God and the Constitution

God and the Constitution

January 28, 2018

Above and beyond the variety of events generating headlines over the past week, I’ve been keeping an eye on one that is flying under the radar in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is yet another appeal, a phony appeal as I see it, to “religious liberty” as a rationale for denying certain services and rights to certain elements of our citizenry. In this case it’s a proposed HHS policy that would allow health care workers to refuse to treat transgendered persons on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Writing just this past week in Commentary magazine, Dr. Steve Sanders, a Professor of Law at Indiana University and a lecturer in IU’s Gender Studies Program, noted: “This is a perilous new policy, as it has the potential to impede access to care, insult the dignity of patients, and allow religious beliefs to override mainstream medical science.”

In a similar vein, and going back now a couple of months, a case last fall—which is still undecided at this point—came before the Colorado Supreme Court in which a business created to serve the public claimed the right to refuse to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding reception, again on religious grounds. The case’s title is Masterpiece Cake Shop vs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

In a narrow sense the matter of who bakes a wedding cake for a couple getting married may not seem all that momentous. But the larger question of whether or not a business that is open to the general public can use an appeal to religion to deny their services to certain segments of the public certainly is. That issue far transcends the matter of who bakes a cake for whom.

A side note: I am old enough to remember some 50-60 years ago a similar argument being put forth by some white barbers and beauticians in the wake of the civil rights legislation that was being passed then. While most of them complied with the newly enacted equal-access laws, some maintained that as a matter of personal principle and belief they should not have to cut, or treat, the hair of black persons. I don’t recall that that argument ever got tested with a court case; but it didn’t fly then, and this one shouldn’t now.

I also note with interest and encouragement the response this Colorado case has generated in which nearly 1300 clergy and faith leaders filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It read in part: “It is both morally wrong and not constitutionally required to permit blanket discrimination in the public marketplace for goods and services based on the personal religious beliefs of merchants…”

Among those religious leaders taking part in this effort is the President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who weighed in with these words: “Religious freedom means that people have the right to gather in religious communities of their choice, according to their conscience, without fear of persecution…(it) does not mean that faith can be used as an excuse to discriminate, and as a religious leader I strongly condemn any attempt to do so.” I salute our Association’s President for her stand.

I offer these current cases as a way into our topic for this morning of “God and the Constitution.” I’m picking up a tread I touched on two weeks ago in my Martin Luther King Sunday homily, in which I pointed out one of our great national paradoxes is that practically every movement in this country to achieve greater levels of social justice, equity, and equality have been, to one degree or another, religiously inspired and driven. And at the same time practically every effort to oppose, subvert, or undermine these movements has also been religiously inspired and driven. The Colorado case is but one of the more recent examples of this continuing paradox: A coalition of religious leaders stating their opposition to an appeal to religion to deny certain services to gay or lesbian citizens.

To elaborate on this point for just a bit longer: From the Abolitionist Movement, to the battle for Women’s Suffrage, to the advocacy for child labor laws and the labor movement in general, to the civil rights movement, to African American empowerment, the women’s movement, and the drive for full LGBTQ equality (I’ll cut the list here for the sake of brevity)–all of these causes have been religiously motivated and driven to greater or lesser degrees, even as they have had to deal with religiously generated refusal and reaction.

As I said two weeks ago, my own journey to ministry was inspired and informed by the activities of a Baptist minister, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who demonstrated that religion was more than a matter of personal piety, but a force as well for racial, and social, justice. The same message was conveyed by the Catholic lay leader, Caesar Chavez, and his tireless—and religiously driven—efforts on behalf of mostly Hispanic and Latino farm workers. It was Dr. King and Mr. Chavez, among others, who made a significant impression on me in my preparation for the ministry; and helped me to better understand and appreciate the dual role of religious faith in attending to the personal, spiritual needs and aspirations of persons in a religious community, and addressing what our Second UU Principle calls, “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”

It all led me to see that the question is not whether or not religion should play a role in our larger, civic life. That one has long been settled: It always has, it still does, and most likely always will. The more relevant question is what kind of role will it play; and the answer to that one is in the hands of a wide range of persons of a wide range of faiths. Will religion be a force for our reaching even greater degrees of what the Preamble to our Constitution calls “A more perfect union”? Will it move us, again in the language of the Preamble, to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and promote the general welfare…”? Or will it be a force of reaction to subvert these clearly stated Constitutional objectives?

Speaking of the Constitution, let’s go there for a few minutes. We’ll begin by noting that it is an entirely secular document. It is, in large measure, a set of By-Laws created by some generally wise persons, who were trying to figure out how their new nation, which was barely 10 years old at time, would govern itself. Its brief Preamble, to which I’ve just referred, is in essence, a Mission or Vision Statement. The By-law that follow describe, in Article after Article, the process for achieving that Mission. The First Ten Amendments were added to assure certain rights of the citizens. The subsequent amendments are mostly tweaks or updates of the By-Laws. And like most By-Laws, our Constitution an essential document to have, and a bit boring to read.

There are only two very brief passages in the Constitution where religion even gets a mention. One is the “Religious Test” clause which expressly prohibits the use of any religious test for a citizen to hold public office. The other is in the First Amendment which decrees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That clause has been given various interpretations over the two centuries and more that the Constitution has been in effect, but to get into all that now—important as it is—would be a distraction from our topic for this morning. My point here is that the only two times where the Constitution makes reference to religion is to place certain limits on the role it plays in our national life, and to assure individual citizens that they can practice their personal faith as they see fit.

This does not mean that the authors of the Constitution were non-religious people. To the contrary they were, in one way or another, persons of faith. For many of them—like Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison—their faith was a blend of Christianity and the principles of the European Enlightenment. They believed in a Transcendent God, some of them as Theists and others as Deists; and they believed in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament Gospels. Even as he denied the divinity of Christ, Thomas Jefferson still called himself a “Practical Christian”, meaning he believed in applying the teachings of Jesus to practical, earthly situations. So, when it came to their writing the Constitution the authors, whatever their religious persuasions may have been, adhered to the Enlightenment principles of the use of reason, tolerance, deliberation, and debate in the workings of civil government.

And while they were not, by and large, Calvinists they had just enough of the Calvinist idea of the fallen nature, or imperfections, of human beings in them that they created three supposedly co-equal branches of government so that no one human being—or collection of human beings—could gain absolute power. Our Constitution, then, is mostly an Enlightenment document with a little Calvinism thrown in for good measure.

Their original document was a seriously flawed attempt at democracy—only white males who owner property were actually enfranchised, and African Americans were counted as three-fifths of a person—but it set in motion a democratic process that, by and large, has served us well over the centuries. The authors may have been even wiser than they knew when they put the line in the Preamble, “in order to achieve a more perfect union.” This is a tacit acknowledgment that the union they were setting out to create was an imperfect one, and that the efforts to reach a “more perfect union” would be ongoing for as long as the life of the nation itself.

The reason, I believe, that these persons of faith did not bring God or religion into the Constitution any more than they did, was precisely so that religion could freely play an active and positive role in the workings of the larger society. That may sound a little ironic, but when you think about it, it makes a certain kind of sense. By not identifying or incorporating religion into the workings of society in any institutional way, or into the workings of the secular government, the founders left the various religious communion in this land free to play their role as the conscience of this land when it came to attending to the well beings of its citizens and in holding up a vision of the common good.

Some 40 years after the Constitution was ratified and put into effect, the French journalist and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, recognized the role religion had come to play in our culture even then. As he traveled in the America of the 1830s he observed in his book Democracy in America, that we are a “(civic) nation with the soul of a church.” Mr. de Tocqueville maintained that one of the roles of religion in a secular democracy was to hold up a vision of the greater, common good that both informs and transcends the nuts-and-bolts workings of the State. He also felt that religion should play a leavening, or humanizing role, in a primarily capitalistic society so that any excesses of unbridled capitalism did not bring undue harm to certain members of the citizenry.

I’ll make one more pass at M. de Tocqueville before closing in a few more minutes. For now, we return to the present. I know I’ve been speaking to the dynamic, or paradox, of how religion has played both a revolutionary and a reactionary role in the life of our nation and culture. I’ll add here that I am far from blind or naïve as to the power of the religious right in our country at this time, particularly as it gains a presence and a voice in the halls of power in this current administration. The attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to grant religious exemptions for health care providers when it comes to delivering services to transgendered persons is but one current example.

I see actions like these as a call to persons of faith in our more mainline and mainstream religious bodies to not abandon the public square when it comes to making our voices heard and our actions effective. Do note that the major voices raised in support of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in the wedding cake case were those of religious leaders—1300 of them representing some 50 faith bodies across the United States.

In addition to being heartened by this response, which includes our own Unitarian Universalist body, I take it as one more piece of evidence that to view our cultural landscape through the lens of the religious right on one side versus the secular left on the other is a false dichotomy. To be sure, there is a secular left in this country which, as a religious leader, I largely respect. But the greater dichotomy or division, which I regard as an unfortunate, even tragic, but nevertheless real one is among persons who claim adherence to faith communities and traditions of one kind or another. As I’ve already pointed out, this is a dichotomy that has played itself out over the course of our nation’s history, even as it continues to play out today.

One more base to touch: I’m perfectly fine knowing the religious stances of our political leaders. I like to know what they are; if for no other reason than I can then make my own judgements as to how well they are upholding the tenets of their faith. I find it of interest that of the persons who have held the Presidential office over the past 40 years, two of those Presidents who were quite clear and forthright about speaking to their faith were Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

President Carter’s words to this effect are shown in your Order of Service for today. They were part of his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture when he was given that award in 2002. Mr. Carter led into them by saying, “I worship Jesus Christ whom we Christians consider to be the Prince of Peace…he taught us to cross religious boundaries in service and in love….” And then he continued with, “Despite theological differences all great religions share common commitments that define our ideal secular relationships. I am convinced that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and others can embrace each other in a common effort to alleviate human suffering and to espouse peace.”

While he was President, Barack Obama had this to say at a National Prayer Breakfast gathering: “A call rooted in faith is what led me, just a few years out of college, to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the South Side of Chicago. And it was through that experience, working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself…” It was his witnessing the commitment of persons of faith, working hard to do what they could to help achieve that “more perfect union” of which our founders dreamed, that led our former President to the faith he professes.

I must add here that I recall the words of these two former Presidents in recent days as I hear some of the spokespersons for the Christian right—Rev. Franklin Graham in particular—appeal to the supposedly same faith in rationalizing some of the tawdry behavior of the current holder of the Presidential office.

I close by returning to de Tocqueville. Another of his observations of our young country of the 1830s was this one: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” Think on these words, offered by a visitor to our land a little over 180 years ago, next time you hear an appeal to “make America great again.” “If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Work for the good, then, as persons of faith. And whatever greatness we may attain will take care of itself.

Stephen Edington
January 28, 2018

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