Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Liberty Or Favoritism?

As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide another religious liberty case–this time, concerning the constitutional propriety of a 40-foot cross in Maryland–it might be helpful to revisit the origins of the competing definitions of “liberty” that are at the heart of so many of these cases.

We are told that the colonists who originally settled in what is now the United States came to the new world for religious liberty. And that’s right; they did. But their view of religious liberty was that it was “freedom to do the right thing.” And that involved establishing colonies where the government would make sure that everyone did “the right thing.”

Around 150 years later, George Washington became the first President of a country founded upon a very different understanding of liberty. Liberty was conceived of as freedom to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to accord an equal right to others.

What had changed the definition of liberty? The scientific and intellectual movement we call the Enlightenment, which had occurred in the interim between the original Puritans and the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Constitution may have been based upon the definition that emerged from the Enlightenment, but America still is home to lots of Puritans. And their “sincere belief” is that liberty means the government should be able to impose–or at least, privilege– their religion.

An editorial in The New York Times explains the case currently pending before the Court:

This week’s hearing, in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, involved a 40-foot cross in Bladensburg, Md., that was erected 93 years ago to honor fallen World War I soldiers. The question before the court: Is Maryland in violation of the First Amendment because the memorial is on public property and maintained with public funds?

There would be no constitutional violation if the cross were on private property. The issue is government endorsement of religion, which is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The editorial notes that there is considerable confusion about the application of the Establishment Clause to public monuments.

Lower court judges are confused about how to apply the Supreme Court’s dictates in this area of the law, so more clarity from the high court — if not a definitive, bright-line rule — is in order.

Alas, such clarity doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. After Wednesday’s hearing, the court seems poised to allow the cross — which otherwise bears no religious inscriptions — to stay. But the justices don’t appear to be any closer to consensus on this issue than they’ve ever been.

“I mean, it is the foremost symbol of Christianity, isn’t it?” Justice Elena Kagan asked at Wednesday’s session. “It invokes the central theological claim of Christianity, that Jesus Christ, the son of God, died on the cross for humanity’s sins and that he rose from the dead. This is why Christians use crosses as a way to memorialize the dead.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, who in the past has wrestledwith the Constitution’s religion clauses, pondered whether “history counts” when assessing a monument’s legality. Maybe older displays, erected when the nation wasn’t nearly as religiously diverse, should be allowed, he suggested. “We’re a different country,” Justice Breyer said. “We are a different country now, and there are 50 more different religions.”

Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration–which wasn’t a party to the case and need not have offered an opinion–weighed in on the side of those who want the cross to remain.

The editorial concluded:

With its recent rulings, the Supreme Court has only muddied the separation between church and state by taking seriously religious objections to contraception, civil rights laws and the allocation of public funds. It is hard to fathom the justices being nearly as accommodating with a publicly funded monument to atheism or a Wiccan pentagram. And last month, the court couldn’t even agree that a Muslim death-row prisoner from Alabama deserved the same rights as Christians in his final moments.

However the justices resolve this the dispute, they would be wise to not sow more confusion in this area of the law and feed the perception that only certain religions and practices get a fair shake in public life.

When those “certain religions” are privileged, equality before the law takes a hit.

 

The Anger Games

Wonder why we keep seeing reports like this one from Talking Points Memo?

Bennett Bressman has “more compassion for small dogs than illegals” and claims his “whole political ideology revolves around harming journalists.” He uses the n-word freely and cracks jokes about the Holocaust.

Bressman also happens to have served as statewide field director for Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ successful 2018 reelection campaign.

A shocking trove of leaked private messages Bressman sent over Discord, a gaming platform popular with white nationalists, were surfaced Sunday by Anti-Fascist Action Nebraska. Under the handle “bress222,” Bressman made over 3,000 comments on the page for white nationalist YouTuber Nicholas Fuentes’ show America First. The chats were made public by Unicorn Riot, a volunteer nonprofit media outlet devoted to exposing the internal communications of white nationalists.

The Nebraska GOP declared itself “horrified” by the disclosures, and if this were a “one-off,” I’d be inclined to give the party a pass. But it comes on the heels of too many similar revelations and the constant stream of “dog whistles” and worse from Trump and numerous other Republican candidates and officeholders.

A recent sociological study confirms what many of us have suspected: these sentiments are widely shared in the GOP.  Far from “horrifying” good people who inexplicably voted for Trump, these attitudes are actually the reason they cast those not-so-inexplicable-after-all ballots.

New research by University of Kansas sociologists David Smith and Eric Hanley demonstrates how a socially combustible mix of racism and sexism, in combination with anger and bullying, put the United States on a path to authoritarianism.

 Writing in “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?”, which appeared in a recent issue of the journal Critical Sociology, Smith and Hanley summarize their new research:

We find that Trump’s supporters voted for him mainly because they share his prejudices, not because they’re financially stressed. It’s true, as exit polls showed, that voters without four-year college degrees were likelier than average to support Trump. But millions of these voters — who are often stereotyped as “the white working class” — opposed Trump because they oppose his prejudices. These prejudices, meanwhile, have a definite structure, which we argue should be called authoritarian: negatively, they target minorities and women; and positively, they favor domineering and intolerant leaders who are uninhibited about their biases.

Furthermore, the authors report, what unified Trump’s voters was not “economic anxiety” but prejudice and intolerance. What they define as authoritarian views were “strongly associated with support for Donald Trump.” Political polarization, although it definitely exists, is not strictly a “class phenomenon,” in their view. Trump voters came “from many strata and milieus” and “the effects of class are mediated … through biases and other attitudes.”

Smith and Hanley’s research identified eight attitudes that reinforced each other and predicted support for Trump: self- identifying as conservative; a desire for a “domineering” leader; Christian fundamentalism, animus against immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims and women; and “pessimism about the economy.”

The research concluded what many of us suspected: people didn’t vote for Trump “despite” his obvious prejudices; they voted for him because they shared those prejudices. It was the basis upon which they identified with him.

Assuming the accuracy of this research (and I do), the rest of us will have to come to terms with two very unpalatable facts: (1)some 35% of our country’s citizens are racist, and (2) they are not going to desert Trump. They aren’t going to recoil as his administration and cabinet wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, and the social fabric. So long as he hates the same people they hate, they will continue to support him.

For that (disconcertingly large) minority of the population, he really could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing their allegiance. And that is terrifying.

“Ethical Objections” And Women’s Rights

As I have previously noted, Doug Masson is one of Indiana’s most thoughtful and knowledgable bloggers; his essays are particularly helpful when the legislature is in session, because in addition to being a lawyer, he was once on the staff of Legislative Services, the agency charged with drafting bills that will actually do what lawmakers want to accomplish (assuming, of course, that those measures are passed).

Doug recently looked at one of the anti-choice measures that are repeatedly and inevitably introduced in Indiana.

S.B. 201 provides that pharmacists and nurses can’t be required to administer or dispense an “abortion inducing drug” if they claim to have an ethical objection. (Evidently, according to Doug, the statutory definition of an “abortion inducing drug” excludes Plan B, for whatever comfort that might provide.) But analyzing which medications would fall under the bill’s parameters and which ones wouldn’t is really beside the point.

As Doug puts it:

Beyond that, of course, there is the impact on women who want control over their own bodies. And there’s the question of why abortion should be entitled to special pleading when it comes to employee’s ethical concerns over their employer’s operations. What if a health care provider finds drug use immoral and objects to treating addicts? What if a gun store employee objects to selling firearms to guys who abuse their wives? What if a bank employee objects to their employer’s lending practices? Usually we tell employees to go work somewhere else, but this legislation seeks to carve out a special exception for a medical service that, for the time being anyway, remains a Constitutional right.

That is, of course, the crux of the matter. The male legislators who simply cannot abide the notion that a woman should control her own reproduction evidently assume that ethical principles are limited to situations that offend their personal religious beliefs (or threaten patriarchal dominance.)

The Bill of Rights limits the decisions that government can properly make. The issue isn’t abortion. The issue is who has the right to make that decision. In our system, the government doesn’t get to decide what prayer you say, or if you pray at all; it doesn’t get to decide what book you read or what political positions you endorse. Government doesn’t get to decide who you can love, whether you can use contraception, or whether a woman will carry a pregnancy to term.

The real issue is power.

A government that can tell women they can’t abort has the power to tell women they must abort. (See: China) Our system doesn’t give government the authority to make those decisions for individual citizens.

Government also doesn’t get to decide whose “ethical objections” deserve to be honored and whose can be ignored.

If a pharmacist’s religious beliefs interfere with his ability to dispense medications, he needs to find another profession. And if a lawmaker’s religious commitments outweigh his fidelity to the U.S. Constitution (despite the oath he takes when he assumes his position) he shouldn’t be in the legislature.

‘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?