Saturday, November 17, 2012

Defining 'Religious Freedom' for Thanksgiving

In August, U.S. Representative Mike Kelly, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said "I know in your mind, you can think of the times America was attacked. One is Dec. 7, that's Pearl Harbor Day. The other is Sept. 11, and that's the day the terrorists attacked. I want you to remember Aug. 1, 2012, the attack on our religious freedom. That is a day that will live in infamy, along with those other dates."

What Mike Kelly was referring to was the day that The Affordable Care Act, 'Obamacare' kicked in numerous provisions supporting women's health. On this day, women were entitled to free annual well-woman visits, free screening for gestational diabetes, free screening for HPV, free counseling and screening for sexually transmitted diseases, free counseling and screening for HIV, free contraceptives and counseling, free breastfeeding support and counseling, and free counseling for domestic and interpersonal violence.

How is all this benefit for women's health on par with 9/11 and Peal Harbor? Mike Kelly feels it is because of the contraceptive clause.

I am a liberal, and in my world, freedoms have to do with the right to do what you want, up until the point that it interferes with the rights of another. As a metaphor, I can listen to whatever crazy, dissonant, loud music I wish in my home and car, but need to turn it down if the neighbors can hear it.

Religious freedom, in my view, is that anyone in this country can worship any way they like,  or choose not to worship at all, up until the point that it interferes with the personal freedom of another. 

To people like Mike Kelly, religious freedom means that he is opposed to anyone having the right to practice their religion in any way that doesn't fit his own religious beliefs. He is a Christian who does not believe in contraception, and he therefore feels that all others in the country need to believe the way he does, and that to allow people the freedom to have options in the area of contraception is a violation of his religious freedom.

Mike Kelly is not in a minority in this country. There are numerous people who are convinced that religious freedom means that other people need to follow the same religious guidelines in which they believe: As a metaphor, people in other houses should not be allowed to listen to music they don't like, even if those neighbors keep the music quiet enough that they will never hear it.

The 'religious right' is not a religious movement, and I do not criticize individuals who are Christian. The religious right is a political movement, and, essentially, a political party. It is not concerned with salvation or enlightenment or feeding the poor or healing the sick or any of those Christian virtues. It is concerned with controlling money and influence, and is using religion to subjugate the vulnerable and turn their genuine religious beliefs into political momentum. How else can one explain the fact that the religious right political movement is in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus on almost every level? Denying help to the poor, denying medical care to the sick, passing judgement on others, and so on and so on.  I don't mean any of what I am saying to be condemning of Christianity as a whole. There are many wonderful people who have found true enlightenment through Christ, and have walked their own path, not forcing it upon those around them. But, within that same movement, are individuals who are motivated by power and profit. It is these people to whom I direct my criticism.

The religious right in this country feel that they have a lock on the truth, and that the government should stay out of their lives - except to enforce that people practice religion the same way they do. They promote the contradiction of small government that does not interfere with personal liberties, except that they want to be sure people can get arrested for getting abortions, or even using contraception (All this while a number of white men in this movement feel a need to redefine rape, and to give rights to rapists to visit the children that are the results of their violent acts...); that opposing views to theirs not be taught in schools; to deny basic Civil Rights for gay people or other people who are 'different'; that people who look 'non-Christian' be scrutinized as suspicious terrorists; that there be restrictions on where Mosques can be built as not to offend 'Ground Zero' and on and on and on.

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads, in part: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The states of Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Maryland and South Carolina have enacted bans to atheists holding public office... probably in order to preserve religious freedom.

But why not. This type of thinking goes back to the very genesis of our country:

The Puritans came to this country for the purpose of religious freedom. Having been persecuted for not practicing the official religions of their native countries, they came to American to have the right to practice their religion in the way they chose.

When the Puritans arrived, they found Native American people who lived here, who did not believe in Christ. They dubbed them heathens. In 1637, 700 Pequot men, women and children were massacred as they celebrated their green corn dance ceremony, because it was believed they embodied the devil, since they were not Christians.  In honor of this, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a "day of Thanksgiving." A very different scene from the myth of the three day feast of peace we learned about in school.

The 'Puritans' then went on to murder a number of innocent people for witchcraft, and created a cultured that embraced slavery, the continuing slaughter of Native people, and the subjugation of not only non-Christians, but of other Christian groups who had subtle differences from their own dogma.

This is the kind of thinking that still remains strong in our country. Though the principles of freedom are the talking points of the religious right, they have not ventured far from their Puritanical roots, and still feel that religious freedom is the act of condemning those who do not believe as they do.

I guess there is some, basic part of human nature that makes us believe we are right and others are wrong, and that makes us believe that it is worth using violence to try to prove that our opinions are correct. All of human history seems to be the story of groups of people dominating each other and exterminating those who believe differently. The fact that people are denied rights because of their religious beliefs rather than actually being exterminated in America is, I guess, improvement. 

Ultimately, I believe, this basic phrase in The Constitution points to a higher level of evolution than we have yet reached.

As a public school teacher, over the last 20 years, my voice has become more restricted. I used to teach, with the blessing of the school district, a vast multi-cultural history of The United States and the world. The age of high-stakes testing and the standards that have followed, which, essentially, force us to teach to the test (all a result of No Child Left Behind) has silenced my voice. The Social Studies I taught were restricted to the history of white America, which would appear on the test. More and more frequent observations from the school district ensured that I was following the standards assigned.

Now, in Texas and California, the text books are being rewritten, to reflect an even more idealized and watered down version of the white man's illusion of American history. This is being exposed in a new film called 'The Revisionaries.' I have provided a trailer below.

As the religious right consolidate power, they are working on rewriting history, as they did with the first Thanksgiving. They are further eliminating religious freedom, as I see it, and practicing religious freedom as they see it through a systematic denial of opposing views.

Religious freedom is this country has become a battle for the control of people's thoughts and ideas. Those of us who embrace diversity and celebrate differences are being pitted against a well-oiled machine that is attempting to make us into a theocracy, despite the words of The Constitution.

Religion in this country is no longer a contest for the hearts of believers, but is a multi-billion dollar industry that profits from people coming to the churches. Some churches have become machines for political propaganda, while they are tax free, costing us somewhere in the neighborhood of $71 billion in lost revenue. Much of religion has become a business. This melding of money and belief leads to a tremendous potential for manipulation, as people promise, in exchange for an investment, the redemption of one's soul, or eternal life.

So, the dilemma, once again, becomes where to draw the line. It is certainly within one's religious freedom to join a politically motivated, for-profit church, if that is what gives that person satisfaction. If we call for monitoring of the churches' political activities, are we infringing on their freedoms?

Respect for truth, and respect of one another is not something that can ever be defined or legislated, and, if it is, then, by nature, it is denying religious freedom to someone.

As I wrestle with this idea of religious freedom, I can't come up with an idea for a solution. There will always be religious groups that are parasitic and prey on those who are struggling. And there are always going to be those who are true in their conviction, and practice religion for righteous reasons. It is against the principles of freedom I have established for myself to tell others how they should believe, or stand in the way of the free practice of one's beliefs, until the point that it interferes with another's rights.

As a metaphor, I can listen to my own music so long as it doesn't bother my neighbors, but as a musician, I also sell my music to people and perform for those who will listen. I am an independent musician, and don't work too hard to convince people to listen to me who seem uninterested.  My music is an art. It is a reflection of who I am. It energizes me, it gives me an expression for my inner ideals. In many ways, when I play music, I am communing with God, or The Great Spirit, or the Universe, or whatever that thing is that is greater than I am.

As a metaphor, there is a world of music that is for profit. There are people who take anxious young artists, and mold them into their view of someone who can reap a profit for their company. They record these musicians and push their music out into the world through a variety of media - background for movies and TV, radio, advertising. Many of these musicians are used up and spat out by a cold industry. Some, like George Clinton, aren't even allowed to play the songs they wrote, because they have been prostituted to such an extreme by record executives and lawyers who are motivated only by greed. Many of these artists feel downtrodden. We hear every year around hundreds who have given into drug and alcohol abuse to try to replace the spirit that has been taken by the profiteers. These profiteers play their music even when the neighbors ask them to turn it down. Sort of like when the FBI blasted loud music into the compound of the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas as a form of torture to try to force them out.

Ultimately, I guess it comes down to greed and the desire to have control over the weak.

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