Back to Square One – The Culture War

[Part 3 of a Series]logo 2015 250x325

Michigan has passed a bill that allows anyone in a state funded adoption agency to refuse to let you adopt a child if that person feels allowing that adoption goes against his or her religious beliefs. The bill is meant to keep same-sex marriage couples from adopting, but since stating that explicitly would be illegal discrimination, that part is left out. Apparently it’s ok from the point of view of these so-called legislators to discriminate so long as you try to hide that fact. So now employees can refuse to allow you to adopt for any reason at all so long as they claim that reason is based on their religious beliefs.

In North Carolina a Republican legislature passed a bill that would allow state employees with “sincerely held religious objections” to refuse to issue marriage certificates or perform marriage ceremonies.   Again, the target was same-sex couples, but again, because that would have been discriminatory, the bill does not specify either the nature of the objection (other than that it is religious) or specifically who can be denied. Apparently, if an employee who has sworn an oath to uphold the laws of the state decides (s)he has a sincere religious objection to a woman’s short haircut (the bible does include an injunction against short hair on women, you know), that person can refuse to issue you a marriage license.

The governor actually vetoed the bill, realizing that the courts are almost certain to strike it down, but the Republican legislature overrode that veto.

Twenty month abortion bans are all the rage these days in Republican legislatures, some of them with no provisions for rape or incest. Presidential candidate, Lindsey Graham, just introduced one into the Senate. According to statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only just over 1 percent of abortions in the U.S. occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy, apparently making this a pressing issue, much like voter fraud. Unlike the growing US involvement in the Middle East which the senate refuses to address even though it has a request from the President of the United States to do exactly that AND it is almost certainly a pressing issue.

A few days ago, a group of religious leaders in an open letter to the Supreme Court, published in major newspapers around the country, declared that they would not “honor” any Supreme Court ruling that they saw as running counter to their belief that marriage was strictly between a man and a woman. Such a marriage “precedes civil government.”

It is interesting to note that the people who decry the “war on religion” are waging a pretty effective war on the civil liberties of rest of the country. How is it that an individual’s religious beliefs can somehow override the laws he has sworn (was that on a bible?) to uphold? Where does this idea that “religious freedom” needs new legislation to protect it come from? And why pass new legislation if you will just ignore the court’s rulings on legislation anyway? Apparently these people feel that their beliefs supersede the constitutional processes that were established by those “founding fathers” they are so quick to admire when it suits them.

The constitution says little about religion. It does say this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

There are two concepts here: one, called the “establishment clause,” and the other, called the “free exercise clause.” Even the Supreme Court has acknowledged that they are in conflict with each other and has been inconsistent in the way it has interpreted them over history. The “establishment clause” is the basis for the “separation of church and state” body of law. The “free exercise clause” is responsible for the interpretation that religious beliefs may, in some cases, violate those laws.

That one line is the source of volumes of legal interpretation, going in many directions, over the entire history of our nation. Those 15 words are the basis for all decisions about whether or not you can have a manger scene at a court house or a public park or whether you can give the Lord’s Prayer before a town meeting.

That one line was also the result of a good deal of debate when the Bill of Rights was written. James Madison’s suggested wording was, “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”

How much easier things would be today if that wording had been adopted. “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief…” And yes, this cuts two ways. It means you can’t deny my civil right to do something because of my religion or what I believe. But it also means that you can’t deny my civil right to do something because of your religion! In other words, civil rights trump religious beliefs.

In Madison’s mind there would have been no question that these “religious freedom” bills were unconstitutional.

The idea of America as a “religious nation” is a relatively new one. You won’t find it in the constitution. Yes, the Declaration of Independence says, “Endowed by their Creator,” but it says nothing else about religion, and it references a “Creator,” not a Christian god. Many of the signers were Deists, not Christians. The constitution contains those 15 words previously quoted and nothing else.

In 1797 no less an authority than John Adams himself signed a treaty which contained the sentence, “The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion.” That treaty was passed unanimously by the Senate. And John Adams would know, right? He was there! I’m not sure how much clearer you can get.

So what happened? Why do so many people think this has always been a Christian nation? Why do people not know that we didn’t become “One nation, under God” until 1954 or that our motto, “In God We Trust,” didn’t supplant E Pluribus Unum (Out of one, many) until 1956?

And what does it matter, anyway?

It matters.

In this country you are free to believe as you see fit. You can believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jesus, Buddha, or Cthulhu, for all I care. You can congregate, worship, sing, chant, or vape incense. You can read the Koran, the bible, the Bhagavad Gita, or Fifty Shade of Grey.   But when you try to make laws that infringe on the civil liberties of others in order to advance your beliefs, you have overstepped the bounds of reasonable action. Just because you believe same sex marriage is a sin within your religious beliefs does not mean that you have the right to keep same sex couples who do not believe it is a sin from marrying where it is legal for them to do so. That isn’t what “religious freedom” means. It isn’t what it has ever meant, and until recently, no one would have entertained that idea. It’s a dangerous precedent.

It was James Fifield, the founder of Spiritual Mobilization, INC (see Part 2), who coined the phrase “Freedom Under God,” and he used it in opposition to the welfare state he saw coming in the legislation of the New Deal. The conservative right has morphed “Freedom Under God” into “religious freedom,” but it still a thinly disguised way to push a political and evangelist agenda.

After WWII this country engaged in rapid economic growth for the middle class. Basking in that and the feeling of superiority created by winning a war on two fronts, things were great, most people believed in God, hard work, and American exceptionalism. But by the 60’s, new influences began to shake the Leave It to Beaver mentality. Young people began to protest the Vietnam War; blacks began to push for equality.   Women stood up for themselves. A “counterculture” developed, and it was brought to every TV in the country by the network news. (See Goodnight and Have a Pleasant Tomorrow)

You could sit in your living room and watch students protesting and National Guard troops killing them and blacks marching and state troopers beating them and people carrying signs at the Democratic National Convention and police arresting them. You could watch American youth dying in Vietnam and you could listen to the politicians trying to justify why. America changed dramatically in the 60’s and the so-called culture wars that came afterward started there.

In the 60’s The New Left, a loose congregation of civil rights activists, feminists, and gay liberation movements began to change minds, began to shake things up. People began to question long-held beliefs about race and gender and sexuality. And no one was more threatened than the evangelical right. To them, this was an abomination.   Their most cherished beliefs were being called into question. Women were created as helpmates, not equals. Blacks were inferior to whites. God destroyed Sodom and homosexuality was an abomination in His eyes. And sex before marriage was a sin and preventing conception was a greater one.

That fear drove evangelical Christians to push even further into politics to canonize their beliefs in law. By the 70’s Jerry Falwell was preaching that “family values” were under attack and that they were waging a “holy war” for the “traditional family.” When Falwell founded the Moral Majority organization in 1979, 2.5 million people joined that holy war in the first year.

The culture wars raged throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As the evangelical right pushed further and further into the political arena, the left, particularly atheists, pushed back. Soon we were having debates about whether the exclusion clause meant you couldn’t pray in school.

The culture wars continue and are the single most important cause of the divided nation we have become. The flurry of political activity going on in government today around same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, equal pay for women, etc. have nothing at all to do with conducting the constitutional duties associated with running this country and everything to do with an on-going squabble between evangelical conservatives who are resisting change to the last soul and secularists who are fed up with their efforts.

It has to stop.

The refusal of congress to take action on climate change is not about what is best for this nation and the world but rather about a view of the world that sees admitting that we could cause our own extinction as blasphemy, and about a corporate element that has been manipulating the religious right for their own purposes and who stand to lose billions if reason were to prevail over belief.

It has to stop.

The American people elected their first black president, twice. And the conservative representatives of the American people spent eight years refusing to work with him because he was black. There is no other explanation.

It has to stop. We have to have an open dialogue about these issues where we throw out the restraints of political correctness and get at where the problems really lie.

Religion can be a tremendously positive influence in an individual’s life. It can also be a powerfully divisive force within a civilization. This country is divided over religious issues in much the same way Islam is divided in the Middle East. That is not an unfair comparison. And you have to see that before you can address it. Napoleon once said, “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Short and smart…

I ended part one of this series with “Try to keep up your end.” It was an invitation to an conversation.

Try to keep up your end.

Your Humble Servant,

The Willowbrook Curmudgeon



3 thoughts on “Back to Square One – The Culture War

  1. Pingback: Let the Tantrums Commence | 47/78

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