Snippets

The email from a group that sees itself as a defender of religious liberty stated: “Of all the threats to our constitutional freedoms today, the scheme to stage a Supreme Coup of America’s courts is arguably the most dire. If our judicial system is rigged to favor partisan agendas, religious freedom—and all our fundamental, God-given rights—could be stripped away by a tyrannical majority who holds political power. That’s why right now, Americans must make their voice heard and REJECT this brazen power-grab.”

I wondered about various aspects of this plea including what “our fundamental, God-given rights” are. A benevolent, all-powerful God should give all of humanity a right to a peaceful life; to adequate food and shelter; to free speech; to worhip as you see fit; to a fulfilling education; and to good healthcare. I doubted that such rights were being referred to, but I could not discern what rights were meant. If it meant certain provisions in the U.S. Constitution, it ignored that God did not write the constitution. It was not on tablets given to Moses, but instead came on inked paper from humans, or as we often proudly proclaim, from “We the People.”  What do you believe are God-given rights, and why do you believe that? (For a further discussion of “We the People,” see the posts of July 16, 18, and 20, 2018: Search Results for “”We, the People of the United States”” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog).

A tag on my oven mitt reads: “Cold water wash . . . Do not bleach . . . Tumble low dry . . . Warm iron . . . 100% cotton . . . Made in China.” What kind of person irons an oven mitt?

“A good man, maybe. But it’s best to shoot him.” Old Russian Proverb. Ben Mezrich, Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder.

Baseball playoffs are taking place. This makes me think of the brother’s recollection of our first television. He was in fifth grade, and the father surprised us in October by bringing home a tiny, black-and-white set. He talked about how much the family would enjoy it, but we thought that his desire to see the World Series was the motive behind the purchase. The brother told me that he tried to catch a cold, which he did, so he could stay home from school and watch October baseball, this when the Series had only day games. The mother told the father that my brother was sick and could not watch the game. The brother reports, “Well, she left for her afternoon work at the grocery store. Of course, dad let me.”

Is this joke now politically incorrect: Did you hear about the hillbilly who passed away and left his estate in trust for his bereaved widow? She can’t touch it until she’s fourteen.

My suggestion for an incremental improvement for gun safety: Make it a crime to carry a gun while intoxicated. Of course, carrying a gun is not the same as using it, but even carrying one while drunk should be prohibited because the decision whether to use a carried firearm should not be made when a person is intoxicated. The consequences should be similar to drunken driving, which, of course, is an offense even if there is no accident, Perhaps a first conviction for carrying a gun while intoxicated would only be a misdemeanor, but just as driving licenses are suspended, the ability to carry a gun should be prohibited for a time after the first conviction. A second conviction would be a felony, and the person could no longer possess guns. . . and might even go to jail.

Baptists–American, South, and Right

          The Southern Baptist Convention gathered last month. It got a good bit of media attention because controversies are raging within the group over sex and race—volatile topics to say the least. The issues concern how the Baptists have handled sex abuse claims within its ranks and over the presentation of racial issues, particularly Critical Race Theory. A third issue–“sermongate”–has emerged over the “borrowing” without attribution by one prominent Southern Baptist minister of the sermons of other religious leaders.

The election of the head of the SBC was fiercely fought between a candidate labeled as conservative and another called a moderate with the moderate winning. “Moderate,” however, should be viewed in the context of current Southern Baptists. Elsewhere he might be seen as an extreme conservative. The controversies are especially important because Southern Baptist Churches have been losing parishioners, especially young adults. Southern Baptists are also concerned about waning political influence in a time when political power might mean choosing between conscience, religious principles, and alliance with Donald Trump, a person not well known for his conscience or religiosity.

Southern Baptists are an important institution because they are the largest American Protestant denomination, but I am especially interested in them because I was raised a Baptist. My family’s strain was that of the American Baptist Convention, which now has the name American Baptist Churches. (Earlier it was Northern Baptists.) There are many different versions of Baptists, but all practice adult, not infantile (ok, infant) baptism, and baptism not by merely the sprinkling of water but by full immersion of the believer.

          Baptists practice adult baptism by immersion because of the Bible. The Bible is divinely inspired, Baptists believe, and the ultimate authority for leading a Christian life. Baptists find no scriptural support for infant baptism. The biblical baptisms of Jesus by John the Baptist and one performed by Phillip were of adults, and there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist’s other baptisms were not also of adults.

          According to Baptists infant baptism is a man-made ritual, and it is not Christian to use man’s rituals over those of the Bible. And while it takes some extrapolation to conclude that immersion is required, the Bible does say that Jesus and others came out of the water. Other passages also seem to support that the biblical baptism was by dunking, including the verse–I think it is in one of the Romans–that says baptism symbolizes life, death, and resurrection. Sprinkling or the thumb’s spreading of water on a forehead doesn’t really seem to be a good symbol of that.

          Baptists maintained that the only biblically-based rituals were adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So on the first Sunday of every month we had communion. Little cubes of Wonder Bread and shot glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice were passed around. (As frugal as the church and its congregants were, it might not have been Welch’s, but an off brand.) I liked communion, but it raised some of my first doubts. I was told to take the Bible literally, but our church also commanded teetotaling. When I asked why communion served no wine, I was told that when the Bible said “wine,” it meant grape juice. Hmmm, I thought to myself.

          Adult baptism and communion and the Bible. Any other ritual or source comes from man and not God. No genuflecting. No stations of the cross. No Book of Common Prayer. No required kneeling. No incense. No icons. No required head covering. No rosary. No “mandatory” church attendance. No prayers other than to the Trinity. No saints. (It still bothers me to hear “The Gospel According to St. Mark.” No, it is the Gospel according to Mark.)

          Baptists are not only separated from other denominations by the lack of ritual but also by the absence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The only churches Jesus and his apostles recognized were no larger than a congregation, and Baptists maintain that is what the Christian church should still be. Nothing is above an individual church. No one imposes a minister, priest, or vicar on a Baptist church; the congregation selects its leader. No bishops; no presbytery. Each congregation is supreme.

          American Baptists did not have saints, but there was a theological progenitor—Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island after he was “asked” to leave Puritan Massachusetts. He established the first American Baptist church in Providence. Williams should be considered one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he seems to be almost unknown today. When I used to walk by the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison and 31st Street in Manhattan, I wondered how many of my fellow passersby had any idea who Roger Williams was. The hotel was built on land leased from the neighboring Baptist church, and, I once heard, was owned by the American Baptist Church. Times change. The hotel was sold, and now has what seems like a brand-tested name, The Roger.

          Williams was a remarkable man. Unlike many of his American contemporaries of the early seventeenth century, he treated the Indians with respect maintaining that the Native’s land had to be purchased not just seized for the English to have lawful title to it. He produced a primer of the complex Algonquian language. (Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language states that this work “is a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame.”) But Williams should be better known because so much of his thought, expressed in his voluminous writings, broke from conventional thinking and was the foundation for many of the bedrock principles of this country—sovereignty in the people, equality of people, liberty of individual conscience, and separation of church and state.

          Williams made the radical argument for his time that governments were not divinely inspired. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pick a government or endow rulers with authority. Instead, Williams contended, sovereignty is with the people. Just as people come together and join with God to form a church and then pick its ministers, the people come together to form a government and grant authority to its rulers.

          This led Williams to reject the common notion of his time that the state must enforce God’s laws to prevent religious errors. Instead, since the state gets its powers from the people, government is invested with all the errors of the people. Any attempt to enforce religion by the state will always be error-filled and will, in essence, be an attempt for people to have sovereignty over God. Thus, long before Jefferson, Williams called for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a wall he called for to protect not the state, but religion. He believed that religion always suffered when it was protected or required by the state. For Williams, the church is sheltered by spiritual weapons and harmed by government efforts to enforce religion. God makes Christians, not a government. When religion and politics are mixed, the result is not true religion, but politics.

          For Williams, the progenitor of American Baptists, religion was a personal thing. A person’s conscience is God’s line of communication to the individual. Because humans are imperfect, they might be wrong about what conscience demands, but since conscience comes from God, it is a sin for a person to act contrary to her conscience, even a mistaken one. If I (or the state or a religious leader) forces you to act in opposition to your conscience, I am forcing you to sin, and by forcing you to sin, I am sinning.

          In other words, all must be allowed to worship as their conscience dictates, and no one should be required to worship or support religious practices against his conscience. Jesus did not force or coerce anyone to God. Man, then, can’t force anyone to faith.

          A mistaken conscience can be corrected only by persuasion, not by force or coercion. An appeal to conscience, for Williams, required the related God-given ability of reasoning. Conscience demands proof, and proof comes from intellectual rigor. Proof has to satisfy reason or be from the Bible or from a writing that convinces an individual that it was divinely inspired. Thus, Williams rejected the Quakers who were led to Christ by a movement of an ill-defined spirit within the person. Such movement did not, could not, satisfy reason.

          These views led not just to liberty of conscience and toleration on religious matters, but on all subjects. And since Jesus did not indicate that one soul mattered more than another and that all individual consciences should be respected, it meant that society should treat all equally.

          (I have refreshed my understanding of Williams’s life and teachings primarily from Roger Williams: The Church and the State by Edmund S. Morgan; Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry; and Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.)

These Baptist precepts have led me both to my religious sensibilities as a youth and to my political thinking as an adult. The religious and the American neatly coincided. Just as people come together with God to form a church, the people of America came together to form a country—“We the People . . .” Sovereignty does not belong to the authorities, but starts with ordinary individuals. Both the church and America are founded on freedom of conscience. Religion cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of individual reason and persuasion. In America, a political view cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of an individual decision.

(continued June 19)

Fund the Police . . . And Others, Too (concluded)

When police actions go bad, we shout, “Reform the police.” “Defund the police.” But we should be looking at ourselves. We proclaim that we are the richest and most powerful country in the world, but we the people refuse to spend the money to make things better. We are more concerned with taxes than with the public welfare. It isn’t just on the police; it is also on us.

We should have police reforms. We should have better screening of those who become an officer. We should have a national database of problem cops who sometimes now go from one police force to another without information available about their past performance. We should have better training for the police especially on how to restrain potentially violent people. We need better discipline of the police. We need a reconsideration of qualified immunity. But many of these steps require funding, and we don’t want to provide it.

A seemingly simple reform would be to require body cams. Studies have shown police behave better if they know they are being videoed, but these cameras also help the police. Charges of abuse were lodged against an officer in a small Pennsylvania department recently, but he was wearing a body cam, and the video of the incident exonerated him. Both the police and the general public have a stake in police body cams.

At the police forum I recently attended, a police chief said that he welcomed body cams, but he pointed out that not only does it take money to get the equipment, it takes a computer technician to maintain, store, and review the results. The police chief did not have money for a technician to maintain his current computer equipment. He certainly had no money in his budget for the support needed for body cams even if he had money to obtain the cameras themselves. I repeat; that shortfall is on us, not on the police.

But something more is on us. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son in Between the World and Me and says, “But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive moments.”

Coates is speaking to a sad reality. We are too often unable to fully see blacks as individuals; instead we see them as a member of group. The tendency then is to assume that the worst actions of one of them applies to all of them. This gets ingrained in the subconscious, including the subconscious of police officers. A split skull and much worse too often results.

We do something similar to the police. Although there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of interactions between the police and the rest of us each day, we see on the news, the internet, and social media the worst actions by individual officers; we don’t see the professional, useful, helpful encounters. We make all police officers responsible for those racist, brutal, incompetent police behaviors committed by some of them. And so we tend to lump all police together — the good ones and the bad ones. And the natural reaction is for police officers to hunker down in their tribe and separate themselves from the rest of us. This only exacerbates the problem.

The police may need to change attitudes and practices, but we also need to change our attitudes towards the police. We can’t just view police officers as the evil “other.” Recently I taught a seminar at an Ivy League university entitled “Race, Poverty, and Criminal Justice.” Not surprisingly in a course with that title, almost all of the liberal-minded students were anti-police. They would speak at length – and with too little data — of how bad the police and police departments are. I asked if any of them would consider becoming a police officer. They had looks of horror as if we were inside a chainsaw-massacre-movie. They not only could not imagine being an officer, they could not even imagine that a “normal” person would want to be one. The police were completely “other.”

That is a problem for all of us.

Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          For Williams, the progenitor of American Baptists, religion was a personal thing. A person’s conscience is God’s line of communication to the individual. Humans being imperfect might be wrong about what conscience demands, but since the conscience comes from God, it is a sin for a person to act contrary to her conscience, even a mistaken one. If I (or the state or a religious leader) forces you to act in opposition to your conscience, I am forcing you to sin, and by forcing you to sin, I am sinning.

          In other words, all must be allowed to worship as their conscience dictates, and no one should be required to worship or support religious practices against his conscience. Jesus did not force or coerce anyone to God. Man, then, can’t force anyone to faith.

          A mistaken conscience can be corrected only by persuasion, not by force or coercion. An appeal to conscience, for Williams, required the related God-given ability of reasoning. Conscience demands proof, and proof comes from intellectual rigor. Proof has to satisfy reason or be from the Bible or from a writing that convinces an individual that it was divinely inspired. Thus, Williams rejected the Quakers who were led to Christ by a movement of an ill-defined spirit within the person. Such movement did not, could not, satisfy reason.

          These views led not just to liberty of conscience and toleration on religious matters, but on all subjects. And since Jesus did not indicate that one soul mattered more than another and that all individual consciences should be respected, it meant that society should treat all equally.

          (I have refreshed my understanding of Williams’s life and teachings primarily from Roger Williams: The Church and the State by Edmund S. Morgan and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.)

These Baptist precepts have led me both to my religious sensibilities as a youth and to my political thinking as an adult. The religious and the American neatly coincided. Just as people come together with God to form a church, the people of America came together to form a country—“We the People . . .” Sovereignty does not belong to the authorities, but starts with ordinary individuals. Both the church and America are founded on freedom of conscience. Religion cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of individual reason and persuasion. In America, a political view cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of an individual decision.

When I attended the Baptist church, the views of separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, equality, and religious toleration espoused by Roger Williams were strong. Tolerant Baptists may not have been publicly militant about much, but they were militant about the separation of church and state. On occasion, however, I recognized a bit of Baptist backsliding. I was home from college or law school during the Vietnam War and went to church. The minister’s sermon gave support for that war. I was offended for two reasons: (1) He was wrong about the war. (2) He was wrong as a Baptist. The church should not give or withold support for the government. It cheapened the worship of God to bring the state into it. Church and state. Separate.

I voiced my displeasure to the minister after the service, and he invited me to visit him during the week, which I did. We discussed the war. I knew that as Baptists he could not speak to me from a position of authority where he could attempt to dictate what my views should be. He, using either reason or the Bible or both, had to persuade me that his sermon was correct. He did not.

This interjection of politics into church was rare, however. Church and state were kept separate, and it was easy to predict how American Baptists would react in those days to some prominent church-state issues: prayers in public schools and government aid to parochial schools. For American Baptists the answers were a simple no and no.

The public prayers profaned God. If one prayed because the state required it, then the prayer came not out of devotion to God, but because of devotion to or fear of the state. This made such a prayer unholy and defiled true religion. If the prayer was uttered, not out of devotion and faith, but merely out of a habit, like saying “Good morning, Miss Ketter” to the teacher each morning, the prayer was still sinful.

          We American Baptists thought that the United States Supreme Court got it right when it held in 1962 that a recitation of a state-written prayer in the public schools violated the First Amendment, which prohibits an establishment of religion. Furor around the country, however, resulted. Godlessness would prevail. Communists would ascend. I found this panic amusing. My public school did not have prayers. I believe they were outlawed in Wisconsin, as they were in many–perhaps most–other states. I listened to the rants about the Court’s decision and looked about me and could not figure out what they were going on about. Wisconsin, to my keen eye that was on a vigilant lookout for such things and disappointed when I could not find them, did not seem to be more a hotbed of iniquity than the places that required public prayers. It was clear to me that there was no connection between morality or godly behavior and the recitation of prayers in public schools.

(continued June 29)

Greenland . . . Our New Manifest Destiny (concluded)

One of those in the Trump-is-brilliant camp is Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. He recently published an op-ed piece in the New York Times. (Why is that when conservatives want to be taken as deep thinkers they so often publish in the “failing” Times? Mitch McConnell also placed an op-ed article with the “enemy of the people” the previous week. His piece was one about the importance of filibusters for our constitutional government and glossed over how he had removed those all-important filibusters for Supreme Court nominees.) Cotton contended that the Greenlanders should welcome coming under American sovereignty. Denmark now subsidizes Greenland to the tune of at least $650 million dollars annually. America has more money than does the Danish government, so we can do even better for the Greenlanders, Cotton maintained. The Senator surprised me. He wants to commit to a new and expensive welfare program. He opposes entitlement programs for American citizens, but he wants to open up the floodgates for those who are now foreigners. Is this the new conservatism? What do Cotton and the others feel about increased federal support for Puerto Rico? Or have I underestimated Trump? Were his remarks merely an opening salvo, and his real goal is to swap Puerto Rico for Greenland? The Art of the Deal may be more subtle than I ever thought.

I wonder, if in stating that America can increase governmental moneys in Greenland, whether Cotton has examined where the Danish subsidies go. Health care in Greenland is paid for by the government, and Danish subsidies support that. Cotton, who adamantly opposes the Affordable Care Act, expects America to expand single-payer medical services in the new possession. And here I thought that Trump supporters believed in America first!

Does Cotton realize that part of the healthcare in Greenland is for abortion on demand. Greenland now has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. In fact, abortions have exceeded live births in recent years. (Remember those long nights.) He supports the laws that prevent the federal government from paying anything for abortions in the United States no matter how poor the woman or how the pregnancy—think rape and incest–occurred, but Cotton wants to increase funding for this medical procedure in Greenland. (I am told that when residents of Greenland’s capital Nuuk do want a baby, they say, “Let’s have a little Nuukie.”) And perhaps Cotton should also examine how education is funded in Greenland.

Cotton is a hardliner about our immigration system, concerned that Mexicans and Central Americans are lured here by all the goodies they can get out of our government. Shouldn’t he and other conservatives then be concerned that when we increase the freebies to Greenlanders, illegal immigration will uncontrollably increase there as refugees see Greenland as a new land of welfare opportunity? Perhaps Cotton, who supports Trump’s border wall, is already planning to build a wall around Greenland to stop the illegal immigration that he must think will inevitably occur. Perhaps Cotton ought to give at least an estimate as to how much federal money he thinks we will spend over there.

I also wonder if Cotton and the other Trump-is-marvelous crowd have thought about the status of those who would fall under American sovereignty. If we own Greenland, will we provide a path to American citizenship for those who live there, or will they automatically be citizens? Will they have an unfettered right to permanent residence in the United States? If so, how long does one have to be a Greenlander for that right? Puerto Ricans are American citizens and can come and go to the United States whenever they wish. Guam, which we own, is similar. Those born on Guam are American citizens who can move to the rest of America. (For reasons I don’t understand while Guamanians have birthright citizenship, those born in American Samoa do not.) If Greenland is to be treated like Guam, aren’t conservatives concerned that refugees will flock to Greenland and have ice-floe babies who will be American citizens who can freely emigrate to America? I am guessing that before conservatives will grapple with such questions, they will have to ascertain whether Greenlanders lean Democratic or Republican. And perhaps even more important: Will there be a path to statehood for Greenland? Just because they have fewer than 60,000 people doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have two Senators and three electoral votes, just as long as they vote Republican.

We have acquired much territory through purchase in our history. As far as I know, we never sought to find out whether the people who already lived on those lands desired a new sovereign. In essence, they were treated like Russian serfs. You buy the land, you buy the people on the land. Should we who proclaim democracy and government of “we the people” continue such a feudal practice? Will there be some sort of plebiscite; will the leaders of Greenland be consulted? (I have no idea who the chief griot of Greenland is, but I am confident neither does our president. However, there is a good chance that Melania knows that person well.)

The Fox News writer points out, however, that we have bought lands before—including the Louisiana purchase, the Gadsden Purchase, Florida, and Alaska, and he concludes that Trump could simply buy Greenland. Hold on–it has never been that simple. We do have a Constitution and the consent of Congress or the Senate has been necessary for those purchases. We may say that President Jefferson and Secretary of State Monroe made the Louisiana Purchase, but in fact Congress ratified and authorized the funds for it. The Gadsden Purchase and the acquisitions of Florida, Alaska, and other lands came via treaties together with the authorization of the funds from Congress. A treaty, of course, requires not just the consent of the Senate, but consent by a two-thirds majority of the Senate. Do you really think that is going to happen? Or does Trump have another trick up his sleeve that he will maintain justifying him in his mind to take unilateral action and do another end run around our Constitution—that document that conservatives proclaim to love so dearly?

The Play’s the (Limited) Thing

I go to plays even though I am convinced, largely from the writings of Elmer Rice, that plays are a limited art form. Rice, who lived from 1892 to 1967, did many things. He wrote several novels and many short stories, essays, book reviews, and movie, television, and radio scripts. He directed and produced stage performances, helped run theater organizations, and was a noted civil libertarian. But first and foremost, Rice was a prolific and successful playwright. About thirty of his plays were produced on Broadway, and some of his two dozen unproduced plays were published. In 1914, when he was only twenty-one, his1914 On Trial stormed Broadway with its new technique of flashbacks. His expressionist The Adding Machine in 1923 helped usher in a new dramatic era. His 1929 naturalistic Street Scene ran for 601 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize. Dream Girl, a delightful comedy, was a hit in 1945. He wrote plays of political comment, including We the People (1933), Judgment Day (1934) and Flight to the West (1940), which provoked controversies. More than four decades after his debut, Cue for Passion (1958) opened on Broadway.  As a result of this career, in 1958 a writer in the New York Times labeled him, not extravagantly, “Dean of Playwrights.” A student of the theater, Robert Allan Davison later said, “Throughout a fifty-three-year career, Rice showed genius, talent, and wisdom in his exploration of universal and timeless issues through the finely wrought specifics of his drama. Among the forty of his plays produced or published during his lifetime are some of the finest and most innovative plays in the history of the American Theatre.”

Today, however, even though a play of his is occasionally revived, Elmer Rice is largely forgotten even by the play-going public. He would probably not be surprised by his present obscurity because he maintained that although dramatic masterpieces may always endure, the work of a first-rate playwright was less likely to last than the work of other good writers. Rice thought that plays have a limited lasting potential because they are written to be performed, not merely published and read. He noted that “a play that is unperformed quickly falls into oblivion from which it is seldom rescued,” but a play’s production is an expensive, complicated affair. Large amounts of money and the assembled talents of many are required in addition to an author’s words, and each day a play runs continues to bring significant expenses. A new play almost always has to be instantly successful to last more than a brief time, and if its initial production does not succeed, it is unlikely ever to be produced again.  For a play to generate that audience, it must almost always get favorable comments from the handful of critics attending opening night. A result is that few plays are initially produced, few will continue in production or be re-produced, and consequently few will have the chance to endure. Since the producer knows he needs an immediate, sizeable audience to recoup his investment, Rice wrote, “His choice of plays to be produced is determined by his judgment of their potential popularity. This state of things does not make for the choice of plays of great depth or literary value.”

Books are different. Many more books are printed each year than plays are produced. Less money is required to publish a book than to mount a play. Novels, unlike plays, often survive when not immediately successful and even without favorable reviews. While some book reviewers are more influential than others, a book may receive many reviews around the country with none being decisive. And since a distribution system is in place when a book is published, it continues to remain available after its publication date.  Rice noted in his 1959 book about the social structure of the theater, The Living Theatre, “Even if time is required to overcome adverse reviews, it costs nothing to keep the books on the shelves while the public demand develops.”  Consequently, for books, unlike plays, positive word-of-mouth can build over months and years, bringing new audiences to a book long after it is published.

W. Somerset Maugham is a case in point. He may not be considered a major writer today, but you can still find books containing his stories and novels. As long as you can, Maugham’s works still live as does the work of any novelist or short story writer if there is someone somewhere still reading it. Maugham, however, was also a successful playwright–he had ten plays produced in seven years with several of them running simultaneously in London. Few now have the opportunity to see those stage pieces. Without productions, those works, even if first-rate, cannot live. If he only wrote plays, Maugham’s name would be recognized by almost no one today. Even though successful, Maugham stopped writing plays. He concluded in The Summing Up, a book of reflections, “that a prose play was scarcely less ephemeral than a news sheet” and abandoned the theater.

(concluded on October 26)

Related Posts:

https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=theatre

https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=broadchurch

 

We, the People of the United States

A seat on the Supreme Court is vacant. This means a season of idolatrous praise for the Constitution. We can expect the expression of a demanded fealty to our founding document. We may not ever say that the Constitution has the status of Holy Writ, but we know that it comes darn close. And just as we often hear the Bible’s initial words recited, we can expect to repeatedly hear the Constitution’s beginning passage: “We, the People of the United States, . . . do ordain and establish the Constitution of the United States of America.” Even though we hear these words, we don’t often consider  who the People are in “We, the People of the United States.”

We, the People of the United States do ordain” announced a radical concept. The “People” were creating a government. Elsewhere sovereignty resided in God-ordained rulers. In a momentous change, the Constitution rejected that. The People in adopting the Constitution were now the sovereigns, and the Constitution came to be seen as (nearly) God-ordained. The constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin noted in The “Higher Law” Background of American Constitutional Law: “The Reformation superseded an infallible Pope with an infallible Bible; the American Revolution replaced the sway of a king with that of a document.” Under the Constitution, power would not run from the top down, but from the People up. The government did not have inherent powers or ones given by a god; instead, the government would only have the powers granted by the People.

The radicalism behind “We, the People” had already been announced in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed. . . .” Rights were not granted to the people by the government; instead, rights were embedded in the individuals forming a society. The People do not exist to serve a sovereign monarch or government; instead, the government exists to serve the People.

This was radical stuff. Today we may point out the voting restrictions that existed in eighteenth century America to denigrate its limited notion of the People, but still “We, the People of the United States” was announcing a new concept in sovereignty, one that we feel still exists. Now women can vote and hold office; African-Americans can vote and hold office; people without real property can vote and hold office. We believe that our government now even more fulfills the promise of “We, the People of the United States” than it did in 1787. But our self-congratulatory pronouncements seldom truly examine whether “We, the People of the United States” of the twenty-first century have sovereignty. In important ways, the sovereign over our present country are not the People of today but the People of 1787.

The people of 1787 chose the government as defined in the Constitution. In 1787, the majority of the delegates to the state conventions controlled whether a state assented to the proposed Constitution. Since all the states adopted the Constitution, we can say that the People of the United States–as represented by a majority of the voters–formed the country.

But have the present People of the United States truly chosen this form of government? What have you done to select it? If you are like me, the answer is “nothing.” I was born into it. I suppose I could reject the government by becoming a citizen of another country, but I have taken no action to choose it. In some sense, only naturalized citizens have affirmatively chosen our government, and perhaps that is why they should be seen as more American than the rest of us. I live under a Constitution that the People of the eighteenth century and naturalized citizens have opted for, but not one chosen by the majority of Americans of today.

Perhaps we can say that present Americans choose the Constitution by not changing it. If we aren’t satisfied with it, we can amend it as Americans have done twenty-seven times. But can the People really modify the Constitution? It cannot be changed by a majority or even by a straightforward supermajority today. A tiny fraction of our citizens can prevent any amendment. That is because the People of 1787 chose a restrictive amendment process that prevents the People of the United States of future generations from truly governing themselves.

A constitutional amendment is proposed only if two-thirds of each House of Congress votes for it (or if it comes from a convention called for by two-thirds of the states for the purpose of proposing amendments, which has never happened.) The proposal becomes part of the Constitution only if it is approved by three-quarters of the states, with each state having one vote. Wyoming has one vote as does California, even though California’s population is sixty times greater than Wyoming’s. The nine largest states have a majority of this country’s citizens, but these people cannot control this amendment process. The sixteen largest states contain about two-thirds of the population, and the twenty-two most populated have about three-fourths of all Americans, but those twenty-two don’t even comprise a majority of the states, much less the three-quarters that are needed for an amendment.

When it comes to amending the Constitution, a Wyoming voter in effect counts as much as sixty California voters. Is that government by the People of the United States? Can we really say that the People of today control the process when a tiny fraction of the populace can prevent an amendment? Can we really say that the People have consented to the Constitution by not changing it? Isn’t it more accurate to say that the People of 1787 have forced an amendment process on us that prevents the People of today from being truly sovereign? And thus, at least in this instance, “We the People of the United States” means the People of 1787 are our sovereigns.

(Continued on July 18)

The Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

American Baptists did not have saints, but there was a theological progenitor—Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island after he was “asked” to leave Puritan Massachusetts. He established the first American Baptist church in Providence. Williams should be considered one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he seems to be almost unknown today. When I used to walk by the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison and 31st Street in Manhattan, I wondered how many of my fellow passersby had any idea who Roger Williams was. The hotel was built on land leased from the neighboring Baptist church, and, I once heard, was owned by the American Baptist Church. Times change. The hotel was sold, and now has what seems like a brand-tested name, The Roger.

Williams was a remarkable man. Unlike many of his American contemporaries of the early seventeenth century, he treated the Indians with respect and produced a primer of the complex Algonquian language. (Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language states that this work “is a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame, incidentally.”) But Williams should be better known because so much of his thought, expressed in his voluminous writings, broke from conventional thinking and was the foundation for many of the bedrock principles of this country—sovereignty in the people, equality of people, liberty of individual conscience, and separation of church and state.

Williams made the radical argument for his time that governments were not divinely inspired. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pick a government or endow rulers with authority. Instead, Williams contended, sovereignty is with the people. Just as people come together and join with God to form a church and then pick its ministers, the people come together to form a government and grant authority to the rulers.

This led Williams to reject the common notion of his time that the state must enforce God’s laws in order to prevent religious errors. Instead, since the state gets its powers from the people, government is invested with all the errors of the people. Any attempt to enforce religion by the state will always be error-filled and will, in essence, be an attempt for people to have sovereignty over God. Thus, long before Jefferson, Williams called for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a wall he called for to protect not the state, but religion. He believed that religion always suffered when it was protected or required by the state. For Williams, the church is protected by spiritual weapons and harmed by government efforts to enforce religion. God makes Christians; not a government. When religion and politics are mixed, the result is not true religion, but politics.

For Williams, religion was a personal thing. For Williams, personal conscience is God’s line of communication to an individual. Humans being imperfect, they might be wrong about conscience’s demands, but since the conscience comes from God, it is a sin for a person to act contrary to her conscience, even a mistaken one. If I (or the state or a religious leader) forces you to act in opposition to your conscience, I am forcing you to sin, and by forcing you to sin, I am sinning.

In other words, everyone must be allowed to worship as their conscience dictates, and no one should be required to worship against his conscience or to support religious practices that are against his conscience. Jesus did not force or coerce anyone to God. Man, then, can’t force anyone to faith.

A mistaken conscience can be corrected only by persuasion, not by force or coercion. An appeal to conscience, for Williams, required the related God-given ability of reasoning. Conscience demands proof, and proof comes from intellectual rigor. Proof has to satisfy reason or be from the Bible or from a writing that convinces an individual that it was divinely inspired. Williams rejected the Quakers who were led to Christ by a movement of an ill-defined spirit within the person. Such movement did not, could not, satisfy reason.

These views did not just lead to the separation of church and state but to the corollary precept of religious toleration. They led not just to liberty of conscience on religious matters, but on all matters. And since Jesus did not indicate that one soul mattered more than another and all individual consciences should be respected, it meant that society should treat all equally.

(I have refreshed my understanding of Williams’s life and teachings primarily from Roger Williams: The Church and the State by Edmund S. Morgan and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.)

These Baptist precepts have led me both to my religious sensibilities as a youth and to my political thinking as an adult. The religious and the American neatly coincided. Just as people come together with God to form a church, the people of America came together to form a country—“We the People . . .” Sovereignty does not belong to the authorities, but starts with ordinary individuals. Both the church and America are founded on freedom of conscience. Religion cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of individual reason and persuasion. In America, a political view cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of an individual decision. (To be continued.)