Tag Archives: Sincerely held religious beliefs

‘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.”

Arrogant Virtue

Andrew Sullivan recently shared the following quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s postwar book, The Irony of History.

“We … as all ‘God-fearing’ men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. …There is…the necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities…

.. if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Among other things, the excerpt reminded me of Learned Hand’s famous observation that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit that’s not too certain it’s right.”

In God and Country, I noted that America remains deeply divided between contemporary descendants of the early Puritans, on the one hand, and those I call Modernists, whose worldviews are rooted in the Enlightenment, on the other. Puritans define liberty as freedom to do the “right” thing, the thing that God wants. And what God wants (as Niebuhr noted) is–coincidentally–exactly what those self-same “God-fearing men” want.

Puritans believe that government has an obligation to enforce “God’s commands,” which they alone understand.

The American legal structure, however, is not a product of the Puritans who came to these shores for the “liberty” to worship the “right” God and the “liberty” to punish or expel those who differed. Established some 150 years after the Puritans first landed, our government began with a very different definition of liberty: freedom to live your own life as you see fit, free of government interference, so long as you don’t thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. Consistent with these caveats, the Bill of Rights ultimately boils down to “live and let live.”

These very different worldviews divide us still.

In the kneejerk reactions to LGBT progress—especially the rush to legislate “religious liberty” exemptions from civil rights laws—we see the Puritans, furiously fighting back against modern life.

In Michigan, a bill recently passed by their House of Representatives would “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” by allowing or disallowing “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”

In other words, if you are a pharmacist who doesn’t want to fill prescriptions for birth control or antiretrovirals, if you own a bakery and don’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, or if you are an EMT reluctant to treat gay patients, you can cite your “sincerely held religious belief” (no matter how idiosyncratic) to justify noncompliance with legal and/or professional obligations.

I think these laws are what Nieburh meant by “blindness induced by hatred and vainglory.”

The zealots who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center were undoubtedly motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs. The homegrown terrorists who gun down abortion doctors are motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs.

In a society where my (arrogantly held) sincere belief is different from your (equally arrogant) equally “sincere” belief, government cannot and should not privilege either of us.