Civil versus Religious Duty

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Rowan County, KY clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples raises a perennial but easily answered question about violating religious conscience as a grounds for refusing to carry out any of the duties of an elected or appointed public official.

When a person accepts the responsibility of performing a public civil function, that person also accepts the duty to society to perform that function in accordance with the law. If a person has a sincere religiously grounded moral objection to a legal requirement of their civil function, they are not free to simply not follow the law on the grounds of their belief.  In the case of Ms Davis, she can either perform the function of county clerk as defined by the law or, if doing so offends her conscience, resign from her public position or delegate the offending aspect of her function to another official in her office.

Religious freedom is a civil right as is the right to marry whom one chooses.  One right does not trump the other.  Ms Davis’ is completely free to believe what she wants.  She can also take whatever position she chooses on moral issues and participate in the public debate of those issues. She is, however, not free to violate the civil rights of others.

The law cannot require Ms. Davis to hold or abandon her religious belief but the law can require the county clerk of Rowan County not to violate the civil rights of its citizens and to provide all of the services of that office.  If Ms Davis cannot perform her function because of her adherence to  belief, it is her belief which ethically precludes her from serving her civil function as county clerk.

Consider Ms Davis’ case in light of  the role of military chaplain.  The role of military chaplain requires that clergy who accept that role be ready and able to provide chaplain services inter-denominationally without attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity or Catholics to some other denomination.  Clergy whose belief structure requires them to proselytize cannot serve as military chaplains because they cannot fulfill all of the requirements of that office.  Consequently, only clergy who can function inter-religiously and respect the belief structures of all service members are admitted to chaplaincy in the military.

Some may object that we make exceptions for conscientious objectors so why not Ms. Davis or any other public office holder.  Individuals who seek exemption from combat roles for religious reasons receive that exemption as individual citizens not public office holders.  Respect for religious conscience and a commitment to religious freedom ensures that citizens are not forced to fill roles in society to which they morally object.  Ms. Davis, the individual citizen, cannot be forced to serve as county clerk because providing all of the services of that office would violate her conscience.  However, Ms Davis, the sitting county clerk of Rowan County, no matter what her personal religious convictions, must respect the civil rights of all.

Her best and most moral course of action, given her beliefs, is to exercise her religious freedom and resign her office rather than claim a specious religious right to selectively violate the civil rights of others.

Are God and human rights self-evident?


The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence begins with these immortal and oft quoted words:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These statements may have been self-evident truths to Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers of this nation in 1776, but in the year 2015 (and for some considerable time before that) a great many people, while still holding that all human beings are of equal value and are possessed of the unalienable rights referred by the Declaration , no longer base that claim on the idea that there even is such a thing as a creator to endow anybody with anything.thomasjefferson_sm

The word “self-evident” in common English usage means something akin to “obvious.”  In the Declaration, Jefferson is making the claim that the existence of a creator is obvious.  He is also making the claim that this creator has intentions for humankind and bestows rights on us so that we might pursue those intentions.  Put another way, he is saying that it is obvious that there is a God/Creator, that this God has created human beings with rights and, by implication, these rights are not to be abridged because they are divinely bestowed. This argument is analogous to the argument for the divine right of kings to which the republicans of Jefferson’s time were so opposed.  Whether ruling by divine right or living as a free citizen by divine right,  Jefferson is saying that his conclusion is obvious.  But is it really?

One need not be an atheist or agnostic to have problems with the “obviousness” of the existence of a creator.  All three of the major Western religious traditions present themselves as “revealed” religions; i.e., dependent on God to reveal him/herself through a prophet or spokesperson of some sort.  They do not make the case that the particular God whom they reveal is in any sense self-evident.

What is obvious, however, is that many people belief in a divine creator and ground their notion of the rights of human beings on that belief.  Belief in a creator is much more self-evident than the existence of that creator and, I suppose, that is what Jefferson assumed when he penned the Declaration.  He no doubt hoped to make the case for the nascent United States an obvious one–a “no brainer,” so to speak.

The philosophical, theological and general intellectual framework of the early 21st Century no longer presupposes the existence of a creator God or any God at all for that matter.  Advances in physics and cosmology have raised all sorts of questions  about the nature of matter, energy, time and space.

The more we learn; the more things become less “self-evident.”  Once obvious observations about nature are demonstrated to be illusory as science delves deeper into the nature of the cosmos.

The Declaration of Independence is surely an important document in the history of our nation and political science in general, but since it grounds its claims on the existence of a creator (whose existence was once obvious but is no longer so), it should not be used as a cornerstone for building individual, social or political ethics.

In this post-modern, pluralistic age, building an ethic on the existence of a creator is to build that ethic on a highly debatable and not self-evident premise.  The two lines quoted above might better be put in something like the following form to avoid the use of a potentially false premise while still advocating for human equality and rights:

We hold these principles to be inviolable: all human beings are of equal value and that this equality entitles them to certain permanent rights among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

While my restatement may lack the historical ring of Jefferson’s famous lines, it avoids the assumption of the existence of God, establishes ethical principles as ideals affirmed by a people and avoids exchanging the divine right of kings for the divine right of a citizens.  In short, it separates church from state, as they should be.


Religious Liberty & Religious Tyranny

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The adjective “religious” is unlikely to sound strange when modifying either liberty or tyranny.  Neither combination has the ring of oxymoron. Why? Because, religions and the belief systems that undergird them have been used throughout human history both in the cause of  freedom and to justify all manner of social tyranny.

In the United States, what is called “freedom of religion” is enshrined in our Constitution.  People are free to believe as they choose to believe and worship as they please to worship.  People are also free to express those beliefs as long as the mode of that expression does not burden other citizens too heavily. We make some accommodations for one another’s beliefs; e.g., respect for one another’s religious holidays, prayer discipline or the like, in order that we all be able to go about our daily lives in comity.

Our society is pluralistic and governed by laws that are the product of civic debate and legislative action.  This societal debate is engaged in by individuals of various religious convictions.  The debate, however, is secular, hopefully rational and in pursuit of the common good; i.e., the good of all.

revelationThe three major Western religious traditions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are all, what is known as, revealed religions. A revealed religion is a religion the tenets of which can only be known by being revealed to human beings by the Divine.  Put another way, the content of these religions is not accessible to the human mind and its experience of the finite world without Divine revelation.  Once spiritual truth is revealed to us, we can, according to these traditions, use the God given gift of reason to deepen our understanding of the revelation and its importance for human life.

All of these traditions therefore require the belief in a God who reveals him/herself to us and communicates with us in various ways:  most often through classic texts like the Torah, the Gospels or the Koran.   These traditions all see humankind, without revelation, as walking in a kind of darkness which can never be sufficiently illuminated by the light of reason or the intuition of the human heart on its own.

Moral and ethical debate can and does take place in the public square without reference to revealed knowledge.  Generally, there is little difficulty in agreeing about things like the undesirability of random killing or stealing without reference to the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.  Consequently, we can enact laws against murder and grand theft essentially using reason alone.

Religious people may refer to their belief systems in the process of secular debate and identify instances in which their belief and secular reason coincide.  This coincidence even makes it easier for the Western believer to feel comfortable in our pluralistic world.

There are occasions, however, when reason and revelation seem to come to different conclusions.  At the moment, the rights of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people are being placed in opposition to the rights of religious believers who feel that living as a gay, lesbian, bi or transgender person is sinful and contrary to the will of God.  These believers declare that it offends their conscience to normalize what they see as Divinely proscribed behavior and that consequently they should not be required to provide services to these people and thereby demonstrate tacit approval of sin.  They see any such requirement as an infringement of their religious liberty.

For religious believers, at least in the three main Western traditions, God is the supreme authority and arbiter of what is right and wrong. For non-believers there is no God to function as a supreme authority or to reveal what is right or wrong to humans.  In a pluralistic society, believers and nonbelievers have equal standing and if there is to be social debate on appropriate social regulations the interlocutors must  be able to address one another in terms that are understandable and meaningful.

For a believer to declare that this or that is right or wrong because God says so may be understandable to the nonbeliever in terms of what the words mean. However, such a statement lacks real meaning for the nonbeliever because it attributes authority to something nonexistent. Nonexistent beings do not do, say, think or feel anything. They are nonexistent.

The nonbeliever can, for her part, ground her conversation in a rational inquiry into the question at hand without reference to any data outside of natural experience, scientific knowledge, rational thought and respectful concern for other human beings and the natural world in general.  These very same sources of knowledge and processes of thought are available to believers.

Believers and nonbelievers therefore share access to the language of reason, science and human solidarity.  They can converse meaningfully with one another in these terms.  Believers can think that there is “more going on” and hold onto notions of the Divine; but, at the level of meaningful social dialogue in a pluralistic society the only conversation to be had between all parties is the secular one.

This secular conversation is the one that concluded that religious belief should be respected because it meant so much to those who believed not because any particular Divine revelation was in fact true.  We therefore make those accommodations alluded to above even in serious matters like the defense of the nation to which we allow citizens to conscientiously object.

We accommodate for religious belief as long as that accommodation does not overly burden citizens who do not share that belief and as long as that accommodation does not infringe on the rights of others.

Indiana SymbolThe State of Indiana has recently passed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the State of Arkansas is following close behind.  This law makes it possible for individual believers to refuse to provide business services to individuals who because of their sexual orientation offend the conscience of these believers.  These believers argue that to require them to treat gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people like anyone else is to require them to violate their religious convictions.  In short these believers seek an accommodation.Arkansas_WikiProject

As with any other religious belief accommodation, the question is whether granting this accommodation would be reasonable and nondiscriminatory in the sense of treating fellow citizens with inequity–as not equals.  In our society, we have decided that there is no reasonable grounds for discriminating against others on the basis of race, creed, gender or national origin.  From a secular perspective, sexual orientation is no different from any of these other grounds upon which people are not to be discriminated against. Believers remain free to believe what they want and it may offend the conscience of some to have to have normal business dealings with same-sex oriented individuals.  But, the offense to the conscience of these individuals grounded, as it is, on a sectarian belief the objective truth or falsity of which is unascertainable via natural reason cannot trump the rights of any citizen to equal treatment in the public square.

Religious liberty in the service of discrimination like this turns the notion of freedom on its head and makes of religious freedom the exact thing the framers sought to avoid:  religious tyranny.