Posts Tagged religion

Pope watching

Pope Francis IIt’s amazing how the choice of one religion’s leader can still be a worldwide event. As I write this, congratulations and snarky comments are flying on Facebook over the election of Pope Francis I. Why do all of use non-Catholics care?

A few years ago, when Benedict XVI was elected, I was in the midst of the high school crucible known as AP European History, so I was happy to put everything I’d learned about Avignon and Ignatius of Loyola to work as a Pope watcher.

I guess there is an element of glamorous drama involved, the same thing that makes Americans want to watch the Royal wedding. After all, it’s not every day that they elect a new Pope.

This event was also unprecedented in many ways. Benedict XVI was the first Pope to step down with a waiting replacement in over 600 years, and his successor is the first Pope from the Americas and only the third Jesuit Pope.

The Pope is more than a celebrity, though, and maybe that’s why the election of a new Pope is still relevant to non-Catholics. After years of heinous scandals and the obvious hypocrisy of a primarily white European governing body ruling over an increasingly diverse religion, people want change.

These are matters that should be the concern of everyone, regardless of their religion. That’s what makes this more than a media spectacle.

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Christmas truce

Santa ClausLike Black Friday and red and green M&Ms, the annual “War on Christmas” has become a holiday tradition. Like fanatical Civil War re-enactors, the two sides array themselves for battle every year because they can’t actually kill each other.

On one side, there are the non-Christian heathens and the lawyers and municipal governments that defend them by removing Nativity scenes and Christmas trees from town squares and shopping malls. On the other side are the defenders of the faith, most of whom work for Fox News.

For anyone of a non-Christian persuasion, it’s difficult to see why pundits like Bill O’Reilly get so riled up every year (even though “Papa Bear” sort of has the word “riled” in his name). It’s not that there’s a problem with Christmas, it’s just hard to sympathize with a group that is in the majority when it claims it is being oppressed.

The PC crowd can get out of control, but the current situation is an accurate reflection of American demographics. The majority of Americans celebrate Christmas, but not everyone does. That means, once in awhile, someone might not want to see Santa Claus, or Jesus.

The other side of the coin shows that, for a country that ostensibly separates church and state, Christianity gets plenty of privileges. Christmas is a federal holiday, and there is a very ostentatious Christmas tree in the White House.

The season also lasts for almost two months: This past Halloween, I saw Santa at the local mall, talking to kids toting trick-or-treat bags.

Knowledge of Christianity also seeps into the non-Christian consciousness very easily. Everyone has Christian friends, or learns about some facet of the religion in school; it’s almost impossible to study history or literature without that knowledge.

On the other hand, many Americans go through their lives without really knowing anyone who doesn’t worship Jesus, and they only learn about alternative beliefs through their own curiosity or through special programs in more enlightened public schools.

With that in mind, it’s hard to see how saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” can really be a threat to Christians’ enjoyment of their holiday. The generals fighting the “War on Christmas” just don’t understand how good they have it.

Jon Stewart put it best when he said that people like Bill O’Reilly “have confused loss of absolute power with oppression.” The simple fact is that some people don’t celebrate Christmas, and that really shouldn’t be the concern of the people who do.

It really isn’t that big of a deal: If someone wants to say “Merry Christmas” or erect an elaborate Nativity scene, they’re entitled to. They just need to remember that they are not the only people in the world, and to not take that reality personally.

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In politics, some things never change

When Rick Santorum said he wanted to “throw up” after reading John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech “The Religion Issue in American Politics,” it was, to say the least, controversial. How could a Catholic presidential candidate be so disgusted by the only Catholic president’s campaign statement on religion? Santorum thought Kennedy was trying to subvert religion and, as I shall try to explain, this is not the first time that mistake has been made. However, in today’s highly polarized social climate, it may have very different consequences.

Kennedy gave his speech on April 21, 1960 to answer anti-Catholic statements. His opponents argued that Kennedy would always put his religion first and thus would not represent the values of the majority of Americans. Kennedy answered with an endorsement of religious plurality. “For voters are more than Catholics, Protestants or Jews. They make up their minds for many diverse reasons, good and bad. To submit the candidates to a religious test is unfair enough – to apply it to the voters themselves is divisive, degrading and wholly unwarranted,” Kennedy said. Bringing religion into a presidential election only created false divisions among people who voted for a variety of reasons, not just religious ones.

Not every American practices the exact same religion, or thinks of everything in religious terms, but Santorum’s reaction to the Kennedy speech is not the first time someone has confused that statement for anti-religious sentiment. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When Jefferson became president, his Federalist opponents used those words against him.

Federalist newspapers published editorials declaring Jefferson an anti-Christian and thus unfit to lead the nation. Again, an endorsement of religious plurality was viewed by some as an attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular; in this case, Jefferson’s reference to “twenty gods or no gods” was twisted into proof that Jefferson was either a polytheist pagan or an atheist.

However, the Federalists’ propaganda would probably have been viewed differently in the 1800s than Santorum’s statement is in 2012. Jefferson had worked with the men that eventually became the Federalists to draft the principles of the new American republic; it is unlikely that their positions on religion’s relationship with politics differed enough for the Federalists to honestly argue that Jefferson’s policies threatened Christianity. Instead, this was good ‘ole character assassination, an attempt to paint Jefferson as immoral and thus unfit for the Presidency.

Santorum’s reaction to Kennedy’s speech has a much broader tone. He obviously wasn’t trying to say that Kennedy was immoral or unfit to lead, why would he? Instead, Santorum seemed to be trying to prove his chops as a defender of the faith in a Republican primary where conservative Christian votes matter.

In that context, it’s no wonder Santorum started feeling sick when he read the Kennedy speech, because he is doing exactly what Kennedy warned against: creating false divides based on voter’s religious views. Criticizing candidate Kennedy for acknowledging that people vote for non-religious reasons will only anger those people, and set them against Santorum’s supporters, whose fears of religious persecution are stirred up when the candidate talks about one of his fellow Catholic’s most important speeches as a threat to religious freedom.

The stakes are a lot higher than in Jefferson’s time. The author of the Declaration of Independence could shrug off an attack on his religious views, and return the favor in kind. The Federalists were attacking one man, Santorum was attacking a large segment of the electorate. In politics, some things never change, but the context does.

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