October 27, 2014

Religious Freedom: It doesn't come from religion

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a local meeting for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which featured guest speaker Reverend Steven Baines, the national religious outreach director for the organization. The talk was titled "Perils of Politicized Pulpits and Faith in America", and it was wonderful. Rev. Baines was a talented speaker, and as an ordained minister, came from an excellent viewpoint for separation of church and state.

One point that really rang true to me was the shift in religious perceptions of their own persecution in our nation. "Religious freedom" has come to mean "freedom for my religious beliefs and to hell with the rest of you and yours"--quite literally, it would seem.

And yet, as Rev. Baines emphasized again and again religious freedom and separation of church and state aren't rivals. They're allies.

It's because of that separation that we have true religious freedom, that we have true religious diversity in our nation.

I had planned this particular piece before I ever planned on visiting the Unitarian Universalist congregation last night, but it became all the more necessary to do it (in my mind at least) following that meeting, because it really reignited my passion for separation of church and state and how important it is for each of us to stand up for it.

Recently, I ran across a column by Dan Dalzell at the Christian Post that rehashed several versions of mistruths and half-truths that the conservatives like to pass around about our nation's religious history.

Here's one such point:

Without faith in Jehovah and His Son, man tends to shut down freedom. Without the working of the Holy Spirit in a nation, laws related to matters of faith tend to become oppressive. Jehovah is the author of freedom, and a real witness for Jehovah will teach what Christians have always taught.

Dalzell is arguing that it's because of Christianity that we have religious freedom at all. I could not disagree more.

In fact, Baines related a story last night that reminded me of how entirely untrue this statement is. He mentioned that he grew up in the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1682, this church has survived multiple wars. And yet, that building, that city, this state, isn't even where it began.

It began in Maine. After a dispute with the Puritans in Maine over baptismal routines--sprinkling versus dunking--this group of Baptists were led to the south. Why? To escape religious persecution.

Religious persecution enacted by Christians.

And these were in the very early days of our nation's colonial era.

Dalzell also points out that religion causes oppression (but not his, of course):

Religion has a way of shaping a nation, be it for good or bad. Jehovah and His Gospel enables man to become free on the inside. This in turn leads to freedom of religion being promoted on the outside. On the other hand, wherever people are following a god other than Jehovah, the result is often oppression and control. Religious zealots dominate others and threaten them with violence simply for exercising their God-given freedom of choice. 

And yet, Christianity itself, followed to its logical conclusion, is an incredible source of oppression. Why does it not get followed to that logical conclusion more often? Because we have separation of church and state, which protects religions freedom and diversity. Allies, not rivals.

When we look at places that don't have religious freedom, we aren't looking at the difference between a government based on one religion and a government based on another. What we are seeing is the difference between a government based on religion and a government based on secular values--and the difference is glaringly obvious.

A government based on religion is inherently oppressive. A government based on secular values is not.

Dalzell continues:

There are plenty of nations in the world today where people are made to live in fear. There is no real freedom in those places. There is no dynamic presence of Jehovah and His love. People in those nations are afraid to do anything which might go against the wishes of those in power. How sad. It doesn't have to be that way. If those nations would welcome the Christian message with open arms, what a positive difference it would make! Loving Jehovah always improves the hearts and lives of people. 

This is reminiscent of a variety of stories from our collective global history.

Perhaps the way that the slave-owning class of our nation used religion to placate slaves is a good point to start. Religion was used as a justification and as a placation--be happy, work hard with joy, in this life because your reward will be in the next.

If you go back further, you can find the Salem Witch Trials, and the hysteria religion encouraged there. Even further back, we have the Inquisitions throughout Europe. You can see such tragedies as Bruno burning on a pyre of his own books because he dared explore the universe--something he did, ironically, as an expression of his love of God.

These are just a few examples. History bears out so many more. Religion is oppressive when we allow it to follow its path to its natural conclusion. The introduction of secular values acts as a necessary counter-measure to those points.

Dalzell also has a note for us nonbelievers:

Meanwhile, atheists and secular humanists take it all in. And if they are honest, they begin to take note of the freedom in America as compared to the religion and oppression within nations where Christians and Jews are hated and killed for their faith.

I am quite honest, and I honestly see that religion in America is taking an oppressive turn yet again. We see the religious right actively combating social progression. They fight Medicaid expansions, to help the poor. They fight marriage equality, because homosexuality is a sin. They fight reproductive rights, and if they were being honest, they would admit that it's because childbirth is a punishment, and women shouldn't be allowed to circumvent it. But I digress.

I don't see religious freedom from Christianity protective minority faiths. I see Christianity steamrolling our nation's minority faiths--like Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism--at every given opportunity. I see them pushing for Christian prayer at public gatherings as often as they can--even though Christ himself said, "Don't pray in public. Go into your closet, and do it in private." Fighting to disobey their own scriptures...there's a sense of irony in that, my friends.

Dalzell closes on this thought:

After all, it's the only way any nation can experience lasting freedom.

I wonder how our LGBT+ community, that's consistently disparaged and denied rights because of Christian moral codes, feels about this "lasting freedom" that we are supposedly experiencing. I imagine they would like real freedom.

Between this column and last night's event, I'm more convinced than ever of the importance of being constantly vigilant to protect our separation of church and state. We simply must be willing to take a stand when necessary.

These people truly believe that Christianity is the source of all freedom. They believe it is the source of the best parts of our nation--when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The concepts of natural rights, of equality, of freedom--these are secular concepts. Secular values.

But they truly, passionately, believe that this is a Christian nation, and that those are Christian values--and that is the scariest part of all. That they are convinced of this as absolute truth, as fact and not conjecture.

 And that is what makes this line of thought so incredibly dangerous.

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