It’s in the nature of many religions to bully those outside religion in general and even outside their own specific faith. Christianity and Islam are the worst offenders. Examples abound through history: Catholics versus Protestants, Shia versus Sunni, and religious versus nonreligious. Pogroms, wars, executions, civil penalties, shunning, and penalties both social and economic have been employed with fervor by those who speak for unseen gods. “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully,” observed Blaise Pascal, “as when they do it from religious conviction.”
I shall focus on Christianity here, choosing not to address Islam for two reasons: first because Islam is so oppressive once in a controlling position that making my point would be like shooting fish in a barrel, second because Christianity doesn’t deserve to escape challenge simply because it is not as repressive as Islam. As to bullying, the difference between Christians as a group and Muslims as a group is one of degree, not substance.
Clearly, millions of Christians do not think of themselves as bullies. Many if not most Christians do not mean to be bullies. Indeed, there is no ill intent among the Christians I know well. Most are kind, helpful, thoughtful, trustworthy, well-meaning persons. They might dismiss my point out of hand because the self-concept of bully is so foreign to them, so ridiculous to contemplate as not to be worth consideration. That is a conclusion with blinders, however, for it fails to recognize the millions who do wish to force their beliefs on others, not to mention the vast difference between the behavior of a group and members of a group taken individually. It is not uncommon in human affairs that ethical individuals can comprise an unethical group.
In the opinion of each Christian, God has described how life should and should not be lived. Among Christians, there are vast differences in what God has decreed, so it is always problematic when a Christian claims God says this or that. Even from one congregation to another (there are over 300,000 in the US), there are differences. Further, within each church there are even more disagreements, though lesser ones. Still, there are broad matters on which a majority of Christians can agree. Catholics and Protestants, for example, can get together on the importance of belief in God and Jesus. When Jews are added to the mix, Jesus drops out. (In US history, Jews have been included only if a significant proportion of the population or if political correctness of the era frowns on excluding them.)
The United States was formed by instituting a godless Constitution in September 1787. Religion was not among the hot topics in the convention that wrote the Constitution, although its Article 6 decreed, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” After ratification, ten amendments were quickly added (referred to as the “Bill of Rights”), the first of which said, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The new federal government was to be religiously neutral. Although many founders were religious (some Deists, but most Christians), they did not create a “Christian nation” in the sense of a Christian government. To the founders, freedom of religion was important, and they understood the greatest threats to such liberty were religions themselves. (The Declaration of Independence spoke of God, not Jesus, making it possible for Jews and Deists to sign on.)
The colonies and the later new country experienced a great deal of religion-on-religion strife, as well as government interference in religion. In a previous post (“Our Debt to Roger Williams,” Aug.26, 2013) I opined on the early struggle in the 17th century. It began early and continued with shameful violence into the 19th century. In modern times the less violent Christian cudgel has been taken up against equality for women, abortion, and homosexuality, as well as making vehement demands that local, state, and federal government support Christianity. The latter continues today. Not only are there severe threats to church/state separation, but revisionists of the Christian Right (including fabrications of the discredited David Barton) have gone so far as to preach that the founders meant no separation of church and state at all. Like the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts, the Christian Right has scant interest in religious freedom, except for themselves. They have so inverted the concept that religious freedom, as they use it, means having the right to tell others what to do.
Inescapably, one challenge to democracy is never ending irreconcilable differences of opinion. Civil governance must be robust to provide a lasting framework of political resolution without, at the same time, shortchanging freedoms. Civility on a social level and dedication to the provisions of such a system (until that system is lawfully changed) are required to prevent collapse. Just as courts can overrule governmental actions that violate the supreme document on which the country is founded, elected representatives acting within their lawful latitude cannot be overruled by individual government employees.
Our country was designed to accommodate citizens of whatever convictions about religion, with no governmental adjudication or even favor to one or another of these convictions. Founders who were Christians related to religion in a passionate and personal way as individuals, but knew that allowing the civil authority into the conflict was a different matter. Government could be neither religious nor anti-religious; it must be a-religious.
Government, however, is composed of individuals like governors, police officers, school teachers, and driver’s license clerks. Every person who speaks for any part of government must carry out the a-religious commitment—not in their private lives, of course, but in their governmental capacity. That line of thought is simple and enables “we the people” through a careful process to decide the largest questions, including what will be “rights.” The personal self-control necessary to maintain governmental discipline right down to specific topics and specific persons (e.g., in marriage license applications) has not proven to be easily maintained, whether due to carelessness, lack of understanding, or zealous proselytizing.
Consequently, the concerns I’m voicing are not abstract issues. They come down to millions of exchanges between individual persons in our schools, courts, legislatures, and other parts of local, state, and federal governments. In my next post, “Christian bullying (Part 2),” I will share a number of specific situations in which Christian bullying is regularly found—instances so widely present as to touch not just some, but most Americans.
Here is a single example, included here because of current news about Kim Davis, elected County Clerk of Rowan County in Morehead, Kentucky. Ms. Davis is a Christian who thinks her religion-based view of gay marriage should, in the Rowan County Clerk’s office, trump the Supreme Court of the United States. She is not alone in that opinion. Many elected officials, religious leaders, and regular citizens also believe that their interpretation of God’s way of marriage is one-man-one-woman and that homosexual marriage is an abomination. (It should be noticed that not all Christians accept that interpretation.) They are fully entitled to that belief as individuals and as faith groups.
But they are not entitled to redefine public employment unilaterally based on that belief. Their church does not have the right to decide public policy. Similarly, it is not lawful for a public school teacher to teach his or her religion to students even in subtle ways. Rights held under the Constitution by citizens are not subject to what a county official or school teacher decides are legitimate rights of citizenship. In flagrant opposition to these principles, Ms. Davis released this press release just a few days ago:
“I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our history is filled with accommodations for people’s religious freedom and conscience. I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned – that conscience and religious freedom would be protected.”
It is impossible to read her statement without noting and even valuing the sincerity in her conviction and the importance she places of following what she believes is a divine command. To squelch Kim Davis’s right to shout these comments from the rooftops or to interfere with her living in accord with them would be a clear violation of the rights guaranteed under the Constitution, rights we all cherish, rights the American experiment (inherited not from religion, incidentally, but from Enlightenment philosophers) boldly brought to the world.
[Within a few days, Clerk Davis was jailed for defying U. S. District Judge David L. Bunning’s order to desist her obstruction of gay applicants’ right to marry. Christian Right reaction was soon forthcoming. Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee praised her for “not abandoning her religious convictions and standing strong for religious liberty.” His usual doomsday scenario came from Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and staunch defender of the “Christian nation” position: “Religious liberty in America is in grave danger . . . this is about . . . the ability of Christians and other religious people to serve in positions of public trust. . . in effect . . . barring those who hold biblical views of marriage from positions of public service. . . The time to protect and accommodate religious liberty is now.” (I can remember similar statements made following court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Loving v. Virginian in 1967, and in less heralded cases that struck down decades of previously legal, but inhumane traditions.)]
Our rights belong to us acting as individuals. They do not belong to the government at federal, state, or local levels. They do not belong to the positions of mayor, sheriff, or County Commissioners. They do not belong to the County Clerk position and office. So while Kim Davis—the individual—is free to express and to practice her religion, for the County Clerk to do so is just as clearly a violation of others’ rights, a civil offense. Insidious nullification of lawful rights by piously mouthing commitment to misconstrued religious rights does not give up easily.
The Christian Right and others have confused the latitude allowed to government operatives with the religious freedom they possess as individuals. Unless those two matters are kept separate, our government cannot be one “of laws, not of men.” Americans’ rights would then depend on the religious views of whichever government employee they interact with. That would be an intolerable situation for a country that values liberty. But, as I shall illustrate in my next post, we have crossed that line in many ways, blatantly representing the robbing of freedom as religious freedom itself.