American Civilization and Its Discontents

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2020

Americans are dissatisfied, and that is good. Discontent is the lifeblood of democracy.

A recent poll from Politico concludes that 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  Another recent poll from the Pew Center found that only 17% of Americans are “proud” of the country.  When asked how they feel about the state of the country, 71% said “angry,” 66% said “fearful.”  Only 46% are “hopeful.”  Pew reports that only 12% of Americans say they are satisfied with the country.

These numbers indicate a low point for the American spirit.  But they also show that Americans are not stupid.  It is smart to be dissatisfied when there is a pandemic, economic collapse, confused leadership, and racial injustice.  It is surprising that anyone is satisfied with the country today.

The United States is a land of dissatisfaction.  People come here because they don’t like the old country.  The early Americans were not satisfied with British colonial rule.  The Civil War and the civil rights movement were expressions of deep dissatisfaction.  Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of discontent. 

And the waves roll on.  This nation is a changing multitude.  We have too much liberty to remain united for long.  America is anti-abortion protesters and Black Lives Matter marchers.  It is the anarchists of Seattle and the law and order crowd in Washington, DC.  Our divisions and our discontent are signs of the vitality of our democracy.  In a dull and dying country, no one has the energy to be fed up and people lack the right to express their unhappiness.  But in a vibrant and free country, the yearning for change is loud and proud.

Some dream of bland homogeneity.  They want an America that looks like what they see in the mirror.  They dream perhaps of resting in peace.  But life is a bubbling, boiling confusion.  There never was homogeneity on this vast continent.  The native tribes of pre-Columbian times were diverse.  For five hundred years, new generations of immigrants have brought different cultures, religions, and ideas.

The thing that unites us is our freedom to criticize and our right to think for ourselves.  Liberty creates difference.  The more freedom, the more divergence.  From creative liberty and diversity of experience emerges energy and enthusiasm.  Let’s embrace the fact that to be an American means to be cranky and critical, argumentative and evolving. 

The idea of productive discontent is central to the American myth.  The Fourth of July commemorates this process.  This nation was born out of the destruction of the old.  We celebrate it by blowing things up!  We hope that from the fireworks, something better will emerge.

The Declaration of Independence can be read as the expression of the complaints of a youthful spirit.  It’s timeless words about self-evident truths give way to an extended diatribe against old King George, who is described as a mean and tyrannical father figure.   

Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he worked on the Declaration.  And while the Declaration described the King as an absolute tyrant seeking to impose an absolute despotism over the colonies, not everyone on the committee agreed.  John Adams was an older man.  He thought the accusation of tyranny was too personal and sounded like “scolding.” 

A decade later, Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”  This physical analogy is enlightening.  Storm clouds build as the atmosphere heats up.  There is thunder and lightning, rain and hail.  But this clears the air and waters the crops. 

This idea, that a little rebellion is a good thing, seems uniquely American.  This is the spirit of youth and rock and roll.  It is the creative destruction of the capitalist economy.  It spurs innovation in technology and scientific revolutions. 

The simmering dissatisfaction of the present will boil over and give shape to something new.  Of course, there are dangers.  Lightning can kill and flash floods can wash away things we love.  But that’s life.  We never really rest in peace until the day is done or freedom is extinguished.  Liberty creates discontent.  But from dissatisfaction, creative innovation develops, as today’s storms nurture tomorrow’s fruit.

Tolerance, Liberty, and Thoughtfulness

Fresno Bee, November 17, 2020

Saturday is the International Day for Tolerance, which the United Nations has recognized since 1995. The United Nations explains that tolerance is “respect, acceptance, and appreciation” of diverse cultures and ways of life.

That’s a lovely idea. But tolerance is tricky. Do we have to tolerate intolerance? Can we censor those who express hateful and intolerant ideas? There are no easy answers here. And it is important to remember that censorship has often been used by churches and states to promote intolerance.

A guiding value for tolerance is liberty. To tolerate others is to leave them alone to pursue their own good in their own way. But harm provides a limit. If someone is harming you or violating your liberty, you need not tolerate them.

Is hateful speech harmful? That depends — on history, context, behavior, and intention. Hate is as complicated as love. And it does not exist in a vacuum. It is connected to anger, greed, impatience, violence and despair.

Nor does tolerance stand alone. It is connected to justice, courage, prudence, honesty and other virtues. These virtues ought to be woven together. But the goal of unifying the virtues is an aspiration that is difficult to achieve in our broken world.

Tolerance requires that we refrain from judging. But honesty requires that we speak our minds. Tolerance encourages us to leave others alone. But love compels us to intervene. And justice requires that we defend the innocent.

Genuine tolerance considers these complications and seeks a delicate balance. Intolerance operates differently. Intolerance simplifies. Intolerance reduces complexity to a binary choice between black and white.

The palette of tolerance includes more colors. Tolerance grows when the imagination expands to see the depth of human diversity. Tolerance is taught through art, literature, history and philosophy. We learn tolerance when we study other languages, when we listen to new music, and when we read the poetry of other cultures.

Hellen Keller understood this. She said, “The highest result of education is tolerance.” She explained that genuine education “teaches us to unfold the natural sympathies of the heart.”

Those natural sympathies must be grounded upon a claim about human rights. Every human person has an equal right to respect. No person or group is inherently better (or worse) than any other. There is a kind of humility associated with tolerance that is quite different from the arrogant pride of racism and ethnocentrism.

Tolerance is also linked to curiosity and compassion. Tolerant people are interested in what other people think, believe, and experience. They put themselves in the place of the other. The Golden Rule of tolerance is to tolerate others as you would have them tolerate you.

Some 350 years ago, John Locke stated that toleration was “agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Intolerant religion demands external conformity. But Locke said that this was of no use in creating genuine religious belief. “All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.” Each person’s salvation is up to her. As Locke explained, “God will not save men against their will.”

Locke’s thinking had an impact on the American founders. The founders were not perfect. They tolerated slavery. But they also gave us the First Amendment. And Thomas Jefferson boldly stated that he would never “bow to the shrine of intolerance.” He rejected the arrogance of those who would exercise “tyranny over religious faith.”

During the intervening centuries, we have learned to be more tolerant of differences of religion, as well as sexual orientation, ability and race. We have also become more intolerant of racism, sexism and religious intolerance.

We are still figuring out where to draw the line. Some fuzzy issues remain, which require us to think carefully about all of our values. And this is the point: tolerance requires thought. The United Nations Declaration on Tolerance says, we teach tolerance by helping young people “develop capacities for independent judgment, critical thinking and ethical reasoning.”

Tolerance is a virtue of thinking people. We are not born knowing how to be tolerant. Rather, we learn tolerance as we expand our imaginations and understand the complexity of our common humanity.

Religion and Education

Are education and religious liberty mutually exclusive?

Fresno Bee, May 5, 2017

College education generally makes us less religious, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Educated Christians are more likely to go to church on a weekly basis than uneducated Christians. But college graduates are less likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives.

College graduates are also more likely to be atheists. Fifteen percent of those with advanced degrees do not believe in God, while only 6 percent of noncollege grads are atheists. Meanwhile, 42 percent of those without college education think that religious scriptures should be taken literally, compared with 14 percent of those with college degrees.

Science education make religious fundamentalism difficult to sustain. The Earth is a speck among hundreds of billions of stars. Our species evolved long after the dinosaurs went extinct. The land was once covered by ice powerful enough to carve out Yosemite Valley. None of this is recorded in ancient scriptures, which teach that the gods have a special interest in this planet and in human beings. 

HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGY ALSO CHALLENGE RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM.

Traditional accounts of the soul are also being explained away. Biomedical science locates consciousness in the brain. And evil is explained in neurological or psychological terms instead of as a matter of demonic possession.

History and anthropology also challenge religious fundamentalism. The ancient Chinese or the Aztecs never heard of the Christian scriptures. Nor do Christian scriptures mention these ancient civilizations. This makes simplistic declarations about God difficult to understand. When we say “In God We Trust” in our diverse world, which God are we are talking about: Jehovah, Allah, or Quetzalcoatl?

Even within the Christian tradition there are disputes about God and revelation. Mormons, who comprise about 2 percent of the American population, believe that the Book of Mormon is a holy Christian scripture. Other Christians claim this is false.

Scriptural interpretation has evolved over time. The book of Joshua explains that God held the sun still in the sky in order to allow Joshua’s troops to slaughter their enemies. But after Galileo debunked the geocentric model underlying this story, it has been subject to reinterpretation.

Others have questioned the morality of a God whose miraculous power is used to slaughter an enemy. Evolving moral standards have led many Christians to reinterpret scriptures that contain morally problematic passages about slavery, the subordination of women, homosexuality, polygamy, divorce, and so on.

Religious belief has often been flexible and subject to reformation and reinterpretation. Religions evolve to take in new information and reflect new norms. We make sense of ancient texts in light of modern ideas.

Atheists may view all of this as an argument against religion in general. And indeed, a quarter of Americans have left religion behind – either affirming atheism or simply giving up on organized religion.

But religions are persistent. The diversity and flexibility of religious belief is a key to this persistence. Religions that don’t adapt go the way of the dinosaur. No one worships Zeus or Quetzalcoatl any more. But Christianity thrives because of the variety of Christian denominations. There are over 200 different versions of Christianity in the US. You can pick an interpretation that suits your preferences.

LIBERTY ALSO ALLOWS PEOPLE TO CHANGE RELIGIONS.
INDEED, ABOUT A THIRD OF AMERICANS CHANGE THEIR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION.

Religious liberty thus helps religion to persist. Liberty allows for innovation and development. Liberty also allows people to change religions. Indeed, about a third of Americans change their religious affiliation.

In the free marketplace of religious ideas, religions sell themselves to people and reflect changing tastes. Catholics no longer say Mass in Latin. Protestants have embraced pop music. And Western faiths have incorporated meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices from Eastern traditions.

In the modern democratic and capitalist world, we value educated and informed choice. We want informed consent in health care, in financial transactions and in elections. We should also value informed choice when it comes to declarations of faith. In a democratic culture, we ought to learn about other faiths and shop around. We also ought to leave each other alone to pursue the religious quest in our own way.

Things may have seemed simpler when a common piety was enforced on the uneducated masses. Freedom and science do undermine traditional religious conformity. But modern democratic people have faith in the power of education and religious liberty to make this a better world.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article148835959.html

Hospitality and Civility at Thanksgiving

Take 10 steps to defuse post-election tension that threatens a family Thanksgiving

20090914_anger_politicsMore than one person has told me they will avoid relatives this year at Thanksgiving because of political disagreements. Someone suggested segregating Thanksgiving by political party, with a Trump table and a Clinton table.

How sad! Thanksgiving should bring us together in celebration of liberty, civility and hospitality. We should agree about these values at Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving myth commemorates religious liberty in the image of the Puritans escaping religious persecution. It describes civil relations between native peoples and the early colonists. It revolves around the act of sharing food and giving thanks.

Hospitality is an ancient virtue, celebrated in all of the world’s traditions. We are vulnerable beings, who depend upon the kindness of strangers. We are dependent social beings, who enjoy sharing food, song, and laughter. We thrive when we live together in shared community. And we discover wisdom by opening our doors, our hearts and our minds.

Unfortunately, in a world of fast food and Facebook, civility and hospitality are often forgotten. Parents have little time to teach manners. And rude internet trolls normalize repugnant behavior.

So in the hope of a Happy Thanksgiving, here are a few basic principles of hospitality:

Give thanks. Hospitality and gratitude are closely related. Hosts and guests should say “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” A hospitable host is thankful for those who arrive. A good guest is grateful for the invitation. Enmity is easily dissolved by a welcoming handshake and a grateful smile.

Respect liberty. Everyone has a right to think and speak freely. Do not be surprised when people think differently. Liberty gives birth to nonconformity. Enjoy the unique individuals who share our world. And recognize diversity of opinion as a sign of a flourishing democracy.

Be modest. No one is perfect – including you. You might be mistaken. Modest people don’t insist. They don’t expect much. And they are thankful for what they receive. Wait for your turn. Defer to others. Let others speak. Serve your neighbor before you serve yourself. And find satisfaction in helping strangers feel at home.

Seek peace. Anger, rudeness, and abuse have no place in civil society. They destroy hospitable relations. Gracious hosts and polite guests avoid aggressive words and contentious topics. Mediate conflict with humor. Express goodwill. Do not give in to a bully. But do not become a bully yourself.

Be gentle in conversation. Conversations are not competitions. They are opportunities to build relationships. Listen carefully and speak kindly. “Listen” is an anagram for “silent.” So allow time for silence. Ask questions and wait for a reply. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But always speak with open ears.

Seek wisdom. Speak the truth to the best of your ability. And work to understand what others think. Avoid idle talk, gossip and rumors that sink into the muck. Think more than you speak. Be curious and contemplative. Create moments for mindful concentration, uplifting words, and shared attention to enlightening thought.

Acknowledge what you cannot control. The world frustrates our desires. Things rarely turn out according to our plans. There is much that is beyond our control, including the opinion of others. But you can control your emotions, attitudes, and words. So give up the illusion of control and stop being irritated by the inevitable.

Celebrate common ground. People disagree about much. But everyone loves children and family, music and laughter, food and drink. We all grieve and suffer. The need for sympathy is universal. And we all value liberty and peace. Explore those common values. Share nurturing goods. And downplay difference.

Offer and ask for forgiveness. We all make mistakes. Relationships grow when we admit and forgive them. Defensiveness and denial are natural. But they are unproductive. Be honest about your failures. And be generous to others who are as flawed and fragile as you are.

Have hope. Civility and hospitality depend upon the hope that wisdom and virtue will prevail. Nothing is perfect. One obnoxious boor can hijack a conversation. But fear and distrust undermine freedom and happiness. Have courage to expect the best from others. Hope that decency is common. And have faith that hospitality can create a world you can be thankful for.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article115571648.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Liberty in the American Political Campaigns

Fresno Bee, March 13, 2016

  • Religious liberty is a key value for all Americans
  • Data on religious affiliations point toward the need for secularism
  • As presidential candidates use religious rhetoric, it’s important to keep sight of core American value

Many Americans want a president of their own religious persuasion. The Pew Center reportsthat 41 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans say it is “important for a president to share their religious beliefs.” Given this demand for confessional conformity, it’s no wonder that politicians weave religious language into their campaign rhetoric.US NEWS CAMPAIGN-EVANGELICALS 2 LA

Nor is it any wonder that our political parties are sorted by religion. Republicans tend to be openly evangelical. Democrats tend to be more ecumenical.

Bernie Sanders provided a good example of Democrat inclusivism in the debate Sunday in Flint, Michigan. In response to the God question, Sanders said, “when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear.” Hillary Clinton said she prays regularly. She explained, “I pray for the will of God to be known that we can know it and to the best of our limited ability, try to follow it and fulfill it.”

Republican evangelism is more forceful. Ted Cruz once said, “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country.” Ben Carson went further, suggesting that a Muslim could not be president.

Perhaps the only one who breaks the mold is Donald Trump, who seems to lack the religious literacy of most Republicans and the religious sensitivity of most Democrats. But Trump still talks religion. He has suggested, for example, that Obama feels more comfortable in a mosque than in a Christian church.

All of this religious talk may come as a surprise to those who think that the U.S. is a secular country. In a more secular country, politicians would avoid speaking of religion. French secularism seems to point in that direction.

But in the U.S., religion remains important. Many Americans don’t like atheism, for example. According to the Pew Center, more Americans are willing to support a Muslim than an atheist for president. A sign of American anti-atheism is that there is only one representative in Congress who is not religiously “affiliated.” There are 2 Muslims, 2 Buddhists, 1 Hindu, 1 Unitarian and 28 Jews. The rest are Christians of various sorts.

IN A PLURALISTIC DEMOCRACY A CANDIDATE’S RELIGIOUS RHETORIC IS LESS IMPORTANT THAN THE COMMITMENT TO PROTECTING EVERY PERSON’S RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS LIBERTY.

Maybe someday a candidate will refuse to answer the God question on constitutional grounds. Such an unlikely candidate would point out that her religious beliefs are no one’s business but her own. She might add that privacy and freedom are essential for genuine religiosity. She might suggest that political sound bites produce clichés that float on the surface of genuine soulful religious reflection.

Our imagined secular candidate might point out that in a diverse religious society, politicians serve all of the people – not merely some of the people. And she might remind us that partisan religious squabbling further polarizes us.

We continue to play politics according to a script that ignores the fact of our ever-increasing religious diversity. In addition to about 6 percent of Americans who are not Christian, more than 22 percent of the population is not affiliated with any religion.

But it is still difficult to imagine a president who does not routinely say some version of “God bless America” at the end of every speech. Presidents didn’t always use that phrase, of course. Ronald Reagan added it to the standard script for political speeches during the culture wars of the 1980s.

Religious clichés and ritual religious affirmations do not necessarily have any deep religious significance. Politicized discussions of religion often seem to be more about polling than piety. And so despite all of this religious rhetoric, we are quick to question the authenticity of the religious affirmation of candidates we don’t like.

But how would any of us know what transpires in the soul of a stranger? It is hard enough to figure out your own spiritual commitments. Half of Americans change their religious affiliation at least once.

That’s why the Constitution is important. Other people’s religious beliefs are none of our business. Religious liberty includes the freedom to change religions. There is no religious litmus test for office. And in a pluralistic democracy a candidate’s religious rhetoric is less important than the commitment to protecting every person’s right to religious liberty.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article65550027.html#storylink=cpy