On June 10th, 2015 Union Theological Seminary (UTS) hosted their 2nd Union on the Hill Program, in which they discussed the alleged “immorality of overly broad state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts [RFRAs].” So what new insights did this panel of religious leftists bring to the table?
Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of UTS, claimed that progressives accept the concept of religious freedom. However, they are against the use of said freedom to discriminate against the LGBT community, as was done with the RFRA laws in Indiana and Arkansas. She went so far as to invoke Iran as an example of what happens when religion is able to eclipse rights. Despite this outrageous comparison, she argued that both religion and rights have moral foundations and don’t have to consume each other.
Michele Jawando, Vice President of Legal Progress of the Center for American Progress provided a legal perspective of the RFRA controversy. She claimed that the United States always balanced the right to worship against the right not to be coerced. The Hobby Lobby decision disturbed the balance by giving for-profit corporations religious freedom for the first time. The implications of this reach even beyond “marriage equality” and “reproductive justice.” She also stressed that the original intent of RFRA was to protect religious minorities whose voice was not heard in the majority religion. The current RFRA laws, however, are attempts to impose religious beliefs upon others.
Congressman André Carson of Indiana repeated the complaint that RFRA laws are attempts to expand national profiling. His solution was that the faith community find common themes among their religions. He believes the golden rule meets this criterion.
Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first congressman of Muslim faith, accused the political right of favoring a nation of discrimination. He also claimed that there are people of every faith, including his own, who use religion to promote what he called their “hateful” anti-gay sentiments. Finally, he contended our founders understood religious freedom to mean that the government would be unable to abuse religion.
Rev. Frederick Davie, the openly married homosexual executive Vice President of Union Theological seminary, predictably railed against RFRA as oppressive and compared it to the way racists utilized religion to fight desegregation back in the Civil Rights Era. He claimed that religious exemptions are acceptable if they don’t deny basic services in the public places on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. He also applauded Tony Campolo, who he labeled a “conservative evangelical,” for changing his mind and deciding to approve of homosexuality.
Sally Steenland, Director of the Center For American Progress’ Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, provided the most illuminating take on “progressive Christian” convictions. She claimed that progressives should not reject religious freedom, but frame it in a manner that is compatible with abortion and gay rights. This is different, she said, from the conservative vision of religious freedom which translates into imposing beliefs on others. Furthermore, she insists that religious exemptions are not always a bad thing; they are only illegitimate if they bring harm to others. For example, a Jewish prisoner being served kosher food is permitted, as it harms no one. However, the Hobby Lobby decision, which granted corporations religious exemption from contraceptive funding mandate, brings harm by making the workers pick up the financial slack and should be opposed. In addition to denying that clergy will ever be forced to participate in a gay wedding on pain of imprisonment, Steenland urged progressive Christians to dispute the cries of persecution from the right. Steenland’s most important contribution was her professed agreement with her theological opponent Rick Warren when he said that the winner of the religious freedom debate will be the winner of everything else.
In the end, the UTS played the same tired, false tunes: the LGBT community is suffering the same discrimination as African Americans did, religious freedom is only permissible in the manner that they define it, and the current RFRA laws are attempts by the right to cloak their discrimination against minorities, denial of “reproductive justice” and imposition of their views upon others.
Each of these premises are easily refuted. African Americans were discriminated on account of their race, something they have no control over. The so-called LGBT community is being shunned for their behavior, which they can control.
Their conception of religious freedom is equally problematic. They claim that religious freedom ends when hurting others begins. However, they define “hurting others” so broadly that it causes religious freedom to bow to knee to things it was never meant to yield to, such as the onslaught of radical sexual activists. According to Joseph Story, a contemporary of the founding fathers and author of the Commentaries on The Constitution of the United States, the purpose of the first amendment’s establishment clause was “not to countenance, much less to advance [Islam], or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects.” Furthermore, statutory punishments for deviant sexuality were common in the founding era. When it came to a choice between gay/abortion rights and religious rights the founding fathers clearly sided with the latter.
In light of these observations, the final theme of the UTS event falls apart. Not only are RFRA laws not tools of discrimination or obstacles to non-existent abortion rights, but the UTS is guilty of hypocrisy. Their very rage at conservative Christians for imposing their values on others is itself an imposition of values.
The question is not if values be imposed, but whose values will be imposed.
To paraphrase Steenland, the values that prevail on religious freedom will be imposed on everything else.Google+