Freedom Under Fire

Two days ago, ABC News reported that nine members of East Waynesville Baptist Church had been thrown out of their congregation for supporting John Kerry’s bid for president. The same report also cited an instance during the campaign where John Kerry received an endorsement from a pastor in Miami.

Religion has always been an important part of the lives of most Americans, but since the rise of conservatism over the last few years, religion has morphed into a political determinant. There are large numbers of people in this country who put their religion, and its particular interpretation of the Bible and morality, above all else. In many ways, this is fine from the view of a moral relativist. After all, people are entitled to their beliefs and opinions in a free and open society such as we have. What disturbs myself, and many other people, is that religion, more specifically extreme right-wing and radical versions, see no such thing as moral relativism. To them, there is only one morality (albeit with their own very personal interpretations). They are following it, and woe be to anyone who does not.

Arguing about the validity of the separation of church and state with a religious, moral absolutist is akin to arguing with a brick wall. Since religion rules all, any action that challenges the role of religion in a society is immoral and must be confronted. The only other alternative is to ignore said challenge outright, thereby removing its effectiveness. But this type of passivity, while being the stuff of legend in the Christian church, is rarely applied in fact. When this view of secularism becomes widespread throughout a society, as appears to be happening in this country, you get into danger areas such as religious conflict, or even the oppressive evils of state-sponsored religion. In the end, freedom is reduced. Men and women who do not believe in God, a Christian God, or even the most prevalent form of Christianity, could conceivably find themselves the victims of religious persecution. The religious right, on the other hand, would have you believe they are the victims of religious persecution today.

From wailing believers outside a hospice in Florida praying for their dying martyr inside, to the leader of the Republican majority of the Senate appearing at a rally attacking the judiciary branch of our government — sense, rationality, and equal freedoms stand no chance when confronted by “faith under fire.” Any time the religious right finds, much to its continued shock, that Americans have differing views of their rights under the law, and especially under liberal morality, they see such freedoms as an attack on their faith. Let’s be clear, the role of religion is not under attack in this country. What offends the religious right is not that their beliefs are being repressed, but that other people are being allowed to do certain things that the right, considering such activities immoral, would not even want to engage in.

What does this mean? It means the religious right is not primarily concerned with their own faith, but in denying certain rights guaranteed under the law to the majority of Americans who do not follow their conservative interpretation of not just gospel, but of the Constitution of the United States.

When religion engages itself in politics and the rule of law, as has become the norm of late, maybe it has become time to ensure that religion returns to the role it does best. That is, guiding their various faithful while recognizing that overt forays into the lives of people with differing outlooks on American life are not only unwelcome, they are dangerous to all Americans.

I believe that taxing churches would be a violation of the First Amendment. It would create a system of pay-as-you-pray churches whose funds for charitable activities would be cut severely. The unwillingness of conservatives in this country to allow American society as a whole to foot the bill for humanitarian activities within and beyond our borders through the auspices of the United States government necessitates religious organizations to pick up this slack. As is usual, however, things are not as they appear.

The slackening of rules that President Bush introduced regarding the amount of funding religious organizations can receive from the federal government was the first indication there would be a widespread challenge to the separation of church and state from both inside and outside our government. Using churches to provide social services is a dream of conservatives. Government funded social programs would continue to be weakened by this competition for diminishing sources of funds, thus making them easier to eliminate outright, which is what conservatives in our government really want. Inevitably, rules put in place to ensure that churches receiving these funds would not preach on the public dime are routinely violated. A conservative congress and executive branch can be expected to do nothing about this. But why is proselytizing in a government funded church soup kitchen bad? It is bad because proselytizing anywhere public funds are being used is tantamount to a federal endorsement of that organization and its religion, i.e., state religion.

Further, even fifteen years ago it would have been unusual to hear of churches openly and defiantly endorsing a presidential candidate. And defiance is the operative word here. There are consequences when a church or religious organization endorses a political candidate. Once an endorsement has been made, theoretically that church loses its tax-exempt status. This seems a little vindictive, and it is. How dare the United States government tell a religious organization how to engage its parishioners in politics? They dare because religion, unlike anything else the world has ever seen, creates fervor.

All one has to do is imagine a country consumed by the religious differences between opponents, each candidate trying to receive block votes delivered by ultra-powerful pastors. A situation such as this could also, over a certain amount of time, result in sectarian violence for or against a candidate and their platform. It may seem that I am painting an unfair portrait of religion. Religions are reliably pacifist, proudly and deservedly so. I am not referring to a broad picture of religion. However, we are engaged in a worldwide struggle with a minority view of Islam that has the potential to stop globalization in its tracks and has already left tens of thousands dead. This is just one example of our struggle with extremism abroad. Our struggle with extremism at home, while not embracing violence as its primary means, has an equal potential to tear the fabric of this country apart, and leave the America of the future an unrecognizable place.

Situations that I have described above have already become prevalent in this country. There are ultra-powerful pastors who regularly interject themselves and their congregations into politics. Our government has given tacit approval to evangelical Christianity as the state religion. In fact, one has to portray oneself as deeply religious in order to win public office these days. And there has been a small amount of sectarian violence. Every time an abortion clinic is bombed, it has nothing to do with American morality and everything to do with religious extremism.

Secularism is preferable to an overly religious society and government for the simple reason that secularism keeps in check all the worst aspects of religious extremism, such as racial and religious intolerance, the oppression of women, discrimination against homosexuals, attacks on science (most especially the virulent and underhanded attacks on evolution), censorship of offensive or challenging works of art, literature, and other forms of entertainment, and, as seen above, attacks on the right to vote into public office the candidate a person feels is best for the job.

America was first colonized by peoples from Europe who were deeply religious, and to this day faith is a lasting and proud legacy of Americans. However, the foundations of freedom in the United States, and throughout the rest of the free world, have been built on secularism. Freedom needs secular government. To be sure, there were, and are, secular governments that did not embrace freedom as we do. But the list of free and secular countries is a long one, with our country, although threatened, at the very top. Conversely, I can think of no country living under a state religion whose citizens are free. Compulsory faith, and with it belief in a certain form of faith, will create an oppressive society whose citizens become willful victims to those who believe they have cornered the market on religious morality.

There are a thousand different interpretations of religion in this country. Who is right? Who is wrong? One thing is for sure, none of us will find out until we die. To ensure continued freedom in this country, recognizing the threat extremism poses abroad is not enough. We must realize that religious fervor inside our borders must be examined and addressed. If there is a moral absolutism, it does not reside in the religious right.