Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Obama and Ostara: One Year Later

A year ago, I wrote an article called “Obama and Ostara: The President Ponders Easter’s Essence.” It was a response to comments Mr. Obama made at the White House Prayer Breakfast a year before that – and to the fact that there even is such a thing as a White House Prayer Breakfast.

President Obama at 2012 National Prayer Breakfast

The article began with a description of Easter’s origins in pagan worship of the goddess Eostre. In the 8th century, heathen Anglo-Saxon celebrations in her honor were recorded by the Venerable Bede. Other written records show similar worship of her German counterpart Ostarâ on the continent. These pagan celebrations were deliberately overwritten with Christian ritual by Church authorities.

I also discussed how the story of the Norse god Balder's death and resurrection provided a space for interfaith dialogue between pagans, Christians and those who were blandinn í trú (“mixed in faith”) in the northern world.

The core of the article, however, was an examination of the role of religion in contemporary American political life. In this follow-up article, I revisit these issues to see what has changed in the last twelve months.

The president has insisted that his “public service is part of that effort to express [his] Christian faith.” Mr. Obama’s private faith is his own business; my question is whether he has done anything to protect the rights of those who follow minority religions. Is democracy another word for mob rule, or do Americans have a responsibility to make sure that members of minorities don’t have their rights trampled by those in the majority?

If anything, President Obama has now taken an even stronger stand on his private religion guiding his public policy. His insistence that Christian belief permeates his political life is understandable, given the bizarre attacks on his faith by right-wing politicians and pundits. However, his speech at this year's National Prayer Breakfast is striking for its preacherly tone.

Some of what the president says is simply not believable, but appears purely aimed at mollifying Evangelical voters – “I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in scripture and devotion.” Mr. Obama has room in his schedule to engage in daily Bible study before his morning briefing?

Other statements were interesting in light of recent actions taken by the president. He said, “I know the version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs – from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato.” As we saw last year, Mr. Obama chooses to ignore religious ideas that don’t line up with his own faith.

In Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One"), the Norse god Odin says:
I advise you, Loddfáfnir, to take this advice,
it will be useful if you learn it,
do you good, if you have it:
where you recognize evil, speak out against it,
and give no truces to your enemies.
Odin wouldn't take all this bunk from congressional Republicans

There are several passages in the Old Norse texts emphasizing this idea that dishonest dealers must be strongly dealt with. Many American progressives truly wish that the president would “give no truces” to congressional Republicans. Senator Mitch McConnell famously said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Mr. Obama reacts to such unbending opposition with repeated invitations to the White House to discuss compromise. It would be nice if he was willing to temper his love of the Golden Rule with other words of Odin:
Again, concerning the one whom you don’t trust,
and whose mind you suspect:
you should laugh with him and disguise your thoughts,
a gift should be repaid with a like one.
Other comments by the president show that he simply does not put his own faith into practice. When discussing his economic policies, Mr. Obama says, “But for me as a Christian, [giving up tax breaks] also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’” This is a nice sentiment, but does not reflect the president’s actual actions. In February, he proposed reducing the top corporate tax rate by seven percent and giving some manufactures a ten percent break. In Christ's parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus clearly condemns those who brag that their tax rate reflects their religious righteousness. Strangely enough, the words of the president line up with those of the man rebuked by Jesus.

In 2007, Mr. Obama said, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes, and I will walk that picket line with you as President of the United States.” Union members in Madison, Wisconsin are still waiting for the president to appear in support of their protests. Whatever happened to “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”? Why is the president unwilling to take a stand with his “brothers”? In his speech at the Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Obama said that “each and every day, for many in this room, the biblical injunctions are not just words, they are also deeds.” Unfortunately, he seems to have not included himself in the statement.

Last year, I asked whether these Prayer Breakfasts imply endorsement of particular religions that happen to have powerful voting blocs. Are they really just fundraising events that allow representatives of majority faiths to purchase influence? I recently discovered the unequivocal answer on the National Prayer Breakfast website. Despite the president’s passing reference to Hinduism and Greek religion (?), the website states:
Speakers have varied over the years, ranging from Muslim, Christian and Jewish religions. This interfaith gathering features speakers focused on affirming commonly held religious values and putting aside political differences. National and world leaders have read from the Bible, the Torah, and quoted the Koran.
That’s not really a range, is it? It’s clear that this meeting is for leaders from the three Abrahamic traditions. The website page featuring past keynote speakers has three Catholics, two Presbyterians, a Methodist, a preacher from the Church of Christ, a self-identified “serious Christian,” a person calling himself “a follower of Jesus” and a Modern Orthodox Jew. This is a very strange definition of interfaith, as the website for the event clearly states that this is “a place where state and community leaders can come together with emerging leaders around the person of Jesus.”

President Bush with Bono, featured speaker at 2006 National Prayer Breakfast

As for the monetary issue, the website says that “registration for the National Prayer Breakfast is by state quota and by invitation only,” then gives the following instructions:
Attendance as a Washington state guest at the National Prayer Breakfast is $650/person. This is made up of:
1) National Prayer Breakfast events $500 per person (either paid by check made out to National Leadership Seminars, or by credit card information included on your nomination form).
2) Washington state guest events totalling $150 per person. Washington state guests have additional events planned around the National Prayer Breakfast. The $150 extra you will pay covers a briefing meeting in the NW Suite, a breakfast on the Hill with Washington state Congressmembers, a Suite brunch and a dinner debrief as well as group transportation to The Cedars, The Hill and The Southeast White House.
This doesn’t exactly line up with “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven;” it seems a lot more like brazen influence-peddling. It may be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” but it sure seems easier for a rich man to buy his way into the halls of federal power than it is for a poor man to get a hearing from his elected representatives.

Last year, I discussed polls showing that Americans require presidential candidates to be true believers. This issue has clearly come to the forefront in the Republican presidential primary. The candidates have fallen over themselves to protest their own faith and question the faith of their opponents. The Interfaith Alliance’s Reverend C. Welton Gaddy has said, “I think that religion is playing a role in this election cycle unlike any in recent history. Religion has entered the Republican primary as a topic of conversation.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Part of the Republican rhetoric in this election cycle has focused on the president’s supposed “War on Religion.” Strangely enough, the presidential hopefuls are painting a picture of Mr. Obama attacking those who hold Christian beliefs. This is actually the opposite of the truth, as should be clear from everything I’ve written above. On the other hand, there does seem to be an attack on minority faiths – maybe not a fully-fledged war, but at least a clear offensive.

As reported by Indian Country Today, “U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Forest Service continue to wage their long-standing culture war against Native American sacred places.” Mr. Obama has, sadly, abandoned his campaign promise to support “legal protections for sacred places and cultural traditions, including Native ancestors’ burial grounds and churches.”

The Obama administration has defeated legal challenges to its granting of a permit to expand the Arizona Snowbowl’s use of the San Franciso Peaks, which are sacred to Hopi, Navajo and other Native American nations. The 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act requires all federal agencies to consult with leaders of traditional Native American religions when making decisions that affect religious practice. Government officials were bizarrely disrespectful during meetings on this particular issue, asking questions like, “You say your Gods walk around the [Peaks]. How big are their feet?” Would they dare to talk in this disgusting manner to Christian, Jewish or Muslim leaders?

Calling on President Obama to stop desecration of sacred Native American sites

There have been numerous breaches of faith with the Native American community in recent years, despite formal federal guidelines. What else is new? Our national media has completely fallen down on the case and totally ignored the issue. Interested individuals must turn to Native American online media outlets, as our country’s so-called religion journalists are too busy reporting on the Republican fantasy of an anti-Christian religious war to take any notice.

Another battle that has gone largely unnoticed is the censorship of access to information about minority religions by publicly-funded institutions. In January, the American Civil Liberties Union filed Hunter v. Salem Public Library Board of Trustees. [Note to the witchy: this is Salem, Missouri – not Salem, Massachussetts.] The lawsuit charges “the Salem Public Library and its board of trustees with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites discussing minority religions by improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.’”

Anaka Hunter contacted the ACLU after library software blocked her access to websites on pagan traditions and Native American religions. When she protested to library staff, library director Glenda Wofford unblocked only portions of the sites, and allegedly told Hunter that “she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.” With all the overheated political rhetoric about religious freedom, where are representatives of either political party when there actually is an attack of freedom of religion? [Insert sound of chirping crickets.]

I wonder if the library also blocks The Norse Mythology Blog

America is not alone in undergoing these strange attacks on minority religions. In March, The Guardian (UK) ran an article called “Atheists, please read my heathen manifesto.” In it, author Julian Baggini puts out a call to non-believers to abandon the term atheist (due to what he calls “unhelpful connotations”) and adopt the term heathen. The article goes on to elaborate his idea with subsections on “Why we are heathens,” “We are secularists,” “Heathens can be religious,” and “This manifesto is less concerned with distinguishing heathens from others than forging links between us and others.”

This article has done little to bolster what little respect I have left for religion journalists and religion editors in the mainstream media. Is there really no one at The Guardian who has spent any time studying the history of religion? Not one editor who bothered to look up the historical or current use of the word heathen?

Heathen is an ancient Germanic term for followers of pagan faiths that goes back to at least the 4th century, when Ulfilas used the Gothic haiþno to describe female pagans. The word took various forms in northern Europe, including the Old English hæðen (“pagan man,” used especially of Danish invaders who followed the Norse gods) and the Old Norse heiðinn (“pagan”). The latter term is used throughout the Icelandic sagas to distinguish followers of the Old Way from those who had adopted the new Christian faith.

Ulfilas discusses religion with heathen Goths

Over the last few decades, the term has been used to designate followers of the contemporary Norse religion that is also known as Ásatrú (“faith in the Æsir”). This usage is not secret. I would direct Mr. Baggini and his editors to the BBC page on the subject, which respectfully explains both historical and modern forms of the religion. It would be a nice gesture for The Guardian to issue an apology to practitioners of modern heathenry for attempting to co-opt the name of their faith, but I wouldn't advise holding your breath waiting for it.

The behavior of The Guardian goes hand-in-hand with the mainstream American media’s continuing failure to cover minority religions. National Public Radio librarian Elizabeth Allin has released figures for the network’s 2011 religious coverage, by stories per faith:

Islam: 148
Christianity: 63
Judaism: 55
Catholicism: 39
Buddhism: 14
Mormonism: 12
Protestantism: 6
Amish: 2
Hinduism: 1

If you add up the various forms of Christianity, the numbers look like this:

Islam: 148
Christian: 121
Judaism: 55
Buddhism: 14
Hinduism: 1

To take it one step further, the numbers can be also crunched like this:

Abrahamic faiths: 324
Non-Abrahamic faiths: 15

Whatever the personal beliefs and biases of the reporters and producers, it is clear that they are not giving the American public real information about faiths outside the Big Three. NPR (and other media outlets) can argue that they don’t have time or space to dedicate to every faith. This is given the lie by the endless coverage of pop culture Evangelicals like Justin Bieber, Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. Religion journalists are making conscious decisions to ignore certain faiths, due to either prejudice or ignorance.

Much reporting, however, has been done on the conflict between President Obama and the Catholic bishops over the issue of birth control. Some supporters of the president insist that his actions showed subtle skills in political jiu jitsu, and that he cleverly played the bishops. A careful examination of the case shows other issues at play.

Catholic bishops, of course, are appointed members of an all-male organization led by the internally-chosen leader of a foreign state – the Pope is literally “Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City.” Why did Mr. Obama allow representatives of what is essentially an exclusively male, non-democratic foreign government to have any say in the internal governmental policies of the United States – especially those that affect the most private concerns of American women?

American women don't get to vote for the Pope

Follow the money (and the votes): the 77.7 million Catholics in the US are the largest religious denomination in the nation and form approximately twenty-five percent of the electorate. It would be political suicide for the president to openly oppose such a large voting bloc.

The religious rights of followers of Native American and other minority faiths, on the other hand, can be freely ignored. Mr. Obama, in his announcement of the Catholic compromise, said
Now, we live in a pluralist – pluralistic society where we're not going to agree on every single issue or share every belief. That doesn't mean that we have to choose between individual liberty and basic fairness for all Americans. We are unique among nations for having been founded upon both these principles and our obligation as citizens is to carry them forward. I have complete faith that we can do that.
Liberty and fairness for all Americans, however, doesn’t include followers of minority religious groups that lack financial and political clout. The 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith ruled that religious beliefs do not free individuals from complying with local or federal law. Members of the Native American Church were told that the state law forbidding use of peyote trumped Indian ritual use of the plant – a religious practice that predates the formation of the United States itself.

Judge Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion declared that religious beliefs do not provide immunity from the law. “To permit this,” he wrote, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Peyote cactus - a grave threat to America

President Obama has taken a different view, as he stated in his announcement on birth control coverage: “Now, as we moved to implement this rule, however, we've been mindful that there's another principle at stake here, and that's the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution.” He continued:
I also know that some religious institutions, particularly those affiliated with the Catholic Church, have a religious objection to directly providing insurance that covers contraceptive services for their employees. And that's why we originally exempted all churches from this requirement.
Mr. Obama says that he has faith in “basic fairness for all Americans,” yet his exemption directly contradicts the Supreme Court ruling. The judicial branch has specifically denied religious exemption to minority faiths, and the executive branch has openly given it to majority religions.

This clearly answers the question I posed last year about the president privileging some faiths over others. This aggrandizement of powerful religious groups is also reflected in the Obama-appointed advisory council on faith-based programs, which is almost exclusively Christian. In my previous article, I questioned the membership of this group. Several others have spoken out on the issue, including Suhag Sukla of the Hindu American Foundation. At this year’s Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Obama said:
Since we’ve expanded and strengthened the White House faith-based initiative, we’ve partnered with Catholic Charities to help Americans who are struggling with poverty; worked with organizations like World Vision and American Jewish World Service and Islamic Relief to bring hope to those suffering around the world.
Note that, once more, he only mentions the Abrahamic religions. He also said, “we’re linking arms with faith-based groups all across the country.” The website of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships lists the members of the group, which includes:

15 Christians
3 Jews
2 Muslims
1 Hindu

Last year, Reverend Gaddy said of the council, “I would think that it would have been a priority to have had a Muslim leader on there and at least one representative from the non-Abrahamic traditions.” The White House has followed the letter of this suggestion, if not the spirit. Mr. Obama is clearly sticking to his past statement that America “is a country that is still predominantly Christian.” Sadly, nothing in the past year has shown that he has any interest in protecting the rights of minority religions or listening to their concerns.

President Obama with faith-based council members in 2010

Here's one last quote from Odin:
The eagle snaps and cranes his neck when he comes to the sea,
to the ancient ocean;
so does a man who comes among the multitude
and has few people to speak for him.
Who among us will be brave enough to speak for the voiceless and defend the defenseless? As one-time Obama supporter Matt Damon has said, “I no longer hope for audacity.”


Amalia T said...

The saddest part of this whole thing, is that it seems Obama is the lesser of two evils in the disregard of religious minorities. I shudder to think what the Republican candidates will do if they reach the white house -- everything these people are promising involves imposing their faith and morality on the rest of the nation, whether the rest of the nation is christian or not.

Henry Lauer said...

Thank you for these words. The troubling disjunct between words and actions - in religious, political , and ultimately, ethical arenas - has become so ubiquitous that it seems almost invisible.

Freedom of religious expression should not be seen as a luxury for those of us who are not attached to the Big Three.

I would never deny an individual's right to venerate Christ or Muhammad, but ironically it seems that in this case I cannot expect the Golden Rule to be applied towards me, even by those who claim to embody it.

For myself personally - and others I know - the decision however is to try to create a positive culture around our chosen spiritual milieu, rather than become mired in impotent frustration.

Setting sound roots seems like the most productive thing that can be done. By comparison, shouting at deaf politicians is still necessary (even Don Quixote occasionally, accidentally, had a victory), but no longer an inspiring course of action.

Thank you once again for sharing these sentiments.


Anonymous said...

While I see your point, I think demographically it makes sense that politicians, the media, etc., would focus on the religions of the vast, overwhelming majority of Americans. Of Americans who practice a religion, most are Christians, but a significant minority are Jewish or Muslim. A tiny fraction are Hindu or Pagan. Unfortunately, media time, public awareness, etc, are finite resources, and not every small group can expect equal representation. For example, I'm sure media in India devotes a relatively small amount of coverage to Christianity. I understand how frustrating it must feel to not see one's own beliefs in the mainstream, but it's hard for me to believe that that represents a deliberate prejudice when the groups involved are so small.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your comment. Interestingly, your remarks clearly show how media bias leads to misunderstanding among the general population.

You say, "Of Americans who practice a religion, most are Christians, but a significant minority are Jewish or Muslim. A tiny fraction are Hindu or Pagan." This is not supported by actual research numbers.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life gives the following statistics on "Major Religious Traditions in the U.S." Here are the percentages of U.S. population for various faiths:

Christian 78.4
Jewish 4.7
Buddhist 0.7
Muslim 0.6
Hindu 0.4
New Age (Wiccan, Pagan) 0.4
Native American Religion 0.3

Jewish people are 4.7% of the population. Is that really a "significant minority"? That's debatable, but this isn't -

The margin of error for the survey is ±0.6%. That means that there is no meaningful difference in the numbers of U.S. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans and followers of Native American Religion (all between 0.3% and 0.7% of the population).

Interestingly, there are more Buddhists than Muslims in America. Yet NPR, for example, devoted 44% of its 2011 religion coverage to Islam and .04% to Buddhism. You'll also note that they devoted .003% to Hinduism and 0% to Pagan and Native American faiths - despite the fact that all there is no statistically-significant difference in the relative number of adherents of any of these faiths.

I hope you now see my point - that biased media coverage leads to false assumptions about the sizes of "significant minorities."

You also say that "media time, public awareness, etc, are finite resources." I have covered this exact issue more than once, including in this article: "This is given the lie by the endless coverage of pop culture Evangelicals like Justin Bieber, Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. Religion journalists are making conscious decisions to ignore certain faiths, due to either prejudice or ignorance."

Finally, you assert that "media in India devotes a relatively small amount of coverage to Christianity." The Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life's study of Religion Reporting in India shows that the opposite is true: the Indian media tends to fixate on Christianity.

Indian newspapers devote much ink to stories of foreign Evangelical Christian groups spending a lot of time and money in an attempt to convert Indian Hindus and Muslims. Typical article titles include "It's conversion time in Valley" and "George Bush has a big conversion agenda for India."

Thank you again for reading my article. I'm glad that you decided to engage in a serious discussion.

Anonymous said...

“...and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.”

Ok, I have to rant

What "authorities"? The Demiurge and the Archons in Gnosticism? The Orwellian Thought Police? The Don't Go There You Sinful Person Fingerwag Police? The Don't Get an Education and be Smarter than Me Police?

The Native Americans and their religions were here long, long before the Europeans. They were/are NOT occult (that is, hidden). Forbidding someone to learn about them is like forbidding a resident of Rome to learn about Ancient Rome while the Coliseum looms in the background.

Sometimes I despair of the lack of imagination, intellectual curiosity, and inability to deal with reality in the U.S. Really despair of it.

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