Saturday, January 22, 2005

American Tapestry

When I hear a girl say “I’m not really religious, but I’m spiritual,” I feel like saying “Well, I’m not really honest, but you’re attractive.” – Augie Smith

President Bush’s detractors – and even some political allies – have made much of his embracement, and public display, of his religion. His enemies claim that he is trying to turn the United States into a theocracy, while the doubting friends are uncomfortable and even embarrassed by his public mentions of God.

The enemies are in two camps: those who have a complete disdain for all things Christian (the secular Left), and those who think religion is only good as a way to hook more gullible voters. The former are characterized by Katie Couric, who in a 1998 interview suggested that Christian organizations were responsible for the death of Matthew Shepard. The latter are represented by the major Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, who – evidently as a result of a recent conversion -- in a recent speech in Boston invoked God more than half a dozen times.

At this point we come to a blending of problems: many people believe that the Constitution maintains that there is a “separation of church and state.” This view has been supported by several courts, who apparently see “separation” as a synonym for “outlawing any public display of Christian faith.”

Historically, the decisions by judges to ban prayer at football games, or declaring unconstitutional the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did, are relatively new, within the last sixty years or so. The current Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Court’s decision based solely on procedural grounds – it did not affirm our right to say the word “God” during the Pledge.

The modern point of view originates from an opinion by Justice Hugo Black in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). In his opinion, Justice Black used broad language to systematically argue for the complete removal of any religion from governmental discourse. This decision was followed by Engel v. Vitale in 1962. Next was Abrington v. Schempp, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Bible reading in schools was unconstitutional. This is widely regarded as the case in which the Supreme Court began to blatantly attempt to change America from a pro-religious society to an anti-religious one.

Modern courts have chosen these precedents to support their own biases and preferences. They ignored precedents such as Vidal v. Girard’s Executors (1844). In this case, Justice Joseph Story included in his majority opinion: “… the Christian religion is a part of the common law.”

In 1892 the Supreme Court noted: “…this is a Christian nation.”

In 1931 the Supreme Court said that the government must make decisions in the belief that these decisions “are not inconsistent with the will of God.”

In 1952, Justice Douglas wrote: “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being….We cannot read into the Bill of Rights a philosophy of hostility to religion.”

Clearly, those who try to play the “separation of church and state” card are on shaky legal ground.

As for those who are now trying to put God into their public language for political gain – good luck. This ruse will fool some of the people, but most will see through it. And perhaps those of the secular Left who disdain religion in all its manifestations will be consistent in their actions, and come out against those who dare to invoke a higher power.

As for those friends who feel that too much emphasis has been put on God, they also fall into two camps – those who are uncomfortable with discussing their own religious beliefs, and those who feel that Bush loses political credibility when he expresses his.

There’s nothing to be done about the first group; my advice for them is to deal with it. Become comfortable with discussing it, or don’t discuss it at all. But accept the fact that many people – Bush among them – use their faith as a source of strength, and don’t mind others knowing.

As for George Bush’s religion and his political credibility…David Aikman, a former senior correspondent for Time magazine who has written a book about Bush’s Christian faith, says “Virtually every American president in office has either been a person of faith or a supporter of the principle that faith was a good thing. I think this particular president – although he has been more outspoken than most recent people in office – is absolutely in the mainstream of an important American historical tradition.” In terms of religiosity, Aikman compares Bush to Democrats Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter and Republicans Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley.

After all this, some readers will think I must be some sort of religious kook. Far from it – those who know me best will vouch that my problems stem from other mental or emotional imbalances. But I understand that for a society to survive and thrive, it must have some sort of underlying foundation of right and wrong, a sense that there are rules that we break at our own peril. For an elitist group – 5 of the 9 Supreme Court justices, for example -- to try to unravel the tapestry of religion that is part of the essence of the American nation and society, vexes me.

Oh, by the way, the First Amendment says, in part:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…[emphasis added] The Founding Fathers should have included the judiciary.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Home Deposed

Owning a house is like feeding a teenager. They both have voracious appetites, and are a never-ending source of bother and comfort.

My wife reminded me again that the toilet in the guest bathroom takes too long to fill. She first told me about this problem sometime before Thanksgiving (she'll claim around Labor Day.) I have no reason to doubt her word, but I find it hard to believe that I would risk putting off something as important as a - gasp - slow-running toilet in the guest bathroom.

My original solution was to tell her to quit inviting guests. That didn't get much traction, so I pointed out that if they're guests a) they probably won't be over very often; b) they shouldn't be here long enough to need to use our bathroom; and c) they certainly won't be here long enough to know that the toilet is slow-filling. This theory was good until Thanksgiving, when her entire family (somewhere between 30 and 1000 people) showed up at our house to eat dinner. They consumed entirely too many liquids, necessitating numerous trips to the guest bathroom. Seeing that it was not filling fast enough, they transferred the traffic to our private -- and therefore not "company clean" -- bathroom.

That was the last straw.

Every man has his sanctum sanctorum, his batcave, his fortress of solitude where visitors are neither permitted nor welcome. My turf had been invaded, and it was time to do something about it.

Now it's January. Last night my wife again reminded me of the toilet. Her mind is all-encompassing and nothing escapes her notice. She is omniscient. Last night, after a full day of semi-torpor (aided by some heavy-duty cold-fighting medicine), I'm about to drift off to sleep, with nothing more on my mind than breathing.

My wife, after five days of serving as a juror in a high-profile trial that garnered world-wide headlines, still had enough awareness to focus my thoughts once again on the plumbing problem in the guest bathroom. "When are you going to fix that toilet?"

Her attention to detail is why I love her.

Heading into my day off, I need to 1) Repair the infamous toilet; 2) Repair our balky doorbell (which decided to convert its familiar ding dong to a sound akin to an angry wasp); 3) Replace three or four dozen light bulbs which manage to always burn out at the same time. This last chore is not as simple as it sounds, as we have ten-foot ceilings which make the light fixtures just this much too high for me to reach without help, but not high enough to require getting the step ladder. What this means is that I take my extra-large frame and step up onto a flimsy chair to change a light bulb, which often leads to a humiliating fall, and occasional shards of glass in my hair.

My Monday morning will complete the experience, as the guys I work with will be discussing the NFL playoffs, while I savor the memory of a full toilet tank.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Where Have All My Heroes Gone?

In 1979 I read a book about a good ole boy Texan who goes to the big city and shows the city slickers how it's done. Through hard work, bravery and horse sense, he wins the day and becomes a hero.

The book, "The Camera Never Blinks," was the story of Dan Rather, who rose from east Texas as a newscaster, braving hurricanes to get his story. He finally hit the big time with his coverage of John Kennedy's assassination in 1963. He moved up to the networks and New York City, where he eventually replaced Walter Cronkite as the anchor on the CBS Evening News.

I was 21 when I read Rather's story, and remembered seeing him on TV covering Vietnam. I hadn't realized he was from Texas until I read his book, and I was proud on two counts: 1) He earned his position with the networks, and 2) He was a Texan.

Imagine my chagrin 25 years later when I'm rooting for him to be fired, and am convinced that he represents everything wrong with what is commonly called "the mainstream media."

The report from the internal investigation into CBS News and the so-called "Memogate" scandal came out today, and four people lost their jobs. Dan Rather was not one of them. The man who was out front, who took over the position of trust from "Uncle Walter," who reportedly has nearly ultimate power in his division, came out clean as a least as far as the report is concerned.

It is complete blind arrogance on the part of CBS for them to think that anyone can have any doubt that the report on 60 Minutes was politically motivated. A scandal (backed by hard evidence!) that shows (beyond a doubt!) that George W. Bush shirked his responsibilities in the Air National Guard -- seven weeks before the election! I'm flabbergasted at their hubris. OF COURSE IT WAS POLITICALLY MOTIVATED. To deny something so obvious is nearly as big a crime as the original report. What kind of contempt for other people does it take to try to pass a story like that off as the truth?

There is a trust that Americans place -- warranted or not -- in the major media. Network news, major newspapers, and the wire services have traditionally presented themselves as impartial, reporting the truth. Jack Webb used to say "Just the facts, ma'am." That's what the major media want us to believe they present to us. The truth is that they've betrayed that trust.

That's why it hurts to render judgment on Dan Rather. Despite my initial admiration, he betrayed me; he betrayed us, and I watch what's happening to him with grim satisfaction. His fall from grace is Shakespearean in scope; his reputation is in a shambles. The only compatible scenario is what happened to Richard Nixon. Nixon's abuse of his position has been documented for a generation, and he has long been held up as the ultimate example of corrupting power. It's ironic that his major nemesis in the media, Dan Rather, is experiencing the same fate. The truth caught up to him, and it crushed him beneath its wheels.

Let's hope that for justice's sake Rather's name is uttered with Nixonian scorn 25 years from now.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Tale of Two Mothers

Among the overload of news stories the last couple of weeks, two caught my attention because of the contrasts.

Story #1: The tsunami that hit Phuket, Thailand, forced Jillian Searle to make a choice no mother should ever have to make: which son to hold on to in raging flood waters, and which to let go and hope he survived.

Searle, of Perth, Western Australia, was near her Phuket hotel pool with sons Lachie, 5, and Blake, 2, when the tsunami hit last Sunday. "I knew I had to let go of one of them and I just thought I'd better let go of the one that's the oldest,'' she said. "A lady grabbed hold of him for a moment but she had to let him go because she was going under. And I was screaming, trying to find him, and we thought he was dead.''

Lachie was found safe two hours later after surviving the raging waters by clinging to a hotel room door.

Story #2: A Texas appeals court has overturned Andrea Yates' capital murder conviction for drowning her children in 2001. She was sentenced to life in prison, but the appeals judge has ruled the case included erroneous testimony by a witness to the prosecution. The ruling was in response to testimony by psychiatrist Park Dietz who referred to an episode of "Law & Order" that did not exist.

These two stories attracted my attention because of choices. Searle had to choose which child she had to let die so that the other could live. Yates had to choose which of her children to kill first.

On the face of it, overturning Yates' conviction because of a TV show looks ridiculous. She did it, doesn't deny that she did it, the entire world knows she did it. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

But the American judicial system is funny -- when it works right, it even protects those that are guilty. It doesn't protect them from punishment; it ensures that they get a fair chance to present their arguments, and to defend themselves vigorously.

In the Yates case, Dietz claimed that an episode of "Law and Order" told the story of a woman who drowned her children in the bathtub and got away with it by pleading insanity. Andrea Yates was an avid watcher of that show; ipso facto, she got the idea of how to get away with murdering her own children. The jury heard this, and the prosecution referred to it in its argument.

The only problem is, such an episode never aired. Dietz was wrong. And Andrea Yates did not get a fair trial.

The overturned conviction will be appealed all the way up the judicial ladder, so Yates may not go free, as many people fear. Then again, she might.

Most people cry out for justice for the five dead children. (Some think the father is just as culpable as she is, but he's not the one that held their heads under water.)

The justice system becomes stronger when it's applied appropriately and fairly. Old-time lynchings and kangaroo courts tested the mettle of the US system, but it survives. Every accused American, including Andrea Yates, should have his or her day in court.

Having said all that, Andrea Yates should never see the light of day again. Our culture has become a little too tolerant of the murder of children for my tastes. Let Andrea Yates have her day in court, but she did kill her children. If she's sick, then treat her, but treat her behind bars.

God forbid that she should ever come face to face with Jillian Searle in free air.