Thursday, April 30, 2009

“When you grow up on a farm in Georgia, your first girlfriend is a mule."

“When you grow up on a farm in Georgia, your first girlfriend is a mule."

Neal Horsley, a 65-year-old resident of Bremen, Georgia had sex with a mule when he was eleven years old. You can read about it here. God forgave him.

Fortunately for Neal, that is not his most significant accomplishment. Born and raised on a farm in rural Georgia, Neal served in the US Air Force, did a stint as a hippie in San Francisco followed by a stint in jail for narcotics possession, was ‘born again,’ graduated from the Presbyterian-run Westminster Theological Seminary in 1985, and became deeply involved in the antiabortion movement. Neal was a longtime friend of Paul Jennings Hill, the former Presbyterian pastor who was executed in 2003 after killing two people at an abortion clinic in 1994. From 1995 until 2002, Horsley ran a website, The Nuremberg Files, that published addresses and other information for abortion providers in Washington State. This website likened doctors who provided abortions to Nazi war criminals, and kept track of doctors who were murdered, injured, or driven out of business.

Neal, a born-again fundamentalist Christian, is now once again running for the office of Governor in the State of Georgia, under the banner of the Creator’s Rights Party, which he founded. He does not think the mule incident, or the subsequent watermelon incident, will get in his way. He’s more concerned about religion and politics.

Partly due to his connections to controversial figures like Paul Jennings Hill and the militant organization calling itself the Army of God (which advocates violence as a means to end abortion), and partly due to his repeated campaigns for elected office, Horsley appeared on a number of right-wing talk shows during the Bush years, including Hannity & Colmes and The Big Story. During the course of these interviews he held forth about his religious and political views, including how useful it would be if states retained the right to secede from the country or, at least, to nullify federal laws, in order to force the federal government to recognize Christian principles in criminalizing abortion.

Horsley also talked about the mule incident in a 2005 appearance on Hannity & Colmes, summing it up with the immortal line "You experiment with anything that moves when you are growing up sexually. You're naive. You know better than that... If it's warm and it's damp and it vibrates you might in fact have sex with it." Many politicians would use the genteel euphemism ‘youthful indiscretion,’ but Neal beats them on forthright honesty there. He also claimed that Jesus cleansed him of the sin.

One of the questions Neal’s story (the big picture, not just the mule thing) raised for me was the issue of antinomianism. It’s a big and elaborate-sounding word, but the essential theological issue it addresses is whether or not the supposed divine law totally supersedes human law, to the extent that obedience to human law isn’t necessary for one’s salvation since (in the view of most Protestant churches) salvation is by faith alone, or sola fide.

The original case studies on antinomianism come from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, including the Book of Daniel, in which the Jews refused to acknowledge Hellenic law imposed by the regional-overlords-of-the-week, and the Acts of the Apostles, when the apostles disputed whether or not it was necessary for Christians to follow Jewish religious laws for food, circumcision, the Sabbath, and so on. This ‘Council of Jerusalem’ was probably one of the most important points in splitting and distinguishing Christianity from Judaism. It should be no surprise, then, that the apostle who was most influential in Protestant traditions, Paul of Tarsus, was one of those who fought most strongly against requiring Christians to obey Jewish law, arguing that the new covenant issued through Jesus superseded all that Torah stuff.

Breaking a civil or criminal law usually (in most Christian traditions, at least) equates to some sort of sin, in the usual litany of ‘thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, lie, etc.’ If you come from a religious tradition where certain things which are illegal are not sins, or where sin can be voided or rendered moot by divine grace, however (for example, killing an adulteress [Leviticus 20:10], traitor [1 Kings 21:13], witch [Exodus 22:1], or someone of another religion [Exodus 22:19]), things can be different. Obedience to God’s law over other law (whether the decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes, Roman law, or the United States Code), in fact, became one of the quicker roads to martyrdom.

In the case of Paul Jennings Hill, he asserted that he was perfectly justified (in both senses) in killing two people because God’s law (which in Hill’s mind endorsed killing abortion providers) supposedly superseded civil and criminal law that forbid murder. Horsley and many of the more militant people in the Army of God and other similar organizations accordingly treat Hill as a martyr to the cause, a role Hill apparently enjoyed.

By contrast to Hill, Horsley’s exorcising of his pubescent hormones at the expense of a mule (in exchange for an ear of corn) is small change, though the mule may well have thought differently at the time. Pulling a knife on his own son during a discussion as to whether or not abortion should, like slavery, be the cause of secession and civil war…well, that’s a different matter.

This is a familiar enough idiom—after all, the United States has seen any number of public figures, many of them religious, first exalt themselves as God’s favorite (holier-than-thou antinomianism) and then wrap themselves in the fleece of the lamb in a theatrical auto da fe of repentance. In the former case, the idea is that God’s chosen are (or should be) exempt from the laws of man (including those pesky laws about fraud and embezzling), and that forgiveness by God should somehow count in the courts of law and public opinion.

A short list of these could include Jimmy Swaggart, James Bakker, Ted Haggard, Pope Alexander VI, and George W. Bush, all of whom at one point believed (or at least acted as if) the law did not apply to them. Bakker and Swaggart both embezzled vast sums from their congregations, as well as carrying on torrid affairs and hiring prostitutes. Ted Haggard apparently had no difficulty functioning in the dual roles of outspoken religious figure and methamphetamine-addicted patron of male prostitutes. Pope Alexander VI almost destroyed the Catholic Church singlehandedly, through sheer venality on an unprecedented scale. The most egregious of the lot, the former President Bush, is on record as having claimed that ‘God wants me to be President,’ starting on false premises a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and ordering abhorrent acts of torture and domestic espionage in the name of national interests. Nor is this a uniquely Christian phenomenon—Michael Jackson, for instance, publicly embraced the Nation of Islam during his pedophilia troubles.

Speaking as one who is an outsider looking in, this sort of example is the root of the stereotype of the outspoken Christian (or whatever faith) as a sanctimonious hypocrite, a stereotype which has a significant degree of currency among people who take their religion with more equanimity. The antinomian self-exaltation is perceived as sheer arrogance or a rationalization of greed, and the repentance appears as a shallow and laughable publicity stunt, regardless of whether another Christian might take it at face value. Embezzling, soliciting a prostitute, or sex with a mule—it’s all the same.

The more serious problem is that this antinomian idea that the divine law supersedes civil law (and that, for example, militant Presbyterians are governed only by the will of God, who apparently says that murdering abortionists is perfectly legitimate) is, shall we say, at odds with the law of the land. Whether or not God gave you permission to do it or wiped out the sin of it, the 9th Circuit Court is still going to put you in jail for a very long time. This is not the Ottoman Empire, where the sultans let Jews and Christians live under their own laws, for all that there is a sizeable fringe element in this country, such as the Army of God and the Westboro Baptist Church, who apparently wish to dispense with civil law altogether and make divine revelation the law of the land.

Religion does not make one exempt from civil or criminal law. Richard Nixon earned the eternal contempt of the western world for suggesting that “when the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Now mentally replace “President” with the words Christian, Muslim, Orthodox Jew, Rasta, pastor, imam, locksmith, bishop, or civil engineer and revel in the cognitive dissonance. Should it be legal for a Presbyterian to kill a Unitarian, or a Muslim to rob a Catholic, or for a Baptist pharmacist to refuse to perform his duties in filling a morning-after pill prescription for a college student who was date-raped? Each faith could certainly find scriptural justification and historical precedent for these actions.

There are any number of reasons for this irrelevance of religious belief to law—the separation of church and state, centuries of legal precedent, and the inherent intangibility and unquantifiability of religion. How can you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God really does give you the freedom to kill people whose actions offend you? Religion's outward manifestation is the testimony of those who believe it--it cannot be empirically proven, which is what makes it a matter of faith and religion in the first place, rather than geology and astrophysics-- and therefore the Abrahamic god has as the same legal standing as The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Cthulhu, Optimus Prime, and Scientology. If we accept that the Abrahamic god exists, based on the testimony of a Christian, then the testimony of a Pastafarian as to the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster meets the same standard of proof and we must also accept Pastafarianism as a legal truth.

We are a nation of laws, not of men, and always have been, and the divine law of whichever God or sect is popular at a time should not be allowed to inform the civil law which governs those in our boundlessly diverse society who do not espouse the dominant religion—e.g. the awkward position of Roman Catholics living under the state-run Church of England. That basic argument extends back at least to 1689 and John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration.

One of my favorite summaries of the relationship between religion and politics in the post-Depression United States comes from the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, best known for Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land. It was published as a postscript to his story If This Goes On, which discusses the overthrow of a theocratic tyranny in the United States in the year 2100.

As for the second notion, the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past. It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country – Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, a few others. The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.

Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not – but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck. Throw in a depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home and the result might be something quite frightening – particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.

From Concerning Stories Never Written: Postscript in Revolt in 2100
Robert A. Heinlein
Colorado Springs, Colorado
October 1952

And with that, I should end this post because it’s already four pages long.

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