I don’t think that the people who are praising the Supreme Court’s recent decision enshrining corporations with religious identities are really thinking this through. After all, the attribution of a particular religious ideology to a business stands a chance of alienating a large segment of the population. Case in point, Little Rock’s own Stone’s Throw Brewery. I enjoy their beers. However, just knowing that some of the founders of said brewery are devout Catholics, and despising the political influence of the Roman Catholic church in the United States, all makes me less inclined to go have a pint over there. I’m not proud of this reaction, and I don’t mean to say that we should judge businesses on the basis of their managers’ religious beliefs–exactly the opposite. But by making this an issue, the Supreme Court has ensured that there is likely to be a lot of fallout, a lot of splitting of society as people try to send their dollars exclusively to those businesses that reflect their own sectarian beliefs (or non-beliefs).
Now that churches are political entities, and businesses are both political and religious, we do have to protect ourselves. I mean, in a nation which exercised a sincere separation between church and state, a businessman might give his money (money I’ve spent at his store) to his church for use in church camps or bible studies, and I wouldn’t mind one bit, even though, as a secular person myself, I find such activities wasteful. However, when said church starts advocating for policies that directly affect me and my family, then I want to work very hard to avoid giving said businessman any money at all, even if he’s a good guy that I’d get along with in any other situation, and even if I really like his product.
Christians of all stripes insist that their allegiance to secular governments comes second to their religious affiliation, that they are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven who have a responsibility to resist “earthly powers” when those powers function in a way contrary to religious beliefs (or, in the case of the Roman Catholic church, the religious beliefs of the bishops, as the laity has shown absolutely no problem to artificial contraception). As a preacher friend of mine once quipped, “The Southern Baptists have out-Catholicked the Catholics.” He was talking about the Southern Baptists Convention’s insistence upon doctrinal uniformity, but the same sentiment applies to how these Baptists have become the very thing that, just a few generations ago, drove many of their lot into the arms of the Ku Klux Klan. After all, when the KKK looked at Catholics, they saw a people who could never become part of the American mainstream because they would always reserve ultimate obeisance to a foreign potentate and thus serve to undermine America’s democracy, a people separating themselves off from mainstream society through a network of their own exclusive schools and social groups. Yep, that’s many Christian groups these days. Rome has become the model for a variety of denominations.
But when people insist that their true allegiance belongs to heaven and that secular governance must receive the evil eye, a thing to be basely tolerated in the best of times and downright eschewed when democratically instituted laws seem to clash with Preacher Bob’s or Pope Frank’s dicta–when the faithful insist that their own sects and societies could do a far better job of running things than does the evil that is “the Guvmint”–well, what the hell are they talking about? I’ll tell you what they are not talking about.
This morning, I woke up and, being thirsty like I usually am in the mornings, poured myself a glass of water. Then, while feeding our animals, I filled up their water bowls. After that, I filled the tea kettle and made myself a pot of black tea, and I followed that with a shower. All using clean water coming from a reservoir over in the next county using a system of transportation and treatment that is the envy of the world. I once toured a water treatment plant in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, and we followed the water from its storage in outdoor ponds through various stages of settlement and treatment before it goes out into the world, millions of gallons a day. And we all depend upon water. A few days without food, and one is probably weak and hangry. A few days without water, and you are most certainly dead.
But, aside from the toothless anti-floridation types, no religious group that I know of has anything doctrinal to say about water treatment plants. Water treatment plants are, after all, part of the dreaded government, and a part upon which we rely most moments of our lives. The churches which attack the IRS or the Department of Education in sermons and other propaganda tend to leave local water treatment plants off their checklist of enemy institutions. Why? Because water treatment facilities are not sexy. We take clean water for granted so readily that we attribute to water treatment nothing ideological–it’s just there. Except that the drive for clean water came about through the very forms of democratic governance of which fundamentalists and pontiffs are so suspicious. People wanted clean water and were more than willing to spend their hard-earned money in a collective effort to establish those facilities that would provide them with it. Red-faced preachers rail that our relatively democratic form of governance gave us a birth control mandate or welfare rolls and insist that society would be better off with the churches in charge, but they never condemn to everlasting hellfire our systems of water treatment, never blast the government for making people “dependent” upon clean water.
Just imagine, though, that if these churches were in charge of those everyday aspects of governance that we take for granted. My wife, taking a medieval history class, once showed me a prayer used in monasteries for blessing beer into which a bird had shit. Monasteries, with their high, vaulted ceilings, probably had quite a few birds in the rafters, and birds don’t have sphincters, so occasionally a little shit doth fall into your drink–probably why the Germans came up with those lidded steins. But the point was that if your beer found itself laced with pigeon poop, you would pray this little prayer and go back to drinking. After all, the prayer would surely protect you from any ill aftereffects. Now, there are still many groups which insist upon prayer uber alles. Would you want any of those groups in charge of a sewer treatment plant? “If Brother Jett’s done praying over that latest batch of sewage, we can pump it back into the city’s water supply.” Brown, foul-smelling water is why our biblical heroes drank so much wine, so I guess it would be a return to the Golden Age of ancient Israel.
Or what about food safety? Your average Catholic thinks that wine is blood and bread is meat if a few words have been said over it. Do you want that kind of illogic in charge of food inspections or other healthcare issues. “Doctor, we’re out of O-negative, and the patient’s still bleeding.” “Quick, get Father Perry to bless this magnum of merlot and make it the blood of Christ, and we’ll do a transfusion with that!” After all, the Blood of Christ is good enough to drink, so it must be good enough for transfusion’s sake.
No, you don’t want those people in charge of decisions that affect your life. Religious you may be, but you likely know that a vat of sewage is not made pure by a sincere prayer to the Lord, or that you may ameliorate the effects of drinking sewage by being among the righteous. And there will be no better way to kill the dominance of religion than by letting faith take the reins of governance. Same-sex marriage was made legal in Spain eight years before it was in France. Why? After all, the latter was the birthplace of secular republicanism, the place where they started killing priests in 1789 and still today make public noise about eschewing religious garb. However, Spain lived under the Catholic fascist regime of Francisco Franco until 1975, and if there’s one thing about enforced religiosity, it’s that it tends to breed secularism. Journalist Milton Viorst found numerous quiet atheists and closeted tipplers in Iran when he visited, because theocracy breeds the spirit of rebellion. The state will always be flawed, while religion tries to point toward perfection. Merge the two, and we see the flaws in the religious spirit because it cannot achieve the perfection it promised–unless you are of the Gnostic variety and imagine the earth to be the creation of an evil spirit. Then potholes and interminable city council meetings might well constitute proof of your religious beliefs.
I suspect that religion has survived in the United States because of our ostensible separation between church and state. Ironically, this allows for believers to stray a bit–the Southern Baptists goes and makes his liquor store run, and when the bottles are empty, feels guilty–and come back into the fold, renewing their dedication to the sanctified life. Were liquor to be outlawed, he would only experience the unchanging tedium of perfection. Nobody in the Catholic Church likes going to Confession (oh, sorry, I mean “Reconciliation,” as it was renamed), but now imagine if the church had the legal power to require it. Or you may feel guilty for not tithing enough, but if tithing were mandated by state, your guilt would swiftly border upon outrage. And when our church-sponsored state pumped sewage into your house and gave you a prayer to say before drinking it, you would even more quickly learn to hate both entities because you know, through experience, that the mumbling of some words does not alter physical reality so readily. Your religion only survives because it is sustained by a secular world.
Think about that the next time you ask for a little more Bible in your politics. Think about that the next time the Supreme Court gives you permission to foist your shallow worldview upon other people.