Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 409, March 11, 2007

"She's real fine my 409!"


The Truth, So Help Me God
by Lady Liberty

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

A couple of things that happened this week dovetailed so nicely with some of the news stories I reported this week that it seemed inevitable I'd write more about it. The fact that it has something so integral to do with each and every one of us makes it all that much more pertinent to the matters at hand. I'm talking, of course, about the freedom of religion.

The freedom of worship is guaranteed in the First Amendment along with the clear prohibition to the state that it may not establish any kind of an official religion. Most constitutional scholars have interpreted these portions of the First Amendment to mean that the state has no business either promoting or curtailing anybody's religious freedoms. A letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a Baptist group seeking comment on religious rights as opposed to religious privileges likened the notion to a "wall of separation" between the church and the state.

Some people have, unfortunately, gone further in their interpretations both of the First Amendment and the words penned by Jefferson. They apparently believe that freedom of religion really means freedom from religion. Meanwhile, extremists on the opposite end of the spectrum seem to think that religious expression is appropriate in any venue and even by the state itself provided it agrees with a majority, usually defined as one to which they themselves belong.

Though there are doubtless countless reasons and rationales that people employ when they defend their beliefs or share them with others, I suspect they can all be boiled down to this: They are in possession of the truth. And because they are in possession of the truth, it only goes to follow that those who don't believe the same cannot possibly be right. For some reason, many seem to find that fact in and of itself to be intolerable.

This was brought to the fore quite nicely for me this week during the course of a conversation I was having with an acquaintance. We were discussing politics and the state of the world in general when he made mention of the upcoming "end times." He also said something to the effect of wanting me to come to Jesus before those times were upon us. I hesitantly volunteered that I'd been raised in a specific branch of Christianity, and at that point, he said the words I should have known were coming: "Well, yes, but you don't have the truth."

The confusion and the adamant positioning of those on every side of this convoluted issue is made clear almost every time you pick up a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast. Matters have no escalated to the point that even when most parties do the right thing, they simply can't win. One case in point: That of a Florida school that's now threatened with lawsuits after doing what is, in my mind, perfectly reasonable and constitutional.

Some teachers at the school asked officials if they might pray for the success of their students on an upcoming test. Since the request involved an activity that would take place between voluntary participants and would be conducted after school hours, officials said yes. The problem arose when the teachers involved used "prayer oil" to bless students' desks, but didn't clean up after their ceremonies were complete.

A non-Christian teacher says he thought the oily residue was the work of vandals. When he learned it was left over from a weekend prayer, however, he immediately claimed to take offense. The ACLU has jumped into the fray by suggesting participants were deliberately promoting Christianity in a government venue by leaving the oil behind. Still others have said that they doubt that a Rabbi would have been greeted with as much enthusiasm had he chosen to conduct a similar ceremony.

The real problem here involves neither favoritism nor discrimination. The issue is that a group of adults who should have known better didn't clean up after themselves. That the complaining teacher wasn't offended by anything other than the mess until he actually knew what it was really sums the whole thing up quite nicely. Unfortunately, the matter has already blown up well beyond that, and the disrespect the teachers showed for the property rights of others has escalated to threaten the rights of assembly and speech across the board.

It's that kind of instant and over-the-top reaction against religious expression—particularly Christianity—that's resulted the courts taking similarly over-the-top actions. Recently, New York's Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving religious expression in schools. New York City schools permit displays of the Muslim crescent and the Jewish menorah during the holiday season, but explicitly forbid Nativity scenes. Some Christians protested the policy as discriminatory. In its ruling, the lower court acknowledged that the schools were wrong when they said the crescent and menorah weren't religious symbols. Despite that, the court also ruled that it was perfectly okay for the schools to forbid Nativity scenes on the grounds that—are you ready?—it was a religious symbol. Huh?

But that brings us to the other rationale behind religious discrimination. If you're not in possession of the truth, the least that you can be is politically correct. And at the moment, anything but Christianity is politically correct. The government has adopted this attitude on a surprisingly large scale. Accusations have even been made that the Supreme Court is deliberately hiding the religious significance of certain panels carved in the historic building in which its sited (that's actually not true, but the fact that so many find it so believable tells you something).

Interestingly enough, different sides of the inherent confusion when everybody tries to do the right thing but which results in abject failure can be found in a single case, that of Navy Chaplain Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt. As a chaplain, Lt. Klingenschmitt is required to minister to soldiers of many faiths whatever his own might be. The Lieutenant, however, couldn't seem to stop praying in Jesus' name no matter the venue. He was disciplined accordingly and was, in fact, eventually dismissed from duty.

You might think that the Navy did the right thing in dismissing Lt. Klingenschmitt. And it did. But along the way, it made what I consider to be an exceedingly hypocritical mistake: It went after the Chaplain for praying in Jesus' name at the funeral of a Christian soldier, apparently unable itself to differentiate between broad-spectrum duties involving a variety of soldiers, and duties undertaken for specific purposes for a specific soldier who, by definition, only has one religion.

At the time Lt. Klingenschmitt's story was much in the news, I made more than a few comments to the effect that a chaplain has simply got to have respect for the religious beliefs of those who don't adhere to his own faith, or he's got no business being a chaplain. (For the record, I defended Klingenschmitt's behavior at the funeral service because he didn't do anything wrong whatever the Navy might have claimed.) But apparently even a chaplain willing to do the job the way it ought to be done isn't safe from regulations making little apparent sense.

Former Army Chaplain Don Larsen was originally a Christian minister who served in locales including Iraq. After a good deal of study, he developed both a good knowledge and a healthy respect for Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, and more. Eventually, he determined that the religion that best suited him as well as his willingness to honor the beliefs of others was Wiccan. The Army refused to let him change his denomination.

When Larsen left the service, I suspect the service may have lost the most legitimately capable chaplain it had. At the same time, it was made abundantly clear that we don't respect all religions equally after all. We only give the idea lip service, and muddle the matter further by passing hate speech laws and pretending that government endorsement of religion extends to discriminating against groups that can or can't use facilities available to everybody else.

To be truly fair, though, it has to be pointed out that the "other" side isn't blameless. If government has overreacted or passed laws willy nilly, it was frankly given some provocation for doing so. There are those who will wiggle into any chink in the "armor" of the First Amendment to attempt to at least imply the endorsement by government of Christianity. These are the people who suggest that the majority ought to decide certain religious matters (prayer in school, for example, or the teaching of creationism), effectively ignoring the unalienable rights of the minority (not to mention science in the case of the creationism issue).

These are the people who demand—oftentimes loudly—the respect they deserve, but who refuse to give it to those who don't believe as they do. These are the people who as a matter of course make demands of others to come over to their way of thinking, or to get out of the way. These are the people who, when I suggest that little children aren't an appropriate audience for the most graphic anti-abortion materials, send me e-mails calling me a "pro-sodomite" and an "anti-Christian bigot." (That last is a true story, by the way, about a particularly vitriolic e-mail received in response to my movie review for the Oscar™-nominated documentary entitled Jesus Camp.)

I have to assume that each and every one of the people on both sides of a given religious issue are quite sure that they are right. After all, why would you believe what you do so certainly if you didn't think you were right? But you know what I believe? I believe that the freedom of worship also means that we must acknowledge that our truth isn't necessarily the truth everybody else sees. Freedom doesn't mean you have the freedom to agree with somebody else; it means you have the freedom to go your own way. But the freedom to go your own way doesn't include the freedom to get in somebody else's way. That's not so hard to understand, is it?

The bottom line is that this complicated issue isn't. The government is prohibited from interfering with us in regard to religion, but it's been our own insistence on interfering with others that's seen the government doing what it can to protect everybody. And in typical government fashion, its notion of protecting everybody means that nobody really gets either what they want or what they deserve. We brought much of this on ourselves, but by showing some respect and some restraint, we might just prove that none of it is really needed. And then instead of fighting with each other about religious expression and where we can and can't enjoy it, we can get to work on repealing some of those laws that really treat all of us equally only to the extent that all of us suffer equal curtailments of liberty.

Okay, you may now begin typing your nasty e-mails. But I warn you: hate speech is rapidly becoming illegal in more and more places and with broader and broader definitions.With the government considering anti-bullying laws in cyberspace, I'm thinking your hate e-mails are going to be next. Unless, of course, we can behave like free men—and grown-ups—and prove we don't need it. . . .


Jefferson's Wall of Separation Letter

Prayer oil on students' desks raises ire

Supreme Court Won't Review New York City Ban on Nativity Scenes in Public Schools

Ten Commandments 'cover-up' revealed at Supreme Court

Religious Symbols in the US National Capital

Navy dismisses chaplain who prayed 'in Jesus' name'

For Gods and Country

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