DADT, BDUs, and freedom

Shocking news: The military forces its members to break the laws laid down in the Bible! It’s explicitly required in military regulations! They are not allowed to use their First Amendment rights to refuse to participate in these abominable practices!

That’s right: military uniforms are made of cotton-poly blends.

Wait, what?

Some conservatives are complaining loudly that the repeal of DADT will force people in the military to violate their religion’s requirements. This is a specious attempt to use religion as a cover for bigotry. The fear-mongers claim that since they will not be allowed to condemn homosexuals, their religious rights are being compromised. These people are hypocrites, even by what they claim are the standards of their religion.

In Leviticus 19:19, the law specifically prohibits wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. It’s just one chapter after the law in Leviticus that forbids men to have homosexual intercourse. (Lev 18:22) Most contemporary Christians say that this is part of the Old Testament law that they don’t have to follow, just like they don’t have to keep kosher, or be circumcised, or follow any of the other highly detailed laws laid out in Leviticus and other parts of the Old Testament. Usually these Christians say that the Old Testament law was made obsolete by Jesus, and anyway, those laws were made for a time and place and situation, and they’re not relevant now anyway. Anyone who wears a military uniform and claims to condemn homosexuality based on Leviticus is a bald-faced hypocrite.

But many of the same Christians who eat cheeseburgers (not kosher) and wear whatever they want are claiming that their religion requires them to condemn homosexuality.  In fact, there are only a handful of verses that address anything like homosexuality, and the main one is right there in Leviticus alongside regulations about how to deal with mold on your walls and what clothing you’re allowed to wear. If the Old Testament law is irrelevant, either because of Jesus or because of changing contexts, then this law is just as irrelevant as the rest of them.

There is, in fact, one place in the New Testament that addresses homosexuality. But that’s Paul, not Jesus, and Paul is probably describing what today we would call pedophilia. (Note to the Roman Catholic Church: that’s still illegal, by the way.) By the way, Paul is also famous for telling women to cover their heads and be silent in church, which are commandments that most Evangelicals feel free to interpret according to cultural context. Jesus himself never says anything about homosexuality and says remarkably little about sex at all. He was probably too busy condemning those who mistreat their neighbors and just forgot about it. Oops.

Members of the military have restrictions placed on their First Amendment rights. The government bends over backwards to try to protect First Amendment rights of speech and religion, but not all of those rights are the same for military members as for civilians. Military people lose a lot of control over how they look (haircut, uniform, etc. – which is what I was referring to in the opening, because appearance is a form of speech, legally) and over what they can say, and when. It is true that military chaplains who are Evangelical Christians aren’t allowed to push their form of religion on others, and can be disciplined for doing so in ways that violate the ethics of the chaplain corps, although there is actually a much more reasonable argument that the Bible instructs Christians to tell others about Jesus. Too bad: it’s a minimal restriction to ensure the freedom of others. And so is the requirement that the military get used to treating people with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation.

As far as concerns about limiting speech outside of the military, well, as Slacktivist has pointed out, Fred Phelps is evidence that our country values freedom of speech so highly that it’s willing to allow some pretty odious speech to occur. We have other ethical guidelines that tell us not to do things like join the Nazi party or demonstrate with Fred Phelps, even if they are legal. Those ethical guidelines often transcend religion, especially the Golden Rule. Although, come to think of it, I think Jesus did have something to say along those lines.

Shame, Arabs, Pagans, and Politics

There is an excellent op-ed in the NYT about the current wave of Arab revolutions, “How the Arabs Turned Shame Into Liberty.” It is a good reminder of some recent history for those of us who don’t follow the Arab world closely. The author compares the current situation to the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. But of particular interest to me is this paragraph:

In the tyrant’s shadow, unknown to him and to the killers and cronies around him, a moral clarity had come to ordinary men and women. They were not worried that a secular tyranny would be replaced by a theocracy; the specter of an “Islamic emirate” invoked by the dictator did not paralyze or terrify them.

This presents a particularly poignant contrast to a recent post on the website Pagan+Politics, called “Human Rights vs. Religion Deathmatch.” First of all, that title is simply an embarrassment. The idea of a deathmatch, even an intellectual one, makes me want to puke, and it is certainly the wrong metaphor for the delicate and complex interactions of human rights and religion that modern societies have to navigate. The author was trying to investigate some interesting areas, but in so doing, created strawmen left and right, and oversimplified history and religions, and created a false opposition, summing up with a possibly interesting concept about religion but no real insight into the intersection of society and religion. (The potentially interesting concept of a “doctrinally minimal” religion, by which I think the author is trying to say a religion that is tolerant or supports religious pluralism, isn’t fully explained or investigated, and seems to be the default conclusion because the author seems to be approaching the idea from an American point of view, assuming rights of free speech and dancing around the interplay of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.)

In the comments, I tried to address one commenter who posted a long reply that viciously mischaracterized Islam and then went on to assert his sweeping world-historical theories based solidly on colonialism and covert racism. I allowed myself to get sidetracked onto the world-historical confusion, because that’s where my personal academic training lies, but I recently came across a fantastic refutation of the claims and mischaracterizations of Islam: Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. This book was Prothero’s response to the stunning religious illiteracy found in America today. The chapter on Islam describes the religion’s basic tenets, its history and evolution over time, and the wide range of ways Muslims today interpret their religion, not just from Sunni to Shi’a, but also Sufis and, yes, radical Islamists, as well as Muslim feminists and Muslims who work in interfaith dialogue and promote religious tolerance and pluralism. Muslims are struggling with human rights and how to understand their religion in today’s world just as much as people of any other religion are. To say otherwise is a grave insult and a reflection of deep ignorance verging on maliciousness. We can no longer have the luxury of that ignorance given the major upheavals in the Arab world today.

Recent events in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and, of course, Libya, have caused me to wonder whether the author of the post and that commenter are paying attention to the sweeping changes in the Arab world. The uprisings have been characterized by demands for human rights, and although some US commentators have been frothing about the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, there has been relatively little sign of an impending Iranian-style theocracy taking over the current momentum. I think there is genuine hope for the rise of societies and governments that support and defend human rights in the Arab world, and I think that hope doesn’t depend on people turning away from Islam (as the commenter implies) and doesn’t necessarily depend on the majority of people subscribing to the most liberal, “doctrinally minimal” forms of Islam, as the author implies. If I turn out to be wrong about that, I will eat my words, and I will weep for the people whose rights are denied them, and I will work to restore those rights.

But I hope the author of that post and that commenter are watching. And I hope they’re learning something. I hope we all get to learn something amazing about people claiming their rights and creating a new, freer, safer society for themselves, regardless of their religion.