The level of ignorance about our constitution is widespread and disturbing. The ignorance is particularly alarming on the part of those who pretend to know about such matters, including certain pastors who repeatedly demonstrate a stunning ignorance of constitutional issues as well as certain inveterate writers of letters to the editor, not to mention certain uninformed radio talk show hosts.
Despite such wilful ignorance, we are constitutionally a secular state. The preamble to the constitution has a Christian reference. But the preamble has no legal force and is not dispositive in deciding constitutional questions.
Chapter I Article 1 of the constitution does have legal force. It notes: “The Commonwealth of the Bahamas shall be a sovereign democratic State.” Not a theocracy, not a Christian state, but a democracy.
Ours is a secular state with a constitution dedicated to protecting certain fundamental rights and freedoms, not a theocratic state in which the doctrines of any religion or denomination reign supreme in adjudicating constitutional matters.
The constitution does not protect or advance any notion of Christendom, in which Christianity is the state religion, nor does it grant any religion the right to force its doctrines or force its will on other citizens.
As a secular state we enjoy freedom of expression and conscience. We enjoy freedom of religion, a pivotal freedom historically in the advancement of democracy.
Freedom is indivisible. In a secular democracy, religious freedom is a part of a charter of rights and freedoms from which citizens ought not to be excluded because of a circumstance of birth. Whether one is black or white, male or female, and regardless of sexual orientation, one has the right to assemble, to express oneself freely, as well other rights.
Again, the Bahamian constitution is not a Christian charter. It is not based on Christian Scripture or the doctrines of any religion.
Those who would deny certain rights to gays and lesbians might want to note which of their own rights are dispensable. Those who are denied the right to freedom of religion or other rights around the world, similarly experience the deprivation of certain rights as experienced by many gays and lesbians globally.
The overriding issue is not about whether one is a Christian persecuted in a predominantly non-Christian country or a woman denied rights in a given society or gays and lesbians denied certain rights. The fundamental issue is about fellow human beings denied or accorded their dignity and rights.
Some who left or escaped from Europe for the Americas, beginning especially in the 16th century, were seeking religious freedom and freedom from persecution. Still, history is replete with pernicious ironies: Many with newfound freedoms often failed to observe or grant rights to others.
Some in the original US colonies persecuted others on religious grounds. People of African descent and women struggled for centuries to achieve fundamental rights despite the notion of their supposedly being created equally.
Freedom of religion is a critical element of pluralism, both of which emerged as central democratic themes following the French and the American revolutions.
We continue to debate the scope of pluralism in the 21st century, three centuries later, even in democratic countries. The contours of the debate are centuries old and thoroughly modern.
In parts of the Islamic world, mostly in the Middle East and in Africa, pluralism is anathema to the restricted world views of those who contest the notion of a secular state and religious pluralism.
Yet, even in the West, including at home, there are fundamentalist, mostly Protestant voices, who contest or are uncomfortable with a secular state and various forms of pluralism. Some Protestants are still learning the lessons of the democratic revolutions beginning in the 18th century.
The history of Roman Catholicism’s engagement from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century with the democratic revolutions is instructive for many fundamentalist Protestants in The Bahamas who still appear so shockingly pre-modern, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual and unenlightened in significant ways.
In the 19th century when Pope Gregory XVI was confronted with the ideas of freedom of conscience, freedom of the press and freedom of speech he described them as “delerimenta”, which may be translated as utter madness.
Recall Pastor Myles Munroe’s recent freak-out about an event scheduled for gays and lesbians, and his apocalyptic and apoplectic ranting about the extinction of the human race, a seeming conspiracy hatched by gays and lesbians and unwitting heterosexuals. It’s enough to make one join the doomsday preppers.
Things began to change in Roman Catholicism in the 20th century, in great measure due to the seminal work of an American Jesuit who appreciated the positive elements of democracy and the need for the Church to engage in dialogue with democratic polities.
Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., was silenced by the Vatican for a period of time, but his vision came to fruition, beginning in earnest with his decisive contribution to the Second Vatican Council’s, Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty).
Fr. Bryan Hehir is one the world’s leading experts on Catholic Social Thought, with an intimate knowledge of the scholarship of Murray. In a presentation entitled, “Catholic Social Teaching: A Key to Catholic Identity”, the Office for Social Justice of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, based on remarks by Fr. Hehir, notes, “three significant statements about politics” in the Declaration on Religious Liberty.
The presentation observes:
“1. The Church accepts religious pluralism in a society as a given.
“2. The Church accepts the secularity of the state ...
“3. The only thing the Church asks of the political order is the freedom to function, not favoritism but the freedom to function. The Church wants neither favoritism nor discrimination in the exercise of its public social and religious role.
“Therefore, we are not excluded from the debate because we are religious. On the other hand, we are not to be given any special treatment because we are religious.”
In significant ways, many fundamentalist Protestants in The Bahamas have not intellectually come to terms with some of the basics of a modern pluralistic democracy.
Many of these churches crave favoritism, have difficulty accepting the secularity of the state, and believe that the state should enforce their doctrines. Some are even still grappling with the implications of the separation of church and state.
Certain comments on the Church made during debate on the gaming bill by Prime Minister Perry Christie, his deputy, Philip Davis, and Tourism Minister Obie Wilchombe were too broad. Still, there is an important point to be made.
Certain Bahamian churches and church leaders have fallen into bed as the handmaidens of various Caesars and political leaders. Many of these relationships are permissive, with various church leaders seeking state power, appointments, influence and handouts like the power-hungry and avaricious religious high priests of ancient times and the moneygrubbers in the Temple
For some politicians the payback is votes and the turning of a blind eye by some church leaders to certain political conduct. And yes, a number of church leaders have been in the pay of numbers bosses.
Forget the notion of separation of church and state; there often hasn’t even been reasonable distance by those who conflate the state, the Kingdom of God, and their own temporal kingdoms with all the requisite trappings of luxury in the interest of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.
Further, considering the bizarre, at times unintelligible, poorly-crafted statements released by some religionists who cannot manage the language with any degree of sophistication, it is no wonder that they are unable to appreciate certain ideas, complexity and nuance, preferring instead pop-theology and a truncated gimmicky version of the Gospels of Jesus Christ.
It is quite humorous to observe how obtuse and pre-modern in their theological worldviews are many of those who use modern communications technologies and are ferried on jets around the world to profit from their curious versions of the Christian message.
So steeped in the democratic tradition of pluralism and religious freedom is our constitution that it allows for conscientious objection in times of war. During his recent visit to the predominantly Muslim Albania, Pope Francis pressed the case for religious freedom and tolerance as well as dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
It is many centuries between Gregory XVI and Francis. Yet, fundamentalism remains in many quarters, with some certainly more extreme than others.
Many religious fundamentalists share a common agenda: discomfort or hostility toward pluralism, varying degrees of male supremacy and sexism, extraordinary antipathy or hatred toward gays and lesbians and displeasure with a secular state.
Thankfully, the democratic revolutions continue to unfold, with the arc of freedom bending toward greater equality and tolerance.
It is one of those ironies that it is often through secular states and constitutions, and democratic pluralism that human rights and social justice are more greatly advanced than by those who claim to love their neighbors as themselves, but who fail to guarantee to their neighbours the same rights they so dearly cherish.