Religious Freedom excuse for discrimination

The Nation published this timely piece on the Trump Administration draft reinterpreting the religious freedom clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Click HERE to read the plan that would serve as grounds for all kinds of discrimination – until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 2, 2017

 

Mr. Netanyahu, Stay Home!

Speakers of the House sometimes get confused. Under the U.S. Constitution the Speaker of the House is second in line behind the Vice President in the event something happens, God forbid, to the President. Sometimes Speakers – and foreign Heads of State running for their lives in elections back home – speak and act out of turn.

Read Mother Jones’ article Has Netanyahu Finally Gone Too Far with His Contempt for Obama? 

 

“Hello, NSA”

“Hello. NSA?” “Hello, CIA.“ “Hello, Homeland Security.” “Hello, whoever you are, listening in on my phone conversations.”

I’m on the phone with the Church Administrator of the little church I serve. A loud whining noise suddenly over-rides her voice. I try to talk with her; she keeps talking as though everything is fine. I hang up and call again. She wonders what happened. I tell her. “It’s the NSA,” she says. We both laugh.

But it’s no laughing matter.

The timing of the unexplained noise on the phone coincided with arrival of an email from a JFK assassination researcher who is providing overnight lodging for another critic of the Warren Commission Report, Judyth Vary Baker. Judyth is Lee Harvey Oswald’s former lover, controversial author of Me and Lee: How I Came to Love and Lose Lee Harvey Oswald. Ms. Baker makes the case that President Kennedy was assassinated by a right-wing, anti-Castro, Mafia-linked group within the CIA.

Judyth is in town this week promoting her latest book, David Ferrie: Mafia Pilot, Participant in Anti-Castro Bioweapon Plot, Friend of Lee Harvey Oswald and Key to the JFK Assassination. David Ferrie is the shadowy figure with whom Judyth worked in 1963 in a New Orleans cancer research lab she claims was a covert project of the CIA.

At the request of her publisher, my friend here in Chaska approached several bookstores, a church, and a senior citizens center. One of the bookstores, one of America’s largest, originally said yes, but the next day reported back that “it wouldn’t work out.” An event at a church was scheduled, but was cancelled at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict.

“Hello, NSA.” “Hello, CIA.” Hello, somebody. Someone is listening in. Someone who doesn’t want the rest of us listening to the likes of Judyth Vary Baker or reading the allegations about David Ferrie and the connection between the anti-Castro, Mafia-linked cabal within the CIA.

Or maybe no one is listening in and my friend and I are making it all up. Maybe there is some other reason for the noise I’d never heard before on my phone. It’s just a strange coincidence that the noise happened while the email was arriving on my MacBook Air. It’s coincidence that the phones of people I called the rest of the day did not ring but showed as voicemails without messages, a new wrinkle in their experience and mine. It’s coincidence that my computer and those of several others I had emailed or phoned began to behave as though they needed the Geek Squad or Prozac.

Although I’ve never asked to see it, I’m confident that the FBI has a file on me, and, if they do, I’m rather proud of it. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a group in Decatur, Illinois identifies a picture of King’s alleged assassin as the man who’d shown up out-of-the-blue while a crowd of youth was still on the church parking lot following the dismissal of that night’s youth outreach program.

The FBI shows each of us three photographs, asking if we can identify the man  we met. Each of us, interviewed separately, identifies one of the three. The picture matches the photograph of James Earl Ray on the cover of Life magazine.

A cub reporter who gets wind of the story publishes a column in The Decatur Herald. The Chicago Sun-Times publishes a story on its front page. Right-hand column. Right there in black and white. The headline reads something like “King Assassin Spotted in Decatur, Illinois.” Several of us are quoted in both articles.

Years later, researchers search the files of the Decatur Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times for the stories. They’re not there. There is no evidence that the stories were ever published.

“Good night, NSA.” “Good night, CIA.” “Good night, FBI.” “Good night, Judyth.”

“Hello, Patriot Act.”

“Good-bye Constitution; good-bye Republic.”

“Kyrie Eleison!”

My Grandmother’s Rifle

My 90 year-old Grandmother kept a revolutionary war rifle under her bed in Rockport, Massachusetts. She wanted to be safe. When she showed it to me, I could barely drag it out from under the bed.  How she would have gotten it out and lifted it to point at an intruder was a puzzle, but my Grandmother, like many of us, thought a gun would make her safe.

My Grandmother's revolutionary war rifle.

My Grandmother’s revolutionary war rifle.

Security, weapons, and freedom make strange bed-fellows. Guns will not produce security, and the freedom to buy and use the weapons of war equates pulling a trigger with free speech.

In America the mixing of the right to bear arms, the search for security, and the sanctity of personal freedom without limits are the ingredients of a national security state…and a state of permanent anxiety.

We are not safe in America. The six-year-olds and seven-year-olds of Sandy Hook were not safe. Their teachers were not safe. Their town was not safe. The five-year-old and the two-year-old in Minneapolis who found a pistol under the pillow in their parents’ bedroom were not safe. The two-year old is dead. The five-year-old and his parents will never be the same. Nor will the people of Baghdad, the U.S. Army base at Fort Hood or the folks killed at McDonald’s. We are not safe either at home under Homeland Security or in the places around the world where un-manned drones kill and maim not only those who threaten our safety but innocent children, under that banner of freedom, democracy, and national security.

The U.S. Constitution is a work of genius and wisdom depending on how well it is interpreted by the Courts. The First Amendment the right to free speech. The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, a right originally intended to maintain the power of the people, collectively, to overthrow another King George or a government that did not serve the well-being of the American people.

Among the “arms” protected by the Second Amendment there was no assault weapon able to shoot 100 times in 60 seconds and then reload or a pistol capable of 30 shots before reloading. What the framers of the Second Amendment had in mind was muskets.

“Load… aim… fire…..  Load… aim… fire.”

The Second Amendment never imagined the likes of the M-16 or its knock-offs or a semi-automatic pistol concealed in one’s purse or trousers. The weapons used against a mother and elementary school children in Newtown and against customers having a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s were the furthest thing from their time-bound imagination.

There were no McDonald’s when the Second Amendment was adopted and there were no semi-automatic weapons sold at gun shows. Today, ABC News reports that, according to the 2011 statistics of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there were 4.17 times as many federally-licensed retail gun dealers and pawn shops(58,794) than McDonald’s (14, 098) in the U.S – more death shops than places to eat a Big Mac.

ABC News also reported that “2012 has been a record-setting year for gun sales. As of November, the FBI recorded 16,808,538 instant background checks for gun purchases for 2012. Even without counting December, which has historically been the busiest month, this beats last year’s record by more than 350,000.”

Argument for strict Constitutional interpretation by Justice Scalia

Argument for strict Constitutional interpretation by Justice Scalia

Strict Constitutionalists like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia know full well that my grandmothers revolutionary war rifle was the “arms” the Second Amendment had in mind. Every citizen in America has the right to have a revolutionary war rifle –  a single shot “load…; aim…; fire… re-load…; aim…; fire…” under the bed… or under the pillow in the parents’ bedroom.

Freedom was never intended to produce a domestic or international killing field. If we Americans have learned anything from 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbine, Red Lake, and Sandy Hook, it is that our security is not found in a gun or a drone in every home. Neither was the nation’s security license to monitor the phone calls, emails, texts, bank records, and personal movements of citizens.

I exercise my right to free speech by writing and publishing words as the weapons of persuasion in hopes that they might contribute in some way to a national introspection and action that minimizes the human impulse toward violence and destruction. I have to believe that words are more powerful in the end than the Bushmaster .223 assault rifles and drones that kill at home and abroad – all in the name of keeping us alive and “safe”.

According to strict judicial interpretation of the Second Amendment, everyone in America has a right to own a musket or, perhaps, pull a revolutionary war rifle from under the bed.

Grover Norquist: High Priest of Purple Kool-Aid

Grover Norquist is quoted in Mallory Simon’s “GOP Resistance to Anti-Tax Pledge Grows” as saying:

“You’ve had some people discussing impure thoughts on national television.”

“Impure”?…  Is The Taxpayer Protection Pledge a religion? With its own “elect”? And its own high priest and Lord High Executioner: Grover Norquist? Thank God for the former cult members who have had “impure” thoughts and are going on national television to either repent or to “weasel out” of their pledges.

No elected representative should take any other pledge than to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and to faithfully exercise the duties of their office. The Norquist pledge, while it has rallied support for candidates’ election to office, limits their ability to exercise of the duties of office, as many former signers are discovering while standing at the edge of “the fiscal cliff”.

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge (“Anti-Tax Pledge”) was always bad religion. It asked candidates, and the whole country, to follow the example of another religious high priest, Jim Jones, who led this flock into the jungle where they frank the purple Kool-Aid of mass suicide.

We’re not in the jungle of Guyana with Jim Jones. We’re in the United States of America. Time to dump the purple Kool-Aid religion. Time for some fresh orange juice, a bowl of nutritious oatmeal with raisins, and lots of conversation over coffee in the Congress and the White House.

Throwing Up in the School Cafeteria

Gordon C. Stewart          Feb. 28, 2012

“It makes me want to throw up!”

Nothing causes indigestion more than a food fight over religion and politics. Just because there’s a food fight in the school cafeteria doesn’t mean we should join it.

The 2012 election is shaping up as a battle over religion and the state. But the battle is ill-framed, using a shotgun that sprays everywhere.

The failure to differentiate the issues is widespread in the thinking of the candidates, their supporters and detractors, and news media that are increasing driven by sensational sound-bites that increase viewership and profits than by professional journalistic standards that would help clarify the debate.

Take Mr. Santorum’s statement on ABC’s “This Week” when asked how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing. He referred to then-candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s speech affirming the absolute separation of church and state. The speech, he said, makes him “want to throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

There are three separate issues here: 1) the role of religion in shaping public policy; 2) the role of a candidate’s personal faith in the exercise of the duties of elected office in a democratic republic; and 3) the wall of separation between church (institutional religion) and the State.

The question was not about church (i.e. institutional religion) and state. It was issue #2: how the candidate’s faith/religious convictions would influence the way he would govern, if elected President of a pluralistic democratic republic.

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum asked.

In that respect, Mr. Santorum is correct. For the public or a candidate to assume that it would make no difference would assume that faith and religion are strictly private, personal matters, while politics is a public matter. But as theologians, ethicists and critics of religion like Bill Maher agree, that’s not how it works. What we believe privately informs and drives what we do publicly, whether our personal convictions are religious or some version of secular humanism.

The cross-over between these core convictions and public policy is too important to ignore. The “culture wars” are real. The definition of marriage, the rights of women v. the rights of the unborn, institutional principle/conscience (e.g. contraception) and health care, the value of public education, end-of-life decisions, war and peace, workers’ rights, America’s role in the world, the distribution and re-distribution of wealth, wealth and poverty, and capital punishment are public issues hotly debated by an electorate whose varying religious and secular convictions place them front and center on the national agenda.

The genius of the U.S. Constitution lay in its framers’ ability to differentiate  between individual faith and institutional religion when it comes to matters of State.  What was later described as the “wall of separation” between church and state was, in fact, a wall that prevents the establishment of any one religion as the religion of the State. That is to say, the United States of America was not and would never be a theocracy. It would bea secular democratic republic which respected the free exercise of religion, whatever its stripe.

The founders were also clear that the success of the experiment in representative democracy rested on its citizens being what John Adams called “a moral people and religious people”  instructed in civility and committed to the search for goodness and the common good. They drew the line between the State and institutional religion to protect the republic from the horrors they had witnessed when the two had merged in the attempted theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and to protect the free exercise of religion from the restrictive powers of the State.

In that sense, all three questions are fair game. Given the current food fight, the question is not whether to keep all such discussions out of the school cafeteria. Only when we, the electorate, inform ourselves of the nuances of the debate, will the cafeteria be more civil and the candidates stop throwing up in public because they swallowed the wrong question.

Religion and Politics: Cain and Abel

The Ongoing Saga of Cain and Abel

Gordon C. Stewart | published by MinnPost.com

Religion and politics: oil and water? The problem is that each stakes a claim for the same turf. They both answer the question of how we live together. The fact that religious creeds and political creeds stake claims to leads some of us to separate them, not only as they are separated by the U.S. Constitution, but by carving out different spaces on the same turf: one private/personal sphere (religion), the other public/social sphere (politics). Religion says to politics: Keep your hands off my private beliefs! Politics says to religion: Keep your hands off public policy!

With the exception of adherents of the extreme right or left in religion or politics, most of us have had enough of religious or political fundamentalism. We’re tired of explosive tirades and single-issue politics whose test-tube is organized religion. We’re equally tired of political power plays that dress up a political party (take your choice) as the incarnation of righteousness.

The U.S. Constitution does a good thing when it insists that there be no established religion in this country. Looking back on the failed experiment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s blending of religious creed and political authority that resulted in the banishment of dissident Anne Hutchinson (1637), the execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, and the Salem witch trials, the framers of our Constitution had every reason to protect the body politic from the tyranny of any religious majority.

Faith, a vision of the peaceable society

But even as I celebrate the anti-establishment provision of the Constitution, there is no way to separate faith and politics. It’s impossible because faith is about more than the private/personal sphere — it’s a vision of the peaceable society. Faith and politics live in the same territory every time the vexing questions appear regarding the public/social/economic/military ideas and beliefs that create public policy for good or for ill.

The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — answer Yes to the question “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” Our three traditions refuse to confine religion to the vertical and the private. Faith is a living relationship with the Divine that expresses itself, according to Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad, primarily in the daily practice of keeping or caring for the neighbor. Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are social as well as personal, public as well as private. While alms-giving and charitable giving are essential, they count for little without also addressing the public policies that set the fires that drive people into the arms of charity. The Cain and Abel story strikes me as a place to anchor the discussion. In the biblical story, Cain (‘kayin’ which means ‘Get’ in Hebrew) is humanity’s first child East of Eden. When Cain kills his young brother Abel (‘puff’ or ‘vapor’ in Hebrew), YHWH asks Cain where his brother is. Cain answers with a crafty question that still echoes down the centuries with war and bloodshed and religious hatred: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

A call from the NRA

While concentrating on the Cain and Abel story last Monday, my phone rang. The little window on the phone said “NRA.” “Mr. Stewart?” “Yes.” “I’m calling for Ronald Schmeits, president of the National Rifle Association, to invite you participate in a survey with one simple question. It will take just a minute of your time. Mr. Schmeits has an important message. When the message is finished, Mr. Schmeits’ assistant will come on the line for the one-answer survey.”

The message went something like this: “Right now the United Nations is meeting behind closed doors planning to ban all guns everywhere in the world. Even as I speak, they’re planning behind closed doors to take away your freedom in this country. The United States is a sovereign country. We cannot allow a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away the American people’s freedom to bear arms. If we let them succeed, it will be the end of the Second Amendment and the end of freedom in our own country.” Mr. Schmeits’ assistant came on the line to pose the survey’s one “simple” question: “Mr. Stewart, do you think we should allow the United Nations and a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away our freedom? ”

“May I ask how you got my name?”

“Yes, sir, you’re in our data base either as an NRA member, contributor, or as someone who believes in the civil liberties.”

“Well …,” I said, “… I am an advocate for civil liberties.”

“So, Mr. Stewart, would you like to answer the question?”

“Are you serious?! You want me to answer a question that has only one answer, a question premised on demagoguery, fear and lies? Give me a break.”

“You’ve had your break! Have a nice day, Mr. Stewart!”

At that point I wished I’d had a gun. In the name of Abel and all things good, I was becoming Cain.

The work of all religion and politics

YHWH tells an angry Cain in the Genesis story that “sin is crouching at the door, and its urging is for you. But you must master it.” It is the human leaning toward violence that humanity must overcome.

The story of humankind is Cain’s story, the refusal of this mastery. The long sweep of human history is the story of slaying the brother because we have not mastered the beast that crouches inside ourselves. “I am not my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” The sin — i.e. the refusal to take responsibility, the rebellion of separation and of slaying that from which we cannot be separated — goes un-mastered and slays the brother. It comes hurling down the centuries of human development as a rock, a caveman’s club, a sling shot, a rifle, a handgun, a Bazooka, an M-15, an airplane turned into a missile, a drone that kills innocent civilians whose blood, as in the Genesis story, “is crying out to Me (YHWH) from the ground.” Abel’s blood is the ink in which our story is written. Cain’s story sets the stage for the work of all religion and politics worthy of their callings. It is the real story of the Fall from grace held in common by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It also holds the key to re-writing the story, not by claiming innocence, but by taking responsibility for a violent world.

For faith and for politics alike there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Or will I insist on the right to slay him? Am I willing to take responsibility for my neighbor, to master the urge to violence that crouches at my door? Do my religion and my politics slay or keep my brother/my sister from deadly harm?

Are we willing to re-claim the Earth as sacred turf — through responsible religion and responsible politics — so that the voice of Abel’s blood no longer cries out from the ground to a horrified God?