The history of Islam: part three

My first college roommate once asked me, “Do you know why we Arabs hate you Americans?”

I responded, “No, Mohamed, please tell me why you Arabs hate us Americans.”

“After World War II,” he informed me, “you helped rebuild your friends, Britain and France, and that made sense. You also helped rebuild your enemies, Germany and Japan, and that was strange. You helped everyone else in the world—you even helped the Jews get their own country—but you did nothing for us. That’s why we hate you today.”

It seems strange that a young man, born several years after the war ended and the rebuilding was accomplished, should carry a national grudge to the point of hatred. It also seems strange that, in spite of that hatred, he would travel to the United States to take classes in our schools. But Mohamed’s view of the United States reflects a reality found across the Muslim world over the past seventy years. (Bear in mind that, while most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs. Yet from Indonesia to Nigeria, the feelings expressed by my roommate are common.) For a time, the United States had become a world power, matched only by the Soviet Union. But Muslims had exercised political power in the world in the past, and they expect to rise to that level again.

Five hundred years ago, many Muslims lived in powerful Old World empires ruled by Muslims. The Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Moguls each were stronger and more advanced than any European government. Muslims could take credit for scientific and medical advances, for philosophical inquiries, for outstanding artistic accomplishments, and for revolutionary mathematics (such as algebra). But new things were happening in Europe: exploration of the world’s oceans bringing discovery of previously unknown lands, reformation of the Christian Church, a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution, and a philosophy that called itself the Enlightenment. On the political front, Enlightenment philosophy declared that all human beings are equal and that we all have rights; that government should be limited in power and should protect those rights; that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly; and that education provides a way to develop those freedoms and to establish that equality. Coupled with an economic movement called Capitalism, this philosophy was developed in western Europe, was tried in the thirteen United States of North America, and was eventually established in Europe and was transported around the world.

 As the Muslim empires lost political power, some leaders tried to imitate European ways, hoping to catch up to Europe’s scientific and industrial advances and to maintain their place on the world stage. Other Muslims said that Enlightenment philosophy was opposed to Shariah and the Qur’an; they would accept western science and technology, but not western ideas about freedom and equality. By the end of the first World War, the Muslim empires had collapsed. European governments—especially Britain and France—held political power over north Africa and west Asia. But, following the second World War, Britain and France began to divest themselves of their colonies. They recognized national governments in Africa and Asia, withdrawing their armed forces and seeking trade with their former colonies. Where Old World empires once had prevailed, now Third World nations were on the board, eyed by the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States offered freedom, democracy, and the benefits of capitalism. The Soviet Union offered stability, socialism, and a dream of world-wide Communism. Both sides in the Cold War looked at the Third World as a battleground for their ideas. Both sides assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If a government favored one side in the Cold War, opponents of that government were assumed to be fighting for the other side. The possibility of a third side that hated both Americans and Soviets seems to have escaped both Americans and Soviets during their conduct of the Cold War.

Eventually, the United States and its allies won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. China remained under the control of the Communist Party, but it turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism. Those few countries that cling to soviet-style socialism (North Korea and Cuba) are trapped in economic doldrums; those that embraced freedom and capitalism most fervently (such as Germany and Japan) became economic powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world remains skeptical about the value of freedom and democracy. Most are governed by a small elite. While they learned to play the economic game of capitalism, teasing industry’s thirst for oil to their enrichment, Muslim governments continued to try to balance Shariah against Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and education for all people. Well-to-do Muslim families in Asia and Africa have satellite dishes; they watch American television. They do not tune in to religious broadcasting or to documentaries on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No, they watch our entertainment shows. They have learned about life in the United States from Seinfeld and Friends, from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians. Given those examples, one can easily see why Muslims might question the benefits of freedom, democracy, and education for all people.

All Muslims are not the same. Many appreciate the United States and value what we are when we are at our best. Most do not wish harm upon us, so long as we leave them alone. But twenty years ago, a group of Muslim terrorists attacked the United States. They did not target churches; they worked to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They showed us what they reject about us: our obsession with worldly wealth and power, our display of human beings at their worst rather than at their best.

Before we hope to be a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, the United States must clean up its own act. We must learn to use freedom responsibly, to use education in a way that shapes better people, to devote our resources for meaningful purposes. We can do better than we have done. When we live up to our own standards of truth and justice and the American way, then we will be recognized as people who have something worth sharing. J.

Free to be stupid

ARE WE FREE TO BE STUPID? OR IS IT STUPID TO BE FREE?

Most political arguments boil down to questions of freedom and of human rights. Sometimes debate results from a conflict of rights. For example, does an unborn baby possess the right to life, or does his or her right to life begin only after birth, when it no longer depends directly on the support of his or her mother? Does a woman’s right to freedom allow her to do whatever she wishes to her own body—even to the point of killing a child developing within her body—or is her freedom limited by her child’s right to life? People who have made up their minds about such issues are sometimes unable to see the reasonable thinking that supports the opposing position.

As American citizens, we have freedom of speech. But that freedom is restricted. We are not free, for example, to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We are not free to threaten public leaders, or any person or group of people, with violence, or to call other people to attack them violently. Yet we are free to disagree with our leaders. We are free to contact them, to try to persuade them to exercise their authority in certain ways. We are free to support their political opponents and to try to persuade our fellow citizens to vote for those opponents. When support for a leader or a party is prohibited by law or attacked by powerful corporations that provide space for public statements, then democracy and freedom both suffer.

Part of the debate about freedom relates to the Social Contract. Citizens willingly limit their rights and freedoms to the government for the benefit of all citizens. The government builds roads, defines how the roads are to be used (speed limits and other traffic laws) and taxes the use of those roads (license fees, tolls, and fines for breaking the law, for example). Citizens use the roads. They might willingly break traffic laws. They might even avoid paying some of the required taxes. But, when those citizens are caught breaking the speed limit or driving with an expired license, the law punishes them with further fines and other penalties. We accept government control over the roads for the obvious benefit of safe and rapid transportation.

At some point, though, citizens begin to resist the restrictions made by their government, restrictions that are intended (at least on the surface) to benefit all citizens. People are required to wear seat belts and are fined if they are caught traveling unbuckled. This is supposed to protect those people and also to save the general public from sharing the medical costs of injuries to unbelted drivers and passengers when they suffer from a collision. Smoking tobacco is prohibited in many places, and taxes are placed on cigarettes to discourage smoking. Freedom to smoke is not entirely prohibited, but the government protects non-smoking citizens from second-hand smoke and, in general, uses its power and authority to discourage smoking.

How do issues of personal freedom and the Social Contract relate to the current virus crisis? For the good of all citizens, does any government (national, state, or local) have a right (or even a responsibility) to require all citizens to be vaccinated or to require all citizens to wear masks? Can these questions be answered by appealing to precedents set by the seatbelt debate or by the smoking debate? First, cigarettes can be taxed to discourage smoking, but no fair tax can be applied to people who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID or refuse to wear masks. Second, rapid transportation by car is a right that can be regulated by the government, including license fees and speed limits and even the use of seatbelts, but people are free to walk or ride bicycles or use public transportation; they do not need to travel by car if they dislike the regulations about transportation by car. But a law requiring vaccination, or even a law requiring masks, reaches beyond personal privilege into choices that should involve individual freedom, choices that should not be coerced by government rules and regulations.

Ironically, the labels pro-life and pro-choice that, for more than a generation, have applied to sides in the abortion debate appear to have flipped in the mask and vaccination debate. Regarding abortion, the conservative position is called pro-life because it defends a baby’s right to life, even before that baby has been born. The liberal position is called pro-choice because it defends a woman’s right to do as she chooses to her own body, even while that body supports the growth and development of a child. But now the conservative position regarding masks and vaccines can be called pro-choice. Citizens can choose whether to wear a mask. They can choose whether to receive a vaccine. The opposing position calls itself pro-life. It claims that lives are being lost to the virus, lives that would be spared if everyone wore a mask and if everyone received the vaccine.

Science is used to support both sides in the abortion debate, the seatbelt debate, the cigarette debate, the mask debate, and the vaccine debate. Once the debate has ended (as is the case with seatbelts and cigarettes), people remember the science that supported the winning side and forget the science that supported the losing side. While debates continue, people remember and quote scientific facts and statistics and observations on both sides of the debate. Science is used to support either side; science does not end the debate and declare a winning side and a losing side.

Freedom to smoke cigarettes, or freedom to ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt, might be described by some people as “freedom to be stupid.” When a debate is not settled, though, either side might consider the position of the opponent to be “stupid.” If national and state and local governments passed laws prohibiting all the behavior that some people consider “stupid,” no judge or lawyer would be able to remember all those laws, and no police force would be capable of enforcing all those laws. Rules and regulations generally address the most important choices and decisions, leaving people free to make a lot of decisions on their own, even at the risk that some people—probably most or all people—will, from time to time, make a stupid decision.

Because it is entwined with politics on the highest levels, debate about the current virus crisis has become highly enflamed, with both sides regarding their opponents as stupid. Some claim that thousands (or even millions) of lives are at stake; others reply that the freedom of all citizens is at stake. Some citizens prefer to live with a government that exercises close control of personal decisions, minimizing risks and protecting all citizens from any preventable danger. Other citizens prefer to live with a government that protects freedom, regulating only behavior that is so dangerous that it can rightly be labeled “criminal.” Inevitably, elected leaders must seek and establish a compromise that protects freedom as much as possible while also reducing danger to citizens as much as possible.

Given the choice, I lean toward freedom. I do not trust the government to monitor my life and to protect me from all the stupid decisions I might make. While the virus crisis is not the best arena to shape a national debate about personal freedom and government control, it happens to be the arena in which we stand today. While we await compromises reached by our elected leaders, I continue to wave the banner of freedom. After all, I have been taught to think for myself. I have been taught to question authority. Watching movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Footloose and The Matrix—not to mention Star Wars and Blues Brothers and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off—I have learned the important of remaining free, challenging the status quo, and defending my independence as a human being. That, my friends, is the battle we are fighting today. J.

God bless America

This weekend citizens of the United States of America celebrate the 245th birthday of our country. Plans are already being formed for our Sestercentennial, our 250th birthday celebration in 2026. Any year, the Fourth of July is a national holiday, a day to rejoice in the blessing of being Americans. We rejoice because our celebration commemorates, not a war or battle or military victory, but an idea. Our country was founded on the premise that all people are equal, that we possess human rights, that freedom benefits us all and is something worth celebrating and worth sharing with the rest of the world.

I am not ashamed of the United States of America. It is my country. I thank God for it, and I pray that God would continue to bless it. The USA is not perfect. Many times, we have fallen short of our goal of providing liberty and justice to all people. We cannot erase the mistakes of the past, but we can hold to our national principles and work for a better future. We learn how to work together as a nation, even though at times we disagree with one another. The America I love is based on certain truths. They may not be self-evident to all, although Thomas Jefferson once wrote that they are. But the truths of freedom, equality, and justice come from God, and these truths apply to all people, not just to some people.

Our human rights—call them life, liberty, and private property—are God-given rights. They do not come from our government. Instead, our government exists to protect and preserve those rights. If our government fails to do that fundamental job—if it ignores those rights or tries to rob us of those rights—we have an additional right to alter or replace that government. If each of us fought for our own personal rights, protecting our lives and liberty and property from one another, chaos would result. Therefore, we join together and respect a government that defends us from enemies abroad and enemies at home, from nations that oppose our freedom and criminals that would cheat us of what is ours. In defending our human rights, the government is consistent with God’s Ten Commandments, which protect (among other things) our lives, our marriages, our personal property, and our reputations from the sins of others.

In addition to protecting and defending these rights, the government also provides for the general welfare of its citizens. By common agreement of the majority, the government provides (on its own or with the cooperation of private organizations) highways and other transportation, hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, parks, and recreation facilities. Citizens willingly surrender land to build these facilities and tax dollars to operate them; then, citizens are free to use them or not use them. If the way these facilities are operated begins to infringe upon our rights as citizens, we are free (and obliged) to alter them or replace them. We elect leaders and advise those leaders about how many government services we require or desire and how much freedom and property we are willing to surrender for their existence. Although citizens disagree with one another about public services and about their funding, we continue to work together to form a functioning society, compromising when we must and convincing others when we can, doing what is best for ourselves and for our neighbors (never thinking only of ourselves and our individual wants and needs).

A truly just society protects and defends all human lives. Care for the young, the elderly, the sick, and the weak begins in the family. It extends into the community, especially into faith-based communities. The government might connect needy people with resources in their community; it might even supplement the help available some communities to protect and defend lives. As the government also seeks to protect and balance other human rights, a truly just government never overlooks the most basic human right, which is the right to life. When a child is born to parents who do not want him or her, or who are unable to care for him or her, connections can and should be made with families or other institutions who will provide that child with the care and upbringing he or she needs.

A truly just society keeps a watchful eye on medications and on other substances that may be abused to the harm of its members and their neighbors. The government does not prohibit substances that can be used safely, but it regulates the use of dangerous prescriptions, striving to ensure that they are prescribed and taken properly and safely. It prohibits all substances that cannot be used, even in moderate doses, without harm to the user. The government penalizes people who knowingly sell and distribute dangerous substances to the harm of others. At the same time, it connects addicts and other damaged persons with the care they need to recover from their problems and overcome their addictions. Meanwhile, moderate and appropriate use of those substances that can be consumed safely is not prohibited or penalized. Lawmakers must keep themselves informed of the latest research regarding medicines and other dangerous substances.

A truly just society protects its citizens from criminals bearing dangerous weapons without restricting the right of law-abiding people to own weapons. Once again, law-makers will need to be informed about what weapons are available, what persons are shown to be at high risk for access to such weapons, and what provisions can be made for care and treatment of those who might be dangerous due to poor health rather than due to criminal intent. No doubt compromises will need to be reached between the extremes of comprehensive gun control and unlimited access to weapons. These compromises might be accomplished on a regional basis rather than at a national level.

A truly just society protects and defends marriages, which are best defined as one man and one woman who have made a lifetime commitment to love and support and honor each other. Along the way, a government might help to preserve friendships without judging the quality of those friendships or interfering with their privacy. Where marriages do not exist, friends should be allowed to share their property with one another, to make friends their heirs, and to give friends legal rights of visitation while sick, representation in financial matters, and the like. Sexuality is—and should remain—a private matter, not a concern of the government. Sexual interests and preferences should not be material for public discussion and debate. Even while defending freedom of speech and expression, governments should be allowed (on a local level) to limit and restrict discussion and description of matters that are considered private and personal, offensive, or obscene. Families, businesses, and other community organizations should be allowed to block broadcasts and transmissions into their property of material that violate their private and personal values.

I cannot imagine, let alone defend, a society that encourages and perpetuates confusion about gender. The vast majority of people are born with information that they are either male or female recorded in their chromosomes contained in every cell of their bodies. They are born with organs that match that chromosomal information. Rather than permitting or encouraging people to attempt expensive surgery, hormonal treatment, and therapy to change their gender, society should help people to accept and embrace the genders with which they were born. The tiny percentage of people born with a birth defect causing genuine confusion deserves medical and therapeutic help. The rest of us accept the bodies we were given and help others to do the same. People before, during, and shortly after puberty already face enough challenges, including confusion about who they are as male or female. Permitting, even encouraging, them to contemplate changing their gender at such a time only magnifies trouble and confusion; it solves nothing.

A truly just society allows successful entrepreneurs to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but a truly just society also does not force other citizens to remain trapped in poverty. Taxes that support the work of the government remain fair for all people, not robbing the rich to give to the poor, nor lining the pockets of government bureaucrats. Assistance to the poor begins in the family and community but is supplemented by government assistance when needed. Such assistance may include temporary provision of food and shelter, but it also includes education and job training, access to information about available jobs, and community renewal. Employers are encouraged through government incentives to create jobs, to train and educate workers, and to provide those workers with benefits beyond their hourly salary. Help that flows from the centralized government is applied at a local level by resident citizens who perceive how best to assist their neighbors and improve the quality of life for their city, neighborhood, and the surrounding area.

A truly just society places few limits on the freedom of speech and expression. Deliberately dangerous and harmful communication is regulated, as are deliberate and harmful slander, libel, and other lies. Beyond these few limitations, governments allow communities to set and enforce their own standards of speech and public discourse. People can ignore messages that are obscene, hateful, or otherwise provocative. Open discussion of political matters is encouraged, not limited or censored. Artists of every kind are allowed to practice their arts, as their communities recognize and reward talent while ignoring and marginalizing poor and inappropriate expressions described as art. Companies that distribute individual expressions internationally are not permitted to censor their contributors on the grounds of political opinion or other controversial standards. Such companies have the right to limit obscenity, incitement to violence, or deliberate falsehoods, but beyond such limitations their control over the work of their customers is restricted.

A truly just society values all its members. Therefore, it celebrates all the cultures represented among its members. Each member of such a society is encouraged to have pride in his or her cultural background, to celebrate that background, and (as appropriate) to share the treasures of that background with others. Schools, libraries, and museums help to teach members of the community about its diverse cultures and their customs. Laws prohibit discrimination against any persons on the grounds of their cultural background, including their appearance and their native language or dialect. No culture is treated as better than any other; no culture is treated as worse than any other. Historic inequities are handled by enforcing anti-discrimination laws and by providing equal opportunity to all persons, beginning with quality education made available to all children in every community. Injustices of the past are acknowledged, but they are not cast as weapons to create or perpetuate war between two or more cultures.

The United States of America can be a truly just society. We began an experiment respecting and preserving human rights nearly 250 years ago. We have made regular strides in the expansion of human rights since that beginning. We have not arrived at our goal yet, nor will we do so completely while living in an imperfect world. But, as one of our Presidents has said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” We should love our country, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We should continue to work together to preserve what is good in our country and to cure whatever ails in our country. We need citizens and leaders who love and respect all that America stands for, citizens and leaders who honor all that America works to achieve. Together, we can take what is good, and we can make it even better. God bless each of you, and God bless America. J.

Socialism, totalitarianism, and the Cold War

In the aftermath of the Great War (that is, World War I) came the Great Depression. These combined perils caused the citizens of several countries to surrender their individual rights to their governments, hoping in return to obtain economic security, national pride, and protection from hostile forces within and beyond their countries’ borders. In Russia, Lenin’s Bolsheviks became Stalin’s Communist Party. In Italy, the Fascist Party rose under Mussolini; in Germany, the Nazi Party rose under Hitler. All three parties exercised totalitarianism, government control of the population that restricted freedom and human rights, controlled communication, and punished citizens who disagreed with the government’s policies.

Earlier dictators may have wished for totalitarian control of their countries, but twentieth century technology opened avenues to government power that had not previously existed. Governments could exercise total control over the printed word of newspapers, magazines, and books. They could exercise total control over spoken word of radio broadcasts. They could monitor private communication between citizens that used the postal service or the telephone. Rapid communication made control of schools easier than earlier times. Teachers were required to spread government propaganda in their classrooms and to report to the government any dissent represented among their students or noticed in the families of their students.

Stalin’s government was openly socialist—the official name of the country was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Hitler and Mussolini did not advocate socialist economies. Meanwhile, the United States government, led by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, offered New Deal that increased government participation in the economy but did not directly threaten individual freedoms. Communication and education were not totally controlled by the government. Citizens were not arrested for openly disagreeing with government policies.

The Second World War defeated the Nazis and Fascists without overthrowing Stalin’s Communist Party. The Soviet Union was permitted to set up totalitarian governments and socialist economies in several nations, from Poland and East Germany to North Korea. Shortly thereafter, Mao’s Communist Party won control over most of China, establishing a government that was also totalitarian and socialist. The Cold War had begun. On one side of the Cold War stood totalitarian and socialist governments promising a Communist world when they had prevailed. On the other side stood democratic and capitalist governments promising a free world when they had prevailed. The rhetoric was more stark than the reality. Many allies of the United States maintained dictatorships rather than democracies, and some American allies in Europe experimented with socialist economies.

The “Communist” governments during the Cold War portrayed capitalists as a wealthy and powerful minority who crushed the majority of their fellow citizens, forcing them to work long hard hours for insufficient wages, forcing them to live in substandard housing with little medical care or hygiene, and denying them any real control of the political process that ran their lives. The “Free” governments during the Cold War portrayed communists as radical subversives, trying to overthrow the established order to take control, abolish religion, end all freedom, and enslave the entire world.

Democratic socialism and dictatorial capitalism were quietly ignored. Yet the stereotype of the “godless Communist,” as described by leaders in the “free world,” contained truth despite their exaggerations. During the decades of the Cold War, capitalist nations thrived while socialist nations struggled. As the standard of living rose in capitalist nations, so did individual freedoms. Dictatorships were replaced by democracies. Meanwhile, the totalitarian socialist governments regularly had to crush opposition with military force. People fled totalitarian socialist nations for free capitalist nations, forcing the former to build walls to contain their own people. Even China eventually chose to reestablish a capitalist economy, while remaining under control of a totalitarian government that still identified itself as the Communist Party.

Thirty years since the Cold War ended, its rhetoric and its reality continue to shape politics in the United States and around the world. American families who escaped totalitarian socialist governments in Poland, East Germany, China, Vietnam, and Cuba remain suspicious of politicians who speak well of socialism or who advocate greater government control of the American economy. Freedom, democracy, and capitalism remain linked in the minds of many people. Old pictures of capitalistic oppression, once fostered by the Soviet Union and its allies, are sometimes reiterated in political debate in the twenty-first century. Some American citizens, especially younger people born after the Cold War, sometimes forget why our side prevailed in that conflict. But advocates of socialism are rightly portrayed as isolated, huddling in the cold, bundled to resist reality while they continue to call for an economic system that has never worked.

Although democratic socialism exists as an option, it contains more threats to freedom than capitalism contains. Government control over prices and wages reduces freedom. Government decisions about which products to produce reduces freedom. As silly as it may seem, freedom to choose among dozens of brands of toothpaste or coffee or beer is far better than a single, mass-produced, government-controlled monopoly of toothpaste or coffee or beer. One free pair of shoes given each citizen once a year can never satisfy the human spirit as well as freedom to choose among many kinds of shoes, spending one’s own hard-earned money for the shoes one truly prefers.

The pendulum of politics swings to the left and then to the right. Free elections often reveal massive divisions of philosophy within a national population. True freedom allows both sides to state their case and invites voters to choose between them. Those who gain power cannot maintain their grasp indefinitely; the tighter they cling to power, the more it slips from between their fingers. Reversals happen, but the long course of history shows that freedom prevails over tyranny.  The future of America and of the world is bright, because free people will always work to remain free. J.

Ethics, government, and the economy

Should a human government follow the ethical principles described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? The answer, in a word, is, no.

Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek and to go the extra mile, to forgive those who sin against them and do good to those who persecute them. But the government is established by God to protect its citizens, to punish those who do wrong, to uphold the law. Instead of forgiving the sinner, the government must punish the wrongdoer, “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” rendering justice on behalf of all its people.

During the Baroque Era (or Enlightenment), European philosophers described human rights and said that governments exist to protect those rights. John Locke wrote about rights to life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, writing the Declaration of Independence, would fudge the third right to “pursuit of happiness.”) Governments protect the rights of their citizens—they take life only from enemies who attack the country or from the worst of criminals who threaten the lives of others. Governments protect the liberty of their citizens, only depriving criminals of freedom, and then only for a term that fits the crime. Governments protect the property of their citizens. They may claim some property as fines for misdemeanors, other property as fees for services, other property as taxes, and still other property to provide services such as roads. In general, though, governments take no more than they must take from their citizens. When they become overbearing, when they stop respecting the rights of their citizens, the citizens are entitled to change their government, to find new leaders who will respect and protect their rights.

Philosophers spoke of a social contract between citizens and their government. Citizens agree among themselves what they want the government to do, and they use their property and their energy to help the government accomplish these goals. If citizens want public schools, they agree to pay taxes to support those schools, and they agree to send their children to those schools. For protection from foreign enemies and domestic criminals, citizens are willing to limit some of their own freedoms and property. For other services from the government, some citizens are willing to accept further limits. Among any group of citizens, a range of opinions will be found: some want the government to do more, and they are willing to pay more for those government services; others want to cede less to the government, and in return they are happy to receive fewer government services.

To some Americans (including Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton), some problems are so big that only the government can address them. To other Americans (including Ronald Reagan), the government is the biggest problem and life improves when government is reduced and limited. Pure capitalism demands that the government not involve itself in the economy—capitalists say laissez-faire, leave it alone. Even Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations acknowledged that some government regulation is necessary for the good of all citizens. Under socialism, the government controls more aspects of its citizens’ lives; in return, it demands more property and restricts more freedom of those citizens. In a free market economy, the government regulates what must be regulated but leaves more freedom and more property in the hands of its citizens.

The question remains: which economic system is better for all the citizens of a nation: socialism, or a free market economy? J.

Thanksgiving patrol

Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. Since I’m a writer, that can be a good thing. Stories come from the question, “What if?” and some of those stories are worth sharing. Others belong in the trash bin. This is one of those stories.

I imagine the local police patrolling the neighborhood this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. When they spot a house with several cars parked outside, they look more closely. Especially if they see out-of-state plates, they call for back up… and then they invade. For the good of the people, they arrest those violators of quarantine and put them in a special holding cell for the next fourteen days. Those who remain healthy are released, free to go about their business. Those who fall ill remain in quarantine until they are cured.

Can’t happen, you say? Impossible in this country? Do you remember Elian Gonzalez?

Twenty years ago, Elian, with his mother and some other relatives, escaped from Communist Cuba and fled by boat to the United States. Elain’s mother drowned during the attempt, but Elian, with other members of the family survived, and they found homes with family already living in Florida. The United States government decided that it was in the best interest of Elian to be taken away from his relatives in the United States and returned to his father in Cuba. On Easter morning they entered the house where he was staying, seized him, removed him, and started him back toward Cuba.

No, I don’t see the police and the National Guard patrolling our neighborhoods this Thanksgiving, breaking into houses and seizing families gathered to celebrate the holiday. It won’t happen—not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But, considering all that has happened this year and all that could happen, I can imagine. I can imagine Americans calling the police to report Thanksgiving gatherings next door, then watching from behind the curtains as the house across the street is entered and the scofflaws gathered and taken away. I can imagine church services raided and ministers and congregants rounded off to prison for breaking quarantine regulations. I can imagine all this justified by the need to overcome the virus crisis and return the country to normal… whatever normal will be like after such things have happened.

It will not happen. This is just my imagination running wild. But American citizens have a responsibility to continue to treasure and protect freedom so that stories like mine remain unthinkable in our land. J.

We remember

The primary national holiday of the United States of America is the Fourth of July, Independence Day. This holiday remembers, not a military battle or victory, but a document and the ideas it contains. The Declaration of Independence solemnly states that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” namely, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But a nation based upon ideas must still exist on the world stage, where wars and violent attacks are a way of life. Our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, remembers a British attack upon Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. This anthem is the first stanza of a four-stanza poem written by Francis Scott Key, who observed the shelling on September 13 and 14 of 1814 and saw that the national flag (at that time consisting of fifteen stripes and fifteen stars) was still flying at the end of the attack. Since that time, Americans have challenged one another to remember the Alamo, remember Gettysburg, remember the Maine, remember the Lusitania, remember Pearl Harbor, and remember 9-11. We also remember non-military tragedies, including the Hindenburg, the Titanic, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

These events loom in our mind as landmarks of history. We commemorate the lives lost, and we consider how our nation has responded to the attacks of our enemies. The sinking of the Lusitania and the bombing of Pearl Harbor were strategic military actions, but they drew us into World Wars. The terrorist attack of 9-11, on the other hand, was a deliberate act to oppose the ideas upon which the United States is based. Those who attacked were opposed to freedom, particularly freedom of religion and freedom of expression. They were opposed to the principles of human rights and the equality of all people. They chose the World Trade Center as a target because they fear economic opportunity which brings with it exposure to the American ideas of freedom, democracy, and liberty.

The War on Terror is different from the World Wars. In the World Wars we could identify our enemies, target their forces, and move toward victory in just a few years. Fighting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS required different strategies and different goals. What is now America’s longest war remains a defense of liberty and freedom. We seek to preserve these ideas for ourselves, and we also offer them to all the people of the world.

We prevailed in the Cold War because our ideas were better than the ideas of the Soviet Union and its allies. We will prevail in the War on Terror because our ideas are better than those of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Military strength alone does not win wars; it provides, at best, temporary victories. The final victory belongs to those who are defending what is good and opposing what is evil.

We will not forget the three thousand victims of 9-11. We will not forget the police officers and fire fighters who fell while rushing into danger to save others. We will not forget the passengers of Flight 93 who refused to allow the airplane which held them to be used as a weapon against their country. They inspire us to continue to treasure the ideas for which our country stands. They inspire us to continue to support all those who battle to protect our nation and its principles. They inspire us to continue to pray for God’s blessings on our land and on all who live here. J.

Happy Independence Day!

One of the great things about Independence Day is that our primary national holiday celebrates a document and the ideas it contains. The holiday does not commemorate a military victory or the storming of a castle—it commemorates equality and the God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When I was a boy, my parents and I would drive three miles to the county seat to see the Fourth of July parade. The parade included bands, floats, politicians, old cars, fire trucks, horses, and various other elements, following one another in an order that seemed almost random. (They didn’t want two bands competing for attention, so of course they dispersed the other elements between the bands. Beyond that, I don’t think there was too much order to the selections.) The fire trucks blared their sirens and honked their horns, creating a cacophony that was painful to my sensitive ears—they were my least favorite part of the parade. But in general I enjoyed the experience, the sense of celebration that marchers and onlookers shared on that day.

After the parade we would return home, eat lunch, and often pull some weeds from the vegetable garden. Then, after supper, as evening approached, we would return to the county seat for the fireworks. These were at the fairgrounds, only about half as far from home as the downtown parade, so sometimes we would walk to the show instead of driving. (And, given the traffic tie-ups following the show, we probably got home sooner by foot than we would have achieved in the car.) I liked the big candles that splashed color across half the sky; I hated the ones that gave just a white flash of light and a loud bang. Those hurt my ears as badly as the fire truck sirens in the parade. But I never thought of asking to stay home from the fireworks show—it was simply something we did every year, a family tradition for the Fourth of July.

Later this afternoon, I will get out the charcoal grill and get it started. Then I will cook hamburgers and bratwursts for the family. We also have fruit salad, cucumber salad, three-bean salad, corn on the cob, and red-white-and-blue Jello on the menu. As evening approaches, the rest of the family will head downtown to the riverside, where they will hear the orchestra play and watch the fireworks. Me, I’m exercising my freedom to stay home and watch a movie. Crowds and loud noises do not set well with me. A quiet evening at home is more my style.

Tomorrow it’ll be back to work (although a lot of people have managed to create a four-day weekend). We will be just as independent and just as free, but the celebration will have ended. A faint whiff of gunpowder may still linger in the air. I’ll likely have left-over bratwurst and salads packed for lunch. And so it goes, on into the heat of summer. J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part one

During Memorial Day weekend, Americans take time to remember the men and women of our armed forces who lost their lives on battlefields defending our security and our freedom. Originally established to remember the casualties of the Civil War—both Union and Confederate—the holiday has expanded to remember our losses in all wars, including the World Wars, the Cold War battles in Korea, Vietnam, and other places, and the battles of the ongoing War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

I teach history, and I have noticed that accounts of the Vietnam War in college textbooks and other sources are often incomplete, faulty, and biased. Media coverage of the war while it was being fought had the same faults, with the result that those who write history today often rely on unreliable material for their information. Whenever we reach the Vietnam War in my college history classes, I give a brief lecture on the war, its causes and its results. My lecture differs significantly from what students read in their textbooks; I encourage them to do more research on their own before they make up their minds what to believe about Vietnam.

When European nations were colonizing the rest of the world, the French government decided to claim territory in southeast Asia. The land was called Indochina because it is roughly halfway between India and China when traveling by boat. Like other colonial powers, the French claimed the land so they could harvest its raw materials (including the labor of its inhabitants) and control harbors for trading posts and military bases. Earlier, parts of Indochina had belonged to the Chinese Empire, and Chinese culture had a large influence on the people of Indochina, although they were not Chinese.

The French continued to hold Indochina during the First World War. They continued to draw on the land for supplies, and they also conscripted the people of Indochina as support personnel for French troops. When the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson stated fourteen goals of our government for the world following the end of the war. The goals included self-determination—the right of people everywhere to choose their own government—and independence for Europe’s colonies. But no such freedom was given to colonies in Asia and Africa after the war.

During the Second World War Japan claimed the French colony of Indochina after France had been invaded by Germany. The people of Indochina resisted the Japanese Empire. One of the leaders of their resistance was Ho Chi Minh. He had been trained in the Soviet Union as a revolutionary, and he used his training to resist the Japanese. Meanwhile, President Franklin Roosevelt met with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Yalta to discuss how the world would be governed after the defeat of Germany and Japan. One of the agreements these three leaders made was that European colonies would be granted independence some time after the war ended.

To be continued… J.

May Day and Christian freedom

The first day of May is roughly half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. For more than two thousand years, this date has been marked by celebrations in Europe and in North America. Romans marked Floralia, Celts observed Beltane, and Germans commemorated Walpurgis on or near this date. While many neopagans try to restore these ancient celebrations, some Christian groups make the day an occasion to remember Mary the mother of Jesus and/or Joseph her husband. Meanwhile labor groups, socialists, and communists all mark the first of May as International Workers’ Day.

For some people in North America, the expression “May Day” is associated with a call for help, since the same syllables spoken in French mean, “Help me.” In one May Day tradition, children or families leave baskets of flowers or sweet treats by the front doors of their neighbors or their friends. Another involves dancing around a pole while winding colorful streamers around that pole to celebrate the springtime. About the only May Day celebration I observe is to set the alarm to awaken me with a song for May Day, “The Merry Month of May,” from the musical Camelot.

A few Christians are opposed to any event or ceremony remembering a date once used to honor pagan gods. Drawing inspiration from God’s prohibition of mixing Canaanite religious practices with the worship of the true God, such Christians oppose even Christmas trees and Easter eggs. They fear that such worldly traditions dilute the meaning of Christian beliefs. They note that most of the earliest Christian communities established in North America ignored–and in some cases banned–the celebration of Christmas. In particular, the maypole appears to resemble the Asherah pole of the Canaanites. God’s prophets severely criticized those Israelites who took part in the custom of the Asherah pole.

Clearly, any effort to honor any god other than the true God is idolatry. Christians should oppose efforts to revive ancient religions, be they Greek and Roman, Celtic and Germanic, Egyptian, Babylonian, or Canaanite. Does this mean, though, that any practice even remotely associated with false religion must be banned among Christians? Does God’s Old Testament position against the Canaanites mean that Christians today should be like the Taliban and ISIS, destroying historic treasures and works of art because they were created to honor false gods?

Paul told the Colossians, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16). Although the immediate context of those words applies more to Jewish holidays such as the Passover, I am convinced that Paul would say the same thing about Christmas trees, Easter eggs, carved pumpkins, and even maypoles. Paul proclaimed Christian freedom. He counseled that such freedom be practiced with restraint, that love for one another should prevail over doing what one is free to do. But Jesus can be honored with traditions that once had pagan meanings. Nothing in creation is so tainted by false religion that it cannot be reinterpreted to proclaim the true message of the Living God.

For Paul, the test case involved meat sold in city markets. That meat generally had first been offered on an altar to a pagan God. Paul did not forbid Christians to buy and eat such meat. He told the Romans and the Corinthians that each believer should follow his or her conscience. Those who feared that buying and eating such meat honored a false god should not buy and eat it. Those who saw that meat is meat and it did not matter where it had been were free to buy and eat. Paul added, though, that those who were untroubled by the past history of the meat should not eat it in the presence of those who were troubled. Out of love for fellow Christians, one should abstain from eating meat when those Christians are around. In their absence, freedom to eat meat was not restricted.

Many aspects of modern life seem tainted to some Christians. Because their consciences are troubled, fellow Christians lovingly limit their freedom to partake of worldly pleasures in the presence of those who are troubled. No kind person would drink wine or beer in the presence of a recovering alcoholic, one still struggling to resist the temptation to drink to excess. In the same way, any Christian is free to enjoy rock music, Harry Potter books and movies, Dungeons and Dragons, dancing, playing card games, or anything else that is not specifically prohibited by God’s commandments. A Christian is free to decorate a Christmas tree, color and hide Easter eggs, carve pumpkins for Halloween, and even celebrate May Day–so long as that Christian is careful not to offend others by these celebrations.

Christ’s victory over evil has set us free from the power of evil. As the redeemed, we are the property of God, and we wish to do nothing that brings shame to his name. Bear in mind, though, that Christians bring shame to God’s name by legalism, defining Christianity by rules and regulations rather than by free forgiveness and purifying grace. To the pure, all things are pure. Any Christian is free to fast–to deny one’s self alcoholic beverages or meat or rock music or books about magicians–but no Christian is free to demand the same fast from others. Whatever we do, we do it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, bringing glory to God through his name. J.