Religious Freedom Under Attack?

We had an interesting lesson in church on Sunday, and it’s been banging around inside my head since then, so I wanted to explore it a bit more here on digital paper. It stemmed from a talk given this past General Conference, arguing that religious freedom is under assault. I’d read the talk ahead of the lesson, and I’d listened to it back when it was given live in April. At the time, I didn’t think that much of it one way or the other. As I said in our meeting Sunday, “I’m in favor of religious freedom,” and that seems like a pretty tame assertion.

But when I read the talk again, and as we discussed it in class, I started really delving a bit more into what I thought about the concept. I know that many have argued that religious freedom is under attack, but I also believe often people use that as an argument to try and justify things they want to do, despite the fact that no real religious freedoms are being attacked. I also think it’s becoming a bigger mistake with every passing year to interpret church talks at General Conference as being aimed at Americans and only Americans. As is pointed out time and time again, more than half of Latter-day Saints live outside the US these days.

So to break this down further, it came to a few questions. First, is religious freedom under assault in America? Second, is it under assault in the world? And third, what should we do about it?

There have been many right-wing pundits who have argued that religious freedom in America is continually being eroded. I will say that I personally have never been in a situation where I’ve been denied the ability to practice my religion in a way I see fit, though I’ll add that the way I practice my religion is almost always pretty low impact on anyone around me. I’ll also add that just because I haven’t seen something personally doesn’t make me doubt that it happens. But when I’ve seen this religious freedom debate happen in the states, it’s usually come down to gay marriage, and more recently trans rights. Sixty years ago, it would have been centered around civil rights.

From what I can see, there are many conservatives who continue to believe homosexuality or anything like unto it is a choice and a sin. People aren’t born that way, they choose to live that way. And because it’s a choice, it becomes a pretty clear cut decision to oppose it in any way, shape, or form. On the other hand, those on the left (and an ever-increasing amount of scientific evidence) argue that one’s sexuality is very often not a choice and so when there are laws limiting the rights of non-straight people, those laws are discriminatory.

So when a cake shop decides it doesn’t want to make a cake for a gay wedding because the owner of the cake shop is opposed to gay marriage, the battle lines quickly become drawn. In the case in point, Colorado (where the case happened) has a law prohibiting people being discriminated against due to their sexuality. The cake shop argued it was a matter of religious freedom. The couple in question argued they were being discriminated against illegally.

Is this an attack on religious freedom, or a defense against discrimination? You could see it either way, depending on your politics.

The same happened over the pandemic with churches claiming they were being required by the government to shut down in-person services. Whether it was a question of religious freedom or public health policy again typically boiled down to politics.

I personally don’t believe religious freedom in America is under attack. I believe that certain areas of religion that cause particular friction points are being considered and defined. If I have a religion that says people with brown eyes should be beaten over the head with a club, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get away with going around actively beating brown-eyed people with a club for very long before the government steps in and puts an end to my rampage. It’s not a question of my religious freedom being restricted any more than the ban on running into a movie theater and yelling FIRE is a question of freedom of speech being impinged. Any time you have people with different views gathered in one country, you need a way to ensure there’s a balance between individual rights and the collective good. That balance will feel restrictive on both sides from case to case.

Note that I realize there are some who believe I’m wrong when it comes to the assault on religious freedom. There are many who believe I’m wrong on a lot of topics, and I no doubt am wrong in multiple instances. But until I see a persuasive argument to change my views, that’s where they’ll stay for now.

(This is not to say I don’t believe the concept of religion is under attack. I have personally been ridiculed for my religious beliefs many times, both in person and online. But I see a big difference between someone telling me I’m an idiot for what I believe and someone telling me I can’t worship in a way I see fit (when that way has no real negative impact on anyone else). I do wish there would be more tolerance for religious beliefs in our country, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.)

Onto the second question: is religious freedom under attack elsewhere across the globe? One example brought up in the lesson was the ban on Burkas in France. The majority of citizens in France felt that the practice of wearing a full face-veil was discriminatory to women, and so they made it illegal. There were arguments given by Muslims both for and against the ban. Arguments in favor of it talked about how the Niqab or Burka had no place in Islam. Arguments against talked about how it was a personal religious choice, and as such should be protected. It wasn’t as if people were running around trying to make non-believers wear Burkas.

On a global scale, I do believe religious freedom is in danger. There’s the Uyghur genocide in China (where Muslims are being persecuted) and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East (where non-Muslims were persecuted), to name two significant examples. Any time you have people being literally killed because of their religion, I don’t think there’s much debate about whether religious freedom is under attack. This goes far beyond smaller scale “assaults” like “should I have to wear a mask?” or “should I have to be vaccinated?” And when viewed in this light, those smaller debates feel a lot more trivial. (Though I realize they’re anything but to some of the people involved.)

So the third question: what can we do about all of it? For me, this often comes back to the eleventh article of faith of my religion: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (Again, this is clean cut when those religious practices don’t impinge on other people. When they do, things get messier.) I do believe living this principle is harder in practice than in theory. It means sometimes letting people do things you might personally not agree with. It’s easy when your beliefs line up with my beliefs. But I also believe this extends to the right of people to not worship or believe in God at all. If “how, where, or what they may” doesn’t include the empty set, then it doesn’t really include everything. And if there are more people who are atheist or agnostic now, then that is what it is. I’d like to hope all sides can get along peacefully, but it’ll take some contested court cases to keep that process in line.

Globally, there’s not much I feel I can do, which feels like par for the course for many issues . . .

What about you? What do you think about all of this, and how do you handle it?

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