It was just a couple of weeks ago that President Clinton, in an effort to charge up his campaign bid for the next election, promised to lead Americans out of their “funk.” Most Americans misunderstood that remark, certainly not the first time that has happened to Bill Clinton. For the last while Clinton has been back peddling, trying to undo the possible damage of an association between his view of America’s funk and Jimmy Carter’s assessment of America’s malaise. Carter was going to lift us out of our malaise, and instead that remark sealed his political coffin. Americans don’t elect leaders to change their psychological state; we elect officials to represent our personal self-interests.
I kind of like the term “funk,” and agree that our nation is deeply entrenched in a funk, and that if anyone is going to liberate us from this debilitating funk, it will have to be a political leader, preferably our nation’s president.
Funk is a good term, and probably the only term a president can use in describing the spiritual pulse of our nation without sounding too cynical or preachy. Linda Hirshman, a law professor out of Chicago, describes the current American spirit as a “self-seeking amorality.” Now, a president may think that, but he can’t say that.
Nor can a president say the stuff that Pope John Paul II has been stating in his masses about being open to immigrants and the poor–if I were Governor Pete Wilson, I’d take the papal remarks very personally and might even consider repenting. If I were Newt Gingrich, I’d figure the pope’s remarks were another good reason to hate Catholics.
The religious admonitions to which the pope has called us have been clearly stated in secular lingo as well by David Price, a political science professor at Duke. Says Price, “Life in modern society requires us to extend the rules and obligations of civil society to people whom we will never personally know.” Those words in fact define Price’s requirements of a democracy.
So what did Clinton mean by “funk?” I think it is a kind of paralysis in society created by clashing views of morality. The conservative revolution proclaims morality as a way of tending the superficial: prayer in school, banning books, eliminating rights for those who are different in skin color, nationality, or sexual orientation.
Clinton declares morality a matter of how society treats its citizens. Issues of fairness and justice come into play, as well as answering the question: Is it safe to be different from the majority? What does a civilized society mean?
“American Funk” suggests to me an attempt to move our nation away from the liberal/conservative polarity, the left/right spectrum so divisive and attempt to redefine the challenge to our nation more neutrally, that our task is revitalizing civil society. That is, to stop feeling helpless and cynical as opposing ideologies clash on big government, states rights, taxes, deficit reduction, etc. and begin to own up to the fact that something is desperately wrong with our society. We need a renewal of national purpose and a renewal of values which will nurture a civil society.
Once we all thought naively that the universe was expanding outward from a note hit by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Love beads would line the path to a utopian society. That was long before the World Trade Towers was bombed; long before Oklahoma City; long before the magnum-carrying camouflage-wearing right wing militias; long before the frightening voices of radio talk show hosts began to convince Americans that minorities and homosexuals and feminists and immigrants wanted to take away what they had worked so hard for. Hate became a legitimate politics and America’s long quest for community came to a grinding halt because of the incessant demands of self-interest.
The white anger, the black jubilation at the OJ Simpson jury’s verdict speaks of a deep-seated racism defying any rational system of justice. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chairman of the African American Studies at Harvard said, “Blacks were cheering against 100 years of lynch law.”
I guess that is what is meant by the term, “playing the race card.” Even Justice Clarence Thomas played that race card when facing an all white judiciary committee at his confirmation hearing. He used the word “lynching” which brought history right to the moment at hand.
The New York Times alluded to an ethic among black women: “You never go against your men. You don’t want to give the whites any more ammunition.” Did we know before OJ just how divided the races were?
Ben Stein, a Los Angeles lawyer, made a chilling comment: “When OJ gets off, the whites will riot the way whites do: leave the cities, go to Idaho or Arizona, vote for Gingrich, and punish blacks by closing their day care programs and cutting off their Medicaid.”
What is the larger moral purpose of American life? A very simplified view reveals liberals trying to build an alliance between the middle class and the poor, while conservatives aim to forge a coalition between the middle class and the rich. Isn’t it obvious why the conservatives are winning? Their appeal is great: we’ll cut your taxes by cutting services to the poor.
But along come some Democrats every once in a while, like a Jimmy Carter who says we’re in this malaise caused by excessive self-interest. Americans wanted to deny that and showed Carter the door. Then along comes Clinton who says we are in a funk–a dangerous assessment for any politician to make. But I think what Carter and Clinton were trying to articulate is that people have not only material needs, economic concerns, self-interests for acquiring more things…but these two leaders addressed the spiritual needs of people. Funk is a spiritual term. Isn’t there a yearning to transcend self-interest and create a different kind of world?
The larger moral purpose of America which we are currently trying to define at the polls, revolves around either creating a community of caring, or perpetuating the growing love affair with individualism. In a world of shrinking resources and growing sense of apocalypse, the me-first ethic appeals to the immediate emotional concerns and biases of most Americans.
Thus we face an erosion of trust, an erosion on connectedness with others. I believe it was John Kennedy who was the last politician to get away with raising the specter of sacrifice: where individuals were asked what they were willing to sacrifice for the good of the community. Now there is so much terror of the other: the person of color, the immigrant, the homosexual, that we seek communities which preserve the narrow focus of ourselves.
The moral purpose of American life is honoring a commitment to a community larger than the specific community in which we live. It is a moral commitment to people we will never personally know.
Why make this commitment? In the lingo of conservative religion, to acknowledge the infinite preciousness of every human being created in the image of god. In the lingo of humanism and liberal religion: to affirm and promote the inherent dignity of every person, justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
–Reverend Tom Goldsmith
Chapter Approves Strategic Plan
The October 12 meeting of Humanists of Utah was devoted to a review and discussion of the proposed Strategic Plan that was distributed to all members in September. The Plan was developed over the summer by a committee of volunteers consisting of Norman Carsey, Curtis Dowdle, Hugh Gillilan, Willa Mae Helmick, Nancy Moore, Jewel Snow, Flo Wineriter, and Earl Wunderli. A large turnout of members reflected a keen interest in the Plan.
Following the review and discussion, the members voted unanimously to adopt the Plan. Six standing committees will now develop and implement action plans to achieve the six goals listed in the Plan. Members have just begun to sign up to work on one or more of the committees. The initial volunteers are as follows:
- For the Education Committee, which will work on the goal of providing “a humanistic educational program that will help members develop their natural inner strengths in order to practice the art of living”: Alice Jensen and Barbara Kleiner.
- For the Community and Support Committee, which will help the chapter to “serve as a community for those members who value warm relationships with others, and provide support for those who are discovering humanism as an attractive alternative to their religious beliefs”: Millie Johnson, Camille Pierce, and Jewel Snow.
- For the Outreach Committee, which will “reach out into the larger community to those who may be interested in the humanist alternative:” Barbara Luke, Aldona Meilutyte, Camille Pierce, Jewel Snow, Barbara Steed, and Sandy Usry.
- For the Social and Political Issues Committee, which will seek to “make humanistic views known on social and political issues, primarily through the individual actions of its members”: Curt Dowdle, Leon Ward, and Virginia Ward.
- For the Compassionate Service Committee, which will “encourage members to engage in compassionate service, both individually and, when appropriate, collectively”: Beulah Gaster, Harvey Gaster, and Hugh Gillilan.
- For the Humanist Center Committee, which will “explore the possibility of developing a humanist center”: Rolf Kay.
Other members are encouraged to volunteer for one or more of these committees. Volunteers should contact Earl Wunderli who is coordinating the formation and operation of the committees. When the committees are formed and the chairpersons named, Wunderli will hold a meeting of all chairpersons to share ideas about committee operations.
The beautiful, oak stained, modern speakers, podium is finished and has been delivered. This attractive piece of furniture has a powerful built-in amplifier, large, top-quality speaker system, twin-tape deck, an unobtrusive microphone and a small, high intensity light to make it easy for presenters to see their script. The self contained unit is mounted on durable wheels for easy movement from the storage closet to Eliot Hall. Once in place, the wheels can be locked for stability.
Everyone attending our monthly meetings will now hear with clarity the interesting ideas of our presenters. The tape deck makes it possible to play music before and after our programs and to record high quality tapes of our guest speakers. The generous donations of 48 members made this project possible and the technical expertise of Lee Schuster made it a reality. The first official use of our new equipment will be at our next meeting, Thursday, November 9, 1995.
On Sunday, October 8, 1995 Humanists of Utah participated in the first annual N-Day (Non-Belief Day) by having four members appear on talk radio. Bob Lesh, Sunday afternoon host on K-TALK Radio, devoted his entire two-hour program to a discussion of humanism. Members Earl Wunderli and Anna Hoagland were interviewed from 3:00 PM until 4:00 PM followed by an hour of discussion with Marie Springer and Flo Wineriter, 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM. The host asked serious questions about humanism that gave the guests an opportunity to explain its historical development, our present philosophy and our local activities.
Several listeners called to discuss their support or opposition to humanism or to seek information concerning specific ideas about humanism. One subject receiving considerable interest was the accusation of some fundamentalists that humanism is amoral, has a strong influence in public education, undermines authority and is responsible for the breakdown of the social fabric of our nation! Our members assured listeners that humanism puts a great deal of emphasis on human values and individuals taking personal responsibility for living moral lives. They also pointed out that humanism supports democracy and opposes theocracy; supports education and opposes indoctrination; supports religious freedom but opposes mixing religion and government.
Our members told the program host and listeners that the major social and educational threat humanism poses is its insistence upon the use of the scientific method to discover truths rather than the blind acceptance of dogmatic beliefs imposed by both secular authorities and religious myths.
I find myself growing increasingly uneasy with the frequent use of the word spirit in humanist writings. The president of the humanists of Georgia, Tom Malone, is currently exploring and defending the term as a legitimate humanist expression defining the inner essence of an individual. Khoren Arisian, a leading humanist in the Ethical Culture Society, writes about humanists as spiritual models and the Ethical Culture movement as a spiritual community. Jean Kotkin, executive director of the Humanist Institute, writes about the lack of spirituality in humanism and the need for a spiritual principle to energize the humanist movement.
I understand what all three of my friends and fellow humanists are advocating and I agree with their premises. However, I feel there are non-theistic, descriptive terms that will accurately communicate their messages. My objection to connecting the basic word spirit and the list of it derivatives, i.e., spiritual, spirituality, spiritualism, spiritualist, spiritualize, to humanism is the connotation of supernaturalism associated with them.
As a result of more than three-thousand years of religions using the word spirit dualistically to indicate a separate entity from the material body, it seems to me to be an exercise in futility for humanists to expect the word to have a non-theistic acceptance. We have the same problem in defensively using the words religion, mystery, holy and sacred.
Proponents say we cannot permit our adversaries to limit or define our humanist vocabulary. That may be a legitimate argument, but should we define our meaning of those words every time we use them or, on the other hand, expect our listeners and readers to automatically understand the meanings we intend? Why waste time, space and energy defending the humanist meanings when we could easily find a more meaningful and appropriate word that would clearly communicate our intended message. To quote Tom Flynn, senior editor of Free Inquiry, Why go on using a weasel word that can only sow confusion…?
August 4, 1935 – October 9, 1995
Former Humanists of Utah Vice president Ron Healy died of natural causes on October 9, 1995. His body was cremated. A private memorial service remembered his sometimes troubled life.
Ron worked for many years in the optical business. He was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. He is survived by three children, Russell, Jennifer and, Kathryn.
We already miss him.
Deity Doctrine Damns Mormons
In casual conversation with colleagues, I found myself defending the Mormons (I surprise myself sometimes), and their right to believe their version of the nature of God, and still be respected members of the community.
At issue was whether Mormons should be allowed to join a Denver-based consortium of Christian churches who work for humanitarian causes. As it turned out, the local LDS Church withdrew its application for membership in the consortium because the council was besieged with complaints that Mormons were not really Christians. Can you believe it? Even this infidel recognizes that Mormons are Christians.
Now, in order to understand why many Christians think this way, we first have to understand the difference between what each group believes the nature of God to be, and the main historical foundation upon which Mormons have rested their case.
The traditional Christian notion of the Godhead, which developed gradually over four centuries and through many human controversies, is that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are of one essence, and the Son is of the same substance as the Father. This belief has become an absolute for most Christians and ingrained so deeply in their psyche that its an unquestionable tenet. The Mormon notion of the Godhead is more corporeal; the Father and the Son each has a separate body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; however, the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit that can dwell within us. Mormons believe this was an original truth that Jesus taught, but because of the people’s wickedness, this truth was taken from the earth until Joseph Smith restored it. Mormons also believe God once was a man, and that man may become as God through his own efforts. So, in place of the more traditional doctrine of the Trinity, Mormonism proclaims to believe in a finite, polytheistic (and polygamist) God. Obviously, this is too much for some Christian religions and amounts to radical heresy; hence, the rejection of the Mormons as being Christian.
So what’s the underlying message the Christian consortium is giving to Mormons? It’s not just, “My god’s better than your god,” but rather, “Your god doesn’t even exist, because my religion says so, therefore you can’t join our ranks, even if it’s to perform Christian acts of kindness.” Now that’s not only hypocrisy, but stupidity as well. Whatever happened to practicing Jesus’ philosophy exemplified in his parable, The Good Samaritan?
Of course, Mormons have their blind spots too! Joseph Smith did claim God told him that all creeds are wrong, and those who believe them are corrupt. And for years it was preached out of the Book of Mormon that the Catholic church was the “great and abominable.” These strong words coupled with peculiar doctrine obviously still rankle enough traditional Christians to make them want to keep their distance from the Mormons. And the LDS church’s recent track record doesn’t help either. For instance, the recent West High choir director’s display of arrogance in promoting his Mormon beliefs (and the obvious lack of disciplinary action by his Mormon superiors); and the LDS church’s fight to keep prayer in public schools, along with state support of its seminary program.
So maybe it’s “pay back time” for the Mormons, which is unfortunate, because just when many LDS members are starting to get involved in more global endeavors, the Christian gentiles retaliate with this kind of a “nee-ner.” Hopefully, in time, reason will prevail, and the two groups can work together, in spite of their deity doctrine differences. (By the way, why should it matter how a deity’s body is created? Aren’t there more pressing social issues to get concerned about today?)
So, what can we learn from this incident? I suggest that we don’t get caught up in feeling superior for any reason. It’s one thing to say “Humanism is best for me,” and another to say, “Humanism is best for everyone,” because it might not be. That’s an individual matter. What we can say, though, is “Humanism is a wonderful philosophy for me, and I will work toward educating others about it, when appropriate, so greater freedoms can be realized for everyone.”
Has Secularism Made America More Cynical?
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
The study group discussion in October centered on WNET interviews of Father Richard John Newhouse, Michael Lerner and Bill Moyers conducted by Peggy Noonan. Ms. Noonan began the discussion, “There is a growing sense of loss in this country which is shared in common by its people, a loss of faith, family, and freedom. Politicians really can’t get to our deepest problems, which are largely spiritual ones.”
Father Newhouse added, “When society takes God out of the public square, we lose something… If good and evil, right and wrong are simply things that I define and have no ontological reality outside of themselves, all of life becomes a will to power… Remove God from our lives, and all that is left is the will to power.”
Mr. Lerner continued, “Both the left and right have wronged religion in the past 50 years. The left has failed to understand the psychological, ethical, and spiritual dimension of human needs. It needs to recognize that human beings need more than material goods and individual rights; they need a story that connects them to a larger ethical and spiritual good. The right understands that principal and, because it does, it has been very effective in attracting people, but ironically it never challenges the way the economic and political spheres are basically spiritually and ethically corrupt.”
Mr. Moyers added, “The public is more cynical now than it used to be about its institutions and political realities. What’s happening is that the political realm has become very much removed from the realities of every day life. People are searching in their private lives to fulfill an inner yearning. Our great task is to find a story that embraces the plurality of our society, to re-create a consensus that will provide a common core; and we can’t do that if we’re shouting at each other. This consensus would come from religion, the search to satisfy the inner life. People are searching for a new moral or social order.”
Our group questioned some of the assumptions made by the interviewees. These commentators characterized secularists as having led us away from morality, when actually humanists place great emphasis upon the need for ethical behavior. Newhouse, Lerner and Moyers spoke as if the important “nuclear” values come from religion, but the evidence is strong that the reverse is true. Such values as compassion, justice, and honesty seem to have been appropriated in recent decades by religion from humanism. In previous epochs religion was more concerned with promoting and enforcing conformity and blind obedience to authority, often with physical cruelty and ostracism. Would the “consensus” of values being advocated by the speakers really mean a movement to conformist thinking? Who will decide what these values will be, the religious leaders?
The right to dissent is essential to the successful functioning of democracy. Perhaps the present cacophony in the public sphere is a sign that freedom of expression is active and alive. The idea that a greater consensus about national purpose in American life was more alive in earlier times than it is now may be an illusion; even during World War II there were large organized groups in America that supported Hitler’s objectives.
There does appear to be social decay in several aspects of American life: high rates of violent crime, family disintegration, irresponsible sex, and high drug usage. Poverty and over-crowding seem to be more accurate causes for these problems. The disheartenment and suffering which poverty brings to people raise serious questions about the morality of some aspects of our economic practices.