….unless they’re racists who wish we hadn’t ended segregation.
It has become a talking point in certain circles that there should not be restrictions on what people with “sincerely held religious beliefs” can do, even if they’re governmental employees. If it’s your sincerely held religious belief that, for instance, homosexuality is wrong, you should not be “forced” to bake a cake for a gay marriage, or, as a government employee, sign a marriage certificate for such a marriage. This is presented as a fairness and tolerance argument.
It seems to be tolerant because you’re allowing people to act on “sincerely held” religious beliefs. I think the major political figures know what they’re doing (they don’t mean to allow all people to act on those beliefs), but I think a lot of reasonable people look at this as a way to be respectful and tolerant. What those people don’t know is that this is an argument for segregation. It’s also an argument for shariah law.
What people don’t understand is that the most appalling things in our history, such as slavery, genocide of Native Americans, and segregation, were all enacted by people who sincerely believed they were commanded by Scripture to do those things. People who think “sincerely held religious” beliefs won’t lead to awful things don’t know about groups like Christian Identity, who argue for appalling racist policies on the grounds of sincerely held religious beliefs.
I think it’s important to look carefully at just how bad that “sincerely held” standard is.
Here’s why it seems to be reasonable: it looks like it’s fair. It isn’t saying “my religion is good and yours is bad” (it actually is, but that’s below); it seems to be tolerant of all religions, so it’s tolerant.
But let’s stop here for a second.
This argument is assuming that people who act on “non-religious” values don’t deserve the same consideration as people who claim a religious belief. So, the very premise of this argument is that people who are religious should be treated better than non-religious people. It’s an explicit rejection of fairness across groups—religious people are saying that, because we’re religious, we should treat nonreligious people in a way we wouldn’t want to be treated.
Or, in other words, although we’re claiming to be religious, we aren’t claiming to follow Christ. I’ll come back to that.
The fairness issue gets even uglier when you look at how its advocates behave when confronted with religions other than theirs.
This policy is being sold as a tolerant and respectful thing to do, and it’s framed entirely in terms of liberty. And, therefore perfectly reasonable people, who don’t happen to pay a lot of attention to the history of religious discrimination in our country, and who are wickedly (sometimes I think deliberately) misinformed about the history of segregation, think it’s tolerant, respectful, reasonable, and fair.
It isn’t tolerant, respectful, reasonable, or about liberty. And it is nowhere near fair. It’s about the government giving members of one religion the ability to treat others in a way they would never tolerate. It’s about privileging one political/religious agenda.
Here’s simply one point. I work in a state where I cannot ban guns from my classroom, even were I Quaker or Amish. The “sincerely held religious belief” of Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists never come into play here. They have to pay taxes for war, after all. I’m religiously opposed to the Death Penalty, but I have to pay for it, and I’m struck from juries because I don’t believe in it. If that last thing isn’t religious discrimination, I don’t know what is–I am banned from being on a jury for murder trials because of my religion. My religion says that homosexual marriages are marriages; people claiming religious freedom haven’t been staying up nights worrying about the fact that they’ve denied me that religious freedom for years. That isn’t snark—that’s an important point. If something is a principle as opposed to a useful argument to get your way then you stand by that principle even if it makes something happen that you don’t want to happen.
So, when was the last time that the people now claiming to support religious freedom supported the freedom of a religion with which they disagreed? How hard did they argue for Quakers?
“Conservative Christians” want Kim Davis, as a government employee, to be able to do only those things in her job that fit with her interpretation of her religion, but they don’t want pacifists to be able to ban guns from their classrooms. Were the defenders of Kim Davis acting on the principle of “government employees should not be required to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs,” then they would include all religious beliefs in their legislation. In fact, if you look, they specify gay marriage. So, this isn’t about religious freedom, this is about gay marriage.
That means that this isn’t about the principle of religious freedom, but about one kind of person of faith getting privileged treatment. This is not even a little about fairness.
I think that a lot of the people I see (and read) repeating the “religious freedom” point just don’t know a lot of people of different religions, and so they don’t imagine things from those points of view. They don’t even know much about Christianity. They don’t know, for instance, that my commitment to marriage equality is a religious belief.
Allowing someone like Kim Davis to refuse to allow certain kinds of marriages means my government is violating my sincerely held religious beliefs. Passing a law that requires guns in classrooms violates the sincerely held religious beliefs of many teachers. Ending segregation violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of many Christians.
Many political figures support the “freedom” of a teacher to lead prayer until the moment they imagine that teacher being Muslim. It’s fine if someone on the street fails to think that way, but when political figures with considerable power think that way, then they are either failing in the major job responsibility they have (to think from various perspectives about policies they support), or they’re engaged in strategic misnaming. They never meant religious freedom—they meant the freedom for people like them to force their religion on others; they meant theocracy.
And I think it’s the second because, so often, when people point out that the “right” they are promoting would have to be extended to Muslims, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, major figures suddenly argue that the US is and must always be a “Christian” country. There’s a longer argument there, but here I’ll just mention that the argument they make for that case is internally inconsistent (they don’t use terms like “founders” or “Christian” consistently) and contradicted by the historical record.
Here’s simply one example. People with access to google will sometimes argue that the government should promote the celebration of Christmas because the Founders were Christian. And those same people sometimes include the seventeenth century New England Puritans in their definition of “founder.” But the New England Puritans weren’t the first people to settle what would later become the US, they weren’t the first Europeans to do so, they weren’t the first Europeans to settle what would later become the thirteen colonies, they weren’t even the first English to settle what would later become the thirteen colonies, and they prohibited the celebration of Christmas.
So, really, it’s a group of people arguing (badly) that the government should promote their political agenda.
Well, okay, that’s what everyone does. The difference is that this group is pretending that their political agenda is the only sincerely held religious one. They aren’t arguing for fairness across religious beliefs; they’re pretending only their religion counts. And they don’t even know the history of their religion.
There are two problems with that argument. One I’ll mention now, and the other I’ll get to later. The one I’ll mention now is simply this: let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Don’t lie. If you want to argue for theocracy, go for it. But don’t argue for theocracy under the cover of religious freedom. The two are opposites.
It is a hobby horse of mine that we teach the history of civil rights movements in the US so badly, and this is an example of why it matters. Everyone loves the people who engaged in the Greensboro sit-in, but they don’t realize that was a private property (Woolworth’s). If you think “sincerely held religious belief” should be sufficient grounds for a private business refusing service, then you endorse segregation. If SCOTUS thought the way you think they should, we would still have race-based segregation.
That’s what segregation was—it was a practice defended by appeals to religion. You can see this in the major arguments for segregation, such as Theodore Bilbo’s Take Your Choice, texts going back to defenses of slavery (it was rare for someone to defend segregation and not slavery), and the numerous pro-segregation sermons and doctrinal statements (Haynes’ Curse of Noah traces out the importance of Genesis IX in both slavery and segregation).
Take, for example, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, a SCOTUS case in which an owner of a drive-in barbeque place argued that it was his right to refuse to serve nonwhites. He said he had that right because the federal law didn’t apply to him (a technical issue easily solved—it did), property rights (another easily solved issue), and his religious freedom.
In that era, the religious freedom issue was also easily solved. The tendency of SCOTUS was to say that religious freedom was a private issue, and so could be relatively easily trounced in the public by other concerns, especially fairness (more on that below). Also, courts tended to rule on the basis of mainstream religious beliefs. If you read the transcript of testimony, you would notice that the judge refuses to take Bessinger’s reading of the Bible as a basis of authority. When Bessinger tries to support his claim with a newspaper clipping, the judge cuts it short. And the judge never worries about Bessinger’s personal reading of Scripture.
And so he shut down the head of the National Association for the Advancement of White People and all the other bigots who wanted to refuse to serve African Americans. He did so because he rejected Bessinger’s religious expertise.
But, had he used the standard of “sincerely held religious belief,” then he would have had to rule in favor of Bessinger, because all Bessinger would have had to do was to show that his reading of Scripture was sincere, not reasonable.
Notice this exchange:
Q: And is it—in your treatment with every individual everyday, do you follow this?
Bessinger: Well, I certainly think I try to. I mean I do as much as I possibly can. What I mean by that, I certainly hope I am living that life, that is what your question is.
Q: Is it your belief to that effect?
Q: Do you have any beliefs concerning segregation of the races, is that intwined or intermingled with or part of your beliefs as a Christian?
Bessinger: Yes, sir, that is very much part of my belief as a Christian, mixing of the races certainly is.
Q: By races you refer to what, sir?
Bessinger: By races, I refer to the race as the black race, the white race, and the yellow race.
Q: What is the Biblical basis, if any, for such a belief?
Bessinger: Well in the Old Testament God commanded the Hebrews not to mix with other peoples and races.
Anyone even a little bit familiar with the history of racism in the US is, at this point, saying, Oh, really, not this shit again, because Bessinger is mentioning one of the racist proof texts. But people who only know the triumphalist version want to read Bessinger as some crank.
Nope. He was mainstream. Segregation was a religious issue, with many proof texts, and he mentioned one. He could have mentioned Genesis IX, or various passages about not planting certain seeds in with others, or God having placed peoples in different parts of the world. There were a lot of proof texts people had for segregation (more than current bigots have about homosexuality, in fact, since some of those texts are about pederasty).
The court rejected his religious freedom argument because he didn’t cite external authorities (the testimony goes into an argument about a newspaper clipping he presented). And, I’d like to think, all the people now supporting the “sincerely held religious belief” argument would be appalled at the sorts of proof texts people like him provided.
But law is always an issue of principle.
And, if the principle is sincerely held religious belief, he met that standard.
So, people who want to say that Kim Davis can do what she wants are saying that Bessinger should have been able to refuse to serve African Americans. They are (unintentionally, I think) endorsing the principle that segregation was right. That’s worth taking some time to consider. If Davis is right, then so was Bessinger.
If we should allow Davis to refuse to allow some people to marry because she thinks that kind of marriage is a violation of Scripture, and our only standard is personal belief, then we have to say that the courts should have ruled that the people who believed that states could refuse to allow whites and nonwhites to marry, and businesses could refuse to serve nonwhites, and school districts could insist on segregated schools—those were all sincerely held religious beliefs. Arguing for Kim Davis is arguing for Bessinger; it’s arguing for segregation. It’s also arguing for county clerks refusing to allow bi-racial marriages, marriage after divorce, marriage of anyone wearing mixed fibers, dealing with anyone with a tattoo or who eats shellfish.
Bessinger sincerely thought he was violating Scripture by serving nonwhites in the same place he served whites. And he thought that because a tremendous amount of southern religion promoted that view. He wasn’t a crank; he was acting on what was a commonplace in southern religious discourse.
I said earlier that the “sincerely held religious principle” is important in two ways: if it’s a principle for us, then we really hold all religions to it; if we aren’t going to do that (which would mean allowing communities to enact segregation, sharia law, gay marriage, Satan worship), then this is an argument pretending to be about fairness that is actually an argument for theocracy.
The “sincerely held religious principle” either means that communities imposing sharia law is okay, as is segregation, pacifists not allowing guns in classrooms, my serving on death penalty juries despite what prosecutors want, a teacher insisting the class pray to Satan, and all sorts of other practices, or we only mean “sincerely held religious principles with which we agree.” In that case, we’re violating the notion that we should treat others as we want to be treated.
So, in service of what is supposed to be a religious argument, Christians have to violate one of the basic precepts of our religion.
That is, it seems to me, an important problem, since, if we reject the notion of “do unto others” we are also rejecting the person said that we should act on that principle. Either we allow segregation or we reject Christ.
Or maybe it means that the “sincerely held religious belief” is a disastrously bad way to base public policy.