The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Whose Church? Whose State? Who’s Right?, Pt 1 of 3

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series whose church whose state

I kept filing away the stuff I read, sometimes chuckling, sometimes shaking my head, and knowing I wanted to write about it. But then I thought maybe most of it wasn’t news anymore, and maybe I should move on to something else. Then, last night I watched the video of Tammy Faye Messner (nee’ Bakker), on Larry King last night. The last I’d seen of her was on her son’s show, One Punk Under God. I knew her cancer had recurred and was untreatable, and I knew what that meant. When I saw the Larry King Video, I thought to myself, “Days. She’s got days.” Sure enough, this evening I heard the news that Tammy Faye is dead.

I was sad when I heard the news. I guess because Messner had been a part of my life since I was a little black gay boy growing up in Georgia during the Reagan era, flipping the channel and inevitably stopping on PTL. It was a big difference from the jowl-shaking and finger-wagging of Jerry Falwell gloating over AIDS, and a world away from Jimmy Swaggart waving a Bible over his head and yelling “Don’t tell me about the constitution of the United States of America. This is the Constitution of the United States! The holy word of God!” Having been raised Baptist, as well as having taught Sunday School, I knew what that meant, and that Swaggart was likely a strict constructionalist when it came to that “constitution.”

Some people are still trying to write that “constitution or make the one we currently have more closely resemble the one they prefer. When Chuck Colson said Paganism isn’t a “real religion,” and questioned whether it should be recognized by the government as such (and thus treated as equal to any other faith), it piqued my interest. Kip questioned just what “court tests for religion” would consist of, and I wondered just a legal definition of religion would consist of. So I went looking.

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OK. I did a Google search, and paged through the results, stopping at whatever caught my interest. And I came across some interesting essays about how and why people define religion as they do, but fist it was a definition I read in God and Country: America in Red and Blue this weekend. I got a review copy of it this week and started reading it, wondering how it might compare to similar books I’ve read. It’s a bit more academic in tone than some of the other stuff I’ve read, but the author employs probably the broadest definition of religion I’ve read lately. Actually, it’s a definition from theologian Peter Berger.

Berger defines religion as a “humanly constructed universe of meaning, and he explains, “Worlds are socially constructed and socially maintained” That is, their power to describe reality depends upon their ability to be seen as self-evident, in other words, upon their nature as “taken for granted” attributes of the real world — what Berger calls their “plausibility structure.” When social changes or world events threaten the self-evident nature of an accepted reality, or undermine its plausibility structure, trouble arises.

In the following pages, I use the term religion to refer to “humanly constructed universes of meaning” around which substantial numbers of Americans have organized their understanding of life’s purpose — systems that provide individual adherents with a meaningful framework for understanding the world, establish rules for governing ethical personal and social behavior, define the individual’s place within society, and legitimize social and political institutions.

Sheila Kennedy goes on to admit that her definition of religion can (and will in the rest of the book) apply to the usual suspects, but also to non-traditional faiths like Wicca and even non-theistic belief systems like Buddhism. I’ll have to wait and see how this plays into Kennedy’s assertion that there’s a way out of “our current impasse” regarding religion and politics, but I think it’s safe to say her definition isn’t what Colson and others like him have in mind. Where Kennedy’s definition is a kind of leveler that treats all beliefs as equal, Colson perfers that one (his) be more equal than others.

I see no reason why Wiccans or pagans generally should have the services of taxpayer-paid chaplains. It is perfectly appropriate, if a group meets court tests for religion, that outside priest/ministers be allowed to come into federal facilities and minister. But historically, with standards that have been spelled out carefully by the courts, chaplains are appointed to represent mainline religions.

I wondered what “court tests for religion” Colson referred to, and why he thought they favored, or should favor, his own above others. And if anyone should know about tax-payer funded religion it’s Colson, given that his proselytizing prison program is funded by the Bush administration’ s faith-based initiative. Plus, he’s pretty up front about it.

For years, Colson and his backers have talked about saturating public institutions with the proper “biblical worldview” — one of fundamentalist Christianity. Colson focused on prisons in part due to his personal history but also because prisons are a soft target. Public opinion leans toward a punishment model of corrections, and many rehabilitative or work programs have dried up in recent years. Recidivism rates remain high, leading some to back just about any approach that promises to prevent inmates from committing new crimes once they are released.

In search of Colson’s “court tests” I came across this essay on defining religion in American law.

According to one American court, a “religious organization” is merely “an organized association of persons dedicated to religious purposes.” Therefore, if the organization is animated by religious belief, it cannot, by definition, fail to be a religious organization. Ordinarily, however, the American government and the courts have been reluctant to examine the content of religious belief.

Neither this court, nor any branch of this government, will consider the merits or fallacies of religion. Nor will the court compare the beliefs, dogmas and practices of a newly organized religion with those of an older, more established religion. Nor will the court praise or condemn a religion, however excellent or fanatical or preposterous it may seem. Were the court to do so, it would impinge upon the guarantee of the First Amendment.

By this definition, paganism and other non-traditional, non-Christian faiths qualify as religion. Anyone who suggests that they are not “real religions” is probably making that judgment based on precisely on the content of religious belief.

Additionally, conservatives who are judging Wicca and other beliefs as not being “real” religions are comparing the beliefs dogmas and practices of some some religions with their own. It’s not a far leap to infer that they would like the courts to do the same, and are working towards just that, much as Colson is all about “saturating public institutions with the proper ‘biblical worldview’.” Colson argues that “the writings of all the founders are clear on this” and support his assessment of Wicca, But assumption about the founders intent is probably wrong, as long as Jefferson is considered a founder, and “infidel of every denomination” can be considered to include Wiccans.

The essay goes on to cite a number of court cases that attempt to define religion. Like Torcaso v. Watkins, which prohibited the government from using religion as a test for public office, and expanded the definition of religion to include non-theistic religions.

In Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court broke the theistic mold which had theretofore restricted the American legal definition of religion. According to the Court, the first amendment precluded government from aiding “those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” The Court noted that “[a]mong religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.” This expanded position reflected a recognition of the great diversity of religious beliefs in modern America.

This would seem to, ironically, include atheist organizations under the definition of “religion.” This opening, however, was effectively narrowed by subsequent rulings — United States v. Seeger, Welsh v. United States, and Wisconsin v. Yoder, which I’ll leave to people with better legal minds than mine to detail — differentiating between personal beliefs and religious beliefs, protecting the latter constitutionally but not the former as near as I can gather. But what stood out to me was this bit about what the Court took into consideration in Seeger.

An attempt at a broader definition of religion which has met with some court approval is the “ultimate concern” test. In Seeger, the Court relied on this view of the renowned progressive theologian, Paul Tillich. Tillich defines faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned” and God as “the ground of all being.” This “ultimate concern” approach is attractive because of its universality and has received support from some commentators. Under this view, no belief is more valuable than any other and respect for deeply held religious beliefs is emphasized.

“[N]o belief is more valuable than any other…” That’s precisely the opposite view of conservatives, who absolutely value one belief above all others, and emphasize respect for their MVF (Most Valuable Faith) above all others. In that sense, other faiths are tolerated but not included, and certainly not equal.Thus the religious protections and benefits afforded to Judeo-Christian beleifs are not applied to non-Christian and non-traditional beliefs.

When they say “America is a Christian nation,” they essentially mean that Christianity is or should be more highly valued and respected in American than other faiths; that that it is due deference by the state and non-believing individuals and communities. By extension, non-Christian citizens are somewhat less than equal because their beliefs are not afforded equal protection and respect by the government. Thus, some evangelical conservatives are entirely comfortable with destroying church/state separation (which, ironically enough, their early American co-religionist forebears championed) , because it is inconceivable to them that the state would recognize or treat other beliefs as though on par with theirs, let alone embrace, empower or be informed by any other faith but their own.

It’s this sort of “holy hubris” is what leads to concerns about, say, sponsored or mandatory prayer in public schools being dismissed with recommendations like “Just don’t listen.” And that’s pretty much the same response complaints about the rather specific prayer that pretty clearly excluded some Americans who were standing their listening to it or hearing it via television. I missed the first Bush inaugural (I was on a road trip with the hubby and that same day was hit with food poisoning. So, I think it’s appropriate that as Dubya was being sworn in I was somewhere puking my guts out.), but Alan Dershowitz noted the arrogace of that occasion.

The very first act of the new Bush administration was to have a Protestant Evangelist minister officially dedicate the inauguration to Jesus Christ, who he declared to be “our savior.” Invoking “the Father, the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ” and “the Holy Spirit,” Billy Graham’s son, the man selected by President George W. Bush to bless his presidency, excluded the tens of millions of Americans who are Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists from his blessing by his particularistic and parochial language.

The plain message conveyed by the new administration is that George W. Bush’s America is a Christian nation, and that non-Christians are welcome into the tent so long as they agree to accept their status as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens. In effect, Bush is saying: “This is our home, and in our home we pray to Jesus as our savior. If you want to be a guest in our home, you must accept the way we pray.”

It’s the same arrogance that leads to the state denying a Wiccan soldier’s family the right to put a religious symbol on his grave and citizen outrage that the army might provide U.S. Muslim soldiers with a place to pray. Or, denying Pagan soldiers a military chaplain of their own, as Colson would prefer, on the grounds that theirs is not a “real” religion.

By the way, those “court tests” that Colson spoke may include Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda, which had the effect of “non-theistic” institutions to be treated the same as theistic institutions under the law.

…the court in Fellowship of Humanity discussed four seemingly reasonable and neutral factors which it said should be examined in determining whether a qualified “religion” is present: “(1) a belief, not necessarily referring to supernatural powers; (2) a cult, involving a gregarious association openly expressing the belief; (3) a system of moral practice directly resulting from an adherence to the belief; and (4) an organization within the cult designed to observe the tenets of belief.”

And It brought a smile to my face to note that this particular decision was bolstered by Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, in which Secular Humanism was included under the umbrella of religion.

And if you don’t accept it, you may find yourself facing the same fate as the Dobrich family (whose objections to the school district’s promotion of Christianity led to threats from a talk radio host, and the parents being advised to tell their son to “give his heart to Jesus” if he doesn’t want to be called “jew boy), the Smalkowski family, or Reed Braden.

But if you accept it, ceding an equal claim on the public square for non-Christian beliefs or non-belief, then “holy hubris” becomes “holy hegemony” because the tactics of intimidation will have worked; like Chuck Smalkowski being dragged into court on trumped up charges or the Dobrich family having to finally leave town (only to have their contact information published by a conservative blogger), or being shouted down in the middle of a prayer.

The issue is not merely separation of church and state. The real question is whose church— because, let’s face it, it’s past time to disabuse ourselves of the notion that bandying about the word “faith” is intended to be inclusive of all beliefs — is entitled to inform the state exclusively. And that leads to the next question: to which population of believers does the state then belong? Figure out to whom primacy belongs, and you’ll figure out whose church owns the state, or would like to and intends to.

Series NavigationWhose Church? Whose State? Who’s Right?, Pt. 2. of 3
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