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Friday, December 07, 2007

Religious Freedom

I'm thinking out loud here as I ponder Matthew's text (3:1-12) for Sunday with its vivid imagery of John the Baptist. Many see this image of him as the forerunner of the passionate evangelical who preaches hellfire and damnation. Others have commented that his ancient fiery style has resonance with some modern Islamic religious leaders.

I've also been thinking about the idea of religious freedom - especially after three events have dominated the news, at least from my perspective: the controversy in my little town about the creche and the menorah in the town square, Mitt Romney's "faith speech' this week, and the way Islamic justice has been rendered to three women.

It's been fascinating to sit on the sidelines and watch the drama unfold about putting a creche on the town square in the Borough of Chatham. This is pretty much a Roman Catholic town. Demographic estimates say that 70% of our residents claim to be of that religious persuasion.

I've been told by a realtor that of that number, 5 out of 7 claim to be 'inactive." Interesting. You would never have known it from all the activism around this issue, including the fact that the RCs have led the charge to raise the funds to purchase a nativity set and convince the Town Council for the permit to have it displayed.

We have a very tiny number of Jews in town, and an even smaller number of Muslims which we know mostly from the women who walk around town in burkas. I haven't seen the figures, but, interestingly enough, my hunch is that we probably have more folk from India than any other religious minority.

Apparently, a Jewish organization, described to me as group of 'outside agitators' (don't you LOVE that term?), has been ardently pursuing a permit to display a menorah in the same place as the creche. I'm told that the objection to their action is not about the menorah, per se, put this group of 'outside agitators' is apparently a zealous lot who are described alternatively as pro-Israel or Zionists, who are 'rabidly anti-Palestinian' and not at all interested in the religious aspects of the menorah, but that it stands symbolically to announce the presence of Jews in the community.

Yes, and, the point is . . . ? I mean, whatever the intentions of this 'outside group', the fact is that the creche is not only a religious symbol, but it also clearly announces what everyone already knows: that there are Christians in the community. So, what's the big deal.

I mean, didn't we we already have these discussions in the 70s and 80s in other municipalities? I suspect the larger message here is that diversity and pluralism has become part of the fabric of even lily-white, and, more to the point, affluent communities like Chatham.

Which brings me to Republican hopeful Mitt Romney's 'faith speech' the other night. You can read a transcript of it
here for yourself.

Other than the Osmond Family, Romney is perhaps the most visible Mormon in the country. There are lots of misconceptions about the Mormon religion - from their former embrace of the practice of polygamy to the claim by some that they are not 'real' Christians. I found the
PBS examination of the Church of Latter Day Saints, as they are officially known, quite helpful.

I'm not a Republican - a considered minority in this town - so you'll take my opinion with a grain of salt when I say that I don't think the Republican slate is a particularly strong choice of candidates for the office of President. On the other hand, I think the Democrats have enough obstacles to overcome with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - not to mention that both of these candidates have taken disappointing positions on critical issues like health care, immigration and the War in Iraq.

Putting aside their particular platforms and positions, either way, the 'novelty factor' may be daunting to some voters. If elected, Hilary will be the first woman to be President of the United States. She may have more of a chance, however, than Barak being elected the first African-American President of the United States.

Added to that, as one of my daughters, the Political Science major said, "Hmmm . . . 'President Obama'? Six years after 9/11? I don't think so." I hadn't considered that.

If elected, Romney would be the first Mormon to be President of the United States, which is part of the reason he was advised to give that 'faith speech.' He seemed to cloak himself in the mantle of John F. Kennedy, the nation's first (and only) Roman Catholic President, but not very effectively.

Frankly, I was very disappointed in the entire speech. I think he actually may have done more harm than good. He didn't say anything that edified the noble idea of 'religious freedom'. It was pretty clear to me that his 'pitch' was to win the confidence of the Republican evangelical lobby as a solid choice for reproductive rights and other conservative concerns about all the issues that go into the wastebasket term 'family values'.

Which, interestingly enough, brings me to "Islamic justice".

A 20-year-old woman from Qatif, Saudi Arabia, reported that she had been abducted by several men and repeatedly raped. But judges found the victim herself to be guilty. Her crime is called “mingling”: when she was abducted, she was in a car with a man not related to her by blood or marriage, and in Saudi Arabia, that is illegal. Last month, she was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes with a bamboo cane - enough to kill a grown man, so by the mercy of Allah, her caning will be administered 30 lashes at a time over a seven week period of her incarceration.

We also saw Islamic justice in action in Sudan, when a 54-year-old British teacher named Gillian Gibbons was sentenced to 15 days in jail before the government pardoned her this week; she could have faced 40 lashes. When she began a reading project with her class involving a teddy bear, Ms. Gibbons suggested the children choose a name for it. They chose Muhammad after the most popular boy in the class. She let them do it. This was deemed to be blasphemy.

Then there’s Taslima Nasreen, the 45-year-old Bangladeshi writer who bravely defends women’s rights in the Muslim world. Forced to flee Bangladesh, she has been living in India. But Muslim groups there want her expelled, and one has offered 500,000 rupees for her head. In August she was assaulted by Muslim militants in Hyderabad, and in recent weeks she has had to leave Calcutta and then Rajasthan. Taslima Nasreen’s visa expires next year, and she fears she will not be allowed to live in India again.

I am absolutely appalled by these three cases of blatant, violent misogyny. Why is there no outrage from the White House? Or, the State Department? Why isn't the Presiding Bishop commenting on this and calling for the compassion and mercy of the Koran that we always hear about after an Islamic attack?

It turns my stomach every time I think of the unnamed "20-year-old woman from Qatif", who was repeatedly raped and, for the next seven weeks, will be beaten with thirty lashes of a bamboo cane for her troubles. Even when she is released from jail, her troubles will not be over. Her brother reportedly tried to kill her because of "the shame she has brought to the family." This may be Islamic, but it is not justice.

Which brings me to consider the idea of religious freedom. I suspect it flourishes best in a democratic state where there is separation of church and state. Allowing religious fundamentalists of any persuasion to rule government or courts of law is, at the very least, a bad idea. If I ever had any doubt about that, they are banished forever by the images of these three women.

It makes it messy, to be sure, when it comes to determining whose religious symbols are to be allowed on public property. However, tense as they were, I'd rather have the kinds of meetings and conversations this town has been engaged in than the religious majority determining the norm for all the others.

Which brings me back to John the Baptist, about whom I'll be preaching this Sunday - along with the rest of Western Christendom. I haven't yet figured out what to say about him, especially in light of all of the above. I know this one thing for certain: We need prophets and strong religious leadership in our church and in our culture. We just don't need them in our courts of justice or halls of government.


Mike in Texas said...

Romney didn't say much about religious freedom because he simply doesn't believe in religious freedom. I agree with you that this speech was designed to pander to right-wing extremist Christians (who were not impressed by it), but I think it also was an attempt at damage control after he said he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet.

I think Romney deserves as much freedom from discrimination as he is willing to extend to others.

Jim said...

I too found Gov. Romney's speech a disappointment. He tried to do two things at once, claim the idea that religion should not be held against a candidate, and that he should get support from the religious right because he will act theoraticly.



Frair John said...

Many of these issues aren't "Islamic" so much as they are cultural and political.
The mess in Sudan (for what I gather from the Washington Post and a friend at State) was an attempt by the Sudanes government to try and get domestic attention off of Darfur and its actions there. They even hired a mob to try and ramp up a riot. When that didn't work (and there was a counter protest) they gave up.
When I talk to my Muslin students they tend to get edgy about some of the gender issues. I finally got one of the kids to explain it to me like this: Just like so many Americans have confused Capitalism and American life in general w/Christianity so have many Muslims confused local tribal culture. A challenge tot he later is confused with the former.

I've always found Romney a disappointment.

Douglas said...

I don't think it's at all inaccurate to say that Mormons aren't real Christians. Among other things, they believe that the persons of the Trinity are three separate gods, and, if memory serves, one of the founding events of Mormonism was the appearance of God the Father and Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith as two separate, corporeal beings.

I think Christian fundamentalists are misusing the word "cult" when they apply it to Mormonism, but that doesn't mean that Mormons should be thought of as simply another variation on a theme, like Lutherans or Methodists.

Sorry to pick nits about an otherwise excellent post, but I've never understood what the problem is with just coming out and saying that official LDS belief on several essential matters is so different that it simply can't be considered Christian at all.