Today we’re going to talk about hats and soup. America is on the verge of a constitutional crisis because of feelings of division and exclusion, because of fear, and because a petulant man baby is mad that the grown-ups won’t let him play with building blocks. There are, however, a couple small congressional policies that could be changed to at least send a symbolic message of secular inclusion and understanding.
Religious Headwear Exemptions Shouldn’t be Religious or Require an Exemption
There was a bit of fanfare in the press last week when the new House of Representatives inducted the country’s first Muslim-American congresswomen. This came with a need to augment the congressional dress code.
You see, politicians are traditionally a bunch of stuffy, uptight, image obsessed, powermongers. Because of this one of the first things they do when deciding what rules they’re going to play by when making laws is criticize each other’s clothing. The congressional dress code requirements are a bit nebulous. In 2017 the ‘business attire’ requirement caused a bit of a dust-up because women were being criticized for wearing sleeveless dresses. That forced then Speaker Paul Ryan to say “Decorum is important, especially for this institution, and a dress code in the chamber and the lobby makes sense. But we also don’t need to bar otherwise accepted contemporary business attire.” Because even Paul Ryan knew that the optics of a bunch of old white men telling women what was appropriate in 2017 would’ve been political suicide.
Now, I’m not really one to think that decorum is important at all. A law made in sweats and a tee-shirt would be just as reasonable or unconstitutional as one made in an overpriced suit. But I understand that a certain amount of pomp and circumstance has to be tolerated in an age where everyone is on camera constantly. So I acquiesce that some clothing standards are going to be enforced one way or another and there’s no point fighting that. However, let’s talk about hats.
For 181 years hats were not allowed to be worn in the house chamber. This was recently changed to carve out an exemption because incoming Muslim congresswomen would have been prevented from wearing their hijab under the rule. Clearly, one can’t have a rule that would prevent a congressperson from doing their job while also observing religious customs of dress so that, in and of itself, is not a problem. At least it won’t be a problem … until a Pastafarian gets elected to office and insists on wearing a colander.
I know this sounds like nit-picking but religious exemptions for headwear inherently favor religion over non-religion by insisting that hats worn in the name of god are somehow more acceptable than hats that are worn just because the wearer just likes hats. It’s silly. Rather than give a privilege to the religious I think they should just let people wear hats. It would be the right thing to do.
Senate Bean Soup Should be Vegan
I’m sure that, somewhere, someone is thinking that I’m picking on the newly minted Islamic members of congress by suggesting there’s nothing special about hijabs and asking for a privileged religious exemption from the rules is offensive to secularists. I’m going to make up for that with this one though so stick with me.
By mandate, one of the only foods that is guaranteed to be on the Capitol Hill menu is the hearty, quaint, and completely off-limits to Jews and Muslims alike, Navy Bean Soup. There are several folksy and nostalgia invoking stories about how this tradition came to be. In 1988 Bob Dole recounted a story on the house floor about how it failed to be on the menu for one day in 1943 as a result of World War II rationing, and so it has become a symbol of the bare minimum requirements of availability that is to tolerated on Capitol Hill. The general idea, symbolic as it may be, is that as long as there’s Senate Bean Soup in the commissary, then the Republic still stands.
It’s a cute story, and I actually really like navy bean soup. But is it really appropriate that this symbol of our resolute democracy, this humble food that is the last canary in the coal-mine which if no longer offered is surely a sign of utter chaos and the end civilization as we know it, cannot be enjoyed by members of government because of their religious convictions? You see Senate Bean Soup is made with ham hocks. In the event that society is falling apart, the government is in shambles, and only the most resolved representatives are left standing, even then our traditions have found a way to be exclusionary to minorities. It’s not just Jewish and Muslim capitol employees that are symbolically impacted by this. Jains are surely equally excluded by this soft jab at their beliefs. Non-religious vegetarians and vegans are notoriously vociferous about this kind of thing. Yet, not a peep for what would be such a simple gesture of inclusion.
It isn’t a Fix, It’s a Start
Ok, look I’m not saying that these symbolic changes would magically solve divisiveness and hatred in our society. They would, however, be the kind of thing our representatives could undertake that would have a very minimal impact on anyone at all. They would also send a clear message that we value inclusion and demonstrate respect for minority traditions, beliefs, non-beliefs, and customs. Throughout history it is often these kinds of small and symbolic changes that signal a new path forward. And if there’s anything we can agree on right now it’s that we definitely need a new path forward.
So, once our current crises are put to bed and government is re-opened in full capacity I would urge these issues be quietly addressed. You never know, it could be the start of a way out of this mess.