Sunday, September 9, 2012

Issue #78 September 9, 2012- Church and State, Issue Updates

What This Is…
Issue #78- September 9, 2012
In this issue: Separating Church and State, Education, Politics and Labor Relations

Religion and Government
There are two main topics that are "taboo" in polite conversation and since I've spent the better part of the past year discussing one of them (politics) I guess it's time to put in my two cents about the second (religion).  I should begin by being open and honest about my own background.  I was born and raised United Methodist.  Throughout my life I've had significant experiences with multiple religions through friends and associates as well as numerous experiences with individuals who are non or anti religious.  My life experiences, combined with my professional experiences as a public educator have shaped my personal beliefs about religion and its role in our society. 

However, all of this shouldn't really matter in our discussions about the issues that have been so important in our national consciousness over the past year, should it?  Remember, our Federal Constitution sets boundaries between our religious beliefs and the political system that sets the official rules that govern our interactions with each other.  The First Amendment opens by stating that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"  Most Americans take this to mean that the "church" and the "state" are separated.  In fact, many of my students assume that these rules are so strict that we can't even talk about religion at all in class (try to teach history without mentioning religion). 

The misunderstandings that arise because of the "fact" that there is a Constitutional separation of church and state are problematic and frustrating as we try to deal with the issues that our society faces.  What most people don't realize is that the First Amendment has applied only to the federal government for most of our nation's history.  Some of the original states had established religions and continued to have them through the early 1800's.  It is only fairly recently that the Supreme Court began to interpret the First Amendment as a vehicle to restrict promotion of religion on a state level.  One example comes from a 1994 ruling where the majority opinion offered the thoughts that, "Government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion."

Yet, it is incredibly difficult to separate religious beliefs and practices from cultural ones.  It is when we begin to look at how religious beliefs impact a group or individual's actions and interactions with other groups that government needs to become involved.  As a nation of vast diversity, the United States has long struggled with this challenge and tried to find ways to promote freedom, equality and opportunity without imposing a single set of religious beliefs on the whole nation. 

We find ourselves more and more being drawn into conflicts revolving around the moral compass of our nation.  These are conflicts that find their roots in misunderstandings of history and unnecessary antagonism between different religions.  There are many people who see our recent political, social and economic struggles as evidence that we are engaged in a war for the "soul" of America.  These people view our disagreements as more than just a debate about important issues, and instead see them as matters of greater significance.

I believe that they are failing to see the connections that most religions have  between each other and also the integration of political and religious thinking throughout human history.  Religions have long existed for multiple purposes.  They explained natural phenomena, they established the place of humans in the natural world, they set up rules to govern interactions between people and nations and they also allowed groups of people to establish shared beliefs that united them as distinct cultural entities. 

These explanations are in no way intended to minimize the role of God and the importance of a higher power in our lives.  However, when one looks at the wide variety of religions and the fact that virtually every culture develops some form(s) of religious beliefs it is important that we recognize this diversity as a human activity and not the domain of any single entity.  I know that there are many people of all faiths who would see my comments as troubling (or worse), but I believe in, and have tremendous, respect and tolerance for beliefs different from my own.       

Most, if not all (once again I'm not a religious scholar) religions, speak of the importance of a respect for human life, expect kindness and generosity towards others and offer guidance for individuals and societies to follow in order to create an orderly and mutually beneficial society.  Over time religion has been used as a force for tremendous good, but has also had a darker side as well.  However, at their core most religions provide a set of rules that allow for individuals to form cohesive groups that are able to establish themselves in a world that can be dangerous when faced alone.

It is these aspects of religion that take the discussion from a philosophical one, into the political and social spheres.  Over time we see religious discussions take on a more secular and "worldly" tone.  It is for this reason that many of the works of political philosophy that helped shape our founding documents contain religious references.  Yet we would be wrong to think that our founding leaders all shared a single religious view of the world and used that view to establish the rules for our nation to follow.  In fact, our original states were the product of multiple religious views and these views were often in direct conflict with each other.  Several of the original 13 colonies were formed by groups leaving other colonies for religious reasons for example.

Initially, our national identity was so fragile that to force a single religious view would have caused the union to dissolve.  Few Americans realize just how weak the bonds that held our nation together were after our independence was achieved.  This fragility continued on through the first century of American history as we grappled with social and economic issues, not the least of which (slavery) helped drive an almost permanent regional wedge through our country.  The tone of the current debates and the regional, cultural and class differences that still exist are evidence that while we are "united" we are also very divergent in our views about the direction our nation should take.         

America (in an ideal sense) was founded on the strength of a people who were willing to accept differences for the good of a larger whole.  This has caused many people, no small amount of pain and suffering, and is evidence that no human creation can ever achieve perfection.  Our history has been one of ongoing struggle as different groups have been oppressed and fought for their place in society.  Our story is one of conflict between different viewpoints, beliefs and in the end is a fairly common tale of clash for power and wealth.

All of this history leads us to the present day where we find ourselves hearing religion being used as a weapon in a political debate.  The GOP and its radical conservative religious supporters are trying to paint themselves as the defenders of the true American ideology.  An ideology based exclusively on a monolithic Christian view of the world that is limited in its ability to accept other viewpoints or ways of living.  Along the way to claiming the exclusive rights to morality and placing themselves alone as ethically pure, these radical conservatives are attempting to silence the voices and exterminate the rights of any group or individual who has a different view of the world.  In their world view there appears to be no room for compromise or tolerance and any conflict becomes a "my way or the highway" confrontation.  Because of this we find ourselves embroiled in numerous "wars" on different groups, many of which are started in order to further a political agenda.   

For me this causes some real discomfort as I compare my religious beliefs with those of people who are politically, and often morally opposed to them.  I have a hard time seeing consistency between the religious teachings that I live with and the ones espoused by individuals and groups who's religion is based on the same precepts as my own.  I was raised to welcome and support those different from myself and to try and live in harmony with others. 

Because of that I accept the right of people to their opinions, I only take exception when they attempt to force their religious beliefs on others.  This is especially true when there is an imbalance in political power and this is used to promote a specific ideology.  I am also troubled by the social and economic aspects of the religious confrontations we are having in our nation.  All too often there appears to be a benefit for specific groups in promoting their religious beliefs in the political arena.           

In the America that I believe in, these differences shouldn't matter as much as they do.  In my America we can have these widely divergent religious beliefs and still exist as a unified nation.  In my America the separation between church and state means that we find a common ground and people are allowed to live together while enjoying religious freedom.  In my America we are allowed to be proud of who we are and recognize that different religious and philosophical views must be blended together in a government that represents common values, not ones that are forced on us by an extreme minority.  When we embrace conflict and intolerance we eliminate our ability to see the world as it really is, a world filled with diversity in beliefs, practices and philosophies. 

As an elementary school teacher I spend a significant amount of time working with students on developing skills for relating to others who may have very different values, backgrounds and experiences.  In any public school classroom across the nation you can find students of different religions, different cultures, from different economic classes, students with very diverse life experiences and virtually any imaginable living situation is represented in our schools.  Educators take all of these differences and work to blend them into a community where all are given the opportunity to learn and all are treated with respect.  If we can do this with children, can't all of us as adults work to achieve a similar goal.   

Our nation is a political structure, those who claim it is a religious entity based on a single monolithic belief system threaten to turn it into the same type of country that they claim to oppose.  We must have standards of moral behavior, but they can't come from a single philosophical source.  Instead we must use our existing political structures and freedoms to continue in our efforts to make America a truly great nation.

The major issue of the upcoming election is, and should be, the economy.  As a whole, our nation has struggled, but it is also clear that there are a significant minority who profit during any time of financial difficulty.  These individuals use their money to expand their influence and the effects of this power grab are devastating for those who are less influential or wealthy.    

The majority of the population will always be at the mercy of the powerful elite unless they organize and use their collective voice to exert their influence.  The elite know this and we can see their efforts to undermine organized labor quite clearly in the policies promoted by the GOP.  They have worked to destroy unions and other worker led efforts in a variety of ways.  The working class is being sold a message that the GOP is looking out for their best interests when the exact opposite is true. 

One example is the rash of "Right to Work" legislation that is breaking out in GOP controlled states.  Right to work rules allow workers access to union negotiated contracts, benefits and representation without paying dues or fair share payments.  Essentially it creates an atmosphere where there is little reason to join a union and weakens the membership base of unions in places where it exists.  Republicans claim that this is allowing workers the freedom to choose where their money goes, but in reality it results in fewer unions, lower wages, fewer benefits and poorer working conditions in the long run.     

Management has a long history of trying to dismantle unions, discouraging workers from organizing and doing anything possible to weaken the organizing efforts of labor.  This is still true today.  

In fact it appears that the GOP is less interested in creating a favorable atmosphere for jobs to be created than it is in creating a favorable environment for "job creators" to amass large amounts of wealth.

We are seeing a troubling trend towards lowering wages and benefits for all workers.  This has been a reality for many private sector workers and is now becoming a fact of life for public sector workers as well.  GOP leadership is using a "divide and conquer" strategy to create an atmosphere that weakens all labor.  Public sector unions are the last stronghold of organized labor and Republican controlled legislatures and executive offices are targeting these unions.

Wisconsin has been one of the states where the GOP has focused their efforts to dismantle unions and they have used their dominance of all branches of government to push an anti-worker agenda through.  School districts across the state are being forced to implement changes to offset cuts in state aid.  The "tools" that Scott Walker has given administrations are blunt instruments of destruction that result in a lowering of wages, reduction in benefits and a weakening of education statewide.

For example, Madison public school educators have seen a change in insurance that has resulted in many teachers facing the potential loss of necessary coverage as early as next year.  We have seen a reduction in take home pay of at least 6% with a recent promise from the district of more significant cuts to come.  Now we are seeing an administration directed effort to create a "Handbook" that will potentially change the way that educators do their jobs in significant ways.  This all is happening in a district in the heart of a liberal county with a history of supporting public education.     

While it may appear that Walker and his supporters have public educators on the run, the reality is that we are still here and ready to defend our profession and work for the families we serve. 

We also stand ready to support other public educators who are fighting for their rights and the ability to have a say in how students across the nation are educated.

Organized labor doesn't look for ways to strike or to employ other job actions, but in the current environment we are sometimes faced with no other alternatives.  When you consider what Act 10 does and how it shifts the balance of power between labor and management it is difficult to find other ways for educators to have a voice unless school administrations and school boards voluntarily choose to consult with the staff who work for them.

Just like the "reforms" the GOP offers in labor relations are a Trojan Horse for an agenda totally different than advertised, education reform is an equally disingenuous effort to make public education better.  In reality we are seeing an attempt by Republicans to destroy public education and replace it with a privatized, segregated and profitable system.

There are alternatives to the budget slashing and they should be considered. 

How you spend your money can have an impact on the current policies and practices of big business, and so can how you save your money.

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