May 12, 2011

And the (content) free exercise thereof

It's too easy to trivialize, privatize and otherwise make weightless and inconsequential the religious practices of others. Whenever there's a possible problem with some group's "free exercise thereof," as their religion turns out to not be completely a matter of internally-declared propositions, but, since it is a religion, a thing of both creedal belief and acting out those beliefs in the world, that is, practice, there's almost always this associated moment of not taking that practice seriously. There's this thought, why can't they just keep that part private? Or, why can't they just compromise? There's an assumption they could easily give up that practice, that religious way of being in the world, which to us seems silly, quirky, and surely not serious. Why don't they just not do it, since it's a problem (for me)? They can still keep their religion (un-infringed) inside, as something they think to themselves, something that has no real consequences for them or how they live.

You know, faith without works, like normal people.

With a Muslim women wearing a hijab, for example, or Sikh men in turbans, the question, almost invariably, is why don't they just take it off? As if the religious-wear were of the same importance to them as any hat or scarf -- a fashion statement -- but no more serious than that.

With Seventh-day Adventist postmen or police, the reaction seems to be, sure, I'd like Saturday off too, but that's not the job. As if a religious commandment were the same as a desire to barbecue.

Jehovah's Witnesses' objection to blood transfusion is treated as the same as dislike for needles. Like, ah honey, just close your eyes.

In debates and conversations about the free exercise of religion, certain practices sympathetic to the majority end up being taken as inviolate, as not-to-be infringed upon by any law, and others, those more peculiar to the majority, to the social norm, ends up being allowed only insofar they aren't taken seriously, aren't taken as having any particular weight for those who practice them. They're fine, as long as those religious people seem willing to give up the importance of their practice whenever that's necessary.

Martha Nussbaum, for example,
in her book on freedom of conscious and Roger Williams as hero, profusely praises a town in Pennsylvania that had a Christmas nativity in its town square and then, when that was criticized as a government respecting an establishment of religion, chose not to take the display down, but to invite other religious groups to add items to the display, and relabel the whole thing "a salute to liberty."

When Nussbaum spoke in Tübingen, last summer, she came back to that example multiple times, as an example of what pluralism looks like under the First Amendment. The idea was, rather than having a town square naked of any religious objects, there would be one full of various religious expressions, all treated equally, which means, in effect, as equally innocuous.

Nussbaum herself seemed immune to any questions -- kind of consistently blowing them off, as if her would-be interlocutors simple hadn't thought of these things before and as if her positions had been so thoroughly thought that any further thought was uncalled for -- but seemed also to not understand how the freedom of religion she was imagining was freedom only for religion that had been emptied of any content, denuded of any potential power or force. Religion is free in public up the point where it means something. Judaism is OK, as long as Hanukkah can be re-framed as a salute to liberty (which is, clearly, what the miracle of oil was really all about), Buddhism is free, as long as Buddha doesn't mean anything at all particularly in public. Religion in Nussbaum's public square is good only if it can be emptied of any specifically religious semantic content -- scrubbed of a message such as, say, God specifically chose a special people and it's not you, or, God demands you act a certain way or withstand permanent punishment -- and then the empty vessels re-filled with the innocuous content of vague civil religion. Such as "Salute to Liberty!"

It's impossible to imagine, though, a burning cross of the Klu Klux Klan as part of such a display. The symbol of the KKK just can't be remade into content-less symbol. It actually says something, whereas the Christ child's nativity can more easily be made to mean nothing at all.

It's necessary sometimes to recalibrate the way we measure the seriousness or the weightiness of religious belief and practice. A strict secularist should be able to understand why it might be offensive to a Christian, for example, to have the incarnation of God made to mean something generic about the American way of life, or December-time good cheer. An evangelical working airport security likewise needs to understand how, for a Sikh, there're significant serious issues and moral weight involved in removing a turban, and this is no easy compromise.

We need to, when we think about these problematic or possibly problematic instances of free exercise, be able to re-imagine them so as to account for and consider the seriousness that's felt by the believer practicing what is believed.

For example, Witnesses refusing blood transfusions shouldn't be thought of as exercising a petty preference. It's needs to be thought of in a way that allows the non-Witness to grasp something of the scale of the issue for the Witness, so that even if, in the end, the conclusion is that the believer should be forced to do something he or she finds to be really morally repugnant, we've at least understood how it seems that way.

I've tried to explain that situation like this: say you were sick, and a doctor suddenly told you that there was a simple cure, but that it involved bashing in the head of a small child. You would, most likely, refuse such a treatment, because that's horrible. You would also likely refuse it for your child if your child was sick, though that might well be a traumatic decision and you might even have to consider for a few moments whether you're willing to accept this moral horror if it really does mean your sick kid gets better. Maybe some would even say, sure, for myself I wouldn't do this thing, but for my child I'll suspend my belief that bashing in the heads of small children is evil, and accept that that's what the doctor says has to be done. But many, I think, wouldn't be willing to do that, and many children, though they're not ultimately the decision makers in such circumstances, would be appalled by such a thing, and traumatized by the mere idea, and if they were forced by the doctors and the courts to accept such a treatment over their strong moral objections, that would be very upsetting.

Think of Witnesses' objections to blood transfusions for their children like that.

Not that it is like that, necessarily, but it feels like that to them, and though maybe the doctors and courts should force them to accept such treatments when such treatments are medically deemed appropriate, it shouldn't be done without a more full consideration of how truly horrible this seems to the family that doesn't want it to happen.

We need to come up with ways to not trivialize and diminish the seriousness of other people's religious practices. Obviously, they naturally seem to us to be unserious. It's hard to take what appear to be odd acts of minority religions as important, and not to construe them as simply silly, but that's what's required by any real attempt to allow this idea of "free exercise," and there's no reason to think that fulfilling that idea of the second clause of the First Amendment should be simple and easy.