David Cameron, Britain's Conservative Prime Minister, gave an
interesting speech the other day. Referring to a need for “muscular
liberalism”, he said, “Britain has even tolerated these segregated
communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values,” and that
“We need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much
more active, muscular liberalism... We must ban preachers of hate from
coming to our countries.”
Of course, Cameron was taking a rather cowardly route, singling out
Moslems, and ignoring other, even more dangerous extremists such as the
English Defence League (formerly the British National Party and before
that, the Blackshirts). In an odd note, he called upon utilization of
“muscular liberalism” to become, not better Britons, but better
Londoners, which leaves me wondering if his calls for unity exclude the
75% of Brits who don't live in London. “I'm a muscular liberal, and if
you're from Kent, or Devon, or gawd help us, Abergavenny, you aren't
So Cameron undermined his own message, and instead of arguing for
British values, he just sounded like a provincial little bigot. Which is
You see, Cameron's got a point. Would you permit your neighbors to own
slaves just because the Bible says slave-owning is acceptable? How about
live sacrifice of animals? Again, a literal interpretation of the Bible
suggests that the deity expects nothing less; goats and lambs for
preference, but presumably cats and dogs would be adequate substitutes.
Would you permit local religious authorities to put people to death for
heating their homes on the Sabbath, as Leviticus suggests? OK, maybe in
Los Angeles, but doesn't that seem a bit harsh for Fargo?
Society has an obligation to respect people's religious customs and not
interfere with them, so far as basic human rights allow. But the primary
responsibility of our society is to uphold those basic human rights, and
when people are murdered and/or abused according to religious law, the
perpetrators must be answerable to secular law for their actions.
Sounds simple and straightforward, does it not?
Of course, it's not. It never is.
In the states, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the
government is forbidden from passing any laws regarding any specific
religion. That's why the “blue laws” which required businesses to close
on Sundays were struck down.
Even determining that any given outfit is an actual religious entity and
not just a tax dodge is constitutionally iffy. A government that can
declare any religion to not be a religion doesn't exactly uphold the
First Amendment. If calling a religion a cult and not a “real” religion
doesn't violate the intent of “regarding an establishment of religion” I
don't know what does. At least the government still can't infringe on
the rights of the members, at least on paper. It can't forbid joining
any church, or forbid members from voting in state elections.
If a church demands that its members fast one day a week, or during the
day time during a given period, the government has the duty not to
interfere, aside from upholding the rights of anyone in America who does
not wish to be subjected to such disciplines, including both adherents
and non-believers. American law stipulates that anyone who wishes to
fast for Ramadan may do so without fear of imprisonment or death. But it
also guarantees that anyone who does NOT wish to fast for Ramadan may
refuse to do so without fear of imprisonment or death.
People can and will suborn themselves to draconian demands from
churches. Some fundamentalist Catholics still practice “mortification of
the flesh”, usually self-flagellation. Some churches demand anywhere
from 1/10^th of your income up to everything you own. Some insist that
you believe their creation myths, and condemn you if you permit your
children to learn about scientific theories on how the universe came
about, or humanity.
The children of the religiously deluded are what make civil libertarians
grind their teeth. It's one thing for a consenting adult to be a
mind-slave to a patently idiotic belief; it's quite another to cripple
children by not even offering them the choice. Parents, to a large
degree, have the right to raise their children as they see fit, and
there is no easy answer. The only alternative society at large has is to
try to ensure the children do not suffer obvious physical or emotional
Aside from that, any consenting adult that wishes to be a servant, or
even a slave to a cult has the right to do so. The Founders probably
weren't familiar with the concept of brainwashing, but had they been so,
would probably have erred on the side of caution. Consenting adults can
be persuaded to make foolish choices. It's an imperfect stance, but any
alternative is worse.
However, the state does have an interest and an obligation to protect
the rights of adherents who become disenchanted with their church and
want to leave, or simply run foul of the tenets of belief and face
punishment by the church.
The church can expel or excommunicate, but no other options are
available save those that meet with the consent of the party being
punished. If a church fines some one for some transgression or another,
the person being fined can either willingly pay, or leave. If the church
has been wrong in some way that has standing in a secular court, they
can sue, but aside from that, their moral and temporal authority stop at
the limits of what their members are willing to tolerate.
This makes it quite simple, in either America or Britain. The secular
rights of any participant in any church outweigh their religious
obligations to that church. No matter how much divine authority a church
may claim, when that authority comes in conflict with the rights of a
citizen, the rights of the citizen must always prevail.
In Britain, this makes “muscular liberalism” fairly simple. Sharia law
may not violate the rights of Britons to life and liberty. Honor
killings, stonings, mutilations all violate those rights, and it is
right and proper for the Crown to forbid them. But, sorry, Cameron, this
gives people the right to say that the Anglican Church is a load of
shite, too. If the same rules and limitations don't pertain to all
churches, then it isn't justice; it's just bigotry, and no better than
the vicious and ignorant bastards who stone women. Cameron needs to
stand up for ALL Britons, and not just Londoners, and not just the
English Defence League.
In America, there's a very simple workaround to the whole issue of
separation of church and state.
Given that the state already has the power to determine what is a church
and what is not, for tax purposes, if a church harms, or threatens harm
against individuals and attempts to claim its moral authority exceeds
the rights of that individual, then it is liable to be declared a cult,
and to lose its tax-exempt status.
Churches may be free to excommunicate dissidents, or consign them to
social coventry, but they may not injure or kill. This applies not just
to Islam, but any and all religious groups that feel they can destroy
the lives of apostates, such as Scientology (apparently now under
investigation by the FBI for slavery) or the Moonies. Attention priests:
consigning the soul of a heretic to hell lies outside the jurisdiction
of the courts, so knock yourself out. But if you whip, brand, or murder
anyone for leaving your cult, your ass is going to jail.
Similarly, members of churches are subject to criminal law for any
actions they take that violate the law. No matter how much honor
killings might be a part of a culture elsewhere in the world (and, until
just a half century ago, known to occur here in America, where the term
“shotgun wedding” actually meant forced marriages under threat of death
for one or both of the couple), they are categorically illegal, and
claims that there is cultural or religious justification have no
standing in an American court.
The vast majority of religious groups in the United States understand
the line between religious and secular authority, and the differences
between the two, and have no trouble accommodating themselves to those
differences. There's an estimated 23,000 Protestant denominations in
America, and if I had to hazard a guess, 22,500 of them don't often find
themselves at odds with secular authority. Similarly, among the dozen or
so Islamic groups, only a few are fundamentalist enough to declare the
will of Allah to be above the Constitution, and among American Moslems,
at least 95% of the 1.2 million or so understand and even approve of the
two-way nature of American religious freedom.
This is an issue where liberals don't have to be muscular, or even from
London. All they have to do is be fair, and to stand by the values and
respect for rights that have made Britain and the United States great
countries, normally at peace with themselves. Fairness, and the
willingness to say that churches may go so far with their authority over
their flock and no further, is all that's required.
Any Briton with a knowledge of his national history knows what the
alternative is. Americans need only look to Saudi Arabia, or Ireland or
Quebec in the 1950s, to see how bad a place where religious authority
can supersede secular authority or even supplant it, can be.
Posted: February 10, 2011