The Myth of Religion Under Assault
There has been a lot of news recently concerning conflicts over “freedom of conscience” and/or one’s freedom to behave within the constraints of her/his “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” Like any good partisans, folks on both sides of the issues have turned to the principles of marketing in labeling their causes, claiming that their position “protects freedom” or that their opponents’ position “protects discrimination”. No matter which side one is on, the labeling is all motherhood and apple pie… how could anyone be against protecting freedom, and how could anyone be for something that protects the ability to discriminate against others? Not me!
But like most issues of such importance—and perhaps like most issues that incite passionate disagreement among humans—these are not as simple as those engaged in the battle might have us believe. In fact, rarely are any issues of consequence reducible to binary terms—black and white. It’s just not the way we were created, I think, and in many respects, it’s a more colorful world for our diversity of thought, feeling, and understanding.
But back to religious freedom… To clear the air a bit and acknowledge what got us to this particular point of conflict, it seems clear that much of the heat has been a result of the Supreme Court’s decision last year, affirming the constitutional right of gays and lesbians to marry. The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 into law has contributed its own fuel, though to a lesser extent. Both events left our country with legal mandates that, as is always the case, are opposed by some people of good faith and supported by others.
My own conclusions concerning both the Supreme Court’s decision and the passage of the PPACA (along with its own mandates) are a matter of public record. Like most of us, I have reached those conclusions after studying scripture, praying, and listening for the guidance of the Spirit. And like any other mortal, I can do no more than that. I have found some committed Christians who share my conclusions and others who are quite sure I’m headed to hell because of them, regardless of where I travel—and that’s OK.
Of more concern to me have been questions about how we Christians can best navigate the treacherous waters of such disagreement—how, having thus studied, prayed, and listened and then reached different, often conflicting conclusions, we can continue in good faith to love each other without condition or judgment. More to the point, how can we demonstrate Christ-like unconditional love in the face of what we perceive—rightly or wrongly—to be concerted assaults on our very faith?
For good or ill, it is not difficult to find a wide range of examples in the public arena of ways to handle these and similar questions. Among those many examples, there have been a couple in particular that either left me in a bit of despair or helped me to see alternative ways of thinking about the conflict—each in somewhat unexpected ways or settings.
As for the despair, I was disheartened to learn that legislators in my own home state recently sent a bill to the Governor’s desk that would allow counselors and therapists to determine which persons they accept as patients based on their (the counselors’ and therapists’) personal religious beliefs. I suppose it is of some consolation that the bill apparently does not explicitly allow a medical doctor to refuse to save a dying person because his or her (the doctor’s) religious beliefs somehow conflict with those of the person in need of attention.
The ultimate issue about which the rest of us should be concerned, as I see it, is the slippery slope that such a bill would create if it were to become law, regardless of its sponsors’ motivation (as I write this, the Governor has not yet signed the bill). At best, it would codify an approach to counseling people in need of and seeking help that begins with the counselor’s declaration, “my needs come first.” At worst, it has the potential for putting vulnerable people at risk. Hardly an example of self-denying agape, I think…
In fact, I cannot help thinking about Jesus in all of this—a self-less man who certainly had the power to help troubled people, but who was roundly criticized by the powers that be in his day for (gasp!) sitting down to meals with people who were considered outcasts for any one of many reasons—physical and moral infirmities chief among them—seemingly without regard for their status or their infirmities. Would Jesus-as-counselor (Wonderful Counselor, at that) refuse his services to a Muslim, a person with AIDS, a divorcee, or a gang member because the details of their lives conflicted with his beliefs about what constitutes a life in God’s image? Not the Jesus Christ I have come to know through the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
A second, more hope-inspiring news item concerned Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal and his veto of a so-called “religious liberty” bill in that state. Governor Deal, who self-identifies as a life-long member of Georgia’s faith community himself, explained his action thusly: “I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which my family and I [have been] a part…for all of our lives.” The veto, he continued, was “not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. [It] is about the character of our State and the character of its people.”
While Governor Deal didn’t say it explicitly, I suspect he might agree that his decision was also about the character of our God—a God who has provided us, through our willingness to trust God and trust in the absolute, transforming power of love, a freedom that is unassailable. God, as our nation’s founders noted, bestowed on each of us the freedom of conscience—the religious liberty, if you will—that we enjoy. As I see it, to buy in to the notion that somehow our faith needs governmental protection from some dark force that’s determined to rob us of it, and to fret about that, is to sell God short. Let us instead focus on the thing that really matters—the overarching thing Christ asked of us—to love God with all our being, and to love others as we love ourselves.
In the May issue of The Cumberland Presbyterian, we offer what we hope will be a fairly regular feature, Fresh Voices. Through Fresh Voices we will hear from Memphis Theological Seminary students—future clergy persons in our church. This month’s voice is that of first-year student Paul Earheart-Brown, and is an adaptation of a sermon he preached in his Preaching for Social Change class. It offers a powerful and refreshing perspective on Jesus’s Beatitudes. And don’t miss our other two new features, Music You Need to Hear, and Books You Need to Read, some excellent work from some excellent minds!