A M E R I C A N A T H E I S T S
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#202 uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu 11/20/96 (Nightowl Edition)
In This Issue:
* Sherman Protests Religious Park Grab
* Pope Plays Pontifical Hardball With Fidel
* TheistWatch: Miss World As A Symptom Of Modernity Angst
ATHEIST ACTIVIST BUSTED OVER PARK PROTEST
Chicago area Atheist Rob Sherman was arrested on Monday morning over
trespassing charges following his protest near the Northwest Suburban Jewish
Community Center. According to the Chicago Tribune, Mr. Sherman walked onto
the playground adjacent to the center where he was busted; at issue is a
sign posted on a nearby fence which reads: "Reserved for the Jewish Community
Center Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. During the hours listed
above and at all other times, the community may use this playground when not
being used by the Jewish Community Center or other tenants."
The flap dates back to 1985, when the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan
Chicago purchased a former elementary school and two playgrounds to use as a
community and child care center. According to the Tribune, there was a
rezoning agreement with the village of Buffalo Grove stipulating that the
Federation would "maintain the playground and allow public use."
Complicating the issue is a recent land survey demanded by Mr. Sherman
which "shows some of the community center's playground equipment and fence
encroaches on park district land...This would mean that the corner of the
playground where Sherman was standing Monday morning was public property."
Sherman also attended a Monday night meeting of the local Village Board,
where he asked officials to review their decision allowing the Jewish center
to post hours for the playground, part of which appears to include the public
area known as Mill Creek Park.
Mr. Sherman had been warned by Jewish Community Center officials to stay
off the property or face chareges of trespassing. Bonnie Greenberg,
executive director of the Center, seemed to be singling the Illinois Atheist
out for special treatment, insisting that "Anyone can use the playground,"
but "It's just Mr. Sherman. He's not supposed to be on the property."
Sherman is a former spokesman for American Atheists, and now heads his own
group called the National Civil Rights Foundation. In response to arrest
threats by the Community Center, he told the Tribune: "For ten years, they
shared this playground, but this year, they got greedy and put up a sign."
PAPAL VISIT TO CUBA IS VATICAN COUP
It's now official -- Pope John Paul II will bring his travelling religious
fest to Cuba next year after receiving an "unconditional" invitation from
Fidel Castro. The announcement was made following a meeting held on Tuesday
between the pontiff and the Cuban strongman, who said that "He (John Paul)
will be received like a king and with respect." It was the first meeting
between the two leaders; and the pope's visit to Cuba is expected to result
in widesweeping political changes, including a possible end to the 34-year
John Paul and President Castro were in Rome for the U.S. Food Summit,
which also served as a lightning rod for Vatican opposition to the use of
birth control and population restraint as part of a wider strategy to address
the problem of world hunger. News accounts of the meeting between the
leaders had a surreal quality to them, including descriptions of Castro,
overwhelmed by the regal splendor of Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel,
"striding somberly between ranks of Swiss Guards into the Vatican library,
where he sat across a small desk from the pope (Los Angeles Times)." Italian
state telesivision gushed that "Fidel Castro, atheist and priest-eater, is
forgetting the past and looking to the future by going via the pope." The
meeting itself was closed to all news media.
International observers see advantages for both Castro and the Church, at
least in the short run. Ending the embargo and attracting foreign capital is
a top priority for the Cuban leader, in a land of 11 million people where the
economy is gradually imploding. The pontiff has already denounced the U.S.
economic blockade, and used the forum of the Food Summit to reiterate
official church opposition to that policy.
But Castro will pay a heavy price for any Vatican support. After taking
power in 1959, his regime confiscated and nationalized over 350 Roman
Catholic schools and expelled foreign clerics. All freedom of worship and
religious instruction was limited to church premises. In exchange for Vatican
cooperation, Castro will now be forced to grant permanent visas to as many
foreign priests and Vatican officials as the church wants, and move in the
direction of what spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described as "normalization
of the church and society in Cuba."
There may be some shocking changes in Cuban society. In former communist
countries, especially those of the former Soviet eastern block, the Vatican
moved quickly to regain accounts and properties confiscated in earlier
revolutions. Expect this to be the case in Cuba.
And one surprise may concern abortion. Castro, educated in Jesuit
schools, took a mixed view at the Food Summit in addressing the subject of
population growth. He said that the world's population was growing at "a
terrible rhythm...This requires planning, birth control. I think a lot of
people are convinced of this. I think the Catholic Church itself, in fact,
is convinced of this." But he also stated personal opposition to abortion,
saying that "it is legal in my country, but we don't like it. It is not
advisable. It's not that desirable, not that praiseworthy. We don't like
divorces either. It's not desirable, but it is allowed by law."
THEISTWATCH SHORT SHOTS
The problematic changes wrought by modernity and global economic
development seem to elicit a variety of responses, from enthused acceptance
to unsavory reaction in the form of religious fundamentalism, political
nationalism and ethnic jingoism. Witness the attempts of local governments
and entire nation states, for example, to censor and control the explosive
growth of the internet. Religious and governmental institutions likewise
fret over the incursion of "outside" cultural values and images. A number of
middle east states ban the ownership of direct satellite broadcasting dishes,
and others retrench to combat the influences of third wave economics and
Often, what is being defended as an icon of tradition and
religious-cultural integrity turns out to be far worse than what is being
protested. In India, a county being transformed by modernization and a
stampede of investment, the entrenched order of things has, at times, found
an unlikely coalition of defenders. The Miss World Pageant seems to have
united them in common cause, and become an altar calling for a whole range
of diffuse discontents in the process.
One critic of the event committed suicide Thursday by setting himself on
fire in front of other protesters gathered outside the Bangalore arena where
the Pageant was taking place. Nearly 12,000 police and troops have been
mobilized to control the demonstrations, some of which are organized by
womens groups, others by Hindu religious nationalists. The women have a
point -- that one of the things wrong with traditional Indian society -- and,
indeed, the Miss World Pageant -- has been the idea that "one's face is your
value," according to a spokeswoman.
But not all of the protests against the Miss World skinfest are as
liberatory or enlightened. The militant Hindutva (or "Hinduness") movement,
notes a recent London Times, has been "gaining strength as a backlash grows
against liberal trends and Western influences that are bringing rapid changes
to conservative rural India." Hindutva was responsible for organizing a mob
of hooligans who destroyed works by noted Indian artist Maqbook Husain, who
happens to be Muslim. And another group, Bajrang Dal, insists that the works
of Mr. Husain -- and the Miss World Pageant -- are all part of an
international plot to subsume Indian culture; the group, notes The Times,
wants all "objectionable" paintings to be submerged in the holy Ganges River.
The protests against Miss World have resulted in the swimsuit competition
being relocated to the Seychelles Islands, and led to outbursts of
apocalyptic violence. One contingent is threatening mass suicide by
ingesting cyanide (sound familiar?) if the Pageant is allowed to continue.
Kudos to renegade film producer Michael Moore, creator of cinematic
masterpieces like "Roger & Me" (and later the unfortunately short-lived "TV
Nation") for taking on Rep. Robert K. Dornan. AANEWS reported recently that
Dornan, poster boy for religious right groups like the Christian Coalition,
had been bested by (gasp!) a Hispanic woman named Loretta Sanchez. The
upset race is close; with 1,000 ballots still be counted, Sanchez has a 665
On Tuesday, Moore filed charges with the Orange County registrar,
contending that all those who voted for Dornan must be deemed "mentally
unstable." Moore, according to the Los Angeles Times, says that the
controversial California Republican "poses a danger to himself and others.
Therefore... everyone who supports Dornan's bid to serve in Congress is non
Whereas Mr. Moore's claims are made in good form as a "modest proposal,"
Representative Dornan's references to his opposition are more mean-spirited.
He has made derogatory attacks on gays, abortion rights advocates and
President Clinton, whom he accused of being an operative for the KGB. He
refused to concede the latest electoral contest to Ms. Sanchez, caller her
"an inarticulate, flaky, non-qualified person," and even referred to Russian
television journalist Vladimir Posner as a "disloyal, betraying little Jew."
On Tuesday, Associated Press and the Washington Post report that Dornan led
a mob in denouncing a retired Marine Colonel and fellow Republican who
assisted Ms. Sanchez in her election efforts. Dornan shouted at William
Dougherty: "You are a disgrace to your Baptism! You are a poor excuse for a
Marine. You are a pathetic old senile man. You are a slimy coward."
Britain's Electronic Telegraph noted that many of Dornan's critics
dismissed him as a bufoon who had "no rival for bombast," and lamented that
"If he has to go, his (Dornan's) departure will leave a gap in the
increasingly-dull Washington political scene." We're not so sure of that.
There is always some politicized "prayer warrior" who can be dredged out of
the gutter, concealing his political demagoguery behind a flag and a bible.
Privatizing charity and turning social services over to religious groups
is all the rage these days, but corruption and mismanagement within
non-profit organizations may give us pause. On Tuesday, for instance,
investigators seized records from the Council of Jewish Organizations of
Borough Park, New York, a group which the New York Times describes as "an
essential stop for politicians seeking support from Orthodox Jews in
Brooklyn." The paper quoted a source close to the investigation who
revealed: "There are allegations that charitable contributions and Federal
and state money that went into the council was (sic) being used for personal
It appears that the COJO is beneficiary of the political pull and taxpayer
largesse of Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who "has obtained
hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money for the council and its
affiliates, which in turn have doled out lucrative consulkting contracts to
Hikind's aides, political advisers and at least one of his relatives."
What is about the fixation of some religious groups and zealots with
paddling kids, anyway? Take the unelightened governor of Alabama, Fob James
who last Friday informed a churchload of ministers, parents, cops and
politicians that he had the answer to youth violence and the rest of the
world's problems -- prayer and a good whipping. With a banner overhead
declaring "Righteousness Exalts a Nation," James told his applauding
listeners that "We should not accept unruly children," adding that "a good
butt-whipping and then a prayer is a wonderful remedy. You're looking at an
old man who was a kid that received an ample dose of both.
The occasion for Jame's illuminating wisdom was the release of a report
from the Governor's Citizen Commission on Youth Violence, a panel which he
appointed last year. Among the recommendations found in the 13-point plan,
dubbed "Operation Shepherd," were programs to involve churches in tutoring
programs, a 30-second silent prayer (whatever that is) in public schools and
in-school chaplains to "help students and counselors" (Birmingham
News/Post-Herald). Other proposals would provide weeknight youth church
activities and church run athletic teams.
Fob apparently worked his audience into near-hysterics, gushing "Let us
have a battle cry. What should it be? How about Hallelujah!" After the pep
talk, one James enthusiast told the Birmingham News "I am a firm believer
that the church needs to get involved."
No one should be surprised by the governor's proposals or enthusiasm for
demolishing the First Amendment. James aides often conduct "prayer meetings"
in their offices, and the governor's legal adviser, Bill Grey, has declared
that "There is no such thing as a wall of separation between church and
One scam being used by religious groups to funnel public money into their
coffers is to have churches declared "historic buildings" which qualify for
preservation grants. AANEWS receives a steady stream of reports about such
antics in this country; and now, it seems that the Anglican Church in England
is ready to grab about $90 million or so from the British treasury in order
to save its "historic" structures.
According to the Sunday Times of London, 13,000 buildings belonging to the
Church of England are now listed on registers as "special architectural or
historical interest." They already receive approximately $17 million each
year from "English Heritage" to repair local churches and chapels, with
another $6 million or so being poured into cathedrals. The state Lottery
Fund kicks in another $16 million. But a report (naturally authored by the
Church authority) now says that "only the Government had the means to convert
the nation's love of church buildings into material support."
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