While I was reading Stanley Fish’s New York Times article “Religious Exemptions and the Liberal State: A Christmas Column” all I could think of was a comment Bill O’Reilly made at the beginning of the month, claiming Christianity as a philosophy, not a religion–and of an experience of mine as a young man.
Fish discusses Brian Leiter’s book Why Tolerate Religion, which poses the questions:
Does the undoubted centrality of religion in the lives of its adherents suffice to justify exempting it from generally applicable laws? Should religion enjoy a special status that merits a degree of solicitude and protection not granted to other worldviews or systems of belief?
When I first saw the O’Reilly clip, which has, as they say, “gone viral,” I was rather perplexed. Now, I suspect that O’Reilly had read or heard something of Leiter’s book. Recognizing that he couldn’t answer positively the questions Fish paraphrases, he came up with an alternate avenue: Christianity is not a religion but a philosophy:
Be that as it may.
Raised a Quaker, I never really thought of myself as a Christian, though from a Christian tradition. My parents were what is known as “Hicksites,” after Elias Hicks, who came close to denying the divinity of Jesus–and my father certainly crossed that line, as did I. So, Christianity, as practiced in our household, had less to do with religion than with the teachings of Jesus, which could certainly be called a philosophy. However, I doubt the same is true for most Christians: the divinity of Christ is the central tenet of their beliefs.
Fish Quotes Leiter:
“The central puzzle in this book is why the state should have to tolerate exemptions from generally applicable laws when they conflict with religious obligations but not with any other equally serious obligations of conscience.”
This puzzle played a critical role in my life when I turned eighteen and had to make decisions about how to approach the draft. It was 1969, so there was no remove, no room for playing games. As a Quaker, I could easily apply for–and get–a special Selective Service status as a Conscientious Objector (1-O). This would allow me to perform Alternative Service, keeping me out of the military. I wanted to ‘make a statement’ to my draft board, so I filed the paperwork–but refused to sign the form guaranteeing that I would, in fact, perform that service, making it impossible for me to get 1-O status. Why? I did this because I knew perfectly well that others believed as strongly as I that the Vietnam War was immoral–but that they, unlike lucky Quaker me, would be denied this option. That our government, which purports to separate church and state, could make such a distinction made no sense to me–and I could not, in good conscience, partake in it.
I ended up with 1-A “cannon fodder” status, but got lucky in the lottery.
I’m going to read Leiter’s book, though I will be approaching it with trepidation. The ways we mix government and religion are a lot more complex and fraught with real-world consequences than most of us are willing to admit.