In various reaches of right-wing punditry, we've seen lately the enthusiastic defense of the first amendment. These people aren't necessarily protecting freedom of speech; rather, they are forcefully asserting the strength and importance of another part of the amendment - the free exercise clause. According to many of these pundits, freedom of religion is one of the oldest and greatest rights. In defense of Hobby Lobby, Mike Huckabee said:
"They are having to fight in court for the most basic American rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech," wrote Huckabee. "The Obama administration insists that companies like Hobby Lobby bow their knees to the God of government health care mandates, even when those mandates are a clear and direct contradiction to their personal beliefs of faith."
When America’s leaders actively promote and legislate immorality, restrict the religious freedoms that our country was founded on, and are openly hostile to men and women of faith, then I believe we are ripe for God’s judgment.
Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.These men are adept at re-creating their own favorable versions of history, so it comes as no surprise that they've been able and willing to contort the truth to craft an effective narrative. Freedom of religion does have a long history in America, though that history is not nearly as unfettered as these men would have you think. With the way they've reacted to things like the birth control provisions of the Affordable Care Act, you would think that this was the first time the government had ever tried to make businesses act against their religious directives. In reality, the government has required business and individuals to abide by contradictory civil and criminal law for what amounts to most of this country's history.
Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church's participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society
Take the Mormons, for instance, whose practice of polygamy was disfavored so much that the United States wouldn't admit Utah as a state until it did away with multiple wife takership. What about followers of the Old Testament who would have wanted to stone their children for a small indiscretion, or other followers of that text that might have wanted to inflict death on their friends and family for any number of perceived misdeeds? The law upholds old debts and requires individuals to pay them, even though Christianity and Judaism espouse the Jubilee doctrine - a recurring period where all debts are forgiven and all prisoners are freed.
You don't have to be a Biblical scholar or a seasoned lawmaker to know that there are many times when the law requires a person to do something counter to what his or her religious book my teach. The law also proscribes certain actions that the books might require. It is the nature of religion-neutral governing, as the conflicting nature of all the world's religions makes creating a structurally fair system a virtual impossibility.
Though unfettered religious freedom does not have a long history in the United States, religious freedom arguments in favor of toxic policy do. We have seen this song and dance many times before, and in those instances, government beat back the calls of those people who claimed to hear God's demands.
Back when white human beings thought it was perfectly acceptable to own black human beings, several strains of justification rose through the muck. When the pro-slavery crowd was not busy talking about how much money it would lose, it was talking about, among other things, the right of slave owners to keep their chattel because of Jesus and stuff.
Jefferson Davis was one of the originators of the freedom of religion argument, and he used it at will as a political tool in the fight for human ownership rights. Arguing for the inherent right of people to own slaves, he said:
"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts."Reverend Richard Furman of South Carolina added a touch of ordained credibility that Mike Huckabee might appreciate. Arguing for the right of men to own men as an expression of religious freedom, he said:
"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."U.S. Senator James Henry Hammond might have been our slave-age Rick Santorum. He had no problem arguing for the right of men to act in accordance with Biblical law without the interference from a pesky government:
"The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined."Fast forward quickly to the fight for women's suffrage, when those uppity ladies decided they were tired of being second-class citizens. You might not be surprised to learn that many people argued against women's suffrage under the auspices of religious freedom. Writing of the women's rights movements, an editorialist for the New York Herald used the same sort of demagoguery that many popular fundamentalist pundits use today:
"The new dispensation of Lucretia Mott and the philosophers, proposes:If this language seems familiar, you have probably read the writings of Mike Huckabee or any number of lackeys who have found their way to the Southern Poverty Law Center's hate groups list. The world coming to an end, the abolition of the existing social system, and the dispensation of Christianity. What horrible event could bring about such radical suffering for the fundamentalist right? Abortion? Birth control? Gay marriage? No - back then, it was the simple right to cast a vote for an adult woman. Teach Huckabee the word "humbug" and you'd have a dead match. Back then, women's suffrage was a bad idea because a society that imposed such a measure would be at odds with God's law, and any society at odds with God's law is engaged in full-on war with the religious liberty of individual Christians.
1. To dispense with Christianity and the Bible. After an experiment of nineteen centuries, they declare the system to be a humbug.
2. To abolish the existing political and social system of society as part of the false machinery of the age.
3. To put all races, sexes and colors upon a footing of perfect equality. The convention having proved by phrenology and biology that, the sexes are equal in point of intellect, and that color is a mere difference of complexion, it is proposed to abolish the only distinction of sex by a universal adoption of breeches.
The philosophers of the Tribune have, therefore, published the Worcester platform in the capacity of the official organ of this tremendous reformation. Old things are to be done away with, and all things are to become new. Seward is to be sustained, and [President Millard] Fillmore is only to be tolerated till the advent of the new dispensation, when Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelly, Douglas, Greeley and Sojourner Truth are to rule the roost. Then, and not till then, shall we realise the jubilee of the Devil and his angels."
Catholics joined in the fight against women's rights, and the Catholic Encyclopedia had this to say about the idea of a woman's inherent equality:
"This tendency is not compatible with the standard of nature or the Gospel.... The proclamation of the Rights of Man... bind man to woman as the absolute master."
If today's hucksters were cogent in the 1950s, they might have pursued a course of action to prevent young black kids from going to school with young white kids. A number of influential fundamentalist "thinkers" postulated on the question of segregation, and quite a few of them retreated to their old religious refuge - the de-segregation of schools was against God's wishes, and as a result, it violated the religious freedom of their children to learn math without having to share a room with "separate, but equal" black children.
In November of 1954, Pastor G.T. Gillespie wrote the Christian View on Segregation. His work included a non-apologetic explanation for why God just wouldn't like the "two" races learning from books in the same classroom. He wrote:
"While the Bible contains no clear mandate for or against segregation as between the white and negro races, it does furnish considerable data from which inferences may be drawn in support of the general principle of segregation as an important feature of the Divine purpose and Providence throughout the ages."Imagine that - a prominent religious figure torturing the unspoken inferences of the Bible to come up with an interpretation to match popular bigoted opinions held by people of his day. This pastor went on to describe some of the ways that God said he didn't like racial integration. Like many of today's religious leaders, he went to extreme and comical lengths to defend his own bigoted stance. According to Pastor Gillespie, the Biblical command to not plant crops of a different kind beside one another is one piece of evidence that God would prefer the two races to learn in different spaces.
Mike Huckabee and his ilk are nothing new, and their arguments are nothing novel. When they claim that religious freedom is a long-protected right, they're only partially correct. The United States has a long history of compelling people to act and not act in certain ways despite the loud and continuous objections of people who use religious victimhood as a political tool to engender support that would not otherwise exist. And just like these people have in the past, they will lose with their current efforts to use religious freedom arguments as a sword against the LGBT community and the healthcare mandates.