may have begun in America as a Christian event, but The New York Times
is much fonder of an event that "transcends" that persnickety
Jesus-is-the-way-and-the-truth Christianity and celebrates the vaguely
Unitarian left. Longtime Times reporter Peter Applebome championed an
event in Pleasantville, New York in his "Our Towns" column on Monday:
Maybe it took a country-and-western rabbi to put
together the interfaith Thanksgiving service that ended Sunday with
Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists singing "This Land Is Your
Land" along with Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie.
Rabbi Mark Sameth of the local synagogue (who told Applebome that
"George Jones is God") and Rev. Stephen Phillips, the local Methodist
minister, put together the interfaith hootenanny, but don't call it
liberal. Just call it... "off-center."
Once, Pleasantville was best known as the
mailing address of Reader's Digest magazine (in nearby Chappaqua until
recently). But it has long had its share of off-center literary and
cultural types and, since 2001, the adventurous Jacob Burns Film Center.
Until fairly recently, members of the local
clergy meant representatives of churches. Then Rabbi Sameth, whose
prerabbinical songwriting credits included Loretta Lynn's "Pregnant
Again," joined the Pleasantville Clergy Association, after his
congregation was formed in 1997. He was followed by Dr. Mahjabeen
Hassan, a Pakistani-born physician of the Upper Westchester Muslim
Society, and this year by Victor Fama, a Bronx-bred health care lawyer
and Catholic-turned-Buddhist of the Many Branches Sangha.
The headline in the paper was "Diverse and Divided, but Praying as
One." Naturally, the Times writer was so delighted by this harmonic
convergence that he didn't go walking on any jagged-edged Plymouth
Rocks of Protestantism for disapproval of the "interfaith" ethos. There
was only a refreshing lack of discord:
So it was natural that the interfaith group's
members saw a metaphor in their midst - a story line about diversity,
tolerance and the changing nature of religious experiences that went
counter to much of the imagery of discord and division in the news.
That was magnified in their reading of "American
Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," a much-praised new book on
religion in America. The authors, Robert D. Putnam and David E.
Campbell, found, paradoxically, that Americans are not only deeply
divided and polarized along religious lines, but also increasingly
tolerant and more likely to intermarry, change religions and accept the
faith of others.
The message seemed obvious, that the more people
of different religious backgrounds shared their experiences, the more
they understood each other and transcended
what Mr. Phillips called religious exceptionalism: the belief that
there's only one path to God and that one's own religion has it. And so evolved this year's interfaith service, with the idea of ending with "This Land Is Your Land."
One always achieves liberalism by transcending and evolving. Then
we hear that "George Jones is God," and the joyous interfaith moment
has one dark cloud, and that, of course, is the ugly face of
"Islamophobia," even in the suburbs:
As things turned out, Ms. Guthrie, who lives up
the road in Mount Kisco, agreed to participate, as did a selection of
estimable Hudson Valley musicians. These were not entirely Rabbi
Sameth's musical roots, but came pretty close. ("George Jones is God,"
he said. "You heard that from a rabbi.")
It's not as if all were sweetness and light around here. Ms. Hassan's
group has tried for eight years to build a mosque in northern
Westchester. It's still trying. She said daily life for Muslims was
worse now than after 9/11.
There were readings from the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, and
"Thankfulness and Buddhism on Thanksgiving." There was the bell choir
of a Lutheran church and Ms. Guthrie's account that her father, when
asked to specify her religion when she was born, announced: "All or
At the end, the musicians and clergy crowded the bimah. Rabbi Sameth
played piano, and Mr. Phillips played bass. The country-and-western
rabbi, the bluegrass minister, the physician in the hijab, the
Catholic-turned-Buddhist lawyer and everyone in the packed synagogue
sang along to "This Land Is Your Land."
Afterward, there was cider and pumpkin pie, a small moment of American grace in a world often searching for just that.
Liberals actually get thrills up their leg when someone answers the
what's-your-faith question with "All or none," and they find "moments
of grace" when people insist that their own traditions of faith (or
theologies of grace) are easily dismissed or supplanted by someone