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?