The Don’ Wanna But Gotta Talk About That Hateful Woman Blues
I imagine that aliens learning about human behavior on planet Earth these days would have an extremely difficult time resolving the conflicting displays of religion. In the US recently we had a head-spinningly strange confluence of religious events between the visit of Pope Francis, with his message of love, peace, tolerance and even respect for the planet, and the gay-hating shenanigans of that near-martyred Christian Clerk from Kentucky. To begin with, the aliens would have their work cut out for them in trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance created by the use of the term “martyr” in the context of someone who is very much alive and well (she only spent five days in jail). The event that would cause our aliens’ heads to explode, however, is the fact that among all the items on his itinerary, among all the issues that require his attention, and the thousands, let alone millions, of people he could have possibly granted an audience to, the Holy Father chose to meet with little ol’ Kim Davis.
The hay made over this meeting is, in and of itself, enough to defy logic and reason. Did the Pope request the meeting with Davis or not? Apparently not. The Vatican released a statement after the controversy to say that “Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the pope at the nunciature (embassy) was with one of his former students and his family.” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Frederico Lombardi went on to say that the Pope’s meeting with Davis “should not be considered a form of support of [Kim Davis’] position in all of its particular and complex aspects.” That former student the Pope requested an audience with, by the way, turns out to be one Yayo Grassi, a longtime friend of Francis’s from Argentina and a known gay man who has been in a committed, same-sex relationship for 19 years. Grassi’s life partner even accompanied him in the meeting. Whereas the meeting with Davis seems to have resulted from the machinations of conservative third parties who did not have Pope Francis’ best interests at heart (Esquire’s political blogger, Charles P. Pierce, is an excellent source through which to navigate the maze of intrigue over this situation), Francis himself was the one who called Grassi from the Vatican to set up the meeting at the nunciature. For those keeping score: the meeting with Kim Davis was due to the Pope’s “characteristic kindness and availability,” while a “real audience” was granted to a dear friend who just so happens to be the very type of person that, if Davis and her supporters had their way, would be banished from society. As Pope Francis famously stated about a month before his US visit, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
One wonders if, prior to their meeting, Kim Davis had heard these words and, if so, made any attempt to discern their meaning. Admittedly, this “live and let live” stuff is pretty deep and heavy for a gal from Rowan County in Kentucky, population 23,527. Unfortunately, it appears Davis was as oblivious as the Holy See about the circumstances surrounding their meeting. “I was humbled to meet Pope Francis,” she said afterwards. “Of all people, why me?” It’s a more valid question than she realizes. Before we start giving thanks and praise to any kind of supernatural forces or beings for this meeting, it should be clear by now that Davis and the Pope happened to be two representatives of their respective faiths who experienced a chance collision. To make anything more of it than that is to distort the purpose and message of their respective faiths, as well as to reveal the parties trumping up the meeting’s significance – turning it into a rallying cry, or religious red meat, for their adherents, in other words – for the rat bastards and bad actors that they are.
It turns out that extremism makes for strange bedfellows, whether in religion, war or politics. According to Pierce, the Pope fell victim to a conservative strain of the Catholic Church that has grown increasingly uncomfortable with and active against the Pope’s liberalism on such issues as faith, time-honored church traditions (such as the molestation of little boys by priests), poverty and climate change. Meanwhile, Kim Davis’s “handler,” attorney Mat Stavers, heads a legal firm, Liberty Counsel, that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Interestingly, both Staver and Davis grew up Catholic but now belong to more conservative and fundamentalist denominations, Southern Baptist and Apostolic, respectively. Since I doubt their current faiths would otherwise have much in common with Catholicism, the arrangement of this meeting and its subsequent promotion (or leak) via social media and the press can only be seen as opportunism, pure and simple. More evidence of Staver’s bad faith is his attempt to pass off a picture of a gathering of 100,000 in Peru as a demonstration of faith and support for Kim Davis. Turns out the image was a recycled one of a gathering of Peruvian Pentecostals from 2014. Oops!
Does anyone believe for a second that Catholics and Apostolics and Southern Baptists would play any better with each other in the Christian sandbox than they would with followers of Islam? I’ll never forget the time I was invited to hear a friend preach at a Sunday service for his inter-denominational church. (These mongrel faiths tend to pop up, especially in the South, whenever a disgruntled individual plus a sufficient cadre of followers split with their current preacher and establish a new church, meeting first, if necessary, in a school or even abandoned convenience store until enough money is raised to build a “real” church with steeple, cross, stained glass windows and all.) I sat politely if a little uneasily through the service, since it was not my custom to attend church services of any faith. There came the moment in the service for members of the congregation to come forward to proclaim before one and all that they had accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior or to make special prayer requests. One elderly woman requested prayers for a sick family member who lived in Florida. She qualified the request by stating, “Now I know she’s Catholic,” and I sensed the congregation nodding in understanding as to what this meant. Could it be that as an adherent of a faith that practices idolatry and worships the Virgin Mary that she was not entitled to a full measure of forgiveness, grace and healing?
Only later, after reading Robert Putnam’s American Grace, did I come to recognize this as an expression of the “Aunt Sally rule” (my phrase, not Putnam’s). That is, we are more liberal in our acceptance of people who practice different faiths when they are members of our own families or immediate circle. In other words, we are less likely to condemn our own family members to hell than we are complete strangers. It’s strange that I would remember this incident so vividly, and yet I can’t recall the first thing about my friend’s homily. All I know is I went to the service simply as a show of support, and I supported him even though he and I had different beliefs. Isn’t that the way this faith business is supposed to work?
This unsettling moment in church serves as a microcosm of religion’s dual power to join and divide all around the world. I would argue that these impulses are irreconcilable for a couple of reasons. One is that if you put any two people together, even members of the same family or congregation, they will never be able to agree completely on matters of faith. Faith is, ultimately, a private matter between the individual and his or her creator, as he or she understands that entity to be. The other reason is that the object of one’s faith is unprovable and, thus, unknowable. Believers take a leap that attempts to transcend the gap between reality and their sense of meaning and purpose that exists beyond the realm of empirical facts. In the end, at least while alive on earth, they can never know for certain if their faith is correct or placed in something real. Believers take their chances, cast their lot, and then attempt to live their lives according to the values that reflect their beliefs. The most stout and resilient believers know to season their faith with a dash of doubt based on their varying experiences of reality, as well as the flux of their own beings, as new information penetrates our consciousness, sometimes clashing with and contradicting one’s preconceptions. Belief, like our own personalities, is a constantly evolving thing, made all the more fluid and dynamic because its object forever surpasses our direct experience and understanding. One thing belief is not and never can be is knowledge.
My own wrestling with belief and faith has brought me many times to the ledge, but I’ve never quite been able to make the jump, and I don’t presume to know fully the reasons why. To be sure, I believe that there is something greater than myself, but I am reluctant to give it a name, other than the totality of interconnected life on this planet and the universe. By allowing that a part of my resistance is due to a self-aggrandizing (and often erroneous and delusional) notion of the mind’s supremacy, I can’t help but think it’s just as erroneous and delusional to attribute human characteristics such as benevolence and compassion, let alone petty emotions such as anger and revenge, to unknown forces that may exist beyond the self. After all, such attributions are beliefs too, just as unprovable and unknowable as a supreme being itself. For all I or anyone else knows, they’re really one and the same thing, since they arise from the same chemistry in our brains that prompts thoughts and emotions. As a child, I remember praying fervently when I wanted or needed something badly enough, and in times of need and crisis I still find myself resorting reflexively to this supplication for comfort and solace. Rather than believing that there is a supernatural agent on the other end that hears and responds to these supplications, I have come to view prayer as an offering up of helplessness and lack of control, which will always be my lot as someone wandering alone, confused and afraid in this wondrously strange but sometimes alien and hostile universe. Prayer then becomes a useful exercise in humility and acceptance of those forces we can never know or understand.
I refuse to accept that my beliefs, such as they are, make me in any way less-than, or render me incapable of interacting in meaningful ways with those who may believe differently. Even though no two believers believe in the same way, we are more than capable of finding common ground through our actions and our attempts to gain a better understanding of each other and the world we share. In the end, we are all alone together trying to work out purpose and meaning for our lives. Ultimately this is what bonds all of humanity, not the brand or label we give our God or religious beliefs. When attempting to engage our local churches in my former education work, I would fret over this terribly. Sitting around the table with faith leaders, we would often talk about education in religious and redemptive terms, but I always feared that they would sniff me out as a charlatan in their midst. Perhaps I used enough of the lingo that they never considered I might be a non-believer, or perhaps I worried needlessly and it never mattered to them what I believed, provided, of course, my actions backed up my rhetoric. What I learned during this time is that right action goes much farther than words and transcends those “red flags” that signal our differences. Indeed, right action is the only way we can truly hold each other accountable. There is much to admire in Jesus’ teachings, but even his most important lesson of the Golden Rule is an ethic that precedes him by more than a millennia. Unfortunately, there are too many among us who drape themselves in their religious brand’s pomp and circumstance – flashing the fish, as it were, on business signs and bumper stickers – as if it were armor protecting them in their ideological battle against the infidels of their faith. A good rule of thumb is that anyone who tells you that there’s only one way up the mountain is – let’s not mince words – full of shit.
Which brings us back to the Clerk of Kentucky. I doubt that anyone would deny Kim Davis the right to exercise her conscience, which she believes to the core of her being that she must follow or risk being sent to hell (I’m not kidding). In spite of her advocates’ claims, no one is attacking her for her beliefs, nor is her situation an example of Christianity, still the most widely practiced belief system in the world, being under attack. Rather, she is being attacked, and rightly so, because she is using her unprovable and unknowable beliefs to deny others their rights under a knowable and enforceable law. You want to talk about a leap of faith!
Again, there was a great deal of discussion around Pope Francis’ comments regarding a government worker’s right to conscientious objection. This term strikes me as a peculiar one to use in this context, although, to be fair, Pope Francis never specifically referred to Kim Davis or her case. It seems to me that conscientious objection is employed when an individual, according to the dictates of his or her conscience, must remove him or herself from a group or institution that engages in practices he or she does not believe in. For the life of me, I fail to see how this applies in Davis’ situation, where she willingly put forth her name in an election for the Clerk of Court office. If, after being elected to that office, she finds herself at odds with some of the duties required by that office, the way to exercise her conscientious objection is by resigning her post. Failing that, those elected to oversee her position, the county commissioners, should exercise our government’s system of checks and balances and impeach her for failing to uphold the law and her constitutionally-mandated responsibilities.
This is unlikely to happen, however, given that Ms. Davis resides in a small and rural county where the majority of citizens probably share her beliefs, making them all her conscience co-conspirators. We have a similar situation in NC where in neighboring McDowell County all four court magistrates have refused to issue marriage licenses of any kind, same-sex or otherwise. However, these lucky magistrates have been spared jail terms thanks to the state’s recently passed SB 2 legislation that permits them to exempt themselves from these duties if they have religious (conscientious) objections. Not only are these magistrates denying fellow citizens their lawfully given rights, but they are costing taxpayers money (the gravest sin according to the conservative religion) due to having to bring in magistrates from nearby Rutherford County several times a week to perform the wedding ceremonies that they refuse to do.
If an individual attempts to find certainty where it doesn’t exist – say, in one’s conscience – they end up like a snake eating its own tail. This is how someone who is pro-life and believes in the sanctity of all life justifies the use of murder to drive home their point. ISIS, in its feeble attempt to cleanse itself of infidels and impure followers in preparation for the coming apocalypse, will soon kill or behead its way to having no followers who manage to meet this fictitious criteria. If we take faith as an unprovable and unknowable private matter of conscience, it defies reason and humanity’s inquisitive nature for an individual simply to flip the switch of volition in their minds and bodies and turn themselves over, like automatons, to their creator or those who appoint themselves the enforcers of their creator’s will. We’ve established Kim Davis is not a martyr, but rest assured, she ain’t no saint either. While she appears to rigidly adhere to this specific belief about traditional marriage to the point of going to jail, one can presumably find other areas in her moral inventory where she plays loosey-goosey with other of her faith’s tenets. Far from being traditional, the woman has been married four times, for crying out loud! We all practice this form of confirmation bias in which we align ourselves with beliefs that correspond to our view of the world and we discard the ones that don’t. This not only rules out Ms. Davis being a martyr for her faith but also a praise-worthy example of an upright Christian. What other conclusion can one draw about her suddenly elevated status, except that she is being played and puffed up by people with dishonorable intentions?
It’s impossible to know where each of us stands, what’s right and what’s wrong, when we view matters through the lens of subjective belief or faith. In their infinite, though also flawed, wisdom, our Founding Fathers anticipated this by making our nation one based on a rule of law that is wholly separate and distinct from religious beliefs. Though our process of lawmaking is far from perfect (and becoming more imperfect by order of magnitude, if the recent actions of our legislators in NC are anything to go by), a law applies fairly and impartially to all citizens, whereas an individual’s religious beliefs apply only to those who share that belief. I have no problem if you want to believe that there is a law higher than our civil one, but I defy you to tell me who on this earthly plane has the authority to enforce it. If I weren’t so disgusted and horrified, I might manage to be amused by those individuals who believe with all their heart that they are defending God’s honor by killing, harming or demonizing those they deem to be “other.” Really, you presume to know what God considers honorable? And you really think He’s so vulnerable to attack from us lowly, sinful humans that He can’t defend himself, or that He might exist beyond the need for such? Project much?
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I am encouraged by the fact that science and the evolution of our reason and compassion causes us to bring more and more of our fellow humans under the law’s protection. The differences among ourselves that we fight over, such as skin color, religion or sexual identity and preference, really have little or nothing to do with how we live and interact with one another in society. But, homosexuality and same-sex marriage being the third rail issues they are, obviously not everyone agrees with this. One would think, given its more liberal acceptance and forgiveness of others, that faith would be better able to navigate through these choppy waters, but it appears too preoccupied with eating its own tail and defending itself against illusory enemies. Religions, like all institutions, do change, but they do so slowly, one death at a time. That is why we ultimately need the (ideally) fair and impartial rule of law to mediate these matters in real time, not some far off and fictional one of the afterlife where we will (supposedly) be rewarded for our trials and tribulations. Complex societal matters should be decided in terms of practice, not faith.
In their dissension of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, it was curious to see the Supreme Court justices almost wishing they could abdicate their own responsibility to the Constitution and the rule of law. Scalia, presumably speaking for his fellow dissenters and confessing to a limited legal understanding and expertise that clearly had not prevented him from making other judgments from the bench, suddenly felt that the nine justices “were terribly unrepresentative of our country.” No shit, Sherlock. He went on to say, “What is it that I learned at Harvard Law School that makes me peculiarly qualified to determine such profound moral and ethical questions as whether there should be a right to abortion, whether there should be same-sex marriage, whether there should be a right to suicide?” Scalia is addressing a fundamental flaw in our democracy, but the system by which we appoint nine justices for life who then render decisions on complicated matters that our lawmakers fail, or refuse, to resolve themselves is the best we have at this time. In tumultuous times like these it sucks to be you, Scalia, but you, like Kim Davis, chose your lot when you accepted your appointment. When matters of faith intrude upon our rule of law, it takes a lawyer to draw or clarify the line between the two. That is, unless the lawyer chooses to conscientiously object and resign from the bench.
Thomas Jefferson provides us with the best guide on government’s proper role in matters where, due to private conscience, we cannot agree: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. … Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” It appears that the chickens roused to political action by the Moral Majority religious movement in the 80s have come to roost, but, rather than stem or reverse the tide of public approval for things that go against their conscience, their only recourse is obstruction through conscientious objection, shutting down government functions or the denial of funding, all part of a death of a thousand cuts toward their desired theocratic rule. I’m not holding my breath that we will come to an agreement on homosexuality or same-sex marriage anytime soon. While I strongly believe that whether my neighbor marries a member of the opposite or same sex “does me no injury,” I believe even more strongly that allowing a lone individual to prevent her fellow citizens from enjoying the rights provided them by the law is clearly injurious in this case, both economically and emotionally. Kim Davis and the American public would be better off if she’d kept this, as well as all other matters of faith, between her and her creator instead. The offering of helplessness through prayer may have given her more inner peace through the acceptance of things she can’t change. Perhaps then she and her fellow citizens of Rowan County and the rest of the country learning to live with this new law can go about the business of their daily lives, respectful enough of each other’s differences that such powers of reason and free inquiry that are available to us all should be sufficient for us to live peacefully together in this world without having to seek recourse through a supreme being beyond it.