In part four of the LP Platform series I examine what the freedom of religion really means in the United States, both legally and politically. At a time when most countries required citizens to honor a specific religion, the US decided the freedom was more important than forcing others to believe a certain way. How has this experiment been working out in the years since the Constitution was ratified? And how does my visit to hear the Dali Lama speak have anything to do with it?
First, the text of the platform in full:
I.3 Freedom of Religion
Issue: Government routinely invades personal privacy rights based solely on individuals' religious beliefs. Arbitrary tax structures are designed to give aid to certain religions, and deny it to others.
Principle: We defend the rights of individuals to engage in (or abstain from) any religious activities that do not violate the rights of others.
Solution: In order to defend freedom, we advocate a strict separation of church and State. We oppose government actions that either aid or attack any religion. We oppose taxation of church property for the same reason that we oppose all taxation. We condemn the attempts by parents or any others -- via kidnappings or conservatorships -- to force children to conform to any religious views. Government harassment or obstruction of religious groups for their beliefs or non-violent activities must end.
Transitional Action: We call for an end to the harassment of churches by the Internal Revenue Service through threats to deny tax-exempt status to churches that refuse to disclose massive amounts of information about themselves.
It's a pretty small section but very important in my opinion. "We defend the rights of individuals to engage in or abstain from any religious activities that do not violate the rights of others." A very common sense way to look at the issue and fits with the Libertarian Principles that I've discussed before. Yet, for some reason, people all over the US seem to think that they have the right to enforce their religious views on other people or prevent people from freely exercising their own religious views, and both sides seem to want to politicize religion in a way that will deny individual Americans of a basic human right that was established with the founding of our country.
Remember, when our founding fathers and ancestors came to this country they were leaving their home countries to do so. And many of them took this move on because they did not want to live where religion was being forced upon them by a monarch or dictator who insisted that everyone believe like they did. They wanted to be free to practice their religion as they saw fit without having to hide or pretend to believe any differently just to remain out of prison, or worse, alive.
I've written on the subject before and so you can easily check on my views of religion in politics. But to put it simply, the government is the only entity that has the power to force an individual to do something they don't want to do or may not agree with. No church, no business, no local chapter of the Masons can force someone to do anything, they can only attempt to convince them to do something of their own accord.
However, in order for government to do what it needs to do, protect the rights of its citizens, we give it the power to use force on us. That is why any introduction of religion into the political spectrum is seen by many to be entirely beyond discussion and the government attempting to force churches to submit to encroaches upon their privacy and self-determination was equally abhorrent.
Well, at least it used to be.
Unfortunately we have an ever increasing group of people in this country that see no issue at all in introducing their own religious ethics into the government. They believe that this would be a better country if everyone believed the way that they do and followed the same religious dictates that they follow. And to be fair, it might be! But it wouldn't be a very free country. And it wouldn't be a very fair one either. Instead, it would be what we call in the vernacular: Fascist.
However, we see it more and more every day. From attempting to legislate what sex someone has to be in order to convey legal rights to a loved one, to determine what people can do with their own bodies, to teach children in public schools that creationism is a legitimate science , to the myriad of blue laws that are still on the books in many states in the country, the religious fascists will stop at little to ensure that we all have to live by their rules.
The argument that I hear, though, is that in order to be moral you have to have religion or believe in god. That if the country isn't founded on religious values there is nothing keeping us from tearing each other apart for purely selfish gains. Well, while that may seem silly to some it is a persistent argument that those wishing to force their views onto others just can't let go. Which is why I was refreshed when I heard the Dali Lama speak recently.
First, the Dali Lama is a great man I think we can all agree. I am not a Buddhist by any means but that doesn't prevent someone from acknowledging that a man who has dedicated his live to the single idea, the simple notion, that we can all live in peace, is someone that deserve respect. But he is just a man, as he will freely admit.
During his talk he moved onto the subject of morality without religion or god. He pointed out that when he was three years old he had no interest in god or religion. He was not the Dali Lama then, he had not been chosen yet. So he says he was not religious at all. But he knew that killing another person was wrong, that stealing from another person was wrong, that harming another person was wrong. But how? Why, he learned these concepts from his mother. Not in a religious context, but in a simple, factual, this is how civilized people act way.
He went on to explain that there is a wrong connotation with the word 'secular'. It does NOT mean 'anti-god', just an absence of god. In other words, there is nothing wrong with admitting a secular morality exists and we all accept and live by it while still believing in god and accepting a religious morality as well. And that is what we need to be making sure exists, a secular ethics.
We don't need to interject a religious morality into our government to ensure that people don't break down and kill each other, devolving society in to a hedonistic free-for-all. All we need is to ensure that individual rights are protected and let each individual make up their own mind as to how they choose to believe in an after-life, a supreme being and an additional set of ethos that they choose to live by.
After all, once you politicize religion, how can you be sure that YOUR religion is going to be the one allowed to exist? How long before you have to hide what you believe and pretend to live a different way? We should all work hard to ensure that not only OUR right to live free continues to exist but that our NEIGHBORS' same right to live free, as they determine is best for them, also continues to exist as well, and that our churches remain a place where we can freely assemble, unafraid of government intrusion.
Previous parts of the series
Part One - LP Platform: Statement of Principles
Part Two - LP Platform: Freedom and Responsibility
Part Three - LP Platform: Freedom of Communication