You can’t have both religious freedom and religious dominance

You can’t have both religious freedom and religious dominance March 4, 2020

A Friendly Atheist headline directed me to a righteous rant on religious freedom. AOC: The GOP Only Ever Invokes “Religious Freedom” When It Wants to Justify Hate, the headline read. It seems that during a hearing in the U.S. House last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the following:

There is nothing holy about rejecting medical care of people, no matter who they are, on the grounds of what their identity is. There is nothing holy about turning someone away from a hospital. There’s nothing holy about rejecting a child from a family. There’s nothing holy about writing discrimination into the law, and I am tired of communities of faith being weaponized and being mischaracterized, because the only time religious freedom is invoked, it’s in the name of bigotry and discrimination. I’m tired of it.

Huh, I thought. Huh.

I’ve long been tired of the way the Right talks about religious freedom, but I’ve rarely seen the problems with the Right’s religious freedom framework stated so simply and directly. The only time religious freedom is invoked, it’s in the name of bigotry and discrimination, AOC said. And you know what? It’s true.

Here, I’ll make a list of evangelicals’ religious freedom claims.

  • Bakers should be able to deny service to gay couples.
  • Catholic groups should be able to deny employees health insurance that covers birth control.
  • Doctors should be able to deny treatment to transgender individuals.
  • Religious groups should be able to deny adoptions to gay and lesbian couples.
  • Private schools should be able to fire gay teachers.

Are you sensing a pattern? I sure am.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home in the 1990s and early 2000s, and I don’t remember hearing a lot about religious freedom. My impression, based on my own experience, is that “religious freedom” took off as a catchphrase on the Right at the same time that LGBTQ rights became increasingly accepted by the mainstream. From where I’m standing, calls for “religious freedom” look more like a claim developed specifically to discriminate against LGBTQ people than anything else.

It also makes a handy argument for denying people health insurance that covers contraceptives, of course. Still, overall, religious freedom claims’ primary target seems to be LGBTQ individuals.

See, I’m not sure the Right is actually as full-throated in its support for religious freedom as it claims. After all, what does the Right not include in its catalogue of religious freedom? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

  • The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer called explicitly for a ban on new mosque construction. In some places in the U.S., conservatives have successfully blocked the construction of new mosques.
  • Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for a man who called for a “Muslim ban” on U.S. immigration. Evangelical leader Franklin Graham was vocal in his support of this proposal.
  • Evangelicals tried to ban Harry Potter books from school libraries on the grounds that they contained witchcraft—which, even if they had, what about witches’ religious freedom?

I should be clear that there are evangelicals who do support religious freedom, just as there are evangelicals who oppose Donald Trump. See, for example, the evangelical Left. But then there’s the whole conservative wing of evangelicalism, the wing that is sometimes identified as “fundamentalist” and has gone all-in for Trump.

Recall that those evangelicals—the conservative ones I’m talking about—still want to put Christian prayer back in school, because we’re a Christian nation, dammit. That is not a religious freedom argument. It’s a religious dominance argument. This wing of evangelicals doesn’t believe in religious freedom for anyone but Christians.

Remember, these are the same people who argue that our founding fathers established our country as an explicitly Christian nation and call openly for Christian preference. These are the same people who want school board meetings and city council meetings to open in Christian prayers. They don’t want religious freedom. That’s just a smokescreen they use to justify their bigotry. What they want is religious dominance.

AOC’s comments remind us that this issue isn’t all that complicated. It’s actually really, really simple.

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