Tuesday, December 30, 2008
by Wayne Besen
If 2008 taught the world one lesson, it is that religious people are not morally superior to those who are non-religious. Indeed, faith often shelters the shameless and provides cover for the most corrupt among us.
Sanctimony was the sanctuary of Bernard Madoff, the con artist who bilked fellow Jewish people who never imagined this man of piety would mastermind a Ponzi scheme. A New York Times article summed it up: "...Jews all over the country are already sending up something of a communal cry over a cost they say goes beyond the financial to the theological and personal."
The article quoted Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angles who said, "I'd like to believe someone raised in our community, imbued with Jewish values, would be better than this."
Apparently, the rabbi has a short memory. In 2006, corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff disgraced the Jewish community. When he wasn't stealing from Indian tribes and polluting Washington, he could be found in synagogues extolling his Jewish family values.
Many in the Jewish community seem shocked by recent events. They have the same befuddled looks on their faces as Christians ripped off by televangelist Jim Bakker
. Or, the wide-eyed puritans in the pews who were stunned that Revs. Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard had a proclivity for prostitutes.
This is not to say that religious people are necessarily more corrupt. But, the myth that faith makes one less fallible and more pure must be punctured. This fable comes at a great cost to the holy who keep getting hosed. Charlatans are acutely aware that when religious institutions confer credibility, it is easier to con the credulous. Needless to say, churches, temples and mosques are often a refuge for reprobates. As escaped slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglas noted in his tome "Autobiography," the most devout Christians made the most brutal slave owners.
Clearly, there are many people of faith who live exemplary lives of upstanding morality. It is the assumption, however, that attending temple makes one less likely to succumb to temptation that is dangerous. Madoff would still have fooled many of America's wisest investors had he not immersed himself in the Jewish community. But, without this powerful veneer of morality, perhaps investors would have looked closer at his scam.
In 1997, James Hedges, founder of LJH Global Investments, met with Madoff to discuss investing money for wealthy clients. He says that there were red flags for those who bothered to look.
"His whole tone during the meeting was curt, truncated, and he volunteered nothing," Hedges told Barron's
. "It was an extraction process to get him to answer anything. "...What it told me was that it was a fraud."
A separate New York Times article discussed religious extremism among students in the nation of Jordan. Frustrated with dishonest "secular" politicians, these students wrongly assume that religious leaders are less corrupt and mindlessly regurgitate the slogan, "Islam is the answer." They ignore the endemic corruption among Shiite leaders in Iran, the barbarism of Al Qaeda and the suffocating repression in Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Honesty is the answer -- not Islam, Judaism or Christianity. If people of faith happen to be honest, it is really beside the point, not a prerequisite for morality.
The largest problem with religious leaders is that they have trouble apologizing for their sins -- because they are supposedly speaking for God. So, if they apologize, it is akin to God having been wrong.
One example of such spiritual arrogance is Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, who clearly and unquestionably compared homosexuality to incest and pedophilia. As a result, gay activists accurately called him anti-gay. Now that his reputation has taken a hit, he put out a new video denying that he verbally assaulted gays. Wouldn't a true moral leader simply say, "I'm sorry," rather than offering slick PR from the pulpit
San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project released a study
this week that found that young gay people who are rejected by their parents after coming out were more likely to attempt suicide, experience depression and use drugs than those whose parents were accepting. Will a single religious leader, including Warren, reconsider the harm they are doing to gay youth?
The U.S. has spent more than $200 million on abstinence-only programs, which promote ignorance over education in schools. A new study
, reported in Pediatrics, shows that such programs are a fraud, with teenagers who pledged to avoid sex until marriage as likely to have sex as other students. The teens that took virginity pledges were also less likely to use birth control pills or condoms than those making no promise. Will a single religious "leader" have the morality to give up their dogma to prevent the deaths of teens that are having unsafe sex?
This New Year, let's vow to judge people by their good principles and not their piety. As we learned in 2008 -- they are not necessarily the same thing.
Monday, December 22, 2008
by Wayne Besen
It could be that Barack Obama is simply smarter than the rest of us. The first black president of the Harvard Law Review has made a career of turning conventional wisdom on its head.
When people said that America was not ready for an African American president, he ran anyway -- and won. He was counseled by countless talking heads to "go negative" against Hillary Clinton in the primaries and then John McCain -- but he largely stuck to his strategy of staying positive -- and won. In the middle of the campaign, Obama hit an iceberg named Rev. Jeremiah Wright, injecting race into a campaign that had desperately tried to shy away from this explosive issue. Obama discarded advice to spin the crisis and instead delivered a lecture on race relations that has gone down as one of the greatest speeches in the history of American politics -- not to mention it saved his campaign. So, at this point in his rocket-propelled career, it is unwise to bet against the political instincts of Barack Obama.
Still, choosing pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration seemed like a gaffe that has served, if nothing else, as a distraction to Obama's central message of unifying America. This olive branch to evangelical Christians, who largely supported John McCain, felt more like poison ivy to gay and lesbian voters, who overwhelmingly cast ballots for Obama.
After all, Warren has a program to "help" homosexuals "pray away the gay" and played a prominent role in passing Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex couples from marrying in California. He has even compared same-sex couples marrying to incest and child abuse.
Even if scientists find that homosexuality is genetic, Warren would still counsel gay people to fight their "sin," reducing our love to nothing more than perverted impulses. While Warren presumably gets his basic needs met by his wife, he expects gay people to abandon fulfilling relationships for dour lives of loneliness, severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
Obama can talk about unity all he wants, but what he is really doing is upholding the "Great Gay Exception." Obama would never have an anti-Semite on stage in the name of common ground. If so, why did he distance himself from fellow Chicagoan Louis Farrakhan during his campaign? Obama would also never dream of giving a platform to an open racist. But, Obama seems to think we should not object to him elevating Warren, who we find deeply offensive.
My hope is that Obama's plan is to offer heavy doses of symbolism and style to power hungry preachers, like Warren -- while delivering substantive policy achievements to the gay and lesbian community. When gay and lesbian leaders reacted with understandable indignation, Obama's rebuttal was, people need to "learn to agree to disagree without being disagreeable."
This phrase, that many Evangelicals are nodding their heads to in agreement, is a rhetorical trap. If they agree to this principle over the Warren flap, they have essentially forfeited their moral high ground if they get "disagreeable" when Congress passes a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The only flaw in this logic is that social conservatives rarely play by the same rules because they think they represent God. It is possible that Obama may have outsmarted himself by appealing to his sanctimonious enemies, who will never return the favor, while forfeiting support among his closest friends.
But, then again, maybe he really can buy goodwill by stroking the egos of narcissistic holy men. Rick Warren begins his best selling book The Purpose Driven Life
with the refrain, "this is not about you." Of course not! It's always been about Rick Warren -- whose camera-ready compassion is legendary.
If any good can come from this controversy, it is that many Americans now realize that Warren is masquerading as a moderate and posing as a pragmatist. Many Americans -- who previously respected Warren -- now view him as a poll-tested Pat Robertson who hides hate behind a Hawaiian shirt. He seemed arrogant and out of touch on NBC's Dateline when he told Ann Curry that he wasn't homophobic because he provided protesters outside his church with doughnuts. Gee, thanks, maybe next time he takes away our rights we'll get ice cream from His holiness.
The alternative storyline is really unthinkable.
In this version, Obama cynically used gay and lesbian people for money, votes and volunteers. Then before he is sworn in, he swears off equality. This plot was certainly advanced when not a single openly gay person was appointed to a high-level cabinet position.
Within a year, we will learn whether Obama's decision to choose Warren was cagey, careless or cruel. If it is the former, we will soon view this cultural flashpoint as a flash in the pan. If it is the latter, it will cause an explosion of gay activism, giving many people who were previously apolitical, purpose driven lives -- protesting Barack Obama.