Understanding American Enthusiasms

It was the radical sixties – college days – and some of us were stuck in the middle of Ohio. There was no trekking off to San Francisco with flowers in our hair – whoever had a car could get us to dull, nearby Newark, for near beer or, as a treat, it was off to Columbus, at least an hour away. That would have to do. We were in Granville – not the center of the hypothetical revolution – at a quite good liberal arts college, but it was mostly filled with frat boys and young ladies with stiff hair and a circle pin on that white Oxford-cloth blouse. Those rebels who challenged convention – and the would-be intellectuals – were few, and had to stick together. 

 

And the farms stretched out from the edge of campus forever, or so it seemed. So there we were, in what they call the formative years, trying to figure out all of life and where we fit – and what we could change, and what we couldn’t. We were young Americans in the heart of America. What we saw around us on campus was those who would become conservative Republican businessmen, dentists and doctors. They would settle down and raise families, and do what they did in the Ozzie and Harriet lives – fine, they seemed happy enough with that. But they wouldn’t be reading Hunter Thompson or Marx, or joining communes, or eating tofu, or hitchhiking through Greece, or taking to the streets to change end the war and change things. In the middle of Ohio there were only a few such folks, soon gone – and they were the ones who thought they saw things as there were in United States.

 

The few were the idealists, full of their readings of American history and psychology and philosophy, who wanted to make things better, somehow. The many were those who thought things were just fine. What was the problem? They thought we were crazy. Maybe we were.

 

And the working farms surrounded us – that was where the no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth folk plowed the dark dirt and fed the world. They had no use for theory, one way or the other. There was work to do. The college on the hill was a curiosity. They were indifferent to whatever happened up there.

 

Few of us in those days ever drove north, into the heart of that third world. But if you took North Street – Route 661 – you’d be in that world. The low roll of the land would take up through Homer – an intersection with maybe then buildings – and 661 would turn into Granville Road, then, finally, into Main Street, Mount Vernon, Ohio, a small city that may have been the real America. Mount Vernon is the birthplace of Daniel Decatur Emmett – the man who wrote “Dixie” and “Old Dan Tucker” and, some say, “Turkey in the Straw.” He’s buried Mound View Cemetery there. Mount Vernon is also the birthplace of a Hollywood star, Paul Lynde, a funny fellow of questionable sexual orientation – a bit of a flaming queen, actually. He’s buried in nearby Amity, Ohio – embarrassment perhaps.

 

To give you a sense of the town, although Kenyon College is nearby, in Gambier, Mount Vernon’s one college is Mount Vernon Nazarene University, an evangelical school all about one’s mission, and fulfilling it. Back in 1965, Look Magazine named Mount Vernon an “All American City” – and they may have been right, given the importance of the religious right in American life in the last decades. And in 1994 Mount Vernon was named “Ohio’s Most Livable Community” by Ohio Magazine – but that sort of depends on how you feel about nostalgia for the good times of the Confederacy and earnest young folks with Bibles in their hands at your door on a Saturday morning.

 

And it seems things haven’t changed much in Mount Vernon in the last forty years. From the Associated Press, Friday, June 20, 2008, this:

 

The school board of a small central Ohio community voted unanimously Friday to fire a teacher accused of preaching his Christian beliefs despite staff complaints and using a device to burn the image of a cross on students’ arms.

 

School board members voted 5-0 to fire Mount Vernon Middle School science teacher John Freshwater. Board attorney David Millstone said Freshwater is entitled to a hearing to challenge the dismissal.

 

Okay, he’s a wildly popular teacher, and kept a Bible on his desk for twenty years, but branding his students with a cross seems to have been a bit much, even for Mount Vernon. There’s the section of Handle’s Messiah, Are We Like Sheep? No one ever mentioned anything about branding the sheep with a hot iron.

 

There’s a bit more. See the Mount Vernon News:

 

The investigators found that Freshwater: Used a high-frequency generator to make the shape of a cross into the arm of eighth-grade students; consistently failed to adhere to established curriculum under the American Content Standards for eighth-grade science and taught religious beliefs in his classroom; exceeded the statutorily imposed limitations of a monitor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; and was insubordinate in his deliberate failure to remove all religious articles from his classroom.

 

Elsewhere – say Atlanta or Boston – the guy would be in jail. But in Mount Vernon they have a public uproar to deal with. Read the comment thread in that local newspaper – they take their Christianity seriously, and some blame Barack Obama for the authorities coming down so hard on this Man of Christ. He did nothing wrong – he’s not Jeremiah Wright after all. He loves America.

 

Ohio is an odd place. All of us counterculture types left.

 

Or maybe it’s not an odd place. Religion is something many take serious. See Alex Koppelman in Salon with Bloomberg: “Let’s call those rumors what they are: Lies” – as it seems that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, speaking to a Jewish group in South Florida on Friday, “may have done Barack Obama a big favor.”

 

Koppelman notes that the reports that Obama may have a problem winning Jewish voters seem to be overblown, but “as the 2000 election showed, every vote in South Florida’s Jewish community is potentially important for a candidate trying to win the state.” The rumors about Obama may be hurting him. Bloomberg will have none of that:

 

As I’m sure many of you know, there are plenty of emails floating around the Internet targeting Jewish voters and saying that Senator Obama is secretly a Muslim, and a radical one at that. Let’s call those rumors what they are: lies. They are cloaked in concern for Israel, but the real concern is about partisan politics. Israel is just being used as a pawn, which is not that surprising, since some people are willing to stoop to any level to win an election.

 

These demagogues are hoping to exploit the political differences between the Jewish and Muslim people to spread fear and mistrust. This is wedge politics at its worst, and we’ve got to reject it – loudly, clearly, and unequivocally. And how can we as a people not speak out against demagoguery and stereotype and whisper campaigns? Of all people, we know how hurtful these forces can be. We know the evils they can stir up and the violence they can inflame.

 

… In this election, we must all stand up to this whisper campaign against Senator Obama. That’s because it threatens to undo the enormous strides that Jews and Muslims have made together in this country — and the enormous strides that Jews and African-Americans have made together.

 

Bloomberg should visit Mount Vernon – this religious stuff can get out of hand. It does no one any good.

 

Jason Zengerle also covers the Bloomberg remarks at the New Republic – “Lord knows Joe Lieberman will be spending a lot of time in South Florida for John McCain. Maybe Bloomberg can do the same for Obama.” Well, Lieberman will do just that – there’s then the Orthodox and Reformed at loggerheads. It gets complicated.

 

Oh, and add sex to the mix. It gets even more complicated. See Greg Mitchell, the man who runs Editor and Publisher, in the Huffington Post with Coming on Sunday from the New York Time: Charlie Crist’s Personal Life. It seems one of those who could be McCain’s vice presidential choice might be gay:

 

With Florida Governor Charlie Crist now being seriously floated as a VP candidate for John McCain, all those old rumors that the longtime bachelor may be gay have gained new currency – along with reports about Crist dating several women. For this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon coyly sort of raises that issue at the very end.

 

Solomon kicks it off by stating, “Your personal life is not that of a typical Republican candidate. For starters, I hear you’re” – wait for it – “not a property owner.” Crist replies, “It is true. I do not own property.”

 

Solomon then moves on to, “You were married nearly 30 years ago, but the marriage lasted less than a year. Do you prefer” – wait for it - “living alone?” Crist: “I got married and divorced because it didn’t work out. I haven’t found the right one since.” Of course, the use of the word “one” will be parsed for days.

 

Charlie Crist (not Christ), by all accounts, has been an effective and popular governor, and could help carry the state for McCain – and now we get this.

 

He’s toast. He’s not Mount Vernon material. You know how that side thinks. See Michael Savage – “The children’s minds are being raped by the homosexual mafia, that’s my position. They’re raping our children’s minds.”

 

Case closed. Move on, folks – nothing to see here.

 

Oh, and add pornography to the mix. It gets even more complicated.

 

Andrew Sullivan here follows the dialog over something said on Fox News by some self-styled sex expert, that viewing pornography in any form when you’re married, or attached, is a form of adultery – “They assume their partner understands that using porn, at least beyond a magazine like Playboy, is the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

 

The dialog starts off with Julian Sanchez here saying that he thinks this is “obviously insane.” But Sullivan’s friend Ross Douthat doesn’t think it’s that very insane:

 

Hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

 

And then there’s Will Wilkinson responding to Douthat:

 

I think this only makes sense from the perspective of a once almost universal, now simply common, and in any case very silly assumption that sex with a spouse is the one permissible form of sex. So, any deviation from that one case of good sex is some grade of bad sex.

 

Sullivan himself says this:

 

The reason Ross is unpersuasive to me is that the core sin of adultery, from where I sit, is infidelity with another actual person. The physical absence of such makes a huge difference. But then I’m a dissident on sexual matters as far as the Catholic Church is concerned and Ross isn’t. His view is coherent, if a little, to my mind, strained.

 

And one of Sullivan’s readers makes it even more complicated:

 

It strikes me that Ross bases his argument on the assumption that the porn watching offends the non-watching partner. In that case I can understand his claim that the watching constitutes a form of adultery, though I strongly disagree. Surely it is, at most, an act of dishonesty – one that has to be weighed against the right to privacy that persists even within the closest of relationships.

 

But, of course, his original assumption doesn’t hold in many cases. I watch porn; so does my girlfriend – sometimes together, sometimes alone. Individually, it’s a turn-on; mutually, a happy addition to our sex lives. We’re hardly unique. The key is that we both know about the other’s porn-watching and heartily approve of it. There’s no betrayal involved. There’s friendship. And some other delightful things that also begin with F.

 

More broadly, Ross’s stance raises the question of what constitutes an adult relationship. Images on paper or screen cannot possibly form the basis of a relationship, adult or otherwise; and without a relationship, surely there can be no adultery. More importantly, his stance would force “offending” porn-watchers to one of two conclusions: continued deception of their partner – a sort of sexual stealing-from-the-cookie-jar – or submission to their partner’s sense of propriety – what we used to call peer pressure. Both are infantilizing.

 

They don’t discuss such things in Mount Vernon. It makes the scar branded on their arms – that cross – burn.

 

What about those who left Ohio? What do the rebels and intellectual of the sixties, now academics far from Ohio, think of all this stuff about religion and morals and God?

 

See Rick Hills:

 

Just a few days ago, I was discussing a mutual friend with a former colleague. The latter was astonished by our mutual friend’s Christianity: “What’s up with that?!” he exclaimed, expressing bewilderment and even nervousness at the thought that a well-regarded – indeed, by academic standards, famous – professor could believe in the existence and beneficence of an omniscient and omnipotent God. It was as if our Christian friend had declared that the world was flat or was dabbling in alchemy. My former colleague even worried that, if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything – attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.

 

Then see the UCLA Law Professor, Eugene Volokh, here, amused that Hills goes on to label this attitude “theophobia” and explains why he disagrees with it. Hills reasoning seem to be that “there is no obviously persuasive reason to believe that religious belief as such has any more harmful consequences than lack thereof.”

 

Volokh has his own views:

 

I tend to agree that fear of religious belief as such (as opposed to of specific religious beliefs) is probably unjustified, for the factual reasons Hills mentions.

 

But I take it that many irreligious people who are bewildered by others’ religious beliefs aren’t afraid of the beliefs so much as they find them factually unfounded – much like they would find beliefs in astrology, ghosts, werewolves, or for that matter the Greco-Roman pantheon to be factually unfounded. For that matter, I take it that even many Christian academics would disapprove – on empiricist rather than theological grounds – of those who say they believe in Zeus, Xenu, the Zodiac, or vampires. Why should we be surprised that irreligious academics would take the same view, but as to factual claims of the existence of God as well as to the other factual claims?

 

Yep, unlike in Mount Vernon, this world is filled with empiricists. We like reality:

 

So perhaps what Prof. Hills is seeing is more disapproval of those who are seen as unduly willing to believe in what the disapproving person sees as fairy tales, rather than disapproval of those who are seen as morally or practically threatening.

 

In the comments section Ilya Somin adds this:

 

Martin Luther King is a hero to most liberal academics even though he was a Christian minister. Barack Obama’s open religiosity doesn’t seem to have hurt his image among academics either. The late Robert Drinan was a prominent left-wing law professor and also an ordained Catholic priest. His religion doesn’t seem to have attracted any significant academic hostility.

 

On the other side of the ledger, I know of a considerable number of conservative and libertarian academics – myself included – who are atheists or agnostics. As far as I can tell, the hostility that we sometimes encounter in the academic world because of our political views is not significantly reduced by our lack of religiosity.

 

So it really doesn’t matter, unless you’re an atheist:

 

Certainly, such generalized “theophobia” among academics is far less common than is generalized hostility to atheism in the general public. For example… some 51% of the general public believes that “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values” and 50% would refuse to vote for a “well-qualified” candidate for president nominated by their party if he were an atheist.

 

By contrast, I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of academics believe that you have to be an atheist or agnostic to “be moral” or would refuse to vote for a presidential candidate of their party merely because he was a religious believer. Indeed, the vast majority of academics are going to support Obama this year, apparently unconcerned by his religious beliefs.

 

Ah, you just cannot win – accept the Mount Vernon in America.

 

And even our evangelical president can be ecumenical. See Jacob Weisberg with his latest Bushism:

 

“There is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal. Maybe it’s only Western people that can self-govern. Maybe it’s only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self-government. I reject that notion.” – George W Bush, London, June 16, 2008

 

Who knows what to make of that? White Methodists like him get life right – but others can too, maybe, or so he hopes? It’s good that he’ll be gone soon. This sort of thing is not only hard to figure out, it’s embarrassing.

 

And times are changing. Jeffrey Goldberg notes that the number of Jewish members of congress is at an all-time high – and it seems more are on the way. Matthew Yglesias – “The same, I note, is also true of Mormons. Apparently mainstream Christianity can’t get ahead in America.”

 

Time to move to Mount Vernon, or South Carolina:

 

Four South Carolina clergy members and a Hindu organization went to court Thursday, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new “I Believe” license plate.

 

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the clergy members and Hindus by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, contends the Legislature’s creation of the tags “improperly advances and endorses religion” while also discriminating against citizens of other faiths.

 

The specialty plate features the words “I Believe” and a cross, a symbol of Christianity, on a background of a stained-glass window.

 

“The South Carolina Legislature’s decision to align itself with a single religion – Christianity – runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit states, and also violates the right of free speech.

 

The complete story is here. American enthusiasms keep bumping up against each other. Ohio is everywhere.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bush, Certainty, Conservative Thought, Cultural Notes, Evangelicals, McCain, Moral and Ethical Matters, Obama, Ohio, Religion and Politics, Sex and Politics, Social Conservatives, South Carolina, Values Voters. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Understanding American Enthusiasms

  1. Ted says:

    Although Crist is a good guy, he’s not a big plus in garnering votes for McCain. If Mac wants to win, he should pick Sarah Palin Veep this week, BEFORE Hil Campaigns w/Obama!

    In addition to her overwhelming attraction on the oil/energy issue and the female/disaffected Hillary voters, Palin’s human interest story will generate millions and millions of dollars worth of publicity and media coverage — essentially free to the McCain campaign — more than offsetting Obama’s reported money advantage.

    Actully, can’t realistically imagine McCain selecting anyone other than Palin as his Veep!

  2. 4 bob says:

    A commenter on another post says it much better than I can:

    “They say McCain reads the blogs, so here goes —

    Senator McCain- Don’t let the campaign kibbitzers muddle things up.

    First and foremost, Sarah Palin shares your values. She killed the bridge to nowhere. Need we say more?

    As for the politics, Sarah Palin transcends geography. Her constituency, like yours, goes beyond state lines.

    She will get your ticket access to voters all over the country based on who she is and what she stands for. Because she’s young, a woman, a mother with young kids, she will grab media attention more than any other potential candidate.

    Gov. Palin also has a son in the active duty military. You have very wisely taken your son’s service in Iraq off the table as a campaign talking point. That is and should be respected. But others can talk about it and reflect on what it means.

    A McCain-Palin administration would be the first in memory which has family members in uniform during wartime from both the President and Vice President. That would be a powerful statement as to the importance of national service, especially in uniform.

    Most importantly, any Vice President should be ready to step up and serve in the event she is needed. Frankly, who is really ever ready? Gov. Palin is as ready as anybody, she is a quick learner, and in her public career has exhibited the courage and decisiveness needed for a great leader.

    Godspeed to you in your campaign and in making this important decision.”

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