Category Archives: Religion

Jamie Shupe’s Victory Over Binaries Run Amok

On June 10, 2016, a little-heralded court ruling challenged one of the most powerful, pervasive, enduring and taken-for-granted practices in western culture. On that day, an Oregon judge granted Jamie Shupe’s petition to identify as neither male nor female, but rather as gender non-binary. According to Shupe, “After a historic court ruling, I am free. … My court victory has broken a gender binary that many said could not be dismantled. … As a transgender person who was forced to live as a male for nearly 50 years, and who then electively lived as a female for the following three years to alleviate my gender dysphoria, I have discovered that I am healthiest and best served by not being forcibly classified as either male or female against my will. … I am not ashamed of who I am. I was not born into the wrong body. My genitals are not a birth defect. And I am not to be sterilized by psychiatry and a medical establishment that has run amok.”

The Oregon ruling goes far beyond the more hoopla-generating ordinances (dis)allowing transgender people the right to use public bathrooms matching their gender identity. It even goes beyond the June 2016 ruling requiring California prison officials to allow transgender inmates access to “female-oriented commissary items” such as scarves and necklaces, and making California the first state to pay for an inmate’s sex reassignment surgery.

The decision to legally recognize Jamie Shupe’s “non-binary” gender status knocks out the foundation upon which the entire structure of gender inequality rests.

From the Mouths of Babes, and Their Teachers

Two decades ago, together with my family, I spent a year conducting ethnographic fieldwork in an island village in Okinawa (more on that below.) As an anthropologist who studies women’s lives, I initially was drawn to Okinawa because it is the only place in the contemporary world where women are the official leaders of the mainstream religion. Not a sect, cult, order or heresy, the women-led religion has been an integral and respected part of Okinawan life for centuries.

Priestesses in full garb ritually holding cups of sake
Priestesses in full garb holding ritual cups of sake.

My interest in Okinawa deepened when I learned that Okinawans are among the healthiest and longest-living people in the world, with Okinawan women enjoying a particularly long life-expectancy. (You can read more in my book Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa.)

A month or so after we returned home from Okinawa, our four year old daughter announced that she is “dumb.” Baffled (to my maternal eyes she is perfect) I assumed that one of the mean kids in her nursery school must have called her a bad name. But no, she explained, it wasn’t a kid. She herself realized she was dumb because “I don’t know opposites.” The other kids in her nursery school, she told us, knew the correct responses to the “opposites’ song” but she hadn’t learned opposites in her Okinawan nursery school.

What is this “opposites’ song”? we asked her.

b5332870e225bf5ad5fbccd81150fdffShe chanted a few examples of a simple rhythmic call and response: The teacher calls out “up” and the kids sing back “down.” The teacher’s “night” is to be answered with “day” and “black” with “white.” The teacher calls out “mommy” and the kids are supposed to sing back “daddy.” The correct response to “boy”? “Girl.” All the kids know the “opposites’ song,” she told us, and they like to show off the correct responses.

Hold on here, I thought to myself. How are boys and girls opposites? As a mother of three boys and one girl I can vouch for the fact that all my kids have eyes (and tears), ears (and ear infections), mouths that laugh and scream, tushies that produce poop, and belly buttons where their little bodies formerly were attached to the umbilical cord. In fact, the differences between the boys and girl were far less obvious or significant than the differences between the oldest gregarious and energetic boy and the second shy and quiet boy.

Nor are mother and father are opposites. We had just spent a year in which my husband was the primary caregiver and homemaker while I was out exploring the Okinawan village. The previous year I had been the primary caregiver and homemaker while my husband worked in high tech. And over both of those years, hadn’t both of us fed the kids, changed diapers, cuddled crying babies and helped the older kids with homework? How could mothers and fathers be opposites? We both were parents fully engaged in raising our children in a loving and healthy environment; it’s not as if one was a parent and the other an anti-parent!

It had never occurred to my daughter that mother and father are opposites until her teacher taught and repeated the “opposites’ song”. (It also never occurred to her that she was dumb until she realized that she was missing an important category of cultural knowledge that all of the other children had already acquired.) As my daughter learned in her nursery school, teachers, like parents and other formal and informal sources of learning, have enormous power to shape the way we think – even to shape how we perceive the world.

The Okinawan nursery school, I concluded, had not done my daughter any disservice by not teaching opposites. Quite the contrary, her new nursery school was doing all of us a disservice by drilling children in the quite unfactual notion that the world is made up of dichotomous and opposing forces. It is that world-view, I have come to understand, that undergirds prejudice, discrimination and structural violence.

Binaries Run Amok

da5ed4e743392874ff94e856e53015e3Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1963) famously argued that there must be some sort of structure in the human brain that causes us to perceive the world in binaries: us and them, friend and stranger, good guys and bad guys. In the first wave of feminist anthropological critique, Sherry Ortner (1974) built on Levi-Strauss’s model and  argued that male dominance is universal because in all human societies women are more associated with nature (pregnancy, birth and lactation) while men are associated with the opposite of nature; that is, culture. And just as culture conquers nature through tools, agriculture and human settlements, men (as a class) universally conquer women.

Half a century later, these schemas may sound preposterous. Not even the most advanced brain imaging technologies have managed to locate Levi-Strauss’s binary “structure.” Nor have decades of gender-informed ethnographic fieldwork confirmed Ortner’s hypothesis regarding the universality of the “female is to male as nature is to culture” notion. Rather, we’ve learned that brains are far more complex and gender organizations are far more diverse than mid-20th century social scientists could have guessed.

But while Levi-Strauss and Ortner were wrong about the universality of binaries, they were on target regarding their power. Differences that are envisioned as being absolute are particularly compelling: binary distinctions leave no gray area, no room for doubt, no room to recognize commonalities, and no room to negotiate. The construction of two and only two sexes or genders leads to cultural understandings in which men and women are not only essentially different but also antithetical and mutually exclusive types of beings. A popular form of this kind of thinking is represented in books like Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus in which men and women are characterized as species from different planets who need an interpreter in order to learn how to communicate with one another! While I certainly don’t blame this particular book for centuries of gendered economic and political inequalities and gendered violence, I do believe that that there are real dangers in efforts to reinforce, justify or prove that male and female stand in binary opposition to each other.

The “boy” “girl” binary was not the only insidious and false dichotomy the kids in my daughter’s pre-school were taught to chant. They also learned that “black” and “white” are opposites. Of course, we can look at any random gathering of people on the street and know that not only are skin colors a continuum rather than a dichotomous characteristic, but that there aren’t any actually white or black people: ebony and ivory describes a keyboard, not skin color. Yet, by construing race as a binary we easily tack on a plethora of other binary characteristics: black and white echo dirty and clean, bad and good, stupid and smart, them and us, sinner and saint, terrorist or law-abiding citizen. And that’s where all the trouble starts.

As Jamie Shupe learned over a lifetime of living first as a man and then as a woman, if people or things don’t quite fit into the binary categories, social forces exert power to force them into the binary structure, pretend that they don’t exist, or even eliminate them. Indeed, genocide depends on those in power convincing enough people that there is an essential, absolute divide between “us” (superior humans) and “them” (non-humans or inferior humans who, by virtue of that inferiority, should die).

Shupe’s courageous statement clarifies that punishing non-gender conforming people through formal institutions – transgender people in America experience particularly high rates of incarceration and informal practices – transgender people in America suffer particularly high rates of rape is part of the same falsely dichotomous worldview as fixing (curing) them of their “gender dysphoria” through therapeutic interventions to fix their brains and medical interventions to fix their bodies.

Okinawa

How would a world that is not divided into gender binaries look? In the Okinawan village of Henza, where I carried out fieldwork in the 1990s, I caught a few glimpses.

At the haari community boat race, a man in women’s clothing stood at the edge of the pier next to the mayor. Eager to understand this gendered twist, the next day I tried to ask villagers who he was. But first, I first had to dedicate quite a bit of time to clarifying to whom I was referring.

Susan: Who is that man who was wearing a woman’s dress at the boat race?

Villager: What man?

Susan: The man with the woman’s dress.

Villager: Oh, there was a man with a woman’s dress?

Susan: Yes, the man in the bright red dress, blond wig, and padded bra. You know, the man who stood right up in front of the entire audience at the edge of the dock and danced with the Master of Ceremonies during the climax of the race.

Villager: Oh, you mean Mr. Miyagi.

Susan: That’s right. Who is he?

Villager: A bus driver.

Susan: Why does he wear women’s clothes?

Villager: He likes to make people happy at festivals.

Susan: Does his wife mind that he wears women’s clothes?

Villager: Oh, his wife, she is the one with the garden next to your house.

Susan: Well, what do people in the village think of a man who wears women’s clothes?

Villager: He likes to make people happy at festivals.

Susan: Were there traditionally men who wore women’s clothes at festivals?

Villager: I don’t think so, I don’t know.

 

A similar conversation ensued after the san gatsu (third month) ritual, where I noticed a man wearing a woman’s bodice and a long red loincloth between his legs.

Susan: Who is he?

Villager: Mr. Arakaki.

Susan: Who is Mr. Arakaki?

Villager: He is a schoolteacher.

Susan: Oh.

Villager: But that isn’t why he wore those clothes. Teachers don’t have to wear those clothes.

Women enjoying usudeku group
Women enjoying usudeku group.

 

A somewhat different conversation with the same underlying theme took place at a neighborhood usudeku dance gathering. Many Henza women belong to one of three usudeku groups that practice and then perform elaborate traditional dances at the annual obon festival. Although these typically are all-women groups, I noticed an elderly (92 year old) man had joined one of the groups. He was pointed out to me by several women telling me with pride that there are many very old people in their group (all the others, of course, were women). His age rather than his gender is what elicited comment in this all-women’s group.

The women also told me that at san gatsu (third month) festival he dresses up in women’s clothes and makes merry for the people in the old age home. I asked why and was told, “Because he likes to, and because he has his late wife’s clothes. He put on make-up and a complicated kimono by himself. He has pictures. His wife died when she was 71 years old [tragically young, by Okinawan standards]. She did usudeku until she was 65, and he used to like to watch it.” At this point he joined the conversation: “Because my wife died, I take her to the san gatsu by wearing her clothes.” He and the women made it clear that by wearing his wife’s kimono he was not being outrageous but rather, in his own quiet manner, demonstrating or embodying the continuity between men and women, and between life and death.

These dialogues are a lesson in how not to do anthropological fieldwork. It is a great credit to Henzans that they were able to withstand my persistent efforts to put words into their mouths and to force them to share my own cultural categories. Clearly, the notion of a man wearing women’s clothes is not interesting to Henza villagers. No one remarked on it without my asking, no one drew my attention to it at the festivals, no one even realized who I was asking about until I repeated my question several times, and no one understood why I was interested in asking about this topic. Whereas to my western eyes these men were crossing gender categories, in the eyes of villagers they simply wore clothes that usually are worn by women but that have no inherent or permanent gendered attributes. What we in the West label as “cross-dressing” or “transvestitism” (and find funny, entertaining or abhorrent – depending on the person and the situation) is not a recognizable cognitive category in Henza.

What Does It All Mean?

American scholars have argued that transvestism ultimately reinforces gender divisions. In the West, when a man dresses like a woman and passes, he is gender-bending. If he really wants to pass, he needs to submit his body to surgical and chemical interventions. And if he does not pass, or if he deliberately shows a male trait (such as hair on his chest), the bizarre incongruity of his appearance strengthens the belief that the two genders are polar opposites. An individual who mixes the wrong gender with the wrong sex thus draws attention to the “naturalness” of the gender-sex association and the “unnaturalness” of detaching that association. Unless the situation is very contained (such as in a drag show), the obvious transvestite makes people uncomfortable, as evidenced by the hysteria over the idea that people can use the public restroom corresponding to their gender rather than the sex marked on their birth certificate.

In Okinawa, in contrast, gender is loosely constructed; it is not naturalized or supernaturalized; it is not enforced by powerful institutions or drilled by nursery school teachers. A person who usually is thought of as a man dressed in clothing that usually is worn by women presents no paradox, challenges no world-view, is given no label or diagnosis, invokes no strong emotional reaction, and does not risk punishment.

Okinawan drums typically are decorated with a three stroke swirl; not a binary yin-yang
Okinawan drums typically are decorated with a three stroke swirl; not a binary yin-yang.

The absence of a rigidly binary gender ideology in Okinawa precludes the development of rigidly binary gender dominance. Okinawan women do not suffer from threats and fears of sexual violence (except at the hands of American military personnel) that shape women’s lives in the West. Okinawan women do not experience lower social status, poorer access to resources or any of the other aspects of subordination experienced by women in many or most parts of the world. The fact that women are the priestesses in Okinawa does not grant women moral control over men. And Okinawan women live longer than any other women in the world.

When I think about the violence that transgender and other gender transgressing people experience in America, I wonder what Jamie Shupe’s life would have been like in Henza rather than in the United States. We have yet to see the implications of the Oregon Court’s ruling in Shupe’s favor – it may well be over-turned or ignored. But with that ruling, for the first time in a very long time, I can glimpse the possibility of a chink in the immensely strong fortress of drilled “opposites.”

 

Social Capital, Cultural Capital and Faith Communities

“What Churches Don’t Get About Ministering to Marginalized Women” – By Jennifer L. Hollis

Originally published in Sojourners 10-12-2015

See the full article here:

“One of the things that most saddens me in conversations with criminalized and marginalized women is the absence of any sort of philosophy or theology — what I call cultural scripts — for making sense out of their suffering,” sociologist Dr. Susan Sered explained to my church earlier this year. …

Faith communities must address unmet needs for meaning and community in the lives of people who suffer. Too focused on the symptoms of structural social inequalities, churches set up soup kitchens or food pantries, whose irregular schedules force poor and homeless Americans to run around among a variety of different organizations in order to be able to eat and feed their families every day. This process covers up the lack of a real safety net in our public policies instead of challenging those policies. And when a church or nonprofit gives, and poor Americans receive, the relationship makes a social — and implicitly moral — distinction between the haves and the have-nots, between the people who serve, and the people who are served. …

 

Many of the classes and programs in which women participate (voluntarily or not) teach them that in order to ‘recover’ they must take responsibility for their own problems, stop blaming others, extricate themselves from ‘co-dependent relationships,’ and learn to ‘do me’ rather than giving themselves to others. “This message undermines traits such as generosity and sympathy which women may most value in themselves,” Sered told me. “It distracts attention from the social violence that sends so many women into the institutional circuit to begin with, and negates the possibility of finding meaning in suffering.”

Sered believes that faith communities, especially churches, have a radical opportunity to do something different: help these women make meaning out of their suffering. “At least as a Jewish outsider looking in, it seems to me that the power of Jesus’ preaching as well as his horrific death is that suffering has cosmic meaning, that it has identifiable causes, and that those who have suffered the most can have the most to offer other people,” said Sered.

Continue reading at: https://sojo.net/articles/what-churches-dont-get-about-ministering-marginalized-women#sthash.KEFWJpow.dpuf

Superman, Princesses and Purim

The Jewish holiday of Purim starts this evening and continues throughout the day tomorrow. Something of a cross between Halloween and Carnival (though more toned down than either), Purim is one day in the year in which Jewish children and adults are encouraged to wear costumes. While I’m sure there will be a few fabulously funny and innovative outfits at my synagogue tonight, I know – even before seeing them – that most of the little girls will be dressed as princesses or brides while quite a few of the adult men will be dressed as women. Coming on the heels of Mardi Gras, Purim has me thinking about why so many cultures feature costuming practices that draw attention to gender.

To begin with, it’s useful to make some sort of distinction between clothing and costuming, though these categories certainly overlap. When I dress up in a tailored blazer to go to court I feel that I’m putting on a costume although that blazer was purchased at Macys – not at a costume store, and similar blazers are fairly standard items in the wardrobes of professional women today. Yet I do see something of a difference between clothing that is mostly functional (we wear it to keep warm, protect our skin from the sun, keep our bodies clean or dry, avoid being arrested for indecent exposure, or warding off unwanted interpersonal contact) and costumes that we intentionally don for their symbolic value with the conscious intention of drawing attention, reactions and interpretations.

Like all symbols, costumes are multivocal or multivalent, suggesting multiple meanings to the dresser, the wearer, and the viewers.

As a Jewish American mother, for many years I served double duty as a dresser for Purim and for Halloween. At first I consistently dressed my babies and toddlers in gender neutral “cute” outfits. At an age in which they were too young to notice or care I pushed back against gender stereotypes but embraced age stereotypes (cuteness) by dressing them as un-sexed teddy bears, bunny rabbits, and that ultimate cross-cultural costume: the Purim pumpkin.

As soon as they were old enough to care, my children demanded gendered costumes. My daughter, like all of her friends, dressed as a princess, a fairy or the Biblical Queen Esther (happily for my wallet, these are basically interchangeable costumes) for nearly a decade. Her costumes challenged age norms (she dressed as a young woman, not a little girl) but magnified gender with make-up, jewelry and long skirts that made running and climbing impossible.

My sons went through a brief cowboy, policeman and soldier stage (they later told me that they didn’t care about the costumes but they wanted the guns that we normally did not permit in our pacifist household.) But for most of their childhood and early teen years they wanted to dress as a hyper-masculine super-hero.

Not just any super-hero. My eldest son in particular would begin planning his Purim costume a good four months in advance. Over that time he’d consider, play around with and even stress over whether he would be Superman or Spiderman. Perhaps the tenth time he woke me up at night to talk about the heavy decision weighing on his heart I realized what was going on in his mind: He cared so much about his costume because the decision of being Superman or Spiderman really was about being Superman or Spiderman – a decision of existential importance. Would he be able to climb the outsides of buildings or would he be able to fly? My son helped me see a deeper cultural truth: Costumes are transformative. For that reason many religious traditions use costuming and masks for ritualized existential transformations in which the costume wearer becomes – embodies or is possessed by — the god or the spirit.

Once boys reach their later teens and adulthood and (assumedly) become too sophisticated to think that they truly will be transformed by their costumes, many turn to dressing up as women. Blonde wigs, high heels and mini-skirts are sure-fire recipes for getting a laugh at Purim, Halloween and Carnival masquerades. (Of course, cross-dressing limited to the privacy of one’s own bedroom is likely to be interpreted as pathological or at least bizarre.) At these same events it is rare to see adult women wearing “men” costumes. A woman can masquerade as a particular male profession or identity (fireman, Elvis) but dressing in “men’s” clothes simply means wearing normative clothing in a culture in which male is normative and female is “special” or “other”. Masculinity lacks much of the ‘artifactuality of the feminine’. In fact, a woman wearing generic men’s garments (slacks, button down shirt) at a Purim or Halloween party would likely be asked why she isn’t wearing a costume! This is what Peter Tokofsky calls the ‘asymmetry of cross-dressing’.

Costumes conceal identities and free us to do things we wouldn’t normally do (for example, flirt, get drunk) AND free other people to do things TO the costumed one (I think here of the behavior of “straight” men at a drag show). Embracing that sort of freedom, many cultures practice what anthropologists call rituals of reversal; that is, rites in which, for a prescribed amount of time, social roles and norms are turned topsy-turvy. Classic anthropological wisdom goes like this: In repressive and strictly hierarchical cultures tensions build up. Rites of reversal are an opportunity for everyone to blow off steam for a few hours or days at the end of which most people will feel relieved to go back to the ‘natural’ social order. In her work on Mardi Gras, Carolyn Ware argues that “when men dress up as women they reaffirm masculinity by ridiculing the feminine and therefore ratify the social order.” Chaos is fun for a little while, but few of us want to live out our whole lives in a drunken Mardi Gras parade.

Costumes can elevate (as in the case of the Superman costume) but they also can degrade. A number of years ago an anthropologist colleague in Israel observed the Purim costumes of ultra-orthodox Jews whose religious beliefs demand extensive gender segregation and limit leadership roles to men. In the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim she noticed a pattern of men dressing as women and women and girls dressing as inanimate objects. In this scene, unlike in the Superman scenario, costumes moved people down an existential level.

For some of these ultra-orthodox girls the cumbersome de-humanizing Purim costumes were good practice for wedding costumes that, for some groups, include a long opaque veil wrapped around the bride’s head hiding her face from the audience, covering her eyes and making her dependent on others to lead her around. I see much the same process of existential transformation in the extreme coverage of women’s bodies and faces demanded by ISIS and other extremist and ultraconservative religious groups:  Full body and face coverings erase markers of individuality, turning the wearer of the costume into a symbol to be “read” by others (for modesty, piety and moral status) every moment of every day in every setting and situation.

Morality Hijacked by Religion

“One of the greatest tragedies in mankind’s entire history may be that morality was hijacked by religion.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

A Sociologist’s Thoughts on the “Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court Decision

Introductory college courses on religion typically begin with a unit called “what is religion?” We tell our students right off the bat that there is no natural, universal or inherently true definition of religion. We discuss how some people consider Buddhism to be a religion because Buddhist rituals and symbols “look religious,” but others might say Buddhism is not a religion because there is no formalized notion of god. Some people consider Judaism to be a religion because of the presence of a sacred text and a tradition of attributing rules of behavior to God, but others might say that Judaism is an ethnicity. (Of course, anyone who watches the Daily Show realizes that Jon Stewart is Jewish in the sense that his parents were Jewish and he uses Yiddish slang in his sketches, but he makes it perfectly clear that he does not “believe” in the Bible or observe the laws.)

In contemporary American English we generally use the word “religion” to describe institutions characterized by an organized body of people who posit some sort of God, attribute to that God some sort of moral potency, and conduct rituals that are perceived as having the gravitas of tradition. In other words, we use “religion” in terms that more or less resemble western Christianity.

From the earliest days of European settlement in the Americas there have been heated and often bloody disputes over what counts as religion. European missionaries did not recognize Native American beliefs and practices as “religious.” Rather, they considered them “heathen” which justified forcible conversion and even murder. The beliefs and practices of many 19th and 20th century immigrants were labeled “superstition” which justified national campaigns to re-educate those primitives who insisted on holding onto their old wives’ tales. And in 1993, when the Branch Davidians “cult” in Waco Texas was stormed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the death toll included twenty-five children.

np9705191These verbal gymnastics cut both ways. Over the past few decades there have been a number of court cases challenging government support of Alcoholics Anonymous. To sociologists, AA looks and acts like what we in America generally consider to be a religion. It grew out of a Christian movement in the beginning of the twentieth century; it has prayers (the Serenity Prayer), scripture (The Big Book), rituals, and a belief system that posits a Higher Power. Interestingly, the rulings – while complex and not totally consistent – have leaned towards declaring that AA is not “religion” but rather “spirituality,” a category even less definable than religion. Is a long walk in the woods spiritual? Many Americans would say yes. But what if you’re walking in the woods because your car broke down? Is that still “spirituality”? What if you pray to the tree god in the woods? Is that now “religion” or “heathenism”? Would it be protected by the First Amendment? And what if the tree god answers you – is that spirituality or schizophrenia? There is no right answer, of course. But how you answer these questions likely reflects your cultural milieu.

That Pesky Establishment Clause

Given that there is no “true” definition of religion, we tell our students, the questions for sociologists are: Who determines what gets to ‘count’ as religion? And, whose determinations carry weight for other people? The answers to these questions, we tell our students, have more to do with political power than with theological purity. In the United States today the IRS has authority to classify organizations as “religious” for the purpose of tax exempt status and psychiatrists have license to determine if an individual is “religious” or mentally ill for purposes of standing trial. But ultimately, in the United States that power rests in the hands of the courts.

“I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it.” — George Carlin

Justice Alito, of course, is smart enough to realize that under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution the Court cannot favor one “religion” over another. A way around that pesky clause, at least in the Hobby Lobby ruling, is to cherry pick the beliefs and practices that one considers to be “religion.” So, in the majority opinion, objections to contraception are “religion” while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are not. Though not spelled out by Justice Alito, the implication is there: Mainstream Christians object to contraception (we’ve been bombarded with pictures of the very attractive, white “All American”-looking Green family) while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are associated with fringe groups or cults.

“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” George Burns

The Hobby Lobby ruling invoked a second category that is just as confusing – and as culturally determined — as “religion.” According to Justice Alito religious beliefs meriting protection have to be “sincere.”The Court did not, however, specify what sincerity is or how it is measured. If you recant Judaism because the Inquisition threatens to burn you if you do not embrace Christianity, then are your Jewish beliefs less sincere than those of someone who “chose” the flames? If you have spent most of your life as a devout Christian but for a period of time experience a crisis of faith, a long night of the soul, are your beliefs during that time “insincere” and so not protected by the law? And who gets to decide what or who is sincere? Just because someone says something in a sincere voice doesn’t mean that they are not lying (if that were true Bernie Madoff wouldn’t be in prison), and just because someone cannot articulate their beliefs in a manner that others find credible does not mean that they are insincere.

What beliefs were so compelling as to lead these justices to make a ruling that at best is nonsensical and at worst is discriminatory and unconstitutional? In part, their ruling reflects a broad American consensus that religion overall is good for society and healthy for individuals, and so should receive public support. We have a government Office of Faith Based Initiatives, we love studies showing that church goers are healthier than non church goers and that meditation improves cardio-vascular function, and as a country we entrust churches with children’s moral education.

One might have thought that the assumption that religion (and especially “sincere” religion) is inherently good – or at least benign — would have been undermined by the many religion-driven wars, genocides, suicide bombers and terrorist attacks of the past century. We Americans tend to have short memories, but surely 9/11 is still in our communal consciousness! There must, then, be other considerations that were sufficiently persuasive to have blinded Justice Alito and his colleagues to the potentially dangerous consequences of sincere religious beliefs.

The Court answered this question in their statement that the Hobby Lobby ruling is narrow – that it applies only to contraception and not to blood transfusions or vaccinations. On the face of it both blood transfusions and vaccinations should be even more problematic as a requirement for employers to include in health insurance policies. We need only think about the many Biblical verses declaring that the blood is the soul and the life. And in the case of vaccinations we are talking about children before the age of consent. Contraception is special, I believe, because it speaks to women’s autonomy in a way that few other matters do. Indeed, women’s bodies are often the central battleground in contemporary culture wars not only in the majority Christian United States but in Israel and in the Muslim world as well.

“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” ― Jon Stewart

In any war there are few motivations that are as compelling as religion. Invoking the will of God has extraordinary power to inspire people to action: Where human laws are seen as flawed and transient, God’s laws are believed to be perfect and eternal, even transcending death of the mortal body. Religion has the extraordinary power to lead people to martyrdom and to genocide, to endangering their own lives to save children in the slums of Calcutta and to sacrificing children to blood-thirsty gods, to giving away their worldly goods and to appropriating the worldly goods of others. And it has the power to erase from the minds of at least five Supreme Court Justices the thousands of years of human history in which millions of women died in childbirth because they did not have the means to prevent pregnancies that were too closely spaced.

The framers of the Constitution clearly understood the power of religion, and tried to contain it. In the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS unleashed it.

 

You can read more about recent SCOTUS decisions affecting women’s reproductive rights here: Pregnant Bodies as Public Property