Clerical Freedom and Academic Freedom

As my readers will have heard, the recently re-elected mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, tried to subpoena the sermons and e-mailed messages of various Christian clergymen in the city in early October only to reverse course following public outrage. Miss Parker is a lesbian living in a pseudogamous relationship with another woman. The clergymen had cried out against a city ordinance declaring public bathrooms to be fair game for everybody, regardless of their sex, so long as they “identify” as belonging to the sex for which the bathroom is designated. Rumors that signs for the bathrooms will feature a stick figure and a question mark have proved unfounded.

Nevertheless, in Houston, a strange man may enter the ladies’ room to squat in the stall next to a little girl, and a strange woman may enter the men’s room to stand, or to try to stand, next to a little boy, though I daresay the boy will have the upper hand at it. The pastors protested, retaining a residue of decency and a sense of the ridiculous. So the municipal apparatchiks went after them. Hell hath no fury.

It’s odd to think that all those boys died at Normandy and Iwo Jima so that men of God could have their sermons confiscated by the government, lest they dare to preach against ambiguous bathrooms. But politics, as they say, makes strange headfellows, and perhaps some of those soldiers now rest easier in their graves, knowing that if they did not succeed in bringing liberty to the world, at least they brought the blessings of common privies back home. Nothing in this world is ever perfect.

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The fig leaf in this case is the fact that the opponents were clergymen, speaking in their churches. Let us pause while the frisson of terror passes. They were clergymen, speaking in their churches. They were not a local chapter of the Teamsters, rigging an election. They were not members of the American Bar Association, devising new ways to cover the land like locusts. They were not even nurses for Planned Parenthood, toting bags marked “Biohazard” to the dumpster. They were clergymen, speaking in their churches. One can readily see what machine politics, endless litigation, and dead babies have to do with the common good. But clergymen?

That they were Christian ministers makes the matter all the more baffling. They read and they preach the words of their Founder, who commands them to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to comfort the suffering and rebuke the sinner; to condone no evil, to bear with much, and forgive all. They read and they preach, “Whatever you do to the least of these, that you do to me.” They read and they preach, “Let your light shine before men, that they may bless your Father in heaven.” They read and they preach, “For this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” They read and they preach, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who treat you with spite.” They read and they preach that if by their deeds they deny their Lord before men, He will deny them before their Father.

What could all of that possibly have to do with the common good, and how we are to live with one another? What could it possibly have to do with inculcating the difficult virtues of generosity, self-denial, compassion, purity, chastity, integrity, fidelity, humility, and patience?

What makes matters worse for the errant men of God is that their opening their mouths—except to clear their throats, to utter pious platitudes, to announce next week’s pancake brunch, and to congratulate the Elwoods on their fortieth anniversary—is thought to be flatly unconstitutional. Here we need to take care. The Constitution has nothing to say about what a churchman might talk about. It isn’t there. Some people are so bold as to suggest that the freedom to exercise your religion is just the freedom of speech and the press in special terms. For exercise means more than to ride a hobbyhorse. Latin exercitus: army. Exercise is, in its proper signification, a military drill. It is vigorous and public.

What our most astute scholars have relied on is not the plain language of the Constitution, but a hidden Constitution of the Constitution, a constitutional flatus, emanating from the penumbras. Those penumbras are to be found not where the public words were crafted, but in halls, coat rooms, and outbuildings. It is noted that a scrawled comment in a privy near to Independence Hall reads, in a hand remarkably like that of Thomas Jefferson, beneath Sally is a saucy sl-t, the message, Parson John has the pox. This refers to Reverend John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The implications for our body politic are clear.

Yet the clergymen protest. They wonder why they must check their human rights at the door of the church on Sunday. But they forget their special status as a non-profit organization. They do not in fact take profits, but if they dare to meddle with the common good, they will have to be considered as a business, like the gas station across the street. They must then bare the arm for the federal bloodletters. And the members of their congregation who donate to their church may no longer claim their donations as charitable. For charity has nothing to do with the common good, either. So long as the church remains as harmless as a quilting bee for old ladies, inoffensive and ineffectual, you may claim that your thousand dollars is charitable, but if your churchmen speak out about the common good, if they preach what they believe will bring something like peace in this world and beatitude in the next, then your thousand dollars is not charitable. 

There is, however, a farther complication, something that no one has yet pointed out. The land is filled to the top of its manholes with non-profit organizations whose members engage in political speech all the time, and who gladly welcome billions of dollars in charitable contributions. They are called schools and colleges, and they, unlike the churches, receive additional billions of dollars from governments at all levels, directly and indirectly. Those moneys are bled from ordinary taxpayers.

There’s a professor at my college who regularly turns his course in psychology into a vaudeville stage for liberal sermons, of no relevance to the subject he is supposed to teach, much to the irritation of his paying customers, the students. But he has academic freedom, which means that he does as he pleases, and laughs as he fleeces. Multiply him by a hundred thousand. Whole academic departments are partisan playgrounds, paid for by John and Jane Doe. The same goes for the schools. Anyone who says to Miss Pedigree, “You actually have no business teaching American history as a screed against your favorite political enemies,” proxy agents of government such as the NEA and the ACLU would rush to her defense, crying, freedom, freedom!

And think of the students. No one is compelled to go to church. But millions of children are compelled to go to school, and if they end up with Miss Pedigree, that’s tough luck for them. They must grin and bear it; just as if we could imagine the leaders of Planned Parenthood hauled by law into a cathedral every Sunday to hear the message that when they kill babies it is babies they are killing. People in church may leave, but children in school cannot, and students in universities have not all that much more liberty, practically speaking, than they did when they sat smoldering in the sixth grade. The colleges run the job turnpike, and that is a comma, not a decimal point, that you see on the sign for their toll.

So we may wonder, “Why should a clergyman have less liberty than a professor? His audience is not constrained to be there. He and his like spend most of their time lifting the minds of their congregation to God. They run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, homes for unwed mothers, day care centers, and schools. They preach the noble words of Jesus. They attempt to restrain by divine adjuration the pride and the passion of man. They may spend no more than one or two Sundays in a year even mentioning what is going on in the city council. They do not take their salaries from the taxpayers. The ecclesiae publicae are established, but they are not. Is that why a clergyman’s sermons may be subpoenaed, but not a professor’s syllabus, or a sixth grade pedagogue’s lesson plans? Why should a clergyman enjoy less liberty than a professor?”


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