February 18, 2012
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America
Such simple words. Congress can’t pass a law that establishes a religion for the people of this country – not your religion; not my religion. Nor can Congress pass a law that prohibits us from freely exercising our religions. That seems pretty straight-forward. Congress should basically stay out of our religious lives.
Of course, they do not. Congress involves itself in the business of religion all the time. If religion involves itself in providing food, shelter or other non-spiritual services to people, whether those people are congregants or not, religious businesses are (with a few exceptions) subject to laws that make sure that food is safe, that shelter actually shelters and so forth.
As far as the actual practice of religious beliefs, (again, with a few notable exceptions) Congress is required by that First Amendment clause to stay out of it.
But, what happens when laws regarding the business of religion conflict with the practice of religious beliefs? Such a conflict arose this past week in the brouhaha over whether Catholic business institutions such as colleges had to meet the new health care requirements of offering contraception coverage to female employees, both Catholic and non-Catholic, in their insurance polices. The religious leaders say violates the free exercise of their religious belief that the use of contraception is a sin.
Or, when people, out of religious conviction, try to push through laws that limit the secular rights of others who do not share their religious convictions? Such conflicts are ongoing across the country as laws now being pressed in several states to limit a woman’s secular right to an abortion within the context of Roe v. Wade or prevent a gay couple’s equal right to marry under the Constitution’s equal rights clause.
We all, of course, Christian and non-Christian, live in a country designed by the founding fathers as a secular state in order that one group could not use the various parts of government to press its particular religious beliefs on everyone else to the detriment of their beliefs. Eventually these issues will be settled in court, (at no small cost to the presenting and defending groups alike).
This is as it should be in a secular society that respects the rights of all of its citizens. Freedom of religion does mean freedom from religion, as unthinkable as that may be to some people of religion. Because you have no real freedom of your religious views if you have no freedom from mine when our views are in conflict. I have no more right to demand, under penalty of law, that you live your life according to my atheistic beliefs than you do to demand the opposite. Not if we are going to preserve a free society based on equal rights and freedom of choice.
In a free society, we wrestle with our beliefs, especially our religious beliefs. Otherwise, belief degenerates into ideology and dogma that allows no space for others to have freedom of choice in their beliefs.
Since I do not believe God exists, I cannot say that life is sacred (blessed by God). I can say that it is endlessly fascinating, mysterious and worthy of care on our part. Nor can I say that even humans – let alone other life forms – have an “inherent” right to life. When animals are not healthy enough to carry a fetus to term or the fetus is too damaged, animals spontaneously abort – human animals do too. About 15-25% of human pregnancies end in miscarriage.
When I look around and see the misery of war, hunger, economic dislocation, disease or abuse that so many of humanity’s children are born into, I can’t in good conscience demand that every woman bring every pregnancy to term for the sake of someone else’s religious beliefs. Being a woman, I have to trust that most women will make the right choice for both themselves and that yet unborn life inside as to whether or not to carry it to term. It is not my choice to make for someone else. I certainly can’t say that it should be the choice of a group of men, who will never be pregnant themselves, based on their religious beliefs.
For those of you who believe it’s the church’s responsibility to alleviate that suffering and therefore it is no excuse for a woman to have that right, I would only say that that the church has been around for thousands of years with no real change in the basic misery level that I can see.
Nor do I feel qualified, as a straight woman who lived through her own bad marriage and divorce, to deny a gay or lesbian couple the right to marry based on someone else’s religious beliefs. Especially since, in this country at least, the granting of a right to marry is the prerogative of the state through licensing – even in religious marriages. Only the “blessing” of a marriage through a religious ceremony is granted to the church in our society. And our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all of its citizens. I can only believe that among consenting adults that applies to marriage, whether you are gay or straight.
Christians who long for the state to make law according to the dictates of their religious beliefs need to think through the consequences of such a desire. Once that foot is in the door, so to speak, you will have to live with it for a long time – just as those who live in countries that are ruled by other religions’ laws. What if it were not your particular sect of Christianity that won the lottery? What if the Mormons took over and did away with your morning coffee or tea? What if the Baptists took over and everyone had to be dunked instead of sprinkled?
What if it wasn’t even Christianity that won the lottery? If the Muslims won it, would they respect your communion wine or would the Orthodox Jews allow you your pork chops and morning bacon?
Yes, these are rather silly examples. But there are “Christian” sects out there who advocate for Old Testament law – including the stoning of adulterers and gays, for example. Are you willing to live with the consequences of their winning the lottery?
The world is in flux right now. The American Empire is having to retrench on many fronts. So much of what happens next will depend on whether the world can maintain the delicate dance of globalization and world finance as energy supplies increasingly rely on harder to get, more expensive and, therefore, less efficient energy sources.
In times of turmoil, especially economic turmoil like we are still in now, people of power – whether religious, political or economic – are not above using that turmoil to grab more power, nor are they above using the other two to advance their own. We all will have to wrestle with whether we are dragged along in the power play, blindly clinging to a sclerotic dogma or whether in spite of faith in our own belief system, we are willing to allow others the right to choose their way for themselves. Neither freedom of religion nor freedom of choice will survive otherwise.