Monday, April 20, 2015

Personal Freedom, Public Responsibility

Personal freedom.  Public responsibility.  They are two opposing forces of conflict that have been with us since the founding of America.  The freedom to live our lives unencumbered, as we see fit, going our own way.  The responsibility to live in harmonious community sharing our efforts, cooperating to achieve a greater good.  “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” bumping up against “We, the people.”  The search for that elusive balance continues, a search that all too often becomes a battlefield.

Indiana and Arkansas recently attempted to pass state laws defending a person’s right to refuse to deliver business services to a person or group if such action would violate their religious principles.  Principles as self-determined by that individual.  The legal basis justifying this was supposedly our First Amendment right to Freedom of Religion.  Its motivating target, whether said explicitly or not, was a backlash scheme against the LGBT community and the rapid advancement of their drive for “marriage equality.”  Yet the haunting echoes of “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” (automatically meaning African-Americans) from 50 years ago were unmistakable.  As were the “Irish (Catholics) need not apply” notices from 100 years ago.  African-American slavery and Reconstructionist discrimination were not solely an economic enslavement.  They were also rationalized as part of a “Divine order” reflecting “God’s call” to “protect” a supposed inferior class of people while ensuring no intermingling of the races – “an abhorrence to God.”  A fallacious idea fully debunked half a century ago, only to be resurrected for another round with another targeted group.  Yet it still does not fly – especially on any false freedom of religion basis.

In the fantasy tales continually spread by the Fox News storytellers, the obligation to serve all citizens in spite of someone’s religious view is just another chapter in their ongoing “War on [whatever]” fictional anthology.  But the truth is, if there is any war being fought at all, it is a counter-revolution against those who would hide behind a distortion of their professed religious faith.  A defensive uprising against a minority group of predominately older, White, Protestant Christians – a shrinking demographic group – who make a literal interpretation of “cherry picked” selected Biblical verses.  Such a belief system is fine if it brings peace and direction to those believers.   What is not fine is when those believers, or any believers, try to push their  views onto the population at large who may choose a different belief system.  The supposedly aggrieved have been in fact the aggressor.  The voices of those who now feel oppressed are an echo of those who have long been oppressed.  It is easy to be self-righteous when we are in the majority.  But in our changing world, it can be frightening when we are humbled because the tables have turned and we are now in the minority.

“Freedom of religion” is one of our most prized guarantees as an American citizen.  But religious freedom is a personal guarantee.  Each one of us is free to believe what we choose to spiritually believe.  We are free to practice our rituals undisturbed in the privacy of our home and in a community gathering (church, synagogue, mosque) of like-minded individuals.  We cannot be barred from public service because of the religion we choose (although such restrictions still remain an unfortunate de facto limitation for many).  Freedom of religion is about preventing any structural limitations on our private lives as a citizen due to our religious affiliation.

Freedom of religion is not permission to treat our neighbors however we choose based upon our own religious beliefs.  If I have religious freedom, my neighbor also has freedom from my religion.  The unfortunate truism is that religion, which should be the great unifier of humankind, instead has created inherent conflict among different believers for thousands of years.  And in a melting-pot nation such as America, those differences are endless and often bitter: between organized religious institutions, as well as within individual congregations.  The only way to keep such a diversified country together is to leave free religion to individual private conduct, with universally shared conduct in the public place.  And in that public place, “All men [and women] are created equal.”  No hedging.

Inside an authentic Jewish delicatessen is some of the very best food to be found.  It is not just the recipes, but also because of the quality of the ingredients and skillful preparation that goes into it.  Jewish kosher food is not just a culinary treat, it is also deeply embedded within a sacred religious framework and ritual, and such deep care is reflected in the purity of its outcome.  As such, that Jewish deli owner could easily make the case that his food is a religious expression, designed and reserved for practicing Jews only.  Thereby rejecting “on religious grounds” the hordes of Gentiles seeking to frequent that establishment.  What would be the hue and cry then?

Or what about the innkeeper who turns away from her motel the itinerant traveler who is not Muslim?  Or the soul food restaurateur who chooses to “refuse service to anyone [white]” because “mingling the races” violates his religious convictions?  Or the wanna-be practitioner turned away from the yoga studio for not being Hindu enough?

When we gather in our religious houses, we can rightfully expect the congregants to follow the collective rules and dogma of that house.  But when we voluntarily choose to play in the public arena – whether in government service or in the marketplace of commerce – then we are bound to playing by the public rules.  And in America, the accepted and codified public rule is: everyone is equal, and everyone is expected to be treated equally.  If we choose, we can still mutter and complain quietly under our breath about “those people” (just as I observed often enough in the South and New England in the ‘60s).  Whether to serve everyone is not up for  discussion.

We cannot deny to our neighbors the rights and courtesies we expect for ourselves.  If we cannot do so, then we need to withdraw ourselves from our extended neighborhood.  Our individual religious freedom lives in the home and church.  Our shared community responsibility lives in the public place.  We must live well appropriately within both Freedom and Responsibility.

“I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendency of one sect over another.”  “I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to him, and not to the priests.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

©   2015   Randy Bell