Monday, December 15, 2008

Got Religion?

Religion. I get it. I really do.

I appreciate that most humans hold some kind of religion and find great personal value in practicing it; whether we make a big deal out of it or not. In our perception of a world where nothing is certain the idea of an non-malleable truth and a benevolent God comforts us in our deepest fears including the awful thought of our mortal reality. Pestering doubts about our self worth are countered by faith, relieving us any burden of proof that absolute truth exists. Most people seem to require an ideal of perfection in order to acknowledge our imperfection and so faith keeps us humble. 

Of course, subscribing to any specific version of the absolute truth requires a disavowal of all other versions, but we Americans are a tolerant people. We outwardly tolerate religious differences among ourselves. We may frown on proselytizing and tend to regard as taboo the topic of religion in polite conversation but we tacitly honor our mutual freedom and the unfettered right we enjoy to exercise our respective faiths or whatever world view we assume.

In our private lives, we good citizens are free to perform the prescribed rituals of our respective religions or merely go through the motions, as many do, having only our conscience to contend with. As long as our behavior complies with civil law we risk no legal penalty for either practicing or neglecting to fulfill the requirements of our chosen religion. As law-abiding citizens of this magnanimous country our civil rights and privileges are not subject to any religious test: theoretically; ideally; Constitutionally.

As Americans we often take our religious freedom for granted, often as much as we take our religion for granted. Mainstream God-fearing people in this country seldom flaunt their religious beliefs, nor do they adhere to the strict letter of their tenets. On our own, we seldom even think too deeply about our religion until it is imperative or seems advantageous, such as in times of personal distress, need or bad luck. 

That imperative arises almost reflexively for many when they feel their beliefs are challenged in some way. Then, even the most nonobservant believer can become fervently defensive of their religion as though their own immutable essence has been threatened. The reflex is irrational, of course, since logically neither threats nor defenses could affect true immutability.

Still, those defenders of the faith paradoxically feel that their religion is under attack from time to time, and that I am somehow a part of the threat. Me personally. They may not normally show it. They may not routinely think in such terms. It may only come out in private, such as when they find themselves alone behind the curtains of a voting booth. 

If a same sex marriage proposition happens to be on the ballot good Christian voters may not think too deeply about the effect of their vote on me personally. If anything, they are most likely to conjure up a nebulous mass of faceless, nameless people who are an affront to Christian dogma by their existence alone. Our existence. But I do not feel that anyone votes in such a way as to target me. They are just being good Christians, they feel, following the dictates of their conscience as shaped by dogma over which they have no control.

And lets face it: when you talk about religion in America today, it's all about Christianity. American Jews, it seems to me, largely honor the wall between Temple and State and tend to consider themselves more of an ethnic minority than a religious one. And people of other religions do not have the political clout or influence on public policy that organized Christians do just because their numbers are smaller.

But we may politely assume that all of us are basically good and law-abiding citizens, innocent until proven guilty of some legal transgression. I assume that none of us would consciously deny anyone else access to the same legal rights we take for granted, including the right to exercise any self chosen religious beliefs. So it is frustrating to see something like the outcome of California's Proposition 8, where a majority of voters did, in fact, deny a lawful minority of citizens access to marriage, a basic civil right.

"One of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival..."  is how the US Supreme Court characterized marriage in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

Because of Proposition 8, certain marriages, previously recognized in the Golden state and entered into as a fundamental right, have been dissolved -- against the will of the married individuals. Any such potential marriages, once anticipated by right of citizenship, are now banned on the basis of one partner's sex.

Once there was a debate about whether people who engaged in private same-sex relationships could be held to legal sanction or punishment in this country. That question was settled, however in 2003 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v Texas. Every remaining "sodomy law" on the books in any state was finally swept away at that time. By religious standards those who engage in same sex behavior may still be sinners. But we can not be seen as criminals under the law. Yet, I have not heard a single credible argument in favor of denying same-sex couples the right to marry that is not based in the punitive biblical dictum that some believe to brand homosexuality as sinful.

To me, this clearly applies a religious test to determine our worthiness to the basic right to marry. Testing positive for heterosexuality or repentant as a homosexual is now a requirement in California after Proposition 8.

The closest anyone has come to a rational argument to impose this sanction has to do with the ability to bear or raise offspring. Yet childless marriages and adoption are still legal. And legally married people may still bear children by surrogate. And legal marriage partners may still bring children into their new families, born in prior relationships. None of this is exclusive to marriages between partners of opposite sex in California, except for the legality.

Marriage is still a right, not a privilege. Mike Huckabee, the once and future Republican candidate for president - and ordained Baptist minister - is one who argues otherwise and he makes a number of other baseless claims in interviews hyping his new book. He states his opinion as plain fact, as Republicans often do, even though the U.S. Supreme Court was quite unambiguous in Loving v Virginia. Huckabee declares in his super nice guy manner that "Marriage still means one man and one woman," which is only partly true. It also means one man and another or one woman and another. Obviously, Huckabee and his ilk can only speak in absolutes. It's his way or the highway! His stilted view of history where marriage is an unchanged and unchangeable institution 5,000 years old is absolute bunk that demands a suspension of disbelief that only the totally ignorant could muster.

Constitutionally, the matter of whether marriage is a right or not is no longer open to question - no matter what Mr. Huckabee says. In his interview with Jon Stewart presented below, the former governor of Arkansas clicks off all the talking points that the right wing uses to support their prejudice, denying his homophobia with a smile but no credibility at all. He concludes with a last ditch desperate argument that people just cannot do whatever they want to do. "Religious people do not have the right to burn others at the stake," he says

I was not aware that this is something they still want to do.

(God bless Jon Stewart.)

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