August 31, 2008

A Bit of How the Religious Right Undermines American Rights

It may seem a small thing, but a recent letter to the editor in The Indianapolis Star makes for a pretty good demonstration of the sort of pretzel logic that the religious right employs in undermining all other civil liberties in the name of their strange version of religious freedom. It has to do with the objections voiced by a columnist to the two major party presidential candidates having their first almost-debate on a stage hosted by a preacher.

...Parker remarked on the recent interview of Barack Obama and John McCain by an evangelical minister. She termed this interview "supremely wrong" and "un-American." She opinioned that "the loser was America." She felt that it was odd for the candidates to talk to a preacher in a public forum about their positions on evil and their relationship with Jesus Christ. She stated that they should not have been asked.

If it is wrong for Christians to ascertain a candidate's position with respect to his religion, then why is it perfectly appropriate for homosexuals, abortionists, environmentalists, social advocates, labor unions, immigrants, women's rights groups and a few dozen similar groups to ask candidates to clarify their positions relative to their interests?

Norm Ward, "'Jesus' question just as fair as other topics"
The Indianapolis Star, 8/30/08

The implicit assertion here is that same tired old assertion that religion equates with morality and that being a member of a religion means that the individual in question must hold to a particular moral code. In America, especially in the last 15 years or so, "religion" means Christianity. The Statue of Liberation Through Christ in Memphis, TennesseeI guarantee that the bulk of Americans would not vote for a candidate who asserted membership in a religion other than Christianity at Warren's Saddleback Church. In fact, one of the smears that has been targeted at Obama from the outset is that he's a secret Muslim. If the criterion was religious belief in general (which itself is already unconstitutional), and not a particular religion, that wouldn't be a useful tactic against a candidate in the first place.

That cuts to the very heart of the matter as to why the column to which letter-writer Norm Ward objects was written in the first place. Paragraph 3 of Article VI of the US Constitution states:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
The reason that it is permissible, then, to question a candidate about any number of issues but that some of us out here on the rational fringe of America find it unacceptable to ask candidates explicit questions about their religious beliefs is that doing so constitutes precisely what Article VI prohibits. Such questions are not meant to determine the moral character of the person being so interrogated; that could be done by asking questions about moral views directly. Asking them about belief in Jesus or their understanding of Biblical texts, however, are attempts to explore purely religious issues. Suppose you ask someone whether they believe in Jesus and that person says that they do. What does that tell us about the content of their character?

It tells us nothing. People who express belief in Biblical religion commit murder, steal and rape. The very fact, then, that these candidates chose to appear in a forum hosted by an expressly religious organization and be questioned by a religious figure should throw up a red flag to anyone concerned with preventing American elections from turning into piety competitions.

The reason, moreover, that it's just fine for women's rights groups, immigration advocates, gay rights advocates or, indeed, representatives from the NRA to ask candidates to clarify their positions on issues of interest to those groups is that none of those groups are religious in nature. They may have religious members, certainly, but the charter of these groups requires adherence to no particular religious doctrine. Christians, Jews and atheists may all join the NRA or NOW. Can the same be said for the membership of Saddleback Church? Of course not; it's an expressly and purely religious organization that requires belief in a particular doctrine of faith from its membership.

Individuals like Norm Ward attempt to get around this simple difference by making everything a religious issue. They demand not only that morality be a subset of doctrinal consideration, but that everything else be viewed in terms of this doctrine from the outset. Thus, gay rights and maternity leave are cast as moral issues which, in turn, are (to their minds) religious in nature. They simply redefine "religion" as "morality," and so belief in their religion becomes the overriding issue and they can attempt the entirely specious argument that a question about the nature of evil or belief in a biblical personage isn't a religious test but a moral one. Disbelief in Jesus is an indicator to this worldview of an absence of morality. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, then, are morally unfit to be President of the United States as opposed to failing a religious litmus test. That, they still know in some cloudy remnant of the rational mind, is still prohibited by the Constitution.

We should be concerned about not only the failings of these two candidates in terms of this abrogation of Constitutional principle (and perhaps even moreso with Obama than McCain, as Obama has practiced Constitutional law), but about the failing of the American people to see through this charade. Whatever else we may say about the Constitution, however much respect each of us has for the principles it embodies, we should also keep in mind that it's ultimately just text. It's only a piece of paper that has the meaning that the people and the government assign to it. Like any old text, it can be re-interpreted to suit the prevailing philosophy of the time. Inconvenient parts can even be ignored entirely if enough people are willing to do so. Ultimately, it's not impossible to make fundamental and fundamentalist changes to it if the will to do so exists. For instance, the third paragraph of Article VI could be stricken entirely and a religious test explicitly allowed, even endorsed or mandated. If the political, and in this case theocratic, will exists, it could happen.

For those of us who don't think that a full merger of church and state would be a desirable situation, such an outcome would be an abomination and the destruction of the very principles that underpin American democracy. For those who assert that America is a Christian country, however, it's the very reason that they have any involvement in politics at all. The latter group is the one to which McCain and Obama catered by their performances at Saddleback without objection to questions explicitly about religious beliefs, and it is why the voices in the rational wilderness express their dissent toward the whole circus.

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