- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Out here in the Pacific Northwest, we have some unusual tribes. One in particular: the Makah. And although they play no part in the presidential election or national politics generally, their recent activities may be relevant.

Several years ago, the Makah Indians decided to resume hunting whales. The reason was neither money nor meat. Rather, they hoped that restoring the traditional hunt would benefit the soul of the tribe get back in touch with ancient ways and spirits, recover lost dignity and faith.

So, despite serious internal opposition, they made renaissance-via-whaling a tribal policy. They trained in fiberglass boats with .50-caliber rifles. It required an expensive Coast Guard/National Guard operation to keep the animal rights and environmental protesters (two equally intense tribes) out of the way. Ultimately, the Makah took a whale or two. The effect upon the tribe remains unclear.

And today, American politics tends and trends toward Makah. The growing religiosity of the presidential campaign, and of American public life, has a let's-go-whaling dimension. Gotta get the old ways and the old spirit back.

But we won't get it back. Time doesn't flow that way. And politically, it's pernicious to try.

A few brief items.

Much has been made, approvingly, of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's modern Orthodoxy. But it should not be forgotten: Orthodox Judaism, with its endless traditions and legalisms, is as much about control as about faith. It was rabbinically crafted, not that many centuries ago, as a means of ensuring community cohesion, first in ghetto isolation, then in secular pluralism.

It was designed for control. All Western religions are. And in the political world, the issue isn't faith. It's control.

Now, Mr. Lieberman seems to be a deeply spiritual and genuinely tolerant man. Nobody expects him to try to impose anything Jewish on anybody, save perhaps some questionable Yiddish humor. But again, it must never be forgotten the Founders never forgot religion also is about control.

And much has been made, approvingly, of Mr. Bush's expressions of faith. When he announced his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ, who save the most benighted and irascible, in-your-face atheist could have objected? But think back to John F. Kennedy. When he challenged America to elect a Roman Catholic, he did more than face down bigotry. He also made it clear that, if elected, he would take no orders from any religious authority. His oath was to the Constitution, not to the Church or the Creed.

Christ may or may not have been a political philosopher. But it is certainly possible for Christians to derive, from the same texts and tenets, totally opposed positions on political issues, from war and peace to welfare and environment. Christians who enter the political realm for reasons of faith have every right to do so. But the political world has neither the mandate nor the means to determine which interpretations are right.

And when was the last time you heard some atheist thundering, "Thus saith the Lord. Do this. Don't do that"?

As for issues such as school prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public spaces … awfully Makah. And also about control. The ancient Romans required everyone to offer periodic sacrifice to the official deities, to burn incense on Caesar's altar. They didn't care what you really believed, so long as you made the obligatory submission. Requiring some people to sit in silence while others pray is not about faith. It is about control.

And posting the Ten Commandments? If display of the words "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" does not constitute an endorsement (in the modern sense, an establishment) of religion, then words have no meaning.

So what is the proper 21st century role of faith in political life? Hard to tell. Certainly, no one should be excluded from seeking office, or from speaking out, because of faith or lack thereof. Certainly, no one can know or judge what goes on in the heart of another. And certainly, faith isn't going away.

But we need to beware, always, of extending religious control into the world of political control. And perhaps it's time to accept that the First Amendment's establishment clause, in 21st century vocabulary, tells the federal government, very clearly, Don't go there.

In sum, we need to beware of going on whale hunts. It's unnecessary. It's messy. It's ludicrous if you don't succeed. And it is hard on the whale if you do.

Philip Gold is president of Areta, a Seattle-based cultural affairs center.

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