Saturday, April 14, 2012

Age of Reason: Freethinking, Religion, and Moral Code

Last weekend at the juncture of Easter and Passover I wrote about the concepts of being a good Jew and the Christian thing to do, a topic that received considerable commentary.  After posting the piece, I watched To Kill a Mockingbird,  listened to the religious and political leaders on the Sunday talk shows, and started reading Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which has led me to the nexus of politics and religion.  Much has been written about the 1st Amendment and the establishment clause, so I won’t re-blaze that trail.  Instead, I want to focus on the politics of religion, enlightenment, and the dangers that come from religious based policy.

For starters, we are a nation of laws that is governed by the rule of law: the laws of man.  For those that claim we should follow the rules of God, I ask two questions:  What incarnation of a deity and if you mean the Ten Commandments, while I believe honoring one’s mother and father is a prerequisite to establishing  a civilized society, how does one enforce such a statute or law. (on a side note is NFL Sunday a way of honoring the Sabbath?).   The Ten Commandments provide the basis of a moral code, the same can be said for so many other sources religious and secular documents, mandates , opinions, etc.  Sadly, those great moral codes were nowhere to be found as slavery was to remain so prominent in the nation’s south just a 150 years ago.  Which brings me to two fun facts:

1)      Mississippi (1), Alabama (3), Louisiana (4), Arkansas (5), South Carolina (6), Tennessee (7), North Carolina(8), and Georgia (9) rank in the top ten of Gallup’s most religious states poll.  All proud members of the Confederate States of America who fought to insure that slavery remained legal and EXPANDED to the new territories.

2)      According to the Old Testament and Cecil B. DeMille Moses received the sacred Ten Commandments after leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and in present day it is usually southern communities that seem to be in the never ending civil court proceedings regarding public displays of the Ten Commandments. 

Politics and religion have always been undeniably interconnected.  Many laws were influenced by religious leaders and church hierarchies to establish their faith as the predominant religion at the expressed expense of other faiths or the enlightened secular class.  Our Bill of Rights, while a great legal framework was not an original piece of legislation.  In fact the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights sounds a lot like the British Bill of Rights established following the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which established freedom of speech, right to own guns irrespective of social class and religion, no ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, and a whole lot of restrictions on the monarchy and increasing power to Parliament; sound familiar?  The other source of the Constitution was the Virginia Religious Freedom Act of 1786, which preceded the US Constitution by one year:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions on belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect civil capacities.

And though we will know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any acts hall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be infringement of natural right.

Madison and Jefferson were not atheists, there is even uncertainty whether Jefferson was a deist.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is at the birth of this nation, there was a war within Christianity to establish this great nation’s laws.  What is clear was our Founding Fathers: Madison, Adams, Franklin, Paine, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others were influenced by their religious beliefs but new the danger of letting religious dogma and doctrine become policy.  THAT is the great gift of our Founding Fathers.

Last Sunday, like most Sundays, I watched the talk shows and as expected, Easter Sunday panels and dockets were filled with religious leaders.  We had Evangelicals, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, though the invitations to the Atheists and Muslims must have got lost in the mail, addressing the laughable so called ‘war on Christianity’, President Kennedy’s speech from 1960, and the place of religion in politics.  The church leaders including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan who feels the secular left is trying to crowd religion out of the public square: ”I think-- I think politics, just like business, just like education, just like art, just like culture, only benefits when-- when-- when religion, when morals, when faith has a place there. I think the American-- the public square in the United States is always enriched whenever people approach it, when they're inspired by their-- their deepest held convictions.”  And the Southern Baptists Convention’s Richard Land who tried to play down the political fusion between Evangelicals and the Republican Party even when Andrew Sullivan called him on it.  Finally there was the Reverend Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz who said on Meet The Press she would never vote for an Atheist: "I would not vote for a man who was an atheist because I believe you need to have an acknowledgement or a reverence or a fear for almighty God."

Atheists remain the most persecuted subgroup in the greater religion debate.  If anything, one could say, the war on Atheists, Agnostics, and Deists is the real war.  There is no war on thought or expression based on religious belief, unless you happened to be a Muslim, then the attacks from many Christians are all too real.  The issue is when one of our two national parties is so not just fused with the Evangelical Church, but the public policy it pronounces, defends, and cries out for looks more like religious dogma than the Constitution.  Roe v. Wade and the Hyde Amendment are the laws of the land, and while the Pro-Life crowd has every right to pronounce their beliefs, when they attempt to restrict the legal rights of ALL citizens, they have moved from the public square to the policy table.

Finally, there’s America’s greatest literary and screen hero: Atticus Finch, the protagonist at the center of a racial storm in 1930’s Alabama.  Atticus’ religion is not a factor, but his moral code is what makes him a hero.  Is there a better rule to live by:

"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

I am not denying that faith has its place in the public square and the private life;  just as common sense, enlightenment, and free thinking have their place too.  But what I will always deny is the parallel beliefs in the conservative political mind and the conservative religious mind that fear and coercion are critical beliefs and tenets.  This Evangelical-Conservative fusion that we must fear God and fear those we disagree with (Communists and Islamists)are counter to Mr. Finch and Reverend Martin Luther King’s message of hope, love, and inclusion.

Whatever the source of your moral code may be, it is your code and no one should deny you that.  Your opinion is yours as well and should be welcome in the public square.  I still don’t agree with the need for a Presidential Prayer Breakfast, the need to scrutinize our politicians church attendance records, or the need to end every major political speech with a God bless America.  I would like to think we are more enlightened today, then we were in 1793, but I somehow doubt Thomas Paine’s passage from Age of Reason would win him many friends today or be welcome in the public square:

Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.

Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration: and the Turks say, that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

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