Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What Religious Liberty Is

In recent weeks there has been much discussion in the American media about what religious liberty entails. What I have not seen is anyone taking a stab at the question of what religious liberty is. In this essay, I will attempt to define what religious liberty is, and then look how that might apply to a current dilemma.

I take religious liberty to be the right to withdraw from meaningful participation in an otherwise mandatory custom—whether a practice or an abstention—based on the transcendent claims of a community of believers with which one has a good faith association. This definition does not reduce religious liberty to a mere mode in which freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, property rights, etc are expressed, though it may entail those other rights. It also only kicks in when religious minorities have a different way of relating to the transcendent than the larger political community in which they live.

"Meaningful participation" is an expression intended to exclude second order involvement with other responsible parties from religious liberty exemptions. So once money changes hands, I'm no longer responsible for what happens to the good or service provided. Or, going the other way, what the business does with the money I provide them in exchange for their good or service, I'm not longer responsible for.

In concrete terms, a Jehovah's Witness can't try to stop a hospital they patronize from providing blood transfusions to other patients. A conscientious objector can't sue to stop the whole nation from going to war. A Catholic gynecologist can't object to their medical society licensing doctors who perform abortions. And so on.

Crucially, "meaningful participation" doesn't prejudge what ways of relating to the claims of the transcendent are legitimate. I only assumes the the final responsibility for the way one relates to the transcendent, as far as a free society is concerned, is personal (though typically sustained through associations of like-minded individuals). Hence, it is to be expected, for example, that some traditionalists are okay with going to same-sex weddings and others not.

But what "meaningful participation" does do is limit the extent to which exemptions for those who recognize such claims must be extended across social relationships. It does so based on the assumption that other parties are responsible for their relation (or not) to the transcendent as they best understand it. Therefore, the participation for which an exemption is granted has to be meaningful with reference to a network of relationships in which each individual is responsible for their own relationship to transcendence.

So on this definition of religious liberty, an third century Christian may withdraw from the incense offering to the Roman emperor—a mandatory practice reinforcing state solidarity that the empire takes the gods to be indifferent to—because Christians have a good faith association with a community of believers in a resurrected God who requires they not have meaningful participation idolatry.

And on this definition, an nineteenth century Seventh-day Adventist has the right to withdraw from Sunday rest—a mandatory abstention that America takes the Christian God to be in favor of—because Adventists have a good faith association with a community of believers in a God who created in six days and rested on the seventh and requires they not have meaningful participation in observing Sunday as a day of rest.

But, as with all rights, your right to religious liberty ends at my nose. To take two extreme examples, if your god demands human sacrifice, you don't get to kill me. Likewise, if your God demands race-based discrimination, you don't get to organize to broadly exclude historically discriminated against racial/ethnic minority groups from goods and services offered to the public.

Now, to briefly apply this framework to the specific case of the Colorado baker:

The assumption of American capitalism is that God (if a Supreme Being exists) doesn't hold us responsible for the transcendent moral implications of what we know people will do with the goods and services we provide to the public. The baker belongs to a community of believers who dissent from that view of the relationship between transcendence and free markets. They can't have meaningful participation in gay marriages due to the meaning they see in the institution of marriage as it relates to their God.
The Colorado baker isn't suing to stop everyone from using any of his cakes in a same-sex wedding. He isn't screening every customer based on their beliefs about same-sex weddings or asking about the intended use for every product sold. But he does object to making specific cakes that he has good reason to believe would be used to celebrate a same-sex wedding. Thus, this is a request for exemption based on meaningful participation. And the Colorado baker has also turned down business making cakes for Halloween and divorce celebrations, evidence that his appeal to a transcendent claim is in good faith.

But the custom from which he is requesting exemption provides a social good that must be weighted against his religious liberty. Sexual minorities are a historically discriminated against group that is even today targeted for violence and needs protection from being broadly excluded from goods and services offered to the public. So whether the Colorado baker can be granted an exemption does not simply turn on whether his claim of meaningful participation is in good faith and simply not cover for an anti-minority animus. The extent of the exemption he is requesting would determine whether this baker is trying to push his rights past the minority group's nose.

In this case, the Colorado baker requested a narrow exemption to the non-discrimination mandate from providing a select good and service. So it is not part of a broad attempt to exclude sexual minorities from his business dealings all together. The baker is willing to provide sexual minorities cakes in general with the exception of those that entail meaningful participation in practices his God prohibits, including, but not limited to, cakes that entail his meaningful participation in a same-sex marriage.

We have no reason to doubt the harm to dignity wrought by the experience of being discriminated against on the part of the gay couple. We should be especially sensitive to it given the high rates of suicide found among sexual minorities, and require those who claim to religiously object to meaningful participation in same-sex marriages do so without expressing of animus toward sexual minorities as a sign of good faith.

On the other hand, the Colorado baker's conscientious objection was not part of a broad social exclusion of sexual minorities from the wedding cake market. The gay couple was able to get their wedding cake from another local goods and services provider.

In a free society, while there is a right for minority groups not to be excluded from public life, including the marketplace, there is no right to be shielded from every indignity. We recognize that the rights of others, such as freedom of speech, will expose everyone, including historically discriminated against minorities, to certain indignities. We minimize our exposure to indignities through free associations, which also reinforce the sense of self by which we are able to bear those indignities we must in order to maintain our freedom.

Because the extent of the meaningful participation to which the Colorado baker objects is narrow, because his objection is good faith and not primarily motivated by animus, and because Coloradans in general disagree with the Colorado baker's understanding of what God expects of him, having enacted civil rights legislation to that effect; religious liberty requires that we allow for this narrow exposure to indignity on the part of sexual minorities in order to maintain the religious liberty on which a free society is predicated.

I have previously treated this issue in greater length: "A Framework for Balancing Competing Concerns: RFRAs and Adventists in the Public Square."

Sunday, February 05, 2017

56 Theses on Trump and Truth

1. Understanding the power of how President Trump relates to the truth requires understanding how professional wrestling and reality television, the televisual forms in which he built his popularity with the everyman, appeal to their audiences.

2. If we don't understand what the rise of Mr. Trump to the presidency reveals about the way these these televisual forms shape their audiences' relationship to the truth, we won't understand how to effectively communicate with them.

3. These audiences know that what is being presented in these televisual forms as unscripted is in fact heavily scripted, yet not entirely scripted.

4. Pointing out to these audiences that a gap between presentation and reality makes a TV show "fake" does not lessen the appeal of these televisual forms for them.

5. By asking their audiences with a "wink" to suspend disbelief on the question of whether what is presented is fiction or non-fiction the producers of these televisual forms invite the audience into an interpretive game played with an unreliable narrator.

6. The audiences that enjoy professional wrestling and reality television enjoy it, not despite the fact that they are being "lied to," but because the gap between presentation and reality invites them to account for the mechanics of scripting a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

7. This gives the audiences a powerful sense of being "in the know" about stories over which they have little to no control.

8. These audiences can then play this interprative game with the rest of the media, media that is not "winking" as they present a story as fiction or non-fiction.

9. If fiction and non-fiction are on a spectrum, how much of non-fiction media is presented by unreliable narrators as real when in fact it is scripted? Answer: All of it, to some degree.

10. In reality television and professional wrestling, good and evil are not moral absolutes but plot devices used by unreliable narrators to ask their audiences' to suspend disbelief.

11. Sensationally good characters suspend disbelief just as well as sensationally evil characters. Only boring characters are wrong.

12. If something boring happens, the interprative game is no longer fun because the gap between presentation and reality collapses as the reality of the scripting process becomes evident in its failure to deliver a spectacle that resonates emotionally.

13. For the audiences of these televisual forms, the value proposition of most media on the non-fiction end of the spectrum comes across as, Give us your time and attention (making us money) in exchange for boring stories told by unreliable narrators who never "wink". At least the unreliable narrators of fiction media tell spectacular stories, even if their interprative game is less fun.

14. These audiences cannot evaluate the truth of professional wrestling or reality television based on whether the narrator is sincere in what they present as true or false, good or evil, but on whether the (always unreliable) narrator tells a story that is emotionally compelling while inviting them to consider how they scripted reality.

15. By inviting their audience to consider how they scripted reality, the unreliable narrator allows their audience to evaluate them based on whether the narrator's self-interest in telling the story aligns with the audience's interests in investing in it.

16. For the audiences of these televisual forms, earnestly presenting truth as Truth, not-truth as Not-truth, good as Good and evil as Evil is the sign of an unreliable narrator who either doesn't realize they are scripting reality according to their own interests or knows it and is keeping their audience from playing the interprative game by being inauthentic.

17. For the audiences of these televisual forms, what counts for truth is authenticity—telling a spectacular story they can resonate with and inviting them to evaluate your motives for having done so by "winking" at your unreliable narration.

18. Of course, there are those in the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television who believe everything they see is real and none of it scripted. They intensify the sense of interprative play for the rest of the audience who is in on the game.

19. In the metanarrative constructed by the audiences of these televisual forms in their interprative play, the true believers among them are just another part of reality being scripted by the unreliable narrator, in this case, using the spectacle to script the true believers.

20. This reinforces the audiences' sense of being behind the scenes of a story over which they actually have little to no control.

21. For the true believers, truth resides at the level of spectacle, where presentation and reality appear to merge.

22. For the rest of the audience, truth resides in the gap between presentation and reality where spectacle and motive combine: Lie to me, so I can see if our self-interests are aligned.

23. Those who present truth earnestly, in the view of these audiences, are obscuring how they've scripted reality so that they can obscure their motives to themselves or their audiences.

24. Those who present truth earnestly and appear to be scripting reality the least may limit the spectacular in their presentation by breaking up their story with alternative viewpoints, caveats about their own biases, and other nuances. They are boring.

25. Boring presentations of reality are not emotionally compelling, so the audiences of these televisual forms are apt to ignore them.

26. Boring presentations of reality do not help these audiences tell themselves a story about themselves that makes their lives feel spectacular, so there is no payoff for these audiences that alignes with their self-intersets in investing time and attention in media.

27. If a presentation of reality doesn't offer a story that can be evaluated in terms of these audiences' self-interests, it cannot be evaluated by them through interprative play for its truth content.

28. For the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television, boring, non-fiction media has even less truth value than earnest, non-fiction media (Donald Trump > Hannity > Fox News > CSPAN).

29. Boring presentations of reality also imply that acting based on ones interests is less important than understanding reality in all its complexities.

30. If reality is always being scripted by all media, it is meaningless to seek an understanding of it that goes beyond the interests of powerful actors.

31. The spectacular celebrates the act taken without regard to complexities, whether for good or evil, as that which compels an audience to invest time and attention in the story of the actor and find truth in its resonances with the story they tell themselves about themselves.

32. Because the story we tell ourselves about ourselves shapes and is informed by our self-interests, it is possible to influence the interests of audiences invested in a story by shaping their story about themselves.

33. The one who produces spectacular acts can influence the interests of these audiences by shaping they story they tell themselves about themselves through the metanarrative they tell themselves about the scripting of the spectacular. (The effect also works in reverse from audience to producer.)

34. Having given up on any truthful presentation of reality, the audiences of professional wrestling and reality television are not equipped to evaluate this shaping of the stories they tell themselves by any standard other than their interests as they are being shaped.

35. Pointing that that Mr. Trump is "fake," a more pervasive scripter of reality than ordinary politicians, and that his blatant disregard for the pretense of truthful presentation disqualifies him from being taken seriously does not lessen his appeal to these audiences because they do not believe that any presentation of reality can correspond well-enough to reality to discredit the story Mr. Trump is telling.

36. For the audiences of these televisual forms, Mr. Trump is telling the truth because he tells a story through spectacular speech acts that leave gaps between reality and presentation inviting them into a interprative game in which they tell themselves a story about how his interests align with their own.

37. Politicians are simultaneously narrators of the national story and actors in it.

38. Politicians who want their audiences to participate in their decisions about how to deal with the reality of Truth and un-Truth, Good and Evil, make earnest presentations—the more boring the presentation, the more reality their audience is able to participate in deciding about.

39. Mr. Trump does not want his audience to participate in decisions about reality, but instead asks his audience to trust that his own interests in scripting reality are aligned with theirs to the degree that his unreliable narration reveals that they are.

40. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is aligned with the interests of his audience, the more truly his interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

41. The more spectacularly Mr. Trump's speech acts as an unreliable narrator signal that he is not aligned with those opposed to the interests of his audience, the more truly his own interests can be judged by his audience through interprative play to be aligned with their own.

42. For the purposes of creating spectacle, it does not matter whether Mr. Trump presents himself as good or evil.

43. Evocative presentations of Mr. Trump as evil heighten the spectacle for his audience.

44. Earnest presentations of Mr. Trump as evil that can be plausibly denied heighten the sense of unreliable narration from both Mr. Trump and the news media for his audience.

45. Nuanced presentations of Mr. Trump as one not aligned with the interests of his audience are boring to his audience, which causes them to question the motives of the presenter.

46. Science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick was correct when he said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." (And he should know, because he had a mystical vision and then did a lot of perception altering drugs.)

47. Unfortunately, that kind of reality is so complex that by the time we realize it's not going away, it's too late to avoid trouble.

48. Those who wish to understand the reality of Mr. Trump and make decisions about it before it reaches the point where it doesn't go away are limited to the study of his actions in speech and deed.

49. As an unreliable narrator, Mr. Trump will continually create ambiguity as to how much of what he presents is Truth. You will rarely know enough about how big the gap between presentation and reality is before it's too late to respond.

50. Ask not what Mr. Trump's says but what his speech does and how it aligns with everything else he is doing.

51. When making decisions, account for how Mr. Trump's actions in speech and deed script reality for himself and his audience, shaping and responding to their mutual self-interests.

51. The study of Mr. Trump's speech as act requires detaching from the emotional resonance of his spectacular performance as national antihero.

52. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must tell yourself a story about yourself that has more emotional resonance than the one Mr. Trump is narrating by replacing self-(interest)gratifying entertainment with spiritual practices.

53. To detach from Mr. Trump's spectacle, you must invest time and attention in boring presentations of reality by replacing 24-hour news cycles and social media with critical analysis of longform journalism and peer-reviewed research findings.

54. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience will not try to influence them with earnest appeals that require the audience to assume that the presenter is good, the presenter's opposition evil, and the presenter's self-interest, irrelevant.

55. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience know that talk is cheap and reality is expensive. They prove their good intentions with real investments in their audience that cannot be denied because they don't go away.

56. Reliable narrators who understand the reality of Mr. Trump's audience attempt to engage them with irony, Socratic dialogue, and illustrative stories that make nuanced presentations of reality an invitation to mutual discovery instead of a boring monologue.

Further (Boring) Reading

Monday, January 23, 2017

Polarization in American Politics: Whither Adventists?

As Americans move deeper into an era of relativistic political tribalism, where picking a team and embracing its biases increasingly counts for more than arriving at a truthful consensus, political disagreements threaten to divide American Adventists against their coreligionists. This will require the church to either retreat even further from religiously informed political engagement or renew a distinctly Adventist political theology that can withstand the forces of polarization. I will argue that we cannot afford to abandon the political formation of the Adventist soul to American political factions because the fundamental political commitments of those factions are not religiously neutral and have religious implications.

To get that religious perspective, it is important to understand that much of the spiritual energy
driving the left and right of American politics apart is derived from the Calvinist impulse to transform society through an integrated relationship of church and state. It first came to these shores with the Puritan settlers of New England and later with the largely Presbyterian Scotch-Irish settlers of Appalachia.

On the left, the Puritan "city on a hill" vision of "perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, and assimilation of outsiders" was secularized in mainline American Protestantism and directed toward accomplishing social equality. By the 1950s, WASPs were being told by their liberal clergy that they didn't need a particularly Christian God, or even any God at all, to accomplish that pluralistic vision. But that implies their churches weren't really needed either. So they emptied them and turned to left-wing party politics as a secular church, in which they could better organize to actualize their religiously derived vision for the ultimate good of society (the ultimate good being the highest source of meaning one has when one no longer has a sense of the transcendent). "In short, ecumenical [American] Protestants embraced modernity, advancing the cause of Enlightenment while simultaneously becoming one of its casualties.

On the right, a neo-theocratic vision exists, which revolves around rolling back the sexual revolution by re-establishing, to some degree, the state sponsorship of Christianity that existed in the thirteen colonies and early US states. For them, a degree of inequality is the price of orienting society toward sexual morality as a transcendent good; just as for the left, a degree of sexual immorality is the price of equality. The forerunners of this "religious right" faction took the fundamentalist side of the same Protestant fundamentalist/modernist controversy that secularized the mainline. And by the 1950s, many Fundamentalists were sloughing off their social quietism and joining an Evangelical movement that secularized in its own way: being politically activated, partly in response to the sexual revolution, through involvement with conservative political apparatus in search of a popular constituency.

Other Christian traditions share the goals of reforming American sexual mores and/or bringing about equality, but, crucially, differ on the question of how tightly church and state must be integrated to accomplish social reform. The recently published, Five Views on the Church and Politics, gives a good sense of the spectrum, from separationist, on one side, to integrationist, on the other: "Anabaptist (or Separationist), Lutheran (or Paradoxical), Black Church (or Prophetic), Reformed (or Transformationist), and Catholic (or Synthetic)." Calvinism—through the neo-Reformed movement—is the major intellectual force in White Evangelicalism today. However some neo-Reformed voices are resisting the spiritual energy of theocratic politics, including Russell Moore, who is trying to bring the Southern Baptists closer to their Anabaptist/separationist roots in the English Dissenters.

It is those persecuted minority, dissenting Protestant groups, as my professor, Nick Miller argues, who birthed the tradition of religiously informed politics to which Adventists properly belong. Adventists have no illusions of perfecting, much less transforming, society on this side of the Second Coming. We don't desire a privileged political position for ourselves (or any other group) to implement our conception of the transcendent good, because that will not be realized in the here and now. But we recognize that God has given us a democratic government to foster temporal goods based on consensus, including temporal goods derived from both sexual morality and social equality. While willing to work with groups motivated by very different political theologies toward reforms in these and other areas, we ought to be deeply skeptical of political agendas that sacrifice one for the sake of imposing the other.

Adventists cannot take sides in the political fight within the house of Calvinism—a secularized Yankee camp pushing equality and a religious Appalachian camp pushing sexual morality—without compromising both our commitment to the Second Coming as the only source of societal transformation and our imperative of religious liberty with respect to transcendent/ultimate goods in the meantime. And with this Washingtonian captivity of the Protestant church comes the threat of persecution for those who don't pick the winning side. Both kinds of Puritan might equally expel a later-day Roger Williams into a cold Massachusetts winter, whether for being on the wrong side of the march of progress toward sexual equality or for being the wrong side of God as they believe He ought to be worshiped.

Thankfully, the political theology of the dissenters, not the Puritans, made it's way into the First Amendment. The question is how long the promise of separationist religious liberty guaranteed on paper can last in a political environment spiritually dominated by religious and secular Calvinists.