The Good FightMira Gibson September/October 2020
Religion has become inherently political in 2020. For decades capital punishment, same-sex marriage, and gun control have been hot-button topics on the campaign trail. But now presidential candidates are expected to address late-term abortion, transgender rights, and Sharia law during their debates. These issues, and the legislature that will result depending on which candidate is voted into office, will all have real consequences in our society. While it’s commonly agreed that church and state should remain separate, in this day and age it’s impossible to keep what are widely regarded as “morality issues” out of the world of politics.
Senator Bernie Sanders recently stated, “When we talk about what a Democrat is, I think being pro-choice is an essential part of that.” This was during the “Our Rights, Our Courts” forum in Concord, New Hampshire, in early February, as part of the presidential primaries.
At the last National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi prayed for persecuted religious minorities throughout the world, highlighting the Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths before adding, “. . . priests, rabbis, pastors, and religious leaders around the world whose freedoms have been stolen because of what they believe.”
Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar surprised many at the New Hampshire Democratic Primary by coming in third. While Klobuchar’s political position is considered “moderate liberal,” the exit polls showed that the majority of her voters attend religious services weekly.
More than ever before, religious issues are not only at the forefront of political debate, but also making their way into legislatures. Bills are being introduced that support, preserve, and promote religious standards that directly impact society. The amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was presented to congress in 2018 is evidence of that. Democrats foresaw that the original act of 1993 would lead to discrimination against the gay, LGBT, and transgender (among others) communities if and when conservative Christian businesses assert a constitutional right to refuse service to members of these communities. Twenty-five years ago, when religious freedom was discussed, that discussion was firmly rooted in the landscape of social structure and economics. This is no longer the case. Religious freedom for all has become a civil rights issue for everyone who dares to consider the real-life ramifications of each bill presented and passed in Congress.
There appears no stopping the intersection of religion with national policy, so the question becomes “Can the two coexist in such a way that strengthens rather than weakens the fabric of society?” Can religious freedom for all thrive in our country? Or does the very concept, if pushed to its furthest conclusion, welcome religious entitlement that could run the serious risk of elevating one group at the expense of another, and ultimately cause our entire political system to resemble a snake that cannot stop eating its own tail?
Most people agree that there should be religious freedom for all in America. “This is a free country” is part of the American lexicon, after all, and we don’t often hesitate to remind people of that. But the statement is intrinsically defensive. “I will do what I want to do; therefore, don’t you dare tread on me” is the sentiment, and we have culturally accepted—and even celebrated—this sentiment. It’s only when a religious ritual, act, or custom is downright criminal that the government takes proactive measures to stop it legally, and Americans rarely object to bureaucratic intervention in those cases. Right versus wrong, good versus evil, choosing a verdict to solidify a new policy, is far easier to determine when a group is touting obviously lawless practices. The conversation becomes exponentially complicated, however, when the particular values and beliefs of differing religions simply clash with one another. Clashing moral viewpoints amount to murky waters. Murky moral waters incite fierce disputes online—this new court is one of public opinion. There is virtue signaling here. There is preaching to the choir. And there are also three little words that never fail to wage war. Civil rights violation: accusing another group of such a charge—violating your civil rights with their belief-laden laws—is an effective, albeit virtual, call to arms. This call to arms is a call to action, as well. Lawmakers can’t and won’t ignore it when a minority group, religious or otherwise, makes this claim. Instead, politicians vow to correct the presumed injustices, especially those that have been voiced the loudest in the social media arena. When exercising your religious freedom, the governmental response seems to be that you must not assume entitlement to the detriment—and oppression—of another group.
But this is America: the land of the free! Civil discord, viral contention online, clashing standards of morality, are expected symptoms of a diverse culture. We’re all adults. We can duke our differing ideas out, find common ground, agree to disagree, reinvigorate the “don’t tread on me” mantra, can’t we? Or do we need our government to step in, side with our specific view, and force everyone else across the board to play by the rules we’ve decided are the best for all?
The LGBT community isn’t an organized religion, but morality is at the center of their civil rights campaign, which actively endeavors to push back the lines that have already been legally drawn in our country. This group collectively argues that to disregard their right to be treated equally would be immoral. It is best for all that we, as a nation, do not condone immorality, they remind us. Therefore, recognize and accept their lifestyle and unique moral code—and please also support the laws they aim to push—in order to demonstrate that you truly do possess decency and morality. In short, fall in line with their standard of morality. This stance is not unlike—for example—the Christian one. Christians have a clear-cut standard of morality too. They voice their beliefs and push back, just as the LGBT community does, when the ever-changing culture begins to step on their civic toes. Yes, these two groups seem to be diametrically opposed to each other, but they’re alike in that they’re utilizing the same American right—the First Amendment to the Constitution.
These two groups are not going to see eye to eye on the topic of marriage, among other matters. No law that comes to pass is going to satisfy both groups if each is determined to see their own moral standard alive in legislature. There is fear brewing because of this. Specifically, fear that another religious group’s legally established freedom will inevitably balloon into a kind of tyrannical entitlement destined to lord over everyone, lending insult and oppression to those who stand against it. For this reason, accusing an opposing group of “acting entitled” delivers quite a blow.
Entitlement is bad, evil, and even immoral; this is the crux of the accusation. Whereas, on the other hand, religious freedom for all is good, virtuous, and moral. We’re all guilty of this assumption and the mentality that fuels it. Each of us holds our own head high, certain that we are the ones—the only ones—who are reasonable in our values, moral in our choices, and justified when we push public policy in the direction of our own principles, because when we do—as opposed to those other guys—it truly is for the good, and not the detriment, of all.
I am a born-again Christian. I’m not Muslim. I’m not Jewish, though I’ve studied the Old Testament enough to comfortably discuss the Torah with a Jew. I’ve never been Hindu or Buddhist, but I was raised with a spirituality that practiced oneness meditation that, I might argue, mimicked both of those Eastern religions. If I’ve gleaned anything reading the Bible, it is that no one is entitled to anything. Israel was and is and will forever be Yahweh’s people, yet nowhere does the Bible state or so much as imply that Israel as a people is entitled to anything. God is sovereign, the Bible tells us. Obey Him or perish is the overarching message. But does the Bible ever suggest God’s people ought to assert religious entitlement? No. In fact, God has this to say: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”(Isaiah 55:8).
The context here is that humanity has fallen dismally short of God’s moral standard. This verse challenges the readers to examine themselves. This verse is not proposing to its readers that they ought to go out on a crusade and force others to adopt and execute God’s perfect standard. No one is capable of executing God’s perfect, moral, holy standard. The entire biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation is a redemption story, and it isn’t one in which humanity redeems itself. God’s people—according to His Word—cannot, do not, and will not obey Him. We are so ensnared in our own sin that our only chance of redemption comes from God Himself. This is the core message of Christianity, and the answer to this dilemma—if you’re a Christian—is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Forgive me if it seems I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s necessary to lay this groundwork if we’re going to view the very concept of “entitlement” in fair, biblically sound light.
While God has never granted entitlement to His people (or anyone else, for that matter), He did hand over dominion of the earth to humanity. He also, upon creating man and woman, granted them free will. Free will—this mechanism that has been built into our very essence—means that, for better or worse, we can do what we want. God’s intention, if we are to trust Scripture, is to remain in relationship with us despite having given us dominion; and that relationship has always been fundamentally nuanced thanks to—or cursed by—free will.
Historically, free will has led to both good and evil alike, and that is our own doing, not God’s. Free will has led humanity to appoint kings and leaders; to instill rules and regulations; to maintain order and decency in society. And the Judeo-Christian God’s response to that is this:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13-17, NIV).*
Right now America does not believe in “absolute truths” if those truths are at all associated with religion. Fear of an other’s religious entitlement has launched our society into a frenzy of concern for our own freedom. But is religious entitlement, and even religious freedom for all, truly in ethical opposition to equality and human rights? It seems that on this side of 2020, America has already been vocal in asserting that yes, it is in opposition, and that opposition should be of concern to us all. You see, when the government tries to project moral authority, after having been influenced by religious groups, it almost automaticaly demonizes the beliefs and practices of minorities who do not hold the same views.
When attempting to determine the difference between religious freedom for all versus religious entitlement—an absolute minefield in today’s political climate—I can’t help wondering, When will the snake stop eating its own tail and finally start moving forward?
*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Article Author: Mira Gibson
Mira Gibson writes from New York, New York.