Thursday, February 23, 2012

Baptists, Mormons, and Choice

Thoughts on Baptists and Mormons and Choice:
Moral Agency, Soul Liberty, and the Importance of being able to Make Choices

In Latter Day Saint’s (Mormon) doctrine, the notion of moral agency distinguishes the rightness of choices, such as whether to drink alcohol, from the freedom to make those choices. One may be appropriately free to choose to engage in some action, but morally wrong to exercise that freedom. For instance, when Mitt Romney first decided to run for public office, he told church leaders that he would say that he opposed abortion personally, but that such private beliefs shouldn’t be imposed on others. Romney argued that this view was acceptable under the Mormon doctrine of moral agency.

Francis Wayland, Baptist minister and president of Brown University (1827–1855) credited Roger Williams (briefly a Baptist himself) with establishing the commonwealth of Rhode Island on the fundamental principle of "perfect freedom in religious concerns; or, as he so well designated it, 'Soul Liberty.' No man of his age had so clear conceptions of the rights of conscience as the founder of Rhode Island, and no one had ever carried them so honestly to their legitimate conclusions. I go further: no one has yet been able either to take from or add to the principles of religious liberty which he so simply and powerfully set forth. They stand as imperishable monuments to his fame, like the obelisks of Luxor, on which the chiseling of every figure is now just as sharply defined as when, three thousand years since, they were left by the hand of their designer."

Amongst Baptists, the doctrine in question is also called “soul competency.” Whether “soul liberty” or “soul competency” the basic concept is that each person has the liberty (is competent) to choose what his/her conscience or soul dictates is right, and is responsible to no one but God for the decision that is made.

Jimmy Carter, speaking to a Baptist gathering, asked a rhetorical question: "How many believe that the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade was appropriate and should remain unchanged, or that all abortions under all circumstances should be prohibited?" After giving several other examples, he concluded, “You see the divisive nature of these kinds of questions and they are the cause of the separations and divisions that have debilitated so much the world Christian church." He went on to liken such divisive issues to a controversy in the early Church saying that such questions should have “the same historical status as eating meat offered to idols.”

Jimmy Carter, like Mitt Romney (at least early in Mitt’s political career, if not now), understands the issue of abortion to best be left to the realm of private belief. Romney understands it in terms of the Mormon doctrine of “moral agency.” Carter understands the issue in terms of the Baptist doctrine of “soul liberty.” Both Mormons and Baptists have deeply held religious beliefs concerning the ability of the individual to make a choice. Both Carter and Romney have referenced these religious beliefs when speaking to the issue of abortion and both have given theological reasons for their positions.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Did Santorum say Obama was not a Christian?

My ears perk up when religion is mentioned in public discourse. And, over the last couple of days, there is been a great deal of such talk. A friend, referencing this talk, asked me: “What really happened (overt spin aside)?” Here is my answer.

Appearing at a Christian Alliance meeting in Ohio on Saturday, Rick Santorum mentioned President Obama’s energy policy, which involves encouraging the development of cleaner sources of power. He then characterized this policy position as a “phony theology.”

Here’s what Santorum said on the Obama administration’s energy policy: “It’s not about you, it’s not about your quality of life, it’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology—not a theology based on the Bible but a different theology, no less a theology.”

Environmentalists have been disappointed with Obama’s very modest record. Nonetheless, Santorum was suggesting that concern for the environment is a quasi-religious theology. And, further, the Obama administration’s energy policies reflect this quasi-religious philosophy.

Ben LaBolt, the press secretary of Obama’s reelection campaign, said the Santorum’s remarks represented a “new low” in the Republican primary campaign. Asked about Ben LaBolt’s characterization later in the day, Santorum responded by criticizing the administration’s handling of the religious exemption for contraception. He said:

“It is a new low. The President has reached a new low in this country’s history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before. And if he doesn’t want to call his imposition of his values a theology, that’s fine. But it is an imposition of his values over a Church who has very clear theological reasons for opposing what the Obama Administration is forcing on them.”

When asked whether he believes Obama is “less of a Christian” because of his policy positions, Santorum responded, “No one’s suggesting that. I’m suggesting — well, obviously, as we all know in the Christian Church, there are a lot of different stripes of Christianity. I’m just saying he’s imposing his values on the Church, and I think that’s wrong…If the President says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.”

On Sunday morning, when Santorum appeared on CBS’s “Meet the Press,” and explained that his phony theology remark was about “radical environmentalism...this idea that man is here to serve the earth rather than to husband and steward the earth’s resources.” He went on to say:

“I wasn’t suggesting the President’s not a Christian. I accept the fact that the President’s a Christian. I just said that when you have a worldview that elevates the earth above man, and says we can’t take those resources because we are going to harm the earth, this is just all an attempt to centralize power and give more power to the government. It’s not questioning the President’s beliefs in Christianity. I’m talking about his…the belief that man should be in charge of the earth, should have dominion over it, and should be good stewards over it.”

In summary, (1) Santorum accepts the fact that President Obama is a Christian. (2) Santorum believes that the religious exemption for contraceptive coverage in health insurance is too narrow and is an infringment of religious liberty. (3) Santorum also believes that “radical environmentalism” (the belief that “man is here to serve the earth rather than to husband and steward the earth’s resources”) is a quasi-religious notion he labels “phony theology,” and further believes that President Obama’s energy policy is based on this “phony theology.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Religious Liberty at Stake?

The conflict between the U.S. Government and the U.S. Catholic bishops over rules requiring employees of Catholic institutions such as universities and hospitals to have birth control pills supplied to them as part of their health insurance is portrayed by the bishops as a matter of religious liberty. In Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, artificial birth control is designated as immoral. The bishops therefore object to Roman Catholic institutions being forced to supply contraceptives as part of their employees’ health care packages. To make them pay for something they believe, for religious reasons, is morally wrong would be, they argue, an infringment upon religious liberty.

However, religious practices in the United States are regularly trumped by secular law when there is a conflict. For instance, Native Americans who believe in using peyote as part of their religious rituals were fired from their government jobs for doing so, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 1990.

Likewise, traditionalist members of the Sikh religion believe that a man should avoid cutting his hair, and should bind it up in a turban. So what if an orthodox Sikh gets a job as a construction worker? He can’t get a hard hat on over the turban. Does he have the right to forgo the hard hat on the construction site, so as to retain his turban? The question went to the US courts, and they said Sikhs have to wear hard hats.

Further, Muslim religious laws and practices have been over-ruled in the United States by the courts. American law forbids Muslim-American men to take a second wife, something legal to them in many of their home countries. State law tends to award community property in cases of divorce instead of the much smaller payments men can make to divorced women in Islamic law, even if the couple have specified in their marriage contract that Muslim law (sharia) will govern these issues.

So, I was pleasantly surprised by President Obama’s notion to not make Roman Catholic instituitions pay for contraception for their employees, but for others to pay the price of such coverage. I was pleased that there was a compromise that didn’t force Catholic institutions into betraying their conscience. I considered it a good day for those, like me, that support religious liberty.

The Roman Catholic bishops, however, saw it differently. They wanted, not only, to not have to pay for the coverage, but they wanted the power to forbid the coverage to their employees. In this instance, the claim of religious liberty being at stake rings hollow in my ears. If anyone was forced to take contraceptives, then certainly there would be religious liberty issues at stake (among other issues!). In this case, forcing Roman Catholics to pay for something they believe to be immoral at least raised religious liberty questions. But, not allowing the Roman Catholic Church to prohibit employees of universities and hospitals owned by the Roman Catholic Church from recieving contraception moves the proverbial “goal posts.”

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Roman Catholic Teaching & the U. S. Political Parties’ Public Policy Positions

One can always find exceptions to the generalizations I am about to make. Nonetheless, generalizations can be useful (as long as they are not hasty). Political Parties often play the “Religion Card.” See a quick summary of some of the “hot button” issues and official Roman Catholic teaching and the two major political parties in the United States.

Democratic Discontinuities

The Roman Catholic Church believes that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances because human life, they believe, begins at conception (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Resolution on Abortion, 1989).

The Roman Catholic Church believes that the use of birth-control pills, condomns, and other contraceptives should not be premitted (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, see Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical entitled Casti Connubii).

The Roman Catholic Church believes that euthanasia should not be premitted (see,the Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide, 2011).
The Roman Catholic Church believes embryonic stem cell research should not be premitted (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, On Embryonic Stem Cell Research, 2008)

The Roman Catholic Church believes same-sex marriage should not be premitted (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Unions, 2003)

Republican Discontinuities

Pope John Paul II was against the war in Iraq (see also the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Statement on Iraq, 2002).

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops requires that health care be provided to all Americans (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform, 1993).

The Roman Catholic Church opposes the death penalty for criminals in almost all situations (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Death Penalty, June 2005).

The U.S. Conference of Bishops has urged that the federal minimum wage be increased, for the working poor (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, 1996).

The bishops want welfare for all needy families, saying “We reiterate our call for a minimum national welfare benefit that will permit children and their parents to live in dignity. A decent society will not balance its budget on the backs of poor children” (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Primer on Poverty, an Option for the Poor, and the Common Good, November 2011).

The US bishops say that “the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions…” (see the Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers).

Catholic bishops demand the withdrawal of Israel from Palestinian territories (see, Toward Peace in the Middle East, 1989).

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops was critical of Arizona’s law on treatment of immigrants, Cardinal Roger Mahony characterized Arizona’s S.B. 1070 as “the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law…” (see “Cardinal Mahony criticizes Arizona immigration bill” April 20, 2010, by Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times).

9. The Bishops have urged that illegal immigrants not be treated as criminals and that their contribution to this country be recognized (see “Catholic bishops: Don’t treat illegal immigrants as criminals” December 12, 2011, Los Angeles Times).

10. The U.S. Conference of Bishops has denounced, as has the Pope, the idea of ‘preventive war’ and ‘preemptive strikes’ (see also, “The Vatican sees the United Nations as the guarantor of international law, and so it would view any action outside U.N. authorization as very dangerous….[T]he concept of ‘preventive war' is not found in the moral principles of just-war theory—not even if it is authorized by a vote of the United Nations.” Archbishop Jean Louis-Tauran, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Conference at Rome hospital, February 24, 2003).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Monty Python on Birth-Control & Religion

A (almost twenty year old) comedy sketch from 1983 is suddenly relevant in 2012.

"Every Sperm Is Sacred" is a musical sketch from the movie Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Andre Jaquemin and Dave Howman wrote the music and Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote the lyrics and performed the sketch.

The sketch is about a Catholic Yorkshire man (Dad, played by Michael Palin), his wife (Mum, played by Terry Jones) and their sixty-three children, who are about to be sold for medical experimentation purposes because their parents can no longer afford to care for such a large family with the local mill being closed. When their children ask why they don't use contraception, Dad explains that this is against God's wishes, and breaks into song, the chorus of which is:

Every sperm is sacred,
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.

The hearty and cheerful nature of the musical number is counterpointed as the children are marched off to their fate as the song ends, singing a dour rendition of the chorus as their middle-aged Protestant neighbours (played by Graham Chapman and Eric Idle) comment on that the essence of protestantism is birth-control.

From the script of "The Meaning of Life"

[The children emerge singing a melancholy reprise of
'Every Sperm is Sacred.']

[They are being watched from another Northern house.]

Mr Blackitt: Look at them, bloody Catholics. Filling the bloody
world up with bloody people they can't afford to bloody feed.

Mrs Blackitt: What are we dear?

Mr Blackitt: Protestant, and fiercely proud of it...

Mrs Blackitt: Why do they have so many children...?

Mr Blackitt: Because every time they have sexual intercourse they
have to have a baby.

Mrs Blackitt: But it's the same with us, Harry.

Mr Blackitt: What d'you mean...?

Mrs Blackitt: Well I mean we've got two children and we've had
sexual intercourse twice.

Mr Blackitt: That's not the point... We *could* have it any time we

Mrs Blackitt: Really?

Mr Blackitt: Oh yes. And, what's more, because we don't believe in
all that Papist claptrap we can take precautions.

Mrs Blackitt: What, you mean lock the door...?

Mr Blackitt: No no, I mean, because we are members of the
Protestant Reformed Church which successfully challenged the
autocratic power of the Papacy in the mid-sixteenth century,
we can wear little rubber devices to prevent issue.

Mrs Blackitt: What do you mean?

Mr Blackitt: I could, if I wanted, have sexual intercourse with

Mrs Blackitt: Oh, yes... Harry...

Mr Blackitt: And by wearing a rubber sheath over my old feller I
could ensure that when I came off... you would not be

Mrs Blackitt: Ooh!

Mr Blackitt: That's what being a Protestant's all about. That's
why it's the church for me. That's why it's the church for
anyone who respects the individual and the individual's right
to decide for him or herself. When Martin Luther nailed his
protest up to the church door in 1517, he may not have
realised the full significance of what he was doing. But four
hundred years later, thanks to him, my dear, I can wear
whatever I want on my John Thomas. And Protestantism doesn't
stop at the simple condom. Oh no! I can wear French Ticklers
if I want.

Mrs Blackitt: You what?

Mr Blackitt: French Ticklers... Black Mambos... Crocodile Ribs...
Sheaths that are designed not only to protect but also to
enhance the stimulation of sexual congress...

Mrs Blackitt: Have you got one?

Mr Blackitt: Have I got one? Well no... But I can go down the road
any time I want and walk into Harry's and hold my head up
high, and say in a loud steady voice: 'Harry I want you to
sell me a *condom*. In fact today I think I'll have a French
Tickler, for I am a Protestant...'

Mrs Blackitt: Well why don't you?

Mr Blackitt: But they... [He points at the stream of children still
pouring past the house.]... they cannot. Because their church
never made the great leap out of the Middle Ages, and the
domination of alien episcopal supremacy!

You can see the sketch here: