In the movement toward greater religious pluralism (or, I should say, greater acknowledgment of the religious pluralism that has always existed in the United States), many conservative Christian groups insist that their rights are being infringed upon by the wider acceptance of views and choices they disagree with. A recent (and increasingly frequent) case in point relates to the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in the United States. This isn’t the only example – issues related to sex education, science education, the environment, and even the economy have been hijacked by people trying to impose a particular religious viewpoint on all of society. But this is a particularly blatant example, and it’s been much in the news lately with the recent decisions in Iowa and Vermont to allow same-sex marriage, so it’s the one I’m going to address here.
As part of the the backlash against these decisions, Right Wing Watch notes that the
National Organization for Marriage was set to “launch a new national ad campaign that highlights how same-sex marriage undermines the core civil rights of those who believe in the simple truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”
See that? Allowing some people to get married “undermines the core civil rights” of those who think they shouldn’t.
(By the way, here’s a followup post that debunks the claims of actual harm done to people’s rights by the acceptance of gay marriage, which were made in that ad by the National Organization for Marriage.)
So here we have a particular religious group seeking to impose (or rather, to maintain the imposition of) its teachings about marriage upon all of society. This ignores the fact that there are many other religious groups – including Christian ones – which have no quarrel with the notion of same-sex marriage, and in truth it is our religious freedoms which are being infringed upon. We are prohibited from conducting legally recognized wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, ceremonies that are recognized as perfectly legitimate within our faith traditions.
And just to be clear, those churches who do not accept gay marriage as legitimate would not be required to perform them under any stretch of the laws as proposed or already passed. It was a falsehood of the Proposition 8 campaign in California that the law would endanger the ability of churches to follow their own teachings in this matter. And yet (which you can see if you follow any of the links I’m including in this post) there is no end to the hyperventilation about these decisions heralding the downfall of marriage, the end of civilization itself, and especially the end of religious freedom.
(To paraphrase a quip I heard during the uproar when my own state of Massachusetts became the first state to officially recognize gay marriage, “Someone ought to tell these people that it won’t be mandatory.”)
You can hear the theocratic underpinnings of this push to deny marriage to gay people in the language of those doing the pushing:
“When people who know the Lord know the issues, then we find people voting the right way.”
and from another article, quoting a piece in the Baptist Press:
“Marriage is established by God to be a living picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the husband representing Christ and the wife representing his church. “Homosexual marriage” presents a distorted picture, a false Gospel, promoting a blasphemous message.”
So again, we have people operating from a particular religious standpoint, attempting to legislate that standpoint so that it applies to everyone, and making no secret of it. This quote starts to get closer to the heart of the issue, though:
NOM executive director Brian Brown said his organization’s new ad campaign was about protecting their religious freedom, saying that if states are allowed to pass marriage equality laws then those who “believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman [are going to be treated as] the equivalent of bigots.”
This reveals the effort as primarily an attempt to stop the ongoing movement of society toward greater acceptance and open-mindedness, and the subsequent shift of opinion toward the view that their own beliefs are hopelessly backward and wrong-headed.
It also reveals the extent to which this effort is driven by fear. And that brings me up short, for a deep breath of empathy. For some, this may simply be fear of a loss of power, but for many others I suspect it may be fear of the loss of certainty, of losing their moorings in a world that increasingly doesn’t share their own rigid views. And much as certainty is an illusion in the end, the loss of that feeling that can be a really scary thing.
But controlling what other people believe and how they view your beliefs isn’t religious freedom – it’s tyranny. And bigotry under cover of religion is still bigotry, like it or not. The best way to keep people from thinking of you as bigoted, is not to be bigoted. If you can’t do that, then just accept the fact that society sees you as bigoted, and move on. The bulk of society sees most of my beliefs as ridiculous, and that’s just the way it is. (And so long as I am left alone to believe them anyway, that’s just the way I like it – but that’s a completely different topic for another time.)
My point is that people are still free to believe these things, even if others see them as bigoted. But while you have the right to your own beliefs, you don’t have the right to be free from criticism of them. The answer to such criticism is, well, to answer the criticism. Or ignore it. But trying to hold on tooth and nail in an attempt to control the views of others is doomed to failure, and will only marginalize you further.
In the end, that’s one of the best things about the separation of church and state – you don’t get to dictate what society believes, but neither does society get to dictate what you believe. The system was set up as much to protect churches from government intrusion as it was to prevent religious intrusion into government. And because of it, we have this wonderful pluralistic society where people are perfectly free to believe that we shouldn’t have a pluralistic society. Funny, eh?
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