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The book swearers

A dialogue in the US demands a position on abortion, gay marriage and gun control.

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced three weeks ago on 1 July that she would retire as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, there began a flurry of activities from the Left and Right political action groups, the media, legal mavens, religious groups and others to influence the nomination by president Bush of a candidate to replace Justice O'Connor. The speculation about who president Bush would nominate came to an end when this past Wednesday, 20 July, the White House announced that one John Roberts, circuit court judge, former lawyer who made millions representing multinational corporations, Harvard graduate and former clerk to Chief Justice Rehnquist, would be that nominee.

The flurry of activities by interested groups included placing the possible short list of nominees on an ideological spectrum that would determine where they stood on four or five important issues that have concerned and consumed modern Americans for the past four or five decades: the list of these issues is now headed by abortion and those who mostly follow the mainstream press would think that in fact it is a one-issue list. But there are other issues around which Americans - the high and mighty and the lowly and ordinary - have tried to wrap their heads around. These issues include not only abortion and women's right to choice (to decide to have an abortion or not and whether the state will provide resources for abortion clinics), but also (in no particular order of importance), the right to carry arms (gun control), capital punishment, prayer in schools and display of religious symbols in public places, legalising marijuana for medical purposes, gay marriage and euthanasia. With the Conservatives - economic and social - beginning to assert their views through the efforts of Ronald Reagan and his deft handlers in the 1980s, the clout of the Left/ Liberal establishment based in the Boston and New York corridor began to weaken. As of now, the country is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and the Far Right has acquired sinews and power through the ascendancy to the "throne" of the born again Christian, George Bush.

While the events of 9/ 11 have re-shaped the response of the American public to matters of privacy somewhat, it is rather strange to see that the most important talking point in the media and in the blogs here is "abortion" and where Judge John Roberts stands on the issue. Life begins at conception, the Conservatives proclaim and Liberals and the National Organisation of Women (NOW) say that a foetus becomes a "child" only when the foetus becomes viable. Conservative Christians proclaim that the Bible gives them the roadmap to life and that the American Constitution is inspired by the Christian God, while Liberals proclaim that the founding fathers were not Christians in the Conservative sense of the term but mostly Deists ("One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason.")

Swearing by their Book and seeking support from faiths of the book (Muslims and Jews), Christian groups have been active in trying to reformulate these issues and influence the teaching about life, God, men and women's roles, evolution, etc. They have been active in targeting schools, libraries and even as it happened recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the zoo! The good zookeepers at Tulsa had included a picture of Lord Ganesha in front of the elephant pen to tell visitors that life and animals are symbolised in many ways. Below the statue is a sign that states, "The Ganesha is a beautiful example of artistic expression, reflecting a cultural belief that is strongly influenced by the presence and power of elephants. This statue was hand-carved from granite in Madras, India. As a symbol of wisdom and goodwill, the Ganesha is said to bring luck to students preparing for exams."

Conservative Christians would not let this go and so told the zoo-keepers that if they displayed a "Hindu religious symbol" in the zoo, a Christian symbol would be not out of place: a plaque proclaiming that the earth and life was created in six days by the Christian God should be part of the zoo's display. The Tulsa Parks Board recently agreed and has approved a display presenting the text of the Bible's Creation Week to be displayed prominently at the zoo (along with the creation views of other religions).

Fundamental Christianity has made its way deep into the American social-scape and Bible thumping has become part of life in American military academies. Cadets, raw and wet behind their ears, are told by their trainers about the supremacy of Christian belief and as a Washington Post, 23 June 2005 report, said, "A military study of the religious climate at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs found several examples of religious intolerance, insensitivity and inappropriate proselytizing on the part of Air Force officers and cadets…."

Worried senators and congressmen have begun asking questions and in turn educators at these military academies have begun to ask "non-book" religionists what they believe in and whether they are guided by any ethical rules. Thus, an email landed in my box from someone at the Virginia Military Institute, asking me, "Does the Hindu religion teach the following: respect your elders/ parents, don't murder, be a faithful spouse, don't steal, don't lie and don't be materialistic? If so, please give me references." Both the naiveté of the enquiry and the sheer ignorance of it would have made me angry earlier, but I am wiser now and come to realise that it is the nature of the dialogue right now. It is such naiveté and ignorance that made a top general tell his church audience that the Christian God is more powerful than the Muslim God. One of George Bush's top generals, General William G. Boykin, insisted that the mission of the American military is to defeat Islam in the name of Christianity. Comparing himself to a follower of Islam, General Boykin taunted that "my God is bigger than his."

It is these born-again Christians who have been targeting abortion clinics and killing doctors and nurses who perform abortions. It is these fervent believers who line up every few months in every small town and every city by the roadside carrying gory pictures of dead human foetuses, trying to shame supporters of abortion.

So, do we Hindus support abortion? Do we support euthanasia? What are our views on gay marriage? On capital punishment? Hindu Americans who have poured millions into the campaigns of congressmen and senators seem to have not only few clues about these matters, but also don't seem to care about expressing their views to the people whose campaigns they are financially supporting. Only recently has a Hindu-American group begun to articulate views on these matters (see http://hinduamericanfoundation.org) and trying to educate Hindu Americans to take part in the national debate. So, in response to a query whether Hindu Americans would sign on to a petition on euthanasia, the HAF responded: "Hinduism does not seem to support physician assisted suicide, although it does provide for prayopavesh which is 'suicide' from cessation of food, water and nourishment (but even this has strict guidelines including having to make a public, community announcement so as to rule out foul play after the fact)".

It is time, therefore, that Hindu Americans weigh in on the nomination of Judge John Roberts and let the American public know what Hindus think about abortion, stem cell research, capital punishment, gay marriage and gun control. Or else, the US Constitution will slowly begin to be interpreted through the lens of Christian fundamentalists and not through the lens of the founding deists.

 
     
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