How selfish culture has made a mockery of religious freedom
It was just a little thing.
Three words: a phrase.
The extending of rights.
And yet, we all knew what it meant. Things were changing. A lot.In the blessed community, the me doesn’t go away; the we grows out from it. Click To Tweet
All About Me
We’ve been selfish a long time. More than a few decades. The Gordon Geckoification of the country had long passed normalized status then. Even in the ‘70s, before we were asked if we were better off than four years ago, we were becoming convinced that only our own health and safety and satisfaction mattered.
Maybe it was the safety drills and bomb shelters and the Cold War. I don’t know. But we started to change. Change who we cared about.
It’s all about me.
The “Me Generation” was born and growing. Long past learning to walk and talk, it was using full sentences and learning how to count.
Money of course. Money is always what we count.
The Slippery Slope of Individualism
I suppose it was always going to go this way. The unhealthy echo chamber of Protestantism and Sola Scriptura. It would have to come to this. Everyone slipped down the slope with a personal Jesus and a private salvation.
Read your Bible. Pray your prayers. Believe what you believe.
Then show up for church with dozens of other radicalized individualists. Then when you don’t feel fed you can pick up your toys and go home.
Maybe the food’s better next door. Or maybe not. Better sleep in and make your own breakfast.
An Aside About Rejection
Certainly there are many who also face rejection as individuals. There are many who feel like they are individuals and it is the church which is a collective cult. People whose very individuality has driven them away from a community full of abuse. From here, individualism makes sense.
I certainly don’t blame the individual surviving or for protecting themselves. I have met many who have been in those types of abusive situations and needed to get out. But I also might cast the situation differently.
These places are the product of selfish faith, of certainty, and of egotism. And they are born out of a greater sense of individualism. These places, by their nature, reject the biodiversity of healthy thought. They aren’t the picture of collection and the abused as the individual, but the byproduct of unhealthy individualism which leads to not only a toxic community but the rejection of all different ways of being.
The challenge for the survivor of such a community is to not see one’s journey as a solo one–to find one’s place in the bigger tapestry of the faithful in concert with the multitudes and sharing their beautiful voice with those who need to hear it.
Our Individualistic Culture
I suppose it is impossible not to be individuals in the United States. Rugged individualism is our thing. Going with that flow is way easier.
Yet millions of us gather each week in several denominations as individuals, provoked to speak in unison, making one voice in prayer and song. We listen to teaching and we participate in prayer and giving thanks and then we reconcile with one another in grace and hope.
And in one truly radical act, we are called to resume that vocal posture of unison, one voice in thankfulness as we call for the Spirit’s blessing upon the gifts of bread and wine and we come to a common table and share a common plate and a common cup and we eat and drink, not as individuals getting our fix, but as a blessed community of hope and love.
It isn’t that our individualism goes away or that we are absorbed into a Borg-like whole of conformity (though that is how some see it). But we become a we, not a whole bunch of mes, and we proclaim together with the rainbowed hued hair and the tats of individuality and the pierced ears of conformity and the long hair and the buzzed and the suits and the jeans and those annoying flip flopping steps to the pew, that we are part of something awesome.
In this we, the singular voices can be accepted; the different teachings become inspiring; the focus on mission can still be distracted by the essential character of worship and we can forgive and grow and be the mercy we all need.
In the blessed community, the me doesn’t go away; the we grows out from it.
Teaching and Belief
Catholic teaching, like Episcopal teaching, speaks of the unifying character of Holy Communion. Its purpose is not simply the completion of initiation or the source of individual salvation, but the building and maintaining of the unity of the children of GOD and the effectual forging of a relationship with Jesus.
How that plays out is often debated, of course. Who gets into that blessed community is often a source of conflict. But the teaching, the source of understanding, is that its essential character is unifying.
Holy Eucharist (the Mass), with Holy Baptism, the Sacraments form the central behavior of Catholics and produce the central teaching of the faith.
How absurd that five of the Supreme Court’s six Catholic justices rendered a verdict in the Hobby Lobby case that is so very Protestant and so far from Catholic teaching.
A case in which a new understanding of religion was adopted: that faith is entirely personal.
A case in which a new understanding of religious faith was adopted: sincere belief.
A case in which a new understanding of religious organization was adopted: a “closely-held” company.
A case in which a new understanding of religious community was adopted: the personal faith of the organization’s leader may count as the personal faith of the organization.
A case that went far, far away from precedent.Real people are being emotionally torn apart and my faith says that is the problem. Click To Tweet
The month before I turned 18 I researched about selective service. I grew up with ads commonly reminding young people: don’t forget to register for selective service! that would run during our cartoons and after school programs.
It never said what it was. Or what would happen if I didn’t register.
As a pacifist, I opposed the draft and opposed the expectation. When I discovered that conscientious objection was not something I could actually do in practice: that the red tape and the postdated deadlines made it nearly impossible without connections in the government, I found that there was no place for my personal religious beliefs. Even when they were sincerely-held.
Since then I’ve found my sincerely-held beliefs about the dignity of every human being often challenged by the will of the state and the will of other Christians.
And I have found my church’s teachings pushed aside by the state and by the will of individual Christians with their sincerely-held beliefs.
Teaching that abortion is tragic, but may be necessary, has been impinged by states all over the country.
Teaching that we beat swords into plowshares, reject war and violence and instead wage reconciliation with our neighbors and our enemies is pushed away by the proliferation of firearms, laws which allow for their justified use to kill one another, and the waste of human lives and creation for wars of choice. And the torture that went with them.
Teaching that we are to treat the homeless, the widowed, the poor, the foreigner and the refugee, the traitor, the sinner, and the criminal as if they were Jesus has been impinged by not only cuts to these services, but the criminalization of poverty, the breaking of nondiscrimination laws, and by Christian services which put people on the street without help because they did not conform to the organization’s beliefs.
Teaching that we are called to make the Kingdom (or the Kindom or what I like to call GOD’s Different World) present in our communities through the radical overthrow of systems of oppression and degradation and the pursuit of empire, and yet even our own people are solely focused on their own needs, their own health, and that we instead might gather for inspiring worship with a few nuggets of take-home wisdom.
Teaching that bonds of love and devotion are celebrated; and now we realize that those bonds extend to the relationship between two men or two women and to those transitioning to a new gender; a teaching which has been impinged upon by states and communities and businesses and abused in the media and made into talking points by legislators.
Real people are being emotionally torn apart and my faith says that is the problem.
And my church says that is a problem.
Every time I hear someone say that they want the right to not make the cake, I think of my 18-year-old self and I want to scream
“Where were you then? So eager to protect the rights of bakers today. Where was your support for a sincerely-held belief that is actually based in scripture and tradition?”
“Why aren’t you on the front lines now, demanding a living wage for all workers and proving you respect the dignity of all human beings by rallying for the protection of our black ones?”
“Where is your need for religious liberty when my parishioners exercising their sincerely-held beliefs are being rejected in courthouses and bakeries and in state capitals?”
“Where are your great cries of persecution when my tradition is being persecuted by other Christians for supporting LGBT persons or for having a living theology or for participating in realizing the Kingdom or preaching love is our work and hate is not?”
Every time I hear the words “religious freedom” I now translate them to “(un)Christian oppression”.
It isn’t religious freedom we are after here, but the right of some to hurt others. The right of individuals to have the right to care only about themselves.
This isn’t religious freedom, it is selfish egotism. It is moral corruption. It is a distortion of tradition and teaching. It is not supported by the breadth of Scripture. And it is not based on 2,000 years of tradition. This rejection of people for one’s personal belief–this is what is untraditional.
It is neither religious nor freedom. It is not Christian. It is not faithful. It is heresy.
And it is not sincere. It is not sincere to treat Hobby Lobby as a church or its people as its members. It is not sincere to argue that the Green family are religious leaders when their employees don’t have a say in their congregation’s finances or makeup.
Hobby Lobby isn’t a Christian organization because the Greens are Christians. That isn’t how religion works. And that sure isn’t how freedom works.
This is not freedom. This is oppression. And that makes it very much unChristian.The litmus test for religious freedom appears to be selfish individualism. Click To Tweet
The Ease of Individual Faith
Though I do blame Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s partisan opinion in the Hobby Lobby case for setting a new precedent which rejects a long record of jurisprudence, I don’t see the decision as weird. Even as it goes against his church’s teaching. It makes total sense in a world full of selfish, radicalized individuals. In a world in which faith can only be understood as personal and individualism is the calling card.
What else was going to happen?
If GOD is for me, how can GOD be for you?
If my GOD has to be Father, you can’t make GOD into Mother.
If my faith is most important, then the church’s teachings don’t matter. In fact, they must conform to what I already believe. The church shouldn’t teach me, I should teach the church.
I trust the authority of the ancients and reject the authority of the presents.
You can’t tell me what to believe.
You can’t regulate my behavior.
I get to do whatever I want.
Because I believe it.
The legal standard is now thrown up in the air. The split court is currently hearing a case which piggybacks on the Hobby Lobby ruling. If it maintains the same votes, it will split 4-4, leaving the country in political limbo. Some regions will continue to disallow organizations from depriving women of contraceptive coverage by refusing to fill out a form and others will force the federal government to itself produce extra red tape for the employees and extend the financial burden to the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, the sincerely-held beliefs of many, based on teachings of their tradition: that these employees deserve equal health care coverage to their neighbors, that women should not be targeted for extra burden because of medical necessities, and that the burden to the employees must be equally considered against any burden to the employer: these are not likely to be considered. Or more specifically, these concerns are not likely to be considered to be religious.
The litmus test for religious freedom today is selfish individualism rather than communal health, unity, and restoration.
But individualism is not the same as freedom. Belief is not the same as faith.
True freedom is not found in fighting laws created to protect minorities and the powerless but in sharing responsibility for the health and reconciliation of creation with our neighbors.
Freedom is loving, not discriminating against our neighbors.
Freedom is being in community and building up community, not selfish individualism and the destruction of community.
Freedom is sacrificing personal want to meet the needs of the blessed community.
Individuals are not the problem. Anti-social behavior and oppression are.
So stop tearing it down. Stop rejecting our neighbors. Stop reinforcing views of religion that are purely individualistic; which argue only the contents of one’s brain matter. Stop making faith, your personal, sincerely-held belief, be more important than mine. Stop taking the easy way out.
This isn’t a competition. It’s a collaboration. We’re all trying to build this great, polyglot Kindom, making GOD’s Different World real. We’re trying to transform injustice and oppression into new life, eternal life. A better world. Which not only takes all of us but the whole of us. United in faith.