Religion Today

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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