Arizona’s Bad Bill and the Religious Take Over of Public Space


Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona,  by vetoing a bill allowing a religious exemption to merchants to provide services that would violate their religious convictions, has restored a moment of sanity into a dangerous strategy orchestrated primarily with those opposed to gay rights, including gay marriage. No doubt, economic pressures and threats of boycotts from outside Arizona, played a role in swaying the governor’s mind. But this is only a momentary relief in what is a very dangerous initiative to exploit religious freedom where it does not belong.

When it comes to the freedom the United States more than any country on the globe bends over backwards to ensure that religious conscience is respected. Indeed, behaviors that would be illegal if undertaken on the basis of secular rationales enjoy a religious exemption if enacted for religious reasons. I am thinking of laws that, for example, permit Amish children to end their education at 14, and allow practitioners of Santeria to engage in animal sacrifice. Some of these carve outs are pernicious, such as giving a pass to parents who reject medical intervention for their children on religious grounds (think Christian Science) even if it leads to chronic impairment or death of the children so neglected. Opting out of vaccinating their children is a related example with highly destructive individual and public consequences. Some progressives may see specific religious exceptions as positive. I am thinking here of military conscientious objection. Others may be relatively harmless.

But the employment of religious motives to deny services in the marketplace to members of the public is of a different order. In the first place, it violates the principles that govern public accommodations that was a major political and social victory of the civil rights era. Such values have been ingrained in American life for half a century, and when it comes to race are no longer in debate. The public market is simply subject to different rules, and this is as it should be. Secondly, allowing merchants to provide services to whom they choose based on their individual religious criteria, opens the door wide for social anarchy. And needless to say is a powerful refuge for bigotry.

The United States is a religion-making machine and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of religions in America, each subject to their own personal interpretation. Our commitment to religious freedom requires that the government take a hands-off approach to assessing which beliefs are legitimate (or legitimately religious) or not. And this is as it should be.

Gay marriage is the flash point for the Arizona showdown, though Arizona is not the only state with such laws in the making. In my view it is correct to allow religious officiants to refuse to perform gay marriage if doing so violates their religious doctrine. Religious freedom emphatically requires this lest we have established governmental dominion over religion. I believe few debate this. But the current conflict centers around those entrepreneurs who provide services ancillary to weddings, such as bakers, florists, photographers, perhaps caterers, services that do not have theological content.

As an Ethical Culture leader, a humanist and atheist I have officiated at over 500 weddings. I would suspect, given that wide-ranging experience, there must have been at least few florists or wedding planners, who, if they knew beforehand of my own religious orientation, would have wanted to have no part in the wedding.

For the sake of discussion, enabling such weddings may violate the religious convictions of the merchants. But so may the conscience of a conservative Christian hardware store owner selling a ratchet to a Jew, or a Muslim cab driver providing service to an unescorted woman.

Again, here the rules of the market much hold sway. If a merchant is permitted to serve the public, then he or she cannot discriminate for any reason as to which sector of the public he chooses to service and from which he will withhold his services. In a religious diverse and pluralistic society, public norms, which require accessibility to all must trump private proclivities, religious or otherwise.

Weddings are personal affairs, which raise the issue into higher relief. As implied, the law must require the objecting baker, photographer or florist to provides services, even when doing so violates sincerely held religious convictions (Let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that they are sincere, and not a mask for crude bigotry).

But, in the real world, we can assume that the sensitivity surrounding the wedding event would cause the marrying couple to want to avoid the unpleasantness of having to coerce a reluctant merchant from involvement in what should be a happy affair, if he or she, did not want to do so.

The legal rights of the couple must have the last word. But as in so many areas affecting entrenched differences in human affairs, negotiation and dialogue in practical terms need to be employed to resolve unpleasant disputes.  I know from serving on an ethics committee at a local hospital that the law permits patients on respirators for whom additional care would be futile, to have the respirator turned off, if the patient so wills it. Someone needs to found to turn the switch to allow the patient to die, and this duty usually falls upon nurses. On occasion, the appointed employee refuses on personal religious or principled grounds to what is ordered, though such passive euthanasia in accordance with the law and the will of the patient. In such cases, the response of the hospital is usually not to coerce compliance, but to find another staff member for whom the deed presents no problems.

Though not to excuse bigotry, by analogy, if the marrying couple comes across a service provider who refuses to participate in the spirit of the occasion, in most cases they can usually find one who will.

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David Brooks Turns Pastoral

It is sometimes said that David Brooks of the New York Times is the one conservative whom liberals like. I am not one of them. I find Brooks oily and  often a bit smug. But I must admit I do like the level at which he discusses issues. Brooks more often than not looks at the the news of the day from the  underlying values and dynamics, philosophical and sociological, that animate them. He likes to reach deeper. While I seldom agree with his conclusions, I do applaud Brooks’ approach as a commentator. This, to my view is the perspective that Ethical Culture should take. We are not a news service. Our role is not journalistic. It is to elucidate and reinforce values that underlie our manifest experiences.

With that said, David Brook’s Op-Ed of January20th  in the Times caught my attention and won my assent. Not only did I affirm his voice, I concurred totally with his conclusions. It was an unusual piece because it dealt with what we might call a pastoral issue. It was a  topic of central concern to me as an Ethical Culture leader.  Entitled “The Art of Presence” it relates the tragic story of a family in which one daughter was killed and another suffered horrendous and lasting injury as a result of an accident. Brooks’ article was inspired by a blog penned by the surviving sister.

In it Brooks relates a dilemma we all face in attempting to support or console those who are suffering, and taking his cues from the writer, suggests what we ought to do and what we ought not to do.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is simply be present for the other. I have found in my work, when confronting persons who are ill, bereaved or actively dying, our presence is mercifully all that people want and need from us, and it is enough. There is a pressure to want to do something, to alleviate the pain of the other, to say something that will console. But frequently out of that pressure, we make things worse.

Among the things we ought not say or do are the following:

  • Don’t compare the person’s suffering with someone else’s. Each person’s tragedy is unique and comparing their suffering to that of another doesn’t help and may be a false comparison.
  • Don’t tell people that that their suffering is all for the best. This no doubt will ring false. It doesn’t help.
  • Don’t tell people in the face of great tragedy or suffering “you’ll get over it.” You don’t. In time one may get used to the tragedy, but great loss and the experience of searing tragedy in some sense stays with us for the rest of our lives. I know this personally, My own mother died when I was twelve, and I think of her almost every day more than 50 years later.


What we can do, as Brooks puts it, is “bring soup.”Often unspoken gestures are the most powerful. I remember having an acquaintance whose daughter was killed in a terrorist attack. A common friend came over and simply shoveled the snow from the grieving mother’s driveway and sidewalk. He couldn’t bring her daughter back. Nothing he could say could possible assuage the searing pain of losing a child. But a simple, quiet, kind gesture can go a long way.


And finally, the writer instructs us to be a builder. In other words, in the face of the pain of the other, don’t just parachute in and then disappear. But be supportive for the long haul. This, no doubt, is not easy and often tests our capacity for caring. But it is assuredly right.


In the face of the suffering of the other we are sometimes confronted with the decision to respond or not respond. Sometimes reaching out is emotionally awkward and difficult. But in my own experience I have found when in doubt, it is almost always better to be present. As mentioned, I often don’t admire David Brooks. But in this case, I tip my hat to him. He provides us with very relevant advice. And he got it right.

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Governor Christie, Thy Name Is Arrogance

              To paraphrase Aristotle “Ethics is politics; politics, ethics.” A first principle of democratic governance is that political leaders are elected to serve the interests of the people and not their own.

            Enter Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. I live in New Jersey, which vies with Rhode Island and Illinois as sustaining the most corrupt political culture in the nation. But the recent and ongoing scandal, come to be known as “Bridgegate,” may well render the Garden State the dubious distinction of first place.

            For four days last September, orders come down from the Christie administration to deliberately close four approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, thus creating a protracted traffic snarl without precedent. This is not a small thing functionally, politically or ethically. One can only imagine the wages lost, the job interviews missed, and the risk to life and safety as emergency vehicles were brought to a standstill.

            The motive for this tactic, which added misery, if not danger to the lives of uncountable thousands (the George Washington Bridge is the busiest in the world), was not to serve the people, but political revenge. The manifest story is that these lanes were shut down to punish and thereby serve as an abject lessen to all those who would defy the governor and his political ambitions. The mayor of Fort Lee did not vote for Christie in his recent re-election bid, which he predictably won in a landslide.

            The motive barely makes sense on its own terms. Fort Lee is a small town of barely 35, 000 people. Its mayor is a Democratic, so why should it be assumed that he should pledge his loyalty to a Republican governor? When we widen the focus the context becomes clearer. Christie is micromanaging his politics to position himself as the Republican candidate for president in 2016. He is banking on generating the image that he can reach across the aisle to work productively with the Democratic opposition, and indeed his victories in New Jersey have been won by wooing traditionally Democratic Party voters. It was recently revealed that after their elections, the mayors of Harrison, Hoboken, Union City and Jersey City, the second largest city in the state, Democrats all, received calls from the Christie administration pledging tens of millions of dollars in state aid for their municipalities. Within hours of learning that these mayors voted for Christie’s Democratic opponent, a new round of calls were made summarily cutting off those funds. The vindictiveness and self-interest of these maneuvers in their obtuseness and pettiness boggle the mind.

            The scandal moves closer to home. On January 14th I was invited to Trenton to witness the swearing in of New Jersey senate president, Loretta Weinberg, as well as listen to Christie’s State of the State address later that afternoon.  Loretta at 78 is the rare model of moral integrity in contemporary politics and a loyal defender of progressive causes as she is her constituents. She is also a friend of the Ethical Society in Bergen County and a personal friend. More to the point, she is a strident opponent of the governor, and it’s rumored that a primary target of the bridge closing was Senator Weinberg, not solely Fort Lee’s mayor.

            In a two-hour press conference, the Governor held forth with his apologia. It was mostly about himself. Central to his defense was that he knew nothing about the order issued from his office to shut down the bridge. Those closest to him betrayed him, but his own hands are clean. And in a Nixonian moment he declared “I am not a bully.”

            Many questions about this sordid affair penetrate deeply. I continually ask myself, reflecting on Christie’s staffers, “With their unbridled arrogance, who the hell are these people?” They are in fact mediocre apparatchiks whose petty and vindictive behavior gives us a window into the rotten state of contemporary politics. The power they arrogate to themselves allows them to thoroughly divorce themselves from the people they are meant to serve and it places them above the public welfare in the service of narrow partisan designs. Those who cherish democracy need to look at this affair as a case study of how it is dangerously slipping away from us.

            And then there is the governor himself. Numerous investigations, both on the state and federal levels, will reveal whether Christie knew about this grotesque abuse before, during or after it happened. Given the close-knit relations he sustains among his staff, his penchant to micromanage and the strident inquiries made from officials in both New Jersey and New York while this debacle was unfolding, it is hard to believe that he was in the dark or so uncurious as to not inquire.

            But even he did not know, he still remains inescapably responsible. Yes, despite protestations, Chris Christie is a bully. He has presented the image as a straight-talking everyman, a type of populist who has beguiled large swaths of middle Americans as well as fellow New Jerseyans. But Christie is more than that. His first initiative upon becoming governor was to attack teachers and wage war on the teachers’ union. He never misses the opportunity to for a photo-op humiliating a citizen who dares to challenge him. Christie is a bully and has created among those around him a culture of bullying, which makes the arrogance of “Bridgegate” thoroughly consistent with his character and designs. In doing what they did, his staffers knew well that they had their boss’s blessing.

            But beyond images there remains more. Christie is a darling of Wall Street and an agent of  gargantuan monied interests. The Koch brothers love him. (See a recent blog entry by Chris Hedges on “Truthdig”).  Behind Christie lies massive corporate power.  Combine that power with his penchant for Machiavellian tactics, with the employment of the dirtiest of tricks to destroy his enemies. Then put him in the White House and begin to shudder.

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Christie on Gay Rights

Gay marriage has at long last come to New Jersey. It has traveled the circuitous byways of the courts, then the legislature, the Governor’s veto and then final validation by the courts. None of this could have happened without assertive and persistent grass-roots organizing that has enabled the legislative change and has been emboldened by it.

An interesting development is that Governor Chris Christie has dropped his judicial appeal on the ostensibly grounds that the New Jersey Supreme Court will uphold the Superior Courts ruling and battling their decision is a lost cause. There has been some muted gratitude expressed to the Governor for this shift in his political trajectory coming from the gay community.

But it would be mistaken to equate the Governor’s action with a change of heart. Christie’s volte-face is a shrewd political calculation based on his future ambition.

Christie is being touted as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2016, an aspiration he has not denied. Refusing to take on gay rights, which ultra-conservatives see as an abandonment of principle, is a shrewd political calculation.

The Republican Party is currently involved in a vicious internecine struggle for its control. The Tea Party minority by virtue of its fanaticism (people of this stripe were not long ago ago referred to as “the lunatic fringe”) at the moment exert commanding control over the more “mainline” and ostensibly rational center. Christie, who looks two years down the road concludes that if the Tea Party zealots retain that control in 2016, he has little chance of getting the nomination. I suspect that he assumes that the GOP will rebalance itself in the next two years and the more moderate factions will wrest control from the zealots. He has to assume this future in order to win the nomination.

If this pertains then supporting gay marriage, or at least not combating it, on obdurate, principled grounds makes sense. Younger voters have made gay marriage their signature issue and the national majority is tending in this direction. Gay marriage is one of those issues Republicans need to embrace if they seek to demarginalize themselves as a shrinking, aging cohort of angry old white men who are increasingly irrelevant to American demography and the politics that flow from it. Immigration reform, which appeals to Latinos, is the other.

I loathe the Governor’s politics, but by temperament and by reading what is pragmatically necessary, he realizes that a strident defense of gay marriage at this point is a losing game. The extremist ideologues hate him for what they see as a sell-out; he is not one of them, and cannot be trusted.

Christie is also soon in a governor’s face against Democrat Barbara Buono, who strongly supports gay marriage. It is predicted to be a trouncing, By appearing to be soft on this issue, he may further undercut Buono support on this issue, thus increasing his margin of victory even further, fortifying his standing as he keeps  his eyes strongly focused on 2016.


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Syria: At Last Some Hope


At the time of this writing, Secretary of State, John Kerry is negotiating with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to reach an agreement to locate and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. It is remarkable turn of events in what has been an exceedingly tense and complex international drama.

 Like many others, I my attention has been affixed to the horror of the Syrian civil war, which has become regional, if not global, in its implications. The two and half years of savage warfare in Syria  have been riveting, in no small measure because the extraordinary cruelty that has unfolded there has been matched by the world’s inability to do anything of significance to stop the carnage. Nation states, the international community and individuals worldwide are passive witnesses forced to confront their own impotence in the face of unprecedented human suffering. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, in excess of two million refugees have fled, threatening to destabilize their host countries, and millions more in Syria have become internally displaced persons.

 The cruelty of the Assad regime seems boundless. As part of the ruling clique of Alawites, a religious minority comprising no more than 11% of the Syrian population, he is fighting for his survival. As such, there are no limits on how far he will go to sustain his power. As the fighting persists, factions comprising the opposition, some of which are jihadi extremists, have proven no less inhumane. There is not much virtue to be found on either side.

 The use of poison gas by the Assad regime has shifted the dynamics of the war, and swiftly and surprisingly has shone the first ray of hope on what has seemed a hopeless situation. As we know, President Obama months ago declared the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as a “red line” (we can question the wisdom of such a declaration in that it transfers the initiative to the enemy) which, if crossed, would trigger an American military response.

 And so we have Obama walking a narrow tight rope while placing himself in a lose-lose position. The threatened military response has a stated two-fold justification. First, it sends a message that international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, prohibitions which have been in place since shortly after World War I, (though violated on several occasions without American protest) need to be dramatically reinforced so that they not be used again. Second, the administration asserts that their use by Assad threatens America’s security interests. I find the first rationale especially interesting because it invokes the discourse of international human rights and humanitarian law, making their protection the centerpiece of our foreign policy, and  I am not unsympathetic to the need give teeth to the recognition of such norms The second justification seems far more tenuous in my view, gaining force only if the threat directed at Syria is primarily meant for Iran to deter its nuclear program.

 There is a tortured quality to Obama’s stated case. On the one hand he wishes to solely destroy Assad’s chemical capacity and curtail the further use of these hideous weapons. On the other, he does not want the attack to overthrow the Assad regime, nor explicitly strengthen the opposition, even as he has declared the need for an end to the Assad regime. Beyond that hairsplitting position is the brute reality that introducing cruise missile assaults into an already unspeakably chaotic theater of conflict can generate consequences which are simply unpredictable in advance. For example, rather than curtailing the use of chemical weapons, how can the best of military planners be confident that if Assad’s forces are degraded as a result of an American assault, he will not feel even more desperate and more inclined, to further unleash his chemical arsenal?  We may end up aggravating the very situation we seek to contain.

 Obama’s position is unenviable. If he does not receive Congressional endorsement for the assault on Syria (and it appears that he will not) and backs off, he will not only violate the condition he himself established, but weaken the authority of the presidency as well as American prestige in the eyes of both friends and foes. If he proceeds without Congressional approval, he will do so in defiance of the support he himself invoked and in isolation from the global community.

 Enter Vladimir Putin. What an irony it is that Russia’s president may save Obama from himself! Though totally unexpected, Russia’s initiative and concurrence to place Assad’s chemical arsenal under international inspection and have them destroyed, may not be that quixotic. Though Russia is Syria’s main patron, it has more to fear from Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons (Syria is in fact a chemical weapons superpower) than the United States, especially if those weapons fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. On needs to think of Chechnya and the former Soviet republics of central Asia with restive Islamic factions.

 Needless to say, the marshaling of Assad’s chemical weapons, which are no doubt hidden throughout the country and requires his untrustworthy cooperation, and doing so in the midst of a virulent civil war, is an exceedingly daunting task. Moreover, the United States wants to retain the threat of force to ensure compliance, while Russia opposes it. This alone, could destroy what is a proposal which could conceivably open the door to further negotiation to end the hostilities. At best, it is a long shot, but as mentioned, the first inkling of hope injected into a wanton and hopeless situation.

 But a broader question, indeed an ethical question, that should interest us is the relationship of violence to peace making. What is crystal clear is that without the American threat of force, this breakthrough would never have occurred. And that threat may still be necessary if progress is to be made. We who abhor violence and war, and (speaking for myself) are pacificistically oriented, need to ask whether violence is a justifiable tool to offset even greater violence and to  protect the lives of larger numbers of people who would otherwise be killed in by war or genocide. This question seems to confront the world more frequently since the end of the Cold War. Many believe that thousands of lives were saved in Kosovo as a result of America’s attack on Belgrade, and hundreds of thousand lost because the United States and the UN shamefully did nothing to stop genocide in Rwanda, when a modest military presence could have readily done so. More recently many were saved in Libya, even though disorder continues to reign there. The planned American attack on Syria raises similar questions. They are agonizing questions, but unavoidable ones.

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Zimmerman and Privatization

From the crowds demonstrating in the streets to President Barack Obama, the prevailing narrative governing the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin is that of race. And understandably so. A white man pursues a black teenage with a gun, a scuffle ensues. The African-American youth is killed. The white man is exonerated. American judicial history is drawn on the fault line of unequal justice for whites and blacks.  This remains painfully true in the disproportionate conviction of young black males, especial. The tragic death of Trayvon Martin replicates this deep-rooted dimension of inequality which is still very much with us. Race comes to the forefront, as it should and must.

But there is a second major narrative all but ignored by the media and its pundits, and that is the head long move toward privatization in  American society. Think of it this way: The killing occurred on the grounds of a private condominium, which relied on a private “police” force. George Zimmerman, as a private citizen, was legally permitted to carry a gun. But more to the point, he availed himself of Florida’s concealed  carry law, ensuring that no one, including, Trayvon Martin, knew he was armed.

Combine the right to conceal and carry a weapon with Florida’s “stand your ground law,” and the state has almost literally created a law free zone, protected by the state, which virtually encourages people to kill each other with impunity. It’s  a formula for legalized vigilantism, for violence perpetrated by theother, devoid of sanctions.

Two guys get into an argument in a bar, which escalates into a physical brawl. Person “A” gets the upper hand on person “B,” to the extent that “B” feels threatened and his life or bodily integrity are at risk. He pulls out his concealed gun and kills combatant “A.” It’s a scenario that can be replicated ubiquitously and with great facility. We have moved to a dangerous place in a American society, which causes a retreat from the public sector, and with it, the propensity to “take the law into one’s own hands.” Behind it is skepticism about government, the public realm and the common good.

More than racist animus stood behind this tragic killing.

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Humanism and Progress

Below is a letter I have penned to The New York Times. It pertains to a fascinating review (7/7/13) by the philosopher, Thomas Nagel, of a recent book by John Gray, who is critical of the humanist project.

To the Editor:

John Gray’s attack on humanism, as reviewed by Thomas Nagel (“The Silence of Animals” Book Review, July 7, 2013), brings to mind the “Battle Across Broadway” waged in the 1930s between  the humanist and Columbia philosopher, John Dewey, and the Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught for decades at Union Theological Seminary. Dewey believed that the intelligence gleaned from the social sciences, when tagged to human interests, could result in incremental progress. Niebuhr countered that such liberal belief was a dangerous illusion in that human beings are besotted with “original sin,” which he identified with collective egoism and self-interest that frustrated forward advance for the human species. Dewey, in essence, countered that the problem with such a doctrine is the persistence by its defenders to believe in it, and once freed of such dogma, humankind could socially move ahead.

Dewey did not deny that the human career was riddled with impediments and frustrations. But, unlike Niebuhr and John Gray, he asserted that the human future is an open one. And if so, we simply cannot know where the limits of human progress lie. This refusal to believe that the human prospect is foreclosed is source of the humanist’s hope both then and now.

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