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Michael Bettencourt

Why Should Religious Beliefs Be Defended?

This is all about cake-baking and the Supreme Court.

The default position these days seems to be that a religious belief is an unimpeachable excuse for someone not doing what they are responsible for doing. A government official can refuse to issue marriage licenses because she believes gay marriage is a sin. A pharmacist can refuse to fill a prescription for birth control because he believes that contraception/abortion is a sin. A politician can get legislation passed that uses government power to legislate a person’s identity, as in the situation of transgender people and bathrooms, often motivated by, if not explicitly stated, a belief in the sinfulness of non-standard gender identity. Even the legal fiction known as a corporation can invoke religious beliefs to deny employees reproductive health care coverage.

Religious belief seems to have effected its own version of “regulatory capture,” similar to what corporations do when they colonize the regulatory agencies charged with overseeing them. I think the time has come to stop giving religious belief such power by demoting it from its current protected status to make it co-equal with all other belief systems and returning it to the private sphere of the individual believer.

One might argue that a hostility towards religious belief is un-American, but as Susan Jacoby shows in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, opposing religious belief has been vital to shaping the character of the country. Some may argue that the greatness of the United States comes from being a Christian nation, but Jacoby shows that it’s equally true that whatever greatness American possesses comes from a strong antipathy to theologies and a concurrent respect for skepticism and rationality.

And while she doesn’t state it explicitly, Jacoby’s history shows that when religion supports social justice (as in the resistance to slavery or the fight for civil rights), its power to transform increases as its values come closer to a shared universal secular humanism and more distant from their theological underpinnings. This is similar to the way the ability of religion to explain the physical world weakens as science becomes better at modeling reality. No longer does nature send hurricanes to punish the decadence of human society no matter how fervently one may believe that.

Would demoting religious belief be unconstitutional? No, because the Constitution has no affirmative defense of religion, only prohibitions against government action in support of or against religions and their believers. Thomas Jefferson advocated for a wall between church and state for a good reason: religion allied with state power more often than not led to bloodshed, and if not bloodshed, then a stifling conservatism.

Jefferson’s wall also ensured that religions could maintain their integrity and thus their authority. A collaboration between religion and politics inevitably degrades both the principles and effectiveness of each to do what they are designed to do. Jefferson knew well the limits and dangers of theocracy.

“Theocracy” is, in fact, the dividing line here. I have no problem with the existence of religions because people in American society have the protected right to congregate and celebrate whatever arcane belief-sets they want, whether that be a resurrected man-god or whatever the flavor du jour at Meetup. No one will be persecuted (at least in theory) for associating with others who share a set of beliefs.

The problem comes when one of those belief-sets, dubbed “religion,” uses theocratic principles to sculpt a democratic society into its own image. Democracy and theocracy cannot inhabit the same place and time. The United States can’t be both a nation under Christian law-principles and a secular inclusive democracy. Why? Because of the direction of obedience: the former points to a divinity as the source of power, the latter to the people. There is no middle ground here: either the Bible or the Constitution must rule. (And no cheating, either, arguing that God works through the people and their Constitution, as if the Constitution were an added book of the Bible.)

How could we de-religion (awkward coinage) the United States without violating the Constitution? Start with getting them off the public dole. This is part of a larger discussion about all organizations that have been awarded 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit status. As Mark Oppenheimer pointed out in a Time article on June 28, 2015, titled “Now’s the Time to End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions,” the “exemption-and-deduction regime has grown into a pointless, incoherent agglomeration of nonsensical loopholes, which can allow rich organizations to horde plentiful assets in the midst of poverty.” (John Oliver pointed out these absurdities when he legally turned his show, “Last Week Tonight,” into a church.)

Eliminating subsidies for religions by reforming 501(c)(3) is a start, if for no other reason than it gets the government, in the form of the IRS, out of the business of deciding what is and is not a religion (an act which is in direct contradiction of the First Amendment). The same can be said for any “faith-based” funding from the government to provide services. No country with a clear vision of social justice uses churches to provide soup kitchens for the homeless.

The next step is harder to take because it requires defenders of secularist/humanist/atheist values to demonstrate that religious influence is not automatically a benign influence without, at the same time, looking like they are saying that religious belief should be repressed.

For example, it is not out-of-bounds to point out that fundamentalist vitriol about abortion has fed violence and assassination. It is not out-of-bounds to point out that religious liberty should not be used as a license to discriminate in hiring or deny health care coverage. It is not out-of-bounds to point out that installing a stone monument to the Ten Commandments in a courthouse is government establishment of a religion, which is illegal.

Again, people can believe whatever they want. But in a democracy like ours, the founding documents name the people and not God as the authors of power in the society because of the founders’ clear understanding of the evil effects of an alliance between state and church. This is a distinction that must be maintained.

The secularist/humanist/atheist defenders must also make an affirmative argument for their values as well and show that the nation has been well served by its freethinking traditions: the task is to make Robert Ingersoll as much a household name as Pope Francis. And we need to inject some soul and fire into the undertaking. We can’t kiss the Constitution as some kiss their Bibles in a show of veneration, but neither can we be all cool and rational about our passions for liberty of conscience.

I believe that all belief-sets, whether based in divinities or science, should be put on an equal footing. This is not persecution but equalization. No good social purpose is served any longer by exempting religions from the strictures placed on all of us as citizens.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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check the Archives.

©2017 Michael Bettencourt
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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