A few years ago I was on a plane that almost went down. The person next to me had spent the flight trying to convince me why I was wrong in my “choice” of religions, and when the wingtip almost hit the ground he looked at me and with all seriousness said, “At least I know where I’m going when I crash.”
Some might have found his comment and attitude offensive. Others might have nodded in agreement. I saw it as proof of what is strong about this country. This is America, and he is entitled to his beliefs; my co-passenger was entitled to believe that I was wrong, and it mattered not that he was convinced that I would have been on the way to Hell had the plane crashed. That’s what is great about America — you can think another person is entirely wrong, and you can even say so. They in turn can choose whether to argue with you or to simply ignore you.
I smiled at him, said I was glad he was so secure, but that I was even more glad the plane had landed safely.
Here’s the thing: Had the pilot gotten on the intercom and given the same message, it would have been an entirely different story. I had paid for my seat (well, actually my student congregation had), and I did not expect to be proselytized by the person whose paid job was to fly the plane. That’s what churches, synagogues, mosques and the guy who was sitting next to me are for.
I’m a congregational rabbi. Obviously it goes without saying that I am not anti-religion, I am pro-religion; I am also pro-choice when it comes to what one chooses to believe or not believe, and I firmly believe in a true separation of church and state.
Fundamentalists of all types would have us believe that separating our government from religious beliefs is an assault on faith, but nothing could be further from the truth. The absence of a state sponsored religion does not prevent me from practicing my Jewish faith, nor does it keep Mike from being active in his Catholic church, nor does it force Judie to participate in something that she isn’t part of or she doesn’t believe in. NOT having a state sponsored religion means the guy next to me on that plane is free to practice his faith, feel secure if the plane crashed, and even tell me I’m in “big trouble” if it does. There is nothing lost to him, because there is a separation of church and state; there is nothing lost to me because he can’t force me to believe as he does. The absence of a state-sponsored religion insures that no one is rendered a second or third class citizen because of what they choose to believe or NOT believe. It is part of the foundation of this country.
It is for this reason that I was perplexed to learn that Alaska Airlines is about to stop the practice of including prayer cards with their meals. No, I wasn’t perplexed that they were stopping the practice, but rather I was perplexed as to why they would have begun the practice in the first place. Why would an airline put religious, and therefore exclusionary, prayer cards with their meals?
By their own admission it was a marketing gimmick. In a memo written by the company’s chairman and president, it was explained:
A former marketing executive borrowed the idea from another airline and introduced the cards to our passengers in the late 1970s to differentiate our service.
Pseudo-piety as marketing tool. Now that is offensive.
If a Christian wanted to recite Psalms before a meal, then I would assume if it is important enough to them that they would bring their own Bible — whether it was a dead tree version or an app on their phone. They shouldn’t need the airline to provide that, right? And if a Jew wanted to recite birkat hamazon (grace after meals), I would expect him or her to bring their siddur (prayer book) with them or have it on their phone.
We don’t need an airline, or a public school, entering into an arena that our homes and religious institutions are fully capable of covering. The only purpose I can see served by prayer cards is to send the message to anyone who doesn’t use the quoted religious text that “As an airline will charge you full price for your ticket, but we still consider you second class citizens.” That is offensive. As is, to my mind, the fact that the cards refer to the Diety using the masculine singular “HE”.
Many in our nation are quick to condemn religious zealotry in other parts of the world when, in fact, we have plenty of our own here in the good ol’ USA. Want prayer? Go to a church, synagogue, or a mosque. Want to be cramped, nickeled and dimed, and feel like you have been through the meat grinder by the time you reach your destination? Fly a commercial airline.
This difficult decision was not made lightly. We believe it’s the right thing to do in order to respect the diverse religious beliefs and cultural attitudes of all our customers and employees …
Good for you Alaska Airlines. But seriously, why in the world did it take you this long?