Monday, June 12, 2017

Testing the limits of religion

By John Bianchi

“Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” This statement from a Facebook post by Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, drew the ire of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Mr. Sanders questioned whether someone can hold public office if they have views that are believed by some to be bigoted. “In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders said. Sanders argued that this set of beliefs should disqualify Mr. Vought from holding public office.

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Mr. Sanders ranged dangerously close to violating this principle in his insistence that Mr. Vought is unqualified for a government position based on his personal ideology. Is Mr. Sanders correct? Was the intent of the Constitution to protect ‘bigots’? Or would the founders have balked at someone with harsh personal views holding political office?

Often times common sense does not prevail in these types of debate. From a logical standpoint, Mr. Sanders profession that he thinks a man’s personal religious beliefs disqualify him, in and of itself is a religious statement. Religion is simply a codified set of beliefs that govern your interpretation of the world. We are all religious beings. Mr. Sanders simply has a different religious viewpoint than Mr. Vought. Should Mr. Sanders be disqualified from holding public office because he believes that Christians are bigots if he has been duly elected to represent the people of Vermont? Would not many Muslims believe as Mr. Vought stated, that they understand the one true way to gain closeness to God as well? In fact, not only does Mr. Sanders not understand that his statements are religious, this is exactly what the founders had in mind when they wrote Article VI for us.

The founders made it clear no one should be disqualified from public office for personal beliefs but that those personal beliefs should not govern or influence decisions made from the positions of power granted to public officials. The first amendment gives us this provision, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. The founders understood that America would be a diverse country with numerous individuals with myriad personal persuasions. What they could not have envisioned was that that diversity would turn violent or that those religions would be used as weapons against one another. They believed we had progressed past that. It appears we have not.

We live in a world of weaponized religion. Radical Islamic terror and right wing conservatism while not necessarily comparable in every way employ the same mechanism to recreate society in their image. They both seek to use government to achieve their ends. This is exactly what the founders did not want. Government was supposed to be a collective tool to govern in a strongly limited fashion such outsourced activities as treaties, free trade agreements between states, and domestic protections from internal and external forces. Beyond that, the founders did not intend our government to become the behemoth it has become. One which is involved in every aspect of our lives.

This is key. The necessity of religious tests was not in the founders design because it was unnecessary. Should we care what someone believes in their personal life if they’re simply charged with enforcing and making laws limited to the creation of a safe and stable civilization. If there is any criticism of the founders in how they sought to design the American system, it is that they were too naive to think that religion and government would not play an important role in how people seek to achieve their goals.

We are at a crossroads in our society. Since government has grown to be the powerful bureaucratic entity that it is, religious moral fascists of any stripe will try to use that latent power for their own benefit to implement their view of how others should live or what privileges society affords them. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ escalation of the drug war is a perfect example of this type of overreach. Government has no business telling individuals what type of substance they should consume or how much and in what type of setting. Government can enforce penalties for societially agreed upon crimes but that should be its limitation. Shouldn’t prohibition have taught us the important lesson of how dangerous and destructive it can be for a government to try to regulate how individuals live their lives? If someone wants to get high or drunk in their home is that a crime? If they step into a vehicle and kill someone then they have committed a crime. Protection of the rights of innocents is the business of government. Not the regulation of the practices of consenting adults.

Government was meant to be a reactionary force. Not a prescriptive force limiting freedoms. Many libertarians and liberty minded individuals use this simple statement as a bellwether: my rights end where yours begin. While this is an extremely simplistic statement, the implications are correct. For a more in depth approach to this conept, Ludwig Von Mises a prominent classical liberal thinker writes in his magnum opus, Human Action, “The truth is that the alternative is not between a dead mechanism or a rigid automatism on one hand and conscious planning on the other hand. The alternative is not plan or no plan. The question is whose planning? Should each member of society plan for himself, or should a benevolent government alone plan for them all? The issue is not automatism versus conscious action; it is autonomous action of each individual versus the exclusive action of the government. It is freedom versus government omnipotence.”

We should not be in the business of limiting others rights to how they live their lives. Mr. Sanders should not limit someone from holding public office because he believes they know the one true way to heaven. Muslims shouldn’t be disqualified for believing this as well. This is the spirit of America and the Constitution. We can have a larger debate about individual rights and what those entail, but this should be a private sector debate. Government should have no vested interest in this debate.

Although Mr. Sanders or Jeff Sessions would never consider themselves moral fascists, their actions actually speak to the opposite. Mr. Sanders simply believes his regulation and restriction of what public office you may hold because of personal beliefs is more correct than you. America was built to be a republic; a melting pot and not simply a homogenous group of drones living under an oppressive set of rules created by a few. Only through the limiting of government power will we also be able to limit the control that activist religious zealots have to impose their will on the masses. It is important we remember that and then perhaps we will take the weapons of regulation out of the hands of men like Jeff Sessions and Mr. Sanders.

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