Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

March 30, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – For almost eight decades now I’ve been reading commentaries about the parade of humanity – from Will Rogers (posthumously), Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, and Westbrook Pegler right up to Ernie Pyle, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Barry Dunsmore – and I’ve concluded that humanity marches laregely in place. Only our institutions and technology seem to evolve, created and improved during flashes of our best impulses in an effort to protect us from what we might do during our worst.

I’m thinking, of course, of the Bible, the Qu'ran, the principles of Taoism, the Magna Carta, various constitutions, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions – the list goes on and on, and everything on it points us toward the evolution of our species into something less destructive. But our technology far outstrips our morality: Though we can now, sitting in the comfort of air-conditioned control rooms, rain death from circling drones upon unsuspecting people on distant continents, we’re still in effect rolling rocks down upon each other.

This reflection bubbled to the surface this week with the signing, by Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, of SB101, a new state law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects businesses refusing to deal with anyone on the basis of deeply held religious principles. The law is a pretty obvious device to legalize discrimination, in this case primarily against gay people. When questioned whether this is true, Governor Pence refuses to answer simply, instead claiming that it’s necessary to protect religious people from infringement on their rights. It has, he says, nothing to do with antigay sentiment; yet, at the stage-managed signing of the bill, he was surrounded by people he won’t identify, at least three of whom are outspoken foes of civil rights for gay people.

If ever there was a perfect example of the march of humanity going nowhere, but institutions protecting (at least some of) it, this is it. Nobody seems to want to talk about homophobia being an ancient cultural taboo, though that’s all it is, or has been, for thousands of years. And for just as long, those who can’t handle the concept of homosexual love or attraction have been proposing laws against it. Those who can handle it insist that civil rights inhere to all citizens.

The Book of Leviticus, probably compiled in the sixth century BCE, prescribes death for “men who lie with men.” Never mind that Leviticus is equally harsh with other acts, like eating shellfish or wearing clothes of different fabrics – or that the whole traditional translation may be in error. It’s been used by Jews and Christians ever since to punish or render invisible those whose proclivities don’t mesh with the majority’s. Other religions have also joyfully piled on.

Somehow, our national consciousness must be enlarged to comprehend that, although our modern institutions have grown to protect innocent minorities from persecution – Great Britain, for example, no longer mandates incarceration or chemical castration for homosexual acts – those same institutions can also be used to suppress them. Thus we have the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, based on the absurd notion that Christians are under attack from liberal forces everywhere, and need to be “protected” by the government from the relentless march of secularism.

What we need to remember is that the Constitution was conceived and written by men with a lively memory of the heavy hand of the Church of England; that ever since the Constitution’s adoption, the Bible and religious beliefs have been used to justify slavery; that pastors and preachers regularly showed up at women’s suffrage meetings to quote scripture proving that women had no business with the vote; that segregationists and Ku Klux Klansmen were Christians devoted to the eternal separation of the races. God created the different races on separate continents, Senator Bilbo (D-MS) wrote, because that’s where they belong.

One problem for many Christians is that there are so many different visions of the faith – far more, even, than of the words of the Prophet Muhammad – and in recent years the term has been pretty successfully hijacked by those with the biggest mouths and the biggest beefs with secular society. “Christian” describes, in our time, any organization from the Westboro Baptist Church to Bob Jones University, to private schools set up after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, to huge megachurches with dazzling electronics, to the hundreds of iterations of mainstream denominations. Much the same thing has happened to the term, ”patriot,” which used to mean someone who loved his country, but now designates someone who hates his government.

I was not long ago “unfriended” by an aunt in western Pennsylvania after I questioned her church’s Bible study group – a tax-exempt organization, of course – at the time deploring the godless abomination of Obamacare. “You must be an atheist!” she had written. “Well,” I answered, “some say so. I’ve been an Episcopalian for 72 years.” Haven’t heard from her since.

Arizona’s fiery governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed legislation similar to Indiana’s when clearer heads explained the economic consequences of signing it. Not exactly a victory of principle. Apparently, Indiana, by enacting its little version of Sharia law, is about to find out what those consequences may be. The prophet Hosea describes what happens when you sow the wind; and this law sows hatred based on an ancient taboo. James Madison, the major author of our Constitution, would not have let it go by without notice. He once wrote, “...I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”

Photo by Willem lange