Monday, November 13, 2006

Quakers and Evangelicals

As a universalist Quaker, with strong political activist views, I suffer constant ambivalence between my cherished Quaker leanings and my conviction that Christian evangelicals pose a serious threat to freedom in contemporary America. As a Quaker I believe that every person, and every church, is and should remain free to practice any and all religious ideas and customs - - so long as they pose no threat to the freedom or welfare of others.

But therein lies the rub! Christan evanngelicals believe the Bible is literally true, that accepting the Bible and Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and that they have an obligation to preach that precept to all. I have no objection up to that point: that is their right. But many evangelicals (like their counterparts in Islam) believe they have a further moral duty to establish their views through State sanction - - regardless of the offense this may give to the millions of believers in other faiths, and of non-believers. That seems to me to cross a line into a theocratic rule over society, something I believe is inimical to the very foundation of American democracy and to our Constitution. I feel a powerful obligation to oppose this effort by evangelicals to establish a Bible-based reign in our country, or anywhere else, for that matter.

There has been a resurgence in recent years by evangelcal efforts to:

- - replace the teaching of the Darwinian concept of evolution with versions of
creationism in public schools

- - punish same-sex relationships by denying them any of the many benefits of
marriage or civil union

- - deny a woman's right to choose to abort a pregnancy

- - prevent or restrict the use of family plannng methods and techniques, both
in America and abroad

- - hold Christian prayer sessions in schools and other
public institutions

- - place Christian symbols, such as the Ten Commandments. on
display in public

- - and in various other ways to
emphasize their assertion that the United States is a
Christian nation

Both Constitutionally and historically the Unted States is emphatically not a Christian nation, and demographically it becomes less so every year. Trying to impose Christianity on the population subverts the very founding principals of freedom to worship and insuring that there is no state religion.

This political agenda that is beng so energetically pursued by evangelicals, with overt encouragement and support from the currently dominant wing of the Republican Party, thus demands a strong political response from non-evangelicals. As a Quaker I believe that this political response must not be tinged with hate or anger, that there must be civil dialogue between the opposing camps, and that we who oppose the evangelical campaign must take care not to marginalize or alienate the evangelical movement.

Yet I see no room for real compromise. Evangelicals must be helped to understand that America is in no way a Christian country, and that non-Christian freedoms to live according to the tenets of their faith must be protected as zealously as evangelicals protect theirs.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Election's Blessing

America has suffered grievously under the divisive rule of George W. Bush and his Congressional lackeys. One sad concomitant has been the marked decline in the once shining reputation of the United States in the world.

Blessedly, the strong win of the Democrats in the elections of 2006 and the clear rejection of Bush policies by the voters have set the stage for a possible return to sanity at home and respect abroad. Yesterday's editorial in Britain's Guardian newspaper so aptly sums up what happened that it is worth reprinting in this post:

Published on Thursday, November 9, 2006 by the Guardian / UK

Thank You, America

For six years, latterly with the backing of both houses of a markedly conservative Republican Congress, George Bush has led an American administration that has played an unprecedentedly negative and polarising role in the world's affairs. On Tuesday, in the midterm US congressional elections, American voters rebuffed Mr Bush in spectacular style and with both instant and lasting political consequences. By large numbers and across almost every state of the union, the voters defeated Republican candidates and put the opposition Democrats back in charge of the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years.

When the remaining recounts and legal challenges are over, the Democrats may even have narrowly won control of the Senate too. Either way, the results change the political landscape in Washington for the final two years of this now thankfully diminished presidency. They also reassert a different and better United States that can again offer hope instead of despair to the world. Donald Rumsfeld's resignation last night was a fitting climax to the voters' verdict. Thank you, America.

In US domestic terms, the 2006 midterms bring to an end the 12 intensely divisive years of Republican House rule that began under Newt Gingrich in 1994. These have been years of zealously and confrontational conservative politics that have shocked the world and, under Mr Bush, have sent America's global standing plummeting. That long political hurricane has now at last blown itself out for a while, but not before leaving America with a terrible legacy that includes climate-change denial, the end of biological stem-cell research, an aid programme tied to abortion bans, a shockingly permissive gun culture, an embrace of capital punishment equalled only by some of the world's worst tyrannies, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and his replacement by a president who does not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution. The approval by voters in at least five more states of same-sex marriage bans - on top of 13 similar votes in 2004 - shows that culture-war politics are far from over.

Exit polls suggest that four issues counted most in these elections - corruption scandals, the economy, terrorism and Iraq. In the end, though, it was the continuing failure of the war in Iraq that has galvanised many Americans to do what much of the rest of the world had longed for them to do much earlier. It is too soon to say whether 2006 now marks a decisive rejection of the rest of the conservative agenda as well. Only those who do not know America well will imagine that it does.

The Democratic victory was very tight in many places, but its size should not be underestimated. November 7 was a decisive nationwide win for the progressive and moderate traditions in US political life. The final majority in the House will be at least 18. The recapture of the Senate, if it happens, will involve captures from the Republicans in the north-east, the north-west, the midwest and the south. The Democrats won seven new state governorships on Tuesday, including New York and Ohio, and now control a majority nationwide. Republican governors who held on, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Charlie Crist in Florida, only did so by distancing themselves from Mr Bush. The statewide Democratic wins in Ohio give their 2008 presidential candidate a platform for doing what John Kerry failed to do in this crucial state in 2004.

Claire McCaskill's win in the Missouri Senate race showed that Democrats can win a state which almost always votes for the winning presidential candidate. If Jim Webb has won the recounting Virginia Senate seat, Democrats will have gone another step towards re-establishing themselves in a changing part of the south. In almost every one of these cases, as in the Connecticut contest won by Joe Lieberman running as an independent, the Democrats have won by cleaving to the centre and winning the support of independent voters. The new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may be the Armani-clad San Francisco leftwinger of the caricaturists' dreams but she heads a caucus that will demand caution on some of the baby-boomer liberal generation's pet subjects.

The big questions under the new Congress will be the way that Mr Bush responds to this unfamiliar reduction in his authority and whether the Democratic win will push the president into a new Iraq policy. At his White House press conference yesterday, Mr Bush inevitably made plenty of suitably bipartisan and common-ground noises. He had little alternative. But they rang hollow from such a tarnished and partisan leader. It will take more than warm words in the immediate aftermath of an election reverse to prove that Mr Bush is now capable of working in a new way.

The departure of the disastrous Mr Rumsfeld has come at least three years too late. But it shows that Mr Bush has finally been forced to face the reality of the Iraq disaster for which his defence secretary bears so much responsibility. As the smoke rose over the Pentagon on 9/11, Mr Rumsfeld was already writing a memo that wrongly pointed the finger at Saddam Hussein. He more than anyone beat the drum for the long-held neoconservative obsession with invading Iraq. It was he who insisted, over the advice of all his senior generals, that the invasion required only a third of the forces that the military said they needed. He more than anyone else is the architect of America's humiliations in Iraq. It was truly an outrage that he remained in office for so long.

But at least the passing of Mr Rumsfeld shows that someone in the White House now recognises that things cannot go on as before. Business as usual will not do, either in general or over Iraq. Mr Bush's remarks last night showed that on Iraq he has now put himself in the hands of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by his father's consigliere James Baker, one of whose members, Robert Gates, an ex-CIA chief, was last night appointed to succeed the unlamented Mr Rumsfeld. Maybe the more pragmatic Republican old guard can come to the rescue of this disastrous presidency in its most catastrophic adventure. But it has been the American voters who have at last made this possible. For that alone the entire world owes them its deep gratitude today.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Philosophy, Life, Religion

A few years ago a nephew asked me to write of my views on life, religion, and society. I felt the best place to start wass religion, the beliefs about the world and the universe that tend to shape all other beliefs.

I grew up a traditional Methodist, and a part of my life, like that of my family, was the church and all its activities. I defined myself, at least in part, as a member of the Methodist community.

I think I believed the things we all believed in the Methodist church, but I remember vividly a chronic sense of frustration and disappointment because I never experienced that sudden, profound sense of enlightenment that “being born again” was said to cause. Even at revivals I never felt that deep call that Methodists relished as having Jesus enter one’s life.

At college (16 years old) I began to read the great philosophers – Kant, Spinosa, Nietzsche, Freud – with excitement, thinking here I would find the grand answers that somehow my Methodist upbringing had not provided. I also read avidly about the world’s religions, hoping they afforded answers that I hadn’t found in Christianity.

By 18 I had become a conscious doubter. Somehow Methodism in specific and Christianity in general had left me basically a skeptic. I still continued to attend church, more from hhabit and family pressure, but it meant little to me. By 20 I had accepted the fact that I was somewhere between agnostic and atheist.

It is difficult to put into words the vast number of questions that no religion had answered for me. But I settled into a lifetime of conscious acceptance of the fact that humans do not have the intellectual capacity to answer the fundamental questions all humans ponder. Is there a creator? What are the limits of the universe? What lies beyond those limits? Ditto for time: what lies before he beginning and after the end?

While my agnosticism became a lifelong part of my nature, my philosophical journey has continued. It think I was attracted to sociology and anthropology in the hope they would help me understand life by understanding the nature of being human. And that hope was, over a period of many decades, answered. I developed a philosophy of life and being that gives me a sense of serenity, of knowing why we are here, how the universe operates – insofar as any human can know these things.

So here are the key elements.

I believe there must be a supreme intelligence who created everything, even though the evidence is only circumstantial. The incredible, wondrous complexity of all life forms, and of the universe, seems to me to argue that creation is more than an accident.

But I cannot believe that this supreme intelligence has a specific plan for the individual, nor that it has any concern for day to day events or human actions. Ergo, I believe that prayer is futile, and that Christian beliefs in salvation and individual responsibility are meaningless.

Consequently, I believe humans do not have the capacity to “know” why we are here. But at the same time I believe that we were created with an intelligence greater than that of any other life form in order to seek answers to the fundamental questions of life and the nature of good and evil.

Humans were created with powers of thought and feeling that set us apart from all other life, even though we are rooted in and part of that life. That gives us responsibility, something no other creatures have been given, for stewardship of the earth and all other life.

To put this in conventional language, God created man and gave us the power – and the responsibility – to be good or evil. I do not know why (and I believe humans are incapable of knowing) God created the universe and all in it, but I believe that humans were given intelligence to allow us to improve ourselves and conditions in the universe.

Thus every human being has some measure of responsibility for bettering the condition of mankind and all other life. There is no Hell for those who fail to do so, nor Heaven for those who succeed, but we each have a conscience that gives us guidance as to whether we are doing good of evil.

Many times a day I ask myself whether specific actions of mine will help or hinder, and of course I believe I have an obligation to help. Most of the time the answer is that I am lazy, or tired, or otherwise occupied. But the number of times I answer “good” clearly outweighs the “bad”.

As I study human history I see an overall evolution of human culture toward an increasingly “civilized” state of existence. This civilized state of mankind includes gradual reduction of crime and brutality, and increasingly more care for the less fortunate. This gives me a sense of optimism about life: we may never achieve perfection, but over a period of thousands of years we get better.

I became a Quaker in the early 1990's because I felt that Quakers represented the closest form of religion to my beliefs. Quakers don’t pray in the conventional sense: they “seek the Light”.

They accept the basic postulate that every individual has a touch of the divine (“that of God in everyone”), and they believe that each individual has the ability and the responsibility to seek the Light. Thus we use no ministers; we are truly an “equal opportunity” faith!

Very importantly, to me, Quakers believe each individual has a responsibility for living rightly and helping the condition of others.

Quakers also respect the fact that each individual is on a solitary journey, seeking the Light, to understand God and the meaning of life. This means that no one can claim that his or her “truth” is the only one, superior to all others. This inculcates in Quakers a gentleness, a diminution of argumentativeness and dogmatism.

Quakers differ in how they regard the Bible, but most believe it is a “work in progress”, subject to change as new generations strive diligently to seek the Light. All believe it is a compendium of great truths as perceived by those seekers who wrote it, but few Quakers regard it as a literal, infallible codification of truth.


I have to confess that I feel anger toward Christianity as a force in human history. For every benign outcome there seems to have been one or more evils: brutal wars in the name of the faith, inquisitions with horrible tortures, witch burnings, smug support of evil social and political systems, interference in the affairs of others, and refusing to confront great wrongs.

In contemporary America I feel this same anger toward Christian fundamentalists who are seeking political power in order to establish a fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy over the millions of Americans who are not Christian. The rise of George W. Bush and his extremist Christian
supporters is to me the greatest calamity in my lifetime.

Our country was founded as a place of religious freedom, and the American constitution and political system have generally supported both freedom of religion and separation ofr church and state. The founders were vividly aware of the abuse of religious freedom by state power in Europe, the persecution of those who sought now forms of religious expression.

Now we have fundamentalist Christian forces unwittingly violating the basic principles on which we were founded. Christians have no right, simply because they are in the majority, to force government institutions to reflect Christian beliefs in a society which has millions of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and non believers.


I used to call myself a liberal, and indeed I am liberal, but my distaste for the equivocations of political liberals led me to refer to myself as a progressive. I was a Democrat most of my life, but now am sometimes an independent, sometimes a Green. Democrats compromise too much for my taste.

My progressivism gives me strong views on the major issues of our society.

I believe firmly in abortion. I think each woman has a right to choose whether or not to give birth, and if she feels it necessary. Because abortion is a serious action I have no problem with requiring consultation with physicians, or a brief waiting period, but in the end I believe the woman must make the choice. It is her body and her life.

I believe in the sanctity of life, but I don’t see life as an either/or thing. A fertilized egg may be life in an incipient sense, but it is not life in the sense of being conscious and thinking.

There are far too many people on earth, and preventing exponential population growth is essential. Opponents of abortion and birth control are helping to aggravate a serious problem facing the human species.

I strongly oppose the death penalty, no matter what the offense. Taking the life of a mature, conscious human is evil, whether it is the state or an individual murderer who does it. The fact that convicts on death row are frequently found innocent with DNA or other exculpatory evidence proves, to my satisfaction, that the death penalty should never be carried out.

The United States, in my opinion, is primitive on this question. Every other so-called civilized nation on earth has abolished the death penalty, while we continue to act like savages.

I just as strongly favor the right of every person to choose to end his or her life. If I reach the point where I feel death is preferable to life, it is my sacred right to take that action. It is a monstrous action for the state to deny me that right.

On the same point, I feel it wrong to criminalize a physician’s seeking to aid an individual in choosing to die. I regard Jack Kevorkian as a trail-blazing hero.

On marriage and divorce. I believe any two individuals ought to have the right to live together and, if they profess legally their commitment, to share resources and fates. This means I have no objection to same sex couples being married, even though my own heterosexuality does not permit me to understand fully the nature of their physical attraction to each other.

It seems to me the state ought to have little to do with getting married. Freddie and I lived together for more than 14 years before we got legally married. That was our business and no one else’s, and our commitment to each other was just as strong before marriage as since.

I feel a little different about divorce, because it is all too common for one partner (usually the husband) to take advantage of the other. But no-fault mutually agreeable divorces ought to be allowed simply and expeditiously.

Because I believe in maximum freedom for the individual I am opposed generally to state interference in private affairs except where other individuals might be harmed. There are many personal things I don’t want to do: pornography, self-mutilation, gambling, heavy drinking, nudity, etc. But the less the state gets involved in regulating these things, the better. In the area of personal freedom I come close to being a libertarian.

One of my greatest concerns is the tolerance of society to the inequitable distribution of wealth. I believe in rewarding individuals well for success, but society, especially ours, allows conspicuous consumption to become morally offensive.

Because of the nature of our capitalist system our laws see no wrong in allowing a CEO to receive a hundred times more income than workers, in paying professional athletes and actors millions of dollars a year, in allowing a tiny fraction of our people to hold the lion’s share of our national wealth.

But when this exists alongside massive poverty, something is badly wrong with our system. It is flatly immoral for one person to own several mansions with gold faucets and doorknobs, while millions are homeless or without medical insurance and adequate food. Thus I believe devoutly in the welfare state, a state where government accepts responsibility for all its citizens and taxes those who can afford it to provide care for those who cannot.

America is a society where great values have been allowed to suppress inequity and misery. We rightly believe that our free enterprise system, with its emphasis on individual initiative, has made the nation wealthy and powerful. Yet we are convinced that we must strongly resist limiting free enterprise – to the point of ignoring the excesses it also produces.

Take health care. We have pioneered in medical science, and are looked to by the world as the center of medical advance. Yet we have also allowed medicine to be a commercial venture, where massive profits by physicians, drug companies, and medical insurance companies is accepted as a good - - while inadequate medical care for millions is shrugged off as unavoidable.

Every other capitalist country has recognized that some limits must be set in order to provide decent health care for all. The result is single payer health systems controlled by government, per capita costs half or less than those in the US, and considerably better medical statistics for the population as a whole.

Thus we Americans spend more than twice as much (per person) on health care, and we live shorter lives, with more infant mortality, more disease, more illness than Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and other developed countries.

If a politician in the US has the temerity to express interest in a single payer health system, he is immediately shot down by his opposition – and the public – as an advocate of “socialized medicine”. I would like to say that we deserve the shoddy health care we get. But it is the poor, those who participate least in our political system, who suffer the most. Richer Americans pay through the nose for their medical services, but they mostly get good service.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Proud Grandfather

I have only two small grandsons, but I'm proud of them! Alex (9) and Andre (7) live in Sarasota, FL with my daughter Kathy and her husband Steve DeGrenier. They attend Southside Elementary School, like it, and do well as pupils.

The community-minded Sarasota Herald Tribune regularly prints little writings from pupils in the city's schools (in the "Dear Harry" column)
, and both my grandsons - - thanks to "Dear Harry" - - are now "published authors"!

Alex (4th grade) has been published five times, and now Andre, just starting 2nd grade, has mounted to these lofty bard heights. Here, for posterity, is his master essay:

(The topic was the best and worst thing about going back to school):

Best is Playing with Friends
The worst thing about school is writing a lot. Sometimes your hand might hurt. The best thing is playing with your friends.
- Andre DeGrenier, 2nd Grade, Southside Elementary.

Does that phrase ". . . your hand might hurt." portend a future mighty writer? Or does "Best is playing with Friends" suggest a more gregarious tendency? Keep your antennae tuned - - he is a great kid anyway! And so is Alex.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Shame in the Middle East

The UN-sponsored cease fire in Lebanon, in effect for a week, has already been violated by an Israeli airborne raid on Baalbek, described by Israeli and American sources as a "Hizbollah stronghold", and the home town of Sheik Muhammad Yazbeck, a senior Hezbollah leader and member of the group’s Shura Council. Numerous local residents described the raid as a total defeat for the Israeli force, though Israel asserts its objectives were met.

Who won matters little. The cease fire is shaky - - largely because of Israeli and American intransigence on its terms - - and the US appears likely to support Israel's right to continue violations and, possibly, resume the war.

I read the news and analyses with a profound sense of frustration, because it seems so clear that policy makers in both Israel and the United States are perceiving the world incorrectly, and responding inappropriately - - shooting themselves in the foot, as the old military adage would say.

No one ought argue that Israel has no right to exist. The tragic centuries of suffering from an anti-semitic world, the diaspora, the holocaust, all point to the esssentiality of a permanent, secure Jewish homeland. And the Holy Land is just as clearly where that homeland must be. Arabs and Muslims must accept this imperative, and millions do.

But the United States and Israel have dismally failed to understand that the Arab peoples of the Holy Land also belong there, and that they have rights and aspirations that must be heard, respected, and nurtured. Every high-handed action Israel takes, always with overt or covert American support, rubs more salt into festering, painful wounds to Arab pride, Arab well-being, and Arab aspirations.

Israel has arrogantly allowed aggressive Jewish settlers to establish communities on Arab land in the West Bank and the Golan heights. Israel has responded to Arab provocations with massive force that does far more harm to the innocent than to the provocateurs. Lebanon is only the most recent example.

Supporters of this dysfunctional policy - - that succeeds only in widening and deepening Arab resentment, and thus nurturing more suicide bombings and terrorist attacks - - retort that Israel only defends its people, that it has no option but to meet force with overwhelming force. But we must remember Gandhi's maxim: take an eye for an eye, and eventually everyone will be blind.

Israel does have options, as well as the unstinting protection of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation. I cannot say exactly what those options are, and no one should say what they are until the Arab peoples, governmental and non-governmental alike, have been heard.

What is needed, however unlikely it may be, is for the US, the most potent player in the "game", to declare that it wants to see a just settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors that will guarantee both Israel's security and the just needs and aspirations of its neighbors. It should use its power to enlist the support of the world's great powers, through the United Nations, in a sincere negotiation process that begins with nothing on the table except these two goals.

Only this way can a just peace in the Middle East, fair to all parties, be achieved.

I recommend a recent article by Stephen Zunes for more detail and more authoritative commentary:

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A great neighborhood

I spend summers in a wonderful area, in and around Amherst, MA, where I lived and worked for nearly 30 years. We`have a home I built myself in Shutesbury, nestled in the hills next to Amherst, on the campus of Sirius Community. My wife is a long time Sirius member.

The local region (Amherst, Hadley, Northampton and surrounding small towns) is known far and wide as a center of higher education with a rich history and a wholesome blend of sophisticated modernity and rural, forested charm. Five world-class colleges (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts) flourish, surrounded by performing and graphic arts, a variety of crafts, productive farms, and industry.

The region supports excellent restaurants and coffee houses, movie theaters,
internet cafes, and shops of all kinds. But for me the most alluring feature is the natural world that surrounds and lends special character to it all. Adjacent to the fertile farms of the Connecticut River Valley are verdant forests that teem with wildlife.

Yesterday, driving along a main road in Pelham, we spied a large coyote loping across the road, through a large lawn, then into the woods. Our local community newsletter, the eCricket, has been abuzz in recent days with reports of sightings of deer, porcupines, black bears, and moose. One evening in 2002 I had my own close encounter with a moose: she cantered alongside my car for perhaps 50 yards, hoping to cross ahead of it, until she fially decided she didn't like the odds, and veered off into the woods from whence she came.

And just
5 minutes up the road, here in Shutesbury, neighbors have developed a small herd of 16 alpacas. These wondrous beasts produce high quality wool, as well as much pleasure for those of us who are privileged to visit them. I thoroughly enjoyed looking into their luminous eyes, petting their soft fleece, and having them nuzzle pellets of food from my hand.

Yes, llfe is good in this blessed part of the country!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Cheaper isn't always inferior

For years I have used a terrific Internet Service Provider (ISP) - - Highstream.Net - - that costs me $8.95 a month and delivers unfailing good service. Before I found Highstream I paid as much as $23.00 per month and grumbled often about poor technical support, rigid email rules, and uncertain local access numbers when I traveled around the country.

Good old Highstream has friendly, competent, FREE tech support 7 days a week, unlike most other inexpensive ISP's which either offer no tech help or charge exorbitant rates by the minute. It has over 7,000 local acccess numbers around the nation that always seem to work well. And it offers 4 email addresses per account. I strongly recommend Highmstream! Try it: you'll like it. Tell them sent you.