Sunday, August 21, 2011

Personal Liberties: Religion and Government

It's been a month since my last post, between vacations and new jobs--but now I'm going to update you all about my latest occupation. An election year is fast approaching, and it's one that honestly I'm pretty scared of. So, as my Facebook friends have already noticed, I'm getting into the game and trying to follow the current political atmosphere so that I can make the best use of my vote in November 2012.

As I told a friend who noticed my "sudden" interest in politics, it's less sudden than intermittent. It flares up with impending major elections, or when I start hearing things I don't like. A few months ago I got very riled up over the federal attack on Planned Parenthood. What really bothered me about that was that PP's detractors couldn't separate the institution itself from abortion. The fact that abortion counts for a mere 3% of Planned Parenthood's services and is privately funded, as per the Hyde Amendment, did not seem to count for anything. Planned Parenthood was doing nothing but abortions, and they were doing it with government money, goddamnit.

I could write a whole entry on the Planned Parenthood controversy and other efforts to undermine women in the U.S., but I'll get to that later. For now I'm just going to focus on the larger ramifications: if America is about personal freedoms, why are we fighting to restrict each other?

A big part of the problem is religion. The conservative Christian force is stronger than ever in Congress, and they seem determined to bowl over anyone who isn't part of the club. Now, I have nothing against conservatives or Christians personally, but en masse they can be very scary, especially when they seem determined to force their values on what is supposedly a free population. Just to provide some major examples:

The Ground Zero Mosque. Obviously a misnomer, but that's how the story has become known. It was not a mosque, but a Muslim community center several blocks away from Ground Zero that had a prayer center in it (whereas a mosque is strictly religious and does not include basketball courts). And yet we get comments like Sarah Palin's, "We all know they have a right to do it, but should they?" This is characteristic of the extremist-Christian expectation that other religions must walk on eggshells, even in a secular country. It is offensive to Christians to have a "mosque" so close to a place where a few radical Muslims committed a heinous act. Yet, when atheists take offense to a Christian memorial at Ground Zero, a governmental site, they are threatened with rape and murder by some very angry Christians. WWJD, huh?

To continue the above point, I move to presidential candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Both are very devout Christians and Bachmann, at least, appears to have a fair amount of Christian compassion. She and her husband have served as foster parents, and own a mental health practice. Well and good for them. It's clear that their faith is a big part of their lives, and that's fine--but religion should never be the basis of a political argument or campaign. It is a violation of the separation of church and state in the Constitution. This is a known fact.

Yet Bachmann and Perry both persist in making it part of their political agenda. Gov. Perry, for example, has been quoted saying "We teach both creationism and evolution in [Texan] public schools." This is not strictly true, since that is, you know, illegal; but students are often encouraged to "critique scientific explanations, so it is likely that other theories, such as creationism, would be discussed in class," and creationist materials were submitted for approval by the board of education under the guise of "intelligent design." Fortunately, the board stuck with materials teaching only evolution.

Many extremist Christians will claim discrimination when "their rights are infringed upon"; but no one is saying that Texan Christians can't believe in creationism. The point here is that public schools are state-funded, and that the Constitution prohibits the mingling of church and state. This is not done in order to discriminate against Christians--it is to keep other religions or those of no religion from feeling discriminated against. It is this key idea that the extremists cannot seem to comprehend. Freedom of religion means that other religions have the same freedoms as Christianity, and that citizens have the freedom to choose their religion, if any. In the case of education, it is the responsibility of a child's parents and church community to teach religious tenants, not the secular government.

That is why Perry and Bachmann are extremely dangerous candidates. They don't seem to be able to separate religion from politics, or even to frame their values and ideas in a non-religious format. This is a crucial skill which they lack. Being a Christian and a politician is not impossible: Obama has attended the same church in Chicago for twenty years. But the US is not a theocracy, therefore it is imperative to phrase one's arguments outside of religious rhetoric. Tell your church that you went to law school because it was God's calling; tell the voters that it was just what you decided to do.

I would be scared to see a conservative Christian President who, like Bachmann or Perry, can't separate their religion from governance. Based on their comments, and the comments of their fellow conservatives, and as someone whose values are wildly different, I don't feel like the freedoms I enjoy--to have or not have a religion, to be independent of a man if I chose, to have an abortion if I needed it, to be protected by the law if I was raped, to have access to affordable health care, etc, etc--would be safe, simply because conservatives do not approve.

America is about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Ours is far from a homogeneous culture, and I'm of the opinion that diversity makes us strong. Freedom has been the name of the game ideologically since the Puritans sought the freedom to practice their religion here. Now, however, the descendants of those and the other immigrants who landed here are trying to limit and restrict the freedoms of their fellow citizens, because they cannot accept that which is different. We cannot let that happen.

I'm a political idealist, as my boyfriend says; I believe the system can work. It just requires each and every person to exert themselves a little and take an interest in who is running the country. I've found two websites really helpful in keeping track of things. PolitiFact is a website that fact-checks statements made by politicians and pundits, which is a nice thing to have when people make all kinds of willy-nilly hyperbolic claims. POPVOX (or popular voice) is a new website that allows you to see what bills are in Congress right now and vote to support or oppose, then sends your vote and your comments to your representatives. I highly recommend both sites.

Stay tuned for more.

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