Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation

In my last column I discussed the historic roots of freedom of religion in the United States.  In this one I will focus on one less-well-known organization that is doing critical work to protect a specialized group within our country – those who serve in our armed forces.  First a bit of explanation is in order.
Because the military is rigidly structured and highly controlled, and because trust and cohesion within units is essential to the safety of service people, some forms of religious expression that would be perfectly acceptable among a civilian population must be curtailed during military service.  For example, service personnel of higher rank are not permitted to proselytize among those of lower rank.  The reason is simple.  Obedience to the commands of those of higher rank is mandatory and absolute.  Within such a power structure, for an officer to “suggest” to enlisted personnel that they attend a particular religious event or engage in a specific religious activity is inevitably coercive.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Freedom of Religion in the U.S.

Religion is mentioned twice in the U.S. Constitution.  The final provision of Article VI states, “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  The First Amendment, which lists basic rights of the people, begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”  And the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted in 1868 after the end of the Civil War, extended the protections granted under the Constitution to the states.  “… [N]or shall any state … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Like every other right guaranteed in the Constitution, freedom of religion is not absolute.  Over the years courts have been called on to mediate between conflicting claims, and Congress and state legislators have seen the need to define and amplify or restrict the way freedom of religion is applied in specific instances.  In some cases accommodation is made in favor of religion, such as the granting of conscientious objector status to those who do not believe in participating in armed conflict and the exemption of the Amish from the requirement that young people receive formal education to age 16.  In other cases such accommodations have been denied.  Some examples of the latter are the requirement imposed on the Mormons of Utah to abandon the practice of polygamy before Utah was granted statehood, and the jailing of Schwartzentruber Amish elders for failure to comply with septic system ordinances.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Looking Back; Looking Forward

On the night of November 16, 1989, members of the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite corps of the Salvadoran army, invaded the residence of the Jesuit faculty of the Romero Center at the University of Central America (UCA) and slaughtered six teaching scholars, along with their housekeeper and her daughter.  Only Fr. Jon Sobrino, who was out of the country at the time, was spared from the massacre.
By that time civil war had raged in El Salvador for nearly a decade.  Strongly influenced by a Cold War mentality that viewed as a communist plot any attempt by the poor of Latin America to overthrow oppressive regimes, the U.S. was then funding the Salvadoran military at approximately one million dollars per day.  Some of that went to equip the death squads.  Much of the rest lined the pockets of corrupt military leaders.  Indeed, military officers were fast becoming the new wealthy power in the country, challenging the traditional oligarchy referred to as “the fourteen families.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To the Seventh Generation

For years I’ve been declaring that I would spend some of my retirement time in serious genealogical research.  The impetus to action came earlier this summer, when my sister found a packet of photo negatives and shared the resulting images with others in the family.  Though I already have a fairly substantial collection of old family photos, these were mostly pictures that I had never seen before.  We could put names to some of the faces; others remain a total mystery.  In that initial search for identities, I found the spark that moved my long-intended project into concrete action.
This process of searching for ancestors has led me to reflect on our awareness of place and generations.  It is said that the U. S. is a nation of immigrants, and for the most part this is true.  When we only have to look back two or three generations to find an ancestor who came from another country, we simply haven’t had the opportunity to establish a long connection to the land on which we now live.  Our highly mobile society also works against our having a sense of belonging to a particular place.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Nature of Language

In an internet conversation which I was following several weeks ago about a particular passage in the Letter to the Romans, a pastor began a comment with, “We must look at the Greek at the beginning of chapter 2.”  His comment was immediately answered by another that asked, “Why must we look at the Greek?  We know what it says.”
This exchange started me thinking about the nature of language and the challenges of translation.  In an essential way, the function of language is to limit.  When I say that I am looking at a chair, I have immediately limited the hearer’s understanding of what the object of my gaze could be.  It is not a lamp; it is not a ham sandwich; it is not a surfboard. It is a piece of furniture with a seat, legs, and back, upon which someone can sit.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Marriage Equality Comes to Pennsylvania

When U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, III, recently issued his decision overturning Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage, reactions from religious communities were quite varied.  The morning after the ruling was made public, and even before Governor Corbett announced that he would not appeal, Pastor Anne Mason of the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Lancaster appeared on the front page of the morning paper offering free weddings to any couple who contacted the church office that day.  Interfaith minister Rev. Kelly Jo Singleton soon followed with a similar offer.  They greeted the news with unequivocal celebration.
Following publication of these expressions of support, the U-U church office received several phone messages decrying their action and stating, among other things, that they were all going to hell.  Though no specific threats were included in any of the messages, the congregation requested the presence of Silent Witness Peacekeeper Alliance members on the day of the weddings just in case any protesters showed up and tried to disrupt the events. 

Saturday, April 05, 2014

I Believe

“I Believe” is an inspirational popular song from the 1950s that managed to express faith without evoking any particular religion.  Frankie Laine took it to the top of the U.K. charts for 18 weeks in 1953, and artists as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Perry Como, Tammy Wynette, and Elvis Presley produced recordings of it in the following years.  Based on the number of versions posted on YouTube, I conclude that it is still well known and loved more than sixty years after its first release.
I found myself thinking of this song, even humming it quietly to myself, as I read numerous news articles and commentary about the suits involving Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby which were argued in front of the Supreme Court last week.  Clearly the suits are about belief, and how beliefs drive action.  But the more I read, the more I realized that “I believe” can have a number of different meanings and different kinds of meaning, both religious and nonreligious.