Friday, March 2, 2012

What Religious Freedom Is Not

Many moons ago, when I "were a lass" (as they say in the North of England from whence a great many of my ancestors came), I learned that our country was founded on the basis of religious freedom. I had it explained to me, by various and sundry Virginian teachers - for, indeed, the concept of religious freedom came from the brilliant mind of a brilliant Virginian - that "freedom of religion" meant that Americans could practice whatever religion they wished to follow, without compunction and without any sort of persecution on the part of the government. I was taught that "freedom of religion" also meant that if someone didn't wish to follow any religion at all - hey, that was all right too; because our Constitution stated that people were not to suffer discrimination in any form for their religious faith or lack thereof.

Now, it seems as though the Republican Party, and at least one of their Presidential candidates, interprets "freedom of religion" as the right to impart forcibly a particular religious belief on the citizens of this country and to denigrate and verbally defile anyone who holds no such religious beliefs.

When the President sallied forth and showed the media his long-form birth certificate, the Tea Party contingent and the nasty Right were suddenly in need of a new lie in which to wrap the President. So now in an election year, they've found one: The President is a faux Christian. In fact, he isn't Christian at all - he's just pretending to be. And that's downright unAmerican, dontcha know, because - well, because the United States is a Christian country, goldarnit!

Only, it's not.

As much as my brethren on the Right might fervently believe so, it simply isn't. The United States is a secular country, which is why it was founded on the tenet of the Church being separate from the government. The Church cannot interfere in the workings of State. It does not mean that people of faith, even clergymen, themselves, cannot participate in government. Father Robert Drinan served as a Congressman; Gov Mike Huckabee is an ordained pastor. Both served their constituents and, one hopes, did so without any reservation regarding or resort to any religious scruples in their secular legislation.

But now, it's 2012, an election year, and the Republican Right need some scare tactic to razzle up their base, and - more importantly - they need another meme by which they can attempt to de-legitimise this President, which is something they have been trying to do since he won the election: to hand proof-positive to America and the world evidence that our President is, indeed, "the other," someone who is "not like us," someone alien and "unAmerican."

Molly Worthen, writing in The New York Times assesses this brilliantly:-

When conservatives cry “freedom of religion” and insist they mean something more than “freedom of worship,” this is what they mean: religious freedom is not just the freedom to gather in a room and pray one morning a week. It is the freedom to impose one’s own religious values on others. Free expression of religion entails the right to reason from religious principles in the public square and — with sufficient electoral support — to enshrine those principles in law and social institutions. If Obama does not support this view, they argue, then he is hardly a true American.

Over the course of American history, “religious freedom” has been a shape-shifter invoked just as often in the name of prejudice (in 19th-century Protestant campaigns against Catholic schools; in fundamentalist colleges’ racial discrimination a hundred years later) as on behalf of liberty. It is a code phrase alternately benign and sinister, much like that other clever cloak for bigotry, “states’ rights.” In the context of the 2012 race, the charge that Obama subverts religious freedom is a code meant to label the president as an impostor, a blasphemer of the American gospel who adheres to another religion entirely.

Santorum has hit this theme the hardest, warning that conservative Christians must not be fooled by the president’s efforts to play the neutral statesman who treats all believers equally. On the contrary, he obeys a false religion with nonnegotiable assumptions of its own. Santorum described Obama’s environmentalism as a “phony theology” and a “worldview.”

This is an attempt to paint as irrationally ideological a president who has proven himself to be not very ideological at all (much to the frustration of his supporters on the left). It is a culture warrior’s maneuver to cast American politics as a Manichean battleground between two worldviews — red-blooded Christian America pitted against the secularist stranger — worldviews so captive to their own logic that they cannot possibly compromise on anything.


Conservatives’ accusations that Obama disrespects religious freedom have little to do with the White House’s actual policy: his administration has a strong track record in supporting faith-based organizations and ensuring that prisoners have access to religious literature, for example. They have everything to do with resurrecting old challenges to the president’s legitimacy and framing the 2012 campaign as a battle between honest Christian Americans and atheist subversives. “Enemy of religious freedom” is shorthand for a deceiver who is not one of us: in Gingrich’s words, one who “played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president.”

In short, when is "religious freedom" not "religious freedom"? Short answer: When it's used as a front for outright racism.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding your closing statement: The Supreme Court has made decisions which are pertinent. Religious groups can be compelled to comply with government requirements if the greater public good would otherwise be threatened.For example, a religious group which prohibits certain medical treatments can be compelled to have those treatments in the case of an epidemic. Parents whose religious beliefs prohibit medical intervention can be held accountable if their sick child is harmed by their refusal to seek appropriate medical treatment.