Defending religious liberty by attacking civil liberty

It appears that some religious leaders believe that religious freedom and civil liberties cannot co-exist.

This line of reasoning has been popping up in the political discourse especially since the election two weeks ago: that the promotion of civil liberties for all to an attack on the religious freedom of some. The reasoning has appeared in Proposition 8 debate in California and in Roman Catholic circles since the election of Barack Obama.

The Dallas Morning News has a feature called Texas Faith. It is a weekly discussion that poses questions about religion, politics and culture to a panel of religious leaders. This week’s question: “Is a compromise between religious liberty and gay civil rights regarding marriage possible – and if not, which of the two is more important?”

The question assumes that the religious liberty and civil liberties cannot co-exit. That one must always give way to the other. For example, one of the arguments used by opponents of gay marriage is that if passed, then religious groups will be forced by the government to perform them. Similarly, the claim is made that if access to abortion were protected then even religious hospitals would be forced to perform them.

The answers by some of the people approached by the Dallas Morning News deals with these tensions:

• Lillian Pinkus, community volunteer, Anti-Defamation League activist: “… The answer is both yes and no. To me it seems the central issues in this week’s question pivot around tolerance and adaptation. To the degree a faith belief can tolerate differences and be able to interpret its scriptures in modern times, without sacrificing its core values, then compromise is possible. …The United States is not defined by a religion. We, Americans, are defined by belief in ideals such as individual liberty and civil rights, within the bounds of the law. If there is a clash between religious civil liberty and gay civil rights, in my opinion, gay civil rights needs to prevail. Otherwise, how are we different from those countries that demean and curtail the rights of others, both within and outside of their faith, in the name of religion?”

• George Mason, senior pastor, Wilshire Baptist Church: “… States now will continue to wrestle with the issue, but if it were not for the objections from some parts of the religious community, gay civil rights would be the law of the land. Eventually, the federal government or the Supreme Court will step in and the issue will be settled in favor of gay civil rights. Most likely, religious communities will be shown the greatest possible latitude in opting out of practices that would violate their convictions.”

Katie Sherrod, Fort Worth writer/producer, Episcopal Church activist: “I think this question poses a false dichotomy between rights and liberty. One of my friends in California wrote this: ‘As a priest in the Episcopal Church – but to speak more broadly than that, as an Episcopalian, as a Christian, and as a person of faith – I have taken a vow to respect the dignity of every human being. The intention of that vow, made in faith, is mirrored in the civic realm by our constitutions – in this case, the state Constitution. Constitutions exist to protect the dignity of all our citizens, not to take away that dignity or deny the rights of our citizens. Proposition 8, crafted to take away the rights of our citizens, is mean-spirited, fear-based, and wrong-headed.’ “

So can a pro-choice president protect the religious freedom and the civil liberties of our citizens at the same time? There are some Roman Catholics who say that he cannot.

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, former Archbishop of Denver and now the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary which is the office responsible for, among other things, indulgences, spoke to the students at the Catholic University of America. The student newspaper, the CUA Tower reports:

“For the next few years, Gethsemane will not be marginal. We will know that garden,” Stafford said, comparing America’s future with Obama as president to Jesus’ agony in the garden. “On November 4, 2008, America suffered a cultural earthquake.”

“If 1968 was the year of America’s ‘suicide attempt,’ 2008 is the year of America’s exhaustion,” said Stafford, an American Cardinal and Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary for the Tribunal of the Holy See. “In the intervening 40 years since Humanae Vitae, the United States has been thrown upon ruins….”

This destruction and America’s decline is largely in part due to the Supreme Court’s decisions in the life-issue cases of 1973, specifically Roe v. Wade. Stafford asserted these cases undermined respect for human life in the United States.

“Its scrupulous meanness has had catastrophic effects upon the unity and integrity of the American republic,” said Stafford.

Andrew Sullivan blogs in response that “The Vatican hierarchy has become radicalized under Benedict and John Paul II – so much so that they see the West since the 1960s as entirely a creature of resistance to Humanae Vitae, the papal declaration that all non-procreative sex is a moral evil. But the notion that the recent election of Obama is a sign of the Apocalypse has, until now, been restricted to Protestant loonies. Until now….”

But Cardinal Stafford was not alone. Last week the President of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops said:

Aggressively pro-abortion policies, legislation and executive orders will permanently alienate tens of millions of Americans, and would be seen by many as an attack on the free exercise of their religion.

And this approach led a priest in South Carolina to write a letter directing those in his parish who voted for Obama to refrain from Communion until they confessed their sin.

Bishop Paul Marshall of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem wrote to his diocese via their e-mail list in response:

American Roman Catholic bishops declared this week that passage of an abortion rights bill would be an “attack on the church.” We call this leading with the chin.

Their calling a bill wrong would be one thing, and I might very well agree. Choosing to feel “attacked” is very dirty pool, somewhere between the sins of emotional hostage-taking and political terrorism. As a former professor, I associate such behavior with second-year seminarians, who usually rapidly outgrow it when they hit CPE. Their claim to feel attacked reflects the ghetto mentality that died in Catholicism in after WWII. Ask Andrew Greeley.

On Friday there was an AP story on a Roman priest who believes that vote for Obama mandates exclusion from communion. The Rev. Jay Scott Newman of Greenville, SC has single-handedly fulfilled the worst fears of 19th-century Americans who wished to exclude new Catholic immigrants from our national life because they believed that the Catholic Church would eventually become a voting block under the control of single gentlemen with an allegiance to the head of a tiny Italian city-state that thinks it is successor to the Roman Empire. What could this priest be thinking? Should we see the tragedy of a neo-nativist or, worse, an anti-religious uprising in the US, Fr. Newman will have only himself and his bishops to blame.

Fortunately for the papal church on these shores, it is not the position of its hierarchy that the 54% of Roman Catholics who voted for Obama are to be excommunicated. (This is to say nothing of the 90% of the faithful that use birth control.)

…Obviously the suggestion that the president-elect is “the most radical pro-abortion politician ever to serve in the US Senate” is incorrect by any standard. Fr. Newman must be a very, very young man, or else one who shares the historical amnesia that makes all Americans lepers in the world of ideas.

If I could, I would tell this clerical person that I do not know a soul who is “for” abortion.

…One may very well have a relatively conservative position on abortion (I certainly do), or even find it a question of moral absolutes (as some writers on this meeting clearly do). In either case there is plenty of empirical evidence to the effect that it is possible to hold such positions without un-churching those who come to other conclusions after wrestling with the same evidence…

There is a reason that the Book of Common Prayer does not have a day called a “Feast of Christ the King,” some local practices notwithstanding. That feast was created in Rome in the early 20th Century (the encyclical is Quas primas of 1925) in opposition to the ideals of democracy, protestantism “and the evils of anticlericalism,” among other things. Gullible protestants baptized the toned-down Vatican II version, but our liturgical reformers (esp Boone Porter) were not as easily fooled. How right they were… Quas primas insists that religion must rule the secular order. The Baltimore meeting of bishops and Fr. Newman seem very much of that school.

I, for one, protest. I should prefer not to have someone else’s religion presume to rule the land, especially not by blackmail–Anglicans suffered from oppression under the religiously certain in New England under Congregationalist tyrants. Let us settle issues on their moral and practical elements according to our brains and consciences (religiously-formed or otherwise), without claiming that we are “attacked” or that people who quietly vote according to their consciences may not receive sacraments. Sacraments are carrots, not sticks.

These are but two instances when civil liberties appear to be in conflict. And every Christian–every person of faith–must decide how to negotiate their beliefs in whatever cultrue they are in, no matter how secular or how how religious the laws might be. It is hard to imagine how diminishing civil rights while promoting a single approach to religion will bolster religious liberty.

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