Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Putting Us In Our Place…

The day the Alito draft opinion leaked, my youngest son sent me a reaction from The Onion, headlined “Vessel for Male Sexual Gratification Very Sad Today.”

Noting its slumping posture, slack expression, and overall downcast appearance, sources confirmed Wednesday that a vessel for male sexual gratification was very sad today. “It definitely appears to be upset,” said sources, adding that the object that exists solely for men’s physical pleasure was presently sitting unmoving with a distant, empty stare. “It doesn’t look happy. What’s wrong with it? I don’t like the way it’s ignoring me.” At press time, sources had decided to go over to the sexual apparatus and tell it to smile.

Despite the pious, “pro life” pronouncements of those who have worked assiduously to control women’s reproduction, the real issue has little or nothing to do with “saving babies.” (If it did–as innumerable people have pointed out–Americans wouldn’t continue to ignore the care and feeding of those babies once they are born.) It’s the “place”–the defined status– of women. 

We can see the desired end game of the “pro-life” movement in the declarations of the more rabid anti-choice warriors, who have made it quite clear that they oppose birth control as well.

I still remember a conversation with a partner at the law firm I joined after graduating from law school. It was 1977, and the firm had just hired its first two women lawyers (I was one). He mused that women’s ability to plan our childbearing had opened up employment opportunities that hadn’t previously been available. He was right.

Before the wide availability of birth control, the only real “choice” available to women who wanted to pursue professional careers was to abstain–from sex, marriage, and motherhood–or to delay for many years (or more commonly, to entirely forgo) careers.

The birth control pill changed women’s worlds. It also changed virtually all parts of American society. Remember that old cigarette ad, proclaiming “You’ve come a long way, baby?” We have.

Think about the trajectory.

Religion began–and mostly remains– highly patriarchal. Women were seen as either temptresses (Eve!), or nurturers and breeders. Gender norms were “God decreed,”  and religious texts were male-centered.

When the American colonies were first settled, they adopted English laws forbidding women from owning property or from keeping their own earnings. In 1877, all states had laws preventing women from voting. Women have had the vote for just over 100 years.

Most other advances toward civic equality for females came after 1960–the year the FDA approved the birth control pill. In 1963, we got the Equal Pay Act. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and the EEOC established. In 1965, the  Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures couldn’t forbid married people from using contraceptives–a ruling that Alito’s draft endangers. Other rulings allowed women to serve on juries, and forbid various types of gender discrimination. It was only recently that the Lily Ledbetter Act attacked the practice of paying women less than men doing the same job.

Thanks to those legal changes–and especially the ability to decide whether and when to procreate–women have entered much more fully into the life of this country. We have a woman Speaker of the House, a woman Vice-President. Turn on your TV, and women news anchors and sports reporters inform you. Today, your doctor and your dentist and your CPA are all as likely to be women as men.

The results have been salutary–and not just for women.

A friend whose company offers financial services recently posted an article from The Daily Shot, sharing research that compared companies with greater and lesser numbers of female executives in the ranks. Those with more female executives “have done far better over the last decade in return on equity than the rest of the S&P 500.”

The Christian Nationalist Party–formerly the GOP–finds the current state of affairs terrifying and “unGodly.” The old White guys who believe they should run the world have very accurately identified the foundation on which women’s progress rests: the ability to control our own reproduction. 

And that is what the fight over abortion is really about.

Assuming the extent of the backlash to the Alito leak doesn’t change the result–assuming the Court issues a version of Alito’s dishonest “history” and his astonishing decree that state legislators should have the right to require women to give birth–we will see whether America is willing to roll back the past fifty years of cultural change–whether even Red states are able to erase the civil status, empowerment and participation of half of the population.

Will this last gasp of patriarchy prevail? We’re about to find out.

Performative Religion Versus The Real Thing

Calling something “performative” is a nicer way of identifying what’s phony–of calling out the posturing of politicians pretending to care about governing, and especially “Christians” pretending they are acting out of genuine faith.

I recently encountered two unrelated examples of that calling out. The first was an editorial from Religion News Service, referencing the just-argued Supreme Court case of the football coach who insisted on praying on the 50-yard line.

That coach, Joe Kennedy (absolutely NO relation!), sued a school district in Washington state after it prohibited him from leading public prayers immediately following games. The editorial didn’t focus on the constitutional argument; instead, the author pointed out that  genuine believers are ill-served by public expressions in secular settings.

This — more than any legal reasoning — is the judgment believers are called on to make. In the exercise of liberty, we can recall the words of St. Paul: “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” 

Ostentatious public prayers do not edify. If anything, they detract from serious Christian devotion. As with street-corner preachers who are well within their right but convince no one, Kennedy’s public postgame prayers were likely little more than a sideshow. The law may broadly permit it, but Christianity does not require it.

The essayist pointed to scriptural evidence that “Christ himself not only does not require showy, potentially coercive public prayers — he teaches against them.” Kennedy’s prayers, he notes, “may have provided psychological uplift to him, but they were not meaningful exercises in Christian faith and devotion.” And he worries that “emboldened conservative justices” will “open the door to more nominal, cultural Christianity. It seems that in the era of former President Donald Trump and his judges, that’s all so-called conservative Christians really want.”

Research by political scientists and religion scholars alike has documented the use of precisely that “cultural Christianity” by White Christian Nationalists intent upon retaining their status as the “real Americans.” Their panic about “replacement” and loss of cultural hegemony is producing ugly accusations of “grooming” by LGBTQ citizens, and other despicable charges defended as protected expressions of religious piety.

Which brings me to the really excellent example of how genuinely religious people can and should respond.

Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow describes herself as a “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom.” She had been accused by a GOP colleague of being a “groomer,” the latest right-wing slander against anyone who supports the rights of LGBTQ children. Rather than ignoring the accusation, or walking back her support, she grounded her position in her own faith.

  “I want every child to feel seen, heard, and supported,” she said, “not marginalized and targeted if they are not straight, white, and Christian.”

As the author of the linked article pointed out, 

To understand the power of McMorrow’s words, you have to understand that “straight, White and Christian” is the default cultural and political setting in this country. Throw in “male” and you’d have the top of this pyramid. Just ask Tucker Carlson.
 
When you’re none, or not all, of those identities, you’re made to feel it. Your intellect, dignity and value are called into question. Demagogues gin up fear of you for electoral gain. Your very life becomes a political piñata whacked around by people who don’t have to live with the consequences of what they have wrought. Look at the anti-trans legislation littering the land or the “don’t say gay” law in Florida.

Activists who aren’t “straight, white and Christian” have pushed back against bigotry for many generations, and they have secured hard-won advances. But especially in this new front in the United States’ oldest culture war, those voices could use some backup. Enter McMorrow. …

The author makes an important point: McMorrow’s response should be a “blueprint for Democrats who are accustomed to cowering in fear of Republican culture war attacks.”

Too many national Democrats are letting the incipient “groomer” charges go unchallenged or are assuming they’re too ridiculous to gain traction. They’re ridiculous, yes — but that doesn’t mean they can’t gain traction. (Have you seen today’s Republican Party?)

I am not religious, and I have frequently expressed contempt for self-identified “religious” figures who are intent upon imposing their purported beliefs on others. Like Coach Kennedy, their public expressions of piety are purely performative. That said, I have great respect for people who  genuinely look to their religious traditions for lessons on what constitutes moral and ethical behavior, and for guidance on how they should treat their fellow humans.

There was a saying “back in the day” to the effect that the religious right is neither. We need more people like Mallory McMorrow, who are positioned to illustrate what the real thing looks like.

 

Sin And Crime

Several years ago, I had a conversation with the Rabbi of the synagogue I had attended growing up. She had asked why I no longer belonged. When I responded that I didn’t believe in God, she retorted “Sheila, no one believes in the God you don’t believe in!”

What she meant, of course, was that I was rejecting a certain image of deity–the guy with a long white beard up in the sky who earns the gratitude of football players who win their games. (I always wonder whether they think their God hates the other team…) I have several friends who are Christian clergy who share the Rabbi’s more sophisticated concept of Godliness, and I have even thought that I could count myself a believer if we defined “God” as, say, the existence of humans’ ethical impulse.

What triggered these recollections and musings was a reminder of a class I taught for a couple of semesters “back in the day,” titled “Sin and Crime.” It was what we called a “Topics” class, a one-credit, two week offering, and it was intended to probe the consequences–and legitimacy–of basing criminal laws on religious conceptions of sin.

Given the renewed efforts of the biblical literalists who control today’s GOP, those consequences–and their illegitimacy–are worth revisiting.

The class began with a consideration of the difference between sin and crime. Sin, the students clearly understood, was violation of a religious precept, a behavior thought to be against the teaching of a particular faith tradition. An action that displeased one’s concept of God.

Crime, on the other hand, was rooted in government’s obligation to maintain order and protect the weak from the strong. Unlike theocracies, America’s particular approach to government is contractual: We the People give government a monopoly on the use of coercive force, and in return, government undertakes to keep some  people from harming others.

That practical, contractual approach was always inconsistent with plenty of laws that characterized an earlier America–blue laws that “kept the (Christian) sabbath holy” and Prohibition are a couple that come to mind. It is also inconsistent with laws against “consensual” behaviors, often called “victimless crimes.”  The Bill of Rights privileges personal autonomy, or self-government. A cherished (if often ignored) American principle is the right of individuals to form and hold their own moral, religious and political beliefs.

That focus on individual liberty and especially liberty of conscience is arguably incompatible with laws regulating prostitution, gambling, drug use, pornography, and  private, consensual sexual relations. (I still remember one of my students, a 40-something Black woman who often referenced her church, indignantly asking why she couldn’t sell her own body if for some reason she decided to do so…)

Obviously, some of these behaviors might lead to harm: the person who becomes dependent upon drugs might commit robberies to support his habit, the person consuming pornography might prey on children. But these consequences are rare and mostly conjectural, and just as we no longer  penalize drinking–we penalize drunk driving–lawmakers can make the necessary distinctions.

Turning what some religions categorize as sin into crimes creates all sorts of problems. Most consensual crimes cannot be fairly enforced (the local constable can’t invade bedrooms to ensure that no one is engaging in sodomy, for example), so these laws are usually justified as “setting a social standard.” In the real world, as many of my gay friends can attest, they are far more likely to end up encouraging selective enforcement. Research confirms that Whites use illicit drugs as much or more than Blacks, but enforcement occurs disproportionately in Black communities.

The  GOP’s single-minded focus on culture war–and especially, it’s persistent effort to deny civil equality to LGBTQ folks–is a result of the party’s takeover by Christian Nationalists. In a theocracy–the form of government they clearly favor–those in power can and do impose their religious beliefs on everyone else.

We’ve always had these Puritans, but they haven’t previously controlled one of the country’s two major parties.

Current estimates place these Evangelical Christians at 14% of the population, a percentage that shouldn’t be as worrisome as it is. But religious zealots are motivated and noisy –and they will vote, because they have remade the GOP into a religion, and by voting, they are venerating the guy with the white beard who lives in the sky, watches everything they do, and wants them to vanquish their enemies. (That would be the rest of us.)

They definitely believe in the God I don’t believe in…

The March of Those Christian “Soldiers”

Marching backwards…

Last Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star reported on the explosion of anti-Semitic incidents on IU’s Bloomington campus. National headlines trumpet passage of anti-LGBTQ legislation (“Don’t say gay!”) and mean-spirited attacks on transgender youth. The Ted Cruz’s of the GOP and the Tucker Carlsons of rightwing media warn against the “feminization” of American men and the “dire threat” posed by (nonwhite) immigrants.

The fears and hatreds that feed these behaviors are exploited by the Christian Nationalists who have come to exercise disproportionate influence in American life by turning  a political ideology into a version of Christianity, and insisting that only adherents of that version are authentically American.

In a recent column, Jennifer Rubin considered that influence–and confluence. In a column about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, she wrote:

.Democracy functions only with restraint, good-faith application of procedural rules and devotion to the principle that the other side gets to govern when it wins. That concept is now an anathema to the GOP. As Thomas Zimmer has written for the Guardian, “Many Republicans agree that the Democratic Party is a fundamentally illegitimate political faction — and that any election outcome that would lead to Democratic governance must be rejected as illegitimate as well.”

That view of illegitimacy often stems from Christian nationalism. As Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, explains, “A worldview that claims God as a political partisan and dehumanizes one’s political opponents as evil is fundamentally antidemocratic.” He tells me, “A mind-set that believes that our nation was divinely ordained to be a promised land for Christians of European descent is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion and equality of all.”

The New Republic–among others–has also looked at what it called “The Shock Troops” of Christian Nationalism, and the wealthy theocrats funding them. 

The article focused on a little-known foundation, the James and Joan Lindsey Family Foundation, and what it characterized as “a vast and steady flow of contributions” to  organizations in that Christian nationalist movement: the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, WallBuilders, a media company called Mastermedia International, and the Council for National Policy, a networking group for movement leadership.

“We are a Christian country. And the Founders were—definitely—and our founding documents were written under prayer each day of the writing,” Joan Lindsey has said. On the eve of the 2020 election, she announced that “this election will either preserve faith’s sacred place in our country or destroy it.”

The most recent effort backed by the Lindseys is something called “The Church Finds Its Voice,” a new entrant in what the article identifies as “a long-standing pattern in the Christian nationalist movement of backing projects to turn America’s network of tens of thousands of conservative churches into a powerful partisan political machine.”

The article is lengthy, and includes multiple other examples of Christian Nationalist activism.  It’s chilling; one leader of the movement is quoted as saying that “every election is a contest against absolute evil, and the consequences of failure are almost too dire to imagine.” To suggest that these activists are motivated is to understate the situation. Rightwing media has convinced them that Trump was anointed by God to protect Christians from those who would not only dislodge them from their privileged position but would also strip them of their rights and liberties.

Numerous accounts of the January 6th insurrection have focused on the ubiquity of Christian Nationalist symbols, and expressions of belief that God was on their side. As the deeply religious Michael Gerson has observed, transforming opponents into infidels provides an opening for racism and anti-Semitism.

The anti-Semitism being displayed at Indiana University is just one aspect of the Christian Nationalist worldview, but it is a fairly major element of it. An analysis by the Washington Post found that Christian Nationalism, support for QAnon, and anti-Semitism to be tightly linked.

Since Christian nationalism is a worldview holding that the United States was created by and for Christians, it may not be surprising that they dislike non-Christians. On average, the most ardent Christian nationalists subscribed to four of the eight anti-Semitic tropes presented; those most opposed to Christian nationalism subscribed to an average of one. Christian nationalists were more likely to believe each individual trope but showed the strongest support for the mistaken ideas that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country” and “Jews killed Jesus.”

Christian Nationalists who had bought into nutty QAnon conspiracy theories were even more anti-Semitic. QAnon reinforces a number of anti-Semitic tropes: that Jews control the banks, the media and the government, and that Jews are the ones behind the Deep State.

The problem is, those “Christian soldiers” own today’s GOP.

 

 

Who Are We #2

Us versus Them. It’s tribal, a way of approaching life that has–unfortunately– persisted through centuries. For most of those centuries, the major divisions have taken the form of national boundaries, although religion and skin color have been close behind.

In our increasingly globalized world, however, perceptions of who “we” are–and perceptions of the threats posed by “them”– are changing. The identity of the “tribe” to which one belongs is no longer totally dependent upon nationality or even skin color, although religious beliefs remain a potent part of what we might call the New World Disorder.

I was struck by some statistics in a recent New York Times column.The author was considering the genesis and character of pro-Putin/pro-autocrat sentiment on the Right.

It may feel shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising that many Republican leaders and conservative elites think the American president is a more dangerous enemy than the Russian autocrat. There is an influential tradition on the right of idolizing Putin as a defender of white Christian values against the onslaught of secular, “leftist” liberalism. In 2013, for instance, Pat Buchanan, a leading voice on the “paleoconservative” traditionalist right, described Putin as “one of us,” an ally in what he saw as the defining struggle of our era, “with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite”. Similarly, in 2014, famous evangelist Franklin Graham lauded Putin for having “taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda” – an agenda Barack Obama was supposedly pursuing in the US.

After the 2016 election, the simmering admiration for Putin morphed into GOP orthodoxy, with Donald Trump himself leading the Republican party’s pro-Russia turn. This rapprochement shaped the right well beyond conservative elites. Among voters in general, support for Donald Trump correlates strongly with a favorable opinion of Putin, and Americans who define the US as a “Christian nation” have a much more favorable view of Putin’s Russia. As recently as January 2022, Putin had a significantly higher approval rating among Republicans than Joe Biden.

The author followed those two paragraphs with a litany of far Right statements confirming that worldview: Steve Bannon declaring his support for Putin because “Putin ain’t woke, he is anti-woke;”  Christian nationalist Republican Lauren Witzke (a Delaware Republican candidate for Senate in 2020)  asserting that she supports Putin because he protects “our Christian values. I identify more with Russian, with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.”  Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers is quoted as saying “I stand with Christians worldwide and not the global bankers who are shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face”; in case you (inexplicably) missed the anti-Semitic tropes in that statement, she then described Ukrainian president Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, as “a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons.”

There were several others–and of course we all know what Tucker Carlson has had to say.

This critique has basically become dogma on the right: a radically “un-American” woke Left is out to destroy the country – and has already succeeded in undermining the nation considerably, especially its “woke, emasculated military,” as Texas senator Ted Cruz put it; a weak west foolishly “focused on expanding its national debt and exploding the gender binary”, according to rightwing activist Ben Shapiro.

For these culture warriors, the message is clear: the democracies of the West had it coming; they’ve been weakened by liberal decadence and “woke culture.”

Those fighting the so-called “woke” culture celebrated Trump’s election as a success in that culture war–as proof that the forces of reaction would ultimately prevail.

Rightwingers everywhere understand the transnational dimension as well as the world-historic significance of the current fight over democracy more clearly than many people on the left: is it possible to establish a stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy? Such a political, social and cultural order has indeed never existed. There have been several stable, fairly liberal democracies – but either they have been culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with; or there has always been a pretty clearly defined ruling group: a white man’s democracy, a racial caste democracy, a “herrenvolk” democracy. A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined to a significant degree by race, gender, or religion? I don’t think that’s ever been achieved anywhere. It’s a vision that reactionaries abhor – to them, it would be the end of “western civilization”. And they are determined to fight back by whatever means necessary.

We are about to see what happens when “we”–the despised, “woke” humans who want to live in that “stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy”–are targeted and opposed by “them,” the neighbors and fellow-citizens) who view that desire with fear and contempt.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore….