Posts Tagged ‘freedom of conscience’

Why a National Day of Prayer?

May 5, 2010

Tomorrow is, as the first Thursday in May has been for a couple of decades, the National Day of Prayer. I’ve noticed a lot more fuss among Conservatives about the day than most years. perhaps because of misleading rumors that President Obama had canceled the observance and because a federal judge had ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, many seem to have been galvanized to promote the day more enthusiastically than usual.

Their enthusiasm puzzles me. Prayer is only meaningful if motivated by sincere belief and intent. If people of sincere, humble belief are already praying, as they presumably do, what purpose a national day of prayer? If it takes the coercion of government declaration to get them to pray, what would be the purpose? How is that not vain prayer? If it is only a suggestion or encouragement to pray, why do we need to waste government time in message legislation or declarations sanctioning certain forms of observance? Are not the various religious organizations perfectly capable of voluntarily organizing to promote a national day of prayer should they deem it necessary? Why should we call upon the government, which conservatives paint as so ineffective, and which they want out of our personal lives, to lead us in prayer? Are presidents and government proclamations so much more effective than pastors, priests, and bishops in convincing people to pray? If it is a harmless gesture, as some supporters suggest, I wonder how they would react to the similarly harmless suggestion in a National Day of No Prayer?

I’m no lawyer. I don’t know that a National Day of Prayer is strictly unconstitutional. But I do believe that it is inconsistent with the core American value of Freedom of Conscience. While some of the Founders and early presidents, including both Washington and Adams, did champion national days of prayer, others—most prominently Jefferson and Madison, among the strongest advocates of Freedom of Conscience and early Republican values—opposed the practice.

Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it (Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller,” The Jefferson Cyclopedia).

Altho’ recommendations only, [National Days of Prayer] imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

The objections to them are 1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate. 3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. (James Madison, detached memoranda, c. 1817).

Such observances overtly grant government favor to religion and theism over other alternatives. Further, despite some lip service to diversity, the day is, by the National Day of Prayer Task Force’s own admission, inherently sectarian in nature (the purpose includes “Foster unity within the Christian Church,” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage,” and otherwise uses language which is specifically Judeo-Christian in nature).

Certainly those who believe in God should pray tomorrow, as on any other day. But we shouldn’t use government to promote our beliefs or to give preference to our religious tradition over others if we truly want the nation to stand for freedom of religion.

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Separation of Church and State II: Necessary for the Protection of Both

July 4, 2009

Some time ago, I wrote a post which I intended to be the first in a series on the separation of Church and State, “Separation of Church and State: A Founding Principle.” I had intended to shortly continue the series, but events required me to scale back my blogging time and postpone the sequel. Today seems a perfect day to resume the series.

Religious conservatives contemporary to Jefferson and Madison assaulted the newborn Constitution as Godless, and persistently accused the two politicians of being atheists throughout their careers. To these religious conservatives a “wall of separation” between the Church and State was nothing less than a scheme to undermine religion. They could hardly have been more wrong. While not conventionally religious, the letters and works of the two men reveal them to be profoundly spiritual people. Like modern religious conservatives who level similar charges against entities such as the ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, those religious conservatives manifested a remarkable inability to grasp the difference between advocating liberty in religious matters and attempting to extinguish religion. And like their modern counterparts, they failed to understand that strict separation between state and religion is actually essential for keeping the flames of religion burning.

Within the text of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, these thinkers were very insistent upon that point. They would have been rather skeptical of Mitt Romney’s claim that “Freedom requires religion.” They were well aware that for hundreds of years people have been imprisoned, tortured, and slaughtered in the name of religion. Religion has been a force in shackling men at least as often as liberating them, particularly when associated with the state. Under those conditions, it seeks to use the force of government to cement its temporal power, stifling new ideas while neglecting the persuasion which is the root of any effectual religion. At the same time, government when united with religion seeks to appropriate the moral authority of its partner, manipulating the modes of religion to promote its own agenda, as we experienced with the Bush administration in their Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

Hardly trying to purge God from the nation, these founding fathers (and their modern separationist counterparts) were trying to create an environment in which religion could flourish. A level playing field allows any moral sentiment the opportunity to make its case, to rise or fall on its own merits. They sought a society in which organizations would be forced to rely on exhortation rather than coercion to promote and defend their beliefs; in which dogma could be challenged and, if found lacking, cast aside. They hoped for a society in which new ideas and new systems of belief—such as the LDS faith—could be explored and, if they drew people through their fruit, take root and blossom. When government either tries to play a role in favoring religious beliefs and practices, or neglects its duty to protect the freedom of conscience which is the root of religious freedom, government hinders that process. Religion as a result becomes superficial and hollow, a matter of compulsion rather than faith. A purely secular, areligious government, one entirely indifferent to religion, best enables religion to achieve its full spiritual potency.

Of all people we in the LDS faith should understand the importance of freedom of conscience. We are taught that the Lord raised up this nation as a land of liberty in order to restore his Gospel where it might not be smothered by the oppression of contemporary religious orthodoxy. The Church suffered great hardship and persecution because the freedom of conscience which Jefferson and Madison favored was so imperfectly protected.

This principle is part of the Church canon, in the Eleventh Article of Faith

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almight God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

D&C 134:4-5 & 9-10 makes the Gospel’s position even more clear on the subject.

We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.

We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience

…We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.

We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship (emphasis added).

In seeking to instill in government a systematic predisposition towards religion, religious conservatives typically point to the such patriots as George Washington, who spoke emphatically of the importance of religion for the nation in such works as his farewell address. These conservatives balk at the idea of a secular state, protesting that such a state betrays Washington’s vision by favoring atheism. They are wrong. A firm separation of Church and State does not encourage or aid atheism over any other belief. It merely allows atheists the same freedom to follow the dictates of their conscience as anyone else. It grants atheism the same opportunity to make its case as any theology. And Atheists should unquestionably have that right. Freedom of conscience is a lie, the lie of toleration, if it is proffered only to theistic beliefs. Do we as Christians so lack confidence in the persuasive power of the doctrines of Christ as to require atheism repressed by the government, indirectly or otherwise?

Meaningful religion needs no government sanction or support to sustain itself. In Jefferson’s notes for the debate on Virginia’s disestablishment, he outlined such an argument.

Christianity flourished three-hundred years without establishments. Soon as established, decline from purity. Betrays want of confidence in doctrines of church to suspect that reason or intrinsic excellence insufficient without secular prop (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian Boyd editor, vol. 1 p.538-539).

Yes, Washington and other prominent founders expected the United States of America to be a religious nation. But that brings us to the second sense of the phrase “Religious (or Christian) Nation,” one in which the people of the nation upholds Christian virtue by free choice, as dictated by one’s conscience. Jefferson and Madison expected true religion to flourish in the U.S.—a religion which conventional Christians then and now would hardly endorse, but a religion nonetheless—by virtue of its power to touch the hearts of those who freely experiment upon its claims, and the persuasion of those who have experienced its goodness in their lives. They expected religion to be refined and improved through the process of free inquiry and exploration. A Christian (or religious) nation in the first sense of the word—in which government takes a hand in promoting religion, is directly antithetical to that desire. By increasingly seeking to intermingle the two, pursuing government favor for their own religious beliefs, religious conservatives are impeding the very goals they supposedly hope to accomplish. If they would follow Madison and Jefferson in strengthening the wall between the two, they could better ensure that this nation protected the religious and personal liberties we celebrate today.

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  • Separation of Church and State IV: Religious and Moral Legislation

Governor Huntsman Supports Civil Unions

February 11, 2009

With Utah having decided via constitutional amendment to restrict freedom of conscience among individuals and religions regarding homosexual marriage, Equality Utah has introduced the Common Ground initiative to ensure the protection of some basic rights for homosexual families.

The initiative has met vehement opposition from Utah’s formidable conservative political bloc, and it faces a very steep uphill battle in the legislature. One glimmer of hope has been the somewhat surprising support of Governor Huntsman. As popular as he is, he may enable some headway on the issue.

Huntsman deserves credit for taking this stand. I would encourage everyone who supports justice and civil rights to let him know you support him. And while you’re at it, email your legislators to encourage them to support the Common Ground Initiative, and sign Equality Utah’s petition.

Jeffery Nielsen Courageously Takes Another Public Stand

July 3, 2008

Jeffrey Nielsen, professor at Westminster College and UVSC who fired from BYU after writing an editorial questioning the LDS Church’s support of the federal marriage amendment, has again been taking a very public stand as the issue resurfaces. He recently released “An Open Letter to California Mormons.”

I am a member of the Mormon Church, a married heterosexual, and a supporter of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. I am asking you to pause and give sincere thought to the letter from our religious leaders you have heard read, or will soon hear read, over our church pulpits asking you to get involved and oppose marriage equality in California. Please think deeply about this, not only as a member of a particular church, but also as a citizen of a democracy.

To press for an amendment to a civil constitution that would legalize discrimination against an entire class of people is no small matter, but of the greatest significance. When the argument, no matter how well intentioned, is based solely upon a religious proclamation; then, I believe, it is a serious contradiction of the wisdom of our founding fathers. It also does tremendous damage to the great progress in civil rights we’ve made in our country respecting the equal dignity of each person and towards a more certain legal equality for all citizens.

You should also know, not all faithful Mormons agree with our religious leaders’ encroachment into political matters. In fact, a growing number of active Mormons, who have gay friends and family members, are coming to the conclusion that our current leaders are as mistaken in promoting discrimination against gays and lesbians as was the Mormon hierarchy in the 60’s when they opposed equal rights for people of color, and our Mormon leaders in the 70’s when they opposed full legal equality for women.

Of course, religious authorities of any denomination possess the right, and may claim the legitimacy, to set the theology and policy for their religious community. When they; however, attempt to interject religious doctrine into the public spaces of a diverse democracy without reasonable justification, then members, especially faithful members, of that religious organization have the civic responsibility to express public disapproval of such dangerous and undemocratic behavior.

No one is asking that you condone a behavior that might violate your religious faith, but we need to allow everyone the freedom to live their life as they see fit, so long as it does not physically harm another person. After all, religious values must be something an individual freely chooses, not something forced upon him or her by the state. We should never allow our constitutions, whether state or federal, to become weapons in a crusade to impose a particular religious value system upon a pluralistic democracy. Today it might be a particular religious value that we affirm, but tomorrow it might be a religious system, which would seek to legislate against our own sincere beliefs. So now is the time to take a stand and keep separate civil and religious authority.

I do not believe that people choose their sexual orientation any more than they choose their skin color or gender. So to discriminate and deny them equal protection and equal opportunity under civil law because of these natural traits; especially in this case, sexual orientation, is grossly unfair and should be rejected outright in a compassionate and just democracy. If anyone could give me a single reasonable argument against marriage equality in our civil society, which doesn’t make fallacious appeals to tradition, misplaced appeals to religious authority, or make some ridiculous claim about nonhuman animals, then I would like to hear it. So far, no one has been able to present me with even a single justifiable reason.

You should know that like you, family and marriage are very important to me. As I have become acquainted with gay and lesbian couples, I have been touched by their goodness, sincerity, and commitment. I am persuaded that allowing marriage equality would, in fact, strengthen the institutions of family and marriage in our country. Perhaps it might even make all of us a little more considerate and responsible as both marriage partners and parents. I can only hope that the citizens of California, and my fellow Mormons, will possess the wisdom and moral decency to reject the call to discriminate against our gay and lesbian coworkers, friends, neighbors, church members, and family.

Bravo.


Listen to his very thought-provoking interview on KCPW
.

Buttars is at it again…

February 6, 2008

While battling illegal immigration is the trendy fight for the Utah Republican party, it is almost reassuring to see that some continuing to tilt with one of the tried and true straw men of conservatism: homosexuals.

Chris Buttars, tireless champion of Utah’s sodomy ban and sponsor of Utah constitutional amendment 3 (in which government interferes with freedom of conscience by enforcing a particular definition of marriage), has introduced legislation with the specific intent of preventing SLC mayor Becker’s proposed Domestic Partnership Registry.

Why, Senator Buttars? Why must you persist in abusing your power to enforce your moral code on others, even at the expense local government (something Republicans are supposed to defend)? The reality is that many people in our communities who live in committed relationships and rely on one another for economic support. While the nature of those relationships may not be sanctioned by the religion to which Senator Buttars and I belong, there is no reason that government should not recognize the reality of those relationships.

Thankfully, Becker and the SLC council are determined to take this stand. Hopefully the Utah legislature has enough people of conscience to protect the self-determination of local governments and freedom of conscience.

PS: The Voice of Utah makes a shrewd point about the dishonesty of Buttars and the other sponsors of Amendment 3 as it relates to the Domestic Partnership Registry.