As President Obama and his rather easy going and patient government work to strengthen a fragile economy and to rebuild its structure, as well as the American infrastructure that was so neglected during the corporate raider days, much of the time and energy of his opponents in government seems now to be taken up by pressing concerns over the relationship between church and state, religion and governance. The Republicans have declared a state of emergency for religious freedom. God, as they see it, is under attack. Thank God!
For a few decades now Republicans have managed to hijack the votes of the class that has the most to lose from their economic policies, through the relentless pursuit of “wedge issues.” Gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, school prayer, guns…if you can work up the emotions of the underclass, logic goes out the window and poor people will vote against their own interests, opting for the agenda of the super-rich cleverly wrapped in morality screeds and the grand old flag.
The latest wedge employed by Republicans, and especially their presidential candidates, consists of invoking the First Amendment to the Constitution to drum up outrage over what they call religious freedom. Rick Santorum speaks of Obama’s “over-hostility to faith” which is supposedly setting us on a slippery slope to … The French Revolution! The guillotine! Thrice married Newt Gingrich has declared that the President is waging a war against religion. Somehow the church going Christian President is portrayed as an atheist scourge (unless he’s portrayed as a closet Muslim or the Antichrist.)
The Republicans, currently the party most likely to solemnly invoke the Constitution, are now up in arms about religion. Our constitutional freedom of religion is under attack by a wave of liberal atheists determined to bring God to bay, so they say. Although what the Constitution has to say about religion is quite simple:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Not very well written, but what do you expect? Jefferson didn’t write it. (Gouverneur Morris was neither a great prose stylist, nor a cool guy.) But still the principle is fairly clear and explicit. According to my 1902 Thesaurus, we can take respecting as “regarding” and not in the sense of taking off one’s hat to. Establishment means that the government shall not establish a state religion. The founders may have had the Church of England in mind. We certainly didn’t want a church headed by England’s King, and some may have feared Papist elements, as the Roman Church had a bad habit of interfering in sovereign states.
As for the “free exercise” clause, it’s not exactly a carte blanche. In Reynolds vs. the United States, the Supreme Court upheld the convictions of an historical co-religionist of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, under a federal law banning polygamy. The court declared “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.” So there’s go the wives, there goes the human sacrifice, there goes the Rasta herb, and animal sacrifice could or couldn’t be depending, even though the Lord insisted on it in the O.T. and favored Abel’s meat offering over Cain’s vegan altar.
Free exercise, obviously depends on whose exercising. Christians seem to expect more freedom than the tolerated heathen. Americans see their founders as true Christians and they have a strong tendency to view the United States as a Christian nation. A Newsweek poll found that 62percent of Americans believe it to be a Christian nation, but that number is dropping as religious beliefs recede, but many Christians get bent out of shape when their values are not the law. Imagine if Shariah were Irish. New York’s Catholic Archbishop Dolan has said that a Christian nation should not move toward gay marriage, because it’s “a detriment to civilization.” And the condom, the pill and evening pulling out is work of the devil.
We all know that Catholicism is not a democracy. It is a monarchy, with the pope sitting in for God and deemed infallible in matters of faith and morals. It is reasonably assumed that 98% of American catholic women use birth control ate some time or another, however, such quiet and common sense use of birth control is opposed by virtually all of the 456 Catholic bishops in the United States, all of whom happen to be men. Many have been quite vocal on the subject, in stark contrast to their silence on sexual child abuse by priests.
Now Catholic apologists will quibble with the 98% figure on Catholic women using birth control other than the “rhythm method” or abstinence because apparently it is based on women who are now fertile and doesn’t include the ladies of a more stringent era who now have no need of taking countermeasures, but I think that we can safely say that most American Catholics regularly take exception to their church on such matters as birth control, gay rights and the existence of purgatory and hell.
The logical error at the heart of all this is that making birth control available is not the same as requiring it, using it or promoting it. (Although the R.C. Church and the new Republicans says it’s a slippery slope from making birth control available to China’s enforced one child per family or mass sterilizations.) Long ago I studied logic with the Jesuits but now I’m a little rusty as to exactly what kind of fallacy this is. I suspect it might by “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” or a suppressed correlative or a false dilemma or even begging the question. Newt would know. But I know a scam when I see one. The point of the Obama proposal was simply that corporations that are owned by the church should comply with the same regulations other corporations comply with and that they should provide for their employees as a secular corporation would, regardless of their faith or lack of. To do otherwise would be a form of establishing religion. Should a company owned by kosher Jews prohibit employees from spending their salaries on pork?
But there’s a bigger question involved here?
Why does the church hierarchy prohibit its congregations from resorting to contraception? Especially when conception could lead to severe economic hardships, bankruptcies or even abortions? One slender justification cited is in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel 18:5: “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right—if he does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approaches a woman in her time of impurity—he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord God.”
This would seem to suggest that it is wrong to have sex with a woman while she is menstruating (or unclean as some would put it), yet this is taken to imply that the reason for avoiding this is that women are infertile at this time. It is further stated that it is a violation of “natural law” and that sexual pleasure is there only to reward humans for procreating. Following the same logic, shouldn’t Catholics abstain from fancy cooking because the purpose of eating is to sustain life? Anyway that oft cited example is from the book of Ezekiel, where the Lord also goes on to say he is going to slay the sons and daughters of those who were whores, and that he will cut off both the righteous and the wicked that his sword shall go against all flesh. Nice God, huh!
Lets face it; there is only one reason the Catholic Church opposes birth control. Numbers. Population is power. The Church wants to fill the planet with Catholics, consequences be damned. Just as the Church is vehemently opposed to birth control, it remains adamant that overpopulation is a myth, in fact population growth is seen as an asset! What other operation has such compelling demographics?
Now having been raised a Catholic and educated by Jesuits, I find many redeeming qualities that adhere to the church, particularly in its role as a patron of artists and architects, however there are also many causes for regret in the history of the Catholic church, such as the case of Galileo. Scientists, philosophers and economists, not to mention practitioners of the more lively arts have often been damned by God’s home office on earth. We have only to look at the Church’s Index of Prohibited books to get a historical perspective on the degree of open-mindedness practiced by the Roman church. Included in the Index are works by Descartes, Pascal, Hobbes, Locke, Swedenborg, Hume, Boursseau, Spinoza, Bergson, and John Stuart Mill.
I think it’s clear that the founding fathers of the United States and the framers of the Constitution intended for that document to protect us from religion, at least as much as to protect religion from us. And I think that over the centuries the Constitution has generally served us well.
I believe the First Amendment clause may actually have prevented the deification of numerous less than stellar politicans. After all Rome, the empire we have modeled ours upon in so many ways, did deify 55 emperors including Commodus who fought in fixed gladiatorial contests naked, Diocletian who had thousands of Christians killed, many in the arena, and Caracalla who assassinated his brother, then slaughtered 20,000 people in Alexandria after a play presented there mocked his motive as self-defense. We might have deified Nixon!
Of course deification and idolization are tricky matters. Have we in effect deified the founding fathers? Have we transformed the Constitution into a Credo with sacred trappings? It’s not clear. Nothing is official, yet the United States sculpted Mount Rushmore into 60 foot portrait heads of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. They are not officially gods, but the resemblance is compelling. That extraordinarily apotheotic monument was sculpted by a member of the Ku Klux Klan on land sacred to and owned by the Lakota Sioux. (Who have apparently placed a curse on it.) And it’s easy to see that the Mount Rushmore sculptures could be construed as idols, as they bear some considerable resemblance to the giant Buddhas carved into a stone.
Remember the ancient giant sixth century Buddhas carved into a cliff face in Afghanistan which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 after they were condemned by Mullah Mohammed Omar as idols.
Actually this sort of idol busting still goes on today, representing the real danger presented by religion. The New York Times reported on Valentine’s Day, 2012 that nearly 30 Buddhist statues, some dating to the sixth century have been smashed by Islamic vandals at the National Museum of the Maldives. The vandalism occurred on the day that the country’s president Mohamed Nasheed stepped down. He had been criticized for proposing that hotels be allowed to serve alcohol on islands where Maldivians live, and other affronts to Allah’s law.
The Taliban is an extreme example of what happens when religion gets mixed up with politics, but we have had theocracies of all stripe, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu, and in such states where religions are established, the minorities invariably suffer, discrimination at the very least, annihilation too often.
Another story in the Times today concerned the Hutaree, a Michigan Militia (see the Second Amendment) that amassed weapons and explosives, and according to prosecutors intended to murder police officers and then ambush mourners at their funeral with the intention of starting a war in which patriots would rise up against the evil government. The Hutaree (a name chosen because it sounded like something from Star Wars) were headed by one David Stone Jr. who studied the Book of Revelation and believed he needed to be able to defend his family from the Antichrist. Well, it’s not like he’s crazy or anything. Pew Reseach Center polls show that 54% of Protestants and 59% of Southerners believe Jesus is returning to Earth. Soonish.
What the Republicans are now attempting to do in the spotlight of the media is pull off an extraordinary inversion of logic. They proclaim that to not allow Christian religious groups variances from the law of the land is an unconstitutional restriction of religious freedom. If a religion is at odds with the laws of a state, it is still generally held to those laws, at least in democratic republics. Perhaps Mitt Romney is the least vocal Republican on the hot button birth control issue because he wouldn’t want to get into the case of Mormon polygamy. Here is a case where a religious right was trumped by the law of the land.
“True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.” —
The United States may have a Christian majority, even though their numbers are slipping, but as long as this country operates under the constitution it will remain secular the way it was intended to be. It is ironic that those who invoke the intentions of the founders most aggressively today, the Tea Party volk, seem to be completely uneducated on the beliefs of the founding fathers. Washington went to church but he was not religious. He never knelt, never took communion and there is no historical instance of him praying. His prayer at Valley Forge was a biographer’s fabrication, as was “Washington’s Prayer” recently recited by Michelle Bachmann. Washington was more interested in playing cards and dancing. Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison and Ethan Allen were all deists. While they professed that there was a creator or “great architect”, they believed that the creator does not intervene in the universe and that the light of the world is reason. Oh, and a word of warning to Mr. Santorum, the French revolution was largely the work of deists who did not believe the king had a God given right to rule, and were supported in their cause by Jefferson, Franklin and Paine.
We have come a long way from the Enlightenment and the spirit that informed the Constitution. But maybe we’ve come a long way backwards. America seems to be splitting into pieces. There is the rationalist, deist side, and then there is the apocalyptic Jesus is coming and the Temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem side. They have nothing in common. Coincidentally the most religious of the United States are the former slave states. And what is it that these religious Americans want? They want immunity from science and logic; they demand ignorance as a God given right.
Mencken put it so nicely:
“The truth is that Christian theology, like every other theology, is not only opposed to the scientific spirit; it is also opposed to all other attempts at rational thinking. Not by accident does Genesis 3 make the father of knowledge a serpent — slimy, sneaking and abominable. Since the earliest days the church, as an organization, has thrown itself violently against every effort to liberate the body and mind of man. It has been, at all times and everywhere, the habitual and incorrigible defender of bad governments, bad laws, bad social theories, bad institutions. It was, for centuries, an apologist for slavery, as it was the apologist for the divine right of kings.”
Here’s how Santorum put it: “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country…. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
Here’s how Gingrich put it: “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
Here’s how Romney put it: “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
And here’s how Tom Paine put it: All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
To anyone who declares that the earth is subject to the whims of divinities and supernatural intervention, I would say stick to your prayers and stay out of the political sphere. If God would intervene then I suppose he will, with thunder and lightning and all of the old tricks. But if this is a world under the control of man, then lets stick to the facts. Save the mumbo jumbo for your spare time. This is the realm of humans. The earth belongs to the living.
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