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The right to pray

Recently, I began noticing a bumper sticker on the back of cars. It reads something like ‘Religious freedom, our first amendment right.’ I was surprised that the owners tend to be Christians, as evidenced by other identifiers such as the fish symbol. Since Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, I wondered why some Christians feel the need to post this on their cars. They must be feeling discriminated against or threatened in some way.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JANUARY 28: With the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the background, several hundred people hold a pro-gay marriage rally outside the Utah State Capitol on January 28, 2014 in Salt Lake City, U
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JANUARY 28: With the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the background, several hundred people hold a pro-gay marriage rally outside the Utah State Capitol on January 28, 2014 in Salt Lake City, U
George Frey/Getty Images

I went to Youtube.com and searched for First Amendment issues. One set of videos featured a group of citizens in Ohio who were having a community meeting about the loss of their first amendment rights. The people on the screen were white middle age men who identify as Christians/Catholics. They spoke against laws that would require birth control to be covered under insurance. A Catholic clergyman also spoke about his fear/assertion that these laws will mean that Catholic hospitals and charities could no longer operate, since they would not be allowed to serve according to their religious convictions. Another assertion was that these laws were akin to a socialist agenda, and that socialist countries deny religious freedoms.

In other words some Christians in this country are feeling so threatened that they believe their whole way of life is being compromised. Regardless of whether their fears are rational, it is a natural human reaction to fight (or flee) when ways of being and believing are called into question.

Similarly, Southern white Christians’ way of life was threatened when Black people were given equal rights. Southerners grew up being taught, through a combination of Christianity and science of the time, that black people were inferior to whites. However, Southern Christians’ feeling threatened was not a good reason to deny equal rights to the black community. Race historian George M. Fredrickson writes:

During the Renaissance and Reformation, the official rationale for enslaving Africans was that they were heathens: non-Christian. But when Virginia decreed in 1667 that converted slaves could be kept in bondage not because they were actual heathens but because they had heathen ancestry, the justification for Black servitude changed from religious status to something approaching race.

Unfortunately, the ‘freedom of religion’ of the white Christian majority has denied the fundamental rights of many, be they black, gay, native American, or women. It is no wonder that as the many who have been trampled upon fight for their fundamental rights, those who have been doing the trampling (often unwittingly) will feel threatened and/or discriminated against. Historian James O'Horton writes:

There's a moral contradiction between espousing the lofty ideal of equality and having slaves form the foundation of your economy. To avoid looking like a hypocrite, you come up with a story that says, "There's something different about these people. This whole business of inalienable rights is fine, but it doesn't apply to everyone." Once you recognize the necessity of trying to justify slavery in the land of freedom, you start to build a case specifically geared to tell the world that these people are different.

But that means when slavery is over, the rationale remains. And it takes on new incarnations. The most destructive part of the American experience is the rationalization of this special category of human bondage. Although slavery is long gone, the rationale continues to divide us and makes it difficult for us to be the kind of nation that we really want to be, and ought to be.

Underlying this fight for religious freedom is the current rationale for inequality. For example, the premise of discrimination towards LGBT people in this country is religion, specifically Christianity. Perhaps the owner of this bumper sticker wants to assert their religious conviction that homosexuality is wrong, and therefore, deny my rights such as equality/non discrimination in the workplace. This is where 'religious freedom' becomes imprisonment for many.