Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Religious freedom in the midst of the Culture Wars

The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of point-counterpoint over the subject of RFRA's. If you don't follow the news media in any way, a RFRA is a bill passed by a governmental body (federal or state) that has as its subject religious freedoms. That sounds fairly governmental, right?

The problem is that the current crop of RFRA's are being described in the media (print, television, talk radio, and internet) as the latest front in the culture wars. The language is intentionally battle related. Siege, offensive/defensive, campaign. You get the picture?

What is a culture war? That is an interesting subject. It has roots in the 19th century. It was grounded in the effort of Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck of Germany to distance the influence of the Roman Catholic Church over the Prussian portion of the German Empire. The kulturkampf, or culture struggle, represented laws that were enacted that were biased against German Catholics.

In the 20th century, the shifting emphasis from agricultural/rural based lifestyle to industrial/urban based lifestyle could be described as another culture struggle. But during the 1960's, there was an even more dramatic defining of cultural "sides". The '60's have become famous for a "loosening" of the moral norms that had become predominant in American society.

The concept of "cultural war" was given a wider perspective in the 1990's. In 1991, a sociologist published a book that observed that American politics and culture was becoming polarized on certain issues. That book may have played into a speech delivered by Pat Buchanan. In that speech at the Republican Convention, he stated:
My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so, we have to come home, and stand beside him.
You younger readers, the Cold War was a season of fear for many Americans. For Buchanan to compare the contemporary political and cultural climate of that speech to the Cold War would have brought people, to some degree, to the fear and anxiety of the previous generation. Instead of an enemy of military might, this new war was settled into the "soul of America" around political issues.

If you read that speech, you find that Buchanan's words may still be heard, echoing in conservative/traditionalist voices: liberalism, abortion, homosexuality, public state-run education, radical feminism, anti-traditional marriage, environmentalism, gay marriage. Those sentiments of the struggle for America's soul are still being addressed in the media. How Buchanan ended that speech sealed the image of the cultural war he believed we were facing. In describing the "tragedy" that residents of Koreatown experienced during the LA riots in 1992, Buchanan ends his speech by sharing the story of National Guardsmen.
They had come into LA late on the 2nd day, and they walked up a dark street, where the mob had looted and burned every building but one, a convalescent home for the aged. The mob was heading in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women. When the troopers arrived, M-16s at the ready, the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated. It had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, backed by courage.
Greater love than this hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.
The speech writers had a very clear picture they wanted the audience to form. The picture is, if the Republican party was going to win and save the soul of America, it would take a war.

Over the course of the 22 years since that speech, cultural war has been used to describe many struggles between traditionalist and progressivist movements. But what does that have to do with RFRA's?

Over the last few weeks, states have been enacting Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the federal RFRA. Under that law:
(a) In general
Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section.
(b) Exception
Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—
(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
(c) Judicial relief
A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government. Standing to assert a claim or defense under this section shall be governed by the general rules of standing under article III of the Constitution.
These acts, that are intended to restrict government from burdening an individual's exercise of religion, are the current frontline of the cultural battleground. Individual businesses across the United States have run headlong into unintended legal fights. In most cases, the business owners have denied services to persons desiring to employ those services in the context of a same-sex wedding. The petitioners are seeking to fulfill their right to marriage under newly solidified state laws. The business owners are denying service based on religious grounds.

Let me say that none of this current crop of legal skirmishes have to do with the federal RFRA. All of the current issues are at the state level. It is state law allowing marriage vs. state law protecting exercise of religion, or in some cases, speech. All of them have to do with the cultural shift that is occurring across the United States. And all of them have to do with the inability of case law to keep up with the speed of cultural shift. And they have to do with perceived civil rights. And they have to do with personal expression of lifestyle.

But they don't have anything to do with actual civil rights.
And they don't have anything to do with practice of religion.
And they don't have anything to do with destroying the soul of America.

Well that isn't quite right. They do have everything to do with destroying the soul of America, but it isn't the laws or the politics or the businesses. It isn't same-sex weddings or religious convictions.

In the coming writings, I am going to lay out some "shame on" to what is really destroying the soul of America.

Yes, I am going to express my opinion. I will state it clearly so that there will be no doubt where I am coming from. I will engage in conversation but here are the rules I will engage within:

1.) I will respect anyone's opinion, even if we disagree.
2.) I will respond with as much civility as possible in this medium that is 80% deficient in communicating.
3.) I will not delete comments that are different or that some may find offensive. Freedom of speech is part of civil discourse.
4.) If you wish to personally attack me, or my opinions, that is your right. I will do everything in my limited human ability not to take personal offense.
5.) If you feel that I am being attacked in a dialogue, do not feel you have to defend me. I am responsible for this mess and claim responsibility for putting myself out in this highly charged conversation.
6.) Feel free to share this post. But give credit. It isn't that I have a set of original ideas. It is just a selfish desire to get my name out there. (Hey, I'm just as narcissistic as the next blogger!)