Whipping Up Religious Frenzy

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” The words are Thomas Jefferson’s in a letter he wrote in 1813 to Baron Von Humboldt. The sentiments are not unusual for the Sage of Monticello.

Here’s another from our third President: “The preachers dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.” And he wasn’t alone, of course, among the Founding Fathers to disdain priests and churches. “Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?” queried our second President, John Adams.

And yet, according to Glenn Beck in a Washington Post opinion piece we should all be Catholic now “because the state is telling the Catholic Church to violate its principles and teachings” by trying to force church-run institutions to pay for birth control and morning-after pills.

The compromise offered by the White House whereby insurance providers take on the employers’ cost for these services is dismissed as “sin by proxy” by Beck – and by Catholic bishops. “The state has no right to say how much religion any American can practice. It’s our right, and it is the first one our Founding Fathers protected,” Beck argues.

In their Salem-like efforts to whip up a revivalist frenzy against President Barack Obama, Beck and other religious conservatives make much of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But they misread that amendment and abuse it.

The amendment doesn’t give the right of the church – any church – to create a parallel society that ignores general welfare; and the intent of the amendment was to protect thought and the expression of opinion – that is why the First Amendment deals not just with religion but with the press, too, and freedom of speech and assembly.

Notice that word Beck uses, “practice”. It isn’t there in the First Amendment and for good reason. Practice may well impact non-church members or involve behavior that offends or undermines the general welfare. It was the practice of Beck’s church, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, to engage in polygamous marriage. Does Beck believe that if the current Mormon president has a sudden revelation and reverses the church’s ban on polygamy, that Congress and law-enforcement agencies then should turn a blind eye and not enforce laws against bigamy against Mormons?

“This isn’t a fight over abortion or birth control,” writes Beck. “This is about whether the state can force someone to pay to have their religious beliefs violated.” The logical conclusion of that argument would mark the end of secular governance and would make hogwash of the Founding Father’s principle of separation of church and state. Suddenly we would have the anarchy of lots of parallel religious societies observing their own laws, following their own practices and claiming they don’t have to do anything, pay for anything that offends their religious beliefs.

It would be the end of the United States of America.

It is the kind of medieval argument mounted in Europe currently by Muslim fanatics who disdain pluralism, diversity and the whole basis of enlightened liberal governance and who want to impose Sharia law, if not for everyone at least for believers or within a defined geography.

In the UK last year residents of some London boroughs were horrified to be confronted with posters daubed on bus stops and street lamps declaring, “You are entering a Sharia-controlled zone – Islamic rules enforced,” and announcing a ban on gambling, music, alcohol, and smoking.

The preacher behind the campaign, Anjem Choudary,  said he wanted to “put the seeds down for an Islamic Emirate.” And here we have Beck wanting to turn the United States into an anarchy of theocracies.