Religious freedom is one of the most fundamental American values, written directly into the First Amendment of the Constitution. Of course, true religious freedom requires a secular society, where government stays out of the religion game and leaves it strictly to individual conscience, a standard that runs directly against the modern conservative insistence that America is and should be a “Christian nation”. So what are people who claim to be patriots standing up for American values to do? Increasingly, the solution on the right is to redefine “religious freedom” so that it means, well, its exact opposite. “Religious freedom” has turned into conservative code for imposing the Christian faith on the non-believers.
While it seems like a leap even for the most delusional conservatives to believe that their religious freedom can only be protected by giving Christians broad power to force their faith on others, a new report from the People For the American Way shows how the narrative is constructed. The report shows that Christian conservative circles have become awash in legends of being persecuted for their faith, stories that invariably turn out to be nonsense but that “serve to bolster a larger story, that of a majority religious group in American society becoming a persecuted minority, driven underground in its own country.” This sense of persecution, in turn, gives them justification to push their actual agenda of religious repression under the guise that they’re just protecting themselves.
The most obvious and persistent example of this is the issue of creationism in the classroom. Clearly, teaching creationism in a biology classroom is a straightforward violation of the First Amendment, a direct attempt to use taxpayer money to foist a very specific religious teaching on captive students. So what the right does is reframe the issue, arguing that teaching evolutionary theory is a form of religious oppression, a direct attack on the beliefs of fundamentalists in the classroom. This is pure hooey, of course, since evolutionary theory is not a religion but a scientific reality, and teaching science as science is no more a violation of religious freedom than teaching kids to that “cat” rhymes with “hat” is an imposition of religion. But once they’ve convinced themselves that learning science in the science classroom is religious persecution, it becomes easier to convince yourself that it’s okay to “fight back” by forcing your actual religion on everyone else.
You can see this play out in the legends that PFAW details out. Do Christian conservatives want to force their religious hostility to gays onto the military? Tell a lie about how a sergeant was persecuted for simply holding that religious belief to paint yourself as the “real” victim. Want to justify forcing non-believing kids to pray to your god in school? Tell lies about how kids are being punished for having private prayers all to themselves. Want to force people in the VA hospital to sing your religious songs and worship your god? Spread a false tale claiming that people aren’t allowed private ownership of religious cards. Tell enough of these stories and people on the right can convince themselves the only way they can protect their own right to worship is to force their religious practice on everyone else.
You can see how this kind of logic swept over the Becket Fund, a legal institution that was initially set up to protect the individual right to religious freedom. As chronicled by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux at The American Prospect, the Becket Fund started off doing easily defensible work protecting people who wanted to express their religious beliefs in personal ways that are not coercive to others, such as protecting prisoners who wanted to have religious tchotchkes or workers who wanted to maintain religious hairstyles at work.
But the Becket Fund’s latest high profile case is an outright attack on religious freedom, in a case that will soon be decided by the Supreme Court. The Becket Fund is defending the Green family that owns Hobby Lobby in their desire to impose their religious beliefs about contraception on employees, by denying employees the right to use their own insurance benefits on contraception. The idea that it could ever be “religious freedom” to tell an employee that her private use of her own compensation package should be constrained by her boss's religious beliefs should be laughable. But that’s the logic of the modern Christian right that holds that the only way to “protect” their own religious belief is to start forcing it on others.
Of course, this kind of logic inevitably starts to crumble when people who don’t share the conservative Christian religion start pushing back and arguing that their right to their own private beliefs should not be infringed by being made to pray to someone else’s god in school, being taught Bible stories in biology class, or being forced to check with the boss first before you pick up your prescription medications after hours. The solution, increasingly, is to outright argue that non-believers or people of different faiths have beliefs that are simply less worthy of basic protections for religious freedom, much less the hyper-charged “religious freedom” of imposing your faith on others, the kind of “religious freedom” conservative Christians believe they’re entitled to.
Take, for instance, Jody Hice, a Republican candidate for a U.S. House seat from Georgia.Hice has a novel solution to the problem of the religious rights of Muslims being infringed upon when they are subject to having religion imposed on them by Christians: Simply deny that Islam is a religion and therefore deny that its followers enjoy freedom of religion. “Although Islam has a religious component, it is much more than a simple religious ideology,” he wrote in his 2012 book It’s Now Or Never. “It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.”
It’s a dumb statement on two levels. One, it’s plainly obvious that Islam is a religion and therefore people who believe in it are absolutely guaranteed their actual freedom to worship how they please. (Though perhaps Hice is worried that Muslims will decide to adopt the Christian conservative definition of “religious freedom” and start demanding that you can’t eat pork and you have to pray five times a day.) But even if someone doesn’t have a religion doesn’t mean that they lose their basic right to decide for themselves what to believe. Atheists do not have a religion, but it’s just as wrong to force atheists to pray to your god as it would be to do so to a Muslim.
Sadly, this argument that the Christian right to religious freedom includes the right to foist their faith on others has made the leap to the Supreme Court, with Justice Scalia arguing incoherently that the “First Amendment explicitly favors religion” in order to justify the hijacking of a school event to force religion on the non-believers in attendance. As Scott Lemieux at Lawyers Guns and Money pointed out, it’s actually the exact opposite: “it disfavors religious endorsements by the state.” But in this new topsy-turvy right-wing world, up is down, left is right, and the only way to protect religious freedom is to use government and corporate force to make everyone follow a conservative version of Christianity, whether they believe it or not.