Thank god dogs don’t have religion.
“Recollect that the Almighty, who gave the dog to be companion of our pleasures and our toils, hath invested him with a nature noble and incapable of deceit,” observes a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman. If only so much attention to detail had been lavished on humans.
I hate that the name Kim Davis remains in our national consciousness, and that people immediately understand you’re referring not to one of the many nice Kim Davises out there (I have known a couple), but that pious shrew of a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples using the religion alibi. Though she has since been exposed as a hypocrite and a liar, Davis still has better name recognition than most of the Republican presidential wannabes who tried to use her as a rally monkey (she evokes Bill Hicks’ crack about people who believe in creationism looking less evolved).
Her 15 minutes of infamy, which I pray are winding down to their final seconds, followed on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and helped further deepen the religious divide in our country, as if racial friction, gun rights hostility and political enmity were not enough to occupy us for the moment. How little some things change.
In 1787, James Madison observed in The Federalist that, “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points … have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
The 19th century humorist Charles Farrar Brown(e)—aka Artemus Ward—summed up our nation’s founding and the issue of religious liberty thusly: “The Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedim, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but could prevent everybody else from enjoyin his.”
Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul (he’s the one who looks like he’s wearing a scalped poodle on his head) climbed aboard the Kim Davis Bandwagon early and said it was “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties.” But Davis wasn’t exercising religious liberty, she was employing religion as an excuse to oppress the liberty of others.
In recent years, a number of Christian organizations, small businesses and even some corporations (Hobby Lobby for one) have argued that they should be exempt from certain laws on religious grounds. The laws they seek to dodge, however, deal with social issues like abortion and gay rights, not religion. In our secular, (kind-of) democracy, the religious ideals of a single group should not supersede the ideals of our society as established in our Constitution. After all, it is the Constitution that permits us to align with religious ideals—Christian, Muslim, Rastafarian, Wiccan, what have you—and protects us from recourse for holding them.
One of the few things our Founding Fathers agreed upon was the notion of a single god (God) who created the universe. Yet these men believed as deeply in the concept of religious liberty; “they were keenly aware that European history demonstrated the power of religion to spawn sectarian strife and violence,” notes the PBS Frontline report “God in America” in a segment that focused on God and the Constitution.
This is why, as Lawrence M. Krauss explains in his provocative New Yorker essay “All scientists should be militant atheists,” our “society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.” Davis is free to believe what she wants; the law does not constrain her beliefs, but rather establishes rules for how she must treat others who are also expected to respect her beliefs regardless of whether they agree with them.
Michael Alcorn, a self-proclaimed author and (god help us) public school educator who writes a column for the media company for which I work, recently attempted to reconcile the issue of whether people like Davis and Christian wedding-cake bakers should have to serve homosexuals, whose lifestyle they perceive as ungodly. “See, the LGBT community seems to have the loudest bullhorns and the best lawyers,” he writes, “so it’s not enough they won the right to be married—they also want to force you to be a part of it.”
I hope he doesn’t teach history; that sentiment neglects centuries’ worth of Christianity trying to force people “to be a part of it” and enslaving or slaughtering those who resisted. That regressive line of thinking also undermines the democratic principles and civil rights issues at the heart of the matter; similarly benighted sentiments were expressed about women in relation to the 19th Amendment and about African-Americans apropos of the Civil Rights Act.
“The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more,” Krauss contends in The New Yorker. “Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.”
Yes, some prefer the Bible to the Constitution, and believe, as even the Founding Fathers did, that Christianity encourages a moral society. The Bible, incidentally, is little concerned with sexual identity; specific references to homosexuality are minimal and mostly nebulous (Jesus had bigger fish to multiply). And the debate about whether religion should entitle someone to legal immunity from providing a public service or baked goods or wedding pictures to another, whom they really hate out of ignorance, snubs a simple fact about the Bible and the basis for every religion.
“Human decency is not derived from religion,” Christopher Hitchens points out in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. “It precedes it.”