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Religious Belief and Civic Duty [Jul. 3rd, 2015|12:42 am]
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Way back in Bible times, Jesus recognized the potential conflict between religious belief and civic duty when--asked if Jews should refuse to pay Roman taxes--he held up a Roman coin and said "Whose face is this?"  Caesar's, said the crowd.  And Jesus said "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God."  In other words, pay your taxes, and then treat other people well: feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, care for each other.  When Roman soldiers or officials came to ask him what they could do to be saved, he didn't tell them to leave the army or their job, but to do their duties faithfully, without cheating, and without using their status to extort money from the people over whom they had power.

In other sermons, Jesus told his listeners not to show off their religion--neither in open acts of charity, nor public prayer, nor (even in private) long extended prayer as if God didn't know what you needed.   He told them not to judge others, not to assume they were perfect and others were not. 

Later Christians have had a problem with the actual words of Jesus, including on the subject of how to reconcile their religious belief with their duties as citizens--their secular duties.   To bring it to the present (skipping over the intervening history for the moment) too many of today's Christians in this country see their duty as mistreating fellow citizens on the grounds that they are the righteous ones who are truly following Jesus.   When it comes to civic duty, they assume imposing their own narrow theological views on everyone (regardless of others' beliefs) is the same as being a good citizen.  And it's not.  And Jesus never said it was.

This country was founded by those who did not agree on religion.   The Puritans and Pilgrims of New England didn't all agree, and they certainly did not agree with the Dutch Protestants in New York (or back in the Netherlands--remember that the Pilgrim Fathers had been to the Netherlands after they first fled England), the Catholics in Maryland, the Scots Calvinists in the Appalachians, the Anglicans in the southern coastal colonies.  Not all were Christians.  Some were Jews.  Not all were deists.  Some were frank atheists.  Not all were members of any defined religion, and of those who were, they were scattered among many different versions of those religions. That--and experience of religious wars and persecutions in Europe--is why this country was founded as a secular nation--a nation that had no established religion (as England and many other European countries had, as other Mediterranean nations had) but founded its organization and legal system on a mixture of English Common Law, elements of Roman law, and the hammered-out compromises of the Constitutional Conventions.    A secular nation in which religious people could live in a society both theologically diverse--each could follow his/her own conscience up to the point of interfering with others following theirs--and legally secular, free from governmental oppression on the basis of religion.

Each individual was free to make rules for herself/himself; each religious group could make rules for its members: but it could not make rules for those not of its membership.   Catholics could not make Presbyterians eat fish on Fridays.   Jews could not make Christians give up pork or shellfish.  Episcopalians couldn't make Baptists use the Book of Common Prayer, and Baptists could not make Episcopalians give up drinking and dancing.  If you wanted to impose a weekly or quarterly or yearly fast, fine...but others need not observe it.  If you wanted to insist on a certain style of clothes, fine...but others need not observe it. The system was not perfect, and the majority in each area often overreached in pushing its agenda on those who didn't agree ("dry" counties, blue laws, etc.), but the law provided a recourse.

And the good citizen's duty, as a citizen of a secular nation, is to accord those of different beliefs the courtesy of allowing them their beliefs.  To uphold the Constitution of the United States, including its secular nature.  To understand "religious freedom" as a responsibility to protect others from religious domination, not freedom to dominate other religions.  In Texas, as in other states and the federal government, appointed and elected officials take an oath to that effect.  The wording may vary slightly from state to state, but the central issue--that of upholding the Constitution and laws of the United States--is the same.  Here's the version used in Texas, taken from the website of the Texas Secretary of State:

It reads like this: “IN THE NAME AND BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE STATE OF TEXAS, I , ______________, do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.”

What this means to a person who has sworn or affirmed it is this: there is no wiggle room in deciding which of the "duties of the office"  the person chooses to execute.  Either you abide by your promise to execute the duties of that office, whatever it is, or you back out and go home and do something else...or, breaking your oath, you're self-convicted of dishonesty, of breaking your promise to do the job.   Fish or cut bait--or get out of the boat.

An official who finds out after she or he is in office that some duty is against her or his convictions (religious or otherwise) has but one honorable choice: resign.   Resignation is honorable.  Maltreating citizens, refusing to execute the duties of the office as they serve citizens, because you don't like something about them is not honorable.  This applies to all citizens, not just those in office, but those in office have sworn an oath and are therefore formally and publicly called to account if they do not execute their duties faithfully and equally in the service of all citizens.   It does not matter what your objection is: whether it is race, religion, sex, gender identity, whatever:  failing to execute the duties with equal diligence toward all citizens is a breach of the oath of office.

And this is what makes the action of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in telling county clerks they could disobey the Supreme Court's decision that gay marriage was now legal nationwide, if they had a religious objection to gay marriage, so wrong.  This is what made the action of various county clerks who refused to provide marriage licenses to gay couples on the basis of their own religious beliefs so wrong.   It is not legally wrong for someone to hold the opinion that gay marriage is a sin.  What is legally wrong is for a government official--who has sworn an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States"--to disobey those laws by refusing to execute the duties of the office and thereby deprive citizens of their legal rights.   What is legally wrong is any government official placing his/her own personal opinions (on anything, not just gay marriage) above the law of the land to the detriment of citizens. 

Such persons should not be appointed or elected to office.  They should recuse themselves before taking office, or resign if in office, and if they do not--they should be removed, summarily, on the first evidence that they will break any law they don't want to obey.  There is no functional difference between the criminal act of law-breaking while in office and one that is claimed to be religiously motivated: both harm the citizens whom the official is supposed to be serving. 

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