The Supreme Court of the United States of America is not given to levity. Even the occasional outburst of its resident bad boy Antonin Scalia is less humorous than it is revealing of deeper divisions within the court not yet truly explored.
We may yet get to see where all that leads—and a strange case that came before the court in mid-November last year could do it. Or it could merely have the court back to marking time, as it has done with some similar cases in which it dodged a bullet by invoking what it has called “ceremonial deism.” I’ve always found this term and its use today curious. After all, many of the framers of the Constitution were deists—at a time when that identification was damning. It amounted to having a religious view that bordered on the nonreligious. In an age of faith, the skeptical deist escaped total rejection because he at least acknowledged a God—albeit an absent God who left us with a rather secular logical construct. “Ceremonial deism” would almost seem to confirm this historical anomaly at a time when many would like to reinvent history and have those same deists forming a very
self-conscious religious state.
The case centers around the efforts of Summum founder “Corky” Ra to have his religion’s Seven Aphorisms placed in a Pleasant Grove, Utah, park alongside a longtime Ten Commandment display. He cites free speech rights, and thereby dodges the issue of whether the state should be in the business of displaying any religious symbol.
Where else but in America, some may snigger.
It is, of course, a good thing that the United States is so forthright in protecting religious expression. Goodness knows far too many countries either don’t care or care so much that they will protect only one favored form of expression.
But by my lights this is a particularly dynamic moment to be revisiting this topic in the United States. “Sum of All Fears” as a movie title may have veered toward nuclear terrorism, but the sum of those fears today could just as easily be the amazing convergence of forces that cannot help but pull us into a religious crisis.
As this issue comes out we expect the transfer of presidential power in the United States. Leaving is a president who came to embody the goals of the emerging politically active Religious Right. The faith-based initiative was only a small part of his outward expression of a sense of religious exceptionalism and manifest destiny. Coming into office is a president with a background that covers religious experience as diverse as black liberation theology and Islam. His is a rich background that goes a long way to explaining his apparently more globalist vision.
And where are the global religious trends heading? I think they are best summed up by referencing a two-day summit held November last year in the General Assembly of the United Nations. Cochaired and called by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the meeting aimed at bringing all religions together for world peace. Continuing religious intolerance within Saudi Arabia aside, this may be a far more important barometer of the world religious view than the likely-never-to-quite-go-away issue of religious terrorism. As has been pointed out repeatedly by new Middle East peace plenipotentiary, former British prime minister Tony Blair, since religion has been so much of the cause of violence in recent years, it is only by coming together on religious issues that we can solve things.
It sounds good to a point. But in my view there is only one thing worse than being forced at the point of a gun to convert to a particular religious
viewpoint—it is being herded into a religious corral of syncretism. Once branded with this form of religion, one’s particular deeply held faith views
if practiced are likely to be declared maverick and unacceptable.
The real world consequences of the U.S. financial meltdown have yet to be truly seen. While the panic has been global, its cause and primary effect remains predominantly American. It has affected U.S. financial dominance in the world. It will tend to make it more obligatory for the United States to play along with the globalist agenda.
The irony with the Bush administration was that although rather extreme and intolerant religious worldviews were embraced within its fold, the legislative agenda to accompany them was never empowered. Now that the economic temple of secularism has collapsed around us, it is obvious that any strange bedfellow is acceptable if it will
restore us to economic security. Debt? Run the printing presses all day and pour in the red ink. State-run corporations and the socialist menace? What’s good for big business must be good for us all. Global jihad and the menace of terrorism? Real enough, but it might all evaporate if we gather together and sing Kum Ba Yah. Religion is good if it is directed to the public good. So let’s come together, agree to behavioral ground rules, and let the millennial good times roll.
Let’s remember that the most insane abuses of human dignity that took place in the democratic center of Europe barely a lifetime ago came about by democratic acclaim and were seen as the answer to the stifling malaise of the Great Depression. Religion was not so much attacked as co-opted.
We need to be on our guard today. I remain convinced that the great threats to religious liberty are not to be found in particular pieces of legislation or particular court actions, onerous as some of them may be, but in the shifts and sea changes in attitudes that always precede and accompany great and dangerous movements. I pray that our little barque of religious freedom remains afloat across the likely shoals ahead.
And that might be as good a point to refer to this issue as I will get. Bannered on the cover is the first in a multipart series on the English Reformation. Forgive me my bias, but I hold it pretty important for our U.S. readers to review the origins of the whole religious liberty construct. It’s pretty easy to criticize all faith followings for moments of intolerance brought on by their sense of divine privilege. But it is just as easy to note that religious freedom concepts barely existed before the Protestant Reformation, and owed as much to an enlightened theology of man’s personal responsibility to find the Divine as they did to the secular enlightenment and the development of the modern mind.
It troubles me mightily that the principles of the Reformation are fading from Western consciousness. It troubles me mightily that the Western world is in such a rush to undo the Reformation—even as most of the issues that precipitated it in the first place have been reinstated. It troubles me mightily that there are so many calls for what amounts to religious legislation—even if often under cover of civil necessity.
After all, the hallmark of the worst religious persecutions of the Middle Ages was a common purpose between church and state. Drive a wedge between them, I say. As a couple, they are bad company for religious freedom. This issue also carries an update story on a Sabbath accommodation case that has finally been vindicated before the courts. One’s rights may seem secure, but as this case shows, it can be a long legal pull to uphold them.
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Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."