America’s Original Sin

Hans Baldung Grien, "Eve, Serpent and Death"
Hans Baldung Grien, “Eve, Serpent and Death”

W.J. Astore

I’m a Catholic, so of course I know all about Original Sin.  For disobeying God and tasting the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden.  Eve would suffer the pains of childbirth, and both she and Adam would age and die, their earthly bodies returning to the dust from which they came.

I always thought Eve got a bad rap in that story.  She was, after all, tempted by Lucifer, a fallen angel in the shape of a serpent.  Whereas Adam simply gave in to a mild suggestion by Eve to join her.  Eve was tricked by the Master of Deceit, but Adam just joined in for the heck of it, and she shoulders the blame?

Of course, one might see Original Sin as part of God’s master plan.  For without that sin, there would be no need for God to send his only begotten son to redeem mankind.  No Original Sin, no New Testament.  No Beatitudes.  No Roman Catholic Church.  No Christianity.

And without Christianity and its evangelizing zeal, America would doubtless be a far different land.   Assuming Europeans still came to the New World in roughly 1500, would subsequent history be less bloody in the absence of Christianity?  Or would naked conquest have been unrestrained by any moral code of restraint and compassion?

The United States has an original sin as well.  It is the impiety of considering our country as being uniquely favored by God.  American history shows how we’ve killed, enslaved, and otherwise violated God’s great commandment of loving thy neighbor, even as we continue loudly to shout how God uniquely showers His praises on us.  God Bless America!

Is America’s original sin part of some master plan?  How will we redeem ourselves from its awful legacies?  My dad once joked that in school he almost solved an unsolvable equation; I confess I have no solution to such questions.

Readers, have at it in the comments section below.  Is the very idea of Original Sin mysterious and magisterial, or mischievous and misleading?  Have humans evolved beyond the need for God and gods?  Is “sin” a misleading term to apply to America’s past, too metaphysical, too imprecise?  Are there simply too many “chosen people” in this world, too many people who elevate themselves above others just because they believe they share a favored relationship to God?

It’s a grey and rainy day here — a good day for thinking.  Join in.

The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means

US_Flag_Backlit

W.J. Astore

I read old stuff.  Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do.  So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.”  Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.

You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom.  The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all.  We should return to the original “godless” pledge.  It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.

After all, Americans have no monopoly on God.  Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us.  To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God.  No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror.  Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA!  USA!”

Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world.  I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”

Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”?  For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.

On Religion

Eve tempting Adam. I guess Adam didn't have a mind of his own
Eve tempting Adam. I guess Adam didn’t have a mind of his own

W.J. Astore

The other day my wife and I were watching Wadjda, a terrific film about a spirited Saudi girl who dreams of buying and riding her very own bicycle.  The film does a great job of highlighting the constraints put on women in traditional Saudi and Islamic culture.  Women are not allowed to drive, they must veil themselves whenever they can be seen by men, they are trained to be subservient and not to attract attention to themselves, and so on.

Watching the constraints under which Saudi women live their lives, my spirited wife uttered the following aphorism:

Religion – written by men, for men.  And that’s all you need to know.

Having been raised Catholic, it’s hard to disagree with her.  The Catholic Church has historically been misogynist.  It was Eve, after all, who tempted Adam.  She was “the weaker vessel” who was cursed with the pain of childbirth because of her “original sin.”  The Church itself, to state the obvious, is run entirely by men.  Even the woman most respected by the Church, the Virgin Mary, is an unattainable ideal.  A woman who gets pregnant without losing her virtue and virginity?  Try aspiring to that.

Whenever a religion, no matter if it’s Islam or Catholicism or some other faith or sect, places half of humanity in inferior and subservient roles, we must question very closely its true intent and inspiration.  Surely a just and compassionate God would not sanction a religion that subordinates women to the whims of men.

Obviously, I know many believers, women as well as men, will disagree with this.  They will point to their faith, their holy books, the power of tradition.  Or they will try to explain how their religion really doesn’t discriminate against women and so on.

Here I recall a saying that Temple Grandin says she will never forget: “Men will wrangle for religion, write for it, fight for it, die for it, anything but live for it.”

How true.  And I’d add that any religion worth living for is one that treats men and women equally as believers.  I don’t think God, if He or She (!) exists, would want it any other way.

Harvard and the Serving of God and Mammon

Leafy Campuses, Ivory Towers, Leading Straight to Wall Street
Leafy Campuses, Ivory Towers, Leading Straight to Wall Street

W.J. Astore

In the 17th century, Harvard was all about preparing men to serve God. It was about educating ministers. And ministers were arguably the most deeply respected men of their day. In the 21st century, Harvard has a new god — mammon. Harvard grads today most commonly reach for the big bucks in the world of banking and finance and Wall Street. And those who succeed in their get rich quick positions are arguably the most deeply celebrated (if not universally respected) men and women of this American moment.

If you accept for the moment that America’s brightest and best attend Ivy League universities like Harvard and Princeton, what does it say that so many of our most promising young aspire as their highest cause in life to make money and lots of it by manipulating financial markets?

Ezra Klein noted the following stats for the top Ivies:

As of 2011, finance remained the most popular career for Harvard graduates, sucking up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. At Yale, 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class, and at Princeton, 35.9 percent, were headed into finance.

At Harvard and Yale, at least, the numbers have drifted down in recent years. Harvard’s 2008 class sent 28 percent of its gainfully employed graduates to Wall Street, while Yale sent 26 percent.

More than one-third of Princeton grads went into finance in 2010: Incredible!

As the humanities wither at our universities, the financial sector continues to grow and consume our youth with promises of mammon and “success.”

Isn’t it high time to change our national motto? How about “In Mammon We Trust”?