Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith
The Politics of Exclusivity
[p.9]Recently while visiting a zoo I thought once again of myself as a young boy wondering why Noah was always pictured as standing on the deck of the ark, until my brother informed me that with only one window there was good reason to stay there the entire trip. This evoked a thought about sincerity and the absurd.
There used to be a group called the British Flat Earth Society. It still exists, but it was once a vigorous operation. Then astronauts took themselves to the outer limits, circled the moon, and came back with photographs of the earth. When those photographs were published, the Flat Earth Society lost half its members. The half that pulled out must have believed the earth was flat or they could not have been convinced by a photograph. They were waiting for proof. They may have been in the backwaters of science, but at least they were finally persuaded.
In the late 1930s I used to listen to a half-hour radio program called “Music and the Spoken Word,” by Richard L. Evans, broadcast from the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. As I tuned in the program on Sunday mornings, I listened to the “spoken word” more than to the music. My father preferred the music. He was a Baptist minister and editor of a Baptist newspaper. He went to church and sat in the pew with the rest of us. One day I said to him, “It seems to me that Mr. Evans makes more sense than any preacher. Why do we go to church when this fellow from Salt Lake City sounds like he’s making sense?” Caring concepts were evident in Evans’s words. He was not promoting anything other than goodwill and decency as far as I could tell.
[p.10]I have always appreciated my father’s response: “We go to church because that is a part of what we believe. But I will admit you are learning more from that gentleman on the radio than from the preacher we hear every Sunday morning.”
Earlier in his career my father had a church in a small Virginia town called Blackstone. He was a very intelligent, caring father who taught me many things about truth. But he got in trouble with his church because as he read the Bible he concluded that what he found there must not be forced on other people. He argued that missionary activity was, in many ways, an erroneously conceived practice. He felt it was the not the role of a believer to force his or her definitions on someone else.
He was of course not the first person to think that. In fact, in the Baptist tradition Roger Williams had said it long before. I respected that conclusion. I learned to doubt in the context of the Christian faith as my father understood it.
There are a lot of people like me who bring to our generation a heritage of respect and reverence for tradition. I recently listened to Sarah Weddington speak in San Francisco. She began by talking about her father, a Methodist minister, and what he taught her. I think it’s important to put in context what the Bible means to us and to people who hold it in reverence. I challenge those who say the Bible is a book of magic to be forced on others. Once as I listened to Billy Graham, he said, “If the Bible told me that two and two were five, I’d believe it.” I expect he would. But the Bible is not absurd for the people who wrote it; it becomes absurd when people in our day insist on taking it literally.
The Bible does not present us with material that is ridiculous in the context from which it came. The Bible springs from the context in which people then were thinking, searching, and trying to find answers. Although they did not find answers to our satisfaction, their efforts do not make them ridiculous.
Western religions have two components which when combined create problems. One is identification of a sacred text. Such a text can be different things, but for my tradition it is the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For all too many that sacred text becomes an infallible book that is treated differently from all other books. It is usually bound in black with gold-colored leaves making it appear [p.11]holy. This sacred text is the same that convinced one group of Protestants to drown another in the name of true baptism.
When you combine this sacred text with the belief that one’s group alone has a unique revelation, then you can say to others, “With all due respect, my good friends, God does not hear your prayers because you do not believe as I do.” Why do they say that? Because they combine an infallible book with unique revelation and think they have become God’s chosen people. They want us to believe that they alone are God’s and know how to interpret the Bible, since God cannot speak for herself. These presumptions of sacred text and unique revelation combine to create an arrogance of faith that is arguably the most destructive force in the world. It has gone on for centuries and it continues. Persecution, anger, and bitterness are carried out in the name of God.
Last week in San Francisco, after a talk about church and state matters, one knowledgeable gentleman asked about my belief in natural rights. I had been discussing the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson spoke in glowing terms of natural rights. In 1777 he affirmed that if any future legislature should in any way overturn the guarantee of religious freedom, it should know it was violating fundamental, natural rights. The gentleman in San Francisco asked me, “What’s the difference between natural rights and Christian faith? Aren’t they both based on belief?” The answer is, “Yes.” Jefferson could not prove there were natural rights. Nor could he prove there were only a few. He picked them out, said, “These are they,” and built a structure of freedom based on them.
What can we observe about those principles? The best we can say is that they were better than Jefferson, for he did not free slaves, did not give women the vote, did not care too much about native Americans. But his constitutional views, reflected in the work of James Madison, set forth a document based on principles that continue to evolve. It seems to me that the test of the natural rights theory lies not in a pragmatic test, but in what it does for us as human beings.
We are the better because of a constitution that goes beyond the spirit of the men who wrote it. Most often, in contrast, Christianity is restrictive, overly concerned about the “original intent” of its authors. But the Constitution contains the germ of an idea that allows expansion, going beyond what its founders thought. That is human-[p.12]ism. Humanism affirms, “There is something good even holy in the human spirit.” However we define humanism, whatever we say about it, the important thing is that it makes us better. I defy anyone to tell me that the shenanigans of churches across the land over the last several centuries in the name of original intent has made anyone the better for its inquisitions and crusades.
What was the Bible to the people who wrote it? To me, the Bible is not a text for faith. It is a record of religious encounters from people who wrote seriously. I think that they were probably like most of us today. They had a sense of what they believed and wrote about it. We may look back and say, “We don’t accept that.” But we should not make fools of them by assuming they acted like Jerry Falwell. I think that we need to respect the biblical writers because they were seeking answers and so are we. But we need not respect those who grab the Bible, turn those early writers into idiots, and then insist that we become a part of their movement.
On Christmas 1977 I visited a Unitarian church. At that time I chaired a university religion department. In one part of the chapel was a theist corner and in another an atheist corner. I was invited to speak to the atheist corner. They wanted to know why Christians were always trying to convert them. During that meeting I stated that the problem with Christianity was that it distorted the words of Jesus and turned him into a god. Thus Christians do not have to pay attention to what he said. Christianity only requires that its adherents believe he is divine. “Jesus never claimed to be God,” I said.
The next day I found my father sitting in his chair, reading the newspaper, with a big headline: “‘Jesus never claimed to be God,’ says Professor Alley.” This banner headline ran across the whole front page of the second section of the newspaper. My father said, “This is trouble.” I said, “No. Who can bother me? I have tenure.” I had served on the committee that wrote our tenure policy three years before.
Baptists take the view that there is autonomy in the local church and that freedom exists to that extent. If you are a member of the local church and say what you want to, nobody can do anything to you except the local church, which can throw you out. Lacking ecclesiastical power, Baptist preachers in my hometown were not happy with my statement and let it be known by calling me all kinds of names. They told me I was going to hell, and, as a matter of a fact, [p.13]Jerry Falwell said I should be kicked out of the back door of my school because I was not worthy to be kicked out the front.
Baptists were on the march. The president of the university began to meet with me regularly. He finally told me I couldn’t be fired because I had tenure. He added that if we didn’t do something about the situation, take the initiative, he might lose his position. He wasn’t joking. I trusted the president, a good and decent man, a Baptist. He was worried about the school and his office. We discussed what to do and it was suggested I assume a new title, Professor of American Studies. I accepted this lateral move.
Some members of the trustees were angry about the event. My friends and colleagues urged that I not make an issue here that would destroy the school. Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong in that concern. But they were genuinely worried that if I just stood and said, “I’m not budging,” the president would have to leave and the school would be in serious trouble.
I called the American Academy of University Professors. I was then serving as president of the Virginia Conference of the AAUP. They said, “It’s a religion question. We don’t want to make any calls on this one. You could be in trouble because there are certain rights that the school has about this.” They advised me to settle. I saw their stance as pathetic and cowardly, but it was what they told me. They felt the situation was more problematic than a simple question of academic freedom. In those circumstances I said to the president that if, in fact, a refusal by me to negotiate would damage the university, then I would accept the new title and continue to teach religion. It was understood that there was no question of my complete academic freedom in the new position. It was settled.
Since I knew this would not be easy to get past the trustees, I warned the president, “You know I’m going to continue to say that Jesus never claimed to be God. You’re aware of that?”
He said, “I know. But maybe from now on it’ll only appear in the TV pages of the newspaper.”
The interesting thing in this story is what the college president then said to me. He asked if that were true why hadn’t he ever heard it?
I said, “What do you mean?”
He said that the same professors that taught me this at Southern [p.14]Baptist Theological Seminary never mentioned it when they came to his Kentucky church to preach.
I explained, “I know they didn’t because most told us, ‘Keep this among ourselves, guys. Don’t go out and tell the people in the pew what you think. You’ll get in trouble.'”
This to me has been the problem for a long time. People who know better keep acting as though they do not know anything. Preachers who know what I’m talking about perpetuate a mythology of ignorance and then wonder why things like this occur. What churches sometimes do in the name of truth and decency turns both of these words to ashes.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century some liberal Christian humanists said, “There’s something wrong in interpreting Jesus according to the apostle Paul. It’s not gospel-oriented.” Then came new voices who spoke of the unity of the Bible, seeking to impose a Christian theology on the Bible before it was a text. These scholars most of whom were good men had an agenda to support their own theology. So Neo-Orthodoxy emerged certain it had nothing to fear from scholarship. But that was not true, and Neo-Orthodoxy collapsed when scholarship took it beyond where it wanted to go. Once you take the first step toward critical analysis of the Bible, you are on a road to destruction if you are committed to an orthodoxy based on ignorance and blindness. Religious freedom is something we possess as a political community. We insist that the religious freedom we hold dear be cherished throughout this country.
James Madison spoke of the danger of democracy as the “tyranny of the majority”: the majority frequently violates all of the principles of democracy we hold dear. He was convinced that the main thing was to keep the various competing groups divided. That is where humanism is most likely to flourish. It does not prosper in dictatorships. It does not flourish in most churches. It grows where people are free. Jefferson and Madison knew that in order to keep them free, you must insist that the majority not take away the rights of the minority. That is something most churches seem never to understand.
Since 1962 the Supreme Court has silenced school-sponsored classroom prayers. That is a silence with enormous power. This [p.15]silence protects the most precious possession of every citizen: human conscience. It is a resounding silence in the name of freedom and equality for every child without regard to belief or persuasion. It might be argued that the American cultural legacy is a reasoned governmental silence in the arena of speech and conscience that spawns the untamed rough-and-tumble of debate ever ideals. This is the genius of our democratic heritage. Multiple cultures and religions are secure as long as none is allowed preeminence. The roots of democratic freedom lie neither in dogma nor doctrine, but in our common constitutional heritage of a secular, humanist republic.
Robert Alley is Professor of Humanities at the University of Richmond, Virginia. His essay is adapted from a transcript of the address he delivered at the Mormon/Humanist dialogue.