03 September 2008

Religion and reality

From this distance, presidential election politics in the U.S. right now seem unreal. The mass media seem obsessed with analyzing trivia, and convention speakers in St. Paul jab at their opponents with glorious indifference to their own deep disagreements with each other. And what's alarming to me is how much of that pseudo-analysis has to do with candidates' (right now, specifically Palin's) Christian credentials.

The Christianity/politics overlap takes very different forms in different countries. I won't comment now on the complicated manifestations we're observing in Russia--let's just say that most commentators seem prone to oversimplify matters greatly. Simon Barrow, in his blog and in his Ekklesia commentaries, provides great coverage of the British scene, where there is a longstanding formal enmeshment of church and state and at the same time, deep estrangement on the level of culture. What fascinates me is the American scene, where separation of church and state is an established constitutional principle, but the current trend of our political scene, charged as it is by incredible emphasis on personality, seems to emphasize an almost aggressive attention to candidates' faith. Woe to the candidate who is not "born again" according to the most trivial criteria. What wouldn't I give to have these two themes rise to prominence in the national discussion?--

1) What substantial policy implications would being born again have for economic and social justice, immigration policy, and American exceptionalism in foreign policy?

2) What precious safeguards inherent in "separation of church and state" are we in danger of losing if we don't have a more mature discussion of how a candidate's faith actually relates to their qualifications for office, rather than serving as a mating calls in the ever-more-subtle games of identity politics?

Dick Cheney is in Georgia, telling this Russian border country how committed the USA is to Georgia's national reassembly project, though the project itself arguably reflects the political ambitions of a president who has already demonstrated extreme poor judgment at the cost of hundreds of lives.

Today on Echo of Moscow radio, I heard a panel discussion on the question, "Does the West consider Russia its enemy?" (The second hour, which I had to miss, considered the counterpart question, "Does Russia consider the West its enemy?") The panelists themselves all agreed that the West does not consider Russia its enemy; the military and former military members of the panel felt that it would be more accurate to say that the West considers Russia its geopolitical rival--one of them referring to the doctrine that Russia as "heartland" continental power and the USA-dominated Anglo-American partnership as a sea power are destined to be locked in a perennial contest for resources.

The telephone poll conducted early in the program told a story of its own. Just over 50% of Echo of Moscow listeners who dialed in voted "yes," the West considered Russia its enemy, and just under 50% voted "no."

Photos: Judy Maurer

Judy and I spent much of today in Moscow, visiting the Amnesty International office and Izmailovski Park, and passing very near the Arbat neighborhood. Last Sunday, on our way to Friends meeting, we did visit the Arbat, walking along Old Arbat Street, which I hadn't seen in nearly eight years. We hear that a city-directed cleanup has swept that pedestrian-only street, and the results are clear: most of the carnival atmosphere is gone. It used to be wall-to-wall souvenir stands, tacky photo-op vendors (have your photo taken with a Brezhnev look-alike), and buskers. Now it's considerably tamer, which is disappointing to me but probably a relief for those who actually live there.

One of those who used to live there was the bard Bulat Okudzhava, whose death in 1997 I noted in Quaker Life. I had heard that a memorial to him was built on his beloved Arbat, but I was not prepared for what I found--its playful beauty overwhelmed my emotions. On the "gates" were lines from many of the songs that so many Russian people of certain generations know by heart. In fact, we sang several of them at our campfire picnic in Buzuluk two weekends ago.

Righteous links:

Pew Forum's candidate site for Sarah Palin promises "coming soon" on her religious bio page. ~~ Scroll through Joel Hunter's weblog to see his thoughts and clippings about delivering the benediction at the close of the Democratic convention. And read Blue Like Jazz author Don Miller's blog item "Don and Barack Exchange E-Mails." ~~ Simon Barrow on "Peacemaking after Christendom": "The point is this: the Body of Christ is a broken body offered unconditional life by God, not life grabbed at the expense of entrapping others in death." ~~ One more Solzhenitsyn clipping: Michael Scammell writes, "Most of the recent tributes to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ... have concentrated on his titanic struggle against the Soviet regime, and rightly so. But what seems to have gotten lost is the reason he was listened to in the first place—namely, his virtues as a writer."

Susan Tedeschi in a sweet mood: "Wait for Me."

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