You don’t see unanimous votes of the United States Supreme Court very often. Not this Supreme Court, certainly, which seems so evenly divided on so many things. I’d hate to be there listening to them argue what to bring in for lunch.
“By a 5 to 4 decision, with Justice Kennedy speaking for the majority, the Supreme Court today decided to order Chinese food for lunch… In a stinging dissent, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor argued in favor of sushi, while in a separate dissent, Justices Alito and Scalia made the case for pizza.”
But a few weeks ago, almost exactly a month ago actually, they did agree on something—all nine of them, unanimously. In the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Opportunity Commission (how’s that for a mouthful?), the Supreme Court issued one of its very rare 9-0 decisions.
Here’s the background:
In 1999, Cheryl Perich began teaching at Hosanna-Tabor, a small religious school in Redford, Michigan. She also led daily chapel services for the students there. But in 2004, she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, so left her job on disability. The next year, doctors gave her a clean bill of health to return to work; but officials at the school told her they had already hired someone else. After a long, acrimonious argument, Perich sued the school for discrimination, and her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Before the Court, the Obama administration argued that even though Perich was classified as a “minister” by the school, she nevertheless deserved protection as a disabled person under the law. The school, supported by a wide array of religious institutions (though not ours, interestingly) argued that the right of religious institutions to choose their own employees, regardless of outside regulation and interference, was absolute—and the Court agreed. Unanimously.
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts cited the only two clauses of the U.S. Constitution that deal with religion, both part of the First Amendment: The so-called “Establishment Clause” which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” together with the next clause, which is called the “Free Exercise Clause”: “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, Justice Roberts said; the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own. Period. End of discussion.
Another great affirmation of the absolute separation of Church and State, one would think.
But not in this Through the Looking Glass Mad Tea Party World of Right Wing Newspeak that the American political landscape has become. No, rather, we are supposed to believe that this case is just further “proof” of the Obama Administration’s “war on religion” (all religions except Islam, I guess, which, we are supposed to believe, the President “appeases” rather than assaults).
Single-term former United States Senator Rick Santorum (who is, somehow, still being mentioned, seriously, as a possible nominee for President of the United States) recently called President Obama “the most anti-religious President in U.S. history”. He is even more anti-religious, we are to believe, than Washington and Jefferson and all those other Deist Founding Fathers which our country (so inconveniently for the Christian right) had. Not John Adams, though. He wasn’t a Deist. He was a Unitarian.
Obama is “the most anti-religious President in U.S. history,” Santorum said. His polices would force the Catholic Church to hire women priests. It would make Orthodox Jews hire women rabbis! If same sex marriage is affirmed, Santorum added, then all ministers and priests would be forced to perform such abominable ceremonies—even if their own doctrines and tenets considered them sinful! The long arm of the State would reach into our church’s windows (or maybe down through the steeple) and start telling us what to do here in our church. How frightening!
This is, of course, pure, unabashed nonsense. Say that I wasn’t already married, but decided I wanted to be: Do you think my fiancee and I could march right into the Islamic mosque in Sharon and demand that the imam there perform our service? Of course not! Do you think we could stroll over to Immaculate Conception Church down the street, and simply demand that Father Joe officiate at our wedding service? Hardly.
No church or synagogue or masque is forced to marry anyone they don’t want to now, and that won’t change if (as we hope and pray) the right to marriage equality becomes the law of the land for all Americans. Saying otherwise is just a scare tactic; it’s a red herring tossed into the discussion by certain Right Wing Evangelical zealots (and the Right Wing allies, like Santorum and certain reactionary bishops they have cultivated, sadly, within the Catholic Church) to muddy the waters about same-sex marriage (which is, ultimately, an issue of justice and equity, and not theology) and to advance their own reactionary, retrogressive, highly dangerous political agenda.
The tragedy isn’t that such pompous windbags exist (for the self-righteous and the self-serving you will always have among you, Jesus taught). The tragedy (and the danger) is that so many unsuspecting people believe them, and that their ideas have somehow made it onto the main court of this year’s political arena, and are starting to be given credence (or at least air time)
Does it bother you (as it does me) that, in this election, with the absolutely awesome problems our nation and our world faces on every front—issues of war and peace, a nuclear Iran, the economy, what do we do about social security and budget deficits and growing economic inequality—does it bother you that we are even talking about religion as one of the “issues” in this campaign? Let-alone issues “related” (perhaps) to religion like gay marriage (about which I still cannot understand the controversy). Should religion itself even be an issue in the race for any political office, let alone for the Presidency? Frankly, I don’t care what my President’s religion is. (It would be nice, maybe, to have a UU President someday; but don’t ask me when that might be. Maybe when some of the kids in our church school grow up.) I don’t care how many times a Presidential candidate has been married either. I wouldn’t care in Newt Gingrich was married to the very same woman for 99 years—I’m still not going to vote for him! I don’t care about their personal lives, not as criteria for choosing for whom to vote, for choosing who should lead us.
It reminds me of a little bumper sticker I read recently in the Holy Scripture of Facebook: “Your religion belongs in your church and your home. Not in our government.”
That just seems like a common sense bottom line to me, that all of us, wherever we stand politically, wherever we stand religiously, should be able to agree on.
But why have things moved so far in the other direction? Why have religious zealots of the Right been able to hijack the political discourse in such a manner? (And, as much as I believe in fairness, the zealots are all of the Right; there aren’t any “religious zealots of the Left”; such a concept might even be an oxymoron).
In his book, Our Endangered Values, America's Moral Crisis, that very wise man, our former President Jimmy Carter—a deeply religious evangelical Christian himself, of course—tries to explain it for us. He writes that the "most important factor" causing the polarization of American politics (the great “red/blue divide”) is that “fundamentalists have become increasingly influential in both religion and government, and have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree.”
At the same time, President Carter writes, “these religious and political conservatives have melded their efforts, bridging the formerly respected separation of church and state. This has empowered a group of influential neo-conservatives, who have been able to implement their long-frustrated philosophy in both domestic and foreign policy.” This, according to St. Jimmy, has brought about "profound departures from America's traditional values" like political pluralism, respect for one another’s religions, our sense of cohesiveness and the obligation we have to take care of the less fortunate, and cooperation with other nations in foreign affairs. (These things might all seem like “liberal” values now, but they were simply mainstream American values a little more than a generation ago. They were the values both of Presidents Truman and of Eisenhower and leaders like them. They were the values of the middle of the road. That is how far our national politics have moved to the right.)
“Modern fundamentalism [has] made the move to theocracy,” President Carter says. Fundamentalists of all kinds “desire their religious agendas to be enforced through the power of the state.” This is no less true of Christian fundamentalists in Alabama or Texas than it is of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Shiite clerics in Iran.
“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ,” writes George Grant of Coral Ridge Ministries in Florida, “ to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That’s what Christ commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less. Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land—of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ.”
If this is what Right Wing religion is aiming for in America, then maybe having an “anti-religious” President, or at least a religiously neutral President, is not such a bad thing. The last thing we need, it seems to me, is a President who would try to court the favor (to gain the votes) of people who are, in effect, nothing less than Christian fascists.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be people of calm and quiet faith in this world of ours. Oftentimes, we might feel puny and weak compared with the challenges this world faces-- puny Davids against mighty Goliaths of corruption, greed, selfishness, and injustice; puny Davids, with the Goliath of religious fundamentalism on one side, and the Goliath of this mad materialist, hedonist, consumerist, godless culture on the other. Why even bother to fight? Why even bother to vote? Why even bother to venture out into the civic playing field? Why even bother to hope?
We want leaders who are humble about their personal faiths—who cherish their religions, but who do not insist upon imposing it on those who disagree. We do not want leaders who presume to speak for God.
We want leaders who practice a transformative politics which seeks dialogue, and not polarization; who are not afraid of differing opinions; who know that the ways of cooperation and coalition are always preferable to hard-headedness, stubbornness, and narrow-mindedness.
We want leaders who are true to their deepest values, and don’t just use the brittle facade of pious platitudes and self-righteous moralizing as another tool for gaining votes, and for fostering ignorance and fear.
Those are the kinds of leaders we need. But to find them, those are the kids of citizens we must each one of us become.