Where does the power lie in organized religion? In the context of the Abrahamic faiths most familiar to westerners (Christo-juda-islamism) there are three basic components to what is broadly called "the church" or the religion as a whole. It boils down to the priest, the book, and the congregation.** That is, there are rules, an organizational hierarchy, and the masses. As scripture is considered divinely inspired or authored, its rules are not subject to debate. Interpretation is possible only in a limited number of vague or unclear areas. When this is the case, religions do not turn the matter into a plebiscite. The ordained hierarchy makes a decision, albeit one that lacks the incontrovertible nature of scripture itself, which is passed down to the congregation.
Our government doesn't work much differently, and I mean our in the American context. American government and law are rooted in the Constitution to an extent matched by no other western democracy. The Constitution functions just as scriptures do in religion. It is the foundation upon which all other laws are built and it establishes all of the basic rights and principles of our system. Like scripture, some parts of it are extremely clear while others require interpretation.
What the Vatican does for Catholicism, the courts do for the Constitution. We vest in jurists the power to interpret when necessary and make judgments by which the rest of us agree to live. We conspicuously avoid delegating the interpretation of the basic tenets of the faith to the congregation; we did not, for instance, resolve the 4th Amendment question of the admissability of illegally obtained evidence via referendum. That, as the Belgians say, would be goddamn retarded.
Amidst all of the far-right trouser soiling in the wake of the California Supreme Court's recent gay marriage ruling, a good sampling of which can be found here, one utterly illogical theme recurs. The Scanners-esque reaction from the religious right includes a lot of statements along the lines of:
"It's outrageous that the court has overturned not only the historic definition of marriage, but the clear will of the people of California, as expressed in Proposition 22." said FRC President Tony Perkins. "The California Supreme Court assumed the powers of a legislative body by imposing same-sex marriage. However, in 2000, the people of California spoke loudly and clearly on the value of marriage when 61 percent of voters approved Proposition 22."
Gay marriage is controversial and everybody has an opinion about it. Here's the rub – being a question of fundamental rights and therefore of the Constitution, our opinions are utterly irrelevant. Tony Perkins and a lot of other people seem to think that this issue should be resolved by the congregation; gay marriage is unpopular, therefore it should not be legal. This says nothing about whether or not the Constitution protects it or whether a reasonable judge might rule so. It merely says that lots of people voted against it on a ballot proposition, therefore it should not be. Do these same fundamentalists run their churches this way, with sin and morality decided by opinion poll?
What I'm getting at here is simple yet the right seem incapable of understanding it: we do not distribute fundamental rights based on a show of hands in this country. That 20 or 60 or 80 or 100 percent of the population opposes gay marriage is irrelevant to whether or not the right is protected by the Constitution. It is not relevant to the law that the public supports or opposes any particular interpretation of our basic rights. If an opinion poll or ballot proposition shows that 97% of Americans don't support the right against self-incrimination, great. Big fuckin' deal. It's enumerated in the Constitution. It exists irrespective of its popularity. Our basic rights exist to protect that which may be politically unpopular.
The democratic process allows far more room for change than my analogy to religion. California voters can put an amendment directly on the ballot or vote for legislators who will amend the law to their liking. The judges' job is to interpret the law as written. Nowhere in our civil religion does it say that the rules should be interpreted through the filter of popular demand, and in fact the Constitution is replete with features that make clear how stridently its authors sought to avoid that at all costs.
**h/t "Mic Check" by Rage Against the Machine for the title.