On Politics and Religion

I wouldn’t really care what other people chose to believe, whether it’s in Jesus Christ or the coming of the New Age, except that it can have such deleterious consequences on political discourse. The truth is that beliefs have consequences: in the United States, in particular, evangelicals have hijacked a large part of the political agenda. Ever since the days of the Moral Majority, political debate has been defined largely from the right side of the political spectrum. The left, by contrast, has far too often been tepid and disorganized. The voices of those with progressive, non-demoninational views of morality have rarely been heard in this political debate.

Let’s look at some of the “hot button” issues that have been part of the political debate in recent years, including prayer in schools, religious installations, teaching creationism in science class, gay marriage, medically-assisted suicide, and of course, abortion. And let’s not completely ignore poverty, which generally isn’t (but should be) a concern for any Christian community.

The Public Policy Consequences of Certain Kinds of Belief

First, there is prayer in school. The question was essentially settled by Abington School Dist. V. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), the case that made Madalyn Murray O’Hair famous. In Abington the the Court ruled that the sanctioning of a prayer by the school amounted to a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment is short, and the entirety of its text is this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an 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.

There are five rights established in this one little amendment, most of them central to the American concept of liberty: (1) the right to believe and worship as one pleases (the “free exercise” clause), and the corollary that the United States would not establish a state religion (the “establishment” clause); (2) freedom of speech; (3) freedom of the press; (4) the right of assembly; and (5) the right to petition.

In May of 2014 the Supreme Court decided the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12–696, in which it found that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance with an (almost exclusively) Christian prayer at the beginning of monthly town board meetings did not offend the Constitution. Their decision was largely grounded in the historical precedent that the Founding Fathers opened a lot of their own meetings with a prayer. Whether that’s a good justification or not, it really doesn’t offend me. I can join in or tune out, just as I please, as long as no one actually asks me to lead a prayer On the other hand, I can also understand why the parents of non-religious children might not want to have their school days open with a prayer, since to do it in schools and especially with grade school children is clearly a kind of Christian indoctrination.

Second, on the question of nativity scenes and other religious installations, I really believe this is a non-issue. As far as I’m concerned, there can be as many nativity scenes and other religious installations on public land as people want. Public spaces can also use symbols of Jewish and Muslim worship. The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, as an annual ritual, the good people at Fox News bray about the “War on Christmas,” and Jon Stewart lampoons them for it. The year 2013 got off to an especially good start when first Gretchen Carlsson got upset because in Florida someone put up a “Festivus” pole (see the old Jerry Seinfeld show) in front of a nativity scene, and second when Megyn Kelly claimed that it was a “historical fact” the Santa Clause is white, producing the predictable repost from the Daily Show. Megyn Kelly subsequently claimed that she was and Fox were “big targets” and that she had just been joking (even though, if you watch the clip, it’s pretty clear that she was not joking).

Just for the record, Saint Nicholas was actually Greek and lived in what is now Turkey in the Fourth Century; Sinterklaas, the Dutch figure partially based on the Norse God Odin, as well as the 16th Century English Father Christmas, are the actual inspirations for the present-day Santa Claus. Nor was Jesus white, as Fox News would have you believe, since it’s reasonably certain that Jesus was both Jewish and Semitic in appearance. But enough merriment; what is truly sad is that Fox News would think that Christians are some kind of oppressed minority in the United States. If you want to know what it feels like to be a repressed religious minority, just ask a Jew. Or a Muslim. Or an Atheist.

Third, with respect to the question of teaching creationism in science class. This is where things quickly get silly: only in this country would people seriously advocate teaching creationism in science class. Why not just teach the Norsk and Roman creation myths in science class? Or the creation myths of Native Americans? These have as much scientific validity as the book of Genesis, and some of them are much more elegant. Nor is “intelligent design” — the cleverly-named offspring of the Discovery Institute — any more deserving of an appearance in science classes. It’s not that one couldn’t make an argument that some aspects of evolution are guided by forces that are more than just random; it’s just that this is not the argument that intelligent design makes. To those people who don’t believe in evolution I say, then don’t use antibiotics. Because antibiotics cannot exist without evolution.

Gay marriage is the next issue impacted by Conservatives in the Abrahamic faiths. I firmly believe that in the not too distant future we’re going to look at gay marriage just as we now look at antimiscegenation laws. As in, what was all the fuss about? However, opponents of gay marriage find credence for their opposition in the Bible, even though the Bible has no explicit interdiction of gay marriage. What the Bible does have is passages like Leviticus 18:22, which says “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.”

Of course, Leviticus also says “The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness” (18:7 ); “The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness” (18:8 ); and “The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or daughter of thy mother, whether she be born at home, or born abroad, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover (18:9 ).” Leviticus then goes on to recite about a half dozen other people whose nakedness you can’t uncover. This may be part of the reason why so many of us are so hung up on nudity in this country. And, lest we forget, eating shellfish is also an “abomination” cited by Leviticus: “These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat” (11:9); “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you” (11:10); and “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you (11:12). This is the problem with taking the Bible too literally. There is a parody website — www.godhatesshrimp.com — that makes this point much more cleverly than I have. If you’re going to use scripture to justify social policy, then you had better be careful what you ask for.

In November of 2012, Massachusetts had a ballot question that would have allowed medically assisted self-administered suicide for patients with only six months left to live: in effect, it would have legalized a kind of assisted suicide. Not the Dr. Kevorkian kind — to have the medical doctor administer the lethal dose — but rather it simply would have allowed doctors to write prescriptions for doses that the patients still had to self-administer. There were plenty of safeguards in the legislation, including the requirement that a doctor certify the medical probability of death and that the patient be referred to a psychiatrist to make sure he or she doesn’t have a “treatable depression.” Even so, the Catholic Church opposed it, and because of their influence in the Commonwealth, the measure was narrowly defeated.

Why does the Catholic Church care if certifiably terminally ill patients want to end their lives early? Because of Christian thinkers of the early and late middle ages like St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas who deemed that suicide was a sin. I don’t care what these ancient, ancient men thought centuries ago. I’m not Catholic. And yet, their thinking is intruding on my political rights in 2013. These “Saints” were writing and thinking long before Ferdinand Magellan proved that the world is not flat, or before Nicolaus Copernicus proved that the Earth actually rotates around the Sun. What they might have thought of medically-assisted suicide is as relevant to me as what the Founding Fathers might have thought of net neutrality. I don’t care.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Abortion. This is the Rubik’s Cube of social policy and religion. Let me begin by saying that I was once part of a program called the Public Conversations Project. The Project gathered together three people who were pro-choice and three who were pro-life and put them all in a room together for a “mediated” conversation, without telling anyone who in the room was pro-choice or pro-life. I came to realize that people in the pro-life community are as sincere as can be, and that they are animated by the belief that at the moment of conception, a human being with a human spirit has already been created even if, at that point, it is simply a collection of undifferentiated cells. This is not a belief that I share. But when a fetus being becomes a human being is a truly tricky question that has no easy answers.

About five days after fertilization, a human egg becomes something known as a “blastocyst.” At that stage, the human blastocyst consists of about 70 to 100 cells. For the sake of comparison, there are more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. When an egg is fertilized, it is not yet a human being. When the baby comes out approximately nine months later, just about everyone would agree that it is a human being, albeit a small one. Somewhere in that time period the transformation has occurred. The Supreme Court, in its landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), decided to draw that line at the point of “viability,” which was at that time the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. In short, the state’s could not prohibit abortions in the first trimester — although they could be regulated — but they could prohibit abortions after the first trimester.

Now, “viability” is a moving target. As the boundaries between when life begins and when life ends have become more and more fuzzy because of advances in Western medicine, these kind of questions have become harder and harder to deal with. The Catholic Church doesn’t draw a fuzzy line, however. They believe that at the moment of conception a human “spirit” is also conceived and that we have, in effect, a fully realized human life. The basis for this belief goes back as far as the Didache, or the teachings of the Twelve Apostles in the first or second century after Christ. In this belief they are joined by most evangelical religions. On the pro-choice side, we have not dealt adequately with the question of when a fetus becomes a human being. On the pro-life side, they have not dealt adequately with the fact that the fetus is growing inside another human being, the mother. While we may not want to admit it, until a baby is born, it’s essentially in a kind of parasitic relationship with the mother, it’s host. Like the baby, the mother has rights, which are largely ignored by the pro-life side.

One might ask the question, what did Jesus say about abortion? The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing at all. Jesus talked a lot about poverty; he said absolutely nothing about abortion. And that is not because abortion was unknown in the greater Palestine of his day. The practice of abortion, which likely existed much longer, was already documented in ancient Egypt as long ago as 1550 BCE. The absence of any discussion of abortion by Jesus, or really any direct mention of it in the Bible, is not insignificant.

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