(An edited version of this article appeared in Nov 8, 2008 Mail Today)
Two books I read recently — John Adams by David McCullough and Blasphemy by Douglas Preston — have relevance to election of Sen. Barack Obama as the President of United States. The first book, a biography of second President, gave historical perspective on the selection of the 44th President while the second, a non-stop thriller, demonstrated why a President needs to keep his religion personal.
A Historic Achievement.
John Adams was the first President to live in the White House which was then known as the President’s House. Mr. Adams visited Washington City in 1800 and was appalled by the sight of the city with the heat and mosquitoes, but more so by the sight of slaves at work and their squalid cabins.
He moved into the President’s House alone, without an honor guard or entourage in October. A few months later he was joined by his wife Abigail who did not like what she saw in the South. According to McCullough, the sight of slaves working in her house left Mrs. Adams, who was from Boston, depressed.
Now, two hundred and eight years after the first resident of the White House, 233 years after Thomas Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” while owning slaves and 147 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a man of color will occupy the White House.
Though a lot has improved over the past two centuries, racial tensions are still present. The attacks on Sen. Obama during the campaign season showed that the possibility of a man of color occupying the highest office in the land had upset a minority. A site which claimed to sell funny t-shirts advertised shirts featuring a noose and Ku Klux Klan members chasing Obama. A Republican Party flyer in California featured a phony $10 bill showing Obama surrounded by racist imagery and recently federal authorities disrupted a plot of two white supremacists to go on a national killing spree and murder Sen. Obama.
The Democratic primaries too had drama. Sen. Hillary Clinton made comments which appeared to diminish the role of Martin Luther King Jr. and Pres. Bill Clinton dismissed Sen. Obama’s image as a “fairy tale” both of which generated outrage among African-Americans.
This victory is significant because Sen. Obama won it fair and square by competing on equal terms with his rivals. He did not milk “white guilt.” He did not have an advantage in the election and no seats were reserved for him. Sen. Obama instead ran as a post-racial candidate, comfortable in his Kenyan ancestry and mid western upbringing. Still the odds he had to surmount were enormous which makes this victory an important point in American history.
In Blasphemy, a Large Hadron Collider type particle accelerator is activated below a Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona. The project’s goal — circulate protons and anti-protons in opposite directions, almost at the speed of light, and collide them to create energy levels not seen the since universe was a millionth of a second old.
Meanwhile a bunch of evangelicals turn against the project since they think it is a government-sponsored secular humanist war on Christianity. For them the opening words of Genesis contained exactly how God created the world and there was no need to investigate the Big Bang theory, the atheistic creation model. Rousing their followers, they flock to Arizona to shutdown this anti-Christian activity.
In Blasphemy, the particle accelerator is the President’s pet project. Also he has low opinion of the evangelicals. In contrast President Bush has always deferred to the evangelical base and their religiously-defined “family values” letting it define American policy.
Soon after he took office, President Bush funded research only on existing stem cell lines and twice vetoed legislation that would have lifted restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Always obstinate in his opinion, Pres. Bush as Seed magazine noted, “turned the very act of defying science into an art.”
In her book The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa Helen Epstein writes about how President Bush’s billion dollar AIDS prevention program worked in Africa. Missionary organizations, funded by United States, have swept Uganda emphasizing abstinence only programs; the church is not in favor of contraception. The book has a humorous anecdote where a pastor on seeing a condom on a mascot used for education, sets it on fire, “in the name of Jesus.”
Separation of Scripture from Public Policy
United States was not created as a Christian nation and when it was launched the country did not have an official cult or official religion. In fact that was the only new thing in the American Constitution since federalism, independent judiciary, bicameral legislature, and tripartite administration existed either in theory or practice. In England the King was the head of Church as well as the State, but United States had the separation of Church and State from the beginning and that was unprecedented for those times. Recently when the Dalai Lama was asked what he would do if he got control over Tibet he replied that he would enforce the separation of Church and State the American way.
Though there is separation of church and state in the country, religious beliefs of the political leaders have played a part in elections. Faith is an important part of American life and every candidate asserts their religious credentials — even the liberals. Sen. Hillary Clinton, during the primary season, mentioned that her faith shaped how she sees the world. Sen. Barack Obama proudly says that he is a Christian; President Jimmy Carter calls himself a Bible evangelist.
All of them declare that Christian faith has provided them with a moral compass. The problem is when they use words in scripture to shape public policy and enforce it on fellow citizens and other nations. Thus in 21st century America there is a debate on the need to teach Creationism or “Intelligent Design” in public schools making it feel as if Pope Urban VIII is in charge.
Under President Obama, government support for embryonic stem cell research will increase. He supported it while in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate. Sen. John McCain, too would have supported stem cell research but with some fine print. He did not want to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for scientific progress which means yes on adult stem cell research and no on the use of human embryos. McCain’s running mate was sure that she would not support stem cell research which would end in the destruction of life.
Abstinence programs are supported by Sen. Obama as well. But he knows that it cannot reduce teen pregnancy and believes that contraception has to be part of the education process. As one of the sponsors of Prevention First Act he is conscious about the need for funding family planning, ending insurance discrimination against contraception, improving awareness about emergency contraception.
After eight years of religious pandering America is about to move in a secular direction, where faith remains personal and stays away from the steps of the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This was the way it was always meant to be and the founding fathers — Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who were behind the separation of church and state — will be smiling.
(An edited version of this article appeared in Nov 8, 2008 Mail Today)