The promotion of religious freedom has in recent years, and most certainly now more than ever been a point of heated contention between those of faith and those who identify as non-believers. January 16th, 2015 marks the 22nd anniversary of the instituting of the celebration known as Religious Freedom Day and we find ourselves debating a matter which, by all accounts should never have been a necessary call to action in the first place.
The Presidential Proclamation made in 1993 quite clearly defined and emboldened the axiomatic law penned by Thomas Jefferson and set forth by James Madison in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It states; “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” This was later preserved as the principle of religious liberty found in our Bill of Rights as the First Amendment which pronounces, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” And it is this very Right of free exercise which is being twisted and subverted by those who claim to have the divine right and inspiration to be free to practice their discriminatory values upon those of a different (or no) faith.
Each year a reinforcing proclamation is read, from President George H. W. Bush’s inception of this celebratory (but not often lauded) day in 1993 to President William J. Clinton, President George W. Bush and the current President Barack H. Obama, one theme stands true and is succinctly expressed by a short quote from the original Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom, “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions”. That is to say, that no matter your religion, creed, philosophy or lack thereof, your civil rights as set in place and upheld by our Bill of Rights is axiomatic, unfailing and absolute.
But in recent years, with the rise of theological debate and increased unrest from fundamentalist factions there has been a pollution of the original meaning of the term ‘religious freedom’. Indeed it would seem that the future of this very important “justice for all” celebration is in peril. What was once a historical understanding of personal freedoms relating to ones liberty to religious belief, religious speech, and assembly with fellow believers and to have a religious affiliation or none at all, has been mutated into a more sinister agenda. We now see those of certain denominations and sects, of all faiths seeking to push legislation and propositions which would allow business owners, school teachers and even emergency personal discriminatory rights to refuse to provide service or assistance to those they recognize as not being a member of their faith.
What was originally a shield of righteousness and justice for the individual of faith, protecting their ability to worship who and what they wished (or decline to do the same) has now been applied as a tool for those very protected persons to degenerate their own biases and unfounded bigotries upon those that decades and centuries ago were once like them. We may once again be brought back into a time of public witch hunts, legal discrimination and black listing based upon previously protected status’s such as ones gender, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin and of course, choice in religion. Only now, with a larger, empowered and more prominently involved movement of freethinkers and open-minded individuals, the rift in society would be cataclysmic to the current social order. A truly daunting possibility indeed.
With the advancement of such promising legislation which grants equal rights (or chooses to recognize them for the citizens they are) to sexual minorities, increased public acceptance of a woman’s choice to use birth control and contraceptives and the continual promotion of a ‘live and let live” mentality, many fundamentalist and conservative faith groups view their own values as under attack. The concept of religious freedom has now been twisted into the new agenda of, “religious freedom to discriminate”.
And it is with that, we come to it the crux of it. The dismissive hypocrisy and blatant averting of the mind, body and spirit to one very fundamental decree that stands at the core of every major religion the world over. That, of the Golden Rule. Also known as the Ethic of Reciprocity, this ‘rule’ is often quoted in its most basic of forms, “Treat others the way you wish to be treated.” The five major religions of the world; Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism all have a myriad of various verses which promote this very instruction, purported to be so righteous and pure in nature. Interpretation and context notwithstanding, despite their various origins and dogmas, they do indeed instruct the same thing;
From the Udana-Varga 5:18, Buddhism tells one; “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
Christianity in Luke 6:31 (KJV) instructs us, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”
Found in 5:1517 of The Mahabharata, Hinduism reveals that, “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
Islam purports in 60:8 of the Quran that, “Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.”
Judaism, in Tobit 4:15 4 tells us “And what you hate, do not do to anyone.”
Certainly, even the more esoteric and less widespread religions teach some version of the Ethic of Reciprocity. Brahmanism, Confucianism, Taoism and even Zoroastrianism speak of only doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. It is not a difficult concept to comprehend, even children quite naturally take to being kind to those they wish to cavort with in hopes of being treated with equal kindness. Yet it is this fundamental rule which serves as the foundation for any civilization or group of individuals which seek to live in harmony for the betterment of all that is being ignored. Or at least, the foundation for everyone who doesn’t get along or identify with other’s beliefs to be grown-ups and show a modicum of maturity and respect towards each other.
Are they so hypocritical, so heaven-bent on discriminating against those who do not share their beliefs or lifestyles as to boldly push their agenda upon those who do not wish it? I daresay they are, as we see nearly every day in some statement or stance on their ‘privilege’ of religious freedom to discriminate. They wish to force the issue, to muscle and convert (if they can) those who do not identify and see the world as they do. And in all honesty, a world of mysticism and supernatural origins which cannot be seen… only “felt”. That is the realm of the faithful, of the believer after all.
Yet every day we are told by apologists of all faiths that their beliefs do not promote violence or hate or the oppression of heretics. “Our religion is one of peace. Of understanding and love” they say. Which is a masked and superfluous idea when those who wield the power of the worlds churches and political groups act in direct opposition to the very teachings of their Gods, Prophets and Messiahs. Or so they say.
Thus, we are left standing at the crossroads where we currently reside. Another January 16th is nearly upon us, and another celebration of Religious Freedom will come and go, perhaps never to be seen again in its current form. Next year it may well carry a new face, that of a grinning bigot, a smirking racist, a sneering evangelical looking down its deviously cloaked proboscis, judging and selecting which individuals it chooses to allow within its folds.
Will it be your doctor, whom upon seeing a religious symbol upon you different to theirs denies you treatment? A restaurant server, who is offended by your atheist symbol t-shirt and shakes their head, exclaiming aloud where you can shove your lack of faith? Or perhaps a Police Officer, who upon answering a call of a break in sees a sign of religious affiliation upon your door and chooses to sit this one out? It might very well be a firefighter whom upon entering your home to pull you from the blazing inferno, notices your collection of professional homo-erotic body photography upon the wall and decides it is best to consign you to the flames for your choice in art.
This is the very real, and very appalling notion of ‘religious freedom of discrimination’ which we have found ourselves addressing in recent years. And if the conservatives and fundamentalists have their way, they’ll be able to do with legislation what their forebears failed to do with sword and fire. “Join us or die!” will be the cry of “freedom” upon their lips should these atrocities against our civil liberties be applied. For as much as many of them secretly wish to die and ascend to their heaven to meet their maker and savior, they most certainly also wish for you and your lack of faith (whether differing or simply lacking) to cease existing and be sent to whichever hell they have a mind to concoct.
Which is why this January 16th, a day assigned to embolden the very first of our Rights as Citizens within this Republic, the freedom of religion, is perhaps in current times one of our most woefully under-promoted celebrations of all. It is a dangerous notion, this ancient edict that this freedom is for all, to choose a faith which embodies and exemplifies your nature, or to declare yourself a non-believer and be upon your reasonable and scientifically minded way. But with that comes the freedom from religion, to not be oppressed, discriminated against or the subject of bigotry from those whom you do not share ideologies with. A most terrifying proclamation to those who hold that their ‘truth’ is the truth that all must accept.
Our pluralistic society and the idea of a secular nation, the separating of Church from State is a haven in a world where religious wars are still waged. Atrocities to this day are committed in vast droves against those of differing faiths, and homosexuals, women and children are victimized for ideologies that promote them to be abominations, property and subservient playthings. But for over two centuries, a Proclamation and later instituted Right defining that we would not be like the others, that we would be better than the rest, we would champion the Elite ideal that we may choose to worship (or not) and be as we would like, and not have to fear for our differences has held sway, ebbing and flowing from year to year.
But it would seem to some, and in some cases an increasing movement of groups that the commonly glorified Golden Rule and our First Amendment as laid out in the Bill of Rights… might just be another rule that was meant to be broken. For you can be sure, that if the cornerstone of our country, the First Amendment should bend and ultimately break, that the other Rights to which it is most firmly tied will come plummeting down to ruin along with it. True to form, should this come to pass, the oft-asked query of “Where is your God now?” will then be boldly and most earnestly answered with the terrifying re-sounder of “EVERYWHERE!”
We must ask ourselves, is the freedom we seek regarding religion for our own benefit, for others, or for all? Does our view of freedom include being free to perpetrate the darker and more damning aspects of our religion upon those who do not share our faith? Or are we accepting of the fact that we all have different needs and wants out of life, and that to allow others their faith (or lack of) will in turn foster a reciprocated environment of harmony? Diversity, or damnation?
From the lyrics of John Dickinson’s pre-Revolutionary War song, “The Liberty Song”, come words we would all do well to think upon; “Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all! By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall!”