Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Losing My Religion

Previously, I've identified myself in this weblog as a member of the religious left. It didn't seem like a particularly hard call: I go to church every Sunday, I pray, I read religious texts. But now Texas has decided that Unitarian-Universalism isn't a religion.
Questions about the issue were referred to Jesse Ancira, the comptroller's top lawyer, who said Strayhorn has applied a consistent standard -- and then stuck to it. For any organization to qualify as a religion, members must have "simply a belief in God, or gods, or a higher power," he said. [...]

"The issue as a whole is, do you want to open up a system where there can be abuse or fraud, or where any group can proclaim itself to be a religious organization and take advantage of the exception?" he said.

Those who oppose the comptroller's "God, gods or higher power" test say that it can discriminate against legitimate faiths. For example, applying that standard could disqualify Buddhism because it does not mandate belief in a supreme being, critics say.
I suppose it's true that the comptroller of Texas needs to be on guard against fake religions made up to take advantage of tax-exempt status. But if I were trying to draw the line, I don't think I'd worry about a religious group that has a national association of more than a thousand congregations, historical roots hundreds of years old, and a list of famous members that reads like Who's Who in American History: John and Abigail Adams, Ethan Allen, John C. Calhoun, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Paul Revere, Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, Louisa May Alcott, P.T. Barnum, Fannie Farmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry David Thoreau, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Linus Pauling, Carl Sandburg, Sylvia Plath, Christopher Reeve, Buckminster Fuller, e.e. cummings, Elliot L. Richardson, Adlai Stevenson, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut...

Ahem. Excuse me. They say there's no zealot like a convert.

When a state government defines the essential character of religion in a way which includes the Texas Republican Party and excludes congregations that have worship services, marry and bury their members, and promote spiritual development, there's something wrong. Just ask the Supreme Court, who, in Torcaso v. Watkins, argued that "neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally...aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs."

Interestingly enough, that link comes from a website arguing that "secular humanism" is a religion, and that avoiding God talk in public schools amounts to the unconstitutional establishment of secular humanism as a state religion. We'll see if the Texas religious right will try to have their cake and eat it too, or whether they'll support the Unitarian-Universalists in order to strengthen their own claims about humanism. (I'm sure that would be a fun internal debate: "should we protect the argument we use to justify school prayer, even if it means taking a stand for the legitimacy of a church that performs same-sex marriages?" Hee hee hee.)

I suspect that the real issue in Texas is that Unitarian-Universalism is a non-creedal religion, with no uniform or required set of religious beliefs. Plenty of UUs believe in "god, gods, or a higher power," the Texas comptroller's standard, but we don't expect the person sitting next to us to believe the same thing. Our unifying quality is not what we believe, but how we try to live. It's a religion which requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, which is not a particular strong point of the Texas state government. It doesn't surprise me that, to their eyes, a non-authoritarian religion doesn't look like a religion at all.

(Via Sisyphus Shrugged.)