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.

America is Too Big to Love or to Hate

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2021

What does it mean to love one’s country? This question is too big to permit a simple answer. In a free country we will disagree about patriotism.

A Black athlete, Gwen Berry, refused to salute the flag during the national anthem at the U.S. Olympic Trials last week. Some viewed her as a hero. Others did not. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked in a tweet, “why does the left hate America?”

Of course, America includes a long list of protesting Black athletes, from from Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James. Maybe those who hate these protests are the ones who hate America.

The truth is, we disagree about everything, including who counts as a patriotic, real American. We always have.

The generation of 1776 had to decide whether to pledge their lives, fortunes, and honor to a new nation conceived in liberty. A war broke out. This happened again in the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln invoked the “mystic chords” of national identity. Southern states disagreed. The patriotic vision excluded people like Frederick Douglass, who said (in 1847), “The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man … In such a country as this, I cannot have patriotism.”

Douglass is now recognized as an American icon. But we continue to disagree.

Congress recently honored the police who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The congressional commendation celebrated the patriotism of those cops. But some Republicans balked, unhappy with the word “insurrection.”

President Biden has said, “the insurrection was an existential crisis.” But Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) said it was a lie to call it an insurrection. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) said that the Justice Department’s response to Jan. 6 harassed “peaceful patriots.” Each voted against honoring the Capitol police.

We disagree about recent history — and about the deeper past. We disagree about who we are, what our country represents, what unites us — and what divides us.

America is a big, messy place. It includes Gwen Berry. It also includes Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by a cop on Jan. 6 as she tried to enter the House chamber, and George Floyd, who was killed by a cop in Minnesota. It also includes those cops. This is a country of Proud Boys and Antifa. It is a country of Trump-lovers and Ted Cruz voters, Biden-supporters and fans of Kamala Harris.

Which America are we supposed to love? Should we love the American history of colonialism, slavery, and war? Should we love those who claim the 2020 election was stolen? Should we love a country that elected a woman of color as vice president?

There is too much here to love. America is a 300-year-long, continent-spanning process. Something this big cannot simply be loved. Nor can such a thing simply be hated.

This country contains a multitude, as Walt Whitman might say. It includes farmers and fishermen, poets and priests. This is a land of scientific achievement and quack medicine. It is a land of many faiths, including atheism. It is a country of diverse people united by the fact that we are free to be different.

Human beings are more complicated than simple patriotism permits. When freedom is unleashed, we grow and expand and become unruly. As long as we generally leave each other alone, this can work. But it is too much to ask us to come together and sing “Kumbaya.”

Indeed, when one group joins hands and starts singing, another faction will be standing on the sidelines mocking the song. This is the tragic truth of human freedom. It unites us and divides us. It brings us together and drives us apart.

So let’s not be surprised at our divisions. We have always been divided. Division is a sign of the health of a democracy. Conformity indicates the presence of oppression and the death of the human spirit. Liberty vitalizes and invigorates. It invites us to be different and to disagree.

Democracy is messy, ugly, and often unpleasant. Tyrannies are cleaner, perhaps, creating conformity through coercion. But democracies unleash freedom. And liberty promotes diversity. We are not ants or bees. Nor are we cogs in a social machine. We are human beings: unruly, disruptive, creative, and free.

Reason, Prayer, and Secularism

Fresno Bee, May 2, 2021

Prayer and reason will each enjoy the spotlight this week. The National Day of Prayer unfolds on May 6. The National Day of Reason follows on May 7.

The National Day of Prayer began in the 1950s when Christianity was taken for granted as the American religion. The idea evolved to be more inclusive. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan said in a Day of Prayer proclamation, “Our land today is more diverse than ever, our citizens come from nearly every nation on Earth, and the variety of religious traditions that have found welcome here has never been greater.”

This growing diversity includes nonreligious people. Nonreligion is quickly spreading. According to a 2019 poll, 65% of Americans are Christian, while 26% of Americans are not religious. Other religions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus) make up the rest. A more recent Gallup poll reported that fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion.

As nonreligion grows, humanists have become more assertive. The National Day of Reason is a response to reactionary religiosity. A congressional resolution supporting the idea maintains that reason is essential for cultivating democracy, justice and peace. It condemns “irrationality, magical and conspiratorial thinking, and disbelief in science.”

The conflict with science is important. Vaccine skepticism is common among some Christian faiths. Atheists are much more likely than evangelical Christians to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Other forms of polarization trace the religion/nonreligion divide. Republicans are more religious than Democrats. Midwestern and Southern states are more religious than coastal states. Younger people are less religious than older people. More educated people also tend to be less religious.

Faith and reason can co-exist. But the modern scientific world view creates significant challenges for traditional religious belief.

Science teaches that our sun is one star among billions and that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Darwinian biology explains how life evolved, including dinosaurs. Medical science is a powerful tool for saving lives. Neuroscience provides a non-spiritual explanation of consciousness. And so on.

Religious texts and dogmas are disconnected from the growing body of knowledge we call science. Religion is, of course, more than an explanatory system. It is also about community and shared meaning. But increased diversity makes this more complicated. Which tradition should we choose? As nonreligion grows, it becomes easier to pick “none of the above.”

As more people choose this option, social conflict will follow. To manage these conflicts, we need a robust secular system of government such as is provided by the First Amendment. Secularism allows diversity to flourish. In the bad old days, atheists and heretics were burned. Today they are coming out of the closet.

This is probably not what the Founders imagined. American secularism was originally about Christian liberty. Early Americans were concerned with the repression of Christian dissent in the Old World. Americans also engaged in religious persecution. Mormons were driven out. Indigenous people were killed and converted.

As American secularism grew more inclusive, it reflected the best values of this country. We value nonconformity, innovation, and imagination. Reason and science are also deeply American.

Creative freedom is a powerful force. But liberty means different things to different people. The National Day of Reason proclamation quotes James Madison as saying that knowledge is the best guardian of liberty. The National Day of Prayer website quotes the apostle Paul in saying that liberty is grounded in God.

Is liberty a gift of the Creator, or is it the product of social and political evolution? We’ll continue to disagree about the metaphysics of freedom. But despite our differences, religious and nonreligious people share an interest in secularism. It is freedom of thought and religion that allows us to argue and think about those disagreements.

The one thing we might all agree on is the idea that the state should stay out of these arguments. It would be wrong for the state to impose either religion or nonreligion. Individuals also ought to learn to leave each other alone to think for ourselves.

This creates challenges, as with vaccine skepticism. But those challenges are worth it. In a free country, prayer and reason should each have their day in the sun.

Liberalism and the Legacy of John Rawls

Fresno Bee, February 21, 2021

Republicans, Democrats can find common ground over concern for reason and truth.

Feb. 21, 2021 is the 100th birthday of the American political philosopher John Rawls. He was a famous proponent of liberalism. He imagined a tolerant secular society in which reason produced consensus.

Rawls died in 2002. Liberalism was a common ideal in the United States in the 20th century. Things have unraveled since then into fundamental disagreements about truth, justice and the American way.

Liberty matters in Rawls’ vision. But society also ought to concern itself with the well-being of the underprivileged. Liberalism allows people to pursue their own interests, while also setting up a safety net. This system encourages people to develop their dreams. But it also takes care of what Rawls calls “the least advantaged.”

Rawls gives us a useful tool called “the veil of ignorance.” You ought to pretend, Rawls suggests, that you do not know who you are. You should disregard your race, gender, and net worth. What kind of social system would you imagine was fair, if you didn’t know whether you were rich or poor, white or black, male or female?

This thought experiment encourages us to ignore biased self-interest. This should lead us to see the injustice of sexist, racist and elitist systems. Reasonable and unbiased people should want a system that helps those with special needs and hard luck, because that could be you (or someone you love).

This ends up looking something like the economic and political structure we have in the United States. Entrepreneurs are free to get rich here. But they pay taxes that help the needy. There are details to be debated, including how much the rich should be taxed and how much social support is needed by the poor. Those details are to be sorted out by balancing liberty with concern for the least advantaged.

We can use Rawls’ method to think about a variety of issues. Imagine if you did not know if you were old or young, rich or poor, sick or healthy. You might then agree that those who are most likely to die from COVID-19 (old people and people with medical conditions) should get the vaccine first. Or imagine that you don’t know for the moment whether you are safely housed or not. You might then agree that everyone should have access to shelter, toilets and the security of walls and doors.

And so on.

The liberal idea has been criticized. Libertarians think liberty trumps other values. Socialists want more equality than Rawls provides. Feminists claim Rawls ignores the historical oppression of women. Critics focused on race say he ignores the history of slavery and segregation. And Christian critics claim that secular justice is empty in comparison with the command to love God and your neighbor as yourself.

But liberalism imagines a big tent. Rawls defended a vision of toleration that would allow diverse people to find common ground despite their differences. He called this “overlapping consensus.” That place of reasonable consensus would be where we would debate the historical details and balance equality with liberty.

Overlapping consensus depends upon the basic good will, fairness, and reasonableness of people. Diverse religious people should be able to find consensus because of their basic sense of fairness. Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground because they share a common concern for reason and the truth.

As polarization and distrust grow, this idea seems untenable. Conspiracy theories, fake news, identity politics, and growing authoritarianism all serve to undermine the dream of a tolerant, reasonable consensus.

The risk of devolution stems from growing irrationality. Rawls explained in a comment on Hobbes that “so far as people are rational, they will want to avoid having things collapse back into a state of nature.” The state of nature, on this account, is a state of war. Rawls did not mean this as a prophecy. But the risk is there. If people are not rational, we won’t be able to find common ground and society risks collapse.

As we continue to struggle with polarization, we would do well to revisit the liberal idea of a just and tolerant secular society. Rawls gives us reason to hope that we might ignore our differences long enough to find common ground.

The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow.