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Friday, February 07, 2014

Religious Freedom: A More Perfect Union


Note: This is a presentation I gave at the Coalition for Liberty and Justice Forum, held at George Washington University in Washington DC. The Coalition for Liberty and Justice is a broad alliance of faith-based, secular and other organizations that works to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all. I was asked to present an Episcopal perspective as it pertains to religious liberty on a panel of speakers which included a Baptist minister from Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a Roman Catholic lay woman from Catholics for Choice and a Rabbi from Concerned Clergy for Choice. They gave me 10-15 minutes. I asked several friends to define The Episcopal Church's perspective on Religious Freedom and most joked that we were for it. So, here's what I said:

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, as I listen to conversations about Religious Freedom, I am transported back to my 6th grade Civics class. I know I showed up for it every day. I wonder if some people – especially our legislators and political leaders – cut class or Civics class just wasn’t offered in their school system.

I went to Catholic schools, and the nuns of my youth didn’t play around with our education. We learned stuff. They made certain of that. As Tina Fey is quoted as saying,. “Those nuns (were) mean old clams and they sleep on cots and they’re allowed to hit you. And at the end of the school year you hated (them) but you knew the capital of Vermont.”

Besides memorizing prayers and our Catechism and all 50 Nifty United States and their capitals, we memorized poems by Longfellow and Wadsworth and the Bill of Rights and the Preamble to the Constitution. We just didn’t learn to memorize them, we studied them and learned about them and understood them.

I am deeply grateful for the education I received and believe I am the priest I am today because of their role model of leadership in community – religious and secular.

They taught us about Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution that announced universal principals of liberty. 

We learned that Jefferson, alongside the Marquis de Lafayette, framed a French proclamation of The Rights of Man. 

We learned that, because of the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, we have the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and, without that, there would be no basis for the most precious clause of our most prized element of the Bill of Rights – the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,

All of this important history would become important to me as I later left the church of my youth and became a member of The Episcopal Church.  Years later, in 1986, I became part of the first wave of women to be ordained priest.

It’s probably apocryphal, but I love the story that those who wrote the formative documents of the newly emerging United States by day at Constitution Hall In Philadelphia walked down the street by night to Christ Church and began to write the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, which was, itself, emerging from The Church of England and Anglican Communion.

If you look at the way The Episcopal Church operates, you will see a reflection of the same governance in our constitution and laws.  We, too, have a bicameral system of government. While bills must pass the House and the Senate before becoming law, our resolutions must pass both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies (clergy and laity) before they become canon law.

Our church meets every three years in General Convention where these resolutions are proposed and sent to legislative committees and discussed in hearings and finally come to the floor of both houses to be debated and voted upon – just as you might see in the House or the Senate. 

We do not elect representatives or delegates to General Convention. Instead, we elect deputies – four clergy and four laity from every diocese – who do not represent nor are they beholden to a particular constituency or church or diocese; rather, they are “deputized” to vote their conscience, having be led by thoughtful reflection, prayer, and their own sense of autonomy which is balanced by an understanding that we are part of the “one, holy, catholic (small c) and apostolic” church. (Yes, we too say the Nicene Creed. Every Sunday.)

The notion of Balance of Power can be seen reflected in our government. The final authority in our church rests not with a single person like the Presiding Bishop or Diocesan Bishop or even the Archbishop of Canterbury; rather, final authority church matters rests in legislation passed at General Convention – by deputies who are laity and clergy as well as bishops. 

What a radical idea for religious authority! 

Guess where that came from?

The idea of States Rights can also be seen reflected in the way we structure our dioceses.

No diocesan bishop can tell another how to run his or her diocese. Not even our Presiding Bishop has the authority to do that – not unless the good bishop is in violation of the doctrine, discipline or canon law of The Episcopal Church. And then, there is a lengthy, complicated process to deal with that.

Which is why, for example, some of you may have noticed that, while our General Convention authorized trial liturgical rites for the Blessing of the Covenants made by people of the same gender, not all bishops in all dioceses have authorized them for use in the local churches in their dioceses.

That’s because our canon law, presently, defines marriage as between one man and one woman.   

Some bishops feel caught at the intersection of church and state. How about that for a conundrum! Some dioceses are in some states where there is Marriage Equality, but some bishops feel bound by the definition of marriage in our canon laws. 

Other bishops in states where Marriage Equality is not yet a reality still feel compelled to authorize our priests to bless the covenants made between two people of the same gender, even though they can’t legally marry them, arguing that the state has no right to interfere with what the church deems is right to bless.

The argument goes: We don’t allow the state to tell us who to baptize or confirm. We don’t allow the state to tell us we can’t bless icons or prayer books or liturgical garments or new cars or boats before the sail or hounds before the hunt or motorcycles before the charity run.

Why should we allow the state to tell us we can’t bless the covenants made between two people of the same gender?

So, it follows that The Episcopal Church - or any religious denomination or organization - cannot dictate our theology (or ideology) to the state nor impose our doctrine on those citizens who may believe differently than we do.

You can be certain that, when The Episcopal Church gathers for our next General Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015, there will be more than a few resolutions which propose a change to the language and specificity of gender in our marriage canons.

Will that be messy? No doubt. Will that be painful for some? Absolutely. Will it be perfect? Positively not. 

Which leads me to finish my presentation by saying something about in the language of the Preamble to the United States Constitution, which, I think speaks to where The Episcopal Church is in terms of Religious Freedom. 

It is a term which President Barack Obama used to title his famous Race Speech.  

 The words are: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union . . .”. 

The idea I want to focus on is “a more perfect union.”

I think the elements of “a more perfect union” summarize, for me, not only the ideal state of government but the characteristics of a religion which understands, protects and defends the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to The Constitution.

It is important, first, to note that we are not a "perfect" but a “more perfect” union. 

That means that we recognize that life together will be forged from our difference. 

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. 

It means that we understand that uniformity does not guarantee unity. 

Indeed, uniformity is not a prerequisite for unity; it may, in fact, undermine unity.

I once was privileged to be invited to a Rabbinical group to study parts of the Torah. My Rabbi friend warned me that for every Rabbi, I would hear at least two opinions on the same issue. I laughed and said, “That’s okay. I’m an Episcopalian; we have at least two, if not three opinions on the same issue.”

Unity does not mean everyone walking along together in lockstep. Indeed, we may not even be on the same path. 

As Elie Wiesel once said, “There are many paths, but one way to God.” 

We may be united in the same destination, but some of us will take different ways to get there. Some may even create their own paths. 

As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote in a poem in Lord of the Rings, “Not all those who wander are lost.” 

In order to be a more perfect union, I believe religious and secular people must have a tolerance for differences.

One of the marks of Anglicanism is tolerance. That can feel uncomfortable to some. As a woman who is ordained and has been in a committed relationship with another woman for 38 years – we were recently married this past August when Marriage Equality FINALLY came to Delaware (and they said it wouldn’t last) – I know how it feels to be “tolerated” in The Episcopal Church.

It’s not the best, but I can tell you one thing: it feels a far sight better than being excluded. 

As Anne Lamott once said, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Tolerance of differences is important but tolerance requires a spiritual and emotional maturity in order to tolerate ambiguity and paradox. Our world is diverse and complex and filled with pluriform truths and beliefs. There are many shades of black and white and, as we now know, at least fifty shades of gray.

Finding what is true for you will be very different from what I have found to be true. That does not make you right and me wrong.

In The Episcopal Church, we talk a great deal about the Three Legged Stool of Anglicanism: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. 

When we confront an issue or a problem, we look to scripture first, but then we read it again through the lens of the tradition of the church. Then, we take all the information we have gathered and we employ the gift God has given to us all: our intellect and ability to reason, which we understand is also shaped and formed by personal experience. 

There are Episcopalians among us who do not go beyond Scripture. Some do progress to read what is said in our church tradition but they take only that which supports their interpretation of what they find in Holy Writ. 

Indeed, some of those same Episcopalians chide those of us who add reason to our methodology and quest for truth, saying that we elevate reason and intellect over scripture and tradition, almost to the status of sin.   

In my estimation, that’s a huge improvement from the original sin of The Episcopal Church of a former, more glorious day: not being able to distinguish and properly use one’s salad or dinner fork from one’s dessert fork.

Nevertheless, tolerance of differences and ambiguity and paradox are requirements for the “more perfect union” of The Episcopal Church – and, indeed, any religious organization – if we are to have a more perfect union of these United States of America.

One of my favorite spiritual meditations embraces the paradox of the reality of my spiritual and emotional life. After I have centered myself, I inhale and say, “I am enough.” Then, I slowly exhale and say, “I can not do it alone.”

I am enough. I can not do it alone. 

There, in the midst of the paradox that is a breath – two opposite but equal truths: one must breathe in and then breathe out in order to take a breath – is the paradox that I am sufficient and I need others. As surely as I need air to breathe, I need others to help me achieve my goals. And, I am enough.

Sometimes, God sends me people I like to call “Divine Sandpaper”. They are the people who “rub me the wrong way”, but, in so doing, they also bring out my beautiful inner grain so that it can be seen and really shine.

When I allow “Divine Sandpaper” into my life – be it Sarah Palin or Paul Ryan or any one of the Teapublicans whose rants about Reproductive Justice or Food Stamps or Education or Marriage Equality regularly pull my last, poor, tired lesbian nerve – I eventually find that something they have said has helped to reexamine and clarify and perfect my thoughts toward a more perfect union of my beliefs with my faith and my citizenship in this more perfect union in which we live.

The Episcopal Church is far from perfect. The same can be said of this country. I think both can become “more perfect” if we let go of our ideas of what is "perfect" - or think our particular religion and/or religious expression is "perfect" - and practice tolerance.

We need to understand that our unity is not dependent upon uniformity. 

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. 

Even with our differences. 

Especially with differences.

Freedom – all freedom, including the freedom of religious belief and expression is a precious gift and responsibility. You cannot pick and choose which freedom you are going to support and defend.

Neither does one freedom guarantee the right to suppress another freedom. 

As one of the nuns of my youth once said, “You have the right to swing your arms as wildly as you like, but that freedom stops at the end of my nose.”

My prayer for a more perfect union of church or state - and, perhaps, even church and state - is that we may all know that freedom and practice it with responsibility and generosity of spirit. 

Thank you.

10 comments:

Matthew said...

Two comments, one totally off topic but was occasioned reading this post. First, there is a great deal of debate right now about florists, bakeries, etc. discriminating against same-sex couples, photographers as well, who are in violation of state non-discrimination laws (where they exist). The same would apply to race, of course, or any business in public accommodations just that sexual orientation/gender identity has been added in some states. What do you make of this? I recently came across the platform of a Dutch political party (don't ask how I stumbled across it) the current majority party, the party for freedom and democracy. In their platform, a phrase jumped out at me:
"The principle of non-discrimination should be given more importance than the exercise of religion"
I wonder if we need something like that or the need to clarify our position, though I suspect all these cases will be worked out in the courts.
Secondly, totally off topic, you mentioned your ordination. I recently attended the funeral of a priest (a woman) who was ordained in 1980. Do you know if there is a list online or someplace that lists the first 100 or so ordained women in the church in order. She was the first in my state but I wonder how many others there were nationally at that time.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Matthew -

What do I make of discrimination clauses for LGBT people? Discrimination is discrimination. It should be eradicated everywhere.

There is a list somewhere on the internet which lists the first 100 women. It may be on Louie Clay (nee Crew)'s Joy Anyway pages. I'll be darned if I can find it. If I do, I'll let you know.

8thday said...

Even when I have no interest or expertise in your post's main topic, I always come away with some gem. In this case "Divine Sandpaper."

Oh yes, this is a beautiful perspective that will serve me well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks 8th Day.

Stan Theman said...

Church is boring.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Stan,

If church is boring, then why are you reading this blog and this post?

Here's a nickle's worth of unsolicited advice: Turn off your computer. Go outside. Take a walk. Eat an apple. You might feel better.

Stan Theman said...

"Why do people go to zoos?
-H.L. Mencken
Atheism just doesn't have the same level of freaky self-absorption.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Stan,

Well, how interesting. I always had the same sense about the atheists I've met.

Stan Theman said...

You don't have to pay a dime to be an atheist. There are no atheist seminaries, which are basically Hogwarts for adults; you leave with a degree that's useful for fewer and fewer places and the debt you accumulate is nearly as heavy as the one you need to take out for law school.
Atheists are also nicer to each other. Far from perfect, but nothing like the Fundiegelical vs. "Progressive" bitchiness that's been droning on for over 50 years.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You don't have to pay a dime to be a Christian. Churches ask for pledges and tithes. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to the garage will make you a car. So, some of the "Good Christian folk" you know who bicker and fight with each other make Jesus weep.

I'm sure your a nice guy, Stan. I'm sure all the people you know who are atheists are nice people. But, I gotta tell ya, every last single atheist I've ever met is just every bit as bad as any Christian fundamentalist I've ever known - chiding me for my belief and intimating that I'm stupid - or at least intellectually hampered - for my beliefs and questioning my integrity or character or ability to have a sense of humor or get along with others.

Sorta like you, Stan.