A “terrorist attack” at the Governor’s Mansion

One of the first questions asked after one of today’s violent episodes that leaves people dead and injured is “Was this a terrorist attack?”   We are not the first generation to ask that question by a long shot.  There always have been terrorists, real and imagined. And sometimes, as is often the case today, a terrorist or suspected terrorist is identified with a faith tradition.

Herewith, we offer a story of a “terrorist attack” at the home of Missouri’s governor, told on behalf of one Phillip Thomas Miller, whose friends called him “P.T.”  He was once the warden of the state penitentiary and is credited with creating a policy that would let convicts have their sentences reduced by one-fourth (in his time) if they behaved themselves in the prison.  He thought it would be good for the discipline inside the walls if inmates have a substantial reason to obey the rules.

But before P.T. Miller was the warden of the penitentiary, he was considered a terrorist.

Miller moved to Jefferson City when he was about sixteen years old.  He died sixty-two years later in the same house in which he had lived since he moved to the capital city.

Charles B. Oldham told of Miller and the “terrorist attack” in one of the 1914 series of articles on prominent early residents of Jefferson City.

A “swell ball” was held in the original Governor’s Mansion in the late 1830s, before the first capitol (it was known as ‘The Governor’s House” originally) burned down in 1837.   As Oldham told the story, referring to Miller:

He was then quite a youngster and clerk for his uncle in the latter’s store.  Mr. Miller and some boys with whom he associated were considered too young to invite to the ball, but his uncle, John Miller, and his aunt were there, as were all the men and women of any prominence in Jefferson City.  Mr. Miller and his companions could look on from a distance, and that was all.  They were chagrined and made.  It was proposed that some trick be played upon the merrymakers and soil their fun.  In looking about for means of carrying out their intentions, Mr. Miller suggested that he could open his uncle’s store and procure some gunpowder and make a big noise near the Mansion and frighten the ladies out of their wits.

One plan after another was devised and abandoned until finally Mr. Miller suggested that some ten or fifteen pounds of gunpowder should be tightly wrapped in twine with a fuse attachment.  This was done, and Mr. Miller and one other boy deposited the layout near one of the windows on the south side of the Mansion, ignited the fuse and scampered.  When the explosion occurred, every window in the south side of the Mansion was broken and it rained pieces of twine over many acres of ground.  The women screamed, fainted and did other things common to the feminine mind in such emergencies to show their fear.  The men, too, were frightened, for this incident occurred at a time when the Mormons were troublesome in this state and threatening.  The men immediately imagined that the Mormons were trying to blow up the Mansion.  The ball came to an end immediately, for the women demanded franticly that they be taken home forthwith.  Mr. Miller’s uncle was sheriff of the county at that time and he made a good thorough investigation of the grounds.  The thousands of pieces of twine string puzzled him for a time, but presently he made up his mind that the whole affair was a badly planned joke and that his nephew was at the bottom of it.

Mr. Miller and his companions were badly frightened when they realized what they had done, and although his uncle accused him that night of being in on the plot, yet he would not admit as much until he was assured that no one had been hurt, as was true. 

The old capitol burned shortly after that. Months later, armed conflict broke out in northwest Missouri between Mormons and non-believers. Governor Boggs issued the order telling the Mormons to get out of Missouri or face extermination.

The Governor’s Mansion became the temporary quarters during the Civil War of Colonel Henry Boernstein after Union troops ran Confederate-sympathizing Governor Claiborne F. Jackson out of town.  It was replaced by the present mansion in 1871.

And P. T. Miller?  He became an upright man in every respect and a good example to the rising generation. He was a good business man, a good official, and a good writer.  Everybody knew him who had any acquaintance to the city and everybody liked him for his many and good qualities and sterling worth.

The boy who set off a bomb at a time when there were fears of terrorism 180 years ago died an honored man in 1895.

(Photo from the Cole County Historical Society)

Half-guilty, fully hypocritical

Your correspondent has a good friend, the Reverend John Bennett, who speaks and prays with a soft but strong voice, a man stooped by age but standing straight and tall in his passion for social justice.

John has been convicted of trespassing in the public gallery of the Missouri Senate.  He’s one of the Medicaid 23, as they are called, the ministers and private citizens who interrupted a filibuster on May 6, 2014 with songs, slogans and prayers urging senators to forget about playing politics with Medicaid expansion and instead think of 300,000 Missourians living on much less than senators are paid who would gain healthcare coverage under that part of Obamacare.

That’s John, wearing his minister’s stole, on the front row with the group in front of the Cole County Courthouse before their trial.

missouri faith voices

He said at the time of the demonstration, “Missouri lawmakers need a wake-up call. This is not about politics—this is about human life.  Until they do their job and pass Medicaid expansion, 700 Missourians will die each year and hundreds of thousands will live with untreated illness and in financial fear. This is a moral issue.”

Your correspondent was at the Senate press table that day.  Posted video of John and the other demonstrators with the story on the Missourinet web page. We understand the video was played during the trial. The Senate did not seem surprised when John and the-more than 23 others confronted them from the gallery.  Ron Richard, then the Majority Floor Leader, immediately moved for adjournment, interrupting Senator Jamilah Nasheed’s filibuster.  A few members stuck around for a while but the rest decided they didn’t need to hear what some people of faith had to say on behalf of folks without enough money to influence lawmakers.  Prosecutor Mark Richardson tried to portray Nasheed as a victim of the protest.  She strongly dismisses that thought.  She says Richardson never talked to her.  She was never asked to testify.

Senator Richard is now the President pro Tem, the leader of the chamber.

Capitol police, who earlier had been briefed by leaders of the demonstration, asked them to leave.  And most of them did.  But the Medicaid 23, as they had promised the police, stayed until officers tapped them individually on the shoulder and asked them to depart.  And when that happened, each of them peacefully left the chamber.  John was one of the last four to go.

Prosecutor Richardson charged the 23 with trespassing and with obstructing the business of the Senate.  One of the 23 was unable to attend the trial and could be tried separately later.  We’ll see if Richardson has the courage to put him on trial by himself. After all, he has to be as guilty as the rest, doesn’t he?

The case could have been dropped at any time by Richard and the Senate but Richardson spent more than two years on their behalf zealously pursuing his case and the righteous Senate leadership didn’t stop him. From the accounts we have read, his closing arguments displayed some ignorance one would not have expected from someone who had spent two years preparing.  In the end, a jury said they were guilty of trespassing.  But they were not guilty of obstructing the Senate.  An appeal of the conviction is likely.

To add a degree of fairness here—just one degree—there is an issue of public safety involved, and Richardson raised it.  If the Senate had dropped these charges, would it be giving tacit approval for other groups to think it’s permissible to do what the Medicaid 23 and their supporters did?  Would the Senate be inviting disorder in its galleries if it did not pursue this case? We weren’t in the jury room but that might have been the telling point leading to the trespassing conviction.

Prosecutor Richardson told the jury there are other places to hold protests at the Capitol, and it is true that protests are not uncommon in the rotunda or on the south front steps.  It is also true that lawmakers can and do easily ignore them.  Yes, people can testify in committees, and they have.  But when citizens start to feel their lawmakers are stone deaf, some kind of civil disobedience might seem the only alternative.

The jury, perhaps sensing that recommending jail time for these folks and only adding to the list of national embarrassments that Missouri seems to generate too often, has recommended the judge fine them.  Judge Dan Green is deciding how much.

There’s a greater and broader issue that is outside the courtroom.  It is inside the Senate.  And it is this:

What does this prosecution say about a Senate that has spent so much of its time passing a Religious Freedom Restoration bill that lets people use their religion to exclude others from associating with them as a matter of public policy—but prosecutes those who are PRACTICING their religious freedom (among other constitutional rights) to call on the legislature to include people in a matter of public policy?  The Senate seems to prefer as friends those supporting a religion of exclusion while considering those supporting a religion of inclusion as criminals.

It might be good for legislators who meet weekly for Bible Study to become acquainted with Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew because He speaks of them in Chapter 23:

“Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. [14]

15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Had Jesus spoken this truth to power from the gallery of the Missouri Senate on May 6, 2014, He would stand today with the Medicaid 22 as a convicted trespasser.

(Photo from Missouri Faith Voices)

The Politics of Nostalgia

Robert P. Jones, the former Missouri State University psychology professor who now heads the Public Religious Research Institute, looks at many of the issues that (in your observer’s view) divert the attentions of lawmakers away from solving infrastructure, education, and social problems by trying to preserve the diminishing influence of their religion in his book, The End of White Christian America.

The PRRI has identified attitudinal splits that point to an ongoing diminution in the influence of WCA that for most of this nation’s history was “the prominent cultural force.”  The survey has found 53% of Americans think our culture has gone downhill since the 1950s.  But Jones says there is a “stark cleavage” by race and religion.  Seventy-two percent of evangelicals believe in the cultural slippage.  Fifty-eight percent of mainline white Protestants and white Catholics agree.

However, fifty-nine percent of Hispanic Catholics think our culture has improved. And sixty-three percent of the growing numbers of Americans with no religious affiliation and fifty-five percent of African-American Protestants agree with them.

Jones says the latter groups will more future influence in the shaping of our country than mainline and evangelical Christians.  “For the first time in more than five decades, an appeal to a sentimental version of midcentury heartland America is not a winning political strategy,” he writes, taking a long-term view—but not a VERY long one.  He says that political movements still clinging to the “sentimental” view of midcentury America—including the Tea Party—are engaging in “the politics of nostalgia.”

Jones thinks today’s religion/politics blend began with the Republican Southern Strategy that appealed in sixties to southern Democrats upset with their party’s support of civil rights initiatives.  He recalls Richard Nixon in 1968 made a deal with Senator Strom Thurmond to stall various civil rights efforts and although the plan was short-circuited by Watergate, the alliance caught fire when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter became president in 1976 and many southerners hoped this born-again southern Christian Baptist Democrat would favor their agenda. But they were disappointed when he did not.  Jones thinks this disappointment on which conservative religious leaders such as Jerry Fallwell capitalized turned a Republican political strategy into a White Christian Strategy in which Republicans saw an advantage to be had.  He says the White Christian Strategy was important in putting Ronald Reagan in the White House and Reagan supported it.

He says that strategy weakened in the first decade of the present century but has found new life in the Tea Party movement.  He points to a PRRI survey that shows the Tea Party is more closely aligned with the Christian Right than it is with the Libertarians, as some of its leaders claim.  In fact, a 2013 survey showed 61% of Libertarians did not consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement and 52% of Tea Party members said they were “part of the Religious Right or Christian conservative movement.”

Jones also notes 55% of Tea Party members agree this country is a Christian nation while only 39% of the general population holds that view.  He calls the Tea Party “a late-stage expression of a White Christian America that is passing from the scene.”

He also points to research showing that seventy-three percent of the electorate in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected, was white and Christian.  That group comprised only fifty-seven percent of the electorate twenty years later and is expected to be down two more points this year and drop to fifty-two percent in 2020. At this rate, he forecasts, 2024 will be the first election in national history in which white Christians do not cast the majority of votes.   That’s bad news for Republicans who (the surveys in the book indicate) rely on voting coalitions that are eighty percent white Christians.  By contrast, only thirty-seven percent of the voters who re-elected President Obama four years ago were white Christians.

In short, he infers, the Republican coalition faces a dim future.  One factor that he has identified facing Republicans is the religiously unaffiliated population—young people who, according to an evangelical poll, have pulled away from “present day Christianity” because they see much of it as being anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical.  And they’re pretty firm in those opinions.  Eighty-five to ninety-one percent feel that way.

Jones cites Russel Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who has suggested it is time for Christians, as Jones puts it, “to relinquish their status as defenders of a lost consensus” (on such things as gay marriage) and “rally around a more limited movement to maintain their traditional view of marriage within their own communities.”  Jones says Moore’s position is a beginning of the “religious liberty” movement that “individuals should be able to carry religious objections from their private life into their public roles as service providers, business owners, and even elected officials.”   He refers to the movement as “a desperate attempt to fight the lost war by other means.”

Jones also looks at the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, desegregation of churches and of communities, racial justice (“why is desegregation so difficult?” he asks), and other factors on which WCA is divided and trying to maintain old values in a world that is creating new ones.

So what’s the answer?   He digs into Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying: What the Dying have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families, published in 1969.  She identifies the five stages of grief that people go through when facing an end: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Jones says those stages are useful in understanding what is happening with White Christian America, both mainliners and evangelicals.  In his forty-page final chapter, he examines how both branches of WCA are dealing with those five stages.

Jones says mainline Christians are moving—although not smoothly—toward “a distinctive theological and ecclesiastical vision, driven by the need to come to terms with the death of White Christian America,” while evangelicals are divided. One branch acknowledges “their vision of a robust white evangelical world will have to be tempered” while still resisting “the full implications of its demise.”  He cites Baptist minister and professor of Christian ethics David Gushee, who appeals to evangelicals to abandon “past conspiracy theories, demagoguery, single-issue voting, partisan seductions, mudslinging, and God-and-country conflations and confusions” and to take part in a fully pluralistic society without being tempted to reach for (as Jones puts it), “domination and sectarianism, each of which is driven by nostalgia for a lost Christian America.”

Jones sees a future for Christianity in shaping the character of our country.  But he says it must recognize its past failings and its new possibilities in a world that will be shaped by today’s younger generation.

As National Catholic Reporter writer Maureen Fiedler put it last month, “Welcoming racial and religious diversity is now a political imperative as well as a religious calling.” (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/end-white-christian-america)

After reading this book, we think we understand the trends that have led the Missouri legislature’s majority to become embroiled in some of the hot-button issues it spends too much time working on while ignoring greater issues that affect the lives of our population as a whole.  But we also realize it is unrealistic to think that this year’s elections will produce any significant change in the attitudes of our Missouri lawmakers.   Jones’ book suggests there is hope for an eventual realization that resisting the coming changes to our society out of a “nostalgia for a lost Christian America,” rather than focusing on shaping those changes in a positive and inclusive manner, might be politically profitable in the short run but sad and wasted effort in the face of inevitability.

Depending on your faith perspective, you might or might not enjoy reading this book.  But we think it will add a dimension to your understanding of where we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going, particularly in the proposed laws we’re likely to see in the legislature next year.

Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2016.  309 pages.

This might explain some things we see

Your traveling correspondent read the obituary when he dropped in at the Between The Covers bookstore in Harbor Springs, a northwest lower Michigan community, a few days ago.  A former college professor from Springfield—a city considered one of the buckles in the Bible Belt—had written it.

“After a long life spanning nearly two hundred and forty years, White Christian America—a prominent cultural force in the nation’s history—has died.  WCA first began to exhibit troubling symptoms in the 1960s when white mainline Protestant denominations began to shrink, but showed signs of rallying with the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. Following the 2004 presidential election, however, it became clear that WCA’s powers were failing.  Although examiners have not been able to pinpoint the exact time of death, the best evidence suggests that WCA finally succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century.  The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors—complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.”

the end of WCA

There was more to it but you’ll have to get Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America and read it yourself.  Jones was a psychology professor for more than a decade at Missouri State University in Springfield before becoming the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.  He has a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in religion from Emory University.  His bio note on the PRRI website says he specialized in the sociology of religion, politics and religious ethics during his doctoral work.  He does a column online for Atlantic magazine and is often heard on NPR’s Interfaith Voices news magazine program.

Readers of his book might see some explanations for some of the stuff that’s been going on in Missouri’s legislature in recent years.  In short, Jones suggests (although not specifically) such things as the personhood amendment proposal, the proposal this observer called the Wesboro Amendment during the last session, the constant efforts to make a legal medical procedure harder and harder to obtain, and other issues are efforts of a weakening White Christian America to preserve in law what it can no longer control from the pulpit.

Jones says WCA has two branches, “a more liberal mainline Protestant America headquartered in New England and the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region and a more conservative evangelical Protestant America anchored in the South and lower Midwest/Ozark Mountains region.”   But there’s more to the distinction than geography.  He sees the two branches as divided on social class and their perspectives on race relations.  “Their differences are rooted in disagreements over fundamental tenets of theology, approaches to diversity, and accommodations to the modern world and science,” he says. The divide widened in the 1920s as some Christians saw the Bible and evolution as compatible, a position that “horrified” Protestant Fundamentalists who saw the Bible as true in all regards.  He argues that the differences between Modernists and Fundamentalists created a wound that would not heal and created a “fault line” between what is now considered mainline and fundamentalist Christianity and a subsequent fight for control of “the symbolic capital of Christianity.”

It was mainline Protestants, he writes, who led to progressive social change in the last half of the Twentieth Century—the establishment of the United Nations and its declaration for international human rights, and United States civil rights laws among other things.  Mainline Protestants, he writes, by mid-century were leaders in government, education, business, and cultural affairs.

But mainline Protestantism began to weaken and the Evangelical Protestants moved to become “the face of White Christian America,” becoming the “dominant cultural voice” that constituted a “Moral Majority” in the 70s “to protect a distinctly Protestant Christian” nation.”

However, the nation was changing socially, politically, and demographically, leading to the election of the nation’s first non-white president, the creation of a non-Protestant Supreme Court (six Catholics and three Jews), a Census Bureau prediction that this country would no longer be a majority white nation by 2050, and increasing numbers of people who, when asked their religious preference, replied “none.”

Jones cites sociologist Nathan Glazer suggesting White Christian America is facing a future in which it tries to preserve its social values, or a future in which it integrates into “the new American cultural landscape.”

Jones suggests some of the things we are seeing in government and in other parts of our lives is the result of the first choice when, he maintains, the second choice inevitably will have to be made if White Christian America is to be relevant in an age when the nation is no longer majority white and increased numbers of Americans are “nones.”

He cites a 2014 study by his organization, PRRI, showing the proportion of white Christians in this country was already at 47% while the number of Americans with no religious affiliation was up to 22%.  Another 24% were non-white Christians.  A closer look at the numbers shows a generational shift.  About 70% of older Americans are white Christians. But only about thirty percent of young adults (18-29) fall into that category.  The change in the social and religious structure of this country is well underway meaning, “Falling numbers and the marginalization of a once dominant racial and religious identity—one that has been central not just to white Christians themselves but to the national mythos—threatens white Christian understanding of America itself.”

Further studies show Protestants have not been in the majority in this country since 2008.  And the percentage of Catholics and those who are unaffiliated are about the same—22% each. The 2014 study showed those identifying themselves as white Protestants dropped from 51% to 32% in two decades.  Black Protestants stayed at about 10% while Hispanic Protestants increased and reached four percent.  And the decline in the white Protestant category involves both mainliners and evangelicals.  He points to the precipitous decline of the nation’s largest evangelical Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which operates the seminary where he got his first graduate degree.  The conclusion?  “White Protestant Christians—both mainline and evangelical—are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population.”

Jones argues these declines have forced the two branches of WCA to seek alliances, often with other groups that had been unwelcome in their brotherhoods previously. The mainline has moved toward ecumenicity with African-American Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example.  White Evangelicals have turned to conservative political movements and unofficial alliances with conservative white Catholics and some Greek Orthodox leaders on certain issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

So now we can begin to understand the roots of some of the things we are seeing in our political campaigns and in the General Assembly of Missouri.

The alliances have shifted.  Mainline White Christians were more likely to dismiss fears that John Kennedy would take orders from the Vatican if he was elected.  Jones notes that mainliners and Catholics marched together in the Civil Rights era while white evangelicals, with stronger southern roots, “stayed largely on the sidelines.”

Jones thinks Bill Clinton’s election led Republican leaders to reconsider political strategies.  White Protestant evangelicals, more closely aligned with Republicans, put aside their reluctance to work with Catholics at the same time white conservative Catholics who had seen their church becoming ethnically transformed and politically divided, moved to increase their social and political power. Republican leaders realized they could move Catholics who had been loyal Democrats since the days of FDR away from the Democratic Party by focusing on abortion, especially since the Democrats had refused to support an anti-abortion amendment.  These formerly unlikely bedfellows drafted a statement in 1994 called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

Jones writes that this alliance in recent years has produced the Religious Freedom Restoration movement to allow companies to opt out of Obamacare for religious reasons, and to launch a manifesto last year against same-sex marriage.

And what has this alliance produced?  Jones says, “It helped give evangelicals an advantage in their contest to be the face of White Christian America.  And as the overall numbers of white Protestant Christians began to slip in the late 1990s, expanding the tent to include white Catholics helped perpetuate the illusion that White Christian America was still the country’s dominant religious culture.”

Illusion, says Jones, because the Catholic Church is slipping, too.  Twenty-two percent of the American population in 1990 identified itself as Catholic.  By 2014 that number was down to thirteen percent, and an even greater percentage of the population today—FIFTEEN percent—identifies itself as former Catholics.

He asserts the tide is running against the Evangelical-Catholic alliance that is such an influence in American politics, and for the purposes of our discussion here, in the Missouri legislature.

We have highlighted only the first eighty pages or so of Jones’ book to try to present a far less-detailed explanation of the roots of Missouri’s political structure than you will find if you read the book.  We think our understanding of contemporary Missouri politics and governance is much better because he has closely examined the demographic changes that are affecting our social, political, and religious lives.

But Jones does more than detail the movements that have put us where we are today.  At the end, he assesses how WCA can remain a powerful influence on American culture in an increasingly diverse country.

His book’s title speaks of “The End,” but he suggests the future of White Christian America as a social and political force will be shaped by the process we go through when facing death.  That’s a subject for another entry.  This one is long enough.

If you are in Missouri politics, an observer of Missouri politics, a Christian, Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, Muslim—whatever—we think your understanding of national and state politics can be improved by reading this book.  And, particularly, if you are a candidate or an incumbent office-holder, you might find helpful his call to abandon “The Politics of Nostalgia”—and begin building a more positive and inclusive political system—as you assess what you are and what you are doing, and shaping what you want to be.

Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2016.   309 pages

Sick

Some of you might think it’s funny.  Some of you will pump your fist in the air in agreement when you see it.  Some of you might honk your horn in support if you pull up behind a vehicle with the bumper sticker on it.

Good God, people!  In this campaign year when nothing seems too low, when there seems to be no limits on appealing to the worst of our narrowest natures, governor candidate Eric Greitens seems to have bored deeper into the darkness of politics based on hate and fear.

isis permit

Make a ten dollar donation to his campaign and he’ll give you an “Isis Hunting Permit” to stick on your bumper.  “No Bragging Limit. No Tagging Limit,” it says.

It’s not an original idea.  Unfortunately, other candidates in other states have decided to go swimming in these sludge-filled waters, too, with variations on this theme.

Political columnist Dave Helling with The Kansas City Star quotes a Greitens campaign news release claiming, “Liberals will go crazy when they see these, but remember, this isn’t an official government issued hunting tag.”

That statement strikes this longtime observer of Missouri politics who has seen a lot of tasteless campaign statements as irresponsible.  Some would find it outrageous.  And a campaign statement that suggests this is just a bit of innocent fund-raising fun might not even rank high enough to be termed contemptible—especially not in a time when we see too many headlines about senseless shootings.

Yes, ISIS is a bunch of bad people.  It’s hard to think of any group right now that deserves to reap the whirlwind.  But—

Given the current appeals throughout our political system that certain segments of the population should be stererotyped and scorned, this unfunny solicitation of ten-dollar bills can be dangerous, especially as a follow-up to a television commercial suggesting the answer to dissatisfaction with the political status quo comes symbolically from the barrel of a gun.

Is the Missouri voting public so far away from intelligent consideration of the issues that determine the quality of our lives that it can be motivated to vote for someone who thinks targeting ISIS—and in the minds of some, those whose faith might be blindly considered somehow related to it—is the most serious issue the next governor will have to deal with?

Are we so lost, so sick, that this kind of thing seems to be just an amusing way to get some attention and some ten-dollar bills?

Let us use the freedom of religion that seems to be such an important element of the campaigns of Greitens and his competitors to pray that we are not.

A religious experience, not a crime

We’re going to wade into the murky waters of religion and politics today in search of reason and logic.

We’ve had some time to mentally chew on Representative Tila Hubrecht’s thought in the waning days of the legislative session that a pregnancy resulting from a rape is a “silver lining” from God. All kinds of liberal thinkers and organizations have jumped all over her assertion made during House debate on the bill saying a woman’s egg is a person just a soon as a man’s sperm hits it even if the circumstances leading to the presence of the sperm are violent. The bill passed the House but didn’t have enough time to cause trouble in the Senate before adjournment.

The personhood bill did not contain the usual exemptions that allow abortions in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the woman. “It’s not up to us to say, ‘No, just because there was a rape, they cannot exist,’” Rep. Hubrecht said, the “they” referring to a person created by the sperm and egg. “Sometimes bad things happen—and they’re horrible things, but sometimes God can give us a silver lining through the birth of a child.” And she added, “When God gives life, he does so because there’s a reason, no matter what. I’ve met and talked with the different people who have been conceived by rape. There is a reason for their life.” We were not there when she said those things so we don’t know if she gave examples of the reasons for those lives.

She apparently is not alone in her feelings in the Missouri legislature and elsewhere. The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia reported about the same time that Delegate (that’s what they call Representatives in West Virginia) Brian Kurcaba said during a committee hearing, “Obviously rape is awful. What is beautiful is the child that could come from this.”

In Indiana, U. S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said in 2012, “I think that even when life begins in the horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock lost his race.

All three of these folks might be surprised to consider what they are really saying. If God intended pregnancy to occur, GOD IS INVOLVED IN FAMILY PLANNING! And we pretty well know what these folks think of organizations and individuals offering family planning advice.

Of course, all of this discussion is pointless because Congressman Todd Akin assured us during his Senate bid four years ago that a woman’s body can “shut the whole thing down” in cases of “legitimate rape.” He argued, as Rep. Hubrecht has argued, that the punishment should be of the rapist, not of the fetus. The Akin theory, however, seems to indicate pregnancy can only occur during illegitimate rape, whatever that is.

Not long after Hubrecht’s comments, Octavio Chorino and Peter Greenspan offered an op-ed piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch agreeing with Hubrecht and the others that “violence against women is unacceptable.” But they found the “notion that good may come of such a violation to be dangerous at best…and any suggestion that there is a bright side to sexual violence is an offense to all survivors.”

They noted other consequences of rape including transmission of sexually transmitted diseases as well as extensive physical and psychological injuries that can affect a woman for the rest of her life. “These consequences are very real and they should not be diminished by the claim that any rape has a silver lining,” they wrote. Unlike Hubrecht, Kurcaba, Mourdock, and Akin, these professionals have had real-world experience with rape and incest victims. “Exposing sexual assault victims to the risks inherent in pregnancy and childbirth is effectively punishing her for her own assault. This is unacceptable,” they said.

Chorino is the president of the Missouri Section Advisory Committee of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Greenspan, also a doctor, is the group’s legislative chair. But what do they know? They didn’t even address the issue of God’s will and Rep. Hubrecht’s inclusion of that issue takes the debate beyond the practical issues on which Chorino and Greenspan based their article.

Their experiences and their observations are not likely to concern the “silver lining” believers anyway.   We have seen no indication that those who want Missouri to have the strongest anti-abortion standards in the nation care much about the second life involved—that of the rape or incest victim.   They certainly didn’t show it during debate on the personhood bill in this election session of the legislature.

The comments, “When God gives life, he does so because there’s a reason, no matter what” and “sometimes God can give us a silver lining through the birth of a child” began to percolate in our head on a recent trip. You know how the mind sometimes looks for something to wonder about other than the many miles yet to go. In this case the mind decided to test the validity of an idea by taking it on a logical line and then asked a simple question:

“If God has a reason for causing a pregnancy through a man’s sexual act with an unwilling woman because ‘when God gives life there’s a reason no matter what,’ why should the man face a criminal charge for what logically is an act of God?”

Then the mind went on. “When does God decide a pregnancy should result from the rape or incest? While the act is in progress? Or does God decide immediately after the event that this is an opportunity to create a life? Or—-

“If God has a reason for a rape or incest-caused pregnancy, does it not follow that God had a reason for the rape or incest?

“If God gives life, and does so because there’s a reason, no matter what, what is that reason? Is it punishment for something the woman or the young girl did that was wrong in God’s eyes? Or, conversely, is it some kind of reward for doing something good such as allowing oneself to be a rape or incest victim, or is it a reward for the rapist or the person committing the incest?

“How can a God-blessed result occur except through a God-inspired act?”

The driver, not being a Biblical scholar, could not cite any examples from the Bible of a God-inspired result that did not begin with a God-inspired or directed act so he did not reply.

“But,” said the mind, “Don’t supporters of the position need to provide a definitive logical answer that does not limit an omnipotent God? If God has the power to create physical life, does not God have to ordain the circumstances under which that life is physically created?

“And doesn’t God have to ordain the circumstances under which the life is physically created because the life would not be created without that violent act?

“And if that is the case, isn’t the argument severely weakened that the perpetrator of the act should be punished rather than the life created being ‘punished’ because, as she said, ‘There is a reason for their life?’ Are not the perpetrator and the new life equal partners in this process and therefore equally blameless?

“In a climate that argues that religious freedom needs more protection, how can it be logically argued that an act, even a violent one, that is motivated by God’s decision to begin a new life no matter what should not be recognized as a religious act, not a criminal act?

“Is rape or incest that creates a life, for which God has a reason no matter what, therefore an act of God?

“And further, should not the woman logically forgive her rapist or her incestuous relative because her STD and her physical and psychological injuries were necessary to create the pregnancy God had a reason to create under these circumstances no matter what?”

And the driver finally responded to his mind out loud, “Your arguments are interesting. But they are flawed because you use the word, ‘logically.’ And logic seems to be the farthest thing from the thinking of those who support the ‘silver lining’ concept.”

And the driver tuned the radio to the old-time radio channel that was re-broadcasting a 1951 Jack Benny show and both of them drove on.

 

The egg and….

Betty MacDonald became a best-selling author in 1945 with her book, The Egg and I, the story of a young wife and her husband trying to run a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in the Northwest.  She sold the movie rights for $100,000 plus a percentage of profits from a film released in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert as MacDonald and Fred MacMurray as her husband.  The film included a couple of simple farm folk, Ma and Pa Kettle, played by Marjorie Main (who got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) and Percy Kilbride.  The movie led to a series of spinoff Ma and Pa Kettle movies that folks with plenty of grey in their hair (whether they let it show or not) will remember.

The book and the movie left unanswered a fundamental biological question.  When we eat a fertilized egg, are we eating a chicken? We’ve checked with some chicken experts who say the answer is “no.”  And fertilized eggs are not more nutritious than unfertilized ones.

Today, we have a new “Egg and I” story being written at the Missouri Capitol.  There’s nothing humorous or rustic about it.  It’s more serious because we’re talking about people, not chickens. The fundamental biological, philosophical, and religious question of when an egg becomes a creature is at the heart of THIS “Egg and I” argument.

In the last few weeks of this legislative session, a lot of ink is being spread upon printed pages and words were spread upon the airwaves about a proposed constitutional amendment saying a person is created as soon as the sperm hits the egg. The state law already declares that life begins at conception but that’s not good enough for the pro-birth interests who are such a big constituency of the majority party.  Representative Mike Moon’s House Resolution will make it to the Senate but the Senate will have to go far out of its way to schedule a committee hearing, send the resolution to the floor for debate and then vote on it in the last five days of the session.  The Senate is not likely to risk losing a chance to vote on any number of things by taking up this bill.  Democrats are guaranteed to fire up the filibuster machine if it ever makes it to the floor.

So why is there so much noise about an issue that is unlikely to be passed?  Because it is important for the majority party to send a message in a campaign year that it’s loyal to the cause.  And, if nothing else, that’s what’s going on here.  The House has been in session since early January and only now has something seemingly this important had a committee hearing and gotten a committee vote and gotten to the floor for debate.

But as the session winds down and as the national picture for the majority party remains problematic, it’s important that the voting blocs supporting the party be kept engaged and reminded of who their friends are at the state level. Doing things to ease or eliminate the effects of possible negative coat tails from national November elections can’t be overlooked.  The super-majority could be at stake in these elections.  The steamroller will be harder to operate if the super-majority disappears.  And the national scramble (notice how cleverly we get back to the “egg” theme) raises the possibility that voters will reverse parties in some legislative districts.

House Joint Resolution 98 is a good flag to hoist before the session ends.

The resolution says that “all persons, including unborn human children at every stage of biological development, have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of the gains of their own industry.”  It pledges the state to protect such life from deprivation by the state or private action to the extent permitted by the federal constitution.”

But the next section of the proposed amendment seems on plain reading to be somewhat curious. “Nothing in this constitution secures or protects a right to abortion…The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or if necessary to save the life of the mother.” Opponents say the legislation is clearly unconstitutional and will be immediately challenged if it becomes part of the state constitution.

The first committee that recommended legislative passage of this proposal eliminated the last few words to would allow abortions in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.  Representative Rick Brattin did that because “all life is life regardless of how it was conceived.”  And Representative Tila Hubrecht she tells people who were conceived through rape, “There’s a reason for their life…Sometimes bad things happen…but sometimes God can give us a silver lining through the birth of a child.”  Minority party member Stacey Newman, not a fan of the idea to begin with, says the change makes the proposal “extremely punitive….placing many women in danger.”

Moon claims his proposal wouldn’t end abortions but will create the basis for future anti-abortion laws.  The other side says there’s no doubt about what he plans to do—stop abortions.

At least two states’ voters have rejected “personhood” proposals.  The judicial record is small but Oklahoma’s Supreme Court has thrown out “personhood” as an illegal ban on abortion.

But in an election year, on issues such as this, it’s the thought that counts. Majority lawmakers want to make sure important constituencies know they are thinking of them, a lot, even if the chief purpose of recent actions is to only look like something is being done.

The proposal has once again set us off in search of a definition. This time it’s “person.”

Although the word “person” is often found in our state statutes, there is no legal definition in Missouri law of what a “person’ is.  It appears this proposal could back into such a definition, however.  A person would be a fertilized human egg.   Gender, unknown.  Eye color, unknown.  Fingerprints, none. Number of hands, unknown.  Number of feet, unknown.  Heartbeat, unknown.

Egg equals person if this idea becomes part of the State Constitution.

We’ve checked some national legal directories for a definition of “person.”  West’s Encyclopedia of American Law says the definition is, “In general usage, a human being.”  But is says statutes can define the entity as “firms, labor organizations, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, or receivers.”  Foreign governments that can file lawsuits in this country are “persons” in certain circumstances.  The citation from West does not mention “egg.”

There appears in legal circles to be more than one definition.  There’s (1) natural person, (2) artificial person, and (3) legal person.  Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute in New York defines a “legal person” as a non-human entity, such as a corporation, which can sue or be sued, own property, and contract.  But the legal person cannot vote, marry, or hold public office (although we note, it can invest money in getting voters to do its bidding, and do the same with those elected to public office, and can invest money in passage of laws that—just to pluck an issue out of the air–limit marriage or protect those who don’t want to be involved in certain marriages or declare fertilized eggs are persons).  The definition of “artificial person” is a shading of the “legal person” definition.  An artificial person is “an entity established by law” that has some of the legal rights and duties as the fertilized egg in the Moon resolution.

And then we come to the “natural person,” a human being who is alive. States are able to give these human beings rights and duties without their consent.

And that’s what Representative Moon wants to do.  Without using the word “natural person,” he seeks to create such an entity and then, without the consent of the egg, give it limited rights.  We don’t see any indication in his resolution that he wants to give that egg any duties.

We say “limited rights” because the legislature already is on record saying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness depends on the religious beliefs of others once the fertilized egg emerges from the womb and grows up.

What if this “person” is in the belly of an illegal immigrant?  And suppose the egg emerges as a genuine human being?  Some legislatures want to say that the egg that Representatives Moon and Brattin want so lovingly to protect as a person regardless of any violence that accompanies the fertilization cannot be a citizen after they are born here and certainly cannot qualify for any scholarships at state colleges and universities.

Gotta respect the egg because it’s a person, you know, even if we don’t respect the person it becomes. Right to birth is one thing.  Real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and the right to enjoy the gains from their own industry, even if guaranteed in present law and in HJR 98, is more complicated although it, too, is subject to political games, particularly in election years when the games conveniently and selectively ignore that guarantee.

There are a lot of other issues connected to the personhood of the fertilized egg but there’s no reason to stretch this out longer, for now. We’ll get to them later if this bill somehow passes the Senate.  The bill will have done its job even if it goes nowhere farther into the process.  It has sent the loyalty message to certain constituents. And in an era where some grown-up fertilized eggs don’t care about anything else other than sending a message, that’s good enough.

Postscript

Who among those standing at a large window looking at a room filled with newborn children will wonder which of those children will become less entitled to God’s grace than their own child will be?  Or which of those standing at the large window looking at a room filled with newborn children wonder if their child will be the one later judged to be less entitled to God’s grace?

Which children among those inside that hospital room has anything but inborn faith that the world values their presence as much as the others with them?  Which of these children will grow to be taught that some of those with them at this moment, who also can only trust in the love of those outside the window, will someday be declared unworthy of that universal adoration they are now receiving just because they are alive?

Which of those standing at the window will someday look in the window of a business by now run by one of those small, blanketed miracles and decide God now no longer loves those inside the business as much as God still loves the ones who were looking through the hospital window today?

What hardens the hearts of those outside the window who now see only miracles before them?  What will harden the now-tiny hearts inside the room toward others who are united with them by this new thing called “life.”

There have been some who have disagreed with some written assessments of political events recently made in this space.

Some who disagree with concerns here and elsewhere have cited favored segments of the Scriptures to condemn those words and suggest the writer of them will be on the wrong side of eternity.

I shall not debate those with definitive scriptural definitions of who will burn in Hell for holding erroneous positions on social or political issues.  Their expressions of their erudition are guaranteed by the First Amendment and I am confident they feel sincerely driven by their religion as they encourage others to abandon perceived foolish ways.

I shall not pass judgment on those who judge me and my words.  It is not my place to judge whether they are so significantly saved that they can speak with assurance about those they see who clearly are not.  I do not believe the ultimate decision on who will achieve Heaven’s reward is ours to make, anyway.  It is something we can hope for and strive for but whether we do so according to one person’s choice to adhere to chosen parts of the Scriptures is our personal decision.  And ultimately, I believe, a much higher power than those who admonish us will make that decision.

Criticize me if you will.  Admonish me if you would like.  Damn me if you must. It is your right as a citizen to do so within the law.

Some people rely on the scriptures to define why many of us, perhaps most of us, are beyond redemption, seeking through those references to believe we are at our worst. I prefer to seek in the scriptures those words that encourage us to be our best and to hope and trust that most others seek the same thing.

It is not my place to judge where you and I will spend eternity. I acknowledge some feel a wisdom giving them the certainty of their statements. But I seek comfort and guidance from different chapters of the same book, looking to find from those words the strength to look up to people rather than to look down at them.

It is the difference between faith and religion.  Faith is what we are born with, original, pure and knowing no limits.  Religion is that artificial structure we create to define and confine faith. I live in faith.  Others live within religion.  Let them say what they will of me and what I write.  I believe a higher authority holds the judgment that will count and I have faith in that authority.

I have looked through that hospital window twice at the innocence in that room. I hope the two children who came home with us have grown up not fearing or despising the others who were with them there and have since become no danger to society merely by growing into whatever they have become.  They remain now as they were then, children of God.

As are we all.

 

The dangers of definition-III

The final chapter.

Defining “sincere religious belief” is a potato too hot to touch.  That’s a fact of political life. The lack of definition is the phrase’s ultimate flaw at the same time it is its greatest strength.

By not defining the phrase, citizens are free to apply it however they wish.  But courts have held the arbitrary use of a law violates equal protection standards that are intended to apply to everybody.  That’s the dual nature of “sincere religious belief.”

There are those who think the Hobby Lobby ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court resolves the issue.  Actually it resolves only the specific issue raised by Hobby Lobby. There has been no broad blanket ruling covering all of the issues raised by religious freedom protection laws, which vary from state to state.

You and I might be able to write a definition of our personal sincere religious beliefs but trying to write them into law is pretty nearly impossible because it quickly becomes an issue of constitutional violation.  If the state adopts a definition of “sincere religious belief,” it is likely to face a lawsuit based on the Establishment and Exercise Clauses of the U. S. Constitution—a sentence that is often split for partisan purposes.

Congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, a Federalist who defeated Sam Adams for a seat in the First United States Congress, wrote the Establishment Clause. He also wrote the Free Exercise Clause.

The Establishment Clause says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,”   The Free Exercise Clause comes after the comma, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Government will not show favoritism for one religion over another.  In addition, government will not prohibit people from exercising their religion.

SJR39 exposes a tension between these two clauses.  On one hand, it can be interpreted as the state expressing a preference for one religious creed, principle or dogma over another.  Backers of the resolution will argue from the second point—government will not limit an individual’s exercise of their religion.

The arguments for this resolution have been presented as if there are no limits on either point when, in truth, courts repeatedly have found limits to all constitutional rights are necessary to maintain order in society.

That’s why the legislature is not defining “sincere religious belief.”  Doing so would clearly violate the establishment clause.  Instead, the majority is relying on the Exercise Clause while diminishing the importance of the first half of that sentence, the Establishment Clause.

What you wrote earlier defining your “sincere religious beliefs” undoubtedly differs from what other readers of this post wrote in at least some degree.  Are your “sincere religious beliefs” more valid than theirs, so much more valid that they should be in the Missouri Constitution?  Are they so valid that you should be able to exclude others from your social or business circle becaue of them?  Is your definition so valid that the second half of the sentence in the Bill of Rights should prevail over the first?  And what legal argument can you make that it should be?

Perhaps this exercise suggests religious beliefs should remain the province of the person, not the policies of government.  In the more perfect union dreamed of in the Preamble to the Constitution, perhaps that would be enough.  But in the imperfect union that is the real world, where religion has become a political issue—perhaps to the detriment of religion as the increasing “nones” might indicate—it is not.

And that is where other parts of the constitution enter the discussion and could tip that balance.  That is assuming, of course, that majority interests care to listen to that discussion.  So far, it appears they do not because doing so would not curry favor with an important political base of support that has decided the exercise clause is the only thing that counts in that sentence.

But would the different people and different organizations within that political base all have the same definitions of “sincere religious belief?”  Would the legislators supporting this proposal be alike in their heart of hearts? Does freedom of religion within religion argue against one faction of religion imposing its position through the law?

Sponsors who have referred to opponents as “radical activists who perceive their agenda of greater value than protecting the religious freedom of Missourians” might have a point. But it’s the wrong point because many opponents of this idea ARE protecting the religious freedom of Missourians.  ALL Missourians. 

We have found from years of experience covering politics that if you cannot intellectually defend your position from those who see flaws in it, you can always call your critics names—such as “radical activists.” We cannot count the number of times that “radical activists” have been blamed for all kinds of things—many of which ultimately expanded, not limited, the rights of the general population.

The issue deserves something more to justify it than a vague phrase and a bumper-sticker slogan from those pushing it and from those behind them. And the general public deserves something more from their lawmakers than a piece of campaign-year legislation that the courts will have to deal with later but which pleases for now an ideological base that the lawmakers want to please.

We began this series with a scripture from Fisher Ames.  We conclude it with a verse from U. S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:

“When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs.  A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”

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.