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.

A Sausage Made It Famous

          Sheboygan is famous for one thing, at least in its eyes. No, it’s not me even though I was born and raised there.

          Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sits on the shores of Lake Michigan halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, about fifty miles from each. Growing up this location was a boon. We could get television stations from both places, but this was the days of over-the-air and required an antenna. The father installed a rotor that could shift the antenna’s direction south towards Milwaukee or north towards Green Bay. Most often, this did not matter much because each city had the three networks showing the same shows, and while Milwaukee had an independent station, the networks were where it was at.

Occasionally, the rotor would malfunction, and the father would get out a long ladder and climb onto the roof to make adjustments. This being snow country, the roof was steeply pitched. I should have been concerned that this job held some danger, but I had a child’s faith in his father. The repairs, however, were a three-person job. With him on the roof, one of us watched the TV and shouted when the rotor had the antenna in exactly the right position to get Milwaukee. Another of us would be outside the window and relayed the message to the roof man. Then the inside person would move the rotor through some sort of device towards Green Bay, and the same shouting ensued.

          This rotor business was essential for one very, very important reason—the Green Bay Packers. I can hardly overstate the obsession with the Lombardi-era team of my youth, although a similar obsession for each era of Packers has continued. Back then, Green Bay played half its home games in Green Bay and half in Milwaukee. The NFL then had a blackout policy that prevented hometown television stations from broadcasting games for a team’s home games. However, Green Bay was outside the blackout zone when the Packers played in Milwaukee, and the CBS station could carry Ray Scott announcing the game, and the Milwaukee station carried it when the game was in Green Bay. With that blessed rotor we could get all the games in the comfort of our home. (The Packers have played many famous games. Among them is the Ice Bowl when the Packers met the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL championship on the last day of 1967. On that morning, the father got a call from an acquaintance and was asked whether he wanted to go. Showing wisdom I did not always give him credit for, he declined and said that we would watch the game from the comfort of home. It was not that we were not experienced with cold. The average high for three winter months in Sheboygan was in the mid-twenties with the average low fifteen degrees colder. Whenever there was a cold snap, we would wake up to below-zero days, and I can regale you, as I have the NBP (nonbinary progeny) and the spouse many times, about how I walked to school in that cold, although I lied if I ever said that I had to do it without shoes. We knew cold, but we also had an understanding of cold, and December 31, 1967, was extraordinary. The temperature at kickoff was minus fifteen, but, of course, there was a wind, which plunged the wind chills into the minus forty ranges. I can go on about that game, but you can read about in the pioneering book by Jerry Kramer, who made the key block, and Dick Schaap, Instant Reply, but I don’t think that book contains this nugget. In those long-ago days, spectators could carry beer into the stadium. I was told that those who did found their six-packs frozen before the first quarter ended. For Wisconsites, that brought on real suffering. But I digress. Let me move onto my next digression.)

          For me, however, the defining aspect of Sheboygan was not that it was a half-way point between two other places but that it was on Lake Michigan. Those who consider a place like Wisconsin flyover country do not understand the beauty, power, and importance of the Great Lakes (or the Mississippi River.) I spent many hours on the shore and piers of Lake Michigan. (My bedroom has a series of pictures of the Sheboygan lighthouse.) My childhood would have been much different without Lake Michigan (and the myriad inland lakes, Elkhart Lake, Crystal Lake, Little Crystal Lake, Random Lake, and many others within a half-hour of the hometown.) Whenever I returned after leaving Sheboygan, I would first head to Lake Michigan and drive up the lakeshore starting at the Armory where the Sheboygan Redskins played in the first year of the National Basketball Association (you can look it up) past the beach and up the hill to Vollrath Bowl before heading home. (There is a lot of good literature about the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, marshes, and swamps. I don’t know any about the Great Lakes. Give me suggestions if you know some.)

(continued June 3.)