When Religion Undermines Society

          As my friend and I strolled after lunch, we briefly discussed the Covid pronouncements by Aaron Rodgers. He is the overpraised but still awfully good professional quarterback* who did not play a recent game because he was unvaccinated and had tested positive for the coronavirus. I said to Bob that people of our generation who get our news from papers, televised news channels, and other mainstream online news sources miss out on what informs much of America and that a large swath of American views, including apparently those of Rodgers’, are formed by right-wing radio and podcasts that are unheard by the likes of me. The friend agreed but then said something more important: “We are at a place in this country where many will automatically disbelieve whatever the government says. If the government says get vaccinated, this group will immediately resist. If the government said don’t get vaccinated, they would immediately get shots.”

          I mulled this over but then thought that there now is another step in this pattern. Those knee-jerk government oppositionists will claim that their belief is rooted in their religion, and constitutional freedom requires that they be exempt from whatever the government mandate is. And some religious foundation or advocacy group will bring a court case seeking a legal exemption from the requirement for the rest of society.**

          This trend raises important questions for society and the government, questions that we will visit as the courts address them in the coming months. In advance of these court decisions, though, I have been thinking about the potential effect this anti-government trend can have on religion. The religious do not seem to be addressing basic questions such as: When is a belief a religious, and not merely a political, one? If a political or personal stance is accepted as religious simply because a person says it is, then religion becomes a tool of the political and personal, and the moral force of religion wanes.  A related question: How can the good faith of a religious claim be determined? And when should a religious belief exempt a person from doing what others must do? If religious people support any claim of exemption from general societal requirements because the claimant proclaims religious scruples, religion will not have much meaning

          This trend towards you-can’t-make-me-do-that-because-it-violates-my-religious-freedoms is a negative and promotes individual preference over society’s interests. You may have to follow the societal and governmental strictures, but because of my religion, I don’t have to. This is undermining what has been a religious emphasis.

Religion has always had negatives, but a central component of religion–and a good part of Christianity–has been on affirmative obligations: go to mass, tithe, support missions, pray, read the Bible. A basic imperative of Christianity has been to “love thy neighbor.” Thus, among other affirmative obligations was the injunction to aid the weak and weary and to improve the general welfare. It was for these reasons that Daniel Webster said, “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.” Jews and Muslims have similar obligations to the practice of their religion and to the general welfare. This is lost when religion is primarily seen as providing exemptions from what the rest of society must do. The focus on I-don’t-have-to-do-what-you-have-to-do wipes out a good part of why religious principles have been thought to build a strong America.

          I recently have been reading about Samuel Booth, the guy who built my house. After his death in 1894, Booth*** was praised in editorials and obituaries and from pulpits for his good works. He was a mayor and postmaster. He provided distinguished service during the Civil War. He served on governmental commissions. He assisted bodies investigating tragedies and determining property values. He served his Methodist Church and was Sunday School superintendent for several churches. Even after he retired, he served the public as a private citizen in diverse ways including aiding young parolees. The obituaries and ministers more than once explained this public service succinctly in words that once resonated: He was a man who believed in “Christian duties.” Religion as selfless service to others; isn’t that quaint? But is there a point to religion if its primary focus is on you-can’t-make me and not on what we should do to serve God and humanity?

And I think of the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi: “Rights that do not flow from duty well performed are not worth having.”

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*I write here as a longtime Green Bay Packer fan.

** Although he triggered this discussion, Aaron Rodgers is not part of this trend. The government had not mandated that he be vaccinated to play football. The National Football League has not required vaccination either. Instead, the NFL laid out consequences if an unvaccinated player tested positive for the disease. Rodgers did not say that he should be exempt from the rules but accepted the consequences for not being vaccinated, and his public statements did not claim that his resistance to a vaccination is religiously based. And perhaps it should be noted that Rodgers has not been one of those nuts proselytizing (or is it evangelizing?) against vaccinations. His nutty views only became public when he defended himself for not being vaccinated.

**More on Samuel Booth in some future posts.

Snippets

Polls divide the public in many ways by separating us by liberal or conservative; political party; age; income; gender; gun ownership; religion; geography; favorite sport; education; race and ethnic group; and much more. However, I haven’t seen the breakdown by other factors that I think might be illuminating. Such as: Do you live in a gated community? Do you read books?

“It cannot possibly be true, can it, the story about Toscanini losing patience during a rehearsal with a soprano, grabbing her large breasts and crying, ‘If only these were brains!’” Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (Thanks SN.)

The battling bishops. That sounds as if it is an informal name for the American Roman Catholic hierarchy who want to deny some politicians communion. (Do those bishops seek to deny communion to those who support the death penalty? If so, it doesn’t seem to get reported in the press.) The “Battling Bishops,” however, is the nickname of the sports teams for North Carolina Wesleyan College. I thought that this was an amusing, slightly sacrilegious, unique name for a Methodist institution, but then I learned that Ohio Wesleyan teams are also the Battling Bishops.

The present version of the Roman Catholic battling bishops makes me think back to when John Kennedy was running for president. Many prominent Protestants opposed his candidacy. They said that the Catholic hierarchy would dictate policies of a Catholic president, and this would violate our country’s bedrock principle of separation of church and state. Now it seems as if the Catholic bishops are doing something very much like what was feared when Kennedy ran, but I have seen no Protestant outrage at the assault on a fundamental building block of this country. I cannot be surprised. Death and hypocrisy are inevitable.

“Only the little people pay taxes.” Leona Hemsley. (And perhaps another hotelier.)

Sign held by a spectator at the New York City Marathon: Jack, run fast. My water broke.

Former President Obama spoke eloquently at the Glasgow climate summit in favor of combating global warming. Was former president Trump given the opportunity to address the leaders to tell them global warming is only a Chinese hoax?

Got any Aaron Rodgers jokes for this boyhood Green Bay Packer fan?

Big Bird announces an upcoming vaccination. Ted Cruz leaps into a decisive action and denounces the puppet’s words as government propaganda. Perhaps it is beyond Cruz to recognize that Big Bird has always been a propagandist—of innocence, curiosity, and niceness, but perhaps these are qualities that Cruz does not care about. And then an even less likeable politician than Cruz (I know, I know, that is hard to believe) from the Arizona legislature labels Big Bird a communist. I wish I were making this up.

Snippets

It’s my birthday in a few days. It will be celebrated on Sunday along with Mother’s Day and the spouse’s birthday, which is a few days after mine. (Don’t send any presents . . . unless it costs over $99.) Just the NBP, the spouse, and me for a simple dinner and some smiles. But the oncoming birthday had me thinking back to more than a quarter-century ago, when Jeff and I were at the tennis net. He and I were regular doubles partners, and we also played a lot of singles against each other, with him winning at least sixty percent of the time. He is considerably younger than I am, but we had never discussed our ages. For some reason I no longer remember, age came up that day, and he asked, “How old are you?” I replied, “Fifty.” He involuntarily spurted out, “Fifty!!!” Now that he has finally passed that age, we laugh about the interchange. Ah, to be a frivolous fifty again.

          I am not young, and more and more I relate to the wisdom of Woody Allen: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

          “No wise man ever wished to be younger.” Jonathan Swift.

          When people refuse to take the Covid-19 vaccine, perhaps they could be persuaded to inject bleach instead.

          Hannity said, “As I have told you repeatedly, you the consumer pay for increased corporate taxes.” He made no mention of another possibility: that corporations would pay lesser dividends. I don’t watch Hannity enough to know who he said paid the tariffs imposed on China and other countries by the previous president, but I doubt he told his viewers that they paid for them. And I wondered, if Hannity were right, why do corporations oppose an increase in their tax rates if they just pass it along? They should then be indifferent to a tax increase, but they don’t seem to be.

          Hector had tracked me down by getting a phone number for me off the internet. His message said that he had found my Covid vaccination card on the subway steps. Sure enough, it was not in my wallet. I had recently shown it to someone a few days earlier who was keeping vaccination records in my Pennsylvania community. It had been hard to get  out where I had put it in my wallet, so I put it back in a more accessible spot. Apparently, it was now so easy to get that it fell out when I took out my subway card. Hector and I arranged to meet at the corner of my block, and he returned it to me. Once again, I was reminded that there are many, many good people in this world, even, maybe especially, in New York City.

As avid readers of this blog know, the spouse did not know who Aaron Rodgers was. Her annual football watching generally consists of half-watching a few plays on one Sunday in hopes that a Super Bowl ad will soon appear. But she does know some players. She went to a doctor for a shoulder problem recently and hanging up in his office is a Brett Favre jersey. Showing off her knowledge, she said, “You’re a Packers fan.” He said no, he had treated Favre when he was with the New York Jets. Even so, he is going to perform on her what we hope is a routine procedure today.

“Today’s Medical Tip: Never undergo any kind of major surgery without first making an appointment.” Dave Barry.

Snippets

Talk all you want about Tom Brady, LeBron James, or Mike Trout, but isn’t Mikaela Shiffrin the best American athlete competing today? Or is it Simone Biles?

With all the hospital mergers, institutions end up with strange and seemingly impossible names. Thus, not far from me is the New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

          On a diet, one is supposed to eat slowly. So, at the farmer’s market seafood stand, I bought my diet food—oysters. It takes me fifteen minutes to open each one.

          How often in the coming years do you think Ivanka and Jared will socialize with people who unironically wear MAGA hats?

Although I don’t like to be out in one, I like to hear the term because it sounds poetic: Wintry mix.

We had a winter storm, which raises the questions for boys of all ages: Can you write your name in the snow? Sometimes it is better to be Bob than Randolph.

“It was evening all afternoon/It was snowing/And it was going to snow./The blackbird sat/In the cedar-limbs.” Wallace Stevens.

I read online an article from The Federalist. At the bottom of the article, it said: “The Federalist, a wholly independent division of FDRLST Media.” Can it be “wholly independent” and a division of a larger company? Perhaps someone can explain to me what “wholly independent” means.

Sometimes I am surprised at a lacuna in the spouse’s knowledge. She does not know who Aaron Rodgers is. That prevented me from discussing with her the burning topic of whether he is overrated.

At my age, an aphorism that no longer applies: “A pessimist is a man who thinks all women are bad; an optimist hopes they are.”

Overheard on an elevator at the Whitney Museum, this truism and puzzler: one young man social distancing from another, said, “Taking care of your mother while she dies is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

I did not sleep well on the night before a stress test necessary for an important medical procedure. I had discomfort in my lower abdomen with an occasional sharp pain. As I lay in bed, I convinced myself that I had a kidney stone. My mind raced. Should I go to the emergency room? Maybe the stone would pass naturally with a bit of pain and blood. Did I know of a doctor to go to? Did the spouse? Could I postpone my scheduled stress test? Would this postpone my valve replacement? Surely, I had to deal with the kidney stone first. Finally, I fell asleep but fifty minutes later I was awake again with a racing mind. What should I do about the kidney stone? How do I cancel my heart procedure appointment? Finally, back to sleep again but awake an hour later. So it went all night long until I finally got up to go up to the hospital for the test, and the worries about the kidney stone dissipated. I came to the convincing, and loud, conclusion that it was only gas.