Friday, January 18, 2008

On Religious Freedom

WARNING! This post makes no attempt to be fair and biased about religion--a topic near and dear to people's hearts. If you're easily offended when someone attacks religions in general, please skip this post. I think my points are valid, but if your faith is of that silly 'unassailable due to righteous indignation' type, we're going to be unable to hold a discussion here. kthx

So I'm an ordained minister. I've been one for a week and a half now, ever since Tuesday, January 8th, 2008. I figure I should remember a date like that, because ordination is supposed to be a pretty big deal, one of those things that you remember with a piece of paper and maybe a party but you certainly remember the date.

In becoming ordained, I guess I've chosen a religious affiliation. So, as of the time of my ordination, in perpetuity, I am a member of the Universal Life Church (ULC). The ULC is not a Christian organization, though they welcome Christians. I suppose that in the truest sense they are nondenominational. All people are welcome to join, no matter their faith or beliefs. There are no dogmas to the Church, and there is little in the way of official services/facilities in the traditional sense.

What they do offer is instant ordination to anyone who wants it. You join the ULC, provide your name and address, and they will officially ordain you in their faith. In doing so, you have all of the various pluses of being an ordained minister (monetizing your practice you're taxed like a minister, which is good and bad), among which is the legal ability to perform wedding ceremonies.

If this sounds a little shady and underhanded, instantly being ordained online, then perhaps you're looking at it the wrong way. The ULC has won through multiple legal battles the right to ordain whoever they wish into their faith and for their ordination to be as valid as that of any church, be they Jewish or Catholic or Protestant all the way down to Pastafarian or Jedi (do we really have official ministers in these religions? Doubtful).

What is important is the bias of our government and lawmakers towards religious institutions. Marriage can be conducted by a Justice of the Peace, but the power also resided in the ordained ministers. In fact, marriage is one of the only legal powers granted to an ordained minister over Joe Blow on the street. However, the criteria for ordination are typically conflicting. Many religions force someone to adhere to a strict credo, go to seminary or other similar religious school, and then devote their life to a congregation in exchange for little more than an inflated sense of self-importance and one more legal right.

The ULC wishes to take this power out of the hands of the few, and into the hands of the many. When we believe that to be an ordained minister requires that kind of time and dedication, we set up a state of power in which there is a religious elite that we feel should have more. That kind of mindset states that we should be subjected to the decisions of a religion minority who not only are more entitled than we are, but also deserve to have more legal power because of the strength of their religious convictions.

I believe this to not only be false, but harmful to society and the individual as a whole.

Religion is an inherently very personal thing. And one that has forever been entangled with the legal systems of all countries, despite efforts to pull the two apart. However, when God is on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance and our highest governmental leaders regularly point to their faith as a guiding factor, we know that those efforts are more or less superficial. They claim religious ambivalence, but we've already shown that they're willing to grant superior legal status to a religious official over a 'normal' person.

However, in doing so they perpetuate the system of the religiously devout being pulled into a higher state of power. As a mostly Christian country, it's no surprise that the Christian special interests hold significant sway over the workings of our government. That is because on some level, people are raised to believe that those men and women who go through religious indoctrination are somehow more valid in their opinions than anyone else. Ordination grants legitimacy, a holy sanction that makes them freed from the confines of most secular concerns.

This could not be further than the truth. Ordination is not a structured thing. A religion might enforce schooling and devotion to weed out all but the most faithful (and most controllable) but there are options to grant the same legitimacy in 5 minutes sitting at your computer. In the eyes of the law, my ordination and that of a man who paid thousands of dollars to go to a seminary are entirely equal in rights and legitimacy.

And the same rights and privileges are open to everyone. We do not have to exist in a state where the religiously devout are granted greater rights in the eyes of the law. I want to be clear on this; ordination IS NOT a matter of faith or religion. It's supposedly tied to that by traditional religions, but that's mostly as a way to further the legitimacy of its ordained ministers in the eyes of the laity.

Instead of seeing it as an enlighten minority, see it for what it is, a system that grants rights based on supposed faith. This system of allowing greater rights to a religious official just undermines the separation of church and state that our government purports to be under (and I believe should be under). And it's not picky about it, mostly because it couldn't afford to be without angering too many people. In the eyes of the government, any religious official is inherently granted higher rights than a normal person; for no reason other than a religious institution says they are worth granting rights to.

This is why the ULC exists. It does not enforce a faith, because it isn't about faith. You can be whatever faith you are and be a member of the ULC. It opens its doors to all peoples of any walk of life. It does not require you to go to school for your faith. While it might be important to do so in more dogmatic religions, in ULC your personal beliefs are inherently your religion and there is no way to teach you what you believe.

And most importantly, it has no qualms about granting you rights that are supposed to belong to a privileged few. You sign up, and it will give you what is supposed to not be for you, but those in power. And you have just as much legitimacy (if few resources, admittedly) as a Catholic Priest or a Protestant Reverend or a Jewish Rabbi. You have the exact same rights as these people instantly, should you choose to take them.

It's only when we choose to take freedom for ourselves that we show that we truly value it. I believe that the more people who accept their freedoms and as much autonomy as they can, the further we can wrest power from the minority and into the hands of the majority. The best place to strike is at faith, that supposedly unassailable bastion. When we take true religious freedom as an individual, instead of under the control of those who took this freedom and didn't tell you you could do so, too, we say essentially 'I will not allow someone to have more rights than me because they claim to be more pious.'

Religious freedom, the freedom to practice as you believe and the freedom from control by people who would abuse the religious cracks in our legal system, is an essential step to freeing oneself from oppression by those who would gladly subvert your freedoms for you when you remain silent--or ignorant.

More information on the ULC, ordination, the legal status of ordination, and the various requirements to perform marriages legally ( some states have more requirements than simply being ordained, but the ULC offers services to help meet those requirements ) please visit the ULC website at or

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