Religion

And No Religion Too

One of my fondest memories of childhood is attending Christmas Midnight Mass at my family’s Catholic Church. My cousins and I would bask in the glittering pageantry, well aware that as soon as we got home, all the presents beneath the tree would be vanquished under our attacking hands.

I’m about to become a father. Naturally, I should look forward to taking my own son to Midnight Mass.

Well, I’m not. Because he will not be raised Catholic. In fact, he will not be raised with any religion at all.

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Sez Who?

We all know about Martin Luther King Jr.’s resistance to the unjust laws of the Jim Crow South. King believed that achieving justice sometimes necessitated breaking the arbitrary rules that flawed humans had devised.

Similarly, in Latin America, where many of our families originated, priests often took a stand against the repressive authority of the oligarchies. Sometimes, as with Archbishop Oscar Romero, they paid with their lives.

So it’s clear that religious leaders should urge their followers to disobey laws that are unjust or run counter to the principles of their faith…right?

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Fourth and Long

Two recent polls caught my attention.

The first was taken at the height of Tebow-mania, when many otherwise rational adults believed that a mediocre quarterback could actually win the Super Bowl.

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Crystal Clear

Just a short drive from my apartment in Los Angeles stands a monument to religious excess.

It is the Crystal Cathedral, built back in the 1970s when an evangelical preacher named Robert H. Schuller had a great idea to rake in the parishioners. All he had to do was spend millions on an architectural marvel that undermined everything the Bible says about modesty and humility.

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Wild-Eyed Zealots on the Loose … Or Not

I may owe the Pope an apology.

I’ve been critical of the Catholic Church and its stranglehold on Hispanic culture. It seems to me that religious dogma is a big reason why Latin America can’t dig out of its poverty-lined hole and, furthermore, why U.S. Hispanics are constantly scraping by for political, economic, and sociological power.

Well, I’m not rescinding any of that. But I am wondering if there is a bright side to overreliance on the Vatican.

You see, I recently wrote about the U.S. government’s fear that al-Qaida is trying to recruit American Latinos to its sick cause. The terrorist group supposedly thinks Hispanics can “move in and around the United States without arousing suspicion,” making it easier to execute crazy shit like setting off bombs.

However, there is no hard proof that this strategy is underway. As such, I have to wonder if al-Qaida has found it difficult to shake the Catholicism out of Hispanics.

I’ve written before about the powerful bonds between Latino culture and the Catholic Church. The Hispanic predilection to believe in a big guy in the sky is well-documented.

U.S. government officials are worried that it is at the “intersection with prison radicalization, gang culture, religious zealotry that you have a potential problem.”

This seems like quite a jump in logic. Yes, Latinos are overrepresented in American prisons, and gang imagery is unfortunately as big an albatross in Hispanic culture as it is in African American society.

But is religious zealotry more potent in Latinos than it is among, say, white evangelicals or African American Baptists? Why would believing in the Catholic doctrine make Hispanics more likely to convert to radical Islam?

And while we’re at it, why haven’t we seen terrorists from Latin America like we have from the Middle East? Indeed, residents of Latin America have more reason than most of the world to hate the United States. Our support for the region’s brutal dictatorships and/or drug-running rebels (whichever is convenient) has been so blatant that even jingoists don’t bother to lie about it.

And yet, citizens of Latin America don’t talk about exacting revenge on the United States or waging war. Far from it — they love the opportunities that the United States offers so much that many of them are willing to risk their lives to start over here.

Certainly the commonality, proximity, and shared history of the cultures have something to do with it. To people in Latin America, the United States isn’t some exotic, evil land over the ocean. They probably have family members who live here.

And similarly, it’s difficult to fire up a religious war when most residents in this hemisphere are some form of Christian. So again, is one factor for the absence of Latin American terrorists the prevalence of Catholicism in the culture? And might this strong faith be a hindrance to recruiting American Latinos for jihad?

Of course, I have no evidence for this thesis. I’m like the U.S. government that way. Still, I’m willing to give the Pope the benefit of the doubt and say that Latinos’ obsession with Jesus is one reason there aren’t a lot of Jose Padillas out there.

So score one for the Catholic Church. Now, if they would just listen to some modern ideas about birth control…


Love Thy Neighbor

Recently, everyone’s most charismatic anti-Semitic homophobe, Mel Gibson, expanded his repertoire. According to widely distributed recordings, Gibson has gone beyond disliking just gays and Jews. He also despises women, blacks, and Latinos. I’m talking about those direct threats to his ex-girlfriend and his causal dropping of both the N-word and the W-word.

Now, a common question, besides the snide pondering of what his pals Danny Glover and Jodie Foster think of all this, is how could such a devoutly religious man be so filled with hatred? After all, Gibson directed The Passion of the Christ (a slice of hardcore propaganda for Christianity if ever there was one) and has been vocal about his faith.

As a brief aside, I may have mentioned – once or several hundred times – that I was raised Catholic, as many Hispanics are. I dropped out of the Church when I was a teenager.

One reason I left the Church was that I grew weary of being told I should feel guilty for every thought or action, no matter how innocuous. But I will give credit to my old parish for one thing: It at least told me that I should feel bad if I ignored Jesus Christ’s teachings.

To my surprise, many Americans don’t even have the self-respect to acknowledge when they are contradicting their spiritual foundation. I’m referring, of course, about the recent study that found a positive correlation between religion and racism.

We all know that most U.S. churches are racially homogenous (over 90 percent of them, by some estimates). But this study found that in these ethnically pure places of worship, “strong religious in-group identity was associated with derogation of racial out-groups.” This means that many Christians are looking at one of Christ’s great commands – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) – and amending it with the phrase “unless they look different than you.”

The researchers found that “religion is practiced largely within race” and as such, “religious in-group identity promotes general ethnocentrism.” This study focused on white Protestants, but the researchers believe that their findings apply to other groups because “all religions teach moral superiority.”

I’d like to say that all this surprises me, but it doesn’t. I’m sure we have all met religious people who struck us as somewhat less than holy. I still remember the older man who told anyone who would listen that he was saved, because he had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. And then he dropped a few choice comments about minorities.

And my wife told me about the time she was stuck in a car with a group of well-to-do (and supposedly devout) Christians. To her surprise, her fellow passengers joked about running over African Americans on the way to their destination. They were going, of course, to a wedding… in church.

My wife is no longer friends with these people.

What amazes me is the overt contradiction that these feelings should create. Yet there seems to be little internal conflict.

Even religious homophobes who are secretly gay spend time praying to “cure” their supposed affliction. Their tragically wrongheaded approach at least causes them angst.

But many Christians apparently see nothing wrong with praising Jesus and then dismissing one of his central principles. Perhaps the more studious racists in the study can justify it with the ancient argument that all the other races are decedents of Ham, Noah’s ostracized son, and are therefore worthy of scorn. But somehow, I doubt this theological viewpoint comes up too much.

Regardless of how religious people justify it, the effect is real. The researchers “failed to find that racial tolerance arises from humanitarian values, consistent with the idea that religious humanitarianism is largely expressed to in-group members.”

In sum, I can say I’m a good person if I’m nice to people at my church. And it’s best if I don’t think about it too much beyond that.

As such, Mel Gibson has plenty of company.

Again, the study implies that every religion has this dirty little secret. One could argue, in fact, that modern religion demands a certain level of hatred for the mythical Other.

For example, the Amish are as religious as it gets, submitting their lives to a strict version of what they believe God wants. And yet, this very devotion to spiritual belief also requires a certain level of xenophobia. It’s necessary to maintain their theological (and theoretical) purity. Even if the Amish went looking for converts, I doubt they would be in a big hurry to accept a black person (by the way, if the Wayans brothers would like to develop this concept into a zany comedy, tell them to call me and we’ll do lunch).

So was there anything positive about this study? Did the researchers find any group that might offer some hope for the future?

Yes, there was. The researchers said, almost as an aside, that “only religious agnostics were racially tolerant.”

Well, that’s just great. How are we supposed to fit that into a sermon?


Saint or Commie?

As I’ve written before, I dropped out of the Catholic Church when I was a teenager. I haven’t become an atheist, although I see nothing wrong with that philosophy. It’s just that I prefer to keep my distance from religion. However, I’ve also been upfront about my belief that one reason Latinos don’t make bigger social and economic gains is our overreliance on the Church.

So perhaps I should excuse myself from a debate taking place across the Hispanic community, Latin America, and the Catholic Church. The cause of this debate is that old rabblerouser himself, Archbishop Oscar Romero.

For those of you who don’t know, Romero was the head of the Church in El Salvador from 1977 to 1980. During this time, he spoke out against the brutality of the government and the oppression of the poor. For having such crazy ideas, he was assassinated, presumably by members of a right-wing death squad. Following his death, a civil war ripped the country apart and killed tens of thousands of civilians, including members of my mother’s family.

In the thirty years since his death, Romero has been lionized as a martyr for the cause of social justice, or criticized as a dupe for communist agitators, depending on whom you talk to. The Catholic Church has been considering him for sainthood for years, but weirdly enough, they can’t seem to go ahead and canonize the guy.

The debate over Romero goes to the heart of the Church’s standing in Latin America. Is it an institution that upholds the traditions of the culture, even if those traditions include exploitation and enforced poverty? Or is it a force for peace and compassion, which is what that famous hippie Jesus espoused?

The perception of the Church in Latin America has a direct impact upon U.S. Hispanics. Many of us who are first-generation, for example, saw an organization that gave lip service to helping the poor, but supported corrupt regimes in our parents’ home countries. Priests like Romero, far from being supported, often earned Rome’s disdain. The dichotomy (some would say hypocrisy) was not endearing.

But Romero’s legacy may finally be thwarting the establishment culture that shunned him during his life. In a truly surprising moment, my mother’s home country of El Salvador has finally gotten around to acknowledging its most famous citizen.

The LA Times reports that “For the first time, the Salvadoran state is publicly commemorating Romero. Through most of this month, marches, concerts and debates have honored the priest.”

Furthermore, the country’s president, Mauricio Funes, recently asked forgiveness on behalf of the state for Romero’s assassination. Funes said, “This is something that should have been done a long time ago” and added that his government would “end the decades of silence” that have been Romero’s official legacy.

If El Salvador can finally acknowledge that Romero was killed because of his strong drive for justice, maybe the Vatican can get around to saying that he was a pretty good guy.

By the way, and at the risk of taking a cheap shot, it seems like the Catholic Church’s current issues prove that it’s not the best judge of morality and saint-like behavior. But then again, what do I know? I’m just an ex-Catholic.


Mazel Tov!

A few years ago, I took one of those internet quizzes that pinpoints your real religion, based on your actual beliefs and not the lip service that you espouse. Like all internet quizzes, I’m sure it was of dubious validity and reliability, and it probably had a questionable theological basis on top of that.

Still, I couldn’t argue with the result, which said that I was, in reality, a Reform Jew. By the way, the religion of my childhood, Roman Catholicism, ranked around twenty-eighth or so on my personal scale, which sounded about right (but I’ll refrain from picking on Catholicism just now).

These days, I consider myself more of secular Buddhist agnostic. But the Jewish angle isn’t that far off.

I’m not sure why I relate to Judaism. It’s not like I had a lot of Jewish friends growing up. My neighborhood was primarily Hispanic (and therefore, incredibly Catholic) while my home state is overwhelmingly Midwestern white (mostly Protestant). So not a lot of Goldbergs and Silvermans appeared on the scene.

Perhaps I picked it up when I lived in New York City, where Jewish culture is everywhere. Within just a few years of arriving in NYC, I was ordering bagels with lox and talking about people’s chutzpah and obsessing about death. So maybe that’s why I came up Jewish on the test.

But I think there’s a larger issue. It seems that Hispanics and Jews have always gotten along pretty well. Perhaps both groups know what it’s like to pass for white, but not really. Maybe our mutual focus on family lines up nicely. Or perhaps we just admire each culture’s long history of suffering.

Regardless, I was intrigued to read about a group of Hasidim Jews in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. A small but thriving population traces its ancestry to Spain and Latin America, and as such, members of this group consider themselves Hispanics.

Spare me your jokes about Juan Epstein, the NYC Puerto Rican Jew from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

There’s a man in Crown Heights with a real-life cross-cultural headspinner of a name, Moshe Nunez, and he says that “There are a lot of Latin American Jews here…. Many non-Jewish Latinos are surprised to see Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn who speak Spanish and carry on their Hispanic traditions.”

I suppose that would be an attention-getting sight. But still, I’m not really shocked that some people would adopt both cultures. The overlap goes back decades.

For example, when my mother moved to America, back in the 1960s, her first job was helping out an old Jewish woman on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The woman was a Holocaust survivor, and she brought that horrific period to life for my mother by rolling up her sleeve and showing the number branded into her arm. This simple display provided quite the education for a young woman from Latin America.

The old woman was very kind to my mother, and she introduced her to the opera and nice restaurants and the finer things in life. According to my mother, the old woman was adamant that bigotry against any group was evil. She said that anyone who would discriminate against a Latino would bash Jews as well.

In the old woman’s mind, we’re all one and the same.


It’s Not Too Late to Buy a Gift

Today is El Dia de los Reyes Magos. In English, it’s usually called Three Kings’ Day. Although neither of those terms means much in the United States, in Latin America this occasion is a big deal.

It’s the final celebration of the Christmas season, designed to commemorate the evening when the three kings arrived at the manger to present baby Jesus with their gifts. It’s never been explained to me why Mary and Joseph hung out for almost two weeks in a dirty manger with an infant, waiting for these guys to show up. Nor do I know what use a baby has for frankincense. But there are far more serious incongruities in religion, so we’ll let it pass.

The point is that this day is marked with feasts, gifts, and general good times throughout Latin America. It may also be the basis for that rather confusing reference to the twelfth day of Christmas (opinions vary). And like all things Latino, it is slowly gaining a foothold here in the United States, with many people celebrating this once-exotic holiday and bringing it to the attention of the majority culture. And we can all use a little more celebrating, after all.

It also happens to be my birthday… just thought I’d mention that.


If Only His Name Leant Itself to Some Obvious Joke

By now, you’ve heard about the scandal (if such a word applies) of Father Cutié. He’s the Latino priest in Florida who was recently caught with his hands stuffed in the bikini of a hottie on the beach.

cuban_amer_priest_0506

Apparently, the priest has had a longtime affair with the woman, so Catholics everywhere are relieved that at least she’s a girlfriend and not a prostitute or underage minor or, of course, an altar boy.

Father Cutié has apologized for breaking his celibacy vow, and it remains to be seen what punishment the Church will dish out. This wouldn’t be big news except that the man is a young, charismatic guy with a media presence.

And of course, there’s that whole Hispanic thing.

As Time magazine points out, “America’s Catholic bishops… must realize that Cutié is more well regarded among Catholics than they are, especially among Latinos.” This means that if he’s run out of the Church, he just may take a lot of Hispanics with him.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence implies that Cutié’s parishioners are remarkably forgiving of his transgression.

“This wasn’t some dirty little tryst in the back of the parish residence,” said one of his followers. “It doesn’t appear to be just about sex. It’s about intimacy.”

I’d like to think that this newfound tolerance will show up in other areas, such as addressing the tendency of Hispanic Catholics to be homophobic and dismissive of women’s rights. But in reality, it’s not that Latino Catholics are finally saying, “Let’s lighten up with the arbitrary rules and be more understanding of human nature.” It’s probably just because male Catholics relate to the temptation that Cutié endured, and a lot of Latina Catholics think the guy is hot.

Regardless of the shallowness of its origin, however, it would indeed be ironic if the Catholic Church inched toward some kind of progressive stance because its Hispanic base got fired up.

And that has to be on the mind of the Church’s leaders. Time magazine goes on to point out that “a bigger problem for the Church may be Cutié’s Oprah-like standing in the Latino community — the only demographic where U.S. Catholicism is experiencing growth.”

That’s right. Hispanics, as I’ve pointed out many times before, are the present and future of the Catholic Church. Although I dropped out of the Church long ago, I still find it interesting that Latinos have such power over this massive institution.

Now if only we could spread some of that influence to politics, economic matters, pop culture, and social policy. Then we would be on to something.


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