Religion Today

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Can This War End? The Battle over Gaza

United States Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon are in the Middle East trying to bring about a cease-fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Perhaps by the time you read this, they will have succeeded. The real question is not whether they can end the present battle, but whether they can set up conditions for an end to the simmering war between the two. Otherwise, another conflict will occur in a year or two.
Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and Hamas won governing power in democratic elections in 2006, there have been six battles between the two sides. The ongoing state of war between them has led to a constant land and sea border blockade by Israel.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government in Egypt has closed the Egypt-Gaza border as well. Gaza’s Palestinians have found food, milk and basic supplies difficult to come by. The government cannot even pay its 40,000 employees.
The present conflict began in June, when Hamas militants in Gaza started firing long-range missiles into Israel. As the number of rockets increased in early July, nearly half of Israel’s population found themselves running to bomb shelters at one time or another.
In response, Israel began bombing rocket launchers and other militant sites in Gaza July 8. Last week, Egypt proposed a cease-fire to which Israel’s government agreed. Hamas did not, but kept up its shelling of Israel. This week, Israel’s army invaded Gaza on the ground.
Casualties have mounted. Nearly 700 Palestinians have died; three-quarters were civilians. About 40 Israelis have been killed, mostly soldiers.
This lop-sided toll has inspired several nations to call for a cease-fire, blaming Israel for “disproportionate force.” Yet, the Hamas government refused to sign a cease-fire, and their militants continue to fire rockets into Israel each day. If the “losing” side will not stop fighting, how can the “winning” side?
This is the context in which Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary General Ban are trying to negotiate a cease-fire. 
A successful cease-fire will require two agreements: an end to hostilities and a long-term arrangement.
The first will not be easy, since the achievements of each side will position them for negotiations over the long-term agreement. Gaza’s Hamas government has accomplished what it considers some successes, including the effective closing of Israel’s international airport to planes from the USA and Europe. If it can discomfit Israel further, then it is in a better bargaining position.
It needs a better bargaining position because Gaza’s Palestinians have never been in a worse position. Not only has Israel imposed a strong blockade, but the Palestinians have lost supporters around the Muslim world. The Palestinian cause has been championed by Arab and Muslim governments since the 1950s, but few speak out now. The Arab Spring has effectively silenced them.
Egypt’s government dislikes the Gazans, despite its strong support for many decades. Hamas aligned itself with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohammad Morsi and when General Sisi overthrew him, Sisi removed Egypt’s support of Gaza’s Palestinians. He closed Egypt’s border with Gaza and destroyed the smuggling tunnels, which has effectively prevented food from reaching Gaza. The army has turned back convoys carrying relief aid.
Syria and Iraq, also longtime supporters of the Palestinians, are fighting civil wars and cannot intervene on Gaza’s behalf. Hamas’s relations with Iran have deteriorated, and now Iran’s attentions are focused on protecting Shiites in Iraq. Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah-based Palestinian government in the West Bank is a rival of Hamas and does not wish to strengthen Hamas’s hand instead of his own.
Despite this, a cease-fire will be negotiated. But will it lead to the end of a state of war between Gaza and Israel? Gaza needs an opening of borders, the restoration of trade and the return of normal daily life. It needs to reduce its 50 percent unemployment (mostly among young men) and bring in a stable supply of food and other essential goods.
In exchange, Israel needs the demilitarization of Gaza and the absolute assurance that open trade does not lead to an increase in the number of missiles and other military hardware. Hamas might agree to this but, given its present refusal to a cease-fire, that seems unlikely. So, the battle will ultimately stop, but the war will probably continue.

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Israel and Gaza: How a War Starts

As I write this column, bombs and rockets fall in Tel Aviv and Gaza. Half the population of the nation of Israel has cowered in bomb shelters the past four days. The people of the Gaza territory have no bomb shelters. By the time you read this, a ground invasion may have begun.
Our instincts are to side with the weaker underdog against those with stronger power, but that would be too simple here. Both sides could have taken steps to ratchet down the tension but, instead, both continued actions that ramped up the tension.
The Palestinians in Gaza are stuck. Nearly 2 million people live in an area about twice the size of Washington, D.C. Less than 10 percent of the land can be farmed and, so, most of their food must be imported. Since both Israel and Egypt have closed their borders, Gazans are essentially trapped.
If only they would act that way!
Despite the pressing human needs in Gaza, its militants have been importing missiles. And now they have been firing them at Israel. These missiles have a longer range than before and can now reach about half the people living in Israel, which is more than 3 million.
Three weeks ago, the militants were firing just a few missiles each day -- too many for any nation that wants to live in peace. In the last 36 hours, more than 250 missiles have been launched at Israel. Despite the Israeli bombs, there is no sign the Hamas militants will stop.
On Israel’s side, their bombing did not really start until Monday, July 7. It has been intense and the death toll in Gaza has been mounting. The Israeli government accused the Palestinians of hiding their missiles behind “human shields.” Given the press of population in Gaza, there is no other place to put them.
This war does not stem from a grand strategy on either side. Instead, it results from an accidental meeting of two groups of individuals, about 10 people.
At 10 p.m. June 12, three Israeli teenagers decided to hitchhike home from their religious school at a high-security settlement in the West Bank, which is hostile Palestinian territory.
A “terrorist” just happened to drive by at that moment and offered a ride. They were kidnapped, killed and buried. No one knew they were dead because the kidnappers told no one.
The Israeli army mounted a search for the young men, believing they were still alive. This went on for three weeks as international condemnations of the kidnapping grew and the Israeli public followed the news of the search hourly.
The army’s manhunt grew increasingly aggressive. They searched West Bank homes; blocked off villages; arrested hundreds of known Hamas militants; used force against families and people who resisted; and ultimately killed six Palestinians who interfered.
Hamas was helpless to prevent these actions. So, instead, it began to fire rockets into Israel. These fell on houses and towns, caused widespread damage, and destroyed a factory in the southern city of Sderot.
After three weeks, the bodies of the three boys were found. There was a massive outpouring of grief and anger in Israel. Thousands attended the funeral and tens of thousands watched it on television.
In a revenge killing, a West Bank Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and killed. Despite anger and riots in areas around his neighborhood in the Jerusalem suburb of Shuafat, the Palestinian reaction was subdued elsewhere.
The killing was widely condemned around the world, and the Israeli prime minister promised to find the killers and bring them to justice. Earlier this week, the police arrested and charged six Israelis with the crime.
While the national and international press focused on these killings and funerals, the more serious matter was the increasing number of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israeli towns and cities, including Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and, for the first time, Jerusalem.
When a few bombing raids from Israel did not cause Hamas to back down, the large scale attack began. Tens of thousands of reserve soldiers were called up, while tanks and troops have been massed on the borders of Gaza, ready for an invasion.
Whatever the outcome, this war will cost hundreds of lives and millions, perhaps billions, of dollars. It will solve nothing. The Gazans will remain stuck in their territory, but Israel cannot get away from them. The two peoples will remain locked together, despite their antagonism and hatred.
Was the war planned? No. No great strategists decided that now would be a great time for a battle. No military planners decided an invasion needs to take place. Instead, it results from the accidental meeting of three hitch-hiking teenage boys with terrorists in a car.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Enigma of Bethsaida


On the road around the north end of the Sea of Galilee, just east of the Jordan River’s mouth, stands a sign pointing to the location of Bethsaida. It recalls the town mentioned in the gospels that was the home of the disciple Philip and a fishing community on the shore of the fresh-water lake.
Bethsaida is less than five miles to the east of Jesus’ headquarters at Capernaum, and the gospels imply that he visited often. Mark 8 places Jesus’ healing of a blind man there and hints at several other miracles. Nevertheless, Jesus’ parting shot is a curse: “Woe to you Bethsaida! ... For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.” (Luke 10:13)
But Bethsaida has long been an enigma. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, Bethsaida was in the kingdom of Herod Philip. In 30 A.D., he rebuilt it as a city and named it Julias after Caesar Augustus’ wife.
Despite its importance, the location of Bethsaida/Julias has long been unknown. No ruins large enough to be a city lie along the shore in this area. In 1987, Rami Arav, an Israeli archaeologist, led a team from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other schools to the site of et-Tell, which he identified as Bethsaida.
There was one problem. This large hill was two kilometers from the lake shore. Shouldn’t a fishing town be on the shore? The excavation team made two discoveries that supported its claim.
First, they found the remains of fishing gear, such as nets and hooks, along with boat implements from the first century. Second, et-Tell sits near the Jordan, and geologists determined that the river began silting up in the fourth century. Over centuries, the river created the flat, alluvial plain that sits between the site and the present shoreline.
Despite 28 years of excavations, the teams working with Arav have uncovered only about 3 percent of the site. In addition to some first-century houses, archaeologists have uncovered some Roman-era temples from the time of Herod Philip and later.
But the main discoveries come from the 10th century B.C., long before it was called Bethsaida. This was the city’s heyday. The entire hill was carved into a series of terraces upon which to build houses, and its crown was surrounded by a solid stone wall.
Approaching the city, the main road led to a large gate, with tall towers on each side. Just inside the gate lay the city’s main courtyard. This is the only large open area, and everything from trading to trials to worship took place here. A four-chambered inner gate separated the court from the residential area.
The gate’s chambers, two on each side, stored foodstuffs purchased from farmers who brought them to the market in the courtyard. Archaeologists found wheat in two of them, used in bread baking, and barley in a third, probably for brewing beer.
So what was this large ancient city? This was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur. Up to the 11th century B.C., this had been one of the many tribal areas with which the people of Israel interacted. King David interacted with it, marrying the daughter of one of its kings.
This was the point at which the site’s monumental fortifications were erected. The kingdoms around it were building or rebuilding fortified cities: the Israelites, Philistines and Phoenicians to the west of the Jordan Valley; the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites to its east; and Damascus, Tyre and Sidon to the north. The Geshurites followed suit.
Bethsaida’s walls and gates protected it for two centuries, until the armies of the Assyrian Empire arrived under King Tiglath-Pileser at the end of the eighth century B.C. His forces destroyed the city, burning the gate and then leaving a garrison to pull down any remaining fortifications. It remained unoccupied for many centuries afterward.
So perhaps Bethsaida has now been found. But decades of excavations have revealed less of the first-century Jewish city of the New Testament, and more of its foundations and importance from a millennium earlier as the non-Jewish kingdom of Geshur.

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City Lights at Night: What Did Jesus See?

The New Testament Gospels are so focused on Jesus’ teachings and miracles that they give few details of his life experiences. They do not mention that growing up on the ridge of Nazareth, he spent his childhood watching the reconstruction of Galilee’s first Roman-style city, Sepphoris, just five miles away. Or that during the years of his Capernaum ministry, he could see the ongoing erection of Galilee’s second city, Tiberias.
They also fail to mention Mount Arbel, a cliff-topped mountain that dominates the skyline on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, a peak which he would have seen every day from Capernaum. But what would Jesus have seen at night?
Capernaum sits at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, a large fresh-water lake in a geological bowl so deep that its surface lies below sea level. Today, the high hills around the lake are covered with towns and villages. At night, all of them are shining, like candles on a circle of cakes. The lights of the modern city of Tiberias cascade down the hillside, looking like a rock slide lit up like a state fair midway. The lake reflects a great deal of the light.
In Jesus’ day, it would have been much darker. There was no electricity, of course, so the only lights would have been fires, lamps and torches. The population of the region was lower than today as well, so fewer towns and villages existed.
Add to that the practice of farmers and rural people starting their day at sunrise and going to sleep after sunset, and you realize that at nighttime, much of Galilee would have been quite dark.
So, what lights would have shown out across the lake when Jesus looked south from Capernaum’s shore at night?
Close in, off to his left, he might have seen a few lights from the town (city?) of Bethsaida. To the right, there might have been some light from Magdala. This town of about 2,000 people formed the center of the Galilean fishing industry. Fishermen from around the region sold their catches there, and the fish were dried and salted for shipment. The Roman name of the town, Tarichaeae, translates roughly as “fish factory,” and it was known for its excellent fish sauce as far away as Rome.
Farther south, along the western shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, stood the new city of Tiberias. Founded by Herod Antipas in 19 A.D., it was under construction during most of the 20s. Antipas moved his capital there from Sepphoris and it became both an economic and political center, with a thriving port and all the accoutrements of a “modern” Roman city. These included a hippodrome for racing during the day and a theater for more sophisticated evening entertainment.
So, the ancient city of Tiberias, down along the coastline to Capernaum’s southwest, would have been a source of nighttime illumination.
But the brightest and most obvious city at night would have been the Greek city of Hippos-Susita on the lake’s southeast side.
Hippos was not a Jewish city. It had been built by Greek inhabitants many centuries before at the top of a high, narrow hill. This hill, a basalt plug, stood out from the limestone-based hills around it. The city towered high above the Sea of Galilee, but not too far from its shore.
During the first century, Hippos was an independent and powerful city-state, controlling the territory surrounding it. It had its own harbor and minted its own coins, a coveted right in the ancient world.
With its long-established Graeco-Roman temples, its large marketplace and its theaters, Hippos would have been the “city on the hill” for Jesus, the city whose light was visible across the Sea of Galilee and which was the brightest object in the night. It would have reminded Jesus, and all Jewish Galileans, that they did not control their world, but that they were controlled by the Romans.
Perhaps Herod Antipas’s new city of Tiberias would grow to rival the light cast by Hippos but, in the first century, it had not yet done so.

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Religion is Irrational. So what?


A common charge leveled against religion is that it is irrational. Although this charge has been around for centuries, it recently has gained new currency through proponents such as Ayn Rand, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and, more recently, Stephen Hawking.
What does it mean to say “religion is not rational?” That’s a good question, because rationality itself has many different definitions. They range from notions so vague that every thought not markedly insane is rational to formulations so strict that no idea is rational unless it meets several philosophical tests.
The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences gives its initial characterization of rationality as requiring “justified beliefs and sensible goals as well as judicious decisions.” The three criteria here suggest an answer to our question. Since most religions and religious people are capable of formulating sensible goals and making judicious decisions, it must be the justified beliefs where the problem lies.
The Enlightenment of the 18th century attacked religion -- Christianity, in particular -- for having “beliefs” that could not be justified or proven, such as the belief in a god, which it labeled as a superstitious fantasy.
On the one hand, this intellectual movement was highly successful, for it became the basis for the scientific and technological revolution that shaped and continues to shape our modern world.
On the other hand, although the Enlightenment demonstrated there was no rational proof for a god’s existence, it failed to prove there was no god or gods. It ran into the problem that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The Enlightenment showed by its criteria that religion was irrational, but it did not demonstrate that religion was wrong.
So, religion is irrational. So what? Do human beings live such rational lives that religion should be seen as a detriment?
Of course not. Humans base surprisingly few of their decisions and actions on rationality.
What is your favorite color or ice cream flavor? Which sports team do you root for or do you detest sports?
If you are married, did you pick your spouse on a rational basis or did you fall in love? Was it “love at first sight?” That’s not rational!
What about your friends? Did you rationally choose them out of a list ranking their best qualities or are they just people you happened to meet and hang out with?
What do you do as a hobby or when you are relaxing? What are your favorite TV shows? Are these rational choices or just what you enjoy?
You know you should lose weight, but just one more cookie …
Guys, what about your preference in cars? Or is it trucks or motorcycles? Do you lust after a Lexus or a Mercedes, or would you rather have a Ferrari or a Jag? Sure, you can debate their strengths and weaknesses, but (imagine a low, slow whisper here) what do you really want?
Think about the process of buying a vehicle. We select a few choices (rationally, of course!) and test drive them. We then pick the one we “like” or the one that feels “comfortable.” Hardly a rational decision!
Gals, what about your look? You know, the style of clothes you choose to wear, the way you put on your makeup (or not), your hair style? Are these simply rational decisions devoid of feeling and emotion or do they result from aesthetic choices? To put it more simply, do you wear what “looks good” on you?
These observations are all offered tongue-in-cheek and are not meant to offend, but they aim to make a simple point. Humans do not really lead rational lives. Many of our everyday thoughts, decisions and activities have little to do with rationality. Indeed, the real surprise is that we manage to think and act rationally as much as we do. So, the accusation that religion is irrational simply means that it is like most of the way we live our lives.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

What Strengthens a Marriage, Religion or Education?

 

May 14, 2014 — Americans like marriage. At this moment, about 55 percent of Americans are married, and fewer than 10 percent of Americans over 60 have never been married. Marriage provides love, companionship and a stable home life, with or without children. Most religions place a high value on getting married and remaining married.
Remaining married is hard. Just ask the citizens of Cheyenne, Wyo. In 2010, Cheyenne had the second highest divorce rate of any city in the United States, just behind Las Vegas, according to a report published by Men’s Health magazine. In Wyoming, one in five divorces took place in Cheyenne during the five-year period ending in 2009. The magazine’s 2014 report indicates Cheyenne’s rank has eased a bit, falling to fourth place, with Las Vegas dropping to eighth.
Reporting by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Men’s Health point to economic stress on the family as a significant cause of divorce. When job loss or financial instability is added to other marital stresses, it often tips the scale and leads to the divorce court.
So, what strengthens a marriage? The emphasis placed by religions on strong marriages and families would suggest that religion -- in the United States, that overwhelmingly refers to Christianity -- provides the best support. Well, not always. According to a 1999 Barna Research Group report, many Christian denominations have poor divorce rates.
While 25 percent of American adults have been divorced at least once, 29 percent of Baptists have divorced. For Christians in non-denominational churches (read “born-again”), that rate rises to 34 percent. By contrast, mainline Protestants are average at 25 percent, while Mormons are just under at 24 percent and Catholics somewhat lower at 21 percent.
If the high divorce rate among Baptists and non-denominational churches strikes you as a mistake, it is not. A look at divorce rates by state in 2009 (U.S. Census Bureau figures) shows that the highest divorce rates are concentrated in the American South -- from Oklahoma to Georgia, from Louisiana to Kentucky -- where these forms of Christianity are predominant.
This result is highly ironic, as well as controversial, because Baptists and other born-again Christians prominently emphasize marriage and family. But even the often-repeated observation that Jesus forbade divorce does not enable these Bible-believing Christians to divorce less frequently than other Americans.
It seems that religion cannot be depended on to keep a marriage intact. So, what does?
It turns out that education is the best support for a long-lasting marriage. According to a study of marriages during the five years ending in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control found that women in a first marriage had a 78 percent probability of remaining married for 20 years if they had a bachelor’s degree. If they had less education, the likelihood did not even reach 50 percent.
The results were only slightly less pronounced for men. Those with bachelor’s degrees had a 65 percent probability of remaining married for 20 years, while those with less education had a 54 percent probability or below.
In a different approach to this question, a Pew analysis of 2008 data indicates that 62 percent of women with college degrees were married at age 30, while only 60 percent of those without degrees were wedded. And of women aged 35-39, women without college degrees were 55 percent more likely to have divorced than those with college degrees (2.9 percent vs. 1.6 percent).
This study about education and the success of marriage cuts across all religions and denominations, and even applies to atheists. But the important observation is this: If you are religious and want to fulfill your religion’s or denomination’s expectation of a lifelong marriage, you will increase your chances if you pursue higher education and get a bachelor’s degree.

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Christian Opposition to Evolution in the United States

Wyoming’s controversy over the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 instruction is not surprising. Opposition to evolution is not new but stems from a widespread theological hostility to evolution within evangelical Christianity. In recent decades, that antagonism has been expressed politically. Legislatures in nearly every state have passed laws addressing the teaching of evolution in schools.

This evangelical political activity has had no effect on evolution as the foundation of modern biology, geology and other sciences. Indeed, it has gone almost unnoticed by the scientific community. Modern medicine continues to be founded upon evolutionary biology, and everyone who seeks medical assistance trusts evolution whenever he or she visits a doctor -- even for a flu shot.
The place where anti-evolution activity has had the most impact is within the evangelical community itself. In particular, it has changed the interpretation of Genesis’s account of creation, and thereby altered the perception of God’s role.
When the Fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century decided to combat evolution, there was a broad range of beliefs about how to understand the way “God created the heaven and the earth” in six days. Today, the only accepted meaning in evangelical circles is that a day for God at creation was a 24-hour period, creation took only six of these days, and that creation took place just over 6,000 years ago, as argued by Bishop Ussher. How did this change come about?
When Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species” in 1859, the work became a symbol of scientific change. In England, it became a touchstone in a heated public debate between biblical views of creation and evolution.
In 19th century America, Darwin and evolution were comparatively uncontroversial. American Christians at the time largely accepted scientific change and usually believed it explained details of God’s creation rather than attacked biblically based beliefs.
Even during the rise of Fundamentalism’s opposition to evolution in the early 1900s, much of that attitude remained. William Jennings Bryan -- who was a fervent evolution opponent, an ardent Fundamentalist and a three-time presidential candidate -- expressed a common belief when he testified at the 1925 Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution.
Citing Genesis 2:4, where the word “day” refers to the entire time of creation, he indicated that “day” did not necessarily mean a “24-hour day.” In the trial’s transcripts Bryan further stated, “It would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6 million years or in 600 million years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.” 
The problem was that Bryan’s statement reflected 19th-century religious views that enabled a fit between evolution and belief in Genesis 1. If a day can be a “period,” then the biblical account of creation can speak of geological periods of millions of years. Despite his opposition to evolution, Bryan’s widely reported statement actually revealed compatibility between the two views.
It was not until several decades later that John Whitcomb and Henry Morris presented an alternative approach in their 1961 book, “The Genesis Flood.” One innovation was to introduce the Seventh Day Adventist belief in a six-day creation of 24 hours each as the obvious understanding of Genesis 1.
They further argued that the petrified bones and shells in the geological strata were put there during Noah’s flood.
Whitcomb’s and Morris’s insistence on their interpretation as the sole way to understand Genesis 1 was controversial at first because it did not allow for past evangelical beliefs. But its adoption was boosted by the newly formed Creation Research Society.
The Creation Research Society was founded by leaders representing the wide range of evangelical perspectives on Genesis’s creation story. By the 1970s, however, all who did not support the idea of a 24-hour day had been removed, and the society worked tirelessly to promote belief in the six-day, 24-hour creation and the 6,000-year-old Earth.
Today, decades after Whitcomb’s and Morris’s book introduced belief in a creation of six 24-hour days, evangelicalism has adopted it wholesale. Those still adhering to the old approach of each day of creation being a long “period” are seen as compromising with modern science, even though their view is older than the concept of evolution itself. Truly, anti-evolutionism has wrought a change within evangelicalism.
Note: Thanks to the “Backstory” podcast of Nov. 1, 2011, and to R.L. Numbers, “The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design,” Harvard University Press, 2006.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Unfettered Capitalism and the United States’ Marketplace of Religion


Our pilgrim forebears came to America in 1620 for freedom of religion. They sought the ability to worship and believe according to their conscience. They were Separatists who fled the England of King James I, who had restricted religious freedom for those who did not follow his religious ideals, whether Separatists, Puritans or Catholics. 

At first, the Pilgrims and others of similar Calvinist leanings emphasized their own ability to worship as they saw fit and did not accord others the same right. But Roger Williams’ focus on each individual’s right to their own “Soul Liberty” took a different view. His perspective was that the problem was not that the government (e.g., King James) favored the wrong theological view, but that government favored any theological view at all.

In the end, Williams’ idea became the foundation of the United States’ approach to the relationship between government and religious organizations. The main point is that there should not be a relationship; according to the First Amendment, government should pass no laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The former phrase means that laws cannot give some religious group more rights than other groups, while the latter phrase indicates that laws cannot give some religious groups or individuals fewer rights than other religious groups. To the extent possible, government should pass no laws concerning religions.

While this principle has not been followed 100 percent, the United States probably has fewer laws about religion and less government involvement in regulating religious organizations than any other country.

This hands-off government approach has placed America’s religions in a free-for-all marketplace. Varieties of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Paganism and many other religions jostle each other to find a niche or establish their place in the religious scene.

This religious marketplace is quite capitalist in character. Some religious organizations compete at the top of the marketplace. Like a company seeking higher sales, they work to attract more members. Like advertisers, they loudly broadcast their views for all to see. Whether they are a large organization, like the Catholic Church, or a small group, like the followers of the anti-gay Fred Phelps, they compete for media attention to get their word out.

Other religious organizations participate in the market by finding a quiet niche. They do not want a big public presence, but simply wish to practice their faith and be left alone. And, of course, there are many approaches in between.

Competition in this religious marketplace occurs in many forms, from blatant advertising on the sides of buses to announcing meeting times on the Saturday newspaper “church page.” There are parades, social outreach through missions and soup kitchens, sponsorship of Boy Scouts and, especially, the erection of prominent buildings. Churches and their steeples have dominated the skylines and central squares of towns and villages for centuries.

The capitalistic nature of this competition does not prevent different religious groups from using non-capitalistic means to gain an edge. Recently, the quest has been to allow religious groups or individuals to deprive others of their rights. In particular, the present social debate over freedom of religion is the claim that one person’s right to believe as they wish includes the right to deprive others of their rights.

This is the claim of the Hobby Lobby case presently before the Supreme Court and the goal of laws recently passed in Arizona (where it was vetoed) and in Mississippi that allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of belief.


The capitalist character of America’s religious marketplace, then, is so free and open that nothing prevents religious groups from using non-capitalist means to try to make it less free and less equal for some. Success in this quest will eventually make religious belief and practice less free for everyone.

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St. Patrick’s Parade: Who can Celebrate?


The annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York went ahead last Monday (March 17th) just as it has for decades. Touted as America’s oldest and longest parade, nearly 200,000 people participated and perhaps a million spectators watched and cheered, most of them wearing green. The parade has no floats, just groups of people walking, from civic associations like the firemen and policemen to Irish dancers and pipe bands. They wear their uniforms or traditional costumes and proceed behind a banner identifying their organization.

This year, the parade took place without New York’s major, Bill De Blasio, and without the sponsorship of the Irish beer-maker Guinness. This is significant, for New York politicians always march in the Irish parade and Guinness has come to symbolize Ireland more than any other drink. Indeed, Guinness may be the only commercial brand immediately recognized as Irish the world over.

The reason for this decision is clear. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, the private Irish-American fraternity who put on the parade, decided to exclude openly gay participants more than two decades ago. They have retained that exclusion this year despite the increasing legal and social acceptance of gay marriage.

Both the mayor and the brewery decided that inclusion of all New Yorkers (the parade is in no way limited to Irish participants only) was paramount and that the exclusion of gay participants was blatant discrimination.

The explicit reason given for the continuing exclusion of gay marching groups is that homosexuality is against the Hibernians’ Irish Catholicism.

That is an interesting position, because the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin has been inclusive for decades, letting gays and any other group to participate. A few years ago, a gay-themed float won the float competition.

So in the end, it boils down to Catholicism. The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, like many other Christian churches and denominations, forbid homosexual practices of any sort. This is an official doctrine that goes back centuries, if not millennia.

Yet in a democracy, we also ask about the people, the individuals that make up the Catholic Church. Last year, the newly inaugurated Pope Francis authorized the first-ever official church survey of Catholic opinion on matters relating to belief, doctrine and practice.

One discovery by the Pope’s poll was that American Catholics were among the foremost supporters of gay marriage, with 54% being in favor. Other surveys observe the same phenomenon. In 2010, a Gallup poll showed that 62% of Catholics thought that homosexual relationships were “morally acceptable,” while in 2011, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found 63% of white Catholics thought same-sex marriage should be legal. Catholics favor gay rights and gay marriage more than any other religious group in this country.

So which Catholic position should the Ancient Order of Hibernians represent, that of Church doctrine or that of Church members?  It seems that the Hibernians have decided to enforce Catholic doctrine on their parade, rather than listen to the people of the Church to which they belong.

This places the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the odd position of allowing non-Catholics and non-Irish to march as themselves, but excluding Irish Catholic gays.


Yet when CBS asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who presides over the Catholic diocese in New York, for his view on the matter, he responded by saying, “I know that there are thousands and thousands of gay people marching in this parade….And I’m glad they are.” Perhaps next year they will be able to publically say so.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Freedom of Religion and Gay Marriage

Poll results released Tuesday indicate that 50 percent of American citizens think that the United States’ Constitution guarantees gay couples the right to marry. The poll, conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, shows that Americans are increasingly accepting the logic laid out by the Supreme Court in the June 26, 2013, decision ruling unconstitutional the ban on gay marriage found in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Lower courts around the country, from Utah to Oklahoma to Virginia, also have adopted the Supreme Court’s logic. These courts have held that state bans on gay marriage and its recognition, like the federal ban, are unconstitutional.
These rulings have been based on the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. That amendment prevents states from passing laws treating some classes of citizens differently from others. The 14th Amendment holds that a state may not “deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.” Its intent was to prevent Southern states from passing laws that deprived black citizens of rights, such as the right to own property or to enter into contracts.
There has been a lot of reaction to the Supreme Court’s striking down of DOMA, but it is interesting to note that nearly all of the negative reaction has been of a religious nature. Whether in public comments or in legal briefs, the arguments against allowing homosexual marriage have nearly all been based on appeals to religious scripture or religious theology. Protestant perspectives have largely been Bible-based, while remarks by Catholic Church officials have been based more on theology. (Note that many religious groups perform, permit or are in favor of gay marriage.)
The acute interest by different branches of Christianity in restricting marriage to one man and one woman raises the question of whether the government enforcement of heterosexual marriage violates the constitution. Do these state laws on marriage violate the First Amendment restriction against the establishment of religion?
The First Amendment says that laws cannot be made “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The argument could be made that laws prohibiting gay marriage violate a couple’s “free exercise” of religion.
To determine whether a law violates the freedom of religion clause, courts devised the Lemon Test. A law must pass all three components of it to be valid. First, does the law have a secular purpose? Second, is the primary effect either to advance religion or to inhibit religion? Third, does the law foster an excessive governmental entanglement with religion? If the study of a law results is a “no” to the first question or “yes” to the second or third, then that law is unconstitutional.
In the months since the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA, it has become more and more clear that the main arguments in favor of restricting marriage to heterosexual couples are religious ones. In that light, the present laws not only “entangle” the government in enforcing a religious belief; they also set up the government as the primary enforcer of a religious belief as the sole practice allowed.
This is clearly “excessive entanglement” and violates the third Lemon Test. We as a society may not have realized this before now, but the debate on the question of homosexual marriage since June 2013 has made it clear.
At this point in time, any Supreme Court ruling against gay marriage would violate the second standard of the Lemon Test. It would promote the religious standard for marriage over that of any other standard. This would violate the second of the Lemon Tests. It would constitute government advancement of religious interests.
So, even though marriage law originally was designed with a secular intent -- to have one standard for all marriages in the United States, whether religious or not -- it is now apparent that the standard that was set violates the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
Despite -- no, because of -- the strong support of churches and other religious institutions for permitting only heterosexual marriage, it is now clear in American society that the restrictions against gay marriage violate our guarantee of religious freedom.

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