America’s Soul, America’s Creed

“All of the various fields of human inquiry — theology and philosophy and morality and psychology meet rather beautifully in politics. And sometimes I wonder if politics isn’t exactly that, it’s the taking of all the sort of great ineffable and trying to make them have some meaning in the actually historical moment on earth in which we live.” Tony Kushner – writer of “Lincoln” interview with Bill Moyers

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people — young people especially — think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business. It’s much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise. I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to see “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way. It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere…The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality. Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work. The movie also illustrates another thing: that politics is the best place to develop the highest virtues…If anything, the movie understates how hard politics can be….Politicians who can navigate such challenges really do emerge with the sort of impressive weight expressed in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It’s a speech that acknowledges that there is moral ambiguity on both sides…Politics doesn’t produce many Lincolns, but it does produce some impressive people, and sometimes, great results… Why We Love Politics By DAVID BROOKS, New York Times, November 22, 2012

…the moral responsibilities of citizens and politicians in a democratic society… politics should be a high moral calling… A moral and intellectual state cannot be established through a constitution, or through law, or through directives, but only through complex, long-term, and never-ending work involving education and self-education…it might be called spirit. Or feeling. Or conscience… politicians have a moral obligation to call their followers to be true to their best selves rather than pander to or inflame their followers’ worst instincts… Building an intellectual and spiritual state — a state based on ideas — does not mean building an ideological state. Indeed, an ideological state cannot be intellectual or spiritual. A state based on ideas is precisely the opposite: it is meant to extricate human beings from the straitjacket of ideological interpretations, and to rehabilitate them as subjects of individual conscience, of individual thinking backed up by experience, of individual responsibility, and with a love for their neighbors that is anything but abstract… Václav Havel: Democracy as Spiritual Discipline by Peter Montgomery, Religion Dispatches, December 18, 2011

...The biblical purpose of government is to protect from evil and to promote the good…That vision of “common good” is what we have lost, and there is nothing more important in our public life than to find it again…To be opposed to government per se, especially when that opposition serves the ultimate power of other wealthy and powerful interests, is simply not a biblical position. Transparency, accountability, and service are the ethics of good government. “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” is still a good measure and goal of civil authority… Why the Government Shutdown Is Unbiblical by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, posted on Huffingtonpost.com, Oct 3, 2013

Crimes Against the Soul of Amer­ica by Car­o­line Myss, Huff­in­g­ton Post, Sep­tem­ber 5, 2009 - There is such a thing as a crime against the soul of a nation. A person or a political party can deliberately incite actions that diminish the strength, the integrity, and the overall well-being of a nation’s inner core. America’s soul is in a fragile state. It has suffered severe violations over the course of this past decade and to lesser degrees, in previous decades…of all the crimes covertly and overtly committed by the Bush administration against the soul of America, none is as vile as the deliberate efforts they poured into turning American against American. We see that in the near hatred between the Republicans and Democrats, between liberals and conservatives, between free-thinkers and evangelicals that continues to fester. This crime was a strategic one, a well thought out plan to fragment the people of this nation in a type of contemporary replay of the Civil War. And sadly, the Republicans succeeded. Thank you, Karl Rove. The result is that the soul of America is exhausted, wounded, mistrusting, suspicious, fearful — and compromised. This is not a soul that can rebuild a country, not if you know anything about the laws of nature and the fundamentals of healing…
Students on a path toward becoming high functioning human beings must be guided in matters of their soul, namely, how to recognize and respond to a moral crisis; how to formulate a personal ethical code and to withstand challenges to that code within a society that thrives on predator instincts; and how to form and maintain an honor code within a society in which any sense of honor is now held together by legal contracts rather than the integrity of a person’s word…
we now have a public that cannot discern lies from truth…
A conscious effort to “dumb down” the education of this nation qualifies as a crime against the soul of America.…
There comes a time when we have to just stand up to these carnies (slang for carnival barkers) and tell them to stop polluting the soul of America with their constant and endless transmission of psychic free radicals in the form of lies, negative press, ridiculous criticism, overall lack of intelligent ideas and comments, and complete absence of creative thought. We should just blast them with emails and tell them to stop polluting the soul of our nation. Just stop it. We’ve had enough. I know I have. And I deeply believe the soul of our nation can’t take much more of their strategy of deliberate division against the people of their own nation. That is a true crime — and perhaps their greatest crime — against the soul of this great nation.

Reclaiming America’s Soul by Paul Krugman, New York Times, April 24, 2009

The Soul of America by Bernie Sanders, published on Wednesday, January 9, 2013 by Common Dreams

The Americans no one wants to talk about By Michael Gerson, Washington Post, January 19, 2012

The Inward Work of Democracy by Krista Tippett, Krista’s Journal, June 30, 2011

Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer, Book Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat , 2011

A Shining City: The Occupy Movement and the American Soul By Elizabeth Drescher, religiondispatches.org October 7, 2011

THE AMERICAN CREED an Address delivered at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association by Forrest Church, Quebec, Canada, June 21, 2002  

The American Creed, a spiritual and patriotic primer by Forrest Church — “Like all experiments, The Declaration of Independence started with a precept, a “given” – in this case a set of truths so rockribbed and essential that they were deemed to be “self-evident.” Truth cast in language that, in turn, spells out the truth for succeeding generations deserves to be called a creed…As understood by Lincoln, King and many others, America is a union of faith and freedom, in which faith elevates freedom and freedom tempers faith. The American Creed doesn’t impose parochial faith upon its citizens but protects freedom, including freedom of religion, by invoking a more universal authority. Though employing the language of faith, it transcends religious particulars, uniting all citizens in a single covenant. It treats believer and atheist alike, offering each the same protections, securing freedom of and from religion. Equally important, it protects freedom from itself, tempering excesses of individual license by postulating a higher moral code. In America, faith and freedom wed to form a union greater than either alone is capable of sustaining…If ours is not an explicitly Christian nation, it is nonetheless built on a religious foundation. By law, church and state are separate in America, to the signal advantage of both. But by tradition, religion and politics are interdependent, especially at times of crisis…No American faithful to the founders’ vision can view social outcomes as independent of moral consequence…conscience is the handmaiden of American freedom. Conscience also touches the heart of what it means to be human…In religion Americans are willing to accept absolutes for themselves…however we have proved unwilling (at least for long) to impose our absolutes on others…It is precisely the vacuum created when we forget the nation’s creed that invites occupation by the new fundamentalists.

 

The False Equation: Religion Equals Morality by Gwynne Dyer

CommonDreams.org, December 19, 2011

Excerpt

…In the United States, where it is almost impossible to get elected unless you profess a strong religious faith… Not one of the hundred US senators ticks the “No Religion/Atheist/Agnostic” box, for example, although 16 percent of the American population do…This is a common belief among those who rule, because they confuse morality with religion. If the common folk do not fear some god (any old god will do), social discipline will collapse…politicians, religious leaders and generals in every country, are effectively saying that my children, and those of all the other millions who have no religion, are morally inferior to those who do. It is insulting and untrue.

Full text

In the United States, where it is almost impossible to get elected unless you profess a strong religious faith, it would have passed completely unnoticed. Not one of the hundred US senators ticks the “No Religion/Atheist/Agnostic” box, for example, although 16 percent of the American population do. But it was quite remarkable in Britain.

Last Friday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron urged the Church of England to lead a revival of traditional Christian values to counter the country’s “moral collapse”.Last Friday, in Oxford, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the United Kingdom is a Christian country “and we should not be afraid to say so.” He was speaking on the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible, so he had to say something positive about religion – but he went far beyond that.

“The Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today,” he said. “Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend.”

Where to start? The King James Bible was published at the start of a century in which millions of Europeans were killed in religious wars over minor differences of doctrine. Thousands of “witches” were burned at the stake during the 16th century, as were thousands of “heretics”. They have stopped doing that sort of thing in Britain now – but they’ve also stopped reading the Bible. Might there be a connection here?

Besides, what Cameron said is just not true. In last year’s British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted annually by the National Center for Social Research, only 43 percent of 4,000 British people interviewed said they were Christian, while 51 percent said they had “no religion.” Among young people, some two-thirds are non-believers.

Mind you, the official census numbers from 2001 say that 73 percent of British people identify themselves as “Christian”. However, this is probably due to a leading question on the census form. “What is your religion?” it asks, which seems to assume that you must have one – especially since it follows a section on ethnic origins, and we all have those.

So a lot of people put down Christian just because that is the ancestral religion of their family. Make the question more neutral – “Are you religious? If so, what is your religion?” –and the result would probably be very different. There were attempts to get that more neutral question onto the 2011 census form, but the churches lobbied frantically against it. They are feeling marginalized enough as it is.

Why would David Cameron proclaim the virtues of a Christian Britain that no longer exists? He is no religious fanatic; he describes himself as a “committed” but only “vaguely practicing” Christian.

You’d think that if he really believed in a God who scrutinizes his every thought and deed, and will condemn him to eternal torture in Hell if he doesn’t meet the standard of behavior required, he might be a little less vague about it all. But he doesn’t really believe that he needs religion HIMSELF; he thinks it is a necessary instrument of social control for keeping the lower orders in check.

This is a common belief among those who rule, because they confuse morality with religion. If the common folk do not fear some god (any old god will do), social discipline will collapse and the streets will run with blood. Our homes, our children, even our domestic animals will be violated. Thank god for God.

Just listen to Cameron: “The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option. You can’t fight something with nothing. If we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything.” The “alternative of moral neutrality”? What he means is that there cannot be moral behavior without religion – so you proles had better go on believing, or we privileged people will be in trouble.

But Cameron already lives in a post-religious country. Half its people say outright that they have no religion, two-thirds of them never attend a religious service, and a mere 8 percent go to church, mosque, synagogue or temple on a weekly basis. Yet the streets are not running with blood.

Indeed, religion may actually be bad for morality. In 2005 Paul Gregory made the case for this in a research paper in the Journal of Religion and Society entitled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look.”

Sociological gobbledygook, but in a statistical survey of 18 developed democracies, Gregory showed that “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, (venereal disease), teen pregnancy, and abortion.”

Even within the United States, Gregory reported, “the strongly theistic, anti-evolution South and Midwest” have markedly worse crime rates and social problems than the relatively secular North-East. Of course, the deeply religious areas are also poorer, so it might just be poverty making people behave so badly. On the other hand, maybe religion causes poverty.

Whatever. The point is that David Cameron, and thousands of other politicians, religious leaders and generals in every country, are effectively saying that my children, and those of all the other millions who have no religion, are morally inferior to those who do. It is insulting and untrue.

 Gwynne Dyer has worked as a freelance journalist, columnist, broadcaster and lecturer on international affairs for more than 20 years, but he was originally trained as an historian. Born in Newfoundland, he received degrees from Canadian, American and British universities. His latest book, “Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats”, was published in the United States by Oneworld.

 

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/12/19-2

Noam Chomsky on the Shredding of Our Fundamental Rights and the Common Good

AlterNet, July 10, 2012
Editor’s note: This column is adapted from an address by Noam Chomsky on June 19 at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, as part of its 600th anniversary celebration.

Excerpt

Recent events trace a threat­en­ing tra­jec­tory, suf­fi­ciently so that it may be worth­while to look ahead a few gen­er­a­tions to the mil­len­nium anniver­sary of one of the great events in the estab­lish­ment of civil and human rights: the issuance of Magna Carta, the char­ter of Eng¬lish lib­er­ties imposed on King John in 1215.
What we do right now, or fail to do, will deter­mine what kind of world will greet that anniver­sary. It is not an attrac­tive prospect – not least because the Great Char­ter is being shred­ded before our eyes.…

Full text

Recent events trace a threatening trajectory, sufficiently so that it may be worthwhile to look ahead a few generations to the millennium anniversary of one of the great events in the establishment of civil and human rights: the issuance of Magna Carta, the charter of English liberties imposed on King John in 1215.

What we do right now, or fail to do, will determine what kind of world will greet that anniversary. It is not an attractive prospect – not least because the Great Charter is being shredded before our eyes.

The first scholarly edition of the Magna Carta was published in 1759 by the English jurist William Blackstone, whose work was a source for U.S. constitutional law. It was entitled “The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest,” following earlier practice. Both charters are highly significant today.

The first, the Charter of Liberties, is widely recognized to be the cornerstone of the fundamental rights of the English-speaking peoples – or as Winston Churchill put it more expansively, “the charter of every self-respecting man at any time in any land.”

In 1679 the Charter was enriched by the Habeas Corpus Act, formally titled “an Act for the better securing the liberty of the subject, and for prevention of imprisonment beyond the seas.” The modern harsher version is called “rendition” – imprisonment for the purpose of torture.

Along with much of English law, the Act was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, which affirms that “the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended” except in case of rebellion or invasion. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the rights guaranteed by this Act were “(c)onsidered by the Founders as the highest safeguard of liberty.”

More specifically, the Constitution provides that no “person (shall) be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law (and) a speedy and public trial” by peers.

The Department of Justice has recently explained that these guarantees are satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch, as Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported in The New York Times on May 29. Barack Obama, the constitutional lawyer in the White House, agreed. King John would have nodded with satisfaction.

The underlying principle of “presumption of innocence” has also been given an original interpretation. In the calculus of the president’s “kill list” of terrorists, “all military-age males in a strike zone” are in effect counted as combatants “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” Becker and Shane summarized. Thus post-assassination determination of innocence now suffices to maintain the sacred principle.

This is the merest sample of the dismantling of “the charter of every self-respecting man.”

The companion Charter of the Forest is perhaps even more pertinent today. It demanded protection of the commons from external power. The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population – their fuel, their food, their construction materials. The Forest was no wilderness. It was carefully nurtured, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations.

By the 17th century, the Charter of the Forest had fallen victim to the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality. No longer protected for cooperative care and use, the commons were restricted to what could not be privatized – a category that continues to shrink before our eyes.

Last month the World Bank ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with its case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining. Environmental protection would deprive the company of future profits, a crime under the rules of the investor rights regime mislabeled as “free trade.”

This is only one example of struggles under way over much of the world, some with extreme violence, as in resource-rich eastern Congo, where millions have been killed in recent years to ensure an ample supply of minerals for cellphones and other uses, and of course ample profits.

The dismantling of the Charter of the Forest brought with it a radical revision of how the commons are conceived, captured by Garrett Hardin’s influential thesis in 1968 that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all,” the famous “tragedy of the commons”: What is not privately owned will be destroyed by individual avarice.

The doctrine is not without challenge. Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her work showing the superiority of user-managed commons.

But the doctrine has force if we accept its unstated premise: that humans are blindly driven by what American workers, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, called “the New Spirit of the Age, Gain Wealth forgetting all but Self” – a doctrine they bitterly condemned as demeaning and destructive, an assault on the very nature of free people.

Huge efforts have been devoted since to inculcating the New Spirit of the Age. Major industries are dedicated to what political economist Thorstein Veblen called “fabricating wants” – directing people to “the superficial things” of life, like “fashionable consumption,” in the words of Columbia University marketing professor Paul Nystrom.

That way people can be atomized, seeking personal gain alone and diverted from dangerous efforts to think for themselves, act in concert and challenge authority.

It’s unnecessary to dwell on the extreme dangers posed by one central element of the destruction of the commons: the reliance on fossil fuels, which courts global disaster. Details may be debated, but there is little serious doubt that the problems are all too real and that the longer we delay in addressing them, the more awful will be the legacy left to generations to come. The recent Rio+20 Conference is the latest effort. Its aspirations were meager, its outcome derisory.

In the lead in confronting the crisis, throughout the world, are indigenous communities. The strongest stand has been taken by the one country they govern, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America and for centuries a victim of Western destruction of its rich resources.

After the ignominious collapse of the Copenhagen global climate change summit in 2009, Bolivia organized a People’s Summit with 35,000 participants from 140 countries. The summit called for very sharp reduction in emissions, and a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. That is a key demand of indigenous communities all over the world.

The demand is ridiculed by sophisticated Westerners, but unless we can acquire some of the sensibility of the indigenous communities, they are likely to have the last laugh – a laugh of grim despair.

(Noam Chomsky’s most recent book is “Occupy.” Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.)

 

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