The Universal Notebook: Too much religious freedom?

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When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, there was a great deal of concern about his religion. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic and some people feared that he would pursue a Catholic agenda and take orders from the Pope.

Back then, most Americans seemed to understand that, while one’s religion naturally informs one’s decisions, it is entirely inappropriate for an elected official to force his or her values and religious views into public policy.

Ah, the good old days.

These days, this country sometimes seems headed down a dead-end road to theocracy led by a man without any meaningful religious practice at all.

Some of my friends blame the hypocrisy of fundamentalist Christians for the election of Donald Trump. Trump is an unchurched libertine, but because he saw the political advantage of changing his stance on abortion from pro to anti, the evangelicals voted for him over the she-devil Hillary, or so the reasoning goes.

I have conservative southern Christians in my family and they told me before the election they would never vote for Trump, so I’m not quite as ready to blame Christian conservatives for the curse of Trump in the White House.

As I see it, all religions are manifestations of the same human hunger for the divine and take myriad forms depending on geography, culture, history and personality. The idea that one religion – or more incredibly, one sect – might have a lock on the truth while all others are wrong is preposterous. That means religious tolerance is a dilemma for me, because I cannot tolerate the intolerance of other denominations and other religions.

As a liberal Christian I want all people to be free to practice their own religions, but I don’t want them to force their views on the general public. When you try to make your personal religious beliefs a matter of public policy, insisting that non-believers live by your faith, that is simply intolerable.

That’s what Vice President Mike Pence does. That’s what “Christians” do when they try, for example, to defund Planned Parenthood, hoping to deny reproductive health-care services to others because they do not approve of sex education, contraception or abortion.

True believers are a truly frightening lot because they essentially believe their group is going to heaven and everyone else is going to hell. That’s wrong whether it’s coming from Muslim extremists or Christian evangelicals. But it is that smug certainty that makes religious fundamentalists feel justified in forcing their religious convictions on others.

We saw that during the debates in Maine over same-sex marriage, when religious leaders who were in no way affected by marriage equality led the opposition to it.

Now we see the imposition of religious views on the public life of America in the increasing political clout of the Christian right, in an era – and an administration – friendly to narrow-minded intolerance.

With its wrong-headed 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all a business owner need do is cite religious objections if he (and it is almost always a he) does not want his company’s health insurance to cover contraception – and possibly anything else a fundamentalist might find objectionable such as psychiatric counseling, stem cell therapies or even blood transfusions – for employees.

Back in February, pandering to his Christian conservative base, Trump promised to “destroy” the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the U.S. tax code, which prohibits tax-exempt churches from endorsing political candidates. He tried to do so with an executive order on May 4 directing the executive branch not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, but since the amendment isn’t enforced anyway, Trump’s order is not likely to have much of an effect.

Now Trump and Betsy DeVos, his secretary of education, are busy pushing a public school voucher plan that would allow families to spend taxpayer money to send their kids to religious schools. In a recent study of the voucher system in Mike Pence’s Indiana, entitled “The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers,” National Public Radio found that more than half the students getting taxpayer money to go to Christian schools never attended public school in the first place. That created a $53 million deficit, the state had no say over course content in the Christian schools supported by public tax dollars, and these Christian schools discriminated against students with special needs.

So Hobby Lobby gave conservative Christians the freedom to discriminate against employees. Trump’s executive order on the Johnson Amendment tried to give conservative Christians the freedom to pontificate, essentially giving campaign speeches from the pulpit. And Betsy DeVos’ voucher plan will give conservative Christians the freedom to indoctrinate their kids at taxpayer expense.

That may be too much religious freedom for one country.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Charles Martel

    I spent the time to factually comment on this article and it was deleted by the monitor. It only proves my point that Leftists promote tolerance as long as we subscribe to their points of view.

    • For the record, reader comments are unmoderated, with the exception of those flagged by other readers or Disqus for inappropriate or offensive language.

      • Charles Martel

        What the heck was offensive in my comments?

        • Disqus apparently took over-zealous offense at one word.

  • EdBeem

    I have no control over who says what in comments.

  • Queenie42

    It’s no secret that DeVos ( sister of Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater) was chosen to destroy public education. By using tax dollars to hand out vouchers to religious schools she has crossed the line dividing church and state.
    I have no problem with anyone worshiping (or not) in any religion they want. It’s none of my business. But to take public funds for private schooling is anathema to our democracy and the stated will of the founders.

    • Chew H Bird

      While I do not have an opinion on the hiring of DeVos, the concept of treating religious schools with equal opportunities as public schools makes sense to me, as long as all educational institutions are treated fairly and without discrimination. If I disagree with a religious doctrine I still do not have the right to penalize it regarding equal opportunity to provide education for those who want it.

      • Just Sayin’

        As a taxpayer, I don’t want my money going into religious schools. If people want to make that choice, that’s fine. They can believe as they wish. It doesn’t mean that I should have to subsidize a religious education with which I disagree on many points. Secular public education is the only sort that should be tax supported. Anything else creates bias that discriminates against a great many people in our society, whether intentionally or not.

        • Chew H Bird

          I also would rather not see my tax dollars supporting institutions in which I may not believe, but fair is fair and if vouchers are a valid offering religious institutions should not be discriminated against. While I personally prefer secular public schools, I do not believe it is fair to exclude alternatives based upon my personal beliefs.

          • Just Sayin’

            There is a separation between church and state in this country.. Or there is supposed to be. Federal taxes should not be going to religious institutions of any stripe. Not in any form, vouchers included.

          • EdBeem

            Exactly. Thank you.

          • Little Crow

            Almost every private college (Harvard, Yale etc.) started as a religious institution. I guess that means you want to refuse federal loans to any student attending them.

            Also the Constitution’s framers wanted no official endorsement of any paticular religion, but did not regard religion as toxic the way modern secular humanists do. In fact, they stressed that a republic required people of morality and virtue to survive, whether from a religion or other means.

          • Just Sayin’

            The issue here isn’t that religion is toxic, but is twofold. Firstly, we have a separation of church and state. The government simply isn’t supposed to promote or include religion into it.

            A large part of the reason that is is due to bias. There are LOTS of religions out there, not all of them are common, but there are lots of them. If the government only recognizes some of them, or provides funds or material aid in unequal levels, it’s showing bias for and against certain religions.

            It’s almost impossible to do something that benefits one faith, and to do it equally for every other faith out there, so avoidance of anything religion is the best way for the government to remain neutral.

            And the government SHOULD be neutral in matters of faith, even the founding fathers thought so. Don’t take my word for it though, read the Treaty of Tripoli, where they make it clear that America is a nation of all faiths.

          • Chew H Bird

            Atheism is a faith and is devoid of religion. Ignoring or discriminating against religion is just as dangerous as promoting or endorsing it. If we keep everything equal we will be just fine.

          • Little crow

            I agree with what you wrote, but the government isn’t favoring a religion with a school voucher. They’re providing an education voucher to one of their citizens, who spends it the way they deem appropriate,as long as they get the basic education.

          • Queenie42

            I agree. And, may I add, one big point no one is mentioning is the fact that our local taxes to support our local public schools will have to go up. These vouchers take money from the Dept. of Education which has a limited budget. Money to maintain our schools will have to come from local taxes.

          • poppypapa

            Presumably each voucher carries with it a reduction in student count. So the education burden on the government school is reduced with each one. And I have never heard of a voucher matching the amount the government schools spend per student. Brunswick spends close to $16,000 per student per year, and I expect any voucher granted would be no more than half of that. How much goes to Harpswell Academy per student?

            Taken to the limit, if every current student were vouchered out, the BSD would have no students and $18 million or so a year to spend on them.

            But don’t pass this around; we don’t want them to get any ideas.

  • Chew H Bird

    Life should not be this complex. If a business owner does not wish to provide services to someone they should have the freedom to say “no.” Employees should be treated equally and fairly regardless of their beliefs as long as those beliefs do not contradict the policies of the business or create inequality between employees.

    If “vouchers” are policy, they should be available on a fair and equal basis whether the school is public or private, regardless of religious leanings, (or not).

    It matters not to me what Clergy preach from the pulpit. To dictate the topics of Clergy is an absolute conflict of church and state. That said, I do firmly believe that religious organizations should pay their fair share of taxes and the benefit of paying taxes is they can preach what they want, regardless of their political agenda. By allowing religious organizations to preach politics should, (in my opinion), require they pay taxes as any other corporate entity, regardless of any non-profit tax status they might seek.

  • yathink2011

    As Man Crushes go, the one EAB has for the President is one of the more obvious ones I’ve seen in a while.

  • Moishe the Beadle

    More liberal spin. The tolerant Left is only tolerant if we agree with their narratives.

  • Little Crow

    Mr. Beem apparently can’t see how he’s the one who wants to force his values onto others. By supporting public funding of Planned Parenthood, taxpayers are compelled by the force of government to pay for services that they may find objectionable. They have to pay for abortions whether they like it or not, says Beem. Anyone who wants those services is free to purchase them on their own. I personally object to taxpayer money going to any private institution.

    Planned Parenthood was started by Margaret Sanger, a devout racist, in the 1920’s, as a way to eliminate the black race by performing abortions on black women.

    If we follow Mr. Beem’s logic, the federal government might just as well subsidize the National Rifle Association. How would you feel about that Mr. Beem? Are you opposed to people exercising their constitutional rights?

    Hobby Lobby, by contrast, offered an insurance policy for their employees that they thought was consistent with their values. Their employees are free to pursue other services without any interference from Hobby Lobby, or they could just find another job. Unlike Mr. Beem, they chose no to force people to comply with their values.

    So exactly who’s being intolerant?

    • EdBeem

      We all pay taxes for things we do not approve of.

      • Little crow

        I agree. That’s why I oppose tax money going to any private entity where the taxpayers have no say after the money is granted. I would oppose all subsidies, bailouts, corporate welfare and any form of cronyism. That would include Solyndra as well as General Motors. Nobody is too big to fail.

        • EdBeem

          Do you object to spending tens of millions of dollars so Trump’s family can live in NYC and fly around the world to do business?

          • Little Crow


      • Matthew Holbrook

        And that justifies forcing people to pay for things that go against their conscience?

        • EdBeem

          No, it just points out that there is no practical way to operate a system that allows people an al la carte tax system. If I had my way, my tax dollars would not pay to maintain the Trump family’s lavish life style, health insurance

          • poppypapa

            How about the gravy ladeled out to Brunswick Taxi and various in town businesses? Is that ‘corporate welfare?’ Or is the latter just what takes place elsewhere and is reported on TV?

            And what takes place locally is ‘community’ sharing?

          • Matthew Holbrook

            The argument is not moot. The tax money goes to a private non-profit that provides abortion services. It means that the money indirectly supports abortion services, regardless of what fig leaf you come up with to cover it. Why should somebody who objects to Planned Parenthood’s services have to contribute to them through coercion? At least with Trump and Congress, one could argue that they are “employees” who need protection and compensation, however distasteful that might seem. But for private entities to be taking public money, whether it is Planned Parenthood, or Bank of America, or Archer Daniels Midland, or a solar energy startup, is wrong. It’s called rent seeking, and we ought to put a stop to it.

    • Queenie42

      Every point you bring up has been debunked. You are not being honest. Most of these points were brought up by Ben Carson and you are just mouthing his proven lies. There are no federal dollars going to abortions. None.
      Have a nice day.

  • poppypapa

    It’s good to know that our Eddie certifies there is no indoctrination going on in public schools at taxpayer expense.

    I had been wondering who to ask the question to, but it never crossed my mind to ask the all-knowing all-seeing Beemer.

    • EdBeem

      Hey, shouldn’t you be busy trying to cut the school budget and opposing new schools. Maybe one of these days you will make a positive contribution to your community.