Saturday, January 24, 2009

“God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.” William Shakespeare


A few weeks ago an article on the Internet pictured an unimposing middle-aged bus driver from Southhampton in England—a self-professed Christian in a red wooly jumper —who had walked off his shift. Of the 800 busses across the country his flourished a 20-foot banner with a slogan paid for by the British Humanist Association: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Bollocks to God? Well then, bollocks to the job! The bus driver, Ron, was finally appeased and given a new bus, free of bothersome slogans. Pressure groups like Christian Voice were furious but the advertisement was finally judged not to have broken any ‘decency rules.’ Saved by the inclusion of ‘probably.’ Last summer there was apparently a series of Christian adverts on London busses posting a website which warned that those who reject God will burn in Hell.

Fiery Hell? Everlasting suffering for earthly transgressions? It would be like vacationing in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Who wouldn’t chuck a cranky God’s gloomy dogma for a less punishing outlook?

Thomas Jefferson’s doctrine of separation of church and state is a familiar refrain in my country and before the Dark Ages of Bush seemed to me to be—apart from testy insistence on including the deity’s name in our Pledge of Allegiance—relatively honored by our government. Or, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. The Mister reminds me now and again that we are indeed a religious bunch. The ‘God Bless America’ slant in the last crucial presidential debates was something you just kind of ignored. We needed to get the hopey, well-spoken, cucumber-cool guy in, sure, but it was more urgent to get the other guy out. It didn’t really mean much if ‘our side’ was just employing the old ‘God bless’ chestnut to get the wider vote.

Or did it?

When, as President-elect, Barack Obama chose Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer—one that begged God to listen to his prayer, and by virtue of this preacher’s position at the Inauguration, purportedly speaking for all of us as he intoned: “When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us”—it saddened and perplexed me. A preacher who thinks homosexuals need to repent; denies Gays the right to marry—a man who fought for Proposition 8? Women, like me, who are pro-choice are labeled ‘holocaust deniers.’ Am I missing something?

Freshly sworn in, President Obama acknowledged in his inaugural address that we are "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers." It was a curious gesture. What exactly is a non-believer and why did his words make it sound like non-believers were somehow outside the lofty white-gloved club of believers? I believe the earth revolves around the sun and gravity keeps us rooted to a planet that is definitely not flat. I believe in the basic goodness of humans. I believe that I should treat another person as well as I would like to be treated.

Separation of church and state, indeed. We are long past the separation and need a divorce.

God was a shifting presence growing up. Church going slackened off when I hit my teens. I went to a specialized public high school in Manhattan and art and boys superseded God. Sometimes a beloved teacher stood in; other times, as I got older, I fixated on a writer or an artist I worshipped, like Vincent Van Gogh. As a girl, I thought my dad was god for the longest time. An uneducated man, he was prone to mispronounced utterances like “Absolooply!” that cracked me up. He seemed to be suffering from something yet found the comic in life. He made a lot of people laugh, not including my mother. He didn’t take God too seriously either and when he did usher for the Christmas service at our church in Astoria he rallied the other fathers from the corner bar before the sermon wound down, in time to hand out the collection baskets. He never failed to cast a beery, conspiratorial wink in my direction as I paraded up the center aisle clutching my lighted candle, desperate not to giggle convulsively.

Because of his failed business in Manhattan, we had to move to Hartford Connecticut in my senior year of high school. My sister and I had, for one brief kindred moment, joined as allies in our shared pain at having to leave our old life and forged an aggrieved partnership as we passed through the gates in Grand Central Station to the platform where we boarded—grief-stricken—a train to Hartford. We swore we would never lose our 'Noo Yawk' accents. It was a short-lived contract.

In our first Christmas in an alien land, my dad and I made some small effort to fit in and leaving an embittered mother and the querulous sister behind, we attended the Christmas Eve service at a quintessentially New England church. Perched atop a flight of stairs overlooking Farmington Avenue, its clapboard walls pristine, stamped with neatly unprovocative stained-glass windows. We were hustled into the first row, the outsiders. Oiled by a few pre-service cocktails, dad sang the beloved carols in a booming voice, almost lustily—and to a one—the wrong song in every case. But they were they ones he remembered, the songs dear to his heart and “Joy To the World” piped above whatever the congregation was singing. The fundamentally conservative, tight-lipped, straight-shouldered crowd of New Englanders surrounding us mitigated what should have been abject embarrassment on my part. Their disdain was palpable and rather than hustling my father from their midst, I sat stoically alongside him—his silent cheerleader—until the bitter end. We made our way past ambient disapproval to the exit, only to be stopped by a hawk-faced woman with an imperious manner. “You have such a lovely singing voice,” she told my father, her own voice brittle with sarcasm. “Perhaps you should join our choir.”

I began to see what my cousins had whispered to me about my dad. His friends then were almost all gay men. Among them was a delightful couple that made me laugh. Ronald was a cravat-wearing dance teacher and Artie, a comically fussy Englishman with a Sahara-dry sense of humor, who cracked me up every single time he said, “Crikey.” Kip was an interior decorator with the small business that employed my father as an antiques restorer. I was just discovering Truman Capote’s writings and Kip’s softly rotund physical presence, his unabashed mince, his knowledgeable love of all things cultured, was like a breath of fresh, literary air. They flaunted their gayness—and their pain. Copious amounts of alcohol were imbibed.

Could my father have been gay, albeit deeply closeted? On sleepovers, dad would dance around in his underwear to any one of the many Broadway show tunes he had recordings of; me giggling hysterically, my cousin who I adored and who only carefully poked out of the family closet for me, red-faced and uncomfortable. My father knew the lyrics to every Broadway musical. He mimed Ethel Merman and wept every time he heard Judy Garland sing. Gay much?

So, when I see choices being made, like Obama’s for Warren and some of his cabinet picks I think of Alan Shore’s character on Boston Legal and his pithy remark: “As my great Aunt Gert said: “This smells funny and I’m not going to eat it.”


zbelnu said...

Even in Barcelona we have that buses and other buses with believers slogans. But, Linda, maybe you will think that in another way (politics and Obama) "I want to believe" like Mulder in aliens, but for me it was difficult not to feel touched by the people hopes, because I always think that peoples expectations are a valuous strenght that could change politics. And on the other hand, I was happy to listen a speech so different than his precedecessor's, that Obama talked about the democratic and civil rights US tradition, that he proceeded to close Guantanamo and forbid torture. I know he was light in other terms, but I couldn't help to feel an enormous relief to see how Darth Vader ideas were far away. I know these were only words but for me words are important. And laws. In Spain we know police tortures, but you can have a lawyer and denounce them. You can't do this in Israel. Bush and Cheney made the world a terrible and most violnet place to live. And global warming included. I know change is difficult and the same big corporations and arms factories are there behind politics, but something good happened. Or I want to believe...

velvetbottomfeeder said...

I say beware of the Hero.