Religious Freedom?

I’m somewhat appalled that “religious freedom” is used as a smokescreen at times for personal liberty. Obviously, members of our Arizona legislature have just engaged in a week-long debate over a proposed change to the Arizona Revised Statues that was described by some as the “protection of religious freedom” and by others as a “license to discriminate.” People on both sides of the debate expressed that their statements were being misunderstood and disparaged, their motives maligned.

From the start, I felt the changes to be reckless and redundant. The only presenting situation I heard during the day of debate I witnessed – that of a bakery sued for refusing to contract to bake a cake – seemed less an issue of religious freedom than tort law. However, once “religious freedom” and “discrimination” were involved in the debate, hackles rose, hypotheticals flew, and sides were drawn. One might have perceived from the debate that the sides came down to religious supporters of the bill vs. non-religious protestors.

Thankfully, there were religious people who spoke up, protesting the bill. People of faith who were demonstrating the true nature of religious freedom in our country, that we need not all agree but are able to live and express our faith. Many did so out of a passion for a core social justice issue of our day, advocating for equal protection and rights for LGBT persons. Some did so out of concern that the proposed legislation was too broadly worded, understandably critical that “religious freedom” might become a means of establishing discrimination in our state.

I am grateful for the protections afforded to people of faith – any faith – in our nation. It adds to the greater good of America that we need not all adhere to Episcopal catechism or Baptist teaching from the 18th century. Indeed, some of our own members have expressed the wisdom they have gained through conversations with Muslim, Buddhist, or Bahai co-workers.

But for us, as followers of Jesus Christ, I would call back to mind some important words about freedom – whether we be discussing “religious freedom” or personal freedom. In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, a church he was in part criticizing for some of their previously incorrect actions, the Apostle Paul writes very clearly:

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.
(Galatians 5:13-14)

Sometimes, we elevate our nationally guaranteed rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of wealth/happiness,” emphasizing the drive to gain more “for me and mine.” Paul’s word to the Galatians, based on Christ’s own teaching of his disciples, is to consider our selves humbly, to watch out for others and actively seek the good of all. When it comes to our freedom, we’re exhorted to live the golden rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Such an approach is not – and never has been – easy. Nor are many, if any of us, going to live it out perfectly. But as best we can in our lives, may we be open to the presence of God to give us courage and wisdom to truly live the freedom God gives us – to love our neighbor as ourself.

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