Tag Archives: religion

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Bernie’s Epistle to the Falwellites

[This article is part of a series on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. A previous Bernie Sanders speech was discussed here.]

I finally got around to watching Bernie Sanders’ speech to the students at Liberty University on September 14. [video, transcript]. I wasn’t as impressed as I had expected to be.

The most impressive thing is that he was there at all. Presidential candidates usually only talk to audiences of their supporters, and when they go to foreign territory it is often only so that their supporters can see them talking tough to the opposition (like Mitt Romney’s speech to the NAACP in 2012). But I think Bernie went to the center Jerry Falwell’s empire in an honest attempt to make converts, or at least to show that he wasn’t the Devil. More candidates, on both sides of the political spectrum, should show their flags in hostile territory. I’d love to see Hillary Clinton explain her views to an NRA convention, or Donald Trump speak to La Raza.

For their part, the Liberty University people treated Sanders with respect. He got a generous introduction from President Falwell — Jerry’s son — the audience did not boo or heckle, and some Sanders’ supporters from outside the university community were allowed to attend.

Sanders made an attempt to speak his audience’s language. He quoted the Golden Rule from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He quoted the verse from Amos that Martin Luther King often quoted, about justice rolling down like a river. And the rest of his speech was a litany structured around the phrase “There is no justice when …” that confronted the audience with the facts of income inequality in America.

I applaud him doing that. I think conservative Christians too often let themselves rationalize the economic process in America, without really confronting the results of that process.

But I think he made three mistakes. The first is that he gave a very traditional speech/sermon, standing at a podium with a printed text, speaking in the tone and cadence of a 19th-century orator who needs to make sure his voice carries to the back of the auditorium. Liberty University students are used to much higher production values than that. (Compare Ted Cruz’ announcement speech at the same venue, where he walks around the stage and speaks without notes, in a tone that suggests he is talking to each student individually.) Liberty is a place to give a TED talk, not a Cross of Gold speech.

Second, his message about income inequality is all statistics and no stories. As Stalin is supposed to have said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” When I read the conversion stories of people raised in the Religious Right who subsequently leave that movement, it’s never a statistic that turns them around, it’s confronting the human reality of people that their theology has written off. (In Rachel Held Evans’ memoir Evolving in Monkey Town — I think I’ve got the right source, but my memory might have shifted the story from somewhere else — she tells about being on a mission trip to China, looking out the bus window and realizing that according to her theology, all those millions of people out there are going to Hell. It’s the first time that she realizes deep down that “the Damned” aren’t minions of the Devil, they’re mostly just people trying to live their lives as best they can.)

Similarly, what I would want to get across to the Liberty students is the human reality of poverty in America, the fact that many poor people are already doing the best they can, and that they don’t need a lecture about values and character, they need help. That is best communicated in stories. Then you can bring in statistics and argue that they need help on a scale that individual charity can’t give, a scale that nothing but government is big enough to provide.

And only then should you reach beyond the giving-help idea, and ask why our system produces so many people who need so much help. Could we organize society differently, so that more people could succeed with less help?

Finally, while I give him credit for submitting to a Q&A at the end, he didn’t seem very well prepared for the obvious question: Why does he talk so much about protecting our society’s children, but not want the government to protect the unborn?

What he says is not bad as far as it goes: He points out the inconsistency of wanting a small government that will stay out of people’s personal lives, but also wanting that government to regulate pregnancy. But that attack on the conservative position doesn’t defend the consistency of his own views. He also doesn’t confront the question on the religious/political grounds from which it came.

Here’s what I would say: Our society and our laws recognize that something makes a human life different than an animal life, so that killing a human is murder, while killing a cow or pig is just agriculture. That difference is not something you can point to on an ultrasound — that humans have hearts or feel pain — because animals have all the same organs and suffer just like we do. For most of a pregnancy, most of us would be hard pressed to tell the difference between an ultrasound of a human fetus and a chimpanzee fetus.

Religions talk about this ineffable something as a soul, but throughout history religions have had different teachings about when the soul enters the body. Jesus doesn’t talk about the issue in any records we have, but in his day just about everyone believed the soul entered the body at the quickening, the time when a woman first feels her fetus move in the womb. Some religious leaders have taught it happened later, even as late as the first breath, as the Bible describes in Genesis 2:7. More recently, many denominations have begun to teach that the soul enters the body at conception.

A basic American principle that goes back to the Founders is that the federal government should not be adjudicating theological disputes, or taking the side of one sect against another. This is a principle whose value I think we can all see, because as satisfying as it might feel sometimes to imagine the government imposing our theology on everyone else, it would be so much worse to have the government impose somebody else’s theology on us.

That’s why I believe decisions about abortion should be made not by legislators or bureaucrats, but by individual women and their families, in consultation with the medical and spiritual advisers they choose.

Is Kim Davis a Martyr?

Thursday, the story of the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses (now that same-sex couples can marry) reached its inevitable conclusion. Having been turned away by the Supreme Court, Davis was out of legal options for delaying the moment of truth: She had to either obey a court order to issue marriage licenses, including licenses to same-sex couples, or be in contempt of court.

She chose contempt and has been jailed, while her office has begun issuing licenses in her absence. Federal Judge David Bunning had the lesser option of fining her, but concluded (correctly, I think) that fines would simply delay the resolution of the case: Davis would not pay them and would continue showing contempt for the court’s order, forcing Bunning to jail her at some later date.

Response. Presidential candidates courting the religious-right vote immediately began characterizing Davis as a martyr for her beliefs. Ted Cruz issued a statement beginning with this line:

Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith.

Mike Huckabee compared Davis to Abraham Lincoln, who “disregarded the Dred Scott 1857 decision that said black people aren’t fully human.” [1] He also tweeted that “Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubts about the criminalization of Christianity in this country”, and is planning a rally tomorrow outside the jail where she’s being held. (Some other Republican candidates have been less supportive. Lindsey Graham has been the most blunt: “As a public official, comply with the law or resign.”)

Other voices on the right portray Davis in larger-than-life terms. RedState.com founder Erick Erickson sees her case as a harbinger of civil war. Conservative Review‘s Daniel Horowitz casts Davis as this era’s Rosa Parks, and Steve Deace wants her to run for president. (Critics compare her to a different character in the civil rights movement: George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama, unsuccessfully trying to block integration.)

Martyrdom. The Christian tradition is rich with martyr stories, going all the way back to the stoning of Stephen and the imprisonment of Paul in the New Testament. In the Lutheran school I attended through eighth grade, we were sometimes asked to imagine facing a choice between denying our faith and punishment or death. (I have heard similar stories from Catholics.) Like Muslim suicide bombers, we were promised glories in Heaven that would more than compensate for any earthly suffering.

But is that what’s happening here? Does Kim Davis deserve the enthusiastic admiration of conservative Christians, and even the grudging respect of those who disagree with the stand she’s taking? Or is she undermining the rule of law and usurping the powers of her office to implement her personal religious agenda? [2]

What the judge said. Before deciding that question, it’s worthwhile to examine the court order she’s defying. In that order, Judge Bunning considers Davis’ arguments and explains why he is rejecting them.

Davis argues that by signing a license for a same-sex marriage, she would be expressing approval of such marriages, which her religion denies. Bunning counters:

The form does not require the county clerk to condone or endorse same-sex marriage on religious or moral grounds. It simply asks the county clerk to certify that the information provided is accurate and that the couple is qualified to marry under Kentucky law. Davis’ religious convictions have no bearing on this purely legal inquiry.

(Let me amplify that a little: Marriage-under-the-law and marriage-in-the-eyes-of-God have always been two different concepts. No one is asking Davis to affirm that same-sex marriages are valid in the eyes of God.)

A footnote spells out what the legal qualifications are:

A couple is “legally qualified” to marry if both individuals are over the age of eighteen, mentally competent, unrelated to each other and currently unmarried.

Davis also protests on free-speech grounds, claiming that an order that she sign the license form is compelled speech banned by the First Amendment. Bunning disagrees:

Because her speech (in the form of her refusal to issue marriage licenses) is a product of her official duties, it likely is not entitled to First Amendment protection.

In support of this view, he quotes a precedent from 1971:

When a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom.

And Bunning does not see a violation of the First Amendment’s free-exercise-of-religion guarantee:

Davis remains free to practice her Apostolic Christian beliefs. She may continue to attend church twice a week, participate in Bible Study and minister to female inmates at the Rowan County Jail. She is even free to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, as many Americans do. However, her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County Clerk.

Bunning does not mention this quote, but the principle goes back to an 1892 decision in which Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled against a policeman fired for something he said:

The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.

Davis is perfectly free to practice her religion in her personal life, but when she assumes the role of a public official, she has to act according to law. [3]

Cashing in? Hypocrisy? It’s a safe bet that St. Paul’s imprisonment wasn’t part of his grand plan to become a celebrity and get rich. But Dan Savage has been making this prediction since Davis first hit the headlines:

No one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in. There’s a big pile of sweet, sweet bigot money out there waiting for her. If the owners of a pizza parlor could raise a million dollars just by threatening not to cater the gay wedding no one asked them to cater… just imagine how much of that sweet, sweet bigot money Kim Davis is going to rake in. I’m sure Kim Davis is already imagining it.

In an interview on MSNBC, Savage spelled it out:

She will have written for her a ghost-written book, she will go on the lecture circuit, and she’ll never have to do an honest day’s work again.

Savage’s “proof in a moment” is a reference to Davis’ own checkered marital history: She’s been married four times and divorced three times, a practice which (unlike homosexuality) is explicitly condemned by Jesus in the Gospels.

Ad hoc purity. I have a more general complaint than hypocrisy, one that applies not just to government officials like Davis, but also to the baker [4] and florist who have been claiming persecution when they are not allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples: Their position relies on two principles, and one of them they just made up for this purpose.

The first principle is the one right-wing Christians always want to focus on: Homosexuality is sinful. Whether or not the rest of us agree, it’s incontestable that they believe it and have for a long, long time.

But since no one is asking them to commit homosexual acts, that principle by itself doesn’t create an issue. Their position requires a second principle: Christians should live according to a standard of purity that doesn’t allow them to involve themselves in other people’s sins.

Kim Davis has to imagine a pretty broad purity zone around herself, if verifying that two men are “over the age of eighteen, mentally competent, unrelated to each other and currently unmarried” involves her in the sin of their homosexuality. And the bakers who won’t sell a cake to a same-sex wedding reception — giving them no connection whatsoever to the actual marriage ceremony — must have an even broader purity zone.

Religious purity.

Now, there are religious people who try to live their lives according to extremely high standards of purity (like the Jain monks who wear masks so as not to kill any tiny insects they might otherwise breath in). But that does not include any of the right-wing Christians who are claiming persecution. Their Christian practice did not require an expanded purity zone until now, and even now it only applies to situations that involve gays.

For example, apparently the clerks who gave Kim Davis her marriage licenses didn’t balk at the fact that (according to Jesus) some of those marriages were adulterous. I’ll bet she didn’t have any trouble renting a hall or buying flowers or cakes. Even the most conservative Christians simply didn’t care about this kind of purity before same-sex marriage became legal, and still don’t care about it in any other context.

Here’s what that says to me: This isn’t about religion, not when it depends on a “sincerely held belief” that was invented solely for this purpose. So either it’s about personal animus against gays, or it’s about protesting the politics of same-sex marriage. Neither is the kind of moral or constitutional issue that Kim Davis’ defenders want to make it.

[1] I’m not sure which act of Lincoln’s Huckabee is referring to, and I suspect he doesn’t know either. Dred Scott laid out some general principles about slavery before Lincoln was elected, but what specifically did the Supreme Court order Lincoln to do? How did he defy that order?

[2] As satirized in this image and this story from The Onion. I suspect conservative Christians are picturing a world in which only conservative Christian public officials have the right to bend their duties around their religion. But a friend suggested this example, which corresponds pretty well to the Davis case: What if a Jewish meat inspector decides that his religious convictions require him to reject all pork? I’ve also seen this example: What if an official refuses to issue hunting and fishing licenses, because he takes “Thou shalt not kill” literally?

Some of the Kim Davis satire doesn’t have a political point, it’s just funny. For more humor, check out the hijacked #FreeKimDavis tag on Twitter.

[3] A common complaint by conservative pundits is that liberals are fine with liberal officials ignoring laws. President Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration are a frequently cited example. But there are some significant differences between the two cases, as becomes clear when you compare the justifications.

Obama’s action is justified in a memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (which I summarized at the time). Unlike Davis, the OLC memo never appeals to an authority higher than the law.

Instead, the memo outlines the executive branch’s strategy for handling the impossible situation Congress has created: The law would deport 11.3 million undocumented immigrants, but Congress has provided funding for dealing with only a tiny fraction of that number. Consequently, the administration must prioritize whom to deport.

When a court disagreed with the administration’s reasoning and issued an injunction against parts of the order, the administration stopped implementing it — except for one mix-up, which is being rectified without the judge needing to fine or jail anyone for contempt.

[4] As Dan Savage might have predicted, the bakers have made out like bandits. In the United States, being persecuted as a Christian is extremely profitable.

You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot

Throughout American history, most bigots have been nice folks who had sincere religious reasons for treating other people badly.

Social conservatives were all over the airwaves and print media this week, explaining how and why the battle over marriage equality is not over. The Supreme Court may have spoken, but the other branches of government, they promised, could still step in somehow, if we elect the right people. Or county clerks could just refuse to issue licenses. Or ordinary people could practice civil disobedience in some unspecified way. There are, Glenn Beck has promised us, ten thousand pastors willing to “go to prison or to death” over this issue (though exactly what charges will brought against them or who might try to kill them is a bit vague).

To me, the most revealing moment of this Alamo-like refusal to surrender came when Texas Senator Ted Cruz was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show. Cruz was defending the “religious freedom” of Texas clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, when Guthrie made an analogy:

GUTHRIE: If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?
CRUZ: There’s no religious backing for that.

Religion and interracial marriage. To anyone who remembers the 1960s or has read the history of interracial marriage (or civil rights in general), Cruz’ response is simply ridiculous. Opposition to interracial marriage was constantly expressed in religious terms.

For example, the reason the Supreme Court had to decide Loving v. Virginia, the case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide in 1967, was that when Richard and Mildred Loving tried to get their conviction for miscegenation overturned (so that they could legally come back to Virginia), Judge Leon M. Bazile was having none of it:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Judge Bazile’s decision says nothing about hating black people or even interracial couples. Yahoos on the street might have taunted Richard Loving as a “nigger lover”, but the judge did no such thing. He just saw the sense in a Virginia law that upheld God’s plan for the races.

Segregation. Opposition to school desegregation could be similarly respectful and devout. In 1958, Rev. Jerry Falwell preached a sermon “Segregation or Integration: Which?”. (Like all of Falwell’s pro-segregation sermons, this one is sadly unavailable online. Perhaps Liberty University might want to rectify this.) In it, he expressed his religious objection to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

That polite-but-concerned religious defense of segregation goes all the way back to 1867, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court OK’d segregated passenger trains. Chief Justice Daniel Agnew wrote:

We declare a right to maintain separate relations, as far as is reasonably practicable, but in a spirit of kindness and charity, and with due regard to equality of rights, it is not prejudice, nor caste, nor injustice of any kind, but simply to suffer men to follow the law of races established by the Creator himself, and not to compel them to intermix contrary to their instincts.

Slavery. Even slavery had religious justifications, and the breakup of the Union was presaged by the splits in major religious denominations between Northern churches who found slavery immoral and Southern churches who taught that it was part of God’s plan. As Josiah Priest wrote in 1852:

“If God appointed the race of Ham judicially to slavery, and it were a heinous sin to enslave one, or all the race, how then is the appointment of God to go into effect? …. God does never sanction sin, nor call for the commission of moral evil to forward any of his purposes; wherefore we come to the conclusion, that is is not sinful to enslave the negro race, providing it is done in a tender, fatherly and thoughtful manner.”

Hatred of men, or love of God? Like most people who oppose marriage equality for gays and lesbians today, past opponents of racial equality were not necessarily the screaming haters we see in the more dramatic videos from the civil rights movement. Far more were sedate and thoughtful people who were not aware of hating anyone. They just held a sincere belief — “in a spirit of kindness and charity”, they would tell you — that blacks were an inferior race who were better off among their own kind, or perhaps under the “tender, fatherly and thoughtful” guidance of a white master.

Most believed that God agreed with them, and could cite you chapter and verse to prove it. Freeing the slaves, desegregating the schools, allowing interracial marriage — at the time, those changes were all seen as aggressions against the religion of large numbers of American Christians.

And it is a mistake to think that such beliefs are dead relics of an era long past. There are still white supremacist churches today. As the web site of Thomas Robb Ministries in Harrison, Arkansas puts it:

For the mission God has bestowed upon His chosen people, the white race, he requires their separation.  They must honor their heritage, not despise it. Other races must honor their heritage as well. In a well ordered world, this is God’s way.

Granted, such groups are small compared to the Catholics or Southern Baptists. But your First Amendment rights don’t depend on the size of your congregation. If the religious freedom Ted Cruz wants for himself applies to Thomas Robb’s parishioners as well, then of course the county clerk must be able to refuse a marriage license to an interracial couple.

Conservatism and progress. It’s not hard to see why Cruz doesn’t want to remember or identify with the historical tradition of social conservatism: When we look back from today’s perspective, we see that the slavers and segregationists were wrong. Most of them were probably very nice people if you met them in the right circumstances, but they were wrong. They had sincerely held beliefs that were firmly anchored in their understanding of Christianity, but they were wrong.

So hardly anybody wants to claim their legacy today.

That’s the general pattern of social conservatives and progress: Eventually, progress catches up to them as well, so they can look back and see that the previous revolution in social practices and public morality was justified. The slaves should have been freed. Blacks should have been served at the Greensboro lunch counter. Women should be allowed to vote and run for office and enter the professions. (I didn’t get into the religious arguments for keeping women in the kitchen, but trust me, they were plentiful, and are also still with us.)

But this time it’s different! It always is. With no one left to defend them, our memory of the social conservatives of the past reduces to Simon Legree, KKK lynch mobs, police unleashing dogs and fire hoses against peaceful marchers, and the white rabble screaming obscenities at little black girls on their way to school. The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs.

Consequently, in every generation, the well-considered, devout bigotry of nice people is presented to the world as a new thing. They’re nothing like the villains we recall from past social-justice movements. This time they have good reasons to block progress. They have looked deep into their souls and read their Bibles and taken it to the Lord in prayer. They don’t hate anybody, they just believe that the world as it was when they were growing up was endorsed by God, and they want to stop today’s amoral radicals from upsetting God’s appointed order.

In other words, they are just like every generation of social conservatives before them. The analogy with Josiah Priest and Chief Justice Agnew and Judge Bazile and the young Jerry Falwell (who later reversed himself, removed his segregation sermons from circulation, and quietly pretended he had never believed anything else) could not be more apt.

Bigotry is not the same as hate. Bigotry just means believing that certain groups of people do not deserve the same kind of consideration you want for yourself. Their suffering and distress doesn’t count, or they must have brought it on themselves in some obscure way. You don’t have to hate those people any more than you hate your dog when you keep him penned in your yard, or hate your children when you make them eat something they hate. (The analogy of parents and children, in fact, was often applied by pro-slavery writers to the master/slave relationship. Husbands, similarly, needed to make decisions for their wives, because women were pure but unworldly creatures. That’s what men loved about them.)

I don’t know precisely why Ted Cruz or the four dissenting judges in Obergefell believe that gays and lesbians don’t deserve the equal protection of the laws, but I doubt hate has much to do with it. It doesn’t have to. The Tennessee clerks who resigned rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses — I’ll bet they’re nice people with sincere beliefs. But they’re also bigots.

Conservatives blanch in horror at that word, when someone applies it to them. In Justice Alito’s dissent, he imagines this dystopian future:

I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

How unfair, that those who find their neighbors’ relationships unworthy might themselves be examined and found wanting. How unfair, that they might be lumped together with the past bigots they so closely resemble. Don’t we understand that it’s different this time? That these are nice, thoughtful people of sincere beliefs?

We understand quite well.

Hidden residue. On the surface, bigotry against gays and lesbians may seem unrelated to racial bigotry. But when you deny your unattractive roots rather than repent and atone for them, their influence can linger in the back of your mind, occasionally peeking out at inopportune moments.

In an Alternet article picked up by Salon, Tim Wise called attention to the lingering racial bigotry implicit in some prominent denunciations of the recent marriage-equality ruling. Congressman Louie Gohmert, for example, warned of divine retribution:

God’s hand of protection will be withdrawn [from America] as future actions from external and internal forces will soon make clear. I will do all I can to prevent such harm, but I am gravely fearful that the stage has now been set.

Gohmert is far from the only person to make this point, and his statement contains no overt racism. But think about its implications: God kept the U.S. under His special protection and showered us with blessings while we committed genocide against the Native Americans and enslaved Africans by the millions. But as soon as we celebrate people of the same gender living together in loving, committed relationships, He’s done with us.

I don’t see an alternative to Wise’s interpretation: Gohmert’s statement only makes sense if you assume that the suffering of non-whites is beneath God’s notice.

Wise goes on to discuss another Ted Cruz interview, this one with Sean Hannity. The Obergefell decision coming so closely on the heels of the Court’s refusal to gut ObamaCare made for “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history”. (“I couldn’t say it more eloquently,” Hannity responded.)

Put aside the many-people-died events in American history (like Pearl Harbor or 9-11 or the bloodiest battles of the Civil War) and just restrict your attention to Supreme Court history. Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law, so I assume he knows about the Korematsu decision that OK’d putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps; and Dred Scott, where the Court declared blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”; and the 1883 decision in the Civil Rights Cases, which gave the green light to Jim Crow. To be some of the darkest 24 hours in the Court’s history, preserving ObamaCare and establishing marriage equality has to rank with those.

Again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the suffering of non-whites just doesn’t count. Wise draws his conclusion:

Sometimes, racism is manifested in the subtle way a person can dismiss the lived experiences of those racial others as if they were nothing, utterly erasing those experiences, consigning them to the ashbin of history like so much irrelevant refuse.

You don’t have to hate anybody to be bigoted against them. Believing that they don’t count is more than enough.

Summing up. There’s nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There’s nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.

Quite the opposite, that’s the normal situation. Throughout American history, most people have been pretty nice — even the bigots. America has seen nice slaveholders, nice segregationists, nice male chauvinists. And from the beginning, we have been a religious people, who could not have lived with ourselves if we couldn’t justify our bigoted beliefs in religious terms.

So we did, and we do. It’s normal.

Bigotry has a long history in the United States. And while that tradition includes haters, they’ve never been the majority. Today’s non-hateful bigots, with their sincere beliefs and their Biblical justifications, stand in a line that goes back to the beginnings of our nation. But the people in that line have consistently been wrong, and eventually even the people further up the line see it.

That’s why they never claim their legacy or own the authenticity of their place in that line. But the rest of us don’t have to humor their historical blindness. Bigotry today looks no different than bigotry 50 or 100 or 200 years ago. There’s no reason to call it anything else.

Turning the Theocracy Against Itself

What happens when atheists claim the new kind of “religious freedom”?

Ever since the Tea Party sweep of 2010, conservative Christians have been on offense in state legislatures, pushing a variety of laws that distort religious freedom — a fine principle that goes back to the foundation of our country — into something the Founders would not recognize at all: the power (not freedom) to shape society so that it doesn’t rub Christians the wrong way.

The hole in this “religious freedom” rhetoric is that in practice only Christians (and only certain kinds of them) can wield such power. The people who push these laws are shocked whenever someone wants to extend the same kind of consideration to, say, Muslims or atheists. (Muslims, after all, can’t even take for granted the original meaning of religious freedom, which included the ability to build a house of worship.) Justice Alito’s majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case more-or-less just laughed off the idea that employers with less mainstream religious views — Christian Scientists, say, who reject virtually all modern medicine — might claim the right to control their employees’ health insurance too.

In recent months progressives have been playing whack-a-mole with anti-gay “religious freedom” laws in various states, threatening boycotts and mostly succeeding in avoiding the worst.

But the way the new “religious freedom” will ultimately be brought down is to force courts to consider its laws in the light of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law”. If “religious freedom” laws end up giving atheists and Muslims the same consideration Christians are claiming, Christians will repeal those laws themselves.

In other words, non-Christians need to insist — in court — that society shouldn’t rub them the wrong way either. There will often be an aspect of the ridiculous in these cases, like the statue Satanists want to install on the grounds of the Oklahoma statehouse, now that religious statues are allowed.

A very interesting legal argument is being put forward by atheist Michael Newdow, who is famous for taking the case against the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Supreme Court, which denied his standing to sue. This time Newdow is targeting the “in God we trust” motto on the currency. (Like “under God” the motto does not go back to the Founders, who would have been horrified. It appeared on some bills during the Civil War, but wasn’t established as the national motto until 1956.)

Newdow has failed to banish “in God we trust” before, but this time he’s basing his argument not just on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but on Justice Alito’s interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The RFRA says:

Government may burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person — (1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The Hobby Lobby decision put forward a very expansive notion of what it means to “burden a person’s exercise of religion”. It used to just mean things like forcing Jews to work on Saturday or lose their jobs. But the Hobby Lobby decision extended it to forcing a corporation to fund health insurance that its employees might choose to use in ways that the offend the corporate owners.

Newdow argues that under this expansive interpretation, the government burdens atheists’ exercise of religion when it forces them to choose between

  • carrying around and distributing pieces of paper saying they trust in God,
  • forgoing the convenience of using the public currency.

And since putting “In God we trust” on the currency accomplishes no useful purpose whatsoever, this burden does not further any compelling governmental interest.

In case anybody out there wants to volunteer, Newdow is seeking plaintiffs from legal jurisdictions where no existing ruling supports “In God we trust”, especially Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.

The time commitment will be minimal (as you help write the prose relevant to your particular circumstances) and there will be no obligation to provide any financial contribution … What we need mostly are families with minor children since the Supreme Court has indicated that it is more likely to uphold constitutional (and, presumably, statutory) principles when children are involved. Please be advised that the identities of any families with children will be kept “under seal” in order to protect the children from any harms.

I don’t have children, and my published opinions on God are sufficiently ambiguous that I’d make a lousy plaintiff anyway. But I’m sure there are Sift readers out there who are just perfect for the job. One of my friends was a plaintiff in one of the important religious-freedom cases of the 1960s (when religious freedom still had its original meaning). His family’s experience was more difficult than what Newdow pictures (because their name was public) but half a century later, I think he still looks back on it with pride.

Religious Freedom: Colorado’s sensible middle way

There have been a lot of painful back-and-forths about what the proposed state “religious freedom” laws allow. Like this one, where ABC’s Jake Trapper tries to get the sponsor of Arkansas’ original RFRA bill (which has since been watered down a little) to admit that it allows “discrimination” against a same-sex couple getting married, while the legislator will admit only that it allows bakers, florists, et al to refuse to “participate in the message”.

There actually is a sensible in-between position, and I doubt a new law was necessary to allow it, because it was already embedded in the judge’s decision in the 2013 Colorado bakery case, as I noted last week.

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. … [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. [my emphasis]

Let me take this out of the gay-rights arena with a hypothetical example: Suppose I represent an atheist group that is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. I go to a baker and ask for a cake. Suppose I want him to write “God is Dead” on the cake, and he refuses. If I sue, then I believe he should win the case, because his freedom of speech is violated if he’s forced to write something he doesn’t agree with.

But now suppose we didn’t get that far: As soon as I say why I want a cake, the baker responds, “I’m not going to make a cake for an atheist group.” All I want is a cake with a 10 on top of it, and he says no. Now if I sue, I believe I should win, because the baker is discriminating against atheists as a religious group. In other words, a business open to the public should be (and I believe is, without any new religious-freedom laws) free to refuse to endorse an idea, but it should not be free to refuse service to people merely because they practice or promote that idea.

Colorado followed that principle again this week when it upheld the right of a baker not to make an anti-gay cake:

The complaint against Marjorie Silva, owner of Azucar Bakery, was filed by Castle Rock, Colo., resident Bill Jack, who claimed Silva discriminated against his religious beliefs when she refused to decorate a cake showing two groomsmen with a red “x” over them and messages about homosexuality being a sin.

Silva said she would make the cake, but declined to write his suggested messages on the cake, telling him she would give him icing and a pastry bag so he could write the words himself. Silva said the customer didn’t want that.

If conservative Christian bakers would offer gay and lesbian couples a similar compromise — “I’ll make the cake and sell you two groom figures, but you’ll have to put them on the cake yourself.” — I suspect they’d have no problems with the courts. Certainly not in Colorado, and probably not anywhere.

The loophole the Arkansas legislator is trying to wiggle through is that the Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection to “symbolic speech” — wordless actions that make a statement, like burning an American flag. He wants to claim that providing any of the services involved in a same-sex wedding can be construed as a symbolic statement that the provider approves of same-sex marriage. So a florist’s or photographer’s right to free speech is violated if s/he is forced to make such a statement.

That’s ridiculous. It’s the kind of passive aggression I’ve pointed out before: exaggerating your sensitivity in order to control others by claiming offense. Society could not function if we allowed everyone to claim this degree of moral sensitivity. (“If you force me to hire beef-eaters in my widget factory, then you’re making me say I approve of eating beef, which violates my Hindu faith.”) So it’s an implicit claim that conservative Christians have special rights that other people don’t have.

What this situation cries out for is a “reasonable person” interpretation: Would reasonable people look at the flowers at a same-sex wedding and see the florist making a political/religious statement? (“Those must come from Belle’s Flowers. I didn’t know Belle endorsed same-sex marriage. I thought she was a Christian.”) Or would they just think “nice flowers”?

This interpretation separates actual religious-freedom issues from the bogus ones that fundamentalists are putting forward. A reasonable person would assume that the officiating minister approves of the ceremony, so the minister’s presence makes a statement that the law can’t force. But florists? photographers? bakers? caterers? No.

Liberal Islam: Is it real? Is it Islam?

Religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists agree on one thing: Fundamentalism is the real religion. Every form of “liberal” or “moderate” religion [see endnote 1] is just some kind of watered-down compromise with secular humanism.

If you’re fundamentalist, you see this watering-down as heresy, a drifting away from the true Word of God. If you’re a New Atheist, it’s either the sheep’s clothing worn by dangerous wolves (who would be theocrats if they thought they could get away with it), or a convenient form of self-deception (practiced by people who are smart enough to realize that their religion is bullshit, but not courageous enough to reject it). In The End of Faith, Sam Harris boiled the thesis down to this:

Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

Plenty of Americans — many of whom are anything but ignorant of the scriptures of their traditions [2] — are liberal Christians or liberal Jews, so it’s not hard to find defenses of the liberal versions of those faiths. But the idea that there is no authentic liberal Islam is fairly widespread in this country.

As a result, while almost everyone acknowledges that some Christians or Jews take their religiosity to crazy extremes, craziness and extremism are often attributed to Islam itself. Liberal reform of Islam is something Americans simultaneously wish for and claim is impossible, because the heart of Islam is necessarily violent and intolerant.

In Harris’ controversial appearance on Bill Maher’s TV show (which I discussed in detail at the time), he mapped the Muslim community as a set of concentric circles, with terrorist jihadis like the Taliban or ISIS at the center of the faith. At the far outside fringe

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So any effort to liberalize Islam comes from “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously”. Mullah Omar couldn’t have said it better.

But Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol is a liberal and a Muslim who seems passionate about both liberalism and Islam. I can find nothing “nominal” about the faith he expresses, describes, and justifies in Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty. These are a few of the conclusions he comes to:

  • Islam will thrive best under a secular government that neither mandates Islam nor tries to suppress it, because an Islam of the heart cannot be forced. “Had God willed,” says the Qur’an [3], “He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you.” A society that suppresses either Islam or competing views is trying to invalidate that test, and so is doing what Allah refused to do.
  • The best form of secular government for Muslims would be liberal democracy, where the majority rules but respects minority rights.
  • People of all faiths should be free to practice their religion as they see fit, including the freedom to change or abandon their religious identification.
  • Government should punish crime (offenses against the legitimate rights of others), not sin (disobedience of religious injunctions).
  • Insults to Islam or its prophets should be met with reasoned arguments and non-violent responses like protests and boycotts. “In this free world,” Akyol writes, “there will certainly be ideas that Muslims, including me, will not like. What we need to do is respond to them with reason and wisdom.”

He doesn’t arrive at these positions by saying “We just have to ignore what the Qur’an says and adapt to the modern world.” Akyol never expresses any doubt that Allah is real or that the Qur’an is a revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Instead, he argues from within the Islamic tradition that there have all along been multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, and that the fundamentalist ones currently popular are corruptions due to unfortunate historical circumstances of the post-Qur’anic era.

In particular, he distinguishes between the Qur’an and the Hadiths — sayings and stories of Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an, but were told and codified in the centuries immediately after the Prophet’s death. Conservative Muslims regard the Hadiths as authoritative, but Akyol does not, for two reasons. First, some Hadiths were probably put in Muhammad’s mouth by later caliphs who wanted to justify their own policies. And second, the message of the Qur’an is what speaks with divine authority, not the messenger. When he was not reciting what had been told to him by the archangel, Muhammad was a man of his time. Akyol believes he was a good and wise man, or Allah would not have chosen him to be His messenger. But, unlike the common Christian view of Jesus, Muhammad was not himself divine.

The Prophet brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words, but he lived a life of his own age. … In fact, expecting from Muhammad a perfect universal wisdom, totally unbound from his time and culture, would not be consistent with Qur’anic theology.

At least one traditional story makes this distinction explicit: During a military campaign, a general questions whether the spot the Prophet has chosen to camp comes from divine revelation or just war tactics. When Muhammad answers “war tactics”, the general proposes a more favorable camp site, which Muhammad accepts. In other words, in his lifetime Muhammad could be criticized and corrected. So saying “Muhammad did it this way” — even if we could be sure he did indeed do it that way, which is not always clear — does not by itself prove that a practice is best in all times and places. [4]

The status of women is a good example. The early Muslim community treated women far better than the Arabian tribal societies that preceded it. (In fact, Muslim women in India lost their property rights when they came under British rule.) But freezing or exaggerating its practices and applying them today stands out as repressive. Which aspect of Muhammad’s example should today’s Muslims follow: Should they raise the status of women above the practices of their day, as Muhammad did in his day, or should they do exactly as Muhammad did? [5]

Akyol argues that the Qur’an itself contains mostly abstract principles, and does not spell out a legal code or a system of government. Those were added later, often by fallible humans trying their best to be good and just, but also occasionally by rulers who wanted to maintain their power, and by scholars and jurists who wanted to curry favor with those rulers.

For example, the injunction to kill apostates is based on a Hadith in which Muhammad says, “If someone discards his [Muslim] religion, kill him.” But the Qur’an says:

The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and him who please disbelieve.

The different religions and sects should “compete in doing good”, and trust God to sort it all out in the hereafter.

Such a liberal reading of the Qur’an is not some innovation Akyol came up with himself, but is part of an Islamic tradition as old as any other. He points to an early school known as the Postponers, who taught that ambiguous or obscure Qur’anic verses could not be decisively adjudicated in this life, so Muslims with conflicting interpretations should tolerate each other until Allah revealed the truth to them after death. Another school elevated reason above tradition as a means of understanding the Qur’an. It was eventually suppressed, but its greatest thinkers became known in the West as Averroes and Avicenna, who had a profound influence on Christian rational thought by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. [6]

The 19th-century Ottoman caliphs attempted to liberalize Islam, granting (for a time) equal rights to religious minorities, and expanding the rights of women beyond what was common in some European countries.

Even shariah, the Islamic law code, is not necessarily the draconian system advocated by the Taliban. Like English common law, shariah developed through the legal interpretations jurists used to decide specific cases, and contained multiple schools of thought, ranging from the liberal Hanafi to the conservative Hanbali. The Ottoman code was closer to Hanafi, while the Taliban version is based on Hanbali.

Akyol attributes the failure of these liberalizing movements to a series of historical circumstances, rather than to some inherent flaw in Islam.

  • The temptations of power politics corrupted Islam in much the same way that Christianity was corrupted after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
  • In the medieval war of ideas between reason and tradition, reason became associated with the merchant class and tradition with the landlord class. When the landlords won the political/economic conflict, the Islam of the merchants was suppressed. When Europe reached a similar point centuries later, the merchants won.
  • Ottoman liberalization came too late, and the Empire fell before it could finish reforming itself. The post-Ottoman nationalist movements identified liberal Islam with the bad old days, and distinguished themselves either by turning to conservative Islam (as in Wahhabist Arabia) or to an Islam-suppressing secularism (as in Ataturk’s Turkey).
  • Between the world wars, the British and French dominated the heart of the Muslim world. They propped up conservative extremist governments like the House of Saud, while lecturing Muslims about liberal values. As a result, any liberalizing Muslims seemed to be aping the hated West and denouncing their own culture.
  • The vast oil wealth of Arabia was a historical accident that provided near-infinite resources for the spread of Wahhabism. In addition, the oil wealth of other Muslim-majority countries has influenced history in a different way: Economies in which wealth derives from resource extraction rather than enterprise are inherently conservative.

Akyol finds great significance in the history and current state of his own country, Turkey. Turkey is one of the rare parts of the former Ottoman Empire that was never occupied or dominated by the West. The government that rose after World War I was a secular tyranny that did its best to suppress expressions of Islam. (One of Akyol’s earliest memories is of his father being taken away by the secular government.) Ever since, its politics have revolved around conflict between the secular army and the Muslim-majority electorate. So in Turkey, Islam has been the democratizing force.

Democracy seems to be winning in Turkey, so the next conflict is whether the country will be a liberal democracy (in which minority religions are protected from the Muslim majority), or an authoritarian democracy (in which the majority does whatever it wants). That conflict is still playing out, but Akyol feels that the momentum is on his side, the liberal side. [7]

The reason for his confidence is that Turkey is revisiting the merchant/landlord conflict that came out so badly in the Middle Ages, but this time the merchants are winning. The state-dominated economy of Ataturk is increasingly giving way to a market economy, dominated by Muslim businessmen who want closer ties to Europe (and who have never been under the European thumb, unlike the business classes of most other Muslim countries). The everyday experience of merchants favors tolerating others, talking to others, and trading with others. Akyol believes that a Turkey of economic freedom and prosperity will empower both liberal democracy and liberal religion, as it has everywhere else.

If that happens, then the Muslim world will have an example unlike anything it saw in the 20th century: a Muslim country where economic, political, and religious liberty developed indigenously, without foreign invasions, imported constitutions, or puppet governments.

An interpretation of the Qur’an that makes such a thing possible might be very tempting.

[1] Liberal religion is not just religion combined with liberal politics. Instead, this is the Enlightenment sense of liberal, i.e. free. The liberal version of a faith tradition is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, and respectful of the individual conscience. A typical liberal belief is that religious truth can’t be boiled down to a creed or catechism that covers all eventualities. Instead, the essence of the faith is in abstract principles (i.e., “Love your neighbor”) whose application requires discernment and may change from one era to the next.

Consequently, liberal faiths tend to be open to new interpretations and tolerant of divergent ideas. Though this openness and tolerance does make the religion more amenable to secularism, it arises out of the faith itself rather than through compromise with secularism. In the West, it is easier to make the opposite case: that liberal Christianity and Judaism came first, and secularism arose from them.

[2] By coincidence, Christian theologian Marcus Borg died this week.

In general, arguments with Harris’ followers tend to go round and round the following circle: Why do you think fundamentalists are the most authentic Christians (or Jews)? Because they’re the ones who take the scriptures literally. Why is that the determining characteristic? Because that’s what the most authentic Christians do.

In reality, the idea that fundamentalists are the “true” believers is just a prior assumption, based on nothing.

[3] Over the years, I’ve used many transliterations for the Muslim scripture. In this post it is the Qur’an, because that’s how Akyol spells it. I apologize for any confusion.

[4] A Christian analogy would be to the infallibility of the Pope. The Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. But if he says in casual conversation that strawberries are better than watermelons, he’s just expressing a personal opinion.

[5] Christians will recognize this conflict from the arguments over what Paul’s epistles say about women. Was the apostle writing to tell Timothy how women should behave in the specific churches Timothy might found in the first-century Roman Empire? Or was he laying down ideal practices for all times and places? Or was the epistle itself written later and attributed to Paul, to authorize practices already in place?

[6] So if you buy the argument in [1], Western secularism owes a debt to Islam.

[7] He is not claiming that present-day Turkey is a utopia of freedom, which would be indefensible. For a view of Turkey from the point of view of racial minorities like Kurds and Armenians, see another recent book There Was and There Was Not by the Armenian-American author Meline Toumani.

Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam

The argument about Islam between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time brought to mainstream attention a phenomenon that’s been simmering for a long time: Islam brings out something ugly in many of the most vocal atheists like Harris and Maher.

Part of the problem is obvious in the staging: Maher has arranged the show in such a way that the onus of defending non-jihadi Muslims falls not on some prominent Islamic leader, or even on a rank-and-file Muslim, but on Ben Affleck, an actor who (as far as I know) has no connection to Islam. Affleck occupies a position that I occasionally find myself in (usually with regard to political issues like Birtherism) and thoroughly hate: He recognizes that the conversation is taking an ugly turn, and he’s completely unprepared to respond to it, but everyone else is just letting it go. He boils over not because he thinks he is the right person to have this argument, but because he’s the one who’s here.

Probably this post has already gotten three comments from people who have read no further and are shocked that I’m taking Affleck’s (and Islam’s) side over Harris and Maher. The Weekly Sift has a substantial atheist/agnostic readership, and for good reason: I’m a consistent defender of the wall of separation between Church and State, and I fight back against the attempts by right-wing American Christians to subvert concepts like religious freedom. Whether or not I am an atheist myself depends on your definitions, but a major theme of my explicitly religious writing and public speaking (like this recent example) is how someone with a secular worldview can get the benefits claimed for traditional religion (serenity in the face of death, for example) without accepting its doctrines.

Plus, I’m usually a Bill Maher fan. (Though don’t expect me to defend him segueing out of a Sarah Palin joke with “speaking of dumb twats“.) I’ve linked to a number of his New Rule rants, and used a Maher quote to lead off the Sift as recently as September 29.

So, Harris and Maher might ask, what’s up with me? Why do I have what Joseph Farah has called the “liberal blind spot on Islam“? Here’s how Harris made that case on Real Time:

We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Maher had introduced the segment like this:

Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. … Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities (including homosexuals). These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say “In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking” — then they get upset.

The discussion that follows largely misses what I think is the main point, and in that sense it resembles those why-don’t-you-care-about-black-on-black-crime discussions that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Statistics are quoted (“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted”, much like “[blacks make up] 50% of homicide victims in this country, and 90 percent of those victims are killed by other black people.”), and many true facts are stated — but stated within a frame that already embodies the offensive content. “This is based on reality, Ben,” Maher insists. “We’re not making this up.”

Nicholas Kristof does push back in the right direction:

This does have the tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African Americans.

But, like Affleck, he isn’t prepared well enough to unpack that idea.

Let me give it a shot. The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

Harris’ rhetoric is shot through with this orientalist framing. Elsewhere in the conversation he maps it out:

Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in Paradise. They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom, and Paradise, and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world. … But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say: “That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that.” But they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.

Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.

So the question of who is a real Muslim, and what makes someone a real Muslim — that’s not something for Muslims to wrangle out among themselves, it’s for a hostile outsider to pronounce. That’s where the bigotry is. Statistics about how many people fall into Harris’ concentric circles are irrelevant. The bigotry has already been baked into the circle-drawing itself.

In case that point went past you, Harris underlines it later on:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So if you think you’re a Muslim, but you don’t support ISIS or want to kill apostates, your Islam is just “nominal” and you “don’t take the faith seriously”. It doesn’t matter if you’re an imam and have devoted your life to your vision of Islam and your relationship with Allah; you’re not “serious”. Because it’s up to Sam Harris to decide what “serious” Islam is. And, like a colonial governor of hostile natives, he’s going to “prop up” the people he has identified as not “serious” about the native culture.

Harris ought to be old enough to remember the final decade or so of the Cold War — the era when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance — when similarly vicious framing was used against atheists: Soviet Communists were the real atheists. Secular humanists might nominally be atheists, but they were just fellow-traveling dupes of the Soviet Communists.

If you lived through that, you shouldn’t want to do it to anybody else.

Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing, as I pointed out when I reviewed The End of Faith for UU World magazine in 2006. He implicitly assumes from the outset that fundamentalism is the essence of religion. This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

The End of Faith presents contemporary religious debate as an argument between fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson and atheists like Harris. Everyone else is a “moderate” — wishy-washy people who don’t have the intellectual integrity to choose between fundamentalism and atheism. The message of The End of Faith is that “moderates” need to get off the fence; by continuing to support theistic religion in any form at all, they’re empowering the fundamentalists.

When Harris argues that “moderates” do not represent the essence of their faith, he quotes scripture — just as a fundamentalist would. He accepts without question or examination the fundamentalist assertion that a faith is defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture.

A more mature view of religion is contained in another book I reviewed for UU World: James Carse’ The Religious Case Against Belief. To Carse, Christianity is the conversation that Jesus began, not a belief system laid down by Jesus and recorded once-and-for-all in the New Testament. Likewise, Islam is not the Quran, it is the sum total of conversations the Quran has inspired. The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.

This is not some bizarre notion unique to Carse. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Penitent, the novel’s ultra-orthodox narrator announces a similar opinion: that the highest form of Judaism was not the one Moses brought down from Sinai with the Torah, but the Judaism that developed after millennia of discussion about the Torah.

Harris’ failing isn’t that he has gotten the essence of Islam (or of religion in general) wrong. (This is another key point of Orientalism.) It’s that religion is a complex human phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single essence. There is nothing to know about “the Negro” or about the Orient or Islam or Judaism or religious people in general. These are all conceptual fences that enclose diverse populations, not natural categories that each have a unique Platonic essence. So you can quote all the statistics you want about, say, the size of Jewish noses. But that caricature of the big-nosed Jew is still anti-Semitic.

So finally, what should we make of the claim that “you can’t criticism Islam” or “you can’t criticize religion”? First, note it’s resemblance to the common claim by white conservatives that they can’t criticize President Obama without being called racists. If you look at the specific instances they point to, it’s usually not that hard to see something racist going on. And the airwaves seem to be full of criticism of President Obama; lots of people manage it without sounding racist. Conservatives should learn to see what separates racist criticism of Obama from non-racist criticism of Obama, not squawk because somebody thinks they’re racists.

The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Want to criticize something that people do, like when families murder their own girls in “honor killings“? By all means criticize that. Want to point out that many such murderers justify themselves by pointing their Muslim faith? That’s fine. (Of course, you might also point out that the problem appears in other religions too, and that many other Muslims disagree with the killings.) What you shouldn’t do, though, is set yourself up as the Pope of Islam and pronounce that the killers are the “real” Muslims and their critics are just “nominal” Muslims.

Vlad Chituc, who writes for a very good secularist blog called NonProphet Status, has an excellent set of suggestions for criticizing religion effectively and without orientalizing it. One of them resembles what I’ve been saying here:

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

… I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality

Are the principles that protect religious liberty secure, or are recent court decisions steps on a slippery slope?

One of this week’s big stories was Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of S.B. 1062, “An Act … Relating to the Free Exercise of Religion“. Proponents claim that this law (and similar proposed laws around the country) is necessary to protect Christians from being forced to participate in same-sex marriage celebrations, in violation of their freedoms of conscience and religious liberty.

There’s one important thing you need to understand about this controversy: It’s symbolic. I went looking for cases where businesses were forced to deal with same-sex weddings and I found exactly five in the entire country.

  • In New Mexico, a photography business was successfully sued by a lesbian couple whose commitment ceremony (same-sex marriage being illegal in New Mexico) it refused to photograph. (I covered the ruling in a weekly summary last August.)
  • The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ruled that a bakery had violated state law when it refused to make a wedding cake for another lesbian couple.
  • A judge in Colorado similarly ruled against a bakery.
  • A Vermont inn was sued for refusing to host a wedding reception for a same-sex couple, which the owners claim was a misunderstanding. The case was settled out of court, so we don’t know what a judge would have said.
  • A suit is pending against a florist in Washington.

Some writers make it sound like these are representative examples out of many, but they may well be the only instances to date.

Last June, the Pew Research Center estimated that over 70,000 same-sex marriages had been performed in the United States, plus an uncounted number of civil unions and legally unrecognized commitment ceremonies like the one in New Mexico. In all but a handful of them, people seem to have worked out whatever differences they had. Wedding planners, photographers, bakers, dress-makers, tuxedo-rental places, florists, celebrants, meeting halls, church sanctuaries … either they approved or they swallowed their disapproval or the couples took the hint and looked for service-with-a-smile elsewhere. Or maybe they found compromises they could all live with. (“I’ll sell you the cake, but you’ll have to put the two brides on top yourself.”)

In short, S.B. 1062 does not address a practical issue. Across the country, people are behaving like adults and working things out without involving the government. Governor Brewer recognized as much in her veto statement:

Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.

The uproar is also symbolic on the other side. Critics of S.B. 1062 warned about “gay Jim Crow” laws, but just as there is no flood of suits against fundamentalist Christian florists, neither are large numbers of businesses waiting for the state’s permission to display “No Gays Allowed” signs. As The Christian Post pointed out, Arizona (like many other states) has no state law protecting gays from discrimination. (New Mexico does, which is why the lesbian couple won their suit against the photographers.) So outside a few cities that have local anti-discrimination ordinances, Arizona businesses are already free to put out “No Gays Allowed” signs without S.B. 1062. If any have done so, nobody is making a big deal out of it.

What this all resembles more than anything is the argument over the constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. Actual flag-burnings are so rare that most of the amendment’s backers couldn’t cite a particular case, but they felt very strongly about it all the same. The few cases that actually exist are merely chips in a poker game; they are symbols of some deeper philosophical conflict, but mean little in themselves.

That’s not to say that philosophical conflicts are unimportant, but they are also not urgent. Because major injustices against one side or the other are not happening every day — and depending on your definition of “major injustice” may not be happening at all — we can afford to take some time to think this through calmly: What principles of religious liberty should we be trying to protect, and are any of those principles implicated in the cases that have been decided?

In my view, one basic principle is: No one should be forced to participate in a religious ritual. That’s why I don’t want teachers leading prayers in public school classrooms, especially when the children are too young to make a meaningful choice about opting out. For the same reason, it would be wrong to sue a priest who refused to perform a Catholic marriage ritual for a marriage his church did not sanction.

Some supporters of laws like S.B. 1062 (and the pending H.B. 2481) are citing this principle, but I think we need to be careful not to stretch the definition of a religious ritual. For example, civil marriage is not a religious ritual, so neither an officiating judge nor the clerk who issues a license is participating in religion. (If they were, that would seriously violate the separation of church and state.) Requiring that they do their jobs is not a violation of their religious liberty. The fact that you don’t make the laws and may disagree with them is a normal hardship of working for the government, not a First Amendment issue.

Similarly, a wedding reception is not a religious ritual; it’s a party that happens to take place after a religious ritual. Baking the cake or DJing the music or manning the bar are not sacramental roles, and do not deserve that kind of protection.

A second principle is: No one should be compelled to make a statement against his or her conscience. This was used as a defense in the Colorado bakery case. Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer rejected it like this:

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. The undisputed evidence is that [the baker] categorically refused to prepare a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding before there was any discussion about what that cake would look like. [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage.

So if a wedding-reception singer refused to sing some special gay-rights anthem, I would support him under this principle. But if he refused to perform at all, or refused to perform more-or-less the same collection of songs he does for everyone else who hires him, then I wouldn’t. Leading the friends and families of a same-sex couple in “The Hokey Pokey” is not a religious or political statement that should challenge anyone’s conscience.

Weighing against these exceptions is a public-accommodation principle that got established during the Civil Rights movement: If a business serves the public, then it should serve the whole public. The point of Jim Crow laws wasn’t to protect the consciences of white business owners, it was to exclude black people from the general public. If excluding gay and lesbian couples from the general public is the purpose behind refusing to serve them, that shouldn’t be allowed.

People try to fudge this principle by creating me-or-him situations. I grew up reading Ann Landers’ advice column in the newspaper. Ann used to regularly get questions like: “My good friend says she can’t come to my wedding if my other good friend is going to be there. What should I do?” As best I remember, her answer was always something like: “Invite everyone who you want to see there. If your friend doesn’t want to come, that’s her decision.” The same idea works here: Everyone should be invited to the marketplace. If you feel that the presence of gays and lesbians in the marketplace means you can’t be there, that’s your decision. No one has forced you out. (This is my answer to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, who claim “Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to shut down its adoption services.”)

The other frequently raised issue has to do with venues: Will the law force my church sanctuary to be available for same-sex marriages? The idea that a sanctified site will be used for some unholy purpose strikes many people very deeply.

The case that is always cited — often not very precisely — involves a Methodist group, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey. The OGCMA owned a boardwalk pavilion, which the judge described as “open-air wood-framed seating area along the boardwalk facing the Atlantic Ocean.” The Methodist group used the facility “primarily for religious programming”, but had received a tax exemption for the property the pavilion was on. One condition of the exemption was that the facility be open to the public. The OGCMA had a web page advertising “An Ocean Grove Wedding”, which cost $250 in rent. The OGCMA did not conduct or plan the weddings, and the page said nothing about Methodist doctrines concerning marriage.

Until the OGCMA turned down a lesbian couple that wanted to celebrate a civil union in 2007, no one could recall a wedding being refused for any reason other than scheduling. After the couple sued, OGCMA re-organized its use of the pavilion. It stopped advertising it to the public and sought a different kind of tax exemption available to it as a religious organization. The judge found:

[The OGCMA] can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the [New Jersey Law Against Discrimination]. It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.

Recognizing that the couple mainly sought “the finding that they were wronged” and that the OGCMA had not “acted with ill motive”, the judge assessed no damages.

In other words, this example is not particularly scary when you know the details. The principle here is pretty simple: If you worry about the sanctity of your holy space, don’t rent it out to the public — which is good advice in general, irrespective of same-sex marriage. If you do rent it out, then we’re back to the public-accommodation principle.

In conclusion, I’m not seeing anything particularly alarming in the five cases (six, if you add the boardwalk pavilion case) that are motivating people to support S.B. 1062 or similar laws. Reasonable principles are prevailing, and I do not see a slippery slope.

So if you’re worried about your minister being forced to bless a same-sex wedding in your sanctuary or go to jail, don’t be. It’s not happening and nobody is advocating for it to happen. Nothing in the cases that have been decided leads in that direction.

To Experience Real Religious Discrimination, Turn Atheist

From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger. But two recent stories underline a contrasting point: If Christians really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.

Christian pastor Ryan Bell is literally trying, and it’s not going well. In the spirit of A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, Bell announced that he would live 2014 as an atheist and chronicle his experiences on his A Year Without God blog. In his announcement post, he portrayed his experiment partly as a religious identity crisis and partly as an attempt to answer a friend’s question: “What difference does God make?”

How could Bell explain the difference unless he had tried both? So:

For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else’s circumstances. (I trust that if there really is a God that God will not be too flummoxed by my foolish experiment and allow others to suffer as a result).

I will read atheist “sacred texts” — from Hobbes and Spinoza to Russell and Nietzsche to the trinity of New Atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. I will explore the various ways of being atheist, from naturalism (Voltaire, Dewey, et al) to the new ‘religious atheists’ (Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin). I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them. I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on.

No doubt Bell anticipated writing about challenges like: Could he really “live as if there is no God”, or would his sensibilities rebel at the vision of a godless universe? Would he get depressed without God to give him hope? Would his moral character weaken? Would he have to abandon his experiment if he faced a true life crisis? Near the end of the year, would he look forward to the day when he could return to religion? In 2015 would he, like King David, be “glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord”?

What actually happened is that in the first week he lost all his sources of income.

I was an adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University (APU) teaching Intercultural Communication to undergrads, and Fuller Theological Seminary, coaching doctoral candidates in the writing of their dissertation proposals. Both are Christian institutions of higher learning that have a requirement that their instructors and staff be committed followers of Jesus and, obviously, believers in God. They simply feel they cannot have me as a part of the faculty while I’m am in this year long process. … The other work I do is consulting with congregations … the fact that I was embarking on a year without god was just too much for them.

His friends have not ostracized him, but he hadn’t realized that was even a risk. Apparently it was.

We still love you!

So many of my closest friends and colleagues have said this to me in the past few days. My initial, unspoken reaction was, “Well, I certainly hope so.” Now I understand that this is not a forgone conclusion. I didn’t realize, even four days ago, how difficult it would be for some people to embrace me while I was embracing this journey of open inquiry into the question of God’s existence.

The lesson seems pretty clear: If you’re having doubts about God’s existence, don’t tell anybody.

The second story concerns Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist blog. Mehta lives in Naperville, Illinois. In October, the local American Legion post in nearby Morton Grove stopped giving financial support to the Morton Grove Park District because one of the district’s board members was refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Mehta asked his readers to make up the difference, and raised $3000 to more than replace the Legion’s $2600. There were no strings. Mehta says, “the only ‘ethical implication’ of accepting money from atheists is that you get money.”

The Park District turned it down. So did the library, after the library’s treasurer referred to Mehta and his readers as “a hate group” and backed up that accusation by reading “a couple of the religiously-inflammatory and expletive-ridden comments posted on Mehta’s Friendly Atheist Facebook Page.” (As if you couldn’t find offensive comments on any popular Facebook page, including Christian ones.) She asked the other trustees: “Would you take money from the Klan?”

The apparent reference is to Georgia’s refusal to let a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan participate in its Adopt-a-Highway program. But there the Klan would get a benefit:

The program provides advertising for sponsors who agree to clean a stretch of road on a sign posted along the stretch.

Mehta, on the other hand, was asking for nothing: no plaque, no mention in the newsletter, nothing. Just take the money. He comments:

I firmly believe that if the money came from the “Friendly Christian,” none of this would be an issue. The “A” word is just freaking everybody out.

Finally, the Niles Township Food Pantry cashed the check. If any of the food it bought burst into flames when the needy said grace over it, I haven’t heard.

I know: As examples of religious persecution, neither of these stories holds a candle to the Holocaust or the Inquisition. Nobody is dying, languishing in prison, or getting tossed into a fiery furnace. But in the same way, they put into perspective fundamentalist Christian problems like not being able to display a Ten Commandments monument at the state supreme court, or your monument maybe being forced to share public space with other people’s monuments, or the law forcing you to treat gays and lesbians as if they were part of the general public, or being offended that someone wished you “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”.

But still, Christians can give no-strings-attached money to the local library without worrying that they might be likened to the KKK. Compared to the alternatives, being Christian in America is still a pretty cushy gig.


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