Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion

We Americans have long prided ourselves on our civic birthright of individual freedom. Although our history has not consistently honored that ideal, a mixture of empty rhetoric and genuine intentions continues to profess it. Varying public sentiments, court decisions, and governmental actions have frequently curtailed the several freedoms for reasons both necessary (e.g., public endangerment) and foolish (e.g., political expediency). One of those freedoms is the right we have, legally grounded in the Constitution, to endorse and practice whatever positions we wish with regard to religion, protected not only from force, but from governmental endorsement (“taking sides”) of one view over another.

On the whole, freedom in religious matters, despite frequent failings, has worked out better than the 18th and 19th century world in which our republic was born. It had a rocky, pre-constitutional start with Roger Williams in Massachusetts and Rhode Island (see my Aug. 26, 2013 post, “Our debt to Roger Williams”), then shameful anti-Catholic mob behavior in Pennsylvania, blue laws in most states, and on ad nauseam. The battle still wages between those whose religious persuasions require them to control others’ practices and those who resist the loss of freedom much of religion seems bent on causing.

Religious bullying comes as no surprise; indeed it seems firmly in religion’s DNA. If God is on your side and the world should to be brought to its knees for Jesus, normal civil behavior, tolerance, and freedoms can and, indeed, must be overridden. I realize that most Christians don’t see themselves in that description. In fact, many of them are not, at least through any conniving intent. They don’t notice the problem of priests and ministers getting involved as faith leaders in civic arguments about drinking laws, Sunday retail, and Ten Commandments postings. Nor do they notice the religious basis of arguments given for praying at city council and school board meetings, blocking same-sex marriage, or exempting churches from taxation (I will address the church tax matter in a later post). More obvious, perhaps, is the religion-driven anti-science campaign about evolution…shot through with enough ignorance to be an embarrassment even to many of the faithful.

These things are not new. They will no doubt continue to plague the world so long as religious faith is a merit badge, as long as dogma sans evidence is considered a virtue rather than a travesty on reason and a celebration of superstition.

However, what is relatively new is the twist being used recently by the religious right in the United States to define freedom of religion thusly: It is a curtailment of religious freedom to deny them their right to tell others what to do. The concept of religious freedom, in other words, is being contorted into its opposite.

The ways in which the faithful appropriate the power of civil government or win special favors for their dogma are legion. But few Christians likely protested when in the last few months Birmingham, AL, Police Chief A.C. Roper, an ordained minister, led monthly prayer walks in different neighborhoods under the auspices of the Prayer Force United ministry. He also incudes Christian prayer at mandatory department staff meetings and events, using his title and office to “claim the city of Birmingham for God.” Roper says that Prayer Force is part of the police department, “a prayer ministry…an intercessory ministry.”

Joseph Kennedy, a force behind Alabama state senator Blane Galliher’s introduction of HB 133 in 2012 revealed, “We want to give [public school] students good sound scientific reasons to support their faith in the seven-day creation and the young Earth.” How many Christians see the flaw in Kennedy’s reasoning? Maybe they just stay quiet. With reasoning like that, no wonder there is no great uprising when Tony Perkins, Mike Huckabee, and James Dobson prophesize that “If the government redefines marriage to grant a legal equivalency to same-sex couples . . . [it] will bring about an inevitable collision with religious freedom and conscience rights.” What rights? No one is even suggesting that religious people cannot practice their religion and all its rules. Oh, wait a minute. They must mean the “right” of Christians to determine the law of the land.

Nor is there consternation when Penn. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, when asked why he stopped Rep. Brian Sims from making floor remarks about the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, replied, “I did not believe that as a member of that body I should allow someone to make comments…that ultimately were just open rebellion against what the word of God has said.” Apparently, Rep. Metcalfe believes his legislative duty is not subject to the Constitution. It seems obvious that the only “freedom of religion” that stands to be lost is Christians’ free pass to set the rules and the punishments, much like the religious freedom of the Catholic Church suffered mightily when the Inquisition stopped.

It isn’t surprising what goes on with these pious souls who so frequently wrap themselves in the flag…people like the American Family Association’s spokesperson Bryan Fischer, who made the blindingly unconstitutional allegation that “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion. Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve religious liberty for non-Christians.” Of course, he kept his job and his adoring religious right audience. Against that backdrop, it was pretty much a yawn when Rev. Joseph Morecraft of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church spoke to the Worldview and Christian Education Conference, proclaiming “Nobody has the right to worship on this planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not have the responsibility to defend anybody’s pseudo-right to worship an idol;” I can only imagine whose definition of idol he meant.

Those who would sacrifice enlightened views of human rights to Dark Ages thinking, if not Dark Ages violence, are willing to stoop to low levels to defend the faith…like lying or maintaining a dedicated hold on ignorance. Take Sandra Bradury, mayor of Pinellas Park, FL, defending religion in city council meetings earlier this year: “The Ten Commandments are part of our constitution whether people realize it or not.” When an interviewer then asked how that could be true (of course, it isn’t), she intelligently replied, “Well, if you look at killing: you aren’t supposed to kill.” Groan. If it were not in such poor taste to introduce critical thought into the religious arena, we could see that rather than religion being “sadly under attack” (Archbishop Chullikatt at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast), it seems bent on suicide.

Despite absolutely no basis in fact, the frequent implication that nonbelievers are less honest and committed to humanity than the faithful, no less a virtuous light than Newt Gingrich at a political debate asked rhetorically—confident no believer would question him—“ How can you have judgment if you have no faith? How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” I suppose the same religious people who did not rise up in disgust when Mike Huckabee as a presidential candidate proposed to “amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it [sic] lines up with some contemporary view.” Even if one can be blind enough to overlook the Rev. Huckabee’s theocratic statement, he didn’t see fit to explain away how the Bible isn’t big on freedom of speech, religion, or much of any other of the liberties we say we hold dear.

Oh, well, we can still coast a further few decades or more on our founders’ hard work in separating civil authority from sectarian true-believers. Still, it doesn’t help to have leaders whose understanding of something so basic and so important is so thoughtless…like President George H. W. Bush, whose lips we watched in 1987 as they spake this gem: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.” Poor Tom Paine, freethinker whose sharp intellect and spirited words figured prominently in beginning America’s road to independence, there’s just no way getting back into that big tent.

Poor fundamentalists. Some of us resist them when their definition of religious freedom includes telling everyone else what to do. Oh, I just realized—their freedom of religion is threatened.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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