Some would argue that what makes America America is some sort of enduring quality, or behavior—something like the American character. But, truth be told, that quality or behavior changes with time, and currently, if not the only thing, wallowing in false equivalence is at least a defining characteristic of America.
Proximity in time proves again and again to be too much for mainstream media and so-called public opinion. Consider that the Supreme Court ruled that a bakery could refuse on religious grounds to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, and then, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant based on the moral convictions of the workers.
At one level, the cake ruling certainly may set a precedent for business owners to make almost any sorting mechanism for customers as long as they link the sorting to religious convictions.
But at a very important level, these two events are simply not equal since one is about religious dogma and the other about moral or ethical values.
Religious texts and beliefs have been used to justify slavery, beating children, and misogyny. The roots of laws in the U.S.—a so-called free country—that have refused to protect women from marital rape cannot be disassociated from Christian theology that framed women as a lesser copy of men and then the possession of men.
Identifying sex and love between consenting adults who happen to be the same sex as a sin is a manufactured consequence of religion, not an ethical or moral argument.
Religion (especially as it becomes dogma) and philosophy (the exploration of what proves to be moral or ethical) share the problem of objectivity and certainty being elusive; however, religion as dogma often forces Truth and Law while philosophy seeks ways to negotiate between tentative but stabilizing acknowledgements of truth while always appreciating we can and likely will change those truths in some ways.
Something as sacred as life, for the religious even, is never protected under a simplistic dictum; “thou shalt not kill” may be waved during rallies against abortion rights, but those same folk lobby for the death penalty and rush to praise the troops in our never-ending culture of war.
Religion becomes far more dangerous than philosophy, then, because it carries a claim about the Word of God—a threat or a promise that can never be proven or disproven, but carries an ominous weight nonetheless.
A vivid and horrible example in my life time was how many in the conservative religious community framed AIDS as God punishing homosexuality, a distinct narrative during the 1980s when I was teaching high school.
Young people heard this message; it terrified many. The already palpable antagonism toward homosexuality in the South was intensified, scarring, I am sure, many wonderful and kind young people who happened to know they were gay.
This sort of gross and unwarranted Hand-of-God approach to the world was also on display after Hurricane Katrina, when religious leaders again claimed God was punishing sinners.
Human folly is awful enough without the added weight of God.
In fact, given enough time and then allowing enough human voice to be heard, humans can collectively come to positions that are mostly enduring ethical and moral behavior.
Across the U.S., and notably in the South, again with the Bible lurking in the background, people of different races were not allowed to marry—a slap in the face of “freedom” and an inept misunderstanding of race as a social, not biological, construct.
The Supreme Court striking down bans on interracial marriages should never be forgotten as this was a shining moment of hearing the voices of those speaking for the ethical and moral: The Lovings made a very simple plea that as consenting adults they deserved the freedom to love and marry.
When the lawyers were preparing to make their case before the Supreme Court, Richard Loving did not want to speak, but when asked what he wanted the lawyers to say on his behalf, he replied quite emphatically to tell the court he loved his wife.
Writing in A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut explains:
My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
It is no easy thing to be a human; it is a goddamn overwhelming thing to be a moral, ethical human.
But it isn’t impossible.
The strong must not take advantage of the weak, and if you must invoke God or your religion to hurt the weak, you have made a truly horrible mistake.
You probably should be shunned in public, asked to find your meal somewhere else in fact.
That isn’t discrimination; that’s a community trying its best to behave decently.