Regulation of pleasure
The need for escape from the pain of living our lives is a universal human need. There are many routes that we use to escape the reality, the boring, the fear, the danger and the pain of living and interacting with others. Some escape routes are with our minds: we read; we watch television; we listen to music; we go to movies, as examples. Other escape routes are more physical: we exercise; we eat; we drink alcohol or take drugs; we have sex; we smoke tobacco; we watch pornography; we gamble. There are other ways, but all these routes to escape our life situations are for the most part, personal choices.
Most of us take responsibility for these personal choices. But how do we feel when others tell us or even worse, coerce the government into telling us that these personal choices are wrong? As long as we are doing no harm to others, should anyone or any governmental entity have the right to condemn us for making these choices?
Historically, religions try to regulate us in matters of our human pleasure. Some of these regulations restrict which books we can and cannot read, what music we can and cannot hear, how and with whom we can have sexual relations, whether alcohol, tobacco or drugs are permissible or whether we can gamble or not. I believe that such strictures are within the purview of religion, but that they only apply to the adherents of each particular religion. Religions differ on what is permissible in our society's pleasures. I do not believe that it is right or that it creates a healthy society when any entity forces its beliefs on any other group. Coercing the government into enforcing strictures on matters of personal choice is not healthy and undermines the very basis for our democracy.
It is interesting that in our two founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the word "creator" appears once--in the Declaration of Independence. The words God, Yaweh, Jesus Christ, Allah, Buddha, etc. do not appear anywhere else in these founding documents.
The Treaty of Tripoli was written by President George Washington in 1796, ratified by the Senate by a unanimous vote and signed by President John Adams in 1797. It states in Article XI, "As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion...." In my view, no weasel words or "interpretation of intentions" can change what these words say: the United States is a secular nation and our government is a secular government. The words of Jesus in Matthew 22:21, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" support the view that government is a secular entity with a different purview than religion.
Over the years, mainly in times of fear, religion began to creep into our government. Such words as "In God We Trust" were added to the currency in 1864 during the Civil War and as our official national motto in 1956 at the height of the "Cold War" during the McCarthy Era. The words "Under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. The Prohibition Era was, by all accounts, a disaster for the country; the coercion for that failed experiment came from the churches. Today, we have all sorts of mischief on the part of organized religion that I believe undermines the basis for our democracy.
It is interesting that nearly everybody agrees on forbidding murder, rape, assault or any number of other acts that bring physical harm to others. We agree that it is wrong to steal anything or to burglarize a home. Nearly everyone wants good roads and bridges, safe schools, a good education and care for the poor, for the elderly and for those unable to help themselves. As a society, we can accomplish these things in concert with one another only if we are open to listening to all parties. No government entity, church or political party has all the answers. Note that this list of what we can agree on, in principle, is a "secular list." It is common to nearly all religions. Secular solutions must be found that are free from religious bias and coercion.
Nothing on the above list involves personal choice. Those routes we use to escape from our daily lives that involve personal choice need to be left alone by government. Whenever government gets into attempting to regulate these, it wastes time, effort and money trying to regulate what cannot be regulated. As a society, we need to be working on those things that we agree on, that unite us and not on wasting our time with things that cannot be regulated and tear us apart.
Dennis Owsley is a writer in St. Louis. To reach Voices authors, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.