I believe I wasted a lot of time some years ago arguing if Venezuela was a democracy or not under Hugo Chávez. The difficulty with this kind of conversation is that people can have very different views on what constitutes a “democracy”. That is part of the reason why North Korea can call itself a “democratic republic”. However, when somebody claims something about Christianity, and specially about what the Bible says, I feel more comfortable to debate.
I understand that it is like flogging a decomposing horse, but some months ago representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supposedly called out the hypocrisy of religious conservatives using their faith to justify bigotry and discrimination in the United States. Her speech can be watched here. I believe her point is this: conservative Christians only care about religion in order to support their so-called “bigotry”. AOC believes that Christians should support socialism, because after all, that’s what Jesus would do.
AOC says some truths: sadly, the Christian Scriptures have been distorted many times over American history to defend political agendas they were never meant to defend. AOC could go even further on that if she wanted: the Cristian Scriptures were completed almost 2 thousand years ago, and they simply don’t talk specifically to many of the political issues we have today. One can say they offer principles of conduct, but it’s really up to us to figure out how these apply to concrete situations we find today. In this case, using Scripture to support political agendas can be not only morally wrong, but also naive and misguided.
AOC is also right when she says that human life is special (although I would question if “holy” applies) and that we should “fight for the least of us”. All these statements and more are true!
What AOC really doesn’t seem to understand (and frankly, this is quite scary) is that Christianity can’t be forced upon people. Yes, biblically speaking, we are to care for the poor. However, the Bible is addressing we as individuals. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says that we are to provide medical care for those who cannot afford via government fiat. Actually, there is nothing in the Bible that says that I can force people to act as Christians when they are not.
One of the great gifts from modernity is separation between church and state. I would submit that this separation was present in Christianity from the start, but the concept was so radically different from everything people were used to that it took some centuries for it to be put into practice, and we are actually still working on it. One of the things we realized in modern times is that we can’t force people to be Christians via government. And in her speech, AOC is trying to undo that. She wants government to force people to do a charitable work that can only be done if it is their choice.
As a Christian, I would say this: I would like to diminish suffering in this world, and this is exactly why I’m against the socialism AOC supports. One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that the poor are much better off in countries that go further away from what Ms. Ocasio supports. It’s not simply a matter of wanting to help the poor, but of doing it in efficacious way. And also: I want to invite people to look to the example of Jesus, who being rich made himself poor for the sake of many. I do hope that more and more people might have their lives changed by Jesus. But I don’t want to force anybody to do that. I want to invite people to consider what Scripture says, and to make their choice to change their lives. As for now, I believe that capitalism is the most efficient way to help the poor humanity has discovered so far.
Should Flying Spaghetti Monster worshipers be allowed to wear colanders on their heads in drivers’ license photos? Maybe so. Today, four conservative justices hinted that someone might want to bring them a good Free Exercise case soon so they can unseat a long-standing and long-criticized case called Employment Division v. Smith. That case, penned by Justice Scalia, had in turn uprooted several decades-worth of precedent that had built up a robust bulwark of religious rights under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
It’s a funny twist. Liberal justices like Justice William Brennan had built up strong protections under the Free Exercise Clause, such as allowing Amish to pull their children from high school early because of their faith, or allowing Saturday Sabbath worshipers to enjoy certain exceptions to work requirements for unemployment benefits. Then the penultimate conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, dealt a severe blow to those precedents in Smith. Scalia said that religious practices did not merit exemption from generally applicable laws.
Now, the conservative justices want to rethink Smith, while the liberal justices may hang back. Perhaps the shift in the culture wars has caused this parallel shift in jurisprudential alliances. In any case, I think we should welcome reconsideration of Smith.
Scalia’s opinion in Smith raised some legitimate concerns. He argued that if we allowed judges to have a heavy hand in deciding which religious practices deserved special exemptions from the law and which did not, then judges would inevitably engage in subjective judgment calls and descend into the very parochialism that the First Amendment is designed to thwart. He also worried that allowing exemptions from generally applicable law would court anarchy—we would have a legal code peppered with holes for a thousand individualized religious beliefs and practices. Both are legitimate concerns.
Smith did prompt a strong legislative response. Congress and quite a few states thereafter passed Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) that basically revived the pre-Smith law. But legislatures can and do exempt some laws from RFRAs, and many states do not have them.
My primary issue with Justice Scalia’s Smith opinion is that his worry about subjective judgment calls seems to prove too much. Judges are called upon to make these kinds of sensitive and controversial decisions all the time. We rely on things like tenure and salary protection to shelter their independence and impartiality as much as we can, but these kinds of difficult decisions arise in innumerable other contexts. I would prefer a robust and imperfectly enforced Free Exercise Clause to one that does almost nothing at all.
Likewise, the concern about courting anarchy may be overblown. Laws and religious practices usually do not clash in a fundamental way, and under the pre-Smith “compelling interest” test, legislators can still forbid child sacrifice while allowing Muslim police officers to keep their beards. Plus, freedom of speech and many other rights already require exceptions to the scope of otherwise legitimate laws—they just can’t be applied in certain circumstances. The Free Exercise Clause is not unique in that way.
If the Court does confront Smith, it may also have to deal with the Flying Spaghetti Monster problem. That is—the Court may have to address a question which it has mostly avoided: what is a “religion” under the First Amendment. Does the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster count? Should Pastafarians be allowed to wear colanders on their heads in drivers’ license photos while everyone else has to go bareheaded? What about the Church of Diego Maradona, a real church dedicated to the Argentine soccer legend? Clearly, asking a court to define a “religion” raises the same concerns of parochial judgment calls that drove the decision in Smith. But maybe the answer is to let them all in, with perhaps just a low-threshold sincerity requirement. Beyond the occasional colander-clad guy in the DMV line, we haven’t seen a huge number of people adopting faux beliefs just so they can get a religious exemption for smoking dope. But then, there is an International Church of Cannabis that would surely see a surge in conversions if Smith is overturned.