Satan Defends The Constitution

August 12, 2019


I missed HAIL SATAN? at Sundance last winter — you can’t see ‘em all. But I’ve just spun the DVD, and man, is it something. It’s one of those documentaries that opens your eyes and changes your perspective. It’s more than entertainment, it’s enlightenment.

Hold up, there. I didn’t become a Satanist after simply watching a movie. (See the “Satanic Panic” below.) But what did happen was that my prejudices regarding The Satanic Temple — the subject of this beauty — were completely upended, redefining my inner regard of “Satanism.” Which was exactly, precisely, the point, both of the filmmakers and the Satanists.

First, let’s anchor The Satanic Temple. You may have noticed the people who have peacefully and nonviolently opposed the placement of a giant replica of the Ten Commandments on public property in the Bible Belt. Their method is by legally applying to set alongside it an equally giant statue honoring Baphomet, the man-goat, bat-wings extended, the embodiment of Satan. (And, in one storied incident, they succeeded, at least for one day.) Before I saw this movie, I assumed they were political pranksters, like the Yes Men or the Yippies. But pranks these are not. These people are dead serious in their beliefs, yet those sincerely held beliefs are not what you may think. (They might indulge themselves in a little fun sometimes; note the question mark in the film’s title.)

Now, if you are a devout who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, some of what will follow may strike you as blasphemous. Fair warning. TST, as I’m going to call the group hence, doesn’t want to injure or restrict or delimit your faith in any way. Believe whatever you like, with their compliments. They just don’t want you to impose your own particular beliefs upon the rest of the country. 

You frequently run into the trope, “America is a Christian nation.” Um, no, actually it isn’t. Most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), but many of them were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. You will search in vain for the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, except for the Signatory section: “…the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” Let one of the Founders explain: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”

Yes, but what about “one nation under God,” and “In God We Trust”? As we learn in this film, both are artifacts of the Red-Scare era. The Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the phrase “under God” until 1954. “In God We Trust” became the national motto in 1956, not 1776, and first appeared on paper money the following year. Those who say America was founded as a Christian nation have it exactly backward: the Founders wanted to escape religious persecution and establish a pluralistic republic. Furthermore, those giant Ten Commandments stone blocks that to this day adorn small towns all over the country? Most of them came not from the hand of God but from the publicists of Paramount Pictures and Cecil B. DeMille, who distributed 4,000 six-foot granite tablets to municipalities around the country to promote their 1956 blockbuster movie. Their original partners, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, kept ’em coming for years afterward.

Okay, we may not be a Christian nation, but why worship the Evil One, and doesn’t that mean dancing naked around a fire and drinking blood? No, those are the fantasies conjured by Hollywood movies and the thousands of parents who thought playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to heavy metal music drew their little darlings to Satanism during the “Satanic Panic” of the Eighties and early Nineties. It proved to be as bogus as the Salem witch hunt or Joe McCarthy’s debunked commie counts during the similar Red Scare. Those imaginary covens and spooky chants are not what TST is about, not anything of the kind. 

TST members do not espouse evil. They do not endorse violence or physical harm of any kind. We see one leader of a local chapter basically get drummed out of the organization for giving a speech in which she advocates violent revolution, and there have been other internecine skirmishes off camera, but if you’re speaking for TST you toe the line. In fact, the Satanists don’t really “worship” anything. To them Satan is a mythical fallen angel who dares to question God, and if you were brought up in a religious household, you might have had some of the same questions. Satanists would put it this way. Considering Bible verse as literal truth for a moment, when the serpent persuades Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge while God prefers that she and Adam remain ignorant souls in Eden, is the snake really the bad guy? When God orders Abraham to sacrifice his own son and then relents, is that an act of charity? How about the bullying of Job? When Satan suggests to a starving Jesus that he take food and water, does that suggestion do harm? Yes, TST might be stretching points, but that is the point.

To put it clearly, these Satanists don’t even worship Satan. According to TST co-founder “Lucien Greaves” (who cheerfully admits this is not his given name), “Satanism is a non-theistic religion, meaning we don’t venerate a personal Satan or deity; we recognize it as a metaphorical, mythological construct. For us Satan is iconic of the ultimate rebel against tyranny. We also place the highest value on rational exploration and the pursuit of knowledge.” TST (based in Salem, Massachusetts, natch) is only a religion for tax purposes, just as is Scientology. Rather than dogmatic ritual, TST espouses seven tenets for interpersonal behavior that make at least as much sense to me as do the Ten Commandments. 

What they object to is the rule of a theocratic society, particularly the stranglehold of the religious right. “Some people would think it ironic, but I’m probably most popular in the Bible Belt territories,” muses Greaves. “People there seem to understand our relevance more and more.” I always thought these folks were doing, you’ll pardon the expression, God’s work by acting to remove theocratic icons from public spaces using rational jujitsu: if you get yours, then we get ours. As TST well knows, most town councils would give the hook to their Commandments rather than have to stare at Baphomet every time they walk into the courthouse — but the attendant lawsuits are expensive and they move at glacial speed. 

I don’t want to make this flick sound too weighty. It’s hilarious to watch down-home folks try to find legal ways to stop TST from erecting something they obviously view as a monstrosity. And one can never be entirely sure how firmly TST tongues are placed within their cheeks. But these are very smart, very devoted people who will absolutely not countenance the establishment of any official state religion. The Satanic Temple is not the ACLU. But by visually showing the general public what their religious icons look like to nontheists — kinda how the man-goat looks to them — TST is coming after the same thing.


A typical DeMille promo installation. The movie had already been released by now, but with the Fraternal Order of Eagles behind the project from the start, it took on a life of its own.


TST’s response. For my money, it’s the children who make it hilarious. In real life they wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing.

8/13/19: Today the Church of Satan tweeted me: “That film has nothing to do with us or the religion of Satanism.” The first part is absolutely correct. Here is an amusing comparison between that group and the subjects of this film. And in the spirit of free speech, here is the Church of Satan’s official response.

Space And Race

June 21, 2018


The other night at a campaign rally in Minnesota, Donald Trump added a new chant for his fans, who already yell “Build the wall!”, “Lock her up!”, “CNN sucks!”, and even, lately, “Nobel! He ordered them to start howling, “Space Force!”, and naturally they obliged. Trump proposes to establish a sixth branch of the U.S. military because “there’s no place like space.” 

A “Space Force” is a notion which might occur to any bored ten-year-old doodling his way through a droning civics lecture, and that’s pretty much Trump’s emotional age. Whether or not he has the authority to actually create a new military branch is unclear, like so much else about his administration. (He also told the Minnesotans that he was “re-opening NASA,” which of course has never closed.) But I thought he used an interesting phrase to describe how this new outfit would be apart from but equivalent to the other five branches. He said it would be “separate but equal.” 

I’m not going to give Trump “credit” for deliberately using a loaded term from the civil rights era to excite his base. I think it’s just something he heard on tv one day and it kept floating around in the burbling word-stew inside his brain. Just like the time Sarah Palin, another colossal dumbass, used the term “blood libel” without realizing (I’m betting) that she was rubbing next to some serious antisemitism. The words just sounded cool to her. But accidentally or not, Trump sent a message to his eldest (and most virulent) fans, those good ole boys who can well remember when America was especially great — for white people like them. 

The doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal” was established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which has come to be regarded as one of the worst decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court. In Plessy, the Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. For the first half of the twentieth century, segregation was the law of the land, and guess what: Plessy has never been explicitly overruled. It’s been hacked away at, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which held that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional when it came to schools and ignited the American civil rights movement. (Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat the following year.) But technically, Plessy is still on the books.

Again, Trump has probably never heard of Plessy v. Ferguson. But make no mistake, there are folks at his rallies who really miss the days of “separate but equal.” Man, that was when America was really great! And one of them who can remember is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the gentleman from Alabama. I believe the General knew exactly what he was doing on June 14 when he opened his Bible to defend the barbaric “zero tolerance” policy that cruelly tears kids away from their parents. 

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” said Sessions. “I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” He was referring to Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (RSV). This passage has been especially popular in two American eras: it was frequently invoked during the Revolution by British loyalists, and again just prior to the Civil War by defenders of slavery — and Sessions knows it. Both groups were on the wrong side of history, as he is now. 

Besides, if you want actual Biblical advice on immigration, how about Leviticus 19:33-34 (RSV)? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” You can cherry-pick the Bible to support almost anything, but that sounds pretty dadburn specific to me. 

Trump may not understand everything he utters. Or he may believe his own childlike fantasies. (Remember when he tried to take credit for coining the term “prime the pump” during an interview with The Economist? The Economist!) His level of ignorance is prodigious: he’s nothing but a game show host, mate! But there are people around him who do know exactly what they’re saying. At the moment things seem to be going their way — but they’re building up a tsunami of karmic debt, and one day it’s going to come crashing down.


Christ Goes To Brooklyn

April 13, 2018


NBC’s live broadcast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on Easter Sunday was terrific, my favorite one of these network musicals that have been popping up lately. (For me, it supplants as #1 Fox’s live production of GREASE two years ago. I loved the way they used the whole Warner Bros. lot, not just the soundstages, to keep the momentum pumped up.) NBC’s huge ratings success also underlines the fact that JCS is now part of the musical canon, safe enough to show on Christians’ holiest day. So it’s hard to get your mind around how transgressive this piece was when it first appeared.

It began as a “concept album” in 1970 (a single had been released in late 1969). The concept was right there in the title, smacking you in the face. When Andy Warhol popularized the word “superstar,” he gave us his most lasting legacy: the cult of celebrity for its own sake. But to place pop culture sequins upon holy scripture? As the kids say, Oh. My. God.

Not that it hadn’t been done. The composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had already produced JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, brushing a similar contemporary glaze onto another biblical story. And soon to come would be Stephen Schwartz’s GODSPELL, which gave us a happy, hippie Pied Piper of a Jesus. But nothing else had the thunderous sonic power or sheer cheeky courage of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.


Just those three words and a little iconic symbol on the dark brown cover of the double-Lp set. No clue as to what was inside. But the first people who played it kept dragging others to a pair of speakers, and it wasn’t long before this record-album “musical” had basically become the new HAIR — without appearing on an actual stage. This British audio production had gathered vocalists from the theater and rock music (Murray Head and Ian Gillan, who sang the two leading roles, were an actual veteran of HAIR and the new lead singer of Deep Purple, respectively), and arranged the orchestration squarely in the pop idiom (the key players were from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). No offense to The Who, whose TOMMY is thoughtful and inventive, but this was a real “rock” opera, a sung-through story with musical motifs clearly stated by an overture and recapitulated in ways new and wondrous to the FM-and-doobie crowd.

But of course, it wasn’t the music that caused JCS to be banned by the BBC and made it a generational flashpoint in God-fearing America. It was the subject matter.

Presuming to set the final days of Jesus to a pop score is only JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s initial salvo. If you’re a full-throated tenor and a director offers you any JCS part you want, you probably wouldn’t choose the title role. Because the real superstar of the musical is the Biblical Betrayer, the villain Christians love to hate, Judas H. Iscariot. The story is largely told from his perspective, and not without empathy. He believes in Christ’s teachings, has been an enthusiastic apostle. What worries him is the blind adoration of a mob attracted only by celebrity: “You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.” Judas also doubts Jesus’s divinity: “You have set them all on fire / They think they’ve found the new Messiah / And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” This is fairly provocative stuff for a culture whose idea of biblical drama has been formed by the reverent movie spectaculars of the Fifties — but Judas indeed has the showiest part and most of the best numbers, culminating in a rousing climax that he performs as a glitter-garbed ghost.

Jesus gets some good stuff too — his high point is probably the power ballad “Gethsemane,” in which he addresses God with his agonizing doubts (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why”) — but in much of the rest of the show he’s basically just reacting. Though you don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all when Herod taunts him with a snarky music-hall tune that comes out of nowhere (“Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool”). My main disappointment with the NBC show was Alice Cooper’s performance of “King Herod’s Song.” It was nice to see “Coop” again, but the boisterous incongruence of the piece — what Broadway pros call “the noise” — demands tons of over-the-top movement, evidently more than the seventyish star could muster. Josh Mostel did a better job in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie. 

King Herod Josh Mostel.JPG

Josh Mostel as Herod in the movie.

Everything else about the NBC production was just great. This time “live” really meant something more than tiny flaws like the intruding shadow of a cameraman or the “Superstar” glitter girls visibly moving to their marks during a shot that was supposed to be pitch dark. Choosing to perform the show before a crowd of 1,500 at the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn was a masterstroke. It was stage-bound (unlike GREASE), but what a huge honking stage. Audience members were close enough to touch John Legend’s extended hand as Jesus made his entrance, but more importantly, you could hear and feel their presence, roaring for a beloved song and palpably revving up the actors throughout. There were two directors: one for the theatrical action onstage, and another for the army of fleet-footed techies following it around. About fifteen minutes in, I found myself thinking, if they can keep this up, they’ve got something special here.


By now, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is considered as tame as anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it wasn’t always so. I expect some people take that as evidence that we’ve coarsened as a culture. But maybe the music is compelling enough to not only do justice to its gutsy premise, but also become classic on its own merits. This broadcast said, amen to that.

Churchy La Fame

March 29, 2013


On the heels of Janet Reitman’s splendid 2011 book INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY comes another superbly reported work on the world’s newest religion, GOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright. This is the man who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning THE LOOMING TOWER, the single best source for anyone who wants to understand why 9/11 happened.

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Mr. Wright published “The Apostate,” a major piece in the magazine’s February 14, 2011 issue, on the Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis, who left Scientology after 34 years of membership. The magazine is highly regarded for its meticulous fact-checking procedures, and the church is infamous for its extreme litigiousness. Thus, in September 2010, two Scientologists and their four attorneys met with a New Yorker team and brought with them “forty-eight three-ring binders of supporting material, stretching nearly seven linear feet, to respond to the 971 questions the checkers had posed.” Mr. Wright looked at this material and realized he had just been handed the equivalent of years’ worth of research, albeit from the church’s point of view.

GOING CLEAR presents a different perspective than Ms. Reitman’s book, also the expansion of a magazine piece (hers in Rolling Stone), which benefited from impressive access inside the organization. Mr. Wright has three stories to tell: the history of Scientology, its attachment to Hollywood, and what he calls “the prison of belief,” which Paul Haggis finally escaped after spending more than half his life there. Like THE LOOMING TOWER, it attempts to answer very basic questions. How did this come to be? How can otherwise rational people believe in something so zealously? What is the attraction, and how is it preserved and nurtured?

The Commodore.

The Commodore.

Scientology is of course the creation of pulp-magazine author L. Ron Hubbard. It evolved from “Dianetics,” “the modern science of mental health” whose auto-psychoanalytic properties intrigued people like legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell (who, to be Clear, also believed in mental telepathy and other psionic powers). A resulting work, DIANETICS, which Scientologists call “Book One,” was published in 1950 and became a mammoth bestselling sensation, enriching Hubbard beyond compare. But the scientific community was aghast, often vocally, which fanned in Hubbard a resentment of traditional psychiatry, quickly rising to hatred, an aspect still evident among the faithful that you can observe when, say, Tom Cruise confronts Matt Lauer on the TODAY show.

Out of curiosity, I’ve tried to read DIANETICS more than once. I can’t get past thirty pages or so, because I always see before me a bit of verbal jujitsu that makes me recoil. As it begins, we are advised to have a reference book nearby, because we should never read past an unfamiliar word without immediately coming to understand it. That’s very good advice. Helpfully, DIANETICS provides footnoted definitions for potentially difficult words. But soon the footnotes become self-serving: for instance, we get only one particular connotation. And before long, Hubbard starts making up words. Now our trusty reference book is useless. All that’s left is DIANETICS.

An almost ridiculously prolific author with a galloping imagination, Hubbard sold fiction by the pound in the heyday of pulp magazines. He uses the same method for the official recounting of his own life, which is replete with verifiable falsehoods. So most non-Scientologists assume that the bizarre intergalactic cosmology which Hubbard concocted (it makes Philip K. Dick look like a Mennonite) was the cynical output of a space-opera aficionado. Certainly when Dianetics morphed into Scientology, and this “scientific approach to spiritual enlightenment” took on the trappings of a religion, great riches appeared which needed to be sheltered from taxation. Attaining higher and higher “OT” levels (Operating Thetan; don’t ask) costs hundreds of thousands of dollars: the next rung on the spiritual ladder is always just out of reach. Yet if “Commodore” Hubbard retreated to a sea-spanning yacht to avoid landlubbing lawmen, he still spent thousands of hours refining Scientological techniques, and Mr. Wright suggests this was unnecessary labor if the Founder only wanted to sit back and count the dough. It’s quite possible that Hubbard believed that with “auditing” and the “E-meter,” he was really onto something.

David Miscavige.

David Miscavige.

When Hubbard “dropped the body” on January 24, 1986, Scientology was at a crossroads. There were several senior members capable of moving the church ahead, but the most ambitious of all was David Miscavige, who used strategy, cunning and betrayal to seize power. As with Hubbard’s life and military record, nearly every unflattering assertion Mr. Wright makes about Miscavige is denied by the church in a flurry of footnotes, which are so numerous that it’s obvious lawyers placed them there: of course the church denies everything.

Miscavige is content to let others be the “face” of Scientology, perhaps still smarting from a disastrous 1992 appearance on ABC’s NIGHTLINE that won host Ted Koppel an Emmy, and that Mr. Wright describes in excruciating detail. (Miscavige has never gone on “secular” television since that public humiliation.) But, even more lavish and imperious than the Commodore, he has been instrumental in making real the Hubbard dictum that celebrity endorsements were the key to legitimizing Scientology. And the best place to find tender, self-doubting egos, hungry for any possible perceived advantage? Hollywood.

Miscavige and his colleagues cobbled together an A-list so broad that one aspect of their pitch actually became, look at the network you can tap! Though they’re not immune from financial solicitation, celebrities are treated quite differently from the rank and file, especially the pitiful souls working for subsistence in the central “Sea Org” under billion-year-contracts. The Scientology experience of such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta – and, once he made it in the movies, Paul Haggis – takes place in posh Celebrity Centres around the world. Most mundane members are cut off from outside friends and family, and if they “blow,” not only do they face huge unpaid bills for “auditing,” they’re also cut away from any family that remains within the church, inside the “prison of belief.”

Hubbard’s spacefaring story of the Galactic Confederation sounds like gibberish, and it may well be. But as Mr. Wright suggests, it takes a leap of, yes, faith to believe the underlying origin tales of any religion, from Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni to the Judeo-Christian oceangoing vessel that supposedly held two members of every single species on earth. Regarding the top of a faith-based hierarchy living in splendor and opulence, as did Hubbard and now Miscavige, look no further than the Catholic Church. As Mr. Wright notes, it doesn’t matter whether you think Scientology is a religion. The IRS does, and thus endeth the issue.

The LA headquarters on Sunset Strip.

The LA headquarters on Sunset Strip.

Paul Haggis says he’s amazed that he bought in for so long. But nearly every Scientologist has had a very human reason to join the church, like most spiritual seekers in other faiths. (One common cause, as with other religions, is being born into it.) Most of Mr. Wright’s on-record sources are former members who “blew,” therefore they must be apostates and liars; this never-changing knee-jerk reaction by the church is what makes Scientology seem like the insular cult many believe it to be. But unlike most other faiths, the truth here is slippery, even on something as mundane as membership. Mr. Wright reports that the church claims 8 million members worldwide. They’d better be worldwide, because the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates there are only 25,000 Americans who call themselves Scientologists, and as our very brave author wryly notes, “that’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.”

Koox ‘n’ Flix

September 15, 2012

The fact that a poorly-made and hateful video can foment rioting halfway around the world is the dark side of instant communication. The same technology which helped create the Arab Spring can be used to upend it.

You can form your own opinion about what the varying statements by Mitt Romney have to say about his candidacy for President. I’ve certainly formed mine. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Unlike Governor Romney, I can speak with authority on this creative matter because I’ve actually seen the 14-minute “trailer” for a “film” called THE INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS – from all we can tell, it’s the only part that actually exists. If you’re also curious, find it for yourself: it’s easy, but I’m not going to help you by linking to it.

The backstory is as shady as it can be: the video was made by pseudonymous people who have lied about everything, including their “$5 million budget.” (“Sam Bacile,” the “director,” falsely told everyone he was an Israeli Jew, just to stir the pot a little bit more.) They even duped their actors, who answered an ad in Backstage like most other struggling thespians and dutifully reported for work. The marketing department seems to consist of Terry Jones, the off-world theocrat who infamously threatened to burn the Koran a few years back and has been missing those ENG crews ever since. (Monty Python’s namesake member must cringe every time he hears about this blasphemous fool.)

OK, so let’s go to the video tape. It’s disjointed, impossible to follow in any traditional story sense, and it jumps around like a newborn wallaby. Thus, I’d imagine, its titular depiction as a “trailer”: we’re only giving you the best stuff out of context, just like the big guys do. But listen: most of the lighting is just what you’d expect from a competent film-school production. Most everything’s in perfect focus. You can even tell that some of the actors are obviously pros. “Tech creds,” as Variety might put it, are not dissimilar to those in a no-budget indie. It can absolutely masquerade as a real production to deep unsophisticates.

But any five-year-old can suss out the incompetent desperation. It’s clear that the actors on set were not required to speak the name of Islam’s prophet; it’s clumsily looped in (that is, re-recorded after the fact), like all those risible attempts to cleanse R-rated dialogue for network tv. I’m just spitballing here, but if the Backstage casting call actually asked for Muslim actors, then they would have been horrified to take part in a physical depiction of the prophet – a canonical no-no. Even the “innocence” title may have been invented to lure them in. I have no proof; I’m just speculating. (We later learned that at least some of the actors were told they were working on a film called DESERT WARRIORS.) One actress has come forward to say she had performed under false pretenses, and deeply regrets doing so. Other whole scenes are clearly looped, no doubt to conceal their real purpose on set; sometimes it’s like watching a Sergio Leone movie, with actors of multiple nationalities.

The CG work is hilarious. In “outside” scenes, the actors appear to be walking on air above the desert sands, like an 80s-era Chyron effect achieved by a high-school member of the AV Club. All that’s missing are the shimmer lines. As far as the red meat is concerned, we revert to elementary school. The prophet is accused of everything shivering haters can possibly think of, including being gay – and they use that precise word, “gay,” even though the “story” is “set” 1500 years ago. Man, I can distinctly remember using that word innocently in my own lifetime, wholly apart from its current context, and I’m not even 1000! He hacks through men, women and beasts. He molests children. His henchmen snicker like Snidely Whiplash as they fake drawing and quartering a senior citizen.

OK, you may be sneering right now, and this bilious piece of flyblown crap thoroughly earns your scorn. But here’s the thing. In the Arab world, some people just may not understand that any American has the right to assert that their duly elected President is a secret Muslim socialist. The “universal right of free speech,” which was affirmed in that original Cairo embassy statement, is a foreign concept to many radical people on our planet. To them, if this “film” exists, it’s because the U. S. ruler wants it to exist – otherwise, Obama could just snuff it out, like their leaders do in their own lands!

I haven’t seen all that much coverage of the many Muslim citizens who have condemned the murderous acts of their fanatic cousins, the Terry Joneses of the Islamic world. But they’re out there. They are just as ashamed of Osama bin Laden as we are of Fred Phelps, the nauseating GOD HATES FAGS guy. But, as we’ve been constantly instructed these past few years, whenever we oppose freedom in any sense, the terrorists win. That freedom is why this heinous video exists, and why its makers have blood on their hands, maybe even proudly. No, they probably didn’t kill Ambassador Chris Stevens; that may have been a back-burner plan which only used the video-induced riots as cover, just as we used 9/11 as cover to “do” Iraq. But by paying to translate their venom into Arabic, these zealots used their money, and the relatively new ability to communicate to the world, to forge a digital sword that quickly slew. It can no longer be sheathed. Shame on them for defaming a great, proud religion: Christianity.

Tom Kippur

September 17, 2010
A yummy Break Fast that you can prep ahead of time for Yom Kippur. From Bon Appetit.

A yummy Break Fast that you can prep ahead of time for Yom Kippur. From Bon Appetit.

Jews observe their Day of Atonement on Yom Kippur. But when I arrived in New York in late summer 1988, it was just another day to me. (Of course there are Jews in Mississippi, where I grew up, but Judaic culture isn’t as prominent down in the Bible Belt.) I’d only been at my new job a month or so, and I was happily typing away one afternoon when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of people in the hallway, dressed to head out into the unseasonably cool weather. Type, type. Then more of them. My boss even. Type, type… Wow. I’d only just arrived at Warner Books; maybe I literally hadn’t gotten the memo. I shut down, put on my coat, and headed out into the hall, just in time to bump into Larry Kirshbaum, our publisher. “Where are you going, Tom?” Slightly flustered, I said, “I’m going with you!” Whereupon Larry proceeded to laugh, hard, pounding the wall with his fist, much as I did years later when I first saw DUMB AND DUMBER.

Once Larry caught his breath, he explained that Jews must already be wherever they’re going when Yom Kippur begins at sundown. I’ve noticed over the years that not only do “religious” Jews observe this holiest of days, but many “secular” Jews do too (the Christian equivalent is probably Easter Sunday, only no atonement necessary because we’ve never done anything wrong), hence the populous flurry of activity in the hallway. But hey: I’m from the country — that naivete was what Larry enjoyed so much. I was by leaps and bounds the least deserving potential Yom Kippur schlepper in the whole building. Catholics thought it was funny.

Now, whenever anyone asks how a Southerner assimilates in New York City, I mention this incident. Sometimes when I do, it makes me start pounding the wall myself, in laughter and maybe atonement. Naah, just laughter.

Each year, it doesn’t feel right to say “Happy Yom Kippur” to my many Jewish pals. So I go instead with the common greeting that actually means something: have an easy fast, friends.

The Mosque Of The Red, White & Blue Death

August 17, 2010

At last, news reports about the “Ground Zero mosque” are starting to get a few things right. First, the proposed site isn’t at Ground Zero at all, but two blocks north, from which the World Trade Center site cannot be seen and vice versa. The planned community center (that is what many genuine mosques are to Muslim-Americans, but this project’s different) will include meeting rooms, a 500-seat auditorium, a pool, and yes, a prayer space. The avowed model is the uptown 92nd Street Y, which has the same relationship to a synagogue as the current wing-nut pinata does to a real mosque. As New Yorkers who have partaken of its rich store of (mostly secular) lectures, interviews and performances can tell you, that Jewish cultural center has never shoved religion in our faces, and it’s a vital asset to the community. Back downtown, two other actual mosques, dating from 1970 and 1985, have long existed near the proposed center; they’re overcrowded. In one of the three adjacent buildings which would comprise the center – they’ll have to be razed first – worship services are already taking place. Among its tasteful and reverent Ground Zero neighbors are an off-track betting parlor and a strip joint.

I’m amazed, and a little ashamed, at the outpouring of fervor against this construction, and the myths being used to stoke it:

Ground Zero is hallowed ground, so Muslims should have the good sense to worship elsewhere. Hallowed ground? Sarah Palin doesn’t even recognize my city as part of “real America.” Nobody should lose sight of the continuing grief of those who lost loved ones in that barbaric attack. But some of them were Muslim. Let’s try it for the millionth time: we were not attacked by Islam. We were attacked by Al-Qaeda, a ragtag gang of right-wing extremists so nutty that they think they can restore a worldwide caliphate. They’re the Muslim equivalent of the shameful “God Hates Fags” protesters. And by the way, if this ground’s so hallowed, where’d the GOP go when the program to monitor and treat Ground Zero emergency workers died an ignoble “procedural” death in Congress? These selfless, now-abandoned heroes were at Ground Zero, not near it.

Ground Zero is unique, like Pearl Harbor; normal rules don’t apply. That would be easier to swallow if it weren’t for similar protests in other spots like Wisconsin (in hallowed Wilson, patriots threw chunks of asphalt through a newly converted mosque’s windows; “Islamic terrorism begins in the mosque,” said some bird named Rev. Wayne Devrou, without a smidgen of irony), Tennessee (in hallowed Murfreesboro, goons spray-painted “NOT WELCOME” over the “future site of” sign; “They’re not a religion. They’re a political, militaristic group,” said one 76-year-old vet) and California (in hallowed Temecula, the Tea-Party-affiliated protest organizers even encouraged people to bring their dogs, as a deliberate insult to Muslims). By the way, uniformed soldiers of the Japanese nation did attack us at Pearl Harbor, and the Nazis did murder millions of Jews. But, phew, let’s go again: we weren’t attacked by Islam. This isn’t about mourning the victims of Ground Zero; it’s about religious intolerance, pure and simple, and to my shock and sorrow, it seems to be nationwide. I thought we had codified a solution to that problem more than 220 years ago. Which brings me to…

This is a Christian nation. Muslims should just shut up and blend in. While it’s true that most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), and nearly all felt that religion was a healthy influence on the republic, many were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. They believed in what they called a “prime mover,” or “divine Providence.” That’s one reason you can’t find the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, with one exception, in the Signatory section: “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” This method of assigning dates, of course, is also used by atheists; it has nothing to do with religious affirmation. The framers were not dismissing spirituality, far from it. But, mindful of the misuse of faith in centuries past (“I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”), they firmly stipulated that it was no business of the government’s. To make this crystal clear, on June 7, 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli with the Barbary pirates of North Africa, which declared that we had no quarrel with the faith of any “Mehomitan” (Muslim) nation, and that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Many American pioneers came to the New World to escape religious intolerance, not to extend it.

It’s no surprise to hear blowhards like Palin, Newt Gingrich (who, unlike Palin, ought to know better), and the full throats of Fox News braying about this “issue”: they’re not running for anything, so there are no consequences to what they say. (But rest assured, Newt: Jon Stewart’s staff is watching all this.) It’s sad when Harry Reid or the Anti-Defamation League – or even the President himself — feel they have to distinguish between the right of Muslims to build a mosque and the propriety of doing so. The NY Post reported that a four-hour hearing, after which Community Board 1 voted 29-1 to approve the mosque project, “got so heated that one young girl, whose father is Muslim and mother is Jewish and who went to testify in favor, decided instead to sit silently.” Could freedom of speech be the next Constitutional right to be literally shouted down? Fortunately, our governing document comes up for a popular vote in only one scenario: a proposed amendment. It’s not meant to bend and sway with public opinion polls. Let’s try one final time: Islam, the faith of 1.57 billion people, 23% of the world’s population (Christianity, counting Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, is around 33%, the world’s largest, but that sure doesn’t make Earth a Christian planet), is not our enemy. Radical kooks are: for example, the “Christian” who walked into a church foyer to murder a physician. If anything can help build bridges of understanding between widely-held faiths, it’s the one-on-one contacts that can be made through cultural centers. Why are we even talking about this?

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) says, “Ultimately I suspect that once this simmers down in a few weeks, people will realize that everybody’s liberty is at stake here.” Congressman, the precise number of weeks is about eleven: that’s how long until the midterms, and you can bet the right will be stirring the pot at least until then. I’ve never been prouder of Mayor Michael Bloomberg than the day he said, “It’s fair to say if somebody was going to try, on that piece of property, to build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming. The ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded. And for us to just say no is just, I think, ‘not appropriate’ is a nice way to phrase it. If you are religious, you do not want the government picking religions, because what do you do the day they don’t pick yours?” If opponents of the mosque get their way, said the mayor, it will be “a sad day for America.” Until recent weeks, I would have expected the vast majority of Americans to agree with him. You live and learn.

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