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Jamestown and Virginia: England and America

Recorded in 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

In the face of Spanish Catholic success the English Protestants were determined to create their own English empire in North America. Several attempts had already failed when the Virginia Company was able to found a small vulnerable settlement on a swampy island near the mouth of the James River. Both the town and the river bore the name of an English king with high political pretensions. Out of this iffy adventure emerged a viable English colony. Good management was not the cause. A noxious weed called tobacco and African slaves were the winning formula.

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Capital Punishment: Execution in the Era of Timothy McVeigh

Recorded October 1997 by the Center for New Thinking.

Michigan was the first political authority in the modern world to outlaw capital punishment. But the outrageous crime of Timothy McVeigh has raised again the question whether this prohibition is indeed immoral. Is executing anybody beneath the dignity of any ethical government? Or are there some crimes so horrible that allowing the criminal to live fails to give full expression to the moral outrage of a wounded society? Is vengeance always immoral and unjust? The Oklahoma City bombing makes us confront the issue.

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Bill and Hillary: Love, Hate and Opportunism (1999)

Recorded on 11-2-1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Do Bill and Hillary really love each other? Or are they rank opportunists whose ambitions for power are disguised by sweet talk? Sex scandals and impeachment have made their public devotion less than credible. What is the real story behind the faces? Is there passion and disgust, love and hate? What have people who really know said about their relationship?


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Eight Years of The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1988

Eight years ago Ronald Reagan was running for President for the first time. And it was quite clear that – given the difficulties of Carter – he was going to win.

Eight years ago a sinister new political force presented its face to the public in the presidential campaign. The Moral Majority, under the leadership of evangelist Jerry Falwell, made its national debut in support of Reagan.

Eight years ago the Voice of Reason was born at the Birmingham Temple. Aroused by the danger to our civil liberties in the Falwell success, many of our members decided to respond in an organized way to this organized threat.

The Voice of Reason was an important chapter in our twenty-five year old history. It was an expression of our commitment to a liberal democracy and to the separation of religion and government which it implies. For that reason we have chosen to honor the Voice of Reason as part of our anniversary celebration.

Eight years later, at the time of another presidential election, it is appropriate for us to look back at the Falwell phenomenon and assess its successes and failures.

The religious right has been successful in mobilizing a large minority of the American people as a permanent activist lobby for fundamentalist causes. Some ten to fifteen percent of the American population is fanatically committed to tearing down the “traditional” barrier between church and state. Never before in American history have so many been so focused on this issue.

For many of the people in this political lobby the entrance of religious symbols and religious values into the public sphere is the most important political goal they have.

The religious right has been successful in assuming the mantle of moral defender in our troubled society. Sensitive to the concern that so many Americans have about the decline of traditional ethical values, especially those having to do with family and sex, the fundamentalist preachers have tuned into this anxiety and provided a simple and dramatic remedy. Secularism is now identified by many Americans with either immorality or moral permissiveness. Secular state schools are now regarded as neutral or negligent in the development of either patriotism or personal character. Private religious school systems are flourishing. And millions of non-fundamentalist parents have now come to accept the argument that religious education is moral education.

The religious right has been successful in encouraging a fanatic hostility to the decisions of the Supreme Court, especially those with regard to school prayer, school Bible readings, the integrity of science and abortion. The devotees of the right are determined to replace the justices on the court who espouse any liberal or moderate views with their own spokespeople. The chief criterion for the admission of these candidates to the court is their stance on the place of religion in public life.

The religious right has been successful in intimidating public educators and forcing them on the defensive. Cautious teachers, principals and superintendents are now reluctant to offer clear and direct support to secular education in a secular state.

Hoping to appease the “nudges” of the right, they have often consented to replace scientifically respectable textbooks with more timid alternatives. They have eliminated meaningful sex education. And they have allowed fundamentalist recruiters into their schools to seduce non-religious students into religious activity.

The religious right has been successful in putting science and scientists on the defensive. Building on the new fashionable anti-intellectuality of the past two decades and the stress that new information and new technology place on the public, the fundamentalists have compelled scientists to defend tried and true scientific conclusions that were no longer challenged forty years ago. In many places the theory of evolution is experiencing the same trial as Darwin experienced over a hundred years ago in England.

The religious right has been successful in making abortion freedom as a central issue of American political life. More determined than most conventional Catholics, they have elevated their answer to this question to be the moral litmus test for all politicians. Even Jerry Falwell, borrowing a page from the left and Martin Luther King Jr., has proposed a campaign of civil disobedience to undermine abortion freedom in this country. With assaultive demonstrations at abortion clinics, the debate is heating up to explosion.

The religious right has been successful in infiltrating the Republican Party and moving it to the right. Even though Pat Robertson did not succeed in remaining a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, his followers and the devotees of other fundamentalist preachers retain a strong influence on Republican decisions and strategies. The near-win of Robertson in Michigan may portend similar events in other places. For sure, no secular sentiment ever passes the lips anymore of any successful Republican candidate.

Well, as you can see, the successes of the religious right are quite impressive. But there have been several significant failures.

The religious right has failed to turn its propaganda into effective legislation. Despite the promised support of both Reagan and conservative Congressmen, most of the agenda has failed to become reality. While some abortion restrictions have passed into law, very little has been achieved with school prayer, Bible readings and anti-evolution. While the Supreme Court has helped, the ambivalence of both moderates and many economic conservatives have prevented the energies of the religious right to be transferred to the legislators.

The religious right has failed to win the support of a majority of the American people despite the title of its most powerful national organization, (Moral Majority). On the contrary, its leaders have become some of the most hated figures on the American scene. While Falwell is adored by his followers, he is feared by almost eighty percent of the American population. The intensity of the fundamentalists has produced a counter-intensity of disgust and loathing that serves as an effective wall to fundamentalist ambitions.

The religious right has failed to unite its forces or discipline its leaders. The recent delicious fiascos with Bakker and Swaggart have revealed a world of unseemly competition and hypocrisy under the moral platitudes. We now know that fundamentalists and charismatics do not like each other and that kinky sex is a prerequisite for television evangelism. People are now beginning to laugh at what they used to revere. A lot of devotees have departed the fold.

The religious right failed to win its most ambitious attempt to control the Supreme Court. Although Bork is an atheist, his staunch conservatism and sympathetic feeling for religious symbolism in public life made him a test case for fundamentalist aspirations. His defeat was an enormous disappointment to diehard conservatives and a ray of hope to frustrated separationists and civil libertarians.

Now these failures were due to a variety of causes. One was the basic centrist position of most of the American people. The second was the internal feuding among the fundamentalist leaders and the stupid and embarrassing behavior of their most visible spokesmen. The third was the dichotomy between the programs of economic conservatives and lifestyle conservatives, the former of which see no connection between free enterprise and anti-science. The fourth was the determined political effort Of the American Civil Liberties Union, the People for the American Way, and smaller organizations like the Voice of Reason (now renamed Americans for Religious Liberty) to mobilize opposition to the agenda of the religious right.

Despite the failures of the fundamentalists the successes of the “enemy” of our constitutional liberties means that we must continue to be vigilant, continue to stay organized to respond to danger. That vigilance is the meaning of our tribute to the Voice of Reason.


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The Future of American Jewry

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1994

What is the future of American Jewry? That is no idle question. Because what the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism need to do to guarantee their future depends on the character of the Jewish community they will be serving.

Profound changes are taking place. They have been going on for a long time. They are, most likely, irreversible. We are living with their consequences right now.

The first change is intermarriage. Priestly and rabbinic Judaism forbade intermarriage for both religious and racial reasons. But the modern urban world has made this ban unworkable and unenforceable. Increasing numbers of Jews choose to marry people they love, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. The endless condemnations of rabbis make absolutely no difference. In a free and open society cross-cultural unions are inevitable.

The major consequence of intermarriage is not so much that intermarrieds choose to give up their Jewish identity or to leave the Jewish community. It is the “de-ethnicization” of American Jewry. The deep ethnic roots of American Jews in the Yiddish experience of Eastern Europe are fast disappearing. The ethnic roots of increasing numbers of American Jews are as much Anglo-Saxon or Irish as they are Ashkenazic. The ethnic flavor of American Jewry will be hard to maintain in the face of Jews with multi-ethnic backgrounds.

Two forces are pulling in opposite directions in America. One force is the power of Zionism and Israel which dramatizes the ethnic dimension of Jewish identity, with its strong appeal to a national self-image, national culture and national language. Zionism has helped to re-ethnicize many Jews. The other force is the power of intermarriage which tends to universalize the Jewish community, diffusing Jewish ethnic memories in a sea of competing and complementary memories. The child with a Yiddish grandmother and an Irish grandmother may indeed be Jewish. But he is not ethnically Jewish in the same way as a child with two Yiddish grandmothers. What is happening in Israel is the opposite of what is happening in America.

The second change is the shrinking of the extended all-encompassing family and the emergence of the individual. For many American Jews permanent indissolveable relations are things of the past. More than one marriage, more than one career, more than one residence are commonplace. Mobility is the name of the game. The serenity or boredom of unchanging conditions are gone.

Jews of the past were burdened by the intensity of their connections. For many of them the demands of family and community were too oppressive, too guilt-producing, too intrusive for comfort. They often fled them to breathe the fresh air of privacy and aloneness. But, now the tables have been turned. The big anonymous city of individuals, separated from parents and children, is a cold and cruel environment. They crave connection. They search for community. In many cases they will even join communities with ideologies they do not believe in because they are desperate for connection, nurturing, and acceptance. The children of Jewish affluence are, in particular, vulnerable

The third change is the power of feminism. Society is being transformed by the entry of women into all professions and into all the chambers of political decision. The old male chauvinism of the Jewish world has collapsed, except in the Orthodox enclaves. The face of the American Jewish leadership is changing Even traditional women are choosing to do traditional things that only men did before, from wearing yarmulkes to lifting Torahs. The change is so revolutionary that it defines the boundary between the Jewish establishment – whether Reform, Conservative or Secular – and the fundamentalist dissenters who repudiate the Enlightenment. Feminism is creating this unbridgeable gap between the Jewish world that embraces female equality and the Jewish world where men still rule exclusively. It is a dichotomy that will only expand with time.

The fourth change is the “demacherization” of Jewish communities. With the arrival of capitalism and emancipation the rabbis lost their political power. They were replaced by “machers”, successful Jewish businessmen who became the new leaders of the Jewish world. “Machers” might be bossy and undemocratic; but they were generous with their time, talent, devotion and money. They had a strong sense of community commitment and responsibility.

But the last two decades have failed to produce new “machers.” The children of “machers” tend to be yuppie professionals who prefer the pursuit of personal fulfillment to community work. The “next” generation is less interested in building and strengthening community institutions. Jewish organizations all over America are worried about where the necessary army of devoted workers and leaders are going to come from. A hedonistic culture of affluence makes public work less exciting than private adventure.

The fifth change is the ideological free-for-all that an educated autonomous Jewish population inevitably creates. The world of ideas is a smorgasbord of choices, ranging from atheism to reincarnation, from rationalism to mystical spirituality. Every individual puts together his or her unique combination of choices as a personal philosophy of life. The endless variety of choices makes any set of denominational labels obsolete even before they are proclaimed Jewish diversity is like American diversity – an amorphous collection of shifting personal opinions.

How do we need to respond to all these changes and their consequences?

We need to be less ethnic and more universal. A Jewish people with diverse ethnic roots has to place less emphasis on nationalism and more emphasis on the planetary importance of Jewish identity. The Jewish strategies of North America and Israel may not always coincide.

We need to be a family to people who crave family connection and support. We must be the family of choice that works where the family of inheritance has failed. The importance of the new            groups that have emerged in our congregation will continue to grow.

We need to be open to all the possibilities of female leadership. Women rabbis will most likely be a dynamic force in the Judaism of the twenty-first century.

We need to train our young people for community service. A congregation is more than a service center. It is a place where the ethical virtues of commitment and devotion are cultivated. We need to never lose sight of our humanistic message and our ideological focus. In a world of endless diversity of beliefs it is convenient to be all things to all people. Our strength is the clarity of our philosophy of life. In the emerging Jewish world the Jewish ideological realities will correspond less to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. It will more easily fit a loose division of fundamentalism, New Age thinking, and rational humanism. In such a world we have a good chance to embrace many new seekers of the “truth” if we have something real, consistent and significant to say.

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1998 US Elections – the Clinton Scandals

The Jewish Humanist, January 1999

America is changing. The last election dramatized that fact. The voters of America are very different from what they were thirty years ago. The Republican Party suffered the consequences of not understanding the reality of America today.

The ‘scandal’ did not punish the Democrats. Clinton returned from the ‘dead’. The Democrats increased their numbers in the House of Representatives. They won major senatorial New York and California. They defeated two Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. Only in Michigan, where Fieger led the team, were the Democrats humiliated.

The Religious Right, who helped to orchestrate the Republican strategy, were slapped in the face by the voters. Two state referendums to restrict abortion freedom failed to win majorities. Two lottery proposals to finance public education succeeded.

The message to Republicans was clear. Assaulting Clinton was a political disaster. Following the agenda of the Religious Right was the path to self-destruction. The managers of this strategy were guilty of incompetence. They had to go. Newt resigned in a huff. The Democrats tasted the most delicious of victories.

What does this reality mean for us as Americans and as Jews?

It means that sexual morality in America has changed. Thirty years ago the Clinton scandal would have forced the resignation of the president. Kennedy only survived disgrace because the media were less intrusive. But, after the feminist and youth rebellions of the last three decades adultery and sexual promiscuity are ho-hum for a large part of the American electorate. Living with partners outside of marriage is respectable and homosexuality, despite fierce resistance, is gaining more and more acceptance. When behavior is no longer controversial it is called ‘private’. Most Americans believe that ‘private’ behavior, in so far as it does not produce public harm, should not be investigated or disturbed by public scrutiny. It is not the public’s business.

In a dynamic consumer culture, where individualism is triumphant and traditional families are shrinking, there is no will to punish presidents for behavior that is ‘ordinary’ in the middle and upper classes. The message for the political future is that sexual accusations are losing their intimidation power. The election revealed that the public, on sexual issues, is far more tolerant than Kenneth Starr ever imagined.

The election means that the Religious Right has power but not enough power to do what it wants to do. Their support is up to 25% of the American voters. However, that percentage is insufficient for political control. American culture is essentially a secular culture that resists religious fanaticism.

The election means that the religious Right is a liability to the Republican Party. There are two conservative agendas in America. One is economic and resists government intrusion into the work and money life of American citizens. The other is social and seeks to use the government to police the sexual and reproductive behavior of the American public. Voters on the Right believe in both agendas. Voters in the Center only believe in the first one. They are afraid of the second. Since most Americans are in the Center, parties can only win elections if they appeal to the Center. Ever since Nixon the Republicans have taken the Center and have gladly given the Left to the Democrats. But the dominant presence of the Religious Right at the Republican conventions of 1992 and 1996 frightened the Center and drove many of its voters into the Democratic camp. When Clinton embraced the economic agenda of the Republicans and rejected their social program the Democratic victory was sealed.

In some ironic way the Religious Right is the best thing that has happened to the Democrats in a long time. The people who fear and hate them have now forged a new alliance of the Center and the Left. The Democrats need a powerful enemy to mobilize their troops. And the Religious Right obliges by playing the role.

The election means that the racial composition of active voters is changing. More and more Blacks and Hispanics are voting. The Blacks helped to defeat the Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. The Hispanics gave Barbara Boxer her senatorial victory in California. The hidden Republican strategy to be seen as the party of white America only works if whites remain the overwhelming majority of the American people The Republican program that won political control of both the South and the West over the past thirty years no longer works.

The election means that the impeachment ‘push’ is now a retreat. The new Congress may impeach but they will not convict Clinton. Voter ‘backlash’ has already punished the Republicans. The issue now is how to abandon the campaign and save face. The determination of the Religious Right to impeach Clinton is now a political liability.

The election means that the Jews have returned to the Democratic Party. The abandonment by Jewish voters of D’Amato in New York, despite his years of support for Jewish causes, is a clear indication that Israel and reparations are not the only issues that-concern Jews. Most Jewish voters even if they are economically conservative, are in the Center. They fear the religious Right. And they fear a Republican party that is allied to them. As both Jews and Americans they do not wish to endanger a free and multicultural society that promotes affluence and opportunity. We do not need the native Anglo-Saxon ‘haredim’ running our lives.

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American Diversity

The Jewish Humanist, February 1999

February is Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) Month in America. It is a useful time to celebrate the diversity which is part of American life. Our country, like most of the nations of the world, is no longer ethically or religiously uniform. It is a composite of people from all over the planet.

The original concept of a nation was that of a community of racially identical people with shared ancestors and shared memories. The Israelites of the Bible conformed to this model. Birth was the only legitimate entry into the nation. If strangers lived in the midst of the community, they were merely tolerated aliens. Modern Japan preserves this hostility to foreigners.

When America began, the nation was overwhelmingly homogenous in both race and religion. Anglo-Saxon Protestants predominated. Native Americans were excluded. Africans were viewed as sub-human. And the few Germans in Pennsylvania hardly counted. Jews and Catholics were too few in number to make any difference.’

Two hundred years later America is vastly different. Anglo-Saxon Protestants are a minority. Native Americas and Africans have been absorbed into the body politic. Catholics have become the largest religious denomination. And the largest Jewish community in the world is settled in the major cities of America. Over the last two centuries millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America have come to live in this country. Their descendants have changed the racial and religious face of the United States. In many parts of our nation it is impossible to find any ‘original’ Americans.

What has happened to America is also the story, of many other advanced nations who have attracted large numbers of foreign immigrants because of urbanization and economic opportunity. The immigrants need jobs. The hosts need cheap labor. Mobile urban communities accommodate newcomers far more easily than traditional peasant communities. The Indians and Palestinians in England, the Algerians in France and the Turks in Germany – all of them testify to the new diversity among the prosperous nations of the Western world.

But this diversity also exists in the Third World. Brazil is a stew of invading Europeans, imported Africans and natives. All over Latin America and Africa white invaders have left mixed communities. Both in Asia and Africa the national boundaries drawn by colonial conquerors ignored the historic boundaries between ethnic groups. Nigeria is a country with five significant nations. India is a coalition of at least fifteen. The Congo is a nightmare state that embraces dozens of different tribes which hate each other.

The consequences of all this mixing is the emergence of a distinction between nationality and citizenship. Your nationality is your ethnic origin. Your citizenship is your territorial allegiance, the land which claims your political commitment. Modern territorial states are different from historic nations. They are often composed of people who no longer share a long-run common history or even a single language. States like Canada, India and Peru feature more than one territorial language.

All this change is accelerated by the increasing mobility of the world population. Modern technology has reduced our planet to a global village. Air travel has shrunk distance. And computer slaves enable people from faraway places to communicate with each other as though they were ‘in the same room’. The new ‘intimacy’ reduces fear, increases the sharing of ideas and goods and encourages people to explore new venues. The incredible rise in the number of international travelers is a prelude to the more permanent migration of millions of people.

In such a ‘global’ world territorial states do not have the opportunity to integrate their ‘diverse populations’ into some kind of nationality. Instead, a new international culture is arising which transcends national boundaries and which embraces the urban residents of the world. Much of their international culture is derivative from American culture. Skyscrapers, expressways and jeans are no longer American. They bear no national identity. They are the artifacts of an emerging international community.

The evolution of territorial states and an international culture does not obliterate differences. As group conformity dissolves individual difference is enhanced. Some people eat Italian food on Monday and Thai food on Tuesday. Others choose Chinese food for Monday and Mexican food for Tuesday. Some people choose to master English as their second language. Others choose to learn Spanish. Many Jews enjoy Christmas. Many Christians find meaning in Passover and the Seder.

As societies become more pluralistic, the boundaries between nationalities and religions do not dissolve. They become softer, more flexible, more ‘individual friendly’. While many traditionalists view this development with honor, liberals see this development as a way of breaking down the age-old hostilities between groups. Once self-righteousness and the fear of strangers diminish, the possibility of building an international community emerges. What was once a utopian ‘fantasy’ is at the beginning of its realization.

Of course this new mixing has its negative diversity. Racism and bigotry thrive in environments where old boundaries break down and where traditional belief systems are threatened. Both the rise of intense nationalism and religious fundamentalism are responses to the traumatic changes engineered by this social revolution. At a time when people should be optimistic, all these fierce reactions make them think that the world is falling apart.

As we celebrate Brotherhood and Sisterhood month in America let us understand that the old monocultural America is gone. We Jews are no longer strangers in an Anglo-Saxon country. We are one of the vital options in a diversity of free and open choices. America is our home, as is the world.