The Imaginary Debate (my op-ed in the Advocate)

The Imaginary Debate

Actor and blogger Chad Lindsey asks, if the secular and devout can comfortably share space at a drive-in theater in Michigan, why can’t the political right share lower Manhattan?

COMMENTARY: My parents taught me to share. They also taught me to work for a living and to mind my own business. I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of Americans are taught some version of these basics, but I’m beginning to think that most of us are losing sight of them as we reach adulthood in this, the Century of Emboldened Stupidity.

Summer 1989: On any given gray and humid early Sunday morning, my best friend Kent would aim his car toward the gravel entrance of the old drive-in theater. As the sky in the east just began to bleed with the colors of a ripe nectarine, he and I would pass through the empty ticket booths and wind along the driveway into the broad lot facing the tall dirty-white plywood screen, looming above the quickly warming scene.

American drive-in movie theaters are now largely flickering memories, but in Saginaw, Mich., at the end of the 1980s this particular theater still showed movies every Saturday night. On those nights we all secretly dug our fingernails into the vinyl seats of nostalgia and clawed against being dragged to the end of the century. Sunday mornings, however, Kent and I did cartwheels in the lot, listened to They Might Be Giants, and cleaned up the condoms, cups, wrappers, diapers carelessly jettisoned from car windows the night before in anticipation of the parishioners’ arrival.

“Drive-in church” started at 7 a.m., and no righteous family wanted to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” from the comfort of its Aerostar while staring at a used Trojan roasting on the gravel. That’s right, drive-in church. Sponsored by our “normal” Lutheran brick-and-mortar church, this streamlined early-morning version of the service offered several perks to the summer worshiper. Pants-free attendance was chief among them in my book, but not far behind were: secluded hymn singing (you put the speaker in your window, roll it up and the family could opt for actually making a joyful noise or lip-synching the liturgy), snoozing (if you had tinted rear windows, which we didn’t), no communion (you had to attend the 10:30 service for that), and avoiding the sharing of the peace (some people would actually get out of their cars to shake hands; thankfully the pantsless would not). And so, an hour before Pastor Beck tipped an aluminum ladder against the side of the clapboard concessions building in the center of the lot and hefted his 80-year-old body to the roof to address the congregation in their idling vehicles, Kent and I were there, hired to erase all evidence of the night before. For our predawn efforts, we shared $25.

Odd? Yes, but it is also strangely and distinctly American to have idling minivans in the devil’s playground.

If we shared that unlikely space — Sunday morning sacred and Saturday night profane — why can’t we share this country? Is it a timeshare proposition? Can America handle fucking in the back of a Chevy on Saturday night and Pastor Beck climbing on the concessions stand Sunday morning to give absolution? Can atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Mormons share one plot? What if it’s in Manhattan’s financial district? Why can’t we get the hang of the separation of church and state? Why can’t we learn tolerance? Why can’t we share?

I live in New York City, in Queens County, widely considered the most ethnically and culturally diverse county in the nation. I’m used to sharing space with human beings who look, sound and act nothing like me. It’s a county in which residents live in relative harmony. As I walk to get my noodle and wonton soup, I pass women in burkas pushing laundry carts, Colombian mothers scolding their children from poking at the paving stones, the Irish pub where at noon the bar is already full of men watching football, and the Italian butcher receiving deliveries of delicious cured meats. A gay guy on his cell phone smiles at me as I pass the Greek diner. I pass a Catholic church, a compound of Mormonism, a Korean house of worship, and an Islamic cultural center and mosque. And the noodles are delicious as usual.

I grew up in an almost shockingly homogeneous population; in the car, we nodded slightly and waved hello by lifting our fingers from the steering wheel. Here in Queens, I smile and am smiled at. What’s the difference? In New York City everything happens on top of everything else, and we’re accustomed to it. A Muslim and a Mormon can press their arms and thighs together for 30 minutes on a crowded subway, and manage to come away from the experience with their personal beliefs intact.

Too frequently people mistake freedom of religion with freedom from religion, believing that the removal of religious rite from the public sphere leaves a naked village square, a vacuum into which will rush antireligious sentiment resulting in some sort of amoral festival of anarchy and violence. But this is simply insane. The separation of church and state does not demand atheism. It carves a legal space for tolerance of all — believers and nonbelievers. Freedom of religion requires that the state, like the subway, be pluralist so that its people are free to practice the religion of their choice or none at all.

The separation of church and state protects both the state and the church. When the wall between them is intact, they are insulated from undue influence — because it’s a wall and not a screen door. Pastors cannot (without losing their church’s tax-exempt status) tell us how to vote, and the state cannot tell us where or how to worship. So why is this so confusing? There are a lot reasons, but the one currently splattered all over the faces of even some very wise politicians is this: It’s confusing when we have to share. Sharing a small space raises the stakes, but sharing a symbolic space (like lower Manhattan near ground zero) raises them higher. Add the world’s second largest religion (not a snake-charming sect in Kentucky), brown skin, funny clothes, add a war, add oil? And bingo! You’ve got the buzz topic of the moment. Some of our elected officials are making a lot of political hay by speaking out, defending “our way of life” against American Muslims who want to build a community center on property they own. To fan the flames of divisive sentiment and drive deeper this wedge of religiosity for political gain should be seen for what it is — unacceptably wicked theatrics. You’ve no doubt heard, no matter where you live, of this local debate.

Here’s the catch: As long as the Constitution is intact, this is not up for debate. Building a house of worship on private property, in accordance with local zoning laws, is 100% protected. We live in — hell, we’re supposed to be the flagship for — an open society. Our women drive cars, our ethnic minorities are protected from discrimination, our gays are not hung by their necks in the public square at the behest of the state. We allow. We share our country with all ideologies. But as long as the Becks and the Palins keep shouting fire in this crowded theater of ideas, and even the thinking people of this country fail to frame the debate logically, we will continue to have mass hysteria. And if the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver last week in N.Y.C. — for no other reason than his being Muslim — is any indication, the clouds are not parting; indeed, they are gathering.

Why is it important to protect this open society? Why advocate sharing, working, and minding our own business? Because without this separation, we become what our founding fathers most feared (and what Palin and Beck endorse!) — a theistic monarchy — a nation ruled by the wealthy, wielding fear from their holy book. In explaining what early Americans were doing by founding this amazing nation, James Madison wrote, “We are teaching the world the great truth that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.” Thomas Jefferson was the author of our “wall” of separation; Ben Franklin famously said, “lighthouses are more useful than churches.” The list of cautions against religiosity by this country's founders continues. The brilliance of the system they created guided our nation to its position of world leadership, and we must trust the system to see us through internal strife.

The patent lie being sold by the power players on the Right — that this is a Christian nation — is a lie that is inflicting a grave wound on the body of our nation and from it bleeds our unity, our lifeblood. No matter how many times you tell the devout, they will not believe you. The “under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance was added in 1954. We need to go back to “one nation, indivisible,” if you ask me.

The people hate this idea. So what! They hate a lot, and do not have the right to change the fundamental principles on which this nation was actually founded. Protection of the minority from the tyranny of the majority is the true founding principle. This means that even if your holy book says that I am an abomination, I deserve equal rights. This means that if the judiciary decides it, I can adopt a child, marry my lover, visit him in the hospital, decide his final resting place, distribute property on his behalf — all regardless of what your god says about where I put my penis. That’s the fact.

This means that the mosque stays. This means that the Klan stays. It means I stay. It is equal protection, not popular opinion, on which we were formed. Don’t like it? Find a soapbox, but leave the Constitution alone. I promise I won’t touch your Bible, or your Koran. Ever.

I remember one thing about my dawn clean-up chores at the drive-in very clearly. Every Sunday, as the sun rose steadily in the sticky sky over the drive-in theater, Pastor Beck would raise his hands for the benediction, and hundreds of right hands would follow suit, fingering the ignition. And as the final word escaped his lips, and spilled into the cool interiors of luxury sedans, those engines would all roar to life and the speakers flung back to their posts, parishioners would drive madly for the exit. I always loved it. Watching these people in their flimsy anonymity strain to get the hell out of there ASAP. If they wanted out so bad, I thought, why are they here to begin with?

I feel the same way now. If you don’t like it the way the founders set it, hit the door. Or you can stay, and we can share.

1 comment: