One nation under god(s)

lakshmiI’m very interested in civil religion, as some of you may have picked up. People who share my confession of faith tend to dislike the mixture of politics and worship since it violates our understanding of the sacredness of worship. Besides, civil religion never seems to work out for us as we’re always outnumbered by other religious groups.

So when the story about a Reno clergyman giving the first Hindu prayer in the Senate (and being interrupted by protestors) broke, I was anxious to see how it was covered. Thing is, there hasn’t been that much coverage. Or maybe I’m missing it and you all can help me out. The local fishwrapper, The Washington Post, had a brief piece today by Charles Babington, that began as follows:

A Hindu clergyman made history yesterday by offering the Senate’s morning prayer, but only after police officers removed three protesters from the visitors’ gallery.

Rajan Zed, director of interfaith relations at a Hindu temple in Reno, Nev., gave the prayer that opens each day’s Senate session. As he stood at the lectern in a bright orange and burgundy robe, two women and a man began shouting “this is an abomination” and other complaints from the gallery.

Police officers arrested them and charged them disrupting Congress, a misdemeanor. The male protester said “we are Christians and patriots” before police led them away. Police identified the protesters as Ante Nedlko Pavkovic, Katherine Lynn Pavkovic and Christan Renee Sugar. Their home towns were not available.

For several days, the Mississippi-based American Family Association has urged its members to object to the prayer because Zed would be “seeking the invocation of a non-monotheistic god.”

And that’s basically all there is to the story. I’m not sure if the protesters are affiliated with American Family Association or what that organization is since the reporter didn’t speak with anyone representing the group. But it sure seems like we are supposed to link the efforts of the AFA with the protesters.

It would be nice to know a bit more context, too. Hindus have already prayed in other settings in government. The Hindu group that came to the World’s Fair in Chicago at the turn of the century had a profound influence on American religion. Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala, a priest from Ohio, was the first Hindu to pray before Congress when he opened the House of Representatives with prayer in September of 2000. There was some protest then. But if you really want dramatic news, look at some of the crazy shenanigans going on in State Houses.

ganeshaI’m wondering why we haven’t seen more comprehensive coverage. Anyway, a few other highlights. A USA TODAY blog posted the full text of the prayer and implied that the protesters, the AFA and Operation Rescue/Operation Save America were involved. Or maybe the story confused AFA and Operation Rescue/Operation Save America. And Reuters had a limited report with a fascinating quote from Mormon Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saying that the Hindu deity system is equivalent to “our heavenly father.” Also a good story from Indian news outlet Rediff, which interviewed the Hindu chaplain and shared some interesting tidbits about his life (he has a journalism degree!). The story also says Zed believs yoga is helping spread Hinduism throughout America.

I think the best story comes from Diana Marrero of Gannett News Service writing for the Reno Gazette-Journal — and I’m not just saying that since I know her! I didn’t see it earlier, alas. She begins with the actual prayer and shares a bit of Hindu beliefs and interesting tidbits:

Zed said celebrants in a small Punjab town in India set off fireworks and flew flags on their rooftops to commemorate what they considered a major historic event.

The story focused more on the historic nature of the prayer, rather than the protest.

Did any of you see particularly good or bad stories out there? What angles do you wish would have been covered?

A ghost in the Buddhist bowl

gr1962If you were a traditional Muslim parent, how would you feel if teachers in your public school brought a “Tibetan singing bowl” into the classroom and taught your child how to “meditate,” drawing on techniques found in Buddhism?

How would you feel if you were Buddhist?

How would you feel if you were an Orthodox Jew? Would it be different if you were active in Reform Judaism?

What if you were a traditional Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian?

Would your feelings be different if you were a progressive Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist or Presbyterian? What if you were part of a conservative church in any of those traditions?

What if you were Unitarian, or simply a parent who considers herself a “spiritual” person who is not part of a specific religious tradition? Would you feel in any way threatened or concerned?

In other words, would you feel different about this classroom emphasis on “mindfulness” if the religious tradition practiced in your home was highly specific and orthodox, as opposed to open-ended, evolving and, well, universalist?

You probably would. And this is the ghost floating through a recent New York Times story focusing on efforts to promote a kind of vague form of meditation in inner-city schools in Oakland, Calif. The story is very careful never to use the word “prayer,” and that is the big problem (in my opinion, as a guy with a graduate degree in church-state studies).

It’s safe to say that reporter Patricia Leigh Brown knew about the ghost in the story. After all, the story does say:

Asked their reactions to the sounds of the singing bowl, Yvette Solito, a third grader, wrote that it made her feel “calm, like something on Oprah.” Her classmate Corey Jackson wrote that “it feels like when a bird cracks open its shell.”

Dr. Amy Saltzman, a physician in Palo Alto, Calif., who started the Association for Mindfulness in Education three years ago, thinks of mindfulness education as “talk yoga.” Practitioners tend to use sticky-mat buzzwords like “being present” and “cultivating compassion,” while avoiding anything spiritual.

Sticky-mat buzzwords? Of course, the entire story has a strong “spirituality” theme to it. I would say that the novelty of drawing on Buddhist techniques in a school classroom was the essential news “hook” in the first place.

Brown also makes it clear that this is not a tax-funded program, even if it is taking place in regular classroom time in a tax-funded school.

During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the “mindful” coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The sound of the Tibetan bowl reverberated at the start and finish of each lesson.

… The experiment at Piedmont, whose student body is roughly 65 percent black, 18 percent Latino and includes a large number of immigrants, is financed by Park Day School, a nearby private school (prompting one teacher to grumble that it was “Cloud Nine-groovy-hippie-liberals bringing ‘enlightenment’ to inner city schools”).

But Angela Haick, the principal of Piedmont Avenue, said she was inspired to try it after observing a class at a local middle school. “If we can help children slow down and think,” Dr. Haick said, “they have the answers within themselves.”

I want to stress that I think this is a very good and solid news story, whether you are interested in the church-state separation angle of it or not. I simply think it raises more questions about people thinking that “vague spirituality” is acceptable in the public square, while specific, doctrinal forms are not. This raises questions, for me, about the establishment of some forms of religion by the state over others.

Could you use classroom hours to teach Islamic prayers, complete with mind-calming prostrations? How about lessons in the rosary? A charismatic pastor teaching about “private prayer languages” and spiritual warfare?

I imagine that a story about any of those news “hooks” would be quite different.

Waiting for Oneness

ForYourConsideration 01In the May 28 issue of The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead writes a brief piece in the spirit of Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” in which the theme of a social gathering feels at odds with the upscale surroundings. Here the gathering’s theme is spiritual enlightenment, featuring the actress and recently published author Ellen Burstyn (Lessons in Becoming Myself) and Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love).

Cindy Adams, gossip columnist for the New York Post, is the party’s host, and she makes an easy target with her pampered dogs (one of whom she feeds a pastry held in her mouth) and her Park Avenue apartment, which previously was home to Doris Day.

But let’s get on to the spiritual content. One passage includes a silent cameo appearance by actress Parker Posey, and it has the same humor of Posey’s roles in Christoper Guest’s improv films:

Burstyn, who was to appear that evening at the 92nd Street Y with Williamson, stood under Duke’s black ceiling and explained that her memoir, “Lessons in Becoming Myself,” concerned her life’s spiritual journey. “I’m a Sufi,” she explained, with a beneficent smile. “I like the expression ‘I am one cell in the mind of God.’” Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” was telling Parker Posey that she had recently bought an eighteenth-century Presbyterian church in New Jersey to live in. “It’s very Yankee, with fifteen-foot wavy-glass windows,” Gilbert said, before adding that Julia Roberts had signed on to star in the movie version of her book. Gilbert said that she had asked her sister, a historian, whether she should beware of ghosts: “She said, ‘Presbyterians won’t bother you, with your yoga and your Buddhas and your cursing. It’s not like they’re Methodists.’”

Poor Methodists: The United Methodist Church can hardly be accused of hardcore doctrine wars these days, but its members must endure jokes that were surely funnier about 80 years ago.

There’s also this confusing note about Billy Joel, who for many years made much of being an atheist:

“The women I know are all gravitating to a much more spiritual place,” [April] Kramer said, at which her friend Myra Scheer, who raises money for the Rainforest Foundation Fund, laid her hand on a pearl peace-symbol pendant that she was wearing over her Dolce & Gabbana suit. “I went to a Kabbalah course, and it said that women have to bring light to men,” Scheer said. Among the men to whom Scheer had brought light was Billy Joel, who wore a pendant like hers onstage at the last Rainforest Foundation Fund benefit. “Though he didn’t wear pearls — he wore Swarovski crystals,” she said.

Faith in ‘The Other Iraq’

I need to flash back to a recent Washington Post, so please hang in there with me for a moment. When it comes to knowing how to embed YouTube videos, I have issues.

One of the goals of GetReligion is to point out religion “ghosts” in mainstream news reports, with said “ghosts” being defined as religious themes that the newspaper’s staff either missed altogether or didn’t know how to handle.

Well, the page-one Washington Post story “Kurds Cultivating Their Own Bonds With U.S.” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a good example of a reporter spotting the religion ghost in a big story. In fact, the ghost makes a brief appearance near the top of the story.

The problem is that the ghost then drifts away and it takes the reader a long, long time to find that thread again. There is even a chance that the ghost is driving the story.

Here is the opening of the piece:

The 30-second television commercial features stirring scenes of a young Iraqi boy high-fiving a U.S. soldier, a Westerner dining alfresco, and men and women dancing together. “Have you seen the other Iraq?” the narrator asks. “It’s spectacular. It’s joyful.”

“Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan!” the narrator continues. “It’s not a dream. It’s the other Iraq.”

With Sunni and Shiite Arabs locked in a bloody sectarian war, Iraq’s Kurds are promoting their interests through an influence-buying campaign in the United States that includes airing nationwide television advertisements, hiring powerful Washington lobbyists and playing parts of the U.S. government against each other. A former car mechanic who happens to be the son of Iraq’s president is at the center of Kurdish efforts to cultivate support for their semi-independent enclave, but the cast of Kurdish proponents also includes evangelical Christians, Israeli operatives and Republican political consultants.

There is a lot of color in there. However, I was hooked by the image of “The Other Iraq” campaign and the advertisements themselves. I immediately wanted to know: OK, where in the world did that come from? This is a crucial question since, as the story notes, this PR campaign by the Kurds is, in a subtle way, clashing with U.S. policies to maintain a unified Iraq and a happy Turkey — no matter what.

It takes a long time to get to the ads and, while much of the material through which the reader has to march is fascinating, I finally decided that this was one case in which a long page-one story really needed to be broken up into some reader-friendly sidebars. This leads us to evangelical activist Bill Garaway in Santa Cruz, Calif., who is one interesting guy. His devotion to the Kurdish cause is rooted — no surprise here — in missionary work in the region. He is convinced, as he says in the story, that “There is nobody like them in the Middle East. They’re Muslim, but they hate fundamentalist Islam. They love America.”

So who is this guy?

Garaway, a rangy 62-year-old with receding silver hair, became enamored with the Kurds more than a decade ago, after concluding that many key events described in the Bible occurred in Kurdistan, including the stories of Noah’s ark and Queen Esther. He believes not only that the Kurds are descendants of the ancient Medes people, but also that the three wise men who the Bible says visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem came from Kurdistan.

For Garaway, championing the Kurdish cause has been the latest twist in a life filled with unexpected turns. As he tells it, he protested the Vietnam War as a college student, burning his draft card at a UCLA rally in 1967. He subsequently lived in a commune with 140 others in the hills above Palo Alto, Calif., where he ran a food cooperative, taught yoga, befriended members of the Grateful Dead and hosted poet Allen Ginsberg in his treehouse. One day, a group of friends who had left the commune returned and invited Garaway to join their church. He did, and soon after, he said, “God revealed himself to me.”

He and his wife settled in Santa Cruz in the early 1970s, where they opened a church, started to surf and began to raise a family. They had six children, all of whom were home-schooled. Four have become professional surfers.

Right. Now read the whole story and tell me, does this guy deserve a sidebar or what? This is one case where I think the religion angle deserved to be broken out of the political, war-story structure of this massive story and allowed some room to grow.

One more thing: Are the Kurds (a) Sunni, (b) Shia, (c) Zoroastrian or (d) all of the above? It would have been nice to know. Did I miss a reference?

A story of humility

footwashingHumility, for Christians, is a difficult thing to maintain. Those who talk about their humility are by definition not very humble. The attribute of humility is best when it is practiced, but unfortunately, Christians in the public spotlight are in a tough spot when it comes to demonstrating humbleness.

I am a week late in posting on this excellent Washington Post article on foot-washing and how it relates to being humble. Reporter William Wan portrays in vivid detail the lowly nature of following Jesus’ model in washing feet:

As they prepared for the holy ritual, the churchgoers had all the essential items: latex gloves, nail clippers, chlorine and antibacterial soap. The only things missing were the feet, and soon enough they poured into the church by the dozen.

Many were callused and cracked from cold nights spent on the streets. Some were sore and infected. What they needed was some old-school — we’re talking centuries here — Christian doctrine in action. So volunteers at Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond got down on their knees and scrubbed.

The practice of foot-washing, rooted in the biblical account of what Jesus did for his disciples, has ebbed and flowed throughout church history, abandoned at various times for reasons of dogma or embarrassment. But in recent years it has grown in popularity as an act of submission, both at Easter season services and in many other settings.

The article, as part of the Post‘s monthly On Faith feature, took me back to an honors class I took in college called “Hands-on Spirituality.” In it we discussed and practiced everything from yoga to meditation to totai chi.

While I learned little in the class, largely because I was too busy with the school newspaper and other duties, I did appreciate it. The thing I remember most vividly was the one week we devoted to an exclusively Christian practice, which was foot-washing. Simply put, washing a classmate’s feet was probably the most humbling school-related action of my four years in college. All in all the experience was quite moving spiritually.

A brief history on why the foot-washing rite has gone in and out of style among Christians is explained in the article. The reporter makes a very good case, by nailing the spiritual significance of the practice, that this is something that should be practiced more often by followers of Christ.

But yoga is so hip!

A casual glance at the headlines would indicate that reporters love to cover stories about changes to public school curriculum. Especially changes to public school curriculum that allegedly are motivated by political or religious viewpoints. The debate over inclusion of intelligent design theories in textbooks has been hot for months. Reporters are still going crazy over the big, bad intelligent designers and their Pennsylvania and Kansas curriculum battles.

So how is it possible that reporters have, for the most part, managed to completely miss the dramatic success that Hindu nationalists had this week in revising California textbooks over the objections of renowned scholars? If the Hindu nationalists themselves hadn’t sent me a note (I subscribe to one of their listservs), I wouldn’t have known about it:

California Hindus were celebrating today their victory in yesterday’s meeting of the State Board of Education Curriculum Commission. The Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation worked for months to have changes made to sections of California textbooks that deal with India and Hinduism. Then there was a hasty intervention by a group of scholars of Indology which threatened to reverse many of the changes. Fortunately, the Curriculum Commission sympathized with the Hindus and allowed only a few changes to what Hindus had requested.

The estimated population of Hindus in America is small but growing rapidly: over 1 million adherents. Like most groups, Hindus have some pretty serious and conflicting divisions. The Hindus who won this victory are Hindu nationalists. The controversial movement got going around 100 years ago in response to British rule, the political victories Muslims were having in certain regions and the success Christians were having in conversions and subsequent subverting of the Hindu caste system. It has gained stature and adherents in India in recent decades.

Hindu nationalists have a few beliefs outside the mainstream of academic thought, including one view that science can prove human civilization has been around for 1,900 million years. They believe Hinduism originated in India and that Aryan culture traveled to Iran from India rather than vice-versa. They also believe Sanskrit is the mother language of every language in the world, including that of Native Americans. These unorthodox views are disputed by most historians and linguists who believe that the Vedic religion and Indo-Aryan Languages came from Central Asia along with the Aryans around 3500 years ago.

Curriculum battles in California are heated not only because the state is the nation’s largest textbok purchaser, but other states tend to follow California’s lead in textbook approval. Religion has been a required course of study in California since 1987 where students learn about Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity in sixth grade, and Islam in seventh grade.

While nationalists are not a Hindu majority even in India, they are a powerful political group. For months they heavily lobbied California’s Board of Education to make changes in the textbooks, such as asserting that Aryans were not a race, but a term for persons of noble intellect.

The lobbying prompted Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel to write a letter to the California Board of Education which said, in part:

The agenda of the groups proposing these changes is familiar to all specialists on Indian history, who have recently won a long battle to prevent exactly these kinds of changes from finding a permanent place in the history textbooks in India. The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise.

But, if the Hindu Press International report is to be believed, the nationalists won. It seems like this would have been an excellent story for reporters to follow before now, whether from the education, religion, or intelligent design angles. It’s also a great reminder that one of the best things a busy religion reporter can do to stay on top of the beat is to subscribe to religious media.

From the specific to the overstated

newsweek082605Newsweek‘s latest cover package is a religion writer’s dream — 16 pages of prime editorial space to discuss American religions in their ever-expanding diversity and custom-tailored worldviews.

The package is strongest, though, when it focuses on the individual details: an evangelical in West Virginia who’s an environmental activist; life at a Southern California mosque; a Church of God in Christ bishop in Memphis who is the denomination’s president; an African American Baptist Buddhist; observant young Catholics at Franciscan University of Steubenville; and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Kabbalah teacher based in Boulder, Colo.

Jerry Adler, author of the mainbar, pokes justifiable fun at Time magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover package from April 1966:

History records that the vanguard of angst-ridden intellectuals in Time, struggling to imagine God as a cloud of gas in the far reaches of the galaxy, never did sweep the nation. What was dying in 1966 was a well-meaning but arid theology born of rationalism: a wavering trumpet call for ethical behavior, a search for meaning in a letter to the editor in favor of civil rights. What would be born in its stead, in a cycle of renewal that has played itself out many times since the Temple of Solomon, was a passion for an immediate, transcendent experience of God. And a uniquely American acceptance of the amazingly diverse paths people have taken to find it.

Adler (supported by reporting from six other Newsweek writers) makes some tooth-grinding generalizations himself, and one doesn’t need another 40 years to recognize them. Here are several.

A false choice

“You can know all about God,” says Tony Campolo, a prominent evangelist [not to mention his decades-long career as a sociology professor], “but the question is, do you know God? You can have solid theology and be orthodox to the core, but have you experienced God in your own life?” In the broadest sense, Campolo says, the Christian believer and the New Age acolyte are on the same mission: “We are looking for transcendence in the midst of the mundane.” And what could be more mundane than politics? Seventy-five percent say that a “very important” reason for their faith is to “forge a personal relationship with God” — not fighting political battles.

Today, then, the real spiritual quest is not to put another conservative on the Supreme Court, or to get creation science into the schools. If you experience God directly, your faith is not going to hinge on whether natural selection could have produced the flagellum of a bacterium. If you feel God within you, then the important question is settled; the rest is details.

Has any Intelligent Design advocate ever suggested that Christian faith should depend on whether natural selection produced the flagellum of a bacterium?

Oh, really?

In America even atheists are spiritualists, searching for meaning in parapsychology and near-death experiences. There is a streak in the United States of relying on what Pacific Lutheran’s Killen calls “individual visceral experience” to validate religious ideas.

Examples, please, of atheists who put their faith in parapsychology or near-death experiences. Even one example would be nice.

Misunderstanding tongues

“For people who feel overlooked, it provides a sense that you’re a very important person,” observes Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. By the same token, people with social aspirations preferred other churches, but nowadays Pentecostalism — the faith of former attorney general John Ashcroft — has lost its stigma as a religion of the poor. And elements of Pentecostal worship are invading other denominations, a change that coincided with the introduction of arena-style screens in churches, replacing hymnals and freeing up people’s hands to clap and wave. Naturally, there is some attenuation as you move up the socioeconomic scale. Babbling in foreign-sounding “tongues” turns into discreet murmurs of affirmation.

Actually, most tongue-speakers understand their gift as focusing on communication with God.

Syncretism in Cambridge? Shut up!

Stephen Cope, who attended Episcopal divinity school but later trained as a psychotherapist, dropped into a meditation center in Cambridge, Mass., one day and soon found himself spending six hours every Sunday sitting and walking in silent contemplation. Then he added yoga to his routine, which he happily describes as “like gasoline on fire” when it comes to igniting a meditative state. And the great thing is, he still attends his Episcopal church — a perfect example of the new American spirituality, with a thirst for transcendence too powerful to be met by just one religion.

Memo to Newsweek: At Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Mass. — easily the most theologically liberal seminary in a mostly liberal denomination — Stephen Cope’s experience is more likely to be the norm rather than the exception. To what extent this represents mainstream Christianity is far less clear.

You say Namaste, I say yoga-blessing-thank-you hands

KerryBowsToward the end of the 2004 presidential election, I grew more curious about John Kerry’s habit of clasping his hands together and bowing to his audience. I’d seen the gesture before, mostly among Episcopal women who would say “Namaste” (which, they said, means “The God [or god] in me bows to the God in you”).

I asked GetReligion FOB Gary Gach, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, if he saw potential for a post on any spiritual content behind the gesture. Gach pointed me to this entry on page 156 of his book:

Two basic gestures practitioners use are in bowing and in meditation. Bowing is a meditation, in and of itself, and can be done just by joining palms, a universal gesture of spirit. There’s a famous etching by Albrecht Dürer of two hands praying, as if by themselves. In the East, putting palms and fingers together is a gesture of spiritual greeting, instead of shaking hands. In India and Thailand, you put your palms together at your chest and raise them to your forehead, often followed by a bow, still in that position — eyes and joined hands going outward and down to a spot on the ground equidistant between the greeter and the greeted. A bow can also be a quarter-inch. However done, bow or no bow, “palms-joined” says “The Buddha within me salutes the Buddha within you” (no dualism). “Have a nice day.”

On Wednesday’s edition of Fresh Air, Terry Gross found a humorous pop-culture description of the West’s truncated Namaste greeting. Speaking with Lisa Kudrow and writer Michael Patrick King of the new HBO series The Comeback, Gross remarked on how often Kudrow’s character, former celebrity Valerie Cherish, will bow to a TV crew or director as an assertion of power she doesn’t truly have.

Kudrow: The first thing that always came to mind with her, she’s like that bad old-time ad guy, that if you sell it and you sell it well enough, they’ll believe it, even if there’s absolutely no substance there to support what you’re trying to sell. That’s one thing that I was hoping would be really obvious, that she’s just a little bit over the top with her very assertive demand respect. It only comes up — she doesn’t address it when she’s actually getting pummeled.

King: I also wanted to mention something, Terry, about the hands. You were talking about her bowing all the time, earlier. We call those the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands. We laugh so hard, because that also is a little bit of a virus that’s running rampant in the actress community. Now you’ll start seeing it a lot. A lot of actresses do the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands — to interviewers, to people bringing them their lattes. Suddenly the hands come up. I’ve had actresses do it to me . . . when I say, “That was a really good scene,” they go — here come the hands — “No, you. No, it’s about you.” But it’s never about you. It’s about you saying “It’s about you.” So what we liked about the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands was that it was accurate and goofy. She’ll try to squeeze them in as she’s going out the door. Sometimes you’ll see just the tips of the hands as the door closes.

Kudrow: It’s a phony gesture of grace.

King: Yes! And centered spirituality, which she wouldn’t even know how to spell!

Each time King refers to yoga-blessing-thank-you hands, Gross lets loose with her wonderful chuckle. The segment on yoga-blessing-thank-you hands begins at about 21 minutes in, but the entire 31-minute interview is worth a listen.