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Brass City Boxing Day Blues

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It was Wolcum Yule, by the way.   The name of the album by Anonymous 4 I was talking about yesterday.  I’ve got it on as I speak.

But it occurs to me that this being a religious season, it might make sense to talk about religion some, and I’ve got a number of different ways to go with that.  One of them is the idea of Christendom, which has come to be caricatured in the modern period as a vast “theocracy” where scientific thought was suppressed, minority viewson religion were relentlessly persecuted, and the West got the idea that it had the right to rule the world.

In point of fact, the West got that idea with Alexander the Great.  But that’s another story.

What strikes me today is something else:  it seems to me that the people, mostly evangelical Christians, who feel that freedom of religion is under attack in  America today are right, but they’re wrong about what that attack consists in.

First, let me say that I am a big fan of the separation of church and state, but also that I do not define it as too many people seem to these days–as a situation in which religious ideas and religious motives must be entirely absent from public life and rigorously relegated to the private.

Not only was that not what the founders intended, but it would be an impossible position to maintain while still proclaiming oneself in favor of freedom of speech, never mind freedom of religion. 

Freedom of speech and freedom of religion mean first and foremost that all of us, religious and otherwise, have the right to say what we think and advocate for it in the public square, and to believe what we believe and to advocate for that in the public square. 

The problem with coming out and saying “abortion should be illegal because God says it’s wrong” is not that you’re basing your policy decisions on abortion on what God says, but that in a pluralist society you’re likely to turn off a significant part of your audience who doesn’t believe as you do. 

In contending for public policy, it makes sense to make arguments that can be heard by and accepted by the majority of your fellow citizens.

What’s more, I don’t think it violates separation of church and state for individual citizens to make up their minds about public policy based on what they believe religiously–in fact, I think it’s inevitable that all of us will make up our minds about public policy on the basis of what we believe to be true, whatever that is.

What I think is a much graver danger to freedom of religion in the US is another thing, not so widespread yet but getting there:  the redefining of religion as “beliefs and rituals” alone.

I can’t speak for Islam, because I know too little about it, but both Christians and Jews are required, as matters of religion. to commit a great many public acts that are not rituals and do not subsist in expressions of belief.

There is, for Christians, the Great Commission, to go forth and teach all nations–but Christians and Jews both are required to commit what the Catholic Church calls “acts of corporal charity” as a religious duty. 

Catholics run huge hospital systems not because they want to convert other people to Catholici Christianity, but because they believe they are enjoined by Christ to “feed the hungry, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned.” 

I spent a good part of my time in high school listening to nuns tell me that one could not call oneself a Christian if one did not fulfill that commandment, that reducing  Christianity to beliefs and rituals was to join the Pharisees.

But there is, at this moment, an active movement to redefine “freedom of religion” to mean simply tolerance for the private beliefs and practices (although not all of the practices) of religious people.  Public acts–running a hospital or an adoption agency or a soup kitchn or a homeless shelter–are consider “not essentiall religious” and therefore open to various kinds of regulations which demand that their staffs and sponors violate their religious commitments.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the state requires all adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples.   The Catholic Church’s only recourse was to close all its adoption agencies.  In Connecticut, the state requires all emergency rooms to provide the morning after pill to women who come in claiming to be victims of rape.  The Church’s only recourse was to hand the operation of the emergency rooms in its hospitals to outside secular providers.

The existence of such legal requirements is the reason I don’t think that churches are being hysterical or alarmist when they say they oppose recognition of gay marriage because they’re convinced that the result will be that they will be required to accommodate it themselves in their own religious institutions–and hospitals and adoption agencies and schools and homeless shelters can be religious institutions.

This is a problem that cuts both ways–it not only causes a truncation of religious freedom, but it actually makes it less likely that secular people will get some of the policy changes they want, like the government recognition of gay marriage. 

What is going on,  I think, is very different from a crusade to save all of us from “theocracy.”  It is, instead, a major push to redfine the public consensus. 

Here is the truth about culture wars:  there is no such thing as a “multicultural” society.  In any society, one particular brand of believe, or worldview, of common understanding of right and wrong prevails, and it always does so by marginalizing all the other forms.

Pluralist societies–which is what this one was set up to be–allow the reality of difference to be lived within the, but at the same time they give up any hope of everybody being comfortable with what they are and what they believe.

In pluralist societies, each group not only contends for what they believe, but contends that what they believe is True, whereas everything else is false.  They claim that what they believe to be right is right, and everything else is wrong.  They tolerate differences of lifestyle and opinion, but not by hiding their distrust or dislike or condemnation of those alternatives.

If I was a Christian of the right or of the left in America today, I wouldn’t be fighting the war on Christmas or worrying if some small town in Texas has started calling it a holiday tree. 

Instead, I’d be insisting, publicly, that religion is not about private beliefs and rituals, but about much more than that.  I’d be insisting that my Catholic hospital or Lutheran homeless shelter or Methodist soup kitchen is a religious institution whose primary function is to fulfill an essentially religious duty, and that being restricted from so fulfilling such a duty is indeed to have the right to free exercise of religion denied.

And now that I’ve got about half of you mad at me, I’ll postpone the rest of this until tomorrow.

At which point I promise to take up the issue of things like Muslim cabdrivers who won’t pick up people carrying liquor bottles.

Written by janeh

December 26th, 2009 at 10:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Brass City Boxing Day Blues'

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  1. I guess I’m in the ‘not angry’ group this time, not that I get angry at much. But I think you are entirely right about what religion is, and why the practice of it cannot be limited to private rituals. I don’t quite get why so many people who write laws preventing, say, Roman Catholics from running adoption agencies. Or rather, I suspect I do understand intellectually, but the combination of reasons I suspect seem so pitiful that I don’t see why people I otherwise rather like and respect should fall for them. There’s the need to be right and the need to exert power – to not only have their beliefs “proven” correct by writing them in laws that will force others to conform. They dont’ seem to realise that being able to control the law doesn’t make anyone right, and that the other people may be every bit as much convinced of their rightness and will walk away, with their equality rights as citizens in tatters, and the people they would have helped abandonded.

    Oh, well, as a form of persecution, it sure beats torture and execution.


    26 Dec 09 at 5:07 pm

  2. You asked me to read this, so I say that in some respects you’re right. The secular world is trying to redefine the religious world. HOWEVER, the religious world would do well to look after what it really is, first.

    I’m sick to death of Christians ranting about the secularization of Christmas . . . while they string up miles of lights and engage in all the secular joys of Christmas. By all means, enjoy the festivities, but quitcherbitchin about something you do yourself. If we Christians had the courage of our convictions, we’d eschew trees, lights, gifts, cards, etc., and simply celebrate with the like-minded in our houses of worship. If Christmas is secular, we certainly contributed to it!

    But you’re right about the insidious assault on the charitable institutions of our land which are associated with churches. The RC Bishop of St. Louis has made it plain that if abortions are required of all hospitals, the Catholic church will close all its hospitals in St. Louis. That’s courage of conviction. That’s what the secular world doesn’t understand. They would describe it as “unloving.”

    The Bible does not constrain us to open soup kitchens, run hospitals, and fill homeless shelters. It certainly equates love of others close to love of God, but there is no moral obligation to do these things. As for the Great Commission, that is a vastly misunderstood Scriptural reference which has nothing to do with Christians running about spreading the Gospel. Rightly read in the original Greek, the main verbs are “teach” and “baptize”, both functions of ordained bishops. The so-called Great Commission was nothing more than the first ordination of bishops for the preaching of the Gospel.

    We Christians are under no moral obligation to do anything. We do so out of love and gratitude for what our Lord has done for us. Nothing we do matters; “all our righteousness is as filthy rags.” It has all been done for us; there is nothing left for us to do.

    Yet, out of a grateful heart, out of love for God, out of charity of spirit, we reach out to others. This the world doesn’t understand, if it’s not politically correct, if it doesn’t follow rules. And it remains to be seen if the religious community, in its assortment of denominations, will hold firmly to its core beliefs. From what I’ve been able to observe, I doubt it. It’s easier to whine about holiday trees and prayer in public schools and the Ten Commandments in courthouses than it is to stand on one’s moral and religious convictions in the face of opposition.

    I’m thankful that I probably won’t live long enough to see this through; it won’t be pretty!

    And to anyone reading this, my apologies. I’m not an intellectual person. So, if I tend to ramble, just consider the source.


    26 Dec 09 at 5:07 pm

  3. Jane, I am not a believer but I can understand the difficulty of people who accept the following premises.

    1) There is a God

    2) God has made rules for human behavior.

    3) We have a duty to obey those rules.

    What are such people to do if their society adopts laws which they consider violate the laws of God? Does keeping religion out of public life mean they shut up and ignore their own basic beliefs?

    That is why the Bishop of St. Louis is threatening to close hospitals.


    26 Dec 09 at 5:21 pm

  4. It seems to me that this is largely a need to balance the rights of the people providing the service (whoever they are & no matter why they’re providing it) and the rights of the people receiving the service.

    If the people receiving it have other options–they can choose to go to another hospital (for a non-emergency abortion, say)–then the balance should tilt in favor of those providing the service (in this case, hospital care). As long as the provider is honest and up-front about what services they do and do not provide, and will refer patients elsewhere if necessary, it should be their choice about what they will do.

    If there is no other choice–if this is an emergency, or the client is a child unable to choose for him/herself, or if there is no other shelter anywhere within reach–then the balance should tilt towards the patient/client’s best interests. An adult can usually determine what those interests are himself, assuming he are in possession of his mental faculties. For a child, the agency should rely on any concrete evidence available which will demonstrate what those best interests are–for example, studies of children in families with gay or lesbian parents. It seems to me that any provider who acts against the best interests of a patient/client who has no choice but to use that provider is abrogating their responsibilities.

    And they do have responsibilities. They own the hospitals, the adoption agencies, the homeless shelters, & so on. They presumably started them on their own, provided the financial & human support necessary, and dealt with all the problems. So they have an important stake in what happens there. But the mere fact of their existence has probably affected the decisions of other groups–government, religious, whatever–when deciding where to put a *new* hospital, adoption agency, homeless shelter…Once you take on a responsibility, you can’t just throw it up again just like that. At the least, you have to arrange for someone else to take over that responsibility, as the church did in hiring a secular agency to handle the emergency rooms.

    Now, if they are willing to do that, then it’s entirely their business.

    Lee B

    26 Dec 09 at 8:54 pm

  5. JH is quite right on this. But of course it’s wider spread: require every pharmacy to dispense abortifacients–Illinois presently does–and you will, eventually, drive out of the profession anyone with any scruples on the subject. Toss in a suicide crug requirement–how many years away?–and you can wind up selecting for pharmacists with no scruples whatever.

    The “public-private partnerships” so lauded in recent years are an impossible tangle here. Someone’s morality must prevail, and either taxpayer money is spent in accordance with someone’s religious principles or the religious impulse is undermined by government decrees. (Mind you, for these purposes I’d count modern American liberalism and Gaea-worship as religions.)

    And now for the really bad news: the more you want government to “make a difference in people’s lives” the more of these conflicts you’re going to have. So it’s going to get a LOT worse before it gets any better at all.


    27 Dec 09 at 6:56 am

  6. I can tolerate the idea of negative rights – the ‘freedom from’ ones although I tend to thnk they’re no more than handy human inventions that tend to be associated with the kinds of political systems I like to live under. I really don’t like positive rights – the ‘rights to’, even for things I otherwise support entirely, like free public education up to the end of high school for every child. And the reason I don’t is because sooner or later, usually sooner, those rights claims smack right up against someone else’s rights, positive or negative. The right to an education has been used time and time again both to attack parents’ rights to raise their children the way they want, and to repress certain religious, political and environment ideologies and promote others.

    And you can’t claim that an organization which set up a facility under one set of criteria must continue to run it when the criteria are changed from the outside. They might decide to do so, they might not. It’s up to them. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or can ‘prove’ about children raised by gay adoptive or foster parents, or unmarried couples living together or providing abortion – each group can and should make its own decisions and live by them – barring actual physical assault, of course, which shouldn’t need to be said.

    If you change the conditions under which an organization must operation, that organization can stop operating. It doesn’t even have to be a religious or voluntary organisation; any group in which the basis of their operation is changed underneath them can and will fight back or move on to something else. Any contract, written, or merely assumed on the grounds that they’ve been doing X for years, so they’ve got to keep on doing it, won’t hold when the basic conditions are changed, especially changed by force.

    Using the law as a club to try to force the issue simply adds to the injustice of trying to force a group to change their moral code. Writing laws designed to support Group A’s view on sex or whatever and the expense of Group B doesn’t make anything morally right; it merely brings down the weight of the law on one side of the debate. Bully tactics, really, resorted to by people who can’t accept that not everyone agrees with them.

    People who don’t like the services offered by the Roman Catholics have an option other than trying to bully the RCs into compliance with acts that are morally repugnant to them, or abandoning that part of their religion. They can organize and raise money and provide an alternative. They don’t need to change the laws to try to twist the RC facilities to their purpose; they can do what the RCs did all those years ago – they can raise the money and build their own facilities that provide the services that they consider morally essential. That would be far more appropriate than what’s happening now, but of course it would require the ability to recognise that even people they disagree with profoundly have the right to freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech – the real, basic rights. And it would take a LOT of work and money-raising. It did for the RCs and all the other religious groups who do and did such works of charity.

    As for a Christian Christmas; well, there’s nothing but family and social pressures to prevent anyone from doing just what they want (Ha! Yes, I know, ‘just’!) But seriously, I’ve re-done my Christmas practices over the years to make them simpler and far more pleasant for me, without family hassles. Some of my friends and relatives probably think I’m an asocial Scrooge, but I can’t help that and it doesn’t worry me much.

    I don’t know how many people do something similar. It used to quite common for people from large families to agree among themselves to limit the excessive gift-giving, but I don’t know how that’s playing out in the next generation, from smaller families.


    27 Dec 09 at 7:48 am

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