What is Religious Freedom, According to the Religious Right?
Gay Christians were overjoyed this week when World Vision, a global charity that does admirable work in helping victims of disaster or impoverishment, announced that it would for the first time allow its U.S. employees to enter into same-sex marriages. Unfortunately, their joy didn’t last long.
First, here’s the background: on Monday, March 24, World Vision announced that while its ban on sex outside of marriage would still stand, World Vision US would now take into account that there are many churches with whom it works that do recognize and consider sacred matrimony between same-sex couples. As such, it would lift its ban on employees entering into same-sex marriages. This was not an endorsement of same-sex marriage itself, which World Vision was very clear it does not agree with, but a recognition of the fact of gay-accepting churches and an attempt at unity.
This was not to last, however. The Religious Right, in a shrill and deafening clamor, condemned the move as World Vision “abandoning” its biblical principles, though no one had lamented the fact that World Vision doesn’t stone desirous women, demand a clean shaven face of its male workers, or any of the other Biblical stipulations to that effect that World Vision currently (and rightly) ignores. No, on gay marriage the line was crossed, and the Religious Right would not have it.
So pronounced was their anger that the Right threatened to divert funds from World Vision to more “biblical” charities — that is, adherents to the Right’s agenda. Within 48 hours of the announcement, World Vision’s board took another vote and then announced in a breathless letter that was a top to bottom apology to all who felt they deserved it including the LGBT community, that the charity would be returning to its same-sex marriage discriminating ways.
Yet with that brief moment of shining good sense sullied, we saw just how ugly the Religious Right has become. So often we hear talk of the right to religious belief being under attack and how the Right wants to help preserve freedom of religion. Yet where is the freedom of religious belief for those within the Church who do support same-sex marriage? Given how loud the Religious Right crows, we might think they are few and far between, but there is an appetite among the religious to accept gay people and even honor gay marriage. For sure, there are many people who identify as both gay and Christian.
Take the recent controversy over the New York St Patrick’s Day parade. The gay community did not, as Rupert Murdoch suggested, “bully” Guinness, who are makers of a fine stout and not a charity (though you might consider the providing of libation a charitable act), into addressing the fact that the organizers of the parade had once again specifically chosen to exclude gay Catholics. Guinness chose to pull its support for the parade when the facts were pointed out. At no point was there a widescale threat of a boycott, and never did the gay community endanger vital work like helping the poor.
No, the fact of that matter was that rather than the organizers of the parade focusing on so much of what they and gay Catholics agree on, they chose to discriminate solely on the grounds of sexual orientation. In effect, for the organizers of this parade it seems religious freedom can be ignored if you don’t believe exactly what they believe.
The same with recent accounts of Church officials denying people Communion, even at people’s funerals for pity’s sake, because they are either homosexual (which isn’t against the Bible even under a staunch fundamentalist reading) or even just support the right to secular recognition of gay marriage.
And this propensity isn’t just confined to issues surrounding gay rights. There are a number of religious organizations which, while differing on whether they believe abortion itself is against their faith, agree that women have the right to determine what they do with their own bodies even if that means terminating a pregnancy.
Yet these groups are called “un-Christian” and apostates for their pro-choice advocacy even though their belief in the moral agency of women is arrived at through their religious understanding of personhood. Where are those people’s religious rights? Why are they assailed as illegitimate?
So too with the rights of other faiths. It seems that when legislators in several states talk about religious freedom, they are really talking in a not so subtle code for the freedom, not privilege, to believe what they believe in — and usually in the United States that means some form of hardline Christianity. This ranges from North Carolina last year attempting to establish a state religion, down to smaller but no less poisonous acts like a child who identifies as a Buddhist being ridiculed by a Creationist teacher in Louisiana.
But here’s why the Religious Right lost when it comes to the World Vision fight.
Nearly one third of respondents in a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey of Millennials (those under 34) said they left their religion not because their religious belief had necessarily waned (though certainly their belief in what the church was telling them they should believe had) but because of their church’s outright bile on the topic of gay rights.
A majority (58 percent) of Americans also said that they believed religious institutions were alienating people with their aggressive stance on things like gay rights and, presumably, the growing appetite to enshrine that stance in legislative stone.
Today, the Religious Right is crowing about its World Vision victory but the Right is blind to the fact that even when it is winning the small petty battles like this, it is still losing the long term game and marginalizing itself yet further with its ugly, reactionary tactics.
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