Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I Don't Care What Yahweh Don't Allow

According to this article, the resident artiste of the Masterpiece Cakeshop is suing his state government, alleging harassment and persecution for his deeply held religious beliefs.  This is due to another suit accusing him of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake for a transgender person's transition. There aren't enough details in the article for me to discuss that case; anyhow, what I'm interested in now are the remarks of the person, Brent Sirota, who linked to the article in a tweet.  He's an academic, a "Historian of sacred and profane things" according to his profile, with a focus on "Disenchantment operations, mostly."  I follow him because he often shares useful information, including recommendations of several books that I have found very useful.  But his complaints today made little sense to me.

I simply don't see the bottom to this. Any number of prejudices can be and have been swathed in theological garb--many quite recently, historically speaking: against interracial marriage and integration, antisemitism, anticommunism.
This is true as far as it goes.  What's missing is an acknowledgment that it's not only "prejudices" that have been "swathed in theological garb."  His use of "prejudices" is tendentious and disingenuous.  Just about any position at all can be and has been tarted up in theological drag.  How is anyone supposed to tell which positions are legitimate and which are merely prejudices?

One example of this came up a couple of Christmases ago when I criticized a liberal/progressive Christian reading of the Nativity stories that cast the Holy Family as "refugees."  I pointed out that there were other ways to read the texts, based on the narrative and indeed theological framework of the New Testament itself.  I was advised to study some theology by someone who was unaware that I've spent many years doing that.  What my reading had taught me was that the meanings of biblical stories and the doctrines Christians constructed were manifold, and largely determined by what the interpreter wanted to find: theologians work backward from their conclusions to get the texts to mean what they want them to mean.  (This is not true only of theologians, of course.)  The irony was that my critic assumed what he accused me of believing, that each story has only one meaning.  You couldn't prove that from a reading of theology; rather the opposite.

Sirota continued: 
Eventually, this will make the state the arbiter of orthodoxy. Courts and legislatures will have to determine that transphobia is a legitimate application of Protestant doctrine, but opposition to "race-mixing" or "popery" is not.
I can't see anything in the article that supports this overwrought claim.  Perhaps the courts and legislatures will take it on themselves to decide Christian doctrine, in defiance of the First Amendment, but there's nothing in the article or the case that obliges them to.  If anything, Sirota seems to want the courts to determine that transphobia is an illegitimate application of Protestant doctrine, which isn't acceptable either.  (I don't quite understand why he specifies "Protestant" here, since Catholic doctrine is also anti-trans.  I suspect he's alluding to - and misusing, in my judgment - scholarship which traces religious pluralism and toleration to the rise of Protestantism; but of that, more some other time.)

Now, it's true that probably most Americans (including their elected representatives) don't understand the First Amendment, largely because they don't see why it should prevent them from imposing their beliefs on other people, at their expense.  I've mentioned before some gay Christians I know who, not content with a mere civil ceremony, wanted the government to force their churches to provide them with a church wedding.  They didn't care that this would violate the First Amendment: they wanted it, and thought they were entitled.  (As white middle-class Christian-American males, of course they were!)

There are other ways of understanding this issue, of course, but it seems to me that even if a doctrine is a legitimate application of Protestant doctrine, it can still be regulated or forbidden by the state.  Slavery was held to be theologically legitimate for centuries by Catholic and Protestant divines, and though most people don't realize it, the American Civil War and Emancipation did not change that.  Even if your church still considers slavery to be in conformance with the will of God, it is still illegal for you to own other human beings.  The same can be said of polygamy: there is nothing in the Bible to forbid it, and it appears that Christianity abandoned the practice not for theological reasons but because Roman society disapproved of it.  (Oh ye of little faith, letting the World determine doctrine for you!)  If Protestants want to burn papists, or vice versa, because of their sincerely held theological doctrines, tough luck.  Nor is the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy acceptable because the Church hierarchy refused to do anything about it.  Because the United States does not, thanks to the Bill of Rights, have a state religion, we are not at the mercy of theologians in deciding public policy.

Sirota concluded:
And that was precisely Madison's complaint in the Memorial and Remonstrance in 1785, that such policies imply "that the Civil Magistrate is a competent judge of Religious Truth . . . an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages."
James Madison certainly did not mean that churches should be given free rein, however.  Remember that he opposed tax exemptions for churches and a chaplain in the Congress.  He was correct that the Civil Magistrate is not a competent judge of religious truth; I would only add that neither is the theologian, as shown by their contradictory opinions in all ages.  No one is.  Happily, as I've already said, the magistrate need not judge religious truth; he or she only needs to keep the arrogant pretensions of churchmen and believers from disturbing the public peace.  "Only" is probably not the right word here, because it's no small task to balance the competing claims of religious freedom, which usually involve one religion's freedom versus another's.  Even if believers could agree on what their gods require, their gods have no authority in this country.