Thursday, July 19, 2007

Uncle Noney-Bird

My sister, who went to Wellesley, recently received a birthday card from Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that they did not know each other in college. (See my political blog at for the full story.*) This card, its "hand-written" message done by auto-pen, and obviously sent by the fundraising arm of the Clinton campaign, because Hillary doesn't know my sister from Eve, reminds me of my Uncle Logan and his little collection of such cards.

Logan Mooney, my maternal grandmother's son by her first marriage, was proud to be the grandson of C.P.J. Mooney. During my childhood, I found my uncle tiresome--for many reasons, not least of which was his constant chatter about C.P.J. Mooney. At the time, I could have been less interested. Now, of course, I wish I had listened. Few of you, dear readers, unless you are newspaper reporters, will have heard of C.P.J. Mooney--and there's a caution here about fame and fortune. Charles Patrick Joseph Mooney was the finest political figure west Tennessee ever produced (although, like many prominent Tennesseans, he was born elsewhere), for he was the muckraking newspaper editor who broke the power of the Klan in the state. Mooney and the Memphis Commercial Appeal won a Pulitzer for their efforts in 1923, and Mooney himself died three years later, at work, at his desk. As one of his friends in the newsroom said, Mooney "rode the owl home at three in the morning," for his work was his life. Despite his trouncing the Klan, Mooney died frustrated, for he had had no such success in exposing the various corruptions in the political machine of E.H. Crump, who was the Boss of Memphis then and would be for decades to come.

Not surprisingly, C.P.J. Mooney's family life suffered. His son Hugh, my uncle's father, was a troubled man, eventually institutionalized (back in the day when this was legally possible). Therefore, my uncle hardly knew his father or his grandfather, for he was only eight when C.P.J. Mooney died. His mother married again, this time to a man (Watkins Overton, my grandfather) who would eventually hold the record as longest-serving Memphis mayor. With his mother and step-father often away on the campaign trail, Logan was sent off to school. In family movies from the 1920's, and in newsreels of the period (my mother and her siblings were the ribbon-cutters of choice for the city), Logan is always standing off to the side, looking ill-at-ease.

When Uncle Logan was a teenager, my grandparents divorced. My grandfather got custody of his three children (a political story for another day); my grandmother kept Logan, who lived with her for the rest of his life. He had grown into the kind of man Southerners called "nervous." Too nervous to hold down a job, people said. Eventually, Uncle Logan got a patronage job in shipping on the Mississippi. I remember my grandmother saying nights that Logan was going down to the river to "meet the barge." He had three pleasures in life: his CB radio, his pride in his grandfather, and his five nieces.

I'm sorry to say that my sisters and I did not always reciprocate the affection. Uncle Logan dropped by my parents' house every afternoon, when he knew we would be home from school. He would rap on the sliding glass door in back; then he would sing and snap his fingers in time to a ditty he had made up: "Julia Bird! Julia Bird! Off we go to Gatlinburg!" The full story of the slant rhyme is much too much--suffice it to say that Julia among us sisters was Logan's favorite. In return, we called him Uncle Noney-Bird. And often we weren't very nice.

As for Uncle Logan's pride in his grandfather, it found its expression in the wall space of carefully-framed cards like the one Hillary Clinton sent my sister. Uncle Logan's cards were from FDR, JFK, and William Randolph Hearst. His family name made Uncle Logan a place on the card lists of the politically-powerful. Childlike to the day he died, Uncle Logan felt that the cards gave him a special connection to Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Hearst. Often at Grandmother's house I had to suffer through a visit to the card wall. From the time I was quite young, seven or eight, I intuited that these famous men did not know my uncle, even as Logan himself was quite sure they did. Now I understand that these cards gave him a sense of self-worth and dignity. Funny thing--not a year goes by that my sisters and I don't think often and fondly of Uncle Logan and miss him dearly. In our loss, I suppose, is his true worth.

*In a few days, I will have figured out my URL for The Huffington Post. For now, you can access my political blog by going to, clicking on blogs, and choosing Off the Bus. You will find me among the Off the Bus bloggers. Alternately, you can click on the list of bloggers, either click on F or scroll down, and find me, Mayhill Fowler.

Note: I will be back to Middle East blogging in a few days, after I get the kinks worked out of the HP blog. Have much to say about Fatah and Hamas.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley Girl

Flopped out in the Rio Grande Valley, nursing a cold, I've been reading Carl Bernstein's new biography of Hillary Clinton, trying to get a better sense of a woman I might well vote for come November 2008. Right off let me say that Bernstein provides a good read--not just a page-turner but a nuanced portrait. The Clintons' unhappiness with the book shows more than anything how the space inhabited by the famous and powerful over time comes to be shut off from the rest of the world, like a little terrarium under a glass bell. For the Clintons should be pleased. Bernstein's Hillary is passionate, conflicted, idealistic and pragmatic in equal measure. Yes, she has faults, she makes mistakes--but who doesn't? If Bernstein had meant his biography to flatter, the book wouldn't be worth beach time because any reader with a grain of sense would know it wasn't true.

One small section of the Hillary biography--her undergraduate years at Wellesley--I feel competent to judge, because I was not so far away at Vassar, '64-'68, and because two of my sisters were at Wellesley the same time as Hillary. For the most part, Carl Bernstein gets it right. Only a few of the supporting details are wrong, and I suppose we shouldn't expect a twenty-something research assistant to know that (1) when Robert Reich first met Hillary in 1965, he is mis-remembering that she was wearing bell bottoms, which weren't worn by hippies until the late sixties and taken up by other women in the early seventies; (2) the birth control pill was not "easily available" for Hillary and her new boyfriend David Rupert in the summer of 1968 (appointment with ob/gyn off-campus required, and then, given the patriarchy of the profession, convincing sometimes needed); (3) pass/fail grading and inter-disciplinary majors were rising as dress codes and parietals were falling everywhere in the Ivy League, so it is misleading to suggest, as Bernstein does, that Hillary Rodham single-handedly brought these changes to pass at Wellesley.

But this is nitpicking. One of the best things about A Woman in Charge is that Bernstein lays out a strong case for Hillary's devout Methodist faith. Beginning in high school, and certainly at Wellesley, Hillary's Methodism was a social gospel engaged in civil rights and the anti-war movement. Not surprisingly, for young people often forsake the stricter tenets of their religion only to return to them later in life (certainly that was my path), Hillary Rodham's college (and law school) religious practice did not include chastity. Hillary had two serious college boyfriends with whom she lived for short periods of time; once she met Bill Clinton, she lived on and off with him for several years, before finally deciding to marry him. At the time, such choices at such schools were the rule, not the exception. I suspect that Hillary, just as I, did not give much thought to the disjunction between her faith and her sexual life. It was the Age of Aquarius, the Advent of Free Love, and many of us twenty-somethings of the 60's and 70's were swept up.

At the same time, other Wellesley women (my sister was one) lived their Christian faith differently. My sister and her friends sought the meaning of the personal rather than the social gospel. Although, like Hillary, they did their share of Good Works in poor neighborhoods, they expressed their faith primarily in prayer, Bible study, and attempts at evangelism (the kind of naive outreach that my sister laughs about today). Of course, nobody--certainly not reporters, who were covering Woodstock and the San Francisco scene rather than Campus Crusade--realized that Inter-varsity Christian Fellowships, like the one at Wellesley, were equally significant, that one day they would grow into the American political force the media calls "the Religious Right."

Several comments occur to me here. First, the determination of my sister and her Wellesley friends 1966-1970 to love God, follow the Ten Commandments, and heed Jesus' Pentecostal injunction to tell the world about Him is the God-centered, top-down rather than pick-and-choose faith I wrote about in my previous blog. Secondly, Evangelical Christianity (a misnomer, because by definition all Christians are evangelicals) continues to shape society and politics, in a number of increasingly significant ways in this age of Islamic terrorism; on the other hand, some of the social gospel vision of the last century is history, and embarrassing history at that. We now know, for example, that much of the Black Panther movement that captured the imagination of Hillary and her Yale Law School classmates was a con, in which various black men played white middle class guilt so well that otherwise intelligent and educated people did not see that the men essentially were criminals.

It's always easier to spot an injustice in the distance than the wrong close-to-home. At Wellesley, Hillary was concerned, genuinely, admirably, with the plight of blacks in the South. However, committed Christian though she was, Hillary seems never to have used her prominence in student government to speak out against the cruel ways in which other Wellesley girls taunted my sister and her friends, who were known as "The God Squad." Focussed on bringing poor black girls to her school (I assume that Wellesley, like Vassar, already included well-to-do black students), Hillary didn't notice the scholarship students already there. My sisters were two such. At that time, young women on scholarship at Wellesley were required to do small jobs around campus. Poorer girls were further stigmatized by the jumble bin of used clothing put aside for them. I recall my family's feelings of humiliation about these ways in which my sisters were set apart. Here was an injustice right on campus that a would-be reformer such as Hillary Rodham could have tackled. But as far as the poor were concerned, Hillary had her sights set farther away.

The difference between the ways Hillary and my sister lived the Gospel at Wellesley was a small harbinger of the coming divide in our country on matters of faith. Calling herself an agnostic intellectual liberal while engaged in a serious correspondence on doctrinal matters of faith and grace with her Methodist youth minister back home, Wellesley Hillary was searching, like any college student. But here in her complicated and sophisticated system of belief, in her youth, was a part of her that would someday inspire uneasiness in more conventionally-oriented fellow Christians and give her such a polarizing persona.

A rapprochement is on the horizon, and Barack Obama is not the only Christian trying to bring it on. Just as conservative Christians (so-called--obviously, I don't like any of the media's nametags) have taken on new environmental responsibility, just as some Christians whose faith is traditionally Bible-centered are calling for a new war on poverty and reviving the activist faith of a half-century before, so Hillary Rodham Clinton herself has evolved. In the series of interviews with the Democratic presidential candidates on the subject of faith and politics, which appeared on CNN June 12 (see for the full transcript), Hillary talked about her faith. "I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves," she said. Despite a mention of the Pharisees, she came close to suggesting that she may have been wrong.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Maybe I Get It

Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach has spoken to educated people in the West about modern times. Writing in 1867, Arnold has long seemed to have the gift of poetic prophesy.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Has any other poem, for more than a century, better encapsulated our society's moving away from the religious verities of our forebears and towards secularism? Arnold's verse has seemed as much a summing up for us as prophesy for him. Inherent to Arnold's choice of metaphor, however, is something upon which none of my teachers, not even in English graduate school, commented.

Even as the tide goes out, it comes back in.

And so, well before the end of the first decade in this new century, we see one of the major themes for this century: a rekindling of religious faith worldwide. One of the past century's assumptions, that with education and globalism people everywhere would become increasingly secular, has been proved false. Nowhere is this movement more obvious than in Islam. Whereas Islam used to be more a cultural than a religous force in parts of the Muslim world, today that world is changing. In both social subsets, like university students in Cairo, and in nations, like Turkey and Indonesia, people are more attentive to the dictates of their faith. Of course, the same forces are at work in Christianity. The growth of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S. and in Central America, the correspondent emergence of charismatic Catholicism, the legacy of Pope John Paul II, the rebirth of the Orthodox church in the states of the former Soviet Union, and the competition for converts between Christianity and Islam in Africa are shaping our world. Of course, there are parallels in Judaism, for which one need look no further than the growth of the Orthodox Bronx in New York.

But for all the rebirths in Christianity, it is the Muslim faith that will shape the world to come. Islam is the world's fastest growing religion, the world's fastest growing population. Within forty years, a majority of earth's people will be Muslim. Therefore, Islam--not Judaeo-Christian values, not the western Enlightenment, not American democracy--will mark some of the ways in which our grandchildren and great-grandchildren live. Future world cultures will be colored by Islam, in the way American popular music and movies and games infuse everything everywhere today.

Some of you, dear readers, don't want to read this. Some of you resist. You are alarmed. But I say to you: don't be. Despite the growing numbers of Islamic terrorists, despite the myriad ways in which various Muslim societies are growing darker--and indeed every day there is more disquieting news--good things are happening in Islam. You have to search online to find the good news. But the good news is there, and in its own quiet way, growing. I have pointed you towards some of that news in my Jordan blog, to some of the people, women in particular, who are risking their lives to find a way to practice their faith in the modern world.

There is an ongoing debate among Middle East scholars about a Reformation for Islam. Would it be good for Islam to have a realignment like the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther? Or is that a neo-colonialist imperative? It seems to me that such a debate is academic, for the Reformation has already begun. As Leila Ahmed said to the young Muslim women at the IWF Conference, "like me, you have been educated in the West. But unlike me, you are not staying in the West. You are taking what you have learned home with you; you are re-interpreting the Quran and sharia; you are going further than I ever dreamed." The paradox is that by re-thinking what it means to live life as a good Muslim, these women are strengthening the whole world of their religion.

So the "great war for civilisation" that Fisk and others envision is not really between Islam and the West, or between Islam and Judaism/Christianity. It is a war within Islam itself. Mostly, at the beginning of this century, we see the dark forces at work. To put it in neutral language, we see the push-back. When reading about suicide bombers and hate speech and honor killings, I don't usually respond so, I must confess. Indeed I often think of Martin Luther's great hymn of the Reformation. "And so our Ancient Foe, doth seek to work us woe/His craft and power are great/And armed with cruel hate, on Earth is not his Equal." As a Christian, of course, I believe that evil will not triumph, in the end.

In Jordan, I had a breakfast conversation that I've thought much about since. Amy and I, both of us from the San Francisco Bay area, were talking about religious tolerance among Californians. A good thing, we both agreed. Amy went on to say how great it is that many Californians are into Buddhism. I demurred, tentatively. And in the end, I demur even more. For in the West, even among conservative Christian and Jewish congregations, we now have "pick and choose" religion. It's a Build-A-Bear enterprise: from the elements of various faiths, choose what appeals to you and build your own religion--dare I say it, build your own God. For after all, none of the Buddhism-appreciative Californians Amy and I know are shaving their heads, picking up their staves and begging bowls and heading out into the world to search for divinity, in the true Buddhist way. In our time, we have come to the end of the journey on which the Reformation and the subsequent European Enlightenment have set us. Individual consciousness, human rights for the individual, the imperative that an individual should interpret Scripture as he or she sees fit--we have sought and found these good things, and they have carried us as far as they can. From the overweening sense of personal entitlement, from rationalizations of bad behavior, from the moral relativism that permeates western cultures, we can see that we have reached some kind of an end.

Islam--whether from necessity, as the world's most influential religion, or from divine purpose, as I believe--will take us on down the road. When my new Jordanian friend said that Islam is a perfect expression of human rights for women, I nodded politely, but I rolled my inner eye. Now I think I'm beginning to get it. Islam is not a religion built from the bottom up, as much of Christianity is today, from the bits and pieces of doctrine and revelation an individual finds congenial. Islam is a--maybe the--top-down faith. Worship God, in the spirit of the Quranic revelations; acknowledge God, and everything else follows. For a Muslim, submission to God, through the ritual of daily prayers, infuses everything. This is why so many Muslim women attest that Islam is good to women. God is good and all-powerful; His immanence gives meaning to my world. In the well-lived Muslim life, this is complete truth. In everyday matters, of course, people often fail to live their faith. How twenty-first century Islam reconciles this dichotomy will determine much.

This is the end of my Jordan blog. I'll continue to write about Islam now and then. But it's on to the 2008 presidential race. Islam is the future--likely well past my lifetime--but for now American democracy is still a force to be reckoned with. So Junehill, Owl, and Green Dog will return to our political roots.