Monday, July 13, 2009

The Pursuit of Religious Happiness

Some blog posts that I write get many comments right away.
Some never get any comments at all.
And then there are those that get belated comments. Such it has been with my post from last July, Declaration! The Pursuit of Happiness.

This blog entry received three separate comments from one Miriam, who seems to want to convert me to Christianity. Sorry, Miriam, but my heart belongs to Torah.
Being one of the token Jews of the Homeschool Blogosphere has its little ironies. During Hannukah, I received a gift and an earnest letter from a Mormon reader of my blog, who wants to convert me to Mormonism. Very kindly meant, I am sure, but this is also not a likely prospect. As Rabbi Joe Black said at the Boychick's Bar Mitzvah, " . . . for 4,000 years our people have lived by [Torah] and too often, they have died for it." I, as an American, have the Constitutionally guaranteed right to be free of religious coercion, and frankly, I am glad I do not have to die for Torah. I would so much rather live by it. I like being Jewish. It is part of my personal pursuit of happiness.

But I digress. The real meat of Miriam's argument was that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that this religious expression was intended to be Protestant Christianity. Now, I cannot argue that the founders were not Christian. They were. But what I can and do argue, quite passionately, is that many of them were also aware of the dire nature of the Christian brutality against other Christians that ocurred in Europe, and that they were not eager to replicate it here. Consider, as just one of many examples, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. (Son of Liberty Paul Revere was the descendent of a survivor of that terrible event).

More to the point, the founders were also steeped in the Enlightenment philosophy that came from England and Scotland, which emphasized the rights of man, and also took a rather dour view of the human capacity for self-righteous violence. The Glorious Revolution in England had come on the heels of the English Civil Wars, which were as nasty a religious conflict as had been the murdering of religious dissidents by Bloody Mary. These Enlightenment values with respect to the freedom of the human mind and conscience were expressed by Thomas Jefferson thusly:

"Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time . . ." --Thomas Jefferson, Preamble to the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, 1785 (Emphasis added).

We can see from the emphasized portions the Enlightenment influence on Jefferson's thought: that the Creator has made the mind to be free, and that no coercion can effect holiness, and that reason is the ultimate guide of the human conscience. The influence of the experience of religious coercion in Europe can be seen from Jefferson's comments about the uninspired and fallible nature of the men who would coerce the faith of others.

And of course, there were great differences among the colonies themselves with respect to religion. There was Puritan New England, Quaker Pennsylvania, the small "c" catholics (Church of England and Church of Scotland) of Virginia and the Carolinas, the Dutch Protestants of New York, and the Roman Catholics of Maryland. Some of the Colonies had established religions, but others, such as Rhode Island, were established on the principle of the right to freedom from religious coercion.

All of these realities undoubtedly influenced the non-establishment clause of Amendment I of the United States Constitution. But the overall Enlightenment philosophy of the Rights of Man is the overarching justification for the rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence and ennumerated in the Bill of Rights. These rights are individual rights based on the nature of the human being who requires Liberty in order to live. This is what is meant by "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . ." These Enlightenment values are further revealed in Jefferson's writing:

" . . .that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right;

"that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty . . ." Ibid.

The establishment of a Constitutional guarrantee of individual rights for the first time in human history recognized individual human beings to be free and independent masters of their own lives, and subject only to their own conscience with respect to religious opinion and belief. This is what is so revolutionary about the American Republic. We do not owe our allegiance to Kings or Princes, nor Popes or Bishops, but to the Constitution and the Republic that it created. The government exists to protect our rights, we do not exist to serve the government.

What is most interesting to me about Miriam's argument, and indeed the arguments of most dominionist Christians, when they insist that this is a Christian nation, is that they always assert some collective right of "society" to govern what they consider to be the sinful behavior of fellow citizens. Thus Miriam argues:

" . . .Take for example homosexuality, where I personally believe that this behavior does in fact violate the rights of others (especially when viewing its effects on society as a whole), many people in today’s culture would disagree vehemently, claiming the behavior is harmless to others." (Comment on Declaration! The Pursuit of Happiness, linked above).

This argument is premised on the idea that society as a whole has certain rights that supercede the rights of the individual. What rights those are she left unstated, because, in fact society is not an entity in itself, and has no rights. All rights are held by individuals.
Miriam, as an individual, has every right to snub homosexuals, refuse them entry to her church, hate them in her heart, and refuse to socialize with them. The values by which she enacts such behaviors are between her and her own sovereign conscience. But Miriam has no right to initiate force against them in the name of any god or government. She and her coreligionists may not deprive them of their lives, liberty, or property.

Part of Miriam's confusion about the individual nature of rights may come from the recent movement to assign rights to groups: gay rights, women's rights, animal rights, and so on. Miriam would be correct if she stated that such attribution of group rights violates her own individual rights. For example, gays have no right to get the government to force a photographer to take pictures of a gay wedding (to cite one notorious New Mexican violation of the Constitution) by threatening to remove her business license. That would be a violation of both her liberty and property. But gays do have every right to snub her, refuse her entry into their churches, and hate her in their hearts. They also have the sovereign right of conscience.

Finally, I also disagree with Miriam's assertion that the rights declared in the Declaration of Independence are based on what she calls "Judeo-Christian" values. Perhaps, because I am a Jew, I am far more aware of differences between the universalistic values of Christianity and the more particularistic Jewish legal tradition. For example, Judaism does not assert any obligation of non-Jews to obey Halachah (Jewish law). Christianity, with its doctrine of universal salvation, on the other hand, requires all human beings to recognize the deity status of Jesus or be consigned to death and hell. Jewish moral values only require right action, whereas in Christianity, there is a great emphasis on right belief. Judaism does not claim moral dominion over all human beings. Christianity's adherents often claim that they invented morality.

Both Judaism and Christianity subscribe to certain more universal human moral standards (you shall not steal, you shall not murder). These universal moral standards are also the basis for the concept of the Rights of Man, which were developed in Western culture. And although both Judaism and Christianity have greatly influence Western ideas, the set of Western values itself, including the concept of natural rights, is not purely derived from religious thought. And these values predate fundmentalist Christianity by more than 20 centuries.

The United States has NO established religion. As the first amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Enough said!


Retriever said...

Good post! Not all of us Christians share Miriam's views....As a mongrel descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, Pocahantas, French Huguenots, Anglican Planters, Puritan New Englanders, Scots Calvinists, and all kinds of godless adventurers, know too well the physical and verbal violence inflicted on each other by God's warring children. When I refer to Judeo-Christian heritage, I am not trying to gloss over the differences between the two faiths and traditions, but to emphasize our common worship of the One Holy God, who passionately seeks His people, who demands that we follow Him, and that we do what we can to share the light of His holiness. However each tradition may define that.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I am going to say something very un-PC, but I do not think Jews and Christians worship the same G-d.

And that's okay.

Jews are radical monotheists. Christians worship the Trinity.
Jews do not define many attributes for the G-d we worship, nor do we have well formed ideas about the afterlife. Christians have a well developed theology, one that oddly enough, influenced Jewish thought in the medieval period in Europe.

Judaism is particularistic and tribal. It is not an easy religion. Jews are eternally at the crossroads of history, and we get run over by the armies of the world. Over and over. I have no doubt that we will be targeted again by this New World Order that is in the making. Our job is to stand as witness to the world. We witness to the Eternal Law of the Universe.

However, particularistic and tribal as we were at the beginning of the West, Jews could not have inculcated certain, vital ideas to the West alone. Ideas like the orderliness of Creation (and modern Science), the sense of individual value and responsibility, and the vital nature of Freedom for the human being. These ideas were Israel's gift to the West through Christianity, which is, properly speaking, the only truly Western great world religion (Islam is not really Western in thought, and Judaism is not universal). The ideas came from a marriage of Greek thought (which also influenced the nascent modern Rabbinic Judaism) and Israel's monotheism.

However, Christianity took those ideas and built a great civilization, one that is very different from something that would have come from purely Jewish thought. This Civilization transcends Christianity its own self.

American Christianity, as hard as I am on it, may well prove to be the stalwart barrier between We the People and the tyranny of the New World Order.

I just wish that American Christians would understand that the enemy is the unholy tyrant, not the small and defenseless gays. It is the tyrant who comes to claim that we are slaves of Pharoah, rather than servants of the Eternal. It is the tyrant that wishes to separate all of the Children of the Earth from the Eternal One. I hope that American Christianity can remember the teaching of their own Roger Williams, that it is their duty to remember, when they are at the helm, what it was like to be in the hatches.

Retriever said...


Much food for thought....I wonder sometimes if any of us worship the same God. And yet I believe that He is the same, always. It's just us that differ. Think of the movie Rashomon where seven (?sic?) people see the same events seven different ways...It's a bit like fractals, that become infinite, the closer you look at them...

I am probably not an especially orthodox Christian as I am uninterested in doctrines of the Trinity, and tend to snooze thru theology. I tend to think of God in two ways: in the conventional Christian sense (I guess) as a loving Father who made himself manifest in the flesh as Jesus to get the attention of those stupid and blind as me, who could not get it otherwise. Or as the God who makes weal and woe, the sometimes absent landlord, the God who inexplicably allows his beloved to be tortured (Job, modern times, persecutions thru history). Mostly, I latch onto the loving, saving images in the Old and new Testament. For example, love the image in Hosea of God as a faithful husband who will not give up on his faithless wife.

On the afterlife, I do have a sense of some kind of a time of finally seeing clearly (in I Corinthians 13 about how now we see thru a glass darkly, but then face to face). I do not say this lightly. I think that devout Christians and Jews alike both have a sense that one cannot face God and stand, and should not take his name in vain.

I think the WASP New England culture I was raised in is also particularistic and tribal. It has done me good to live overseas, and to study other faiths and cultures. Test the value of my own tribe, and expand its narrow horizons a bit... But I agree with you that there is something unique about aspects of American Christianity, that should be a light to all the world. That Death to Tyrants. And freedom for the captives. Parts of the book of Isaiah speak of being a light to the world, and I like the well worn phrase about being a city on a hill...

I am not a very academic Christian, and tend to cling to parables, stories, characters. In seminary, my professors used to tease me that instead of formal exegesis, I tended to go off into something like midrash. I would be pondering Sarah and what was in her head and what had gone on between her and Abraham all those years, and how we can relate to them here and now, endlessly searching for the fulfillment of those highsounding but as yet unrealized promises of God.

Of course we are different. Personally, I am devoted to the loving Jesus, the good shepherd seeking out the lost (as I have so often needed to be found by God when I could not find Him on my own), and believe that his healing and teaching ministry signalled a change, a crack in the cold stone cruelty of the world's heart. Something different, that ordinary mundane people like myself could feel and be inspired by.

Think of it, many church people say that Christians are just bad Jews. We were the original ragamuffins, outside the light of the favored ones, the people who were not chosen, not set apart, lost in our sins and ignorance. I think it is possible to believe in the chosenness of Israel and the message of the Gospels to those outside. But I am sleepy, and would probably be thumbscrewed and IronLadied by the Inquisition for such halfbaked thoughts!

I don't understand and can't relate to the certainty and aggressiveness of many of my fellow Christians. I cherish my faith, but it leaves me with as many questions as answers. What truly scares me is the faithful without doubt. The radical fundamentalists of whatever religion. Those who use the name of God to bring about earthly tyrannies.

I attend an evangelical church that is theologically conservative, but politically diverse, tho mostly anti-PC.

Forgive the fuzzy thoughts. Am really brain dead this summer (family stresses). So glad to have your thoughts to ponder....

Holly said...

As a Roman Catholic, I say AMEN to most, if not all that you have posted in this post and following comment. The start of individual freedom is with the understanding that our equality comes from our Creator, not from some law made by a selfish statist. With that understanding of equality, the religion that an individual chooses to follow is of no one else's concern or business. Even if it is no religion at all. It is such a belief that has enabled the amazing "diversity" of belief and culture in our country to flourish.

I also want to mention the great respect, and I may venture to say, honor, my Catholic faith has instilled in me of the Jewish faith. We know you are G-d's chosen people and are so grateful to be "grafted in" to this special status, as we believe was the purpose of Jesus mission on earth. Also, as a Catholic, we do believe that to attain salvation one must go through Jesus, BUT how that happens we cannot determine. It is up to G-d. In other words, just because someone does not put into words the name of Jesus in their pursuit of Truth and of G-d, does not exile her from Heaven. As I like to say, the only way to go the Hell is to know the Truth and deliberatly turn from turn one's back on Love. In my opinion, I don't think there are very many people who don't make it to Heaven.

In some ways, I feel the way you do about protestant Christianity. Although I am grateful for their contribution to our great nation, I wish sometimes they could step aside and let true freedom ring. :)

I'm still loving your blog. I shared that video of Adam Kokesh with my parents and we all got the goosebumps. I wish more people would get as fired up as he is! I'd follow in a second. However, they are all probably like me...scared. However, your blog is helping to arm me with information to help back up my beliefs. I'm also considering a party switch...the Libertarian party is very appealing. :)


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Retriever: I think the point we agree on here is that the Eternal is beyond our knowing. Or, as I am wont to say, "You cannot put G-d in a box."

Holly: I am so glad that you find my blog helpful! As a Catholic, you are part of what one member of our Jewish-Catholic dialogue used to say was "here comes everybody!" You'll probably feel quite comfortable under the big libertarian tent. It is interesting to note how many ethnic Catholics and Jews were among the early libertarians or founders of the movement.

christinemm said...

Hi Elisheva, Your post is interesting and gives food for thought. Just wanted to say this shows your intelligence and knowledge and is also a fine example of your ability to state your point and to explain why you feel that way. Not everyone can write like that, glad you blog to share what is on your mind.

I'm fried from volunteering at Boy Scout (sleepover) camp for a week so I can't share my thoughts on this at the moment. LOL.

Have a great weekend.