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Religious Liberty is Not Under Attack in America

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By Rob Boston

Whenever I hear religious conservatives assert that religious freedom is under attack in the United States, I can only shake my head.

Do they know nothing about history or even the world today? Consider what happened in Soviet Russia under Josef Stalin, where houses of worship were bulldozed and clergy tossed into gulags. Think about China and North Korea, where freedom of worship still remains a dream. Consider even one of our allies – Saudi Arabia – where it’s illegal to build a Christian church.

That’s religious freedom under attack. And it’s deplorable. When Religious Right leaders whine about a judge somewhere in America being told to remove a Ten Commandments display, they trivialize the suffering of those who are truly oppressed.

I thought about this after reading a news article about a recent speech delivered by Dallin H. Oaks, one of the 12 “apostles” who lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

Oaks has been on a tear lately about religious freedom being under assault in this country. He gave a speech about it recently at a college in California.

“For some time, we have been experiencing laws and official actions that impinge on religious freedom,” Oaks said. “It was apparent 25 years ago, and it is undeniable today.”

“It is easy to believe,” Oaks said, “that there is an informal conspiracy of correctness to scrub out references to God and the influence of religion in the founding and preservation of our nation.”

Oaks’ evidence for this assault it a little thin. During his speech, he mentioned a photographer in New Mexico who, after putting out a shingle and promising to serve the public, decided he’d like to discriminate against gay people. He also talked about a town in New Jersey where a same-sex couple applied to use a quasi-public pavilion owned by a church group after the religious body, in order to receive tax exemption for the facility, insisted it was open to all.

It’s especially ironic to hear this kind of folderol coming from Oaks – an official of a church that actually tried to run a theocracy in America. (Some visitors to Utah would argue that they have succeeded. Consider this bill declaring that marriage is between a man and woman and supported by God.)

Here’s what really going on: There was a time – and it really wasn’t that long ago – when conservative religious groups had incredible powers of the lives of average Americans. They had the ability to ban books, magazines and movies they considered “offensive” to faith. They had laws passed denying even married couples access to artificial contraception. Their religion was forced onto children in public schools. They insisted that everyone should pay taxes to support their religious schools and institutions.

People chafed at this – not because they hate religion but because they didn’t want someone else’s theological views imposed on them by an oppressive combination of church and state. Americans fought in the courts to end these practices, and also worked to educate others about the importance of church-state separation. Americans United, which has existed since 1947, was a pivotal force in this movement.

At the same time, American society simply began to change. Religious minorities and non-believers felt empowered to stand up for their rights. An understanding evolved that religious freedom is best served when the government refrains from taking sides on matters of theology. Some people even dared to (gasp!) reject religion all together or define God in ways the theocrats don’t accept.

During his speech, Oaks proposed that “[I]it is imperative that those of us who believe in God and in the reality of right and wrong unite more effectively to protect our religious freedom to preach and practice our faith in God and the principles of right and wrong He has established.”

Oaks denied he wants a new “Moral Majority,” but to me this sounds like the same old band of would-be theocrats desperately seeking a way to regain the power they’ve lost. This gang has never gotten over the fact that they can no longer automatically rely on the power of the government to enforce doctrines that they have failed to persuade people to adopt voluntarily. I get the impression that these people look back on the Dark Ages – when a bishop’s word was law and if you didn’t agree woe to you – and feel a certain envy.

I’m all for Elder Oaks’ church opening as many temples as they like and using private resources to win converts, which is something they’ve proved pretty adept at. What I’m not for is being compelled to live under his church’s doctrines. If I wanted to do that, I’d join.

What Oaks and those like him seek is not religious freedom. It is regression to a time when the state bowed to the church. They want to take us back to the days when their power was absolute and an individual’s standing in society was determined in a large way by how he or she met some arbitrary set of narrow religious rules.

No thanks. I’ll take real religious freedom instead – the kind only separation of church and state can give us.


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