Freedom Falsehood: Religious Liberty Isn't Under Attack In America
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Feb 07, 2011 at 11:37:57 AM EST
Whenever I hear religious conservatives assert that religious freedom is under attack in the United States, I can only shake my head.

Do they know nothing about history or even the world today? Consider what happened in Soviet Russia under Josef Stalin, where houses of worship were bulldozed and clergy tossed into gulags. Think about China and North Korea, where freedom of worship still remains a dream. Consider even one of our allies - Saudi Arabia - where it's illegal to build a Christian church.

That's religious freedom under attack. And it's deplorable. When Religious Right leaders whine about a judge somewhere in America being told to remove a Ten Commandments display, they trivialize the suffering of those who are truly oppressed.

I thought about this after reading a news article about a recent speech delivered by Dallin H. Oaks, one of the 12 "apostles" who lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

Oaks has been on a tear lately about religious freedom being under assault in this country. He gave a speech about it recently at a college in California.

"For some time, we have been experiencing laws and official actions that impinge on religious freedom," Oaks said. "It was apparent 25 years ago, and it is undeniable today."

"It is easy to believe," Oaks said, "that there is an informal conspiracy of correctness to scrub out references to God and the influence of religion in the founding and preservation of our nation."

Oaks' evidence for this assault it a little thin. During his speech, he mentioned a photographer in New Mexico who, after putting out a shingle and promising to serve the public, decided he'd like to discriminate against gay people. He also talked about a town in New Jersey where a same-sex couple applied to use a quasi-public pavilion owned by a church group after the religious body, in order to receive tax exemption for the facility, insisted it was open to all.

It's especially ironic to hear this kind of folderol coming from Oaks - an official of a church that actually tried to run a theocracy in America. (Some visitors to Utah would argue that they have succeeded. Consider this bill declaring that marriage is between a man and woman and supported by God.)

Here's what really going on: There was a time - and it really wasn't that long ago - when conservative religious groups had incredible powers of the lives of average Americans. They had the ability to ban books, magazines and movies they considered "offensive" to faith. They had laws passed denying even married couples access to artificial contraception. Their religion was forced onto children in public schools. They insisted that everyone should pay taxes to support their religious schools and institutions.

People chafed at this - not because they hate religion but because they didn't want someone else's theological views imposed on them by an oppressive combination of church and state. Americans fought in the courts to end these practices, and also worked to educate others about the importance of church-state separation. Americans United, which has existed since 1947, was a pivotal force in this movement.

At the same time, American society simply began to change. Religious minorities and non-believers felt empowered to stand up for their rights. An understanding evolved that religious freedom is best served when the government refrains from taking sides on matters of theology. Some people even dared to (gasp!) reject religion all together or define God in ways the theocrats don't accept.

During his speech, Oaks proposed that "[I]it is imperative that those of us who believe in God and in the reality of right and wrong unite more effectively to protect our religious freedom to preach and practice our faith in God and the principles of right and wrong He has established."

Oaks denied he wants a new "Moral Majority," but to me this sounds like the same old band of would-be theocrats desperately seeking a way to regain the power they've lost. This gang has never gotten over the fact that they can no longer automatically rely on the power of the government to enforce doctrines that they have failed to persuade people to adopt voluntarily. I get the impression that these people look back on the Dark Ages - when a bishop's word was law and if you didn't agree woe to you - and feel a certain envy.

I'm all for Elder Oaks' church opening as many temples as they like and using private resources to win converts, which is something they've proved pretty adept at. What I'm not for is being compelled to live under his church's doctrines. If I wanted to do that, I'd join.

What Oaks and those like him seek is not religious freedom. It is regression to a time when the state bowed to the church. They want to take us back to the days when their power was absolute and an individual's standing in society was determined in a large way by how he or she met some arbitrary set of narrow religious rules.

No thanks. I'll take real religious freedom instead - the kind only separation of church and state can give us.

As a little child in the early 60s, I lived in Utah among the Mormons.  My parents have described the experience in rather bleak terms.

One clear memory I have is of a terrible accident at around age 4.  I'd been invited to ride on a bike with a group of Mormon youth and adults to someplace (I think a park).   Most of the youth were far older than me, but they seemed friendly enough.  They had me balance on the handlebars of a bike and then took off.  After riding for a while, something happened and my foot got mangled in the spokes of the front wheel.  I clearly remember one of the adults picking me up, literally throwing me on the side of the road, and saying to me "You're nothing but a gentile brat anyway!!!".  Then they continued on their outing.  My parents used to say of the situation that I crawled for nearly half a mile (my foot was too injured to walk) before a non-Mormon girl on horseback took pity on me and brought me home on her horse (I remember vaguely a ride on horseback).  I do still remember that it seemed a long time before I could go outside and play again.

My father told of having a car break down and being stuck on the side of a busy highway for most of a day, until a non-Mormon came along and gave him a ride to where he could get help.  Mormons in the early 60s would not help "gentiles" if they could help it.  Thankfully, there was a stream nearby and berry bushes.  He said that we kids took it as a lark, and they made the best of it they could, but it wasn't a nice situation.

My mother used to say that she didn't like living there (and has expressed rage), because she'd learn that the Mormons would take me and my brother into their homes and tell us what horrible people our parents were because they weren't Mormons.  She identified the people doing this as elders and "Bishops".

My parents also talked regularly about having to find non-Mormon business owners to deal with, because the Mormon shops openly refused to do business with them.  For instance, they said that they had to get our milk from a dairy way out in the desert, because the others didn't do business with gentiles.

Now, that's more along the line of being persecuted.  I could add all of the things we've experienced since we've been married, like being thrown out of churches because of race, vandalism, harassment and threats, etc. because of our refusal to submit to theocratic ideology and "authority", and so on.

I know that the Mormons have experienced persecution, but they treated outsiders just as bad, even innocent little children.  That twit's talk of persecution really ring hollow in my ears!!!

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Feb 07, 2011 at 12:29:22 PM EST

in a small southern town forwarded me a column by a local pastor that echoed what you are talking about here. This pastor claimed that since the Southern Poverty Law Center had named about 18 Christian related groups as hate groups "for their simple stance against gay marriage", any time soon now Christianity itself would be listed as a "hate group" and Christianity would be outlawed. If you go and look up what those 18 groups had REALLY said about gays, you couldn't print most of it. This persecution complex that some Christians get in a country where they enjoy basic government welfare for their churches/institutions and tons of support from the President on down in terms of governmental favors is really laughable. However, it is a tactic that seems to work with many who like to picture themselves as martyrs for a cause fighting "the good fight".  It spills over into the "cause" that people like David Barton like to espouse- that this nation once WAS a Christian nation in terms of its government and that was somehow taken away by two hundred years of "liberal" distortions of history. Now he and others couch their cause in terms of a battle to "restore" the country "before its too late". The problem is that most people will believe this pastor in the small southern town and his silliness, and they will believe people like Barton because we as a country have done a terrible job of teaching American history; especially the parts about how the founders created our Constitution largely as a reaction against European theocracies and two thousand years of Christian mayhem. Only thing one can do is speak up about it with letters like my friend wrote to counter the fantasy with fact.

by monarchmom on Mon Feb 07, 2011 at 04:17:06 PM EST

Actually, the SPLC profiled 18 right-wing religious groups but only listed 13 of them as hate groups. They clearly state that their criteria for determining whether or not a group is a hate group have to do with whether that group continues to publicize untruthful statements about LGBT folks. They don't consider preaching that simply says that homosexuality is unbiblical to be hate speech. I've found it helpful to make sure people understand the distinction that SPLC makes. Preachers like the one you cite won't be impressed, but listeners who are open to hearing varying viewpoints may be persuaded.

by MLouise on Mon Feb 07, 2011 at 04:50:13 PM EST

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