The dangers of definition–II

Within the lifetimes of many who read these entries, government-sanctioned entities existed in this nation that judged the sincerity and validity of individual religious beliefs.  Thousands of people were summoned to appear before them.  These agencies consisting of fellow citizens in communities bored into the basis of the claimed beliefs and ultimately determined if the sincerely held beliefs were legitimate. They were called draft boards.

They might ask, “Do you pray every day,” or “Do you read the Bible every day?”  Or the Talmud or the Book of Mormon, the Quran, the Vedas, the Pali Canon, or other sacred books of the religion you claim?  “Do you read those words as inerrant sacred texts do you believe you are free to interpret them as you please?”

Is your “religion” built on ideas from non-Biblical writings such as those from Soren Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger, Mortimer Adler, Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, Umberto Eco, Mahmoud Khatani, Reinhold Niebuhr, Black Elk, Paul Tillich, Mahatma Ghandi, Billy Graham, Joel Osteen or The Pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch?

Would YOU be comfortable having a government board decide if your religion justifies your actions or the sincerity of your claimed sincere religious beliefs? Thousands of people, comfortable or not, put themselves in that position years ago.

Actually, we do have something of that system still before us although we don’t think of it in the manners we are discussing here.  Our criminal justice system often has to deal with those who claim they were driven to their actions by the Devil or by the Voice of God.  But that is sufficiently different from our issue today that we will put it aside.

Let’s take this one more step.   Having now written your personal definition of “sincere religious belief,” (you HAVE written it, haven’t you?) would you be willing to stand in front of the leaders of your religion and read it, knowing that they would decide if your definition is good enough for you to remain a member of that religion?  This would not be a panel of your peers drawn from the diversity of a broader community.  This would be a panel of those whose religion you profess to share. Why not—if you think your definition should be behind a part of the state constitution?

There are some religious organizations that do have such test.  There are probably a lot more that members are very glad do not.  Freedom of religion within religion, however, is not at all uniform.

Freedom of religion within religion has been an issue in this country from our earliest days.  Your correspondent has been reading Eve LaPlante’s American Jezebel, the story of Anne Hutchinson, whom you might remember from school as one of founders, with Roger Williams, of the colony of Rhode Island. Beyond that, most of us don’t remember much about her.  It might be instructive to recall this story that should be uncomfortable to those who assert this country was founded as a “Christian nation” as well as those who are asserting that sincere religious belief is justification for considering some people less that complete citizens.

Anne Hutchinson was a midwife living in the Massachusetts Colony, expecting her sixteenth child when she was forty-six years old in 1637.  The colony was controlled by the Puritan clergy and was a society that severely limited women’s role in society.  Anne began to attract a following among women and eventually several men as she began discussing her own version of the Puritan religion and critiquing sermons she had heard.  Among those attracted to her discussions was the colony’s governor, Henry Vane.  She believed salvation was a matter of God’s grace and accused the colony’s ministers of preaching the misleading idea that salvation could be gained through works.

In a short time, the Puritan ministers grew alarmed that her growing following was weakening their control of the colony and hauled her before a court of forty male judges dominated by Puritan “works’ preachers.  LaPlante’s book delves heavily into the trial transcript to illustrate the charges and Anne’s defense that often confounded the judges.  In the end, though, the forty judges convicted her and banished her from the colony.  A few months later she was excommunicated from the church.

The reach of the Puritan religion was so extensive and oppressive in those times that the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was safe for her and her followers for only a few years. When Massachusetts threatened to take over Rhode Island, she moved to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, settling in an area that is now The Bronx borough of New York City, where she and five of the children who had moved there with her were killed in an Indian attack in 1643.

As Anne Hutchinson’s husband and about a dozen other men prepared to leave Boston for Providence Plantation, they signed a compact that they would honor as the proprietors of Rhode Island.  The compact, in the wording of the day, pledged the new colony would follow Jesus Christ’s “most perfect and most absolute laws of His given in his Holy Word of Truth.” While that proclamation might be seen as a Seventeenth Century antecedent for supporters of today’s Senate resolution, it would be good for those quick to use it to remember one of the first written rules composed under that compact after the group arrived in Rhode Island: “No person within said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called into question on matter of religion—so long as he keeps the peace.”   Some see that rule as the beginning of the religious freedom statement in the First Amendment and the first statement in our country’s history that church and state are separate. No questions will be raised about a citizen’s religion UNLESS it disturbs the peace of the community. Believe what you wish but respect the secular interaction necessary for an orderly society.

Today, in the Capitol of the state from which she was banished for behavior “not comely for (her) sex,” Anne Hutchinson is memorialized as a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” In a time when we speak often of the values of our Founding Fathers, it is time to remember that there was a Founding Mother, the co-founder of Rhode Island, and the persecution she suffered at the hands of the righteous who countenanced no difference from their religion.

Who decides if your “sincere religious belief” is sincere enough to justify something a proposed state amendment would let you do?  And what right does the target of your actions have to force you to defend that belief before some kind of panel of peers?  Or even a panel of ministers of your own denomination? How is anyone to know that your actions are just not arbitrary unless there is a mechanism to test their foundation?

These are hard questions in a time when surveys are showing that more and more people are finding religious creeds, dogmas, or standards unwelcome.  The percentage of Americans who respond “none” to census questions about their religion is growing.  Some analysts are theorizing that religious demands for public laws and policies that fit a narrow concept are actually harming organized religion, especially among millennials.   Whether one agrees with that analysis is a personal, often political, choice.

And in Missouri today, the phrase “sincere religious belief” presents public and personal policy challenges that raise the personal comfort levels of many to levels of discomfort and could further justify the feelings of “nones.” Banishment and excommunication from the social fabric of America, in whatever form, is still alive, though, as we are seeing proposed in Missouri.

Some critics say there is less sincerity than there is politics in this effort, that it is really less a protection of religion than it is an effort to get more conservative voters to the polls in November, which means discussing the issue at a spiritual level is useless.

Nonetheless, we’ll discuss what might be done and why it can’t be done, next.


Let me know what you think......