Tag Archives: virginia statute on religious liberty 1779

All Should be Equally Free: Recognizing the Terror of the New Religious Liberty Laws

john leland

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This may seem a familiar topic for my readers, but due to events in a number of states I feel compelled to talk about it again. The issue of religious liberty and the right to free expression has once again come to the fore in the wake of the Obergfell v. Hodges ruling and the pathetically un-American passage of particularly odious, religiously based anti-LGBT laws in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee, as well as one that was vetoed by Georgia’s governor. I call these laws pathetic and un-American because they fly in the face of the ideals of the real champions of religious liberty in the United States. One of these early proponents of religious liberty and freedom in the United States was the Virginia Baptist pastor, John Leland.

Sadly, many American Christians either have never heard of him. Likewise, if they have heard of him, as the great pontificator, Mike Huckabee should have in his brief tenure as a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; they seem to have ignored his warnings about state religion. I guess that problems in his church history and Baptist history classes were a big reason that he left seminary. Ideologues like the Huckster didn’t last at Southwestern, at least until the fundamentalist takeover in 1994 that helped destroy the academic and scholarly reputation of that once fine school, but I digress….

Leland was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and without him it is unlikely that the First Amendment of the Constitution would have mentioned religious faith. Leland had a very personal interest in this as during the 1780s the Anglican Church in Virginia was attempting to again become the official state religion. Anglicans, with the help of local authorities were attacking Baptist congregations and even resorting to physical violence. In defiance of the Anglicans, Leland wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

There is a form of religion and indeed the “Christian” faith that is toxic and if not treated leads to the spiritual and sometimes the physical and emotional death of the infected person.

There is a nationalized version of this supposedly Christian faith in the Untied Stats today. It is a bastardized version of the Christian faith overlaid with the thin veneer of an equally bastardized version of American history. Its purveyors are quite popular in the world of “conservative” American Evangelicalism and Catholicism.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and chief Nuremberg war crimes trials prosecutor warned us about people like them over a half-century ago. Jackson wrote, “[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.”

Pat Robertson, evangelist and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network is an example of what Leland and Jackson warned us about. Robertson said on his program that “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense, I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.” — Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, January 14, 1991. The late David Chilton was another. He wrote: “We believe that institutionally Christianity should be the official religion of the country, that its laws should be specifically Christian”

It is quite fascinating when you look at it. This faith is a combination of a selective reading of American history, Christian teaching and Biblical interpretation that mixes and matches a wide variety of mutually conflicting and contradictory traditions. This Toxic “faith” if you can call it that; is based on a reading of American and Western History, which negates, marginalizes or willingly distorts the views or contributions of those who they disagree. It does not matter of their opponents are not Christians, or were Christians, including Baptists like John Leland and Roger Williams. Due to their experiences of religious persecution, Williams and Leland refused to buy into any form of state sanctioned religion.

I find it interesting that Conservative Icon and champion of limited government Barry Goldwater had great reservations about those that sought to establish the superiority of any religion. Goldwater said on the Senate floor: “The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent.”

The leaders of this new and quasi “Christian faith” are many and include some of the most popular religious leaders in the United States such as Pat Robertson, the pseudo-historian David Barton, James Robison, Gary North, Bryan Fischer, James Dobson, Gary Bauer Phyllis Schafley and a host of others. For them the Gospel has been equated with government legislation of supposedly “Christian” values; which conveniently are defined by their political agenda, often in complete contradiction to the Gospel and to nearly 2000 years of Christian experience. North, one of the most eloquent expositors of the Dominionist movement wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”

That is quite a statement and those who think that they can co-opt people like North, Robertson or others are quite mistaken. Goldwater realized this. What is fascinating to me is to watch these men and women advocate religious and political positions in regard to Church-State relations that completely opposite of what early American Christian and non-Christian civil libertarians imagined when our country was founded. Positions that quite often are at odds with even the historical tenants of their own faith. Their only claim to innocence can be because not a one of them have any training in history and often are even worse when it comes to their understanding of the Christian tradition, which did not begin in and will not end in the United States.

In this confused and often hateful “faith” we see men and women who hate centralized government but extol a centralized religion. I was talking with a friend who is adamantly opposed to a powerful Federal Government but extols the perfection of the centralized bureaucracy of his Roman Catholic Faith. He could not see the contradiction. I watch others who extol an almost Libertarian understanding of the government and the Constitution who supposedly in their religious tradition are from the “Free Church” who now advocate the supremacy of the Church over the State and in doing so their particular and limited understanding of Church over that of the Church Universal.

In this confused and contradictory setting there are Catholics espousing political views that are in direct opposition to the understanding of government supported by the Magisterium of the Church. There are Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants that mix and match the untenable and contradictory beliefs of Dominionism and Millennialism which involve on one hand the takeover of earthly power by the Church and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God and the understanding that earthly power is ultimately under the dominion of Satan and must be overcome by the Second Coming of Christ.

Leland wrote:

“These establishments metamorphose the church into a creature, and religion into a principle of state, which has a natural tendency to make men conclude that Bible religion is nothing but a trick of state.”

Leland was one of the most important persons in regards to the relationship of the Christian Churches to the American Government. He was a champion of the religious liberty enshrined in the Bill of Rights and helped influence both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. He noted in 1791:

“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.” John Leland, “Right of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable By The Law”

When the adherents of a faith, any faith, but especially the Christian faith enlist the government to enforce their understanding of faith they introduce a toxicity that is eventually fatal when consumed and acted on.

I think that much of what we are witnessing today is much more the product of fear mongering preachers that see opportunity in their political alliances and that are willing to reduce the Gospel to a number of “Christian values” in order to achieve a political end; even if that end is ultimately destructive to the Church and to the Gospel.

The message of the Apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth was this: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:18-19 NRSV) 

The early church thrived when it had no earthly power. It thrived when it was persecuted and when the Roman government openly supported almost every religion but it. However, once it became powerful and worldly it became ensnared in affairs far from that simple message of reconciliation.

It was in this country that the various sects of the Christian faith had the opportunity to make a new start, unencumbered by the trappings of power. But instead, like those that came before us, the toxin of power has all too often seduced us. John Leland understood this and fought to ensure that all people of faith were free and unencumbered by state supported religion.

Leland’s friend James Madison wrote to Edward Everett toward the end of his life:

“The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both; that there are causes in the human breast which ensure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of the law; that rival sects, with equal rights, exercise mutual censorships in favor of good morals; that if new sects arise with absurd opinions or over-heated imaginations, the proper remedies lie in time, forbearance, and example; that a legal establishment of religion without a toleration could not be thought of, and with a toleration, is no security for and animosity; and, finally, that these opinions are supported by experience, which has shewn that every relaxation of the alliance between law and religion, from the partial example of Holland to the consummation in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, &c., has been found as safe in practice as it is sound in theory. Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of Independence it was left, with all other sects, to a self-support. And no doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change, and particularly in the sect which enjoyed the legal patronage. This proves rather more than that the law is not necessary to the support of religion” (Letter to Edward Everett, Montpellier, March 18, 1823).

That is the antidote to the toxic faith embodied in the politically motivated Christian Right. It stands against any idea of a state sanction or religion or a religion that like in Saudi Arabia or Iran controls the state. It stands in opposition to the beliefs of so many “Christian” religious leaders work to ensure that they control the powers of government. Attempts that try to proclaim their superiority above even the ultimate message of the Gospel that proclaims, “for God so loved the world….” 

By the way there are always results. The Puritans who many extoll were some of the most intolerant of dissenters of any group that has every held the reins of power over the state and religion ever known in this country. Their victims included Quakers as well as American Indian converts to Christianity. The picture below of the Puritans hanging Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony should give pause to anyone who thinks that such actions are not possible today should any religion gain control of political power.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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Religious Fanaticism and Politics: The Danger of the “True” Believers

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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

“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

Those that read this site and have gotten to know me through it over the past few years know that I am passionately devoted to religious liberty.  I find it throughout the writings of our founders and and have written about it before numerous times and the comment was in regard to this article The Gift of Religious Liberty and the Real Dangers to It https://padresteve.com/2011/05/10/the-gift-of-religious-liberty-and-the-real-dangers-to-it/

That is why I tend to get spun up about the way that some people use their religion as a weapon in public life and politics. This happens around the world and frankly there is nothing good in it regardless of who is doing it or what religion they are using to subjugate or attempt to subjugate others, particularly religious minorities.

In fact it was on this day, October 14th 1656 the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where church and state were one enacted the first punitive laws against the Quakers, who they believed to spiritually apostate and subversive. The interesting thing is that the political and theological descendants of the Puritans who enacted those laws held a major political conference this weekend, they called it the Value Voter’s Summit. While religious liberty was a major theme of that conference it was not the religious liberty of all, simply theirs which they believe is superior to others and should be the established state religion.

Since I have written numerous other articles about the dangers that I see in what they term the Dominionist or Reconstructionist movement and the Seven Mountains theology I will not dwell on that here. Instead I will share some insights I have based on my interaction with individuals who believe that no religious rights except for their understanding of Christianity should be legal in the United States.

I do want to say up front that this article is in no way a denigration of those that believe, especially in this case since my critic claims to be a Christian a criticism of other Christians that are committed to their faith but also respect the religious liberties of others and that give God and his grace a little bit of credit to work in the lives of others that are different from them.

After I wrote an article about two years ago I received a comment on that post that I quote in part:

“I have a serious problem with anyone who calls themselves a Christian supporting the religious liberty of all those who are not Christians because by doing so you condone their worship of false gods which is idolatry. I would rather see all religious worship outlawed than to allow worshippers of false gods allowed to spew their demon inspired idolatrous lies in public.” (pingecho728 Jonathan) 

I found it amazing to see such words voiced over a subject that is so much a part of the fabric of our country.  Unfortunately with all the poisonous division in the country that religious liberty is in peril in some cases from left wing fanatics that despise all religion but is becoming more pronounced on the fanatical right particularly in the views of some parts of American Evangelical and Conservative Catholic Christianity.

But with that said this commentator was obviously a very angry person. So I decided to search Facebook and Google search and in about 5 minutes I found more than I wanted to know about this man. He is a fanatic who has flip-flopped in his passionate beliefs, responding to an atheist on another website in December 2010 regarding the irrationality of Biblical faith.

“PingEcho728  Dec 1, 2010 01:55 PM
I love what you wrote and agree wholeheartedly. Ironically I used to be once upon a time one of those religionist who was content with the “God did it” answer..if the Bible said it I believed it a hundred percent but once I opened my eyes and actually examined everything I had once easily believed to see why I had believed those things I found I had no good rational answer or evidence for believing those things. So I did the only thing a rational freethinking person could do, I abandoned beliefs for which I had no reason or evidence to support it.”

When I responded to the man and noted that everyone was someone else’s heretic and that even Conservative Christians might find his views heretical he responded: “There are certainly no Christians more conservative than me nor would any true Christian call me a heretic.”

Talk about flip-flopping, but this is typical among fanatics of every variety. They easily change sides because they need a cause bigger then them to provide meaning to their lives.  This man blasted the Founders in their views of religious liberty on a Tea Party blog: “I trust in the founders no more than I trust in any fallible man. The freedom to disagree is one thing to allow false religions to flourish in America is one that will undoubtedly lead to the destruction of America and the rise of the antichrist.”

baptistpersecutionvirginia01

Anglican Persecution of Virginia Baptists

Philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote in his book The True Believer about mass movements and their fanatical followers.  He did not see the followers of the different causes be they religious, secular, atheist, Fascist or Communist to be that different from each other. He saw them as brothers in a sense and their real opponent is the moderate, not the opposing extremist. Hoffer saw that the “true believers” were far easier to convert to an opposing view than you would think and he noted how fanatical Germans and Japanese often were converted to Communism while in captivity after the war.  It was their devotion to the cause not the cause that they became devoted to serving that was what gave meaning to their life.

Hoffer wrote:

“The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self assurance out of his individual resources-out of his rejected self-but finds it only by clinging to whatever cause he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the source of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Through his single minded dedication is a holding on for dear life , he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings….Still his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause. The fanatic cannot be weened away from his cause by an appeal to reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the cause to which he is attached.”

Unfortunately there are many people on the extremes of the political spectrum that are like this. They can be found in the factions of the Tea Party and likewise some on the political left as well as other more extreme hate groups.  They are the kind of people that in the social, economic and political turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s were sucked into the great radical movements Communism, Fascism and Naziism.  In fact this has little to do with Christianity itself, even the most conservative expressions of it.  It is a matter that fanatics would rather destroy freedom for everyone than to give it to anyone that they disagree.

The real thing that sets our nation apart from others is the fact that when it came to religious liberty that the Founders were quite clear that religious liberty was the property of every individual. It was not to be forced by the state or by religious bodies acting on behalf of the state. We are not Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Israel. Our founders knew the dangers of fanatical religion having seen the effect of it during the brutal religious wars in England which pitted Anglicans against Separatists and Roman Catholics in the 17th Century.  They harbored no illusions about the danger posed by well meaning “true believers” who would use the powers of the state to enforce their religious beliefs on others as well as those that would seek to obliterate religion from public life as happened during the French Revolution.

I will gladly take criticism from people that believe that I am not a Christian because I defend the religious liberties of others.  I am a Christian and make no apology but  I figure that this liberty is too precious to so despised by those that most depend on it.  Religion can and has often been abused and used as a dictatorial bludgeon. 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?”

I wish that they would consider this before they attempt to destroy the country in order to save it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under civil rights, faith, History, News and current events, Religion

Revisiting the Gift of Religious Liberty: The Danger posed by Fanatics

“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

Those that read this site and have gotten to know me through it over the past few years know that I am passionately devoted to religious liberty.  I find it throughout the writings of our founders and and have written about it before numerous times and the comment was in regard to this article The Gift of Religious Liberty and the Real Dangers to It  https://padresteve.com/2011/05/10/the-gift-of-religious-liberty-and-the-real-dangers-to-it/

I do want to say up front that this article is in no way a denigration of those that believe, especially in this case since my critic claims to be a Christian a criticism of other Christians that are committed to their faith but also respect the religious liberties of others and that give God and his grace a little bit of credit to work in the lives of others that are different from them.

A couple of days ago I received a comment on that post that I quote in part:

“I have a serious problem with anyone who calls themselves a Christian supporting the religious liberty of all those who are not Christians because by doing so you condone their worship of false gods which is idolatry. I would rather see all religious worship outlawed than to allow worshippers of false gods allowed to spew their demon inspired idolatrous lies in public.” (pingecho728 Jonathan) 

It is amazing to me to see such words voiced over a subject that is so much a part of the fabric of our country.  Unfortunately with all the poisonous division in the country that religious liberty is in peril in some cases from left wing fanatics that despise all religion but is becoming more pronounced on the fanatical right particularly in the views of some parts of American Evangelical and Conservative Catholic Christianity.

But with that said this commentator is a very angry person and a search Facebook and a Google search that took all of about 5 minutes told me more than I wanted to know about this man. He is a fanatic who has flip-flopped in his passionate beliefs, responding to an atheist on another website in December 2010 regarding the irrationality of Biblical faith.

“PingEcho728  Dec 1, 2010 01:55 PM
I love what you wrote and agree wholeheartedly. Ironically I used to be once upon a time one of those religionist who was content with the “God did it” answer..if the Bible said it I believed it a hundred percent but once I opened my eyes and actually examined everything I had once easily believed to see why I had believed those things I found I had no good rational answer or evidence for believing those things. So I did the only thing a rational freethinking person could do, I abandoned beliefs for which I had no reason or evidence to support it.”

When I responded to the man and noted that everyone was someone else’s heretic and that even Conservative Christians might find his views heretical he responded. “There are certainly no Christians more conservative than me nor would any true Christian call me a heretic.”  Talk about flip-flopping, but this is typical among fanatics of every variety. They easily change sides because they need a cause bigger then them to provide meaning to their lives.  This man who on other Tea Party blogs practically deifies the Founders says of them regarding religious liberty: “I trust in the founders no more than I trust in any fallible man. The freedom to disagree is one thing to allow false religions to flourish in America is one that will undoubtedly lead to the destruction of America and the rise of the antichrist.”

Philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote in his book The True Believer about mass movements and their fanatical followers.  He did not see the followers of the different causes be they religious, secular, atheist, Fascist or Communist to be that different from each other. He saw them as brothers in a sense and their real opponent is the moderate, not the opposing extremist. Hoffer saw that the “true believers” were far easier to convert to an opposing view than you would think and he noted how fanatical Germans and Japanese often were converted to Communism while in captivity after the war.  It was their devotion to the cause not the cause that they became devoted to serving that was what gave meaning to their life.

Hoffer wrote:

“The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self assurance out of his individual resources-out of his rejected self-but finds it only by clinging to whatever cause he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the source of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Through his single minded dedication is a holding on for dear life , he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings….Still his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause. The fanatic cannot be weened away from his cause by an appeal to reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the cause to which he is attached.”

Unfortunately there are many people on the extremes of the political spectrum that are like this. They can be found in the factions of the Tea Party and in the Occupy Movement as well as other even more extreme groups.  They are the kind of people that in the social, economic and political turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s were sucked into the great radical movements Communism, Fascism and Naziism.  In fact this has little to do with Christianity itself, even the most conservative expressions of it.  It is a matter that fanatics would rather destroy freedom for everyone than to give it to anyone that they disagree.

The real thing that sets our nation apart from others is the fact that when it came to religious liberty that the Founders were quite clear that religious liberty was the property of every individual. It was not to be forced by the state or by religious bodies acting on behalf of the state. We are not Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Israel. Our founders knew the dangers of fanatical religion having seen the effect of it during the brutal religious wars in England which pitted Anglicans against Separatists and Roman Catholics in the 17th Century.  They harbored no illusions about the danger posed by well meaning “true believers” who would use the powers of the state to enforce their religious beliefs on others as well as those that would seek to obliterate religion from public life as happened during the French Revolution.

I will gladly take criticism from people that believe that I am not a Christian because I defend the religious liberties of others.  I am a Christian and make no apology but  I figure that this liberty is too precious to so despised by those that most depend on it.  Religion can and has often been abused and used as a dictatorial bludgeon. 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+

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, History, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion

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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