Tag Archives: clergy sexual abuse

Padre Steve Plays Devil’s Advocate: The Complex and Often Confusing Issue of Religious Liberty

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“Congress shall make no law respecting the 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.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this and my view is as long as the religious practice is not harming anyone who cares?

I believe like Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article. Instead my intent is to point out some of the inconsistencies of those who proclaim their rights also seek to limit the religious and even the civil rights of others based on their religious beliefs.

What I will do in this essay is to play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

This has to be done because of the number of laws being passed by various states which are labeled as acts to protect religious liberty. Unfortunately the reality is that these laws grant license for the Christian majority in those states to discriminate against others on the basis of their religious beliefs. These individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise, but it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others.

In fact those that shout the loudest are also those who seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the United States. Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters. Precedent matters and once legal precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus each decision sets a precedent and these precedents can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?

In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion, or other hated minority group is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power. The list is long. Some of the countries include Sudan, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan, India, Uganda, Nigeria, the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Of course there are many more but those are just some of the places where members of minority religious face discrimination, persecution and even death.

The rights we have as Americans provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution. The Baptists are a good example. In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.

On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” the forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands. The example of the siege and destruction of Munster Germany by combined Catholic and Lutheran forces after “enthusiasts” seized power is just one example.

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The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere in Europe for centuries. They were the “Christ killers” and that was even enshrined in the liturgies of churches. But the Jews had a surprising amount of freedom and influence in the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.

Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation. Hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence.

Then there were the Huguenots in France. They were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.

The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.

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Spain was another brutal place for religious liberty. Even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila were brought before the Inquisition. Protestants, Jews, Moslems were all persecuted in Spain, and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”

The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Pogroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.

The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration so long as you didn’t make trouble and paid your taxes. One cannot really call it liberty for the Empire and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical. These included the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

Then along came the United States where our forefathers ensured religious liberty in our Bill of Rights along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It is a wonderful thing, but we have not always done well with it and there are always those trying to carve out addition “rights” for themselves or their faith communities. Sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this experiment, often being involved with acts of religious and civil intolerance worthy of our European ancestors.

That being said many religious people, particularly Christians and churches have done many good things in promoting human rights, religious rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

In Colonial America most of the colonies had official state religions. In Massachusetts that was the Congregationalist Church and it conducted many of the witch trials and the persecution of people deemed heretic including Quakers and Baptists.

dyer-hanging1Hanging the Quakers in Massachusetts

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery. These denominations included the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.

After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Some Christians and churches advocated for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans and the Chinese immigrants to California who were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

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While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves. They allowed the practice of slavery counting Blacks as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being. my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

We drove the Native Americans off of their lands, hunted them down and confined them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations. This practice was actually recently defended by the faux “historian” of the Christian Right, David Barton.

If we believe Barton’s “history” the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians. But then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith? If you are Barton you assume that what happened was due to the sin of the Native Americans who had to be subjugated by Christians.

Likewise nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land. It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty. The problem is that those who fight the hardest for their religious liberty frequently want to deny the rights that they have to others that they disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

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Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.

However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion. Some Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.

The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject to? Not on your or my life, but in the past the Vatican has blatantly done so and hopefully under Pope Francis this too will change.

One of the key issues of religious liberty is the right of those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty? I may not agree with what they broadcast but they have the right to do it.

Many Conservative Christians, especially Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are keen to support their rights to publicly exercise their religion, even in the government. But they are not good when it comes to other branches of Christianity or non-Christian religions.

The Metropolitan Community Church comes to mind. It is a predominantly Homosexual Christian church many of whose members were driven from their home churches due to their sexuality. Many, except for being gay are very conservative in their theological beliefs. That church has been in the forefront of the fight for marriage equity as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.

The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group? We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members. What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

There are so many issues regarding religious liberty. What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object?

Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigiously minded. Usually these cases are long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose. I am not in favor of government using such symbols to advance the rights of any given religion, even Christianity. But that being said there are times where religious symbols are part of our American culture where we have memorialized our war dead without the intent of promoting a religious cause. However, if one symbol is present we should not object to others.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so. Some in polite and well-mannered but others are pretty unseemly. That being said I do not think that the religious beliefs of anti-abortion people should be the law for unbelievers or for that matter a believer with different views on abortion.

The problem is that many who call themselves “pro-life” are not pro-life at all but simply anti-abortion. Many Christians who call themselves “pro-life” bless and baptize practices condemned by the same Church Fathers and Biblical writers who they use to support the rights of the unborn. They support the death penalty despite the aversion and opposition to it by the Early Church a and the evidence that in many states that the practice is abused and sentences often wrong. Many advocate for harsh treatment of aliens and exhibit a xenophobic attitude towards some immigrant groups, especially those that are not Christian. Likewise the belief that the economic Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism is not only Biblical but God’s best ordained economic system is promoted as the Gospel. The same people often treat the poor and the elderly with distain and treat their political opponents as agents of the Devil rather than people that God might actually care about.

Local governments and even home owners associations have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies. Some have acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations. Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Yet many Christians had little problem with using the government to suppression other religious or splinter groups. The tragic example of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound looms large. David Koresh was a labeled as a “dangerous” cult leader. Nor do many Conservative Christians have a problem in limiting the rights of American Moslems and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood. I think that religious intolerance is often in the eye of the beholder. As David Barton the President of “Wallbuilders” an organization that seeks to promote America’s “Christian heritage” quoted William Penn “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal.”

Barton’s friend and ally Gary North wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

So as you can see the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.

To play the Devil’s advocate here let me ask this question: “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion for any group?” If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say “everything goes” does this mean for everyone or just us? Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights? Those are all hard questions. As you can see there are a tremendous amount of issues at play when we attempt to legislate or regulate religious practice.

I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished. But I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression. This would not be to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others, just as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of, makes me a bit of a prostitute. But still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.

The waters get pretty muddy and my concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their agenda, be it religious or secular. As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue go to court or establish a new law which enshrines any group with the ability to discriminate against others based on the majority’s religious beliefs.

The question of religious liberty and the tension between competing Free Exercise rights and concerns about the “excessive entanglement” of religion in government will be with us for a long time. I think the result of the heated and often litigious nature of the debate will actually turn people away from the Christian faith and will actually do great damage to the First Amendment protections that we all enjoy.

This causes me great concern as I value the right to the free exercise of religious expression and the right of others not to have the religious views of any group made the law of the land.

Religion can and often has been abused and used by the faithful as a dictatorial bludgeon and those who now advocate so stridently for their faith to be made the law of the land should well remember the words of James Madison:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil rights, faith, laws and legislation, pro-life anti-abortion, Religion

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part IV: The Minefields of the Flesh, Sex, Alcohol and Money

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This is fourth part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the third of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first three parts are linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart 

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance

Dear Chaplain

It has been about a week since my last letter concerning the minefields that so easily ensnare those in the various Military Chaplain ministries. This section of my letter to you will be of the more practical type of advice and less philosophical and theological than the first several installments even though at the heart these observations are both theological and philosophical.

I chose the title of this section carefully because I do think that the way a number of New Testament writers deal with the subject of sin, calling it “the flesh” as opposed to “the spirit” is appropriate to the topic.

I think that people of my generation and earlier had a very high view of clergy. We didn’t think that they could do much wrong. Of course we all knew that they did but we didn’t like to talk about it, even productions such as Elmer Gantry did little to dissuade us from our beliefs that Ministers, Priests and Rabbis were somehow morally and certainly spiritually better than us. Even Hollywood maintained the myth, movies like The Bells of St Mary’s showed the essential goodness of the parish priest, while The Fighting 69th in which Pat O’Brien played the legendary Father Duffy, a man both streetwise and holy became the quintessential Chaplain of his generation.

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In fact the prayer that he prays in the movie is one that I have echoed in my career as a Chaplain and I am sure that many others have as well.

“Almighty God, in Thine infinite mercy grant me, thy servant, the wisdom to guide my young flock through the trials of war. Oh, Father, they’re so young. So young and they know so little of life and nothing at all of that terrible and bloody altar towards which they move, carrying so eagerly the bright sacrifice of their youth. Their need will be great, O Lord, and I am weak. Therefore, I beseech thee through Thy Son, Christ, our Lord, grant me the strength to keep them steadfast in the faith, in decency and courage to the glory of God, their country, and their regiment in the bad times to come. And if in battle you see fit to gather them to your protecting arms, thy will be done, but let them die like men, valiant and unafraid.”

Of course there is Father Mulcahy of the movie and television series M*A*S*H. I actually liked the portrayal of him by William Christopher in the series better than the movie, perhaps because he became more than a bit player, but like many real life chaplains of every denomination an integral part of the life of his unit. His struggles are the same that many of us who serve as chaplains. In one episode he says to Hawkeye “For some time now, I’ve been comparing the disparity of our callings – Doctor versus priest. You fellows are always able to see the end result of your work. I mean, you know immediately if you’ve been successful. For me, the results are far less tangible. Sometimes… most of the time… I honestly don’t know whether I’m doing any good or not.” 

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The film and television portrayals of chaplains such as Father Duffy and Father Mulcahy are inspiring, as are the examples of so many good men and women who have served as military chaplains. Some of these even gave their lives in combat so others might live, or placed themselves in harms way to be the the visible representation of God’s presence in places that God himself seems to have abandoned.

That being said there are minefields that exist which even the most noble, caring  and committed Chaplains can fall victim. They primarily lie in the real of Sex, Alcohol and Money, what we referred to as “SAM” when I was an Army Chaplain. Those are general categories to which unfortunately we need to discuss, illicit drugs, disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness. I will save the issues of disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness for part five, or Part V as they say in Roman numerals.

At any given time there are between a half a dozen and dozen military chaplains serving time at either Leavenworth or one of the regional Brigs. Others end up in trouble, are disciplined and then discharged from the the service often after devastating the lives of those that they served with. Those numbers are not included in the numbers incarcerated.

You wouldn’t think that sex would be a big issue being that we are supposed to be better at keeping our zippers up than others, but this is not always the case. I can cite from personal knowledge case after case where chaplains that I have known from across the denominational spectrum conservatives and liberals alike. Those actions have included heterosexual and homosexual relationships, inside and outside their units and sometimes involved the spouses of their unit members or parishioners.

For some this is due to the isolation that many Chaplains experience, be they married or single. Some are sexual predators, loathsome and evil animals masquerading as good, while others in moments of weakness succumb to temptation. I have had to go into a number of billets where the chaplain just before me had been relieved of their duties for sexual misconduct. Regardless of the reason the real fact of the matter is that when a chaplain is relieved and disciplined for their sexual misconduct their actions radiate out and damage the ministry and reputations of Chaplains who are completely innocent of wrong doing. This is much like how the actions of disgraced televangelists, pastors of large churches and Bishops or Priests implicated in pedophile or other sexual crimes cause problems for others in similar positions who again are without reproach. In every case where I have had to go into such a situation the onus has been on me to help heal the wounds and rebuild the credibility of the Chaplain Corps. This is true for every Chaplain who has to take a job where his or her predecessor was a criminal.

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A Navy Chaplain being taken to the Brig after being convicted at Court Martial for sexual crimes (Marine Corps Times Photo)

Sexuality can be one of the greatest minefields that a military chaplain has to navigate, but there are others less visible that also trip men and women up.

The second major area is alcohol. I know a number of chaplains who have become alcoholics. I like to drink good craft beer, but I do know my limits now and am very careful about my consumption of alcohol. When I first came back from Iraq that was not the case. I did drink too much, mainly because I was in the process of coming apart with severe and chronic PTSD. I almost ended up in a bar fight one night and I am thankful that I never ended up in an accident or involved in any other alcohol related incident. There were times at various conferences that I would sit around and drink late into the night at the hotel with other chaplains going through similar problems as I was going through. For us it was safer than going to our superiors either in our churches or the chaplain corps.

That being said I have seen other Chaplains succumb to alcoholism and know one who in dealing with his own demons from service in Vietnam committed suicide while on active duty. Alcohol is also related to many of the incidents regarding sex, so even if it was not the primary issue it was a factor. I also know a number of chaplains who are involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and fight the battle of sobriety on a daily basis.

Related to alcohol are drugs. This is a relatively new phenomena and in most cases is related to prescription medicines, especially pain killers and anti-psychotics prescribed to treat the wounds of war, injuries and things like PTSD and TBI. Once again these are easy to become addicted to and chaplains are much like others when dealing with chronic pain, PTSD or TBI. Recently I saw something that I never thought I would see and that was a chaplain who tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in Marijuana. I figure that if there is one there probably are more that are using, many who battled addictions before their faith conversions and call to the ministry but when placed under the stress of this ministry go back to old friends.

The last component of SAM is money. I think this is a more difficult area in the Army than the Navy because in the Navy chaplains are not allowed to deal with the Religious Offering Fund, where in the Army a Chaplain at every installation is the Religious Offering Fund Manager. It is said by some that “money is the root of all evil” but I am not sure if that is exactly true in this case. I think that money and the power it brings sometimes reveals the inner character of a man more than anything. The great televangelist scandals of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the continuing saga of corruption at the Vatican Bank and the all too frequent revelations of ministers of all faiths misusing church finances are legend. When I had to manage a relative small installation chapel fund I lived in terror of making an innocent mistake, and thankfully I had an outstanding Chaplain Assistant and Parish Council to work with and maintained close contact with the fund manager at our higher headquarters.

Another issue dealing with money is what we are paid when in a travel status. I know that there are Chaplains who play fast and loose with this and I know people in the travel and disbursing offices who tell me about the actions of chaplains that they have to deal with who are not playing straight with the system. In my case I don’t make claims that I cannot substantiate even if it costs me money. I would rather be absolutely honest on a travel claim and lose money that claim something that I may or may not be entitled to that might cause scandal and bring disrepute to God, my church or the Chaplain Corps.

Money is a great temptation and more than one military Chaplain has fallen to it.

The sad thing about all of this is that most of our religious traditions deal explicitly with all of these matters as do our various Service Regulations and Defense Department Instructions. They are not rocket surgery but they are the downfall of far too many chaplains, many of whom actually came into the ministry and chaplaincy with good motives. Once again I lay a lot of this at the feet of our churches and theological schools which for decades have stressed how to run a church program over any real pastoral or theological formation process.

I am lucky. I have made mistakes but I have had numerous chaplains in both the Army and the Navy help me to see the blind spots and teach me about these things. They span the denominational, theological and even political spectrum. Conservatives, liberals, men and women, Protestants, Catholics, Later Day Saints, Jews and even a Moslem.

I could easily have gone into detail about the specific incidents where I knew the people involved or had to deal with them or follow in their footsteps. Some have made the national media, but somehow to do so would be unseemly, after all I do not work for the National Enquirer or for that matter the Navy or Army Times. That being said the Chaplain Corps of the various services all have by percentage among the highest incidences of misconduct of any officer branch or community and this has been a constant since I began my military career in 1981.

That should be a warning. If you know something is wrong don’t do it. If you are unsure about something ask someone. If you need help get it before your actions destroy the lives of those you serve and bring disrepute to your office, your religious body, the Chaplain Corps of your military service and yes even God. After all God does tend to get the blame for all of the actions of those in his service so be careful, guard your heart and mind and for God sakes keep your zipper up and all appearances thereof.

Until the next installment,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Yes God Really does Love the Real World

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I think one of the greatest joys that I have as a Priest is when people tell me that they like me because I am “real.”  It’s not so much that they think I am a great preacher, which I am not or that I have all the answers especially because my answer to many questions that I am asked is “I don’t know.”  In fact what those that like me say what they like about me is that I am approachable and care enough to give them the time of day and listen to them.

My psychological and spiritual collapse following my tour in Iraq caused me to see why who live in the real world appreciate pastors, Priests or Rabbis that are real.  There were very few people, especially ministers that in the years following my return that I felt that cared about me enough to share what I was going through with them.  In fact I found that many were not interested or simply did not want to deal with a “bruised reed.”  I think that when a minister, Priest or Rabbi expresses doubt or is in crisis be it a long term physical illness that will not be healed, a deep depression that causes them despair or a spiritual crisis that causes them to question their faith that the tendency among most ministers is to run away as if they were radioactive or that it was catching.

In fact I have heard this for years as friends or pastors that I met in their crisis expressed the pain of being ostracized by other ministers or their denominations or local churches.  Likewise I have also all too often seen churches and pastors ignore or ostracize people simply because they are not easily “fixed” or those that are considered “problems” because they ask uncomfortable questions or point out inconsistency or injustice in the church.  Then there are the times where the Church mistreats, abuses and uses people without any real care for them as people treating them as numbers or even more crass “tithing units.” Finally there are the times that the Church covers up the crimes of its ministers against the weak including sexual abuse and pedophilia and when found out blames the victims or protect the criminals from the justice of the state using Canon Law to subvert the justice system.  Such actions are not unique to the Roman Catholic Church that most often stands accused but can be found in almost any church or denomination.

I think a lot of this is simply that many of us clergy types become so invested in “defending” what we believe that we forget that the call of Jesus is to care for those that are the least, the lost and the lonely. Without getting preachy it seems to me that Jesus preferred to be with such people and often castigated the clergy of his day for doing exactly what we do.  The whole “woe to you Scribes and Pharisees…” passage should send chills up any minister’s spine because we are often no different than them.

Likewise when we refuse serve people that come to us because of denominational differences or because they are not Christians or someone of our faith tradition and then refuse to help them find someone that can we do a disservice to them and to God.  Since have served nearly my entire time in ministry in some form of the chaplaincy I deal with this often. I represent a small religious tradition which is Catholic but not Roman and very ecumenical, thus I am in a distinct minority.  I know man who serves as a Priest in a small communion that has many similar beliefs to my church who told me that he loved being his denomination because when he was a Chaplain “he did not have to worship with Protestants or give them communion.”

One of the men that serve as a model for me is the late German Redemptorist Priest Bernard Häring. Häring was drafted as a medic by the German Wehrmacht at the beginning of the Second World War and taken out of the parish.  In his service as a medic he never forgot that he was a priest and performed his duties as a priest to non-Catholics in his units even celebrating the Eucharist with them.  He also took the time to serve and care for civilians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and French in the areas that he served.  One story that he told was when he told his Protestant Soldiers that their official pastor would be coming for service that they told him “There really is no reason to make any changes for us because you are ‘one of us.’” (Bernard Häring “Priesthood Imperiled: A Critical Examination of Ministry in the Catholic Church” Triumph Books Ligouri, MO 1996 p.9)  Häring was transparent about exactly what he was, a Roman Catholic Priest whether he dealt with Protestant or Orthodox Christians and because he was “one of us” they accepted him and made him their pastor even without becoming Catholic themselves. A Polish parish that he served as a prisoner of war sought to make him their pastor following the war despite him being a member of the Army that brutally subjugated their country.  After the war he continued with that same spirit and I have sought to emulate that spirit in my Priestly ministry.

I definitely am not perfect but I try to listen and care for those in my charge regardless of their faith or lack thereof.  I just hope that in my imperfect attempts to care that people see that God loves them. My trust is in the simple message that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

As Bonhoeffer said “God loves the real world.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy

The Gift of Religious Liberty and the Real Dangers to It

“Congress shall make no law respecting the 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.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Thomas Jefferson in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.  Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this at least most of the time and my view is as long as the practice is not hurting anyone who cares. Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article but rather point out some of the inconsistencies of those of various faiths who while proclaiming their defense of this fundamental right of all American citizens who seek to limit the practice of others that they find disagreeable or even repugnant. What I will do in this essay is to do what I did back in my seminary days, where fellow students asked me why I hadn’t gone to Law School instead of seminary, which mind you was not a complement and actually play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

You see my gentle readers it is my view that while many individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others. In fact many that proclaim this the loudest are also those that would seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the Untied States to do so.  Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters, precedent matters and once precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus it is a matter of importance to all that no one acts hastily and emotionally on any issue that I might bring up since each decision sets a precedent and can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?  In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power, Sudan anyone? Kosovo? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Indonesia?  These rights have provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution, take Baptists for instance.  In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.  On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” obviously forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands.  The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere except surprisingly in places like the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.  Of course Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation.  In fact there were hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence. Then there were the Huguenots in France, they were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.  The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their Archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.  Spain was a great place to be anything but Roman Catholic but I jest, even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints were brought before the show called the Inquisition, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, none had a good time in Spain and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”   The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Progroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.  The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration; one cannot call it liberty and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical including the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula that practiced something called Wahabi Islam.

Of course one can go around the world to see other stirring examples of religious toleration and expression.  Then along came the United States where our forefathers said to each other “gee wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along” or something like that and enjoined that right in our Bill of Rights right up there in the number one spot along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press.  Well it seems that we have a few contradictions in the applications of these rights in our history and sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this notwithstanding all of the good things that many have done as religious individuals, particularly Christians and that churches have done in promoting human rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery including the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.  After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Notwithstanding the unbiblical and inhuman temperance movement, at least some Christians and Churches advocated  for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans. Chinese immigrants to California were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves and allowed the practice of slavery every allowing Blacks to be counted as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being.  We also did wonderful things to Native Americans driving them off of their lands, hunting them down and confining them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations, try that with a European Country and see what happens.  Of course if we believe the “history” promoted by some on the Religious Right we have to believe that the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians, but then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith?  In fact nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land.  It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.  My goodness my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty though I cannot be sure about the extension of this right to others that we disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.  However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion.  Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.  The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Now I ask you dear reader could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject too? Not on your or my life, but the Vatican has blatantly done so and since we all value religious liberty we have as a nation turned a blind eye to this until now.  What about those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty?

What about the question of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly Homosexual Christian church wants to see the legalization of Gay Marriage as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.  The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group?  We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members.  What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object? Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigious and as such there have been long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose.  Now am I in favor of the government using such symbols to advance the rights of a given religion?  Absolutely not, but there are times where religious symbols and American culture, particularly that which seeks to honor veterans from previous wars is not about the advancement of any religion but simply a memorial with intent of promoting a religious cause.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so, some in polite and well mannered demonstrations but others in pretty unseemly manners.  At the same time there are Christians who call themselves “pro-life” who bless and baptize practices condemned by the same Church Fathers and Biblical writers who they uses to support the rights of the unborn. They support the death penalty despite evidence that in many states that the practice is abused and sentences often wrong. Many advocate for harsh treatment of aliens and exhibit a xenophobic attitude towards some immigrant groups, especially those that are not Christian. Then there is a now popular belief that the economic Social Darwinism of unfettered Capitalism is not only Biblical but God’s best ordained economic system while treating the poor and the elderly with distain and treat their political opponents as agents of the Devil rather than people that God might actually care about.

Local governments and even home owners associations have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies, acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations.  Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Yet many Christians had little problem with the suppression of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound after all David Koresh was a “dangerous” cult leader.  Nor do many seem to have a problem in limiting the rights of Moslems that happen to be American citizens and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood.  I think that religious intolerance is often in the eye of the beholder.  As David Barton the President of Wallbuilders an organization that seeks to promote America’s “Christian heritage” quoted William Penn “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal.”

So as you can see my dear friends the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.  The question, to play the Devil’s advocate here is “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion?”    If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say everything goes does this mean for everyone or just us?  Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights?

You see that I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished but I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression, not to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of makes me a bit of a prostitute but still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.  It seems that the waters get pretty muddy here my concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their religion if they have one and do not really care about the religious rights of others while the devoted secularists would seek to expunge religion from the public square.  As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue take it to court.

The question of religious liberty and the tension between competing Free Exercise rights and concerns about the “excessive entanglement” of religion in government will be with us for a long time. I think the result of the heated and often litigious nature of the debate will actually turn people away from the more strident groups in the debate and will actually do damage to the First Amendment protections that we all enjoy.  This causes me great concern and if you value your rights to the free exercise of your religion or expression or your right not to have the religious views of any group made the law of the land.  Religion can be abused and used as a dictatorial bludgeon and those who now advocate so stridently for their faith to be made the law of the land should well remember the words of James Madison:

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

33 Comments

Filed under faith, History, laws and legislation, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

Religious Freedom…Do We Really Want or Believe in It?

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Worship done in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”

“Congress shall make no law respecting the 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.” The First Amendment of the US Constitution

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Thomas Jefferson in the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is a central tenant of the Bill of Rights and has been a central facet of American life since our inception as a country, in fact pre-dating our founding in some of the original 13 colonies most notably Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.  Now before anyone gets the idea that I am about to write something in favor of limiting the freedom to worship or for that matter any limitation on religious practices I am not in fact I am a stalwart supporter of religion in the Public Square and not just mine. You see I am a bit of a purest about this at least most of the time and my view is as long as the practice is not hurting anyone who cares. Some might take me to task for that as a Christian, but my point is not to argue for the Christian faith in this article but rather point out some of the inconsistencies of those of various faiths who while proclaiming their defense of this fundamental right of all American citizens who seek to limit the practice of others that they find disagreeable or even repugnant. What I will do in this essay is to do what I did back in my seminary days, where fellow students asked me why I hadn’t gone to Law School instead of seminary, which mind you was not a complement and actually play the “Devil’s advocate” in the matter of the free exercise of religion as it currently exists in the United States.

You see my gentle readers it is my view that while many individuals and religious organizations loudly proclaim their defense of the right to free exercise it is more their free exercise rights that they are defending than the rights of others. In fact many that proclaim this the loudest are also those that would seek to limit the religious rights of others using the laws of the Federal Government and the various States and Commonwealths that make up the Untied States to do so.  Since law in the United States is based on legal precedence everything that goes to court on matters of religious liberty as well as the actions of various legislatures matters, precedent matters and once precedent has been established it is very hard to change. Thus it is a matter of importance to all that no one acts hastily and emotionally on any issue that I might bring up since each decision sets a precedent and can effect decisions in entirely unrelated matters.

Our First Amendment Rights are marvels which are envied by the citizens of most of the rest of the world and why shouldn’t they be?  In many nations simply being born as a member of a minority religion is enough to ensure that you will never have full legal rights and may even face persecution and death at the hands of those in power, Sudan anyone? Kosovo? Saudi Arabia? Iran? Indonesia?  These rights have provided the opportunity for churches that were suppressed on the European continent and elsewhere to thrive free of government persecution, take Baptists for instance.  In the early 1600’s the first Baptists, English Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs by the English Crown in particular by King James who despite authorizing the Bible given his name and loved by many Baptists as the “only” valid English translation was a notorious homosexual, not that there is anything wrong with that, hated those early Baptists and persecuted them throughout the land.  On the continent itself the Anabaptists and Mennonites as well as others referred to as “enthusiasts,” obviously forerunners of the Pentecostal movements of the 20th Century were brutally suppressed in many European lands.  The Jews were persecuted often brutally almost everywhere except surprisingly in places like the Ottoman Empire where in places like Baghdad they composed a rather sizable part of the population and were quite prominent in the Empire.  Of course Catholics were heavily persecuted in England and could not hold public office for many years following the English Reformation.  In fact there were hundreds of Catholics martyred for simply practicing their religion in private, simply celebrating Mass could get them a death sentence. Then there were the Huguenots in France, they were French Protestants who had gained a great deal of influence and power that were brutally suppressed and many killed by the French Crown and the Catholic Church.  The Lutherans were not big fans of other religions in Germany and worked with their Archrival Roman Catholics to kill off the Anabaptists and the Enthusiasts.  Spain was a great place to be anything but Roman Catholic but I jest, even some Roman Catholics now canonized as Saints were brought before the show called the Inquisition, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, none had a good time in Spain and Spain was equally repressive of native religions in the lands that it colonized in the “New World.”   The Russian Empire was known for its toleration of Catholics, Protestants and Jews especially in the equal treatment given to them in various Progroms conducted by the government and the Orthodox Church.  The Ottoman Empire had a limited amount of religious toleration; one cannot call it liberty and persecuted anyone equally that threatened the Caliphate or that they thought were heretical including the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula that practiced something called Wahabi Islam.

Of course one can go around the world to see other stirring examples of religious toleration and expression.  Then along came the United States where our forefathers said to each other “gee wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along” or something like that and enjoined that right in our Bill of Rights right up there in the number one spot along with freedom of speech, assembly and the press.  Well it seems that we have a few contradictions in the applications of these rights in our history and sometimes the more religious people have had a negative influence in this notwithstanding all of the good things that many have done as religious individuals, particularly Christians and that churches have done in promoting human rights and the civil rights of all in our country.

While Christians were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement whole denominations split on the issue of Slavery including the Southern Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Curiously neither the Episcopalians nor the Catholics split over the issues although the war found them heavily engaged on both sides of the conflict.  After the war many American Christians worked for the rights of workers, the abolition of child labor and even something that I oppose, Prohibition. Notwithstanding the unbiblical and inhuman temperance movement, at least some Christians and Churches advocated  for the full civil rights of African Americans though few spoke up for rights of the Native Americans. Chinese immigrants to California were frequently mistreated and worked for almost nothing on the most demanding jobs like building the trans-continental railroad, mining gold and building stone walls for ranchers.

While enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion the Founding Fathers kind of ignored the human rights of a whole class of people, African American slaves and allowed the practice of slavery every allowing Blacks to be counted as 3/5ths of a person, which 3/5ths I don’t know but nonetheless only 60% of a full human being.  We also did wonderful things to Native Americans driving them off of their lands, hunting them down and confining them to reservations all while ignoring the treaties that we made with the various Indian Nations, try that with a European Country and see what happens.  Of course if we believe the “history” promoted by some on the Religious Right we have to believe that the vast majority of the people perpetuating these acts were solid Bible Believing Christians, but then how do we reconcile these crimes against humanity, even crimes against fellow Christians with the Christian faith?  In fact nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States has experienced some form of discrimination, often religious from the good citizens of this land.  It turns out that throughout history we have had some problems in the matter of religious liberty and toleration, especially of those whose customs, language, culture and religion are different than our own.  My goodness my own family owned slaves and the family patriarch who fought as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War and after the defeat of the Confederacy refused to sign the loyalty oath, which good honorable men like Robert E Lee did and lost the family lands to the Federal Government.

But the crux of all of this comes down to religious liberty which as Americans we hold dear, at least our own religious liberty though I cannot be sure about the extension of this right to others that we disagree with in belief, practice or even politics.

Now everyone is for religious liberty in the Public Square until a loathsome man like Fred Phelps and his family owned and operated “Westboro Baptist Church” shows up to protest and hurl vile epithets at those grieving the loss of family members killed in war, taunting these people in the most abhorrent of ways.  However, as grievous as these people are they do this under the right to the free exercise of religion.  Fundamentalist Moslems have as a stated goal of instating Sharia Law in this land, at least for Moslems. This they proclaim under the banner of religious liberty, however the imposition of Sharia Law on Moslems in the name of their religion also takes away their civil rights under the Constitution and the various laws of the Federal Government of the States that make up our fair land.  The Roman Catholic Church at the direction of the Vatican has attempted rather successfully until a recent Supreme Court ruling to shield Bishops that were complicit in personnel moves and cover ups regarding Priests accused or convicted of sexual misconduct and the sexual abuse of minors from criminal prosecution and civil suits under the guise of diplomatic immunity as the Vatican is a nation state. Now I ask you dear reader could any other religious organization shield its clergy from the laws of the land that any other citizen would be subject too? Not on your or my life, but the Vatican has blatantly done so and since we all value religious liberty we have as a nation turned a blind eye to this until now.  What about those of various beliefs and practices that use television, radio and the internet to espouse hatred and violence in the name of their religious beliefs and under the banner of religious liberty?

What about the question of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly Homosexual Christian church wants to see the legalization of Gay Marriage as well as the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the Military.  The part about marriage is particularly fraught with peril because both the Church and the State have interests in marriage. For many marriage is primarily a religious act with civil overtones, in fact ministers of all denominations are licensed by the state to perform marriages on behalf of the State becoming in effect de-facto officers of the courts and at the same time most states deny homosexual couples the right to marry, regardless of one’s position on the legitimacy of such unions who could say that it is right for the states to approve and license the clergy of almost every religious tradition to conduct weddings that have the full civil effect, including tax breaks for all but a certain group?  We have this enshrined in our culture but would deny it to the Metropolitan Community Church to perform weddings for its members.  What if someone said that any other minister could not marry members of their own church under their church laws, ordinances and beliefs? There would be a public outcry, but not for the Metropolitan Community Church or other denominations that sanction Gay marriage.

What about adherents of Wicca and other Earth based religions or Native American religions? Some of their practices would not be welcomed by those of many Christian denominations as well as secularists and atheists but if they are not hurting anyone else why should others object? Likewise why should people object if a religious symbol is displayed on private property or on state property where it has been displayed for decades or longer? Is it hurting anyone? Not really but hurt feelings and being offended count as much as real injury to the litigious and as such there have been long, expensive and divisive court proceedings that have served little purpose.  Now am I in favor of the government using such symbols to advance the rights of a given religion, absolutely not, but there are times where religious symbols and American culture, particularly that which seeks to honor veterans from previous wars is not about the advancement of any religion but simply a memorial with intent of promoting a religious cause.

Likewise there are those that would attempt to limit the free speech rights and religious rights of Christians and others that protest the practice of abortion using civil disobedience to do so, some in polite and well mannered demonstrations but others in pretty unseemly manners.  Many Christians including leaders and members of my own denomination have gone to jail over their opposition to abortion, been brutalized by police for their expression of faith and their opposition to the practice of abortion which they believe to be not only against their beliefs but against their belief in the fundamental rights to life of the unborn.

Local governments have acted to quash home churches and Bible studies, acted to zone land so that the construction of religious buildings, edifices or displays is illegal all of which have been protested and fought in the courts by the groups involved particularly Evangelical Christians of various denominations.  Even churches that neighbors have deemed to be too loud in their expression of worship have been penalized by local governments and courts.

Many Christians had little problem with the suppression of the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound after all David Koresh was a “dangerous” cult leader nor do many have a problem in limiting the rights of Moslems that happen to be American citizens and protest if a Moslem clergyman becomes a military Chaplain or if Moslems want to build a Mosque in their neighborhood.  A big controversy is the plan to build a Mosque on or near the site of the World Trade Center which was destroyed by Islamic terrorists and applauded by many Moslems around the world to include some in the United States. While I have no problem in general with the religious groups including Moslems to be able to build a religious facility wherever they want the construction of one on or near this site would seem to be less of a religious liberty issue but more of a propaganda victory for the terrorists groups that brought down the Twin Towers, a mosque on the site of the hated symbol of American economic power and capitalism would be a propaganda victory for declared enemies of the United States.

So as you can see my dear friends the subject of religious liberty and the freedom to practice our religions is one that is not as clear cut as we would like to admit.  The question, to play the Devil’s advocate here is “Should we limit the rights to the free exercise of religion?”    If we do so where do we draw the line? If we say everything goes does this mean for everyone or just us?  Could it be that in the enshrining of this right that the Founders actually meant the expression of rational and enlightened religion and not religious expression that limits the rights of other groups or supports the abolition of others Constitutional Rights?

You see that I think that our religious liberty is something to be cherished but I can see times and places where there would be a need for the community or state to limit such expression, not to take it away but to ensure that such expression is not used as a weapon against others as religious beliefs have been used in the past and present by people and governments around the world.

You see the lawyer that dwells deep within my heart that my fellow seminarians saw could argue the point for any position in this debate, which I guess kind of makes me a bit of a prostitute but still there are valid points to be made on all sides of this issue and to the extenuating civil, social and even economic and national security concerns that the absolute right to the freedom of religious expression impacts.  It seems that the waters get pretty muddy here and I am curious to what others think. My concern is that those on various sides of this issue are more about promoting their religion if they have one and not really caring about the religious rights of others and that the devoted secularists would seek to remove religion from the Public Square in its totality.  As I said at the beginning of this essay the issue is about legal precedence and sometimes the unintended consequences of decisions reached hastily when those on the various sides of an issue take it to court.

I’m glad to hear from all sides of the issue even from those that disagree with anything that I have said in this little essay, just don’t get too nasty or personal if you are criticizing me, unless you know me well and would join me for a beer later and remember I am playing the Devil’s advocate here and not espousing any particular viewpoint, I only want to see people get spun up so I can have a little fun so feel free to tell me what you think.  Tell me whose rights you want to protect or take away, this should be fun.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion