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Sunday, October 9, 2016
Do Progressives Even Care About Freedom of Worship?
Do Progressives Even Care About Freedom of Worship?
The Stream - Sunday October 9, 2016
by George Yancey
A while ago I gave some thought to writing about the limits of what progressives might do to take away Christians' religious freedom. It seemed to me that some Christians were overstating the threat. My thoughts were based on research I had conducted using surveys and other standard methodologies into Christianophobia, the unreasonable hatred and fear of Christians (usually conservative Christians, in the United States).
Many of my identifiably Christianophobic survey respondents indicated that they respected freedom of worship - the right of Christians to do what they want in their churches and homes - but not freedom of religion more broadly speaking. They wanted to keep Christians out of the public square, which is of course seriously problematic, but at least they showed little interest in interfering with Christians' rights to worship. So I contemplated writing an op-ed to give them the benefit of the doubt, offer a moderately balancing perspective, and dissuade Christians from exaggerating the extent to which Christianophobia could lead to religious suppression.
My first indication that this would not be a wise approach to take was last spring when I learned about Eric Walsh. Walsh was a lay pastor who was fired from a government job because he gave Sunday morning sermons (in church, obviously, not on the job) opposing homosexuality. Does not separation from church and state mean that the government cannot punish you for what you say during a sermon? If freedom of worship means anything, it means that the government should not monitor religious worship unless it is investigating a violent crime.
The second indication occurred when was researching an article on Christians being punished for practicing their faith. I had expected to find Christians businesses being targeted, but I was surprised when a church was being denied a lease extension because of the pastor's (admittedly hateful) theology. The point isn't that freedom of worship was being legally denied -- this was a case between a church and a private company. The point is that the story was reported with a sense of glee that undermines any thought that the authors might support a religious group's private freedom of worship.
Yes, there was hatefulness expressed at that church. But compare that to 1977, when the ACLU defended the Nazi Party of America's right to march in Skokie, Illinois. It wasn't because there were a lot of secret racists at the ACLU. It was because the members at the ACLU had a powerful belief in free speech and they wanted free speech for everyone. That was the attitude of progressives then. Now I have a hard time thinking that many progressives truly believe in freedom of worship. Where is the ACLU today with the Walsh case, or with the church that's being denied a lease?
I have spoken out against the idea of banning Muslim immigration because I truly believe in freedom of religion. We show our values by defending people we do not agree with. I do not agree with Islam but I support Muslims' freedom of religion. Progressives who will not defend Walsh and the church do not really believe in freedom of worship, no matter what they may say.
When I did my Christianophobia research, I saw how my respondents were generally open to freedom of worship but not to freedom of religion in the broader sense. I suspected they might have shaped for themselves an ideology whereby they could feel good about themselves by offering Christians this little crumb. I had reason to believe their attitudes on this were representative of the larger Christianophobic population as well.
But that attitude is changing. I suspect now that as our society has changed and as those with Christianophobia have gained more political power, they have discovered that they no longer need to offer that crumb. So it should not be surprising if we not only see scare quotes around "freedom of religion" but also "freedom of worship" in the near future.
Often when people argue that the loss of one freedom leads to the loss of another they are accused of committing the fallacy of the slippery slope. But if freedom of worship goes the way of freedom of religion then we cannot see it as just a fallacy anymore. Indeed when people gain power, as those with antipathy towards Christians have gotten, there is a powerful temptation to intrude more on the rights of the hated out-group.
So ultimately I cannot write the moderate, balancing op-ed I had wanted to write. I do not think anyone will soon starting burning down churches or imprisoning individuals simply for being conservative Christians. Short of that, though, I cannot predict any limit to what persons with Christianophobia will seek to do and to justify with their hatred and fear of Christians. They claim to value tolerance but they set that value completely aside when dealing with conservative Christians. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I can no longer do so.