Tag Archives: religion

Pastoral versus Ideological Church and State

Speaking of religion, as we did yesterday, I’ve been mulling over a column by E.J. Dionne that I read a couple of weeks ago, because I think it has application to what I will (somewhat grandiosely) call the human condition.

Dionne is a Catholic, and he was examining the differences between the approach to that religion of two other Catholics–the Pope, and Steve Bannon.

Bannon believes that “the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis.” He calls for a return of “the church militant” who will “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity,” which threatens to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

“Moral” Lawbreaking

Remember the lyrics of that old cowboy song, “Don’t Fence Me In”?

Oh give me land lots of land under starry skies above
don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide
open spaces that I love
don’t fence me in.

I found those “wide open spaces”–they’re between Wyoming legislators’ ears.

A bill has been introduced into the Wyoming state legislature aimed at legalizing discrimination against the gay community–but only if the discriminatory behavior is motivated by religion. House Bill 135, also called the Government Nondiscrimination Act, would legalize discrimination against the LGBTQ community, so long as the discrimination is done for religious or “moral” reasons.

According to Second Nexus (a publication with which I am unfamiliar),

Specifically, the bill would forbid the government from taking action against any “person,” including public and private corporations and entities, if that person acts on a “religious belief or moral conviction” that marriage is the union of one man and woman, or that “‘man’ and ‘woman’ mean an individual’s biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy genetics at the time of birth.”

The bill is remarkable for the breadth of organizations it allows to discriminate on the basis of religious freedom. “If passed, HB 135 would allow government employees, licensed professionals (like teachers or counselors) and private businesses to discriminate,” said Sabrina King, Policy Director at the ACLU of Wyoming. Under the bill, even hospitals and doctors would be allowed to deny routine health care services. (The bill does not exempt the provision of “emergency medical treatment necessary for treatment of an illness or injury.”)

The bill does not define “moral conviction” or “religious belief,” nor does it specify what would constitute evidence of the genuine existence of such a belief.

Think of all the other possible applications of this approach: all those libertarians who have a “moral conviction” that taxes are theft could assert that conviction as a defense to nonpayment. Mormon men who still believe in plural marriage could cite their religious beliefs when marrying several underage girls. I understand that the Santeria religion requires ritual, public animal sacrifices…Evidently, however, the only religious and moral beliefs that deserve legal protection in Wyoming are those that require marginalizing and diminishing LGBTQ people.

Even Justice Scalia, a notoriously anti-gay, pro-religion jurist, understood that allowing religious exemptions from laws of general application would constitute a direct assault on the rule of law.

I actually have a strong moral objection to seeing my tax dollars used to pay lawmakers who introduce measures that are patently unconstitutional–not to mention hateful and counterproductive–whether those public officials are in Wyoming, Indiana or the White House.

 

 

 

Our Tribes, Ourselves

My friend and colleague Art Farnsley teaches in the Religious Studies Department at IUPUI; he also writes sporadic Op-Eds that have appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and Religion News Service.

His most recent one deserves to be widely read. It begins

Students in my college classes start out thinking religious identity and behavior are primarily about ideas. When I ask them about differences between Catholics and Methodists, they respond with differences in beliefs: the pope, contraception and transubstantiation.

These theological differences are real, of course, but I learned long ago that ideas do not create religious identity: They follow from it. My students imagine we pick from a large menu of ideological options and then make decisions about which membership best fits our own ideas.

It does not take long to convince them this “decision” model is badly incomplete. We never start from a neutral position. Our thinking is shaped by where we are born, who raised us and the tribes we call our own.

A number of social scientists are beginning to recognize that “who we are”–what “tribes” shape our identities–explains much more about all of  us, and about our human cognitive processes, than we have hitherto been willing to concede. Tribalism doesn’t just operate in the religious realm. As Farnsley notes,

It’s time to acknowledge that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us care to admit.

This may sound obvious to some, but I learned it the hard way. I have spent too much of my adult life pretending the opposite, that politics is about ideas and we develop our positions through reason, logic and formal argumentation. It’s time I accept the truth: Who we are comes first in politics too.

I just finished reading a recent book by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, that reaches the same conclusion–in their case, via lengthy review of overwhelming amounts of scholarly research. They argue–with copious evidence– that political identity and behavior operate more like religion than many of us want to admit. They also demonstrate that voters adjust their policy views and even their understanding of what is and is not fact to match their tribal identities.

Achen and Bartels include political parties among the tribal loyalties that motivate us. Our choice of partisan affiliation originally depends significantly on affinity, on the belief that “people like me” share more characteristics with one or another political party, but then the partisan affiliation itself becomes an important part of “who we are.”

Assuming the accuracy of these descriptions of political identity–and assuming the country and world survive the Presidency of an unstable and wildly unfit buffoon–Americans will need to think long and hard about the implications of “democratic realism” for the design of our democratic institutions. As Achen and Bartels confirm, there is much of value in our Constitutional system; we need to protect what is valuable, but we cannot do that unless we jettison what they call the “folk theory” of how democratic institutions actually work.

As Art Farnsley notes,

Political operatives of both parties have known for decades that voting behavior is about emotion, intuition and tribal affiliation. It’s about whose status goes up or down. The operatives know who we are.

 

What About the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

We Americans treasure religious liberty. We’re just a bit vague on the definition of “religious.” (Actually, we aren’t too clear on what we mean by “liberty,” either.)

I still recall a conference I attended early in my academic career; I approached a religious studies scholar who had delivered what I considered a brilliant paper, and during the ensuing discussion, she shared her belief that the First Amendment should simply have protected “intellectual integrity”–that the problem with specific references to religious liberty was that they required courts to decide what should count as “religious” for purposes of constitutional analysis.

And what should count as “religious” has been–and remains– hotly contested.

Think, for example, about the awkward history of conscientious objector jurisprudence. For a long time, courts only recognized moral objections to engaging in combat if the person registering the objection belonged to a “recognized” (um..established??) pacifist church. Others claiming that status were challenged. But–as the courts ultimately came to recognize– there are many non-theists and members of other denominations and religions who have sincere and deeply-felt pacifist beliefs.

More recently, of course, we are seeing people claim religious sanction for a right to discriminate, and it is hard not to suspect that their “sincerely held beliefs” have more to do with bigotry than godliness.

The point is, it is by no means clear what sorts of beliefs and conduct can properly be labeled “religious,” as opposed to “political,” “ideological,” “philosophical” or even delusional.

I receive Sightings, a digital newsletter from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and that publication recently referenced a Massachusetts lawsuit raising precisely that issue:

But courts do get asked about “religion,” and can’t wiggle out of exchanges on this. It was easier to define in historic cultures where a manifestation of religion, e.g. “an established church” got to define religion in “we” versus “they” terms. Today, propose a parlor game in which participants have to define the term, and listen. If “established” versions you will hear are too constricted, others are too protean. One hears then: “if everything is religious, then nothing is religious.” Now, pity the people who are called to fight over religious subjects not in games but in courts…

O’Loughlin’s case involves the keepers of a Massachusetts “religious” shrine whose property is tax-exempt for those parts of its workings which strike “everyone” as being focally religious: worshiping, nurturing, shaping spiritual life. But, strapped-for-tax-revenue neighbors of the shrine-keepers argue, should parts of the property used for what some would call “secular” purposes be tax-exempt because the owners or custodians of the shrine deem them and claim them to be ‘religious’?

Unsurprisingly, religious leaders of several traditions filed a brief in support of the tax-exempt status of the entire facility.

The notion that local assessors or any government actor is equipped or would presume to deem whether one use of a religious organization’s property or another falls within the definition of ‘religious worship’ is antithetical to religious freedom,” said the brief, signed by leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also weighed in, arguing in a brief that the shrine’s grounds offer “communion with nature,” which “is a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”

Gee–I “commune with nature” in distinctly unChristian fashion…But I digress.

According to this argument, courts and other secular institutions are simply precluded from drawing distinctions between properties used for authentically religious purposes (whatever those are) and those simply owned by religious organizations–although to the extent properties are tax-exempt, secular taxpayers’ rates increase. (Someone has to pay for the public services such properties enjoy–streets, police and fire protection, garbage collection and the like.)

I can’t help thinking of Flip Wilson’s inspired “Church of What’s Happening Now” rants (you youngsters can Google that), or the more contemporary “worship” of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Despite rightwing rhetoric, it isn’t the LGBT community that is demanding “special rights.”

The War on Secularism

Can you stand one more meditation about religion and the need for certainty ?

We talk a lot these days about fear–fear of terrorism, fear of change, fear of modernity. But when you come right down to it, the basis of all of these threats to subjective well-being is an overwhelming fear of ambiguity.

We humans evidently have a primal need for bright lines, eternal truths—for non-negotiable and non-relative Truth with a capital T.

The political danger presented by that need for certainty was obvious to the nation’s founders, who intended the Bill of Rights to prevent the “passions of the mob” from extinguishing the rights of those holding nonconforming beliefs.

The deep desire for easy answers in a complicated world explains many of the more troubling aspects of our  political environment. Consider the current “Trump phenomenon.” According to a study referenced in a recent article in the Washington Post,

Interviews with psychologists and other experts suggest one explanation for the candidate’s success — and for the collective failure to anticipate it: The political elite hasn’t confronted a few fundamental, universal and uncomfortable facts about the human mind.

We like people who talk big.

We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t.

And we don’t like people who don’t look like us.

Much of Trump’s appeal–and the appeal of the many demagogues who preceded him–boils down to this need to simplify, to draw bright lines, to chase away the demons of ambiguity.

Hibbing of the University of Nebraska says this need for clarity is important to understanding Trump’s support.

“People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can’t,” Hibbing said. “That’s certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating.

Much the same psychology is on display by the religious conservatives fighting for (their version of) religious rights. (Sometimes, aided and abetted by people who surely know better. Yes, Justice Scalia, I’m looking at you.)

Most of us look at Christian Americans and see people who have been highly privileged by a culture that has long been dominated by Christians. But these religious warriors see themselves under attack, not by a rival theological perspective, but by secularism.

Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn’t Islam. It’s secularism.

However one defines secularism, it represents a diminished influence of religion and religious authority—the blurring of previously “bright” lines.

Secularism terrifies people who need those bright lines, who need concrete authority to obey and whose worldviews are rendered entirely in black and white.

What terrifies me are people who fear ambiguity, who see no shades of gray, and who reject the exercise of moral autonomy.

And those people aren’t all in ISIL.