TheReligiousLeft.org

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Defense of Religion in Politics

By Garrett FitzGerald
September, 29 2011

There's an article up over at AlterNet this week in which author Tana Ganeva explores the "5 Signs That America is Moving Away From Religion" through the follow five-point proof:

1. American religious belief is becoming more fractured
2. Non-belief - and acceptance of non-belief - is on the rise
3. Growing numbers of young people who do not identify as religious
4. Hate groups that exploited religion to bash gays are hemorrhaging funds
5. [More people are] Getting married by friends

Ganeva's article is an interesting read, and seems to offer a good bit of corroboration for each of the five claims it stakes. And while folks more interested in the sociology of religion than I might want to revisit some of these claims - is it possible to say, for example, that the fracturing of religious organizations and decreased identification with specific religious institutions are symptomatic of new, more individualized ways of being religious - I would like to dip a bit further into some of the other, more subtly problematic assumptions upon which Ganeva's article rests.

The subtext of Ganeva's article revolves around the correlation between an apparent overall decline in American religiosity and a corresponding decline in the more pernicious forms of conservative Christian political activism. As with a lot of progressive commentary about religion, I agree with many of Ganeva's points in terms of the specifics discussed. "GOP pandering to the Religious Right" makes my skin crawl, and I am proud to stand with "secular Americans" in condemning climate change deniers and the teaching of the bogus pseudo-science of Creationism in public schools. These are just some of the many troubling examples of conservative Christianity's projection into public life and politics that inspired me to start TheReligiousLeft.org in the first place. And if Ganeva's article had limited its critique to the elements of conservative Christianity that promote these deeply problematic trends in our society, I would have been happy to sign off on its other conclusions.

But Ganeva, like many other progressive commentators on religion, roundly fails throughout the article to distinguish between these highly objectionable public manifestations of conservative Christianity and, well, all other forms of religion. The article's lone nod to moderate Christians - never mind religious progressives or adherents to other religious traditions - comes comes under the fourth claim, in which Ganeva immediately contrasts the assertion that "many practicing Christians live their faith without trying to impose their values on others" with more tales of the hateful excesses of conservative Christianity.

This regrettably common reductionistic reading of religion is not only intellectually dishonest, but it is also counter-productive to moderate and progressive agendas, both religious and political. Using the Religious Right as a rhetorical stand-in for all religion does an immense disservice to religious non-Christians and Christian non-conservatives alike, and has the additional negative consequence of helping to further entrench the hold of conservative Christianity on public and political discourse in the US. Any time the category of "religion" is reduced as a signifier to identification solely or even primarily with conservative Christianity, it only serves to legitimize the same intolerant strains of conservative Christianity whose declining influence on American politics Ganeva is (rightly, in my mind) celebrating.

Similarly problematic are the conclusions this reductionistic rendering produces regarding the broader role of religion in politics. Since Ganeva routinely uses the word "religion" interchangeably with highly specific trends within politically and theologically conservative Christianity, it should come as no surprise that Ganeva warmly embraces the prospect that diminished overall religiosity plays into the "hope [that] one day religion will reside in the realm of personal choice and private worship, far away from politics -- something like what the Founders intended hundreds of years ago." 

Even if we bracket and set aside Ganeva's oversimplified claim about the intentions of the "the Founders" regarding the role of religion in politics, Ganeva's attitude still belies a truly lamentable inclination among non-religious progressives toward fundamental mischaracterization of the nature of religious influence on politics. 

It's not that I'm unsympathetic to most of Ganeva's critiques about the inappropriate level of influence of conservative Christianity over our national politics. And if I understood religion to be synonymous with conservative Christianity, I would be justifiably nervous about its prominence in American public and political discourse as well. But as an individual whose own sense of religiosity is fundamentally linked to my progressive politics, and as someone who has invested significant time and energy in promoting the proud history of progressive religious contributions to social justice in the US, I take serious issue with Ganeva's underlying assumption that the influence of religion on American politics is necessarily negative, and that the country would be best served by the complete separation of politics from religion.

One telling influence on Ganeva's uncharitable views on the impact of religion on politics can be found in the article's frequent use of quotes from Annie Laurie Gaylor, the founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. While the language on the FFRF's website is fairly consistent in naming the Religious Right as the primary perpetrator of inappropriate religious incursion into politics, the FFRF's messaging and tactics belie a history of fairly obvious disdain for religion in general. During the holiday season, for example, the FFRF maintains a sign at the Wisconsin State Capitol that reads in part: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." The FFRF website also subtly hedges its bets against less conservative forms of religion by downplaying (read: completely ignoring) the historical contributions of progressive religious groups and individuals to centuries of struggle for social justice:
The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion. In modern times the first to speak out for prison reform, for humane treatment of the mentally ill, for abolition of capital punishment, for women's right to vote, for death with dignity for the terminally ill, and for the right to choose contraception, sterilization and abortion have been freethinkers, just as they were the first to call for an end to slavery. The Foundation works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church.
Without getting too much into the historicity of the claims in this paragraph (although I would love to see some of them corroborated), I would just like to point out again that FFRF wholly ignores the invaluable contributions made to literally every single one of the movements they mention by religious progressives in the US and abroad. While religious arguments were certainly made against some of these movements for social justice, in each of the cases listed about we find religious progressives struggling for justice and standing on the right side of history.  I consider this omission particularly galling on a personal level given the immense contributions made by my own spiritual ancestors in the Society of Friends to nearly every single one of the causes listed by the FFRF. 

So how does a celebration of the waning political influence of conservative Christianity translate itself into a desire to see all of religion, even the demonstrably beneficial progressive strains, entirely excluded from political processes? I personally situate the blame with the progressive penchant for overreaching the constitutional protections regarding religion, perhaps exemplified nowhere more clearly than in groups like the FFRF. On this score, a small but vocal minority of secular progressives routinely fall into the Pharisaical trap of crying foul on religious trespasses that stop short of actually violating the letter of the law.

As Ganeva's article points out, atheists, skeptics, and non-believers have every right to feel defensive about their social and political positions relative to the many politically power religious groups in the US. Until very recently, atheists polled as one of our country's most reviled groups, an obviously unjust position that is thankfully being slowly remedied by incremental progress in the visilbility and acceptance of atheism. Personally, as a religious individual, I do not feel in the least bit threatened in my social or political situation by the rise in self-identification among atheists, skeptics, and agnostics. I could not begin to express the richness that individuals who identify with these categories have added to my life, and I long for the day when atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and individuals who identify with every stripe of religious and non-religious affiliation can freely claim these mantles without fear of condemnation from their fellow citizens.

But Ganeva's article and the FFRF dramatically overstate the case for the "separation of church and state" when they argue this phrase to mean the complete absence of religion from politics. Austin Cline, a former Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism and a former Publicity Coordinator for the Campus Freethought Alliance, quite nicely sums up the situation thusly:
Freedom from religion does not mean, as some mistakenly seem to claim, being free from seeing religion in society. No one has the right not to see churches, religious expression, and other examples of religious belief in our nation — and those who advocate freedom of religion do not claim otherwise.

What freedom from religion does mean, however, is the freedom from the rules and dogmas of other people’s religious beliefs so that we can be free to follow the demands of our own conscience, whether they take a religious form or not. Thus, we have both freedom of religion and freedom from religion because they are two sides of the same coin.
When it comes to the letter of the law on judicial assessment of laws and governmental actions suspected of violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the current standard for evaluation can be traced back to a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Via the Freedom Forum's "Education for Freedom" resources:
The Lemon test, based on the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, is the standard of judicial review in cases involving the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Lemon test involves three criteria for judging whether laws or governmental actions are allowable under the establishment clause. A negative answer to any of the three questions means the act is unconstitutional.

* Does the challenged law, or other governmental action, have a bona fide secular (non-religious) or civic purpose?

* Does the primary effect of the law or action neither advance nor inhibit religion? In other words, is it neutral?

* Does the law or action avoid excessive entanglement of government with religion?

If the answer to all three is yes, the law passes the Lemon test.
So, while legislation and governmental actions are explicitly prohibited from functioning as vehicles for the furtherance of religious groups and their rules or dogmas in lieu of a 'bona fide secular...or civic purpose," there is absolutely nothing that constitutionally proscribes appeals by politicians or non-governmental organizations (or the occasional progressive religious blogger!) to the values engendered by religious belief and practice in the debates that generate these laws and actions. And unlike conservative Christianity, which attempts to mask religious values in civic purposes, more progressive forms of religious expression routinely use religious values to promote laws and government action with specifically secular, civic purposes.

Let me offer you an example. My own religious beliefs stress the absolute preciousness of each and every human person, and are therefore quite commensurate with the promotion of basic human, civil, and constitutional rights and liberties. So when I take a position arguing from a religious perspective that same-sex couples should absolutely have the same rights and protections as heterosexual couples, my arguments are religious in form, not purpose, as I am using the moral and theological resources of my own tradition to apply normative pressure in support of legislation and governmental action that would breeze past the constraints of the Lemon Test. 

Conversely, attempts to legislate conservative Christian beliefs are doomed by their lack of secular, civic purpose, as such attempts are often found to be wholly lacking in any sort of civic value when removed from the moral contexts of their conservative theological frameworks. As our own Matt Redovan has pointed out in the context of the legal challenges to California's Proposition 8, when conservative theological objections to same-sex marriage are removed, the arguments in support of such blatantly discriminatory legislation are forced to straddle a wholly unconvincing line between faulty empirical claims about the social consequences of same-sex marriage and vague quasi-religious metaphysical claims about the very purpose of marriage as a social institution. 

But aside from their overreach of constitutional limitations on the role of religion in public and political life, the pervasive desire among progressives to divorce religion from politics also strikes me as counter-intuitive from a strategic point of view. What about the scores of religious organizations committed to progressive advocacy and work for social justice? Does Ganeva's distrust of religion run so deep as to desire these groups to take down their shingles and leave the work of progressive political advocacy to explicitly secular organizations?

On the rhetorical level, regardless of how non-religious progressives feel about religion, the fact remains that the use of religious language and imagery remains an incredibly potent normative tool in the context of political discourse and debate. To the extent that religious language and imagery continues to function as a moral lingua franca for groups and individuals across the spectrum of the American political affiliation, the temptation among non-religious lefties to downplay the potential political contributions of religion only serves to alienate progressive efforts from a powerful resource of meaning in terms of how we conceptualize - morally, theologically - our work for social justice.


That being said, religious progressives must never, never presume any sort of superiority regarding the moral and theological resources from which we make political meaning. Our beliefs represent only some of the myriad strands that comprise the progressive movement and the American social and political landscape. And while I reserve the right to judge any and everyone's politics, religious progressives would do well to respect the moral processes that lead those who do not share our beliefs to the same political conclusions. Similarly, in approaching political issues from a religious standpoint, religious groups and individuals must assume the additional burden of ensuring that their moral and theological arguments may be translated effectively into policy proposals that respect the inviolable tenets of our Constitution. 

When it comes to working through our nation's incredibly precious pluralism of belief, I continue to favor the notion of John Rawls' "overlapping consensus." To manage the internal pluralism inherent in a healthy liberal democracy, Rawls advocated a collective effort among groups with dramatically different mechanisms for moral meaning-making to search for points of common moral overlap. And when I read an article like Ganeva's, or come across the work of a group like the FFRF, I am reminded of the continued need for progressive groups within our own democracy to honor the moral traditions of the others with whom we labor toward our common goals, even if we struggle to understand the processes by which our comrades reach our shared conclusions.

To reduce the political contributions of religious groups and individuals in the United States to the harmful excesses of the Religious Right is to ignore the centuries of struggle and sacrifice for justice undertaken by religious progressives in the name of their faiths. Trust me, religious progressives are painfully aware of the truly problematic ends to which our faiths are being bent in the world today, just as they have been bent to justify past horrors. But, as discussed above, religious progressives have been an integral part of the solution in each of the watershed movements for social justice in the course of our national history, and we're doing our damnedest to stay that way.

We cannot legislate religion. That is written, clear as day, in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. So by all means, let's adhere to Jefferson's admonition that the "legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions," and let us keep the promotion of religion out of our public policy. But let us not pretend that this also necessitates taking religion out of political discourse.


Update:  Received a really positive tweet in response from Tana Ganeva this morning. It's all about keeping these conversations going.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Frank Gaffney's Anti-Sharia Pledge Flops

During the heady days of summer 2010, inveterate Islamophobe and erstwhile Sharia "expert" Frank Gaffney managed to briefly hit the mainstream in conservative circles with his cottage industry of anti-Muslim misinformation. As one of the ringleaders of the ginned-up controversy over the Park51 community center (or, the non-Ground Zero non-mosque), Gaffney enjoyed unprecedented airtime and influence, and the anti-Sharia sentiment he helped muster has resulted in legislation targeting Sharia law in over a dozen states.

But with the advent of a new election cycle and the increasing relegation of the "creeping threat of Sharia law" to whatever dusty bin houses history's most dangerous non-issues (move over Y2K), it appears Frank Gaffney's political clout is on the wane. 

Gaffney barely made a ripple a few weeks ago when his Center for Security Policy released it's "Peace Through Strength" platform, a twelve-point pledge for 2012 GOP Presidential hopefuls that includes a section on the importance of resisting "the brutally repressive, anti-constitutional doctrine called "shariah."" 

Here's the text for the anti-Sharia portion of Gaffney's "Twelve for '12" platform, via Think Progress:


Now, three weeks after the introduction of his new policy platform, Gaffney has not received a single endorsement from the 2012 GOP hopefuls. Think Progress's Scott Keyes attributes the wide berth Gaffney is receiving from candidates not only to Gaffney's own penchant for lunacy (like his claim that the Missile Defense Agency logo incorporates the Islamic crescent), but to the fallout earlier this summer from  Herman Cain's repeated claims that he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or to positions as federal judges. Keyes notes that the public outcry over Cain's claims eventually forced the recent Florida straw poll winner to issue a public apology to Muslim Americans.

As recently as this summer, prospective GOP candidates - most notably Cain and Newt Gingrich - seemed to find a sufficient degree of political expediency in anti-Muslim fear-mongering to take up Gaffney's warnings about the "creeping" threat of Sharia law. Yet just a few short months, and likely inspired by the political fallout from Cain's deeply controversial claims, it seems that the GOP field has largely abandoned the non-issue of Sharia, leaving Gaffney and his unsigned pledge to keep crying wolf all by his lonesome.

Satisfying as it feels to see Frank Gaffney fall so quickly from relevance, it is important to remember that there remain too many people in this country who take seriously his claims about the 'threat' posed by Islam. The result of this ignorance and bigotry has been a steady increase in violence perpetrated against Muslim Americans across the United States. I'll leave you with a few words from an article we ran earlier this summer:
Words have consequences. And while its often quite gratifying to work up a chuckle over conservative missteps, it remains vitally important that voices continue to be raised against even the most seemingly bizarre and trivial trends in conservative intolerance.

While [conservative politicians'] anti-Islam antics might come across as little more than opportunistic grandstanding in a political environment still deeply permeated by fear and mistrust of the Muslim faith, [they have] to realize that by increasingly aligning [their] platform with anti-Muslim sentiment, [they are] putting the lives of American citizens at risk.
Frank Gaffney is a joke. Islamophobia is not. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Under Attack By The Religious Right: Our Establishment Clause

By Dr. Art Kamm
Originally published 9/19/11 at Art on Issues

The NC Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit same-sex unions is more than a civil rights matter.  It represents nothing short of a assault by the Religious Right on one of our most cherished founding liberties, that of religious freedom through the separation of church and state by our First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  This article further explores the claim that America was founded as a Christian Nation, and examines whether the Bible should be considered an infallible source upon which to base law.

Due to my recent  activity in opposing a NC constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex unions (marriage or any other form), I have been asked on more than one occasion if I am gay.  I am actually in my second heterosexual marriage having raised four children between us.  So what’s my beef with the NC constitutional amendment?  Quite simply, two things: 1) it restricts a civil right of a minority group; and 2) it represents an assault on one of our most cherished founding liberties, religious freedom as expressed in our constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause, that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ (ref).

Regarding civil rights,  NC lawmakers would be writing discrimination into the state constitution.  The US Supreme Court has already declared marriage to be a civil right in unanimously striking down miscegenation law (Loving vs Virginia).  The court declared: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’, fundamental to our very existence and survival…To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statues, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the 14th Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law” (ref).  As has been the case with objections to same-sex unions (discussed below), religious opinion (invoking God’s view) was central to prohibiting interracial marriage.  In the criminal trial of the Lovings,  Judge Leon Bazile suspended the felony conviction against them upon the condition they leave the state. He stated “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.  And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.  The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix”.

Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the Proposition 8 trial in California (Perry vs Schwarzenegger), ruled after considering testimony from multiple expert witnesses that prohibiting same-sex unions also violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment (ref).  The reasons for denying such a union on a civil level were shown to be every bit as discriminatory and ill-founded as those that attempted to restrict marriage based on racial classification.  In both cases, Loving vs Virginia and California’s Proposition 8, the prohibitions amounted to nothing more than discrimination directed at a segment of our citizenry.

Regarding the First Amendment concerns, make no mistake about it, what drove this constitutional amendment was fundamentalist Christian objections to homosexuality.  There is Ron Baity of Return America (ref), the group behind the campaign to pass the amendment, agreeing with conservative radio talk show host Janet Parshall that Satan’s attack on marriage must be stopped (ref).  Bill Brooks, president of the NC Family Policy Council to a group of around 3500 Christians at a rally that “…anything other than marriage shared between a man and a woman goes against God’s design for creation (ref).”  Patrick Wooden, pastor of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh stated “This state has to protect God’s holy institution…We want to put one more lock on the door (ref).”  And NC Senator James Forrester (R), the Senate sponsor of the Amendment, referring to Asheville, NC (that has a LGBT community) as a “cesspool of sin”, a remark that led to the issuance of an apology by the mayor of Gastonia to Asheville (ref).  All too reminiscent of the type of language issued by Judge Bazile in the Lovings’ criminal trial.

And the fundamentalist religious theme behind the NC constitutional amendment was on display in the signs held by supporters of the amendment, examples of which follow and some being incredibly mean-spirited.

Persecution is inherent to an intermingling of church and state, something that the framers of our constitution understood well in crafting the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.  As Thomas Jefferson penned to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibit the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between church and State” (ref).

I will further explore in this article the false claim that America was founded as a ‘Christian Nation’ by today’s Religious Right.  And, considering the amount of Christian scripture cited by proponents of the Amendment, I will also consider whether the Bible should be considered an authoritative source upon which to base law.

Christian Right: Know Thy History

I have written about the claim America was founded as a ‘Christian nation’ in two prior articles.  The first was an examination of the consistent language issued by Thomas Jefferson over many decades (ref).  In the other I discussed the origins of the Religious Right through the Evangelical movement and how that movement was but in its infancy during the period of time that our Constitution was written and ratified (ref).  David Holmes work, ‘The Faiths of the Founding Fathers’, (ref) will be a primary source for this section.  I will also draw from the previously mentioned Jefferson article.

The Religious Right of today are  a ‘Johnny Come Lately’ to the Constitution party.  Holmes points out that “none of the founding fathers knew anything of the churches that became so large in the United States in the 20th century – the Pentecostals (or charismatics) and the nondenominational evangelicals”.  The evangelical movement was in its infancy in the post-Revolutionary War years, having started in Georgia through the work of the Wesley’s, credited with founding the Methodist movement (highly disciplined and conversion oriented) and the charismatic evangelical preachings of George Whitefield.  Their work left the legacy of evangelical “born again” Christianity, and the Methodists and Baptists were its greatest heirs.  ”None of the founding fathers was an evangelical, although Madison did attend a moderately evangelical Episcopal church in the last years of his life.  In fact, James Monroe was offended by an evangelical sermon he attended during his presidential tour of 1817, and John Adams belonged to the anti-Great Awakening wing of Congregationalism..”.

The Southern Baptists, who separated from their Northern brethren in 1845 (ref), had their roots in the Puritan movement.  Puritans believed in a union of church and state for it was only through such a union that humans could produce a Christian society conformed to scriptural teachings. As Holmes notes, “Their goal was to produce a sober, righteous, and godly Christian society”.  And it is the tug of war between that perceived role of religion, and vision of the founding fathers who provided for a separation of church from state, that has been ongoing almost since the inception of this country.  And that Puritanical influence is apparent in the language and signs displayed by the pro-Amendment Christian crowd in NC.

Regarding the first five presidents, with the exception of George Washington (who later however became Chancellor at the College of William Mary) Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all educated at institutions of higher education during the Age of Enlightenment, a period that placed a high value on reason.  As such, it is not surprising that all were influenced by a religious outlook called Deism, an outlook that, as described by an American cleric “..is what is left of Christianity after casting off everything that is peculiar to it.  The Diest is one who denies the Divinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement of Christ, and the work of the holy Ghost; who denies the God of Israel, and believes in the God of nature.”  In the decades preceding the Revolutionary War, Enlightenment rationalism unseated Christian orthodoxy at Yale, Harvard and other denominational colleges.  They took exception to what they considered ‘artificial scaffolding’ that was built around Christ for the purpose of what Jefferson described as ‘pence and power’.  As Jefferson penned to John Adams in 1823: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter.  But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors”.  (As a note, the correspondence between Jefferson and John Adams on religion, morals, and values has been compiled in Bruce Braden’s work ‘Ye will say I am no Christian’, [ref], another recommended read).

Regarding Christianity during colonial times, there was a tremendous diversity of Christian sects along with mainstream churches; and individual colonies treated this diversity in different ways.  For example, Rhode Island for decades excluded Roman Catholics.  Maryland had a law on the books for a while, the ‘Maryland Toleration Act’, that pertained to Trinitarians, and those who blasphemed that Christian dogma could face execution or forfeiture of all lands. James Madison, a Virginian and the primary author of our Constitution, learned of the persecution and jailing of dissenters to the Church of Virginia (Anglican).  There were clear examples of Christians persecuting Christians in Colonial America, an aspect of Christian history that did not go unnoticed by Jefferson who penned in 1782: “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.”

Jefferson considered The Virginia Act of Religious Freedom to be one of his greatest accomplishments.  As written in his autobiography about the crafting of that document, “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ’, so that it would read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion’: the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

So when one makes a claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, what sects or mainstream churches are they referring to?  Religious Freedom (“citizens are free to worship in any way or not at all – and that the state protects that freedom”) did not occur until the late 1780′s when our constitution provided for the separation of church from state with its First Amendment Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.  Religious freedom in our country was born during a window of opportunity when Enlightenment rationality and Deist influences were at play.  And the assault on that freedom through the puritanical view of the Religious Right, whose influence came to bear largely after the ratification of the Constitution, jeopardizes one of our most precious founding liberties.

The Bible

As proponents of the Amendment have been citing much scripture as well as displaying pictures of the Bible, I want to consider whether that book should be viewed as an infallible source upon which to base common law.

“Priests…dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the duperies on which they live”; words penned by Jefferson to Correa de Serra in 1820.  With the Bible being held by fundamentalist Christians as the inerrant (incapable of being wrong) word of God, there is much we now know to be factually incorrect within the text.  We also know that prior to the printing press (which has accurately reproduced what is held by some scholars to be an inferior version of the text, the King James Bible), Biblical scripture underwent numerous changes over a period of many centuries at the hands of scribes.

Regarding Biblical views on creation, for example, we know that Earth was not the beginning of creation, that the earth did not precede the sun, that there was not a spontaneous creation of complex life along with one man who named all the animals (a monumental task), and that modern humans never bottle-necked down to a single couple.  Regarding the latter, DNA studies that allow us to trace both maternal (mitochondrial DNA) and paternal (Y chromosome) lineages, do identify a single male and female common to all of modern man (ref). However, they lived at different times, the female dating back about 200,000 years ago in East Africa and preceded the male (who was also probably in Africa) by perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 years.  And ‘mitochondrial Eve’ was not the only woman alive at the time; nuclear DNA studies indicate that the size of the ancient human population never dropped below tens of thousands.  ”In principle, earlier Eves can also be defined going beyond the species, for example one who is ancestral to both modern humanity and Neanderthals, or, further back, an ‘Eve’ ancestral to all members of genus Homo and chimpanzees in genus Pan.”  This draws into question as to how the Downfall of Man in the Garden of Eden could have ever occurred.  Man’s downfall at the hands of Satan posing as a serpent is a central tenet held by the Christian Right in that we are born into this world as sinners from the act of the first human couple and require salvation.

On a related issue, there is also the belief that a human being forms at the time of conception and inherits a soul carrying the sin of our original parents; no small matter as it is central to some religious opinion on the abortion debate.   Yet we know from studies of reproductive biology that 60 to 80 percent of all conceptions, an estimated half of them believed to be normal, are lost in menstrual flows each month (ref).  Would a compassionate Creator have designed a reproductive system that would deny so many innocents the opportunity for salvation?  And there is the issue of Chimera (ref), individuals who form early on from the fusion of two separate conceptions thus creating a singular human with a mix of tissues.  If a soul is incorporated at the time of conception, would these individuals have two souls, and if not on what basis?  It indeed is difficult to align elements of biblical text and other religious dogma with what we have learned.

“The whole of these books (the Gospels) is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine.  In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds.  It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills”.  Words Jefferson penned to John Adams in 1814.  And quite insightful as has been shown by studies of the text.

Textual criticism (the science of restoring the ‘original’ words of a text from manuscripts that altered them) has shown that there are more documented changes to scripture than there are words in the New Testament (Bart Ehram’s work “Misquoting Jesus” (ref), a recommended read on the topic).  Ehram, who was raised as an Evangelical Christian, chairs the department of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill.  The alterations noted in scripture are the result of many centuries of manual copying by scribes who either made mistakes or intentionally changed or added passages to address contradictions or suit individual beliefs.  Many changes are minor, some are not.  A couple of examples.  The story of the woman taken in adultry (let ye who are without sin cast the first stone) is not found in earlier versions of the text.  Neither are the last 12 verses of Mark that are used by Pentacostal Christians to show that Jesus’s followers will be able to speak in unknown “Tongues”.  Both were incorporated by scribes many centuries later.  Were these scribes all subject to Devine Guidance with these additions to scripture?  There are many other examples as well such as the concept of the Trinity (an alteration of the word ‘who’ to ‘God’ in the Greek language?) and Joseph as the father of Christ.

If this text is held to be the inerrant word of God, let that remain a matter of faith, rather than viewing it as a factual source upon which common law can be based.  There are many fine teachings in the Bible, most notably Matthew’s account of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount where Christ bestowed his blessings on the merciful, the poor, the peacemakers, and others.  However, as was pointed out by law professor Gene Nichol in his article ‘Nailing Religious Tenets to the Classroom Wall’ (ref): “Is it possible that this central, unyielding, perfect statement of Christian philosophy [the Sermon on the Mount] is tougher to square with the actual agenda of the American political Right?”

Discussion

There is no doubt the NC Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex unions is a civil rights matter, for discrimination against a minority group would be written into the state constitution.  However, the driving force behind this amendment, religious opinion about homosexuality being a sin and a perversion of God’s creation, represents nothing short of a frontal assault on one of our most cherished founding liberties, religious freedom through a separation of church and state as expressed in our First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.  Considering the history of American Christianity in the immediate post-Revolutionary War period, unless today’s Religious Right wishes to change our constitution, religious belief belongs in the church and not as part of legislation. “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law” as Jefferson penned to Dr. Thomas Cooper in 1814.  And frankly, the use of scripture to demonize a segment of our population because of who and what they are is offensive and could hardly be considered Christian.

So, during this period of ultra-conservative politics that mingles church and state, this is a matter that has reach beyond NC.  It is a matter that can affect the freedom and liberty of all citizens to worship and believe as they see fit (or not at all if that is their preference) and not be burdened in civil society by religious discrimination.

In leaving the Legislative Building in Raleigh prior to the Senate vote, I couldn’t help but think of the words issued by our first president, George Washington (ref): “…the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”.  Indeed appropriate words for legislators in NC as well as other states to remember.

Arthur R. Kamm, PhD (Dr. Art Kamm) has devoted his career to the study of patient populations and the research and development of treatments to alleviate pain, suffering, improve quality of life, and save lives. His blog is dedicated to his study of many topics including, but not limited to, debt, deficits, economy, leadership, healthcare, climate, politics, hunger, intolerance, etc. The intent is to disseminate information and open dialogue based upon consideration of information rather than spin.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tea Party Temper Tantrum

By Jeff Fulmer
Originally posted 9/19/11 at Hometown Prophet

Sometimes, it’s fun to be mad. Once, I was so upset I actually got off my couch and drove downtown to take part in a peaceful demonstration. As soon as I was plunged in the middle of so many like-minded individuals, I got a contact high. Feeling mistreated by the police or slighted by the press only bonds you closer to your compatriots and reinforces your resolve. While I personally never felt like I accomplished much by protesting, it must be satisfying to feel like you’ve managed to move the needle.

The Tea-Partiers are feeling the power of being a part of a national movement that has already had a significant impact on the political landscape. This may be a new experience for many of them. 79% of the Tea Party are white, 75% are over 45 years old, and over 54% are Republican (41% are Independent). Most in this demographic were not participating in freedom marches or sit-ins. Over their lifetimes, they haven’t had a whole lot to be upset about, but now they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.

What exactly are they so mad about? While there are a range of issues, deficits, taxes, and creeping socialism are the main themes. According to Pew Research, 87% of the Tea-Party thinks the government is always wasteful; only 10% believes the government does a better job than it gets credit for. While these statistics scream a distrust of the Federal government, they also demonstrate an ability to see the world in black and white terms.

There is not much room to have a conversation when one “party” already knows they’re right. Never mind that Obama inherited a $1.3 trillion dollar deficit or most of his ‘reckless spending’ has been in response to the recession handed to him by his predecessor. Let’s ignore that most of the wasteful TARP money has already been paid back and probably helped save the country from a depression. And for all the hyperbole, has Obama actually raised taxes on anyone yet? Of course, none of this really matters because facts could get in the way of a good party.

Something certainly does need to be done about the deficit. In 2011, Obama put out a plan that would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over a twelve year period. The Republicans didn’t like the proposal because it would raise taxes on their wealthy contributors. The Tea Partiers made it clear they would never support anything short of draconian cuts and a Constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. By refusing to give an inch unless everyone met all of their demands, these Tea Party Republicans essentially held the country hostage.

In 1773, Revolutionaries risk their lives to demonstrate against the British because they were being taxed without representation. In 2011, every citizen has the right to vote and is represented, even when their side loses an election. Even if I disagree with their beliefs, I admire the Tea Party’s ability to organize and make their voices heard. What I believe is dangerous is their willingness to dump the country’s credit ratings and hard-working American’s 401(k)s into the sea in order to score political points.

The Tea Party’s automated response is to slash spending without thinking through the ramifications (especially during a recession), as well as the pain that will be felt with each cut. Perhaps members should demonstrate some of the same radicalism and bravery that our forefathers showed…They could start by refusing any reimbursements from Medicare and voluntarily reduce their own social security benefits; take their parents out of government assisted nursing homes and their children out of public schools.

Freedom of speech is one of the great tenets of a democracy and Tea Partiers have every right to gather and yell and carry signs proclaiming whatever they want. But there are serious, complicated problems facing this country that will require more than a mob mentality to solve. This isn’t 1773 and answers will not be found by simply throwing a temper tantrum. It may be their party, but we’ll all be crying if we can’t work together.

Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

FBI Backtracks on Islamophobic Training Seminars

Thanks to some terrific work by Wired's Spencer Ackerman, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working hard this week to walk back some blatantly Islamophobic claims made by an FBI employee during a counter-terrorism seminar held earlier this year.

Despite the concerns raised by US Senators and representatives from Muslim groups about a similar seminar delivered by FBI employee William Gawthorp in April of 2011, a recently released video shows Gawthorp repeating his offensive and patently false claims about Islam while during a June lecture to between 60 and 70 law enforcement officials at "an FBI-sponsored public-private partnership in New York City."

Here's the video, courtesy of Wired:

In case you don't have the time, patience, or stomach to sit though Gawthorp's entire presentation, we can sum it up for you pretty easily. According to Gawthorp, al Qaeda and similar groups (he names Hamas and Hezbolla) are only the projections of a deeper threat to the security of the United States: Islam itself.

Via Wired:
In Gawthrop’s worldview, the struggle against al-Qaida is really just an afterthought in a broader war. The group that knocked down the World Trade Center and rammed a jet into the Pentagon is a mere distraction. These are the professional assessments of a representative from the nation’s top domestic counterterrorism agency — a man considered so expert in understanding militant strategy that the FBI had him training agents on the subject.

“We waste a lot of analytic effort talking about the type of weapon, the timing, the tactics. All of that is irrelevant … if you have an Islamic motivation for actions,” Gawthrop said. Even taking down hostile states like Iran is futile, since “there are still internal forces that will seek to exert Islamic rule again.”

The best strategy for undermining militants, Gawthrop suggested, is to go after Islam itself. To undermine the validity of key Islamic scriptures and key Muslim leaders.
The Bureau released a statement on Friday attempting to clarify its position on the deeply inappropriate trainings.

Via TPM:
"The FBI is committed to protecting Americans' rights under the U.S. Constitution, including a person's right to live, work, and worship as they wish. Strong religious beliefs should never be confused with violent extremism...Views that are contrary should not and will not be taught to FBI employees.

[...]

The training segment that is the subject of recent media reports does not reflect the views of the FBI and is not consistent with the overall instruction provided to FBI personnel," the statement continued. "It was conducted six months ago, one time only, and was quickly discontinued because it was inconsistent with FBI standards on this topic. It was delivered to an audience of 37 agents as part of FBI career path training."
Where does one even begin with something like this? It is bad enough that certain dark corners of the Web continue to buzz with the sort of vitriol and blatant misinformation that Gawthorp relayed to his audiences. But the video above shows a government employee, in the service of the FBI, repeating some of the basest misconceptions about Islam to dozens of other law enforcement officials expected to incorporate the gleanings from his lecture into their work.

Gawthorp's assumptions rest on the same hateful argument that fueled last summer's side-show antics in protest again the Park51 Community Center project in Manhattan. According to the faulty logic of Gawthorp's argument, which is being passed off as truth to our nation's law enforcement officials thanks to the authority conferred by Gawthorp's position with the FBI, all practitioners of the world's second-largest religion are somehow complicit in a belief system uniquely suited to the promotion of violence. Never mind that, according to a recent Gallup poll, Muslims in the US are "the staunchest opponents of military attacks on civilians, compared with members of other major religious groups."

Adam Serwer over at Mother Jones also noted that the FBI's attempt to disavow the offensive materials used in the seminars has angered "professional Islamophobe" Robert Spencer, the SPLC-certified hatemonger-in-chief over at JihadWatch.org. According to Spencer, by putting the kibosh on these trainings, the FBI is effectively "purg[ing] its terrorism training seminars of any hint of the truth about the global jihad and Islamic supremacism." Spencer also attempts to preemptively blame Ackerman's reporting on the issue for leaving the US more vulnerable to future terror attacks, claiming "Ackerman's responsibility for the next jihad attack in the U.S. grows apace."

As Serwer astutely points out, Spencer's attempt to lay blame for future violence at Ackerman's feet demonstrates a rare and precious form of hypocrisy:
"You might have thought Spencer would have backed off assigning responsibility for terrorism to people other than the actual terrorists ever since he was cited more than a 150 times in the sprawling manifesto of alleged anti-Muslim Oslo terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who is charged with killing 76 people this July. At that time, Spencer whined about the "blame game," writing that "as if killing a lot of children aids the defense against the global jihad and Islamic supremacism, or has anything remotely to do with anything we have ever advocated.""
As vile as it may be, Islamophobic rhetoric is to be expected from individuals like Robert Spencer who have embraced hate-speech as their stock in trade. What we cannot abide are government employees conducting trainings under the auspices of government agencies like the FBI repeating the same distortions and misconceptions about Islam and Muslim Americans that fuel the hatred of fringe elements like Spencer and his ilk.

(h/t Wired)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Banning Same Sex Marriage: An Agenda of Hatred, Ignorance, and Political Manipulation

By Dr. Art Kamm
Originally published 9/9/11 at Art on Issues

Republican leaders in NC are hoping to advance a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage at a special legislative session on September 12.  I do take to heart the words that Jefferson penned into our Declaration of American Independence, something about that unalienable right to pursue happiness.  How such a misguided and, if I may, hateful attempt at limiting marriage on a civil level is fulfilling that unalienable right escapes me.  Further the US Constitution has a long history of expanding rights, not restricting them; after all its first 10 Amendments are called the Bill of Rights, not Restrictions.

One would have thought that this issue would have been laid to rest following California’s Prop 8 trial, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, as recounted by Margaret Hoover, a conservative Fox News contributor, in her article, “My Fellow Conservatives, Think Carefully About Your Opposition to Gay Marriage” (ref).  One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, Ted Olson, was a constitutional conservative who helped found the Federalist Society, was G.W. Bush’s Solicitor General, and successfully argued Bush v. Gore before the Supreme Court.  The judge, Vaughn Walker, was a Reagan/Bush nominee whose first nomination stalled in the Senate due to perceived insensitivity to gays (ref).  So the trial was not stacked in ‘liberal’ California.  The plaintiffs brought seventeen expert witnesses to the stand in the fields of psychology, political science, economics, socio medical sciences and history.  Oddly, the lone two witnesses for the defense actually wound up providing evidence supporting the plaintiff’s case.  Olson and his Democratic legal partner, David Boies, successfully argued that Prop 8 violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, and is unconstitutional.  The judge ruled: “That the majority of California voters supported Proposition 8 is irrelevant, as fundamental rights may not be submitted to [a] vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

Yet, despite the overwhelming scientific/medical/social/legal information debunking the fears about, and objections to, same sex marriage (and how such a ban is actually harmful), Prop 8 is once again returning to court (ref).  And the NC legislature is attempting to place such a restriction into the state’s constitution.  The usual suspects are at work again in NC: the damaging falsehoods about the LGBT community disseminated by hate groups; the actions of the Religious Right; and the manipulation of ignorance and hatred by politicians for political gain. 

Hate Groups

NC House Majority Leader, Paul Stam (R), appeared this past week on American Family Association (AFA) radio with AFA’s president Tim Wildmon and the Family Research Council’s (FRC) president Tony Perkins.  The broadcast exchange is provided at this link (ref).  Both AFA and FRC have been categorized as ‘hate groups’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) (ref).  To be clear, this categorization is based on “propagation of known falsehoods – claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities – and repeated, groundless name-calling. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.”

A sampling of some claims issued by these organizations follow.

Perkins, on TV, defended FRC’s false accusation associating gay men with pedophilia (ref), i.e. that gays are sexually predatory with children.  The American Psychological Association, amongst others has concluded that “homosexual men are not more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men are” (ref).  Additionally, in response to the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign, Perkins has asserted that children are being recruited into that ‘lifestyle’, additionally referring to LGBT identities as “perversion”, “immoral”, and “disgusting”.  His claim that children can be “recruited” into homosexuality is disturbing because it is the same rhetoric that was used to support the Briggs initiative in 1978 to suggest that gays are predatory (ref) (ref).

AFA’s Bryan Fischer claimed that “homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and 6 million dead Jews”. Further, he described Hitler as “an active homosexual” who sought out gays “because he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough” (ref) (ref).  (So, the raping of women by Nazis in ghettos and concentration camps as documented by the US Holocaust  Memorial Museum (ref) was carried out by those ‘vicious and brutal and savage’ gays)?

The dangerous aspect of such language is that homosexuals are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime (ref).  Analysis of FBI data showed that homosexuals are 2.4, 2.6, 4.4, 13.8 and 41.5 times as likely as Jews, blacks, Muslims, Latinos and whites, respectively, to be the target of hate crimes.  Hate language, the dehumanization of individuals by the type of language issued by these organizations, is the ‘permission factor’ that reinforces bigotry and contributes to hate crimes.

It is this writer’s opinion that the House Majority Leader, by agreeing to appear with the leaders of these organizations as advocates for a ban on same sex marriage, has lent credence to these organizations and their poisonous language simply through the stature of his position.  I issued a communication of complaint to multiple members of the NC General Assembly on this matter. 

The Religious Right

Right wing radio host Janet Parshall interviewed Ron Baity of Return America, the group behind the amendment campaign, on her show ‘In the Market’ (ref).  Regarding same sex marriage, Parshall stated that Satan had marriage in his ‘crosshairs’, and Baity agreed.

The perception of the Religious Right that America was founded as a Christian nation and is thus subject to law based on Christian scripture and beliefs, shows a poor understanding of the history of Christianity in this country.  A wonderful read on this topic is David Holmes’ (Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies, College of William and Mary) ‘The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” (ref), the source that is primary to this section.  I believe a brief recounting of that history is important to the matter at hand.

The Evangelical movement that eventually produced today’s Religious Right, had its beginnings in Georgia in the late 1730's, through two Anglican dons who were brothers, John and Charles Wesley.  The two formed the Methodist movement after a conversion experience.  A protege of theirs, George Whitefield, became one of the most dramatic and effective evangelists in the history of Christianity.  His audiences had to confront the terrorizing realization that they deserve damnation and could be saved from Hell only through the grace and forgiveness of God.  Until Methodism separated from Anglicanism in 1784, it remained in America as a small ultra-evangelical wing of the Church of England.  However, along with the Baptists, it represented the future of American Protestantism.

Religious influences on our first five presidents, and several of the founding fathers, were quite different from the developing evangelical movement.  Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were Virginians, born and baptized in the Anglican Church known as the Church of England or the Church of Virginia.  After the Revolution, the word England was removed and in its place the term Episcopal (we have bishops) was used.  John Adams came from New England.  Although respectful of Christianity, they all developed Diest beliefs; they tended to deny the divinity of Jesus and a few even seemed to to have been agnostic about the very existence of God.  I provided a brief overview of Diesm and our founding fathers in a prior article (ref).

Christianity was hardly cohesive in colonial times.  Nine of the thirteen colonies adopted their own church, and Christians on occasion would persecute, jail, and seize the property of other Christians.  Madison, the primary author of the US Constitution, witnessed dissenters to the Church of Virginia being persecuted and jailed in his neighboring Culpepper County.  It was the mix of Diest beliefs and the persecution inherent with an intermingling of church and state that formed the basis for our constitutional separation of church and state and religious freedom in America.

The language on this matter is quite clear.  The establishment clause, the very first sentence in the First Amendment states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ (ref).  There is the ‘no religious test’ clause of Article 6 that states ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States’ (ref).  The words “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” were part of a treaty written during the presidency of Washington, signed during the administration of John Adams, read aloud in Congress without a single dissenting vote, and published in the lay press without evidence of public dissent (ref). “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law”, penned by Jefferson in a letter Dr. Thomas Cooper in 1814 (ref).  ”History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free and civil government.  This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes”, also penned by Jefferson in 1813 (ref).

The proposed amendment banning same sex marriage is a civil matter, not a church matter.  Members of the Religious Right are free to marry and restrict marriage as they please within their own church.  But in a civil setting any biblical interpretations regarding same-sex relationships, of which there are very few, statements like ‘Satan has marriage in his crosshairs’, that gays are sinners, etc., are required to be sidelined during discussion of civil law.  That is, of course, unless those individuals wish to change the constitution upon which our country was founded.

Manipulation by Politicians 

Politicians as well have manipulated ignorance and hatred for political gain.  House Majority Leader Stam has likened gay marriage to incest and polygamy (ref).  His words: “you cannot construct an argument for same sex marriage that would not also justify philosophically the legalization of polygamy and adult incest”.  The analogy is ill-founded.  Same sex marriage involves the decision of two consenting adults to enter into a formal and recognized union.  Polygamy involves the marriage of one individual to multiple individuals, and incest is sexual intercourse between close relatives.  All are quite separate concerns; the claim is one of mixing apples and oranges.

In the same interview, when asked how the ban would differ from miscegenation laws, Representative Stam responded that “People can’t change their race. People can’t choose their race”, implying that sexual preference is a choice. This false belief has led to attempts to ‘cure’ homosexuals and opens some very dark pages in history.  As documented in an exhibit by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (ref), the Nazi state, through active persecution, attempted to terrorize German homosexuals into sexual and social conformity with the ‘disciplined masculinity’ of Germany.  The atrocities committed against this population were horrific.  Is this pertinent today?  Consider Marcus Bachmann describing homosexuals as ‘barbarians’ that ‘need to be educated’ (ref) with his ‘pray away the gay’ counseling.  Both the American Psychological Association (ref) and American Psychiatric Association (ref) – amongst others – have ruled that efforts to change sexual orientation have no scientific credibility and can cause psychological harm to patients.

Discussion

Mankind has shown a remarkable propensity throughout history to attack its diversity.  Yet, where science is leading us is that we are a diverse human race and our diversity expresses itself in many ways. The Human Genome Project trumped 18th century race biology by demonstrating that there are no definable human sub-species; we are not different races of human beings, we are simply one diverse human race (ref).   Although we are a singular human race, mankind exhibits a diversity of religious belief.  Yet, regarding both race and religion mankind attacks these elements of diversity through hate crimes, extremism, discriminatory social policy, and uncountable lost lives in military conflicts.

There is little doubt that sexual preference is also a part of human diversity.  One doesn’t make a choice, a conscious decision, as to whom they are attracted.  Experts in the areas of psychology, political science, economics, socio medical sciences and history during the prop 8 trial in California exposed the objections and fears about same sex marriage as being unfounded; in fact showing that banning same sex marriage is not only discriminatory to a minority group, but damaging to that group and its children as well. Yet mankind is once again attacking an element of its diversity by issuing falsehoods, restricting rights, and fostering an environment that contributes to hate crimes and, yes, loss of life.

When the religious objections are removed, as is required in civil matters, what is left regarding the objections to same sex marriage is simply hatred born of ignorance and political manipulation.

Arthur R. Kamm, PhD (Dr. Art Kamm) has devoted his career to the study of patient populations and the research and development of treatments to alleviate pain, suffering, improve quality of life, and save lives. His blog is dedicated to his study of many topics including, but not limited to, debt, deficits, economy, leadership, healthcare, climate, politics, hunger, intolerance, etc. The intent is to disseminate information and open dialogue based upon consideration of information rather than spin.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Standing with History Against State-sponsored, Church-approved Executions

By Marty Troyer
Originally posted at the Houston Chronicle on 9/13/11

Let me tell you why debate audiences who cheer the death penalty frighten me.

On January 5, 1527 the first Protestant reformer was killed by state-sponsored, church-approved authorities under what they believed to be “God’s will.” Felix Manz was the first of more than 25,000 Protestant martyrs known as Anabaptists (Mennonites are Anabaptists), drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich by Christians who claimed to base their entire faith on being “justified by faith alone.” That same year, King Ferdinand declared drowning (called the third baptism) “the best antidote to Anabaptism” (a pejorative title that simply means “Re-baptism”). Michael Sattler and many others were not, however, lucky enough to die by drowning. The sentence against him read, “Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.”

As my spiritual ancestors were killed by the thousands, they sang songs of praise and pleaded with their audiences to put their trust in God, all in the midst of cheers for their death. The angry chants for blood are reminiscent of ancient Roman chants for death in the Colosseum. The links between church and state are as valid to discuss now as then. I share these examples precisely because of how absurd they sound to our modern American ears, so used to ecumenism and the religious diversity of our time. Sure, we disagree about doctrine and worship practices, but we sure as hell don’t kill each other anymore for them. We’ve all grown up a bit, haven’t we?

But here’s the thing: these executions were perfectly legal! Laws dating back over a thousand years prohibited re-baptism at the pain of death. Was it legal? Yes! Was it moral? Absolutely not. Was it “Christian”? Undeniably no. 20/20 hindsight proves the absurdity of practicing state sponsored killing for heresy. Jesus proved the absurdity of killing adulterers in John 8:7, teaching us what once was considered a just cause for execution can and should be modified over time. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures demand execution for a surprising number of offenses, most of which we would recoil from in horror, not stand up and applaud. For instance: adultery, lying about your virginity(Deut 22:20-21), blasphemy(Lev 24:14-16,23), breaking the Sabbath(Ex 31:14, Numb 15:32-36), and evangelism (Deut 13:1-11, 18:20) are all just causes for executions. By these standards, Jesus was guilty as charged, his execution being perfectly legal. No wonder the crowds cheered!

So these last two weeks, when the GOP debate audiences cheered Governor Rick Perry’s execution record which this week will increase to 235, I got scared. Scared because we’ve gotten it so wrong in the past. Scared because the church has never really gotten it right. We’ve so often been on the wrong side of the death penalty, supporting death in ways that today are clearly understood to be 100% incongruous with our faith. Like when my people were killed over the form of baptism, or when countless Jews were killed in the Inquisition because their commitment to God was too strong to be swayed by evangelism-by-sword, or when the German church worshipped God on Sunday’s then “rendered to Caesar” by executing millions of innocents during the week (it’s a marvelous thing to note that Germany has not executed anyone since WW2, having rightly learned the lessons of abuse of power).

When, dear readers, have we ever gotten it right? Perry’s claim that he’s gotten it right 100% of the time is perhaps (though unlikely) correct; but his absolute certainty is shameful and lacks historic precedent. Exploding in applause at the mention of such a widespread and unexamined death machine is counter to both history and moral health.

Today I stand with history on the side of caution and humility against the state-sponsored, church-approved executions of Steven Woods (Tuesday), Duane Buck (today), Cleve Foster (next Tuesday), and Lawrence Brewer (next Wednesday). The abolition of the Texas death penalty is inevitable. Either we will choose to stand for the humane treatment of all people (guilty or not), or we will, like everyone before us (see Germany post-WW2) make mistakes so horrendous and innumerable we will be forced to repent and change our policy. Either way, this absurd cycle of violence will come to an end.

Here I stand, remembering history. As a follower of one whose blood was shed by state-sponsored, religion-approved executions, I have no other choice. Dear God, forgive us for killing guilty people like your Son Jesus, Felix Manz and Michael Sattler, Steven, Duane, Cleve and Lawrence. I pray they come to know the grace and peace that comes only through knowing you. May their victims family’s be free from hate to know the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding. May we learn from our past mistakes and stand with history against the death penalty. Jesus, executed and now risen, have mercy on us! AMEN.

Anyone who is without sin, feel free to pull that lever.


Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church and a regular blogger for the Houston Chronicle where he blogs as The Peace Pastor. Visit us online at houstonmennonite.org. Follow Marty on Twitter @thepeacepastor, but not on your bike, cause that'd be creepy.
 
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