If I thought there was a god, I’d thank him for allowing Christopher Hitchens to remain productive during his illness. In addition to keeping up with his monthly Vanity Fair column (it’s another great one this month — read it if you haven’t yet), Hitchens has also continued to write weekly pieces for Slate.com.
Today he’s up with one titled “Free Exercise of Religion? No, Thanks,” which tackles one of the peripheral issues to the controversy over the Cordoba Initiative’s planned Islamic community center two blocks from the former World Trade Center. The question is this: How much religious freedom is too much?
Am I in favor of the untrammeled “free exercise of religion”?
No, I am not. Take an example close at hand, the absurdly named Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More usually known as the Mormon church, it can boast Glenn Beck as one of its recruits. He has recently won much cheap publicity for scheduling a rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. But on the day on which the original rally occurred in 1963, the Mormon church had not yet gotten around to recognizing black people as fully human or as eligible for full membership. (Its leadership subsequently underwent a “revelation” allowing a change on this point, but not until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.) This opportunism closely shadowed an earlier adjustment of Mormon dogma, abandoning its historic and violent attachment to polygamy. Without that doctrinal change, the state of Utah was firmly told that it could not be part of the Union. More recently, Gov. Mitt Romney had to assure voters that he did not regard the prophet, or head of the Mormon church, as having ultimate moral and spiritual authority on all matters. Nothing, he swore, could override the U.S. Constitution. Thus, to the extent that we view latter-day saints as acceptable, and agree to overlook their other quaint and weird beliefs, it is to the extent that we have decidedly limited them in the free exercise of their religion.
One could cite some other examples, such as those Christian sects that disapprove of the practice of medicine. Their adult members are generally allowed to die while uttering religious incantations and waving away the physician, but, in many states, if they apply this faith to their children—a crucial element in the “free exercise” of religion—they can be taken straight to court. Not only that, they can find themselves subject to general disapproval and condemnation.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not in favor of the unrestricted practice of religion, either. My support for the sponsors of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” follows from my long-standing conviction regarding religious freedom, not a late change of heart. I hold that we, as citizens of a free society, are required to guard the right of our fellow Americans to believe anything that suits them. The freedom of thought, and expressions of those thoughts, including religious expressions, ought to be nearly absolute (I recognize exceptions for incitements to violence).
But being free to believe and to say whatever you want is not the same as being free to do whatever you want. Religious practice is, and ought to be, subject to law. Recall the story of Madeline Neumann, the 11 year-old girl who died of treatable diabetes because her parents opted to pray for her recovery rather than schedule an appointment with a doctor. Negligence is negligence, whether it results from the practice of a futile religious superstition or not, and it ought to be punishable by law.
More from Hitchens on that point:
The Church of Scientology, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, and the Ku Klux Klan are all faith-based organizations and are all entitled to the protections of the First Amendment. But they are also all subject to a complex of statutes governing tax-exemption, fraud, racism, and violence, to the point where “free exercise” in the third case has—by means of federal law enforcement and stern public disapproval—been reduced to a vestige of its former self.
So there. Fortunately for the sponsors of Park51, erecting a community center that includes a mosque doesn’t violate anyone else’s rights and is thus allowable under U.S. law. If they start hacking off the hands of thieves or stoning women taken in adultery, then we’ll have to talk, won’t we?
Check out Hitchens’s column in its entirety at Slate.com.