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Muscular Liberalism
A strong defense against religious mania

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 7, 2011

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 welcome here.”

So Cameron undermined his own message, and instead of arguing for British values, he just sounded like a provincial little bigot. Which is a pity.

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 harm.

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

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