THE SHIFTING MENACE OF CONSCIENCE

In 1885 the Protestant clergyman and popular author Josiah Strong wrote his most widely read book, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. His treatise was popular largely because it was awash in the kind of nativist sentiments that found a receptive audience during the immigrant boom that began after the Civil War and intensified throughout the Industrial Revolution. Strong identified the Seven Perils to American society, most of which are easily predictable and align with the most common prejudices of the era: Catholicism, Mormonism, Socialism, Intemperance, Wealth, Urbanization, and Immigration. In the era of scientific racism, social Darwinism, and Robber Baron capitalism it is not hard to see why the moneyed classes and the anti-immigrant working classes alike applauded Strong.

I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.

In his warning about the menace of Catholicism, Strong wrote:

…the Roman Catholic is not at liberty to weigh the Pope's judgment, to try his commands by his own conscience and the Word of God – to do this would be to become a Protestant. Worse, (the Catholic) stands not alone, but with many millions more, who are bound by the most dreadful penalties to act as one man in obedience to the will of a foreign potentate and in disregard to the laws of the land. This, I claim, is a very possible menace to the peace of society. (Emphasis original)

Throughout the book, Strong repeats the warning ("Again, our Constitution requires obedience to the laws of the United States and loyalty to the Government. The Pope also demands of every subject obedience and loyalty to himself.") For this exact reason, Catholics were for many decades – as they are more than happy to remind anyone within earshot – discriminated against in American politics. Today, of course, Catholicism has mainstreamed along with the people – Irish, Polish, Italian, etc – who brought it to the United States. Catholics are no longer discriminated against outside of their own imaginations. Instead, they have become part of a new bloc that argues that far from being a menace to civil society, the right to disregard the law when one's religious beliefs – even those curated by a Foreign Potentate – conflict with it.

Of course 19th Century Protestant leaders feared Catholic conscientious objections only inasmuch as they were perceived to conflict with laws that were already crafted in accordance with the beliefs and desires of the dominant Protestant orthodoxy in the United States. There is no conflict between the law and one's religion, in other words, if one's religion is the de facto faith of the civil institutions that create the law. Now the Papist Menace has exercised enough political power and influence over the law to have their wants and beliefs taken into account from the outset – try to find a remotely relevant law in the last thirty years that doesn't have some sort of abortion caveat written into it. I'll wait.

Allowing personal religious beliefs to trump the law was perceived as a threat to the future of our nation and of civil society when it was wielded by a religious minority. In the hands of the now-majority, it has been rebranded as the last bulwark against that same civil society. What the white Protestant male majority once treated as a combination of treason and heresy is now an act infused with nobility and, as of Monday, sanctioned by the highest Court of the land. While the practical impact of Monday's decision likely will be minimal, the endorsement by the Court of this once-dangerous principle has introduced a dangerous precedent and we will be bathed in its radioactive fallout for some time to come.

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66 Responses to “THE SHIFTING MENACE OF CONSCIENCE”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Most Catholics are not theocrats, but by voluntarily participating in the Catholic church, you are enabling theocrats. If you belong to an institution no one forced you to belong to (and this is especially true of adult converts to Catholicism such as Templar), you are in some small way responsible for the bad acts of that institution, particularly if you remain silent about them.

  2. Jeffrey Says:

    Templar,

    You are asking the readers of a liberal blog to be understanding of something that is by all objective standards stupid and backwards. No matter how you explain your attraction to Catholicism, it's still a religion and all religion is magical thinking regardless of how well-meaning its adherents may be.

  3. Anon Says:

    There's a really simple question one could ask of these people to determine how sincere they are:

    We've already seen you *defend* your religion. How much time have you spent *investigating* your religion to see if it's worthy of being defended?

    Templar can squirm all he wants, but the fact is that he supports the RCC, morally and financially. All of his justifications are glib *self* justifications, not actual reasoned argument and evidence.

    What we have not seen is Templar saying, "I am already aware of all these abuses, and I was so shocked by them that I investigated them thoroughly, because I wanted to make sure I wasn't giving my loyalty to a corrupt organization. And here are the detailed facts of the matter, showing that the RCC is not culpable, all appearances to the contrary." I, for one, would be very glad- even relieved- to hear such a defense, particularly if it held up to scrutiny. Instead we get glib dismissals that it's all bad apples and old news, adn the usual whinge that everyone who disagrees with him is a bigot.

    Ditto for homophobes like Xynzee. He'll sneer that people are too dumb to understand the "nuances" of his views on homosexuality, or that his opponents don't know as much about the Bible as he does. But frankly, does he or any of his ilk know jack shit about LGBTQ issues? I've challenged him before, asking him to list some of the books he's read by queer authors, but of course he ignored me. He arrogantly declares that he is such a brilliant expert on homosexuality that no homosexual can understand the sophistication of his beliefs. But in reality, everything he "knows" about homosexuality comes to him through bigoted pseudo-experts like himself.

    Meanwhile, I've studied the Bible all my life, and read plenty of Christian authors- not to mention the fact that I'm continualy surrounded by these people. But none of that counts, does it?

    Like I said, respect is a two-way street. Why should we respect Templar's disagreement with our investigations of the RCC, when he can't be bothered to make a serious investigation of his own? Why should we respect Xynzee's arrogant declarations that he's an expert on homosexuality, when he doesn't respect queers enough to read what they have to say?

    They will never understand this, by the way. Like they say- "Atheists are so arrogant- they can never understand that I have a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe." I've had Christians tell me outright that they don't need to listen to anything I say, because the Bible already told them everything they need to know about me. To Templar, any criticism of the RCC is automatically spurious, because the Church outranks you. To Xynzee, there's no need to read Beebo Brinker, because Leviticus and the Letter to the Romans have already taught him more about homosexuals than the homosexuals know about themselves.

  4. Templar Says:

    I'd like to take a moment and thank everyone for ignoring anything I actually said and turning me into some right-wing theocrat. I have never experienced anything like the kind of hostility from fellow liberals or progressives as has been displayed in the comments here. I thought we were supposed to be the Big Tent and I especially expected that any discussion would be made on the assumption that we were all arguing in good faith and with charitable respect for each other's views.

    My original and only point was that I believed that Ed was wrongly conflating the Fab Five with Catholics generally. For that, I been accused of whinging, weaseling, and enabling the whole shameful edifice of a bunch of hateful theocrats. It's also been assumed that I have never spoken out against the policies of the Church with which I disagree. If our community here demands that I accept my responsibility as a member of a group that has and does horrible things, fine. I just want you to know that there is another human being on the other end of your monitor and one who has been an active and supportive participant in Ed's little community. It truly hurts to been purposefully misunderstood and attacked based on assumptions that in no way apply to me. I've become a stand-in for every right-wing religious person that has ever done a hurtful thing to a number of you. This has turned mean-spirited in a way that I truly did not expect. I'm sorry if my statements offended anyone, but my comments here are anyways considered and made with the sole intention to help build understanding. Please do not assume that I am someone I'm not. That has been my entire point all along, that we should ere on the side of caution when considering the characteristics and motivations of groups or their members.

    I hope everyone will take a moment for reflection and accept my apologies for any of my statements that have offended or have been interpreted to belittle the suffering of others. That was never my purpose.

  5. Coises Says:

    Mothra asks:

    [H]ow can the Supreme Court reject writs certiorari from businesses who want to deny service to gay folk based on their religious beliefs and rule how they ruled yesterday?

    [My first comment on this is still “awaiting moderation.” I’ll try leaving out the links to supporting documentation.]

    Short answer: different laws.

    “Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock” was a constitutional question. A law of the State of New Mexico, upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court, was challenged on First Amendment grounds. Elane Photography claimed interference with freedom of speech.

    The court had already ruled, in “Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon vs. Smith,” that the “compelling interest test” was inappropriate in free exercise of religion cases because that would “open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”

    “Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al.” was decided based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993—a law which Congress passed in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Smith. That law was ruled unconstitutional as applied to the states, and hence it could not have been used in the Elane Photography case (which, together with Smith, explains why they positioned it as a freedom of speech issue); but it remains in force as applied to the Federal government.

    The Supreme Court had already indicated that this was not the right way to decide free exercise of religion cases. Congress attempted to overrule it; while the court held that to be beyond the authority of Congress in regard to the states, it did not dispute the Federal government’s power to apply the rule to itself.

  6. Adam Says:

    I don't read this blog to see pissing matches like this. Usually the comments here are respectful and informative. In fact, sometimes I like the comments area better than Ed's posts! Can everybody please try not to bash each other?

  7. Sarah Says:

    For those who are worried that their religious freedoms were being infringed upon before the recent Hobby Lobby decision, the Huffington Post has a handy-dandy quiz to help determine the status of their rights. A sample:

    3. My religious liberty is at risk because:

    A) I am being forced to use birth control.
    B) I am unable to force others to not use birth control.

  8. Robert Says:

    One of the dualities of the RCC is that those who are lay communicants often view it as the universal fellowship of believers, while those who are not see it as the corporate hierarchy running an enormous multinational entity.

    A comparison might be the phrase 'the Pentagon'. There are many people in the US military, but when we read 'the Pentagon says', we don't think of the enlisted Air Force medic running a clinic on an airbase in Germany. We think of the career officers who actually make and implement policies and procedures. Again, to those who are not sympathetic to the RCC spiritual and theological culture, it seems, at best, authoritarian. A good friend of ours, the UCC minister who married us, just lost her position as pastor of a church due to the congregation's leadership deciding they wanted a new and different pastor. That's not how it happens in Catholicism; the pope names cardinals, archbishops and bishops, bishops appoint priests to parishes, and parishioners take what they get.

    There's also the duality of the papal identity – he is both the supreme head of the church and the absolute monarch of the City State of the Vatican. Depending on what he needs to accomplish, he acts in one capacity or another. E.g., if he visited the UK in the former capacity, it could not be treated as a state visit; in the latter, it would have to be. Same with UN representation.

    When believing Catholics complain about this sort of thing, the above issues are what I would like them to reflect on.

  9. acer Says:

    @Adam:

    I'm usually doing the pissing, but even I am bummed at the way Templar has been treated.

  10. eau Says:

    Um.

    Has Templar really been treated all that poorly? I threw a couple of lame jokes in there, skipper provided a couple of better ones. A few others have demolished his arguments, but I don't see a whole lot of abuse in the comments above.

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  12. fernando_g Says:

    "Has Templar really been treated all that poorly?"

    Short answer: yes

  13. Elle Says:

    @ Templar

    I am truly sorry that you feel so hurt and upset by this conversation. I've been at the centre of a very robust conversation on G&T, and I know that other longtime commenters have as well, and it is hard to feel that you're being fundamentally misunderstood. It's especially hard when it's about something that feels very dear to you, or is at the core of your identity.

    I have a number of Catholic friends and colleagues who struggle with some of the ideas in this comment thread. My best friend from high school is a nun, and she tested her vocation with immense care in light of her commitment to social justice. Other friends have made a range of choices about staying part of church communities (Catholic and Protestant), creating places of resistance, or walking away entirely. I'm not insensible to the individual consequences of all of that.

    I skipped over your point about the five justices, because I had assumed you'd slightly misread the original post. I may be missing the nuance because I'm not from around your parts, but I don't see any references to the justices in Ed's post. My response was to your supplementary point, which was about whether it's necessary to bob the head to Catholic progressives in a post about Catholicism being absorbed into Christian hegemony.

    In terms of institutional power, in my opinion, there is little to no progressive strand within Catholicism. Self-organised places of resistance, like liberation theologians, We are Church, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have all been subject to swift and decisive disciplinary action. They have been explicitly told that the Vatican allows them such space as they have, and to step out of line will result in an end to that accommodation. This position has continued under Pope Francis, widely feted for his anti-poverty signalling.

    In the spaces in which I work (gender, human rights, and social justice), institutional power is used by the Catholic church to suppress rights (and it's nuns that I meet at the UN, because women make better shills for denying other women's rights), to influence local and national political parties to make being anti-choice a candidate selection shibboleth, and on national and international policy in a host of ways that harms LGBT people and women. In terms of political activity, there is virtually no common cause to be made with even the most progressive Catholic initiatives, because they're massively behind the curve, have no political muscle inside the Church, and can't step out of line within getting spanked by the Holy See. Progressive Catholic women are progressive despite their Catholicism, and not because of it.

    I think Eau summed this up perfectly, but have taken far too many words to give an explanation that I hope will make clear why asking that a criticism of Christian hegemony includes an acknowledgment of Catholic progressives is not a neutral act. If the tent stretches too far, it leaves women and LGBT people firmly out in the rain.

  14. democommie Says:

    Religion has, for at least the last several thousand years been a con run by men to get everyone who's NOT them to do the heavy lifting, donating and–when the pope, imam or whatever religious leader calls for it–putting their lives on the line and dying for the faith.

    It's always been bullshit.

    I was raised cath-o-lick and spent my youth being told what a terrible person I was by nuns and priests. My dad, fortunately for me, was not a GODbot. He had two sisters who were nuns and he usually deferred to their wanting a "rosary" after supper when they came to visit. The one time he didn't was memorable. His older sister didn't speak to him for the better part of a year. He said, later, that he wished he had known sooner what it would take to shut her up.

    I had a few great teachers both lay and religious in the school I attended for 13 years. The good ones' teaching was not in any way informed by their being cath-o-lick.

    I don't argue with my siblings who are still practicing their faith. We've had some heathens marry into the family (along with Afro, Asian and Hispanic Americans) and me declaring myself atheist is a source of pain for some of them. Too fucking bad; I love them but I don't require their permission for or approval of the life I live.

  15. Ursula Says:

    All of this makes me hope that PBO uses his time for the SOTU to read The Constitution to everyone in attendance. He could issue a written SOTU document or have a part of his time dedicated to that, to satisfy the constitutional requirement and all.

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