Let’s start with the video clip that prompted the question:
When I first heard this I was convinced, as Chris Hayes suggests, that this way lies ruin. First of all, from the American point of view, it seems that this would be applying a religious test to a candidate for office, and this the American Constitution simply rules out. [This misunderstanding is corrected by Another Matt in the first comment below.] However, from another point of view — and one that may not in fact be a violation of constitutional rights to freedom of religion — asking such a question does make some sense. The assumption lying behind the idea of a religious test for office is that a person’s religious beliefs are private and have no public application — in the sense that they should have no bearing on public affairs. American experts on the constitution can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems clear that the founders of the Republic realised that making religious profession a condition of office would in fact institutionalise religious differences that would prevent the establishment of a federation in the first place. The resolution of this problem was to expel religion from the public, and confine it to the private, sphere.
However, things have worked out differently than the founders of the Republic could have imagined. For they were enlightened men, and from their vantage point in history it seemed fairly clear that religion had no more public role to play. However intense people’s religious beliefs and feelings were, they had no public application. I suspect that they would be surprised at the robustness of religious belief in the United States today, and even more surprised at its insistent quality, its clamouring for public recognition in law and governance. And I think they would wonder where they had made the mistake that had enabled religion to capture such a huge public footprint, which they thought they had excluded. I daresay, had they known what was to come, they would have institutionalised some protection against the growth of such a forceful public expression of religious conviction, and the threat of its instantiation in law.
But surely belief in transubstantiation is not such a belief? No one is suggesting that such a belief be enshrined in law, are they? Well, I suspect that this is, in fact, the suggestion. No, not that belief in the wafer being turned, by the power vested in the priest, into the very substance, the very being, of Christ’s body (and blood — for it has generally been held that the communicant receives both body and blood when receiving communion under the single specie of the bread); no one would dream of enforcing this particular belief. But this belief conceals a metaphysical belief that some people would like very much to see enshrined in law. Transubstantiation is not just about a magic act, the hocus pocus of the mass. It’s about a metaphysical principle that has much wider application. If bread conceals the very being of Christ, so, within the conceptus is concealed the very being of a human person. And people do want to enforce that belief by means of law, so that, from the moment of conception a human person exists which has all the rights that are possessed by an adult human being. The same thing goes for Anthony Bland or Terry Shaivo. They have been thought to be persons in the full, metaphysical sense, no matter what the condition of their brains might have been, and killing them, from the standpoint of those who believe in the kind of substantial being that is exemplified by transubstantiation, is murder, plain and simple. Alex Schadenberg says that Terry Schaivo underwent “slow euthanasia,” and euthanasia, in Schadenberg’s terms, is murder, so she was, in that sense, murdered.
So, I think we do need to challenge people who believe in transubstantiation. When Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister of Canada, he set his religious beliefs aside when it came to the question of abortion, for those were private beliefs not shared by all Canadians. He was right to do so, but can we depend upon Roman Catholics to separate their public from their private lives in this fashion? It seems that we cannot, and, what is more, there are plenty of instances of bishops threatening with excommunication those who do. As I thought about it in this way it occurred to me that what religious people believe is of urgent importance to those whose votes they seek. Are their religious beliefs private beliefs, or are they not? And how can we tell if we do not ask them? I conclude that Dawkins’ position is much more defensible than Chris Hayes thinks. If it leads to civil war, then we are in trouble, for that is how tenaciously these beliefs hold onto people, who will not be content until the whole world is required to believe as they do, and act according to those beliefs. Isn’t Chris Hayes’ apparently hyperbolical concern about civil war an indication of how important it is that politicians be strictly vetted as to the role that their (private) religious beliefs will play in their public lives? I think so, and the question is of great and increasing importance as public life becomes the place where religious convictions contend and strive and intertwine with each other, often at the expence of the rights of real persons, who have lives to live and projects to carry out, ideals by which to live, and hopes for the future.
This post was accidentally published by a combination of key strokes made by chance! I wanted to end by using myself as an example. I usually vote Liberal in both provincial and federal elections. One time, to my shame, I voted Conservative, but that was a long time ago when I was young and foolish, and the leader of the Conservative Party (called “Progressive Conservative” in those days) was a Nova Scotian. However, at the present time the provincial Liberal Party is led by a man who is a Roman Catholic, and has expressed himself in opposition to assisted dying. So I did not vote at all in the last provincial election. I was not prepared to elect someone who would, if elected, be a force opposed to a change in the criminal code that would leaglise assisted dying. Not that he would have a deciding vote, since the criminal code is within federal, not provincial, jurisdiction; however, I simply could not vote for a party led by a man who had expressed himself in favour of enforcing a religious principle about the supposed sanctity of life.