Musings on Music, Religion and Politics

“…Lord, there’s danger in this land
You get witch-hunts and wars
When church and state hold hands”*

Music is the place I go when I feel profound sadness, joy, confusion or anger. Someone once told me that people are either drawn to music for the lyrics or the melody, but rarely both. Not so for me — the most resounding tunes are the ones with resonating lyrics and melody. If one or the other is missing, the music is incomplete.

One artist who never fails to disappoint, and has something for every mood I happen to be in is Joni Mitchell. Despite an impressive discography and career spanning more than 40 years, her music has become a boutique offering on iTunes for fringe consumers like me who load up on Mingus, Coltrane, 70s classics with a smattering of fusion. Joni’s a little bit of all of that — her tunes are complex and her lyrics incredible.

The snippet of a lyric I started this post with is from what I consider to be one of her best albums, despite the fact that it hardly made a ripple on the music scene when it was released. Dog Eat Dog was a step onto the ledge for Joni. With razor-sharp lyrics, a rockier sound, and experiments with synthesized music, Dog Eat Dog represents her departure from the mellow jazzy feel of smoky bars into a harder-edged lyrical statement of life in the mid-80’s ‘me’ frenzy. 22 years later, the lyrics feel as fresh as they did when I was still married to the first husband, my first kid was 4 and we’d crank up the tunes in my bright orange VW Beetle while driving off to preschool.

“Tax Free” is Joni Mitchell’s push back on the “Religious Right”; targeting the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells who were so vocal back then, raising voices of condemnation and judgment. What, you say? Back then? What about now? And yeah, isn’t it pathetic that 22 years later the lyrics and delivery of this song feel so fresh to me that they could have been published yesterday?

In “Tax Free”, Rod Steiger overlays Joni’s vocals as a fire-and-brimstone preacher who pronounces at the end that “we should turn the United States Marines loose on that little island south of Florida and stop that problem.” Sound familiar? It should, except now we have James Dobson playing Falwell’s role, proclaiming the demise of the family at the hands of the liberals and endorsing Newt Gingrich as the Republican candidate for president, school districts across the country fighting a them/us battle over allowing any mention of creationism in their curriculum, school libraries banning books, a Messiah College graduate taking the Fifth amendment in the US Attorney investigation, 3,482 American soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan (as of 4/1) and a President resident in the White House who insists we’re doing the Lord’s work, bringing righteousness to the darkest corners of the world.

Politics and religion don’t mix in cocktail conversation in smoky bars or the hallowed halls of the White House. They need to be separated, because when they’re mixed, they create a noxious fizz that obfuscates issues and bestows a false sense of righteousness on the power-hungry hypocrites inhabiting the halls of the White House and Congress.

Let’s not limit it just to Christians. Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), who routinely preaches his anti-vaccination gospel and pushes forward with the proven-false claim that vaccines lead to autism has deep ties to Sarah Elizabeth Clay, who is a board member for the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a known front for Scientology and used to be his top aide. Burton is the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, one of the most powerful committees in Congress. Whether Burton himself is a Scientologist is up for grabs, but a look at his record certainly indicates like-mindedness with their anti-vax, anti-psychiatry stance.

No politician should be expected to leave his personal beliefs at the door to his office. At the same time, the decisions and policies that come from our government should be made because they are the right thing for those they govern, not out of misguided self-righteousness and religious zealotry. In Joni’s conclusion to Tax Free, she asks:

“We’re no flaming angels
And he’s not heaven sent
How can he speak for the Prince of Peace”
When he’s hawk-right militant?*

Jesus understood that, too. That’s why he didn’t engage in the political tomfoolery leading up to his crucifixion. He left the intrigue to Pilate and Herod, knowing that engaging in the petty, backstabbing political games would dilute his message and distract him from His purpose. On this Good Friday, I choose to exercise my freedom of religion and First Amendment right to free speech by calling for our political leaders to lead and not preach, and our religious leaders to lead and preach apart from the political arena.

“Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.'” (John 21:17) He didn’t say “Legislate my sheep.” It’s time to stop confusing the two.

This post was written in solidarity with those blogging on this Easter weekend against theocracy. Read more here.

* “Tax Free” by Joni Mitchell 1985 (Dog Eat Dog)

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