The Wrath of God and the U.S. Constitution

Fresno Bee, March 10, 2024

Alabama has crafted legislation that will allow in vitro fertilization (IVF) to commence again, in response to a February ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court that shut it down. That’s promising for folks who want to use IVF technology to become parents.

But the court’s reasoning reminds us of the need to reaffirm the basic idea of separation of church and state.

In his concurring decision, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme, Tom Parker, cited the Bible, as well as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and other Christian theologians to support his claim that “all human beings bear God’s image from the moment of conception.”

He concluded, “Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.” And “Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

Some Christians will agree. Various Christian communities, including the Roman Catholic church, teach that IVF is wrong, along with abortion. One concern is that IVF results in extra embryos, what the Alabama high court called “extrauterine children.” If they are destroyed, the court suggests that this is murder.

IVF also violates “natural law” teaching about sexual reproduction. Natural law ethics holds that reproduction should only occur within loving, conjugal relations. But IVF involves masturbation and technological manipulation that supposedly violates the nature of sex, love and procreation.

Of course, not every Christian agrees with this moral analysis. Christians are not universally opposed to the procreative use of technology. Nor is every Christian opposed to masturbation, abortion or to methods of birth control that prevent fertilized embryos from implanting in the uterus.

Christians don’t all agree that life begins at conception. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas himself claimed, following Aristotle, that the soul is only present in the embryo at 40 days (for male children) and at 90 days for females.

The world’s diverse religious traditions teach different things about sex, genetic humanity and human reproduction. There is also a sizable and growing number of nonreligious Americans who don’t accept natural law ethics or the idea of a wrathful God.

That’s why invoking the wrath of God in a legal argument seems astonishingly un-American. The American government is the result of a social contract. It is a grand compromise created by “We, the people.”

Moreover, the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the right to religious liberty while prohibiting the establishment of an official state religion. The only other mention of religion in the Constitution is found in Article VI, where religious tests for office are prohibited.

But in Alabama things seem otherwise. In a recent interview, Chief Justice Parker said, “God created government.” The founders would disagree. They viewed the government as the result of a social compact that aimed to produce domestic tranquility. John Adams said that the American states were “founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery.”

One important reason to reject Chief Justice Parker’s theopolitics is the fact of religious diversity. This diversity includes a wide variety of Christian faiths. Adams himself had unconventional religious beliefs. He did not accept the doctrine of the trinity and was doubtful about the divinity of Christ. In a letter to his son, he claimed that the idea of an “incarnate God” had “stupefied the Christian world.”

Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries disagreed about religion. These days, Christians disagree about whether “extrauterine children” bear God’s image. And even in Alabama there are non-Christians. According to the Pew Center, 1 % of Alabamans belong to non-Christian faiths and 12% are non-religious. So, it is bizarre to claim, as Justice Parker did, that “the theologically based view of the sanctity of life” ought to guide the law of the land. This is a religiously diverse nation.

The founding social contract created a secular democracy that guarantees religious liberty and seeks to prevent the creation of an established state religion. This idea allows Christians to follow their consciences with regard to IVF, sex, abortion, and everything else. It also ought to prevent the government from imposing a religious doctrine on any one of us.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article286440505.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Freedom Day: From Jefferson and Adams to Trump and Biden

Fresno Bee, January 14, 2024

Religious Freedom Day” is January. 16. The day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed into law on January 16, 1786. The law was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson and carried forward by James Madison.

It is worth reading the whole document. It is not long. But it does contain dense prose that brings together a number of important points from theology and political philosophy. Before summarizing it, we might note how different things seem today from the time of the founding. Jefferson and Madison studied philosophy, religion, history, and politics. They spoke moderately and with reasoned arguments.

These giants are quite different from the leading Republican candidate for president, who has been talking a lot about religion. In a Christmas post, Donald Trump wrote of Joe Biden and others he calls “thugs,” “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL.” And before Christmas, in Iowa, Trump said, “Our country’s gone to hell. As soon as I get back in the Oval Office, I’ll immediately end the war on Christians … Under crooked Joe Biden, Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted and government has been weaponized against religion like never before. And also presidents like never before.”

This Christian nationalist dog whistle fails to acknowledge that the Constitution makes persecution of any religion illegal. It fails to recognize that in our system of checks and balances, the president does not have the absolute power to declare war on religion. Trump also fails to understand that Christmas is a time of joy and love, not grievance and resentment.

Of course, Trump is free to say what he wants. Thanks to the founders’ wisdom, we have freedom of speech along with religious liberty. The Constitution’s First Amendment ensures that there can be no war on any kind of religion. It also allows Trump to damn his opponents to hell.

Now let’s consider that Virginia Statute. The law states that faith ought to be free from coercion because God created the human mind free. The government should stay out of religion because coercive state power corrupts the nature of faith.

The law notes that the men who lead churches and states are “fallible and uninspired.” It also claims that these faulty mortals have “established and maintained false religions” throughout history. Such crooked men end up warping religion when they try to impose their opinions on others.

The statute further says that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” This means that every person has the same civil rights, no matter what they believe (or don’t believe). Civil government exists to maintain peace and good order. Beyond that it should not go. The state does not exist to enforce religious orthodoxy.

The statute concludes by paraphrasing the philosopher John Locke, saying, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” There is a suggestion here that political coercion tends to undermine truth. At the same time there is the hope that if people were left alone to develop their own consciences, truth would win out and we’d all be better off.

These are important ideas found deep in the heart of the American tradition. They also remind us of a different kind of political tone. The founders valued civility, moderation and restraint. Of course, from time to time, the founding generation engaged in heated political rhetoric. These men were human, after all. In the election of 1800, supporters of John Adams accused Thomas Jefferson of being an atheist. William Lin, a clergyman who opposed Jefferson, said the election of Jefferson would “destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”

Despite that hyperbole and animosity, Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled after their respective presidencies ended. They went on to exchange a number of letters in which they discussed religion and philosophy. These letters show that Jefferson was not an atheist. Nor was Adams an orthodox Christian. Rather, these were inquisitive minds trying to make sense of religion.

It is religious liberty that allows us to think critically about our beliefs. In the long run, wisdom is found in free and moderate discussion. And it is better to argue reasonably than to wish that your opponents should rot in hell.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article284146833.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Liberty, Modesty, and The Morality Police

Fresno Bee, October 2, 2022

Morality is not external conformity. Let’s keep this in mind when thinking about recent protests in Iran against the “morality police.” Those protests broke out in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being detained by the morality police for wearing her hijab (a head covering) too loosely.

For Americans of the present generation, the notion of the morality police is hard to fathom. How strange that anyone cares whether women cover their hair.

Of course, societies have often attempted to control women’s lives, bodies, and sexuality. A hundred years ago in the United States, swimsuit police tried to prevent women from showing too much skin at the beach.

We’ve come a long way. Thanks to the secular principles found in the First Amendment, we are free to wear what we want. There is no morality police here because we view fashion as a form of free expression.

There are limits, of course. Schoolchildren are not free to wear pornographic or offensive T-shirts. Nudity is prohibited. And in a recent case out of Everett, Washington, the courts upheld a law prohibiting baristas at the Bikini Hut coffee shop from dressing like strippers. The Ninth Circuit Court drew a line at “pasties and a G-string” with your coffee.

But beyond those limits, our secular system holds that fashion, sex, and sexuality are private matters, not subject to policing. This is the result of a long struggle against a more restrictive worldview. And some Americans might prefer a return to modesty and conformity. Until recently, school districts prohibited girls from wearing tight leggings or yoga pants — including here in Clovis, which only changed its policy this year.

So, let’s not take the struggle for liberty and privacy for granted. It’s only been about 20 years since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned laws against sodomy, in Lawrence v. Texas. It’s only been seven years since Obergefell v. Hodges gave same sex couples the right to marry. And challenges remain. The court has called the idea of a “right to privacy” into question with the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

Behind these legal issues is a basic argument about the importance of liberty. This is related to a claim about the futility and absurdity of trying to police fashion, sex, and modesty.

Americans pledge allegiance to the idea of a country founded on the idea of liberty and justice for all. Liberty means that you can wear a hijab or a bikini. The choice is up to you.

And if I don’t like your choice, I can choose not to look. We forget this important point with regard to modesty. Rather than worrying about women flaunting their bodies, why don’t we insist that men stop ogling them?

There is no doubt that state power can dominate people. But police power does not actually create modesty or virtue. It is futile to use police power to enforce external conformity to norms of fashion, virtue, and modesty.

Clothing and hairstyles have nothing to do with the content of your character. It’s what’s inside your head and your heart that counts, not what you wear on the outside. That’s why the idea of fashion police is absurd. It is a meaningless exercise in enforcing conformity that is only skin deep.

Morality is simply not the kind of thing that results from the application of external force. The way to make people moral is to educate them, not to beat them into compliance. External force is useful for animals. We fence them in and leash them. But that’s not how you treat human beings.

Arresting people for what they wear (or don’t wear) also breeds discontent and further nonconformity. Women protested against the swimsuit police in the United States a hundred years ago. They are pushing the limit in the case of bikini baristas. And in Iran, women are burning their hijabs.

To force human beings to conform to some standard of modesty is degrading and ineffective. Secular systems of law respect our freedom to decide for ourselves about what we believe about modesty and how we adorn our bodies. This approach is respectful of our humanity, our rationality and our liberty.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article266575386.html#storylink=cpy

Religious Switching is a Sign of Freedom

Fresno Bee, September 17, 2022

The religious composition of the United States has changed significantly in the past 50 years. A new report from the Pew Research Center predicts that the Christian population will continue to shrink during the next half century. This is what happens in a world of religious liberty.

In 1972, 90% of Americans were Christian. Today only 64% of Americans identify as Christian. If the rate of change remains steady during the next 50 years, Pew predicts that the Christian population will be 46% in 2070.

Those who have left Christianity have mostly turned away from organized religion. Social scientists call this group “the nones.” When asked about their religious affiliation they say “none.” During the past 50 years, the nones increased from 5% in 1972 to around 30% today. If trends remain the same, five decades from now 41% of the population will be nones.

There are also non-Christian religious affiliations: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others. Those folks add up to about 6% of the population today. This combined group of non-Christians may increase to 13% during the next 50 years, if rates remain constant.

The result will likely be a country in which Christianity is no longer the dominant religion. Some may view this as a tragedy, especially those who maintain that America ought to be a “Christian nation.” But proponents of secular social and political systems will suggest that this is just the way that liberty works. If people are given the freedom to choose their own path through life, then we ought to see a profusion of lifestyles, affiliations and identities.

The Pew Center does not offer an explanation as to why all of this change began to occur after the 1970s. But such an explanation might include the fact that liberal interpretations of the First Amendment in the middle of the 20th century fanned the flames of liberty. School prayer was prohibited along with devotional Bible readings in the 1960s. The civil rights movement and changed immigration laws opened doors and eyes. A bigger, freer world emerged.

This does not mean that American secularism is opposed to religion, as some religious folks claim. The First Amendment framework is not antireligious. It protects the free expression of religion while preventing the state from creating an establishment of religion. This framework is good for religious people because it allows them to pursue their own faith in their own way.

But as liberty grows, a world of possibilities unfolds. This includes the likelihood that people will leave old traditions behind in order to make meaning for themselves in new and different ways. Lovers of liberty should celebrate our shifting religious demography. Religious switching is a sign of our freedom.

One of the great defenders of liberty, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, spoke of the importance of “experiments in living.” We need to be free to explore and experiment because no human being has a monopoly on truth. To believe something, we must experience it for ourselves. And if the old traditions no longer make sense, we should be free to create new ones.

Experimentation helps us discover new and better ideas. This process is also good for faith traditions. Competition in the realm of ideas encourages people to think more carefully about what they really believe and why they believe it.

Some people don’t like the marketplace of ideas. If your faith once had a monopoly, you may not welcome challenges to your dominance. You may resent new ideas and the liberty that allows them to be born.

Intolerance is “natural to mankind,” as Mill pointed out. Genuine religious freedom has rarely been practiced in human history. Bigotry and persecution are more common. Socrates and Jesus were both killed for opposing traditional dogma. The Protestants of Europe were persecuted by the old regime. Some fled to America, where they wrote religious tolerance into law.

In a world of liberty, nothing stays the same for long. We are creative and curious beings. Free people explore and innovate. Old traditions get left behind. Or they grow and adapt to the needs of the present. But the future belongs to the vitality of the experimental mind.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article265910211.html#storylink=cpy

Freedom is Frustrating and Pride Provokes

Fresno Bee, Oct. 31, 2021

Life in a secular democracy can be frustrating. In our country, we disagree about nearly everything. Our lack of agreement is a sign of the health of our democracy. Liberty is disruptive. The confusing complexity of our secular world is worth celebrating.

Consider the controversy about an LGBTQ pride club at Fresno Pacific University. Fresno Pacific is a Christian school. It denied an application for a student pride club. The university president, Joseph Jones, explained that establishing a pride club “was not consistent with the Confession of Faith of the university.”

The Fresno Pacific Confession of Faith says, “God instituted marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for the purpose of companionship, encouragement, sexual intimacy and procreation.” Fresno Pacific is affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Church, a church that is opposed to homosexuality and extramarital sex.

As a religious institution, Fresno Pacific has an exemption from Title IX, the law that is supposed to prohibit sex discrimination. The Department of Education explains that “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

All of this came as a surprise to student journalists who reported about it in the Fresno Pacific school newspaper. An important part of this story is about courageous student journalism. The good news is that the student journalists at Fresno Pacific were free to pursue this story.

Another part of the story is the fact that the national Campus Pride organization lists Fresno Pacific on its website as among “the absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ Youth.” Campus Pride is free to publish its list. Students can complain. And the campus will likely continue its policies.

The First Amendment is the touchstone here. It guarantees religious liberty as well as freedom of speech, freedom of the press— along with the right to assemble and to petition the government. In the United States, religious organizations have a significant degree of freedom. Journalists are free to report on these things. Ordinary citizens are free to cheer or jeer in rallies in the streets. And if you want to change the law, you can speak to your congressional representative.

The Fresno Pacific case is the kind of thing that happens in secular democracies. The story undoubtedly involves anxiety and acrimony for those directly involved. There will be disagreements about what should happen next. But the story reminds us that the First Amendment is alive and well in our country.

The liberties enumerated in the First Amendment give rise to controversies that span the political spectrum. Wherever your sympathies lie, you are bound to be outraged and offended by someone in a world that is organized under the First Amendment.

On the one hand, anti-vax and anti-mask protesters make First Amendment appeals and disrupt school board meetings. Some Trumpians have celebrated the protests of Jan. 6, linking it to the kind of assembly protected by the First Amendment. This shows us an important limit. You can rally and protest. But violence is not protected.

On the other hand, LGBTQ people have a right to speak out against Fresno Pacific. And in our world, religion is strictly regulated in public schools. One interesting recent case involves a high school coach in the state of Washington who was fired for leading his players in prayer. Among the issues in that case is an atheist family who complained that the coach did not provide their son with adequate playing time because he refused to pray.

And so it goes. There will always be plenty of controversies to keep the lawyers busy and the critics buzzing. The political philosopher Robert Nozick famously said, “liberty disrupts patterns.” We might add that liberty also disrupts social harmony and peace of mind.

Some may prefer a world where everyone conforms and obeys. But that’s not America. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.” And if you don’t agree, in our country you are free to say so.