Religion and Freedom

Starting four hundred years ago, a series of minor religious sects fled persecution in the Old World to establish better lives, with the prospect of real freedom of worship. In fact, freedom from all forms of oppression was a significant driver of migration to the New World.

American culture is still shaped today by the core Christian values of those early immigrants. The cultural traits of “good honest living” and “hard work” flow out of the Protestant values carried with those early Christian citizens. It was this hard working ethic that always surprised adversaries of the new American democracy, their ability to “put the shoulder to the wheel” gave the country spectacular productivity and made it a formidable adversary.

Unfortunately, these religious and spiritual values also came with other pernicious traits. Some sects, like the Mennonites, closed themselves off from outside heathens and they remain mostly closed and deeply anachronistic communities to this day. Others looked outward, and sought to shape the broader culture of the new country to their Christian values. This continues today with a global reach, through the efforts of evangelical mega-churches and the Mormons.

In contrast with the growing geographic reach of some churches, the overall levels of adherence to religious worship has been on a steady decline the whole time. In the early 20th century, more than 70% of Americans considered themselves strongly religious, now only about 30% of US citizens consider themselves strongly attached to a religion. It’s this combination of increased power, yet declining membership that has set the stage for conflict. Religious groups now have more influence for a smaller, more fanatic set of values.

Early protections for religious freedom were written into the US constitution, which was a pioneering feat in 1791. Unfortunately, we now know, the cohesive organization of the faithful gives them out sized power at the ballot box, when compared to the diverse voting habits of their secular neighbours. American conservatives have been able to trigger predictable, mass voting of the religious block by pressing just a few hot-button issues, that galvanize their religious values.

Today, many of the political conflicts in the US have underpinnings in their opposition to basic Christian ideologies; LGBT rights, abortion, drug policy, racism, immigration. When looking for solutions, it’s very hard to tell a believer, that some of the things they do to express their religion, violate other peoples’ fundamental rights. It’s even harder to to tell someone, who feels they have a supreme being on their side, that human rights actually have priority over their belief system.

The constitutional right to abortion in Roe vs. Wade has now been struck down by the conservative Supreme Court, but a new law in Maine gives us an example of the path to follow in the future. That State wanted to halt secular government funding for religious schools. The religious leanings of the Supreme Court made them focus more on preserving rights rather than curbing religion. New Maine regulations protected the gender rights of students as a prerequisite to qualify for State funding and religious schools quickly dropped requests for funding, rather than compromise there ability to discriminate against admitting LGBT students.

On a global scale, many are outspoken that religious power in Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia continues to curb the rights and freedoms of secular female and LGBTQ citizens, but the US and Western nations must not be silent about the religious root causes of their own culture wars. Rather than protecting their own freedoms, Christians in America are actively moving to curb the rights of people outside their outside their faith, by voting to impose their religious values on secular citizens. This is a dangerous abuse of democratic process, that must be countered with appropriate protections for individual secular freedoms. Today its women’s right to abortion, tomorrow it will be LGBT freedoms and marriage rights.

Ultimately we must clearly define the nature of the rights crimes in these situations. The power of organized religions has always made this problematic, but the overstep of the conservative US Supreme Court will eventually mark an important push back from the secular community. The majority of the population, that prizes rights above religion, will not let this stand. We must continue to protect minority religious freedoms, but we must also establish a fundamental right to freedom from religion, to equally protect secular values and the progress of science and society.

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