Celebrate and Defend Real Religious Freedom

Every day at my job, I witness and celebrate America’s religious freedom in action. Through our Office of Religious Life, over 70 religious clubs from all the world’s faiths, including a secular humanist club, practice their traditions in harmony with each other. They compete with each other openly in the “marketplace” of ideas and practices on campus, with respect for each other and gratitude for the liberty they all enjoy. None of them complain to us that they are in any way oppressed or stifled. We’re a private campus, so we could impose all sorts of restrictions on them that would not be possible in the wider public sphere. But they have all the rights they’d have at a publicly-owned university, as well as many extra benefits for all of them – without any one faith tradition getting special privileges. What happens at the University Religious Center at USC is what real religious freedom looks like in America, and it’s a beautiful thing.

But the Trump administration acts like it exists in a parallel dystopian universe.

“A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week, announcing the formation of a Justice Department task force devoted to defending religious liberty. The movement “must be confronted and defeated.” Sessions added. (Vox.com-August 1, 2018)

To Jeff Sessions’ statement, I say “amen”, with a footnote: he is a key player in that “dangerous movement”.

The party of lies – the Republican Party, the party of Trump – is using Orwellian “newspeak” on the subject of religious liberty. Before the Republicans took control of the federal government, America already had religious freedom – the kind that prevails right here at USC. That freedom was under threat from fundamentalist Christian “culture warriors” before Trump took office. Now that threat is armed with the authority of the federal government to turn the definition of “religious freedom” inside out and make it the freedom of fundamentalist Christians to impose their contorted interpretation of the Gospel on everybody else. For them, “religious freedom” is something totally different than what the framers of the Constitution had in mind, and something very different from what we enjoy every day at USC.

Let’s get crystal-clear about what religious freedom is. It is the freedom of individuals to believe what they wish, to practice their faith traditions, or lack thereof, as they wish, and to express and propagate their faith in the public square – which includes their efforts to turn their faith convictions into public policy. This is necessarily predicated on the government refraining from privileging any one religion over another. The “separation of church and state” is a one-way affair: the government can’t endorse any particular religion, but religion is free to endorse or influence any politician or public policy it chooses. A church or temple that endorses a particular candidate might lose its nonprofit status, but if it is willing to pay taxes like any other business, it can do as it pleases.

The only real threat to this religious freedom comes from the people who are twisting its definition like a pretzel: politically and socially conservative evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and their right-wing Catholic and Mormon allies. They believe that since their religion isn’t getting special privileges, isn’t able to force itself on everybody else, they are being persecuted. That’s a lie. No culture-warrior Catholic is being forced to have an abortion or to use birth control. No anti-gay fundamentalist Protestant is being forced to marry someone of the same sex, or to perform such a wedding ceremony. No evangelical baker is being forced to eat cake at a same-sex wedding. When a fundamentalist baker, serving the general public, discriminates against gay couples by refusing to make them wedding cakes, that’s not the exercise of religious freedom. That is a fundamentalist discriminating against somebody who isn’t like them. The fundamentalist is free to choose another line of work that does not expose them to gay couples ordering wedding cakes. Same with the hard-right Catholic pharmacist who doesn’t want to give birth control pills to customers who ask for them. They are free to find another line of work in which they don’t have to face such situations. When a progressive Christian woman, who believes that God calls her to use birth control in order to help save God’s creation from the very real threat of over-population, goes to that pharmacist and is refused service, whose rights have been violated? Hers, not the pharmacist’s. The pharmacist has freedom to practice his or her faith, not freedom from having to engage in commerce and public life with people of other faiths, or of no faith at all.

Consider the religious conscientious objector to war, who must pay taxes that fund the military – whether he or she likes it or not. Religious objectors are free to think and advocate for what they want, but that does not exempt them from their public responsibilities under the rule of law. Where are Jeff Sessions and his fellow whiny, sanctimonious Pharisees when it comes to Quaker and Mennonite and Jehovah’s Witness war resisters? Their silence about this kind of objection is deafening. It is a silence that speaks volumes about their real intention, which is for the government to privilege their narrow kind of religion over all others.

And that’s what makes theirs a very dangerous movement indeed. Because freedom of religion is not just about religion. It’s about freedom, period. My freedom to be myself – my freedom to think or pray or worship in ways that reflect who I am – is utterly bound and connected to your freedom to be and do the same for yourself. My freedom to go to a Republican baker and get the same treatment whether I am gay, straight, Mormon, socialist, Catholic, or Jedi is bound inextricably with the baker’s freedom to buy ice cream from a Democrat ice-cream shop owner. It’s about the freedom to go to a pharmacy and expect to be given the same service whether you are black, white, agnostic, fundamentalist, or a progressive Christian. It’s about the freedom to go to a taxpayer-subsidized hospital, whether Catholic or secular or Adventist, and get the same services that anyone else would get at any other hospital. (Unfortunately, we’re headed in the opposite direction, as very many hospitals owned by conservative religious groups deny access to a list of services. Many of these hospitals are the only ones in town in rural areas. Effectively they are imposing their religions on entire regional populations, yet a huge percentage of their revenue comes from taxpayer funds.)

Without real religious freedom, America will be sliced up into isolated sectarian enclaves, distorting public space and life beyond recognition. Fundamentalist Christianity, which presumes that individuals must choose for themselves whether or not to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, will be imposed on everybody by government edict. This outrageous irony will not be lost on people. Religion will suffer if Jeff Sessions and his ilk get their way. Banning abortion will result in the most ferocious backlash against Christianity that this country has ever seen. Privileging fundamentalism by the government will cheapen and corrupt the Christian religion as a whole – including fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity – in the hearts and minds of Americans. Just look at what has happened in Iran: a whole generation has turned against Islam because the government forced it down their throats.

Let’s celebrate the wonderful religious freedom we already have, and defend it from Trump and the Republicans at the polls in November. For Christ’s sake, let’s get their creepy hands off our religion, and all others! The future of our faith depends on it.

Rev. Jim Burklo,, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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