Tag Archives: church and state

Stephen Prothero on Indiana’s RFRA

There’s been some discussion on my Facebook wall about this USA Today editorial by American religious historian Stephen Prothero in support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I haven’t been able to pin it down yet, but something strikes me as “off” about this particular analogy Prothero makes:

We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

And then there’s definitely a longer conversation to be had about why Prothero is willing to let a fundamentalist baker refuse to bake a cake for a lesbian couple, but would not let a fundamentalist restaurant owner refuse to serve those same lesbians a meal:

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

I understand the logic of the distinction Prothero wants to draw: The fundamentalist who has to bake the lesbians a wedding cake is being compelled to “participate” in a “rite,” whereas the fundamentalist who’s compelled to serve them dinner is not. But three questions about this distinction:

First, is baking a wedding cake participating in a rite? (I guess this is part, at least, of what feels “off” to me about the analogy to sacramental bread.)

Second, are we sure that serving the lesbians dinner is not participating in a rite? (What if they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary?)

Third, would this distinction hold up in court–ergo, is it even relevant?

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Miscellaneous Christmas news stories

With Christmas approaching, here’s a miscellany of Christmas-related news stories that crossed my screen recently:

Satanic Temple Wins Battle To Bring Lucifer Display Inside Florida State Capitol” (Huffington Post): These people are obnoxious gadflies, but in a worthy cause. Beelzebub bless them, every one.

73 Percent Of Americans Believe Jesus Was Born To A Virgin” (Huffington Post): I confess to being surprised the figure came out that high. Following a link to Pew’s short report on the larger survey this figure came from, I learned that nearly half of Americans believe that nativity scenes either should not be allowed on government property, or should be allowed only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths (read: menorahs).

They’re Christian, but Christmas is off limits for several faiths (Deseret News): I want to say I’m not a fan of the DesNews (a Mormon-owned paper which is currently trying to buy out its competitor, the Salt Lake Tribune–a Mormon vs. non-Mormon battle dating back to the 19th century). But this was an interesting article about Christian groups that hang back from Christmas–Churches of Christ, Friends, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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The Road to Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby flyer corrected

On Wednesday, I gave an on-campus presentation titled, “The Road to Hobby Lobby.” I was interested in tracing the connection between Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Oregon v. Smith, the 1990 peyote case in which a 5-4 majority represented by Antonin Scalia rejected the strict scrutiny standard for “free exercise” cases. As a result of that case, Hobby Lobby couldn’t appeal to the First Amendment in claiming a violation of their religious freedom; they appealed instead to RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1993 law that required the federal government to observe the strict scrutiny standard since the Court had held that the Constitution didn’t require it. RFRA passed with broad support across the political spectrum, but in recent years, religious conservatives have invoked RFRA to ends that dismay progressives–as in the Hobby Lobby decision. (I’ve blogged about this before.)

Here are the concluding slides from my PowerPoint presentation. They sum up “the road to Hobby Lobby,” along with what I see as the central irony of the situation:








Protestant Roots in the Founding of America

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Roots in the Founding of America
By Jesse Bowman

The Common Foundation of Our Nation

What kind of nation are we? This question could go in many different directions, with many different focus points. Think about the “America experiment”: We are a blend of numerous cultures, a home to many peoples, and a face to diversity. So the question at hand, then, is how America is classified as a nation. What qualities exist within this country that distinguish it?

Although there are a vast array of cultures and beliefs that have influenced America over the years, it is clear that certain values and beliefs are embedded into this nation’s heritage. Americans proudly claim to be “we, the people”, endowed with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. There is no doubt that ideas such as these will never leave the U.S. culture. The founding of this country has roots that still hold strong today.

But where do such ideas arise? This question is still heavily debated today in scholarly circles. For some, these ideas are embedded in the Protestant religion. The Bible contains references to life, freedom, and joy that could certainly be connected to such ideas. However, others believe these ideas are connected with the Enlightenment and thinkers such as John Locke. Far from religious, the Enlightenment produced thoughts and theories that provoked such foundational doctrine.

Protestantism’s Role in Our Roots

The first answer to this question gives rise to another question of how much of a role religion (especially Protestantism) played in the “roots” of the United States. At the time of the nation’s independence from Great Britain, Protestantism dominated in the religious culture by far. This sheer fact already made the job of the founding fathers much more difficult: In terms of the construction of government and foundational documents, how could they find agreement without compromising a (religiously) free country?

Throughout this class, we have looked at the effects of Protestantism on American history and how it has shaped the society as a whole. When we look back even further in history, we find that Protestantism arose as a result of those religious groups breaking off from the Catholic Church. Protestantism has been in America even longer than the nation of the United States, and it was easily the most popular religious practice by the time the United States had arisen.

I wish to take a look at the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson, specifically. Both of these are important when considering how we got to where we are today, and I want to dive into exactly what Jefferson was thinking as he wrote this Declaration. Did he intend for the nation to be entirely theistic or Protestant with his inclusion of “Creator”, or did he merely try to satiate the vast majority of Americans who identified with Protestant beliefs and values? Regardless, the impact of this document and this person are nothing short of vital in the creation of the country we have today. And it is important to remember that these questions are not detached from the interests of the authors: We will have to sift through much opinion and interpretation.

The Declaration: Religious or Secular?

One argument present in my readings is that the Declaration of Independence is neither wholly Protestant (nor wholly Judeo-Christian). Rick Fairbanks, the author of “The Law of Nature and Nature’s God”, tells us that “except in the weak sense of psychological independence, Jefferson’s Declaration is not based on Judeo-Christian principles” (pg. 552). He claims that Thomas Jefferson did not write this document to strictly align with the popular views of religion at the time; therefore, it should not be read as if it were.

Yet at the same time, Fairbanks holds that the Declaration did not intend an entirely secular document either: “However, the Declaration is not a wholly secular document; it contains a deep tension between naturalistic and theological commitments” (pg. 552). He realizes that if he claims this document not to be religious, neither can he claim it to be secular. Rather, he analyzes what he calls the “deep tension” of two very different commitments. Thomas Jefferson was not a Protestant, and in writing the document he wanted to instill beliefs and ideas into the nation that were not solely of this religion. But he knew that he had to get the document to pass in the light of a Protestant majority.

Voluntarism vs. Intellectualism

Fairbanks then dives deeper into these two “commitments” to explain what he means. He refers to what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma: Is an idea good because God (or the gods) command/support it, or does God (do the gods) command/support an idea because it is good? It is important to consider this in the light of this document because this lets us know more about Thomas Jefferson’s intentions. There are two takes on this dilemma: One is “Voluntarism in natural law”, and the other is “Intellectualism”.

If we claim Thomas Jefferson to be a “voluntarist”, then we view the inclusion of such ideas as life and liberty in the light that he believes these ideas to be good because they are God’s. In this sense, Fairbanks argues, the Declaration would be much more theistically inclined, because Thomas Jefferson would see God as vital for the moral survival of the country. However, if Thomas Jefferson were to be seen as an “intellectualist”, then these ideas take on a much more secular identity. Rather than being connected to religious ideals, Jefferson would have been more influenced by the Enlightenment and cultural influences of that nature.

In his work, Rick Fairbanks argues that Jefferson is indeed an intellectualist. He sees the tension between voluntarism and intellectualism as a parallel reflection between the tension of naturalism and supernaturalism. And Thomas Jefferson is well-known for the famous “Thomas Jefferson Bible”, in which he removes all pages that claim Jesus did supernatural things. Rather, he focused on Jesus as a great moral teacher whose teachings were essential for a society to flourish. Such ideas as life and liberty, then, would not be based on a spiritual and supernatural sense of eternal life or freedom, but on concepts of freedom that relate more to intellectualist concepts. Clearly, Fairbanks would say, Jefferson holds that such moral criterion is superior to more abstract, supernatural beliefs about these concepts.

Misreading the Declaration?

Another argument I came across in my research deals with the idea that the Declaration of Independence has been misread as a pro-Protestant document. In his article “Reading/Misreading the Declaration”, writer Barry Bell presents us with his beliefs that the “the language of the Deistic, enlightened, ‘common sensical’ Jefferson” is being interpreted “as though he were a modern Isaiah and the Declaration as an evangelical sermon” (pg. 73). Bell holds that it is a misinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence to think that it is a Protestant document (or wholly Protestant, similar to Fairbanks’ argument).

He goes on to support his claim by describing a sermon by a preacher named Peter Whitney titled American Independence Vindicated given in 1776. In this sermon, Whitney claims the Declaration to be written in alignment with the freedom of the Bible, and he would say that Jefferson wrote this document with reverence for Protestantism. Bell, as expected, refutes this argument by arguing that Jefferson’s inspiration came not from any mode of Protestantism, but from the Enlightenment and thoughts of similar thinkers. He completely abhors the use of the Declaration as a religious support, because that was not its intention.

Jefferson’s Intentions

Many, many more arguments and interpretations of Jefferson’s intent and agenda in the Declaration of Independence exist. As I searched through various sources and arguments, I formulated my own opinion concerning Jefferson and the Declaration. From what I have researched, it seems apparent to me that Jefferson did a balancing act. He was a Deist, and although that means he believed in God, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he would support Protestantism specifically. Yet he included “Creator” for a reason; aside from personal conviction, he knew he had to appease

In agreement with Fairbanks, I also found Thomas Jefferson to be an intellectualist. He saw the Bible as a central guidance of morality and lawfulness in a successful society. In his personal Bible, Jefferson cuts out all the miraculous works of Jesus (literally) and focuses specifically on his moral teachings. Hence, I believe his agenda not to be particularly religious, because he might see such a document as the Declaration as more important than any personal religious motive.

I also found much evidence about the influence of Enlightenment ideas on Thomas Jefferson’s thought process. One of the most significant influences came from the popular thinker John Locke, who even preceded Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” with his own similar unalienable rights. This, too, could reveal a more “common-sensical” root to Jefferson’s intentions.


Although I have formulated my own opinions, I invite and challenge you to do the same. This isn’t merely a debate over an irrelevant historical occurrence; this document continues to affect the way we live today. If our nation views Jefferson as more enlightened, then that will impact the way in which we view religious separation and the cultural heritage of the nation in general. If it is more theistic, then perhaps the nation should take into account what that would mean for the country as a whole.

The Declaration, to this day, remains open to interpretation. Thomas Jefferson and the other influential founding fathers clearly had certain agendas (whether intentional or not), and as a result, there is a vague sense of what constitutes as public expression of religion. How would a different interpretation of such documents as the Declaration of Independence affect the nation we live in today?

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How would Smith have decided Hobby Lobby?

That’s the question I’m wondering as I watch the unfolding of this latest turn of events in American religious freedom jurisprudence. It’s one of those impossible-to-answer hypotheticals, of course, but here’s the deal:

In 1990, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in the case Oregon v. Smith (henceforth Smith), authored by Justice Scalia. At issue in this case was whether or not the state of Oregon was obliged by the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause to create an exemption in its anti-drug laws for the religious use of peyote. Scalia and the four other justices who joined his ruling threw out earlier precedents (well, Scalia denied he was doing that, but it looked that way to lots of other people, including the four justices who dissented from his logic) to argue that government is simply not obliged to provide religious exemptions for generally applicable laws. To admit a constitutional right to religious exemptions, Scalia argued, would open the door to anarchy in a society as religiously diverse as ours.

Lots of people were alarmed by the Smith decision, across the political spectrum. That led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which legislatively reinstated the pre-Smith judicial test that Scalia’s ruling had overturned. In other words, Congress required state and federal governments to submit their laws to a standard of strict scrutiny when it came to their effect on religious practice: laws could not impose a substantial burden on people’s religious practice without a compelling state interest. Simply put, government had to show a really good reason not to allow a religious exemption to a law. Of course, whether or not government had such a reason would be subject to dispute on a case-by-case basis (the specter of anarchy that Scalia had invoked in Smith.)

Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the constitutional right to hold the federal government to the RFRA standard, but it didn’t have the power to impose that standard on state governments. So RFRA now applies to federal laws but not to state laws. (Some states have responded to this latest ruling by voluntarily passing their own versions of RFRA.)

Hobby Lobby’s appeal for a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act was based on RFRA; Justice Alito’s ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby was therefore also based on RFRA. And there’s where my historical hypothetical comes into play. What if there had been no RFRA? What if the Hobby Lobby case had had to be decided by the logic of Smith?

In 1990, Scalia argued that people are not entitled to religious exemptions to generally applicable laws. In 2014, Scalia joined the Alito majority in granting such an exemption to Hobby Lobby. Now certainly Scalia could fend off accusations of hypocrisy by arguing that RFRA had tied his hands. I still believe, he might tell us, that the “free exercise” clause doesn’t entitle Hobby Lobby to a religious exemption. But, he might continue, Congress has passed a law–RFRA–that requires me to judge Hobby Lobby’s case by a different standard.

Still, I can’t help but wonder (by which, of course, I mean “suspect”) if, in the absence of RFRA, Scalia and other conservative Catholics would have found some clever way to give Hobby Lobby its exemption, even under the rule of Smith. Smith, as a peyote-use case, was a natural cause célèbre for libertarians. Hobby Lobby is a natural cause célèbre for religious conservatives. As I’ve observed elsewhere, the argument in favor of a “compelling state interest” standard for claims to free religious exercise–that is to say, the argument against the principle laid down by Scalia in Smith–is increasingly being heard from religious conservatives concerned to roll back secularism. Scalia and other conservative justices have likewise shown themselves to be concerned about rolling back secularism, at least when it encroaches on Judeo-Christian privilege. So: absent the convenient “out” afforded by RFRA, would Scalia and like-minded conservatives on the Court have applied the rule used to deny peyotists a religious exemption in 1990 to likewise deny Christian conservatives the religious exemption they sought in 2014?


The Supreme Court’s Protestant Influence

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

The Supreme Court’s Protestant Influence
By Sara Garrett

In America we value our freedom of religion and trust our government to protect that freedom. Whenever our freedom is in question we leave it to the Supreme Court to interpret our constitution and tell us exactly what our freedoms are. However when looking back through some of our court cases that the Supreme Court has ruled on we can see ways that in some ways they have been influenced by Protestant values that are prominent in our society.

During different time periods in our country the way the Supreme Court has made decisions that accommodate Protestant values. Then on the other hand there have been times where the Supreme Court has made decision that reject these values taking a separatists approach when it comes to church-state relations.

Late National Period

In the late national period we see that the supreme courts ruling shows signs of our countries Protestant values. Through the Supreme Court’s decision on a few cases it shows that they have tried to accommodate some typical Protestant values. An obvious example of this is the case of Reynolds v. United States (1878). In Reynolds v. United States the court rules that the laws banning polygamy are constitutional and this ruling still stands today. Even though by popular opinion polygamy may be viewed as a very negative thing, however it clearly states in the bible that polygamy is a sin. So we can see that the Supreme Courts decision is rooted in Protestant values of marriage and that polygamy wrong and as Americans is not something that we want to condone.

Another example of the Supreme Court making a decision that favor protestant values is the cases of Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). In this case Oregon had passed a law that tried to eliminate parochial schools by making it mandatory for children to attended public school or state recognized private schools. The court decided that the law was unconstitutional and stated that parents have the right of liberty therefore they can choose which school to send their children too.

Pierce v. Society of Sister shows that when the state tried to prevent children from going to Protestant schools but the court did not allow that that. The Society of Sisters was concerned with parents’ rights to send their children to parochial schools and through the Supreme Courts decision that right was protected.

These cases are just two examples of ways we see the Supreme Court accommodating to Protestant values. They are supporting Protest values in education by protecting parents right of making sure their children can have protestant educations. They also do not allow polygamy, which is something that is clearly against Protestant values.


In this time period there is a shift in the court. While the Supreme Court is still accommodating to Protestant values they are also more accommodating to other non-protestant religions. We see this in a few cases like Cantwell v. Connecticut and Everson v. Board of Education.

In the case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) we see the court has become more accommodating to non-protestant religions. This case in particular deals with Jehovah witnesses. Cantwell was going door to door with pamphlets about his religion and was charged with soliciting and breach of peace. When brought before the Supreme Court the court found that Cantwell’s actions were protected by the first and fourteenth amendment. The courts decision reflects them being more accommodating to non-protestant religions

During this time period we also have the landmark case of Everson v. Board of Education (1947). The reason this case is considered to be a landmark case is because it is the first time the Supreme Court made the Establishment Clause binding to states.

In Everson v. Board of Education New Jersey students attending non-public (mostly catholic schools) are given reimbursement for students taking public transportation to school. The case was brought to the court by a New Jersey taxpayer; the courts decision was that the reimbursement was constitutional. The opinion of the court stated, “Since we hold that the legislature may appropriate general state funds or authorize the use of local funds for the transportation of pupils to any school, we conclude that such authorization of the use of local funds is likewise authorized”

In both of these cases we can see that the Supreme Court is trying to be accommodating to all religions. They are trying not to place limits on Protestant values in society as well as some values of other non-protestant religions.

1955 and beyond

In this last time period there is a dramatic shift in how the Supreme Court now handles cases dealing with the free exercise and establishment of religion. Up until now they had been very accommodating to Protestant values but starting in the late 1950s we see that their decisions have changed. The Supreme Court starts to take a very separatists approach. They do not want to mix religion and government and this means not as much support of Protestant values in their decisions. We can see that through their decisions on some of their most well known cases.

The first case that reflects the Supreme Court separating Protestant values in their rulings is Engel v. Vitale (1962). Engel v. Vitale is another landmark case because it bans prayer in public schools. In this case we see the court taking a separatist approach to their decision. In the past they had tried to be more accommodating to religions, there for still being able to have protestant values be apart of that accommodation. However, with Engel v. Vitale even though the prayers in school were voluntary prayer and government written the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to have these prayers in public school.

This is a very significant case because we see that through this decision school are no longer allowed to have prayer in them. While many Protestants wanted to have prayer in schools the court ruled against it showing that there is not an as significant Protestant role in the court.

Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) is another very significant case. The reason this case is so important is because in the decision the court made a test, The Lemon Test, which explains the requirements for legislation regarding religion. This is a three-fold test, which are:

  1. “The government’s decisions must not result in an “excessive government engagement” with religious affairs’. (Also known as the Entanglement Prong)
  2. The government’s legislative action must minimally enforce or inhibit religious practice (also known as the Effect Prong)
  3. The government’s implicit action is required to maintain a secular legislative agenda (also known as the Purpose Prong)”

Now when any case regarding religion is brought before the court they use this test to see if the governments action is constitutional or not. If one of the 3 folds is violated then the act is rule unconstitutional.

This is only another way the Court has less of a Protestant influence. The court has a set way to handle cases regarding religion so that there will be no disparities between religions and the governments support of it. There is no way now the court can show favoritism over certain religions once they start making test like these.

Roe v. Wade (1973) is one of the most famous cases to go before the Supreme Court. This case deals with the issue of abortion. This case does not deal with religion however it does deal with values that play a significant role in Protestant religion. In the courts decision they claimed that abortion is a fundamental right, meaning this is a right that belongs to all human beings. This is something that not only upset Protestants but other religious groups as well. The Court really does not take Protestant values into consideration at all. This is a clear example of how separate they have made religion and politics because the Protestant values to do influence this case at all.

It is clear that the Supreme Court has changed the way they rule on establishment and free exercise of religion cases. They are not being as accommodating and have very much shown that they want strongly enforces the separation of church and state.


America is a country that was founded for freedom and one of those freedoms is the freedom of religion. America is also a country founded by Protestants. Through out history we have seen the Supreme Court try to balance the influence of Protestant Values and the freedom of religion. They have been accommodating for a long time and now we see that there have been great efforts and decisions made to make sure that religion and government are separated and that there is religious freedom for all religions in America and not just Protestant religions.

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Protesting a Hindu invocation in the Senate

I was aware of this 2007 incident, and of an earlier controversy over a Hindu invocation in the House in 2000. But I’d never seen footage of the incident until the video showed up on my Facebook wall a couple of days ago (very belatedly).

The protesters, who you can hear praying and quoting scripture off screen, were Ante and Katherine Pavkovic and their daughter Christan, members of Operation Rescue. (From North Carolina, I understand–former stomping grounds of mine.) The cleric whose meditation they interrupted was Rajan Zed, from Nevada. Just to make things a little more interesting with an eye to religious pluralism: Zed had been invited to serve as guest chaplain by Harry Reid, a rather rare Mormon Democrat.

This was the first time that a Hindu had been invited to serve as the Senate’s guest chaplain. Some Christian Right organizations and publications objected to the Hindu invocation on the grounds that Hindus don’t worship the Christian or Judeo-Christian God acknowledged by the Founders.

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Hobby Lobby and the equality of consciences

A former student sent me this link to an essay in The Atlantic: Will the Roberts Court Follow Its Own Religious-Freedom Precedent?

The author, constitutional law professor Garrett Epps, argues that because the Roberts court has upheld the principle that “when government gives benefits to individuals, and the individuals pass on the benefit to religion, no dissenter is injured, so there’s no [constitutional] violation,” the court needs, for consistency’s sake, to hold that Hobby Lobby suffers no constitutional injury when the government requires it to provide insurance coverage that would allow employees to use contraceptive techniques to which Hobby Lobby owners object on religious grounds. The likeness between the situations doesn’t look as airtight to me as it looks to Epps, so I think the Roberts course could wriggle away from the precedents Epps cites with less hypocrisy than he wants to hang on them. But this is the crux of Epps’s argument:

Many taxpayers, religious and non-religious, object deeply to government aid to Christian schools, but legally, their outraged consciences are not injured by government funding that flows to those schools as a result of “independent choice.” […]

That’s not my rule; it’s the Court’s. And if the conservative majority now says that Hobby Lobby actually can dictate to its employees, they will look like hypocrites.

That’s because to assert a right to control employees’ private choice will be to hold that religious people—or, even more ominously, some favored religious people—are more easily injured than others, that their free-exercise rights trump those of their employees. The Court has insulated benefits to religion from veto by objecting citizens; now the religious want the right to veto on religious grounds benefits that flow to others. All consciences are equal; but some are thus more equal than others.


New Pew study on religious freedom in the US

A student in a continuing education class I taught last semester on church-state issues sent me the following link about a new Pew study on restrictions on religious freedom in various parts of the world:

The U.S. Puts ‘Moderate’ Restrictions on Religious Freedom (The Atlantic)

I haven’t had a chance to look at the study itself, but the moment I read that “according to Pew, the U.S. saw a marked increase in hostility toward religion starting in 2009, and this level remained consistent in the following years,” I thought: Okay-y-y…  And then I kept reading, with my “hermeneutic of suspicion” antennae fully extended, to see what specific actions would be represented as constituting “hostility toward religion.” Because what makes church-state issues so thorny is precisely the fact that Americans can’t agree on what constitutes “hostility toward religion.” When a court orders a public school to take down Warner Sallman’s painting Head of Christ, is that an act of hostility toward religion (as the religious right painted it), or is it an exercise of the constitutional mandate forbidding an establishment of religion (as the court held)?

I had to scroll all the way down to the end of the article before I started getting specific examples of what Pew considered “hostility toward religion.” It appears, from what I’ve seen so far, that Pew cast a widely inclusive net in an effort to be non-partisan in acknowledging various kinds of concerns that advocates cast in terms of religious freedom. The article mentions campaigns to block construction of mosques, but also Obamacare’s requiring Catholic institutions to provide coverage for birth control. Oh, but wait, second thought: Should I read that as an attempt to be non-partisan, or as a partisan ploy to put Obamacare’s contraception mandate on a par with blocking the construction of mosques?

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In Nauvoo… with Catholics

I just returned from a mildly pluralistic holiday getaway in Nauvoo, Illinois, which my husband and I were interested in visiting because it’s a Mormon historical site–the last city Mormons established during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and the place where some of Mormonism’s most distinctive doctrines and rites were introduced. (My husband and I were both raised LDS.) Most of the reconstructed buildings in historic Nauvoo are owned by the LDS Church; a few years back, that community also rebuilt the Nauvoo Temple, which was first constructed in the 1840s and once again now occupies a very high-profile place on the skyline overlooking the Mississippi River.

However, certain Nauvoo sites associated with Smith himself are owned not by the LDS Church but by the much less well known Community of Christ, Mormonism’s second-largest denomination, which in recent decades has undergone something of what I would call a “Protestantization.” The sites owned by Community of Christ include Smith’s two homes; his “red brick store,” where the LDS Church’s women’s organization was founded and where key esoteric rites were introduced; and Smith’s grave. During the couple of days we spent in Nauvoo, my husband and I stayed in a home in the Community of Christ-owned portion of the historic village; the home had been built in the 1840s to serve as a hotel.

On the block adjoining the Nauvoo Temple, sharing the skyline with it, is a Catholic church, Sts. Peter and Paul. Not being  welcome to worship in the LDS temple, I decided to attend Saturday night Mass at their next door neighbor’s. (Although never Catholic, I served in the 1990s as a volunteer in a Catholic mission, doing community development work in the Dominican Republic, the same country where I had been a Mormon missionary a few years earlier.) The sanctuary was painted pink and filled with Victorian statuary in pastel colors of the kind that immediately makes me think: German immigrants. The pre-Vatican II altar was still in place behind the post-Vatican II table.

There was a curious moment at the end of the Prayers of the People, when the priest announced that they were now going to recite the prayer to St. Michael for religious freedom–which everyone but me, it seemed, proceeded to do from memory. The prayer didn’t overtly mention religious freedom: it was a traditional-sounding petition calling on the archangel to stamp down the forces of evil. I wondered: Was this prayer a local custom? Or is this a practice that the bishops have been promoting nationally in the wake of the controversy over religious exceptions under Obamacare? Can any Catholic readers enlighten me?

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