Sunday, March 11, 2012

Freedom of Religion Doesn’t Mean What Some Want It to Mean

It is absolutely no coincidence that freedom of (and from) religion is the very first of the agreed-to 10 Constitutional Amendments referred to as the Bill of Rights.
In the mid-19th Century Alexis de Toqueville (1805-1859), a French historian and philosopher, toured the United States to see for himself how our fledgling democratic republic was working. The results of his observations appeared in his signature work, Democracy in America, published in 1835 (Vol. 1) and 1840 (Vol. 2).
One of his significant contributions was his observation concerning the impending opportunity of “…the majority raising formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion,” if, in fact, the democratic process spilled over from America’s arena of politics to the arena of everyday social life. This idea of de Toqueville’s led, later, Lord Acton (British Historian, 1834-1902) to coin the famous phrase: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority….” 
In his opinion de Toqueville saw the very detrimental possibility in our society that voting on political/legal/economic policies would morph into similar “voting” on social/cultural/personal values as some form of un-official national policy. His complete observation was: “In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers [someone may write or think] what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.” Remember, this was 180 years ago.
Watching some of the debates for the GOP presidential nomination and hearing some of the commentaries (both conservative – FOX – and progressive – MSNBC), I am struck by how much the religious views of our candidates play in the nomination/election process. It’s as if voters want to hear how religious and spiritual our elected (or nominated) officials say they are. How utterly inappropriate this is, according to our Constitution. As stated by Phillip E. Johnson (American Educator, 1940 -) “The restriction of religion to private life therefore does not … threaten the vital interests of the majority religion, if there is one, and it protects minority religions from the tyranny of the majority.”
This raises, for me, the question: Why is the opinion (to use de Toqueville’s term) of religion so critically important in an election cycle?
My initial answer? Fear and Ignorance. To assuage their fear and the world their fear thinks it sees, folks perceive their religious “world view” as paramount in their decision-making. They have to find something that will provide them with a certainty of faith. They have found that certainty – not in their personal transformation and acceptance in the Kingdom of God – but in the literal words of the Bible. Any verse anywhere in the Bible is the Word of God, and if verses contradict each other, then that’s an illustration of the mystery of God.
I discussed this issue in my book (pages 345-46) under the heading of “Recognizing the Dangers of Bibliolatry.”
“There is always a tension between the faith itself and our attempt to communicate it in a rational language at a given historical period. A relatively static authoritarianism, either of the Roman Catholic type or fundamentalist/evangelical type, so confuses the authority of the Church, the Bible, and the faith of the people that the tension, which is between God, as we understand God, and our human understanding, is removed. Without that tension the doors are opened to idolatry – in this case a blind worship of the Bible itself – or Bibliolatry.”
As Karen Armstrong pointed out in her book, The History of God, fundamentalists cannot conceive that I experience and think about God differently than they, which may be different from that Abraham experienced as a middle Bronze Age nomad or as Paul experienced as a first-century Jewish Roman citizen.
Back to an election cycle: It seems fearful religious conservatives have extended that belief-form (everybody everywhere thinks of God in the same way) to apply the Founding Fathers. Surely, Franklin, Jefferson and Paine, all of whom referred to “God,” must believe as we biblical literalists believe. The problem is they didn’t. They were essentially Deists. God was the prime (or first) mover. The Creator. God didn’t interfere in personal lives and liberty. Jefferson’s Bible had been all crossed-out except for those passages, especially parables, which began “Jesus said....“
When biblical literalists use a quote from Isaiah or Deuteronomy to justify their actions/beliefs they are denying the message of Jesus the Christ. He said He was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. His was the new message from God. The Gospel. The Good News – the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. He gave us three commandments to follow, replacing the Ten Commandments of the Israelites.
But religious conservatives cling to the Old Testament and its Ten Commandments. It’s simpler. It’s easier. But it’s incorrect, and it’s a grave error when it’s used as a litmus test for politicians.
To elevate the Bible in ways that overshadow the Gospel of the Lord is a supreme sacrilege. To pursue a political end of enacting legislative laws to ensure the apparent “sanctity” of the United States so God will once again bless us above all other nations is an act of unbelievable un-love in the name of the God of love.
Thanks for listening and, as always, feel free to share this message with my blessings.

#2 March, 2012

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