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Why Do Right-Wing Christians Think 'Religious Freedom' Means Forcing Their Faith on You?

Religious freedom has turned into conservative code for imposing Christianity.
 
 
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Paul Clement, a lawyer arguing for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, speaks to the press outside the US Supreme Court on March 25, 2014 in Washington

 
 
 
 

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.

 
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