Tag Archives: religion

Religion And Patriarchy

The current assault on women’s autonomy, led primarily by people espousing fundamentalist versions of Evangelical Christianity, has awakened many Americans to the considerable influence of religion on American law and culture. That influence is not new, although the extent of it has largely gone unrecognized. Indeed, through most of American history, people have vastly underestimated the profound and continuing influence of culturally-embedded attitudes that originated with religious ways of interpreting reality. Most of us today recognize the impact of purportedly religious beliefs on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and support for the death penalty, but what is far less obvious is the degree to which religiously-rooted worldviews continue to influence seemingly secular policy debates, including economic policies.

Many of the cultural perspectives that shape our policy preferences were originally religious, and those religious roots have influenced our adult worldviews—including the worldviews of people who reject theological doctrines and do not believe themselves to be religious. The much-ballyhooed “values” debate isn’t a conflict between people who are religious and people who are not, nor is it a struggle between people holding different religious beliefs. It’s a debate between people operating out of different and largely inconsistent worldviews, and whether they recognize it or not, many of those worldviews originally grew out of different and frequently inconsistent religious explanations of the world we inhabit. Those inconsistencies don’t just reflect differences between major religions—different theological approaches taken by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.—but also between denominations within those religions, especially the numerous denominations within Christianity. Calvinist beliefs, for example, continue to exert a major influence on American economic policy.

As women have slowly moved into the mainstream of American life, the doctrinal and
structural differences of the major Abrahamic religions have shaped both their official
responses and the culture. That has especially been true of religions like Catholicism that
prohibit women from the priesthood and consider both abortion and artificial birth control
sinful.  It wasn’t until 2020 that Pope Francis changed church law to allow a somewhat expanded role for women within the Catholic Church. The decree allows women to serve as readers, altar servers, and assistants to priests during service or in administering Holy Communion; however, the priesthood remains exclusively male.

As Frank Bruni has written  “For all the remarkable service that the Catholic Church performs, it is one of the world’s dominant and most unshakable patriarchies, with tenets that don’t abet equality.”

For women to get a fair shake in the work force, they need at least some measure of reproductive freedom. But Catholic bishops in the United States lobbied strenuously against the Obamacare requirement that employers such as religiously affiliated schools and hospitals include contraception in workers’ health insurance.

The autocratic structure of Catholicism, which discourages dissent from approved messaging, and requires the exclusion of women from the pulpit, operates to reinforce the subordinate status of women. Recent revelations about an internal “faith group” within Catholicism underscore that message.  People of Praise (which counts current Supreme Court Justice Amy Comey Barrett among its members) calls for complete obedience of women to their husbands, “emphasizes the importance of childbirth, pregnancy and the abandonment of autonomy and privacy it supposedly entails, as a core part of what it means to be a woman.” The Catholic Church remains adamantly anti-abortion, recognizing an exception only when it is clearly required in order to save the life of the mother.

The response of liberal Protestantism to cultural change has been very different. The largest Mainline  Protestant denominations include the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church (ABC- USA, not to be confused with the Southern Baptists, considered below) the United Church of Christ (UCC), and Christian Church Disciples of Christ (DOC). Sometimes referred to as the “Seven Sisters,’ these denominations have seen significant growth in the ordination of women; as of 2010, approximately 10% of Protestant pastors were female.  A survey conducted in 1987 suggested that women entering pastoral positions brought liberal commitments in religion, theological discussions, and cultural values to their congregations. Those commitments translate into their current supportive positions on abortion and birth control; a recent study by Pew categorizes them as supportive of abortion rights, albeit with some restrictions.

When it comes to religion and women’s rights, historians note that Quakers and Jews have been longstanding and prominent proponents of female equality. Quakers are among the least “top down” of Christian sects, and as far back as the early 1800s, Quaker women who were recognized as being “called” were allowed to travel to share their gifts of ministry, usually with a chaperone. The most famous was probably Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). The Quaker acceptance of women’s education and ministry set Quakers apart from the rest of organized Christianity, and may explain the disproportionate presence of Quaker women in the abolition movement. That activity led to gatherings of women who were also concerned about the need for greater rights for women. Of the four women who led the planning for the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, three were Quakers.

Like Quakerism, Judaism has no single authority able to prescribe what is “kosher” in Jewish law and observance. Throughout the ages, Rabbis have argued about the proper meaning of biblical and Talmudic passages, and individual Jews have followed those that they found persuasive. Women’s status has varied, but the prevailing attitudes have usually been more progressive than those of surrounding cultures. In Judaism, descent is matrilinear—a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother. Jewish law requires women to obey the same negative commandments that men must follow (the “thou shalt nots”), but excuses females from ritual duties that are time-bound, presumably in recognition of women’s maternal obligations. As far back as Talmudic times, evidence suggests that at least some women were educated in the Bible and Jewish law. During and after the Middle Ages, because many Jewish women were the family breadwinners in order to allow the man of the house to study, the culture has been very accepting of women entering the workforce and later, the professions.  With respect to worship, progress has been more recent: Reform Judaism ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, and Reconstructionist Judaism followed suit 1974. Today, there are more than a thousand women in the rabbinate, as well as a growing number of LGBTQ Rabbis, and congregants are accustomed to seeing women as Rabbis and Cantors within Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues.

The Orthodox movement within Judaism has been considerably slower to accept women’s full participation; in Orthodox synagogues, men and women still sit apart, and until very recently there have been no female Rabbis. Feminists within Orthodoxy have been actively advocating for reforms, and in 2013, a first group of female rabbinical students graduated from a New York seminary, but there is still considerable resistance within Orthodoxy to giving them pulpits, and similar resistance to many of the changes that Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements have made.

With respect to abortion, Jewish law affirms that protecting existing life is
paramount at all stages of pregnancy; however, Judaism does not consider a fetus a person until the head emerges from the womb. In Jewish law, the interests of the pregnant individual always come before that of the fetus. Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not onl permitted but is required should the pregnancy endanger the life or health of the pregnant individual, and “health” includes psychological as well as physical health.

American Muslims have only recently been numerous enough to affect social attitudes about women. Worldwide, Islamic practices vary widely. The Koran does require the education of women, and gives women certain rights if divorced by their husbands. According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, in the United States, Muslims are more likely than white Evangelicals and Protestants to have favorable views of feminists. The Institute has found that “American Muslim women denounce gender discrimination inside and outside of their community.”

Evangelicals and the Status of Women

Evangelicals, like the rest of America’s religious landscape, are diverse; however, the more fundamentalist White Evangelical Christian denominations are currently united in their opposition to women’s reproductive autonomy. That contemporary reality has tended to obscure the history of American Evangelicalism, which was far from monolithic in its approach to gender, and considerably less political than today. In some Evangelical denominations, women were allowed to be ordained and otherwise vested with spiritual authority; in many others, women were—and still are—forbidden from holding leadership roles.

A major tenet of Evangelical Christianity is the doctrine of complementarianism—the belief that while men and women are equal in creation, they are distinct in function. “Biblical womanhood” reflects this belief in “separate spheres.” Men are to be the leaders of the church and the home, and women are meant to support and submit to them. This doctrine has a long history in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), one of the largest and most influential of the Evangelical churches. As one religious historian wrote,

Southern Baptist leader John Broadus answered the question “should women speak in mixed public assemblies?” with a definitive “no” in 1889. The year before, when Southern Baptist women formed the Woman’s Missionary Union, they assured male leaders that they only desired to be supportive, not independent as women in some other denominations were.

As the writer noted, that thinking—advanced by the world’s largest organization for Protestant women– “shaped the views of generations of Southern Baptist women and in turn, those of their Evangelical neighbors and friends.” This approach to the roles of men and women persisted; in 1974, the wife of one influential Southern Baptist pastor wrote to a widely-approving audience that the man should lead and the woman should be submissive.

As the broader American culture changed, some Southern Baptist women pushed the denomination to rethink that submission. The SBC held a consultation on women’s roles in 1978, and a later organization, Baptist Women in Ministry, argued for an expanded role for women within the denomination. Within the broader Evangelical movement, there were also challenges to complementarianism and the traditional understanding of women’s roles. In 1988, Christians for Biblical Equality sought to empower women in Evangelical churches. About the same time, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was formed to revisit the accepted definition of biblically-appropriate gender roles.

These efforts largely failed. In 2000, despite the emergence of Evangelical women arguing for more equal status within the faith, the SBC reaffirmed its adherence to complementarianism, publishing a proclamation that wives should submit to their husbands and pastors should be male.

Evangelical theology doesn’t simply elevate men over women; it considers homosexuality and gender-fluid identities to be sinful and unnatural, and rejects efforts to secure equal legal rights for LGBTQ Americans. As Evangelicals have become more and more political, and as the Republican Party has become more and more dependent upon the Evangelical vote, those beliefs have powered what has come to be called the Culture War, and the transformation of Evangelical theology into a political movement. As a result, any effort to examine Evangelical theology today must contend with the fact that, in today’s America, Evangelical is no longer a religious descriptor. It has become a political label.

Numerous studies have confirmed that a significant percentage of contemporary Americans who claim an Evangelical identity rarely attend religious services. In 2008, 16% of all self-identified Evangelicals reported “never or seldom’ when asked about their church attendance. By 2020, that number was 27%. In 2008, a third of self-identified Evangelicals who never attended church claimed to be politically conservative. By 2019, that number approached 50 percent. In addition, growing numbers of Catholics and Muslims now call themselves Evangelical. Apparently, many Americans think that being very religiously engaged and very politically conservative makes one an Evangelical.

Even more troubling, a growing body of research confirms that American Evangelicalism hasn’t simply become a political rather than religious identity; to a very significant extent, the American Evangelicals who dominate today’s Republican Party are more properly identified as White Christian Nationalists, and they are focused not upon faith but upon the defense of White male Christian privilege.

When it comes to women’s rights and the current effort to ban abortions, it is manifestly dishonest to argue that opposition to reproductive choice is grounded in Christian theology. Pastors to whom we have spoken—both those who describe themselves as “pro-life” and those who are “pro-choice”—agree that the bible is silent on the issue. Religious historians have documented that the roots of the anti-abortion movement lie elsewhere.  It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after the Court decided Roe v, Wade—that Evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.” As noted religion scholar Randall Balmer has written, these political figures felt that objecting to abortion would be seen as “more palatable” than what was actually motivating them, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

According to Balmer,

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

It was rightwing anger about civil rights laws that originally motivated the “Right to life” movement. Political actors were savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots Evangelicals to defend racial discrimination wouldn’t cut it—that they would need a different issue if they wanted to mobilize Evangelical voters on a large scale. Distasteful as that reality is, evidence clearly shows that the Christian Right’s political activism, including but not limited to its opposition to abortion, was largely motivated by a defense of racial segregation, not by religious doctrine.

A lengthy 2022 article from the Guardian reported on the extensive relationships between White supremacist and anti-choice organizations.

Explicit white nationalism, and an emphasis on conscripting white women into reproduction, is not a fringe element of the anti-choice movement. Associations between white supremacist groups and anti-abortion forces are robust and longstanding. In addition to Patriot Front, groups like the white nationalist Aryan Nations and the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker party have also lent support to the anti-abortion movement. These groups see stopping abortion as part of a broader project to ensure white hegemony in addition to women’s subordination. Tim Bishop, of the Aryan Nations, noted that “Lots of our people join [anti-choice organizations] … It’s part of our Holy War for the pure Aryan race.” That the growing white nationalist movement would be focused on attacking women’s rights is maybe to be expected: research has long established that recruitment to the alt-right happens largely among men with grievances against feminism, and that misogyny is usually the first form of rightwing radicalization.

In his decision in Boggs v. Jackson, Justice Alito claimed that reversal of Roe “restores the US to an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.” This assertion is deeply dishonest and easily disproven. As historians have exhaustively documented, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible fetal movement, usually between 16 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Connecticut was the first state to ban abortion after quickening, in 1821, which is roughly two centuries after the earliest days of American common law. It wasn’t until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalized in every state. In the wake of Dobbs, social media was awash with examples from 18th- and 19th-century newspapers that clearly refuted Alito’s false assertion, sharing examples of midwives and doctors legally advertising abortifacients, Benjamin Franklin’s at-home abortion remedies, and accounts of 19th-century doctors performing “therapeutic” (medically necessary) abortions.

As the Guardian reported, anti-abortion fervor has not been motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists. In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws was entangled in arguments about nativism, eugenics and white supremacism, as they dovetailed with a cultural panic that swept the US in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of the vast changes in American society wrought by the conflict. This panic was referred to at the time in shorthand as “race suicide.”

The increasing traction today of the far-right “great replacement theory”, which contends that there is a global conspiracy to replace white people with people of color, and has explicitly motivated white supremacist massacres in the US, is often said to have originated with a French novel called The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. Published in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade enshrined American women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, it is a dystopian account of “swarthy hordes” of immigrants sweeping in and destroying western civilization. But there were many earlier panics over “white extinction”, and in the US, debates around abortion have been entangled with race panic from the start.

A post on the website of FiveThirtyEight.com put it succinctly,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.” Women’s rights were collateral damage.

Of course, religious beliefs– whether seen or unseen, “up front” or latent, rooted in religious belief or racism– are not the only powerful influences shaping American worldviews. American culture also reflects popular understandings of the country’s constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—documents that are widely venerated (although apparently much less widely read and/or understood). Religion scholars credit the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which mandate the separation of church and state, for America’s religiosity—a religiosity that flourished here at the same time that Europe was becoming far more secular. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from privileging the beliefs and practices of certain religions, while the Free Exercise Clause protects individual beliefs. As a result of the operation of those two clauses (for which the phrase “separation of church and state” is shorthand) the United States has nurtured a wide diversity of religions, including numerous denominations within the country’s dominant Christianity. As the foregoing description illustrates, there is no uniformity among them on the status of women, or the extent of female agency, or on the permissibility of birth control or abortion.  What we do know about religion’s influence on the status of women (globally as well as within the United States) is simple: the lower the level of religious affiliation and fervor, the higher the level of gender equality.

Tomorrow: The Legal Context

(Positive) Signs Of The Times

One of the multiple newsletters that hit my inbox comes from Religion News Service. (Given the influence of religion–especially Christianity–on American policy, it has always seemed prudent for this very irreligious observer to keep tabs on what’s happening to and among the purportedly pious…)

Recent reports have signaled a welcome–if belated–effort by those I consider to be genuinely religious to respond to the ugly perversions that excuse bigotries of various kinds as exercises in “sincere” religious belief. I’ve previously shared statements from “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” Here are a couple of other examples:

Within the last two years, students at religious schools across the country have made headlines pushing back against university policies regarding LGBTQ students or staff.

They’ve staged a monthlong sit-in at Seattle Pacific University, a private school associated with the Free Methodist Church, against a policy that forbids the hiring of LGBTQ people. They’ve called on Baylor University, that affirms marriage between a man and a woman as the “biblical norm,” to officially recognize an LGBTQ student advocacy group. They’ve protested at Brigham Young University after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates the school, said same-sex romantic behavior was “not compatible” with university rules, despite the removal of the “homosexual behavior” section from its Honor Code, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The article reports that students at more than 100 campuses staged a walk out on Oct. 11–coming out day– to protest religious exemptions to Title IX, “carve-outs”  that allow discrimination against LGBTQ students by the presumably devout.

One university observer was quoted as saying that students “are done being told that in order to be a good Christian, that means you must be a white, straight Christian, or embrace white, straight Christian values.”

An equally intriguing story involved a massive ad  campaign. Dubbed the “He Gets Us” campaign, it is a $100 million effort to “redeem Jesus’ brand from the damage done by his followers, especially those who say one thing and then do another.”

The campaign, funded by the Signatry, a Christian foundation based in Kansas, will expand in the next few months, with an updated website, an online store where people can get free gear if they forgive someone or welcome a stranger, and an outreach program for churches, all leading up to a Super Bowl ad.

Lee said organizers also want to start a movement of people who want to tell a better story about Jesus and act like him.

Our goal is to give voice to the pent-up energy of like-minded Jesus followers, those who are in the pews and the ones that aren’t, who are ready to reclaim the name of Jesus from those who abuse it to judge, harm and divide people,” Lee said.

Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, a branding firm based in Grand Haven, Michigan, said the movement hopes to bridge the gap between the story of Jesus and the public perception of his followers. The campaign has done extensive market research and found that, while many Americans like Jesus, they are skeptical of his followers.

That last observation reminded me of a bumper sticker I’ve seen a couple of times, proclaiming something along the lines of  “Jesus–Protect Me From Your Followers.” It also reminded me of that quote from Mahatma Gandhi–“I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.”

The president of the marketing firm handling the campaign said Christians see their faith as a great love story, while increasing numbers of others see Christians as a hate group.

“Jesus said people are going to know my followers by the way they love each other and the way they interact with each other,” he said. “I think when we look at American Christianity now, we don’t see nearly as much of that — and that concerns a lot of people.”

We certainly haven’t been seeing much loving-kindness from the loudest, ostentatiously pious, self-identified Christians–or for that matter, from the fundamentalists of most religions.

Religion and philosophy can assist people in finding meaning, in dealing with the complexities of life and  wrestling with its inevitable moral ambiguities. To appropriate another observation, religion can be used as a shield or a sword. When people find comfort in their beliefs, using those beliefs to shield them from life’s “arrows,” it serves a defensible purpose. When it becomes a sword with which to label and attack unbelievers, dissenters, and various “others,” it is no longer defensible.

Apparently, a lot of genuinely religious folks are fed up with the hypocrisy and hatefulness of their sword-brandishing brethren. I’d call that a positive sign.

 

We Need Genuine Christians

Wednesday’s post went into some detail about the competing American cultures identified by David Brooks. Brooks concluded (among other things) that an “autonomy culture” has prevailed over the traditional belief in obedience to an established external authority (aka God). He did acknowledge several of the negative aspects of the latter culture, but the more I’ve thought about his critique, the more I recognized the significant problems he failed to identify.

One obvious problem is that honest religious adherents cannot claim to know with confidence what their particular deity requires. (There’s a popular Facebook meme saying something along the lines of: isn’t it interesting that your God hates the same people you do?)

How many wars have been fought by men trying to prove that their God is bigger and better and more correct than someone else’s?

The bigger problem with Brooks’ description of what is really a culture of subservience is, ironically, theological. My clergy friends– who all exhibit what I consider appropriate moral humility– point out that authentic religious belief requires the freedom to choose.

Forced piety/obedience is inauthentic by definition.

What got me thinking about all this was a recent column by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post. Rubin was pointing to Americans’ disinclination to “tell it like it really is.”

It’s not the plague of “polarization” or “distrust,” some sort of floating miasma, that has darkened our society. Bluntly put, we are in deep trouble because a major party rationalizes both intense selfishness — the refusal to undertake even minor inconveniences such as mask-wearing or gun background checks for others’ protection — and deprivation of others’ rights (to vote, to make intimate decisions about reproduction, to be treated with respect.)

What Rubin dubs the “White-grievance industry,” composed of right-wing media, politicians, pundits and think tanks, is enraged over the loss of a society where “far fewer women competed with men in the workplace, White power was largely unchallenged, and diversity was less pronounced.”

Encouraging that rage has required the (mis)use of religion.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote recently in Time about the MAGA formula, ascendant after the United States’ election of its first Black president: “the stoking of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiment while making nativist appeals to the Christian right.

”The nostalgic appeal of ‘again,’” Jones observes, “harkens back to a 1950s America, when white Christian churches were full and white Christians comprised a supermajority of the U.S. population; a period when we added ‘under God’ to the pledge of allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ to our currency.”

Our future as a tolerant, decent society ultimately may depend on White Christian communities’ recovering their moral equilibrium and support for American democracy, and rejecting the movement to turn churches into platforms for QAnon and white nationalism. But we cannot wait for an evangelical reformation.

Rubin and Jones are hardly the first to point out that people purporting to be “bible believing Christians” have perverted the previously understood teachings of that religion to serve political ends. But in the following paragraph, she contrasts that faux Christianity with the behaviors of people who take philosophical and religious teachings and the “norms of civilized societies” seriously:

MAGA voters think everyone else is the problem. As perpetual victims, they feel entitled to ignore the demands of civilized society — e.g., self-restraint, care for actually vulnerable people, pluralism, acceptance of political defeat. Their irritation with mask-wearing gets elevated over the lives of those most susceptible to a deadly pandemic. Their demands to display an armory of weapons mean schoolchildren become targets for acts of mass gun violence. Their religious zealotry, fed by the myth that Christianity is under attack, means poor women cannot have access to safe, legal abortions.

My friends and family members follow a wide variety of religious traditions and none. Virtually all of them– devout and nonbeliever alike–have come to their beliefs via the exercise of personal autonomy–choice. They have examined the teachings of their their own and other religions, adopted those they’ve found persuasive and rejected others.

Several are people I regard as real Christians. They follow a very different Jesus than the John Wayne clone manufactured by political Evangelicals. (For one thing, their Jesus isn’t an ahistorical White guy with blue eyes.) They attend–and in a couple of cases, lead–churches that avoid the moral absolutism buttressed by cherry-picking  bibles that have been translated from their original languages over the years. They respect people who are racially and religiously different, and they understand why authentic religious belief requires separation of Church from State.

They’re the ones I consider “kosher”  Christians, and the ones I know are really, really tired of the White Supremicists who have appropriated –and continue to disgrace–the name.

 

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…

About Those “Sincerely Held” Religious Beliefs…

Well, the insanity is spreading. Examples are coming hot and heavy…

The GOP has declared a riot that killed nine people and did millions in property damage “Legitimate political discourse.” (As a cousin of mine quipped, “And Pearl Harbor was an over-exuberant fireworks display…”)

An Oklahoma bill proposes to fine teachers $10k for teaching anything “that contradicts religion.”( It doesn’t specify which religion…)The proposed act, named the “Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act” would allow parents to demand the removal of any book with “anti-religious content.” The immediate targets would be any discussion of LGBTQ issues, and study of–or presumably reference to– evolution or the big bang theory. (The bill  was introduced by the same wack-a-doodle who introduced a bill to remove books with references to identity, sex and gender from public school libraries.)

Teachers could be sued a minimum of $10,000 “per incident, per individual” and the fines would be paid “from personal resources” not from school funds or from individuals or groups. If the teacher is unable to pay, they will be fired, under the legislation.

I would be shocked if this lunatic proposal became law, even in Oklahoma–but it does give rise to a question that has recently become salient in the context of vaccine denial: what is religion?

After all, if we are going to protect something, we probably should be able to define it.

I regularly receive a newsletter produced by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and a recent issue considered that question in the context of “religious exemptions” from vaccine mandates. Are religious exemptions actually “religious,” or are people simply using the First Amendment as a pretext to get out of vaccine requirements?

Large-scale vaccine skepticism is a new phenomenon, but is it a religious phenomenon? As The New York Times’s Ruth Graham reports, evidence suggests “most objections described as religious to vaccines are really a matter of personal — and secular — beliefs.” In an article titled “Religious Opposition to Vaccines Is Rooted in Politics, Not Tradition,” UVA’s Evan Sandsmark argues that vaccine refusal among Christian conservatives has more to do with their politics than their religious convictions. “If they look to the moral reasoning and sources of authority within their traditions,” Sandsmark writes, “they will hear a message on vaccines that differs considerably from those on offer by many Republican leaders.”

Sandsmark is not alone in pointing out that Christianity is not an anti-vax religion. Numerous Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, have made public statements in favor of vaccination, and many scholars have debunked and dismissed the claims of those who say their Christian faith precludes them from getting vaccinated. As Curtis Chang writes, “Within both Catholicism and all the major Protestant denominations, no creed or Scripture in any way prohibits Christians from getting the vaccine.” Berry College’s David Barr puts the point sharply, “When Christians claim a religious exemption to this vaccine mandate because they don’t want to take it, the biblical term for what they’re doing is ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain.’”

As with so many other issues in contemporary society, the devil is in the definition. The newsletter cited a recent PRRI poll in which 52% of people refusing vaccination insisted that getting vaccinated would violate their personal religious beliefs; however, only 33% asserted that getting vaccinated would violate their religion’s teachings.

So–if the religion one purportedly follows does not prohibit vaccination, must we accept the insistence that these “sincerely-held personal beliefs” are religious?

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, a scholar of both religion and constitutional law, has long argued for the impossibility of religious freedom as most people envision it, pointing out that laws mandating acceptance of religious exemptions require judges to become arbiters of orthodoxy—  determining which beliefs and practices are authentically part of a religious tradition and thus deserving of the exemption. They must determine whether there is doctrinal support from within the individual’s claimed religious tradition for whatever “sincere religious belief” s/he is claiming. If not–if we must accept as “religious” whatever commitments and beliefs a given individual claims are religious– then we are allowing people to decide for themselves which laws they want to obey and which laws they don’t.

So here we are. 

We have thousands of American Christians seeking religious exemptions from a public health measure that will save thousands of lives. Some significant number of those people are

disingenuously using their faith as a pretense for vaccine refusal, others are expressing their tenuous interpretations of the teachings of Christian faith, and others are invoking their own personal religious commitments while acknowledging that these commitments are not shared or supported by their religious authorities. 

The idiot who authored those bills in Oklahoma probably thinks the courts will define “religion” as whatever he personally believes….