Dr. Durrell’s Spiritual Prescriptions
What Religious Freedom Is…and Isn’t
Freedom of (and from) religion is a primary American value. American history is religious history. From Native American Shamanism to Catholics seeking freedom from Protestant persecution, from Quakers seeking freedom to practice their quiet worship and courageous pacifism to Jewish people fleeing persecution and pogroms in Eastern Europe, from new religions such as Christian Science and Latter Day Saints (Mormons) experiencing and expressing religious devotion in ways that differed at the time from the mainstream to the birth of Pentecostalism, from Eastern gurus coming to the United States to teach meditation, reincarnation, and the unity of the human family to the beginning of the predominantly LBGT Metropolitan Community Churches…our nation has been a place where religion has flourished and religious people have been able to form strong communities.
This heritage of religious freedom, religious experimentation, and religious living is one that I think we should honor. We aren’t a Lutheran nation or a Catholic nation or an Eastern Orthodox nation or a Muslim nation (or even officially a “Christian” nation), but we are a nation where all of those religious experiences and so many more can be found, shared, and practiced openly. That really is quite wonderful!
But lately, we are hearing a lot about “religious freedom” in a different context. The term isn’t used as much recently to describe our freedom to be religiously diverse, to be religious or not, to worship at home or synagogue, church or coven, mosque or shrine, but rather, “religious freedom” is now being used as an excuse to limit civil liberties and equal opportunity; as long as one claims one’s prejudice against another group is a religious value, then he or she (according to the flawed argument) should be able to use business or even government positions to deny members of that group service. Those who would use “religious freedom” as a weapon against gays and lesbians (or any other group they dislike) aren’t celebrating our freedom to worship as we choose; they are insisting that their prejudices should have the weight of religious devotion, and their religion should trump all other religious convictions, social institutions, and public contracts. They don’t want religious freedom; they want the power to deny freedom and equality to others and they want religion to be the unquestioned authority that gives them the power to do so.
World history is littered with battles between kings and popes, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Christians…each side insisting they had the divine authority to call the shots. And the current “religious freedom” argument is but one more attempt to use a myopic and tribal understanding of religion in a way that denies the full humanity of others.
I value and celebrate religious freedom, but very simply, using religion as an excuse to marginalize gays and lesbians has nothing to do with religious freedom; it’s just one more attempt to demonize and dehumanize “the Other.” Religion at its best will resist such oppressive ideology.
Religious freedom is the freedom to worship as we wish; it is not a gay-bashing license.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins is the Senior Minister of Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.
9/16 issue, Florida Agenda