Tag Archives: separation of church and state

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…” 

No, Public Officials Aren’t “Ministers of God”

Oh Alabama…Are you trying to out-Texas Texas?

For years, we’ve watched the antics of crazy Judge Roy Moore–he of the 5-ton Ten Commandments fiasco– who somehow managed to get himself re-elected to the Alabama Supreme Court a couple of years ago. (Moore is a poster child for the proposition that Judges ought not be popularly elected.)

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, Moore has (predictably) gone over the edge. Far, far over. So has the lawyer representing him, who is apparently as delusional about the American legal system and the settled meaning of the First Amendment as his client.

In a letter to Alabama’s Governor urging defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision, the lawyer–Win Johnson–wrote:

Public officials are ministers of God assigned the duty of punishing the wicked and protecting the righteous. If the public officials decide to officially approve of the acts of the wicked, they must logically not protect the righteous from the wicked. In fact, they must become protectors of the wicked. You cannot serve two masters; you must pick — God or Satan.

And you know whose side that crafty Satan is on….

I’m not sure what law school Mr. Johnson attended, but the fact that he actually matriculated should be cause for considerable concern.

This isn’t just a misunderstanding of separation of church and state;  it’s civil law as understood by the Taliban.

 

 

 

Speaking of Religion…

We’re seeing multiple tantrums from self-styled religious folks these days, and it isn’t likely to abate in the coming new year.

Huffington Post recently reported on a lawsuit brought against the Kansas State Board of Education.

An anti-evolution group is suing the Kansas State Board of Education for instituting a science curriculum that teaches evolution.

The nonprofit Citizens for Objective Public Education filed a lawsuit Thursday to block the board, education commissioner and Department of Education from teaching science classes consistent with new educational benchmarks developed by 26 states to align school systems across the U.S. These Next Generation Science Standards, which Kansas adopted in June, have seen fierce opposition from critics opposed to the teaching of climate change and evolution.

Citizens for Objective Public Education argues in its lawsuit that the standards promote atheism and therefore violate the separation of church and state.

I wish the theocrats would make up their minds! Texas textbook reviewers insist that there isn’t any separation of church and state. Marco Rubio agrees with them (which tells you that denying separation is a litmus test for the GOP base). Something called the Jeremiah Project says the theory of Church-State separation is  a nefarious plot by those who deny that America is a “Christian Nation.”

Apparently, interpretation of the First Amendment is a matter of convenience, to be changed when a different understanding is required in order to reach one’s desired outcome.

I must have missed that part of scripture where it teaches us that “the ends justify the means.”

Welcome to 2015.

 

 

Privileging “Faith”

Sometime today, the House of Representatives will vote on an Act exempting anyone with “sincerely held religious beliefs” from the ACA’s mandate to buy health insurance. The measure didn’t go through the usual legislative procedures; it suddenly appeared—like magic!– a product of the increasingly hysterical opposition to healthcare reform.

And of course, it’s framed as “respect for religion.”

Religions began because humans attributed things they couldn’t explain to mysterious gods and their mysterious ways. Did lightning strike the village? Someone angered the deity. Was drought starving the tribe? Sacrifice a virgin. When smallpox vaccinations first became available, clergy warned that God–who sent the disease to those who “deserved” it–would disapprove of the vaccine’s use to evade His purposes.

We may laugh at these examples, but a significant percentage of the American population—never mind “natives” residing elsewhere—still harbor similar beliefs. Pat Robertson has famously attributed hurricanes to toleration of GLBT folks, and James Inhofe (who inexplicably serves on Congressional climate committees) believes climate change is blasphemy–denial of the Truth that God will protect the planet.

A not insignificant number of Americans are Freethinkers—agnostics or atheists–but very few of us are comfortable “coming out” as nontheistic in a society that pays so much homage to even the most farfetched “sincere” religious belief.

American culture privileges protestations of religion in innumerable ways.

Deference to dogma routinely distorts public policy. It explains institutionalized homophobia and sexism, the conflation of “sin” with “crime,” opposition to stem cell research…the list is extensive. Most recently, employers outraged at the prospect of providing basic birth control as part of comprehensive health coverage—even though they need not pay for the coverage and even though those workers have their own, very different religious commitments—have had their arguments received with (unmerited) respect. Because, you know, they’re “religious.”

And now, a bill that says “Hey—if you’re religious (or say you are), the law won’t apply to you.”

Thoughtful religious people understand that genuine faith requires humility.

Faith—religious or otherwise—means belief in something that by its nature cannot be scientifically or logically proven. There’s a reason it is called a “leap of faith.” There’s a reason that generations of religious thinkers have wrestled with the problem of doubt.

There’s also a reason that our legal system separates Church from State. The Constitution protects your right to believe in God, Jesus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but it also protects me from the operation of your theocratic impulses.

I don’t think I’m the only person who is very tired of kowtowing to the demands of the Ostentatiously Pious and those who use them for political cover.

 

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Inconvenient History

On the 4th of July, the Indianapolis Star had dueling full-page ads, one from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and another purchased by Hobby Lobby, both focused upon the “real” beliefs of the Founders. Taken together, they were a great example of the perennial battles over separation of church and state.

A post yesterday from Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars points out how much that narrative has changed.

During the arguments over ratification of the Constitution and for a considerable time thereafter, religious folks complained bitterly about the “godlessness” of the Constitution, and made several efforts to amend religion into it. When those efforts failed, they switched tactics, and began to argue that the Constitution established the US as a “Christian nation.”

Brayton quotes Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale, who wrote:

“Notwithstanding the prevalence of Religion, which I have described, the irreligion, and the wickedness, of our land are such, as to furnish a most painful and melancholy prospect to a serious mind. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgment of God ; without any recognition of his mercies to us, as a people, of his government, or even of his existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessing upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God.”

Historians Isaac Kramnick and Lawrence Moore offered many similar examples in their book The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State:

If there was little debate in Philadelphia over the “no religious test” clause, a veritable firestorm broke out in the country at large during the ratification conventions in each of the states. Outraged Protestants attacked what they saw, correctly, as a godless Constitution. The “no religious test” clause was perceived by many to be the gravest defect of the Constitution. Colonel Jones, a Massachusetts delegate, told the state’s ratifying convention that American political leaders had to believe in God and Jesus Christ. Amos Singletary, another delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention, was upset at the Constitution’s not requiring men in power to be religious “and though he hoped to see Christians [in office], yet by the Constitution, a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they.” In New Hampshire the fear was of “a papist, a Mohomatan [sic], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government.” Henry Abbot, a delegate to the North Carolina convention, wamed that “the exclusion of religious tests” was “dangerous and impolitic” and that “pagans, deists, and Mahometans [sic] might obtain offices among us.” If there is no religious test, he asked, “to whom will they [officeholders] swear support-the ancient pagan gods of jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto?”

As Brayton notes, “attempts were made throughout the 1800s to amend the Constitution to include language expressing the nation’s dependence on God or Jesus (depending on the specific amendment), all of which failed. It was only in the early 20th century that they suddenly reversed themselves and began arguing that the Constitution they had been condemning for more than a century as godless was really a Christian document all along.”

Of course, it is a lot easier to make that argument these days, when so few schools bother to teach–and so few people know–their country’s history.