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.

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