Sunday, June 19, 2005

The religious right vs. religious rights

A fairly decent and quite interesting article in the NY Times today (subscription required) about the anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, pro-religion-in-government movement is worth reading, and prompts additional thoughts. The bottom line is that there is a group of evangelical fundamentalists who want to turn America into a religious state, where the church calls all the shots and woe be to anyone who believes differently. As you might suspect, I tend to oppose this kind of thinking.

My typical response would be to insist on the rights of the non-religious minority, that any church-run state would infringe on the constitutional civil rights of nonbelievers. But this time around, let's try a different approach, one that theoretically accepts majority rule at the expense of minority rights, and see where that gets us.

Let's start with the notion that America is an overtly religious country. According to various polls, the vast majority of Americans believe in God. Let's put a percentage to that, based on a 2003 Harris survey, and say that 79% of Americans believe that there is a God. So if 79% of the populace is religious, why not admit that we're a God-fearing country and change the laws accordingly?

Well, forget for the moment the rights of the 21% who are apparently agnostics or atheists, and ask another question. Of those 79% who believe in God, which God do they believe in? And here we have the issue; "religious" takes in a broad swath of different and often conflicting beliefs. Hindus believe in a different God than do Buddhists; Jews believe in a different God than do Muslims; Christians believe in a different God than do all the others. So if we were to implement the laws of God as the laws of country, whose God do we choose to rule?

To many, the answer is simple -- we're not just a God-fearing country, but an overwhelmingly Christian one. Now, I don't know the percentages here, but that's probably true. I'd bet that probably 80% of all religious people in America are Christian; that leaves believers in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism in the minority. Again. for the sake of this argument we'll ignore minority rights and let the majority rule, which means we should declare ourselves a Christian nation and adopt Christian laws.

But there's a problem with that, too. Christians are divided into two major camps, Catholics and Protestants. The latter broke from the former, and they really don't share a lot in common when it comes to how they practice their beliefs. Again, I don't know the percentages, but I'm guessing that Protestants outnumber Catholics by at least 2 to 1, so we'll let the Protestants win this round and declare ourselves a Protestant nation. (And I'm being generous here. By the time we take this subset of a subset of a subset, Protestants probably aren't in the majority; they still hold a plurality, however, so we'll put them in charge.)

Ah, but there are still more differences to take into account. There are many different Protestant variations -- which subset should we default to? Do we turn ourselves into a Lutheran nation, or a Presbyterian nation, or a Methodist nation, or a Baptist nation, or what? To say they practice the same religion and worship the same God is simply not true; the details of each denomination are significantly different, and they hold widely disparate beliefs on numerous important issues. We have to pick one denomination over all the others -- but which one?

And here we have the crux of the issue. By the time we choose the one true religion to guide us, those religious beliefs end up being held by a very small minority of the population. Let's say we pick Baptist as our national denomination (assuming that we get all the Baptist variations to play nice together, which they don't always). The percentage of Americans who are practicing Baptists is somewhere south of 10% -- and all of a sudden we're not talking about majority rule, indeed we have rule by a small minority. And minority rule is not what America or any other democracy is about.

You see, we shouldn't confuse minority rights with minority rule. Any given minority, religious or otherwise, is entitled to certain basic rights. You have the right to believe what you want to believe, and to say what you want to say, and to behave like you want to behave -- as long as your words and actions don't infringe on the right of anyone else to believe, speak, or act as they want. That means that you don't have the right to impose your beliefs on others; the minority cannot dictate how the majority acts, speaks, or believes.

Unfortunately, that is what some on the religious right want. These evangelical extremists want to impose their minority beliefs on the majority of Americans. That isn't right, it isn't American, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen. These right-wing nutburgers (and any left-wing nutburgers, too; let's not be exclusive here) can believe whatever they want in the comfort of their own homes, they just can't tell me or you or anyone else what we should believe and how we should behave. The minority cannot write and enforce the laws for the majority.

To be fair to most religious Americans, when you take a close look at these activist fundamentalists, you see that they're not coming from the religious mainstream. The folks who want religious rule are not Methodists or Presbyterians or Nazarenes or Baptists; they're not Mormons or Lutherans or Episcopalians or Catholics; they're not Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists. They're non-denominational evangelicals, a small but vocal minority who are so far out of the mainstream as to be dangerous. Just as we would not want some radical atheist group writing and enforcing our nation's laws, we do not want these radical religious fundamentalists telling the rest of us that we can't have sex outside of marriage, or use contraception, or teach evolution, or watch Desperate Housewives.

These intolerant missionaries must be stopped, even as we continue to tolerate their right to believe as they will. As always, we should embrace their minority rights while refusing their desire for minority rule.

And until all the religions in the world agree that there is one inclusive supreme being and that all the other details don't matter, any form of religious rule will be minority rule. That's why it is important and necessary to have a secular government, one that does not enforce the beliefs of any minority onto the will of the majority, one that ensures that every American has the undeniable right to believe as he or she wishes. Yes, our country is founded on the principle of individual and religious rights; this does not mean, however, that we are a country of and for the religious right.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

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