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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

More on Metaxas/Cardinal Dolan and the African American Church

My earlier post on what I see as the serious historical amnesia present in the comments of many conservative evangelicals and Catholics with regard to the HHS Mandate has received some very helpful comments in private correspondence and on my facebook feed. I want to engage one particularly substantive response from a friend:

“I think you rightly point out that there have been laws restricting religious liberty in the African American church experience and thus to argue that such restrictions today are unique is to ignore that history. I agree. If one takes that same concern and applies it to the entirety of the African American experience one learns that the restrictions on the church were not really about religion but about race. Thus it makes me nervous to apply the argument as you have since it defines these issues as religious ones rather than racial ones. It is true that the racial issues in this case ended up restricting religion, but it may overplay the religious perspective. And since I think that religious issues are also being overplayed in the HHS discussion it ties back to that for me.”

I agree with the basic point and I don’t think it contradicts my post but rather fills it in with helpful context. I agree that the reason for the Slave Codes after Nat Turner’s rebellion was primarily fear of further rebellion that would upend the social order deeply rooted in racism. To what extent that fear was rooted in religious based discourse is debatable, and to what extent the religious arguments of Nat Turner and others were primary factors in rebellion is also debatable. My point was not to settle those important historical debates, but rather to make what I think is an unquestionable point-- in order to affect the policy goal of safeguarding the existing social order numerous states instituted laws that trampled all over any kind of conception of the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections. I am not saying they necessarily trampled on those rights for religious reasons, and I am certainly not saying it was only the religious rights of African Americans that were being denied them, but the many states did trample on those religious rights. And the extent to which they trampled on the religious rights of African American individuals and institutions was far more severe and extensive than what the HSS Mandate does. In terms of the Mandate itself, and the reasons for the narrow exemption, it might well be true that the intent of Obama Administration is not specifically to restrict religion but rather to fulfill a different policy goal—namely, free contraception for all. Nonetheless, in order to achieve that goal they are, I believe, violating the constitution’s protection of religious freedom. On that I agree with Dolan, Metaxas and others. Where we part company is in what I see as a disturbing ideological manipulation of history to pursue their “campaign” for religious freedom. Proclaiming themselves as unique victims in the history of religious freedom in America may be a good way to inflame their core constituencies, but it comes at a real price of intellectual integrity and respect for the deeper narratives of American history.

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