Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Godless, again, in the new year

Sooner or later, I knew the question was coming. And I also knew that I would have absolutely no good answer for it.

“Why should I have to subject myself to that torture chamber for six hours,” demanded my twelve-going-on-eighty-five year-old son as we prepared to make our annual sojourn to temple for Yom Kippur services. “Everyone knows this stuff is all made up. Religion is for crazy people. Look at the news. All these people are crazy. Bush believes in God, and look how he’s screwed up the country.”

Checkmate. Nonetheless, as a parent, it is my solemn obligation and moral responsibility to speak only the truth to my children.

“First of all, we’re not going to be there for six hours. The family service lasts an hour and fifteen minutes. And it’s not too much . . . to make YOUR MOTHER AND YOUR GRANDFATHER, WHO CAME ALL THE WAY UP HERE TO SPEND THE HOLIDAYS WITH YOU AND YOUR SISTER, HAPPY ONE WEEKEND A YEAR. HOW MANY 7 A.M. HOCKEY GAMES HAS YOUR GRANDFATHER WATCHED BECAUSE YOU WANTED HIM TO? HOW MANY BASEBALL GAMES . . .,” and on and on I went until I remembered my Rosh Hashanah pledge to stop threatening my son with haircuts and private school every time he defied mine or my wife’s authority, which is pretty much every fifteen minutes.

So far, I had parsed my words to Clintonian perfection.

But the boy was ready: “How come you don’t fast? How come you don’t wear a yamacha to services? How come . . . how come . . . how come . . .” Full of enough piss and vinegar that would many of the alter kachers sitting in the steam room at the Jewish Community Center proud, he had upped the interrogation a level, so I gave him what I refer to as the fire extinguisher – use in emergencies only – of parental responses to questions from your children that cannot be answered without the whole damn chain of command collapsing on the spot.

“Adults get to make decisions that kids don’t,” I responded. Of course, I had heard that same response two or three zillion times growing up – and found it, shall we say, terribly unsatisfying each and every time. "When you’re 18 years old . . . no, when you’re ON YOUR OWN AND PAYING YOUR OWN WAY YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT. AS LONG AS YOUR MOTHER AND I ARE WRITING THE CHECKS . . . BLAH, THREAT, BLAH, THREAT, BLAH. ”

Was I really saying this? Yes, I was. Worse, I was really convincing. But having retreated to this desperate tactic a few thousands times before, I could get through my act without a hitch. By now, I know the book of bad, hypocritical parenting backwards and forwards. And when it comes to religion, I cover all my bases because I do not now nor have I ever believed in God.

Even now, I avoid this conversation except when absolutely necessary. For me, religion is like masturbation -- think about it all you want, but keep it quiet, keep it to yourself, and you'll get a lot more pleasure out of it that way. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where way too many people, coming from very different points in the social universe, feel compelled to share their views on religion and, uh, self-love, with as many people as possible. But since no one has ever run a presidential campaign pledging to remake the world based on a personal relationship with his or her genitalia, we are left to deal with politicians who believe their 1-800 relationship with God requires them to impose rules and preferences on society -- and, now, other countries -- based a belief system that has no basis in fact, logic or scientific inquiry.

Beginning Sunday, October 8th, the New York Times began the first of a four-part series on the special, preferential place of religion in American society and, in particular, the advantages that religious individuals and organizations enjoy under federal and state law. Naturally, the Christian Right will poo-poo the Times series because it is the New York Times, and accuse the Times of fanning the climate of hostility in which "faith communities" are forced to navigate their ever-perilous existence. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that 116.3% of what the Christian Right stands for is absolutely antithetical to what a modern, secular and progressive society should be, I would tell anyone who is interested in grass-roots social activism to copy their strategies and tactics in support of their own cause. Sometime in the late 1970s, a group called the Moral Majority, led by Jerry Falwell, seized upon one of all-time great fictions of American political culture -- that Christians, particularly "conservative" ones who favored a "traditional" approach to social, economic and political ideas -- were a beleagured and put-upon class of citizens. They put their weight behind the successful presidential bid of Ronald Reagan, members of Congress, candidates for state and local offices, schoolboard elections and ad infinitum. By the end of the 1980s, the Christian Right had morphed into a phalanx of organizations, ranging from the Christian Coalition to Focus on the Family, and had become a powerful force at all levels of American politics. I remember George Bush I, who had stayed as far away as possible from the fringe elements of the Republican Party for the better part of his career, who had supported civil rights laws, birth control and abortion rights, and the state over the church, prostrating himself before the Christian Right during his 1988 run for the presidency in a way that would have caused even the most hardened oncologist to wince in pain. Sure, he was elected . . . running against Michael Dukakis, who was branded as a "card-carrying" member of the ACLU who allowed black convicts to escape under Massachusett's prison furlough program. Bush, of course, was defeated in 1992, and hasn't really had much to say about the Christian Right agenda since then. And he has been conspicuously quiet about his son's religiously-fueled misadventures at home and abroad.

So powerful is the contemporary Christian Right that no Republican candidate for national office can get out of the starting gate unless he or she demonstrates that "faith" has called them to support tax cuts for the wealthy, environmental irresponsibility, a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later foreign policy, the death penalty, fourth-class status for gays, a false nostalgic attitude towards sex education and birth control, and an attitude towards abortion rights in which government support for life begins at conception and ends at birth. And, for reasons that absolutely defy the evidence, the Christian Right places a good deal of the blame for the cesspool that is American culture on the Supreme Court. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, in a common refrain, has said that “radical courts have attempted to gut our religious freedom and redefine the value system on which America was built.” (Yes, yes, the same Dennis Hastert who looked the other way on the current scandal involving Mark Foley's sexual solicitation of underage teen-age pages working in Congress when it was first brought to his attention). Mr. Speaker, Democratic presidents have appointed two justices to the Supreme Court since 1967, and those didn't come until 1993 and 1994. Roe v. Wade (1973), the most frequently condemned decision by the Christian Right, was decided by a 7-2 majority, with five of those seven members appointed by Republican presidents. Of the two dissenters, one was appointed by a Democrat (Kennedy > Byron White) and one by a Republican (Nixon > Rehnquist). In fact, if you look at every major decision expanding civil rights and liberties handed down by the Supreme Court over the last 30 to 35 years, the majority of justices within the majority commanding the vote have been Republican appointees. Oh, it's true, and you can even look it up. Yet, the myth lives on.

The Times series makes clear what anyone who has taken an honest look at the place of religion in American public life knows: that religion occupies a preferred place in a multitude of contexts, ranging from the countless exemptions that religious invidivuals and organizations have under federal, state and local law from civil rights laws, land-use regulations, tax laws, criminal and civil laws involving sexual misconduct, sexual harrassment, health insurance, just for starters. The ideas driving the justification for this preferred place for religion before the law are referred to as the "ministerial exemption" rule or "church autonomy" principle. That is, it is better to leave religion alone that to entangle it in the affairs of the state.

On one level, that makes perfect sense. Government shouldn't be allowed to come into a house of worship and tell its members what and what not to believe, no more than it should be allowed to interfere with the positions of Planned Parenthood or Americans United for Life. But I have become increasingly skeptical of the wisdom of permitting employees of a secular group to sue their employers for violations of their legal rights while witholding that right from employees in religious organizations. I never thought I'd live say this, but I think -- and have for a while -- that Justice Scalia was right in the Smith decision of 1990: religious claims should not be entitled to a presumption of constitutionality when they involve exemptions from laws that apply to the general population. Advocates of this view claim that many laws operates as a burden on religious individuals and organizations, and removing those burdens simply allows them to practice what they believe. If the claim is that such exercises of faith are constitutionally protected, then so are exercises rooted in philosophy or some other secular origin. If a public school student receives an exemption from a dress code regulation in order to wear religious garb of some sort, then why isn't a student who supports or oppposes the Iraq War permitted to wear a hat expressing that view? If the answer is that one student is religious and the other is not, that is not good enough. Moreover, it raises serious questions about government favortism towards religion that encroaches into the area of establishment clause law.

Supporters of government accommodation of religious practices and laws that exempt religion from rules that apply to everyone else often point out that America is the most religious country in the West as if this is a good thing. I have always seen it as pardoxical that we can boast some of the most sophisticated research and scientific inquiry in the world, make education the centerpiece of personal advancement, and then maintain that God watches over America and intervenes in our personal and public lives. I am sure that at least some of even the most zealous advocates of public support for religious institutions genuinely believe they need the money to do good work, whether it's providing services to the homeless, the sick, the elderly and so on. But I am far more persuaded that most contemporary "faith-based" initiatives are about vote-buying and constituency politics than about making the world a better place. I could go on and on (hold the jokes), but I'll end with this question: who stands a better chance of being elected president first, a woman, an African-American, a gay man (all of whom believe in God)or a Nobel Laurete who is an affirmed atheist? Answer that question honestly and you'll have a much more accurate picture of the so-called victimized state of "faith communities" in American life.

1 comment:

Nathan Brownback said...

Given your thoughts on children and their attitude toward their parents' religion, do you find Justice Douglas's dissent in Wisconsin v. Yoder persuasive? Or are there too many emanating penumbras for you?