Wednesday, October 8, 2008

More on Church vs. State

Stanley Fish in the NY Times contemplates the deliberate efforts to challenge rule that tax exemption of churches depends on them not endorsing individual candidates.
.....(E)verything depends on just how religious activity is defined. If you assume......a Lockean definition (religious belief is essentially private), separation means hands off in both directions. But if you assume.... a definition that demands corrective action when you see the world departing from godly principles, separation means hands off the church by the state and hands on the state by the church.

And that means that there is no way for [the two sides] really to speak to one another because each begins with a different conception of the proper scope of religion. No court or legislature could adjudicate that difference, for if there is one thing everyone agrees on, it is that the state cannot specify what religion is or is not, cannot tell its citizens what should be the content of their faith. The First Amendment, invoked by both sides, cannot settle the question if there is total disagreement about what the question is.......

The bottom line is that there is no rational or principled or constitutional resolution to this conflict. The resolution, if there is one, will have to be political. Either the Johnson amendment will be repealed or it won’t be. And when one or the other happens, the boundaries between church and state, at least with respect to this issue, will have been settled — for a while.
I think this is true; this is why conservatives opposed to gays or women are so aggressive in the public sphere. They really do NOT understand or support the idea of toleration, or live or let live. It's their way or the highway, and that is why people like me, hated by so many religious types, view religion with fundamental suspicion. (IT is an outspoken, lesbian, liberal, atheist scientist. Conservative religious type hate almost everything about me.) These people really do not think we should have equal rights. Oh, they'll wring their hands and cry crocodile tears while talking about "bearing the cross" and "sacrifice" and "hating the sin", but all I hear is hatred and hypocrisy. And that's why I think the Johnson amendment must stand,and Prop8 must be defeated, and we must maintain the very bright line between church and state. Otherwise, the theocracy will put me in jail. Rather like Nigeria.


klady said...

I understand your frustration and I share your outrage at the way some churches have taken an active role in supporting some nefarious causes and politicians. Personally, I do think it is best to keep politics out of the pulpit, not to mention churches from acting as political action committees.

BUT... I'm afraid that even tolerance is in the eye of the beholder. Should churches be prohibited from getting involved in politics to advocate for the poor or the disabled and against discrimination? You know these tax rules were invoked against preachers and laypersons involved in the Civil Rights movement -- those who would not "tolerate" black people being forced to sit in the back of the bus of black children unable to use public swimming pools along with white children. The U.S. Civil War was fought, in part, by religious people who refused to "tolerate" slavery in any state.

Of course what one wants to avoid is having powerful religious institutions throw the authority they have over their members (and the invocation of yet a higher, eternal authority) and their considerable financial resources into campaigns for evil or, at best, misguided purposes. Religious organizations are seen as not being able to coexist on a level playing field with other kinds of groups because of the supposed heightened emotional (and irrational?) appeal of religion -- and there probably is an element of truth to that.

BUT... when and how should or can government intervene? Is it fair or right or wise or whatever to keep religious groups off the field altogether for fear of their undue influence?

Those are tough questions. And although the answers are not clear, the U.S. Constitution does have a starting point, which is NOT a Lockean separation of church and state that would place religion in a purely private sphere. The Constitution has both an (anti)Establishment clause and a Free Exercise clause, which essentially means there can be no state-authorized church or religion and that people should be free to not only believe what they choose but free to exercise their religion. Obviously the two are in tension, and First Amendment jurisprudence is rather complex precisely because it has stretched the circumstances under which either or both clauses operate.

Part of the problem is that if religion is to be taken seriously by those who subscribe to it, it is inevitable that they will not only fight passionately for what they believe but they will also need and want to be free to speak whatever God-talk inspires them and which they hope will inspire others to do the same. And although we all have some vague sense of the boundaries for polite behavior in a democratic, pluralistic society for trying to seek to bring some aspects of the Kingdom to life here on earth, it is very difficult to define or perhaps even justify those boundaries, at least not as long as freedom of religion remains a fundamental constitutional principle.

I don't have the answers to any of these questions, but as I see it, the problem with conservatives on GLBT issues and many others is not that they are unwilling to be tolerant but that they are simply dead wrong, morally and legally, with regard to the basic freedoms of privacy and association (including partnership in marriage) that our constitution should guarantee. It may be that forcing the issue, in terms of asserting the righteousness of my views, may not be the best strategy for achieving social and political change, say as compared to invoking toleration. Nevertheless, at bottom, the real problem is not so much invoking God's name as invoking it for the wrong causes and/or invoking in such a way that it amounts to undue influence that seeks to interfere with citizens' reason and independence. But how to distinguish between right and wrong, passionate advocacy and undue influence? I don't know.

Fred Schwartz said...

I like my religion and politics as I like my scotch and water. Separate and over ice.

Anonymous said...

Klady, well reasoned and thoughtful. There has to be a boundary between advocating positively (ie for the poor) and negatively (ie to deprive rights/imposes ones value on others).

For example, if a church advocates to feed the hungry, that does not force ME to feed the hungry if I choose not. I remain free to live my own values, and am not limited in my free exercise thereof.

On the other hand the churches that oppose gay marriage are actively imposing their beliefs by limiting mine.

There has to be an obvious difference there between positive and negative effects, promotion and restriction.

Meanwhile, the biggest supporter of Prop8 (which wants to eliminate our marriage and deprive GLBT of the right to marry) is the Mormon church.

I no longer excuse this as foolish or ignorant. I now call this bigotry, hatred, and intolerance.

And I am afraid I am becoming even more opposed to religion and its involvement in the public sphere as a result.

(Recall that I distinguish religion as a human institution, from faith as a human value)


klady said...

Of course it's bigotry and what makes it particularly offensive is that it is a bigotry that has its origins in church teachings. So it's not just a particularly bad cause that is supported by some churches, just as it might be by any organization, secular or religious, it's that the churches are at the heart of the nonsense. That is, I think, one of the most valuable lessons of the movie in which +Gene Robinson appears. More so, perhaps, than even slavery, this is a problem that churches are primarily responsible for and, therefore, need to be a big part of the solution during and after the struggle over civil rights is won. So, on the one hand, I'd like to see the bigoted parts of the churches be put down and not allowed to spew forth their hate anymore. On the other hand, I don't see how one silences only the bad or how and why one would keep all religious voices out of the debate.

What does one do about identifying and countering the imbalance of power and influence? It drives me nuts, at times, to listen to the C of E folks who complain about "discrimination" against (their) "Christian" values, just as it does to hear the same b.s. from the likes of Bob Duncan. It's kind of a KKK mentality, the victimization of the majority and the powerful. I just don't know how to effectively silence, diminish, or combat such voices by means of legal rules and structures that apply to everyone.

The so-called "hate speech" laws are one way, but it's difficult to square them with the First Amendment. On the other hand, while the old-school Libertarian live-and-let-live approach may have its attractions, it's hard to decide what should be within in the realm of tolerated behavior and what can be left to differences of opinion. How draw the line between a wrongful, negative constraint on freedom and a morally necessary constraint against harmful behavior? Issues like GLBT marriage, abortion, the death penalty, and anti-terrorist law enforcement, all seem to beg the question.

In the end, I don't know what there is to do other than to support the good causes, as I see them, and oppose the bad. While I admit that institutional religion does not have a strong track record in terms of supporting the good ones, I suspect that bigotry and superstition would somehow find a way to rear their ugly heads [why can I not think this anymore without thinking of Palin and Putin?] even if religion could be effectively banned from the public sphere. But then I'm a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist whose only hope is... well, you know, that the forces of good will win in the end.

Enough. I'm a bit like Rowan Williams, whose writing was recently described as: "eternal fractal elaboration. Each thought produces its opposite; each qualification must be qualified; each pool of sense must be adulterated...." I don't know how to reconcile my abstract principles with common decency, although unlike him I'm willing to take the chance to act on what my heart and guts tell me the latter is.

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, from yesterday's McCain rally here was the invocation opening prayer:

"O God, we are in a battle that is raging for the soul of this nation," the preacher said. "You, O God, have raised up Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin for such a time as this." The preacher went on: "Help them, O God, to strengthen our economy, to keep our taxes and spending low . . . and grant them the privilege of being elected the next president and vice president."


rick allen said...

"There has to be a boundary between advocating positively (ie for the poor) and negatively (ie to deprive rights/imposes ones value on others)."

I don't think this distinction really works, IT. Look at your example:

"For example, if a church advocates to feed the hungry, that does not force ME to feed the hungry if I choose not."

If it is just exhorting individual charity, of course it doesn't. But if a church is involved in the political arena, advocating for better welfare programs, more job training, tax breaks for those who help the poor, and the like, then there is a very direct imposition everyone--their tax money is taken, and used for those purposes rather than for others they might prefer. Do you think the Church should be muzzled on those issues?

As to the "campaign prayer," let us just hope that God has not "raised up" Senator McCain and Governor Palin in the same sense that the Deuteronomic History assures us He raised up the neo-Babylonian Empire to make a few points vis-a-vis the Kingdom of Judea.

God help us, indeed.

JCF said...

Prayers at political rallies creep me out. Period.

[In much the same way as do endorsements in religious services! Just endorse Jesus. Period!]

klady said...

This is even scarier --