Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.

Satanism and QAnon: Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Do our leaders worship Satan? How would we know? And what would that mean?

Fifteen percent of Americans believe Satan worshipers are in charge.  The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found this in a recent study about the QAnon conspiracy.  This belief is more prevalent among Republicans: 23% of Republicans claim that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking operation.”

I find this hard to believe.  But then again, I find it difficult to believe in Satan at all.  I also think it would be absurd for anyone to worship Satan—both because there is no Satan—and because if he did exist, he would not be worthy of worship. 

The whole thing is a theological, ethical, and sociological mess. 

Perhaps those who say this are actually trolling the researchers.  Do 48 million Americans (that’s 15% of our population), really believe that Satan worshipers are running the country? 

This opens the question of what it means to really believe something.  A related question is about how we could know what anyone really believes.

Let’s begin with the absurdity of Satan.  The most obvious argument against Satan is the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God.  Satan does appear in the Bible.  God empowers Satan to torment Job, for example.  But would a good God really do this?  Why would a good God create a devil who torments us?

Creative theology attempts to make sense of this and the general “problem of evil.”  One solution is to claim that evil is the absence of good and not the active power of some supernatural being.  Texts that personify evil in Satan must be reinterpreted as allegories or parables.

But lots of Americans appear to have a more literal belief.  The Gallup Poll reports that 61% of Americans believe in the devil.  A survey from the Pew Center found that 58% of Americans believe in Hell.  So maybe it is not surprising, that millions of Americans believe our leaders worship Satan.

Perhaps enlightened theology and secular critiques of religion could help cure QAnon belief.  But some non-religious people (11% according to PRRI) also claim that Satan-worshippers run the country.  A full-fledged atheist who does not think Satan exists could believe, I suppose, that others worship the non-existent devil.  This could be an ad hominem accusation, like making fun of someone by claiming they believe in fairies and leprechauns. 

This leads to questions about the sociology of belief and religious tolerance.  How can we presume to understand what strangers really believe?  Could anyone know that ruling elites worship Satan?  And what would that actually mean?

One rule of thumb is that it is wise to avoiding judging the beliefs of others.  Religious belief is complex, changeable, and internally diverse.  Religious people disagree among themselves.  Many believers are ignorant about or indifferent to the dogmas of their own religion.  We also fail to understand other people’s beliefs.

Satanists even disagree among themselves.  A group calling itself the Satanic Temple advocates empathy, reason, and secular values.  They reject the supernaturalism of another group called the Church of Satan.  The Satanic Temple appears to be Satanism without Satan.

This is probably not what QAnon believers have in mind.  But then again, how do we know what the QAnon-ers really believe about the supposed Satan-worship of ruling elites?  And how would a QAnon-er actually know what the ruling elites really believe?

These vexing questions should encourage us to be cautious and tolerant.  It is difficult for any of us to figure out what we actually believe.  It is presumptuous and rude to claim to know what someone else believes—or to condemn it as evil.  And in the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees our right to believe whatever we want.  Indeed, toleration in the United States appears to extend even to Satan worship.

QAnon will likely fade away as a fever dream of the Trump era.  But the tendency to vilify the beliefs of others will remain.  Part of the cure involves religious liberty and toleration.  Another remedy is to think critically: to play the devil’s advocate in posing critical questions about Satan, God, and what we think we know about religion.

God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

Saying No to Racism, Brutality, and the Politics of Total Domination

Fresno Bee, June 7, 2020

Evil is contagious and brutality loves company. When George Floyd was killed, one of the officers involved should have said, “Stop it.” But peer pressure and the bandwagon can cause ordinary people to participate in terrible things. It is often easier to look away than to say, “This is wrong.”

So kudos to former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis and to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom spoke out against abuses of power emanating from the White House. Critics may say that this is coming a bit late in the game. But better late than never.

The Rubicon was crossed this past week when the president threatened to deploy the military in pursuit of what he chillingly called “total domination.” The police and National Guard then used tear gas and grenades to drive peaceful protesters away from a church so Trump could pose with a Bible.

The president did not read the Bible at the church, of course. Nor did he cite an equally important document, the U.S. Constitution.

Each of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was under assault this week. The threat of total domination and police brutality undermines our freedom to assemble, protest, and petition. Journalists were shot at and arrested, in violation of freedom of the press. And then the president took a battering ram to the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

Our country needs a crash course in civics. You don’t hold a democracy together by domination. Nor do you unite a secular nation by brandishing a Bible. Cops and soldiers especially should read the Constitution with care. We consent to be governed because we believe that the institutions of government — including the military and police — exist to defend our rights.

That’s why police brutality is so appalling. When the police kill people in their custody, the social contract unravels. That’s also why efforts to create law and order through domination are un-American and counterproductive. Domination does not create consent, it breeds discontent.

The good news is that there are conscientious cops, soldiers and civil servants. Americans of all races volunteer to serve the public and protect the Constitution. Many public servants spoke out against the George Floyd killing and against racial injustice. Some even took a knee with protesters. And now Gen. Mattis and Adm. Mullen are reminding us of the need to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution.

But this is not easy. Mullen’s statement opened a difficult can of worms. He said of the military, “They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”

If a cop or solider were given an order to violate the rights of citizens, would he or she refuse? Conscientious disobedience is a deeply American idea. But it is a question that rightly provokes fear and trembling.

The nation began in disobedience to tyranny. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Howard, the Earl of Effingham, was a British officer who became a hero to early Americans after he resigned his commission rather than fight the colonists. Henry David Thoreau said that if the law causes you “to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And in 2003, President George W. Bush warned Iraqi soldiers that they would be prosecuted for war crimes and that it would be no defense to say, “I was just following orders.”

This lesson can also be learned from George Floyd’s killing. A uniform does not protect a person from moral condemnation or from legal prosecution. The cops involved were fired and arrested. It seems obvious in retrospect that one of them should have said, “Stop it. This is wrong.”

In the heat of the moment, peer pressure and the bandwagon often prevail. But once the heat has dissipated, the world will condemn those who condone cruelty. And history will eventually shine a more flattering light on those who have the moral courage to say to the creeping shadow of total domination, “Stop it, this is wrong.”

The Problem of Protesting at People’s Homes

Protesters have targeted the private homes of public officials.  This is dangerous and misguided.  It risks violence and misunderstands political power and political protest.

In Idaho last month, after a woman was arrested for protesting COVID-19 restrictions, activists protested at the home of the cop who arrested her.  Last week in Fresno, California, anti-stay-at-homers protested at the apartment of a city council member and at the home of the mayor.  Also last week, a protest was planned at the home of California’s governor. 

There is symbolic value in protesting “stay-at-home” orders at the homes of public officials.  And people have a right to protest on sidewalks and city streets.  But these protests primarily seek to intimidate public officials.  And they are often merely opportunistic.  The Sacramento protesters explained this in a Facebook discussion.  One of the governor’s neighbors said the protesters should protest at the state capital.  An activist replied, “They won’t allow us to protest at the Capital…that’s the whole point of this.”

But a defiant protest at the Capital would be much more impactful, especially if the protesters got arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights.  In fact, 32 protestors were recently arrested in Sacramento for doing just that. 

Courting arrest is the point of civil disobedience as Thoreau explained, in his influential essay on civil disobedience.  When the law is unjust you should disobey it, Thoreau said, and willingly go to jail.  He wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”

This idea influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The point of civil disobedience is to break unjust laws civilly and justly.  To be jailed for doing the right thing draws attention to the injustice of the law and the system that executes it. 

But protesting at the homes of public officials does not accomplish this systematic goal.  By focusing on the private homes of public officials, the legal system is ignored, which is where the real power lies.  Individual officials do not make laws, systems do. 

Some public officials may in fact disagree, in private, with the policies they execute in public.  But their duty is to execute the law.  The Idaho cop didn’t make the law.  He only enforced it.  Don’t protest the cop. Protest the law.

Mayors and governors have more power and discretion.  But they are not dictators.  They inhabit a bureaucratic system.  That’s why the proper place to protest is at city hall or the state capital.  Protesting where systems of power reside draws attention to policy problems.

A similar mistake is made by anti-Trumpers who have assailedTrump staff and cabinet member at restaurants and other non-official places.  But a person at a restaurant is not acting in an official capacity.  Politicians, of whatever stripe, have a right to be off-duty.

The tendency to personalize the political reflects our growing inability to distinguish between public and private.  Privacy has eroded in the era of social media and a 24-7 work-world.  Folks who lack a sense of privacy don’t appreciate the distinction between public roles and private persons serving in those roles.  But without that distinction everything becomes political and nothing remains of private life.  When the distinction between policy and personality is effaced, life becomes more polarized and less civil.

Finally, let’s note that protests at private homes are strategically misguided.  Such protests tend to turn off potential sympathizers.  The goal of political protest should be to generate outrage and empathy among possible supporters.  But a protest at a home or at a restaurant defeats that purpose by making the protestors appear to be vindictive bullies.  Public protests and civil disobedience are more effective at persuading others to see the justice of one’s cause.

Peeved protesters may get a thrill from demonstrating at a politician’ domicile.  But their anger is misdirected.  The official at home is not the problem. Rather the problem is what happens when the official is at work.  These protesters would be more effective if they were informed by the history civil disobedience and by a more systematic conception of political power.