Christian Privilege and the First Amendment
© Josh Sager – August 2012
“This year, the Fortnight for Freedom comes at a time when we face challenges due to the Supreme Court decision concerning the Defense of Marriage Act, which will certainly create many church-state conflicts in the future. ”
There are a number of issues with this statement, as with many statements by Catholic figures in the United States. There are any number of religious arguments to be made for gay marriage, all of which have been better argued by religious people or those with academic backgrounds in religion, if nothing else. As a completely apathetic person (though one who is endlessly fascinated by religion, and has the Bible as the first book on her summer reading list), I’m in no position to argue against the Bible’s position on any issue.
What I do feel somewhat qualified to argue, however, is the Bible’s use as a legal text tantamount to a second constitution.
I understand the appeal of religion. It is comforting to believe in something larger than oneself, something that has power over you and the ability to save you, grant you eternal life if you follow a few moral guidelines. The Bible is actually an incredible text; even discounting miracles, if even one-tenth of the actions of Jesus in the Bible can be attributed to a true historical figure, he was undoubtedly a hero and a beautiful human being. Sociological and psychological studies have for decades pointed to the idea that a routine social outing in a tight-knit community, like a parish, leads to longer life expectancies and increased happiness; anyone with a group of supportive peers, and particularly seniors with a regular social activity, reap the benefits of this experience.
I understand the frustration that a religious person must feel when they look out at society and have to confront head-on lifestyles and opinions that clash with their own; it’s how I feel every time I stumble onto a Tea Party website, or Men’s Rights Activist forum, or religiously fanatic web-community with political leanings. Nobody likes having their opinions challenged and opposed, particularly when those opinions threaten their safety, health, or happiness. Life would be easier if we could all agree and work harmoniously towards the greater good, rather than ceaselessly fighting over everything and accusing each other of moral transgressions and bigotry. Constantly exposing yourself to opinions that contradict your own is an incredibly eye-opening experience, one that can increase empathy and understanding if entered into with an open mind rather than a hateful heart and a mind that’s already made up.
Religion is fine, as a private institution. If you choose to go to church each Sunday, or pray every night before bed, or enter into a Bible study course to further your own spiritual relationships, I admire that. There can be no negative outcome of learning and thinking more deeply, and the amount of discipline and introspection it takes to uphold is something I envy.
What I take issue with is the position of religion as a political tool used to manipulate politicians into depriving citizens of rights. It’s a fascinating position, really. Churches will endlessly express their opinions, many of which explicitly seek to remove the rights of entire groups of people, yet claim religious oppression when these beliefs are challenged. This reaction deserves a moment of attention.
Freedom of speech allows you the freedom to express your beliefs, no matter how hate-filled and damaging. It does not mean that others have to respect your opinion or sit silently while you berate their identity; the opinion of the church, just like the opinion of every individual citizen in the nation, is not infallible nor is it subject to special privilege. Religious freedom allows you the right to go to church, to pray, to assemble as Christians, to read the Bible in public, to celebrate your holidays, to baptize your children and celebrate the sacraments, and to live your life as a proud openly-Christian citizen; freedom of religion allows you the choice to live safely and privately as a religious person, just as every other citizen is free to choose their own religion or lack thereof.
The core of the problem seems to be that churches in America believe they are worthy of special privileges. It is not enough to be allowed to live openly and safely as Christians in America, often with tax-exempt status and disproportionate amounts of power; the church wants its views instated as national law and as state religion. The quotation above was pulled from a blog post by Archbishop Séan O’Malley of Boston; the next sentence, though cut here, goes on to insist that the mandate for all insurers to provide preventative care to women is an affront to religious freedom.
The main issue I have with this statement, among many, is the inherent elitism of it. The idea here is that Christian beliefs and values deserve to be privileged above all other citizens’ interests, despite the fact that, in both of these cases, the vast majority of Americans (and many Christians) support the measures at hand.
Let’s begin with the first assumption, that gay marriage will create “many church-state conflicts in the future.” The repeal of DOMA does not legally mandate that all Christian churches must now perform same-sex marriages or accept homosexual clergy and parishioners into their midst (though it would be the Christian thing to do). DOMA’s repeal results in a sole church-state conflict: that the church, as is legally dictated in the Constitution of the United States, will no longer be treated with privilege to run the country as it wishes. The effect of DOMA’s repeal on the church is singular: Christians will now have to acknowledge that Christianity is not a state religion, nor has it ever been, and that the Bible is not a valid reason to discriminate against an entire group of people. DOMA’s repeal allows millions of American citizens to live with full rights under the Constitution, and takes nothing away from the church except the illusion of living in a theocratic Christian nation that never truly existed.
The issue of the birth-control mandate has been discussed as much, if not more, than the issue of gay marriage. There’s little else I can add to the last paragraph. Birth control is one of the most widely-used medications in the United States, and for good reason; in times of economic instability and ever-decreasing access to healthcare and surgical procedures, women need to have as much control as possible over their decision to have children. Not allowing a woman to decide when and under what conditions she has a child is both barbaric and irresponsible; on top of the fact that it’s a fascist policy depriving women of rights to bodily autonomy, it is irresponsible to bring a child into this world when it will not have anyone to care for it, a government to help support it, or an educational system that seeks to help it succeed. It has always confused me that the same “Christian” politicians who are opposed to women having medical access are also the same opposed to healthcare, education, gun-control, anti-bullying measures, welfare, and other programs designed to support a child and help it live a healthy and successful life. This is not to even mention the idealistic hypocrisy in being opposed to abortion, contraceptives, and sexual education all at once.
But all of this is not the issue at hand. Religious people are allowed to disagree with common-sense measures regarding human rights, civil rights, and access to healthcare; there are certainly things the government has done in the past that go against the Bible, though I would think that war would rank higher than love and safety in issues to protest. The issue is in believing that a belief in god elevates your opinion above all others and grants you special privilege to legislate your religion into law, ratifying the Bible as the second constitution in spite of the provisions laid out to avoid this very move. It’s an issue of believing the church is inherently better than others to the extent that politicians pass laws that the majority of the American people oppose. The core issue is that the church is attempting to undermine American politics and the democracy on which the nation was founded. At one time, perhaps, conservative Christians were the overwhelming majority of the nation; “In God We Trust” was added to money and “Under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance amid wide public acceptance of Christianity and its main tenets. But America’s demographics are changing, and to directly legislate against the will of the people and against the Constitution of the United States is not just illegal, it’s absurd.
Granting civil rights and bodily autonomy to every American citizen is not religious persecution. Granting special privileges to a religious institution is, however, a direct violation of the separation of church and state.
Aside: Obviously, not all Christians are like this. But it’s the sad truth that seemingly all Christian politicians and leaders, or at least the most vocal, are. I have met tons of loving Christian people who are not only tolerant, but welcoming of people who are not aligned with them on all issues. There are terrible people on every side of the debate, but seemingly the worst are the ones in government. But I don’t believe, and the Constitution sides with me on this, that religion of even the most tolerant kind has any place in government, nor does the government have any place in church. The two should become and remain, as was intended, separate.
- DOMA: One Christian Speaks (beth2285.wordpress.com) This is perfect.
- How Many Americans Misunderstand the Separation of Church and State (theprogressivecynic.com) A much more legal-minded view on the issue.