Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Telling It Like It Is

Today, unfathomable as it is, Donald Trump will become President of the United States. How could this happen?

Granted, Trump lost the popular vote overwhelmingly, but despite being manifestly unfit for the office, he mustered enough support from millions of Americans to win the Electoral College. The Chattering Classes have offered a number of explanations, almost all of them centering on Democratic failures: the “liberal elites” were unable to “connect” with middle America; Clinton paid too little attention to Michigan, or to the economic distress of rural voters; Democrats didn’t show enough respect for the values of small-town America. Etc.

Trump’s voters often said that what attracted them was that “he tells it like it is.” At risk of being very politically incorrect, let me tell you what I think they heard. Let me tell it like I think it is.

Post-election analyses showed that most Trump voters were not poor. As Myriam  Renaud recently reminded us, however, there’s a difference between “psychic” and fiscal poverty, and she shared a trenchant Eric Hoffer observation.

[Hoffer] found that the intensity of the discontent found among the new poor is not necessarily tied to economic hardship. Indeed, individuals born into misery do not usually revolt against the status quo—their lot is bearable because it is familiar and predictable. Discontent, the emotion Trump tapped into so adeptly, is more likely to afflict people who have experienced prosperity. When their comfortable life is diminished in some way, the result is intolerable. According to Hoffer, it is usually “those whose poverty is relatively recent, the ‘new poor,’ who throb with the ferment of frustration. The memory of better things is as fire in their veins.”

Economic uncertainty, not deprivation, and the loss of white male privilege explain a lot more than fiscal distress. Trump won because he gave people who were experiencing a perceived loss of status or privilege someone to blame for that loss.

It is impossible to argue that a vote for Trump was a vote for his “policy agenda.” He didn’t have one, unless, of course, you think that building a wall to keep Mexicans out, ejecting Muslims (or in the alternative, creating a registry), demeaning women, threatening (brown) immigrants, cozying up to the KKK and the neo-Nazis, and insisting that our first black President was illegitimate are “policies.”

In the wake of the election, Trump has backed off other campaign promises, but his overt racism and misogyny have continued. As an article in the American Prospect put it,

President-elect Donald Trump wasted no time in establishing a hideous double standard of racist privilege in the White House. His appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and his picks of Jeff Sessions for attorney general and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser have been praised without qualification by Klansmen, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and other white supremacist groups.

While “nice” liberals offer economic explanations of the election and counsel “kinder, gentler” attitudes toward Trump voters (who were predominantly, albeit certainly not exclusively, less-educated white rural males), scholars who have analyzed the data have reached different conclusions. There is an emerging consensus among those political scientists that although economic dissatisfaction was part of the story, racism and sexism were much more important.

As an article in the Washington Post explained,

Donald Trump repeatedly went where prior Republican presidential candidates were unwilling to go: making explicit appeals to racial resentment, religious intolerance, and white identity. ..racial attitudes were stronger predictors of whites’ preferences for Trump or Clinton than they were in hypothetical matchups between Clinton and Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio..

Other research confirms, as FiveThirtyEight reported, that prejudice was one of the “distinguishing attitudes” of Trump voters in the 2016 primaries.

The Economist tested Clinton’s “deplorables” percentage:

At first glance, Mrs Clinton’s 50% estimate looks impressively accurate: 58% of respondents who said they backed Mr Trump resided in the poll’s highest quartile for combined racial-resentment scores. And at a lower threshold of offensiveness—merely distasteful rather than outright deplorable, say—91% of Mr Trump’s voters scored above the national average.

What about the argument that Trump voters “overlooked” Trump’s narcissism, sexism and racism because they thought he would be more effective at job creation? Salon reported on the results of an American National Election (NES) study probing that possibility.

Eighty-four percent of whites who believe it is “extremely likely” that whites can’t find a job because employers are hiring people of color instead support Trump, compared with 23 percent of those who think it is “not at all” likely. Among white Democrats, 58 percent who believe people of color are taking jobs support Trump over Clinton, compared with less than 1 percent of those who believe it is not at all likely. Eighty-one percent of white women who think it is “extremely likely” people of color are taking jobs supported Trump, compared with 26 percent who don’t think that.

I have colleagues who privately admit that the evidence points to the importance of racial resentment and the appeal of White Nationalism in motivating Trump voters, but who shrink from making that claim publicly.

The problem is, if we refuse to face facts–if we refuse to acknowledge the deep wells of tribalism, racism and sexism that persist despite America’s constitutional and legal commitments to equality–we will never eradicate it. We will never have honest conversations about the fears and resentments to which people like Trump so skillfully appeaI. (That actually may be the only real skill Trump has.)

When Trump promised to “make America great again,” his voters heard “I’ll make America White again.”

I understand that it isn’t pretty. I understand that confronting it is uncomfortable. But ignoring the elephant in the room is no longer an option.

There are numerous “resistance” movements springing up in the wake of the election. They are all important, some critically so. But nothing is more important than resisting Trump’s efforts to take politics back to an “us versus them” power struggle, where “us” means white Protestant straight males and “them” is everyone else.

How We Should Respond

News outlets are reporting that the incoming Trump Administration is seriously considering establishment of a “registry” for Muslims. Politico recently quoted Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who says the effort is being modeled after the highly controversial National Security Entry-Exit Registration System implemented after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

When challenged about the constitutionality of such a measure, Trump supporters point to the “precedent” of World War II Japanese internment camps. Although that precedent has never been formally overruled, it is widely considered to have been a shameful departure from American principles, attributable to the stress of war.

Ordinarily, I would dismiss such stories, assuming that more responsible people would recognize the unAmerican nature and probable unconstitutionality of such a proposal; given the abysmal bona fides of those Trump has around him, however, I cannot simply assume that this effort will be still-born.

So here is what I propose:

If a Trump Administration attempts to require registration of Muslims, I intend to register, and I will encourage all of my friends and family to register as well.

One of the few positive stories that emerged during the Holocaust was the reported reaction of the Danes when, under Nazi occupation, Danish Jews were ordered to wear armbands with the infamous yellow Star of David. As the story goes, the Danish King and his subjects also donned the armbands, in a demonstration of the equality and solidarity of all Danish citizens.

Snopes tells us that the story is apocryphal, although the Danes did engage in heroic measures to save Danish Jews.

Although this legend may not be true in its specifics, it was certainly true enough in spirit. The rescue of several thousand Danish Jews was accomplished through the efforts of “thousands of policemen, government officials, physicians, and persons of all walks of life.” The efforts to save Danish Jews may not have had the flair of the “yellow star” legend, and they may not have required quite so many citizens to visibly oppose an occupying army, but those who were rescued undoubtedly preferred substance to style.

Sometimes, a morality tale can be more powerful than accurate history.

An actual effort to make Muslims register would be challenged immediately, and I have to believe it would be quickly enjoined, but the mere fact of the attempt would have a chilling effect on everyone’s religious liberties.

As a practical matter, if thousands of non-Muslim Americans publicize our intention to add our names to any registry–and if we announce that intention immediately in response to any trial balloon or actual proposal to create such a registry– we may be able to abort this insulting and demeaning and thoroughly unAmerican effort.

I hope these reports are wrong, but given the rhetoric of the campaign, Trump’s embrace of the “alt-right” (aka Nazis, White Supremacists and the KKK), and the nature of his inner circle, prudence suggests  that we prepare for the worst.

 

Words FAIL

A while back, Juanita Jean posted a news item that goes a long way toward explaining why it has become so difficult to recognize and distinguish between satirical internet sites and those reporting legitimate news.

In fact, she began the post by reciting the steps she’d taken to ensure that this bizarre proclamation was real.

It seems that the oil industry isn’t doing too well in Oklahoma because it doesn’t grow on trees, and since Republicans can’t possibly raise taxes on oil gazillionaires so they pay their fair share, the Governor decided to issue a proclamation in Jesus’ name.

Hold on.  I’m gonna let you read the whole damn thing because I believe, yes, I believe, in the power of crazy on a platter.

Whereas, Oklahoma is blessed with an abundance of oil and natural gas, allowing the state to be a prosperous producer of these valuable resources; and

Whereas Christians acknowledge such natural resources are created by God; and

Whereas the oil and gas industry continues to produce countless opportunities for wealth generation for Oklahoma families; and

Whereas Oklahoma recognizes the incredible economic, community and faith-based impacts demonstrated across the state by oil and natural gas companies; and

Whereas Christians are invited to thank God for the blessing created by the oil and natural gas industry and to seek His wisdom and ask for protection;

Now, therefore, I, Mary Fallin, Governor, do hereby proclaim October 13, 2016, as “Oilfield Prayer Day” in the state of Oklahoma.

As Juanita Jean herownself commented,

Oilfield Prayer Day.  Honey, I have no idea why it wasn’t called “Jesus Give Us Some Magic Money and Pollute Our Air At the Same Time.”  Or even, “Jesus Gives Us Gas The Natural Way.”

What amazes me is that the citizens of Oklahoma elected this person! (Or perhaps, given the language of the proclamation, it might be more accurate to say that the “Christians” of Oklahoma elected her.) I have been preoccupied of late with an effort to understand why voters cast their ballots for people demonstrably unequipped–by reason of ignorance or temperament or ideology– for the positions they seek. I have added Oklahoma to my “perhaps democracy is overrated” list…

I don’t know which is worse: the fact that the Governor evidently thinks her official prayer is needed to alert (a presumably all-knowing) God to Oklahoma’s fiscal problems and persuade Him (Her?)(It?) to improve the business prospects of the fossil fuel industry, or the fact that she is rather obviously unacquainted with the First Amendment of a Constitution that she took a solemn oath to uphold.

Come to think of it, wouldn’t the Christian God take a negative view of failing to uphold a solemn oath?

I truly occupy a different reality from Governor Fallin. (And for that, I give thanks to the Flying Spaghetti Monster….)

Hobby Lobby Redux

Continuing our discussion of RFRA and the expansion of (some people’s) “religious liberty”…

File the first paragraph of this article under “The Notorious RBG told you so.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The facts are evidently not at issue. Two weeks after the employee notified the employer that she would be beginning to transition, the employer–who owned the funeral home–fired her for “engaging in behavior offensive to his religious beliefs.”

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Lawyers representing the employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability, and a federal court agreed, holding that paying damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

Well, yes. That’s the purpose of damages. If I fire an African-American employee simply because he is African-American and my religion teaches that African-Americans are inferior (an argument made by many Southern shopkeepers in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), I have violated his civil rights and I will owe damages that will “burden” that belief.

If I refuse to promote a woman to an executive position for which she is qualified because my religion teaches that women should be submissive, I can be sued for damages that would “burden” my religious beliefs.

Damages are awarded to compensate people who suffer losses when their rights are violated. They are intended to “burden” discriminatory behavior–whatever the motivation.

It’s one thing to exempt churches and religious organizations from laws of general application that are inconsistent with their theologies. It is quite another to say that owners of secular businesses can hire and fire employees or refuse to accommodate customers based upon the religious preferences of the owner.

I find it hard to believe that this court would have reached the same conclusion had the person fired been Jewish or African-American, whatever the employer’s church preached. Although attitudes about LGBTQ Americans have changed dramatically, there is still substantial prejudice against the gay community, and claims of “religious liberty” that would be given short shrift if used to justify discrimination against blacks or women or Jews are somehow seen as more meritorious or “sincere.”

They aren’t. And the likely consequences of this ruling, if it is not overturned, are stunning:

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

In her Hobby Lobby dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsberg warned that the Court had ventured into a minefield.

Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”

She was prescient.

Revisiting “Religious Freedom”–Again

When Indiana went through the “great RFRA battle,” the focus of the arguments pro and con centered on the law’s impact on LGBTQ citizens .The measure was seen as an effort to legitimize discrimination against the gay community (and as a defiant response to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision), since that was transparently the intent of its supporters.

But the law was not limited to matters of sexuality.

A more recent assertion of religious liberty–and the question of the degree to which RFRA protects that liberty over and above the requirements of the Free Exercise Clause–illustrates the more fundamental and wide-ranging conflict between the rights of individuals who are acting on the basis of their religious beliefs, and the duty of government to act on behalf of the public good.

An Indianapolis woman who severely beat her seven-year-old son with a coat hanger is defending her actions as “biblical.”

30-year old Kin Park Thaing is a good Christian woman who feared for her son’s salvation when the 7-year old allegedly engaged in what she says was dangerous behavior that would have harmed his 3-year old sister. So she beat him with a plastic coat hanger to save his soul and teach him how Jesus wants him to behave. She is fully within her right to do so, based on her deeply held religious beliefs, under Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), her attorney is arguing in Marion Superior Court before Judge Kurt Eisgruber.

“I was worried for my son’s salvation with God after he dies,” Thaing, a Burmese refugee here under political asylum, says in court documents, according to the Indianapolis Star. “I decided to punish my son to prevent him from hurting my daughter and to help him learn how to behave as God would want him to.”

Unfortunately, we live in an era that doesn’t “do” nuance, doesn’t recognize complexity and rarely engages with the genuinely difficult questions that arise in diverse societies when government tries to respect everyone’s individual rights–the right of religious people to live in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs, and the right of others not to be victimized by those beliefs. So we are unlikely to engage the really hard questions.

When does protection of religious liberty function to privilege certain people and their beliefs to the detriment of those with different (or no) faith commitments? What sorts of harms may government forbid, even when those harms are inflicted by sincerely religious people?

If the welts and bruises inflicted by this mother had been the result of a temper tantrum or a drunken rage, she would clearly be guilty of child abuse. Does her religious motivation insulate her from legal sanction? If so, who protects that child from further, possibly more serious harm?

The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects the rights of Americans to believe anything, but it has never been interpreted to allow citizens to act on the basis of those beliefs if such action would violate otherwise valid laws of general application.

If your assertion of religious liberty requires harming someone else, or denying them rights  or protections to which they are otherwise entitled, surely RFRA doesn’t prevent government from intervening.

But that, evidently, is the argument. [To be continued…]