Freedom of Religion: Your Choice--All or None

Roger Williams: Listen to the Man! 

The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution opens with: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” It is far less ambiguous than the Second Amendment, which much of the American public treats as if it’s actually one of the Ten Commandments. Why, one wonders, do so many Americans support religious bodies seeking to dismantle the wall between church and state? The words of the Constitution point out danger–any group imposing its desires in the public realm would be a de facto establishment of a state religion that would jeopardize the free exercise of others’ beliefs.

Earlier in the week I spoke of my youthful interest in theology. Somewhere along the line I read about Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island colony and the spiritual father of the Northern Baptists. Williams is generally viewed as the first Colonial figure to advocate true freedom of religion, what he called “liberty of conscience.” Among the biggest myths in American history is that colonists came to the New World to practice freedom of religion. Rubbish! They came to specific places to practice their religion, but they respected no others. The Puritans–a dissenting group within the Church of England–came to Massachusetts Bay because they were persecuted in England, just as the Pilgrims­–officially known as Separatists because they had bolted the C of E–settled in Plymouth for the same reason. Once ensconced, neither tolerated those who followed another religious path. The New World was like Europe, where the established pattern was “religion follows the crown,” meaning that the only countenanced faith was that of the ruler–the very thing the First Amendment aimed to avoid.

Roger Williams (and later, William Penn) did not argue for religious tolerance because he was a wooly-headed liberal or a moral relativist. Williams was convinced that his own Anabaptist views were correct and that most of those who followed other religions were hell-bound. In truth, Williams was an astute political thinker. Williams held that all liberty, not just of conscience, was linked to tolerance and that unless broad forms of thought, doctrines, and practices were allowed, few things could be practiced without persecution, bloodshed, and chaos. In a nutshell, if any religious group whatsoever controlled public policy, repressive theocracy emerged in its wake. Few listened to Williams in the 1630s, but the Founders heeded his lesson 150 years later. These days, Roger Williams sounds like a prophet.

Think I’m an alarmist? You cannot name a religious group that has not been persecuted at some point in American history. In fact, many of today’s would-be oppressors are yesterday’s oppressed. Southern Baptists, for instance, were beaten and jailed in 17th century Virginia, when the colony had a law requiring attendance at Anglican  (C of E) services. Maryland was originally founded as a haven for Roman Catholics, but the law was repealed in 1649, and only the C of E was legal. The colonies, with the exceptions of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, had regional theocracies: most of New England was for Puritans and Separatists, the Chesapeake region was for Anglicans, the backcountry South was for Presbyterians (especially Ulster Scots), the Delaware Valley was for Lutheran Swedes, Quakers went to Pennsylvania, and swaths of New York and New Jersey settled by the Dutch were dominated by Dutch Reformed Calvinists who quarreled with most other Calvinists. Stray outside of your region without converting/conforming and you were in trouble, like the four Quakers hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661. Lest we forget, Williams founded Rhode Island after having been kicked out of Massachusetts by both Puritans and Separatists. Most of New England also outlawed Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians until 1760. Had any Catholic been so foolish as to tread Boston’s cobblestones, the kindest fate at the hands of good Puritans would be corrective measures such as cutting off his ears and nose. As for pagan beliefs, three words: Salem witch trials.

The American Revolution did not end religious disputes. Methodists were periodically roughed up in the Northeast, Methodist women were beaten by mobs in the South, and those welcoming slaves into their ranks or taking up the abolitionist cause were sometimes lynched. Congregationalist (former Puritans) abolitionists were fair game for racist mobs in North and South alike. When Joseph Smith founded the Mormons in the 1830, his sect was chased from New York to Missouri to Illinois to Nebraska before making its way to Utah in 1847. A trail of death was left behind. Once in Utah, Mormons fought a war against the United States in 1857-58; they also murdered westbound non-Mormon emigrants that strayed into their territory. Only Roman Catholics and Jews rivaled Mormons on the victimization scale, and they had the good sense to avoid massacres of their own or they would be annihilated. The Ku Klux Klan targeted all three groups after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Anti-Semitism was the official norm until after World War II and remains a cancer in American society. As late as 1960, John Kennedy had to ward off suspicions of his Catholicism and he remains the only Catholic president. Mennonites have been jailed for their pacifism. More recently, American Muslims were the targets of post-9/11 wrath, as were Hindus and Buddhists at the hands of those too stupid to know they weren’t Muslims. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was a prejudicial factor in the 2012 election, especially from evangelical conservatives who refused to support a faith they call a “cult.” And there’s the entire “Obama is a Muslim” nonsense!

In short, America can ill afford to be a religious nation! It’s one thing–and not a good one–for a homogenous land such as Saudi Arabia or Iran to be a theocracy, but such an attempt in the United States would result in a bloodbath that would make Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale look like a fairy tale by comparison. Many of the Founders were non-Christian Deists, but it wasn’t theology that led them to write the First Amendment; it was the ghost of Roger Williams. He is as right today as he was in the 1630s–all of us must have freedom of conscience, or none of us do. If you are religious, you should insist that your faith stay out of political debate. If you can’t do this for the sake of liberty, do it to keep your ears and the padlock off your house of worship.


Churches Being Sued is a Good Thing

Churches evoking him in politics will need a lawyer--and Jesus probably wouldn't sympathize!

Earlier this year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the Internal Revenue Service for giving churches preferential treatment in tax-exemption cases. The FFRF claims that numerous churches and synagogues, especially those aligned with the political right, engage in direct partisan political behavior expressly forbidden in the tax code. It has argued, more broadly, that no religious groups should be tax exempt, though it’s unlikely to win on those grounds given that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of those exemptions in the 1970 case of Walz v. Tax Commissioner of New York.

Religious groups have publicly downplayed the FFRF suit, charging (only partially correctly) that the FFRF is a frivolous lobby group for embittered atheists. Privately religious groups are quaking in their collective ritual raiment as the FFRF has won as many suits as it has lost. A 1972 Supreme Court ruling agreed that direct politicking could result in losing tax-exempt status. The FFRF successfully sued Jimmy Lee Swaggart in 1991, and Jerry Falwell in 1993. Both paid fines and agreed to back off; Falwell had to retroactively pay taxes for the two years (1986-87) in which he was not in compliance. In 1995, courts removed the tax exemption of a Binghamton, New York church that told members not to vote for Bill Clinton. Several Wisconsin religious groups are battling suits brought against them relating to the 2012 election, and smart money is that they will lose. Nationwide some 1500 churches face potential action for defying IRS codes and rallying against Barack Obama’s reelection effort.

Religious organizations are exempt from property taxes and other IRS levies if they qualify as 501 (c) (3) groups.  These, quoting from the IRS codes, are:

Organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international sports competition... or for the prevention of cruelty to animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in. or intervene in (including or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

It really doesn’t matter if you think this is fair, or if you fall prey to the ridiculous “war on religion” rhetoric of the red-meat right; the IRS code is pretty darn clear on the boundaries, and religious groups that violate them have little more legal standing than the nut jobs that unilaterally declare personal income taxes unconstitutional. (An absurdity given that an amendment, the 16th, expressly makes it constitutional!)

I take the iconoclastic position that rigorous enforcement of 501 (c) (3) standards could be the best thing to happen for organized religion in decades. It might get churches out of politics and back into the personal morality business. Too many within the Judeo-Christian tradition that makes up the American religious majority have erred in seeking to advance private moral agendas within the public sphere. The Bible says surprisingly little about politics, with a passage from Romans 13 coming closest to consensus view: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” When the Pharisees sought to trick Jesus on the issue of taxes and civil authority, he famously picked up a coin and told them to “render unto Caesar all that is Caesar’s.” Neither his mission nor that of Old Testament prophets was political in our modern understanding of partisanship–a way of saying that those who think God is an alternative spelling of G.O.P. trudge the borders of blasphemy.

I am not a member of the FFRF, nor do I ascribe to the Marxist view that religion is (always) the opiate of the masses. It can, in some circumstances, be a force of good for both individuals and society. Even Benjamin Franklin, a Deist, believed that. Good generally happens when religious groups seek to convert individuals, not force-feed views upon the unwilling or the uninterested. When the latter happens we get nightmares such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, wars of religion, pogroms, and the bombing of abortion clinics. By contrast, deeply religious individuals made up both the antebellum abolitionist movement and the post-World War II civil rights movement. Although their actions ultimately resulted in political change, their method of bringing it about was moral, not electoral.

If we look at some of the issues that divide Americans today–abortion, gay marriage, sex education, school prayer–one could conclude that religious politics have fared worse than moral suasion. Churches and synagogues report 40% capacity for weekly services; surveys reveal it’s half of that. Take a look at Pew and Gallup polls. In 1948, 69% of Americans said they were Protestants–the variety of Christianity favored by evangelicals; in 2013, just 48% are Protestants. Is immigration the culprit? Not entirely. In 1957, 7% of Americans said that religion was “old-fashioned” or “outmoded;” 53 years later, 29% felt this to be the case. In 1972, just 7% of those under 30 identified with no religious group. This number ought to induce worry–by 2013, one third of those under 30 expressed no affiliation with any organized religious body. This +400% drop off among the young corresponds with the period of the culture wars. It looks as if the harder religious groups wage those battles, the less people are prone to listen.

Zealots say they are the righteous vanguard, bastions of grace and sanity in a fallen world. As comforting as it may be to believe such things, declining interest in religion might have more to do with boorish behavior and empty sanctimony than decaying morals. The attempt to ramrod religious agendas down people’s throats runs counter to the ideals of American individualism. It’s time for faith-based groups to get out of politics and back into the persuasion game. Call it an “ask, but don’t tell” policy. It may be the only way to win converts and protect assets.


Why are Christians Such Pharisees?

It’s the week after Passover and Easter—that, and the political debate over gay marriage, makes it prime time to devote blog space to the sorry state of organized religion in America. Today’s topic: The kidnapping of Christianity by hypocrites, snake-oil salesmen, Pharisees, and Jihadists for Jesus. There are thousands of devout folks in the hinterlands trying hard to live their lives according to their understanding of holy writ, but the public face of Christianity is one of intolerance, bigotry, and right-wing howler monkeys. It is dominated by those quick to quote Scripture, but always selectively, out of context, and devoid of any demonstrable understanding of its deeper message.

First, a story that very few people know: I once entertained thoughts of becoming a theologian. In my feckless youth (Is there any other kind?), I was involved with a youth ministry. It was the 1970s, the tail end of the Jesus Freaks movement, and my experience was mostly a combination of hanging out with lots of semi-hip folks, and trying to help high school kids with problems ranging from loneliness to substance abuse. I became fascinated with religion and belief structures. In college I majored in medieval history, and read Augustine, Anselm, and the Scholastics (with a special affinity for Aquinas). Outside of class, I studied philosophy and theology from a very famous theologian—both at a study center near Pittsburgh, and as a correspondence student (on cassette tapes back then). When evangelicals ring my doorbell and ask if I’ve read the Bible, I can truthfully reply, “Yes—the whole way through. Several times.” But these experiences did not make me a man of the cloth; they left me deeply suspicious of all organized religion.

My first crisis of faith was that I didn’t want to be a minister. I wanted to study religion to have a deeper understanding of it, not try to convert others to things I questioned. I found out that there hadn’t been all that many jobs for a “theologian” since the 17th century, and jobs in the field had been declining since the 14th. Most current theologians were connected with specific churches and I couldn’t see that happening for me. Catholicism? Not if I had to swallow papal infallibility. Calvinism struck me as too austere and I couldn’t reconcile predestination with Calvary. Other forms of Protestantism were overly focused on hollow rituals, and non-aligned evangelicalism appeared, for the most part, controlled by hucksters and crazies. Plus, as I said, I wanted to grapple with ideas and doctrines to determine which ones resonated with me.

This led me to my second crisis: I learned enough to realize that those saying they know the Word of God are self-deceived. When the howlers say that their beliefs are correct, I ask, based on what? The Bible is often wielded as if it was a thorny club rather than what I see it to be: meditations on how to live a moral life. The only way one can view the Bible as an absolute guide to anything is see it as the literal Word of God. Good luck with that. It’s child’s play to dismantle such thinking without studying—as I once did—textual criticism to do so. Problems abound, beginning in Genesis, which mentions just three offspring of Adam and Eve: Abel, Cain, and Seth—all males. Patriarchal Hebrews often ignored women in succession lines, but humankind’s third generation, for literalists, can only come through incestuous relations between Eve and her sons, or those sons with unnamed sisters. Does this mean that the Bible condones incest? How does the third generation reconcile with the condemnation of that custom in Leviticus 18:6?

These days I ponder why Christians are so hot to condemn homosexuality. There’s the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-11 and Judges 19:16-30) and several other rather oblique passages, but just seven references in total, and just three in the New Testament—the one Christians are supposed to follow–all of which largely rehash Leviticus. The same NT passages (I Corinthians 6:9-11, Romans 1:26-27, I Timothy 1:9-11] also all have nasty things to say about fornicators, idolaters, liars, thieves, drunks, “revelers” (ahem!), and other sinful folks. The Bible isn’t comfortable with homosexuality, but the NT uses terms such as degrading, unnatural, shameful, disobedient, unholy, and sinful–not unlawful. Most of the prohibitions refer to men, so I suppose casual lesbianism is a little naughty, but okay. It’s interesting that gay sex was not forbidden by the Ten Commandments, nor was it among the Catholic Church’s seven “deadly” sins, which were drawn up by theologians of far keener minds than those of today’s evangelical moralists. Nowhere does the Bible say, “The holy shall lobby thy governments to discriminate and legislate against sodomites and shall take up the cudgel of piety to bash them physically and metaphorically.”

I wonder why Christians selectively mine OT books such as Leviticus. I don’t see them performing the rituals outlined in that book. I hear no hue and cry when Americans commit other forbidden acts. Ever do any of the following: eat rabbit, pork, or shellfish (Lev. 10]; fail to make a menstruating wife or daughter live in a separate camp for seven days (Lev. 15); or loan or borrow money with added interest rates (Lev. 25]? You too have violated a “commandment” [Lev. 27]. And I’d say, from Leviticus 25, that if you are a capitalist, God condemns your chosen lifestyle! (Or were you born that way and can’t help it?) The Bible rags on homosexuals seven times; it condemns the charging of interest sixteen times.

Don’t get me started on Christians that shout “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” which the Bible cribbed from Hammurabi’s Code, and which Jesus mentions only to say that the faithful must reject it. It’s part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells followers not to resist evildoers, but to “turn the other cheek” to he who strikes you and to offer your coat to he that seeks to take your shirt! It also says that those who lust should cast out their right eye, which makes me wonder why there aren’t more one-eyed preachers given the propensity of today’s evangelicals to get caught with their pants down! Too many modern Christians are akin to the minutiae-oriented Pharisees condemned in Scripture for insisting upon the letter of the law and misunderstanding its spirit.

These are among the reasons why I call myself a (mildly) spiritual humanist, not a Christian. I want no part of smug fools who take what they want from religious texts, leave the rest, and label the culling “truth.” I don’t wish to associate with bigots quick to find fault with others while calling their own shortcomings “righteousness.” And I utterly reject the call to crusade from moralists who quote things they do not understand and implore the masses to chase perdition falsely packaged as paradise. I have too many doubts to tell others what to do. Doubt, Augustine of Hippo, reminds us is the beginning of faith. Note that he said “faith,” not certainty.