Monday, November 13, 2006

The Modern Jewish Patriarchs (and a Few Matriarchs)

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Blaming Judaism for his father's peculiarities, the first Jewish member of Congress converted to Christianity to hide his heritage and preserve his political career.

But with a name like David Levy Yulee, he was only fooling himself.

Times have changed since Yulee became Florida's junior senator in 1845 - more than a century before the southern state became a favorite destination for Jewish retirees from the northeast.

After a handful of victories in Tuesday's election, Jews are poised to have their largest congressional representation ever. This U.S. community of roughly 6 million people - about 2 percent of the nation's population - will contribute 30 members to the House. With 13 Jewish members of the Senate, the proportion in the upper chamber will be 6 1/2 times greater than that in the general population.

"Jews are just political animals," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"Politics sort of is the Jewish religion," he added. "There is just such a passion for being in the game, in the process. Jewish life thrives in societies where democracies work, and that is why there is such a heavy buy-in into the American political process."

Like Catholics, Jews long ago abandoned their early 20th-century reputation for living on the fringes of society in immigrant ghettos. Since the 1960s, they have risen sharply in politics, falling short of only the presidency and the vice presidency (although in 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, came within 537 Florida votes of the White House).

The Nov. 7 election may have been a turning point for Jewish pols, who have typically represented Jewish communities. They were elected to Congress not just in California, Florida and New York, but also in Arizona, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

"If you would have told me in the '50s and even the '60s that (some of these states) would elect someone from the Jewish faith, I would have said, `You're crazy,"' said Rosalind Wyman, who in 1953 was the first Jew elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

People no longer are concerned about candidates being Jewish, said Rabbi Kurt F. Stone, author of "The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill."

"They are voting for those people who speak to their heart and to their head," said Stone, a Sherman Oaks native.

But that's not true for all faiths. It wasn't until Tuesday that a Muslim - and a convert at that - was elected to Congress.

Keith Ellison's campaign in Minnesota's 5th District was slowed by suspicions he could be a wolf in sheep's clothing - an Islamic extremist pretending to be a pro-Israel Democrat. Fears about Ellison, who was supported by Minnesota's Jewish community over a Republican Jew, were reminiscent of those half a century ago that presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy would be a papal pawn.

"It is an unfortunate reality that people use every tactic of mudslinging and name-calling, except here the name-calling had to do with his religion and not him personally," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the L.A.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Mr. Ellison overcame it. It is a success story, and I hope it is one every household learns about as we get more Muslim-Americans engaged in politics."

Yulee, the first Jewish senator, served 12 years before becoming the "Father of Florida's railroads," according to his congressional biography. Half his tenure he served alongside Judah P. Benjamin, a Yale-educated Jew who was the last Southern politician to leave Congress before the Civil War.

"Up until the last moment, he was trying to keep the Union together," Stone said of the man who became the war secretary and state secretary of the Confederacy and was referred to as "Mr. Jefferson Davis' pet Jew."

Today, both California senators and eight of the state's U.S representatives - including five from the L.A. area and Congress' only Holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos of San Mateo - are Jewish.

"My parents always taught me that it was important to do what you can to make society better, whether that be locally or on a larger scale," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks.

"I took that to heart and always wondered what was the most efficient way to do that because I was thinking like a CPA long before my first accounting class. And I concluded that being involved in government and politics was the most efficient way to make society better."

Jewish politicians often mention tikkun olam. Hebrew for "repairing the world," the concept is instilled in Jewish children.

"To mend the world," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, explaining why he entered politics. "There is a public-service ethic that is part of the Jewish tradition and an interest in looking out for people who are less well off."

That has translated into socially progressive politics. For almost 80 years, Jews were considered a one-party community. Their reverence for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt led to the joke that Jews believe in three velts - a Yiddish word for "world": die velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.

But three of the 43 Jewish members of the 110th Congress are Republicans. National exit polls found 88 percent of Jewish votes went to Democrats and 12 percent to Republicans. A poll administered for the Republican Jewish Coalition reported 26 percent of Jews voted Republican.

Congressional Jews generally favor stem-cell research, reproductive rights and the separation of church and state. But there is no Jewish caucus, and political ideologies run the gamut - from the socialist Rep. Bernard Sanders, newly elected to the Senate, to Rep. Eric Cantor, the House's only Republican Jew.

Across the nation, Jews' greatest bond is their support for Israel - but that goes for most politicians on Capitol Hill. Even about Israel, Jews will disagree on policy details.

"Our political persuasion is as diverse as the American electorate," said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "If there is some commonality in their voting, it probably has nothing to do with their faith and something to do with their social philosophy.

"These are not people who are elected to office because they happen to be Jewish."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Evangelical Atheists

From: Los Angeles Daily News

With tattooed arms and dressed like Johnny Cash, Ryan Langley stood in UCLA's Bruin Plaza and shared his faith with all who inquired.

Earth below - certainly. Heavens above - he doesn't think so. Langley may be an evangelical, but he's not the typical kind. He's an evangelical atheist.

"We're all about promoting critical reasoning, scientific inquiry, human-based ethics," Langley told a woman from the Student Coalition for Marriage Equality. "While we understand religion has a place in society, we'd like to keep it in private life and out of politics."

Newly hired by the Secular Student Alliance to do outreach at Southern California colleges, Langley is part of a push by agnostics, brights, free-thinkers, humanists and skeptics - a group commonly referred to as atheists - to increase visibility and improve public relations.

Talking about "coming out of the closet" and drawing parallels to the fight for gay rights, atheists are going mainstream. Last month, two books attacking belief in God spent a week among the top 10 nonfiction books on the New York Times best-sellers list.

On the political front, atheists last year sent their first lobbyist to Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, the Center for Inquiry will open a public policy office in the capital to act as a secular-minded think tank.

"Before, we didn't think the religious-right agenda made that much of a difference on our lives, but suddenly the agenda was being followed by the people in power," said Lori Lipman Brown, the Secular Coalition for America's first lobbyist.

"They are hearing, more than ever before, people saying there shouldn't be a separation of church and state, that our country should be based on Christianity."

Atheists' fears festered in the wake of the 2004 election, in which "conservative Christians were very influential in re-electing President Bush," said John C. Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Though Republicans lost control of Congress last week and the "edge" has been taken off atheists' concerns of a coming theocratic nation, Green said, the midterm elections won't signal a changing tide of sympathy for the nonreligious.

"The antipathy they feel still exists because the religious conservative groups are still out there and are still involved in politics," he said.

Of course, those across the religious divide tell a different story - one in which the ungodly already have too much power in Washington.

"Two starkly contrasting world views predominate today's moral and cultural debate," Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, whose organization declined requests for comment, told The Boston Globe. "One side defends the traditional values that have made this nation great for more than 225 years; the other works to chisel away at that foundation."

Dobson, whom many consider today's most influential evangelical, has lobbied heavily against abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. He also has complained that the GOP takes conservative Christians for granted.

America, Dobson has argued, is a land strangled by secular humanism, a place where the only accepted religion is a diluted spirituality that doesn't expect people to live according to God's desire.

Living in a nation of Judeo-Christian ethics, atheists have long been perceived by their peers as amoral, if not evil.

Stuart Bechman of Simi Valley grew up afraid that his lack of faith was a sign of "mental illness." When he began dating a Mormon woman, he noticed her parents' displeasure.

"They just presumed I had no scruples and I was unethical and I was a bad person because that is what their religion told them," said Bechman, now co-president of L.A.-based Atheists United.

Last spring, the University of Minnesota reported that only 60percent of Americans believe atheists agree with their vision for society - a smaller percentage than for Muslims (74percent), homosexuals (77percent) and conservative Christians (86percent).

And 48percent of Americans said they would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, more than for any other group.

"People tend to think of religiosity or being involved in religion as something that is a proxy for being a good person, being a moral person, being a trustworthy person and being a good citizen," said Penny Edgell, University of Minnesota associate professor of sociology and the study's lead researcher.

"Most people don't even know an atheist. It becomes this label that people respond to that doesn't say much about the group in question but says a lot about people's assumptions."

A 1999 Gallup poll found 49percent of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president - up from 17percent in 1958, but still more than 40percentage points lower than for a Catholic, Jew or African-American and 10 points lower than for a gay candidate.

There are no openly atheist members of Congress, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

It's unclear how many atheists live in the United States. Some Christians say they've never met a true atheist because most nonbelievers qualify as agnostics - they don't know if God exists or if it matters.

"People who don't know if there is a God probably don't have a God belief," said Bobbie Kirkhart, past president of Atheist Alliance International.

The Secular Coalition for America pegs its constituency between 10million and 30million. Depending on the definition, researchers estimate atheists make up 3 to 10percent of the U.S. population.

Most likely to be educated and men and ranging from liberals to libertarians, experts say, atheists' chief interest shifts from promoting science to fighting religious influence on politics, depending on the cultural climate.

Lately, they have mobilized against:

The drive to teach intelligent design in public schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Renewed efforts to criminalize most abortions.

The creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which gives government money to sectarian social-service organizations that require religious involvement from clients and patients.

Opposition to the legalization of gay marriages.

The words "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

These social-conservative causes are part of what journalist Michelle Goldberg calls the "rise of Christian nationalism."

"With a revisionist history that claims the founders never intended to create a secular country and that separation of church and state is a lie fostered by conniving leftists, Christian nationalism rejects the idea of government religious neutrality," Goldberg, a secular Jew, wrote in her recently published book, "Kingdom Coming."

"The movement argues that the absence of religion in public is itself a religion - the malign faith of secular humanism - that must, in the interest of fairness, be balanced with equal deference to the Bible."

Langley had Goldberg's book in his backpack, tucked beneath a small white table in Bruin Plaza. Until he was 5, his mother was a Jehovah's Witness. But then she was kicked out of the fellowship for living with a man out of wedlock, and her children grew up without any religious influence.

Langley's younger sister found Jesus; he didn't. Now 32 and a recent graduate of Chapman University in Orange, he's trying to peel back whatever layers of religious tradition college students carry from home.

"When you grow up with it from Day One, you don't tend to question its validity," he said. "That's why we are here: To ask them to question whether they need to subscribe to some absolute view to have morality."

He went about his evangelism quietly, occasionally walking into the masses and handing out pamphlets but mostly hanging behind his table and waiting for the action to come to him.

"What's this?" Heather Collette-Van Deraa, a junior studying communications and women's studies, asked as she approached.

"We are trying to organize students around secularism, the separation of church and state," Langley responded.

"I'm down with that," she said. "This is definitely an issue I get behind."

As an "out atheist," Collette-Van Deraa said she often feels scorned as the other - "capital O in quotes."

"There are misconceptions that atheists hate anyone who is in organized religion, or that atheists are baby killers or old-people killers," she said. "There is a sense that atheists to some extent can't be sensitive to the spiritual views of others."

Though theologically not a religious group, the courts have increasingly ruled atheism deserves the same protections.

"And it should," said Derek H. Davis, a Baptist who has written about atheism and is dean of the college of humanities and graduate school at University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Texas. "Nonreligion as a worldview needs to be treated like a religious worldview in terms of giving people protections to live out their conscience."

Atheists United, which Bechman described as "a support group," funded Langley's job. "They are not going to be here much longer, and we need new blood," Langley said.

After two hours at UCLA, he packed up, intending to return in a few weeks and again sow seed. He had spoken with six people; none was interested in launching a student group.

It's a tough gig being a campus pitchman. Students train themselves to stare at the ground, listen to music or talk on cell phones - anything to avoid eye contact with the zealots at UCLA staffing 50-plus tables from the U.S. Marine Corps to Hare Krishna to the Korean American Student Educational Outreach.

Langley didn't have the luxury of shaking his hips like the sexy sophomore promoting a Samahang Pilipino party. And though he could have dressed in a giant platypus suit like the guy promoting STA Travel, he said he prefers a more subtle approach.

"It's one of those things where a hard sell isn't going to make it happen," he said. "So, you just try to make your presence known."