“The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” Senator Joseph Lieberman told a rapturous audience at a black church a few Sundays ago, just after being chosen as Al Gore’s running mate. Given that the whole purpose of Lieberman’s nomination was to detach Gore from Clinton’s scandals by public displays of family values and sanctimoniousness, you can’t blame him for starting right in–and so far the gambit seems to be working (Monica who?). Still, you would think the first Jewish major-party VP candidate in US history might hesitate to cast to the winds the traditional secularism of American Jews. And that’s what the Anti-Defamation League thought too, rebuking Lieberman for excessive use of “expressions of faith.” After all, right-wing Christians are the 800-pound gorilla of US church-state relations today, and given their triumphalism–“every knee shall bow” and all that–does one really need to encourage them? When a Jew endorses, or seems to endorse, an intrusive public role for religion, the Christian right is inoculated from charges of bigotry. No wonder Lieberman has drawn praise from Jerry Falwell and Jewish-banker-conspiracy fan Pat Robertson–even though, of course, they know he’s going to hell for refusing to accept Christ as his personal savior.
But that’s the official American civic religion at the opening of the twenty-first century: What religion you have may be your own business–rather literally so, in the case of Scientology–but it’s society’s business that you have one. Modernity may have eroded some of the distinctions between previously antagonistic belief systems–Quick! Explain the difference between Presbyterianism and Methodism!–as is suggested by the increasing replacement of the word “religion,” with its connotations of dogma and in-groupness, by the warm, fuzzy propaganda term “faith.” Facing the common enemy, secularism, devout Christians and Jews dwell lovingly on their similarities as part of a “Judeo-Christian” ethos, when historically the ethos of each faith was precisely that it wasn’t the other–as Jews were recently reminded by the Pope’s shameful beatification of Pius IX, a reactionary anti-Semite who not only forced Rome’s Jews into a ghetto but virtually kidnapped a Jewish child secretly baptized by a servant and refused to return him to his family despite years of international protest.
In fact, Lieberman is wrong about the Constitution–it does protect us from religion. In their useful book The Godless Constitution, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore remind us that the Founding Fathers carefully considered and rejected the idea of inserting religious language into the Constitution: “The nation’s founders, both in writing the Constitution and in defending it in the ratification debates, sought to separate the operations of government from any claim that human beings can know and follow divine direction in reaching policy decisions.” The Constitution specifically prohibits religious tests for political office; evidently Washington, Madison and Jefferson did not think civic virtue required belief in God. Still less did they sympathize with Bible-based politics. Looking for political guidance in the Bible is like looking for it in the entrails of birds–you can always find what you want if you squint hard enough. Think of abortion, about which neither testament has a single word to say, yet both anti-choicers and pro-choicers claim religious justification for their positions. Lieberman thinks Gore’s prescription drug proposal for seniors fulfills the commandment to honor thy father and mother; someone else might argue that God wants you to honor them by buying their medications yourself, or by putting them out on an ice floe to re-enter the cycle of nature. Since every position can find a godly rationale, bringing religion into the public sphere in practice simply means that the biggest and best organized religion gets to use the public realm–public facilities, public money–to advance its own sectarian agenda.
Consider some of the recent entanglements of church and state. Last June the House passed and sent on to the Senate the Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act, which would permit religious organizations to purchase noncommercial radio stations and substitute religious for educational programming. “Charitable choice” legislation, supported by both Bush and Gore, not to mention a muddled opinion piece in The Nation, would permit religious organizations to bid for federal contracts to deliver a wide range of social services–antidrug programs, literacy programs, marriage preservation, housing–while permitting them to hire, fire and dispense services according to their religious dictates. Already permitted in welfare-to-work programs, charitable choice is under legal assault in Texas, where Jews and civil rights advocates have charged one church-based program with giving Bible classes, urging clients to build a personal relationship with Jesus and offering a course titled, “Who’s the Boss? All Authority Comes from God.”
Because the most energetic religions tend to be the ones most invested in keeping women subordinate, women in particular have nothing to gain from the burgeoning involvement of religion in the public sphere. The wave of mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals is already depriving women of crucial reproductive services, from contraception and abortion to in vitro fertilization and the morning-after pill, even for rape victims. Indeed, wherever you look, religion is the main obstacle to providing women with modern reproductive healthcare: The fig leaf of “conscience” becomes a justification for denying others basic human services. Thus the Catholic Church throws its weight against making health insurers cover contraception (Viagra’s fine, though) and anti-choice pharmacists claim the right to refuse to dispense birth control, emergency contraception or, should it be approved by the FDA, RU-486. What about the idea that if my “conscience” doesn’t permit me to do my job, maybe I’m in the wrong line of work? Would an orthodox Jew take a job at Virgil’s Barbecue and then refuse to serve the pork ribs? Maybe Lieberman will give us his views on the matter. But I hope he doesn’t.