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Commentary Detail

State-Sponsored Orthodoxy
Commentary by: Mark Shook
Aired August 19, 2010

I must wear a sign on my back that reads: “Here is a naïve guy that thinks religion is a force for good.” This must be the case because, at least once a week I find myself in conversations with people who are highly critical of religion.

“Don’t you realize that every war, since the beginning of time has been fought because one faith community sought to impose its beliefs on another - that all the heartache in the world can be traced to the strife which bubbles up from the cauldron of religious hatred?”

I hate that combination statement/question because it contains an implied condemnation of my religious beliefs. It is as if a gauntlet has been thrown down: “I dare you to defend religion.” Upon issuing the dare, the challenger always smiles sweetly. It is the annoying smile that proclaims: “Gotcha!”

The statement/question is a tough one because it contains more than a kernel of truth. To be sure, many wars are fought over geography or natural resources. But historically speaking, the longest and most intractable battles were the ones fought over religion. Tragic examples of unrelenting religious violence would be: the Crusades of the Middle Ages and the Thirty Years war in the 16th and 17th centuries. Other conflicts may have a deep religious component, but are not religious wars per se. The sides may be identified by their religious affiliations, but the underlying issues and causes of the conflict are much more complex. Northern Ireland and the various wars in the Middle East fit nicely into this category.

It occurs to me that all Holy Wars have the same underlying cause: orthodoxy. It’s root meaning is “true or right doctrine.” Orthodoxy is not exclusive to any particular religion. It does not even have to do with religion at all. Orthodoxy is more a conviction, an unflinching way to view the world: “I am right and you are wrong. There is nothing to discuss. You cannot produce any so-called facts, information, or evidence that will shake me from my certainty. I have the truth and you do not. Anyone who challenges my correctness must be evil.”

Last month Governor Nixon stood aside and allowed a piece of anti-abortion legislation to become law. Many observers will try and parse the political meaning of his very vocal inaction, but I am more concerned about the bill’s required, state-produced brochure proclaiming: "The life of each human being begins at conception.”

We now have a state sponsored orthodoxy. In this bill, The State of Missouri has engaged in the open endorsement and sponsorship of one religious doctrine over another. It matters not how many denominations in our state accept that doctrine as written. It matters not how few religious communities proclaim an alternative theological point of view. What truly matters is that a terrible precedent has been set. Faith communities thrive in our state and our country because none of them makes the law. All of them are free to teach and declare their unique vision of what is good and what is evil. One of the purposes of the power of the veto invested in the Governor is to provide an early and relatively inexpensive means by which damaged legislation which is unconstitutional on its face, can be set aside and returned to the legislature for repair.

This bit of orthodox religious doctrine masquerading as an established scientific fact is destined for review by higher courts. I am appalled by the prospect of State legal officials - whose licensure by the state requires their sworn oath to defend the constitution - defending a gross violation of one of its most precious doctrines, the separation of church and state.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Mark Shook

Mark Shook


Mark Shook is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel.

More Mark Shook Commentaries