This article is quite a bit different from the posts I normally write. I usually blog about marriage, leadership, family issues, or personal growth; current events commentary isn’t exactly my gig. But when I started the blog, I mentioned that I would also talk about “life challenges”. And this post addresses something that is a personal challenge for me. As a husband, dad, and pastor, I’ve grown increasingly concerned by our government’s tendency to punish those who live by traditional views of gender and sexuality. And when I read Target’s recent statement about bathroom usage, I decided it was time to address the issue on the blog. This post represents my opinion, and I have tried diligently to keep the ideas and wording thoughtful, balanced, and graciously stated.
Religious freedom is a big issue right now. Watchdog groups on both sides of the issue spend tireless hours trying to make sure their side of the debate is protected. Those who feel that religion has no place in public discourse or the “secular” world have, for instance, fought hard to remove the Ten Commandments from government related spaces, even if the display in question is considered a piece of artwork or a historical monument. They continually pursue the idea that public schools and universities should be religion-free zones, and one by one, any remaining vestiges of faith-based life have been pulled from the education system. They suggest removal of the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, the motto “In God We Trust” on American coinage, and the phrase “so help me, God” in many public oaths. On the far opposite side, I sometimes meet individuals who feel strongly that religion–their religion–should be embedded in the government’s gear work. I recently read a post on social media from an individual who insisted that it was time for our government to start “legislating from the Bible.”
I suggest that it’s important for all of us to take a balanced and pragmatic look at the issue before we go too far in either direction.
Let’s talk for a minute about the government’s definition of religion. Until the 1960’s, that definition usually included some reference to a belief in a god of some sort, but as belief systems morphed over time, courts began to widen their viewpoints. After all, how could they substantiate the idea that a religious group who believes in a god is superior to another group who doesn’t? And, in any case, how would the courts delineate what does or does not constitute a “god”?
By the 1970’s, the definition of a religion was more or less reduced to a person’s “deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs” (and for the remainder of this article, when I use the term religion, this is what I’m referencing). So when we talk about our government’s promise of “religious freedom”, we’re talking about an individual’s right to the “free exercise” of their own deeply held beliefs. But freedom has a flip side. Our freedom hinges on our right to be protected from having another person’s beliefs forced on us.
Here’s what I mean: I have several deeply held beliefs that are part of what the government would consider my “religion.” I believe in a creator God who engineered the universe. I believe He loves and offers grace to all people, but has standards for living, and that those standards are for the good of humanity. I believe that while I was born with a predisposition to make bad choices, Jesus Christ died on a cross to pay for my wrongdoing. I believe in heaven, and I believe someday I will go there when I die. Those are my beliefs. I treat them as facts, since I am convinced they are true, and I live my life accordingly. But I realize I cannot prove them to an atheist. I could present some evidence for my beliefs, but an atheist would quickly point out that the evidence only works if I interpret it the way that I do—and they’d be right.
An average atheist on the other hand, believes there is no god, and that the universe is the result of millions of years of evolution. They believe that standards for living should be decided individually when possible, and societally otherwise, unless society is likely to be repressive or discriminatory, in which case government should enforce fair standards. Hard core atheists embrace the idea that the “mind is what the brain does”, that there is no such thing as a “soul”, and that there is no afterlife. They cannot prove these tenets to my satisfaction, just as I cannot prove my faith to them. Whatever evidence exists for atheism only works if it is interpreted a certain way.
Neither Christianity nor atheism can be objectively proven beyond doubt. In each case, a person decides to believe something that cannot be proven, and treat it as fact. To an atheist, a Christian is a person who has decided to pretend there is a God, and to a Christian, an atheist is pretending there isn’t one. I cannot expect an atheist to change their life to accommodate my unsubstantiated views. Nor can they expect me to change mine. We each have our own religion, and neither can be allowed to dominate the other.
This is why freedom of religion is so important. Our founding fathers understood that it was crucial to give individuals the right to choose what they believe, but not give anyone the right to enforce their views on others.
This is why it’s especially important that the government cannot be allowed to endorse any religion. If the government begins to let any specific religion become a basis for legislation or public policy, we have a huge problem. Consider this: if the Supreme Court decided to assume that the fundamental aspects of Christianity are fact and not faith, a person of a different belief system could face penalization or punishment for not accommodating the Christian point of view. But why should they? If Christianity cannot be objectively, scientifically proven, why should a person pay for disagreeing with it? The answer is they shouldn’t. Religious freedom isn’t just about a group’s right to go to church or attend religious functions, or talk about their faith. At its core, it’s about the right to believe something that can’t be proven, and not have someone else’s belief forced on you. The government’s role must always be to protect religion, but never to endorse it.
The government should protect religious beliefs, but never endorse them. Jonathan HooverClick to tweet
Consider these examples:
Correcting the terrible wrong of slavery was about religious freedom. Slave “owners” had their own religion. They believed that a human being had the right to own another human being. That was their “deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical belief”, but they could not objectively prove it. No one has ever presented a rational, objective argument that a person can “own” another person. And no one ever will. These individuals had a right to their belief, but they didn’t have the right to force it on anyone else, especially on people they were trying to enslave.
Sadly, there was a period of time when our government endorsed this crazy religion, giving slave owners the right to insist that slaves accept the wildly unsubstantiated views of their “owners”. This highlights the point that when the government endorses something that can’t be proven, it always comes at the cost of personal freedom. But the day came when individual rights triumphed, and the government changed course, legally declaring that a person couldn’t make people live as though the slavery religion was right.
Giving women the right to vote was about religious freedom. Obviously, there was a time when many men held the view that the opinions of women regarding politics were less valuable than men’s opinions. This, of course can’t be proven. People who believed this did so as a matter of faith. It was about what they believed, not what they could prove. Men were superior to women, supposedly, because men said so. Meanwhile, the government’s stance endorsed this religion, and women were forced to live as though that idea was right. The fact that women have the right to vote today is the result of government rectifying its wrong, and not allowing the unproven views of one group to demand acceptance from another.
Challenging racism in America was about religious freedom. The view that a human being is more valuable than another based on the color of their skin is a religion. No one will ever be able to prove that a person’s skin color has anything whatsoever to do with their worth as a person or their potential. But there was a time when our government endorsed the religion of racism. When I celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I think of a man who led a movement to challenge the idea that someone else’s religion should dominate the lives of those who refuse to accept it. The greatest moments of civil rights advancement in our country were those that announced to the watching world that governing bodies should never play the role of religious enforcers.
Now, as a pastor, I am frequently told that the LGBTQ community is fighting for their civil or human rights. I’m told that they are being discriminated against and aren’t treated fairly, especially by Christians like myself. But I’m concerned we may have it backwards. The LGBTQ acceptance community seems to me to be a religion like any other group that can’t prove their beliefs. No one can prove that a person is born homosexual. Science has valiantly attempted to prove otherwise, but failed. (Sure, a few genetic correlations have been found, but they are weak, and in any case, genetic correlations have also been found for alcoholism and pedophilia.) And evolutionary science’s explanations for homosexuality and transgenderism still seem to classify them as aberrations that are not adaptive. No one can prove that a union between two men or two women is morally or scientifically equal to a union between a man and woman, and should be treated as the same thing. No one can prove that there is such a thing as a “gender identity” separate from one’s biological gender, and it certainly can’t be proven that a person can become the gender they declare themselves to be. Basically, these are all beliefs that are part of the LGBTQ religion. And those who are part of that faith are certainly entitled to their beliefs.
The problem is that our government is in the process of endorsing this religion. The government is once again in the business of declaring that the rest of us must live as if another religion is right. Once again, the government stands ready to enforce the tenets of another faith, and penalize those who will not order their lives accordingly. When Target recently stated that they would stand up for the right of an individual to use whatever restroom corresponded to their chosen “gender identity”, it was celebrated in the media as a way of getting “closer” to equality and “personal freedom”. When the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of gay “marriage”, it was heralded as an advance in our society toward tolerance and diversity. But those who don’t accept the LGBTQ religion are watching as their own freedoms take a back seat. We watch as public schools are pressured to let boys use girls’ bathrooms and vice versa (if the student identifies as transgender). Public school teachers are warned that talking about gender in a “binary” way may harm kids by indoctrinating them in an inflexible view of sexuality. Sex education is expected to include material supporting sexual diversity sensitivity, which basically means schools must teach LGBTQ doctrine. This educational aspect of religious domination is important, because it relates to a parent’s religious rights as they pertain to their kids.
I believe the day will come when parents will face the threat of losing their child to the authorities if they do not allow them to dress opposite their biological gender. It will be viewed as abuse. But the biological gender of that child is the only thing that anyone can prove. There is no objective basis for teaching a child that they may “be” something other than their biological gender, and encouraging them to “explore” their “options”. In fact, there is plenty of research to indicate that impressionable minds are very vulnerable to the power of suggestions made by authority figures. So the case could be made for the idea that advocating a non-biological view of gender could create confusion. The science stands squarely in the corner of a “binary” view of gender, but our government is adopting and enforcing the faith-based views of the LGBTQ religion.
Clearly, the LGBTQ religion will be enforced on business owners. Bakers, florists, and photographers who make part of their income from weddings must contribute their artistic services to gay “weddings”. If they object on grounds of conscience, they must either quit providing wedding related products and services, or face huge penalties or punishments. Wedding chapel owners are told that if they want to keep their business they must offer their facility for gay “weddings”. Recreation centers and work out facilities across the country are now expected to stand up for transgender rights. If a disrobed male is lingering in their ladies locker room, for instance, and claiming he is a female, that staff will likely be compelled to pretend with him that he is a “she”. To ask that man to leave would be to welcome a lawsuit. And because the courts stand by the LGBTQ religion, it will be a lawsuit that the rec center loses.
Consider the well-known case of the cake bakers in Oregon that created such a media stir by refusing to bake a gay “wedding” cake. They offered to bake other goods for the couple, but explained that it would violate their conscience to lend their artistry to a “same-sex marriage” ceremony. In a world where civil rights are respected, that couple would perhaps be frustrated, but work towards finding a baker that would support their unsubstantiated beliefs that same-sex marriage is equal in nature to traditional marriage and morally acceptable, and the cake bakers could live out their own religious beliefs to the contrary. But since the government sanctions the LGBTQ religion, the cake bakers lost in court, were assessed a huge fine, and eventually had to close their bakery.
In contrast, when performing artists boycott a state based on their own religious choices, it’s considered by many to be a heroic act. I support the right of these deeply religious performers to withhold their artistry as a result of their beliefs, as long as those who believe differently (like the Oregon bakers) are offered the same freedom.
If celebs can deny service based on their beliefs, bakers should be able to. Jonathan HooverClick to tweet
Unless a new civil rights movement rises up and demands that everyone’s right to religion be respected, the future doesn’t look very good. But it is here that we all have something in common. Whether you identify yourself as a Christian, atheist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, humanist, heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, a combination of those, or none of those, it is not in any of our best interests for the government to have the power to require us to live as though another religion’s views are correct. We each should have the liberty to believe what we believe. Then, when a question is posed about a publicly regulated space like a restroom or a publicly endorsed educational experience like public school or state college, we must insist that the government only rule on the side of what can be objectively proven. Else, we as American citizens will have handed over our freedom of personal choice to politicians and Supreme Court justices. Frankly, I’d like to see us retain our ability to live what we believe. All of us.
With Regard to Comments:
I always appreciate thoughtful comments from readers, but given the sensitive nature of this subject, I want to remind everyone of my comment policy.