Pikuach Nefesh

I haven’t been a particularly devout Jew since the day after my bar mitzvah (and possibly not then, either).  However, if there’s one argument I’d still make in favor of Judaism over any other faith, it would be how it places the preservation of human life above all other Earthly considerations.

 To be sure, Jewish law contains more intricately-detailed directives about how to conduct one’s private affairs than the Republican Party platform on acid.  To be a fully observant Jew is to be overwhelmed by minutiae about everything from which foods to eat—and on what plates and with which silverware—to which activities may—and may not—be performed on the Sabbath.  (Going for a short walk?  Yes.  Riding a bike?  No.)

However, overriding all of this is the concept of Pikuach Nefesh, which stipulates that if a person’s life is in jeopardy, you are compelled to violate every Jewish law and custom in the book to ensure that that person does not die.

In our secular American society, we like to think that this basic moral imperative goes more or less without saying (e.g., if a man is drowning in a river, you don’t ask what day of the week it is before jumping in to save him), but religion does not always make things so simple—particularly when it comes to faith itself.

Reading the Old Testament, we find that God values his own supremacy above all else, demanding nothing so much as total trust and submission from his human creations, up to and including when such blind faith might result in the deliberate taking of another person’s life.  What other lesson can we draw from the story of Abraham, after all, than that Abraham’s love for the Lord was so great that he would rather murder his own son than wonder if God, in asking him to do so, hadn’t gone a little bit crazy?

Is that the take-home lesson for Abraham’s descendants?  “If a voice in your head tells you to kill the people you love, you’d better listen”?

In a manner of speaking:  Yes.  For the truly devout—those who take God seriously and the Bible literally—faith is a virtue greater than life itself.

As a nonbeliever, I do not (and probably cannot) appreciate the immense burden of negotiating the word of God—supposedly the source of all absolute truth in the universe—with certain instincts that might contradict it.  I do not know what it feels like to have a long, dark night of the soul.

What I can appreciate, however, is the passion of those who have experienced the crucible of doubt firsthand and have spent a lifetime wrestling with its deathly implications.

One such person is Martin Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic with a new film that examines the nature of religious (Christian) faith with a depth and seriousness that—in the world of cinema, at least—only comes around once in a blue moon.

His movie is called Silence.  Based on a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, it follows a pair of young Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who sneak into Japan in 1639 to bear witness to a society officially cleansed of Christianity.  Ostensibly, their “mission” is to track down a fellow cleric, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared into Japan several years earlier and allegedly renounced his faith as a way to save his own skin.

(Warning:  Spoilers ahead.)

Rodrigues—the more zealous of the two men—refuses to believe that Father Ferreira has apostatized merely to get along easier in a foreign, Buddhist culture.  What Rodrigues does not yet comprehend—and what he will spend the remainder of his journey discovering—is the profound cruelty inflicted by Japanese officials upon Christians—Japanese and non-Japanese alike—who publicly affirm their fealty to Jesus Christ.

Because Christianity was formally banned by the Japanese government throughout the 17th century and beyond, those who practiced it had to do so in secret and at great personal risk.  As with communism in 1950s America or homosexuality throughout Africa and the Middle East today, to be a Christian in Edo-era Japan required a network of interdependence amongst its practitioners, each of whom lived with a perpetual fear that someone would eventually rat them all out, with consequences almost too horrible to contemplate.  Surely, to carry on like this is the very definition of courage.

On their way to Father Ferreira, Rodrigues and his companion, Garupe, spend a great deal of time in remote mountain hideaways simply performing their clerical duties—lighting candles, hearing confessions, etc.—and we are shown how, in a repressive, closed-off society, even the smallest of religious rituals becomes a dignified act of defiance, as well as a means of salvation and solace in the face of an otherwise hopeless political reality.

In the end, the real challenge for Rodrigues—as it was for Ferreira before him—is whether his steadfast fidelity to Christian teaching is worth losing everything for, including not just his own life, but the lives of others.  His captors’ ultimate brutality, it turns out, is not simply to kill or torture him, but to force him into an impossible ethical dilemma whereby he must decide what God really wants from him without being given any indication of what the correct answer might be.

As much as one might defend martyring oneself for a religious ideal, does the same argument extend to martyring others against their will?  How many lives are you willing to extinguish in order to remain spiritually pure?  And if the cost of that purity is so very steep, how can you be so sure that you’re acting morally at all?

You can’t.  Without a direct hotline to God himself (if even then), you simply cannot know for certain what the so-called “right thing” is.  Scorsese understands this as well as any filmmaker working today, and Rodrigues’s torment over this question is what makes Silence so compelling:  Here is a man questioning the nature of his own heart for the first time in his adult life, fearful that everything he’s been taught might be wrong, yet stubbornly clinging to the hope that his work has not been in vain.

If you think Scorsese is going to give you a clean, final answer on this, you’re barking up the wrong film.  The movie’s (and novel’s) title refers to the chasm between the absolutism of dogma and the ambiguity of real life, and that gap is where all great drama resides.

To witness how single-mindedly and unsparingly Scorsese has tackled this subject is to understand why it took nearly 30 years for a studio to give him the green light.  As with all so-called “passion projects,” it is very clear that Scorsese made this movie for the benefit of exactly one person:  himself.  As a commercial product, Silence is risky at best and crazy at worst.  As a window into how a serious Catholic has come to regard the human soul during his 74 years on Earth, it is something close to a triumph.

Advertisements

The Audacity of Hope

If there is anything to keep me going over the next four years of America life, it’s the ironclad assurance that, in the end, Donald Trump is going to hell.

While I would hardly call myself theologically literate, even I understand Christianity enough to know that if hell really exists, a proud, avaricious, vengeful hedonist like Trump will be the first in line to burn for eternity.  Short of bringing peace to the Middle East or giving all Americans free healthcare, there’s nothing the 45th president could do in the next thousand days that would extirpate seven decades of unadulterated sin.

It’s a pleasant enough thought—something to calm my nerves every time I open the paper and see the latest atrocity President Voldemont has inflicted upon my beloved country.

The trouble, though, is that I am a Jewish atheist—a disposition that not only takes heaven and hell completely off the table, but also calls into question the whole assumption that we live in a moral universe.  Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” but if the cause of his trembling—slavery—took another eight-and-a-half decades to eradicate, what does that say about the efficacy of divine justice?

Of course, the beauty of faith is that it cannot be disproved—or, indeed, even argued with.  Unlike, say, physics or CIA reports, the truthfulness of religion is contingent solely on one’s capacity to believe in it:  If you think God exists, then he does.  If not, not.

Understandably, most nonbelievers (myself included) find this logic extremely annoying.  If your brain has been conditioned toward skepticism and the scientific method, you find yourself in concert with Carl Sagan’s formulation, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  On the God question, the evidence isn’t merely flimsy—it’s effectively non-existent.

And yet—like buying a Powerball ticket or auditioning for The Voice—most humans use religion as a flickering, hopeful signal that their lives have meaning, and what kind of a monster would go out of his way to tell them they’re wasting their time?

Before the 2016 election, that monster might’ve been me.  But no more:  In light of an unruly five-year-old becoming the most powerful man on Earth, I find myself reassessing the value of blind faith more seriously than during any previous crisis in my life.

Case in point:  We have been informed—rather convincingly—that Trump’s rise marks the victory of a “post-truth” society, whereby objective facts and raw data are irrelevant and all viewpoints are based on what one feels in one’s gut—a rough approximation of “truthiness” as defined by Stephen Colbert back in the fall of 2005.  Trump, for his part, is on record as saying, “All I know is what’s on the internet,” which stands as a near-perfect encapsulation of just how reckless and frightening his style of leadership and decision-making is destined to be.

If we take a panoramic view of the president-elect’s behavior since November 9—to say nothing of the year-and-a-half before that—we have no choice but to conclude (yet again) that Trump poses an existential threat to America’s core institutions and to the economic stability of the entire world order.  Disdainful of the First Amendment, belligerent toward our allies, blasé about intelligence briefings and profoundly ignorant of both U.S. and world history, Trump is a category 5 catastrophe in the making who, short of impeachment proceedings, is never, ever going to change.

What is all just a fancy way of saying that, from an objective, rational standpoint, the next four years are going to suck on a daily—if not hourly—basis, and we have zero cause to hope for anything better.

Hence the overwhelming allure of religion, which says that hope springs eternal and that faith can be used as a bludgeon against a veritable avalanche of unattractive facts.

Faced with an impossible situation, a nonbeliever will throw up his or her hands and proclaim, “There’s nothing to be done here.”  But to a person of faith, the term “impossible situation” is a contradiction in terms:  So long as God exists—as He most assuredly does—nothing is truly impossible, since there is always the outside chance of a miracle.

To my thinking, that is the real meaning of President Obama’s famous phrase, “The audacity of hope.”  Hope, after all, is just another word for blind faith—i.e. believing in something for which there is little, if any, empirical evidence—and its audaciousness lies in its very improbability and ridiculousness.

Like certain other Christian tenets—love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek—hope is not necessarily in accord with human nature.  Left to our own devices, most of us are prone to ethical and intellectual laziness, which can naturally lead to such un-Christian sentiments as anger, pessimism and despair.  Indeed, there is very little in life more emotionally difficult than looking directly into the abyss and finding some reason—any reason—to soldier onward.

And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do on January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump will be sworn into office and thereby officially become that abyss.  We will need to summon all the energy at our disposal to conjure a fantasy world in which America survives four years of racism, incompetence and corruption without completely losing its soul.

In short, we must not lose hope.  Not because hope is a winning bet—it’s not—but rather because the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate.

Because we owe it to ourselves to wish for a miracle every now and again.

Hitchcock Goes to Church

I thought I knew everything about Alfred Hitchcock, probably my favorite director of all time.  As it turns out, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

Playing in select theaters right now is a crackerjack documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut, which recounts the time in 1962 when up-and-coming French director François Truffaut conducted an interview with the Master of Suspense that was so long and so deep that the resulting material, published as a book in 1966, runs some 368 pages and covers virtually every frame of every Hitchcock film.

Truffaut’s interview is considered a landmark in the history of cinema, because it marks the moment when Hitchcock began to be taken seriously by his peers.  Before Hitchcock/Truffaut, he was regarded strictly as an entertainer.  After the book was published, he became an artist and a renegade.  Today, he is considered arguably the most influential director who ever lived.

More noteworthy still is how much Hitchcock revealed about himself and his work.  Despite his reputation for being tight-lipped and (it must be said) a bit of a tyrant on the set, in his chat with Truffaut he pretty much gave the game away.

As such, perhaps the most tantalizing moment in the new documentary, which includes audio clips from the original interview, is the moment when Truffaut asks Hitch about the influence of his Catholicism in many of his most compelling works.  Hitchcock’s response:  “Go off-record.”  We hear a click, and everything goes black.

It was David McCullough who mused that you can learn an awful lot about a person from what he chooses not to say in public—particularly when he is perfectly willing to say so much else.  So perhaps if there is a “rosebud” to Hitchcock’s career, it can be found in his Catholic youth.

I must admit, I had no idea Hitchcock was Catholic.  Indeed, I had never given a thought to what religion he identified with, nor did it occur to me that such a thing might be relevant.

For some great directors, religion is inescapable—be it Catholicism for Martin Scorsese or Judaism for Woody Allen or Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not that their movies are necessarily about their faith so much as they are informed by the values and sensibilities that their faith espouses.  Taxi Driver could not possibly have been made by a non-Catholic and Annie Hall could not possibly have been made by a non-Jew.

You don’t get that sense with Hitchcock, whose movies are intended as mass entertainment above all else and possess no particular sensibility beyond wanting to give their audience a good old-fashioned thrill.

Or don’t they?

What changed my mind about this—what made me view Hitchcock’s work through a more theological lens—was seeing (for the first time) his 1953 film I Confess.  Based on an old French play, the story involves a priest who learns that a man has committed a murder, but because he hears this in the sanctity of the confessional, he cannot divulge any information to the police in their investigation of said murder.

This being a Hitchcock movie, the priest himself will eventually become implicated in the crime, thereby raising the stakes in his professional and spiritual obligation to “clergy-penitent privilege”—the notion that what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional.  By honoring his theological duty, he risks sacrificing his own freedom.  But by breaking his oath of confidentiality, he may well lose his job and, with it, his whole reason for being.

It’s a devilishly clever conceit—yet another variation on Hitchcock’s long-running theme of a man ensnarled in a legal bind from which there is no escape.

More than that, however, I Confess stands as one of the most singularly Catholic movies ever made by a major (and otherwise nondenominational) filmmaker.  The priest is played by Montgomery Clift—that most mysterious and charismatic of Hollywood stars—as a man undergoing a deep internal struggle over whether doing the “right” thing might involve turning his back on God.

It’s a performance of towering complexity—subtle, delicate and wrenching—in a movie that is brave and dignified enough to treat Catholic tradition with the gravity it deserves—in this case, the tradition of the confessional as a sacred space, even when that sanctity might allow a man to get away with murder.  Theological dilemmas don’t get much thornier than that.

It’s a measure of the movie’s nerve that audiences were not crazy about it when it was first released.  As recounted by Truffaut in his book, “[T]he public was irritated with the plot because they kept on hoping that Montgomery Clift would speak up.”  Hitchcock agreed, saying, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!  No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.’”  When Truffaut asked if this disconnect served to weaken the film as a film, Hitchcock nodded, saying, with remarkable candor, “[W]e shouldn’t have made the picture.”

Here, in other words, was a movie more concerned with spiritual truth than with satisfying popular tastes.  That Hitch himself apparently disapproved of the final product only goes to show how personal the whole thing was, as if it was the one time he indulged whatever remained of his strict Jesuit upbringing, if only to get it out of his system once and for all.

However, even if I Confess is an outlier in the Hitchcock canon, it helps us to recognize the latent Catholic themes that run through virtually all of his great works—most prominently, the sin of guilt.  Janet Leigh’s guilt over stealing $40,000 in Psycho.  Kim Novak’s guilt over masquerading as James Stewart’s dream girl in Vertigo (and Stewart’s guilt in thinking he contributed to her death).  Eva Marie Saint’s guilt over deceiving Carey Grant in North by Northwest.  Farley Granger’s guilt over murdering a classmate for sport in Rope.  And on and on and on.

These are not Catholic movies, per se.  However, they are all haunted by the aura of divine justice and the fear of God’s eternal wrath that only a Catholic could fully appreciate.  While most of Hitchcock’s heroes probably fear the police and/or each other more than the man upstairs (this was certainly the case with the director himself), they are nonetheless aware that their actions have consequences.  That sooner or later, one way or another, they’re going to get what’s coming to them.

And unlike in, say, the films of Woody Allen—a writer-director who has very little faith in God or justice—these sinners generally do pay a price for their crimes, thereby allowing moral order to be restored to the universe just in time for the end credits to roll.

While Catholicism certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on guilt, sin, justice or anything else, Catholic filmmakers have long been uncommonly adept at portraying how the teachings of their ancient holy books manifest themselves in the contemporary world.  They’re the ones who take God seriously, for better and for worse.

I note this, in part, because there is a large cadre of nonbelievers who sincerely think that religion has nothing positive to offer civilization.  Or, at the least, that whatever good might come from religion could just as easily come from secularism and, in any case, is dramatically outweighed by the evil that could not come from anywhere else.

I used to agree with this assessment.  Most of the time, I still do.  But in the process of extricating myself from the world of the faithful, I have come to better appreciate the monumental role of religion in the lives of others.  I don’t think either God or religion is necessary to lead a fulfilling life, but roughly three in four Americans do, and their faith has sometimes inspired them to craft works of art that could not have emerged in any other way.

I can live without God.  I’m not sure I could live without Raging Bull.  I don’t generally resort to prayer to help solve my biggest problems, but I’m pleased that it worked for George Bailey.  Religion does little for me, but in the end that doesn’t matter so long as it does something for everyone else.  And if no religion meant no Alfred Hitchcock—well, I’m not sure that’s a trade-off I’d be prepared to make.

Republican Holy War

The problem isn’t that Ben Carson wouldn’t vote for a Muslim president.

The problem is that few other Republicans would, either.

The problem isn’t that Donald Trump dignified the insane anti-Islam rants of some random crank.

The problem is that a massive chunk of all GOP voters share those same toxic views.

It would be bad enough if the men representing one of America’s two major political parties happened to be a bunch of xenophobic cretins.  But it’s worse than that because, as it turns out, a plurality of their fans are, too.

In other words, the GOP primary’s rank bigotry isn’t a bug.  It’s a feature.

Nor is the party’s contempt for certain Americans limited to Muslims.  At various junctures, Republican candidates have demonstrated robust, unchained hostility toward immigrants, women, homosexuals and unbelievers, among others.  And their supporters have followed them every step of the way.

Not all of them, of course.  Perhaps not even a majority.

But if there is any measurable difference between Democrats and Republicans, it is that the latter are significantly more likely to harbor open suspicion and disapproval of minorities—individually and collectively—on the basis of their minority status.

In a recent Gallop poll, we find that while 73 percent of Democratic respondents would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be Muslim, only 45 percent of Republican respondents would do the same.  Similarly, although 85 percent of Democrats would vote for a gay candidate, only 61 percent of Republicans would as well.  For an atheist candidate, the party split was 64 percent versus 45 percent, respectively.

While those numbers are nothing for either faction to brag about, the gulf between the two is unmistakable, and it leads us to a fairly obvious conclusion:  As it currently stands, the Republican Party is a one-stop shop for paranoia, hatred and prejudice toward anyone who seems even slightly foreign to some preconceived, mythical idea of what makes someone a “real American.”

Yes, many self-identified Republicans are sane, decent folks.  Yes, there are many components of GOP dogma that have nothing to do with shunning minorities and other undesirables.  Yes, conservatism itself is still a perfectly legitimate means of thinking about the world.

And yet I wonder:  Why are there any “moderate Republicans” left?  At this point, isn’t that phrase a contradiction in terms?

Case in point:  If you happen to think that all Muslims are terrorists and all gays are perverts, then it makes perfect sense that you would align with today’s GOP.  Their values are your values.

But if you don’t think those things—if you find the denigration of entire classes of people to be juvenile, unattractive and dangerous—then why would you throw in with a political party that loudly and proudly does?

Notwithstanding whatever else you might believe—say, about taxes or foreign policy—why would you join arms with an organization that—at least in its presidential candidates—has adopted enmity and ignorance as its defining characteristics?  What’s the appeal in belonging to a gang so fundamentally unappealing?  After all, you can always vote for Republicans without being one yourself.

The explanation, I suppose, is roughly the same as why so many Catholics remain committed to their church, in spite of its history of raping innocent children and using every means necessary to cover it up.

That is:  Many people are quite skilled at keeping utterly contradictory ideas in their heads and somehow still getting through the day.  They compartmentalize, embracing virtue while ignoring or overlooking vice.

And in the end, it is religion where the Republican Party exerts its most breathtaking feats of hypocrisy and self-deception.

In fact, Ben Carson’s infamous rumination on Meet on the Press about the dangers in electing a Muslim president contained the most telling statement any candidate has yet made on the subject of mixing religion and politics.

To the question, “Should a president’s faith matter?” Carson responded, “I guess it depends on what that faith is.”  As far as most Republican candidates are concerned, that’s exactly right.

The GOP fashions itself as the champion of religious freedom—defender of the clause in the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Don’t believe it for a minute.  The GOP would love Congress to make a law respecting the establishment of religion, and the only religion its leaders are interested in exercising freely is their own.

When that ridiculous Kentucky clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because she is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, she informed the media that “God’s law” takes precedence over man’s law, and when certain Republicans defended her willful disregard of the latter, they defined her “struggle” precisely in terms of a religious war.

How often we have heard—from nearly every major and minor candidate—that Christianity is “under attack” and being “criminalized” because those who don’t believe in gay marriage—ostensibly for Biblical reasons—now have to grin and bear the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled against those beliefs.  Mike Huckabee, the self-appointed leader of the cause, said, “No man […] has the right to redefine the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”

I wonder:  What exactly is the difference between that statement and Sharia law?  The latter, of course, is the idea—popular in the Middle East—of running a legal system based on teachings in the Quran and other Islamic holy works, rather than on any precepts devised by man.

In principle, there is no difference at all.  Huckabee and the king of Saudi Arabia apparently agree that the word of God is more important than the rule of law, and that an individual’s own religious convictions can and should overrule any rule that comes into conflict with them.

And yet—amazingly—it is these same cultural conservatives who attack and condemn Sharia law at every opportunity, insisting that some nefarious Islamic cabal is secretly plotting to bring Sharia to the United States and is this close to succeeding and—my God!—what a horrible world it would be if America became an oppressive, Bronze Age theocracy.

Read those last few paragraphs again and tell me this isn’t the most spectacular double standard in recent American politics.  Taking them at their word, GOP leaders evidently think that religion in the public square is both good and bad, that holy books are simultaneously more and less authoritative than the Constitution, and that Christians—who represent 70 percent of the U.S. population—are under threat, while Muslims—who are less than 1 percent—are on the verge of taking over the whole damn country.

The logistical cartwheels in this reasoning are enough to give you whiplash.  The term “Schrödinger’s cat” springs curiously to mind.

In reality, though, the thinking is straightforward and simple, and it’s exactly like Ben Carson said:  Christianity good, Islam bad.  God is great, except when his name is Allah.

Once you convince yourself—as Carson and company have—that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with living in a free society like ours and that no individual Muslim could possibly adopt America’s values as his or her own—a self-evidently absurd idea—then it becomes quite easy to make comically hypocritical statements like the above and somehow think you’re being principled and consistent.

But these guys aren’t.  They believe in religious freedom when the religion is Christianity and when the “freedom” involves preventing gay people from leading fulfilling lives.  I’m sure the irony of the latter will sink in sooner or later, although we probably shouldn’t hold our breaths.

In the meantime, we would all do well to remind ourselves that freedom means nothing if it only applies to certain people and that the United States, for all its religious citizens, does not have an official state religion and does not take sides in religious fights.

This did not happen by accident.  In the fall of 1801, a group of Connecticut Baptists sent an urgent letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, pleading for protection against religious tyranny by a rival sect.  Jefferson’s famous response, which guaranteed such protection, intoned that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God” and that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment amounted to “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

As Christopher Hitchens used to say:  Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall.

Best of Enemies

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but when it comes to religious liberty in America, we are in the midst of a veritable golden age.

The First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and damned if we haven’t nailed it in the last many years.  The right to live according to the dictates of one’s faith has never been stronger, and there is little indication that this will change in our lifetimes.  As ever, we don’t realize how lucky we are.

Whether you are a Christian, a Sikh or a Seventh Day Adventist, you can travel to your place of worship on Sunday (or whenever) totally unmolested by your government or, with rare exceptions, your fellow citizens.  Observant Jews can wear kipot and refrain from eating pork, while Muslims can pray five times a day and…refrain from eating pork.

While being a member of the “wrong” religion can get you shunned, maimed or murdered in many other countries of the world, America is truly a land of pluralism—a nation that, at least on paper, protects its most vulnerable citizens just as robustly as its most populous.

Indeed, the inclination toward granting each other religious freedom is so forceful—such a prevailing view—that we are now having a semi-serious debate about whether the right to one’s faith-based opinions actually entitles an individual to break the law and deny the civil rights of other individuals.  Yes, even if that particular individual happens to work for the government.

Of course, I am referring to the one-woman crusade currently being waged by a Kentucky county clerk named Kim Davis.  As an observant Christian, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because doing so would violate her religious beliefs.  This in spite of the fact that, since June 26, gay marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states.

In effect, the issue is whether the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause can ever supersede the rule of law.  In other words, can the word of God take legal precedence over the word of Congress or the Supreme Court?

As we have seen, this question has precisely one correct answer.  By refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples who have every right to obtain one—even after the nation’s highest court explicitly ordered her otherwise—Davis has been held in contempt and carted off to jail.  While, as an elected official, she cannot technically be “fired,” it doesn’t look terribly likely that she will remain in this job much longer.  And rightly so:  Why should Kentucky taxpayers be compelled to pay a clerk for not doing her job?

Much has been made of the disclosure that Davis herself has been married four times and divorced thrice.  Personally, I’m still reeling from the fact that, five months after divorcing Husband No. 1, she give birth to twins who were adopted by Husband No. 2 but were, in fact, fathered by Husband No. 3.  (Feel free to read that sentence again.)

Of course, all of that is perfectly legal and we should never judge or make assumptions about anyone’s marital history.  Relationships are complicated, and marriage is messy even under the most ideal circumstances.

On the other hand, marital infidelity is clearly and definitively condemned in the Bible and, in Deuteronomy, is punishable by death.

Kim Davis has said she performs her official duties in accordance with the Biblical definition of marriage.  It begs the question:  If she really means that, then why hasn’t she hired someone to kill her?

Happily for everyone, she plainly doesn’t mean it.  She is against homosexuality for reasons all her own and, like every Christian, she handpicks the Biblical passages that align with her views and ignores the ones that don’t.

This is not to suggest that her beliefs are not sincerely held.  It just means they are not held for the reasons she claims and that she is a massive glittering hypocrite when it comes to enforcing holy writ.

Of course, as an American, she is fully entitled to be the horrible person that she is and to believe whatever the hell she wants.  That’s the very definition of religious liberty and no one would dare force her to think differently.  If we all agreed about everything, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment in the first place.

However, we are nonetheless a society in which laws reign supreme over religion, and it’s precisely because we have so many different religions that can each be interpreted in a billion different ways.  While it might be amusing to imagine a culture in which everyone can ignore any rule they disagree with, the idea of actually doing it doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Put simply:  To say the First Amendment includes the right to deny someone else a marriage license makes no more sense than saying the Second Amendment includes the right to commit murder.

Certainly, there are countries in which “the authority of God” (as Davis called it) has final say over who gets to live or die, let alone who can get married or not.  Of course, these countries tend to be predominantly Muslim and their system, known as “sharia,” is universally condemned—particularly by American conservatives—as medieval and antithetical to everything that Americans hold sacred.

How curious, then, that many of these same conservatives (read: half the GOP presidential candidates) are now defending this very same principle when the God in question is a Christian one.  How peculiar that defying settled law through Islam is repulsive, but doing the same through Christianity is just fine.  I’m sure there’s a non-racist, non-homophobic explanation for this somewhere.  As an atheist, I regret I’m not the best person to find it.

In any case, I didn’t come here to talk about Kim Davis, as such.  Really, I would just like to take a moment to underline how unbelievably lucky the gay community has been lately with respect to its would-be antagonists.

It would have been one thing if the self-appointed poster child for upholding “traditional marriage” were someone who actually engaged in the practice herself.  Someone who could credibly claim to be holier than thou.

That this particular mascot for following “God’s will” happens to be a raging phony is not merely hilarious; it also demonstrates just how phony her entire argument is.

To be clear:  Davis’ personal morality has absolutely no bearing on the legal arguments vis-à-vis her behavior as the Rowan County clerk.  Her actions would be contemptuous and absurd regardless of how many husbands she has had.

That, in so many words, is the point:  The law does not care about morality.  The law exists whether you agree with it or not, and applies to all citizens equally.  Further, if you happen to be a public official whose one and only job is to carry out the law, then your opinion of the law does not matter.  Either you do your job or you resign.

But of course, this doesn’t negate the role that ethics play in our day-to-day lives, and this is where Davis has become the gay rights movement’s new best friend.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states—and will almost certainly remain that way forever—there is nothing left to concern ourselves with except for the proverbial “changing hearts and minds.”

And where persuading people of gays’ inherent humanity is concerned, what finer image could there be than a thrice-divorced heterosexual turning her back on a homosexual couple attempting to get married just once?  In what possible universe does the person who has cheated her way through three marriages assume the moral high ground over couples who are embracing this sacred institution afresh?  What possible threat do those couples pose to society or morality, other than the possibility that, in time, they may turn into people like Kim Davis?

In Bad Faith

As a religion, why is Scientology any less legitimate than Christianity?

Watching the new HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, many questions swirled around my brain, but that was the one that kept bouncing back.  As a culture, why should we be any less respectful toward a belief system founded by L. Ron Hubbard than toward one founded by Jesus?  By what possible standard is one religion superior to another?

To be sure, Going Clear, based on the book by Lawrence Wright, makes an extremely valiant attempt to delegitimize its subject among the world’s organized moral philosophies—in part, by arguing that it is neither moral nor a philosophy.  Indeed, if even half of the film’s claims are true, then charges of false prophesying are the least of Scientology’s problems.

Then again, it is precisely because the Church of Scientology is so widely derided as a joke—some kind of weird Hollywood cult—that we need to more closely examine how and why certain faiths become worldwide phenomena while others never quite catch on.  The difference between the two might be a whole lot narrower than we think.

In fact, we can have no idea whether (and for how long) Scientology will endure.  It was only established in 1953, meaning it is still very much in its infancy.  Estimates of its membership vary wildly—depending on whom you ask, it’s anywhere between 40,000 and 15 million worldwide—but at this point, it hardly matters.

(Case in point:  The Mormon Church, founded in 1830, claimed roughly 200,000 adherents at the same point in its existence.  However, after another 62 years, the number had spiked to 1.3 million.  Today, Mormons number 15 million and continue to grow.)

So for all we know, the Church of Scientology may yet become the Next Big Thing in world theology.  No one can say for sure.  Beyond sheer size, the measure of a religion’s success resides in its benefits to its individual adherents—something that cannot be so easily dismissed by those outside the congregation.

On the other hand, there is one “official” means of ascertaining whether something is a “real” religion, and it lies in the U.S. tax code.

As we know, any organization can achieve tax-exempt status by convincing the Internal Revenue Service that it’s a charitable, non-profit enterprise, and this often comes through claiming to be a “church” of one sort or another.

As it happens, the Church of Scientology did exactly that, achieving tax-exempt status in 1954, losing it in 1967, then regaining it in 1993.  As far as the government is concerned, Scientology has been a religion for 22 years running, and the rest of us just have to accept it.

To answer my own question, then:  In practice, there isn’t any means for determining the relative legitimacy of different faiths.  You believe what you believe, and no one can tell you that you don’t.

Which brings us to Indiana.

Last week, the Hoosier State enacted a new law called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Mike Pence.  As written, the law stipulates that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

Crucially, the bill uses an extraordinarily wide definition of the word “person,” which it takes to include “an organization, a religious society, a church […] a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association,” and so forth.

Critics of the Indiana law have said that its true objective—or, in any case, its primary effect—is to allow businesses to discriminate against certain customers on the basis of their sexual orientation.  While many of the law’s supporters are at a loss for why anyone would think this, I would humbly volunteer the fact that when Indiana Democrats proposed an amendment to the bill that would have explicitly prohibited such discrimination, the bill’s supporters voted it down.

At the moment, the debate seems to boil down to one question:  “Does the RFRA protect religious liberty, or does it sanction discrimination against gays?”

This is an incredibly stupid question, and everyone should be ashamed for asking it.

The correct answer—as if I needed to tell you—is both.

Of course it ensures that individuals—or, in this case, corporations—maintain their constitutionally-protected right to exercise their religion of choice.

And of course it allows for denying service to gay people—just so long as the denier claims a faith-based reason for doing so, which he or she might do by citing the Biblical verses that proclaim homosexuality an abomination punishable by death.

Indeed, if I truly thought that a same-sex couple were morally defecating on God’s perfect design, I wouldn’t want to bake them a cake, either.

When Governor Pence (among others) insists the RFRA is not a license to discriminate, he either takes his audience for fools or cops to being one himself.  I cannot do better than The Onion, which mock-quoted Pence as saying, “The new law has nothing at all to do with what it was explicitly intended to do.”

We know the purpose of the RFRA isn’t simply to protect the free exercise of religion, because the First Amendment already does that.  If you want to attend Sunday Mass or abstain from eating pork, the law is resolutely on your side.

The tension—as with so many other things—comes when those same religious practices or beliefs affect someone else.  And, more importantly, when they come into conflict with established law.

In fact, there is no question about this.  Generally speaking, if a particular religious practice requires breaking the law, then the practice cannot be practiced.  America is an explicitly secular country, and you are not entitled to engage in illegal behavior just because your Bible says so.

This is why, no matter how strongly the Old Testament endorses rape, slavery, genocide and the stoning of disobedient children—all of which it does—there is no immediate danger of any of those pastimes roaring back into fashion.  You cannot get away with murder by saying that God (or the devil) made you do it, much as some people try.

On the other hand, there have been many recent examples of wiggle room in the church-state divide, in which the government has given “accommodation” to certain practices that, while otherwise frowned upon, are probably reasonable in a religious context.  These include, say, allowing a prisoner to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with Muslim teaching, or permitting a practicing Sikh to carry a ceremonial dagger in certain public venues.

This, it can be fairly said, is what the Indiana law means in instructing the government to use “the least restrictive means” of interfering with a person’s faith.  There is little reason to restrict personal behavior that is unlikely to cause anyone any harm, and the government is very much responsible for making everyday religious customs as easy to observe as possible.

However, this arrangement is completely irrelevant to the matter before us.  However much some argue to the contrary, there is no way around the fact that the belief in the inferiority of gay people, when put into practice by an organization or business, will axiomatically require violating the core American principle that everyone be treated equally in the public square.  Denying service based on sexual orientation is discrimination by definition.  I have yet to hear even a sliver of an explanation for how it’s not.

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your right to practice your faith does not override my right to live in a free and open society.

Then again, this brings us to the real scandal, which is how, in Indiana and many other states, such anti-gay discrimination is actually legal, with or without a religious freedom law.  As many have now pointed out, Indiana offers no legal protection to gay patrons who might be turned away by businesses that don’t approve of their so-called “lifestyle”—a fact that the RFRA has reinforced.  To paraphrase an old cliché:  If Indiana thinks all people are created equal, it sure has a funny way of showing it.

However, my overriding concern—apparently not as widely shared as I’d have thought—is that, in practice, the RFRA will not just be about gays.

Supporters point out that the word “gay” does not appear in the Indiana bill, and it’s true that it does not single out gays and lesbians—or anyone else, for that matter.

To the contrary, what the law does is provide cover for anyone who wants to discriminate against anyone else for any reason.  As previously stated, all they need is a religious justification and they’re home free.

I began by illustrating how easy it is to invent a religion from whole cloth.  (L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology, was by every account a liar and a fraud.)  And yet, once you’ve accomplished that, you are accorded an elevated level of respect and privilege that enables you to do just about anything you want.

Without specific protections in place, what would prevent, say, a bakery run by ultra-Orthodox Jews from refusing to serve a woman wearing a skirt?  What would stop a restaurant run by strict Muslims from withholding business from any woman?

What would stop a store owner from inventing his own religion on the spot and deciding to turn away every customer with red hair, on the grounds that his faith teaches that redheads are possessed by Satan?  If religion is the only basis for making these decisions and religion is a personal matter, on what basis could you tell this man to take a hike?

Such scenarios might not be terribly likely, but with legislation like Indiana’s RFRA, they are now possible.

Are we sure we want to live in a society in which one person’s beliefs, however sincere, hold veto power over the values of the entire country?

Call me old-fashioned, but I would wager that the right to individual freedom does not include the right to abolish the freedom of another individual.

Fact, Faith and Truth

In politics and elsewhere, there is an old refrain, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”

Today, a small university in Tennessee is arguing that, actually, yes, you are.

Bryan College, a Christian liberal arts institution with some 700 undergrads, has long required its professors to sign a Nicene Creed-like “statement of belief,” which includes such assertions as, “the origin of man was by fiat of God,” and, “the holy Bible […] is inerrant in the original writings.”

Recently, the school amended this declaration to also say that Adam and Eve are “historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms.”

A considerable proportion of the student body has protested the revision.  As well, two faculty members have filed suit, and one professor has resigned.

The college’s president, Stephen Livesay, for his part, has explained that the new clause is meant as a mere elucidation of Bryan’s already-existing views about the origins of the cosmos.  The impetus for it, it would seem, is the alarmingly high acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection among today’s young people.  At least that is what Livesay might be referencing when he says, “We want to make certain that we view culture through the eyes of faith, that we don’t view our faith through the eyes of culture.”

It is noteworthy—if not immediately relevant—that Bryan College is named for none other than William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate best known for his defense of the teaching of creationism in the Scopes Trial of 1925.  The school’s campus sits in the city of Dayton, where the trial took place, and was founded, in 1930, for the purpose of “the higher education of men and women under auspices distinctly Christian and spiritual.”

On its website, the school expands on this theme thusly:

Bryan College is founded upon the belief that God is the author of truth; that He has revealed Himself to mankind through nature, conscience, the Bible and Jesus Christ; that it is His will for man to come to a knowledge of truth; and that an integrated study of the arts and sciences and the Bible, with a proper emphasis on the spiritual, mental, social and physical aspects of life, will lead to the balanced development of the whole person.

All well and good, so far as I’m concerned.  There is no reason why a Christ-centric young person shouldn’t have an institution of higher learning at which to feel at home.

Where the problem lies is in the words “historical persons.”

Of course, one is free to believe anything one wants about life, the universe and everything, and about the origins thereof.  What is more, a private college is equally free to establish a particular set of beliefs as its core philosophy, and even to require its faculty to affirm it.  (Bryan College is careful to note that “students are neither required to subscribe to any statement of belief nor placed under any duress with regard to their religious position.”)

But there is a massive difference between professing a belief to be morally true and claiming a belief to be literally true.  A university has many responsibilities, but none is greater than the pursuit of knowledge and truth in all realms, including the field of science.  In making assertions of fact—rather than professions of faith—a college, like a politician, is not entitled to its own reality.

To say Adam and Eve are “historical persons” is objectively not true, as demonstrated by every relevant study of geology and genetics from On the Origin of Species onward.  One can posit Adam and Eve and Creation as a scientific hypothesis, but it is one that has yet to bear fruit (so to speak).

By imploring its professors to accept this baseless claim as read, Bryan College is actively engaging in the promulgation of an untruth, which it may not do if it is to be taken seriously within the university system.

Then again, this inevitably calls into question the relationship between a university and religion itself, and whether the two can ever truly coexist.

As a nonbeliever, I am certainly tempted to simply answer “no” and leave it at that.  In certain essential ways, the respective core functions of churches and universities are not merely different, but are actively at odds with each other.

And yet I am also willing to take a more narrow view of the question by conceding, for instance, that one can believe both in God and in evolution, or that the denial of science does not necessarily prevent one from being a scholar in other subjects.  One should not completely dismiss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

But this does not make the claim that Adam and Eve were living, breathing humans any less untrue.  Bryan College should knock it off.