Friday, November 16, 2012

Religious Freedom, or Christian Privilege?

Driving to and from work, I’ve passed many political lawn signs over the last few months. Most are the usual candidate signs, with a few devoted to state or local issues. One sign I saw was is a simple white sign with black print: Protect Religious Freedom. Despite the election’s passage, many continue to be displayed.

I’ve done some research on the group behind these signs. Called Faith 4 Freedom on the signs, the organization is Catholics United 4 Freedom. Color me unsurprised that the group is Christian based – it’s part of a continuing pattern.

There is a small but very vocal group in this country which believes that religious freedom is under attack in the United States. Whenever I hear someone complain about infringements upon religious freedom in this country, the complainer invariably is Christian – usually a hard core evangelical, fundamentalist, or conservative Catholic. One almost never hears this complaint from a Jew, Episcopalian, member of the United Church of Christ, or even a Muslim. (This, of course, is separate from the very real prejudice and discrimination which unfortunately still exist against Jews and Muslims.) Not coincidentally, these are the same people who demand equal time in the teaching of Creationism versus Evolution in public schools.

I would be quite surprised if any of the yards hosting these signs were owned by anyone other than Christians of the fundamentalist variety. Indeed, I suspect that, if you asked these people off the record what religion they think President Obama belongs to, a high percentage would reply “Muslim.”

There is a line that this country has been allowed to cross, the line which marks the demarcation point between religious freedom – as defined by the First Amendment – and Christian privilege.

As a refresher, let us read the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In the simplest terms, that means the government must remain neutral on matters religious. It is an indisputable fact that Christians in the United States are accorded special accommodations that are rarely given to members of other religions: For example, Christmas is a national holiday. (At this point, let me disclose that I celebrate Christmas – though in an entirely secular manner.) Although there are individual municipalities and school districts where Jewish or Muslim holy days are recognized, only Christianity gets a Federal holiday. But that’s not good enough for the zealots. They want more, and see any attempt to separate the religious from the secular as an infringement upon their sacred rights.

When Christian groups whine about not being able to place a Christmas display on public property, their true complaint is not about religious persecution, but the waning of their Christian privilege. Were a similar Muslim display, say for Ramadan, to be erected, there would be a hue and cry from these very same people who claim to “protect religious freedom”.

What the religion protectors demand is their right to impose their religious beliefs on others, regardless of the individual’s own religious beliefs or lack thereof. For example, they believe they should have the right to ban same-sex marriage for everyone – no matter the religious belief of those wanting to get married. Never mind the fact that no one seeking a same-sex marriage has ever demanded such a ceremony be performed in or recognized by any church. Religious zealots are unable to separate civil from religious concepts, even though Jesus himself said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” They also demand that politicians – most of whom happen to be male – legislate whether a woman be allowed to use birth control or have access to abortion. The religious protectors are the very people who have made the United States a laughingstock to much of the civilized world. But it’s nothing to laugh about here, because these are the people who want to turn America into a Christian Iran.

Over the last century, particularly in the period after the Second World War, America has become more religiously diverse – that’s a good thing. A recent survey from the Pew institute indicated that one in five Americans declared themselves affiliated with NO religion – that’s an even better thing. One wonders what the reaction would be if a monument to atheism/agnosticism – or simply to “separation of church and state” – were to arise.

The recent trouncing the right wing faced in the recent elections – with the Republicans losing the Presidential race, seats in both chambers of Congress, and marriage quality victories in four states – are harbingers of a trend that our country is on the path to a more rational, more secular, less fundamentalist future. For that, we can thank whatever god we believe in – or not.

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