Dark America: 5 painful responses to Trump’s election

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Without revealing any individual’s identity, here are five genuine responses from people that I have heard from in private conversations since the election of Donald Trump. As you read this, I ask you to simply hear the experiences of others, without justification and without comparison. Pain isn’t meant to be compared to the pain of another, everyone’s pain is valid. And no matter what your personal feelings and reactions to all of this are, I invite you to recognize that these are real people who are in pain that is different than yours.

1: “When I was a teenager, I was raped. I’ve been dealing with the consequences of that rape my entire adult life, and it has affected my self-esteem and a lot of my personal relationships. When I tried to talk to others about it, I was blamed. I was told that maybe I was asking for it, I was told that boys can’t be expected to be responsible for themselves when girls put themselves in particular positions, I was told I should have said no or fought back harder, and I was told that a lot of girls go through the same thing and it was no big deal. I was even told by one person that maybe I was asking for it and maybe I learned some things and maybe deep down I enjoyed it.

Since the Access Hollywood tapes were released about Trump, I have been hearing those same excuses about him, excusing his behavior, all over the media and all over the Internet. He dismisses it as locker room talk, his son says women in the work place should expect it if they want to interact with men, and people keep saying it is no big deal. I’ve been a nervous wreck for months. And now, now that he has been elected, I feel like the rape is happening all over again. Not literally, but emotionally. I can’t be silenced this time.”

2: “When I came out of the closet, my family disowned me and I had to leave my faith, after I attempted suicide a few times, in order to find peace. A few years later, I found a partner and learned to live happily. We made a home and a life for ourselves. We had to wait ten years to get legally married. We have always wanted to be parents and because of state laws, we couldn’t adopt together or be foster parents together until we were able to be married. Now we have two kids in our home and we are going through the adoption process. With Trump, and worse, Pence, in the White House, I am genuinely scared for my family. We are on our own. Are they going to try to cancel my marriage? Take my children from me? I’ve been walking around nervous for months. Now I am downright scared.”

3: “You have no idea what it is like to be Muslim in this country, especially in places where there is a lot of white people around. I’m not a practicing Muslim. I don’t wear the head covering or go to worship. But just by my face, my coloring, people know I am from the Middle East. I’m small, and even though I have a family through marriage who happen to be white, I constantly fear just a bit for my safety, especially when I’m on my own. In crowds, at sports games, especially in airports, you should see the looks people give me. I can’t be deported, I’m a citizen now, but is this government going to require me to register in a database? Are there going to be witch hunts like there were for the Japanese in World War II or the Communists during McCarthyism? What does this mean for me? And what about those who are more vulnerable, more isolated than I am? What about those who waited years to escape war zones and refugee camps, only to arrive here to discover they aren’t safe after all? And now, with Trump as president, I’m scared I’ll be getting more than looks, that those who hate Muslims will be braver in expressing that hate. I feel vulnerable all the time lately.”

4: “I found my son crying in his room on Wednesday, the day after the election. He’s only 8. We hadn’t really talked about the election, but he came home from school crying. When I asked him what is wrong, he told me that a few of his friends in his school class who are Mexican were upset at school because Donald Trump was going to send their families back to Mexico behind a wall and they didn’t want to leave their school and their friends. My son is white, but he doesn’t understand why his friends might get sent away. I had absolutely no idea what to say to him. I still don’t.”

5: “I’m a mess. An absolute mess. And it has taken me hours of contemplating to figure out why. The last several elections haven’t upset me like this. I had general respect for George Bush and Mitt Romney and John Kerry, even if I didn’t like their politics. They are good honorable men with families and histories of public service. They were accused of flip-flopping and inconsistency and their public service careers were widely scrutinized, and their campaigns lost on fair ground. (And all of these men came out against Trump!) Donald Trump hasn’t had a public service career, and his professional life has been combed over but no one seems to care about sexism, homophobia, racism, law suits, tax evasion, bigotry, infidelity, or narcissism. Democrats and Republicans have come out against him and no one cares. Sarah Palin would be a better president than Trump–she’s ridiculous and illogical, but at least she has experience in public office!

I sat there watching the election results this week, seeing the numbers of people voting for Trump all over the country, and my senses were reeling. I expected those results from Utah and Idaho perhaps, but seeing the close margins all over the country, well, I felt like a giant spotlight had suddenly exposed this country I love for the ugly place it is. All the pockets of muck and cobwebs and skeletons, all the history of lynchings and slavery and genocide and everything that has happened here, it just all came gurgling to the surface. How could this have happened?

And I guess the reason I’m so upset is in seeing America for what it really is. Even Obama and Clinton are giving messages of ‘just be optimistic and patient and it will all work out’, but I can’t look at my neighbors the same. My mother, my sister, my best friend, they all voted for Trump. And after all these years of progression, with gay marriage passing and health care reform and discussions about the one per cent, I have gradually felt safer in  a country that was making slow and consistent change over the years. Well, that is at a screeching halt now. I naively assumed Hillary would win and progress would continue. But now I know the real America. And I’m not sure I want to live here anymore.”

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Out of the Basket of Deplorables

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“I’m telling you, we are in the wrong war on terror!”

The man leaned over, looking a bit like Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd’s character in Back to the Future, his wispy white hair unkempt, his eyes wild and a bit mad. He was wearing black jeans and a dark black shirt with a single word printed on it in capital letters with a period: WHATEVER.

“We keep getting ourselves involved in the wars in Iran and Iraq and all those places, when they have already been at war for years! Have you ever heard of the Iranian/Iraqian war? Look it up, I’m telling you!”

He took a long sip of his coffee, an iced caramelly drink pumped full of cream and sugar, then leaned forward, speaking more loudly.

“Those ISIS guys, they are just the new version of the Taliban. And what’s the worst that could happen? They send some suicide bomber in, all crazy with some bomb in a balloon or something, and they blow up some stadium and kill, what, fifty sixty people at most. But North Korea, there is your real problem! We just keep ignoring them with all their political games! I’ve been saying this since before Obama, since before Bush, we just keep ignoring North Korea and they are gonna send a nuke to, I don’t know, Seattle or San Francisco or something and we have a couple million dead! Then they will see I was right!”

“Yup, I hear ya.” His companion, looking like a stand-in on the Duck Dynasty, had an ample stomach that stood out over his jeans. He had a long white beard, rather Santa Claus like, and a pair of dark sunglasses under a red ballcap.

“And those suicide bombers, I totally get it! They get a few seconds of anxiety and nervousness or whatever, then they blow up and they get to Heaven where they get all the virgins they want! I mean, according to them, they go out on their terms! They get to do it how they want! What’s their other alternative, to submit to, what is it, Sharia Law, and they get to get hung up in some public square with their throats slit! So, yeah, you go out on your terms and you get the reward. It’s like, kinda like, Mormons get to have all those wives in Heaven and they are just waitin’ to get there!”

Duck Dynasty laughed heartily. “Oh, I love a good Mormon joke in the mornings.”

Doc Brown took another long sip from his drink while his friend sipped his coffee. They were silent for a second before Duck Dynasty started talking, much lower and more even, leaning back in his chair comfortably and choosing his words carefully.

“The way I look at it, 90 per cent of people who are devout about their religion were born and raised in their religion. There’s a bunch of studies on that shit. And we got billions of people in the world in certain religions, and parts of them is pushing their religion to those crazy levels. That’s Mormon, that’s Muslims, that’s whatever the North Koreans are, and it turns into war wen we start killing people, but maybe the war needs to be on the religions themselves. That’s why I liked Trump better before he brought religion into it. He’s gotta get more voters and everyone is all God and Jesus in America, I know that, but I had more respect for him before he was swaying in those churches. But at least he’s not that bitch, Hillary.”

Doc Brown almost stood up he was so excited. “She thinks she is so smart, but she is so stupid! Just like all of them! All of them who think ISIS is like some world-wide problem, it’s so freaking stupid! We need, you know what we need, we need Harry Truman back in office. Or–or Porter Rockwell. We gotta dig them out of the ground and put them back in the White House to make more sense of the world, to make it look like sense again. It’s the same damn thing over and over. The Civil War, and here we are a hundred years later with the same problems. You can’t get people to change how they think and feel. People in the South would still take us to war over blacks and slavery. ISIS is the exact same thing. But I tell you one thing, Trump has a lot of things right! He stands up and says that if he was in charge, ISIS wouldn’t have the money they have to blow things up! And he isn’t gonna tell the whole world his military strategy, that’s stupid! You tell everyone what you’re gonna do like Obama did and they know what you’re gonna do and fight back! Trump is keeping it secret, that’s smart!”

“You know what I like about Trump is he’s tenacious. He’s put up Trump Towers all over, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New York, all over. He sees the whole country and he builds it up, and when he gets shot down, he gets right back up. He’s got what it takes. Clear vision. He’s the only guy we can put up to the top. And you don’t get there unless you’re a bit of a rebel.”

“Yeah, I think when history is all said and done and in the books or whatever, they are gonna chop Obama up for what he’s done in the Middle East! He’s a politician, but he isn’t no president. Besides, it isn’t the liberals we have to thank for where America is now, it’s Japan. If Japan hadn’t ever bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II, we would never have entered the war and beefed up our military and economy and become the strongest guys ever in the world. I hate when the liberals try to take credit! And that’s what we need is to draw together as a country after 911 after we did in World War II, that’s all we need.”

Duck Dynasty nodded. “Maybe that’s what we need. Someone to piss America off again. 911 happened and we got pissed and look what we did. It’s just like Japan. We get pissed enough and we stop worrying about all this stuff that keeps hitting the news. We quit talking about cyber-terrorism and mental illness and the LGBT community and all of that, and we just go about our days kicking butt.”

Doc Brown threw his arms up in the air again. “Yes! That is exactly what I’m talking about! I don’t care if you believe in Jesus or Allah or whatever you are! It’s just time for things to change! We may not be the best country in the world anymore, may not be number 1 anymore, but this country still has a lot of life left in it!”

“Yeah, it makes me damn mad. The whole thing makes me damn mad.”

“Well said, my friend. Makes me damn mad, too.”

After a few pauses, Doc Brown stood up. “Well, I gotta head in to work before the wife kills me. It was nice meeting you here. I’m Chris.” He extended a hand.

“Don. Great to meet you, too.”

The two men clicked their drinks together in a cheers and headed out of the Starbucks, where I sat at a table nearby, my fingers furiously clacking at the keyboard to capture their unbelievable words. I watched them embrace outside before heading their respective ways, viewing the world, like every other person, with their own sets of eyeballs.

refugee

Muslim1

Look, I get it, I get it. You don’t need to explain. The refugee camp was bad, I know, I’ve seen the reports. But you’re wasting your breath here.

Things are bad here, too. We have religious freedoms being attacked by homosexuals, and traditional families being threatened by very definition. We have cops being attacked by black people. Our political parties are at war. We have poverty, unemployment, people are divided on the most basic issues. Immigration is out of control. And terrorism! Our current political climate is divided between Hillary Clinton, a known and proven liar, and Donald Trump, who is just plain crazy. I’m losing sleep over this stuff. I can barely afford my house payment and my medical insurance for my kids. I had to cancel Cable and my gym membership in order to survive.

You’re still here? You want to be heard, I know, I heard you. We all want that. Will I just review your report? Okay! Okay, fine, but if I review it, then you’ll leave me alone? Okay, deal.

All right, let’s see. Born Muslim in Somalia. Grew up with your mother, brother, and sister since your father left your mother for a younger wife, and you were being bullied by your older brother, who couldn’t be punished because he was male and had authority over his mother and sisters. At age five, your grandmother had strange men come into your home and hold you down so they could cut off your clitoris without anesthesia, then they sewed up your sex organ, so that even though the procedure could kill you and would make it hard to urinate for the rest of your life, this would make sure your husband would know you were a virgin when you married after he forced open the scar tissue on your wedding night. It would also make sure you didn’t experience that particular  type of sexual pleasure in your life again.

It says here that you heard about women who were raped returning to their families who were ashamed of them. Many of these women were killed by their families because they were impure, and some of them chose to commit suicide. It says that women were considered less than men and that Allah created them to be so. It also says that you grew up knowing you must keep yourself completely covered at all times, as the exposure of any hair or skin could tempt men and give them impure thoughts, and that would be all your fault.

It says you grew up with barely any education, except that of the Quran, and that you had only rudimentary nutrition, and barely any medical or mental health services available. No clean water, often isolated for weeks at a time, regularly beat by your mother and sometimes locked into rooms for days for being undutiful.

Says here that when your government went to war, you started hearing even more terrible stories, like your friend who was brutally raped by multiple soldiers, and how she became pregnant, and how after the baby was born one of the soldiers tossed it into the fire and forced the woman to watch it burn alive. You say many starve to death and many others die from superficial wounds because there was no clean water or first aid available. You nearly starved to death.

Okay, let’s see, what next. Your father tried to force you into a marriage with someone you didn’t know, even as some of your friends were being married off to first cousins.

I’m sorry, but I have to skip to the end of this, I have other people waiting. You got out of the war zone and made it into the refugee camp. Some of your friends have been raped by the soldiers here, and now they have been disowned by their families for being unclean. You’ve been waiting for a Visa to another country for five years. But you have basic food and medical care, so that’s something new, right? Oh, you still have family in the war zone. Well, tell them to come here to the refugee camp! They’ll be safer here!

Okay, I read your papers, are you happy now? Look, I don’t mean to be unsympathetic. You’ve certainly had an ordeal. But I have to think of the big picture here. If I started helping everyone who has a story like yours, America’s shores would be flooded with refugees, and we are already stretched to our limits as it is. Come back for your check in in another 90 days, and maybe we’ll be able to help then.

In the meantime, though, here is a copy of the Bible. Seriously, your religion sounds crazy. Maybe you should consider changing? Good luck to you. Oh, grab yourself a chocolate candy on the way out, there is a bowl there on the desk. American chocolate is the best. I like it a little too much, you can probably tell from the cushion around my waist. Haha. Anyway, have a nice day.

Next!

**Thank you to Ayaan Hirsi Ali for sharing her powerful story in her book, Infidel.

 

 

Easter with the athiest

Statuette of Hotei (Buddha)

I divided up the ham fried rice and sweet and sour chicken into three equal portions and served them to my sons on small plates, keeping the larger portion for myself. The restaurant was eerily quiet, just two other people quietly munching their food across the space.

My sons tore into their food with their usual enthusiasm, all cuteness and wonder at the world. My four year old, A, likes to play up being helpless when he wants attention. “Daddy, the bites are too big,” he mutters, though the bite-sized portions are the size of a thumbnail each. My seven year old, J, dramatizes everything. “Oh my gosh, this food is so good!”, though at best it was just barely noteworthy.

And here we were, a gay dad and his two boys have Easter dinner in a nearly empty Chinese place in a back neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah. And it was perfect.

We munched quietly for a bit before A pointed over my shoulder. “Dad, who’s that fat guy?”

I was initially horrified, thinking he was talking about an overweight man behind me. I turned around to see a large Buddha statue across the countertop. He sat, his usual mirthful smile carved into place, his eyes closed, legs folded underneath him, his hands comfortably resting. He was surrounded by carved wealth, coins and pearls and gold nuggets.  No wonder he was happy. There were several miniature candy bars stacked around him, as well as loose change, quarters and dimes and pennies.

“That’s Buddha.”

“Who’s Buddha?” A asked, dropping more rice than he was chewing.

“Well, a lot of people believe in Jesus, right? Many other people believe in Buddha.”

J nodded. “We learned about him in school. Americans believe in Jesus and Chinese people believe in Buddha.”

“Well, not quite. Some people in America believe in Buddha, and some believe in Jesus who live in China.”

A furrowed his brow. “Maybe everyone should just believe in Jesus.”

Oh great, a young Republican in the making, I laughed to myself. “Well, buddy, everybody has a right to believe in whoever they like. Jesus, or God, or Buddha, or Allah, or Jehovah. There are lots of different kinds of beliefs.”

“Well, I probably  just believe in Jesus.”

I scratched his head. “That is just fine with me.”

A’s cheeks were full as he continued, eager to share his vast Biblical knowledge.

“Did you know that Jesus had a mom named Mary and a stepdad named Joseph, but his real dad was Heavenly Father. That means he had a human for a mom and a god for a dad. I’m glad that my mom and my dad are both human, dad, cause if you were a God I would never get to see you.”

I have cultivated a special way of laughing around my sons because they don’t like to be laughed at. I clench my stomach tightly, close my mouth and eyes, and laugh through my nose, soft, my stomach usually shaking. My word, these precious kids and their amazing little words.

“Yeah, buddy, I’m very glad to be a human, too.”

A kept yammering, not slowing his eating at all. “Do you believe in Jesus, too, dad?”

“I used to.”

“But now you don’t?”

“Not really.”

“But why?”

I shrugged. “Just cause, buddy.”

“Yeah, but why?”

They were both looking at me now. I’m regularly flummoxed by my sons, never quite knowing how to answer those questions about where babies come from or why some people are homeless. I always want to be direct without being too grown up.

I thought for a moment. The truth is, I no longer use labels. I used to be fiercely and defensively Mormon. Now, I don’t really have an affiliation. I try to be a good person with integrity who is kind to others and responsible for my choices and actions, but I don’t like the labels at this point, and I don’t go to any church. My sons, meanwhile, go to the Unitarian Church now with their mother, and most of their family on either side is Mormon.

“Well, some people are Buddhist, some are Mormon or Methodist. Some are Muslim or Jewish. Everybody is different. I guess I’m atheist.”

“What’s atheist?”

“Well, that means I don’t believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah or anyone. I just like to be a good person.” There was a moment of silence as we chewed our food. “Today is Easter, right? What is Easter about?”

J smiled. “Family.”

A shot his hand up in the air. “Yeah, and eggs and chocolate and the Easter bunny!”

“Easter is in the spring. We use symbols of spring, like grass and baby chicks and bunnies and eggs, all signs of life and a new season. We celebrate it by dying eggs and hunting baskets, but it is really a Christian holiday, all about new life. Do you know what happened to Jesus on Easter?”

J got a sad look on his face. “He died. I don’t like it when people die.”

“Yes, but then they put his body in a tomb, and three days later, he came alive again.”

A punched his hand in the air. “He’s like an Avenger!”

My stomach shook with laughter again. “Yeah, he kind of is.” And I thought back to the Super Best Friends episodes on South Park, where various god figures band together to fight crime.

J looked across the table. “Dad, pass the fing-fongs.”

I laughed out loud this time and handed him the won-tons. We finished our meal, and on our way out of the restaurant, we stopped to admire the Buddha statue again.

“He sure has a lot of money,” J observed.

“Yeah, buddy, they all do,” I muttered to myself.

As I strapped my kids into the car, A placed a hand on my cheek, turning my face toward him. “I’m glad you aren’t a god, daddy. I like having Easter with you.”

 

Like Lambs to the Slaughter: a critical exploration of children in religion

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I came across a photo recently, quite by accident, while doing a google search for “crazy lambs”, looking for a funny image to cheer a friend up with. I initially just clicked past the image, but then found myself going back and staring at it for several minutes. I found it sad, entertaining, thought-provoking, profound, and painfully true.

In it, a small girl of about five is smiling, wearing a pretty, white, frumpy church dress. The dress is modest, extending up to her neck and all the way down to her hands. She has brown curly hair, a bit messy. She has on a small necklace. She seems to be missing a tooth. In her small hands, she holds a large knife, black handle with a long silver blade, in a delicate grip. The blade of the knife is making a small incision in the neck of a large white lamb, sculpted of butter or frosting; with just a small thrust of the knife, the head of the lamb will lop off and on to the plate. The lamb is peaceful, all in white, and on a bed of frosting and flowers, seemingly unassuming, unsuspecting, his head literally about to roll. Behind the girl stands a man, presumably her father. Not much of him is seen, only his black apron and his white sleeves, with his two hands guiding the girl. One hand lies suspended above her hands, guiding her to push the knife forward, the other hand holding the plate, ready to collect the lamb’s head.

I contemplated this little girl, about to mutilate a frosting animal as her family stood around her smiling and encouraging her. I pictured this as some sort of rite of passage, something the girl dressed up for, something she will be celebrated for. Her friends have all cut the lamb’s head off, now it is her turn. She’s been waiting for this for years, and she is so proud. Her dad gently guides her, the knife is freshly sharpened, and everyone celebrates and smiles. And one day, she will grow up and have daughters and a man can show them the same ritual.

Images from my own childhood, as a young Mormon kid in Missouri, flashed into my brain. All the little rites of passage. Making my first dollar, and learning how to give ten cents of that as tithes to the church. Taking the sacrament every Sunday and praying to be forgiven of sins. Entering the waters of baptism at age 8 and pledging myself to the church. Receiving the Priesthood at age 12, then 14, then 16, then 18, with new responsibilities each time. Going to the temple and undergoing a series of rituals, involving wearing sacred holy undergarments, getting a new name to enter Heaven with, and pledging my all and my everything to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I remember being walked up to the front of the Church during fast and testimony meeting at age 5, where my mom whispered in my ear the things to say to the congregation, a chance to bear my testimony of beliefs for everyone to hear. “Brothers and sisters, I would like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is true. I know God loves me. I’m thankful for my family. I can’t wait to go on a mission some day. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” And the crowd oohed and aahed, how cute, as the next child lined up behind, another parent whispering a testimony in their ear, just as their parents had with them years before.

I looked back at the image, and I thought of the little girl.

“But, daddy, I don’t want to chop the lamb’s head off. I like animals.”

Honey, no one likes to chop the lamb’s head off, but it is what good little boys and girls do. It’s what Jesus wants you to do. Mommy and I love you so much. I will help you and be so proud of you.”

I thought of all the terrible and bizarre stories I grew up believing.

God commanding Abraham to take Isaac up in the hills, to tie him down, and to stab him through the middle with a knife, before saying ‘just kidding, Abe. I was only testing you.’ The lesson? You do as God says, whether that means stabbing your son, or laying there to be stabbed; you don’t have to understand, just do it and don’t ask questions.

God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, tens of thousands of his children wiped out for sinning (where in other cases, sinning souls are saved out of love). He lets Lot and his family escape and commands them not to turn back. But when Lot’s wife turns around, curious likely at the fiery destruction of her home and all her friends, she is punished and turned to salt. Lesson: God will crush you if you deserve it, and he might decide to save you as long as you do what he says, but don’t question him or he can crush you, too.

Or one from the Book of Mormon: God commands Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, wear the dead man’s clothes, and steal his treasure so that Nephi’s family could have the scriptures in the wilderness. Surely, God could have found a way for Nephi to get the scriptures (the Liahona was left outside their tent magically, for example) that didn’t require him to violently murder a man and steal his things. Lesson: God will test you and make you do terrible things to prove you love him.

I pictured then all the terrible things people teach their children in the name of religion. The little girls in polygamist compounds who are married off at 14 to 70 year old men. The little boys in Aryan gangs who see Neo-Nazi tattoos on their father’s chests and believe a White America is the best America. The kids who grow up thinking marriage is forever, and only between a man and a woman, and you stick it out no matter what it takes, no matter the abuse, the infidelity, the lovelessness.

I was 12 when I sat down with a new bishop in our ward, a man I didn’t know, and he interviewed me to see if I was worthy to receive the Priesthood. Part of our conversation went like this:

“Chad, do you obey the law of chastity?”

“Chastity? What’s that?”

“Well, do you masturbate?”

“Um, I don’t know what that is.”

“Well, masturbation is when you stimulate your penis. It feels good and you touch it until you ejaculate. But that is a sin and it shouldn’t be done.”

Later, I went home and tried it out. A 12 year old kid with a 70 year old man learning about masturbation? I can’t tell you the number of young girls and boys I know who were sexually molested by church leaders in similar circumstances, the man behind the little girl gently guiding her to hold the knife. Just do as I say, it’s what Jesus wants.

And so much of the damage happens beneath the surface. Growing up, we focused most of our lessons in Church and family about love, and sacrifice for the greater good, and the blessings of being a Mormon. But the subtext, the things that are believed but not as actively taught: Gay people can be cured and made straight. Black people exist because God cursed wicked white men with black skin, and if they live righteously, eventually they will be made white again. In Heaven, one man will marry multiple women, have and create their own planets, and become Gods themselves. The subtexts of this religion, of any religion, and the sanctions it creates for profit, for abuse, for discrimination… it’s horrifying.

The dad in this picture, he may not think that what he is doing is horrifying. He may truly believe what he is doing is right. He teaches his daughter about Biblical sanctioned murder, Christ on the cross, and the destruction of cities and sinners, and believes it is right. And then he guides his daughter in using a knife to chop the lamb’s head off. And similarly, the parents who let their children receive interviews about sex from old men, then parents who marry off their teenage daughters, the parents who send their gay teens to reparative therapy, the parents who kick their questioning children out on the streets to homelessness, the parents who raise their kids to believe in justifiable hate of minorities… in their minds, they are doing the right thing, the good thing, the thing God expects.

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, once said, “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”

I plan on raising my sons to be free-thinking, to love others, to have critical and searching minds. I will teach them to be moral, kind, charitable, and loving. But I will not let them hold knives to the necks of lambs.

Muslims at my Door

Saudis watch a religious program in Riyadh

A man with a thick dark beard and a white and red checkered head covering talked briskly on the television screen, crisp clicks and beautiful trills a part of his Arabic language. Curly curved Arabic letters adorned the bottom of the screen, looking to my American eyes a bit like how a child would draw a fire or water, or a swift rippling cursive.

I watched the man speak for a few moments, listening to the lovely language with no context for what it might mean. The camera shifted to two other men, in similar garb and with similar beards, who laughed and continued speaking. Then the camera shifts to a long-distance view of a sports field, and numbers flashed across the screen, reporting scores and victories. I realized the television show was some sort of sports commentary, perhaps a Saudi Arabian version of ESPN.

My Saudi house guests looked over at me, noticing me in the kitchen. Both college students from Saudi Arabia, now living in the American midwest for several years, Ibraim and Nasser were in my home for the week as Airbnb guests, visiting the west coast on a road trip over their school holiday. Ibraim was 21, tall and lanky with thick black hair and a short mustache and glasses. Nasser was 23, heavyset with large hands and large features. Ibraim was quiet and thoughtful, Nasser more loud and boisterous with an infectious laugh.

“Is our television show offending you?” Nasser asked.

I smiled broadly. “No, of course not.”

“It’s just that it is in Arabic,” Ibraim looked up.

I turned back to putting away the groceries. “Well, that is very easy to tell.”

“And this does not offend you?”

“Of course it doesn’t. You can watch Arabic shows in my home and you can speak Arabic here, why would that bother me?”

Nasser rested his hands on his stomach and laughed. “Well, it is not your language. We would not want to make you uncomfortable.”

I shrugged. “I don’t understand it, but it doesn’t make me at all uncomfortable. Make yourselves at home, honestly.”

Ibraim relaxed back into the sofa. “Many Americans aren’t so tolerant.”

My mind shifted to recent media reports of Islamaphobia, and how often it was showing up on the news. I thought of all the recent mass gun killings by mentally ill Americans and how they seem to be shrugged off, yet how when one Muslim couple shot many others, the Muslim religion was blamed, automatically associated with terrorists and the Taliban and Isis. I thought of the support going toward Donald Trump, who threatened to ban all Muslims or to require them to wear identification on their clothing, like the Jews in World War II Germany with the Star of David.

And then I looked back to these two young men, bravely seeing America on their own, who were nervous to watch Arabic television in the home they were staying in. Both of them literally around the world from their homes, families, and communities, one of them studying to be a doctor and the other an engineer. When they had first checked in, they had asked detailed questions about the things there were to do in Salt Lake City. They asked about ski hills and cuisine, about the Mormon temple, about local parks and bars. When they ate at a local Middle Eastern restaurant, they had come in raving about the food. When they spent a day snowmobiling, they were both beaming when they returned, and Nasser declared the event “the best day of my life!”

I thought about asking them about their experiences in America, wondering how well they were treated, but decided it against it. Instead, I listened to the Arabic on the television, listened to the laughter of my house guests, and finished putting away the groceries.

“Did you have a busy day?” Ibraim asked.

“I did. I worked a lot. What about you guys, what did you do today?”

Nasser muted the television again. “Oh! We went down to the Mormon temple for a tour, as you recommended. It was very beautiful. Some of those female missionaries approached us and we politely declined their tour. I must admit, I know very little about Mormons.”

I took a seat. “Well, they probably know less about Muslims.”

Ibraim joined the conversation again. “I understand very religious communities like this one. A lot of religious cultural influence. Although I suppose it happens more pervasively in small towns than in big ones like this. That is how it is in Saudi Arabia. The religious culture there is everywhere, but in the larger cities there is more people and culture, more room for diversity. In the small towns, they remain very traditional.”

“That’s a very good way to put it. Salt Lake City has much more diversity. Many of the smaller local towns have a lot more religious influence on family and community.”

Ibraim and Nasser told me a bit about their families, and I told them a bit about mine, talking mostly of my sons. They mentioned their plans to wait to marry and have families until they were finished with college in a few years. We talked about their adapting to the small midwestern university they were attending, and how they had grown accustomed to it now, and they talked about both missing home and being glad to be away.

Soon, both of the young men went to bed, and I looked over to see the television still on, a beautiful Muslim woman in a head covering, speaking, and I thought about how little I know of Muslims, a religion that makes up one fifth of the world’s population, and how I really should take the time to learn more.

Nasser came back out to turn off the television, smiled, and bid me a simple good night.

I shook his hand. “It’s a pleasure to have you in my home, Nasser.”

He closed the bedroom door and I thought how these young men and I have far more in common than we have different.

Joe America

american-flag

I’m an American, and I have an opinion about everything. 

I live in the greatest country in the world. We have the strongest values, the biggest military, and the best schools. We are the country that the other countries want to be like. Here, we fight for what we believe in and everyone has an equal shot. 

This is the home of the American dream. That means it doesn’t matter who you are, what color your skin is, if you are a man or a woman, that you can be anything you want if you just work hard enough. Even if you grew up in the poorest city in the world, you can come here and grab yourself by the bootstraps and work and work and work and become a millionaire or a doctor or a lawyer or anything you want. 

America is the land of freedom. Everyone is free here. We don’t have to fight for it. We are free to be whatever religion we want. We are free to say whatever we want. We are free to vote. I bet you can’t name another country where that is possible. Yeah, I can’t either.

It’s not all sunshine and roses here for me, though. I got a wife and two kids. We both work and go to church. We are hard-working Americans. But I can’t pay off all my student loans, and the mortgage is a little bit too much. We can hardly afford vacations, maybe just one big one per year, and we only have two credit cards. We have two cars and a truck, but we don’t own any other property. We have health insurance, but it’s expensive for a family of four. My mom always told me I should be thankful for things like running water and electricity and Internet and that, but I work hard to pay for that stuff, why would I be grateful for something I work hard for? My wife got her Masters degree. I barely finished high school and she’s frustrated that I make more than her, but that’s just the way things are. 

I just want what every American wants. Lower taxes and the right to do as I please. I want paved roads, public parks and buildings, a good police force, a good school for my kids, a fair legal system, libraries, and all that, sure, but I shouldn’t have to pay so much in taxes. And I especially don’t want to have my taxes to go toward taking care of other people. Medicaid and Medicare, Food Stamps, feeding people in prisons, bailing out poor people in other countries–use someone else’s money for that. I’m trying to take care of my family. They can take care of themselves.

I live in a place where there is mostly white people. I’m so sick of all the political correct baloney that goes on. People keep saying that someone of another race doesn’t get the same chances as someone white, but I think that’s crap. We all have an equal chance. We need to focus less on this stuff and more on making life easier for regular American families, families like mine. If the police shoot someone of a different race, it’s probably because that person deserved it. Okay, we had slavery way back when, but I wasn’t a slave owner, and we give Native Americans their own lands to live on. I’m sick of hearing all the complaints about stuff that happened a hundred years ago or more. 

I keep hearing about all these topics in the news, like gay marriage and abortion, and I’m so sick of it. We need to get focused on the real issues again. Look, if someone chooses to be gay and wants to be gay with other people, that’s fine, I just don’t want to see it. Go live together and do what you want, but me and the rest of the world believe in the Bible, and it says you shouldn’t get married. And abortion is just wrong. If a woman is gonna let herself get pregnant, she should have the baby, don’t abort it and give it to scientists who are gonna do terrible things to it. Planned Parenthood needs to go. 

I don’t really like Donald Trump, but if he gets the Republican vote, he’ll get my vote over Hillary Clinton. Trump comes on strong, but he has the right idea. I deserve the right to own guns without interference. Muslims aren’t all terrorists but they should at least wear badges so we can see them and be prepared. And Mexicans need to stop crossing our border and taking our jobs–they can immigrate properly just like anyone else. Hillary is just gonna Email all the American secrets to everyone from her home computer again. 

And that stupid war on terrorism needs to end already. Just wipe out the Taliban and ISIS and get our troops home. I’m so sick of hearing about American troops over there. Get the hell out of those countries and let them handle themselves. We have plenty of problems around here to fix. Some lady was trying to convince me that problems over there are problems here. But it isn’t my problem that ladies in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive or that gay people in Russia can go to jail for years. Those are foreign problems, and we have enough to worry about here. 

I miss the 1960s. Things were perfect back then. Everyone had jobs, everyone was proud to be an American. We landed on the freaking moon back then. Why can’t America be more like that now. 

So anyway, I’m a normal American. I believe in God and Jesus. I love my kids. I work hard. And all I want is for the government to make my life easier, but stay out of my affairs. I’ll take care of me and mine, you take care of you and yours. It’s time to get Obama out and get someone new in. 

Sincerely, Joe America