Where does church end and state begin?

For a few years now activists on the Christian right have propounded an absolute doozy of a justification for legitimating … Continued

For a few years now activists on the Christian right have propounded an absolute doozy of a justification for legitimating their right to disobey federal and state laws. Secular believers and nonbelievers ought take note–they’ll be hearing a lot of it in coming years.

I call it the “psychic wholeness” argument and it has surfaced in recent controversies surrounding a town clerk in upstate New York who refused to grant a same-sex marriage license to a lesbian couple as well as the Alliance Defense Fund’s annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

We’ll get to those in a moment,but first let me try to illustrate the essence of the “psychic wholeness” approach, by pointing to one of its earliest manifestations. The year is 2004 and Congressperson Mark Souder (R-Indiana) offers this explanation of how he construes his work as a representative:

To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do. Either I am a Christian or I am not; either I reflect His glory or I do not.

We need not detain ourselves with the sex scandal that precipitated Souder’s eventual exit from politics. Rather, let us focus on the underlying logic of the claim. Souder avers that since he is a Christian he must be a Christian in every single aspect of his life. He is morally compelled to let it all hang out, as it were, at all times. That mandate, naturally, extends to his work as a public servant.

Questions for Mark Souder: 1) Were you elected by your constituents to serve as wingman for the Holy Spirit in the legislative process?, 2) What with that whole, pesky, First Amendment and what not, is there a danger that your ethos might lead you to make a law respecting an establishment of religion?, 3) Is it safe to say that the United States Congress is not an institution regulated by (your) Christian norms and if so should a “belief check” room replete with a smiling attendant–who ought be tipped for good service–be installed outside its majestic entrance?

Why couldn’t Souder check his beliefs at public door? The answer from conservative Christians, is often enough, that it forces them to bifurcate their identity. By coercing them to suspend their faith convictions on the job, the government does damage to their religious conscience and the wholeness of their being (It’s an odd claim in the context of Christian political philosophy which since the time of St. Paul has bifurcated the world into heavenly and earthly domains, but I am divigating.)

To all of this the secular state must answer that such bifurcation is a necessary obligation of citizenship, especially if the citizen in question is working for the government. After all, what would America look like if every federal or state worker performed his or her obligations strictly in accord with his or her religious scruples?

It might look like a place where other Americans are denied their civil rights and treated like second-class citizens. A recent story in The New York Times chronicles the dissent of town clerk Rose Marie Belforti of Ledyard New York. Ms. Belforti has refused to sign same-sex marriage licenses. Though she will appoint a deputy to do that by appointment; so if people are willing to wait then they can go ahead and get a license for their godforsaken marriages but not on her watch!

Invoking the spirit of psychic wholeness she opines: “New York law protects my right to hold both my job and my beliefs. . . I am not supposed to have to leave my beliefs at the door at my government job .”

Ms. Belforti’s interpretation of her professional responsibilities, however, was not shared by Andrew Cuomo. The governor of New York observes: “when you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose.”

The surmise that one can receive entitlements from the government even if one violates the rules of the government (in the name of psychic wholeness, of course) has also been seen in this year’s iteration of the Pulpit Freedom Initiative.

I have covered this story before and it never ceases to beguile and infuriate me. Put briefly, were I to send a DVD to the IRS chronicling my (hypothetical) violations of federal tax law, my surmise is that the highly skilled and conscientious professional men and women of the Internal Revenue Service would be at my door with dispatch.

In fact, the highly skilled and conscientious professional men and women of the Internal Revenue Service were querying me recently about a matter regarding some confusion about an IRA payout amounting to a few thousand dollars. I am happy to say through the professionalism and expertise of the highly skilled and conscientious professional men and women of the Internal Revenue Service we have resolved this matter swiftly and amiably.

But I am less happy to think about the fact groups who intentionally break the law–which I have never done–are not experiencing the pleasure of working with the highly skilled and conscientious professional men and women of the Internal Revenue Service.

The Alliance Defense Fund has been training pastors to preach politics from the pulpit in violation of the IRS’s 501 (c) (3) provision. And they have filmed the proceedings. And sent the evidence to the IRS. And the IRS has done nothing (as best we can tell). Leading me to wonder if tax cheats ought just make a little video chronicling their crimes and send it to the IRS in a preemptive, innoculating sort of a gesture.

According to the Alliance Defense Fund the pastors are “are willing to stand up and exercise their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and free exercise of religion by boldly preaching on Pulpit Freedom Sunday. These pastors are courageously regaining the freedom of the pulpit.”

Although phrased as a “free exercise” claim the logic of psychic wholeness lies just beneath the surface. Christian obligations trump civil obligations. To do otherwise would threaten one’s integrity as a Christian. The government has no right to interfere in the pastor’s freedom of the pulpit–though the pastors will take that massive tax exemption, thank you.

My claim is not that citizen’s don’t have a right to strive for psychic wholeness. Rather they must understand that their quest to achieve this state may trespass upon the rights of other citizens. They must also understand that the government is not required to underwrite, fund, or assist them in their quest to live by their religious scruples.

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