Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

 

Rejecting The Enlightenment

And here I thought Scott Pruitt was just a bought-and-paid-for member of the “mafia” wing of today’s GOP. His long history of combatting environmental regulations while representing fossil fuel industries seemed adequate to explain his (toxic) presence in the Trump Administration.

Now, however, we discover that he is also a True Believer in the Pence mold. According to Politico, Pruitt has a history of statements that would do Pence and the rest of the “cult” wing of the party proud.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt dismissed evolution as an unproven theory, lamented that “minority religions” were pushing Christianity out of “the public square” and advocated amending the Constitution to ban abortion, prohibit same-sex marriage and protect the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments, according to a newly unearthed series of Oklahoma talk radio shows from 2005.

Pruitt, who at the time was a state senator, also described the Second Amendment as divinely granted and condemned federal judges as a “judicial monarchy” that is “the most grievous threat that we have today.” And he did not object when the program’s host described Islam as “not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.”

The six hours of civics class-style conversations on Tulsa-based KFAQ-AM were recently rediscovered by a firm researching Pruitt’s past remarks, which provided them to POLITICO on condition of anonymity so as not to identify its client. They reveal Pruitt’s unfiltered views on a variety of political and social issues, more than a decade before the ambitious Oklahoman would lead President Donald Trump’s EPA.

This is the man who is charged with safeguarding the nation’s air and water, the man whose agency is our first line of defense against climate change. Never before has the EPA been headed by a person who actively dismisses and ridicules science and scientific evidence.

When the taped conversations emerged, an EPA spokesman was asked whether Pruitt’s skepticism about evolution– one of the major foundations of modern science– could conflict with the agency’s mandate to make science-based decisions.

Spokesman Jahan Wilcox told POLITICO that “if you’re insinuating that a Christian should not serve in capacity as EPA administrator, that is offensive and a question that does not warrant any further attention.”

Obviously, that was not the “insinuation,” although I for one would agree that a person espousing Pruitt’s particular version of Christianity and its mandates should be kept as far away from the EPA as possible.

Some polls show that less than 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that human activity is the driving factor behind climate change.

And Pruitt has echoed that sentiment, telling CNBC last year that he did not believe carbon dioxide was a primary contributor to climate change. Last week, he told the Christian broadcaster CBN News that he supports developing the nation’s energy resources, a stance that he believes aligns with Scripture’s teachings.

“The biblical worldview with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind,” he said.

To suggest that criticism of Pruitt is tantamount to saying that religion disqualifies people from heading the EPA is not only appallingly dishonest, it flies in the face of the agency’s history.

Pruitt isn’t the first EPA administrator to openly express his or her religious faith, of course. His immediate predecessor, Gina McCarthy, was a Roman Catholic who visited top officials at the Vatican in 2015 as church officials worked to write Pope Francis’ climate change encyclical. She oversaw the creation of the major climate change and water regulations that Pruitt’s EPA has started to unwind.

The Coming Assault on Education

I have noted previously that Trump’s choice for Education Secretary is Betsy DeVos, a dedicated proponent of school privatization. The depth of her commitment to vouchers is matched only by the shallowness of her educational experience and training (she’s never taught nor does she have a degree in education).

Politico looked into DeVos’ history and statements, and began a recent article as follows:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.

In an audio recording obtained by POLITICO, DeVos and her husband (an Amway billionaire) explained that their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education. They believe that school choice leads to “greater Kingdom gain”  and that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities. They’re convinced that school choice can reverse that trend.

Hoosier readers who see the fundamentalist hand of Mike Pence in the choice of DeVos can find confirmation of those suspicions in a Mother Jones article about Pence’s voucher program.

Pence’s voucher program ballooned into a $135 million annual bonanza almost exclusively benefiting private religious schools—ranging from those teaching the Koran to Christian schools teaching creationism and the Bible as literal truth—at the expense of regular and usually better-performing public schools. Indeed, one of the schools was a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, briefly attended by a young man arrested this summer for trying to join ISIS—just the kind of place Trump’s coalition would find abhorrent.

In Indiana, Pence created one of the largest publicly funded voucher programs in the country. Initially launched in 2011 under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, it was sold as a way to give poor, minority children trapped in bad public schools a way out.

Daniels program was relatively small, and focused on low-income families. Pence dramatically increased and redirected it.

By the 2015-16 school year, the number of students using state-funded vouchers had shot up to more than 32,000 in 316 private schools. But Pence’s school choice experiment demonstrates that vouchers can create a host of thorny political problems and potential church-and-state issues. Almost every single one of these voucher schools is religious. The state Department of Education can’t tell parents which or even whether any of the voucher schools are secular. (A state spokeswoman told me Indiana doesn’t collect data on the school’s religious affiliation.) Out of the list of more than 300 schools, I could find only four that weren’t overtly religious and, of those, one was solely for students with Asperger’s syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders, and the other is an alternative school for at-risk students….

Indiana’s choice law prohibits the state from regulating the curriculum of schools getting vouchers, so millions of dollars of the state education budget are subsidizing schools whose curricula teaches creationism and the stories and parables in the Bible as literal truth. Among the more popular textbooks are some from Bob Jones University that are known for teaching that humans and dinosaurs existed on the Earth at the same time and that dragons were real. BJU textbooks have also promoted a positive view of the KKK, writing in one book, “the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies.”

Not surprisingly, Indiana children in these voucher schools perform poorly on standardized tests.

The voucher schools can’t necessarily blame low test scores on poverty, either. According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.

So Indiana taxpayers are subsidizing religious indoctrination with monies that should be supporting the state’s under-resourced public schools. And that’s the model that Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos want to replicate nationwide.

When Some Are More Equal Than Others….

Contemporary American society reminds me a lot of Orwell’s Animal Farm, where everyone was equal, but some were more equal than others…

The last few years have ushered in a long-overdue recognition of the concept of privilege: we are at least beginning to discuss what we mean by white privilege and male privilege, and the ways in which unconscious cultural biases operate to disadvantage non-white, non-male citizens. Those conversations are important, and we need to continue them, but I want to suggest that it is also time–indeed, well past time–to address religious privilege.

It’s getting out of hand.

Just last week, a legislative committee in Tennessee approved a bill that would make the “Holy Bible” the “official book” of Tennessee.

In Mississippi, the legislature passed a bill that “gives protection to those in the state who cannot in a good conscience provide services for a same-sex marriage.”

North Carolina recently “protected” good Christian folks from having to share restrooms with citizens of whom they disapprove, among other things.

Other states–notably Indiana–have passed measures clearly intended to cater to the religious beliefs of some (certainly not all) Christians about abortion, despite the fact that those measures demonstrably harm women.

Meanwhile, scientists continually fight efforts to introduce creationism into science classrooms, and civil libertarians oppose ongoing attempts to introduce prayer and religious observances into the nation’s increasingly diverse public schools.

All of these efforts, even those that have been repeatedly struck down by the courts as inconsistent with our First Amendment liberties, are met with a degree of respect that we would not accord other illegal actions. For that matter, these self-proclaimed “Christians” expect–and receive–a level of deference not accorded to atheists, or even members of other, less privileged religions.

As I write this, the Supreme Court is considering whether religiously affiliated organizations that employ people of many faiths and none can refuse to allow those employees access to birth control through their health insurance policies. The government has already bent over backwards to accommodate religious objections: the employer need not pay for the birth control and needs only to inform the government of its objection; the insurer will then provide contraceptives directly to the employee. The organizations are arguing that requiring the act of notification“burdens” their religious liberty.

In an analysis of that case, The Nation recently asked a pertinent question: Can religious groups simply ignore all the laws they don’t like?

Given their constant insistence on privileging the pious, it might be well to reflect upon the performance of our sanctimonious “family values” politicians. Those of us who live in Indiana are painfully aware of the damage done by self-proclaimed Christians with little or no interest in actually governing, but it is worth noting that things are even worse in deep-red Alabama. H/T Steve Benen at Rachel Maddow’s blog, reporting on Governor Bentley’s deepening sex scandal:

The Birmingham News’ John Archibald published a brutal column today noting that Alabama’s state government is simply unraveling: the governor is mired in scandal; the lieutenant governor is widely seen as “unfit to serve”; the state House Speaker is currently awaiting trial on 23 felony counts; and the state Supreme Court’s chief justice is Roy Moore, whose crackpot views have already forced his ouster once, and who can hardly be counted on to adjudicate responsibly going forward.

But they all go to church. And hold prayer meetings. And quote the bible. And (like Indiana’s Governor) they clearly believe that those attributes–not compassion, not administrative competence, not constitutional scholarship, not personal probity– are the qualities that entitle them to use the power of the state to force the rest of us to behave as they see fit.

We really need to stop privileging people who want to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, whether those beliefs are ideological or religious in origin.

We definitely need to remind these self-righteous theocrats that in America, wrapping themselves in religious dogma does not make them more equal than anyone else.

 

 

Gotta Give Them Credit for Honesty

Last Sunday I posted about research suggesting the emergence of a “kinder, gentler,” less political Christianity.

The news has evidently not reached Augusta, Virginia.

An ad by the Augusta County Republican Committee touting the need to “Preserve our Christian Heritage” was created to be a reflection of the party’s creed, officials say.

Larry Roller, 87, created the political flier that says, “Preserve our Christian Heritage! VOTE REPUBLICAN” on Nov. 3. The ad ran as an insert in The News Leader Thursday.

God is a foundation of our nation,” said Roller, of Mount Sidney, who is on the GOP committee. “If you read the histories of our founding fathers, (they say) you should not run for office if you are not a Christian.”

Well, I hate to break it to you, Larry, but the founding fathers actually said no such thing. In fact, quite the opposite. That’s why they put that bit in the Constitution about never requiring a religious test for office, and that’s also why the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits government from engaging in activities that “respect an establishment” of religion.

People like Larry remind me of the caller to a radio show I was on a few years ago, who justified his (unconstitutional) position by informing me that “Even James Madison said we’re giving the Bill of Rights to people who live by the Ten Commandments.” When I politely informed him that the quote had been debunked as bogus–and that it was also contrary to everything Madison actually had said–he screamed into the phone “Well I think he said it!” and slammed down the receiver.

In Augusta county, a follow-up story had quotes from a number of local Republican officeholders defending both the ad and Larry’s somewhat unique perspective on the American founding.

When you live in a fact-free world, it’s easier to understand support for people like Donald Trump and Ben Carson…