Viewpoint: The false god of equating faith with patriotism

Karen Rubin, Columnist

The Island Now reported data from the Nassau County Department of Health that coronavirus cases on the Great Neck peninsula continue to increase at a higher rate than in most other villages on Long Island. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the Village of Great Neck (with a population of 10,000) increased by 11 on Oct. 7 to 332, while Kings Point (population 5,000) has seen its numbers spike by 27 in just the first two weeks of October to 195.

The level is related to the persistence, despite public health ordinances, of religious gatherings. And spike they surely have: in Brooklyn “red zones” the percentage of COVID-19 cases went to 6.69 percent, in Rockland, 12.29 percent and in Orange County as high as 24.64 percent. The rest of the state was at 1.0 percent (the rate necessary to stop the spread).

The state imposed lockdowns in precisely micro-targeted “red zones” to curtail the spread. In Brooklyn, Orthodox Jews rioted, attacking an Orthodox Jewish reporter Jacob Kornbluh, calling him a Nazi while waving Trump flags to reject the state’s “authoritarianism”.

“The hotspot clusters as you know are primarily in the Hasidic community,” an exasperated Gov. Cuomo remarked recently. “I say to my friends in the Hasidic community, the Hebrew faith teaches us pikuach nefesh, which means save a life. Under the Hebrew teachings, participation in a religious ceremony can be excused for matter of health and life and safety. Leviticus, love your neighbors, yourself, and the point here is to save a life and not to endanger others, not to endanger others in the same congregation, not to endanger others in the same community, and that’s what is happening with these large congregations. It’s an unfortunate situation…I wish COVID didn’t happen, but that is the reality and you deal with reality, especially when it’s about life and death.”

Of course, it isn’t just Orthodox Jews, it is the whole spectrum of orthodox faithful. “Whether it’s the Jewish community, whether we’re talking about Black churches, whether we’re talking about Roman Catholic churches, the religious community has to agree to the rules and they have to agree that they are going to follow the rules,” Cuomo said.

I am trying to understand how these people think their faith has to be expressed within the institutional four walls of a church, synagogue or mosque. Isn’t God supposed to be everywhere? Do you need proof of living a moral life by davening before an altar or exculpation of sins from a minister? No, the reason the priests, ministers, rabbis demand their flock assemble is to exert authority, control. It is why as one of his first acts, Trump – in order to cement the political support of white Evangelicals despite his amoral character – overturned rules against politicking from the dais or lose tax-exempt status. Now he is pushing to allow churches to hold mask-less indoor gatherings that violate local law, and giving the OK for 15,000 to gather mask-less to worship on the National Mall – despite the numbers of people who have gotten sick and died after attending such religious observance.

Where in scripture does it say that one’s religious beliefs give the right to violate public health ordinances to sicken or kill someone else?

There is a sense that one’s “religious freedom” somehow takes precedence over others’ civil rights or right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Founding Fathers, though, were as wary of theocracy as they were of monarchy. “Under God” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance (which dates from 1892) in 1954 and “In God We Trust” added to currency in 1956 during the McCarthy era as a repudiation of anti-religion Communism. But Karl Marx was right when he said “religion is the opiate of the masses” – it is a way of controlling people, of defusing discontent with those who hold power and wealth by making people content with their misery because they will surely be rewarded in Heaven. Isn’t that the theme of every slave spiritual and gospel song?

Religion was used to justify slavery, the genocide of Native Americans and colonialism throughout the globe. Religious wars have been a plague on humanity, killing far more than any actual plague – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Irish Catholics vs. Irish Protestants, Palestinians-Israelis. On and on it goes.

I call out the religious zealots as hypocrites who would ban a woman from making her own decisions concerning her life but would have such wanton disregard for spreading fatal infection throughout the community to endanger the lives of the health workers; I call out the hypocrites who do nothing to stem the epidemic of gun violence that takes 33,000 lives a year, those religious zealots who oppose capital punishment but applaud the extra-judicial murder of a suspect as “retribution” while hailing as a hero a 17-year old who murdered two peaceful protesters.

This goes for Amy Coney Barrett, who Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and the other Senate Republicans are rushing through the confirmation process onto the Supreme Court, as well. Barrett, who has spent her entire life in a parochial bubble and punctuated her opening statement to the Senate confirmation hearing with “I believe in the power of prayer,” has signaled that her concept of religious freedom means that “believers” have the right to discriminate against others in jobs, housing, services, to deny life-saving health care, withhold health insurance and medical procedures. But not all believers, only those who adhere to her brand of religion.  Recall the hysteria conjured up not that long ago about American jurisprudence being taken over by Sharia Law.

The common denominator is the arrogance that being religious, being “faithful” being “orthodox” (like waving the biggest flag) makes you better than someone else, exempt from rules that govern civil society or serve the interests of the greater good. That’s the approach that is implicit in Barrett’s concept of “religious freedom.” It is a perversion of “religious freedom” and an abusive twisting of “faith” in the service of power.

And it is a perversion of America’s founding freedoms to equate faith with patriotism.

About the author

Karen Rubin

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