Joel J. Miller has some interesting thoughts about the public dimension of religion in a free society. Miller, who works for formerly with the Christian publisher Thomas J. Nelson, is a practicing Orthodox Christian (fwiw).
Watever we think about the controversies over same sex marriage, or the Obamacare contraception mandate, or [insert your chosen fight du jour], one lesson stands out: faith cannot be shoved into a corner.
For all of its private aspects, religion is a public affair. Whether a person considers himself a cultural warrior or just a humble and faithful adherent, there are always social implications to belief….
If a free expression of religion means anything—and this goes for Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.—it must mean that adherents are free to influence society with their views. This is especially true in an open, liberal society such as our own. It's the curse and the blessing of our system.
Yes, we can declare certain things off limits. The Bill of Rights is an attempt to do that. But that won't stop arguments from being made or minds being changed. And in the long run this is true even for prohibited expressions of faith….
Beware those who think stacking the deck with statutes will somehow keep the worst aspects of, say, Islam from sinking its teeth into a society. Laws reflect hearts; they rarely change them—except perhaps in the opposite direction desired by the legislators. Coercion is infrequently met with gratitude.
Let's think about this in the current context, where Ben Carson—a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination and himself a member of a religious minority—has said "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation." As Matt Welch wrote yesterday, that's because Carson believes that various things about the Muslim faith invalidates its followers from running this country. For instance, Carson believes:
"Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that's inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution."
Well, OK then.
Of course Carson exempts his own public religiosity from such strictures, ostensibly because he believes his Seventh-Day Adventism is not in any way, shape, or form inconsistent with the Constitution. Yet for much of its existence, Carson's church has dwelled on the margins of mainstream Christianity, suspect not simply due to its recent origins but because of its unique theology (a well-known 1963 book by a Calvinist theologian referred to Adventism as one of "the four major cults" linked to protestantism, with the others being Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Science).
Indeed, Carson was recently bounced from a Christian event put together by Baptists due to his beliefs. Those of us over about 50 can remember a time when the main arguments over religion were between Protestants and Catholics, with the latter being castigated as members of the world's largest cult and the embodiment of the Whore of Revelation (this has a long history, of course, taking back to the Reformation and even including such Enligthenment wise men as Isaac Newton, who believed the pope to be an anti-Christ).
So if Joel Miller is right that religion has an innately public dimension that can't be undone, I think he's also right that it will always be a cause of concern and anxiety in a society that is founded upon the idea of toleration and freedom of expression. These descend from the thinking of Roger Williams, the early colonist who created Providence, Rhode Island as a secular space in which all religions were welcome. That Williams also thought the pope of Rome to be an anti-Christ speaks to his belief in free speech and religion.
And Ben Carson and others should also take Miller's heed when it comes to writing bad religions out of public view. As it happens, I disagree with Miller about laws being unable to change hearts—seems to me that dog owners only started picking up their pet's crap when they were forced to under penalty of law. On a less banal note, after initial and sometimes violent pushback, it seems clear to me that various anti-discrimination laws did succeed in changing minds/hearts, or at least certain behaviors, which might be all we should ask of laws. So too did rules about seatbelts. We can argue over whether such mandates are always or even ever the best way forward, but it seems to me that laws can change actions—and minds and hearts ultimately.
Having said all that, Miller is on target that "stacking the deck" against certain things you dislike rather than creating neutral rules that minimize coercion is a mug's game. What's the old saying? The government that is strong enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take away everything you have. It all depends on who's running the show, right? And if the past 15 years of the not-so-new century tell us anything, it's that the people running the show change with alarming—or maybe comforting—frequency.