Monday, August 19, 2013

The Limits to Religious Freedom

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the Congress from making any law that would prohibit the free exercise of religion. Americans generally put a high value on religious freedom and there has been a growing recognition that First Amendment protects our freedom from religion. But can there be limits to a person's free exercise?

Courts have held that parents' free exercise of religion can be limited when it poses a threat to their children. Most of us would agree that withholding medical treatment for a child because you believe only in praying for healing is not a protected form of free exercise. We would also agree that having slaves would not be a protected form of the free exercise of religion, even though the Bible allows the practice. The free exercise of religion by Quakers and Mennonites does not include their being exempted from paying taxes to fund the Pentagon, even though my Quaker mother tried to make that claim.

Roman Catholics and others are arguing that their religious freedom is being denied by the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employer-provided health insurance must include contraceptive coverage. Because they believe that artificial birth control is immoral they assert that providing the coverage would make them complicit in an immoral act. While I have some sympathy with their position, I see some significant problems with their argument.

Health insurance is a benefit, part of an employee's compensation. How the employee uses the benefit should not be limited by the employer's religious convictions. We would reject the idea that an employer whose religion prohibited the drinking of alcoholic beverages should be allowed to stop his employees from using some of their wages to buy beer. Decisions about the use of the medical care covered by insurance, like decisions about how to spend their wages, are the employees' responsibility, not the employers'.

A second problem with the argument has to do with the question of complicity. The argument that my Quaker mother made, an argument that would have been rejected in court if the IRS hadn't raided her bank account, was a much stronger one than the current one about birth control. Stronger because complicity in acts which she considered immoral was not simply a possibility but a sure thing. An employee might not choose to use the contraceptive coverage, but there was no possibility that my mother's taxes would not be used to buy guns and airplanes and bombs and pay soldiers to kill.

If those who object to providing contraceptive coverage prevail in court it might well be seen as a victory for religious liberty. I wouldn't see it that way. Instead I would see it as a victory for a kind of isolationist religious mentality, one that seeks to protect the person from even the most tenuous connection with immoral actions. We are all, in ways both large and small, complicit in actions which we would not ourselves choose to perform. We pay taxes that are used to spy on us. We buy products and services from companies that contribute to politicians whose positions we consider to be immoral. Every day we make decisions that have consequences that we don't like, consequences that we may not be able to foresee, but also consequences that are obvious. We do our best to avoid complicity with actions that we find immoral, but moral purity is an illusion in such a complex society as ours.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Red Sox and the GOP

On the wall outside my grandmother's bedroom when I was growing up there were two pictures. One was of Ted Williams. The other was of President and Mrs. Eisenhower.

Grandmother would be very pleased with her beloved Red Sox this summer. Sitting in first place with the Yankees seven games back in fourth place, it doesn't get much better than that. But I'm not at all sure that she would be pleased with the Republican Party this summer.

Grandmother and I didn't agree on matters of politics. She once demanded that I remove a political button when we visited her in the early sixties. It was, as near as I can remember, an indication that I was supporting, even though I was not old enough to vote, H. Stuart Hughes, a peace candidate for the Senate in 1962. A Ted Kennedy button would have been only slightly less offensive. The only acceptable candidate would have been the Republican George Cabot Lodge. Years later I learned that my mother had voted for Kennedy in 1960, but had kept that a secret.

Today I am not at all sure how Grandmother would view the Republican Party. As the granddaughter of a Congregational minister and the daughter-in-law of an Episcopal Archdeacon, she would, I think, be very disturbed by the recent actions of some in the GOP - passing the Farm Bill in the House without any money for Food Stamps; threatening a government shutdown unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded; passing state laws that make it harder for people who are poor to vote; and opposing any policy simply because it has the President's support. 

Grandmother wouldn't recognize today's GOP. It is not the party of President Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex. It is not the party of the first President Bush who understood that providing nutritious food to children saves us money in the long run. It is, sadly, a party that appears to have no interest in governing responsibly, in working to craft solutions to the nation's problems. Perhaps in five or ten years the Grand Old Party will be one grand once again, but I'm not holding my breath.

But we still have the Red Sox.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Unfinished Business

Progressives - liberals - call us whatever you want - but know that we have a great deal of unfinished business. 

Two pieces of business are fairly obvious.

  1. The section of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court needs to be rewritten and enacted. I don't hold out a great deal of hope for this, given the intransigence of Republicans in the House, but not trying is not an open. Until a new section is signed into law, legal challenges need to be made to every attempt by states to deny people the vote. Challenges cost money and that means that all of us who care about the right to vote should be prepared to write checks.
  2. The pathway to marriage equality continues to run through the state legislatures and the courts. We have had remarkable success in the past year, but those successes didn't happen without significant work. Those of us who live in places where marriage equality is already achieved need to support the work on other states.
Reducing gun violence is a more complicated piece of unfinished business. Passing new federal legislation is not the only challenge. As Attorney General Holder pointed out in his address to the NAACP, laws like Florida's "Stand Your Ground" have not made America any safer. Repealing those laws is a daunting task and it will take time, but the overly broad interpretation of self-defense in these laws cannot be allowed to stand.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

It's Sunday morning and in a little less than an hour we will begin celebrating the Eucharist. The Gospel for today is the very familiar story of the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer who asks, "Who is my neighbor?"

That, of course,  is the wrong question and it is our constant focus on that question that has led us into so much trouble. We want to know how closely we can set the limits of our love for the neighbor. This person is my neighbor whom I am commanded to love, but that person over there is the Other, the Stranger, the Enemy, and I don't have to love that person. 

It is the asking and answering of that question that led to the death of Trayvon Martin. Whether George Zimmerman is guilty of a crime or not, he, like all the rest of us, is guilty of deciding that some people aren't neighbors and we don't have to love them.

In challenging the lawyer with what we call the Parable of the Good Smaritan, Jesus focused on what it means to act with neighbor-love. Jesus shocked his hearers by saying that it was the Outsider, the Other, the Enemy, who showed neighbor-love, who fulfilled the commandments. 

Jesus challenges us as well. If we are to be a blessing to the nations, to all people, we need to stop asking, "Who is my neighbor?" and ask, "How can I love my neighbor more extravagantly?"

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Have You No Sense of Decency?

The decision of Republicans in the House to pass a Farm Bill that does not include food assistance for the most vulnerable Americans should not have surprised me. The GOP caucus has for quite a while been in the thrall of Ayn Rand's radical ideology. The rich are virtuous and should be rewarded and the poor are lazy and should never be helped in any way. The GOP justifies its ideology by constructing a straw man Democrat who thinks "rich people are evil," "people of faith are ignorant and uneducated," and "the earth is flat." (The quotes are from a June 18 Politico piece by Gov. Jindal.) These are same people who claimed that the Affordable Care Act, which had its origins in a conservative think, is socialized medicine and includes death panels. These are the same people who tried to make us believe that the IRS was targeting only conservative groups that were applying for 501(c)4 status. These are the same people who complain about the President's decision to postpone enforcement of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that they voted against. These are same people who.... No, the list is too long and it makes my head hurt to think about it.

In the midst of a televised hearing in 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy accused attorney Joseph Welch, who was representing the Army, of having an associate with ties to a Communist organization. Welch responded, "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness." When McCarthy continued his attack, Welch said, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"

Some in the GOP have decided that demonizing the poor, in the much the same way that McCarthy demonized liberals, makes good political sense. To them I echo Welch's words. "Have not these Americans suffered emough? Have you no sense of decency?"

Friday, July 5, 2013

Edward Snowden and the NSA

I had breakfast this morning with my friend Paul Bresnahan. Eventually our conversation moved from matters ecclesiastical to Edward Snowden.

I have to confess that the Snowden affair has left me puzzled. I am not at all surprised by the extent of the NSA's domestic surveillance, but I am disappointed. I had hoped that the President would not continue the policies of his predecessor and I have some faint hope that now there will be some serious discussion of these surveillance programs. Faint hope only because it seems that there is little interest among members of Congress, many of whom want to have hearings on just about anything - perhaps hearings on the President's golfing could be next.

I am puzzled mostly about Snowden himself. He violated a promise he had made when he went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and rather than take his knowledge of how vast the surveillance program to a member of Congress or a major news organization here, he went to China and shared the information with an English newspaper. Daniel Ellsberg, to whom Snowden has been compared and who has made some supportive statements about Snowden, first took the Pentagon Papers to a member of Congress and only then went to the New York Times. Then he waited to be arrested. Perhaps, as Paul suggested at breakfast, news organizations here now lack the courage they had then, but I don't think so.

As puzzling as Snowden's decision to go to Hong Kong, his decision to release details of US spying on the Russian President was even more puzzling. Was it motivated by spite, by a desire to embarrass President Obama on the eve of his meeting with President Putin? While our knowing more about the domestic surveillance programs may serve a useful purpose, what useful purpose is served by our knowing about spying on world leaders? Many of us assumed it was happening, and that other governments were gathering as much knowledge as they could about ours. Having it confirmed by Snowden serves no purpose.

I hope that Snowden will find a way to return home. I even hope that the Justice Department will help make that possible by showing some leniency. I don't want Snowden to live out his days as a man without a country.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Last week's decisions by the Supreme Court were a mixed bag. The court's decisions on marriage equality will work to move the nation towards the Constitution's stated goal of a more perfect union. All married couples will now be treated equally by the federal government and marriage equality is now a reality in one more state. The fight against marriage equality will, sadly, go on with the heterosexists among us trotting out all the discredited claims about danger to children and to the institution of marriage and complaining about the discrimination that they are enduring. It will take time, but it is clear to me that marriage equality will be achieved in every state, sometimes through legislation and sometimes in the courts.

What is much less clear to me is how voting rights will be protected after the court's striking down of one section of the Voting Rights Act. Within hours of the decision, Republicans announced their intention to enact new voting rules that had been blocked by the Justice Department. Picture ID requirements will be passed in some states, making it much harder for poor citizens, many of whom are people of color, to vote. What is remarkable about this attempt to disenfranchise thousands of voters has been how honest some of the Republicans have been about their real goal - to make it harder for Democrats to get elected.

Because I have a fairly realistic view of human nature, I don't hold out much hope that the members of Congress will replace the invalidated section of the Voting Rights Act with one that is not likely to be struck down in court. Nor am I optimistic about a change of heart for those Republicans who are working to disenfranchise voters. I think we will have to protect voting rights through the courts, challenging every new attempt to limit citizens' franchise. The Supreme Court's decision has made that harder and more costly, but it has not made it impossible. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tax Expenditures

When I worked as Executive Director for the Erie County Commission on Homelessness, I often began a presentation about homelessness with a request that people who ad ever lived in housing that was subsidized raise their hands. Usually only one or two people in the audience raised a hand. I would then ask the rest of the people if any of them took a tax deduction for property taxes and mortgage interest. Most people got the point.  There are activities which the Congress has decided to encourage through the tax code, the most obvious one being home ownership. These "tax expenditures" are subsidies and some of the fiercest battles in Congress are over which activities should be subsidized in this way. 

A lot of the discussion of the "IRS Scandal" seems to ignore the fact that granting an organization tax-exempt status costs us money. Having been on the boards of two not-for-profit organizations that applied for 501(c)3 status, I have some sympathy with those who complain about the way their applications for 501(c)4 status were handled. We submit such applications believing that our organization's work is so important to society that it should be subsidized. We believe that, but it's the IRS's responsibility to determine if that belief is justified. 

I will grant that there is evidence that IRS employees made a lot of mistakes in handling the 501(c)4 applications of some organizations, but they were not the kind of mistakes that would trouble me most. What troubles me, and there is some evidence of this, is the granting of 501(c)4 status to organizations whose primary purpose is political. Excessive scrutiny of applications is a much less costly mistake than not enough scrutiny.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Leviticus 18:22

A recent and somewhat fruitless exchange on Facebook prompted me to think again about Leviticus 18:22. "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." There is one obvious thing about this verse that we tend to overlook. The commandment, like so many in Leviticus, is addressed to the men of Israel. Now that may seem a silly observation to make, but understanding any passage of Scripture requires that we take into account the context in which it was written. Israel was a patriarchal society. Although we have wonderful stories of women exercising power in the Hebrew Scriptures, those stories reveal, as do the stories of men exercising power, that religiously sanctioned power in Israel was almost exclusively exercised by men. 

This brings me to the real point I want to make here. In a patriarchal society, one in which a man may have as many wives as he can afford, how does a man lie with a woman? Not, I would suggest, as a man lies with his wife today. I am not claiming that there was not what we would identify as love between husbands and wives in ancient Israel, but that marital relationships in ancient Israel can hardly be the model upon which we base our understanding of marriage today. I might even suggest that for us a commandment might be: do not lie with a man or a woman as men in ancient Israel lay with a woman.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Marriage Equality

I have been reading posts about marriage equality this morning on Facebook and have been thinking about why some folks, even some friends of mine, oppose it. I find myself going back to an idea which I have had before, an idea which I am quite sure I got from someone else. I make no claim that this is the reason why every person who opposes marriage equality does so, but I suspect it is the reason for some.

The opponents of marriage equality are right. Allowing same sex couples to marry changes the way we think about marriage. In particular, it threatens to change the way our children and grandchildren think about marriage. Growing up, as my three grandchildren will, with friends who have two mothers or two fathers, as well as friends who have a mother and a father as they do, the next generations of American adults will know that there is an alternative to patriarchal notions of marriage. Of course, many of these children will be raised by mothers and fathers who have themselves abandoned the patriarchal model, but the presence in their lives of families that are more obviously not patriarchal makes the point much more clearly.

I don't claim that fear of the end of patriarchy is the real reason for all the opposition to marriage equality. I do think it is clearly the reason for many opponents, especially those who openly espouse patriarchal notions of marriage. Sadly, for them, but not at all sadly for the rest of us, their battle to preserve patriarchy will be lost. Not today or tomorrow, but in the years to come when their sons and daughters see how much better the alternative is.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Diaconal Church

"What's in a name?" Juliet asked.

Perhaps a great deal when it is the name chosen by a new Pope. On Sunday, as I was listening to a talk at church given by a woman preparing for ordination to the diaconate, I remembered that Francis of Assisi had been a deacon. In a time when the Church had become very wealthy and might have been thought to have become addicted to wealth and the power that goes with it, Francis understood that rebuilding the Church would require that the Church become diaconal, serving most especially the poor whom Jesus said would also be with us.

The Roman Catholic Church has been diaconal during most of its history with hospitals and schools at the center of its service, not only to its own members, but to many other people as well. For many of us the most obvious diaconal ministers of the Roman Catholic Church are women religious, who, of course, cannot actually be ordained to the diaconate at Francis was. But for those nuns with whom I have had the privilege to work, ordination wasn't important, serving was.

It is too early to tell, but the early signs are promising. Pope Francis may be able to lead his Church down a path of renewed service to the least among us. It may be too much to expect, but it's worth hoping for such a renewal, one that might even spread to other Christian Churches and diaconal partnerships with synagogues and mosques. Christians have no monopoly on serving and becoming more diaconal can bring us into fruitful partnerships with people of other faith traditions.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Credulous Nation

To paraphrase something which Sen. Moynihan is credited with saying, " All of us are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts." This past week I got embroiled in a fruitless discussion of the attack in Benghazi. Some of those involved cited "facts" that I could not verify. The one I came closest to tracking down was the assertion that a General in Stuttgart had been arrested when he tried to send troops to Benghazi. After a little research I discovered that Gen. Carter Ham, who commanded the Africa Command, which is headquartered in Stuttgart, was in Washington on the day of the attack and was replaced as head of Africa Command a month later. Was his being replaced prompted by his disagreeing with the Secretary of Defense's decisions about responding to the attack? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was.

When I had the temerity to suggest that the statement about an arrest might not be true, my comment was dismissed as a defense of he President's lies by one of those in the discussion. It appears that the convictions of some folks that the President is lying are immune from facts. Of course we can make light of conspiracy theories - as the TV show "Bones" did when one of its character said that Monica Lewinsky was a KGB trained sex agent - but conspiracy theories and other totally unfounded statements ave a way of creeping into discussions of public policy. Remember the Obamacare "death panels"? Having to answer that lie over and over again made the discussion of the actual provisions in the bill a bit more difficult.

The story of a comment of Benjamin Franklin's at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 may be apocryphal, but it does express an important truth about this country. Asked, "What we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?" Franklin responded, " A Republic, if you can keep it." As President Shepherd says at the end of "An American President" democracy is hard work. Part of that hard work, one thing we need to do to keep the Republic left to us is to pay attention to facts. Political decisions based upon rumor will not serve us well.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Society's Child

A few weeks ago I heard the song "Jesse" on the radio. I didn't recognize the artist, but I did somehow know that the song had been written by Janis Ian. That set me on a search for a number of things, including a clip of her performance of her first hit, "Society's Child" on a program hosted by Leonard Bernstein when she was 13 or 14. I also listened several times to that song and heard something I don't recall hearing before.

The song was about interracial dating, and in the chorus Ian sang "I can't see you anymore." But at the end of the song the refrain changed to "I don't want to see you anymore." Ian expressed poignantly the pain that we impose on society's children when we burden them with our prejudices, when we force them to conform to society's warped norms. The apostle Paul knew about that pressure when he encouraged the members of the Church in Rome: "Do not let the world press you into its mold." (Romans 12:2, the Philips translation)

What damage we do to our children when we load them down with our prejudices - about poor people, people of color, immigrants, people who are gay or lesbian or transgendered or bisexual. What friendships our children miss because they are forced to "stick to their own kind." Prejudice does not just hurt those whom we view as inferior. It hurts all of us as well.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Access to Information and Intellectual Property Rights

The furor following Aaron Swartz's suicide raised an interesting question for me: how to increase people's access to information without depriving people of rights to their intellectual property? There seems to be no argument about what Swartz did, but there is considerable discussion of whether what he did was wrong. Is it wrong to download journal articles without paying a fee? The defenders of Swartz's action talk about free access to information, but what about the right of authors and researchers to be compensated for their work? Is there any moral difference between downloading a journal article without paying and stealing a magazine?