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Friday, November 17, 2006
(9:56 AM) | Stephen:
beliefs, Belief & unbelief; 4th in the series

Part one.

Part two.

Part three.

The last post was a little hard on Atheists. It needed to be said, but obviously Christians, as both the majority in this country and the ones who make the most noise about everyone conforming to their beliefs, also need to be taken to task. This post will deal more with the ways that Christians, even progressives, need to change their thinking. I also hope that this will give Atheists some ways to talk about these issues without resorting to blanket condemnations of religion.

It should be noted that the point of this series is not to try and set up a way to attract radical right-wing Christians to the Democratic party or to progressivism. It just isn't going to happen, as the last election taught us. However, there are many non-radical rightwing Christians whose voting for the last several elections reflects an emphasis on a very narrow portion of Christian values. And I for one think that they know it and are wondering if there is a place for them within the progressive community. Of course there is and always has been, and we don't need to pander to anyone in order to get that point across. But we do need to work on getting along which, again, is the larger goal here.

At any rate, here are some values that all progressives - actually, all people - should be able to accept and promote.

1. Civil rights apply to everyone

This means not just various races but women and the LBGT community as well. Just as it was wrong to intern Japanese Americans during WWII, it is wrong to withhold the HPV vaccine from young girls because it is seen as a license to have premarital sex. Just as it is wrong when polygamist groups sexually exploit young girls and physically assault males in their communities, it is wrong to deny homosexuals the same rights and privileges afforded everyone else in this society.

Let's expand that last a bit, since homosexual marriage is such a bugaboo for us. To begin, marriage is not a "right." Not for anyone. There is not one person licensed to solemnize marriages who is therefore required to marry anyone. So one person can refuse all blue-eyed grooms, while another can refuse to marry mixed-race couples - as odious as that is - or people of different faiths or brides with facial hair.

Even Justices of the Peace are not required, as I understand it, to marry people they don't want to marry. But this talk of marriage not being a right is rather misleading, because we really have two institutions in the USA. One is a civil, domestic contract between two people, allowing them to share finances and responsibility for assets and children if they are involved. There is nothing sacred about a joint tax return, nothing particularly holy about rights of survivorship.

The idea of marriage, both as a religious and a civil union, of course predates the USA. As this nation expanded, clergy were often the only people in a large area with any education or authority, so it was natural to give them the authority to solemnize a purely civil arrangement at the time of sanctifying a religious vow. As the societal landscape has changed, so has our definition of what is or is not a marriage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Marriage has not had only one definition, not from the Garden of Eden till now, and certainly not during the history of the USA. Common-law marriages are not really endorsed by churches, but that does not make them invalid. The various legal and financial complications that divorce entails has created whole new arenas in US law. When a marriage breaks up, there are many civil consequences, issues in which the Church and its representatives have no say.

It is this aspect of marriage, this idea of it as a civil institution, a domestic contract, that can be conceived to be a right. Any two people who wish to enter into a domestic contract should be able to do so, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or even if there is a sexual relationship between them or not. It's just a civil contract. If we as a nation recognize that it can be beneficial for two people to join together, beneficial for them and often for children, then there should be no obstacles to it.

If we get back to the religious side of marriage, we see that every law passed that restricts marriage to "one man and one woman" is unconstitutional - and state constitutional amendments cannot override the federal Constitution. The reason for this is found in the First Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from passing a "law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." There are religions, including several prominent Christian denominations, that believe homosexuality is ok, and that are willing to solemnize homosexual marriages. To give civil legitimacy to the marriages of some churches while denying the same to others is a clear violation of the Bill of Rights. This isn't about what we like or what makes us uncomfortable; it's about being a nation governed by laws, not the theological leanings of part of the population - even if that part is the majority.

2. Religious doctrine needs to stay out of the public sphere

I am a Wesleyan-Arminian. That may not mean anything to you. In a nutshell, it means that I don't accept any of the 5 points of TULIP-style Calvinism. It means, from my perspective, that I believe in the full power of grace to transform us now, here on earth. It means that I believe God wants human beings to actually have relationships with him and cooperate with him to redeem this fallen earth.

So if I ever catch anyone at my children's schools teaching them that God chooses some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell, or that once they are saved it is irreversable, or any other bit of Calvinistic nonsense - sorry, um, beliefs - I will raise holy hell. Same thing if someone tries to tell them that the earth is 6,000 years old or that Jonah was a real guy who was really swallowed by a real fish and really lived 3 days in its stomach, only to be vomited on the beach - and if this is not "true," then neither are any claims about Jesus Christ. That's why my kids are going to public schools, to keep them away from what I consider to be wrongheaded and often dangerous beliefs about the Bible and Christianity.

I am also sick of seeing so-called Nativities on any public property, I don't like the fight - instigated and perpetuated by conservative Christians - between "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas." I'm not sure that I want my children, or me for that matter, to associate the stress, tackyness and frenzy that overtakes our stores this time of year with the birth of the Messiah.

Ted Olson, Solicitor General of the United States, put it well when he argued at the Supreme Court for the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. He said that this phrase was really just "ceremonial deism," not an actual reference to any god of any religion. Rather, it's just a way to describe the mindset of the people who founded this country. He goes on to assert that the phrase "under God" actually refers to the political philosophy of the sovereignty of the individual. Think about that for a moment. Saying "under God" is asserting the sovereignty of the individual. Let me repeat: Religious doctrine needs to stay out of the public sphere - no matter how hard we try to divest it of any meaning.

3. Stop treating political battles as religious wars.

The Religious Right in this country is waging a political battle, not religious. Faith and religion are being used as weapons in this battle, to give it a veneer of Jesus-approval, but they are not the point. This is a good move for them, because it puts their opponents in the position of attacking their beliefs or even religion in general, and we all know that this is not a winning position in America.

So the key is to not fight political battles as religious. Progressives need to respond politically. We need to always emphasize the founding principles of the USA as a place where no religion is given status above another, and where all people can be free to believe as they wish. So Creation "Science" shouldn't be taught in schools, not because it's just plain wrong or a silly superstition, but because there are many religious beliefs about the beginning of the world, and many different interpretations of Genesis within Christianity (let alone Judaism). Secular schools simply aren't theologically up to the task of wading through all the different beliefs and doctrines.

Emphasizing civil unions as apposed to "gay marriage" is a good way to fight this politically rather than religiously. Let's cede the whole idea of what constitutes a marriage to the Religious Right. Fine. Marriage - within your church, mind you - is between one man and one woman (at least at a time). But other churches have a different view, and there are people who belong to no church at all. So the government will acknowledge these types of relationships and give all of them, "traditional" or not, the same legal standing. Those who wish to get "married" can just find a place willing to perform the ceremony, same as now.

There are others who have proposed this, but usually in a much more radical way. We don't have to be hard-core about this. All we're doing is being the reasonable, conciliatory group in the face of those who wish to remake US law in their image. So long as the Religious Right can cast these controversies as between faith and Atheism, they will win. So long as we can cast them as political battles between historic American values and ideals and those who would cast them aside, we have a chance of turning the tide.

Okay, that's it. Let me know what I got wrong, what I left out. I believe that the latest election shows what can happen when the various groups in the progressive coalition band together. There is no need for us to forget our differences, but if we can find enough common ground to allow us to work together and stop sniping at one another, then the direction of this country can be changed.

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