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About this Issue — Sharia Law vs Bible law and the American experiment

Quite a lot of Americans seem to be worried about the looming threat of Sharia Law—at least 14 states have adopted statutes that prohibit recourse to “foreign law” as a means to reassure their citizens that Sharia Law will not be allowed to encroach on America’s freedoms. In any case, the US Constitution already expressly denies authority to “foreign law” so these states are wasting their time. Unless of course their purpose isn’t to reassure their population but to rile them up. Talk show hosts tell listeners that we already have “creeping Sharia Law” in this country.

On the other hand, Bible law has a much greater likelihood of making inroads into the freedoms Americans enjoy. Despite the First Amendment guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” some elements of a conservative Christian ideology have found their way into state and municipal laws and practices, and increasingly into federal administrative agencies. And conservative christians have increasingly found their way into governing circles at both the state and federal level

The courts have found that no federal or state government may adopt a law that aids or prefers one religion, or aids all religions. Any law subject to challenge on those grounds must pass a three-part test: 1) it must have a clearly secular purpose; 2) its primary effect must neither enhance nor inhibit religion; and 3) it must avoid excessive entanglement with religion.

Whether those criteria are sufficient to preserve this country from seeing beliefs espoused by Christians become drivers of public policy seems open to question. This, not Sharia Law, is the danger.

Three articles in this issue talk about the good that can come when churches or other religious groupings take positions on public policy or perform social services. However, when the positions taken do not relate to an expansion of justice and equity, but are fueled by nationalism and rejection of an open society that should alarm us. We cannot wait until those positions are funded with public dollars or codified in law to strengthen protections against them.

The power of Christian groups in the political sphere in the US reflected in the term “Christian right.” Dozens of organizations including Christian Voice, Moral Majority, Religious Roundtable, Focus on the Family, Free Congress Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, along with massive radio networks such as the Christian Broadcasting Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network pursue a Christian fundamentalist agenda across many institutions. Churches have also sought opportunities to embody their dogma in government. Their views have shaped politics and in some instances been incorporated into laws on global warming, reproductive health, sexual activity, abortion, public school curricula, the status of women, foreign policy, etc.

We’ve come a long way since John Kennedy said, “I do not speak for my church on public matters and my church does not speak for me.” From the President on down, politicians trumpet their religious positions.. Many officials in the current administration are veterans of the Christian Right. One, Scott Lloyd was responsible as Director of the Office for Refugee Resettlement, for intervening to prevent a young refugee woman from having a legal abortion. Another, Roger Severino, as director of the Office for Civil Rights in the Health and Human Services department created a new division Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. Donald Trump soon after his election, converted Bush’s “faith-based” office into the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, with officials in 13 federal agencies.

The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has developed into a tool that allows businesses to avoid obeying laws that are said to conflict with the company’s religious beliefs. This has enabled businesses to exclude coverage for abortion and contraception otherwise legally required in insurance plans. Some officials in the Trump administration seem to specialize in finding ways to disguise regulations that are motivated by religious aims. A newly proposed rule would require ACA insurers to send consumers an “abortion bill” each month, representing the share of their premium going toward covering abortion services. Consumers would be required to pay this bill separately.

One way to look at such forays is as “test marketing” for opportunities to carve out ever larger space to introduce religious demands and prohibitions into the laws that govern all of us. Our secular space won’t disappear suddenly in a democracy. It’s not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and tolerance. And here I’ll quote the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole: “You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”

—BW

Theme for January: Political work in the context of the midterm election results.

(Ed note: I’m going to defer to Max Elbaum to stimulate thinking about submissions for next month’s theme. Thank you, Max. —BW)

Elections are about power. They are a barometer of relative strength of different social and political forces; and within certain constraints, they can shift that power. Those constraints vary, sometimes the outcome of elections can shift things only in the tiniest of ways, other times they have big consequences. This just-completed election, and likely even more the one in 2020, the stakes are quite high. Politics is about Power. One of positive things this moment is that the question of power has moved central to discussion on the left. Not just how to speak truth to power, or how to protest those in power, or pressure those in power. Rather, how to take chunks of power from those who have it now and get it for exploited and oppressed. —Max Elbaum, from his notes in Portside, November 18.

February theme: Rural life and the urban/rural divide.

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