Of Soldiers and Soul-Winning

Shouting soldiers have never interrupted any church service I’ve attended. According to the preachers of my childhood, we can thank other soldiers throughout our nation’s history for obtaining this religious freedom for us.

I remember imagining the hypothetical scene a preacher painted one Sunday – heavily armed soldiers breaking through the doors at the back of the auditorium and demanding that we denounce God, or face imprisonment or death.

This was a powerful base for a little girl’s daydream – and just like children dream and play about their parents dying, themselves getting terribly injured or sick, and other tasty tragedies, I dreamed of the soldiers coming while the preacher droned on week in, week out.

I’m reminded of all this because I’m currently puzzling over religious freedom. The self-identified “fighting fundamentalists” of my childhood held religious freedom as a treasure for which countless people had fought and died. And yet, I’m not sure they would have been – or were – so supportive of freedom for those holding different (or no) religious views.

In a few days, my state of Minnesota will be voting on a proposed amendment to our state constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. I wrote here that I see this as a civil rights issue, and that religious beliefs about sexual behavior shouldn’t dictate our state laws.

But as I talk with people about this topic, I have really only heard one pro-amendment argument – variations on the theme that God opposes homosexuality.

It seems impossible for these people to set aside their religious perspective and see this as a civil rights issue – or even a religious freedom issue. Some explain that God is judging our nation because of homosexuality. Others say that God designed the family to be one man and one woman and their children, and we need to uphold this design because it is best for everyone, especially children. In their minds (as I understand it) this isn’t simply a religious issue. It is also a civic duty. They are trying to save society from God’s judgment, or at least, nudge society toward God’s perfect design.

In my religious upbringing, I learned that it was essential to integrate my faith with every other aspect of my life – that I shouldn’t live one way on Sunday and another way the rest of the week. The values and beliefs we learned in church were not just for church; they were the ultimate truth for all of life.

Since then, my personal faith has shifted from a list of doctrines to a posture of humility, vulnerability, open-hearted love and open-ended questions. I no longer see God as a supreme moralist with a checklist. So it’s pretty easy for me to tout all this religious freedom stuff and still feel like my faith is well-integrated in my life.

But I want to respect and uphold the freedom of all people – religious fundamentalists, pagans, mystics, atheists, whoever – to conduct their lives in a manner consistent with their beliefs, as long as they pose no harm to others. And I’m wondering, for people whose faith (or anti-faith) systems insist on converting the entire world to their set of beliefs (soul-winning, it was called in my faith tradition), if religious freedom for all is really even desirable.

I want – and try – to appreciate the well-meaning place where many conservative religious people are coming from. They truly believe that their idea of “God’s best” for them is also God’s best for the whole world, and that a society that doesn’t honor their version of God is only heaping trouble on its head.

This, fundamentally, is the same place where militant atheists are coming from. They hold that religion is on the whole destructive and humanity will continue to suffer until we walk away from religion entirely.

So help me consider this question – can fervent religious and anti-religious people conscionably uphold religious freedom at all?

15 Comments

  1. Julia, read the Bible again. God created marriage. If man created marriage, I would vote yes. However, it was God who did and I haven’t heard that He has ever changed His mind about who marriage should be between, that is, one man and one woman. If we continue down the path you suggest, it won’t be long before it will be marriage between man and beast.

    • This seems like a good example of Poe’s Law, because I’ve spent the past couple days trying to figure out if this is meant as a real comment or a parody of someone opposed to gay marriage. You’re not even engaging Julia’s argument. I wrote about this subject on my own blog recently, and someone responded to me almost word-for-word what you’ve said here. It’s like you all have a playbook of non sequiturs you’re required to repeat, no matter what any of us say. How incredibly frustrating.

      Are you truly suggesting that our laws should be based on the religious beliefs of the majority? Would it make any difference to you if someone had commented “Allah created marriage”?

    • Hello Jack,
      Thanks for reading and commenting here. I hear what you are saying, which is exactly what I was discussing in the blog post itself. But it doesn’t help me consider any further the actual question I was asking, in all honesty and because I truly don’t have an answer. I’ll try to rephrase the question and if you are willing, I welcome your response:

      For someone like you (devoted to conservative Christian beliefs), do you feel it is important for other people whose beliefs conflict with yours to have freedom to live according to those beliefs; as long as they pose no harm to others? For example, in your opinion, should our state and federal laws allow Muslim people to worship Allah, when I would assume that your beliefs tell you this goes against God’s laws?

  2. Julia, this is my favorite paragraph:

    “But I want to respect and uphold the freedom of all people – religious fundamentalists, pagans, mystics, atheists, whoever – to conduct their lives in a manner consistent with their beliefs, as long as they pose no harm to others. And I’m wondering, for people whose faith (or anti-faith) systems insist on converting the entire world to their set of beliefs (soul-winning, it was called in my faith tradition), if religious freedom for all is really even desirable.”

    Keep standing up for freedom.

    • Thanks Jodi! Would love to hear any further thoughts you might have around this question. It’s been so long since I was actually part of the fundamentalist circles I grew up in, and I was only a child at the time. So looking back, I’m really trying to understand and reconcile the strong support for religious freedom that coexisted there with an overwhelming fear and mistrust of “the other.” I imagine you might have some insight on this too.

      • Ha, I should engage your argument myself, shouldn’t I?

        A topic that has been in my mind a lot lately is one of power and hierarchy. This came about first of all because of a comment made on my blog in response to my gay marriage post: “this tension between a Secular, no objective truth, society, and a society undergirded by historical Christian morals. They really can’t exist side by side as equals. One will dominate over the other.” The theme has continued through discussions in a women’s studies/politics course I’m taking this semester and now again because of a book I’m reading – The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin (have you read her? She seems like someone you would appreciate). It seems to me that fundamentalists of all kinds hold the opinion stated in the comment on my blog. They fear that if they don’t grasp power, someone else will take it and use it to harm them. You can also see the fruit of power/hierarchy thinking in the resurgence of emphasis on traditional gender roles and family structure among neo-fundamentalists (a.k.a. Reformed). I’m beginning to think, as my blog commenter went on to say, that this IS a question of world views but not the one that he thinks. It’s a struggle between the power/hierarchy worldview and one that is based on freedom and equality. There are religious and non-religious people under both umbrellas.

        One thing I’ve discovered as I’ve stepped outside of Christianity is that the paranoia of my past, specifically that the rest of the world is out to get us, is based on fiction. People weren’t nearly as obsessed with us as we were with them (and ourselves). Perhaps an understanding of that might help to ease some of the conflict.

        OK, I think I have wandered my way around long enough to be able to tackle your questions head-on:
        1. “And I’m wondering, for people whose faith (or anti-faith) systems insist on converting the entire world to their set of beliefs (soul-winning, it was called in my faith tradition), if religious freedom for all is really even desirable.” In general, I’d say no. This doesn’t seem desirable for them, aside from the lip service they give to freedom as a patriotic ideal. They aren’t much different from the rest of us in this respect, just more extreme and unwilling/unable to address the problem.
        2. “Can fervent religious and anti-religious people conscionably uphold religious freedom at all?” I think yes, by learning to think outside of the power paradigm. I don’t know how to accomplish that. Maybe start with “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

        These are infant thoughts, so I’d love to hear your perspective.

        For reference, here’s the blog post to which I’ve referred:
        http://sheddingvelveteen.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/a-lack-of-imagination/

        • Well thought Jodi! I think your connection with the power paradigm is right on. This is heavily ironic, given that Jesus so refused to play for any kind of political power- yet it is Christians who are the power-mongers now!

      • Thanks for adding those thoughts, Jodi. I think you’re really onto something here, bringing up power and control. I’ve been thinking more about the original European settlers of the United States. As I learned in school, they (at least a good number of them) settled here because they were seeking religious freedom. But probably the most fervent among them were just as concerned about making laws that upheld their religious views as anybody proposing legislation today – chiefly because they had been squashed by other religious people back in the motherland, and they wanted to be the ones in charge this time.

        As l8again points out, this power-play paradigm is a major problem within much of American Christianity, and I would guess it’s the same in other religions. Yet it’s those who subvert power structures who effect significant and lasting change, though they often end up martyrs in the process.

        “One thing I’ve discovered as I’ve stepped outside of Christianity is that the paranoia of my past, specifically that the rest of the world is out to get us, is based on fiction. People weren’t nearly as obsessed with us as we were with them (and ourselves).” Oh yeah. That describes my experience too! And it can be a bit disillusioning, discovering I and my people are not “above” the rest of humanity like we thought. But after the disillusionment comes the profound understanding that recognizing our common humanity may be our best hope for a peaceful future.

  3. Julia, your childhood fantasies of soldiers breaking down the Baptist church doors and forcing the remnant of true believers to spit on the Bible or face death really brought back my own terror filled childhood. As a kid, I truly believed that the 40 or so people sitting in the pews with me were the only heaven bound Christians for miles around, (though we would have to suffer to prove it), and everyone, including the teenagers at Hardees serving our after church chicken sandwiches were unwittingly part of the great commie/liberal/satanic plot to enslave/torture true Christians. So these fears were some sort of amalgamation of fundamentalist millennialism and cold-war paranoia. I’d like to think this sort of thing has died out, that kids growing up today are not experiencing this (mine are not!), but it goes on. In fact, it has been slicked up and commercialized into the modern evangelical movement (with communism being replaced with Islamophobia). Something like 1 in 5 Americans fully subscribe to this nonsense, with many more sympathetic to it.

    Regarding your thoughts on the marriage amendment, the polling (as of today) suggests it may be close, a few weeks ago I was under the impression it would pass easily. Listening to the pro-amendment arguments, I hear the same thing you do: God hates gays (don’t give me any of that “hate the sin love the sinner” BS), and somehow gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage/families. Unless a person gets their info from Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council, there just isn’t evidence that this is so.

    It does look like the voter id question will pass. This makes me so angry.

    Regarding Jack’s post, I too wondered if his comment was satirical. I think I’m going to simply decide that it was, because when I read the last line about “man and beast,” I laughed till stuff came out of my nose. Well done, sir!

    • Thanks for your comment, Nnox. I agree with you that fear motivates the thinking of many people. And I think fearful people need to be encouraged, and reminded of their humanity in all its complexity. It is when we recognize our own complex humanity that we can begin to see and respect it in everyone else.

      I’m still interested in some interaction with my initial question, and I’ll bet you have some insight from your readings of Jefferson, Payne, and others. How do fervent believers (or fervent anti-believers) uphold religious freedom, or is it even possible for them?

      • Julia, you are consistently the most even handed, least partisan person I know. If I was to sum up all your blog writings, I would say you are doggedly pursuing some notion that there truly is common ground among people, and that it is possible for human beings to “recognize our own complex humanity…[and] begin to see and respect it in everyone else.”

        I may pay lip service to such sentiments, but in my heart I think human beings are eons from caring for each other en masse.

        I do not think the religious majority can be relied on to uphold religious freedom. So much of the religious right’s rhetoric indicates a desire for theocracy. Sometimes I almost wish they would get their way, just so they could see what happens when religion becomes intertwined with politics. The martial and sometimes murderous language that I find when I visit Fox News comment sites would soon find literal outlet, I’m convinced. The great protection of religion (and religious people) is not religious government, but secular government. I don’t see any other way.

        You used the terms fervent “religious and anti-religious.” First, it must be made clear the the “anti-religious” are hopelessly outnumbered by the former. And I’m not sure I agree with you that the fundamentalist and the “militant” atheist are flip sides of the same coin. I have never heard an ardent atheist argue for an “atheist society” as do christian conservatives when they argue for a Christian society. Yes I have read Dawkins, and while he can be very strident at times, and while he believes that eventually humanity will “outgrow” religion, he does not argue that secular government ought to enforce an atheist society. This is very different from the religious right, which does seek to create and enforce (politically) a “biblical world view.”

        One further note, while their are “militant” atheists, most atheists I have talked to or read would be considered “soft” atheists, or “lowercase a” atheists. They affirm a lack of belief in God, distinguishing them from agnostics, but they do not have the, umm, zeal of guys like Dawkins. That is, they do not regard their lack of belief as something to be vigorously asserted. They simply lack belief. I would not describe these people as “anti-religious” at all, though they are, without exception, vigorous defenders of secular government.

        You wrote of “militant atheists:” “They hold that religion is on the whole destructive and humanity will continue to suffer until we walk away from religion entirely.” That is true…but notice you said (correctly) “walk away” from religion. Atheists, unlike American Evangelicals, envision people “walking away” from the viewpoint they detest. Very different from the language (and political machinations) of today’s Religious Right.

        Lemme know if I didn’t quite get to the heart of your question!

      • Hey Nnox, yes, it’s true – I am doggedly pursuing that notion. Sometimes I do feel hopelessly naive, like that line from Anne Frank’s diary – “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” or however that went. Sometimes I’m haunted by the truth that I’ve mostly been well-treated by people, so I don’t have much firsthand experience with the dark side of humanity.

        I may also agree with you that “human beings are eons from caring for each other en masse” – yet, as long as there is still some good will among people, I think there is hope. It may be eons from now, but it may still be possible, and that’s enough to keep me working for it. I also know that I’ve changed my mind about things many times throughout my life, so I can usually sympathize with someone who thinks differently from me, since I have thought differently from me many times 🙂

        Also, I agree with you that the religious majority is not the group we should expect to uphold religious freedom. As I wrote in reply to Jodi’s comment above, when I think more about the original seekers of religious freedom in our own country, I don’t see them holding out that freedom to everyone else. It was the “free thinkers,” the secularists, humanists, like Jefferson, Franklin, etc., who really made the legislative push for freedom. So, I think your comment – “The great protection of religion (and religious people) is not religious government, but secular government. I don’t see any other way.” sums up well my own views on this.

        Okay, to the “religious” and “anti-religious” comments. I agree with you that non-religious people are “hopelessly outnumbered” by religious people, and I think this is one reason it is important to uphold freedom for all people’s belief systems/philosophies. I might be willing to concede your point that religious fundamentalists want to force their views on society at large, while “militant atheists” can be arrogant and unwilling to listen to other perspectives but don’t seek to forcefully convert others through legislation.

        Here’s an article I came across recently somewhat related to this – http://www.salon.com/2012/10/21/toxic_atheism_drives_people_apart/

        But I think it is important for the purpose of this post to differentiate between a philosophical arrogance and unwillingness to listen to others, and a political agenda that works on pushing legislation to further one’s own philosophy or religion.

        Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  4. As a follow-up to my comment about the power paradigm…

    I just read a blog post from a libertarian perspective reacting to the votes in Washington and Colorado legalizing recreational marijuana:
    http://www.theagitator.com/2012/11/09/milton-friedman-the-war-on-drugs-and-last-tuesday-night/

    Commenter #3 says, “With the rise of the lawless upper class (and their LEO protectors), I think left/right distinctions cease to be very useful outside of network news. It’s really a matter for authoritarians vs. everybody else.” While I’m skeptical that the lawless upper class is any newer than the lawless middle or lower classes, it seems he/she also recognizes the two world views in conflict here.

    • And regarding power and control issues, “the lawless upper class” holds much more political power than any other lawless economic class, what with their Super PACS and all.

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