An UnFreedom Summer: LGBT rights are not a threat to religious freedom

An UnFreedom Summer: LGBT rights are not a threat to religious freedom

In 1964, hundreds of civil rights workers, many of them college students, traveled to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote.  Over the ten weeks of what was called “Freedom Summer,” more than a thousand people involved with the campaign were arrested, 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten, 37 churches and 30 black homes or businesses were bombed or burned, four civil rights workers were killed, four people were critically wounded, and at least three black Mississippians were murdered.

Since then, summer campaigns on a variety of concerns have sought to subtly (or not so subtly) cast themselves in the heroic moral tradition of the Freedom Summer – though none has been as dramatic as the events of the summer of 1964.

Now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is preparing a short summer campaign that is long on hyperbole. The Fortnight for Freedom is an annual two-week campaign (from June 21 to the Fourth of July) intended to highlight alleged threats to religious freedom in the United States.

These threats are said to come primarily from advances in LGBTQ rights generally and marriage equality in particular.

The Fortnight for Freedom memorializes church martyrs, including two who were killed for their faith on the order of apostate kings of England. It’s a clever ploy, built on misleading and emotionally charged comparisons.

While the United States is not without problems of religious discrimination, these problems tend to be the exceptions and not the rule. In any case, there is no serious persecution of American Christians, and certainly no one in living memory has been killed for being Catholic in America.

Nevertheless, the implication is that equality for all citizens is an infringement not only of their religious freedom but constitutes an attack on religious freedom generally. The further implication is that persecution and martyrdom are at hand.

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Indeed, this plays into a broad, hyperbolic Christian Right narrative that advances a dark vision of tyranny in America – which the faithful must prepare to resist.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who heads the USCCB Committee on Religious Liberty (which organizes Fortnight for Freedom), denied in a speech in November 2014 that he and his fellow bishops are right-wing culture warriors bent on imposing their agenda on everyone else. But he also essentially acknowledged that they want to do just that by, among other things, blocking access to legal and otherwise constitutionally protected contraception and abortion care wherever they can.

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To Lori and other Christian Right leaders, religious freedom is synonymous with opposition to abortion and marriage equality. Lori also said the bishops are “concerned” for people who run businesses and for government officials “who do not want to become implicated in supporting same sex ‘marriages.’”

Lori and his colleagues want to have it both ways: to be both for and against freedom. So we get increasingly Orwellian definitions (or redefinitions) of religious freedom used to turn policy differences into histrionics.

A classic of the form, highlighted on the Fortnight for Freedom web page, was an address given April 26, 2015 by Thomas Farr, a leading Catholic neoconservative who heads the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. His talk was titled “ISIS and Indiana: The Global Crisis of Religious Liberty and Catholic Responsibility.”

Note Farr’s insinuation that the Middle Eastern Islamic terror group ISIS has some bearing on the recent battle over LGBTQ discrimination in the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  In the speech itself, Farr suggests that religious liberty is in danger of being “lost in America.”

His claim is of a piece with a favorite rhetorical device of the Christian Right.  There are indeed serious religious freedom concerns in the world, and people are sometimes killed or otherwise persecuted for their faith. But these things are not happening to Christians in America. Not even close.

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Dire situations elsewhere are being used to suggest a trend that does not exist in the U.S., and thereby to justify a domestic public policy agenda that seeks dramatic exemptions from civil rights laws intended to protect LGBTQ people.

Here then are two good responses to the claims we are likely to hear during the Fortnight for Freedom:

First, the advance of civil rights for LGBTQ people is not to be conflated with religious persecution and martyrdom. Second, no one gets to choose which laws they are going to obey. Not even conservative Christians.


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