From: American Humanist Association, On-line edition, accessed 3 SEPT 03; article issued 26 AUG 03
In Memoriam: Lester Mondale
R. Lester Mondale of Fredricktown, Missouri died on August 19, 2003, he was ninety-nine years old. Mondale was the last living signer of Humanist Manifesto I (he was the youngest to sign in 1933). He was also the only person to sign all three manifestos.
An AHA member perhaps since the organization's founding, he received the AHA's Humanist Pioneer award in 1973 and the Humanist Founder award in 2001. Mondale became a Unitarian minister after being raised a Methodist.
He was very active with the American Humanist Association, the American Ethical Union and served as president of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists in the 60's and 70's. Humanists Vice President Sarah Oelberg says that Mondale's death marks "truly the end of an era" and AHA Director of Planned Giving Bette Chambers calls him "a great man, a
Beyond the Ten Commandments, Lester Mondale
Below is a transcript of a unique speech which Mondale delivered at the 10th World Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Buffalo, N.Y., on August 1, 1988.
It is all but self-evident that if any group is to be a community, and remain as such, it must abide by rules of conduct that prescribe how members are to behave with respect to each others' persons and property. Otherwise, with the breakdown of rules - breakdown, that is, of the administration of law and order - rioting, pillaging, destruction of property, murder, and rape are likely to be the order of the day. Hence, the Babylonian Hammurabi's thirty-six-hundred lines of proscriptive cuneiform, the Judaic Ten (plus) Commandments, and comparable proscriptions the world over.
The Judaic code, let it be emphasized, had to do primarily with the sacrosanctity or inviolability of property, including one's servants, livestock, and wife, and with the inviolability of one's own physical person and that of others. It was a code that, despite interwoven priestly ordinances, was directed primarily at the holding and disposition of things physical.
However, immediately beyond this realm of the physical and its safeguarding decalogue looms the realm of intermingling self-to-self, ego-to-ego relations. Among these relations, Sinai's safeguarding commandments, which forbid removal of landmarks, killing, and stealing, are of little pertinence. Here, a physical possession - one's automobile, for instance - has value less for what it means for physical transportation than for what this or that model affirms about the place its owner has made for him - or herself in the society of intermingling egos. Similarly, one's residence affirms the place one has made for one's self in one's own estimation as well as in the estimation of others. It is shelter more for ego than for flesh and bones.
In this society of interacting psyches, there is, of course, never enough of place for everybody. Therefore, in the making of place for one's self, one has to contend with others whose hearts and minds are set on similar, if not identical, objectives. In this rivalry, education, personality, drive, brain power, shrewdness, and charm are the essence of success. Accordingly, introduction to a stranger customarily evokes an instant and covert appraisal: what of the stranger's state of culture? What about his or her posture of shoulders, expression of lips, inclination of nose, tenor of voice, or fit and choice of clothes? Does it all add up to one who is a formidable scion of a city's main line, a product of generations of affluence and consequence? Or is this person obviously of near rural background or from the wrong side of a city street? In this supraphysical, psychological society, position and status spells assurance, security, well-being, and even ego survival.
In this social nexus, persons supposedly no longer shoot or knife each other in personal encounters, no longer piratically commandeer the house, the bread, or the spouse of another. But behind its conventional facade of law-abiding politeness and seeming consideration lurks a Hobbesian jungle, a state of nature wherein the ego that survives as a self-regarding and other-regarding individual has to be competent as adversary. It is a society wherein one's self or ego is relatively insecure in challenging-to-threatening surroundings. Even in circles of polite sophistication - say, a university environment - there is ever the threat of the Francis Bacon knowledge-is-power Goliath who, with his or her learned specialty, delights in making others into spectacles of misinformation or ignorance. And who among us is not tempted at times to play the knowledgeable Goliath - or the David?
This psychological - and to a large extent lawless - state of nature raises the question: what about a possible code that might do for this jungle of intermingling, often jangling, selves what the codes of Mosaic style have done for the realm of the more physical?
Conventional wisdom and piety would have us supplement the Mosaic decalogue with the Christian code of the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. This Christian response we will consider presently. A humanistic response, which I would advocate, will follow. Meanwhile, I must invite you to give consideration to an intermediate code that has taken over and all but religiously prescribes the values and dominates the inter-ego conduct of the Western world - the United States in particular.
This intermediate code, far from condemning ego-assertion or the besting of others in the innumerable contests and conflicts of the daily intermingling of persons, lauds conflict. Conflict, as this code has it, strengthens and ennobles the contestants themselves. It selects those to be the most honored and esteemed. They are the winners of the contest.
The code to which I refer is that of the sports world. There, winning - Vince Lombardi to the contrary - is almost everything. The good and best are the honorable competitors: resolute and able to take rough and tumble as well as to dish it out with skill and power. Superiority of performance, team work, and superhuman effort are the essence of the code. The athlete is our revered and acclaimed secular saint. He or she scoffs, martyr-like, at personal injury, however serious or painful. Saintly again, he or she smiles with spiritual detachment after an encounter lost - lost but well fought. "You win some. You lose some. But it's the game that's the thing." Life is nothing for the sports world if it is not a contest, an all-inclusive game of winning and losing, of playing without cheating, weakness, ineptitude, or stupidity - and always to win.
The extent to which this code has taken over the American scene is nicely attested to in the sports supplement of the February 26, 1988, Wall Street Journal:
In the big cities, sport is part of a larger culture. In the big corporations, its jargon and images are now common, part of that culture too. But in countless small towns across the country, sport is much more than that. It practically is the culture, the social cement that holds these towns together....
Adds the coach of a Texas high school football team, "Football is part of our curriculum. It teaches life." A corporate president is quoted as saying: "Turning the workplace into a playing field can turn our subordinates into athletes, dedicated to performing to the limits of their abilities." Sports celebrities, the supplement continues, are, as a consequence, "showing up at corporate functions in record numbers ... to motivate and pass out advice: how to become leaders, how to be competitive, how to win."
In athletic purview, the world of intermingling psyches is a universal playing field for the innumerable contests of everyday living. And there is no divergence from the norm, no difference of any order - from jogging speeds to bait-casting skills - that isn't a potential contest, a possible game in which contestants can distinguish themselves - "experience," as a sports writer has it, "the thrill of victory or the heartbreaking agony of defeat." Here, in a word, is a code that evokes in humankind the morale that makes the ugliest of contests of everyday living into games to be taken, as that sports writer has it, in the "joyful spirit of competition."
For all of the respect that is the just due of the athletic valiant and accomplished, the sober fact remains that the culture that is being athleticized is also, in essence, an invidious culture - and is made no less invidious by the athletes and their contests. In our culture, every office desk's position, every college examination, every party gown, every summer residence, and every dinner check is a poignant reminder to the beholder of where he or she stands. Ordinarily, these reveal how far from the economic, social, or political top one stands. Keeping these reminders ever loudly before us is the all but holy mission of the billions of advertising dollars annually devoted to creating dissatisfaction, inferiority, and a specious superiority.
Since the beginnings of recorded time, a few rare persons - the Buddhas, Tolstoys, Gandhis, Schweitzers - have reacted with gut, as well as ethical, revulsion to egos forever at it contesting and denigrating egos, to the predominance of the invidious. Profoundly injured, they have protested the idea that the jungle is the natural order of intermingling psyches. We humans were created, they have said, for a more healthful, secure, sustaining, joyously abundant mingling, one with another. We are better suited by head and heart and gut for a more finely sensitive order of coexistence.
Such has been the protest of persons of marked sensitivity - like my own Methodist minister-father. A farmer as a young man, he was horrified by the hurtful insensitivity of young male studs boasting of their sexual conquests - brutal and inhumane. Likewise, he disliked the false respect commanded, by and large, by the number of acres of one's farm or by the number of head of livestock in one's herd.
My father's was a spirit that knew that there had, just had, to be a more satisfying, supportive, healthful, considerate, dignified mingling of psyches. But on whose authority? The rebelling assertion of his own feelings? He, like other rebels of his day and locale, had the only authority to which he and contemporaries could look to as ultimate: the revealed word of God in the New Testament precepts of the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. One thing was certain: those precepts condemned - as did the finely grained rebels l ike my father - the culture, the low spirituality, of the invidiously adversarial. Moreover, in the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule there was also, supposedly, the word of God specifically laying out a more peaceful, happier, more healthful mingling of psyches.
At this juncture, one runs into a strange as well as profoundly fundamental contradiction between what my Christianlike father accepted as the commanding word of God and what was even more authoritative and commanding: the word of his own heartfelt feelings and his own humanistic good sense. That word of God commanded, in no uncertain terms, "Sell all thou hast. Give to the poor." However, for all of my father's born-again commitment to the code of the crucified Savior, he didn't sell all he had - which was then substantial.
Furthermore, despite his new, supposedly Christian commitment, my father took plenty of thought, although the Scriptures told him not to, for the morrow. He didn't love or forgive "seventy times seven" the local saloonkeeper enemies he was righteously set on putting out of town and out of business. He did give way to anger - -anger the Scriptures prohibited - when his eldest son's behavior demanded reproof expressed in a manner that wasn't likely to be forgotten. And lust in the heart? How would one account otherwise, as he was a widower, for his remarriage and for the issue of his second family?
As incontestable matter of fact, the bulk of what my father seemingly got from the Christly code was that which he himself, like innumerable Schweitzers and Berrigans and Mother Teresas, has read into and selected out of that code. In my father's case, the alternative to the culture of the invidious - or what was Christian to him - was, as his sons remember, acceptance of others as human like himself, with tender feelings and a sensitivity like his own. His nature, accordingly, was a helping warm heartedness that embraced child and adult, the stranger asking for a handout as well as a neighbor. It was a spirituality, a finely sensitive regard, that went from him to others and, hopefully, came from others to him. His was the honoring respect that any wholly human being must have for another if one is to evoke the fully human. All this-after innumerable exemplary Christian predecessors - he selected from and read into the precepts of Christian revelation and the person of the Christ.
It is obvious to anyone of humanist persuasion that his authority for the anti-invidious, for the empathy of the gospel he preached and by which he did his best to live, was not revelation but, rather, his own heart and mind in interaction with the hearts and minds of others. The result was an empathy, a spirituality, that had the external vestments of Christian theology but a spirituality also that had all the interior substance of the humanistic.
So we ask now: why not, standing on his own, an avowedly humanistic - dare I say - spirituality as a counterpart to the invidious? Certainly the invidious that dominates our culture can be as contortingly injurious and as hurtful for a humanist as it was for Gandhi, Tolstoy, Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, and my father as a young man. The basic inhumanity of the invidious can and probably should bring the humanist, as it did my father and countless others, to the inescapable conclusion that there must be - has got to be - a more satisfying, supportive, considerate, dignified, and healthful mingling of psyches.
What about, one would ask, an avowedly self-confessed humanist spirituality? Is there any reason why anyone under the humanist aegis should not be an exemplar of empathy as much as any avowedly Christian or Buddhist who shows all-embracing compassion? This order of spirituality bespeaks the protesting authority of the mind and heart of any invidiously beleaguered man or woman - an authority that I strongly feel it is up to us humanists to reclaim and to ass ert. It belongs to us to research, to advocate, and to experience, as it does not belong to born-again fundamentalists and mystics and revivalists who preach love so hatefully. I envision humanism as the expression of a down-to-earth code that is not something for saints and angels alone - not vainly proclaimed as bringing about a miraculous world peace or an end to industrial and political strife in a utopian kingdom of heaven - but a code to be aspired to, to be incorporated to the fullest possible extent, by way of individuals in everyday living.
I cannot conceive of any more valid profession of, any more valid identification with, the cause of empathy than a humanist profession and identification. What group or assemblage, I ask, is better qualified in the present era, more obligated, to take over from the revelationists and be the advocate of the empathetic?
I want to think of humanism not only as incorporating, as it does, the ideal of the Renaissance man and woman and not only as the very incarnation of power and courage in any battle for personal and civil liberty, but also as an embodiment of an ideal personhood - a personalized and more than merely ethical standard by which one can and should measure not others but one's own daily performance.
Called upon to be the helping hand and heart, I will - to paraphrase my minister father and his doing the Christian thing - do the humanist thing, be a humanist. In measuring my performance, I will face up to some questions, such as: is mine the discernment that sees beyond someone's show of hostility or of overbearing superiority to the early hurts and repressions that may well have driven this person to express him - or herself in such a self-defeating, alienating manner? For the shattered ego of one whose sense of self--worth has been based upon stocks that have crashed, upon salary bonuses that are now nonexistent, upon a top job from which one has been summarily dismissed - how insightfully reassuring and nonpatronizing is the solace or counsel I try to offer? And for the homeless in spirit and housing, the alienated of an invidious environment, to what extent am I being the sheltering friend? In sum, as a humanist, how consecrated am I to an ever more supportive, more considerate, more dignified, more finely sensitive, more healthful, and more joyous mingling of selves?
Empathy, let us not overlook, includes tenderness: the tenderness of the mother for the infant at her breast and that tenderness extended to include the self-regard and the hopes and dreams of young and old - feelings that come as near to the sacred as anything one of humanist persuasion can conceive.
Asked, "Are you a Christian?" my father's typical response was, "I'm trying to be." Similarly with humanism: am I a humanist? I must answer, "That's what I'm trying, doing my damnedest, to be!"
Lester Mondale's ties to humanism extend back to 1933, when he was one of thirty-four signatories of Humanist Manifesto I. Mondale served as a Unitarian minister and an Ethical Culture leader before retiring to Fredericktown, Missouri. He has authored a number of books and, when not writing, stayed busy with gardening and carpentry chores on his farm. He died on August 19, 2003, at the age of ninety-nine.
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Rev R. Lester Mondale
1910 United States Federal Census
Rev R. Lester Mondale
1950 United States Federal Census
Rev R. Lester Mondale
1920 United States Federal Census
Rev R. Lester Mondale
1940 United States Federal Census
Rev R. Lester Mondale
Minnesota, U.S., Births and Christenings Index, 1840-1980
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