Slice

As we walked towards the Spring St. uptown 6, we passed by a tall young man leaning against the matte green subway entrance railings. He pressed a small antique film camera up to his eye, stoically undeterred by the numerous pedestrians interrupting his line of sight. It wasn’t until after we’d walked past and hooked around to descend the staircase that I noticed the girl seated on the sill of a street-level door opposite the photographer. Her back was slouched against one side of the door casing while her thin legs were bent so her feet could rest against the opposite moulding, bracketing her crumpled body between the recessed architrave that hid her from the busy foot traffic just inches away. She held her phone casually in front of her face, elbows resting on her inclined thighs that flowed into two peaks of bare kneecaps exposed through the fraying tears of her black skinny jeans. She split her gaze between the phone screen and the camera lens, her fashionably waifish body in the practiced and aloof poise of an aspiring Instagram celebrity, as if curling up in the early afternoon beside a shut door facing the sidewalk were some mundane SoHo pastime. We could only guess that it was a consensual photoshoot, though the voyeuristic gaze of strangers would probably not be far from the actual inspiration for the setup.

Down in the station, we swiped past the turnstiles and waited briefly behind the studded, taxi-yellow platform ledge before boarding the next 6 train. Stepping into the interior, we rode along in an older model car that had developed enough rust and grime on its metal trim that it would surely make any passenger who still remembered the novelty of that particular model’s introduction some thirty years ago feel irreversibly old. The train filled with more passengers at each stop, claiming its typical indeterminate mix of European and domestic tourists, Chinese immigrants, and passengers of various other ethnicities who all shared the defining weary mien of local New Yorkers. As the car filled with people, the pattering of their chatter grew like a rainstorm rolling in, until shortly after pulling away from one stop, a young and wholly innocuous passenger with a blocky frame and wearing a tattered baseball cap suddenly raised his voice above all the rest and began reciting a tragic plea for charity which outlined his desperate circumstance in such urgent detail as to reveal his inability to secure shelter for that very night—all of which was prefaced by the admission of shame that some panhandlers will lead with in order to imply some lack of familiarity with begging that would be more effective if it weren’t used with such prevalence. And as usual, the shock of his sudden monologue commanded the attention of every passenger as they all fell quiet with the awkward silent deference people momentarily give to panhandlers in lieu of any actual charity or attention. But once the man had weaved his way unsteadily up the car and out the doors at the next station, the passengers surely and slowly resumed their prior conversations, putting the recent encounter with an uninvited reality behind them and gifting even the lone passengers on board a swift return to the inconsequential banter that works like novocaine against the unnerving self awareness of being cramped together with so many strangers.

We clattered up Manhattan’s east side, tolerating the frequent stops along the local route for the comfort of catatonic inattention, all the way up to the 68th St. station, where we finally disembarked and surfaced with a small group of other riders. A pair of young women preceded us and walked ahead as we stood pivoting around in search of the Central Park treeline, which happened to be in their same direction. As we began walking behind them, they stopped and spun around—two plainly pretty girls in their early twenties, lacking the subtle apathetic self-possession of New York natives, and one of whom was wearing a gray sweatshirt with Nantucket written across the chest in a heavy collegiate all caps slab font. They reversed course, and as we crossed paths, I overheard the girl in the Nantucket sweatshirt relay to her friend in disoriented frustration, That’s why I hate the subway.

Lard

Some nights I feel overwhelmed and affected by a profound mood, like a wild fire whose certain cause is always uncertainly defined, and with such matching heat and passion that I feel my entire self rendered, running free and clear. I am translucent, showing bone and marrow, an exhibitionist of hopes and sorrows. And I have no will to move the world but that it should move me, runny and delicate, and vulnerable to every sincerity that promises some depth, in which I might relearn my own profile, and for which I open all my secrets.

But sure as rain, with time enough, I cool. And in the night, dwindling embers turned to ash, my maudlin manners congeal again, so I awaken in the morning, thick and dense, opaque as the blanket that covers my face from the dawn. And though once I cried for some grand thing, now I lie plonked against the cold morning, shameful and embarrassed. Who should see me so naked? And that I dared to show it. Who am I? And the perfumed self I was that still lingers faintly on my breath,  smells now like a gasoline, a numbing sadness, a great regret, that I can never choose to simply be that self which shame had fled and made so free.

OPEN CONVO LAWS

 

INT. OFFICE LOBBY — DAY

A typical busy morning at a Manhattan office. Mounted on a wall is a TV airing cable news coverage.

REPORTER:

Officials continue to investigate the tragic events which unfolded yesterday at a New Jersey mall where a man opened dialogue with crowds of shoppers and engaged in civil debate. Reports estimate that close to 60 people were forced to listen to the mass-speaker before law enforcement intervened and ended his verbose rampage.

The president is set to make a speech tomorrow in the aftermath of what is looking to be the worst mass-speaking incident in the nation's history.

CUT TO

INT. OFFICE KITCHEN — DAY

A few co-workers are gathered around the coffee machine.

ARRIE:

God, can you believe the news.

ERIKA:

Ugh, I know. Such a tragedy.

ARRIE:

It’s like every season, we get one of these psychos.  

ERIKA:

Well, you know these mass-speakings aren’t even the worst of it. I read that every day, over 30 people are engaged in debate-related conversations, most of which disproportionately affect affluent urban areas.

SEAN:

Yea, and you just know nothing's going to be done about it. 

ARRIE:

It’s the National Forensic Association and all these debate lobbyists buying off Congress.

ERIKA:

Yea, but even if that weren’t the case, have you ever met one of these speech-advocates? They’re insane. You can’t talk to them about anything. The only solution they ever offer is to “give everyone easier access to quality educations so they can ‘defend their opinions’ in the event of an important discussion.”

SEAN:

God, that’s so true. I don’t understand why they can’t just buy a gun and settle their differences like the rest of us. It’s like arguing with people makes them feel important or something.

SEAN pulls out a 92FS handgun from behind his back and brandishes it casually in one hand while he sips his coffee from the other.

ERIKA:

Yea, probably trying to overcompensate for something—if you know what I mean. 

A fourth co-worker, CLARK, walks over to get some coffee.

CLARK:

Hey, what’s up guys?

ARRIE:

Nothing, just talking about how mass-speakings wouldn’t be an issue if everyone just had a gun.

CLARK:

Well, I mean, honestly though, you can’t solve the problem by forcing everyone to own a gun. This is a mental health issue. There are tons of law-abiding Americans who legally engage in debates every day.

ERIKA:

CLARK, are you messing with us right now?

SEAN:

Yea, man. Seriously. You sound like an NFA lobbyist. How much you getting paid to say that?

CLARK:

I’m just trying to have a serious discussion about a serious issue. Voicing your opinion is a Constitutional right protected under the First Amendment. You can’t just have the government force everyone to settle their arguments with guns. Do you seriously think that letting everybody walk around carrying firearms wherever they go solves anything?

SEAN:

Dude, calm down.

CLARK:

What? I am calm.

ERIKA:

Listen, CLARK, it’s whatever if you want to debate in private, but… you don’t—you don’t bring your arguments to work… do you?

CLARK:

Free speech laws make it perfectly legal for me to bring my opinions to work and express them in a civil manner. 

ARRIE:

Whoa, dude. You’re using a lot of rhetoric right now. 

CLARK:

I’m exercising my right to free speech.

ERIKA:

CLARK, you’re starting to scare me. 

CLARK:

How am I scaring you? Just because you don’t want to openly and honestly discuss an issue, you’re scared?

SEAN:

CLARK, stop. You’re at the office, man. You can’t just walk around speaking your mind like this.

CLARK:

Are you serious? It’s people like you who make it impossible to find a solution. If you think mandating guns will stop debates, you’re delusional.

ARRIE:

Dude. He’s going off the deep end. I think he’s getting ready to say something dangerous.

ARRIE pulls out his handgun and ERIKA follows suit. The three of them train their guns at CLARK. A crowd of other employees have begun to gather around the incident, some of them cowering, some of them with their hands covering their ears, some of them ready to draw their own guns.

ERIKA:

My god, CLARK. Please just calm down.

SEAN:

CLARK, I know things haven’t been great at home between you and Emily. I know work has been stressful lately. But you don’t have to do this. We don’t have to have this argument. 

CLARK:

What the fuck! I’m just trying to talk to you guys.

ARRIE:

What do we do? He’s trying to draw us into an argument. He’s not even hiding it anymore! 

ERIKA:

Just stop talking, CLARK. Stop trying to engage us!

CLARK:

You stop pointing your guns at me! I’m not the one in the wrong here! You—all of you–you’re the ones who are—

SEAN pulls the trigger on his handgun and shoots CLARK in the head. CLARK crumples onto the floor. SEAN is in shock.

SEAN:

Holy fuck.

ERIKA:

Oh my god. Oh my god.

ARRIE:

Jesus. Sean. You shot him.

SEAN:

Fuck.

ARRIE:

Dude. You saved us. He was about to start a discussion with the whole office. Y—you’re a hero.

The other employees start to applaud. A smile creeps over SEAN'S face.

MATCH CUT TO

INT. EXECUTIVE OFFICE — DAY

CLOSE-UP of SEAN as he sits in a large leather office chair, his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He’s moaning softly. His head jostles rhythmically. ZOOM OUT to slowly reveal SEAN in a nice looking suit, sitting behind an expensive desk, masturbating in his luxurious private office. An ornate gold name plate at the edge of his desk reads “Sean Porter III, President, National Rifle Association.” Suddenly, the phone rings. He answers.

SEAN:

What?!

ASSISTANT:

Hi, Mr. Porter. Sorry to bother you, but I have Senator Klein on the line asking about a donation to his re-election campaign.

SEAN:

Ugh! Fine. Put him through.

 

When I Was a Conservative

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran against George H. W. Bush during the presidential election. I was six at the time and had only been a US resident for half of those years. It would be many more birthdays before I or anyone else in my family, other than my US-born sister, would become citizens. Suffice it to say, I had little understanding or concern for what was going on, except as it applied to the Democratic allegiance of my teacher at the time. Authority figures are important in Chinese culture, and teachers rank high on the list of early-life authorities. I remember she had a Harry Truman bobblehead paper weight on her desk engraved with his famous quote, "The buck stops here." I had no idea what the quote meant, but as a six-year-old immigrant, it was more the oversized bobbling head than the political platitude that won my interest.

I was living in Hoboken, NJ at the time, a pretty left leaning city. The atmosphere of the area favored Clinton, and I think it must’ve subtlety influenced my own sense of how things were meant to be when he eventually declared victory over the Republican incumbent. A six-year-old immigrant doesn’t give two shits about reading lips or new taxes, but I can guarantee they will give anything to feel like they fit in.

Four years later, Bill Clinton ran for reelection against Bob Dole. It was 1996, and my family had moved to Montville, NJ, a predominantly conservative township. I was ten and relatively new in town. Though still too young to understand policies or platforms, I was much more aware of the social tensions that politics tend to muster out of people. This time around, the affair felt more ubiquitous, like everyone had an opinion. Most importantly, I was keenly aware of the support Bob Dole was receiving from my peers, particularly my neighborhood friends and the "cool kids" whom I envied for their access to legitimate AOL accounts (oddly enough, these same "cool kids" would eventually become my first introduction to Jay-Z and DMX, not the kind of music I imagine Bob Dole would approve for tweens). I remember their support for the Republican challenger felt very threatening to me because it directly conflicted with the happy memories of Clinton’s first victory that unintentionally became part of my childhood. I didn’t understand any of the talking points, but Clinton had been the president for the majority of my life in America, and the world seemed fine to me. I remember the long albeit furtive sigh of relief I enjoyed when Clinton again clinched that election.

Years later, I revisited those strange memories where politics managed to briefly sneak its way into the formative experiences of my childhood, awkwardly nestled alongside memories of prank phone calls and anxious nights of praying for snow because I hadn’t finished a book report, and I became aware of a shameful realization that has strongly influenced my political thinking ever since.

In 1996, when I secretly rooted for Clinton, it wasn’t because I was a liberal, a Democrat, or a progressive. In fact, it was the very opposite sentiments which ironically drove me to favor the liberal candidate. I was being fundamentally conservative. Without policies or platforms to guide my judgment, I was relying solely on past experiences and a fear of change. For me, Bill Clinton had come to represent a good, stable constant in the political arena. The only reason I didn’t want Bob Dole to win was because I didn’t want the familiarity of Bill Clinton to be taken away from my world. It had nothing to do with policy, beliefs, platforms, or reason. It had everything to do with maintaining the setting I had gotten comfortable telling my story against. Clinton was simply the way things were. This, I realize now, is the very essence of conservatism. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you’d like a deeper analysis. What I’ve come to realize through those childhood memories is that Conservatism isn’t defined by the policies or parties you support, but rather the other way around. Conservatism is a basic desire to hold onto the familiar and traditional. And sure, political parties, ideologies, and platforms have arisen from that primal desire, institutional symptoms we now carelessly label conservative, but the truth is that Conservatism doesn’t belong to one party. It is a reliance and preference, regardless of practical benefits, for the way things have always been, and in that way, it can afflict Democrats and Republicans alike.

I often think back on the fear I felt during the 1996 election, that somehow the world could only change for the worst if things didn’t play out along the track I’d grown accustomed to riding. That simply because Clinton was the president, he deserved to stay the president. I still enjoy marveling at the irony of my naivety. But these days I also wonder, if I hadn’t been confronted by that serendipitous dissonance between established party politics and fundamental philosophical underpinnings, would I still be clinging to candidates because they felt like the comfortable positions to support? Would I just be using policies, parties, and platforms to justify what is fundamentally nothing more than a desire to maintain my own sense of continuity? And how many people out there have still never had to confront the possibility that the reason they lean left or right has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with keeping their inner child reassured that the world will never change in ways they don’t understand?

Fin's Imaginary Friend, 2

I once asked Fin if he knew what an actress does. He told me he understood what they did, but not why they did what they did.

Why do people lie about who they are?

I told him it wasn't lying, because everyone knows that an actress isn't the person she's pretending to be.

But then why do they pretend at all?

I told him because people like to be told stories, and actresses help tell stories.

But how can anyone believe the stories if they know it's a lie?

I told him people can trick themselves into believing something is real for a little while even if it isn't, at least until the story is over.

How can someone trick themselves into believing the sky is green or that two plus two is five?

I told him people can feel like something is real even if they know that it isn’t, that feeling something isn’t the same as knowing something.

He scratched at the bridge of his nose and paused.

Is that something you can learn?

I told him I didn’t know.

Years ago, I had betrayed the only woman I'd ever loved. On that night, I remember waking to a familiar face framed in a familiar scene, but neither thing familiar with each other. My accomplice was another actress I'd met while an extra in some paycheck production we’d both landed. My stirring caused her eyes to open. The room was cast in dim aquatic luminance. We stared at each other in muffled silence until I opened my mouth and said, You are not a bad person. She didn’t respond. I waited, but still no reply. My mind fretted. I wanted to hear some reciprocal edification against my own sobering guilt. But it didn’t come. She wouldn’t even accept her own absolution. A steadily massing mob of revolutionaries had gathered inside me, growing louder with their bullhorns and their crescendo of effervescent chanting that buzzed like white noise.

When we fall in love with someone, I wondered, do they become part of us? And does that union demand that they share in our own private unhappiness? If you hate your own life, do you inevitably hate the people who’ve unwittingly stumbled into it? Are they just collateral damage, or are they now essential to your own demise? If love binds two lives as one, then surely a rotting foundation in one necessarily leads to the collapse of both. Had it been selfishness or some cathartic wildfire, clearing away everything that should have never been?

Did she decline to respond because she knew neither of us truly deserved to survive this? Did she already know the necessity of letting revolutions cleanse the world of stubborn machinations, that apologizing for ourselves accounted for nothing from people who were so irredeemably broken, that some things are better torn down than fixed, that sometimes the most penitent act isn’t to change but to let yourself be destroyed? I turned to look again and found only a quieted face, her eyelids drawn shut, her sharp jaw pressing folds into the pillow. If this was the immutable path of history, perhaps the only thing left to do was to let it happen. I rested my eyes on her until the peripheral void soaked through her details and there was nothing left to see.

How do you know if you love somebody?

Fin had asked me this after overhearing his parents talking one night. I tried to explain to him the complexity of his question, how the concept of love was particularly resistant to definition. I told him it was a bit different for everybody. He asked me what it meant for me. I struggled with whether to honestly engage him. Could he ever really understand what I would have to say?

You know when you find something you like a lot, how it feels even better when someone else can enjoy it with you? Like how you enjoy eating ice cream. If you eat ice cream alone, it’s still good, but if you’re eating ice cream, and I’m eating ice cream, and we both like it a lot, then we can talk about how good ice cream is, and it feels even better to share how much we both like ice cream with each other. Love is like wanting that feeling with someone all the time.

But what if I don’t like the same things as someone? Does that mean I can't love them?

Well, it’s not just about liking things together. Sometimes, it’s also when you don’t like things together. Actually, it's not even just that. It's not just about agreeing. It's about feeling something together. I know that’s confusing, but I guess it’s just when you can share a feeling with somebody, no matter what that feeling is, and they understand it, and because you both share it, it feels better, whether it's a good feeling or a bad feeling.

But how do you know if someone feels the same thing as you? You can't just read their minds.

Well, I guess that's why it's important that when you love somebody, or you think you love somebody, that you listen to them. If you just talk all the time, but you don't listen, you can't really know if the person you're talking to really understands you, because you never listen to hear if what they say makes sense to you. Even though it feels good to say what you feel inside and let it out, it never feels completely right, because you don't know if anyone else really understands you. But if you listen and hear something someone else says that feels like something you already feel inside, then you don't have to say anything, because you already know that they understand.

But what if they're just acting? How do you know they're not lying? How do you know they feel what you feel? What if they're just saying it, but they don't feel it at all? Or what if they think they feel what you feel, but it's different, only they don't know it's different? They think it's the same, so they talk about it like it's the same, but it's not. How can you be sure?

I didn't know how to answer him. Of course none of us can be sure. None of us can know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling. The only thing we can do is listen to what they have to say and find the things that sound familiar to us. And I guess the rest is just hope. The rest is just tricking ourselves into believing it's real, at least until the show is over. Is that all love is? I couldn't say that to him—especially not him. What kind of answer would that have been? How could he possibly process that? All I could reply with was that I didn't know. I didn't know what it took to be sure of something like that. I told him I was sorry.

He was quiet for a bit. He stared blankly. His weight shifted gently back and forth on the bed as his small frame puffed and shrank with the ebb and flow of his breath. After a while, he turned to me with a look of determination and said flatly that he hoped I would stick around long enough for us to figure it out, figure out how we could be sure. We could keep talking and listening and sharing, and we would keep testing to see what it took to be certain. He asked if I would stick around to help him figure it out.

Okay, I said, Let's figure it out.

Fin's Imaginary Friend, 1

How long does it take to really know somebody? 

When you learn a new language, you only learn the rules, the spellings, the usages. But you don’t really learn the meanings. Not at first. You think you know what the words mean, but you don’t because you’ve never needed to say anything with those words. You’ve never had to beg for help with those words, to expel your frustration with those words, to admit some primal love that realigns your every thought with those words.

When I first came to know Fin, the people around him would relay their sympathies like long overdue confessions. They would inform me of his condition, that it was so severe even his own imagination struggled to empathize with his thoughts at times. But beyond what everyone thought of or said about him, about his miswired mind, firing off all the wrong thoughts to think, I discovered a real person who asked real questions and pondered real thoughts, more real than anything most of us have ever asked ourselves. And for that reason, it must have seemed often like he was speaking in a completely foreign language. 

On the very first day we met, he didn’t seem to question my presence at all. He asked me plenty of questions, but none of them about why I was there or where I’d come from. He didn’t even ask me who I was. It was as if he just accepted that I would be part of his life from then on and skipped past all the bullshit.

He asked me if I was afraid of being alone.

I wasn't sure if he’d meant socially or physically, so I asked. He asked if there was a difference.

Fin liked to play a game where he’d point out some random object and we'd speculate as to how it came to be. Like the lamp on his desk. We’d wonder if the aluminum came from some mine in the DRC or if it was pressed by some large machine in China. Despite his utter indifference for my own origins, he was fascinated—or perhaps obsessed—with the story of how things come into being.

One day, Fin had been picked up from school by his parents for throwing his desk over and screaming in class. They said he wouldn’t explain why it had happened. The teacher claimed there had been no provocation. The other students were in fact being very nice to him, just making polite conversation.

I asked Fin for the truth. I hadn't known him terribly long, but just like strangers on an airplane, that distance between us made it easier for him to tell me the truth about things he couldn’t tell other people. I think maybe because like him, I didn't really belong in the world in which he resided. I was just as much a stranger as he was. Who was I to judge? Who would I even bother to tell?

Surely, one of the other students must have said or done something, pushed him in some way. But when I asked, he told me that none of them had done anything wrong. That it wasn’t their fault. I asked him to tell me the whole story.

It turns out, some of the kids were playing a new game on one of their smartphones. One of them asked if Fin wanted to try. He got a high score on his very first attempt, which impressed a lot of the other kids. They started to talk to him and ask him questions. I asked him what kind of questions. He said the nice kind. And when I asked him what happened next, he said, Nothing.

Nothing else happened. I didn’t understand. Something else had to have happened, but he said that was it. I asked him why he threw his desk over and screamed at them. He looked at me and asked what he should have done. I told him I didn’t know, but he shouldn’t have thrown the desk over. He said he didn’t want to talk to them anymore and asked me what I do when I don’t want to talk to a nice person anymore. I told him I just say I don't want to talk anymore. He asked if that was true.

Was it true? Have I ever told anyone I didn’t want to talk to them anymore? Has anyone ever just told a perfectly nice person they just didn’t want to talk anymore? I mean, I’ve made plenty of excuses. I've lied about places I had to be, told people I had to use the restroom. But I’ve never told somebody I just wanted to stop talking to them. Why? I’ve felt it plenty of times. I can't even count the number of dull, pointless conversations I've been caught in. But I’ve never told anyone I just wanted to stop talking. Why? Because it’s not how normal people act? But Fin wasn’t normal.

I asked him if that's how he really felt, why didn’t he just tell them that? Never mind what I would do.

He said because they wouldn't understand.

Understand what?

That it wasn't their fault.

Continued...   

Lawyering Up: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Inspired by a particularly ripped-from-the-headlines episode of The Good Wife (if you haven't watched this show, shame on you. Are you also against universal suffrage?) which made compelling arguments both for and against the recently controversial provisions of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, I did a bit of research to better wrap my head around and expand on one notable argument the show made.

Far from being the most sound or reliable legal argument against the RFRA, I found it profoundly exciting for its radical implications. Rather than quoting the episode script verbatim or posting video clips like some transparent Huffington Post article (seriously, stop being so basic and just watch the show), I'll summarize the argument. Put simply, if a baker wishes to refrain from providing cakes for gay weddings, would she be willing to provide cakes for weddings of previously divorced couples? Since the Bible condemns both divorce and homosexuality, it would seem that anyone claiming objections to one should rightfully object to the other.

This isn't a new argument. A cursory examination of any comment thread or forum board debating the issue predictably contains some variation of this argument, typically interchanging the analog to gay marriage for any of the many archaic and ignored stances in the Bible (popular options are rape, slavery, chastity, and mixed fabrics in clothing). The interesting thing about this is how such a commonly used internet argument might be applied meaningfully to judicial considerations, and even more interestingly, how it relates the causes of gay rights and atheism. It's not a coincidence that this argument, while commonly found in debates over gay marriage, also tends to flow quite effortlessly in response to almost any religiously involved argument. After all, the Bible is full of some rather jarring content.

The real question here is whether such an argument could really hold weight in legal proceedings, and if so, why haven't they been used yet? From my readings of one very helpful article coming out of UPenn, "Veganism and Sincerely Held 'Religious' Beliefs in the Workplace: No Protection without Definition" by Donna D. Page (you should also read this because it's interesting, but only after you watch The Good Wife), defining religion has been a contentious legal endeavor in the US for a long time, with the Supreme Court contradicting and revising its own interpretations on multiple occasions. Lower courts have also attempted to define the term with their own novel tests in reaction to the unclear guidance from the higher courts. This is an understandable confusion as no contemplative mind would find the task of defining exactly what constitutes a religion to be easy. The issue cuts a path through semantics and intentions and applies to a broad sample of legal cases.

As it currently stands, one seemingly important test is ascertaining the strength and consistency of one's beliefs. This makes sense as it stems from United States v. Seeger and subsequent cases regarding conscientious objectors where the importance of preventing insincere and self-serving excuses from inclusion under religious protection is obvious. But the question before us now is whether a contemporary religiously motivated individual who objects to servicing gays can rightfully expect religious protections if they only selectively choose which beliefs and provisions of their religion to act on. Would it not be inconsistent practice to claim an objection to homosexuality while wearing a blouse made of wool and cotton? And if we accept that certain individuals might still believe in all the teachings of their religion but simply fail to observe all those teachings in practice, doesn't that place the individual dangerously close to the verge of failing meaningful and substantial commitment to their "religion"? After all, I can claim any number of made up "religious" beliefs to exempt me from taxes, but if the courts see a blatant pattern of behavior flying directly in the face of those beliefs, am I likely to win a right to any exemptions? Probably not.

But the deeper implications of the argument might be far more damaging than just the hard pill conservative bakers nationwide would be forced to swallow. If we are to question the very validity of religious belief based upon consistent and meaningful adherence to doctrines, who among us would truly be capable of claiming any religious protection at all? Who among us in the modern financial credit market of America doesn't collect interest from some bank account or stock portfolio? Who among us hasn't indulged in carnal knowledge with a high school beau whose parents were away on vacation? These may seem simply like prescriptive behavioral doctrines that do not fully define a religious belief, but even if we are to allow that every religion dictates the foundation of its own belief system, Christianity has so often made explicit reference to the Bible as the instrumental guide to knowing and understanding the principles of the religion that it would be impossible not to judge the merits of a proclaimed Christian by their adherence to the prescriptions of the Bible. If the Bible is the word of God and God is the Supreme Being with whom our relationship defines religious status in the court of law, then how can we not consider adherence to the behavioral prescriptions of the Bible to be the very litmus test of true religious status?

And yet doing so would utterly cripple the very notion of religious protections as judicial interpretation of the Bible, or any other holy text for that matter, seems like a task logically incongruent with the very notion of religious protection. Letting the government decide how to interpret a religion in order to determine which religions warrant protection from itself is like allowing Congress to decide how much Congress should get paid—err—letting a pedophile decide the age of consent. But that's exactly the issue the RFRA is forcing us to confront. By bringing issues of religious rights to the courts, we are asking the courts to help define religions, and by asking the courts to define religions, we are asking them to infringe upon religious rights. The problem is ever more complicated by the fact that an argument of the kind mentioned earlier is essentially a thinly veiled critique of the entire Christian belief system. It is not simply an anti-anti-homosexual argument. It is an anti-Bible argument. It attempts to undercut the very foundation of the religion, bringing into question infinitely more perplexing issues regarding religion itself and a discussion of the merits of atheism, which considering the controversy already stirred by gay rights alone, may simply be too much for the American public to handle without the threat of civil war.

It's clear that defining religion is a task heretofore still incomplete, and I am skeptical as to whether it can ever truly be completed. Bearing in mind the philosophical complexity of something like religions and beliefs, it seems perhaps that defining such things presupposes our understanding of far more vexing existential mysteries altogether. And yet here we are now, forced to make those decisions with incomplete knowledge for the sake of pragmatic social order. But then again, isn't that ultimately what all human civilization boils down to?