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The Radical Fairness of Opting In

swearing inThe week before Adam’s official swearing in, the other members of the Town Board fondly ribbed him about taking the oath. They knew his wife was an atheist, and someone quipped that when I held the Bible for him to swear on it would burst into flames.

Adam doesn’t mind being teased, but the joking did introduce an uncomfortable prospect: Would he feel comfortable swearing on a Bible? He was neither a Christian nor a fan of mixing church with state. Could he use a different book, like maybe the U.S. Constitution?

We had only the flimsy paperback copy that the ACLU sends in its fundraising appeals: it could easily be palmed for a magic trick. On New Year’s Day, preparing to leave for Town Hall, I slipped it into my coat pocket.

It was my dress-up coat; hung-over but game, I had cleaned the mascara smudges from my eyelids, re-curled my hair, and donned my pearls in an effort to look wifely. I wanted to show respect for the occasion. And in this respect, I had my doubts about the bendy founding document in my pocket. It didn’t look as important as a Bible (or a TV Guide. Or that little “start here” manual that comes with your new cell phone). So although I thought it was unlikely Adam would be required to swear on a Bible, I feared that his opting out would turn into a thing, perhaps even a story for the local paper. Should that really be Adam’s first public act as an elected official?

All of which is why I, your friendly outspoken atheist, said to my besuited husband on our way out the door, “Oh just use the damn Bible. Who cares?”

Do you make a point or do you stay quiet? On the drive over I thought about a friend of ours who grew up in our upstate New York town but now lives in Texas. He coaches youth football in his spare time, and he emailed me after the first scrimmage of the season this fall. “Before I knew what was happening,” he wrote, “one of the coaches starting leading the team in prayer.” Our friend is not a crusading atheist; he’s just an extremely logical, fair-minded person. Also, apparently, he is brave. He sent me the text he wrote to the prayer-leading coach:

. . . no offense to you or the other coaches, but I think we’ll leave the prayers to the privacy of each player, out of respect to players of all creeds. Guys can do whatever they choose before or after we gather as a team. Yeah, I know, I’m one of the few footballers who thinks that prayer and football aren’t a good mix.

A big strong guy with a voice that carries, an impressive job, and no lack of confidence, our friend is the head coach of this team. But I bet he put a lot of thought into exactly what level of explanation, supplication, and self-deprecation should go into that text. Results were mixed. Although the other coach, the prayer leader, bowed to my friend’s authority as head coach, said the request was offensive: “prayer is always optional,” and people “have the freedom not to bow their heads.”

Prayer is always optional. True: in this country, there’s almost always a way to opt out. In a well-publicized case last year, Air Force higher-ups at first refused to let an airman reenlist because he crossed “so help me God” off his re-enlistment form; eventually, they relented. Most states let you affirm rather than swear an oath; a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Torcaso v. Watkins) guaranteed the right to oath-related conscientious objection. States that still have “religious test” oaths on their books tend not to make a fuss if someone opts out: they know they don’t have a constitutional leg to stand on.

We arrived, shook some hands, and took our seats. Just as I started to get anxious, the first oath was administered: to a town Justice, who would then administer the rest of the oaths. His wife stood beside him, chic and smiling, one hand clasping . . . the other. The Judge raised his right hand, put his left hand by his side, and repeated:

I, ______, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of _________, according to the best of my ability.

Wait! What? No Bible? No “so help me God”? Just a promise to uphold the federal and state constitutions and do your job as well as you can?

Shortly thereafter, the Judge swore in the Town Supervisor. He brought his own Bible, hefty and worn, festooned with post-its. His wife held it as he swore the same oath everyone else did, except when his was over, he added “so help me God” at the end, unprompted.

That’s it! I thought: opt in, not opt out. Of course! It’s so simple, so  . . . fair. If you want to express your religious devotion, if you want to bring God in as a witness, go right ahead. The believer—specifically, the believer who want his beliefs to be a part of the civic occasion—should be the one who stands out. God would probably approve:

“Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2 Timothy 1:8)

And, on the off chance that such public declaration invites judgment, ridicule, or worse:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Opting in wouldn’t keep my friend’s football players from praying; it would just keep non-Christian kids from having to make the awkward—and, on a Texas football field, possibly even risky—decision to opt out. In fact that’s what he suggested to his fellow coach in a follow-up text:

No one is standing in the way of anyone on the team worshiping as they wish. But . . . it won’t be a part of team activities. I think an “opt in” system is much more respectful to all than an “opt out” system. No one could realistically walk away from the team once the prayer started, but nothing would stop anyone who wants to pray from gathering privately to do it before team activities.

I wasn’t rereading my email at Town Hall, I swear. I looked up his exact words later. But I was thinking of him as I silently thanked his native and my adoptive state of New York, which afforded me the pleasure of standing by my husband as he swore an unambiguously heartfelt oath. Good old, rational New York State.

Then we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and I had to decide whether to say the “under God” part or opt out.




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Praying for Paris

Pray for P

If you hear it a certain way, “Pray for Paris,” the hashtag of the moment, simply means let’s turn our hearts and minds to a city that has suffered a brutal and terrifying attack. Let’s allow these events and their significance to sink into us, burrow through our self-absorption and our everyday concerns, still for a moment our constant, heedless motion. I, a nonbeliever, can appreciate this sort of metaphorical prayer.

If you hear it another way, “Pray for Paris” is the reflexive public expression of private beliefs, and I’ve always been tolerant of those. If someone says, “I’m praying for you,” I respond, “Thank you.” Anyone who would respond, “Well that won’t do any good!” is not, in my opinion, doing any good.

And yet I become just that person when my mood shifts and I hear “Pray for Paris” in yet another way, a third way: as an answer to the question, “What should we do?” What should we do? Call upon a supernatural being to help Paris heal. But that supernatural being is evidently either (a) powerless to prevent 129 people from being murdered while enjoying a lovely evening in the loveliest city in the world, in which case, what could he do now? Or he is (b) cruel enough to permit what he does have the power to prevent, in which case, why would we ask him for help? Or he is (c) nonexistent.

Whichever you choose, a, b, or c, it makes the instruction to “Pray for Paris” the purest expression of futility I can imagine. And thus devastatingly apt.

Say It Ain’t So!

Thumbs up PopePope Francis appears to approve of Kim Davis’s refusal to do her job as Rowan County Clerk. (A refusal based on her deeply held religious antipathy toward same-sex marriage.) The Pope told reporters on his flight back to Italy on Monday that government workers have a “human right” to refuse to carry out a duty if they have a “conscientious objection.” Now Davis’s lawyer says the Pope met secretly with her when he was in D.C.. The Pope’s spokesman does not deny this, and has not elaborated on whether or not the Pope really (as her lawyer claims) told her to “stay strong.”

Ugh, I thought, when I read this. And then I had to remind myself of something that’s easy to forget with this warm, wise, populist Pope: he is the leader of the Catholic Church. That organization does not—has never, probably will never—recognize same-sex marriage. Why should the Pope’s support of someone else who refuses to recognize it come as a surprise?

Yes, we all love this Pope. I love this Pope—and I’m a Jewish-flavored atheist. But do you know why we love him? Because he seems progressive in an organization we think of as relentlessly regressive.

We’re not always right, by the way. Today’s Catholic Church doesn’t have nearly the kind of antipathy to scientific fact that some of its Protestant counterparts do. The Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change represents a shift in tone and focus, but not a shift in doctrine.

The encyclical does, however, emphasize the effect of climate change on the poor, and that is where Pope Francis really warms the heart. Critiques of greed and capitalism coming from the head of one of the wealthiest organizations on the planet—an organization that specializes in ostentatious display—are undeniably thrilling. They give a person a little jolt of hope for humanity, akin to that of hearing a rap song that supports gay marriage. Or hearing a football player say he doesn’t believe in God.

Fairly or not, we just don’t expect certain attitudes from certain quarters. When they come, we are deeply grateful.

Maybe a little too grateful sometimes. On the way back from his trip to the U.S., in addition to saying that conscientious objection was a human right, Pope Francis “Strongly Condemns Child Sexual Abuse,” as the New York Times headlined it. His organization behaved heartlessly, cruelly, and criminally, and now its leader is behaving . . . like your basic human being.

Well, good for him. And it will be good for the Church and for Catholics all over the world. Before we get too excited, though, let’s bear in mind that the Church still opposes contraception and same-sex marriage, and that those stances have crushing real-life consequences, especially for the poor. And the Church still refuses to treat women as equal to men. Regarding the ordination of women, Pope Francis told reporters Monday, it “can’t be done.”

His encyclical on the climate ends with this uplifting sentiment: “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” That new-start feeling, that’s what we love about him. But in the context of Church doctrine, some things simply can’t be done. Fans of Pope Francis (like me) are sweetly foolish to expect otherwise.