"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Certain words should not be tossed around lightly. Persecution is one of those words.
Religious right leaders and their followers often claim that they are being persecuted in the United States. They should watch their words carefully. Their claims are offensive; they don’t know the first thing about persecution.
One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of real religious persecution in the world. In some countries, people can be imprisoned, beaten, or even killed because of what they believe. Certain religious groups are illegal and denied the right to meet. This is real persecution. By contrast, being offended because a clerk in a discount store said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” pales. Only the most confused mind would equate the two.
We have worked hard in the United States to find the right balance concerning religious-freedom matters. Despite what the religious right would have Americans believe, this is not an issue that our culture and legal systems take lightly. Claims of a violation of religious freedom are usually taken very seriously. An entire body of law has evolved in the courts to protect this right. The right of conscience is, appropriately, considered precious and inviolable to Americans.
Far from being persecuted, houses of worship and the religious denominations that sponsor them enjoy great liberty in America. Their activities are subjected to very little government regulation. They are often exempt from laws that other groups must follow. The government bends over backward to avoid interfering in the internal matters of religious groups and does so only in the most extreme cases.
What the religious right labels “persecution” is something else entirely: it is the natural pushback that occurs when any one sectarian group goes too far in trying to control the lives of others. Americans are more than happy to allow religious organizations to tend to their own matters and make their own decisions about internal governance. When those religious groups overstep their bounds and demand that people who don’t even subscribe to their beliefs follow their rigid theology, that is another matter entirely.
Before I delve into this a little more, it would be helpful to step back and take a look at the state of religious liberty in the United States today. Far from being persecuted, I would assert that religion’s position is one of extreme privilege.
Consider the following points:
I have created this list not necessarily to criticize or call for changing these policies (although some of them are overdue for scrutiny) but to make the point that the leaders of religious organizations have very little reason to complain. Their position is an exalted one. They are well regarded by lawmakers, and their institutions are not only tax supported in some cases but are also beyond the reach of secular law. What they are experiencing is not persecution; it is preferential status.
Why, then, is there so much complaining from the religious right? (And it does come primarily from religious conservatives. Mainline and moderate clergy tend to understand their position of privilege and appreciate it.) Why do we hear so many cries about persecution?
Primarily we hear this because, despite their cushy position in society, religious groups do not get everything they want. In the case of ultraconservative religious groups, some of what they want is unrealistic or would require a complete reordering of society and perhaps a different constitution. In other words, our nation is not the theocracy that many in the religious right would prefer. When they attempt to make our society more theocratic, plenty of Americans resist. Our refusal to roll over and submit to them is, to their mind, a form of persecution.
Evolving cultural trends have also led to a certain degree of panic among religious conservatives. For years, they engaged in gay bashing with abandon. They were confident that the public was on their side, and for some years, the picture did indeed remain murky when it came to questions of LGBTQ rights.
But then the pendulum began to swing. It’s hard to say exactly when this happened. Certainly by the late 1970s, attitudes toward gays were changing. This shift was even reflected in the popular culture, with the introduction of sympathetic gay characters on television sitcoms and in films.
The trend continued throughout the 1980s and ’90s. These early battles tended to focus over issues that sound jarring to today’s ears. For example, in 1978, California voters faced Proposition 6, a measure that would have made it mandatory for public schools to fire gay teachers. The measure was defeated by nearly 60 percent, and even Ronald Reagan, then governor of the state, opposed it.
Mobilized by such campaigns, the LGBTQ community went on the offensive through legislative action and attempted to change public opinion, employing an organized campaign that had many facets. It urged gays to come out of the closet and make their sexuality known to friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and so on. At the same time, it worked to dispel misperceptions about gays and debunk stereotypes.
Polls began to show a shift toward a position of tolerance. Religious right groups were alarmed but continued to argue that public opinion was on their side. They even managed to win court victories. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia law that banned acts of consensual sodomy between adults. (In 2003, the ruling was overturned when a new case reached the high court.)
As years passed, public opinion on issues such as the ability of same-sex couples to adopt or gays to receive employment protection continued to change. In 2003, another milestone occurred when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in the wake of a ruling by the state’s supreme judicial court.
While the ruling may have cheered LGBTQ activists, it opened up another front in the culture wars. States became battlegrounds. Several states adopted constitutional amendments to bar same-sex marriage after campaigns led by the religious right and, in the case of California, bankrolled by the Catholic Church and the Mormons.
Opponents of marriage equality looked to be on a roll. Then, in 2012, their momentum stalled. Three states—Maryland, Maine, and Washington—voted for marriage equality. A fourth, Minnesota, voted down a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. Not long after that, public-opinion polls began to show, for the first time ever, majority support in favor of marriage equality. Among younger people, the question wasn’t even close. One poll showed that 81 percent of younger Americans said they favored marriage equality.
Statistics like this really put religious conservatives into a state of panic. It looked as if the work they had done to roll back same-sex marriage might be undone in the future.
As the national discussion shifted to marriage equality, something important was overlooked: how much ground the religious right had lost over the issue of LGBTQ rights in general. Fifteen years ago, even most LGBTQ activists weren’t pushing for samesex marriage; many of them considered that a long-term goal. Suddenly the issue was thrust into the national spotlight, and indications were that public sentiment was shifting.
In the face of this, religious right groups could do little but start to spin wild tales of persecution. They argued that they had been forced to accommodate LGBTQ Americans in certain ways, or that they soon would be.
Much of this was only so much carping, barely worthy of a response. Religious conservatives know full well that houses of worship in America can’t be forced to give admission or provide services to anyone. Churches have an absolute right to determine their own membership and the qualifications for earning it. Some houses of worship have an open-door policy and more or less welcome everyone. Others are stricter.
Many churches, especially those affiliated with the more conservative end of the theological spectrum, apply certain moral standards or expect certain behaviors from their members. Those who run afoul can be counseled to correct their ways or summarily excommunicated. This is entirely a private matter. A person who is kicked out of a house of worship or denied membership has no legal recourse.
In light of this, it’s difficult to determine where some religious conservatives got the notion that the government was prepared to make them do anything when it comes to gay rights. As I noted in chapter 3, the state has no power to compel houses of worship to perform same-sex marriages. The First Amendment guarantees against that.
Yet the rhetoric continues to escalate. In April of 2013, a rightwing radio talk-show host named Janet Mefferd made the inevitable Nazi comparison. Mefferd, who was angry after a public high school in Michigan cancelled a speech by antigay politician Rick Santorum, said she can see the “day when every Christian who supports real marriage might be made to wear a yellow patch on the sleeve, a ‘badge of shame’ to identify us as ‘anti-gay haters.’ Kind of like the Jews in Nazi Germany.”
I don’t have to explain why talk like this is so off-base and offensive. It collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. Yet we hear more and more of it.
Why do some religious conservatives embrace such lurid rhetoric? They seem to be extremely troubled by the shifts of cultural opinion. They are aware that if current trends continue, their views on LGBTQ issues will become antiquated and, eventually, socially unacceptable. But note what I said: socially unacceptable, not legally. That distinction is crucial.
There was a time when some churches espoused racism and segregation. Few churches today would do this. Of course, nothing in the law would stop a church from espousing these views today, and who can say, there may be some on the fringes that still do. Churches dropped these views because of societal pressure, not government action.
The religious right’s beef, then, would seem to be with the direction of the culture. To be sure, the legislature and the legal system can sometimes push the culture along. When Massachusetts’s supreme court ruled that marriage must be extended to same-sex couples, some residents of that state were undoubtedly upset. Some even lobbied for changing the state constitution to bar the practice. But that effort failed, and, in time, the waters calmed. No house of worship has been forced to admit gay members or perform services for them. By and large, most people seem to have moved on—except for a fundamentalist fringe.
It is not the job of the government to protect houses of worship from the backlash they may experience if their views on same-sex marriage (or some other issue) are perceived as antiquated and out of step with majority opinion. As long as that backlash takes peaceful forms and doesn’t involve actual assaults on churches, the state has no obligation to intervene.
At times, it seems as if the religious right’s real problem is mere coexistence with LGBTQ Americans. This may sound harsh, but in listening to their rhetoric, it is sometimes difficult to draw any other conclusion.
In late March of 2013, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, appeared on a conservative radio program and warned that if the Supreme Court were to strike down state constitutional provisions barring same-sex marriage, a literal revolution might occur.
“If you get government out of whack with where the people are and it goes too far, you create revolution,” Perkins said. “I think you could see a social and cultural revolution if the court goes too far on this.”
Perkins added that a ruling favoring same-sex marriage “could literally split this nation in two and create such political and cultural turmoil that I’m not sure we could recover from [it].”
It’s difficult to conceive of the source of such rhetoric. If the past is any guide, the country actually does quite well with cultural change, despite problems along the way. Many people opposed the right of women to vote in 1920, but the alteration was made without violent revolution. The civil-rights era of the 1960s did, of course, spark violence, riots, and assassinations. But, in the end, the country held together and moved forward. We will survive the era of gay rights as well.
I think it’s a safe bet that relatively few people are willing to take to the streets in armed conflict because same-sex couples are able to get married. Even in the heartland of America, in Iowa, where same-sex marriage was enforced by a judicial ruling in 2009, no civil war has arisen, and so far no one has seen fit to try to pull the state from the union. Perkins speaks of turmoil so serious that the country could not recover. Yes, there has been some turmoil and sharp differences of opinion over same-sex marriage in the states where it is legal, but those jurisdictions have not been split apart, and succession movements, if they exist, aren’t getting any traction. (As a matter of fact, the only state that regularly talks about pulling out of the union is Texas, which doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage in any form.)
As of this writing, same-sex marriage was legal in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington State, and Washington, DC. I monitor church-state and religious-liberty issues very closely for a living. If any houses of worship or any member of the clergy had been persecuted in those states for refusing to serve LGBTQ residents or for speaking harshly of them, I would know about it. In fact, all of us would know about it. Such a story would gain national headlines. It hasn’t happened.
The rights of religious groups in this area are secure. There is no persecution. We’re much more likely to see fallout from private citizens who own businesses and who decide that, due to their religious beliefs, they will not deal with LGBTQ people.
There have already been some cases like these involving wedding photographers, caterers, florists, bakers, and others who refuse to provide services to same-sex couples. They say their religious beliefs preclude them from offering business services to these couples. Forcing them to do so, they argue, would be a form of persecution.
But is it really persecution? Remember, we’re talking here about retail establishments, not houses of worship. Generally speaking, public-accommodation laws in the United States prohibit retail stores and establishments that offer services from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. These protections are found in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and were intended, in part, to address issues such as hotels and restaurants that refused to serve African Americans.
Sexual orientation is not included on the list of protected classes in federal law, but some states and cities do have laws that protect gays. No one would seriously argue today that forcing the owner of a business to end discriminatory policies is a form of persecution. It makes no difference if those policies are motivated by religious belief, it is still discrimination. Some Americans today are Islamophobic and don’t want to deal with people who are Muslim or whom they perceive to be Muslim. Requiring that they do so, as the law mandates, is not persecution. It’s an attempt to ensure a fair and just society.
A nondiscrimination policy doesn’t prohibit anyone from worshipping as he or she pleases. It doesn’t block that person from attending the house of worship of his or her choice, praying, reading religious books and so on. Such policies do require owners of businesses to serve the public. This is not too much to ask. Perhaps people who do not wish to serve all members of the public should not open shops, since the understanding is that retail establishments do, in fact, serve the public.
A second area where one often hears the cry of persecution involves public schools. As I’ve noted elsewhere in this book, public schools serve young people from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. They are not the exclusive property of any one religious group. Yet fundamentalist Christians, looking at the schools and seeing all of those “unsaved” youngsters, can’t help but salivate. They tend to view the schools as mission fields.
Public schools can never be that. Courts have been clear about this. That hasn’t stopped the religious right from trying. When they are curbed in their efforts to use the public schools for evangelism, they often cry persecution and assert that their religious freedom is being violated.
Religious freedom gives every student the right to pray in a public school in a private and non-disruptive way. Students may also read religious texts during their free time and engage in voluntary religious activities with their friends (again, in a non-disruptive way). Many secondary schools now have student-run religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time.
Why isn’t this enough for the religious right? It’s because all of these activities are focused on individuals. They don’t really allow for aggressive forms of proselytizing. And proselytizing is what the religious right wants.
Public schools are a focal point for so many culture-war battles for a good reason: a lot of children attend those schools. No other institution provides such a large gathering of young people on a regular basis. Religious conservatives seek to use the nation’s compulsory school-attendance laws and network of public schools to spread their faith. A lot of people don’t just resist this, they go to court to stop it.
Several recent cases have dealt with so-called student-led prayer at school events. Religious-right legal groups came up with this ruse some years back to get around earlier court rulings striking down compulsory prayer in public schools. Their thinking was that if teacher-led prayer in public schools was unconstitutional (and clearly, it was), the practice might survive if shifted to students. Federal courts have generally taken a dim view of the scheme, but this hasn’t slowed down the religious right.
Public-school graduation ceremonies are not like Speakers Corner in London, where anyone can get up and say anything. They are controlled events, often carefully timed and choreographed to send certain messages that school officials want to convey. Since these are public schools we’re talking about, it’s not surprising that one of these may be a message of inclusion: all students are welcome here. It’s hard to send that message if a student hijacks the event and begins preaching.
At many schools, education officials ask to review the comments that the valedictorian or salutatorian plans to offer. This is acceptable because, again, a public-school graduation ceremony is not open-mic night at the local improv club. And it’s not just inappropriate religious proselytizing that may be removed or curtailed. Any comments deemed not fitting for the ceremony or grossly off topic will likely be removed as well. This is not persecution because there is no constitutional right to take over a public school event and turn it into a quasi church service.
Likewise, we often hear claims of persecution when government refuses to help religious groups enforce their theology or spread sectarian messages. Earlier, I discussed the controversies that often arise over the presence of religious symbols on public land. On the occasions when courts order these symbols removed, claims are made of persecution.
Again, these claims are misguided. If the government invaded the sacred and private space of churches and attempted to tell clergy which symbols they could post on their own property, then that would indeed be persecution. It would not be tolerated. But that’s not what’s happening when aggressive religious groups are told they do not have the right to monopolize public space and link their symbols to government.
Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union have been involved in several cases challenging the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools or at courthouses. These schools and courthouses are public, tax-supported institutions. They must represent and serve all people in the community, not just those who venerate the Ten Commandments as a holy document.
Defenders of the Ten Commandments often argue that the document is merely legalistic in nature. Anyone who takes the time to read it can see that this isn’t true. Several of the commandments on the first tablet are religious in nature and have no counterpart in our secular laws. The clear purpose of displaying the Ten Commandments is to promote one religious view above others. This is made obvious by backers of these displays, who often talk about using the commandments to influence people’s religious behavior.
It’s not persecution to stop the government from endorsing one religious view over others. Our Constitution, the Supreme Court has noted several times, calls for neutrality on religious issues. It’s not neutrality when the laws of a certain theological perspective are elevated to a position of prominence above all others. As I mentioned elsewhere in this book, the purpose of such displays is almost always to send a message: Certain believers are insiders with the government and enjoy its favor. All others are on the outside and are, at best, second-class citizens. If there’s any persecution going on here, it’s against the people deemed lesser citizens because they don’t share the theology expressed on those tablets.
The government is not persecuting anyone or any religious group when it prevents them from trying to run the lives of others. Religious conservatives yearn to tell others what to do and to make their theology the supreme law of the land. The state can’t help them with this; indeed, it has an obligation to protect the rights of others by ensuring that this does not happen.
The great irony here is that what the religious right is trying to do—forge a government that bows to its repressive theology—would result in a great deal of persecution. We’ve had a taste of this already, and it’s a bitter taste indeed. Across the country, legislators, prodded by religious right groups, are trying to pass laws banning the imposition of Islamic law. (Newsflash for these guys: the First Amendment already bans the imposition of religious law.) Some of these measures are so sweeping or poorly written that they would ban purely religious practices that Muslims consider to be part of a personal law that is binding on believers of that faith.
In other cases, right-wing religious zealots have actually gone to court to try to block Muslims from building mosques on land that they own and that has been zoned for religious use. No legal argument is put forth in these cases, just bigotry. These same organizations often raise money and incite public opinion by trading in the crudest forms of Islamophobia. They stir up hate and turn American against American. And we’re supposed to believe these very organizations are the ones being persecuted?
It’s not persecution to tell someone to stop being a jerk or to demand that they respect the Constitution. It’s not persecution to tell one group of believers that they must extend to other groups the same rights they themselves demand and even take for granted. It’s not persecution to remind a band of religious extremists who are convinced that they and they alone possess religious truth that, while they have the right to believe such a thing, their zeal confers upon them no power to tell others what to do.
When the religious right raises bogus claims of persecution, it belittles the sufferings of those believers who truly are persecuted. I would advise members of that movement to learn what real persecution is.
Go to Saudi Arabia, where it’s illegal to even open a Christian church, and experience the fear of those Christian believers who dare to worship in private homes, aware that at any moment they may be imprisoned.
Visit North Korea, where all religions have been swept away and replaced with a bizarre form of worship of the state and its leader that purports to promote self-reliance but, in reality, merely serves as a vehicle for oppression.
Visit any region under the control of the Taliban, a movement so extreme that, in Afghanistan, they trashed that nation’s cultural heritage by blowing up two sixth-century statutes of Buddha because they were declared false idols by religious leaders who are intolerant of any other faith but Islam.
There is real religious persecution in the world. Right-wing Christians in America aren’t experiencing it. The fact that a same-sex couple may live on your block is not persecution; a huge department store choosing to display secular holiday symbols in December is not persecution. A court ruling enforcing the separation of church and state by removing sectarian symbols from the courthouse is not persecution.
Nor is spirited opposition to the political goals of religious groups persecution. Any group — religious or secular — that enters the political arena must be prepared for organized opposition to its agenda. Such opposition is certainly to be expected in the case of ultraconservative religious groups because their agenda is so controversial.
It’s true that the rhetoric gets a little heated sometimes, and unfortunate things may be said. That’s the rough-and-tumble of American politics. It’s hardly persecution. In light of what I wrote earlier in this chapter about religious groups and their ability to lobby and their often-easy access to the offices of legislators, there would seem to be little ground for them to complain. Of course, many of them do complain—chiefly because, despite their unfettered ability to lobby in Washington, DC, and state capitals, they still don’t get everything they want.
The right wing’s persecution complex often goes hand in hand with another unfortunate trait: paranoia. In the 1990s, it was not uncommon to hear dark talk of “black helicopters” that supposedly harassed the right wing. Claims were made that Bill Clinton was planning to somehow remain in office after his second term ended, and so on. Admittedly, this stuff was more common on the very fringes of the right, but, like the various conspiracy theories centering around President Obama’s birth certificate, these kooky claims would occasionally cross over to the large religious right groups.
In 2010, I attended a meeting of the Family Research Council, the nation’s largest religious right organization and one that labors to portray itself as “mainstream.” Among the speakers was a man named Dale Peterson, a garrulous cowboy from Alabama and a Republican Party activist. Employing borderline-racist rhetoric, Peterson took potshots at Obama’s lineage, remarking, “I don’t know what he is.” After his speech, Peterson told a reporter that he does not believe Obama was born in the United States.
The persecution complex and the paranoia give birth to a third phenomenon: an almost messianic belief that only Far Right religious conservatives can save the country from certain doom. In my years of attending religious right gatherings, it’s this talk that has struck me the most. I sometimes get the feeling that extreme religious conservatives, despite their frequent displays of hyper-patriotism and their tendency to venerate national symbols, such as the American flag, don’t like the country much. Modern America is too secular, too gay friendly, too focused on sex, and so on. Every year these gatherings are predicated on the promise of a pending divine punishment that never seems to come (although some among the religious right are sure that things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and other bad storms are signs of the deity’s displeasure). Backsliding, sin-obsessed America is due for a hiding very soon, speakers at these events love to say. The only thing that can save us is to allow fundamentalist religious zealots to make the rules for everyone.
Speakers at religious-right events love the concept of the false choice. One of their favorites is to insist that gay rights and religious freedom can’t coexist. We must choose one or the other, so which will it be? During the 2010 meeting of the Family Research Council, I heard Bryan Fischer, a public-policy analyst at the American Family Association, explain this for the crowd.
“We must choose between the homosexual agenda and religious liberty, because we simply cannot have both,” Fischer wailed. Again, it is the classic false choice. We can’t have both? Who says? . . . Other than Fischer, that is.
To the extent that there is such a thing as a “homosexual agenda,” and assuming it is represented in part by the legalization of same-sex marriage, then we already know that we can have both. Massachusetts has both. Iowa has both. New York has both. I am confident that, at some point not too far off from now, the entire nation will have both.
Of course, there are some things that can’t peacefully coexist: democracy and theocracy, for example. Real religious liberty can’t survive in the face of ongoing attacks by fundamentalists who are convinced that they have a God-given mandate to tell others what to do. One side will win, and the other will lose.
On its website, the ADF states that it “seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” That’s really the problem, isn’t it? When leaders and members of the religious right go looking for heroes of religious freedom, they don’t turn to Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or even the Baptist preacher John Leland. They turn to Constantine the Great.
It’s no surprise that many Americans would rather not live in a society governed by a fifth-century understanding of church and state. Many Americans believe that to even suggest it and hold it up as a good thing is alarming. Many Americans are going to do all they can to resist anyone or any movement attempting to impose that on them.
Standing up to and resisting this type of fundamentally anti-American interpretation of the relationship between religion and government is far from persecution. Many of us would consider it something quite different: good, old-fashioned patriotism.
Excerpted from “Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do” by Robert Boston. Copyright © 2014 by Robert Boston. Reprinted by arrangement with Prometheus Books. All rights reserved.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)