Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Blurred Lines

Recently, the courts ordered Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to hand over seven million dollars to the estate of Marvin Gaye for blatantly ripping off his 1977 groove "Got to Give It Up". Unfortunately, it stopped short of demanding some compensation to the rest of America for putting the sleazy pick-up line, "I know you want it" into ubiquitous rotation. At least something good came from it - a scholar by the name of Al Yankovic took the opportunity to educate us all on "Word Crimes", a message the nation actually needs to hear.

In another sense, "blurred lines" have been a problem in the past year or two, specifically about issues dealing with religion. Last year the Supreme Court had to weigh in on the objections of Hobby Lobby and other groups dissatisfied with the inclusion of certain contraceptives in mandated insurance coverage (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Over the last year, many opposed to the legalization of gay marriage have argued from a religious stance, though the courts continue to overturn prohibitions in state after state. A month ago, New York Public Schools caused a furor by adding two Muslim holidays to the school calendar. And just days ago, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 101), which has divided the state, with fault lines fracturing Hoosier communities and congregations. In addition, there are even older discussions with various recent flare-ups, like those about "taking back" what was once a "Christian nation" or "putting God back in schools". At this rate, arguing about religious freedom is on track to overtake baseball as the national pastime (oddly enough, while church attendance continues to decline).

One of the major obstacles in this discussion, if one can call it that, is that both ends of the spectrum are using misleading language, or at the least, intentionally blurring the lines between two concepts. I'm not suggesting that there are always easy answers to conflicts concerning religious freedom, even with more appropriate language, but certainly we could all benefit by taking a fair-minded look at some of these blurred lines:

1. "Christian nation" (or "Judeo-Christian Principles") v "Religious Freedom"

Frankly, I can't understand why there continues to be any assertion that the United States of America is founded in Christianity. Not only does Romans 13 instruct that colonists were to do the exact opposite of arming themselves to demand official representation (and other verses instruct paying taxes even without representation), but John Adams specifically addressed this assumption in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, one of our earliest national documents:
"As the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tanquillity, of Mussulmen (Muslims) ......"
That's certainly another way to look at it.
There is no mention of Christianity in the Declaration or Constitution, but there are several phrases that show how important the concept of religious freedom was to our founders - most notably the first amendment in our Bill of Rights. Having seen Europe in a constant state of religious conflict, with kings and rulers demanding at least a minimum of identification as Catholic or Anglican, this new experiment sought to welcome all faiths (or none) and require no religious belief.  There was to be no establishment of any official religion.

Why is this distinction important to recent discussions? In the most simple terms, they contradict each other. Either this is a nation for all faiths, or it is a Christian one. Even if it's not the intent, it is not difficult to infer from such statements that Christians are more "American" than others - that this country belongs to Christians, who simply let others live here. If you cherish religious freedom, as our founders did, then perhaps it is best that we lay off the claims of privilege. Christianity may have, at various times, been treated by the government as superior, but so has the male gender, or white skin. I certainly wouldn't suggest talking about "racial equality" but leading off with "America is a White nation".

2. Biblical Position v Political Position

It's easy to see why these lines get blurred, since a religious stance has at least some claim of protection, while a political position does not (outside of the normal democratic process). While I have often been told that "the Bible says" something, it should be noted that, in just the past few centuries, the Bible has said a lot of things that we no longer claim it says, about slaves, women, charging interest, and so on. Quite often, when I hear someone making some objection on religious grounds, it really comes from political idealism.

One recent example would be the national discussion on the legalization of marriage for homosexuals. If one says that they believe homosexuality is a sin, that could very well be a religious position. There are several verses that indicate as such. However, there is no verse in the Bible that even suggests that Christians should oppose the legalization of "gay marriage". That is a political position.

Interracial marriage in the Bible is not prohibited (and, in fact, Moses married a Cushite), although opposition normally took on a religious tone: 
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." - Judge Leon M. Bazile, 1/6/59
Sadly, that wasn't even settled in the sixties; the Christian Bob Jones University finally allowed students to date someone outside of their own race in 2000. Yes, you read that right: the year begins with a two. The Bible does not explicitly prohibit women voting or working outside the home, nor declare it sinful to sell flowers or cakes to a person who will use it in a wedding that legally unites two persons of the same sex. If someone claims that his religion demands he (or she) take a certain position, then how can it be that others in the very same congregation, following that same religion, are adamantly opposed? Perhaps it is not the religion, but one's politics, that generate such discomfort with certain things.

3. Moral Right v Legal Right

While this will be evident to most people, there still exists a vocal minority that doesn't seem to understand that the laws of the United States are based on the Constitution, not the Bible (oddly enough, this same minority is quite critical of certain nations in the Middle East who operate under "sharia law", the idea that laws should be based on the Qur'an). As such, there will always be a freedom to act or believe outside of what may be condoned by any one particular faith, and perhaps outside what is condoned by any faith.

In America, it is legal to cheat on a spouse. I personally feel such an action is immoral, as do the overwhelming majority of Americans, but it is legally permissible. The Ku Klux Klan can legally spew hateful rhetoric about blacks. It is legal to laugh at a child with Down's Syndrome who has fallen down the stairs. Despicable, but legal - and that's just a few examples on which nearly all Americans can agree.

Even less of a case can be made to ban something legally that people may or may not find morally wrong. Though we had a national era of (alcohol) Prohibition, we corrected our course. A religious person may believe that all other religions are false and thus pose an eternal danger to adherents of those faiths, but most Americans would agree that we are a better nation by allowing all to be legal. On the other side of the coin, students of American history can point to several points in time under which a moral good, such as freeing slaves, was an illegal act.

4. Church v Business

As mentioned above, one of the bedrock principles in the founding of our nation was the concept of religious freedom. The very first amendment reads, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". You may not know it from hearing some people talk about being "under attack", but churches in America are perhaps the least burdened in the world.

Like other non-profits, churches do not pay income tax. Unlike all other non-profits, houses of worship are exempted from even having to fill out the IRS form 990 that would publicly disclose their sources of income, employee compensation, expenses, and more. Additionally, the courts have recognized a "ministerial exception" to employment discrimination laws, stating that religious groups must be free to choose their leaders without government interference. Obviously, a board choosing a new Catholic priest can't very well be forced to hire an Orthodox Jew.

A business, however, is prohibited from asking an applicant about their religious views. Where a Baptist church can get away with stating upfront, "we will not consider women for this position", a business may not. Much of the current discourse on religious freedom (from both sides) seems to ignore this separation. If gay marriage is made legal, some say, then churches will be forced to perform ceremonies they believe are sinful. Certainly not: a single man has the right to marry an atheist female today, but the Catholic Church will not marry them. Again, churches are unique in American society and law. The far left may feel that we must eradicate the ability of anyone to discriminate, and I would agree that businesses must serve the public equally, but churches must remain protected.

5. Religious Freedom v Discrimination

Even the freedoms guaranteed to Americans in the Bill of Rights are not absolute. Try joking about explosives to the TSA agent checking your bag before you hop on your next flight, and you'll quickly learn that claiming "freedom of speech" will not spare you from the consequences. There are limitations on religious freedom as well. Mormons argued against the government's push to ban polygamy, for example, in vain, and I'm sure many a self-proclaimed Rastafarian has been charged with marijuana possession.

One of the limitations on religious freedom is common law; while one is free to believe as they wish, it doesn't always mean that they may act as they wish. While government can and should make a "reasonable accommodation" for religious objectors, no magnitude of religious fervor can legally excuse discrimination. Ah, but what is (improper) discrimination? There are differing laws in every state, and lawyers make a lot of money every day by arguing what is and is not allowable in those laws. But, interestingly enough, I'd say the best answer comes from religion: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

6. Expressed Contents of Legislation v Feared Consequences of Legislation

My more conservative friends have an excellent point about the recent outrage concerning Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA): a lot of people are freaking out over (almost) nothing. The vast majority of business owners aren't going to turn down money, regardless of their religious beliefs. While it is more broad than the federal statute to which it is often compared, nothing in the bill condones discriminatory practices. It does not prevent judicial recourse, nor does it guarantee that everyone who thinks they have religious grounds for their actions will be ultimately supported by the state. It does little more than set a legal standard by which future lawsuits over certain conflicts will be judged; it sets a framework for resolving questions of religious liberty. Surely, there is a distinction that needs to be made here that the left, as a whole, seems to be ignoring: there is a difference between what a law actually says and what people fear fear may happen as a result of its passage. I completely agree that the text of the law itself carries more weight than speculation about what may or may not happen if something passes (or doesn't pass).

Of course, hearing this sort of logical defense from the right seems a little convenient...especially after years of trying to say this very same thing to outraged conservatives. The text of the Affordable Care Act does not contain any reference to a "government takeover of healthcare", "taking away the ability to choose your doctor", or establishing "death panels". Changing the top tax rate does not meet any definition of "socialism". States that have legalized gay marriage have not enacted subsequent laws allowing for bestiality.  Nothing in any legislation even proposed has contained the threat of "them coming for our guns". But now, suddenly, people need to focus on what the law actually says, and not on fearful extrapolation? As the Church Lady would say.....

7. Tolerance v Support/Agreement

I know, I know. Tolerance is a bad word. It means that no one can tell anyone else they are wrong about anything. It is just some code word for people who want to cram their beliefs down your throat, right? Part of the liberal agenda? Well, even Mike Pence appealed for tolerance on Sunday, saying, "tolerance is a two-way street". It was the one thing I believe we agreed on.

However, he evaded direct questions about the law he recently signed, and he likewise missed an opportunity to talk about that two-way street. Do critics of the political right, or of evangelical Christianity, still need to disagree with civility? Absolutely. Should people be free to express unpopular views, and to hold uncomfortable beliefs? Of course. That doesn't mean, however, that there can be no criticism. The same first amendment that guarantees us freedom of religion also grants freedom of assembly - people opposed to a law can protest. It also guarantees the freedom of the press - the media can support or condemn. I don't believe exercising these freedoms equate to "intolerance", from either side. According to the "great agnostic", Robert G. Ingersoll, "tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself." 

Certainly, this does not imply agreement. There is a difference between respectful disagreement and intolerance. Unfortunately, many can't accept that difference. If I buy lunch for a friend who left his wife, am I supporting adultery? Perhaps the better question is this: if some disagreement or sin disqualifies a person from the pool of people I am to serve, then how can I serve others, at all? Who is good? None.

8. My Religious Freedom v Your Religious Freedom

This last point is somewhat of a reversal: in the above points, many people enter the conversation without distinguishing two separate things, where in this case, people tend to draw lines of exception where there can be none. Humorist Dave Barry once remarked that "if someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person." In similar fashion, the man who demands religious freedom for his own faith while actively working to limit the rights of others is not a man of principle - he is a man of convenience.

One must enter political discussions in particular with a certain level of forethought, something often absent in heated debates. I can't relay how many times, or example, I have heard people defend a law or executive action by one president, only to condemn another for using the same law or action. Anything we allow for one person, or group, or faith, must be allowable for all; equality is the foundation of justice. So, if a woman tells me that we should have teacher-led prayer in schools, and that if non-believers don't agree they can just sit and listen, I just imagine her outrage when a Muslim teacher asks the students to face Mecca. If you would not be comfortable with giving another faith the floor before a somewhat captive audience, then perhaps you can understand the opposition some have to being subject to yours.

It would be one thing if all beliefs were in fact treated equally, but one need look no further than Indiana's failed attempt to constitutionally ban gay marriages to see that politics trump principles. Even staying within the Christian faith, there are a number of denominations that believe officiating marriage ceremonies for homosexuals is simply the right and equitable thing to do. Yet the state actively worked to limit the freedoms of these churches to do so. It is certainly no coincidence that many feel "religious freedom" must be protected where the action is condoned by the Republican party, but not where the action runs counter to the GOP platform. Can the liberty of certain denominations be legally upheld, while those of others are not?

Again, keeping these things in mind may help improve communication in the charged debates over religious freedom and personal liberties, but spirited differences will continue. In an ideal world, debates about what may be allowed legally would be irrelevant, because people would do the right thing anyway. Of course, that would require some level of humility, grace, and caring about others more than ourselves. If only there was a religion like that.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Burden of Proof

In 2003, the American Film Institute released their lists of the all-time 50 greatest heroes and villains in American movies. The lists themselves could spur many discussions and debates, but it is interesting to note that the greatest hero, according to the AFI, is the principled Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Finch represents the perfect man: a gentle, caring father and a model citizen with a hunger for justice and truth. What the list seems to ignore, however, is that heroes typically save the day - and Atticus, while successful in passing on his virtues to his daughter, ultimately fails to convince the jury that Tom Robinson is an innocent man, in spite of sound logic and a heck of a closing argument.

 To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place... It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses, whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant... 
The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption... the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated TEMERITY to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against TWO white people's! The defendant is not guilty - but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe... Tom Robinson.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the all-white, all-male jury still finds Mr. Robinson guilty. The facts of the case couldn't even create a reasonable doubt for the men who had likely made up their minds before the trial ever began. It should be noted, however, that such a tale of willful ignorance is not exclusive to the rural South, nor to decades past, nor to the subject of race.

In the 21st century, the inability (or perhaps more precisely, unwillingness) to reason is more clearly visible through the technological advances of the internet. There are entire sites built around sensational "click bait" - undocumented stories that play on known biases in an effort to generate ad revenue. These sites tell people what they want to hear, which in turn, cause people to feel like there is some legitimate support for their own views; each click is a small but instant pat on the back, an assurance that their views are legitimate, and that the views of others are not. Like Mr. Robinson's jury, the public can remain assured without the interference of fact.

The irony, of course, is that this same internet allows those of us with an interest in reality to obtain reliable information within a fraction of a second. If someone posts that unemployment is getting worse, for example, one can quickly prove the opposite with official numbers from the Department of Labor. A rumor concerning the death of an actress yesterday can be easily squashed by her tweet today. With such access to information, how can these shady sites continue to exist?

In blunt terms, it's because we don't want information, we want to be right. In a 2006 study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that "when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs." In other words, even the strongest evidence will not be enough for some.

Take, for example, the "birther" controversy concerning President Obama's place of birth. In one poll, over 40 percent of those identifying as Republicans believed that Obama was born in Kenya. Of course, there was no documentation to support this claim, but the cry continued to build for Obama to release the document proving he was born in the United States, and he eventually did so. Logic suggests that this would be the end of it, but rather than concede to the evidence, birthers merely suggested that the image was a fake. If Obama had paid for millions of official copies, and all were notarized by raised seal, and mailed directly to every household in America, there would still be many who would suggest they were fraudulent. There is nothing that could be produced that would convince those who refuse to be convinced. 

The desire for evidence is not in itself a problem, but rather the inequitable burden of proof. Nearly anything can be "evidence" to support an idea to which one is already inclined, while mountains of evidence may be easily dismissed if it is contrary to what one wants to see or hear. In terms of these bias-catering websites, they are often shared on social media without a second look (sometimes, it appears that it was sent based on a headline alone, and that the re-poster didn't even read the entire article), and if I attach a contrary synopsis from Snopes to my reply, I can expect to be "informed" that Snopes, of course, is fake. 

In church circles, this inequitable interpretation of "evidence" can be easily seen whenever a well-known church member encounters some significant tragedy. If Jim loses his job one week and his wife leaves him the next, then what does this mean? If another church member had a negative perception of Jim, then this is evidence that God is punishing him for some sin, or at least that Jim's life is falling apart because of some diminished faith. However, if Jim is well liked, then the same circumstances are evidence that - because he is so godly and therefore a threat - Satan is coming at him, trying to destroy his witness. The only difference is how much one likes or dislikes the subject.

Surely, everyone has opinions, and almost by definition believes that such opinions or positions are superior to others (or else, why would you have them?), but as J.P. Moynihan once said, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts". If two friends who root for opposite teams come together to watch the Super Bowl, there is nothing wrong with each believing that his team will be victorious. But what does it say about our society if, after the game is over, they continue to disagree about who won? Is the sports page now suspect? 

Each of us carries the baggage of personal bias, yet we have a moral duty to at least attempt to reason, to acknowledge the evidence with some measure of fairness. In the name of God, do your duty.