Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I find it infinitely sad that nearly fifty years after we elected the first Catholic President we seem to be no further along than we were then.  If anything we seem to be more intolerant of religion than ever.  I have been wondering why that should be so and I think I have identified at least part of the answer.  It came strangely enough when I examined my responses to one aspect of religious debate in this election year.  The only candidate that roused suspicion in me wasn't the Mormon or the black man suspected of being a closet Muslim and later castigated for his association with a black pastor who has become controversial simply because of the political association. (Face it--Jeremiah Wright would never have made a blip on the national scene, outside the black community, without the politics.)  It was Governor Mike Huckabee.

One part of my unease stems from the fact that fundamentalists for the last generation have been at the forefront pushing political agendas with which I strongly disagree.  As a minister and politician, governor Huckabee did not surprise me in the positions he took and I decided rather quickly I could not support him.  My own position is best described as 'moral Libertarianism' because I do not believe that most moral issues should be legislated.  The Religious Right offends me deeply on this matter.

However, a second issue, an issue of fairness, came to the forefront as his campaign progressed.  That issue involved the very unequal treatment of two violent convicted criminals. In one case Governor Huckabee insisted on a pardon for a convicted rapist.  (That man, required to leave Arkansas by the terms of the pardon, went to Missouri where, if my memory is accurate,  he raped two women murdering one of them.)  In the other case, the Governor not only refused to pardon a violent multiple murderer but advanced the man's execution date.  The cases share many similarities: two violent criminals sentenced for violent crimes who experienced religious conversions and appeared to reform their lives.  Each had co-religionists who actively lobbied for their pardons.  

The Christian ministers who appealed for the rapist's pardon did so because of the prisoner's conversion to Christianity AND because they claimed that his conviction and sentence was politically motivated The one woman he was convicted of raping was a distant cousin of the Clintons. (There were other women who claimed he had raped them but those cases never made it to court.) The situation quickly became murky as Governor Huckabee claimed he merely did as the pardon board directed while members of that board claimed that the Governor exerted extreme pressure on them to recommend the pardon.  

The other convict, the murderer, found Buddhism instead of Christianity.  He became a writer, an advocate of non-violence, a teacher while waiting out his appeals.  When the appeals were exhausted his supporters, which included not just fellow Buddhists but other religious activists as well, petitioned the Governor for a pardon.  Instead of pardoning the man, or even commuting the sentence to life in prison, Governor Huckabee, as mentioned above, advanced the execution date. Check out this link (scroll down to Jan 16, 2008), or this one (which doesn't mention the Buddhist issue but does raise the problem of 'Christian cronyism'). 

What disturbs me about these two stories is the sense I have that for Governor Huckabee the transformative influence of religion and spirituality is reserved for Christian religion and spirituality.  The Buddhist's conversion and reformation is somehow suspect BECAUSE it was Buddhist and not Christian.  He allowed the Christian conversion a legitimacy he denied the Buddhist conversion.  It disturbs me because we cannot have equal justice if in the delivery of justice we privilege some over others on the ground of our own religious belief.  If we grant clemency as part of justice then it must be granted even handedly and this case smells of favoritism based on religious affiliation.

I noted yesterday that white fundamentalist ministers were given gentle handling when they declared that the we in the U.S. brought 9/11 on ourselves because of our support of gays, abortions, and liberal policies generally.  Go here to read a transcript of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussing this very topic.  Reverend Falwell later apologized but, with or without the apology, the matter was given very little coverage in the mainstream medium. And perhaps we should question the sincerity of such apologies since both (as well as their religious allies) have had a history of blaming those they consider sinners for calamity.  Both have had close connections with political leaders so one cannot explain the gentle handling by the mainstream medium as a lack of political ties.

I find it troublesome that President Bush was allowed to quietly disassociate himself from the Falwell/Robertson flap while Senator Obama has to repeatedly disavow, dissociate himself from and denounce Jeremiah Wright.  I applaud Reverend Wright's courage in sticking to his guns and his statements.  He has a right to them.  My respect for Barak Obama has dipped south several notches over this issue.  I wish he had simply told the national press that though he respects Reverend Wright he does not share all of his beliefs; that, though Reverend Wright has been a spiritual mentor, he (Barak Obama) reserves the right, as an individual, to weigh matters and decide for him self.  

At bottom, what I find troubling is the level of self-serving hypocrisy  that permeates our politics and our media.

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