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

The Double Edged Sword of Denying Religious Rights

Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony Hanging Quakers

“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?” James Madison

“We believe that institutionally Christianity should be the official religion of the country, that its laws should be specifically Christian” David Chilton (leader in Christian Reconstructionist and Dominionist Theology)

We love to talk about religious liberty in the United States, especially we who are of the Christian faith.  In fact religious liberty is deeply entwined in the story of the United States of America.  We love to call attention to those brave souls that came to North American search of religious liberty to the point that sometimes we fail to realize that we  have moved from history to myth.  The story of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is heralded by many conservative Christians as a triumph of religious liberty as English Separatist dissenters established that colony in the New World.  The story of the religious liberty of that colony is enshrined in the myth of American history presented by David Barton of Wall Builders and others that embrace the political, theological and historical ideas of R. J. Rushdooney who is the originator of Christian Reconstructionism or Dominionism.

I was introduced to this theology while attending college and attending a church of the Presbyterian Church in Americain denomination in theLos Angeles area.  We had a speaker come to the church who presented a series on “America’s Christian History.” It was a very Dominionist centered presentation and I remember buying a number of the books that the man was selling many of which are found in current Home School resources available on the internet.  It did not take long for me to see that what was being promoted bore little resemblance to historic fact. Now I find it hard to believe that what I was introduced to then is so influential today.

Unfortunately the myth of how the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and others like them does not address the fact that for these people religious liberty that mattered was their religious liberty.  Dissenters in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were persecuted with some being tried as heretics and burned at the stake.  The colony was a theocracy which is by many on the Christian Right being held up as a model of government.  The late Dr. D. James Kennedy an early popular exponent of Dominionist theology stated:

“Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost, as the vice regents of God, we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”

Gary North a leader in the Christian Reconstructionist movement and son-in-law of R. J. Rushdooney noted:

“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.” Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), p. 87.

An increasing number of conservative Christians seem to like religious freedom so long as it is theirs and some like David Barton will willingly falsify the historical accounts to bolster their position. Barton once quoted William Penn as saying “Whatever is Christian is legal; whatever is not is illegal” claiming that it was in the 1681 Pennsylvania Constitution or “Frame.” However the phrase is not in the document which is one of the most progressive civil documents of its era and goes out of its way to promote religious freedom and tolerance. Penn who was a member of the heavily persecuted Quaker denomination understood how deeply persecution and intolerance was ingrained in the Christian church, Protestant and Catholic.  The 1701 Charter of Privileges noted:

“no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or suffer any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.”

Penn’s Declaration of Rights stated:

“All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or modes of worship.”

Yet the modern leaders of the Christian Right seem ready to in their writings and public statements are willing to embrace theocracy over freedom a position much more like the Iranian Mullah’s than our nation’s founders. The clash was highlighted for me today when Herman Cain a Republican Presidential Candidate, Christian minister and former CEO of Godfather Pizza claimed that it was the right of communities to deny Moslems the opportunity to build mosques I their community.  While being interviewed on Fox News Sunday Cain said:

“Our Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, Islam combines church and state. They’re using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals in that community, and the people of that community do not like it. They disagree with it.” Herman Cain

I don’t deny that in heavily Moslem countries that Islam and government are linked, but the same is true with those that promote Dominionist theology.  Their models of government are much like Islam, rather than Sharia law imposed by radical Islamists the imposed law is “Biblical law” or Biblical justice.  Take Greg Bahnsen:

“The New Testament teaches us that–unless exceptions are revealed elsewhere–every Old Testament commandment is binding, even as the standard of justice for all magistrates (Rom. 13:1-4), including every recompense stipulated for civil offenses in the law of Moses (Heb 2:2). From the New Testament alone we learn that we must take as our operating presumption that any Old Testament penal requirement is binding today on all civil magistrates. The presumption can surely be modified by definite, revealed teaching in the Scripture, but in the absence of such qualifications or changes, any Old Testament penal sanction we have in mind would be morally obligatory for civil rulers.”  Greg Bahnsen, No Other Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 68.

Gary North echo’s Bahnsen when he wrote:

“The principle of interpretation which is supposed to govern Christian orthodoxy is that Christ came to establish, confirm, and declare the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17-18). Only if we find an explicit abandonment of an Old Testament law in the New Testament, because of the historic fulfillment of the Old Testament shadow, can we legitimately abandon a detail of the Mosaic law.

The proper exegetical principle is this: Mosaic law is still to be enforced, by the church or the State or both, unless there is a specific injunction to the contrary in the New Testament.”  Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986), pp. 242, 255.

Personally I cannot find a difference in those that advocate Sharia and those that advocate for the imposition of their understanding and interpretation of “Biblical law.” The scriptures that they use may be different but the message is the same, religious law stands above civil law.  As far as teachings of Jesus that conflict with the militaristic dominion advocated by North, Rushdooney and others they are reinterpreted in ways never put forth by orthodox Christians of any kind. North wrote concerning Jesus telling his disciples to turn the other cheek:

“Nevertheless, this one fact should be apparent: turning the other cheek is a bribe. It is a valid form of action for only so long as the Christian is impotent politically or militarily. By turning the other cheek, the Christian provides the evil coercer with more peace and less temporal danger than he deserves. By any economic definition, such an act involves a gift: it is an extra bonus to the coercing individual that is given only in respect of his power. Remove his power, and he deserves punishment: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Remove his power, and the battered Christian should either bust him in the chops or haul him before the magistrate, and possibly both.” Gary North, “In Defense of Biblical Bribery,” in R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973), p. 846.

As far as any tolerance for any other religions or those at variance with the intensely hyper-Calvinist theology of the Dominionists there is none, not even for the Jews.  Chilton makes this case in the most severe of terms.

“The god of Judaism is the devil. The Jew will not be recognized by God as one of His chosen people until he abandons his demonic religion and returns to the faith of his fathers–the faith which embraces Jesus Christ and His Gospel.” David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1984), p. 127.

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association claims:

Islam has no fundamental First Amendment claims, for the simple reason that it was not written to protect the religion of Islam. Islam is entitled only to the religious liberty we extend to it out of courtesy. While there certainly ought to be a presumption of religious liberty for non-Christian religious traditions in America, the Founders were not writing a suicide pact when they wrote the First Amendment.”(Blog post of23 March 2011)

Pat Roberston extends such to fellow Christians:

“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

So the cry of Herman Cain that Islam is somehow unique in attempting to infuse religion into government is a fabrication because many Christians, especially he and his allies do the same thing.  This attempt to radically reinterpret American History and the Constitution as assuming that the founders of the country desired to found a theocracy is patently deceitful and being used to stir up otherwise wonderful Christians into embracing something that is neither American or Christian.

When I see Texas Governor Rick Perry organizing a “Prayer Rally” called “The Response” which is exclusively Christian and sponsored by a large number of ministers and ministries that embrace Dominionist theology, some in ways even more radical than I have mentioned here I get worried.  I don’t have any problem with Christians deciding to get together to pray for the country but when I see a likely Presidential candidate sponsoring such an event I have to ask myself if the event is simply a religious gathering or a partisan political rally cloaked with a veneer of Christianity.  Honestly I have to think that it is the latter.

Roger Williams the founder of the Rhode Island Colony was driven from the Massachusetts Bay Colony after being convicted of sedition and heresy. Williams had dared to criticize the treatment of the Indians, refused to sign a loyalty oath and was convicted of spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” Williams later said:

“Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.”

In the early days of this country a number of the former colonies retained their respective State religion.  In Virginia Anglicans fought to maintain their status as the state religion and persecuted other groups, especially Baptists.  The Constitution had said nothing about the Christian faith in fact Article VI specifically stated that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guaranteed that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….

The Dunking of Baptist Pastors David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River by Virginia Anglicans 

While some have advanced that this was to keep the State from meddling in the business of religion it was actually brought about by the complaints of Virginia Baptists who were being persecuted by Anglicans. Madison and Jefferson both understood this andMadisonexpressly noted the danger of establishing the Christian faith as a State religion.

“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?”

John Leland a leader of the Virginia Baptists attacked the foundation of what the current advocates of Dominionism in the Christian Right teach.  Leland cannot be accused of not being a Christian; he was an evangelical Christian in his day. He was not a Deist as were many of the founders of the country who Barton claims were evangelical Christians, he certainly was a believer in Christ and he understood the danger of this based on the history of persecution of Baptists in England, the New World and their cousins on the European continent, the Mennonites and Anabaptists by state mandated Churches. 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.”

To me it seems that the current push by the Dominionists that now lead the Christian Right is based on the fear that they cannot win the hearts of people by their witness as did the early church. Instead they must rely on the power of the government.  Those that oppose them are the enemy or aligned with the Devil himself.

If Cain wants to allow communities to ban Mosques then he should also allow those more secular communities to deny the same to Christian churches.  But wait…that’s Christian persecution.  Maybe Catholic neighborhoods can ban Protestants and Evangelical communities can ban Catholics or mainline Protestants. Rich Episcopalians then could ban those unsophisticated Pentecostals and Baptists from their neighborhoods.

Yes the sword cuts both ways. When any religious group turns to the government to advance its agenda and force its point of view on others it not only tramples their rights as Americans but also places their rights in danger.  I think that is why Madison  wrote 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).

Madison’s words are well worth considering now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, laws and legislation, 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+

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