Monday, February 22, 2010

The Separation of Church and State: Why it's so important today

"It's the economy, stupid." President Clinton's campaign slogan seems even more applicable today than it did when it helped him win the white house 18 years ago. Even as President Obama struggles to reform our broken health care system, as the war in Afghanistan heats up and all the other problems that beset our society continue to plague us, the economy is number one in the concerns of most people. Issues like civil liberties, and particularly religious liberty somehow seem less important when you are worried about your job or about keeping your home. The fact that our current president is much more moderate in his rhetoric and seemingly less determined to push a particular partisan religio-political agenda puts these issues even further on to the back burner for many people. President Obama doesn't subscribe, after all, to the same triumphalist ideology that his predecessor did. We don't worry about his Office of Faith Based Initiatives pushing an "evangelical Christian only agenda," and his more respectful, more inclusive rhetoric raises hope for an America that truly does embrace freedom and respect for all of its people.

Unfortunately, that rhetoric has not been matched with action when it comes to actual policies. Although the Office of Faith Based Initiatives may be less targeted toward one particular group under this adminstration, it is still in operation and it still can operate essentially as the adminstration wills and so the executive is still in a position to support some religious groups and programs over others. In other words, we have a good king perhaps, rather than a bad king, when what our constitution requires is no king at all. The danger of churches and other religious groups functioning as arms of the government has not been mitigated and that is a problem not just for the state, but more importantly for we people of faith who worry about the abridgement of our religious freedom and the stifling of the prophetic moral voice of faith when our purse strings are held by government. Religious minorities in particular, have much to be concerned about. Presidents come and go, popular sentiments can favor one group one year and another the next, the that is why we have legal and constitutional protections for the rights of minorities and that is why we need to fight until they are restored.

The Patriot Act, perhaps the most grevious assault on our constitution in modern history remains largely intact. Though we applaud the President's efforts to close the torture chambers and the infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay, we maintain the immoral and illegal fiction that there are human beings who can be classified as outside the rule of law, as well as the threat than Americans as well as others can have their civil and constitutional rights taken from them merely by being classified as "terrorists" or "enemy combatants." When government can take away the liberty and rights to due process of any of us, none of us is safe. That is why we need to continue to fight until the Patriot Act is repealed.

Just as importantly, as people of faith, we need to struggle against the trivialization of our faith by those who claim to be defending it. When a justice of the Supreme Court justifies the placement of a cross on federal land by calling it merely a "marker" of a place of the dead, the most important religious symbol for a fifth of the world's population is being disrespected in a signficant way. The Cross is not just a grave marker, it is a symbol of hope and new life for millions of Americans. When another federal judge justifies the placement of the Ten Commandments in a public place by saying it is a historical symbol he or she is trivializing a core doctrine of the faith of three great relgions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Anytime our religious symbols or language is used in the service of a political or cultural agenda, those symbols and faiths are being diminished and misused. The Interfaith Alliance understands that and it fights to protect the religious and civil liberties that caused so many of our ancestors to come to these shores in search of, if not a promised land, than certainly a land of promise. Join us and help us keep that promise!

Saying Goodbye to an Authentic Hero

This week marked a tragedy, not only for those of us who were privileged enough to know her and work with her, but for all of us and any of us who are truly intrested in creating a more just and compassionate society. Norma Cohen, who passed away this past week was the heart and soul of the Long Island Chapter of The Interfaith Alliance inspiring us all with her keen intellect, her insights, her absolute integrity and her willingness, even as her seemingly boundless energy finally began to fail her, to get down and do whatever it took to defend the religious and civil liberties of her fellows, and to promote peace. Even in the last few months, when it became harder for her to get to our meetings, her spirit loomed large in everything we did as it always will. One of the proudest moments of my life was watching her receive the honor she deserved at the national Interfaith Alliance banquet this past Fall and to be privileged enough to sit with her and her remarkable husband and family at their table.

Norma Cohen was a remarkable woman of many gifts, who understood that we are put on this earth to share what we have for the benefit of all. She was always on the side of right, but she was never self-righteous. She had little patience for hypocrisy or oppression, but she had a lot of patience for people. She and Harvey were an inspiration both in the work that they did and in the way they lived their lives together, in the family they raised, in the big and the small things they did. Like all of us at TIA and in all the various capacities that she served her fellow human beings, I will miss Norma more than I can express. But I will always be proud, very proud to remember that she called me "friend." Hers was a life well lived, a life that mattered.