You might say religious liberty is in my blood.
I'm a Mayflower descendant. My maternal grandmother was Delores Howland, some 16 or so generations removed from John Howland. His home still stands in Plymouth, and I have been there to sign the descendants' book.
As proud as I am of my Pilgrim Congregationalist history, I am also aware that within that history is the Puritan experience of the Salem witch trials and the treatment of indigenous peoples: reminders of how religion writ large as a culture's moral compass can bring out the worst in us. By the time our Constitution was written, both the desire to be free from religious tyranny found in the spirit of the Pilgrims - and the need to protect ourselves from religious zealots like the Puritans - would serve to inform its authors. They treated both as instructive, writing into the Bill of Rights language that would preserve our religious liberty and restrict the government's power to establish any religious point of view as normative.
The irony of the Religious Right fighting for a "freedom" that utilizes all three branches of government to enforce their narrow theology isn't lost on me. Anyone who doubts either the intent or the ability of the Religious Right to reshape the landscape of religious liberty in America isn't paying attention. And, to quote Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid."
I believe in religious freedom, but not the kind that argues that government should grant me the right to refuse to serve or hire someone because they are homosexual. Removing someone's civil rights by empowering the government to protect and preserve my religious homophobia is not my idea of religious liberty.
I believe in religious freedom, but not the kind that argues that government should tolerate employers or medical care professionals who want to deprive women of their full range of health care options. Depriving women of choices that our courts deem legal and appropriate to preserve my religious misogyny is not my idea of religious liberty.
Religious expression in the United States is a beautiful mixture of the world's best thinking, the collective of which is hard to find anywhere else in the world. We were among the first people on the planet to live in a place where such expression could unfold free of tyranny; not restricted by the ability or willingness of the elected to understand or tolerate a particular religious expression; and within a bubble of protection that asked only that our free exercise neither depend on the establishment of the government for its validity nor violate any other laws or civil rights.
It is within such a context that the United Church of Christ, within which my faith is now lived, gave free expression to its beliefs and called for an end to slavery, an end to the disenfranchisement of women and people of color, an end to state-sanctioned homophobia, an end to the stranglehold that management held over working class peoples. Long before the laws would catch up to us, we ordained the first Black pastor in America, the first female pastor, the first gay pastor, the first lesbian pastor, and the first transgender pastor. We wrote liturgies that called for our clergy to perform same-gender-loving marriages.
When North Carolina rewrote their Constitution to not only deprive same-gender-loving couples from the full rights that our government provides to heterosexual couples when they marry, but also criminalized the religious act of performing such marriages when allowed by other states, it was the United Church of Christ that brought a suit against the state. The federal Court ruled in our favor and called the amendment unconstitutional. It is one thing to ask the state to bend to your narrow religious beliefs. It is something else entirely to ask the state to imprison and fine the clergy of another religion; one that disagrees with you.
This is the religious liberty being propagated by the Religious Right. They argue that they have no religious freedom unless their restrictive moral code is written into the Constitution. They argue that they have no religious liberty unless those whose religious ceremonies violate the sanctity of their precious theology are thrown in jail. What they want to call religious freedom is in fact the kind of oppressive religious tyranny that my ancestors left their homeland to escape.
I believe in legislation that protects religious liberty. Good laws have been written to protect the free expression of my, and others', religion; and to limit the reach of government to establish anyone's religious beliefs as normative.
We can't allow the Religious Right to twist the meaning of religious liberty to the point that it becomes the means by which their theocratic vision is finally and fully realized. For decades now they have fought to erode or redefine the very freedoms the Constitution was written to protect. It would be unwise of us to either turn a blind eye to their machinations or to dismiss the ongoing effectiveness of their efforts.
Outcomes are hard to predict, but I think it is fair to say that the Religious Right is slowly but surely taking significant ground in the battle to turn America into a theocratic state, or a collection of theocratic mini-states, governed by the very narrowest of religious points of view. That they are doing it under the guise of protecting their religious liberty is the greatest of ironies. Their ambitions are to unseat the U.S. as the world's safest place to explore and express one's spiritual longings. If left unchecked by those of us who want to preserve an authentic rendering of religious freedom as envisioned by this country's founders, they will succeed.
Frederick Clarkson knows this. His ongoing and now longstanding commitment as an investigative journalist to bring out into the open the more covert operations of the theocratic Right makes him eminently qualified to write about this. In a report found here and published this week by Political Research Associates (for which this article serves as a forward), he sounds an alarm bell that not enough of us are paying much attention to. He not only asks that we learn everything we can about what the Religious Right is up to, he realizes that, unless those of us who want to preserve our longstanding freedoms act with as much sophistication and savvy as they do, we will always lose ground to them. As the late Rev. Dr. Andrew Weaver used to say, "They are playing tackle football, and we are playing touch. We are going to lose this game every time."
I strongly urge you to not only read this remarkable report; I ask you to take seriously the actions Frederick Clarkson calls for within it. I intend to bring the United Church of Christ into this conversation. We have never been bystanders in the face of injustice when power colludes to deprive others of their liberty. We will not be in this time, either.
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