Monday, April 30, 2012

Kent State Shootings Still Echo

This is the first of three reports on the Kent State Shootings.  The next two will be posted later this week.

As I recall, May 4, 1970 was a cool, but pleasant day at Kent State University in northeast Ohio.  I wore a light jacket and went to a student gathering on the north side of Blanket Hill, a small rise at the south end of the Commons.  On the west side of the crest was Johnson Hall, a dorm where I lived.  On the crest was Taylor Hall, the journalism/architecture building that was my home for the four years I studied for my undergraduate degree at KSU.

On that Monday, now 42 years ago, about 100 or so people joined me on the side of Blanket Hill, so named because romantic couples used the gentle slope for evening rendezvouses.  No one in the small crowd at noon could know that one of this country’s most significant events was about to take place.
While still a junior, I was also there as a reporter for the afternoon Canton Repository, where I was to start an internship in another month.  The others were there out of curiosity or in response to a brief call for such a gathering that appeared in the last paragraph of a front page story in the student newspaper the previous Friday.

I had worked for the (almost) daily student paper – published Tuesday through Friday -- for three years, but skipped this quarter because the editor had lied to me.  He asked me to be managing editor and then simultaneously offered it to a woman on the staff because she agreed to live with him during the semester.  I clearly lacked the necessary charms, but was not unhappy because the editor was perhaps the only conservative student on campus.

He had declined to publish a special edition on that Monday, possibly because his last attempt the year before had led to immense derision after he included a cartoon that labeled anti-war protesters as rats.

As a result, little information was available to students when we met on Blanket Hill.

Perhaps two dozen Ohio National Guard stood across from us on the Commons.  They were posed in a line in front of the charred remains of an ROTC building (left) that had been burned down Saturday night.  That was the key event in the preceding three-day uproar.

It had begun on Thursday night, April 30, when President Richard Nixon announced on national television that U.S. troops had invaded neutral Cambodia, located to the west of Vietnam.  Our soldiers had been battling Viet Cong guerrillas in a Southeast Asian war for most of the 1960s.  On paper, the North Vietnamese were fighting the South Vietnamese, but it was really the Communists against the capitalists – the U.S.S.R. against the United States.

Since the Northern troops were entering South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia, Nixon chose to attack although only Congress was accorded the power to declare war.

At Kent State the following morning, I joined maybe 15 people who buried a copy of the Constitution in protest of Nixon’s decision.  The mild protest on the Commons was led by a bearded history graduate student.  (I went back later, but someone had already dug up the copy.)

I left Saturday after to spend the weekend with my girlfriend in her home in Parma, a Cleveland suburb.  That was after a riotous Friday night when local officials closed the downtown bars that catered to students.  I don’t drink, but friends told me about the broken windows and an overturned car.  Apparently, the driver had tried to motor through a crowd and ended up on his roof.  
While staying at her parent’s house Saturday night, my girlfriend and I were stunned to watch the news about the ROTC fire and to see pictures of troops moving (right) onto the KSU campus early Sunday morning.  The governor, Jim Rhodes, later better known for his connections to the Mafia and to the Wendy’s hamburger chain, had decided to order National Guardsmen, fresh from confronting Teamsters on strike in Cleveland, to travel south to Kent.

They arrived exhausted and bivouacked in the gym, which had no curtains and was overlooked by a women’s dorm.  They both kept each other awake for the rest of the night.

My girlfriend and I arrived back on campus late Sunday morning.  Overhead, military helicopters kept close watch on the campus.  On the rear door of our cafeteria I found a copy of the riot act, which banned large gatherings.  I did not see it posted anywhere else on campus, and I looked.  Later, some students tried to march downtown and were turned back by police firing teargas.

It was only noon or so a day later, May 4, when a National Guard jeep carrying two people rode toward us.  Up to then, everyone was just chatting.  Suddenly things got quiet and serious.  A Guardsman in the jeep stood up and read something to us.  I presume it was the Riot Act, which would have required us to disband.  However, I did not hear what was said.  The wind blew away any words.

A few people tossed pebbles at the jeep, which caused the driver to scurry back to his side of the Commons.  There was a brief delay while an ambulance took away a Guardsman who had collapsed.  That was a strange foreshadowing of what was to follow.

I glanced around and was amazed to see that the Commons had turned into an amphitheater.  What must have been thousands of people standing 6 to 10 deep had gathered in a semicircle in back of the Guard and were watching the few hundred of us on Blanket Hill.

Finally, after the ambulance left, the Guard knelt down and fired teargas at us.(left)  At first, the wind carried it away, but the breeze shifted.  I discovered that while teargas burns, its effects are quickly dissipated with cold water.  We found plenty of water in Taylor Hall bathrooms.

The guard then split into two units: one marched to the east of Taylor Hall; the other, the west side.  We followed.  They re-formed on the paved parking lot behind Taylor and then marched to the end of the soccer practice field that abutted the parking lot and the gym. The topography today is different.

At the end of the field, the Guard spun and knelt again.  They pointed guns at us, but did not shoot.  Students whispered that the Guard had no more gas.  A few students threw pebbles retrieved from a gravel parking lot across the street to the east.  They didn’t come close to the Guard at that distance.

Finally, the Guard began to move again.  Wearing gas masks, they marched into the crowds of students. They were yelled at, but not touched.  No one could throw a stone – despite later FBI claims.  There were too many students, and there was no room anyway.

The Guard started back along the west side of Taylor Hall, heading toward me.  I retreated to the sidewalk between Johnson and Taylor.  I was standing with Bob Pickett, then vice president of the student body.  I heard what to me sounded like fireworks and asked why anyone would set off fireworks.  Bob was not so na├»ve.  He immediately recognized gunshots and left.  I stayed.

The Guard had fired (right) into the thinning crowd, killing four students and wounding nine others.  I heard shouting and watched the Guard resume their march down the hill.  I grabbed my dorm-mate’s coat, trying to get him out of the way. Bill was taking a picture of the Guard.  I told him they couldn’t tell the difference between a camera and a gun.  Later, Bill said he got a good picture. 

I was later immortalized – albeit at a distance – in the Scranton Commission report of the Kent State shootings, photographed yanking at Bill’s coat.

I did not know exactly what happened, although I could hear people shouting angrily and see a variety of people, most notably Geology Prof. Glenn Frank, trying to get people calmed down.  Some people tended the injured. (left)  There had been other volunteers who had served as peacekeepers throughout the weekend, but with little success.  This time, they seemed to gain the upper hand.

I went into the student newspaper office and called the Repository.  I told whoever answered what I understood had happened, and then the line went dead.  Later, the city editor told me they had decided they’d wait for the Associated Press rather than listen to some “hotshot reporter.”

That ended my chance of an international scoop.

As we waited, we saw the Ohio State Police arrive.  The crowd melted away.  The National Guard may have been thought of as toy soldiers, but no one wanted to fool around with the police.

Wednesday: Aftermath
Friday: Long-Term Impact

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion, religious history and, occasionally, American history.  He holds an M.A. in journalism and an ABD in American Studies.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  You can also follow him on Twitter.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Religion Doesn't Belong in Politics

In a wonderful move that bodes well for the future of the country, Libya has banned any political parties that are based on religion, tribe or ethnicity.  Bear in the mind, the country is 98 percent Muslim, according to the latest figures.

That doesn’t mean Muslims can’t vote for Muslim candidates or that political leaders cannot express their religious sentiments.  It means only that any party must take in the entire population in its decisions, not just those that share its religious, political or ethnic ties.

What a concept: a bipartisan approach to leadership.

I wonder if we could consider that idea in this country?

After all, Rick Santorum (left) is on record as saying the separation of church and state makes him sick.  So do people who don’t worship as he does.  "I don't believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute," he said.

Too bad he wasn’t around when the Puritans controlled Massachusetts.  He might have had a different idea.  They didn’t want anyone there who didn’t believe as they did.  They booted out one inhabitant after another and killed a few more.  One of the men they banned was Roger Williams, who was saved in the middle of a New England winter by savage Indians, who had no such restrictions on faith.  They saw him as a human being in need of help.

He learned their language and often negotiated with them to prevent bloodshed and to purchase land. 

Williams (right) recognized the irony of supposed heathens who acted more religiously than those who wanted a “pure” society.

As a result, he founded Providence Plantation (plantation in those days meant the same as “colony” today) and insisted on freedom of religion.  There, he welcomed all the outcasts from the Puritan reign.  When the Puritans hung Quakers, Williams encouraged Quaker refugees to join him, even though he did not agree with their philosophy.

He was still a Puritan; he just wasn’t so self-righteous as to believe that there’s only one route to the divine. 

In time, his views were combined with those in Virginia, where English traders did not want to import the religious wars that convulsed Europe and early on began to move away from domination of the Anglican Church.  Initially, Virginians paid for priests and for churches.
Naturally, had such Anglican religious leaders been in Massachusetts, they would have been condemned. 

Appalled by the sight of Baptist ministers forced to preach from their jail cells in Anglican-dominated Virginia, James Madison (left) helped lead the charge in Virginia, insisting the freedom of religion was the necessary step to ensure liberty.  Eventually, his ideas were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
As a result, this country has no party that is linked directly to a particular religion.  That may change, as the Republican Party continues to yoke itself to conservative Christian views and give credence to such ideologues like Santorum.

The determined effort by the religious right to inject faith into politics is showing up in polls. According to a Gallup survey released this week, “Religion is playing a key role in determining which presidential candidate Americans support, with President Barack Obama (right) enjoying a wide lead over Mitt Romney among moderately and less religious voters and Romney dominating among very religious voters.

The survey noted that “There are stark differences in the preferences of voters based on how religious they are, regardless of their specific faith tradition. Very religious voters, who say religion is a key part of daily life and who attend a house of worship almost every week or more often, account for 41 percent of voters and back Romney over Obama by 54 percent to 37 percent.”

Religion does not belong in the political arena.  It is, after all, hardly set in stone.  Ask former Secretary of State Madeline Albright (right), who was raised Catholic and did not find out until in her 50s that she was actually born into a Jewish family who wanted to protect her from prejudice.

Religions change, too.  What may be dogma today could just as easily be an anathema a few decades later. Remember when eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin for Catholics?

Politics are designed to provide direction to the state; religion is designed to guide the soul.  They have nothing in common nor should.

Libya -- who would guess that country would model anything? -- has made that very clear.  Americans need to maintain the same distance between religion and politics.  If not, we haven’t a prayer of maintaining our freedoms.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bible No Block to Gay Rights

The outlook for human equality is a bit rosier these days.

Recently, the Conservative Jewish seminary in Israel ignored long-time opposition and approved ordination of gays and lesbians. This seems like something new, but it really isn’t.  Four years ago, the U.S. branch of the denomination permitted gay and lesbian students into its seminaries and already has a lesbian rabbi.

The difference is that this latest step occurred in Israel, the Jewish homeland.  This is akin to when the Irish and the Italians, both staunchly Catholic, legalized abortion in defiance of church teachings.

Conservative Jews fall midway between the more liberal Reform and the stricter Orthodox.  At this point, Orthodox denominations have shown no interest gay rabbis.  Of course, members also don’t believe the Reform or Conservative Jews are really Jewish.

They maintain tight borders on their belief, stifling dissent.  That puts them in good company with a host of other religious diehards.  However, the walls are falling elsewhere.

Add caption
Some members of the Church of Latter Day Saints recently announced that they were no longer adamantly anti-gay.  That’s a huge change in attitude. Leaders of the Utah-based church have publicly objected to gay marriages and the homosexuals in general.  Mormons continue to be ardent opponents to civil unions and put tons of money into the successful California campaign to ban gay marriages.  For example, Alan C. Ashton, the grandson of a former president of the Mormon Church, chipped in $1 million at the last minute to underwrite the necessary advertising.

However, as Mitch Maybe, a California LDS leader, noted, “Here in the Bay Area … we are no longer seeking out LGBT members of the church and excommunicating them. Our role is to bring people closer to the Savior, so if we are routinely excommunicating people, then we are really not doing our job.”

These small breaches in hard-line attitudes reflect the problems of pushing against entrenched tradition.  For some reason, many people find it hard to accept that tradition has been created by humans and is, therefore, hardly immutable.

Ironically, pro-life advocates insist that pro-choice rules were created as a result of legislation and legal decisions.  Therefore, they can be changed.  It’s a two-edged sword.  That’s also true for traditions, which have changed.

The Biblical laws are no exception.  They still exist, but reality has changed.  No one, to my knowledge, regularly sacrifices a bullock to God as required in the Bible.  No one avoids wearing clothing with mixed wool and linen (Lev: 19-19), shuns menstruating women (Lev: 15-19) or stones adulterers (Lev: 20:27).  Cursing is banned in the Bible (Ephesians 5:4), but that doesn’t seem to deter today's rap performers or teenagers, among others.

Do you keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8)?  Probably not, since the definition of holy is rather elusive.

Many other laws no longer considered remotely valid.  Biblical punishments after all including burning at the stake (Lev: 21:9). The disabled are specifically prohibited from go to the “altar of God.” (Lev: 21:17) People who convert are liable to be stoned (Deut: 13:6-10).  In fact, anyone from a different religion faces capital punishment (Deut: 17-2-7).

No one would consider such nonsense these days, nor are they violating any divine rules by not obeying biblical dictates.  Noted biblical scholar Richard E. Friedman explained: “An act or an object that is not a to'ebah (offensive thing) can become one, depending on time and circumstances. The word to'ebah does not automatically mean that something is immoral. Depending on the context, the period and the persons involved, it means that it offends some group.”

The Bible separates divine law from human law by adding the phrase “offensive thing to the Lord” when a rule carries a heavenly sanction.  That’s not the case with most of the biblical laws, including those regarding homosexual behavior.

Friedman added: “…whatever position one takes on this matter, left or right, conservative or liberal, one should acknowledge that the law really does forbid homosexual sex between males but not between females. And one should recognize that the biblical prohibition is not one that is eternal and unchanging. The prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive.”

Clearly, based on polls, a majority of Americans no longer condemns homosexuality.  In 2010, for the first time, a Gallup poll on Americans’ acceptance of gay relations found that 52 percent of us find them morally acceptable. “Notably,” the report said, “there has been a 16-point jump in acceptance among Catholics, nearly three times the increase seen among Protestants. Acceptance among Americans with no religious identity has expanded as well.”

Perhaps, more people are finally realizing that people, lifestyles and a variety of other realities have changed since the Bible was codified.  We now know a lot about genetics, information that helps clarify sexuality as well as other behaviors.  There’s no question that much of what we think and do is dictated by our genes.  The biblical authors were smart enough to recognize that ideas and attitudes could be different centuries later.

It’s about time those opposed to equality do the same thing.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bishop’s Blast Illustrates Growing Irrelevance of Religion

Maintaining the typical, clear-eyed view of religious leaders, Daniel Jenky (left), a Catholic bishop in Illinois, has decided President Barack Obama is leading Americans on a "similar” path to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

When I heard that, several immediate thoughts come to mind: neither Hitler nor Stalin tried to lead Americans anywhere.  They governed European nations.  Second, both of them were dictators.  Obama can’t get a reluctant Congress to agree to most of his policies.  It doesn’t look like concentration camps and gulags are anywhere in our future.

Third, the bishop represents a theocracy – a government controlled by a single religion.  Even a bishop expects his rules followed.  That was pretty obvious in an on-going trial of Monsignor William Lynn, who is charged with covering up sexual abuse in Philadelphia.  

Testimony has revealed that the late Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua ordered a list of abusive priests shredded.  Lynn wrote the list only to have Bevilacqua destroy it.  And there was nothing Lynn could do about it.

Working in such a restrictive environment, Jenky would have a hard time convincing anyone he knows something about democracy.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria tried to soften clarify Jenky's comments by issuing a statement:  "Based upon the current government's threatened infringement upon the Church's religious exercise of its ministry, Bishop Jenky offered historical context and comparison as a mean to prevent a repetition of historical attacks upon the Catholic Church and other religions.”

This was a history lesson?  Perhaps Jenky’s would like a couple more.

Catholics in this country faced widespread discrimination in the 1800s and into at least a good chunk of the 1900s because of perceived loyalty to the Pope rather than to this country.  The bishop’s comments only furthers that distrust.

To counter concern, in 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to publicly declare he would not obey the dictates of Rome.  Mormon Mitt Romney, who eventually represented the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential election, has already said he would not follow mandates of his religion in opposition to American ideals.

Obama is no different.  Regardless of his religious views – he’s a Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ – he will continue to push for those things that he believes benefits Americans.  Anyone can agree or disagree with his priorities.  That’s why there are multiple political parties and why government often moves at a molasses-like pace.

Moreover, as Jenky surely knows, religious organizations are granted tax-exempt status because they cannot participate in politics.  Their purview is religion, the souls of their congregants, not elections.

Jenky was apparently upset because Obama has not tried to end abortion.  He can’t.  Neither could an ardently pro-life president like George W. Bush.  Not only is pro-choice supported by the majority of Americans, abortion in this country is based on a Supreme Court ruling.  Legislation can only modify the ruling, and has.  It cannot stop abortion.

The bishop was also complaining about Obama’s so-called “secular agenda.”  Guess what?  That’s his job.  He is not running a religion; he’s overseeing the executive branch of government on behalf of Americans of all religions, as well as non-affiliates and atheists.  Secular is the only choice.

Jenky joins a chorus of Catholic leaders also upset because Obama approved a law that allows working American women to get birth control without cost.  Interestingly, birth control is an idea endorsed by the vast majority of American women, including Catholics.

That may be Jenky’s biggest problem.  People aren’t listening to people like him.  Religious concepts that once cowed people and dictated their actions aren’t carrying the same weight.  So, he does what anyone being increasingly marginalized does – spout some ridiculous rhetoric.

All that does is make him, and the religious philosophy he represents, even less relevant than before.  

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.