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Praying for Souls

July 5, 2015

First, my apologies to frustrated readers. The previous blog post, which wouldn’t load properly, has now been fixed.

One of the people who commented on the blog reminded me of something I had forgotten–good-hearted and well-meaning Christians praying for my Jewish soul. Waco was–and still is–populated by a large number of devout people. There was a religious fervor that was simply part of the air one breathed.

When I was a kid, Waco had a small but thriving Jewish community, with a conservative synagogue, to which my family belonged, and a reform Temple, both of which had an active membership. Those institutions still exist, but they are a shadow of their former selves.

The synagogue was the center of my family’s social life, for a number of reasons. First of all, it was just more comfortable to be with people with whom you shared common values and experiences. That said, we were responding to external forces, as well. Many places, like the country clubs and other social venues, were closed to Jews. Waco was dry town (largely because the Baptists, the dominant religion in town, were opposed to drinking–thus much of it was done in private clubs, many of which did not welcome Jews). Parents of kids who were my friends in school discretely discouraged Jewish kids from coming to their homes. It was a constant fight to get schools and other public institutions to recognize Jewish holidays and to schedule programs and tests on other days. Overt anti-semitism, while rare, reared its ugly head just often enough to remind us that we were different and not necessarily welcomed by everyone, in case we had forgotten.

I don’t want to give the impression that Waco was in any way a difficult or hostile place to grow up Jewish. It was, for the most part, an open and generous community, in which the practice of one’s religion was respected and encouraged. If anything, being Jewish aroused curiosity, not contempt. Jews were such a tiny minority that most people knew very little about our religious practices. Many of my friends were genuinely interested in what we Hebrews believed, and intrigued by the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. And they were often astonished and saddened to discover that we did not worship Jesus as the Messiah.

I never quite knew how to react to classmates who let me know that they were praying for my soul (because I could not enter heaven unless I accepted Jesus). On one hand, it meant they liked and cared for me, and were genuinely concerned for my eternal welfare. On the other, it was a clear sign that I was different in a fundamental way, and that difference signified that I was somehow broken, not whole, in need of healing. Worse, my incompleteness was inherent; I was born that way, and only by denying the essential nature of my birthright could I be fully repaired.

From an early age I understood that almost all of us choose the religion of our parents. If any one religion offered The Absolutely Undeniable Self-Evident Truth, we would all flock to it. But somehow Christians beget Christians, Muslims beget Muslims and Jews beget Jews with unfailing regularity, each religion staking its claim to knowledge of The One True Way, and each failing to attract huge numbers from the other purveyors of The Truth.

In large part because of this early insight, I developed the annoying habit of questioning everything, which stood me in very good stead during my long career in journalism, a field in which professional cynicism is a virtue. To this day I am deeply suspicious of anyone claiming to know the Ultimate Truth, either in religion or in politics–both of which seem to breed false prophets in staggering numbers.

Most of my career was spent questioning the assumptions of politics, a field into which religion inserts itself with depressing regularity. What worries me today is that the divides, religious and political, seem to be growing. The worrisome advance of Islamic fundamentalism in the Mideast and Africa is fueled by a fanaticism that is positively Medieval. And when religion in this country demands specific and absolute answers from politics, it exerts an influence that is not always beneficial. And when politics takes on an air of religious conviction, it invariably stifles progress.

Political parties represent constituencies with different and often contradictory needs, and those constituencies are constantly shifting as needs and agendas change and evolve. The art of politics (and when it works, it’s a joy to behold, even when it’s meat grinder messy) invariably involves compromise between those groups jockeying for their positions. When political absolutism replaces the understanding that compromise is essential to this process, when cooperation becomes synonymous with surrender, we’re in big trouble. Political absolutism has gridlocked our government and turned the men and women we elect to represent us into sworn enemies instead of mutually respectful opponents. Bitter vitriol has replaced political discourse, and we are all the poorer for it.

I write this on the Fourth of July, a day we should be celebrating our common citizenship. The horde of politicians angling to be our next president will spend the day giving lip service to our great American heritage, and tomorrow will be back questioning the patriotism, the values, and the morals of their opponents, accusing each other of hidden agendas and nefarious designs. And all will simultaneously claim a deep and abiding commitment to whichever religion they practice. Some will even claim, proudly, that their religion dictates their politics.

Praying for their souls, and for our nation’s, might not be such a bad idea after all.