Why has religious freedom become such a hot topic around the nation?
States like Georgia, Indiana and West Virginia have taken up controversial “religious freedom” bills with particular zeal. These bills, on their surface, sound very all-American: Protect people of faith from government overreach. Ensure that government does not create laws that unfairly burden people of faith.
In my home state of Georgia, there are five religious freedom bills being considered by the state legislature. In a state without any protections for LGBTQ people, this effectively means that people, nonprofits and corporations that disagree with the “gay lifestyle,” can discriminate against them if it’s a sincerely held religious belief.
So why is this issue suddenly so important?
Working as a reporter covering state politics, I talk to legislators and lobbyists about these religious freedom bills everyday. And none of their answers about why these bills are cropping up are adequate.
Gay marriage is the answer on many liberals' lips; they say conservatives want to be protected from recognizing the rights of married gay couples. Conservatives are asserting it’s merely a response to discrimination.
These answers are quite shallow. The deeper issue is that Christian hegemony is being substantially challenged in many social spheres, particularly for white, religiously conservative communities of Christians. What conservative voices are calling “discrimination against people of faith,” is really about loss of privilege, to these Christians in particular.
I am rooted in the South; I grew up in Florida, and have lived in Georgia for the past four years. My family is largely non-religious, and definitely not Christian. I was aware from an early age that my family and I were not, in fact, saved by Jesus Christ, and were destined for hell.
Here’s how Christian hegemony has worked, in my experience as a non-Christian in the South:
Christians can largely expect people to know what their major holidays are and when they are celebrated. Many facets of government and private business are attuned to Christian holidays, with special hours or time off expected by default. This is largely not true for other religious groups, like Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc., with some regional exceptions.
Christian ways of praying are normalized. Growing up, my public school had a moment of silence following the pledge of allegiance. As a non-Christian, it was clear to me that this was a thinly veiled opportunity for prayer: Christian prayer. No one pulled out a prayer mat or davened, but some students would adopt body language that mirrored praying in church. Christian church. The same thing would repeat itself at lunchtime, as I awkwardly did not pray along with fellow students before eating. This was in one of the largest school districts in the nation.
Christian ways of talking about god are normalized. Down at my state capitol, I get chances to pray a lot. Sometimes the Chaplain of the Day (the House and Senate both have one, every day) or the legislator leading prayer before a committee meeting try to use inclusive language like "god of all people." But the language is still rooted in a particular theology, often with explicit references to Jesus or our heavenly father. Just to be clear: not everyone who practices a religion prays; not everyone who prays prays to Jesus; and not everyone who prays to a single god uses English to articulate a male figurehead. Christians pray to Jesus, and to a single, personified male god that is perceived as taking an active role in their lives.
Judeo-Christian values. Judeo-Christian values are not a thing. Judaism and the Hebrew bible are often co-opted by Christians to assert the inclusiveness or globalness of their values. If any of the sponsors of these religious freedom bills can tell me anything about Judaism, other than a convenient talking point or two for their bill(s), I would be shocked. If they could tell me anything about Islam, another Abrahamic religion, or any other religion at all, I would also be shocked. Fun fact: The last day of the Georgia legislative session falls over Purim, and the legislative session conveniently ends the day before Good Friday.
In other, subtle ways, Christian values and culture—particularly as envisioned and lived in conservative, white communities—dominate in all spheres of American life. Or at least they have, historically. This is changing.
Part of this is because America’s demographics are changing, with more than a quarter of the population identifying their religion as unaffiliated or non-Christian. Christian communities are also increasingly made up of immigrants and people of color, who may practice Christianity in very different ways than conservative, white Christians.
This very simple change is challenging historically unquestioned (white, conservative) Christian dominance in this country.
Christians can no longer look around and expect everyone to look and act like them. Christians can no longer expect that their public, and sometimes intrusive practices will be normal and unchallenged. Christians can no longer expect laws and legal institutions to reflect their values and priorities. Christians can no longer expect their holiday greetings to be relevant to everyone. Christians can no longer expect that their needs will always be preferred to the needs of other groups.
This isn’t discrimination, though; this is about losing power and privilege, in more ways than just the legal definition of marriage.
When Christians, collectively, face discrimination the ways groups who actually face discrimination do, then I’ll accept their claim.
When being Christian means you are more likely to die of certain diseases (See: cervical cancer and HIV/AIDS); when people often consider your death easily justifiable, based on your Christian-ness (Michael Brown "no angel"); when your neighborhood is considered undesirable because many Christians live there (there'â€‹s an app for that); when you can be killed or beaten for being or perceived to be Christian (FBI Hate Crime Stats, also Attacks on Muslims Spike); when the police routinely use slurs to refer to you (police use slurs a lot); when slurs for Christians are commonly known and used (don't call Donald Trump crazy); when policymakers blame your Christianity, rather than bad policy, for problems in your community (First Nation Communities in Canada); when the police try to cover up your illegal detentions and murders (Homan Square); or when you are routinely denied housing for being Christian (income discrimination in housing).
“Discrimination” is an easy word to reach for, but not the experience Christians (again, particularly white, religiously conservative Christians) are actually facing in the U.S. or in my home state of Georgia. Christians are losing privilege and dominance, and that could better be described as uncomfortable, inconvenient or confusing.
In some ways, I feel bad that these Christian policy-makers are so ill-prepared and unaware of this changing landscape and their own incompetent response to it. On the other hand, I am going to be involuntarily praying to Jesus in a state building today, while these politicians get to unironically claim discrimination.