Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Constitutional First Amendment Privileges and Nuns on the Bus

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Forty-five words, elaborated upon in letters and essays by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Forty-five words debated and weighed by Supreme Courts, especially the 1947 Court which echoed Jefferson’s metaphor to explain that a wall should exist between church and state. James Madison preferred the word barrier. The 1947 decision or a link to the Founders did not settle the matter. Many more petitions and decisions followed, and as recently as 1994, the Court declared that neither the Federal government nor the States should prefer one religion over another or irreligion over religion.

Forty-five words, several major Supreme Court rulings, and according to Google search, 17,500,000 opinions, articles, posts, and facts with more coming daily because reasonable people do not agree about
·      the role of faith in government and
·      the authority of government in matters of faith.
Above all and most important, people do not agree about faith itself.

In general, nations and cultures across the world embrace a faith and/or mythology that satisfies their curiosities and quells their fears. Early man tended toward polytheism to explain the various phenomena that affected them. In winter, they were cold, and as one of the creatures less hirsute, poorly equipped to endure. In summer, they were warmer and food was abundant. They apparently reasoned that winter was a punishment and summer a reward so they told themselves stories to explain their suffering and good fortune.

Early Greeks invented a tale featuring Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and her beautiful daughter, Persephone, whom Hades, god of the underworld kidnapped and made his bride. Demeter, in mourning or a fit of pique, depending upon who tells or retells the story, condemned the earth to famine until her daughter was restored to her. Zeus intervened and ordered Persephone returned to her mother, but Hades invited her to partake of a pomegranate, and she did, thereby insuring that she could not leave Hades forever. She would return to the depths for three of twelve months each year, and thus mankind could feed himself nine of twelve months when Mama Demeter was reunited with her beloved daughter.

Today, of course, such polytheistic mythologies are more rare although one of the oldest five religions with a huge following, Hinduism, remains polytheistic. Judaism, Islam and Christianity, three more of the world’s five religions, are monotheistic. From a single god, all things, including rules for living a moral, spiritual life, emanate, but each of the three differ about what a faithful follower should do. For example, a devoted Muslim humbles himself twice daily in a ritualized, prayerful ceremony of worship whereas a Catholic Christian will partake of the seven sacraments in order to commune with his god. In other words, the means to an end differ according to the religions, but the goal is the same: to live with a pure heart and purpose in the eyes of one’s god.

But, as they say, the devil’s in the details. The Catholic Bishops, all of whom are men, by the way, stand firm against contraception, and they have spoken out loudly and often, even in the halls of Congress, to prevent it from being distributed by anyone Catholic to any followers of the Catholic faith. Still, Catholic men and women practice contraception so the Bishops must amp up their opposition, and they have. In the words of Bridgette Dunlap, writing for The Huffington Post, July 13, 2012, in an article titled “Bishops Are Wrong About Religious Freedom Violations:”

“The bishops . . . reject the choices made by voters and their elected representatives and lament that Catholics use birth control and form families in violation of their commands, but this does not mean their religious freedoms are being violated. Catholic bishops have increasingly looked to shape the law to control behavior through coercion where they have lost their power to persuade, but the ability to impose religion on others is not a right the First Amendment protects.” In brief, the Bishops seek to impose religion over irreligion and their own religion over others.

Similarly, many Protestants have turned to the law to impose their religion upon others whether Protestant, Jew, Muslim or Catholic. Through State and federal bills, conservative Christians, often joined by the Catholic Bishops, are trying to nullify Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that afforded women access to legal, medically supervised abortion. For example, Mississippi has tried to prevent abortions and overturn Roe v Wade at the State level, declaring that their concern is for the health and safety of women. They have passed a law, subsequently signed by the Governor, requiring doctors in the single abortion clinic remaining in that state to have hospital privileges nearby. Unfortunately, none of the hospitals has granted hospital privileges to the clinic’s doctors, and if allowed to stand, doctors will be prosecuted for performing abortions without hospital privileges. But supporters and authors of the bill have also proudly revealed their true intentions: they wish to make Mississippi an abortion-free zone. They intend to assert their personal religious decisions upon the whole, thereby establishing a religion for the State of Mississippi.

Other states have tried to defeat abortion-minded women by forcing them to submit to an ultrasound, in some states a transvaginal ultrasound. Several states have ordered women to watch the pictures from these pre-abortion procedures in the belief that a woman who sees her baby and/or hears its heartbeat will be so moved as to reject abortion as a solution. Even though evidence exists to show that few women undergo an abortion without serious consideration of its consequences and the minds of most women are not changed by photos or ultrasounds, legislators, predominantly male, continue to press their moral and religious convictions upon all, especially upon women, inviting the State to prefer one religion over another and religion over irreligion.

Should such preferences and edicts stand? And if not, how shall we find our peace without them?

Sister Simone Campbell, a spokeswoman for Nuns on the Bus, suggests we find peace through a very secular conversation about secular realities, informed by our humanity. She suggests that the conversation begin with an analysis of true “personal responsibility,” something that Representative Paul Ryan invokes often when defending his notorious budget. Sister Campbell has revealed that Ryan’s budget, in spite of his claims to the contrary, is not at all “informed” by his Catholic faith or by the Catholic Bishops, as Ryan claims. She offers evidence revealing the true costs in dollars, jobs, and human life that would result from Ryan’s budget, and her data show that there is nothing compassionate or spiritual about that budget. It is merely, completely, and simply predatory, advantageous to corporations and the wealthy, the biggest hunters in the land, and seeks to bring down the prey who are poor and worse, the children who will inherit this nation after such a budget becomes the rule of the land.

Sister Campbell demonstrates the power of the First Amendment. As she speaks freely, of her faith, she informs us, without requiring us to be religious, especially Catholic, in our choices or decisions. She invites us to be moral, spiritual, compassionate citizens, but stops short of requiring us to board her Catholic bus. In fact, Nuns on the Bus collaborated with leaders from several faiths to create a Faithful Budget that strives to realize the Puritan ideal, as expressed by Winthrop envisioning a City on a Hill where men and women are bound together in a community that seeks to nurture and nourish all its citizens.

But the Puritans failed to accomplish such a City of the Hill; their failing was not unlike our failing today. They too were xenophobic, evinced by their cruel punishments if Quakers dared to proselytize among them and by exiling Roger Williams for advocating in behalf of Native Americans whom, he believed, had a prior claim to the land seized by Puritans for their own use. Let us try not to repeat such a failure by insisting upon the merits of a single religion and the wisdom of a single body of men dictating the behaviors and convictions of others. Let us not establish a single religion for all, and let us not prefer religion over irreligion, an ideology that can exist as a moral and righteous choice without an omnipotent god as the rule-maker. Let us instead speak freely, worship freely, and govern wisely as a consequence.