The Zealous and the Jealous: Or, Faith, Zeal, and Mike Pence’s New Covenant of Intolerance

I seldom weigh in on religious matters. I have many friends who are devout theists, many who are devout atheists, and many who feel that to call an atheist “devout” at all is completely missing the point. But I am compelled to write something in the wake of Indiana State Governor Mike Pence’s signing into law of The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a brilliantly-titled (if poorly written) piece of… legislation… which casts Religious Freedom as a beaten damsel to be rescued by red-blooded St. Georges of the Tea Party from the dragon of… I don’t know, the demands of their own religion that we love one another and leave judgment up to God?

There are some people who call themselves religious who aren’t, really; and if I offend them I’m comfortable with that. But I have tried here to strike a delicate balance that I hope will make sense to the atheists, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and most of all the the dyed-in-the-wool Christans who are nothing short of appalled by the things that people who call themselves Christians are up to. In the interest of fairness and non-judgment, I’m not letting on where I sit on this spectrum; I’ll only say that I hope this is a comfortable place for all of you, even if I say some angry things. With any luck, you’re a little angry too. So, without further ado:

It is time we stopped mistaking zeal for faith, and rewarding one as if it were the other.

I’m immensely troubled by the number of things still being done under the incredibly suspect language of “religious freedom.” Religious freedom begins in the heart and the home, not in state-sanctioned dominion over others. It exists in the silent conversations we have with the ultimate Sources of our moral universe, whatever they may be.

The world of faith is full of sick people who have allowed moralizing exhortations to state officials, or to legislatures, or to petty hateful men of quotidian power, to supercede and take place of the conversations of the heart (conversations involve speaking AND listening) that ought to occur with that personified Benevolence that waits for questions and doubts and fears with open arms, like a sad parent who wonders why you never write.

To those who have betrayed their principles thus, I say: you are not men and women of faith; though you wear their clothes and speak their language, you are politicians and nothing more. You don’t have the conversations that people of faith have. You don’t have the faith that people of faith have; otherwise, why are you so mistrustful of your God that you run scrambling and doubting to your state legislators, begging them to grant you what He will not, as if that is their right, their province?

This is the work of people with zeal, perhaps; but not of people with faith. People of faith—and I’m not just talking religious or conventionally religious folk here—have an immense and powerful thing in their life. We do that that thing a huge and unkind disservice when we confuse it with the near-worthless, ever-blinding zeal that is the province of quotidian fanatics who are no more transcendentally religious than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

The word “zealous” comes from the same Greek root as “jealous”: they have the same history, and the same fundamental meaning. Why we have unfortunately taken, as a supposed synonym for religious dedication, a word that means an intolerant enmity, a greed and hatred turned outwards, is a mystery to me. It is likewise a mystery many have come to live and embody in what they falsely consider to be exercises of faith—those mere exercises of profane lobbying, in every sense of the word, when divine lobbying leaves their bilious intolerance unsatisfied.

We have seen children run to their fathers, begging for toys their mothers have already denied them. So too do people of faith run to their earthly masters when the celestial masters they have chosen refuse to flatter their intolerance. Who among them is content with the commandment to love one another and lay their judgment aside? The power to pass judgment on our neighbours is, we must admit, an attractive little toy; and if the King of Heaven does not see fit to grant it to them, there are many who seem eager to ask the Princes of Earth for it.

Many of us know too many persecuted people—social and cultural minorities, subalterns—not to be outraged by what’s happening in California, in Indiana. I am one of them. But I also know too many people of faith to respond with anything but anger. I know too many people filled up with faith of a thousand varieties—people mistaken, too regularly, for these empty people of zeal who will side with whatever parent, whatever order, whatever way of being, is willing to give them the toys they think they want.

These spoiled children of faith, these slaves to intolerance, now flourish in every state where “religious freedom” provisions are fast becoming the tools by which the old commandments to love one another and judge not are overruled and thrown out. Never mind that these commandments were part of a New Covenant that replaced the old. These men of faith have written themselves a Third Covenant, enshrined it here in earthly legistation to drown out the second; and through their actions and wars, through their daily strife within and without, they are making for themselves a third testament as well.

These are hard times for everyone; they must be doubly so for people of faith, who find people wearing their clothes, speaking their language, and wreaking such unmitigated and hateful evil in the name of zeal that one wonders how faith can even go on. The questions that arise in such a dreadful world are many, and they are troubling. And where, now, where do we turn with these doubts? To whom do we take our fears, our uncertainties, our concerns? Who will bring our souls peace in this world of strife?

For some people, the answer to these questions may be “to God.” That’s not everybody’s answer, not by a long stretch. But I’ll tell you one thing: NOBODY’s answer is “to the State Legislature.”

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