Dictatorship

I’ve been intrigued with dictatorship since living in Ethiopia for nine months under Mengistu and reading this bad boy.

Qaddafi, in his rambling February 22nd speech said, “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution.” Fascinating. In his mind he’s superseded human form, he’s a concept. How can anyone’s sense of self trump that?

In particular, I pay more attention than average to the tragedies of Zimbabwe, where I once spent a memorable week, and North Korea. I had an extensive discussion about North Korea with Fifteen at dinner one night last week and then we streamed this documentary from Netflix. Home-school social studies, love it.

This week I also read about a few dictators in waiting including Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue and Qaddafi’s sons. And then I read Tom Friedman’s editorial on our addiction to oil. I’ve been critical of Friedman, but on this subject he’s usually excellent.

I believe most people are caring and generous. Consequently, I think many more people would commit to serious energy conservation and Friedman’s $1/gallon gas tax proposal if they clearly understood how their automobile purchases and driving habits empower dictators to oppress people. One ugly fact about ourselves that we choose to ignore is that as a result of our automobile and driving decisions our government values unfettered access to inexpensive oil more than it does some people’s human rights.

Back to Qaddafi’s unraveling. There’s at least two ways to watch and listen to him. I suspect the vast majority of people in the U.S. watch him in the same way I watched Grizzly Man, as intimate and transfixing a study of mental illness as I’ve ever seen. They write him off as a genetic aberration. The alternative perspective is that maybe he’s not an extreme outlier after all. This is what I’ve been thinking. It seems naive to me to assume there aren’t people in the U.S. with evil, dictatorial ambitions.

However, there are two all-important, dictatorial-saving impediments in the U.S. Even though our government often seems broken and our press anemic, our constitutional underpinnings remain remarkable—specifically the built-in separation of powers, checks and balances, and rule of law. Additionally, we have a history of open elections and peaceful leadership transitions that have created serious positive, democratic, non-violent momentum.

U.S. citizens aren’t inherently better than Libyans, North Koreans, or Zimbabweans, it’s just that evil, dictatorial impulses have no chance of sprouting in our constitution, history-enriched soil.

The Constitution and Christmas

Last Sunday the wife’s Sunday school class on making Christmas less stressful and more meaningful went really well. At least for the first fifty minutes. During the last ten it devolved into a gripe session about public school and state government political correctness. Then on Monday a grad student of mine sent me an email conveying the same things. Here’s an excerpt. “At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter to eliminate Jesus, in all public matter. And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith. Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace. The true Gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded. The reason for the season , stopped before it started.”

At the end of the Sunday school class I sat in silence because I knew there was nothing I could say in a few minutes that would change anyone’s mind. Good thing probably because the teach may not have appreciated my stirring the pot. But that pot needs to be stirred.

Here’s what my conservative evangelical Christian friends would have me believe. The “founding fathers” were Christians and we are a Christian nation, a shining city upon a hill. As a result, public schools and other public places should allow the public expression of Christian faith whatever the form: the posting of the Ten Commandments, group prayer, the singing of Christian songs at Christmas, or the display of nativities or crosses. For the majority, Christianity is our common heritage, the national default if you will. People of other faiths should go ahead and celebrate in whatever ways they want in private, but as a distinct minority, they shouldn’t expect public schools and public places to accommodate their preferences.

In contrast, I believe the following.

1) We are a religiously pluralistic nation made up of many Christians mixed together with Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, atheists, and on and on.

2) Our greatest strength is our Constitution which protects minority rights against majority rule and creates a level playing field with respect to citizens’ diverse religious beliefs. Mutual respect undergirds that neutrality and enables us to peacefully co-exist.

3) Selflessness is a central tenet of Christianity; as a result, Christians should take some time to think about what it would be like if public schools and places were primarily Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or anti-religious. The alternative is for Christians to forgo selflessness, devalue Christianity, and continue to insist on a “majority wins” approach to governing public places.

4) The “wall of separation between church and state” principle is misunderstood by Christians who instinctively view it as problematic. Christianity can be taught in public schools as long as it’s done in a comparative, non-evangelical way. Many Christians conflate religious neutrality and anti-religiousness.

5) One Sunday schooler took a swipe at Kwanza and “other minor religious celebrations.” Christians who complain about religious neutrality in public schools and public spaces are struggling to come to grips with the fact that demographics have changed in the United States and they resent that they have to change any aspect of how they grew up experiencing Christmas. It’s difficult to exaggerate the deep symbolic meaning Christmas-oriented language and music in public schools from yesteryear has on many middle-aged and elderly Christians.

6) It’s utterly and completely ludicrous for Christians to suggest anyone is “forbidden to speak of salvation and grace”. It compromises their credibility as thinking people. How much of an adult Christian’s life is spent in public schools and spaces, five percent? Ninety-five percent of the time there’s absolute freedom to speak of one’s religious beliefs and convictions in whatever way one chooses. The “forbidden” argument couldn’t be more disingenuous and it makes a mockery of believers of different faiths who are truly persecuted by their governments.

7) The historical Jesus lived in a religiously diverse world. Instead of complaining that the first century world in which he lived wasn’t explicitly Christian enough, he focused on spreading his message through example, and in essence, competing on a level playing field. Christians today should do the same.