Existential Threat

Sometimes I see things on TV that I would rather forget. Some of those shocking things are real events made surreal by the flickering pixels that leave shadows on your memory. One event I cannot quite erase was a discussion some years ago between two religious figures on a talk show. The Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Reverend Al Sharpton spent a good deal of time railing on about their shared views on abortion. All went well until the Reverend Al took a little time out to argue for social justice for the underclass in America. The late Jerry Falwell did not take kindly to this veering off-message. He turned on his fellow rev and said this—as exact a wording as I can remember: “If you believe that,” he said in a menacing tone, “You are not a Christian; you are not an American; you are a terrorist sympathizer!” He was not smiling. Everyone knew what we did and do to terrorist sympathizers! The ease of his segue astounded me. I have not heard it as boldly stated since, but in different guises—especially on radio talk shows—I hear it regularly. And it usually involves the same leap from religious difference to political pariah.

When, following real terrorist attacks, we liberated Afghanistan from the religious overlordship of the Taliban, we learned a few things about life under religious absolutists. And the Taliban turned out to be very much religious absolutists.

Originally students in madrasahs or religious schools, the Taliban took their name from an Arabic word, adopted in the Pashtun dialect as talib, or student of religion. They came by their religious monomania fairly directly: in a region of high illiteracy, “learning” that consisted mostly of rote memorization of often obscure passages of the Koran led directly to absolutism. It led to their conviction that everyone should adhere to their singular religious vision. It led to intolerance. And encouraged by international forces that saw them as useful opponents to godless Communism, the Taliban became a political force. In a chaotic political situation they emerged as the only coherent power. And they wielded power with a frightening consistency.

In a Taliban-ruled society every religious rule was policed with often bloody vigor. Women who dressed immodestly were publicly beaten and shamed. Men were required to grow beards and punished if they shaved. Thievery was punished by amputation. Women were forced out of public life, covered from head to toe in suffocating anonymity. Young girls were forbidden from attending school. Young boys were punished for flying kites. A fun time was had by all, because “Allah is merciful.” And well He may be. Unfortunately, those who spoke for Him were not.

For me, the Taliban experience in Afghanistan—an experience likely to be resumed again once foreign troops leave—is a salutary lesson in the dangers of absolutist religious power. Every direct rule by religionists reverts to horror of compelled religious conformity. I believe with every fiber in my body that true spiritual faith is the fountain of public manners and morality. But when the element of compulsion—of civil power—is introduced to the equation, things invariably turn to the dark side.

The late Reverend Jerry was no Talib, but he certainly shared their urge to project faith through political power—and, as I saw, appeared as troubled by those who exercised their faith a little differently from him. Religious liberty is meaningless unless we grant the right to others to think and act differently from us. It means nothing if compulsion is involved.

The media were full of buzzings of late over the so-called Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court. And the case certainly has plenty of interesting angles. For most people the interest lies in that it is the latest challenge to the Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare.

It yet remains to be seen how helpful the act will be for a society in thrall to high medical costs, the plaything of out-of-control medical insurance, and the object of disbelief from the rest of the publicly insured developed countries. It yet remains to be seen how the animosity of the one party that contributed not one vote to the act’s passage will play out. Yet, as the issue goes to the High Court once again it is against the backdrop of the court’s last decision to uphold the act.

It troubles me that this latest challenge is given on the basis of religious objection.

It troubles me because the real opposition to the act is political, and the same players who opposed it for purely political reasons are now ready to give the challenge a cast of martyrdom.

It troubles me that the rocky beginning of the act’s ad hoc implementation involved a large corporate church structure challenging the state, which from the get-go would rather make an accommodation than stand and fight.

It troubles me that the growing conservative religious preoccupation with abortion—an issue that should trouble any Christian or person of faith in the integrity of human life—has been co-opted to a political end here.

It troubles me that the objection as first enunciated by the Catholic Church as regarding their institutions, like hospitals, amounts to a demand for a legal pass to write their view into the larger society.

It troubles me that with the Hobby Lobby objection, by owners who undoubtedly have deeply held personal convictions, we again have a dynamic that will require compliance by a much larger community than the faithful.

It troubles me that the court’s curious holding recently about the rights of corporations comes at precisely the same time that the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant groups are enunciating the corporate rights of church entities and the faith community—by inference even over the rights or wishes of the individual.

It troubles me that we have morphed from Christian-run businesses making an admirable and perhaps costly statement of faith by being closed for business on a day they presume to be holy, to a claim that they will not bear the cost of a generally applicable allowance that does not require anyone to actually use the provisions regarded as questionable.

It troubles me that Christians who should know better are sending out scurrilous fund-raising letters that accuse our chief executive of being an undercover Muslim and the administration of being socialist—as in Communist. They forget that the Constitution would protect anyone’s faith and right to hold office, even if they were as godless as Thomas Jefferson was held to be by some of his detractors at the time. They forget that most of the enlightened West is socialist in regard to medicine—not by some nefarious ideology, but by a more enlightened view of one’s responsibility for another. In short, they forget themselves as Christians. It might not hurt to broaden our faith concern to social justice and how that plays out against unbounded capitalism and militarism. It might not hurt to think a little on the poor, pillowless Christ who eschewed political power and spent much time with the needy sinners.

I do not know how the court will call this one. I might hope they thread the needle with this camel. And I am not so tone deaf that I do not see a real issue of conscience at play. But there are those who do not play nicely. Political forces are afoot that would derail all the norms that once informed the Constitution. And politically ambitious religionists, not content to study their faith and preach on street corners and around their own hearth, would surely like to tie down all the kites that blot out their view of the sun.

Religious liberty is that most precious commodity; but one that is the most easily skewed from conscience to privilege, to entitlement, to demand upon other. What troubles me the most at the moment is the redefinition of religious liberty; a redefinition that is in the process of removing it from the province of the individual conscience to the stuff of the body corporate, both religious and political.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."