REFLECTIONS OF THE MORNING AFTER
I am in NY where I will film for two days with an anarchist Catholic couple. I will also edit with the help of my French Co Producer Serge Gordey, the first part of a news report for the French German Public TV Channel ARTE about the Primaries process. On the 17th I will continue the journey until Feb 6 a day after Super Tuesday. In a future blog I will map out my route and anticipated encounters in my travels from NY to Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. I will reach Oklahoma before Super Tuesday. This quick stop in NY allows a moment of reflection, as I try to share with you my impressions from the first leg of my journey.
I have been living in this country since April 1974 yet I found my journey a fascinating study of a country I thought I knew. The point was driven home for me when I met Randall Balmer for breakfast the morning after the New Hampshire vote. Randall is a scholar and an Episcopalian priest. I met him in his temporary residence in the Marriott Hotel in Lebanon New Hampshire. Randall who is teaching in Columbia, and is a visiting professor in Harvard school of divinity is teaching a semester in Damrouth College. America, he claims, is one of the most religious countries in the world with close to 90% of the population describing themselves as people of faith. It is a fact that one forgets living in NY. My journey among the believers that started in Iowa not only convinced me about this reality but also convinced me that somehow we all have barricaded ourselves in our respective communities. With this lack of dialogue, we not only grow apart but also become distant and belligerent. No I am not naive and suddenly yearn for some mystical harmony, but when you are on the road meeting ordinary folks, you suddenly realize how much room there is for dialogue and how much the cultural differences in this country have been exploited by political, and… yes, religious leadership as well. This became clear to me in the wonderful evening I spent with the Rice family, or when I was following, for two days, Pam Colantuono and State representative Maureen Mooney, both supporters of Senator McCain. Maureen and Pam were in charge or energizing religious communities and encouraging them to vote for Senator McCain who won the New Hampshire primaries on the Republican side. Those few days convinced me how much in common we do have and how much could be gained by a sincere dialog that not only explore the differences but also search for a common ground- a compromise that would allow co existence over the perpetual cultural war, which has poisoned our civic and political life. I think that this fatigue from the cultural war fueled the campaign of Barak Obama. I sensed this fatigue everywhere I go and realized that it does provide an opportunity for the future. If we secularists will realize that religion in America will never go away and it is the dominant factor in this country’s political life, we will open ourselves to explore a venue of dialog and search for common ground. If the people of faith will realize that the success and the unprecedented flourishing of religion in this country has been possible because of the separation of Church and state, they might look at diversity and even secularism less suspiciously. I know it is a difficult dialogue. It was for me when Donna Rice explained to me her religious objection to the Hate Crime bill, and how many of its elements could penalize anyone preaching against Homosexuality. The bible has few sentences against homosexuals and if you believe, as she does, that the bible is the word of God, how could you ignore these commands?
It’s easy to dismiss this objection by resorting to stereotypes but the first amendment also protects religious practices without discriminating against any faith. Yes it was tough to listen to her arguments against the proposed bill. A bill I hold so important. However, Donna will be the first to express her disgust and horror of hate crimes committed against gays. Born and raised in Wyoming she was particularly horrified about gay hate crimes committed in her state. So listening to Donna one can clearly see the contours of a potential compromise that will allow her to follow her faith in her own church while allowing a progressive legislation against hate crimes to proceed and become a law. At the same time I am sure that people like Donna, Cliff, Pan and Maureen have had their share of hard time while confronting my firm and unshaken secularism—in such contradiction to what they hold as the real Truth. The only point I am making is that the easiest solution is to focus on our differences and it is much more complicated to explore our common ground.
The second point I take from these first ten days of the journey is the ultimate maturity of the voters. We tend to construct intellectual arguments and analysis that is so removed from the reality of the voters. After Iowa I expected to find most evangelicals to support Mike Huckabee. However, it became clear to me that evangelical voters are much more sophisticated than to fall into the cliché that they could only support some one of their own. The success of Senator McCain and the discussion with people like Pat, Maureen, or Donna convinced me that their choice of candidate is far more complicated than simply rooting for the one that wears his religion on his sleeve. As one of the many volunteers for McCain had told me (he was an Orthodox Jew) I am voting for a President not for a Chief Rabbi.
I came to appreciate the constitution’s ability to set broad principles rather than bury ideas in details. It leaves every generation to interpret these powerful moral principals. Like the Talmud in Jewish tradition, this interpretation is a vibrant and dynamic process. Retreating into our respective bunkers to hide behind stereotypes is an escape from the duty to continue to argue, debate and re-interpret.
“I did exactly what you did,” Randall Palmer told we when we met. He meant that he went to Iowa and New Hampshire to follow the 1998 nascent candidacy of Pat Roberson, a televangelist preacher and the host of the 700 Club. As we recall, Robertson’s candidacy fizzled out. Randall Palmer’s anecdote suddenly helped me to place the current unfolding campaign in a historical context. Yes, we do not know how the campaign will finally end. But the results of the New Hampshire primaries demonstrate, in my opinion, is how complex the process is and how it can be easily squeezed into our neat black and white categories.
I will try to write a new blog every day (I said Try) so until tomorrow,