What with provisions of the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court's ruling that laws permitting gay marriage are constitutional, there has been a great deal of carrying on from various Christian groups and individuals claiming that their free exercise of religion has been inhibited.
This grumbling and carping reveals two things: misunderstanding of the Constitution and Christianity's long-standing strain of intolerance.
The Supreme Court decision covers civil marriage; no church is going to be compelled to bless those unions. Outside the church, various merchants have complained that selling their overpriced floral arrangements and garish cakes to gay people will violate their religious principles. But they are engaged in secular commerce, governed by public-accommodation laws. In "It violates my beliefs to sell to gays," substitute blacks or Jews for gays and see how that smells.
But what is more interesting is an unstated but omnipresent distress at losing cultural dominance. Though the United States was established as a secular republic, mention of God being notably absent from the Constitution, the nation has always been culturally Christian. It was originally overwhelmingly Protestant, uneasy with Roman Catholic immigrants. But Catholics were ultimately allowed into the tent, and even Jews have been accepted by certain Evangelicals with curious eschatological views. But the explosive growth in the population of nominal Christians who are non-observant, of non-Christians, and of just plain non-believers threatens that dominance.
History shows that Christians, rather than observing the injunction in the Virginia Bill of Rights to "practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other," are given to intolerance. The earliest history of the church includes a squabble between the followers of Paul and those of James of Jerusalem that the Book of Acts attempts to paper over. And when the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, Christians immediately fell to persecuting one another, so enthusiastically that Constantine called the Council of Nicea in an attempt to quiet the uproar.
On our shores, the Puritans, once relieved of the disabilities imposed on them by the established Church of England, fell to denouncing and banishing those of their own number, such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, who deviated from strict Calvinist orthodoxy.
It goes on. Though the well-off, property-owning Deists who crafted a Constitution for an evangelical Protestant population wanted no part of an establishment of religion (probably more in fear of the Roman Catholic Church than the Church of England), quasi-establishment insinuates itself throughout the United States.
Some years ago, the dean of an Episcopal cathedral invited a military color guard to participate in Sunday services on Memorial Day weekend, marching down the nave with their service banners. It happened that year that Memorial Day weekend fell on the Feast of Pentecost, the day that more than any other in the church calendar expresses the universality of Christianity beyond all national boundaries.*
More recently, there was the dispute in Texas about prayers before high school football games (high school football in Texas being as much an established religion as can be found anywhere). I heard a student interviewed on National Public Radio who said that denying them their pregame prayers would violate their religious freedom. Asked whether it would then be OK for a Hindu and Muslim student to offer a prayer before a game, she said, "No, that wouldn't be right."**
Year after year, legislators and state school boards try to get creationism introduced into the biology curriculum of the public schools, resorting to the secular arm to establish and enforce their private beliefs.
Earlier this year, in Arizona, a group of legislators pursued a sloppily drafted bill that would require a loyalty oath to the Constitution, with the words "so help me God," before high school students could graduate. So a non-believing high school student, along with Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, and miscellaneous others, would be denied diplomas. Such a law would, of course, be invalidated as soon as it reached a judge who has read the Constitution. But it represents the unfailing impulse of believers to get their hands on the machinery and compel others to comply with their beliefs.
It seems to me that it would be a better course for Christians, rather than continually attempt to enact crackpot legislation, to worship as they choose, invite to worship others who may be receptive, perform acts of mercy and charity, and practice Christian forbearance, love, and tolerance. If you wish to have followers, it's best to show yourself worth following.
*This worthy had the most forbidding manner of presiding that I have ever seen. At the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer, he would whirl to face the congregation and say in a minatory voice, "The peace of God be always with you." If he had instead said, "Your money or your life," the tone would not have been incongruous. It is always instructive to observe the types upon whom the church bestows the cure of souls
**Don't you think Christians are so cute when they accuse Islam of being an intolerant religion?
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