Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Satisfied Mind of American Fundamentalism

Speaking of the Bible, I just read Carl F. H. Henry's 1947 tract The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry (1913-2003) was a prominent fundamentalist / evangelical divine and intellectual, a founding editor of Billy Graham's neo-evangelical magazine Christianity Today.

The book is still in print after seventy years, which isn't surprising because fundamentalism ought to have an uneasy conscience quite apart from the doctrine of Original Sin.  Most serious human problems tend to persist despite much handwringing about them, which is why people mistake older complaints for prophecy.  I thought Henry's book might be worth reading because it reminded me of Albert Mohler's We Cannot Be Silent, which I confess I still haven't read yet: a heartfelt cry that traditional Christianity must stop being so narrow and address modern issues sincerely or it will die out, and then what will happen?*

I was also curious to see which issues made Henry's conscience uneasy in the 1940s.  Homosexuality and gender were issues in those days, but in different ways.  Women had just lost some of the gains they'd made during the war, forced out of jobs they'd held successfully in order to free them up for returning men.  Gay people who'd gotten a taste of freedom, despite official prohibitions, found that they were no longer indispensable; and many were discharged dishonorably and had to rebuild their lives.  The postwar gay and feminist movements emerged from these problems, but they had little visibility or influence for a long time.  So what did Carl Henry think evangelicals had failed to deal with in 1947?

Henry lays it out right away:
[S]uch admitted social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, and exploitation of labor or management, whichever it may be.  

The social reform movements dedicated to the elimination of such evils do not have the active, let alone vigorous, cooperation of large segments of evangelical Christianity.  In fact, Fundamentalist churches increasingly have repudiated the very movement whose most energetic efforts have gone into an attack on such social ills.  The studied Fundamentalist avoidance of, and bitter criticism of the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America is a pertinent example [loc 105 of the Kindle edition].
So far so good, I guess.  Since 1947 "the liquor traffic" has largely been replaced by a concern with "drugs," and "the exploitation of labor or management" is an intriguing bit of false equivalence.  Henry repeats the phrase several times but never expands on the point to make sense of it; later he says that the "The problems of management or labor were now referred not to a regeneration-conditioned submission to the divine will but rather to the leftist precepts of political Socialism or Communism" [loc 220-225], which is not much help.

Fundamentalism, says Henry,
was a Bible-believing Christianity which regarded the supernatural as a part of the essence of the Biblical view; the miraculous was not to be viewed, as in liberalism, as an accidental and superfluous accretion [loc 125].
I don't see that this stress on the supernatural makes much practical difference.   Henry warns that
to become articulate about evangelicalism and its social implications was not an easy task.  There is the danger that it might involve an unstudied and superficial analysis of the specific modern evils.  For example, one recent Fundamentalist discussion of the social program of the Federal Council of Churches bitterly condemns the Communist leftist trends in that group, while exhibiting a contrasting silence about the evils of a Capitalistic system from which the redemptive reference is largely abstracted [loc 245].
There's always the danger of an unstudied and superficial of specific evils, no matter where you're coming from.  Nothing, as far as I can see, prevented Fundamentalists from producing a studied, deep analysis.  They would have claimed that "the supernatural" guided them away from "leftist Communist trends," but why didn't it guide them to something better?  Henry frets about this, but he has no answers.  Over the long haul, Fundamentalism has consistently chosen the unstudied and superficial.  There were individual exceptions, of course, but they weren't representative or influential in the movement. 
It should be emphasized that this despair over the present world order grows, for contemporary Fundamentalism, not out of any lack of confidence in the ability of the supernaturalistic Gospel. Rather, it issues from the fact that the Scriptures, as interpreted by premillenarians and amillenarians, hold forth no hope for the conversion of the whole world, and center upon the second coming of Christ as crucial for the introduction of a divine kingdom.  The despair over the present age, then, is grounded in the anticipated lack of response to the redemptive Gospel, rather than in any inherent defect in the message itself [loc 200].
I wonder about this.  When the Southern Baptist Convention broke with other Baptists in the 19th century to support slavery, the "despair over the present age" Henry mentions was hardly present.  Nor was it when the Southern Baptists joined with other denominations to defend white supremacy after Brown v. Board of Education a few years after The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was published.  A couple of times Henry writes something like "There are here and there conservative denominational groups, like the Reformed movements and the great Southern Baptist Convention, which have maintained or are beginning to reflect a vigorous social interest" (loc 606).  I wonder what "vigorous social interest," aside from Jim Crow, Henry thought the SBC was maintaining.  White racist Fundamentalists did not seem hampered by an "anticipated lack of response to the redemptive Gospel" they proclaimed.  People don't choose their courses of action because of their interpretations of Scripture; they interpret Scripture to rationalize the course of action they choose.

Henry isn't entirely unaware of this.  Early on he admits
the shifting standards in various sections of the country among Fundamentalists themselves.  Among evangelicals, for example, smoking is hardly considered that sin in the southern tobacco-growing states that it is in the north.  And the northern Baptist pastor who would join his wife for mixed public swimming would be called before his board of deacons in many a southern church [loc 145-50]
And so on.  But, like racial segregation, these who promulgated these regional differences would have regarded them as God's will, questioned only by Communist haters of Christ.  Henry laments that
While the modern world wrestles with its global dilemma, the evangelical conscience is troubled because the historic Christian message is dismissed arbitrarily as a dead option for dissolving the ills of Occidental culture [loc 175].
But why shouldn't it be dismissed?  In the case of slavery and white supremacy, the "idealistic atmosphere of judgment upon its environment in any age" (loc 259) Henry touts came down squarely against emancipation and racial equality.  The SBC later (in the 1990s) repented and apologized for those judgments, but why?  If Christians don't stand firm against the spirit of the age, how surprising is it that their message is dismissed -- not at all arbitrarily -- as a dead option?  And now that Fundamentalists like Albert Mohler are drawing a line in the sand over sexual orientation and gender identity, why should anyone credit them with any moral authority?  While the modern world wrestles with its global dilemma, the evangelical conscience is more concerned with whether the Thousand Year Reign of Christ will happen before or after the Rapture.
As against secular humanism, Fundamentalism has consistently witnessed to the fact that any culture from which the redemptive element is absent is essentially distinct from the kingdom of God [loc 366].
I don't imagine that even in 1947, Henry would have wanted to claim that "the redemptive element" was present when Southern Baptists executed a schism in support of slavery.  But why not?  Surely the SBC would have claimed that it was.  As an atheist, I am neither competent to, nor interested in deciding where the redemptive was present and where it was absent.  I think such cases show that appeals to the redemptive element are at best irrelevant, even frivolous.  Far from leading, Fundamentalists have usually followed, and then tried to take credit for whatever improvements were enacted.

And here's a curious claim.
No political or economic system has utopian promise if the essential redemptive ingredient is missing from it. A redemptive totalitarianism is far preferable to an unredemptive democracy; a redemptive Communism far more advantageous than an unredemptive Capitalism, and vice versa. But the very element which is abstracted from currently proposed solutions is this redemptive element [loc 565].
As I've said before, I'm not much interested in utopias.  Leaving that aside, what the hell is a "redemptive totalitarianism"?  I don't think Henry would consider the antebellum South to have much of the "redemptive element," because its elites weren't evangelicals.  No doubt he thought a redemptive totalitarianism would be tolerable -- to him -- because it would be run by people like him. Whether it would be tolerable to those groaning in its jails and torture chambers, even if they were evangelicals, is another question.  By contrast, a nonredemptive democracy, while filling its citizens' stomachs, providing them with an education and shelter and medical care, would allow Fundamentalists to seek and preach redemption on their terms.  This would not be enough for Henry, or for his theological descendants; he wanted evangelical domination.

Evangelicalism, Henry declares, "must contend for a fair hearing for the Christian mind, among other minds, in secular education ... [T]he universities seem studiously to avoid the competent presentation of the Hebrew-Christian view by those who hold it" [loc 533].  A fair hearing might not, probably would not, lead to the outcome Henry assumes it would.  Like political conservatives of a later generation, Henry is essentially calling for affirmative action for his sect.  Of course I'm not being quite fair there, because affirmative action is not supposed to give positions to the unqualified.  If anything, the Reagan era showed that liberal humanists were all too willing to tolerate and even endorse incompetent clowns from the religious or cultural right.  There have been Christian, even Fundamentalist thinkers who are competent, capable of deep, studied analysis; but they were generally attacked by their brethren and kicked out of their institutions.  But those aren't the Fundamentalists Henry has in mind when he whines that "It is quite popular at the moment to crucify the Fundamentalist" (loc 449).

There are those who point to the participation of Christian ministers and laypeople in the Civil Rights movement to try to vindicate religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a moral force.  It's important to remember that that movement, opposed by many (most?) white evangelicals, was not driven or motivated by religion: rather it used religion as a lever.  Both racists and antiracists claimed  to possess the "redemptive element."  Henry is no help.  On his own account, as you can see from the passage about "redemptive totalitarianism," it seems to be irrelevant in dealing with these questions.  He has no substantive suggestions for social amelioration or reform, and as can be seen by the sides they took in the following decades, neither did other evangelicals.

The reason I think it's worthwhile to examine this old book is to compare it with the work of today's evangelicals.  Little has changed in their assumptions, basic claims, or complaints about how unfairly the larger culture has treated them.  Their consciences may be uneasy, but their confidence, indeed their pride in their right to dictate to the world, is intact.

Having said all this, I must add that neither liberal Christianity, any other religion, secular humanism, or revivalist atheism has authority either.  Every important question has to be approached critically, with awareness of human limitations and our abundant history of failure.  No one has a monopoly on knowledge or wisdom.  Even Fundamentalists may participate in the discussion, not because they are believers and not despite it.  I suppose they should be allowed a minute or two to preach when goals and tactics are being evaluated, but if they can't address the issues apart from that, they're declaring that they have nothing to contribute, that Fundamentalism is a dead option.  The choice is theirs.

------------------------------
* Indeed, Mohler contributed a chapter on Henry to a 2001 book on theologians of the Baptist tradition.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Male Bondage

It could just be my dirty mind, but it occurred to me the other day that terms like "mancave," "manbun," and so on, remind me of gay male pornographic jargon: "mantool," "manjuice," and the like.  I don't want to press the comparison too far, but it seems to me that in both cases the prefix "man-" is intended to ease profound anxiety among the audience about their masculinity.

I'm not sure where it began -- in fact I think I first encountered the idea in cultural feminist writers -- but there was at one time a popular pseudoscientific dichotomy between women, who create womblike spaces, and men, who create pointy phallic towers.  So, for instance, "mancave" is meant to reassure a guy that he's not being swallowed up by a woman's orifice, but is in a cave that is his, perhaps built by him, for a man, without any polluting female cooties.

Taking it in the butt is scary but it's less so if a mantool is penetrating a manpussy.  Or when a Southeast Asian sissy penetrates a bigger, older man, it's okay as long as he "rolled on a condom and made manly love to Anton."

For either group, though they're probably not mutually exclusive, it's the use of fetishistic language, the mantra of "man" and "manly" and so on, that soothes and reassures the frightened little boy inside.  I shouldn't be snide.  What bothers me is not the need for reassurance, but what seems to me a stubborn refusal to engage the reasons why they're afraid.

(This post is from my Drafts folder.  There's more to be said on this subject, but this will do for now.)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

ROKing in the Free World

Yesterday was the anniversary of the assassination of Park Chung-hee, the dictator of South Korea from 1963 to 1979.  (Which qualified South Korea for membership in "the Free World" in those days.)  He was shot by the head of the Korean CIA, one of his own people. Park was the father of Park Geun-hye, who was elected to the Korean Presidency in 2013, removed from office in 2017 and imprisoned for numerous crimes in the following year. So it isn't surprising that there was a rather big rally today by Park's faithful supporters. (According to Hankyoreh, these "Taegugki" rallies, referring to the South Korean flag, have been happening every weekend.)  I wasn't expecting it, but I was out walking in the area and saw some of it.

First, in Jongno, I heard this truck's PA system playing military music. There were also numerous people walking with it, carrying South Korean and American flags.  But it was a tiny group of demonstrators, so while I noticed it, I didn't see it as a big deal.

 
The truck and the marchers, guided by police, proceeded to the forecourt of a Buddhist temple, where chairs and a sound system had already been set up.  The American flags waved along with South Korean flags gave me a clue to the occasion for the march -- I'd seen the same conjunction last year -- and this confirmed it:
That's ex-President Park, of course.  Still, it didn't look to me like they even had enough people to fill the seats they'd set out -- on a chilly, blustery day -- so I figured that this demo was a fizzle.  (On the same day, a protest had been announced near Hyehwa Women's College, by men aggrieved by a judgment against several men for sexual harassment of women.  Only about 50 or 60 of the promised thousands showed up, so after about an hour the police got back into their buses and left.)  I decided to move on toward City Hall in Gwanghwamun, my original destination.

This straggler, delayed by a traffic light, approached the temple as I was leaving.


Something bigger was happening in Gwanghwamun.  There were more PA systems playing a cacophonous mixture of military and other music, and a lot more police.  A few people were carrying conjoined ROK/USA flags.  But most people I saw had other things and destinations on their minds, it seemed.


I kept telling myself that this too was a fizzle, and I might as well enter the nearby subway station and head to my hosts' home.  But I dawdled around, curious to see what was happening.

I moved further down the sidewalks and looked down the street, where I saw that people were massed on the pavement, and approaching.

This struck me as odd, because usually the farmers' outfits and drums are associated with the student pro-democracy movement of the 1970s, when college students tried to build solidarity with farmers and factory workers, and to recover "folk" arts.  But apparently it's not always so.  Perhaps these people -- many of whom were old enough to remember that era and to have participated in the movement -- wanted to appeal to its prestige.

Speaking of which, I estimate that 90-95 percent of the marchers were fifty years old or older.  (Don't be fooled by the black hair -- many Koreans of both sexes dye their hair as they age.)  That was true of the smaller pro-Park demo I saw in Jongno last year.  There were a few token youngsters - fascists were young once, too - but only a few.

The marchers kept coming.



Some of the costumes were, erm, inventive:




But the message was not entertaining: release President Park from prison, restore her to the presidency, remove the communist Moon Jae-In, bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb NK.  The gentleman in first photo below obligingly (insistently) held his placard so I could get a good shot.)




I should have made a better note of when the parade started, and when the last group of marchers passed me.  Looking at the time stamps on the photos I took, it was about half an hour.  I presume they were on their way to the open space further down the street where the candlelight vigils usually happen.  I'm not good at guessing crowd size, but I speculate that there were a few thousand people on the street -- nothing like the hundreds of thousands who called for Park's removed two years ago, every week for many weeks.  Most of the spectators seemed merely curious, like me, and there weren't all that many of them.  Still, this was a fairly big demonstration.  Park's loyalists are a small minority, but they still can muster some numbers, as they did when some of them confronted a pro-diversity, pro-refugee demonstration in Seoul a few weeks ago.

So far I haven't seen any news reports on this event; I don't think the English-language Korean press publishes on weekends.  And I'm told by friends that there was also a demonstration in another location, commemorating the second anniversary of the candlelight vigils that helped drive Park Geun-Hye out of office.  But I missed that one.

Incidentally, a number of Korean churches participated in the demo.  I was gratified to find that one of their signs was translated into English:

Did you know that the Book of Revelation is about Korea, Christ's chosen nation?  Well, now you do.  And as the god-botherers like to say, you can't break Scripture!

Monday, October 22, 2018

Demagoguery for Me, But Not for Thee

This is the latest example of a syndrome I've observed before on the Left: alternately agitating about how "extremely dangerous white supremacists are, how they're the new Nazis and if we aren't ceaselessly vigilant there will be a replay of 1930s Germany here in the Homeland" and at the same time "seem[ing] to believe that white supremacists are not really dangerous at all, that because Antifa's heart is pure they need only to chant some slogans and the Fascists will collapse and surrender; the Fascists' bullets will either bounce off Antifa's Breastplate of Virtue, be repelled by Antifa's wristlets of power, or simply dissolve into the air."

In McInnes' case there's no doubt that he's dangerous, he's been cultivating a gang of thugs for street fighting, and they've been actively doing their job.  And I must admit, having grown up on recycled WWII propaganda cartoons on children's TV in the 1950s, that the syndrome I'm describing is neither new nor limited to the Left: it was common to treat Hitler and Tojo as silly-looking clowns who would be brought down by laughter, and as dangerous enemies of all that was holy.  It's probably a lot older than that.  But I don't get it, not least because I remember how effective such tactics have been against Donald Trump: he's fat, he has stupid hair, he has tiny hands (and therefore a tiny wee-wee), he's Putin's cockholster, etc. -- and you see, here we are.  It's of a piece with the popular Internet tropes that this or that celebrity or liberal icon has schooled / taken down / destroyed / EVISCERATED etc. this or that Republican.

I guess I can understand the impulse, it's a way of letting off steam, and not actually incompatible with taking real action against these evils.  But it suggests to me that many if not most people have trouble concentrating on issues for more than a few minutes at a time.  That's just as true of the right-wing base, but liberals and the left like to claim that they're Better Than That.  And please note: I'm not at all concerned about McInnes's feelings.  This has little or nothing to do with him personally.  (Would the person who posted the above tweet feel differently about him if he were a hot Aryan stud, with a prominent chin?  Does it hurt less if you're beaten up by goons answering to a large-sized cartoon earthworm?)  What I find, however, is that many, perhaps most of the people who let off steam in this manner turn out not to be very thoughtful or knowledgeable about the issues involved.  Does that matter?  Maybe not.  Maybe all that matters is that you cheer for your team, which by definition is the Good Team because it's yours.  It puts important, life-and-death issues on the level of spectator sports, which are not important at all.

But is this the only way to build and maintain solidarity?  If so, I think we're in trouble.  If not, I think it's counterproductive.  It's demagoguery.  It's a tactic beloved of the Right: remember the memes depicting Barack Obama as a witch doctor, his family as monkeys?  Those upset liberals and progs no end.  But only, I think, because it was their guy being mocked.  The slut-shaming Melania memes circulated by liberals and leftists in 2016 were just as despicable, but defended by liberals and leftists in the same terms the Right used to defend the racist Obama memes.  And don't forget, kids, what liberals and conservatives alike agree: Michael Moore is fat.

I'm not sure that this kind of mockery is necessary to build and maintain solidarity.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for one, seems to manage very well without it.  So does Bernie Sanders.  I put the tactic's popularity down to intellectual, moral and political laziness.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Public Displays of Religion

For a while I thought I was mistaken in my criticism of the historian Brent Sirota's claim that religious freedom litigation will "eventually ... make the state the arbiter of orthodoxy."  After giving it more thought, though, I'm not so sure.

What gave me pause in the first place was Winnifred Fallers Sullivan's book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton, 2005).  Sullivan bases her argument on a single 1998 case, Warner v. Boca Raton, in which
a group of Florida residents ... sought to prevent the forced removal of the numerous statues, plantings, crosses, Stars of David, and other individually crafted installations that, with the tacit permission of city officials, they had placed on the individual graves of their deceased relatives over the course of ten to fifteen years ... The principal issue at trial was whether the non-conforming memorial arrangements assembled by plaintiffs were an "exercise of religion," and therefore protected by the relevant statues and constitutional provisions [2].
The issues were complicated.  Although the plaintiffs had been erecting these installations for a considerable time, they were in violation of "local cemetery regulations that limit the size and placement of memorials to small flat metal plaques, flush with the ground, giving only names and dates, and that can easily be mowed over" (ibid.).  In purchasing their cemetery plots, the plaintiffs agreed to abide by those regulations; but they had already seen that the cemetery contained many such decorations already, and assumed that their additions would also be permitted.  In many cases, cemetery staff not only knew that the decorations were being installed, they helped with the work.  It was unsurprising, then, that the plaintiffs believed that their installations were compliant with the regulations.

Strictly speaking, then, the problem was not one of religious freedom but of compliance with a secular contract.  It may have been a mistake for the plaintiffs to pursue a religious-freedom exemption, because they lost the case; but then, except for the cemetery's tacit toleration of the decorations over a period of years, they probably didn't have a leg to stand on otherwise.  Sullivan draws on the testimony of the plaintiffs and the contributions of several academic experts in religion, including herself.

The question Sullivan poses with respect to Warner v. Boca Raton is what constitutes religion, and it was this that led me to agree at first that the case put the state in the position of determining orthodoxy.  Were the statues, plantings, crosses, etc. exercises of "orthodox" religion, or were they "folk" observations, even "individual" practices that the First Amendment was not intended to protect?  In the end the court ruled that they were not religion, because they were not mandated by religious authorities.  Florida already had a Religious Freedom protection law at this time, and the judge's decision tended to ignore its provisions, yet as far as I can tell his ruling was upheld on appeal.

So, is religion for legal purposes a set of doctrines and practices neatly defined by elite leaders, or do lay believers and practitioners have a say?  If the courts must decide this, then yes, they are deciding what is orthodoxy and what is not.  But if laypeople are allowed to determine what they consider religion, wouldn't almost anything be defensible as religion under the First Amendment?  The answer is probably Yes, but I suspect that's the consequence of a policy of religious freedom, because there is no reliable way for an outsider to distinguish between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy.  That may not be a bad thing, and under our present regime of religious freedom the legislatures and the courts should not, as I argued before, try to settle, let alone enforce the distinction.

Nor need they do so: after all, such invented religions as Scientology, the Pastafarians, and the Church of Satan have been able to use the doctrine of religious freedom to their own advantage or, in the case of the Satanists, educationally.  It's evidently not necessary, in the view of the US courts, for a religion to have existed from time immemorial or to have the prestige and dignity associated with ancient cults in order to be recognized as religions.

While I agree with Sullivan's main point, then, I disagree with a lot of her analysis.  She tries to tie the plaintiffs' position to "individualism," fostered by Protestantism and secularism.  She's aware that most of the plaintiffs were not Protestants but Catholic and Jewish, but she explains that away by pointing to the influence of American Protestant individualism on other traditions.  I'm not persuaded, because all the plaintiffs claimed that their installations conformed to what they'd been taught by their training in their own religions.  For example:
But I know that Jesus' grave was protected, was guarded, and it was not allowed to be walked on.  And we were created in his image [39].
Sullivan points out that "Nowhere in the New Testament accounts of Jesus' death does it say that Jesus' grave was protected so that it would not be walked on. The plaintiffs often elaborated on biblical accounts, making such untutored and naive, sometimes plainly heterodox, efforts to articulate positions of biblical interpretation and theology, searching their personal repertoire of stories and teachings to explain what they had done and why" [39].  But "orthodox," officially authorized beliefs and practices also play fast and loose with biblical material, a practice that in Christianity goes back to the New Testament itself.  Christianity originated in rebellion against orthodox religious authority, appealing sometimes to "untutored and naive" elaborations of the Hebrew Bible, at other times directly to higher authority, God or the Holy Spirit.  Jesus himself sometimes set his own personal authority against tradition: "You have heard that it was said to those of old ... but I say to you ..." (Matthew 5:21, ESV).  That fits better with Sullivan's characterization of American religion, but I didn't notice any of the plaintiffs going so far in their testimony.
This is what I've been taught always, that it is a desecration to walk on a grave [43].

Polish people love the Blessed Virgin.  If you know anything about Polish people, that's one thing they do [52].

It's a tradition, as I say, it's a tradition, it's how it is done in the Jewish religion in England ... It's not necessarily a religious belief.  It's a tradition which in turn is my belief [127].
This doesn't sound to me like "locat[ing] religious authority in their own religious experience and judgment" (139), very much the opposite: one's religious judgment is authorized by the tradition, which one accepts, "which in turn is my belief."  I don't see how anyone could look at American evangelicalism and claim that locates religious authority in one's own religious experience and judgment.  Appeals to the Bible as authority are universal; if the appeals are often naive and untutored, they are not any more fanciful than the interpretations of duly authorized scholars and clergy.  There's always a circularity in such use of authority, of course.  How do I know? The Bible says so.  Why does the Bible settle it?  Because I believe the Bible.  Why do you believe the Bible?  Because the Bible says so.

Sullivan refers to the "Church's efforts to control popular piety, efforts interestingly parallel in some ways to those of the City" (38).  Indeed they are, but those efforts are as old as the Church, as is the popular piety they attempt to control.  Neither is limited to the United States, or to Protestantism -- for that matter, not even to Christianity.  As one of the contributors to Stereotyping Religion, quoted here, pointed out, popular piety and smorgasbord religion are virtually universal around the world.  It's the "high," authoritative religion that isn't representative, except as it represents a minority of believers who are interested in constructing intellectually interesting systems of dogma and practice -- and in controlling the beliefs and practices of others.  What Sullivan describes as the Protestant assertion of individual religious autonomy is in fact the worldwide and historical norm, characteristic of cultures that I don't think anyone would call individualist.

Sullivan often refers to "secular courts" deciding these questions.  Would "sacred courts" do any better?  Of course not; that's why the ideal of religious freedom was advanced in the first place.  Religious courts may at most decide what is orthodox for the orthodox, and even then they aren't to be trusted, nor should their power to discipline believers be unregulated. Orthodoxy is a construct meaningful only within a given community, like grammatical correctness, and like grammatical correctness it's subject to disagreement and change.  It's often been said that a language is a dialect with an army; analogously, a religion is a heresy with an Inquisition.  At the same time, though, the Warner plaintiffs' attempts to support their (yes) religious observances with regard to the dead have no authority either.  They don't need to.

Sullivan's attempts to sort out the "lived religion" of the Warner plaintiffs vs. orthodoxy seem to be based in an assumption that the difference is real in some sense of the word.  What really seems to have been at stake in the case were issues around property (who owned and could regulate the use of the burial plots) and class (there were some complaints that the contest decorations were "garish," for which probably read "tacky").  Only the first set of issues were really the domain of the court, I should think, and the real problem was the confusion and inconsistency of the cemetery management's enforcement of the contractual standards.  Orthodoxy really wasn't the issue, which I think confirms my previous sense that religious freedom doesn't necessarily involve "secular courts" deciding what is orthodox and what isn't.  A major difficulty would be getting judges to recognize this, and if experts like Sullivan and her colleagues struggled vainly with the problem, nonspecialist judges are not likely to do much better.

It also seems to me, as I've suggested, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts are bound to backfire, much like the Reagan-era Equal Access Act of 1984.  This bill was meant to guarantee access to public school facilities for religious groups, but it ended up being the backbone of defense of Gay-Straight Alliances. Warner v. Boca Raton might be an example of such unintended consequences, and could constitute more reason why RFRAs are not a good idea: believers are giving the courts authority to decide matters they should not be deciding.  As with liberals who want the State to decide what is true news and what is fake, the faithful will quickly discover that they, and not those they hate, are suffering disadvantage or even being penalized.