Thursday, March 08, 2007

The First Openly Godless Member of Congress

On Monday, a member of Congress will step before the cameras and announce to the world that he does not believe in God.


I'm a little embarrassed I'm only becoming aware of this now, but apparently this has been an ongoing effort by the Secular Coalition for America. They launched a contest to identify the highest-ranking elected official in the U.S. who is a non-theist. Apparently they found one, and he will be revealing himself at a news conference on Monday.

On the first day of 2007, I speculated that such a person existed. I even listed my top suspects, whom I dubbed the Rational 12. Based on several postings that I came across (but no longer have links for), it appears that this "outing" will be a voluntary one and that the congressman (yes, the Coalition has referred to him as a he) will be participating.

I've seen some guessing games ID Barney Frank and Bernie Sanders as likely candidates. Maybe. I kind of figure Barney Frank for a closet theist. It would be kind of a bummer if it were Sanders, if only because it would provide an excuse for all the silliness about socialism and atheism to re-emerge. So, I'm hoping it's a face that's new to the media, so that they approach the issue with a blank slate, rather than preconceived notions about the specific person.

Oh, and as you'll see in my list of suspects, the Coalition is actually a little late with this. As I pointed out, the new, 110th Congress includes the first Buddhists to sit in the House of Representatives. Buddhists don't believe in God. So, let's hope the media factor them into this story (assuming one of them isn't the person in question) and makes the point that there will, as of Monday, be three confirmed members of Congress who reject the existence of a SuperMagic Deity. It's a start.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Jesus 2008, Part II: John McCain's God

This is the second posting in a series that will look at each of the major presidential candidates in light of their personal relationship with Jesus. Please continue to check back for additional posts in this series.

Previously, I talked about the sad spectacle of John McCain pandering to the religious right by disavowing all the credit he once gave to his fellow POWs for keeping him alive in Vietnam, to instead credit God for his survival.

But there is another interpretation, one that speaks better of his integrity, but at the same time suggests that the God John McCain believes in...might not be the one he's supposed to believe in.

Here's the video, from McCain's website, of him talking about his faith. Not, it's worth noting, talking about God or Jesus, but talking about his faith.

"My faith has been my salvation. ... My faith has been my anchor and my guide... The reason, the only reason why I'm here today is because I believe that a higher being has a mission for me in my life, a reason for me to be here. Now, that doesn't mean that he wants me to be elected or not, but it does mean that I have a purpose. And that purpose, I think, is to live a life based on Judeo-Christian principles and honor and integrity."
George W. Bush hired a speechwriter to ensure that his public remarks evoked the same God, the same Jesus, that the conservative base believes in: A personal, anthropomorphic God who has preferences when it comes to presidential elections, Grammy results and the Super Bowl. McCain's mistake here is to reveal that he does not believe in this God.

McCain, it is clear, either believes in the progressive, non-literalist left's notion of God, or he believes in the not-really-God that many on the left call God--the god who's just love or fate or an energy that binds us or some other similar nonsense--or McCain is simply lying and doesn't believe in God at all.

After all, it's not God or Jesus who saved McCain, he says. It's faith. In other words, it wasn't the intervention of an external force that saved him, it was an internal phenomenon that saved him: His own mental stance, faith. And McCain clearly does not envision a God of personal preferences. McCain could have said he does not know whether God wants him to be elected. But he didn't. He said he's not claiming that God has a desire one way or another.

And look at the mission McCain's God has for him--to live a life based on Judeo-Christian values. It's the language of a non-religious person trying to fake religiosity. A Jewish God, after all, would want McCain to base his life on Jewish values; a Christian God on Christian values. There's no conceivable God that could want believers to base their lives based on the values of two separate religions. A true believer--in any religion--would have used language that avoided choosing one sect over another. McCain made the mistake of combining them, which no sect's God would ever do.

Furthermore, unlike George W. Bush--whose mother told him the pastor was "talking to you" in talking about God's desire that Americans find a leader--John McCain says the only mission he thinks God has in mind for him is the same one God would have for anyone: Live by good values, don't be a jerk. The God of the religious right has specific missions for each and every person. Preach the gospel, win American Idol, whatever. McCain doesn't get that.

We don't know whether McCain lost faith and found reason in Vietnam. But in his book, "Faith of My Fathers," McCain makes clear that the driving faith in his life has been the faith in country, honor and integrity instilled in him by his military family. His salvation was not Jesus, God or even religious faith. It was the cellmates who kept him going and told him dirty jokes.

It's possible that McCain believes in some sort of magical entity that might qualify as "God." But if he does, it's clear from his own language that this god is the same god that much of the left believes in. But it is most assuredly not the hurricane-causing, miracle-granting, prayer-listening-to, president-rooting-for, political-policy-having god of the religious right.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Jesus 2008, Part I: McCain Betrays His Fellow POWs

This is the first posting in a series that will look at each of the major presidential candidates in light of their personal relationship with Jesus. Please continue to check back for additional posts in this series.

John McCain's courting of the religious right has been so transparent, even the religious right has not been fooled. And that's saying something.

It has been a sad and disappointing sight, especially for those who appreciated McCain's candor back when he drove his "Straight Talk Express" right past "agent of intolerance" Jerry Falwell during the 2000 campaign. But recently, McCain's courting of the religious right took a turn that betrays a lot more than just swing voters. His desire to win that voting demographic has led him to do what even torture could not make him do: Sell out his fellow POWs from Vietnam.

This video was posted on McCain's YouTube site six days ago. In it, he talks about his faith. Note what he says about Vietnam.

"I went through a very rough experience in my life many years ago, and the only reason why I'm here today is because of the faith that I had in a greater being who sustained me at times when I was under most difficult stress...The reason, the only reason why I'm here today is because I believe that a higher being has a mission for me in my life."
It is a deeply personal, and apparently sincere sentiment. The only person who could refute it would be McCain himself. And that's exactly what he did, back in 1999, when he was still a straight talker, and before Karl Rove made American politicians fear the wrath of the mobilized religious right.

Back then, McCain wrote a book called, "Faith of My Fathers." The faith of the title was not religious faith. It was, literally, his faith in his forefathers, a faith of patriotism, honor and comradeship that you would expect to find in a proud military family. In his book, McCain speaks at great length, more than 150 pages, about his 5-1/2 years in Vietnamese captivity.

He does speak, in several instances, about the role his religious faith played during that awful time. Some are relatively trivial, as when Christmas carols represent respite from atonal Vietnamese hymns.

In most of the accounts he relates, however, the religious element of each circumstance arose externally, either from the arrival of Christmas, or at the instigation of someone else. On 223, a Vietnamese interrogator asks McCain to explain Easter. McCain does so, but not with an explanation of how Jesus died for our sins, but with a matter-of-fact recounting of the bullet points of Jesus' life. It's not personal or emotional.

On 228, a Vietnamese guard draws a cross in the sand. McCain refers to it as an acknowledgment of mutual humanity. But he ascribes no impact to the event. It does not lift his spirits, nor give him hope, nor bolster his morale.

In one two-page sequence, starting on 252, McCain gives his longest account of the role religious faith played during captivity. He begins, however, not by relating the nature of his own personal faith, or his own relationship with Jesus, but instead by telling us that the Code of Conduct and his senior officers stressed three keys to resistance: Faith in God, faith in country and faith in fellow prisoners.

Here are some of McCain's most emphatic pronouncements about faith from that section:
"...keeping our faith in God, country, and one another was as difficult as it was imperative."
And, most vividly, this one:
"I discovered scratched into one of the cell's walls the creed "I believe in God, the Father Almighty." There, standing witness to God's presence in a remote, concealed place, recalled to my faith by a stronger, better man, I felt God's love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation in the most magnificent cathedral."
There are a few others, as well. But they are often couched in ways that suggest McCain was drawing strength not from faith in Jesus, but from the power of ritual or community that religion can offer. When he is designated group chaplain and is allowed to copy passages from a Bible to share with the other POWs, he goes to the Nativity. Not the words of Jesus himself. Not the crucifixion of Jesus and his redemption of humanity. He goes for the Hallmark Card kiddie story.

On 206, he tells us he "prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man." But consider the context:
" eventually adjust to solitary, as you can to almost any hardship, by devising various methods to keep your mind off your troubles and greedily grasping any opportunity for human contact.
"The first few weeks are the hardest. The onset of despair is immediate, and it is a formidable foe. You have to fight it with any means necessary, all the while trying to bridle the methods you devise to combat loneliness and prevent them from robbing your senses.
"I tried to memorize the names of POWs, the names and personal details of guards and interrogators, and the details of my environment. I devised other memory games to keep my faculties sound. For days I tried to remember the names of all the pilots in my squadron and our sister squadron. I also prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man."
His prayers were not answered, nor does he tell us they gave him solace. They were one of a litany of "methods to keep your mind off your troubles."

On 312, McCain tells us he "will never experience again the supreme happiness I felt my fourth Christmas in Hanoi," his first night in Camp Unity. Why? Was it the Baby Jesus? McCain explains: "No other experience in my life could ever replicate my first night in Camp Unity, and the feeling of relief that overcame me to be living among my friends."

The most sacred service of his life, he tells us on 332, was the one he and the other men were allowed to hold without interference. The sanctity comes not from the service itself or from any religious experience during it, but from the very material fact that his captors, this one time, allowed them a moment of liberation.

And that's pretty much the meat of McCain's faith over the course of 150 pages about his captivity. So, how does this constitute a betrayal of his fellow POWs?

Look at what he said about them, and the effect they had on him. Compare these remarks to his remarks about religion--to which he seldom, if ever, attributed long-term, significant impact on his state of mind in captivity. Also, most importantly, compare these statements to his video posted last week. Remember, he called his religious faith "the only reason" he is here today. But here's what he wrote in 1999:
"I could have asked for no better companions. There has never been a doubt in my mind that Bud Day and Norris Overly saved my life."

"The only sustenance I had in those early days I took from the example of [Day's] abiding moral and physical courage."

"Of all the activities I devised to survive solitary confinement with my wits and strength intact, nothing was more beneficial than communicating with other prisoners. It was, simply, a matter of life and death."

"Communicating not only affirmed our humanity. It kept us alive."

"Bob Craner kept me alive."

"I derived my own resolve from the example of Bud Day...and from countless other examples of resistance... I would have been lost without their example."

"I had a nearly devout belief in the restorative power of communicating... my defenses shattered, I had relied on Bob Craner to bring me back from the dead."
And then, there are these, most damning examples, when McCain specifically contrasts the power of faith with the power of solidarity with his fellow POWs.
"We were told to have faith in God, country, and one another. Most of us did. But the last of these, faith in one another, was our final defense, the ramparts our enemy could not cross."

"My first concern was not that I might fail God and country, although I certainly hoped that I would not. I was afraid to fail my friends."

"A filthy, crippled, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough."
Bob Craner. Bud Day. Norris Overly. There are others, too. These men sustained McCain through hell. Their courage. Their humor. Their fellowship. Their support.

Over the course of more than five years--in which he was beaten, kept in solitary confinement, malnourished and in despair--McCain broke and taped a confession, but he never broke faith with those men.

But now, today, after six years of courting this nation's self-appointed stewards of values, the religious right, McCain has finally betrayed his fellow POWs. He has again made a tape to please his captors. Only this one is playing on YouTube. On this one, he finally relents and pays homage to the God of his latter-day tormentors, the religious right, denying credit to the men who saved him and according it, instead, to a god whose religion barely helped him at all. Unlike the tape he made under duress in Vietnam, this tape, this McCain, finally breaks faith with the men who saved his life.

More on the religious faith of McCain and other candidates in upcoming posts. Please continue to check back with us.

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