The Radical Fairness of Opting In

swearing inThe week before Adam’s official swearing in, the other members of the Town Board fondly ribbed him about taking the oath. They knew his wife was an atheist, and someone quipped that when I held the Bible for him to swear on it would burst into flames.

Adam doesn’t mind being teased, but the joking did introduce an uncomfortable prospect: Would he feel comfortable swearing on a Bible? He was neither a Christian nor a fan of mixing church with state. Could he use a different book, like maybe the U.S. Constitution?

We had only the flimsy paperback copy that the ACLU sends in its fundraising appeals: it could easily be palmed for a magic trick. On New Year’s Day, preparing to leave for Town Hall, I slipped it into my coat pocket.

It was my dress-up coat; hung-over but game, I had cleaned the mascara smudges from my eyelids, re-curled my hair, and donned my pearls in an effort to look wifely. I wanted to show respect for the occasion. And in this respect, I had my doubts about the bendy founding document in my pocket. It didn’t look as important as a Bible (or a TV Guide. Or that little “start here” manual that comes with your new cell phone). So although I thought it was unlikely Adam would be required to swear on a Bible, I feared that his opting out would turn into a thing, perhaps even a story for the local paper. Should that really be Adam’s first public act as an elected official?

All of which is why I, your friendly outspoken atheist, said to my besuited husband on our way out the door, “Oh just use the damn Bible. Who cares?”

Do you make a point or do you stay quiet? On the drive over I thought about a friend of ours who grew up in our upstate New York town but now lives in Texas. He coaches youth football in his spare time, and he emailed me after the first scrimmage of the season this fall. “Before I knew what was happening,” he wrote, “one of the coaches starting leading the team in prayer.” Our friend is not a crusading atheist; he’s just an extremely logical, fair-minded person. Also, apparently, he is brave. He sent me the text he wrote to the prayer-leading coach:

. . . no offense to you or the other coaches, but I think we’ll leave the prayers to the privacy of each player, out of respect to players of all creeds. Guys can do whatever they choose before or after we gather as a team. Yeah, I know, I’m one of the few footballers who thinks that prayer and football aren’t a good mix.

A big strong guy with a voice that carries, an impressive job, and no lack of confidence, our friend is the head coach of this team. But I bet he put a lot of thought into exactly what level of explanation, supplication, and self-deprecation should go into that text. Results were mixed. Although the other coach, the prayer leader, bowed to my friend’s authority as head coach, said the request was offensive: “prayer is always optional,” and people “have the freedom not to bow their heads.”

Prayer is always optional. True: in this country, there’s almost always a way to opt out. In a well-publicized case last year, Air Force higher-ups at first refused to let an airman reenlist because he crossed “so help me God” off his re-enlistment form; eventually, they relented. Most states let you affirm rather than swear an oath; a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Torcaso v. Watkins) guaranteed the right to oath-related conscientious objection. States that still have “religious test” oaths on their books tend not to make a fuss if someone opts out: they know they don’t have a constitutional leg to stand on.

We arrived, shook some hands, and took our seats. Just as I started to get anxious, the first oath was administered: to a town Justice, who would then administer the rest of the oaths. His wife stood beside him, chic and smiling, one hand clasping . . . the other. The Judge raised his right hand, put his left hand by his side, and repeated:

I, ______, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of _________, according to the best of my ability.

Wait! What? No Bible? No “so help me God”? Just a promise to uphold the federal and state constitutions and do your job as well as you can?

Shortly thereafter, the Judge swore in the Town Supervisor. He brought his own Bible, hefty and worn, festooned with post-its. His wife held it as he swore the same oath everyone else did, except when his was over, he added “so help me God” at the end, unprompted.

That’s it! I thought: opt in, not opt out. Of course! It’s so simple, so  . . . fair. If you want to express your religious devotion, if you want to bring God in as a witness, go right ahead. The believer—specifically, the believer who want his beliefs to be a part of the civic occasion—should be the one who stands out. God would probably approve:

“Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2 Timothy 1:8)

And, on the off chance that such public declaration invites judgment, ridicule, or worse:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Opting in wouldn’t keep my friend’s football players from praying; it would just keep non-Christian kids from having to make the awkward—and, on a Texas football field, possibly even risky—decision to opt out. In fact that’s what he suggested to his fellow coach in a follow-up text:

No one is standing in the way of anyone on the team worshiping as they wish. But . . . it won’t be a part of team activities. I think an “opt in” system is much more respectful to all than an “opt out” system. No one could realistically walk away from the team once the prayer started, but nothing would stop anyone who wants to pray from gathering privately to do it before team activities.

I wasn’t rereading my email at Town Hall, I swear. I looked up his exact words later. But I was thinking of him as I silently thanked his native and my adoptive state of New York, which afforded me the pleasure of standing by my husband as he swore an unambiguously heartfelt oath. Good old, rational New York State.

Then we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and I had to decide whether to say the “under God” part or opt out.

 

 

 

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Put Some Butter On It

IMG_3998Three things before I offer you this little essay from my files. One, it’s old. It features Noah, now 15, as a toddler. Two,  the culinary climate it describes has shifted slightly since I wrote it. Fat has gotten almost trendy: upscale restaurants are now serving pork belly and chicharrones (in tiny, delicately garnished portions, but still). And three, it’s just a food essay, with no Larger Import. Another time I’ll write about the pleasures and the pitfalls of tradition. (Actually, I already have: find pleasures here and pitfalls over here.) Right now I just want to cook.

***

My mother and I have a Thanksgiving ritual: just before dinner, when everyone else is setting the table, getting changed, watching football, she and I, alone in the kitchen with a resting roasted turkey, tear the salty, crispy skin from the neck cavity and share it in wordless, slick-lipped satisfaction.

We never invite anyone to join us, possibly because we’re greedy, and possibly because we’re a little self-conscious. Our Thanksgiving tradition might be characterized as private, or it might be less charitably described as furtive. No matter what Dr. Atkins has done for the sale of pork rinds, mainstream culture remains deeply suspicious of the pleasures of culinary fat. At best it’s considered a necessary evil—you can’t sauté without it—subject to strict, health-preserving limits.

My husband, for one, sometimes doesn’t even butter his toast. When he does, he spreads it like varnish, like polyurethane, as if he’s giving bread a thin layer of protection. I spread butter like spackle, like mortar, as if there were crevices to be sealed, bricks to be laid. I look at his toast sad, but unsurprised—this is a man who eats his salad without dressing, as if it were medicine. He looks at my toast disapproving, but resigned—this is a woman who eats the skin of other people’s grilled salmon left abstemiously on the plate.

Not that he doesn’t have vices. When it comes to dessert, my husband prefers his ice cream securely placed between a brownie and a blanket of hot fudge sauce. He has a sweet tooth; I have a fat tooth. Oh, wait, isn’t that an expression? Not in America. Here everybody loves sugar, and every other body craves it, declares herself unable to resist the candy in the bowl on the colleague’s desk. But to confess a love for the rich comforts of butter and oil is suspect in this country, where we sugar-coat our fat cravings as Krispy Kreme donuts and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, where those of us who love fried foods have to sleuth them out of menus where they have been rechristened “crusted” or “battered” or “golden.”

My palate is far happier in Europe, where you can easily get a nice salad with lard shavings, but you would never find sugar in a vinaigrette. Where Belgian frîtes are accompanied not by a sweet tomato sauce but by a creamy, lemony mayonnaise. Brits like to have it both ways, god bless them: they have a raging sweet tooth, but they also have clotted cream, fried bread for breakfast, and sausages containing just enough meat and filler to hold the grease in place.

Europe feels like home to those of us who would consistently choose brie over a brownie. And Europe is where some of my best fat memories reside. I’m sitting in the breakfast room of a London hotel. How old am I? Maybe 12. Most of the others diners have gone, my parents are back in their room gathering their maps for a day of nonstop sightseeing, and I have a blissful moment of peace. In front of me is a pot of tea, and a toast rack filled with white bread perfectly browned at the edges. And somewhere on the table there is butter—in little pats? On a dish? I can’t remember. All I can remember is sublime comfort, buttering slice after slice, pouring cup after cup of hot sweet creamy tea. The tea warms my throat, the bread pleasantly scratches my tongue, and the butter is cold and a tiny bit salty. It’s drizzly outside, and I don’t want to go out and trudge around the city negotiating an umbrella, and I don’t have to. Quite. Yet.

I’m eating a dish of broccoli in a trattoria on a side street in Florence. I’m 23. The broccoli is not lightly steamed and still crunchy; it is not overboiled and flavorless. It is lusciously simmered with garlic and oil until it was left melted and silky, with just enough texture to use a fork—for scooping, not spearing. One notch further and it would be a broccoli spread. That’s what I do: I spread it on my bread.

In America, it’s true, you can find unapologetic butter-love; you just have to head south. Go on . . . that’s it . . . keep going . . . There you are. Down in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, the local barbecue joint or fried chicken joint may proudly be named Fat Boy’s, biscuits are made with lard, and the point of collard greens is evidently the pork fat in which they simmer for hours. Maybe it’s through Atlanta, where my mother was born and raised, that she finds her way to that turkey skin every Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s through her that I find my way there too. Despite the influence of his sugar-loving culture, I cherish a small hope that my son will join us there one day as well. Once, as a two-year-old, he held out a piece of bacon to me while we were having brunch and said, “Mama, put some butter on it.” He knew enough already not to ask his daddy.

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Praying for Paris

Pray for P

If you hear it a certain way, “Pray for Paris,” the hashtag of the moment, simply means let’s turn our hearts and minds to a city that has suffered a brutal and terrifying attack. Let’s allow these events and their significance to sink into us, burrow through our self-absorption and our everyday concerns, still for a moment our constant, heedless motion. I, a nonbeliever, can appreciate this sort of metaphorical prayer.

If you hear it another way, “Pray for Paris” is the reflexive public expression of private beliefs, and I’ve always been tolerant of those. If someone says, “I’m praying for you,” I respond, “Thank you.” Anyone who would respond, “Well that won’t do any good!” is not, in my opinion, doing any good.

And yet I become just that person when my mood shifts and I hear “Pray for Paris” in yet another way, a third way: as an answer to the question, “What should we do?” What should we do? Call upon a supernatural being to help Paris heal. But that supernatural being is evidently either (a) powerless to prevent 129 people from being murdered while enjoying a lovely evening in the loveliest city in the world, in which case, what could he do now? Or he is (b) cruel enough to permit what he does have the power to prevent, in which case, why would we ask him for help? Or he is (c) nonexistent.

Whichever you choose, a, b, or c, it makes the instruction to “Pray for Paris” the purest expression of futility I can imagine. And thus devastatingly apt.

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