April 28, 2009

Bigotry and Religious Freedom

God Hates Fags Picket
God Hates Fags Picket (Photo credit: John Lemieux)
Christian extremists in the United States feel threatened by the gradual progress the GLBT community has made toward gaining equal rights. I am confident that some do indeed feel threatened by gay marriage (or even the existence of GLBT individuals), but I suspect that most are motivated by a fear of tolerance and what it might do to the intolerant beliefs they have embraced. In a way, the extremists are probably right to be worried about tolerance. After all, denying them the right to discriminate and increasing the social penalties for outright bigotry does unfortunately limit their religious freedom. The thing is, they have dug this hole by accepting a set of religious beliefs which include hatred and intolerance as central tenets (i.e., their particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity).

Many in the atheist community have been fascinated by the sight of Christians whining that they are being persecuted against by being prohibited from discriminating against others. I suspect that we are joined by at least a few progressive Christians in wondering what bigotry, hatred, and intolerance have to do with the message for which Jesus is often credited with spreading. And yet, I see so few progressive Christians speaking out that I must be cautious about overestimating their numbers.

By making anti-gay sentiment one of the central aspects of their worldview, Christian extremists have all but ensured that they will indeed lose some measure of religious freedom. To the degree that practicing their religion is synonymous with gay bashing, it should (and will) be limited.

Imagine that a growing number of public schools decide that GLBT children should be able to count on having a safe learning environment in which they will not be subject to regular bullying on the basis of their sexual orientation. This will be actively opposed by Christian extremist forces because they recognize that hatred and intolerance are a central part of what they teach their children. The smarter ones will mask this in talk of schools "promoting the gay lifestyle," but those capable of being honest with themselves know that this is not what it is about. They want to be free to practice their religion of hate.

We saw (and continue to see in some areas) similar reactions from the Christian right in response to civil rights and feminism. I have little doubt that the quest for atheist equality will be met with precisely what we now see directed at the GLBT community. Perhaps it will be even stronger since the atheist movement is likely to be perceived as an even more direct threat.

In all fairness, I should point out that it can be argued that the weave of fundamentalist Christianity and extreme right-wing politics is at least as much of a political philosophy as it is a religion. This is not an argument I am ready to make just yet, but I think it is one we may hear. For now, I am content to let the Christian extremists to keep telling me that this is about their religion.

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