Religious Freedom Is Under Attack!…Again?

[Today’s guest post is written by David Simms, a graphic designer and web developer in Alpharetta, GA, with special thanks to Dr. Camille Lewis for digging up a number of key sermon excerpts originally compiled here.]

“We’re in a bad fix in America when eight evil old men and one vain and foolish woman [on the Supreme Court] can speak a verdict on American liberties…Our nation from this day forward is no better than Russia insofar as expecting the blessings of God is concerned. You no longer live in a nation that is religiously free.”

Sound familiar?  It sounds like the words of Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz decrying the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, doesn’t it?  But, it isn’t.

In fact, these are the words of Bob Jones III in 1983 after the Supreme Court decided that Bob Jones University wasn’t allowed to discriminate against students on the basis of race.  Like his father and his grandfather before him, Jones believed that, on the basis of “religious freedom,” BJU should be exempt from IRS policies regarding institutions which practice segregation, and that the university should be free to enforce racist policies, including a complete ban on interracial dating and expulsion of anyone who so much as advocates for it.

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But when the Supreme Court ruled against BJU, fundamentalist Christians at the time began crying about their “religious freedom” being taken away, insisting that “unelected judges” don’t have the legal authority that the law clearly grants them.

This Sounds Familiar

Now, whenever I hear modern fundamentalists bellyache over their “religious freedom” being threatened by “the homosexual agenda,” what I actually hear is history repeating itself.  It’s the same words.  It’s the same lame defense.  It’s the same use of biblical scripture to support their position.  And it’s the same rhetoric about “religious freedom” from those who really want to maintain the religious privilege they’ve enjoyed for so long.

That’s why it’s so funny (and also disheartening) to see people like Ted Cruz try to weasel their way out of explaining how their ongoing crusade against homosexuality is “totally different” than the fight against desegregation which their political forbearers waged in the not-so-distant past.  After the Obergefell decision last year, Ted Cruz was asked…

“If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?”

His response?

“There’s no religious backing for that.”  (Source)

Really, Ted?  The difference between your position now and fundamentalist Christians’ position then is that your position has “religious backing?”  You should know better, Ted (In fact, I think he does know better).

After all, it was Cruz who made his presidential campaign debut at Liberty University, a school founded by Jerry Falwell, the very same man who spent much of his early ministry extolling the virtues of segregation and its biblical support.

“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision (Brown v. Board of Education) would never had been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line…The true Negro does not want integration. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race…It will destroy our race eventually…It boils down to whether we are going to take God’s Word as final.” (Jerry Falwell, “Segregation or Integration: Which?” 19581)

Falwell’s views on segregation, and his use of the Bible to support them, are no secret, even among conservatives.  And it isn’t as if Falwell was some lone, fringe element using scripture to support his bigotry.  He is barely an inch on the tip of that gigantic iceberg.  But just in case you needed one more quote:

Now, we folks at Bob Jones University believe that whatever the Bible says is so, and we believe it says certain fundamental things that all Bible-believing Christians accept; but when the Bible speaks clearly about any subject, that settles it…the Bible is perfectly clear on races–just as clear as it can be…racially we have separation in the Bible…Whenever you get a situation that rubs out the line that God has drawn between races, whenever that happens, you are going to have trouble…

The darkest day the world has ever known will be when we have one world like they are talking about now. The line will be rubbed out, and the Antichrist will take over and sit down on the throne and rule the world for a little while; and there will be judgment and the cataclysmic curses found in the book of Revelation. We are going to face all this. May God help us to see it and to be true and faithful to Him. (Bob Jones Sr., Easter Sunday sermon, 1960, transcript available here)

Even if Cruz believes that Falwell and Jones were relying on a “misinterpretation” of scripture to support racism, it is entirely irrelevant.  What is relevant is that these people had at the time a sincerely held belief that their position was scripturally sound, in the very same way that those who want to discriminate today on the basis of “religious freedom” have a sincerely held belief that their position is scripturally sound.

The arguments are the same.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, in November of 2015, Ted Cruz held a “religious liberty” conference at…wait for it…Bob Jones University.  Ted Cruz claims that there is no religious backing for the notion that interracial marriage is wrong.  Yet, he hosts a religious liberty conference at the very same university which took their case all the way to the Supreme Court to insist that they have the religious liberty to ban interracial marriage.

The irony is palpable.

But a question still remains:  Do the fundamentalists engaging in this irony and hypocrisy actually recognize the irony and hypocrisy of their current position?  Are they so entrenched in their religious and political dogma that they are unable to see that they are relying on the same arguments they have rejected in other contexts?  Or do they recognize this fact, yet continue using the rhetoric anyway because it’s useful rather than truthful?

When Narrative Overrides Reality

Inside the fundamentalist Christian worldview (which I have more than a little experience with), it can certainly be easy to sincerely accept the rhetoric that your freedom to practice your religion is being threatened.  When you are consistently bombarded with the concept that “the world hates you” (John 15:18-25), and then tales of “Christian persecution” are conveniently spun to fit that narrative, it isn’t difficult to find yourself accepting claims of discrimination against you even while you are the one supporting actual discrimination.

It can seem well within the realm of reality that you, as a member of the overwhelming religious majority who enjoy a privileged status in society and numerous, unfettered outlets to broadcast your message, are actually a part of a threatened minority who are being silenced.  And when the fundamentalist religious ideology inevitably weaves itself into political ideology, it can even seem perfectly reasonable to you to that your religious freedom includes the right to decide which laws apply to you and which should not.

You might even become so beholden to this religious and political ideology that you…I don’t know…earn a law degree from Harvard, serve as Texas Solicitor General for 6 years, argue 9 oral arguments in front of the United States Supreme Court, and still come away with the idea that the Supreme Court doesn’t have the legal authority to determine the discriminatory-nature and constitutionality of laws when (and, mysteriously, only when) the court’s ruling conflicts with your religious dogma.  Surely this scenario is just too far-fetched, right?

Are fundamentalists like this blinded by indoctrination?  Are they corrupted by religious zeal and political ambition?  Or, are they so obsessed with maintaining the status quo where they hold a position of privilege that they will use whatever rhetoric seems to energize the base?  For some, it could be a combination of all of the above.

In any case, this line of thinking, as absurd and fallacious as it may be, is still a part of our national (and sometimes global) conversation after all these years.  Contexts have changed.  But, the irrationality, the persecution complex, the false martyrdom, and the misrepresentation of the law, hasn’t changed a bit.

No doubt, in 50 or 100 years, fundamentalists of the future will say people like Ted Cruz had “no religious backing” for their bigotry.  But, I wonder what issue those fundamentalists will say next is “threatening their religious freedom.”

[Image Source: Wikimedia]

1 The Nation’s Best Bible College Gets Low Grades on Racial Diversity” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, vol. 31 (2001), pp.43-45

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davidDavid Simms is a graphic designer and web developer in Alpharetta, GA. After spending almost 30 years as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist and Young Earth Creationist, he became an atheist and a strong advocate for science, skepticism, and the separation of church and state (read more here).  He can be reached at davidwaltonsimms@gmail.com.