In the wake of Mike Delph’s bizarre meltdown, and his obvious inability to distinguish between his personal (and idiosyncratic) religious commitments and his civic and constitutional responsibilities, I couldn’t help thinking of The Book of Mormon.
Bear with me here.
For those of you who have yet to see the musical, Book of Mormon is both a delightful comic entertainment and a meditation on the role of religion in human society, for good or ill. While the ostensible subject is Mormonism, the real subject is the uses to which religious commitments are put, and the various harms done by unquestioning adherence to dogma.
When youthful “Elders” from Salt Lake City are sent to Uganda to convert the villagers, they find horrific conditions: widespread AIDS, hunger, poverty and hopelessness. The blond, blue-eyed, privileged Americans are steadfast in their beliefs; they sing of the “spooky Mormon hell dreams” that follow even minor indiscretions, of the “little Mormon trick” of “turning off” and denying unapproved sexual impulses, and–in my favorite, a song called “I Believe”– they affirm all manner of (implausible) doctrinal beliefs, including the belief that “in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.”
Elder Cunningham, one of the missionaries and the play’s comic relief, is a reluctant apostate: when a member of the tribe announces his belief that he can cure his AIDS by raping a baby, the appropriately appalled Cunningham invents a scriptural passage about AIDS that forbids such behavior (and substitutes a frog…you really need to see the show.)
This spontaneous invention–and many others that follow, including a divine prohibition against genital mutilation and commanded reverence for the clitoris–is clearly not consistent with Mormon doctrine. But it’s just as clearly humane and socially useful. And in fact, Cunningham’s version of Mormonism (which owes a considerable debt to Star Wars) is wildly successful with the Ugandans.
This musical morality tale brings us back to what I am going to call the Delph Dilemma.
Every religion has its doctrinal fundamentalists, a minority of believers for whom (their version of) the letter is far more important than the original spirit or purpose of religious law. And that’s fine, so long as we all recognize the wisdom of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which essentially say “Okay folks, you have a right to believe what you want, and to live in accordance with those beliefs (at least until you start sacrificing small children or violating other basic laws of society). But you don’t get to make the rest of us live by your rules, especially when those rules require marginalizing those who are different.”
People like Mike Delph and Eric Miller and Micah Clark have an absolute right to their belief in a God who doesn’t want gay people to get married. They have an absolute right to throw a hissy fit (on twitter or elsewhere) when they lose a legislative battle. Those of us who see religion as one of many ways humans approach questions of ethics and morality, one of many way we try to understand our obligations to the other humans with whom we share this planet–have a right to think and live differently, and in our system, the government doesn’t get to make anyone’s religious doctrine the law of the land.
Although none of us has the right to impose our preferred religious doctrines on others, we do each have a right–perhaps even a duty–to assess whether any particular belief system ultimately encourages loving-kindness or abets mean-spiritedness– whether any particular worldview promotes amity or enmity.
We get to decide which is better: the dogma that sacrifices the baby, or the modification that targets the frog.