November 2014


Julie Boyden, someone who has learned enough of the Anglo-Saxon language to translate the oldest English story ever told, Beowulf, told us how her interest in Tolkien led to the Anglo Saxon language. She read to us from her translation of Beowulf. She regaled us with tales of what the culture was like that spawned such a legend.

Her presentation drew a larger than normal crowd to our October meeting. (What? Maybe Halloween or perhaps our literary heart-chords were struck by the idea of a discussion around the oldest story in the English language?)

Whatever drew the listeners, it was quite satisfying when Julie was finished. Her readings from her book had us spellbound. We were entranced by the ancient story of a hero from our own past.

Thank you, Julie, for an excellent evening.

[Upon his death], Beowulf’s beacon was encircled with a wall…
Inside, they placed rings and brooches
and all such trappings…
They gave the gold back to the earth
to hold in its grit,
where it still stands,
as useless to men as it ever was…
They made a song
which men still sing about Beowulf…
They said of him
that of all the world’s kings
he was the mildest and most gentle,
to his nation the kindest,
and a man most glad to win glory.

Lauren Florence, MD

Privacy Protection and Civil Liberties vs. Paranoia and Terrorism
~Book Reviews~

November is the month for change politically speaking; that said, what do Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Howard Zinn, 1,000 plus university professors, and approximately 2500 social science faculty have in common between 1956 and 1971? They, along with 450,000 other people and organizations, were under FBI surveillance known as subversives. Author Betty Medsger Book The Burglary: the Discovery of J.Edger Hoover’s Secret FBI describes how 33,698 pages of stolen FBI files from Media, PA., shows how the phase “there is FBI agent behind every post box…” came into play. Also, how the FISCA court in its 35 years history rejected only 11 surveillance requests out of 34,000. NSA now allows interception of 1.7 billion pieces of communication every 24 hours, from cell and land phones, instant messaging, and computer network pings daily. Privacy of individual communication on various means is collected from yahoo, hotmail, facebook, gmail and other providers is allowed to continue today.

Another book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glen Greenwald, discusses the underlying theme of what it means to be human: the all instinctively understanding that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write and experiment and choose how to be away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person. Greenwald follows the development of the Edward Snowden issue, so before making personal opinions one way or other, discover what it is both books are trying to tell us.

—Cindy King

It Is Not In The Constitution

Or so they say….

Like Joshua in the Bible, there are Americans today who would like to blow their trumpets loud and strong in order to destroy the “wall of separation between church and state” of which Thomas Jefferson spoke approvingly in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists.

But instead of trumpet blasts echoing off the walls, the faithful are shouting a mantra of sorts that they tend to repeat loudly and ad nauseam: “Separation of church and state is not in the Constitution!” And of course the actual words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution. But that does not mean that the framers, signers and ratifiers of the U.S. Constitution did not intend this concept to be an important pillar of our governing institutions. They did.

How do we know? There are a number of ways, including the contemporaneous writings of the founders. These include the aforementioned letter from Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, as well as James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785), in which he argued that government suffered where religion was established and that religion suffered when it got too close to government. This certainly seems as though Madison, the Constitution’s primary draftsman, believed that government and religion should be kept separate.

Then there’s the Constitution itself, which in its original form (prior to amendments) mentioned religion only once, in Article VI, paragraph 3, which prohibits any religious test for public office holders. If separation of church and state was not intended, why would the Founders have crafted the document that directs how our government shall operate, and only mention religion to say that no one has to believe it (or any particular version of it) in order to hold public office?

But there’s another very simple counter-argument that I want to posit. Remember how we were taught in grade school that the Constitution provided for the “separation of powers” between our three branches of Federal government, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial? Remember how we were also taught how this “separation of powers” gave our government a system of “checks and balances”? You must remember that—we all knew that just remembering those two phrases could guarantee us a passing grade on a History test, even if we didn’t remember anything else about the Constitution.

Now, get out your pocket copy of the Constitution and show me where those phrases appear. Better yet, don’t bother, because you won’t find either one of them. Does this mean that our teachers were lying and/or mistaken when they taught us that the “separation of powers” and the “system of checks and balances” were two of the Constitution’s founding principles? Of course not. We can see from the document itself and from the words of its drafters that this was exactly what was intended. Just like “separation of church and state”. We didn’t need the exact words to appear in the Constitution to know these concepts were intended as governing principles of our country.

One more thing: at the start of this essay I analogized between Joshua’s wall and Jefferson’s. Those who think that removing the wall separating church and state (or pretending that it never was there to begin with) would be a good thing would be well advised to remember what happened after the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Joshua’s army entered Jericho and didn’t stop until “they utterly destroyed what was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep and ass with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:21). Just the kind of thing we deplore Muslim militants like ISIS doing today.

Now I’m not saying that the failure to separate church and state in our country would result in a bloodbath as happened in Jericho, but it would inevitably cause rifts in our society as various sects argued over whose beliefs should be paramount. The bottom line is that the separation of church and state—which was meant to protect both government and religion—was a founding principle of our system of government, as was the separation of powers between the branches of government. This is true whether or not these exact words appear in the Constitution.

Jonathen Engel
PIQUE—October 2014
Secular Humanist Society of New York

President’s Report

To start with, what makes me frustrated and angry is that I know of several friends and relatives who do not vote. Whatever excuses they have are all usually pretty lame and often I think it is just laziness. I know it is hard to care sometimes and it appears hopeless, but if we stop participating then the big spenders will buy every election even more so than they already are. Not to brag, but at age 66, I don’t think I have ever missed voting in a general election. Even if it is only a symbolic vote in the face of certain defeat, it is always good to practice the habit of informed voting.

In the aftermath of the election, it’s interesting to see all the media headlines about the “Resounding Defeat” and the like. It can be quite disheartening if you listen to too much of the punditry. So for me, I have decided that I need to not dwell and lament on what has happened several times in my life, and that is the change in the majority party in the houses of congress. It’s nothing new. I have also told myself that the place where I can make a difference is to continue to work on our chapter’s agenda. That agenda in part being: advocacy for humanism, science, free thought and to continue our participation in events like the Pride Festival. In other words, as I have heard some people in the progressive world say lately, “Back to some serious grassroots work.”

As the New Year approaches, our chapter needs some help from its members, we need board members, we need volunteers, and we need suggestions and some feedback. For instance, The AHA Chapter Grant application will be due in January. Is there a charitable cause you think we should apply to the grant for? I hope some of you members will consider getting more involved. Oh, and before I forget, I know some of you must have someone in mind who you would like to hear as a speaker. Please let us know.

Speaking of speakers, I’m excited to hear from our upcoming speaker, Salt Lake County Clerk, Sherrie Swenson. I myself have several questions to ask about gerrymandering, efforts to pass voter I.D. laws to suppress votes, Citizens United and so on. I’m sure it will be interesting and as usual I’ll bring the cookies. Actually I think I will build a carrot cake or something also. So make plans to join us to hear our speaker and enjoy refreshments and conversation.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU