoped for or were surprised by the thoughtfulness of our relatives.

We love our family rituals. We all went out to brunch on Christmas eve and sang carols that night. We teared up watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”, while we did last minute wrapping. Yet just as we try to preserve the familiarity of Christmases past, each holiday is different. No longer do our children wake up with wide-eyed anticipation and run screaming down the stairs to see what Santa has left for them. The youngest this time was 24 -- she baked a coffee cake, but she still puts on a Santa hat and distributes the gifts from under the tree.

That younger generation brings new celebrants into the circle. This year we initiated my niece’s boyfriend to our fun and seriousness. The reading of “The Night Before Christmas” and “The Polar Express” has passed to that generation. Now they listen to our political discussions, and sometimes lead them. I am a bit envious of my two friends who celebrated new grandchildren this Christmas. I look forward to a time when there will again be little children in our family, who make Christmas a time of wonder and mystery for everyone.

It wasn’t a perfect Christmas, though. The Post Office failed to deliver some gifts on the day they had promised. Not all of us were healthy. My father-in-law, who has presided over dozens of these family gatherings, was not there.

His Alzheimer’s would have transformed this happy event into confusing frustration. We stopped our gift-opening a few times, so smaller groups could go visit him in the nursing home, bring a present or two, and show him that his family would stay with him, no matter what.

There is no perfect family and no perfect Christmas. Every year brings challenges, even to the happiest family. Material goods can’t make problems go away.

We can’t prevent minor disappointments from intruding on Christmas celebrations. But we can watch our children pass new milestones of maturity or take over more responsibilities for family meals or find appropriate gifts for their family.

We can’t produce good jobs for the young people in our family who seek to take on responsibilities in an unforgiving marketplace. But we can encourage them to have patience, to see how much they already have, to keep getting better at finding their niche in the working world.

We can’t bring my father-in-law back from the Alzheimer’s fog which limits his understanding. But we can teach each other how to deal with the sadness of aging.

We can’t create a perfect Christmas. But we can use this once-a-year moment to exchange gifts of love, to celebrate what we have and what we are.

I hope you all had a merry Christmas.

Steve Hochstadt

Minneapolis, MN

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on December 28, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Christian Nation II

My last essay about the United States as a Christian nation provoked a great deal of comment. Some of was nasty name-calling based on historical ignorance; that seemed to me to be un-Christian, but then what do I know? On the other hand, two local Christian scholars and pastors, John Kay and Paul Spalding, provided interesting ideas on the relation between church and state.

They both argued that, unlike countries which have a long history of established churches, religious observance in the United States has flourished in unique ways because it has been free of government control. In no other nation has Christianity developed in such denominational diversity. Without any official Church providing official ways of practicing religion, Americans were much freer to invent (or discover) alternative ways of being Christian, as evidenced by the new churches which spring up in every community. I have not tried to check the reliability of this idea by measuring how many different kinds of churches there are in various countries, but it remains an intriguing theory.

The connection between the freedom to worship as one wishes and freedom from government sponsorship of religion applies beyond Christianity. Jewish worship in America is free from the much more restrictive influence of Orthodox Jews on Israel’s government and society. In Israel, stores are closed on the Sabbath and non-kosher foods may not be imported, even though only a minority of Israelis say they keep the Sabbath. Conservative and Reform rabbis cannot lead religious ceremonies and any marriages, divorces, and conversions they perform are not valid. Israel is a very free country, but the role played by a religiously conservative minority in government places restrictions on the freedoms of all Israelis.

The separation of church and state in the United States has allowed all religions to flourish free of state-enforced rules. One of the results is that no religion represents a majority of Americans. Although most Americans identify as Christian, there is a tremendous variety of Christian practice. The views of those who demand a “Christian nation” do not even represent all Christians.

Those conservative Christians who demand that various levels of government offer more support to religion, meaning their form of Christianity, are at the same time vociferous critics of government for interfering too much in the lives of Americans. This seems contradictory to me. A government which makes monuments out of the Ten Commandments or which legislates fundamentalist Christian beliefs about homosexuality is a big step closer to requiring that all citizens practice a particular form of religious observance. I don’t understand why conservatives who support the death penalty would want the government to enshrine “Thou shalt not kill” as a basis for American law.

A recent flap at Southern Illinois University reveals what might happen if conservative Christians manage to remake America into their version of a “Christian nation”. Because one or more students complained that the clock tower was playing only Christmas carols, the administration decided to create a “more inclusive” repertoire of songs. Now right-wing websites across the country are filled with complaints about “the war on Christmas”, as well as vituperative remarks about Jews, Muslims, and those who celebrate Kwanzaa. Every attempt to broaden public seasonal celebrations to include more than Christian practices creates conservative complaints. The “Christian nation” that conservatives have in mind has little room for anyone else.

Even less ideological Christians have difficulty recognizing their own exclusivity. In response to the discussion at SIU, this newspaper quoted Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard: “I don’t see any reason why the city of Jacksonville is going to stop playing Christmas music. I’m sorry if it’s offensive to some individuals; however, it is Christmas and we will play the music. I personally don’t feel it’s offensive.”

Yes, it is Christmas. It is also the season of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The point is not whether Mayor Ezard is offended by the music of his own holiday. When government says, “This religion is ours, and we’re sorry if you are offended, but we aren’t, so stop complaining,” then we have a state religion.

I am not offended by Christmas carols. I will be singing them for the next week. I am offended by people who want to use government to shove their religion down my throat. That is, when they are not complaining that the same government is a liberal socialist conspiracy to take away their freedom.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on December 21, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Christian Nation

Many Americans are saying that America should be a Christian nation. I wonder exactly what they mean.

Do they mean a Christian nation like the ones from which the Puritans and most of our early settlers fled? In those countries, the King was also the head of their state Church. All citizens had to worship in the prescribed manner or face persecution, jail, or even death. Our founders created a new nation without a king and without a state church, the first nation in which the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

Do they mean a Christian nation like that demanded by the Ku Klux Klan during the decades when the Klan was a powerful force in American politics? Klansmen called themselves defenders of the Christian faith, but they meant only a narrow form of Protestantism, which used violence to exclude Catholics, Jews, blacks, and other non-whites.

Do they mean a Christian nation like the one I grew up in, in which Jews and blacks were excluded from living in many communities, excluded from belonging to important social organizations, excluded from attending or teaching at the best universities? Or do they mean a more tolerant version, where we can go everywhere and do everything, as long as we are quiet when an organizational meeting or a government function begins with a Christian prayer?

Do they mean a Christian nation in which laws are created out of a narrow interpretation of certain Biblical passages, which many other Christians dispute? Many who claim that America is a Christian nation then go on to demand that laws about the teaching of science, the legality of contraception, and the treatment of homosexuals be determined by their version of Christianity.

Do they mean a Christian nation “where we are tolerant”, as Sarah Palin said on Bill O’Reilly’s show earlier this year? I don’t want to live where I am tolerated. I want to live where my religion or lack of it makes no difference, where public money is not spent on promoting Christian beliefs and practices, while the rest of us watch from the outside. And there are a lot of us: one of every four Americans is not a Christian, including over 6 million Jews, over 2 million Muslims, and millions of others.

Those who claim that the Christian nation in their minds is based on the founders’ ideas are silent about how much more Christianity has been added to America since our founding. “In God we trust” was first added to currency in the 1860s, and our pennies and nickels did not say that until the 20th century. The words “under God” were only added to the Pledge of Allegiance by an act of Congress in 1954.

Conservatives who promote more Christianity in public life also appear to believe that America has been going in the wrong direction for many years. Do they mean the decline in the proportion of the adult population who identify themselves as Christian, from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008? Barely more than half of Americans tell pollsters that they attend religious services more than once a year. Now that there are relatively fewer Christians, should the nation be more Christian?

I don’t want to live in any version of a “Christian nation”. I want to live in the United States, in which religious ideas are a private matter, in which my government plays no role in my spiritual life, and denominational beliefs play no role in government. The 18th-century founders were not able to fully divorce their politics from religion, but they went further than anyone else had gone before. In many ways, such as race, their vision was clouded by traditional prejudices. Since then we have created a more perfect union, although not yet perfect. Perfection will be closer when whites no longer insist on retaining the privileges they have built up over centuries of supremacy, and when Christians stop saying that they specially represent America.

A few nights ago I attended a wonderful Christmas concert in the chapel at Illinois College. The music was beautiful and inspiring, like the soaring building itself. The freedoms to create and perform all kinds of religious music, to sing religious songs with our neighbors, are just as beautiful. Those freedoms are only guaranteed as long as America is a nation in which religion is a personal choice, not a public prescription.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 14, 2010

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Meaning of Conservative Principles

“We are about to embark upon a great crusade, a crusade to restore Americanism, and return the control of our government to our people.” Sounds very modern, but this was Senator James Eastland of Mississippi in 1955, leading the fight against the integration of public schools that the Supreme Court had ordered the year before.

We hear a lot of talk from conservatives lately about how the federal government has been trampling on the freedoms of Americans, and the need to “take back America”. It all sounds very familiar.

In the early 1960s white citizens spontaneously formed local organizations to preserve racial discrimination in the South. They soon abandoned explicit claims of white superiority and began to use other language to defend racist practices. When federal marshals prevented white mobs from attacking James Meredith as he entered the University of Mississippi in 1962, a Citizens’ Council editorial claimed, “Ole Miss has not been integrated! It has been invaded and occupied by the United States Army.

Two years later, Senator Eastland called the 1964 civil rights bill, “a complete blueprint for a totalitarian state . . . the greatest single grasp for power by the Executive Department that the nation has ever known.” Governor Ross Barnett said, “God was the original segregationist,” and he was echoed by many southern ministers. General Edwin Walker, who had been busy indoctrinating his soldiers with right-wing political materials, said, “It’s time to rise. To make a stand beside Governor Ross Barnett at Jackson, Mississippi. Now is the time to be heard. Rally to the cause of freedom.” The newspaper columnist Florence Ogden, founder of the segregationist Women for Constitutional Government, told that group, “Our constitutional rights have been swept away by armed might.

J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director and enemy of the civil right movement, told the press that “Communist influence does exist in the civil rights movement,” and wiretapped Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phone to try to prove that he was a Communist.

Defenders of white supremacy linked their cause with broader conservative issues: Christian values, fears about communism, and appeals to the Constitution. This allowed racists all over America to maintain discriminatory practices while appearing to be promoting less tainted principles. Although racism occasionally appeared at the fringes of conservative campaigns, these rhetorical tactics put a respectable face on the preservation of white privilege.

Since Obama’s election as President, a similar dynamic has unfolded. Once again, conservatives have deployed their favorite rhetorical strategies to attack policies they do not like. In March, 2009, Glenn Beck said, “We are a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest imagination. If you have any kind of fear that we might be headed towards a totalitarian state, look out, buckle up.” Sarah Palin often claims to be defending the Constitution. On Bill O’Reilly’s TV show in May 2010, she said, “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” John Boehner, who will soon be Speaker of the House, said about the health care reform, “This bill is the greatest threat to freedom that I've seen in the 19 years I've been in Washington.” Right-wing websites are full of talk about protecting the Constitution from those socialists who are currently in power in Washington, and returning America to its Christian principles.

What does all this talk of God, the Constitution, and freedom really mean? What practical policies are being advocated through those high-minded principles?

Of 178 Republicans in the House, 159 voted in 2009 to kill the legislation which forced credit card companies to stop arbitrarily raising interest rates and assessing inflated fees. On November 19 of this year, Republicans in the House voted overwhelmingly against extending federal emergency unemployment insurance through February. This past weekend, every Republican in the Senate voted against a bill which would have extended the Bush era tax cuts for the first $1 million a year in income, but not after that.

As in the 1960s, conservatives are hiding their real politics behind seemingly high-minded principles. The billionaires who fund Tea Party organizations, the bankers and stock traders who support Republican campaigns, and the mining company owners who oppose more safety regulations let their public frontmen cite the Constitution, wave the Bible around, and accuse their opponents of socialism. And it still works.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville, IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on December 7, 2010

Information about Mississippi in the 1960s taken from Joseph Crespino, In search of another country: Mississippi and the conservative counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007)