Religious liberty is one of the defining issues of our time — offering distinct challenges and historic opportunities for LGBTQ people and everyone who is struggling to create a more just society. As the Christian Right continues to use the term to frame their issues, we must not concede the definition of religious liberty to interlopers.
Religious liberty is a progressive and liberatory value, over which theocratic factions, and the politicians who pander to them, have no claim.
But like any freedom, it atrophies if it is under-exercised. Religious liberty is for both religious and non-religious people alike, and we all have to be effective advocates for each other and defend our right to believe (or not believe) as we will, and to change our minds when it suits us.
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We are the legacy of religious liberty — which has provided so much strength to movements for social justice throughout our history. And we need to know it deep in our bones and never forget.
Perhaps, then, we should be grateful that theocratic factions are seeking to win the culture wars on our home turf. Every advance in human and civil rights since the writing of the Constitution has been made possible by the freedom to believe differently from the rich and powerful — and being free from the undue influence of both government and powerful religious institutions.
That is why the Religious and Political Right are desperately seeking to co-opt one of the most powerful ideas in human history — twisting religious liberty and seeking to transfer the rights of individuals to corporations and other institutions
In Mississippi, for example, they have successfully passed legislation that exempts businesses from laws requiring equal treatment of LGBTQ people if business owners’ claimed religious convictions are opposed to homosexuality.
Similarly, in the historic Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court exempted businesses whose owners oppose abortion from including certain contraceptives in their company insurance plans.
The implications for allowing claimed religious convictions to exempt businesses from complying with civil rights laws, and perhaps others as well, are vast. And we may be entering an age of aggressive Rightist civil disobedience.
It’s not like we had no warning.
We saw early signs of this fight looming in a major covenant between top Christian Right leaders and culture-warring Roman Catholic prelates in 2009 with the Manhattan Declaration. The manifesto focuses on three interrelated values: “sanctity of life,” “traditional marriage,” and “religious freedom.”
Invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” it calls for “resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.”
This year, megachurch pastor Rick Warren said he is willing to go to jail over perceived abridgments of religious freedom.
Russell Moore, the top lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention declared, “The one thing worse than being hauled off to jail is a Church not willing to go to jail.”
It may be unlikely that the likes of Warren, Moore or any Catholic prelate will ever risk more than few hours in jail over marriage equality or anything else. But it is also unlikely that this is mere rhetoric—to be dismissed as transitory political posturing.
The deepening notion that the federal government is growing tyrannical and oppressive may become the root of long-term political divisions and conflict. You can’t have meaningfully dialog or collaborate with a “persecutor” or “tyrant.”
What you can do is figure out how to fight back, while conserving as much as possible of what you hold dear.
But in so doing, they have made an historic error. Religious liberty cannot be isolated from religious pluralism: the right of individual conscience and separation of church and state. The framers of the Constitution never envisioned religious liberty as an excuse for persecution, or enshrining a right to oppress. It was to be a source of liberation from both a tyrannical monarchy and from hegemonic and authentically persecutory state churches.
History is ours — and the future can be ours as well.