What does “religious freedom” mean to you? Is it the right of the religious to freely promote and practice their religious beliefs unadulterated or is it an excuse by religious communities to use doctrines for purposes of oppressing those who are not like them? “Religious freedom” is, if nothing else, one of the most polarizing topics in current American cultural politics.
Normally, some semblance of middle ground is locatable in even our most divisive issues, but according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, when it comes to “religious freedom,” commonality is as heard to come by as actual scientific proof that any one of humanity’s supreme beings actually exists.
The two most common battlegrounds in the “religious freedom” scream-preach extravaganza are based upon topics most of us take for granted: marriage and bathrooms. Last summer, the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges paved the way not only for an all-too-common elusiveness in statehouses and courts when it comes to resolving religious liberty and nondiscrimination conflicts, but also for a media firestorm centered around conservative figureheads telling the nation’s highest court to kiss ’em where the good Lord split ’em, the most notable being perennial Republican glee club captain Mike Huckabee and 4-time “I do” vocalizer Kim Davis. “Religious freedom” became a punchline for jokes about zany, prejudiced conservatives and cakes, but even those poorly-constructed jests and jabs did not undermine the very real social problem looming — that there was a concerted effort by a significant portion of the American public to effectively tell small business owners that they didn’t have to provide the service they provide for almost everyone to a group of people on the sole basis that they are not heterosexual. They all basically stood up and said “if it’s okay to be gay, then it’s okay for me to reject their service requests because I think they’re gross.”
The “religious freedom” era of American politics — with all of its fiery debate and discriminatory legislation by future vice presidential candidates — has been a twisted, fire-and-brimstone affair that has left many mouths perpetually tasting of sulfur. This is reflected in the Pew poll, where out of a sampling of 4,500 adults nationwide, 49 percent think that business should be required to provide services to same-sex couples soon to be married, despite the personal religious beliefs of the business’ owners and operators. But 48 percent, on the other hand, think that businesses should have the right of refusal, even though they would, in effect, be flagrantly discriminating against someone because of their sexual orientation.
The “religious freedom” era gave way to the “which bathroom can I pee in?” era, once again using religious attitudes, in conjunction with “stranger danger,” to argue against the allowance of transgender men and women using the facilities that correspond to their gender identity — the same bathrooms they had used before this subject became (regrettably) a major topic of debate. Again, it has proven divisive and disparaging, culminating in discriminatory legislation in North Carolina and other states, vitriolic resistance to inclusive school board policies in Fort Worth, Texas, and even white people boycotting Target (special thanks to Trae Crowder for that last one).
Oh, that’s right. The bathroom debate became so inflamed that there is a guy calling himself the “Liberal Redneck” doing guest spots for the New York Daily News. He’s hilarious, by the way, but more importantly, the bathroom debate went to such levels of ridiculousness that it propelled an obscure, Southern comedian with plenty of important things to say on the matter to moderate popularity with the fourth-most widely circulated daily newspaper in the United States. That’s the very definition of “daaaaaaaaamn” and highlights how widely-fought and schismatic the topic of bathrooms has been. This is also reflected in the aforementioned Pew poll, where 51 percent of respondents believe that transgender people should not be forced by idolatry and fear-mongering into bathrooms that do not correspond to their identified sex, while 46 percent believe that if you were born with a wang, you must alleviate yourself behind the door emblazoned with a generic piece of clipart that wears pants.
The results of the poll have painted a grim picture of what these debates will look like in the future. There is no moderateness to be found here, just polarization and what appears to be little tolerance for opposing viewpoints. Pew’s associate director of research Greg Smith classified the results as “a very even split,” bolstering recent comments made by renowned religious freedom scholar and professor Douglas Laylock of the University of Virginia School of Law, who said during a presentation at the Religion News Association’s annual conference that many people are giving up on balancing religious beliefs and civil protections and are instead buckling down and committing to “their side winning the culture war.”
But the Pew study wasn’t solely to get an idea of where people stood on the topic of “religious freedom” and the concept’s influence over civil protection policy. The study aimed to examine the relationship between the two sides and determine if there was any semblance of a “sympathy gap,” or a demographic that could see both sides of the debate, even though they stood on one side of the issue. To find this group — which is composed of a mere 18 percent of respondents — Pew laid out the backgrounds behind the “religious freedom” and “bathroom” issues prior to asking respondents to select where they stand. For example, questions examining where a respondent stood on the issue of wedding-related services and same-sex marriages was prefaced by:
“As you may know, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. Some argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services, such as catering or flowers, should be able to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality. Others argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers.”
Participants were asked how much, if at all, they sympathized with the people advocating each viewpoint, then which viewpoint was the closest to their own. Researchers noted that “one of the goals of the survey was to see how many Americans feel torn because they can understand where both sides are coming from on these issues.” But, as their research noted, the degree of empathy on these subjects is abysmal, as the 18 percent (or less than 1-in-5) figure prominently revealed. “The short answer is,” researchers commented, “not many.”
This ultimately isn’t surprising. These issues, specifically, have recently been fire-starters for seething, storm-like argument, debate, and confrontation between two distinct groups of people: the religiously-motivated who find these civil engagements to be proof of the collapse of Western morality and the more secular promoters of civil rights and privilege equivalency. While it would be foolish to assume, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this degree of polarity will remain indefinitely, the cultural schism of “religious freedom” arguments against LGBT equality and the “one-part church, one-part moral panic” nature of the transgender bathroom controversy has done an exceptional job at almost literally splitting the nation in twain.
But it is important to be clear on the meaning of the term “religious freedom,” because the way it sounds on paper, on cable news, or out of the mouth of prominent conservatives is not the way it sounds when implemented.
Let’s not kid ourselves. “Religious freedom” is a talking point, and not an inclusive one at that. “Religious freedom,” as a term, is misleading. It’s akin to the phrase “pro-life.” Both exist to put a categorically oppressive viewpoint in a positive light, deliberately misleading its proponents into thinking that their posture is on the moral high ground, when it is, in reality, an excuse to take a Louisville Slugger to cultural progress. “Religious freedom” doesn’t even mean religious freedom. Similarly to how “pro-life” actually means “anti-choice,” “religious freedom” actually means “Christian freedom,” and the phrase is always projected conveniently without its second part — “… to treat everyone not like us as second-class.”
Unchecked “religious freedom” is gay Jim Crow, and by virtue of a 4,500 person sampling of American attitudes and opinions, with a modest 2.4 percent margin of error, about half of us support it.
Featured image via Pixabay and is edited by the author.
h/t Deseret News