The Nation, 7 November 2011

In this issue, Mark Oppenheimer (of Bloggenheimer fame)  recommends two books and a magazine article about the Church of Scientology.    The books are Janet Reitman‘s Inside Scientology and Hugh Urban‘s The Church of Scientology.  The magazine article is Lawrence Wright‘s profile of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis.  Mr Oppenheimer writes that even “liberals for whom ‘tolerance’ is a sacrament” look for ways to ban religious practices that diverge substantially from social norms.  The interest of the review is Mr Oppenheimer’s own queasiness as he considers a relatively new and aggressively evangelical religion.  Time and again he squirms about, first praising religious diversity in general, then expressing his disapproval of Scientology in particular.  For example: “[E]mbracing the free market of religion requires that we be discerning buyers. We can be grateful that America is the country where Scientology may flourish, but we need not be grateful for Scientology.”  And:

Scientology may be one of those native religions that at first seems bizarre but adapts, grows and eventually thrives in our country’s fecund, undepleted spiritual soil.

Would that be a good thing? In many ways, no. It would mean more people reading L. Ron Hubbard’s tedious books when they could be reading real literature. It would mean more people suspending critical judgment, ignoring the factual record and insisting that Hubbard was a great warrior, adventurer, intellectual and teacher. It would mean more dollars misspent on auditing, instead of on good psychotherapy, badly needed prescription drugs or some really helpful classes at a community college.

On the other hand, if Scientology is still around in fifty years, some lucky Americans will discover in its practices the right cure for what ails them. For whatever reasons, either auditing or Hubbard’s “study tech” or Scientology communication classes will give them what public school—or a Freudian analyst or Judaism or Christianity or the Quaker meeting or the local Masonic lodge—could not. Scientology will give them a community. It will give them a way of life. Yet I remain worried about Scientology, worried enough that I can say this: I hope, fifty years from now, it’s not my children or grandchildren who turn to the church. But I also believe that freedom of religion is necessary. Without it, freedom of speech is a hollow guarantee.

Scientology may not last, but there will always be something like it. Reitman’s and Urban’s books are gifts to all religious people, especially Scientologists. They pay Scientology’s hierarchy the simple courtesy of holding them to adult standards of truthfulness and ethical behavior, and they confront Scientology lay people with some hard truths about their church. They also make the case—Urban’s book, explicitly so—that government and religion do not mix, and that perhaps it would be better, less entangling, to tax religious organizations. Reitman and Urban offer religions the respect they deserve in the form of the scrutiny they require. The Constitution, guarantor of free press as well as free religion, offers nothing less.

Mr Oppenheimer’s piece includes some interesting remarks about US tax policy.   To quote:

Most fascinating is Urban’s argument that Scientology has been instrumental in shaping how the US government defines religion. Beginning in 1967, when its tax-exempt status was revoked, the church fought a lengthy battle to have its exemption restored, infiltrating the Internal Revenue Service and harassing agents; in 1993 the IRS caved, offering Scientology a full tax exemption, sweetheart terms on back taxes and an unusual promise of secrecy (the deal was eventually leaked to the Wall Street Journal). Urban seems disheartened that Scientology bullied its way to victory—in Reitman’s book, IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg Jr. emerges as either a coward or a fall guy—but Urban powerfully makes the point that the IRS should not be in the position of deciding what is and is not a religion.

“The United States does not register religious groups and has no official hierarchy of religious organizations,” Urban writes. “And yet, federal income tax law does provide exemption for religious organizations, and, therefore, there must be some means to determine whether a group claiming to be religious is ‘genuine’ for purposes of tax-exempt status.” Supporters of religious tax exemption argue that it promotes religious charitable giving and prevents entanglement of government and religion. But if the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.

In 1977 the IRS promulgated a thirteen-point list of criteria for religious exemption (a recognized creed and form of worship, a formal code of doctrine and discipline, a literature of its own, etc.). It is probably no coincidence, Urban argues, that these guidelines were written “during the height of Scientology’s efforts to reemphasize its religious profile,” to complete its transformation from a philosophy, or self-help group, or whatever, into a religion. The IRS surely would have clarified its rules about religion over time, but it seems clear that the conflict with Scientology forced its hand. Urban writes, “As such, the complex legal and extralegal battles between the church and the IRS have been central to the shifting definition of religion itself.”

It would not be startling if, years from now, Scientology’s main legacy was its substantial contribution—if it can be called that—to tax law.

Professor Urban comment on a paradox which may be inescapable in a society that values religious freedom.  If “the power to tax is the power to destroy,” as Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall wrote in the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCulloch vs Maryland (1819,) then one would think that religious freedom requires special limitations on the government’s ability to tax religious groups.  Yet such limitations imply an official definition of “religious group,” which in turn implies an official ecclesiology. The “thirteen-point list of criteria” Mr Oppenheimer mentions is not the only test the Internal Revenue Service uses to determine tax-exempt status for religious groups, and that’s just as well.  Criteria such as “a distinct creed and form of worship,” a “definite ecclesiastical government,” “a formal code of doctrine and/or discipline,” and “schools or courses for preparation of its ministers” would all tend to rule out, for example, many of the Quaker groups that played such an important role in the USA in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Quaker ecclesiology in those days (and still, at least officially, for many Quakers today) regarded creeds, hierarchies, catechisms, seminaries, and ordained clergy as just so many idols and abominations, affronts to the Almighty.  If they had allowed themselves to be carried away by testosterone, such Quakers might have looked at the thirteen points of the IRS list and declared them to be a definition of a godless group.  Of course, if it were left up to people of that leading to replace the IRS list with their own definition of “religion,” I’m sure the result would be very nearly useless for purposes of deciding who should and who should not pay what tax.  “[I]f the government is going to grant religions special treatment, somebody has to approve that treatment, and it has turned out to be the tax man.”  Who else could it be, if not the IRS?  Congress would never dare pass a law defining what constitutes a religious organization, and without official definitions any person or group could claim the religious exemption.

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt’s column documents clueless remarks about Occupy Wall Street that media eminences made in the early days of the movement and contrasts them with relatively well-informed expressions of sympathy that similar people have made in recent days.  My favorite bit was this: “The more people join the movement, the clearer the message becomes. Former [New York] Times executive editor Bill Keller still doesn’t get it—“Bored by the soggy sleep-ins and warmed-over anarchism of Occupy Wall Street?” is how he began his October 16 column. (But then it took him till this summer to acknowledge that he’d been wrong to support the Iraq War, so maybe eight years from now he’ll apologize for snarking at OWS too.)”

A proposed definition of “feminism”

I teach at a state university deep in the interior of the USA.  The other day I was grading some papers students had written about ancient Greek culture.  One student focused on women’s clothing in ancient Sparta.  She included a paragraph starting with the famous phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…”  In her case, she’s not a feminist, but she believes that it is an unacceptable infringement of the equality of persons for the law to require women to cover their breasts in situations where men are allowed to go shirtless.   That puzzled me.  If a principled insistence that women must have a legal right to bear their breasts in public doesn’t make you a feminist, what do you have to do to earn that title? According to the eminent philosopher Lady Gaga, only someone who despises men can be a feminist.  That would disqualify most of the feminists I know, including many people who have spent decades on the radical fringe of the women’s movement, and several who have made a living as professional advocates of what they call “feminism.”

I haven’t brought this up in class, since I’m not quite sure where a discussion of the word “feminism” might lead.  Also because we’re behind schedule, and I want to catch up.  Eventually I will bring the question up, though.  To clarify my own thinking, I’ve been trying to craft a definition that will describe what I mean when I say “feminism.”  What I have on this so far breaks into two parts:

1, The belief that women have a right to play a wider variety of social roles than they play at present.  2, The habit of placing a higher value on this right than on the traditions that tend to restrict it.

I see seven advantages to this proposed definition.  First, the expression “wider variety of social roles” accommodates, on the one hand, liberal feminists who want to praise both women who choose to play traditional roles and those who move into what have been male-dominated areas, and on the other hand radical liberationists who want to stamp out the traditional roles on the grounds that they tend to crowd out the nontraditional ones.  By the same token, it leaves room both for feminists who claim that pornography and other forms of sex work can be a way of empowering women, and for those who argue that the sex industry and its products are just so many attacks on women.  In each debate, both sides agree that women should have a wider variety of options than they do now, but disagree about whether a particular sort of role opens more possibilities than it closes off.

Second, the vagueness of the term “social role,” which may seem like a weakness of the proposed definition, is in fact one of its strengths.  Consider the question, are right-wing female politicians feminists?  If they seek offices that have been strongly gendered as male, then to a certain extent they are feminists, no matter what they may say.  So, US Representative Michele Bachmann claims to view the proper role of a wife as submission to her husband.  Yet at this moment, Representative Bachmann is running for the presidency, an office in which she will not only be barred from taking direction from her husband, but which no woman has ever held, and which makes its holder, as commander-in-chief of the US military, a symbol of one of the most masculinized institutions in society.  Of course, it is possible to exaggerate the extent to which right-wing women are feminists in spite of themselves when they run for high office.  One thinks of Margaret Thatcher appointing a cabinet in which she was the only woman.  The ambiguity of “social role” captures the paradox.  Some might say that the relevant social role is “politician”; as this role has been open to women for some time, it was not an act of feminism for Representative Bachmann or Lady Thatcher to seek advancement within a political career.  Others will say that the role of “politician” is one thing, the role “head of national government” quite another.  So that any woman seeking to add that role to the repertoire of female possibilities is perforce a feminist, whatever she may call herself.

Third, “at present” makes it clear that the qualifications for the label shift over time.  To return to the example of Representative Bachmann, she is one of 72 women currently serving in the US House of Representatives.  While that leaves the House more than 80% male, it is a sign that service in Congress is not viewed as the sole prerogative of men.  So one could not say that the simple act of running for the House made Representative Bachmann a feminist.  The 41 women who served between 1917 and 1951, however, could be so labeled, especially the 23 who were elected to seats that had not previously been held by their husbands or fathers.  Among them were a number of women who were fiercely conservative in many ways, but even in the act of avowing their support for the old ways they were in fact increasing the opportunities women had to participate in politics.

The fourth advantage stems from the phrase “than they play at present.”  Notice, the idea is not that women should be free to play roles they are not now free to play, but that they should be free to play roles that they do not in fact play.  This avoids the dead-end of feeling obligated to make a legalistic argument proving a history of sex discrimination every time we express joy that women are starting to enter a previously all-male domain.

The fifth advantage is the converse of this.  Saying that feminism involves the ” belief that women have a right to play a wider variety of social roles than they play at present,” we do not imagine feminists as people who shame women into playing particular roles.  So, if all the sewage workers in town are men, one need not go around insisting to each woman one meets that it is her duty to take a job in that area in order to meet this definition of “feminist.”  I see that as an advantage in a definition of “feminism” since I’ve never met a feminist who insisted on such a thing.

Sixth, the word “habit” at the beginning of the second clause of the definition opens the door to assertions like those I’ve been making about right-wing women, that one can be a feminist without knowing it or intending it.  Beliefs and the labels attached to those beliefs tend to be associated with each other so closely that it is hazardous to say that a particular label “really” applies to a person who rejects it.  So  someone who resists the label “feminist” might well resent being told that s/he holds beliefs which merit the label.  However, we all have habits that we aren’t aware of.  So it might be fair to expect that if we present a reasonable person with evidence that s/he has a habit which we call “feminism,” that person will at least see why we want to say that s/he is a feminist.  Not that such a person would necessarily be unreasonable if s/he continued to reject the label, but s/he might be less likely to be insulted by our presumption in applying it to him or her.

Seventh, saying that feminism involves “habit of placing a higher value on this right than on the traditions that tend to restrict it” is another way of opening the label to people who differ in other ways.  Some people whom we would call feminist refuse to find value in any tradition that restricts the variety of social roles women are free to play.  Others place very high values on many such traditions, but not usually so high a value that they would be comfortable with their restrictive aspects.  For example, there are many people who grew up as Roman Catholics and who wear the feminist label proudly.   Some of these look at such policies of that church as its refusal to ordain women to the priesthood and break away from it altogether.  Others continue to participate, not necessarily because they like those policies but because they find other elements in the tradition that in their view make it worthwhile to stick around.  Emphasizing, as this clause of the definition does, that feminism is about placing a higher value on the right of women to play a wider variety of roles than they do at present than on traditions that restrict that right allows people on both sides of this dispute to continue calling themselves “feminist.”

The proposed definition is more or less a top-of-the-head exercise.  So I’m not committed to it.  If someone could suggest another definition that preserves all seven of its strengths, I’d be excited to hear about it.