Category Archives: Religious Liberty

‘Sincere Religious Beliefs’ And Lynching

Perhaps I’m just allowing my foul mood over the current state of America’s federal government color my reaction to everything, but I am over demands that laws of general application make exceptions for people acting on the basis of “sincere religious belief.”

If I have a “sincere belief” that my God wants me to offer up my newborn as a sacrifice, should I be exempt from punishment? What if I have a “sincere belief” that paying taxes enables governments’ evil behaviors–can I simply refuse to do so?

If–as I assume–the answer to these and similar questions is:  “hell, no,” why are Americans so solicitous of the “sincere beliefs” of fundamentalists?

The U.S. Senate just unanimously passed a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime—but now the religious right is trying to exclude victims who are targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In remarks that are making national headlines, the chairman of Liberty Counsel, an anti-gay hate group that purports to speak for Christians, says the inclusion of LGBT people is a “camel [getting] in the nose of the tent.”

His argument is absurd, but it could make a difference: Liberty Counsel has helped pioneer bigoted “religious freedom” arguments by representing clients like Kim Davis. Its opposition could be influential among congressional Republicans.

The quoted description is taken from a mainstream Christian religious site, Faithful America, which describes itself as an online community of Christians putting faith into action for social justice by (among other things) challenging the “hijacking” of Christianity by the religious right to serve a hateful political agenda.

It has been gratifying to see religious voices raised in opposition to the theocratic right, a development that has been gaining ground over the past several years; it would be considerably more gratifying if the courts stopped coddling people who demand that their beliefs be given priority over the rights of citizens whose beliefs differ. Why in the world should the fringe theology of Hobby Lobby’s owners entitle them to refuse coverage of birth control for employees whose beliefs differ?

The courts wouldn’t allow Hobby Lobby or other corporate owners of entirely secular businesses to hire and fire employees based upon their willingness to accept the owners’ religions–why are they so solicitous of the “offense” posed by inclusive health coverage?

It’s likely that even most Republicans in Congress will find Liberty Counsel’s objection to inclusive language in the anti-lynching bill sufficiently outrageous to ignore it, but we make a mistake if we think the Council represents just a few nutcases on the right. Theological justifications for bigotry are more widespread than reasonable people want to believe, and most of these bigots are entirely “sincere.”

If I “sincerely” believe that the God I worship wants “your kind” wiped off the face of the earth, and I act upon that belief, my “sincerity” wouldn’t–and shouldn’t– protect me from the legal consequences of that action.

Fundamentalists to the contrary, religious liberty is not the liberty to impose their version of Christianity on everyone else, or to insist that the law bend to their “sincerity.”

A Capacious Bigotry

Warning: this is a continuation of yesterday’s rant.

Pipe bombs were sent to those Trump has labeled his “enemies” and “enemies of the people.” Jews were slaughtered while at prayer. Brown Immigrants and Muslims have constantly been demonized. LGBTQ citizens have been unremittingly targeted. Women are routinely diminished. And racism is constantly, consistently endorsed and promoted.

Welcome to Trumpworld.

Yes, I know it isn’t only here. White Nationalism threatens to consume the globe. But this is my country– the first nation not to condition citizenship on the “right” identity, the first not to limit it to members of the “right” tribes. Mine is the country with civic equality as a mantra and an ideal–even as we often fall very short of that ideal.

Dana Milbank reminded us of George Washington’s famous quote:

George Washington, in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., told Jews they would be safe in the new nation.

“The government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” he wrote. “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Milbank followed up with a list of Trump’s anti-semitic remarks, from the “very fine people” among the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, to his retweets of rightwing Jew haters, to his refusal to condemn supporters who threatened anti-Semitic violence against a Jewish journalist (and Melania Trump saying the writer “provoked” the threats), and numerous others.

The ADL reports a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. That isn’t a coincidence.

If lists are your thing, Buzzfeed has a list of the Trump Administration’s numerous homophobic actions: rolling back policies that protected transgender folks from discrimination in the workplace,  arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t protect gay workers from discrimination, filing a brief with the Supreme Court on the side of merchants who don’t want to serve gay customers, trying to kick transgender soldiers out of the military–among many other examples.

An effort to list Trump’s assaults on immigrants or Muslims or African Americans or women would be too long to include in a blog post.

Ironically, there is a germ of truth in his attacks on the media: Fox News, Infowars, Sinclair and other various purveyors of rightwing propaganda all have blood on their metaphorical hands. For years, they have fed the festering hate of “the Other” and the narrative of white Christian victimization that Trump has encouraged and normalized.

Amanda Marcotte addressed that tribal resentment and fear in an article for Salon:

Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) put out a new report on religion in America that measured a truly remarkable shift: For the first time, almost certainly in the country’s history, people who identify as white Christians are a minority of Americans. Four out of every five Americans were self-described white Christians in 1976, but now that group only constitutes 43 percent of the U.S. population.

Much of what we are seeing is the reaction to that reality by the fundamentalist Evangelicals who are supporting Trump.

The white evangelical support for Trump, coupled with the continued denunciation of LGBT people, makes it clear this is not and never was about morality, sexual or otherwise. Instead, “morality” is a fig leaf for the true agenda of the Christian right, which is asserting a strict social hierarchy based on gender.

The same-sex marriage question is a stand-in issue, Jones argued, for “a whole worldview” that is “a kind of patriarchal view of the family, with the father head of the household and the mother staying home.”

Trump may be an unrepentant sinner, but he is a supporter of this patriarchal worldview, where straight men are in charge, women are quiet and submissive and people who fall outside these old-school heterosexual norms are marginalized. Voting for him was an obvious attempt by white evangelicals to impose this worldview on others, including (and perhaps especially) their own children, who are starting to ask hard questions about a moral order based on hierarchy and rigid gender roles instead of one built on empathy and kindness.

Marcotte and Jones are focused on that patriarchal worldview, but social scientists have documented a number of other reactions to the threatened loss of white Christian male hegemony: intense resentment of the Others who have had the nerve to contend in the public and political arenas. The election of Barack Obama–a black man–was experienced by many of these “good Christians” as an existential assault. Jews have long been a target–The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was one of the first “viral” conspiracy theories.

Muslims, immigrants–anyone who isn’t a member of their shrinking tribe–is a threat to their dominance and their worldview. They have a capacious capacity for resentment–and a capacious tolerance for bigotry.

Tuesday, they’ll vote. The question is: will the rest of us?

 

Thanks For The Clarity

I found it incomprehensible that people could vote for Donald Trump in 2016.

However, although subsequent research found a very high correlation between “racial anxiety” (i.e., bigotry) and a vote for Trump, I did recognize that not every Trump voter was a racist; lifelong Republicans voted their party, people who hated Hillary Clinton held their noses and pulled the Trump lever, and there were some voters who wanted to “shake things up” and assumed that, if elected, Trump would “pivot” into something vaguely resembling a President.

Two years later, we owe him a debt of gratitude for clarifying who he is, and making it impossible to miss what is at stake in Tuesday’s election.

As the midterm election has neared, Trump has ramped up his White Nationalist street “cred.” No American who is remotely honest–or sentient, for that matter–can miss the message: a vote for any Republican is a vote for Donald Trump’s relentless war on blacks, Jews, gays, Muslims and any and all brown people who may be among those “huddled masses yearning to breath free.”

Trump’s racism has always been obvious, from his early refusal to rent apartments to blacks, to his vendetta against the (innocent) boys accused of raping a Central Park jogger, to his shameful birtherism and his insistence that “many fine people” are self-proclaimed Nazis. He has made unremitting attacks on Muslims. In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, a number of news outlets have published lists of his anti-Semitic remarks and tweets.

In the last month, his horrific, untrue characterizations of the desperate people in the caravan fleeing Honduras, his despicable “Willie Horton” ad, and his ignorant attacks on the 14th Amendment’s grant of birthright citizenship have all been transparent efforts to remind American bigots that he is on their side, and to mobilize them to vote Republican.

A couple of days ago, the New York Daily News reported on a speech by former KKK member Derek Black. 

“The government itself is carrying through a lot of the beliefs (white nationalist groups) have and a lot of the goals — things like limiting immigration, and as of today, the goal of ending birthright citizenship. That has been a goal of white nationalists for decades, like explicit: this is what they want to do,” Black told The News.

“They have a person in the White House that is advocating the exact white nationalist goal that is one of the cornerstones of their belief system,” he added.

Black said he has firsthand knowledge of leaders within the white nationalist movement who are convinced the country’s commander-in-chief is going to fulfill all their wishes.

“They’re very open within their groups that it is better if they do not advocate this openly,” he said, “because it might actually hurt some of the efforts in the federal government itself.”

Black said Trump — who last week proudly identified as a “nationalist” at a rally for Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — is bolstering the confidence of white supremacist groups whether he realizes it or not.

He realizes it. And so do those who agree with him.

It’s no longer possible for Trump supporters to claim they don’t see his bigotry, or to pretend that their votes for what the GOP has become are based on anything other than their rejection of civic equality for people whose skin is a different color, or people who love or worship differently.

On Tuesday, we will find out just how many of our fellow Americans endorse Trump’s enthusiastic public attacks on everything America stands for.

Religious Rights And Privileges

Religious conflicts have been the subject of a number of my recent posts, and have triggered some fairly robust discussions in the comments. I think both the posts and the subsequent conversations evidence the persistence and extent of efforts to have government privilege certain beliefs over others.

Significant numbers of Americans reject the Constitutional separation of church and state.

The First Amendment has two religion clauses. The Establishment Clause basically removes government from matters of faith. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, government cannot sponsor religious observances or endorse religious beliefs. (As I rather inelegantly put it to my students, government is supposed to “butt out” of our souls.) The Free Exercise Clause forbids government from interfering with the beliefs of citizens, or with citizens’ religious observances to the extent that those don’t violate “laws of general application.” (Your religion may tell you to sacrifice your firstborn, or ingest hallucinogens, but laws of general application prevent you from acting on those particular beliefs.)

Government was withdrawn from matters the Founders believed should properly be the purview of churches and individual consciences.–This decision was based upon respect for individual autonomy, but it was also an effort to minimize public conflicts over matters of faith. (The Founders were all too aware of Europe’s history of religious conflict).

So why are people in the United States constantly arguing about religion?

Katherine Franke, a law professor who recently plunged into the religious wars in a column for the Washington Post, suggests one reason. She writes that this administration has “weaponized the notion of religious liberty” to advance a blatantly partisan, conservative agenda. In other words, efforts to privilege some religious beliefs over others are really efforts to advance a decidedly political agenda.

The column began with a description of an unusual lawsuit by a religious order–nuns who claim their religious-freedom rights are being violated by the construction and pending use of a natural-gas pipeline on their land in Pennsylvania. They say their faith requires that they “treasure” the land.

Needless to say, the government’s response has been less than solicitous, despite numerous sanctimonious pronouncements about religious “liberty” from Vice-President Pence and Attorney General Sessions. As Franke notes,

You can count on the government’s support if you’re a cake baker who considers same-sex marriage to be an abomination, or a nun who believes that contraception is murder, or a school administrator whose faith tells him that a person’s sex is fixed by God at birth. In these cases, Justice Department lawyers will show up like the cavalry, ready to go down fighting.

But not so much for Unitarians, whose faith drives them to leave water and food in the desert for migrants who will die without help. Or Catholic activists who believe that nuclear weapons are a death pact with the devil. Or the “Adorers,” who oppose the building of a gas pipeline on their property. Or Muslims in almost any context.

…..

The Justice Department is aggressively prosecuting faith-based humanitarian volunteers with the organization No More Deaths, a group affiliated with the Unitarian Church in southern Arizona. Its mission includes leaving water and food for migrants crossing the scorching-hot Sonoran Desert, where hundreds of people die every year. The government lawyers have trivialized these faith-based humanitarians’ religious-liberty claims, calling them scoundrels. This prompted a group of law professors who are experts in law and religion, myself included, to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out to the judge how the Justice Department has misconstrued religious liberty law in this case.

These official responses to actions motivated by faith make it patently obvious that the pious proclamations of concern for religious sensibilities are highly–and politically–selective. A congregation feeding undocumented immigrants cannot expect the same degree of forbearance or respect as the baker or florist refusing to serve a same-sex couple.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly noted that religious-liberty rights are not absolute, yet they should be given serious consideration in light of the government’s other compelling interests. What we see from this government is the evangelization of its own policy goals, accompanied by the demonization of its critics. In no way was this what religious liberty meant to the nation’s founders, nor should it be what it means today.

There’s Religion, And Then There’s Religion

Yesterday’s post sparked a number of comments about religion, pro and (mostly) con.

It is easy to look at the self-righteousness of the Christian warriors–the Mike Pences and Franklin Grahams of the world–and come to the conclusion that Christianity (and for that matter, all religion) is a poorly-veiled effort by self-righteous prigs to control and dominate others.

And yet….

We need to recognize that even those of us who are nonbelievers are nevertheless  products of specific religious cultures, and consider the ways in which our early socialization into those cultures have shaped the attitudes with which we approach issues of justice and human behavior. (Pardon the shameful plug, but I wrote a book–God and Country: America in Red and Blue– about the ways in which those unrecognized religious roots influence Americans’ positions on ostensibly secular policies from economics and criminal justice to the environment.)

Religion was initially a way to explain an inexplicable world–especially why some people prospered and others suffered. Different religious traditions approached these questions differently, and when humans invented science, some embraced the “new learning” and some rejected it.

That leads me to an utterly banal observation: some approaches to religious belief encourage people to live together amicably, and some do not. My own unoriginal rule of thumb is based entirely upon the behavior of purportedly religious folks. If your religion makes you more compassionate and kind, if it provides you with a helpful (but not unduly prescriptive) framework within which to approach moral dilemmas, it’s probably good.

If it turns you into a self-righteous moral scold, it probably isn’t.

I came across a far more eloquent version of my approach on Phil Gulley’s blog. Gulley, as many readers know, is a Quaker pastor and author from a small community near Indianapolis. The post in question was his response to a mean-spirited cartoon by Gary Varvel, who is a longtime cartoonist (and inexplicably, recently a columnist) for the Indianapolis Star. The cartoon, which portrayed Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser as a demanding publicity seeker, is reproduced on Gulley’s blog.

The Star evidently refused to print Gulley’s response, saying that the newspaper had already apologized for printing the cartoon. (A number of people canceled their subscriptions, citing it, and I can see why the paper might prefer not to call any further attention to it.) That’s a pity, though, because Gulley has captured the distinction between religious beliefs that prompt humility and self-examination and those that serve as a substitute for self-awareness and as a crutch for judgmentalism.

You really need to read the entire post, but here are the paragraphs that illustrate that distinction:

I’ve known Gary Varvel most of my life. We were raised in the same small town and have many friends in common. We embraced the Christian faith around the same time. I once believed as he still does. But his faith has taken him places I cannot go, embracing causes I cannot support. To be fair, he likely says the same thing about my faith. Gary has often said his faith informs everything he does. I believe him, which is why I reject his faith, or at least his version of Christianity, which always comes at the expense of others, be they women, or gays, or liberals, or any “others” whose demands for justice challenge its narrow and settled world.

I have never wanted anyone to lose his or her job. It has happened to me twice, and each time was painful and difficult. While I have never wanted anyone to be fired, I have often wished those who neglect the hard work of self-awareness and self-improvement would retire, or perhaps find another line of work that doesn’t involve shaping, or misshaping, public opinion. That is my wish for Gary, to retire and spend time learning the world his wife, daughter, and granddaughters inhabit, a world far different from his own.

Amen.