Saturday, July 28, 2012

Politics and religion

You’d be bullshitting yourself if you think American people nowadays take religion seriously. Lemme conjure up the old days when I was little blond brat and Jack Kennedy was running for President. Our neighborhood was full of Irish and Italians and Poles. And it was a source of pride, a beautiful thing, for us to have a handsome Catholic fella in the race. I could tell from the way the adults talked about him. The Patersons and Palladinos and Kozaks would hang over the backyard fence smoking their Camels and Kents and talk about the election in the last light of day. These guys were churchgoers. They knew their sacraments, their Hail Marys, that you couldn’t eat meat on Fridays, and what brand of booze the parish priests liked to snort after dinner. Yeah, parishes had more than one priest back then.

For them, Kennedy was something new, a breath of fresh air. They said his smile could light up a room. They said something was wrong with crookback Nixon, that he couldn’t hold a candle to the affable senator. They'd fought for their country and thought it could use a young turk like Jack after eight years of heart-attack Ike. To them, it felt like his candidacy was part of something history-making, this Harvard-educated looey with the Boston accent, a sure sign that these second generation sons-of-bitches had entered the mainstream of American society. And Jack was only a lay person, not a cleric, a worldly guy with a sophisticated lady for a wife, one kid and another on the way, a Purple Heart. A man’s man, even with his bad back. Who cared if old Joe was a bit of bootlegging gangster? Prohibition was a crock, everybody drank.

That was a heady time for Catholics: Vatican II, a cherubic Italian paisan sitting on St. Peter’s throne, the Mass going from Latin into English, effin guitars in the sanctuary. These were working men. They knew who Dorothy Day was and what she did. Their church was two-fisted and open-hearted: Cardinal Spellman, the Berrigans, Tom Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Cardinal Cushing, wiseguys and mayors, they all worshipped under the same tent. There was even room for the virulent anti-commies in there.

But for a lot of non-Catholics, Kennedy’s religion was a big problem. They couldn’t stand the thought of having an effin papist in the White House, someone who’d likely take orders from the Vatican. He was a Catholic, not a Christian. That was a crucial distinction back then. Catholics didn’t believe in the Bible, instead they took communion, went to confession, and prayed to Mary. They had a whole panoply of saints and a mess of superstitions. Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, papal infallibility. What kind of weird shite was that? I remember snatches of conversations at the VFW Hall, listening to Pop and his buddies argue about the election over their beer. This was fifty years ago out on Long Island. St. Vincent de Paul. St. Catherine of Siena. Christ it seems positively medieval now.

Fifty years later, we’ve got this Romney running for President, who’s supposed to be a Mormon bishop and nobody bats an eye. He even spent some time over in France reportedly attempting to convert those wine-guzzling epicures to the ways of Bony Moroni. Man, what a stiff.

There can be only two reasons for our massive indifference to Mitt’s professed religion.

First, Mormonism must not mean anything serious. It looks like it’s just a fraternity of sorts with a coupla kooky rituals thrown in to give it a little color. Like Freemasonry. Secret handshakes, special garments, strange oaths. A few outliers like to shack up with multiple brides but it ain't enough of a cabal to matter. And the tabernacle is probably a nice place to do a little business networking. Similar to a country club. Few people are much threatened by a fraternity, so why should they be threatened by Mormonism?

The second reason is much the same, seen from the other side: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, Filesharing, whatever -- as practiced by the vast majority of those calling themselves religious -- doesn’t really matter, either. Not in any existential, do-or-die, way. It's American religion -- lump it all together, who cares? These days, it’s simply an organized activity for groups of people who possess a similar outlook on economic life to enjoy themselves socially. They meet regularly, hug one another, sing some tunes, and occasionally acknowledge that some things in life remain mysterious. Birth, marriage, death, the Momentous Events.

American religion is a relatively harmless pursuit, as long as it isn’t taken too seriously. Clearly, it isn’t, otherwise Romney’s Mormonism would be as big an issue as was Kennedy’s Catholicism. American religion's tenets are hazy at best -- something to do with self-actualization, or pantheism, or a reliance on the cuteness of pets to cheer one up -- and its adherents have no idea what Romney believes, so there's no reason for them to get excited. That's the claim, poot: today's religious brands aren't worth taking seriously at all. It's all generic feel-good fizz.

I don’t go to church anymore. But I still eat fish on Friday, cringe if I have to go shopping on Sundays, and make the sign of the cross when I pass a cemetery. When you kiss a bishop’s ring it marks you for life. Apostolic succession they called it -- the laying on of hands that goes back to Peter the fisherman. To me, this Romney's no bishop, and I wouldn’t vote for him for all the loot in his vault.

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