Saturday, February 28, 2009

Summum Flunks Weirdness Test

Where’s the proper line between church and state?

In a rare unanimous decision, this past Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Tenth Circuit that would have forced the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, to accept a granite pyramid inscribed with the “Seven Aphorisms” of a quirky sect called Summum.

The heavily Mormon municipality of Pleasant Grove already displays the Ten Commandments in its town park. (The Eagles Club donated the Decalogue years before.) So the argument went that in the spirit of fair play (and Constitutional law), the town should accept a monument etched with the precepts of a religion dating back to 1975, when Claude “Corkey” Nowells got a revelation from cosmic beings styled “Summum Individuals.”

After all, the First Amendment forbids the government from showing religious favoritism. That’s what the “no establishment” clause of the First Amendment is all about.

So if Pleasant Grove accepts “Thou shall not kill” and ”Do not commit adultery,” it should also display Summum’s metaphysical principles of Psychokinesis, Correspondence, Vibration, Opposition, Rhythm, Cause and Effect, and Gender. Right?

Wrong, said the Court. The display of the Ten Commandments was really about the town’s right of free speech, not about the establishment clause at all.

I’m not sure I follow the Court’s reasoning, or agree with it. But it’s hard to imagine another conclusion. The Supreme Court itself is housed in a building whose eastern façade is decorated with a frieze of famous lawgivers like Hammurabi, Solomon, Confucius, Lycurgus and Moses. Had Wednesday’s ruling gone the other way, Corkey Nowell’s image would presumably have joined that of Solon and company.

And the Court’s frieze seems to suggest that we are a religiously pluralistic nation, drawing on many legal (as well as faith) traditions. America is not by any means an exclusively Christian nation, nor was that the Founder’s intent.

But there are limits, too. One wonders how the Court might have ruled had the local mosque demanded Pleasant Grove display the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Dharmadatu requested a monument etched with the Four Noble Truths?

Either one might have made a more interesting case. As it was, the Seven Aphorisms just seemed too offbeat to the Justices. But the “weirdness test” won’t last long, nor should it.

Last fall, as the case went to Court, I wrote that a number of groups have filed amicus briefs, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Jewish Committee. They note that a diversity of religious opinion flourished in the American colonies during the 18th century—Quakers, Freethinkers, Universalists, Jews, Roman Catholics, Hutterites, Dutch Reformed and a multitude of other denominations--and that the Founders sought to maintain a strict neutrality toward these various religious traditions. It is hard to argue with the reasoning of James Madison, who wrote in his Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of other Sects?”

Granting Pleasant Grove the power to erect a shine to the Ten Commandments, by Madison’s reasoning, means the town (or any other governmental body) could equally well erect a shrine to the goddess Kali, to the exclusion of non-Hindus. That would be bad.

Personally, I like the Ten Commandments much more than the Aphorisms of Summum. Some of the rules, like the ones about idol worship and not taking God’s name in vain, seem a bit dated. But prohibitions on murder and false testimony never go out of style. I predict that “honoring your father and mother” will be a precept that stands strong, long after Summum is forgotten.

But my own religious preferences weren’t meant to be written into law. So while I’m free to display the Commandments in my home and in my church, they shouldn’t be memorialized on Pleasant Grove’s town green.

Here’s my aphorism: Keep the Commandments in your own ethical life—but don’t keep them in the public park. That was the Founder’s view. And I think the God of Moses would probably agree.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

President for Life?

News sources in Caracas reported on President’s Day that Hugo Chávez won a referendum allowing the socialist leader to continue running for president of Venezuela indefinitely. He immediately announced plans to run for another six year term in 2013.

”The gates to the future have been opened wide,” said an emotional Mr Chávez from the balcony of the presidential palace, as a throng of ecstatic followers chanted in unison, ”Hey, ho, Chávez won’t go”.

Whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit that the prospect of Chávez–or anyone–as ruler for life is a scarey proposition.

What perfect reason to celebrate George Washington’s birthday this coming Sunday. After defeating the mightiest empire on earth, when he might have seized the reins of power permanently, General Washington retired to private life as a Virginia planter.

And after being elected to two four-year terms as President, the national hero voluntarily stepped down to transfer the office to his duly elected successor, establishing a precedent for presidential term limits that would remain in place till the time of Franklin Roosevelt and eventually be codified in 1947 in the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

What a touchingly patriotic spectacle to see George Bush last month, climbing aboard a Marine helicopter to head back to Texas as Barack Obama moved gracefully to occupy the White House. Americans have been transferring power peacefully and democratically for over two centuries, a tradition that dates back to the father of our country.

It’s a lasting lesson for Hugo Chávez and the rest of the world, and a reason to celebrate George Washington on the 277th anniversary of his birth.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lincoln's Bible

Barack Obama was sworn in last month on Lincoln’s Bible. The reasons for the choice were obvious. As the first African American president, Obama honors the Great Emancipator. Yet choosing Lincoln’s Bible to take the presidential oath of office seems peculiar. For Abraham Lincoln’s religion has always been a matter of dispute.

Unlike Obama, Lincoln was never a formal member of any denomination, although he joked that he admired the Episcopalians, since they didn’t care what your religious or political opinions might be.

Lincoln was a private person who seldom bared his soul. His son Robert said he never knew his father to discuss religion, nor could he recall any family devotions while he was growing up.

Certainly Lincoln didn’t want to subject his children to the kind of upbringing he’d endured. His parents belonged to the Little Mount Separate Baptist Church on the Kentucky frontier—where God predestined souls to paradise or perdition, regardless of their character or conduct.

Even as a youngster, Abraham rebelled against this tyrant deity. A cousin remembered, “He never would sing any religious songs,” but would amuse his sister and half-siblings with parodies of hellfire preachers, using a lot for a pulpit. It wasn’t the last time he made a speech on the stump.

Dogged by charges of atheism in a congressional race, Lincoln released a circular refuting the allegations of impiety. “That I am not a member of any Christian Church is true,” he admitted. But what exactly did Mr. Lincoln believe? “In early life,” he explained, “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called ‘the Doctrine of Necessity’.”

Fate—implacable law—ruled all. That might explain why one of his favorite writers was Edgar Allen Poe, author of tales where the hapless victim is trapped in devices he finds himself powerless to escape. It could also account for Lincoln’s fascination with the theater. For aren’t we all like actors where the denouements have been scripted in advance? Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s favorite dramas were tragedies. But even tragedy contained an element of cleansing or redemption.

Lincoln experienced a catharsis as he was tested by the calamities of war. As the casualties mounted, 16,000 dead at Second Bull Run, 20,000 at Shiloh, he had to ask whether it was all merely sound and fury, or whether Providence might have some inscrutable reason for continuing the agony. And the mysterious reason God allowed the national bloodletting to go on, he finally decided, might be to bring an end to slavery.

Lincoln had never been an outright abolitionist. He himself favored freedom for the slave, but if the system could be confined to the south, it was a compromise he could live with. What became clear was that emancipation was not an option, but a military necessity. No one had foreseen putting blacks in uniform at the outset of the war. But it became the trick that turned the tide, as units like the Massachusetts 54th performed heroically. At the same time, a growing river of runaways left their former masters, as the unpaid labor force that supplied Confederate lines headed north. Some say the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished little, but Lincoln himself understood it as the key to the struggle. Ending slavery was the reason for the conflict. Asked why he signed the act, he glanced upward and replied, “I could not do otherwise.”

Ironically, the man who gave freedom to others never found it for himself. To the end, Lincoln felt he was in the grip of gigantic powers. This fatalism made him casual about his own safety: “I see hundreds of strangers daily, and if anyone has the disposition to kill me, he will find the opportunity.” Strangely, the man who saved the union could not save himself.

He was rich in contradictions, one of the most deeply moral men to ever occupy the Oval Office and one of the least conventionally devout, a man who denied the reality of hell, but was forever plagued by inner demons, a man who deliberately turned his back on the religion of his youth and found that it cast a shadow across his entire life, as though predestined to haunt him.

Yet by the end, he was less a religious scoffer than a spiritual seeker. Crisis changes people, and Lincoln’s sense of reverence grew in proportion as the storm around him raged. Still, for him, the scriptures were not a book of answers, but one of many books that informed the questions: Who is God? What is my purpose here? And what does my duty require to serve my country and community?

May our new President likewise be tempered by the challenges ahead, finding inspiration in Lincoln’s Bible and honoring the history of free inquiry and dedication to liberty that book represents.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Faith Based Follies?

News sources this morning reported that Barack Obama is opening his new office for Faith Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships. Already there’s controversy. Should church-related agencies that receive tax funding be able to discriminate in hiring, based on sexual orientation or their particular religious beliefs?

An attorney for a Baptist children’s home in Kentucky that fired a woman because she was a lesbian says that requiring his group to hire homosexuals would be like forcing a vegetarian society to employ meat eaters, or making an environmental organization put loggers on the payroll.

As a devout vegetarian, I say hurray. If PETA takes government money, they should practice non-discrimination. But of course PETA is privately funded, and they can hire only lettuce-lovers if they so desire.

When tax-dollars are involved, however, the standard is different. Whoever has their hand out for government funding should play by non-sectarian rules. If you want Uncle Sam to pay your bills, you can’t hire only Christians, or Heterosexuals, or Males, or screen out the elderly, or people with disabilities. That’s what equal protection of the law–guaranteed by our Constitution--is about.

WorldVision and other evangelical groups that seek government largesse are demanding the unimpeded right to hire whoever they want. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU are threatening lawsuits. President Obama is walking a difficult line, and his new choice for heading the office of Faith Based Initiatives, Josh Dubois, is likely to give offense however he adjudicates this conflict.

Churches already compete for converts, visibility and influence in the public square. When they compete for tax dollars also, the turf wars are just exacerbated. Wouldn’t it be easier to follow a simple rule: no tax funding for sectarian organizations? The more church and state are intermingled, it seems, the more trouble arises.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Vermont Least Religious?

A recent Gallup Poll asked 35,000 Americans the question, “Does religion play an important role in your life?” Based on the answers, Mississippi turned out to be the most religious state in the Union (where over 85% of respondents answered yes), while little Vermont was the least godly, with less than half answering in the affirmative.

But opinion polls don’t tell the whole story. If the Magnolia State is the most pious, why does it have the highest statistics for child poverty (32.8%) while the Green Mountain State has the lowest (under 11%)? Why does Mississippi guarantee workers a minimum wage of just $6.55 per hour, while Vermont is well above federal standards at $8.06? And why does the Southern Poverty Law Center list twenty-seven active hate groups in that southern state, ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the National Association for the Advancement of White People, while the state Gallup calls “least religious” has exactly zero hate groups within its borders?

I don’t want to bash Mississippi. But maybe practicing tolerance, caring for your neighbor, and creating jobs that pay a just wage are just as important as paying lip service to the divine.

Garrison Keillor once said that if sitting in church makes you a Christian, then sitting in a garage must make you a car. Faith isn’t just about opinion polls or professing your beliefs. It’s about how you live your life. By that test, Vermonters do okay.

Does religion play an important role in your life? Ask yourself, what portion of your income you give to charity? What volunteer commitments have you made to your community? When was the last time you performed some generous action–without expecting a payback or recognition for your efforts? How would you rate yourself?