Educating for Democracy: Is the U.S. Moving Toward a Theocracy?

Given the positive developments over the last few decades involving the expansion of women's rights and gay rights, it is alarming to witness "legalized intolerance" exemplified through the recently adopted "religious freedom" bill in Georgia. The bill was intended to "protect" businesses from legal liability for refusing to provide goods and services. to members of the LGBT community as a violation of "religious convictions." It is a warning sign that people in a democratic society should heed. A term like "religious convictions" can become a way of rescinding the hard-fought freedoms that are finally being enjoyed by millions of Americans. We should recall that most educators, at least in principle, believe it is vital for children to understand and practice "tolerance" of people who are different from themselves. This ideal has been traditionally stressed in public schools.

The Puritans, who had a profound effect on the religious traditions of our culture, believed that anyone who did not conform rigorously to their rules and customs had no right to practice their faith in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Roger Williams went to Rhode Island and Ann Hutchinson to Connecticut to practice the religious freedom they were denied by the very people who were persecuted by the Anglican Church in England. On the other hand, the traditions of some religious and secular groups welcome all who wish to join them without preconditions. One of Christ's utterances was that, "In my father's house there are many mansions" (John 14:2). It isn't too difficult to interpret the words "many mansions," to understand that an inclusive doctrine of love, acceptance, forgiveness and peace is an important part of Christian belief. The recent statements by the Pope emphasize understanding and mercy rather than judgmental attitudes in the relationship of the clergy to their parishioners.

It is tragically ironic then that at a time in which countries in the Middle East are tearing themselves apart largely due to religious intolerance, that in American politics religious intolerance is being revived under the dubious notion that "freedom" can be best enjoyed when it is denied to others.

The misuse of Scripture to justify prejudice has a long and shameful history in a country that prides itself on its acceptance of other cultures. The Bible was used to justify slavery; religious prejudice marginalized immigrant groups from Southern and Eastern Europe who had arrived in the 1880's to the 1920's. The Irish experienced intolerance when they came here as refugees from a country in which they had been systematically starved. And one can only guess how many lives could have been saved during the Holocaust were it not for exclusionary immigration laws established in the 1920s, Their demonization of Jews as "Christ killers" was used by anti-Semites to exclude them from mainstream society. Using the excuse of "religious convictions" as a cover for prejudice should be regarded as a relic of the previous century. It should not be revived as a way of appealing to intolerance as an exercise in "freedom."

The most disturbing reincarnation of this tradition is being applied against organizations such as Planned Parenthood over the issue of abortion. Offering affordable, safe, and conveniently located women's clinics for all women should be the priority for people who are concerned with women's health-- not making it difficult for needy women to obtain medical aid.

Although there are "pro-life" groups that advocate for the poor, the states that are the harshest in restricting abortion (and even birth control) are also among the stingiest in providing social services for those who are caught in poverty. This poverty is often exacerbated in families that have more children than they can afford in the first place. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, almost one in three children in the U.S. lives in poverty. To deal with this national disgrace by making it worse through honoring prejudice as "religious convictions" and pretending that closing down women's health clinics where needed medical help and advice might be curtailed is the essence of moral hypocrisy. The case in Georgia stems from the same biblical sources used to justify the strategy for making life tough for the living child almost as soon as it's born. But, as we can see from the present Presidential campaign, moral hypocrisy is the oxygen of contemporary politics.