Tag Archives: religion


In his memoir WOODSTOCK NATION, Abbie Hoffman paints a telling portrait of  himself at the festival’s end – staggering aimlessly around the deserted, trash-strewn field, stoned out of his mind, and crudely propositioning every female he encounters.

That image comes to mind when I try to figure out what happened to the optimistic peace-and-love vision of the hippies, and why 50 years later we find ourselves in a world that seems in many ways the exact opposite of what they were hoping for.

Part of the fault was our own, of course. (I am lumping myself in with the Woodstock generation here, though I was a little bit younger – still only in junior high when Woodstock happened.)   To put it succinctly, I think we were right to claim the freedoms we claimed, but we forgot… or neglected… or refused to accept the responsibilities involved. 

But there was also a backlash. The conservative establishment responded to the social unrest and cultural upheaval that marked the 1960’s with a campaign that was breathtaking in its depth, scope, and audacity. It was also, we must begrudgingly admit, largely successful. 

We can start with August 28, 1971, just 2 years after Woodstock. A corporate lawyer (and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice) named Lewis Powell writes a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr. – Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell decries what he sees as a concerted attack on American economic institutions – indeed, on the American way of life itself. But he’s not particularly worried about Communists or leftists:

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”

So he recommends that a series of  countermeasures be taken within each of those spheres: education, religion, the media, and so on. And though I can’t say that all these developments below sprang directly from Powell’s memo, we can note the creation of a vast array of new institutions and organizations, and changes in existing ones, within the next few years. (This was not a “conspiracy,” mind you; this was all done quite openly, right out in front of God and everybody.)

Some highlights:

There are many more examples I could cite, of course – from the establishment of think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, from FOX News to the Koch brothers, from ALEC to the Citizens United case. My point is this: these people worked long and hard to bring us to the present situation. Whatever happens to the Trumps and their supporters and enablers, it will take at least as much time, money, effort, and dedication to undo the damage they have caused.

Maybe by the Woodstock centennial, we’ll be able to really celebrate.


I have never quite understood the emphasis that some American Christians put on the so-called “Ten Commandments,” particularly their insistence that governments should use tax dollars to create displays or monuments of them in courts, schools, and other public places.

Not there is anything particularly wrong with the Ten, mind you… It’s just that one might expect that Christians – especially conservative, fundamentalist Christians – would have a preference for the formulation laid out by Yeshua ben Yosef (a/k/a Jesus of Nazareth) himself, as quoted in Matthew, chapter 22:

The Greatest Commandment

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV; courtesy http://www.biblegateway.com)

I’d say that covers the territory pretty effectively. How many more commandments do we need, anyway? Why the Ten, not the Two?

Besides the fact that this formulation is ever so much shorter, I think it is also much more universal. After all, Jesus says “love the Lord your God,” which could just as well be applied to and accepted by Muslims or Hindus as Christians.

In fact, to me this says: Whoever (or whatever) your God (or guiding principle, or moral code, or object of worship, or purpose in life) happens to be, in short whatever that Most Important Thing in Life is, you should devote yourself to it fully. I think even atheists and freethinkers could get behind an idea like that, semantics nonwithstanding.

There’s your First Commandment sorted out.

As for the Second, I really can’t imagine anyone having a problem with “Love your neighbor as yourself” – unless, of course, one is afflicted with self-loathing or suicidal tendencies…

Well, no, on further thought, let me amend that. Your “rugged individualists” might have some trouble getting their heads around that commandment. I remember a conversation I had with a co-worker one day…

“Skip, what would you do if, after the collapse of civilization, I showed up at your house with my family?”

My response was immediate. “I’d invite you in and share what I could.”

“Right,” he said. “And that is where you and I are different. If our roles were reversed, I’d shoot you immediately – my family’s needs come first.”

He wasn’t being mean about it – indeed, he’s not a mean guy, he’s quite capable of generosity and compassion – but he had obviously thought things through, and made some choices, and those choices didn’t take into account this commandment’s call for community and solidarity.

Well, if these things were easy to do, if they came to us naturally, we wouldn’t need commandments at all, I suppose.

But to get back to the question of why the Ten, and not the Two… I suspect the answer might lie in this: they are two entirely different types of instructions, and those types appeal to different kinds of minds.

Briefly, these two kinds can be called algorithmic and heuristic. Algorithmic instructions are precise, specific, and step-by-step. Recipes calling for exactly two level teaspoons of salt, for example. Follow the algorithm correctly, and you should get the same results every time.

“Add salt to taste,” however, is a heuristic instruction. Heuristics are vaguer, more subjective, and likely to produce different results in different circumstances.

They’re also harder to judge.

If someone violates an algorithm – skips over a step, or doesn’t adhere to the specifications, or eats the wrong food on the wrong day, the error is usually easy to spot – and one can then correct, criticize, punish, or condemn as needed.  But with heuristics, there’s no precise standard, no target to hit or miss – you can only do a better or worse job of trying to follow the guideline.

How can you measure how well someone loves? You can’t – you can only supply feedback, guidance, and encouragement.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the former, in the form of the Old Testament laws, should appeal to fundamentalists, people who generally show a preference for clear, hierarchical lines of authority and enforcement, unambiguous standards for judgment, and strong sanctions for noncompliance.

Oh, and by the way – that thing about public displays? Unconstitutional on its face, and here’s why. Different religious groups have taken the Old Testament list and broken it up in different ways. Specifically, Catholics and Protestants use different numbering schemes. So any monument that lists the “Ten Commandments” using one scheme or the other would thereby be showing a denominational preference, and that would be in direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Using the Two instead would skirt that problem nicely. Imagine seeing this on our schoolhouses, courthouses, and prisons:

1. Love your God
2. Love your neighbor

And the details are left up to us.


“Hello, welcome to Hobby Lobby, how can I help you?”
“Well, you people can quit the deceptive advertising, for one thing.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You say you sell Craft supplies, right”?
“Well, here’s my card, my name is Morgana Freya’s-child Isisflower, and I am High Priestess of the Circle of Kali in Her Partying Aspect. I practice the Craft, see? So I looked up ‘craft supplies’ on Google, and you guys came up first, so here I am! And let me tell you, I’ve been up and down every aisle of this store and except for this nice piece of hemp rope and these candles I can’t find any of the stuff I need for a handfasting ceremony I’m supposed to conduct tomorrow…”
“Plastic or paper? Oh wait – Craft? You mean – like witchcraft?”
“Just put them in my tote, young man, thank you… No, we don’t call it that anymore, that’s so 17th-century, y’know… We prefer the word ‘Wicca.’ We do ceremonies, you know, rites – and I’ve already been to Rite-Aid, by the way, and they couldn’t help me either…”
“But – but we’re all Christians here…”
“I see. OK, you got any unsanctified hosts? I have a friend who needs some of those by next Friday for some thing he’s doing… not my bag, personally, but whatever…”
“What? No, those would be for Catholics…”
“Well, they’re Christians, aren’t they?”
“No – I mean yes – well, I mean, I guess so… No, wait a minute, you’re the one who is confused here, ma’am, I’m sorry, this store is for hobbyists…”
“Hobbyists? I’m not familiar with that religion, is that like the Christian Scientists? ‘Christian Hobbyists’?”
“No, ma’am, there is no such thing as Christian Hobbyists…”
“Are you sure about that? I think it would be a pretty popular church. – Hey, who’s that? Quick, get down, some guy’s coming in here with a rifle! Goddess save us all!”
“Hey, good afternoon – pardon me, but where can a guy find some Kevlar cloth? I wanna make a soft case for my gun here, I just brought it along so we could measure…”
“I’m sorry, sir, can I help you?- Ma’am, what are you doing with that chalk?”
“Casting a circle of protection, that’s what I’m doing! That guy’s a menace!”
“Hey, look here sister, I ain’t trying to cause any –“
“And I’m not a nun, I’m a High Priestess, buster!”
“What’s going on over here, Stevens? I heard some disturbance…”
“Oh, Mr Thompson! Uh, nothing, sir, we just have some misunderstandings…”
“Sir, I’m sorry, we generally don’t allow firearms to be brought into the store… Do you have an open carry permit?”
“Yes sir – I also have membership in the First Church of Christ Ballistic, we’re expected to open carry wherever possible, y’know, like them Sikhs and those daggers they got? Anyway, I just wanted to get some material to make a nice gun case for my friend, she’s getting married tomorrow…”
“Say, wait a minute – are you talking about Hildegard Rainbarrel, by any chance?”
“What’s that, ma’am? You know Hildy? Yeah, we belong to the same gun club, she invited me to some thing – they don’t call it a wedding, but whatever, y’know? Her and Sam, they’re a nice couple, and she’s got this same kind of rifle…”
“Yeah, I’m going to officiate – and it’s called a handfasting, by the way –“
“Yeah, that was it! Couldn’t think of it…”
“Hey, do you know where I could find a nice ceremonial sword? I need one for the ceremony…”
“Sword? Heck, I got a whole wallful, you wanna check ‘em out? I’d be glad to let you borrow one…”
“Why yes, that would be wonderful – and I don’t know about Kevlar, but the fabric store next door has some really sturdy ripstop nylon… and you’ll need some nice lining… My name’s Morgana, by the way…”
“Well, glad to meet you, Morgana, my name’s Arthur… Let’s stop by that coffee shop first, I’ll show you the design I had in mind…”
“Mr. Thompson, what just happened?”
“I don’t know, Lyle, but I need you to clean up that chalk drawing. I think Susie back in Dry Flowers is about to go into labor…”


(My column for July…)

Readers might be aware that I volunteer with the Wayne County Creative Arts Council, which sponsors a series of concerts in Honesdale’s Central Park every summer. (You can get more information about this year’s series at www.honesdaleparkevents.org, or by checking us out on Facebook.) One of the most popular events every year is the appearance by our community chorus, the Wayne Choralaires, and this year’s performance on June 25 was no exception. The varied and well-executed program, which brought the crowd to a standing ovation at the end, featured a number of time-honored tunes celebrating America and summertime. There were also quite a few classic hymns and religious songs, reflecting new director Betsy Black’s background in church music.

The first act closer, a contemporary religious/patriotic song called “Under God,” written by Sue C. Smith and Phil Johnson, caught my attention in particular – not because of the performance, which was as technically excellent as the rest of the program, but because of the lyrics, which I found quite challenging to contemplate. (You can find the lyrics at http://christiansongoftheday.blogspot.com/2010/05/under-god.html, by the way.)

The song’s title refers to the introduction of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance back in 1954. (The original wording, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and a socialist, makes no mention of the Divine.) The lyrics reflect a idea common among many contemporary American Christians, that our place in the world, including our material prosperity, is a mark of Divine favor, given in return for our national devotion.

I start to feel a little fidgety when religion and nationalism get too closely conflated – but exploring that relationship would yield fodder for a year of columns. Let me rather focus for the moment on the specific lyric that brought me up short:

“Under God
America’s been blessed
Under God
Brought through every trial and test
We are sheltered by the mercy He chose to give
In privilege and abundance this nation lives
Under God…”

I think I know what the songwriters intended when they wrote “in privilege and abundance,” but I don’t think they thought those words, or their implications, through nearly far enough.

“Privilege and abundance”? Really?

My immediate reaction was to think of how many citizens of this country have neither privilege nor abundance – whether they’re believers or not – but labor within a system that is, shall we say, not always designed to function in their best interests. I also couldn’t help but consider how much of our “abundance” has been the result, not of Divine largesse, but of some pretty un-Christian behavior on the part of our forebears towards both the indigenous and the imported peoples whose land and labors were so inappropriately appropriated.

The word “privilege” itself is a two-edged sword. While the songwriters might have intended to stress how fortunate America as a whole has been compared to the rest of the world, the word (which means “private law,” after all) can also imply a certain sense of entitlement, even a smug kind of pride, tempting us to entertain an overly inflated image of ourselves.

I have heard it said that to have a healthy self-image is “to see yourself as God sees you – neither more nor less.” National humility may not seem like a quality to cultivate during this patriotic time of year, but I would think that it would be a hallmark of a nation that was striving to present itself as “under God.”