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.”
*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.