There is a thread running through American popular culture that considers religious faith a ticket to go against the expectations of society. In a good way.
In the 1930s and 1940s you had movies with Roman Catholic priests played by Pat O’Brien (”Angles with Dirty Faces”), Bing Crosby (”Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s”) and Spencer Tracy (”Boys Town”) who were permitted to do good and kind things for people because they were men of the cloth.
In the early 1980s, Utah State University football player turned actor Merlin Olsen was the lead in a TV show called “Father Murphy.” His character wasn’t even a real priest. But, when the tough frontiersman wanted to save a passel of orphans from the workhouse, he pretended to be a priest, and other people backed off and let him do the right thing.
Anybody else trying to help reform juvenile delinquents or rescue orphans might be looked upon as a wimp or a chump or have his motives questioned. But these movie priests, characters who’d often grown up on the mean streets themselves, got a pass from expectations of society.
It was OK that they were not just minding their own business, that they were taking on the probably futile task of reaching out to the downtrodden and lost, folks who everyone else had given up on. Because that’s what religious leaders do.
More recently, and in real life, it doesn’t always work out that way.
For one thing, with all we’ve learned about the many cases of Catholic priests sexually abusing children by taking horrible advantage of their supposed trustworthiness, a movie based on a cleric’s plan to work with wayward boys isn’t going to get the same reception once would have. Not if you’ve seen “Spotlight.”
For another, the idea that religion exempts anyone from the expectations of society now often leads in a different direction. Instead of seeking to be more decent and helpful, the religious leaders we hear from too often argue that their spiritual calling enables them to be less so.
Courts have allowed faith-based adoption agencies in Pennsylvania and Michigan to refuse to place foster children with, or arrange adoptions by, same-sex couples, even though the agencies were acting under state contracts to provide services that should be available to all. OK, maybe some of us still haven’t caught up to the fact that LGBTQ folks are people, too. Some of this takes some getting used to.
But now there’s news of a Christian-run adoption agency in Tennessee that turned away a couple of would-be parents because they are Jewish. Even though, again, the agency is working under a state contract that should prohibit such discrimination. This should have been out-of-date a long time ago.
And in recent days we learned that Brigham Young University, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is reminding the U.S. Department of Education that it is not subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the federal law known as Title IX. And that it is, therefore, none of the Feds’ business if BYU punishs LGBTQ students for doing the kind of college-age romancey things that straight students get away with.
BYU’s exemption from Title IX goes back a long way, and is based on the idea that the institution’s “religious freedom” allows it to ignore standards that the rest of society is subject to — especially when those other institutions accept, as BYU does, federal funds in the form of scholarships and grants.
The latest investigation probably won’t go anywhere.
Still, all this retrograde behavior by religious organizations claiming to be above the laws that everyone else has to obey isn’t in anyone’s longterm interest. It hurts LGBTQ folks, it hurts Jews but, most of all, it hurts Christian organizations that seek to be a little too special.
It is worth examining any law that grants religious exemptions by wondering if it is a law that anyone should be expected to obey. If it’s valid for most of us, it’s valid for all. If it isn’t, if it is overly restrictive and serves no purpose related to public safety or fairness, then drop it for everyone, not just whatever church might object.
There is an argument that a religion that expects more of its adherents, that sees itself and its members as apart from the rest of the world, can attract and hold a more committed membership than can a church that doesn’t throw its weight around and just hopes you show up on Easter and Christmas.
But when an article of your faith is that you retain the right to look down on any part of humanity, well, that latest hope expressed by LDS President Russell Nelson, that his church can reverse the sharp decline in religious affiliation in Europe, looks like a really long shot.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, expects special treatment for his ability to recite long passages from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”