In fourth-century Constantinople, an archbishop named Gregory contemplated why God was so silent before the immorality and corruption in politics. Why, he wondered, did God resemble a sleeping lion? But of course a sleeping lion can be awakened and antagonized. We have waited and watched as presidential executive orders and congressional actions, such as those below, provide photo-ops and reason for elation in some quarters, while cause for concern in others.
1) The administration has taken action in purported support of coal miners. It should be considered admirable to stand in solidarity with the hardest, health-risking jobs of blue-collar supporters of the president. But can one honestly say that human compassion is the true motivation when weighed against the loss of clean water and air for millions of people resulting from deregulation that allows mining runoff in streams and coal plants to emit more carbons? Is it even job creation or manufacturing “initiatives” (that seems to be the catch-word) that is mesmerizing corporate leaders? Is it the coal miners or the fossil fuel jobs that benefit from relaxed regulations? Or is it big industry that will ultimately profit from the Keystone or Dakota pipelines?
2) The U.S. Senate voted – predictably along party lines – to dispense with any protection of our information. While internet privacy is itself something of an oxymoron, realistically, no one should have any expectation of privacy when surfing the web. However, is it even conceivable that the deregulation and defense of American citizens is what inspired the government to repeal any restriction on information sharing? Is it even remotely possible that Congress might have considered the common good before corporate profits? Or is democracy further undermined when our most personal details are sold to the highest bidder?
3) Then there is management of health insurance and health care. This is another contradiction in terms. Where is the concern or assistance toward an inclusion of those who are most in need? Or is the “plan” – perhaps they mean “strategy” and “intention” – to cut taxes and contributions by those who least need financial help? At least under Obama health insurance was called “affordable.” Mercifully, Congress has realized that it must at least pay lip service to covering “pre-existing” conditions. Perhaps Republican Christians should remember that their Lord “came to heal the sick, not the healthy.”
4) And now it’s free speech and religious liberty? The recent executive order instructing the IRS not to enforce the law removing tax-exempt status for religious organizations involved in political activity will only further politicize and commercialize church communities. America values the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment. The challenge for government was how to offer religion a fair chance to establish itself, resulting in the Johnson Amendment in 1954. The solution was that politics should stay out of that domain. The inherent tension between freedom of religion and free speech (enshrined in the same First Amendment) is clear; however, the potential for political abuse in religious organizations is also clear.
So could the money-dealers in religions and churches now be permitted to become regulation-wheelers in government and Congress? Is it the financially affluent who yearn for political influence that are benefitting? Will birth-control pills or a cake for someone gay jeopardize salvation? Atheists don’t care about God, but I respect them more than “believers” whose money means more to them than God. Could it be that atheists are more attuned to the concept of religious freedom than the presidential executive order promoting free speech and religious liberty that could result in a blurring of lines separating church and state?
Everyone knows that pocketing money in the hope of a trickle-down effect is always the only stimulus. But why not admit so to the coal miners and uninsured laborers? Why not admit so when it comes to respecting people’s private lives? Why not admit that prosperity and good health are inaccessible to those who have neither? As the song by Leonard Cohen goes: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed: The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes. Everybody knows.” Money has dealt a destructive hand to environmental protection. Money has handed over our private information to giant companies. And money has proven underhanded in directing healthcare to the rich. But, enough is enough! The lion is irritated; don’t awaken it. As for the Johnson Amendment: There is a hymn in my church that forewarns: Let no profane hand touch the holiest of holies!
For God’s sake, Mr. President, keep your hands off religion!
The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is a deacon of the Orthodox Church.