A Sword Or A Shield?

Religion has been in the news a lot lately, which probably shouldn’t surprise us. When the times we live in are tumultuous–and I certainly think this era qualifies–people cling to and defend their “eternal verities.”

Of course, that raises an interesting question: what, exactly, qualifies as religion? I think the “eternal verity” descriptor gets at something (excuse the phrase) fundamental: an unshakable belief system based largely on faith in matters that are not susceptible to scientific verification. Political ideologies–including tribal bigotries–fall within that definition.

Unshakable and unprovable beliefs, of course, are the source of a great deal of mischief–and often, tragedy. I’ve posted previously about the tensions within evangelical circles, about some Christians’ insistence that Muslims and Jews cannot be “real Americans,” about the ongoing religious debates over reproductive rights, and (more frequently) about the concerns of America’s founders that led to the religion clauses of the First Amendment. 

With respect to those concerns, an observation by Barney Frank during a recent interview comes to mind.(I’ve loved Barney Frank ever since he held a Town Hall during the fight over the Affordable Care Act, and responded to a looney-tune woman comparing Obama to Hitler and the ACA to Nazism by asking her “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”)

In the interview, Frank was asked the following question: “Some on the left have expressed concern that the 6-3 conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court could erode LGBTQ rights in the name of religious liberty. Are you concerned at all about this?”

Frank responded with his trademark rhetorical acuity. “Yes I am. They’re not going to undo marriage. But I do worry about entities that get public tax money to perform services—they should not in my judgment be allowed to exclude people because of some religious disapproval of their sexual practices. It’s the sword versus the shield. The shield, in legal terms, is a doctrine that prevents other people from intruding on you. A sword is used to intrude on others. And while religious liberty should be a shield, there are concerns that people might make it a sword.”

That verbal picture–a sword or a shield–is an excellent way to approach the First Amendment, and not simply the religion clauses. 

The Amendment was intended to protect an individual’s right to believe pretty much anything (not necessarily to act on those beliefs, however) and to try to convince others to believe those things too. It was also intended to prevent government from getting involved by putting a thumb on the scale, so to speak, or imposing the beliefs of some Americans on others. It was–in Frank’s felicitous phrase–intended to provide individual citizens with a shield and to prevent majorities from using government as a sword.

The problem is, we have millions of people who have “religion” in the sense I defined it above. We have cults, traditional religious affiliations, conspiracy theories, political ideologies of both the Left and Right…in short, we have veritable armies of people convinced of the superior righteousness of their own belief systems. If you need evidence, examine what has been called “cancel culture,” the effort to ostracize people who hold opposing views–not to enter into debate with them, but to shut them down, eject them from the public conversation. (That effort is most definitely not limited to the Left, despite Rightwing efforts to claim otherwise.) 

For numerous reasons, the law cannot classify all these systems as religions for purposes of the First Amendment. That practical reality means that the label “religious” does confer a considerable advantage on beliefs that define themselves in that more limited fashion.

When it comes to traditional religion, Pew recently shared a bit of positive news about the sword and shield finding a significant majority of Americans want government to enforce separation of Church and State. I wonder what a similar study would find about our current commitment to Free Speech–especially in light of recent revelations about Facebook and other social media platforms.

What’s that Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times…” 


  1. And now we have the anti vaxers using a “religious exemption” claim to try to skirt the vaccine mandate. I guess in their holy book there is a section where they are required to spread a deadly disease to co-workers, family and friends till they are all dead. Amen

  2. Yes, the anti-vaxxers perceive the jab to be a sword thrust upon by a government they don’t trust, along with scientists they also don’t trust. But, of course, if you don’t trust something, you most likely doubt it has your best interests at heart.

    This is ironic because they do trust the government enough to use the shield it provides.

    It does get confusing even with interesting analogies because they also want the government they don’t trust to use a sword against women on the choice regarding a zygote attached to their womb.

    I’m still confused why people who see government as the problem want to work for that government. I mean, the current GOP are government terrorists, so why do they want to become public servants?

    Then again, I wonder why Bernie Sanders is working harder for Joe Biden’s proposals than Joe is working for them.

    I also think the Facebook “whistleblower” Francis Haugen and Pete Buttigieg are CIA plants. But, wait, I’ve gotten off-topic.

    Or have I?

  3. It’s a bit interesting to contemplate that, to so many right wing evangelicals, I personally would be described as a baby killing cannibal who is a part of the deep state, rather than just the batty old crone I really am.

  4. “Then again, I wonder why Bernie Sanders is working harder for Joe Biden’s proposals than Joe is working for them.”

    Todd; maybe this is because President Joe Biden is working on more proposals, such as on the international level restoring diplomacy, and all other issues this nation is facing, plus trying to save the lives of all Americans, including the fools who refused to be saved. Appearances can be deceiving, and because Bernie has fewer issues to deal with, it appears he is working harder on the proposals directly against Republicans in the Senate and some Democrats. Just sayin’

    Frances and Pete and CIA, oh my! What is your road map to that conclusion?

  5. I think it’s important to distinguish ideology from belief systems here. The way I see it, an ideology is any belief system that has hardened to be unquestionable and rules out any contrary evidence, scientific or experiential. Religions, economic theories, politics, ethnic identities – all are fodder for ideologies. Marxism and Capitalism have both been ideologized and imposed regardless of consequences. ANY belief system that cannot be questioned and tested – including in fundamental premises – is prone to being ideologized. Including science and even atheism. The key is openness to new evidence vs enclosure in a set paradigm. A criterion for the health of a belief system is its consequences in real life: To what extent do its practitioners grow in courage, health and learning or become more rigid and closed off?

  6. I’m now editing a book about the Syrian civil war by an author friend of mine who is of Lebanese extraction. He is also a retired professor of economics. He recently sent me a “preface” to edit as part of the book. He describes, in historic detail, the roots of the deadly squabble between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims. In sum, it’s about who wants to be in charge of Islam and thus control the people, their purses and anything/everything else that falls into their laps. It’s astonishing in that the last thing these two warring sects talk about with each other is God. Amazing.

    Then, I reminded him, that Christians are doing the same thing to each other except that their are hundreds of different sects of Christianity all squabbling over this or that. In the process, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, etc., go glimmering into the darkness created by the power-mad fools who think they know what God thinks.

    These facts are why the separation of church and state is so critical to the survival of democracy, and by extension, the survival of the species. All it’s going to take is for some lunatic religious leader who has access to the monster weapons we’ve created and blow us all to Hell.

    I wonder if Muhammed or Jesus ever contemplated the outcome of their righteous place and missions while on Earth. To distill this further, I think religion is an invention my humans to create more control mechanisms over a tribe and to elevate tribal leaders through fear and obedience. Basic tribal stuff, not divine.

  7. The analogy of an offensive sword and a defensive shield puts in Medieval terms the tension between liberal and authoritarian that defines these times. Over my lifetime Americans were largely defined by freedom due to our Constitutional liberal democracy. When we had to we came across to the rest of the world as Colin Powell defined himself, reluctant warriors. We preferred peace.

    For business and cultural reasons, we have morphed from that tradition into warlords and local armies with swords aplenty each with worlds to conquer and convert. The return of the crusaders or, if you will, the Puritans. Or, the NRA for that matter.

    Where does the arc of our history go from here? Will we move back to a nation of goods and services or will we add to those, power for the ideologues?

  8. Vern’s note on the battle of Muslim sects to speak for Islam reminds me of the Hundred Years War in which newly-minted Protestants and Catholics slaughtered one another by the zillions in Central Europe. Thus with all our philosophical discussion and competing rationales for power within religious structures there are real world consequences to how governments allocate civil power to religious institutions, and I think our founders did a good job of it, especially given the dictatorial designs of Henry VIII’s creation at the time. We have probably butchered the real intent of the founders with our judicial interpretations since, but if so it’s one of many. Take Citizens United, for instance, while considering that Jefferson disliked corporations.

  9. Gerald, I don’t think Jefferson disliked corporations as much as he understood the humans who ran them and how they lust for power. It’s why he argued for a strong central government to regulate them. However, it didn’t materialize that way.

    He also argued for a strong free press to hold him (government) accountable, or else those humans in government would abuse their power. That also didn’t materialize.

    When you cut it down into tiny pieces, fear rules humanity. Jesus and Buddha said there was another path – love. This is what Vernon touched on. Man always has two basic choices – love or fear.

    And JoAnn, my sources tell me Frances and Pete have the same sponsors which explains much. In this world, very rarely do people “burst upon the scene.” 99.99% of the time they are groomed and placed in roles of “leadership.” That’s how oligarchy works. It’s also why Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going ballistic over her stealing corporate secrets. There are lots of laws on the books about corporate espionage, but none of them are flying at Frances. She’s already got a new job lined up.

  10. Religion is a curse, nothing but an artifact of human evolution, the result of the specialization of the brain to survive in primitive conditions.

  11. In Leonard Bersteins musical composition called “Mass”, the priest sings an aria after he accidentally drops and breaks the chalice filled with “the blood of Christ”. One of the lyrics is
    “we turned it into a sword.” There was religous violence against Christians when they were being stoned in the first century after Jesus and eventually Christians turned against one another and those of other religions. Jesus would be extremely upset with that as was Gandhi.

    What does religion shield us against? Maybe it shields us from despair in the face of our mortality or in the face of severe persecution at the hands of a dictator. Perhaps it shields us from being isolated instead of belonging to a community, or surrendering to temptations that harm ourselves or others. But can it shield us from dangerous ideologies, oppression, violence?

    Too often religion has been used as a sword, to justify stoning people to death, racism, sexism, homophobia, or wars against the “infidel”, and more recently to deny climate change and to support antivaxxers. The Taliban use it to justify persecution of women.

    Both Buddha and Jesus would encourage us not to use religion as a sword. And yes, Todd, do we choose fear(which leads to a sword) or love (which creates vulnerabilty and sometimes a shield). “Course in Miracles” discusses fear vs. love as well.

    Separation of religion and the government is the only way to ensure we avoid a theocracy( like Iran) that encourages using religion as a sword, that undermines the unity of a nation under whose roof people of many different faith traditions live.

    It is said that only the truth will set us free. Question is from what and for what will the truth set us free? There’s a “religous” debate.

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