Category Archives: Religious Liberty

The Age of Grievance

There are a number of ways to escape “the news of the day.” Suicide, of course; substance abuse (mostly booze), studied ignorance…I can’t be the only person who needs some respite from the daily reports of Trump damage, environmental despoliation, insane conspiracy theories and the like.

Recently, I’ve been escaping into fiction. Mostly science fiction and mysteries–guilty pleasures that are finally available to an almost-retired person. I’ve particularly enjoyed a series written by a Canadian writer, Louise Penny, who follows an Inspector Gamache through sixteen books. I was reading book number 8, when I came across an observation that explained not just crime, but political behavior. The Inspector was explaining motivation–and attributing much of it to fear.

Especially, he said, fear of loss.

Could there be a more apt description of the political insanity we inhabit? During the past four or five years, the word “grievance” has become an indelible part of our political discourse. It applies almost always to people who believe they are at the cusp of loss–loss of the world in which their particular identity dominates others. As I have often noted, research has established that “racial grievance” is the most reliable marker of Trump support.

Other research has found that certain Christians exhibit an almost hysterical fear that their “religious liberty”–defined by them as their right to prescribe the behavior of others– is slipping away. Linda Greenhouse, one of the most thoughtful observers of the Supreme Court, focused on that fear in a recent New York Times column. She wondered whether Amy Coney Barrett would join the “grievance conservatives.”

Greenhouse began by discussing the recent 5/4 decision exempting religious gatherings from COVID restrictions, and noting that it was likely to be moot, since the restrictions had already been modified.

The real significance of the decision lay in the which-side-are-you-on test it posed for the newest justice. I don’t mean the conservative side versus the liberal side. Obviously, she’s a conservative. What matters is that a month into her tenure, she chose to align herself with what I call grievance conservatism: conservatism with a chip on its shoulder, fueled by a belief that even when it’s winning, it’s losing, and losing unfairly.

The embodiment of grievance conservatism is Justice Alito, who in a speech last month to his fellow members of the Federalist Society said that “it pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”

Greenhouse pointed out how ironic this was:

Justice Alito is a member of a Supreme Court majority that during his nearly 15-year tenure has been more deferential to the demands of religious believers than any Supreme Court in modern history. Just this past summer, the court ruled that a state that offers a subsidy for private-school tuition must include parochial schools in the program; that religious organizations may exclude a substantial category of employees from the protections of federal civil rights laws under a “ministerial exception” that goes well beyond members of the ministry; and that employers with religious or even vague “moral” objections to contraception can opt out of the federal requirement to include birth control in their employee health plans.

As Greenhouse also reported, Alito and Thomas wrote “sympathetically in early October about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused for religious reasons to issue marriage licenses to same- sex couples.”

Since the two justices were neither voting to grant the appeal nor dissenting from its denial, their opinion was entirely gratuitous. They simply used the case as a platform to reiterate warnings about the threat to religion from official recognition of same-sex marriage.

Greenhouse is absolutely correct when she observes that what religious adherents want is not equal treatment. Equality is no longer sufficient. “Special treatment is the demand.”

There is also irony to this (quite correct) “special treatment” characterization. Back in the early days of the gay civil rights movement,  religious figures hysterically objected to any grant of civic equality to members of the LGBTQ community, asserting that laws against discrimination weren’t equal rights, but “special” rights.

What these frantic warriors for “religious liberty” really fear is loss of their unearned privilege. And as Inspector Gamache understood, fear of loss can make people do criminal things.

 

Church As State

One of the electronic publications I receive regularly is Sightings, a newsletter founded by Martin Marty and issued by the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. (Since it is a newsletter, I don’t have a link.) The publication comments on the role of religion in contemporary society, usually in the form of an essay by one of the Divinity School’s scholars.

A recent commentary began with a reference to a 1940 memorandum by a Dutch Protestant ecumenist named Willem Visser‘t Hooft, titled “The Ecumenical Church and the International Situation.” Visser’t Hooft warned that  a “new ideological battle” was unfolding across the western world, “waged by proponents of the ‘new religions’ of ethno-nationalism and fascism.” He worried that when the war ended, “the real difficulty will be to find any basis for collaboration between peoples who no longer share any common standards, and who no longer speak the same spiritual language.”

Visser’t Hooft was on to something: the post-war world continues to grapple with that lack of a common “spiritual” or ideological language, and with the nationalistic “religions” he identified and aptly characterized as politicized distortions of Christianity.

Adherents of these movements claimed to be the true Christians who were defending “traditional” Christianity against the existential threats of liberalism, modernity and internationalism (usually embodied in their fevered imagination by “the Jews.”) One scholar of the era described Nazism as “an ethno-nationalist renewal movement on a Christian, moral foundation.”

It wasn’t only in Europe. As the Sightings essay reminded us, the Nazis and fascists had kindred spirits in the United States.

There was a revival of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s, and the number of Christian right-wing groups surged after 1933. During the 1930s the Nazi regime even sent its Christian supporters on speaking tours to American churches. While Christian nationalism was surging in interwar Europe, American Protestantism was in the throes of the fundamentalism wars, the Scopes trial, and the Temperance movement. And on both sides of the Atlantic, progressive religious movements arose to combat them, including liberal Protestant ecumenism and the emerging interfaith movement.

The author of the essay noted that the United States’ current culture wars are a continuation of that fight.

Religion wasn’t–and isn’t– the only cause of political division, but it was–and is– a significant contributor. The author of the essay says there are two important lessons to be learned from the relevant history: first, “the deadliest failures of Christianity (like the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the complicity of Christian churches with National Socialism and the Holocaust) derive from the fatal alliance of faith and political power.”

In addition to the crimes facilitated by such alliances, they inevitably destroy the integrity and witness of the church.. 

The second lesson is that the foundation for recovering “common standards” and speaking the “same spiritual language” must be a civic process, not a religious one.

As I read this very thought-provoking essay, I thought back to a conclusion I had come to back in the days of the Cold War, when “godless Communism” was a genuine threat both to the West and to human liberty. Belief in that system, I concluded, was a religion, if you define religion as an overarching belief system that delivers both “answers” to the ambiguities of life and prescriptions for human behavior.

Many years later, I read–and was persuaded by–Robert Bellah’s theory of civic religion, a secular allegiance to certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, drawn in the United States from the Declaration of Independence, the  Constitution and Bill of Rights. That “civic religion” can serve as an umbrella set of beliefs, not displacing but bridging the myriad religions or other “isms” held by individual citizens in our polyglot society, and acting as a common language and set of behavioral/social/political norms.

Of course, allegiance to the ideals of those civic documents requires a common knowledge of their contents and a common understanding of the context within which they were developed. When civic literacy is rare, and especially when citizens are unaware of the compelling reasons for keeping church and state separate, we risk replaying the most horrific chapters of human history.

Facing Reality

At this moment, it looks as if Joe Biden will win. But no matter who is President when the smoke clears and the votes are all counted–if they are– we learned some things on Tuesday. And the lessons weren’t pleasant.

The most obvious–and ultimately least consequential–is that polling is not nearly as “scientific” as the pollsters think. The effort to figure out what went so wrong will undoubtedly occupy pundits and nerds for a long time.

The far more painful lesson concerns the nature of our fellow-Americans.

I read about the thuggery leading up to the election–the “good old boys” in pickups ramming Biden’s bus, the desecration of a Jewish graveyard in Michigan with “MAGA” and “Trump” spray paint, the consistent, nation-wide efforts to suppress urban and minority voters–but until election night, I’d convinced myself that those responsible represented a very small segment of the population.

I think what I am feeling now is what Germany’s Jews must have felt when they realized the extent of Hitler’s support.

I am not engaging in hyperbole: the research in the wake of 2016 is unambiguous. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly motivated by racial and religious animus and grievance. White nationalist fervor has swept both the U.S. and Europe over the past few years, but it has taken firmer hold here. The QAnon conspiracy has clear roots in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and America’s racism–our original sin–has provided fertile ground for the alt-right sympathizers who defend tearing brown children from their parents, treating both immigrants and citizens of color as disposable, and keeping women in “our place.”

Trump didn’t invent these people, but he has activated them. Indeed, he is one of them.

I thought it was tragic when Trump’s approval ratings forced me to recognize that more than a third of America fell into that category. I find it inconceivable–but inarguable and infinitely depressing–that the actual number is close to half.

Evidently, the America I thought I inhabited never really existed. I’m in mourning for the country I believed was mine.

The Echoes Of History

I just finished reading The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, James H. Madison’s deeply researched and very readable account of Indiana’s history with the KKK. To say it was sobering would be a considerable understatement.

Madison, an Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University, is often referred to as the “Dean” of Indiana historians, and this recent book, published by IU Press, is a good example of his meticulous approach and his ability to place historical events in a larger context. He cautions us that the malcontents who currently affiliate with the Klan and other white nationalist organizations are very different from those in the broad-based movement that included thousands of “good Indiana citizens” in the 1920s–a movement that effectively took over the state’s political establishment for a time.

Times change, but sometimes less than we might hope. After reading the diatribe Becky shared in yesterday’s comments, I was especially struck by its echoes in Madison’s description of the Klan’s 1920s appeal:

In churches, town halls, and public parks, Hoosiers heard the warnings. People not like us were tearing down our religion and our country. Enemies were rising up. The Klan could identify them. The Klan could show 100 percent Americans who they should fear and how they should fight.

I don’t want to overstate the case. We really have come a long way from the hysteria of the 1920s, and the susceptibility of enormous numbers of Americans to fear and hatred of “others.” But as Trump devotees remind us, an uncomfortable percentage of Americans still respond to messages of division, threats of  displacement, and hostility to people they perceive as different from themselves.

I grew up in Indiana, but Madison’s book expanded considerably on what I’d known about Klan dominance in the state. I’d heard about the passage of a state law authorizing sterilization of people deemed “defective,” but I was totally unaware that our first state constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote, or that its replacement in 1851 (affirmed by a large vote) “excluded African-Americans from taking up residence in the state.”

I knew that the Klan had been active in Indiana politics, but I was surprised to read an excerpt from a New York Times article reporting that the “Indiana Klan had a machine that made [New York’s] Tammany seem amateurish,” and depressed by assertions that “85% of the [Republican] party were Klan members.”

I was also largely unaware of the degree of anti-Catholic fervor the Klan tapped into–although I do recall a couple of people telling me in 1960 that Catholics were stockpiling firearms in church basements, and that if John F. Kennedy won the election, the Catholics would mount a take-over. (I thought those people were nuts. It didn’t occur to me that such a myth was widespread, but evidently it was.)

It was impossible to read this history without discomfort, or without hearing its echoes in today’s fringe precincts. Madison pointed out, for example, that the  Klan constantly whined, consistently characterizing white Protestants as “victims” and seeing any and all social change as a descent into immorality, crime and godlessness. I had been unaware of the Klan’s considerable role in pushing for Prohibition, its suspicion of public libraries (!), and its savvy use of that new communication device called radio. “This new technology helped create the imagined community of like-minded Americans separated by distance.”

And I’d known nothing about the Klan’s “aggressive” education agenda–bills to require (Protestant) Bible reading in the public schools, to allow the state to approve all textbooks in both public and parochial schools, and ensure that curricula advanced “patriotism and Americanism.” (Where have we heard that lately?)

I recommend the book.

As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

 

 

Misunderstanding Religious Freedom

It was refreshing to read New York Times column responding to the recent–and I must say, weird and troubling–ruminations on same-sex marriage issued by Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The reason I label these “opinions” weird is that they were not dissents, not even concurrences. They were peevish outbursts–not far removed from “get off my lawn” explosions by cranky old guys. I’m unaware of other instances in which Supreme Court Justices used a unanimous and otherwise predictable decision as an opportunity to simply gripe that the world wasn’t going their way.

As David Von Drehle wrote,

It was an odd document, not a dissent; just a four-page grumble about matters that may someday be a problem depending on the facts of unknown future cases. The justices might consider woodworking, because, from the looks of this, they don’t have enough to keep them busy. The statement, which carries no legal weight, is essentially a cry from the heart on behalf of Americans whose religious views condemn same-sex marriage. Fair enough: The freedom to hold beliefs different from those of the mainstream is a cherished aspect of American liberty. But the statement crosses into sophistry by suggesting that religious liberties are somehow infringed if they aren’t privileged above the civil law.

And that, dear readers, is the crux of the matter. The piteous complaints that meet any effort to ensure the civic equality–note the word civic–of Americans who do not conform to their religious beliefs are based upon their conviction that they (and only they) are in possession of Truth, that they (and only they) know God’s Will, and that other citizens should therefore be forced to comply with their beliefs and their bigotries.

Von Drehle notes that the Justices offer no new basis for their opposition: he references Thomas’ 2015 argument that same-sex marriage is not mentioned in the Constitution– and points our the obvious: opposite-sex marriage isn’t mentioned there, either.

Thomas and Alito engage in a profoundly damaging legal error: religious freedom is not the right to impose some people’s beliefs on other citizens.

Far too many Americans define “freedom” as “my right to do what I want, no matter how harmful that may be to my fellow Americans.” We see that distortion in the refusal of “freedom fighters” to wear masks to protect the health of their neighbors.

Our legal system was profoundly influenced by what is sometimes called the “libertarian construct.” That construct provides that we each have the right to “self government”–to live our lives as we see fit, to worship or not, to form and exchange opinions, to go about our business free of official constraint– so long as we do not thereby harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we grant an equal right to others.

There are all kinds of good-faith differences of opinion about the nature of the harms that justify government interventions–second-hand smoke? Seat belts? There is no such “gray area” when it comes to our obligation to extend “an equal right to others.”

When the issue is religious liberty, Von Drehle gets it right, and the Justices get it wrong.

By prohibiting establishment of a state religion, the Constitution explicitly bars “courts and governments” from preferring one set of religious views over any other set — or over nonreligious views…

Nor does religious freedom confer immunity from criticism. Religious freedom by its nature implies robust disagreement over strongly held values. Imprecations will be hurled, alas. Names will be called. Devout Christians should appreciate this; indeed, we are called blessed when we’re reviled for the sake of our faith. Furthermore, we’re taught to distinguish between civil and religious authority, and to render due respect to both.

Churches and other religious establishments rightly have certain protections from laws that might compel them to violate their beliefs while conducting their own business. It’s dangerous to confuse that safe zone with a general power to flout the law.

I say AMEN.