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Rick Santorum has come to take away your freedom

Updated: April 19, 2012 8:16AM



Religion is very good at telling you what to do and how to live. Your leisure time, if you so choose, can be completely absorbed in matters of ritual, practice and belief. Nobody stops you.

I’m biased, but I believe the Jewish faith has a particular genius for this. There are morning prayers and evening prayers, complex dietary laws, 613 commandments direct from God covering every aspect of life, plus an ancient language to master, enormous books of commentary to study and debate.

You do get to sleep, however.

Don’t get me wrong; other faiths will keep you busy, too. Muslims pray five times a day, have their own dietary restrictions, plus other duties, such as pilgrimages to Mecca. Christians have services and confessions, summer camps and vespers, candles to light, shrines to tend, hymns to sing.

Whichever faith you practice, there are real, undeniable benefits: Following a religion gives you not just lots of stuff to do, but structure, community and meaning. I’d never be hostile to faith — life’s a tough, long road. You need something to pass the time and find comfort during adversity. Religion is as good as anything else, if not better.

That said, not everybody wants to embrace ritual and arcane belief, and so religious practice is voluntary. Children can be forced to go to Sunday school — I forced mine — but adults are on their own, so most shrug and ignore big swaths of their faiths. Most Jews do not keep Kosher, most Christians don’t regularly attend church, most Muslims never make that trip to Mecca.

We take it for granted, but this freedom to pick and choose what we believe and do is a privilege not found in all corners of the world and a fairly recent development, historically, one that countless heroic individuals over centuries fought and died for. They struggled to pry the hands of powerful religious leaders away from the tools of legal compulsion, which is what government does.

Government fills your time too, with its own expectations and requirements. But these are not exhortations. They’re laws. The IRS doesn’t have pastors hectoring the public about the importance of paying taxes. It doesn’t need them; it can put you in jail. Mayor Rahm Emanuel doesn’t bother with advocates standing at street corners, handing out tracts urging you to drive the speed limit. He’s installing cameras. Who needs the threat of hell when you’ve got the cops?

Thus anyone — such as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who blows into town Friday — who suggests we get church and state back together, who wants the stick of government to enforce a particular faith, is guilty of the worst kind of historical ignorance. He’s a doctor juggling vials of smallpox, a drug company urging pregnant women to calm their nerves with Thalidomide, a Southerner suggesting that black folk might be happier as slaves. His big issues — fighting birth control and gay marriage, condemning sex for pleasure — are not good social policy. They’re not important for the effective running of our country. They’re aspects of his extreme brand of Catholic doctrine, and he’s pretending that people aren’t completely free to embrace or reject them on their own, and they need to be helped by the government using its coercive authority, and that the reluctance of the law to enforce his religion, say through health care policy, is oppression. It’s not.

Americans are a polite people — to a fault, really — and used to the clamor of various religions. We usually don’t argue about the trappings of faith, out of respect, so can overlook it when, for instance, a certain group is screaming “abortion is murder” and changing laws to yank non-believers into line, when abortion is not murder; it is a legal medical procedure that most women in the world have access to and most women in America expect to have available.

Many Americans who value their freedoms, who do not want an American Taliban to begin enforcing one religion, are terrified by Santorum. That seems premature. To me, his popularity is a trick of the eye. Santorum won the Mississippi Republican primary this week, receiving 94,000 votes in a state of 2.9 million. Since most people are not focused on faith but busy with their secular lives, they can initially overlook that a social extremist and religious fanatic is striding toward the White House, his only goal — judging from his rhetoric — to corrupt our government and use it to enforce his own faith’s strident moral predilections. But I have my own strong faith; faith that the American people will eventually wake up, notice what’s happening and send this guy back to church, where he belongs.



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