Freedom of Religion and the Rule of Law
If politicians write laws based on religion, which religious view gets to dominate?
In February 14’s issue I wrote about how some politicians define “freedom” as the ability personally to do what you want (like disobeying masks and vaccine mandates) while also being able to restrict what other people do (like teaching about race in school).
Since that column appeared, many new rights-restrictive bills have appeared in US State legislatures. In 2021, 34 laws passed in 19 states, including bills restricting transgendered athletes from competition, charging women with murder for abortions, preventing classroom discussions of gender and letting parents overturn school curriculum.
Many of these bills are introduced with a religious flourish. For example, in advancing Oklahoma’s anti-abortion bill, Republican Rep. Wendi Stearman said: “Children are a blessing and a gift from God, and I want Oklahoma to be a state that honors life at all stages.”
While politicians are preaching, pastors are politicking from the pulpit. Tennessee pastor Greg Locke, for example, has famously been peddling QAnon conspiracy theories including the “stolen election” lie.
For a lot of Christians, this isn’t a problem. Many evangelicals want Roe vs. Wade overturned and want their churches to endorse conservative political agendas. They see no problem with politics from the pulpit and preaching from politicians.
That’s because some Christians believe “freedom of religion” means that when public morality conflicts with their private beliefs, they have a responsibility to change public morality. Which means taking political action, or making others do so.
Of course, freedom of religion – both in the United States and Canada – is a constitutionally protected right, allowing believers the freedom to believe, assemble and worship. But some conservative Christians see rights given to LGBTQ groups as an attack on freedom of religion, because it means they are not free to discriminate against people on religious grounds.
That’s where things get slippery.
If your religion says you can’t eat meat, does that mean I can’t? And if some religious people believe it’s okay to eat meat but others in their community disagree, which is the “correct” position? If the non-meat-eating view prevails and they get laws changed, haven’t they restricted religious freedom? That’s a far-fetched example, but it underlines the danger of making the moral beliefs that are only held by one religious group – or subgroup – apply to a whole society.
More practically, if churches are political, do they lose their tax-free status? If politicians write laws based on religion, which religious view gets to dominate? What about differences of interpretation within that religion? And if one religion alone writes the laws, how is that different from Sharia law? Is compelling people under threat of punishment really what religion is about?
There’s a reason “freedom of religion” is constitutionally tied to the right to personally observe that religion. Because, historically, when the religious believe they have a God-given right to bind the will of others, a lot of people get hurt.
RE: ” Because, historically, when the religious believe they have a God-given right to bind the will of others, a lot of people get hurt.” I’m not sure what the alternative is, but I fully believe I was taught a valuable insight when Maarten Vrieze explained that everyone is religious, i.e., has a god of some type. I think here you’re referring to those related formally or informally to what we sometimes called “organized religions” or Vrieze called “cultic organisations.”