In 1779, Thomas Jefferson penned the following words:
[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened 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.
Twelve years later, a more simplified sentiment found its way into the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states, among other things, that citizens of this country are protected from the passage of laws that respect an "establishment of religion."
Having grown up with a conservative family, I am well aware of the rebuttals and arguments. "Someone has to decide what the laws are!" "How will we have moral laws if not directed by Moral Law (re: the Bible)?" “This country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles!” However, one has only to look at the 1796 treaty with Tripoli, crafted under Washington's presidency and signed into law by Adams to see the status of our country’s founding. The treaty clearly states, "...the government of the United States is not in any sense (emphasis added) founded on the Christian religion..." Yet today, one has only to turn on any cable news channel to hear incendiary rhetoric, cloaked in distorted religious piety, being spewed at the American masses.
Last May, a "pastor" in North Carolina declared, "I figured a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers, but couldn't get it passed the Congress...[put them in a fence] and have that fence electrified so they can't get out. Feed 'em...In a few years they'll die out [because] they can't reproduce...It makes me puking sick...Can you imagine kissing some man?" A similar sentiment is winding its way rapidly through the Kansas legislature, although this chilling effort is much more far-reaching in its implications: elements within the Kansas legislature want anyone who has been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS to "have their movements restricted," in effect, quarantining entire swaths of the population.
In the same breath that espouses the heritage of our nation and its history of freedom, politicians such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry will infer religious liberty--while claiming that their version of religious liberty must dictate law and that it must come explicitly from their understanding of morality and the universe. This misleading mentality is seen throughout the leadership structure and frames of the religious right's arguments: "We believe in religious freedom and liberty, but it must be our interpretation as such that rules this land." In fact, this sentiment is so strong in North Carolina that lawmakers are pushing for the establishment of a state religion while at the same time, the Attorney General of Virginia (who is currently running for governor) is pursuing the reinstatement of sodomy laws for the state.
This is the great danger of the religious right's politics: speaking the language of freedom, these individuals seek to impose their belief system on hundreds of millions of people (or as Jefferson feared, "enlarging their civil capacities"). Exclusionary right to religious freedom is granted to "Judeo-Christian" values in the eyes of these individuals. To make matters worse, a faulty interpretation and understanding of the Bible places many of these individuals in dangerous territory when it comes to science, environmentalism, international policy, and social policy.
In 2007, Pew Research conducted a survey of Republican voters and found 37% of all Republican voters are white evangelicals, but make up 55% of Republican voters on social issues. To more fully understand the implications of these numbers, it is important to note the fact that 89% of the Republican base is ethnically Caucasian. Combined with an overwhelmingly white base--over a third of it evangelical--a structure for the imposition of views is highly skewed towards a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant mentality.
With cries of persecution and marginalization rising from this demographic, I find it nearly impossible to take these claims seriously. True religious freedom allows diverse expressions to be celebrated--not shunned or ridiculed. Exercising religious freedom allows us schools that are free from intervention and indoctrination, public spaces that welcome all, and an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance that would otherwise be squelched in the neo-fascistic endeavors of some on the religious right.
The cultural diversity of the United States is rapidly expanding and will continue to do so, bringing with it fresh expressions of art, religion, and civic practice. These things should not be squelched in an agenda aimed at moral domination and subjugation, but at developing a deeper sense of community and a greater understanding of the phrase, E Pluribus Unum--"Out of many, One." As civic discourse continues in our public squares, it will be crucial to develop our understanding and enactment of tolerance and acceptance. Even so, we walk a fine line; we must ask ourselves, "At what cost will we tolerate intolerance?"
Conservatives are quick to crow, "You claim tolerance but where is your tolerance for those who are [opposed to your position]?" Let me clearly state that intolerance based on religious preference has no place in the liberal state. "Freedom of speech" allows everyone to say their piece, yes. However, in the space of civic discourse, ignorance masked as piety and bigotry cloaked as purity and faithfulness are repugnant. One does not have to look very far into the past to see this dualistic mentality of the "persecuted crusader": slavery, interracial marriage, the Equal Rights Amendment, the AIDS epidemic, marriage equality... our history is replete with such shameful episodes.
We are a thriving, beautiful, and diverse population. Seeking to impose one's own understanding of the universe on millions of others is not only hubristic, it is damaging. The worst part about what is being attempted by the religious right, joined with the political right, is the fact that it is a thinly veiled exercise in white privilege. As such, when it is challenged, cries of discrimination and a call to arms to "Take America Back!" are issued. No. Those days are gone. In the place of white fear may we build a society that cherishes our differences & creates space for expression and freedom without fear of recrimination--a place, as Jefferson wrote, where "all [people] are free."