Sunday, September 18, 2016

My Sunday Feeling

"This is not Rome. This is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A republic of laws...of rights and responsibilities...of proper civic order..."

                           Irish Secretary of State Enda Kenney

"Which is more important to you, (sic) the Bible or the US Constitution?"

                           Facebook post earlier this month

In 2011, the Irish government excoriated the Vatican for allegedly attempting to block the investigation by the civil authorities of child abuse by clerics.  The church was told in no uncertain terms by a righteously indignant, I mean no pun, Enda Kenney that the civil law prevailed when it came to the safety and protection of children.  Of course, the negative pregnant in Kenney's remarkable (by Irish standards) pushback to Rome was that civil law was primary in all matters involving "rights and responsibilities" and "proper civic order."

I thought of the words of the Taoiseach (look it up) when I saw the above-referenced post on Facebook.  

For some people, everything is a zero-sum game.  Right and wrong.  Black and white.  

Which is more important to you?  The Bible or the US Constitution?  

One wonders what is going on out there that would prompt someone to ask such a question.  One can sense a certain paranoid construct in which such a question can live and do well.  A law may be constitutional but it might also be contrary to the Bible.  Or to a particular reading of the Bible.  In that case what?  Your personal morality trumps the civil law?  Indeed, there have been laws passed in a couple of states that say just that. 

And the most famous example of this theory was the decision by county clerk Kim Davis not to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples because to do so would offend would allegedly offend her deeply held religious beliefs.  

I prefer a more nuanced approach to the post to the extent a) the Facebook poster is serious and b) it is even a question.  

To borrow the wonderful phrase from Stephen Jay Gould, the Bible and the US Constitution serve different magisteria.  The Bible concerns matters of spirituality and morality.  The Constitution and the laws passed pursuant to it concern "rights and responsibilities" and "proper civic order." They are accorded primacy in that realm as the United States, like Ireland, is a republic of laws. 

And by the same token, the law protects the typical exercise of the believer's faith.  I can attend the church of my choice.  I can send my kid to a parochial school.  Conversely the law protects my freedom to play golf on Sunday instead of going to church if I so please.  Further, while I am free to believe or to not believe, I do not have the unfettered discretion to act on those beliefs.  My deeply held belief that the use of marijuana is integral to the practice of my religion is no defense if I am being prosecuted on a dope charge.  

Just for the record, I am a Methodist.  We do not smoke grass in church.  I raised a hypothetical.  I'm a lawyer.  We do that.  

So why am I making a big honking deal out of gibberish on Facebook?  Because it seems a lot of our national discourse about serious things takes the form of posts on Facebook or through tweets on Twitter.  But everything can't be a zero sum game.  Serious questions cannot be resolved in a sound bite. 

I talked about the post in question with one of the history teachers at school the other day.  Here's our response.

Which is more important to you?  The Bible or the Constitution?

Our answer is "yes."


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