So let’s start with some basic truths about religion in America, facts that we can all agree upon.
Right now in our country there are people who view themselves as good, decent, God-fearing folk who believe that women are fundamentally inferior to men. They think women were fashioned unequally by their Maker and should possess legal and moral rights, in large measure, through the mediation of their fathers, brothers and husbands.
In part because of those religious views, we still haven’t reached the first centenary of women voting in the US. And there are still women living in America today who possess far fewer rights and civil liberties than black people enjoyed in the South during the era of Jim Crow. In some cases, this religious subjugation is willing – an embrace of what some women view as a traditional or faith-based lifestyle.
But for many girls, particularly children educated in religious schools or home-schooled or simply denied an education, their parents’ embrace of a particular kind of religious faith will very likely consign these young women to a lifetime of dependency and powerlessness.
In fact, one cornerstone of the religious liberty these believers embrace is the conviction that women lack the moral and intellectual standing to make their own choices.
It’s kind of a painful irony, right? In America, these people of faith are free to believe that other Americans — fifty percent of the population, in fact — lack the essential qualities needed to enjoy their own freedom.
Meanwhile, right now in America there are also good, decent God-loving people who believe that when their young children contract meningitis or leukemia or pneumonia – in many cases treatable with modern science – they should respond to these biological events with prayer and meditation. Any recourse to medical treatment is viewed as weakness and a betrayal of their faith.
For much of the last century, parents who deliberately denied their children proper medical care could be prosecuted. But in the 1970s two powerful Christian Scientists in the Nixon administration, H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, pushed through a religious amendment to federal law, insuring that “no parent or guardian who in good faith is providing a child treatment solely by spiritual means… shall for that reason alone be considered to have neglected the child.”
As a consequence, in the name of religious freedom, children sometimes die in the US, their bodies wracked with agonizing infections, their lungs filled with fluid, despite the availability of medical treatment. An act that would be prosecuted as criminal neglect on the part of any other parent is protected in the name of one sect’s definition of religious faith.
And right now in America, there are good, decent, God-honoring people who believe that men and women with a different sexual orientation from their own are mentally ill, morally corrupt or cosmologically “unnatural.” Christians in particular can point to passages in Scripture where homosexuality is viewed with such disdain that believers are commanded to murder anyone who has intercourse with a person of the same gender.
As a consequence, there are already thousands of families across the US defined under our system of law as invalid or unequal. They and their children are denied many of the benefits and protections conferred by marriage. And there are currently movements in state legislatures to pass new laws ensuring that people of faith are free to act upon their convictions that their peaceful, law-abiding neighbors are, to borrow the Bible’s phrasing, “detestable” or “an abomination.”
To be clear, no one is suggesting that believers be free to carry out the Biblical commandment to kill gays and lesbians. No one is arguing that we take religious liberty quite that far.
But these relatively simple and straight-forward examples of religious faith show that it’s important to think hard about what we mean when we talk about freedom and rights. It’s important to remember that while religion is a powerful and positive force in our lives, every spiritual tradition also carries ideas and convictions in its DNA that are morally questionable, sometimes painfully irrational, and in some cases distinctly repugnant.
We’re not talking about pizza parlors not serving gay people. That’s bush league stuff. We’re talking about something much more potentially frightening and destructive and divisive. We’re talking about the larger fabric of American society. After all, if we agree that religious freedom allows us to reject doing business with gay people, surely believers are free to do the same with black people or Jews or Muslims or Christians of other denominations.
If my version of Scripture claims that women are morally, intellectually and biologically inferior to men, surely I can refuse to hire them or promote them? Or at the very least deny them medical care of a type that I don’t approve through my company’s insurance plan. And what if my religion teaches me – as so many religions do – that people of other faiths are unclean, or corrupt, or depraved? Why can’t I march through their neighborhoods mocking them and their beliefs, as Protestants have done to Catholics for so many decades in Northern Ireland?
Surely I should be free to do that. Right?
My point isn’t that religious freedom is bad. Of course it’s not. It’s a fundamental concept in our society. But like every other foundational idea it has to be leavened with common sense. In fact, it’s like every kind of freedom, from gun ownership to the stewardship of one’s own land, to free speech to the other civil liberties we enjoy as individuals. There are tensions. There are gray zones. There are complicated lines. And once you cross those lines, your defense of freedom often becomes someone else’s loss of freedom.
Fundamentally, I think the debate over “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and other states is a healthy thing. I think it should open a much wider and more involved discussion in America about how our mishmash of wildly different faiths can co-exist in a society that is also increasingly secular, non-religious and technologically advanced.
What do we do when one particular religious group want the rest of us to live by a set of rules that are no longer generally shared? What do we do when a religious group does something they view as fundamentally good and faith-based, but that seem to be hurting or curtailing the rights of other human beings? The truth is that the least complicated thing in the world is deciding whether some guy in the Midwest should serve a gay person a slice of pizza.
The bigger ethical challenges will come the next time a little girl is dying because of her mom’s conviction that a higher power will save her from a bacterial infection. Or the next time we find that a community of American parents are forcing their daughters to undergo genital mutilation. Or the next time one particular sect demands that science teachers in our public schools present one particular creation myth alongside peer-reviewed facts about geology, physics and biological evolution.
In the end, I think we’ll continue to move gradually toward that golden standard of liberty, where your freedom ends at the tip of the next guy’s nose. If you think your God wants you to hate gay people or minimize the value of women or stop taking your diabetes medicine, most Americans would say — knock yourself out. Get your liberty on. That’s the American way. But if you think your faith allows you to deny a gay couple a home mortgage loan (or a marriage license), or limit the advancement of a talented woman in your company, or deny your child penicillin, then you’re on thin ice.