Revitalizing Religion: A theological Assessment of the Margaret Doughty Case

This past week, immigration reform and religious freedom advocates rallied around Margaret Doughty: a 64 year-old woman who has been a permanent U.S. resident for more than 30 years. Doughty gained notoriety when she was presented with a rather peculiar ultimatum while going through the process of acquiring citizenship. Doughty has a strong objection to bearing arms, a conviction which prevents her from consciously participating in warfare. She was told by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that she needed to provide documentation from her religious institution (e.g. a church) corroborating her “religious objection” to bear arms or be denied naturalization. There’s only one problem: Margaret Doughty is an atheist and thus not part of a traditional religious institution. According to this ultimatum, Doughty could either acquiesce, join a church and gain the required information, or remain faithful to her convictions and risk being denied citizenship.

The fascinating part of this discussion is that it has little to do with immigration and everything to do with religion. Since its infancy, the United States decreed that the State (i.e. government) could not establish a religion and that the State must protect each person’s right to express the religion of their choosing.  As P.C. Kemeny notes, however, over the years, “The debate over the proper role of religion in American public life has made the public square very noisy.” From some abolitionist movements which were founded on a Christian ethic to the (in)famous “moral majority,” the public square has become ever nosier in an increasingly plural society that seeks to represent members from all faith traditions. In the case of Margaret Doughty, however, it is her lack of affiliation with these “traditional faiths” that has proven problematic.

The fundamental question in this case revolves around how a non-religious individual can legally justify her ethical claim without religious proof. Legally, Doughty’s refusal to bear arms falls under what is known as “conscientious objection” which follows article 18 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This article gives every individual the innate right to adopt and act upon any “thought, conscious or religion” as long as it does not impede on any law that protects the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. In this case, however, Doughty’s atheism stunts her from conscientiously objecting because, as I interpret, the State has difficulty understanding how an individual can have such a strong conviction without a traditional religious worldview which gives foundation and fruit to that conviction. I contest that in this case a) the State is imposing something through its assumption that is outside of its jurisdiction and that b) societally we have an inadequate understanding of religion that theology can illuminate.

  A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.

Regarding the former, as the First Amendment declares and the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Religious Freedom says, “Government…does not have the authority to establish an official religion. If all citizens should be free to practice their religions, then government’s establishment of one religion or one kind of religion would contradict the principle of equal treatment of all citizens.” Though not explicitly imposing Christianity, Islam or any other specific “religion” on Doughty, USCIS seemed to discount her atheism as a plausible worldview, imposing upon her that she join a traditional religious institution in order to qualify for citizenship. As a result, the State is effectively imposing religion. This, however, stems out of an inadequate understanding of religion.

When we think of religion in the U.S. we generally think of traditional religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Conversely, atheism is generally thought of as the “lack of religion” because its adherents don’t believe in a transcendent God and thus can’t fall under these traditional religions. For historical reasons of religious dominance and hegemony in the U.S., our plural society has difficulty engaging the language of morality and ethics if it doesn’t stem out of a traditional religious framework. Amidst the movement amongst Secular Humanists who have helped remind the “believing” community that non-believers too can join in the struggle for justice and the common good, as the Doughty case shows, societally we remain incapable of understanding how atheists can have convictions without a traditional religion to fall back on.

Theology can help illuminate this by contesting that all peoples are fundamentally religious. In The Liberation of Theology, Latin American Liberation Theologian Juan Luis Segundo made this very claim by distinguishing between faith and ideology. For Segundo, faith (i.e. religion in a very open sense) gives us meaning and value for a way of perceiving reality and ideology gives us structures, outside of meaning and value, for a vision of what should be. Applying this hermeneutic to peoples, then, every person is fundamentally religious because every person places faith in something from which they derive meaning and value. As a result, all peoples also have ideologies which give structure to that faith. Christians, for example, place faith in God from whom they derive meaning and values. One value that stems from faith in God is upholding human life. Though the value remains fairly consistent amongst Christians, ideologies that arise from it are diverse. Regarding war, for example, some Christians think that upholding life demands that believers conscientiously object to war at all times whereas others say that preserving life necessitates war under certain circumstances.  

Though the atheist may not derive meaning and value from a transcendent God,    there remains something he/she derives meaning and value from. For many atheists it is human life. This seems to be the case with Doughty who, in defending her refusal to pledge to bearing arms, said, “I deeply and sincerely believe that it is not moral or ethical to take another person’s life, and my lifelong spiritual/religious beliefs impose on me a duty of conscience not to contribute to warfare by taking up arms...my beliefs are as strong and deeply held as those who possess traditional religious beliefs and who believe in God...” Reading this through the lens espoused by Segundo one can say that Doughty places faith (this open sense of religion) in human life and that her ideology of this manifests in refusing to take another’s life even if in defense of her country. This statement speaks to a deeply religious worldview where value and meaning are derived from upholding human life –a statement she makes outside of a traditional religious organization.                             

   Margaret Doughty.

 Margaret Doughty.

Thankfully USCIS recognized that they would be committing a blatant injustice if they denied Doughty’s naturalization on religious terms. As of last night, Doughty’s request for citizenship was approved. This case shows us, however, that the State –and perhaps the U.S. in general- needs to amplify its understanding of religion to include atheists as religious individuals amidst not adhering to a “traditional religion.” Though this case certainly isn’t the first time the country has had to re-assess some of its religious assumptions (see Welsh V. United States [1970] for example), Doughty’s case has shown us that as a nation we must revisit the subject.  

Doughty’s case teaches us that as a society we need to revitalize and amplify religious thinking in our pluralist pursuit towards the common good. It is the responsibility of the State to uphold each individual’s right to religious liberty as a religious being irrespective of religious affiliation. For Christian believers this is especially true because our faith calls us to value the flourishing of every single individual as a being created in the image of God. As a result, we need to be compassionate towards, and relentless in, fighting for the rights of our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and even Atheist brothers and sisters as we all struggle towards the common good.

Beginning with Margaret Doughty, may we collectively pursue that mission of collective compassion for the common good.

- Jorge Juan Rodriguez V ’14 is a Clarendon Scholar and Kenneth L. Pike Scholar at Gordon College with a major in biblical studies and a minor in Christian social thought-