Interdependence Day: Patriotism for Religious Liberals

My inner six-year-old has always loved the Fourth of July. I still savor the taste of a hot dog fresh off the grill. It’s still a thrill sitting on the grass and looking up, hearing the hiss of the rockets followed by the pop and sizzle of bursting colors. They squeeze oohs and ahs out of me as the embers expire and drift quietly back to earth.

There’s something else, too. Being part of a crowd, I feel a connection – not just to others around me, but to the interdependent web of American history. We’re reenacting rituals that have been repeated over a couple of centuries, from sea to shining sea. I picture bygone days of bunting and brass bands and gazebos. I imagine times that I imagine were more innocent.

I remember when I was more innocent.

I think back to a first-grade classroom, where I first heard the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. To hear my teacher tell it, the father of our country was not only a superhuman being who could toss a silver dollar across a river, but when asked whether he was the culprit who had cut down a cherry sapling, he ‘fessed up, with the immortal words, “I cannot tell a lie.”

It was the beginning of my relationship with my homeland. Like many a relationship, like ones I read about on Facebook, it’s complicated.

Much later, I learned that most historians believe the cherry tree tale itself is probably a lie. A bit like today’s Internet journalism, it was attributed to an unnamed source by Washington’s first biographer, a traveling preacher who was known to exaggerate.

But I learned other fables, with more solid historical foundations. I took to heart phrases like, “All men are created equal,” and, “We, the people,” and “liberty and justice for all.”

It didn’t hurt that I was growing up in the town where America began. At least, that’s what it called itself: York, Pennsylvania, the First Capital of the United States.

Like many a tourist slogan, the story was a bit of stretch. The year after the Declaration of Independence, when the Redcoats had chased the Continental Congress out of Philadelphia, it had settled for nine months in York. In my childhood, a few half-timber buildings remained downtown, to remind us that the city’s glory days were two hundred years behind it.

But I was growing up in the golden age of the American Empire, the age that many people have in mind when they talk about making America great again. As a toddler, I sat in front of our black-and-white TV set and watched pyrotechnics that were even better than fireworks. The majestic Redstone rocket was lifting Americans into space. By the time I was ten, they would be walking on the moon.

It was an age when anything seemed possible. To many an American dreamer, it even seemed possible that in our time, we could end war, poverty and racism.

It seems like a long time ago.

For some, the fall from innocence began as they watched the shooting of a president. For others, it happened a few years later, as they reached draft age, literally staring down the barrel of a gun. For still others, it was the televised spectacles of demonstrators getting clubbed in Chicago or shot down in Ohio.

For me, it started during the summer after ninth grade, the summer of the Watergate hearings. Just the year before, I had been cheering on Four More Years for Richard Nixon. But there was no way to reconcile, “I cannot tell a lie,” with, “I am not a crook.”

Hard on those heels came the hoopla of the Bicentennial. After Tricky Dick was pardoned, it was hard not to feel a little cynical. Especially when my hometown rebuilt its colonial courthouse, the one where revolutionaries had once met, on the banks of a heavily polluted creek that locals called the inky, stinky Codorus.

I graduated from York High a month before the big day. I was in full teenage rebellion, fresh from publishing an underground school newspaper, and I had torn up my ticket into the ruling class. I had been accepted to Harvard, but instead, I was on my way to a cattle ranch, at a small, experimental college in the California desert. Like the Paul Simon song, I walked off to look for America.

What I found, over time, was many different Americas. That’s one thing about America. Every time you think you have her pinned down, she surprises you.

In my college days, I was traveling by thumb. That ribbon of highway took me through all states but two of the lower 48.

The America I discovered was not the one I had grown up with. It was a nation of diverse and beautiful landscapes, from thickly wooded hills and hollers in the east, across the misty Mississippi to endless flatlands that butted up to soaring mountains and stretched on to burnt deserts.

I met people who were just as diverse. Many of them were on the road, like me. Salesmen. Truckers. Hippies. An occasional family in a Winnebago. A long-haul trucker who looked like Kurt Vonnegut and passed me a joint as we climbed the divide into Montana. A paranoid veteran who warned me he had a pistol in his front seat.

My Jack Kerouac vision of America soon collided with a different one, a few months after I got home to York. Fifteen miles away, a nuclear reactor went haywire. For a few days, my mom and I had the experience of being refugees, from Three Mile Island. After our return, I got active – radio-active, you might say – in fighting the electric company and its plans to start the plant back up, after placing us sixty minutes from eternity.

Three years after the accident, voters in three counties held referendums on whether to restart TMI. They said No, in a landslide. But our votes were overruled by five men in Washington, known as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the plant went back to splitting atoms by the Susquehanna River.

By then, I had moved on from the First Capital of the United States. I had moved to the current capital, Washington, D.C. I worked for a nonprofit, where I helped support other activists, who were trying to stop their own Three Mile Islands.

We achieved more than we realized at the time. Although we felt perpetually outgunned, we were throwing enough sand in the gears of the nuclear industry to help it grind itself to a halt. By the end of the decade, 120 reactors had been canceled, and no more were being started.

In the meantime, a few Metro stops from Capitol Hill, it was getting easier to see why democracy had failed my hometown. I had a ringside seat for invading Grenada, training death squads in El Salvador and arming terrorists in Nicaragua. I learned that it had all happened before, in places like Guatemala, Chile and Iran. If you’re not appalled by American history, I decided, you haven’t been paying attention.

But my Noam Chomsky vision of America was not my final stop. When I burned out on making news, I turned to reporting it. As fortune would have it, the first newspaper to offer me a job made me a business reporter.

And so, for the past 30 years, I’ve gotten to see America from the side of the people who actually run it. It’s been a helluva learning experience. I was used to fighting corporate villains, but to my surprise, I’ve met plenty of heroes, as well. I’ve learned that Wall Street is even more berserk than I imagined. But I’ve also seen that when capitalists can make money on something constructive, like organic food or green energy, they can change society faster than activists could ever dream.

That brings my personal search for America up to the here and now. We each take our own journeys from innocence to experience. I’ve been telling mine in the hope that it might bring back some of your own – and in the hope that I’m not the only one whose feelings get complicated around Independence Day. It brings me face to face with a great American paradox: on the one hand, the extraordinary land and people; on the other, the crimes and boondoggles committed in our names.

I love the picnics, parades and fireworks. I celebrate the revolutionary spirit that got it all going. But I feel deeply suspicious of the rah-rah patriotism that goes along for the ride.

I think of that patriotism in religious terms, as a species of fundamentalism. Over the centuries, it’s gone by many names, but the quasi-Biblical language remains the same. It describes Americans as a chosen people and America as their Promised Land. For example:

“Marked and chosen by the finger of God.” That’s what one English settler wrote about his neighbors in Jamestown.

“The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language.” In the heyday of Manifest Destiny, that was written by John Quincy Adams – though to his credit, he later changed his mind.

Today, the fundamentalist buzzword is American Exceptionalism. As Mitt Romney defined it on the campaign trail, “We are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world.”

What’s our role in the world? Here’s an explanation from Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at the National Review:

“Our country has always been exceptional,” he writes. “with a unique role and mission in the world… as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.”

There’s where my suspicion starts. When Americans get to thinking we’re a chosen people, that’s when we start to send armies into places like South Dakota or Iraq. The heathens, we tell ourselves, will thank us for it. As Dick Cheney memorably put it, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

Some people just plain give patriotism a bad name.

But where does that leave us, those of us who love our country but no longer believe in cherry trees, those of us who don’t belong to the United States of Amnesia? Is there a patriotism that celebrates this nation without puffing ourselves up as God’s favorites? That dreams American dreams without closing its eyes to American nightmares?

I believe there is. Like the rah-rah kind of patriotism, it has a religious model. But my model for patriotism lies in Liberal Religion.

In our Unitarian Universalist faith, we like to say that we don’t have a creed. We don’t have fixed ideas about our purpose in the universe. Instead, we have covenants. We covenant to affirm and promote values like inherent worth and dignity. We covenant to try and live those values with one another, in our beloved communities.

What is the United States of America if not a covenant? From the Mayflower Compact to the U.S. Constitution, our founding documents have all been social contracts, not decrees imposed by kings, bishops or deities.

In the Declaration of Independence, 56 signers affirm the value that all men are created equal. They promote the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their closing words are indeed a covenant, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” In that regard, it’s also a Declaration of Interdependence.

We know that from the beginning, America fell out of covenant with these values. Some of our founders knew it, too. George Washington owned slaves, but in his will, he set them free. Thomas Jefferson felt guilty but never liberated more than a handful.

And yet, their ringing language inspires us, regardless of whether they lived up to the words they wrote. Over two centuries, those words have turned into a promissory note. One after another, America’s disenfranchised groups have pointed to that note and demanded that America pay up. And because they believed in the promise, the real America came a little bit closer to the ideal one.

The interdependent web stretches from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony, from Mother Jones to Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, and to the unsung millions who marched with them. Alongside the patriots who defend us overseas, America has produced a different sort of patriot, one who loves our country by calling it back into covenant. As Clarence Darrow summed it up, “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.”

Back in my days of community organizing, I once shared a train ride with a GI who was fresh from basic training. We shared some stories, and he asked me if I’d ever thought about serving my country. I said, “I already do.”

I said early on that America will keep surprising you. She has a way of winning your heart and then breaking it. She will elect a black man as president, and then she will try her best to tear him down. Racism will go underground for fifty years and then try to slouch its way back into the political mainstream. The process of calling ourselves back into covenant never ends.

Which should not surprise us, because being a covenantal nation means that our nature is always up for grabs. There is no fixed meaning to America. Its values wither away unless each generation tests them and finds out all over again what they really mean.

That’s why, when fundamentalist patriots try to hijack our symbols, from Old Glory to the Constitution, it’s no time to get cynical about those symbols. It’s time for other patriots to recapture the flag. On this Independence Day, as I lie back to ooh and ah at another year’s fireworks, I can think of no more patriotic words than these, written in the dark days after 9/11, by my old colleague, Jim Hightower:

“I’ll be double-damned to hell before I meekly allow this banner of democracy to be usurped by political opportunists, corporatists, xenophobes, war-mongers, and fear-mongers who confuse conformity with patriotism, demanding that we be quiet, get in line, and be ‘patriotically correct.’

“Too many true patriots struggled and died to bring our democracy this far. We have no right to be quiet. Stand up! Wave our flag!”

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It’s Not About the Money: The Spiritual Side of Economics

Way back in 1986, I was broke and between jobs in New Orleans. Poverty and desperation can make a man’s standards more flexible, and over the course of a weekend, I became one of the last things I would ever have imagined I’d become. I took a job as a business reporter.

There was no escaping the thought that I was sleeping with the enemy.

After all, I had spent the whole of my young adult life fighting big business, starting with my local electric company. Its lethal mixture of incompetence and arrogance had led to the near-meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island.

Now, I faced a choice between that value and a competing one: my dream of becoming a newspaper reporter. After two years of knocking on the doors of the Fourth Estate, this was the first offer I had gotten. It was clear that for a young man with little training in journalism, job offers would be a scarce commodity.

By the end of the weekend, I had agonized over the costs and benefits. On Monday morning, I called the editor at New Orleans Business, and I accepted the job.

I never regretted taking that fork in the road. In the words of American Express, it turned out to be priceless. For me, covering the economic world has been like lifting a curtain, to see what the players are really doing backstage, or like popping the hood of a car, to observe how the engine makes it run. To understand how the world works, I’ve learned, it helps to follow the money.

Along the way, I’ve noticed a funny thing about economics. It has a lot in common with religion. It’s ruled by high priests, who leave us mystified with mumbo-jumbo. They decree long lists of Thou Shalt Nots: Thou shalt not have universal health care. Thou shalt not have higher wages or clean air, because – well, because we just can’t afford them. Economists tell us so.

Also like religion, I’ve seen how economics gets hijacked by one very narrow point of view, a view that’s more about faith than about facts. We hear that point of view so often, in the press and from the halls of power, that we forget it’s not the only one out there. Today’s trickle-down economic orthodoxy has only been top dogma for about 35 years, and plenty of noteworthy economists have had dissenting views, from Keynes to Krugman.

Now, I’m not an economist. I’m a journalist who writes about economists. I cover their trade in the real world, where people and businesses don’t always behave the way that textbooks expect them to.

I’m also a Unitarian, which means I’m programmed to look for the spiritual meanings of things.

So it’s no surprise that I have my own peculiar views about economics. I maintain that economics is underrated by liberals, religious and otherwise, mostly because our airwaves are so full of misinformation. If our levels of reading and writing were as low as our economic literacy, Americans would still be rubbing sticks together to start fires. Instead, we got ourselves the Great Recession.

So my modest goal this morning is to bust a few myths about economics, and to demonstrate, despite what you read in the Wall Street Journal, that the Dismal Science can be a powerful force for transformation and human dignity. In fact, I hope to show that underneath a veneer of mathematics, economics is in many ways a spiritual discipline. It’s a distinctive way of looking at the world and a powerful way to change it.

So here’s the first myth: that economics is mainly about money. Anyone who’s ever taken an intro class can tell you that’s not so. Money is one of the yardsticks they use in economics, but the subject it measures is basically a spiritual one. In fact, it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of being human. The fundamental subject of economics is choice.

It’s about choices we make on every level of society. The original Greek meaning of “economics” is “household management.” Or, as pioneering economist Alfred Marshall put it, “Economics is the study of people in the ordinary business of life.”

Henry David Thoreau knew that. His first chapter of Walden is titled, “Economy,” and in it, he tallies up the expenses and income he got out of building his tiny house in the woods. He wrote, “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits: they are indispensable to every man.”

So economics begins at home, with choices as simple as: Shall we go out or eat in? But it doesn’t stop there. Economics includes the choices businesses make: Should we build our new smartphone in America or in China? And it encompasses vast national questions like spending tax dollars on guns or butter.

But not every choice is an economic choice. Economists study a particular subset: the choices we make when our options are limited, or as they like to say, scarce.

As Lionel Robbins wrote in a classic definition, “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between given ends and scarce means.”

Jesus said, “With God, all things are possible.” Economists beg to differ. To them, all things are not possible. If our world were a cornucopia, it would have no need for economists. But in the real world, we can’t always have it all. Economics looks at the decisions we make about the resources we’ve got: what we do with them, how much of them we spend and – the most contentious part of all – who gets to share.

What might an economic choice look like at home? Say you get a $5,000 bonus at work. You want to replace your washer/dryer. But you’ve also been dreaming of a Hawaiian vacation. Then again, you need to put something in your kids’ college fund. With $5,000, you can’t do everything. Which will you choose?

We recently faced a stark economic choice here at Wildflower. We were facing a deficit. We had passionate debate over whether to cut children’s religious education or reconsider hiring a minister or make adjustments elsewhere in the budget. We measured our priorities against our limited resources, and we decided that both children’s RE and a developmental minister were top priorities.

Both these stories speak to the spiritual underpinnings of economics. We tend to think of economic choices as material choices. But strip away the statistical trappings, and they’re really moral choices. Where we put our money tells us what we value. Our credit card statements double as road maps to our souls.

The same holds true for a nation. If we invest more of our limited tax dollars in bombs, prisons and tax cuts for the wealthy, we make one statement about our values. If we spend more of it on schools, public health and Mother Earth, we make another. Says vice president Joe Biden, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Which busts another myth about economics: that it’s neutral, that economists are serenely objective scientists who don’t have their own agendas.

It’s no accident that morality talks about values, and that economics talks about value. If we listen closely to most economic arguments, we find that they boil down to moral judgments. It might be Mitt Romney, dividing American citizens into takers and makers. At the other extreme, it might be Occupy Wall Street, railing against the greed of the 1 percent. Or it might be the fictional Wall Street trader Gordon Gekko, with his mantra of Mammon, “Greed is good.”

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy,” wrote economist John Kenneth Galbraith, “that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

Economists haven’t always pretended to be value-free. The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, was a staunch Scottish Presbyterian who believed morality was the foundation of free markets. Humans should pursue self-interest, he maintained, but they should also exercise self-restraint. “Society,” he wrote, “cannot exist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another.”

Smith was looking at 18th-Century Britain, but it could have been 21st-Century America, when he wrote, “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

Which brings me to some happy news about the Dismal Science. If we quit pretending that economic theories are value-free, that means we can choose which values we want our economy to promote. Instead of helping the rich get richer and the planet get hotter, economics can foster values that Unitarians hold dear: justice and equity, human dignity and preserving the interdependent web of existence.

How can economics do all that? My answer: By tugging on the reins of free markets, to signal the general direction in which we want them to turn.

Let me explain. The free market is the most potent of all economic myths. True believers endow it with supernatural powers, from Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” to Ronald Reagan’s “magic of the marketplace.” Just leave it alone, the story goes, and it will allocate society’s resources in the most efficient way possible. It will make all the big economic decisions, better than meddling mortals ever could.

Trouble is, no such thing as a free market exists, or has ever existed outside the imaginations of economists.

In the real world, markets are not completely free. Like any other game, they have to have rules. If the rules are enforced, they level the playing field, so that no business can cheat by using child labor, selling contaminated food or not paying overtime.

Free markets aren’t always efficient, either. In the real world, they work very well for many things, like putting food on supermarket shelves or smartphones in our pockets. But they’re not so efficient when it comes to vital services like health care.

And they’re downright terrible at providing the backbone of any economy: a stable financial system. Bankers and brokers require adult supervision – otherwise known as regulation. When they get too little, we get a Great Recession. To think that deregulation can cure a recession is like thinking that smoking is a cure for cancer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The market is a marvelous invention. The godfather of conservative economists, Milton Friedman, was quite right when he wrote, “It has freed the masses from backbreaking toil and has made available to them products and services that were formerly the monopoly of the upper classes.”

The problems arise when we let markets make all our decisions for us. To paraphrase what Jesus said about the Sabbath, the markets were made for man, not man for the markets. If we value stopping climate change or extending healthcare to all Americans, it’s absurd to let markets dictate to us that those things can’t be done.

Of course, no one can give orders to markets. What we can do is offer them incentives, to goose them into getting it done. Show someone a way to make money for doing the right thing, and the marketplace will work out the details.

Says Daniel Dudek of the Environmental Defense Fund, “If we can make conservation profitable, people will find ways to make it happen.”

Let me give an example. Remember acid rain? Back in the 1980s, it was the scourge of eastern forests, thanks to gasses spewing from coal-burning power plants. It’s still around, but over the past 20 years, it’s dropped 59 percent. A big reason is an experiment the Environmental Protection Agency launched in 1995.

It seems like a paradox, but what the agency did was to give electric companies permits to pollute. It issued a limited number of permits, and then allowed utilities to buy and sell them. That’s where markets came in. If one plant installed pollution controls cheaply, it could sell its excess permits to another plant. It could make a profit from cleaning up its smokestacks.

The end result of the wheeling and dealing has been to slash sulfur dioxide emissions nationwide, from 12 million tons to 3 million tons.

Today, we can see similar stories happening all over the business world. Back when I was fighting nuclear power plants, I dreamed of a day when solar panels and windmills could compete. Today, they do, thanks partly to incentives like tax credits and rebates. Pioneers like Whole Foods Market gave consumers a one-stop shop for organic foods, and now giants like WalMart have jumped into the game.

These stories aren’t unmixed blessings. You have to watch carefully whenever WalMart gets involved. But now that the marketplace has discovered them, there’s no question that green technologies and organic acreage are on an economic roll.

Meanwhile, economists themselves are devising ways to account for forests along with factories, to quantify the services nature provides. A young field called ecological economics is charting how consuming less can lead to economic growth. Writes entrepreneur Paul Hawken, “There is no true separation between how we support life economically and ecologically.”

I neglected to mention the most important incentive of all: you and me. Contrary to what you hear from Washington, we are the job creators. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. economy. No matter how far you cut corporate taxes, companies don’t start hiring until shoppers start shopping.

Likewise, a company can’t make money from social change until consumers are willing to pay for it. Which means that every time we go through a checkout line, we’re voting with our dollars. When masses of us are ready to pay an extra buck for a cheeseburger, that’s when burger flippers will finally be able to join the middle class.

And so I take issue with economic fundamentalists from both sides. Right-wing fundamentalists believe capitalism is inherently good. Left-wing fundamentalists are just as certain it’s inherently evil. In my personal experience, gleaned from 30 years of covering capitalism, it’s neither. It’s simply one of the most powerful engines ever conceived for allocating a nation’s resources and driving social change – both positive and negative. If we’re working for positive social change, we can take to the streets, the courts and the capitol buildings, but we should never overlook the power of the profit motive.

Lastly, economics offers a humbling lesson to starry-eyed visionaries: If change is to endure, it has to make economic sense. An organic grocer won’t survive if his prices are unaffordable. Raising the minimum wage will backfire if it jumps so high so fast that it puts employers out of business.

My point is that spirituality needs economic guidance as much as economics needs spiritual guidance. Our ideals may wander in the clouds, but it’s here on earth that we have to make them real.

As we manage our households, a free lunch is as unlikely as a free market. More often, we face tradeoffs. That’s when economics has a way of illuminating our priorities, as costs and benefits become a source of spiritual discernment. Ask Henry David Thoreau, as he meticulously records that he spent eight dollars, three and a half cents on boards, three dollars and ninety cents for nails. We do not live by bread alone, but at the same time, the practice of economics reminds us that no spiritual question runs deeper than this: How do we earn, and how do we consume, our daily bread?

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The Big Mo: Moral Relativism and the Morality of Relatives

Moore_plaque

Judge Moore’s original plaques.

In the late 1990s, an Alabama man went into his wood shop to work on his latest craft project. He had two wooden plaques, and he had decided to engrave them with the text of the Ten Commandments.

If Roy Moore had not been appointed a county judge, the plaques might still be hanging in his living room. Instead, as he was decorating his new courtroom, he decided to mount them behind his bench.

It was not lost on him that if you want to annoy a liberal, one of the surest ways to do it is to display the Ten Commandments on public property. In short order, Judge Moore was sued by the ACLU and became a fundamentalist folk hero. He rode the wave all the way to the state Supreme Court, where he erected another graven image, carved into a two-ton chunk of granite.

His purpose, he announced, was to bring back morality to a corrupt nation. “May this day,” he said, “mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.”

Both Moore and his tablets were eventually removed, after he defied orders from two federal courts. But holy wars over the Ten Commandments rage on.

Of course, they’re not just about the Commandments. In the symbolism of the Culture Wars, the Ten Commandments are shorthand for morality in general, for faith in moral absolutes. For culture warriors, the stone tablets stand firm against a demonic force that threatens the fabric of American society: Moral relativism.

Moral relativism? It’s curious that such a mouthful of words should cause so many to froth at the mouth. To quote Judge Moore himself, “We are cast upon the shifting sands of moral relativism in which anything goes, including lying, cheating and stealing.”

Writes Mormon blogger Connor Boyack: “Looking for the quickest way to destroy a society? Want to bring back Sodom and Gomorrah? Try moral relativism!”

A more philosophical critic was Pope Benedict XVI. “We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism,” he said, “which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

The core of their argument is that without a stern supernatural father setting limits, all Hell breaks loose. As Dostoevsky famously asked: “How is man going to be good without God?” Religious conservatives have blamed moral relativism for everything from riots and drug addiction to serial killers and pedophile priests.

Bring back the Ten Commandments, they say, and we’ll start to bring back moral behavior.

Here’s what I find ironic in this debate. One day, as I was rereading the Ten Commandments, it struck me that they’re actually a textbook case of moral relativism. You can decide for yourself, as I indulge in a bit of forensic theology. Call it CSI: Exodus.

Along the way, we might get some insights into the shadow side of morality. We might unravel how a person can believe “Thou Shalt not Kill” while supporting both war and capital punishment.

We might even find ways to take morality back from self-proclaimed Moral Majorities, so that religious liberals don’t have to squirm whenever we hear the M word.

*****

When I read back over the Ten Commandments, my first impression is how reasonable they sound. Apart from the God language, nothing conflicts with the seven Unitarian Universalist principles. Stripped of burning bushes and parted waters, they’re a commonsense set of basic rules for civilization.

Don’t kill. That’s a good start. Don’t lie and don’t steal. Don’t break your vows to the person you married. Honor the ones who raised you.

These Commandments are addressed to a people that’s fresh out of slavery, learning for the first time how to live together and govern themselves. At heart, they’re simple rules for relationships, with God and with each other.

It also strikes me that the list of antisocial behaviors is refreshingly short. Apart from adultery, they include no sexual taboos. The Bible doesn’t start to micromanage human behavior until the following book.

Perhaps the problem is not with the Ten Commandments. It’s with the people who preach them.

Look at religions based on the Ten Commandments, and it’s hard to argue that God makes humans good. From the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, from burning witches to holding slaves, true believers have racked up many of the most atrocious acts on human record.

The contradictions go back to the Old Testament itself. Within a few chapters of hearing the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew children are pillaging and plundering their way through the land of Canaan.

“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword…And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein. Only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord.”

What’s going on here? Are the Hebrew children simply ignoring the Commandments? Or do they interpret them in a different way from you and me?

I find a clue from Moses, in a pep talk that he delivers on the east bank of the River Jordan. He has just recapped the Ten Commandments, as he prepares the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. There is an obstacle. Seven nations already live there. But Moses reassures them, saying, “When the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them.”

There’s no way to pretty up this story. Moses is counseling his followers to commit genocide. But he has a ready justification.

“For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God. The Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.”

In other words, the Ten Commandments were never meant to be universal laws. They’re intended for the chosen people, and for no one else. Thou shalt not kill…each other. Thou shalt not steal…from one another.

For dealing with people of other races and other gods, the commandments are utterly different. It’s okay to steal, kill and show no mercy – unless they surrender ahead of time, in which case, you can take them as slaves.

Here we get to the heart of Old Testament morality – and the riddle of how people who swear by moral absolutes can do so many immoral things. For the people of Exodus, morality is not an absolute set of rules. It’s actually two sets of rules: one for Us and one for Them.

That’s the secret of the Ten Commandments. They use the language of moral absolutes, but in practice, they’re as relative as any atheist.

They’re relative in another sense, too: they apply only to people who are relatives. The Hebrew children trace their common ancestry to twelve legendary brothers, who sired twelve tribes. A tribe is an extended family and a nation is an extended tribe. Kindness is simply the way we treat our own kind.

Once we identify this kind of split moral reasoning, we can recognize it again and again. It’s part of every so-called holy war, whether it’s Christians against Muslims, Catholics against Protestants or Cowboys against Indians. It goes by names like “the white man’s burden” and “Manifest Destiny.” It rationalized slavery and justified the Trail of Tears.

When God is on your side, anything goes. You can take out on strangers the things you wouldn’t do to your own kind. It’s the Golden Rule in reverse.

*****

Perhaps what separates one morality from another is not what we eat, who we sleep with, or even how we treat our neighbors. Perhaps the central moral question is the one that was put directly to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” How do we define Us and how do we define Them?

In Jesus’ response to that question, we find a very different answer from that of his predecessors. His answer is to tell a story.

A traveler from Jerusalem is beaten by robbers and left for dead by the side of the road. Two priests from his own country pass him by. Finally, he is aided by a foreigner, from the land of Samaria.

For Jesus’ listeners, that’s a startling detail. There have been centuries of ethnic hatred between Samaritans and Jews. When he makes his hero a Samaritan, it’s like telling modern Americans that his hero is a communist or a terrorist.

At the end of the story, he turns the question back on the person who asked it: “Which now of these three…was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?”

If that’s not clear enough, Jesus spends much of the Sermon on the Mount explicitly deconstructing the Ten Commandments. His message is to follow them but go beyond them, to love outside the box.

“It hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

The morality of Jesus has been called “radical inclusion.” He builds his ministry around outlaws and outcasts. “When thou makest a feast,” he advises, “call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And thou shalt be blessed.”

What separates Jesus from the morality of Moses and Joshua is that there’s no Us and no Them, at least, not here on earth. Every human being is his neighbor, regardless of where they live or what they do.

Or as we put it in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

*****

But why should morality be limited to human beings? In the moral system of the Lakota nation of the Great Plains, the core principle is the same one we’ve heard all along: Treat your relations with respect. What’s different is the meaning of the word “relations.”

“All my relations,” is the translation of the common Lakota prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin. But the expression takes in more than just human beings. More, even, than the plant kingdom, the four-leggeds and the creepy-crawlies. “All my relations” includes the rocks and the winds. It extends to the four directions and the heavenly bodies, such as Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon.

“Hear me, four quarters of the world,” calls out the medicine man Black Elk. “A relative I am! Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is!”

Black Elk approaches animals, plants and pebbles with the same reverence as flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters. When he takes a resource, like a willow sapling or a buffalo, he asks permission, and he gives a token in return, like an offering of the sacred herb tobacco. You can view such rituals as animist superstition. Or you can view them as acting out the interdependent web of existence.

Then again, you can view them as seeds of an environmental ethics that’s blossomed around the world over the past 50 years. Animal welfare challenges us to consider higher animals as neighbors. Deep ecology dares us to treat the entire biosphere as family.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold translated the morals of Black Elk into the language of science. “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” he wrote. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

*****

In this pocket history, we’ve covered three moral systems from three millennia. What can they tell religious liberals about morality in general, and about the eternal conflict between the absolute and the relative? How can they help me talk about morality without feeling that Jerry Falwell is looking over my shoulder?

The first thing they tell me is that I don’t have to believe in absolutes to believe in morality. Morality is inherently relative, because morality changes over time. The Latin root for “morals” means “customs, habits, traditions,” and traditions grow and evolve along with civilizations.

Along the way, we keep some rules, and we discard others. The Ten Commandments remain useful principles to live by. On the other hand, few Americans follow the laws of Leviticus. We don’t put people to death for cussing, adultery or homosexuality. We don’t sacrifice a sheep after touching a woman during her period. Our community standards have changed.

Two hundred years ago, most white Americans considered slavery to be moral, and quoted the Bible to prove it. One hundred years ago, most white Southerners felt the same about segregation. The day may come when most Americans decide war is immoral – but we’re still working on that one. In each case, moral relativism marks the advance of civilization, not the decline of civilization.

In each case, the moral arc of history has stretched itself in the same way: by expanding our definition of “neighbor,” of who’s deserving of equal treatment. In 1776, it was confined to white property owners. In our lifetimes, Americans have opened the circle to include minorities and women, gays and lesbians. That’s a lot of what the Culture Wars are about.

In each case, over decades of struggle, communities changed rules that seemed to be written in stone. It wasn’t because God had spoken from above. If God was speaking at all, it was through the human heart.

Which ultimately, is the source of morality and the place where all moral progress is made. Moral relativism is not a ‘Sixties caricature. It doesn’t mean, “If it feels good, do it.” It’s an intensely personal path of searching for right and wrong, both in dialogue with others and within the tabernacles of our own hearts.

If you think carefully about the Golden Rule, it makes each of us our own rulemakers. It calls each of us to consider the codes of our own cultures and test them against our own conscience.

In the winter of 2011, a Yale student named Will Portman was struggling over whether to tell his parents he was gay. “The thought of telling people I was gay was pretty terrifying,” he writes, “but I was beginning to realize that coming out, however difficult it seemed, was a lot better than the alternative: staying in, all alone.”

He was gratefully surprised at the support he got from his parents. It was a bigger surprise, two years later, when his dad became an advocate for gay marriage. It surprised the whole nation, because Rob Portman was a Republican senator from Ohio.

The senator describes his moral conversion, “I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.”

It’s in moments like these that genuine morality is forged. There’s plenty of value in learning rules like the Ten Commandments. But ultimately, like all spiritual rules, they’re means to an end, not the end itself.

The end is my moral relationship with my higher power, as I strain in times of crisis to hear what a still, small voice is telling me. That relationship is my ultimate judge of what’s right and what’s wrong. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil doesn’t grow and flower in some far-off garden. It’s planted in the soil of our own souls.

Thank God, for moral relativism.

#####

WordPress for Aggies, Part 3: The Infamous Five-Minute Install

WordPress comes in two basic flavors: wordpress.com and wordpress.org. They sound similar, but they’re as different as vanilla and licorice. In this series, I’ll be talking about wordpress.org. But first, I’ll say a bit in passing about the dot-com, so that you can choose the flavor that fits your online tastes.

WordPress started out as a blogging platform. But early on, the founders realized the same platform could build a website as easily as it could build a blog. The major difference is that a blog consists mostly of pages that keep changing, while the pages on a website are mostly static. Today, one in every five websites uses WordPress. Everyone from lowly Texas singer-songwriters up to big media companies like Forbes and CNN.

WordPress.com is primarily for bloggers. It offers them several advantages: It’s free. It’s easy. And it hosts thousands of blogs, which increases the chances that you might pick up a few new readers, who stumble blindly your way while they’re reading on a related topic. If all you’re looking to do is blog, quit reading right now and point your brower to wordpress.com.

Truth be told, you can also host a website on the dot-com version of WordPress. But you probably don’t want to. For one thing, it’s likely to end up looking like a blog. It offers a limited number of templates, and limited options for changing design. You can get more options by shelling out a few shekels. But in that case, why not pay to set up your site on some other web host, where your options suddenly expand into the tens of thousands? Depending on your degree of geek spirit, you can control every last detail, and produce a site that doesn’t look at all like a blog.

That’s where wordpress.org comes in. It’s for serious website designers. It’s got every resource you could imagine: documentation, themes, plugins and widgets. Most important, it contains the basic WordPress software, which is the foundation on which all the other resources build. What it doesn’t have is an easy way to install the basic software.

Here’s the hard way: You can download the latest version for free, as a zipped file, and install it on your existing web host. WordPress.org boasts about its “Famous Five-Minute Install.” If you already know what an SQL database is and how to create one, you might actually be able to get WordPress up and running in five minutes. If you know such things, you have no business reading this blog. For me, as soon as I looked at the instructions, I realized it would be like installing Windows, one file at a time. If I ever figured out the instructions at all.

So I did it the easy way: I had my web host do it for me. Most web hosts offer some older version of WordPress, among the add-ons available on the Site Manager or Control Panel. It’s not the latest or greatest. But once it’s installed, it’s easy to upgrade to the newest version. A lot easier than installing any version on your own.

Here’s how I ended up installing WordPress: I logged on to the Control Panel for my website, found my web host’s stone-age version (It was about 2.5 – It’s now up to 3.5.1), clicked on it, and sat back. It was automatically installed on stevebrooks.net.

One choice wasn’t automatic. I chose to put all its files in their own folder: stevebrooks.net/wordpress. Keeping the WordPress website in a separate folder allowed me to keep my old website alive while I built the new one. This turned out to be a good move, since building the new one took me four months.

When I opened the freshly-installed WordPress, the first thing it asked me was whether I wanted to upgrade to the latest version. It took one more click. By the time my WordPress was up-to-date, the entire installation had probably taken five minutes.

I took a few more minutes to learn about the Dashboard. Then it was time to move on to the backbone of my website-to-be: Choosing a Theme.

(To be continued…)

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